JAZZ REFLECTIONS ON A PANDEMIC

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

November 8, 2020

FRED HERSCH – “SONGS FROM HOME” – Palmetto records

Fred Hersch, piano

During these tumultuous times of mask wearing, hand sanitizer used like a hand lotion, alcohol bottles absent from store shelves and having to distance from friends and loved ones, here is some pleasing and relaxing solo piano music to sooth our souls.  Fred Hersch was among those of us locked down and he took to Facebook airwaves, offering his friends and fans a “Tune of the Day.”  This is the results of him sharing heartfelt music with us, during our time of need, using his music to both calm and entertain us.  It also inspired this album that celebrates his “Songs From Home.” 

“It’s kind of a comfort food album with a little badass stuff in there too.  I didn’t want to make an easy listening record, but I did want to play some music that would make people happy,” Hersch explains.

You will enjoy familiar pop and jazz standards like Wouldn’t It Be Loverly, Wichita Lineman, After You’ve Gone, Solitude and When I’m Sixty-four, to name just a few of the eleven tunes on this delightful album.  Hersch has also added two original compositions to the mix.  “West Virginia Rose” is quite beautiful.  The second song is titled, “Sarabande.”  

Fred Hersch has been nominated fifteen times for a Grammy Award and is a brilliant composer, improviser, accompanist, bandleader, educator and recording artist.  His technique and sense of jazz improvisation stuffs this offering, like a brightly colored piñata, with creative gifts that bring joy and happiness to the heart. 

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ORLANDO LE FLEMING – “ROMANTIC FUNK: THE UNFAMILIAR” – Whirlwind Recordings

Orlando Le Fleming, upright & electric bass; Sean Wayland, keyboards/synthesizers; Kush Abadey & Nate Wood, drums; Philip Dizack, trumpet; Will Vinson, alto saxophone.

This funky bass line of Orlando Le Fleming opens the first cut of this production, along with the funk drums of Kush Abadey.   Bassist, Orlando Le Fleming has composed every one of the eight songs on this album. 

“In under two days in the studio, this album was all played live, with very few edits and overdubs.  The musicians are of such high quality that the risk taking paid off.  For me, the inexpressible magic of the group and moment in time was captured.  When Writing this album, I was very conscious of the improvisational sections being tailored for the specific musicians, allowing them freedom to express their quirks.  I encouraged risk taking and tried to make it fun for them without being too much of a control freak,” bandleader and bassist, Orlando Le Fleming asserted.

Philip Dizack enters on trumpet and introduces us to a melody that quickly becomes an exploration of improvisation.  This project is a warm mixture of straight-ahead and smooth jazz; funk and fusion.  Will Vinson’s alto saxophone spreads across this first tune like hot syrup on a stack of sweet, musical pancakes.  I’ll take a platter full of this “Romantic Funk” anytime.

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MAX HAYMER – “WHIRLWIND – LIVE AT SAM FIRST” – Emerald City Records

Max Haymer, piano; David Robaire, bass; Dan Schnelle, drums.

This is a delightful album of trio jazz that features the composer skills and piano genius of Max Haymer.  As a former top athlete, he attended UC Irvine on a soccer scholarship and spent four years playing Division 1 soccer.  You can hear his strength and power when he plays the piano. 

“I find that the physical act of playing the piano has a lot in common with sports.  They both require stamina and you have to physically train to perform at your fullest potential.  They both also require your composure under pressure while being fully aware of what your teammates or bandmates are doing as well,” Max Haymer explains his approach to his instrument.

The title tune, that Max has composed, is a lovely waltz.  David Robaire introduces himself to us on the bass with a long and inspired solo.  Haymer is quite lyrical in his approach to playing and composing.  He develops his melodies with care and compassion, introducing them to us note by note.  When he stretches out, his technique develops in a tenacious way with crescendos of energy and climatic, power-driven chords.   At the end of track 2, the trio’s attentive audience bursts into appreciative applause.  This album was cut ‘live’ (before the pandemic), at this stellar jazz spot, a short jaunt from the LAX airport; a club called, ‘Sam First.’ 

Haymer has been greatly influenced by his years of playing with Arturo Sandoval’s band.  He’s also the West Coast accompanist for singer, Jane Monheit.  A young Max began studying classical piano at age seven and became interested in jazz piano at fourteen.  He was a student of Los Angeles-based pianist, Tamir Hendelman during high school and continued his education at UC Irvine, where he graduated Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Music degree.  During his time at the Irvine University, he studied with Kei Akagi, who was a member of the Miles Davis band in the late eighties.

“Kei was an important influence on my playing and composing.  He used to say that the best melodies are the ones that fight gravity,” Max mused.

Drummer, Dan Schnelle and bassist David Robaire, are long time bandmates of Max Haymer’s.  Both have sparkling credentials, working with a number of A-list musicians before joining this trio production.  Together, they are a tight and cohesive group.  I enjoyed their interpretation of the familiar “Speak Low” tune as a warm bolero.  Other favorites are: “Gold Plated Dime” where Dan Schnelle takes the opportunity to introduce us to his prowess on the trap drums.  Another very beautiful ballad that Max Haymer composed is titled “Welcoming,” where his fingers turn into colorful, glow-in-the-dark butterflies flitting across the keys.  His exceptionally swift interpretation of “Love for Sale” showcases his technical brilliance. Actually, each tune on this project is a listening experience I enjoyed; almost like removing the silk fabric covering an artistic palette to proudly exhibit the art beneath.  We uncover his genius, song by song.

This is a passionate and dramatic pianist who finger paints vivid pictures with his musically inclined hands.   His creativity radiates bright colors that help express the energy and excitement he transmits through his piano instrument and within his well-written compositions.

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PETER LEITCH AND HIS NEW LIFE ORCHESTRA – “NEW LIFE” –  Jazz House

Peter Leitch, bandleader/composer/arranger; Peter Zak, piano; Dennis James, arco bass; Yoshi Waki, bass; Joe Strasser, drums’ Chad Coe, acoustic guitar; Phiol Robson, electric guitar; Duane Eubanks, trumpet; Bill Mobley, trumpet/flugelhorn; Tim Harrison, flute; Jed Levy, tenor sax/flute/alto flute; Steve Wilson & Dave Pietro, alto & soprano saxophones; Carl Maraghi, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet; Matt Haviland, trombone; Max Seigel, bass trombone. PRODUCERS: Peter Leitch & Andy Farber.

Every great album of music has a story behind it.  It’s the emotional and/or challenging times in our lives that create, with spontaneity, compositions and productions that explore our lessons of life. Ultimately, it’s with great trepidation and honesty that musicians sometimes share these musical observations. With open arms and open ears, the audience welcomes the concerts and compositions into open hearts; thankful for the cultural richness that music can bring. 

When Peter Leitch was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer in 2012, he had a serious choice to make.  He could undergo a career-ending operation that could lengthen his life or die within months.   Eight years later, although he can no longer play his beloved guitar, he has begun a “New Life” that explores his other talents of composer/arranger extraordinaire.  Bandleader, Peter Leitch explained in his liner notes:

“The title ‘New Life’ refers not only to my own personal odyssey, but also to the music itself; to the act of breathing new life into the raw materials, the blues forms and song forms that have long been the structural basis of Black American music, and by extension and osmosis, all of American music.”

On Track 3 of Disc 1, you clearly hear the blues living inside Phil Robson’s guitar solo and a kind of Yusef Lateef blues-throw-back by Steve Wilson’s bluesy saxophone solo on “Sorta, Kinda.”  On Disc 2, it’s clearly reflected in the 12-bar blues of “The Long Walk Home” and also on “Back Story.”  Also, of note, is the Leitch tribute to iconic saxophone player and composer, my old friend, “Clifford Jordan,” (R.I.P.).

The first thing that stands out on this album is the plethora of amazing compositions that Peter Leitch has written for his New Life Orchestra.  His sense of beauty and diversity are reflected in these melodies, in a spectacular way.  It took Leitch a couple of years to compose, arrange and orchestrate this seventeen-piece ensemble project.  His goal was to write arrangements that expanded the voice of a medium-sized orchestra into a much bigger band-sound.  His carefully structured arrangements leave plenty of room for the individual musicians to improvise and express themselves in fluid and tasty ways.  This is a double set album full of carefully crafted original compositions, wonderful arrangements and a band of A-list musicians who have gathered to celebrate Peter Leitch’s “New Life” in the best possible scenario.  In addition to his original songs, Leitch has added a lovely arrangement of Monk’s “Round Midnight” tune and Jed Levy’s composition, “The Minister’s Son” as well as reimagining the Rodgers & Hart familiar standard, “Spring is Here.”  This is an enjoyable, entertaining and smooth-sailing orchestra that takes us on a cruise through musical times and tempos.  They give us a peek into the life-lessons-learned by Peter Leitch.  

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ALONZO DEMETRIUS – “LIVE FROM THE PRISON NATION” – Onyx Productions

Alonzo Demetrius, trumpet/composer; Yesseh Furaha-Ali, tenor saxophone; Daniel Abraham Jr., piano/keybass; Benjamin Jephta, upright bass/electric bass; Brian Richburg Jr, drums.

When composing this recorded production, Alonzo Demetrius had a lot to get off his chest.  He was inspired to write this music while attending classes at Berklee College of Music.  He was working on his Master’s Degree and studying with iconic drummer and educator, Ralph Peterson and saxophonist Tia Fuller.  As a college student and talented trumpeter, Alonzo Demetrius recognized that he was coming up during a conflicted and revolutionary time in our nation.  With racial injustice in plain sight and political, congressional people feeding on social injustice and private interests, Demetrius had strong feelings.  After all, we pay congress their salaries to represent we the people.

“Inspired by the teachings of political activists … as well as interviews with current and ex-convicted felons, I created this album as a reflection of my ideas based on personal experience and the experiences of other Black people in my life,” Alonzo Demetrius writes in his liner notes. 

With the horrific backdrop of a global pandemic, the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the shooting of Jacob Blake, amidst the many brutal killings of Black lives by policemen and vigilantes across our great country, Alonzo is speaking his truth through the bell of his trumpet.

“The shootings … have sparked a resurgence of the Civil Rights Movement.  Sixty years in the making, this movement has finally begun to take root in the hearts and minds of people all over the world.  With this album, I aim to continue the global conversation and provide a platform for those whose voices are often left out,” Demetrius proclaims.

Trumpeter, Alonzo Demetrius, establishes a unique style on this, his premier recording, letting the two horns (his trumpet and Yesseh Furaha-Ali’s tenor saxophone) sing in unison to establish the melodies of his compositions.  He also incorporates protest speeches by Mumia Abu Jamaal and chants from recent protest marches.  By incorporating electronics and spoken word about dilemmas of today, he establishes his activist voice and gives the listener pause for thought.  On Track 1, “Expectations,” you hear the voice of Angela Davis, speaking about prison reform, just before Alonzo Demetrius steps forward with his trumpet. He is answered by the tenor sax of Furaha-Ali, as though the two horns are experiencing a social commentary; a chat between two old friends.  Then they sing in unison, before branching off into their solo improvisations.  The solid bass of Benjamin Jeptha holds the composition together like super glue and is sensitively attached to the pointed rhythms of Brian Richburg Jr., on drums.  Track 2, “The Principle” settles down the tempo and excitement.  It’s a rather melancholy musical statement that again features the two horns singing unison melodies and occasionally breaking out in warm harmonic conversation.  Track 4 previews a speech by Mumia Abu Jamaal about ‘Movement’ and is titled “Mumia’s Guidance” to celebrate this activist’s words and struggle.  Alonzo’s entire production was recorded ‘live’ at Berklee College of Music in May of 2019. 

Alonzo Demetrius Ryan Jr. began his musical journey studying piano at age eight and singing.  By age ten, he had fallen in love with the trumpet and was focused on classical training. Believe it or not, at age eleven he formed his own jazz sextet and began seriously performing and chasing his musical dream.  In 2019 he received his Masters from the Berklee Global Jazz Institute Master’s Program.  Demetrius is uniquely recognized for his implementation of electronic processing into his ‘live’ performance package.  Many young musicians are now incorporating movies, slides, electronic enhancements and in the case of Alonzo Demetrius, activist speeches into their work.  He’s entertaining us, while tickling our brains with an educational feather.

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NATSUKI TAMURA & SATOKO FUJII & IKUE MORI – “PRICKLY PEAR CACTUS” – Libra Records

Satoko Fujii, piano/composer; Ikue Mori, composer/electronics; Natsuki Tamura, trumpet.

“Right before the pandemic, the three of us had a European tour, followed by a recording session in New York City. …The tour was in January and the recording session took place on February 12.  Back then, we had no idea of what was coming and how different the world would become.  All of our concerts and tours were cancelled.  So, we stayed at home and talked by email and Zoom.  Then we began this project,” Satoko Fujii explained.

The “Prickly Pear Cactus” album grew out of friendship and isolation.  It is the result of devastation on the entire global community by the insidious Coronavirus pandemic.  Although these musicians worked half a world apart from their homes, on their laptops and in their individual home studios, they still found a common thread that strung them together like shiny, new pearls. Natsuki Tamura swapped sound files over the Internet, adding his trumpet parts and creative ideas.  Satoko Fujii sat at her grand piano in New York and Ikue Mori was based in Kobe, japan.  The project started with a Zoom session, when Fujii mentioned she was biding her self-quarantine time recording piano solos at home.  Mori suggested she send a sound file to him and that’s how the collaboration began.  Then they asked Tamura to add his trumpet.

Satoko Fujii is celebrated as a virtuoso piano improviser, an original composer and bandleader and appears on more than one-hundred albums as either a co-leader or bandleader of various Avant-garde projects.  Her projects embrace contemporary classical, Avant-rock, folk music, synthesized jazz, large ensembles and duos; even solo projects.  Natsuki is internationally recognized.  He’s applauded for his jazz lyricism and dramatic approach to playing his instrument.  His projects have included adding his trumpet to Avant-rock jazz fusion with a group called First Meeting and he’s also been bandleader of his own quartet and performed with a group called Junk Box.  He focuses on combining European folk music and sound abstraction and has recorded three albums of solo trumpet and seven duet CDs with Satoko Fujii.  Ikue Mori is a native of Tokyo and relocated to New York in 1977.  As a drummer, she formed the seminal No Wave Band DNA.  They created a new brand of radical rhythms and dissonant sounds.  In the mid-80s, Ms. Mori began to experiment with drum machines. By 2000, she was using her laptop computer to expand her signature sound and to broaden her scope of musical expression.  This is a project that is totally improvised around a theme and embellished with electronic rhythms and sound patterns that add an ethereal content to this music.  All the titles embrace nature in eclectic ways like “Guerrilla Rain” that begins with electronic sounds and staccato piano notes that scurry up and down the keyboard and chords that jump like popping corn kernels.  “Mountain Stream” squeals and roars, like a jungle habitat at midnight. And then there is “Overnight Mushroom” that runs over ten minutes long.  This is a unique, artistic journey that stimulates your mind and imagination.

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JENI SLOTCHIVER – “AMERICAN HERITAGE” – Zoho Records

Jeni Slotchiver, piano.

Here is an artistic perspective by pianist Jeni Slotchiver that spans 125 years of music, from Louis Moreau Glottschalk’s “The Banjo,” written in the 1800’s, to “Down By the Riverside” published in 1979.  Glottschalk’s compositions and style predated the era and birth of Ragtime and jazz and was influenced by Caribbean, Latin and African music, as well of slave songs and rhythms.  Jeni uses her classical piano technique and emotional delivery to celebrate music from the Civil War to Civil Rights.  Although more classically trained, than displaying the freedom and improvisation of a jazz pianist, this is still a historically important look at “American Heritage” in music.  Here are eighteen, well-played songs, interpreted by Jeni Slotchiver, and embracing the full range of American music from gospel spirituals to African American work songs and secular tunes.  With this album, Ms. Slotchiver celebrates the African American musical contribution to American culture. Of the eight composers she tributes, six are African American and two are women.

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SCOTT ROUTENBERG – “INSIDE” – Summit Records

Scott Routenberg, keyboards/programming/vocals/composer; Howard Levy, harmonica/bamboo flutes/ pennywhistle; Sofia Kraevska, vocals; Chris Whiteman, acoustic guitar; Jonathan Raveneau, violin; Phil Doyle, tenor saxophone.

This is a dramatic merger of jazz and classical music created by pianist/composer, Scott Routenberg, while self-quarantined during the 2020 pandemic.  As he sat, like many of us, reflecting on his life and experiences, Scott recalled the garden around his house that was overflowing with a variety of spring and summer flowers.  He was inspired by that colorful garden of memories and created a song called “Pentamerous;” meaning a five-petaled flower.  It becomes Track 3 of this musical production and features the sweet voice of Sofia Kraevska improvising atop the chord structure.  Routenberg has composed every song on this eleven-song project.  It’s a musical diary about his days in lock-down at his home with a room full of musical instruments to keep him busy and happy.  On May 7th, he recalled the so-called ‘supermoon’ that appeared at the height of the pandemic.  He composed “Flower Moon,” a song that encourages Scott Routenberg to take an opportunity to improvise and show his piano skills, improvising above his programmed tracks.  There is a tango-feel incorporated into this arrangement.  On “Hidden Stars” he reflects on how city life can obstruct our view of the heavens.

“Hidden Stars recreates the two time I saw just how small we really are in the universe from the top deck of a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean and at Bryce Canyon in Utah.  Swirling, sparkling polyrhythms and swarm string swells support Sofia’s completely improvised vocalise,” he explains how this original song came about.

Ms. Kraevska’s improvised vocal melodies are quite hypnotic and memorable.  On “Home Sweet Home” Howard Levy is featured on harmonica.  Levy makes that harmonica talk, like a living, loving individual. The song moves from classical and jazz to a more Americana feel in the arrangement.  Jonathan Raveneau’s violin lends even more authenticity to this concept.  Routenberg knows how to layer grooves on the keyboard and with programmed drums and synthesizers to create moods and a stage for his guests to perform.  When interpreting his original “Fireflies” composition, for example, Scott uses various synthesized keyboard sounds to help us picture the brightly active and glowing flies he used to watch on hot July, Indiana evenings.  During his closing track, he uses the keyboard sound of raindrops on a window to amplify nature’s presence as humanity took refuge from COVID19 into their homes.  Tenor saxophonist, Phil Doyle, is a guest on this track titled, “The Day We Went Away,” but I found the featured appearance lacking in creativity.  Scott Routenberg asks us to use our imaginations while listening to his creativity, his frustrations, his joy, “Meltdowns” and “Days of Wrath” during his 2020 seclusion and unforgettable studio production.

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JULIAN GERSTIN – “LITTORAL ZONE” – Independent Label

Julian Gerstin, percussion/composer/vocals/bottles/ocarina/whistles/berimbau/ drums/shakers/ bells/wood percussive instruments and miscellaneous percussion; Anna Patton, clarinet; Steve Rice, marimba.

For this reviewer, there has always been something hypnotic, comfortable and inspirational about percussive instruments and drum beats.  Consequently, I was very interested to hear what Julian Gerstin, an expert on world rhythms and percussion instruments, had recorded.  His seventeen original songs celebrate Gerstin as a soloist on percussion.  While the world was taking protective and stressful steps through the tribulations of a pandemic, Julian Gerstin was concentrating on celebrating mollusks.  He has incorporated a number or Rasps into this production including guiro, reco-reco, quijada and even a wheelbarrow.  His shakers include oil cans, a whiskey flask, an espresso maker and cocoons (along with traditional shakers like maracas and shekere).  He performs on over four dozen instruments.   His music is dedicated to and named after his favorite mollusks.  Sea shells and mollusks dot his CD cover, inside and out.

“Over the years, I’ve enjoyed looking into tidepools with their seaweed and starfish and crabs, and especially, mollusks.  These pieces are semi-composed and semi-improvised and while inventing them I gave them molluscan names that fit their moods. … Only a few of these species, Crepidula, Littorina and Purpura, actually live in the “Littoral Zone,” Julian Gerstin explained.

He hopes that the crowded life of a tidepool evokes some spontaneous connection to his percussive sensibilities and the listener’s imagination.  Gerstin has an MFA in Music Composition and PhD in Anthropology.  He has studied percussion from a long list of international percussion masters in places like Ghana, Martinique, Cuba, Brazil, The Balkans and the Middle East.  Slip into your headphones and enjoy a very unusual and rewarding exploration of rhythm and culture.

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PAPO VAZQUEZ MIGHTY PIRATES TROUBADOURS – “CHAPTER 10: BREAKING COVER” – Picaro Records

Papo Vazquez, trombone/vocals/agogo bells/synth keyboard; Ivan Renta, tenor & soprano saxophone; Rick Germanson, piano; Ariel Robles, bass/chorus; Alvester Garnett, drums; Carlos Maldonado, percussion/congas/ Barril de Bomba/Pandero de plena/ bongos/minor percussion/chorus; Reinaldo Dejesus, Barril de bomba/ congas/Pandero de plena/minor percussion/chorus.

Papo Vazquez makes me feel joyful from the very first strains of Mr. Babu, I find myself wiggling in my computer chair and glancing towards my dancing shoes. The original music that Papo Vazquez writes is forceful, incorporating his signature fusion of jazz and Puerto Rican culture.  This album is his tenth record release as a leader and demonstrates why his four-decade career has made him a Grammy-nominated Latin music icon.  This release is a true product of the COVID19 pandemic.  His plans to record in April were derailed by the virus.  Finally, in June, when lockdown regulations loosened, he and his Mighty Pirate Troubadours started rehearsing.  This wonderful work of artistic beauty and excitement spotlights the smooth and emotional trombone of Papo Vazquez, along with his arranger and composer skills.  The seven Mighty Pirates Troubadours lend their brilliance to the project and Vazquez has invited special guests to add spice to an already red-hot project.

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CÉRÉMONIE / MUSIQUE – “WHAT HAPPENS IN A YEAR” – FiP Records

Josh Sinton, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet; Todd Neufeld, electric guitar; Giacomo Merega, electric bass.

As this year races to an end, Cérémonie Musique, (a trio of musicians) wanted to summarize their feelings and express their musical and emotional views referencing 2020; i.e. “What Happens in a Year.”  This was certainly no average year in the history of America.  We experienced a very challenging world pandemic that, to date, has killed nearly 300,000 Americans.  The year featured a very hot and disturbing political climate, an election for president and racial unrest.  The economy was challenged, while the government searched for a vaccine to save people.  Businesses closed and lots of people were out of work and hurting.  On top of all that, citizens were expected to live their lives in a normal, everyday fashion, and many were doing just that. The title of this album came from their guitarist, Todd Neufeld.

“I thought about three guys slogging out through these days of teaching, work, fatherhood, marriage and having this kind of musical ceremony when they met each week to make new music,” Todd shared his inspiration for this Avant-garde music and the title of their CD.

However, the original concept, by Josh Sinton, was far from what became the result of a simple studio rehearsal.

“Originally, my thought was to get the three of us together to improvise and record it.  Then, I’d go home with the field recording and turn it into compositions,” explained the baritone saxophone and bass clarinet player. 

“After our very first meeting, it was clear that the spontaneous improvisations, with their mysterious, enticing musical expression, made formal pre-written compositions superfluous,” Josh continued to analyze this very unique project and how it came about.

There is an openness and a thought-provoking essence to this modern jazz music of ‘Cérémonie Musique.’  As I sat listening to it, there were moments of unique expressiveness represented in their Avant-garde, collaborative, song development.  The trio is playing totally free, using improvisation and their camaraderie with each other, to colorfully paint this musical palate. 

“I’ve always viewed composition and improvisation as nearly identical creative activities, although the results of each can often be confused,” Josh Sinton mused.

Virtuoso bassist, Giacomo Merega, has been a popular and busy player in the New York improv and new-music scene.  He spoke about the concept of ‘ceremony’ in the title of their group.

“A ceremony is a ritual and if I didn’t have rituals, I’d be like a chihuahua in a jungle.  I wouldn’t last a day.  Among my rituals are making espresso, having breakfast with my daughter and improvising with Todd and Josh,” Merega explained in their press release.

The result of this musical meeting, and ultimate freedom of expression, is a very compelling and artistic production that captures a moment in time as three master musicians express themselves without boundaries.

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One Response to “JAZZ REFLECTIONS ON A PANDEMIC”

  1. REVIEWS: Papo Vazquez, Orlando Le Fleming & Alonzo Demetrius Reviewed on Musicalmemoirs's Blog - LYDIALIEBMAN.COM Says:

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

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