VISIONS OF VOICES DANCE IN MY HEAD

VISIONS OF VOCALS DANCE IN MY HEAD
By Dee Dee McNeil/jazz journalist

April 5, 2018

This month of April, celebrates National Jazz Appreciation Month. For some reason, I have been inundated with an arm full of albums that celebrate the first instrument; voice. In this month’s column, you will read all about GRAMMY Award-winning vocalist, GREGORY PORTER, who performs with the London Studio orchestra in celebration of Nat King Cole. Speaking of jazz legends, ALLAN HARRIS tributes the genius of Eddie Jefferson. Pianist, JOHN PROULX, has expanded his talents to embrace jazz vocals. Contemporary jazz stylist, ERIN McDOUGALD, blends nostalgic, old standards with contemporary arrangements and SHIRLEY CRABBE, whose tone and instrument recalls the legendary Ella Fitzgerald, offers us “Bridges” to cross with a voice that connects us. Also, a Straight-ahead jazz ensemble crossed my desk that was quite exciting by talented drummer, McCLENTY HUNTER JR. Finally, MEG OKURA & THE PAN ASIAN CHAMBER JAZZ ENSEMBLE blends her Japanese heritage and Jewish faith using jazz as a catalyst with the orchestrated production of Okura’s compositions.

ALLAN HARRIS – “THE GENIUS OF EDDIE JEFFERSON”
Resilience Music Alliance

Allan Harris, vocals; Eric Reed, piano; George DeLancey, bass; Willie Jones III, drums; Ralph Moore, tenor saxophone; SPECIAL GUEST, Richie Cole, alto saxophone.

Eddie Jefferson’s awesome sound and vocal summersaults have long been a favorite of mine. Jefferson’s lyrics are superbly written and sung at paces that challenge the average vocalist. I was eager to hear Mr. Allan Harris’s interpretation of the genius of Eddie Jefferson and I was not disappointed. He has chosen some of Jefferson’s challenging melodies and creative prose to express himself. You will hear the familiar “So What,” “Sister Sadie,” and “Filthy McNasty.” Harris has a smooth, balladeer tone, but tackles the Straight-ahead and Swing successfully. He trades fours lyrically with the musicians on “Dexter Digs In” and doesn’t miss a beat. Prior to this production, Allan Harris recorded the songs of Billy Strayhorn and paid homage to Nat King Cole. This may be his most challenging tribute to date. “Billy’s bounce” is a mouth-full of words sung at an up-tempo pace. Harris makes it sound easy, but believe me, it isn’t. The band is a tight fit that supports each song with precision and agility. These musicians really swing! If you love the legacy of Eddie Jefferson, you will enjoy this smooth interpretation of his genius works by the very talented Allan Harris.

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GREGORY PORTER – “NAT KING COLE & ME”
Blue Note

Gregory Porter, vocals; Christian Sands, piano; Reuben Rogers, bass; Ulysses Owens, drums; SPECIAL GUEST, Terence Blanchard, trumpet; Flutes: Karen Jones, Helen Keen, Anna Noakes; Oboe: John Anderson & Jane Marshall; Clarinets: Jon Carnac, Anthony Pike, David Fuest; Bassoon: Dan Jemison, Gavin McNaughton, Richard Skinner; French Horns; Martin Owen, Richard Watkins, Laurence Davies, Richard Berry, & Pip Eastop; Trumpets: Andrew Crowley, Phil Cobb, Dan Newell, Christian Barraclough; Trombones: Mark Nightingale, Ed Tarrant, Andy Wood; Tuba, Owen Slade; Percussion: Frank Ricotti & Chris Baron; Timpani: Sam Walton & Bill Lockhart; Celeste, John Lenchan; Harp, Hugh Webb; Booth Reader, Tommy Laurence; Librarian, Dave Hage; Celli: Caroline Dale, Tim Gill, Vicky Matthews, Jan Burdge, Chris Worsey, Frank Schaefer, Tony Woollard; Double Bass: Chris Laurence, Stacey Watton, Steve Mair; Violins: Everson Nelson (lead violin), Ian Humphries, Steve Morristt, Roger Garland, Alison Dodstt, Dai Emannuel, Mark Berrowtt, Emil Chakalov, Debbie Widduptt, Philippa Ibbotson, Emlyn Singleton, Maciej Rakowski, Nicky Sweeney, Paul Willey, Natalia Bonner, John Bradbury, John Mills, Kathy Gowers, Cathy Thompson, Magnus Johnston, Patrick Kiernan, Simon Baggs, Rick Koster, Matt Ward, Morven Bryce, Kate Robinson, Daniel Bhattacharya, Dave Williams; Violas: Peter Lale, Bruce White, Andy Parker, Julia Knight, Cathy Bradshaw, Rachel Roberts, Kate Musker, Gillianne Haddow, Martin Humbey, Max Baillie, Ian Rathbone. NOTE: LOS ANGELES STUDIO MUSICIANS played on “Pick Yourself Up” and “Ballerina.” Woodwinds: Sal Lozano, Jeff Driskill, Dan Higgins, Phil O’Conner, Gene Cipriano, Rose Corrigan, John Mitchell; French horns: Steve Becknell, Brad Waarmar, Allen Fogle; Trumpets: Wayne Bergeron, Dan Fornero, Gary Grant; Trombones: Andy Martin, Bob McChesney, Ben Devitt; Tuba: Bill Reichenbach; Vibraphone: Emil Richards.

Gregory Porter, one of today’s premiere, male, jazz vocalists, has honored one of the world’s jazz icons on his latest project; the extraordinarily talented, Nat King Cole. Porter’s smooth as satin vocals caress twelve of Nat Cole’s very familiar hit songs, including “Mona Lisa,” “Smile,” “Nature Boy,” “L-o-v-e,” “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas,” and “The Christmas Song,” which features special guest, Terrance Blanchard. Porter is ably assisted by the lush, London Studio Orchestra, under the direction of Vince Mendoza. Although it’s nice to hear Porter’s vocals enriched by an orchestra, it does take away from the fluidity and improvisational qualities that Porter is capable of performing. Orchestration is often restrictive, although beautiful. That being said, on the composition, “L-O-V-E,” the production picks up the tempo and features special guest artist, Terence Blanchard. Until this song, everything on the album was a ballad. It is also a plus to hear Gregory Porter sing “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas” in Spanish. The dramatic introduction to “Miss Otis Regrets” soon became another sleepy-time ballad with orchestra strings that flutter like dove wings against a yawning sky. This orchestra arrangement is quite creative and dynamic with the pianist, Christian Sands (from Porter’s trio), unapologetically interjecting the blues on his grand piano. This particular arrangement of Cole Porter’s controversial composition really moved me. Porter is especially powerful vocally on “When Love Was King.” Another heart-felt performance was when Porter sang, “I Wonder Who My Daddy Is.” The listener breathes in the essence of this lyrical story from Porter’s convincing presentation.

All in all, this orchestrated Gregory Porter can be added to his list of amazing accomplishments. However, for this jazz journalist, I am anxiously awaiting Porter’s next album of original music and the freedom and spontaneity that comes with more open spaces and less charted instrumentation.

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ERIN McDOUGALD – “OUTSIDE THE SOIREE”
Miles High Records

Erin McDougald, vocals; Rob Block, piano/guitars; Cliff Schmitt, bassist; Rodney Green, drums & cymbals; Chembo Corniel, percussion; Mark Sherman, vibraphone/percussion; Dan Block, also saxophone, flute & clarinet; David Liebman, tenor & soprano saxophones; Tom Harrell, trumpet.

This is the 4th studio recording for Erin McDougald. She had a birthday celebration on March 16th and gifted us with this release. The opening composition, “Don’t Be On the Outside” offers a cute lyric and Erin McDougald’s bright, second-soprano vocals adequately sells the song. She opens her album swinging, and I notice that even when she slows the tempo, she has a swinging lilt to her style and tone. It’s all about timing and McDougald has a handle on that.

On the old standard, “Begin the Beguine” the piano backing uses a very classical approach, note-by-note rather than solid chords, (like a slow arpeggio) that add an eerie, unusual arrangement where McDougald successfully balances her voice on top. She’s confident and talented enough to hold on to that melody, no matter what they throw at her. In Chicago and beyond, Erin McDougald is celebrated as an improvisational jazz singer and a progressive thinker. Although she’s consumed with nostalgia in her artistry, she attaches her vocals and music productions to a yoke of creative resistance and contemporary jazz. Like the above old standard song, she combines the vintage with a more contemporary mood. McDougald is not afraid to infuse jazz into various genres, using rhythm and arrangements to perpetuate her sometimes daring interpretations. Erin McDougald’s voice slides to the notes provocatively at times. At other moments, she uses her talented musicians to color outside the lines on songs like “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime.” They change a popular tune from the American Depression days to a Latin inspired arrangement. On the fade, they vamp into a tasty, Afro-Cuban ending. Trumpet master, Tom Harrell, plays beautifully on “The Man With the Horn.” McDougald becomes a horn herself, allowing her crystal, clear voice to effortlessly hold notes with precision and control. She often harmonizes with Harrell’s horn, blending flawlessly with his instrument. The time changes on “Midnight Sun” are surprising and pleasurable. Erin McDougald makes each song on this musical adventure her own! From her 5/4 arrangement of the 1950 Ballad titled, “Don’t Wait Up for Me” to “The Parting Glass,” a reimagined Irish funeral hymn that becomes a swing tune. On “Linger A While” where she scats her way into the very nostalgic “Avalon,” McDougald creates a unique medley of melancholy songs that, surprisingly, are played double time and with high energy. The musicians fly on this one! I wonder how Rob Block can make his fingers move so swiftly and precisely on his guitar? Any way you unwrap this belated birthday gift from McDougald to we, the listeners, it’s an appreciated and well-played surprise.

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JOHN PROULX – “SAY IT”
ArtistShare

John Proulx, vocals/piano; Chuck Berghofer, bass; Joe LaBarbera, drums; Larry Koonse, guitar; Bob Sheppard, tenor & soprano saxophones; Billy Hulting, auxiliary percussion; Alan Broadbent, string quartet arrangements; Gina Kronstadt, 1st violin/leader/contractor; Susan Chatman 2nd violin; Rodney Wurtz, viola; Stefanie Fife, cello; GUEST VOCALS: Melissa Manchester.

Pianist and vocalist, John Proulx, has always brought the very best of himself to every stage and opportunity. I have long admired his artistry. He’s developed into quite an excellent scat singer and I have watched that evolution. He has a feathery, light tone to his vocals, somewhat reminiscent of Michael Franks on tunes like “Scatsville.” When I look at the liner notes, I realize that song was composed by Michael Franks, another one of my favorite male, jazz, singer/ songwriters. The other artist John Proulx brings to mind is Chet Baker. He has that kind of timing and texture to his tone. On Michael Legrand, Marilyn and Alan Bergman’s composition, “The Summer Knows” John Proulx is complimented by a striking string section and Stefanie Fife’s cello blends beautifully with Proulx’s sensitive vocalization. Proulx has surrounded himself with some of our stellar West Coast musicians, like Larry Koonse on guitar, who offers a memorable solo on the title tune, “Say It.” On the Mose Allison blues tune, “I Don’t Worry About a Thing” the band gets a chance to stretch out, featuring Bob Sheppard on a smokin’ saxophone solo and Koonse once more injecting his guitar mastery into the tune. Proulx’s scat vocals sound like a horn and Joe LaBarbera is given an opportunity to be spotlighted on his drum kit. I wish Proulx would have taken a piano solo and pulled out his piano chops on this blues tune. It would have been the perfect vehicle for him to show the funky, rock-gut side of his piano personality. Because Proulx is a very fine pianist, I was expecting more instrumental songs on this album. I guess John has become a singer who plays piano instead of a pianist who sings, much the way Nat King Cole meta morphed into his singing career. In the liner notes, they mention that Proulx grew up listening to his guitarist grandfather’s record collection, with emphasis on Nat King Cole. So perhaps Cole was an influence early on in Proulx’s musical life. Proulx’s arrangements are sweet and surround his vocals with room and open spaces that allow his voice to shine. His duet with Melissa Manchester on their self-penned tune, “Stained Glass” is the only original included on this project. Their voices blend like bread and butter, tasty, natural and familiar. Proulx’s inclusion of the Strayhorn/Ellington tune, “Something To Live For” introduces us to Proulx’s perfect pitch on a tune that surprises us melodically with unexpected intervals and chordal twists and turns. It also gives us an opportunity to enjoy Proulx at the 88- keys and allows Chuck Berghofer to step forward on his double bass with a melodic solo. This entire album is both pleasurable and artistic, including songs from Joni Mitchell to Duke Ellington; from Alan Broadbent to Frank Loesser. Jazz Vocalist and producer, Judy Wexler, is to be congratulated on her production input. Each interpretation is well executed and rolls off my CD player like scented oil on glass; sweet, smooth, iridescent and difficult to wipe from your memory, in a very pleasant way.


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SHIRLEY CRABBE – “BRIDGES”
MaiSong Music & Entertainment

Shirley Crabbe, vocals; David “The Budman” Budway & Donald Vega, piano; Clovis Nicolas, bass; Ulysses Owens Jr. & Alvester Garnett, drums; Brandon Lee, trumpet; Chris Cardona, violin; Sean Carney, violin; Stephanie Cummins, cello.

I was taken aback from the very first phrase that this amazing woman sang. OMG. She sounds so much like Ella Fitzgerald that I was stunned. Her name is Shirley Crabbe. She has surrounded herself with a group of musicians who add jazzy authenticity to her stellar vocals. Opening with, “Isn’t This A Lovely Day,” accompanied by David “The Budman” Budway, who is a shining star on his piano solo. Ms. Crabbe makes me happy to listen to these old standards, because she brings such freshness and talent to each one. Surprisingly, Shirley Crabbe’s first dream was that of pursuing a career in opera. I say surprising, because I’ve heard many opera singers try to transition into jazz, with minimal success. Crabbe is the exception to that rule. However, fate played a part in bringing her beautiful voice to our jazz audience. A serious medical problem with her vocal cords changed Shirley Crabbe’s operatic plans. For quite a while, she never knew if she would sing again. Thankfully, doctors and surgery restored her voice. Lucky for us, during a long hiatus from performing, Shirley Crabbe began to fall in love with jazz. As I listen to her interpret challenging arrangements like “The Bridge” and “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” I realize this woman was destined to become a jazz vocalist. She swings so easy and her clarity, pitch and tone draw me into her music like a whirlpool. The arrangement on this familiar Rodgers and Hart tune is exciting and unique, with Donald Vega setting up the Latin groove beneath her silky, smooth vocals. Ulysses Owens Jr., is strong and rhythmic on drums, as the band moves from Latin to Swing in the wink of an eye. Brandon Lee adds his refreshing solo on trumpet. “The Windmills of your Mind” is arranged with an Afro-Cuban rhythm and Ms. Crabbe lets her voice float above the drums like a chant or a prayer. The timing on this song is challenging, based on Donald Vega’s rhythmic chops on the keyboard and Owens Jr. on drums, Shirley Crabbe is the conduit that brings it all together.

On this, her second released album, the concept of “Bridges” represents our connections with each other. There are bridges we cross, we burn, we build, both visible and invisible bridges that connect humanity in a most unique way. Shirley Crabbe is a musical bridge that each listener will find sturdy, beautiful, cement strong and comfortable to walk across. Her voice is a charming way to bring us all together.

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McCLENTY HUNTER, JR. – “THE GROOVE HUNTER”
Strikezone Label

McClenty Hunter, Jr., drums; Eddie Henderson, trumpet; Donald Harrison, alto saxophone; Stacy Dillard, tenor & soprano saxophones; Eric Reed, piano; Christian Sands, piano/fender Rhodes; Dave Stryker, guitar; Corcoran Holt & Eric Wheeler, bass.

Sometimes I can just read the credits on a CD and know that I am in for a real treat. This was the case when I read who was on the newly released McClenty Hunter Junior production. When it comes to great jazz, these players deliver. It’s always interesting to hear the compositions of a drummer, because they are generally thinking rhythmically first. Hunter has composed four songs on this CD; “Autumn,” “My Love,” “I Remember When” and “Give Thanks.” On “Autumn,” the band establishes a lovely melody right up front, before allowing Eric Reed on piano and Corcoran Holt on bass to stretch out and improvise their way across the rhythm section. Stacy Dillard pumps the tune up with his tenor saxophone solo. Next, the ensemble tackles the Stevie Wonder tune, “That Girl” and they swing hard! Dave Stryker puts the funk and brilliance into the arrangement with his mad guitar solo. McClenty Hunter, Jr. is always underneath the ensemble, creating the energy and building the crescendos in the music with his masterful drum licks. Stryker has co-produced this recording with Hunter and they make a powerful team. Stacy Dillard is a lightning rod on Hunter’s tune “My Love”. I think I expected it to be a ballad. Wrong! It crashes on the scene with exponential power from Hunter. He slaps the musicians into comfortable submission on his original composition. Their laid-back arrangement on “Sack Full of Dreams” is lovely, giving Christian Sands, on piano, a chance to exploit his chops along with Dave Stryker back on guitar.

McClenty Hunter, Jr., has been a busy part of the New York music scene for the last decade. While studying at Howard University, he came under the tutelage of great drummer, Grady Tate. Hunter earned his master degree at Juilliard and studied there with Carl Allen. He’s added his solid drum mastery to a host of great players including three years playing with Kenny Garrett’s quintet.

He’s also performed with Lou Donaldson, Curtis Fuller, Javon Jackson and eight years with Dave Stryker’s trio. Hunter’s roots are in gospel music. He began his career in Maryland, playing with the gospel group, Darin Atwater of Soulful Symphony. Fondly referred to as “Mac, the Groove Hunter,” this premier compact disc clearly establishes that McClenty Hunter, Jr., can play it all, from funky shuffles to Straight-ahead madness. On his original composition, “Give Thanks,” he closes out this album employing mallets with an arrangement that brings a sense of prayer and introspection to the piece. It’s a nice way to end a very powerful new beginning for this talented drum master.

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MEG OKURA & THE PAN ASIAN CHAMBER JAZZ ENSEMBLE – “IMA IMA”
Independent label

Meg Okura, violin/composer; Tom Harrell, trumpet/flugelhorn; Anne Drummond, flute/alto flute/piccolo; Sam Newsome, soprano saxophone; Sam Sadigursky, bass clarinet/clarinet; Rez Abbas, guitar; Brian Marsella, piano/electric piano; Riza Printup, harp; Jared Schonig, drums.

I learned from the liner notes that four years ago, Meg Okura converted to Judaism. This is important in describing the title of this album, because the word “Ima” in Japanese means ‘now’ and in Hebrew, it means ‘mom’. Composer/violinist, Okura, celebrates her grandmother and four generations of women with this musical expression. These seven original compositions celebrate her Japanese grandmother, her mother, Meg herself, and her seven-year-old Jewish daughter. Meg Okura sees this album as an exploration of her culture melding with her newly embraced Jewish faith and blending the music of East and West. It is highly classically influenced and orchestrated until “A Night Insomnia” invites ‘funk’ to the spotlight and Brain Marsella adds a bluesy piano to the mix. Up pops Smooth Jazz, with a lushly orchestrated arrangement in support of Meg Okura’s violin excellence.

Okura is no newcomer to music. She toured with the Michael Brecker Quindectet and with Emilio Solta y la Inestable de Brooklyn. Her recording with the latter was nominated for a Grammy. She received the New Music USA Project Grant and American Composer’s Forum’s J-Fund. For some time, she has wanted to assemble a multi-cultural, large chamber jazz ensemble that combines the exotic rhythms and haunting melodies of Asia and the Middle East with the excitement of the African-American jazz of North America. On this project, one of Okura’s dreams is becoming apparent. Utilizing a multi-cultural group of musicians, Okura’s music is all mixed together in a stew of European classical tradition. Meg Okura’s compositions are lush with culture, class, and creativity. Her mastery of the violin is evident and acts as the ribbon that gift-wraps this entire project.

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