WALTZING TOWARDS THE END OF 2016, I CELEBRATE JAZZ TALENT FROM SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA TO THE MIDWEST & NEW YORK / NEW RELEASES, SOME SCHEDULED FOR THE NEW YEAR OF 2017.
By Jazz Journalist/ Dee Dee McNeil
As we approach the end of this year, (2016), and head towards a new year with our new president and the hope of a better future, it is music that continues to bring healing and entertainment to a troubled planet. Below find my “live” review of a man who will soon turn 100-years-young and is still expressing his joy for life in song, (BENSFORD ‘SHEP’ SHEPHERD); a single-song-release by ANGIE WELLS, a terrific West coast jazz vocalist; a father who tributes his recording to the memory and memorial fund for his departed daughter (MR. MARCELLO PELLITTERI); a harpist, CAROL ROBBINS, who recalls for me, the era of Dorothy Ashby; a duo, CAROL LIEBOWITZ AND NICK LYONS, who express their modern, Avant Garde jazz in a flurry of freedom and creativity, as well as BRENT GALLAHER, who is deeply rooted in the classic tenor sax style of Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane or Joe Henderson. Read all about it!
ANGIE WELLS – “PEEL ME A GRAPE” SINGLE RELEASE
Raphael Lemonnier, piano/arranger; James Leary, bass; Kenny Elliot, drums; Harry Kim, trumpet.
Opening with an African 6/8 rhythm, this is a really original arrangement of the Blossom Dearie standard, “Peel Me A Grape.” Angie Wells woos us with her amazing tone and style. She’s all jazz. Her group moves swiftly and smoothly from 6/8 to a solid 4/4 swing. Ms. Wells is a Southern California vocalist, who I feel has never gotten the crowning accolades she so deserves. If this is a sample of her upcoming album release, it’s bound to be a big hit.
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SADDLEBACK COLLEGE BIG BAND – Featuring BERISFORD “SHEP” SHEPHERD – “SWINGIN’ WITH SHEP!”
I first heard Shep Shepherd when I was a thirteen-year-old teenager working in my dad & Aunt Maude’s Triple M Shrimp Hut back in Detroit, Michigan. I played “Honky Tonk” on their store juke box just about every day! The family-owned, shrimp shack was located not too far from the Flame Show Bar and the popular Hastings Street music scene. Shep Shepherd was the drummer on my favorite Bill Doggett hit record.
When you see Shep Shepherd step up to the bandstand with confidence and ‘swag’, you might assume that he is somewhere between 55 and 60-years-old. I was very surprised to learn that he was born January 19, 1917. That would make him a sweet 100-years-old when the new year of 2017 unfolds. After hearing him sit-in at Baci’s Italian Restaurant in Huntington Beach, California a few nights ago, I was intrigued to hear his recording with Joey Sellers’ popular 2016 Saddleback College Big Band.
Let me give you a little background on Shep. Shepherd’s parents were West Indian. His dad worked on the Panama Canal and decided to send his pregnant wife to Philadelphia in the United States. She didn’t make it. Shep was born in route, popping out into the world in Honduras. When his mom finally did arrive in Philadelphia, he was raised in a mostly Jewish neighborhood of Philly. Early on, the family noticed Shepherd had an overwhelming interest in music, particularly drumming. By age fourteen he was being paid to play drums on gigs and he was proficient in reading sheet music for percussion instruments. In the 1930s, Shepherd worked in Philadelphia for band leader, Jimmy Gorham. By 1941, Benny Carter had contacted Shepherd, shortly after hearing him play, and encouraged him to move to New York City. Soon thereafter, Shep arrived in the big apple and among others, was working for Artie Shaw. On the side, he hustled work as a music copyist and also worked as a session musician for various recordings. He soon expanded his musicianship, playing both vibraphone and xylophone. During a four-year stint in the United States Army, Shepherd wound up conducting, arranging and composing for the Army band, as well as playing trombone. For a while, he played with Cab Calloway’s Band and later became Calloway’s go-to-arranger. Then, in 1952, he was part of Bill Doggett’s swinging group and is the drummer on Doggett’s signature song, “Honky Tonk,” one of my favorite 45rpm records.
On this current big band CD, Shepherd is the vocalist and he manages this with eloquent timing and singing lyrics that he makes you believe. For what he lacks in technique, he compensates for with emotion and heartfelt rendering of great standard songs from the past. This CD is a joy to listen to and the Saddleback College Band ‘swings’ hard. So does “Shep” Shepherd! He’s an incredible, living piece of jazz history and I salute his magnificent talent and tenacious drive to keep the music playing. Also, credit must be given to Joey Sellers who runs the jazz program at Saddleback College and put this whole thing together.
Recorded ‘live’ March 22, 2016, in concert and on campus, my favorite tunes are: “’S Wonderful”, “Make Someone Happy” and “When You’re Smiling”. Great arrangements, especially nice on “Shiny Stockings” where drummer, Bret Kramer, got to show-off his skills. Also “You Make Me Feel So Young,” where Shep makes you believe every word he’s singing with astonishing energy and commitment to the lyric. Finally, one of my all-time favorite tunes, “Blame it on my Youth,” has a stellar arrangement and Kudos to guitarist, Rymmy Andre, for his touching accompaniment of Shep’s sincere rendition of this song.
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MARCELLO PELLITTERI – “AQUARIUS WOMAN”
Marcello Pellitteri, drums; Orazio Maugeri, alto saxophone; Salvatore Bonafede, acoustic piano/elec. Piano; Gabrio Bevilacqua, acoustic bass. Special Guests: George Garzone, tenor saxophone; Veronica Pelliteri, spoken word; Nedelka Prescod, vocals; Rino Cirinna, tenor saxophone; Lauren Kinhan, vocals; Yvonnick Prene, harmonica; Marcello Todaro, electric guitar/spoken words.
After hearing the very first tune on this CD, I said to myself, here is a musical treasure for the serious jazz lover to embrace and enjoy. Pellitteri composed this first cut titled, “Chasin’ the Zone” and it’s an exciting, high energy piece that lets special guest, George Garzone stretch out on tenor saxophone and Orazio Maugeri fly like a bird on alto saxophone. The horn harmonies splendidly sing the song’s melody and Pellitteri rolls across the drum kit like an Amtrak engine at full throttle. Marcello Pellitteri has also composed cut #2, titled “Longing”. It’s a moderately tempo’d tune with a strong walking bass line provided by Gabrio Bevilacqua and a simplistic, but tasty, solo by pianist, Salvatore Bonafede.
This album has been recorded as a sensitive tribute to Pellitteri’s daughter, Veronica, who left this earth way too early at the young age of twenty-three, only two years ago. She was born under the astrological sign of Aquarius, thus the title, “Aquarius Woman”. Pellitteri is an Italian drummer, composer and arranger based in New York City and is the drummer of choice for the iconic vocal group New York Voices. On the title tune, Pellitteri uses the voice of his daughter, recorded before her departure. Veronica is reciting one of her favorite works by Indonesian poet, Murtiningrum; a woman arrested and abused by the Indonesian military in the 1960s. it’s a poem about hope that Marcello had saved on his computer. He composed the lovely melody as a ballad accompaniment to his daughter’s recitation.
The Alicia Keys song was a surprise. The vocalist, Nedelka Prescod, adds a unique delivery and arrangement, adjusting the melody to her style and emotional performance. She reminds me of the great gospel vocalist, Kim Burrell. Pellitteri chose to include this song and a Stevie Wonder composition, “Ribbon in the Sky,” because they were two of his daughter’s favorite songs. One thing I didn’t understand was why the saxophonist felt he had to play the melody when the vocalist was perfectly singing it. “If I Ain’t Got You” lost some of its unique charm because that arrangement was confusing. Why didn’t the sax just play fills? The vocalist wound up being the instrument that sang the fills and I thought that was creatively clever at the end of the song. However, the saxophonist singing her melody throughout was definitely a distraction and I found it troubling. To the singer’s credit, Prescod stood strong throughout and held her own. Cut #11 was another one of my favorites, when the music returned to the ‘straight ahead’ mode on “Saxando”.
Because Pellitteri’s daughter Veronica was beloved by so many and in her honor, this talented artist is donating all the profits from this CD to the Veronica Pellitteri Memorial Fund, administered by Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. Release date is November 30, 2016.
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CAROL ROBBINS – “TAYLOR STREET”
Jazzcats Record Label
Carol Robbins, harp/composer; Billy Childs, piano/Fender Rhodes; Bob Sheppard, saxophone/clarinet; Larry Koonse, guitar; Curtis Taylor, trumpet; Darek Oles, bass; Gary Novak, drums; Ben Shepherd, electric bass.
The harp is such a lovely, ethereal instrument. I was eager to hear what Ms. Robbins would bring to this jazz recording featuring her harp. The lineup of iconic West Coast musicians is impressive and I suspected I was in for a treat. I was correct. From the very first arpeggio of harp strings and brush of Gary Novaks drum sticks, “The Flight” took off like an American jet plane down the LAX runway. Billy Childs jumped in with a speedy and beautiful solo. Curtis Taylor gave an eyebrow-raising performance, boldly showing his technique and improvisational skills on trumpet. Carol Robbins is a wonderful composer and her melodic songs appear to inspire creativity, prodding these musicians to bring their best to the studio.
There’s been an empty space available ever since Dorothy Jeanne Thompson, (popularily known as Dorothy Ashby), died on April 13 of 1986. Ashby set the standard for jazz harp and Robbins seems to be carrying the torch like an Olympic runner. She’s not as modernistic or Avant Garde as Alice Coltrane, but she’s melodic like Ashby and all nine songs on this CD are well-composed by Ms. Robbins. Below is a sample of her work from a 2012 performance with many of the same players on this upcoming CD release. Listen while you read.
Some songs paint a colorful portrait of Robbins’ life story, like “Taylor Street” (one of my favorite cuts) and it is the title track of this CD as well. The composition is describing, with musical notes, the street in Chicago’s ‘Little Italy’ neighborhood where Robbins’ Italian grandparents and mother lived. It features Childs on electric Fender Rhodes piano, with a pumping electric bass solo by Ben Shepherd. “Deep Canyon” was inspired by the tucked away and winding Benedict Canyon Road in Southern California. Many homes of stars and music icons are hidden in those canyon hills. The jazz waltz she’s composed, “Full Circle”, is beautifully written and performed, but I find myself wondering, when is her time to solo and shine? The all-star musicians seem to take over this song and run with it. After all, it is Ms. Robbin’s artistic CD and I would like to have heard more of her on the harp and less jam session. That being said, she is prominent and upfront on her composition” Trekker” where Gary Novak sparkles on drums and propels the band. On “Smooth Ride,” Robbins explores a more contemporary sound and I enjoyed the interplay between the harp and Darek Oles on bass towards the end of this arrangement. “The Chill” reminds me, in an odd sort of way, of Burt Bacharach, whose composing skills I love and admire. I’d have to say it’s rather Pop-ish, until Bob Sheppard enters on saxophone and makes it very clear that this is jazz and only jazz. Here Robbins blends nicely with guitarist Larry Koonse in a jazz-waltz that makes me feel like singing, “Hey little girl, comb your hair, fix your make up…”. All in all, this is a well-produced, well-composed and very swinging production that properly introduces us to Carol Robbins and her jazz harp in a most prolific way. The music world has been awaiting someone just like Robbins to bring the jazz harp happily back into musical focus. Release date is scheduled for January 6, 2017.
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CAROL LIEBOWITZ/NICK LYONS – “FIRST SET”
Carol Liebowitz, piano; Nick Lyons, alto saxophone
On a rainy night in the desert, this CD was the perfect musical glow to beam beneath this odd-man, thunder storm that is lighting up our sky. We sometimes get lightning storms 4300 feet above sea level, but not that much in the way of rain and thunder in the San Bernardino mountains. It’s a nice, Avant Garde change of nature. So is this recording; a nice, Avant Garde production of piano and alto saxophone. It’s a duet of freedom. Recorded ‘live’ in Brooklyn, New York at Connie Crother’s loft, Liebowitz and Lyons bring their original compositions and improvisational concept to much appreciative applause. If you are looking for distinctive melodies and meters that make sense, you won’t find them here. This music, like the artists, are free to interpret their feelings and creativity in a rich and unencumbered way. It’s perfect listening for a late-night rain storm, or introducing you to two very talented musicians. Release date is January 6, 2017.
The attached video includes an extra player, but will give you a glimpse of Liebowitz & Lyons’ Avante Garde style. It also features Ryan Messina on trumpet (who is not on this CD).
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BRENT GALLAHER – “MOVING FORWARD”
Brent Gallaher, tenor saxophone; Alex Pope Norris, trumpet/flugelhorn; Dan Karlsberg, piano; Aaron Jacobs, bass; Anthony Lee, drums.
Gallaher’s original composition, “Serendipity” opens this project with ‘Straight Ahead’ energy perpetuated by the healthy trap drum excellence of Anthony Lee. Gallaher, with Norris on trumpet, begin the tune with horn harmonics and to establish the melody. Cut #3, “Gratitude” is exquisitely beautiful with an outstanding piano solo by Dan Karlsberg. It’s a ballad where Gallaher gets to stretch out his emotions for the listener’s examination. His style is deeply influenced by John Coltrane, Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter. Brent Gallaher is a jazz reedman favored and solid on the Cincinnati jazz scene. This project should help him become more well-known country-wide. Other favorite tunes are “Cesar”, written by pianist Karlsberg and “Moving Forward”, the title tune composed by Gallaher. “Cesar” caught my attention because of its odd intervals and melodic structure. It gives a sparkling platform for Aaron Jacobs to step center stage and bask in the light with his double bass. This album is scheduled for a January 6, 2017 release date.
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