By Dee Dee McNeil / jazz journalist

March 20, 2019

Music keeps this journalist optimistic. Whether it’s played in Los Angeles, Boston, Columbus, Ohio; Hawaii, New York, Brazil, Africa, Everywhere U.S.A., Asia or Europe, jazz permeates the world with hopefulness and freedom. Meet some of the newly recorded artists who continue to keep jazz and optimism alive and read my feature interview with guitarist Doug MacDonald.


Doug MacDonald, guitar; Carey Frank, Hammond B3 Organ; Bob Sheppard, tenor saxophone; Ben Scholz, drums.

Doug MacDonald is one of Southern California’s premiere guitarists. This is his fourteenth album release and his third recorded organ project. I’ve witnessed Doug MacDonald with a multitude of musical ensembles, from big band to trios; from combos to his 13-piece ensemble called, The Jazz Coalition. I’ve seen him work with jazz vocalists and in fact, I’ve had the pleasure of working with him myself. He’s an attentive accompanist and a provocative bandmate, who improvises freely and can also set down a strong rhythm guitar groove. He’s diversified, playing be-bop, blues, ballads and straight-ahead jazz fluidly, but also creating arrangements for ensemble productions, as well as producing concerts in and around Los Angeles.

MacDonald was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At age five or six, he and his family moved to Las Vegas and then, before puberty, the family moved to Honolulu, Hawaii. Doug became infatuated with music as a youth, playing in the school band. Surprisingly, he started out playing trombone

“There I am in Hawaii. … It was kind of a culture shock. I didn’t expect it to be so modern. I thought it would be like the old Hawaii I saw in books, with a king and a queen,“ he chuckles. “I was in Hawaii at about nine years old, until I would say I was about thirteen. I started trombone in the school band and guitar at the same time. The guitar won out. But I will say, being a trombone player, it got me interested in writing. I didn’t stay at it long enough to get good at playing the trombone. The breathing was very important, as you know. Sinatra learned breathing from Tommy Dorsey on the trombone. I liked everybody. I liked Wes Montgomery. I certainly liked George Van Eps and Johnny Smith.” *

*NOTE: In case my readers are unfamiliar with Johnny Smith, he was born in June of 1922, a native of Birmingham, Alabama. Guild, Heritage and even Gibson guitar manufacturers all designed models as signature guitars for Johnny Smith. This great musician died at ninety on June 11, 2013. Johnny Smith is lauded as being one of the most versatile guitar players of the 1940s and 50s. He was an in-demand studio session player and arranged music for NBC. He also composed music. He knew all the standards and could hang out with the jazz cats at Birdland in New York and then go sight-read a score in the orchestra pit of the New York Philharmonic. Smith recorded on the Roost label and on Verve. His highly praised record was “Moonlight in Vermont” listed as one of DownBeat Magazine’s top jazz records in 1952.

When I listen to Doug MacDonald’s new CD, I hear a lot of Johnny Smith’s brilliant and subtle influence. MacDonald’s playing sometimes voices closed-position chords with a flurry of rapidly played melodic lines racing smoothly across the strings. At the same time, MacDonald strums an intense rhythmic undertone that both supports and enhances each song he plays. Starting out with “It’s You or No One,” MacDonald’s quartet sets the pace briskly. But it’s Doug MacDonald’s composer talents that really gets my attention. “Jazz For All Occasions” has a bit of a Latin flavor and a solid melody line for the quartet to embrace and improvise around. Carey Frank is astute on the Hammond B3 organ. There’s nothing I like better than the merger of guitar and organ. MacDonald and Frank do not disappoint. Each takes a stellar solo, fluttering mid-tempo around the chord changes with dominance and creativity. Bob Sheppard reinforces the melody on saxophone. “L&T” is another original composition by MacDonald that showcases his more straight-ahead side. Chatting with Doug over the phone today, he continued sharing his background with me, as I enjoyed his newly released CD.

“I kind of liked and listened to everybody. Miles Davis said years ago, you pour everything out, like into a funnel, and then you use it. You come up with your own combination. I started out as a blues guitarist. I liked B.B. King and T-Bone Walker. Then I ended up becoming more jazzy, because I thought, well – I’m not a singer. I thought it would make more sense to play what I call the classical music of America, which is jazz. In Hawaii, I started playing publicly and got to play with Gabe Baltazar, a fine jazz saxophonist and also trombonist, Trummy Young. I worked with Del Courtney at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Early on, I had an interest in ensembles from playing the trombone as a kid. I got into writing and arranging later. I think blues was a good place to start. That’s the roots of jazz.”

You hear the blues in MacDonald’s playing clearly on cut number seven, “Centerpiece,” where he and Carey Frank on organ, along with the smooth tenor saxophone of Bob Sheppard get loose and accelerate their talents in a dark blue direction. Ben Scholz is steady and pronounced on trap drums, holding the ensemble tightly on-course. Next comes the tune, “Too Late Now.” They play it as a ballad, but it too is thick with blues tones. Sheppard’s tenor sax sings a smoky, sexy song and Frank’s Hammond B3 organ brings back memories of nights at the Jimmy Smith supper club many years ago in ‘the Valley’ of Los Angeles. Enter Doug MacDonald, playing his heart out and taking an oh-so-blue solo.

“My parents always liked music,” Doug told me. “When we moved to Vegas, I remember they had the recordings of a lot of people (who were up on the billboards) like when you drove down ‘the strip’ You’d see Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Dean Martin photos on the billboards. And I’d think, oh – we have their records at home. I think my mother played piano, but actually, I was the only musician in the family. They didn’t understand jazz music that well. They didn’t get what it was. They were into commercial music. In Vegas I got to play a little bit with (trombonist) Carl Fontana” (who played with Woody Herman and Lionel Hampton’s big band), “and I performed in lounges and showrooms with greats like Joe Williams and Tenor saxophonist, Jack Montrose.

“I always liked the idea of an ensemble. So, arranging and composing, I studied that later on. I studied with Spud Murphy’s student, David Blumberg. And I studied with spud Murphy himself. He was quite a bit older then, but he was quite helpful. I studied conducting with Jack Fierlen who was a wonderful conductor and arranger in Los Angeles. I didn’t really study that much until I moved from New York to Los Angeles. And ahh – when I got to L.A., I played with great talents like Snooky Young, Buddy Collete, a whole bunch of people; Jack Sheldon. In Southern California I found a variety of work with folks like Ray Charles, Rosemary Clooney, Buddy Rich, Sarah Vaughan, Stan Getz and the iconic Hank Jones on piano and bass icon, Ray Brown.”

“Organisms” is Doug MacDonald’s fourteenth album as a leader. He enjoys recording with his own combo and his 13-piece ensemble, but this project is also dear to his heart. It features a quartet made up of some of the top jazz musicians in the music business. The group closes out this album with an exciting arrangement of “On the Alamo.” It swings so hard, I had to play it three times.

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Herlin Riley, drums/vocals; Emmet Cohen, piano; Russell Hall, bass; Godwin Louis, alto saxophone; Bruce Harris, trumpet.

This CD title is certainly representative of Herlin Riley’s musical vibration. This production is joyful and represents absolute “Perpetual Optimism.” Riley, an awesome drummer, makes music that makes me happy. On the first ‘cut’ titled, “Rush Hour” these amazing musicians let their talents speed to the forefront. Bassist Russell Hall garners my immediate attention with his staggeringly creative bass lines that enrich this production, but still hold the rhythm section down. Bruce Harris on trumpet and Godwin Louis on alto saxophone spark the piece with rich horn harmonies and staccato horn lines that propel the music. Beneath the bright creativity of these players, Herlin Riley is stronger than titanium on the trap drums. His ensemble sweeps me up with their enthusiasm and energy.

Emmet Cohen is masterful on the piano and really soars on cut number three, “Borders Without Lines.” Mr. Riley lets his technique shine on this production, taking a mesmerizing solo on drums at a maddening pace. The tempo spurs genius playing from the entire ensemble and yes, they push the borders. Obviously, these are not people to be placed in a box. These musicians are brutally brilliant and technically proficient. They engage the listener tight as a magnet hugs my refrigerator door. This is America’s classical music at its best.

Herlin Riley has long-established ties to Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra via his connection to Wynton’s dad and Riley’s mentor, Ellis Marsalis. He was performing with Ellis Marsalis at the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival when Wynton first heard him. In fact, Riley pays homage to his mentor on the final, funky arrangement of an Ellis Marsalis tune called “Twelve’s It.” He also celebrates the music of one of my favorite blues composers, Willie Dixon, with “Wang Dang Doodle,” where Riley adds his own interpretive vocalization. The arrangement is stunning and very jazzy, with an African twelve-eight-feel. Riley explained that when he asked a New Orleans vocal great, (Germaine Bazzle), about her energetic, on-stage persona and her vocal mastery she told him something that would forever stick with him.

“You have to allow yourself to become emotionally naked when you’re on the bandstand,” Bazzle told him.

Herlin Riley and his wonderful ensemble have taken that encouragement to heart. Obviously, this percussion master is not a singer, however he throws himself into his singular vocal opportunity full-throttle. Throughout this recording, Riley’s entire band lay their souls bare for our pure appreciation and enjoyment. Herlin Riley’s stellar playing on his Mapex drum set and Zildjian cymbals captivates and satisfies.

Herman explained it this way: “I just do what I do and I have the audacity to be uninhibited.”
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MANU LAFER – “GIMME 5” Megaforce Records

Manu Lafer, vocals/composition; Sandro Albert, guitar/arranger/producer; Toninho Horta, singer/guitarist; Lionel Cardew & Cliff Almond, drums; Mark Egan, bass; Helio Alves, piano; Bashiri Johnson & Mino Cinelu, percussion; Cindy Mizelle & Sachal Vasandani, background vocals. Special Guests: Michael O’Brien, Michael Rorby, Rodngo Ursaia & James Zoller.

Composer/vocalist Manu Lafer begins his “Gimme 5” recording with a song that is very melodic. You immediately feel like you know his song and begin humming along. This is often the sign of a well-written composition. The simplicity of Lafer’s melody reminds me of a children’s song as it skips from my CD player. Surprisingly, this Brazilian musician is also a pediatrician from Sao Paulo. In spite of his dual careers, Dr. Lafer has composed over three-hundred songs, with more than one-hundred already published and recorded. I found the arrangements to lean towards easy-listening rather than jazz. I believe Manu Lafer’s music could have been showcased with more up-tempo and energetic arrangements. Instead, this production is reminiscent of panpipe music. The arranger also seems stuck in a moderate tempo realm for each unique composition. A change of tempo would have easily heightened this musical experience. Manu Lafer has a silky, smooth voice that caresses our ears with the beauty of his Portuguese language. This album showcases a baker’s dozen of Manu Lafer’s well-written original compositions. His band is made up of some top-name players, but once again, I feel the arrangements keep them from showcasing their awesome talents and enabling them to stretch out with more improvisational freedom. As it is, these songs turn into a series of sweet lullabies.

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Albare,guitars/composer;Phil Turcio,keyboards/programming/
composer;Bernard Fowler,vocals;Tim Ries,tenor saxophone.

Urbanity is a band co-led by Latin Grammy Award nominated producer and guitarist, Albare. The other leader of this band is also a Grammy Award nominee, Phil Turcio. Albare is best known for his pioneering of the ‘acid jazz’ scene in Australia during the late 1980s. He performs both in the United States and abroad. On this release, Albare embraces a smooth jazz production with the fluid help of Phil Turcio on keyboards and synthesized programming. This is Contemporary jazz at its best and showcases Albare’s outstanding guitar playing with a little help from friends like Bernard Fowler singing on the “I Say” original composition by Albare and from the Rolling Stones Touring Band, Tim Ries on tenor saxophone. All ten compositions, except for one (“Desperado”), are composed either by Phil Turcio or Albare. Both musicians are talented composers and players. This is a lovely album, beautifully produced, easy-listening and air-wave-ready, contemporary music.

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SIVAN ARBEL – “CHANGE OF LIGHT” Independent label

Sivan Arbel, voice/composition; Shai Portugaly, piano; Pera Krstajic, bass; Yogev Gabay, drums; Shai Wetzer, percussion; Ron Warburg, Trumpet; Jack Sheehan, alto saxophone; Ori Jacobson, tenor saxophone. STRING QUARTET: Meitar Farkash, violin 1.; Audrey Hayes, violin 2.; Yumi Oshima, viola; Terrence Thornhill, cello.

Sivan Arbel’s lovely, expressive voice captures my attention right away. However, she’s hard to understand. Her lyrics get lost in the production and while the melodies are appealing, I would like to have enjoyed her lyrics. Since she is featuring her songwriting on this album, understanding her original prose is paramount. Perhaps she should have printed her prose on the CD jacket. According to the bio from her publicist, “Change of Light” is made up of seven original stories. With the exception of the classic Israeli folk composition, “Water Song,” Arbel is the composer of all other songs. The first track, “Change” has a very contemporary feel and a melody full of unexpected intervals. The musical arrangements are more modern jazz and once the vocals drop out, the band soars; full of crescendos and waves of improvisational opportunities. They sound like a cross between jazz and world music, in an unusual way. Ms. Arbel mixes international influences from Morocco, Brazil, classical Indian music and her Israeli Middle Eastern roots. The arrangements on this first song are often busy and sometimes over-power the vocalist with horn lines that could have been mixed down or dropped out entirely when the voice was soloing. Afterall, Sivan Arbel is the artist being featured.

That being said, without clear enunciation, this listener misses the stories that Ms. Arbel insists expose what is lurking in her heart. Some compositions sound more like chamber music than jazz; for example, her “Solitude” song. These melodies she creates are challenging and the average person will not be singing or even humming along. Clearly, Sivan Arbel is a unique artist with a fresh, dramatic perspective, apart from the average jazz vocalist and traveling the less trodden musical path.

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PLANET RADIO – “STAY AWAKE” Independent Label

Carl Eisman, vocals/guitar/composer; Leah Randazzo, vocals; Jeff D’Antona, keyboards; Mark Zaleski, bass/alto & baritone saxophone; Jon Bean, saxophones; Patrick Simard, drums/percussion/janky shaker.

The first track on Planet Radio’s recording is a neo-soul surprise. The vocals by Leah Randazzo are beautiful and stylized in an Erykah Badu kind-of-way. This tune is an original composition by guitarist and vocalist, Carl Eisman, titled “Voodoo.” It’s a catchy song that sets the mood for the group’s entire album.

Most of their songs are written or co-written by Eisman. Planet Radio is a tight ensemble of musicians who pump the music up with funk and R&B, delicately coloring their arrangements with jazz overtones. You clearly hear the melding of musical styles on the title tune, “Stay Awake,” that blends vocal harmonies on the very pretty, repetitive ‘hook’ of this song. It gives the horns an opportunity to improvise and bring smooth jazz into the mix. The thing I like about this group is that they definitely have their own sound. As a very popular, working group, all are alumni and/or professors of the New England Conservatory and Berklee College of Music. Truly, their diverse musical perspectives blend uniquely, as their musicianship interprets Hip Hop flavored original music, funk and jazz. Back In the late seventies and early eighties, there was a jazz fusion group that Planet Radio reminds me of called, “SeaWind.“ They too featured interesting horn lines, funky drums, original songwriting and stellar vocals. There has certainly been a vacancy in the music industry for such an ensemble as Planet Radio.

Patrick Simard’s drums energize the group and gives the listener a strong beat, encouraging us to bob our heads to his infectious rhythm. Mark Zaleski’s bass is tenacious and crucial in setting the grooves. Zaleski has also arranged all the horn parts. Eisman and Randazzo have voices that smoothly blend in an ice cream and cake, natural way. Jeff D’Antonio plays keyboards with a strong sense of funk. You can hear it in his self-penned song, “Time For Us,” co-written with Leah Schulman. (NOTE: I have a feeling that may be the same person as Leah Randazzo.) There’s a smokin’ saxophone solo on this tune. I don’t know if it’s Jon Bean or Mark Zaleski, playing saxophone, but it’s hot as red coals. “Find A Way” reminds me of the soul-singer Al Green’s iconic arrangements. Leah Randazzo’s voice smooths the vocals on top of the track, becoming icing on their musical cake. There’s something for everyone in this sweet production, with thought-provoking, positive lyrics, danceable arrangements and excellent musicianship; it’s the ultimate smooth jazz party record.

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Jason Palmer, trumpet/composer; Mark Turner, tenor saxophone; Matt Brewer, bass; Kendrick Scott, drums.

Jason Palmer has taken advantage of the generosity and support of Giant Step Arts, founded by two renowned photographers, Jimmy and Dena Katz. Their non-profit organization is dedicated to helping jazz innovators become free of commercial pressure. They look for ground-breaking, modern jazz artists, then record these performers in one-of-a-kind concert performance. The artists keep ownership of their masters and the Katz’s provide CDs and digital downloads that artists can sell directly.It’s a great deal to introduce us to this trumpeter and his band. This release contains a double set of discs for the listener to enjoy. On a tune called, “The Hampton Inn (for Alan),” saxophonist Mark Turner soars on tenor saxophone and harmonizes tightly with Palmer’s trumpet. Jason Palmer wrote in his liner notes about Turner:
“I’ve had the great pleasure and honor of working with this tenor titan for about three years, having toured in his band, as well as having him on several of my previous projects. … Any ardent listener of this modern music can identify Mark’s signature tone as well as his fluid expression throughout the entire range of the tenor saxophone.”

Bassist, Matt Brewer, opens cut number two on the second disc, soloing during the introduction of “Mark’s Place” until Kendrick Scott adds drums. The music crescendos with the entrance of Jason Palmer’s trumpet and Turner on tenor. Matt Brewer and Jason Palmer are long-time friends and bandmates. They each started out together in Greg Osby’s Quintet back in the early 2000s.

“I remember hearing him play a Coltrane solo on his bass, note-for-note, and having my conscious opened up to the possibilities of the acoustic bass. Matt is one of the most in-demand bassists of our generation,” Jason Palmer shared.

About his drummer, Kendrick Scott, Palmer said: “Whether it’s on the basketball court or the bandstand, I’ve always had fun … with Kendrick. We’ve been playing for just about twenty years. This is the fourth recording I’ve been able to feature Kendrick’s gifts on and the first ‘live’ one.”

Jason Palmer has composed all eight songs on this double set. This is adventurous music with plenty of room to let each man in his talented quartet explore and expand their talents. This is Palmer’s ninth album as a leader and he is becoming recognized as one of the most inventive musicians of this generation. Palmer has garnered several awards including the 2014 French American Cultural Exchange Jazz Fellowship. In 2011, he was named a Fellow in Music Composition by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Palmer has toured over 30 countries and he also maintains a rewarding schedule as an educator, as well as acting Vice President of JazzBoston.org. This is an organization that connects, promotes and advocates for musicians, audiences and venues of greater Boston’s dynamic jazz community. They spread the music and the message of jazz, while celebrating Boston as one of the world’s great jazz cities. Currently Jason Palmer is an Assistant Professor of Ensembles and Brass at Berklee College of Music and a Visiting Professor at Harvard University. On this project, he offers modern jazz and new compositions presented ‘live’ before an enthusiastic audience and steeped in “Rhyme and Reason.”

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Tony Monaco, Hammond B3 organ/piano/accordion/voice; Derek DiCenzo, guitar; Tony McClung, drums; Asako Monaco, piano.

Tony Monaco has arranged and produced this album, featuring his bluesy organ style on the Hammond B3, also on the accordion and occasionally, the piano. He swings hard. Not to mention, on the beautiful ballad, “Never Let Me Go,“ he adds his vocals to the mix. Monaco has engineered, mixed and mastered this project. With all hands on, he starts this CD with “Cars Trucks Buses.” Monaco clearly shows his propensity for the blues. Tony McClung takes a noteworthy drum solo on this arrangement. The melody is catchy and the groove infectious. This is followed by the very familiar and popular Lee Morgan jazz tune, “Ceora.” One of Tony Monaco’s inspirations was the late, great Jimmy Smith. Monaco has recorded one of Smith’s compositions, “Root Down.” His arrangement is funk-driven, with Tony McClung’s drums punching the rhythm like a boxing bag.

In his home town of Columbus, Ohio, Monaco has a regular Monday night club gig celebrated as Monaco Monday, where his fans pack the place. One song that he gets many requests to perform is the Grateful Dead song, “Truckin’.” You will find it included, as part of this album’s repertoire. It’s another arrangement packed with blues grooves and funk drums. Their production will have you wiggling in your chair or dancing across the floor. Digging deeply into his cultural roots, Tony Monaco chooses a traditional Neapolitan song and sings “Non Ti Scordare Di Me” in Italian.

All in all, this recording is a joyful exploration of the Hammond B3 organ by an artist who has spent the better part of his life soaking up the jazz tradition and sharing it with his loyal following.
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