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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