Archive for January, 2021


January 22, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil

January 22, 2021

THE 8-BIT BIG BAND – “Backwards Compatible” – Teamchuck Label

Charlie Rosen, bandleader/arranger/musical director/producer/ background vocals; Natalie Tenenbaum, Steven Feifke & Jake Silverman, keyboards; Adam Neely, Dan Chmielinski, Julia Adamy, Charlie Rosen & Bobby Wooten, bass; Jared Schonig & Bryan Carter, drums; Kevin Garcia, percussion; Liann Cline, harp; Danielle Gimbal & Camelia Hartman, background vocals; Charlie Rosen & Dave Cinquegrana, guitar/banjo; WOODWINDS: Andrew Gould & Josh Plotner, Alto saxophone/flute; Steve Kortyka, Alto saxophones; Sam Dillon & Zac Zinger, tenor saxophone/ clarinets;  Jordan Pettay & Carlos Eiene, tenor saxophone; Adison Evans & Andrew Gutauskas, baritone sax; Judy Lee, Elizabeth Martignetti, Jordan James & Kyra Sims, French horns.  TRUMPETS: Bryan Davis, Jay Webb, John Lake, Chole Rowlands, Max Boiko, Danny Jonokuchi & Allison Phillips. TROMBONES: Jimmy O’Connell, Javier Nero, Rebecca Patterson, Ron Wilkens, Mariel Bildsten & Alex Jeun.  VIOLINS: Lavinia Pavlish, Meitar Forkosh, Tomoko Akaboshi, Daniel Constant, Kevin Kuh, Matthew Beauge, Yumi Oshima, Camelia Hartman, Audrey Hayes, Ally Jenkins, Josh Henderson, Maria Im, Mary-Jo Stilp, Erica Swindell, Ellie Goodman, Emily Gelineau, Eli Bishop & Danielle Breitstein.  VIOLAS: Laura Sacks, Kenny Wang, Jarvis Benson, Tia Allen, Brian Thompson, & Sarah Greene. CELLI: Susan Mandel, Alon Bisk, Jessica Wang, Kristine Kruta & Marta Bagratuni.

From the soaring horns and strings of the very first few bars of a tune titled, “Intro to Album 3,” I am drawn into this project like quicksand.  The “Chrono Trigger Main Theme” establishes the energy and excitement, featuring Steven Feifke on piano, who is supported by a grooving electric bass and beautiful, busy horn lines.  When the violins enter, the whole production reminds me of a scene from the 1971 Shaft movie soundtrack.  It has that kind of retro-energy. This album, “Backwards Compatible” presents a contemporary body of music using a symphonic, jazz/pop orchestra comprised of seventy of New York City’s finest musicians.  The arrangements range from funk to old-school, Frank Sinatra-type swing ballads.  On the composition, “Dire Dire Docks” Charlie Rosen is featured on bass and the arrangement is quite compelling.  Charlie Rosen has also arranged all of this music and is a multi-talented musician himself. 

Surprisingly, these are tunes extracted from popular video games.  If you’re a video game connoisseur, you will recognize the music from “Kirby Super Star” and “Sonic the Hedgehog.”  You ‘old-heads’ will recall the “Super Mario Land” theme or the “Super Mario Odyssey.”  Other’s will instantly relate to music from “Aeida: Ocarina of Time” or the “Metal Gear Solid” game theme.  Every song is creatively and symphonically arranged, featuring solos by some of the best talent New York has to offer. This is a unique project that’s fun and well-played.  Here is a listen full of joy and classical fusion orchestration!

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Julian Shore, piano/synthesizers/composer; Dayna Stephens, tenor & soprano saxophone/EWI; Ben Monder, guitar; Caroline Davis, alto saxophone; Oded Tzur, tenor saxophone; Edward Perez, bass; Colin Stranahan, drums.

The cover of Julian Shore’s CD looks like winter, all soft gray, white with shades of blue.  I’ve said it many times; art work on CD covers is important.  In a stack of twenty CDs to listen to, I was drawn to this cover.  “I Preludio” opens this work in a very classically constructed way, featuring Julian Shore on solo piano.  When he is joined by his full ensemble, they build this piece by adding woodwinds, guitar, bass and drums.  On track 2, “II Winds, Currents” drummer Colin Stranahan is given free rein to ride his trap drums into the fade of the song.  On “III Tunnels, Speed” Julian shore stretches his classical chops into jazzy fingers dancing across the eighty-eight keys.  This becomes one of my favorite tunes on his album.  On his composition, “IV Marshes, Amphibians” the introduction sounds a lot like the Norah Jones song, “Don’t Know Why,” but quickly develops into its own melodic structure. 

Dayna Stephens’ has a breathy, beautiful sound on his tenor saxophone during their production of “Oh Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess.”  Throughout this album, you hear Julian Shore playing with synthesizer parts, as well as his brilliance on grand piano and Ben Monder adding his colorful guitar licks to the mix.

“The last few years have been about looking inward and recognizing that, while we perceive them as different, exploration of an emotion or a place can be one and the same.  All of our experiences shape us and we can’t really choose which ones we express.  True musical honesty requires self-awareness and, hopefully, acceptance,” Julian Shore shares his premise for this musical achievement.

This is Shore’s third release as a bandleader and together with his talented bandmates, they have created an exceptional tapestry of original compositions and interesting arrangements.  Stitched together with talent and raw emotion, they endeavor to help us return to old landscapes with new eyes.  It’s a great way to start the new year!

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Yoko Miwa, piano/composer; Will Slater & Brad Barrett, acoustic bass; Scott Goulding, drums.

Yoko Miwa is a powerful pianist, with tenacious ties to her classical training.  Her style of playing is with one foot rooted deeply in the blues and the other in contemporary and modern jazz.  At the same time, one hand is holding onto old-school jazz history and the other is elbow-deep in international cultures.  This album celebrates life, happiness and joy.

“When the pandemic started, I decided I would compose every day and as a result, I came up with five new original compositions which are all included here.  I also recorded six songs composed by other musicians, but in doing so, I chose them very carefully to fit with the feeling of the album.  … My hope is that you will hear the overwhelming feeling of JOY that I felt in making this music,” Yoko shares in her liner notes.

One of my favorite compositions by Yoko Miwa is Track 2, “Largo Desolato” that flaunts her bluesy side and gives drummer, Scott Goulding time to creatively solo on the fade of the song.  

Billy Preston wrote “Song of Joy” that has inspired the title of Miwa’s album.  It’s a pensive ballad, rich with gospel influence.  Track 4, “Small Talk” quickly becomes another one of my favorite songs on this production.  Yoko has written this tune.  It’s very melodic and swings nicely.  Ms. Miwa shows off her piano skills on this tune, improvising provocatively.  “No Problem” is a straight-ahead arrangement that shows off Yoko Miwa’s expert use of the 88 keys and her powerful chordal structure.  “The Rainbirds” is another original composition that delves into the Latin music realms and features her bassist, Will Slater dancing happily across the strings of his acoustic bass.  He also takes a very pleasing bass solo.

There is something for everyone on this trio album of fine jazz music.  She includes a Thelonious Monk song rarely heard, “Think of One” and Tony Germain’s shuffle blues, along with Anne Bredon’s composition, “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You,” featuring Brad Barrett bowing his acoustic bass in a beautiful way. Perhaps Yoko Miwa summed it up best when she said:

“I made it my mission to connect directly with the listener in each song that I played and to go directly to their soul and touch their hearts.” 

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Steve Sibley, piano; Lance Jeppesen, bass; Charlie ‘Stix’ McGhee, drums; Melanie Medina & Robert Cartwright, guitar; Noah Ines, Latin percussion; Matt DiBiase, vibraphone. SAXOPHONES: Tyler Richardson, alto & soprano saxophone; Nicholas Hoo & Malcolm Jones, alto saxophone; Greg Armstrong, Josh Smitley & David Castel De Oro, tenor saxophone; April Leslie, baritone saxophone/clarinet. TRUMPETS: Randy Aviles, Mark Nicholson, Jeff Beck & Jack Houghton. TROMBONES: Gary Bucher, Carly Ines, David Barnard & Tim Hall. VOCALS: Janet Hammer & Carly Ines. GUEST ARTISTS: Nathan East, bass; Andrew Neu, tenor saxophone; Dan Radlauer, accordion; Mike Vax, trumpet.

This big band is a popular and well-respected Southern California music conglomerate.  It was formed by educator and musician, Ira Liss, in 1979 as a vehicle for his students to play and hone their talents.  Liss is a native of San Diego, California, and continues to be the bands conductor, producer and artistic director all these forty plus years later.  As their popularity grew, the student band soon became a community band, adding professional musicians to the mix of young people. This raised the bar of the band.  By 1994, the band had become a polished, professional organization and they released their first recording, “First Impressions.”  This was followed by four more album releases.

Six arrangers have contributed to this project.  The band includes three original compositions written and arranged by multi-instrumentalist, Dan Radlauer, who is also the Composer in Residence for the band.  Andrew Neu wrote and arranged their opening tune, “Gimme That.”  This song energetically pumps my listening room up with spark and swing! 

Each arrangement that peels off this CD is like a plump, juicy piece of sweet fruit. I enjoy the variety of jazz styles that they celebrate.  One minute they celebrate Duke Ellington’s popular “Love You Madly” and they follow that with “Bass, The Final Frontier” that features the funky, exciting, electric bass of Nathan East.  East has over 2,000 recordings under his belt and is considered one of the most recorded bassists in any genre.  His talent is richly celebrated during this arrangement.  Unlike the old-school, popular Ellington tune, this song is starkly different and very contemporary.  Then, the title tune celebrates klezmer.  This is one of the high-points of the Ira B. Liss Big Band Jazz Machine. They are amazingly proficient and victoriously versatile.

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Erik Jekabson, trumpet/flugelhorn/arranging; Mike Hughes & Lumpy, drums; Kasey Knudsen, Alto & tenor saxophones; Kamasi Washington, tenor saxophone; Ross Howe, fender guitar; Mike Blankenship, Farfisa organ synthesizer; Matt Montgomery, bass guitar/piano/composer; Gregory Howe, guitar/B3 organ/ synthesizer/ composer.

The Throttle Elevator Music group has returned, arriving at their Final Floor, and presenting music recorded from 2011 through 2014 and embellished in 2019 and 2020.  Here is a group of musicians, exploring the creative limits of their talent, when they were much younger and quite exploratory. They open with a composition called “Supralimininal Space” that delves into synthesized music and improvisational considerations.  Track 2, titled “Caste Off” is a smooth jazz production fueled by funk drums and a melody promoted by a free-wheeling saxophone.  “Daggerboard” is an ethereal arrangement, a sultry ballad, infused with synthesizer effects.  Much of this album is the product of the digital age in music, with the musicians and engineers sitting behind the scenes for hours, infusing synthesized sounds and computer techniques into this production.  Throttle Elevator Music grows each song, starting out with a melody and building upon each theme.  You will experience songs blossoming into a crescendo of creativity.  This project is both uniquely introspective and experimental.  It’s flush with memories of another time in the lives of these musicians.  Jump on board and take the Throttle Elevator music up to their “Final Floor.” 

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RHYTHM SECTION:  Peter Erskine, Mike Harvey, Jack Ciano & Lee Levin, drums; Richard Bravo, percussion; Mark Egan, fretless elec. bass; Tim Smith & Nick Orta, elec. bass; Jamie Ousley & Matt Bonelli, upright bass; Lindsey Blair, electric & acoustic guitar; Randy Bernsen, elec. guitar; Mike Levine, piano/keyboards; Kemuel Roig, keyboard; WOODWINDS: Ed Maina, alto saxophone/alto flute/piccolo; Ed Calle, tenor & soprano saxophone/flutes/clarinet; Neal Bonsanti, oboe/English horn/clarinet/flutes; Tom Timko, tenor saxophone/flute; Peter Brewer, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet/flute. TRUMPETS: Brett Murphey, Jason Carder & Cisco Dimas.  TROMBONES: Dana Teboe & Major Batley. Dan Bonsanti, tuba emulation. Dan Bonsanti, producer/arranger.

Arranger/producer, Dan Bonsanti, offers us a contemporary, but very ‘swinging’ take on jazz compositions by modern jazz masters, presented by The 14 Jazz Orchestra.  Bandleader, Bonsanti, is a saxophone plyer with a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree earned at the University of Miami.  He has performed with some very famous bands like the Stan Kenton Orchestra, with Jaco Pastorius’ Word of Mouth Orchestra and with the Doc Severinsen band.  He’s also worked with a plethora of iconic names including Nat Adderley, Michael and Randy Brecker, Jimmy Cobb, Bob James, Dave Liebman and Barbra Streisand.  From 1976 to 1990, Dan Bonsanti was Associate Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Miami.  He explained how this orchestra came together in the press package.

“I spent countless hours listening to music across a wide spectrum of styles to choose the music for this project.  I wanted tunes that I felt would stand up to repeated listening.  In fact, I listened to each song on this album by different artists at least 100 times before I felt it had enough color, passion and energy to engage the listener,” Bonsanti shared.

They open with the title tune, a solid swing number that Bonsanti composed, based loosely on two of his childhood cartoon characters, Rocky and Bullwinkle.  Cleverly, he uses piccolo and tuba to represent the characters and adds Charlie Parker flavor and Thelonious Monk motifs throughout.  This number features the awesome talents of Peter Erskine, Ed Calle, Jason Carder and Ed Maina.  Bonsanti engaged musicians from around the country to participate in this project.

“My goal is NOT to sound like a big band,” he expressed. “I like the lightness and colors you can get with less instrumentation.  I prefer to get orchestral flavors by mixing instruments from different sections of the band.  It allows for a softer, more fluid and less strident sound,” the composer arranger dissected his work.

He has arranged the music of Wayne Shorter (Infant Eyes), Chick Corea’s “Duende” and “Got A Match?” also Herbie Hancock’s “Driftin’.”  The contemporary jazz arrangements reflect the brilliance of these American jazz composers and represent a younger era of jazz music.  On “I’m All Smiles” the orchestra waltzes through this arrangement and features Mike Levine on piano and Ed Maina on flute.  This is followed by a straight-ahead arrangement that rips through my listening room like a speeding locomotive. Titled, “Got a Match,” it features Ed Maina who shows off his skills on piccolo and Ed Calle shines brightly on tenor saxophone.  Lee Levin is spectacular on drums and Nicky Orta takes a notable electric bass solo.  The orchestra fires us up on this one!  “Driftin’,” squeezes the blues out of their melodic arrangement, while “When I Look in your Eyes” is a sexy, smokey ballad.  Each song included pulls out a rich array of emotions and the lovely arrangements by Bonsanti give perfect platforms for amazing soloists to take wing and fly. “A Day Tripper’s Blues Buffet” closes this production out in a spectacular way!  I hear shades of “Night Train” and “Blues in the Night” with Lindsey Blair’s guitar soaring. This closing tune is pure pleasure.

Sadly, during the production of this album, woodwind players, Mark Colby and jazz icon, Ira Sullivan both passed away in august of 2020.  Dan Bonsanti tributes them on the CD jacket of this project. They both made unforgettable impacts on the Florida jazz community and their legacy will be celebrated worldwide.

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Sylwester Ostrowski, saxophone; Kacper Smolinski, harmonica; Tomasz Chyla, violin; Maciej Kadziela, alto saxophone; Jakub ‘Mizer’ Mizeracki, guitar; Kasia Pietrzko, piano; Dominique Sanders, bass; Eric Allen, drums; SPECIAL GUESTS: Bobby Watson & Logan Richardson, alto saxophone; Keyon Harrold, trumpet; Royal Chief, rapper; Laura Taglialatela, vocals; Daniel Hogans, drums.

This album is the result of a trip made in February of 2020 to Kansas City from Warsaw, Poland. Woodwind player, Sylwester Ostrowski was part of that expedition.  Just before the announcement of a worldwide pandemic infected the Earth, he and his musical friends came to Kansas City to celebrate the 100th birthday and music of Charlie Parker.  Ostrowski and his band of fellow musicians were selected at last year’s Jazz Forum Showcase and sponsored by Ostrowski’s organization, Szczecin Jazz.  That’s why they call themselves the Jazz Forum Talents. In fact, the accomplished tenor player, composer, producer and bandleader has earned the city of Szczecin, his hometown, the label, “Jazz Capital of Poland.”  Sylwester Ostrowski is also the ‘Honorary Ambassador of Szczecin City. Eager to seek out all the historical information on the iconic Charlie Parker, the Polish bandmates spent a wild week checking-out Parker’s grave, a visit to his childhood home, touring Jazz District 18th Street and Vine, visiting the American Jazz Museum and jamming with local musicians at various local nightclubs.  They had one day off.  This album is the result of that one, illustrious day, where they gathered at ‘Make Believe Studio’ in Omaha, Nebraska.  This album is a recording of that spontaneous get together.

Kansas City is quite famous for its bar-b-que, consequently the first two songs on this album celebrate that legacy with songs titled “Burnt Ends” and “Burnt Ends (Welcome to Kansas City).  Both titles reference the famed dish served at Gates Bar-B-Q in Kansas City called Burnt Ends.  Track 1 is a funk-based, contemporary tune featuring both Sylwester Ostrowski and Maciej Kadziela on saxophones.  The first tune is expanded on Track 2 with electronics and electronic effects, then adding rapper, Royal Chief.  Track 3 is a ballad.  Enter Tomasz Chyla on violin and special guest, Logan Richardson on alto saxophone.  The famed tune, “Donna Lee” features an impressive solo by guitarist, Jakub “Mizer” Mizeracki with Ostrowski soaking up the solo spotlight on his saxophone.  “Chief’s Kingdom” features the great Bobby Watson on alto saxophone as another special guest.  This composition was inspired by the hymn of Kansas City’s football team.  The Polish musicians experienced the city’s joyous celebration for their Super Bowl triumph during their visit last year.  “Dog’s Ducks” is a tune that showcases Kacper Smolinski on harmonica and “Once in Omaha” allows a mad alto saxophone duel between Maciek Kadziela and Logan Richardson.  “Confirmation” swings hard and Bobby Watson is back to get a piece of this familiar arrangement.  All in all, here is an interesting and adventurous blending of cultures and talents.  It just proves, from the Mid-Western United States to the European city of Szczecin, jazz reigns! 

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Ethan Helm, alto saxophone/flute; Owen Broder, alto & baritone saxophones; Addison Frei, piano; Ethan O’Reilly, bass; Matt Honor, drums.

The premise of this album is stringing together original compositions that represent the view of endless highway as the “Cowboys & Frenchmen” group gazed through the windows of their touring mini-van. Their music represents the nomadic life of touring musicians with tunes like: “American Whispers: Pines” and “Alice in Promisedland” inspired by Alice Coltrane. This is one of my favorite tunes on the album and liberally features Addison Frei’s piano talents and Ethan O’Reilly’s big bass sound.  Broder’s saxophone and Helm’s flute soar, brightly coloring the music.  Other compositions include the American Whispers theme, featuring “Streams – An Old Church” where the flute and saxophone chase each other around my listening room. Matt Honor is deliberate and outstanding on drums, offering serous support to Frei’s piano improv.  This is followed by “Gig Life – American Whispers: Mountains.”   A song called, “Where is Your Wealth” will be released as a video ‘single’ on January 26th.   A video album is scheduled to premiere February 26, 2021, to celebrate the landscapes and byways that connect America’s states, towns and cities.  Woodwind player, Ethan Helm has composed all the accompanying music.  He is one of the co-founders of this group along with Owen Broder. 

The inspiration for the band’s name comes from a short film by David Lynch.  It was a Western with a somewhat left-field interpretation of the classic genre of Cowboy movies, replacing the Indian part of Cowboys & Indian movies with the concept of ‘Frenchmen’.   Owen Broder and Ethan Helm, both saxophonists, hope that their music interprets this mindset by planting one foot into modern jazz and the other into straight-ahead; one hand beating the pulse of contemporary and fusion expression and the other hand wrapped around classical and traditional jazz concepts. This music, by New York City-based Cowboys & Frenchmen group, offers a new take on instrumentation, composition and orchestration for the jazz quintet.  Like many jazz groups today, these musicians have added a new dimension to their concerts by incorporating video expression. 

“For us, the traveling is not separate from the art.  It’s all part of one lifestyle.  Jazz musicians are really lucky because our art form allows us to place a frame around a snapshot in time.  The music is always in motion, which is a special quality that we want to highlight with “Our Highway,” Helms muses.

The accompanying film was made before the horrendous COVID pandemic, when the group was hustling from club to club; gig to gig.  It recalls what it was like in their musical life before the lockdown that has kept most venues dark for over a year.  Their music is rich with improvisation, imagination and incorporates the individual talents of five gifted musicians who challenge us with brilliant technique and exciting, creative solos that build upon inspired arrangements.

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January 12, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

January 12, 2021


Luke Sellick, bass; Andrew Renfroe, guitar.

“Hills of Mexico” is a traditional American folk song, often played by banjo and made quite famous by Roscoe Holcomb.  Holcomb was born in 1912 and was a popular Appalachian musician.  It’s interesting to hear his rendition of this song and then to enjoy the smooth jazz sounding arrangement by Luke Sellick and Andrew Renfroe.  This creative production of Country/Western popular music transforms folksy songs into an updated jazz style.

Their duo also transports pop and rock tunes through a musical and unique time machine, offering us creative arrangements and jazzy instrumental techniques.  You will hear Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” song in a freshly painted way, with a colorful bass solo by Sellick.  Petty was the lead singer of the Heartbreakers in his early career.  The Sellick and Renfroe arrangement is easy-listening jazz.  They also tackle Neil Young’s popular “Tell Me Why” tune.  Canadian/American, Neil Young, was often referred to as a rock-a-billy guitarist and songwriter.  In the early seventies, he was also an activist and was an important part of the Crosby, Stills and Nash group.

Sellick and Renfroe get down and dirty on “Someday Baby” by Mississippi Fred McDowell.  He was an African-American bluesman who once coached Bonnie Raitt on how to play the slide guitar.  Mississippi Fred was pleased when The Rolling Stones included one of his original songs (“You Gotta Move”) on their ‘Sticky Fingers’ album.  I think he would be just as pleased at Renfroe and Sellick’s arrangement of his old blues song, “Someday Baby.” This duo also takes Dolly Parton’s hit song, “Jolene” to another level.

“Small Vacation” is this duo’s first album as a duet and it reveals their unique way of revitalizing some country/pop/rock songs of yesteryear into new, jazzy, easy listening arrangements.  They close with a wonderful reflection on Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” composition.   Jazz musician, Russell Malone, wrote the liner notes for this production.  He said, “sit back and enjoy.  You will not be disappointed,” and he was absolutely right.

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Dave Liebman, tenor & soprano saxophones; Billy Test, piano; Evan Gregor, bass; Ian Froman, drums.

Recorded live at the Deer Head Inn, in Pennsylvania, The Generations Quartet opens with one of my favorite jazz tunes by Herbie Hancock, “Maiden Voyage.”   Excitingly, the members of this quartet represent three different generations of musicians.  This is their debut album and it captures the seamless merging of these generations into a very stellar package.  The young, talented pianist, Billy Test, won second place in the 2017 Montreux Jazz Pianist Competition.  Although he’s barely out of his twenties, Billy Test plays with high energy and brilliant technique.   He double-majored in jazz and classical piano and earned a Master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music.  He toured with Jaimoe Johanson, drummer with the Allman Brother’s Band.  They toured together for three years.  Test also worked with trumpeter Joe Magnarelli and the New York-based Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. 

The group’s bassist, Evan Gregor, first met Dave Liebman when he was attending high school and the seasoned woodwind player became one of Gregor’s mentors. The bass player attended Berklee School of music and in 2007, Liebman hired him to join a quartet gig where they were playing standard jazz tunes.  This was around the same time, Billy Test was studying for his Master’s degree, with Liebman and Markowitz, at the Manhattan School of Music. 

Finally, there was the addition of drummer, Ian Froman, who was once a student of the great Elvin Jones and has a thirty-year working relationship with the elder statesman of jazz, Dave Liebman.  Liebman is iconic for his work with Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Elvin Jones a half century ago.  This explains the group’s name, The Generations Quartet.

Theirs is the kind of jazz I live for.  Their music is straight-ahead, energy impacted and seriously innovative.  Dave Liebman is always a joy to listen to, with his exploratory approach to the music and his mastery of both tenor and soprano saxophones.  They play songs we know and love on this debut album including “Invitation” and “My Foolish Heart,” John Coltrane’s “Village Blues” and Jerome Kern’s “Yesterdays”.  The tried-and-true “Bye Bye Blackbird” song has a new face in the way that these musicians perform it.  They make me freshly appreciate this song with their unique and admirable musicianship.  I know this composition, like I know the back of my hand, but this band absolutely reconstructs it in a wonderful way.   Here is an album high on my list of best music for 2021, even though the year has just begun.

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Michael Stephans, drums; David Liebman, tenor & soprano saxophones/flute; Marc Copland, piano; Drew Gress, bass.

Here is another example of the genius and fluid beauty of David Liebman on tenor saxophone. Master drummer and one of the executive producers of this session, Michael Stephans, described this project in his liner notes.

“What can I possibly say about my musical brother, Dave Liebman, that hasn’t been said before?  He is arguably the living embodiment of the jazz art.  Saxophonist, flautist, pianist, drummer, composer, it’s all there inside one person.  To play with Lieb and other great New York musicians is one of the reasons my wife and I moved East from the West Coast.  I was an avid fan way before actually meeting him in 2004,” Michael explained.

Stephans originally recorded with David Liebman in 2005 on his CD, “OM/ShalOM” along with the great Bennie Maupin, another iconic woodwind master.  On this more recent production, performed before a live audience, they kick off the set with the familiar Miles Davis tune, “Nardis.”  Liebman flies like a graceful eagle and Marc Copland takes a stellar solo on piano.

“Marc Copland’s music has been part of my life for at least 20-years,” Michael Stephans shares. …  “I first heard him back in the early 70’s in Washington DC at a jazz club called Childe Harold.  He was playing electric piano. …I never forgot how great Marc sounded and how much I hoped to have the opportunity to play with him someday.  His exquisite touch on the acoustic instrument and his harmonic sensibilities place him in a class by himself as a creative improvising artist.”

I enjoyed Marc’s ingenuity on track 2, “Vertigo.”  It’s a moody, melodic, ballad composed by John Abercrombie, that gives Copland an opportunity to show off his splendid technique and unique love affair with the piano.  Drenched in classical nuances and propelled by an exploratory right hand, Copland builds the tension and power of the song, along with the capable drum support of Stephans.

“To me, the most important person in any rhythm section is the bassist.  As a drummer, I may provide the zing, bang, boom; however, if the bassist is not happening, then a group’s resiliency can easily evaporate.  Drew Gress brings something uniquely personal to this music.  He has a big heart, a beautiful sound and is totally present and in the moment each time we play together,” Michael Stephans praised the bass player in their group.

You can hear the beauty and thoughtfulness of Drew Gress’s bass playing during “In A Sentimental Mood” and throughout this recording.  He knows how to lock-in and hold the rhythm tightly in place with Michael Stephans, but he’s also a sensitive and outstanding bass soloist.

They play “All Blues” at a super-speed, that gives Michael Stephans an opportunity to stretch out on the trap drums and match the intensity and excitement that David Liebman always brings to the bandstand. It was quite amazing to hear.  Stephans also explores a creative drum solo.

“Quartette Oblique exemplifies what the Native American Ojibwe people call, ‘mizeweyaa’ or a coming together of different elements to form a unification – a convergence of feelings, ideas, rituals.  In other words, human beings moving into an often mystical-oneness,” Michael summed up the group’s production.

Heaven knows we need more oneness in the world.  From the crazy, mad applause of their audience, I gather that during this awesome musical concert, a single and pleasing joy of spirit was absolutely present and shared by all.   

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Marty Elkins, vocals; Mike Richmond, bass/cello.

On “In A Mellow Tone” Marty Elkins shows that she is a sincere jazz singer by vocally horn-scatting her way through an improvisational solo without echoing the Ellington/Gabler melody.  I’ve heard a number of fledgling jazz vocalists, who call themselves scat singers, but make the mistake of repeating the melody without the lyrics.  Marty Elkins is no such novice.  She knows that scatting across chord changes is meant as a discovery project for improvisers, prospective composers and in-tune artists.  The idea is to find freedom in re-establishing a fresh melody and with a different song perspective.  Impressively, Elkins does just that.

Mike Richmond is a master on his 170-year-old Tyrolean bass and his 120-year-old Czechoslovakian cello.  He is a seasoned bassist who once replaced Charles Mingus in the Mingus Dynasty group.  He participated in the Miles Davis and Quincy Jones collaborative during their Montreux, Switzerland jazz concert.  He has accompanied a wide arch of vocalists from pop to folk; straight-ahead jazz to Avant-garde.  These include the great Eddie Jefferson, Mark Murphey, Janis Siegel, Chet Baker, Bette Midler, Lainie Kazan, Sheila Jordan, Engelbert Humperdinck and Richie Havens, to list just a few. 

He and Elkins met half a dozen years ago, when she sat in on a gig he was playing. Richmond is an educator in bass technique with a method book published and a deep love for music.  Elkins is a vocalist who has been singing since the 1980s and has a huge following in New York City.  Sometimes her phrasing reminds me of Lena Horne and Billie Holiday combined, although tonally she sounds like neither.  Together they have picked songs popular as far back as 1926.  An example of this is “When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Bobbin’ Along” and jazz standards like “All of Nothing at All” that was recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1939 and released in 1944.  The songs are old, but well established. 

It’s certainly a challenge to present an album with no rhythm section and only the bass to establish the rhythm and the foundation of what Marty Elkins builds upon.   Her voice become the melody keeper and focal point of the music.  The bass becomes the rhythm and the root of the chords.  With only these two musicians, there’s not much left to do with arrangements.  On the Red Robin tune, Elkins did trade fours with the Richmond bass and the duet exhibits great timing and no pitch problems.  After the first couple of tunes, I just kept feeling how Marty Elkins and Mike Richmond would have benefitted from the addition of a full group of musicians or even a string ensemble.  Richmond tried over-dubbing, but that just wasn’t enough to fill up the empty spaces.  On “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues,” Elkins’ voice sparkles with genuine, blues believability.  While I admire this duo for their creative endeavor and acknowledge their strong, jazz sensibilities and extraordinary individual talents, I wish they had added full orchestration or even a jazz trio to this production for at least five of these ten songs.  I think that would have greatly elevated their unique and creative musical offering.

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KASPERI SARIKOSKI – “3 + 1” – Outside In Music

Kasperi Sarikoski, trombone/composer; Simon Willson, bass; Francesco Ciniglio, drums; Christian Li, piano.

Trombonist, Kasperi Sarikoski, has composed all the music on this “3 + 1” album.  With just bass, drums and trombone, this trio plus one creates an open and compelling sound.  Sarikoski uses the quality bass of Simon Willson and the drums of Francesco Ciniglio to create a basement for his trombone to build upon.  On the composition, “Birchwood,” without guitar or piano instruments to root the track, there is an openness to the arrangement that encourages freedom in their musical movements.   As the bass solos, Sarikoski’s trombone creates descants with his horn melodies.  On track 5, Christian Li joins the trio on piano.  The trombone sounds as if it is announcing the arrival of royalty at some distant king’s castle.  I enjoyed the addition of piano, but it’s only on this one song titled, “Onward and Upward.”  Track 6 returns to the open concept and features the drum talents of Francesco Ciniglio, who creatively slips his rhythm patterns and solos into the fabric of this music. Unusually, the “Intro to Such Sweet Sorrow” is longer than the song itself, but very beautifully played by Sarikoski and group.  The tune, “Wide Lanes” is straight-ahead jazz and they have included two takes of this very upbeat composition.  This is an intriguing musical exploration that features the unique instrumentation of trombone, bass and drums, with the one exception of adding a piano on track five.  

Kasperi Sarikoski has created a distinctive and enjoyable sound that initiates fresh arrangement-possibilities in the jazz idiom.

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LARRY NEWCOMB QUARTET featuring JAKE NEWCOMB – “LOVE, DAD” – Essential Messenger

Larry Newcomb, guitar/composer; Dave Marsh, drums; Thomas Royal, piano; Jake Newcomb, bass.

This is Larry Newcomb’s third album as a leader.  He mixes six of his original songs with four well appreciated jazz standards on this production and is joined by his son, Jake Newcomb on bass, Dave Marsh on drums and Thomas Royal on piano.  They open with “You Stepped Out of a Dream” where the quartet swings hard.  Thomas Royal celebrates the moment during a noteworthy piano solo.

Guitarist, Larry Newcomb started his career in music as a rocker working in both rock and pop bands including backing up Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits and vocalist, Leslie Gore.  It was during his study at the University of Maine that he became infatuated with jazz after hearing Jim Hall and Ron Carter’s duo album, “Alone Together.”

“When I heard that I said, that’s what I want to do!” Larry Newcomb expressed emphatically.

One of the senior Newcomb’s heroes was Grant Green.  He pays tribute to Green on the final track of this album.  Larry Newcomb explained:

“When I got to New York in 1999, I was transcribing a lot of Grant Green, including ‘The Song is You’, but I was also inspired by hearing Stan Getz play this song.  Later, I had a trio that played brunch for 17-years at ‘The Garage’ and we frequently played this tune.  I’m fascinated by it,” he reminisced.

They play the Jerome Kern song at a thrilling, up-tempo speed.  The title tune, “Love, Dad” is written for and dedicated to Newsome’s three sons.  It’s based on the chord changes of “Stella By Starlight.”  I enjoyed their arrangement of “Secret Agent Man,” a tribute to Sean Connery who originally played the part of 007 in that film series.  Every arrangement on this album is smoothly delivered by the quartet and features Larry Newcomb’s well cultivated style and mastery of his guitar.  

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MIKE SCOTT – “COLLECTING THINGS” – Independent label

Mike Scott, guitar/composer; Joe Bagg, piano/organ; Darek Oles, bass; Jake Reed, drums.

Mike Scott, opens this project with a composition called “Sol Minor Prelude,” playing solo and introducing us to his mastery of guitar in a beautiful way.  It’s a two-minute, fifteen-second glimpse into the mind and talent of this guitarist/composer.  I have always loved the clarity and tone of a nylon string guitar.  Scott brings out the best of this instrument.  The concept, explained in his press package, is that this composition grew out of the third open string on the guitar, tuned to a G.  Scott began to experiment with various harmonies to that one G note, which led him to a series of chord progressions, with the open G string ringing throughout the piece.  The result is a fascinating and relaxing concept.

Most of the music on this Mike Scott recording is laid-back and peaceful.  His guitar tone has a soothing, hypnotic effect. On Track 2, Scott is joined by his rich, Southern California trio of A-list musicians. Joe Bagg switches from organ to piano on various tracks.  His light, improvised touch adds much to Track 2, “Sol Minor.”  Darek Oles sets the time and groove on his bass when they play “Now and Later.”  Oles offers us an inspired solo on this tune, while Mike Scott shows off his deep classical roots throughout. 

“Classical guitar playing involves extensive use of your right hand.  Each finger plays a different sound, allowing you to control the dynamics and expressive quality of each note individually,” Mike Scott explains.

On “Jack’s Dilemma” you hear Scott’s blues roots creeping through.  You cannot be an extraordinary jazz player if you can’t play the blues.  Bagg brings his organ chops to this arrangement.  The funky drive of Jake Reed pushes the music forward on drums.  Reed is brightly featured on Track 5, “Boom Diddle It” with the staccato introduction by the band, letting the drums shine.  Mike Scott swings hard on this tune and bassist Darek Oles gets a big piece of the action.  This becomes one of my favorite songs and arrangements on this production, along with the familiar “On A Clear Day” that features a wonderful and creative bass line that runs through their arrangement, glistening like a gold thread.

The compositions and band presentation on Mike Scott’s “Collecting Things” album are both strong and entertaining.  Every tune is well-played and the musicians richly improvise and support Scott’s lyrical compositions in the best possible way.  Most importantly, Mike Scott shines as a composer, arranger and guitarist, like the jewels in a king’s crown.

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Justin Rothberg, guitar/mandolin; Todd Groves, tenor & soprano saxophones/flutes/melodica; Jon Price, bass; Hiroyuki Matsuura, drums; Andy O’Neill, percussion.

If you are prone to a more contemporary jazz excursion, sail over to the Justin Rothberg Group.  With Hiroyuki Matsuura laying down funky drum licks, along with Don Price on electric bass and Andy O’Neill adding percussion, they create strong tracks to support the solo work of both Justin Rothberg and woodwind player, Todd Groves.  Group leader, Rothberg, has composed all the songs except for one by Bob James, “Piece of Mind.” Their arrangement of this Bob James composition features Todd Groves and was quite entertaining, using various effects and melodica.   Justin Rothberg has a good sense of songwriting.  However, more than once his improvisational development veered off the melodic path during his guitar solos.  He’s a strong composer and colorful, rhythm guitar player.  My question is, does he need more focus on his blazing guitar improv techniques?  His arrangement on “Hotel Show Repeat” sounds very East Indian and gives Todd Groves an opportunity to introduce us to his flute talents.  Jon Price offers an energetic bass solo that dances across the solid drum rhythms of Matsuura.  I enjoyed the addition of Rothberg on mandolin.  Track 5, “Bad Apple” starts out sounding very bluesy but quickly changes directions and becomes a reggae arrangement.  These two tunes issue in a more world-music approach to Rothberg’s production.  “South Beach Banjo” is a shuffle blues that invites all the players to get loose and take advantage of solos full of freedom and fun.   Track 7, “Tom G” goes back to a smooth jazz characterization of their music. Here is a group that obviously can play many styles and genres of music and jazz, with emphasis on fusion.  This album reflects their wealth of talent, versatility and innovation, provoked by Justin Rothberg’s well-written compositions and an obvious love of what they do. 

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In closing this column, I am adding a group slightly larger than a quartet for all of you Avant-garde music lovers.


Craig Taborn, piano/keyboards/synthesizer/producer/composer; Chris Speed, saxophone; Erik Fratzke, bass; Mat Maneri, viola; David King, drums.

If you are a music lover looking for repetitive, Avant-garde, experimental music, the Junk Magic group plays just that.  For more than a decade, Junk Magic has been honing a collective sound that relies on individual expressions, imagination and subversion.  Inspired by pianist/composer Craig Taborn, Junk Magic has transitioned into a sonic identity of electronic sound design, production techniques and elements of improvised music.  Says Taborn:

“You’re still trying to capture things in a moment; in a certain sense.  But then also, because of how the process works, you’re not.  There’s a lot of time to craft things after the fact.”

When I listen to this “Compass Confusion” album, I am transported to space, in an eerie setting of an empty space ship, with just the creepy sounds of silence and the groans and moans of wind and weather against hard steel.  This music places me in a strange state of being.

“There are different methods of attending compositionally.  If I were writing a traditional tune, it would be melody and some chord changes.  If I were writing a hip hop track, I would focus more on beats, loops and sound design.  If I were writing strictly ambient music, I would focus on the sound relationships; how the shapes are evolving with certain sonic elements.  On a lot of these pieces, I’m really playing with the foreground and background of all those things,” Craig Taborn explains.

This journalist gets bored quickly with repetitive loops and sounds.  It’s kind of like listening to the drip, drip of a leaking faucet in a perfectly quiet room.  Eventually you want to get up and call a plumber. 

NOTE:    The video posted with this review is from an earlier album release of Junk Magic.  I could not locate a more recent video to represent the Compass Confusion album.

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January 2, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

January 2, 2021


Diana Krall, piano/vocals; John Clayton Jr., Tony Garnier & Christian McBride, bass; Jeff Hamilton & Karriem Riggins, drums; Anthony Wilson, Russell Malone & Marc Ribot, guitar; Stuart Duncan, fiddle; Alan Broadbent, piano; Randall Krall, accordion; STRING SECTION: VIOLINS: Charles Bisharat, Mario DeLeon, Kevin Connolly, Neel Hammond, Tamara Hatwan, Natalie Leggett, Songa Lee, Katia Popov, Michele Richards, Kathleen Sloan, Marcy Vaj, Ina Veli & John Wittenberg. VIOLA: Andrew Duckles, Kathryn Reddish, Colleen Sugata & Michael Whitson; CELLO: Jodi Burnett, Alisha Bauer, Jennifer Kuhn & Cello Soloist: Vanessa Freebairn-Smith. CONCERTMASTER: Joel Derouin.

Her husky voice glides across the space like a lovely bird in flight singing, “But Beautiful.”  Diana Krall has a way of inviting you into the story of her song lyrics, as if she’s your best friend, whispering secrets across the table as you both sip drinks.  Her all-star band is complimented by a full string ensemble.  Track two features another sincere delivery on “That’s All” that shows her vulnerability vocally, while showcasing her jazzy piano playing.  On these first two songs her rhythm section is composed of John Clayton jr. on bass, Jeff Hamilton on drums and Anthony Wilson on guitar.  Then comes “Autumn in New York” arranged with Russell Malone on guitar and Christian McBride on bass. The flavor of the rhythm section changes.  During the first part of this tune, Diana Krall steps away from the piano and her voice soars.  Then, the string ensemble joins them.  The guitar solo by Russell Malone is stunning.  On Track 4, “Almost Like Being in Love” the pace picks up a wee bit with a shuffle rhythm.  Jeff Hamilton is back on drums and John Clayton Jr. mans the bass. During this arrangement, Diana Krall’s piano excellence takes the opportunity to stretch out and show-off her technical talents.  On “More Than You Know” Ms. Krall is joined by the iconic Alan Broadbent on piano.  She introduces us to the verse that prefaces this familiar American Standard tune and once again sells the song.  This is an album perfect to play during a romantic evening by a roaring fireplace or cuddling beneath the covers.  On Track 6., “Just You, Just Me” she once again switches up the players.  Now Tony Garnier is on bass, pumping the rhythm and locking in with Karriem Riggins on drums.  Marc Ribot is on guitar and a very country/Western sounding fiddle player named Stuart Duncan is featured.  Drummer Riggins takes stage center during this arrangement and is given ample time to solo and trades fours, displaying his chops.

Diana Krall pays tribute to Nina Simone’s historic song, “Don’t Smoke in Bed” as a duo piece featuring Alan Broadbent on piano.  Another duo she includes on this project is one with bass master, John Clayton Jr., on “I Wished on the Moon,” a straight-ahead piece where both musicians excel at doing what they do best.  The title tune, “This Dream of You,” is very folksy and it’s an odd fit with the jazz theme of this album.  It’s got a pretty melody and would have made a nice jazz waltz arrangement or even a rot-gut blues.  Instead, Krall stepped out of the realms of a jazz album and into a Country/Western, folksy production.  For me, it compromises the theme of this album.  Another disappointment was “How Deep Is the Ocean,” enhanced by mallets on the drums.  The muted rhythm sets a sultry mood, but then, to my surprise, Krall takes liberties with this breathtakingly beautiful melody.  Her arrangement moves so far from the original melody that it really becomes a new tune with the same lyrics. I found this very disappointing, because it destroyed the original beauty of Irving Berlin’s lovely composition.  On the whole, this is an easy listening, well-produced experience, with the exciting assistance of some of the best jazz names in the business, as well as a lovely string ensemble.  Diana Krall’s accomplished piano playing and sultry, singing style are always an entertaining and exploratory experience.

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Miquel Zenon, alto saxophone; Luis Perdomo, piano.

In September of 2020, during the raging pandemic that took so many innocent lives worldwide, Miguel Zenon picked up his alto saxophone and joined pianist, Luis Perdomo to record a concert at the Jazz Gallery in New York City.  That concert was livestreamed in November and this album release is the result of that amazingly beautiful music played to an empty space, with all the heartfelt emotion that these two iconic musicians could muster.   The song “Como fue” opens this artistic experience.  Their interpretation of this song stopped me in my tracks and made me sit quietly and listen to this entire album.  It was a spellbinding experience.  Track two, titled “Alma Adentro” is another pretty ballad that is caressed and cradled in the bell of Miguel Zenon’s horn.  The piano of Luis Perdomo is equally brilliant, not only adding spice and support during his accompaniment, but additionally expanding on their theme and improvising freely during his solo. 

I found sweet solace in this music.  During a time of such drama and trauma, it was wonderful to hear comfort music that was not only beautifully performed, but also music that offers tranquility and peace.  Miquel’s tone on his alto saxophone is smooth and soothing. He balances contradictory poles of jazz innovation with Latin tradition. Luis Perdomo’s piano playing is rich with emotion.  Every song on this duo production is entertaining and technically astute.  Clearly these are two master musicians.  Settle back in your favorite lounge chair and enjoy.  The digital-only release will be available January 8, 2021.

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Henry Robinett, guitar; Joe Gilman, piano; Chris Symer, bass; Michael Stephans, drums.

Henry Robinett has a light, precise touch on his guitar strings.  His bebop style skips along at a brisk pace on their opening number, “Yours Is My Heart Alone.”  It’s a great way to open this album and to introduce us to the players.  Joe Gilman steps into the spotlight with a bright, intriguing piano solo.  Michael Stephans, an extraordinary drummer, keeps the pace solidified and ever-moving.  He ‘trades fours’ with Gilman and Robinett, showing off his technical skills and strength.  Back in 2020, I enjoyed and reviewed the first release of Robinett’s 20-year-old recording project that he called “Jazz Standards, Vol. 1.”  At the time of this recording project, Henry Robinett was working as an engineer at ‘The Hangar’, a recording studio in Sacramento.  The quartet managed to record enough material in two days to create two volumes of exceptional music.  Although Robinett has gone on to make his mark as more of an electric jazz player, when he re-listened to these dynamite tracks, Henry recognized the brilliance and beauty he had overlooked in his younger years. 

“After listening to it again, after so many years, I like it.  I think it stands up well and shows another side to my playing,” Robinett explained in his press package.

Henry Robinett is not only a jazz guitarist, bandleader, composer and artist, but he’s also an educator.  He’s been in love with the guitar since age thirteen.  His diverse and extremely different musical influences were Jimi Hendrix and Charles Mingus, who was his father’s first cousin.  When Robinett isn’t performing, you may find him teaching in Vienna, Austria at the American Institute of Music or on the faculty of the University of the Pacific and Consumnes River College.

As a lover of ‘swing’ and bebop, I am drawn to Henry Robinett’s music like a fish to water.  I find a comfort level swimming in his clearly defined melodies and soaking up his rich improvisations.  The songs this quartet offers are mostly familiar and range from a swinging arrangement of “On the Street Where You Live” to the sexy ballad, “Body and Soul.”  They swing “Like Someone in Love” and shuffle through “Milestones.”  Every tune becomes a favorite and each arrangement is brilliantly highlighted by the gold-plated excellence of these musicians.

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RODERICK HARPER – “EVOLVING” – R. H. M. Entertainment, Inc.

Roderick Harper, vocals; Oscar Rossignoli, piano/percussion; Shea Pierre, Jesse Davis & Ellis Marsalis, piano; Robin Sherman, Roland Guerin & Amina Scott, bass; Chris Guccione, Gerald Watkins, Geoff Clapp & Jamison Ross, drums; Donald Harrison, saxophone; Thomas Dawson, string arrangement; Roderick Paulin, soprano saxophone; John Jones, Fender Rhodes piano.

Vocalist, Roderick Harper Muhammad, opens this album with an original composition titled “Infinite Heart” that he co-wrote with Donald Harrison.  I was unsure about this artist because of all the dissonance I heard on this first song.  Was it intentional?  Was the vocalist off pitch or were the chords strange?  But when I heard him sing, “Never Let Me Go” I had a completely different opinion of Roderick Harper Muhammad. This tune is the only one featuring the iconic Ellis Marsalis.  The Thomas Dawson string arrangement is beautiful as Harper-Muhammad pours his heart out.

When he tackled the Donny Hathaway hit record, “Someday We’ll All Be Free” he continued to make me a believer.  The man can sing.  Performing with only bass and piano, he was vocally strong.  However, I began to wish his piano accompanist had been more of a jazz pianist.  The musicians change on this recording, which also takes away from the continuity of the production and Harper-Muhammad has self-produced his project.  Sometimes an artist needs a producer to sit in the engineering booth and guide them to find the very best of themselves. That being said, the potential and vocal charm of this artist are clearly present.  He is a diamond in the rough.  But like he states in the title of this project, Roderick Harper is ‘Evolving.’ 

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TRIO GRANDE – Whirlwind Recordings

Will Vinson, saxophones/keyboards; Gilad Hekselman, guitars; Antonio Sanchez, drums.

What do you get when you mix Mexican, Israeli and British cultures into a contemporary jazz album?  It’s like a ball of colorful yarn that unravels and spins songs featuring saxophones, guitars, drums and a splattering of keyboards?  The answer is, “Trio Grande.” 

This is their debut statement and features three, inventive musicians who are working the New York music scene.  Will Vinson is British-born and plays saxophones.  Gilad Hekselman is an Israeli guitarist and Antonio Sanchez is a Mexico City native, a drummer who has been living in Queens for quite a while. Each musician is a bandleader of their own unique groups, but they come together on this recording to explore a bass-less situation.  Without a bass to ground the music, they are hoping to share a sort of musical freedom, while interjecting their diverse cultures. 

Each member is a composer.  Drummer, Sanchez composed the opening tune, “Northbound” and track 6, “Gocta,” that has a fluid, ethereal feel to it.   Hekselman’s love of song forms and melody, along with his appreciation of folk music and pop, is reflected in his composition, “Elli Yeled Tov.”  The addition of hand-claps and the isolation of instrumentation, soloing alone at first with only hand-clapping accompaniment, brings a child’s party atmosphere to mind.  I quickly learn the repetitive melody, but I notice that the rhythm patterns are more complicated than the simplistic melodic tones.  Will Vinson has composed “Oberkampf,” a brooding song with streaks of rock music threaded through the electric guitar lines.  It’s very dirge-like.  On the other side of the coin, his original song, “Upside” gives Antonio Sanchez the opportunity to play on the introduction with just his trap drums.  Once Vinson, the saxophonist enters, his composition transforms to a smooth jazz, contemporary-feel.  I found myself drawn to the song, “Firenze” by Sanchez, who takes a very melodic solo on drums. 

This is an interesting blend of cultures and music that, as Will Vinson muses:

“…The album’s magic lies in the way that so many disparate musical elements are woven together to create a coherent whole. … We’re all grounded in jazz, but all of us are also looking for other sounds and influences to bring in.”

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Carla Campopiano, flutes; Gustavo Cortinas, drums/percussion.

Having worked for three major record companies in the past, (United Artists/Bluenote and A&M) I know how important the cover or jacket of an album is to promotion, sales and artist development.  The artwork of Esperanza Gama certainly got my attention, with her multi-colored, decoratively painted hand on the cover of Carla Campopiano’s new CD.  Campopiano is a Chicago artist who has been blending her native Argentinean roots with jazz for several years.  On this recording she uses her flute to introduce us to several Argentine composers, sparsely using only a trio setting to explore these compositions.   It’s very South American folksy, slightly blended with jazz.  This project is dedicated lovingly to their talented vocalist, Alba Guerra, who passed away after the recording was completed. I was especially taken by her emotional delivery and interpretation of “La Pomena.” 

Carla Campopiano is a studied musician who mastered the Latin melodies and rhythms of candombe, chacarera, milonga and the tango.  She also has studied and played Middle Eastern music and found herself working with American heavy metal bands in Chicago.  As an educator, she shares her years of research into the history of tango music on a podcast that promotes Latin American artists showcasing their original music. This project invites listeners to enjoy Carla Campopiano’s warm flute talents and to be introduced to what classical music becomes when culturally combined with tangos, milongas, zambas, Argentinean composers, world music and jazz.

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Aaron Burnett, tenor saxophone/composer; Adam O’Farrill, trumpet; Joel Ross, vibraphone; Carlos Homs, piano/keyboard; Nick Jozwiak, bass; Kush Abadey, drums; Esperanza Spalding, vocals.

Aaron Burnett’s album title fascinated me, because this year issues in an astrological change that hasn’t happened in twenty years.  When Jupiter and Saturn conjuncted in December, their meeting created a very bright star in the sky.  Some astrologers think that was the north star that led the wise men to baby Jesus many years ago.  On this unusual 2019 Winter Solstice occasion, this conjunction is called a Grand Mutation.  It signals a big change on Earth and for those who believe in astrology, a pathway into the Age of Aquarius.  Aaron Burnett described the album title this way:

“Jupiter Conjunct is a testament to seek and perpetuate the evolution of my consciousness and my admiration of our creator and the connection to the All through sound.”

The group opens with his ballad composition “Color Durations” that is one in nine original pieces Burnett has written for this album.  It’s meditative in feel and sound, using the piano of Carlos Homs as a catalyst that sparkles like stars on a clear night. Track 2, “The Veil,” features the close harmonies of trumpeter Adam O’Farrill and Aaron Burnett on tenor saxophone.  This technique is used throughout the album.  I enjoyed the contrast during the trio performance of the Homs upper register keyboard against the rich bass sounds of Nick Jozwiak. Joel Ross adds vibraphone to the mix and its quite compelling, changing the face of the song, like adding lip gloss to a pretty model’s lovely face.  Once the mood has been set and Aaron Burnett steps into the spotlight on alto saxophone, he flushes out improvised ideas and spews his musical thoughts rigorously.  Burnett’s music is both melodic and Avant-garde.  The vocals of Esperanza Spalding, harmonizing with Burnett’s tenor sax, hooks into my ear like a gold earring.  Spalding’s scat singing enhances the production and introduces us to the melody of “Ganymede,” along with the vibes of Joel Ross, before Burnett takes over to pump the piece up on his horn.  Finally, on track 5, the song “10” races from the disc with energy and gives Kush Abedey, on drums, an opportunity to showcase his chops.  Up until this point, all the music had been pretty ‘laid back’.  I wish Abedey had put some funk into this piece or laid down sixteen or more bars of pure groove, just to lift the arrangement and let me snap my fingers to the two and four.  Sometimes ethereal is over-rated.  Aaron Burnett & the Big Machine offer an opportunity for Burnett to present his original compositions and arrangements to the world.  They repeat the song, “Ganymede” to close this album out as an alternate take.  It is one of the most interesting and charismatic songs on this project, reminding me a lot of the early art of Flora Purim with Airto Moreira. 

According to Jupiter’s conjunct status, in 2021, we are now moving into the realm of new ideas and explorations into technology.  Like the power he uses to blow his horn, we are now moving into an era propelled by the element of air.  I believe Aaron Burnett is growing into his power and talent, evolving with each new gig and every fresh composition. 

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