VOICES ON FIRE, A CELEBRATION OF ART BLAKEY & SAXOPHONE SERENADES

VOICES ON FIRE, A CELEBRATION OF ART BLAKEY AND SAXOPHONE SERENADES
BY Dee Dee McNeil/jazz journalist

October 28, 2019

CALABRIA FOTI – “PRELUDE TO A KISS” Moco Records

Calabria Foti, vocals/violin/arranger; Roger Kellaway,piano; Trey Henry, bass; Peter Erskine,drums; Larry Koonse,guitar; Bob McChesney,trombone; George Doering, guitar; Luis Conte,percussion; John Pizzarelli,vocals/guitar; WOODWINDS: Dan Higgins,flute/alto flute/clarinet; Gene Cipriano,oboe; Glen Berger, oboe/bass clarinet; Geoff Nudell,flute/clarinet; Rose Corrigan & Bob Carr,bassoon; Terry Harrington,flute/clarinet; Bob Crosby, clarinet/bass clarinet; FRENCH HORNS: Jim Thatcher(principal); Jenny Kim, Katie Faraudo, & Dan Kelley; VIOLINS: Charlie Bisharat, concertmaster; Songa Lee, Principal second; Kevin Connolly, Lucia Micarelli, Nina Evtuhov, Joselina Vergara, Radu Pieptea, Tereza Stanistav, Armen Anassian, Marisa Kuney, Kevin Kumar, Ben Jacobsen, Michele Richards, & Jackie Brand; VIOLAS: Brian Dembow, principal; Andrew Duckles, Alma Fernandez & Rob Brophy. CELLOS: Armen Ksajkian, principal; Cameron Stone, Tina Soule & Jacob Braun; HARP: Gail levant.

The string sections sweeps into the room like an ocean wave of beauty. Calabria Foti’s amazingly velvet-smooth vocals float atop the string orchestra arrangements like a custom-built yacht. This is her fourth album release and it may be her best to date. With Charlie Bisharat conducting the orchestra and the arrangements by such talents as Johnny Mandel, Roger Kellaway, Bob McChesney, Jorge Calandrelli and Jeremy Lubbock, how could she miss? Their creative support and instrumental mastery make this project sparkle and constellate.

Opening with the title tune, “Prelude to a Kiss” the listener is gently propelled into a musical world of peace and beauty. Duke Ellington must be smiling and nodding approval from heaven. Her various song choices are perfectly adept to both Calabria Foti’s style and range. The second tune, “I Had to Fall in Love with You,” is another lovely ballad, presented with much emotion and a guitar solo by Larry Koonse. Then, on track three, Calabria Foti refurbishes “On the Street Where You Live.” She arranged it herself and she swings the popular standard with the spirited drums of Peter Erskine propelling the piece at a brisk pace. Calabria Foti takes this opportunity to show-off her jazzy scat singing abilities. Foti shows us she is also an amazing arranger and has arranged and/or co-arranged some of these songs, as well as being a very competent violinist. “Waltz for Debby,” is a challenging tune by Bill Evans and Calabria Foti makes it sound as easy as breathing in and out. Her voice gently caresses the melody and shares the poetry. Calabria Foti has a way of connecting with her listening audience and drawing you into her stories, quicksand deep. This is followed by a song I hadn’t heard before and I love it. “When I Look in Your Eyes.” (another pretty ballad) is both lyrically and melodically pleasing. Her medley, “Back in Your Own Backyard,” just using a small ensemble, with a jazzy, walking bass by Trey Henry, allows Foti to swing a couple of great tunes in a glistening chain of jazzy inuendoes, including “Give Me the Simple Life” and “The Love Nest.”

This is an album I will play over and over again. In fact, these song arrangements and this wonderful vocalist, with the support of master instrumentalists, will light up any room. They offer spectacular, fiery performances. One more thing, the vocal duet on “It’s the Mood That I’m In,” with dynamic guitarist, John Pizzarelli, is spellbinding. Calabria adds her violin chops on this arrangement. Also, her tender orchestrated interpretation of “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” delights! This musical production is bound to warm any chilly evening and would make a great gift. Better get two. You’ll want to keep one for yourself.

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MIKE CADY –“TWICE AS NICE” Independent Label

Mike Cady,vocals; Mike Levine, piano; Jamie Ousley,bass; Lenny Steinberg,drums; Joe Donato, saxophone.

Mike Cady has reached back into the 1950’s jazz archives, when King Pleasure and Eddie Jefferson were writing lyrics to horn solos, and the Lambert Hendricks & Ross vocal group was spitting vocalese to vinyl. Cady opens with “Little Boy Don’t Get Scared,” a composition by Stan Getz with lyrics by Jon Hendricks and King Pleasure. Mike Cady swings hard on this opening tune, reminding us of an artform that broke ground for Hip Hop, before it was a twinkle in the twentieth century eye. The lyrics flow fast and powerfully, like a saxophone spitting words. On the second track, his delivery of the ballad, “Never Let Me Go,” is tender and believable. Mike Cady’s rich baritone voice proffers us a unique style all his own and that’s what makes for a memorable jazz artist. Mike Levine plays a lovely, piano solo on this tune. Cady follows this up with the Sam Jones composition, “Del Sasser” that the Cannonball Adderley’s Quintet epitomized on their “Them Dirty Blues” Capitol Jazz album. Carmen McRae wrote the lyrics to this song and retitled it, “If You Never Fall in Love with Me.” Mike Cady does a great job of re-interpreting this jazz standard. Jamie Ousley pumps his double bass on this one, locking in the ‘swing’ with Lenny Steinberg on drums. Together, they make a rich rhythm section for Mike Levine to dance brightly across the 88-keys.

He rejuvenates a song from the Lou Rawls vinyl, 33-1/3 rpm-record-days titled, “One Life to Live.” The lyrics perpetuate a hopeful attitude and a reminder that we all have only one life to live so live it in peace, live it in truth, live it in love. The theme of Cady’s album (on the lyrical-side) seems to remind us that we need to take a serious look at living our lives to the fullest extent and to appreciate living and loving. Cady tackles “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life” and takes some liberties with the melody, a melody that is already so amazing, it probably needs no changing; especially that first, opening line. That being said, Cady knows how to sell a song and puts much emotion into his presentations. “Come Back to Me,” is another bebop swing arrangement. The trio is dynamic and pushes this vocalist with their power. It’s a pleasant surprise when Cady sings, “Something Cool,” the song that June Christy made famous in 1953. Cady is a supreme storyteller and you feel that he is singing this story directly to you. His vocal style breaks the words up like flashy pieces of confetti that he sprinkles around the room. This is Cady’s debut album and it’s a joyful celebration, perfect for the holidays.
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THE JOSHUA BREAKSTONE TRIO – “CHILDREN OF ART” (A TRIBUTE TO ART BLAKEY’S JAZZ MESSENGERS Capri Records

Joshua Breakstone,guitar; Eliot Zigmund,drums; Martin Wind,bass.

Opening with Lee Morgan’s composition, “The Witchdoctor,” Joshua Breakstone take the lead on his guitar and sets the pace for this celebration of what would have been Art Blakey’s 100th birthday year. Breakstone has chosen a cluster of songs that were composed by members of the famous Jazz Messengers’ congregation. Eliot Zigmund, on drums, offers a powerful solo and then slaps the trio back to a brisk medium tempo groove. Their second track, “Splendid” shines the spotlight on bassist, Martin Wind. He opens this tune with a melodic improvisation and displays a rich tone on his double bass. Breakstone keeps the rhythm tightly apparent beneath Wind’s solo, strumming his guitar and locking-in with Zigmund’s drums. This trio presents a tightly knit package of jazz that features Joshua Breakstone’s guitar. Breakstone is solid as the bricks and mortar of the Fillmore East theater where his sister used to work as a light technician. He remembers sitting in the theater and soaking up the music of Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa. His love of music developed early. Soon, he became infatuated with jazz and shortly thereafter, deeply influenced by Charlie Parker and Lee Morgan. One of my favorite cuts on this CD is Cedar Walton’s “Holy Land.”

As a serious student of guitarist, Sal Salvador in Manhattan, helped Joshua hone his chops. Later, he enrolled at the new College of the University of South Florida. They have a legacy of turning out a slew of jazz giants and the university continuously features popular jazz bands. Joshua also attended Berklee College of Music. With his lust for learning, the gypsy in his soul led him to Brazil. Once he returned to New York City, Breakstone began to get studio session calls and worked with several music giants including, saxophonist Glen Hall, Joanne Brackeen and Cecil McBee, as well as Billy Hart. In 1983, Joshua Breakstone recorded his debut album titled, “Wonderful.” Three and a half decades and twenty-one recordings later, he offers us this stellar trio production. This is his eighth recording for Capri records and it’s a beauty.
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CHRIS MADSEN – “BONFIRE” Outside In Music

Chris Madsen,tenor saxophone/composer; Stu Mindeman,piano; Clark Sommers,bass; Dana Hall,drums.

Chicago-based saxophonist, Chris Madsen, prowled through his old music scores and recorded ideas of songs he had written or was beginning to write in order to create this recent album of music. Madsen discovered songs that had lain dormant for years and began to re-work them into fresh arrangements and to polish his ideas. In so doing, he began to build a ladder of inner emotions. As Chris Madsen climbed inside himself, ever striving to reach the highest good in his music and in his composing, he has created gems like, “Lone Wolf.” This second track on his CD gives Clark Sommers an opportunity to use his double bass to interpret the crux of this song. It moves from a thoughtful, slow melody to a speedy, straight-ahead, powerhouse of sound. Madsen’s tenor saxophone smoothly rides the chordal waves, pushed by Dana Hall’s drums, as Sommers’ fast-walks his bass line. On the title tune, “Bonfire” pianist Stu Mindeman sets the tempo and groove, laying down a solid undertow of chords and piano technique that provides a richness beneath the tenor horn solo. Once Mindeman steps forward to solo, I find his improvisation skills to unfold tentatively, like a painter carefully choosing the shade of blue he wants to use and then splashing it across the canvas. He harmonizes with the tenor saxophone, using staccato notes that create a hook; a refrain that ties the piece together after ribbons of solo freedom.

There is lots of energy in this group. Dana Hall is responsible for quite a bit of this energy, providing his flashing drum sticks and crashing cymbals in all the right places. Chris Madsen and his ensemble build and crescendo on the composer’s various themes. Like a fire, they flicker at first and then burst into flame. This saxophonist has become more refined over the years. Together, his group creates a burning, hot and combustible piece of modern jazz, with a hard bop core. Other favorites on this album are the tune, “Hundred Center,” enhanced by Dana Hall’s mallets and offering almost a smooth jazz feel; surprising after three solid, modern jazz compositions; and “Cool Sun” offers a taste of R&B drum licks and punchy bass lines. But make no mistake, this is all jazz, top to bottom.
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SVETLANA –“NIGHT AT THE MOVIES” Starr Records

Svetlana Shmulyian, vocals; Wycliffe Gordon, vocals/trombone; Isabel Braun, vocals; Sullivan Fortner, piano; John Chin, piano/Fender Rhodes; Pasquale Grasso & Chico Pinheiro, guitar; Elias Bailey, bass; Matt Wilson & Rob Garcia, drums; Rogerio Bocatto, percussion; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Sam Sadigursky, reeds; Michael Davis, trombone; Antoine Silverman & Entcho Todorov, violins; Chris Cardona, viola; Emily Brausa, cello.

Some singers just have the “It” factor in their tone and presentation. Svetlana has a voice you will remember and you will probably recognize that voice immediately once you hear it again. This is often the sign of a stylist, rather than just another vocalist swimming in an over-crowded singer’s pool. She also has just the tinge of an accent coloring her English. Svetlana’s latest album celebrates love tunes from motion pictures. She opens with an Alan & Marilyn Bergman/ John Williams song titled, “Moonlight,” from the 1995 motion picture, “Sabrina.”

Svetlana is a soviet Russian who, as a young, artistic-driven girl, found excitement and dreamy escape in a Moscow, underground movie theater that played Western films. It became a window into a world Svetlana envisioned, where she would become a part of the art and music freedom of expression. Consequently, the title of this album seems quite appropriate; “Night at the Movies.” Years later, Svetlana immigrated to New York City and now, here she is, living her dream.

I wish she had arranged the second track, “Sooner or Later” as a ‘swing’ tune. It would have been dynamic with a pumping, walking bass and those lyrics would have danced as a swing arrangement. That being said, Svetlana competently performs this arrangement of the tune pulled from the movie, “Tracy.” She interprets it with cabaret style, featuring Sullivan Fortner on a bluesy piano solo. I get my wish for a ‘swing’ feel from this talented lady on “Cheek to Cheek,” where she vocally duets with Wycliffe Gordon. They offer us a play on Ella and Louie Armstrong’s strong duet recordings. Trombonist, Wycliffe Gordon, has a timbre and tone very similar to the iconic Armstrong. This tune is familiar to our ears, but I didn’t realize it dates all the way back to 1935 as part of the film, “Top Hat.” The arrangement and horn licks remind us of that 1930s era. ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’ gave us the gem of a tune, “Pure Imagination.” Svetlana presents it employing a slow, sexy Latin production. John-Erik Kellso takes a sweet trumpet solo. The hit record, “Happy” penned by Pharrell Williams, is reinvented in a very jazzy way. It still maintains its happy-go-lucky attitude as it swings along propelled by John Chin on piano and Rob Garcia’s brisk drum licks. This is another vocal duet with Svetlana and Wycliffe Gordon joining forces. If you’ve forgotten, this popular song that garnered gold-record -status, it was actually from the movie, “Despicable Me.”

I was glad to hear her sing, “No One’s Home” that she sings in her native Russian tongue. It’s a pretty tune with a Bossa Nova feel, taken from the production, “Irony of Fate”. This script became one of the most successful Soviet television programs and remains quite popular even today in modern Russia. Here is a vocalist who followed her dreams across continents. In the process, she built a fresh reality. How appropriate that Svetlana closes this CD with the ‘Wizard of Oz’ classic, “Over the Rainbow.” Surely, Svetlana has clicked her heels and flown over the rainbow to a world she heard of once in a lullaby. Now she sings that lullaby to us.
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LYNN CARDONA – “OPHELIA” Independent Label

Lynne Cardona,vocals/composer; Josh Nelson, acoustic & elec. Piano; Nazomi Yamaguchi,guitar; Michael Hunter,flugelhorn; Dave Robaire,upright & elec. Bass; Dan Schnelle,drums.

This is an EP, which means it’s is an album of music that offers only three songs, less than a normal album of music. However, it’s well produced and insightful into the artist. Lynn Cardona is labeled (by her publicist), a soul/jazz artist and singer/songwriter. The first cut, “A Little Too Late” is a happy production, with sad lyrics.

“When the leaves all beg the trees to let them go. … I’m reminded of a fellow that I know. Maybe he loves me, because he let me go. … And then springtime comes around and I’m swept away with daydreams and flowery fantasies. All the colors and the beauty offer themselves to me.”

The lyrics are quite insightful. The sadness in the rubato opening dissolves to an up-tempo, contemporary jazz production that becomes more hopeful, like Ms. Cardona’s poetic offering.

The second cut, “Mother Earth” celebrates womanhood and mother earth. Another poem put to music asking humanity to respect the earth, a home to us all, and in the same breath, to respect women. Like Mother Earth, who births nature, women carry the seed of man and perpetrate human life.

Matt Politano is to be congratulated on his sensitive and demonstrative arrangements for Lynn Cardona’s songs. She wrote “A Little Too Late” with Matt, who is a popular pianist around the Los Angeles jazz scene. This recording features the dynamic Josh Nelson on both acoustic and electric piano, interpreting these arrangements. On “Mother Earth” Lynn Cardona has collaborated with guitarist, Nazomi Yamaguchi. The final composition and EP title, “Ophelia” has a haunting melody that features a sensuous flugelhorn solo by Michael Hunter. Lynn co-wrote this song with Memphis organist, Charlie Wood. Sometimes Ms. Cardona reminds me a bit of Corinne Bailey Rae, an English singer/songwriter whose poetic lyrics capture the heart. The two vocalists have different vocal styles, but both write interesting and thoughtful lyrics. Lynn Cardona’s unique tone and composer skills can carry her far. Although only three songs, each offers quite thought-provoking words of wisdom.
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BRIA SKONBERG – “NOTHING NEVER HAPPENS” Independent Label

Bria Skonberg,vocals/trumpet/composer; Mathis Picard,piano; Devin Starks,bass; Doug Wamble,guitar; Jon Cowherd,Hammond B3; Darrian Douglas, drums/percussion; Patrick Bartley,saxophone.

The bass of Devin Starks powerfully opens this first track titled, “Blackout.” He sets the groove and garners the listener’s attention. When Bria Skonberg’s whispery, soprano vocals enter she establishes a pretty melody. Eli Wolf has produced this CD and obviously, he believes that simplicity will showcase this artist’s mastery of both her voice and her horn. I would have to agree. The sparseness in the production draws us to her unique sound and makes both her trumpet and her voice a star in the spotlight. Bria Skonberg sparkles. She is not only a delightful vocalist, but she’s a composer who writes interesting lyrics and unforgettable melodies. The second track, “So Is the Day,” mirrors the dirge -like groove of New Orleans jazz. Her horn is the exclamation mark on each original composition.

On the tune, “Square One,” her vocal timbre and style reminds me a little bit of Norah Jones. Skonberg has written six of the eight songs on this project and all are well-written, well-produced and well-played. “Villain Vanguard” gallops onto the scene with drum licks by Darrian Douglas that sound like horse hooves. This is an energy-driven song that draws the curtains open on Skonberg’s trumpet prowess She lets her horn do all the singing. The tempos unexpectedly change, like mood swings. Patrick Bartley joins her on saxophone and Skonberg delves into the realm of modern jazz and exploratory improvisation. There are many sides to Ms. Bria Skonberg’s multi-talents. The two songs she did not compose are the popular Beatle’s tune, “Blackbird Fantasy,” that is arranged in a trad jazz kind-of-way and features both piano and organ. The other cover song is the Sonny and Cher hit record, “Bang Bang,” featuring Doug Wamble’s poignant guitar and Skonberg’s canonical trumpet. The tune is arranged like a dramatic tango. “What Now?” is an original song with a bluesy undertone and gives Patrick Bartley an opportunity to solo on saxophone.

Bria Skonberg has a pop/jazz vocal style, but is all jazz on her trumpet. She’s a budding composer and these arrangements embrace the jazzy roots of New Orleans, whispers of a Dixieland influence, and an infusion of a younger, funkier style prominent on the closing instrumental, “I Want to Break Free.” The final song was somewhat marred by the drummer, who surprisingly remained slightly off-beat throughout this particular song. Compliments to the beautiful artwork on the CD cover by Lisa Lockhart. I would hang this on my wall!
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