THE NEW ARTIST SERIES: Featuring Pianists, Joshua White, Sam Hirsh, & Mike Bond.

Also featuring CD reviews of Andrea Brachfeld and Robin McKelle

Written and Reviewed by Dee Dee McNeil/jazz journalist

February 6, 2020

PIANIST JOSHUA WHITE:A FRESH FORCE ON THE JAZZ SCENE TO PERFORM IN SANTA MONICA, CA

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_UaBAZJOXyQ (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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YjLqMW9wUVE (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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ROBIN McKELLE – “ALTERATIONS”
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 – “BRAZILIAN WHISPERS” Origin Records

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.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“QUITE FRANKLY, INTRODUCING SAM HIRSH” Umadas Music

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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