Archive for June, 2020


June 30, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil/ Jazz Journalist

June 30, 2020

THE MARK HARVEY GROUP – “A RITE FOR ALL SOULS”                            Americas Music Works

Mark Harvey, brasswinds; Peter H. Bloom, woodwinds; Craig Ellis & Michael Standish, percussion.

On October 31, 1971, nearly half a century ago, inside the sanctuary of Boston’s historic Old West Church, the Mark Harvey Group presented “A Rite for All Souls.”  The Old West Church dates all the way back to 1737 and was once part of the Underground Railroad during the American Revolution.   Picture the Aural theater, a space illuminated by a few flickering candles.  A red exit sign is mounted at each of three doors.  The musicians are improvising and several diverse, acoustical instruments and sound-making devices are arranged as a kind of sculpture in the middle of the space.  Stage center, two-color illustrations are displayed on a table.  The paintings depict tarot cards.  One is of “The Moon” which, in the physical world represents deception and hidden enemies.  The other art piece is “The Tower,” from the tarot cards, Arcanum XVI; a representation of chastisement of pride.   On that day, long ago, the performers entered the space, sounding organ pipes and they were hooded in monk robes.  That must have stunned the audience and garnered their undivided attention.

Four musicians captured the spotlight.  Mark Harvey was the brass player.  Peter H. Bloom played woodwinds and Craig Ellis along with Michael Standish were percussionist.  They employed a large array of acoustic Western and non-Western classical, familiar and unfamiliar instruments, along with toys and odd objects to create a variety of sounds.  For example, along with trumpet, flugelhorn, French horn and organ pipes, they incorporated a conch shell, kazoos, shakers, mbira, children’s toys and saxophones. You will hear a clarinet, flutes, bells and whistles.  The list of sound effects is long and the music is spontaneous to support recitations by actors who share the work of W. B. Yeats, Jack Spicer, and others.  They open with a piece called “Spel Against Demons” by Gary Snyder. This Snyder poem concludes with an ancient Sanskrit chant that sings against the improvising Mark Harvey Group.

The Mark Harvey Group (MHG) originally was an eight-piece band in 1969.  They played hard-bop, modal and jazz-rock.  Mark Harvey was an intern-minister at Boston’s Old West Church (a United Methodist organization) and the group became the resident jazz ensemble there.  By the 1970’s, the group had evolved.  They became a free jazz ensemble, leaning towards the style of Ornette Coleman and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.  They moved from their former jazz tradition to a more contemporary style, performing improvisational music from group compositions and in a sort of collective ritual experience.  You will experience this Avant Garde jazz approach on “A Rite for All Souls.”  The poetry reflects the tumultuous times and the ‘Hippie’-type, revolutionary upheaval during the 1970s.  It was the Age of Aquarius, with everyone sporting long hair, or thick afro-hair framing I’m-black-and-I’m-proud faces.  It was a time of psychedelic drug experimentation and revolutionary thinking.  Mark Harvey thinks that our world today is a ‘through-the-looking-glass’ kind of experience from his music then to the challenging times of 2020. 

“As Albert Ayler said, music is the healing force of the universe.  There are moments that are turbulent and the music reflects that, but overall, we were trying to point in a direction towards progress and healing,” Harvey explains their inspired production in his liner notes.

Harvey has long been an activist, a trumpeter, composer, educator and minister in the Boston community for more than fifty years.  He founded the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra in 1973.  He continues to lead that orchestra as music director, principal composer and arranger.  This year they open their 48th fall season.  The Jazz Journalists Association named him a Boston Jazz Hero in 2015 and in 2019 Jazz Boston honored him with the Roy Haynes Award for his exceptional contributions to jazz. 

Peter H. Bloom also has a career spanning over five decades.  He and Mark Harvey have performed together since 1969 and he’s also a member of the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra since 1976.  This master woodwind player is a founding member of the jazz and tap ensemble (the Modernistics).  Bloomhas led his own jazz groups for decades.  Sadly, the two percussion players of the group have made their transition from this Earth.  Craig Eaton Ellis died in 2006 and Michael Standish passed in 2014.

It must be very rewarding and quite nostalgic to listen, once again, to their youthful, energetic , musical experimentation while performing “A Rite for All Souls.”  It’s a double-set production, to encompass their two-act play.  The only question this project brings to mind is, why are we still in the same tumultuous place in our society as we were fifty years ago?  Why are we still wrestling with many of the same unsolved problems and challenges, in our country and in our world?  These problems that were terrorizing us half a century ago are still challenging us today.  Why are we still divided by race, class and religion? This music and their message will make you think hard and long about that!

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Oscar Hernandez, piano/arranger/composer/leader;  Hector Colón, Jonathan Powell, & Manuel “Maneco” Ruiz, trumpet/flugelhorns; Doug Beavers & Noah Bless, trombones; Jorge Castro & Mitch Frohman, baritone saxophone; Luisito Quintero, timbales/shekere/shakers/chimes; George Delgado, congas; Jorge Gonzalez, bongos; Gerardo “Jerry” Madera, bass; Jeremy Bosch, flute/vocal; Marco Bermudez & Carlos Cascante, vocals. SPECIAL GUESTS: Kurt Elling, vocals; Joe Locke, vibraphone; Jimmy Haslip, bass; Tom Harrell, Jonathan Powell & Michael Rodriguez, trumpets; Dave Liebman, Bob Mintzer, Bob Franceschini & Miguel Zenon, saxophones.

The Spanish Harlem Orchestra is blending Latin fire, sparkling percussive brilliance and traditional jazz in a multi-colored spotlight.  Opening with an original composition by producer, Oscar Hernandez, “Ritmo De Mi Gente” dances off my Cd player.   Orchestra leader, Hernandez, is featured on piano and has arranged this up-tempo, hip-swaying tune.   Jeremy Bosch is brightly featured on the flute.  For the past seventeen years, this three-time Grammy Award winning Spanish Harlem Orchestra (SHO) has earned their reputation as a premier salsa ensemble and lauded for their ability to blend their Latin cultural music with jazz.   The director and orchestra leader, Oscar Hernandez, is celebrated by many as one of the most important Latin jazz pianists of his generation.

“We have always been steeped in the tradition of Latin jazz.  It makes sense for us to finally get to this point.  I couldn’t be more proud of this project and this band,” Oscar Hernandez elaborated in his liner notes.

Track two, “Bobo,”  features L. A. based, big band leader, Bob Mintzer, lending his talents on saxophone. On the familiar and beautiful standard, “Invitation,” the distinctive vocals of Kurt Elling are prominent, with a rich saxophone solo by Miguel Zenon.  The orchestra propels these songs with excitement and percussive brilliance by Luisito Quintero, George Delgado and Jorge Gonzalez.  Throughout this production, the surprise appearances of several iconic musicians add credence and icing to this sweet, musical cake.  You will hear former Yellow Jackets member, Jimmy Haslip, on electric bass during their arrangement of “Silent Prayers” along with the iconic Dave Liebman on saxophone.  The energetic arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” becomes a Salsa stage to feature the trumpet of Jonathan Powell.   All in all, here is a lovely Latin album featuring tight, well-rehearsed arrangements, stellar orchestra members and a star-studded list of special guests.  What’s not to love?

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Daniel Hersog, conductor/composer/leader/arranger; Frank Carlberg, piano; James Meger, bass; Michael Sarin, drums; Chris Startup, alto saxophone/clarinet; Michael Braverman, alto & soprano saxophones/clarinet; Noah Preminger, tenor saxophone; Tom Keenlyside, tenor sax/flute/piccolo/alto flute; Ben Henriques, baritone sax/bass clarinet; Michael Kim, Brad Turner, Derry Byrne & Jocelyn Waugh, trumpet/flugelhorn; Rod Murray, Jim Hopson & Brian Harding, trombone;  Sharman king, bass trombone.

“Night Devoid of Stars” is a lovely title and the Daniel Hersog repertoire seem to relate to the title in poetic ways starting with “Cloud Break,” one of six original songs on this album of seven.  The only cover song is one of my favorites, “Smoke Get in Your Eyes” which would certainly keep you from seeing the stars.  However, the actual title of this CD was adapted from a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of starts.”

Daniel Hersog is a talented, Canadian composer whose chord-changes lend themselves to improvisational solos that take full advantage of the space, time and harmonics.  “Cloud Break” is a great way to start the album and Hersog wrote it to describe the warmth and light of sun breaking through the clouds.  Brad Turner soaks up the spotlight with his trumpet solos, as does Noah Preminger on tenor saxophone.  At first, the horn section of the orchestra sets the mood and Frank Carlberg’s piano chording creates a tone and attitude at the top, along with those horns.  Michael Sarin’s drums pulsate beneath the harmonic introduction and push the exciting trumpet solo with a double time feel.  He floats through the time changes seamlessly.  This is interesting music and great arranging.  Nothing boring here.  Mr. Hersog holds my attention tightly, like clothes pins on the line pinning down the trembling laundry.  His beautiful compositions blow in a forceful, musical wind.

“Artists are first and foremost humans trying to make sense of the turbulence of these times.  This is my way through the social, political and racial cleavages that came to define 2019.  I wrote much of this in what can be called the hangover of democracy, the groping in the dark that once venerable institutions were doing in 2019.  … I got to work.  The result is perhaps inadvertently, a political and social commentary.  If it was accidental, it also feels deeply essential,” Daniel Hersog explained his inspiration to create this project.

This is Vancouver-based, jazz composer, Daniel Hersog’s debut, 16-piece orchestra album.  His composer excellence is vividly portrayed.  He is also a trumpeter and arranger, as well as a jazz trumpet instructor at Capilano University, where he writes for the school’s big band.  Favorite cuts are: “Cloud Break,” the pretty ballad, “Makeshift Memorial” and the title tune, “Night Devoid of Stars,” where the full orchestra roars and celebrates with lots of horn cadences and Frank Carlberg’s restless piano solo sends fingers chasing each other up and down the 88-keys.  The Jerome Kern tune, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” is represented very hauntingly, with James Meger’s bass an integral part of the piano introduction and the horns sweeping into the arrangement with crescendos of power.  Daniel Hersog explains:

“This arrangement alternates between lush, warm ensemble sounds and Carlberg’s devastatingly beautiful solo piano.  Frank provides my favorite musical moment of this whole record when he drops his arms on to the low end of the piano creating a musical explosion that supports the rest of the melody.  I was left to conduct the rest of this composition with tears welling in my eyes, as I tried to process the depth and beauty of Frank’s musical statement.”

Hersog’s music is exciting, creative and heartfelt.  The various tempo and mood changes keep the listener interested throughout.  The orchestra brings life and loveliness to his compositions.

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TOM RANIER – “THIS WAY”    – Independent Label

Tom Ranier, piano/synthesizer/soprano,alto,tenor,baritone saxophones; clarinets/bass & contra alto clarinet/ composer/orchestrator; Trey Henry, acoustic and electric basses; Ralph Humphrey, drums; Thom Rotella, guitars.

TomRanier’s name is synonymous with studio ‘first call’ musicians, because of his excellent diversity and mastery of several instruments; additionally, because of his professional sight-reading skills.  Based in Southern California, he performs regularly at the Grammys, the Oscars, Emmys and Golden Globe events.  Not only does he play piano and synthesizers with excellence, he is also a learned woodwind player.  As I listen to his recent release, I am struck by the classical overtones that stream, like a bright red ribbon, fluidly connecting his arrangements.  Starting with his original composition, “Blue Aria,” Ranier is spotlighted on piano.

“I think albums reflect the life experiences and musical growth of an artist at that particular time.  I’ve developed a broad palette because of all the different kinds of music I’ve been playing, from various pop styles to electronic music to, of course, jazz.  I also studied classical music when I was young and I’ve been influenced by 19th century classical composers.  When I’m composing, I’m not really aware of those influences, but I can certainly hear them in the finished product,” explains Ranier. 

A native of Fullerton, California, Ranier studied clarinet with his father as a pre-teen and at age ten he was already studying classical piano.  At age sixteen, producer and trumpeter, Jack Daugherty, became his mentor for composition.  Daugherty is well-respected for his production of the Gold Record duo, The Carpenters.  Ranier has composed six out of the eight songs he offers us on this recording.

Tom Ranier’s reputation as a jazz pianist was elevated during his celebrated performances with vibraphonist, Dave Pike. He recorded with him in 1983 on his “Moonbird” album.  In fact, Ranier has worked with a number of jazz artists of note like iconic bassist, Ray Brown and vibe master, Milt Jackson.  Ranier co-led a band with bassist John Heard and drummer Sherman Ferguson.  But as he expressed above, his love of various musical genres and his studio reputation kept him busy playing much more than jazz.  You can hear his piano chops on many TV shows and films including “Beauty and the Beast”, “Star Trek: Enterprise” and “Family guy.” Other films he’s played on are “Forest Gump,” “Ted,” and “Frozen.”  He acted as keyboard player and arranger for the popular, televised family show, “Dancing With the Stars” for eight years and he’s a member of the orchestra that makes music for “The Simpsons” show since 2011. 

This album reflects decades of playing many instruments, working with many masters and honing his artistry during every encounter. On “This Way,” Tom Ranier offers us a generous helping of his singular, musical prowess.  With the able assistance of his hand-picked ensemble, embellished by his own arrangements, his original compositions and creative orchestration, you will find this project an easy-listening, artistic experience.

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ANTONIO ADOLFO – “BruMa” (translates to mist) and CELEBRATES MILTON NASCIMENTO”    –  AAM Music

Antonio Adolfo, piano/arranger/producer; Jorge Helder, double bass; Rafael Barata, drums/percussion; Dada Costa & Claudio Spiewak, percussion; Jesse Sadoc, trumpet/flugelhorn; Marcello Martins, tenor & alto saxophone; flute; Danilo Sinna, alto saxophone; Lula Galvao & Leo Amuedo, electric guitars; Claudio Spiewak, electric & acoustic guitars.

Antonio Adolfo first met singer and composer, Milton Nascimento, in 1967.  They were both attending and performing at the Second International Song Festival (FIC) in Rio de Janeiro.  It’s the biggest musical contest event in the country of Brazil, featuring youthful and hopeful composers who long to further their careers.  Although he did not win that contest, Milton Nascimento would go on to become one of Brazil’s most heralded singer-songwriters.  Nascimento’s international reputation was firmly established when he appeared on Wayne Shorter’s 1974 album, “Native Dancer.”  Antonio Adolfo was impressed by the talented Nascimento and his compositions at that very first meeting.  After over half a century of friendship and admiration, Adolfo felt it was time to dedicate an album to Milton Nascimento.

“His compositions broke traditional harmonic and rhythmic patterns, with his modalism and some odd rhythmic meters, all in a spontaneous, intuitive and natural way. … I concluded that Milton is the most modern and profound composer in Brazil. It is no coincidence that so many great musicians fell in love with the music of his carioca (carioca is someone born in Rio de Janeiro) who grew up in Minas Gerais,” Adolfo explained.

The BruMa album title is a double-entendre.  In Portuguese, the word means mist.  However, it also refers to two environmental disasters that destroyed part of the state of Minas Gerais (a place whose music greatly influenced Milton Nascimento).  BruMa combines the first syllable of the cities of Brumadinho and Mariana.  They were both destroyed by earthen dams collapsing that poisoned the rivers and killed hundreds of people. 

“Milton Nascimento and many Brazilians are part of a group effort to ensure that the damage to the territory of Minas Gerais is not forgotten,” Antonio Adolfo enlightened me.

Beginning with “Fe Cega, Faca Amolada,”( that translates to ‘Blind Faith, Sharp Knife’), Antonio has arranged this song with an up-tempo spark and fire that is contagious and exhilarating.  I learn, in the liner notes, that he used the quadrilha style from the Northeast region of Brazil to flavor this arrangement.  The second track, “Nada Sera Como Antes” or (Nothing Will Be As It Was) I first heard on a Sarah Vaughan album years ago. On that same album I heard her interpret Cancao Do Sal or (Salt Song).   One thing you notice right away about the music of Mr. Nascimento is how beautifully melodic his compositions are and Antonio Adolfo’s ensemble represents them with great care, gusto and pride.  Antonio takes a long and spirited solo on “Nada Sera Como Antes.”  His solos, like his arrangements, are plush with creativity and celebrate Milton Nascimento’s interesting harmonies. 

Antonio is, himself, a respected pianist, recording artist and composer.  It took time for him to whittle nine songs out of the thirty or more he originally considered for this project.  But every song is carefully arranged and given splendid interpretation by this group of stellar musicians.  Danilo Sinna’s alto saxophone work colors and infuses these songs with jazzy joyfulness.  Jesse Sadoc is outstanding on trumpet and flugelhorn.  I found Marcelo Martins’ alto flute work on “Encontros E Despedidas” to be both compelling and sensitive, as he sings about encounters and farewells.  Adolfo’s horn arrangements personify the melodies, punching harmonically to enhance our interest and they paint the arrangements colorfully.  But it’s always the piano interpretations of Antonio Adolfo that encapsulates these songs and makes the piano keys tremble beneath the weight of their strength and beauty. 

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Dave Bryant, piano/keyboards; Charnett Moffett, bass; Greg Bendian, drums.

Piano notes scurry like wild salmon swimming upstream.  Dave Bryant spirals across the black and white keys with energy and purpose.  As one of the few and very selective pianists that Ornette Coleman ever performed and recorded with, you immediately hear this piano player’s love of freedom, excitement and improvisation.  He pushes any restrictive walls that may have stood between him and the universal spirit of music.  His compositions will not be contained or limited.  I am intrigued with his original piece titled, “In Transit,” incorporating his keyboard skills as Greg Bendian’s drums pump the composition up with energy.  Bryant steps aside briefly for Charnett Moffett to bow his double bass in a very beautiful way, underpinning the solo with busy piano notes that harmonically support Moffett’s spotlight moment.  “Scorpio 80” is another favorite, with its blues-soaked arrangement stretching into the universe like a Sunday morning organ service.  Do I hear shades of Marvin Gaye and Ray Charles?  The composition, “Three Night Visitors” is a creative suite made up of three parts.  Additionally, significant to the album title (Night Visitors) a trio of camel-riding shadows on the back cover of this CD reminds us, this is a trio production. It’s an experiment with sound, embracing 70’s fusion jazz, 60’s Avant-garde, gospel and progressive rock.  All of it blends naturally, like an orange, yellow, red and purple sunset.  “Night Visitor” creeps upon us like a restless lion, awakening after a deep sleep; hungry, serious, pacing and searching for ears to hear its mighty roar.  We are listening.

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LA LUCHA – “EVERYBODY WANTS TO RULE THE WORLD”                          Arbor Records

John C. O’Leary III, piano/Fender Rhodes/talkbox/moog sub-phatty /voice; Alejandro Arenas, upright & electric bass/voice; Mark Feinman, drums/percussion/voice; SPECIAL GUESTS: Melissa Aldana, tenor saxophone; Diego Figueiredo, acoustic guitar; Ken Peplowski, clarinet/Fender Rhodes/ mood synth/ voice & producer; Houston Person, tenor saxophone; Chuck Redd, vibraphone.

The first song, “Por La Tarde,” is written by bassist, Alejandro Arenas and blends percussive intensity as part of a rich, Latin arrangement.  The addition of Ken Peplowski’s clarinet brings another flavor to the party.  The clarinet lends itself to recollections of a Dixieland band, as it sings the melody over the bold Latin arrangement.  Diego Figueiredo opens the piece on his acoustic guitar and John C. O’Leary III is fluid and percussive on piano.  Figueiredo fires the piece up along with Mark Feinman’s busy drums.  The next track, a pretty ballad titled, “Space Oddity” composed by David Bowie, calms the energy somewhat.  But the busy piano fingers of O’Leary the third, race up and down the 88 keys in double time over Feinman’s solid drum beats. La Lucha takes this Bowie tune to a new level.  The third cut combines two popular jazz tunes to form a jazz medley that features Lullaby of the Leaves and Lullaby of Birdland in a very unique arrangement.  The tempos change and dance, moving from a Latin feel into a straight-ahead swing.  Chuck Redd adds spice to the number on his vibraphone and Feinman takes a spirited drum solo. 

The La Lucha trio project is the perfect example of blending genre’s and cultures.  Their repertoire is engaging and creative.  They follow up their unique medley of lullabies with a “Blues for Houston Person” and the iconic saxophone player appears, in all his splendor, to add his always bluesy tenor saxophone charm to the mix. The group swings hard on this one, giving Arenas an opportunity to solo on bass and guest, Chuck Redd, adds the sweetness of his Vibes. This is a serious blues number and stands alone from the other arrangements.  This trio features, among their special guests, Melissa Aldana on tenor saxophone.  This “1+2” tune (composed by the drummer) is a totally different kind of composition that’s eight minutes long with changing tempos moving seamlessly throughout. 

All in all, here is a baker’s dozen of tunes that cover the spectrum of jazz, blues, pop, R&B and funk.  La Lucha is versatile.  Each one in the trio is a composer, as well as each being an accomplished musician.  They clearly show off their unique ability to create a sound that is objectively their own.  With the guidance of their producer, Ken Peplowski, and buoyed by their impressive list of special guests, La Lucha places their trust in each other.  The group shines as a diversified ensemble that explores their musical possibilities with unapologetic drive and strength of purpose.

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The Healing Power of Jazz

June 20, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

 June 20, 2020

As far back as July 15, 1978, tests were being instrumented inside mental hospitals, to see if music had any effect on patients.  After one month, the 1978 hospital testing results showed improvement in some patients within 30 days.  Seventy percent of staff reported “definite qualitative improvements in resident’s behavior” after listening to music for one month.  Another report said tension was released and chronic pain dissipated after patients listened to steady streams of music.  Later, deeper scientific study showed that the number of vibrations produced by sound waves had an effect on the autonomic nervous system.  High pitch created more tension and low pitch encouraged relaxation.  This month, I’ll be reviewing music that speaks to the soul and to our sanity; music that heals and relaxes our tension, during a time in this country when tension is high and nerves are on edge, I’ve picked the following new releases.  Try listening to some of these wonderful, new jazz releases and soak up their healing properties.

STEPH JOHNSON – “SO IN LOVE” – Independent label

Steph Johnson, vocals; Josh Nelson, piano; Anthony Wilson, guitar; Rob Thorsen, bass; Chris Lawrence, trumpet; Richard Sellers, drummer.

Guitarist and choir director, Steph Johnson, surprised me when she sang “Lazy Afternoon”.  Her voice floated into my listening room, warm and lovely, plush with emotion and she has her own unique tone. When she told me she had an album out, I thought it would be an instrumental recording, featuring her guitar talents.  Surprise!  The lady can sing. The trumpet of Chris Lawrence compliments her vocals, and he offers a warm and inspired solo on this lovely “Lazy Afternoon” song.  They’ve arranged it in a very smooth-jazz way that works, putting just a little funk into the mix to keep the old standard young and vibrant. Ms. Johnson is definitely a jazz singer, with her unique tone and adlib qualities on the fade of the song clearly showing her improvisation skill. I receive mustard-yellow, paper bags full of CDs who claim to be vocal jazz artists, like a badge of honor, but who are cabaret singers or pop vocalists or just pretty girls with sing-in-the-shower kind of voices.  Steph Johnson happily breaks that mold.  She’s the real deal.

This vocalist has chosen some of my favorite songs for her repertoire.  Opening with the verse, she sings a song I used to love to hear Little Jimmy Scott sing; “I Wish I Knew.”  He recorded it as a ballad, but Steph has another arrangement that’s fresh and she swings the tune.  The sign of a true jazz singer is someone who can ‘swing’ and Steph Johnson swings effortlessly. For a while, she and the bass player, Rob Thorsen, perform as a duo. The arrangement is very effective.  There is a tasty guitar solo by Anthony Wilson on the fade of the song. Speaking of guitar, Wilson uses his expert guitar licks to open “Here’s to Life.” With just voice and guitar at the top of the tune, Steph showcases those poignant lyrics that are so wonderfully written. Then enters the band and the blues. “So, here’s to life,” she sings. “And all the joy it brings.  Here’s to life, to dreamers and their dreams.” Steph sells the song with Rob Thorsen’s bass walking richly beneath her meaningful lyrics.  I believe Steph Johnson when she sings with that little husky undertone to her vocals that’s so compelling and natural. She has a full, rich range, with sweetness in her head register and fullness in her alto voice. You can really enjoy her range on “I Fall in Love too Easily” accompanied by Josh Nelson’s sensitive piano. The “So In Love” tune blossoms as a Latin arrangement. Sometimes I hear shades of Diana Krall in Steph Johnson’s vocals and at another point I hear phrasing that reminds me of Dianne Reeves.  That being said, Ms. Johnson maintains her own style and grace.  She tackles Betty Carter’s original tune, “Jazz Ain’t Nothin’ But Soul” and puts her own spin on it. I wish she hadn’t ventured so far from the original melody in places, and this reviewer wasn’t crazy about the arrangement, but Steph shows strength in her freedom and individuality.  Steph Johnson has released 4 albums. Her most recent recording (until this one) titled, “Music is Art,” was released in 2016 and produced by two-time Grammy Award winning producer, Kamau Kenyatta. That recording celebrates a unique blend of her jazz stylings with obvious, soulful, R&B roots.  With her recent release of “So In Love,” Steph continues her spiral upward towards bright, musical horizons.  This may be her best recording to date.

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Jordan Seigel, piano/composer; Alex Boneham, bass; Christian Euman, drums; Natsuki Sugiyama, alto saxophone/alto flute; Nick mancini, vibes; Andrew Synowiec, guitar/mandolin; Brian Kilgore, percussion; Keeley Bumford, vocals; Glen Berger, Brett McDonald, David Catalan, Jennifer Boyd, woodwinds and part of the Vertigo String Quartet.

Jordan Seigel is an awesome pianist and composer.  A decade ago, lauded as a promising jazz pianist and while attending Berklee College of Music, folks probably thought he would wind up on jazz stages in Festivals and nightclubs.  But Jordan’s passion for composing and enthusiastic appreciation of cinema pointed him in another direction.  He wound up becoming an in-demand orchestrator for film. This debut album celebrates those accomplishments.  As I was referencing in the first paragraph of this article about how it’s proven that music can portray and also change moods, this album is probably a perfect example of this.  Jordan Seigel’s life work is using music to enhance visual stories.

“I wanted to bring that aspect of what I do, making music for visual media, to a different audience,” he explained.  “I wanted to create music that transports people to another place, the same way a great movie can do.  Film scores have that power; a beautiful song at the right moment can make an entire audience cry or jolt them with an adrenaline rush during a chase scene.  I hope to bring that type of emotional reaction with my music.”

Seigel is quite successful doing just that.  He has long admired a small group of master composers and orchestrators for film.  Among them Jon Brion, who provided music for “Magnolia,” and for “Punch-Drunk Love.”   His opening song on this album is dedicated to Brion and to film maker Paul Thomas Anderson.  Titled, “Departure,” we are soaked in the sweetness of this first song, along with a poignant melody that Seigel introduces on grand piano.  It floats atop The Vertigo String Quartet like a puffy white cloud of sound.  The music is dramatic.  It ebbs and flows, dictating mood changes and you can almost close your eyes and picture a movie scene as the music plays out.  This is followed by a very sly sounding arrangement titled, “Something’s Up.”  It’s dedicated to iconic composer, John Williams, another composer, arranger and orchestrator Jordan Seigel admires.

“When I’m writing music for picture, it often starts simply with improvising on a piano while watching the video.  As jazz musicians, we spend so much time improvising that it is quite a rewarding experience to try and combine the two.  Composing almost becomes like a puzzle; the goal is to stay creative and write something satisfying, while making sure the music hits all of the correct story points and adds a necessary element to the picture,” Jordan Seigel espoused.

Everything on this album is imaginative, beautifully arranged and written, and on top of all that praise, Jordan Seigel is a magnificent pianist and interpreter of dreams.  It’s the listener’s challenge to close their eyes and picture those dreams, wrapped in the musical pictures he paints. 

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VIBES ALIVE – “VIBRASONIC” – Independent Label                                                                             

Dirk Richter, vibraphone/composer; Randall Crissman, guitar/composer; Vinnie Colaiuta, drums; Jeff Lorber, piano/keyboard; Luis Conte, percussion; Jimmy Johnson, bass. 

Here is a Smooth jazz album that is perfect listening for a hot summer night ride with the convertible top thrown back and the open highway stretched before you.  For 23-years, vibraphonist Dirk Richter and guitarist Randall Crissman have been making music together.  This is only their third album born from that 23-year partnership, but it could very well be their best one.  Opening with “Sweet Vibes” you will immediately be invigorated by the smooth groove, with Vinnie Colaiuta propelling the group ahead with his jazz-funk drums.  They have added some dynamic players to enhance this project, like Grammy award winner, pianist and keyboard master, Jeff Lorber.  Luis Conte applies just the right colors on percussion and bassist Jimmy Johnson gives sturdy power to the basement of their rhythm section.  The Blend of Randall Crissman’s electric guitar and Dirk Richter’s vibraphone is as deliciously complimentary and down-home comfortable as peanut butter and jelly. The song currently floating across the airwaves from this wonderful album is “Windchime”.  The melody is captivating and repetitious, with Lorber taking a dynamic solo on keyboards.  Richter spoke about the healing elements in the music that he and Crissman make.

“With the United States reeling from the devastating health and financial crises caused by the COVID19 virus, along with civil injustice and unrest, the need for our collective healing perhaps has never been greater,” they wrote in his liner notes.

Richter and Crissman offer us music that is relaxing, yet energetic.  The melodies are pretty and the compositions are well written and beautifully arranged.  I especially like track six, “Going Home” and track five, “Waterfall.”  The final tune, “Sweet Vibes” (the remix,) sounds like a hit record.  But I found every song on this production to be well produced and enjoyable.  There’s not one bad cut.  On the tune “Spy” they speed up the tempo and you can almost picture a James Bond kind of character sliding in and out of dramatic situations with Richter’s vibraphone enhancing the excitement of the script and Jimmy Johnson’s bass walking briskly beneath the spy scene.  Luis Conte opens the piece with his percussive brilliance.  When Crissman enters and lays down his dynamic guitar solo, the chase is on.  There’s something for everyone on this production and these gentlemen paint vivid pictures with their music.  They inspire my imagination.

“As it is these days for everybody, life’s kind of hard.  We need things without bias, without judgement; open our hearts to love and sonic enhancement for the sake of healing.  These frequencies and rhythms are the most base and obvious connection to our souls.  We have this opportunity to give love to the world, and to see what the world gives back is the greatest joy. It’s like a sign on a post that tells you you’re going in the right direction, because everything is a blessing and it moves your heart. It’s almost like everything becomes a miracle. You know you’re in good company. You step back, take a deep breath…that’s Vibes Alive. It’s the joy of living.” said Richter.

I happen to one-hundred-percent agree.

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RUDRESH MAHANTHAPPA – “HERO TRIO” – Whirlwind Recordings                                                       

Rudresh Mahanthappa, alto saxophone; Francois Moutin, double bass; Rudy Royston, drums.

The inside album cover portrays three musicians dressed as super heroes.  Rudresh, Francois and Rudy are the “Hero Trio” boldly offering us their open and creative sound.  Alto saxophonist, Rudresh Mahanthappa, is the first to tell you that he has been definitely influenced by the music and mastery of Charlie Parker. 

“If I’m thinking about music that’s inspired me to pick up the saxophone, Charlie Parker is at the top of my list.  Those tunes are some of the first I heard.  All of these pieces had a powerful impact on me,” he confirms in his liner notes. 

The Hero Trio emerged out of ‘sound check’ experiences on various gig stages when Moutin, Royston and Mahanthappa had brief opportunities to play in a stripped-down setting.  They realized, after knowing each other for decades and playing with each other over the years, that they connected in those brief moments.  They connected with something universal and with each other.  Why not form a trio with saxophone, bass and drums? 

Mahanthappa and drummer, Rudy Royston, grew up in the Denver, Colorado area together.  Then they went their separate ways until Royston moved to New York City ten years ago.  That’s when they hooked back up.  Rudresh Mahanthappa met Francois Moutin in the fall of 1997.  The talented bassist had just moved to New York City and they began playing together frequently.   All three were a part of a quintet named, “Bird Calls” and that solidified their sound. 

This album opens and closes with Mahanthappa’s arrangements of classic Parker tunes, first “Red Cross” and closing with “Dewey Square.”  In between, the trio tackles Stevie Wonder’s beautiful “Overjoyed” composition, lending a new look at the popular piece through the eyes of the Hero Trio. You can experience Moutin’s brilliantly orchestral bass work during this tune.  They also throw in some Keith Jarrett (The Windup) as well as classic Gershwin ( I Can’t Get Started) and Ornette Colemans tune, “Sadness.” 

Although Rudresh loves the work of Charlie Parker, he discovered another powerful mentor when he met veteran altoist, Bunky Green.  Mahanthappa recorded with Bunky in 2010 and they toured together for the Apex (Pi) concerts. You can hear the wonderful way that East Indian spiritual music colors Mahanthappa’s jazzy interpretations.

In another path that leads back to ‘Bird,’ Mahanthappa is touring throughout 2020 (once the pandemic restrictions subside) with ‘Fly Higher,’ a group co-led by dynamic drummer, Terri Lyne Carrington.  This group is founded to celebrate the Charlie Parker centennial.  Meantime, promoting his “Hero Trio” Cd dominates his times and offers us an exciting look at the beauty that can be captured with the simplicity and creativity of horn, drums and bass. 

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Leslie Beukelman, vocals/composer/trumpet; Rob Clearfield, piano/organ/melotron; Patrick Mulcahy, bass; Jon Deitemyer, drums/cymbals.

Here is a vocalist who uses the jazz premise to challenge herself with creative and unexpected arrangements. Leslie Beukelman holds her own, letting her vocals float like a restless seagull above the fray.  On “Dear Alice” her hypnotic and haunting melody supports Beukelman’s original lyrics in a lovely way.  The piano of Rob Clearfield creates an ocean of sound, washing like waves beneath her storyline.  She harmonizes with herself on the second verse and the Jon Deitemyer cymbals crash like breakers on the beach.  I am somewhat enchanted by the story and the vocals of Leslie Beukelman.   Her sound is refreshing and singular.  The arrangement on the old standard, “I’m Gonna Laugh You Right Out of My Life,” is original and challenges her pitch and tone.  She embraces the challenge fearlessly, singing the melody strongly, straight-down and believable.  Then she moves aside and lets Rob Clearfield’s rich, creative solo take the song to another level.  This is the kind of jazz I long for every time I pick up a CD to review.  Jazz that breaks out of the boundaries of expectations and mediocrity.  Leslie Beukelman shows us she is an artist, not just another singer.  Woolgathering Records, an independent label, under the direction of bassist/composer Matt Ulery, states that Leslie Beukelman is the first vocalist that he’s signed. I imagine this Chicago-based singer is making him very proud right about now. 

On her interpretation of “Here’s That Rainy Day” she scats a wee bit, just to show us she can.  This is a peaceful, provocative album of familiar songs, sung and arranged in very unusual ways, blended with her original compositions.

As an explanation of her CD title, Leslie Beukelman explains:

“…the daffodil is the golden hued beacon of light we see, the hope that winter just might be coming to a close and we can feel, hear and smell the arrival of spring.”

Leslie Beukelman’s album glows with its own sunshine spotlight, shiny and warm as a summer sunrise. She swings, sways and blossoms brilliantly, like the very daffodil she celebrates.

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John Scofield, guitar; Steve Swallow, bass; Bill Stewart, drums.

John Scofield has long admired Steve Swallow, as a friend, a mentor and for his composer skills. A Libra, Swallow was born October 4, 1940 and is celebrated for his collaborations with Jimmy Giuffre, Gary Burton and Carla Bley.  He is lauded for being someone who stepped away from the upright bass and switched entirely to electric bass long before that was a popular decision for a jazz bassist to make.  He is legendary for his stylized use of the upper register on his electric bass and for embracing fusion music.  His original musical choices were piano and trumpet. However, at age fourteen, he was drawn to the acoustic bass.  His love of avant-garde jazz was inspired by working with the Paul Bley trio in 1960.  He recorded with George Russell also, and was a member of the Art Farmer quartet from 1962-65.  He followed that experience by joining the popular Stan Getz Band (1965-1967) and then became part of Gary Burton’s quartet until 1970. Steve Swallow leapt into the fusion pool of music fearlessly.  His innovative playing and love of jazz combined to inspire him to become a respected composer.  John Scofield is one of Steve Swallow’s longtime friends and fellow musicians.  One who has great respect for the Swallow compositions.  Consequently, he has reverently produced this album of Steve Swallow’s music.

 John Scofield and his trio open with a Swallow composition titled, “She Was Young” that was originally set to a Robert Creeley poem as part of a National Endowment for the Arts grant.  This work was released on the ECM album, “Home” and the song was sung by Sheila Jordan.  Scofield shows his crystal-clear intention to establishing the pretty melody before venturing into his guitar improvisation.  Swallow walks his bass solidly beneath and Bill Stewart colors the song with drum artistry.

“I love these songs.  Sometimes when we play it’s like one big guitar, the bass part and my part together,” John Scofield shared.

Speaking about his production in provided liner notes, Scofield explained:

“These two giants bring out the best in me.  Swallows compositions make perfect vehicles for improvisation.  The changes are always interesting.  They’re grounded in reality with cadences that make sense.  They’re never just intellectual exercises and they’re so melodic.  They’re all songs, rather than pieces.  They could all be sung.”

“Behind the drum kit, Bill Stewart is alert to all implications and interactions.  What Bill does is more than playing the drums.  He’s a melodic voice in the music, playing counterpoint and comping, while also swinging really hard,” Scofield sings the praises of his drummer.

One of my favorite compositions that John Scofield has arranged is “Awful Coffee.”  Those of us who are coffee drinkers have all experienced a cup of awful coffee.  Now, laughably, there’s a musical sound track to this experience.  Swallow takes a melodic bass solo during this arrangement and John Scofield trades fours with Bill Stewart.  Swallow originally wrote this at an up-tempo pace, but Scofield has slowed it down, with Swallow’s generous support.  Scofield has included the very first tune that Swallow ever penned, “Eiderdown.”  It’s been recorded several times by a variety of artists and the trio justifiably performs this one with gusto.  Another favorite of mine is the sensitive ballad titled, “Away.”  One of the unusual things about this song is the introduction, that sounds like it could be a verse, yet it’s only played once during the entire piece. 

“8 in F” is a straight-ahead composition that swings hard and features Stewart at the top with spicy drums firing the tune up like hot sauce.  Another favorite is the closing tune, “Radio” that John Scofield says is one of the more difficult songs to solo on because of the unique harmony employed and this song showcases Steve Swallows celebrated ‘broken time bass playing’ style. 

All in all, if you love jazz guitar, outstanding compositions and a tight, cohesive trio interpreting the music, you will find this album to your liking.  A plus is that the concept is celebrating a legendary musician and composer whose music is being arranged and offered like diamond earrings for your ears.  Swallow’s also contributing his iconic bass licks on this recording.  It’s a win-win situation!

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Gayelynn McKinney, drums; Ibrahim Jones, bass; Alex Anest, guitar; Emetrius Nabors, Piano/keyboards; Rafael Statin, soprano saxophone; Trenita Womack, congas/percussion.

Gayelynn McKinney is a Detroit based drummer who is premiering her new single this month. The title of the single is “Space Goddess” and it’s a cool combination of funk-fueled smooth-jazz.  Her upcoming album is titled, “Zoot Suit Funk” and will be released later this year featuring her group, “The McKinney Zone.”  Gayelynn comes from a long line of gifted jazz musicians.  Her dad, Harold McKinney, was a mainstay in the Motor City jazz community for over six decades. He was a pianist and music educator who inspired many of the local talents to excel on their instruments, including the late Allen Barnes (an original member of Donald Byrd’s famed Blackbyrd group).   Her uncle, Ray McKinney, was a prominent bassist.  Gayelynn has brought her drum excellence to several stages, including being the last drummer with Aretha Franklin’s band, playing with the great Benny Golson, performing with Time Ries (the Rolling Stones Musical Director), William Duvall (the lead singer with Alice in Chains) and bassist, Ralphe Armstrong.  On most weekends, before the pandemic hit America, you could find Gayelynn leading her popular jazz band on Open Mic Night at Bert’s Nightclub in downtown Detroit.  This latest endeavor by Gayelynn McKinney is melodic, catchy and spotlights her outstanding drum talents.  Ibrahim Jones makes his solid voice heard on bass and Rafael Statin is outstanding on soprano saxophone.  This is bound to get loads of airplay.  It’s invigorating, joyful music!  After playing this single four times in a row, I look forward to hearing the entire project later this year.

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DAVE CORNWALL – “NOT TO BE SERVED BUT TO SERVE”                                                                            

Dave Cornwall, solo piano

Often times, I am approached by independent artists who are producing their own music.  Dave Cornwall is one such artist.  In a world where getting exposure for independent artists is challenging, if not altogether impossible, I have endeavored to be a voice for these often publicity-voiceless artists.  Although I clearly explain to everyone that I am a jazz journalist, I occasionally receive music that is not jazz.  This is the case with Dave Cornwall’s solo piano album.  Although this is not a jazz album, and Mr. Cornwall is not a jazz pianist, I believe this music should be categorized as classic Christian music.  That being said, the entire repertoire of very familiar and recognizable Christian songs is very well played by pianist, Dave Cornwall.  You will enjoy hearing his solo rendition of His Eye Is On the Sparrow, Old Rugged Cross, Amazing Grace and Holy, Holy, Holy among other popular Christian songs.  Also, the article I was working on, that exemplifies how music heals, seemed to be the perfect place to post this review.  So, I communicated with Mr. Cornwall, and he gave me examples of how his healing intentions with this album became reality.

“The title of the album comes from the verse cited that refers to how Christ came, not to be worshipped but to serve.  In serving, Jesus taught the notion of humble service to his apostles and presented this as an example for everyone to follow.  In the end, my album is meant to be both a marker and a reminder to those who serve and their families that they are in a much appreciated, but also sacredly inspired calling.

“While I have played in church, as of late, I’ve been bringing church to those unable to attend, mainly residents in various senior facilities and memory care units.  To be honest, I played a wide range of music for these audiences over the years.  But I found that the songs that made the most impact on people were the hymns.  The first time that I noticed this was with God Bless America.  I played the song and, by the end, I noticed that this older lady was crying.  As I was leaving, the staff told me that she had not spoken for months and that she hadn’t showed any emotion at all for quite a while.  In short, God Bless America had helped everyone to see that she was ‘still in there.’  After that, I started adding another song or two.  And again, I was surprised by how much these songs moved people.  Basically, they missed this old, traditional music and the connection with God that it stirred up.  This album is part of my effort to make these old hymns available to institutionalized seniors everywhere.  Whether in a group or alone, for many, there’s comfort and strength in these songs and their nostalgic meaning.  Part of my website is dedicated to trying to promote the plight of some seniors in nursing homes, admittedly now, made much worse by Covid 19,” he explained.

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During Black Music Month Remembering “Sing Your Song,” A Film Celebrating Harry Belafonte

June 11, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

June 11, 2020

During Black Music Month, I decided to celebrate Harry Belafonte, because as I observe the marchers for civil rights taking to the streets, it flashed me back to a time over half a century ago, when the same thing was happening.  

In 2012, I attended the documentary film “Sing Your Song” in Pasadena, California at the Laemmle Playhouse Theater. What a treat!  For many years, Harry Belafonte has long been a favorite of mine. I was raised listening to his amazing calypso records and hearing my Aunt Doris gush about how sexy and good looking he was. What’s more, on top of being good looking and talented, he was a civil rights activist. That was back in the 1950s, when segregation, police brutality and Jim Crow was publicly alive and well. Today, as we continue the fight against cruel racism and classism, where in America, Latin and African American men and women are still being brutalized and mistreated because of the color of their skin, music has always flagged and documented our history.  We are still singing, “We Shall Over Come” all these years later.

It seems especially appropriate that Harry Belafonte’s film premiered in New York and Los Angeles a few days before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s January birthday. Harry Belafonte and Dr. King were very close friends. Belafonte was inspired by MLK’s burgeoning dream. This film shows amazing historic clips of Belafonte marching arm in arm with Dr. King and a host of other celebrities who Belafonte himself recruited. For instance, you’ll see Marlon Brando, Tony Bennett, Anthony Perkins, Shelly Winters, Sidney Portier and too many more to list here.  These Hollywood celebrities were lending their voices and star-quality to the protest marches for equal rights. 

Today, as our streets are full of multi-racial marchers protesting the untimely death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis, Minnesota police, sixty years later we are all reminded that these inequities still remain. In 2020, at both the George Floyd protest marches and at his funeral, we see celebrities once again lending their star power to stand up for justice and equality. We see name entertainers like late night host, Steven Colbert; actors Jamie Foxx, Tiffany Haddish and gold record artist, Ariana Grande; rappers, J. Cole, Chance the Rapper and Boston Celtics player, Jaylen Brown; singer, Miguel, actors Michael B. Jordan and John Cusack; comedian, Kevin Hart and many more join the marchers and mourners of George Floyd’s murder.  It’s as though history is repeating itself.

There were other challenges that spotlighted racial disparities when Belafonte was pursuing his fledgling actor and singing career. His “Sing Your Song” film explains that Belafonte had short-lived success with a 1959 television show called, “Tonight With Belafonte,” where he featured a multi-cultural cast and showcased African American talent like the great jazz singer Gloria Lynn and the extraordinary folk singer, Odetta.  During those days, an integrated television show was frowned upon. White advertisers immediately objected to the white and black cast, especially the mix of white women with black men. This was a particular sore spot for racist southerners, so ads were pulled and the show floundered.  Then there was the time when Petula Clark was filmed clutching Belafonte’s ample bicep in 1968 on her own Petula Clark television special. It’s sad to admit that fifty years ago, we had such terrible prejudice and an obvious racial divide in the United States. Clearly and unfortunately, we still see racial bias in today’s society.    

This film documentary shows how Belafonte fought for equal opportunities in the Hollywood motion picture community, on-stage in theatrical venues and worldwide.  He was put on the “Un-American blacklist” during the anti-communist witch-hunts of the 1950’s inspired by Senator Joseph McCarthy and perpetrated by FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover. Since 2017, we have a president who blatantly reaches back to that racist time and reuses the word ‘witch-hunt’ over and over again. These attempts to disparage civil rights advocates, who are fighting for equality, seems to continue even today.

Belafonte’s “Sing Your Song” film traces the life of this actor/singer/activist from his roots in Jamaica, to his birth in Harlem, where his Jamaican mother had relocated.  Many of the island songs Harry learned to sing would propel him to fame later in life and blossomed from music he heard and sang in his youth.  Far from the spotlight of stage and screen, he struggled to make a living, taking a janitor’s job. As a gratuity for doing good work, his employer gifted him with a ticket to the American Negro Theater. One look at those black actors entertaining a spellbound audience and Harry Belafonte was hooked. Not only did he decide to act at that very moment, he also found that singing came easy to him and before he knew it, Belafonte was busy getting gigs and pursuing a career as a jazz singer.  When he witnessed Huddie Ledbetter singing and playing his guitar at the Village Vanguard, Belafonte was totally inspired.  

Belafonte decided to explore African American folk music and to perform culturally historic island songs instead of the familiar jazz standards he had been singing. This transition from jazz to calypso/folk would garner him six gold records, including one for his extremely popular calypso song, “Day-O.” Afterall, no one was performing and recording that kind of Caribbean music in the fifties and sixties. 

When Dr. King was arrested for a minor traffic infraction in the South, he was prosecuted and sent to serve time on a chain gang as punishment. Belafonte went to Robert Kennedy and got the young politician involved. Belafonte introduced Kennedy to the terrible injustices that African Americans were facing in the 1950s and 60s. Due to his insistence, Kennedy arranged Dr. King’s release and the charges were dropped. Robert Kennedy also became a staunch supporter of the civil rights movement, thanks in part to the determined Mr. Belafonte. Underlying his activism, you see his talent shine in a patchwork of film clips that historically trace his amazing rise to fame in movies with Dorothy Dandridge, Ethel Waters, Sidney Portier and Dianne Carroll. We watch him on the Ed Sullivan Show and enjoy him singing and dancing on the Calvalcade of Stars, when television was still black-and-white. We witness him setting up his own production company to produce and direct films for people of color. He hob-knobbed with Sammy Davis Jr., Desmond Tutu, Peter, Paul & Mary, Andrew Young, Nina Simone, Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, Buffy Saint-Marie and too many more to list here. It was Belafonte that came back to America from an African visit and inspired his notable friends to make a difference and save a people ravaged by poverty in their drought-stricken country. The result was the unforgettable recording of, “We Are the World.”

Always pushing the envelope and well connected, Belafonte had the ear of great people like Paul Robeson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela, Miriam Makeba and then Senator John F. Kennedy in his never-ending attempts to implement change. As a humanitarian, one of his endeavors was to assist gifted, but poor Africans. After visiting the continent, Belafonte established a non-profit that brought 30 or more African exchange students to America seeking educational opportunities. This popular organization actually sponsored Barack Obama’s father as part of their humanitarian project. Who could have guessed that the senior Obama would bring forth a child who would later become the forty-fourth President of the United States?

In conclusion, this journalist wanted to not only celebrate the songs and history of Harry Belafonte, but to paint a picture of the last sixty years of racial prejudice and our continuous fight to gain equality and justice for all people, no matter what race, religion or culture you represent.  Harry Belafonte’s documentary is just one example of our determination and struggle.  His songs and his effort to promote peace, love and humanity between all people lives on, as we continue to struggle for equality and justice for all in this country.  Seek out his HBO documentary “Sing Your Song” for more insight into this important contributor to Black Music.

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June 7, 2020


By Dee Dee McNeil/Jazz journalist

June 7, 2020

Can music be employed to control human moods?  According to Science Daily, yes it can.  In 2011, the University of Groningen completed a study that proved music can affect your mood and listening to particularly happy or melancholy music can often change the way we perceive the world. Jacob Jolij and a University student, Maaike Meurs, both from that university Psychology Department, claim that conscious perception is based on what comes into our brains from sight and what you know about the world.  The brain builds expectations based on human mood, sight, sound and individual experiences.  It’s true, music can actually alter visual perception.[1]  For example, in a testing situation, if you were listening to happy music you were usually prone to pick out a happy face, given a choice of faces.  Sad music can inspire subjects to pick out a sad face.  It has also been proven that music can change our behavior.  Studies show tempos, tones and sound levels of music cause emotional effects and physical reactions in people.  Notice how in many dental offices they play classical music softly in the waiting room.  They know that music has been used to relax the mind, to energize the body and to help people cope with stress and manage pain.[2]  So, perhaps the Mathis Sound Orchestra, with their idea of producing an album to encourage “World Unity” is on to something.


Mathis Picard, piano/synthesizer/composer/producer; Savannah Harris, drums/pads; Fernando Saci, percussion; Daniel Winshall, Acoustic & electric bass; Julius Rodrigues, Rhodes/synths; Malanie Charles, flute; Julian Lee & Ruben Fox, tenor saxophone; Anthony orji & Patrick Bartley, alto saxophone; Benny Benach III & Giveton Gelin, trumpets.

The music of Mathis Picard blends a diverse number of genres into each of his arrangements and compositions.  Opening with the title tune, “World Unity” he introduces the listener to a classically influenced introduction on grand piano.  In the background we hear the strain of synthesizer sounds. Then the arrangement blends into a Latin tinged piece, with stride piano overtones.  I am on the edge of my seat to see what this composer will do next.  He does not disappoint.  Several bars in, Savannah Harris pounds a disco beat on his drums and the musical era changes from 1920s to the 1970s when, in 1975, Donna Summers became queen of the airwaves.  The piano of Mathis Picard still captivates, dancing atop his disco groove and interjecting stride piano along with the able assistance of Julius Rodriguez on Rhodes and synthesizer.  Together, this sound orchestra combines the musical best of various times in history, all at the same time.  On “Glitter Eyes” the saxophone solo by Ruben Fox unexpectedly brings ‘straight-ahead’ into the mix.   “Tranquility” is one of this reviewer’s favorite compositions by Mathis, with the lovely flute played by Malanie Charles.  Picard is masterful on piano and powerfully leads his band with vigor.  Picard’s concept for this project is to reflect that society is constantly shifting and changing.  It reinvents itself generation after generation.  Listen to the way his arrangements blossom and grow, ever changing right before our ears.

“Cultures absorb, expand, disappear and alter.  Generations come and go and new technology replaces the old while simultaneously outpacing itself.  The planet is also in a constant state of flux.  Landmasses strain against each other; climates attempt survival and the land itself becomes more extreme.  Because of this, one might assume conflict is natural; that we have many differences from each other and from the planet itself,” Mathis Picard explains his inspiration for releasing this 5-tune, EP of music.

In summation, Mathis Picard hopes his music brings people and cultures together.  Since music is a universal language, it is his dream that this music will inspire world unity, something most of us would really like to see.

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ANGELA TURONE & CHRIS PLATT – “SOUNDS OF BRAZIL”               Independent Label / Support in part from FACTOR – The Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Recording

Angela Turone, vocals/piano; Chris Platt, guitars; Pat Collins, bass; Robin Claxton, drums; Helio Cunha, percussion; Gordon Sheard, synth drone; Andrew Downing, cello; John Nicholson, flute/saxophone; Chase Sanborn, flugelhorn/trumpet.

Toronto based pianist and vocalist, Angela Turone, along with guitarist, Chris Platt, release their debut album titled, “Sounds of Brazil” to celebrate their appreciation of Brazilian music.  Portuguese is such a romantic language and their choice of familiar Brazilian pieces like “Desafinado” and “Chega de Saudade” will certainly entertain you.  This duo has been performing together since 2014 and Angela Turone’s voice is as pleasant as windchimes playing on a soft, June breeze.  Chris Platt’s tasty guitar licks enhance their production, reflecting a warm camaraderie that’s noticeable between the two artists. Listening to their music made me feel peaceful and brought a smile to my lips. 

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HGTS –“AND THEN THEY PLAYED”Summit Records                    

Jeff Holmes, piano/trumpet; Thomas Giampietro, drums; Fumi Tomita, bass; Felipe Salles, soprano/ alto and tenor saxophones.

The very first song, “Unintentional Hipness” grabbed my attention with its straight-ahead arrangement and staccato background groove.  Written by the saxophonist of the group, Felipe Salles, this quartet of University of Massachusetts faculty members swings right off the bat.  The tune is a home run.  When Jeff Holmes enters on piano, he brings a sweetness and a mood change that is provocative. 

 “Not at All” was written by the group pianist, Jeff Holmes, and its sultry melody slows the pace.  The third track, “Rowley Street” features the composer talents of their bass player, Fumi Tomita.  It features Holmes getting up from the piano to play the trumpet on this cut.  Salles shows his spunk and spark on saxophone and throughout, Fumi Tomita pumps that walking bass into this piece with power and tenacity.  Thomas Giampietro sparkles in the spotlight on his drums and the trumpeter and saxophonist play tag as they enter the piece playfully after the drum solo. They follow this improvisation by playing the melody in unison.  This quartet of musicians is in perfect sync.

Every member of this HGTS group is a composer and together, they cohesively unite to self-express as a singular, tightly-performed unit.  The fourth cut is the title tune.  It features a funky arrangement and a strong, but repetitious melody. One of my favorites on this album is the fifth cut, “Arrival” that opens with a bass solo, with Tomita setting the melody in place against the warm piano chords of Holmes.  Felipe Salles plays a sexy saxophone solo on this piece he’s composed and Giampietro colors the arrangement brightly on his trap drums.  Holmes takes a turn to interpret this pretty ballad on piano, as does Tomita on bass. “Minnesota in Montana” is a funky tune, penned by Tomita.  It’s smooth jazz with an R&B flare and thickly supported by the funky drums of Giampietro.  Jeff Holmes pulls out his blues chops on this one.   I’ll borrow from a quote by Jeff Coffin in the liner notes.

                “You can tell from the downbeat that this is not just another group of musicians making a record.  This is a group of friends making music together.” 

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AJOYO – “WAR CHANT”  – SHEMS Record Label

Yacine Boulares, multi-reedist/bandleader/composer; Sarah Elizabeth Charles, vocalist; Jessie Fischer, keyboards/producer; Kyle Miles, bassist; Michael Valeanu, guitar; Phillipe Lemm, drummer. SPECIAL GUESTS: Vuyo Sotashe & Akie Bermiss, vocals; Takuya Kuroda, trumpet; Joel Ross, vibraphone.

Fresh, funky, jazzy vocal’s move like scats on the first track and the title tune.  “War Chant” introduces us to this World Music project.  Ajoyo is a group that blends cultures.  in their repertoire, they touch on Jazz, American R&B, Latin, pop, shades of Middle Eastern music and Afro-Cuban rhythms.  I am immediately intrigued.  The lyrics, sung by Sarah Elizabeth Charles, set their activist mode into place. She sings:

“Hey you, Tryna hide from my view. Just stop right there.  Sit on down and give a listen. I’m a testify.  I said, “Hey you!” It’s time to pay what’s due… Your viscous ways are a trend of toxic waste. You post and people die.  You talk tough. Typing so fast, misspelling words. You got nothin’ to say. You spew hate, raping our souls with vile lines. Spitting back in your face, make it great again.  America was never great to those of us who were never free. Can’t you see, self-pride is suicide? They’re getting stronger every day now with you as king.  How can we sit by and not realize the damage of your words on future realities?”

The soprano vocals of Ms. Charles are beautiful and emotionally charged.  The only challenge is, there are so many words, moving swiftly with the tempo, and Sarah Elizabeth Charles’ voice is like sweet molasses and hot sauce mixed together.  However, she doesn’t always enunciate clearly.  So, I dug around on the internet to find those lyrics.  I’m glad I did.  They are quite poetic and very clearly spoken from an activist’s perspective.  All the compositions in this release take aim at oppression, xenophobia and greed.  They point an accusing finger at America’s modern-day-problems under the forty-fifth president’s dishonest, self-interest and non-empathetic administration.   All the compositions are written by Yacine Boulares, with Ms. Charles has added the lyrical melody to “War Chant.”  This music is exciting and stimulating.

On the instrumental tune, “Assyko,” special guest Takuya Kuroda adds trumpet spice and jazz overtures atop a hip-hop, repetitive musical theme.  Philippe Lemm motorizes the composition on trap drums and the addition of background vocals, chanting along, enhance the mood and motion.  I enjoyed the change of groove and the vocals of Akie Bermiss on “Jojo’s Groove.”  Michael Valeanu’s electric guitar colorfully paints this song, creating a solo that’s unforgettable and the percussive work is infectious.  

This is the second release by an incredibly unique and critically acclaimed Brooklyn-based ensemble.  Their 2015 release titled after their group name, “Ajoyo” was highly praised, especially for melding, old-world Cameroonian beats with traditional jazz and world music.  I expect this album to also be well-received and highly relevant in our current world of separation, disparity and tribulations.  This music will lift you, but also unlock your mind and make you ruminate, especially if you pay attention to their lyrical content. 

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Wolfgang Muthspiel, guitar/composer; Brian Blade, drums; Scott Colley, bass.  

I absolutely love a good jazz guitar album.  Wolfgang Muthspiel offers us a rich, inspired trio album that features his formidable talents on both acoustic and electric guitars.  His music is so lyrical and melodic, I become enchanted by the very first song titled, “Wondering.”  His drummer is Louisiana-born, Brian Blade and his bassist is Scott Colley, a Los Angeles native.  Scott was mentored by Charlie Haden and has performed with jazz icons like Jim Hall, Andrew Hill, Michael Brecker, Carmen McRae and Bobby Hutcherson to name only a few.  Percussionist, Blade has been a member of the Wayne Shorter Quartet since 2000 and has spread his big bass sound around with artists from Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell to Norah Jones, Herbie Hancock and Joshua Redman.  So, Wolfgang Muthspiel is in golden company.  Together, they weave their magic together, strong as a gold link fence, wrapping their tenacious talents around each song.  

“Angular Blues” is the title tune and gives Blade an opportunity to strongly solo on his drums.  When Austrian guitarist, Wolfgang Muthspiel plays an original composition titled, “Camino,” you get the full flood of emotional rendering he manages to pull from each guitar string.  You feel the beauty.  It’s palpable.  Muthspiel’s playing is both pensive and haunting.   He recorded this album at Tokyo’s popular Studio Dede, after a three-night gig at Tokyo’s Cotton Club.  Later, they mixed the album in the South of France.  Wolfgang shows his extraordinary ability playing electric guitar on “Camino,” during a song called, “Ride” and four other tunes.   One of which is “Everything I love” that quickly becomes another of my favorites on this CD. Scott Colley’s bass solo is fluid, artistically appropriate and improvisationally creative. Wolfgang trades fours with Brian Blade, who sparkles in the spotlight.  Muthspiel spoke about his approach to this trio recording:

                “As in many moments with this trio, it’s about playing with space; leaving it, creating it, filling it,” he says in his liner notes.

An attendee of Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music, this Judenburg, Austria native has made quite an impression, with four albums under his belt and The New Yorker Magazine calling him ‘a shining light’ among today’s jazz guitarists.  His music embraces his love of jazz, contemporary and classical styles, but the freedom and flow on this album is all jazz.  Wolfgang Muthspiel currently resides in Vienna.

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Don Littleton, trap drums/percussion/composer; Pablo Calogero, tenor & soprano saxophones/flute/ bass clarinet/composer; John B. Williams & Michael Alvidrez, bass; Hideaki Tokunaga, guitar/tres/sarod; Jane Getz, electric piano; Andrew Acosta, udo drum/percussion; Gabriel “Slam” Nobles, steel drums/vibes/electronic MalletKAT.

A tune called “Modal Citizen” opens with a flurry of sticks and drum licks that sets the straight-ahead groove and tempo.  The word ‘Modal’ is a musical term based on modes other than the major and minor mode most commonly used in music.  Since this is a project celebrating rhythm and drums, that makes perfect sense.  When Pablo Calogero enters on his tenor saxophone, accompanied by John B. Williams on bass, they add a melody to Littleton’s inspired drum licks.  This tune is propelled by the drummer and features just the trio of bass, horn and trap drums.  It’s quite exciting and spontaneous, showcasing the talents of each participating musician in a spotlight of multi-colors.  I’ve witnessed Littleton during his on-stage appearances and he is always full of spark and fire.  You clearly hear this on their original composition. 

The opening tune on this CD is titled, “A Call for All Elephantz” and was penned by Pablo Calogero.  It engages the listener with an amazing and compelling use of instruments like the ‘sarod’ (played by Hideaki Tokunaga), with a sort of sitar sound and with Pablo manning his soprano saxophone, reminding me of Coltrane’s improvisational free style.  Littleton is pushing the ensemble powerfully on drums.  The percussive additions take us into a jungle of sounds and emotions.  Gabriel Nobles adds his steel drum/marimba sounds on an electronic malletKAT.  We are now in the realm of World Music.  In other places, you will enjoy the tasty addition of the ‘tres’ instrument during some of Littleton’s percussive production.  The tres instrument is a Spanish Cuban instrument, a three-course chordophone.  It resembles a guitar in appearance and usually has six strings and is often played in Afro-Cuban music.

Pablo Calogero picks up his bass clarinet and I hear shades of Bennie Maupin and touches of Yusef Lateef on the Jimmy McHugh’s composition, “Let’s Get Lost.”  For this arrangement, bassist John B. Williams joins Littleton and Calogero.  Don Littleton and Pablo collaborate on some of the tunes as songwriters.  For example, “Sleeping Elephants,” where they reduce the energy and tempo to a lullaby pace.  The melody is catchy and pulls the listener’s attention into the whirlpool of percussive drums, bass and tenor saxophone.  The Thelonious Monk composition, “Bye-Ya,” is arranged in a similar way, without piano or guitar, but only showcasing the saxophone, the bass and Littleton’s busy and perfectly timed drums.   This is a mystical album of mastery and creative expression.  It’s full of unexpected surprises.  The song, “Tunapuna,” reminds me of South African music and a dish I used to fix for my small children with Tuna fish and noodles.  It’s a happy-go-lucky Caribbean crusted composition by Littleton, where he sings the melody using “La La La” as his lyric. I can picture scores of children dancing and frolicking to this joyful tune.  

Here is an intoxicating project, released during the Coronavirus Pandemic, and currently available on CD Baby.  It’s absolutely wonderful music; fresh, rhythmic, melodic and features the uninhibited drum mastery of Don Littleton.   His project is embellished by the brilliance of Pablo Calogero on woodwinds and two stellar bass players; John B. Williams and Michael Alvidrez.  When they do add piano to an arrangement, the music is amplified by the tasty licks of Jane Getz.  Both ‘Slam’ Noble and Andrew Acosta bring exciting rhythm with their percussive coloration.

Don explained to me the title of this album, “Elephants Nda Park.” He hopes his music will inspire activism and change consciousness when it comes to love, protection and care for elephants.

“I put on the back of the record that we support elephant conservation and that elephants should not be killed or destroyed for their ivory tusks.  I just don’t like the idea of them killing elephants. It’s all about elephant conservation.  ‘Elephants Nda Park’ with the park being their home, and not necessarily being in a zoo, but being free; in the Serengeti.  The whole Serengeti should be their park.” 

This artistic work by Don Littleton is way overdue and deserves to be heard on every radio station worldwide. It’s one of the best things I’ve listened to all Spring.

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Sharon Isbin, guitar; Amjad Ali Khan, sarod; Amaan Ali Bangash, sarod; Ayaan Ali Bangash, sarod; Amit Kavthekar, table.

Sharon Isbin is a multiple Grammy-Winning guitarist.  On this CD, she is celebrating the tradition of ragas and talas birthed in North Indian classical music.   Amjad Ali Khan has composed all four songs for this project based on popular ragas and arranged expressly for Sharon Isbin.   The four artists are joined by Amit Kavthekar on tabla.  Amit is a disciple of Indian drummers like Alla Rakha and his son Zakir Hussain.

Sharon Isbin titled the music of Khan (with emphasis on guitar and sarod) “sheer genius.”  Many people have heralded this quartet’s ability to use their mystical and traditional music to cross barriers of language and culture.  A sense of unity exists in this emotional music that blends Indian tradition with Western music by connecting the sarod and guitar.  Both instruments are stringed and encourage the musicians to pluck and play them similarly.  The idea here is to cross-fertilize both the cellular and cosmic levels of Western and Eastern classical music traditions.  They seem to have easily accomplished this with “Strings for Peace.”  Although I would not classify this music as jazz, it fits perfectly into the realm of music that is created to change consciousness and unite cultures.

The documentary “Sharon Isbin: Troubadour” has been made available on over 200 PBS Stations across the United State and abroad.  It won the ASCAP Television Broadcast Award.  Isbin has over thirty albums released and has sold nearly a million copies.  This is another plume in the beautiful hat she wears to celebrate her successful and artistic achievements.

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Sasha Mashin, drums; Josh Evans, trumpet; Rosario Giuliani, alto saxophone; Dmitry Mospan, tenor saxophone; Benito Gonzalez, piano; Makar Novikov, bass.

Sasha Mashin is a St. Petersburg, Russia-native, a bandleader and drummer.  This is his sophomore album, following up his debut recording titled, “Outsidethebox.”  Inspired by John Coltrane’s album, “Africa/Brass,” a gift to him from the bandleader of a Dixieland band, where Sasha was once a band member, opened the fledgling jazz drummer to bigger and better projects.  This Coltrane album showed him the power of art and how art can influence the human mind and spirit.  His purpose and creative direction from that moment to this one, has been to understand the power of music and that the human mind can accept a whole host of information that colors the chemical make-up of our brain.  This information can be used to improve and benefit human kind.  With that understanding in mind, Sasha Mashin formed a group that would bring that kind of change and resolution to the music. The result is an album divided into two parts.  Part one opens this album with a song by their alto saxophonist, Rosario Giulianni, titled “The Hidden Voice.” It’s an awesome way to open this very well-done production.  The group is on fire!  Sasha begins the tune on his drums, setting the pace and presenting an improvisational introduction.  On the second song, written by Dmitry Mospan (the tenor saxophone of the group) the arrangement starts out in an Afro-Cuban rhythm of 6/8 and featuring Makar Novikov’s talents on bass.  It’s called, “Incantation.”  The three horns are ripe with harmony and Sasha Mashin drives them with his ever-constant percussive energy.  Every song on this album, along with every musician, pushes the limits of their talents to express the music and themselves.  This is straight-ahead jazz that scratches the edges of ‘outside-the-box’ and pushes into unknown and exciting new territories, happily dragging us along with them.  The original compositions are well-written.  Benito Gonzalez, brilliant on piano, shows us captivating creativity during his solo, as does Josh Evans, manning the trumpet.  This song gives everyone an opportunity to dance among the flames, because this album is red hot, from start to finish. Sasha takes over at the end of the tune, displaying his power and tenacity on trap drums.  He’s more than entertaining.  Sasha Mashin is impressive! 

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June 1, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist
June 1, 2020


Pasquale Grasso, guitar.

Pasquale was born in Italy and now resides in New York City. He was busy gigging and working on his technique, when a mention by iconic guitarist, Pat Metheny put a bright spotlight on his career. In an interview for Vintage Guitar magazine in 2016, Metheny referred to Grasso as “The best guitar player I’ve heard in maybe my entire life is floating around now; Pasquale Grasso. This guy is doing something so amazingly musical and so difficult,” Metheny shared with the magazine representative.

Well, that kind of statement can certainly point an important finger at an artist and apply unexpected attention. Pasquale Grasso was probably as surprised as the magazine readers.

“What’s interesting about Pasquale,” Pat Metheny continued, “Mostly what I hear now are guitar players who sound a little bit like me mixed with a little bit of John Scofield and a little bit of Bill Frisell. … He doesn’t sound anything like that. …His model, which is an incredible model to have, is Bud Powell. He has somehow captured the essence of that language from piano onto guitar.”

While listening to this project, I agree with Metheny. It’s nice to hear a developing guitarist gear his style and perfect his ‘chops’ with inspiration from bebop pioneers like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell. You could perhaps compare his style to Joe Pass, maybe a bit of Kenny Burrell’s influence, but in Grasso’s biography he compares his style to Art Tatum. When he became acquainted with Art Tatum records, he says it turned his world upside down.

“I couldn’t believe it. I would just play Art Tatum’s Solo Masterpieces box set all day,” Pasquale admitted.

At that point, Grasso wasn’t sure he understood what he was listening to, but one thing was sure. When Art Tatum, (a historic, master jazz pianist) played, he sounded like two or three people were playing the piano. Pasquale wanted to master that technique on guitar. He exhibits that technique on his current Sony masterworks release. Pasquale Grosso is playing ten standard jazz tunes that are absolutely diamonds for your ears. His technique and mastery sparkle. You hear his unusual mastery of the Tatum Technique on the old favorite “Tea for Two.” It sounds like there are two guitar players playing the instrument. Grasso plays a custom-built guitar, designed in France by Trenier Guitar company.

Although neither of his parents are musicians, both Pasquale and his brother, Luigi, grew up enthralled with music. Brothers Luigi Grasso and Pasquale Grasso have both become celebrated musicians. Luigi is a gifted alto saxophonist, who tours globally as a bandleader. Pasquale, has become this genius guitar player. Raised in Ariano Irpino, a bucolic hillside town in Italy’s Campania region, the young man soaked up the music his dad played on the record player. Instead of looking at television, his father had him listening to Chet Baker and Bud Powell albums. When Agostino Di Giorgio, a New York-raised guitar master, moved to Italy to care for his aging grandparents, he and young Pasquale met and the musician mentored the budding, young guitarist.

In 1998, both brothers attended a jazz workshop under the guidance of the legendary jazz pianist, Barry Harris. Harris helped Pasquale Grosso firm up his jazz perspectives. They remain good friends today. His composition, “I’ll Keep Loving You,” is a tribute to his mentor, Barry Harris.

“I’ll Keep Loving You is dedicated to my teacher, the great pianist Barry Harris. He plays it on every concert. I remember being eight years old, hearing him for the first time in Switzerland. It was the moment when I decided to be a musician.”

Always on a mission to self-improve and to be able to execute what he’s hearing in his head, Pasquale Grosso decided he should study classically. He began to fuse his jazz technique with classical overtones and refinements at the Conservatory of Bologna, tutored by guitarist, Walter Zanetti. In 2012, he relocated to New York. It didn’t take long for his reputation to spread like wild fire. He worked with bands led by Ari Roland, Chris Byars and the late sax man, Charles Davis. He performed with Freddie Redd, Frank Wess, Ray Drummond, the late Bucky Pizzarelli and many, many more. In 2015, Pasquale Grasso won the Wes Montgomery International Jazz Guitar Competition.

The result of his consistent desire to grow and perfect his playing is evident on this Sony Masterworks recording. He tackles some of the compositions of great bebop artists that he greatly admires like Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker and also icons like Duke Ellington. You will enjoy hearing these familiar jazz standards interpreted by the inspired and uniquely talented, Pasquale Grasso.

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Lauren Henderson, vocals; Sullivan Fortner, piano; Eric Wheeler, bass; Allan Mednard, drums.

From the first strains of her voice, I have a flash back to Paris, France. Lauren Henderson’s tone reminds me of the French jazz singers. Perhaps it’s the tremolo in her voice or her emotional warmth. There is something soothing and satisfying about Lauren Henderson’s style and presentation. However, here is a vocalist with roots in the Caribbean, in Panama and the British territory, island of Montserrat. She has picked eight songs that are part of the jazz standard book, beginning with “while We’re Young.” Sullivan Fortner is both supportive and tenacious on piano while accompanying her. Allan Menard knows just when to accent on his drum set and he transitions from jazz to Latin rhythms in a heartbeat. Ms. Henderson moves smoothly from English to Spanish on “Sabor A Mi” and on the familiar Jobim tune, “Meditation” she sings in Portuguese. Her eclectic vocal influences spread across genres smoothly, like caramel icing on a sweet cake. This is jazz with a world music twist. Lauren Henderson’s unique style and sound is both haunting and emotional. Whether she’s swinging “Beautiful Love” or performing “Besame Mucho” in Spanish, her tone and attitude draw us into her songs, quicksand strong! This is a voice to remember. One that is dynamic and recognizable. This is generally the telltale sign of a super successful, vocal powerhouse.

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Gabriel Chakarji, piano/composer/producer/background vocals; Carmela Ramirez, voice/co-producer; Edward Perez, bass; Daniel Prim & Jeickov Vital, percussion/background vocals; Jongkuk Kim, drums; Morgan Guerin, tenor saxophone; Adam O’Farrill, trumpet.

Venezuelan pianist, Gabriel Chakarji, blends jazz, Afro-Latin and Caribbean music like a sweet pionono or jellyroll cake. He rolls the music up in a delicious ball of energy, spicy cultures and rhythmic excitement. Opening with “Mina/San Millan” Chakarji adds vocal chants that remind us of the African influence on South American music and rooted in American jazz. The powerful vocals of Carmela Ramierez are formidable. Gabriel Chakarji explains:

“All my influences of South-American, Caribbean and Black-American music have one source in common: Africa. We’re trying to bring out all the shared elements, the places where many musical traditions live together, instead of focusing on the genres and stereotypes. We need more of this spirit in a society that suffers from racism, prejudice and wars. We want to create a space where music can shift paradigms,” Chakarji shares.

As a pianist and composer, Gabriel Chakarji sets the bar high. His compositions are melodic and are also arranged in very exciting ways that reflect his emotional, hot-blooded, Latin culture. Using percussion to spice his arrangements and horns to punch and propel the pieces, his piano excellence interplays with the band members. He has a style unto himself. After establishing his beautiful melodic phrases, Chakarji dives into improvisation and swiftly swims across the keys. On “New Danza” I enjoy the game of ‘Tag’ his piano played with trumpeter Adam O’Farrill. Daniel Prim and Jeickov Vital excite the music with their percussion work and the addition of Morgan Guerin on tenor saxophone fattens the horn lines. On the fade, the African chants are back and throughout the piece we enjoy the sweet soprano vocals of Ms. Ramierez. She also co-produced this album of fine music. The interplay between Edward Perez on bass and Chakarji’s piano is very effective on the tune titled, “No Me Convence.” It begins quite classically and with one of those melodies that you love to love. The double bass steps from the shadows into the light, with a solo that captures our imagination. It’s a pleasant surprise when this tune turns from ballad to funk, in a smooth flowing way. This song seems to brandish the developing style and technique of this composer/ arranger. He knows how to gently change tempos, moods and music with the flick of his wrist and the dot of his pen. Gabriel Chakarji takes us on a rich, cultural adventure with this production. He both surprises us and pleases us with this innovative direction. His innovation and artfulness is perfectly depicted in the wonderful CD cover artwork of Henry Paz. I wish more artists paid this kind of attention to the way their album covers look, as well as the way it sounds.

“New Beginnings” offers a powerful, signature sound on the piano, established by Gabriel Chakarji’s lovely compositions and musical style. He has planted his roots culture-deep in his music and is open to developing and blossoming the fruit of his labors in unexpected and delicious ways.

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Mayita Dinos, vocals; Bill Cantos & Rich Eames, piano; Gabe Davis, acoustic bass; Hussain Jiffry, electric bass; Dori Amarilio, guitar; Steve Hass, drums; Tiki Pasillas, drums & percussion; Michael Hunter, trumpet/flugelhorn; Alex Budman, flute/clarinet/soprano saxophone.

Multi-media artist, vocalist, painter and landscape designer, Mayita Dinos has chosen a diverse and beautiful repertoire on her premier recording. I must say that her artwork, paintings that don the pages of her CD multi-page booklet-insert, is quite impressive. Opening with the Charlie Parker standard, “Ornithology” (singing her own original lyrics) and then re-interpreting Stevie Wonder and Syreeta Wright’s tune, “Come Back as a Flower,” Mayita Dinos shows us that she is fearless. These are songs both challenging and demonstrative of her love for a garden. She sings the Thelonious Monk butterfly tune, “Pannonica,” and then, with Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” song, she finally hits her groove. Mayita Dinos sounds more like a folk singer than a jazz singer, no matter how many jazz songs she sings. A repertoire doesn’t make you a jazz singer. It’s the style, the swing, and the ability to improvise and reinterpret songs in a unique way that allow an artist to claim the adjective ‘jazz.’ Still, Mayita Dinos has a pleasing voice and on this premier recording she impressively sings in Spanish and English.

Mayita’s emphasis on and love of gardens is qualified because of her decades-long career as an in-demand landscape designer. She specializes in sustainable landscape & horticulture. At this point, becoming a singer qualifies her as an opsimath. Suddenly, the garden has transformed to her stage. The encouragement and coaching of the late, great pianist and vocal coach, Howlett Smith and vocalist/co-producer on this project, Cathy Segal Garcia, fueled this album concept. With the loving support of her husband, this album has finally blossomed and come to fruition. The hand-picked musicians offer wonderful support. Every track is strong and the music is all jazz. Dori Amarilio has done an outstanding job as a co-producer, arranger, mixer, coach and guitarist. But Mayita’s outstanding talent for me is her painting abilities. She is quite an artist and I fell in love with her CD jacket and each original piece of art that is beautifully reflective of the songs she sings.
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Dave Stryker, guitar/composer; Bob Mintzer, conductor/arranger/tenor saxophone; Hans Dekker, drums; John Goldsby, bass; Billy test, piano/organ; Jens Neufang, baritone saxophone; Olivier Peters & Paul Heller, tenor saxophones; Johan Horlen & Karolina Strassmayer, alto saxophones; Mattis Cederberg, bass trombone; Ludwig Nuss, Raphael Klemm & Andy Hunter, trombones; Wim Both, Rob Bruynen, Andy Haderer & Ruud Breuls, trumpets.

What do you get when you put the WDR Big Band, saxophonist and arranger, Bob Mintzer and guitarist Dave Stryker in the same room? “Blue Soul!” This is an exceptional album of beautifully arranged big band charts, enhanced by the soulful guitar solos of one of New York’s most in-demand producers and guitarists. Stryker has stretched out from his small ensemble recordings to the big-band-stage. He brings his ability to brilliantly infuse blues and soul into any project he touches. Surrounded by the all-star WDR big band players and encouraged by Bob Mintzer’s lush arrangement skills, Stryker shines brighter than ever.

Bob Mintzer is a world-class act on his own. The saxophonist serves as the principal conductor for Cologne, Germany’s WDR Big Band and is applauded widely for his plush big band arrangements and saxophone talents. After making several appearances as a guest with Dave Stryker’s Organ Trio, Mintzer started mulling around the idea of featuring Dave with his popular, world-class, big band. Mintzer thought Dave’s jazzy take on the 70s pop and R&B songs from his “Eight Track” recording series would adapt perfectly as the crux of a big band project. So, Dave was invited to Germany for a week of rehearsing, recording and performing. This project is the result.

“Bob is one of the best musicians and people I know,” Stryker says in his liner notes. “I’ve been a fan of his playing since my early days in New York City and to get the chance to have Bob Arrange and play my music, with the incredible WDR Big Band, is a huge thrill and honor.”

The ensemble covers a number of familiar pop and rhythm and blues songs including a dynamic arrangement of Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” tune, Prince’s “When Doves Cry” and Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman.” Also included are a number of songs Stryker composed and one written by Mintzer titled, “Aha.” Stryker’s original composition, “Blues Strut” allows Billy Test to show off his organ chops and Bob Mintzer lays down a fiery tenor sax solo. The horn section contributes staccato embellishments, like brass finger-snaps, to the arrangement.

They close this album, swinging hard, with Stanley Turrentine’s tune, “Stan’s Shuffle” giving Mintzer another opportunity to dazzle us on tenor sax. As portrayed by the insightful cover art, this album is steamy hot and makes for a delightful and insightful listen. As always, Dave Stryker shines jazzy headlights on 1970 hit songs, refreshing them with his bluesy and innovative guitar, along with the able assistance of the WDR big band.
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David K. Mathews, piano/organ/keyboards/synthesizers; Jim Nichols, Ray Obiedo, Chris Cain, Carl Lockett & Bruce Conte, guitar; Dewayne Pate & Marc Van Wageningen, Electric bass; Peter Barshay & John Witala, acoustic bass; Billy Johnson, Akira Tana, Deszon Claiborne, Vince Lateano, Kevin Hayes & Brian Collier, drums; Peter Michael Escovedo & Michael Spiro, percussion; Mel Martin & Wayne de Silva, tenor sax; Joe Cohen, Tenor/Alto/baritone sax; Jeff Cressman & Mike Rinta, trombones; Bill Ortiz, Mike Olmos & Louis Fasman, trumpets; Lilan Kane, Kimko Joy & Leah Tysse, background vocals; string septet, Magik*Magik Orchestra: Minna Choi, arranger/conductor; Liana Barube, Stephanie Bibbo & Heather Powell, violin; Phil Brezina, Evan Buttemer & Ivo Bokulic, viola; Michelle Kwon, cello. Featured GUEST VOCALISTS: Tony Lindsay, Amikaeyla, Lady Bianca, Steve Miller, Funky Fred Ross, Glenn Walters, Kenny Washington & Alex Ligertwood.

I usually relegate myself to only reviewing jazz, but some music crosses borders so elegantly, like this one, that I have to slide into a new perspective. This is a musical love letter from David K. Mathews to the best of the Bay area of Northern California. It’s the second release in a series to celebrate David K’s San Francisco roots. Mathews is an eclectic piano performer who joined Tower of Power when he was twenty-three years old. David spent twenty years accompanying Etta James and since 2010, he’s been touring the world as a keyboard member of the great Santana organization. His talents have been utilized and endorsed by such iconic entertainers as India Arie, Boz Scaggs, Maria Muldaur, the amazing Taj Mahal, the legendary Wayne Shorter and Toots Thieleman and even the iconic Latin, Pop, queen, Gloria Estefan, to mention only a handful of artists.

During this soulful production, his gospel chops on the piano are as strong and rooted as his jazz excellence. You clearly hear his gospel influence on the Donny Hathaway composition, “You Had to Know,” where Tony Lindsay’s soulful vocals leave quite an impact.

Opening with a hit record made popular by the Isley Brothers, jazz vocalist Amikaeyla Gaston, puts her mark on “For the Love of You” in a profound way. Amikaeyla is an activist and educator who’s recorded with a number of power players around the San Francisco area and also traveled the world, using music to heal and uplift. Her voice is like honey butter; sweet, smooth and sultry. She also performs Stevie Wonder’s “Superwoman” composition, arranged as a medley with Stevie’s “Where Were You When I Needed You?” and the popular Jimmy Webb song, “Wichita Lineman.” The Carl Lockett jazzy guitar solo on “Superwoman” is quite deserving of a thumbs up!

The Ray Charles inspired arrangement of “One Mint Julep” has a plush, big band sound and features David K. Mathews moving from piano to organ. He’s playing those familiar licks I heard Ray play many times over on the ‘Genius + Soul = Jazz’ album. Steve Miller provides the vocals and also plays lead guitar on this tune. Lady Bianca is rhythm and blues royalty in the San Francisco area. David K. Mathew features her powerhouse vocals on the Donny Hathaway hit record, “Giving Up” (a Van McCoy composition).

“She has the kind of power and believability that reminds me a lot of my beloved Etta,” Mathew reminisces. “We go back a long way to when I was a very young and green keyboard player tiptoeing my way through the Oakland soul and blues scene.”

Celebrated jazz vocalist, Kenny Washington, closes this album out singing, “Yesterday.” The San Francisco Chronicle referred to Washington as “the Superman of the Bay Area jazz scene.”

His album title, “Fantasy Sessions” is a double-entendre, referring to both Mathews’ fantasy to put out a series of recordings featuring his favorite singers and musicians in the Bay Area and also to reference the famous studio where he recorded this album, a studio other great artists utilized like Sonny Rollins and Charlie Mingus; the former Fantasy Studios. Sadly, they closed their doors in 2018.

All in all, this is an enjoyable and well-produced album. Mathew’s keyboard work, as well as the Northern California musicians he uses, is stellar. The featured vocalists, he introduces to us, add depth and beauty to the David K. Mathew project.
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Jonathan Barber, drums/composer; Taber Gable, piano/Fender Rhodes/Synthesizer; Andrew Renfroe, guitar; Godwin Louis, alto saxophone; Matt Dwonszyk, bass; Mar Vilaseca, vocals/piano on track 1.

Jonathan Barber is a 30-year-old drummer and composer, already having ten years under his belt as a working musician, who strives to incorporate a theme into his music production. The theme of this project is Legacy.

“We all are Legacy Holders. We must stand strong for the cause and assist in making change. The continuation of unity or division relies on us,” Jonathan Barber explains his concept for this album.

One of my favorite tunes on this album is titled “Major” and is straight-ahead, melodic and features Godwin Louis on alto saxophone blowing his solo like life itself depends on it. Afterwards, Taber Gable takes time to unfold his talents across the 88-keys of the grand piano and provides a creative introduction for Barber to solo on trap drums. This is followed by a pretty ballad titled, “Seconds & Seasons.” This arrangement gives bassist, Matt Dwonszyk an opportunity to step forward and soak up the spotlight. Andrew Renfroe’s electric guitar is stellar and changes the complexion of this music in wonderful ways. I found the repetitive piano staccato part a bit redundant and I think it took away from the drum solo rather than supporting it. The original composition, “Son of Hartford” tributes Jonathan Barber’s native roots in Connecticut. It’s a very electronic and blues-based arrangement, with funk injected like a 1960 dose of rock ‘n roll. The guitarist once again leads the way and sets the tone. On the fade, the piano and the drums have a quick conversation. “29” closes the CD out with a more bebop type arrangement. Barber’s drums are busy and inspired in the background, not necessarily grounded in swing or straight-ahead, but rather like a locomotive engine, pushing the production forward. Once again, the piano gets stuck in that staccato repetitiveness and I’m grateful when Jonathan Barber let’s his chops shine during his drum solo without musical support. On this composition, we can clearly hear and experience Barber’s power and drive on his instrument.

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