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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  1. REVIEWS: Charles McPherson, Regina Carter & Teodross Avery on Musicameoirs's Blog - LYDIALIEBMAN.COM Says:

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

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