DECEMBER ENDS THE YEAR ON A HIGH NOTE! JAZZ CD REVIEWS.

By Dee Dee McNeil

December 12, 2020

ALEX DE GRASSI RELEASES SOLO HOLIDAY VIDEO & SINGLE – Tropo Records

Guitarist Alex de Grassi has been a unique voice in the world of acoustic guitar for over four decades.  Recently he released “The Bridge” an extraordinary album of solo guitar expression.  He continues that signature sound on this single, released December 7th, in celebration of the holiday season.  His holiday single was recorded at the legendary Skywalker Sound studio in Northern California with famous engineers, Leslie Ann Jones and Steven Miller who is renowned for his work with acoustic guitarists.  Animation by Greg Browe.

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DUDUKA DA FONSECA, HELIO ALVES, NILSON MATTA – “THE BRAZILIAN TRIO – AGUAS BRASILEIRAS”- Zoho Records

Duduka Da Fonseca, drums/composer; Nilson Matta, bass/composer; Helio Alves, piano/composer.

When I hear the Brazilian trio music of Helio Alves, Nilson Matta and Duduka Da Fonseca, it brightens my day.  This amazing threesome is known for performing and blending their cultural, Brazilian music with jazz in a lovely way.  They open with a song that celebrates Da Fonseca’s wife, Maucha Adner, titled, “Maucha na Praia.”  Composed by Da Fonseca, it’s quite melodic and joyful.  The Alvas piano mastery introduces us to this charming melodic samba and liberally improvises on the theme.  The second track becomes an immediate favorite of mine.  Composed by Nilson Matta and titled “Sampa 67,” it features the Matta bass during the introduction.  The bass is joined by a sparkling drum energy, then Helio’s piano dances with the melody.  This piece is a tribute to Milson Matta’s birthplace in Brazil.  I discovered that ‘Sampa’ is an abbreviation for Sao Paulo.  As the song develops, it gives space and time for each member of the trio to shine.  They often sound as if they are having casual conversations with each other instrumentally.  It’s a very intoxicating piece.  Duduka Da Fonseca is inspirational on his driving drums.  

Helio Alvas has penned “Aninha” (written for his daughter) and also their closing song, “Vila Madalena.”  This trio reinvents music from Black Orpheus with their stunning arrangement, allowing drums and bass to open the piece.  I love to hear a double bass player bow his instrument.  Matta does just that and it’s truly beautiful.  Da Fonseca’s drums propel the trilogy forward and Helio Alves dances atop the brightness on piano.  They have blended composers on this Black Orpheus trilogy of music, entertaining us in a delightful way, while featuring familiar songs by Jobim and Luiz Bonfa.  They incorporate “A Felicidade”, “Manha de Carnaval” and “Samba de Orfeu” during this medley.  The Charlie Mingus tune, “Boogie Stop Shuffle” is a musical surprise package, with the solos peeling off the arrangement like brightly colored ribbons.  It’s Brazilian blues at its best.  Track 8 is a hypnotic ballad, that sooths like a lullaby.  It’s titled “Aguas Brasileiras and is written by Matta.  “Manhattan Style” is track 9, composed by Da Fonseca and leaps straight-ahead into my listening room with gusto.  It has that trademark, New York energy and is played at a speedy tempo, reminding me of meteors racing across the sky.  Like the universe itself, this music unwinds and wraps around us in a very exciting and universal way.

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GAYELYNN McKINNEY AND McKINNEY ZONE – “ZOOT SUIT FUNK” – Independent Label

Gayelynn McKinney, drums/vocals/composer; Ibrahim Jones, bass; Alex Anest, guitar; Demetrius Nabors, keyboards; Trenita Womack, vocals/percussion; Rafael Statin, tenor & soprano Saxophones/bass flute/bass clarinet.

If you love passionate, funk jazz, drummer Gayelynn McKinney has recorded just such an album.  The title is self-explanatory and the music is hot, energized, modern and melodic.  On this album, the Detroit-based musician features her own compositions and a band of musical masters who propel and infuse her arrangements.  Gayelynn’s former album was a tribute to her talented father, Harold McKinney, who was a pianist, composer, educator and bandleader until his death in 2019.  On that album, Gayelynn played all of his original compositions. 

This time around, she shines the spotlight on her own songwriting and arranging talents.  She has a wonderful sense of melody along with her gift of time as she enthusiastically compliments each composition with her drum licks. This percussive master has been playing drums since age two.  She received her Bachelor of Music degree from Oakland University, but spent most of her life rubbing her drum talents next to Detroit masters like Teddy Harris, Ralph Armstrong, Marcus Belgrave and was co-founder and member of the all-girls group, ‘Straight Ahead’ that included bass impresario, Marion Hayden.  In 2014, Gayelynn won a Kresge Artist Fellows Award with the ‘Straight Ahead’ ensemble.  Adaptable and able to play all kinds of music, she has been a sideman with a number of icons including the great Benny Golson, vocalists Diane Shure, Freda Payne, Chaka Khan, the late Kevin Mahogany and more.  She was the last drummer to tour with Aretha Franklin, where she had the honor of playing before presidential hopeful, Hillary Clinton.  She also performed at the Tribeca Film Festival featuring a tribute to Clive Davis. Gayelynn is as comfortable playing straight ahead as she is funk jazz, Latin or going completely avant-garde.  For example, Ms.  McKinney has performed with the late, great Geri Allen, Larry Coryell, Rick Margitza, Randy Brecker, Roy Hargrove, Ralphe Armstrong, Steve Turre and James Carter, to list just a few.  Those genre bending artists clearly demonstrates her diversity.

Every song on this album is both entertaining and well-played.  The first song, “Stylin” is energy- propelled by Gayelynn’s dynamic drums and percussionist, Trenita Womack. The introduction tributes her Detroit/Motown roots, briefly reminding us of Stevie Wonder’s hit tune “I Wish,” before Rafael Statin takes over with his improvising saxophone.  The background vocals of Trenita Womack and Gayelynn McKinney enhance the production, singing the song’s title sporadically throughout.  On track 2, Ibrahim Jones solidifies the rhythm section on his bass, as the band invites us to meet “Space Goddess.”  I really enjoy the studio mix on this CD, as well as the mix of her repertoire.  Track 3 celebrates Jill Scott with Jill’s tune, “My Love.”  They ‘shuffle’ the neo-soul composition and it works!  Once again, Gayelynn and Trenita sing the hook.  Alex Anest takes an appealing solo on guitar.  Gayelynn’s “Gwendolyn” fusion-funk composition was written to celebrate her mother.

Gayelynn explained in her liner notes: “The quirky beat was my mother’s sassy side and the melody was her sweet side.”

There’s also a sweet nod to Bill Withers when the group re-explores his “Lovely Day” song.  They offer a delightful display of tenderness on “Peaceful Place,” another McKinney original composition. It’s the only ballad on this album, with Rafael Statin stepping away from his saxophone to supply the bass flute solo.  “Just A Little Bass and Drums” is interpreted by Ibrahim and Gayelynn McKinney using just that; bass & drums; along with Rafael Statin who adds his bass clarinet to the mix.  This arrangement features Gayelynn’s scat vocals that spice up the piece.  The title tune closes out this CD just the way it begins; tenacious and funky.  Gayelynn McKinney is ever present on her trap drums singing brightly, but never overpowering the band.  Instead, she prods, pushes and colors the music in a powerful way.   

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PATRICK CORNELIUS – “ACADIA: THE WAY OF THE CAIRNS” – Whirlwind Recordings

Patrick Cornelius, alto saxophone/composer; Kristjan Randalu, piano; Michael Janisch, double bass; Paul Wiltgen, drums.

Here is a collective of musicians, quite familiar with playing together. They were once known as the “TransAtlantic Collective.”  Fourteen years ago, Cornelius and bassist, Michael Janisch, (who is also the president of the Whirlwind record label) joined forces with drummer Paul Wiltgen and pianist Kristjan Randalu to play together as the TransAtlantic Collective and to tour.  On this project, they have reunited.  Today, they call themselves, “Acadia.” 

The music is all original, mostly composed by alto saxophonist, Patrick Cornelius.  Pianist, Randalu, has contributed track 6, “Valse Hesitante,” a melancholy ballad played quite sensitively with classical overtones.  Drummer, Paul Wiltgen” wrote “Ten Years Later,” that closed this album out, celebrating the band’s reuniting after a decade.  On the opening composition and title tune, Michael Janisch takes an exploratory bass solo that is quite captivating.  The tone and approach of Patrick Cornelius on his saxophone embraces a more relaxed, smooth-jazz feel. He reminds me a lot of Stan Getz.  His writing is quite melodic and you can clearly hear the youthful, smooth-jazz feel on “Star Party,” with Wiltgen pushing his rhythmic drums in a funk groove.  Kristjan Randalu steps into view with an improvisational piano solo that still keeps the melody front and center.  Cornelius explains that this tune is meant to commemorate a beachside star-gazing party. 

All the tunes, as well as the CD cover itself, are celebrating mother earth and her extraordinary importance to our lives.  The titles of these original compositions speak of her spellbinding beauty and remind us of the importance of earth as our home and the original mother of humanity.  You will hear tunes like “Personal Beehives” and “On the Precipice”; “Blueberry Mountain” presents a leaning towards straight-ahead jazz and “Seawall Sunrise,” is a lovely, moderate tempo’d tune with Wiltgen’s drums brushing the cymbals and recreating the tide splashing against a seawall.  On “Darkest Night” I love that they handed the melody to the bassist to introduce and once the composition is established and rooted, they let Michael Janisch get totally free on his double bass.  It’s an intriguing arrangement.  Perhaps Patrick Cornelius summed this project up best.

 “My idea was to feature the band as the lead voice, rather than myself.  There’s a definite chemistry here, not super-straight ahead, but not avant-garde either; embracing the European aesthetic, but with the ability to swing hard as well.  That’s the unique magic of this band,” Cornelius explained.

 “The Way of the Cairns” is easy-listening jazz that applauds the importance of Mother Earth and our planet in a very melodic way.

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GEOF BRADFIELD, BEN GOLDBERG, DANA HALL TRIO – “GENERAL SEMANTICS” – Delmark Records

Geof Bradfield, tenor & soprano saxophone/bass clarinet; Ben Goldberg, B flat clarinet/contra-alto clarinet; Dana Hall, drums/cymbals, percussion.

On their opening tune, a Cecil Taylor composition titled, “Air” Dana Hall shines brightly on drums.  Geof Bradfield’s tenor saxophone seems to be having a friendly debate with Goldberg’s clarinet, as they trade licks and spit melodic phrases at each other.  I am intrigued.   Geof Bradfield has composed track 2.  It’s called “Tioga Street Zenith” and it unfolds dramatically and slowly, like a butterfly shaking loose from its cocoon.  The song flies into the universe, wings spread and a beautiful melody flutters from the two horns.  This entire production showcases the composer talents of both Goldberg & Bradfield, as well as the trio embracing their own interpretations of Duke Ellington and Strayhorn’s composition, “Half the Fun,” along with Cecil Taylor and Hermeto Pascoal songs.  Without the expected piano, guitar or bass as part of their rhythm section, this unusual instrumentation becomes both unique and entertaining.  I think it freed these dynamic musicians up to reach past traditional instrument performances and add their own extraordinary improvisation and internal communication with each other.  There is an overall feeling of camaraderie and comfort.  I was especially taken with “Last Important Heartbreak of the Year”, written by Ben Goldberg.  It swings hard, even without a bass player.  Reminds me of the music you would hear in New Orleans.   On “Lamentation” I enjoyed the clarinet smoothly becoming the bass line, while drummer Dana Hall stirs the pots. This is another inspiring and melodic composition by Goldberg. 

If you are in search of something new, fresh and innovative on the jazz scene, this production will totally satisfy your artistic palate.

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THE JCA (JAZZ COMPOSERS ALLIANCE) ORCHESTRA LIVE AT THE BPC WITH STRINGS THEORY TRIO – JCA Recordings

Conductors: Tino D’Agostino, David Harris, & Darrell Katz. Rebecca Shrimpton, voice; Hiro Honshuko, flute/EWI; Rick Stone, alto saxophone; Lihi Haruvi, alto & soprano saxophones; Phil Scarff, tenor & soprano sax/clarinet; Melanie Howell-Brooks, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet; Mike Peipman, Dan Rosenthal & Jerry Sabatini, trumpets; Jim Mosher, French horn; Jason Camelio & Bob Pikington, trombones; David Harris, trombone & tuba. 5-string violin: Mimi Rabson, Helen Sherrah-Davies; Junko Fujiwara, cello; Maxim Lubarsky, piano; Gilbert Mansour, percussion; Tony ‘Thunder’ Smith, drums; Vessela Stoyanova, vibes/marimba; Jesse Williams, bass; Norm Zocher, guitar.

This album showcases four master jazz composers: David Harris, Darrell Katz, Bob Pilkington and Mimi Rabson.  Robson is a violinist, as well as a composer, and her composition, “Romanople” opens this project.  It pulls from the polka realms at the beginning.  Mimi explains that the song is based on the days of the Roman Empire when they had two capitals; Rome and Constantinople.  These two places had little in common culturally, but she has fused the two in her arrangement, beginning with odd-metered, Turkish, folk music that morphs into a dramatic brass band interpretation with the drums pushed by the busy mallets of Tony ‘Thunder’ Smith.  Track 2 is a David Harris composition inspired by McCoy Tyner’s 1976 album, “Fly with the Wind.”  It swoops into our ears with lush, orchestrated harmonies.  Harris wrote it after imagining what it would be like if Tyner’s large ensemble (inclusive of strings and woodwinds) had met with a group of traditional Thai instrumentalists. Titled “The Latest,” this piece features a beautiful solo by Melanie Howell-Brooks, who is smooth as satin on both baritone saxophone and bass clarinet.  Harris incorporates voices at the fade of his song, with a strong melodic influence that brings to mind how Stevie Wonder used voices in his 1970s Award-winning productions.  Composer/trombonist, Bob Pilkington, embraced his composer role by using a number sequence to write “The Sixth Snake.”   This piece commemorates his 60th birthday and is based on the Japanese ‘Year of the Snake.’  It uses harmonic structure represented by the number series, 27563.

“I’m a noodler by nature,” Pilkington explains. “I like to play around with ideas and build a piece.”   

Darrell Katz offers us track 5, “A Wallflower in the Amazon.”  This composition is based on a poem by Paula Tatarunis of the same title.  It features the vocals of Rebecca Shrimpton, who shares the poetic lyrics within the orchestrated structure of the Katz melody.  It’s not a melody the average person could sing or even hum along with, because it’s a more avant-garde arrangement and production.  Darrell Katz clearly had a different conception.

“I am always trying to make the melody and words be unified.  …I really want the listener to pay attention to the words and I want the music to help them,” Katz stated in their press package. 

“Super Eyes – Private Heroes” became one of my favorites on this album.  It’s fun, full of spunk and energy, and leans more towards the bebop side of jazz. Composed by Mimi Rabson, it features a very moving and engaging violin solo that wraps the sweet violin strings warmly around the blues.  This is Rabson’s tribute to sound tracks of super hero movies like James Bond or The Incredibles.  Soloists Melanie Howell Brooks, Helen Sherrah-Davies and David Harris are the heroes who step forward to save the day and totally entertain us. 

This entire album was performed ‘live’ at the Berklee Recording Studios, with engineer Alex Rodriguez at the helm in coordination with mixing, editing and mastering connoisseur, Antonio Oliart.  Perhaps composer and conductor, Darrell Katz, summed it up best when he stated:

“Recording ‘live’ is really different than recording in the studio.  There’s a more focused energy and a sense of urgency, … a real feeling of a community working together.”

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THE ROYAL BOPSTERS – “PARTY OF FOUR” – Motema Records

Amy London, soprano; Holli Ross, alto; Pete McGuinness, tenor; Dylan Pramuk, bass. THE ROYAL GUEST VOCALISTS: Bob Dorough & Sheila Jordan; Christian McBride, bass. THE BAND: Steve Schmidt, piano; Cameron Brown, bass; Steve Williams, drums; Steven Kroon, percussion.  THE ARRANGERS: Dylan Pramuk, Pete McGuinness & Steve Schmidt.

This reviewer has long been a lover of a’ Capella groups and vocal harmonies since listening to the street-corner, doo-wap, rhythm & blues groups singing in Detroit.  When I heard Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, I was totally hooked.  The Royal Bopsters carry on this marvelous, jazzy, vocal artform in a grand way.  Their tightly knitted voices create an electrifying group of arrangements, warm and comfortable as a cashmere sweater.   Here is a twelve-track album of swing and harmonic beauty, dedicated to one of their members, who sadly passed away in 2020; their alto singer, Holli Ross. 

The Royal Bopsters, “Party of Four” also incorporates a band into their group and pianist Steve Schmidt shows off his blues ‘chops’ on “Why’d You Do Me the Way You did?”  

I was intoxicated with The Royal Bopsters on t unes like “Daydream” (by Billy Strayhorn) which they perform a ‘Capella and the four voices are united as a single, harmonic sound.  They have such a special chemistry together.  I did not find their individual solo voices as compelling as their unified artistic presentation.  Bassist, Christian McBride is featured with Holli Ross on “Cuando Te Vea” and the group swings hard on this one, against a backdrop of strong Latin flavor.  This is another arrangement that quickly becomes one of my favorites.  Percussionist, Steven Kroon, is given an impressive time to shine in the spotlight.  “Baby, You Should Know it,” (composed by featured vocalist Bob Dorough and B. Tucker) is another spellbinding arrangement.  Also, two of the members, (Amy London and Pete McGuinness) surprise me with their original composition, “Our Spring Song” that sounds like a jazz standard.  McGuinness has also arranged several tunes on this album.  Another member, Dylan Pramuk, shines spectacularly as an arranger of the group’s music.  He has arranged seven of the dozen songs they proudly present to us.  Here is an exciting and beautifully produced album featuring magnificent vocal arrangements and special guest vocals by Bob Dorough (who passed away in 2018) and 92-year-old jazz icon, Ms. Sheila Jordan.  This is a historic album, with a uniquely selective repertoire that shows us the amazing vocal versatility of these four gifted singers and their featured arrangers.   Enjoy a masterclass in the art of vocalese. 

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