PIANISTS STEP FORWARD: THE PILLAR OF MELODY & HARMONY

PIANISTS STEP FORWARD: THE PILLAR OF MELODY AND HARMONY

By Dee Dee McNeil/Jazz Journalist

Aug 30, 2019

DAVE MILLER TRIO – “JUST IMAGINE” Summit Records

Dave Miller, piano; Chuck Bennet, bass; Bill Belasco, drums.

The piano, bass and drums dance onto the scene in synchronicity and with joy. There is nothing like a solid jazz trio to entertain us. This recalls the days when every major hotel had a good jazz trio at their comfortable lounges to set the mood and improve the ambience. Dave Miller delivers the melody of each one of these classic songs and makes me want to sing along. I never noticed that the familiar tune, “You Took Advantage of Me,” sounded so much like “Taking A Chance on Love,” until I heard Miller’s arrangement of it. Those two songs would make a great medley of tunes. Miller, Bennet and Belasco include a variety of songs, including those from the great American songbook and from unforgettable composers like Billy Taylor, Sam Jones, Rodgers & Hart, Gershwin, Charlie Parker and Michel LeGrand. This is pleasant journey down a very musical memory lane.

“When I was pretty young, I was having trouble understanding bebop. But then I heard the George Shearing Quintet. I loved hearing guitar, vibes and piano played in unison and took a liking to his sound. My interest in Shearing really grew after he broke up the quintet and I started listening to his performances as a duo with great bassists like Neil Swanson and Brian Torff. I also enjoyed his solo records, as well as his work with vocalists. I’ve found his playing always to be inspirational attributable largely to his range and depth. It influenced my own style,” Dave Miller explained in his liner notes.
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IVO PERELMAN , MATTHEW SHIPP, NATE WOOLEY– “PHILOSOPHER’S STONE” and IVO PERELMAN, MATTHEW SHIPP “LIVE IN BRUSSELS” 2-CD SET Leo Records

Matthew Shipp,piano; Ivo Perelman,tenor saxophone; Nate Wooley,trumpet.

Reaching back into a collection of music that somehow never got reviewed, but deserves my attention, I chose one of several works by pianist, Matthew Shipp. On “Philosopher’s Stone” he is part of the Ivo Perelman trio, a threesome that stretches the boundaries of avant-garde like bubble gum pulled from between the lips of a six-year-old’s fingers. The stretch is long and sticky, creative and presenting a push and pull relationship between saxophone, trumpet and piano. Even for those who love and search for the most improvised music they can find, Matthew Shipp and crew go a step beyond ‘outside.’ Sometimes sounding like screams of agony from mutilated horns or banging contrast and character on piano chords that embellish the fray. This is freedom of expression that distracts, rather than sooths. It tempts and teases your musical appetite. Perelman, who has scientifically studied the effect of sound and music on humanity, sometimes allows his saxophone to mimic a feeding bee, hoovering over an open rose. You hear nature sounds. Matthew Shipp compliments this project with walking bass lines played by his masterful left hand and chords that soar or accent the freedom flying above the piano notes. This is music that takes you to the African plains and puts you smack, dab in the middle of a field of mating elephants or dangles you precariously into a flock of screaming seagulls. While listening, use your imagination, or your ear-plugs as the case may be. This is not music for everyone.

Matthew Shipp shows you what the piano can do when set absolutely free to pursue a unique set of paths that challenge the most elevated ear. Nate Wooley is not to be forgotten or discarded. He is perhaps one of the most admired trumpeters in contemporary music and a master on his instrument. He moves from guttural spirals to sweet tones of protest and pain.

“I’m so happy I started this with Nate,” Perelman exudes. “I’m in love with him for like ten years now. When I first heard him in a duo with Matt Shipp at the Stone in New York, I thought, we have to do this!”

Ivo Perelman publishes this music in blocks of releasing five to six albums at a time. This encompasses his obsessive research of musical notes and their effects on humanity. Included in this release is a 2-CD-Set recorded “live” in Brussels with only himself and pianist, Matthew Shipp. This album was recorded on a century-old piano at the L’Archiduc, a bar that seats about seventy-five patrons and features Avant Garde music. Both Nat King Cole, Mal Waldron and organist, Jimmy Smith played this historic piano. Now, Matthew Shipp seats himself on the worn piano bench. You will hear more of Shipps enormous talent on this CD than the trio CD with Wooley & Perelman. As a duo work, there is more opportunity for him to be heard as he spontaneously creates.

As you listen, keep in mind that this ten-tune journey and double set CD duo is all without the benefit of any structured preconditions or directives on the part of saxophonist Ivo Perelman. This is music created out of thin air and imagination; emotion and empathy. You will either love it, or leave it.
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OSCAR HERNANDEZ & ALMA LIBRE – “LOVE THE MOMENT” Origin Records

Oscar Hernandez,piano; Justo Almario,saxophone/flute; Jimmy Branly,drums; Oskar Cartaya,bass; Christian Moraga,percussion; SPECIAL GUESTS: Gilbert Castellanos,trumpet; Dayren Santamaria,violin.

Sometimes when you hear the first strains drifting off of a recording, you know, right away, that you are about to enjoy some spectacular and emotional music. That’s what I felt immediately when I began to listen to Oscar Hernandez’s album. The smooth saxophone of Justo Almario spread wings and flew improvisationally above the melody of “Otro Nivel” and Gilbert Castellanos, who I met many years ago in San Diego, California sounded explosive and creative on his trumpet. Then, enter Oscar Hernandez on piano, letting his fingers dance above the rich percussion of Christian Moraga and Jimmy Branly. He gives both percussive musicians an opportunity to shine on their drum solos. Always present, Oskar Cartaya is the bassist who holds this ensemble tightly together with solid strength, like the basement that supports the house. This is a group proffering spicy Latin music, red hot rhythms, luscious melodies and the blending of individually talented musicians. They become a super stew of music as delicious as Ropa Vieja. The title tune, “Love the Moment” should be a creed for us all to follow. It’s beautifully written by Oscar Hernandez, along with nine other amazing compositions. Dayren Santamaria is exquisite on track #4, “Danzon for Lisa,” Adding violin adjoins a new dimension to the music, along with Justo Almario’s sensitive flute.

You may be more familiar with Oscar Hernandez as the leader of a three-time Grammy winning all-star salsa band. This is a step away from that orchestrated sound to a more intimate presentation. Still, this seven-musician ensemble has a full and captivating sound that explores every nuance of the Hernandez compositions. Oscar Hernandez has a career that stretches back to the 1970’s. He has worked with Latin greats like Celia Cruz, Ismael Miranda, Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez, Conjunto Libre, Grupo Folkorico, as well as Ray Barreto and Ruben Blades. He was once Musical Director for Ray Barreto and Ruben Blades and also for the iconic Paul Simon. Not to mention, he was the orchestrator and arranger for Gloria Estefan. Known popularly for his formation of the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, a 13-piece all-star salsa big band. This Orchestra toots proudly their 3x GRAMMY awards and celebrates their 16-year existence. Look for their 7th release to bless our ears in 2020.

Every song on this album of fine music is well-written and memorable. Hernandez is an outstanding composer/arranger. This music easily demonstrates why this pianist and band leader is one of the most important voices in Latin music today.
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SUMITRA – “BITTERSWEET” Independent Label

Sumitra,piano/voice/composer; Brian Blade,drums/voice; Carlitos del Puerto, bass; Alex Machacek,guitars/strings.

Sumitra has a light, second-soprano tone that twinkles above her piano playing in a more pop than jazz vocal presentation. The first tune and the title of this album, “Bittersweet” is more jazz than the second song that is clearly pop music. However, Sumitra’s production is quite melodic and lyrically solid. She and guitarist/husband Alex Machacek, have lived and worked in the Los Angeles area since 2004, establishing a fan following and a musical identity all their own. Her lyrical chant, “mind, body, spirit, soul” on the second cut titled, “Make Me Whole” perhaps sums up the crux of her musical journey. This is her fourth album release. Sumitra’s publicist calls it a spiritual autobiography. Sumitra, the vocalist, is also a pianist, lyricist, composer and arranger. This production is sparse and her songs and vocals are right out front, the way they should be if she is pursuing a career as a singer/songwriter. On “Take the Reins” we are back to jazz funk. Sumitra uses interesting timing to create an effective track of musical interest. She sings one recognizable tune composed by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields; the popular “Just the Way You Look Tonight.” Other than that, you will be listening to all new and original music. This album reminds me more of an introduction to a singer/songwriter’s demo of material. These are good songs, presented by a multi-dimensional artist.


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DANIEL MERON – “EMBRACING WILD” Independent Label

Daniel Meron,piano/Rhodes/composer; Keren-Or Tayar,vocals; Pablo Menares,bass; Felix Lecaros,drums.

This is Daniel Meron’s fourth record release as a bandleader. He exhibits a playful, spontaneous, effortless talent on the piano keys and his compositions are well-constructed and melodic. Using the pretty vocals of Keren-Or Tayar on the second cut, “Morning Shadows” to deliver his original composition, I am drawn to her vocal tone. This is more pop than jazz, with a poetic lyric that I put headphones in place to listen to and critique. I wish he had included printed lyrics inside the CD package. It was hard to connect the title with the sometimes-indistinct lyrics, especially when the vocalist used the line “Singing my own song” to fade out the tune. “Morning Shadows” may have been the more appropriate lyrical fade, since it was not mentioned much in the song. Meron’s arpeggio-laden solo turns into a repetitive groove to allow drummer, Felix Lecaros, to take stage center on his trap drums. He sparkles in the spotlight. On the tune, “Newborn” bassist Pablo Menares is featured and his solo is appealing, with a background support that sounds very Middle Eastern or world music-like. I keep waiting for the “Wild” to appear, (i.e.: the album title, “Embracing Wild”) but even the title tune is not wild. Obviously, my idea and Daniel Meron’s idea of wild are quite different. Still, his original compositions are well-played and comfortable to listen to. They are classically fused and technically adept. However, I would have enjoyed hearing Daniel Meron dig deeper and express himself more freely on his piano and keyboards. Improvisation is the concept that propels jazz, and I didn’t hear enough of that musical freedom in his playing. Instead, Meron plays locked into the melody, holding it, buttoned close to his vest. I enjoyed hearing Pablo Menares bow his bass on “Sunrise,” a brief one-minute and forty-seconds long, like an interlude. On “I Am Now” Ms. Or Tayar is back to vocalize lyrics that do not have a hook or do not seem to express the title. This, however, is artistic freedom on behalf of the composer. I yield to that. On track-eight, she sings in what I believe is Yiddish; a song titled, “Darkness and Light.” It’s has a very haunting melody and is one of my favorites on this album of original songs, even if I cannot understand the lyrics. There are traces of folk music in this production that reflect Meron’s homeland of Israel, with all its minor modes exposed like teardrops against skin. Finally, “Jolly Beggar” embraces a slow swing that allows Menares to walk his bass and Lecaros to swing his drum sticks in a happy-go-lucky way. Meron stays cemented in the melodic chord structure, letting Pablo stretch out on the double bass and improvise freely. This is easy listening jazz that showcases the pianist’s composition skills.
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BLIND LEMON JAZZ -“AFTER HOURS” OFEH Records

James Byfield/Blind Lemon Pledge,guitar/vocals/composer/arranger/producer; Marisa Malvino,vocals; Ben Flint,keyboards/arranger; Peter Grenell,bass; Joe Kelner, drums.

James Byfield, aka: Blind Lemon Pledge, has a rich, distinctive vocal style and when he introduces songs like “If Beale Street Was a Woman,” you believe him.

Blind Lemon has composed every song on this, his seventh album release. Ben Flint plays a mean, blues piano and enhances the rooted, blues-Americana music that Blind Lemon produces. The composer’s lyrics are wonderful, creative and inspired. Blind Lemon comes up with a freshness to his blues and jazz compositions, writing unexpected lyrics like:

“… Blues got funny habits, like pacing on the floor, rattlin’ on the windows and knockin’ on my door, blues is tryin’ to get to me, but I don’t know what for. Blues is just a feelin’ if what they say is true, it feels so real when it gets inside of you… I’m livin’ my life with the blues.”

His melodies are strong, but the production is weak and the mix on the instruments is poorly done. You can hardly discern the bass and drums, which would have enriched this project. Also, where is Blind Lemon’s guitar? You finally hear him play guitar and sing on “Blue Heartbreak.” I wish he had sung every one of his songs. The voice of Marisa Malvino is featured on vocals, but the voice of Blind Lemon is much more provocative and emotional. Also, all the songs seem to be written in the same key. It’s too bad, because these are well-written songs with creative, heart-felt lyrics. This album sounds more like a demo than a finished project.
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AHMAD JAMAL – “BALLADES” Jazzbook Records

Ahmad Jamal,piano/composer; James Cammack,double bass.

A “Ballade” is a short and lyrical piece of piano music or could refer to a poem using triplets or stanzas. Surely the music of Ahmad Jamal is both lyrical and poetic, royally entertaining us over a span of five decades into infinity. That’s why I was so excited to listen to this new Ahmad Jamal recording. He has been a favorite of mine since his initial release of the now historically popular “Poinciana” record and his 33-1/3 classic album “But Not For Me.” As a teenager, I played that record over and over again until the grooves were deeply rooted and the vinyl was unfortunately scratched.

This current work of art, that celebrates one of our geniuses of jazz, showcases the brilliance of this legendary pianist in all his singular beauty. On three songs, he is joined by James Cammack on bass. However, the remaining seven songs are all presented as solo piano. He rejuvenates old standards like “I Should Care,” the treasured, “What’s New” and Rodger & Hart’s “Spring Is Here” becomes a collaborative medley with the Bill Evans tune, “Your Story.” Another gem is his interpretation of “Emily.” Inclusive in this production are Jamal’s original compositions, “Marseille,” “Because I Love You,” “Whisperings” and a recapitulation of “Poinciana.” Ahmad Jamal’s music is inspired and solidly rooted in technique with an emotional delivery by this master, bent over his instrument, with concentrated bravura.

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