By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist
May 20, 2020

BRIAN LANDRUS – “FOR NOW” Blue Land Records

Brian Landrus, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet/alto flute/C flute; Fred Hersch, piano; Drew Gress, bass; Billy Hart, drums; Michael Rodriguez, trumpet; Sara Caswell, violin; Joyce Hammann, violin; Lois Martin, viola; Jody Redhage-Ferber, cello.

This is Brian Landrus’ tenth album as a bandleader. He has surrounded himself with luminaries of the jazz industry like Fred Hersch, Drew Gress and Billy Hart who form his outstanding rhythm section. He’s added some young blood to the mix with Michael Rodriguez bringing his trumpet and Sara Caswell with her sweet violin. They open with one of ten original compositions by Landrus, out of a Baker’s Dozen of tunes. “The Signs” gives Rodriguez an opportunity to introduce himself to us on trumpet in a beautiful, Miles Davis-kind-of-way. The piano skips along under the tempered fingers and bright talent of Fred Hersch. Enter Brian Landrus, who puts his mark on the song like an unforgettable tattoo on your cheek. His low woodwind kisses the melody and explores the chord changes, leading the horn ensemble back to the melodic refrain in a sort-of march cadence.

The second song is so incredibly romantic and lovely that I had to play it twice. Titled, “Clarity in Time” the sentimentality and emotional purity of this composition is startling. Landrus has such a rich and royal tone on his horns, that you are almost hypnotically drawn into his music. This song gives Sara Caswell an opportunity to shine sweetly on her violin. The familiar standard, “Invitation” is dressed up with strings; a very smart choice to let his deep horn solos resonate.

“As I was writing For Now, I could feel it coming from a very deep place, directly from some truly difficult and some unforgettably beautiful life experiences,” Landrus says.

This is a truly romantic recording. The tone, shadings and suppleness that Landrus utilizes on his horns tenderly caress these tunes. On a baritone saxophone or a bass clarinet, you might not expect this type of beautiful execution. I usually associate these instruments with a more robust, brash sound. Brian Landrus shatters the mold and sets himself apart from fellow musicians with this production. He offers us his unique and emotional ability on his bass clarinet when he sings the title tune, “For Now.” This love ballad captures his composer strength masterfully, supporting his worldwide popularity as one of the leading voices on low woodwinds. When he tackles tunes like “Round Midnight” solo, just him and his bass clarinet, I am caught in the fluttering net of his instrumental prowess and emotional insight.

Brian Landrus began playing saxophone at twelve years young and was performing professionally by fifteen. Raised in Nevada, he earned his BA Degree from University of Nevada-Reno and has two Master of Music Degrees from New England Conservatory. Today, he a Brooklyn-based multi-instrumentalist and composer with a PhD in classical composition from Rutgers University and he’s on the faculty at Rutgers as well.
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Charles Pillow, flute/alto flute/clarinet/alto & soprano saxophone/oboe/English horn; Gary Versace, piano/accordion; Jay Anderson & Jeff Campbell, bass; Mark Ferber & Rich Thompson, drums; Rogerio Boccato, percussion; Vic Juris, guitar; Todd Groves, bass clarinet/clarinet/flute; Marcus Rojas, tuba; Chris Komer, French horn; Alan Ferber, trombone; Scott Wendholt, trumpet; Hiroko Taguchi, Whitney Lagrange, & Lisa Matricardi, violins; Todd Low & Orlando Wells, viola; Alisa Horn & Allison Seidner, cello; Gary Versace, accordion.

This album is a follow-up to the Charles Pillow critically acclaimed 2018 release. Pillow came up with the concept for this new project titled, “Chamber Jazz” to blend elements of classical music with jazz.

“The project came about as a way to fuse elements of classical music with improvisation and to evolve further as a composer. Playing with a string section is deeply satisfying and by adding bass clarinet and a small brass section to the mix, I found additional captivating tonal palette possibilities,” Charles Pillow shared.

This is an easy listening, romantic production that features four song composed by Charles Pillow and four popular jazz tunes including the Billie Holiday standard “Don’t Explain.” It’s arranged uniquely, beginning with a very Latin flavored guitar introduction by Vic Juris and sexy drums roll beneath, played by mallets. Charles Pillow has known Vic Juris for years and has been playing with him in David Liebman’s Big Band for over a decade. The horns are beautifully harmonized and the strings add emotional drama and romance to this arrangement.

The Hermeto Pascoal composition, “Bebe” is a well-known Brazilian tune. Pillow and his Chamber Jazz group slow the tempo and feature Gary Versace on accordion. On this arrangement, the string section shivers like trembling bird wings and Charles Pillow picks up his clarinet. Some of the songs featured and written by Pillow celebrate his family. There is the tune, “Charlotte and Evan” that is dedicated to his daughter and son. “Abschied Ray” is a tribute to his father who passed during the time this music was being arranged and recorded. Charles Pillow’s Louisiana roots are strung, like a stream of long, blue, gold and white silk ribbons through his compositions. Born in Baton Rouge, LA, he attended college at Loyola University. He earned his Master’s Degree in Jazz Studies at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where he is currently Assistant Director of Jazz Saxophone. In 1987, Pillow relocated to New York City and was sucked up into the studio session scene. His versatile talent contributed to records by pop icons like Mariah Carey, Jay Z, R&B balladeer, Luther Vandross, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon and even Frank Sinatra. He played straight ahead jazz and big band music with luminaries like David Liebman, Tom Harrell, John Scofield and smooth jazz with David Sanborn. But he’s truly at his best when he leads and records his own band. This is a prime example.
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LOU VOLPE –”BEFORE & AFTER” Jazz Guitar Records

Lou Volpe, guitars/arrangements/composer; Stanley Banks, Pete Falbo & Motoki Mihara, bass; Buddy Williams, drums; Gary Fritz, John Romagnoll & Richie Morales, percussion.

Lou Volpe has spent a productive and busy life as a musician, touring with major artists like Bette Midler, Judy Collins and Herbie Mann, while also working as a sideman in studio sessions on a variety of New York jazz sessions.

He plays R&B and pop as easily as he improvises and plays jazz. Consequently, artists like Chet Baker, The Manhattan Transfer, David “Fathead” Newman, Peggy Lee and Joey DeFrancesco all have enlisted his talents on their recording sessions.

On this release as a frontline artist, Volpe shines. He has composed eleven of the thirteen songs offered starting with “Up the Road,” that is a moderate tempo’d, energetic little tune with a strong melody. This song features a very smooth jazz production, but Lou Volpe’s ‘chops’ on his guitar keeps it all jazz. He is the energetic drive behind this production and has included musicians who know how to find a groove and keep it moving. The second track, “Three Rivers” has a country/western feel to it and track three, “Coming My Way” is based in the blues and shows another side of Lou Volpe’s guitar character. Volpe has a distinctive voice on guitar, while his music is both diverse and provides pleasant listening. Sometimes his style and composer abilities lend themselves to the type of music Pat Metheny or George Benson might record. Lou Volpe crosses all boundaries and combines genres seamlessly. His smooth, effortless presentation is a joy to listen to and would brighten and enhance any romantic evening.
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Michael Thomas, alto saxophone/composer/arranger; Jason Palmer, trumpet; Hans Glawischnig, bass; Johnathan Blake, drums.

I believe that one of the sexiest instruments on the planet is the saxophone. What better way to spend a romantic evening than to put on Charlie Parker with Strings or Cannonball Adderley’s quintet? So, I was eager to listen to the new album by inventive young saxophonist and Grammy winner, Michael Thomas. I have enjoyed his arrangements and work as co-leader of the Terraza Big Band, but this is a departure from that. In fact, I wouldn’t call this production romantic. The album title pretty much says it all. In astronomical terms, an “Event Horizon” is a point of no return. It’s the boundary at the edge of a black hole, where gravitational forces are so powerful that even light cannot escape, verging on mysterious, unexplored territory. On this recording, Michael Thomas is pushing all boundaries, along with his trio comprised of Hans Glawischnig on bass, Johnathan Blake on drums and Jason Palmer on trumpet. There is no piano or guitar to ground the rhythm section. That leaves lots of space for these musicians to fly free and uninhibited. It’s a two-disc set, opening with an original composition Thomas calls, “Distance.” He explains:

“This was the first song I composed for this project and appropriately, serves as album’s opening track. While writing it, I found myself looking out my window at the Manhattan skyline and contemplating the difference between the perceived serenity from my viewpoint, and the chaos experienced when in the middle of the city. These two feelings are a result of my distance from the city and represented by the contrasting parts of this song.”

On track #2, “Drift” Michael Thomas settles down to a more romantic tone and vibe. It begins melancholy and quietly beautiful, letting Thomas soak up the attention by playing his alto saxophone in a smooth, improvised way.

“The title of this composition came from the way the song ‘drifts’ through several uneven phrases, as well as three seemingly unrelated tonal centers,” Michael Thomas shared in his liner notes.

This double set of freedom music was recorded ‘live’ over two nights at New York City’s renowned Jazz Gallery. It allows space for each musician to individually explore and interpret their own musical magic. On “Drift” you get to experience the tenacious power of each player, during solos and as a group ensemble. This is music that will both intrigue and entertain you. I enjoy the tone and execution of Michael Thomas on alto saxophone. Additionally, he’s an expert composer and generous bandleader, unafraid to share the spotlight with his worthy bandmembers, who are each dynamic and talented in their own sweet way. For example, just before the tune “Dr. Teeth,” inspired by The Muppet Show, Hans Glawischnig’s bass solo is stellar, opening the song and directing our attention to his dancing fingers against the double bass strings, during a two-minute introduction. Johnathan Blake is artistically solid on trap drums and is the underlying force beneath Jason Palmer’s trumpet blended harmonically with the saxophone and as a solo player. While a studio session could have been more convenient and esthetically perfect, recording ‘live’ brings the musicians face to face with walking a tightrope above their audience’s upturned faces, with no safety net.

Thanks to the foresight and experience of Jimmy Katz, an award-winning jazz photographer and recording engineer, all the nuances and mastery of these musicians is precisely captured in this ‘live’ environment. He and his wife, Dena Katz, established their non-profit, Giant Step Arts, in January of 2018 to commission and showcase modern jazz’s most innovative artists. Special thanks to the Katz couple for creating an adventurous stage for art, for giving total control to the musicians for their artistic projects and creating both entertainment and financial reward for music excellence. This is another successful production.
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Dave Morgan, baritone saxophone/flute/bandleader; Rob Susman, trombone/ bandleader; Noel Cohen, guitar; Dan Asher, bass; Rex Benincasa, percussion; Peter Grant, drums; Chris Hemingway & Charles Lee, alto saxophones; Stan Killian & John Isley, tenor saxophones; Scott Burrows, trombone; Seneca Black, Chris Anderson, Bryan Davis & Jordan Hirsch, trumpets.

Funk Shui NYC is an all-star band, friends based in New York, who came together to record some new compositions, some fresh arrangement and to have some fun. This album reflects their new beginnings. They’ve added a few familiar tunes like the Barney Miller television show theme song and the over-recorded Summertime song. They also covered Allen Toussaint’s tune, “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky” and that song pretty much sums up this entire production. It’s funky! You might not even recognize the Barney theme song (What Barney?) because it’s truly funk-a-sized! The horns are definitely spotlighted on these arrangements, pushed by Peter Grant’s drums, that are exciting and powerful. Rex Benincasa’s percussive additions throughout are spot-on and tasty. Dan Asher’s bass drives the funk and Noel Cohen adds his rhythm guitar to round out this tenacious rhythm section.

Band leaders: Dave Morgan and Rob Susman have composed or co-composed five of the ten tunes. The group arrangements are spunky, upbeat and sometimes humorous. The music is sassy and a bit quirky, happily reflecting New York City in all its glory. The horns lift the production, giving a fully orchestrated, plush, big band sound. On “Summertime” Chris Anderson arranged it starting with a Santana-style Latin Rock beat. With horns blaring, it morphs into a traditional Conjunto, with the percussionist propelling the piece. John Isley solos on tenor sax and Anderson follows on trumpet, supported by Asher’s strong bass line. You almost forget you’re listening to Summertime. It’s a very fresh and enjoyable arrangement.

George Harrison’s “Blue Jay Way” is another example of painting a tune with an entirely new face. This was Harrison’s 1967 psychedelic masterpiece and Funk Shui NYC plays it like a funky lounge groove, featuring the arranger and trombonist, Rob Susman. You hear the hip-hop influences when they take Farrell’s groove and mix it into their arrangement of the “I Feel Free” tune. You hear New York traffic and automobile horns in the original composition, “Into the Fourth Dimension.” Rex Benincasa is outstandingly present on percussion instruments.

Although the music is a little brash, if you like a funky groove and coloring outside the lines, you will find this album pleasing to your palate. The tasty way Susman and Morgan have mixed jazz with funk, rock and Latin, adding their own compositions and even ‘hip hop’ is unusually fresh.
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Adam Rudolph, membranophones (fingers & hands)/idiophones/chordophones/overtone singing/ electronic processing; Ralph M. Jones, aerophones/voice; Hamid Drake, membranophones (sticks & hands)/idiophones/voice.

This cd is a jungle of sounds and emotions. Adam Rudolph, Ralph M. Jones and Hamid Drake have reached into the universe of sound to extract unusual combinations of familiarity that tickle our musical imaginations. Rudolph is a master percussionist, as is Drake. Ralph M. Jones is a woodwind master. Together, they create (on this, their second album) a relationship of sound expression, employing spontaneous compositions with the improvisation of sounds and mastery of technique. These sounds can both enthuse and intrigue the listener, taking us back to the beginning of time or whisking us into space with the projection of a more universal future. “Imaginary Archipelagos” (translates to imaginary islands) and certainly takes us back to a more basic and what some might call a more primitive time. But how wonderful to hear music that reminds us of bird calls, plants, the wind rustling trees or the ocean crashing against the shore; carriages with wooden wheels against a dusty plain or broken wind chimes glowing and still desperately singing in island sunsets. This is an exploration into electronic and acoustic instruments, that tempers ancient prayers from Yorubic circles, while also embracing nature and various world cultures. This music is both romantic and avant-garde. It will transport you to wherever your imagination has the courage to wander. It can rejuvenate and excite you, or settle your spirits down like a lullaby from the lips of mother nature. This is a fresh and beautiful recording that transcends explanations using dictionary words. This is music meant to inspire meditation and transformation.

“With every record I make I try to do something that I’ve never done before,” says Rudolph. “I’ve always studied music from all over the world, so I had the idea of inventing some music that was previously undiscovered, which represents the idea that the creative endeavor itself is about discovering and uncovering something new.”

Rudolph and Drake formed a close and bonded relationship starting at age fourteen when they met in a downtown Chicago drum shop. They’ve worked with such iconic jazz musicians as Pharoah Sanders, Don Cherry, Dave Liebman, Fred Anderson and Hassan Hakmoun. Rudolph met Jones in 1974 at the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival. They performed together in groups led by Kenny Cox and Charles Moore. Later, they co-founded the Eternal Wind Quartet with Moore, that Rudolph says is much like this inventive Karuna Trio. Sit back and enjoy.

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Jason Palmer, trumpet; Mark Turner, tenor saxophone; Joel Ross, vibraphone; Edward Perez, bass; Kendrick Scott, drums.

The concept for this album is unusual. In march of 1990, thieves entered Boston’s ‘Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’ disguised as the police. When they exited, they took with them thirteen precious works of art. When trumpeter, composer, Jason Palmer moved from North Carolina to Boston, in 1997, to attend the New England Conservatory of Music, he attended a concert at that very museum. While there, he noticed several empty frames on display. He thought it was odd, but it wasn’t until years later that Jason Palmer found out about the $500 million-dollar heist that had left those frames without artwork. This album is a tribute to the missing art pieces by Rembrandt, Degas and others.

The ‘live’ concert opens with “A Lady and Gentleman in Black” and it gives ample time for each musician in his quintet to solo and introduce themselves to the audience, playing at a brisk pace. When Palmer composed this piece, he used only the black keys of the piano. The second track was composed to describe the Degas painting titled, “Cortege aux Environs do Florence,” drawn sometime around 1857 using pencil and sepia wash on paper. Palmer has composed this tune at a slower tempo, giving tenor saxophonist, Mark Turner, lots of time to adlib and improvise, followed by a lengthy solo by vibraphonist, Joel Ross. Palmer was working from images of the stolen art and drew inspiration from them. The presentation of these twelve original compositions is packaged as a two-set CD. Jason Palmer exhibits a beautiful tone and delivery on his trumpet throughout. He and his group are quite exploratory on these songs. Palmer is establishing a reputation as being one of the most inventive and in-demand trumpeters on the East Coast. He’s performed on over forty albums as a sideman and recorded a baker’s dozen of albums as a bandleader. This album is a far cry from his tribute to the music of Anita Baker, released in September of 2019, but both artistic works show his ability to push the boundaries of music and to stretch his creativity, along with those of his band members.

Jason Palmer has toured and performed in over thirty countries and his quintet has been the house band at Boston’s historic Wally’s Jazz Café for over fifteen years. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Ensembles and Brass at Berklee College of Music and has served as an Assistant Professor at Harvard University.
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ALEX de GRASSI – “THE BRIDGE” Tropo Records/ distributed by Six Degrees Records

Alex de Grassi, guitar/composer/arranger.

This album, featuring the undeniable talents of Alex de Grassi on guitar, is a lesson in technical skills. Starting with the up-tempo tune, “Mr. B Takes A walk In the Rain” the listener finds themselves rushing alongside Mr. B, soaking up the excitement Alex de Grassi creates on his instrument with flying fingers. The second track has a more folksy arrangement. There is a warmth to de Grassi’s music that’s both comforting and entertaining. Surprisingly, “The Bridge” is Alex’s first solo guitar album in seventeen years. He found a special bond with Grammy Award winning engineer, Leslie Ann Jones at her legendary Skywalker Studio in Northern California. This is what he had to say about their collaboration.

“I had played on a live audiophile broadcast at Skywalker the year before and after taking my guitar out of the case and playing a couple of notes in that space, I knew I wanted to make my next solo recording there. It’s a truly amazing sounding room, and with Leslie Ann on the other side of the glass, I knew we would capture the sound of the best concert halls I’ve ever performed in. I wasn’t disappointed!”

He recorded without pickups, nor headphones to monitor and with simply great mics and four guitars (including his signature model Lowden), Alex felt like he was performing in one of his favorite concert venues. I should also mention that this production features sound engineer, Steven Miller, renowned for his work with many acoustic guitarists (including Michael Hedges landmark recording Aerial Boundaries) and various Windham Hill artists. Miller mixed the post production and Grammy award winner Gavin Lurssen of Lurssen Mastering in Los Angeles beautifully mastered this de Grassi solo album.

You will enjoy ten acoustic songs, with some of the original compositions by Alex de Grassi included. The album title was inspired by the last wooden bridge on the California coast, located as part of the popular Highway One. It’s a narrow, trestle bridge that stretches 173 feet above the Albion river.

“I imagined a lot of stories/scenarios about the people crossing that bridge,” Alex shared in his liner notes.

“The Bridge” also focuses on bridging together many types of music and cultures that Alex de Grassi loves. Along with his original compositions you will enjoy tunes by Hendrix, traditional folk songs, some Gershwin, some blues and Celtic melodies all stirred up together, infused with his classical training and jazz roots. Alex reflected about his title tune and that original composition:

“At night, headlights of cars crossing the bridge create a steady rhythm of flickering light between the uprights of the railing. That rhythm became the basis for this piece, a steady ostinato over which the long, syncopated notes of the melody unfold slowly. I wanted to convey both that image as well as the perspective of the driver approaching, crossing, and then arriving at the other side. For me, there is a sense of mystery, a little bit of danger, as well as getting lost in the thoughts of the unknown driver behind the wheel.”

This absolutely intoxicating work of art, by Alex de Grassi, will have you daydreaming or reaching into the depths of your own mind. His music is not only hypnotic, it’s also extremely enjoyable and thought provoking. You feel his passion as he plays his instrument and you will enjoy the emotion he pours into every performance. Alex de Grassi’s music is captivating and spotlights his unique ability to balance rhythm guitar with melodic integrity.
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  1. REVIEW: Charles Pillow Reviewed on Musicalmemoirs's Blog - LYDIALIEBMAN.COM Says:

    […] By Dee Dee McNeil, Musicalmemoirs’s Blog […]

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