JAZZ IS THE COMMON DENOMINATOR, FROM MR. ROGERS TO EARTH, WIND AND WONDER

JAZZ IS THE COMMON DENOMINATOR, FROM MR. ROGERS TO EARTH, WIND AND WONDER
By Jazz Journalist Dee Dee McNeil
April 27, 2018

KEVIN BALES, KERI JOHNSRUD, with BILLY THORNTON & MARLON PATTON
BEYOND THE NEIGHBORHOOD – THE MUSIC OF FRED ROGERS

GabNat Music

Kevin Bales, piano; Keri Johnsrud, vocals; Billy Thornton, bass/vocals; Marlon Patton, drums.

A flurry of piano notes from the flying fingers of Kevin Bales open the first song in a tribute to the music of Fred Rogers. Who is Fred Rogers? You may more quickly recognize him if I call him, “Mr. Rogers,” the television celebrity who made so many children happy for nearly thirity-five years. This album shows us the jazzy genius of this man. His songs are smart, positive and melodic. Beginning with “It’s You I Like” that lyrically reminds us, “It’s not the things you wear, it’s not the way you wear your hair. It’s you I like.” You hear this song one time and already you can hum the melody. That’s the sign of an outstanding songwriter. Keri Johnsrud is the vocalist who interprets these catchy songs. Their trio swings hard and non-stop. Bales is an expert on the 88-keys and Marlon Patton rides the rhythm, fluent on his drum kit. Billy Thornton takes an impressive bass solo on this first song, after which, these four musicians have established their territory. What they bring to the table is laid out like a jazzy tablecloth on their very first tune. The group is Straight Ahead and no nonsense when it comes to their arrangements.

True, Mr. Roger’s music catered to children on several shows like ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,’ ‘The children’s Center’ and ‘The MisteRogers Show.’ In fact, Kevin Bales and Keri Johnsrud grew up listening to these catchy melodies and poignant lyrics. A couple of years ago, in casual conversation, they realized both of them had enjoyed and become attached to the Fred Rogers compositions as children. Upon research, they discovered that Rogers had actually composed every song heard on his programs. His simple messages of friendship, love and emotional connections not only apply to children, but easily apply to adults. This is quite evident on tunes like “Just for Once.” This composition explores friendship and is arranged with exotic sounding drums beats, bringing to mind Ahmad Jamal arrangements and memories of Jamal’s popular “Poinciana” hit record. Patton employs mallets and the lovely softness they bring to music on “Find A Star”.

This is an album worthy of listening to, not only because the trio is talented and resourceful, but also because these arrangements establish Fred Rogers as a competent and sensitive composer/lyricist. Keri Johnsrud has a very pretty, pop voice and does a fine job of sharing the Roger’s melodies with us. However, I would not call her a jazz singer. That diminishes this production in a subtle kind of way, because the trio is definitely jazz. “Beyond the Neighborhood” has certainly awakened this jazz journalist to the music of Fred Rogers. So, I would acknowledge, mission accomplished!
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DON BRADEN – “EARTH WIND AND WONDER” Creative Perspective Music

Don Braden, tenor saxophone/flute/alto flute; Brandon McCune & Art Hirahara, piano; Joris Teepe & Kenny Davis, bass; Cecil Brooks III & Jeremy Warren, drums.

This is a tribute album to the magnificent, musical contributions of Earth Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder. Jazz reedman, Don Braden, has celebrated the popular music of these two Grammy-winning artists with his tenor saxophone, flute and alto flute. He shows the world that these pop icons and popular musicians are also incredible composers. As we know, a great song can be interpreted any number of ways. Every cut on this recording is superbly produced and Braden’s exciting ensemble of memorable musicians do not disappoint. Starting with the familiar classic, Earth Wind & Fire’s hit record, “Fantasy,” (composed by Verdine & Maurice White and E, Dek Barrio) the Braden ensemble kicks into high gear and speeds Straight-ahead with no compunction. Braden’s flute on “Visions” is beautifully executed. The melody of this Wonder tune is already lovely and I’m happy that Don Braden chose his flute to interpret it. Starting as a ballad, it doesn’t take the band long to march into a slow-swing groove. Michael Jackson’s recording of the Stevie Wonder and Susaye Green song, “I Can’t Help It” is one of my favorite pop songs. Braden transforms it into a beautiful jazzy arrangement. Braden has also offered two original compositions, “The Elements” and “The Wonder of You”. Both are well written compositions that leave plenty of room for his band members to showcase their extraordinary skills.

Don Braden’s love of Wonder’s music and Earth Wind and Fire songs started in Louisville, Kentucky, when he was just a young man. It was not only the melodies and the danceability, but the messages within these songs that caught Braden’s ear. Braden says he soaked up the joy, strength and love that embodies the African-American spirit in this modern music. Now, he shares that experience with us, in his own unique way, never forsaking the premise and importance of jazz. This is not Smooth Jazz. This is the real deal. Braden has taken the contemporary, musical standards of his generation and converted them into arrangements of the only original artform heralded as the United States’ indigenous, classical music; Jazz. The way I see it, this is the new American Songbook and these are the new composers of the twenty-first century. I applaud Don Braden and his worthy musicians for gifting us with this wonderful work of artful music and for honoring some of our modern-day composers.
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JARED GOLD – “REEMERGENCE” Strikezone Records

Jared Gold, Hammond B3 organ; Dave Stryker, guitar; Billy Hart, drums; Jeremy Pelt, trumpet/flugelhorn.

Billy Hart, on drums, fuels the first and title tune, “Reemergence” composed by the featured artist, Jared Gold. Gold is a fresh, jazz -organ, recording artist making waves on the East Coast. This is his eighth recording, and he’s surrounded himself with a group of excellent musicians to support his musical concepts. Dave Stryker is not only a proficient guitarist, but a record producer with his own label, a composer and a very busy New York musician. Drummer, Billy Hart, is legendary and was once the drummer of choice with the great Jimmy Smith. Trumpeter, Jeremy Pelt, is a refreshing addition to the organ trio. The first thing that stands out about Jared Gold is his ability to take familiar songs like Stevie Wonder’s “Lookin’ For Another Pure Love’ or the Lennon/McCartney standard, “She’s Leaving Home” and turn them into harmonically fresh works of art. Gold’s creativity with harmonics is formidable. Gold started out as a piano player, but quickly found his expressive niche on the organ. He was born in Englewood, New Jersey February 27, 1980 and has worked extensively with Oliver Lake and John Abercrombie. This ninth album as a leader solidifies his unique approach to his instrument and his excursions into arrangements that are unique, like the title tune that roots itself in an unusual fourteen-bar blues pattern. On the tune, “Sweet Sweet Spirit” he takes us to church. Songs like “Ornette Coleman’s Blues Connotations” show the listener that he can groove with the best of them and also gives Hart an opportunity to break free and exuberantly solo on the drums. Jared Gold comes into sight and prominence once more, just like the title of this CD proclaims.


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JONATHAN BARBER – VISION AHEAD
Vision Ahead Music

Jonathan Barber, drums, vocals; Taber Gable, piano, Fender Rhodes, synthesizer; Andrew Renfroe, guitar; Godwin Louis, alto saxophone; Matt Dwonszyk, bass; Denise Renee, vocals; Sasha Foster, vocals.

Listening to this project In my car, I was immediately impressed by the drummer on this session. I was driving, so I hadn’t pre-read the publicity notes or looked at the CD cover credits. I just popped the disc into my player. This is an album of grooves and funk; fire and spice with bursts of creativity like whispering voices in the background or saxophone sweetness added at unexpected times.

There’s a lot of synthesized music, with Taber Gable strongly present on piano, Fender Rhodes and synthesizer. Matt Dwonszyk locks the rhythm section in place with his strong bass licks. Andrew Renfroe plays a mean guitar on cut #3. When I look to see who composed that song, it was none other than Renfroe.

Jonathan Barber has composed eight of the twelve songs on his debut recording. Some tunes remind me of modern jazz, others are more contemporary. You get a sense that these young musicians have listened to the likes of George Duke and Herbie Hancock. They like to groove. Jonathan Barber is the powerhouse behind this group, always at the forefront of their energy and persuasive with his drum licks and percussive powers. Vision Ahead is a tribute to his dead brother who he unexpectedly lost in November of 2016.

“My music not only helped me through my grieving process but sparked a fresh musical style in hopes of carrying on the spirit of this American art form; jazz.”

Barber is a terrific and gifted drummer. His songwriting skills are more grooves than substance. I didn’t find many melodies that leant themselves to being easily repeated. Some are extremely complicated, like the 7th cut, “Airport” where Barber adds vocals to his resumé. He penned the lyrics on this Eldar Djangirov composition. Eldar is a super-talented young pianist who has been Grammy nominated. The intervals of this song are challenging and Barber has added a huge amount of echo to this production. Is that to mask his vocal shortcomings or for the effect of the huge, hollow buildings that house airport facilities?

“Time Will Tell” adds the pretty background voices of Denise Renee and Sasha Foster, rich and warm, proffering a hip-hop groove wrapped around Barber’s drum expressions. He sings on this tune also. I prefer the singing he does on his drum kit. Once again, this composition is repetitious to a fault. For the most part, Barber’s compositions are strictly grooves that make for pleasant listening and background music. But there are no Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard standard jazz tunes on this album. There is, however, some serious and outstanding drumming taking place.
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FOR NOW – “ELSEWHERE”
Independent Label

Isabel Crespo, vocalist/producer/composer; Skyler Hill, guitar; Gregory Santa Croce, piano; Mike Luzecky, upright & electric basses; Connor Ken, drummer/percussion; Brendon Wilkins, flue/alto saxophone; Kevin Swaim, flugelhorn; Devin Eddleman, tenor saxophone; Kenny Davis, trombone; Background vocals: Zach Yaholkovsky, Gabrielle Byrd, Jordan Coffin, Lizzi Trumbore, Anna Jalkeus, Carleigh Reese, Madison Russell & Sara Finkle.

I always keep an ear peeled for recording projects that are fresh and unique. Today I was introduced to a group of musicians who call themselves, “For Now.” They are propelled by their vocalist, who has composed all the melodies and lyrics. The first cut “We’re Home” is very pop oriented with interesting lyrical prose. Vocalist, Isabel Crespo, has a lovely range and crystal-clear tone. Her intervals in this song are refreshing, challenging and jazzy. Her sense of harmony is evident as soon as the band arrangements kick in. She sings lines that are poetic and unique like, “Our thoughts caught like kites in a tree, we are watching them all as they try to break free.” When she harmonizes with Skyler Hill on guitar and Gregory Santa Croce on piano, she tosses the lyrics aside to scat like an instrument. I am drawn into her musical space. This group is uniquely interesting. The scatting continues on cut #2 called, “Into the Yellow Room,” where a sense of Avant Garde enters the picture. Her voice sings without words and leaves plenty of room for the musicians to stretch out and improvise. Connor Kent is a strong drummer who pushes them forward with hurricane-force gusto. Ms. Crespo used vocal over-lays and harmonies to propel this tune. The third composition, “Caught In the Double Bind” is Herbie Hancock-ish with the piano driving the song and the production touching on funk, contemporary jazz and the lyrics reflecting feminism.

Isabel Crespo sings, “When I’m right, there’s always something wrong. ‘Cause it’s a problem that I’m strong. … “ She seems to be speaking as a woman in a leadership position or simply a woman in control. She sings, “I can be nice, very inviting … but if I leave, you might just think I’m mean. … How dare I think, that we’re both equal … what a disgrace, you’d think I’d know my place. …”Maybe I’ll leave, all the decisions up to a man. He’d have a better plan.”

Her activism comes across in various ways and on various compositions. She addresses feminism and racism, while breaking the boundaries and walls that sometimes restrict creativity. “On Color” she asks questions that prod our sensitivity about the racial problem in America with lyrics that reflect her anathema.

Isabel Crespo’s voice is not the typical tone of what I think of as a jazz singer. It’s very popish. Then she sings something like composition #9 titled, “Tesseract” and I recognize this composition and her band are clearly jazzy, very modernistic and improvisational, lending themselves to blend jazz and world music in a sort of salacious musical meeting of both mind and instrument. This is an art project. Her compositions become a collective vehicle to expose everyone’s audacious talents.
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DAN BLOCK – “BLOCK PARTY – A SAINT LOUIS CONNECTION” Mile High Records

Dan Block,tenor saxophone/clarinet; Rob Block, guitar; Neal Caine,bass;Tadataka Unno,piano; Aaron Kimmel,drums.

Although this CD is titled “Block Party,” (I suppose a play off of Dan’s last name), it doesn’t sound like any block party I ever attended. That is to say, this is not loud, raucous, dance music. Instead, it sounds like a cool jazz club on a warm summer night. His liner notes explain that this music is meant to represent a time to join together with family, neighbors and friends in a timeless tradition of sharing music that spans several generations of jazz.

Dan joins his brother and guitarist, Rob Block, for the first time on this recording session. So that could well be another reason for this celebratory ‘Block’ party.

“We’re very different people, but he brings something intangible out in me and vice versa,” Dan Block explained. “You’re completely free to be yourself when you’re sharing the stage with your bother.”

Also from St. Louis, Neal Caine, was a longtime bassist for Harry Connick Jr.’s band and joins the Block brothers on their exploration of roots and music. Dan Block is well-regarded in mainstream jazz circles, but when I listen to his clarinet playing, I hear a lot of traditional jazz in his style, as well as tastes of Dixieland jazz. He’s diverse, moving easily from tenor saxophone to clarinet and has a long career of backing up such notable musicians as Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Frank Wess, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Natalie Cole, Anne Hampton Calloway, Bobby Short, Linda Ronstadt and Rosemary Clooney. Classically trained at Juilliard, he has played nearly every style and genre of music. On this easy-listening project, his horns are warm and welcoming. His brother, Rob, is no slouch on guitar, boldly playing a memorable solo on “Dinner for One Please, James.” The tune “No, No, No” sounds incredibly close to the melody of “I Should Care.” They play it as a Latin flavored Salsa tune where Kimmel, on drums, can kick it happily into dance-mode. I enjoyed the ensemble’s interpretation of Thelonious Monk’s “Light Blue” classic, where Tadataka Unno takes a successful opportunity to express himself on the grand piano. All in all, this is a lovely album of familiar tunes, well-played by seasoned veteran musicians in jazzy celebration of St Louis culture and brotherhood.
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EDWARD SIMON – “SORROWS & TRIUMPHS
Sunnieside Communications, Inc.

Edward Simon, pianist/composer; guitarist, Adam Rogers; David Binney, alto saxophonist; Scott Colley, bass; Brian Blad, drums;Rogerio Boccato & Luis Quintero, percussion. SPECIAL GUEST: Gretchen Parlato, vocals; Chamber Quintet, Imani Winds.

This album is the result of support from Chamber Music America’s New Jazz Works, funded through the generosity of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. “Incessant Desires” and “Venezuela Unida” were created with support from SFJAZZ. At a time when jazz music is not always supported or played on our airwaves, and while sadly, our government is busy cutting back all support to the arts, it’s good to see that financial assistance was available to support Edward Simon’s latest project. It’s well worth the funding.

Edward Simon has composed and arranged every song. He produced this recording by himself with the exception of “Triumphs” that he co-produced with his alto saxophonist, David Binney. There are two suites of music. One is titled, “Sorrows and Triumphs” and the other is called, “House of Numbers”. Simon calls his quartet, “Afinidad” and they beautifully express his musical concepts. The blending of percussion, a tight rhythm section and the sexy sax work of David Binney is enough, but the addition of a chamber quintet known as Imani Winds brings these arrangements to a soaring climax. There is melodic excitement, all twisted together like a tightly rolled ball of yarn. Then a kitten comes along and dismantles the ball, chasing it and splashing the colorful notes, like pieces of fabric, all over my room. Edward Simon’s music is full of pulse and pictures. He conjures up stories within his creative arrangements. “Rebirth” celebrates his piano work and invokes the kitten and the ball of yarn. The Imani Winds make the music move with orchestral breezes. The grooves change and keeps the listener interested and attentive. Edward Simon’s music is inspirational.

Simon, a native of Venezuela, has made quite a name for himself as a jazz pianist, a unique composer/arranger and he is a Guggenheim Fellow and member of the SFJAZZ Collective. He came to America at age twelve and attended the Performing Arts School in Philadelphia. His family is musical. His father played guitar and sang. Chucho Valdes was Simon’s first influence on piano and later, after watching a tape of Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz, he was bitten by the jazz bug. Edward Simon won an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Jazz Album referencing his “Latin American Songbook” and four and a half stars in DownBeat Magazine in 2016 for that same recording. This new work appears to be following in the same successful direction. Listening to it brought me great peace of mind and enjoyment.
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