By Dee Dee McNeil/Jazz Journalist
May 16, 2019

HAPPY BIRTHDAY BETTY CARTER! In keeping with the Month of May, a month that celebrates mothers with a national holiday, I have concentrated on reviewing recently recorded females in jazz. They are varied and doing a little bit of everything from playing trombone to lighting up the piano keys; from singing to composing, arranging and producing. I also celebrate the great vocalist and improviser, Betty Carter, born May 16th, whose music must never be forgotten. I wonder why some of these female jazz artists aren’t performing more of Ms. Carter’s original works. Her compositions will always stand the test of time. Here is an interview I did with Betty Carter for the Soul & Jazz Record Magazine, which was published back in 1976. And Yes, I’ve been writing about jazz for that many years.

Reprinted (in part) from The Soul & Jazz Record Magazine, 3rd quarter issue – 1976; written and personally interviewed by jazz journalist, Dee Dee McNeil.

I entered Miss Carter’s hotel room attempting a cool composure with whispered awe breathing goose bumps down my neck. She sat there, naked feet propped belligerently on the glass table top, her pale, flowing lounge out-fit clinging to her curves and no make-up. Just a natural, iridescent beauty that peeped through the chocolate freckles peppering her face.

That day, when I originally interviewed her, Betty Carter had been offering the world her unique style for over 30-years. Her music was given freely, with few inhibitions to hamper her unique delivery. She was a true living legend, who weathered the musical storm and witnessed the changes from Be-bop days to R&B/Pop commercialism. However, back then, Betty Carter did not believe her endurance was a big thing. She told me:

“I don’t see me like you see me. I’ve been doing this so long that it’s natural for me. I thought it was OK to learn new music; learn how to write and to arrange your stuff. It took a long time to realize that a lot of singers have other people doing their arrangements. But I wanted to do my own. So, that meant I had to learn about the music. So, I did that when I was with Lionel Hampton. … I couldn’t do anything else if I wanted to. I couldn’t sing like Aretha Franklin … it’s just not my ‘bag’. I was doing nothing but me. I think everybody’s strong and survives in being themselves. I think that’s what you were supposed to do in the first place. I think that’s what ‘the man’ put you here for; to be yourself. He made every one of us different. You’re an individual. Just be you!”

Betty Carter has appeared with practically every great name in jazz and headlined at the Apollo twice a year from 1949 to 1965. She employed a plethora of youthful musicians in her band, helping to skyrocket their fledgling careers. She talked to me about some of the successful shows she performed over the years that defied category. So, what if she’s celebrated as one of the greatest jazz vocalists in the world? She did it all and she did it her way.

“Miles, Monk, Moody, Moms Mabley and me. That was one show. Another show I did was John Lee Hooker, T-Bone Walker, Muddy Water, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee and Bo Diddley… alright?!” She looked at me with piercing eyes, weighing my reaction.

“I did one with the Isley Brothers. The Flamingoes … Now!” She settled back in her chair eyeing me carefully and perhaps wondering if I could relate to her struggle, her diversity and her seething talent.

“This put me on through the years. So, nobody could tell me that my thing wasn’t going.”

She was talking about her long fight for acceptance in the business. Whether we like it or not, the music business and jazz is still tightly controlled by men. They don’t make it easy for women to break the jazzy glass ceiling, especially vocalists. It takes a lot of strength of character and big breaks to climb the gold-record-stairs.

“It’s really pathetic at this point, how much we don’t know about our own craft,” Betty shook her head sadly side-to-side.

“We did it to ourselves. … I finally got with a major record company. They wanted to give me some money for my integrity. You know, I would record for a record company for no money if I could just keep my integrity and do what I wanna do. That’s difficult. People don’t want you to do you. They want to tell you who to be. They want their egos stimulated. They need to say, I made that … I groomed that … I … I … I, all over the place.”

Betty Carter, unique, stylized, volatile, outspoken, opinionated, but sincere. She recorded on her own label for years so that she could have artistic freedom. Her strength of character, her tone and composition skills, her arranging tenacity and her take-no-bull-shit attitude, endears her to me. She is one of those great talents we can treasure and remember for generations to come. Enjoy her “Live” Hamburg Jazz Festival of 1993 below with the amazing Geri Allen on piano, Dave Holland on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums.

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YOKO MIWA TRIO – “KEEP TALKIN’” Ocean blue Tear Music

Yoko Miwa, piano/composer; Will Slater, acoustic bass; Scott Goulding, drums; Brad Barrett, acoustic bass on track 11.

The first thing I notice about pianist, Yoko Miwa, is her ability to bear-hug the blues. Her piano style is rich and radiant with blues tones, obvious and pronounced on her opening original composition, “Keep Talkin’.” She follows up with the popular Monk tune, “In Walked Bud.” It too is saturated with blues tones. Her mood changes slightly on “Secret Rendezvous,” another well-written composition by Ms. Miwa. She brings Latin flavors to this arrangement, encouraging Will Slater to dance, bob and weave on his bass. Yoko Miwa shows that her left hand is as powerful as her right hand on this tune. She rhythmically splashes her arrangement with groove, using the thrust of her bass notes to challenge her right-handed groove chords. It’s a powerful display of her piano dexterity. Scott Goulding is prominent and precise on drums. He continuously propels the music forward, inspiring this trio to swing hard and steady. On “Sunset Lane” they take a breather, slowing the tempo down briefly to let the listener enjoy the lovely melody Yoko Miwa has created. Will Slater makes a prominent statement on acoustic bass and then, Yoko Miwa’s hands make the piano keys tremble and flutter like humming bird wings.

This prolific artist was born in Kobe, Japan, a city famous for its beef and its beautiful and busy seaport. This journalist spent time there in 1995, leaving just two weeks before the huge earthquake that shook the city to its core. Yoko Miwa was greatly inspired and mentored by Minoru Ozone, a Japanese pianist, educator and club owner who instilled in her the importance of playing piano by ear. She learned to absorb the jazz language and mastered listening and transcribing the music. Paying her dues as a waitress at his popular jazz club, she also worked as a music teacher and accompanist. She enrolled at the Koyo Conservatory of Music. That’s a Berklee affiliate school, where she auditioned for a scholarship prize at the main Boston based Berklee College. That first prize win opened the door for her arrival in America, where she fell in love with the city and people of Boston.

“I was the last one to leave a practice room every night at 2 a.m.,” she reminisced. “I was just so excited to meet great musicians, my teachers and fellow students from all over the world.”

Her talent to accompany vocalists led her to work in master classes with the late Kevin Mahogany and also to work on stage with him as part of his group. She has also performed with luminaries like Esperanza Spalding, Terri Lyne Carrington, Arturo Sandoval, Sheila Jordan, Slide Hampton, Jon Faddis, Johnathan Blake and many, many more. Ms. Miwa participated in the Lincoln Center performance program “Marian McPartland & Friends.” She continues to challenge herself and to inspire others as a Berklee professor in the classroom and a formidable, innovative pianist on stage. This album shines with her strength of talent, her technical prowess and brilliant creativity and composer skills. Yoko Miwa is a musical force. She tackles the music of Charles Mingus, The Beatles, Joni Michell and Thelonious Monk with determination, rhythmical brilliance, power and tenderness. Here is an album you will want to play time and time again.

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ELIZABETH TOMBOULIAN – “LOVE’S IN NEED OF LOVE TODAY” http://www.quantumstarsong.com

Elizabeth Tomboulian, vocals/piano/guitar; Lee Tomboulian, piano/Nord/vocals; Cliff Schmitt, bass; Alvester Garnet, drums; SPECIAL GUESTS: Ingrid Jensen, trumpet/flugelhorn; Roseanna Vitro, vocals.

As both a pianist and vocalist, Elizabeth Tomboulian has been performing all over the country; from her native Arkansas to Houston, New Jersey to Louisiana, Wisconsin to New York, in Tennessee and on the West Coast. Her second song on this premier Cd is probably the one she should have opened this recording with. Why? because of the way her sincere voice and the minimal production touches the heart of this listener. The first song felt contrived and commercial, but “Time After Time” by composer, Cindy Lauper, makes an impression. I also appreciate the arrangement, replacing some of the expected piano chords with unique voicings. Her husband, Lee Tomboulian, is also a pianist and does much of the accompaniment on this album. There is a special blend of vocals and energy when the married couple sings together. This is obvious on cut #3, a medley of “Nutty” and “If I Love Again,” where Elizabeth trades fours, scatting in between the bass solo by Cliff Schmitt and the drum solo by Alvester Garnet. During the opening intro and on the fade, she and Lee Tomboulian sweetly harmonize on the “Nutty” melody. It’s a great arrangement. This could have been an outstanding album opening tune. “For Tomorrow” clearly shows Elizabeth Tomboulian’s clean tones and easy ability to perform a true jazz tune. Her voice is rich as cream and believable. Ingrid Jensen’s wonderful trumpet solo flies over the moon on this song. When Lee Tomboulian adds his harmonic voice to the mix, after the solos, they lift the arrangement with their smooth harmonies and perfect blend. On the “Ballad of the Snow Leopard and the Tanqueray Cowboy,” Elizabeth Tomboulian accompanies herself on piano and reverts back to her blues and folk roots, performing as a single artist. She and her piano present a convincing duo. Elizabeth shows off her blues chops on “Good Old Wagon,” playing piano and singing the popular American folk song by Dave Van Ronk. She adds a little scat singing to keep things jazzy. On her live performance of this song, she sometimes plays guitar.

Elizabeth Tomboulian is a lover of Latin music and I wish I could have gotten a taste of songs from her history of recording and performing with her Latin group called, Circo. I think the blend of her voice with her husbands would have been spectacular on Latin songs. In fact, the Stevie Wonder title tune could have become a great Latin arrangement.

The highlight of this album were songs that featured the married couple performed together vocally. As explained by Elizabeth, she hopes this album of music reflects the “Loves in Need of Love Today” theme from the Tomboulian’s repertoire into our listening hearts.

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Lauren Desberg, vocals/composer; Kris Bowers, piano; Ben Shepherd, electric bass; Jonathan Barber, drums; Braxton Cook, saxophone; Andrew Renfroe, guitar; Russell Hall, acoustic bass; Will Wells, executive producer/composer.

Lauren Desberg is a consummate songwriter, with stories that evolve like a painting, colorful and sometimes abstract. On her opening tune, “The Way you Feel Inside” she explores the thoughts of a woman who is searching for her inner self. Andrew Renfroe’s electric guitar sings a stellar solo and fades the tune with an echo-filled studio enhancement. Desberg displays a little-girl voice full of innocence and sincerity when she sings “Yes Unless” and warns some unsuspecting guy, not to take her too seriously. This album of music showcases the artist’s composer cleverness. It’s more pop than jazz, but the compositions hold your attention. The productions are supported by her band, incorporating a lot of echo effects and the beautiful baritone voice of some mystery man who is not mentioned on the album credits. Songs like “Come With me” and “Something Wrong with Me” are melodically memorable with strong lyrics and very strong productions.

Sometimes the effects used in the production take away from the purity of Desberg’s stylized voice. She’s like a pop Erykah Badu in tone and uniqueness. The synthesized parts often play over-the-top, but certainly add an unusual perspective to this album, as do the seconds-long vocal intervals like “Hold On” that pop upon the scene and too-soon leave us longing to hear more of the song. Perhaps the “Falling Dominoes” lyrics describe an overall view of this project’s positive message.

“… No fear – no doubt, ‘til everything I found I figured out comes crashing down without a sound. Struggling to see the light. The end of the tunnel nowhere in sight. The voice is right, we can make it easy if we try, to see we’re right where we belong. The world will keep on spinning and I will keep on singing … believing is just a state of mind. You’ll find a way to smile, tomorrow.”

Lauren Desberg throws in a familiar standard, “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.” The track is fresh and while Russell Hall walks his double bass, Jonathan Barber slaps a shuffle in place and Kris Bowers plays an unexpected and classical type piano lick. It makes for a nice listen and gives the listener a recognizable song they can hum along to. Braxton Cook’s saxophone adds a nice, jazzy touch. She only sings two standards. The second is Rogers & Hammerstein tune, “The Sweetest Sounds” establishing her as a singer who can excel at pop and jazz. I do feel that sometimes the production overwhelms the vocals and her voice could have been pulled out in the mix, just a hair. On the whole, this is an enjoyable voyage into waters that bubble around a very talented vocalist and songwriter.

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Natalie Cressman, trombone/vocals/producer; Ian Faquini, guitar/vocals/producer

This is a duo whose music projects a folk/world music attitude and beauty. Ian Faquini and Natalie Cressman each have lovely voices that sound delightful in solo settings and mesh warmly, like sunshine sparkling on calm seas, when they harmonize. Their music rolls over us in gentle waves. All the music is composed by Ian Faquini and Ms. Cressman lends her lyrical poetry. They sing mostly in Portuguese, sometimes in French, but for the most part his acoustic guitar and her trombone celebrate Brazilian roots. Both artists have albums of their own. This is Cressman’s fifth release as a leader and Faquini’s third. Together, it becomes their debut collaboration. The opening song is titled, “Tere” and the story is explained in the liner notes. It is an angry, social outcry deriding the violence against women. I wish they had included English lyrics in their album jacket, because the majority of these songs are not sung in English.

Faquini’s guitar is busy, rhythmic and incorporates baiao, samba and ijexa in the various arrangements. Ijexa is a Brazilian folk music influenced greatly by African rhythms. Natalie Cressman has penned the French lyrics to the “L’aube” song. This is followed by “Debandada” imploring the ijexa musical legacy. She plays a soothing trombone solo on this composition. We hear her sing in English on the title tune, “Setting Rays of Summer.” It has a very compelling melody and Natalie Cressman’s sincere and intimate vocal delivery sells the song and shines against Ian Faquini’s sensitive guitar accompaniment. Cressman wrote these lyrics too. Their voices duet and dance on “Mandingueira” in Portuguese. It is an up-tempo composition that begs for a drummer and a percussionist. Faquini himself adds vocal percussiveness at the introduction. Perhaps it is the simplicity of this production that beckons the listener to come closer, with open hearts, and to soak up the purity of their musical message. This music is not what I would call jazz, but it is drenched in the folklore and the hypnotic rhythms and language of Brazil. It’s a sweet listen.

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Beata Pater, vocal; Hiromu Aoki, piano; Dan Feiszli bass; Brynn Albanese & Emily Lanzone, violin; Peter Jandula-Hudson, viola; Barbara Spencer, cello; Steffen Kuehn, trumpet/flugelhorn; John Gove, trombone; Meredith Brown, French horn; Aaron Lington, bass clarinet/flute.

This is Beata Pater’s ninth CD release and “Tet,” the album title, is the ninth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, as well as the symbol for nine. In numerology it stands for completion. Beata Pater explained her description of “Tet.”

“It is symbolic of creativity; a vessel which holds something within a womb for creation. Goodness is hidden within it.”

Opening with the Freddie Hubbard gem of a tune, “Little Sunflower”, Beata Pater’s smoky voice tenderly caresses his song. There is something about this vocalists’ voice that creates a signature sound, much like the great Morgana King or the memorable Shirley Horn. Once you hear Beata Pater, you will remember her sound. She has a unique tremolo, along with her rich alto tones that suddenly soar into a sweet, second soprano. She slides sleepily and laid-back up and down the scale on “It’s a Lazy Afternoon.”

Pater’s vocalization is hypnotic. Hiromu Aoki’s piano solo tinkles the upper register, with the string ensemble beautifully cushioning their arrangement. It’s an intriguing arrangement that highlights Beata Pater’s vocals, expertly framing the colorful tones of her voice. There’s also the hint of an accent to uniquely make her style unforgettable. She tackles some challenging melodies on this album like Chick Corea’s “Crystal Silence” and the haunting song, “Invitation.” Alex Danson’s string arrangements are stunning, as are the rhythm section arrangements that Hiromu Aoki and Beata created. As a violinist herself, Beata Pater pulls from her multi-musical talents and worldwide experiences. After all, she draws from Polish roots, has lived in England, and spent a decade in Japan. Currently, she has settled in San Francisco.

On this project, she scats and plays with the familiar “Old Devil Moon” tune, making it one of the few up-tempo arrangements she offers us. With her serious classical studies and playing concert violin for several years in her native Poland, she brings a fresh face to these old standards, perhaps thinking more like a violinist than a vocalist. During the ten years she spent playing, teaching and performing in Japan, she met Aoki, who is one of Tokyo’s top, first-call accompanist for singers. They work well together, with neither afraid to jump off the mountain top without a parachute.

In celebration of her album title, Beata Pater has recorded nine songs and puts her own stamp on each one. This project is a tribute to modern jazz singing and arranging. Beata Pater has surrounded herself with outstanding musicians who play beautifully behind her unique and one-of-a-kind voice. She is the epitome of jazz, in her own delightful way.

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Judy Wexler, vocals/producer; Alan Pasqua, piano/melodica/whistling/co-producer/arranger; Larry Koonse, guitar; Josh Johnson, alto saxophone; Bob Sheppard, alto flute; Stefanie Fife, cello; Darek Oles, bass; Steve Hass, drums; Aaron Serfaty, percussion.

Vocalist, Judy Wexler, has chosen ten songs for this project, some by a group of younger composers on the jazz scene. A few of them are female jazz singers like Sinne Egg and René Marie. Sinne Egg’s “Crowded Heart” song is an extraordinary composition with a creative, challenging and lovely melody. It is the title tune of this album of fine jazz. Alan Pasqua’s arrangements shine on this song and all the others. Judy’s interpretation of Grammy Award Winning composer and artist, Gregory Porter, titled “Painted on Canvas” is sincere. It features a lilting saxophone solo by Josh Johnson. Porter is another fresh composer of lyrical jazz compositions that tickle the brain. “Stars” by Fred Hersch and Norma Winstone, becomes another fabulous pick, joining this abundant basket of winning compositions for Wexler to interpret. It allows Pasqua’s flying fingers to sound-paint original pictures on piano and Judy Wexler is once again challenged by a difficult melody with unusual intervals. She rises to that challenge fearlessly. Wexler has good pitch and enunciates perfectly, so her audience can enjoy every poetic nuance of the lyrics. However, her tone is sometimes quite nasal. This may cause her style to lean towards an acquired taste.

Alan Broadbent and Georgia Mancio’s “The Last Goodbye” is one of my favorites on this recording. This composition, tenderly explored by Judy Wexler, highlights her natural, chest register and her lower tones. The lyrics are rich and captivating.

In fact, all the lyrics of these well-chosen songs are beautifully written and gently scratch at the palate of the listener’s creative heart. Another song that rewards and inspires is René Marie’s “Take My breath Away.” The striking guitar of Larry Koonse introduces her final tune, “And We Will Fly.” This is arranged as a sultry, ebullient Brazilian song with Wexler’s voice bubbling happily above the ensemble. Steve Hass is king on drums.

Judy Wexler and her band of mighty men (plus Stephanie Fife on cello) celebrate songs we’ve heard but may not have listened to. They encourage us to appreciate newer, more modern composers and great lyrics. I commend her for steering away from the over-sung standards and choosing such a royal and ear-opening repertoire.
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