By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

March 4, 2018

March is women’s history month. Some of the wonderful women of music I celebrate this month are saxophonist/composer, Sharel Cassity; pianist/composer and bird-lover, Diane Moser; Detroit-based vocalist, DJ Holiday and Nicole Zuraitis, who is the secret weapon on guitarist, Dan Pugach’s project. I also review Scott Reeves Jazz Orchestra featuring the wonderful Steve Wilson on alto saxophone and Carolyn Leonhart on vocals, along with Rob Clearfield’s innovative solo piano album. Finally, vocalist, Kate McGarry joins Keith Ganz and Gary Versace to create a trio sound for the discriminating taste of true jazz lovers. By the way, in live performance on March 25, 2018, a young songbird by the name of Darynn Dean will perform at the Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum in Los Angeles. Check out my review of all these musical treasures.


The Mimi Melnick Double M Jazz Salon continues at the Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum, featuring vocalist Darynn Dean on Sunday, March 25th at 2PM. Ms. Dean is twenty years old and already displays a vocal maturity way past her years. Currently attending the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, she has garnered a bushel basket of awards and opportunities including a Bronze Medal at the NAACP’s Act-So Competition, First Place in the Dolo Coker Foundation Awards and a coveted Roderick D. Jones Scholarship. In 2014, she was a member of the Grammy Foundation’s Jazz Choir, appearing with Delfeayo Marsalis, Hubert Laws and Dave Koz. She won a Gold Medal in the Young Arts Competition and a Spotlight Award in 2015. She has performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., participated as part of the Central Avenue Jazz Festival and was featured at the famed Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach. Early show begins at 2PM.

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Relsha Music

Sharel Cassity, saxophone/flute; Christie Dashiell, vocals; Ingrid Jensen, trumpet; Marcus Printup, trumpet; Freddie Hendrix, flugelhorn; Mark Whitfield, guitar; Miki Hayama, Rhodes/piano/synth; Richard Johnson, keyboard; Linda Oh, bass; Jonathan Barber &Lucianna Padmore, drums; Riza Printup, harp.

Sharel Cassity has combined jazz genres, using her composition tools as the glue that sticks them all together. Opening with “Evolve,” a song that features tight horn harmonics and an ensemble arrangement, Cassity makes her presence known on saxophone. This is Cassity’s fourth album as a leader. This time around, she features a new assemblage of players called ‘Elektra’. However, her big band influence is prominent in most of these arrangements. She has previously been associated with the Revive Big Band led by Ignar Thomas and Nicholas Payton’s Television Studio Orchestra. This current offering of music is more funk-driven, Smooth Jazz that creates a strong trampoline for Sharel Cassity to bounce her saxophone skills upon.

The second tune is one that Cassity did not compose. It was written by pop star, Alicia Keys and is titled, “New Day.” With vocals by Christie Dashiell, it’s very pop-ish with Jonathan Barber’s drums pumping a funk groove beneath the production and stellar on his solo. When this song invites an all-instrumental performance, it is much more representative of Smooth Jazz. The powerful playing I heard on the first cut returns once the instrumentalists take over on the song production. Seven of the nine compositions are the original work of Cassity. She has chosen a ‘social change’ position with this music as the roots of her unspoken activism. Perhaps, using the song titles, she explains it best in her liner notes. The capitalized words are all song titles.

“As everything must EVOLVE, so must we as musicians. … We must be brave enough to BE THE CHANGE and take a stand against inequality for all. …the HERE, THE NOW is the only place and time to seize opportunity and live your truth. … If you remember that ALL IS FULL OF LOVE, you will spread positivity to yourself and others. This era is a NEW DAY, we should celebrate it while still pushing forward. If you are in a tough time, look up and find a WISHING STAR. In quiet moments, I may hear ECHOES AT HOME that bring me back to my early days with family. QUITTER is written for those who are least expected to succeed, but persist in the face of all adversity. Please enjoy this offering. It is an honest representation of what I feel.”

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Planet Arts

Diane Moser, piano; Anton Denner, flute/piccolo; Ken Filano, contrabass.

This is a stunningly original package of music that celebrates birds in a very jazzy way. Here are three very talented human beings who desire to commemorate birdsongs on their instruments. I find them to be incredibly successful. This is a very beautiful production of original music by Diane Moser, capably interpreted by her stellar piano skills and the two talented musicians who accompany her on bass, flute and piccolo. Moser explains that as early as kindergarten age, she was composing music and her first avian-influenced song was written at age five. While on a 2008 residency in the woods, she was inspired and drawn to the songs of birds. Consequently, she spent time playing music to her aviary friends and enjoying their talk-back, sing-song responses.

“I would play, they would answer me and so on. In the evening, I edited those recordings. Subsequently, transcribed them and then arranged them for my various ensembles and solo piano,” she explained.

Having performed her birdsong suites all over the United States, I’m happy that she has recorded them for mass listening pleasure. They are not only beautiful in sound and structure, but this is extremely relaxing music.

“Our world is overrun with all kinds of sounds that are not always good for your health, or mental and emotional well-being. I wanted this recording to be a respite from that, so those who listen can feel relieved from their daily stress and feel refreshed and positive,” Diane shared.

Mission accomplished Diane Moser!

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Bill Meyer Music

DJ Holiday, vocals; Bill Meyer, piano/producer/arranger; Ralphe Armstrong & Ibrahim Jones, bass; Gayelynn McKinney & Butter Hawkins, drums; Charlie Gabriel & James Carter, saxophone; Carl Cafagna, saxophone/clarinet; Edward Gooche, trombone; Michele Ramo, violin; Perry Hughes, guitar; Rayse Biggs, trumpet.

I first met and listened to DJ Holiday in Detroit, Michigan where she was singing at a jam session inside a popular night spot called, Bert’s Marketplace, located in Detroit’s downtown area across the street from a popular outdoor produce market called, Eastern Market. Back in 2000, I initiated that very jam session using a trio with Spider Webb on drums, Hubie Crawford on bass and Bill Meyer on piano. I hosted the Jam that invited poets, singers and instrumentalists to perform. I’m happy to hear that jam session is still going strong today. Because of platforms like Bert’s Open Mic and the Jazz Jam session at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge (that I also instituted before the one at Berts), musicians and singers can hone their crafts. Young players can interact with more seasoned veterans and expand their knowledge and repertoires.

DJ Holiday was a veteran singer who was searching for a stage to express herself. She found one every Thursday at Bert’s Marketplace. Two years ago, pianist Bill Meyer produced an album to celebrate DJ Holiday’s life and music. Whispering fans said that she was ill and Meyer wanted to record her for posterity. Some of the older musicians in town knew DJ Holiday from when she first came to Detroit in 1968, arriving from the New York area. Back in those days, they thought she phrased a lot like Carmen McCrae. Once arriving in Detroit, DJ Holiday was always full of music, singing anywhere and anytime she could. Somehow, over the years, a gravelly quality tinged her smooth vocals. At times, she was homeless. With time and circumstance not always being kind, she changed her repertoire, singing songs that Billie Holiday sang, perhaps illuminating the fact she may have suffered from some of the same traumatic circumstances that Billie did. Originally, her birth name was Barnaggo Honey Jazz Defreece. Saxophonist, Charlie Gabriel shortened the Jazz Defreece part of her name to Dr. Jazz and that later became, DJ. Perhaps she assumed the Holiday name to celebrate her idol, Billie Holiday.

On this recording she covers many of the songs the legendary Ms. Holiday made popular like “Don’t Explain”, “Jim,” “You’ve Changed,” “Them There Eyes,” and “The Man I love,” just to name a few. This CD is divided into two recording sessions. One is with the RGB trio and guests. The other half is with the Detroit New Orleans Band. Both ensembles are made up of an assembly of some of the best musicians the Motor City has to offer.

Here is an album that celebrates Billie Holiday in both style and repertoire and memorializes DJ Holiday. It is prominently elevated by the nationally recognized talents of saxophonist ,James Carter, violinist, Michele Ramo, New Orleans styled reedman, Charlie Gabriel and bassist Ralphe Armstrong along with other notable musicians from the Motor City.

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Binxtown Records

Kate McGarry, vocals; Keith Gantz, acoustic & electric guitar/acoustic bass guitar; Gary Versace, piano/keyboard/organ/accordion. SPECIAL GUESTS:Ron Miles, trumpet; Obed Calvaire, drums.

A short poem from the 14th century written by mystic, Hafiz, is recited at the start of this CD. It’s part of the brief musical prologue and mixed way too low. It gets lost in the music. Then comes the familiar standard, “Secret Love,” vocals performed by Kate McGarry. She is accompanied by Keith Ganz on guitar and Gary Versace on piano. This is a no-frill production without drums or bass to cement the groove. The production is completely dependent on guitar and piano to produce the rhythm section. On the very first cut, I miss the drums and bass. McGarry has a feathery, light sound and needs something strong and deep to contrast and embellish her style. Still, on the instrumental solos, Ganz and Versace create their own musical adhesive. When McGarry’s wispy soprano voice re-enters, she is improvisational and bell-like. This artistic work is interesting. The “Climb Down” medley is dark and melancholy. Accordingly, McGarry’s voice lowers to her Second Soprano register and takes a turn towards the blues. I appreciate the sparseness of instrumentation on this arrangement, unlike the first production. On this song, we clearly get to hear McGarry’s unique style and her ability to sell the song is clearly evident. I do think her voice is poorly mixed too far down in the track. There are only two other instruments involved, so why have her at the same level as the background when she’s soloing? It annoyed me so much, that I put this CD on two different sound systems trying to hear and appreciate the full value of her style and presentation. That aside, these three musicians are each strongly invested in their instruments and their art. Keith Ganz has produced five critically acclaimed albums with McGarry, including one Grammy nominated production titled, “If Less is More Nothing Is Everything.” He’s an in-demand accompanist having worked with Harry Connick Jr., Kurt Elling, Luciana Souza, Gretchen Parlato, Andy Bey and several other jazz vocalists. He’s also played his guitar with Victor Lewis, Christian McBride, Fred Hersch and others. Jazz pianist, Gary Versace, stays busy being featured in bands led by John Scofield, John Abercrombie, Al Foster, Regina Carter and others. He appeared as an accordionist on Maria Schneider’s Grammy-winning project, “The Thompson Fields.” He plays a variety of instruments on this production. Finally, the talented Ms. McGarry has recorded seven critically acclaimed CDs, one of which (Girl Talk) garnered her four-stars in DownBeat Magazine.

In 2014, McGarry and husband/guitarist Keith Ganz, celebrated ten years of musical and life partnership. I am enamored with Kate McGarry’s interpretation of “Fair Weather”. She is a jazz singer with control, range and she often offers us unusual vocal timing, punctuated by interesting intervals and improvisations that are adventurous. On “Gone With the Wind,” I’m happy to hear Ganz pull out his electric bass. It’s especially appealing when the song starts to ‘Swing’. McGarry is also adept at scatting, smoothly creating fresh melodies over inspired chords. Additionally, she’s a composer/lyricist who writes very poetic prose that are enclosed in this CD jacket. Here is an album for discerning ears and discriminating tastes.

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Woolgathering Records

Rob Clearfield, piano

The crystal clear soprano register of the grand piano tinkles, like shimmering snowflakes that cascade from heaven, Rob Clearfield sets a mood with his music. It’s ethereal at first, moving down the piano register on his three-minute prologue, like water in a clean stream. This pianist paints pictures with his music. “Starchild” follows, taking the same path of a melodic mixture of chords, played arpeggio with soprano notes, shining like shooting stars and dancing on top. It sounds like an improvisational, in-the-moment concert by this instrumentalist, rather than a structured piece. The music flutters and moves, like bird wings or waving grains of wheat. When I look at Clearfield’s CD cover, I read the poetry he has written. Suddenly, I know that I’m on the right path, describing his amazing art on the 88 keys. He is obviously a connoisseur of the piano, but there is something special about the way he composes and shares himself with his listening audience. As though I have tapped into his emotions and he, into mine, we become connected in a very artistic way. His classical base is always obviously present, but his interpretive genius moves the music in the type of improvisational way that perhaps only a jazz lover could embrace. As I stated above, this artist appears to be expressing himself, ‘in the moment’.

Rob Clearfield’s liner notes read, in part:

“Rain. Falling shards of glass, a broken necklace tinkling to the ground. Running through the park with friends, my best friend. Scooping them all up, the many beads, not broken not lost, just scattered, uncertain. I thought it was beautiful.”

This is a recorded musical experience, a 12-track opus, that reeks of honest and sincere exploration into feelings expressed by Rob Clearfield and channeled through his adept fingers and the piano keys that he plays. Two of Clearfield’s musical heroes are Johannes Brahms and John Coltrane. You will hear the inclusion of both iconic composers and musicians in his solo piano work. His interpretation of these two genius musicians is worthy of a listen and signal a tribute to America itself, by blending African-American history and musical art with European music. After all, that is the basis of jazz itself.

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Unit Records

Dan Pugach, drums/composer/arranger; Tamir Shmerling, bass; Jorn Swart & Carmen Staaf, piano; Nicole Zuraitis, voice; Andrew Gutauskas, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet; Jeremy Powell, tenor saxophone/clarinet; Andrew Gould, alto saxophone/flute; Jen Hinkle, bass trombone; Mike Fahie, trombone; David Smith & Ingrid Jensen, trumpet.

Titled “Brooklyn Blues,” the first cut begins with drummer Dan Pugach snapping the rhythm into place like a hydraulic breaker. It’s a swinging little composition by Pugach with a catchy, melodic hook. The horns have a good time soloing on this one, enhanced by punchy horn harmonics that dance underneath. “Coming Here” is another Pugach composition, a pretty ballad that features Ingrid Jensen on trumpet. It’s Dan Pugach’s arrangement that make this entire production shine. Mike Holober, one of his college instructors, agrees with me. He was pleasantly surprised by Dan Pugach’s arranging skills after his student completely reimagined Horace Silver’s “Silver’s Serenade,” and exclaimed:

“Your arrangement departed from the original song. It wasn’t just an adaptation, but a rearrangement. Dude, you’re going to thrive as an arranger/composer.”

On “Jolene” (the Dolly Parton hit record) with the assistance of co-arranger/vocalist Nicole Zuraitis, their arrangement is so jazzy and fresh, at first you don’t recognize the song. Then, the undeniable hook rolls around and you find yourself familiarly singing along with it. Nicole Zuraitis adds her sublime vocal stylings and Carmen Staaf is powerful during the piano solo.

“Nicole is my secret weapon,” Dan Pugach confides.

We hear Nicole’s stunningly clear and concise soprano voice soar on “Crystal Silence,” somewhat operatic, but very pleasing to the ear and comfortable in a jazz setting. She also does a fine job of interpreting “Love Dance.”

Ten years since arriving in the United States from Israel, after attending both Berklee College of Music and the City College of New York, this composer/drummer/arranger has finally released his premiere CD and it’s sure to provoke high acclaim and great reviews. He has called it a ‘Nonet’ which generally speaking means a group of 9 musicians. I’m assuming, in this case, it’s referring to the nine original compositions, because he uses thirteen musicians on this production and, I might add, they sound full and rich, like a big band. Once again, I have to compliment Pugach’s excellent arrangement skills.

This is a piece of musical art I will listen to over and over again.

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Origin Records

Scott Reeves, conductor/arranger/composer/trombone/alto flugelhorn; Jim Ridl, piano; Dave Ellson, vibes; Todd Coolman, bass; Andy Watson, drums; Carolyn Leonhard, vocals; SAXOPHONES: Steve Wilson, soprano & alto saxophones/flute; Vito Chiavuzzo, alto sax/flute; Rob Middleton, tenor saxophone/clarinet; Tim Armacost, tenor saxophone; Terry Goss & Jay Brandford, baritone sax. TRUMPETS: Seneca Black, lead; Nathan Eklund, Chris Rogers, Bill Mobley & Andy Gravish. TROMBONES: Tim Sessions, lead; Matt McDonald, Matt Haviland & Max Siegel, bass trombone.

This winter, a plethora of big band and orchestra CDs have crossed my desk. The Scott Reeves Jazz Orchestra is another very fine example of precision arrangements and excellent musicianship in pursuance of jazz orchestration. From the first Latin strains of cut #1, “Speak Low,” I was captivated. This familiar jazz standard features alto saxophonist Steve Wilson and trumpeter Chris Rogers. Each soloist is dynamic and technically astute. An Afro-Cuban rhythm stirs up the creativity and propels the orchestra. Thank you, Andy Watson on drums. Reeves has composed and arranged over half of the seven tunes on this production. His arrangements are lush and lovely, giving opportunity to his orchestra members to step forward and solo in meaningful ways. “Without a Trace” is an edgy tune with shocking intervals and a challenging melody. Carolyn Leonhart is featured vocalist and her soprano tones are expressive and pure. This is no easy melody to sing and I commend Leonhart’s pitch and timing. Jim Ridl performs a masterful solo on piano. The mixologist did an extraordinary job of capturing all the orchestra’s delicate nuances and packaging their energy appropriately. Tim Armacost on tenor saxophone puts the “S” in sexy during his solo, changing up the arrangement by interjecting a new mood with his horn.

Scott Reeves is a trombonist who also plays flugelhorn, composes, arranges, conducts and finds time to be an author and college jazz educator. His two books, “Creative Jazz Imrovisation” and “Creative Beginnings” are widely used texts in their field. He’s a native of Chicago, Illinois and somehow finds time to perform regularly with the Dave Liebman Big Band, the Bill Mobley Big Band and the Valery Ponomarev Big Band. He often subs in a variety of orchestras, while keeping his own seventeen-piece jazz orchestra alive, well and working. You will find this album to be a treasure-trove of well-written original songs and arrangements, as well as a couple of familiar songs with refreshing and exploratory arrangements that celebrate Scott Reeves and his multi-talents at their best.

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