Archive for November, 2018

MUSICAL INGENUITY: FASTEN YOUR SEAT BELT!

November 29, 2018

By Dee Dee McNeil / jazz journalist

November 29, 2018

MARIEL AUSTIN – “RUNNER IN THE RAIN” Futura Productions

Mariel Austin Rock-Jazz Orchestra featuring Mariel Austin, trombone/vocals/ composer/ arranger/ bandleader. RHYTHM: Andria Nicodemou, vibraphone; Vaughn Stoffey, guitar; James Fernando & Chris McCarthy, piano; Neil Patton, bass; Dor Herskovits, drums. SAXOPHONES: Noah Preminger, tenor sax; Nigel Yancey, alto sax/flute; Richard Garcia, alto sax/clarinet; Gustavo D’Amico, tenor sax/flute; Travis Bliss, tenor sax; Austin Yancey, baritone sax/bass clarinet. TRUMPETS: Danny Fratina, Kai Sandoval, David Adewumi, Jon Weidley, & Jordan Skomal. TROMBONES:Dorsey Minns, Grant Randall, Yoshie Nakayama & Joe Ricard, bass trombone. VIOLINS: Jakub Trasak, Rafael Natan, Marnen Laibow-Koser & Ludovica Burtone. VIOLAS: Georgina McKay Lodge & Sofia Basile; CELLOS: Valerie Thompson & Jason Coleman.

A busy bass, spirited drums and a flurry of horns opens this production. They introduce a short piano interlude. Then, lush with orchestration, the song unfolds. A flute warbles. Trumpets blare and then sweetly sing. There are classical crescendos that build, blast and ebb. Drums are formidable beneath the production and the ‘mix’ is delightfully clear and clean. You can appreciate the dynamic contribution of each instrumentalist. The first track titled, “A Rough, Unsorted Compiling of Ways Not to Exist” begins as a boisterous production with many twists and turns in the arrangements. It’s a long piece, like the title; (six minutes and thirty-nine seconds). Four out of five composition and all arrangements on this production are by Mariel Austin. On this debut recording, Mariel Austin features four original compositions. Although the number of songs is short on this EP, the length of each song gives you nearly forty minutes of very creative music. She pulled her project together by On-line-fundraising.

Her approach on the Wayne Shorter tune,“Night Dreamer”leans more towards big band jazz than orchestral plushness. This is one of my favorite Shorter compositions and I like her arrangement approach. Andria Nicodemou adds a nice touch on vibraphone.

Mariel Austin offers a fresh voice in big band arranging and composing. Already, Ms. Austin has won a number of impressive awards, including the ASCAP Foundation Phoebe Jacobs Prize that is part of the 2018 Herb Alpert Young Jazz Awards. She was also commissioned by the New York Youth Symphony to compose a piece for their 2015-2016 jazz band.

A native of Berkeley, CA, Mariel Austin was enamored with music from a young age. She dabbled in playing flute, piano, clarinet and alto saxophone. But while attending a concert, when she heard the Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble play a Charlie Mingus tune, “Fables of Faubus” she fell in love with the bass trombone. Although torn between majoring in music or in fashion design, at Cal State Northridge she settled on music and became a member of the CSN jazz “A” Band. Her outstanding mastery of the trombone led her to many television gigs on popular shows like American Idol and The Voice. Austin continued her music education at the New England Conservatory of Music, where she attained a Master’s Degree in Jazz Composition. Her composing and arranging skills mirror complexity, ingenuity and creativity. With heroes like Wayne Shorter, Mingus and George Russell, it is not surprising that she thinks outside the sharp edges of a box. One of her teachers and inspirations has also been Bob McChesney.

Mariel Austin’s music breathes and pulsates. She leaves unexpected space and creates tension that builds and ebbs like ocean waves. Austin generously shares the solo spotlight with her talented players, many who are Berklee College of Music and New England Conservatory students. This is her first recording project and I’m certain it’s a preface for many more to come.
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JASON KAO HWANG BURNING BRIDGE – “BLOOD” Independent Label

Jason Kao Hwang, violin/viola/composer; Taylor Ho Bynum, cornet/flugelhorn; Joseph Daley, tuba; Andrew Drury, drums; Ken Filiano, double bass; Sun Li, pipa; Steve Swell, trombone; Wang Guowei, erhu.

“Driving down on an unlit highway, my headlights flashed upon the bleeding carcass of a deer,” explained Jason Kao Hwang. ”My heart rate thundered and air abandoned my lungs with explosive force as I swerved away, narrowly avoiding a collision. This shock made me reflect upon my mother’s harrowing experiences in China during World War II. While in a Changsha pharmacy, she was knocked unconscious by a Japanese bomb. She awoke as the lone survivor surrounded by the dead. I also thought about Butch Morris and Billy Bang, musicians I’ve worked with who fought in Viet Nam. The magnitude of pain and sorrow that they endured is unimaginable.”

“Blood meditates upon the emotional traumas of war retained within the body as unspoken vibrations that reverberate throughout communities and across generations. Through blood, the violence of deeply held memories are not relived, but transposed into our sound. Blood in our sound rises within our voice to defy humanity’s constant state of war. Blood liberates our song. Blood regenerates into wholeness and strength.”

The excerpt above is taken from the Jason Kao Hwang liner notes. It explains the inspiration for this unique musical adventure, using the artist’s own words. During the first track, “Breath Within the Bomb” you hear the fear, frustration and calamity within his music. I could imagine pieces of debris swirling around in the air and unconscious or injured bodies lying on the ground. Sometimes the instruments sound like painful cries, or mimic animal voices of protest and pain. Taylor Ho Bynum’s use of both cornet and flugelhorn on this project add notable highlights, as does the tuba.

This is Avant-garde jazz music, not always easily understood or reviewed. Hwang’s violin is ever-present, sometimes plucked, sometimes bowed. He has incorporated a number of string instruments that merge to become his Burning Bridge group and to illustrate his concept of “Blood,” the essence of human life. Among these instrumentalists, it is unique to add the Chinese two-stringed, bowed musical instrument called the ‘erhu’. It’s similar to a spiked fiddle or sometimes it’s referred to as a Southern Fiddle. Others refer to it as a Chinese violin. It is mastered by Wang Guowei. Another Asian instrument that’s blended into this production is the ‘pipa’, a four-stringed Chinese instrument, also referred to as a Chinese lute. It has a pear-shaped, wooden body and can encompass a varying number of frets, ranging from a dozen frets and up to twenty-six frets. It is showcased by Sun Li. Jason Kao Hwang continues his search for self-expression by unifying both Eastern and Western music and musical instruments. He incorporates the tuba, featuring Joseph Daley. Steve Swell adds trombone magic to the mix. On the third track titled, “Surge (Part 2.)” Andrew Drury is the catalyst on trap drums, dashing and dynamic on his instrument. Kenny Filiano sets a blues tone beneath the freedom of expression performed by the strings, walking his double bass deliberately through the fray. He’s a seasoned technician on his instrument. I remember Kenny from his days living and playing in Southern California. He’s always been a strong and confident player.

Jason Kao Hwang has received support from Chamber Music America, US Artists International, the NEA, the Rockefeller Foundation and some others who have supported his unique composer talents. As a violinist, he has played with Karl Berger, Anthony Braxton, William Parker, Butch Morris, Oliver Lake, Reggie Workman and many other notables. His music is not for the faint of heart or those of closed minds. This is an unapologetic, Avant-garde experience full of creativity and protest, played by a number of talented and uninhibited musicians. Fasten your seat belt.
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KEITH OXMAN – “GLIMPSES” Capri Records

Keith Oxman, tenor saxophone/composer; David Liebman, soprano/tenor saxophone; Jeff Jenkins, piano; Ken Walker, bass; Todd Reid, drums.

There’s nothing I love more than a bluesy saxophone and Keith Oxman graciously offers just that. This recording opens with his original composition titled, “Shai.” His tenor saxophone flies above the solid rhythm section, as powerful as a jet plane painting white smoky pictures against shades of blue sky. Jeff Jenkins is wonderful on grand piano and takes a noteworthy solo. Then enters special guest, David Liebman, also on tenor saxophone. Oxman is a solid composer, steeped in the old-school vein of jazz from the days of John Coltrane’s popularity. After listening to several amazing cuts on this CD, I began to read the liner notes and realized that both Oxman and Liebman are devotees of the late, great Coltrane and that’s another cement-solid bond that joins them. The camaraderie of Liebman and Oxman is particularly interesting since they are both accomplished reed men and both extremely competent on their instruments. You would expect that Oxman would have chosen a trumpeter as a recording comrade, rather than another reedman, but it works beautifully. Liebman explained:

“I really enjoyed Keith’s compositions that have challenging and interesting harmonic twists and turns, always framed with lyrical melodic content.”

You can hear the tenderness and oneness of their merger on every tune. However, I was completely engaged on the ballad, “Lenny.”

Every composition of Oxman’s invites me into his musical world with welcome arms. The ensemble’s warm and comforting tone makes you want to hug the music. For good measure, Oxman has included a couple of songs we know and love like Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood” and Cedar Walton’s “Afreaka”. Still, I am just as illuminated by Oxman’s own composition skills. The arrangement of only piano and horn on the Ellington tune is a lovely way to showcase the exquisite melody of this song and punctuates the outstanding talent of the iconic David Liebman. As a duo performance, Jeff Jenkins is both a sensitive accompanist and powerful player.

On track three, the two saxophonists play tag during the Cedar Walton tune, each showing off their own unique skills on their instruments. It’s a joyful arrangement full of spunk and sport. They sound amazing as a team. Ken Walker gets to walk his big, bad bass during a rousing solo and I applaud the way the sound man brought the piano way down to showcase every nuance of Walker’s bass solo performance. Tedd Reid is solid as a redwood tree throughout, lending his trap drum licks in comfortable support of the ensemble. On Track six, “Louminus,” you can hear Reid wailing away and pumping the group up with his inspirational percussive prowess.

The title tune, “Glimpses” is composed by NEA Jazz master, David Liebman. Liebman’s career stretches over nearly five decades and he has leant his talents to the bandstands of Miles Davis, Elvin Jones, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, McCoy Tyner and more. As an educator and author, he also markets instructional jazz DVDs and books. David Liebman has performed on over 500 recordings.

This is Keith Oxman’s tenth album release on the Capri label. He has played with a number of great musicians including Art Blakey, Buddy Rich, Red Holloway, Jack McDuff, Pete Christlieb, Tom Harrell, Phil Woods, Dave Brubeck, Curtis Fuller and many, many more. A Denver native, he has inspired youth as a music instructor and band leader at East High School. He’s a competent studio musician, composer and producer, as well as a distinctive artist with great chops and a deep love of bebop. Every cut on this CD is smokin’ hot and beautifully played.
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JORGE NILA –“ TRIBUTE TO THE TENOR MASTERS, TENOR TIME” Independent label

Jorge Nila, tenor saxophone; Dave Stryker, guitar; Mitch Towne, organ, Dana Murray, drums.

Jorge Nila opens with a smokin’ hot rendition of Dexter Gordon’s popular, “Fried Bananas” composition. Nila was inspired to tribute several iconic reedmen on this “Tenor Time” project, as well as legendary composers like Tadd Dameron and Stevie Wonder. It was a plus to hear Mitch Towne on organ. The addition of an organ to this project brings back happy musical memories of the 1960s jazz scene. Nila’s quartet swings hard on “Fried Bananas”, with Dana Murray pushing the music ahead on trap drums, adding Charisma and excitement to the project. Dave Stryker is always a pleasure to hear on his guitar. He’s not only a prime player on this project, but he produced it as well. The Hank Mobley classic tune, “Soul Station,” slows the tempo, but remains rich with groove. That’s one thing you will find abundant on this CD; the groove and the swing. “On A Misty Night,” composed by the great Tadd Dameron, lends an unforgettable melody worthy of this instrumental ‘cover.’ Jorge Nila does the tune high justice, exhibiting his undeniable talents on tenor saxophone. Stevie Wonders “Rocket Love” soars and swoops, using close harmonies between the organ and saxophone and lending itself to a funk with Murray’s drums leading the way. Other reedmen who are celebrated on this album are Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, Sonny Rollins, Harold Vick and Sonny Stitt. This production carries the joy and spirit of the holidays inside the bell of Jorge Nila’s tenor saxophone, while giving praise to the elders and the unforgettable gifts they left behind.
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DANIEL ROTEM – “SERENADING THE FUTURE” Independent Label

Daniel Rotem, tenor/soprano saxophones/composer/arranger; Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, 5-string violin; Miro Sprague, piano; Alex Boneham, bass; Roberto Giaquinto, drums; SPECIAL GUESTS: Jeff Parker, guitar; Erin Bentlage, vocals.

The first song on Daniel Rotem’s double-disc-album opens like a sunrise. There is something open, spatial and universal about Rotem’s musical approach. You hear it in his music. He’s passionate and his music resonates the beauty of life and living. Special guest, Jeff Parker takes stage center on this first tune, to entertain with a moving guitar solo that expands over a synthesized-sounding background of electronic chords and the tinkling of a grand piano. Could that be a five-string violin making all that beautiful music behind the soloist? When Miguel Atwood Ferguson enters on his violin, the mood changes sweetly, as his solo becomes the center of attention. Daniel Rotem’s sound on his horn is breathy, warm and wonderful. I am captivated by the first tune of Disc 1., titled, “Different But the Same,” where Rotem implements stellar saxophone talent. On “Who Is It?” (Track 2.) we are introduced to the inspirational playing of Alex Boneham on bass and more attention is given to Miro Sprague on piano. Daniel Rotem picks up his tenor saxophone to serenade us. By the way, he has composed and arranged all the songs on this production. According to the liner notes, the compositions were written with the idea of creating a musical landscape to highlight the relevance of each human life and the breadth and beauty of our collective humanity. The title tune adds the bell-clear beauty of Erin Bentlage on vocals. She becomes a soprano instrument, harmonizing deftly with the other instruments.

Track four is one of my favorites, titled “Push Through” and push they do, speared by Roberto Giaquinto’s drums and their ensemble energy. This song tickles the attention with its up-tempo beat and featuring these awesome players at their best. I found the ending to be a bit abrupt. However, one thing is perfectly clear. Rotem is a fine composer and arranger. When I hear youthful and gifted musicians like these carrying on the legacy of jazz, I am encouraged. The songs are lengthy, but never boring. Consequently, Daniel Rotem needs two discs to play them all, with their average length running from over seven minutes to over ten minutes long. Prepare a pot of tea or a very tall drink, settle back and enjoy.
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GABRIEL ZUCKER – “WEIGHTING” ESP Disk

Gabriel Zucker, piano/composer; Tyshawn Sorey, drums; Adam O’Farrill, trumpet; Eric Trudel, saxophone.

How would music sound if you were writing to entice your soul to stay put inside your body? That is one thought that inspired Gabriel Zucker, a pianist and composer, when he began working on this piece of art. As a multi-instrumentalist and deep thinker, Zucker has become one of the prominent voices on the New York avant-garde scene. In addition to using music to delve into his inner most mind questions and considerations, Zucker is a Yale graduate and a Rhodes scholar. Part 1. Of this CD (which is divided into three suites of music) is titled ‘Soul’. Part II. is labeled ‘Appointments’ and the third part is titled, ‘Stones.’ The ‘Stones’ theme may have been garnered from a novel called “The Flamethrowers” by Rachel Kushner. In it she writes:

“…a tribe his father had told him about, deep in the Amazon of Brazil, … weighted themselves with stones so that their souls would not wander away. … It became an obsession for him as a boy, this idea of people trying to keep their souls from escaping.”

I explain this because I think the reason for Zucker’s music is important to understand. Certainly, the premise may be easier to comprehend than the music itself. In listening to ‘free’ music, that is composed to allow the individual musicians to freely explore their creative improvisations, it’s not always easy to comprehend. This music is like impressionism art or abstract art. It’s experimental and difficult to describe.

Zucker may have coined it best by saying, “Like most of my work, “Weighting” is long and not exactly a light listening experience. But at its best, it should draw you in to move at the same speed it does.”
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GABRIEL ESPINOSA – “NOSTALGIADS DE MI VIDA” Zoho Records

Gabriel Espinosa, electric bass/vocals/composer; Kim Nazarian, vocals; Misha Tsiganov, piano/keyboards; Adriano Santos & Mauricio Zottarelli, drums; Jim Seeley, flugelhorn; Joel Frahm, tenor saxophone; Rubens De La Corte, guitar; Jonathan Gomez, bongos; Jay Ashby, trombone/percussion; Christian Howes, string ensemble.

Gabriel Espinosa is an electric bassist, vocalist and composer. His lovely, melodic composition entitled, “Gabriela” dances off my automobile compact disc player. It’s such a beautiful tune that for a moment, it helps to relieve the stress of driving in this Los Angeles, bumper-to-bumper traffic. The voice of Kim Nazarian becomes an instrument, joining the ensemble and adding her gorgeous tonal quality to the arrangement. Rubens De La Corte offers a warm and wonderful guitar solo. From this very first track, I am hooked on Espinosa’s project. On the second track, “Nostalgia” Jim Seeley opens the piece on flugelhorn. Then Joel Frahm is featured prominently on tenor saxophone and is amply propelled by Mauricio Zottarelli on drums. Nazarian sings the melody, without words, and it’s a powerful performance, sometimes in unison with the horn.

Gabriel Espinosa is a dulcet composer. After listening to a stack of Avant-garde productions earlier in the day, Espinosa’s album is a delightful experience. Nazarian’s voice is incorporated into his arrangements on the first four tunes. On “Tu Mirada”, (translated to “Your Gaze”) Jim Seeley expresses himself during a stunning flugelhorn solo. Jay Ashby’s trombone blends beautifully with Kim Nazarian’s vocals, on the third cut. This time Nazarian has lyrics and the melody is challenging, but she sings the rangy melody with ease.

Gabriel Espinosa blends Latin jazz with smooth jazz. You will find a pleasing excursion into arrangements that include compositions sounding almost pop-ish and definitely memorable. For example, “Eres Joven” (meaning “You Are Young”) was the first song Espinosa ever recorded with his brothers. They were called Los Deltons and the group was quite popular in the Mexican Yucatan during the 1970s. Christian Jacob has added a magical string arrangement as Gabriel Espinosa sings his heart out in his native Spanish language. His vocals, like his music are honest, smooth and emotional.
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MUSIC CONNECTS US

November 5, 2018

November 5, 2018
By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

This music celebrates our diversities and the gratitude we share as one nation and one world.

JOHN DAVERSA BIG BAND – “AMERICAN DREAMERS, VOICES OF HOPE, MUSIC OF FREEDOM” – featuring DACA ARTISTS BFM JAZZ

https://vimeo.com/265417651/09a27463c7

This CD opens with the voice of Salvador, a young man labeled Dreamer, who grew up undocumented in America from childhood. He explains his situation as ‘undocumented’ and how he discovered his status just before his teen years. Salvador plays clarinet. He is passionate about his music and his love for America, the only country he’s ever known as home.

The Maestro on a mission is John Daversa, who explains in the liner notes that his own grandparents came to the shores of America from Europe and as proud immigrants. Daversa is a composer, arranger and trumpeter. He’s also an activist and big band leader. For this project, he has gathered a number of talented youth, all representative of their Dreamer status in our country. This music is excitingly arranged and the young people come from all over the United States to play out their passion for music, for freedom, for co-existence, and to exemplify pride in being a part of our country. Their voices sing in unison, “Living in America” spaced strategically in between the jazzy big band arrangements of John Daversa.

As proclaimed by the United States Leader of the House of Representatives:
“The history of music in America is inseparable from the story of immigrants in America. Our brave young Dreamers embody this proud legacy, adding their vision and patriotism to make America more American.” – Nancy Pelosi.

The female voice of Saba comes up on track three to tell us that she was brought to America at age eleven from Pakistan. She plays piano and sings. Saba tells us that she, as a working student, was given DACA (Dreamer) status. When she learned that DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) was ending, it was devastating to her. This is the only country she has known. She is an outstanding student, majoring in biology and is a candidate in mathematical biology at Texas Tech University. She speaks five languages. Saba studied classical piano, but learned to love jazz, the music of freedom. Track four Features an up-tempo arrangement of “Don’t Fence Me In” with a rousing trumpet solo and great horn harmonics.

Caliph is a Dreamer who came to our country at age seven-years-old from Senegal. He earned a university scholarship, but could not attend because of his immigration status. He’s a rapper/poet and activist. He prefaces the “Immigrant Song” with a rap and a short talk about his journey as a Dreamer in America.

“Music has always been tied to the fight for justice. During the Civil Rights Movement, Nina Simone and John Coltrane performed what became anthems for freedom. American Dreamers continue this tradition of using music to send an important message, … affirming their love of the country they call home.” – Senator Kamala D. Harris

This entire album is a well-produced musical tribute to Dreamers and their journey from oppression, in search of a better life by coming to the shores of America to assimilate and add their worthy talents and international energy to our country. Most of them bring love and hope. Unlike the rhetoric, statistics show that from 2012 until present, most of them are not criminals. They come from families that desire a better future for themselves and their children. These talented musicians come from Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Honduras, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Senegal, Singapore, South Korea, Sweden and Venezuela. They all sought out the ‘home of the brave, land of the free’ that the United States represented to them. The political move to rescind DACA is part of an irresponsible strategy to criminalize immigrants. This album is full of honest expressions from the mouths and musical talents of a big band of Dreamers. Dreamers who are good citizens, hard workers and outstanding students. They serenade us with truth and purpose, endeavoring to explain their plight and share their challenges to convince us they are as patriotic and purposeful as any American child born and raised on our soil.

Perhaps Senator Lindsey Graham summed it up best when he said:
“Dream Act Children (Dreamers) have known no country other than America. American Dreamers features a heartfelt expression of patriotism by talented Dreamers performing the songs of our country.” – U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham


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ALBERTO PIBIRI – “JAZZ LEGACY” Alberto Pibiri Music

Alberto Pibiri, piano/composer; Paul Gill, bass; Paul Wells, drums; Adrian Cunningham, tenor saxophone/clarinet; Dave Stryker, guitar; Sheila Jordan, Jay Clayton & Miriam Waki, vocals.

This musical production opens with a joyful, upbeat piano by Alberto Pibiri. The tune titled, “For Oscar” brings back memories of silent films with Charlie Chaplin waddling double time across the film screen in black and white. This is very ‘Roaring-twenties’ style jazz.

It moves into a more Gene Harris type of modern jazz mid-way through when Alberto Pibiri trades fours with drummer Paul Wells. He brilliantly shows his ability to swing and to dig deeply into the blues. In the liner notes, Pibiri’s original tune “For Oscar” was written as a tribute to the great pianist, Oscar Peterson. Alberto Pibiri has composed every song herein and each has a personality of its own. “My Sunshine” is a lovely ballad full of piano arpeggio’s and gives ample time to feature Paul Wells on bass. On Pibiri’s original composition, “Walkin’” they add a clarinet. The nice, mellow sound, played by Adrian Cunningham, blends well with Pibiri’s tinkling treble notes on the piano. “New Bossa” is a lilting Latin number. “Kiss Kiss” is a slow swing, with Pibiri’s blues roots prominent once again. He branches off into many directions, but all of it showcases his excellence as a piano technician and the fruit of his endeavors are brilliant composition skills that hang like golden apples from his musical tree. On “Be Free,” Jazz vocalist Sheila Jordon is featured. The composition is a beautiful ballad where Alberto Pibiri showcases his talents on grand piano and uses a vocalist to spotlight his lyrical capabilities. Notably, Jordan is an icon in the music business, but like Billy Eckstine in his later years, her vocal vibrato has now taken over her once clear, clean tones. On cut #8 she scats rather than singing lyrics and is more effective with vocalist Jay Clayton, who joins the party. Together, they epitomize a saxophone and trumpet duet, using their voices. Track 9 features Miriam Waki on vocals. This cut adds Dave Stryker on guitar and Adrian Cunningham is back, this time on saxophone. For my taste, these three vocal songs add little to Alberto Pibiri’s project and distract from an otherwise tight ensemble production.
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CHUCHO VALDÉS – “JAZZ BATA 2” Mack Ave Records

Chucho Valdés, piano/composer; Yelsy Heredia, double bass; Dreiser Durruthy Bombalé, batas /vocals; Yaroldy Abreu Robles, percussion. GUEST ARTIST: Regina Carter, violin.

The unusual thing about this production is the lack of trap drums. I would expect that a CD featuring this talented Cuban composer, pianist and bandleader would lend itself to the relentless beat of the trap drums. However, I find myself enthralled with the Valdés command of his grand piano, even in the face of a drum-less production, Chucho Valdés shines brilliantly. He expresses himself spectacularly with this album of all original music. For rhythm, he adds the percussion power of Yaroldy Abreu Robles to spur the energy and support the steady excitement of Yelsy Heredia on double bass. Every now and then Dreiser Durruthy Bombalé lends vocals to texture the layers of this musical fabric. Here is a quilt of many musical influences and colors. The music is warm and wraps around you.

Valdés blends his own Cuban culture with Yorubic religious music and American jazz in a most unique way. His fingers fly across the piano keys like a flock of startled sparrows. He is quick, melodic and always innovative. On track four, titled “Ochun” he adds a taste of gospel during the introduction and surprises the listener with the amazing talents of his guest artist, Regina Carter playing violin. This powerful female violinist always shares a soulful talent, enticing her violin instrument to bend and blend in very unique and beautiful ways. In the Yoruba religion, the female God Ochun (sometimes spelled Oshun) is thought to be a spirit goddess that rules over fresh water, rivers, sexual pleasure and fertility, as well as beauty and love. This particular goddess is also celebrated in Brazil, in Trinidad, Cuba and throughout the Ifá and Yoruba religions.

Taught and inspired by his famous father, Ramon “Bebo” Valdés, ((1918-2013), this CD release celebrates what would have been his father’s 100th birthday. Once again, Regina Carter is featured on the violin during this tribute composition.

Chucho Valdés is an amazing pianist and without trap drums, his genius is prominent. There are some stunning percussive solos, but for the most part, the awesome catalyst for this project is the expert and sensitive piano playing of Valdés. He covers so many styles of music, rooted in his amazing technique, with each original composition becoming a unique musical experience for the listener. Here is an excursion into the classical music of West Africa, explored and epitomized by a master of the piano. Chucho Valdés (born in Havana) along with his long-time friends and fellow musicians, Yaroldy Abreu Robles, Dreiser Durruthy Bombalé, and Yelsy Heredia, who are all from the Guantánamo region display solid Cuban roots, as well as being conservatory-trained. Together, this band of masters create a most memorable and enjoyable product of jazz and world music to inspire our cultural appreciation.
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ANNIE CHEN OCTET – “SECRET TREETOP” Independent label

Annie Chen, vocals/composer/lyricist; Rafal Sarnecki, elec. Guitar/arranger; Tomoko Omura, 5-string violin; David Smith, trumpet/flugelhorn; Alex LoRe, alto saxophone/flute; Glenn Zaleski, piano; Mathew Muntz, bass; Jerad Lippi, drums.

This CD includes a booklet that provides the lyrical content written by Annie Chen in English and in Chinese. Her prose is quite moving and very cultural with poetic reference and comparison to nature. A very Chinese vocal chant bounces against a bass solo to open this production. I have lived in Shanghai, China and I recognized the style of music immediately. Annie Chen, the vocal storyteller, emerges. Her second soprano voice is quite unremarkable, but extremely sincere. Her lyrical message does not rhyme and is not meant to. Her vocal instrument turns into a scat that merges with the clarinet, doubling a line in unison. The melodies are very repetitious. Although that lends space and chordal simplicity for instrumental solos, it does not endear this listener to her compositions. They are very much like some Hip-Hop beats that just keep repeating the same changes over and over again. Even the scat unison repeats the same melody again and again. Consequently, her compositions somehow seem uninspired. To scat, in jazz, is to create something new, fresh and creatively improvisational.

Guitarist, Rafal Sarnecki uses his arrangement talents to wrap the Eastern and Western cultures together like a colorful ball of yarn. The result is somewhat avant-garde.

The title tune, “Secret Treetop” features Alex LoRe on flute. Once again, even the background track is repetitious, as is her scat. The flute flies like a fluttering bird on his solo, as does Glenn Zaleski on piano, who finally brings some real jazz feeling to this production.

This is world music. Annie Chen sings in English and her native language. Some of her translated lyrical poetry grammatically loses its meaning in the translation. On track three, “Au Bao Xiang Hui,” the horn players add zest and color to an otherwise very repetitious work of art. That being said, this is a global creative effort with much Asian influence. Annie Chen has included a Taiwanese Folk Song, “Gan Lan Shu,” that I found very beautiful and was the highlight of this production. It’s a very well-written composition.
Culturally, I think this production will be appreciated on the world stage. It’s very well produced. However, most of Ms. Chen’s sing-song, repetitive, minor-mode compositions miss the mark for me.
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THE ODD DOGS – “BENEATH THE SURFACE” Manasus Music

Andy Suzuki, keyboard/woodwinds; Jeff Miley, guitar; Steve Billman, bass; Ralph Humphrey, drums; Billy Hulting, percussion.

This is a blend of fusion, smooth jazz, progressive rock and easy listening. Here is an ensemble production featuring original compositions, with the majority written by Billman and Miley who are the bassist and guitarist of the group. From the beginning, the first three musical compositions sounded somewhat melodically redundant. That is not to say that they sounded similar, but that the melodic lines seemed to repeat over and over again in each song. That being said, the tracks are well produced. However, I kept waiting for something or someone to break-out with a stunning solo. The element of surprise, excitement and the instrumental ‘It-factor’ seems missing. Miley is left to interpret most of the melodies and he offers numerous improvisational solos on guitar. His talent is obvious. This production is a pleasant listen, inclusive of many technical skills and time changes. But neither the songs nor the individual musicians jump out at you as prime soloists or power players. I think some of it could be due to the mix and some may be due to the repertoire. Certainly, these are all competent and talented musicians.

“Presence Unknown” is the first track and the unusual rhythm catches my ear, along with the guitar funk line. In the liner notes the time is explained as 13/8 and that meter is enhanced by Andy Susuki, playing keyboards and woodwinds. Steve Billman is pumping his bass and planting strong roots for this song. Still, these tracks sound like tracks awaiting the soloist to lay down his or her part. On the second track, “Failure to Authenticate” the Odd Dogs group uses more challenging time meters, moving from 11/8 to 15/8 to 4/4/ time. The average listener may not know or understand these hidden time agendas, but are simply listening to the music for the music’s sake. I found this second cut full of spunk and spark, tapping into what sounds like rock music. I note that the liner notes reference the group’s affinity towards the progressive rock era and groups like Pink Floyd.

Cuts #4 and #5, (“Hairpin” and “Title 5”) are more straight ahead jazz and feature pretty exciting reed work by Andy Suzuki, while giving Ralph Humphrey (co-composer of “Title 5”) an opportunity to spotlight his drum tenacity. “Monkish” references the influence Thelonious Monk has had on these musicians and it’s tinged with blues and a melody that inspires horn improvisation. Billman also takes a well-deserved solo on his electric bass. These three songs were not so meter-diversified, but seemed to flow more naturally and showcase the talents of these musicians in a jazzy setting, complimenting the Odd Dogs ensemble. Other compositions like, ”A Simple Word” were very smooth-jazz oriented and melodically repetitious, while tunes like “Enigma” and “The Beast” were produced more ‘rock’ driven.

Charts for the songs on this album are available at their website. They invite all of you inquisitive musicians to check them out at: http://www.odddogsmusic.com

Perhaps guitarist Jeff Miley summed it up best by explaining:

“Both the writing process and the act of performing these compositions are satisfying for me because they’re rhythmically advanced and harmonically rich. I get to do some rock-type playing while navigating jazz harmonies with people I hold in the highest regard.”
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BILL O’CONNELL – “JAZZ LATIN” Savant Records

Bill O’Connell, piano/Fender Rhodes/composer; Lincoln Goines, bass; Bobby Ameen, drums; SPECIAL GUESTS: Randy Brecker, flugelhorn; Craig Handy, alto saxophone; Conrad Herwig, trombone; Andrea Brachfeld, flute; Dan Carillo, guitar.

This album was released earlier this year, but it’s such a gem, I have to suggest you take a listen and consider it as a dynamite stocking-stuffer this Christmas. If you love ‘straight-ahead’ jazz, you will happily embrace this talented ensemble of musicians. Bill O’Connell merges his piano and arranging talents with Lincoln Goines on bass and Bobby Ameen on drums. Their trio is tightly cohesive and becomes a stellar platform where O’Connell’s special guests can appear. The first track features an original composition by O’Connell titled “Obama Samba” that is a tribute to our former U.S. president as Barack Obama danced his way out of the White House after his successful eight-year term. Lincoln Goines gives an admirable solo on electric bass and Bobby Ameen pushes the samba with rhythmic force. O’Connell is exciting on the piano and this song sets the tone for their entire album. Together, this trio swings hard and consistently. You can tell that they have been playing together for some time. In fact, they were rhythm-section camrades in the Dave Valentin Band.

O’Connell’s trio is the main focus of this album, but at all the right points they invite a handful of excellent guest musicians to add color and creativity to their production. Iconic folks like Randy Brecker on flugelhorn and Craig Handy on Alto saxophone pop in. Legendary Conrad Herwig adds his trombone talents and Andrea Brachfeld brings flute to the mix. Dan Carillo is tenacious on guitar.

Every song on this project swings spontaneously and with great tenacity. O’Connell has penned seven of the eleven songs offered here. They also showcase some awesome arrangements of standard songs like, “Just One of Those Things” that is played at a speedy pace with plenty of room for each trio member to improvise and spotlight their skills. O’Connell moves back and forth from grand piano to electric piano with ease and excellence. His band mates are supportive and each is amazing in his own right. This is ear candy!
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LISA HILTON – “OASIS” Ruby Slippers Productions

Lisa Kristine Hilton, piano/composer; Mark Whitfield Jr., drums; Lugues Curtis, bass.

Pianist Lisa Hilton has taken a handful of original compositions and with two-fisted authority, interprets them with gusto on her new trio CD, “Oasis”.

On track two, titled, “Adventure Lands” she shows off her left-handed dexterity, while her right hand improvises brightly. Mark Whitfield Jr., keeps the trap drums strong beneath her up-tempo prowess. Luques Curtis, on bass, locks into the production to bring solid support. Clearly, Ms. Hilton is classically trained and competent on her instrument. She offers us ten original compositions that fall into the realm of ‘easy listening’. On her “Lazy Daisy” tune, I began to sing the old R&B standard, “Heart and Soul, I fell in love with you …,” which the chord changes mimic and some of the melody seems to be based upon. This is a Hoagy Carmichael song quite familiar to me from the 1950s when it was covered by the Cleftones. However, most of her original songs and improvisations become rather redundant. Hilton’s compositions are not necessarily melodic in a way that makes the listener sing-along, unlike the way we cling to Ellington’s ‘Satin Doll’ melody or the more challenging ‘Lush Life’ melody of Billy Strayhorn. Instead, Hilton plays with a lot of arpeggio runs and celebrates technique instead of letting her melody lines take the spotlight. That being said, this is a pleasant, easy-listening experience that includes one Gershwin standard, “Fascinating Rhythm”.
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ALCHEMY SOUND PROJECT – “ADVENTURES IN TIME AND SPACE” Independent Label

Sumi Tonooka, piano; David Arend, double bass; Johnathan Blake, drums/percussion; Michael Spearman, trombone; Salim Washington, tenor saxophone/flute/bass clarinet; Erica Lindsay, tenor saxophone; Samantha Boshnack, trumpet/flugelhorn.

Alchemy is the transformation of matter or changing base metals into gold. If you have a taste for blended jazz that stretches the oblong lines of music like a rubber band, this music encircles big band scores, symphonic arrangements, modern jazz and bebop all in the same package. On cut one (the title tune – “Adventures in Time and Space”) you will hear a taste of everything. The studio mix is brilliant. Every nuance of Johnathan Blake on drums and percussion is captured with eclectic clarity. Sumi Tonooka is stellar on piano. Salim Washington’s solo expresses mad, improvisational spirit. On track two, David Arend bows his double bass in such a refreshing and improvisational way that he steals the spotlight from the rich horn harmonies. Arend moves this moderate tempo’d arrangement from modern jazz to a more intimate feeling, like that of a chamber music concert.

Each song on this album spreads its own colorful wings to take flight. Creativity spins from this disc and invites us along for an enjoyable ride. Like the splash of colors on the CD jacket, this is uninhibited art. It’s progressive music that invites us to sit back, relax and let our imaginations wander. This group of excellent musicians successfully colors outside the lines of style, genre or classification.
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THE HOT CLUB OF SAN FRANCISCO – “30 YEARS” Independent Label

Paul Mehling, lead guitar/group founding member; Julian Smedley, Evan Price, Olivier Manchon, & Deborah Tien-Price, violins; Evan Dain, Clint Baker, Ari Munkres, Joe Kyle, & Sam Rocha, bass; Paul Robinson, Ed Boynton, Jeff Magidson, Joseph Mehling, Sammo Miltich, Josh Workman, Jason Vanderford, Jeff Magidson, Dave Ricketts, Jordan Samuels & Isabelle Fontaine, rhythm guitars; Paul Mehling, solo guitar/lead vocal; Tony Marcus, Sam Rocha, Sylvia Herold, Linn Powell, & Isabelle Fontaine, vocals; Aeros Quintet, woodwinds; Jeffrey Kahane, piano; Clint Baker, trombone. Jeff Sanford, soprano saxophone; Sam Rocha, tuba.

Reminiscent of gypsy music or Django Reinhardt, “Round Midnight” dances onto the scene to open this album. I am familiar with ‘The Hot Club de France’ that transformed French music by incorporating American jazz concepts into their group. As I listen to this interesting band of American musicians, “The Hot Club of San Francisco,” I admire their use of string instruments to emulate musical styles from New Orleans of the 1920s, gypsy jazz, and to tribute Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli.

Notably, this musical style began in Paris with ‘The Hot Club de France’ many years ago. Their cultural blend of music developed in Paris, featuring performance musicians, several listening sessions of rare American jazz discs, small concerts, and in a Parisian club located at 78 rue Cardinet. They even established a record label in 1937 called the Swing Music Label. The Hot Club de France promoted jazz as rooted in ‘swing’ and blues, telling their loyal fans and performers that this strange, new, American music was created and perpetrated by African-American musicians. They blended it with the gypsy music style. It was December of 1934 when that Parisian club (The Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris) was originally popularized by this new music that hosted the Hot Club de France. This group greatly inspired lead guitarist and band leader, Paul Mehling.

This album, featuring The Hot Club of San Francisco, celebrates thirty years of performances by a group of popular Northern California musicians. They only use Argentine Strings and no trap-drummer. The lead guitar is Paul “Pazzo” Mehling, who has affectionately been dubbed the godfather of American gypsy jazz. Born in Denver, he grew up in California’s Silicon Valley. Early on, Mehling was enthralled over his dad’s record collection. He was inspired by Dan Licks & his Hot Licks, and like most teens, he loved the Beatles. He also was steeped in a prevailing interest in Dixieland jazz bands. This guitar specialist has spent time in Paris, playing violin in Metro stations and sitting-in with gypsy musicians whenever possible. He explained:

“When I heard Django’s Hot Club of France: three guitars, bass and violin, they sounded and acted like a rock band. I saw pictures of them and they looked sharp, sophisticated and mysterious.”

Speaking of Paris, Isabelle Fontaine does a swell job of singing the popular standard, “I Love Paris” with a very New Orleans/ragtime arrangement bubbling beneath her voice. Evan Price offers an amazing violin solo on this cut. Isabelle is originally from the French countryside and was inspired by voices like Edith Piaf, Charles Trenet and Yves Montand. She spent two decades playing the snare drum and singing jumping, jive music all over France, Spain and the Swiss Alps. Then, in 2004 she moved to the United States and the Bay Area. That’s when she began working with “The Hot Club of San Francisco.”

Master violinist, Evan Price is a native of my hometown, Detroit, Michigan. He studied music at Cleveland Institute of Music, at Berklee College of Music, and is on the faculty of Wellesley College. He’s a ten-year member of the Turtle Island Quartet, recording five CDs with them and receiving a GRAMMY award in 2006 and 2008 in the Classical Crossover Category. The two awarded albums were their interpretation of “A Love Supreme: The Legacy of John Coltrane’ and the other album was titled, “Four +4”. The remaining two, current and outstanding members of this group are Jordan Samuels (noted guitarist in the San Francisco area) and Sam Rocha, a bassist from Fresno, California. Sam is basically self-taught, but has studied privately with the likes of Walter Page, Scott Lafaro, Milt Hinton, Ray Brown and more. He’s known as a rising star on the gypsy swing circuit and also plays jazz tuba, cornet and guitar.

Founder, Paul Mehling launched this group in 1989. Together, his talented ensemble of musicians breathes fresh life into the historic Django legacy with their infectious gypsy jazz music. Here is a limited-edition CD to enjoy, sharing a compilation of songs taken from their fourteen CD releases.
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FLAVIO LIRA – “COFFEE GOLD SUGAR CANE” Interrobangrecords.com

Flavio Lira, bass/composer and 38 other talented musicians

Electric energy leaps from my CD player on a song called “Stog”. It is the first tune on this Flavio Lira CD and it exhibits his talents as a composer. Lira’s bass line opens the piece, accompanied by percussive excellence. The vibraphone solo heightens the excitement. This is followed by the lovely and sensitive vocals of Nella Rojas. She features a Spanish version of “All the Things You Are”. On other Flavio Lira compositions, titled “Pra Frente” and “Still in Movement,” Nella Rojas sweetly scats. Her voice is intriguing.

The title of this CD is “Coffee Gold Sugar Cane” and celebrates the treasures of South and Central America. These were the treasures that lured European colonization to their shores. Music represents the fruit of a people’s culture and community. Flavio Lira’s album reflects the music of Latin America in all its spicy tradition, rich with Brazilian and West African rhythms and tinged with Columbian and Cuban influences. This is his love letter to the beauty and diversity of Latin America. Favorite tunes are “Stog,” “All the Things You Are,” “Sol No Frio” and “Favela (O Morro Nao Tem Vez)”.

Flavio Lira best explains this production by saying, “In this project, I have brought together thirty-eight artists from different countries. It is the sort of cultural exchange made possible in this modern era of communication; an era in the spirit of mutual artistry and creative respect. Rather than conquest, this is my tribute to these lands of endless musical treasures. May these treasures exist as long as the human spirit flourishes.”
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GENE ESS – “APOTHEOSIS” Simp Label

Gene Ess, guitar/synthesizer/composer; Thana Alexa, vocals; Sebastien Ammann, piano; Yasushi Nakamura, bass; Clarence Penn, drums.

Jazz is an open door for new and refreshing musicality. I am always in search of new doors to enter and new spaces to explore; spaces that stretch creativity to the maximum. Gene Ess uses his fourth album release, along with his quintet ‘Fracial Attraction,’ to celebrate the spirit of humanity; a spirit that rises to crush adversity. With this in mind and propelled by his composer abilities, this guitar wizard incorporates funk, electronics, modern jazz, acoustic jazz and old-school scat to present his music. The title of his album, “Apotheosis” defined as the highest point in the development of something, or the culmination or climax of something.” So, I would expect nothing less from this project, spear-headed by Mr. Ess. He does not disappoint me.

The lovely vocals of Thana Alexa add much to the production of the Gene Ess compositions. She is a free vocal spirit, fluttering among his chord changes like a rare bird from paradise. He allows her to be a relevant instrument in the ensemble, and not just a singer of lyrics. She has co-written one song with Gene Ess titled, “Same Sky” where she has an opportunity to sing these words. In part, they read:

“There is beauty in our differences. In learning from our brothers, only then will we truly know. I choose to live a life including you. If we accept our brothers, only then will we truly grow.”

Pianist Sebastien Ammann woos me with his incredible talent on the grand piano. He’s a dynamic player. Yasushi Nakamura holds the rhythm tightly in place with his bass dexterity. On the fourth cut, “Bluesbird,” Nakamura takes an opportunity to strut his talents across the bass strings during a formidable solo. Clarence Penn, on trap drums, is ever constant and manages to use his busy sticks to accent and color this musical experience. He aptly rises to the occasion by ‘trading eights’ during the performance of “Bluesbird,” a composition more straight-ahead than the tunes I’ve heard thus far. The following song, “Tokyo Red” swoops us back to funk and swagger, invigorated by Gene Ess’s guitar and Clarence Penn’s percussive excellence. The music of Gene Ess is passionate and demanding. He moves from straight ahead to modern jazz, embraces the blues and tenderly caresses folksy ballads like “Same Sky,” all in the blink of a creative eye. His music snatches you by the ear and drags you along willingly. With this project, you will experience nearly an hour-long concert that is bound to invigorate and expand your consciousness.
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