Archive for February, 2020


February 15, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil

February 15, 2020

Art and music have always inspired resistance and encouraged reform. One of the important elements of Jazz is improvisation or changing the norm into something fresh, unique and different. Each artist I’m reviewing this month brings something outstanding to the table of change and artistry.

THANA ALEXA – “ONA” Independent Label

Thana Alexa, vocals/ keyboards/composer/producer; Carmen Staff, piano/Fender Rhodes/additional keyboards; Jordan Peters, guitar; Matt Brewer, acoustic and electric bass; Antonio Sanchez, drums/percussion/additional keyboards/co-producer; SPECIAL GUESTS: ROSA Vocal Group: Aleksandra Denda, Astrid Kuljanic, Tiffany Wilson, Shilpa Ananth, Valentina Blu Lombardi, Eleni Arapoglou; Nicole Zuraitis, Sofia Rei, Claudia Acuna, Sarah Charles, vocals; Staceyann Chinn, spoken word; Regina Carter, violin; Becca Stevens, vocals/ukulele/charango.

Thana Alexa has Croatian roots and incorporates her Croatian culture into her music. The title of this CD, “Ona” means “SHE” in her native Croatian language. As a composer, she has written most of the music on this revolutionary production. The title tune is embellished with the vocals of Nicole Zuraitis, Sofia Rei, Claudia Acuna and Sarah Charles along with the ROSA Vocal Group. The lyrics are protests against male domination, pay discrimination and is sung in both English and Croatian. The repetitive theme becomes “I am Woman, I am free, I will decide what happens with my body.” Track 2 is titled, “The Resistance” and continues with revolutionary lyrics of protest and declarations of liberty and justice for all.

Ms. Alexa has a clean, clear vocal quality. She not only sings but plays keyboards on this album. On her self-penned, “Pachamama” she features the great Regina Carter on violin, who definitely elevates this musical piece. Thana Alexa’s arrangements are an unusual excursion into unique harmonies, choral voicings and moods created with unexpected crescendos of sound. On this tune, Matt Brewer shines on his bass guitar solo. Thana Alexa’s voice is quite beautiful on this ballad with its poignant lyrics that celebrate motherhood. Her entire album is dedicated to her mother and grandmother, the women she says fought so she could feel free.

This is freedom music. At times, it’s on the edge of vocal Avant Garde and written like a musical diary. Now and then she lets her voice become a scat instrument and manifests cultural sounds into the mix to remind us of her Croatian-American home and family. I spent time in the former Yugoslavia during the terrible war of ethnic cleansing. If her mother and grandmother lived through that difficult time, I totally comprehend the pain and anguish her family may have endured. These are proud people that never forfeited their dignity.

On the composition, “Set Free” she speaks of the way energy can leave one form and become another. Her melodies are as unique as the prose that she puts to music. This is an experimental production. She creates both textures and thought-provoking poems; grooves that grab you and then release you back into soundscapes and places you have not been before. This is the sign of a truly artistic soul.

On “You Taught Me” she bounces from experimental music to smooth jazz; from folk music to percussive pop grooves flavored with Latin rhythms. She layers vocal harmonies that sing, “Don’t let go of your mind. You taught me to fly.” And away we go, flying to fresh, new places with Thana Alexa. A song like “Teardrop” sounds like a time-ticking clock on a universal wall. This is one she did not compose, but I think she probably arranged it. With French vocals in the background and the funk drums of Antonio Sanchez pushing the piece, this song is quite striking. The electric guitar solo by Jordan Peters elevates this arrangement in a jazz/rock kind-of-way.

On the tune, “Cassandra” Grammy Award winning, Antonio Sanchez, is magnificent on his emotional trap drum solo. Thana Alexa shares the spotlight on Track 8 with vocalist Becca Stevens, as they duet on “He Said She Said.”

Like the artist herself, you cannot put this music into a box. It’s as free and wild as the women she celebrates and sings about.
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Warren Wolf, vibraphone/composer; Brett Williams, piano/Fender Rhodes; Richie Goods, electric & acoustic bass; Mark Whitfield, guitar; Carroll “CV” Dashiell III, drums/percussion; Imani-Grace Cooper & Marcellus ‘bassman’ Shepard, vocals.

This is Wolf’s fourth CD and he appears to be a torchbearer in the name of vibe icons like Milt Jackson, Bobby Hutcherson and Roy Ayres. Beginning this musical journey with a tribute to his departed mother, Warren Wolf raises his mallets to play a tune titled, “For Ma”. It’s smooth jazz, woven into R&B grooves provided by the electric bass of Richie Goods, the drums of Carroll “CV” Dashiell III and guitarist Mark Whitfield. Warren Wolf’s mallets beat out an intoxicating melody at a funky pace.

His album opens with a short interlude and the deep, baritone, DJ-smooth, male voice of Marcellus “Baseman” Shepard. He sounds perfect against a backdrop of vibraphone and sets the mood with his spoken words.

“You know some cats swing and some cats groove. But there are few vibests that swing, groove and keep it in the pocket at the same time. You may have heard this brother over the years, but I guarantee you’ve never heard him like this. … It’s Baltimore’s own, Warren Wolf,” the popular East Coast DJ introduces us to this magnificent vibraphonist.

Track three has a Barry White feel to it and features Marcellus Shepard once again along with talented vocalist, Imani-Grace Cooper. This is an R&B crossover ballad that you may want to listen to in front of a roaring fireplace and with someone you love.

Wolf’s composition, “Livin’ the Good Life” sounds like a hit record. It’s another one of his original compositions. He’s written nine out of the ten songs recorded here. Wolf combines straight ahead and smooth jazz in a seamless and delightful way. This album has been a culmination of years in the music industry. Warren Wolf explains in his liner notes.

“I realized I was about to turn forty. I was twenty-one when I first went out on the road as a pro. So, for almost half my life I’ve been playing straight-ahead jazz. But that’s not how my dad, who was my first teacher, raised me musically. Jazz was always a part of it, but he wanted me to play everything; classical, R&B, Hip-hop, ragtime, pop – but those things eventually faded away. Looking toward the second part of my life, I realized I need to bring those aspects back to life,” he summarized this album concept.

“This is just an album about love and feel-good music. At this point in my career, I just wanted to show that I can be versatile in many different styles. I plan to continue to grow and play all the wonderful music that has shaped me as a musician today.”

All this reviewer can say is, mission accomplished!
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Nick Finzer, trombone/composer; Lucas Pino, reeds; Alex Wintz, guitar; Glen Zaleski, piano; Dave Baron, bass; Jimmy MacBride, drums.

“Each of us responds and develops along our journey with the influence of the people we meet along our path. We follow, we depart, we react and we grow in myriad ways based on the experiences we encounter,” Nick Finzer explains his concept for this album of music.

“We laugh, we cry, we celebrate, we learn and we forge our own path on the shoulders of those who came before us. We are both the sum of our experience and the product of our influences. We are who we choose to embrace.”

Finzer is an improviser with a rich, emotional sound on his trombone. As a composer, producer and educator, Nick Finzer has been heralded by many as a supreme musical storyteller. On this CD, titled “Cast of Characters,” he uses his longtime band of A-list musicians to interpret these characters as he visualizes them in the compositions presented on this album. Some have labeled Finzer an Ellingtonian composer, because he arranges parts to suit the specific gifts of his players.

“I wanted to feature everyone doing things I know they’re really great at,” he explains.

A graduate of Eastman School of Music and Juilliard School, Nick Finzer has counted among his trombone mentors people like Steve Turre, J.J. Johnson, Curtis Fuller and Wycliffe Gordon. He’s currently the first Assistant Professor of Jazz Trombone at the University of North Texas, a landmark program in the history of jazz education. The music on this album is both versatile and beautiful. Certainly, he is an improviser and can easily slide into modern jazz with baby oil ease. You hear a wee bit of this on “A Sorcerer (Is A Myth)”, the first tune out. It’s a moderate tempo piece that begins with harmonized horns out front of a dominant piano played by Glenn Zaleski. Jimmy MacBride tap dances his sticks atop his busy trap drums. The percussion becomes the backbeat and the stage for the trombone to shine. Finzer’s solo is rich and engaging. Enter Lucas Pino on saxophone, bringing the power of his creativity to the forefront followed by Alex Wintz, whose guitar licks capture the spotlight. Beneath the arrangement rides a crescendo of power from the ensemble. “Evolution of Perspective,” and it’s one minute -thirty-eight second introduction, stretch even further out, balancing on the Avant Garde spectrum. Then the sextet settles into a strong, melody-forward, power paced tune that has bassist Dave Baron’s fingers racing faster than Usain Bolt sprinted to win Olympic Gold. These musicians let you know they are not playing with us. They are playing for us and are seriously prepared, gifted and tenacious in their presentation, both ensemble-wise and individually. I am intrigued by the “Patience” tune, so beautifully introduced by Zaleski’s extraordinary piano playing. This composition settles the listener down and changes the mood. Double time and straight-ahead melts caramel sweet into this lovely ballad. Where the “Brutus” composition was strong and imposing, this song of “Patience” gives bassist Baron an opportunity to solo in a noteworthy way.

As a generous entrepreneur, Nick Finzer has formed his ‘Outside in Music’ company inclusive of a media company and record label. Imposing resistance to the norm, he allows musicians to keep their own publishing rights and is a full-service production company that encourages incorporating visual elements, videos and/or social media promotion of the artists on his label. He embraces new and emerging technology, enjoys bandleading and leans towards elevating great talent. Not to mention, he is his own example of greatness on his trombone, as a composer, arranger, producer and all-round jazz artist. This entire album is a concert I enjoyed attending, from beginning to end.
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GERALD BECKETT – “MOOD” Pear Orchard Records

Gerald Beckett, flutes/composer; Ruben Salcido, alto & tenor saxophones; Larry Douglas & Noah Frank, trumpets; Ari Caprow, guitar; Steve McQuarry &Terry Rodriguez, piano; Carl Herder & Paul Federighi, bass; Greg German & Fred Johnson, drums; Vincent De Jesus, congas.

This album of fine flute-playing opens with a Gerald Beckett original composition entitled, “Down Low.” It is a song steeped in blues and gives Ruben Salcido an opportunity to spread his wings and let the alto saxophone notes fly. Bandleader Beckett is generous with the spotlight and features Carl Herder on a double bass solo, as well as Steve McQuarry on a spirited piano solo.

“Composing this song brought to mind the many juke joints, once owned by relatives and family friends.” Gerald Beckett muses. “In my youth, these were meeting places for old and young. This is where I got to hear live music played by some very fine local musicians who inspired me to want to emulate them.”

Track two celebrates legendary composer Kenny Baron’s tune, “Spirit Song” with Gerald Beckett’s flute leading the way. Beckett has been compared to Herbie Mann, but he holds his own and is a very compelling composer. On his composition, “Club Raven,” he recalls the memories that inspired this original song.

“The Raven was a nightclub from bygone days, in my hometown of Beaumont, Texas, and was part of the Chitlin’ circuit in the 1950s. Greats such as B.B. King, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, Muddy Waters and many others performed there regularly. The now famous blues guitarist, Johnny Winter, (from Beaumont) used to sit-in and play with B. B. King when he was young. My father, in his early 20s, worked there part-time.”

Gerald Beckett covers some iconic composers during this production. He and his group play the music of Ron Carter, Harold Mabern, Wynton Marsalis and Cyrus Chestnut. They play hardcore bebop on Chestnut’s tune, “Minor Funk,” giving drummer Greg German an opportunity to showcase his ample chops. However, I found myself drawn to Beckett’s signature compositions that are both well-written and compelling.

“When I attended University of North Texas, ‘Shacktown’ was the name of a predominantly African-American neighborhood,” Beckett shared in his liner notes.

His composition by the same name displays the funkier side of Beckett’s arrangements.

Beckett’s final tune on this album is an ode to friends and relatives who lived 35 miles outside of Beaumont, Tx in a rural area of town near the railroad tracks. This sultry, bluesy composition recalls a character named Raymond Woods in its title and summer nights spent with his relatives. He explained:

“Ode to Ray Wood, represents a place where we, as a family, made frequent visits to my mother’s relatives. Located off Highway 90 …on a road about half a mile long, beyond the railroad tracks were homes of aunts, uncles and cousins. After dark, with no street lights, all you could see was stars and all you could hear was the deafening songs of frogs, crickets, and the occasional trains going by.”

During this arrangement, you hear the wail of a train whistle and you feel the hot, humid Texas night locked inside this bluesy melody.

“Mood” is an album that mirrors the many moods of this gifted musician and his crew. Gerald Beckett takes us on a tour of memories and music, guiding us along with his flute, as a sort of pied piper of jazz. Below he tributes some of the flute Hall of Famers.

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Mark Monts de Oca, piano; Tony Batista, bass; Andre Avelino, guitar; Jimmy Rivera, drums; Reinel Lopez, Brazilian Percussion; Ivan Belvis, percussion; Javier Oquendo, congas; Xavier Barreto, flute; Candido Reyes, guiro; Melvin Jones & Gordon Vernick, trumpets.

Opening with the famous “Seven Steps to heaven” composition, Calle Loiza’s Jazz Project bursts onto the scene spicy as Puerto Rican hot sauce and employing the bomba rhythms.

This is followed by a rhythmic arrangement of “Someday My prince Will Come” featuring solos by Mark Monts de Oca on piano and Tony Batista on bass. They cha-cha-cha this famed Disney song from the Cinderella movie and dress it with a totally fresh look. André Avelino is notable on guitar. Then the trumpet solo enters and Melvin Jones lifts the production with his jazzy improvisation. The fade of the song is infectious with multi percussion instruments and a choir of voices singing a hypnotic chant. Each of these standards is splashed with Latin rhythms, played by technically astute musicians and conjuring up high energy. “Stolen Moments” features an interplay with Xavier Baretto’s flying flute and Melvin Jones’ distinctive, muted trumpet. This ensemble surprises the listener with original and creative arrangements, like the bolero rendition of “Old Folks.” This album is stuffed with Brazilian percussive excitement and Latin rhythms that paint everything joyful and danceable.

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ELSA NILSSON – “HINDSIGHT” Bumblebee Collective

Elsa Nilsson, flutes/composer; Jeff McLaughlin, guitar; Alex Minier, bass; Cody Rahn, drums/cymbals.

Flautist, Elsa Nilsson describes this album project by saying, “Hindsight started as a reaction, November 9, 2016. I was home alone, feeling confused and betrayed after the election. My whole world had changed overnight and my faith in humanity was crushed. As I do in times of turmoil in my life, I turned to my instrument. I remember experiencing this pit in my soul, like we all F—‘d up and everything was about to go dark.”

As she watched a swell of people in the street chanting “We Reject the president elect!” Elsa began writing this album. She describes it as “…every ounce of fear, frustration, rage and hope” being poured onto the musical page.

“Music begins to communicate where traditional language ends,” she expressed. “There is democracy in improvised music. All voices are heard and are integral to the whole, even if one voice is leading the conversation. Each person leads that conversation, at some point or another,”Elsa Nilsson says in her liner notes.

Her record company is called Bumblebee Collective and she often sounds exactly like a swarm of bees when playing her flute. Nilsson has composed all the songs and the opening tune is titled, “Changed in Mid Air.” It was born out of the government imposed ‘Travel Ban’ and hopes to capture the unfolding events at airports after this executive order was put into place. The music shifts suddenly to depict the experience of believing everything is fine while on the flight and suddenly having that not to be true upon arrival.

“This song is meant both to extend an acknowledgement of humanity to anyone who has had to flee their homes and a rebellious statement against those who believe that a refugee’s humanity is somehow less than their own,” She asserted.

Her song “Enough is Enough” is 6-minutes and 20-seconds long. That’s the exact length of time that the gunman was active at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High school. It develops its rhythm from chants Elsa heard after that horrific event; chants that came from protestors shouting “We Call BS” and “Enough is Enough.” Her song, “What Can I Do?” is an ode to the Black Lives Matter movement and a protest against institutionalized racism. Clearly, Elsa Nilsson’s entire album of music is a protest piece. It’s often Avant Garde, with telephone rings thrown in to snatch the attention and odd dissonance in the harmonic structure. These compositions are often disturbing. I found some relief in the ballad, “I Believe You.” However, even that one winds up pushing the edges of anger and reflecting feelings of frustration. McLaughlin’s guitar groove on the final song, “We Show Up” brought some small relief, with Nilsson’s sweet melody sung beautifully on her flute. I wish the drummer had been brush-sensitive.

All in all, this sounds more rock music than jazz. Although I support Elsa Nilsson’s activism and share her empathy for political bias and the victims of hate, mass incarceration, legalized slavery and racist ideologies, I find this music so angry it was difficult for me to listen to it. I know that love is stronger and greater than all the other evils of the world. We heal with love, we grow with love, we forgive with love, we become better when we give and receive love. I came away from this artistic experience longing for one composition of redemption, kindness and understanding.
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THE NEW ARTIST SERIES: Featuring Pianists, Joshua White, Sam Hirsh, & Mike Bond.

February 6, 2020

Also featuring CD reviews of Andrea Brachfeld and Robin McKelle

Written and Reviewed by Dee Dee McNeil/jazz journalist

February 6, 2020


It’s a pleasure and an inspiration to see so many fresh faces on the jazz scene. Consequently, I’ve created this New Artist Series to introduce some of these exceptional musicians to you. Just because they are new to us doesn’t mean they haven’t been practicing, developing their skills and consistently performing at various venues around the globe. To paraphrase what Lizzo recently stated on the Grammy Awards show, I guess you have to be constantly performing and working for ten years to become an overnight sensation. Well, Joshua White is a young man who is on his way to becoming a jazz legend. This gifted pianist is a resident of San Diego,California. Born August 17, 1985, Joshua began formal piano training at the age of seven.

“When I was growing up, we had a piano in the house. I guess it was just my natural curiosity about the instrument that intrigued me. I had a love for music as well.”

His love for music led him to explore all the classical masters, to bask in the rich flavors of R&B, Hip Hop and to enjoy Top-40 Pop radio music. He also became the organist and pianist at his local church. By age eighteen, Joshua White found himself drawn to jazz. I asked this talented pianist, what made him move from classical to jazz?

“Well, I wouldn’t say there was a movement from one to the other, because I still listen to Brahms, Schumann, Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky and all of those other artists. I think it was just an expansion. Being introduced to new artists and composers expanded what I was already developing. I also grew up playing in church, which has helped inform me in a different tradition. So, I’m about expanding these traditions and learning as much musical history and as much about musical theory as I possibly can. I don’t feel I moved from one to the other. It was just the addition of more musical knowledge and tradition. Ultimately, it helps me to find what I want to say. All that knowledge provides you with more options in which to ask better, deeper and more profound questions,” Joshua White told me in a telephone interview.

Encouraged and supported by some world-renowned, master musicians like noted pianist Mike Wofford, flautist, Holly Hofmann, innovative bassist, Mark Dresser and composer Anthony Davis, Joshua White continued to grow and flourish. Once Joshua began to make himself known in the Southern California jazz community, he rubbed shoulders and shared stages with many virtuoso players like legendary reedmen, Daniel Jackson and Charles McPherson; bassists, Marshall Hawkins and Rodney Whitaker; drummers, Carl Allen and Marvin ‘Smitty’ Smith and trumpeter, Gilbert Castellanos, to mention only a few.

In 2011, Joshua entered the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition, performing in Washington, D.C. and he placed second out of 160 competitors. One of the judges was the iconic pianist, composer Herbie Hancock. Hancock told music critic George Varga:

“I was impressed by his (Joshua White’s) daring and courageous approach to improvisation on the cutting edge of innovation. He is his own man. I believe that Thelonious Monk would have been proud of the performance of this great, young artist.” It was a beautiful stamp of approval coming from the Grammy Award winning Hancock.

In 2017, Joshua White released his first recording as a bandleader. Titled, “Thirteen Short Stories” on the Fresh Town Record label out of Barcelona, Spain. It’s available on Amazon and all streaming platforms. It features his original compositions and introduces us to his uniquely, creative and sometimes Avant Garde style.

Below is an example of Joshua White playing solo. His technique fills the room with splashes of continuous sound, a pulsating pedal and a rush of piano mastery that spills, like a waterfall, and floods the room. (You are my Sunshine) at Vibrato

This coming Friday, February 7th Joshua White will perform at the Broad Stage, a 499-seat theater located at 1310 11th Street, Santa Monica, California. His trio includes bassist, Alex Boneham and drummer Tyler Kreutel. Joshua talked about the instrumentalists that he chooses to work with.

“What I look for in musicians is not necessarily a comfort level, but I look for something stimulating within them. What I mean by that, I don’t want to know what you’re going to do. I want someone who wants to be provocative, thought provoking and who has an interesting commentary. Someone who doesn’t look to be told what to do and who has a sort of critical esthetic in terms of how they interpret music. I don’t know if there’s any one thing that I’m looking to express, but I would say that instead of a literal type of expression, it’s more of a curiosity, a question. I ask myself, what are the possibilities of the composition? What are the possibilities in the sounds that I can get from the instrument? What are the possibilities from working in a collaborative environment? Where can we go? What are we constructing?” He elaborates. (At Hollywood concert)

I asked Joshua if he thinks about the lyrics of a song when he plays standards.

“I wouldn’t say that I think of the lyrics when I’m playing, but I would say that I have definitely been informed by the great vocalists from the improvised tradition. Even when I’m learning standards, I’m looking at the vocal versions of the song and listening to the lyrics, you know, from Abbey Lincoln to Betty Carter, to Billie Holiday, Blossom Dearie, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Carmen McCrae, or Carmen Lundy, Dianne Reeves, Nnenna Freelon; everybody,” Joshua lists a number of respected jazz vocalists.

“Also, by playing for the church choir, I learned all the vocal parts. I know how to create vocal arrangements. I’ve even written songs that we’ve played in church. I have a wide range of experience of working with many different kinds of songs and working with many different musicians and many different ensembles; working with different kinds of musicians, configurations and instrumentation. I’ve helped arrange on a small scale, but I would love to have the means and the time to write for a symphony orchestra. I would love to do that.”

You can experience the expansive breadth and width of Joshua White’s ‘live’ trio performance this Friday night in Santa Monica, California at The Broad Stage. The show starts at 8PM.

(Bye Bye Blackbird at Palm Springs concert)
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MIKE BOND – “THE HONORABLE ONES” Bounce Castle Records

Mike Bond, piano/composer/arranger; Ben Wolfe, bass; Anwar Marshall, drums; Josh Evans, trumpet; Steve Wilson, alto & soprano saxophones; SPECIAL GUESTS: Gene Shinozaki, beatbox vocals; Claudia Acuna & Maya Holliday, vocals.

Titled, “Chapter 1: On Your Mark …” the first track is Avant Garde and smashes onto the scene for one minute and fifty-one seconds featuring free, unbridled music. Mike Bond credits his friend and fellow pianist, Orrin Evans, for encouraging him to take off his seatbelt and be willing to put himself out there, no matter what happens; to step into the fire and do what he needed to do in order to grow. Orrin Evans is also the artistic producer of this Mike Bond album.

This track is followed by “Verus Vita” that settles this group down in a sweet way. Bond sets up a piano bass line, in unison with Ben Wolfe. Then the horns enter, with harmonic power, and the melody pours from the bell of Josh Evans’ trumpet, warm with emotion. Both songs are compositions by pianist, Mike Bond, who also arranged ten of the dozen songs he offers us on this album.

“It’s a Long Way Back” is straight-ahead jazz and arranged to feature Steve Wilson on saxophone with Ben Wolfe walking his bass decisively beneath the solos of both Wilson’s sax and Bond’s piano. Anwar Marshall steps up masterfully on trap drums to drive the piece and fiercely trade fours with the band. “The More I See You,” is a familiar standard song, presented (as a ballad) in a rather unusual way and featuring Evans on trumpet and Claudia Acuna singing in a very alto register. She soon explodes into her second soprano upper range. Mike Bond does not take a solo and I would have enjoyed hearing his solo piano somewhere in this arrangement. The title tune, “The Honorable Ones,” is moderate tempo’d. With Bond’s description below, I thought it would have been more exciting and flush with energy. It’s more of a march and utilizes Gene Shinozaki on beatbox vocals, that becomes an undertow for a very repetitious melodic line and arrangement.

“The title track represents an analogy of leaving your comfort zone and entering into the battle zone, to grow and learn from uncomfortable places – to take risks,” Mike Bond explains in his liner notes.

“Time Well Spent” (the 11th track) is one of the more up-tempo pieces that gives us a clearer glimpse into Bond’s piano style and technique. This composition plays with timing and spotlights Mike Bond in a trio setting, without the horns to take his shine away.
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Doxie Records

Robin McKelle, vocals; Shedrick Mitchell, piano/Rhodes/organ/arranger; Richie Goods, acoustic & electric bass; Charles Haynes, drums/percussion; Nir Felder, guitar; Keith Loftis, tenor saxophone; Marquis Hill, trumpet.

Robin McKelle has picked an eclectic group of celebrated ladies-of-song to tribute on this album, starting with the Amy Winehouse hit record, “Back to Black.” I am intrigued immediately, not only by McKelle’s unique tone and quality of voice, but equally by the creative arrangements of Shedrick Mitchell. When Robin McKelle sings Adele’s platinum record, “Rolling In The Deep,” her group adds their own special uniqueness. I am captivated by McKelle’s way of emotionally rendering these poignant lyrics. Nir Felder’s guitar solo is beautiful. The third track on this stunning album of music was composed by Robin McKelle. She is as talented a songwriter as she is a vocalist. This tune is straight-ahead jazz and intoxicating. Robin McKelle tributes the strength of women with these lyrics and celebrates the power of song and singers. Tenor saxophonist Keith Loftis makes a magnificent solo appearance and her rhythm section swings hard and steady. She is a vocalist that displays style, power and strength. Her delivery is believable. Shedrick Mitchell’s piano line introduces “Don’t Explain” in a fresh way. I think Billie Holiday would have loved and appreciated his arrangement. McKelle adds the traditional folk song, Hush Little Baby into her unusual but lovely delivery of this old jazz standard.

She continues to surprise me with her musicality and creative delivery of songs we know and love.

“Born To Die” features Marquis hill on trumpet and then she sings Dolly Parton’s tune “Jolene” in a very bluesy, yet jazzy way. Ms. McKelle has a way of taking a folk song, an R&B song, or a country/western song and transforming them into jazz using her vocal presentation and her very one-of-kind arrangements. For example, “No Ordinary Love,” made so popular by Sadé, is transformed and taken to another level. The same is true for Joni Mitchell’s “River” composition and for Janis Jopin’s rock and roll standard, “Mercedes Benz.” Even Carole King’s treasured “You’ve Got A Friend” tune sounds refreshed and elevated with just Shedrick Mitchell accompanying Robin on piano. Robin McKelle reinvents each song to suit herself and to open our ears and minds to new dimensions and new appreciations of some old, familiar songs. On this production, she has successfully reconstructed and musically elevated some familiar compositions recorded by some of our favorite, female artists.
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Andrea Brachfeld, C flute/alto flute; Bill O’Connell, piano/fender Rhodes; Harvie S., bass; Jason Tiemann, drums; Roni Ben-hur, guitar; Lincoln Goines, elec. bass/surdo; T. Portinho, drums/percussion; Chembo Corniel, percussion/congas.

Andrea Brachfeld is pictured smiling on her CD cover, with her head thrown back, the ocean waves and a tempered blue sky are the backdrop and she’s holding her flute delicately in her left hand. The first track of this album of Brazilian music sounds as happy and relaxed as this picturesque CD cover. It’s a Jobim composition entitled, “Double Rainbow” and it’s new to my ears.

“My main concept was choosing songs that I love and that just felt right to me,” explains Andrea Brachfeld in her liner notes. “Basically, I listened to a lot of Jobim songs and the ones that I really liked are the ones that we recorded. I did a Brazilian-themed concert in Winnipeg, Canada with guitarist Marcus Castillo and the Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra. He brought out “Double Rainbow” and it was really beautiful.”

Although Andrea Brachfeld is no newcomer to recording, this is her first project dedicated to the music of Brazil. Ms. Brachfeld has chosen six Jobim compositions to interpret on her “Brazilian Whispers” CD. She and pianist, Bill O’Connell have produced this album. O’Connell puts the “J” in jazz whenever he solos on piano and the tight rhythm section swings hard. Her flute dances above the walking bass of Harvie S. and the swinging drums of Jason Tiemann as they interpret “Waters of March.” It’s a great arrangement.

However, for the most part this is a pretty tame rendition of Brazilian music. It’s much more easy listening than the exciting and danceable Latin rhythms I expected. The “Samba Medley” is more representative of the rich African influenced, Latin culture and Portuguese music that we Americans have come to love. Her medley incorporates three tunes; “Piano Na Mangueira,” blended with “Olele Olala” and “O Nosso Amor” with the band adding splashes of percussion to the mix.

Andrea Brachfeld picks up her alto flute to interpret the beautiful ballad, “Never Let Me Go.” This is followed by two, out of three songs that She and Bill O’Connell have composed for this album. Of the three, my favorite is “Espaco Aberto” that closes this album out.
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Sam Hirsh, piano; John Webber, bass; Kevin Kanner, drums; Ralph Moore, tenor saxophone.

Sam Hirsh is a groove master. He opens with his original tune, “Quite Frankly” and it swings hard and strong. His style on the piano brings to mind a combination of the iconic Horace Silver and the legendary Les McCann. Sam Hirsh knows how to find that groove and place it cement solid in your face. He has composed all of the songs on this album except the Jerome Kern tune, “Look For the Silver Lining.” His arrangement on this Kern composition is quite fresh and pleasing to the ears. You are immediately captivated by the double bass line at the top of the tune. John Webber gives the song a face-lift with this catchy bass line. “Pop’s Delight” is the straight-ahead jazz that this reviewer loves. It features Ralph Moore on tenor saxophone, John Webber on bass and Kevin Kanner on drums. This quartet of awesome musicians makes this tune truly swing. Hirsh has got his own style and keyboard charisma that dances off the 88 keys and tells us he is well-rooted in the bebop chops of yesteryear. Still, he brings something fresh and innovative with his piano style and creative arrangements. Kanner takes a spontaneous solo, trading eights on his trap drum set. The tune, “Lil’ Mama Samba,” dances onto the scene in a contemporary jazz way. It’s a bit fast to samba dance, but this rhythm will get your feet to moving and the players lay down a platform for Sam Hirsh to exhibit more of his piano skills. Especially when the tempo doubles and you hear his precision playing rip through the black and white keys. His trio is tenacious and each man is a stellar talent in their own right. This is a dynamic premiere debut by bandleader, Sam Hirsh. “Reminiscing” is a heartfelt ballad that is played with so much passion it pulls at the heartstrings. Sam Hirsh digs deeply into his soul to play music that reflects his friends, family and roots. “No C” (with an exclamation point) is played at an up-tempo that’s bound to get the creative juices flowing. It’s a good set closer with its high energy and repetitive melodic line. “Kyoto Shuffle” is a tribute to where he was born and shines the spotlight on his Japanese roots in a joyful way. This is followed by the composition, “Ways of the Wise.” It could be a tribute to his father or some other wise folks who have passed through his life. Either way, the melody is powerful and sticks to your brain cells like super glue. It’s another moving tribute to the driving jazz of the 1960s. The final song on this album is titled, “Song for Sophie” and it’s a tender ballad, celebrated by the reed work of Ralph Moore on tenor sax and beautifully embellished by Sam Hirsh on piano, still dynamic in the background on this track. Here is a confident and creative debut by a talented, young pianist on the West Coast Jazz Scene who is showing his prowess as a composer, pianist and arranger. We can expect more great things to come from Sam Hirsh. Keep an ear out.
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