Archive for February, 2019

BLACK HISTORY MONTH: I REMEMBER DIANE WITHERSPOON & CEDAR WALTON

February 15, 2019

REMEMBERING DIANE WITHERSPOON AND CEDAR WALTON
by Dee Dee McNeil – Jazz Journalist

“YOU MAY NEVER KNOW” – THE MUSIC OF CEDAR WALTON/THE LYRICS OF JOHN & PAULA HACKETT
Koch Jazz

Diane Witherspoon, vocals; (1948 – 2016) Cedar Walton, piano (Jan 1934 – Aug 2013); Tony Dumas & John Heard, bass; Billy Higgins, drums (Oct 1936 – May 2001).

One of the recorded gems in my collection of music is my dearly departed friend and vocalist, Diane Witherspoon. She is celebrating the music of Cedar Walton with lyrics supplied by brother and sister songwriting team, John & Paula Hackett. It was recorded when Cedar Walton and Billy Higgins were both alive and still making magic on the bandstand. Thankfully, we still have bassists, Tony Dumas and John Heard on Earth. These gentlemen made up the dynamic group of musicians who gathered together in the studio to support Diane Witherspoon’s stellar recording session. It was 1999 and Diane was home, performing in Southern California, after an extensive international tour.

However, Diane Witherspoon wasn’t originally from California. In fact, she was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota and was one of nine siblings. Her first solo performance was at age nine with her church choir. As a fledgling songbird, she was listening to the recordings of Nancy Wilson and Sarah Vaughan and was also inspired by her older sister, Ms. Shirley Witherspoon, who sang with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra. Another relative (her second cousin) was popular blues vocalist, Jimmy Witherspoon. But jazz was Diane’s musical direction. In 1972, she relocated to the Bay Area of Northern California, where she rubbed musical shoulders with iconic musicians like Bobby McFerrin, John Handy and Calvin Keys. Then she moved to Southern California and was mentored by jazz saxophonist, producer and composer, Teddy Edwards and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, as well as another late, great reed man, Frank Morgan. It was during this period that the popular singer learned to mimic a horn and developed an ear for saxophone players and the desire to scat sing. While living in Northern California, she also developed a friendly relationship with the brother and sister songwriting team of John and Paula Hackett. They were busy writing lyrics to pianist and composer, Cedar Walton’s incredible music. That’s how Diane became interested in interpreting those songs.

“I met Cedar Walton through John and Paula Hackett. They gave me several of his tunes to learn, and to sing their lyrics. We went to hear Cedar and Billy Higgins at Milestones jazz club in San Francisco. I got the opportunity to sit in and sing with them and Cedar was so impressed that he decided I would be great recording his tunes. Billy Higgins concurred,” Diane recalled during an interview promoting the Koch record release and an album they called, “You May Never Know.”

Like many jazz singers who are unsigned with a major record label, for nearly four decades Diane Witherspoon made her living travelling worldwide and performing in a variety of countries. She released a total of seven albums. She also spent time as a vocal coach and educator, both at home and overseas.

Now, as I listen to this musical masterpiece featuring Diane Witherspoon’s lovely vocals caressing the challenging melodies of Cedar Walton and interpreting the lyrics of John and Paula Hackett, I remember the ease and purity of her voice. She always brought honesty to the stage and to her lyrical interpretations. I admired Diane’s style and grace. Her repertoire was inspiring and she seemed to enjoy challenging herself musically. We were often late -night buddies on the computer, playing Internet games with each other. After the gig, that was my way of winding down at two in the morning, and she was the same.
When she moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, didn’t see Diane anymore, but we sometimes talked on-line. Although this popular songbird made her flight from Earth back in 2016, her unforgettable music lives on. Since this is Black History Month, I wanted to celebrate both Diane Witherspoon and Cedar Walton. As I listened to them blend talents on this one-of-a-kind CD release, it’s easy to recognize the legacy they have left us. If you can find it, this recording is worth a place in any jazz aficionado’s collection.

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CEDAR WALTON

Back in the 1980’s, there was a popular jazz club called Café Lido located in Newport Beach, California and owned by Joe Sperazzo and his wife. Newport Beach is a ritzy Southern California community that caters to a wealthy, upper-echelon crowd. I used to work there quite often with the Dwight Dickerson Trio and one thing that always thrilled us was when some of our outstanding jazz musicians popped in to support the music or just to hang-out. Cedar Walton was often in our audience. I always felt humbled to be performing in front of such an iconic jazz composer, pianist, recording artist and internationally celebrated hard-bop performer. Plus, he was just a down-to-earth, nice guy. Over the years, I’ve found that most jazz musicians are unpretentious and, in general, they’re pretty laid-back.
Cedar Walton was born a few weeks after Christmas in Dallas, Texas on January 17, 1934. Someone once said that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Cedar Walton’s mother was a respected and aspiring concert pianist and became his initial piano instructor. She noticed her son’s talent early in life and took him to several jazz performances including great jazz geniuses like Nat King Cole, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Art Tatum. These historic jazz pianists became Cedar Walton’s major influences.

His educational path took him from Dillard University in New Orleans to the West coast of the country, where he enrolled at the University of Denver, majoring in composition. Here, while pursuing a degree in music education, Cedar concentrated on arranging for various instruments. This came in handy when he joined the historic Art Blakey’s Jazz Messenger group. In 1955, Cedar Walton left Denver, driving cross country to New York City with a friend. Although NYC welcomed the young and talented Walton with open arms, the United States government scooped him up in their draft. He wound up in the army and stationed in Germany where he met Leo Wright, Don Ellis and Eddie Harris. Discharged after two years, he quickly returned to the East Coast and in 1958 became the piano player on Kenny Dorham’s album, “This is the Moment!” That’s when his whirlwind career began to bloom. He joined a jazz-tet led by Benny Golson and Art Farmer from 1958 to 1961. This was followed by his pianist-arranger gig with Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. At that time both Wayne Shorter and Freddie Hubbard were in the group. He recorded with a long list of notable jazz men while working as a contract pianist for the Prestige Record Company. Cedar recorded with two of my favorite jazz saxophone players; Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt. For a short while, he was musical conductor for Abby Lincoln and arranged and recorded with Etta James in the 90’s when she did a tribute album featuring songs of Billie Holiday for RCA. That production won them a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album. Walton’s composition skills were admired by all who knew him and many have become jazz standards that are recorded time and time again. Songs like “Bolivia”, “Holy Land” and “Ugetsu” are often recorded by jazz musicians, as well as tunes like, “Firm Roots” and “Cedar’s Blues”. Freddie Hubbard was the first to record his popular, “Polar AC”.

In January of 2010, Cedar Walton became another distinguished inductee to the National endowment for the Arts Jazz Master list. He made his transition on August 19, 2013 in Brooklyn, New York, but will never be forgotten.

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Black History Month Celebrates: Ernie Watts

February 10, 2019

ERNIE WATTS QUARTET – “HOME LIGHT”
Flying Dolphin Records

Ernie Watts, tenor saxophone; Christof Saenger,piano; Rudi Engel,acoustic bass; Heinrich Koebberling,drums.

Ernie Watts is one of our heroic African American jazz cats, one I’m proud to celebrate during Black History Month. Ernie was born in Norfolk, Virginia on October 23, 1945 and his birth name is Ernest James Watts. He is another great alumnus from the world-respected, Berklee College of Music and proficient in soprano, alto and tenor saxophones. This Berklee music school opportunity was thanks to a Down Beat magazine scholarship. It didn’t take long for people to notice the flare, style and exciting energy that Watts brings to any bandstand. Early in his career, in the 1960s, Ernie Watts was hired by Buddy Rich to become part of his big band. He played alto saxophone in Buddy’s band. Next, he was scooped up to become part of Oliver Nelson’s group and eventually found his way into Doc Severinsen’s Tonight Show Band on NBC television. That prestigious gig lasted twenty years.

The wonderful thing about Ernie Watts is how versatile he is on his horns. He’s a proficient jazz and bebop player, but he’s just as comfortable playing on a Marvin Gaye or Chaka Khan album. As a studio session musician, he was a very busy horn player, adding his powerful playing to recordings by pop icon, Paul Anka, and in the next breath, playing on Willie Bobo’s 1977 album, “Tomorrow is Here.” He recorded on Kenny Burrell’s Fantasy Record release, “Both Feet on the Ground” in 1973 and as early as 1969, at age twenty-four, he recorded with Milt Jackson on his “Memphis Jackson” album for Impulse records. It’s the horn of Ernie Watts that you hear on Marvin Gaye’s hit albums, “Let’s Get It On” and “I Want You.” This reedman’s list of contributions to great jazz music stretches from Dizzy Gillespie and Bobby Hutcherson to Gene Ammons and Quincy Jones. He’s featured on nine Charlie Haden albums and then adds his disco licks to the Donna Summer “Eponymous” project, recorded in 1982. His abilities landed Ernie on four Gerald Wilson albums. He recorded with Carmen McRae on “Can’t Hide Love” for Blue Note, with Blue Mitchell on the Mainstream label, with the great Brazilian composer, Moacir Santos, on his famous “Carnival of the Spirits” album, and too many more to mention here. When Ernie Watts isn’t touring or recording albums, he’s on call by the film industry. You can hear his saxophone on movies like, “Grease” and “The Color Purple.” He also played on Kurt Elling’s album, “Dedicated to You” that won a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album back in 2011.

As a leader, Ernie Watts has twenty-one album releases covering the years from 1969 (Planet Love on Pacific Jazz Records) to this current release on the Flying Dolphin label. His group has been together for eighteen years and you can hear the tight cohesiveness these musicians share. This comes with time and consistently performing together. Their music feels communal. Each one of these gentlemen is a composer and has a serious love for the music and for each other. This extended family connection adds depth and strength, joy and just plain great jazz on Ernie’s current release titled, “Home Light.”

He has dedicated this “Home Light” album to his dear friend, Ndugu Chancler, who (to the music community’s great sorrow) made his transition in 2018. The title tune was written in Chancler’s memory. The album opens with an Ernie Watts composition titled, “I Forgot August,” that is based on the jazz standard, “I Remember April.” Right off the bat, this song flies like a Jackie Robinson homerun. It’s bebop, unstoppable, straight-ahead and wonderful. Rudi Engel’s walking, acoustic bass rips beneath the energy, locking the rhythm with Heinrich Koebberling’s drums and Christof Saenger’s grand piano. They create a blanket of sound for Ernie Watts to lay his saxophone melody atop. Kubberling has composed “Cafe Central 2am” and it’s a bluesy tune that let’s pianist, Christof Saenger, get down and dirty on the keys. The Ernie Watts composition, “Frequie Flyiers” explores the outer limits of creativity at a quick pace, with challenging intervals and interesting band breaks. Ernie Watts and Heinrich Koebberling take an exciting duo solo where Koebberling actually sings the melody on trap drums in unison with Watts’ saxophone. It’s very inspiring.

“Horizon” is a songwriting collaboration between pianist, Saenger and Ernie. It’s a lovely ballad and shows the softer side of these musicians.

There is something for everyone on this production. Here is Ernie Watts’ new release that celebrates the man and his music. It’s another accomplishment to add to the string of black pearls that Ernie Watts has woven into a musical necklace, inviting us to admire and enjoy.

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JAZZ REFLECTS MUSIC OF THE UNIVERSE AND BEYOND

February 1, 2019

JAZZ REFLECTS MUSIC OF THE UNIVERSE AND BEYOND
By Dee Dee McNeil / jazz journalist

January 31, 2019

JOEY DEFRANCESCO – “IN THE KEY OF THE UNIVERSE” Mack Ave Records

Joey DeFrancesco, organ/trumpet/composer; Billy Hart, drums; Troy Roberts, tenor/soprano/alto saxophone / acoustic bass; Sammy Figueroa, percussion. SPECIAL GUEST: Pharoah Sanders, tenor saxophone/vocals.

The sweet strains of the Troy Roberts soprano saxophone open the first cut of Joey DeFrancisco’s latest CD. This is one of nine original compositions by DeFrancesco, titled, “Inner Being.” It’s richly colored by the sensitive percussion work of Sammy Figueroa and Billy Hart’s tactical and creative trap drums. I gather, from the album title and from some of the original song titles, that DeFrancesco is on a fresh, spiritual journey. Consequently, it seems apropos that he has chosen the great Pharoah Sanders as a special guest on his project.

Nearly fifty years ago, Sanders released his prophetic “Karma” album to much acclaim. This legendary reedman has been exploring spirituality in his music for decades. Pharoah appears on the title tune, “In The Key of the Universe” and on the band’s cover of Pharoah’s standard hit song, “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” Sanders also plays on, “And So It Is.” I am very enthused to enjoy both of these master musicians on the same recording.

The second cut on Joey DeFrancesco’s album is titled, “Vibrations in Blue.” It becomes a vehicle for this master organist to boldly express himself. Whether his feet are pedaling or his fingers are racing across the organ keys, Joey DeFrancesco is a musical force to be applauded and appreciated. He’s a soulful player with plenty of technique and a plethora of energy. That musical energy spills across space and engages his audience, whether in person or in the recording studio. That’s what I love about Joey DeFrancesco; his soulful energy. “Awake and Blissed” continues the excitement with a keyboard solo by Joey DeFrancesco after a strong organ solo that establishes the fast-moving tempo and melody. Billy hart masterfully holds the tempo in place. It’s one of my favorite compositions on this project. Track #4 is called “It Swung Wide Open” and swing it does! This up-tempo gem gives drummer Billy Hart an opportunity to cut loose and wrap the arrangement around his powerful drum sticks. Joey DeFrancesco trades fours with the saxophone and creatively sings harmonic lines with Troy Roberts, establishing a strong, musical theme. DeFrancesco’s title composition swings hard, the way Joey DeFrancesco likes it. He mixes straight-ahead and funk like whiskey and water. It’s a delicious mix, with a kick to it. Pharoah repaints the open spaces with his sensual tenor saxophone improvisation, sometimes harmonizing at points with the horn of Troy Roberts and emphasizing the hook of the song. Once again, drummer Billy Hart keeps the musicians inspired and on-point, climaxing at the end of this song was a giant gong. This is another favorite cut for this reviewer.

The Pharoah Sanders jazz standard, “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” is arranged with fresh and creative melodic passages. It’s beautifully expressed, with Joey DeFrancesco merging with this saxophone master to create an original and lovely approach to his historic and familiar tune. We even hear Pharoah Sanders sing on this cut.

DeFrancesco explains this new direction in his liner notes.

“I pride myself on being a musical chameleon. There’s so much good music that it’s hard to stay in one place. …I love being able to go in any direction and lately that’s sent my music in a more free jazz direction… As I grow older, I find myself attracted to a more spiritual vibe.”

Speaking of various directions, “A Path Through the Noise” is a beautiful composition, a ballad, that showcases an awe-inspired trumpet solo by Joey DeFrancesco. Not only does he play a soulful organ, but he has mastered the trumpet too.

Joey DeFrancesco is a celebrity who is a part of the Philadelphia Walk of Fame, has recorded over thirty albums and he keeps the Hammond jazz organ alive and well. DeFrancesco is a third generation musician. His grandfather, Joseph DeFrancesco, played saxophone and clarinet. His father, Papa John DeFrancesco, was an organist who received the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame Living Legend Award. At age four, a precocious Joey DeFrancesco was learning to play songs he heard by Jimmy Smith. By the time he turned ten-years-old, he was in a Philadelphia jazz band that included Hank Mobley and they were opening shows for Wynton Marsalis and B.B. King. The youthful musician signed his first recording contract with Columbia Records when he was just sixteen-years-old. Christian McBride was one of his high school classmates. He’s a member of the Hammond Hall of Fame along with his mentor, Jimmy Smith, Brian Auger, Billy Preston, and Steve Winwood. I enjoyed this powerful new release so much that I played it three times in a row.
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PETRA VAN NUIS & DENNIS LUXION – “BECAUSE WE’RE NIGHT PEOPLE”
String Damper Records

Petra van Nuis,vocals; Dennis Luxion,piano.

Petra van Nuis has a sweetness to her voice that reverberates innocence when she sings. Dennis Luxion accompanies her adequately on the grand piano. Beginning with “Street of Dreams,” she has added the introduction verse that we rarely hear. That was a nice surprise. Their repertoire is rich with a variety of songs that are based on the shades and beauty of night. Tunes like Moonlight Saving Time, You and the Night and the Music, Dreamsville, and many others perpetuate the mood of night. The duo recorded their ‘live’ concert at the PianoForte performance space. You can hear the audience’s appreciative applause. Great songs like “Small Day Tomorrow,” holds this listener’s interest. Duo gigs are challenging. These two seem very familiar and comfortable with each other. No Moon At all picked up the tempo a little and I was happy to hear something with a little spark to it. Luxion uses a Thelonious Monk tune as the intro, and I thought that was creative. I wish Petra had stuck a little closer to the original melody (at least the first time around), but I enjoyed their playful arrangement. The Night We Called It a Day is a beautiful ballad and Petra van Nuis sings it like a horn; smooth and emotional. Petra has picked out all the music and the duo closes with “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep” by Irvin Berlin. This is a well-paced, sensitive duo concert on disc for the world to enjoy.

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CHARLIE DENNARD – “DEEP BLUE”
Independent Label

Charlie Dennard, piano, organ, keyboards; Max Moran, acoustic & electric bass; Doug Belote, drums; SPECIAL GUESTS: Brad Walker, tenor saxophone; Ray Moore, Flute/alto & tenor saxophone; Jason Mindledorf, tenor saxophone /bass clarinet; Marc Solis, flute/alto & tenor saxophones/clarinet; Carlos Lopez, percussion; Andrew McLean, table,/sarod; Josh Geisler, bansuri flute; Eric Lucero, trumpet/flugelhorn; Steve Masakowski, acoustic guitar; Brian Seeger, guitar; Rick Trolsen, trombone.

On Charlie Dennard’s first tune, shades of Ahmad Jamal’s style splashes across the quiet. A happy, medium tempo composition titled, “St. Charles Strut” emanates from Charlie Dennard’s “Deep Blue” release. Based on lovely, melodic lines from the standard song, “Secret Love,” it’s a great tune to begin this musical excursion. The trio swings and sets the ambience for this treasure trove of original songs composed by Charles T. Dennard Jr. His songwriting skills are fervent, robust and compelling. Doug Belote adds zest and punctuation to the musical production on trap drums. He has an opportunity to stretch out and spotlight his percussive talents on track-two, “Mojave” when the arrangement lends itself to a stellar drum solo. Max Moron builds a basement of strength on his bass instrument, solidifying each song with his strong foundation. There are several guests who appear on “Mojave” and the arrangement is a pleasant blend of smooth jazz and straight-ahead. The flautist is haunting and provocative. Right away, I hear Charlie Dennard as a thoughtful, sensitive pianist and composer.

On “Wonderlust” (a tune he co-wrote with Brian Seeger), you hear his emotional and tender side. Steve Masakowski adds another texture to the trio on acoustic guitar. Dennard gives us a taste of his talents on grand piano, on organ and electric keyboard. He is tasteful and improvisational with great attention to the melodic content of his music. There is an underlying force of funk that qualifies his compositions and stretches them, like spandex, across musical genres. His music holds me tightly in his palms, with two fisted precision, he unwraps his composed gifts with busy fingers.

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DAVE RUDOLPH QUINTET = “RESONANCE”
Independent Release

Dave Rudolph, drums/composer; Larue Nickelson, guitar; Pablo Arencibia, piano; Alejandro Arenas, bass; Dave Rudolph, drums; Zach Bornheimer, tenor saxophone; Whitney James, vocals.

Dave Rudolph is a drummer based in Tampa, Florida and right out the gate, “Atonement” dashes, settling into a moderate tempo and establishing the ambience of this album. The tune is arranged and written in a very modern jazz way by Rudolph, who has composed all nine songs on this recording. They span a broad range of musical genres and showcase his talented musical ensemble and their ability to play many kinds of jazz. Pianist Pablo Arencibia shines on this premiere tune. Zach Bornheimer is very prominent in establishing the melodies of these compositions on tenor saxophone and right up-front, at the top of each tune.

“Those Clumsy Words” is a waltz that gives Bornheimer another melodic opportunity to express himself, improvising broadly on his solo. Alejandro Arenas’ bass kicks the waltz into gear, walking briskly beneath the arrangement and invigorating it with energy. Rudolph is given an opportunity to solo on his trap drums at the song’s ending, championing his instrument with technical bravado. “Lonely Train” is folksy and laid-back, like a slow walk along some Floridian beach. Track-four is titled “The Vine” and has interesting chord changes enhance a memorable melody. It’s very smooth jazz, with Rudolph’s drums propelling the piece with fluid technique and magnetic beneath the group’s arrangement. It is always Dave Rudolph who holds the ensemble tightly in place. I enjoyed the creative conversation between drums and piano on this tune. This song may be one of my favorite compositions by Rudolph. “Bounce” is a tune reminiscent of Thelonious Monk’s style of composing. Rudolph shines on drums during the many breaks in this arrangement and performs an unforgettable solo. Also, Larue Nicklelson‘s guitar solo is impressive. The title tune features vocalist Whitney James. It’s a wordless composition, using the vocals like a horn to introduce us to the lovely melody. I wish the pianist had filled some of the open spaces with improvisational runs instead of just chording, but that’s just the arranger in me. “Night Squirrel” is a playful tune with a New Orleans feel and arrangement. This is another favorite of mine on Dave Rudolph’s album. The final tune, “Brushstrokes,” delves into the space of Avant-garde and allows Bornheimer to test the outer-limits of his creativity on tenor saxophone. It also becomes a trampoline platform for Rudolph to bounce his percussive ideas around.

Dave Rudolph was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and started playing drums when he was eleven years old. He was highly influenced by the music of Chick Corea, Tom Petty, Al DiMeola and Lanny White. He attended the University of South Florida and settled in the Tampa area, where he got busy playing drums around town. This album is dedicated to his close friend, Jessica Hiltabidle.

“She described our communications as having a special ‘resonance’ and I have tried to recreate how important this resonance was to me,” Rudolph explained in his liner notes.

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KYLE NASSER – “PERSISTENT FANCY” Rodeadope Records

Kyle Nasser,tenor & soprano saxophones/composer/arranger; Roman Filiu, alto saxophone; Jeff Miles,guitar; Dov Manski,piano/synthesizer; Nick Jost, bass; Allan Mednard,drums.

Tenor and soprano saxophonist, Kyle Nasser, turns his composer talents into the merge of classical baroque, suites and sonata forms, with modern jazz chops pushing the music towards improvisational outer limits. Nasser’s melodies are deeply esoteric and his musical ideas become enhanced by the excellent musicianship of his bandmates. This is an unexpected blend of chordal dissonant, contrapuntal movement and complex arrangements that pair Nasser’s saxophones with the solid and rich sound of Roman Filiu’s alto saxophone. As the two horns talk to each other, they are thrust forward with each creative strike of Allan Mednard’s drum sticks. On the cut titled, “Eros Suite II Desire,” Mednard is given free rein to explore and share his stellar percussion technique on trap drums. On track #13, “Arioso” the mood settles like a nested dove. This composition (by Paul Hindemith) is the only one that Nasser did not compose. It offers the listener a pretty ballad, established by Dov Manski on piano and arranged by Nasser. It struck me like a breath of fresh air after a red-hot summer day. It was such a change from Nasser’s compositions. “Coffee and Cannabis” closes this album, with a funk feel and this tune is quite different from all the others on his project. It’s more contemporary than modern jazz based on classical baroque. But, as explained in his liner notes, Kyle Nasser blends the intellectual and the emotional, demanding that they coexist and encouraging his band to dig deeply, finding a happy medium between the cerebral and the sensual.

“I was thinking about the way that thoughts tend to recur over and over again. Even if they’re not the deepest thoughts in the world, they can be insistent … so you can’t shake them. That’s not imagination, it’s not earth-shattering. It’s fancy – persistent fancy,” Kyle Nasser describes his album title and the catalyst for composing this collection of modern jazz music.

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