EXOTIC MUSIC: ORIGINAL, AVANT GARDE & HEALING

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz journalist
April 21, 2020

As we remain sequestered in our homes, perhaps frustrated during this 2020-worldwide pandemic, I find myself drawn to music and embracing its healing powers. Music is such a universal language and gives us joy and hope in subtle ways. Here are some albums that lifted me up during this challenging time of chaos and health crisis.

CLARK SOMMERS’ BA(SH) – “PENINSULA featuring GEOF BRADFIELD & DANA HALL” Outside In Music

Clark Sommers, bass/composer; Geof Bradfield, tenor & soprano saxophones; Dana Hall, drums/cymbals.

Clark Sommers is a Grammy award winning bassist who cut his jazz teeth in Chicago, Illinois. This is his Ba(SH) band’s second recording, after his first release in August of 2013 received critical acclaim.

In 2017 he released an album, as bandleader titled, “By A Thread,” with a full ensemble playing his original compositions.

But Sommers wanted to get back to his original, 2013, open-ended Ba(SH) concept. So, on this recording, Sommers departs from the expected trio, once again eliminates piano or guitar, presenting a chord-less trio format. This gives his bass pure freedom to explore harmony, melody and texture with the creative support of Geof Bradfield on saxophone and Dana Hall’s tasty licks on drums. Clark Sommers is a serious composer and his original songs are played dynamically by this unique trio.

“I’ve been playing with them for over 20 years and they’re two of my closest friends and collaborators,” Clark commented.

I feel these three players beat as one heart. They merge together like blood and bone. The result is stunning, entertaining and inspired.
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KATHLEEN GRACE with LARRY GOLDINGS “TIE ME TO YOU” Monsoon Records

Kathleen Grace, vocals/guitar/songwriter/producer; Larry Goldings, piano/keyboards/organ/pocket piano/glockenspiel/producer; David Piltch & Darek Oleszkiewicz, bass; Gabe Witcher, violin.

Opening with the tune, “Tie Me to You,” that this singer/songwriter co-wrote with Larry Golding, the haunting melody wraps around me like hungry arms. There is something captivating about this minimalist production. I find something striking about Kathleen Grace’s emotional deliveries. They are not bogged down with a huge production or colored with vocal riffs and scats. Instead, it’s Kathleen’s crystal-clear voice and delivery that vividly buoys this production. Larry Goldings’ arrangements are unexpected, unique and their creativity brings out the best in Kathleen’s voice. For example, “Where or When” offers an unusual piano arrangement that reminds me of a Norwegian music box I once owned, with the tiny ballerina spinning and twirling around in front of a tiny mirror. Kathleen Grace’s tone is clear and precise. Her notes dance, delicate but strong, like ballet choreography. This vocalist offers no nasal overtones. Her style is pure, jazzy and folksy, especially on tunes like her original composition, “Everywhere” with Gabe Witcher’s violin adding a touch of Americana to their production of this song.

Kathleen impresses me with her emotional delivery of “John the Revelator” as a solid blues. She discovered this song when her friend and guitarist Anthony Wilson shared the version made famous by blues great Son house.

“We recorded that song in one take and it felt incredible,” she shared.

This is a genre-less CD. Kathleen Grace explained in her liner notes that this was her intention.

“Jazz is a value system. I may not always be creating music specific to that space, but I try to let its deepest truths of freedom, listening and trust guide my path; my choices. Larry and I agreed to leave genre at the door,” she explains.

When I hear her heart-breaking rendition of “What’ll I do,” I feel drawn into the lyric of that song like a fly caught inside a whirlpool. There’s no getting away from her honest, tear-jerking expressiveness. It sucks you into its depth without apology or pretense. You hear the same honest projection and deeply personal emotion when she sings, “The Thrill is Gone.” I’ve heard that song a million times, but never sung in this way and that makes her rendition particularly inviting and lovely.

Kathleen Grace grew up in Tucson, Arizona and relocated to Los Angeles. Her musical career has blossomed and taken her around the globe. But sometimes, when relationships change or end, we women find ourselves eclipsed by deep emotions. Often, these dark, purple and painful feelings birth incredibly warm and wonderful in the light of realization. In this artist’s voice, I hear both the hopeful light and the shattering pain that life changing, broken love can inspire. Consequently, this album becomes a piece of art that is bound to capture the ear and interest of people worldwide. In its honest simplicity, this may be one of the best things she’s done to date.
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VANDERLEI PEREIRA AND BLINDFOLD TEST – “VISION FOR RHYTHM” Jazzheads

Vanderlei Pereira, drums/percussion/composer/arranger/producer; Jorge Continentino, tenor saxophone/flute/alto flute/pifano; Rodrigo Ursaia, tenor saxophone; Susan Pereira, voice/percussion; Deanna Witkowski, piano; Paul Meyers, acoustic guitar; Gustavo Amarante, electric bass; Itaiguara Brandao, electric bass.

This is the debut release for Brazilian drummer, Vanderlei Pereira. He has lived in the United States for over thirty years and has made quite a name for himself working with music legends like Arutro O’Farrill’s Afro Latin jazz Orchestra, Paul Winter, Airto Moreira and Flora Purim, Toots Thielemans, Tito Puente, Claudio Roditi, Hendrik Meurkens and a host of others. Speaking of Airto, Vanderlei Pereira opens this CD with the Moreira composition, “Misturada.” It’s a happy, up-tempo 7/4 Samba tune with Susan Pereira’s vocals in unison with the melodic flute of Jorge Continentino. Together, they set the pace. We are off and running, with the percussive drums of Vanderlei Pereira leading the way. Susan Pereira’s voice is used throughout as part of the ensemble. Her scat instrument is a lovely addition to the tracks. Paul Meyers takes an in depth and innovative solo on acoustic guitar. After hearing this first track, I’m all in and captured by the energy and beauty of this band. The second tune “Point of Departure” (Ponto de Partida) is an original composition by Vanderlei. It’s rhythmic and joyful. Like the first song, this one also makes me tap my toe to the infectious rhythms. This time the tenor saxophone of Continentino is featured. Also, pianist Deanna Witkowski steps forward to soak up some of the glittering spotlight. Every tune that follows encourages the listener to move and/or dance. Continentino adds the pifano to the list of instruments he plays during this project. The pifano is a wind instrument from the Northeast region of Brazil. It dates back to the days of fifes that Christian settlers used to play in honor of the Virgin Mary during Christmas celebrations.

Born in Macaé, Brazil, Vanderlei Pereira started playing drums professionally when he was just fifteen. He studied music and received his degree from the Academia de Musica Lorenzo Fernandes in Rio de Janeiro. There, he performed with the prestigious Orquestra Sinfonica Brasileira. Due to an inherited retinitis pigmentosa, he became blind in his early thirties. But he didn’t let this stop his career. Since Vanderlei Pereira could no long read charts, he concentrated on becoming a top jazz and samba drummer. After transplanting to New York in 1988, he quickly became an in-demand trap drummer on the Brazilian jazz scene. Continuing his music studies, he earned a degree in Jazz Studies from the Mannes College of Music. This awesome recording shows that not only is Vanderlei Pereira an amazing drummer, he is also a masterful and significant bandleader, composer and arranger.
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AMINA FIGAROVA – “PERSISTENCE – EDITION 113” Amfi Records

Amina Figarova, piano/keyboards/composer/arranger; Rez Abbasi, guitars; Bart Platteau, B flat flute d’Amore/EWI; Yasushi Nakamura, electric/acoustic bass; Rudy Royston, drums. SPECIAL APPEARANCES BY: Paul Jost, vocals; JSwiss, lyrics/rapper; Skye’s World, spoken word/vocals.

This album marks a year of new horizons for Azerbaijani-born pianist, Amina Figarova. After 20-years leading an acclaimed acoustic sextet and touring the world, she decided to make a sharp left turn into unexplored waters. “Persistence” is the title of her new album and lets electronic music wash over us, like salty waves. Figarova employs an eclectic band that grooves hard and mixes genres. You will hear fusion jazz, R&B grooves and hip-hop expressions, all mixed up with progressive funk.

Rudy Royston’s pronounced and dynamic drums are both evident and colorful on every track. His rhythms and sensitive embellishments lift Amina Figarova’s piano mastery. She plays a number of keyboards and adds keyboard techniques that enhance this production. On “Lil Poem,” one of seven original compositions she has penned, you hear her straight-ahead jazz chops. Her fingers make the keys sing and swing. She never deserts her jazz sensibilities, even though she is exploring new territory. The addition of Bart Platteau’s free wielding EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument) adds depth and creativity to this arrangement. Yasushi Nakamura’s bass lines dance beneath, making subtle statements while always holding the rhythm tightly in place, along with Royston’s drums. I played this song twice, before moving on. It captures the imagination.

On “I’ve Got No Time,” the staccato piano chords set up the tune and the B flat flute plays tag in the open spaces in between. The drums tap like a metronome or the pendulum of a grandfather clock. Enter JSWISS, who offers a jazzy rap.

On “R Song,” the “R” stands for Rez, her guitarist (Rez Abbasi) and was written as kind of a gift for his birthday. His guitar solo mesmerizes. Amina is not to be denied her place in the spotlight featuring her undeniable piano excellence. I like the way the song grooves at the end and allows a space for the drums to solo atop the piano chords.

Each song on this ingenious recording brings forth its own magic. Each composition pulls a fresh surprise from Amina Figarova’s magician’s hat. They pop-up and entertain us, like technicolor rabbits. Her arrangements are individually unique and each one brings something enchanting to keep our attention on-point and our ears alert. On the final tune titled, “Bliss” Skye’s World, brings us a spoken word poem that perhaps capsulizes all we have heard.

“Like jungle flowers, that bloom, when we are cut too soon; our beauty fades quicker than our destination …” he speaks.

This album is like a freshly cut bouquet, full of exotic sounds and colors. Each musician brings something unique and exceptional to the table. Perhaps the brightest colors are the ones painted by composer, arranger, pianist and bandleader, Amina Figarova. Here is a project I will listen to time and time again.
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THE TNEK JAZZ QUINTET – “PLAYS THE MUSIC OF SAM JONES” TNEK Jazz

Kent Miller, bass; Darius Scott, piano; Greg Holloway, drums; Benny Russell, tenor & soprano saxophones; Antonio Parker, alto saxophone.

Legendary bassist, Sam Jones, was born November 12, 1924 in Jacksonville, Florida. He moved to New York in 1955, when he was nearly thirty-one years old. It didn’t take long for folks to notice Jones’ genius. He recorded with Bill Evans in the 1950s. He was soon working with legends like Kenny Dorham, Bobby Timmons, Gene Ammons, Illinois Jacquet, Freddie Hubbard, Dizzy Gillespie and even Thelonious Monk. However, some of his most amazing composer skills became visibly apparent when he was part of Cannonball Adderley’s group from 1959 to 1965. After that, he worked four years as part of the Oscar Peterson group and later played with Cedar Walton.

The TNEK Jazz Quintet concentrates on the work of Sam Jones when he was with Cannonball’s aggregation. It was bass player, Kent Miller who came up with the idea of recording an album of the music of Sam Jones. All the songs on this tribute CD are familiar to most jazz heads, but I wonder how many people actually know that the great Sam Jones composed every single song the TNEK band interprets. The exception is the final tune on this album, “Tragic Magic,” written by Kenny Barron. This super talented ensemble of musicians brings fire and spontaneity to the music. Pianist, Darius Scott, is soulful and prolific on his instrument. Greg Holloway is the dynamic drummer and Antonio Parker and Benny Russell add the intricate horn lines that Sam Jones wrote. They open with “Unit Seven,” a song Cannonball often used as his unofficial theme song. Adderley and his brother Nat were famous for playing this familiar jazz tune. This TNEK group covers all the popular jazz standard songs that Sam Jones famously penned. After “Unit Seven” comes “Bittersuite.” This is followed by “Some More of Dat” and then “Lillie”, “O.P” and “Del Sasser.”

Bass player, Kent Miller has been a part of the Washington, D.C. jazz community since 1995. He relocated there after leaving New York and put together the TNEK group. Their debut album was titled, “Contributions.” These talented musicians and old friends have an exciting ability to swing hard and fit together perfectly with the familiarity and a cohesiveness that breeds excellence.

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ANDY MILNE & UNISON – “THE REMISSION” Sunnyside Communications/Contrology Records

Andy Milne, piano; John Hebert, bass; Clarence Penn, drums.

‘Unison’is the name of Andy Milne’s new trio. That name translates to working together as one. Milne thought about Forming a trio for many years, but never dived into the concept until now. Playing in a trio setting is a new and untrodden path for Andy Milne. However, this new group sounds seasoned and energetically compatible.

Sometimes shocking, life-changing challenges redirect purposeful plans. In 2017, this pianist/composer and bandleader was diagnosed with Cancer. The title of this album is his current status; “The Remission.”

“I began to reflect on how a trio might influence a musical course change. The jazz pianist’s venerable formation stared me squarely in the eyes and I realized now was the time,” Milne mused.

At first, he considered recording a trio album that featured standard jazz songs. Then, he began composing, specifically with his trio in mind. Two of his good friends of thirty-years, Benoit Delbecq and Ralph Alessi introduced him to bass player, John Hebert. Milne and Hebert formed an immediate musical bond. Andy chose Clarence Penn as his drummer, even though they had never played together. The two musicians had arrived in New York around the same time and had known each other for years. Over time, Milne found himself intoxicated with the way Penn played drums in other groups, always adding something special to the mix.

“Every time I heard him perform, I found myself fixated by how his sound, time and finesse elevated whatever band with whom he was performing,” Milne recalls.

Once these two musicians were onboard, the trio was born. This album of fine music features eight of Andy Milne’s original compositions out of ten tunes. The opening composition, “Passion Dance” was penned by McCoy Tyner and the closing tune on this album was written by Benny Golson titled, “Sad to Say.” Everything in between is fresh, new and composed by Milne.

“Vertical on Opening Night” is introduced by John Hebert’s double bass in a strong and provocative way. The piano accompaniment by Andy Milne gives tenacious support to Hebert’s melodic bass playing. I found this arrangement very interesting. “Drive By – the Fall” centers the spotlight on Clarence Penn. His spirited drum solo is the introduction to this tune and he carries this piece throughout like a weight-lifter. Milne enters with his piano melody spilling over the space in a very classical way. Throughout, this is a merge of modern jazz with classical overtones spurred by the creative juices of each musical member. Another favorite was their interpretation of McCoy’s tune.

“In jazz, the trio is perhaps one of the most heralded and revered configurations for pianists. … As a stand-alone entity, the piano trio has often been the backdrop wherein pianists establish their reputations and define their pianistic vision. For me, the decision to present who I have become as an artist, in the trio setting, involved a reckoning and a certain degree of artistic and technical evolution in order to both embody my past projects and forge a new path forward,” Andy Milne asserts.

That pretty much sums it up!
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CHRIS McCARTHY – “STILL TIME TO QUIT” Ropeadope Records

Chris McCarthy, piano/composer; Sam Minaie, bass; JK Kim, drums; Michael Blake, tenor saxophone/flute; Takuya Kuroda, trumpet.

As a journalist and published songwriter myself, I recognize how important semantics can be. So, I was wondering what the title of this album meant to the artist. He explains in his liner notes.

“There’s always ‘still Time to Quit’ music, but there’s also time to fulfill one’s creative and professional dreams and goals,” Chris McCarthy says.

On this, his debut album for Ropeadope Records, McCarthy fulfills one of those dreams. The first cut storms off of the CD with driving power. It’s spontaneous; shockingly and technically astute. This pianist/composer gives us a peek at his piano prowess and composition skills. The tune is titled, “That’s All you Get” and it’s one of eight songs on this recording that the pianist has penned. Although short (at two minutes and eight seconds long), this song packs a punch.

McCarthy gives free range to his band members, who take the opportunity to improvise on composer’s provided themes and melodies. Takuya Kuroda on trumpet shines on “Ready, Steady, here You Go!” It’s the second song on this album. McCarthy shows off his blues chops on “Shockingly Effective,” however before he can settle into the tune on piano, the horns are already repeating staccato horn lines that take away his luster. This tune turns into avant-garde-busy and leaves blues and melody standing on a New York street corner by themselves and forgotten. A tune called, “Toasty” brings the spotlight briefly back to the artist. It quickly becomes a repetitive melody, sung by the horn section again and again as I await the pianist to step forward and strut his stuff. On “Happy Tired” I finally get to hear Chris McCarthy take a meaningful piano solo, but it’s lack-luster. Clearly this is a group effort, rather than an album that introduces us to Chris McCarthy. We meet his compositions, but not his piano mastery.
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AUBREY JOHNSON – “UNRAVELED” Outside In Music

Aubrey Johnson, vocals/composer; Chris Ziemba, piano; Matt Aronoff, bass; Jeremy Noller, drums; Michael Sachs, bass clarinet/alto saxophone; Tomoko Omura, violin; Vitor Goncalves, accordion.

It’s a little unusual to hear a soprano jazz singer who utilizes her upper range vocals like a horn when interpreting lyrics. You hear this type of voice that Aubrey Johnson has more in folk or pop vocals. That being said, her tone and pitch are appealing and in addition to being a vocalist, she’s a composer and offers us four original songs on this production. Her back-up band is all jazz and they make a formidable palate for her to vocal-paint this lovely canvas of sound. From the very first song, Aubrey Johnson combines scats with lyrical phrases. She writes very jazzy tunes and she sounds as if she thinks like a horn. You can clearly hear this on her opening tune, “No More I Love You’s” and on “Unraveled,” the title tune and one of her originals. Here, she layers her voicings, like a horn section, moving fluidly from lyrics to scat singing. Pianist, Chris Ziemba, is not only a fine accompanist, but a very gifted pianist. Aubrey Johnson reminds me of a Joni Mitchell type singer, with hints of a modern-day Annie Ross. There is a freedom to her music in the way her melodies move in unexpected intervals that captivate. I found her vocal interpretations so interesting that I listened with headphones. She reminds me of someone who is comfortable singing in a group with other singers. When I read her press package, I discovered she has indeed performed with a number of other vocalists, including the inimitable Bobby McFerrin on his 2010 Grammy-nominated album, VOCAbularies.

On the tune, “Voice is Magic” she sounds birdlike and precise. The arrangement is enhanced by the beautiful violin solo or Tomoko Omura. “The Peacocks” (composed by J. Rowles and N. Winstone) is a very challenging jazz tune. Aubrey Johnson makes it sound fluid, smooth and easy. Michael Sachs plays a ‘mean’ alto saxophone solo on this arrangement. Then she sings the familiar and beautiful song, “Dindi” in Portuguese and then in English. What a treat.

This is an album of fresh, innovative music by a singer whose voice defies category and who reinvents herself on each individual tune. Her distinctive sound is unlike one I have heard in other ensembles or on the recent jazz scene. Her vocals take us on a creative journey to places we’ve never been. She invites all adventurous jazz gypsies to come on board and enjoy.
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