BEAUTIFUL BIG BANDS & CREATIVE JAZZ COMPOSERS

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 – “WHERE WE STARTED” – Tone Rogue Records

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 TRIO – “SONGS OF JOY” – Ubuntu Music

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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IRA B. LISS BIG BAND JAZZ MACHINE – “MAZEL TOV KOCKTAIL!” – Tall Man Productions

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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THROTTLE ELEVATOR MUSIC – “FINAL FLOOR” – Wide Hive Records

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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DAN BONSANTI AND THE 14 JAZZ ORCHESTRA – “CARTOON BEBOP” – Dabon Music LLC

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 & JAZZ FORUM TALENTS – JAMMIN’ WITH KC – Agora Records

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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COWBOYS & FRENCHMEN – “OUR HIGHWAY” – Outside In Music

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

http://www.cowboysandfrenchmen.com/our-highway

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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