A VARIETY OF DISTINCTIVE VOCALS ON DISC

August 10, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil

AUG 10, 2020

From the Grammy Award winning vocals of extraordinary Cuban artist AYMÉE NUVIOLA  with the amazing piano virtuosity of GONZALO RUBALCABA to the historically smooth voice of PAULETTE McWILLIAMS, who has worked with iconic artists like Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Quincy Jones and Aretha Franklin, my August tenth column explores a wide variety of vocal jazz, blues and cabaret artists.  JOHN MINNOCK with special guest DAVE LIEBMAN presents an album of original jazz compositions, along with a twist of cabaret music that celebrates the LGBTQ communities.  AL GOLD has produced an album of his original blues music and SISSY CASTROGIOVANNI sings songs in her Sicilian dialect. SUSIE MEISSNER uses some Philadelphia jazz greats to celebrate music from the Great American Song Book and SUSAN TOBOCMAN is a composer, lyricist and vocalist.   Read all about it.   

GONZALO RUBALCABA & AYMÉE NUVIOLA – “VIENTO Y TIEMPO” – A TRIBUTE TO THEIR MOTHERS & THE MUSICAL CITY OF HAVANA – Liueat Blue Note Tokyo – Top Stop Music

Aymée Nuviola, lead vocal; Gonzalo Rubalcaba, piano/synthesizers/percussion; Christobal “El Profe” Verdecia, bass; Reiner Guerra, drums; Neiger “Majito” Aguilera, percussion; Kazuhiko Kondo & Yainer Horta, Soprano & Alto saxophones; Lourdes Nuviola, background & lead vocals; Alfredo Lugo, background vocals.

Aymée Nuviola has a voice like lightening; bright, powerful and fiery.  It strikes across the silence with a bolt of excitement.  It’s as big as her vivid, orange Afro hairstyle that frames her beautiful face like a sunrise.  Pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Aymée Nuviola are both award-winning artists, who have cradled a longtime dream of collaboration.  This project is the fulfilling of that dream. It sounds like a party!  As childhood friends, their paths have moved unilaterally, but on the same musical highway.  Each artist seemed to be racing, in parallel fast lanes, towards honor, success and distinction. 

As a bandleader, Gonzalo Rubalcaba has released nearly three dozen albums, many on the Blue Note label.  His music has won him four Grammy Awards.  In 2002, his album “Nocturne” won Best Latin Jazz Album and his album “Supernova” also won in the Latin Grammy Award category.  In 2005, he won for producer of “Land of the Sun” another Best Latin jazz Album Grammy and in 2006 he won the Latin Grammy Award for his album “Solo.”

In 1985, when Dizzy Gillespie first heard Gonzalo play the piano he exclaimed, “He’s the greatest pianist I’ve heard in the last ten years.” 

Charlie Haden thought Gonzalo was the master of musical structures; a man with a smart heart.  Many have praised Gonzalo Rubalcaba as one of the greatest Afro-Cuban jazz pianists on the planet. 

Born January 8, 1973, Aymée Nuviola is a well-respected Cuban singer, pianist, composer and actress.  She is celebrated for playing Celia Cruz in the Colombian telenovela “Celia.”  She recently won a Grammy for “Best Tropical Latin Album” with her project titled “With A Journey Through Cuban Music.”  This is not her first Grammy Award.  She has collaborated on multiple other Grammy winning albums.  Born and raised in a very musical family, she began to sing professionally at age nine.  Her music is said to be a fusion between jazz, Timba, Son, Guaguanco, Charanga and Guaracha, creatively held together using electronic wire-power.  She is admired for his philanthropy, helping to provide more than 3-tons of food for victims of Hurricane Maria that devastated Puerto Rico and she has supported the “League Against Cancer” for a dozen years in the city of Miami.  Aymée also belongs to the organization “Walk Now for Autism Speaks.”  She has released five albums under her own name, several single records and has recorded over twenty collaborative albums.

This album of excellence was recorded at a sold-out, six-night performance at the prestigious Blue Note Tokyo jazz club in 2019.  The songs are driven by percussive energy and Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s tenacious joy at the piano, along with Aymee’s vocal power.  The harmonic addition of background vocals by Alfredo Lugo and Lourdes Nuviola enhances their production.  On track 3, the familiar song, “El Manisero,” features both Gonzalo and Aymée opening the song to showcase each artist’s magnificent strength.  Accompanied by percussion, the piano is dominant and profoundly creative.  His two hands sound like four racing across the keys.  His technique is awesome.  After his piano solo, Aymée Nuviola adds her scat singing improvisation amidst the background vocal chants.  Yainer Horta’s saxophone dances atop the groove.  Here is a project full of the excitement that ‘live’ music inspires and the brilliance of two great artists, who spark the fire and passion that burns inside their band members.

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PAULETTE McWILLIAMS – “A WOMAN’S STORY” – Blu Jazz

Paulette McWilliams, voice; Hugo Suarez, piano; Trevor Ware, upright bass; Terreon Gully, drums; David Castaneda, percussion; Gregoire Maret, harmonica; Curtis Taylor, trumpet; Alex Budman, alto saxophone; Keith Fiddmont, tenor saxophone; Charean Carmon, Kenya C. Hathaway, Daneen Wilburn & Lynn Davis, background vocals.

Paulette McWilliams has put her magical twist on tunes we know and love, making them uniquely her own with the fresh arrangements of Kamau Kenyatta.  She opens this album with a jazzy rendition of Marvin Gaye’s composition, “Just to Keep You Satisfied” driven by percussive amplification and horn arrangements that embellish the track and sweeten McWilliam’s smooth vocals. Track two, “If You Give Them” is a beautiful song with a challenging melody.  Her voice caresses the notes, sliding over the intervals sweetly and clearly enunciating the lyrics.  McWilliams offers the words like pearls of wisdom.

“But even in the depths, find the things that make you live,” she sings.

It was a pleasant surprise to hear her ‘cover’ the Janis Ian song, “At Seventeen” with an emotional solo by Gregmoire Maret on harmonica.  I thought this arrangement took many liberties with both the melody and the chord changes, but the beauty of the song still shines honest and true.  McWilliams has a range that moves from contralto to soprano with surprising ease and confidence. 

Then comes her take on the Luther Vandross hit record, “So Amazing.” It’s beautifully interpreted and she puts her own spin on it. When the lady sings, “Do it In the Name of Love,” Paulette McWilliams steps strongly into a jazz stride.  Trumpeter, Curtis Taylor, slides flamboyantly into the spotlight and drummer Terreon Gully tenaciously pushes the ensemble to higher heights.

Ms. McWilliams has a magnificent voice and she clearly shows that she can sing anything by her eclectic selection of repertoire.  I would have enjoyed hearing her sing some contemporary and/or fusion-funk jazz and perhaps at least one straight-ahead, up-tempo song.   “Life is the Fountain” is a great song with a tempo that once again lilts along at a moderate pace.  I found, on the whole, although the production is lacking the excitement and vigor that this vocalist stimulates, she remains so powerful and strong in her own talent that you’re captivated by her emotional delivery.  Ms. Williams closes with the Joni Mitchell standard, “Both Sides Now,” as a duet with pianist, Hugo Suarez.  I wish it has been with Herbie Hancock or Billy Childs. 

Ms. McWilliams has worked with some of the icons in the music business, including Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross, Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Aretha Franklin, Johnny Mathis, Celine Dion and Quincy Jones.  Her voice has tantalized us on familiar name-brand commercials like Folgers coffee, McDonalds, Diet Pepsi (with Britney Spears), for Cadillac and American Express, among others.  Paulette McWilliams was the original lead singer with “Ask Rufus” and introduced the group to Chaka Khan when she decided to explore more solo opportunities.  Paulette McWilliams’ voice, like her credentials, are both historic and a shining testament to “A Woman’s Story,” featuring undeniable talent and tenacity. 

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JOHN MINNOCK – “HERRING COVE” – Dot Time Records

John Minnock, vocals; Dave Liebman, saxophone/wood flute/executive producer; Enrique Haneine, piano/Fender Rhodes/musical director; Carlos Mena, bass; Pablo Eluchans, drums; Deborah Lippmann, vocals.

The Cher hit record, “If I Could Turn Back Time,” (penned by award winning songwriter Diane Warren) is reimagined by John Minnock.   As many times as I’ve heard this song, I never listened to the lyrics so intently.  It sounds nothing like the original Cher production, but it is still intriguing and well-arranged in a very jazzy way.  John Minnock’s voice is compelling.  Dave Liebman is magnificently present on his saxophone.  Minnock shows he is unafraid to leap into the world of scatting and to turn his voice into a more diversified instrument.  He’s also unafraid to use his vocal platform as an activist for the LGBTQ community.  He has penned six original compositions that illustrate, like a musical diary, various paths in the LGBTQ community.  This is particularly poignant on his song “Unconditional.”

In the liner notes he explained:

“My hope is to musically express myself with honesty and integrity; something I feel can be done best in a jazz setting.  I hope that this new project offers listeners a greater understanding of the LGBTQ community, and most importantly, that they like what they hear.”

On the bluesy song “It Goes Like It Goes” he shows off his sweet tenor range on the unexpected melodic intervals and the lyrics are once again thought-provoking and rich with double entendre.  This tune was plucked from the Academy Award winning song used in the movie, ‘Norma Rae.’  He sings:

“Ain’t no miracle being born.  People do it every day. Ain’t no miracle growing up.  People just grow that way.  So, it goes like it goes, like the river flows and time rolls right on.”

John Minnock explains why he chose this song in the liner notes. 

“…I’m a David Shire super-fan and have always loved this song. The beautiful lyrics are by one of the best in the business, Norman Gimbel, who penned ‘Bluesette’ and all the English lyrics to Antonio Carlos Jobim songs … and the iconic, ‘Killing Me Softly with His Song’ also,” Minnock proclaims.

Minnock’s vocals move from jazz to cabaret in the wink of an eye.  He is expressive, honest and emotional, whatever the genre.  His original compositions are well-written and he gives himself and his musical ensemble permission to wring the last drops of sincerity from his lyrics.   You hear this on his tune, “A Melody.”  It opens with a beautiful bass introduction by Carlos Mena, using his bow in a tender, sensitive way.  Minnock’s voice leaps and dances between baritone and tenor, as he attempts to perorate his feelings.  I had to play this song twice to soak up both the beauty of the melody and the lyrical meaning.  I felt like Minnock might be a big fan of Stevie Wonder’s composer skills, as I listened to this particular original song.  He talks about his time and effort in creating this composition.

“This was like playing chess-by-mail; make a move, review the board for a long time, move again,” John Minnock.

The musicians he uses on this project are all outstanding.  John invites his friend and vocalist, Deborah Lippmann, to duet with him on one song.  I was particularly impressed with the colorful way drummer, Pablo Eluchans adds creative fills and crescendo energy to enhance each song production.  Pianist, Enrique Haineine, plays brilliantly throughout and NEA Award winning reedman and executive producer of this CD, Dave Liebman, puts the polish on the project. 

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SUSAN  TOBOCMAN – “TOUCH & GO” – Soliterra Records

Susan Tobocman, vocals/composer/lyricist/arranger; Joel Frahm, tenor & soprano saxophone; Dave Eggar, cello; Pete McCann acoustic & electric guitar/producer; Henry hey, piano/Fender Rhodes; Matt Pavolka, acoustic & electric bass; Michael Sarin, drums.

Vocalist, Susan Tobocman, is also a composer and lyricist.  She has penned five songs of the twelve recorded on this, her fourth album. Two of the five are all instrumental.  Her production on “What’ll I Do?” is fresh and jazzy.  It opens the album in a pleasing way, re-dressing an old standard with a brightly-colored arrangement.  The Jimmy Webb pop tune, “Wichita Lineman” is a surprise, featuring a cello solo.  This song production sounds like a cross between a Country/Western arrangement and a classical concert.  The song, itself, seems strangely out of place; mainly because it’s not arranged with a jazz sensibility.  It has such a great melody and could have easily become a ‘slow walk’ jazz arrangement.  But track 3 redeems the vocalist, when she steps up to the mic and swings hard and strong on “The Man I Love”.  She sings with gusto and at a very bright, fast-moving tempo, with only a walking bass accompaniment.   The band joins in at the end of the 2nd verse.  Ms. Tobocman used her energy to set it up for Joel Frahm on tenor saxophone to fly straight-ahead and furiously over her tight rhythm section.  Henry Hey performs a stand-out piano solo and this song arrangement is all jazz, start to finish. 

Susan Tobocman has composed “Make Believe” and it moves along at a slow swing.  It’s a well-written composition and the kind of tune I would have loved to have heard arranged in a more Brazilian way.   “Touch and Go”, the title tune, is another Tobocman original composition with a strong melody and performed totally as an instrumental.  Her composer skills are evident.  This song gives her excellent musicians an opportunity to stretch out and show their individual talents.  

Susan Tobocman’s voice is sweet and pensive on “Where Is Love?”   She makes you listen to her well-articulated words and thirstily drink up her stories.   She makes me feel as though she’s lived these stories in person and to the fullest.  Guitarist, Pete McCann, is a sensitive and notable accompanist during this arrangement.   He also acts as co-producer on her project.  From a critic’s view, the fact that this artist mixes genres on both Wichita Lineman and her second take on the Beatles “Help!” (which is very much rock and roll) confuses me.  The first version of “Help” she recorded as a waltz and it’s very jazzily performed.  I don’t know why the other arrangement was added to this album, especially since she’s promoting her recording as a jazz CD.  Other than that, well done.

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AL GOLD – “AL GOLD’S PARADISE” – Independent label

Al Gold, vocals/electric & slide guitar/mandolin/composer; Jerry Cordasco, drums/percussion; Mitch Eisenberg, electric/acoustic & baritone guitar; Jared Gold, organ; Eric Heilner, piano/organ; Terry Hemmer, bass guitar; Vd King, bass guitar/guitar; Cassidy Rain, Vocal/acoustic guitar; Baron Raymonde, saxophone; Tom Rice, electric guitar; Johnny Sansone, harmonica; Dave Stryker, guitar; Anthony Tamburro, acoustic guitar.

If ‘blues’ is your thing, this is a very southern-sounding, down-home blues recording.  It’s a surprise when you realize these musicians are based in New Jersey and not Mississippi or Tennessee.  Al Gold has adopted the sound and certain southern inflections in his vocal presentation.  He has a Memphis Slim-kind-of-soulfulness. 

Utilizing his Suburban Rhythm Kings ensemble, a group who has played with him for many years, Al Gold built his recording session band from that familiar rhythm section, adding other stellar, local blues players on a song-by-song call.  There are plenty of shuffle blues productions thrown in for good measure, but mostly solid, Southern-styled blues.  Johnny Sansone’s harmonica work is noteworthy on “Boogie in the Dark,” featuring Cassidy Rain on background vocals.  There are also traces of boogie-woogie blues and 1950s, Chuck Berry-type tunes like “Got A Mind.”  For good measure, Al Gold has also composed some well-written blues ballads like “Won’t Sleep Tonight.”

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SISSY CASTROGIOVANNI – “TERRA” – Manu Records

Sissy Castrogiovanni, voice; Tim Ray, piano; Jesse Williams, upright & elec. bass; Lihi Harum, soprano saxophone; Jamey Haddad, percussion; Jorge Perez-Albela, drums/cajon/djembe. SPECIAL GUESTS: Puccio Castrogiovanni, marranzano/pipes/voice; Claudio Ragazzi, guitar; Fabio Pirozzolo, frame drums; Marcus Santos, percussion. STRINGS: Layth Al-Rubaye, violin; Shaw Pong Liu, violin; Eve Boltax, viola; Catherine Bent & Eugene Friesen, cello. BACKGROUND SINGERS: Paola Munda, Anna Signorini, Agney Mulay, Carlotta Amato, Micaela Cattani, Manfredi Caputo, Claire McFarland & Eleonora Rancati.

Sung in her Sicilian dialect, Sissy Castrogiovanni has written seven of the ten compositions on this album to celebrate our planet Earth.  Her voice is crystal clear and pleasing as it floats above contemporary jazz harmonies and African and Mediterranean rhythms.  I cannot understand her words, but her emotional delivery is precise and lovely.  On track 2, ‘A Panza, her bassist, Jesse Williams, shows strength and purpose during a brief solo.  He also steps up later on the CD to accompany her solo on track 9, “Stranizza D’Amuri.”  Back to track 2, Jorge Perez-Albela pushes the rhythm with his drums and the addition of melodious, harmonic, background voices cushion the production.  “Magia” is very African-influenced, with the background voices chanting at the song’s introduction.   Although there are glimpses of contemporary jazz in this production, for the most part this is World Music that lyrically is celebrating the process and creation of life.  I know that because the English translation of these songs is printed inside the CD jacket.  Claudio Ragazzi makes a tenacious guitar statement on “Magia” and at the fade, there is a call and response kind of production interacting with Castrogiovanni’s lead vocals.

Sissy Castrogiovanni explains:

“It has been happening on the Earth every single second for billions of years.  Terra, Mother Earth, knows what and how to do things much better than us.  We have lots to learn from her.  This album is about the Earth’s astonishing power, which also lives with us.  Terra is about trusting this power, the magic of life, and the Earth’s millennial wisdom.”

Sissy Castrogiovanni is a strong singer/songwriter.   All of her lyrics are telling stories of love and life; mostly positive and uplifting.  Many implore us to love and respect the planet, the air, the water and especially the earth.  This message works and is meaningful in any language.

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SUSIE MEISSNER – “I WISH I KNEW”  – Lydian Jazz Records

Susie Meissner, vocals; John Shaddy, piano/arranger; Lee Smith, bass; Byron Landham, drums; Paul Meyers, guitars; Larry McKenna, tenor saxophone; Ken Peplowski, clarinet; John Swana, trumpet/EVI/flugelhorn.

This is the fourth album release for Susie Meissner and mirrors her love of the all-American songbook.  She opens with one of my favorite swing tunes, “The Great City” as a tribute to her beloved Philadelphia, the current place she’s chosen as home base for ten-plus years.   Susie Meissner features a group of outstanding Philadelphia-based musicians including drummer Byron Landham, Lee Smith on bass and Larry McKenna on saxophone.  John Shaddy on piano is from outside of Philly, and is a willing and sensitive accompanist who has worked with Meissner in the past.  Philly’s own John Swana brings his trumpet, EVI and flugelhorn to the production with energy and tastefulness.  His solo on “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” is beautiful and heartfelt. 

Originally from New Jersey and the Buffalo, New York areas, Meissner felt this opening song’s lyric could be talking about any great big city with its pitfalls, challenges and allure.  It’s a great way for Susie Meissner to open her production and her band swings hard!  Meissner has included a dozen familiar standard songs, giving her excellent musicians an opportunity to shine in the turntable spotlight.  You will hear Susie’s take on the title tune, “I Wish I Knew” and other ballads like “Alfie” and “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.” 

Featuring the familiar drum line that made Ahmad Jamal’s composition “Poinciana” so popular, Byron Landham introduces this tune and Meissner’s smooth, second-soprano voice caresses the lyrics.  Paul Meyers’ bright guitar dances on the scene with a happy solo.  On “In A Mellow Tone,” Ken Peplowski’s clarinet bring authenticity to a time and place when Duke Ellington’s big band played in dance halls across the country.  This is a well-produced and excellently arranged production by a band of jazz masters who are backing up a seasoned cabaret singer.

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MUSIC THAT MOVES ME

August 1, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil

Aug 1, 2020

JIMMY HEATH – “LOVE LETTER” – Verve Records

Jimmy Heath, soprano & tenor saxophones/arranger; Kenny Barron, piano; Russell Malone, guitar; Monte Croft, vibraphone; David Wong, bass; Lewis Nash, drums; SPECIAL GUESTS: Wynton Marsalis, trumpet; Cécile McLorin Salvant & Gregory Porter, vocals.

You might say, Jimmy Heath went out swinging, in a slow, melancholy way.  This final release showcases Heath’s ability to merge his historic and unrelenting talent and tone, with a younger generation of musicians who bring interest and commerciality to his music.  Opening with the lovely and melodic, “Ballad from Upper Neighbors Suite,” this is Heath’s first ‘all-ballads’ production.  It’s as though he was writing a love letter to all his fans, family and friends before he got out of here.  Jimmy Heath’s tone and power on his tenor saxophone is as precise and stunning as it was thirty years ago.  Hard to believe that he was playing with this much strength and character at ninety-three years old.  On Track two, “Left Alone” he features the celebrated vocals of Cecile McLorin Salvant and the esteemed guitarist, Russell Malone.   Cecile’s crystal-clear voice is tender and heart-rendering on this Billie Holiday composition.  It’s a composition Ms. Holiday never got to record herself, but I think she’d be pleased with Salvant’s interpretation.   Enter Jimmy Heath on his horn, after Cecile’s beautiful performance.  He plays with so much soul and finesse that I just want to rewind his solo over and over again.

During His illustrious career, Jimmy Heath has worked with some of the most iconic jazz musicians in the entire world.  He’s performed on more than one-hundred albums and he’s written more than one-hundred-twenty-five compositions.  Some of those original songs have become jazz standards and have been recorded by renowned artists like Cannonball Adderley, Chet Baker, Miles Davis, James Moody, Milt Jackson, Ahmad Jamal, Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, J.J. Johnson and Dexter Gordon.

Wynton Marsalis comes on board to blend horns seamlessly with Jimmy Heath on “La Mesha.”  What a gorgeous song and arrangement!  This is a Kenny Dorham composition.  When Kenny Barron takes his piano solo, I marvel at the jazz master’s impeccable touch.  Gregory Porter sings the familiar standard “Don’t Misunderstand” with the astute and beautiful accompaniment of Mr. Barron on piano.  The trio is warm and supportive of the baritone’s rich vocals.  Enter Jimmy Heath, improvising with a brand, new melody and honey warm sweetness on his horn.  For me, this is a tear-jerk moment.  Sometimes music can touch you like that.

On Gillespie’s popular “Con Alma,” the arrangement is spruced up by the soulful vibraphone work of Monte Croft during a sexy, Latin arrangement of this familiar song.  Heath opens the tune, then fluidly melts into a bluesy jazz walk, propelled by David Wong’s bass and Lewis Nash tapping the rhythm out in profoundly perfect ways.  Jimmy Heath has written and executed this arrangement.  It’s both fresh, sultry and stunning.

There is not a bad tune on this entire album of spectacular music.  I could play it all day.  “Fashion or Passion” features Croft on vibraphone again and Heath’s warm saxophone blowing beauty into the air.  Although this original composition by Jimmy Heath is a ballad, it still swings.  The song comes from a 2004 Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra commission.   His album closes with Billie Holiday’s, “Don’t Explain” a treasure of a tune.   Jimmy Heath takes full responsibility for interpreting the heart-wrenching lyrics, letting his saxophone sing the song’s meaning without words.  I hear you, Jimmy Heath.  I hear you!

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ALISTER SPENCE – “WHIRLPOOL”  – Independent Label

Alister Spence, solo piano.

Alister Spence has made a powerful impact on the world of improvised music.  His reputation as a pre-eminent, creative force in jazz and avant-garde music began in his native Australia.  Twenty-five years later, he’s celebrated worldwide, lauded as being a contemporary music composer and performer who adds his brilliance to film scores, theater and various group recordings.  Spence holds a Doctor of Philosophy degree from University of NSW, where he is the Lecturer in Music.

On this CD release, Alister Spence wraps you in the “Whirlpool” of his solo production.  I find myself being totally intrigued and sucked into the extreme creativity of his spontaneous compositions.  These compositions are full of surprise and piano genius.  This Australian jazz pianist and composer creates an engaging and deeply emotional album that draws the listener into the depths of his presentation.  You become hypnotized by his music.  This double-disc album of solo piano is both splendid and irresistible, showcasing Allister’s unmistakable piano technique and classical training, as well as his flair for the dramatic. Spence explained his project this way:

“In the session, I tried to create surprises for myself, starting somewhere without a clear idea of what that would sound like and, as a result, creating puzzles or mazes which I try to follow or not to follow.”

While listening, I found myself following his musical notes, like bread crumbs in a Hansel and Gretel story.  I was intoxicated by his imaginative offering and as he piqued my curiosity, I went scurrying after his notes and nuances.  Alister Spence plays every part of the piano, both inside and out; plucking at the inner strings or dancing in the treble register like a finger ballerina.  When he attacks the lower register, his hands are powerful and demanding.  His compositions can be both hauntingly beautiful and suddenly dark and sinister, like storm clouds on the horizon.  One moment he’s a music box and the next, his fingers crash against the ivory and ebony like a restless ocean tide.  His left and right hands give us a lesson in contrary motion and his nimble fingers move swiftly, sometimes as fast as humming bird wings. I also felt as if the two hands were somehow speaking to each other in a foreign-language conversation I was eavesdropping on.  Here is an example of skill, creativity, freedom and years of practice, joy and pain, unleashed by the mastery of eighty-eight keys and the human spirit.

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BENNY RUBIN JR. QUARTET – “KNOW SAY OR SEE” – Independent Label

Benny Rubin Jr., tenor & Alto saxophones; Lex Korten, piano; Adam Olszewski, bass; JK Kim, drums.

Here is a saxophone player whose blues touches my soul.  I’m hooked from his very first track titled, “Know.”   At this point, the trio featured is just bass, saxophone and drums.  What a way to capture the listener’s attention.  Benny Rubin Jr. sure can play the blues! Track two opens with pianist, Lex Korten appearing on the scene and giving us a solid, very classically oriented introduction on the 88-keys. When Benny Rubin Jr. enters on his horn, he whips us into his own personal outer space with a flurry of freedom notes.  This composition is titled “Say” and is another one of six original compositions that Benny Rubin Jr. has written for this project; and this song is quite avant-garde.   The beautiful Jimmy Van-Huessen ballad, “Darn That Dream” follows and settles us down.  Rubin’s tone on his instrument is now warm and inviting. 

I enjoy the diversity in Rubin’s repertoire and his delivery.  The quartet’s arrangement on the Horace Silver tune, “Kiss Me Right” is stellar.  “Down They Go” is another original composition by Benny Rubin Jr., that features Adam Olszewski opening the song on double bass.  As the arrangement develops and the other instruments join in, I am whisked back to the time of John Coltrane.  Benny Rubin Jr., let’s his talent fly in a hurricane of powerfully played notes coupled with an emotional delivery.  Lex Korten builds the intensity on piano and adds his own exciting take on the tune.  The final original composition lets JK Kim cut loose on his trap drums.  The drums are front and center on this Rubin composition.  Here is an album full of sweet surprise and straight-ahead jazz excitement.  It offers enough multiplicity to show Benny Rubin Jr.’s competence on both his horns, as well as his excellence as a composer and it certainly showcases the brilliance of his players. 

When I read the liner notes, I discovered Benny Rubin Jr., was born in Flint, Michigan and raised in my hometown of Detroit.  He worked with many old friends of mine like Wendell Harrison and graduated from the Detroit School of Arts.  In 2016 he performed in the worldwide, acclaimed Detroit Jazz Festival with the Detroit Jazz Festival youth All-stars.  This is his second album release.  The first was titled, “What’s Next.”   

The title of this latest album “Know Say or See means the things that people don’t want you to know, say or see,” Benny Rubin Jr. explained.  Well, one thing I ‘know’ is that this album is very well produced.  I ‘say’ it in this review (just like I mean it) and I ‘see’ great things on the horizon for Benny Rubin Jr.  I enjoyed playing his album a second and a third time on my CD player, and I liked it better with each revolution.

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BRECKER BROTHERS – “LIVE AND UNRELEASED” – Piloo Records

Randy Brecker, trumpet/vocals; Michael Brecker, tenor saxophone; Mark Gray, keyboards; Barry Finnerty, guitar; Neil Jason, bass/vocals; Richie Morales, drums.

Flash-Back!  On July 2, 1980, there was a buzz of excitement inside the legendary Onkel P’s Carnegie Hall in Hamburg, Germany.  A contemporary jazz-funk band, The Brecker Brothers, was appearing and it was during the peak of the band’s popularity. The place was packed!  This album was recorded during that concert appearance and it reflects the energy, the exciting arrangements and spectacular talents of these legendary musicians.  If you’re someone who loves funk and fusion jazz, this album definitely ought to be in your collection.

The Brecker Brothers march onto the scene, opening with the tune, Strap Hangin,’ on Disc One of this double disc set.  Neil Jason sets the tone on electric bass, with Richie Morales adding his power-packed drums to propel this song into high gear.  On Disc two, the blues pops up on a tune by Randy Brecker titled, “Inside Out” that becomes a perfect musical trampoline for Mark Gray to jump up and down on his synthesizers, embellishing his very creative and captivating abilities during a sparkling solo.  And you can’t miss the powerful bass licks by Neil Jason throughout, often throwing in some 1950 and ‘60 R&B bass lines from hit records back-in-the-day.  Enter Finnerty, on guitar, with fingers flying atop the serious shuffle laid down by Morales on trap drums.

Randy Brecker spoke about this project in the liner notes.

“This, the ‘Great tour of 1980’ featured this iteration of the second great Brecker Brothers Band.  In July of 1980, we hit the road for five-weeks in Europe resulting in this fine recording, “Live and Unreleased;” … including guitarist Barry Finnerty, who had played on Heavy metal Bebop and who was also taking a break from The Crusaders and their ‘Street-life’ tour.  The keyboard chair was held by the late, great mark Gray who was totally obsessed with the latest technology and was a first call guy in NYC. …Our bassist, Neil Jason, who had co-written and sung on one of our hits ‘East River’ was also a first call guy. … On drums is the great Richie Morales, who I first met during my tenure producing a band called ‘Sky King’ for Columbia Records.  He spent several years with us, then went on to Spyro Gyra, Mike Stern and many more. … So, enjoy this long, lost, live concert which brings back to life a lot of pleasant memories of great music, late nights on ‘the hang’ and many a story a little too risqué to repeat here.”

You will enjoy the innovation on the Mini-Moog and on the Prophet-5, fully polyphonic, analog synthesizer played by the late Mark Gray.  Barry Finnerty is tenacious and unrelenting on his instrument, burning fire across the stage with his scorching guitar chops.  But it’s Michael Brecker that stuns with his power, tone and excitement on tenor saxophone and his brother, Randy Brecker, unapologetically adds his trumpet talents to the mix just to remind us why the band is called, the Brecker Brothers.  Not to mention, the two brothers have composed every tune on this funky double set except one.

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SWINGADELIC – “BLUESVILLE” – Zoho Records

John Bauers & Mitch Woods, piano/vocals; Kyle Koehler, organ; Andy Riedel, guitar/vocals; Boo Reiners & Joe Taino, guitar; Dave Post, bass; Colby Inzer, drums; Vanessa Perea, vocals; Ken Robinson, Alto saxophone/clarinet/flute; Audrey Welber, alto saxophone; Mike Weisberger & Bill Easley, tenor saxophone; John DiSanto, baritone, saxophone/piccolo 8; Bryan Davis, John Martin & Carlos Francis, trumpet; Robert Edwards, Neal Pawley, & Alex Jeun, trombone.

One of the featured vocalists with this swinging big band is John Bauers, who also plays piano. The ‘Swingadelic’ ensemble opens up with the Dakota Staton’s hit record and also one of the Count Basie Orchestra’s popular tunes, “Late Late Show.”   John Bauers knows how to ‘swing’ and his voice dances along with this shuffle arrangement.  The big-band horn section punches as he smoothly sings “Gee, it’s cozy in the park tonight. When you cuddle up and hold me tight.  Stars above they seem to know, we’re putting on the Late Late Show.”  It’s a great way to start this album.

On Track two, vocalist Neal Pawley takes the mic and is deeply reminiscent of Mose Allison when he sings, the Muddy Waters composition, “I Love the Life I Live.”  The drums shuffle like a well-oiled motor -machine and Colby Inzer drives this band forward with spirit and energy on drums. 

‘Swingadelic’ is an ensemble perfect for a swing-dance party.  Vanessa Perea’s rendition of the Mary Lou Williams tune, “What’s Your Story, Morning Glory” reminds me of how Sonny Burke and Paul Francis Webster plagiarized this 1938 hit by Mary Lou Williams and wrote “Black Coffee” using the identical two verses that Mary Lou composed in “What’s Your Story Morning Glory.”  There was talk of a law suit, but I don’t think it ever came to anything.  The band also covers the Ray Charles hit record, “Mary Ann” featuring a guitar solo by Joe Taino and a trombone solo by Alex Jeun.  This ‘Swingadelic’ ensemble scoops the blues up and repurposes it in their own sweet way. 

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RYAN COHAN – “ORIGINATIONS”   – Origin Records

Ryan Cohan, piano/composer/arranger; James Cammack, acoustic bass; Michael Raynor, drums; John Wojciechowski, flute/alto flute/clarinet/tenor saxophone; Geof Bradfield, bass clarinet/soprano saxophone; Tito Carrillo, trumpet/flugelhorn; Omar Musfi, RIQQ/frame drum & dumbek. THE KALA STRING QUARTET: Victoria Moreira & Naomi Culp, violin; Amanda Grimm, viola; Hope DeCelle, cello.

The first tune unfolds like a book’s introduction, with Hope DeCelle’s prominent and beautiful cello solo. It makes me wonder about the chapters to follow.  When I look at the title, this arrangement makes even more sense.  It’s titled, “The Hours Before Dawn” and Ryan Cohan’s piano fingers rush along the keys like hands pushing the clouds away from the suns face. 

Cohan’s use of the Kaia String Quartet sets a lovely tone and ambience to this piece of musical art.  “Originations” is composed of six independent compositions that celebrate an eleven-piece jazz chamber ensemble.  On this first composition, you can picture the sun rising from the hours just before dawn, enhanced by the string parts and the unexpected time changes.  Mother Nature is certainly full of unexpected changes and beauty.  There is a very Middle Eastern or North African theme that ribbons its way throughout this project.  When I read the liner notes, I understood that this influence reflects Ryan Cohan’s mixture of Jewish and Arab linage.  Cohan explained an experience he recently had while touring.

“How can a strange land be at once familiar?  Although I had never been in Amman, Jordan I felt strangely at home there.  After every performance or while exploring the streets, people would come up to me and ask if I was Jordanian.  The locals clearly saw something recognizable in me as I did in them.  It was surreal,” Cohan recalled. 

His piano strength and talent are broadly introduced on “Imaginary Lines” where his solo soars. There is great energy and excitement in his playing.  I can feel the love and spontaneity just leap off the CD player.  John Wojciechowski’s beautiful interpretations on reed instruments add greatly to the texture and enjoyment of this music, be it on flute, alto sax, clarinet or alto flute. 

This experience caused Ryan Cohan to seek out his Palestinian roots, when he discovered that particular tour had landed him smack dab in the middle of his Paternal homeland.  Consequently, this album of delightful music explores the assimilation of the composer’s Arab heritage and his Jewish upbringing.  It’s a celebration of the rich beauty of two cultures, intertwined and mixed into a musical production.

“Seeing life through a dual heritage lens, … has made clear that neither side’s existence is more indispensable than the others. The vital human and spiritual links embodied in the reconciliation of my Jewish and Arab origins extends to the connections we all share as a global community.”

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HORIZONS JAZZ ORCHESTRA PAYS TRIBUTE TO COMPOSER/ARRANGER LEE HARRIS WITH “THE BRITE SIDE”

Gary Mayone, keyboards; Ranses Colon, bass; Luke Williams, guitar; George Mazzeo, drums; REEDS: Scott Klarman, lead alto/flute/soprano saxophone; Mike Brignola, 3rd Alto saxophone/flute/clarinet; Billy Ross, guest tenor saxophone/flute/clarinet; Joe Mileti, tenor saxophone/flute; Randy Emerick, baritone saxophone. TRUMPETS: Dennis Noday, lead trumpet/flugelhorn; Ryan Chapman, split lead flugelhorn; Jack Wengrosky, split lead, flugelhorn; Fernando Ferrarone & Chaim Rubinov, trumpet/flugelhorn. TROMBONES: Michael Balogh, lead trombone/conductor; Jason Pyle & Tom Lacy, trombone; Steve Mayer, bass trombone.

This Is a beautifully produced and arranged tribute to Lee Harris.  Harris was a respected baritone saxophonist, a composer and arranger, who co-founded and co-led the popular “Superband.”  They were a big band with a fresh perspective, that mainly performed Lee’s original compositions.  When this Horizons Jazz Orchestra project got underway, Lee Harris was quite ill and unfortunately, he passed away months before this recording was completed.  However, the album will proudly stand as his legacy. 

With the significant help of veteran trombonist, Michael Balogh (who was also lead trombone player in the “Superband”) and brilliant trumpeter, Dennis Noday, who co-led the “Superband” with Lee Harris, along with the Executive Producer for “The Brite Side,” Ms. Jeannette C. Piña, they have created a memorable project.  The producers have enlisted the talents of virtuoso trumpeter, Carl Saunders, featured on five of the ten tracks and Grammy-winning drummer, Jonathan Joseph propels the project with vigor and tenacity.  Reedman, Billy Ross, was invited to join them on four of the tracks.  Ross has been playing woodwinds with Woody Herman’s Orchestra since he was seventeen and has leant his talents to many an iconic recording.  The list includes Barry Manilow and Natalie Cole; the Four Tops and the O’Jays to name only a few.

“The Brite Side” spotlights five original compositions by Lee Harris, with the other five are jazz standards that showcase the Harris arrangements.  I enjoyed the addition of Gary Mayone on the B3 Organ.  Producer Michael Balogh has certainly created a loving tribute to his friend and fellow musician, Lee Harris. This production exposes the listeners to some well-written compositions and a host of outstanding musicians who play the Lee Harris arrangements with gusto and creative clarity.

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MON DAVID & JOSH NELSON – “D + N + A” – Dash Hoffman Records

Mon David, vocals; Josh Nelson, piano.

Mon David and Josh Nelson balance, with two hands and a rich baritone voice, a dozen classic songs plush with thought provoking lyrics and memorable melodies.  Here is a duo that make me feel as though I’m sitting at one of those old piano bars, martini in hand and drooling over the rich, provocative music.  The duo opens with a song I’m unfamiliar with; composed by Albert Hague & Allan Sherman and titled, “Did I Ever Really Live.”  The lyrical content is rich. Mon David sings:

                “You’re born, you weep, you smile, you speak, you cling, you crawl, you stand, you fall.  You stand again and try and then, you walk.  You eat, you drink, you feel, you think, you play, you grow, you learn, you know and then one day you find a way to talk.  You’re young, you fly, you laugh, you cry, you’re grown, you’re on your own at last.  You lose, you win, your days begin to slip away too fast. … is it too late to ask, Did I ever love?  Did I ever give? Did I ever really live?”

Those poignant lyrics drive this project.  These one-dozen songs delve deeply into the mystery of life and living; gain and loss. One of my favorite jazz ballads follows, “You Must Believe in Spring.”  I still remember the first time I heard Cleo Laine sing this song ‘live’ at the Hollywood Bowl.  Mon David caresses the lyrics with sensitive vocal strength, while Josh Nelson’s hands work like an artist’s paint brushes.  His piano-playing gently strokes the keys and chords to support Mon David’s emotional delivery.  They follow this song with several other’s we have come to love over jazz decades.  The duo interprets Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” and Artie Butler and Phyllis Molinary’s candid composition, “Here’s to Life.” 

Mon David is multi-talented.  He sings, but he also plays guitar, piano and drums.  He explained his decision to record a duo album.

“For me, the human voice is the primary instrument for expressing the emotional depth of a song, but the piano is a close second.  That’s why I wanted to work with Josh.  His solo performances are terrific, but when he plays with a singer or other instrumentalists, his music has an almost symphonic quality.  He’s also very spontaneous.  He listens so closely.  I realized we really didn’t need charts for these songs, because we were able to collaborate and create them on the spot.  That’s why I named the album DNA, which is an acronym for David-Nelson-Agreement.  It’s a real conversation between the two of us.”

There are moments when Mon David becomes a percussion instrument with his voice, like on their arrangement of “Devil may Care” and at other unexpected moments, his voice bounces octaves to a head-register tone, like a horn-player or a swiftly moving tennis ball.  His tenor voice swoops into view and grabs our attention.  He scats and purrs his way through familiar songs like “Billie’s Bounce,” and “Blame It on My Youth,” John Lennon’s “Imagine” and challenging compositions like “Waltz for Debby” in a medley praising the genius of Bill Evans. That medley is one of my favorites on this production.  He also introduces us to newer songs like the Bill Canton and Mark Winkler song, “I Chose the Moon.”  This is a vocalist who shows, by his choice of repertoire, that he is confident, courageous, thoughtful, well-prepared and well-lived.

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LISTEN TO OUTSTANDING “ON-LINE” JAZZ MUSIC

July 24, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil

July 23, 2020

MELODY GARDOT – “FROM PARIS WITH LOVE”

This vocalist has a sweet, smooth, alto sound as she delivers a ballad tribute to those of us who have been self-quarantined for the past several months, while trying not to catch the CoronaVirus and/or not to spread it.  She has invited a host of players from all over the world to contribute their violin talents to her orchestration.  You see contributing musicians, as in a Zoom meeting, along with several black and white videos of people (worldwide) who are sending love out into the world from their various international locations.  This is a sweet video and a lovely tune about love and support of one another. The musicians were recorded in isolation to become a part of this international orchestra.  If you want to see Ms. Gardot perform ‘live,’ watch her sing “Caravan.”  This video has already received nearly 400,000 views.

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FAMED DRUMMER STEVE GADD AND HIS BAND LIVE-STREAM CONCERT IN BENEFIT FOR BAKED POTATO JAZZ CLUB –  JULY 25, 2020 

This Live-stream concert will stream on https://www.thebakedpotato.com  Saturday, July 25th @ 7:00p PST.  Following the live streaming, the concert will be available for a 24-hour VOD rental on The Baked Potato’s website.  

Since 1970, The Baked Potato Jazz Club has been the home venue for many of the world’s greatest musicians, (not always jazz musicians) and has showcased many of the bands and artists that have helped sew the rich fabric of this Los Angeles area musical institution. Over its tenure, the club has welcomed some of the biggest names in music as both guests and performers, not limited to: Slash, Chad Smith, Stevie Wonder, Jackson Brown, and Prince even had his own seat at the club.  

The Covid-19 pandemic has put a huge pause on LIVE music, but Baked Potato club owner Justin Randi will not sit by and watch this happen.  He has installed a multi-cam operation inside the club, complete with 4k cameras, utilizing the best live streaming technology available.  The live-stream performance with The Steve Gadd Band will help support one of the oldest clubs in LA to keep the music alive. #savethepotato

The Steve Gadd Band will play a live-stream concert to benefit this Los Angeles institution this Saturday, July 25th.  The live performance and subsequent video-on-demand access is only available on https://www.thebakedpotato.com

STEVE GADD is one of the most sought-after American drummers, percussionists, and session musicians in the industry. Gadd’s performances on Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”, Late in the Evening”, and Steely Dan’s “Aja” are some of the most well-known examples of his style.  His work has crossed genres and he has worked with popular musicians such as: Simon & Garfunkel, Steely Dan, James Taylor, Eric Clapton, Kate Bush, Joe Cocker, Chet Baker, Kenny Loggins, and more. 

THE STEVE GADD BAND members include Michael Landau (guitarist who has played on albums with Boz Scaggs, Steve Perry, Pink Floyd, Rod Stewart, Phil Collins, Stevie Nicks, Miles Davis and more), Jimmy Johnson (bassist best known for recording and touring with James Taylor), Larry Goldings (on the keys who has recorded with De La Soul, India Arie, Tracy Chapman, Michael McDonald, Beck, John Mayer, Norah Jones, and more), and Bruce Fowler (on the trumpet, a composer and conductor best known for his work on the trombone on Frank Zappa’s albums).

All proceeds will go to KEEPING THE DOORS OPEN AT THE BAKED POTATO 

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SHANA TUCKER –  “NO GET BACK”

This Is a video captured during the Appalachian Summer Festival, Appalachian State University’s first digital festival.  Shana Tucker, composer, cellist and vocalist headlines her quartet.  She paints jazz with R&B pastels and singer/songwriter polish.  A duo string introduction features Tucker on cello and Will Ledbetter (on upright bass).  They set the mood and the tone for this emotional song that Shana Tucker has penned making it perfectly clear that there is no getting back together with her.   Christian Tamburr is masterful on piano and Alfred Serfel IV holds the Latin tinged rhythm solidly in place on his trap drums.  Shana Tucker is an emotional singer, who shares her sincerity in her vocal presentation while accompanying herself on cello. She labels her music as ‘Chamber Soul’ stirring it up with a pinch of pop and inspired by the folksiness of being her own, free-flowing songwriter.  Based in North Carolina, she is currently the featured vocalist with jazz saxophonist, Bennie Maupin.  She is also part of Women’s Work, a female-led collective of jazz, soul & pop artists from both the East and the West Coast.  Her debut CD, “Shine” landed her a gig in Las Vegas with the popular Cirque de Soliel organization as singer/cellist. This is a concert ‘cut’ to spice up four minutes and thirty-nine seconds of your day!

If you enjoyed that, you may want to also view her solo, activism post titled, “Requiem for Elijah McClain.”

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TALENTED PIANIST, SAM HIRSH, FEATURED IN AN ON-LINE CONCERT BY THE JAZZ BAKERY – JULY 25TH – 8PM  – at this link: https://youtu.be/KqroHXpdmJQ

This Saturday, July 25, 2020 at 6pm PST, Sam Hirsh will play a live-stream solo piano concert from his living room in Los Angeles.  There is no charge for the concert, however donations are welcome to help support the future of the Jazz Bakery and their concert series.  Your tax deductible donation can be made at:   https://www.jazzbakery.org/support-us?fbclid=IwAR1My-2k7fb0WUfk94-cp-7Uuvsd7-5nevGzjSRUsB03k8CiCjKEoR5fpdU

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SARA SERPA – “RECOGNITION”Biophilia Records & FILM SOUNDTRACK        

Sara Serpa, composer/vocals; Zeena Parkins, harp/tuning forks; Mark Turner, tenor saxophone; David Virelles, piano.

After I listened to the CD and before I realized it was a film score, I felt I had to see the film to be totally fair when reviewing Sara Serpa’s music.  Her music is part of a unique interdisciplinary, experimental documentary and watching the film, I gained a new perspective on her music.  The film traces the historical legacy of Portuguese colonialism in Africa, using images, printed quotes and sound.  In collaboration with director, Bruno Soares, Sara Serpa, (an artist, composer and vocalist) has edited never-before-seen footage from Portugal and Angola shot in the 1960s (on Super 8 film) when the colony was then ruled by Salazar’s notorious fascist regime.  The film is highlighted with texts by the revolutionary, Amilcar Cabral.  The material was discovered in Serpa’s family archives.  Sara Serpa has composed this score and it becomes her tenth album titled, “Recognition.”

You probably have noticed, a lot of the popular 21st Century music of today is produced with repetitious loops.  You hear this production style in Hip Hop music and some pop & R&B. When I first listened to Serpa’s CD, this concept appeared to have filtered its way into her jazzy, Avant-garde production.  In spite of the beautiful vocals and challenging harmonics, I became perplexed by piano lines that were constantly repetitive.  On track 3, David Virelles finally stretches out on piano and plays more than chords; chords that previously had repeated themselves rhythmically, over and over.  Sara uses her voice more like an instrument than a lyrical singer, producing hypnotic vocals that harmonize without words with the Zeena Parkins’ harp and tuning forks or with Mark Turner’s tenor saxophone.  However, after track three, track four goes right back to repetition by the pianist.  At that point, I knew, to be fair in my evaluation of this Avant-garde composer, I would have to view her film.

There were titles superimposed on the film screen in English and Portuguese.  One read:

“After the slave trade the destruction of the economic and social structure of African Society.”

I understood immediately, on that first tune (“Lei do Indigenato, 1914”), her repetitive music fit the scenes perfectly.  Turner’s tenor saxophone haunts the historic film clips.  Her vocals accompany a plane taking off and someone’s view from a plane window, filming over the wing.  The camera lens film clouds and mountain tops.  The Parkins’ harp is now the backdrop.  People exit the plane and board a huge passenger ship.  A lifeboat is lowered into the murky waters from the side of the ‘Infante Dom Henrique” vessel, its name painted on the ship’s bow. A speed boat races up.  There is a great deal of impressionism in this documentary.  Even the way the film is edited, blurring some scenes until they become dripping colors that float into each other, creating an abstract painting before our eyes.

“Portuguese multi racialism is a myth, it means compliance, except for contact through work” appears across the screen.

Flash to mines, women and their children carrying heavy baskets on their heads; a blur of blues and whites make the scene another moving painting.  Is that salt they shovel into heavy baskets and struggle to carry to large mobile container on railway tracks?  We watch these women of color pouring their white offering into the larger container.  Black men rake the white mounds into tall piles and others push the large containers down the railroad tracks. 

Musically, Sara Serpa harmonizes with herself.  She makes sounds that recall a grandfather clock, or a historic coo-coo clock.  Her repetitive musical composition calls out the time.  The piano too sounds like a pendulum moving/striking.  More impressionism?  I’m not sure.  But the music makes more artistic sense when you see it played as a soundtrack.  Sara Serpa’s soprano notes are crystal clear and her intervals are challenging.  She also recites poetry during this soundtrack.  But for the most part, there is a lot of repetition, played mostly by the pianist and often sung by the vocalist.  The notes hang, like the parachutes that appear on screen with soldiers dangling, sad ornaments of war, while planes bomb the earth. 

This film talks about people of color treated as chattel and existing at the mercy of white settlers.  It’s a time when these people’s native, African languages were forbidden.  The white man was celebrated as a superior being.  The Africans thought of as inferior.  The Colonial conquistadors were represented as saints.  In another scene Serpa chants, “Kwanyama”.  “Lingala” she speaks.  Images of black bodies blurred on the screen, fading to tall buildings.  Ancient kings and queens are referenced.  Queen Nzinga, ruler of the Ndongo kingdom is remembered.  She came to power through her African military tenacity.  She was successful politically, loved by her people and vilified by her European contemporaries.  Still, she ruled for 3-decades and defied 13 Portuguese governors.  This is the story of 400 years of Portuguese occupation, with a resistance that never stopped.  The film uses lots of kaleidoscope techniques and blurred frames that makes the motion picture look like a contemporary museum painting much of the time.  The music works well in the film, for the most part.  Still, Sara Serpa’s music is a little too repetitious for my taste.

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HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW – LAURYN HILL AND TANYA BLOUNT

A friend of mine sent me this on-line video and it was so uplifting I wanted to share it.  It’s not jazz, it’s gospel, featuring a singer I think is extraordinary, Ms. Lauryn Hill and a new vocalist I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t heard before, Tanya Blount.  She’s actually no new comer.  Tanya made herself known as an actress, appearing in a number of plays and film.  Born in Washington, D.C., she had a major recording deal with Polydor Records (that became Island/Def Jam) at age nineteen.  She became a film star of note in “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit” and performed this unforgettable duet with Lauryn Hill at that time.  She did have an album released in 1994 titled, “Natural Thing.”  Her career has consistently included musical theater and in 2012, she produced another recording.  She’s also written a book titled, “Through the Rain: 40 Principles for Surviving Life’s Challenges.”  So, settle back and enjoy these two talented women singing one of our familiar Christian standards.

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WBGO RADIO PRESENTS NEWPORT JAZZ ARCHIVES FOR YOUR LISTENING PLEASURE – STARTING JULY 23, 2020 – FRIDAY, HOSTED BY CHRISTIAN McBRIDE

JAZZ NIGHT IN AMERICA is a brand, new, archival Newport Jazz Festival Radio Special.   Starting Friday, July 24,2020 at 6pm and running for the three weekends, join Jazz Night in America, with host Christian McBride, for a special radio edition of the Newport Jazz Festival.  You will enjoy historic archival sets from Newport’s rich 65-year history.  McBride, who also serves as the Artistic Director of the festival, has hand-picked a dream festival line-up for the three-part program.

“There’s a goldmine here – a plethora of riches,” says McBride. 

So, tune up wbgo.org from 6PM – 10PM ET on Friday, July 24th, Saturday August 8 and 12PM – 4PM ET on Sunday August 9 to listen to a great mix of old and new Live From Newport Jazz.  To find additional information visit newportjazz.org/revival.

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CALIFORNIA JAZZ FOUNDATION LAUNCHES “SONIC TONIC” PODCAST

In closing, a new podcast has been launched by the California Jazz Foundation called “Sonic Tonic” produced and hosted by guitarist, composer and bandleader, Greg Porée.   Porée will be interviewing a host of blues and jazz veterans.  Upcoming interviews will feature Paul Jackson, Jr., Billy Mitchell, Nick Mancini and more.  For additional information visit www.californiajazzfoundation.org.

The California Jazz Foundation is a nonprofit organization, founded in 2006, and created to aid and assist California jazz musicians in financial or medical crisis.  I’m sure the foundation is inundated with requests during these pandemic days.  CJF is committed to providing access to quality social and economic services for al eligible applicants through a team of caring, knowledgeable professionals in collaboration with their community partners.

In summary, this article is being written to promote and support jazz music.  During these challenging times, I’m counting on you to keep jazz alive. Take a listen to some of these “on-line” choices.

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INSPIRED JAZZ REFLECTS UNIVERSAL BEAUTY

July 17, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil/Jazz Journalist

July 17, 2020

From Moscow to New York City or from San Francisco’s rich Bay Area to Southern California’s more laid-back community, jazz blooms.  I am reviewing music that stretches from Italy to Brazil, and albums that reflect the beauty of Mexico, the tangos of Argentina and the piano expression of Japanese culture.  Read all about this newly released music from a variety of culturally rich personalities.  Then take a few minutes to listen.

AZAT BAYAZITOV – “THE DOORS ARE OPEN” – Rainy Days Records

Azat Bayazitov, tenor saxophone; Adam Rogers, guitar; Dave Kikoski, piano/Fender Rhodes; Boris Kozlov, bass; Samvel Sarkisyan, drums.

Azat Bayazitov is a Russian tenor saxophonist currently living in New York City.  His music reverberates the energy and straight-ahead excitement of cities like New York or Moscow.  His tone is sweet, full bodied and speaks to me from the very first cut titled, “Magnet.”  Immediately, like a magnet to metal, I’m drawn into his music.  Dave Kikoski plays a whirlpool of notes and I find myself spinning along with his piano creativity.  Bayazitov is melodic and as a composer, his music allows his world-class quintet to explore the chord structure of these eight, original songs he has composed.  Track two, “The Huge Sky of Kazan,” opens with just Azat Bayazitov’s tenor saxophone singing to the sunrise like a wild bird.  He spreads bluesy wings and glides across the open horizon like a seven-forty-seven plane.  I am impressed with this reedman’s composer skills.  This song becomes one of my favorites on this CD titled, “The Doors Are Open.”  His music reminds me a little bit of Eddie Harris and how Eddie could take a melody and wrap it into an unforgettable groove.   Bayazitov also builds his songs into a crescendo of power, magnified by drummer Samvel Sarkisyan’s dynamic talents.  Boris Kozlov takes a noteworthy solo on double bass. 

This album is Azat Bayazitov’s second release.  He honed his reed skills playing with Russian impresario, Igor Butman’s Moscow Jazz Orchestra for three years, until he relocated to the United States.  Sasha Mashin is the producer on this project and he’s done a stellar job.  The songs and moods vary and show Bayazitov’s exploratory nature as he embraces a variety of musical styles.  This is a delightful project and I enjoyed the addition of Adam Rogers on guitar with the driving drums of Samvel Sarkisyan powerfully present throughout.  These arrangements give each player a time to shine in the revolving spotlight. 

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THE MARK MASTERS ENSEMBLE – “THE ALEC WILDER SONGBOOK FEATURING GARY SMULYAN – NIGHT TALK” – Capri Records Ltd.

Ed Czach, piano; Putter Smith, bass; Kendall Kay, drums; Jerry Pinter, tenor & soprano saxophone; Don Shelton, alto saxophone/alto flute; Bob Summers, trumpet; Gary Smulyan, baritone saxophone; Dave Woodley, trombone.

This CD is plush with harmony, swings hard and has tightly executed arrangements that send this ensemble soaring into the big band jazz universe.  Alec Wilder is the composer of all the songs and The Mark Masters Ensemble amply interprets them with fire and finesse.  All arrangements are written by Mark Masters.  The musicians are such amazing technicians on their instruments that they sound like an orchestra.  I am not surprised, because I’m familiar with the excellence of Ed Czach on piano, Putter Smith on bass, Kendall Kay on drums and folks like Bob Summers on trumpet.  The entire ensemble is made up of first-class, Southern California musicians.  Alec Wilder is an iconic, amazing composer and you probably would recognize some of his popular American Songbook tunes; among them, “I’ll Be Around.”  The Mark Masters Ensemble opens with “You’re Free,” a great tune that swings hard and is driven by the awesome baritone saxophone of Gary Smulyan.  Masters’ collaboration with Smulyan has embraced twenty-one friendly years, starting with when he invited Smulyan to perform his music with strings at California’s Claremont McKenna College.  Later, he was featured on the Mark Masters tribute to Clifford Brown Project in 2003.  I can understand why.  Gary Smulyan’s beautiful, rich sound on his baritone saxophone immediately grabs the attention.  His tone is smooth as satin, as he creatively improvises or boldly sings out the melody.

“Writing this project with Gary in mind, I wanted to feature him as if he was performing with a symphony orchestra.  The goal was to set him apart from everything else and to highlight his sound and his unique voice.  I know that whenever he’s playing, it’s going to sound great.  But I want to make sure that I do everything to put him and everybody else in the best light,” Mark Masters explained in his press package.

There is no doubt that this project shines brightly, spotlighting the dynamic, Wilder compositions and brilliantly showcasing a crème-de-la-crème of some A-game, Los Angeles musicians.  Mr. Masters has long been heralded as one of the great, modern-day, jazz arrangers.  He formed his first ensemble in 1982 and has recorded a variety of tributes to some of our iconic jazz men including Jimmy Knepper, Clifford Brown, Dewey Redman, Duke Ellington, and in 2013, the music of Walter Becker and Donald Fagan.  He has also reimagined works by Gerry Mulligan and Charlie Mingus on his acclaimed “Blue Skylight” album.  This will definitely become another plume in his arranger’s cap. 

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MAFALDA MINNOZZI – “SENSORIAL – PORTRAITS IN BOSSA & JAZZ”  – CAT #: MPI2318

Mafalda Minnozzi, vocals; Paul Ricci, guitars/musical director; Art Hirahara, piano; Essiet Okon Essiet & Harvie S., acoustic bass; Victor Jones, drums; Rogerio Boccato, percussion; Will Calhoun, udu. drum/shaker.

Mafalda Minnozzi’s voice makes a joyful sound.  She’s a little nasal, at times, but it does not deter from her style and vocal charm.  Her ‘open’ notes are round and full as she sings some of my favorite Bossa Nova tunes with energy and sincerity.  Opening with the popular Antonio Carlos Jobim tune, “A Felicidade,” she enchants the air with her pitch-perfect tone and smooth Portuguese language.

Mafalda has spent twenty years in Brazil, working and honing her craft.  Now she presents “Sensorial” as an album portrait of mixed cultures, blending her Italian romanticism with American jazz and Bossa roots.  Track two is one of my favorite Jobim tunes titled, “Vivo Sonhando.”  Hers is a beautiful rendition of this popular composition, under the musical direction of guitarist Paul Ricci. Her CD cover is as bright and compelling as her choice of repertoire, splashed with bright, pineapple yellow, watermelon reds, green and purple grapes and pink grapefruit colors.  Centered is her face, staring out at us amidst the fruit. She offers us colorful, rich, Latin music with arrangements that reflect healthy intentions.  On her interpretation of “E Preciso Perdoar,” she adds a John Coltrane tune, weaving in “Lonnie’s Lament” as a pleasant surprise for our ears.  She and Paul Ricci are richly featured on “Desafinado” with his busy rhythm guitar holding the tempo happily in place and accompanying her pleasing vocals with care and sensitivity.  When it’s his time to solo, Ricci takes full advantage of showing off his guitar skills.  Essiet Okon Essiet adds his dynamic upright bass sound to the mix and delights our ears on six of the baker’s dozen of tunes Mafalda Minnozzi has recorded.  She also features bassist, Harvie S., on some songs.  On “Mocidade” we get to enjoy Art Hirahara’s tasty piano licks and Mafalda’s scat-singing abilities. All in all, this is a lovely recording with good musicianship and a competent vocalist interpreting many of our favorite Brazilian standards.

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KENNY WASHINGTON -“WHAT’S THE HURRY” – Lower 9th Records

Kenny Washington, vocals/whistler; Josh Nelson, piano; Gary Brown & Dan Feiszli, acoustic bass; Lorca Hart, drums; Victor Goines, tenor saxophone/clarinet; Jeff Massanari, guitar; Mike Olmos, trumpet; Peter Michael Escovedo, bongos; Jeff Cressman, trombone; Ami Molinelli-Hart, percussion.

Opening with the very familiar, show-stopper-of-a-tune, “The Best is Yet to Come,” Kenny Washington’s distinctive and jazzy baritone voice seduces us.  His expressive vocals interpret the lyrics with believability, just like any great storyteller.  Kenny throws in a taste of his gospel roots every now and then, with a “Whoa” for a vocal exclamation mark or a smooth run that clusters a group of perfectly placed notes that speak to his listeners melodically.  The very tasty accompaniment of Josh Nelson on piano helps Washington’s beautiful voice shine.   On the second track, Kenny Washington performs as a duo and is accompanied by guitarist Jeff Massanari, who makes his guitar become a full rhythm section and then solos expertly on “S’Wonderful.”   Washington shows his prowess as a whistler, as well as a vocal master.  The only singer I knew who did that expert ‘whistle-thing’ was Los Angeles based crooner and pianist, Howlett Smith (RIP).  On “Stars Fell on Alabama” (the third track) we experience Washington’s smooth entry into his head register, spotlighting his full and impressive vocal range and showcasing his tenor voice.  Also, Gary Brown is featured prominently on acoustic bass and Victor Goines on tenor saxophone.  They add depth and beauty to this arrangement.  My senses are twitterpated by his execution of “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues.”  Nelson’s gospel piano enhances this piece and then moves smoothly into “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” with Washington’s voice out-front and compelling.  We need nothing more than these two competent musicians, blending sweetly like hotcakes and syrup, to tantalize our ears.  This is a delicious duo, with Nelson slipping into his classical roots at times and Kenny Washington leaping smoothly to an unexpected high tenor note to surprise us.  The simplicity of this production certainly highlights this marvelous vocalist in a profound and awesome manner.  I played this piece again!  There’s no fluff or pretentiousness to these arrangements.  On track 9, Dan Feiszli steps up to the task of playing his bass, while Washington sings along the familiar strains of “Sweet Georgia Brown.”  He compliments the melody of this old standard before taking off on an exciting scat trip, exploring improvisation as though it were the beauty of an outer space galaxy.  I’m dancing in my chair when the entire band joins in to swing (in a very Latin way) “No More Blues.”  I’m intoxicated during Kenny’s rendition of “Invitation” with Peter Michael Escovedo’s bongos adding beautiful mysticism to the haunting mystery of this production.  Although he’s surrounded by exceptional musicians, Kenny Washington shows us he needs nothing more than a microphone to capture our undivided attention.  This project is pure pleasure!

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JULIO BOTTI – “PURE TANGO” – Zoho Records

Julio Botti, soprano & tenor saxophones; Matias Lanfranco, piano; Leonardo Pedrozo Avila & Federico Semandi, bass; Alejandro Colombatti, bandoneon; Gustavo Gancedo, guitar; Valeria Martin, violin; Quintino Cinalli & Mario Gusso, percussion; maria Jose Rojas, vocals.

Julio Botti has a rich, warm tone on tenor saxophone.  He exhibits an emotional rendering on the third track of his “Pure Tango” CD titled, “El Dia Que Me Quieras,” that translates to ‘the day you love me.’  It’s considered one of the most romantic songs in the tango standard songbook.  Marias Lanfranco does a beautiful job of both accompanying Botti on piano and also soloing with a classical flair.  Julio Botti met the pianist in late 2017, when they were introduced in Botti’s hometown of Bell Ville, 200 kilometers south of Cordoba, in central Argentina.  They had an immediate meeting of the minds.  Notably, when playing together, they seem to blend seamlessly. 

When producing this album, Botti first recorded just piano and saxophone in a New York studio.  The other instruments and vocals were added later at a studio in Argentina.  On this album, (dedicated to the memory of his mother), Julio Botti has blended traditional tango with a modern jazz sound.  His objective was to embrace the vintage style of old-guard tango rhythms, while adding bright arrangements to this familiar tango repertoire.  Maria Jose Rojas brings her beautiful vocals to enhance the production on several songs.  Botti has also hired a number of gifted musicians to help him bring life and energy to these carefully selected compositions.  I enjoyed “Nostalgias” and Botti explained why he chose to present this song, adding a melancholy, yet lovely violin solo by Valeria Martin.  It’s an elegant tango released originally in 1935 by Cobian.  The composition, “Recordando” (that means ‘remembering’) is a zamba.  Zamba is a traditional Argentinian dance that has six beats to a bar.  It’s performed by couples who carry white handkerchiefs that they wave as they circle each other.  This tune reminded Botti of his dearly departed mother.  He explained:

                “This piece evokes memories of her tending to clothes in the yard and sweeping her house; the smell of good foods. I wanted to make my intentions clear for my wonderful mother, Nilda Cardarelli, who will always be in my heart.  I hope that my mother is very proud of this album, which is dedicated to her,” said Botti in his liner notes.

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JOHN FINBURY – “QUATRO” – Green flash Music

John Finbury, composer; Magos Herrera, vocals; Chano Dominguez, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Antonio Sanchez, drums.

“Quatro” is a celebration of cultural diversity and immigration.  It’s a condemnation of those who seek restrictions against people based upon prejudice.  The opening song is dynamic and titled, “Llegara El Dia” (that translates to ‘The Day Will Come’).  It’s a freedom song and reflects this album’s entire concept.  Written with Peruvian Festejo influence, and mixing in Mexican Huapango, I am taken by the beautiful music that Finbury has composed.  The lyrics were penned by producer, D. Miler.  Happily, they include an English translation of these lyrics in the CD’s liner notes.  Track one is a dynamic poem.  It features a spellbinding piano solo by Chano Dominguez and is interpreted by the lovely, alto voice of Magos Herrera.  John Finbury has written all the music on this project and each composition is well played by his talented musicians and well-produced by producer and lyricist, Emilio D. Miler.  On track #1, Miler’s lyrics spoke to me. (from Spanish translation):

“Dahlias evaporate in the sea, leaving their dreams trapped in a net. Their wings flutter, chirp; cry and thus become breeze, melody, rivers resuscitate.  Eagles spiraling down, drawing the letters of your name on the altar.  And there will come a day when seeds will rain on your heart.  You will feel the tree of the sad night growing.  Candles/sails; an aroma of incense announcing this and you’ll see just how soon there is nothing left of you,” his lyrical poem unfolds.

The first instrumental on this album is track two and proclaims, “Independence Day.”  It is Finbury’s take on a Spanish Flamenco arrangement.  The trio’s interpretation on “Salon Jardin” (or Garden Ballroom) is a slow Bolero arrangement that gives the iconic John Patitucci a moment to solo on his acoustic bass.   Throughout this entire production, Antonio Sanchez is powerful on drums, locking the rhythm section tightly together in a dance of freedom and purpose.  The only down side of this CD is the outside cover itself.  Why so dark, when your words bring such light? I could hardly read the names of the players.  I think artists should take more time controlling their CD artwork.  That being said, with this musical work, John Finbury redefines his being American, not just as a native of the United States, but as a citizen of the Americas.  Using “Quatro” as a political statement, he brings us a poetic piece of musical work that not only reminds us of our commonality and universal brotherhood, but gives musical testimony to our diversity and the beauty of blending cultures.

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SHIMPEI OGAWA & NOA LEVY – “YOU ME & COLE”  –  Belle Records

Noa Levy, vocals; Shimpei Ogawa, double bass.

There are some stellar moments on this duo album.  The opening tune shows that both Shimpei Ogawa and Noa Levy can swing.  Noa Levy begins by scatting against the big, strong sound of Shimpei’s walking bass. Together, they sound fresh and spontaneous on Cole Porter’s familiar “I Get A Kick Out of You.”  The challenge, of course, whenever you perform duo, is upholding your end of the bargain and standing strong in the light of your individual talent.  Duos are a difficult project to perform.  I know, because I’ve done it.  It’s just the two of you, with no other instruments to fill the space or to solo.  What makes this project even more challenging is the fact that it features only bass accompanying the voice. 

I liked the way Ogawa and Levy played with time, going from swing to a waltz, (three-four rhythm) during this arrangement.  However, there were a couple of pitch problems that Noa Levy quickly grazed over and were hardly noticeable.  The familiar, “My heart Belongs to Daddy” follows and is performed with a tango-feel.  I thought that was a perfect choice of rhythms and I liked the way Levy harmonized with Ogawa’s bowed bass notes.  But then came, “Just One of Those Things” to sour the sweetness of this recording.  Ms. Levy is totally off key for much of this song and the bridge she sings has nothing to do with the composer’s written melody.  Shimpei takes an engaging solo, but when the vocalist re-enters, she is obviously melodically lost and I guess you could say, “it was just one of those things.”

She redeems herself on “What is This Thing Called Love?”  She puts her whole heart and soul into delivering those lyrics with gusto and believability.  Shimpei Ogawa steps boldly into the spotlight to solo on his upright bass.  They tackle other familiar Cole Porter gems like “It’s Alright with Me” but after one time down, they lose their sparkle.  Some of the bass notes just don’t compliment the chord changes or her melody and when she re-enters, after his solo, she’s in the wrong key.  I think, if these two had a producer, a person who could have guided them and corrected some of the little things that caused this project to spiral downward, it would have been much more successful.  Both Shimpei and Noa are talented.  They just needed a little direction from ‘the booth’ when they were recording.   On “So in Love” you can hear how beautiful her voice is and his bass accompaniment is creative, but sometimes it’s the smallest nuance of a single bass-note, placed in an inopportune place, that makes the production fall flat.  One of their winners was “Anything Goes,” and their rendition of “Love for Sale” was bluesy and well-done. Of course, jazz stands for freedom and I applaud their tenacity and determination in producing an album of voice and double bass, spontaneously and creatively.  In spite of the glitches, both musicians still exhibit talent and promise.

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FALKNER  EVANS – “MARBLES” – Consolidated Artists Productions (CAP)

Falkner Evans, piano; Matt Wilson, drums; Belden Bullock, bass; Ron Horton, trumpet; Michael Blake, tenor & soprano saxophone; Ted Nash, clarinet/flute/alto saxophone; Steve Nelson, vibraphone.

The Latin-tinged composition, “Pina,” enters the scene with a bold flute solo by Ted Nash on track one.  This song is a dedication to the late, dancer/choreographer, Pina Bausch, whose work has been celebrated in a documentary film.  It’s followed by “Civilization.”  This tune has a very bluesy, “Killer Joe” kind of sound, with the walking bass of Belden Bullock strongly holding the groove in place along with Matt Wilson on drums.  Enter the saxophone solo and then trumpeter, Ron Horton takes over with his invigorating interpretation of this song.  All the music on this album is original and composed by Falkner Evans, except for the final Duke Ellington tune, “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.”   Evans has arranged all these songs with the warmth of a big-band sound, employing the talents of Ted Nash, Michael Blake and Ron Horton on horns.  These few talented musicians are successful in creating a full, rich, beautiful sound. 

“I love these guys a lot.  We’ve all become really good friends.  I’m so pleased that everybody was able to do this.  I was hearing all these harmonies. … With three horns, you can do so much more with the orchestration.  That was the basic inspiration for this album,” Evans affirmed.

“Sing Alone” is a lovely ballad that gives Falkner Evans an opportunity to step out front and introduce this composition on the grand piano before his group joins in.  It features his piano solo and style.  “Hidden Gem” employs the vibraphone licks of Steve Nelson.  At the top of the tune, his sound reminds me of time I spent in Indonesia, watching an orchestra utilize a multitude of wooden and bamboo vibe-looking instruments called angklungs.  The title tune introduces the mallets of drummer, Matt Wilson that adds a hypnotic sound to the arrangement.  The minor chords bring back memories of my trip to the Middle East inclusive of the white stone buildings of Israel and the palm trees and flowing black Muslim garbs of Dubai.  Falkner Evans was originally born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  “Dear West Village” is his straight-ahead love letter to his now current New York neighborhood of more than two decades.    

This project is very laid-back, with the exception of the final Ellington tune that closes this CD out. I was surprised at the shortness of this final song.  Most of the arrangements are lovely, long and very easy-listening in tempo and musical personality.  Even when Michael Blake, Ron Horton and Ted Nash spit fire into their various solo’s (on their well-played horns), there is still very little up-tempo, straight-ahead excitement here.  Falkner Evans is a solid pianist without a great deal of emotional excitement translated into his piano performances.  His compositions are well-written and his harmonic arrangements are beautiful.  I just wish this artist had stretched beyond his comfort level, even once, and just for fun, hand-glided off the precipice without a parachute. 

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THE YUKO MABUCHI TRIO – “YUKO” – Vista Records

Yuko Mabuchi, piano; Del Atkins, electric & acoustic bass; Bobby Breton, drums/percussion.

Yuko Mabuchi offers us a double-set CD, capturing her trio’s ‘live’ performance at the famous Vibrato Restaurant in Southern California.  Opening with Dizzy Gillespie’s popular, “A Night in Tunisia” tune, she sets the pace of this album with gusto and verve.  Ms. Mabuchi is a powerful player.  Her slender fingers propel across the keys like a steam roller.  You don’t expect this tenacity from such a petit individual.  The other thing she reflects in her playing is deep and resounding joy.  Ably assisted by Del Atkins on bass and Bobby Breton on drums, her trio has been working together for several years.  They exhibit a tight cohesiveness.

On track two, “So Danco Samba,” Yuko brings her vocal charm to the party.  She also enjoys scat-singing along with her tinkling and speedy improvisational piano solos.  Hey voice dances atop the notes, becoming another instrument that colors the arrangement like a musical paint brush. 

Yuko Mabuchi’s choice of repertoire is adventurous and embraces a wide variety of American jazz standards like John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and the Miles Davis game-changer, “So What” and “All Blues.” Yuko explores various time changes in her arrangement of “All Blues” exploring this classic tune in 5/4 time and then unexpectedly breaking into a 4/4 hard-bop.

She includes her jazzy take on pop and Motown tunes like Stevie Wonders, “Isn’t She Lovely” and the Ashford & Simpson 1966 hit record, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

Also included is a Japanese Medley of music that mixes memories of her youth by introducing us to “Hazy Moon,” a Japanese nursery rhyme written by Teiichi Okano.  This song melody is blended with “Cherry Blossoms,” a 17th Century Edo period song that celebrates Japan’s spring flower viewing.  “Sukiyaki” is the song that concludes this Japanese Medley and the Hachidai Nakamura composition translates to “I Look Up As I Walk.” 

To additionally spice up this project, Yuko has added several of her own compositions to the mix and they sparkle.  “St Croix” for one, is a lovely musical depiction of the Virgin Islands and St Croix’s Caribbean culture.  Bobby Breton pumps his Latin flavors into the production on drums, and Yuko always manages to add some blues roots to her thick broth of combined cultures.  This wonderful double-set CD offers something for everyone.  As much as I enjoyed Disc 1, I loved Disc 2 even more.  It shows Yuko Mabuchi’s spontaneity and tenderness on the piano keys, especially on her original, “Tears-Interlude.”  Another original composition written by Yuko is “Sky With No Tears” that allows a compelling solo by bassist, Del Atkins, and was written to anticipate a day when the earth is clean and the sky is no longer weeping with pollution.  Also, her exciting presentation of “Batucada Surgiu” is very impressive.  Yuko’s energy and enthusiasm are extremely prominent on the second disc and the audience is enthusiastic and responsive.   But most notably, this well-received concert gives us a very personal look at Yuko Mabuchi’s incredible talents as a pianist, a composer, an arranger, vocalist and bandleader. 

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DRUMMERS WHO INSPIRE & PROPEL JAZZ

July 10, 2020
By Dee Dee McNeil –  July 10, 2020
 

JEFF HAMILTON TRIO – “CATCH ME IF YOU CAN”  – Capri Records

Jeff Hamilton, drums; Tamir Hendelman, piano; Jon Hamar, bass.          

Whenever I see Jeff Hamilton’s name on a project, I know that recording is going to swing hard.  His current trio release, “Catch Me If You Can,” is no exception to this rule.  Hamilton opens with the John Williams composition, “Make Me Rainbows.”  

“I first became aware of this John Williams composition while recording Holly Hofmann’s CD.  Mike Wofford arranged it for that project and I haven’t been able to get the song out of my head since.  That’s the sure sign of a great song!”  Hamilton explains this song choice.

Hamilton has hand-picked songs that have touched his spirit and mean something special to him like “Helen’s Song” composed by his good friend and piano master, George Cables and “Big Dipper” by Thad Jones.  Jeff Hamilton recalls being a teenager and playing along with the Thad jones and Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra recording of this song. 

“It was like my morning meditation that set the tone for the day.  Still does!” Jeff Hamilton explained.

Jeff’s drums introduce us to the familiar strains of “Bijou” written by Ralph Burns.  Hamilton stirs the pot with his drum licks creating a thick Latin groove for Tamir Hendelman’s piano fingers to dance upon.  Speaking of the piano player, Hendelman has penned the title tune for this exquisite album.

“Tamir Hendelman is starting his twenty-second year in the trio.  … We also are aware of his composing and arranging talents, as again witnessed here.  I asked him to come up with a medium, up- tempo piece.  Big mistake!  Here came the stops and starts and challenging figures to ‘stump the band.’  It is aptly titled, Catch Me if you Can,” Jeff Hamilton wrote in his liner notes.

Additionally, Hamilton’s gifted bass player has contributed two songs; “The Barn” and “Bucket ‘O Fat.”  The bassist is new to the group and brings a gutsy, blues feel to the production.  You hear it in both compositions.

One of Jeff Hamilton’s mentors was John Von Ohlen.  After studying two years at Indiana University, Hamilton left the academic world to study with Von Ohlen.  In eight months, he had progressed to the point of being hired as the new Tommy Dorsey Band drummer. 

“John Von Ohlen was a major influence on me musically and personally. … Aside from his unique drumming concept, few knew that he played the piano and was so deep harmonically.  ‘The Pond’ is his composition from his solo piano cd of the same title.  John spent many hours at the pond on his property.  In fact, he still does, as he wished for his ashes to be placed there,” Hamilton praised his mentor reverently.

Jeff Hamilton is a living legend and his trio is celebrated worldwide.  As they march into a new decade, they mirror the legacy of great jazz trio’s like The Three Sounds and the Oscar Peterson Trio.  Drummer Hamilton is one of the founders of the Clayton/Hamilton jazz Orchestra and the Akiko-Hamilton-Dechter trio.  He has been the driving force behind such luminaries as Ray Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Lionel Hampton, Diana Krall and even the great Oscar Peterson himself.  He’s also fired up the Count Basie band and been a part of Woody Herman’s big band.  This release is another jewel in the jazz crown that Jeff Hamilton proudly wears.  He is certainly one of jazz music’s percussive kings!

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PURDIE / FABIAN / OSWANSKI – “MOVE ON!” – CAP Records

Bernard Purdie, drums; Christian Fabian, bass/arrangements; Ron Oswanski, organ.

Purdie, Fabian and Oswanski have united to use their trio power and put a fresh face on funk-driven jazz.  I became aware of the might, power and perfect time of Bernard Purdie in the early 1970’s.  Melvin Van Peebles was singing his praises and so was my old friend and A&M Record executive, Raina Taylor.  I believe I first met Bernard Purdie on the A&M Record Lot located on La Brea Ave in Hollywood where I was working in publicity. But I had heard his work much earlier.

Bernard Purdie played on a hit record from the late fifties that was one of my favorites.  The teen dance floor got crowded every time that recording by Mickey & Sylvia titled, “Love is Strange” spun on the turn-table.   The rhythm on that song was infectious.  Back then, Bernard Purdie’s reputation skyrocketed in New York and he was hired to be an East Coast studio musician on several important recording sessions.  He could play all styles, perhaps because of his early gigs playing with country bands and as a carnival drummer.  He loved to challenge himself and to learn new styles.  Amazingly, he was even called into the studio to spice up some Beatles releases for an American audience.   Unknown to most people, Bernard Purdie over-dubbed his drum licks on twenty-one Beatle songs.  How many drummers can say they played with the Beatles?   It was also his infectious drum licks that helped propel Aretha Franklin’s song, “Rock Steady” into a gold record success.  

One unique ability of this drummer is that Bernard Purdie created his own style of playing with specifics licks that have made him quite famous in both the R&B world, the funk world, the pop world and the jazz world.  He plays it all. One particular style is “Purdie’s half-time shuffle” that jazz folks think of as a percussive-blues-feel, but Purdie adds some syncopated ghost notes on his snare.  You can hear this groove that Purdie created on his recording of “Babylon Sisters,” a Steely Dan record.  He also knew how to seamlessly weave jazz swing and blues into pop music, rock and R&B.  He was the forceful drummer on the “Shaft” film soundtrack album.  His drum excellence and diversity crosses genres.  Purdie easily transitions, in either ‘live’ or studio circumstance, to enhance whoever’s project he’s drumming on.  For example, album jackets that sing his name include work with Ray Charles, Hall & Oates, Peter Frampton, King Curtis, Dizzy Gillespie, Steely Dan, Quincy Jones and even Cat Stevens to name just a few.  He played Reggae with Bob Marley and Latin drums with Mongo Santamaria.  Bernard Purdie even played on a Marvin Gaye track that skyrocketed up the charts.  Purdie told Drum Magazine:

“I cut about 500 tracks for Motown.  One of them was a wonderful one, “Can I Get A Witness” by Marvin Gaye.  We were doing tracks in New York and those were taken to Motown in Detroit.  Basically, they were doing overdubbing on tracks we already cut in New York.”

Bernard Purdie even worked with Otis Redding, who he said was an even stronger task-master than James Brown, a platinum R&B artist he also worked with.  He accompanied one of my idols, the amazing Nina Simone and played with Gabor Szabo.  Other’s he heralded as high points in his career was working with the great Jeff Beck and the queen of soul, Aretha Franklin.  He may be one of the most recorded drummers in the world.  Modern Drummer magazine called Purdie one of the fifty greatest drummers of all time. He is also listed in the book, “The Big Beat – Conversations with Rock’s Great Drummers.”

Now he has joined talents with Christian Fabian, who has composed for and arranged this entire ‘First Ever’ funky organ trio.  Christian is a native of Sweden and grew up in Germany.  Like so many talented international musicians, he attended Berklee College of Music, then became active playing on the New York jazz scene.  He’s co-leader of the New Lionel Hampton Band that features Jason Marsalis and he co-founded the Native Jazz Quartet and heads his own Fabian Zone Trio.  They’ve released six CDs.  Fabian is one of the in-demand bass players on the East coast and is respected worldwide.

The third member of this awesome trio is Ron Oswanski, a native of Toledo, Ohio.  His father had a polka band and young Ron grew up surrounded by music.  He began studying piano at an early age.  He also plays accordion and bass.  His love of piano and bass led him to study the organ, which clearly combines both instruments.  In 1992, he relocated to New York City and immediately joined Maynard Ferguson’s Big Bop Nouveau band playing piano, keyboards and the B-3 organ.  Ron Oswanski recorded on two of Ferguson’s Concord Record releases.  He stays busy as a studio session musician and also an inventor.  He helped develop a special microphone, specific to accordions for accurate, high quality sound.  In 2013, Oswanski released his own debut CD as bandleader titled, “December’s Moon.” 

“I’m not a traditional Jimmy Smith organ player.  I do play that style, but I’m a big ECM fan who’s listened to a lot of Keith Jarrett and Jan Garbarek.  I like open harmonies and being able to stretch harmonies from here to there. … Beautiful melodies are as important as aggressiveness,” Oswanski explained his musical motivation.

The combined talents of these three musicians bring us an exciting and entertaining album of funky tracks.  They play Duke Ellington’s famed “Love You Madly” at a slow speed, but just about every other tune on this project is energized. Christian Fabian is brightly featured on bass solos throughout and has composed five out of the nine songs.  Their bluesy rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” gives Oswanski an opportunity to stretch out on his organ.  On the ‘Glory, glory hallelujah’ verse, Fabian steps into the spotlight and takes over on his bass.  The constant and creative drums of Bernard Purdie create a strong basement for this trio to build upon.

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DYLAN JACK – “THE TALE OF THE TWELVE FOOT MAN”               Creative Nation Music (CNM)

Dylan Jack, drums; Jerry Sabatini, trumpet; Eric Hofbauer, guitar; Anthony Leva, bass & sintir.

Dylan Jack is a composer, trap drummer and improviser.  His quartet features trumpeter, Jerry Sabatini, guitarist Eric Hofbauer and Anthony Leva on bass.  Based in Boston, they have recorded four songs for this release that are more like suites than individual compositions.  Each song that Dylan Jack has written unfolds with various melodies and rhythmic patterns.  Beginning with “Gauchais Reaction, (the Art of Subconscious Mimicry),” Dylan allows his arrangement to introduce us to his bandmates.  On the first twelve minutes of the tune, he features a long solo by bassist Anthony Leva.  After four minutes, Sabatini enters on trumpet, followed shortly thereafter by Eric Hofbauer exploring the outer limits of his guitar.  This is Avant-garde, contemporary jazz.    The title tune, “The Twelve-foot man” is divided into two parts; (6-minutes and 9-minutes respectively).  The first part has a bluesy undertone, with Jerry Sabatini fluid on trumpet, sometimes screaming for our attention and other times sweetly singing the Dylan Jack melody. 

“The great thing about this band, although it’s under my name, it’s everyone’s band.  Everyone has a voice,” Dylan Jack asserts.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=On6mmgNiKj4

Behind the improvisational freedom of these musicians, you continuously hear Dylan Jack’s rolling drum sticks and inspired rhythm patterns that push the quartet to their limit.   

“The twelve-foot man represents a challenge that we individually face; a tall figure looming over our shoulder as we go about our lives,” Dylan Jack explains as he beats his way through “The Epitaph.”

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JASON KAO HWANG – “HUMAN RITES TRIO”  –  True Sound Recordings

Jason Kao Hwang, violin/composer; Ken Filiano, string bass; Andrew Drury, drums.

The music of violinist and composer, Jason Kao Hwang is totally Avant-garde.  His drummer, Andrew Drury, holds this trio tenaciously in his hands.  Within the harmonic texture of guitar or piano, Drury is a key figure controlling the motion and the structure on each tune.  From their interpretation of “Words Asleep Spoken Awake – Part 1 and 2” you hear Drury’s punctuation and crescendo-building phrasing on the trap drums.  While Jason is busy with improvisation and the melodic foundation, Andrew Drury pumps energy and excitement into the pieces.  Ken Filiano is solidly onboard, rowing his big bass sound through the waves of music, like a thick, directional oar.  Although they sometimes direct the vessel of their music into uncharted waters and often express chaos, like in a stormy sea, their musicianship is palpable.  if contemporary Avant-garde is your thing, you’ll put on your life jacket and dive into this project.

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JEFF COSGROVE – “HISTORY GETS AHEAD OF THE STORY”                        Independent Label

Jeff Cosgrove, drums; John Medeski, organ; Jeff Lederer, saxophones/flute.

Turn the pages of time back to 2017, when reedman, Jeff Lederer, took a short trip from New York city to play some gigs with drummer, Jeff Cosgrove, in his rural town of Middletown, Maryland.  Cosgrove loves the open space.  It inspires his connection to an uncluttered style on his trap drums.  He likes to let the drums breathe, the same way he, himself, feels in wide open spaces. 

“We (Lederer and Cosgrove) started brainstorming ideas for a new project.  I suggested an organ trio with Jeff and John Medeski.  Jeff (Lederer) agreed and was really the lynchpin to this whole thing.  He helped bring John on board, worked out the charts and had some great ideas on arrangements.  We went in the studio in late 2018.  Everything just fell into place.  … I think the results are pretty stellar.  This project took some time to come to fruition.  William Parker, Matthew Shipp and I had a trio for a while which dissolved around 2015.  In that time of free-form experimentation, we grew a lot playing together.  I was heavily focused on spontaneous composition then, but when I thought about future projects, I knew I wanted to explore the order and arrangements of a composer.  William Parker’s repertoire seemed like the obvious choice.  Many people focus on his bass playing, but his skill as a composer was really what fascinated me.  William’s music is full of wonder and surprise and I am so grateful to have been on this adventure with these musicians to help celebrate it,” Jeff Cosgrove explained how this album came about.

Choosing a composer and friend, who he had played with for a number of years, brings a comfort level to this project.  Jeff Cosgrove is familiar with these compositions and respectful of the composer.  His handpicked sidemen are expressive and supportive in interpreting the music, beginning with the first song, “O’Neal’s Porch,” that begins with a punchy, unison horn line to introduce John Medeski’s organ.  Then suddenly Lederer’s saxophone races into the atmosphere, testing the outer limits of the treble-range of his instrument.  This is followed by a very blues-driven organ solo.  My only criticism is that the mixologist did not spotlight the drums of Jeff Cosgrove more vividly.  After all, this is his project and he’s the structural pillar of this music.  He’s the driving force in every song, but he’s mixed down way below where I think he should be.  Cosgrove has composed the tune, “Ghost” and it opens with an eerie, ghostly arrangement, featuring the sticks rolling across Cosgrove’s cymbals.  Lederer flies like a frightened bird on his flute, elevating the piece.  On track eight, a composition titled, “Wood Flute Song,” we finally have an opportunity to hear Jeff Cosgrove solo on his drums during the introduction of this piece and it sounds as if they finally mixed the drums up where they belong on this song.  You can hear how proficient and creative Cosgrove is on his instrument.  He provides a steady stream of rhythm to support and enhance the flute solo.  This is one of my favorite compositions on this production.   

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MUSIC THAT BLENDS GENRES AND CULTURES

June 30, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil/ Jazz Journalist

June 30, 2020

THE MARK HARVEY GROUP – “A RITE FOR ALL SOULS”                            Americas Music Works

Mark Harvey, brasswinds; Peter H. Bloom, woodwinds; Craig Ellis & Michael Standish, percussion.

On October 31, 1971, nearly half a century ago, inside the sanctuary of Boston’s historic Old West Church, the Mark Harvey Group presented “A Rite for All Souls.”  The Old West Church dates all the way back to 1737 and was once part of the Underground Railroad during the American Revolution.   Picture the Aural theater, a space illuminated by a few flickering candles.  A red exit sign is mounted at each of three doors.  The musicians are improvising and several diverse, acoustical instruments and sound-making devices are arranged as a kind of sculpture in the middle of the space.  Stage center, two-color illustrations are displayed on a table.  The paintings depict tarot cards.  One is of “The Moon” which, in the physical world represents deception and hidden enemies.  The other art piece is “The Tower,” from the tarot cards, Arcanum XVI; a representation of chastisement of pride.   On that day, long ago, the performers entered the space, sounding organ pipes and they were hooded in monk robes.  That must have stunned the audience and garnered their undivided attention.

Four musicians captured the spotlight.  Mark Harvey was the brass player.  Peter H. Bloom played woodwinds and Craig Ellis along with Michael Standish were percussionist.  They employed a large array of acoustic Western and non-Western classical, familiar and unfamiliar instruments, along with toys and odd objects to create a variety of sounds.  For example, along with trumpet, flugelhorn, French horn and organ pipes, they incorporated a conch shell, kazoos, shakers, mbira, children’s toys and saxophones. You will hear a clarinet, flutes, bells and whistles.  The list of sound effects is long and the music is spontaneous to support recitations by actors who share the work of W. B. Yeats, Jack Spicer, and others.  They open with a piece called “Spel Against Demons” by Gary Snyder. This Snyder poem concludes with an ancient Sanskrit chant that sings against the improvising Mark Harvey Group.

The Mark Harvey Group (MHG) originally was an eight-piece band in 1969.  They played hard-bop, modal and jazz-rock.  Mark Harvey was an intern-minister at Boston’s Old West Church (a United Methodist organization) and the group became the resident jazz ensemble there.  By the 1970’s, the group had evolved.  They became a free jazz ensemble, leaning towards the style of Ornette Coleman and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.  They moved from their former jazz tradition to a more contemporary style, performing improvisational music from group compositions and in a sort of collective ritual experience.  You will experience this Avant Garde jazz approach on “A Rite for All Souls.”  The poetry reflects the tumultuous times and the ‘Hippie’-type, revolutionary upheaval during the 1970s.  It was the Age of Aquarius, with everyone sporting long hair, or thick afro-hair framing I’m-black-and-I’m-proud faces.  It was a time of psychedelic drug experimentation and revolutionary thinking.  Mark Harvey thinks that our world today is a ‘through-the-looking-glass’ kind of experience from his music then to the challenging times of 2020. 

“As Albert Ayler said, music is the healing force of the universe.  There are moments that are turbulent and the music reflects that, but overall, we were trying to point in a direction towards progress and healing,” Harvey explains their inspired production in his liner notes.

Harvey has long been an activist, a trumpeter, composer, educator and minister in the Boston community for more than fifty years.  He founded the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra in 1973.  He continues to lead that orchestra as music director, principal composer and arranger.  This year they open their 48th fall season.  The Jazz Journalists Association named him a Boston Jazz Hero in 2015 and in 2019 Jazz Boston honored him with the Roy Haynes Award for his exceptional contributions to jazz. 

Peter H. Bloom also has a career spanning over five decades.  He and Mark Harvey have performed together since 1969 and he’s also a member of the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra since 1976.  This master woodwind player is a founding member of the jazz and tap ensemble (the Modernistics).  Bloomhas led his own jazz groups for decades.  Sadly, the two percussion players of the group have made their transition from this Earth.  Craig Eaton Ellis died in 2006 and Michael Standish passed in 2014.

It must be very rewarding and quite nostalgic to listen, once again, to their youthful, energetic , musical experimentation while performing “A Rite for All Souls.”  It’s a double-set production, to encompass their two-act play.  The only question this project brings to mind is, why are we still in the same tumultuous place in our society as we were fifty years ago?  Why are we still wrestling with many of the same unsolved problems and challenges, in our country and in our world?  These problems that were terrorizing us half a century ago are still challenging us today.  Why are we still divided by race, class and religion? This music and their message will make you think hard and long about that!

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SHO – SPANISH HARLEM ORCHESTRA – “THE LATIN JAZZ PROJECT”      ArtistShare

Oscar Hernandez, piano/arranger/composer/leader;  Hector Colón, Jonathan Powell, & Manuel “Maneco” Ruiz, trumpet/flugelhorns; Doug Beavers & Noah Bless, trombones; Jorge Castro & Mitch Frohman, baritone saxophone; Luisito Quintero, timbales/shekere/shakers/chimes; George Delgado, congas; Jorge Gonzalez, bongos; Gerardo “Jerry” Madera, bass; Jeremy Bosch, flute/vocal; Marco Bermudez & Carlos Cascante, vocals. SPECIAL GUESTS: Kurt Elling, vocals; Joe Locke, vibraphone; Jimmy Haslip, bass; Tom Harrell, Jonathan Powell & Michael Rodriguez, trumpets; Dave Liebman, Bob Mintzer, Bob Franceschini & Miguel Zenon, saxophones.

The Spanish Harlem Orchestra is blending Latin fire, sparkling percussive brilliance and traditional jazz in a multi-colored spotlight.  Opening with an original composition by producer, Oscar Hernandez, “Ritmo De Mi Gente” dances off my Cd player.   Orchestra leader, Hernandez, is featured on piano and has arranged this up-tempo, hip-swaying tune.   Jeremy Bosch is brightly featured on the flute.  For the past seventeen years, this three-time Grammy Award winning Spanish Harlem Orchestra (SHO) has earned their reputation as a premier salsa ensemble and lauded for their ability to blend their Latin cultural music with jazz.   The director and orchestra leader, Oscar Hernandez, is celebrated by many as one of the most important Latin jazz pianists of his generation.

“We have always been steeped in the tradition of Latin jazz.  It makes sense for us to finally get to this point.  I couldn’t be more proud of this project and this band,” Oscar Hernandez elaborated in his liner notes.

Track two, “Bobo,”  features L. A. based, big band leader, Bob Mintzer, lending his talents on saxophone. On the familiar and beautiful standard, “Invitation,” the distinctive vocals of Kurt Elling are prominent, with a rich saxophone solo by Miguel Zenon.  The orchestra propels these songs with excitement and percussive brilliance by Luisito Quintero, George Delgado and Jorge Gonzalez.  Throughout this production, the surprise appearances of several iconic musicians add credence and icing to this sweet, musical cake.  You will hear former Yellow Jackets member, Jimmy Haslip, on electric bass during their arrangement of “Silent Prayers” along with the iconic Dave Liebman on saxophone.  The energetic arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” becomes a Salsa stage to feature the trumpet of Jonathan Powell.   All in all, here is a lovely Latin album featuring tight, well-rehearsed arrangements, stellar orchestra members and a star-studded list of special guests.  What’s not to love?

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DANIEL HERSOG JAZZ ORCHESTRA –“NIGHT DEVOID OF STARS”            Cellar Music

Daniel Hersog, conductor/composer/leader/arranger; Frank Carlberg, piano; James Meger, bass; Michael Sarin, drums; Chris Startup, alto saxophone/clarinet; Michael Braverman, alto & soprano saxophones/clarinet; Noah Preminger, tenor saxophone; Tom Keenlyside, tenor sax/flute/piccolo/alto flute; Ben Henriques, baritone sax/bass clarinet; Michael Kim, Brad Turner, Derry Byrne & Jocelyn Waugh, trumpet/flugelhorn; Rod Murray, Jim Hopson & Brian Harding, trombone;  Sharman king, bass trombone.

“Night Devoid of Stars” is a lovely title and the Daniel Hersog repertoire seem to relate to the title in poetic ways starting with “Cloud Break,” one of six original songs on this album of seven.  The only cover song is one of my favorites, “Smoke Get in Your Eyes” which would certainly keep you from seeing the stars.  However, the actual title of this CD was adapted from a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of starts.”

Daniel Hersog is a talented, Canadian composer whose chord-changes lend themselves to improvisational solos that take full advantage of the space, time and harmonics.  “Cloud Break” is a great way to start the album and Hersog wrote it to describe the warmth and light of sun breaking through the clouds.  Brad Turner soaks up the spotlight with his trumpet solos, as does Noah Preminger on tenor saxophone.  At first, the horn section of the orchestra sets the mood and Frank Carlberg’s piano chording creates a tone and attitude at the top, along with those horns.  Michael Sarin’s drums pulsate beneath the harmonic introduction and push the exciting trumpet solo with a double time feel.  He floats through the time changes seamlessly.  This is interesting music and great arranging.  Nothing boring here.  Mr. Hersog holds my attention tightly, like clothes pins on the line pinning down the trembling laundry.  His beautiful compositions blow in a forceful, musical wind.

“Artists are first and foremost humans trying to make sense of the turbulence of these times.  This is my way through the social, political and racial cleavages that came to define 2019.  I wrote much of this in what can be called the hangover of democracy, the groping in the dark that once venerable institutions were doing in 2019.  … I got to work.  The result is perhaps inadvertently, a political and social commentary.  If it was accidental, it also feels deeply essential,” Daniel Hersog explained his inspiration to create this project.

This is Vancouver-based, jazz composer, Daniel Hersog’s debut, 16-piece orchestra album.  His composer excellence is vividly portrayed.  He is also a trumpeter and arranger, as well as a jazz trumpet instructor at Capilano University, where he writes for the school’s big band.  Favorite cuts are: “Cloud Break,” the pretty ballad, “Makeshift Memorial” and the title tune, “Night Devoid of Stars,” where the full orchestra roars and celebrates with lots of horn cadences and Frank Carlberg’s restless piano solo sends fingers chasing each other up and down the 88-keys.  The Jerome Kern tune, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” is represented very hauntingly, with James Meger’s bass an integral part of the piano introduction and the horns sweeping into the arrangement with crescendos of power.  Daniel Hersog explains:

“This arrangement alternates between lush, warm ensemble sounds and Carlberg’s devastatingly beautiful solo piano.  Frank provides my favorite musical moment of this whole record when he drops his arms on to the low end of the piano creating a musical explosion that supports the rest of the melody.  I was left to conduct the rest of this composition with tears welling in my eyes, as I tried to process the depth and beauty of Frank’s musical statement.”

Hersog’s music is exciting, creative and heartfelt.  The various tempo and mood changes keep the listener interested throughout.  The orchestra brings life and loveliness to his compositions.

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TOM RANIER – “THIS WAY”    – Independent Label

Tom Ranier, piano/synthesizer/soprano,alto,tenor,baritone saxophones; clarinets/bass & contra alto clarinet/ composer/orchestrator; Trey Henry, acoustic and electric basses; Ralph Humphrey, drums; Thom Rotella, guitars.

TomRanier’s name is synonymous with studio ‘first call’ musicians, because of his excellent diversity and mastery of several instruments; additionally, because of his professional sight-reading skills.  Based in Southern California, he performs regularly at the Grammys, the Oscars, Emmys and Golden Globe events.  Not only does he play piano and synthesizers with excellence, he is also a learned woodwind player.  As I listen to his recent release, I am struck by the classical overtones that stream, like a bright red ribbon, fluidly connecting his arrangements.  Starting with his original composition, “Blue Aria,” Ranier is spotlighted on piano.

“I think albums reflect the life experiences and musical growth of an artist at that particular time.  I’ve developed a broad palette because of all the different kinds of music I’ve been playing, from various pop styles to electronic music to, of course, jazz.  I also studied classical music when I was young and I’ve been influenced by 19th century classical composers.  When I’m composing, I’m not really aware of those influences, but I can certainly hear them in the finished product,” explains Ranier. 

A native of Fullerton, California, Ranier studied clarinet with his father as a pre-teen and at age ten he was already studying classical piano.  At age sixteen, producer and trumpeter, Jack Daugherty, became his mentor for composition.  Daugherty is well-respected for his production of the Gold Record duo, The Carpenters.  Ranier has composed six out of the eight songs he offers us on this recording.

Tom Ranier’s reputation as a jazz pianist was elevated during his celebrated performances with vibraphonist, Dave Pike. He recorded with him in 1983 on his “Moonbird” album.  In fact, Ranier has worked with a number of jazz artists of note like iconic bassist, Ray Brown and vibe master, Milt Jackson.  Ranier co-led a band with bassist John Heard and drummer Sherman Ferguson.  But as he expressed above, his love of various musical genres and his studio reputation kept him busy playing much more than jazz.  You can hear his piano chops on many TV shows and films including “Beauty and the Beast”, “Star Trek: Enterprise” and “Family guy.” Other films he’s played on are “Forest Gump,” “Ted,” and “Frozen.”  He acted as keyboard player and arranger for the popular, televised family show, “Dancing With the Stars” for eight years and he’s a member of the orchestra that makes music for “The Simpsons” show since 2011. 

This album reflects decades of playing many instruments, working with many masters and honing his artistry during every encounter. On “This Way,” Tom Ranier offers us a generous helping of his singular, musical prowess.  With the able assistance of his hand-picked ensemble, embellished by his own arrangements, his original compositions and creative orchestration, you will find this project an easy-listening, artistic experience.

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ANTONIO ADOLFO – “BruMa” (translates to mist) and CELEBRATES MILTON NASCIMENTO”    –  AAM Music

Antonio Adolfo, piano/arranger/producer; Jorge Helder, double bass; Rafael Barata, drums/percussion; Dada Costa & Claudio Spiewak, percussion; Jesse Sadoc, trumpet/flugelhorn; Marcello Martins, tenor & alto saxophone; flute; Danilo Sinna, alto saxophone; Lula Galvao & Leo Amuedo, electric guitars; Claudio Spiewak, electric & acoustic guitars.

Antonio Adolfo first met singer and composer, Milton Nascimento, in 1967.  They were both attending and performing at the Second International Song Festival (FIC) in Rio de Janeiro.  It’s the biggest musical contest event in the country of Brazil, featuring youthful and hopeful composers who long to further their careers.  Although he did not win that contest, Milton Nascimento would go on to become one of Brazil’s most heralded singer-songwriters.  Nascimento’s international reputation was firmly established when he appeared on Wayne Shorter’s 1974 album, “Native Dancer.”  Antonio Adolfo was impressed by the talented Nascimento and his compositions at that very first meeting.  After over half a century of friendship and admiration, Adolfo felt it was time to dedicate an album to Milton Nascimento.

“His compositions broke traditional harmonic and rhythmic patterns, with his modalism and some odd rhythmic meters, all in a spontaneous, intuitive and natural way. … I concluded that Milton is the most modern and profound composer in Brazil. It is no coincidence that so many great musicians fell in love with the music of his carioca (carioca is someone born in Rio de Janeiro) who grew up in Minas Gerais,” Adolfo explained.

The BruMa album title is a double-entendre.  In Portuguese, the word means mist.  However, it also refers to two environmental disasters that destroyed part of the state of Minas Gerais (a place whose music greatly influenced Milton Nascimento).  BruMa combines the first syllable of the cities of Brumadinho and Mariana.  They were both destroyed by earthen dams collapsing that poisoned the rivers and killed hundreds of people. 

“Milton Nascimento and many Brazilians are part of a group effort to ensure that the damage to the territory of Minas Gerais is not forgotten,” Antonio Adolfo enlightened me.

Beginning with “Fe Cega, Faca Amolada,”( that translates to ‘Blind Faith, Sharp Knife’), Antonio has arranged this song with an up-tempo spark and fire that is contagious and exhilarating.  I learn, in the liner notes, that he used the quadrilha style from the Northeast region of Brazil to flavor this arrangement.  The second track, “Nada Sera Como Antes” or (Nothing Will Be As It Was) I first heard on a Sarah Vaughan album years ago. On that same album I heard her interpret Cancao Do Sal or (Salt Song).   One thing you notice right away about the music of Mr. Nascimento is how beautifully melodic his compositions are and Antonio Adolfo’s ensemble represents them with great care, gusto and pride.  Antonio takes a long and spirited solo on “Nada Sera Como Antes.”  His solos, like his arrangements, are plush with creativity and celebrate Milton Nascimento’s interesting harmonies. 

Antonio is, himself, a respected pianist, recording artist and composer.  It took time for him to whittle nine songs out of the thirty or more he originally considered for this project.  But every song is carefully arranged and given splendid interpretation by this group of stellar musicians.  Danilo Sinna’s alto saxophone work colors and infuses these songs with jazzy joyfulness.  Jesse Sadoc is outstanding on trumpet and flugelhorn.  I found Marcelo Martins’ alto flute work on “Encontros E Despedidas” to be both compelling and sensitive, as he sings about encounters and farewells.  Adolfo’s horn arrangements personify the melodies, punching harmonically to enhance our interest and they paint the arrangements colorfully.  But it’s always the piano interpretations of Antonio Adolfo that encapsulates these songs and makes the piano keys tremble beneath the weight of their strength and beauty. 

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DAVE BRYANT – “NIGHT VISITORS”   –  SE RECORDS  

Dave Bryant, piano/keyboards; Charnett Moffett, bass; Greg Bendian, drums.

Piano notes scurry like wild salmon swimming upstream.  Dave Bryant spirals across the black and white keys with energy and purpose.  As one of the few and very selective pianists that Ornette Coleman ever performed and recorded with, you immediately hear this piano player’s love of freedom, excitement and improvisation.  He pushes any restrictive walls that may have stood between him and the universal spirit of music.  His compositions will not be contained or limited.  I am intrigued with his original piece titled, “In Transit,” incorporating his keyboard skills as Greg Bendian’s drums pump the composition up with energy.  Bryant steps aside briefly for Charnett Moffett to bow his double bass in a very beautiful way, underpinning the solo with busy piano notes that harmonically support Moffett’s spotlight moment.  “Scorpio 80” is another favorite, with its blues-soaked arrangement stretching into the universe like a Sunday morning organ service.  Do I hear shades of Marvin Gaye and Ray Charles?  The composition, “Three Night Visitors” is a creative suite made up of three parts.  Additionally, significant to the album title (Night Visitors) a trio of camel-riding shadows on the back cover of this CD reminds us, this is a trio production. It’s an experiment with sound, embracing 70’s fusion jazz, 60’s Avant-garde, gospel and progressive rock.  All of it blends naturally, like an orange, yellow, red and purple sunset.  “Night Visitor” creeps upon us like a restless lion, awakening after a deep sleep; hungry, serious, pacing and searching for ears to hear its mighty roar.  We are listening.

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LA LUCHA – “EVERYBODY WANTS TO RULE THE WORLD”                          Arbor Records

John C. O’Leary III, piano/Fender Rhodes/talkbox/moog sub-phatty /voice; Alejandro Arenas, upright & electric bass/voice; Mark Feinman, drums/percussion/voice; SPECIAL GUESTS: Melissa Aldana, tenor saxophone; Diego Figueiredo, acoustic guitar; Ken Peplowski, clarinet/Fender Rhodes/ mood synth/ voice & producer; Houston Person, tenor saxophone; Chuck Redd, vibraphone.

The first song, “Por La Tarde,” is written by bassist, Alejandro Arenas and blends percussive intensity as part of a rich, Latin arrangement.  The addition of Ken Peplowski’s clarinet brings another flavor to the party.  The clarinet lends itself to recollections of a Dixieland band, as it sings the melody over the bold Latin arrangement.  Diego Figueiredo opens the piece on his acoustic guitar and John C. O’Leary III is fluid and percussive on piano.  Figueiredo fires the piece up along with Mark Feinman’s busy drums.  The next track, a pretty ballad titled, “Space Oddity” composed by David Bowie, calms the energy somewhat.  But the busy piano fingers of O’Leary the third, race up and down the 88 keys in double time over Feinman’s solid drum beats. La Lucha takes this Bowie tune to a new level.  The third cut combines two popular jazz tunes to form a jazz medley that features Lullaby of the Leaves and Lullaby of Birdland in a very unique arrangement.  The tempos change and dance, moving from a Latin feel into a straight-ahead swing.  Chuck Redd adds spice to the number on his vibraphone and Feinman takes a spirited drum solo. 

The La Lucha trio project is the perfect example of blending genre’s and cultures.  Their repertoire is engaging and creative.  They follow up their unique medley of lullabies with a “Blues for Houston Person” and the iconic saxophone player appears, in all his splendor, to add his always bluesy tenor saxophone charm to the mix. The group swings hard on this one, giving Arenas an opportunity to solo on bass and guest, Chuck Redd, adds the sweetness of his Vibes. This is a serious blues number and stands alone from the other arrangements.  This trio features, among their special guests, Melissa Aldana on tenor saxophone.  This “1+2” tune (composed by the drummer) is a totally different kind of composition that’s eight minutes long with changing tempos moving seamlessly throughout. 

All in all, here is a baker’s dozen of tunes that cover the spectrum of jazz, blues, pop, R&B and funk.  La Lucha is versatile.  Each one in the trio is a composer, as well as each being an accomplished musician.  They clearly show off their unique ability to create a sound that is objectively their own.  With the guidance of their producer, Ken Peplowski, and buoyed by their impressive list of special guests, La Lucha places their trust in each other.  The group shines as a diversified ensemble that explores their musical possibilities with unapologetic drive and strength of purpose.

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The Healing Power of Jazz

June 20, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

 June 20, 2020

As far back as July 15, 1978, tests were being instrumented inside mental hospitals, to see if music had any effect on patients.  After one month, the 1978 hospital testing results showed improvement in some patients within 30 days.  Seventy percent of staff reported “definite qualitative improvements in resident’s behavior” after listening to music for one month.  Another report said tension was released and chronic pain dissipated after patients listened to steady streams of music.  Later, deeper scientific study showed that the number of vibrations produced by sound waves had an effect on the autonomic nervous system.  High pitch created more tension and low pitch encouraged relaxation.  This month, I’ll be reviewing music that speaks to the soul and to our sanity; music that heals and relaxes our tension, during a time in this country when tension is high and nerves are on edge, I’ve picked the following new releases.  Try listening to some of these wonderful, new jazz releases and soak up their healing properties.

STEPH JOHNSON – “SO IN LOVE” – Independent label

Steph Johnson, vocals; Josh Nelson, piano; Anthony Wilson, guitar; Rob Thorsen, bass; Chris Lawrence, trumpet; Richard Sellers, drummer.

Guitarist and choir director, Steph Johnson, surprised me when she sang “Lazy Afternoon”.  Her voice floated into my listening room, warm and lovely, plush with emotion and she has her own unique tone. When she told me she had an album out, I thought it would be an instrumental recording, featuring her guitar talents.  Surprise!  The lady can sing. The trumpet of Chris Lawrence compliments her vocals, and he offers a warm and inspired solo on this lovely “Lazy Afternoon” song.  They’ve arranged it in a very smooth-jazz way that works, putting just a little funk into the mix to keep the old standard young and vibrant. Ms. Johnson is definitely a jazz singer, with her unique tone and adlib qualities on the fade of the song clearly showing her improvisation skill. I receive mustard-yellow, paper bags full of CDs who claim to be vocal jazz artists, like a badge of honor, but who are cabaret singers or pop vocalists or just pretty girls with sing-in-the-shower kind of voices.  Steph Johnson happily breaks that mold.  She’s the real deal.

This vocalist has chosen some of my favorite songs for her repertoire.  Opening with the verse, she sings a song I used to love to hear Little Jimmy Scott sing; “I Wish I Knew.”  He recorded it as a ballad, but Steph has another arrangement that’s fresh and she swings the tune.  The sign of a true jazz singer is someone who can ‘swing’ and Steph Johnson swings effortlessly. For a while, she and the bass player, Rob Thorsen, perform as a duo. The arrangement is very effective.  There is a tasty guitar solo by Anthony Wilson on the fade of the song. Speaking of guitar, Wilson uses his expert guitar licks to open “Here’s to Life.” With just voice and guitar at the top of the tune, Steph showcases those poignant lyrics that are so wonderfully written. Then enters the band and the blues. “So, here’s to life,” she sings. “And all the joy it brings.  Here’s to life, to dreamers and their dreams.” Steph sells the song with Rob Thorsen’s bass walking richly beneath her meaningful lyrics.  I believe Steph Johnson when she sings with that little husky undertone to her vocals that’s so compelling and natural. She has a full, rich range, with sweetness in her head register and fullness in her alto voice. You can really enjoy her range on “I Fall in Love too Easily” accompanied by Josh Nelson’s sensitive piano. The “So In Love” tune blossoms as a Latin arrangement. Sometimes I hear shades of Diana Krall in Steph Johnson’s vocals and at another point I hear phrasing that reminds me of Dianne Reeves.  That being said, Ms. Johnson maintains her own style and grace.  She tackles Betty Carter’s original tune, “Jazz Ain’t Nothin’ But Soul” and puts her own spin on it. I wish she hadn’t ventured so far from the original melody in places, and this reviewer wasn’t crazy about the arrangement, but Steph shows strength in her freedom and individuality.  Steph Johnson has released 4 albums. Her most recent recording (until this one) titled, “Music is Art,” was released in 2016 and produced by two-time Grammy Award winning producer, Kamau Kenyatta. That recording celebrates a unique blend of her jazz stylings with obvious, soulful, R&B roots.  With her recent release of “So In Love,” Steph continues her spiral upward towards bright, musical horizons.  This may be her best recording to date.

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JORDAN SEIGEL – “BEYOND IMAGES” – Wonderbird Music

Jordan Seigel, piano/composer; Alex Boneham, bass; Christian Euman, drums; Natsuki Sugiyama, alto saxophone/alto flute; Nick mancini, vibes; Andrew Synowiec, guitar/mandolin; Brian Kilgore, percussion; Keeley Bumford, vocals; Glen Berger, Brett McDonald, David Catalan, Jennifer Boyd, woodwinds and part of the Vertigo String Quartet.

Jordan Seigel is an awesome pianist and composer.  A decade ago, lauded as a promising jazz pianist and while attending Berklee College of Music, folks probably thought he would wind up on jazz stages in Festivals and nightclubs.  But Jordan’s passion for composing and enthusiastic appreciation of cinema pointed him in another direction.  He wound up becoming an in-demand orchestrator for film. This debut album celebrates those accomplishments.  As I was referencing in the first paragraph of this article about how it’s proven that music can portray and also change moods, this album is probably a perfect example of this.  Jordan Seigel’s life work is using music to enhance visual stories.

“I wanted to bring that aspect of what I do, making music for visual media, to a different audience,” he explained.  “I wanted to create music that transports people to another place, the same way a great movie can do.  Film scores have that power; a beautiful song at the right moment can make an entire audience cry or jolt them with an adrenaline rush during a chase scene.  I hope to bring that type of emotional reaction with my music.”

Seigel is quite successful doing just that.  He has long admired a small group of master composers and orchestrators for film.  Among them Jon Brion, who provided music for “Magnolia,” and for “Punch-Drunk Love.”   His opening song on this album is dedicated to Brion and to film maker Paul Thomas Anderson.  Titled, “Departure,” we are soaked in the sweetness of this first song, along with a poignant melody that Seigel introduces on grand piano.  It floats atop The Vertigo String Quartet like a puffy white cloud of sound.  The music is dramatic.  It ebbs and flows, dictating mood changes and you can almost close your eyes and picture a movie scene as the music plays out.  This is followed by a very sly sounding arrangement titled, “Something’s Up.”  It’s dedicated to iconic composer, John Williams, another composer, arranger and orchestrator Jordan Seigel admires.

“When I’m writing music for picture, it often starts simply with improvising on a piano while watching the video.  As jazz musicians, we spend so much time improvising that it is quite a rewarding experience to try and combine the two.  Composing almost becomes like a puzzle; the goal is to stay creative and write something satisfying, while making sure the music hits all of the correct story points and adds a necessary element to the picture,” Jordan Seigel espoused.

Everything on this album is imaginative, beautifully arranged and written, and on top of all that praise, Jordan Seigel is a magnificent pianist and interpreter of dreams.  It’s the listener’s challenge to close their eyes and picture those dreams, wrapped in the musical pictures he paints. 

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VIBES ALIVE – “VIBRASONIC” – Independent Label                                                                             

Dirk Richter, vibraphone/composer; Randall Crissman, guitar/composer; Vinnie Colaiuta, drums; Jeff Lorber, piano/keyboard; Luis Conte, percussion; Jimmy Johnson, bass. 

Here is a Smooth jazz album that is perfect listening for a hot summer night ride with the convertible top thrown back and the open highway stretched before you.  For 23-years, vibraphonist Dirk Richter and guitarist Randall Crissman have been making music together.  This is only their third album born from that 23-year partnership, but it could very well be their best one.  Opening with “Sweet Vibes” you will immediately be invigorated by the smooth groove, with Vinnie Colaiuta propelling the group ahead with his jazz-funk drums.  They have added some dynamic players to enhance this project, like Grammy award winner, pianist and keyboard master, Jeff Lorber.  Luis Conte applies just the right colors on percussion and bassist Jimmy Johnson gives sturdy power to the basement of their rhythm section.  The Blend of Randall Crissman’s electric guitar and Dirk Richter’s vibraphone is as deliciously complimentary and down-home comfortable as peanut butter and jelly. The song currently floating across the airwaves from this wonderful album is “Windchime”.  The melody is captivating and repetitious, with Lorber taking a dynamic solo on keyboards.  Richter spoke about the healing elements in the music that he and Crissman make.

“With the United States reeling from the devastating health and financial crises caused by the COVID19 virus, along with civil injustice and unrest, the need for our collective healing perhaps has never been greater,” they wrote in his liner notes.

Richter and Crissman offer us music that is relaxing, yet energetic.  The melodies are pretty and the compositions are well written and beautifully arranged.  I especially like track six, “Going Home” and track five, “Waterfall.”  The final tune, “Sweet Vibes” (the remix,) sounds like a hit record.  But I found every song on this production to be well produced and enjoyable.  There’s not one bad cut.  On the tune “Spy” they speed up the tempo and you can almost picture a James Bond kind of character sliding in and out of dramatic situations with Richter’s vibraphone enhancing the excitement of the script and Jimmy Johnson’s bass walking briskly beneath the spy scene.  Luis Conte opens the piece with his percussive brilliance.  When Crissman enters and lays down his dynamic guitar solo, the chase is on.  There’s something for everyone on this production and these gentlemen paint vivid pictures with their music.  They inspire my imagination.

“As it is these days for everybody, life’s kind of hard.  We need things without bias, without judgement; open our hearts to love and sonic enhancement for the sake of healing.  These frequencies and rhythms are the most base and obvious connection to our souls.  We have this opportunity to give love to the world, and to see what the world gives back is the greatest joy. It’s like a sign on a post that tells you you’re going in the right direction, because everything is a blessing and it moves your heart. It’s almost like everything becomes a miracle. You know you’re in good company. You step back, take a deep breath…that’s Vibes Alive. It’s the joy of living.” said Richter.

I happen to one-hundred-percent agree.

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RUDRESH MAHANTHAPPA – “HERO TRIO” – Whirlwind Recordings                                                       

Rudresh Mahanthappa, alto saxophone; Francois Moutin, double bass; Rudy Royston, drums.

The inside album cover portrays three musicians dressed as super heroes.  Rudresh, Francois and Rudy are the “Hero Trio” boldly offering us their open and creative sound.  Alto saxophonist, Rudresh Mahanthappa, is the first to tell you that he has been definitely influenced by the music and mastery of Charlie Parker. 

“If I’m thinking about music that’s inspired me to pick up the saxophone, Charlie Parker is at the top of my list.  Those tunes are some of the first I heard.  All of these pieces had a powerful impact on me,” he confirms in his liner notes. 

The Hero Trio emerged out of ‘sound check’ experiences on various gig stages when Moutin, Royston and Mahanthappa had brief opportunities to play in a stripped-down setting.  They realized, after knowing each other for decades and playing with each other over the years, that they connected in those brief moments.  They connected with something universal and with each other.  Why not form a trio with saxophone, bass and drums? 

Mahanthappa and drummer, Rudy Royston, grew up in the Denver, Colorado area together.  Then they went their separate ways until Royston moved to New York City ten years ago.  That’s when they hooked back up.  Rudresh Mahanthappa met Francois Moutin in the fall of 1997.  The talented bassist had just moved to New York City and they began playing together frequently.   All three were a part of a quintet named, “Bird Calls” and that solidified their sound. 

This album opens and closes with Mahanthappa’s arrangements of classic Parker tunes, first “Red Cross” and closing with “Dewey Square.”  In between, the trio tackles Stevie Wonder’s beautiful “Overjoyed” composition, lending a new look at the popular piece through the eyes of the Hero Trio. You can experience Moutin’s brilliantly orchestral bass work during this tune.  They also throw in some Keith Jarrett (The Windup) as well as classic Gershwin ( I Can’t Get Started) and Ornette Colemans tune, “Sadness.” 

Although Rudresh loves the work of Charlie Parker, he discovered another powerful mentor when he met veteran altoist, Bunky Green.  Mahanthappa recorded with Bunky in 2010 and they toured together for the Apex (Pi) concerts. You can hear the wonderful way that East Indian spiritual music colors Mahanthappa’s jazzy interpretations.

In another path that leads back to ‘Bird,’ Mahanthappa is touring throughout 2020 (once the pandemic restrictions subside) with ‘Fly Higher,’ a group co-led by dynamic drummer, Terri Lyne Carrington.  This group is founded to celebrate the Charlie Parker centennial.  Meantime, promoting his “Hero Trio” Cd dominates his times and offers us an exciting look at the beauty that can be captured with the simplicity and creativity of horn, drums and bass. 

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LESLIE BEUKELMAN – “GOLDEN DAFFODIL” – Wood gathering Records

Leslie Beukelman, vocals/composer/trumpet; Rob Clearfield, piano/organ/melotron; Patrick Mulcahy, bass; Jon Deitemyer, drums/cymbals.

Here is a vocalist who uses the jazz premise to challenge herself with creative and unexpected arrangements. Leslie Beukelman holds her own, letting her vocals float like a restless seagull above the fray.  On “Dear Alice” her hypnotic and haunting melody supports Beukelman’s original lyrics in a lovely way.  The piano of Rob Clearfield creates an ocean of sound, washing like waves beneath her storyline.  She harmonizes with herself on the second verse and the Jon Deitemyer cymbals crash like breakers on the beach.  I am somewhat enchanted by the story and the vocals of Leslie Beukelman.   Her sound is refreshing and singular.  The arrangement on the old standard, “I’m Gonna Laugh You Right Out of My Life,” is original and challenges her pitch and tone.  She embraces the challenge fearlessly, singing the melody strongly, straight-down and believable.  Then she moves aside and lets Rob Clearfield’s rich, creative solo take the song to another level.  This is the kind of jazz I long for every time I pick up a CD to review.  Jazz that breaks out of the boundaries of expectations and mediocrity.  Leslie Beukelman shows us she is an artist, not just another singer.  Woolgathering Records, an independent label, under the direction of bassist/composer Matt Ulery, states that Leslie Beukelman is the first vocalist that he’s signed. I imagine this Chicago-based singer is making him very proud right about now. 

On her interpretation of “Here’s That Rainy Day” she scats a wee bit, just to show us she can.  This is a peaceful, provocative album of familiar songs, sung and arranged in very unusual ways, blended with her original compositions.

As an explanation of her CD title, Leslie Beukelman explains:

“…the daffodil is the golden hued beacon of light we see, the hope that winter just might be coming to a close and we can feel, hear and smell the arrival of spring.”

Leslie Beukelman’s album glows with its own sunshine spotlight, shiny and warm as a summer sunrise. She swings, sways and blossoms brilliantly, like the very daffodil she celebrates.

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JOHN SCOFIELD – “SWALLOW TALES” – ECM Records

John Scofield, guitar; Steve Swallow, bass; Bill Stewart, drums.

John Scofield has long admired Steve Swallow, as a friend, a mentor and for his composer skills. A Libra, Swallow was born October 4, 1940 and is celebrated for his collaborations with Jimmy Giuffre, Gary Burton and Carla Bley.  He is lauded for being someone who stepped away from the upright bass and switched entirely to electric bass long before that was a popular decision for a jazz bassist to make.  He is legendary for his stylized use of the upper register on his electric bass and for embracing fusion music.  His original musical choices were piano and trumpet. However, at age fourteen, he was drawn to the acoustic bass.  His love of avant-garde jazz was inspired by working with the Paul Bley trio in 1960.  He recorded with George Russell also, and was a member of the Art Farmer quartet from 1962-65.  He followed that experience by joining the popular Stan Getz Band (1965-1967) and then became part of Gary Burton’s quartet until 1970. Steve Swallow leapt into the fusion pool of music fearlessly.  His innovative playing and love of jazz combined to inspire him to become a respected composer.  John Scofield is one of Steve Swallow’s longtime friends and fellow musicians.  One who has great respect for the Swallow compositions.  Consequently, he has reverently produced this album of Steve Swallow’s music.

 John Scofield and his trio open with a Swallow composition titled, “She Was Young” that was originally set to a Robert Creeley poem as part of a National Endowment for the Arts grant.  This work was released on the ECM album, “Home” and the song was sung by Sheila Jordan.  Scofield shows his crystal-clear intention to establishing the pretty melody before venturing into his guitar improvisation.  Swallow walks his bass solidly beneath and Bill Stewart colors the song with drum artistry.

“I love these songs.  Sometimes when we play it’s like one big guitar, the bass part and my part together,” John Scofield shared.

Speaking about his production in provided liner notes, Scofield explained:

“These two giants bring out the best in me.  Swallows compositions make perfect vehicles for improvisation.  The changes are always interesting.  They’re grounded in reality with cadences that make sense.  They’re never just intellectual exercises and they’re so melodic.  They’re all songs, rather than pieces.  They could all be sung.”

“Behind the drum kit, Bill Stewart is alert to all implications and interactions.  What Bill does is more than playing the drums.  He’s a melodic voice in the music, playing counterpoint and comping, while also swinging really hard,” Scofield sings the praises of his drummer.

One of my favorite compositions that John Scofield has arranged is “Awful Coffee.”  Those of us who are coffee drinkers have all experienced a cup of awful coffee.  Now, laughably, there’s a musical sound track to this experience.  Swallow takes a melodic bass solo during this arrangement and John Scofield trades fours with Bill Stewart.  Swallow originally wrote this at an up-tempo pace, but Scofield has slowed it down, with Swallow’s generous support.  Scofield has included the very first tune that Swallow ever penned, “Eiderdown.”  It’s been recorded several times by a variety of artists and the trio justifiably performs this one with gusto.  Another favorite of mine is the sensitive ballad titled, “Away.”  One of the unusual things about this song is the introduction, that sounds like it could be a verse, yet it’s only played once during the entire piece. 

“8 in F” is a straight-ahead composition that swings hard and features Stewart at the top with spicy drums firing the tune up like hot sauce.  Another favorite is the closing tune, “Radio” that John Scofield says is one of the more difficult songs to solo on because of the unique harmony employed and this song showcases Steve Swallows celebrated ‘broken time bass playing’ style. 

All in all, if you love jazz guitar, outstanding compositions and a tight, cohesive trio interpreting the music, you will find this album to your liking.  A plus is that the concept is celebrating a legendary musician and composer whose music is being arranged and offered like diamond earrings for your ears.  Swallow’s also contributing his iconic bass licks on this recording.  It’s a win-win situation!

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GAYELYNN McKINNEY – “SPACE GODDESS”- Independent label

Gayelynn McKinney, drums; Ibrahim Jones, bass; Alex Anest, guitar; Emetrius Nabors, Piano/keyboards; Rafael Statin, soprano saxophone; Trenita Womack, congas/percussion.

Gayelynn McKinney is a Detroit based drummer who is premiering her new single this month. The title of the single is “Space Goddess” and it’s a cool combination of funk-fueled smooth-jazz.  Her upcoming album is titled, “Zoot Suit Funk” and will be released later this year featuring her group, “The McKinney Zone.”  Gayelynn comes from a long line of gifted jazz musicians.  Her dad, Harold McKinney, was a mainstay in the Motor City jazz community for over six decades. He was a pianist and music educator who inspired many of the local talents to excel on their instruments, including the late Allen Barnes (an original member of Donald Byrd’s famed Blackbyrd group).   Her uncle, Ray McKinney, was a prominent bassist.  Gayelynn has brought her drum excellence to several stages, including being the last drummer with Aretha Franklin’s band, playing with the great Benny Golson, performing with Time Ries (the Rolling Stones Musical Director), William Duvall (the lead singer with Alice in Chains) and bassist, Ralphe Armstrong.  On most weekends, before the pandemic hit America, you could find Gayelynn leading her popular jazz band on Open Mic Night at Bert’s Nightclub in downtown Detroit.  This latest endeavor by Gayelynn McKinney is melodic, catchy and spotlights her outstanding drum talents.  Ibrahim Jones makes his solid voice heard on bass and Rafael Statin is outstanding on soprano saxophone.  This is bound to get loads of airplay.  It’s invigorating, joyful music!  After playing this single four times in a row, I look forward to hearing the entire project later this year.

https://gayelynnmckinney.bandcamp.com/track/space-goddess

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DAVE CORNWALL – “NOT TO BE SERVED BUT TO SERVE”                                                                                      www.newfriendentertainment.com

Dave Cornwall, solo piano

Often times, I am approached by independent artists who are producing their own music.  Dave Cornwall is one such artist.  In a world where getting exposure for independent artists is challenging, if not altogether impossible, I have endeavored to be a voice for these often publicity-voiceless artists.  Although I clearly explain to everyone that I am a jazz journalist, I occasionally receive music that is not jazz.  This is the case with Dave Cornwall’s solo piano album.  Although this is not a jazz album, and Mr. Cornwall is not a jazz pianist, I believe this music should be categorized as classic Christian music.  That being said, the entire repertoire of very familiar and recognizable Christian songs is very well played by pianist, Dave Cornwall.  You will enjoy hearing his solo rendition of His Eye Is On the Sparrow, Old Rugged Cross, Amazing Grace and Holy, Holy, Holy among other popular Christian songs.  Also, the article I was working on, that exemplifies how music heals, seemed to be the perfect place to post this review.  So, I communicated with Mr. Cornwall, and he gave me examples of how his healing intentions with this album became reality.

“The title of the album comes from the verse cited that refers to how Christ came, not to be worshipped but to serve.  In serving, Jesus taught the notion of humble service to his apostles and presented this as an example for everyone to follow.  In the end, my album is meant to be both a marker and a reminder to those who serve and their families that they are in a much appreciated, but also sacredly inspired calling.

“While I have played in church, as of late, I’ve been bringing church to those unable to attend, mainly residents in various senior facilities and memory care units.  To be honest, I played a wide range of music for these audiences over the years.  But I found that the songs that made the most impact on people were the hymns.  The first time that I noticed this was with God Bless America.  I played the song and, by the end, I noticed that this older lady was crying.  As I was leaving, the staff told me that she had not spoken for months and that she hadn’t showed any emotion at all for quite a while.  In short, God Bless America had helped everyone to see that she was ‘still in there.’  After that, I started adding another song or two.  And again, I was surprised by how much these songs moved people.  Basically, they missed this old, traditional music and the connection with God that it stirred up.  This album is part of my effort to make these old hymns available to institutionalized seniors everywhere.  Whether in a group or alone, for many, there’s comfort and strength in these songs and their nostalgic meaning.  Part of my website is dedicated to trying to promote the plight of some seniors in nursing homes, admittedly now, made much worse by Covid 19,” he explained.

https://newfriendentertainment.com/the-facts-about-senior-living

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During Black Music Month Remembering “Sing Your Song,” A Film Celebrating Harry Belafonte

June 11, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

June 11, 2020

During Black Music Month, I decided to celebrate Harry Belafonte, because as I observe the marchers for civil rights taking to the streets, it flashed me back to a time over half a century ago, when the same thing was happening.  

In 2012, I attended the documentary film “Sing Your Song” in Pasadena, California at the Laemmle Playhouse Theater. What a treat!  For many years, Harry Belafonte has long been a favorite of mine. I was raised listening to his amazing calypso records and hearing my Aunt Doris gush about how sexy and good looking he was. What’s more, on top of being good looking and talented, he was a civil rights activist. That was back in the 1950s, when segregation, police brutality and Jim Crow was publicly alive and well. Today, as we continue the fight against cruel racism and classism, where in America, Latin and African American men and women are still being brutalized and mistreated because of the color of their skin, music has always flagged and documented our history.  We are still singing, “We Shall Over Come” all these years later.

It seems especially appropriate that Harry Belafonte’s film premiered in New York and Los Angeles a few days before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s January birthday. Harry Belafonte and Dr. King were very close friends. Belafonte was inspired by MLK’s burgeoning dream. This film shows amazing historic clips of Belafonte marching arm in arm with Dr. King and a host of other celebrities who Belafonte himself recruited. For instance, you’ll see Marlon Brando, Tony Bennett, Anthony Perkins, Shelly Winters, Sidney Portier and too many more to list here.  These Hollywood celebrities were lending their voices and star-quality to the protest marches for equal rights. 

Today, as our streets are full of multi-racial marchers protesting the untimely death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis, Minnesota police, sixty years later we are all reminded that these inequities still remain. In 2020, at both the George Floyd protest marches and at his funeral, we see celebrities once again lending their star power to stand up for justice and equality. We see name entertainers like late night host, Steven Colbert; actors Jamie Foxx, Tiffany Haddish and gold record artist, Ariana Grande; rappers, J. Cole, Chance the Rapper and Boston Celtics player, Jaylen Brown; singer, Miguel, actors Michael B. Jordan and John Cusack; comedian, Kevin Hart and many more join the marchers and mourners of George Floyd’s murder.  It’s as though history is repeating itself.

There were other challenges that spotlighted racial disparities when Belafonte was pursuing his fledgling actor and singing career. His “Sing Your Song” film explains that Belafonte had short-lived success with a 1959 television show called, “Tonight With Belafonte,” where he featured a multi-cultural cast and showcased African American talent like the great jazz singer Gloria Lynn and the extraordinary folk singer, Odetta.  During those days, an integrated television show was frowned upon. White advertisers immediately objected to the white and black cast, especially the mix of white women with black men. This was a particular sore spot for racist southerners, so ads were pulled and the show floundered.  Then there was the time when Petula Clark was filmed clutching Belafonte’s ample bicep in 1968 on her own Petula Clark television special. It’s sad to admit that fifty years ago, we had such terrible prejudice and an obvious racial divide in the United States. Clearly and unfortunately, we still see racial bias in today’s society.    

This film documentary shows how Belafonte fought for equal opportunities in the Hollywood motion picture community, on-stage in theatrical venues and worldwide.  He was put on the “Un-American blacklist” during the anti-communist witch-hunts of the 1950’s inspired by Senator Joseph McCarthy and perpetrated by FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover. Since 2017, we have a president who blatantly reaches back to that racist time and reuses the word ‘witch-hunt’ over and over again. These attempts to disparage civil rights advocates, who are fighting for equality, seems to continue even today.

Belafonte’s “Sing Your Song” film traces the life of this actor/singer/activist from his roots in Jamaica, to his birth in Harlem, where his Jamaican mother had relocated.  Many of the island songs Harry learned to sing would propel him to fame later in life and blossomed from music he heard and sang in his youth.  Far from the spotlight of stage and screen, he struggled to make a living, taking a janitor’s job. As a gratuity for doing good work, his employer gifted him with a ticket to the American Negro Theater. One look at those black actors entertaining a spellbound audience and Harry Belafonte was hooked. Not only did he decide to act at that very moment, he also found that singing came easy to him and before he knew it, Belafonte was busy getting gigs and pursuing a career as a jazz singer.  When he witnessed Huddie Ledbetter singing and playing his guitar at the Village Vanguard, Belafonte was totally inspired.  

Belafonte decided to explore African American folk music and to perform culturally historic island songs instead of the familiar jazz standards he had been singing. This transition from jazz to calypso/folk would garner him six gold records, including one for his extremely popular calypso song, “Day-O.” Afterall, no one was performing and recording that kind of Caribbean music in the fifties and sixties. 

When Dr. King was arrested for a minor traffic infraction in the South, he was prosecuted and sent to serve time on a chain gang as punishment. Belafonte went to Robert Kennedy and got the young politician involved. Belafonte introduced Kennedy to the terrible injustices that African Americans were facing in the 1950s and 60s. Due to his insistence, Kennedy arranged Dr. King’s release and the charges were dropped. Robert Kennedy also became a staunch supporter of the civil rights movement, thanks in part to the determined Mr. Belafonte. Underlying his activism, you see his talent shine in a patchwork of film clips that historically trace his amazing rise to fame in movies with Dorothy Dandridge, Ethel Waters, Sidney Portier and Dianne Carroll. We watch him on the Ed Sullivan Show and enjoy him singing and dancing on the Calvalcade of Stars, when television was still black-and-white. We witness him setting up his own production company to produce and direct films for people of color. He hob-knobbed with Sammy Davis Jr., Desmond Tutu, Peter, Paul & Mary, Andrew Young, Nina Simone, Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, Buffy Saint-Marie and too many more to list here. It was Belafonte that came back to America from an African visit and inspired his notable friends to make a difference and save a people ravaged by poverty in their drought-stricken country. The result was the unforgettable recording of, “We Are the World.”

Always pushing the envelope and well connected, Belafonte had the ear of great people like Paul Robeson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela, Miriam Makeba and then Senator John F. Kennedy in his never-ending attempts to implement change. As a humanitarian, one of his endeavors was to assist gifted, but poor Africans. After visiting the continent, Belafonte established a non-profit that brought 30 or more African exchange students to America seeking educational opportunities. This popular organization actually sponsored Barack Obama’s father as part of their humanitarian project. Who could have guessed that the senior Obama would bring forth a child who would later become the forty-fourth President of the United States?

In conclusion, this journalist wanted to not only celebrate the songs and history of Harry Belafonte, but to paint a picture of the last sixty years of racial prejudice and our continuous fight to gain equality and justice for all people, no matter what race, religion or culture you represent.  Harry Belafonte’s documentary is just one example of our determination and struggle.  His songs and his effort to promote peace, love and humanity between all people lives on, as we continue to struggle for equality and justice for all in this country.  Seek out his HBO documentary “Sing Your Song” for more insight into this important contributor to Black Music.

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CAN MUSIC INSPIRE WORLD UNITY & CHANGE CONSCIOUSNESS?

June 7, 2020

CAN MUSIC INSPIRE WORLD UNITY AND CHANGE CONSCIOUSNESS?

By Dee Dee McNeil/Jazz journalist

June 7, 2020

Can music be employed to control human moods?  According to Science Daily, yes it can.  In 2011, the University of Groningen completed a study that proved music can affect your mood and listening to particularly happy or melancholy music can often change the way we perceive the world. Jacob Jolij and a University student, Maaike Meurs, both from that university Psychology Department, claim that conscious perception is based on what comes into our brains from sight and what you know about the world.  The brain builds expectations based on human mood, sight, sound and individual experiences.  It’s true, music can actually alter visual perception.[1]  For example, in a testing situation, if you were listening to happy music you were usually prone to pick out a happy face, given a choice of faces.  Sad music can inspire subjects to pick out a sad face.  It has also been proven that music can change our behavior.  Studies show tempos, tones and sound levels of music cause emotional effects and physical reactions in people.  Notice how in many dental offices they play classical music softly in the waiting room.  They know that music has been used to relax the mind, to energize the body and to help people cope with stress and manage pain.[2]  So, perhaps the Mathis Sound Orchestra, with their idea of producing an album to encourage “World Unity” is on to something.

MATHIS SOUND ORCHESTRA -“WORLD UNITY” – Outside In Music

Mathis Picard, piano/synthesizer/composer/producer; Savannah Harris, drums/pads; Fernando Saci, percussion; Daniel Winshall, Acoustic & electric bass; Julius Rodrigues, Rhodes/synths; Malanie Charles, flute; Julian Lee & Ruben Fox, tenor saxophone; Anthony orji & Patrick Bartley, alto saxophone; Benny Benach III & Giveton Gelin, trumpets.

The music of Mathis Picard blends a diverse number of genres into each of his arrangements and compositions.  Opening with the title tune, “World Unity” he introduces the listener to a classically influenced introduction on grand piano.  In the background we hear the strain of synthesizer sounds. Then the arrangement blends into a Latin tinged piece, with stride piano overtones.  I am on the edge of my seat to see what this composer will do next.  He does not disappoint.  Several bars in, Savannah Harris pounds a disco beat on his drums and the musical era changes from 1920s to the 1970s when, in 1975, Donna Summers became queen of the airwaves.  The piano of Mathis Picard still captivates, dancing atop his disco groove and interjecting stride piano along with the able assistance of Julius Rodriguez on Rhodes and synthesizer.  Together, this sound orchestra combines the musical best of various times in history, all at the same time.  On “Glitter Eyes” the saxophone solo by Ruben Fox unexpectedly brings ‘straight-ahead’ into the mix.   “Tranquility” is one of this reviewer’s favorite compositions by Mathis, with the lovely flute played by Malanie Charles.  Picard is masterful on piano and powerfully leads his band with vigor.  Picard’s concept for this project is to reflect that society is constantly shifting and changing.  It reinvents itself generation after generation.  Listen to the way his arrangements blossom and grow, ever changing right before our ears.

“Cultures absorb, expand, disappear and alter.  Generations come and go and new technology replaces the old while simultaneously outpacing itself.  The planet is also in a constant state of flux.  Landmasses strain against each other; climates attempt survival and the land itself becomes more extreme.  Because of this, one might assume conflict is natural; that we have many differences from each other and from the planet itself,” Mathis Picard explains his inspiration for releasing this 5-tune, EP of music.

In summation, Mathis Picard hopes his music brings people and cultures together.  Since music is a universal language, it is his dream that this music will inspire world unity, something most of us would really like to see.

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ANGELA TURONE & CHRIS PLATT – “SOUNDS OF BRAZIL”               Independent Label / Support in part from FACTOR – The Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Recording

Angela Turone, vocals/piano; Chris Platt, guitars; Pat Collins, bass; Robin Claxton, drums; Helio Cunha, percussion; Gordon Sheard, synth drone; Andrew Downing, cello; John Nicholson, flute/saxophone; Chase Sanborn, flugelhorn/trumpet.

Toronto based pianist and vocalist, Angela Turone, along with guitarist, Chris Platt, release their debut album titled, “Sounds of Brazil” to celebrate their appreciation of Brazilian music.  Portuguese is such a romantic language and their choice of familiar Brazilian pieces like “Desafinado” and “Chega de Saudade” will certainly entertain you.  This duo has been performing together since 2014 and Angela Turone’s voice is as pleasant as windchimes playing on a soft, June breeze.  Chris Platt’s tasty guitar licks enhance their production, reflecting a warm camaraderie that’s noticeable between the two artists. Listening to their music made me feel peaceful and brought a smile to my lips. 

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HGTS –“AND THEN THEY PLAYED”Summit Records                    

Jeff Holmes, piano/trumpet; Thomas Giampietro, drums; Fumi Tomita, bass; Felipe Salles, soprano/ alto and tenor saxophones.

The very first song, “Unintentional Hipness” grabbed my attention with its straight-ahead arrangement and staccato background groove.  Written by the saxophonist of the group, Felipe Salles, this quartet of University of Massachusetts faculty members swings right off the bat.  The tune is a home run.  When Jeff Holmes enters on piano, he brings a sweetness and a mood change that is provocative. 

 “Not at All” was written by the group pianist, Jeff Holmes, and its sultry melody slows the pace.  The third track, “Rowley Street” features the composer talents of their bass player, Fumi Tomita.  It features Holmes getting up from the piano to play the trumpet on this cut.  Salles shows his spunk and spark on saxophone and throughout, Fumi Tomita pumps that walking bass into this piece with power and tenacity.  Thomas Giampietro sparkles in the spotlight on his drums and the trumpeter and saxophonist play tag as they enter the piece playfully after the drum solo. They follow this improvisation by playing the melody in unison.  This quartet of musicians is in perfect sync.

Every member of this HGTS group is a composer and together, they cohesively unite to self-express as a singular, tightly-performed unit.  The fourth cut is the title tune.  It features a funky arrangement and a strong, but repetitious melody. One of my favorites on this album is the fifth cut, “Arrival” that opens with a bass solo, with Tomita setting the melody in place against the warm piano chords of Holmes.  Felipe Salles plays a sexy saxophone solo on this piece he’s composed and Giampietro colors the arrangement brightly on his trap drums.  Holmes takes a turn to interpret this pretty ballad on piano, as does Tomita on bass. “Minnesota in Montana” is a funky tune, penned by Tomita.  It’s smooth jazz with an R&B flare and thickly supported by the funky drums of Giampietro.  Jeff Holmes pulls out his blues chops on this one.   I’ll borrow from a quote by Jeff Coffin in the liner notes.

                “You can tell from the downbeat that this is not just another group of musicians making a record.  This is a group of friends making music together.” 

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AJOYO – “WAR CHANT”  – SHEMS Record Label

Yacine Boulares, multi-reedist/bandleader/composer; Sarah Elizabeth Charles, vocalist; Jessie Fischer, keyboards/producer; Kyle Miles, bassist; Michael Valeanu, guitar; Phillipe Lemm, drummer. SPECIAL GUESTS: Vuyo Sotashe & Akie Bermiss, vocals; Takuya Kuroda, trumpet; Joel Ross, vibraphone.

Fresh, funky, jazzy vocal’s move like scats on the first track and the title tune.  “War Chant” introduces us to this World Music project.  Ajoyo is a group that blends cultures.  in their repertoire, they touch on Jazz, American R&B, Latin, pop, shades of Middle Eastern music and Afro-Cuban rhythms.  I am immediately intrigued.  The lyrics, sung by Sarah Elizabeth Charles, set their activist mode into place. She sings:

“Hey you, Tryna hide from my view. Just stop right there.  Sit on down and give a listen. I’m a testify.  I said, “Hey you!” It’s time to pay what’s due… Your viscous ways are a trend of toxic waste. You post and people die.  You talk tough. Typing so fast, misspelling words. You got nothin’ to say. You spew hate, raping our souls with vile lines. Spitting back in your face, make it great again.  America was never great to those of us who were never free. Can’t you see, self-pride is suicide? They’re getting stronger every day now with you as king.  How can we sit by and not realize the damage of your words on future realities?”

The soprano vocals of Ms. Charles are beautiful and emotionally charged.  The only challenge is, there are so many words, moving swiftly with the tempo, and Sarah Elizabeth Charles’ voice is like sweet molasses and hot sauce mixed together.  However, she doesn’t always enunciate clearly.  So, I dug around on the internet to find those lyrics.  I’m glad I did.  They are quite poetic and very clearly spoken from an activist’s perspective.  All the compositions in this release take aim at oppression, xenophobia and greed.  They point an accusing finger at America’s modern-day-problems under the forty-fifth president’s dishonest, self-interest and non-empathetic administration.   All the compositions are written by Yacine Boulares, with Ms. Charles has added the lyrical melody to “War Chant.”  This music is exciting and stimulating.

On the instrumental tune, “Assyko,” special guest Takuya Kuroda adds trumpet spice and jazz overtures atop a hip-hop, repetitive musical theme.  Philippe Lemm motorizes the composition on trap drums and the addition of background vocals, chanting along, enhance the mood and motion.  I enjoyed the change of groove and the vocals of Akie Bermiss on “Jojo’s Groove.”  Michael Valeanu’s electric guitar colorfully paints this song, creating a solo that’s unforgettable and the percussive work is infectious.  

This is the second release by an incredibly unique and critically acclaimed Brooklyn-based ensemble.  Their 2015 release titled after their group name, “Ajoyo” was highly praised, especially for melding, old-world Cameroonian beats with traditional jazz and world music.  I expect this album to also be well-received and highly relevant in our current world of separation, disparity and tribulations.  This music will lift you, but also unlock your mind and make you ruminate, especially if you pay attention to their lyrical content. 

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WOLFGANG MUTHSPIEL –“ANGULAR BLUES” – ECM Records

Wolfgang Muthspiel, guitar/composer; Brian Blade, drums; Scott Colley, bass.  

I absolutely love a good jazz guitar album.  Wolfgang Muthspiel offers us a rich, inspired trio album that features his formidable talents on both acoustic and electric guitars.  His music is so lyrical and melodic, I become enchanted by the very first song titled, “Wondering.”  His drummer is Louisiana-born, Brian Blade and his bassist is Scott Colley, a Los Angeles native.  Scott was mentored by Charlie Haden and has performed with jazz icons like Jim Hall, Andrew Hill, Michael Brecker, Carmen McRae and Bobby Hutcherson to name only a few.  Percussionist, Blade has been a member of the Wayne Shorter Quartet since 2000 and has spread his big bass sound around with artists from Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell to Norah Jones, Herbie Hancock and Joshua Redman.  So, Wolfgang Muthspiel is in golden company.  Together, they weave their magic together, strong as a gold link fence, wrapping their tenacious talents around each song.  

“Angular Blues” is the title tune and gives Blade an opportunity to strongly solo on his drums.  When Austrian guitarist, Wolfgang Muthspiel plays an original composition titled, “Camino,” you get the full flood of emotional rendering he manages to pull from each guitar string.  You feel the beauty.  It’s palpable.  Muthspiel’s playing is both pensive and haunting.   He recorded this album at Tokyo’s popular Studio Dede, after a three-night gig at Tokyo’s Cotton Club.  Later, they mixed the album in the South of France.  Wolfgang shows his extraordinary ability playing electric guitar on “Camino,” during a song called, “Ride” and four other tunes.   One of which is “Everything I love” that quickly becomes another of my favorites on this CD. Scott Colley’s bass solo is fluid, artistically appropriate and improvisationally creative. Wolfgang trades fours with Brian Blade, who sparkles in the spotlight.  Muthspiel spoke about his approach to this trio recording:

                “As in many moments with this trio, it’s about playing with space; leaving it, creating it, filling it,” he says in his liner notes.

An attendee of Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music, this Judenburg, Austria native has made quite an impression, with four albums under his belt and The New Yorker Magazine calling him ‘a shining light’ among today’s jazz guitarists.  His music embraces his love of jazz, contemporary and classical styles, but the freedom and flow on this album is all jazz.  Wolfgang Muthspiel currently resides in Vienna.

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DON LITTLETON – “ELEPHANTS NDA PARK” SWMG (Southwest Music Group)

Don Littleton, trap drums/percussion/composer; Pablo Calogero, tenor & soprano saxophones/flute/ bass clarinet/composer; John B. Williams & Michael Alvidrez, bass; Hideaki Tokunaga, guitar/tres/sarod; Jane Getz, electric piano; Andrew Acosta, udo drum/percussion; Gabriel “Slam” Nobles, steel drums/vibes/electronic MalletKAT.

A tune called “Modal Citizen” opens with a flurry of sticks and drum licks that sets the straight-ahead groove and tempo.  The word ‘Modal’ is a musical term based on modes other than the major and minor mode most commonly used in music.  Since this is a project celebrating rhythm and drums, that makes perfect sense.  When Pablo Calogero enters on his tenor saxophone, accompanied by John B. Williams on bass, they add a melody to Littleton’s inspired drum licks.  This tune is propelled by the drummer and features just the trio of bass, horn and trap drums.  It’s quite exciting and spontaneous, showcasing the talents of each participating musician in a spotlight of multi-colors.  I’ve witnessed Littleton during his on-stage appearances and he is always full of spark and fire.  You clearly hear this on their original composition. 

The opening tune on this CD is titled, “A Call for All Elephantz” and was penned by Pablo Calogero.  It engages the listener with an amazing and compelling use of instruments like the ‘sarod’ (played by Hideaki Tokunaga), with a sort of sitar sound and with Pablo manning his soprano saxophone, reminding me of Coltrane’s improvisational free style.  Littleton is pushing the ensemble powerfully on drums.  The percussive additions take us into a jungle of sounds and emotions.  Gabriel Nobles adds his steel drum/marimba sounds on an electronic malletKAT.  We are now in the realm of World Music.  In other places, you will enjoy the tasty addition of the ‘tres’ instrument during some of Littleton’s percussive production.  The tres instrument is a Spanish Cuban instrument, a three-course chordophone.  It resembles a guitar in appearance and usually has six strings and is often played in Afro-Cuban music.

Pablo Calogero picks up his bass clarinet and I hear shades of Bennie Maupin and touches of Yusef Lateef on the Jimmy McHugh’s composition, “Let’s Get Lost.”  For this arrangement, bassist John B. Williams joins Littleton and Calogero.  Don Littleton and Pablo collaborate on some of the tunes as songwriters.  For example, “Sleeping Elephants,” where they reduce the energy and tempo to a lullaby pace.  The melody is catchy and pulls the listener’s attention into the whirlpool of percussive drums, bass and tenor saxophone.  The Thelonious Monk composition, “Bye-Ya,” is arranged in a similar way, without piano or guitar, but only showcasing the saxophone, the bass and Littleton’s busy and perfectly timed drums.   This is a mystical album of mastery and creative expression.  It’s full of unexpected surprises.  The song, “Tunapuna,” reminds me of South African music and a dish I used to fix for my small children with Tuna fish and noodles.  It’s a happy-go-lucky Caribbean crusted composition by Littleton, where he sings the melody using “La La La” as his lyric. I can picture scores of children dancing and frolicking to this joyful tune.  

Here is an intoxicating project, released during the Coronavirus Pandemic, and currently available on CD Baby.  It’s absolutely wonderful music; fresh, rhythmic, melodic and features the uninhibited drum mastery of Don Littleton.   His project is embellished by the brilliance of Pablo Calogero on woodwinds and two stellar bass players; John B. Williams and Michael Alvidrez.  When they do add piano to an arrangement, the music is amplified by the tasty licks of Jane Getz.  Both ‘Slam’ Noble and Andrew Acosta bring exciting rhythm with their percussive coloration.

Don explained to me the title of this album, “Elephants Nda Park.” He hopes his music will inspire activism and change consciousness when it comes to love, protection and care for elephants.

“I put on the back of the record that we support elephant conservation and that elephants should not be killed or destroyed for their ivory tusks.  I just don’t like the idea of them killing elephants. It’s all about elephant conservation.  ‘Elephants Nda Park’ with the park being their home, and not necessarily being in a zoo, but being free; in the Serengeti.  The whole Serengeti should be their park.” 

This artistic work by Don Littleton is way overdue and deserves to be heard on every radio station worldwide. It’s one of the best things I’ve listened to all Spring.

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STRINGS FOR PEACE – SHARON ISBIN, AMJAD ALI KHAN, AMAAN BANGASH & AYAAN ALI BANGASH    –  Zoho Records

Sharon Isbin, guitar; Amjad Ali Khan, sarod; Amaan Ali Bangash, sarod; Ayaan Ali Bangash, sarod; Amit Kavthekar, table.

Sharon Isbin is a multiple Grammy-Winning guitarist.  On this CD, she is celebrating the tradition of ragas and talas birthed in North Indian classical music.   Amjad Ali Khan has composed all four songs for this project based on popular ragas and arranged expressly for Sharon Isbin.   The four artists are joined by Amit Kavthekar on tabla.  Amit is a disciple of Indian drummers like Alla Rakha and his son Zakir Hussain.

Sharon Isbin titled the music of Khan (with emphasis on guitar and sarod) “sheer genius.”  Many people have heralded this quartet’s ability to use their mystical and traditional music to cross barriers of language and culture.  A sense of unity exists in this emotional music that blends Indian tradition with Western music by connecting the sarod and guitar.  Both instruments are stringed and encourage the musicians to pluck and play them similarly.  The idea here is to cross-fertilize both the cellular and cosmic levels of Western and Eastern classical music traditions.  They seem to have easily accomplished this with “Strings for Peace.”  Although I would not classify this music as jazz, it fits perfectly into the realm of music that is created to change consciousness and unite cultures.

The documentary “Sharon Isbin: Troubadour” has been made available on over 200 PBS Stations across the United State and abroad.  It won the ASCAP Television Broadcast Award.  Isbin has over thirty albums released and has sold nearly a million copies.  This is another plume in the beautiful hat she wears to celebrate her successful and artistic achievements.

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SASHA MASHIN – “HAPPY SYNAPSE” – Rainy Days Records

Sasha Mashin, drums; Josh Evans, trumpet; Rosario Giuliani, alto saxophone; Dmitry Mospan, tenor saxophone; Benito Gonzalez, piano; Makar Novikov, bass.

Sasha Mashin is a St. Petersburg, Russia-native, a bandleader and drummer.  This is his sophomore album, following up his debut recording titled, “Outsidethebox.”  Inspired by John Coltrane’s album, “Africa/Brass,” a gift to him from the bandleader of a Dixieland band, where Sasha was once a band member, opened the fledgling jazz drummer to bigger and better projects.  This Coltrane album showed him the power of art and how art can influence the human mind and spirit.  His purpose and creative direction from that moment to this one, has been to understand the power of music and that the human mind can accept a whole host of information that colors the chemical make-up of our brain.  This information can be used to improve and benefit human kind.  With that understanding in mind, Sasha Mashin formed a group that would bring that kind of change and resolution to the music. The result is an album divided into two parts.  Part one opens this album with a song by their alto saxophonist, Rosario Giulianni, titled “The Hidden Voice.” It’s an awesome way to open this very well-done production.  The group is on fire!  Sasha begins the tune on his drums, setting the pace and presenting an improvisational introduction.  On the second song, written by Dmitry Mospan (the tenor saxophone of the group) the arrangement starts out in an Afro-Cuban rhythm of 6/8 and featuring Makar Novikov’s talents on bass.  It’s called, “Incantation.”  The three horns are ripe with harmony and Sasha Mashin drives them with his ever-constant percussive energy.  Every song on this album, along with every musician, pushes the limits of their talents to express the music and themselves.  This is straight-ahead jazz that scratches the edges of ‘outside-the-box’ and pushes into unknown and exciting new territories, happily dragging us along with them.  The original compositions are well-written.  Benito Gonzalez, brilliant on piano, shows us captivating creativity during his solo, as does Josh Evans, manning the trumpet.  This song gives everyone an opportunity to dance among the flames, because this album is red hot, from start to finish. Sasha takes over at the end of the tune, displaying his power and tenacity on trap drums.  He’s more than entertaining.  Sasha Mashin is impressive! 

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[1] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/04/110427101606.htm

[2] https://www.google.com/search?q=CAN+MUSIC+BE+USED+TO+CHANGE+MOODS%3F&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&client=firefox-b-1

NEW RELEASES, NEW BEGINNINGS, & SOLO MASTERPIECES

June 1, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist
June 1, 2020

PASQUALE GRASSO – “SOLO MASTERPIECES” Sony Masterworks

Pasquale Grasso, guitar.

Pasquale was born in Italy and now resides in New York City. He was busy gigging and working on his technique, when a mention by iconic guitarist, Pat Metheny put a bright spotlight on his career. In an interview for Vintage Guitar magazine in 2016, Metheny referred to Grasso as “The best guitar player I’ve heard in maybe my entire life is floating around now; Pasquale Grasso. This guy is doing something so amazingly musical and so difficult,” Metheny shared with the magazine representative.

Well, that kind of statement can certainly point an important finger at an artist and apply unexpected attention. Pasquale Grasso was probably as surprised as the magazine readers.

“What’s interesting about Pasquale,” Pat Metheny continued, “Mostly what I hear now are guitar players who sound a little bit like me mixed with a little bit of John Scofield and a little bit of Bill Frisell. … He doesn’t sound anything like that. …His model, which is an incredible model to have, is Bud Powell. He has somehow captured the essence of that language from piano onto guitar.”

While listening to this project, I agree with Metheny. It’s nice to hear a developing guitarist gear his style and perfect his ‘chops’ with inspiration from bebop pioneers like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell. You could perhaps compare his style to Joe Pass, maybe a bit of Kenny Burrell’s influence, but in Grasso’s biography he compares his style to Art Tatum. When he became acquainted with Art Tatum records, he says it turned his world upside down.

“I couldn’t believe it. I would just play Art Tatum’s Solo Masterpieces box set all day,” Pasquale admitted.

At that point, Grasso wasn’t sure he understood what he was listening to, but one thing was sure. When Art Tatum, (a historic, master jazz pianist) played, he sounded like two or three people were playing the piano. Pasquale wanted to master that technique on guitar. He exhibits that technique on his current Sony masterworks release. Pasquale Grosso is playing ten standard jazz tunes that are absolutely diamonds for your ears. His technique and mastery sparkle. You hear his unusual mastery of the Tatum Technique on the old favorite “Tea for Two.” It sounds like there are two guitar players playing the instrument. Grasso plays a custom-built guitar, designed in France by Trenier Guitar company.

Although neither of his parents are musicians, both Pasquale and his brother, Luigi, grew up enthralled with music. Brothers Luigi Grasso and Pasquale Grasso have both become celebrated musicians. Luigi is a gifted alto saxophonist, who tours globally as a bandleader. Pasquale, has become this genius guitar player. Raised in Ariano Irpino, a bucolic hillside town in Italy’s Campania region, the young man soaked up the music his dad played on the record player. Instead of looking at television, his father had him listening to Chet Baker and Bud Powell albums. When Agostino Di Giorgio, a New York-raised guitar master, moved to Italy to care for his aging grandparents, he and young Pasquale met and the musician mentored the budding, young guitarist.

In 1998, both brothers attended a jazz workshop under the guidance of the legendary jazz pianist, Barry Harris. Harris helped Pasquale Grosso firm up his jazz perspectives. They remain good friends today. His composition, “I’ll Keep Loving You,” is a tribute to his mentor, Barry Harris.

“I’ll Keep Loving You is dedicated to my teacher, the great pianist Barry Harris. He plays it on every concert. I remember being eight years old, hearing him for the first time in Switzerland. It was the moment when I decided to be a musician.”

Always on a mission to self-improve and to be able to execute what he’s hearing in his head, Pasquale Grosso decided he should study classically. He began to fuse his jazz technique with classical overtones and refinements at the Conservatory of Bologna, tutored by guitarist, Walter Zanetti. In 2012, he relocated to New York. It didn’t take long for his reputation to spread like wild fire. He worked with bands led by Ari Roland, Chris Byars and the late sax man, Charles Davis. He performed with Freddie Redd, Frank Wess, Ray Drummond, the late Bucky Pizzarelli and many, many more. In 2015, Pasquale Grasso won the Wes Montgomery International Jazz Guitar Competition.

The result of his consistent desire to grow and perfect his playing is evident on this Sony Masterworks recording. He tackles some of the compositions of great bebop artists that he greatly admires like Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker and also icons like Duke Ellington. You will enjoy hearing these familiar jazz standards interpreted by the inspired and uniquely talented, Pasquale Grasso.

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LAUREN HENDERSON – “THE SONGBOOK SESSION” Brontosaurus Records

Lauren Henderson, vocals; Sullivan Fortner, piano; Eric Wheeler, bass; Allan Mednard, drums.

From the first strains of her voice, I have a flash back to Paris, France. Lauren Henderson’s tone reminds me of the French jazz singers. Perhaps it’s the tremolo in her voice or her emotional warmth. There is something soothing and satisfying about Lauren Henderson’s style and presentation. However, here is a vocalist with roots in the Caribbean, in Panama and the British territory, island of Montserrat. She has picked eight songs that are part of the jazz standard book, beginning with “while We’re Young.” Sullivan Fortner is both supportive and tenacious on piano while accompanying her. Allan Menard knows just when to accent on his drum set and he transitions from jazz to Latin rhythms in a heartbeat. Ms. Henderson moves smoothly from English to Spanish on “Sabor A Mi” and on the familiar Jobim tune, “Meditation” she sings in Portuguese. Her eclectic vocal influences spread across genres smoothly, like caramel icing on a sweet cake. This is jazz with a world music twist. Lauren Henderson’s unique style and sound is both haunting and emotional. Whether she’s swinging “Beautiful Love” or performing “Besame Mucho” in Spanish, her tone and attitude draw us into her songs, quicksand strong! This is a voice to remember. One that is dynamic and recognizable. This is generally the telltale sign of a super successful, vocal powerhouse.

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GABRIEL CHAKARJI – “NEW BEGINNING” Independent Label

Gabriel Chakarji, piano/composer/producer/background vocals; Carmela Ramirez, voice/co-producer; Edward Perez, bass; Daniel Prim & Jeickov Vital, percussion/background vocals; Jongkuk Kim, drums; Morgan Guerin, tenor saxophone; Adam O’Farrill, trumpet.

Venezuelan pianist, Gabriel Chakarji, blends jazz, Afro-Latin and Caribbean music like a sweet pionono or jellyroll cake. He rolls the music up in a delicious ball of energy, spicy cultures and rhythmic excitement. Opening with “Mina/San Millan” Chakarji adds vocal chants that remind us of the African influence on South American music and rooted in American jazz. The powerful vocals of Carmela Ramierez are formidable. Gabriel Chakarji explains:

“All my influences of South-American, Caribbean and Black-American music have one source in common: Africa. We’re trying to bring out all the shared elements, the places where many musical traditions live together, instead of focusing on the genres and stereotypes. We need more of this spirit in a society that suffers from racism, prejudice and wars. We want to create a space where music can shift paradigms,” Chakarji shares.

As a pianist and composer, Gabriel Chakarji sets the bar high. His compositions are melodic and are also arranged in very exciting ways that reflect his emotional, hot-blooded, Latin culture. Using percussion to spice his arrangements and horns to punch and propel the pieces, his piano excellence interplays with the band members. He has a style unto himself. After establishing his beautiful melodic phrases, Chakarji dives into improvisation and swiftly swims across the keys. On “New Danza” I enjoy the game of ‘Tag’ his piano played with trumpeter Adam O’Farrill. Daniel Prim and Jeickov Vital excite the music with their percussion work and the addition of Morgan Guerin on tenor saxophone fattens the horn lines. On the fade, the African chants are back and throughout the piece we enjoy the sweet soprano vocals of Ms. Ramierez. She also co-produced this album of fine music. The interplay between Edward Perez on bass and Chakarji’s piano is very effective on the tune titled, “No Me Convence.” It begins quite classically and with one of those melodies that you love to love. The double bass steps from the shadows into the light, with a solo that captures our imagination. It’s a pleasant surprise when this tune turns from ballad to funk, in a smooth flowing way. This song seems to brandish the developing style and technique of this composer/ arranger. He knows how to gently change tempos, moods and music with the flick of his wrist and the dot of his pen. Gabriel Chakarji takes us on a rich, cultural adventure with this production. He both surprises us and pleases us with this innovative direction. His innovation and artfulness is perfectly depicted in the wonderful CD cover artwork of Henry Paz. I wish more artists paid this kind of attention to the way their album covers look, as well as the way it sounds.

“New Beginnings” offers a powerful, signature sound on the piano, established by Gabriel Chakarji’s lovely compositions and musical style. He has planted his roots culture-deep in his music and is open to developing and blossoming the fruit of his labors in unexpected and delicious ways.

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MAYITA DINOS –“THE GARDEN IS MY STAGE” Dash Hoffman Records

Mayita Dinos, vocals; Bill Cantos & Rich Eames, piano; Gabe Davis, acoustic bass; Hussain Jiffry, electric bass; Dori Amarilio, guitar; Steve Hass, drums; Tiki Pasillas, drums & percussion; Michael Hunter, trumpet/flugelhorn; Alex Budman, flute/clarinet/soprano saxophone.

Multi-media artist, vocalist, painter and landscape designer, Mayita Dinos has chosen a diverse and beautiful repertoire on her premier recording. I must say that her artwork, paintings that don the pages of her CD multi-page booklet-insert, is quite impressive. Opening with the Charlie Parker standard, “Ornithology” (singing her own original lyrics) and then re-interpreting Stevie Wonder and Syreeta Wright’s tune, “Come Back as a Flower,” Mayita Dinos shows us that she is fearless. These are songs both challenging and demonstrative of her love for a garden. She sings the Thelonious Monk butterfly tune, “Pannonica,” and then, with Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” song, she finally hits her groove. Mayita Dinos sounds more like a folk singer than a jazz singer, no matter how many jazz songs she sings. A repertoire doesn’t make you a jazz singer. It’s the style, the swing, and the ability to improvise and reinterpret songs in a unique way that allow an artist to claim the adjective ‘jazz.’ Still, Mayita Dinos has a pleasing voice and on this premier recording she impressively sings in Spanish and English.

Mayita’s emphasis on and love of gardens is qualified because of her decades-long career as an in-demand landscape designer. She specializes in sustainable landscape & horticulture. At this point, becoming a singer qualifies her as an opsimath. Suddenly, the garden has transformed to her stage. The encouragement and coaching of the late, great pianist and vocal coach, Howlett Smith and vocalist/co-producer on this project, Cathy Segal Garcia, fueled this album concept. With the loving support of her husband, this album has finally blossomed and come to fruition. The hand-picked musicians offer wonderful support. Every track is strong and the music is all jazz. Dori Amarilio has done an outstanding job as a co-producer, arranger, mixer, coach and guitarist. But Mayita’s outstanding talent for me is her painting abilities. She is quite an artist and I fell in love with her CD jacket and each original piece of art that is beautifully reflective of the songs she sings.
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DAVE STRYKER WITH BOB MINTZER & THE WDR BIG BAND – “BLUE SOUL” – StrikeZone Records

Dave Stryker, guitar/composer; Bob Mintzer, conductor/arranger/tenor saxophone; Hans Dekker, drums; John Goldsby, bass; Billy test, piano/organ; Jens Neufang, baritone saxophone; Olivier Peters & Paul Heller, tenor saxophones; Johan Horlen & Karolina Strassmayer, alto saxophones; Mattis Cederberg, bass trombone; Ludwig Nuss, Raphael Klemm & Andy Hunter, trombones; Wim Both, Rob Bruynen, Andy Haderer & Ruud Breuls, trumpets.

What do you get when you put the WDR Big Band, saxophonist and arranger, Bob Mintzer and guitarist Dave Stryker in the same room? “Blue Soul!” This is an exceptional album of beautifully arranged big band charts, enhanced by the soulful guitar solos of one of New York’s most in-demand producers and guitarists. Stryker has stretched out from his small ensemble recordings to the big-band-stage. He brings his ability to brilliantly infuse blues and soul into any project he touches. Surrounded by the all-star WDR big band players and encouraged by Bob Mintzer’s lush arrangement skills, Stryker shines brighter than ever.

Bob Mintzer is a world-class act on his own. The saxophonist serves as the principal conductor for Cologne, Germany’s WDR Big Band and is applauded widely for his plush big band arrangements and saxophone talents. After making several appearances as a guest with Dave Stryker’s Organ Trio, Mintzer started mulling around the idea of featuring Dave with his popular, world-class, big band. Mintzer thought Dave’s jazzy take on the 70s pop and R&B songs from his “Eight Track” recording series would adapt perfectly as the crux of a big band project. So, Dave was invited to Germany for a week of rehearsing, recording and performing. This project is the result.

“Bob is one of the best musicians and people I know,” Stryker says in his liner notes. “I’ve been a fan of his playing since my early days in New York City and to get the chance to have Bob Arrange and play my music, with the incredible WDR Big Band, is a huge thrill and honor.”

The ensemble covers a number of familiar pop and rhythm and blues songs including a dynamic arrangement of Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” tune, Prince’s “When Doves Cry” and Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman.” Also included are a number of songs Stryker composed and one written by Mintzer titled, “Aha.” Stryker’s original composition, “Blues Strut” allows Billy Test to show off his organ chops and Bob Mintzer lays down a fiery tenor sax solo. The horn section contributes staccato embellishments, like brass finger-snaps, to the arrangement.

They close this album, swinging hard, with Stanley Turrentine’s tune, “Stan’s Shuffle” giving Mintzer another opportunity to dazzle us on tenor sax. As portrayed by the insightful cover art, this album is steamy hot and makes for a delightful and insightful listen. As always, Dave Stryker shines jazzy headlights on 1970 hit songs, refreshing them with his bluesy and innovative guitar, along with the able assistance of the WDR big band.
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DAVID K. MATHEWS – “THE FANTASY VOCAL SESSIONS – VOL 2. SOUL, POP, R&B – Effendi records

David K. Mathews, piano/organ/keyboards/synthesizers; Jim Nichols, Ray Obiedo, Chris Cain, Carl Lockett & Bruce Conte, guitar; Dewayne Pate & Marc Van Wageningen, Electric bass; Peter Barshay & John Witala, acoustic bass; Billy Johnson, Akira Tana, Deszon Claiborne, Vince Lateano, Kevin Hayes & Brian Collier, drums; Peter Michael Escovedo & Michael Spiro, percussion; Mel Martin & Wayne de Silva, tenor sax; Joe Cohen, Tenor/Alto/baritone sax; Jeff Cressman & Mike Rinta, trombones; Bill Ortiz, Mike Olmos & Louis Fasman, trumpets; Lilan Kane, Kimko Joy & Leah Tysse, background vocals; string septet, Magik*Magik Orchestra: Minna Choi, arranger/conductor; Liana Barube, Stephanie Bibbo & Heather Powell, violin; Phil Brezina, Evan Buttemer & Ivo Bokulic, viola; Michelle Kwon, cello. Featured GUEST VOCALISTS: Tony Lindsay, Amikaeyla, Lady Bianca, Steve Miller, Funky Fred Ross, Glenn Walters, Kenny Washington & Alex Ligertwood.

I usually relegate myself to only reviewing jazz, but some music crosses borders so elegantly, like this one, that I have to slide into a new perspective. This is a musical love letter from David K. Mathews to the best of the Bay area of Northern California. It’s the second release in a series to celebrate David K’s San Francisco roots. Mathews is an eclectic piano performer who joined Tower of Power when he was twenty-three years old. David spent twenty years accompanying Etta James and since 2010, he’s been touring the world as a keyboard member of the great Santana organization. His talents have been utilized and endorsed by such iconic entertainers as India Arie, Boz Scaggs, Maria Muldaur, the amazing Taj Mahal, the legendary Wayne Shorter and Toots Thieleman and even the iconic Latin, Pop, queen, Gloria Estefan, to mention only a handful of artists.

During this soulful production, his gospel chops on the piano are as strong and rooted as his jazz excellence. You clearly hear his gospel influence on the Donny Hathaway composition, “You Had to Know,” where Tony Lindsay’s soulful vocals leave quite an impact.

Opening with a hit record made popular by the Isley Brothers, jazz vocalist Amikaeyla Gaston, puts her mark on “For the Love of You” in a profound way. Amikaeyla is an activist and educator who’s recorded with a number of power players around the San Francisco area and also traveled the world, using music to heal and uplift. Her voice is like honey butter; sweet, smooth and sultry. She also performs Stevie Wonder’s “Superwoman” composition, arranged as a medley with Stevie’s “Where Were You When I Needed You?” and the popular Jimmy Webb song, “Wichita Lineman.” The Carl Lockett jazzy guitar solo on “Superwoman” is quite deserving of a thumbs up!

The Ray Charles inspired arrangement of “One Mint Julep” has a plush, big band sound and features David K. Mathews moving from piano to organ. He’s playing those familiar licks I heard Ray play many times over on the ‘Genius + Soul = Jazz’ album. Steve Miller provides the vocals and also plays lead guitar on this tune. Lady Bianca is rhythm and blues royalty in the San Francisco area. David K. Mathew features her powerhouse vocals on the Donny Hathaway hit record, “Giving Up” (a Van McCoy composition).

“She has the kind of power and believability that reminds me a lot of my beloved Etta,” Mathew reminisces. “We go back a long way to when I was a very young and green keyboard player tiptoeing my way through the Oakland soul and blues scene.”

Celebrated jazz vocalist, Kenny Washington, closes this album out singing, “Yesterday.” The San Francisco Chronicle referred to Washington as “the Superman of the Bay Area jazz scene.”

His album title, “Fantasy Sessions” is a double-entendre, referring to both Mathews’ fantasy to put out a series of recordings featuring his favorite singers and musicians in the Bay Area and also to reference the famous studio where he recorded this album, a studio other great artists utilized like Sonny Rollins and Charlie Mingus; the former Fantasy Studios. Sadly, they closed their doors in 2018.

All in all, this is an enjoyable and well-produced album. Mathew’s keyboard work, as well as the Northern California musicians he uses, is stellar. The featured vocalists, he introduces to us, add depth and beauty to the David K. Mathew project.
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JONATHAN BARBER & VISION AHEAD – “LEGACY HOLDER” Vision Ahead Music

Jonathan Barber, drums/composer; Taber Gable, piano/Fender Rhodes/Synthesizer; Andrew Renfroe, guitar; Godwin Louis, alto saxophone; Matt Dwonszyk, bass; Mar Vilaseca, vocals/piano on track 1.

Jonathan Barber is a 30-year-old drummer and composer, already having ten years under his belt as a working musician, who strives to incorporate a theme into his music production. The theme of this project is Legacy.

“We all are Legacy Holders. We must stand strong for the cause and assist in making change. The continuation of unity or division relies on us,” Jonathan Barber explains his concept for this album.

One of my favorite tunes on this album is titled “Major” and is straight-ahead, melodic and features Godwin Louis on alto saxophone blowing his solo like life itself depends on it. Afterwards, Taber Gable takes time to unfold his talents across the 88-keys of the grand piano and provides a creative introduction for Barber to solo on trap drums. This is followed by a pretty ballad titled, “Seconds & Seasons.” This arrangement gives bassist, Matt Dwonszyk an opportunity to step forward and soak up the spotlight. Andrew Renfroe’s electric guitar is stellar and changes the complexion of this music in wonderful ways. I found the repetitive piano staccato part a bit redundant and I think it took away from the drum solo rather than supporting it. The original composition, “Son of Hartford” tributes Jonathan Barber’s native roots in Connecticut. It’s a very electronic and blues-based arrangement, with funk injected like a 1960 dose of rock ‘n roll. The guitarist once again leads the way and sets the tone. On the fade, the piano and the drums have a quick conversation. “29” closes the CD out with a more bebop type arrangement. Barber’s drums are busy and inspired in the background, not necessarily grounded in swing or straight-ahead, but rather like a locomotive engine, pushing the production forward. Once again, the piano gets stuck in that staccato repetitiveness and I’m grateful when Jonathan Barber let’s his chops shine during his drum solo without musical support. On this composition, we can clearly hear and experience Barber’s power and drive on his instrument.

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