The Healing Power of Jazz

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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One Response to “The Healing Power of Jazz”

  1. REVIEW: Leslie Beukelman's "Golden Daffodil" Reviewed by Musicalmemoirs's Blog - LYDIALIEBMAN.COM Says:

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

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