INSPIRED JAZZ REFLECTS UNIVERSAL BEAUTY

By Dee Dee McNeil/Jazz Journalist

July 17, 2020

From Moscow to New York City or from San Francisco’s rich Bay Area to Southern California’s more laid-back community, jazz blooms.  I am reviewing music that stretches from Italy to Brazil, and albums that reflect the beauty of Mexico, the tangos of Argentina and the piano expression of Japanese culture.  Read all about this newly released music from a variety of culturally rich personalities.  Then take a few minutes to listen.

AZAT BAYAZITOV – “THE DOORS ARE OPEN” – Rainy Days Records

Azat Bayazitov, tenor saxophone; Adam Rogers, guitar; Dave Kikoski, piano/Fender Rhodes; Boris Kozlov, bass; Samvel Sarkisyan, drums.

Azat Bayazitov is a Russian tenor saxophonist currently living in New York City.  His music reverberates the energy and straight-ahead excitement of cities like New York or Moscow.  His tone is sweet, full bodied and speaks to me from the very first cut titled, “Magnet.”  Immediately, like a magnet to metal, I’m drawn into his music.  Dave Kikoski plays a whirlpool of notes and I find myself spinning along with his piano creativity.  Bayazitov is melodic and as a composer, his music allows his world-class quintet to explore the chord structure of these eight, original songs he has composed.  Track two, “The Huge Sky of Kazan,” opens with just Azat Bayazitov’s tenor saxophone singing to the sunrise like a wild bird.  He spreads bluesy wings and glides across the open horizon like a seven-forty-seven plane.  I am impressed with this reedman’s composer skills.  This song becomes one of my favorites on this CD titled, “The Doors Are Open.”  His music reminds me a little bit of Eddie Harris and how Eddie could take a melody and wrap it into an unforgettable groove.   Bayazitov also builds his songs into a crescendo of power, magnified by drummer Samvel Sarkisyan’s dynamic talents.  Boris Kozlov takes a noteworthy solo on double bass. 

This album is Azat Bayazitov’s second release.  He honed his reed skills playing with Russian impresario, Igor Butman’s Moscow Jazz Orchestra for three years, until he relocated to the United States.  Sasha Mashin is the producer on this project and he’s done a stellar job.  The songs and moods vary and show Bayazitov’s exploratory nature as he embraces a variety of musical styles.  This is a delightful project and I enjoyed the addition of Adam Rogers on guitar with the driving drums of Samvel Sarkisyan powerfully present throughout.  These arrangements give each player a time to shine in the revolving spotlight. 

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THE MARK MASTERS ENSEMBLE – “THE ALEC WILDER SONGBOOK FEATURING GARY SMULYAN – NIGHT TALK” – Capri Records Ltd.

Ed Czach, piano; Putter Smith, bass; Kendall Kay, drums; Jerry Pinter, tenor & soprano saxophone; Don Shelton, alto saxophone/alto flute; Bob Summers, trumpet; Gary Smulyan, baritone saxophone; Dave Woodley, trombone.

This CD is plush with harmony, swings hard and has tightly executed arrangements that send this ensemble soaring into the big band jazz universe.  Alec Wilder is the composer of all the songs and The Mark Masters Ensemble amply interprets them with fire and finesse.  All arrangements are written by Mark Masters.  The musicians are such amazing technicians on their instruments that they sound like an orchestra.  I am not surprised, because I’m familiar with the excellence of Ed Czach on piano, Putter Smith on bass, Kendall Kay on drums and folks like Bob Summers on trumpet.  The entire ensemble is made up of first-class, Southern California musicians.  Alec Wilder is an iconic, amazing composer and you probably would recognize some of his popular American Songbook tunes; among them, “I’ll Be Around.”  The Mark Masters Ensemble opens with “You’re Free,” a great tune that swings hard and is driven by the awesome baritone saxophone of Gary Smulyan.  Masters’ collaboration with Smulyan has embraced twenty-one friendly years, starting with when he invited Smulyan to perform his music with strings at California’s Claremont McKenna College.  Later, he was featured on the Mark Masters tribute to Clifford Brown Project in 2003.  I can understand why.  Gary Smulyan’s beautiful, rich sound on his baritone saxophone immediately grabs the attention.  His tone is smooth as satin, as he creatively improvises or boldly sings out the melody.

“Writing this project with Gary in mind, I wanted to feature him as if he was performing with a symphony orchestra.  The goal was to set him apart from everything else and to highlight his sound and his unique voice.  I know that whenever he’s playing, it’s going to sound great.  But I want to make sure that I do everything to put him and everybody else in the best light,” Mark Masters explained in his press package.

There is no doubt that this project shines brightly, spotlighting the dynamic, Wilder compositions and brilliantly showcasing a crème-de-la-crème of some A-game, Los Angeles musicians.  Mr. Masters has long been heralded as one of the great, modern-day, jazz arrangers.  He formed his first ensemble in 1982 and has recorded a variety of tributes to some of our iconic jazz men including Jimmy Knepper, Clifford Brown, Dewey Redman, Duke Ellington, and in 2013, the music of Walter Becker and Donald Fagan.  He has also reimagined works by Gerry Mulligan and Charlie Mingus on his acclaimed “Blue Skylight” album.  This will definitely become another plume in his arranger’s cap. 

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MAFALDA MINNOZZI – “SENSORIAL – PORTRAITS IN BOSSA & JAZZ”  – CAT #: MPI2318

Mafalda Minnozzi, vocals; Paul Ricci, guitars/musical director; Art Hirahara, piano; Essiet Okon Essiet & Harvie S., acoustic bass; Victor Jones, drums; Rogerio Boccato, percussion; Will Calhoun, udu. drum/shaker.

Mafalda Minnozzi’s voice makes a joyful sound.  She’s a little nasal, at times, but it does not deter from her style and vocal charm.  Her ‘open’ notes are round and full as she sings some of my favorite Bossa Nova tunes with energy and sincerity.  Opening with the popular Antonio Carlos Jobim tune, “A Felicidade,” she enchants the air with her pitch-perfect tone and smooth Portuguese language.

Mafalda has spent twenty years in Brazil, working and honing her craft.  Now she presents “Sensorial” as an album portrait of mixed cultures, blending her Italian romanticism with American jazz and Bossa roots.  Track two is one of my favorite Jobim tunes titled, “Vivo Sonhando.”  Hers is a beautiful rendition of this popular composition, under the musical direction of guitarist Paul Ricci. Her CD cover is as bright and compelling as her choice of repertoire, splashed with bright, pineapple yellow, watermelon reds, green and purple grapes and pink grapefruit colors.  Centered is her face, staring out at us amidst the fruit. She offers us colorful, rich, Latin music with arrangements that reflect healthy intentions.  On her interpretation of “E Preciso Perdoar,” she adds a John Coltrane tune, weaving in “Lonnie’s Lament” as a pleasant surprise for our ears.  She and Paul Ricci are richly featured on “Desafinado” with his busy rhythm guitar holding the tempo happily in place and accompanying her pleasing vocals with care and sensitivity.  When it’s his time to solo, Ricci takes full advantage of showing off his guitar skills.  Essiet Okon Essiet adds his dynamic upright bass sound to the mix and delights our ears on six of the baker’s dozen of tunes Mafalda Minnozzi has recorded.  She also features bassist, Harvie S., on some songs.  On “Mocidade” we get to enjoy Art Hirahara’s tasty piano licks and Mafalda’s scat-singing abilities. All in all, this is a lovely recording with good musicianship and a competent vocalist interpreting many of our favorite Brazilian standards.

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KENNY WASHINGTON -“WHAT’S THE HURRY” – Lower 9th Records

Kenny Washington, vocals/whistler; Josh Nelson, piano; Gary Brown & Dan Feiszli, acoustic bass; Lorca Hart, drums; Victor Goines, tenor saxophone/clarinet; Jeff Massanari, guitar; Mike Olmos, trumpet; Peter Michael Escovedo, bongos; Jeff Cressman, trombone; Ami Molinelli-Hart, percussion.

Opening with the very familiar, show-stopper-of-a-tune, “The Best is Yet to Come,” Kenny Washington’s distinctive and jazzy baritone voice seduces us.  His expressive vocals interpret the lyrics with believability, just like any great storyteller.  Kenny throws in a taste of his gospel roots every now and then, with a “Whoa” for a vocal exclamation mark or a smooth run that clusters a group of perfectly placed notes that speak to his listeners melodically.  The very tasty accompaniment of Josh Nelson on piano helps Washington’s beautiful voice shine.   On the second track, Kenny Washington performs as a duo and is accompanied by guitarist Jeff Massanari, who makes his guitar become a full rhythm section and then solos expertly on “S’Wonderful.”   Washington shows his prowess as a whistler, as well as a vocal master.  The only singer I knew who did that expert ‘whistle-thing’ was Los Angeles based crooner and pianist, Howlett Smith (RIP).  On “Stars Fell on Alabama” (the third track) we experience Washington’s smooth entry into his head register, spotlighting his full and impressive vocal range and showcasing his tenor voice.  Also, Gary Brown is featured prominently on acoustic bass and Victor Goines on tenor saxophone.  They add depth and beauty to this arrangement.  My senses are twitterpated by his execution of “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues.”  Nelson’s gospel piano enhances this piece and then moves smoothly into “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” with Washington’s voice out-front and compelling.  We need nothing more than these two competent musicians, blending sweetly like hotcakes and syrup, to tantalize our ears.  This is a delicious duo, with Nelson slipping into his classical roots at times and Kenny Washington leaping smoothly to an unexpected high tenor note to surprise us.  The simplicity of this production certainly highlights this marvelous vocalist in a profound and awesome manner.  I played this piece again!  There’s no fluff or pretentiousness to these arrangements.  On track 9, Dan Feiszli steps up to the task of playing his bass, while Washington sings along the familiar strains of “Sweet Georgia Brown.”  He compliments the melody of this old standard before taking off on an exciting scat trip, exploring improvisation as though it were the beauty of an outer space galaxy.  I’m dancing in my chair when the entire band joins in to swing (in a very Latin way) “No More Blues.”  I’m intoxicated during Kenny’s rendition of “Invitation” with Peter Michael Escovedo’s bongos adding beautiful mysticism to the haunting mystery of this production.  Although he’s surrounded by exceptional musicians, Kenny Washington shows us he needs nothing more than a microphone to capture our undivided attention.  This project is pure pleasure!

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JULIO BOTTI – “PURE TANGO” – Zoho Records

Julio Botti, soprano & tenor saxophones; Matias Lanfranco, piano; Leonardo Pedrozo Avila & Federico Semandi, bass; Alejandro Colombatti, bandoneon; Gustavo Gancedo, guitar; Valeria Martin, violin; Quintino Cinalli & Mario Gusso, percussion; maria Jose Rojas, vocals.

Julio Botti has a rich, warm tone on tenor saxophone.  He exhibits an emotional rendering on the third track of his “Pure Tango” CD titled, “El Dia Que Me Quieras,” that translates to ‘the day you love me.’  It’s considered one of the most romantic songs in the tango standard songbook.  Marias Lanfranco does a beautiful job of both accompanying Botti on piano and also soloing with a classical flair.  Julio Botti met the pianist in late 2017, when they were introduced in Botti’s hometown of Bell Ville, 200 kilometers south of Cordoba, in central Argentina.  They had an immediate meeting of the minds.  Notably, when playing together, they seem to blend seamlessly. 

When producing this album, Botti first recorded just piano and saxophone in a New York studio.  The other instruments and vocals were added later at a studio in Argentina.  On this album, (dedicated to the memory of his mother), Julio Botti has blended traditional tango with a modern jazz sound.  His objective was to embrace the vintage style of old-guard tango rhythms, while adding bright arrangements to this familiar tango repertoire.  Maria Jose Rojas brings her beautiful vocals to enhance the production on several songs.  Botti has also hired a number of gifted musicians to help him bring life and energy to these carefully selected compositions.  I enjoyed “Nostalgias” and Botti explained why he chose to present this song, adding a melancholy, yet lovely violin solo by Valeria Martin.  It’s an elegant tango released originally in 1935 by Cobian.  The composition, “Recordando” (that means ‘remembering’) is a zamba.  Zamba is a traditional Argentinian dance that has six beats to a bar.  It’s performed by couples who carry white handkerchiefs that they wave as they circle each other.  This tune reminded Botti of his dearly departed mother.  He explained:

                “This piece evokes memories of her tending to clothes in the yard and sweeping her house; the smell of good foods. I wanted to make my intentions clear for my wonderful mother, Nilda Cardarelli, who will always be in my heart.  I hope that my mother is very proud of this album, which is dedicated to her,” said Botti in his liner notes.

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JOHN FINBURY – “QUATRO” – Green flash Music

John Finbury, composer; Magos Herrera, vocals; Chano Dominguez, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Antonio Sanchez, drums.

“Quatro” is a celebration of cultural diversity and immigration.  It’s a condemnation of those who seek restrictions against people based upon prejudice.  The opening song is dynamic and titled, “Llegara El Dia” (that translates to ‘The Day Will Come’).  It’s a freedom song and reflects this album’s entire concept.  Written with Peruvian Festejo influence, and mixing in Mexican Huapango, I am taken by the beautiful music that Finbury has composed.  The lyrics were penned by producer, D. Miler.  Happily, they include an English translation of these lyrics in the CD’s liner notes.  Track one is a dynamic poem.  It features a spellbinding piano solo by Chano Dominguez and is interpreted by the lovely, alto voice of Magos Herrera.  John Finbury has written all the music on this project and each composition is well played by his talented musicians and well-produced by producer and lyricist, Emilio D. Miler.  On track #1, Miler’s lyrics spoke to me. (from Spanish translation):

“Dahlias evaporate in the sea, leaving their dreams trapped in a net. Their wings flutter, chirp; cry and thus become breeze, melody, rivers resuscitate.  Eagles spiraling down, drawing the letters of your name on the altar.  And there will come a day when seeds will rain on your heart.  You will feel the tree of the sad night growing.  Candles/sails; an aroma of incense announcing this and you’ll see just how soon there is nothing left of you,” his lyrical poem unfolds.

The first instrumental on this album is track two and proclaims, “Independence Day.”  It is Finbury’s take on a Spanish Flamenco arrangement.  The trio’s interpretation on “Salon Jardin” (or Garden Ballroom) is a slow Bolero arrangement that gives the iconic John Patitucci a moment to solo on his acoustic bass.   Throughout this entire production, Antonio Sanchez is powerful on drums, locking the rhythm section tightly together in a dance of freedom and purpose.  The only down side of this CD is the outside cover itself.  Why so dark, when your words bring such light? I could hardly read the names of the players.  I think artists should take more time controlling their CD artwork.  That being said, with this musical work, John Finbury redefines his being American, not just as a native of the United States, but as a citizen of the Americas.  Using “Quatro” as a political statement, he brings us a poetic piece of musical work that not only reminds us of our commonality and universal brotherhood, but gives musical testimony to our diversity and the beauty of blending cultures.

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SHIMPEI OGAWA & NOA LEVY – “YOU ME & COLE”  –  Belle Records

Noa Levy, vocals; Shimpei Ogawa, double bass.

There are some stellar moments on this duo album.  The opening tune shows that both Shimpei Ogawa and Noa Levy can swing.  Noa Levy begins by scatting against the big, strong sound of Shimpei’s walking bass. Together, they sound fresh and spontaneous on Cole Porter’s familiar “I Get A Kick Out of You.”  The challenge, of course, whenever you perform duo, is upholding your end of the bargain and standing strong in the light of your individual talent.  Duos are a difficult project to perform.  I know, because I’ve done it.  It’s just the two of you, with no other instruments to fill the space or to solo.  What makes this project even more challenging is the fact that it features only bass accompanying the voice. 

I liked the way Ogawa and Levy played with time, going from swing to a waltz, (three-four rhythm) during this arrangement.  However, there were a couple of pitch problems that Noa Levy quickly grazed over and were hardly noticeable.  The familiar, “My heart Belongs to Daddy” follows and is performed with a tango-feel.  I thought that was a perfect choice of rhythms and I liked the way Levy harmonized with Ogawa’s bowed bass notes.  But then came, “Just One of Those Things” to sour the sweetness of this recording.  Ms. Levy is totally off key for much of this song and the bridge she sings has nothing to do with the composer’s written melody.  Shimpei takes an engaging solo, but when the vocalist re-enters, she is obviously melodically lost and I guess you could say, “it was just one of those things.”

She redeems herself on “What is This Thing Called Love?”  She puts her whole heart and soul into delivering those lyrics with gusto and believability.  Shimpei Ogawa steps boldly into the spotlight to solo on his upright bass.  They tackle other familiar Cole Porter gems like “It’s Alright with Me” but after one time down, they lose their sparkle.  Some of the bass notes just don’t compliment the chord changes or her melody and when she re-enters, after his solo, she’s in the wrong key.  I think, if these two had a producer, a person who could have guided them and corrected some of the little things that caused this project to spiral downward, it would have been much more successful.  Both Shimpei and Noa are talented.  They just needed a little direction from ‘the booth’ when they were recording.   On “So in Love” you can hear how beautiful her voice is and his bass accompaniment is creative, but sometimes it’s the smallest nuance of a single bass-note, placed in an inopportune place, that makes the production fall flat.  One of their winners was “Anything Goes,” and their rendition of “Love for Sale” was bluesy and well-done. Of course, jazz stands for freedom and I applaud their tenacity and determination in producing an album of voice and double bass, spontaneously and creatively.  In spite of the glitches, both musicians still exhibit talent and promise.

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FALKNER  EVANS – “MARBLES” – Consolidated Artists Productions (CAP)

Falkner Evans, piano; Matt Wilson, drums; Belden Bullock, bass; Ron Horton, trumpet; Michael Blake, tenor & soprano saxophone; Ted Nash, clarinet/flute/alto saxophone; Steve Nelson, vibraphone.

The Latin-tinged composition, “Pina,” enters the scene with a bold flute solo by Ted Nash on track one.  This song is a dedication to the late, dancer/choreographer, Pina Bausch, whose work has been celebrated in a documentary film.  It’s followed by “Civilization.”  This tune has a very bluesy, “Killer Joe” kind of sound, with the walking bass of Belden Bullock strongly holding the groove in place along with Matt Wilson on drums.  Enter the saxophone solo and then trumpeter, Ron Horton takes over with his invigorating interpretation of this song.  All the music on this album is original and composed by Falkner Evans, except for the final Duke Ellington tune, “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.”   Evans has arranged all these songs with the warmth of a big-band sound, employing the talents of Ted Nash, Michael Blake and Ron Horton on horns.  These few talented musicians are successful in creating a full, rich, beautiful sound. 

“I love these guys a lot.  We’ve all become really good friends.  I’m so pleased that everybody was able to do this.  I was hearing all these harmonies. … With three horns, you can do so much more with the orchestration.  That was the basic inspiration for this album,” Evans affirmed.

“Sing Alone” is a lovely ballad that gives Falkner Evans an opportunity to step out front and introduce this composition on the grand piano before his group joins in.  It features his piano solo and style.  “Hidden Gem” employs the vibraphone licks of Steve Nelson.  At the top of the tune, his sound reminds me of time I spent in Indonesia, watching an orchestra utilize a multitude of wooden and bamboo vibe-looking instruments called angklungs.  The title tune introduces the mallets of drummer, Matt Wilson that adds a hypnotic sound to the arrangement.  The minor chords bring back memories of my trip to the Middle East inclusive of the white stone buildings of Israel and the palm trees and flowing black Muslim garbs of Dubai.  Falkner Evans was originally born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  “Dear West Village” is his straight-ahead love letter to his now current New York neighborhood of more than two decades.    

This project is very laid-back, with the exception of the final Ellington tune that closes this CD out. I was surprised at the shortness of this final song.  Most of the arrangements are lovely, long and very easy-listening in tempo and musical personality.  Even when Michael Blake, Ron Horton and Ted Nash spit fire into their various solo’s (on their well-played horns), there is still very little up-tempo, straight-ahead excitement here.  Falkner Evans is a solid pianist without a great deal of emotional excitement translated into his piano performances.  His compositions are well-written and his harmonic arrangements are beautiful.  I just wish this artist had stretched beyond his comfort level, even once, and just for fun, hand-glided off the precipice without a parachute. 

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THE YUKO MABUCHI TRIO – “YUKO” – Vista Records

Yuko Mabuchi, piano; Del Atkins, electric & acoustic bass; Bobby Breton, drums/percussion.

Yuko Mabuchi offers us a double-set CD, capturing her trio’s ‘live’ performance at the famous Vibrato Restaurant in Southern California.  Opening with Dizzy Gillespie’s popular, “A Night in Tunisia” tune, she sets the pace of this album with gusto and verve.  Ms. Mabuchi is a powerful player.  Her slender fingers propel across the keys like a steam roller.  You don’t expect this tenacity from such a petit individual.  The other thing she reflects in her playing is deep and resounding joy.  Ably assisted by Del Atkins on bass and Bobby Breton on drums, her trio has been working together for several years.  They exhibit a tight cohesiveness.

On track two, “So Danco Samba,” Yuko brings her vocal charm to the party.  She also enjoys scat-singing along with her tinkling and speedy improvisational piano solos.  Hey voice dances atop the notes, becoming another instrument that colors the arrangement like a musical paint brush. 

Yuko Mabuchi’s choice of repertoire is adventurous and embraces a wide variety of American jazz standards like John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and the Miles Davis game-changer, “So What” and “All Blues.” Yuko explores various time changes in her arrangement of “All Blues” exploring this classic tune in 5/4 time and then unexpectedly breaking into a 4/4 hard-bop.

She includes her jazzy take on pop and Motown tunes like Stevie Wonders, “Isn’t She Lovely” and the Ashford & Simpson 1966 hit record, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

Also included is a Japanese Medley of music that mixes memories of her youth by introducing us to “Hazy Moon,” a Japanese nursery rhyme written by Teiichi Okano.  This song melody is blended with “Cherry Blossoms,” a 17th Century Edo period song that celebrates Japan’s spring flower viewing.  “Sukiyaki” is the song that concludes this Japanese Medley and the Hachidai Nakamura composition translates to “I Look Up As I Walk.” 

To additionally spice up this project, Yuko has added several of her own compositions to the mix and they sparkle.  “St Croix” for one, is a lovely musical depiction of the Virgin Islands and St Croix’s Caribbean culture.  Bobby Breton pumps his Latin flavors into the production on drums, and Yuko always manages to add some blues roots to her thick broth of combined cultures.  This wonderful double-set CD offers something for everyone.  As much as I enjoyed Disc 1, I loved Disc 2 even more.  It shows Yuko Mabuchi’s spontaneity and tenderness on the piano keys, especially on her original, “Tears-Interlude.”  Another original composition written by Yuko is “Sky With No Tears” that allows a compelling solo by bassist, Del Atkins, and was written to anticipate a day when the earth is clean and the sky is no longer weeping with pollution.  Also, her exciting presentation of “Batucada Surgiu” is very impressive.  Yuko’s energy and enthusiasm are extremely prominent on the second disc and the audience is enthusiastic and responsive.   But most notably, this well-received concert gives us a very personal look at Yuko Mabuchi’s incredible talents as a pianist, a composer, an arranger, vocalist and bandleader. 

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