Archive for August, 2020

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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