ANGEL VOICES & WORLDLY MUSICAL CHOICES

ANGEL VOICES & WORLDLY MUSICAL CHOICES
CD reviews by Jazz Journalist/Dee Dee McNeil

October 14, 2017

I am happy to see so much young talent popping up on the jazz scene, like the very talented MARIE SCHAFER. Even more importantly, it’s good to see so many women who are bringing their concern and nurturing spirits to the forefront in order to protest war, the disparaging of women and peace on earth with various voices of protest like SINNE EEG,JULIE BENKO, LESLIE LEWIS and even journalist turned singer, RONDI CHARLESTON. LYN STANLEY reminds us that the Great American songbook is alive and well with the help of excellent Los Angeles based musicians. Pianist/composer, CAROL ROMAN creates music for the departed and in hopes that we never forget nine-eleven in New York City. The group, NEOTOLIA,featuring vocalist NAZAN NIHAL and composer, UTAR ARTUN bring us World Music from Turkey, with a little help from featured vocalist, JOEY BLAKE and CORINA BARTRA combines cultures, exploring jazz as an Afro-Peruvian vocalist. It’s eye-opening to see how much jazz has touched the music of other countries and encouraged freedom and protest. These artists have veered away from the predictable and mundane. Here are my reviews of angel voices and other worldly music choices.

MARIE SCHAFER – “TO KNOW LOVE”
Marsch Music

Maria Schafer, vocals; Shane Savala, guitar; Joe Butts, bass; Kyle Sharamitaro, drums; Brad Black, trumpet.

This CD opens with the familiar, “You Don’t Know What Love Is” but it’s freshly arranged with only percussion and bass laying like a carpet of musical excellence for the vocalist to strut her stuff. Shane Savala’s flamingo sounding guitar adds a lovely flavor to the production. Ms. Schafer offers sweet vocal improvisation and there is a splatter of Latin percussion implemented. “The More I See You” is performed rubato at the top and moves into a slow swing with the bass pumping like a weightlifter. This vocalist is a throw-back to the days of June Christy or Chris Conner. When Marie Schafer breaks into a foreign language on the third album cut, “Estrada Branco”, I am enchanted. It’s a Jobim/De Moraes composition, featuring only guitar accompaniment. Ms. Schafer lets the listening world know that she can hold her own in the simplicity of this duo moment. However, there is nothing simple about Schafer’s improvisational skills and satin-smooth tone. She is a master of her craft.

Here is a collection of familiar, standard songs, that sound brand new because of their outstanding and creative arrangements. An example of one unique arrangement was when I heard her sing “Estate” with only bass and drums. Impressive!
Obviously, Schafer can sooth or swing at the drop of a beat. This is clearly visible on “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” where tempos melt into each other , labeling this arrangement both challenging and creative. Whatever her musicians do, they only enhance Marie Schafer’s style and beauty. She is the diamond necklace hanging around the necks of these band members and glittering brightly.

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LYN STANLEY – “THE MOONLIGHT SESSIONS – VOLUME TWO”
A.T. Music LLC

Lyn Stanley, piano; Mike Garson, Christian Jacob, Tamir Hendelman, piano; Chuck Berghofer, bass; Ray Brinker, Bernie Dresel, Joe LaBarbera, drums; Luis Conte, percussion; John Chiodini, guitar; Chuck Findley, trumpet/flugelhorn; Rickey Woodard, tenor saxophone; Bob McChesney, trombone; Hendrik Meukens, harmonica; Corky Hale, Carol Robbins, harp; Budapest Scoring Symphonic Orchestra, strings.

Lyn Stanley has consistently turned out a string of albums that celebrate the great American songbook, interpreting songs we know and love. Her smooth, silky sound embellishes the lyrics, stroking the melodies with husky vocal intention. Stanley always employs the best of Southern California’s jazz musician scene when she records. This heightens her compact discs with creative excellence. You will enjoy fourteen standard songs that sing her story and feature songs that reflect Stanley’s own life and heartbreak. The addition of strings by the Budapest Scoring Symphonic Orchestra, combined with top horn players like Rickey Woodard on tenor saxophone, Chuck Findley on trumpet/flugelhorn and Bob McChesney on trombone, make this project not only jazz, but Easy Listening.

Ms. Stanley has a rich alto range and emotional sensibilities to color each tune with believability. This comes from living life to the fullest and turning those life lessons into a musical diary, using deep and memorable compositions. The classical piano of Christian Jacob on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is stunningly fresh, with a musical introduction that allows Ms. Stanley to surprise us with the Judy Garland standard when she enters the song vocally. Nice! Chuck Findley’s muted trumpet on “You’ve Changed” adds interest and art to her vocal presentation, although she is somewhat whinny at times. Woodard’s bluesy, tenor saxophone puts sassy sexiness into Stanley’s rendition of “Since I Fell For You.”

Here is a production and voice that will please and entertain you for years to come.

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INTRODUCING JULIE BENKO
Independent Label

Julie Benko, vocals; Jason Yeager, piano; Danny Weller, bass; Jay Sawyer, drums; Andy Warren, trumpet; Dan Levinson, clarinet; Walter Harris, trombone; Andrew Mulherkar, tenor saxophone; Vinny Raniolo, guitar; Jason Anick, violin; JP Jofre, bandoneon; Alon Bisk, cello.

There is a Dixieland-feel to this songbird’s production on the very first cut of her debut CD. Titled, “Tomorrow is a Day For You.” It’s a joyful composition penned by Benko and she explains in the liner notes that she wrote it as a celebration following the US Supreme Court decisions defending same-sex marriage. She has penned three songs on this project and all relate to her response to the world around her.

“Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” from the Broadway production, seems to mirror this vocalist’s sensibilities and style. Obviously, Julie Benko has ‘pipes’; a slang for very strong vocals. She sings with power and gusto. I recognized immediately that she has a stage voice ready to soar onto Broadway stages. When I later read her bio, I discovered I was right. She recently performed on Broadway in ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’

I enjoyed the Jason Anick violin solo on “Love For Sale”. The Jason Yeager arrangement is lovely, presenting the old standard as a tango. This vocalist executes the song well, but I don’t believe her when she interprets the lyrics. This is important, because part of the singers duty is to sell her musical stories to the listening public. Still, Ms. Benko has chosen a number of other recognizable and popular songs to interpret and for the most part, she is very successful. Ms. Benko has co-produced this album with her pianist, Jason Yeager and I would distinguish her as a musical theater vocalist with pop overtones.
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SINNE EEG – “DREAMS”
An ArtistShare fan funded project

Sinne Eeg, vocals/composition; Jacob Christoffersen, piano; Larry Koonse, guitar; Joey Baron, drums; Scott Colley, bass; background vocals, Sinne Eeg, Warny Mandrup, Lasse Nilsson & Jenny Nilsson.

Here is a female artist who can compose as well as sing. It’s always a plus when you add songwriting talents to your recording project. Ms. Eeg opens with “The Bitter End” which has a country/blues feel. I wish Koonse, on guitar, had over-dubbed some really down and dirty blues guitar to embellish the vocalist’s arrangement. However, the composition itself is well-written and Larry Koonse is steady and tenacious on rhythm guitar. On “Head Over High Heels,” Sinne Eeg shows off her scatting skills. Her vocals are smooth and warm as sweet butter on hot waffles. The thing that draws you into this artist’s presentation is her rich, honest, tonal quality. I appreciate Sinne Eeg not being whinny or nasal, but singing full voice, squeezing emotion out of each lyrical expression with sincerity. “Love Song” is another original composition and quite beautiful. Scott Colley’s big bass sound solidifies the ballad and grounds the arrangement. The double bass is as solid as cement. With only drums to accompany her voice, she swings her way into the familiar tune, “What Is This Thing Called Love.” Eeg is a real jazz singer. She’s not another Easy Listening vocalist or another singer of standard love songs. She’s not re-singing the great American Songbook. Instead, she rejuvenates and explores her music, searching for new expression and stretching the boundaries of her creativity. That’s really what jazz is all about. She also makes a political statement with her composition, “Aleppo,” musically interpreting a sad song about the strife and genocide in this Syrian city. Her lyric about war and the innocent victims of our human rage for power and greed, paints the picture of a small child trying to survive the ravages of senseless killing. Other favorites are “Time To Go,” and her creative arrangement of “I’ll Remember April”.

Sinne Eeg is the real deal. Here is a project I can wrap my mind around and play over and over again without getting bored or feeling short-changed. Her band is super-supportive and each member, a master musician in their own right. They decorate the stage for Sinne Eeg to perform with brilliance and jazzy improvisation.
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RONDI CHARLESTON – “RESILIENCE”
Resilience Music Alliance

Rondi Charleston, vocals/songwriter; Dave Stryker, guitar/musical director/songwriter; Brandon McCune, piano; Ed Howard, bass; McClenty Hunter, drums; Mayra Casales, percussion. Featured soloists: Tim Ries, tenor saxophone; Alex Norris, flugelhorn.

With the exception of Clifford Brown’s “Joyspring” composition and two other songs, Charleston has co-written all the songs on this album. It’s an interesting collaboration with Musical Director, Dave Stryker. The songs sound pop, but are arranged in a jazzy way. When Charleston tackles “Joyspring” she exhibits her ability to scat and swing. The thing is, when vocalists are freshly learning to improvise, they often think scatting is repeating the melody without singing words. A true scat artist improvises, changing the melody on top of the familiar chord changes. Still, I have to admire Charleston’s ability to spit out all those lyrics at a rapid rate, with good pitch and she swings hard. “Joyspring” is no easy composition to sing.

Her song, “Scrapbook” sounds more like a jazz tune than the first two songs. “Refugee” is produced as a jazz waltz and describes a female character feeling like an outcast, but still striving against all odds to compete and achieve, in spite of being different in a judgmental society. Charleston uses her composition skills to attack social issues with competent and well-written lyrics. This should not be surprising since Rondi Charleston is an award-winning journalist turned jazz singer. She has won both an Emmy and a Peabody Award as a field producer for ABC’s Diane Sawyer. Charleston has a background in acting and sang opera at Julliard before entering the world of investigative journalism. With this album project, she is living out a long-time dream to be a musical poet and jazz singer. The band is ‘kickin’ and totally supportive of her dreams. Tim Ries on tenor saxophone is smokin’ hot on the Eli Yamin tune titled, “A Healing Song.” Dave Stryker has done a great job of co-producing this compact disc with Charleston. However, this artist has a way to go in order to find her musical sweet spot and to develop her vocal jazz style. This is certainly a good start.


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CAROL ROMAN – “GOING HOME; SONGS OF COMFORT”
Dove Street Music

Carol Roman, composer/pianist/arranger; Michael Higgins, guitarist; Charles Holt, Clydene Jackson, Leslie Lewis, Tina Meeks, Margaret Owens, Nadine Risha & Shantih Haast guest vocalists; Richard Jennings, flute/soprano saxophone.

I’ve known Carol Roman for several years, but I never knew about her talents as a pianist and songwriter. She was coming to jazz shows and that’s how we met, both being jazz aficionados. So, when she shyly handed me her latest CD, I was surprised. The music on this CD is in memoriam of several people dear to Ms. Roman, as well as the victims of the 9/11 tragedy in NYC. It’s easy listening, classically flavored music that is simply produced. The composition quality, I found beautiful and peaceful. Featuring mostly Carol Roman’s talents on piano, the first instrumental tune also includes the complimentary flute licks of Richard Jennings. Ms. Roman has composed all the music except track six, written by Shantih Haast. She has also written most of the lyrics. Clydene Jackson interprets vocally on “A Time Gone By,” a song that celebrates the strength of the human spirit, living, loving and praying for peace, while protecting freedom. Ms. Roman has utilized a large group of guest artists from Los Angeles’ talented singer’s pool, to interpret her original songs, with much success. Michael Higgins adds guitar to the mix on “Bud’s Song.” Amy Jahn was the lyricist for this original composition by Carol Roman. Nadine Risha’s lovely vocals are featured. I was surprised to see that Leslie Lewis is also one of the voices who is singing on this album of Roman’s original music. Surprised because I also had received a new album from Ms. Lewis to review. Carol Roman is not jazz. It’s easy listening and features several angel voices who sing tribute songs to the dearly departed, making for an unusual and touching topic of inspiration.


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NEOTOLIA – NAZAN NIHAL & UTAR ARTUN – “NEOTOLIA SONG”
Interrobang Records

Nazan Nihal, vocals/lyricist/composer; Utar Artun, composer/pianist/arranger; Jussi Reijonan & David Fluczynski , fretless electric guitar; Bruno Raberg, acoustic bass; Bassam Saba, ney; Tahi Aydogdu, Qanun; Arto Tuncboyacryan, vocals/percussion; Dave Wecki, drum; Yazhi Guo, dizi; Bruno Raberg, acoustic bass; Jussi Reijonen, guitar/oud; Giuseppe Paradiso, Drums & percussion; Galen G. Willett, Elec bass; Tao He, Erhu; Joey Blake, vocals; Naseem Alatrash, cello; Layth Sidiq, violin.

It was unique listening to this album, because it is sung in an unfamiliar language. For that occurrence, this reviewer had to peel her ears to the melodic structure, the production, the captured emotion of foreign vocalists, and then I read the translated words of the lyrics in the liner notes. Nazan Nihal is a stunning lyricist who is reaching out to the world with words asking us to make a change for the betterment of humanity. The first song is titled “Once Upon A Life.” It has a very haunting melody and the production is ethereal, making me see heavenly constellations and a sky full of sparkling stars as I listen. Nihal’s soprano voice soars operatically, then settles smoothly into her chest register as she sings, “Souls wither in time unless watered by love.” This “Once Upon A Life” composition touches my heart.

“Song of the Monastery” sounds like a pop song. I learn that it’s a traditional Turkish Folk song and it’s the story of a pond and fountain, located in the middle of a monastery where young girls dance and play music.

“Neotolia” is an international band of diverse and skilled musicians, under the leadership of pianist/ composer, Utar Artun, and singer/songwriter Nazan Nihal. They are Turkish and this music is steeped in the rich culture of Eastern Europe, Western Asia and the Mediterranean. Much of it reminds me of the prayers I heard during my travels to Turkey, Palestine and Dubai. This is not jazz. However, I did hear a very fluid scat part performed perfectly by Joey Blake on “Rondo Afro Turea,” another original composition by Utar Artun.

Here is a production that is basically World Music and I decided to review it because these musicians are using music to dissolve prejudice and hierarchies across the board, using both lyrics and their musical arrangements to combine cultures.

If you are looking for something musically unique, you will find it here.
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CORINA BARTRA – “TAKUNDE”
Blue Spiral Music

Corina Bartra, vocals; Steve Sandberg, piano; Victor Murillo, bass; Jay Rodriguez, saxophone; Seth Johnson, guitar; Perico Diaz, cajon; Vince Cherico, drums.

I have one more World Music project that I feel compelled to mention. It features the rich, rhythmic vocals of Corina Bartra who blends the music of Peru, Brazil and Cuba on this new production. Bartra is categorized as a jazz/World Music artist. I hear lots of Afro-Cuban influence in her vocals and once again, I am left to ‘feel’ the music and connect with the emotional production, since I cannot understand her language on many of her lyrics. This is happy music. Music that makes you want to move, dance and hum along with the melodies. Corina Bartra is a human bird whose phrasing and vocal gymnastics explore her wonderful vocal range and presentation. On her original composition, “Ecstasy Green” she shows off her minor chordal tones and lets her soprano notes dance atop the music, like flags waving in the breeze. This is followed by her rendition of “Bridge Over Trouble Waters” sung in English, but colored by unexpected inflections of a foreign language and her unusual tonal style. There is something cat-like about the way she purrs and whines her way through these lyrics. Shades of Eartha Kitt creep from her vocal style and I am reminded of this great American Jazz vocalist and actress by Ms. Bartra’s vocals. Jay Rodriguez adds his screaming saxophone to this song, quite appropriately. “El Guaranguito” is joyful music. It’s noted as an Afro-Peruvian traditional composition on the album cover. This is followed by a Jobim composition, “Samba de Aviao” that switches and sways off the compact disc, like the well-built hips of a well-endowed mambo dancer.

Bartra has composed six of the twelve songs on this CD. Her compositions stretch her vocals to their limits and she inspires her energetic band to pop like rubberbands. They snap with rhythm and enthusiasm. She takes chances with vocal acrobatics, sliding to the notes and using staccato to punch lines and melodies. She has a bigger range than the late Abbey Lincoln, but there are moments when her tone is similar to this iconic American jazz singer. Sometimes I found brief seconds of pitchiness, that interrupted my enjoyment, like stepping bare-footed on a hot stone. But Most importantly, Bartra embraces the element that has made jazz so popular across the globe; improvisation! She boasts degrees in jazz percussion and a Master’s degree in vocal performance from Queens College.

This is my first time hearing an Afro-Peruvian jazz singer/songwriter, who combines Criolla music with jazz. It was an excursion into the unknown that was pleasantly surprising.
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LESLIE LEWIS – “FRAGILE”
Surf Cove Jazz

Leslie Lewis, vocals; Gerard Hagen, piano; Peter Giron, bass; Mourad Benbammou, drums.

From the first rich tones of this astoundingly provocative singer, I am corralled by the emotion she exudes and her unique tonal style. Leslie Lewis’ band and arrangements propel this singer into the realm of memorable inspiration. For example, on the Beatles “Come Together” hit song, they have transformed this pop hit into a very acceptable jazz standard. All the arrangements are attributed to the talents of Leslie’s gifted husband, pianist, Gerard Hagen. Together, this Orange County, California couple relocated to Paris in 2012, where their plates became full of French bread, fine wine and gigs.

The title tune, “Fragile,” reminds us that violence and war threaten the delicate balance of humanity and the earth itself. “Hallelujah” is recorded with a blues/waltz feel and sung quite powerfully by Lewis. She has the kind of power-house voice that could mesmerize audiences from a Broadway stage. “Feeling Good” has a more jazzy sound, as her voice sparkles above Mourad Benbammou’s drums during the initial introductive prelude.

One of my favorite cuts on this recording is “That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be,” a song that brings back memories of the early seventies when Carley Simon’s voice was all over the pop radio stations that were playing her music. But Ms. Lewis is no pop singer. She is jazz through and through. I have seen her perform in person, and she also exudes that “It” factor that no one can explain. She knows how to mesmerize a crowd. In the same breath, that gift is often difficult to capture in the recording booth. It is often something you need to be present to experience.

Lewis’ interpretation of Cindy Lauper’s “Time After Time” is done as a Smooth Jazz funk arrangement. Finally, “I Can’t Stand the Rain” finalizes the album with one of Gerard Hagen’s unusually creative arrangements. This R&B hit record by Ann Peoples has been transformed into a funk-jazz production and it works!

“Fragile” is the 5th recording by Leslie Lewis on the Surf Cove Jazz label. In total, this couple (Hagen & Lewis) has recorded eight compact discs that are being distributed and played all over the United States, Asia and Europe. Ms. Lewis has also performed as featured vocalist with the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra, the Pacific Symphony, the Jazz Tap Ensemble and has performed with members of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Gerard Hagen is an active performer and when not recording, producing, arranging or playing piano for Leslie Lewis, he can be found at the International Music Educators of Paris College of Music, where he currently teaches.


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