Archive for August, 2020

SPOTLIGHT ON BIG BANDS & STRAIGHT-AHEAD ENSEMBLES

August 28, 2020

by Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz journalist

August 28, 2020

CHRISTIAN McBRIDE BIG BAND – “FOR JIMMY, WES AND OLIVER” – Mack Ave Records

Christian McBride, bass/bandleader/producer; Joey DeFrancesco, organ; Mark Whitfield, guitar; Quincy Phillips, drums; TRUMPETS: Frank Greene, Freddie Hendrix, Brandon Lee, Nabate Isles & Anthony Hervey. TROMBONES: Michael Dease, Steve Davis, James Burton, Douglas Purviance. WOODWINDS: Steve Wilson, Todd Bashore, Ron Blake, Dan Pratt & Carl Maraghi.

Christian McBride, bassist, arranger, producer and big band leader has assembled an all-star group of musicians to celebrate the unforgettable impact that organ master, Jimmy Smith, phenomenal guitarist and composer, Wes Montgomery, and iconic arranger, Oliver Nelson have made on Earth.

At the peak of his career, Oliver Nelson was producing and arranging music for jazz vocalist, Nancy Wilson, R&B trend-setter, James Brown, The Temptation singing group, organist Jimmy Smith and Diana Ross.  He was also composing for television shows like Ironside, Longstreet and The Six Million Dollar Man.  You may remember his composition “Stolen Moments” that became an anthem for jazz musicians around the world.  Nelson also played tenor saxophone on the original release of this trend-setting song, along with Paul Chambers on bass, Bill Evans on piano and Roy Haynes on drums. We can’t forget that Eric Dolphy doubled on the alto saxophone on this recording. 

Oliver Nelson also arranged an old favorite of mine, “Night Train,” that opens this CD with a huge bang.  The band comes out swinging harder than Muhammad Ali at the ‘rumble in the jungle’ fight.  Track 2 follows this with the Wes Montgomery hit composition, “Road Song.”  Featuring a spirited solo by Mark Whitfield.

The premise for this Christian McBride Big Band album came from a session back in 1966 at the famous Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey studio of Rudy Van Gelder.  Over the course of two day, Wes Montgomery and Jimmy Smith merged their talents to record two magical albums arranged by the great Oliver Nelson.  The first release was titled “The Dynamic Duo” and the second was marketed in 1968 as “Further Adventures of jimmy and Wes.”  Both Christian McBride and master organist, Joey DeFrancesco played those 33-1/3 albums over and over for years.  Their musical friendship has been nearly four decades in the making.  Once they realized how much both of them admired those two historic albums of music by Smith and Montgomery, a plan began to take shape. 

“Joey is, without question, my oldest friend in music,” McBride shared in his press package. “We met in middle school playing in the Settlement Music School Jazz Ensemble.  We’ve recorded a few things here and there over the years, but we’ve never recorded an entire album together until now.  It seemed logical to salute the two albums that we listened to quite a bit as kids.”

Joey DeFranceso crashes into the spotlight on “Up Jumped Spring,” and this song is arranged specifically for the quartet.  DeFrancesco has long been one of this journalist’s favorite organ players, probably because he has a style and attack very similar to the late, great Jimmy Smith.  Joey plays with so much soul!  Christian McBride steps up on his double bass to share a wonderful solo, with Quincy Phillips dancing happily beneath him, using tasteful, rhythmic brushes.  “Milestones” races in, familiar to any jazz ear, with horns powerfully singing that opening none of us will ever forget.  DeFrancisco and Whitfield settle into their respective instruments and they are off and running.  Did you know that Miles Davis famously recruited Joey DeFrancesco into his band when the young man was just out of high school?  So, this song is particularly historic to the forceful organ player.  Mark Whitfield introduces us to the bluesy-side of the familiar ballad, “The Very Thought of You.”  Christian McBride bows his double bass with sensuosity and technical brilliance.

The three featured players on this project have each offered one original composition to be explored by the band.  Joey DeFrancesco adds “Don Is,” a sly tribute to bassist and record executive, Don Was, that is a compelling shuffle, propelled dynamically by Quincy Phillips.  This too is a quartet tune and it swings relentlessly.

Mark Whitfield has written a tribute to murdered civil rights activist, Medgar Evers, titled “Medgar Evers Blues.”  The 17-piece Christian McBride Big Band is certainly one of the most intoxicating of all the modern jazz big bands on the scene today.  They return, in force, during this arrangement, led by the sensitive and compelling guitar of Whitfield.   The big band’s debut album wowed the jazz community with its release on Mack Ave Records back in 2011. It could be because of their mix of up-and-coming star-quality players and veteran musicians, many who are bandleaders in their own right.  You hear their precision attacks and sweet crescendos during this piece.  The horns cushion and electrify the stage for both DeFrancesco and Whitfield to solo.  You can clearly hear McBride walking his bass steadfastly beneath the powerful band and Quincy Phillips strongly supports everyone, adding his own tasteful licks and sixteenth notes on his trap drums, but never discarding the solid two-and-four support that holds this groove together effortlessly.  That’s one of the reasons The Christian McBride Big Band has racked up two Grammy Awards for both their other album releases.  I expect this one has the brilliance and star-power to do just that.

Christian McBride offers us “Pie Blues,” co-written with Joey DeFrancesco, to close out this album. Happily, they give a couple of their outstanding horn players an opportunity to solo and shine.   It’s a low-down, soulful blues, whose groove makes you wanna sop your biscuit in gravy and slow dance with someone you love. 

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THE RADAM SCHWARTZ ORGAN BIG BAND with DAVID F. GIBSON on drums – “MESSAGE FROM GROOVE AND GW” – Arabesque Records

Radam Schwartz, organ/bandleader; Charlie Sigler, guitar; David F. Gibson, drums; SAXOPHONES: Anthony Ware & Danny Raycraft, alto saxophones; Abel Mireles & Gene Ghee, tenor saxophone; Ben Kovacks, baritone sax. TRUMPETS: Ted Chubb, Ben Hankle, James Cage & Lee Hogans. TROMBONE: Peter Lin & Andrae Murchison.

The Radam Schwartz Organ Big Band shuffles onto the scene with a swing-dance gem called “Trouble Just Won’t Go Away,” written by Schwartz.  It’s a great jazz swing tune.  I want to grab a partner and hit the dance floor. Charlie Sigler takes a spirited guitar solo during this arrangement.   Organist, Radam Schwartz, remembers how exciting it was to hear Richard “Groove” Holmes collaborate with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra.  On that record, he recorded two songs playing all the bass parts himself.  Radam Schwartz decided to become the first organist, technically strong enough, to play all the bass lines throughout an entire big band album.  Consequently, he has dedicated this album to his inspirations: “Groove” (Holmes) and Gerald Wilson (GW).   Additionally, Schwartz has written three original compositions for this project and arranged five of the ten songs included. John Coltrane’s composition “Blues Minor” is the next track.  The band swings and Danny Raycraft (on Alto saxophone) and Abel Mireles, on tenor sax, each make impressive solo statements.  Schwartz has arranged the Aretha Franklin hit record, “Aint No Way” (penned by her sister Carolyn), as a jazzy swing number.  This was done in the tradition of organist Charles Earland, who was known to turn an R&B hit song into a swinging jazz arrangement. Trumpeter, Ted Chubb, solos on this arrangement along with Gene Ghee on tenor sax and guitarist Charlie Sigler sings the melody.  When Radam Schwartz enters on his organ, the background horns play call and response to his chords and organ licks. This ensemble is exciting and their grooves are what we call, ‘in-the-pocket’ !  All the players perform tightly together as a unit and are sparkling stars individually.  The entire Radam Schwartz album is pure fun.  Drummer David F. Gibson pushes the band’s performance on his busy drum set.  He’s a solid player with an impressive resume.  Gibson has recorded with Count Basie Orchestra, the Duke Ellington orchestra, Odean Pope’s Saxophone Choir and Harry “Sweets” Edison to list just a few.  He’s very familiar with organ players, having worked with the great Shirley Scott, the inimitable Jimmy McGriff and Don Patterson.

Radam Schwartz is no newcomer to the entertainment scene and the business of jazz.  Originally a pianist, at a casual jam session he touched the organ and fell in love with that instrument.   He has performed with several amazing jazz names including silky smooth jazz crooner, Arthur Prysock, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Russell Malone, Cecil Brooks III, David “Fathead” Newman and Russell Gunn.  Schwartz has been a busy session musician, appearing on over forty recordings.  This is his tenth album release, after leading or co-leading nine other albums.  As a jazz educator, he’s been an instructor at Jazz house Kids for the last thirteen years.  He’s also the director of the Rutgers Newark Mosaic Jazz Ensemble.

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RALPH PETERSON –“THE MESSENGER LEGACY: ONWARD & UPWARD” – Onyx Records

Ralph Peterson, drums/arranger/composer/bandleader; Joanne Brackeen, Anthony Wonsey & Zaccal Curtis, piano; Peter Washington, Melissa Slocum, Lonnie Plaxico & Essiet Essiet, bass; Relnaldo DeJesus, percussion; Kevin Eubanks, guitar; Craig Handy, alto saxophone; Bill Pierce & Jean Toussaint, tenor saxophone; Phillip Harper & Brian Lynch, trumpet; Steve Davis & Robin Eubanks, trombone.

Master drummer, Ralph Peterson, continues to celebrate his late mentor, Art Blakey, on this latest recording.  One exciting thing about Peterson’s historic production is that he has brought together a number of former Jazz Messengers (fourteen in all) and three Legacy Messengers for this production.  The choice to include seventeen musicians on this project was deliberate.  The number “17” is a reflection of Blakey’s first working band back in 1947.  At that time, Art led a large ensemble that was called “The Seventeen Messengers.”   However, although Peterson has purposefully included a large number of musicians, this is no big band.  Most of the tunes showcase sextets, along with one septet and one quintet production.

You will hear the great Joanne Brackeen on piano during the opening tune, a Ralph Peterson original composition titled, “Forth and Back.”  Ms. Brackeen takes a spontaneous and delightful solo, with the horns punching sometimes dissonant chords that immediately grab my attention.  Phillip Harper, on trumpet, tenor saxophonist, Jean Toussaint and Craig Handy on Alto take turns soloing.  Peter Washington, on double bass, also strides into the spotlight with fervor and zeal. He played with a version of the Jazz Messenger Big Band in 1988 at the Mount Fuji Jazz Festival.

“I met NEA Jazz Master, Joanne Brackeen, while a student at Rutgers when she came to perform with our Big Band there.  She brought the challenging tune Egyptian Dune Dance to that concert and I remember being the only drummer there who could play it.  I’ve been a fan ever since and now we are colleagues at Berklee College of Music.  Her tune on this project, ‘Tricks of the Trade’ was great fun to play,” Peterson praised the legendary pianist.

On Track 2, The song “Sonora” is named for the daughter of Ralph Peterson and Melissa Slocum. Slocum makes a dynamic bass solo appearance on this track. 

There are eleven well written and performed songs on this “Onward & Upward” CD that perpetuates the Jazz Messenger legacy.  There are notes included in their CD jacket that explain, at length, each players relationship to being a part of this brilliant legacy.  This project sparkles with excellence in both personnel, composition, arranging and the value of historic accomplishments in jazz.

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SOUTH FLORIDA JAZZ ORCHESTRA – “CHEAP THRILLS” – THE MUSIC OF RICK MARGITZA – Summit Records

Chuck Bergeron, acoustic & electric bass/orchestra leader; Martin Bejerano, piano; John Hart, guitar; John Yarling, drums; Xavier DeSandre Navarre, percussion; WOODWINDS & SAXOPHONES: Gary Keller, Gary Lindsay, Ed Calle, Jason Kush & Mike Brignola;David Leon,baritone saxophone/bass clarinet;Phil Doyle, tenor sax. TRUMPETS: Greg Gisbert, Jason Carder, Alex Norris, Pete Francis, Augie Haas, Jesus Mato, Jared Hall & John Daversa; Brian Lynch, featured trumpet soloist. TROMBONES: Dante Luciani, John Kricker, Andrew Peal & Major Bailey; Derek Pyle & Haden Mapei, featured trombonists.  PRODUCERS: John Fedchock & Rick Margitza.

The music of Rick Margitza is being celebrated on this album of fine music by The South Florida Jazz Orchestra.  Rick Margitza was born in Detroit, Michigan on October 24, 1961 and at the age of four, his beloved, paternal grandfather taught him to play violin.  His father played violin with the Detroit Symphony orchestra. Young Rick played oboe and piano too, but in high school, he finally settled on a genuine love for the tenor saxophone. 

Chuck Bergeron is the bassist and bandleader of the South Florida Jazz Orchestra.  Over the years, Margitza and Chuck Bergeron’s paths kept crossing. They first met in New Orleans, where the young sax man moved in 1984 to work at a World’s Fair gig.  Rick Margitza encouraged Chuck Bergeron to study at the University of Miami.  Bergeron took him up on the suggestion.  Later, the two friends both wound up moving to New York,where they performed together and were also roommates.

“When I first met Rick, he was just an amazing tenor player from Detroit,” Bergeron recalled in his press package.  “It developed into a thirty-year friendship.  He’s one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever worked with; the kind of player that raises the level of all the musicians around him.  For me, it’s always been a real special treat to get to play music with Rick.”

Clearly, Rick Margitza made an impression on everyone around him.  Bergeron appears on Margitza’s first Blue Note Record label release on a compilation produced and titled, “New Stars on Blue Note.” One icon who recognized the young man’s talent was Miles Davis, who asked him to play with him on his “Human Nature” album.  You can detect the influence of Margitza’s Gypsy background on some of his saxophone improvisations.  He also toured with Maynard Ferguson and played for years with the Maria Schneider Orchestra.

“Cheap Thrills” celebrates the fifteenth anniversary of Chuck Bergeron’s South Florida Jazz Orchestra and Bergeron has brought together an all-star ensemble representing the best from their South Florida jazz scene.  Many are fellow faculty members at the University of Miami and are familiar with both Rick Margitza and his compositions.  Bergeron’s amazing orchestra models itself after the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra (also known as the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra).  Chuck Bergeron is proud of his orchestra’s residency at Miami’s now-defunct Arturo Sandoval Jazz Club. 

Their opening tune, and the title of this album, is “Cheap Thrills” and features an awesome solo by Rick Hart on guitar, with strong horn lines that sing the catchy melody.  The composition, “Widow’s Walk” is a very beautiful, Latin-flavored ballad and brings back memories of another time and place for Chuck Bergeron.

“Widow’s Walk, for instance, was one of the two songs documented for the ‘New Stars on Blue Note’ album.  It’s one of the tunes that I most equate with him.  To me, it’s signature Margitza.  We recorded it with a small band when he was first starting out, so it’s very nostalgic and special to revisit it with him and my big band all these years later,” Bergeron shared.

There are plenty of bright musical moments on this John Fedchock production.  “Brace Yourself” originally was recorded on Margitza’s Blue Note debut titled, “Color.”  It swings pretty hard, with strong percussion lines that interject Afro-Cuban influences into the arrangement. They shine the spotlight on drummer John Yarling, who takes full advantage of it with an unforgettable solo.  “45 Pound hound” features the exciting trumpet of Grammy Award-winner, Brian Lynch.  The biggest challenge came, according to Bergeron and producer, John Fedchock, on the tune “Premonition.”   This composition is long and after rehearsals, Fedchock and Bergeron agreed at two stopping points in the nearly 10-minute tune.  They wanted to break it up into three parts for the benefit of the band.  However, for some reason, the band played straight through the ‘stopping points’. Afterwards, there was stunned silence in the studio until Fedchock’s voice whispered into the mic, “What did you think about that?”  Bergeron’s voice bellowed in response, “I love this f—ing band!”

Chuck Bergeron was born and raised in New Orleans, the celebrated womb of jazz, and has been an in-demand bass player forty years and is still going.  After studying at Loyola University and the University of Miami, he joined the Woody Herman and Buddy Rich band before moving to New York.  It didn’t take long for his reputation to inspire a host of celebrities to invite him on performance and recording dates. Some of the legendary musicians he has worked with are Stan Getz, Randy Brecker, Sheila Jordan, Dee Dee Bridgewater, John Abercrombie, James Moody, Stanley Jordan and Elvis Costello.  He has released eight albums as a bandleader and four with the South Florida Jazz Orchestra. Twenty years ago, he accepted a teaching position at the University of Miami and he currently runs the Jazz Bass Studio and is Director of the Jazz Pedagogy Program at the University’s Frost School of Music.

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THE BIG BAD BONES FEATURING SCOTT WHITFIELD – “EMERGENCY VEHICLE BLUES” – Summit Records

Ben Tweedt, piano/keyboard/composer; Doug Montera, drums; Mike Haar, acoustic & electric bass; Steve Wilson, bass trombone; Scott Whitfield, Brett Stamps & Pete Madsen, tenor trombones.

This album is a fresh and wonderful production that features a montage of trombone excellence.  Opening with the title tune, “Emergency Vehicle Blues,” the trombones blend smoothly and seamlessly.   Their harmonies, sung by a group of all-star trombone players, present a warm and silky sound. Doug Mantera pushes the Straight-ahead groove on his trap drums and Mark Haar’s walking bass locks into the mix appropriately.  The piano solo of Ben Tweedt stands out brightly at the top of the tune.  Towards the end, we are drawn into a city of sirens, asphalt and horn cries.  Scott Whitfield, based in Los Angeles, is internationally respected, having appeared from Australia to Zurich and everywhere in between.  He is the featured trombonist on this album. Whitfield is a complimentary member of the Nat Adderley Sextet and also performs regularly as a guest player with the United States Army Blues Jazz Ensemble.  Tenor trombonist, Brett Stamps is the composer of all the original music on this production and he’s the in-house, resident composer for The Big Bad Bones Band.  Brett is an alumnus from the Stan Kenton Orchestra and can be heard on three different Kenton records. 

“Writing music is exhilarating.  Performing it with this group of musicians is incredibly rewarding.  What a pleasure to be part of this endeavor,” gushes Brett Stamps in the liner notes.

Pete Madsen is the other tenor trombone player.   He resides in Omaha and is the current Coordinator of Jazz Studies at the University of Nebraska.  Steve Wilson is also a respected educator, based in Texas where he serves as Music Department Chair at the University of El Paso.  Ben Tweedt lives in Cincinnati, Ohio and bassist, Mark Haar, resides in Omaha. Despite these musicians joining The Big Bad Bones from different parts of our country, they blend handsomely, fitting their talents together like a custom-tailored suit on a very tall man.  This awesome band towers above the standard, sharing unique arrangements, expertly written compositions and personalized talents.    

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JAZZ: AMERICA’S CLASSICAL ART FORM

August 17, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil

AUG 18, 2020

Jazz has long been celebrated as America’s true, classical music. These albums I’m reviewing for my Musical Memoirs column strongly exhibit this premise.  Saxophonist, arranger and composer, QUINSIN NACHOFF clearly embraces both the freedom of jazz and the structure of classical European music in his latest release, “Pivotal Arc.”  RICHARD GRILLI brings a more contemporary skill to his music, combining classical training and Brazilian roots by composing music that embraces jazz, his Latin culture and his classical constraints.  Trombonist, JOHN FEDCHOCK strives to keep the tradition of jazz sextets alive and modernized.  Classically trained pianist, YUKO MABUCHI, tributes the genius of Miles Davis in a captivating quartet ‘live’ concert recorded on disc. MEHMET ALI SANLIKOL & WHATSNEXT? featuring DAVE LIEBMAN make a strong, political statement with music.The EVENT HORIZON JAZZ QUARTET showcases all original jazz compositions by two of their members.  Finally, MIKE FAHIE JAZZ ORCHESTRA –“URBAN(E)” combines music idioms, presenting the classical master composers with a jazz twist.

QUINSIN NACHOFF – “PIVOTAL ARC” – Whirlwind Recordings

Quinsin Nachoff, tenor saxophone; Nathalie Bonin, violin soloist; MOLINARI STRING QUARTET: Olga Ranzenhofer & Antoine Bareil, violins; Frédéric Lambert, viola; Pierre-Alain Bouviette, cello; JC Sanford, conductor; Michael Davidson, vibraphone; Mark Helias, bass; Satoshi Takeishi, drums/percussion; Jean-Pierre Zanello, piccolo/flute/clarinet/soprano saxophone; Yvan Belleau, clarinet/tenor saxophone; Brent Besner, bass clarinet; Jocelyn Couture & Bill Mahar, trumpets; David Grott, trombone; Bob Ellis, bass trombone.

Quinsin Nachoff’s new album, “Pivotal Arc” may represent his most ambitious album to date.  He is featuring Nathalie Bonin on violin. On the very first tune, Nathalie Bonin stands front and center on the production.  Born in San Francisco, (but raised in Montreal, Canada) Nathalie is now based in Los Angeles and has also been a guest soloist with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and also with the Société de Musique Contemporaine du Québec (SMCQ).  She has played many years in the Orchestre Metropolitain and with l’Opéra de Montréal.  Her talents on violin are widely respected and in-demand.  She plays everything from contemporary music to tango; from world music to jazz and even pop music.  Ms. Bonin has recorded or performed with a vast array of familiar performers like Stevie Wonder, Chance the Rapper, Gino Vannelli, Cirque du Soleil and recorded on a number of movie and television soundtracks. Her beautiful violin expression is stellar on the Quinsin Nachoff, three-part violin concerto that he has composed.  He could not have picked a better person to interpret his work.

The first movement represents a deconstructed Tango.  It allows Bonin to improvise and explore her extraordinary range and versatility on her instrument.  The Suite is very classically oriented.  You may hear traces of Stravinsky echoing in Nachoff’s music.  The second movement is a ballad where (according to the Nachoff press notes) Berg meets Ellington.  The final movement is Balkan-infused and is very rhythmic.  I enjoyed the addition of Michael Davidson’s vibraphone and the Mark Hellas bass solo is noteworthy during this suite of music.

Quinsin Nachoff’s addition of The String Quartet showcases some of Nachoff’s most intricate writing to date.  He explained this challenging work in his liner notes.

“I like to keep up with what’s happening now in quartet writing and this gave me the opportunity to explore some of those ideas – pitch axis, using quarter tones, but still keeping a jazz influence because that’s a large part of my background.”

He has written a quartet piece in four movements.  The first features the violins. The second spotlights the viola, followed by the third movement that is written for the cello.  The final movement is written for an intense violin expression.

Quinsin Nachoff is a celebrated New York City saxophonist and composer.  He has been heralded for writing music that flows fluidly between jazz and the classical world.  This artist and composer knows how to blur the lines between classically written and composed pieces, while still allowing the freedom that jazz encourages and the space for improvisation to become part of his ensemble’s unique delivery.

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RICHARD GRILLI – “1962” – Tone rogue Records

Ricardo Grilli, guitar/composer; Mark Turner, tenor saxophone; Kevin Hays, piano; Joe Martin, bass; Erick Harland, drums.

“1962” is the year of Richard Grilli’s mother’s birth.  That is why Grilli chose this number-title for his album.  The CD before this one was titled 1954, and that was the year of his father’s birth.  So, this Brazilian-born guitarist and composer has been celebrating his parents in these productions.  According to the liner notes, this production emulates the way music was influencing that 1962-time-period.  He would have to be somewhat of a historian to understand what was going on in 1962, because clearly, he wasn’t born yet.  I was, however, and I remember that era well.   Questionably, Mr. Grilli’s music does not remind me of that jazz music period.  In 1962, American jazz was plush with some of the greatest hard-bop and straight-ahead recordings of all time including music by Art Blakey, the amazing piano playing of Bill Evans, the trumpet mastery of Freddie Hubbard, vibraphone master, Milt Jackson, the bluesy horn of Jackie McLean and the cross-over, South African trumpet of Hugh Masekela.  Mingus was around and Oscar Peterson was a beast on piano. George Russell was challenging the outer limits of jazz, as was Cecil Taylor. We cannot forget that Wes Montgomery was stunning us with his genius guitar playing and composer skills.  In the 1960s, Motown was thriving in Detroit and changing the face of Rhythm and Blues and commercial pop music.  Actually, the Motown sound was infused by Detroit Jazz musicians who were in the studios cutting all those hit records.  According to Ricardo Grilli, in Brazil it was a tumultuous and revolutionary time.  The political scene was messy and in 1964 they experienced a coup d’etat that ushered in two decades of military, totalitarian rule.  This music reminds me more of that kind of turmoil.  It does not embrace the warm samba sounds and beautiful melodies that I associate with Brazil.  Ricardo Grilli is more modern in his approach and less melodic.  His composition structures are repetitious and lend themselves to musical trampolines where soloist can bounce off improvisational ideas.  Mark Turner is quite outstanding on tenor saxophone.  I hear a lot of turbulence and unrest in Grilli’s compositions.  I did enjoy his original song, “ERP.”  When I read in the liner notes, I discovered he was celebrating bop pioneer, Bud Powell on this song.  That cut was my favorite on this album.  I also enjoyed the second track titled, “Mars.”  Track-8, titled “183 W. 10th St” is the address of the famed Smalls jazz club in New York City.  I thought this melody and production was strong.  It gives Kevin Hays an opportunity to strut his stuff on the piano keys and Joe Martin is spotlighted brightly on his upright bass.  On the fade, Erick Harland is dynamic on trap drums.  I think this song shines as another one of Ricardo Grilli’s stand-out compositions. 

Ricardo Grilli has written mainly a CD of contemporary jazz music featuring electric guitar.  In 2013 he released his debut album, “If on A Winter’s Night, a Traveler.”   Grilli graduated with honors from Berklee College of Music and holds a Master’s degree in Jazz Studies from New York University.

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JOHN FEDCHOCK NY SEXTET – “INTO THE SHADOWS” – Summit Records

John Fedchock, trombone; Scott Wendhold, trumpet & flugelhorn; Walt Weiskopf, tenor saxophone; Allen Farnham, piano; David Finck, bass; Eric Halvorson, drums.

John Fedchock opens with an original composition he calls, “RSVP,” applying his velvet smooth trombone talents to introduce the song.  Scott Wendholt adds his trumpet solo to the mix, as does Walt Weiskopf on tenor saxophone.  It’s a straight-ahead jazz tune that allows the various players to all get a piece of the song and flex their talents like muscle men.  Eric Halvorson pushes them ahead with a Latin jazz feel and at one point, trades ‘fours’ on the trap drums, while the horns dance in tight, harmonic phrases.  You can hear Farnham, on piano, punch the Latin salsa feel, but when he solos, it’s straight-ahead improvisation.  This is a spirited way to open Fedchock’s album.  He follows with another original composition called, “Alpha Dog.”  It displays a hint of blues, but once Weiskopf steps up to the mic on his tenor sax, we are swept into a more ‘Coltranish’ arrangement.  They finally pull back the curtains to reveal Allen Farnham on piano.  His fingers pull the blues out of the black and white 88-keys.  David Finck also takes an attention-getting solo on his double bass. 

This is Fedchock’s tenth album release as a leader and on this production, he is spending more time in the spotlight as a trombone soloist, a composer and arranger.  Brightly applauded for his work with the New York Big Band, Fedchock explained his interest in forming this smaller ensemble.

“Working with the sextet is the best of both worlds.  While still giving plenty of space for individual soloists, the configuration offers unique, creative writing options and maintains a sleek and mobile blend.  My biggest challenge in forming this NY Sextet was to honor that distinguished tradition and create something individual.”

John Fedchock’s third track, “Manaus” is named after a city in Brazil’s Amazon region.  His arranging style continues to feature very harmonic horn lines, similar to his 16-piece New York Big Band arrangements.  The horns of this sextet are like a colorful blanket, wrapped around the production, cashmere soft and warm. While Finck solos on bass, the horns are ever-present to support him and reiterate the melody.   The old standard, “I Should Care” is played at a swift pace, once again featuring harmony-driven horn licks.  Fedchock steps center stage and soaks up the spotlight, exploring his improvised trombone chops.  You will also enjoy the Sextet’s creative arrangements on familiar tunes like “Nature Boy” and “Star Eyes.”   “Nature Boy” is one of my favorites on this album, arranged in a very modern jazz and Afro-Cuban way.

The title tune, “Into the Shadows” opens with just Fedchock’s trombone with Eric Halvorson’s drum accompaniment.  It’s a pensive tune, inspired during Fedchock’s time at the Yaddo artist’s retreat.   Perhaps his opening introduction reflects a bit of that solitude time, until the dense harmonies provided by Wendholt and Weiskopf join in. The three horns blend sweetly.  Farnham takes a sensitive solo on this tune.  His piano playing seems always seasoned with a bit of blues.  It’s a nice touch.  On their final tune, another Fedchock composition titled, “On the Edge” they allow Farnham, along with the sextet, to stretch their blues chops out to the maximum.

A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Fedchock started his musical path in 1980 when he joined the legendary Woody Herman Orchestra as soloist, musical director and chief arranger.  He has also toured worldwide with jazz legends like Gerry Mulligan, T.S. Monk, Louie Bellson, Bob Belden and the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band.  With this endeavor, John Fedchock carries on the strong tradition of distinguished jazz sextets.

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MEHMET ALI SANLIKOL & WHATSNEXT? FEATURING DAVE LIEBMAN – “THE RISE UP” – Dunya Records

Mehmet Ali Sanlikol, voice/ney/zurna/ud/composer/arranger; George Lernis, darbuka/tet/ nekkare/kos/tambourine/castanets/triangle/cymbals/tubular bells; Bertram Lehmann, drums; Fernando Huergo, bass; Phil Sargent, classical & electric guitars; Utar Artun, piano; Bill Lowe, tuba; Angel Subero, bass trombone; Bulut Gulen, Chris Gagne & Bob Pilkington, trombones;  Mike Pelpman, Jeff Claassen, Sam Dechenne & Jerry Sabatini, trumpet/flugel horn; Rebekah Lorenz, French horn; Melanie Howell Brooks, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet; Rick DiMuzio & Aaron Henry, tenor saxophones/clarinets; Rick Stone, alto & soprano saxophones/flute; Mary Cicconetti, oboe/English horn; SPECIAL FEATURED GUEST: Dave Liebman, soprano saxophone; Ken Schaphorst, conductor.

The composer, Mehmet Ali Sanlikol, explains in the liner notes of “The Rise Up” album what inspired him to write, arrange and produce this album.

“I have been saddened and personally affected by the recent political turmoil and malignant stereotyping of Muslims and minority communities in the US.  As a result, I decided to construct this piece around three episode from Middle Eastern history which chronicles dark and traumatic events followed by human inspiration and/or transcendental creation in order to demonstrate my belief and hope that we, humanity, will rise up and above these difficult times.”

“I received the greatest honor of my life when, in early 2017, Dave Liebman asked me to write an extended programmatic piece for jazz orchestra featuring himself as soloist.  Such a high compliment coming from a jazz icon (whom I grew up listening to) meant the world to me but, the task certainly had its challenges.  Dave Liebman specified that the piece should draw on both Turkish and Sephardic Jewish musical elements, as well as cultural and historical resources.  Not wanting to disappoint my musical hero, I took nearly two years in coming up with a concept that would both honor Dave Liebman’s request and inspire me to write such a work,” he concluded.

The result of Mr. Liebman’s challenging request is this magnificent album.  In the first suite of music, Mehmet Ali Sanlikol celebrates the mystical poetry of ‘Rumi’ and the 13th century, when Sufi poet, Mevlana Celaleddin-i Rumi was well celebrated.  The second suite of music is created with the traditions of the Sephardim in mind.  This was the time when the Jewish people were expelled from Spain and welcomed by the Ottomans.  This led to a cultural flowering, precious and treasured to the present day.  The third suite, titled ‘Sinan’ explores the story of a young Christian boy who was taken forcefully by the Ottomans and taught to embrace a Muslim identity.  That young man rose to great heights in the mid-16th century as a master architect of several distinguished mosques that he built. 

I found these suites to be powerfully executed by these awesome musicians and very spiritual in nature.  This project is the perfect blend of Middle Eastern culture, jazz and classical music.  It is beautifully produced and written.  The arrangements transport us to a time and space where religions of the world blossomed.  The inclusion of Mehmet Ali Sanlikol’s vocal chants is both stunning and historic. I’ve listed all of the participating musicians above because the expansion of this orchestra, implementing instruments from the Middle East culture like the ney (an end-blown flute) and the double reed pipe called a zurna or the short-necked lute referred to as an ‘ud’ brings this music alive.  The percussionists add much to this production, incorporating the ‘tef’, a small frame drum with cymbals and the goblet-shaped drum called the darbuka.   Perhaps inspired by the Gil Evans arrangements for Miles Davis on one of my favorite albums of all time, “Sketches in Spain,” Mehmet Ali Sanlikol has added wind and brass instruments that enhance this production in amazing ways.

This album is like a brightly colored orchid, rising from the dust and turmoil that hate breeds.  It shines, like a piece of golden nugget, uncovered and shimmering in a pile of dirt. This music glows in the light of love.  You will be drawn into these lush arrangements and the brilliance of Dave Liebman on soprano saxophone.  You will be hypnotized by the classical, yet subtle jazz-fluidity this group of outstanding musician’s proffer.   This is Grammy Award-winning music.  You will be transformed, and that’s really what great music is all about; transformation and rebirth.

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EVENT HORIZON JAZZ QUARTET – GRB Records

Jim Kaczmarek, saxophones/flute; Scott Mertens, piano/ keyboards; Donn DeSanto, string bass; Rick Vitek, drums.

The Event Horizon Jazz Quartet presents a well-arranged album of original jazz tunes composed by reedman, Jim Kaczmarek and pianist, Scott Mertens.  Opening with Merten’s “Chelsea Playground,” this song sets the tone for the album. This tune featured straight-ahead jazz with a strong melody.  Kaczmarek plays soprano saxophone on this number.  Every reedman has a tone to their playing and I was perplexed by Jim Kaczmarek’s tone, that sometimes slides (ever so slightly) into the pitchy zone. On track two titled, “Guess Not” the press package says this song was the result of a romantic break-up for Kaczmarek, who composed the song. It’s another strong composition.

Event Horizon band members are regulars on the Chicago jazz scene and all the members are music educators.  Kaczmarek grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and decided he was going to become a professional musician when he was in the 8th grade.  By age sixteen, his dream materialized and he was playing professionally.  He moved to Chicago in 1995 to teach and got caught up in the city’s amazing jazz scene.  Mertens received a Master’s degree from Northern Illinois University and he and Kaczmarek have been close friends for many years.  Mertens was a graduate assistant for Ron Carter, who was the Director of Jazz Studies.  Originally from Missouri, Scott Mertens has been playing piano since middle school. Bassist, Donn DeSanto graduated from DePaul University in Chicago.  He teaches bass at Chicago State University. DeSanto studied bass privately with the great Ray Brown, with Rufus Reid and Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, as well as studying classical bass with members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  Drummer, Rick Vitek, is an in-demand studio session player who moved to Chicago from Cleveland, Ohio in 1981. He’s worked with familiar names like Richie Cole, the great jazz vocalist, Kurt Elling, the iconic Joe Lovano and Reggie Thomas, just to name a few. Together, these talented musicians have formed Event Horizon Jazz Quartet and are a working unit on the Chicago jazz scene.  Mertens and Kaczmarek are both skilled composers.  I enjoyed all the well-crafted, original music on this album. 

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YUKO MABUCHI “PLAYS MILES DAVIS” – Yarlung Records

Yuko Mabuchi, piano; JJ Kirkpatrick, trumpet; Del Atkins, bass; Bobby Breton, drums; Bob Attiyeh, Producer.

One of the things that always impresses me about Yuko Mabuchi is her ability to transform familiar songs into shiny, new, gem-like pieces.  For example, on her presentation of “All Blues,” (arranged on her tribute to Miles Davis album), she turns the waltz-time upside down by playing the piece in 5/4 and 4/4 time.  It works!  She follows this pleasant surprise with a poignant and heart-felt analysis of “Blue in Green.”  You may remember that Bill Evans and Miles Davis composed this one and it’s a star on the ‘Kind of Blue’ album. This is such an emotionally heavy song and pianist, Yuko Mabuchi, along with JJ Kirkpatrick on trumpet, squeeze out every ounce of beauty.  I had to play this one twice.  I also enjoyed Yuko’s intricate introductory phrasing at the top of the “Milestones” composition.  The band gallops in and sets off at a brisk, exciting tempo.  She and her trio swing hard.  Miles Davis’ music will always remind me of the modern jazz excitement that permeated the 1950s and 60s jazz scene.  Yuko has spiced up this delicious pot of Miles Davis stew with three of her original compositions.  One is, “Ikumi’s Lullaby” written for her niece.  Another is “Sky With No Tears,” that is her musical plea to humanity, imploring people to stop spewing so much pollution into the air.  Sitting down at the piano, she stirs the pot briskly while offering her unique take on the standard jazz tune, “So What.”  The way she introduces this song is very creative and engaging.  It refreshes the iconic composition in a delightfully special way.  Bobby Breton is given space to showcase his drum power during this arrangement.  Yuko always incorporates her classical training and it shimmers and dances around on the black and white keys during her expressive, improvisational solo.  Here is another one of my favorites on Mabuchi’s album, that was recorded ‘live’ in the Brain and Creativity Institute’s Cammilleri Hall on April 25, 2018.

Track six reminds us of the song Miles Davis wrote for Cannonball Adderley’s album, ‘Portrait of Cannonball’ and titled “Nardis.”  It was 1958 when this song was first introduced to the public, during the Miles Davis modal period.  Bill Evans also recorded it multiple times. Yuko plays in the upper register on this arrangement, bringing out the music-box-tenderness of the piano’s soprano range.  Then, she suddenly dips into the mid-register and the bass register.  Her small, but powerful hands make the bass ring resonantly from the grand piano.  Mabuchi’s strength and attack always surprises me, because she’s such a petite, delicate lady.  But don’t let that fool you.  Yuko Mabuchi is a beast on the piano keys. 

Del Atkins takes a well-deserved bass solo during their dramatic arrangement of “Nardis” that smoothly blurs into the blues.  As Yuko turns this song down blues alley, she re-imagines it with a Gene-Harris-like groove.  “Nardis” immediately becomes an additional favorite of mine on this album. 

Finally, to close their concert, Yuko has written, “Missing Miles.”  I too miss the legendary music and genius of Miles Davis.  I think he must certainly be smiling down on these unique arrangements and interpretation of his music by Yuko Mabuchi, JJ Kirkpatrick, Del Atkins and Bobby Breton.  Together, they have modernized some unforgettable, classic music, while paying tribute to one of our historic geniuses of jazz.  The ‘live’ audience also approves, snapping fingers and clapping spontaneously on the fade of their final song.  In conclusion, the approving audience gives their stamp of approval with a hearty ovation.

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MIKE FAHIE JAZZ ORCHESTRA –“URBAN(E)” – Greenleaf Music, Inc

Mike Fahie, trombone/euphonium/arranger/orchestrator; Jeff Davis, drums; Randy Ingram, piano; Pedro Giraudo, bass; Jeff Miles, guitar; WOODWINDS: Aaron Irwin, Anton Denner, Cher Doxas, Quinsin Nachoff & Carl Maraghi; TRUMPETS: Brian Pareschi, David Smith, Sam Hoyt & Brad Mason; TROMBONES: Matthew McDonald, Nick Grinder, Daniel Linden & Jennifer Wharton.

Mike Fahie created his jazz orchestra with the premise of marrying both jazz and classical idioms.  All of the music you will enjoy herein are songs by the great classical music composers.  The Fahie Jazz orchestra opens with “Prelude, Op. 28 no. 20” by Chopin.  The lovely way he transposes this composition to a jazz production is absolutely the epitome of what this column is all about.  On their opening track, pianist Randy Ingram sparkles and shines with a bright, attention-getting solo.  The orchestra invites Jeff Davis on drums to solo and he does a splendid job, with flying drum sticks and impressive rhythms.  Also featured is Carl Maraghi on baritone saxophone, whose beautiful tone is definitely noteworthy.  Mike Fahie explained why he chose to arrange and perform this piece in his liner notes.

“This beautiful, 12-bar prelude was one of the first pieces I wanted to arrange.  It’s known as the Chordal Prelude because it’s mostly simply quarter note chords.  I knew that a piece based on chords would be ripe for jazz interpretation.  I began by orchestrating the prelude itself, then doubled the tempo twice and wrote a whole new melody based on the chords.  For a little flavor, I added a Brian Blade-inspired vamp at the end and hid the melody inside of it,” Fahie shared.

If you are a classical buff, you will enjoy compositions by Puccini, Stravinsky, Debussy, Bartok, Bach and Tchaikovsky.  Mike Fahie has generously gathered master pieces from all these genius, classical composers and arranged their compositions in very jazzy ways.  They are all quite involved and each is over seven-minutes long, but they are so well-played and beautifully produced that they didn’t seem long at all.  Each piece tantalized my undivided attention and drew me into the unique Fahie-arrangements; the way a master painter captures your eye at the foot of his painting.  You stand there, mesmerized by the art and in awe of the beauty.  I felt that way, listening to this album of fine music, partially because of the Mike Fahie genius arrangements and partly because of the awesome musicians he used.  For example, the way Quinsin Nachoff plays tenor saxophone on “Excerpts from The Firebird” by Igor Stravinsky transcends the classical constrictions and allows Nachoff to fly into space with his rich, jazz, tenor sax solo.  Mike Fahie described his arrangement this way:

“The Firebird is, of course, a ballet with its own story, … but I decided to do something different and write my own narrative.  The original Firebird is a protective spirit of the forest, but mine is more of a dragon! … The hunger of a thousand years sets in and she goes to hunt.  The melody changes modes and is taken over by the hungry saxophone of Quinsin Nachoff.”

Certainly, these gifted musicians and soloists keep this music interesting.  They show us why jazz is America’s classical art form.  When Jennifer Wharton enters with her tuba on the Stravinsky tune, she brings more surprise and color to paint the arrangement even more vividly.  This is a project that musically documents the awesome, fluid beauty that jazz contributions have made worldwide. In this case, transforming European classical music, (one of the roots of jazz) with improvisation, shows the strength of jazz and the benefit of freedom in musical expression.

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A VARIETY OF DISTINCTIVE VOCALS ON DISC

August 10, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil

AUG 10, 2020

From the Grammy Award winning vocals of extraordinary Cuban artist AYMÉE NUVIOLA  with the amazing piano virtuosity of GONZALO RUBALCABA to the historically smooth voice of PAULETTE McWILLIAMS, who has worked with iconic artists like Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Quincy Jones and Aretha Franklin, my August tenth column explores a wide variety of vocal jazz, blues and cabaret artists.  JOHN MINNOCK with special guest DAVE LIEBMAN presents an album of original jazz compositions, along with a twist of cabaret music that celebrates the LGBTQ communities.  AL GOLD has produced an album of his original blues music and SISSY CASTROGIOVANNI sings songs in her Sicilian dialect. SUSIE MEISSNER uses some Philadelphia jazz greats to celebrate music from the Great American Song Book and SUSAN TOBOCMAN is a composer, lyricist and vocalist.   Read all about it.   

GONZALO RUBALCABA & AYMÉE NUVIOLA – “VIENTO Y TIEMPO” – A TRIBUTE TO THEIR MOTHERS & THE MUSICAL CITY OF HAVANA – Liueat Blue Note Tokyo – Top Stop Music

Aymée Nuviola, lead vocal; Gonzalo Rubalcaba, piano/synthesizers/percussion; Christobal “El Profe” Verdecia, bass; Reiner Guerra, drums; Neiger “Majito” Aguilera, percussion; Kazuhiko Kondo & Yainer Horta, Soprano & Alto saxophones; Lourdes Nuviola, background & lead vocals; Alfredo Lugo, background vocals.

Aymée Nuviola has a voice like lightening; bright, powerful and fiery.  It strikes across the silence with a bolt of excitement.  It’s as big as her vivid, orange Afro hairstyle that frames her beautiful face like a sunrise.  Pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Aymée Nuviola are both award-winning artists, who have cradled a longtime dream of collaboration.  This project is the fulfilling of that dream. It sounds like a party!  As childhood friends, their paths have moved unilaterally, but on the same musical highway.  Each artist seemed to be racing, in parallel fast lanes, towards honor, success and distinction. 

As a bandleader, Gonzalo Rubalcaba has released nearly three dozen albums, many on the Blue Note label.  His music has won him four Grammy Awards.  In 2002, his album “Nocturne” won Best Latin Jazz Album and his album “Supernova” also won in the Latin Grammy Award category.  In 2005, he won for producer of “Land of the Sun” another Best Latin jazz Album Grammy and in 2006 he won the Latin Grammy Award for his album “Solo.”

In 1985, when Dizzy Gillespie first heard Gonzalo play the piano he exclaimed, “He’s the greatest pianist I’ve heard in the last ten years.” 

Charlie Haden thought Gonzalo was the master of musical structures; a man with a smart heart.  Many have praised Gonzalo Rubalcaba as one of the greatest Afro-Cuban jazz pianists on the planet. 

Born January 8, 1973, Aymée Nuviola is a well-respected Cuban singer, pianist, composer and actress.  She is celebrated for playing Celia Cruz in the Colombian telenovela “Celia.”  She recently won a Grammy for “Best Tropical Latin Album” with her project titled “With A Journey Through Cuban Music.”  This is not her first Grammy Award.  She has collaborated on multiple other Grammy winning albums.  Born and raised in a very musical family, she began to sing professionally at age nine.  Her music is said to be a fusion between jazz, Timba, Son, Guaguanco, Charanga and Guaracha, creatively held together using electronic wire-power.  She is admired for his philanthropy, helping to provide more than 3-tons of food for victims of Hurricane Maria that devastated Puerto Rico and she has supported the “League Against Cancer” for a dozen years in the city of Miami.  Aymée also belongs to the organization “Walk Now for Autism Speaks.”  She has released five albums under her own name, several single records and has recorded over twenty collaborative albums.

This album of excellence was recorded at a sold-out, six-night performance at the prestigious Blue Note Tokyo jazz club in 2019.  The songs are driven by percussive energy and Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s tenacious joy at the piano, along with Aymee’s vocal power.  The harmonic addition of background vocals by Alfredo Lugo and Lourdes Nuviola enhances their production.  On track 3, the familiar song, “El Manisero,” features both Gonzalo and Aymée opening the song to showcase each artist’s magnificent strength.  Accompanied by percussion, the piano is dominant and profoundly creative.  His two hands sound like four racing across the keys.  His technique is awesome.  After his piano solo, Aymée Nuviola adds her scat singing improvisation amidst the background vocal chants.  Yainer Horta’s saxophone dances atop the groove.  Here is a project full of the excitement that ‘live’ music inspires and the brilliance of two great artists, who spark the fire and passion that burns inside their band members.

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PAULETTE McWILLIAMS – “A WOMAN’S STORY” – Blu Jazz

Paulette McWilliams, voice; Hugo Suarez, piano; Trevor Ware, upright bass; Terreon Gully, drums; David Castaneda, percussion; Gregoire Maret, harmonica; Curtis Taylor, trumpet; Alex Budman, alto saxophone; Keith Fiddmont, tenor saxophone; Charean Carmon, Kenya C. Hathaway, Daneen Wilburn & Lynn Davis, background vocals.

Paulette McWilliams has put her magical twist on tunes we know and love, making them uniquely her own with the fresh arrangements of Kamau Kenyatta.  She opens this album with a jazzy rendition of Marvin Gaye’s composition, “Just to Keep You Satisfied” driven by percussive amplification and horn arrangements that embellish the track and sweeten McWilliam’s smooth vocals. Track two, “If You Give Them” is a beautiful song with a challenging melody.  Her voice caresses the notes, sliding over the intervals sweetly and clearly enunciating the lyrics.  McWilliams offers the words like pearls of wisdom.

“But even in the depths, find the things that make you live,” she sings.

It was a pleasant surprise to hear her ‘cover’ the Janis Ian song, “At Seventeen” with an emotional solo by Gregmoire Maret on harmonica.  I thought this arrangement took many liberties with both the melody and the chord changes, but the beauty of the song still shines honest and true.  McWilliams has a range that moves from contralto to soprano with surprising ease and confidence. 

Then comes her take on the Luther Vandross hit record, “So Amazing.” It’s beautifully interpreted and she puts her own spin on it. When the lady sings, “Do it In the Name of Love,” Paulette McWilliams steps strongly into a jazz stride.  Trumpeter, Curtis Taylor, slides flamboyantly into the spotlight and drummer Terreon Gully tenaciously pushes the ensemble to higher heights.

Ms. McWilliams has a magnificent voice and she clearly shows that she can sing anything by her eclectic selection of repertoire.  I would have enjoyed hearing her sing some contemporary and/or fusion-funk jazz and perhaps at least one straight-ahead, up-tempo song.   “Life is the Fountain” is a great song with a tempo that once again lilts along at a moderate pace.  I found, on the whole, although the production is lacking the excitement and vigor that this vocalist stimulates, she remains so powerful and strong in her own talent that you’re captivated by her emotional delivery.  Ms. Williams closes with the Joni Mitchell standard, “Both Sides Now,” as a duet with pianist, Hugo Suarez.  I wish it has been with Herbie Hancock or Billy Childs. 

Ms. McWilliams has worked with some of the icons in the music business, including Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross, Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Aretha Franklin, Johnny Mathis, Celine Dion and Quincy Jones.  Her voice has tantalized us on familiar name-brand commercials like Folgers coffee, McDonalds, Diet Pepsi (with Britney Spears), for Cadillac and American Express, among others.  Paulette McWilliams was the original lead singer with “Ask Rufus” and introduced the group to Chaka Khan when she decided to explore more solo opportunities.  Paulette McWilliams’ voice, like her credentials, are both historic and a shining testament to “A Woman’s Story,” featuring undeniable talent and tenacity. 

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JOHN MINNOCK – “HERRING COVE” – Dot Time Records

John Minnock, vocals; Dave Liebman, saxophone/wood flute/executive producer; Enrique Haneine, piano/Fender Rhodes/musical director; Carlos Mena, bass; Pablo Eluchans, drums; Deborah Lippmann, vocals.

The Cher hit record, “If I Could Turn Back Time,” (penned by award winning songwriter Diane Warren) is reimagined by John Minnock.   As many times as I’ve heard this song, I never listened to the lyrics so intently.  It sounds nothing like the original Cher production, but it is still intriguing and well-arranged in a very jazzy way.  John Minnock’s voice is compelling.  Dave Liebman is magnificently present on his saxophone.  Minnock shows he is unafraid to leap into the world of scatting and to turn his voice into a more diversified instrument.  He’s also unafraid to use his vocal platform as an activist for the LGBTQ community.  He has penned six original compositions that illustrate, like a musical diary, various paths in the LGBTQ community.  This is particularly poignant on his song “Unconditional.”

In the liner notes he explained:

“My hope is to musically express myself with honesty and integrity; something I feel can be done best in a jazz setting.  I hope that this new project offers listeners a greater understanding of the LGBTQ community, and most importantly, that they like what they hear.”

On the bluesy song “It Goes Like It Goes” he shows off his sweet tenor range on the unexpected melodic intervals and the lyrics are once again thought-provoking and rich with double entendre.  This tune was plucked from the Academy Award winning song used in the movie, ‘Norma Rae.’  He sings:

“Ain’t no miracle being born.  People do it every day. Ain’t no miracle growing up.  People just grow that way.  So, it goes like it goes, like the river flows and time rolls right on.”

John Minnock explains why he chose this song in the liner notes. 

“…I’m a David Shire super-fan and have always loved this song. The beautiful lyrics are by one of the best in the business, Norman Gimbel, who penned ‘Bluesette’ and all the English lyrics to Antonio Carlos Jobim songs … and the iconic, ‘Killing Me Softly with His Song’ also,” Minnock proclaims.

Minnock’s vocals move from jazz to cabaret in the wink of an eye.  He is expressive, honest and emotional, whatever the genre.  His original compositions are well-written and he gives himself and his musical ensemble permission to wring the last drops of sincerity from his lyrics.   You hear this on his tune, “A Melody.”  It opens with a beautiful bass introduction by Carlos Mena, using his bow in a tender, sensitive way.  Minnock’s voice leaps and dances between baritone and tenor, as he attempts to perorate his feelings.  I had to play this song twice to soak up both the beauty of the melody and the lyrical meaning.  I felt like Minnock might be a big fan of Stevie Wonder’s composer skills, as I listened to this particular original song.  He talks about his time and effort in creating this composition.

“This was like playing chess-by-mail; make a move, review the board for a long time, move again,” John Minnock.

The musicians he uses on this project are all outstanding.  John invites his friend and vocalist, Deborah Lippmann, to duet with him on one song.  I was particularly impressed with the colorful way drummer, Pablo Eluchans adds creative fills and crescendo energy to enhance each song production.  Pianist, Enrique Haineine, plays brilliantly throughout and NEA Award winning reedman and executive producer of this CD, Dave Liebman, puts the polish on the project. 

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SUSAN  TOBOCMAN – “TOUCH & GO” – Soliterra Records

Susan Tobocman, vocals/composer/lyricist/arranger; Joel Frahm, tenor & soprano saxophone; Dave Eggar, cello; Pete McCann acoustic & electric guitar/producer; Henry hey, piano/Fender Rhodes; Matt Pavolka, acoustic & electric bass; Michael Sarin, drums.

Vocalist, Susan Tobocman, is also a composer and lyricist.  She has penned five songs of the twelve recorded on this, her fourth album. Two of the five are all instrumental.  Her production on “What’ll I Do?” is fresh and jazzy.  It opens the album in a pleasing way, re-dressing an old standard with a brightly-colored arrangement.  The Jimmy Webb pop tune, “Wichita Lineman” is a surprise, featuring a cello solo.  This song production sounds like a cross between a Country/Western arrangement and a classical concert.  The song, itself, seems strangely out of place; mainly because it’s not arranged with a jazz sensibility.  It has such a great melody and could have easily become a ‘slow walk’ jazz arrangement.  But track 3 redeems the vocalist, when she steps up to the mic and swings hard and strong on “The Man I Love”.  She sings with gusto and at a very bright, fast-moving tempo, with only a walking bass accompaniment.   The band joins in at the end of the 2nd verse.  Ms. Tobocman used her energy to set it up for Joel Frahm on tenor saxophone to fly straight-ahead and furiously over her tight rhythm section.  Henry Hey performs a stand-out piano solo and this song arrangement is all jazz, start to finish. 

Susan Tobocman has composed “Make Believe” and it moves along at a slow swing.  It’s a well-written composition and the kind of tune I would have loved to have heard arranged in a more Brazilian way.   “Touch and Go”, the title tune, is another Tobocman original composition with a strong melody and performed totally as an instrumental.  Her composer skills are evident.  This song gives her excellent musicians an opportunity to stretch out and show their individual talents.  

Susan Tobocman’s voice is sweet and pensive on “Where Is Love?”   She makes you listen to her well-articulated words and thirstily drink up her stories.   She makes me feel as though she’s lived these stories in person and to the fullest.  Guitarist, Pete McCann, is a sensitive and notable accompanist during this arrangement.   He also acts as co-producer on her project.  From a critic’s view, the fact that this artist mixes genres on both Wichita Lineman and her second take on the Beatles “Help!” (which is very much rock and roll) confuses me.  The first version of “Help” she recorded as a waltz and it’s very jazzily performed.  I don’t know why the other arrangement was added to this album, especially since she’s promoting her recording as a jazz CD.  Other than that, well done.

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AL GOLD – “AL GOLD’S PARADISE” – Independent label

Al Gold, vocals/electric & slide guitar/mandolin/composer; Jerry Cordasco, drums/percussion; Mitch Eisenberg, electric/acoustic & baritone guitar; Jared Gold, organ; Eric Heilner, piano/organ; Terry Hemmer, bass guitar; Vd King, bass guitar/guitar; Cassidy Rain, Vocal/acoustic guitar; Baron Raymonde, saxophone; Tom Rice, electric guitar; Johnny Sansone, harmonica; Dave Stryker, guitar; Anthony Tamburro, acoustic guitar.

If ‘blues’ is your thing, this is a very southern-sounding, down-home blues recording.  It’s a surprise when you realize these musicians are based in New Jersey and not Mississippi or Tennessee.  Al Gold has adopted the sound and certain southern inflections in his vocal presentation.  He has a Memphis Slim-kind-of-soulfulness. 

Utilizing his Suburban Rhythm Kings ensemble, a group who has played with him for many years, Al Gold built his recording session band from that familiar rhythm section, adding other stellar, local blues players on a song-by-song call.  There are plenty of shuffle blues productions thrown in for good measure, but mostly solid, Southern-styled blues.  Johnny Sansone’s harmonica work is noteworthy on “Boogie in the Dark,” featuring Cassidy Rain on background vocals.  There are also traces of boogie-woogie blues and 1950s, Chuck Berry-type tunes like “Got A Mind.”  For good measure, Al Gold has also composed some well-written blues ballads like “Won’t Sleep Tonight.”

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SISSY CASTROGIOVANNI – “TERRA” – Manu Records

Sissy Castrogiovanni, voice; Tim Ray, piano; Jesse Williams, upright & elec. bass; Lihi Harum, soprano saxophone; Jamey Haddad, percussion; Jorge Perez-Albela, drums/cajon/djembe. SPECIAL GUESTS: Puccio Castrogiovanni, marranzano/pipes/voice; Claudio Ragazzi, guitar; Fabio Pirozzolo, frame drums; Marcus Santos, percussion. STRINGS: Layth Al-Rubaye, violin; Shaw Pong Liu, violin; Eve Boltax, viola; Catherine Bent & Eugene Friesen, cello. BACKGROUND SINGERS: Paola Munda, Anna Signorini, Agney Mulay, Carlotta Amato, Micaela Cattani, Manfredi Caputo, Claire McFarland & Eleonora Rancati.

Sung in her Sicilian dialect, Sissy Castrogiovanni has written seven of the ten compositions on this album to celebrate our planet Earth.  Her voice is crystal clear and pleasing as it floats above contemporary jazz harmonies and African and Mediterranean rhythms.  I cannot understand her words, but her emotional delivery is precise and lovely.  On track 2, ‘A Panza, her bassist, Jesse Williams, shows strength and purpose during a brief solo.  He also steps up later on the CD to accompany her solo on track 9, “Stranizza D’Amuri.”  Back to track 2, Jorge Perez-Albela pushes the rhythm with his drums and the addition of melodious, harmonic, background voices cushion the production.  “Magia” is very African-influenced, with the background voices chanting at the song’s introduction.   Although there are glimpses of contemporary jazz in this production, for the most part this is World Music that lyrically is celebrating the process and creation of life.  I know that because the English translation of these songs is printed inside the CD jacket.  Claudio Ragazzi makes a tenacious guitar statement on “Magia” and at the fade, there is a call and response kind of production interacting with Castrogiovanni’s lead vocals.

Sissy Castrogiovanni explains:

“It has been happening on the Earth every single second for billions of years.  Terra, Mother Earth, knows what and how to do things much better than us.  We have lots to learn from her.  This album is about the Earth’s astonishing power, which also lives with us.  Terra is about trusting this power, the magic of life, and the Earth’s millennial wisdom.”

Sissy Castrogiovanni is a strong singer/songwriter.   All of her lyrics are telling stories of love and life; mostly positive and uplifting.  Many implore us to love and respect the planet, the air, the water and especially the earth.  This message works and is meaningful in any language.

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SUSIE MEISSNER – “I WISH I KNEW”  – Lydian Jazz Records

Susie Meissner, vocals; John Shaddy, piano/arranger; Lee Smith, bass; Byron Landham, drums; Paul Meyers, guitars; Larry McKenna, tenor saxophone; Ken Peplowski, clarinet; John Swana, trumpet/EVI/flugelhorn.

This is the fourth album release for Susie Meissner and mirrors her love of the all-American songbook.  She opens with one of my favorite swing tunes, “The Great City” as a tribute to her beloved Philadelphia, the current place she’s chosen as home base for ten-plus years.   Susie Meissner features a group of outstanding Philadelphia-based musicians including drummer Byron Landham, Lee Smith on bass and Larry McKenna on saxophone.  John Shaddy on piano is from outside of Philly, and is a willing and sensitive accompanist who has worked with Meissner in the past.  Philly’s own John Swana brings his trumpet, EVI and flugelhorn to the production with energy and tastefulness.  His solo on “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” is beautiful and heartfelt. 

Originally from New Jersey and the Buffalo, New York areas, Meissner felt this opening song’s lyric could be talking about any great big city with its pitfalls, challenges and allure.  It’s a great way for Susie Meissner to open her production and her band swings hard!  Meissner has included a dozen familiar standard songs, giving her excellent musicians an opportunity to shine in the turntable spotlight.  You will hear Susie’s take on the title tune, “I Wish I Knew” and other ballads like “Alfie” and “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.” 

Featuring the familiar drum line that made Ahmad Jamal’s composition “Poinciana” so popular, Byron Landham introduces this tune and Meissner’s smooth, second-soprano voice caresses the lyrics.  Paul Meyers’ bright guitar dances on the scene with a happy solo.  On “In A Mellow Tone,” Ken Peplowski’s clarinet bring authenticity to a time and place when Duke Ellington’s big band played in dance halls across the country.  This is a well-produced and excellently arranged production by a band of jazz masters who are backing up a seasoned cabaret singer.

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MUSIC THAT MOVES ME

August 1, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil

Aug 1, 2020

JIMMY HEATH – “LOVE LETTER” – Verve Records

Jimmy Heath, soprano & tenor saxophones/arranger; Kenny Barron, piano; Russell Malone, guitar; Monte Croft, vibraphone; David Wong, bass; Lewis Nash, drums; SPECIAL GUESTS: Wynton Marsalis, trumpet; Cécile McLorin Salvant & Gregory Porter, vocals.

You might say, Jimmy Heath went out swinging, in a slow, melancholy way.  This final release showcases Heath’s ability to merge his historic and unrelenting talent and tone, with a younger generation of musicians who bring interest and commerciality to his music.  Opening with the lovely and melodic, “Ballad from Upper Neighbors Suite,” this is Heath’s first ‘all-ballads’ production.  It’s as though he was writing a love letter to all his fans, family and friends before he got out of here.  Jimmy Heath’s tone and power on his tenor saxophone is as precise and stunning as it was thirty years ago.  Hard to believe that he was playing with this much strength and character at ninety-three years old.  On Track two, “Left Alone” he features the celebrated vocals of Cecile McLorin Salvant and the esteemed guitarist, Russell Malone.   Cecile’s crystal-clear voice is tender and heart-rendering on this Billie Holiday composition.  It’s a composition Ms. Holiday never got to record herself, but I think she’d be pleased with Salvant’s interpretation.   Enter Jimmy Heath on his horn, after Cecile’s beautiful performance.  He plays with so much soul and finesse that I just want to rewind his solo over and over again.

During His illustrious career, Jimmy Heath has worked with some of the most iconic jazz musicians in the entire world.  He’s performed on more than one-hundred albums and he’s written more than one-hundred-twenty-five compositions.  Some of those original songs have become jazz standards and have been recorded by renowned artists like Cannonball Adderley, Chet Baker, Miles Davis, James Moody, Milt Jackson, Ahmad Jamal, Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, J.J. Johnson and Dexter Gordon.

Wynton Marsalis comes on board to blend horns seamlessly with Jimmy Heath on “La Mesha.”  What a gorgeous song and arrangement!  This is a Kenny Dorham composition.  When Kenny Barron takes his piano solo, I marvel at the jazz master’s impeccable touch.  Gregory Porter sings the familiar standard “Don’t Misunderstand” with the astute and beautiful accompaniment of Mr. Barron on piano.  The trio is warm and supportive of the baritone’s rich vocals.  Enter Jimmy Heath, improvising with a brand, new melody and honey warm sweetness on his horn.  For me, this is a tear-jerk moment.  Sometimes music can touch you like that.

On Gillespie’s popular “Con Alma,” the arrangement is spruced up by the soulful vibraphone work of Monte Croft during a sexy, Latin arrangement of this familiar song.  Heath opens the tune, then fluidly melts into a bluesy jazz walk, propelled by David Wong’s bass and Lewis Nash tapping the rhythm out in profoundly perfect ways.  Jimmy Heath has written and executed this arrangement.  It’s both fresh, sultry and stunning.

There is not a bad tune on this entire album of spectacular music.  I could play it all day.  “Fashion or Passion” features Croft on vibraphone again and Heath’s warm saxophone blowing beauty into the air.  Although this original composition by Jimmy Heath is a ballad, it still swings.  The song comes from a 2004 Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra commission.   His album closes with Billie Holiday’s, “Don’t Explain” a treasure of a tune.   Jimmy Heath takes full responsibility for interpreting the heart-wrenching lyrics, letting his saxophone sing the song’s meaning without words.  I hear you, Jimmy Heath.  I hear you!

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ALISTER SPENCE – “WHIRLPOOL”  – Independent Label

Alister Spence, solo piano.

Alister Spence has made a powerful impact on the world of improvised music.  His reputation as a pre-eminent, creative force in jazz and avant-garde music began in his native Australia.  Twenty-five years later, he’s celebrated worldwide, lauded as being a contemporary music composer and performer who adds his brilliance to film scores, theater and various group recordings.  Spence holds a Doctor of Philosophy degree from University of NSW, where he is the Lecturer in Music.

On this CD release, Alister Spence wraps you in the “Whirlpool” of his solo production.  I find myself being totally intrigued and sucked into the extreme creativity of his spontaneous compositions.  These compositions are full of surprise and piano genius.  This Australian jazz pianist and composer creates an engaging and deeply emotional album that draws the listener into the depths of his presentation.  You become hypnotized by his music.  This double-disc album of solo piano is both splendid and irresistible, showcasing Allister’s unmistakable piano technique and classical training, as well as his flair for the dramatic. Spence explained his project this way:

“In the session, I tried to create surprises for myself, starting somewhere without a clear idea of what that would sound like and, as a result, creating puzzles or mazes which I try to follow or not to follow.”

While listening, I found myself following his musical notes, like bread crumbs in a Hansel and Gretel story.  I was intoxicated by his imaginative offering and as he piqued my curiosity, I went scurrying after his notes and nuances.  Alister Spence plays every part of the piano, both inside and out; plucking at the inner strings or dancing in the treble register like a finger ballerina.  When he attacks the lower register, his hands are powerful and demanding.  His compositions can be both hauntingly beautiful and suddenly dark and sinister, like storm clouds on the horizon.  One moment he’s a music box and the next, his fingers crash against the ivory and ebony like a restless ocean tide.  His left and right hands give us a lesson in contrary motion and his nimble fingers move swiftly, sometimes as fast as humming bird wings. I also felt as if the two hands were somehow speaking to each other in a foreign-language conversation I was eavesdropping on.  Here is an example of skill, creativity, freedom and years of practice, joy and pain, unleashed by the mastery of eighty-eight keys and the human spirit.

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BENNY RUBIN JR. QUARTET – “KNOW SAY OR SEE” – Independent Label

Benny Rubin Jr., tenor & Alto saxophones; Lex Korten, piano; Adam Olszewski, bass; JK Kim, drums.

Here is a saxophone player whose blues touches my soul.  I’m hooked from his very first track titled, “Know.”   At this point, the trio featured is just bass, saxophone and drums.  What a way to capture the listener’s attention.  Benny Rubin Jr. sure can play the blues! Track two opens with pianist, Lex Korten appearing on the scene and giving us a solid, very classically oriented introduction on the 88-keys. When Benny Rubin Jr. enters on his horn, he whips us into his own personal outer space with a flurry of freedom notes.  This composition is titled “Say” and is another one of six original compositions that Benny Rubin Jr. has written for this project; and this song is quite avant-garde.   The beautiful Jimmy Van-Huessen ballad, “Darn That Dream” follows and settles us down.  Rubin’s tone on his instrument is now warm and inviting. 

I enjoy the diversity in Rubin’s repertoire and his delivery.  The quartet’s arrangement on the Horace Silver tune, “Kiss Me Right” is stellar.  “Down They Go” is another original composition by Benny Rubin Jr., that features Adam Olszewski opening the song on double bass.  As the arrangement develops and the other instruments join in, I am whisked back to the time of John Coltrane.  Benny Rubin Jr., let’s his talent fly in a hurricane of powerfully played notes coupled with an emotional delivery.  Lex Korten builds the intensity on piano and adds his own exciting take on the tune.  The final original composition lets JK Kim cut loose on his trap drums.  The drums are front and center on this Rubin composition.  Here is an album full of sweet surprise and straight-ahead jazz excitement.  It offers enough multiplicity to show Benny Rubin Jr.’s competence on both his horns, as well as his excellence as a composer and it certainly showcases the brilliance of his players. 

When I read the liner notes, I discovered Benny Rubin Jr., was born in Flint, Michigan and raised in my hometown of Detroit.  He worked with many old friends of mine like Wendell Harrison and graduated from the Detroit School of Arts.  In 2016 he performed in the worldwide, acclaimed Detroit Jazz Festival with the Detroit Jazz Festival youth All-stars.  This is his second album release.  The first was titled, “What’s Next.”   

The title of this latest album “Know Say or See means the things that people don’t want you to know, say or see,” Benny Rubin Jr. explained.  Well, one thing I ‘know’ is that this album is very well produced.  I ‘say’ it in this review (just like I mean it) and I ‘see’ great things on the horizon for Benny Rubin Jr.  I enjoyed playing his album a second and a third time on my CD player, and I liked it better with each revolution.

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BRECKER BROTHERS – “LIVE AND UNRELEASED” – Piloo Records

Randy Brecker, trumpet/vocals; Michael Brecker, tenor saxophone; Mark Gray, keyboards; Barry Finnerty, guitar; Neil Jason, bass/vocals; Richie Morales, drums.

Flash-Back!  On July 2, 1980, there was a buzz of excitement inside the legendary Onkel P’s Carnegie Hall in Hamburg, Germany.  A contemporary jazz-funk band, The Brecker Brothers, was appearing and it was during the peak of the band’s popularity. The place was packed!  This album was recorded during that concert appearance and it reflects the energy, the exciting arrangements and spectacular talents of these legendary musicians.  If you’re someone who loves funk and fusion jazz, this album definitely ought to be in your collection.

The Brecker Brothers march onto the scene, opening with the tune, Strap Hangin,’ on Disc One of this double disc set.  Neil Jason sets the tone on electric bass, with Richie Morales adding his power-packed drums to propel this song into high gear.  On Disc two, the blues pops up on a tune by Randy Brecker titled, “Inside Out” that becomes a perfect musical trampoline for Mark Gray to jump up and down on his synthesizers, embellishing his very creative and captivating abilities during a sparkling solo.  And you can’t miss the powerful bass licks by Neil Jason throughout, often throwing in some 1950 and ‘60 R&B bass lines from hit records back-in-the-day.  Enter Finnerty, on guitar, with fingers flying atop the serious shuffle laid down by Morales on trap drums.

Randy Brecker spoke about this project in the liner notes.

“This, the ‘Great tour of 1980’ featured this iteration of the second great Brecker Brothers Band.  In July of 1980, we hit the road for five-weeks in Europe resulting in this fine recording, “Live and Unreleased;” … including guitarist Barry Finnerty, who had played on Heavy metal Bebop and who was also taking a break from The Crusaders and their ‘Street-life’ tour.  The keyboard chair was held by the late, great mark Gray who was totally obsessed with the latest technology and was a first call guy in NYC. …Our bassist, Neil Jason, who had co-written and sung on one of our hits ‘East River’ was also a first call guy. … On drums is the great Richie Morales, who I first met during my tenure producing a band called ‘Sky King’ for Columbia Records.  He spent several years with us, then went on to Spyro Gyra, Mike Stern and many more. … So, enjoy this long, lost, live concert which brings back to life a lot of pleasant memories of great music, late nights on ‘the hang’ and many a story a little too risqué to repeat here.”

You will enjoy the innovation on the Mini-Moog and on the Prophet-5, fully polyphonic, analog synthesizer played by the late Mark Gray.  Barry Finnerty is tenacious and unrelenting on his instrument, burning fire across the stage with his scorching guitar chops.  But it’s Michael Brecker that stuns with his power, tone and excitement on tenor saxophone and his brother, Randy Brecker, unapologetically adds his trumpet talents to the mix just to remind us why the band is called, the Brecker Brothers.  Not to mention, the two brothers have composed every tune on this funky double set except one.

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SWINGADELIC – “BLUESVILLE” – Zoho Records

John Bauers & Mitch Woods, piano/vocals; Kyle Koehler, organ; Andy Riedel, guitar/vocals; Boo Reiners & Joe Taino, guitar; Dave Post, bass; Colby Inzer, drums; Vanessa Perea, vocals; Ken Robinson, Alto saxophone/clarinet/flute; Audrey Welber, alto saxophone; Mike Weisberger & Bill Easley, tenor saxophone; John DiSanto, baritone, saxophone/piccolo 8; Bryan Davis, John Martin & Carlos Francis, trumpet; Robert Edwards, Neal Pawley, & Alex Jeun, trombone.

One of the featured vocalists with this swinging big band is John Bauers, who also plays piano. The ‘Swingadelic’ ensemble opens up with the Dakota Staton’s hit record and also one of the Count Basie Orchestra’s popular tunes, “Late Late Show.”   John Bauers knows how to ‘swing’ and his voice dances along with this shuffle arrangement.  The big-band horn section punches as he smoothly sings “Gee, it’s cozy in the park tonight. When you cuddle up and hold me tight.  Stars above they seem to know, we’re putting on the Late Late Show.”  It’s a great way to start this album.

On Track two, vocalist Neal Pawley takes the mic and is deeply reminiscent of Mose Allison when he sings, the Muddy Waters composition, “I Love the Life I Live.”  The drums shuffle like a well-oiled motor -machine and Colby Inzer drives this band forward with spirit and energy on drums. 

‘Swingadelic’ is an ensemble perfect for a swing-dance party.  Vanessa Perea’s rendition of the Mary Lou Williams tune, “What’s Your Story, Morning Glory” reminds me of how Sonny Burke and Paul Francis Webster plagiarized this 1938 hit by Mary Lou Williams and wrote “Black Coffee” using the identical two verses that Mary Lou composed in “What’s Your Story Morning Glory.”  There was talk of a law suit, but I don’t think it ever came to anything.  The band also covers the Ray Charles hit record, “Mary Ann” featuring a guitar solo by Joe Taino and a trombone solo by Alex Jeun.  This ‘Swingadelic’ ensemble scoops the blues up and repurposes it in their own sweet way. 

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RYAN COHAN – “ORIGINATIONS”   – Origin Records

Ryan Cohan, piano/composer/arranger; James Cammack, acoustic bass; Michael Raynor, drums; John Wojciechowski, flute/alto flute/clarinet/tenor saxophone; Geof Bradfield, bass clarinet/soprano saxophone; Tito Carrillo, trumpet/flugelhorn; Omar Musfi, RIQQ/frame drum & dumbek. THE KALA STRING QUARTET: Victoria Moreira & Naomi Culp, violin; Amanda Grimm, viola; Hope DeCelle, cello.

The first tune unfolds like a book’s introduction, with Hope DeCelle’s prominent and beautiful cello solo. It makes me wonder about the chapters to follow.  When I look at the title, this arrangement makes even more sense.  It’s titled, “The Hours Before Dawn” and Ryan Cohan’s piano fingers rush along the keys like hands pushing the clouds away from the suns face. 

Cohan’s use of the Kaia String Quartet sets a lovely tone and ambience to this piece of musical art.  “Originations” is composed of six independent compositions that celebrate an eleven-piece jazz chamber ensemble.  On this first composition, you can picture the sun rising from the hours just before dawn, enhanced by the string parts and the unexpected time changes.  Mother Nature is certainly full of unexpected changes and beauty.  There is a very Middle Eastern or North African theme that ribbons its way throughout this project.  When I read the liner notes, I understood that this influence reflects Ryan Cohan’s mixture of Jewish and Arab linage.  Cohan explained an experience he recently had while touring.

“How can a strange land be at once familiar?  Although I had never been in Amman, Jordan I felt strangely at home there.  After every performance or while exploring the streets, people would come up to me and ask if I was Jordanian.  The locals clearly saw something recognizable in me as I did in them.  It was surreal,” Cohan recalled. 

His piano strength and talent are broadly introduced on “Imaginary Lines” where his solo soars. There is great energy and excitement in his playing.  I can feel the love and spontaneity just leap off the CD player.  John Wojciechowski’s beautiful interpretations on reed instruments add greatly to the texture and enjoyment of this music, be it on flute, alto sax, clarinet or alto flute. 

This experience caused Ryan Cohan to seek out his Palestinian roots, when he discovered that particular tour had landed him smack dab in the middle of his Paternal homeland.  Consequently, this album of delightful music explores the assimilation of the composer’s Arab heritage and his Jewish upbringing.  It’s a celebration of the rich beauty of two cultures, intertwined and mixed into a musical production.

“Seeing life through a dual heritage lens, … has made clear that neither side’s existence is more indispensable than the others. The vital human and spiritual links embodied in the reconciliation of my Jewish and Arab origins extends to the connections we all share as a global community.”

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HORIZONS JAZZ ORCHESTRA PAYS TRIBUTE TO COMPOSER/ARRANGER LEE HARRIS WITH “THE BRITE SIDE”

Gary Mayone, keyboards; Ranses Colon, bass; Luke Williams, guitar; George Mazzeo, drums; REEDS: Scott Klarman, lead alto/flute/soprano saxophone; Mike Brignola, 3rd Alto saxophone/flute/clarinet; Billy Ross, guest tenor saxophone/flute/clarinet; Joe Mileti, tenor saxophone/flute; Randy Emerick, baritone saxophone. TRUMPETS: Dennis Noday, lead trumpet/flugelhorn; Ryan Chapman, split lead flugelhorn; Jack Wengrosky, split lead, flugelhorn; Fernando Ferrarone & Chaim Rubinov, trumpet/flugelhorn. TROMBONES: Michael Balogh, lead trombone/conductor; Jason Pyle & Tom Lacy, trombone; Steve Mayer, bass trombone.

This Is a beautifully produced and arranged tribute to Lee Harris.  Harris was a respected baritone saxophonist, a composer and arranger, who co-founded and co-led the popular “Superband.”  They were a big band with a fresh perspective, that mainly performed Lee’s original compositions.  When this Horizons Jazz Orchestra project got underway, Lee Harris was quite ill and unfortunately, he passed away months before this recording was completed.  However, the album will proudly stand as his legacy. 

With the significant help of veteran trombonist, Michael Balogh (who was also lead trombone player in the “Superband”) and brilliant trumpeter, Dennis Noday, who co-led the “Superband” with Lee Harris, along with the Executive Producer for “The Brite Side,” Ms. Jeannette C. Piña, they have created a memorable project.  The producers have enlisted the talents of virtuoso trumpeter, Carl Saunders, featured on five of the ten tracks and Grammy-winning drummer, Jonathan Joseph propels the project with vigor and tenacity.  Reedman, Billy Ross, was invited to join them on four of the tracks.  Ross has been playing woodwinds with Woody Herman’s Orchestra since he was seventeen and has leant his talents to many an iconic recording.  The list includes Barry Manilow and Natalie Cole; the Four Tops and the O’Jays to name only a few.

“The Brite Side” spotlights five original compositions by Lee Harris, with the other five are jazz standards that showcase the Harris arrangements.  I enjoyed the addition of Gary Mayone on the B3 Organ.  Producer Michael Balogh has certainly created a loving tribute to his friend and fellow musician, Lee Harris. This production exposes the listeners to some well-written compositions and a host of outstanding musicians who play the Lee Harris arrangements with gusto and creative clarity.

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MON DAVID & JOSH NELSON – “D + N + A” – Dash Hoffman Records

Mon David, vocals; Josh Nelson, piano.

Mon David and Josh Nelson balance, with two hands and a rich baritone voice, a dozen classic songs plush with thought provoking lyrics and memorable melodies.  Here is a duo that make me feel as though I’m sitting at one of those old piano bars, martini in hand and drooling over the rich, provocative music.  The duo opens with a song I’m unfamiliar with; composed by Albert Hague & Allan Sherman and titled, “Did I Ever Really Live.”  The lyrical content is rich. Mon David sings:

                “You’re born, you weep, you smile, you speak, you cling, you crawl, you stand, you fall.  You stand again and try and then, you walk.  You eat, you drink, you feel, you think, you play, you grow, you learn, you know and then one day you find a way to talk.  You’re young, you fly, you laugh, you cry, you’re grown, you’re on your own at last.  You lose, you win, your days begin to slip away too fast. … is it too late to ask, Did I ever love?  Did I ever give? Did I ever really live?”

Those poignant lyrics drive this project.  These one-dozen songs delve deeply into the mystery of life and living; gain and loss. One of my favorite jazz ballads follows, “You Must Believe in Spring.”  I still remember the first time I heard Cleo Laine sing this song ‘live’ at the Hollywood Bowl.  Mon David caresses the lyrics with sensitive vocal strength, while Josh Nelson’s hands work like an artist’s paint brushes.  His piano-playing gently strokes the keys and chords to support Mon David’s emotional delivery.  They follow this song with several other’s we have come to love over jazz decades.  The duo interprets Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” and Artie Butler and Phyllis Molinary’s candid composition, “Here’s to Life.” 

Mon David is multi-talented.  He sings, but he also plays guitar, piano and drums.  He explained his decision to record a duo album.

“For me, the human voice is the primary instrument for expressing the emotional depth of a song, but the piano is a close second.  That’s why I wanted to work with Josh.  His solo performances are terrific, but when he plays with a singer or other instrumentalists, his music has an almost symphonic quality.  He’s also very spontaneous.  He listens so closely.  I realized we really didn’t need charts for these songs, because we were able to collaborate and create them on the spot.  That’s why I named the album DNA, which is an acronym for David-Nelson-Agreement.  It’s a real conversation between the two of us.”

There are moments when Mon David becomes a percussion instrument with his voice, like on their arrangement of “Devil may Care” and at other unexpected moments, his voice bounces octaves to a head-register tone, like a horn-player or a swiftly moving tennis ball.  His tenor voice swoops into view and grabs our attention.  He scats and purrs his way through familiar songs like “Billie’s Bounce,” and “Blame It on My Youth,” John Lennon’s “Imagine” and challenging compositions like “Waltz for Debby” in a medley praising the genius of Bill Evans. That medley is one of my favorites on this production.  He also introduces us to newer songs like the Bill Canton and Mark Winkler song, “I Chose the Moon.”  This is a vocalist who shows, by his choice of repertoire, that he is confident, courageous, thoughtful, well-prepared and well-lived.

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