JAZZY DUETS AND INTRIGUING QUARTETS

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

January 12, 2021

LUKE SELLICK & ANDREW RENFROE – “SMALL VACATION” – Independent Label

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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THE GENERATIONS QUARTET – “INVITATION” – Independent label

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

https://bethlehem.jazznearyou.com/billy-test-trio-at-17-00-on-february-23?width=1024

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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QUARTETTE OBLIQUE – MICHAEL STEPHANS, DAVID LIEBMAN, MARC COPLAND & DREW GRESS – Sunnyside Label

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 & MIKE RICHMOND – “TIS AUTUMN” – Elktone Records

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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THE JUSTIN ROTHBERG GROUP – “HURRICANE MOUSE” – Independent Label

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.

JUNK MAGIC – PSEUDONYM FOR CRAIG TABORN – “COMPASS CONFUSION” – Pyroclastic Records

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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