Archive for January, 2017


January 30, 2017

By: Jazz Journalist/Dee Dee McNeil

Concert on Saturday, January 28, 2017

Remembering the last time I attended The Blue Whale, I arrived early in order to get a good seat. The place is generally packed. For those of you who haven’t joined the youthful and high energy downtown Los Angeles scene, for a moment you might feel you are in Tokyo or New York. The Weller Court Plaza is near a five-star hotel and sparkles with green and blue lights inside a tunnel like entrance off of 2nd Street. The Little Tokyo courtyard is peppered with small shops and the second and third floors feature a multitude of restaurant choices. A huge amber umbrella stretches above the courtyard and many people sit on the outdoor benches, even though the night is a little windy and quite cool.

Doors open at 8pm and I find a cushion against the wall where I can rest my back. I’m surprised to see that the club has added concert seating in fold-out chairs. When it first opened, there was only Japanese style seating on low-to-the-ground square cushions. For Westerners, the added seating is a big improvement. The unelevated stage space was cluttered with music stands and chairs. A grand piano sat stage front, a guitar propped-up near bye; drums, vocal microphones off to the side and a projector of his CD Cover, “The Discovery Project” in black and white sat on a movie screen hanging above the piano. It was also reflected as a backdrop behind the band. The standing room only crowd was half way to the door by the time Josh Nelson and his ensemble took to the stage.

Nelson featured a narrator, Robert Peterson, who is also a historian. For this multi-media experience, Petersen stepped to the mic and introduced us to pieces of Los Angeles history, while Nelson tinkled the keys beneath the narration. This introduced us to “Bridges and Tunnels”. The screen filled up with black and white movie scenes, famous L.A. tunnels and bridges featured predominately, while the original composition serenaded us. The collage of moving images was punctuated by a harmonic horn section.

Nelson welcomed the crowd after the first song and told us he was raised in Long Beach and loves Los Angeles. Thus, began this tribute to the city of his upbringing. At thirty-eight-years young, he has already performed as musical director for Natalie Cole, accompanied Sheila Jordan, Sara Gazarek, played with Dave Koz, Kurt Elling, John Pizzarelli, Lewis Nash, Peter Erskine, John Clayton, Benny Golson and too many more to list here. Nelson is a well-respected, jazz pianist, composer, educator and recording artist. He introduced us to his band. His guitarist, the son of the late, great, big band leader, Gerald Wilson, Anthony Wilson. Alex Boneham on bass; Dan Schnelle on drums; Brian Walsh on clarinet; Josh Johnson on saxophone; Chris Lawrence manning the trumpet; Kathleen Grace & Lillian Sengpiehl , both featured vocalists. Nelson thanked them all, including Travis Flournoy for his live video projections and Jesse Ottinger and Claudia Carballada for their scenography.

Peterson, the historian and narrator, once again stood behind the mic to give us a brief history of Griffith Park. We were told it was named for an alcoholic man who terrorized his wife, Tina. Because of his jealous personality, he wound up shooting the poor woman in her face one evening during a drunken rage. Although she survived and he was incarcerated, we learned that Griffith only spent two years in jail for this heinous act and built the City of Los Angeles, (and the political powers that be), the famed Griffith Park Theater and Griffith Park Conservatory. There was a collective gasp in the room.

The song that followed featured lyrics that professed, “The cities different but the sky remains the same” and was performed beautifully by guest vocalist, Kathleen Grace. Drummer Dan Schnelle slapped a back beat into the song and Nelson told us that featured vocalist, Grace, had co-written the piece with him.
The next composition, (“Stairways”) celebrated the Los Angeles’ four-hundred-and-fifty historic stairways that wind up and down hillside areas. On this original composition, Nelson made the 88-keys climb, while we watched black and white films of men in suits running and sometimes struggling up brick and cement stairs built into L.A.’s hilly terrain. This song featured amazingly beautiful solos by trumpeter, Chris Lawrence and saxophonist, josh Johnson. The groove in this song was warm and washed across the audience like island waves. Throughout, bassist, Alex Boneham, swings like a pendulum and was rich with tonality. In the movie sequence, when a woman in a black dress obviously struggles up the stairs on some hillside, Nelson plucks the grand piano strings to create a musical ambience along with experienced and stellar chops on the keys. I found humor in the film, but swallowed my laughter, because the musical arrangement was so stunning that laughing was inappropriate.

“Water” was the next topic and referenced the Roman Polanski film of 1974, “Chinatown,” nominated for eleven Academy Awards. Nelson’s arrangement was ripe with blues. Josh danced atop the multi-media and rhythm trio like a finger ballerina; twirling, spinning, skipping triplets up and down the ivory and ebony keys. His fingers caressed waterfalls out of the instrument before us. He made the ‘water’ topic came alive. Trumpeter Lawrence once again was awe inspiring, as was Anthony Wilson on guitar. Underneath, the splash of drums colored the film of the Los Angeles aqueduct bursting. As the water breached and flooded L.A., the band became Avant Garde, letting modern jazz and improvisation spill across the room. On film, the dam broke and their music exemplified that power, freedom, urgency and destruction. Impressive!

There was a visual artist (Claudia Carballada) who began to draw during one of the musical presentations and that was interesting.

All in all, it was a highly creative and innovative production. Jazz and multi-media make for a happy marriage.

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January 25, 2017

Concert Review by Dee Dee McNeil/Jazz Journalist

January 20, 2017

It rained in sheets, reminding me of Thailand’s monsoon rain storms. The Inland Empire, (often referred to as the I.E.) was wet with water and blown by wild winds that gusted up to fifty-miles-per-hour. Ms. Ruby Kia, my ten-year-old, red SUV that still looks young and vibrant, crept down the Cajon pass from 4300 feet above sea level to Orange County. For those of you who don’t reside in California, that’s about a 100- mile trek down the I-15 freeway; a well-traveled passageway that winds from San Diego, California to Las Vegas, Nevada. As Nick & Valorie Simpson sang, “No wind – no rain – will keep me from you baby.” No way was I going to miss this Gregory Porter and Mavis Staples concert at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California. My long-time, Detroit friend, (Ricky) had bought these tickets way in advance. Even though I have seen both iconic vocalists before, I was still excited. To my sweet surprise, we were seated in the front row. Sitting before us was a cow-bell, a tambourine, a vocal microphone stand and another stand that would soon support an electronic tablet of music. No more paper music scores. Technology has come a long way in the last 20 years.

Enter Mavis Staples, dressed in black pants, a floaty black chiffon like blouse decorated with a long, gold chain. Her band took to the stage a few minutes before her appearance. Vicki Randle stood in position before the percussion set-up and locked her tablet into place. You may have seen Ms. Randle before as part of Kevin Eubanks’ Primetime Band on the former Late Show hosted by Jay Leno. Jeff Turmes on electric bass walked across the large wooden stage. Rick Holmstrom cradled his guitar and plugged-in, while Stephen Hodges settled behind the trap drums. Deacon Donny Gerrard stood next to Vicki, an amazing background vocalist who would shine during this performance, harmonizing with Vicki and sometimes letting his amazing range show-off using a killer tenor vocal. Right from the first stoke of Jeff Turmes’ fingers on the bass guitar, he set the groove and commanded the stage for the petite and iconic gospel star with the big voice. Mavis joined them with dimples flashing.

They opened with “Come Go With Me,” a song that sounds very similar to her big hit, “I’ll Take You There.” Then, from her album, “Livin’ On A High Note“ she sang “Take Us Back”, a song about family and people sticking together in support of each other. Vicki Randle was outstanding on vocals and percussion, blending smoothly with Deacon Donny’s voice to support the always energetic and spirited Ms. Staples. Ms. Randle commanded the cow bell and tambourine with a deft hand. The David Burke composition that The Staple Singers recorded back in 1982, “He’s Alright,” was rich with gospel musicality. Their hit record, “Respect Yourself” brought back warm memories. When she sang “What you gonna do when death comes creepin’ in your room,” the low down blues guitar had the concert audience captivated. Mavis Staples was animated on the song her talented father, “Pop Staples,” wrote for the MLK Selma march to Montgomery. She sang, “March Up Freedom’s Highway” with gusto. Her hour plus opening concert for Gregory Porter resulted in a standing ovation by the sold-out crowd. As an encore, she took us back down memory lane, turning the clock hands back to her 1971 hit, “I’ll Take you There.” The audience was again on their feet and demonstratively joyful. She received a second standing ovation.

After a short break, Gregory Porter and his high-energy band arrived, cool as a rainy California night. One of the most captivating things about this jazz vocalist is Porter’s ability to fly freely over his multi-talented rhythm section and make every familiar, original composition brand new. These are songs we love and play over and over from his hit albums. Yet, believe it or not, he makes each one fresh and more beautiful and exciting than the recordings we hold so dear. Porter opened with “Holding on,” encouraging Emanuel Harrold to fire the band up with his drum skills. Mr. Porter held the crowd in the palm of his huge hands as he sang, “On My Way to Harlem,” a song from his “Water” CD. He serenaded us with the title tune from his recent CD release, “Take Me To The Alley” and told us that his mother taught him about having an open heart and inspired the writing of this very spiritual song. He also thanked a young woman on FaceBook that he had viewed singing his song with conviction and talent. He said she reminded him of his mother and her spiritual passion.

Porter delivers a song like a prayer. He inspired the audience to shout and emote and say “Hallelujah,” as though we were in some Baptist church instead of a concert hall. Yes – We were all fired up by the ensemble’s offering of “Liquid Spirit” that had the entire concert hall flush with hand-clapping and featured young, Marietta, Georgia saxophonist, Tivon Pennicott. Porter is friendly with his audiences and honest, like a best friend. He tells us that there is a young man,(Pointing to the theater balcony) the son of a college mate from his time at San Diego State University, to whom he dedicates his next song. With gusto and power he sings, “Young Man, I’m Counting On You.” You can’t help but feel this artist is sincere and genuinely cares about people and his community. “The Consequence of Love” is so beautiful that it bullies my emotions and tears well up in my eyes. Behind him, his super talented bass player, Jahmal Nichols, plays with a smile as wide and colorful as a rainbow. He offered up an amazing bass solo that set the stage for Porter to surprise us with a Motown Standard song, originally sung by The Temptations. “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” never sounded so good. After one verse and a chorus, the bass player took over once again and Nichols led the ensemble into “I Do Not Agree … Musical Genocide.” Chip Crawford, the pianist who has been with Porter since his first recording, played an inspired piano solo, incorporating several songs into the chord changes from Reggae to “America the Beautiful”. Gregory entered with his rich baritone voice resting against our ears like a plush, cashmere blanket. He wrapped the attentive audience in a magical cocoon when he sang, “Leave your innocents and vulnerability with me.” When I left that concert hall, I felt I had done just that. All my emotions were scattered like puzzle pieces on the floor beneath my seat, spent in hand-clapping, tears and shouts of praise. These things could not begin to express the healing I received from Gregory Porter’s songs. The oneness of an enthusiastic audience, coming together to enjoy this master musician’s vocals and songwriting skills, was amazing. We found incomparable love and compassion in his presentation. We fed him bits and pieces of praise with two standing ovations. His encore, dedicated to our outgoing United States President and our incoming President, was carefully chosen. He sang us his message (as only he can) and filled our minds with love, hope and prayer; “When Love Was King.”

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January 4, 2017

January 4, 2017
CD Reviews by jazz journalist/ Dee Dee McNeil

As the New Year rolls into town with bells and whistles, a few new CD releases offer an ear full of creative composing and arranging. Among them are RON BOUSTEAD with his be-bop vocals and exciting lyrics, LISA HILTON as a prolific composer and pianist, along with DAVID WISE, another fresh composer and jazz saxophonist. CHRIS ROGERS woo’d me with his Straight-ahead compositions and master band. Each offers a specific style and invites us into their world of songwriting, poetic license and self-proclaimed composition and arranging talents. Here’s my take on them.

Art-Rock Music

Ron Boustead, lyricist/vocals; Bill Cunliffe, piano/Fender Rhodes/Hammond B3 organ; Mitchel Forman, piano/Fender Rhodes/Hammond B3 organ/accordion; John Leftwich, acoustic bass; Jake Reed, drums/percussion; Pat Kelley, acoustic and elec. Guitar; Bob Sheppard, saxes/flute; Bob McChesney, trombone; Ron Stout, flugal horn; Fabiana Passoni, guest vocalist.

One thing that has been missing or limited from the jazz scene is a male vocal in the style of Jon Hendricks. On the first cut, Boustead offers the listener some extraordinarily creative lyrics, sung in a swift-paced, be-bop style. It conjures up the image and artistry of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. The following song is familiar, picked from the 1950s Era of doo-wop records popularized by crooner groups with eccentric stories, like “Love Potion #9.” This hit record was originally recorded by The Clovers. Several others covered this song, but I remember the Clovers rendition the best. Boustead’s arrangement is quite jazzy and far from the R&B roots of this Mike Stoller and Jerry Lieber composition, thanks to the creative Bill Cunliffe arrangements. “Coffee” is a lovely ballad extolling the plea of a gentleman asking someone out for a frothy latté or a cup of French Roast. Boustead’s lyrics are believable and compliment these melodies rhythmically. He exhibits a songwriting gift to be admired. “I Won’t Scat” shows me that indeed, he has studied the vocal somersaults of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, because he mentions them in this catchy tune with comedic poetry that pokes fun at ‘scatting.’ The addition of a B3 organ to this tune lifts it to another degree of hotness. An example of Boustead’s unique lyrical composing is in the ‘hook’ of this song.

“… I won’t scat, tell you flat, off the bat, Keep my hat, kiss a rat, but not that .. I’m just not that cat…”

Surrounded by arrangers that push the boundaries of jazz like Mitchel Forman, Bll Cunliffe and Pat Kelley, Boustead basks in their rich glow. Together they bring new perspectives to old standards like “Autumn Leaves” and, as mentioned above, the Rhythm and Blues tune, “Love Portion #9”. The band is tight, supportive and features some of the best musicians that Los Angeles has to offer. Ron Stout sounds amazing and engages us on his flugelhorn during a provocative solo on, “Love’s Carousel.”

I find Ron Boustead totally engrossing and fresh. Some shades of Dave Frishberg dance in these catchy lyrics, but Boustead’s voice is a lot smoother and less nasal. He’s pleasant to the creative palate and tasty with his honest, sometimes spicy, poetic stories. This album is scheduled for a Valentine’s Day release and would make a sweet surprise for you or your loved one.
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Ruby Slippers Productions

Lisa Hilton, Steinway & Sons piano. Al Schmitt & Gavin Lurssen, GRAMMY award winning engineers.

A solo performance of any kind leaves an artist totally vulnerable and objectifies their art to the eyes of the public. It takes a very talented and confident artist to record a complete album as a soloist. In the spotlight, Lisa Hilton blossoms, presenting us with a package of original compositions that, she explains in her liner notes, are a tribute to one of her favorite composers; Cole Porter. Thus the title tune, “Day and Night” referencing in a round-about way Porter’s famed song, “Night and Day”. In her own words, Hilton describes the song as “… my commitment to discover and savor every day moments; to see the beauty in a day from the first glow of sunrise to the dimming sky at sunset, and to acknowledge and share these rich times with others.”

Hilton’s work is steeped in classical music, obvious right from the very first original composition, “Caffeinated Culture.” She has composed nine of ten songs, including one Cole Porter standard, “Begin the Beguine.” On “Sunrise” you can hear her blues roots. Although hugely inspired by Cole Porter, Hilton admits she is also influenced by jazz pianist/composers Horace Silver and Count Basie, as well as Blues by B.B. King and Brownie McGhee. You can hear Latin influences in her solo piano during cut #6 titled, “A Spark in the Night.” It brandishes a memorable melody and two-handed rhythms that encourage the feet to pat or dance a tango. Unafraid of the treble register, her fingers race around the 88-keys, demanding the best from all the notes, with special attention to the upper ends, especially notable on “Seduction.” “Dark Sky Day” is unforgettable and sexy, with smooth key changes, blues undertones and a beautiful melody that pleads for lyrics.

As an independent artist, Hilton has produced and released a total of nineteen albums. When not tickling the Steinway keys and playing solo piano, or working on her original compositions, you will find Lisa Hilton collaborating with such jazz luminaries as Christian McBride, Sean Jones, Marcus Gilmore, Lewis Nash, Billy Hart and many other jazz notables on various music projects. However, if you are a lover of piano and originality, here is a lovely album to add to your collection.
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Independent Label

David Wise, tenor and baritone saxophone/vocals on track 8 & 9; Bruce Forman, guitar; Alex Frank, bass; Jake Reed, drums; Special Guests: Mitchell Cooper, trumpet; Glenn Morrisette, alto sax; R.W. Enoch, tenor sax; Amy K. Bormet, keyboard; Mikala Schmitz, cello; Jason Joseph & Laura Mace, vocals; Josh Smith, guitar.

The opening song, “What More Could One Man Want?” is an original composition sung by special guest Jason Joseph. It’s dirge-like in feel and harmonic changes. I can almost see a New Orleans funeral procession marching slowly down a Louisiana avenue playing this catchy melody and celebrating the life of some departed soul. The lyrics have nothing at all to do with my reflection, but that’s how the music itself moved this listener. I thought it was beautifully mournful. Josh Smith, on guitar, performs an unforgettable and electric solo. The horn arrangements share the harmonic spotlight and feature some special guests who only appear on that particular cut including Cooper, Morrisette, Enoch and Bormet. The Wise composition, “Sylvia,” uses the same one-line melody as “I Love You Porgy” to open the verse. It’s a pretty ballad, but I wonder if he realizes he borrowed that well-sung line from the Porgy and Bess song? “Here’s That Rainy Day” swings, as does Alex Frank, who plays a powerful walking bass to keep the groove intact.
There is a touching sadness to all of the Wise original tunes, buried in his arrangements like tears flowing from woeful eyes. For example, the ballad, “Home” has lovely changes, but wreaks of blues. Nothing wrong with blues! I love a good blues and Wise flies through this song on his saxophone with emotion and admirable technique. Bruce Foreman’s guitar solo on this gutsy tune is lovely. They work together quite well, Forman being professor of jazz guitar at the University of Southern California and touring regularly with David Wise as a part of the “Cow Bop” group that Forman leads. “Kol Nidre” is a traditional Jewish song celebrating Yom Kippur and Wise takes an opportunity to play it solo on his baritone saxophone. “Till They Lay Me Down” is another blues tune that Wise explains, “ means that for as long as I’m here, I’ll be me and I’ll carry, as a part of me, every single person I’ve ever met and every single thing I’ve seen heard, smelled, tasted and done. You know who you are.”

Wise sometimes has a gritty, breathy signature sound on his horn and his band brings out the best of his compositions. Originally from Richmond, Virginia, Wise received a Bachelor of Arts from Oberlin College in African-American Studies, as well as a Bachelor of Music from Oberlin Conservatory in Jazz Saxophone Performance, and was mentored by Gary Bartz. He currently resides in Los Angeles.
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Art of Life Records, LLC

Chris Rogers, trumpet/keyboards/composer; Michael Brecker, tenor saxophone; Ted Nash, tenor & alto saxophone; Steve Khan, guitar; Xavier Davis, piano; Jan Anderson, bass; Steve Johns, drums; Guest Musicians, Barry Rogers, trombone; Roger Rosenberg, baritone sax; Art Baron, trombone. Additional musicians: Mark Falchook, synthesizer/keyboards; Willie Martinez, congas/percussion.

From the first flowing notes of a tune called, “Counter Change,” I was in love with this album of straight-ahead jazz featuring original compositions by Chris Rogers. Rogers not only has composed all nine songs on this project, he has also arranged them. The late, great Michael Brecker made a guest appearance on the first and third track, (“Whit’s End”) and is stellar on both. A flurry of bass notes open the premiere tune and bassist, Jan Anderson, definitely snatches my attention. Pianist Xavier Davis adds solid support to the rhythm section throughout and his solo on this cut soars. “Voyage Home” is sexy and blue, with Ted Nash adding his own creative saxophone licks on this arrangement and Rogers selling the lovely melody with trumpet bravado. I enjoyed the way Rogers and Nash interacted with each other on the fade, offering a sense of freedom with their splendid improvisation. The horn harmonics and arrangements on “Ballad for B.R.” are lush and enhanced the melody sweetly. Willie Martinez’s percussion on cut #6, “Rebecca,” added spice and excitement to this composition, as did Steve Khan’s rhythm guitar. The Afro Cuban flavor infused this project, lifting it to another dimension. I enjoyed every song Rogers composed and his bandmates interpret his artistry to perfection.

The liner notes explain that Rogers celebrates his multiple families by creating this musical treasure. His father is a legendary Salsa and jazz trombonist, (Barry Rogers), and consequently his son was exposed to excellent music and musicians his entire life. These artists included the Brecker Brothers, who his dad played with during their jazz fusion ensemble, ‘Dreams’. For his premiere recording, Chris Rogers has surrounded himself with some of the best musicians the East Coast has to offer and they become his extended family. On this journey to becoming a solo artist, he has wandered a musical path that put him on stages and in studios with icons like Chaka Khan, Mongo Santamaria, Maria Schneider, Ray Barretto, Lee Konitz, Frank Sinatra, Buddy Rich, Eddie Palmieri and Gerry Mulligan. I had never heard of this talented trumpeter before this recording, but I will be listening for him from this moment forward. Here is a conglomerate of great music to be enjoyed over and over again. The Chris Rogers album is scheduled for a February 3 release.
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