International Jazz, A Tribute to Wayne Shorter, Down-Home Blues, Poetry with Big Band Arrangements & More


By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

April 10, 2020


Kiki Valera, Cuatro/guitar/claves/maracas/coros; Coco Freeman, lead vocals; Carlos Cascante, lead vocals; Alexis Baro, trumpet; Jose J. Alayo & Yanill Nario, bass; Pedro Vargas, congas/bongos; Joshuah de Jesus, coros; Steve Guasch, coros.

This is a Cuban production full of happy and joyful music. These musicians create the kind of excitement that encourages you to have a party or at least to get up and dance. Kiki Valera is a Cuban Cuatro master and a member of the Familia Valera Miranda. The ‘Cuatro’ is a stringed instrument, smaller than a guitar and more the size of a violin. It has deep roots in Puerto Rico and is an instrument creation of Puerto Rican people. The Familia Valera Miranda are a respected, century-old group and one of the most important purveyors of the Son Cubano. They carry-on a rich Cuban music legacy. Son Cubano is a genre of music and dance, originating in the Eastern Cuban highlands during the late 19th century. It employs clave rhythm and vocals that celebrate the slave-style of ‘call and response.’ Much of this music is drawn from the Bantu influence and origin. Although the entire album is sung in Spanish, (and I do not speak the language) I could still feel the emotional connections these singers and musicians perform. Their messages stretch like sunrays across our divide and I warm to their international music.

Coco Freeman’s lead baritone vocals are beautifully performed and plush with emotion. You will see that I reference the ‘coros’ above. The common instrumentation of the ‘coros’ is a group that features a viola, a string-less banjo used more as a percussion instrument, claves, guitar, harp and jug bass. But, Coros also references a choir of voices that is part of an artform grown in Havana and other Cuban cities around the 19th century. So, this music shares much historic data with us, as well as cultural roots. Interestingly, many of these compositions grew out of the roots of black slavery in Cuba, similar to the way jazz was birthed in America.

Kiki Valera, who has dedicated himself to performing traditional Cuban music, was also influenced by cassette tapes he listened to as a child. Some of those artistic influences included Pat Metheny, Wes Montgomery and Chick Corea. These jazz inspirations elevate the quality of his Cuatro solos. Valera is a prolific arranger and has arranged much of the original music on this album. Most of the songs are composed by his longtime friend and fellow musician, Coco Freeman. Freeman and Felix Valera Miranda also co-arranged some songs. One of the things I appreciated about this enjoyable album, inside the liner notes (in English) they describe the meaning of each composition. For example: “El Caballo de Curingo” is a humorous tale of Kiki’s uncle whose drinking habits eventually even annoy the horse that brings him home every night. Another original composition, “El Perro de Juan” recalls a night when Kiki’s father was chased up a tree by his brother’s ferocious dog. Another composition, “Homenaje a Panchita” recalls the sad end of the family pig, which had been a pet to the children.

Along with tongue-in-cheek humor and the master musicians Kiki Valera and Coco Freeman employ on this project, you are certain to be thoroughly entertained.
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Vito Dieterle, tenor saxophone; Ben Paterson, organ; Kris Kaiser, guitar; Aaron Seeber, drums.

A Chicago native, Vito Dieterle is one of the world’s young saxophone players who is making his impact on the New York jazz scene. His style has been compared to an inspired mixture of Sonny Stitt and Stan Getz. Vito definitely leans towards the exciting bebop trends that mesmerized the world in the 1960’s and beyond. His choice of sidemen includes Ben Paterson on organ. This brings back memories of the Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff quartets. But Dieterle’s organ trio has a smoother sound. It’s not as gritty and bluesy as Smith and McDuff once were. He opens with “Dream Dancing” a Cole Porter tune arranged at a moderate Latin tempo and featuring the guitar of Kris Kaiser on the introduction, as a duet with Vito’s punchy tenor saxophone. Dieterle can play smooth as raw silk one minute and in the next minute, brightly punch his message from the bell of his horn.

The title of this album, “Anemone” is a plant of the buttercup family and also Vito Dieterle’s only original composition on this CD. My grandmother used to grow Buttercups in her backyard and they were beautiful, brightly colored little flowers. I liked the yellow ones the best, that resembled little bowls of butter. The Anemone plant is sometimes referred to as a ‘windflower’, which seems quite appropriate for a horn player to choose as the title of his album. The windflower is said to open widely when a strong breeze is blowing. Like the anemone, Vito Dieterle’s music is open and flowing. He studied at the School of Jazz and Contemporary Music (at the New School in New York) and has been a professional musician since 1998. In addition to playing jazz, he has also acted as owner-operator of two jazz bars; the Silver Lining in the Roxy Hotel and The Django.

On this release, he interprets the music of Stanley Turrentine (Minor Chant) at a brisk, swing pace and explores two songs written by Billy Strayhorn; “Lush Life” and “Chelsea Bridge” in a more tender and emotionally vulnerable way. Here is when the Stan Getz influence seems to surface. On “Lush Life” drummer Aaron Seeber creates a waltz feel beneath the improvisation of Dieterle and it’s a sweet arrangement. Dizzy Gillespie’s tune, “That’s Earl, Brother” swings hard and gives Paterson a chance to stretch-out on organ. All in all, this is an outstanding quartet production that showcases the talents of Vito Dieterle on his tenor saxophone.
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Jeff Benedict, saxophones; Jonathan Pintoff, bass; Dave Askren, guitar; Chris Garcia, percussion.

Dave Askren and Jeff Benedict celebrate the music of jazz icon and composer, Wayne Shorter, on their “Paraphernalia” album. Askren and Benedict open with the popular tune, E.S.P, culled from the 1965 Miles Davis release, that was originally played at the speed of racing horses. On this arrangement, they have slowed the tune down to a cut tempo, half-time funk beat. This is a strong departure from the straight-ahead groove of the original Miles recording and proffers another musical perspective.

According to Dave Askren, “We didn’t want to just do covers of Wayne’s tunes. We didn’t try to sound like him, because you can’t do better than the original music. You can just do your own thing and make music your own way.”

I thought it was very creative when they broke the tune down to just Jeff Benedict on saxophone and Chris Garcia on percussion. When Dave Askren’s rhythm guitar enters, along with Johnathan Pintoff’s bass, they grow the crescendo. This is followed by “Yes and/or No,” presented with strong Latin infusion, using the guitar to set up the Brazilian-like groove. This tune comes from the Wayne Shorter album, “Juju”, released sometime in 1964. Percussionist, Chris Garcia shines during this mambo arrangement.

“Paraphernalia” is Askren and Benedict’s third recording together as co-leaders. They have pulled Wayne Shorter compositions from his early work in the 1960s, mostly from Miles Davis and Weather Report recordings. Askren played both clarinet and saxophone as a young musician, but was drawn to the guitar when he was fourteen and formed a bond with that instrument. He studied at Berklee College of Music and taught there after graduation. Although he enjoys teaching, he left Boston and transplanted to California’s West Coast music scene, studying at Cal State LA for a graduate degree in classical guitar. That’s where he met Jeff Benedict. Jeff was teaching and leading a jazz band and they became close friends. Benedict has multiple credits as a sideman, using his saxophone talents to compliment artists like Nick Brignola, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Randy Brecker, Billy Taylor and Mel Tormé, to mention just a few. He’s also enjoyed playing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the L.A. Chamber Orchestra, The Pacific Symphony, The Aspen Festival Orchestra and the Tanglewood fellowship Orchestra. Like his friend, Dave Askren, he has released two small ensemble albums under his own bandleader credentials. Askren has released four CDs as a bandleader.

Together, they create a unique sound and fresh arrangements that are meant to create a heartfelt tribute to the music of Wayne Shorter, an artist/composer that they both greatly admire.
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Aruan Ortiz, piano/voice; Andrew Cyrille, drums; Mauricio Herrera, percussion/voice.

According to Aruan Ortiz, he has long dreamt of making an album that would represent a cascade of rhythms. He Has succeeded on this production. Growing up in Cuba, for the first twenty-three years of his life, Ortiz experienced a multitude of rhythmic sounds and multi-cultural rhythms. He recalls hearing a global symphony each morning when he walked to school in the South-eastern province of Oriente, a community that was the cradle of Afro-Cuban music.

His album, “Inside Rhythmic Falls” draw much of its profundity from his working-class neighborhood and a style of guitar and drum music that was created by slaves in the sugar cane refineries of the early 19th century Cuba. That music style was called, Changüi. It is a fusion of Spanish cancion with Bantu percussion and with Haitian tumba frances; a mixed music culture for good measure. He has transformed and reimagined this historic music into his own algorithm of musical concept. Ortiz refers to his work as having “hidden voices.”

One thing this project clearly has is a number of rhythm patterns and improvised musical passages that drags the listener by the ear, like a reluctant learner. His music magically implores me to pay attention and to let the musical phrases wash over me like Cuba’s El Nicho waterfall. The piano of Aruan Ortiz creates an astounding bed of rhythms and artistic phrases that cascade to the depths of emotional feeling and create a platform for the percussion of Mauricio Herrera and the drums of Andrew Cyrille to dance upon. Aruan Ortiz has composed every song and poem, with the exception of “Para ti Nengón” (a popular Cuban song that closes out this album). With only vocals, percussion and piano, this is an expressive and unique production that layers voices and instruments as sweet as cake. It draws you into the whirlpool of words and music, like a fly drawn to a shiny web. Once you are caught up in the sparkling uniqueness of this music, you will want to stay and hear each piece played again. This is artistic modernism played in a very abstract way. As the liner notes say, “…When music is this glorious, it has the power not just to conjure spirits, but to inspire belief and help us experience the marvelous.”
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Jay Willie, guitar/slide guitar/vocals; James Montgomery, vocals/harmonica; Paul Opalach, bass/lap steel/keyboards/simulated horns; Bobby T. Torello, drums; Lee-Ann Lovelace, vocals; Kyle Mangold, backup vocals.

This album opens with a melody from the children’s song, “Three Blind Mice” and it jubilantly sets the precedence for what is to come. This is an album of Blues, R&B and Rock, featuring Jay willie on guitar, slide guitar and vocals, along with his musical partner, James Montgomery playing harmonica and singing. This music is just pure fun! It reminded me of the Detroit sound and the music of guitar-men and blues singers like Johnny Bassett and John Lee Hooker. When I started reading the promotional package, I discovered James Montgomery is a Detroit-based, blues legend. When Jay Willie first heard him play, he knew he wanted to work with the funky harmonica bluesman in the future. Then, in 1973, Montgomery released a Capricorn Record and later Allen Toussaint produced the Huey Piano Smith song, “Don’t You Just Know It” on Montgomery, under the title of “The Gooba Gooba Song.” Jay Willie was sure there was a musical compatibility in their musical tastes and asked his long-time bandmate and drummer, Bobby T. Torello, to contact James Montgomery. He wanted to see if James might be interested in performing with their group. Jay Willie was overjoyed when Montgomery agreed. Consequently, they performed a concert together in Connecticut. Later, Jay Willie asked James Montgomery if he’d be interested in recording with his group. The result is this Zoho Record release.

Montgomery has toured with Aerosmith, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen, the Allman Brothers Band, and Steve Miller; the legendary Laverne Baker, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Junior Wells, James Cotton, Greg Allman, Patti LaBelle and many more. The Jay Willie Blues Band has produced five previous releases for the Zoho Roots label. I am certain this will be another winner for Jay Willie group. It’s bound to brighten up any day and invigorate any party.
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Henry Robinett, guitar; Joe Gilman, piano; Chris Symer, bass; Michael Stephans, drums.

How many times have you looked back on your life, while going through boxes or cleaning garages and closets, only to discover some real gems that had been hidden away for years? Guitarist, Henry Robinett, must have been doing just that when he stumbled upon some old tracks he recorded nineteen years ago.

“Honestly, I don’t know why I left it on the shelf for so long. I grew up listening to bebop and the great bebop players had enormous influence on me. When I wrote and performed my own music, though, I naturally incorporated the wide range of music styles I had played with other bands. I think the jazz standards album was just too different from my other work, which made me hesitant to release it. But after listening to it again, after so many years, I like it. I think it stands up well and shows another side to my playing,” Robinett explained in his liner notes.

I am happy he discovered this beautifully played treasure of standard jazz songs. His group is smokin’ hot and why wouldn’t it be with drummer Michael Stephans manning the trap drums? As always, Stephans adds fire and spark to this project. Joe Gilman is lyrical and freely improvises on “I Hear A Rhapsody.” But it’s always Henry Robinett’s sensitive guitar playing that keeps this music exciting and creative. Robinett has a way of unfolding each song, like the chapters of an intriguing book. He inspires the listener to go forward and hear the next one and the one after that. His tone is pure and he’s a master improviser, using long, eclectic lines in his guitar phrasing. On “Yellow Days or (La Mentira), Joe Gilman exhibits his style of playing, using inspired melodies with both hands on the piano keys, moving in unison at a brisk pace. Then, Chris Symer steps forward, soaking up the spotlight and letting his double bass eloquently do the talking.

A native of California, Henry Robinett was a Cal State University/Sacramento student before joining a popular Northern California group called, The Runners. They played a mixed bag of music, from R&B to Rock, Brazilian and Latin influenced tunes and jazz. Then, in 1978, Robinett turned his music world upside-down when he briefly lived in a New York City apartment with none other than Charlie Mingus. His father was first cousins with Mingus and had a large collection of Mingus music. Young Henry had come up listening to this legendary bassist as a teen. While living with Mingus, the young musician rubbed shoulders with jazz royalty like Sonny Rollins, jazz historians Nat Hentoff and Leonard Feather, Clifford Jordon, Chico Freeman and many others. He happened to be in New York when Mingus was penning music for the iconic Joni Mitchell. Henry Robinett remembers talking to Joni about music and life in general. She also showed Robinett some of her guitar tunings. He admits to carrying those notes in his guitar case for many years.

From New York, he returned to the Bay Area in California rejuvenated and quickly landed gigs at the legendary Keystone Korner. He enjoyed playing with top Bay area artists like pianist, Jessica Williams, performing on her 1981 album “Orgonomic Music” along with Eddie Henderson. His music sensibilities were growing.

With new horizons calling, he spent a year in Munich, Germany doing studio work for the Munich Sound Machine and other artists, while playing with various local bands. His love of music encouraged exploration into various musical styles, including the popular disco style of music that Mitch Klein’s Munich Sound Machine successfully recorded.

Ultimately, Henry Robinett decided to create his own group. He was signed to Artful Balance Record label and his group produced three albums for that label. Always eager to expand his knowledge and have more control over his own music, Henry decided to master studio engineering. Back in California, he built a small studio and many of his subsequent album projects were recorded there. He set up his own Nefertiti record company and was soon producing not only his own records, but recording other artists too.

The Henry Robinett Group was named the Best Jazz Band by the Sacramento News and Review for three straight years. In 2015, he was recording a more contemporary sound of jazz.

For this current album, recorded in 2000, Robinett and his exciting bandmates offer us their interpretation of several jazz songs that we love like “Days of Wine and Roses”, “Just the Way You Look Tonight,” “Ill Wind” and “Invitation” among six others. This production is bebop influenced jazz that never grows old.

“I called the talented drummer, Michael Stephans. He suggested I use Seattle based musician, Chris Symer on bass. I then called my good friend, Joe Gilman and reserved the date at The Hanger recording studio, where I had been working as an engineer and producer,” Henry recalled on his album jacket.

“What I remember was that the session was fun. It is always a challenge being the recording engineer and player. Both are full time jobs. Maybe that’s the reason it sat on the shelf so long. I couldn’t get away from the memory of being ‘split-brained’ at that moment,” he admitted.

“So, I decided to release two albums from the original session. I was so motivated by this recording that we met again in November of 2019 for another fun and productive session. So, this is “Volume 1 – Then” and “Volume 2 – Then Again” is coming soon. It’s been my real pleasure playing this music with these remarkable musicians. I hope you enjoy it,” Henry Robinett graciously spoke.

The release date for this well-produced album is May 1, 2020. I look forward to hearing the follow-up album, after finding such pure pleasure and enjoyment in Robinett’s straight-ahead and bebop infused jazz production.
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Jonah Francese, bandleader/composer/arranger; David Ling, piano/keyboards; Neil Patton, bass; Marshawn Fondren, drums; Caio Afiune & Marc Malsegna, guitars; Kristen Dye, flute; Clay Lyons, alto saxophone; Mark Zaleski, alto & soprano sax; Jonathan Bean & Paul Melhus, tenor saxophones; Austin Yancey, baritone sax; Kai Sandoval, Danny Fratina, Jenn Zevos, Jesse Francese & Taylor Kelly, trumpets; Quinn Carson, Eric Stilwell, Myrish Spell & Rob Krahn, trombones. Brett White, piano on interludes; INTERLUDE SPEAKERS: Jordan Pert, Tangela Mathis, Marshawn Fondren, Puja Ghosh, Kimberlee Chang, Thalea Stokes, Gustavo Hernandez, Allison Burik, Kristen Dye & Myrish Spell.

If you are wondering, during these pandemic times, how the world’s population perceives itself and its surroundings, Jonah Francese has a musical explanation.

“Voices remain unheard in our political environment and the stories these voices can tell are important to the construction of the multicultural intersectionality, of which, most in power choose to ignore.”

The compositions, arrangements and production of Jonah Francese’s big band addresses these inequities with music, poetry and vocals. Opening with Brett White’s piano as a backdrop to a poem recited by Jordan Peart, track one (called an Interlude) sets the political nature of this creative venture. Jonah Francese crosses multiple musical genres in his arranging. By employing strong funk overtures, he delivers a contemporary groove and seamlessly moves into a sweetly arranged big band jazz movement with harmonious horns and a more traditional, orchestrated sound. On track 2, you hear this blend and it keeps the listener both entertained and surprised. The electric guitar solo by Caio Afiune on this tune titled, “Rich Man’s Empty Pocket” is outstanding. This is followed by a short essay extoling the rights and challenges of creative women-of-color by Tangela Mathis.

Most of the compositions on “Reclamation” were inspired and written after the forty-fifth president was elected to office and before our current state of emergency. According to the liner notes, Francese endeavors to find balance between his Mexican heritage from his dad’s side of the family and his white privilege. With this project, he advocates for issues he relates to, as well as those he can illuminate through the voices of others. When Jonah Francese addresses the inspiration for his tune, “Rich man’s Empty Pocket” he says:

“The use of money and power to create systemic racism and classism only goes so far. Money will never unify the rich. Financial greed will always exist, but communities who remain together … united groups, refuse to allow the power of the rich to defeat them. We continue to stand together and so ultimately our pockets are more full than theirs will ever be,” the composer/arranger/conductor asserts.

These brilliant, big band arrangements are driven hard by Marshawn Fondren on drums, who is prominent and tenacious throughout. As well as being a percussive master, he also is one of the interlude speakers on this album who protests how people of color have to be more careful in speech and action. He feels this alienation is eliminated when he sits behind his drums and can simply become a musician.

This interlude piece is followed by “Destroyer of Ignorance” that features Tracy Robertson, singing repetitive scat vocals atop a funky arrangement. This tune comfortably crosses over to a very commercial, smooth jazz production.

“Reclamation – Thinking Big” is a musical project that continues to explore what big band music can be. Jonah Francese is a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago currently and is devoting much to his study of race and gender through the field of Ethnomusicology. With the help of these stellar musicians, his awareness and hopefulness are both reflected in this uniquely creative music.
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