By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

May 14, 2016

Yuko Mabuchi is a wisp of a woman, petite and delicate, until she sits down at the piano. Then, before our very eyes, she transforms into a mighty giant! The packed audience at the historic Maverick’s Flat witnessed this on May 8 of this year when she was a special guest of piano master, Billy Mitchell. Once her slender fingers touched the piano keys, we were all captivated by her enormous energy and spirited performance. She gets so wound up in her music that several times she jumped up from the piano bench and never lost a beat. Her leg kicks out (reminding me a bit of the late-great Dorothy Donegan). Yuko throws her head back, caught in the joy of the moment. She catches the groove and won’t let it go, smiling that secret smile as her feet dance, unencumbered beneath the piano bench.

Born June 21st in Fukui, Japan, a small city West of Tokyo and near the ocean, little Yuko was surrounded by music early on. Her mother is a classical piano teacher and Yuko began studying the piano at age four. Her father played Earth, Wind and Fire records and listened to Latin music and the Brazilian jazz of Jobim. As a child, Yuko was surrounded by a variety of musical genres and she embraced them all. She played piano by ear, picking out the melodies and soaking up the grooves of the popular music scene, including pop and hip hop. But there was a freedom she found in jazz and it touched something deep inside her.

As a teenager, Yuko tuned-in to the Japanese jazz station on her radio. It was there, she became familiar with Oscar Petersen and Herbie Hancock. She started attending concerts in Japan and was inspired by the work of Gerald Clayton Jr., Donald Vega, Kenny Baron, Junior Mance, Hiromi and Cyrus Chestnut. She was still studying classical music, but after high school Yuko attended the AN School of Music in Kyoto, Japan under the tutelage of Kunihiro Kameda. Right away, he noticed her amazing potential and blooming talent. Professor Kameda had once lived in the United States and had played with our own West Coast drummer, Kenny Elliott. He suggested that if Yuko really was serious about pursuing jazz, she should go to America where is was bred and born. Yuko’s father agreed, although both he and his wife were concerned about their daughters jazz direction. Her mother had hoped their talented daughter would become a famous, classical, concert pianist. Neither parent had in mind that their first born would pursue a career as a jazz artist.

Once she decided to go to America, Yuko auditioned to attend the famed Berklee School of Music in Boston and received a Scholarship. But instead, she chose to come to Los Angeles. In 2010, Yuko Mabuchi arrived in Southern California and enrolled at the Music Performance Academy in Alhambra, a California community of mainly Asian and Latino cultures with a sprinkling of others. MPA (Music Performance Academy) was Japanese owned and brought many Japanese students to America encouraging the study of American music and artistic culture. This is where I first met Yuko, because I taught at that school for approximately three years; part time. Yuko was studying with Billy Mitchell and Gary Shunk, while soaking up the recordings of Monte Alexander, George Duke and Gene Harris. She hunkered down in the school, learning the funk and groove that Mitchell was teaching her and the technique and improvisation that Shunk inspired. She studied voice and artist development with me and I saw her growth and willingness to practice and challenge herself. It was under the direction of her mentor, Billy Mitchell, that she recorded her first demo project entitled, “Red Special.” It was sponsored by MPA and featured all original compositions.

Yuko donated her time as the accompanist for the Watts-Willowbrook Youth Symphony and took great pride in inspiring young people from that Los Angeles inner-city. It wasn’t long before she began performing all over town; at Catalina Jazz Bar, downtown at the Biltmore Hotel, in Old Town Pasadena at the Levitt Pavilion Summer Concert Series, at small jazz clubs and popular hotel chains like the Crowne Plaza. Her name and reputation were growing.

Yuko Mabuchi’s first full length CD was released in 2012 on Vista Records titled, “Waves”. Again, it featured her original compositions. In 2013, Yuko returned home triumphant, new CD in hand and with her artistic development evident. She busied herself with work, forming a jazz trio and performing at the Jazz Spot J in Shinjuku, Tokyo and also as a participant of the Fukui Jazz Festival in 2014 and 2015. She also appears as a regular soloist at Keio Plaza in Tokyo.

Yuko’s next CD release on Vista Records was “My Life.” Again, her composer skills were flowering and featured. This time, she added jazz reedman, the great Justo Almario on flute as well as smooth jazz saxophonist, Andre Delano. This album is a testament to her growth and polish as an artist and jazz musician.

Yuko enjoys teaching and inspiring young people, but her goal is to become a great musician and to work at her craft, tour the world, and leave her mark as a respected jazz artist. That dream is unfolding right before our eyes.
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CD Reviews by Dee Dee McNeil / jazz journalist

May 2, 2016

Recently, I was sent several trio CDs to listen to. It was refreshing to hear the clarity and expression that three people bring to jazz. I found each trio unique in its own way. There was the JOE MULHOLLAND TRIO, MIKE BOGLE TRIO, and JANE IRA BLOOM who stretched the boundaries by recording a trio of soprano sax, bass and drums. DICK OATTS and MATS HOLMQUIST, along with the NEW YORK JAZZ ORCHESTRA celebrated the genius of Herbie Hancock and the ROCCO JOHN QUARTET celebrated people and their inherent need for inspirational change. Bassist, MARCOS VARELA captivated me with his ingenuity and talent, while ANTONIO ADOLFO and CAROLINA SABOYA brought me to the tropical shores of Brazil and bathed me in Portuguese culture. Finally, the BRANFORD MARSALIS QUARTET, featuring KURT ELLING on vocals, took me on an “Upward Spiral.” Read all about it.

Zoho Records

Joe Mulholland, piano; Bob Nieske, bass; Bob Tamagni, drums

Bob Tamagni was the ‘Runaway Train’ on cut number one, taking a drum solo, at the very top of the tune that was animated and inspired. Mulholland sets up the melody at the ‘get-go’ and establishes his composition skills. Then he proceeds to take us on a journey of smartly written original music (six out of nine tunes) with two songs celebrating the iconic Jimmy Giuffre and Miles Davis, along with the beautiful “Alone Together” by Dietz and Schwartz. Based in Boston, Mulholland is professor of Jazz Harmony at Berklee College. This is his debut CD for Zoho Records. His trio is tight, moving methodically, like the well-oiled wheels of an Amtrak train. I enjoyed Nieske’s underlying heartbeat of a base line, dancing beneath another Mulholland original titled, “The Same Sky”. He definitely compliments the simplistic style of Mulholland, whose focus seems to be more on chordal structure and harmony than racing arpeggios or smart improvisational scales. I found the arrangement on “Alone Together,” quite nice, with a call and response attitude between piano and drums at the top. Tamagni, on the trap drums, keeps the tune moving like a freight train. This is a spirited, easy listening, debut album on Zoho Records, bound to travel through many jazz stations and pick up a multitude of listening passengers on the way.
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Mike Bogle, piano; Lou Harlas, bass; Steve Barnes, drums

Chick Corea’s “Humpty Dumpty” opens this CD as the first cut and sets the tone for what is to follow. With Bogle’s fingers racing like someone whipping up scrambled eggs, the piano comes alive under his masterful touch. Steve Barnes is magnificent on drums. After his solo, you hear patrons holler their support and appreciation. You can really see what musicians have going for them in a ‘Live’, intimate setting. There’s no studio knobs to protect you. When performing ‘live’ you are vulnerable. Joey Lamas, their recording engineer, is to be congratulated on the clarity and tone of this CD.

At age fourteen, Mike Bogle wrote his first big band chart. At sixteen he graduated high school and enrolled in the Miami School of Studio Music and Jazz, on a scholarship. By seventeen he was performing with such stellar artists as Tom Jones, Burt Bacharach, Diana Ross and Linda Carter. By age 30, he was Grammy nominated for “Best Arrangement” of Chick Corea’s “Got A Match?” He’s a fine composer and that is evident on this recording.

“Speak Like a Child” follows the trio’s first cut and is a Herbie Hancock composition. It’s tender instead of tenacious like the Corea tune and Bogle slyly incorporates strings into the Latin feel at apropos times. His piano work on this song reminds me of fluttering hummingbird wings; light, swift and airy. Barnes on trap drums keeps a double time feel underneath that perpetuates the energy as Bogle tinkles ‘Figaro, Figaro, Figaro’ above the solid rhythm. Harlas offers a heartfelt solo on double bass until the melody and the strings make a resurgence. Nice arrangement! “Ninguno Experiment” (a Bogle original) has a Latin feel and features Bogle keeping solid rhythm with his right hand while roaring around the bass clef of the piano with his left hand and walking like a bass player. In fact, I think he’s doubling with the bassist. Lou Harlas brings the ‘Swing’ with his authentic bass instrument. He walks the blues right into the tune. I am hooked and feeling captivated, just like those club patrons had to be. Dexter Gordon’s “Fried Bananas” is performed light and breezy at a pleasing moderate tempo. Bogle always manages to put a little blues on the stove when he cooks. This is an outstanding jazz trio that I would pay big money to see in the intimacy of a club, or on the grand stage of a concert hall. Bravo!
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Origin Records

Marcos Varela, bass; George Cables, piano; Billy Hart, drums; Eden Ladin, piano on cuts 2 &7; Kush Abadey, drums on cuts 2 & 7; Logan Richardson, alto saxophone; Clifton Anderson, trombone; Dayna Stephens, tenor saxophone; Arnold Lee, alto saxophone.

Careful! This CD is combustible. From the very first arrangement of “I Should Care”, the ‘familiar’ transitions to the ‘awesome.’ George Cables’ arrangement of this old standard turns it upside down and gives it a fresh face. The tune is flush with excitement and dynamic harmonics. Varela is ever present and complicit on bass. Billy Hart (as always), dances masterfully around his trap drums with sticks of power and aggressive perfection. He cuts loose on the track called, “Mitsuru,” and his solo is answered by Varela with big, fat tones on his upright bass. This is the kind of jazz that inspires the listener and reminds me that this is our indigenous American classical art form and how important it is. These musicians take the music and mold it into art, right before our ears. Every single cut entertains me with the compositions being played by master musicians and interpreted with such caring and love that I am hypnotized by the beauty of it all.

Who is this bass player that has captivated me with his ingenuity and musical skills? Marcos Varela was born and raised in Houston, but traces his ancestry back to San Ygnacio, Texas where his family has lived on the same ranch since the 1750s. Thus, the title of this album is a reflection of his heritage and family roots. Varela’s composition, “Colinas de Santa Maria” is the name of his family’s ranch. Eden Ladin is featured on piano this time, along with Kush Abadey on drums. Varela has been living and working in NYC for the past dozen years and has built solid relationships with drummer and mentor, Billy Hart, jazz giant and piano master, George Cables, and longtime employer, Clifton Anderson on trombone. As a graduate of Houston’s renowned high school for the Performing & Visual Arts, he joins a notable list of accomplished entertainers in the music field like Jason Moran, Robert Glasper and even Beyoncé. New York has allowed this young bass man to perform with a wide range of artists including pianist Geri Allen, the Mingus Big Band and even The Last Poets. He is blossoming as a composer and has several film and TV projects under his proverbial belt.

Perhaps legendary bassist Ron Carter sums it up best when he writes in the linear notes, “Varela’s tone, choice of notes and compositions will place his playing and name on the list of bassists to be heard.”

I agree.
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AAM Records

Antonio Adolfo, piano & arrangements; Leo Amuedo, electric guitar; Jorge Helder, double bass; Rafael Barata, drums; André Siqueira & Rafael Barata, percussion; Serginho Trombone, trombone; Marcelo Martins, tenor & soprano saxophone; Jessé Sadoc, trumpet & flugelhorn.

I believe this is the first time I’ve heard a Latin production of “Killer Joe” and it’s quite entertaining and solid. The horns add depth and excitement to this entire album production. They are tastefully placed and make for a very celebratory experience. Benny Golson’s “Whisper Not” is the second cut on this very upbeat production, and Golson’s song is always a pleasure to hear. The horn solo on this tune is perfection. Adolfo has a flair for arranging. He makes this project come alive with his unique gifts. There is joy wrapped up in these hand-picked compositions and the musicians make me want to dance and clap my hands with happiness. Antonio Adolfo clearly captures the exhilarating Brazilian culture in his music. He has been a longtime educator of Brazilian music and music history. Featuring his new octet, Adolfo explores jazz of the 1960s, using richly arranged Sambas, punchy percussive rhythms and harmonic horn arrangements. Everything reflects a mixture of America’s indigenous art form, generously spiced with Brazilian expressiveness. His original compositions are well written and fit right in with these master composers, including Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments”, Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father” and Hammerstein & Kern’s “All The Things You Are.” Adolfo’s compositions deserve to be played, center stage, along-side the excellence of these composer celebrities. His songs are just that good. Here is a pianist/producer/composer/arranger who surrounds himself with excellent players and together, they make this project shine with brilliance.
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Outline Records

Jane Ira Bloom, soprano saxophone; Mark Helias, bass; Bobby Previte, drums.

Mark Helias walks his big, bad bass into the song and sets the mood for Jane Ira Bloom to plant her soprano saxophone powerfully on top. This is a trio of bass, drums and saxophone, unique and clean cut; leaving the listener to enjoy the simplicity of the production and the mastery of these three musicians. Bloom is unafraid to step out front and blow the lid off the music, letting it bubble up like the goodness locked inside a chilled bottle of expensive champagne. She’s the real deal. Her tone and technique are evident and her artistry is an example of the freedom that jazz brings to the listener’s palate. This is a delicious and triumphant approach to freedom of expression and composition. Bloom has composed all twelve songs. Track #3, “Hips and Sticks” is beautiful and features her singular horn blowing like a bird song in the wind. On cut #9 titled “Cornets of Paradise” the energy and excitement is fused by drummer, Bobby Previte who solos under Bloom’s tenacious saxophone splendor. She closes this, her sixteenth CD as a leader, with a performance of Bernstein & Sondheim’s composition, “Somewhere” and it’s dynamic, with no one but Bloom pouring the melody out of her horn, sweet honey from the cone. As it says in her press package, these are “fearless jazz explorers who share a commitment to beauty and adventure.”
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CAROLINA SABOYA – “Carolina Saboya”
AAM Music

Carolina Saboya, vocal; Antonio Adolfo, piano; Jorge Helder, double bass; Claudio Spiewak, acoustic guitar on cut #9; Leo Amuedo, guitar; Rafael Barata, drums/percussion; André Siequeira, percussion; Marcelo Martins, flute/alto flute/soprano saxophone.

This production of Carolina Saboya is minimal and celebrates her voice. She is a Brazilian vocalist with a wispy, soft and compelling sound. I would have enjoyed hearing more of a rhythmic double bass to contrast and compliment her light and appealing style on the first cut. I missed that thick, prominent bottom that propels Brazilian music. The percussion is mixed upfront and delicately, to support the arrangements. On cut #2, the bass is more prominent and dances solidly beneath clusters of vocal notes that race in unison with the busy flute played by Marcelo Martins. Carolina Saboya sings three songs by Jobim and two by the 2016 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Djavan. Most of this CD is performed in her native tongue of Portuguese as she celebrates popular Brazilian composers. At times, she uses her own scat sensibilities to merge with the ensemble in a very musical and instrumental way, like on cut # 10, “Zanzibar,” where her voice mimics an instrument and wordlessly joins the band. This is one of my favorite tracks along with the very melancholy “Faltando um Pedaco.” In English she sings the Sting composition, “Fragile” and “Hello Goodbye” by John Lennon. Her voice is pleasant and easy listening at its best.
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Summit Records

Mats Holmquist, arranger; Dick Oatts, lead alto & soprano saxophones; Mark Gross, alto & Soprano saxophones; Walt Weiskopf & Robert Nordmark, tenor saxophone; Frank Basile, baritone saxophone; Paul Meyers, guitar; Adam Birnbaum, piano; Martin Wind, bass; John Riley, drums; Nick Marchione, lead trumpet/flugelhorn; Jon Shaw, Tatum Greenblatt, Frank Brodahl, & Joe Magnarelli on Trumpets/flugelhorns; Jakob Gudmundsson, trumpet on “Eye of the Hurricane”; Larry Farrell & Steen Nikolaj Hansen, trombones; Max Seigel, bass trombone; John Mosca, lead trombone.
I was excited when I saw that a jazz orchestra had tackled compositions by Herbie Hancock. Here is a Grammy winning, jazz changing, innovator and pianist of our times who certainly is deserving of such a tribute. Opening with the familiar and popular “Cantaloupe Island” composition, I enjoyed the way arranger, Mats Holmquist layered the horn harmonics, almost giving an echo effect to the brass. The alto saxophone solo by Mark Gross is ear-pleasing. On “Chameleon” I found the arrangements to be a little redundant for my taste. I felt all the brass repetition got in the way of the song. The arrangement was over eleven minutes long and I thought it could have been edited down. The arranger states in his linear notes that his premise was to create chaos; and that he does as the song progresses. I breathed a deep sigh of relief when “Dolphin Dance” made an appearance. Everything on this recording seems brash, as though it’s being played at a serious forté throughout. I wanted some relief from the constant attack of the horns. It comes when various soloists perform, but nothing was sweet and gentle. If you love busy, brass harmonies sung forte throughout, then you will enjoy this production. John Riley, on drums, is a magnificent manifestation of energy that propels the instrumentation forward relentlessly. I was especially impressed with his prowess on “Eye of the Hurricane”. “Jessica” was performed with a lovely bass introduction by Martin Wind. All too soon the layered brass came marching onto the scene to take over the sweetness with power and tenacity. Birnbaum on piano and Wind on his bass, superbly plucking and bowing it, brought relief midway through with candy sweet solo interludes. It’s the only ballad on this recording. Dick Oatts made a memorable statement on soprano sax and is featured throughout. All the cuts on this recording are approximately seven minutes long or longer. I thought the orchestra presentation and Holmquist’s arrangement on “Toys” was smart. Weiskopf and Nordmark’s tenor solos added spunk and soul to the presentation. Riley once again comes to the forefront with his powerful drum solo and inspired drum licks. I think “Toys” is one of my favorites on this album.
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OKeh Records

Branford Marsalis, saxophone; Joey Calderazzo, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Justin Faulkner, drums; Special Guest, Kurt Elling on vocals

I was lucky enough to get a sneak peak of the Branford Marsalis Quartet’s new CD scheduled for a June 10, 2016 release. “There’s A Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York” combines the crystal clear vocal tones of special guest, Kurt Elling, with the saxophone excitement of Branford Marsalis. The melody is challenging. The swift pace and ‘swing’ of the arrangement represents New York City very well and acts as a springboard for these amazing musicians to leap and play. Calderazzo on piano takes a spirited solo, dancing around the melody, plunging through chord changes with improvisational skill, until Elling swings his way back into the song.

Marsalis explained why he added a vocalist on this project.

“The goal here, even though he sings lyrics, was to highlight Kurt’s voice as an instrument.”

I was wondering how they picked the songs for the “Upward Spiral” album. Branford Marsalis explained.

“For example, I had been listening to the Oscar Brown song `Long as You’re Living’ for two years before the date. The first time I heard Sting’s `Practical Arrangement,’ I called him and asked for a lead sheet, because I wanted to play that song with the quartet even before the idea of recording with Kurt came up. I also chose `Só Tinha de Ser Com Você,’ a Jobim song that has not been done to death. I told everyone to study Elis Regina’s version, because I wanted us to sound authentic rather than generic. Doing `Blue Gardenia’ was my idea, while Eric originally suggested Chris Whitley’s `From One Island’ when we were talking about more recent songs. Elling also brought ideas and songs to the partnership. He suggested ‘Doxy,’ the Sonny Rollins classic with lyrics that Mark Murphy introduced; ‘West Virginia Rose,’ with music and lyrics by pianist Fred Hersch; and ‘Momma Said,’ with the quartet responding spontaneously in the studio to the Calvin Forbes poem.”

“Blue Gardenia” is one of this reviewer’s favorite ballads. The blend of Marsalis’s horn with Elling in tight harmony grabbed me by the ear and happily pulled me into the song. They have recorded a tender and sweet rendition of this composition; one I first heard Dinah Washington sing many years ago. I love the way Elling’s voice and the Marsalis horn blend. “From One Island to Another” is a song I’ve never heard before with a soaring arrangement that moves like a whirlpool, twisting and turning as the momentum builds on the piano solo. Elling is clearly the storyteller in his own distinctive way, until the band comes crashing in, like waves against a quiet island shore. When Marsalis comes to the forefront, he brings more swirling energy, with innovative notes that fall over each other; sound-pebbles rolling down a mountainside. “I’m A Fool to Want You” is stunning with just voice and saxophone making a duo statement. Finally, “Blue Velvet” was another production that was poignant and beautifully produced. Based on these four songs as an example of what this new Branford Marsalis Quartet recording is all about, then “upward Spiral” appears to be a perfect addition to any jazz lover’s music collection. Maybe even a Grammy winner.
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Unseen Rain Records

Rocco John Iacovone, alto & soprano saxophones; Rich Rosenthal, guitar; Francois Grillot, double bass; Tom Cabrera, drums.

If the eclectic and Avant Garde is your cup of tea, sit back and pour yourself a cup of the Rocco John Quartet. Drums and saxophone explode on the scene with intensity and purpose. Every song on this production is composed by Rocco John Iacovone. His bandmates unweave the story inside each composition with sincerity and creativity. The composer says his music is meant to be a comment on our evolution as human beings. I find his music eerie, but strangely beautiful. On a song called “72’s” the drums and cymbals color the presentation as Rosenthal’s guitar astutely explores melodies and emotions. When the sax enters, it brings another character to the forefront and the three begin a sensitive conversation. Musical phrases pour out of them in streams of tempo and scales, spurred by Cabrera’s deft percussion. It sings to me in a minor mode. I am intoxicated by this track. When Grillot bows his bass, it changes the mood and texture of this composition. Each cut on this eight composition album brings a theme of exploration. This is thought provoking music. There is the unexpected, always present and looming in the next musical phrase. Yet, there is also something soothing about this recording.

Rocco John Iacovone’s has studied with the legendary Lee Konitz and Sam Rivers. His preoccupation with composition led him to the doorstep of Nadia Boulanger. This artist hopes that he and his talented band elicit unmitigated passion and interest in the listener. Perhaps the composer said it best in his linear notes:
“While we all hear the loud voices telling us what to do and how to do it, we really need to quiet down and listen to the whispers of our inner self.”
His music seems to encourage us to ‘embrace the change.’
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