WOMEN IN JAZZ

By Dee Dee McNeil

OCTOBER 26, 2020

Two exceptional pianists, ANGELICA SANCHEZ & MARILYN CRISPELL, merge their talents to record a spellbinding duo piano production.  Another pianist, RINA, showcases composer talents on her debut trio recording.  Bassist and vocalist, ESPERANZA SPALDING and pianist/composer FRED HERSCH release a 5-song duo EP to raise money for out-of-work jazz musicians.  MIKI YAMANAKA plays both vibraphone and piano with her jazz ensemble.  Singer, AMBER WEEKES, has a Christmas album available and violinist, JULIET KURTZMAN, joins jazz pianist, PETE MALINVERNI to combine classical violin with jazz piano.  BRANDI DISTERHEFT plays double bass, cello and sings on her fifth album release, featuring George Coleman.  JULIA KAROSI sings without words and interprets Hungarian classical music and LAILA BILAI releases a single to celebrate Joni Mitchell’s birthday.

ANGELICA SANCHEZ & MARILYN CRISPELL – “HOW TO TURN THE MOON” – Pyroclastic Records

Angelica Sanchez, piano/composer/educator; Marilyn Crispell, piano/composer.

The moon has long been thought to represent a female embodiment, while the sun represents the male. These two extraordinarily talented women aim to show us “How to Turn the Moon.”  They use their piano tenacity to create textures, melodies, and crescendos of improvisation.  As Track 1, “Lobe of the Fly” opens this CD and you can almost hear the fly’s wings breaking the air as the two pianists sing simultaneously.  When they stop, it’s sudden and startling; like a fly lighting atop the kitchen sink defiantly.  Their fingers dance and explore the 88 keys, like insects flying wildly and trying to avoid the fly swatter.  Their piano notes paint a vivid portrait of the fly. 

On track 2, “Ancient Dream,” Marilyn Crispell plays with the piano strings, creating mood and magic.  I know it’s Marilyn because in the studio the two pianists set up their instruments facing each other with Angelica appearing in the left stereo channel of their recording and Marilyn in the right.  Angelica describes the moment and the scene in the liner notes.

“The light through the window, the dog on the couch; the little universes that Marilyn and I created in the moment … love all around. Marilyn and I each get different sounds out of the piano. …It can be tricky with two pianos, to make sure there is enough space in the music; but she and I complement one another, naturally,” Angelica says in the liner notes. 

Marilyn has been a composer and performer of Avant-garde, contemporary improvised music for over four decades.  For ten years she was a member of the Anthony Braxton Quartet and the Reggie Workman Ensemble.  Ms. Crispell is the recipient of three New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship grants, a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust Composition Commission.

Angelica has composed seven of the ten compositions and she and Marilyn shared composer credits on three of the songs.  Sanchez is an Arizona native.  Her goal of moving to New York City, in 1994, was to meet with similar, artistic minds like Marilyn Crispell, Wadada Leo Smith, Paul Motian and a host of other contemporaries.  She has already released a number of critically acclaimed albums as a bandleader and holds a Master of Fine Arts in jazz Arranging from William Paterson University.  Sanchez currently works as a lecturer at Princeton University. 

Angelica Sanchez opens track 3 with a flurry of notes, some that are painted quite bluesy, other’s that are very classical in nature.   This composition is called “Calyces of Held” and caused me to go to my dictionary to try and interpret this title.  In zoology, a calyx (plural is calyces) is a cuplike cavity or structure.  In Botany, calyx is the sepals of a flower that encloses the petals and forms a protective layer around a flower in bud.   This duo is much like a blooming flower, colorful and delicate; growing into maturation before our ears.  They offer music to enjoy in the garden of our minds.  This is music to think by.  Music that inspires meditation or floats from our sound system while we are writing, reading or cleaning house.  This is woman music; she-ro music; people music; creative and spontaneous piano jazz.  This is Angelica Sanchez and Marilyn Crispell testing space and showering sound into the universe.  They are showing us “How to Turn the Moon” and offering a musical spaceship.  They dare us to explore and take an uninhibited ride.

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RINA –“RINA” – Yamaha Music Entertainment

Rina, piano/composer; Yasushi Nakamura, bass; Jerome Jennings, drums.

Rina’s piano talent is warm and richly rooted in European classical music.  She introduces us to her composition, “Tale of Small Wishes,” that she composed, based on the story of the Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, ‘The Little Match Girl.”  Rina said she wrote this after being touched by emotions while reading about hardship.   Born in Japan, but currently based in New York City, Rina holds a degree from Kunitachi College of Music, where she studied with master pianist Makoto Ozone.  In fact, her mentor, Makoto Ozone, produced this album.  As a student of Berklee College of Music, Rina received a full-scholarship to attend this Boston music conservatory and she graduated in 2018.  She explained her motivation to record.

“On this album, I wanted the music to be authentic; to represent myself, not only as a musician but also as a person.  It is still jazz, but rather than having the feeling of listening to a jazz album, I want people to be able to connect with my emotions through the stories I am telling.  I hope my music will create a positive vibe for listeners, who can then go on and connect with and reflect upon their own feeling in an honest way,” Rina explained.

For Track 2, “Shadows of the Mind” Rina explained:

“We face the unknown and we have to confront it on a daily basis.  This song expresses my state of mind going through these challenges.”

It starts out energetically, with the drums of Jerome Jennings spurring the moment.  The bass of Yasushi Nakamura pumps up the arrangement and walks briskly beneath Rina’s straight-ahead tune.  The trio swings hard on this one, led strongly by Rina’s piano brilliance.  All three players walk brightly into their individual solos to exhibit their unique talents.  “Journey” continues to swing and shows-off Rina’s melodic individuality on this song describing her life’s journey.  Jennings is given plenty of opportunities to show-off his drum mastery, trading bars with Rina, as though they are having a serious conversation.  “With You Always” is a jazz waltz, with the piano and the bass singing the pretty melody in unison.  Then Nakamura is given time to speak his truth on the double bass.  Rina described her arrangement.

“I wrote this song with a message to my father saying, I’m always with you, even if we’re apart. … I imagine the bass as my father and the piano as myself, spending time together.”

Rina’s composer talent is obvious on this, her debut recording.  She covers the gamut of musical styles, soaring on “Foxglove” with a very intense Latin groove and a joyful tempo. “Eternal Eyes” represents her melancholy side and is a beautiful ballad, sweetly interpreted by her dynamic trio.  It was rewarding to hear Yasushi Nakamura pick up his bow and play his beautiful bass instrument like a cello.  Jerome Jennings is featured on “J.J’s Painting” and shows off his drum chops,  briskly playing brushes.  

I enjoyed every song on this album.  Here is an up and coming star on the horizon, sparkling with hope and anticipation; talent and determination.  Most importantly, she is sharing a special part of her heart and soul with us.  If we listen closely, we can understand her genuine, musical stories.

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ESPERANZA SPALDING AND PIANIST/COMPOSER FRED HERSCH RELEASE A 5-SONG DUO EP

Because the COVID-19 pandemic has had such a devasting effect on the jazz community, visionary vocalist, bassist and composer, Esperanza Spalding, wanted to do something to help struggling musical artists.  Renowned pianist and composer, Fred Hersch also wanted to support his fellow musicians. so, the two made a plan.  Esperanza put down her bass and just brought her beautiful and free-spirited voice to the party. Fred Hersch joined her on the grand piano with all his brilliance on display.  They recorded and released this EP, unfortunately for us, it sold only in the month of June, 2020.  The sales and donations went to support the out-of-work jazz community.  Besides raising much-needed funds for this vital cause, they performed the recording ‘Live at the Village Vanguard’ and that provided a rare opportunity for listeners to enjoy this singular and thrilling collaboration between two amazing and gifted musicians.  I salute their hearts, that beat as huge as their talents.  Perhaps this will be an inspiration to others who would like to help struggling musicians through this challenging time.  In this case, all funds and donations went to the Jazz Foundation of America, a group that has been critically impacted by this ongoing crisis.

Esperanza Spalding is a four-time Grammy Award recipient and a lover of all music, especially improvisation-based productions that emerge from the African American culture of jazz.  You clearly hear this love of freedom and improvisation during Spalding’s performance with the legendary, Fred Hersch.  This was the first time I ever heard Esperanza Spalding perform singularly, as a vocalist, without her arms wrapped securely around her double bass.  She did not disappoint!  Ms. Spalding has taught at Berklee College of Music and Harvard University and is currently in the process of writing an opera in collaboration with the legendary, Wayne Shorter.

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MIKI YAMANAKA – “HUMAN DUST SUITE” – Outside In Music

Miki Yamanaka, piano/vibes/composer; Anthony Orji, alto saxophone; Orlando Le Fleming, bass; Jochen Rueckert, drums.

This is Miki Yamanaka’s follow up album to her acclaimed piano debut CD, “Cellar Live,” released in 2018. She was inspired to compose this current production by Hungarian American conceptual artist, Agnes Denes’s photograph of “human Dust.”  The photo is of a mound of human remains after cremation.  After Miki Yamanaka first saw this photo on exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, she was moved to compose the “Human Dust Suite.”  Each movement represents a body part.  In her description, each composition title symbolizes something greater that leads to happiness.  For example, “Tummy” is inspired by a love for food and nourishment.  The Human Dust Suites are placed in the middle of her production and bookended by three songs on each side of these individual suites.  “Pre School” is the first song on her album and it was inspired by the Lee Konitz song, “Contrafact.”  

A year ago, Miki made a New Year’s Eve resolution to compose a song each month.  From January to April, she did pretty well.  Track 2 is one of those compositions and was inspired by Mulgrew Miller’s “Epicchords” song.    It’s titled “March”, which has nothing to do with a marching tempo or drum arrangements, but instead features Anthony Orji on’s alto saxophone.  This is straight-ahead jazz with Miki power-packing her improvisational attack on the keys.  On Cut 3, “First Day of Spring” Orlando Le Fleming offers us a bass solo that explores the chord changes in a slow and tender way, with Jochen Rueckert giving both intentional restraint and sensitive support on trap drums.

As I mentioned above, Ms. Yamanaka’s “Human Dust Suite” is composed of five individual suites; Brain, Hatsu, Tummy, Feet Go Bad First and Party’s Over.   In her liner notes she talks about the photograph that inspired these five suites.

“When I saw the photos of human cremation, I thought that everyone will look the same after we die; race, gender, occupation or success won’t change how we look when we get cremated.  I just would like to deliver this message.  Everyone dies and all we can do, ‘til the time comes, is to enjoy life fully.”

This journalist is hard-pressed to find the beauty in cremated body parts, however there are some beautiful, musical moments on this album. Yamanaka establishes herself as a thoughtful composer and is quite prolific on her instruments.  She surprises me on Tracks five through seven, adding vibraphone sounds to the mix that are over-dubbed atop her piano playing.  She offers us modern jazz, ballads and straight-ahead tunes that celebrate Miki Yamanaka’s personal life lyricism.

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AMBER WEEKES – “THE GATHERING” – Independent Label

Amber Weekes, lead vocal/background vocals; Mark Cargill, string & horn arrangements/producer/ arranger/solo violinist; Josh Nelson, Eddy Olivieri & Tony Capodonico, piano; John B. Williams, Kevin Brandon & Adam Cohen, bass; Nathaniel Scott, Fritz Wise & Sinclair Lott, drums; Jacques Lesure, Doug MacDonald & Paul Jackson Jr., guitar; Andrew Carney, trumpet; Richard Heath & Munyungo Jackson, percussion; Rickey Woodard, saxophone. Nio Wilson, Marcus D. Cargill & JoAnn Tominaga, background vocals; Ernie Fields Jr., bagpipes; Gregory Cook, celeste; Andrew Carney, trumpet.

Amber Weekes has a bell clear voice, perfect for the ten holiday songs she interprets on her debut Christmas album. The gift is ours.   Opening with “The Christmas Waltz” by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, enhanced by the muted trumpet of Andrew Carney, this is a lovely song that many have overlooked on their holiday albums.  Amber Weekes introduces us to the lyrics with her perfect enunciation and pleasing tone.  Mark Cargill adds strings and horns, like a satin pillow for Amber’s voice to lie upon.  On her rendition of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” Amber pulls out every nuance of this arrangement, with tones warm and smooth as Christmas taffy.  This vocalist throws in a familiar jazz standard “My Romance” and then continues reminding us of the holidays with songs like “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and “Silent Night.”   She performs “Some Children See Him” by Alfred Burt and it was a new song to my ears, with a lyric about Jesus being visible to the youth.  The bagpipes by Ernie Fields Jr., were a pleasant surprise in this arrangement.  The title tune was composed by Mark Cargill & Gregory Cook.  This melody is catchy and Amber Weekes penned the lyrics.  Cargill performs a stellar violin solo.  They employ background voices that sound child-like and are sung in unison.   I enjoyed Amber’s bluesy arrangement of “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve.”  Her musical ensemble swings on “Winter Wonderland” and “Let it Snow.”  Amber Weekes and her Los Angeles musicians offer us a little bit of everything to brighten up our holiday season.

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JULIET KURTZMAN & PETE MALINVERNI – “CANDLELIGHT-LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA” – Independent label

Juliet Kurtzman, violin; Pete Malinverni, Steinway grand piano.

This is a striking and emotionally infused album featuring violin and piano.  Juliet Kurtzman, who grew up in Houston, Texas, came from musical roots.  Her family was packed with pianists, but the little girl was drawn to the violin.  At age seven, she was studying with renowned violin teacher, Ms. Fredell Lack.  At the young age of fourteen, she debuted as a soloist with the Houston Symphony Orchestra.  At seventeen, she continued her studies at the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, becoming one of only two violinists accepted Internationally.  She has toured Europe as a symphonic violinist.  Juliet Kurtzman brings her classical talents to this recording with Pete Malinverni, who brings his jazz piano stylings to the studio.

Juliet has become a dedicated teacher for a dozen years, working at the 92nd Street Y, Kaufman center and the Special Music School.  As she passes her gifts forward, she looks with pride at her prize-winning students, who go forward, winning competitions and joining many prominent music conservatories.  While Juliet Kurtzman passes the baton, lucky for us, she has still taken time to record this beautiful duo album of music.

Pianist Pete Malinverni grew up in Niagara Falls, New York.  He started out studying classical piano and was later drawn to jazz.  Currently, he chairs the Jazz Studies program at Purchase College Conservatory of Music – SUNY.  He’s played in trios, small and large ensembles and solo.  Pete also was part of a Gospel Choir group.  On this production, he endeavors, quite successfully, to bridge the worlds of classical music and America’s indigenous artform of jazz.

“What unites us is stronger than those things that divide us.  Art that emanates from, and is directed to the heart, has always been important.  But now, as our world has come to a once-in-a-generation dual reckoning with mortality and injustice, the essential nature of art in service to human connection is ever more apparent,” Pete Malinverni gave us a glimpse into why he created this work of art.

The opening tune, “Pulcinella” was composed by Malinverni, and sounds like a very sexy tango.  The Kurtzman violin is the ballerina in a tango skirt, swishing delicately, but powerfully, across the polished floor.  Pete Malinverni adds the rhythm and groove on his Steinway grand piano.  On Track 2, the song is “Candelights” by Beiderbecke.  Pete’s piano is a tender reflection of the poignant melody that Juliet coaches from her violin.  It sounds as though the violin is weeping, emotionally.  Malinverni’s piano beautifully layers the melody with lush chords, giving solid confirmation to Beiderbecke’s composition.  They also interpret another one of Bix Beiderbecke’s compositions titled, “Davenport Blues.”  Beiderbecke was an American jazz cornetist, pianist and songwriter who was influential in 1920.  In fact, there are three other songs by that composer included in this production.  They also play Scott Joplin’s “Solace” song and offer their interpretation of the jazz standard, “Body and Soul,” where Malinverni finally stretches out during a solo piano interlude that mirrors shades of Thelonious Monk and the pianists of the 1930s.  “Por Una Cabeza” is a passionate tango, where the duo magnifies their talents. 

“Our collaboration characterized by a breadth of emotional and musical expression, and fueled by the joy of making music together has been a revelation for both of us,” Malinverni admits in his press package.

Their collaboration was certainly a lovely and artistic way for me to spend an Autumn evening.  This album will be available November 13, 2020.

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BRANDI DISTERHEFT TRIO with GEORGE COLEMAN – “SURFBOARD” – Justin Time Records

Brandi Disterheft, bass/vocals/composer/cello; George Coleman, tenor saxophone; Portinho, drums; Klaus Mueller, piano.

Brandi Disterheft is a young, Juno-award winning bassist, composer and singer who has teamed with two octogenarian musicians; the iconic tenor saxophonist, George Coleman and the legendary Brazilian drummer, Portinho.  She also includes pianist, Klaus Mueller, who was born in Germany, then raised in Japan, Chile and Brazil.  He brings all that international, cultural richness, along with being a classically trained musician. 

Track 1 is an instrumental, written by Jobim, and celebrates the album’s title, “Surfboard.”  Mueller’s finger’s surf across the 88 keys, floating brightly above the rhythm tapestry that Portinho weaves.  Portinho is fondly known as the James Brown of Brazilian funk Samba.  On Track 2, Brandi previews her vocal tenacity and songwriter talents.  Frankly, I was disappointed to hear her sing lyrics obviously lifted from the old standard, “Something Cool” i.e.: “I don’t ordinarily drink with strangers” and the story is uncomfortably the same as June Christy’s hit record, even though it’s called “Prelude to Coup de Foudre.”  The melody is lovely and her soft, girlish voice sings it very well.  It’s followed by “Coup de Foudre” another original composition with lyrics about a one-night-stand.  George Coleman’s stellar tenor sax solo boldly lifts this song arrangement and he’s a wild bird in flight on “My Foolish Heart.”  Ms. Disterheft takes a short, but appropriate bass solo on this beautiful ballad.  She also steps into the spotlight on the Moacir Santos/ Telles tune, “Nana,” giving us a little longer, Latin-flavored solo, while Mueller brings the blues into play during his piano solo. “Manhattan Moon” is another Disterheft original composition, with prose lyrics.  I like the way she harmonizes vocally with her bass.  This is another song, strongly Brazilian flavored, as is “Pendulum at Falcon’s Lair” (an Oscar Pettiford composition).  On her tune, “One Dream” Brandi Disterheft opens with an attention-getting bass solo. Her light, soprano voice, against the deep bass of her instrument, creates a startling duo.  When the band enters, once again we recognize what beautiful melodies Ms. Disterheft writes.  Her lyrics remain more prose than rhymes, often without a ‘hook’ and that creates a somewhat unique songwriting stye of her own.   

This is Brandi’s fifth album as a bandleader.  The pandemic gave her time alone to work on this production.  Before the terrible COVID19 madness, Brandi Disterheft was busy working every single night.  She spent a lot of time playing with the recently departed pianist, Harold Mabern, who grew up with eighty-five-year-old, George Coleman in Memphis, Tennessee.  They were friends.  Disterheft has taken two palms full of standard jazz songs and whipped them into a Brazilian theme in a lovely way.  She lives in Vancouver, Canada, but the pandemic has kept her housed and quarantined in New York City.  She actually moved to New York to study with the great bassist, Ron Carter.  Her mom was a Chicago-born jazz organist.  Her Aunt Angie is a Grammy winning session singer in Los Angeles.  So, her roots are steeped in music.  She had the honor to be bassist on the “Pleased to Meet You” album by Hank Jones.  Debbie includes the Jones original, “Del Sasser.”  She has also been continuously working with drummer and mentor, Portinho for a decade, with emphasis on Brazilian musical roots. Finally, they have recorded together and the results is this entertaining “Surfboard” album.

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JULIA KAROSI – “WITHOUT DIMENSIONS” featuring BEN MONDER – Challenge Records Int

Julia Karosi, vocals/composer; Ben Monder, guitar; Aron Talas, piano; Adam Bogothy, bass; Bendeguz Varga, drums.

The first song, the title tune, opens like an airliner at the starting gate.  The soft roar of the engine; that expectant feeling you have as you taxi down the runway; the sound of the rubber wheels on the tarmac, rolling with purpose, forward. The ensemble’s  musical instruments create the mood. Then enters Aron Talas on piano, followed by the warm vocals of Julia Karosi.  She sings without words, becoming a solo instrument. 

“I always wondered whether music belongs to any of the dimensions as theorized in the ‘standard model’ in modern physics.  I summarized my subjective answer as the title of this album,” Julia shares.

  This is an album that celebrates voice as an instrument.  I wouldn’t call Julia Karosi a jazz singer or a scat singer, because scat singers improvise on a theme.  Karosi is singing the melodies as written and incorporating her Hungarian heritage into the mix by drawing on her decades-long study of composer Bela Bartok, employing her classical roots and then adding a vocal concept without lyricism.  With the stellar accomplishments of her ensemble, Ben Monder on guitar, Talas on piano, Adam Bogothy on double bass and Bendeguz Varga on drums, her ensemble unleashes a host of musical possibilities and imaginative productions, many in a minor key.  Julia Karosi has composed the first two songs and the last five on this project.  Much of the music sounds very Middle Eastern.   In between her original music, she sings a “Hommage to Bela Bartok”, including an English translation (by Peter Bartok) of the “Bluebeard’s Castle Prologue” that Julia recites, like prose, atop the avant-garde ensemble music in the background.  It sounds like she’s speaking in Hungarian.  You will find the English translation inside the CD jacket. The musicians accompany with electronic guitar and crescendos of excitement that roll like a restless tide splashing against the sand.

As a vocalist, poet, composer, (perhaps even actress, as noted in her emotional delivery of Track 4), Julia Karosi brings us her experimental project, to exhibit why she is one of the most called-upon vocalists in her country and one of the premier, contemporary interpreters of Hungarian music.  But is this jazz?  That must be answered by the ears of the beholder.  I do not know Hungarian music well enough to hear if Julia is truly improvising.  Most of the music sounds as though she is singing an established melody, often times singing it in unison with her musicians. However, in this reviewer’s opinion, without the necessary and exceptional addition of ‘improvisation,’ a crucial element of what distinguishes music as jazz, any production without such freedom of improvisation misses the jazz mark.
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LAILA  BIALI – “BOTH SIDES NOW”

Laila Biali, piano/vocals.

Laila Biali has the tone of an angel and her piano accompaniment is beautifully executed on this Joni Mitchell standard tune that we fell in love with in 1966 and beyond. Singer, songwriter, pianist, Laila, has a lovely way of connecting with her listening audience.  Some artists can only do this in person.  However, Laila’s emotional delivery jumps from her single, solo release as though she’s standing in our living room, singing singularly to us. This woman of jazz and pop has performed from Carnegie Hall to Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts in China.  She recently received the SOCAN Music Songwriting Award and in 2019 won the Canadian JUNO Award (similar to our Grammy Awards).  This current release is in celebration of Joni Mitchell’s birthday on November 7th and is a heartfelt experience not to be missed.

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One Response to “WOMEN IN JAZZ”

  1. WOMEN IN JAZZ: Julia Karosi, Miki Yamanaka & Brandi Disterheft on Musicalmemoirs's Blog - LYDIALIEBMAN.COM Says:

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

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