SMALL COMBOS WITH BIG SOUNDS

By Dee Dee McNeil / jazz journalist

April 27, 2019

JORDON DIXON – “ON!” Independent label

Jordon Dixon, tenor saxophone; Allyn Johnson, piano; Herman Burney, bass; Carroll V. Dashiell III, drums; J. S. Williams, trumpet.

Composer, tenor saxophone player, Jordon Dixon has a gritty, blues-laced sound on his horn. On the first composition, “Notes From the Nook,” and one of my favorite cuts on this CD, his ensemble steps out with a bang. Pianist, Allyn Johnson, is featured and is a member of the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) faculty. He spearheads their jazz program. Once Jordon Dixon offers up his melody, groove and inspired saxophone solo, Johnson lays down his own improvisational beauty on the grand piano.

Bassist, Herman Burney, has been greatly influenced by the church, inspired by artists like Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin and James Cleveland. In younger years he played clarinet, drums and tuba, before embracing his love for the bass instrument. This could have been inspired by the booming bass voice of his father, who sang the bass part in an a‘Capella group.

Drummer, Carroll V. Dashiell III has a stellar resume. Among many accomplishments, he was the Kelvin Washington Orchestra drummer. Then, from 2005 – 2012, he performed on the Congressional Black Caucus Awards Television Show, with the Clarence Knight Orchestra. He also has his own CD release, “Heir to the Throne.”

The talented group leader, Jordon Dixon, is a native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He began playing saxophone at twelve-years-old. By the time he was a teen, you could see him sitting-in at the local jam sessions where folks realized and praised his talent and determination. When he turned nineteen, Dixon joined the U.S. Marines and for the next eleven years, he played his horn with their orchestra. Once honorably discharged, he pursued a music education degree at UDC. Jordon Dixon was heralded by the Washington City Paper as “the Best Tenor Saxophonist of 2016.” This album clearly supports that tribute. His lovely ballad, “We Kin” whose title I interpret two ways, an homage to family and a slang spelling of ‘we can,’ has got a lilting, afro-Cuban feel that stages a groove and platform for Jordon Dixon to explore and share his tenor talents. The title tune, “On!” is ethereal and unfolds in a magical way with arpeggio piano and a heavy brush of cymbals. Then it bebops into my room with a swagger, like a well-dressed, eye-candy, catching my undivided attention.

Dixon’s composer skills are evident and the players mesh and blend into each other comfortably, like old friends or family. I enjoy Burney’s big, beautiful bass skills on the double bass. When he opens the next tune, “Flame and Friction” he establishes the melody and sings it strongly before Dixon and his guest trumpeter, J.S. Williams, join him. This is a deep-seeded blues number that gives Williams an opportunity to strut his trumpet stuff with excellence and verve. This quickly becomes another one of my favorites on this remarkable recording. I do love me some good blues! All in all, I would have to say that every single cut on this album is worthy of several enjoyable listening experiences. Jordon Dixon is an important member of the Washington, D.C. jazz community and bound to make a prominent, soulful and hard-bop-mark on the worldwide jazz scene with this release.
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EHUD ASHERIE TRIO – “WILD MAN BLUES” Capri Records, Ltd.

Ehud Asherie, piano; Peter Washington, bass; Rodney Green, drums.

This is an entertaining and creative exploration into early New Orleans jazz by pianist Ehud Asherie. His dynamic trio opens with the title tune, “Wild Man Blues,” a Louis Armstrong composition. This melodic journey gives us an opportunity to meet all three players; Asherie on piano, Peter Washington, persuasive on bass and Rodney Green, forceful and tasty on drums.

“Parker’s Mood gives the ‘blues’ a twirl around the compact disc dance floor. They pick up the pace on “Flying Down to Rio,” and clearly Ehud Asherie has the chops and the timing to explore the outer limits of this tune with integrity and technique on the grand piano. He has chosen a repertoire that embraces the American song book and adds popular jazz standards for good measure. His interpretation of “Chasin’ the Bird” Is fresh and ear-appealing. His piano arrangement embraces the contrapuntal, two-horn lines in a very innovative way on the 88-keys.

A fresh face on the international jazz scene, born in 1979, Asherie is a native of Israel, who lived for six years in Italy and then moved to New York with his family. Surprisingly, he is largely self-taught and cut his jazz teeth sitting in at Smalls in NYC and becoming a fixture at the jam sessions. The late Frank Hewitt took young Asherie under his wing and mentored him. He has studied and mastered the art of stride piano and he can swing with the best of them. One of his acclaimed albums celebrates the music of Eubie Blake. He also plays organ and has recorded duet projects featuring saxophonist, Harry Allen. His recording accomplishments include being one of the players on “Boardwalk Empire” that won the 2010 Grammy Award for the soundtrack of that HBO televised program. Both Peter Washington and Rodney Green are genuine forces in their own musical rights and add spice and flavor to this project.
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AKIRA TANA & OTONOWA “AI SAN SAN – LOVE’S RADIANCE” Vega Records

Akira Tana, drums/fan drums/bongos; Noriyuki Ken Okada, bass; Art Hirahara, piano; Masaru Koga, tenor & soprano saxophones/flute/shakuhachi; GUEST MUSICIANS: Shoko Hikage, koto (Japanese zither); Kenny Endo, taiko & percussion; Tetsuya Tatsumi, cornet.

The First tune, “Antagata Dokosa” is a traditional Japanese song arranged in such a way that the group seems to celebrate John Coltrane in style and presentation. It’s bebop smart, melodic and straight-ahead. I think to myself, if this is a sample of the music I’m about to hear, I’m all in!

But the second song becomes a tribute to pan-piper music. “Ai San San”, the title tune is poignant and features Masaru Koga moving from tenor saxophone to flute. Although well-played, it’s a pretty drastic change from the first composition and arrangement. The flute he plays is the shakuhachi flute and the song is also featuring Kenny Endo on taiko drums. However, when you set the bar so high on the first tune, to trade straight-ahead jazz magic for smooth jazz is a bit shocking to the senses.

The third tune is another moderate-tempo ballad. It’s not until I read the liner notes that I realize what this group of musicians called, Otonowa, is trying to accomplish. They are arranging traditional Japanese songs into jazz and, at the same time, making tribute to the people affected by that horrific Eastern earthquake and tsunami that occurred in March of 2011. That nature-event destroyed much of the coastal regions of Northern Japan and claimed over 20,000 lives. This Cd is made to pay homage to the survivors and those who lost their lives to this terrible event. “Ai San San” translates to “Love’s Radiance.”

The fifth tune is joyful, arranged by bassist Noriyuki Ken Okada, and is obviously based on the Sonny Rollins hit, “St. Thomas.” It gives us an opportunity to enjoy the likes of drum maestro, Akira Tana, and the bass perfection of Okada-san. The sixth composition, “Hamabe No Uta,” reminds me of the sensitivity and melodic beauty of “Danny Boy,” a beloved Irish composition, enjoyed worldwide. On composition number 7, “Summer” (a theme from “Kikujiro No Natsu”), master drummer, Akira Tana cuts loose and shows off his powerful ‘chops.’ On cut #8, we return to the energy of the opening song. It’s been composed to remember and tribute Coltrane and it’s titled, “Taiyo Ni Hoero” with notable arrangements by bassist, Okada. Art Hirahara shines brilliantly on piano, Akira Tana keeps the rhythm section pumped up on trap drums and Masaru Koga flies powerfully on his horn, like a wild eagle into the wind. Akira Tana takes to the bongos on “Kando,” introducing this tune rhythmically before the ensemble joins him. This composition has an afro-Cuban-feel to it, blended uniquely with Asian minor chords and melodies. It was written in tribute to Chris Kando lijima, a pioneer of the Asian/American movement and founder of Asian Americans for Action, a civil rights organization of the sixties. Finally, they close with Horace Silver’s popular composition, “Peace.” This is World Music, flavored by Japanese culture and interpreted using American jazz as the catalyst.
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SKIP WILKINS QUARTET FEATURING DANIEL WILKINS – “CZECH WISHES” New Port line

Skip Wilkins, piano; Tomas “Kastan” Baros, bass; Marek Urbanek, drums; Daniel Wilkins, tenor saxophone; Miroslav Hloucal, trumpet/flugelhorn.

Daniel Wilkins has a sweet, husky sound on his tenor saxophone as he opens this CD with a tune titled, “Teacher.”. Daniel and Skip Wilkins have been collaborating musically since 2012, when they released a Cd titled, “Father and Son. Skip is the father and his son, Daniel, is his featured saxophonist on this project. It was developed after Skip Wilkins travelled, on tour, to the Czech Republic and fell in love with their music, art and culture. Consequently, these original compositions mirror a Prague/ Pennsylvania connection. Beginning with his “Teacher” composition. I think, perhaps it reflects the sabbatical he took from Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania to write a collection of original works. However,the liner notes tell me it was written for his Czech language teacher.

For a decade, Skip Wilkins had an opportunity to teach and perform throughout Europe. But it was the Czech Republic that stuck an arrow into the heart of his music. Below, view one of his ‘live’ performances at AghaRTA Jazz Club in Prague.

Wilkins has incorporated young Czech musicians into this project. In 2016, the logistical planning for “Czech Wishes” began. That’s when Skip Wilkins began composing for this CD. It was January of that year, and he was touring. He knew what Czech musicians he was going to use, and they are the ones listed above, including Miroslav Hloucal, a virtuoso trumpeter. I enjoyed his solo on the first cut.
Skip Wilkins writes very melodically and plays piano with passionate exuberance. His arrangements leave plenty of room for these musicians to showcase their individual talents. Daniel Wilkins brings saxophone fire and energy to the group. Marek Urbanek shows his drum skills, especially obvious on “Munchkins of Karlovy Vary” where the ensemble swings hard and up-tempo. Urbanek takes advantage of the appropriate breaks in the arrangement, showing awesome prowess on his trap drums. On “The Box-Checkers” you can hear the grit and gusto in Tomas “Kastan” Baros’ bass playing. He’s walking that double bass at a swift pace, chasing Skip Wilkins’ bright piano licks and flying fingers.

This is an album full of bright, harmonic horn lines, fresh compositions and inspiring arrangements. All the musicians are skillful and their repertoire covers hard bop, blues, Ballads, and a blend of American and Czech jazz that captivates and entertains.
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BEN WINKELMAN TRIO: MATT PENMAN, OBED CALVAIRE – “BALANCE” OA2 Record Label

Ben Winkelman, piano; Matt Penman, bass; Obed Calvaire, drums.

Pianist/composer, Ben Winkelman was born in Eugene, Oregon, but grew up in Melbourne, Australia. He’s been living and working in New York City since 2010. This is his fifth album release and his goal is to find balance between composition and improvisation; planning and spontaneity. His music is wrapped in the originality of his compositions as he and his trio strive for balance between the intellectual and the intuitive. I am drawn into his work on the third tune titled, “Wheels.” It’s hard bop at its best, with Winkelman’s fingers flying across the keys precisely and with astute technique. Matt Penman is up for the challenge, making the double bass swing and sing at maximum speed. His bass solo is beautiful and his timing is impeccable. Obed Calvaire, on drums, pushes the trio energy with maximum, but tasty power, soloing on the fade. Yes, this tune sounds gospel-based, but races straight-ahead, like its title, “Wheels” that could be attached to cars at the Indianapolis 500 races.

“Santiago” is beautifully performed by Winkelman, taking tender time in the upper-register of the grand piano, with Penman once again creating a lush bottom of bass for the pianist to sit upon.

All tracks have been composed by Ben Winkelman with the one exception, “Bye-Ya” by Thelonious Monk. Winkelman has arranged tune in his own way and states, in liner notes, that Monk is one of his favorite jazz composers. “Merri Creek” becomes a great platform for Obed Calvaire to dance on his trap drums. He and Winkelman seem to have a contrary motion moment at the introduction and before they settle into a moderate tempo, Latin-tinged tune. I enjoy the blend of Latin and straight-ahead that Winkelman integrates within this arrangement.

Winkelman is an award-winning pianist and recording artist, who has utilized grant support from the Australia Council and other arts organizations. He holds a Master of Music degree from SUNY Purchase College and has toured Europe, Asia and extensively in Australia.
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NICK SANDERS TRIO – “PLAYTIME 2050” Sunnyside Communications, Inc.

Nick Sanders, piano/composer; Henry Fraser, bass; Connor Baker, drums.

The cover of Nick Sanders’ album is startling. New Mexico-based artist, Leah Saulnier has painted a young girl in pigtails, wearing a gas mask, cuddling her stuffed rabbit, also donning a gas mask.

“When I first saws the image, I found it really interesting and weird, not to mention starkly different from any artwork I’ve seen in the jazz world. I liked its tongue in cheek look at the state of the world today, with the silver-lining being that it’s clearly about surviving,” explained Sanders.

The Sanders album reflects, in art and music, a warning and inference to protect our air and our planet. It also, by way of Nick Sanders playful piano excellence and the little girl on the cover, seems to personify the innocence and hopefulness that children always reflect in their forgiving, hopeful attitudes. The style and personality of Sanders’ piano delivery has been shaped by his New Orleans roots, combined with his respect and inspiration from mentors like Jason Moran and his love of influential composers like Herbie Nichols, Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman. With that in mind, his “Live Normal” composition, as well as cut two, “Manic Maniac” are both built on solid melodies before stretching out like bubble gum being pulled playfully from a child’s mouth. Sanders stretches the limits as far as arms-length and fingers allow. His improvisations are thoughtful and deliberate. Henry Fraser, on bass, roots the music and holds the chord changes solidly in place, especially noticeable with the sudden time element changes and fluctuations. “Playtime 2050,” the title tune, is more bebop than modern jazz and pleases this listener’s musical palate. Nick Sanders manages to insert his style and new, modern jazz ideas into this tune, with Connor Baker on drums and Fraser’s walking bass becoming the sturdy tree from which Sanders can branch out. There’s a saying in the music community that “you can’t lose when you choose the blues” and the Nick Sanders original composition titled, “Prepared for the Blues” shows us he can get down and dirty with the best of them.

When this young talent first tackled the piano, he was a second-grade student. His classical performances won him numerous regional and national competitions, before jazz lured him away with her sensuous freedom. You can hear the deep classical roots inside Sanders’ collection of thirteen original compositions. During the time of polishing his craft and student studies at the New England Conservatory, he studied with such luminaries as John McNeil, Ran Blake, Cecil McBee and Fred Hersch.
Nick Sanders concludes, “This is my contribution to the idea of pushing the music forward, which I think is extremely crucial in keeping the music alive and culturally important.”
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RUSS JOHNSON – “HEADLANDS” WOOLGATHERINGRECORDS.COM

Russ Johnson, trumpet/composer; Rob Clearfield, keyboard; Matt Ulery, bass; Jon Deitemyer, drums.

In 2015, Russ Johnson was commissioned to premiere a set of compositions for the Hyde Park Jazz Festival in Chicago. The result is this album, a Suite, featuring six compositions connected by solo improvised passages that gives each member of Johnson’s ensemble an opportunity to spread wings and fly. His music is modern jazz, open and elasticized to allow maximum freedom and flexibility by each musician. Johnson’s trumpet enters and calms the fray. With Jon Deitemyer brilliant and bashing on drums, Russ Johnson walks his trumpet to center stage and brings a magical, meditative effect during the second track, titled “Serpent Kane.” His tone is soothing and the stories his horn tells are engaging. Johnson’s trumpet solo morphs into cut #3 titled, “Transition” where Johnson makes an a ‘Capella, solo debut. These ‘transitions’ happen throughout this recording, affording each musician a solo time to make their musical statement. There is no space between tunes, so the suite of music plays smooth and uninterrupted. It’s a compelling and creative album that mixes styles like a thick stew, baked in a modern jazz pie crust and seasoned generously with classical technique.

“This is music that takes risks; the goal is not finding ‘perfection’ within a performance, but to truly create the Suite anew with every new opportunity,” summarizes Russ Johnson.
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DAVE STRYKER – “EIGHT TRACK III” Strikezone Records

Dave Striker, guitar/producer; Stefon Harris, vibraphone; Jared Gold, organ; McClenty Hunter, drums; Mayra Casales, congas/percussion.

I was looking forward to listening to this new Dave Stryker album, because he has a way of using organ and guitar groups to reinvent R&B and funk tunes into very jazzy arrangements. Starting with Curtis Mayfield’s, “Move On Up,” he and Jared Gold on organ establish a swinging rendition of this tune. McClenty Hunter smacks the groove into the production with unrelenting drum licks and Stefon Harris brightens this arrangement on the vibraphone. Cut #2 reaches into the Motown archives and pulls out the popular “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” that the Temptation group turned into Gold record history. Hunter lays down that solid drum lick so popular on the original tune, and they keep the bass line as well. Stryker offers the melody on his capable guitar and Gold’s organ puts the swing into the song. There are some real gems on this album. They’ve reinvented two of Stevie Wonder’s iconic hits including “Joy Inside My Tears” and “Too high”.

The Roy Ayers hit record, “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” will invigorate you on Harris’ stellar solo, but I miss the groove from the original recording. Mayra Casales’ percussive additions help elevate the arrangement. However, the melodic line of this song gets lost in Stryker’s arrangement. The Leon Ware/Marvin Gaye collaboration of “After the Dance” is perfectly re-arranged into a bop-shuffle, with Stryker’s guitar singing the melody atop the rich organ chords of Jared Gold and McClenty Hunter shuffles his drums provocatively to keep the motion moving.

Their interpretation of “We’ve Only Just Begun” composed by Roger Nichols and Paul Williams, is performed as a beautiful ballad, giving space for featured guest, Stefon Harris, to solo on vibes. Karen Carpenter’s amazing vocals are unforgettable. The ensemble swings hard on “This Guy’s in Love With You” a Bacharach and David classic. This arrangement made me wish for a swing dance partner and had me rocking back and forth in my office chair.

Stryker always had in mind creating a trilogy of music by producing three albums that reinvented classic songs from R&B, funk and pop groups, turning them into jazzy standards with his talented trio of musicians. Their repertoire was pulled mostly from the days of Eight Track tape recorders, wide-legged pants and Super Fly attitudes. I enjoyed his first two albums. With the addition of his special guest and friend, Stefon Harris, the trilogy dream is now complete.
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THE OGJB QUARTET – “BAMAKO” TUM Label

Oliver Lake, alto & soprano saxophones; Graham Haynes, cornet/doussin gouni; Joe Fonda, bass; Barry Altschul, drums/percussion/mbira.

From the first strains of music, this quartet has a big sound. They are only four musicians, but they sound like a much larger group. The powerful drums of Barry Altschul immediately grab my attention as they roll and race beneath the opening tune titled, “Listen to Dr. Cornel West.” The modern jazz spewing from my Cd player is aggressive and in-your-face, like the speeches and comments of Dr. West. Saxophonist Oliver Lake and cornet player, Graham Haynes shout at each other and sometimes harmonize tightly, locking horns like arms. Joe Fonda rolls and rubs his double bass, finally stepping out front to take a solo and quieting the other members of this boisterous ensemble. The OGJB Quartet is a collaborative effort based in New York. Members Lake and Altschul are pioneers of modern, improvised music since the 1960s. The other two members, Haynes and Fonda began their association with the genre in the late 70s. All four artists are composers and each is highly acclaimed on their instrument. Haynes, Fonda and Altschul are all New Yorkers. Oliver Lake is a native of St. Louis and respected as one of the founders of the Black Artists Group (BAG). Lake lived briefly in Paris, France and finally settled in New York where he founded the World Saxophone Quartet with David Murray, Julius Hemphill and Hamiet Bluiett. He’s also a co-founder of Trio 3, comprised of himself with Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille.

Flexing a full, rich sound, the OGJB Quartet lifts the listener with music that inspires. This is no easy task, since the expected guitar and/or piano, as part of the rhythm section, is missing. However, it does not hinder or minimize the creative juices of these players and their magnificent presence and sound.

Graham Haynes, on cornet and doussin gouni, grew up in Queens. He enjoys fusing jazz with elements of electronic music and hip-hop. Back in 1979, he and alto saxophonist Steve Coleman played together as a group called Five Elements. Haynes always incorporates African, Arabic and South Asian music into his performances. He too spent time living and playing his horn in Paris before returning to New York. When he’s not performing on stage or touring, you will find him bent over music paper and composing for films.

Joe Fonda attended Berklee College of Music. On bass, he’s recorded with Wadada Leo Smith and has collaborated with Anthony Braxton. Fonda wrote the opening composition, “Listen to Dr. Cornel West”.

On cut #2, Oliver Lake recites his poem, “Broken In Parts” atop the title tune, “Bamako” with Asian sounding music unfolding beneath the spoken word. The music runs like a stream, moving briskly and uniquely in the background. It was written by Graham Haynes and he is featured on the doussin gouni, a guitar-like string instrument from the African continent.

Barry Altschul soars on drums during his solo on the original composition, “GS #2.” He steals the attention with his powerful sticks and technique. Altschul is an old pro, having honed his percussive teeth working with highly influential and iconic musicians like Paul Bley, Anthony Braxton, Chick Corea and Sam Rivers. These were some of the hottest bebop/freebop players to gain notoriety in the 1970s and 80s. After living a decade in Europe, he returned to New York to teach and inspire young musicians. Altschul established the FAB Trio and recorded the “History of Jazz in Reverse” CD and led the 3dom Factor with saxophonist Jon Irabagon and Joe Fonda, both produced for the TUM label. When you wrap all four of these unique and world-class musicians together, they create a quartet offering spontaneous combustion, creativity and jazz originality.
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