2020 – A YEAR THAT PROMISES SWEET, MUSICAL SURPRISES

By jazz journalist, Dee Dee McNeil
January 1, 2020

ANTHONY JEFFERSON – “ALL I AM” Independent Label

Anthony Jefferson, vocals; Corey Allen, piano/keyboards; Federico Mendez, guitar; Pengbian Sang, bass; Esar Simo, bass; Guy Frometa, drums; Sly de Moya, drums/percussion; Tom McCauley, guitar/percussion; SPECIAL GUESTS: Mark Rapp, trumpet; Patricia Pereyra, vocals; Gustavo A. Hostos, vocals; The CORRY ALLEN STRINGS: Milena Zivkovic, Igor Vasiljevic & Zvezdana Radojkovic. The CORRY ALLEN HORNS: Ernesto Nunez & Pedro Liberato, trumpet; Sandy Gabriel, alto saxophone; Jesus Abru, tenor saxophone; Gabriel Parra, baritone saxophone; Carlos Torres, trombone. Background Vocals: Sabrina Estepan, Benny Hiraldo, Emmanuel Pena & Fende Sincere.

His voice is butter smooth. The opening tune invites you into the world of Anthony Jefferson who says, quite believably, “if you look in my heart, you’ll find that I’m someone who loves you; that’s what I am.” And I believe him! Written by Al Jarreau and George Benson, this opening song was so melodic and the lyrics so poignant, I pushed replay. Anthony Jefferson has a voice that’s fireplace warm and just as inviting. His tone and phrasing sometimes reminds me of Nat King Cole. Coincidentally, the second track on this album, “Marnie,” happens to be a composition by Bernard Hermann and Nat Cole penned the lyrics. It opens with the Corey Allen strings beautifully setting the mood. Arranged like a Latin ballad, Jefferson’s baritone voice soars emotionally above this lovely production. He has used some of the finest musicians in the Dominican Republic to record these eleven romantic tunes.

Anthony Jefferson has been living in the Dominican Republic for a decade, but was born and raised in New Orleans, the heartbeat of jazz music. He studied piano from age five to thirteen and sang in his church choir. Drawn to California, he moved to Los Angeles and attended Los Angeles City College, studying musical theater. Later, he auditioned to attend the school created by Walt Disney, the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), to hone his vocal skills. He was accepted with a full scholarship and studied classical music first, then transferred to the jazz department. After two years, the Dean suggested he attend Berklee College of Music in Boston. So, the globetrotter headed East. When Jefferson’s mother passed away, soon after his studies at Berklee were completed, he returned to New Orleans. There he was mentored by Ellis Marsalis and enrolled in the University of New Orleans.

When Anthony Jefferson sings “Besame Mucho” his rendition is both classical, sexy and soulful. He begins in Spanish. He’s then joined by award-winning Dominican singer, Patricia Pereyra. She too oozes emotion during her amazing vocal contribution. Together, this arrangement is stunning and features the talented Federico Mendez who adds a captivating guitar solo.

This entire album is romantic and combines selections from the great American Songbook, (Night and Day, Summertime, Willow Weep for Me), mixed with more recent and popular songs like “Rainy Night in Georgia” and the R&B hit record by Billy Paul, “Me and Mrs. Jones.” There’s also an original song by Jefferson and his writing partner, an outstanding trumpeter, Mark Rapp. Their song is titled, “In The Presence Of.” Anthony Jefferson adds the pop tune, “You’ve Got A Friend” which may be popular during his stage acts, but for this reviewer, he peels the polish off of an otherwise sparkling, jazz-fused presentation.

Although I can hear shades of Al Jarreau in the voice of Anthony Jefferson and the influence of Nat Cole, he is definitely his own man and a compelling artist. One of the things that can crown an artist with success is when that artist has a signature sound. The other thing is the ability of such an artist to record both the emotion and tone of their voice during a studio session. Some artists are amazing in person, but cannot transmit that when participating in a recording session. Anthony Jefferson can clearly do it all. Every song on this project is effectively produced, well-sung and believable. Additionally, the musicians featured on his project are crème-de-la-crème. Sandy Gabriel on alto saxophone is dynamic and inspired. I love the instrumental tracks. Listening to this production is a wonderful way to begin the New Year. Anthony Jefferson’s romantic release will be available January 20, 2020.
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JULIEN HUCQ – “LIGHT BLUE”
Early Bird Records

Julien Hucq, alto saxophone; Claudio Roditi, trumpet; George Cables, piano; Marcos Varela, bass; Victor Lewis, drums.

Employing the line-up of these iconic musicians, how can reedman, Julien Hucq, present us with anything but a powerful and enjoyable project? This album is named for the Monk composition, “Light Blue,” so I had a preconceived notion that it was going to be a bebop jazz album. It starts out with straight-ahead energy on “Mudd’s Mode” and I am not disappointed. On track #2, “Light,” Claudio Roditi is outstanding on his trumpet and during his solo exploration of the chord changes, the rhythm section really swings hard. George Cables skips along masterfully on the piano keys and bassist, Marcos Varela holds the tempo and solidifies the rhythm section, in step and locked tightly with Victor Lewis on drums. Julien Hucq has written this original tune and it’s melodically catchy. Roditi has composed track #3, “This One Is For Us” with co-writer Ricardo Silviera. It brightens this production with a Latin theme and dancing horn harmonics. Julien Hucq’s alto saxophone glides through the changes of this song like warm honey, sweet and fluid during his solo. Varela steps stage center on his double bass and commands the attention, followed by a brief drum improvisation by Victor Lewis. On the familiar, “Here’s That Rainy Day,” George Cables is the star on piano, giving an emotional and inspired delivery on the 88 keys. After performing the title tune, this ensemble closes their recording with another composition by Hucq titled, “6-X.” It’s a spirited piece, with horn harmonies dominant between Julien Hucq and Claudio Roditi to introduce and end this arrangement.

Julien Hucq is a native of Charleroi, Belgium and comes from a family of musicians. He is heralded as a composer, arranger, performer and bandleader. Hucq currently resides in New York City, since relocating to the United States in 2012. Determined to make jazz music his life and career path, Hucq graduated with a Master of Arts degree from the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, City University of New York. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the Jazz Department of Conservatoire de Lausanne, in Switzerland in alto saxophone and composition. Also, he is proud of his Diplome d’Etudes Musicales from the Jazz Department of Conservatoire National de la Region de Paris, CNR, France, in alto saxophone.

On the whole, this is an album deeply influenced by Bebop and straight-ahead jazz. Julien Hucq shows great promise as a composer and by surrounding himself with stable and legendary talent like George Cables, Victor Lewis and Claudio Roditi, he offers us this, his sixth album release. This is a talented, alto saxophone player, soaring towards rainbow dreams and striving for the ultimate pot of gold.
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MARIA MENDES – “CLOSE TO ME” featuring Metropole Orkest & John Beasley Justin Time Records

Maria Mendes, vocals/percussion/composer; John Beasley, keyboards/orchestration/ arranger/percussion/conductor; Karel Boehlee, piano; Jasper Samsen,acoustic bass; Jasper van Hulten,drums/percussion; Vincent Houdijk,vibraphone; Metropol Orkest.

The challenge of reviewing this beautiful piece of music is that I cannot speak nor understand the language. However, I can clearly feel the passion when Maria Mendes is singing, and I enjoy her lovely soprano tones. She explained her project in this way:

“Fado music is eternal and undeniable for the Portuguese. It is our way to evoke ‘saudade;’ Longing for the past and hoping it becomes present once again. But it is also universal. We all have those feelings in life. I still remember hearing Mariza singing ‘Barco Negro’ at age 18. The emotions I felt that day are indescribable. It all changed for me in that very moment. The words, melody, delivery … all I could do was surrender,” Maria Mendes confesses.

I found the beauty of Maria Mendes’ voice and the mastery of producer, arranger, John Beasley to be a perfect match. Of course, I would love to know what her lyrics are saying. Perhaps she could have indulged we English-speaking fans and included an English lyric sheet for the benefit of those who do not speak Portuguese. Still, the orchestra is magnificent and the John Beasley’s production and musicianship is infectious.

Maria spoke about the orchestra. “Working with John Beasley and the Metropole Orkest has really opened up new, musical possibilities. We found a lighter, more adventurous spirit that is still respectful to the poetry and intensity of the tradition. It felt like many of these songs were calling to us, yearning for a connection to a new age. And we answered in a new language. … I have been able to explore my relationship to my homeland and what being Portuguese means to me. I cherish my heritage, but I also realize that being so far away from home over the past 13 years has made me the artist and woman I am. I am thankful for that.”

Maria Mendes has been living in the Netherlands for several years, yet her connection to Portugal is absolutely strong and undeniable. She has composed three songs on this CD. They are Danca do Amor, Fado Da Invejosa and Tempo Emotive. Maria considers herself a singer/songwriter and Consequently, this project unfolds as a symphonic jazz approach to Fado.

“It is not Fado,”Maria clarifies. “I only used the music and poetry from this genre, but made a completely personal interpretation of it, with new arrangements.”

The thing this reviewer can attest to, while listening to Maria Mendes’ range and presentation, is that she often sounds like a jungle bird. She seems aligned to nature in her vocal delivery and there is a freedom in her singing that sounds improvised and uncharted in a lovely way.

“I turned to some of our greatest musical masters including Carlos Paredes and Amalia Rodrigues. They also inspired me to write my own songs; to combine my love of jazz with my affection for Portugal. A project was taking shape and magical things began to happen,” Maria marveled at the power of music and culture to wrap their arms around each other.

Incorporating the repertoire of Portuguese greats such as Carlos Paredes and Amalia Rodrigues, Maria Mendes explores her love for jazz, tenderly blending that musical love into her affection for Portugal. Her musical gurus, the Brazilian legend, Hermeto Pascoal, even wrote a Fado song especially for her to interpret; “Hermeto’s Fado for Maria.” To explore this new music, the multi-GRAMMY award winning Metropole Orkest stepped forward. They include thirty musicians led by conductor and Grammy Award-nominated jazz pianist and composer, John Beasley. Beasley wrote the orchestrations and plays piano and percussion on this unique project. “Close To Me” is the third album for Mendes and was released internationally. Although there will be those of us who do not understand the language, that does not keep us from relating to the passion and beauty of Maria Mendes’ amazing voice. Her vocal interpretations are expressive, emotive and honest; full of deep, down human feelings, coming from an emotional space, where we all can relate.
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LILA AMMONS – GENEALOGY Independent Label

Lila Ammons,vocals; Robert Everest,guest vocal; Bryan Nichols, Javier Santiago & Benny Weinbeck,keys; Jeff Bailey,acoustic & electric bass; Arthur “LA” Bruckner & Kevin Washington,drums; Robert Everest,acoustic guitar; David Feily,electric guitar; Pete Whitman,tenor saxophone/flute.

As soon as I saw the name ‘Ammons’ I wondered if Lila Ammons was related to the late, great Gene Ammons. It turns out, she is his niece. For many years, I was a big fan of the Gene Ammons jazz saxophone style. He leaves big shoes to fill. Lila Ammons celebrates his legacy richly on her “Genealogy” release. Like her famous uncle, Lila has a distinctive sound and approach to interpreting some of the familiar jazz standards we have embraced over the years. She is both expressive and emotional on tunes like Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood.” She sometimes takes melodic liberties with the original melody, but never before she sings the song down once the way the composer wrote it. This is an old-school, unspoken law passed down from jazz master to jazz master. With her wide range and tone, Lila breathes new life into songs like “No Moon at All” and “Old Folks.”

She surprises me by singing in Portuguese on “E Precisco Perdoar,” where she’s joined by the smooth vocals of Robert Everest. The combination of their voices is silky smooth and compelling. Kevin Washington’s bright drums propel this spirited Brazilian tune forcefully.

Lila Ammons is diverse in her eclectic choice of tunes. Track #5 is a low-down blues titled,“Blues, You’re the Mother of Sin,” and features Benny Weinbeck presenting a soulful, bluesy piano accompaniment. On Track #6, enter Pete Whitman, fluid on his tenor saxophone and pulling us back to the jazzy side on the tune, “I Feel You” composed by Bill Cantos. At times, Lila’s vocal style reminds me of Esther Sattersfield, but for sure she has her own vocal identity. I felt some of the arrangements were unappreciative of this singer’s talents, like the Monk tune, “Man, That Was A Dream” or (Monk’s Dream). Lila Ammons is undeterred by the dissonance and stays on melodic point, but the arrangement takes away from her smooth delivery of this famous Thelonious Monk composition. Her attention to an emotional delivery on ballads like “Sophisticated Lady” showcases Lila’s control and classical technique. Lila Ammons summed up her expectations for this production in her liner notes.

“Music has taken me from opera to classic blues, to jazz, and this CD is a reflection of all of these experiences and expressions. I’ve wanted to sing jazz for a long time and also to find a way to celebrate my family legacy. “Genealogy” is allowing me to do both. I am celebrating my grandfather, Albert Ammons and uncle, Gene Ammons; paying homage to jazz heritage.”
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BRIAN SCANLON – “BRAIN SCAN” Independent Label

Brian Scanlon, tenor & alto saxophones/composer; Ed Czach & Tom Ranier, piano; Trey Henry, acoustic & Elec. bass; Peter Erskine, drums; Avery Scanlon, Andrew Synowic & Larry Koonse, Guitar; Joey De Leon, percussion.

The first thing I noticed about this album release is that ‘brain’ is an anagram for Brian and ‘scan’ is the front half of Brian Scanlon’s last name. This gave me a clue into the artist’s personality and I presume he’s a deep-thinker and probably quite intelligent. Reading from his biography, I discover this saxophonist has created quite a career over the past three decades as a studio musician, making a lucrative living performing on movie soundtracks like Crazy Rich Asians, La La Land, The Secret Life of Pets and TV shows like The Simpsons, Family Guy, Mad Men, Murder She Wrote and American Dad. This exemplifies that Brian Scanlon is a studied musician and one who reads music swiftly and accurately. Those kinds of quick-reading players usually get the movie and TV calls. Scanlon has worked in a variety of band settings, including holding the first tenor saxophone chair with Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band and he was part of the Life in the Bubble CD, recorded by that band. They won a Grammy in 2015 for Best Large Jazz Ensemble.

While growing up in New Jersey, young Scanlon began playing the saxophone in the fourth grade. He was probably inspired by his grandfather, who was a professional sax man. He remembers sitting on his grandfather’s lap and blowing into the horn while his grandpa fingered the levered keys. Years later, he would attain his Master’s degree in Jazz Studies and Contemporary Media from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. Shortly after graduation, he landed a job with a touring company for the musical, Pippin’. Because of this tour, he relocated to Los Angeles at age 26 and quickly found session work. The rest is history. He’s been a closet composer for twenty-five years and he finally decided to step into the spotlight and record his own CD, featuring his original music.

His music is a lovely blend of straight-ahead jazz and smooth jazz. Scanlon knows just when to add the funk to his arrangements and has employed a number of West Coast jazz musicians who more than adequately interpret his compositions. Scanlon’s original music is diverse and reflects his eclectic attitude towards music. After all, he’s played in so many various situations and with a variety of talents including Ben Vereen, Dizzy Gillespie, Doc Severinsen, Seth McFarlane, Bob Dylan, Arturo Sandoval, Randy Newman, Tony Bennett and Phil Woods, to list just a scattering of the various influences who have shaped his musical taste. Over time, he has mastered just about all the saxophones and woodwind instruments, but he’s featured on tenor and alto saxophones during this project. Some of my favorite pieces are his quite original arrangement of “Harlem Nocturne” and his original composition titled, “El Entrometido,” where Tom Ranier offers an outstanding piano solo and Peter Erskine trades fours and then takes time to show us his excellence on the trap drums. Joey De Leon adds brightness with his percussion input. On Harlem Nocturne, you can hear Scanlon’s love for the music of John Coltrane and Charlie Parker surface. Also, his love of blues pours through the bell of his horn like honey.

Another favorite, that’s more smooth jazz flavored, is “Re-Entry” that he wrote as an homage to Grover Washington and David Sanborn. This explores the more commercial side of Scanlon and gives guitarist, Andrew Synowiec a time to shine. Scanlon’s horn solo reminds me a lot of Ernie Watts on this tune. His saxophone is both melodic and forceful, stepping away from straight-ahead and putting his feet solidly into an R&B groove with a flair for contemporary arranging. This song makes me think, hand me my dancing shoes! I like the way Scanlon paces his album. I hear so many projects that just get stuck in one specific tempo and never explore their instrumental uniqueness or potential. You won’t find that true with Brian Scanlon. He is both unique, exploratory and his compositions are well-written and melodic. This project is never boring. Quite the opposite. An example is the pretty ballad he wrote for Nancy, (“Not Watching”) that brings peace and pleasure to the ear. It still exudes energy, with that slow-jam-funk riding underneath provided by drummer, Peter Erskine. Here is a project full of creativity, technique and musical surprises.
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VALERY PONOMAREV BIG BAND LIVE! – “OUR FATHER WHO ART BLAKEY:THE CENTENNIAL Summit Records

Valery Ponomarev, bandleader/trumpet/arranger; Victor Jones,drums; Rusian Khain, bass; Mamiko Watanabe,piano; Todd Bashore & Chris Hemingway,alto saxophones; Peter Brainin & Steve Carrington,tenor saxophones; Anthony Nelson,baritone sax; Stafford Hunter, Alvin Walker, Jimmy O’Connel & Jack Jeffers,trombones; Rick Henly, David Neves, Antoine Drye & Waldon Ricks,trumpets.

In tribute to the works of the great drummer and bandleader, Art Blakey, and in celebration of what would have been his 100th birthday, Valery Ponomarev assembled some of New York City’s finest jazz cats. This is Ponomarev’s second big band recording and he has used this recording to show his passion about never forgetting the music, nor the spirit of Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers.

Opening with Wayne Shorter’s “Tell It Like It Is” Valery Ponomarev takes a trumpet solo, along with Peter Brainin on tenor saxophone. Alvin Walker offers a featured bass solo and there’s a spirited drum solo by Victor Jones. Like the announcer says at the racetrack, We are off and running!

Bandleader and trumpeter, Valery Ponomarev, carries his father’s Russian name, but he never knew his father. He has often said that Art Blakey became his father figure during the time he arrived in America and played as part of the Jazz Messengers. That was from 1976 to 1980. Blakey’s group set high standards for all the bebop and hardbop groups that followed. Ponomarev still marvels that as a totally unknown musician from Russia, Art Blakey chose him to fill the trumpet spot in his Jazz Messenger group. Just contemplating the legacy that followed still gives Valery pause. He marvels at the iconic names of those who (after him) became part of the Jazz Messenger legacy like Clifford Brown, Kenny Dorham, Donald Byrd, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Bill Hardman, Wynton Marsalis and so many other talented trumpet players.

Although Valery Ponomarev is only featured on trumpet twice during this project, he is proud of his inspired arrangements and the talented musicians who play those arrangements. This jazz journalist was struck by the baritone saxophone solo of Anthony Nelson on “One by One,” and Mamiko Watanabe’s creative and improvisational piano solos are stellar throughout. It is obvious that Mr. Ponomarev knows how to capture the energy and essence of Art Blakey. The band ‘smokes’ on “Caravan” and features a fiery solo by Todd Bashore on alto saxophone, with Nelson on Bari sax again and Valery Ponomarev on trumpet. Once again, the sensuous fingers of Mamiko Watanabe pull the best out of the 88-keys. There are a number of other soloists who are super stars in their own rights like Stafford Hunter on trombone and trumpeter, Antoine Drye. The appreciation and responsive applause from a ‘live’ audience solidifies this reviewer’s opinion that Valery Ponomarev’s big band makes magical music. Peter Brainin dances his tenor saxophone all over the tune, “Webb City” written by Bud Powell. On “Quick Silver” the horn lines swing and sing at a brisk tempo. Their repeated harmonic refrain pulls the curtains open for various soloists to step forward and bask in the spotlight. Chris Hemmingway shines on his alto sax and Waldron Ricks is bright and formidable on trumpet.

You will enjoy playing this gutsy, energized, hardbop album over and over again.
Special thanks to arranger, bandleader Valery Ponomarev for his fabulous tribute album and Happy Birthday to Art Blakey. May his musical candles never be blown out and may his amazing legacy be celebrated, like a jazzy birthday party, from one generation to the next.
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DAVE SOLDIER – “ZAJAL” Mulatta Records

Dave Soldier, guitar/keyboards/composer/arrangements; Ana Nimouz, Triana Bautista, David Castellano, Barbara Martinez, Ismael Fernandez, Anais Tekarian, vocals; Maurice Chedid,oud/vocals; Ratzo Harris,bass; Chris Washburne, Dan Blacksberg, trombones; Phillip Payton, Rebecca Cherry,solo violins; Alan Kushan,sentur; Lefteris Bournias,clarinet; Mahmoud Hamadani,recitation; Jose Moreno, hand percussion/trap drums/vocals; Robby Ameen,timbales; Ismael Fernandez & Sonia Olla, palmas/jaleo; Neli Tirado,palmas; Roxy Young,additional keyboards & samples.

I learned,from the publicity package,that Dave Soldier is celebrating popular songs from 1000 years ago that intersected and embraced Muslim, Jewish and Christian cultures in Southern Spain. Zajal features the lyrics of medieval Andalusia. The lyrics are by the major Arabic and Hebrew poets of medieval Spain. There is one song by the Persian contemporary of these poets, Rumi, who writes in Farsi. Many of these songs are still sung and celebrated in places like Lebanon. Dave Soldier became fascinated with this music during a trip to Spain. This is definitely a World Music production. It features vocalization in foreign languages including Arabic, Hebrew, early Spanish and Farsi from Andalusia. This reviewer was captivated by the Arabian influences, the minor modes of Jewish music tradition and the similarities between the three religious cultures translated to music. The first tune titled, “The Spy” is full of energy and rhythm. Lead singer,Ana Nimouz, has a beautiful, hypnotic tone to her voice.

Dave Soldier’s guitar implementation is prominent on the 5th track, “Bi-moa” which means, ‘Without Myself.’ This one is sung in Farsi. Track six is the only one where Dave Soldier wrote both music and lyrics. He calls this composition, “The Stars of Country Music Greet the Spring.”

Although many of the musicians on this album are jazz musicians, this is not jazz. Still, I found Dave Soldier’s production quite entertaining and very unique. Since we are living in an ever-expanding time of connection to the world (thanks to technology), I think this music is important to review. If you are looking to bathe your ears in some music that is fresh and culturally different, this recording may be the very thing to get your creative juices flowing. It is certainly a sweet, musical surprise.
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