By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

March 1, 2019

In 1987 the U.S. Congress designated March as Women’s History Month. So, this month, along with other music, I’ll be celebrating females in jazz and beyond. Some are historic music makers and others making history as we listen.


Alicia Olatuja, vocals/arranger; David Rosenthal, arranger/guitar; Billy Childs, arranger/piano; Sullivan Fortner, piano/B3 Hammond Organ; Jon Cowherd, piano; Ben Williams, bass; Ulysses Owens Jr., drums; Dayna Stephens & Tommy Pancy, tenor saxophone; Markus Howell, alto saxophone; Jeremy Pelt & Etienne Charles, trumpet; Etienne Charles, horn arrangements; Rasul A-Salam, Vuyo Sotashe & Alicia Olatuja, background vocals. Other arrangers on this project: Christian Sands, Josh Nelson, Jon Cowherd, Sullivan Fortner, Michael Olatuja Justine Bradley & Kamau Kenyatta.

This recording of vocalist, Alicia Olatuja, features the compositions of noteworthy female songwriters and is enhanced by a variety of creative arrangements. This artist has a rich tone and a tenacious vocal. With her powerful voice, what better songs to choose than those written by composers like Brenda Russell, Sadé, Angela Bofill and Tracy Chapman, to name only a few.

This production is a comfortable blend of smooth jazz, R&B and pop music. You may recall this talented vocalist from her appearance at President Obama’s second inauguration ceremony in 2013. She was the featured soloist during the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir’s rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Alicia Olatuja has a career that has snowballed since that historic appearance at the White House. For a while, she performed with various jazz ensembles at The Julliard School. At times, she’s shared the stage with great musicians like Chaka Khan, BeBe Winans, Christian MCBride, Billy Childs and Dr. Lonnie Smith. Ms. Olatuja has appeared on numerous music festivals with her own band.

This album, her second solo artist release, continues to introduce the world to Alicia’s outstanding vocal abilities and to her arranging talents. She seems to be pursuing a soul-pop, or neo-soul-jazz direction. This, her second album as a leader, is leaning heavily towards a rhythm and blues direction. You hear the ‘blues’ in her spirited arrangement of Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason,” with the funk drums of Ulysses Owens, Jr. propelling the production. On “People Make the World Go ‘Round,” (a solid hit for the Stylistics back-in-the-day and composed by Linda Creed and Tom Bell), Alicia Olatuja dances her voice on the outer limits of Avant-Garde jazz, with Jeremy Pelt exquisite on trumpet.

Obviously, Alicia Olatuja cannot be boxed-in. Ms. Olatuja shows the diversity and emotional connection she brings to every style and recorded musical composition she sings. A clear example of this is her interpretation of Joni Mitchell’s “Cherokee Louise” composition. On “Just Wait” she offers us a taste of her own songwriting skills. Her interpretation of Angela Bofill’s “Under the Moon and Over the sky” adds her African roots with background vocal chants that inspire. Perhaps Alicia Olatuja describes this project best with her own powerful words.

“When we hear the word ‘intuition’ we think of a woman’s intuition, that inner, gut-instinct thing that goes beyond mere information. There is something powerful and beautiful and something to be celebrated in that. The sub-title ‘From the Minds of Women’ reminds people that we’re not just intuitive, emotional beings. We are intellectual as well. We do know how to connect the emotional and the rational. And when we do that, especially through our work, beautiful and unimaginably creative things are made.”

Below is a video concert by Alicia Olatuja that promoted her first album, “Timeless,” ‘live at BRIC House.

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Smokin’ Sleddog Records

Ellen Rowe, piano; Marion Hayden & Marlene Rosenberg, bass; Allison Miller, drums; Tia Fuller, alto saxophone; Virginia Mayhew, tenor saxophone; Lisa Parrott, baritone saxophone; Janelle Reichman, clarinet; Ingrid Jensen, trumpet; Melissa Gardiner, trombone.

Pianist, Ellen Rowe decided to create an album of original music that celebrates some of her female she-roes. Each of the ladies who inspired these tunes has made an indelible impact on Rowe and her music. Beginning with her “Ain’t I A Woman,” composition, with that sentiment extracted from a speech by Sojourner Truth in 1851. This is a slow bluesy number that Rowe calls a hymn to unsung heroines of the civil rights movement including Mary Bethune Cook, Daisy Bates and Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray.

“Their fierce advocacy for the rights of the oppressed deserves much wider recognition. I was embarrassed to realize how little I knew of them and am a better person for having done research on them in the composition of this piece,” Ellen Rowe shared in her liner notes.

The second track is titled, “R.F.P. (Relentless Forward Progress).”This composition was written to tribute two female distant runners; Joan Benoit Samuelson (winner of the first Olympic Women’s Marathon, 1980) and Canfield Laws, still running at fifty-years-young and Gunhild Swanson, who at age 70 finished a 100-mile Trail Race under the 30-hour cutoff mark.

This journalist should have known Ellen Rowe was a runner. When I met her, three or four years back at the Detroit Jazz Festival, I noticed she was slight of build and very healthy in appearance. In fact, she looks like a runner.

Ellen explained, “Running is a huge part of my life and these women are my inspiration.”

I expected the tempo to be up and vigorous, but instead this is a celebration of horn harmonies atop a moderate rhythm with Allison Miller strong on drums and pushing the energy forward like a serious, strong breeze. Then surprise! I like it when they double-time the rhythm and give Ms. Miller a chance to earnestly showcase her trap drum chops. I can picture those runners taking off and picking up their strides to this bright and inspiring arrangement. “The Soul Keepers” captivated me with a boogie-woogie feel and an undercurrent of shuffle drums. This tune gives Ellen Rowe an opportunity to stretch her nimble fingers across the grand piano keys with brilliance. This one is dedicated to the late, great, Detroit pianist and phenomenal composer, Geri Allen. When the saxophone enters, this composition becomes an unapologetic blues. This is one of my favorite compositions on Ellen’s album of fine music. Her tune “Anthem” is dedicated to the power and sophistication of musicians and songwriters, Joni Mitchell and Carole King who influenced Ellen Rowe early in her career. She features clarinetist, Janelle Reichman on this cut. “The First Lady (No, Not You Melania)” composition made me laugh out loud at her title. This song is dedicated to the grace and class Michelle Obama brought to the White House. The awesome Marion Hayden is featured on this number, playing her acoustic bass and holding the rhythm section tightly in place. Rowe’s composition becomes another one of my favorites. Tia Fuller is outstanding on alto saxophone and Ingrid Jensen is always stellar on trumpet. All the various women that Ellen Rowe tributes are listed on her CD jacket with an in-depth explanation of why she chose them and what they mean to her. Additionally, the music on this recording is amply interpreted by an all-female ensemble. Each one of these women brings the best out of their instruments and make Ellen Rowe’s compositions come brilliantly alive.
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Catherine Russell, vocals; Matt Munisteri, guitar/musical director; Mark Shane, pianist; Tal Ronen,bass; Mark McLean,drums/percussion; Jon-Erik Kellso,trumpet; John Allred,trombone; Evan Arntzen,tenor saxophone; Dana Lyn,violin; Eddy Malave,viola; Marika Hughes,cello.

Catherine Russell has a commanding vocal style that snatches my attention immediately. She’s smooth as velvet, yet she impenitently swings hard. Starting with “Alone Together,” her quartet sounds tight and cohesive.

Together, they have toured four continents and appeared in numerous festivals and concerts along with their stunning lead vocalist, Catherine Russell. She is delightful to hear, embodying jazz with her honest, emotional performances. Ms. Russell brings back an era of jazz from long ago with her arrangements and repertoire choices. But jazz was not always her musical direction. After graduating from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Catherine Russell worked with pop stars like David Bowie, Steely Dan, Cyndi Lauper, Paul Simon and Jackson Browne, to name just a few. She has performed as a background singer, an instrumentalist and a lead singer, before finally finding her niche as a jazz singer. After appearing on over 200 albums, lucky for us she decided to produce one of her own. This “Alone Together” masterpiece is her seventh studio album released as a leader. Interpreting the Great American Songbook is not new, but these songs allow an artist to place their unique mark on the music. This vocalist does just that!

Catherine Russell’s roots were always soaked in jazz. Her father, Luis Russell, was a legendary pianist, composer and bandleader. he acted as Louis Armstrong’s long-time musical director. Her mother, Carine Ray, was a vocalist, guitarist and bassist who pioneered for women in jazz. performing as part of the iconic International Sweethearts of Rhythm group. Ms. Russell continues her family legacy with this outstanding piece of musical art. Favorite songs include the title tune, the bluesy “I Wonder,” and “Shake Down the Stars,” brings back an era of 1930s jazz. A unique blues song that I had never heard was, “He May Be Your Dog but He’s Wearing My Collar.” Other gems are, “You’re Not the Only Oyster in the Stew” and her up-tempo arrangement of Nat King Cole’s song, “Errand Girl for Rhythm.”
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LYN STANLEY – “LONDON CALLING” – A Toast to Julie London Independent Label

Lyn Stanley, vocals; John Chiodini, guitar; Mike Garson & Christian Jacob, piano; Chuck Berghofer & Michael Valerio, bass; Paul Kreibich, drums; Aaron Serfaty, drums/percussion; Luis Conte & Brad Dutz, percussion.

Lyn Stanley has sold over 40,000 recordings worldwide. That’s a big deal for an independent artist. All of her albums celebrate the Great American Songbook. In this, her 6th album release, she celebrates the songs that Julie London sang. Julie London was a husky toned, jazz and cabaret singer, popular in the 1950s through the 1970s. It was London’s voice heard on the popular TV detective show, “Peter Gunn.” That was one of the first television shows to feature jazz music as a theme song and as part of the weekly show. Included in Lyn Stanley’s repertoire are familiar compositions like “Goody Goody”, “Bye Bye Blackbird,” I’ve Got A Crush on You” the over-sung “Summertime” and Julie London’s huge hit, “Cry Me A River.” Stanley also tackles the Motown standard, “Heard It Through the Grapevine” by Norman Whitfield and my old friend, Barrett Strong. The arrangement is quite nice with shades of an Ahmad-Jamal-groove and an appealing percussive and drum addition by Aaron Serfaty. Surprisingly, the band turns an R&B hit record into a jazz ballad. It was an interesting production. Although this was not a song that London sang, it was still a very creative addition to Lyn Stanley’s album. This vocalist has a clear, relaxed delivery that lends itself to easy listening music. Appropriately, this romantic music was released Valentine’s Day weekend.

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Carol Sudhalter,baritone saxophone/flute/vocals; Patrick Poladian,piano; Kevin Hailey,upright bass; Mike Campenni,drums.

The quartet comes out swinging on Tadd Dameron’s famed “On A Misty Night” composition. Carol Sudhalter grabs the attention right away on her baritone saxophone. The baritone sax has such a distinctive sound, and you rarely see a woman tackle this horn. On Benny Golson’s “Park Avenue Petite” tune, Sudhalter shows the tender side of her saxophone while interpreting this lovely ballad. The Bill Evans composition, “Time Remembered” becomes a platform for Carol Sudhalter to pull out her flute. She and bassist, Kevin Hailey, sing the melody in unison at the top and set the mood. As the song develops, Campenni’s drums Latin shuffle beneath. There are moments in this song when the bass intonation falters, but for the most part, this trio makes a solid foundation for Carol Sudhalter and her reed instruments to stand upon. Later, Hailey is featured on “Gee Baby Ain’t I Good to You” and is quite outstanding. On Hank Mobley’s bluesy “Funk in Deep Freeze” Carol is back on the baritone and swinging away. Pianist Patrick Poladian performs a noteworthy solo and Mike Campenni sports his stuff on trap drums.

Recording ‘live’ in a church, where there is ample echo and perhaps high ceilings, can be challenging. The mix could have been better on this recording, but you can hear the appreciative applause from the audience. The misstep comes when Carol adds vocals to her showt on one of her original songs titled, “Colin Blues.” Carol is not a vocalist, so this is no credit to her well-written composition and her impressive flute solo. Not to mention, the vocals are not properly mixed into the recording and earlier, some audience member starts loudly coughing during the music. Oh, the tragedies and challenges of recording ‘live’!

Carol Sudhalter has been the leader on ten other albums. All in all, this eleventh recording is a fine vehicle for Carol Sudhalter and her quartet to promote themselves and a worthy product to sell at their gigs.
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PATRICE JEGOU – “IF IT AIN’T LOVE” Prairie Star Records

Patrice Jegou,vocals; The Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra; Orchestra arranged and conducted by Jorge Calandrelli; Orchestra arranged and conducted by Nan Schwartz; Mike Long,piano/Rhodes; David Lang,Wurlitzer; David Paich,piano/Hammond B-3; Yaron Gershovsky,piano; Dean Parks,guitar; Ramon Stagnaro & Larry Koonse,acoustic guitar; Michael Thompson,elec. Guitar; Kevin Axt, Abraham Laboriel,Sr., Boris Kozlov,bass; Ray Brinker, Steve Ferrone, Cliff Almond & John “J.R.” Robinson,drums; Luis Conte & Lenny Castro,percussion; Tom Scott,tenor saxophone; Mark Kibble, vocals/producer/ percussion; Alvin Chea,vocals; Choir: Bill Cantos,Kurt Lykes,Jamie McCrary,Jason Morales,Melodye Perry,Alfie Silas,Tiffany Smith,Bill Maxwell(choir arranger). Special Guests: Tata Vega; Take 6 & Greg Phillinganes, keyboards. Steve Patrick & Mike Barry,trumpets; Doug Moffet,tenor & baritone saxophone; Sam Levine,alto saxophone; Roy Agee, trombone.

The opening tune on this CD takes me back to the Lambert Hendrix and Ross days. In fact, this entire production recalls the music and style of the 1940’s and 50s, right down to the repertoire and the photos on Ms. Jegou’s CD cover. The old-fashioned microphone and the Betty Grable type dress of choice recalls, ‘Father Knows Best’ Days and John Wayne movies. The layered voices on a production of “Lover Come Back To Me” is an a’cappella adaptation that features the live bass voice of Alvin Chea. Chea and Mark Kibble (Kibble produced this stunning arrangement) are both members of the GRAMMY Award winning Take 6 a’cappella group. It’s an outstanding arrangement and Patrice Jegou keeps up with the high energy harmonics that Take 6 brings. She sounds spectacular as the lead singer. Noticeably, Patrice Jegou has employed some of the top names in music for this project, including The Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, composer/producer David Paich (son of great arranger Marty Paich), amazing vocalist, Tata Vega and L.A. studio pianist, Mike Lang. Her repertoire is refreshingly creative and nostalgic, all in the same breath.

Surprisingly, Patrice Jegou’s first love was figure skating and not music. She began skating at age seven and turned pro at eighteen years old. She worked as an ice-skating coach in New Zealand and toured with a circus show in Mexico. That’s when a fellow skater heard her singing to herself and suggested she had a great voice and should pursue vocal lessons. Her resulting studies culminated in attaining a Doctor of Musical Arts Degree in Classical vocal performance from Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. At first, she pursued classical music and opera until her husband, vocalist, physician and musician, Yinka Oyelese, suggested she expand her vocal horizons.

“When I sing Debussy or Mozart or Beethoven, I have to sing it exactly as it was written. Singing jazz is far more spontaneous. You’re free to reinterpret the music. It’s very liberating and creative.”

On “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” she shows off her operatic control, without sounding like an opera singer. She beautifully interprets this lovely song, once made famous by Peggy Lee in 1954 and taken from the Kismet musical score of 1953. Jegou’s version is lovely. The Pointer Sister’s popular hit record, “Yes, We Can Can” is given a fresh face with the drum and bass line putting the funk in the arrangement and the delightful guest appearance of Tata Vega, who duets with Jegou during this production. It’s a spirited arrangement that makes you want to tap and clap. There is an aura of spirituality about this project. Many of the songs are lyrically encouraging and some, like “I’m So Glad I’m Standing Here Today” with background voices that caricature a gospel choir, are jubilant. “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams,” that features Take 6 voices with jazzy harmonies, uplifts.

The Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra joins the party on “If It Ain’t Love.” Another diamond is her sparkling rendition of “Estate” featuring the emotional accompaniment of Larry Koonse on acoustic guitar. Ms. Jegou sings this one in Italian, showing us her linguist skills. Being a former opera singer, of course she would sing in various languages and she nails this dedication to summer. On her tribute to Stan Getz, “Remembrances,” her performance is enhanced by the additional vocals of Javier Almaráz. This entire project is a pleasurable party, well produced in a most professional way, with bursts of brightly colored songs, like balloons, floating from my CD player.
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Jordan Pettay,alto/soprano saxophones/producer; Christian Sands,piano/Fender Rhodes/Hammond B3 organ/producer; Luke Sellick,bass; Jimmy Macbride,drums; Mat Jodrell,trumpet; Joe McDonough,trombone.

As a debut album for Jordan Pettay, this is a captivating piece of art. Her opening number, based on the Wayne Shorter “Speak No Evil” composition, shows her reed power and her bandmates take full advantage of her “Whatever Happens” composition to show that whatever happens can be stellar. Mat Jodrell is awesome on his trumpet solo and Joe McDonough’s trombone solo bounces atop the straight-ahead groove. Christian Sands (who also co-produced this album) is one of the astounding new piano geniuses on the jazz scene. His solo adds excellence and empowers everyone’s creativity. On track two, she blesses her premier album with the gospel song, “I Am Thine O Lord” played intensely on her soprano saxophone. Pettay is obviously still attempting to find her saxophone voice and style. I found it particularly noticeable on this arrangement. However, when the title tune comes, (another Pettay original), Ms. Pettay sounds confident and solid on her horn. This is a well-written composition, where bassist Luke Sellick, along with the pulsating drums of Jimmy Macbride, push Pettay to her highest strengths. Christian Sands is wonderful, whether accompanying her or taking center-stage-piano or keyboard solos. This trio is tight and buoyant. Jordan Pettay dances brightly on top of this cushioned ensemble of excellence. “You Make Me Feel Brand New” offers a wonderful, smooth jazz arrangement. It pleasantly refreshes this melodic R&B hit record. Macbride’s drums produce a rich mallet sound in the background that is quite stunning. Jordan Pettay is smooth and bluesy on her alto saxophone. This song brings happiness into my home and makes me want to dance. It should get a lot of airplay. The horn arrangements and harmonies are rich and royal. They sweetly crown the song.

“For Wayne” I assume is a tribute to the iconic Wayne Shorter. I glance at the liner notes and I’m right. This song once again showcases Pettay’s affinity for the blues and her composition creates an ample stage to spotlight her talented co-producer, (Sands) and the entire trio. This is another one of my favorite songs on her album, with an unusual, but lovely melody progression.

Jordan Pettay explains, “Wayne Shorter is one of my all-time biggest musical influences. I wrote this composition based on the chord changes of 502 Blues (Jimmy Rowland) which Wayne recorded on his album Adam’s Apple.”

“Straight Street”, the John Coltrane tune, is another vehicle to introduce us to Ms. Pettay and her horn. She explained the story behind this title in her liner notes.

“Some time ago, I was reading the biblical account of Saul’s conversion where he encountered Christ on the road to Damascus. The impact of this encounter left Saul temporarily blinded and only when a disciple prayed for him at a house on Straight Street was his sight restored and he was filled with the Holy Spirit. Saul later became Saint Paul, the Apostle, one of the most important figures of the early church.”

The final songs introduce the listener to three spiritual, Christian-based, and beautifully produced jazz arrangements of “Exalt Thee”, “Surrender All” and “Are You Washed in the Blood?” This is a subtle spiritual journey for both Jordan Pettay, her musicians and her audience. I think this project is a musical blessing and prayer to the universe.

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Ran Blake,piano/arranger/composer; Claire Ritter,piano/arranger; Kent O’Doherty, saxophone.

This is a unique exploration of two pianists, who have combined talents to explore twenty songs on this one-of-a-kind album. It was recorded ‘live’ at Queen’s University in Claire Ritter’s native North Carolina. The concert was meant to celebrate what would have been the 100th birthday of Thelonious Monk. Consequently, many of the songs herein are Monk’s compositions. However, the majority of songs are composed by Claire Ritter, who has reached out to one of her mentors, the astoundingly talented, Ran Blake, to embark on this duet project.The title tune, “Eclipse Orange,” is absolutely beautiful and features both pianists, as does “Blue Monk.” Ritter’s composition, “Backbone” is also played simultaneously by both pianists with heavy shades of Thelonious Monk influence and a nod to another pianist and inspiration who Ritter greatly admires, Mary Lou Williams. Ran Blake has composed “Short Life of Barbara Monk” (a remembrance of the daughter of Thelonious) and together, this duo offers a beautiful and emotionally charged ballad. Ritter and Black met in 1981, at the New England Conservatory. Blake has been an instructor there for over fifty years. Ritter says their collaboration as peers began in 1988, when Blake performed as a guest on her debut album, “In Between.”

“Ran is a great motivator and stimulator of the imagination. His genius lies in his harmonic structures, in recomposing any kind of piece in any kind of idiom. He stimulated the composer in me, bringing out a lot of color, unpredictability and ways of thinking about melodic phrasing in more interesting ways, by encouraging me to listen to a very wide range of different types of music,” Ritter proclaimed in her liner notes.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MURLwWfymjQ&list=OLAK5uy_mV9_6El9KDtvNbb HGbA6tbteoV4R82ZT0

Occasionally, you will hear the saxophone of Australian-born, Kent O’Doherty, but for the majority of this artistic endeavor, Blake and Ritter perform as a duo or with each pianist sometimes playing solo. Often the arrangements are by Ran Blake. This is a true artistic endeavor that rewards our ears with gold medal music.

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March 4th and March 10th, PBS television will feature an amazing new vocalist on the scene. Remember this name: Sheléa. Taped in Los Angeles, she will sings a variety of music including a Whitney Houston medley, a tribute to Aretha and a song made famous by Barbra Streisand.


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