Archive for September, 2020


September 26, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

September 26, 2020

Well, the last day of summer was Tuesday, September 22nd.  The weather will begin to cool off now, as Autumn shakes her head and stirs the winds.  This season causes the leaves to turn beautiful, brilliant oranges, reds and gold; then, they drift to the ground.  In some geographic places, the rains come and the days grow shorter. Late evening sunshine disappears.  Here are some jazzy listening suggestions to enhance those rainy afternoons. Slide into your favorite chair, pull on your headphones, or turn your stereo or computer up full blast and enjoy these artists.


John Finbury, piano/composer/arranger; Bob Patton, arranger; Tim Ray, piano; Eugene Friesen, cello; Roni Eytan, harmonica; Claudio Ragazzi, guitar; Vitor Goncalves & Roberto Cassan, accordion; Peter Eldridge, vocalise. 

John Finbury started out as a drummer while in high school.  Today, he is an established pianist and composer who has offered a variety of music to my listening room.  I’ve heard his original compositions lyrically enriched by Thalma De Freitas, (a Brazilian vocalist and lyricist) on an album titled “Sorte”.  It was nominated for a Grammy Award.  Finbury also won a Latin Grammy nomination in 2016 (in the ‘Song of The Year’ category) for a piece he penned on his “Imaginario” album.  On his “Quatro” album, that I reviewed in early 2020, he was celebrating cultural diversity and immigration, employing Peruvian and Mexican music styles in his compositions.  There was an activist cry for freedom and justice in the songs he composed.  John Finbury, the composer, has immersed himself in Latin music until this project.  His current release is a complete surprise.  This album eliminates the percussive rhythms and Latin energy he has been noted for in the past.  Here is an album of Chamber Music, with jazz over-tones that twine their way into his production.   A nocturne is music that reflects a romantic or dreamy quality.  To achieve this, Finbury uses no bass or drums at all during these lovely arrangements.  Instead, John features accordion, piano, guitar, harmonica and cello.  Speaking of cello, Eugene Friesen gives us a dynamic and emotional rendering during his cello work on Track 5, “Fantasma,” as does the sweet harmonica work of Roni Eytan. Peter Eldridge adds his vocalise on this tune.

Another favorite of mine is “Black Tea.”  Notably, I didn’t miss the bass and drums at all.  The melodic content of these songs is elegant, classical and the arrangements are relaxing to the ear.  Finbury gives us a taste of his piano prowess on the final tune, performing solo on “Waltz for Patty.” As a unit, these gifted musicians offer us a platter-full of beautifully played “American Nocturnes” that celebrate John Finbury’s delicious composing skills. He warmly serves up a romantic project titled, the “Final Days of July” for our consumption.

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Katchie Cartwright, flute; Marco Antonio Santos, guitar; Fabio Augustinis, drums; Jan Flemming, accordion.

Flutist and ethnomusicologist, Dr. Katchie Cartwright, along with her trio of guitar, drums and accordion, explores 19th-century Choro music. This is a musical style developed in Rio de Janeiro.  Every note and phrase emanating from Katchie Cartwright’s flute expresses the musical interaction between Choro and jazz.   When Ms. Cartwright was introduced to Choro by clarinetist, Anat Cohen, she became enthralled.  Having already been introduced to Brazilian music by her grandfather’s album collection, she was almost hypnotically drawn to that spicy, cultural music.

“The feeling is deeply Brazilian, but it’s also mischievous, like bebop” Katchie says in her press release.

As a musician, over years of study and world travel, Katchie has embraced various musical influences including jazz, folk, Indian music and the compositions of John Cage. For a while she was a Fulbright Senior Specialist for the U.S. Department of State.  All the while, as she began performing and seeking out her own sound, Katchie kept coming back to Brazilian music. 

“It just feels more like a place where I’m not trying to prove something,” she says in her liner notes.

This is an album of music, both playful and happy, that features the drums of Fabio Augustinis propelling the rhythm section and the tasty guitar licks of Antonio Santos.  Jan Flemming adds authenticity with his complimentary accordion touches.  It’s a very folksy presentation, that allows Katchie Cartwright to fly above the groove like a wild improvisational bird. 

When she’s not touring or recording, Katchie Cartwright took time to mentor and chair the Sisters in Jazz Program for the International Association for Jazz Education, before its untimely demise.  She currently hosts a successful radio program, “Caminhos do Jazz” which airs Saturday mornings on KRTU, 91.7 FM in San Antonio, Texas.

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SYSTEM 6 – “BENNIE’S LAMENT” – Skipper Productions

Benn Clatworthy, alto & tenor saxophones/clarinet/bass clarinet/flute/alto flute/composer; Joey Sellers, trombone; Ron Stout, trumpet; Bryan Velasco, piano; Bruce Lett, bass; Yayo Morales, drums/percussion.

I spoke to Benn Clatworthy on the phone today.  He’s a member and the founder of System 6, along with two other members formerly of the Francisco Aquabella Latin Jazz Band.  He explained to me how this recording came about.

“This is actually my work of art.  There’s just three of us left from our days of playing in the Francisco Aquabella Latin Jazz Band; Joey Sellers, Bryan Velasco and me.  Francisco Aquabella was a famous Cuban conga player, born October tenth in 1925. I worked for a long time in his band.  When he died in 2010, I was honored when his family wanted me to continue to lead the band.  I tried for a while and I made three records.  Two represented the Aquabella Jazz Band and were called Aquabella. Then I changed the name to System 7 because we were a septet.  Now it’s become System 6, because there are only six of us in the band,” Clatworthy told me.

“I learned a tremendous amount playing with Francisco Aquabella and I started writing music for that group.  I wasn’t writing Latin music.  I was just writing what came into my mind at the time.  Like on the tune “In Strayhorn’s bag,” I based that song on the first two chords where there’s a dominant seventh with a sharp eleven.  It reminded me of a tune by Strayhorn and I developed my tune from there”

Track 10, “In Strayhorn’s Bag” is one of my favorites on this album and it was nice to hear the story of how Clatworthy composed it. On “How They Talk,” Ron Stout takes the spotlight on trumpet and this is another one of the Clatworthy originals I enjoyed.  The rhythms on “Two Little Brothers” is intoxicating and Clatworthy brings his bebop chops to this Latin-fused party.  Drummer, Yayo Morales keeps the momentum hot and fiery consistently.  I can hear the Coltrane influence on Benn’s title tune, “Bennie’s Lament.”

When he isn’t recording, Benn takes time to teach and motivate young players.

“I’m happy to see so many young people inspired by music.  Playing an instrument takes a lot of discipline.  Doing anything well takes discipline.  You’ve got to practice like your life depends on it.  I get up in the morning and practice.  Every day, I try to improve as a musician and as a human being,” he told me.  “Right now, during this pandemic thing, I’m practicing a lot because there’s no work.  We can’t wait to get back on-the-road and promote this CD.”

We can’t wait to hear you and System 6, live and in-person, Benn. Until then, we can pop your recent compact disc on our CD players, sit back and enjoy.

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HAZAR featuring AL DI MEOLA – “REINCARNATED” – IAN Productions

Hazar, guitar/handclaps/producer; Al Di Meola, guitar/cajon (Spain)/handclaps; Piotr Torunski, bass clarinet; Mike Roelofs, piano; Mehmet Katay, percussion.

This journalist listens to a lot of guitarists on recordings and ‘live’.  I have to say, this is one of the finest acoustic guitar recordings I’ve heard in a very long time.  Known professionally as “Hazar,” Ulas Hazar has been lauded for his outstanding virtuosity on his instrument and he has received international acclaim.  He holds a Master’s degree in jazz with saz.  Saz is a Middle Eastern string instrument, sometimes referred to as a Baglama.  A Baglama can have a short or long neck and has seven strings and they are divided into courses of two, two and three.  Actually, the saz that Hazar mastered had only three strings and a long neck.  His microtonal music and polyrhythms on those strings was inspired by Pace de Lucia.  After mastering the ‘saz,’ Hazar was encouraged by John McLaughlin, chatting at a concert in Cologne, that he should switch to acoustic guitar. 

“I had nothing more to tell with the saz,” Hazar shared in a recent article.

Consequently, we are blessed with this album that he calls “Reincarnated” because, of course, he has been reborn musically moving from his love of ‘saz’ to his accomplished and challenging performance on the acoustic guitar.  Hazar has a sound that reminds me, at times, of Gypsy music, but at the same time, is extremely classical in a very technical way and a great deal more complicated.  The extraordinary way Hazar plays sounds so easy and smooth, but much of it should be technically impossible.  This journalist finds herself constantly verbalizing out loud, in my listening room, “Whoa!”  His long and inspired ‘runs’ are performed flawlessly and with much attention to the song’s melody.  Beginning with his recording of “Made for Wesley” I am stunned by the intricate guitar lines and the way Hazar sets up the rhythm on his nimble strings.  Al Di Meola plays Cajon on the Chick Corea tune, “Spain.”  There is some controversy about whether the cajon drums were adaptations of the African box drums by slaves when they were banned from having instruments of communication.  The word ‘cajon’ means box or drawer.

“I would especially like to thank the great guitarist, Al Di Meola, who has always been an inspiration to me for his contributions to this record,” Hazar states in his liner notes.

“Black Orpheus,” track 4 on this outstanding record, gives Mike Roelofs (on piano) an opportunity to step forward and perform a beautiful introduction.  When Hazar enters, the sexy, Latin groove arrives with his guitar interpretation and the support of Mehmet Akatay on percussion.  Track 5, “Made in France” gives Akatay on percussion the spotlight.  He opens the track and when the curtains part and the guitarist emerges as the soloist, he executes at a lightening quick pace.  This is the fastest waltz I’ve ever heard. 

On “Summertime” and “For Sephora” Piotr Torunski joins the trio on his bass clarinet, adding color and beauty. The Charlie Parker composition, “Donna Lee” races onto the scene like a New York Taxi driver on the open highway.  Hazar has perfectly blended Eastern and Western music, enhanced by the African-American invention of jazz.  This is an impressive album I will play over and over again.  By example, it lifts Hazar and his guitar brilliance into the realm of musical greatness.

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EDWARD SIMON – “25 YEARS” – Ridgeway Records

Edward Simon, piano/keyboards/composer; Ben Street, Scott Colley, Avishai Cohen, John Patitucci, Roberto Koch, Joe Martin, Matt Penman & Larry Grenadier, bass; Adam Cruz, drums/percussion/steel drum; Brian Blade, Obed Calvaire & Eric Harland, drums; Adam Rogers, guitar; Pernell Saturnino, Rogerio Boccato & Luis Quintero, percussion; David Binney & Miguel Zenon, alto saxophone; David Sanchez, tenor saxophone/percussion; Mark Turner, tenor saxophone; John Ellis, bass clarinet; Mark Dover, clarinet; Shane Endsley & Sean Jones, trumpet; Alan Ferber, Robin Eubanks & Jesse Newman, trombone; Luciana Souza, Lucia Pulido, Gretchen Parlato & Genevieve Artadi, vocals; Marco Granados & Valery Coleman, flute; Jorge Glenn, cuatro; Edmar Castaneda, harp; Leonardo Granados, maracas; Toyin Spellman-Diaz, oboe; Monica Ellis, bassoon; Jeff Scott, French horn; Warren Wolf, vibraphone.

Edward Simon gifts us with a compilation, double-set recording that celebrates the highlights of his career as a Venezuelan-born pianist, composer and bandleader.  This easy-listening and beautiful music has been siphoned from thirteen albums stretching from 1995 releases to 2018.  It covers a wide-spectrum of his musical journey as pianist/composer over the past quarter century.  It also celebrates his 50th years on the planet.  Simon was serious enough about playing piano that at age fifteen, he left Venezuela and moved, by himself, to Pennsylvania to enroll at the Philadelphia Performing Arts School, a now-defunct private academy.   He was studying classically, but it was here that he discovered jazz.  At that time, he was mentored by bassist, Charles Fambrough and guitarist, Kevin Eubanks.  It was Eubanks who encouraged Edward Simon’s relocation to New York City.  Edward’s style embraces classical roots, his Latin American heritage, and the improvisational roots that jazz inspires.  On Disc 1, Track 4, I am enchanted with the rich percussion work of Pernell Saturnino, on the composition, “Fiestas.”   In concert with Adam Cruz’s drums, the percussionists dance beneath the inspired piano playing of Simon.  This is honed from his 2005 album titled, “Simplicitas” and bookmarks where he was inside the chapters of his life, fifteen years ago. 

“There’s a sense of a certain kind of freedom and at the same time, there’s a rawness in those early recordings,” says Simon.

As a founding faculty member of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s Roots, the Jazz & American Music Program, Edward Simon has continuously explored the idea of bringing jazz, America’s indigenous art form, together with the traditional music he loves.

“I grew up playing Latin American music, the genres under that large umbrella.  They’re traditions I continue to explore and love, particularly the rhythms, but also the song forms that come with them.  My early albums capture that exploration, … wrapped up with the classical music element that I really love,” Simon explains his inspiration in playing and composing.

As part of the first disc, I was surprised to hear his song, “Simplicity” which, is almost note-for-note, a replica of the popular American ballad and pop song, “Too Young.”  This first disc is pretty laid-back and features a host of well-known jazz names who add their talents to Simon’s performances. Among them, John Patitucci offers a breathlessly beautiful bass solo on Simon’s composition, “Pathless Path” recorded in 2013. The tune, “Impossible Question” closes out the first disc in a fiery way, reaching back to his Criss Cross Jazz recording in 2007 on an album titled, “Oceanos.”  Luciana Souza makes a vocal appearance on this cut. Edward Simon’s fingers race across the piano keys with purpose and spontaneity.  This is an example of beautifully blending his classical training with Straight-ahead jazz.  David Binney makes a stellar appearance on alto saxophone.  The Edward Simon composition “Barinas” stands out on the second disc, where the arrangement includes bass clarinet, flute, and Edmar Castaneda’s exciting harp playing.  Another favorite on this disc is “Navigator” that features his hard-swinging trio; Eric Harland on drums, John Patitucci on bass and Edward Simon brilliantly Straight-ahead on piano.  Disc 2 continues to combine Edward Simon’s years of recording, like a delicious mixed cocktail, we sip from his musical cup and become more and more intoxicated by his talent.

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ZEENA QUINN – “GOING MY WAY” – Independent Label

Zeena Quinn, vocal/background vocal; Adam Shulman, piano; Seth Asarnow, Bandoneon/piano; David Rokeach, drums; Peter Barshay & Sascha Jacobsen, bass; Edgardo Cambon & Ami Molinelli Hart, percussion; Nika Rejto, flute; Mads Tolling, strings; Steve Heckman, alto & bass flutes/soprano & tenor saxophones.

Zeena Quinn is supported by an excellent ensemble of jazz musician.  The first one that stands out is her pianist on their opening Rodgers and Hart tune of “Lover.”  Adam Shulman, on piano, takes a spirited and creative piano solo.  Ms. Quinn has chosen a dozen jazz standards to interpret on this album, including some very challenging and beautiful songs like the Charles Mingus tune, “Weird Nightmare” and the demanding Rowles and Winstone composition, “The Peacocks.” Nika Rejto adds her fluttering and complimentary flute work on this arrangement.

On Track 4, Zeena surprises this listener by singing “Amado Mio” in Spanish and later, she interprets “O’ Cantador” in Portuguese, showing off her linguist skills. “Nica’s Dream” by Horace Silver is a favorite of mine and Zeena Quinn gives us her smooth but spirited take on the tune.  Heckman swings hard on tenor saxophone, as does Adam Shulman on the 88-keys.  Drummer, David Rokeach, holds the Latin tinged rhythm tightly in place, while Ami Molinelli Hart (the percussionist) adds color and dynamics to this track.  Zeena Quinn sings “It Might as Well Be Spring” in French and the band swings hard.  The second time around, Quinn sings the familiar song in English.  This is an album of well-produced and arranged jazz songs, that features the silky-smooth vocals of Quinn.  Zeena shows off her vocal range on the Wayne Shorter tune, “Infant Eyes.”  This is another beautiful and difficult song for a vocalist to interpret because of the rangy intervals.  Zeena Quinn performs it fearlessly.

Born on the Northwest side of Detroit, Michigan, Zeena started in the entertainment business as a professional dancer, able to execute Flamenco dancing with castanets, Afro-Brazilian dance, ballet, tap and jazz. It came natural to her.  Perhaps, because her father, John Ohanian, was a dancer and also played clarinet and saxophone. Her father’s brother, Uncle Jack Ohanian, was a saxophone player who played in downtown Detroit jazz bars for years.  Additionally, Zeena’s Aunt Mary played an eleven string Oud at popular nightclubs in Greek Town, a popular Detroit area famous for restaurants and nightlife.  Music and entertainment appear to be in her genes.  Zeena Quinn also is a SAG/AFTRA actress, one who has worked in television and enjoyed voice-over assignments.  Based in the San Francisco area of Northern California, Ms. Quinn has performed with the Mel Martin All Star Big Band, the Cab Calloway Orchestra and opened for John Lee Hooker. This elegant, debut recording continues the legacy of vocal jazz in high style.

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Nate Wooley, trumpet/amplifier/composer/arranger; Samara Lubelski & C. Spencer Yeh, violins; Chris Corsano, Ben Hall, Ryan Sawyer, drums; Susan Alcorn, pedal steel guitar; Julien Desprez & Ava Mendoza, electric guitars; Isabelle O’Connell & Emily Manzo, keyboards; Yoon Sun Choi, Mellissa Hughes, & Megan Schubert, voices/choir leader.

This music reminds me of a film score; birds flocking in hordes to the telephone lines and wings flapping uproariously.  It could be an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, like ‘the birds’ or a science fiction movie; a ship hurling into outer space where it encounters alien beings.  The use of guitars, violins and electronics, with keyboard coloration, makes for an experience of openness.  Without an obvious drum beat, there is nothing to hold the groove in place.  There is no groove.  It’s quite ethereal. I stopped and started it again, to see if I was missing something. As I listen, I feel an element of spirituality and some connectivity to nature sounds.  Most of the first twenty-minutes of non-stop sound reminds me of the quiet music played in a church as you walk up the aisle with your offering.   Actually “Seven Storey Mountain VI” premiered live, in November of 2019, at Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan. Suddenly, Wooley’s music rises from a redundant hum to the power of a 21-piece choir. It’s sometimes chaotic.  I felt the music was attacking someone or something.  You cannot dance to this music or sing to a melody.  It’s just sounds, tones, repetitive chord changes, where trumpet, amplifiers, violins and guitars rule.  I notice vocal words blended into the musical fray.  They are not mixed clearly enough for me to understand those spoken comments, and there are moans and groans of tones.  If you are into totally free and Avant-garde music, you will find this recording hits the mark.  Twenty-seven minutes in, I had to turn it down.  For me, it is not beautiful or pleasing to my ear, with sounds like sirens and shrieks, like laughter in an insane asylum.  It starts out calm and grows into a crescendo of tonal madness, culminating into a massive arc of energy and protest.  According to Wooley, the artists are playing at their rawest, most vulnerable states of consciousness.  At one point, I thought I heard a horde of African bees buzzing in for an attack.

“A lot of the parts can feel aggressive,” Wooley admitted.  “I view all of that as something that is necessary to the production of something new.  That feeling of ecstasy has to come from some sort of pressure,” he asserts. 

I’m not sure I agree with the ‘ecstasy’ part of his opinion. 

Thirty-nine minutes into this music, the “Reclaim the Night” protest song by Peggy Seeger enters.  It musically calms the moment.  However, the startling words of protest, sung by female voices, offer lyrics that read (in part):

“…A husband has his lawful rights, can take his wife whene’er he likes; and courts uphold time after time, that rape in marriage is no crime. The choice is hers and hers alone, submit or lose your kids and home. … when exploitation is the norm, rape is found in many forms; lower wages, meaner tasks, poorer schooling, second class.” 

They fade on the repeated chorus of “you can’t scare me – you can’t scare me.”  The Cd ends on this note, after 45 minutes.  There are no breaks in the musical production.  It is one, long, pulsating suite, that at times reminds me of a shocking acid trip.

At 13, trumpet player and composer, Nate Wooley, was playing professionally in his father’s big band.  They resided in Clatskanie, Oregon, where his dad was a saxophonist.  In 2019, Wooley debuted as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic and is considered one of the people leading the American movement to redefine the physical boundaries of the horn.  In his improvised production, there are no restrictions or walls.  He has received the Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grants to Artists Award and is currently working as editor-in-chief of a quarterly journal entitled, “Sound American.” 

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September 19, 2020

by Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

September 19, 2020

The journey to jazz travels global paths.  MARIO ROMANO combines his Argentinian and Canadian roots on his path to jazz.  Classically trained vibraphonist and contemporary percussionist, CHIEN CHIEN LU, brings her Asian roots and Brooklyn, New York influences to the studio. BUIKA is a big selling jazz and world music artist based in Spain.  CLIFTON DAVIS, composer of the song “Never Can Say Goodbye,” sings the Great American songbook with the BEEGIE ADAIR TRIOTOMOKO OMURA’S awesome violin takes jazz to another level, blending it with her Japanese culture.   The Duo of JASON FOUREMAN & STEPHEN ANDERSON offer us a pathway to jazz from North Carolina roots. ERIC REVIS, award-winning bassist, calls our attention to “Slipknots Through a Looking Glass” and THROTTLE ELEVATOR MUSIC invites us to their “Emergency Exit.” Read all about it.


Mario Romano, piano/accordion/composer; Roberto Occhipinti, acoustic & elec. bass; Larnell Lewis, Mark Kelso, Mark McLean, & Amhed Mitchell, drums; Maninho Costa & Rosendo Leon, percussion; Roni Eytan, harmonica; Reg Schwager & Elmer Ferrer, guitar; Pat LaBarbera, tenor saxophone.  William Sperandei, trumpet; Jackie Richardson, Magda Giannikou, Kristy Cardinali & Adis Rodriguez, vocals.

After hearing the first song, “And if You Please” (featuring Jackie Richardson on vocals) I am hooked.  This is a beautiful production with orchestrated ‘live’ strings and Mario Romano’s sensitive accompaniment on piano. Track 2 is a Latin Samba with the wonderful harmonica of Roni Eytan taking stage center, along with the soprano vocals of Magda Giannikou dancing happily atop the fluid rhythm section.  This is a compilation album that features nine exceptional songs from Mr. Romano’s previously released albums; seven of them are his own original compositions.  Track 3 is a beautiful ballad that features another talented vocalist.  This time it’s Kristy Cardinali singing “Those Damn I Love Yous.”  On the fourth track we get the opportunity to enjoy Mario Romano’s technical perfection playing accordion.  On “Si Tu Quisieras,” you will experience a very emotional delivery in Spanish by Adis Rodriguez.  It’s both beautiful and compelling.  Elmer Ferrer soars on guitar during this arrangement.  You will enjoy a very Straight-ahead exploration into Romano’s jazz roots on the tune, “Via Romano” where bassist Roberto Occhipinti excels.  Once Mark Kelso and Occhipinti hook arms in a succinct rhythm dance, Mario Romano comes forward on piano.  Then Pat LaBarbera swings hard on tenor saxophone in a very Coltrane-ish way. William Sperandei, on trumpet, reminds us of the ‘All Blues’ days of Miles Davis when he interprets the familiar standard, “You’re My Everything.” Sperandei has a lovely tone on his trumpet and also appears on the instrumental execution of “And If You Please” that closes this production and track 8, “Non Dimenticar.”  Here is an album that has a little something for everyone on it.

Mario Romano is a Canadian composer, pianist and accordion master who was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina (October 5, 1951) as the son of Italian immigrants. At age 13, his family moved to Canada and the young Romano had to learn all about a new culture and a new language.  But the language of music remained one where he could easily communicate.  As a young teenager, he had already mastered the accordion and, before the move, when his dad brought a piano into their Argentinian home, he began to be interested in jazz. That love of jazz and his brilliance on both accordion and piano developed into a life-long love affair.  However, although he was very talented, he took a nine-to-five entrepreneurial path into the Real Estate business and is currently super-successful in the Toronto area as a real estate tycoon.  Lucky for us, Mario Romano has returned to music.  He shares with us this stellar album that features seven of his original compositions and a bevy of beautiful voices from the Canadian jazz pool.  I believe you will enjoy every song on this album, spurred by the dynamic musical prowess of Mario Romano and his exceptionally talented musical comrades.  If I was giving out stars, this album would be a five-star winner.

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CHIEN CHIEN LU – “THE PATH” – Independent Label

Chien Chien Lu, vibraphone/marimba/composer/arranger; Shedrick Mitchell, piano/organ; Quintin Zoto, guitar; Richie Goods, acoustic & electric bass/arranger; Allan Mednard, drums; Ismel Wignall, congas/percussion; Yoojin Park, violin; Phebe Tsai, cello; Jeremy Pelt, trumpet; Lisa Lee, vocal.

Chien Chien Lu is a classically trained vibraphonist and contemporary percussionist.  She has toured and recorded with the Jeremy Pelt Quintet and this album is her debut as a leader.  She opens with the Roy Ayers composition, “We Live in Brooklyn Baby,” with Allan Mednard pumping up the funk rhythm on drums.  This is followed by Richie Goods’ very Latin fused arrangement of “Invitation.” The familiar song is dressed in a brand-new gown; sparkling and energized.  Ismel Wignall’s percussion work is impressive and Jeremy Pelt offers a quality and exciting solo on trumpet.  It’s an impressive arrangement by Lu’s bassist.  When Chien Chien enters on vibraphone she lifts the energy to a new level.  Shedrick Mitchell is competent and pushes the rhythm section’s creativity with his piano excellence.  This ensemble is hot!  Track 3 is an original composition by Chien Chien Lu, who arranges her song for optimum enjoyment, adding rhythmic surprises along the way. She and Richie Goods on bass dance beside each other in the middle of this arrangement, with only percussion to hold their musical steps in place.  It’s a nice way to tickle our attention.  The tune is titled, “Blind Faith” and it showcases this artist’s creative composition skills. In between the songs, Ms. Lu adds something she calls “The Path Interludes” where she speaks to us about her musical journey and life, amidst a musical background.  I think her voice could have been brought up a bit more in the mix. This talented artist, like many in the music business, didn’t have a major record deal for this release.  Instead, she instituted a crowd share project to fund her debut production.  But I can guarantee, she will have no problem getting a major deal for her next one.  Here is a project full of passion and beauty, that showcases the awesome vibraphone talent of Chien Chien Lu, along with her all-star ensemble.

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BUIKA – “LA NOCHE MAS LARGA (THE LONGEST NIGHT) – which was released in June of 2013 on the Warner Music/Spanish label.

Thanks to my friend and jazz vocalist, Shahida Nurullah, I was made aware of this amazing talent known by one name: BUIKA.  I love her sexy, soulful sound.  Her path winds from Guinea to Palma de Mallorca, Spain.  Originally, she planned to be a drummer and bassist; both instruments she plays proficiently.  But in Spain, Buika claims no one wanted to hire a female drummer, so she started singing.  She’s an outstanding poet, producer, composer and vocalist.  Reviewers have compared her stage show artistry to Nina Simone and Amy Winehouse.  I have not seen her in person, but I certainly find myself infatuated by her unique sound and emotional delivery on YouTube.  Check her out.  I think her music crosses and blends genres smoothly, like applying icing to the cake.  It makes the dessert sweeter and enhances the cake’s already lovely appearance.  She has recorded one jazz CD titled, “Mestizuo.”  Her mother was a great jazz lover.  Her work with Latin, Grammy-Award-winning, flamingo guitarist and producer, Javier Lemon, won critical acclaim with their album, “Mi Nina Lola” and reached #11 on the Spanish album charts.  Last I heard, she had relocated to Miami, Florida and continues to record.

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Clifton Davis, vocals; Beegie Adair, piano; Roger Spencer, trio arranger/bass; Chris Brown, drums; Monica Ramey, duet vocal; Jeff Taylor, accordion; Mark Kibble, vocal arrangements/background vocals; Take 6, background vocals; Kevin Toney, synthesizer strings/string arrangements; Charles Mims, string arrangements/synthesizer; Pablo Hopenhayn, string producer/arranger/violins/violas; Pablo Saltzman, string arranger; Cecilia Garcia, violin/viola; Paula Pomeraniec, cello.

Clifton Davis has this reviewer’s utmost respect for the popular song he wrote entitled, “Never Can Say Goodbye.” It’s a great song and the title of his new CD release.  Davis is also an accomplished actor.  This album introduces us to the singing-side of Mr. Davis.  I believe the singing bug bit him when he attended his first New York Broadway show. Shortly after that experience, he quit his job to work in New Jersey stock theater. That led to an audition for the 1968 Broadway musical, “Hello Dolly,” starring Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway.  Davis was cast as an ensemble singer and given an understudy role. Thus, began his love of not only acting, but singing as part of his performance package.  In 1972, Davis and Melba Moore hosted their own televised, musical, variety series and Clifton was in fine vocal form.

From 1974 to 1975, Davis was busy starring in the popular sitcom, “That’s My Mama” on television.  He also co-starred with Sherman Helmsley for five years on the NBC television sitcom, “Amen.”  Ironically, Clifton Davis played the part of a minister.  I say ironically, because the path of life leads us down many unexpected streets.  There came a time when Clifton Davis took a break from the Hollywood and Broadway scenes to pursue an ecclesiastical education and received his BA in Theology, as well as a Master of Divinity degree from Andrews University.  That made him a bona fide minister.  Impressively he has taken his interdenominational ministry around the world for three decades.

When Clifton Davis teamed with Beegie Adair’s trio, a new path of creativity developed.  This album is the culmination of these two artists (Davis and Adair) meeting in 2015 and beginning a friendly journey towards a recording project.  Although they have chosen a rich repertoire of great songs and enlisted the musical services of dynamic talents like the group Take 6 (renowned a’ Capella singers) and Kevin Tony (Jazz pianist with the Blackbyrd group), Clifton Davis, the vocalist, sounds a bit tenuous and fragile. As a songwriter, had he chosen to showcase his original songwriting, perhaps this album would have made a more substantial impact. He does include a well-written original song, “Swept Away” and one other gospel original titled, “Leaving It Up to You.” 

That being said, this album of songs from the Great American Songbook are well-produced and well-played.  The arrangements are lovely and amply support Clifton’s vocal delivery. The Beegie Adair Trio is admired and respected worldwide and her trio has sold over two-million albums. Together, the trio and Davis present an enjoyable interpretation of songs we love, that introduce us to Clifton Davis, the talented songwriter and cabaret singer.

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TOMOKO OMURA – “BRANCHES – VOL. 1” – Outside in Music

Tomoko Omura, violin/composer/arranger; Jeff miles, guitar; Glenn Zaleski, piano; Pablo Menares, bass; Jay Sawyer, drums.

Imaginative. Surreal. Creative.  Tomoko Omura takes us on a magical, mystical path to violin places we’ve never been before.  Tomoko is a virtuoso violinist and composer, inspired to write this album of music mirroring Japanese folktales.  She has written four of the six compositions and included the familiar standard “Moonlight in Vermont” and a popular Japanese song by Kosaku Yamada. Omura has uniquely arranged each song.  Her mastery of the violin is obvious and she has surrounded her genius with an amazing quartet of musicians.  Glenn Zaleski on piano produces sensitive accompaniment throughout and solos beautifully on the opening song.  Haiku is a Japanese form of poetry, based on five syllables for the first line, seven syllables for the second line and five for the final line.  “Moonlight in Vermont” is a haiku poem.  Tomoko Omura’s violin is poetry in motion.

                “Pennies in a stream.

                Falling leaves, a sycamore

                Moonlight in Vermont.”

The titles of the various compositions represent four folktales.  Track 2 is the story of a boy in search of a witch named Oni-baba who lives in the mountains.  A monk gifts him with “Three Magic Charms” to protect him, but he still gets caught by the witch.  Tomoko Omura’s violin soars and swoops through an intricate melody. Pablo Menares, on bass, lays down a monotone bass line that plays rhythmically against the melody.  The pianist builds the excitement in crescendos while Jay Sawyer taps out the tempo and colors the song on his trap drums.

The tempo picks up on Track 3, “The Revenge of the Rabbit” and the music becomes more Avant Garde.  “Return to the Moon” features a haunting guitar played by Jeff Miles and a poignant bass solo.  This music is dramatic and intoxicating.

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Jason Foureman, bass; Stephen Anderson, piano.

Jason Foureman is an in-demand bassist who lives and teaches in North Carolina.  He was greatly influenced by legends like Nina Simone, Oscar Peterson, Charlie Haden, Rufus Reid and Lester Young.  Jason has been the bassist for the North Carolina Jazz Repertory Orchestra since 2008 and conducts the youth big band at the Durham North Carolina Jazz Workshop.  When he’s not gigging, you will find him comfortably sharing his massive talent with students at UNC – Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University. 

Dr. Stephen Anderson is a respected composer and pianist.  He too is a faculty member and Director of Jazz Studies at the University of North Carolina and is Director of the UNC Summer Jazz Workshop.  As a composer, many of his compositions have been recorded and performed worldwide at a number of festivals and in concerts from South America to Europe. 

Jason Foureman is also a composer and the duo performs two of his original songs including “Through and Through” a song he wrote for his wife and daughters one Christmas, after they had experienced a local carnival. The composition is based on a conversation about flying.  Stephan’s fingers fly across the keys like wild birds and Foureman’s solid bass lines attach themselves to the moment, like the strings on a soaring kite.  It’s a happy tune and the two musicians are each expressive and technically astute throughout. “Ultra Blues” is another original song by Foureman and closes this album out.  Stephen and Jason seem to be talking to each other during the opening introduction of this song.  First the piano lays down a bluesy lick and Foureman answers on his double bass.  After twelve bars of their insightful conversation, they break into a raucous, low-down blues composition.  As they progress with their blues interpretation, Jason walks his bass and Stephen improvises brightly, never once losing the groove.  This song is pure joy from start to finish.  Jason Foureman compliments his musical partner in the liner notes by saying:

“Hey man … in the studio, everything just flowed into place; the music nearly playing itself; us not taking breaks because we so wanted to capture the flow we had.  And then, going home thinking, man, this is how it’s supposed to be!”

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Eric Revis, bass/composer; Kris Davis, piano; Chad Taylor, drums/mbira; Justin Faulkner, drums; Bill McHenry, tenor saxophone; Darius Jones, alto saxophone.

Staccato notes and a groove, provided by the bass of Eric Revis and propelled by Justin Faulkner’s drums, opens this production.  The alto and tenor saxophones punch the notes.  Enter Kris Davis on piano with a spontaneous and improvisational presence.  Track 1 titled, “Baby Renfro” sets the mood of this musical production that features eight out of eleven original compositions written by bassist, Eric Revis.  Track 2 features Chad Taylor on Mbira, an instrument similar to a hand kalimba or thumb piano.  It adds a mystical and African-feel to this arrangement, featuring only the trio; Revis on bass, Chad on Mbira and Kim Davis on piano. The three have composed this song together. 

“The image of “Slipknots Through A Looking Glass” came up and I thought, wow, this is really cool.  … I wanted more emphasis on the energy than on exact notes or notation. … The idea of a journey, although it wasn’t something that I set out to do, it’s a theme that runs through all of this record,” Revis explains.

Eric Revis has been a band leader, composer and award-winning bass player, playing as part of the Branford Marsalis quartet since 1997.  In addition, Revis has worked with iconic jazz folks like Betty Carter, Jason Moran, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Andrew Cyrille.   Revis is an artist fascinated by the surrealist movement and I can tell he enjoys pushing the boundaries and knocking down the walls between what is and what could be.

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Kenny Kotwitz, accordion and celeste; John Chiodini, guitar(s); Nick Mancini, vibraphone; Chuck Berghofer, upright bass; Kendall Kay, drums/percussion.

This album of music is a centennial tribute to the Art Van Damme Quintet.  Art was a trail blazer among jazz accordionists.  He recorded 42 albums as a leader and another 100 as a sideman and boasted a 15-minute, NBC radio program that ran for 139 episodes (The Art Van Damme Show) back in the 1940s. One of Van Damme’s few students is accordionist, Kenny Kotwitz. Consequently, producer Peter Maxymych reached out to Kenny Kotwitz when he discovered him on YouTube.

                “I needed the right accordion player for the project.  I heard Kenny Kotwitz play on YouTube and I knew that his style would be perfect for this.  After contacting him, I found that he had been a close friend of Art Van Damme, so it all made perfect sense,” the producer explained.

Kenny Kotwitz picked the musicians he wanted to be in the LA Jazz Quintet and did all the arranging for this album.  Kenny had fond memories of Art Van Damme.

“When I studied with Art, he would give me an arrangement each week.  I would take it home; hand copy it and analyze what was written for the instrumentation.  Since they were doing a radio show five days a week for NBC, they had a lot of material.  I knew that was the style Peter Maxymych was looking for and I knew that these L.A. master musicians would fit easily into that sound,” Kotwitz shared.

John Chiodini shines on “Estate” (that translates to ‘summer’), laying down a beautiful guitar introduction and amply supporting Kenny Kotwitz during his accordion spotlight.  Nick Mancini adds his tenacious vibraphone work to the mix with Chuck Berghofer on double bass and drummer Kendall Kay locking the Latin rhythm tightly in place.  This album is a testament to Van Damme’s unique, stylized accordion work and graces each listener with a bakers-dozen of familiar jazz standard songs, played in a sweet, moderate-tempo way.  You’ll enjoy these Los Angeles music masters as they interpret “Skylark,” the sultry “Cry Me A River,” and the title tune, “When Lights Are Low,” along with many more you will recognize. 

This is easy-listening music, lovely and relaxing, that features Kenny Kotwitz, a protégé of Van Damme, who became a busy studio musician in Los Angeles in 1966 and has gone on to become a master accordion player, a pianist, an arranger and competent composer.  In 1983, he even recorded an album with his idol titled, “Art Van Damme and Friends.”   With the completion of this project, Kenny Kotwitz imagines Art Van Damme smiling down at this project from heaven and enjoying it, the same way you will. 

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Matt Montgomery, bass/guitar/piano/songwriting; Gregory Howe, guitar/bass/B3 organ/ synthesizer/ songwriter; Erik Jekabson, trumpet/flugelhorn/arranger; Kamasi Washington, tenor saxophone; Mike Hughes & Lumpy, drums; Kasey Knudsen, alto & tenor saxophone; Ross Howe, fender guitar; Mike Blankenship, Farfisa organ/synthesizer.

On Track 6, “Innerspatial Search” this group finally gets my attention.  Until then, the compositions were a little lack-luster for my taste.  They featured too much repetition in the rhythm section, almost like Rock and Roll tracks that are being prepared for some amazing soloist to come in and overdub on top.  Indeed, that is what Kamasi Washington does throughout on tenor saxophone, as well as Erik Jekabson on his triumphant trumpet.  On track 7, “Rattle Thicket” the group is invigorated with rhythm and they sound very much like a rock band jam session.  It’s a brief composition (2-minutes 18-seconds) but its fearless and thunders on the scene with exciting energy. “Art of the Warrior” is more smooth jazz, but as the arrangement unfolds, this song blossoms with increased energy and presence.  This group leans heavily towards rock music with jazz overtones.  Sometimes it’s very Grunge-like.  Montgomery and Howe are the composers of this music, except Kamasi’s composition, that happened to be the song that finally captured my full attention (Innerspatial Search).  The multi-talented Matt Montgomery and Gregory Howe each play numerous instruments, as well as being the songwriters on this project.  The resultant material is comprised of productions that have been sitting on the studio shelf from 2001 through 2014.  They showcase a young, music-hungry Kamasi Washington, striving to express himself and grow his music.  The group seeds of creativity are obvious on this recording, as these musicians plant their feet solidly and express themselves.  They have included the past nine recording years, in both Wide Hive and Fantasy studios, to create this project. Consequently, it becomes a compilation and history of Throttle Elevator Music’s journey into 2020.

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September 13, 2020

y Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

September 13, 2020

As Autumn settles in, I have reviewed a number of newly released jazz albums.  Read all about them here at my Musical Memoirs blog.


Barrett Martin, drums/vibraphone/bata drums/tablas/vocables/double bass/Fender Rhodes/elec. guitar/ Gamelans/kalimba/mbira/gong/steel drums/clavinet/koto/synthesizer/ dumbek/tambura/bells/ berimbau; Kevin Hudson, elec. bass; Luis Guerra, Kevin Hudson & Evan Flory-Barnes, upright bass; John Rangel, piano; Joe Doria, Fender Rhodes/piano/ Keyboard/Hammond organ; Ryan Burns, piano/Hammond Organ; Wayne Horwitz, processed piano/Hammond Organ; Paul Fischer, Kim Thayil & Andy Coe, Elec. guitar; Peter Buck, acoustic guitar; Ben Thomas, vibraphone; Thione  Diop, bata drums/ surdo/clave; Curtis Macdonald, alto saxophone; Kanoa Kaluhiwa & Skerik, tenor saxophone; Hans Teuber, baritone & tenor saxophone; Dave Carter, trumpet; Ed Ulman, trombone; Hans Touber, baritone saxophone; Lisette Garcia, sleigh bells/ cowbell/surdo/clave/ surdo shakers/tambourine; Rahim Alhaj, Iraqi Oud; Craig Fiory, flute; Mehnaz Hoosein, Hindustani vocals; Seth Amoaku, Ghanajian drums.

Barrett Martin has composed or co-written every song on this album.  Beginning with the rhythmic driven song, “Roll the Bones,” where Kanoa Kaluhiwa (a New Mexico-based saxman) takes an exciting solo on tenor saxophone.   This is the ninth studio album from Barrett Martin, a Latin Grammy-winning producer, percussionist and composer.  On this release, Martin features the amazing works of various musicians from around the globe, like Rahim Alhaj, a Grammy-nominated Iraqi Oud Master and Seth Amoaku, a popular Ghanaian master drummer.   The arrangements are plush with horn harmonics and the full, rich expressiveness of several talented, world-applauded musicians.  Dave Carter is dynamic throughout on his trumpet.   But it is the sustained drum strength provided by Barrett Martin that drives this music powerfully.  His interest in ethnomusicology has inspired him to produce this “Scattered Diamonds” project.  He has also authored two books.  One is titled, “The Singing Earth: Adventures from a World of Music (2017) and the more recent one is called, “The Way of the Zen Cowboy: Fireside Stories from a Globetrotting Rhythmatist.”

“Scattered Diamonds is a collection of my best songs and collaborations with friends from around the world.  The album represents my global music influences, and it seems particularly timely now, because they feature musicians and singers from the Middle East, West Africa and India, as well as several jazz and rock musicians who I have worked with over the years.  Scattered Diamonds encapsulates … their immense talents, organized into one concise album. … their unique example of how music can be expressed globally.”

On Track 2, “Way Down,” he explores various time changes and his hard rock drums move like wagon wheels beneath the members of his Barrett Martin Group, brightly propelling them forward.  On the “Firefly” tune, John Rangel pumps the blues into the arrangement on piano.  On Track7, the vocals of Mehnaz Hoosein singing Hindustani vocals whisks us away to the Middle East and we sample a taste of the culture and the music through this piece titled, “Sarasvati.” Hoosein also co-wrote this tune with Martin.

Barrett Martin is generous with his music and his talent.  He plays so many instruments on this recording that his credits read like a one-man-band.   Most CDs offer ten, eleven or twelve songs. The Barrett Martin Group offers you seventeen well-written instrumentals for your listening pleasure.  This album is full of world beats, rock and roll grooves, big-band horn lines, contemporary coloration and a bit of the blues becomes a part of this jazzy celebration.  What’s not to love?

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CHAMPIAN FULTON – “BIRDSONG” – Independent Label

Champian Fulton, piano/voice; Scott Hamilton, tenor saxophone; Stephen Fulton, flugelhorn; Hide Tanaka, bass; Fukushi Tainaka, drums.

This bold and unique vocalist/pianist is celebrating Charlie Parker’s centennial with her delightful release of “Birdsong.”  The first thing I love is that Champian Fulton has her own style and vocal personality.  She’s not copying anyone else and she’s not a cabaret singer.  She is the real deal.  Champian Fulton is a jazz singer!

Perhaps this is because, when she was a new born baby, her daddy was playing one of my favorite ‘Bird’ albums, “Charlie Parker with Strings” where Parker recorded with a full orchestra.  It was her father’s favorite album and she grew up hearing it consistently throughout her lifetime.  Consequently, she has a particular kinship with ‘Bird’ and his amazing music.  Her father, Stephen Fulton, is also a jazz musician and makes a flugelhorn appearance on his daughter’s production.  She explained her inspiration to tribute Charlie Parker.

“…I feel very connected to that Southwest jazz tradition.  That intangible something that has to do with a commitment to swing and an approach to the music that’s joyful, instinctual and at the same time intellectual,” Champian Fulton says in her liner notes.

Opening with “Just Friends” I immediately fall in love with Champian Fulton’s vocal sound and her improvisational twists and turns.  She is a competent and expressive pianist who gives her all to the music when she’s playing it or singing it.  “Yardbird Suite” is presented as an instrumental and gives each member of her quintet an opportunity to shine.  Scott Hamilton’s tenor saxophone is smokey and complimentary throughout.  I enjoy the way he colors the spaces around her vocals when she sings the familiar standard, “This Is Always.”  After Hamilton’s impressive solo, Ms. Fulton enters on piano making bird sounds in the upper register that remind me of songs from a tropical forest.  She has a light, airy touch on the piano and at the same time, she’s powerfully emotional and creatively improvisational. Take, for example, her extraordinary interpretation of “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm” at an incredibly up-tempo speed.  She is dynamic! Fukushi Tainaka holds the rhythm tightly in place on trap drums, using brushes, but losing no power at all. He and Champian trade fours at this rapid pace, racing like two children playing in an open field. 

Champian Fulton’s choice of songs exhibit her technical mastery of the piano.  Her tender and imaginative vocal interpretations are compelling.  Fulton hopes, with this album release, to expose Charlie Parker’s music to a multitude of young audiences and at the same time, show that one-hundred years later, Bird’s music is truly important and timeless. 

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Stéphane Spira, soprano saxophone; Giovanni Mirabassi, piano; Donald Kontomanou, drums; Steve Wood, bass; Yoann Loustalot, flugelhorn.

The first track is titled, “Ocean Dance” where Stéphane Spira introduces us to his smooth, fluid, honey-warm sound on soprano saxophone.  Piano and drums brush against the quiet to establish the groove and support the melody. Then, the band enters.  The players stimulate interest in this Stéphane Spira original composition. 

Track 3, “After Rain” is another original composition by Spira and he flies like an eagle on his soprano saxophone.  This song is quite Straight-ahead with Latin tinges, featuring a drum solo at the introduction from Donald Kontomanou.  Steve Wood, on bass, dances beneath the lovely melody that Spira plays on the Erik Satie song, “Gymnopedie No 1.”  Wood is quite noticeable with his solid bass lines, that sing melodically, while holding the rhythm tightly in place.

I find Stéphane Spira’s soprano saxophone unexpectedly pleasant.  I say that because this is an instrument I often associate with smooth jazz.  But Spira’s music is definitely not smooth jazz.  He clearly reflects his straight-ahead jazz chops, developed in Parisian jam sessions, as a self-taught musician.  Spira attended school in France and obtained an engineering degree, although music was his passion.  He did a short stint as an engineer in Saudi Arabia, until 1990.  That’s when he returned to his hometown of Paris to pursue music full time.  For fifteen years, he chased his musical dreams and honed his talents on soprano saxophone in France.  He released two albums and played in a multitude of Parisienne clubs.  Then he headed to New York.

“It’s unique to have such a level of playing everywhere you look,” Spira spoke about his realization when arriving in New York City.

His current ensemble creates a tightly meshed rhythm section, a space and sky where Stéphane Spira can spread his wings and let his soprano sax fly.  He discovered jazz as a teenager and acquired his first saxophone at the age of 22.  He immediately fell in love with the instrument.

“I love the soprano saxophone so much because it gets back to the voice.  New York is great medicine for your ego because you can see such immense and great players.  But I’ve had time now to say, this is who I am.  I wanted to expose myself honestly and let my personality kick-in,” Stéphane Spira shares.

Perhaps he feels this way because he has, over time and living life, honed his craft, paid his dues and come to a realization about his music.  He knows who he is and he puts that knowledge and belief into his music.

“My father was really into Russian gypsy music, so by extension, he loved Django Reinhardt.  I was really into jazz and by extension of that, I loved Django,” the saxophonist recalled his roots and his family ties. He and his father would often play together.  His father’s favorite music was a traditional Russian tune titled “Moscow Windows.”

Stephane Spira was introduced to the Prokofiev piece nearly fifteen years ago by a Turkish jazz presenter and radio host.  When he heard Spira play his saxophone, he recognized echoes of the Russian composer’s dense harmonies.  The soprano saxophonist found himself intrigued by this Russian music.

“He really opened my ears.  I love a melody that you can sing but that’s supported by harmony that isn’t obvious, but sounds totally natural.  I immediately heard it as a vehicle for a jazz band.”

Consequently, the second half of this CD is titled “Improkofiev Suite” with excerpts from Sergei Prokofiev’s violin concerto #1 and is compiled of three movements that Stéphane Spira has reimagined.  The first is “Improkofiev,” (this CD’s title) which is funk driven by Donald Kontomanou on drums and embellished by Yoann Loustalot on flugelhorn.  Giovanni Mirabassi is brilliant on piano during this piece and throughout.  The second piece of the suite is “New York Dream” (a romantic-sounding ballad) and the final piece of the suite is “No Strings Attached.”

Here is an album that represents a culmination of experiences and life lessons that propelled a promising soprano sax player from France to the United States, to seek his celebrity and fortune.  He’s recently moved back to his native France after a decade abroad.  This newly formed quartet, Spirabassi, reunites him with Italian-born pianist, Giovanni Mirabassi, who he was recording with in 2009, just before he relocated to the USA.  Here is a production that represents a full circle of his life and music.

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SUKYUNG KIM – “LILAC HILL” – Independent label

Sukyung Kim, piano/Fender Rhodes keyboard/composer; Luca Alemanno, bass; Paul JuBong Lee, guitar; Jongkuk Kim, drums; Ethan Helm, alto saxophone.

A 5/4 tune, inspired by Sukyung Kim’s dream of a purple hill where the composer felt safe and secure, opens this production.  It becomes the title tune of this CD, “Lilac Hills” and represents her safe place; music and jazz.  Ms. Kim is a jazz pianist and composer from Korea, who is now residing in Brooklyn, New York.  She has enlisted the talents of Luca Alemanno on bass who opens “Lilac Hills” with his big, bass sound.  Ethan Helm is featured on alto saxophone and Paul JuBong Lee adds his guitar to the mix.  Jongkuk Kim is on drums. Track 2 features Sukyung Kim using the upper piano register to paint a galaxy of sounds that mimic twinkling stars.  The tune is titled, “Stargazers” and Ms. Kim allows her classical technique to paint the tune with sparkling arpeggios, while Alemanno walks his bass beneath her interpretation.  What I don’t hear is ‘groove.’  The drums are all over the place.  This is very contemporary in arrangement, but it never settles into a swing, a straight-ahead or even a funk groove.  The drummer is featured on the fade and soaks up his spotlight appearance with a flurry of sticks, but where is he during the rest of the tune?  I hear him coloring the arrangement, but I fervently search for the two and the four?  Paul JuBong Lee adds a stellar guitar solo, with rhythm support more from Alemanno than the drummer.  All compositions are by Sukyung Kim and although the songs are well-written, this is music without a solid drum foundation.  For me, that’s a problem.

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Michael O’Neill, tenor, alto & soprano saxophones/clarinet/composer; Michael Bluestein, piano; Dan Feiszli, acoustic bass; Jason Lewis, drums.

This is Michael O’Neill’s fifth release as a bandleader and unlike his other releases, he has composed every song on this album.  O’Neill is a popular and sought-after San Francisco Bay Area jazz musician with a penchant for using vocalists on his former releases.  Although currently based in Northern California, O’Neill grew up surfing near the shores of San Diego in Southern California. On his tune, “Early Spring” he fully captures my attention.  Inside the CD jacket, O’Neill explains this composition is based on the harmonies of the Bill Evans tune, “Very Early.”  This is one of my favorites on O’Neill’s album and features a beautiful bass solo by Dan Feiszli. The song “One for Kenny” is written for Bay area jazz vocalist, Kenny Washington, who O’Neill has worked with for years.  It’s an up-tempo, straight-ahead piece that gives Michael Bluestein an opportunity to stretch out across the 88-piano keys and improvise boldly.  Track 5 is titled, “Cloudscape,” a ballad with a lovely melody.  As I listen to O’Neill’s original music and the way he plays his horn, I can tell he has been influenced by John Coltrane, perhaps Yusef Lateef, and other great jazz quartets like The Charles Lloyd group. There’s also quite a bit of Latin influence in the music he writes and arranges, like “Port of Spain” and “Suite Iris.”  This is the very first time he has finally brought his composer skills to the lime light and it’s obvious he is a gifted composer.  His woodwind work is as impressive as his writing skills.  Other favorites on this album include “Mavericks Samba” that dances and sways, encouraging my feet to move and the blues-based tune titled, “The Dreams We Left Behind” is a lovely ballad and a sweet way to complete this album.

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ALLEGRA LEVY – “LOSE MY NUMBER” – SteepleChase Records

Allegra Levy, vocal; Carmen Staaf, piano; Carmen Rothwell, bass; Colleen Clark, drums; John McNeil, trumpet; Pierre Dorge, ukulele.

If you are searching for something that will tantalize your jazz taste buds and take you on an unexpected journey into the outside-in of unique, this Allegra Levy album is the answer.  She is celebrating the extraordinary music of John McNeil, a composer that challenges the vocal register with his unanticipated melodic structure.  Obviously, these songs and their creative melodies lend themselves to instruments other than the voice.  Why?  Because of the intervals and the sudden, challenging ranges.  Allegra Levy makes it sound easy to sing these unusual compositions, but I know singing this music is anything but easy.  Opening with “Samba de Beach” I immediately think of the great Betty Carter.  Allegra doesn’t sound anything like Betty, but this song is so outside the realm of anything I expected and so challenging for a vocalist, that I immediately recall Betty and how she liked to challenge the status quo of jazz music.  That’s what Allegra Levy is doing.  She and her trio are challenging the norm.  In the final analysis, isn’t that’s what every jazz musician strives to do?

Allegra talks about the challenges involved in singing “Samba de Beach.” 

“I heard this melody and immediately thought about my frustrations regarding the musician’s life, and especially the jazz scene.  I think a lot of jazz musicians would feel this kind of frustration right now!”

Of course, she is referring to the current pandemic and how it has shut down the world and locked the doors to live music, clubs and concert halls.  It has also given Ms. Levy time to learn these incredibly difficult melodies and to match them with innovative and sometimes very humorous lyrics.

I was surprised to discover that until this album, there had been only one John McNeil composition sung on record.  One of the reasons was that his music didn’t have lyrics.  The other was that McNeil does not necessarily construct melodies that invite lyrics. For some predestined reason, Allegra was drawn to the work of trumpeter/composer John McNeil.  Their decade long musical-friendship started when she created words to his composition, “Livin’ Small.”  Levy confirms in her liner notes:

                “These songs were not written for singers!”

This declaration is obvious as you listen to the way her voice chases the tempo changes, slides into the interval jumps and takes the metric U-turns like a race car driver.  Levy is formidable on this project! Once she sings the melody and the unique lyrics she has written, her trio takes over and you hear how wonderful these songs are for a jazz trio to explore.  They lend themselves to instrumental development and improvisation. 

“John’s lines are complex and innovative, but they’re always tuneful and really memorable.  That’s the reason I always wanted to do this project.  I wanted to make them more accessible by putting words to them, so I could share them with even more people,” Allegra Levy explains.

Allegra Levy not only sweetly adds her lyrics, she scats too; sometimes harmonizing with the trumpet, like on “Strictly Ballroom,” or using her voice as colorful ‘filler’ lines in “Living Small.”  The tune “Strictly Ballroom” puts me in the mind of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross.  It has a lyric that reflects a tongue in cheek sarcasm and is quite comedic.  “Tiffany” is one of my favorites.  It’s a sensuous ballad and challenges Allegra’s voice to explore her low alto range.  Carmen Rothwell improvises with a beautiful solo on her double bass.  Carmen Staaf is a prolific pianist, who sensitively tells her stories on the eighty-eight keys during awesome solos and she’s also a sensitive accompanist.  Colleen Clark is ever present on trap drums, adding tasty licks and colorful additions to heighten the song’s musical moments. Allegra’s all-female trio is fiery hot!

Allegra Levy is a gifted lyricist, a sweet-toned vocalist with excellent pitch and definitely is a jazz singer. However, the one missing element in this talented singer/songwriter’s bag of excellence, is a style.  That is to say, when you hear Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Betty Carter, Julie London, Diana Krall, Carmen McCrae or even Chaka Khan, they have a distinctive sound; a vocal style.  That is not a criticism, but more my observation and an important one for any jazz singer.  For this reviewer, Allegra’s voice is like so many others I’ve heard without the distinction of having their own unique sound.  Importantly, on Levy’s first two albums, where she wrote both music and lyrics, she clearly established herself as a competent composer.  She also is obviously fearless when it comes to challenging her vocal strengths and technique.  Her songwriting gifts are a plus.  Here is a project you may find yourself listening to, again and again, to soak up all the richness of Allegra Levy’s lyrical wisdom and the challenging way she has adorned the music of John McNeil with her wonderful words.

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  TOM GUARNA – “SPIRIT SCIENCE” – Destiny Records

Tom Guarna, electric & acoustic guitar; Ben Wendel, tenor saxophone/bassoon; Aaron Parks, piano/Fender Rhodes keyboard/synthesizer; Joe Martin, bass; Justin Faulkner, drums.

Guitarist, Tom Guarna’s CD cover is very geometrical, as are the inside panels of the CD jacket.  I wondered about this, until in the liner notes I read Guarna’s explanation:

                “Sacred geometry; those laws that drive everything in existence; it’s where math and science meet with spirit and matter; ideas that humans have studied since the ancients, from Pythagoras to Da Vinci.  Exploring that changed my perspective on music. … Once you’re aware of it, you see those implications everywhere.  With Spirit Science, I wanted to evoke those primary, essential shapes, spirals, circles, squares, in my compositions.”

Most of Tom Guarna’s composition titles relate to scientific and spiritual concepts.  As a layman, a journalist and a jazz lover, I listen with open ears, but I’m no scientist or mathematician.  I had no idea (until I read the liner notes) that Track 1, “A Trion Re” refers to the sixth Platonic solid whereby light is an object. For me, this song is contemporary cool with a notable solo by Ben Wendel on saxophone.  Track 2 is a pretty ballad (Platonic Solids) with a catchy melody, brought to our attention by Aaron Parks on synthesizer, with Ben Wendel improvising over the theme on tenor saxophone.   On the title tune, Joe Martin soaks up the spotlight on bass with a long and melodic solo.  One of my favorites of Guarna’s compositions is his tribute to Kofi Burbridge titled, “A Reflection in a Reflection.”   The bassoon of Ben Wendel adds a fresh dimension to the music and Aaron Parks is colorful on synthesizer, on the Rhodes and the piano throughout this album.  “Metatron’s Cube” is straight ahead and the way it’s arranged makes the guitar sound like a full horn section, when blended with the sax and piano.  Justin Faulkner, on drums, holds the original compositions tightly in place

“I had never performed with Justin before, though I knew his playing with Branford Marsalis.  I had the idea that he and Joe would be good together and I was right.  Their hookup was fantastic,” Guarna expressed his admiration for the group’s drummer.

Guarna is a graduate of the Juilliard School.  The guitarist has performed with such icons as Stanley Clarke, Branford Marsalis, Randy Brecker, Mulgrew Miller, Billy Hart, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Les McCann, Gary Bartz and more.  He’s a solid composer and a diversified player, showing off his strengths on both acoustic and electric guitar during this unique project.  

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David Sills, tenor saxophone/alto flute; Mike Scott & Larry Koonse, guitars; Blake White, bass; Tim Pleasant, drums.

This, the 17th album release for reed player, David Sills.  It features seven original compositions by Sills and tunes by Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Jimmy Davis, Alan Broadbent and two of Sills’ accompanists, guitarists Larry Koonse and Mike Scott.  Opening with Scott’s “Minor Monk,” this group swings hard and the catchy melody repeats in your head.  This is the sign of a well-written composition.  The Sills’ group has a tight, cohesive sound.  When David Sills comes to the forefront on his horn, his mellow tone lights up the musical stage.  I played this song twice before moving on.  You rarely hear a quintet that utilizes two guitars, but it works!  David Sills explained:

“In recent years, most of my performances have taken place in venues in which no piano was available, so to fill the role of the missing piano, I began adding a second guitar.  This instrumentation seemed to open up many musical possibilities and allowed for an interesting mix of sonic colors.  Thus, the idea for this recording, featuring a double guitar quintet, was born.”

Certainly, it helps to use some of the best players in Southern California like Larry Koonse and Mike Scott, who is a founding member of the Los Angeles Jazz Collective.  Together, Scott and Koonse create a rich, beautiful rhythm section, along with Tim Pleasant on drums and Blake White on bass. They become a cohesive palate where Sills can paint his silky, smooth tenor saxophone sound.   “Sonny’s Side” is a David Sill original composition and it’s another swinging arrangement.  I wondered if it was a tribute to Sonny Rollins. When reading the publicist’s promo package, I discovered it actually was.  Tim Pleasant colors the music on his trap drums and holds the swing time in perfect place.  Half way through, the ensemble give’s Pleasant a time to shine on an impressive drum solo.  Blake White, on double bass, locks in with Pleasant and the groove is impeccable.

On the Alan Broadbent tune, “Quiet Is the Star” Sills picks up his alto flute and serenades us.   David Sills stays busy as a recording and performing artist, as a composer and an educator.  He puts out albums every other year, tours the United States, Europe and Asia as a bandleader and still finds time to perform with David Benoit, The Acoustic Jazz Quartet, the Line Up and the Liam Sillery Quintet. His current project, “Natural Lines” is a whole new adventure, for the first time featuring his double guitar quintet and offering us a dozen well-played songs for our listening pleasure.

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September 3, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

Sept 3, 2020


Charles McPherson, alto saxophone; Terrell Stafford, trumpet; Lorraine Castellanos, voice; Jeb Patton & Randy Porter, piano; Yotam Silberstein, guitar; David Wong, bass; Billy Drummond, drum.

Charles McPherson has long been one of my favorite bebop saxophone players.  So, I was both excited and expectant when his “Jazz Dance Suites” came across my desk.  McPherson’s music is always steeped in blues and he’s a master of his instrument.  However, I didn’t know what to expect when I discovered this was a groundbreaking collaboration with the San Diego Ballet; an association that began in 2015. According to the liner notes, his daughter Camille is a solo ballerina in her eighth season with the prestigious dance company.  Impressive!

                “In the spring of 2016, my father (whom I endearingly call Bub) and I had a performance together at the Lyceum Theatre in Downtown San Diego.  It was not the first time we’d performed together, and it would not be the last.  Sweet Synergy Suite, which consists of some of my favorite music and choreography of all time, was on the bill that evening.  We had performed this ballet twice together before, but in the spring of 2016, it felt different,” Camille writes in the liner notes.

The first suite is called “Song of Songs” and includes “Love Dance” that starts out quite bluesy.  Then, the sweet voice of Lorraine Castellanos enters singing in Yiddish.  When McPherson ventures into the land of solo horn, his saxophone is blues-bound with a taste of Middle Eastern music woven into the fabric of his composition. Yotam Silberstein takes a fluid and inspired guitar solo. He brings the blues back into view.  But right away, I can tell this is going to be more than the bebop icon I know and love.  Clearly, McPherson is exploring new directions and treading uncharted paths.  At age 80, he’s still growing and pushing the boundaries of his own creativity and talent. “Heart’s Desire” continues with the Middle Eastern cadenzas rich with culture.  The “Wedding Song” is track 3 and arranged as a playful samba.  “Hear My Plea” features horn and voice, without solos.  It’s a melancholy ballad that invites Silberstein’s guitar towards the end of the song, to join in.  Meantime, Billy Drummond colors the song with cymbals and rhythm licks on his trap drums.  The first strains of a song Charles McPherson calls “Thinking of You” immediately reminds me of Canadian Sunset, an old, popular song  from the 1950s.  However, it soon morphs into its own uniquely beautiful melody and arrangement.  Randy Porter performs a magnificent solo presentation of “After the Dance,” composed using echoes of the rhythm and harmony of the “Love Dance” composition.  Vocalist Lorraine Castellanos brings her unique tone and emotional delivery to “Praise.”  She sings a duet with Yotam Silberstein’s awesome guitar talents and it’s very effective and vocally intriguing.  “The Gospel Truth” shuffles in with blues overtones and McPherson’s bebop, bluesy, alto saxophone is featured.  That wraps up the first suite.  McPherson generously shares the spotlight with Jeb Patton on piano and Billy Drummond cuts loose on trap drums.

This album offers fifteen cuts and three suites of music.  I reviewed the first suite , which is followed by “Reflection of an Election.”  This suite was written in response to the 2016 U.S. presidential election and was originally composed for saxophone, violin, cello and bass.  Once again Charles McPherson brings his deep sense of blues to the party and adds his new rhythm section.  This is musical activism and a giant step back into his strong jazz roots, proudly playing his familiar bebop legacy. 

The final piece is titled “Sweet Synergy Suite” and closes this album.  It was actually the first work composed by McPherson for the San Diego Ballet and was originally created as an Afro-Latin/Jazz fusion number. This suite features six songs and is as sensitive, interesting and artistic as the former suites.  The final song, “Tropic of Capricorn” seemed to be inspired by an old standard titled “Out of this World”.  During this production, Charles adds the trumpet of Terrell Stafford.  McPherson’s arranging and composition demonstrates his genius blend of musical genres and his artistic prowess used to embrace ballet stories and the concept of creating music for dance. Here is fresh, new and powerful music by the legendary Charles McPherson.  Even more beautiful is that he was inspired to write and create these “Jazz Dance Suites” for his artistic and talented daughter.   

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Betty LaVette, vocals; Steve Jordan, drums; Smokey Hormel, guitar; Leon Pendarvis, keyboards; Tom Barney, bass; Nioka Workman, Cello; Charisa Rouse, Ina Paris, Rose Bartu, violins.

The distinctive voice of Bettye LaVette opens her latest CD with a song sung by Nina Simone titled, “I Hold No Grudge.”  When Bettye LaVette sings, you believe every word.  Her band is soulful and oozes the blues.  There’s a long, inspired guitar solo by Smokey Hormel that fades-out Track 1.   Track 2 is the current single release by Ms. LaVette titled “One More Song,” written by Sharon Robinson.  The lyrics are poignant:

“One more teardrop, every note.  Another lyric caught in my throat.  What was all this lovin’ for, just to strike another minor chord?”

Bettye LaVette delivers the lyrics with assertion and paints them with believability, as only she can. The same holds true when she sings the Della Reese recording, “Blues for the Weepers.”  On this project,  Bettye LaVette has chosen music made popular by some of the female entertainers she’s admired over the years.  Her gutsy, raspy voice snatches up the lyrics of each song and throws them at our ears like prophesy.  When you listen to Betty LaVette, you know she’s a straight-shooter.  She’s lived these lyrics and experienced these stories herself.  You feel her emotions, as she shares each song with you.  She released her first single from this album a few months ago, during the precarious state of the United States and after the continuous murders of black men across America, culminating in the photographed execution of George Floyd.  That song release was “Strange Fruit,” her ode to Billie Holiday’s activist offerings, over half-century ago.  Sadly, the saga continues today in 2020.

                “It really is horrifying that nearly 80-years later, through Billie’s lifetime and now my 74 years, the meaning of this song still applies.  It might not be men and women hanging from trees, but these public executions are now on video and it feels like they’re doing it for sport.  I hope the song will be a reminder that we have had enough and I support the Black Lives Matter movement,” spoke LaVette from the pages of her liner notes.   

One of my favorite songs by the Queen of the Blues, Dinah Washington, was “I’m Drinking Again” and Bettye does it justice.  Listening to her sing, I think back to evenings at Bert’s, a downtown nightclub in Detroit, where Bettye LaVette and I sometimes ran into each other at the bar, sipping our cocktails and listening to the great, Motown music talent.  Bettye is a native Detroiter and cut her very first record in 1962 for Atlantic Records.  She was just sixteen-years-old.  This was followed by top-40 charted single releases like, “He Made A Woman Out of Me” and “Do Your Duty.”  To date, this amazing, soulful singer has recorded ten albums, been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, and sung for the President of the United States, Barack Obama. 

Much credit must be given to producer, Steve Jordan, whose rhythm tracks support and inspire Bettye LaVette and bring out the very best of her emotional vocals.  You have to sit up and take notice of how this unique artist presents the Nancy Wilson hit record, “Save Your Love for Me.”  It’s stunning and Bettye owns that song.  As popular as Nancy Wilson made it, Bettye LaVette takes it to the next level. If you didn’t know it was a blues, now you do!

The final song on this album is the Beatles popular standard and the title tune, “Blackbird.”  Once again, Ms. LaVette puts her indelible stamp of uniqueness and blues on this tune.   She has been nominated for a total of five Grammys.  This should be the recording that finally brings the Grammy home.

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Teodross Avery, tenor & soprano saxophone; Anthony Wonsey & DD Jackson, piano; Corcoran Holt, bass; Willie Jones III & Marvin ‘Bugalu’ Smith, drummers; Allakoi Peete, percussion.

Teodross Avery fell in love with the music of Thelonious Monk when he was just fifteen years old.  His dad used to play the genius pianist and composer’s music all the time.  Teodross recalls:

“I used to listen to Monk’s album, ‘Monk’s Dream’, with the volume on ten on my dad’s huge speakers.  I began to hear how important the swing rhythm was to Thelonious Monk’s music.  It became clear to me that Monk wanted his complex melodies and harmonies to affect the musicians and the listeners alike with non-stop swing rhythms.”

Without a doubt, Dr. Avery has put together a group of musicians who swing hard and non-stop.  He also brings (along with the historic sound of Monk’s group), his own perspective and arrangements that add a kaleidoscope of colorful shades, beauty, blues and brilliance. Right from the very first song, “Teo” I am intrigued and absolutely intoxicated by the energy and creativity of this varied ensemble.  “Teo” is a wonderful Monk composition, inspired by the composer’s appreciation of tenor sax-man and longtime producer, Teo Macero.  Folks were likely to hear Monk and his band of merry men play this tune often at Minton’s Playhouse in New York while Thelonious was their house pianist in the mid-1940s.  Every composition on this album is the work of this piano genius. When Avery interprets “Ruby My Dear” he surprises me with the funk drums at the top and the smooth, Latin, rhythmic vibe he inserts.  When the melody arrives, like a beautiful woman making her grand entrance after the party has started, it both pleases and astonishes this listener.   This arrangement is dynamic and fresh.  It will make all the party attendees swivel their heads towards the ballad’s entrance.  Teodross Avery’s arrangement could have been influenced by the fact that this tune was penned for Monk’s girlfriend at that time, a spicy, Cuban-born beauty named Rubie Richardson.   The piano of Anthony Wonsey is the sparkle, like jewelry around the song’s long, lovely body. 

“Evidence” vividly showcases Willie Jones III on drums.  This, of course, is a standard jam session jazz tune that drummers love to dig their sticks into.  Willie Jones III does not disappoint.  The Teodross Avery Quartet brings a classic, hard-bop menu to the table.  It’s just what my taste buds needed to begin this early Saturday morning.  On “Evidence,” and the classic tune, “Rhythm-a-ning,” Teodross Avery swings tenaciously and races at top speed on his tenor saxophone.  He has a tone and attack that exploits the best in whatever he plays.  Corcoran Holt is stunning and convincing on his bass solos.  Holt’s up-tempo, precision attack throughout, features his swiftly-walking double bass that locks into the drums and makes the perfect basement for this quartet to jam inside.  A melodic mixture of improvised piano notes scurry beneath the sensitive fingers of Wonsey.  This is an exciting and serious representation of master Monk’s work, while exploring  the talents of these awesome musicians. 

DD Jackson sits down to the piano to introduce us to “In Walked Bud” in a very inventive and blues-laden way.  He has a totally different style of playing than Wonsey, but is no less dynamic or brilliant. He brings something new and inventive to the tune.  The drums roll, like a two-ton truck barreling down the freeway.  Teodross Avery is magnificently present on his tenor saxophone.  Mr. Jackson takes a serious solo that makes me sit up and pay close attention.  This is the way jazz is supposed to make you feel.  Marvin “Bugalu” Smith parts the curtains and demands our consideration during his drum solo, full of spunk and fire.  “In Walked Bud” never sounded so good! 

We get a breather on “Ugly Beauty,” the only waltz Monk ever wrote and it’s sweetly presented, yet still with those powerful drums edging the band on.  Teodross Avery plays beautifully on soprano saxophone this time, sounding like a wild, beautiful bird.  He glides, dips and flies over our heads and makes me look up.  This music lifts me.  DD Jackson answers some of his conversational horn lines on piano, as though they are having a private conversation.  His fingers move rapidly; humming bird or butterfly wings dusting the piano keys. 

Every song and each individual production on this album of great music is worthy of a replay.  I spent a couple of hours listening, so I could soak up every nuance; every drop of colorful creativity.  Teodross Avery is masterful as a woodwind player, but also as a bandleader, arranger and musical inspiration.

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Femi Knight, vocals; Chad Edwards, keyboards/Hammond B3; Matt Weisberg, keyboards; Chris Gordon, grand piano/background vocals; Steve Gregory, guitar; Jonathan Pintoff, bass; Randy Drake, drums; Scott Breadman, percussion; HORN SECTION: Mike McGuffey & Kye Palmer , trumpet; Jeff Jarvis, trumpet/flugelhorn; Glen Berger, tenor/alto saxophone; Jim Lewis, trombone.

Femi Knight is a singer/songwriter who plays piano and brings a sweetness and a soulfulness to the San Gabriel 7 ensemble.  She may be best remembered for her long association as lead vocalist with Sergio Mendes. The San Gabriel 7 opens with her original composition, “I’m Going Home Tonight.”  This song is a blend of smooth jazz, R&B and straight-ahead jazz.  The San Gabriel 7 group blends the walls that divide those three elements of music into one solid funk arrangement.  Knight’s voice tells the story, while the horn section punches harmonically to enhance her composition.  Randy Drake’s drums forcefully boost the production.  This ensemble brings back the Tower of Power kind of energy.  On “West Indian Brown” (where the Red Dress lyrics are prominent) the percussion of Scott Breadman is tasty on this tune and the horns once again dance and prance around the vocalist.  When they solo, the music transitions from R&B-soul to jazz-funk. 

Chris Gordon on grand piano also sings background and on several songs Femi Knight layers her voice and joins him as a background singer.  On the tune, “The Next Best Thing” Glen Berger plays a notable and very jazzy saxophone solo.  “New Tomorrow” crosses into the realm of Christian contemporary music and features Jeff Jarvis and Kye Palmer, strong and visible on their trumpets.   Steve Gregory, on guitar, steps forward with an innovative improvisational solo on the song “Stranger.” 

This is a group that will invigorate any party.  They are a sample of the new genre of music that incorporates various styles of music, based and rooted in blues, inspired by jazz and propelled by the fine contemporary songwriting of Femi Knight. 

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Regina Carter, violin/arranger; Jon Batiste, piano; John Daversa, trumpet/flugelhorn/arranger; Kabir Sehgal, bass/percussion; Harvey Mason, drums; Alexis Cuadrado, bass; Brian Gorrell, tenor saxophone.

Regina Carter opens her CD with a short, spoken essay about growing up in Detroit and the embracing of many cultures, as well as the important privilege of voting.  Her violin plays softly in the background as she speaks. 

Track 2 pays tribute to “Georgia On My Mind.”  The groove is set by Jon Batiste’s strong and rhythmic piano line.  John Daversa drives his trumpet message into the spotlight and shines.  Carter has been probing the blues-based, country side of her heritage for some time and you hear her unique and awe-inspiring violin style peel back the layers of culture during this production.  She exposes the blues roots of jazz, as well as honoring the influences of many cultures from around the world.  On Track 3, “Rocky Mountain High Colorado” (by John Denver & Mike Taylor), takes on a whole new perspective.  Kabir Sehgal sparkles his percussive magic across the music, along with the charismatic Mr. Harvey Mason on trap drums.  The drums and Regina Carter take center stage on this arrangement and the beauty of just violin and percussion is quite striking and hypnotic.  When the band joins in, the party continues in full force. This is one of my favorite arrangements on this album. 

I expected “Dancing in the Street (Detroit Michigan)” to be full of fire and funk.  It arrives as a pensive ballad, with Regina Carter’s sensuous violin accentuating the melody of this familiar hit record by Martha and the Vandellas in ways I never expected.  During this arrangement, Regina Carter’s violin takes on a voice as dynamic and powerful as freedom itself.  When John Daversa puts his trumpet to his lips to blow his solo, Alexis Cuadrado walks proudly alongside of him on bass. They plant the blues firmly at the feet of the violinist.

“It’s not about the Red states or the blue States,” speaks Jon Batiste.  “It’s about the ‘Swing States,’ and actually, we have fifty Swing States’ and a few territories.  I’m proud to be from Louisiana,” he states as he plays his blues piano.  “Music brings us together because it’s a force that can speak the universal language of love and truth.”

His music blends into the familiar song, “You Are My Sunshine” (Louisiana-style) and Regina parts the quiet with her violin pronouncements in a slow execution of the melody.  Soon, the tempo picks up and she is joined in a raucous arrangement of the song featuring bright horn work and Regina Carter’s dancing violin, along with Batiste’s innovative piano compliment and solo.  With the tempo change,the arrangement embraces the joy of a New Orleans street band. 

This is a production full of sweet surprises, as delicious as “We Shall Overcome” sung solo by the Carter violin or Harvey Mason’s commentary on his hometown of Kansas.  Ms. Carter has pulled her excellent band together from a multitude of States.  John Daversa speaks about Florida and the Everglades.  They sing a tribute to the “Swanee River” and add a twist of Country/Western jazz and blues to  “Home on the Range” arrangement.   Her entire album offers fourteen songs and short essays, stacked like buttermilk pancakes, fresh off the griddle and drizzled with warm buttery blues, like hot Alaga syrup. Regina Carter hopes that this ‘Freedom Band’ will innovate people, State to State, to vote this coming November, 2020 and also hopes she can pull people together under the umbrella of good music. 

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MAGGIE HERRON – “YOUR REFRAIN” – Independent label

Maggie Herron, vocals/piano/composer; Dawn Herron, composer; Larry Goldings & Bill Cunliffe, Piano ; David Enos, Mike Gurrola & Dean Taba, bass; John Ferraro & Jake Reed, drums; Larry Koonse & Jim Chiodini, guitar; Duane Padilla, string arrangements; Gillian Margot & Brandon Winbush, background vocals; Bob Sheppard, soprano saxophone; Debbie McQuillan, tin Whistle.

Maggie Herron is a bright presence on the Waikiki, Hawaii jazz scene.  For over four decades, she has been playing piano, singing her songs of life and has become a sort of jazz fixture within the island community.  Her music has a little bit of blues running through it, like a bright turquoise ribbon.  It’s prominent on the opening tune, “WhatNot,” penned by Maggie and her daughter; Dawn Herron.  This entire album is a tribute to her daughter who passed away from an unexpected bicycle accident in April of this year.  She was forty-nine-years young and left a husband and two teenage sons behind, along with her mother grieving the loss of her precious and talented daughter.  As a published songwriter myself, this journalist became a fan of the music Maggie and her daughter wrote and recorded.  I have reviewed two other releases by Maggie Herron and I was shocked and saddened when I received this latest album and realized Maggie had lost her beloved child.  The lyrics to the album’s title tune, “Your Refrain” are enhanced by a string arrangement prepared by Duane Padilla.  They read:

                “I listen closely to hear your refrain.  A celestial rhythm the heartbeat of rain. Without breath, without sound, you still remain. I held you closely and watched your breath fall. Touched by an angel, soft and so calm. Your ember quietly fading away, spirit escaping this first and last day.”

Her husky, smokey alto voice caresses the lyrics.  Maggie Herron is a stylist.  Once you hear her, you will always recognize her sound.  Maggie’s unique tone reminds me of the great Cleo Laine’s lower register.  Track 4 is titled, “Watching the Crows” and in her liner notes, Maggie said it was daughter’s favorite collaboration.  On this original composition, she features Bob Sheppard on soprano saxophone.

                “Dawn had been writing short stories and poems most of her life and I kept asking her to write lyrics for me.  I knew she would be great at it.  With this newest release, we now have nineteen songs recorded as co-writers.  My plan is to record several others that I haven’t yet gotten to,” Herron explained.  

Maggie created this album during the pandemic, while sheltered in place.  She sent the tracks out to her talented collaborators with her piano and vocal treatments of the songs.  They took it from there.

                “They could hear what I was looking for; the feel.  My plan was to take a year to record the album, a really slow pace.  But then, after Dawn’s passing, for my own sanity I decided, no – – -I’m just going to do it now.”

This album is an excellent example of original music, both poetic and humorous, like “He Can’t Even Lay an Egg” and “I Can’t Seem to Find My Man,” or poignant and honest tunes  like “Touch.”  

It’s both entertaining and a lovely tribute to the collaboration of mother and daughter.  Maggie Herron also includes two standard songs.  One of my favorites by Joni Mitchell, “Both Sides Now” and “God Bless the Child.”  When Maggie Herron released her debut album in 2011 (In the Wings) she was already a polished songwriter, competent pianist and stylized singer with an extensive book of original pieces.  She followed-up with her 2015 release of “Good Thing” and then, “Between the Music and the Moon.”  The last two albums both won Na Hoku Hanohano Jazz Album of the Year Awards and featured music collaborations with her daughter, Dawn.  I expect this latest release may also be an award winning project.

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MATT WILSON QUARTET – “HUG” – Palmetto Records

Matt Wilson, drummer/composer/xylophone/voice; Jeff Lederer, tenor, alto & soprano saxophones/clarinet/piccolo/voice; Kirk Knuffke, cornet/soprano cornet/voice; Chris Lightcap, acoustic bass/electric bass/8-string space bass/boice; Strings on “Hug” tune arranged & played by Matt Combs.

Gene Ammons was one of my favorite jazz saxophonists on the planet.  His music was rooted in blues and he made no bones about it. I enjoyed hearing Ammons play ‘live’ many times in smokey, packed Detroit nightclubs. Remember when you could smoke in a club?  Mat Wilson opens with a Gene Ammons tune titled, “The One Before This” and it swings and bounces the blues along, letting the various players take their solos.  Jeff Lederer is powerful on his saxophone and Chris Lightcap takes a walking bass solo.  Enter drummer and bandleader, Matt Wilson to show off his chops.  Throughout, Kirk Knuffke adds his cornet sparkle and splash, like colorful confetti bombarding  the project.

Track 2 sweeps me away to New Orleans, as the Wilson Quartet joyfully explores the Abdullah Ibrahim “Jabulani” composition.  When Wilson solos, he sings on his trap drums.  The staccato horn lines add punch and interest to the arrangement.  Track 3 swings so hard and at such a rapid pace, I feel like I should fasten my seat belt and I’m seated in my office lounge chair.  This Quartet has their own unique sound and create amazing excitement.  Referencing Charlie Haden’s “In the Moment” piece, Wilson said:

“It’s not one of the ballads that Charlie wrote so beautifully.  What’s really interesting is that it actually sounds very Paul Motian-like.  I played with Charlie for a long time and I wanted to recognize that spirit.  He was so important and special to me,” Wilson explains.

As a composer, Matt Wilson has composed six of the eleven song recorded.   He offers us tongue in cheek humor with his “Sunny and Share” song and his “Space Force March/Interplanetary Music” (co-written with Sun Ra and using the 45th president’s voice announcing his Space Force as a backdrop).  The music dives into the outside, far-to-the-right universe and adds a clownish melody with all the quartet singing “It’s a planetary music” atop an Avant-garde arrangement with marching drums and a two-feel on the bass.  It really had me laughing heartily!  The “Sunny and Share” tune reinvents “The Beat Goes On” and “I Got You Babe” (from the 1960s contemporary pop classics book) into an Ornettified arrangement. 

“I’m a huge Cher fan,” Wilson reminds us that he grew up watching the popular Sonny and Cher television show.  

A pivotal figure for more than three decades, Wilson is an innovative educator, poll-topping drummer, prolific composer and inveterate collaborator.  “Hug” is his fourteenth album as a leader.

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