MUSICAL INGENUITY: FASTEN YOUR SEAT BELT!

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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