By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

ULYSSES OWENS, JR. – “SONGS OF FREEDOM” Resilience Music Alliance

Ulysses Owens, Jr., drums/musical director; Reuben Rogers, bass; David Rosenthal, acoustic and electric guitars; Allyn Johnson, piano/Hammond B3 organ/Fender Rhodes keyboard. Featured Vocalists: Alicia Olatuja, Rene Marie, Theo Blackmann, & Joanna Majoko.

This entire project is a celebration of freedom songs in tribute to three female entertainers who were each revolutionary in their own right; Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln and Joni Mitchell. It’s an idea developed by drummer Ulysses Owens Jr., and it’s quite appropriate for Black History Month and beyond. Owen’s quartet provides ample support to the four, featured vocalists, Rene Marie, Theo Blackmann, Alicia Olatuja and Joanna Majoko.

“Everything Must Change” opens this album of music. It’s performed by the stunning voice of Alicia Olatuja, accompanied by guitarist David Rosenthal, who’s an awesome talent and competent accompanist. “Everything Must Change” always brings back warm memories for me. In 1973, I was working at A&M Records as a publicist and one of their contract songwriters, and my friend, was the great composer, Bernard Ighner. He wrote this beautiful song during that time and when he played and sang it to me on the A&M lot, we both wept. Alicia Olatuja brings out the same poignant, ever-lasting beauty of this great composition.

The second track is Rene Marie’s tribute to Nina Simone’s performance and composer skills. Nina Simone’s song, documenting the terrible injustices of racism in Mississippi has become an historic protest song titled, “Mississippi God Damn.” This is followed by the healing strains of “Balm in Gilead.”

Ulysses Owens Jr.’s dynamic drums propel this music like a full-fledged storm. He has creatively arranged the “Baltimore” tune by Randy Newman into a rich, reggae presentation. He’s chosen a couple of tunes co-written by drummer, Max Roach, and the iconic Oscar Brown Jr.; “Freedom Day” and Driva Man.” Both compositions were popularized on Roach’s “Freedom Now Suite” album that featured his wife at the time, Abbey Lincoln. Owens is spontaneous and assertive throughout. You can hear his spectacular straight-ahead moments on” Freedom Day” featuring the vocals of Joanna Mojoko. On “Driva Man” he slaps the blues alive with busy drum sticks and David Rosenthal is electrifying during his guitar solo. Interspersed throughout this production are short monologues and poetry that preface the songs. Unfortunately, the album cover does not reflect the correct order of the music. But that graphic-design mistake does not interrupt the proficiency of these musicians or the excellence of this production.

Ulysses Owens Jr was inspired to produce this “Songs of Freedom” CD when Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Director of Programming asked him to participate in a concert playing songs from 1960 to the present. Owens decided to pull meaningful songs of freedom from that period. He chose songs that proudly highlight the African American rebellious and tenacious spirit; a spirit that continuously fights against evil and propels humanity towards the higher good.
If you want to experience vibrant, virtuoso rhythms that paint percussive portraits of freedom, then here is a project to gratify, uplift and entertain you.

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WADADA LEO SMITH – “ROSA PARKS: PURE LOVE. An oratorio of seven songs.”
TUM Records

Wadada Leo Smith, composer/trumpet; Diamond Voices: Min Xiao-Fen (voice, pipa), Carmina Escobar, & Karen Parks; RedKoral Quartet: Shalini Vijayan & Mona Tian, violin; Andrew McIntosh, viola; Ashley Walters, cello; Blue Trumpet Quartet: Wadada Leo Smith, Ted Daniel, Hugh Ragin, trumpets; Graham Haynes, cornet Janus Duo: Pheeroan akLaff, drum-set; Hardedge, electronics.

If Rosa Parks was still alive, she would have turned 106 on February 4, 2019. Wadada Leo Smith decided that this month was the perfect time to release his tribute album to the rebellious Rosa Parks, who sat down in a vacant seat at the front of a public bus where only white customers were supposed to be seated. This defiant act by heroine Parks helped to desegregate busses and called attention to the continuing and ludicrous racist attitudes in our country. Wadada Leo Smith has endeavored to capture that time of inequity and rebellion in this extended composition inspired by the United States’ Civil Rights Movement. His CD includes a tiny 38-page booklet as part of the jacket with photos of his musical crew, stories about them, photos of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr and in-depth information about this production. It also celebrates Smith’s prose, where he explains each suite of music.

The first song, titled “The Montgomery Bus Boycott – 381 Days of Fire” opens this CD with a roll of drums and Wadada Leo Smith’s trumpet mixing with the RedKoral Quartet (a string quartet), and also the Blue Trumpet Quartet that features Smith with Ted Aniel, Hugh Ragin and Graham Haynes. This is conceptual and modern jazz, Avant Garde and combustible creativity born of Wadada Leo Smith’s deep appreciation for Sister Parks and her legacy to the World community and to Black History in general. Smith describes his composition as “a philosophical and spiritual narrative about my vision of Rosa Parks.” The violins bring sweetness to the second track, titled “The First Light, Gold”. Intermingled with the musicians are three lovely voices: Karen Parks, known principally for her operatic work, but confident singing gospel, pop music, jazz and musical theater. Also featured is Min Xiao-Fen, born in Nanjing, China. She is respected internationally for her virtuosity on the pipa, working with various symphonies as well as chamber ensembles. Min is also a singer/composer. Carmina Escobar is an improviser of modern, contemporary music, using sound and vocal techniques to investigate sometimes radical ideas and concepts. These are the perfect three voices to explore Wadada Leo Smith’s own radical and intense compositional concepts and political relevance that is always a part of his musical packaging.

For those of you unfamiliar with the astounding works of Wadada Leo Smith, it began when he became part of the first generation of musicians who came out of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the AACM. There, he established himself as both an exceptional composer but also a performer of creative and contemporary jazz music. In the late 1960s, Smith joined forces with saxophonist Anthony Braxton and violinist Leroy Jenkins to form a trio. They later expanded to a quartet when they added Steve McCall on drums.

Wadada Leo Smith has always been a leader, not only of musical groups and ensembles, but as one who is always thinking ahead and performing to challenge himself musically, academically, but mostly spiritually. Smith has received numerous awards over the years heralding him as Jazz Artist of the Year, Jazz Album of the Year, Trumpeter of the Year, winning DownBeat Magazine’s Critic’s Poll and has been named Musician of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association. Wadada Leo Smith continues to push the envelope and step outside the norm with his unusually creative concepts and surprising music productions.

He spoke about an earlier work, civil rights and women’s rights on See below.

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ON THE CORNER LIVE! THE MUSIC OF MILES DAVIS featuring various musicians Ear Up Records

David Liebman, tenor & soprano saxophone/flute; Jeff Coffin, tenor/soprano/electric saxophone/flute/clarinet; Victor Wooten, electric bass; Chester Thompson, drums; Chris Walters, keyboards; James DaSilva, guitar.

Growing up in Detroit, Michigan, as a teenager I was absolutely fascinated by Miles Davis and captivated by his “Sketches in Spain” album and his iconic, recorded masterpiece, “Kind of Blue.” But Miles Dewey Davis III had much more music inside of him; music that was eager to be composed and delivered to his adoring public. Miles, born May 26, 1926, became one of the most influential and uniquely original jazz trumpeters and composers of the twentieth century. His over five-decade career moved from Bebop to the fringes of hip-hop music, venturing into contemporary jazz and a period dedicated to more electric jazz. It was new music, rooted in funk and fusion. In 1972, he recorded the “On the Corner” album for Columbia Records.

He incorporated bassist/vocalist Michael Henderson, who is a recording artist in his own right, leaning heavily towards R&B roots. John McLaughlin joined Dave Creamer and Reggie Lucas on guitar. Both Chick Corea, Harold Ivory Williams and Herbie Hancock played keyboards at various sessions and times. Cedric Lawson was masterful on organ. This was exploratory, fusion jazz, highly electronic and experimental. Miles used various drummers including Al Foster, Billy Hart, Don Alias and Jack DeJohnette. James Mtume manned the percussion and he added sitar players and Badal Roy on tabla. Bennie Maupin was on bass clarinet and both Carlos Garnett and Dave Liebman played soprano and tenor saxophones on this unique production.

Coming full circle, in 2015, Dave Liebman found himself celebrating this unforgettable period of the Miles Davis fusion music in Nashville, Tennessee. It was the original idea of reedman, Jeff Coffin. When Dave Liebman appeared in Nashville, Coffin swooped him up to be a part of his project. Afterall, Liebman was an alumnus of the original recording session with Miles nearly fifty years ago. The other players Coffin called are some of the whose-who, top musicians in Nashville. Their concert was well-attended and a huge success. More importantly, it produced this nostalgic album of recorded music. Although Miles Davis died on September 28, 1991, his music is as relevant and entertaining right now, in 2019. as it was throughout his career.

This tribute album opens with a monologue by David Liebman. He talks about how revolutionary the music of Miles Davis was back in the early 70’s. They begin with the Joe Zawinal tune, “In A Silent Way.” It plays like a prayer. Then the Miles Davis composition, “On the Corner,” follows and the fireworks begin. I remember how angry and confused the acoustic instrument lovers and bebop fans were when Miles Davis released this album. There was much protest and accusations that he had ‘sold out.’ These newly assembled musicians bring that period of the Davis career alive again.

Other Miles compositions on this production are “Will (for Dave)”, that was co-written by David Liebman. Bassist Victor Wooten adds an interlude between this song and “Black Satin.” They also celebrate the Miles Davis compositions, “Ife,” “Mojo,” and “Jean Pierre.” Guitarist, James DaSilva is featured on a short interlude, as is Chester Thompson, who takes a drum solo exploration interlude between “ife” and “Mojo.”. This album has a March 1st release date.
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Douyé, vocals; Otmaro Ruiz , Mike Eckroth, John Di Martino & Lex Korkten, piano; Romero Lubambo, Marcel Camargo & Paul Meyers, acoustic Guitar; Angelo Metz & Gabe Schnider, guitar; Edwin Livingston, Benjamin Tiberio & Mat Muntz, bass; Boris Kozlov, electric bass; Eduardo Guedes, Zack O’Farrill, Evan Hyde & Duduka Da Fonseca, drums; Manolo Badrena, Leo Costa & Nanny Assis, percussion; Jed Levy, soprano saxophone; Justo Almario, saxophone/flute; Dominic Carioti, tenor saxophone; TRUMPETS: Rachel Therrien, Adam O’Farrill, Nolan Tsang & David Adewumi, (solo trumpet); San Beyfekdm & Freddie Hendrix, flugehorn,.WOODWINDS: Nathan Bellott, Alejandro Aviles, Jed Levy, Mercedes Beckman, Xavier Del Castilo & Larry Bustamante. TROMBONES: Corey Wallace, Aboulrahman Rocky Amer, Beserat Tafesse & Jesus Viramontes (bass trombone.

Douyé is a Nigerian artist currently based in Los Angeles, California. She opens her CD with the popular Kenny Durham composition, “Blue Bossa.” Romero Lubambo offers an outstanding solo on acoustic guitar, as does the great Justo Almario on saxophone. Douyé has a rich, second soprano/alto voice that caresses the lyrics of Blue Bossa with warm tones. Latin music suits Douyé’s style of mixing Latin, Brazilian, American jazz and African roots in these arrangements. She explained it this way.

“My dad would play all kinds of jazz from African jazz like Fela Kuti to more traditional American and European jazz to Latin and Brazilian jazz. I didn’t want to make a typical Bossa Nova album like I’ve heard ten trillion times before. I wanted to add my own thing to it; my own identity, my own sound, my own style. The true essence of this project is my African heritage. As an artist, part of my duty is to infuse my heritage and identity into my music.”

She uses various instrumentalists on different studio sessions. I thought perhaps this would taint the music with inconsistency, but for the most part, all the back-up music is beautifully arranged, produced and played. Douyé is using longtime Mingus Big Band music director and bassist, Boris Kozlov and Weather Report percussionist, (who also worked with Ahmad Jamal), Monolo Badrena. Drummer Zack O’Farrill is also an arranger for Douyé and the two collaborated on her former album titled, “Daddy Said So.” His stunning arrangement on “Aqua De Beber” features busy horns in the background with Douyé’s voice floating above the creative rhythms and harmonies. She adds scat singing on the fade of this song. She also uses educator, Edwin Livingston on bass, who has worked with a plethora of great musicians including the late Natalie Cole.

Douyé has a timbre and tone similar to the iconic Nina Simone. It’s a sound that is unique and establishes this vocalist as a stylist. In other words, when you hear her once, you will probably recognize her the second time around. This album of music is packed with familiar Latin compositions, sixteen in total. On tunes like “Once I Loved,” the musicians seem to desert the singer, playing for themselves instead of complimenting what she hears and feels. On the other hand, some might consider this individual freedom of expression. You listen and decide.

Other favorite tunes on this album are “Corcovado,” “Summer Samba (So Nice),” is a lovely arrangement with Jed Levy tasty on flute and tenor saxophone; “Desafinado” gives the listener a clear opportunity to enjoy Douyé’s voice because of the sparse arrangement. Hear Douyé with just the acoustic guitar licks of Marcel Camargo. Leo Costa’s percussive talents keep the rhythm held snugly in place and brightly color the arrangement. These two musicians are all Douyé needs to sell this song. Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father” is nicely represented as is “Nica’s Dream,” that features a very fresh arrangement featuring Zack O’Farrill’s exciting drums and a big band feel with punching horns. Douyé closes with a Poignant duo rendition of “Dindi” featuring the sensitive guitar accompaniment of Romero Lubambo. Beautiful!

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Ron Jackson, string guitar/arranger/producer; Nathan Brown, acoustic bass; Darrell Green, drums.

Ron Jackson is a first rate, 7-string guitarist who has just completed his ninth album as a leader and this recent accomplishment titled, “Standards and Other Songs” is a work of pure art. Opening with “Moondance” he refreshes an old pop standard with plush chords and unique creativity. Jackson’s technique is impressive. Folks like George Benson, Van Morrison, Bill Withers, Bucky Pizzarelli and Grant Green, inspired Jackson to polished his craft and style. He’s become a formidable artist in his own right. Ron Jackson’s guitar shines like a brilliant jewel, supported by Nathan Brown on bass and Darrell Green on drums. They are the solid gold shank that holds his jewel in place.

Jackson explained, “The energy that my trio and I brought to this music uncovered amazing connections between jazz and popular songs. It’s a very special project.”

For example, he covers a song by hip-hop superstar, Drake titled, “Passionfruit.” He rejuvenates a rap song with a very jazzy arrangement, paying attention to the melody and playing with the rhythm of the rapper’s words on his guitar strings. On the Bill Wither’s song, “Lovely Day” Ron Jackson breathes helium life into the song, as his guitar notes float through space like loose party balloons. When he plays old standards like “Blame It On My Youth” and “More Than You Know” he infuses these beautiful compositions with his mastery of the 7-string guitar and the special sound it brings to these arrangements. The trio races into “From This Moment On” at break-neck speed and features Darrell Green showcasing his trap drums in a bright spotlight with Nathan Brown tenaciously walking his upright bass, steady beneath the excitement. “Pensitiva” by Clare Fischer brought a taste of Latin jazz to this album in a beautiful way.

Jackson is a jazz and guitar instructor, working as a faculty member of the New jersey Performing Arts Center. He believes in giving back to the community and inspiring young musicians the way he was inspired by the masters that preceded him. Consequently, he has shared his talent and experience at the Wells Fargo Jazz for Teens Program and also at the Brooklyn/Queens Conservatory of Music.

During his formative years of playing guitar, he lived in Paris, France and has certainly adopted some of his style from that French community experience. Born and raised in the Philippines, he plays six, seven and twelve string guitars, electric bass and has appeared on over forty albums as a side man. This project is sure to be another successful musical notch on his leather guitar strap.
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Best Jazz Vocal Album – “The Window” – CECILE McLORIN SALVANT

Best jazz Instrumental Album – “Emanon” – The WAYNE SHORTER QUARTET

Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A’Cappella – “Stars & Stripes Forever” –

Best Music Film – “Quincy” – QUINCY JONES; ALAN HICKS & RASHIDA JONES; Video Directors: PAULA DUPRE PESMEN, Video Producer

Best Improvised Jazz Solo – “Don’t Fence Me In” – JOHN DAVERSA from the “American Dreamers: Voices of Hope, Music of Freedom” album.

Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album – JOHN DAVERSA BIG BAND featuring DACA Artists – “American Dreamers: Voices of Hope, Music of Freedom”

Best Latin Jazz Album – “Back to the Sunset” – DAFINIS PRIETO BIG BAND

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