By Dee Dee McNeil/Jazz Journalist

January 10, 2019

KENNY WERNER – “THE SPACE” Pirquet Records

Kenny Werner, piano.

Master musician, Kenny Werner, makes us feel as though we are sitting in the front room of our own home, at the foot of a master. Here is a listening experience that is vividly simplistic, yet deeply creative and provocative. Simplistic only because no other instruments are involved. This is a dynamic grand piano concert Opening with “The Space,” Werner’s own original composition and title tune. He plays with our attention and pulls us into his music with palpable fingers. His talent hypnotizes our senses. His nimble and profound hands both staccato and arpeggio the keys. To our delight, he intrigues us. Kenny Werner not only interprets his own compositions, he also includes the work of Keith Jarrett, Michel Legrand, Jason Seizer , Ralph Ranger and Leo Robin. Here are eight songs, interpreted on eight-eight keys by a confident and creative solo musician. Although the title tune is over fifteen minutes of a very classical sounding concert, it is never boring!

Kenny Werner is technically astute and well-rooted in the jazz community. He has worked with the legendary Toots Thielemans and sax man, Joe Lovano, the iconic Charles Mingus, as well as the Mel Lewis Big Band. Quincy Jones has called him, “…360 degrees of soul and science in one human being.” Reviewer, Nate Chinen of the New York Times described him as “… a pianist who tempers fearsome technique with a questing spiritualism.” But it is the words of Werner himself that self-describe this new work, calling his album, The Space.

“It’s the most important title I’ve ever had for my music. It’s about being in the moment, content with what is,” Warner explained.

Also a journalist, Werner wrote a landmark book back in 1996 titled, “Effortless Mastery, Liberating the Master Musician Within.” As an educator, he has lectured worldwide, written articles on how musicians, artists or even business people can allow their master creator within to lift their performances to a higher level. He is currently the artistic director of The Effortless Mastery Institute at Berklee College of Music. A sought-after educator, Kenny Werner has also taught at The New School, The Banff Center, New York University and others. He’s the recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts award, The New Jersey Council of the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, being awarded the 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship Award for his seminal work of exploring tragedy and loss, death and transition and the path from one lifetime to the next. Now, he allows us a peek into his mastery and imaginative exploration of the piano. Perhaps he sums it up best when he writes in his liner notes:

On ‘The Space’ recording project, it’s “the place where every note I play is the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard.”

I concur.

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David Leon, alto saxophone/bells/composer; Alec Aldred, trumpet/composer; Jonah Udall, guitar/composer.

I wondered, as I placed this CD into my CD player, what kind of sound would be produced by a trio of guitar, trumpet and alto saxophone. That’s an unusual mix that only is relying on a single guitar to provide a rhythm section. I fastened my seatbelt.

The ‘Power of Three’ trio is unique in both composition and sound mass. They create a musical experience that is unlike any I’ve heard before, and perhaps that’s a plus. Their composing skills are rich with Avant-garde style and each of the three musicians are composers. They’ve been touring steadily. So, they made the decision to go into the studio and record ‘live’, without any isolation, as though they were on-stage and in-concert. There are continuous moments of musicality that show the talent and tenaciousness of each person. At times, I find myself desiring more melody and less improvisation. At first, I missed hearing a theme or a refrain. I also missed a rhythm section and the groove that a bass and a drummer provide. However, this trio of musicians are full of imagination and are tightly wired to each other. They won me over. On “Demon Dance” I finally hear a theme of sorts and that particular song, composed by Udall, drew me in. I also found Aldred’s original composition titled, “Feet in the Ground,” to be melodic and soothing to the ear. The unexpected harmonies that these three musicians create fill lovely space on track 7, “The Potentialist.” Surprisingly, each man hails from a various part of the United States, (Udall from Berkeley, California, Aldred from Waukesha, Wisconsin and Leon from Miami, Florida). Together they musically find common ground. The trio was formed in 2013. If you are looking for a unique sound and a fresh, exploratory approach to music and jazz, this project is the one!

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Vanessa Rubin, vocals; John Cowherd, piano; Kenny Davis, bass; Carl Allen, drums; Eddie Allen, trumpet; Patience Higgins, tenor saxophone; Bruce Williams, alto saxophone; Clifton Anderson, trombone; Alex Harding, baritone saxophone; Arrangers: Jimmy Heath, Benny Golson, Frank Foster, Willie Smith & Bobby Watson.

“Lady Bird” opens this recorded concert, with arrangements by Frank Foster. Vanessa Rubin’s voice swings and swoops like a happy dove. The horns are complimentary and lush. She sings along with them, becoming a sweet vocal horn. The music of Tadd Dameron is a project long overdue. Known as one of America’s iconic bebop composers, his music remains timeless and beautiful. This is the first album that features a vocalist recording only Dameron’s compositions and what better voice than the celebrated vocals of Vanessa Rubin to interpret this master? A jazz master in her own right, she approaches each composition with great care and attentive emotions. “Kitchenette Across the Hall” has a story to tell and Rubin delivers it with pianist John Cowherd playing in the realm of 1940 jazz accompaniment. “If You Could See Me Now” is a jazz standard with a melody that once heard becomes indelible in your brain. Of course, this is a familiar Tadd Dameron composition that many have recorded and interpreted. But Ms. Rubin includes others that are fresh to the ear. Seven of the compositions herein are recorded with original lyrics as intended. The remaining five had lyrics added for Rubin to sing. She penned the words for “The Dream Is You”, retitling it to “Reveries Do Come True”. Rubin expresses a hope that this project will bring Tadd Dameron’s awesome talents to the forefront once again and open new vocal doors for singers to embrace and illuminate his work. For example, on the popular Dameron instrumental, “On A Misty Night” I believe this is the first time I’ve heard the lyrics. Rubin scats with words on this cut and there are great horn lines that keep the slow swing melodically strong. “Never Been In Love” is one of my favorites on this album with lyrics by Irving Reid. It’s a pretty ballad with a Latin feel and a sweet solo by trumpeter, Eddie Allen. Another lovely ballad is “Next Time Around” or “SoulTrane” with great lyrics by Chris Caswell. Kevin Davis takes an opportunity to solo, quite melodically, on bass. That’s the thing about Tadd Dameron’s compositions. They are all very melodic. Rubin has often brought the music of masters and contemporary composers to her recordings. On her “New Horizons” CD she celebrated Stevie Wonder.

Dameron’s roots extend into the historic legacy of Billy Eckstine. Dameron was involved in the formation of Eckstine’s ground-breaking orchestra. Tadd Dameron was a mentor to great vocalists like Sarah Vaughan and influenced Miles Davis, Benny Golson, Billy Paul and Charlie Rouse. Vanessa Rubin chose Dameron’s contemporaries who were familiar with his contributions to bebop, but also to his composer skills. Afterall, Dameron was a friend and colleague of Kenny Clarke, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. One of the chosen arrangers on this project, Benny Golson, wrote forwards for two books about Tadd Dameron. He recalls days of touring with Dameron and riding in a car with him during their tenure with Bull Moose Jackson. Frank Foster admits that he learned essential writing and arranging skills listening to Tadd’s recordings in the late 1940s. Vanessa Rubin has spent twenty-five years of her illustrious career singing Dameron’s music as part of her repertoire. Now, she shares her admiration for the composer’s genius with us.

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GIL DEFAY – “IT’S ALL LOVE” Independent label

Gil Defay, trumpet/flugelhorn/vocals; Ansy Defay, saxophones/vocals; Rakiem Walker, alto saxophone; Antonio Penalva, guitar; Joel Desroches, keyboards; Matthew Smythe, organ/Wurlitzer; Toku Jazz, flugelhorn/vocals; Parker McAllister &Michael Tiny Lindsey, bass; Ben Nicolas, drums; Bendji Allonce, percussion; Patrick Pelissier, vocoder.

Gil Defay’s original music is well -arranged and full of pleasant surprises. He has composed everything on this production and has enlisted a large ensemble of talented musicians to interpret his work. From the first track, “D. Bros Groove” the curtains part and the horns take stage center. It sounds like theme-song-music for a splendid show. There is a solid solo by Joel Desroches on keyboard and a breathtaking organ solo by Matthew Smythe, with a funk drum beat established boldly to promote the groove. Gil Defay lets his rhythm section showcase their skills before taking to the spotlight. Then Antonio Penalva celebrates his guitar chops in a joyful way. In fact, this entire album is joyful. This production is a nice blend of contemporary smooth jazz with straight ahead nuances. Michael “Tiny” Lindsey introduces his electric bass talents, followed by Ben Nicolas soloing on drums. This first cut allows each, talented player to take a bow and strut their stuff.

The horn lines are tight and punchy throughout. On the second cut we join the turn-table-party with an up-tempo, danceable tune titled, “Le Cri.” It’s propelled by the spunky drums of Nicolas. If I had one criticism, it would not be the music, the production or the engineering. It would be the cover design. Gil Defay’s music is bright, happy, and memorable. The cover is dark; so dark you can hardly read the credits. I think artists should be as concerned with their album designs as their recorded messages. The title is “It’s All Love” and love is light. That’s not reflected on this CD jacket. Otherwise, here is a beautiful recording, featuring Gil Defay, a wonderful composer and a technically astute musician. I was surprised that Defay sampled the work of Thelonious Monk on the final tune titled, “Epistrophication,” and still took all the credit for composing this obvious celebration of Monk’s Epistrophy” composition. That bothered me.

All in all, the players listed above come together to present a tightly woven carpet of music that rolls out in a stream of plush arrangements and undeniable musicianship. Favorite cuts are: “D. Bros Groove,” “You’re So Good,” “The Lean,” and “Wonderful” (a ballad that makes creative use of synthesizers, like splashes of paint on canvas.); also, the very funky, “On That NYC” and “Le Cri.”
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ALAN PASQUA – “SOLILOQUY” Gretabelle Label

Alan Pasqua, Steinway piano.

Solo piano is a challenge. You sit in the glaring spotlight and settle into your talent at the grand piano with no other musical support but your talent and imagination. You bare your soul. It takes an amazing musician to perform solo and Alan Pasqua is just such a musician. He has performed in concert and in recording studios with a long list of iconic jazz musicians including Jack Dejohnette, Gary Peacock, Gary Bartz, Reggie Workman, Gary Burton, Stanley Clarke, Joe Henderson, Randy Becker, The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, and vocalists Sheila Jordan and Joe Williams. There are many more, but you can see from this short list the breadth and width of Alan Pasqua’s awesome and in-demand talent. Musically, Pasqua has not stayed in one lane. Although he embraces his jazz roots, in the world of pop music Pasqua recorded two albums with Bob Dylan and performed with John Fogerty on his album, “Eye of the Zombie.” Alan Pasqua added his diversified chops with Starship on their album, “No Protection.” He was the keyboardist with Carlos Santana during his recordings of “Marathon, Zebop!” And on his “Havana Moon” album. Obviously, the talented Mr. Pasqua can cross musical genre’s as easily as he crosses a California boulevard. The appropriate title of his CD is described in Webster’s Dictionary as: “SOLILOQUY: The act of speaking one’s thoughts aloud when alone.”

Pasqua was once a member of the New Tony Williams Lifetime group and co-leader on many critically acclaimed jazz recordings, including joining forces with Peter Erskine and Dave Carpenter to make a Grammy-nominated trio album of standards. The culmination of so many musical experiences is previewed in this new project, Recorded at Pasqua’s Santa Monica, California studio, he invites us to a very intimate, demonstrative and introspective concert. As a solo performer, he’s both vulnerable and artistic. This pianist brings us a beautiful bouquet of our favorite standard songs on this solo recording titled, “Soliloquy.” Sit back and enjoy.

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NORMAN JOHNSON – “THE ART OF LIFE” Independent label

Norman Johnson, guitar/bass/piano/vocals/composer; Chris Herbert & John Mastroianni, saxophones; Bill Holloman, horns; Jeff Holms, trumpet; Steve Davis, trombone; Ejd Fast, drums; Matt Dwonszyk, bass; Mitch Chakour, piano/organ; Alex Nakhimovsky, piano’ Graysong Hugh, June Bisantz, Atla Dechamplain, Poller Messer, & Lisa Marien, vocals.

From the very first strains of Norman Johnson’s guitar magic, I am under his spell. His music is full of joy for life. Johnson’s melodies are infectuous. On the first tune, “Slide” he makes me want to skip across the room. There is something light and carefree about this production of Johnson’s compositions. “Sing On” is another original composition by Norman Johnson that encourages us to come together as a people and features Grayson Hugh on vocals. This song is a blend of R&B, Pop and jazz. The repeatable ‘hook’ of the song reminds me a small bit of a Curtis Mayfield production. Johnson has written five of the six songs showcased on this recording. He offers very ‘smooth jazz’ arrangements with beautiful melodies. His use of vocal background singers is tasty on the title tune, “the Art of Life.” It is obvious that he has been inspired by Earl Klugh and George Benson, but Norman Johnson is a strong player in his own right and his composing skills are admirable. On the Latin tinged, “It’s You” he introduces us to the pretty voice of June Bisantz and Johnson takes a stellar guitar solo, followed by a short, but rich saxophone solo. Ms. Bisantz is also co-writer of this happy piece of music along with pianist, Alex Nakhimovsky. “Summer Dance” closes this album out with a bang. Johnson knows how to put the groove into his productions and he has a love for the nylon-string guitar sound.

Norman Johnson has appeared on over thirty recordings as a sideman with great players like Steve Gadd, Bill Mays and Harvie Swartz. He’s performed with Dave Brubeck and this is his third CD release as a leader. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, he studied at the Hartford Conservatory of Music and the Hartt School of Music. Although a late bloomer, Norman Johnson has perfected his style. This latest release is a testimony to his strength as a musician and composer.

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Magela Herrera, voice/flute/composer/arranger; Tal Cohen, piano; Nestor Del Prado & Dion Keith Kerr, bass; Hilario Bell & David Chiverton, drums; Greg Diamond, guitar; Jean Caze, trumpet; Philbert Armenteros, bata drums.

With much excitement and riveting musicianship, Magela Herrera arrives, using her original composition, “Two Sidewalks” to burst onto the scene like an unexpected shower of fireworks. Tal Cohen demands the spotlight on piano, followed by Herrera’s stellar flute improvisation. Finally, the drums are given free reins to gallop through the arrangement with creative exuberance. Her musical arrangements and compositions offer platforms for the creative juices to flow from her individual ensemble players. They each bring their “A” game to the bandstand, embracing the freedom, while expanding their musical ideas. I enjoy Magela Herrera’s musical concepts and her melodic structure. She also has a lovely command of the flute. On “Principios,” Ms. Herrera gives her bass player ample time to speak his solo-mind. The bass solo is beautiful. Magela Herrera explains her music this way.

“I honestly wanted to make an album much earlier in my career, but I was too shy and I could never complete a tune. At the time, I was limiting myself to Cuban music and hadn’t really explored other styles. I consider my time in Norway to be my ‘aha’ moment. All my professors there were more into inspiring and pushing students to find our own sound, whatever genre it happened to be. They didn’t force us to follow rules. I found it more comfortable to write music outside a strict pattern, to create whatever was in my head. On “Explicaciones,”applying that freedom to classic Cuban tunes really helped me hone in on my sound as an artist.”

Magela Herrera’s applies haunting vocals on track four, “Explicaciones,”the title tune of this album, further endearing her to this reviewer. Her vocals are honest and compelling. She sings in her native Spanish. Although I do not speak that language, I am still intrigued and attentive to every word.

The listener will find a sprinkling of standard jazz in this project, like Herrera’s unusual rendition of “My One and Only Love,” and her vocal interpretation of “Besame Mucho.” She puts spark and spunk into everything she plays and sings. Her arrangement of the Cuban classic, “Que Te Pedi” is brilliant and dances at a medium tempo, with her flute playing atop the melody sweet as decorative icing on a musical cake. Every cut on this album is like another slice of goodness. I guarantee you will want to come back for more and more of Magela Herrera’s authentic blend of Cuban jazz, European classical influence and her own soulful interpretive compositions and arrangements. This is delicious music!

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Jon Lundbom, guitar; Justin Wood, alto & soprano saxophones; Bryan Murray, tenor/balto saxophones; Moppa Elliott, bass; Dan Monaghan, drums.

Jon Lundbom’s guitar floats above this storm of music like a rainbow. Julian Wood’s and Bryan Murray’s saxophones are the thunder and lightning dancing wildly in space. Murray shares his talents on his trademark ‘balto! Saxophone.’ He shows us what to do with an alto saxophone, using a baritone mouthpiece and a plastic reed. Here is Avant-garde, experimental jazz at its best, showcasing expansive creativity with strong improvisation. The Big Five Chord group exhibits combustible ideas. Londbom has composed six of the seven cuts on this CD, adding a bonus track at the end. It’s actually a repeat of track two, yet totally different and unique with the ensemble’s fresh interpretation. Dan Monaghan, on drums, thrives on a diet of funk and groove. Bassist, Moppa Elliott, plays solid and melodic lines that hold down the rhythm section. This group pushes the musical boundaries and, in the process, expands visions and possibilities. Part of the unique arrangements are enhanced by Lundbom playing a Fender Jazzmaster guitar retrofitted with experimental pickups built by Chicago’s Duneland Labs. Lundbom’s guitar and the horns dance like helium balloons in the wind.

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  1. REVIEW: Musical Memoirs Reviews Vanessa Rubin's “The Dream Is You” - LYDIALIEBMAN.COM Says:

    […] Dee Dee McNeil, Musical Memoirs […]

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