By Dee Dee McNeil / jazz journalist

The one thing that amazes and pleases me, is when I listen to recent CD releases and how artists today stretch the boundaries of style and culture in music. Dizzy Gillespie did it when he incorporated Latin culture into his jazz arrangement. The artists I listen to take the music and expound on it; improvise on the chord structures and melodies, while at the same time enhancing each piece of music in a brilliant and positive way. Jazz allows you to get rid of your inhibitions and find freedom in the music. It brings people together. The CD reviews below are great examples of this concept and why jazz is so important to our world. Read all about Brazilian composer/vocalist CARLA HASSET, Flaminco guitarist, JASON McGUIRE, Australian pianist MATT BAKER, composer/conductor, and MATT LAVELLE’s “Solidarity” album leaves me speechless. BERNIE MORA & TANGENT combine R&B, funk and Smooth Jazz in a very successful way and Argentinian, JULIO BOTTI brings us “Sax to Tango” with the University of Southern Denmark Symphony Orchestra; the brilliance of GREGORY PORTER’s new CD is spell-binding and finally, Hawaiian composer/vocalist and pianist, MAGGIE HERRON, brings class and creativity together with her satin smooth voice.

Paulista Records

Carla Rigolin Hassett, vocalist/composer/guitarist; Joao Pedro Mourao, guitars/viola Caipira/Cavaquinho; Andre de Santanna, elec. & upright bass; Leonardo Costa, drums/percussion; Gibi, Felipe Fraga & Alberto Lopez, percussion; Pablo Medina, Wurlitzer; Chris Bautista, trumpet; JP Floyd, trombone; Wes Smith, flute/alto, tenor and baritone saxophones; Thalma de Freitas, vocals; Bill Brendie, accordion; Ben Lewis, Fender Rhodes & Mellotron; Evan Greer, drums/tambourine; Matt Rhode, Hammond B3 Organ; Caro Pierotto, Grecco Buratto & Felip Fraga, backing vocals; Fabiano do Nascimento, 7-string nylon guitar; Aaron Serfaty, snare & cymbals; Benedikt Braydern, violin; Jacob Hassett, viola; Sarah O’Brien, cello.

There is something soothing about Brazilian jazz. It puts me in a mellow mood and fills my spirit with joy. Carla Bassett brings us a package of delightful, original music sung in Portuguese and English, intermittently. Her vocals are pleasant, light, sweet and fresh as Açaí na tigela or whipped cream on mango. What’s really impressive are her composition skills. Hassett’s songs sound like Brazilian Standards. “Forté” is a melancholy ballad with a rhythmic undertone of guitar and percussion. It’s lovely with a melody I begin to sing along with as though it was a familiar song on the radio. Hassett knows how to create a ‘hook’ to her tunes; one that lingers at the end of each song production in repetitious beauty. She plants the melody in your brain like a fruitful seed. This talented composer has written seven out of ten songs on this CD and they are each well-written and pleasantly produced. Cut #2, “Pois É E Tal” is full of spunk and spice, inviting me to dance around the room without inhibition. On this song, Hassett is joined by Thalma de Freitas on vocals. Freitas is a Brazilian star renowned as the lead singer for Orquestra Imperial, as well as for her role on a popular soap opera. Hassett is also a proficient guitarist and plays as well as sings on one of her compositions, “Guerreira Vai” , that features a rich accordion solo by Bill Brendie. Carla Hassett has cut several different recording sessions, adding musicians and musical instruments as she goes to accentuate her arrangements. Here is an album of world music that inspires gladness and introduces us to a charming singer with an admirable composition and arrangement proficiency.

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Jason McGuire Music

Jason McGuire, Flamenco guitar; Paul Martin Sounder, bass; Marlon Aldana, drums; José Cortés, vocals; Kina Mendez, background vocals; Manuel Gutierrez and Jose Cortes, palmas.

It’s not often that I get to experience an exciting, master Flamenco guitarist like Jason McGuire. In this recording, he is innovative enough to incorporate his flamenco music with jazz. McGuire has composed all of the tunes on this project and they are rich in culture and dynamically produced. According to the press package, McGuire is a native Texan, with Irish roots, who now lives in Northern California. His work is greatly admired by flamenco aficionados across the nation and especially in Spain. McGuire is currently musical director for Caminos Flamencos, a world class dance and music company that is based in the San Francisco Bay area. His music is invigorating and refreshing. It has a much fuller sound than one would expect from such a small group of musicians. On “Mira Mira” the bass and percussion put excitement into the mix to support McGuire’s amazing agility on his guitar. This is a Rhumba with a swift paced energy that will have hips wiggling and feet stomping to the rhythm. McGuire tackles bulerias, tangos, rondena, and everything in between with obvious passion and love for the music. He’s technically astute on his instrument. I learned there are over fifty flamenco styles (or Palos) that are recognized by the structure of their rhythm. Speaking of rhythm, Marlon Aldana on drums is a rhythm master. Palos are also characterized by chord progressions and their area of origin. This is sexy music, from start to finish. It’s written and interpreted by McGuire in a very unforgettable way.

McGuire explained in his linear notes, “Back in Texas, in my early 20’s, I was hungry for music of all sorts. Playing guitar since age 9, inspired mainly by Jimi Hendrix and the British blues players of the late 1960’s, alongside the intense influence of the classical and jazz music I was introduced to at school, seemed to open my musical curiosity. I bounded from one genre to another, ignoring the boundaries between them. Flamenco came to me and stopped me in my tracks at sixteen, and I’ve never looked back …”

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Jazzelm Music

Matt Baker, piano/vocals; Lage Lund, guitar; Luques Curtis, bass; Obed Calvaire, drums; Bashiri Johnson, percussion; Joel Frahm, tenor saxophone.

“This Is the End of a Beautiful Friendship” never sounded so joyful. Baker’s sextet sets the pace and spirit of his CD from the onset of the very first tune. This is the pianist’s fifth CD as a leader and his second since he relocated to New York City from Sydney, Australia. Baker is a deliberate player, one that enjoys presenting the melody of these standard tunes clearly and decisively. As a twelve-year-old, Baker studied piano and by fifteen he was working at a café close to his school. His father is a jazz trombone player. So young Baker grew up listening to an eclectic record collection. His idols are Oscar Peterson, who befriended him when they first met at the Blue Note in New York City. They remained friends until the icon’s passing. He also found encouragement and received gifted knowledge from Herbie Hancock. Baker says he’s inspired by the work of Wynton Kelly, Red Garland, Thelonious Monk and Brad Mehldau. Then there are jazz greats like Bud Powell, Art Tatum and Jacky Terrasson, who he also admires. For the past six years he has been studying with Taylor Eigsti, who introduced Baker to producer Matt Pierson. The outcome is this album.

On cut #7, the title tune of “Almost Blue” gets a nice set up by Curtis on bass and then Baker’s voice sings the haunting story of broken hearts and teary, red eyes that are ‘almost blue’. This song boasts great lyrics with a poignant melody. I enjoyed his vocal interpretation on this song composed by Elvis Costello. However, on the whole, I prefer his piano skills to his vocals. I love what Frahm brings to the project on his tenor saxophone and Lund’s melodic guitar solos and rich rhythm guitar work adds butter to this musical cookie. Calvaire is sweet on drums and hard hitting. He knows just when to punctuate the moment, the phrasing, and when to color the crescendos. I truly enjoyed the group’s arrangement of “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Baker steps outside the realms of what I heard on the first three tunes and explores chordal structure and classical overtures inside his improvisation and experimentation. He touches me deeply during his execution of this song. Luques Curtis plays a compelling solo on his double bass, as does Calvaire on drums. Other favorites are the arrangement and production on “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” “Reflections,” and “Lonely Avenue.”

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Rhombus Records

Bernie Mora, guitars; Doc Anthony, drums; Robert Vance, bass; Doug Webb, saxophones; Corey Allen, keyboards; Lee Thornburg, horns; Charles Godfrey, percussion; Special Guest: Brian Brombert, fretless & upright bass.

Bernie Mora has composed or co-written all the songs on this explosively energetic album. The cover of this CD is eye-catching. The artwork is by the late, great Ray McNiece and it is a beautiful painting. Inside, you will find a blend of Smooth Jazz, R&B, Straight-ahead and pop music. Yes, you read it right. All those genres are wrapped up in one small package. The horn section reminds me of 1980’s R&B groups like Tower of Power, the Ohio Players, Average White Band, or even the James Brown Orchestra. The punch and energy that this group of musicians produces is exciting and infectious. Mora incorporates the ‘funk’ in everything he writes. “Blue Moon Funk” is a perfect example of a track reminiscent of a James Brown album before he laid down his vocals. This production is extremely tight musically, fun to listen to and well-arranged and produced. Mora plays a dramatic guitar solo on Cut #4, titled, “For Cryin’ Out Loud” where his guitar sounds like it’s actually weeping, screaming and hungry for attention. There’s a Latin/Spanish undertone to this composition and, at the same time, a Jimi Hendrix Rock influence. Meantime, the saxophone solo brings us back to Smooth Jazz in a comfortable, but surprising transition. All of that in one tune keeps me alert and actively listening. Corey Allen ‘Swings’ on keyboards when “Take That” follows as Cut #5. When Allen’s keyboard sweeps into Latin grooves from ‘Swing’ mode, it makes my ears perk up. Then comes Vance on bass, soloing at an exciting tempo just before the tune ends in a blast of horns and staccato notes. Wow! On the tune “Reckless” Mora does it again. He makes that guitar talk!

Perhaps Bernie Mora explained it best when he wrote in his linear notes, “We like to think of it as soulful. Experience the variety and layers we have created for you. Hopefully, you will be transformed as we were.”

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Unseen Rain Records

Matt Lavelle, cornet/flugelhorn/alto clarinet & conductor; Lee Odom, soprano saxophone/clarinet; Charles Waters, alto saxophone/clarinet; Ras Moshe Burnett, tenor and soprano saxophone/flue/bells; Tim Stocker, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet; Mary Cherney, flute,piccolo; Claire de Brunner, bassoon; Chris Forbes, piano; Laura Ortman, violin; Gil Selinger,, cello; Anders Nillson, guitar; Jack DeSalvo, banjo, mandola; John Pietaro, vibraphone, percussion; Francois Grillot, double bass; Ryan Sawyer, drums; Anais Maviel, voice.

The first song Is dark, full of strings and horns that remind me of gardens packed with honey bees and flies. The instrumentation encourages strings to be bowed and tones to be bent. Consequently, they sound very much like insects to me. It’s titled “solidarity”, the same as the CD. The composer must have had something specific in mind, but I probably would have titled it, ‘Spring Garden.’ Lavelle has composed everything on this production. He is the conductor and plays cornet, flugelhorn and alto clarinet. His concept is to hire master jazz players and challenge them to improvise on his musical themes using both traditional, classical instruments. This includes Claire de Brunner on bassoon and Gil Selinger on cello; Ras Moshe Burnett on reeds and Charles Waters on alto sax and clarinet. It’s not an odd premise to throw traditionally classical instruments into the arms of jazz musicians, since jazz is often referred to as America’s unique classical art form. However, this project seems to be melting chamber orchestra and big band music together over an unusual premise of improvisation, freedom and Avant Garde. The song “Faith” gives us a taste of New Orleans verve and Kansas City spicy ‘Swing’. However, the resulting responsiveness between players fosters explosive musicality to interpret Lavelle’s compositional focus. His desire to mix genres is both interesting and challenging. It leaves the final review to be culminated by the ears and in the hands of you, the listener.

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Zoho Records
Julio Botti, soprano & tenor saxophones; Pablo Ziegler, piano/music director & producer; Saul Zaks, conductor; The University of Southern Denmark Symphony Orchestra.

Here is an impressive example of jazz saxophone featured with a symphony orchestra that is playing tangos. It’s rich, absolutely compelling, sexy and dramatic from start to finish. Of course it’s more structured and less improvisational, but you can still here the culture of Latin America and the culture of American jazz brought together in a very unexpected way. Under the direction of pianist/ arranger/composer and orchestrator/producer, Pablo Ziegler, and conducted by the magical baton of Saul Zaks, the University of Southern Denmark Symphony Orchestra is beyond beautiful as they interpret nine iconic Astor Piazzolla Nuevo tangos, one tango standard and three compositions by Ziegler. What an amazing backdrop for Julio Botti to float on top, letting his brilliant reed playing become an important voice throughout this production. Ziegler, on piano, adds his own jazzy zest to this recording. These two gentlemen (Botti & Ziegler) have collaborated in the past. Their first artistic success was “Tango Nostalgias” featured in a quintet setting and recorded in both New York and Buenos Aires. It achieved a Latin Grammy nomination in the “Best Tango Album” category. That was in 2013. This album marks their second collaboration and is far more ambitious than their first. I learned something when Ziegler wrote in the linear notes:

“Saxophone was never a traditional tango instrument, but Julio Botti found a way to express Nuevo Tango through the saxophone, just like a tango singer. That is why I consider Julio an extremely unique and talented artist.”

I agree! With ‘improvisation’ being the most important element of jazz music, Ziegler is opening new doors with this project by adding a saxophone as a primary soloist voice in the tango genre. That’s what jazz is all about; stretching the boundaries and striving for freedom while employing improvisation to create something fresh and new. Mission accomplished.

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GREGORY PORTER – “Take Me To The Alley”
BlueNote Records

Gregory Porter, vocals/songwriter/producer; Alicia Olatuja, voice; Chip Crawford, piano; Aaron James, bass; Emanuel Harrold, drums; Keyon Harrold, trumpet; Yosuke Sato, alto saxophone; Tivon Pennicott, tenor saxophone; Ondrej Pivec, organ.

The music of Gregory Porter is compelling and honest. In an artistic way, it reminds me of the compositions of Bill Withers. Porter touches the listener with melodies that stick like fly paper to our ears and with lyrics that tug at the truth. We understand his blues and celebrate his joyfulness. When he sings “…though my past has left me bruised, I ain’t hiding from the truth, when the truth won’t let me lie right next to you,” we can relate. That relatability and his beautiful voice continue to bounce this unique singer/songwriter up the charts. At times his tone reminds one of Lou Rawls, at other moments he takes us to a gospel church in Harlem and fires us up. He can weave a folk song around us and make us hear poetry in his words with unquestionable sincerity in his delivery. Songs like “Holding On” and “Take Me to the Alley” give the listener pause, perhaps to dig deeply into our human frailness.

These songs encourage us to be better than we were moments ago. Alicia Olatuja sweetly harmonizes with Porter’s vocals. They blend comfortably like honey and herb tea. “Consequence of Love” is pure poetry put to music. The simplicity of this production allows us to hear and digest these words of wisdom and contemplate their meaning. The melodies make me want to hum along. Porter has reunited with Kamau Kenyatta to produce this gem of a recording and they just keep turning out masterpieces. I was pleasantly impressed when I recognized the artist, Kem, singing along with Porter on “Holding On”. Another special guest is the amazing Lalah Hathaway on Porter’s tune, “Insanity”. It’s a beautiful song with a deep lyrics. I love the Keyon Harrold muted trumpet solo. “Don’t Be A Fool” recalls the Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack duets in tone and groove. I expect this to be another Grammy Nominated album that sells millions.

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Independent Label

Maggie Herron, vocals/piano/producer; Bill Cunliffe, piano/arranger/producer; Grant Geissman, guitar; Dean Taba, bass; Abe Lagrimas, drums/ukulele; Bob Sheppard, saxophone/flute; Brian Scanlon, baritone, sax; Bob McChesney, trombone; Ron Stout, trumpet/flugelhorn; Alex Acuna, percussion; Ramon Stagnaro, guitar; DeShannon Higa, Guest trumpet solo;

Right from the first smoky vocals, I was hooked on Maggie Herron’s style and a few minutes later on her composing skills. This lady is a prolific songwriter. The first cut, “Wolf,” is a creative play on the story of Little Red Riding Hood and real life drama. It’s very smartly written, by Maggie & Dwan Herron. Vocally, Herron has a rich alto voice and a tone reminiscent of the great UK Diva, Cleo Laine. The studio band elegantly supports her vocal talents, with arrangements on this song by Bill Cunliffe and a stellar sax solo by Bob Sheppard. Cut #2 is another well-written original composition titled, “I Can’t Get To Sleep”. Herron shows off her piano chops on this tune, featuring a sweet Ukelele solo by Abe Lagrimas, who also competently plays drums throughout this production. The title tune come next and it’s beautifully written, arranged and produced. Bill Cunliffe is the pianist and arranger and this song is a diamond stud in my ear. It sparkles even brighter when Ron Stout plays a sexy flugelhorn solo. Jazz vocalist Denise Donatelli adds her harmony vocals to strengthen the ‘hook’ that is hauntingly beautiful. The first five compositions on this CD are written by mother and daughter and the combination is perfect. “I lie Just A Little” focuses on a bluesy delivery with just vocals and bass. I listened to this CD for two days straight, admiring the lyrical content, catchy melodies, smart arrangements and Maggie Herron’s obvious multi talents.

She’s winner of Hawaii’s prestigious 2015 Na Hoku Hanohano Award for Jazz Album of the Year for her CD, “Good Thing”. She has another CD titled, “In the Wings.” With the release of “Between the Music & the Moon,” she offers fifteen original and well-written songs that she successfully interprets with her beautiful voice. Additionally, she woos us in French on “Notre Amour” and in Spanish, “Ritmo Latino”. Impressive.

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