CELEBRATING JOHN COLTRANE AND OTHER JAZZ INNOVATORS

CELEBRATING JOHN COLTRANE (SEPT 23, 1926 – JULY 17, 1967)
& OTHER JAZZ INNOVATORS
July 17, 2017
By jazz journalist, Dee Dee McNeil

On this day, July 17th, fifty-years after the death of our beloved jazz legend, John Coltrane, I wanted to review music that shines in the category of great jazz and music that applauds innovative artists. I was pleased to review DAVE LIEBMAN and JOE LOVANO’s new Resonance Records album, “Compassion – The Music of John Coltrane.” ARUAN ORTIZ brings Avant Garde arrangements to the table. The MICA BETHEA BIG BAND absolutely astonished me with arrangements that span the gamut of funk, fusion and Straight-ahead jazz and finally, DAVE STRYKER releases his 28th CD as a leader and celebrates jazz standards composed by Strayhorn, Wayne Shorter and more, arranging them in his own unique way.

DAVE LIEBMAN/JOE LOVANO – “COMPASSION: THE MUSIC OF JOHN COLTRANE”
Resonance Records

Dave Liebman, tenor & soprano saxophones/C flute; Joe Lovano, tenor saxophone/autochrome/alto clarinet/Scottish flute; Phil Markowitz, piano; Ron McClure, bass; Billy Hart, drums.

On July 17, 1967, the great John Coltrane passed away. It is appropriate to remember and celebrate his amazing talent this month, as well as his contributions made to jazz music and peace on earth. The thing that wrapped so many up in the music of ‘Trane’ was his ability to connect with us spiritually. He could transport us to a higher place mentally, spiritually and emotionally with his music. His style is still mimicked and contemplated today. Consequently, I was eager to hear what Dave Liebman and Joe Lovano had brought to their current CD release titled, “Compassion – The Music of John Coltrane.”

They open with “Locomotion,” from the ‘Blue Train’ Blue Note album that I used to own. Boy, did I love that album. “Locomotion” is propelled by an all-star rhythm section. Billy Hart’s drums are like a mix-master in cake batter, whirling the sweetness around at a relentless pace. Markowitz on piano leaps to the forefront, making extraordinary statements on piano and McClure on bass never waivers. His strong, solid foundation holds the rhythm together impeccably. Liebman and Lovano blend horns, similar to the Coltrane arrangement, then each one ventures out on independent paths of improvisation. I enjoy their tribute to Coltrane, but I have to say I truly miss the Lee Morgan solo sound on trumpet and Curtis Fuller’s stellar contribution on trombone from the original recording. Never mind! These two iconic players bring their own spicy reeds to the mix.

This album was recorded back on June 22, 2007 at the Clinton Recording Studios in New York City. The recording was made for a BBC Radio Program called “Jazz on 3.” It was a Somethin’ Else Production and recorded a decade ago to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of Coltrane’s transition. Half a century later, his music is still alive, well and relevant.

Grammy award winning, Joe Lovano, expounded on the Saxophone Summit that first started in 1999 as a collaboration between him, Dave Liebman and Michael Brecker. They played in New York at Birdland, developing their repertoire as a group, with overtones and influence from the later period of John Coltrane’s recordings and freedom of expression. Perhaps he explained his fascination with the Coltrane era best when he said in the liner notes, “…the ensembles that he had and the way they played together … It wasn’t just what they were playing, it was how they were playing, and we tried to capture that. … “Locomotion” was one of his famous tunes … it’s blues with a bridge. It has intervals in it that are in a lot of his compositions. There’s a lot of spiritual things that happen that are very mysterious in Coltrane’s music.”

Billy Hart kept it simple when he proudly shared with interviewer Zev Feldman, “ John Coltrane is still my major reason for playing this music. He’s my major inspiration. We’re all just unbelievable Coltrane fans.”

Hart continued, “I was out in Los Angeles with Jimmy Smith, but I had the day off and I went to hear Coltrane’s band with Rashied Ali. The music was even a little advanced for me and when Coltrane got off at the end of the set. To my amazement, he walked over to my table. I was so excited. I can’t tell you. It was like my hero came and sat down. I never expected to have a conversation, but I said, John, your music is so advanced. What are you gonna do … about how people feel about your music? He said, you know, Billy, I don’t know what I’m gonna do, but I know I can’t stop. And that was like a rally to me. … I began to tear. I felt like I was going to follow this guy to the ends of the earth. So, I said, John, you’re really beautiful. And he said, I’m just trying to clean up. You can imagine if you didn’t take a bath for twenty years how dirty you would be. I’m just trying to clean up.

“I just wanted to follow this man, and a lot of my training and self-study was to eventually play with him or somebody like him.”

You will find this CD a fine tribute piece to our great legend, John Coltrane. I enjoyed Ron McClure’s bass solo on the end of Olé. When he spoke about his love of John Coltrane, he remembered that ‘Blue Train’ album release in 1957. The one that greatly affected me. He was just sixteen years old and McClure says it changed his life. He said that album and Coltrane’s work with Miles Davis, from “Workin” to the “Kind of Blue” recording (another favorite of mine and millions of others), hooked him and helped to form a kind of concept of jazz for the young bassist.

Phil Markowitz expressed his opinion of Coltrane by noting that like the legendary saxophone artist, he too was in search of beauty and expression in the music along with the constant exploration of the unknown.
You can read various comments and quotes from this album’s participants in the small, CD-size, twenty-four page booklet included with this release and enjoy the photographs too. Perhaps Dave Liebman summed it up best when he said:
“To musicians of our generation, Coltrane raised the bar in so many ways. As a bandleader and improviser; technically, as a tenor saxophonist and in bringing the soprano sax back into vogue. … And, as so clearly evidence on this recording, as a composer who created improvisational formats that were constantly evolving and challenging.”

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ARUAN ORTIZ – “CUB(AN)ISM”
Intakt Records

Aruan Ortiz, solo piano/composer.

Free form; Avant Garde; these are the terms that come to mind as I listen to Aruan Ortiz performing solo on this, his second CD release.
From the very first tune, the left hand of Aruan Ortiz is playing as if it’s separate from his body; as if another pianist is seated at a different piano next to his. He keeps perfect time with that left hand, pumping out phrases, chords and rhythm, while the right-hand races over the keys, playing inspirational melody and unexpected chordal harmonies. You won’t find much to sing along with on this recording. Ortiz is exploring his inner feelings, using music as the translator. His CD is arcane and fat with phantasmagoria. Solo piano is demanding. His technique is obvious, but this is a piece of art that presents visceral compositions. The Ortiz eidetic music sounds like a film score.

On the fifth cut, “Monochrome (Yuba),” his technique is interesting as he strums the piano strings like a guitar. Although his first love was playing the violin, and later the viola, after winning several prizes for his orchestral viola concertos as a teen, he was drawn to the piano in 1992. At the age of nineteen, he buried himself in developing a piano style that blended his Cuban roots with his world travels. In Cuba, piano lessons were an obligatory part of music education, so he was already familiar with the instrument from childhood. In Barcelona, Spain, Ortiz garnered his formal jazz degree. His first released production was in 1996, recorded in Madrid and titled, “Impresion Tropical”.
According to the liner notes, “Cub(an)ism” is the result of an in-depth conversation with a range of musical idioms and styles, and various experiences from the phases of Ortiz’s life, in Cuba, Spain, France and the USA, which have formed his eclectic concept of music.”

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THE MICA BETHEA BIG BAND – “STAGE ‘N STUDIO”
Independent label

Studio Personnel: Aaron Lehrian, Piano/string synthesizer; Josh Bowlus, piano/Rhodes; Ryan Slatko, vides/percussion/piano; James Hogan, guitar; Stan “Piper” & Dennis Marks, bass; Terry “Doc” Handy, percussion; John Lumpkin, Jr., drums; Mike Emmert, bari sax/bass clarinet; Eric Riehm, tenor sax/clarinet; Jose Rojas, Tenor Sax/flute/clarinet; Juan Carlos Rollan, tenor saxophone/flute; Daniel Dickinson, alto saxophone/ flute/clarinet; Todd DelGiudice, alto & soprano saxophones/flute/clarinet; Gina “Badeedu” Benalcazar, bass trombone; Trombone section: Ryan Bricknell, Corey Wilcox, Lance Reed & Michael Nunez. Trumpet section: Greg Balut, Ray Callender, Jay Forman, Dave Champagne, Jonathan Ward & Robert Vandivier. Linda Cole, vocals.

Stage Personnel: Josh Bowlus, piano/Rhodes; Dennis Marks, bass; John Lumpkin Jr., drums; Terry ‘Doc’ Handy, percussion; Jonah Pierre, vibes/percussion; Steve Gallatin, guitar; Mike Emmert, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet; Jose Rojas, tenor saxophone/flute/clarinet; Juan Carlos Rollan, tenor saxophone/flute; Daniel Dickinson, alto saxophone/flute/clarinet; Todd DelGiudice, alto & soprano saxohones/flute/clarinet; Gina ‘Badeeduh’ Benalcazar, bass trombone; Trombone section: Ryan Bricknell, Wyatt Thomas, Lance Reed. Trumpet Section: Greg Balut, Dave Champagne, Scott Dickinson, Jonathan Ward, Ray Callender. Linda Cole, vocals.

The first disc I listen to is the studio recorded big band. It opens with Herbie Hancock’s, “Hang Up Your Hang Ups.” The funk leaps off the first tune like sweat from an active boxer. That bass guitar intro jabs you right in the face. Then the drums punch the rhythm forward and the horns fight back, in unison and harmonically, never giving an inch to the powerful players swinging on bass, piano, guitar and drums. Oh, that drummer who enlists the two and four beats like a Joe Louis knock-out combination, has my undivided attention.

The idea of merging contemporary funk-fusion jazz with big band arrangements was questionable in my mind at first, until I heard this marvelous recording. It’s well-executed, with phenomenal arrangements and distinguished players. That baritone saxophone solo by Mike Emmert is breathtakingly beautiful on Herbie’s tune. I was hooked right from the opening cut.

“Birth Rite” quickly becomes another favorite of mine. It’s a Mica Bethea composition and features Joshua Bowlus on piano, opening this arrangement like a Thelonious Monk composition. It quickly drifts into an ethereal space, becoming other-worldly with distinctive horn harmonies and descants. That lovely piano solo by Bowlus and the luscious arrangements on this tune unexpectedly pulled tears to my eyes. It’s a very moving composition.

“Tenderly” is beautifully arranged to showcase a swelling and rhythm that fuses it with Latin grooves, but still keeps the satin-smooth continuity of orchestration that makes big bands so exciting. Bethea’s arrangements are fresh, unpredictable and incorporate a taste of the old-school bands of the 1940’s with a fresh facelift, mixed with fusion funk that propels his music into the twenty-first century.

I’m impressed with Bethea as a composer as well as his arranging skills. He offers us comparison between a “Live” performance and a studio recording of his big band, including some of the same songs so we can balance our opinions of the band’s performance, using our own personal music scales. This is a double set recording with two unique discs. Everything about this music is enthralling and technically brilliant. There is such strength and power in this man’s arrangements. Then I read the bio on him that’s included in the Cd package and I see where his forcefulness and aggressive arrangements come from.
In 2005, Mica Bethea was driving back to his North Florida University in Jacksonville, when a big rig going 85 miles an hour plowed into his car. He was standing still, completely stopped in traffic. The result of this accident is that this amazing arranger/composer is now a quadriplegic. I only mention this because I believe it shows the character and resilience of this creative artist. This young music student had the courage and determination to return to school, three years later, and complete his Bachelor’s Degree and attain his Master’s Degree in Jazz. Both his parents were musicians. His father played trumpet and piano and his mother sang. His dad was also a radio disc jockey in the 70’s and Mica Bethea learned to love jazz at an early age. Proficient in both piano and saxophone, after the accident Bethea could no longer play, so he focused his talents on arranging and composition. He cites Gil Evans, Maria Schneider and Bob Brookmeyer as big influences in his big band arrangements. He explained his project this way:

“This was a very interesting experiment. On the studio CD, I could control the environment and get exactly the sounds I wanted. There’s a very pleasing, almost pristine quality to it. But on the live performance, you can hear that the musicians are more relaxed and stretch out more. The sound isn’t as clean, but that’s more than made up for by the vitality of the performance.”

This writer can honestly assert there is not one bad cut on these dual discs. I spent all week listening to them with excitement and infused pleasure. Not to mention, these are crème-de-la-crème musicians who interpret the compositions and arrangements of Mica Bethea with memorable gusto. For example, on the ‘Live’ recording, the cut titled “Self Defense” spotlights John Lumpkin Jr.’s amazing drum skills and also features reedman, Todd DelGiudice. I love the guitar wah-wah pedaled sound in the background. There’s just so much to hear in this CD, like exploring a treasure chest. You just keep finding unexpected and precious gifts.
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DAVE STRYKER – “STRYKIN’ AHEAD”
StrikeZone Records

Dave Stryker, guitar; Steve Nelson, vibraphone; Jared Gold, organ; McClenty Hunter, drums.

Stryker turns out albums like Ford Motor Company rolls cars off the assembly line. This is his twenty-eighth CD as a leader and once again, he features some of his favorite players. I always enjoy guitar and organ trios. For a second time, Stryker has added Steve Nelson’s excellent vibraphone talents, expanding his group to a quartet. Their last recording together in 2016 was called Eight Track II and previewed a jazz approach to pop and R&B standard tunes from the days of Eight Track tape recorders. This time, Stryker leaves no doubt that he is all about jazz. The tunes he’s picked make that perfectly clear; Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints”, Billy Strayhorn’s “Passion Flower,” and Clifford Brown’s “Joy Spring”. You will find this recording a laid-back, re-harmonization of these standards as only Stryker can do. He enjoys giving familiar compositions a make-over. For example, on the second cut, “Footprints,” he switches the time to 5/4 and opens with a 5/4 melodic groove to introduce this familiar standard. At first, it’s unrecognizable, but then the melody kicks in and you get a smooth jazz kind of arrangement. “New You” uses the chord changes of “There Will Never Be Another You” with a distinctly different melody. It’s a nice ‘Swing’ piece, played at a moderate pace, that Stryker has composed. I enjoy Jared Golds bass line underneath Billy Strayhorn’s “Passion Flower” and the Latin groove McClenty Hunter lays down on the drums. Very nice indeed. As always, Dave Stryker shines with star qualities on guitar. At the same time, he is generous with his other magicians, giving them plenty of room to spread their improvised solos around, sweet as jelly on toast. Stryker is a fine composer. Both “Shadowboxing” and “Strykin’ Ahead” are energetic tunes that leave plenty of room for exploration and improvisation, while showcasing Dave Stryker’s competence and aesthetics on his guitar. “Blues Down Deep” delivers on its promise.

All in all, here is an album, produced by Stryker, that genuinely supports the title of this project, “Strykin’ Ahead” and holds true to its presumption of straight-ahead jazz, creatively arranged standards, and well composed original music.
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