SCATTERED DIAMONDS, BIRDSONGS AND MORE

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 GROUP – “SCATTERED DIAMONDS” – Sunyata Records

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 SPIRABASSI QUARTET – “IMPROKOFIEV”– Jazzmax Records

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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THE MICHAEL O’NEILL QUARTET – “AND THEN IT RAINED” – Jazzmo Records

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 DOUBLE GUITAR QUINTET – “NATURAL LINES” – Gut String Records

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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One Response to “SCATTERED DIAMONDS, BIRDSONGS AND MORE”

  1. REVIEW: Champian Fulton "Birdsong" On Musicamemoirs's Blog - LYDIALIEBMAN.COM Says:

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

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