VARIOUS SOUL CONVERSATIONS

April 21, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

April 21, 2021

LAUFEY – “TYPICAL OF ME” –  Independent label

Laufey Lin, vocals/guitar/cello/piano/composer; Josh Jacobson, keyboards; Magnus Johann Ragnarsson, Keyboards.

Track 1 on this new EP by Laufey snagged my ear and held on, like a diamond earring.  Her voice has a soft, warm, lovely tone, and on “Street by Street,” Laufey makes it clear she is a blossoming singer/songwriter.  The young artist mixes genres, blending jazzy chord changes and beautiful melodies with pop music, rhythm and blues, all in a very embraceable way.   When Laufey returned to her native Iceland last summer, she was surprised when she pumped on the car radio and her song, “Street by Street” was playing.

“That’s when I realized something big was happening,” she told her publicist.

The production is sparse, but very effective.  The finger snaps and her guitar accompaniment, with vocals harmonizing in the background, allows us to clearly hear her lyrics and the groove is infectious.  Her latest single, from this debut EP titled, “Magnolia,” is a ballad with a lyric about a beautiful woman. Actually, the lyrics pose a love letter to women who don’t recognize their own beauty and strength.  Track 3 is titled “Like the Movies” and is a throw-back to the 1920s or 30s type music, with its slow, strumming shuffle-feel and her voice scatting atop the production in a sweet and affectionate way.  Laufey’s unique tone and the addition of the synthesized horn makes this ‘cut’ very jazzy.  She follows this production with a cover of “I Wish You Love” just to make it clear she can sing jazz standards with the same energy and style that she uses when singing her original songs.

“I’ve always loved classical music.  I’m definitely very influenced by composers like Ravel and Chopin,” Laufey shares.  “But when I discovered the Great American Songbook and the music of George Gershwin and Richard Rodgers, it felt like this middle ground between jazz and classical suited me perfectly.  It was something I could love on my own terms,” she explained her stylized musical approach.

Laufey has performed with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra at the young age of fifteen.  But deep inside, she knew she wanted to blend her classical training with more modern influences.  She longed to expand her writing and repertoire with jazz influences, with pop, R&B overtones and with her own sense of creativity and uniqueness.  You can hear all that in her very first release and debut single, “Street by Street.”  This song sent international waves crashing against commercial music shorelines. 

As a result of collaborating with peers at Berklee College of Music, the day before their campus was shut down due to COVID-19, she embraced the down-time while self-quarantined to work on her first recording project.  Laufey began recording at home, playing piano, guitar, singing, composing and adding cello to the mix.  Other instrumentation was delivered remotely by her fellow student musicians.  When I listen to “James,” another original composition, I note her expressive way of phrasing, singing, scatting and the lyrical way she writes.  Laufey’s artistically fascinating.

Once she posted the first tune, Laufey’s project went viral!  She had a hit single on Icelandic Radio Charts and her music grew a massive, universal following.  Before she could blink twice, the BBC announced they wanted to present a music series for BBC Radio 3 that featured “Happy Harmonies with Laufey.”  This series began on April 10th of 2021.  Laufey’s entire EP project is absolutely fresh, charming and unique.  Ms. Lin is a gifted singer, plays multiple instruments and is a talented songwriter.  I expect great things from this young lady and a bright future. 

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JOHN DAVERSA JAZZ ORCHESTRA featuring JUSTIN MORELL – “ALL WITHOUT WORDS: VARIATIONS INSPIRED BY LOREN – Tiger Turn Records

John Daversa, trumpet; Justin Morell, guitars/orchestrator/composer/arranger. Scott Flavin, orchestra conductor; Amanda Quist, choir conductor; CHOIR: Emily Finke & Safia Zaman, sopranos; Alexandra Colaizzi & Kate Reid, altos; Sidney O’Gorman & Noah Zaidspiner, tenors; Thandolwethu Mamba & Dylan Melville, basses. GUEST MUSICIANS: Conrad Fok, piano; Lev Garfein, violin. RHYTHM: Tal Cohen, piano; Justin Morell, guitars; Dion Kerr, bass; David Chiverton, drums. PERCUSSION: Antoni Olesik, timpani/ vibraphone/ glockenspiel/ marimba. Orchestra Bass: Brian Powell & Ethan Olaguibel.  VIOLIN 1: Abby Young (concertmaster), Sheena Gutierrez, Karen Lord-Powell, Steffen Zeichner, Ashley Liberty & Gregory Carreno. VIOLIN II: Svetlana Kosakovskoya, Yuhao Zhou, Orlando Forte, Katarina Nazarova & Julia Jakkel. VIOLA: Matt Nabours, Vishnu Ramankutty & Ross DeBardelaben; CELLO: Brent Charran, Shea Kole & Tadao Ito; WOODWINDS: Jennifer Grim, flute; Alyssa Mena, flute/alto flute; Melvin Butler & Troy Roberts, soprano & tenor saxophones; Matt Clarke, clarinet; Franke Capoferri, clarinet/bass clarinet; Gabriel Beavers & Melanie Villarreal, bassoon; Richard Todd Stan Spinola, horn.

When John Daversa approached Justin Morell about writing a large-scale orchestral jazz piece for his album project, Morell conceived the project from the perspective of a parent with an autistic child.  This album is a tribute and a reflection of love in raising a 16-year-old, non-verbal son.  The title is reflective; “All Without Words.”   It is a story, unfolding in the orchestrated music, about connection and compassion; pain and prevailing love in the face of every challenge. 

A multi-Grammy winner, John Daversa is an orchestral jazz trumpeter whose albums reflect important social themes.  Justin Morell said this about composing this elaborate music.

“Loren (his autistic child) can be wonderfully spontaneous and always in the moment.  One evening, I sat with him and listened to the singing and sounds that he often makes, recording them on my phone.  I quickly returned to the recordings and transcribed two different segments of beautiful melody.  These segments became the theme that is the basis for the eleven variations,” Justin explained.

Loren’s voice is represented by Daversa’s distinctive trumpet sound.  This album was recorded at the Frost School of Music recording facilities at the University of Miami, where Daversa is Chair of Studio Music.  These top musicians based in South Florida, are both classically proficient and others are steeped and specialized in jazz.  Because of the pandemic and social restrictions, each section of the orchestra was recorded separately.  However, this does not interrupt the beauty or flow of this project.  Here is a tender, gorgeous album.  John Daversa becomes the voice of a voice-less child in the most perfect and soulful sense. 

The orchestra transmits to us emotionally, via these amazing musicians, with their colorful arrangements.  It’s an awesome combination of composer magic and musicians who play life into their music.  I found Daversa and Morell’s project to be peaceful and healing; inspired and lovely.  Perhaps producer, Kabir Sehgal sums the experience up best.

“This is a poignant and profound work. … This collaboration speaks not only to their mutual respect and admiration, but to their interest in doing good in the world,” Sehgal says in the press package. 

I agree!

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ULYSSES OWENS JR. BIG BAND – “SOUL CONVERSATIONS” – Outside In Music

Ulysses Owens Jr., drums/producer/bandleader; Takesi Ohbayashi, piano; Yasushi Nakamura, bass; Charles Turner III, vocals; SPECIAL GUEST: Stefon harris, vibraphone; WOODWINDS: Alexa Tarantino & Erena Tarakubo, alto saxophones; Diego Rivera & Daniel Dickinson, tenor saxophones; Andrew Gutauskas, baritone saxophone. TRUMPETS:  Walter Cano, lead trumpet; Benny Benack III, Summer Camargo, & Giveton Gelin.  TROMBONES: Michael Dease, Eric Miller & Gina Benalcazar. Wyatt Forhan, bass trombone.

Ulysses Owens Jr. is a drummer with a big sound, a big band and big career plans.  On this, his debut recording as a bandleader, he has gathered a host of excellent musicians that reflect multi-gender, multi-ethnic and multi-generational participation.  From the very first Dizzy Gillespie/John Lewis familiar composition of “Two Bass Hit” you hear the UOJ Big Band’s exuberance and high energy.  Ulysses Owens Jr. takes a mind-blowing solo excursion on his trap drums.  I appreciate his power, his creativity and technical wizardry.  Perhaps he explained his ultimate goals best in his liner notes.

“I finally feel like I have a record that is emanating a sound that I can confidently create forever,” Owens Jr. asserted.

On the original composition, “London Towne,” By Benny Benack III, who plays second trumpet, Stefon Harris makes a guest appearance on vibraphone.  On Track 3, Yasushi Nakamura steps out from the rhythm section and takes an impressive solo on double bass, followed by a soulful saxophone improvisation played by Diego Rivera, who also arranged this tune.  Titled, “Beardom X,” the horn harmonics soar and punch the arrangement in all the right places.  Bandleader and dynamic drummer, Owens Jr., takes a short but colorful solo on this original song that he has composed.  The staccato breaks by the horns build the dynamics during this presentation.

Intermittently, audience applause speckles this soulful ‘live’ recording.  The big band is quite impressive and distinguishes their high level of musicianship and tight, preparedness for this production.  There’s no over-dubs or engineering punch-marks when you record ‘live.’  Obviously, they need no such engineering helpmates.  I enjoyed hearing the “Soul Conversations” of each band member, expressed to the others.  I applaud the structured, creative arrangements that were written by various band members.  For example, on the original composition, “Language of Flowers” bassist, Yasushi Nakamura both wrote and arranged this lovely ballad.  The UOJ Big Band includes contemporary pieces like Michael Jackson’s hit record, “Human Nature” featuring Harris’s vibraphone and more straight-ahead pieces like John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.  You will find every song on this project delightful, inspired and entertaining. However, the driving force behind their entire production is the amazing and relentless drum skill of Ulysses Owens Jr.

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BERTA MORENO AFRO-JAZZ SOUL PROJECT – “TUMAINI” – Tiger Turn Records

Berta Morena, tenor saxophone/vocals/composer/lyricist; Alana Sinkey, vocals; Manuel Valera, piano/keyboards; Maksim Perepilica, bass; Raphael Pannier, drums; Franco Pinna, percussion/ArpaLeguera; Maria Alejandra Jimenez, Sinuhé Padilla-Isunza, Berta Moreno & Alana Sinkey, choir voices.

The happy first track of this project showcases Berta Moreno’s saxophone and composer talents.  Alana Sinkey is the vocalist that introduces us to the contemporary jazz tune Moreno has written, with its slick, African influenced time changes and infectious melody.  Moreno’s tenor saxophone improvises above the rich African percussion.  Manuel Valera brings excitement and beauty during his piano solo.  

After taking a life-changing trip to Kenya and experiencing a Kawangare neighborhood, Berta Moreno was infatuated with the Kenyan African culture, people and music.  Kawangare is an economically disadvantaged area. Moreno, a native of Madrid, Spain, had volunteered to teach at the Little Ray of Hope School. Her album title, “Tumaini” translates to “Hope” in Swahili and was inspired by the children of Kawangare.  Their bright smiles and positive attitudes touched Berta Moreno’s heart.  That explains the happy, up-tempo tunes on this project and the addition of a choir of voices and rhythmic ideas she honed from the music of East Africa. 

Track 2, “Afrika” is also joyful and is bolstered by the drums of Raphael Pannier and Franco Pinna on percussion.  The Moreno composition titled, “Beauty of the Slum” introduces us to a lovely melody.  Moreno is a strong songwriter, who knows how to place the ‘hook’ of her songs in full view of the listener and strongly accentuates the titles of her songs. 

Sometimes Alana Sinkey, who has a beautiful voice and a lovely style of singing, falls flat on certain improvisation parts.  This is something that with practice and patience she can improve upon. I like the way she and Berta Moreno sometimes sing unison together (vocals and horn) and Ms. Sinkey also sounds wonderful harmonizing with Berta’s tenor saxophone.  Their blend is natural.  Musically, the album concept and Berta Moreno’s compositions make this project both unique and inspired.

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JACQUI NAYLOR – “THE LONG GAME” – Ruby Star Records

Jacqui Naylor, vocals/composer; Art Khu, piano/organ/Rhodes/guitars; Jon Evans, basses/guitar/background vocals; Josh Jones, drums/percussion.

Jacqui Naylor has a distinctive tone that enriches her alto vocals.  She offers us, not only her unique and pleasant sound, but an expert trio of jazz musicians.  Art Khu is magnificent and creative on piano.  He and Naylor co-wrote “Love Look What You’ve Done,” that becomes track 5 on this artistic venture.  It’s a jazz waltz with beautiful lyrics.  Best known for her ability to interpret a diverse repertoire and blend genres and generations, Jacqui Naylor’s album explores love with both original music and familiar songs.  Speaking of blending, the trio plays a Miles Davis background riff that is immediately recognizable from his band arrangement of “It Never Entered My Mind.”  Surprisingly, Ms. Naylor slaps the Coldplay song, “Fix You” on top, like a cherry on an ice cream Sunday.  It becomes a delicious arrangement. 

Over time, this artist’s eleven album releases have been named in the “Top 10” lists of USA Today, Jazziz Magazine and The Washington Post.  Naylor’s version of REM’s “Losing My Religion” was featured on the hit, television competitive series, “So You Think You Can Dance.”  Her three dynamic musicians contribute to the original and provocative arrangements with their supportive and intuitive talents.  Naylor’s vocals are a slightly reminiscent mixture of Amy Winehouse and Marlena Shaw.  In a sea of jazz vocal releases, it’s delightful to hear a vocalist and a creative artist with her own dynamic style and musical perspective.

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STEVE TINTWEISS AND THE PURPLE WHY – “MARKSTOWN” – Inky Dot Media

Steve Tintweiss, double bass/melodica/vocals/composer/bandleader; Laurence Cook, drums; Judy Stuart & Amy Sheffer, vocals; James DuBoise, trumpet; Mark Whitecage, tenor saxophone/flute; Trevor Koehler, baritone saxophone.

Steve Tintweiss is playing bass on a slew of Albert Ayler albums.   Tintweiss is perhaps best remembered for his Avant-garde appearances on the jazz scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s.  He was well-known for his stimulating improvisation as a sideman and revolutionary approach to the double bass.  He performed with singer, Patty Waters, and with great jazz players like Sam Rivers, Gato Barbieri and Perry Robinson.  Although Tintweiss has remained steadfast to his bass style and continuously performed on the jazz scene, this is a throwback album that was recorded in 1968 at St. Marks Church.  The group was part of a fundraising concert for the victims of the Nigerian/Biafran conflict.  The concert line-up included Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Pete Seeger, Country Joe McDonald and Jimi Hendrix.  This recording showcases the 20-minute segment featuring Steve Tintweiss and his ensemble.  Also included is their Town Hall concert of September 14, 1968.  This is fifty-one minutes of historic Avant-garde music from the protest time of the late 1960s. 

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TED NASH with GLENN CLOSE, WAYNE BRADY, WYNTON MARSALIS & MEMBERS OF THE JAZZ AT LINCOLN CENTER ORCHESTRA “TRANSFORMATION” –  Tiger Turn Productions

Ted Nash, conductor/soprano sax/composer/arranger; Dan Nimmer, piano; Carlos Henriquez, bass; Obed Calvaire, drums; SPECIAL GUESTS:  Glenn Close, Wayne Brady, Amy Irving, Matthew Stevenson, Eli Nash & Wynton Marsalis.  Members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.  WOODWINDS: Sherman Irby (lead); Marc Phaneuf, Victor Goines, Mark Lopeman & Paul Nedzela.  TRUMPETS: Ryan Kisor (lead); Tatum Greenblatt, Marcus Printup, Wynton Marsalis.  TROMBONES: Vincent Gardner (lead); Christopher Crenshaw, Elliot Mason.

“Transformation is the highest expression of change.  Transformation dictates a dramatic alteration of form or character – sometimes both.  The highest compliment one can give a piece of music, or writing, is that it has been transformative for the one who experiences it,” quotes Ted Nash of this project.

Ted Nash has created an orchestrated back-drop for the spoken word story of “Transformation,” shared by the amazing voices of both actors, Glenn Close and Wayne Brady.  This creative jazz project opens with “Creation, Part 1.”  Soloists featured on this cut are Sherman Irby on alto saxophone and Wynton Marsalis on trumpet.  Track 2, “Creation, Part II” features Chris Crenshaw on trombone and Paul Nedzela on baritone saxophone.  This is followed by Eli Nash’s spoken word, delivering a coming-out message in his “Dear Dad/Letter.”  With Dan Nimmer’s piano as a backdrop, Eli Nash begins talking about being a transgender and Ted Nash add his soprano saxophone and horn harmonics.

Glenn Close said of her participation in this project, “We are so fractured and in need of healing.  I wanted to create an experience from which people are comforted, but also inspired, to discover their shared humanity.”

Performed before a live audience, this is a concert that combines artforms, using orchestrated spoken word to bridge soulful conversations about life and living.  There are stories of being incarcerated in the composition, “One Among Many” and they approach the subject of right-wing racism in “Rising Out of Hatred.”   Wayne Brady has written and speaks “A Piece by the Angriest Black man in America (or How I Learned to Forgive Myself for Being a Black man in America” that addresses fratricide and self-loathing. Ted Nash hopes his music and the spoken word helps to promote forgiveness, love and humanity.  It all begins with various soul conversations.

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THE UNIQUE, THE TRADITIONAL & THE INSPIRED

April 14, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

April 14, 2021

JEREMY MONTEIRO, JAY ANDERSON, LEWIS NASH – “LIVE AT NO BLACK TIE, KUALA LUMPUR” – Jazz Note Records

Jeremy Monteiro, piano; Jay Anderson, Double bass; Lewis Nash, drums.

Jeremy Monteiro is considered one of the top jazz pianists in Singapore.  This journalist met him many years ago while appearing on-stage in Singapore myself at a club called “Harry’s.”  Jeremy is a sensitive, but very powerful player.  He’s an amazing accompanist, as well as being a dynamic solo pianist, a creative improviser and a very well-rounded player.  To put it simply, Jeremy  Monteiro can play anything and make it sound great.  On this enjoyable album, you can hear his classical training, but you can also hear how beautifully he listens and supports his trio, giving the iconic Lewis Nash on drums space to shine and featuring the beauty of Jay Anderson’s double bass.  He gives his band members free-rein to solo.  Jeremy is no newcomer when it comes to playing with some of the best in the business.  He’s an EFG Bank Global Arts Ambassador and has played with such luminaries as Bobby McFerrin, Randy Brecker, Lee Ritenour, Herbie Mann, Benny Golson, Michael Brecker, James Moody, Carmen Bradford and the list goes on and on.  His piano virtuosity has carried him all over the world. In 1988, he performed as part of the famous Montreux Jazz Festival with the late, great bassist, Eldee Young and Redd Holt, who were two-thirds of the original Ramsey Lewis Trio. 

They open with Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way” and gently ‘swing’ it.  This trio’s performance of “Just In Time” flies.  Once Jeremy sets the pace and introduces the tune, he hands the reins to Jay Anderson, who gallops across the strings of his upright bass melodically and rhythmically, supported by the always impressive, Lewis Nash.  This is a ‘Live’ recording and you hear the appreciative audience, from time to time, burst into supportive applause.  When Jeremy Monteiro steps back into the spotlight, he and Nash are powerful energy-builders, making the song crescendo and dance like nobody’s business!   Every song choice in this trio’s repertoire is worthy of playing more than once.  They are just boiling-hot throughout this recording.  Jeremy Monteiro has carefully selected each song and a couple of them are played like an anthem to some of his real-life mentors.  For example, in memory of the legendary James Moody, he has composed “Mode for Love.”  Jeremy explains that the experimentation Moody did, late in his career, by inverting some of the modes used by John Coltrane, impressed Monteiro so much that he created this tune, modally-based.  His original tune isn’t Bebop, but it celebrates the spirit of the iconic Moody saxophone and his amazing jazz legacy.  Another historic nod is given to Redd Holt and the unforgettable Eldee Young on Jeremy’s original composition titled, “Mount Olive.”     

Jeremy Monteiro has received several awards and honors for his piano mastery, including the Cultural Medallion.  That is the highest artistic recognition available in Singapore.  For his memoir, “Late Night Thoughts of a Jazz Musician” Monteiro received a journalistic literary award and he also garnered a Silver Medal for Best Music Score from the International Radio Festival in New York that included his original composition, “Overture in C Major: The Story of Singapore.”  This production, featuring Nash and Anderson, is his 45th jazz album release.  It is iconic for both Jeremy and his two American jazz players. Their project is both historic and intoxicating to the ears.  Sit back and enjoy.

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DAN WILSON – “VESSELS OF WOOD AND EARTH” – Mack Ave Records

Dan Wilson, guitar/composer; Christian Sands, pianist/synthesizer/organ; Marco Panascia, bassist; Jeff “Tain” Watts, drummer; Joy Brown, vocals; Christian McBride, producer/bass.

Akron, Ohio native, Dan Wilson, has named this awesome and energy spiked project, “Vessels of Wood and Earth.”  He chose that name because he feels society, with few exceptions, seems to become attracted to the glitter and gold exterior of life instead of paying attention to the important foundation of life; the wood and earth that supports our life structures.  The title tune, Track 4, sets a groove with Wilson strumming his guitar, before introducing us to the pretty melody of his original composition, followed by branching off into the improvisational hemisphere.  Christian Sands finds the blues inside the tune and pulls it gently to the surface during his piano solo.  The groups modern jazz approach to Stevie Wonders “Bird of Beauty” composition is both beautiful and uniquely arranged.

Wilson is a competent composer, opening this album with his original tune, “The rhythm Section” at a race-driver speed, challenging himself and his bandmates to keep up.  Jeff “Tain” Watts has no qualms about fast-paced arrangements and his drum sticks breeze along, pumping excitement into the tune on his trap drums, while inspiring the band.  Wilson spotlights his admirable technique and stellar approach to his stylized guitar, flying across the strings with mad perfection.  Marco Panascia steps upfront on his double bass with straight-ahead power.  You can clearly hear him holding down the rhythm, along with Watts, during a dynamic Christian Sands solo on piano.   Dan Wilson brings his experience working with organ master, Joey DeFrancesco to the party.  He was part of DeFrancesco’s 2017 album, “Project Freedom” that was nominated for a Grammy Award.  Wilson came up listening to the duets of Wes Montgomery and jazz organ legend, Jimmy Smith.  His guitar playing is inspired.

“I was maybe fourteen or fifteen when my uncle took me into his basement and played me Wes and Jimmy.  I was like, Oh – this is it for me.  I want to do that!  I just want to do that forever,” he recollects that moment of musical awakening.

Songstress, Joy Brown, adds her feminine touch and is a pleasant surprise with Dinah Washington influenced vocals on several tunes including “Save the Children,” and “Inner City Blues.”  Brown brings an old-school stability to this modern jazz recording that is both refreshing and stylized; every now and then she wows us with that little break in her voice.  I enjoyed her rendition of “Cry Me A River” accompanied by Wilson’s sensitive guitar strokes. 

Christian McBride has done a wonderful job of producing Dan Wilson and his ensemble.  They are the artists signed to McBride’s new imprint “Brother Mister Productions” and they become his label’s second release. McBride performs a duo with Dan Wilson on the Pat Metheny tune “James” that is quite extraordinary.  Every tune on this album is a shiny example of great musicality, creativity and inspired by Dan Wilson’s youthful and developing guitar brilliance.

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DIEGO BALIARDO AND THE GYPSY EVOLUTION – “ESTE RITMO” – Moondo Music

Diego Baliardo, guitars/vocals; Antoine Ona, bass; Pacheco Rodolfo, percussion; Marlon Baliardo, guitar/back-up vocals; Gibson Baliardo, guitar/back-up vocals/piano.

If you are in search of music that’s happy, energetic and inspires movement and dance, this is the perfect recording.  Diego Baliardo is one of the founders of the world-famous Gipsy Kings, who were based in France and so popular that a 1996 PBS documentary was made about their evolutionary sound.

The historic formation of this musical group began in 1987, founded by two sets of brothers from both the Baliardo and Reyes families.  They were Spanish Romani who fled to France during the Spanish Civil War.  Back in 1979, Nicolas Reyes and Tonino Baliardo began touring throughout France, like their ancestors before them had done. They were making the music that inspires people to feel joyful and celebratory.  That music wound up selling over 20-million albums in their 35-year history.  In fact, that makes them the biggest selling musical group to come out of France.  Their music embraces a number of cultures, blending traditional flamenco with Western pop, Latin rhythms and Arabic music, traces of reggae and their gypsy freedom is reflected in their jazzy guitar work.  Some of their presentations celebrate Gypsy master Django Reinhardt.

This album is made up of members of the Baliardo family and friends.  Marlon and Gibson Baliardo are Diego’s grandsons, singing back-up vocals and playing guitars. The bassist, Antoine Ona, is a friend of Gibson’s and Pacheco Rodolfo is a percussionist who often performs with Diego Baliardo.  Together they make music that presents polyrhythmic styles and make you want to leave your seat to dance like no one is watching.  Their music, like the original Gipsy Kings, is infectious and hypnotic.  Appropriately, the CD title, Este Ritmo, translates to ‘This Rhythm.’  As Diego Baliardo explains, the heritage of their family music has been preserved for over one-thousand years.

“Music is central to the gypsy way of life and heritage.  We have picked up musical styles from all the cultures we’ve interacted with and blended them into our own culture. … Music is in my blood.  I can’t imagine not playing music.  Though at my age now, I think my music is a little mellower than it has been in the past.  …Although I still enjoy performing before an audience, I’m also enjoying spending more time in the studio and not travelling as much,” Diego admitted.

This reviewer has truly fallen in love with this folksy, high-energy gypsy band and the heritage they so proudly share with us.  Favorite tunes are: “Me Voy A La Playa,” and “No Tengo Dinero.”  “Cara Bonita” makes me want to pack a bag, hop a train and speed across the country to a place of carefree joy.  The various guitar rhythms and percussive work both entertain and hypnotize.  “Mi Cintura” is a fine example of that.  “Loquita Loca” is a moderate tempo tune that has a lovely melody and interesting percussive motion.  You may find yourself singing along.  All this music has been wonderfully composed and produced by Diego Baliardo.  He offers us a musical journey, displaying his cultural roots.  One that the listener will find inviting to explore.

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JOY HARJO – “I PRAY FOR MY ENEMIES” – Sunyata Records/Sony Orchard Distribution

Joy Harjo, spoken word/vocals/saxophone; Barrett Martin, drums/upright bass/keyboards/production; Peter Buck, electric guitar/feedback/Mike McCready, electric guitar solos; Krist Novoselic, acoustic guitar; Rich Robinson, electric guitar solos; Rahim Alhaj, Iraqi oud master; Dave Carter, trumpeter/percussion; Owen Sapulpa, surdo drum; Lisette Garcia & Harjo’s stepdaughters, backing vocals.

Joy Harjo is a Native American and a United States Poet Laureate.  This is her first new recording in a decade, showcasing her spoken word, songs and saxophone solos.  She seeks to heal our troubled world with prose, song and music.  Joy Harjo has appropriately titled this work, “I Pray for my Enemies.”  She opens this production with “Allay Na Lee” a welcoming folk song of the Muscogee Creek Nation.  It opens with Native American drums setting the groove and the mood.  Joy Harjo sings only with drum accompaniment, until the bridge of the song where dance music arrangements enter and elevate this folk song to a disco-like presentation.   A male voice chants ‘Allay Na Lee No’ at the fade of this song, announcing the art of this project with the very first tune.  “An American Sunrise” is Track 2, a song about alcoholism that unfortunately has been an ongoing problem for American Indian nations. 

“We were running out of breath as we ran to meet ourselves,” Joy Harjo recites wise and poetic words.

There is a stunning rock guitar solo during this song and Joy Harjo scat sings, adding a multi-layered vocal chant, accompanied by her very jazzy saxophone work.  There is freedom deeply embedded in this music, like strong eagle feathers growing from the elegant bird’s body. This project is a living, breathing history lesson. Exposed inside these lyrics and beautiful prose recited by Harjo, you will find truth, politics, activism and entertainment.  For example, “Calling the Spirit Back” is taken from one of her published collections and speaks of giving back with gratitude and loving Mother Earth. It was taken from her book titled, “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings.”  Her song, “How Love Blows Through the Trees” was written by Harjo during the COVID-19 pandemic, when it infected her home in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  It echoes the suffering of the world, balancing the trauma with a beautiful trumpet solo by Dave Carter and Harjo’s haunting, poignant, and expressive jazz saxophone.  Track 5, “Earth House” opens with a kalimba type sound as Harjo speaks of inspiration from a friend or family member, recalling the warmth emanating from her home; the baby swallows nesting on her porch and the love that warms a chilly spirit.  Joy Harjo speaks of “Fear” during Track 6.  She chants and speaks saying, “I release you.  You are my beloved and hated friend,” speaking of fear.  Joy Harjo stirs our emotions and touches our heart with this project. It is a delightfully fresh approach to jazz, to music, to spoken word and at the same time is thought provoking and mind bending.

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JEFF COFFIN & HELEN GILLET – “LET IT SHINE” – Ear Up Records

Jeff Coffin, Bass flute/alto flute/D whistle/tenor saxophone/ soprano saxophone/bass clarinet/composer/clarinet/percussion/didgibone/voice; Helen Gillet, cello/cello looping/cello slaps/percussion/voice/lyrics.  SPECIAL GUEST: Roy ‘Futureman’ Wooten, cajon.

This duo album combines the talents of Grammy-winning reedman, Jeff Coffin and visionary cellist, Helen Gillet.  They are joined on two songs by their special guest, Roy ‘Futureman’ Wooten on a square wooden-box, a percussive instrument called a cajon.  Their “Round & Round” production is a composition by Jeff Coffin.  It is propelled by an arrangement that circles, with sounds that curl off my CD player like celebratory confetti. Helen Gillet’s tune, “Unzen” is warm, fresh and honey-sweet. I could wrap up in this composition. it’s just that cashmere soft.  “Lampsi has a very middle Eastern sound, played in afro-Cuban 6/8 time. I can almost visualize a snake charmer performing to this composition.  On the whole, the music of Jeff Coffin & Helen Gillet personifies peace.  These lovely, subdued and calming arrangements make their recording the perfect meditative or sleepy-time music.

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MATT PANAYIDES – “FIELD THEORY” – Pacific Coast Jazz

Matt Panayides, guitar; Matt Vashlishan, wind synthesizer; Rich Perry, tenor saxophone; Robert Sabin, bass; Mark Ferber, drums.

Matt Panayides explains the title of this album on the CD jacket.  “An any given moment, we all exist within numerous fields; a field of time, space, sound or light.”

Panayides has taken his music abilities and creativity to create his own field using original compositions. Track 1, Titled, “Kite Flying,” is a memory of his boyhood and flying a kite, lying on his back in the grass and getting lost in that moment of sky and personal space.  I found “Disturbance” to be melodically disturbing.  Panayides’ original tune called “Closer Now” starts out sounding like a minor blues and gives Panayides a platform to improvise upon.   I enjoyed his warm, electric guitar tone that introduces this composition.  The addition of the electric wind instrument (EWI) gives the production an odd, musical charisma, very space-age and unusual.  The title tune, “Field Theory” begins with Mark Ferber laying down a funk beat.  The horn and wind synthesizer harmonize in between bursts of percussive energy and the time is beat out in a 7/4 groove.  This is modern jazz, punctuated by moments of Avant-garde and dissonant harmonies.  Track 6, “Energy Mover” is very fusion-like.  Robert Sabin is marching his bass at a quick tempo and Panayides improvises as if his life depends on it.  This tune I found both complex and pleasant listening.  Melding the EWI and electric guitar with a double bass and tenor saxophone   creates a unique sound with unexpected arrangements. When Rich Perry adds his beautiful tenor tones, he softens the grooves and sandpapers the rough edges with his horn.  Pentafolk is a suite in four parts.  Panayides says he envisioned a visit to an alien planet when he composed the final four tunes of this project.  “Field Theory” is an art project, with instruments bursting on the scene like splashes of colorful paint on a canvas. Joanna Mitchell portrays this when she provided the beautiful CD cover artwork.

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RONI BEN-HUR – “STORIES” – Dot Time Records

Roni Ben-Hur, guitar; George Cables, piano; Harvie S., double bass; Victor Lewis, drums; Ingrid Jensen, trumpet; Magos Herrera & Tamuz Nissim, vocals.

Roni Ben-Hur was born in a small, provincial, Israeli, desert town in 1962 and relocated to New York when he was twenty-three.  By that time, Brazilian, Middle-Eastern and African music had seeped into his life-blood and guitar style.  Although he is revered for his straight-ahead jazz power and respected as a guitar virtuoso, Roni Ben-Hur wanted to create an album of stories; stories told by his guitar and an eclectic group of musicians. For this project, he has surrounded himself with amazing talents to express his genre-busting, 40-year, multicultural-music journey.

Track 1 titled, “La Serena” features the haunting and emotional vocals of Magos Herrera. Ingrid Jensen adds her unique trumpet solo to the mix.  One of my favorites on this CD is an original tune by Roni Ben-Hur called, “But I Had to Say Goodbye.”  It’s a lovely, heartfelt ballad.  George Cables takes a rich, poignant solo on piano and Roni Ben-Hur wrings every ounce of emotion out of his guitar. Harvie S. puts the exclamation mark on the song at the end, bowing his big, bad bass. 

This album reflects struggles of the oppressed.  For example, the tune “Redoblar” is the story of people rising up and marching for freedom and equality.  Today, we see that happening all over the world.  Magos Herrera, often referred to on Latin Jazz networks as a great contemporary vocalist, is featured. Also, the dynamic drums of the great Victor Lewis introduce the song a’cappela and forcefully, like a solo tap dancer in the spotlight. This album is a mixture of cultures, a stew-pot of flavorful compositions that celebrate both family and spicy activism.  Tamuz Nissim translates a song from Hebrew to sing, “You shall walk in the field, alone, without being burnt by the fires on the roads that bristled from terror and blood,” on “Ha’Omnam” and on “After the Morning” (a tribute to the beauty of pianist John Hicks) Harvie S. gives us a bass solo to remember; along with Ingrid Jensen’s trumpet  that sings the story with flare and feeling.  Roni Ben-Hur’s album closes with George Cable’s “Melodious Funk” tune, reminding us of the vast influence of Thelonious Monk.  I am left feeling completely happy and satisfied that this will be a collection of “Stories” marking a celebration of magnificence and talent.  I salute Roni Ben-Hur’s guitar skills and this group of stellar musicians.

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TIVON PENNICOTT – “SPIRIT GARDEN” – New Phrase Records

Tivon Pennicott, tenor saxophone/composer/arranger; Yasushi Nakamura & Dominique Sanders, bass; Joe Saylor, drums/timpani; Oliver Glissant, primary conductor; Yoojin Park, violin conductor; VIOLINS: Jae Young Bca, Charlene Bishop, Luis Casal, Erin Dupree, Kiku Enomoto, Alley Jenkins, Nanhoom Kim, Tesia Pennicott-Moss, Ina Paris, Gabriela Rengel, & HyunJoon Shin; VIOLAS: Joshua Kail, Jocelin Pan, Marco Sabatini & Kenny Wang; CELLOS: Boubacar Diallo, Amy Kang, Reenat Pinchas & Lutz Rath; DOUBLE BASSES: Carlos Barriento & Johannes Felscher; Philip Dizack, trumpet.

A swirl of sound rises from the orchestrated strings, with mallets whipping the drums powerfully, like distant thunder in the background.  Then, bells are tinkling. This first original composition titled, “Spring Storm” starts out melancholy, but beautiful, as Tivon Pennicott unfolds his “Spirit Garden.”  When Pennicott’s smooth tenor saxophone enters, there is a flurry of improvised notes, reminiscent of Charlie Parker’s style and excellence.   Track 2 is titled, “Fermented Grapes.”  It begins with just horn, drums and bass, soon joined by trumpeter, Philip Dizack, where saxophone and trumpet blend and harmonize the catchy melody Pennicott has penned. 

A Georgia native who spent time living in New York City, Tivon earned his Bachelor of Arts in Music from the Frost School of Music at Miami University.  Pennicott has already garnered three Grammy Awards.  One was for appearing on Esperanza Spalding’s 2012 album.  The next two awards came from his appearances on Blue Note Record artist, Gregory Porter’s “Liquid Spirit” album and the “Take Me to the Alley” release. On this recent release by Tivon Pennicott, he wants to show us a completely different side of himself.  Track 3 is titled “Celery Juice” and has a Latin feel to it, followed by “Shameless Shame,” that is full of staccato horn lines and has a blues theme that drags through it like a loose rope in the sand.  The melody leaves its impression, until the full ensemble comes into play, with Yasushi Nakamura’s bright double bass line marching proudly and straight ahead in the rhythm section.  Both Pennicott’s saxophone and the trumpet take time to solo and fly above their double time, Straight-ahead arrangement.  Drummer, Joe Saylor is given solo time and soars above the staccato horns.  That’s how the tune ends; abruptly and with a drum exclamation point. 

This is a sophomore album for Pennicott that is meant to showcase his composing skills and his orchestration and arranger prowess.  On “Galatians Five Twenty-Two,” the strings soar and rise like the sun in the Eastern sky.  The Galatian people inhabited Asia Minor years ago.  I wonder about this title that Tivon has created and what it means to him.  The ballad itself is quite lovely and this tune, along with the others on this album, seem to showcase the softer side of Tivon Pennicott.  His tenor saxophone is bluesy and powerful during this arrangement, but the track support is soft and cushiony, like puffy clouds pinned on a blue sky.

Tivon Pennicott’s orchestration is both creative and exploratory.  “Jump for Joy” is arranged at a moderate tempo, giving Joe Saylor’s drums lots of moments to pop and place the funk beneath the sweetness of the strings.  However, it didn’t make me want to jump for joy, dance or sing.   For some reason, the title doesn’t seem to fit the arrangement.  Speaking of Saylor’s drums, he opens the familiar jazz composition, “Con Alma,” with a drum introduction that reminds me of rain on a tin roof.  At first you only hear the smooth and lovely tenor saxophone and the double bass enter the drum space.  That trio is enough.  

The first time I saw Tivon play ‘in person’ was when I saw him perform with Kenny Burrell in Los Angeles.   I was so impressed with his aura and his musical energy and excellence.  Later I enjoyed him as part of Gregory Porter’s band.  I miss that kind of stage energy on this production.  Although it’s well-produced and enjoyable, I wish Tivon Pennicott had shared some of that extraordinary emotional energy he displays when he’s playing ‘live.’  Although well-produced and beautifully orchestrated, I miss the raw spirit of Tivon Pennicott that I have witnessed in person.  On the tune, “Bad Apple,” he almost captured that energy.  There was funk on the bottom and strings softening the production in the hemisphere.  There were time changes and unexpected background horn harmonies that punctuated the soloists and the melody.  Pennicott absolutely captured the sound of rain on the song, “Rain Dance.”  I think this tune, along with several others on this album, could easily become part of a movie soundtrack.  Pennicott’s music has all the magic and drama you look for in film orchestration. 

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FREEDOM INFUSES NEW MUSIC AND FRESH JAZZ VOICES

April 7, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

April 7, 2021

CELESTE – “NOT YOUR MUSE” – Polydor / Universal Records

Celeste, vocals/composer; Jamien Nagadhana, bass/composer; Joe Harris, guitar; Josh Crocker, drums/guitar/vibraphone/composer/ brass string arrangements/harp; Jamie Hartman, piano/composer; Sebastian Plano & David Rossi, performed & directed strings; Jamie Houghton, drums/percussion; Kaidi Alkinnibi, tenor saxophone/ string & brass arrangements; Dominic Canning, Piano; Elias Atkinson, trumpet; Misha Fox, trombone; Jermaine Amissah, baritone saxophone; Mark Mollison, elec. guitar;  Simon Aldred, acoustic guitar; Charlie Hugall, percussion/acoustic guitar/horns/Wurlitzer; Tom Henry, synth/glockenspiel; Sebastian Plano, cello;  Parthenope Wald Harding, flute;

Born May 5, 1994, Celeste Epiphany Waite, whose stage name is simply “Celeste,” is based in Britain.  The moment I ran across a voice like Celeste’s singing a unique song titled, “Strange” it inspired interest and anticipation. Here was a vocalist who pursued her own expression and crossed genres with unique musical vocals, original music and interesting lyrics.  Celeste is a combination of pop, rhythm and blues, contemporary and jazz all rolled into one ball of creativity.  She is shades of Corinne Bailey Rae’s honest delivery, combined with the husky emotional delivery of Amy Winehouse and a twinge of Macy Gray.  This is a new artist to watch.  On the original composition, “Strange” she reveals that little sexy break in her voice, a huskiness that wraps her lyrics in a soft cocoon of emotion.  There is a hint of Nina Simone hiding inside her style like a possibility.

Songs like “Stop This Flame” remind me of something Adele would compose or Maroon 5 would sing. It samples music written by Nina Simone. Celeste’s lyrics and melodies are strong, thought provoking, and always showcase tenacious ‘hooks.’  This composition is a throwback to disco days and easily could be a hit on the dance party circuit. There are pop hits stacked inside this music, like stairsteps to success. For instance, “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know.” But many other tunes cross boundaries and are genre undefinable, like “Some Goodbyes Come with Hello” and “The Promise” or “A Kiss” that easily could be arranged as folk music or a sweet jazz tune.  The title tune, “Not Your Muse” is haunting and jazzy.  Celeste offers us an art project and a strong lesson in songwriting and composing.  This is an album that makes us pay close attention while we soak up the genuine joy inside this unique musical message.

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BOBBY RODRIGUEZ – “FREEDOM” – Independent Label

Bobby Rodriguez, composer/trumpet/flugelhorn/vocals; Rickey Woodard, tenor saxophone; Wendall Kelly, trombone; Joey Navarro, Karen Hammack & Billy Mitchell, keyboards; Barry Polhmann, guitar; Del Atkins, Derrick Oles & Rene Camacho, bass; Alex Acuña & Yvonne deBourbon-Rodriguez, hand percussion; Aaron Serfaty, Clayton Cameron & Maria Martinez, drums; Kei Akagi & Joe Rotundi Jr., piano; Alan Goldman, strings & voices; Raffia Thomas, vocals; George Oldziey, strings;

The opening, title tune struts out of the gate like a proud thoroughbred pony.  “Freedom” is a funk based contemporary jazz composition that involves a strong horn section and Latin rhythms to propel the melody forward.  Trumpeter, Bobby Rodriguez, has composed every song on this album.  One of the hit tunes on the project is “Jazz It Up,” a very commercial, contemporary, funk jazz tune that makes you joyful just listening to it. This is followed by “Little Henry,” a song he composed for his newest grandson.  It’s another up-tempo, happy composition with a memorable melody played joyfully from the bell of Rodriguez’s trumpet.  “Mia’s Lullaby” is a beautiful ballad and celebrates another grandchild, his granddaughter, Mia.  It’s not the traditional ¾ waltz-time lullaby.  Instead, it’s a very jazzy 4/4 that surprises us and adds a little funk near the fade of the song.  Track 5, “Bailar Merengue” offers Latin voices, singing the title like a chant, and projects a party groove that encourages listeners to shake their hips and move their feet. “Robin Star” is a beautiful composition and shines a spotlight on some of the excellent players Bobby Rodriguez has assembled for this project, including Bob Mintzer on tenor saxophone.  Rodriguez uses his flugelhorn on this ‘live’ recording of his “Robin Star” composition.  Kei Akagi is inspiring on piano.  The composition “Yvonne” celebrates Bobby’s wife and is a very pretty ballad.  “Raise Your Hands” is a composition brewed with a thick, gospel-feel and it’s fueled by the funky drums of Marie Martinez and the steady, dancing bass of Del Atkins.  Raffia Thomas adds her soulful vocals to the mix.  This project offers the listener a variety of repertoire that features Dr. Rodriguez as a competent and engaging composer and arranger.  The stellar line-up of Los Angeles musicians enhances his arrangements and perpetuates the “Freedom” title with unbridled energy and enthusiasm.  I felt that same excitement when I attended the 80th birthday celebration of Kenny Burrell, produced by Dr. Rodriguez, that became a television program. That was the night I first heard Dr. B’s song, “Jazz It Up.”

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SANDRA BOOKER – “UNTIL WE MEET AGAIN” – Independent label

Sandra Booker, vocals/composer/lyricist/arranger/background vocals/exec. producer; Robert Turner, keyboards/organ/arranger/drum & bass programming (Logic Pro) synthesizers/co-producer.

Sandra Booker sounds vocally powerful on her new ‘single’ release titled, “Until We Meet Again.”  It’s a beautiful ballad that tributes loved ones lost, either because of the COVID 19 pandemic or otherwise.  Her song crosses genres and could be marketed as R&B or jazz.  The track is very jazzy, featuring Robert Turner as a master on synthesizer.  With COVID-19 keeping many of us self-quarantined and away from studio sessions, Sandra and Robert Turner have somehow created a single release that sounds like the whole band is involved.  Kudos to Robert Turner for creating this strong track! Booker’s voice is as smooth and comforting as satin sheets.  She glides across the music like raindrops on glass windowpanes or tears on cheeks. Together, this duo has created a stellar product, that is the beginning of an album they hope to release by the end of the year.  Their single, “Until We Meet Again” is currently available On-Line.

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LOGAN RICHARDSON – “AFROFUTURISM” – Whirlwind Recordings

Logan Richardson, alto saxophone/piano/keyboards/synthesizer/ composer; Igor Osypov, electric/ acoustic guitars; Peter Schlamb, vibraphone/keyboards/key bass; Dominique Sanders, bass/key bass/production; Ryan J. Lee, drums/bass; Corey Fonville, drums; Laura Taglialatela, vocals; Ezgi Karakus, strings; Busta Rhymes, spoken word.

This production is ‘rock’ meets fusion, meets contemporary smooth jazz.  It’s very electronic, right from the beginning arrangement of the original composition by Logan Richardson, “Say My Name.” The poor mix on this tune makes it challenging to hear the spoken word by Stephan Harris.  The next three songs follow suit with electronic music and rock drums, until we get to “For Alto.”  Richardson has composed every song on this album.  For once, we hear the pure jazz tone out of Logan Richardson’s alto saxophone on this tune; blown through his horn like a solo prayer.  When the electronics enter, it changes the jazz prayer to a pretty ballad, convoluted with overtones, echoes and repetition.  You can hear Logan’s creative orchestration during this production and his mastery of many instruments.  As an arranger, and working with producer Dominique Sanders, they dribble vocal beauty and dabs of activist statements throughout this production.  On Track #11 titled, “Photo Copy,” the featured voice of Busta Rhymes complains about music business inequities.  There are protest moments that dot the production in seductive ways, tickling the listener’s brain when it’s least expected.  However, sometimes the music is so busy that it becomes noise.  This reviewer appreciates the exceptional talents of Mr. Richardson, but I’d like to see more sensitivity in the arrangements; crescendos and rest spots that let the music, like nature and life, breathe every now and then. 

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ANAIS RENO SINGS ELLINGTON & STRAYHORN – “LOVESOME THING” featuring EMMET COHEN – Harbinger Records

Anais Reno, vocals; Emmet Cohen, piano/bandleader/arranger; Russell Hall, bass; Kyle Poole, drums; Tivon Pennicott, saxophone; Juliet Kurtzman, violin.

Her vocal style and tone sound seasoned.  However, Anais Reno’s CD cover portrait appears to be a very young woman.  From the deep ocean of memorable tunes that Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn left this world, this vocalist has plucked some of the most iconic for her debut album. Surprisingly, she was only sweet sixteen when she began singing these   challenging songs.  I knew she was young, but I didn’t realize this emotional delivery belonged to a teenager.   With roots in music, I suppose this was her destiny.  Her father was a former opera singer who performed in Europe and her mother is an accomplished violinist.  Both talented parents recognized their child had a love for music when, at just Kindergarten age, she was singing songs from the Broadway show, Aladdin. While taking voice lessons, her teacher introduced her to Etta James when she was just-eight years old.

“When I was eight-years old, I didn’t realize I was doing anything special.  I didn’t know that singing was actually very complex and that there was a difference between someone who like to sing and a trained singer.  I just knew I loved to sing and I loved the soulfulness of ‘At Last.’  That led me to listen to jazz extensively.  It consumed my whole life,” Anais Reno confessed in her press package.

At eleven-years old, she was part of the New York Philharmonic’s Very Young Composers program and had the opportunity to perform with the orchestra.  By the time she was twelve, she was performing at open mic sessions at Birdland. At thirteen, she played her first gig as a solo artist at a local New York club.  They were so impressed with her vocal abilities, they featured her on three solo shows.  She won the 2016 Forte International Competition’s Platinum Award at Carnegie Hall and Miss Reno came in First Place at the 2019 Mabel Mercer Foundation competition in NYC.  In 2020, she won the Julie Wilson Award.  When I hear her emotional delivery on “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing,” it’s difficult to believe this is a sixteen-year-old singing with that much storytelling narrative in her vocal delivery.  Her slow jazzy arrangement on “I’m Just a Lucky So and So” is pleasing to the ear and the young lady can ‘swing’ and scat.  You hear a piece of her soul shining through when she performs, “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues.”  Clearly, she is becoming a jazz force in her own unique way.  Anais Reno shows great insight beyond her years when she writes:

“…You see, I don’t think hearing music I relate to makes me ‘normal;’ are any of us, really? I think hearing music I relate to makes my flaws, my affinity for blueness, my complexities, okay.  They’re okay because if they weren’t, why would this music be just as complex as I am?  Why would it be just as complex as human beings are?  As I write this, I have just turned seventeen.  There are an infinite number of people and things I will never know and there are an equally infinite number of people and things I will get to know.  … I know now that the music of Ellington & Strayhorn understands me.  This is why I want to honor it and this is why maybe one day, I will understand myself,” Anais Reno shares her thoughts on this debut album.

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STEVE GADD BAND “AT BLUE NOTE TOKYO” – BFM Jazz Records

Steve Gadd, drums; Walt Fowler, trumpet/flugelhorn; Kevin Hays, keyboards/vocals; Jimmy Johnson, bass; David Spinozza, guitar.

An eerie introduction kicks off the first funk-fueled tune titled, “Where’s Earth?”  It’s pumped up by Jimmy Johnson’s electric bass licks.  Kevin Hays dances across the keyboard keys with nimble fingers and David Spinozza takes a funky guitar solo.  This is ‘live’ fusion jazz at its best.

According to Modern Drummer magazine, Steve Gadd is one of very few drummers who has changed the way musicians hear music.  He’s been slapping the groove into place in his own impassioned way for the past fifty plus years.  Gadd’s unforgettable recordings are iconic, from his infectious beat on Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” to his jazzier projects with Chick Corea, Chuck Mangione and Al Di Meola.  Steve Gadd’s legendary execution on drums moves from jazz to pop in the blink of an eye. That’s why so many versatile artists have requested he work with them.  He’s spent time on-the-road or in-the-studio with such icons as Diana Ross, Dr. John, Gato Barbieri, Al Jarreau, Bob James, George Benson, Joe Cocker and a host of others too lengthy to print here.  On Track 4, “Hidden Drive” composed by guitarist Spinozza, Gadd lays down a blues groove that makes me turn up my sound system.  Then on “Walk With Me” (Track 5) pianist Kevin Hays adds his vocal charm, singing his self-penned song, while Gadd settles the Hays composition into a steady and infectious groove that reminds me of the powerful Bill Withers tunes and their in-the-pocket drum beats.  Jimmy Johnson’s tune, “One Point Five” brings Latin jazz to the stage and gives Gadd a platform to solo and show-off his mastery of the drums.  This song is propelled by Johnson’s steady bass riff and enhanced by Walt Fowler’s melodic trumpet. 

There is something for everyone in this versatile concert repertoire. Steve Gadd leads an all-star ensemble, featuring bandmates he has known, appreciated and respected for years.  David Spinozza, an associate of Gadd’s since the 1970’s, replaced his usual guitarist, Michael Landau. With that exception, all the other ensemble members are longtime bandmates.

“Michael wasn’t able to do the tour, so I was glad that David could do it.  He’s an old friend of mine.  I met David years and years ago, before he even came to New York. … We did a bunch of bands and recordings.  I love the way he plays,” Steve Gadd praised his new addition to the band.

The tunes chosen were honed from a 4-night run at the famous Blue Note Tokyo club in December of 2019.  They close out with a Bob Dylan tune, “Watching the River Flow,” a long time Gadd favorite song.

“I recorded that song on a Joe Cocker album that Allen Toussaint produced in 1978,” he recalled. 

As they shuffle their way out of this album, I decide to listen again.  It was just that pleasurable.

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ALYSSA ALLGOOD – “WHAT TOMORROW BRINGS” –  Cellar 20

Alyssa Allgood, vocals/composer; Mike Allemana, guitar; Dennis Carroll, bass/composer; George Fludas, drums.

I am immediately captivated by the first tune.  Alyssa and her capable musicians perform “There Are Such Things” (by Stanley Adams/Abel Baer/G. Meyer) at a medium swing tempo.  On this performance, Ms. Allgood checks the boxes that many consider the sign of a competent jazz singer.  1) She can swing.  2) she has a pleasant tone and sells the lyrics, and 3) she can scat.  She adequately ‘trades fours’ with George Fludas on drums.  One of her original composition, words and music, is called “Time Found” and it’s well-written and performed with a long solo scat piece that showcases Alyssa’s understanding of chord changes and harmonics.  Her interpretation of Milton Nascimento’s beautiful composition, “Bridges” is well-done and features Mike Allemana on guitar.  “Try your wings” is a happy song that invites Dennis Carroll to solo on his bass. Although I was quite taken by the opening tune, I found myself disappointed in some of the musical arrangements. For example, the original song she and bassist Dennis Carroll wrote is a solid song, but the arrangement features so much guitar dissonance that he did not seem to support the melody or the vocals.  Mike Allemana’s mixture of Avant-garde type accompaniment does not benefit this artist’s presentation.  I would like to hear Alyssa Allgood recorded with a piano trio. Mr. Allemana’s solos were strong, but surprisingly his support of the vocalist seemed reckless and non-supportive on some occasions.  They did a fine job on “This Bitter Earth” and as a duo on “For All We Know” they beautifully complement one another.   I note that Alyssa Allgood produced this album herself.  Perhaps she should consider finding a producer and an arranger, who can carve the music around her tenacious and stylized vocals to better support her original music, her tonality and her musical grace.

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RICARDO SILVEIRA – “SOLO”- Moondo Music

Ricardo Silveira, guitar/composer.

Solo guitar can be absolutely beautiful when properly played and produced.  Ricardo Silveira does not disappoint.  His technique and precision infuse this music that warms my heart. As a composer, he offers six original compositions out of eleven songs.  One of my favorites is “That Day In Tahiti.”  Another is Track 5, a Carlos Jobim tune, “Luiza.” Silveira gives us a very sweet and lovely presentation of this song.  I enjoyed his interpretation of “My Romance,” a favorite jazz tune across the spectrum. 

Ricardo Silveira is a native of Rio de Janeiro and soaked up all the beauty of Brazilian music in his early years.  As a beginning guitarist, he participated in school performances and at local festivals.  Ricardo continued pursuing music in college.   He’s a studied musician, who came to America and enrolled in a guitar course at Berklee College of Music in Boston.  That summer course changed his life.  The music school immediately recognized Silveira’s talent and potential.  They awarded him a scholarship to continue his study at Berklee.  The rest is history. 

Ricardo Silveira has recorded over a dozen albums as a leader or co-leader and made historic music with a host of legendary musicians including Wayne Shorter, Gilberto Gil, Ivan Lins, Milton Nascimento, Elis Regina, Diana Ross, Vanessa Williams and many, many more.  When Herbie Mann heard Ricardo Silveira play his guitar, he hired him on the spot.  He had been searching for a Brazilian guitarist who also could play Straight-ahead jazz, play the blues and various other styles of music. Silveira fit the bill.  Ricard has recorded with Randy Brecker on “Randy in Brazil.”  That album won a Grammy in 2009 for Best Contemporary Jazz Album.  Confined to his home, with all his touring dates cancelled because of COVID-19, Ricardo took that ‘down’ time to create this solo artistic accomplishment.   Although I found some of the arrangements to be long-winded, they are all romantic and inspired.  You will not hear the urgency and sexy, danceable rhythms of Brazil in this presentation.  Instead, you can enjoy the beauty of Ricardo Silveira’s peaceful style of playing his songs solo, with tranquility wrapping this project in colorful chords and gorgeous melodies.  Ricardo’s composing talents are the bow on top.

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TODD COCHRAN – “TC3” – “THEN AND AGAIN, HERE & NOW” – Sunnyside Records

Todd Cochran, piano; John Leftwich, bass; Michael Carvin, drums.

Todd Cochran opens his CD with an inspired arrangement of “Softly, As in A Morning Sunrise.”  His fingers skip across the keys to punctuate the unusual time changes.  When John Leftwich steps forward on his double bass, he swings hard and solos creatively.  Cochran displays his rich and unique jazz interpretations, using the 88-keys as a diving board, then he swims through the melodic arrangements with fresh nuances and fluctuating time signatures.  On “A Foggy Day,” Cochran utilizes the upper register of the piano to present a music-box-introduction.  As Leftwich walks his bass briskly beneath, Michael Carvin holds the up-tempo steady and solid on drums. Todd Cochran dances to the forefront, his hands and ten fingers racing, sprinter-style, and heading relentlessly towards the finish-line.  This song morphs into an extended fade that finds a groove and sticks to it like Velcro.  The trio’s arrangement of “I Got Rhythm” is fresh-faced and intriguing.  It gives Michael Carvin freedom to explore his technique and free rein to be as creative as he likes on the trap drums.  Cochran does not soak up all the spotlight, but conscientiously shares it with his fellow musicians. Each member of this trio is a master in his own right. As many times as I have heard this standard jazz tune (I Got Rhythm) this time it is brand new to my ears.  I must compliment Todd Cochran for his amazing ability to transform songs we know very well to eclectic pieces of art. This is one of the finest jazz pianists I’ve listened to in a long time.  He is unselfish and offers us fifteen songs to delight upon. 

A San Francisco native, as a teenager he was greatly influenced by such Northern California icons as Herbie Hancock, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Woody Shaw, Bobby Hutcherson, John Handy and Eddie Henderson, to name just a few.  Now, after a ten-year hiatus from recording, to nurture his son into adulthood, Todd Cochran returns to the joy, freedom and his love of music.  With this album, he proffers his amazing talent with the world.  Sit back and enjoy!

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GEORGE DAVIDSON: DETROIT BASED GROOVE MASTER

April 3, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

                                                            

I first met George Davidson when I was a baby girl, not quite twenty-one, and using fake identification to go hear Aretha Franklin at the Twenty-Grand nightclub in Detroit, Michigan.  I was there with my close friend, Marthea Hicks, who hosted a radio show locally, and we went backstage to say ‘hi’ to Ms. Franklin.  Marthea’s father was a popular minister in the Detroit area and he and C. L. Franklin (Aretha’s father) were good friends.  Marthea and Aretha knew each other and I remember being star-struck just to meet the great Queen of Soul.  George Davidson was playing drums for her that fateful evening and he was amazing!  The video below is a recorded concert performed in 1968 with George accompanying Aretha Franklin in Amsterdam, Holland.

George didn’t start out being a drummer.  His dream was to be a great tap dancer, inspired by the inimitable Sammy Davis Jr. or the iconic Nicholas Brothers. He and his family were living on the East side of Detroit, when he began studying tap at the Sophie Wright Settlement House, on Mitchell Avenue, under the tutelage of Clara Wilson.

“I was born on the East side of Detroit, in a Polish neighborhood, right across from where Mr. Kelly’s was located on Chene Street.  It was the Garfield Bowling Alley at that time.   Next, we moved right across the street from Sophie Wright Settlement,” George recalled. 

At Greusel Middle School, Davidson auditioned to be in the band.  He had developed an interest in drumming and Fred Paxton, a pianist, became his first music teacher.  At North Eastern High School, he was tutored by the unforgettable Mr. Rex T. Hall, a percussionist and music educator.

“A lot of folks who became stars attended North Eastern High with me.  Alice Coltrane went to school there, but she graduated before I did.  Barry Harris went to school there too. A couple of the Supremes went there; Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard.  Martha Reeves from Martha and the Vandellas was a student and so was Willie Tyler, the popular ventriloquist.  When I was touring with the Four Tops, Willie used to open for us. I also got to play his show a few times.  He appreciated background music, just like a lot of the comedians I used to play behind,” George shared memories from his early days in music.

Like many Detroit artists and musicians, George Davidson wet his feet, bathing in the recording waters of Johnnie Mae Matthews. In 1958, Johnnie Mae Matthews was the first African American woman to establish a record company.  She set up business at 2608 Blaine Street in Detroit, Michigan.  It was known as Northern Recording Company and Davidson became the ‘on-call’ drummer for most of her sessions.  Known fondly as the ‘Godmother of Detroit Soul,’ Johnnie Mae recorded several artists destined to become super stars like David Ruffin, who would become a lead singer for the Temptation group and his talented brother, Jimmy Ruffin.  She originally primed the group called “The Distants” featuring Richard Street.  Most of the members of that group later changed their name to the Temptations and signed with Motown.  Berry Gordy credits Johnnie Mae Matthews for teaching him the record business and she helped get Smokey Robinson and The Miracles get airplay and a distribution deal with Chess Records for their first 1959 hit record, “Bad Girl.” George remembers some of the sessions he played on for Johnnie Mae Matthews.

“I was the session drummer who recorded on most of the Johnnie Mae Matthews projects that she produced.  She had acts like, Timmy Shaw, T.P., the lead singer with the Originals; Bettye LaVette and Bobby St. Thomas. I played on all those sessions and more. I remember when Bettye LaVette was an underaged teenager hanging out at Phelps Lounge with me and Ms. Cubie. The police would come in there and Bettye, me and Ms. Cubie (another Detroit vocalist whose real name is Betsy Barron) would run and hide in the back room ‘cause we were all under the legal age. We were chasing the music.”

George Davidson recalled his international tour with the Four Tops.  “I enjoyed working with the Four Tops.  They were really cool.  We were in Europe at that time with the first African American brother that modelled for the J. L Hudson Company, he was an icon and he was also our Road Manager.  So, one pay day, Motown didn’t send me all my money.  They shorted me. That was the first part of 1970.  We were in Europe, so I told the road manager to give me my airplane ticket, because I was going home.  I’m outta here, I told him angrily. 

“The morning I arrived back in Detroit, I got a call from Paul Butterfield.  He wanted me to come on the road with them, ‘cause Phillip Wilson (their drummer) had went nuts on them.  I told him I had just got back in town that morning.  I needed a couple of days rest.  That was Monday morning.  He said, he’d have the plane ticket for me at the airport on Wednesday.  So, I went out there and rehearsed with them in San Francisco.  I remember that Tower of Power was rehearsing right down the hall from us.  They came strolling down the hallway to hear us play. We recorded for Elektra, The Butterfield Blues Band ‘Live.’  We recorded it at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. That was in 1970.  I also played on their album, Sometimes I Just Feel Like Smilin’. That was in 1971. I may be on one of his compilation albums; Golden Butter/The Best of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.  Around this same time, I cut the Little Sonny album, “New King of the Blues harmonica.”

Although in the early years, George Davidson cut his teeth on R&B music and the Blues, he has also played jazz with some of the best in the business.  In 1974, he recorded with jazz trombonist, Phil Ranelin on an album called “The Time Is Now.”  This was followed up by a 1976 recording with the Tribe group that included Ranelin, Wendell Harrison, Marcus Belgrave, Harold McKinney and Rod Hicks. They recorded “Vibes from the Tribe.”  His early influences were great jazz drummers like Max Roach, Art Blakey, Jo Jones and Elvin Jones. 

“I remember I used to sit at the side of Elvin Jones when he was with Trane. I was sitting by his drums saying, oh my goodness, look at that.  Will I ever be able to do that stuff?” George smiles remembering.

He applied himself, practiced, took all the gigs that came his way and soon, he found himself playing with many of the masters he admired.  Not only did he go to school with Kenny Cox, he played many gigs with the Detroit-based pianist and composer.  He worked with renowned trumpeter, Dr. Donald Byrd and pianist, arranger, Teddy Harris.  George was the drummer with Teddy’s Be Bop Orchestra group.  Donald Harrison came and sat in with the orchestra one day.  Harrison labeled George ‘The Groove Meister.’

“That’s the first thing I teach my students, you know.  How to groove.  Karrim Riggins is one of my students.  One of the leading drummers in Las Vegas, he’s one of my former students; Angelo Stokes. I taught Shawn Dobbins, and another one is Gayelynn McKinney.  She’s got a very nice, new CD out. The first thing I teach them is how to set the mood, by laying the swing out properly.  Anchor first, before you go anyplace, and don’t play behind the beat.  Play on top of the beat,” George shares some technique advice.

George Davidson, Teddy Harris and Don Mayberry were the house trio at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge for years. Rooted in Detroit, Baker’s is celebrated as the oldest jazz club in the country.  The list of people George has worked with could fill a book.  I asked him about his time working with iconic jazz pianist, Dorothy Donagan.

 “Dorothy Donagan was a sweetheart.  She’d look over at me and say, hey, give me some of that Papa Jo (talking about Jo Jones) cause she liked to play really fast.  Her little body would get to twitching and moving.  I worked with her so much, that when she would do her little body movements, I would catch each one with my drum licks. Oh, she loved that!”

He and vocalist Leon Thomas were ace buddies.  George toured with Thomas for two years.  He also performed with saxophone masters Teddy Edwards and the late, great Eddie Harris.

“The last time I worked with Eddie Harris he gave me a great compliment.  He said, hey, you’re playing your butt off man.  One time we were down in Ohio and he spent 2-1/2 hours on stage.  Eddie could play the piano, he could sing, he would yodel, he’d play the saxophone and turn those machines on and sound like a whole band.  That’s when Claude Black was on piano,” George reminisced.

“My good friend, Claude Black, called me a few days before he passed and told me what the doctor had told him.  They said he didn’t have but a few days before he would die.  He passed away three days later,” George paused and the silence fell like an invisible tear across the phone line. 

NOTE: Claude Black (1933 – January 17, 2013) was an American jazz pianist who performed with Stan Getz, Charlie Parker, Wes Montgomery and Aretha Franklin. Black was born in Detroit. He began his jazz career in 1948 but his big success was in 1965 when he began his tour with Aretha Franklin.[1]

The now defunct, Bird of Paradise, was a popular club in Ann Arbor. George Davidson played with Kenny Burrell at that club, among other great jazz artists.  He worked with amazing vocalists like Sheila Jordan, Marlena Shaw, Ernestine Anderson, Barbara Morrison, Mary Wells, Spanky Wilson, The Sweet Inspiration with Whitney Houston’s mother, of course Aretha Franklin and her sister, Carolyn and Roseanna Vitro to name just a few.  Davidson is a sensitive player on his trap drums.  He knows just when to embellish the music and just how to lay back behind a vocalist, and compliment the vocals without being too loud or overbearing.   Just ask folks like Award winning vocalist Jerri Brown based in Montreal, Canada.  He also accompanied the legendary Jon Hendricks.  Davidson played with Kevin Mahogany, Edwin Starr and Johnny Nash, who had that big hit record, “I Can See Clearly Now.”  Davidson toured with Mary Wilson for years and was the drummer of choice to tour with the Supremes including Mary Wilson, Sherri Payne and Susaye Green, who he complimented saying they were the hottest of all the Supreme groups.  He played with all the other Supreme groups that followed that powerhouse vocal trio.  Davidson was also part of the Michigan Jazz Masters and he recorded “Urban Griots” with that group.

In 1980 and 1985, George recorded with Wendell Harrison on “Dreams of A Love Supreme” and “Reawakening,” and on the “Fish Feet” album with guitarist Ron English, In 2009.

In the early 60s, George Davidson recorded with Melvin Davis.  You can hear his driving drums on a 7” single with “I Won’t Come Crawling Back To You” and “I Don’t Want You” on the flip side.

George told me a funny story about recording with the late Bill Doggett, famous for his hit record, “Honky Tonk.”

“I was with Bill Doggett when he re-recorded Honky Tonk for the second time. that was the last time I saw Bill before he passed.  How I got that gig was Edwin Starr called me from the studio.  Bill Doggett was having problems with his drummer, so Edwin called me and asked me to come over to the studio.  I went over and set my drums up next to his drummer.  They told his drummer to just follow me and we recorded a second version of Honky Tonk.  Edwin Starr opened for us when I was in the UK touring with the Supremes. We were longtime friends.”

I think the funniest stories that George Davidson shared with me were about playing with comedians. I had forgotten that comedians often had musicians play to open their shows or actually play throughout their performances.  George told me he played with the historic Redd Foxx at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge. He worked with Professor Irwin Corey, Flip Wilson, Slappy White, Phyllis Diller and even Moms Mabley.

“I worked with Moms Mabley out there in California.  All the ladies would follow around after Moms like little puppies.  When moms came off the stage and put on her regular clothes, you’d never know it was her.  She would be so sharp and she had soft hair.  She didn’t have to straighten her hair.  Moms was put together and looked like a business lady.  She looked like corporate America.  Oh, you would not know it was her once Moms Mabley came out of her costume.

“We would play comedians on and off the stage.  But you know the one that made me laugh the hardest, so hard in fact, she made me leave the stage?  It was Phyllis Diller.  I was crying I was laughing so hard.  I mean I had to leave the stage and get myself together.  Oh, she was hilarious.  And you had to play her music exactly the way it was written on the paper.  Some of the comedians had charts and some didn’t. But she was serious about us playing her charts,” he told me.

The George Davidson legacy has made its way around the world.  He has toured on almost every continent and with a variety of entertainers.  In August of 2017, George found himself lying in a hospital bed.  A huge fan base and a long list of Detroit musicians turned out to celebrate his lifelong musical contributions.  Diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) George has been recuperating at his home in the Motor City and had to momentarily step away from his drums.  However, his rhythmic skills and percussive excellence will live on for years to come, perpetuated by his many successful students and the historic recordings that spotlight his performances.

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[1] wikipedia.org/wiki/Claude_Black_(jazz_musician)

JAZZ ARTISTS SHARE UNIVERSAL SONGS

March 22, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

March 22, 2021

LORNE LOFSKY – “THIS SONG IS NEW” – Modica Music

Lorne Lofsky, guitar; Kirk MacDonald, saxophone; Kieran Overs, bass; Barry Romberg, drums.

Lorne Lofsky is a master guitarist, celebrated in his native Canada as one of their musical treasures.  Lofsky is moving briskly through the fortieth decade of his career.  With prominent collaborations spotlighted as a player with jazz legends like Oscar Peterson, Chet Baker, Pat LaBarbera, Ray Brown, Joey DeFrancisco and the list goes on and on, Lofsky’s credentials sparkle.  For this album, he has composed several original compositions.  Among the jazz standards, he has added the Miles Davis & Feldman composition, “Seven Steps” and he closes with Benny Golson’s popular jazz standard, “Stable Mates.” However, all the other tunes are Lofsky-originals.

Today, at age sixty-six, he is one of Canada’s most prestigious music educators, using jazz as his inspiration.  His stellar touring and growth opportunities include his participation as part of Oscar Peterson’s group and his duet playing with the late, great Ed Bickert.   Clearly, these experiences have helped develop his unique style as he expresses his profound love of the guitar.

Lorne Lofsky explains his passionate playing techniques.

“I try to play voicings so that tunes sound more orchestral.  I know there are more modern players who rely on signal processing, but I don’t even like reverb.  I just plug my guitar into an amp, try to get a decent sound and then, you know, sail away. … Every once in a while, I kind of go on this little mini-binge and I feel inspired to write something.”

For this project he has composed five of the seven songs.  Each composition is pleasant and well-written.  On “Evans from Lennie” I enjoyed the way the arrangement had the guitar and saxophone singing unison together.  It was very affective.  Lofsky shared his own thoughts about penning this song.

“Evans from Lennie not only draws from pianists Bill Evans and Lennie Tristano, but reaches out to recently departed saxophonist, Lee Konitz. … I was just messing with Pennies from Heaven and thinking of Tristano, Konitz and Warne Marsh, because they all wrote really great alternate lines to standard song forms.  I studied with Konitz briefly in 1984, just to try to get more insight into melodic development when improvising.  I learned that you have to know the melody of a song inside out, then re-phrase, embellish it and elaborate on it,” Lorne Lofsky explained.

Well, he succeeded in creating a whole new melody and arrangement.  I didn’t recognize Pennies From heaven at all.  On Track 5, another favorite of this journalist, is his tune, “An Alterior Motif” where Lorne creates a song using altered harmony, letting the melody unfold in a beautiful, haunting way.  Each original composition, coupled with the two standard jazz tunes, makes for a delightful listen that features the accomplished guitar work of Lorne Lofsky.

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BENITO GONZALEZ – “SING TO THE WORLD” – Rainy Days Records

Benito Gonzalez, piano/composer; Christian McBride & Essiet Okon Essiet, bass; Sasha Mashin & Jeff “Tain” Watts, drums; Nicholas Payton & Josh Evans, trumpet.

Benito Gonzalez is a beast on piano.  His power and brilliance shine like the new horizon at sunrise.  He engages us with a captivating energy and he’s surrounded by a powerhouse group of musicians who intensify the experience.  A Venezuelan native, he relocated to New York and grew up listening to a Caracas jazz station enjoying the music of Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett.  Gonzalez was inspired to explore the keyboard in similar ways.

“I couldn’t believe they could play like that,” Benito Gonzalez was awestruck by their exceptional jazz talents.

His parents were both professional folk musicians who played traditional Venezuelan music.  You will hear those Afro-Latin rhythm patterns in his music.  As a preteen, maybe eleven or twelve years old, he was already playing drums, guitar and organ at church.  Then, he became genuinely interested in the piano.  When someone gave him a cassette tape of John Coltrane’s “Afro Blue,” featuring McCoy Tyner, Benito wanted to play just like that.  He practiced ten to twelve hours a day for years in order to make his dreams come true.  On his fifth album release, he finally felt capable of tributing his idol, McCoy Tyner, with an album he called “Passion Reverence Transcendence” that he recorded with Gerry Gibbs on drums and Essiet Okon Essiet on bass.

“McCoy endorsed the album.  He said he loved the way we did ‘Fly With the Wind.’  I spent three hours talking to him,” Benito Gonzalez shared in his liner notes.

You will hear rhythm as the combustive core of each tune Benito Gonzalez pens and arranges.  He plays rhythmically on the piano and with the drive of a master percussionist. 

“I like strong beats rooted in Africa, where my father’s ancestors came from. I like it when people dance to this music.  Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts and Christian McBride come from the same place.  You can hear the dance beats when they play,” He expounds.


The opening tune, “Sounds of Freedom,” is about the troubling situation we, world inhabitants live in today and our unending search for freedom.  This song dazzles us with combustible energy, like the protests we see worldwide.  Gonzalez has composed all the songs except “412” that is a Jeff “Tain” Watts composition and “Father,” written by Roy Hargrove.  Benito says “Father” is one of his favorites on the album.

“It’s about my personal relationship to Roy.  In 2006, Roy attended jam sessions every Thursday night.  He sat down at the piano one night and taught me the changes to this song.  We played it often, but he never recorded it.”

The same is true for the Watts tune “412.”  It’s never been recorded until this “Sing to the World” album.  Every song played is a work of art and a legacy that Benito Gonzalez is building on the 88-keys. His composer skills shine.  I have no doubt he will carry on the tradition of the masters and create the next level with his own innovation and genius.

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STEVEN FEIFKE BIG BAND – “KINETIC” – Outside In Music

Steven Feifke, composer/pianist/arranger/orchestra conductor; Alex Wintz, guitar; Dan Chmielinski, bass; Ulysses Owens Jr., Bryan Carter, Jimmy Macbride & Joe Peri, drums; Veronica Swift, vocals; REEDS: Andrew Gould, alto & soprano saxophones/flute; Alexa Tarantino alto sax/flute; Lucas Pino & Sam Dillon, tenor sax/clarinet/flute; Andrew Gutauskas, baritone sax/bass clarinet; Alex LoRe, Alto saxophone. TRUMPETS & FLUGELHORNS: Max Darché, John Lake, Benny Benack III & Gabriel King Medd. TROMBONES: Robert Edwards, Jeffery Miller, Armando Vergara & Jennifer Wharton, bass trombone.

“Kinetic” energy is an object in motion, when potential energy becomes real. It’s a great title for this awesome album.  Every song on this project was arranged and produced by pianist, Steven Feifke. Seven of the ten songs were composed by Feifke.  The opening tune explodes into the universe like a meteor streaking across the sky.  It features conductor, pianist Steven Feifke, invincible and tenacious on piano.  The second song, “Unveiling of a Mirror,” features Joe Peri bright and brilliant on drums, showing power and creativity.  Track 3, titled “The Sphinx” gives Lucas Pino on tenor saxophone a space to fly, letting his horn dip and dive into the melodic space.  “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” was a standard song my father used to sing to my mother when I was a child.  It has a great lyric, interpreted by the smooth vocals of Veronica Swift, and brings back warm memories. 

This popular band played regularly at The Django in New York City until the pandemic.  Consequently, they were tight and well-rehearsed when they went into the studio to cut this masterpiece.  I am intoxicated by the combustible energy and drive of this big band.  Feifke brings fresh ideas to his arrangements and the band members make those arrangements come alive with brilliance.  You hear the urgency in his musical charts, well-exampled on the “Wollongong” composition where Bryan Carter takes over on trap drums and inspires the instrumentation of both Steven Feifke on piano and Andrew Gould on an exciting alto saxophone solo. The time changes and excitement that sparks “Nica’s Dream” is noteworthy.  Steven Feifke’s mastery on piano is ever present.  Each song performance on this recording is like a sweet treat for our ears. The band feeds our senses and inspires our music appreciation.

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JUAN CARLOS QUINTERO – “CAMINANDO” –  Moondo Music, LLC

Juan Carlos, guitar/composer; Eddie Resto & Alec Mailstein, bass; Joe Rotondi, piano; Munyungo Jackson, Walter Rodriguez, Tiki Pasillas, Angel Figueroa & Ron Powell, percussion.

As soon as I hear the music of Juan Carlos Quintero, I’m captivated by his smooth, acoustic and very melodic approach to the guitar.  He proudly re-introduces the listening public to his critically acclaimed album, “The Way Home,” that’s been out of print for nearly thirty years.  Now, it resurfaces titled, “Caminando,” for a whole new audience to appreciate.  As the child of a father in the United States Army, Juan Carlos was born in Medellin, Colombia and came to the U.S. as a baby then moved to Brussels, Belgium at eight years old.  His dad was a doctor and ran a NATO clinic in Brussels.  Juan Carlos established his Moondo Music record label to become a force distributing digital world music and re-issuing music from his own popular catalog.  The music you will hear on this re-release is fueled by Juan Carlos Quintero’s classical roots, having studied guitar since the age of eight.  It also highlights Colombian rhythms and is clearly influenced by straight-ahead jazz, Latin and Caribbean music.  It features six various percussion players, that infuse the music with rhythmic movement and a wide range of styles like the folk style of music called, cumbia.  The title tune is based on the cha-cha rhythm and Track 6, “The Way Home” is a beautiful ballad, steeped in a bolero feel.  I hear touches of Wes Montgomery’s unforgettable style echoing in some of Quintero’s arrangements.  Here is easy-listening, Latin jazz at its best, and still as fresh and captivating as it was in 1992. 

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DAN BLAKE – “DA FE” – Sunnyside Communications, Inc.

Dan Blake, soprano & tenor saxophone/composition; Carmen Staaf, piano/Fender Rhodes; Leo Genovese, Moog/Prophet/Farfisa/six-trak/ Fender Rhodes/piano; Dmitry Ishenko, acoustic & elec. bass; Jeff Williams, drums.

“Climate catastrophe is an issue that I’ve been concerned about for a while.  Moving away from the city provided some perspective and made me much more aware of nature in my day-to-day life.  Becoming a parent was another causal factor bringing more urgency to my own personal awareness,” Dan Blake confesses in his press package. 

Consequently, his concept for this creative recording is to express his activism when it comes to climate change and other social activist concerns.  A practicing Buddhist, since his college years, Dan Blake is a member on the board of Buddhist Global Relief.  This group is dedicated to combatting hunger and worldwide malnutrition.  He also gives his time to the “Poor People’s Campaign” and another organization called “Show Up for Racial Justice.” His musical compositions reflect his concerns in title and performance.  Opening with “A New Normal,” Carmen Staaf takes to the piano with expressions both classically fused and jazzily creative.  Now that the group has our undivided attention, they take off with a tune Blake has composed called “Cry of the East.”  It’s a jazz waltz and Blake’s tenor saxophone caresses our ears, petting us into the groove that Jeff Williams lays down and harmonizing with his horn.  “Like Fish in Puddles” borrows its title from a Buddhist poetry collection.  It’s quite Avant-garde in arrangement and references those of us who believe we’re swimming in the ocean, when actually, we are flapping around in the limited puddles of our mind’s perception.  “Pain” allows Blake to explore his soprano saxophone and his bandmates incorporate synthesizers and electronic music to intensify the musical situation.  On track 5, “The Grifter” Jeff Williams takes the opportunity to spotlight his drums and takes full advantage of his percussive solo. 

Dan Blake is a multi-instrumentalist, composer and arranger who pushes the boundaries of music as a contemporary composer, performer and educator.  He was inspired by John Coltrane, among others. In addition to being a bandleader, he has also toured and recorded with three-time Grammy winner, Esperanza Spalding, NEA Jazz Master Anthony Braxton and played with the Velvet Underground founding member, John Cale.  Contemporary improvisation fuels his music and he bends genres with world music, avant-garde and improvisational jazz, inspired by social justice causes.

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ERIC GOLETZ – “INTO THE NIGHT” –  CAP Records

Eric Goletz, trombone/keyboards/composer/arranger/bandleader; Henry Heinitsh, guitar; Mitch Schechter, piano; Mark Hagan, bass; Steve Johns, drums; Joe Mowatt, percussion; Vinnie Cutro, trumpet; Bob Magnuson, alto saxophone; Freddie Maxwell, trumpet; Erick Storckman, trombone; Jonathan Greenberg, bass trombone.

It’s not often you hear a trombone, out front, featured with big band arrangements and blending rock and roll with contemporary jazz concepts.  This album elevates the concept of ‘fusion’ jazz to a different level and spotlights Eric Goletz, as a trombone player, an arranger and big band leader.  Goletz is also a composer and has penned six of the nine tunes recorded.  Opening with “Say What??” the bandleader sets the example for what is to follow by singing out a ‘Capella on his trombone, softening the sound with a warm echo embellishment, then joined in by the band in a playful and aggressive manner.  This is a happy tune that bounces to the beat and offers a highly repeatable melody that may encourage you to hum along.  Goletz has been working for several years on perfecting this concept of the trombone being the solo instrument, out-front and blending musical genres.  After all, he grew up listening intently to rock and roll and loving it equally as much as he loves jazz.

“I wanted to feature the trombone as the lead instrument in a fusion setting, because there wasn’t a lot of that out there,” Eric Goletz said.

When the pandemic hit, Eric and his band of musicians practiced their music in the courtyard of the Goletz housing complex.  The neighbors enjoyed free entertainment and the musicians worked towards a day when they could once again perform in clubs and concerts.  Those outdoor, impromptu concerts tightened the band up for this recording.  There is outstanding guitar solo work by Henry Heinitsh on this first exciting ‘cut’ and the circling arrangements enhance each musician’s solo appearance in a tight, ever-evolving-way.  The arrangement of Goletz’s composition, “Into the Night” is pushed at locomotive, freight-train speed by the percussion of Joe Mowatt and the drums of Steve Johns; also egged on by the rhythmic guitar licks of Heinitsh.  Big Band lovers will be intrigued by this concept and these fresh and appealing arrangements. Trombone lovers will finally get to experience a trombone soaking up the spotlight and playing on a fusion-studded stage.

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CODE QUARTET – “GENEALOGY”

Christine Jensen, saxophones; Lex French, trumpet; Adrian Vedady, acoustic bass; Jim Doxas on drums.

The Tune “Tipsy” starts out like a slow swing, featuring bassist Adrian Vedady prominently, and setting the mood for this quartet’s project titled, “Genealogy.”    Track 2, “Watching It all Slip Away” slows the beat down and is a sultry arrangement, featuring a delightfully different trumpet approach by Lex French, who slides to some notes and bellows on others.  The breathy tones soon become long, flowing improvisational scales where the notes topple over each other playfully. Then comes the bass solo, prodded along by Jim Doxas on drums.  The excellent musicianship of this quartet makes the four players sound full and complete without guitar or piano.  The horn harmonics create a rich chordal structure and it’s a pleasant listen.  On The title tune, Doxas sets his drums stage front and on display, setting a speedy tempo and encouraging the group to jump in and join him.  Christine Jensen flies on saxophone. 

The CODE Quartet is based in Montreal, Canada and was formed by woodwind player, Christine Jensen, four years ago.  Their primary motivation is to create music that builds on freedom of expression, much like the example set by Ornette Coleman in the 1950s.  The group offers their original compositions as a team and they’ve been touring and playing locally to prepare for this recording.  In 2019, the ensemble appeared in the Wellington jazz Festival, a popular annual jazz gathering in New Zealand. The CODE Quartet offers well-blended, tightly arranged and exploratory jazz with contemporary, wistful, modern jazz arrangements that hold-up their original compositions like banners in the wind.

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DAN ROSE – “LAST NIGHT” – Ride Symbol Records

Dan Rose, solo guitar.

I am a huge fan of guitar music and Dan Rose does not disappoint.  His fluid technique and artistry are just breathtakingly beautiful.  He has chosen a Baker’s Dozen of familiar, standard jazz tunes that are bound to please.  I think artists who dare to perform solo are not only super-talented but very brave indeed.  There is to cushion, no one to share the performance weight and expectations from the listening audience.   Never mind!  Dan Rose is a force to be reckoned with and is totally self-sufficient, creative, innovative and completely entertaining.  Enjoy him on “Body and Soul,” on “Darn That Dream” and he offers a unique and entertaining medley tribute to Duke Ellington.  He includes other amazing tunes like “Moonlight In Vermont”, “What’s New” and “Tenderly.”  So, settle back and prepare to be thoroughly entertained by the very talented Dan Rose.

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SPRING JAZZ MOVES LIFE FORWARD

March 15, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil

March 15, 2021

CHAD McCULLOUGH – “FORWARD” – Outside In Music

Chad McCullough, trumpet/flugelhorn/composer; Rob Clearfield, piano; Matt Ulery, bass; Jon Deitemyer, drums; Ryan Cohan, keyboards/programming.

Chad McCullough’s trumpet is soothing, like a spiritual balm.  From the first mellow notes blowing from his horn on McCullough’s original composition, “November Lake,” I am intoxicated by his sound.  This is the Chicago-based musician’s 8th album as a bandleader.  His original compositions are rich and warm.  They wrap musical arms around the listener and offer a big hug.  With the capable assistance of Ryan Cohan, who adds brilliant keyboards and the lush programming to thicken this project, these arrangements are rich. McCullough’s ensemble is made up of three, trailblazing, mid-western music voices.  Rob Clearfield excels on piano.  Matt Ulery is splendid on bass and Jon Deitemyer rounds out the rhythm section on drums.  This is Chad McCullough’s first release in a dozen years, under his own name, and it is certainly a triumphant re-appearance.  In the years between, McCullough recorded with several other artists.  He’s been co-leader on two albums with The Spin Quartet and participated in a series of five album releases with Belgian pianist Bram Weijters.  McCullough has appeared on jazz festivals from Seattle to Russia, from Canada to Belgium, from New York to Chicago.    Chad holds a M.M. from the University of Washington, and a B.M. from the University of Idaho, where he was a Lionel Hampton Scholar.  This talented trumpeter was also the premiere student to graduate with a jazz emphasis on his degree.  Excuse me, while I happily replay this album for the third time.

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VERONICA SWIFT – “THIS BITTER EARTH” – Mack Ave Records

Veronica Swift, vocals; Emmet Cohen, piano; Yasushi Nakamura, acoustic bass; Bryan Carter, drums; Armand Hirsch, elec. guitar; Lavinia Pavlish & Meltar Forkosh, violins; Andrew Griffin, viola; Susan D. Mandel, cello; Aaron Johnson, alto saxophone/flute/bass flute; Will Wakefield & Ryan Paternite, background vocals; Stone Robinson Elementary School Choir & Walton Middle School Girls Choir, background vocals.

Veronica Swift paints “This Bitter Earth” with a brand, new face.  I learned to love this song by listening to the queen of jazz, Dinah Washington, sing it.  Ms. Swift approaches this song from a completely different perspective.  She adds strings, but it’s the opening of this once bluesy song that establishes the
Steven Feifke unique arrangement.  The shocking treble piano line and the classically influenced string arrangement that builds the track, produces a cushion for Veronica Swift’s voice to float upon. The time is freer and the blues is set aside for a more chamber-jazz moment. 

Ms. Swift sings a Baker’s dozen of songs, mixing standard jazz songs with some compositions rarely heard, like the Rodgers & Hammerstein tune, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”  Every now and then Ms. Swift throws in a scat line, or twists a lyric to remind us how much she admires Ella Fitzgerald.  She is a very unique artist with a strong vocal style and ability.  She adds the verse to the familiar “Getting To Know You” and glides across the lyrics like Olympic Gold winner, Michelle Kwan spins across ice.  Yasushi Nakamura duets with Veronica Swift on his double bass and when she swings this song, she really swings!  Emmet Cohen’s piano style suits this vocalist perfectly.  When Cohen does solo, he paints each opportunity with bright colors.  Swift’s unique and creative approach to her songs is perfectly exhibited on “The Man I Love,” where she lets her voice dip and dive over the lyrics, showing off her wide range and her need to fly free. Speaking of flying, the trio takes an up-tempo flight on “You’re the Dangerous Type” and Veronica Swift scats like a horn.  Aaron Johnson brings his alto saxophone to the spotlight and continues the mood Swift set with her spontaneous vocal solo.  The one song I wish she had left in the discarded pile was a Carole King composition with lyrics by Gerry Goffin that approves of a woman being brutalized and hit.  The title is “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss).  No woman should endure such behavior or feel that it’s a mark of love to be beaten or abused.  There’s too much of that going on in society.  That being said, there is something for everyone on this album of fine music.  Veronica Swift is a new voice on the jazz horizon, rising like a bright promise above the mediocrity.

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GREGG KARUKAS – “SERENATA” – NightOwl Records

Gregg Karukas, pianist/composer.

If you are a lover of piano, this solo album by Gregg Karukas will absolutely intoxicate your senses.  It’s a true work of art.  This Grammy-winning composer, pianist and producer has a dozen CD’s released as a bandleader. This production is number thirteen and the first time he has ever recorded solo.  It’s an amazing, emotional and entertaining musical journey.  Gregg Karukas’ mastery of his instrument is evident.  He has picked some familiar and beautiful Brazilian music by iconic Brazilian composers including Milton Nascimento and Dori Caymmi.  He opens with Nascimento’s “Travessia.”  Starting with the treble keys singing out the melody, he captures the listener’s attention.  His lush chords follow and continue to unwrap the melodic message, like a present for our ears. 

Karukas recalls his years touring with Sergio Mendes, with Dori Caymmi and Ricardo Silveira.  It was the 1990s and these years became some of his favorite musical experiences.  During the COVID isolation, looking through a dusty box of old tapes, he rediscovered recordings made during some of those Brazilian music tours.  They inspired Karukas to sit down at his C7 Yamaha grand piano and re-explore some of the beautiful compositions he once enjoyed playing. Track 3 is the title tune, “Serenata” and a Gregg Karukas original.  It’s a very peaceful and spiritual composition that made me sit quietly and listen intently.

Originally from the Washing, D.C. and the Maryland area, young Gregg spent hours in the 1960’s enthralled by the jukebox music of his father’s roadside tavern.  His love of music and the piano blossomed early.  Soon he was playing in small bands and listening to Cannonball Adderley and the Jazz Crusaders.  That first band became a top crossover group, playing jazz, pop and top-forty music.  A local jazz club chef turned Gregg on to Brazilian LPs and thus began his long-term love affair with Latin music.  At age 26, Karukas relocated to Los Angeles, and landed gigs with prominent names like Richard Elliot, Brenda Russell, Patti Austin, Shelby Flint, Ronnie Laws and Melissa Manchester. His piano skills were enriched by his appreciation of the keyboard.  He soon was touring with Boney James, Dave Koz, Larry Carlton, Rick Braun and even pop singer, Jeffrey Osborne.  He embraced smooth jazz with the same energy and love that he played Brazilian music.  Gregg is so diversified, and plays so many genres of music, that he’s a session player who has appeared on over 100 albums.  Gregg Karukas won “Best New Age Grammy” in 2013 as producer, pianist, composer and arranger.  His gift and solo talent on the 88-keys is certain to please and “Serenata” is bound to become another innovative accomplishment that demands attention and inspires praise.

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DENISE MININFIELD – “MY TURN” – Independent label

Denise Mininfield, vocals/lyricist; Christy Smith, William Gathright & Brian Batie, bass; Troy Lipkin, bass; Jeff Chin and Chris Roberson, keyboards; Stephan Perry, guitar; Billy “Shoe” Johnson & Gabriel “G-Man” Pitts, drums; Henry James, percussion; Marcus Printup, trumpet.

Soul Jazz is the only description that comes to mind when I hear Denise Mininfield sing “Just Say It,” a cut from her latest album entitled, “My Turn.”  In the musical lane of Jill Scott or Erika Badu, Mininfield brings her breathy, husky tone to the party with heavy jazz influence. 

This music could be programmed on Smooth Jazz, R&B and Pop stations, as well as for progressive jazz airplay.  Mininfield blends genres smoothly.  On “Just For Tonight” there is an outstanding solo on synthesizer.  “Call Me” is an absolute hit record, but I wish it could have been titled, “I Can Call on You.”  I say that only because of the hit record Aretha Franklin made with the same title of “Call Me.”  That being said, other hit picks on this album are: “Say You Will,” “Just Say It” and “The Game.”  Mininfield has provided well-written lyrics for three of the songs on her album of ten original compositions.  Much of the lyrical content is politically charged with songs of life, living, love and protest. The ‘hooks’ are strong and encourage the listener to sing-along, both melodically and lyrically.  American singer, Denise Mininfield has been making a life and living in the far East for the past several years.  I first met her in Singapore and Thailand, during my world travels.  We also ran into each other in Shanghai, China.  Currently based in Malaysia, she’s a strong on-stage performer and I’m happy to see that she has finally released an album. It’s good listening!  Check her out on youtube.com.

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DANIELE GERMANI – “A CONGREGATION OF FOLKS” – Gleam Records

Daniele Germani, alto saxophone/composer; Justin Salisbury, piano; Giuseppe Cucchiara, bass; Jongkuk Kim, drums.

Daniele Germani has a tentative sound on his alto saxophone, as though he is contemplating each note before he blows it from the bell of his horn.  This is his debut album and it features a tight and in-sinc trio that supports a Baker’s dozen of Germani’s original songs.  Italian-born and a graduate of the Conservatory of Frosinone, Daniele Germani moved to Boston in 2013 to study at Berklee College of Music.  This album tributes “A Congregation of Folks” that he met on American soil; folks from all over the world, who gathered at the famed Wally’s Jazz Café in Boston.  Among his acquaintances, are those musicians on this recording.  The title tune is melancholy and beautiful.  It’s evident, Germani is a sensitive composer and player.  The first four compositions on this recording are moderate or ballad tempo.  I keep waiting for him to stretch out, spread wings and fly.  There is a tad of energy on track 5, but the piano work of Justin Salisbury is so classically rich, it usurps any possibility of swing or straight-ahead. Jonqkuk Kim takes an opportunity, at the fade of this song titled, “Half Believe,” to profile his impressive drum chops.  Track 8, “Eres Luz,” gives bassist Giuseppe Cucchiara an opportunity to step forward.  His double bass solo is lovely.  All in all, this is a low-key production that doesn’t really showcase the versatility of the composer.  The arrangements keep everything about the same tempo and the all-important “swing” and diversity in jazz is missing.  However, if you are just looking for background music during a quiet evening with a good book, this is the perfect pleasure.

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IAN CHARLETON BIG BAND – “A FRESH PERSPECTIVE” – Independent Label

Ian Charleton, leader/arranger/composer; Bart Kuebler, piano; Wes Wagner, guitar; Ryan Persaud, bass; Bob Habib, drums; SAXOPHONES: Richard Garcia, alto/soprano saxophones; Jason Hammers, alto sax; Michael Ferrante  & Keith Philbrick, tenor sax; David Fatek, baritone sax. TRUMPET/FLUGELHORNS; Mark Oates,lead; Pete Sutorius, Mark Nixon & Kerry Moffit. TROMBONES: John Lloyd, lead; Lisa Drefke, Carl Lundgren & Dandrick Glenn, bass trombone. Emily Charleton, vocals.

Track one opens with a Count Basie-esk arrangement, with the piano and bass out front before the entire big band joins them.  They play an Ian Charleton original composition titled, “West 67th Street” that features Bart Kuebler on piano and John Lloyd on trombone.  Ian Charleton leads an eighteen-piece big band and they feature his impressive composer talents.  Charleton is a Senior Chief Musician who was Head of Academics at the Naval School of Music and taught arranging.  He is a graduate of the University of North Texas.  Charleton grew up in Kentucky, moved to Illinois, then to Texas.  He began to play the saxophone in the fifth grade and was greatly influenced by Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderley.  He began to compose his own tunes at age fifteen and has never looked back.  As a Navy man, he’s led navy bands on five continents and continues his legacy of composing and band-leading with this newly recorded music.  Favorite tunes are the title tune, “A Fresh Perspective.” It features Richard Garcia on soprano saxophone and gives Bob Habib a chance to showcase his drum skills on this happy waltz tune.  I enjoyed their lovely arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” featuring Kerry Moffit on flugelhorn. The closing tune, “Party on Park” swings hard and gives Wes Wagner a platform to showcase his guitar capabilities.  I love a good baritone saxophone solo and David Fatek does not disappoint. Ryan Persaud is given a place in the spotlight playing his double bass.  When I listen to Ian Charleton’s big band, I picture a dance hall full of swing dancers sliding across the polished wooden floor.  This is an album that recreates that joyful era of music.

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SATOKO FUJII PIANO SOLO – “HAZUKI” – Libra Records

Satoko Fujii, solo piano.

Track one opens with the sound of piano strings being played.  It’s a sound like no other; strange but beautiful.  The twang of the musicality reminds me of Asian instruments.  Satoko Fujii plays every part of the piano, not just the 88-keys.  Her music is improvisational, experimental and fresh.  Track two is more classically structured and full of surprises.  Satoko’s fingers race across the keyboard, creating great crescendos of sound.  She makes use of the bass keys and they sometimes sound like angry giant steps marching up the ivory and ebony staircase. Like many isolated musicians, through the pandemic, Ms. Fujii has remained committed to her art and creativity. 

“I have been playing my piano for more than 45-years,” she explains in her press package. “And we know each other well.  I never expected that I would record on it, but the COVID19 situation forced me into doing it.  On tour, I play a different piano at each concert.  Sometimes I meet annoying pianos.  Sometimes I meet really great pianos.  It’s a gamble.  But I have to tell you, it’s easy for me to play my piano, because I already know it very well.”

She recorded this album at home, in the month of August.  “Hazuki” (the title of the album) is an old Japanese word for August.  Her original compositions and her approach to her instrument are both powerful and dramatic.  Critics hail Satoko Fujii as one of the most original voices in jazz today. 

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GREG SKAFF – “POLARIS” featuring RON CARTER & ALBERT “TOOTIE” HEATH – SMK Jazz

Greg Skaff, guitar; Ron Carter, bass; Albert “Tootie” Heath, drums.

Opening this musical adventure with “Old Devil Moon,” Greg Skaff and his trio kick off at an up-tempo swing pace.  Albert “Tootie” Heath has always been a very melodic drummer.  He sings his licks with the drum sticks, voicing his pleasure and his power.  This is clearly heard on the opening tune.  The iconic Ron Carter takes a solid and exciting solo on double bass. 

“Polaris” is Greg Skaff’s first trio album.  He’s worked with the Stanley Turrentine group, backed up Bobby Watson, played with Ruth Brown and been a member of the orchestra pit during the “Wicked” Broadway production.  But never has he been a bandleader of his own trio.  What better combination than to use two legendary musicians as his camrades; Ron Carter and Al Tootie Heath.  You can’t get much more dynamic than that. 

Carter and Heath are no strangers to each other.  They’ve wrapped musical arms around Wes Montgomery’s guitar projects and they worked together recording and touring with jazz pianist, Bobby Timmons.  Carter holds the Guinness world record as the most recorded jazz bassist ever.  Heath and Carter became reunited on this project after not playing together in over three decades.  Each is an iconic elder of the jazz scene. 

Heath had never played with or heard Greg Skaff before this project. Their first session happened in August of 2019.  Time passed and then, in the midst of the Corona Virus pandemic, the second session was scheduled.  It was also around the same time Tootie Heath had just lost his older brother, jazz saxophonist, Percy Heath.  During this second time around, the trio laid down six more tunes to complete Skaff’s album.

Track 2 reinvents Duke Ellington’s “Angelica” into a New Orleans arrangement, with Tootie’s bright drums dancing calypso rhythms all over the piece.  “Little Waltz” is a Ron Carter original and he and Greg Skaff perform it as a duo.  It’s quite compelling, with a haunting melody and gives Skaff an opportunity to show off his guitar chops, both as an improvisor and a rhythm guitarist.  Later on, they play this composition again as a trio.  “Paris Eyes” is a composition of organist Larry Young.  He originally recorded this piece with Grant Green on guitar.  Greg Skaff talked about his appreciation for Green.

“He’s one of my favorites for tone.  It doesn’t seem to matter what guitar Grant Green plays, but especially when he plays a Gibson ES-330, which has what are called P-90 pickups; they’re single coil.  It’s a jazz tone, but it cuts in a certain way.” 

One of my favorites on this album is the trio’s shuffle rendition of “Yesterday,” where Skaff burrows into the rhythm of the tune with Heath, and offers the melody as a gift for Ron Carter to unwrap.  When Skaff does solo on the tune, he brings the blues along as a side-kick.  Another favorite is the title tune, “Polaris,” an original composition by Skaff.  Here is a guitar trio album you will treasure, and it’s also blessed with great historic value.

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WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH: FEMALE ARTISTS EXPOSE MANY FACETS OF JAZZ

March 1, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

March 1, 2021

YULIA MUSAYELYAN TANGO PROJECT – “OBLIVION” – Zoho Label

Yulia Musayelyan, flute/voice/bass flute; Maxim Lubarsky, piano; Fernando Huergo, bass; Mark Walker, drums.

Russian born, Boston resident, Yulia Musayelyan plays beautifully.  Her flute is bright & bubbling with emotion and energy.  “Fuga Y Misterio” is the first track, plucked from the well-known Astor Piazzolla’s 1968 opera, Maria de Buenos Aires.  It’s an up-tempo Latin tune, very classically arranged, and dances through space like a humming bird with rapidly fluttering wings.   This album is dedicated to Tango music and Yulia Musayelyan applies her mastery of the flute and her love of this genre of music, to create an awesome celebration.  Maxim Lubarsky is fluid and quick across the piano keys.

In Moscow, Yulia studied the flute starting at age four.  Before long, she was winning awards from respected organizations like the National Foundation for the Advancement in the Arts Award.  She is currently a professor at Berklee School of Music.  As a performer, she has appeared on over thirty albums.  Her selection of repertoire includes a style of ‘tango vals’ which have a ¾ beat and are adaptations from the European waltz.  On this arrangement, Fernando Huergo’s bass line is as rhythmic as Mark Walker’s drums and very melodic.  The title track, “Oblivion” is another Piazzolla composition with co-writer Angela Terenzi.  It’s performed as a dark and sultry ballad, with the flute predominate in the spotlight during a most entrancing performance.  This is a sexy, love song without words.

“I heard it as a teenager on an orchestra tour in Havana, Cuba,” Yulia explained the moment she was captivated by this song. 

This is an emotional, exciting and brilliant production, interpreted by her cosmopolitan ensemble that celebrates her Russian heritage, Lubarsky’s Ukraine roots, an Argentinean bassist (Fernando Huergo) and Mark Walker from the windy city of Chicago, Illinois.  This very international, all-star band contributes to the star quality Yulia Musayelyan offers us on her flute.

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V R SMITH, MICHAEL KANA, CHUCK MANNING, TIM PLEASANT, PUTTER SMITH – “ONCE I LOVED” – Skipper Productions

V R Smith, vocals; Michael Kanan, piano; Chuck Manning, tenor saxophone; Tim pleasant, drums; Putter Smith, bass.

Her voice has a soothing quality.  When Mrs. V. R. Smith sings, she compels us to listen.   There is something hypnotic about her honesty and tenderness.  As a jazz vocalist, this is clearly a seasoned veteran of the music world.  Although there is no great range to her voice, she is persuasive.  This lady takes no big risks and flaunts no vocal riffs, like circus performers twirling across space.  Instead, she simply sings the stories and tells the truth.  You can appreciate that this stylist, like Billie Holiday, has lived life well.

Surrounded by some of the best musicians in Los Angeles, you will hear love wrapped around this music like a bright, blue ribbon.  Putter Smith’s rich, supportive bass stands strong in the rhythm section, the same way he did in her life.  Michael Kanan is beautifully supportive on piano and outstanding during his frequent solo excursions.  Just sit back and enjoy Kanan’s emotional delivery during “Why Did I Choose You.”   Chuck Manning, as always, brings his tenor saxophone excellence to the bandstand.  Drummer, Tim Pleasant, applies tasty rhythms and is the glue that bonds this quartet.  You can hear his steady and colorful drums fly on “Who Cares,” a Gershwin composition I rarely hear played.   Pleasant is given a space to shine on this swinging arrangement.

When I review the list of V R Smith’s repertoire, songs like “Once I Loved” and “Why Did I Choose You,” along with “You’re My Everything” and “Young and Foolish,” I conclude this is a love letter to someone very special in her life.  I know that she and Putter Smith were together on a life journey for at least four decades.  Although this vocalist joined a chorus of angels a week before the release of this heartfelt production, her music will live on, captured in the recording studio one last time.

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SOAR – “QUESTIONS LEFT UNANSWERED” – Soaring Records

April May Webb, vocals/composer; Randall Haywood, trumpet/flugelhorn/composer; James Austin, piano; Charlie Sigler, guitar; Jacob Webb, bass; Nathan Webb, drums; Riza Printup, harp.

Trumpeter, Randall Haywood and vocalist, April May Webb have merged talents to become “SOAR,” which stands for Sound of A&R.  Not only does April May sing, she’s also a very competent composer and they feature some pretty catchy songs on this, their third studio album.  One of my favorites is the video posted above, “They Keep Saying No,” where she shows off her melodic and lyrical skills, along with her jazzy ability to scat sing.  On the popular “Social Call” jazz standard, Randall Haywood steps into the spotlight to show off his horn brilliance. I also enjoyed the improvisations and silky, smooth tone of Charlie Sigler on guitar.  In 2019, this lively and infectious couple won “Best Jazz Group” at the NYC Readers Jazz Awards.  They have both charisma and talent.  On “Killing Me Softly” there were moments when the vocalist seems to over-sing, instead of just selling the wonderful lyrics of this standard pop tune.  Still, her voice is engaging and her style sets a tone you will remember and recognize the next time you hear her.  At times, she exhibits shades of Sarah Vaughan.  One of her outstanding talents is as a songwriter.  She has written (or co-written) seven of the fourteen songs on this album. “Moments When I Was a Kid,” is a tune Randall and April May have co-written.   It’s a good song, great lyric, but the trumpet solo displayed a few unsettling pitch problems.  Track 8-9, “The Skin I’m in Prelude” and her extended song adds Riza Printup on harp for a very ethereal introduction.  April May & Randall have also co-written the title tune, where April May spits her prose like a singing poet.  Their arrangement of “I’m Old Fashioned,” is fresh and contemporary.  Nathan Webb introduces the listener to an extended reprise of “Killing Me Softly” on his drums; tenaciously showing off his chops. All in all, the group “SOAR” is bound to do just that.

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ROSEANNA VITRO – “LISTEN HERE” – Independent Label

Roseanna Vitro, vocals; Kenny Barron & Bliss Rodriguez, piano; Buster Williams, bass; Ben Riley, drums; Arnett Cobb, saxophone; Duduka de Fonseca, percussion; Scott Hardy, guitar.

When seasoned vocalist, Roseanna Vitro and her engineer husband, Paul Wickliffe, started re-listening to her original album releases, that included some of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, they must have had an epiphany.  Settling into the winter of your days, enjoying your grandchildren and each other, is often a time when you start thinking back on the chapters of your life.

“It was time to take stock of my life and look back at my career,” Roseanna Vitro concurred. “I think these early recordings stand the test of time and I want to introduce them to a new generation.”

When I saw the list of iconic jazz musicians on this album, this journalist was truly impressed.  How can you go wrong when you have Kenny Barron on piano, Buster Williams on bass and Ben Riley on drums?  Not to exclude the soulful saxophone of Arnett Cobb, the coloration of percussionist Duduka de Fonseca and the guitar excellence of Scott Hardy?  They open with “No More Blues” and Roseanna Vitro sings straight ahead and fearlessly.

It was Arnett Cobb, so many years ago, who noticed the youthful Roseanna Vitro exploring jazz as a vocal platform.  He encouraged her and she became his protégé.  Born in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Roseanna soon became a regular on the Houston, Texas Jazz scene and rooted herself in The Green Room for a steady gig.  It was the right place at the right time.  She sang with jazz greats like Oscar Peterson, Tommy Flanagan and Bill Evans.  Her reputation spread and when she moved to New York City, she soon became a part of the fast-paced jazz scene. 

The re-release of “Listen Here” (originally recorded in 1984) presents Roseanna Vitro at the beginning of a rich career.  She sings songs we know and love and a few that we’ve forgotten.  Ms. Vitro warmly rejuvenates tunes like “This Happy Madness” by Jobim.  Her bluesy delivery on “Centerpiece” is very soulful, as is her rendition of “Black Coffee.”  Ellington’s “Love You Madly” shows her swinging side. 

On ballads like “A Time for Love” her crystal-clear delivery and enunciation showcase the lovely lyrics of this song.  Her rendition of “Easy Street” spotlights the talents of Buster Williams on upright bass.  Those of us who remember Roseanna Vitro, from back-in-the-day, will be happy to re-examine this amazing album, and young listeners will be introduced to a new and inspired voice.

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JANINAH BURNETT – “LOVE THE COLOR OF YOUR BUTTERFLY” – Clazz Records

Janinah Burnett, vocals/co-arranger; Christian Sands, Sullivan Fortner & Keith Brown, piano; Luques Curtis & Ben Williams, bass; Casey Benjamin, vocoder; Terreon ‘Tank’ Gully, drums/producer/co-arranger.

Janinah Burnett is an unusual and brilliant talent.  She’s a jazzy diamond in the raw and a rising star, searching for her place in the expansive sky of music excellence.  The challenge is, where does an artist, who sings several different genres of music, find her niche?  Obviously, Janinah Burnett is a gifted and world-travelled opera singer.  She clearly shows off her skills in the classical music realm on the very first cut of this album, “Creole Girl.” Her classical soprano voice soars against the modern jazz arrangement of Terreon ‘Tank’ Gully, with ‘Tank’ taking an extended drum solo on the fade of this song.  She continues the classical trend when singing track 2, “Habanera,” when suddenly the arrangement takes a turn and becomes a medley featuring the Cole Porter standard “What Is This Thing Called Love.”  That’s when we hear Janinah Burnett’s jazz-singer-voice tenderly caressing the lyrics of this Porter tune and later, in the arrangement, showing us she can ‘swing.’  Clearly, Janinah Burnett can sing both jazz and opera.  My question is, do these arrangements best support her awesome talents?

“The repertoire in ‘Love the Color of Your Butterfly’ represents my most beloved styles and genres: art songs, spirituals, opera, rhythm and blues and jazz.  In choosing to present these varying elements, it was imperative to feature some of the world’s greatest composers of these genres; Bizet, Gershwin, Ellington, Puccini and Wailer,” Janinah Burnett explains her concept for this debut album.

Burnett has named the album after something her mother, Imani Constance, told her years ago.  “You can’t be another butterfly, you have to love the color of your butterfly.”

Track 3 whisks us back to classical as she sings “E Lucevan Le Stelle,” an aria from Puccini’s ‘Tosca’ opera.  Christian Sands takes an improvised solo on piano that elevates the music from classical to America’s classical music; jazz!   His approach is inspired and takes the arrangement to another level of creativity.  I think this is what the artist desired from the very beginning, a merging of cultures and musical genres.  These musicians seem up for the challenge. 

Lauded as a world-renowned soprano, Ms. Burnett was lovingly renamed “La Janinah” by her adoring Italian fans who consider her a marvel of versatility.  She flaunts her originality when Grammy nominated bassist, Ben Williams, supplies the introduction to “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” a traditional gospel song that shows us a completely different side of Janinah Burnett.   Next, she tackles the Ellington tunes, “My Love,” (in her classical voice) “In A Sentimental Mood,” (sung in her jazz voice) and “TGTT,” (from the Sacred Concerts of Duke Ellington).  The acronym stands for “Too Good to Title.”  It features Keith Brown on piano.  Gulley reimagines the harmonics to become more modern jazz than the traditional interpretation Ellington had in mind.  Janinah Burnett becomes an operatic bird, her voice soaring and classically interpreting the challenging melody above the accompaniment of Mr. Brown. 

Burnett’s powerful voice should not surprise us.  After all, she has performed with the Metropolitan Opera, the Arizona and Michigan Operas, NYCO, Nashville Opera and Teatro dell’ Opera di Roma, to name just a few.  Her voice is strong and well-trained.  However, on Donny Hathaway’s inspired composition “Someday We’ll All Be Free” (sung in her classical voice) I’m not sure her operatic vocals suited this song.  I wish she had sung this beautiful, moving tune in her jazz voice.

Aside from singing, in 2012 Janinah made her film screen debut in Spike Lee’s “Red Hook Summer” and in 2020 she landed a television spot on an episode of FBI. 

Ms. Burnett has a voice suited for both opera stages and Broadway.  She could easily be a church choir lead songstress or sparkling and innovative on jazz stages.  Janinah Burnett is diverse.  This album exposes us to her multi-talents in a mixed genre presentation.  La Janinah has broken free of the music business cocoon and invites us to love the colors of her butterfly.

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TAIKO SAITO & SATOKO FUJII – “BEYOND FUTARI” – Libra Records

Taiko Saito, vibraphone; Satoko Fujii, piano.

This is an experiment and experience in sound and music.  These two women, Taiko Saito on her vibraphone and Satoko Fujii on the piano, search for extreme measures of creativity and exploration of both musical instruments and emotions.  This duo is like no other you have heard.  “Futari” is Japanese that translates to “two people” and like the title of this production, it is “Beyond Two People.”  You will become completely engaged in the first few seconds of this unique, Avant Garde music.  Satoko Fujii gives us some background on this project.

“I first met vibraphonist, Taiko Saito, about fifteen years ago.  She was a music student at Berlin University of the Arts.  She just happened to come to a concert by my quartet in Tokyo while she was home for a visit.  … My first impression was of a very neatly dressed girl of high school age.  The next time we met was in 2006 at a concert by my quartet at a club in Dresden. … In 2007, she sent me a CD by KOKO, her project with the pianist Niko Meinhold.  I was awed by the level and sensibility of her music,” Satoko Fujii explained how the two originally met.

“Beyond Futari” is a very lyrical and intense combination of piano and vibes. It is fifteen years in the making.  The two women combine their improvisational freedom with poignant melodic phrases and many abstract sounds.  The result is a haunting performance.  Sometimes Satoko Fujii reaches inside the grand piano to play with the thick strings and rattle feelings with percussive response out of the piano’s innards.  Taiko Saito blends sustained tones from her Korogi vibraphone and produces overtones that she plucks from the vibe keys.  Saito creates expressive compositions and exciting, unexpected pieces of music.  Together, the women have collaborated on two compositions.  Fuji has composed six of the nine songs and Saito has written “Todokanai Tegami” on her own.

“I think we both were looking to get a special something from the piano-vibraphone duo.  I mean, these instruments are so much alike and it’s not easy for them to play together,” Satoko Fujii says in her press package.

She is correct.  You rarely hear a duo of piano and vibraphone.  However, I believe this inspirational work may change the minds of many. 

Award Winning mallet player and composer, Taiko Saito was born in Sapporo, Japan but lives in Berlin. In 2003, she founded the marimba/vibraphone/piano duo with a German jazz pianist; Niko Meinhold. They recorded in 2005 and 2014.  She is a founding member of the Berlin Mallet Group. Pianist and composer, Satoko Fujii synthesizes jazz, contemporary classical, Avant Garde and folk music in a unique and exciting way.  Both women have received wide acclaim for their individual talents.  Now, they combine those individual geniuses into one amazing production that you will not soon forget.

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CARLA MARCIANO QUARTET – “PSYCHOSIS” (HOMAGE TO BERNARD HERRMANN) – Challenge Records

Carla Marciano, alto & soprano saxophones/arranger; Alessandro La Corte, piano/keyboards; Aldo Vigorito, double bass; Gaetano Fasano, drums.

Italian saxophonist and composer, Carla Marciano, is considered by music critics to be one of the best European woodwind players in jazz and certainly, one of the strongest female saxophonists recording today.

This album is my heartfelt homage to one of the greatest geniuses of film score, the composer and conductor Bernard Herrmann, whose music has dazzled me since I was a child,” Carla Marciano muses.

I am captivated by the Marciano arrangements and her extraordinarily strong abilities on the saxophone.  She plays with such determination, excitement and tenacious abilities that it’s hard to imagine this is a female player.  She is so strong!  Her concepts are melodic, but she’s not playing with us.  Carla Maricano veers from straight ahead to experimental in the short span of a bar.  She’s here to make a statement and that’s clear.  She takes the compositions of Mr. Herrmann to a whole new level.  Carla Marciano commands our attention in a delightful way.  Clearly, she is greatly influenced by John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy.  This is an album you will listen to over and over again, with pure surprise and pleasure.

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JIHYE LEE ORCHESTRA – “DARING MIND” – Motema Records

Jihye Lee, composer/conductor; Mark Ferber, drums/tambourine; Evan Gregor, bass; Adam Birnbaum & Haeun Joo, piano; Sebastian Noelle, guitar; WOODWINDS: Ben Kono, alto & soprano saxophone;/piccolo/ flute/ clarinet; Rob Wilkerson, alto saxophone; piccolo/flute; Quinsin Nachoff & Jeremy Powell, tenor saxophone/flute/clarinet; Carl Maraghi, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet.  TRUMPETS: Brian Pareschi, John Lake & Alex Norris, trumpet/fluegelhorn; SPECIAL GUEST: Sean Jones. TROMBONES: Mike Fahie, Alan Ferber, Nick Grinder; Jennifer Wharton, bass trombone.

Jihye Lee is a competent and exploratory South Korean composer.  All her compositions on this “Daring Mind” album reflect her fascination with the human brain and the various states of the human psyche.  In her arrangements, she explores rage, confusion, enlightenment, heart and soul.  As a female, contemporary jazz composer, orchestra conductor and bandleader, Jihye Lee encourages her orchestra to dive into her work with vigor and excitement.  The titles of her tunes continue to identify with the album’s title.  Songs like “Relentless Mind” and “Unshakable Mind” mirror her tenacity.

“Unshakable Mind” is about my admiration for the determined spirit that preservers through hardship and remains unwavering in the face of adversity.  One repeating note, an “A”, symbolizes this ethos, staying constant throughout the piece,” Jihye explains.

I would like to have known who the player was on this song’s notable saxophone solo.  With two exceptions, the CD liner notes do not distinguish soloists, which I think is a shame.  I also found the teeny-tiny font size used to design the CD annoying for seasoned eyes, even with bi-focals.

You will hear Jihye Lee’s musical interpretation of “Revived Mind” and “Dissatisfied Mind” as well as a song called “Suji” dedicated to one of her dearest friends.  Perhaps she sums up her determination and creativity sparked by living in New York City during the composition, “Struggle Gives you Strength,” featuring special guest trumpeter, Sean Jones.  This is an exciting orchestra led by a thriving talent and award-winning composer who is clearly exploring the many sides of her own mind and exposing them to the eager ears of the listener.

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INTERNATIONAL JAZZ LOVE SONGS TO HEAL THE HEART

February 24, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil

February 24, 2021

BRUCE BROWN – “DEATH OF EXPERTISE” –  Independent Label

Bruce Brown, vocals/composer; John Harkins, piano; Brendan Clarke, bass; Andrew Dickeson, drums; Steve Brien, guitar; Steve Crum, trumpet; Glen Berger, saxophones/alto flute.

Bruce Brown is a very witty, tongue-in-cheek, comedic songwriter.  His vocal tone is intoxicating and his tone is relaxed.  He’s got that very soothing, low-keyed sound that people take vocal lessons to learn.  Bruce Brown is a natural born singer and his songwriting is delightful.  His is the kind of voice I could listen to all evening.  A little reminiscent of jazz trumpeter and vocal stylist, Chet Baker, Bruce Brown’s newest album is pure pleasure.  His lyrics are imaginative and at times, deeply sentimental; then surprisingly comical.  His view of life creates this “Death of Expertise” project and will encourage you to lay-back and ponder life and living.  Based in Wellington, New Zealand, thank goodness for recordings and the Internet, so his talent can be shared and enjoyed.  Kudos to painter, Irina Elgort, who designed the colorful and compelling CD cover.

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REZA KHAN – “IMAGINARY ROAD” – Painted Music

Reza Khan, nylon & electric guitars; Sergio Pereira, rhythm & classical guitar; Maurizio Zottarelli, drums; Fernando Saci, percussion; Matt King, Piano; SPECIAL GUESTS: Philippe Saisse, synthesizer Moog/melodon & mallets; Miles Gilderdale, electric Clead guitar; David Mann, strings & wind instruments; Mark Egan, bass.

Born in Bangladesh, Reza Khan was raised in a musical family.  At a young age, he was trained on East Indian percussion instruments.  Inspired by Peter Frampton’s album “Frampton Comes Alive,” the young man switched instruments to play the guitar.  You hear the influences of Pat Metheny, the Rippington’s and Acoustic Alchemy in this smooth jazz album.  However, Reza Khan has developed a style that’s all his own, blending American smooth jazz with his cultural heritage and also mixing in the influences from South Africa, where he spent time living and playing music.  Additionally, Khan enjoyed touring Spain with his group and was inspired by the Spanish culture and their music. His song, “Waiting for the Sky” opens this album and depicts sunshine hidden behind clouds, but waiting for the sky to open and let the sun rays be seen full force.  It’s a ‘hot’ arrangement.  Track 2 is titled “Neo Funk” and features a dynamic solo by Matt King on piano and a strong guitar solo.  I hear the Spanish influence in his tune, “Broken River.”  Another favorite of this journalist is “Somewhere East,” with David Mann adding his woodwind talents to the mix.  Khan’s compositions are beautiful, emotional and the arrangements are warm and romantic.  This is contemporary jazz at its best.

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SHIJIN EUROPEAN QUARTET – “THEORY OF EVERYTHING”www.alter-nativ.fr

Laurent David, electric bass/composer/producer; Stéphane Galland, drums/composer; Malcolm Braff, piano/Fender Rhodes/CP-70/composer; Stéphane Guillaume, tenor & soprano saxophones/flutes/bass clarinet/composer.

To understand the title of this work, one should have some knowledge of physics.  (ToE), better known by scientists as the “Theory of Everything,” is an all-encompassing journey into math and physics. I think, to understand the concept of this European Quartet’s direction, is to realize the definition of T.o.E.  Like jazz, the theory is fundamentally about representing physical degrees of freedom.  The “Theory of Everything” is described as a unified theory of all physical fields, including fields that are usually associated with various forms of matter, as well as fields of forces, including gravity.  In other words, that equation of ToE would include all the laws of physics, chemistry, and molecular biology.  Pretty much everything that makes up our earth and the world as we know it.  That is what these musicians are striving to do on this musical excursion.  They want to combine many types of jazz and music into one solid equation. 

Laurent David is the bassist of this group, born in Paris, residing now in Brooklyn, New York.  He’s the founder of Alter-Nativ Record Label and the man with this concept of building a group that allowed interactions of harmonies, rhythms, melodies, straight-ahead and contemporary jazz mixed with modern, funk jazz and Avant-Garde.  They use both electronics and acoustic instrumentation. 

Stéphane Galland, the drummer, shows off his excellence throughout.  I particularly loved what he does on Track 6, “Separating Circle,” where he takes us on a solo excursion into his percussive mastery for over sixty seconds.  The Belgium-born Galland is so melodic on his trap drums, along with being rhythmic, you are completely engaged when he plays.  Antoine Delecroix mixed this album and should be richly applauded.  He captured every nuance, click, and rumble of sound.  On Track 7, “You Are Here,” Galland is featured in another bright and engaging way.  His work is fascinating, creative and precise.  Guillaume, the sax man, adds his free-flowing spirit to this arrangement in a beautiful way.  He has spent 20 years touring with the national orchestra of Jazz and has been a part of the French jazz world from age seventeen.  Pianist, Malcolm Braff, is from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  He started playing at age five and never stopped.  His improvised introduction at the top of Track 8, “Curved Wrinkles” grabs the listener’s attention.  Laurent David’s thick, funky bass line sets the mood, along with the popping drum sticks of Stéphane Galland.  The other Stéphane, Stéphane Guillaume, adds his sexy saxophone and here is a tune that is quite contemporary and funk-driven. It’s a pleasant change of pace. Malcolm Braff’s piano dances in the background, coloring the music with rich, rainbow shades of sound.  Their recent single from this album is titled, “Implosion” and is a powerful representation of this overall concept of blending jazz genres.  Judge for yourself by checking out their video below.

Here is a most unusual, but quite engaging project.  The group, SHIJIN, offers eight interactive compositions.  Interestingly, these compositions are first developed as duets, then completed by adding the other two musicians during a later session.  This experiment is seamless.  I would not have guessed the conceptual framework, and I enjoyed this production so much that I played the album twice.

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PLS TRIO – “COSMONAUTS” – Dot Time Records

Pier Luigi Salami, piano/live piano FXs/synthesizers; Martin D. Fowler, electric bass/synth bass; Shawn Crowder, drums/percussion/electric drums/elec. percussion. SPECIAL GUEST: Giorgia Renosto, voice.

If you’re looking for a Smooth Jazz ride, the PLS Trio will take you on an unforgettable journey with their “Cosmonauts” album.  The musicians create spacey, inter-galactic moments with electronic and percussive effects.  One moment, Pier Luigi Salami’s piano brilliance is playing a melodic interlude and the next, the trio offers bars of bombastic, percussive-driven music that explodes like a meteor streaking across the sky.  PLS Trio music is full of creativity, improvisation and electronic sounds that could easily be something one might hear in space.  These are modern jazz explorers who use contemporary sounds and original music to playfully introduce us to their rendition of a voyage to outer space.   So, don your space suit, a glass of wine and a vivid imagination, before entering their exploratory trio fantasy.

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SCHAPIRO17 – “HUMAN QUALITIES” – Summit Records

Jon Schapiro, composer/arranger/bandleader; Jon Wikan, drums; Evan Gregor, bass; Sebastian Noelle, guitar; Roberta Piket, piano; SAXOPHONES: Rob Wilkerson, Candace DeBartolo, Paul Carlon, Rob Middleton & Matt Hong. TROMBONES: Alex Jeun, Deborah Weisz, Nick Grinder & Walter Harris. TRUMPETS: Bryan Davis, Andy Gravish, Eddie Allen & Noyes Bartholomew.

Schapiro’s 17-piece big band comes out of the gate at a full, swinging pace.  The fresh thing about this recording is that Jon Schapiro has composed all the songs, but one.  Usually, we hear big band music playing familiar old standards.  In this case, these talented musicians are interpreting their bandleader’s original compositions and they do it with gusto.  On “Count Me Out,” the opening tune, they swing hard and the horns are arranged in such a way that I feel like I’m on 5th avenue in the heat of the day.  I hear the traffic whipping past me and the automobile horns blowing.  The bustling of New York City is captured in this arrangement. Rob Middleton’s saxophone solo is as bright as an East Coast sun.  The tempos dance and turn, like a twirling traffic cop.  Roberta Piket’s piano cadenzas pull the arrangement together in subtle ways, becoming a bridge between the time changes.  At the end, the arrangement almost sounds like something Charles Mingus would play, embracing the creative collective in a busy ensemble moment.  “Tango” is just that.  It’s a smooth, sexy tango featuring Matt Hong’s saxophone introducing the piece.  A song titled “Hmmm” begins with the piano setting the pace and groove, propelled by a strong boogie-woogie beat.  It’s a bouncy, happy tune with the bass and drums (Gregor and Wikan) kicking the musicians into high gear.  Paul Carlon on trumpet carves through this piece like an electric saw.  I was enthralled by their arrangement of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” with the trumpet singing the melody against a backdrop of mystery and marching band harmonics.  This is a musical journey you don’t expect to take.  Schapiro’s music captures the imagination.  The trumpet solo of Eddie Allen brings the blues to the party, pouring it from the bell of his horn like champagne. The piano is a welcome flavor, that settles the arrangement down with a fresh and inviting improvised solo song.   This is a big band album that blends both beauty and modern jazz into a refreshing, musical experience.

Jon Schapiro is a creative and daring composer and arranger.  His music is melodic and original.  His arrangements leave room for individual bandmembers to step forward and strut their stuff, but he is always weaving ensemble harmonies and horn punches throughout each song, which keeps the music engaging and fresh. There is something Avant-garde in the way Schapiro hears the band and translates their musical abilities to paper.  Schapiro graduated from Brown University, earned a Master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music and studied at NYU with Jim McNeely and Dinu Ghezzo.  He is currently a professor at Yeshiva University.

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 NELSON RIVEROS – “THE LATIN SIDE OF WES MONTGOMERY” – Zoho Records

Nelson Riveros, guitar/composer; Hector Martignon, piano; Andy McKee, bass; Mark Walker, drums; Jonathan Gomez, percussion.

If you harbor a passion for Latin jazz, you will enjoy every song on this triumphant tribute to the great Wes Montgomery.  Guitarist, Nelson Riveros, was born in New York, with Colombian roots and had a dream of arranging the historic music of Wes Montgomery, using Latin rhythms, intricate bass lines and melodic variations.  The group opens with a delightful remake of “Road Song,” pushed ahead by the sweet percussive licks of Jonathan Gomez and Mark Walker’s busy, but solid, drums.   Hector Martignon’s Latin flavored piano supports the groove and takes a happy-go-lucky solo.  Riveros has a genius touch on his guitar, adding flavor and excitement to each of the Montgomery tunes he has chosen to reimagine.  What a great idea to play these songs ‘on the Latin side.’  “Tear It Down” is track 2 on this album and reminds me of how much I loved Montgomery’s Bumpin’ album.  This composition has been arranged as an up-tempo, Brazilian Samba.  Andy McKee takes an inspired bass solo and Riveros dips and dives across his guitar strings, spotlighting moments of brilliance.  Track 3, “Four on Six” is a favorite song of Riveros.’  I enjoy the way he transformed the original bass line to a syncopated Tumbao. I think Wes Montgomery would have given this reinvention of his music a warm nod of approval.  Riveros has reached all the way back to 1958, when Montgomery recorded “Wes’ Tune” on his Far Wes album. Opening with a percussion intro, Riveros took the liberty of arranging this song as a Columbian porro.  As a composer, Riveros has contributed two songs: “Nelson’s Groove” and “Facing Wes,” established in 7/4 time with one section in 5, just to challenge the listener’s ear.  Wes released “West Coast Blues” on “the Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery LP back in 1960.  This Nelson Riveros arrangement wraps arms around the joropo style of music, a popular style in Venezuela and Columbia.  It’ll make you want to dance with flying feet and shaking hips.  Anyone who loves the Wes Montgomery legacy will start humming along, when Nelson Riveros and his group start playing “Jingles.”

These syncopated and exciting arrangements reimagine Wes Montgomery’s compositions, along with the two original songs that Nelson Riveros has penned, and are wonderful for dancing, for your listening pleasure or lying in the arms of your lover, wrapped up in the warmth and spontaneity of these passionate musicians.

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JAZZ WORMS – “SQUIRMIN’” – Capri Records Ltd.

Andy Weyl, piano; Keith Oxman, tenor saxophone; Paul Romaine, drums/Bu’s box; Ron Miles, cornet; Mark Simon, bass.

A song titled, “Launching Pad” leaps from my CD player like a rocket.  The catchy melody captures my imagination and Paul Romaine’s drum beat makes me dance across the room like nobody’s watching. This is how I’m introduced to the Jazz Worms, a Denver-based jazz quintet, who is releasing their 2nd album after 30 years.  The title of the group was shaped from each of the member’s last names; W.O.R.M.S. (Weyl, Oxman, Romaine, Miles and Simon).  Bassist Mark Simon once worked with a vocal recording group this reviewer greatly admired called “Rare Silk.”  Take a listen to Rare Silk below.

Tenor saxophone man, Keith Oxman, met Mark Simon in 1983, after his tenure with Rare Silk ended.  Oxman had been working with pianist, Andy Weyl, on a pretty regular basis and has known drummer, Paul Romaine the longest.  Ron Miles was the youngest member of the group and added his cornet talents to the package, like a bold bow ribbon.  Each of these musicians is a competent composer and all the music on this album is original. 

In the summer of 1987, the Jazz Worms produced their first recording titled, “Crawling Out.” This sophomore continuation is a long time coming, but thank goodness it has arrived.  Each of these players brings something fresh and exciting to the studio, including eight original compositions that reflect each individual’s talent.  Track 2, “Bu’s Box is written by drummer Paul Romaine and is a tribute to his bird’s cardboard box home.  It’s a happy, percussive song, with Oxman’s horn personifying the bird along with Ron Miles on cornet, as they trade fours in a wild duet. Romaine’s bright drums egg them on. When bassist Simon and piano man, Andy Weyl join in, they also take flight.  “Joaquin” is written by Oxman and swings hard with a catchy melody.  Andy Weyl, the stellar pianist on this project, offers us “Lickity-Split” and his tune moves at a speed that upholds the song title and spotlight’s Simon’s upright bass, with shades of Weyl’s classical side obvious.  I love the rich, warm sounds that Oxman pulls from his tenor saxophone on “Wheaty Bowl.”  Oxman’s composition, “The Chimento Files” closes the album out in a very straight-ahead and swinging way.  All in all, this is a delightful example of old friends and seasoned musicians coming together to reflect musically and share their bright moments with us.

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JAZZ MUSIC FOR VALENTINE’S DAY & BEYOND

February 12, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil

February 12, 2021

AMBER WEEKES – “MY ROMANCE – A SPECIAL VALENTINE” Single – Independent Label – FEATURING MON DAVID

Eddy Olivieri & Tony Campodonico, piano; Mark Cargill, string conductor/guitar/producer; Jeff Littleton, bass; Nathaniel Scott, drums; Ramon Stagnaro, guitar; Paul Baker, harp; David Jackson & Munyungo Jackson, percussion.

Amber Weekes has released a ‘single’ just in time for Valentine’s Day.  She sings “My Romance” and “The Way He Makes Me Feel,” a lovely duet with vocalist Mon David.  The single is pulled from her anticipated CD release titled, “Round Midnight – Reimagined,” formerly released in 2002, but is currently being remastered and re-orchestrated.

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BILL CUNLIFFE, JOHN PATITUCCI & VINNIE COLAIUTA – “TRIO” – La Coq Records

Bill Cunliffe, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Vinnie Colaiuta, drums.

What do you get when you join together three jazz virtuoso players?  A delightfully entertaining album of excellence, of course!  This is one such album. 

Bill Cunliffe opens with a tune called, “Conception,” penned by the great George Shearing.  The trio tackles it at a swinging tempo and after several bars of piano, John Patitucci steps forward to take a stellar bass solo.  Afterwards, the trio swings a little more before Vinnie Colaiuta takes an opportunity to trade-fours and showcase his expert drum chops.  It’s a great way to begin to introduce the listening audience to each dynamic player. The familiar jazz standard, “Laura” follows.  Then comes Wayne Shorter’s composition, “Anna Maria” that allows John Patitucci to take an extended bass solo that just ‘wows’ this listener.  Bill Cunliffe is, as always, masterful on the piano and the music is propelled and generously colored by the drums of Colaiuta.

“Working with Bill Cunliffe, you can always expect, at the very least, amazing skill and professionalism, some deep swinging and a big bucket of fun!” Vinnie spoke about this project.

Patitucci recalls how this project popped up as a surprise to the three music masters. It was the La Coq label founder and producer, Piero Pata, who urged this trio to record at the famous Capitol studios, without charts or scripts.

“Piero (Pata) surprised us as we were working on some other projects with him.  He had the idea for us to do this trio record.  It was very impromptu, like in the Blue Note record era, where you basically do a record in a day.  We had a lot of fun and it was really relaxed,” John said.

Grammy Award-winning arranger and pianist, Bill Cunliffe, generally approaches a project with depth of arranging and preparation.  He began his career, years ago, as pianist and arranger for the Buddy Rich Big Band and has more than a dozen albums under his own name as bandleader.  Like his fellow trio members, he’s worked with a long list of luminaries and was quite excited to take this Trio ride with his longtime friends.

“I was like a kid in a candy store,” Cunliffe gushed.  “It was pretty challenging because it’s just three guys in a room.  But it was fun, because these are two master musicians whose work I’ve loved for years. I like jazz music that has shape.  …a beginning, middle and end and drama.  Usually, I craft those elements in my arrangements.  John and Vinnie are able to create those qualities on the spot.”

Patitucci, perhaps best recognized as the amazing bass sound working with Chick Corea and Wayne Shorter, is a celebrated as a member of Corea’s Akoustic and Elektric Bands and for the last two decades applauded as an integral member of Wayne Shorter’s Quartet. But he’s also played with Herbie Hancock, Stan Getz, Pat Metheny, Wynton Marsalis, Joshua Redman, McCoy Tyner, Nancy Wilson, Sting and the list goes on and on and on.

Colaiuta is one of those drummers who can play it all, but has deep roots in jazz. You hear his mastery throughout this trio album, but he flies like a wild bird on “7 Steps to Heaven.”  He rose to fame playing with Frank Zappa, but he’s a musical chameleon who can easily switch styles and has backed-up Joni Mitchell, Sting, Herbie Hancock, Barbra Streisand, James Taylor and even Billy Joel.  For a while, Colaiuta and Patitucci shared the stage as a version of Chick Corea’s Akoustic Band.  All three musicians have pleasantly crossed paths over the years, playing with each other in various situations, but never as a trio.  So, this assembly is fresh, new and absolutely stunning to the ear.  You will hear both brilliant and memorable conversation between these three masters, as they challenge each other and themselves, playing in the moment, without arrangements or music, yet finding that common thread that makes this project golden.  Together, they sparkle and shine.

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MARK WINKLER & DAVID BENOIT – “OLD FRIENDS” – Café Pacific Record

Mark Winkler, vocals; David Benoit, piano/organ; Gabe Davis, bass; Clayton Cameron, drums; Pat Kelley, guitar; Stefanie Fife, cello; Kevin Winard, percussion.

The things I admire most about Mark Winkler is his choice of repertoire and his song writing.  Opening with the Bob Dorough song, “I’ve Got Just About Everything,” we are off to a swinging start with a great lyric to enjoy and to ponder.  Winkler is a storyteller in his own right, like Dave Frishberg, so it’s not surprising that he chooses to sing Frishberg’s very wonderful tune, “Sweet Kentucky Ham.”   Winkler takes the liberty of adding fresh, new lyrics to “Better Than Anything” personalizing it and referencing his wonderful musicians; Gabe Davis on bass, brush master, Clayton Cameron on drums and Pat Kelley on guitar.  Singer and lyricist, Mark Winkler has been good friends with pianist/composer, David Benoit for thirty-seven years.  This is an album, featuring these two talented souls, that’s been a long time coming and it’s the result of the pandemic.  When Benoit’s tour in Japan was cancelled, alone at home, he invited his friend Winkler over for dinner.  Afterwards, like all musicians do, they gravitated to the grand piano and Benoit began accompanying Winkler on some familiar tunes. Halfway through “The Shadow of Your Smile” Benoit suggested they make an album together, in the midst of a pandemic. 

“We talked on the phone a lot, coming up with ideas for the album.  After a while, I did go over to his house to practice once a week.  It turns out, you can actually sing while wearing a mask.  It was easy to stay separated.  He sat playing at one end of his 9-foot grand and I stood singing at the other end,” Mark Winkler recalled the pandemic’s isolated days where he found solace in music.

Paul Simon’s song, “Old Friends” probably sums up the beauty and compatibility of these two seasoned veterans of music and it’s the album’s title tune.  Stefanie Fife’s cello work on this arrangement is lovely and heartfelt.  On “When This Love Affair is Over” David Benoit surprises out ears by doubling on the Hammond B3 organ.  I was eager to hear the compositions that Winkler and Benoit collaborated on.  The first is “In A Quiet Place,” (co-written with Shelly Nyman) with a warm, wonderful lyric about friendship and lovers finding the ultimate peace in a quiet place.  It’s dedicated to Benoit’s wife.  The cello of Fife opens the tune “Dragonfly,” along with the notable piano accompaniment of David Benoit and is another song penned by Winkler and Benoit.  It has a pop/country/western flavor with a poetic look at the freedom and beauty of a dragon fly and the insect’s relationship to someone searching for love.   The most poignant song they composed, along with songwriter, Heather Perram Frank, is “Thirty Years (Only Sunshine Days)” that seems to sum up the beauty of a close friendship in well-written lyrics and with a memorable melody. 

Perhaps David Benoit described this project best when he said:

“Working with Barbara Brighton (producer) and Mark was a highlight for me.  I think this is Mark’s best work.  He is restrained and heartfelt. …You can hear the communication with Mark and me, and it’s superb.  This is a result of a certain maturity that only comes with age and a willingness to put the time and effort into the project.  This could be a happy result of COVID-19, giving us all the time, we needed to make it right.”

So, light the fireplace, put on your listening ears, and soak up the great repertoire these two seasoned friends and musicians offer in their own inimitable ways.

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MIKE FREEDMAN – “INTO THE DAYBREAK” –  Independent Label

Mike Freedman, guitar/composer/arranger; Jeremy Ledbetter, piano; Max Senitt, drums/percussion; Kobi Hass, Bass; Curtis Freeman, Alexis Baro, trumpet; Chris Gale, tenor saxophone; Louis Simão, Cuica.

Toronto-based guitarist, Mike Freedman, has released his debut album as a bandleader, after three decades of experience on the Toronto, Canada music scene.  This album features nine of Freedman’s original compositions and each one is a sparkling gem.  Mike Freedman’s music is melodic and contemporary.  He’s a solid composer with fresh eyes on song structure and melody.  Take for example “Lamentation Revelation” with it’s surprising chord changes.  Most of Freedman’s music is laid-back and relaxing.  However, on “Samba on the Sand” he picks up the pace and adds a cuica, played by Luis Simão.  The word ‘cuica’ means gray, four-eyed opossum in Portuguese, but it’s actually a Brazilian friction drum that has a large pitch range.  It’s popularly used in Samba music and known for its high- pitched cry.  It adds richness to the production.  Freedman’s fingers fly across the guitar strings, like busy Sea Gulls circling the beach.  “Snake in the Grass” is played in a minor mode and sounds very Middle Eastern.  With his repertoire and arrangements, Mike Freedman offers a variety of original music for our listening pleasure.  Most is presented in a smooth jazz way that features his skills on guitar and a very creative imagination.

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FREDERIC VIALE QUINTET – “l’ENVOL” – Diapason Records

Frederic Viale, accordion/composer/arranger; Chloé Cailleton, voice; Julian Leprince-Caetano, piano; Nelson Veras, guitar; Natallino Neto, bass; Zaza Desiderio, drums.

Having spent precious time in Paris, I learned there are a plethora of fine French musicians and I came to appreciate the accordion as a viable jazz instrument.  Frederic Viale is a master accordion player, a composer and arranger.  On this, his sixth album, he has composed eight of the ten songs.  On track 1, (the title tune) he has employed the smooth, emotional vocals of Chloé Cailleton to enhance the melody.  She becomes a human horn during this project, singing melodies without lyrics.  Julian Leprince-Caetano is the pianist who makes his voice clearly heard on the Quintet’s first track, unleashing an impressive solo.  Track 2, “Ultime Atome” reminds me a wee bit of a Flora Purim & Airto arrangement, with a slight Latin influence and a melody that encourages staccato notes sung by Chloé’s crystal, clear voice.  Soon, the smooth legato sound of Frederic Viale’s accordion takes stage center.  You can immediate appreciate he is technically astute. These first two songs are original compositions by Frederic and exhibit strong melodies.  Track 4, “Les Arbres Bleus” is a beautifully penned ballad that features the sensitive Viale technique on accordion.  He also chords the accordion beneath the solo of pianist Julian Leprince-Caetano in a heartfelt way.  At times, the Viale accordion sounds like a flute.  In other settings, Frederic plays it like a horn solo.  You can plainly hear the guitar of Nelson Veras during the arrangement of “Odonata.”  Obviously, Frederic Viale has classical training, but he’s very jazzy in his approach and his composition style.  The Hubert Giraud tune, “La Tendresse” is the only production where Chloé Cailleton sings the French lyrics and that closes out this album.  Here is a musical production cutting new pathways into the jazz tradition.  Using the accordion, Frederic Viale’s immense talent unveils itself with compositions that are cement strong, flawless technique and variety of repertoire.

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TABER GABLE – “HIDDEN DRIVEWAYS” – Independent label

Taber Gable, keyboards/piano/synthesizers/vocals/composer/arranger/producer; Sarah Hanahan, alto saxophone; Andrew Renfroe, elec. guitars; Jonathan Pinson, drums; Kyle Miles, electric bass.

Taber Gable is a composer, pianist and vocalist.  He opens this album with one of eleven compositions he has penned.  This opening tune is titled, “Don’t Let Life Hold You Down.”  It features a stunning guitar solo by Andrew Renfroe.  This is modern, contemporary, electric jazz, with a funk undercurrent provided by drummer Jonathan Pinson.  Gable has a way of setting up the groove and creating a loop of music that make you want to move.  His vocals institute a repetitive melody and his creative keyboard work establishes style and uniqueness.  There is a great deal of Hip Hop influence in his original compositions.  On “Ache” I can visualize Jill Scott laying down her spoken word. The track is strong, but the vocals are mixed way down in the music.  I question, why?  The song “Pride” is reminiscent of a melody that Earth, Wind & Fire might sing and arrange.  Once again, the mix is poorly executed.  Taber Gable layers his vocals and his keyboard-work fattens the track with electronic implementation of effects and thick harmonic chords.  This tune is smooth jazz.  Taber Gable has an individual vocal tone, that could easily make this artist recognizable.  We call that a ‘stylist’.  But his vocals are mixed so far down in the track you have to strain to hear them.  You can more clearly hear him on his R&B based song, “Tears,” as he sings the catchy line, “I hear your tears falling like the rain.”  

Taber Gable offers cross-genre arrangements and a performance style that heralds his multi-talents.  But like the very dark CD cover of his project and the title of his album, “Hidden Driveways” the artist is pictured behind a camouflage of trees and unfortunately, his vocals are also hidden in the recording.  I believe, sometimes an artist needs a producer instead of trying to do everything themselves.   Unfortunately, I think much of the power and punch of this production was lost in the mix and the mastering. 

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ALLAN HARRIS – “KATES SOULFOOD” – Love Productions

Allan Harris, voice/guitars/composer; Shirazette Tinnin, drums; Nimrod Speaks, bass; Marty Kenney, acoustic & electric bass; Arcoiris Sandoval, piano/Hammond B3; Grégoire Maret, harmonica; David Castaneda & Jhair Sala, percussion; Curtis Taylor, trumpet; Alex Budman, alto saxophone; Keith Fiddmont, tenor saxophone; Ondre J. Pivec, organ; Tonga Ross-M’au, guitar; Carolyn Leonhart, Doreen Wilburn, Jordan Wilburn & Whitley Wilburn, background voices; CHILDRENS VOICES: Angela Whitley, James Whitley, David Whitley & Micah Whitley, Jr.; Producer: Kamau Kenyatta.

Allan Harris reflects on his life in Harlem as a place of opportunity, inspiration and love.  He opens up this album with a self-penned song called “I Grew Up (Kate’s Place)” that is arranged as a cross between R&B and Jazz in a sweet, old-school kind of way.  Hand claps introduce us to the groove along with a blues guitar that joins in with the voices of children in the background.  The lyrics roll off his tongue like the honey-sweet, wise words of a seasoned poet. He sings:

“I took the train up to Harlem … a spring afternoon.  Going to the Appollo, hear all that jazz, soul and downhome blues. Nina, Sarah and Ella; Duke and Basie would swing, that’s a fact!  Jackie, Smokey and                       Marvin; James Brown and Aretha never walked through the back.”

Enter the background voices, “Harlem is the place where I live,” they sing with a gospel clap egging them on.  Enter Gregoire Maret on his jazzy harmonica solo and Shirazette Tinnin’s drums push the music ahead with hot and heavy strokes.  Shirazette is also Allan’s musical conductor.  This is a great way to start Allan Harris’s fourteenth album release.  It’s based on recollections of his Aunt Kate’s well-loved luncheonette, once located near the Apollo Theater.

“I experienced many pivotal moments at my aunts’ restaurant.  It was there I found my voice,” Allan Harris reminisces.

His beautiful, baritone vocals are as smooth as melted brown butter.  His poignant memories pour from my CD player and tell me stories of his life.  This is ‘soul jazz’ at its best.  Another one of the Harris originals, “One More Notch (Put Down Your Gun),” talks about the violence in the streets; violence that perhaps he, himself, has experienced.  His words touch me and expose the soft, underbelly of inner-city life that can muddy and destroy a future, or the hope and determination that can bless and uplift a soul.

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BENOIT DELBECQ – “THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT” – Pyroclastic Records

Benoit Delbecq, solo piano.

The title of this project is so poetic and intriguing, I was eager to hear the music.  The facts behind the title are unusual.  Some 35 years ago, Benoit Delbecq’s physicist brother proved that light has mass.  Delbecq took poetic license to change ‘mass’ to ‘weight’ as his album’s title.

“Hardly any people know that light has a mass,” Delbecq exclaims in his promo package. 

I believe that one of the reasons he would be excited about this discovery is because Benoit Delbecq is a visual artist, as well as a musician.  He designed his own CD cover.  This album cover mirrors his desire to feature architecture, because he visualizes it when he composes new music; including how different structures interact with light.  This French pianist regards his instrument as a vessel for his artistic expression and art expansion. 

“When I’m composing, it’s exactly like I’m looking at inventing the future shape of an object.  So, I look at it from different places.  It’s like a 3-D way of conceiving things that have to do with optical phenomena.  If I move around it, it will reveal shapes that are hidden at other angles,” Benoit Delbecq describes his composition technique.

You hear it in his improvised music on this album. It’s quite fascinating.  Benoit’s compositions are expressive in a mysterious and untethered way. This is a solo project with him utilizing the piano strings and creating his own rhythm, as well as playing the 88-keys for melody and creative expression.  In addition to being a performer, composer and producer, Delbecq served as founder of the Hask Collective Paris from 1992 to 2004 and presently is a founding member of Bureau de Son Paris and the dStream label. This is the internationally acclaimed pianist’s first solo record release in more than a decade.

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KRISTIANA ROEMER – “HOUSE OF MIRRORS” – Sunnyside Records

Kristiana Roemer, vocals/composer; Addison Frei, piano; Alex Claffy, bass; Adam Arruda, drums; Gilad Hekselman & Ben Monder, guitar; Dayna Stephens, saxophone; Rogerio Boccato, percussion.

This vocalist incorporates her composing talents with an introspective look at her own life, reflected in the title of her debut album, “House of Mirrors.” Kristiana Roemer adds her own prose.

“I imagine a ‘House of Mirrors’ inside of each of us where we can hold and honor all the possibilities of ourselves that we could have drawn upon; chances taken, potentials cultivated, paths pursued and so on,” Roemer says in her liner notes.

Roemer’s music presents interesting chord changes for the band to improvise upon.  On the title song, Gilad Hekselman makes a stark statement with his guitar solo. However, Kristiana Roemer’s melodies are not easily repeatable and her lyrics are often non-rhyming prose.  An example is track 2, “Beauty Is a Wound” performed with only percussion and bass.  The title is never mentioned.  “Virgin Soil” is another song that doesn’t mention the title anywhere, and has no ‘hook’ that the listener can hang onto or sing along with.  Dayna Stephens’ saxophone briefly improvises and the track is strong, with the bass of Alex Claffy dancing along with the rhythm section and making a statement with his instrument.  He is as strong as the featured vocalist. 

Unfortunately, I just don’t relate to the melodic stories that Kristiana Roemer is sharing.  She sings “Deine Hande” (Your Hands) sung in what might be German.  The press package doesn’t tell us, nor do the liner notes.  On track 5, “Dark Night of the Soul” I am disappointed by the guitar solo of Ben Monder and the mixing of this song.  On the poem, her voice should have come up in the mix and the track should have been pulled down, so we can better hear her poetry.  These little studio adjustments are so important to a project.  The tune I found most enjoyable is “Lullaby for N,” a beautiful ballad.  Addison Frei is a sensitive accompanist on piano throughout this production.  I was eager to hear Ms. Roemer tackle Stanley Turrentine’s famed “Sugar,” tune.  She didn’t swing it, but sang it legato at first and even though her band wanted to swing, Kristiana Roemer just could not do it.  The ability to ‘Swing’ is part of being a jazz musician or vocalist.  Alex Claffy on bass has no problem in the ‘Swing’ department.  They close with “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love” composed by Charlie Mingus.  It showcases the beauty of Kristiana Roemer’s bell-clear voice and gives an opportunity for Addison Frei to sport his talents, with fingers racing up and down the 88-keys.  Ms. Roemer is a good singer, but her songwriting is still developing and to call herself a jazz singer she must learn to improvise and to ‘Swing.’

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THE DAVID ANGEL JAZZ ENSEMBLE – “OUT ON THE COAST” 3-DISC ANTHOLOGY – Bassett Hound Music

David Angel, tenor saxophone/conductor/composer/arranger; Paul Kreibich, drums; Susan Quam, string bass; John Chiodini, guitar; Jim Self, tuba/bass trombone; Scott Whitfield, trombone; Stephanie O’Keefe, horn; Ron Stout, trumpet/flugelhorn; Jonathan Dane, trumpet/flugelhorn; Bob Carr, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet; Tom Peterson, tenor saxophone/flute/alto flute; Jim Quam, tenor saxophone/clarinet; Gene Cipriano “Cip,” alto & soprano saxophones/clarinet.

David Angel arranges music like a free-flowing, two-lane highway.  Just pretend you are in a helicopter looking down on the cars and trucks streaming North and South.  In music, when instrumentation moves that way, it’s referred to as contrapuntal.  Just like the cars are smoothly moving counterpoint to each other, the musical instruments are doing the same thing in many of the David Angel arrangements.  His comfort level in classically rooted music and America’s classical music called ‘jazz’ is obvious.  These two technical gifts shine brightly in Mr. Angel’s composing and arranging skills.  Jim Self, an expert tuba player and bandmember in the David Angel Jazz Ensemble, probably summed up Mr. Angel’s talents best when he said, “I like to describe his stuff as Gil Evans meets J.S. Bach.”

You clearly hear the Angel technique on the opening tune of disc one.  It’s an original composition by David Angel that is also the title of this three-disc set of music.  “Out on the Coast” rolls along in a happy-go-lucky way, with a melody you want to whistle along with and the horns richly harmonizing in the background.  Track 2 is another original penned by David Angel and titled “Wig.”  It has a little Latin flair to it and meanders along at a moderate pace.  Listen for the counterpoint movements of the horns, that melt together, smooth as oil on glass, parting the stage curtains to feature Tom Peterson on tenor saxophone, with Ron Stout and Jonathan Dane on flugelhorn.  There is also an unexpected patch of time where the percussion mastery of Paul Kreibich is featured.

David Angel has been conducting this jazz ensemble since 1969.  It began as a rehearsal band and over years of experimenting with his arrangements and composing talents, the band has featured some of the West Coast giants of jazz like Bill Perkins, Bob Cooper, Kim Richmond, Bob Brookmeyer, Bud Shank, Pete and Conte Condoli, Art Pepper and Pete Christlieb, to list just a handful of the stars who have played the David Angel charts.  I find myself drawn to his melodic songwriting and unique arranging.  Recently David offered lessons in composition and theory to working composers for ASMAC. ASMAC seeks to educate new audiences on the role and impact of music arrangers and composers by presenting a series of talks at educational institutions, ranging from middle and high schools to universities and community colleges.

The other provocative and selfless thing that David Angel does as an arranger and composer is to leave plenty of room to showcase the talents of his bandmates.  His lush arrangements build and crescendo, then drop back down to spotlight a solo by some of his many talented musicians.  This is a project bursting with genius, presenting familiar and well-played music and showcasing the composer, arranger and conductor skills of David Angel.  It’s an absolutely beautiful project and longtime labor of love.

I couldn’t find a sample of the new album, but here is a bluesy piece from a former CD he released.

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GUITAR GOODNESS & BASS BRILLIANCE

February 1, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil

February 1, 2021

DAVE STRYKER – “BAKER’S CIRCLE” – Strikezone Records

Dave Stryker, guitar/composer/producer; Walter Smith III, tenor saxophone; Jared Gold, organ; McClenty Hunter, drums; Mayra Casales, percussion.

Dave Stryker is a force to be reckoned with.  He opens this latest recording with “Tough,” an original composition that is tenacious and bold.  This outstanding guitarist and his group grind their way onto the scene with straight-ahead power and precision.  This is one of three original songs Stryker has penned.  “El Camino” is a little more laid-back with strong percussive over-tones by Mayra Casales and featuring the jazzy tenor saxophone of Walter Smith III.  This Latin flavored tune makes me want to dance.  The third original, “Dreamsong,” is both bluesy and played in 7/4 time. 

I wondered why the “Baker’s Circle” title was chosen for this album. In his press package, Dave Stryker explained it.

“Composer and educator, David Baker, was in my corner from the time I met him at a jazz camp when I was seventeen, ‘til he hired me to take over as guitar professor at Indiana University a few years ago.  I named the song, “Baker’s Circle” in his memory,” Dave explained.

Once again, Stryker has reunited with his hard-hitting B3 organ group featuring Jared Gold on organ and McClenty Hunter on drums.  Together, they always bring the groove and the punch to the party.  You will enjoy the straight-ahead, speedy rendition of Jaren Gold’s “Rush Hour” tune, followed by a sexy version of “Superstar” that Luther VanDross made so popular.  Stryker wrings out every drop of emotion when he plays his guitar on this one.  They close their recording with “Trouble (No. 2),” a shuffle tune originally recorded by Stryker’s former boss, the great Stanley Turrentine.  Appropriately, in closing they groove and move us with the same energy they used to open their project.  This is feel-good music from start to finish.

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SANTI DEBRIANO – “FLASH OF THE SPIRIT” – Truth Revolution Records

Santi Debriano, acoustic bass/guitar/composer; Andrea Brachfeld, flute; Justin Robinson, alto saxophone; Bill O’Connell, piano/composer; Valtinho Anastacio, percussion; Tommy Campbell & Francisco Mela, drums; Tim Porter, mandolin.

This album premise began while Santi Debriano was a graduate student at Wesleyan University. He was reading the Robert Farris Thompson book, “Flash of the Spirit” and that book provoked a question in his mind.  To what extent have African traditions and customs been retained by contemporary Black culture throughout the Americas?  Consequently, the music interpreted on this album, mostly composed by Debriano, is meant to answer that question.

As an ethnomusicology graduate, Debriano has studied music from all over the world.  Consequently, he’s incorporated various communities and musical references from as far away as Panama and as close as Brooklyn, New York, or his place of residence in Staten Island.  He aimed to explore the impact of African roots in jazz music.  Opening with “Awesome Blues” he gives Tommy Campbell, on drums, an opportunity to explode like firecrackers all over this tune.  It’s an exciting way for this ensemble to open their production.  On“Funky New Dorp,” Santi Debriano’s bass is the glue that holds this arrangement tightly in place.  It’s embellished by the piano excellence of Bill O’Connell, who dances all over this arrangement on the 88 keys.  Here is a true ‘blues’ swing that quickly becomes one of my favorites on this recording.  The addition of the melody enhanced by Andrea Brachfeld on flute and Justin Robinson on the alto saxophone offers a grounding effect to this free-spirited song.  Their instruments harmonize beautifully.

Debriano opens the Billie Holiday sung standard, “For heaven’s Sake” with a long, solo bass introduction and then plays the entire tune solo.  That surprised me, but I found it very inspired.  I personally would have loved to hear him bow the melody, just one time down.  Pianist, Bill O’connell, composed track 4, “Beneath the Surface” and indeed, I get my wish.  Debriano pulls out his bow and gives us a beautiful bass solo at the very top of the tune.   This song remains piano and bass throughout. Andrea Brachfeld shines and sparkles during her flute solo on “Natural Causes” and “Ripty Boom.”  Also, Justin Robinson soars on alto saxophone during their arrangement of Debriano’s original song, “Ripty Boom.”  The Kenny Dorham song, “La Mesha” features a startlingly beautiful guitar solo by Santi Debriano.

This album is a celebration of upright bass and guitar in a unique and gratifying way, featuring the very talented Santi Debriano, who kindly shares a flash of his own spirit with us in a most unique way. 

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TODD MOSBY – “AERIAL VIEWS” – MMG Records

Todd Mosby, acoustic & electric guitars/Imrat guitars; Charlie Bisharat, violin; Tony Levin, Sean Harkness  & Michael Manring, bass; Jerry Marotta, drums; Jeff Haynes, percussion; Premik R. Tubbs, saxophone/ lap steel/wind synthesizer; Lola Kristine, Fender Rhodes/piano/vocals; Tom Eaton, Rhodes/piano/synth pads; Kristin Hoffmann, backup vocals; Will Ackerman, guitar/producer.

“Aerial Views” is an album that is part of a series that guitarist/composer Todd Mosby has written and arranged to highlight the natural elements of earth.  This production celebrates air and also memories of co-piloting across the sky with his father, who was an experienced pilot.  This music is easy-listening and heavily soaked in classical North Indian technique.  It’s infused with sounds of Asian/Indian culture.  Mosby has been a long-time fan of Indian music.  He explained:

“It (Indian Music) sat in the background of my life until I heard that Imrat Khan was coming to St. Louis to teach and live,” Mosby recalled.

Mosby attended a class Khan was teaching and the result was that he studied with him on guitar for thirteen years.  He learned technique, raag, (a melodic framework for improvising) philosophy and the history of Indian music in the gharana tradition.  You will hear all of this blending of cultures and jazz in this original music Todd Mosby has composed.  You hear his tenderness and guitar creativity during his interpretation of “To The Sky,” where he plays acoustic guitar with only the addition of Lola Kristine’s vocals and Tom Aton’s piano. On the whole, this is sleepy time music.  There is no spectacular, energetic tune or arrangement on this recording.  Instead, it’s just a mellow, smooth production, floating like puffy, pink clouds across a warm, spring sky.

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MAURICIO MORALES – “LUNA” – Outside In Music

Mauricio Morales, acoustic & electric bass; Aga Derlak, piano; Gene Coye, Juan Alejandro Saenz & Patrick Simard, drums; Roni Eytan, harmonica; Aidan Lombard, trumpet; Hailey Niswanger, alto saxophone; Al Joseph, guitar; Megan Shung & Luis Mascaro, violin; Rita Isabel Andrade, viola; Artyom Manukyan, cello.

Bassist, Mauricio Morales has composed seven selections for this album.  To produce and carryout his arrangements, Morales employed three different drummers, a pianist and harmonica player, both trumpet and alto saxophone, guitar and four string players.  The Mexico City native, currently based in Los Angeles, offers us his debut recording.

“Luna is a tribute to childhood. It represents the pursuit of a childlike peace of mind and excitement about life.  Every song depicts a different layer of my own growth.  Conceptually, I am attempting to tell a story through my music.  Each piece represents a chapter in the journey that Luna is meant to be,” Mauricio Morales explains the premise of this artistic piece.

Of course, Luna translates to ‘moon’ and many of the songs incorporated in this production reflect nature elements, including the title tune that opens this project. It’s based on the Mexican tradition of El Dia de los Reyes Magos, a holy Epiphany day that falls on January 6, where presents are given in remembrance of the three kings who came to baby Jesus in Bethlehem bearing gifts.  One part of the Mexican celebration is sending letters skyward in helium balloons requesting certain gifts.

“Our family always celebrated this time-honored tradition.  I was three when I first celebrated it and my mom filled out the gift card for my balloon.  She asked me what I wanted and I said, the moon. My title song represents the innocence of a kid who is so unaware.  I wanted to make the music sound magical and special,” said Morales.

Another nature tune called “The Forest” is plush with sweeping string parts and Roni Eytan’s creative harmonica dances atop the strings.

Interestingly, Morales did not start out being a jazz player.  Instead, at age fourteen he was playing pop music and heavy rock in Mexico City.  He also loved listening to video game themes and was infatuated with film scores and television background music behind programming. The attached video was made at Berklee College and is a medley of themes from the video game ‘The Legend of Zelda.’  This student ensemble was directed by Mauricio Morales, who also played bass on the project.

“I was like a sponge soaking up any kind of art that had an impact on me.  I came to understand, over the course of time, how cathartic and liberating it was to recognize the freedom that improvised music represents,” he elaborated on what made him turn to jazz. 

Eventually, his dream was to study at Berklee School of Music in the United States.  Morales manifested that dream.  Once enrolled at Berklee, he studied with celebrated faculty members including George Garzone and Tia Fuller.  But Morales credits educator Hal Cook for mentoring him throughout his tenure at Berklee.  In 2019, He settled into West Coast living and, while living in Los Angeles, he started thinking about this “Luna” project.  He worked closely with three friends he knew from his studies at Berklee: pianist Aga Dertak, trumpeter Aidan Lombard and harmonica player Roni Eytan.

“I was relatively new in Los Angeles, so I didn’t know a lot of people, especially string players.  I wanted to do something different.  The music was already written and arranged.  I knew violinist Megan Shung from working with her on different projects and she instinctively pointed me in the right direction.  They (the strings) create such a different texture for the music. … The collective energy and focus from all musicians involved is what created a perfect outcome,” Morales reflects.

On a composition Mauricio Morales calls, “The Glass Door” Patrick Simard shines on drums, propelling the song forward, inspired by Aga Derlak on piano.   Morales says this is a reflective tribute to pianist, Robert Glasper, who is an artist he admires for the way Glasper perceives harmony and melody.   But it’s not until track 6, “Relojito” that we hear Mauricio Morales take an extended bass solo, one that shows off his inspired chops.  The final song titled, “Garden of Hope,” features a riveting electric guitar, with a very rock inspired solo by Al Joseph.  Morales says this is a song about redemption.

“There is hope, no matter what mistakes you make,” he reminds the listener.

I found this debut recording by Mauricio Morales to be both inspired and poetically expressive.  Morales uses music, instead of words, to paint pictures of his life journey.  We are swept along by his unique storytelling.

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ALBARE PLAYS JOBIM – VOL 2 – Alfi Records

Albare, acoustic & electric guitars/co-producer; Joe Chindamo, piano/arranger/orchestra conductor; Pablo Bencid & Antonio Sanchez, drums; Luisito Quintero, percussion; Ricardo Rodriquez, bass; Phil Turcio, co-producer/mixing/mastering; GUEST MUSICIANS: Randy Brecker, flugel horn/trumpet/flute; Nestor Torres, flute; Antonio Sanchez, drums.

Albare paints the familiar tune, “Dindi” with warm, wonderful colors, his guitar delivering all the beauty his fingers can pull from the strings.  Adding a synthesized string ensemble to the background enriches this production.  “Summer Samba” picks up the pace and introduces us to Nestor Torres on flute.  Torres’ career spans thirty-years and he has a unique approach to his instrument that clearly distinguishes him in an inimitable and tasteful way. 

Randy Brecker brings his trumpet and flugelhorn to the celebration of Jobim, playing on “So Danco Samba” and “Favela”.  Brecker, one of Albare’s special guests, has contributed to shaping the sound of jazz, R&B and rock for nearly six decades and is iconic in his own right.  Another special guest is Antonio Sanchez, one of the most sought-after drummers on the International jazz scene.  He adds his magic on the “Dindi” arrangement and also on “Once I Loved.”  The other master drummer on this project is Pablo Bencid, a Grammy nominated Venezuelan native who now lives in New York.  Added to this group of masters is brilliant, Puerto Rican bassist, Ricardo Rodriquez and percussionist, Luisito Quintero, a child music prodigy who comes from a distinguished family of Venezuelan musicians.

Albare, whose birth name is Albert Dadon, was born in Morocco and at age five, he and his family relocated to Israel.  During that time, Israel had no Internet, there were no cell phones, and the family had no television.  Albare’s father taught him to play chess and his mother bought him a guitar.  Those two things became Albare’s passion.  At age ten, the young man and his family moved to France, where the gifted young man began playing with bands. At that young age of ten, he had already accrued two years of music conservatory under his belt and a love for the guitar. However, most of Albare’s musical education was self-taught.  In 1970, the young guitarist moved to Paris, met his soon-to-be Australian wife and became hooked on jazz.  In 1983, he and his bride moved to Australia.  His premiere album, as a bandleader, was released on an Australian label, Festival Records, in 1992.   Since then, his musical career has taken various unexpected paths.  He’s been a business man, becoming an active Board Member of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival and later, Chairman.  Eventually, he filled the festival director’s position until the end of 2008.  Soon after, he began seriously recording again and signed to the German label Enja after releasing two albums as an independent artist.  Now, president of his own label, Alfi Records, he has released several albums.  Because of a genetic disease that caused a loss of his central vision faculties, Albare’s playing is entirely by ear.  Last year I reviewed his Jobim tribute, Vol 1 and I was looking forward to hearing Vol. 2.  Albare continues to show that he is an amazingly talented and dedicated guitarist.  His music oozes emotion and sensitivity.  It’s everything I hoped it would be and more!

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THE GRASSO-RAVITA JAZZ ENSEMBLE – “JAGGEN SPACES” – Grassvita Music

Skip Grasso, guitar/composer; Greg Small, piano/composer; Nuc Vega, drums; Phil Ravita, acoustic & electric 6-string bass/ composer; Benny Russell, tenor & soprano saxophone/ composer.

This album opens with the original composition and title tune, “Jagged Spaces,” penned by Skip Grasso. Grasso has penned four songs for this project and spotlights his guitar talent throughout.  The opening, title tune is energetic and straight-ahead. His second song is a lovely waltz titled, “Her Life Incomplete.”  The problem on this arrangement is that everyone seems to be playing a waltz except the drummer.  What’s that about?  Some of the other members of the group also composed pieces for this production.  “Songhai” and the beautiful ballad, “All About Cynthia,” were both written by woodwind player, Benny Russell.   On “Songhai” Phil Ravita propels this tune ahead with his powerful bass line, throughout.  Unfortunately, I never felt that the drums locked into any kind of groove or relationship with the bass at all.  Benny Russell flies on his tenor saxophone and makes up for the percussive inadequacy.  Bassist, Phil Ravita penned a very melodic and blues drenched tune titled “Blue Sunshine.”  He also contributed “Chasing Shadows.”  “Circles” was written by Greg Small, the pianist, who also plays trumpet, although not on this album. So, four out of the five group members are composers.  One of the outstanding tunes on this project was a Grasso composition called “Latin for Leandro” where the drummer finally sounds like he feels partially comfortable.  This is the ensemble’s debut album and it shows potential, but I don’t think these musicians have hit their stride yet as a dynamic and cohesive group.

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LEON LEE DORSEY – “THANK YOU MR. MABERN” – JazzAvenue 1 Records

Leon Lee Dorsey, bass; Harold Mabern, piano; Mike Clark, drums.

From the second that blues-driven piano rolled off my CD player, I was hooked on this project.  The first tune is titled, “Rakin’ and Scrapin’,” and had me dancing in my computer chair. Harold Mabern brings his Memphis born, hard bop piano chops to the party on this opening tune.  Here is a song he recorded in 1969 that originally appeared on a Prestige Record album release.   Sadly, Mr. Mabern passed away on September of 2019 at the age of 83.  He left behind a legacy of his own authentic brand of soul jazz.  Nobody could lay down a blues groove or a jazz shuffle like Harold Mabern, except maybe Gene Harris.  Lucky for Leon Lee Dorsey, in July of 2019, just two months before Harold’s passing, he went into the studio with Mr. Mabern and captured the great man’s legacy in what some have called, his swan song.

Bassist, Leon Lee Dorsey, a Pittsburgh native born in March of 1958, teaches at Berklee School of Music and has had an incredible career working with some of the best musicians in jazz.  He had been working with Harold Mabern in George Coleman’s octet and also did some quartet gigs with the iconic pianist.

“I just had not really done a recording with him and we were kind of kicking it around last year about doing just that,” Leon Lee Dorsey recalled.

Once the two decided to go ahead with their project, Dorsey contacted Mike Clark to man the drums.  Dorsey had already been recording with Clark on some self-produced trio projects with the former Headhunter’s drummer.  They found a comfort level playing together that you can hear on this project.

“Mike has his own legendary status, being from the bay area and playing with Herbie Hancock.  But he also played with a lot of great blues and R&B artists in his career.  So, he and Harald actually had a lot in common and they just kind of fell in love with each other at the session.  Harold came in playing like a twenty-one-year-old.  He was on fire, and Mike just fueled that fire,” Dorsey remembered their session.

You will enjoy the trio expanding on famous jazz tunes like Summertime, Bye Bye Blackbird, Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man and Frank Foster’s composition, Simone.  On “I’m Walkin” a song Fats Domino made so popular years ago, clearly you hear the fire, the blues and the shuffle-feel from this trio.  On “Misty” Leon Lee Dorsey opens with a solo bass introduction and then continues, playing the entire song down on his double bass one time before he’s joined by drums and piano.  Mabern tributes Erroll Garner, incorporating Garner’s style on the piano with his own powerful uniqueness.  Clark uses brushes to smoothly seduce the listener and masterfully support the trio.  They fly on the final tune, “Moments Notice” by John Coltrane.  This one gives Mike Clark an opportunity to fully show off his technique on trap drums.  This entire project is a nod to Mr. Mabern’s 6-decade career in music.  It’s also a carefully recorded piece of jazz history with a spotlight on producer/composer/bass player, Leon Lee Dorsey.

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SUSAN ALCORN QUINTET  – “PEDERNAL” – Relative Pitch Records

Susan Alcorn, pedal steel guitar/composer; Michael Feldman, violin; Michael Formanek, double bass; Mary Halvorson, guitar; Ryan Sawyer, drums.

“With the pedal steel guitar, it’s like having your own orchestra.  If played in a certain way, you can fill the whole sound universe so that you’re not missing anything else,” Susan Alcorn explains in her press package. 

Ms. Alcorn, a pedal steel guitar master, opens this album of unique music with the self-penned, title tune, “Pedernal.”  She has also composed four other original compositions on this album.  The meaning of “Pedernal” is a piece of flint, such as gunflint, used to produce a spark.  In this case, Susan Alcorn is the spark, blazing a singular, fiery path into jazz featuring the pedal steel guitar, mostly heard in the music of Nashville and Hawaii.  She offers us a fresh sound and is well-known for her work as a solo improviser on the pedal steel guitar. “Pedernal” is her debut album, named for a mesa in New Mexico where she retreated for a month to write music that would ultimately introduce us to her composer skills.

The thing about composing music, and I can speak about this since I am a published songwriter and composer for the past five decades, we have to be careful that when we are composing, we don’t accidentally use a melody already established by someone else.  Sometimes melodies can creep into our subconscious, because we’ve heard a tune over time, and we mistakenly think it’s a song we are creating.  This may have been the case on Alcorn’s first song.  It is strongly reminiscent of “Feeling Good,” ie: “Birds flying high, You know how I feel.  Sun in the sky, You know how I feel. Breeze driftin’ by, You know how I feel … And I’m feelin’ good.”

However, the improvisational parts Alcorn plays are completely original as she introduces us to this unique instrument and her approach to playing it.  On track 2, the drums of Ryan Sawyer introduce her composition with a roar of cymbals.  It’s the rich, beautiful violin improvisation of Michael Feldman that touches my heart, along with Alcorn’s introductory melody and improvisation on her steel guitar.

In 2016, Susan Alcorn was voted Best Other Instrument by El Intruso International Critics Poll and received Baltimore, Maryland’s Baker Artist Award the following year.  In 2018, she and saxophonist, Joe McPhee, were recipients of the Instant Award in Improvised Music.  This is a long way from when she was playing Country/Western music.  A chance encounter with blues master, Muddy Waters, steered her towards playing slide guitar and ultimately, she began playing in Country/Western Swing bands.  When Susan heard the music of Ornette Coleman and John and Alice Coltrane, she had an epiphany.  On this album, she expresses limitless possibilities as a master of free musical expression.  Not only does she inspire a certain freedom in her other group members, but the inclusion of the pedal steel guitar as a jazz instrument is formidable.  We also get to experience her own creativity as a composer.  This is a fresh musical concept I found absolutely intriguing.

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JONATHAN KANE AND DAVE SOLDIER – “FEBRUARY MEETS SOLDIER STRING QUARTET” – EEG Records

Jonathan Kane, drums/guitars/bass; Dave soldier, strings; Jon Crider, guest guitar.

The music of Jonathan Kane and Dave Soldier is soaked in electronic blues, juicy as a well-basted turkey. The string accompaniment adds the dressing.  Although repetitive, this is a delicious blend of rock music, electronic fuzz guitar, improvisation and down-home blues.  Multi-instrumentalist, Jonathan Kane has appeared on over seventy-five records and is legendary as a downtown New York City musician.  His band has performed internationally and he also works with a variety of other bands.  Dave Soldier has performed as violinist, guitarist and composer/arranger with the likes of Bo Diddley, John Cale, Kurt Vonnegut, David Byrne and more.  Soldier has appeared on over one hundred records, including twenty who featured his compositions.  On this album, he composed “Vienna Over the Hills.”  Kane composed “Requiem for Hulis Pulis.”  Although they only feature four songs total, the length of play streams over 46-minutes.

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A CELEBRATION OF THE LIFE OF BARRY ZWEIG will be held on February 7, 2021 at 11AM PST.  It would have been the gifted guitarist’s birthday and many will come to remember him and his love of music.

Barry Zweig (Feb 7, 1942 to March 15, 2020)

LIVE STREAM LINKS ARE:  https://www.facebook.com/cathysegalgarcia

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