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, 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, 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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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, 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, 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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  1. REVIEWS: Mehmet Ali Sanlikol & Mike Fahie Reviewed on Musicalmemoirs's Blog - LYDIALIEBMAN.COM Says:

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

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