JAZZ MUSIC FOR VALENTINE’S DAY & BEYOND

By Dee Dee McNeil

February 12, 2021

AMBER WEEKES – “MY ROMANCE – A SPECIAL VALENTINE” Single – Independent Label – FEATURING MON DAVID

Eddy Olivieri & Tony Campodonico, piano; Mark Cargill, string conductor/guitar/producer; Jeff Littleton, bass; Nathaniel Scott, drums; Ramon Stagnaro, guitar; Paul Baker, harp; David Jackson & Munyungo Jackson, percussion.

Amber Weekes has released a ‘single’ just in time for Valentine’s Day.  She sings “My Romance” and “The Way He Makes Me Feel,” a lovely duet with vocalist Mon David.  The single is pulled from her anticipated CD release titled, “Round Midnight – Reimagined,” formerly released in 2002, but is currently being remastered and re-orchestrated.

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BILL CUNLIFFE, JOHN PATITUCCI & VINNIE COLAIUTA – “TRIO” – La Coq Records

Bill Cunliffe, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Vinnie Colaiuta, drums.

What do you get when you join together three jazz virtuoso players?  A delightfully entertaining album of excellence, of course!  This is one such album. 

Bill Cunliffe opens with a tune called, “Conception,” penned by the great George Shearing.  The trio tackles it at a swinging tempo and after several bars of piano, John Patitucci steps forward to take a stellar bass solo.  Afterwards, the trio swings a little more before Vinnie Colaiuta takes an opportunity to trade-fours and showcase his expert drum chops.  It’s a great way to begin to introduce the listening audience to each dynamic player. The familiar jazz standard, “Laura” follows.  Then comes Wayne Shorter’s composition, “Anna Maria” that allows John Patitucci to take an extended bass solo that just ‘wows’ this listener.  Bill Cunliffe is, as always, masterful on the piano and the music is propelled and generously colored by the drums of Colaiuta.

“Working with Bill Cunliffe, you can always expect, at the very least, amazing skill and professionalism, some deep swinging and a big bucket of fun!” Vinnie spoke about this project.

Patitucci recalls how this project popped up as a surprise to the three music masters. It was the La Coq label founder and producer, Piero Pata, who urged this trio to record at the famous Capitol studios, without charts or scripts.

“Piero (Pata) surprised us as we were working on some other projects with him.  He had the idea for us to do this trio record.  It was very impromptu, like in the Blue Note record era, where you basically do a record in a day.  We had a lot of fun and it was really relaxed,” John said.

Grammy Award-winning arranger and pianist, Bill Cunliffe, generally approaches a project with depth of arranging and preparation.  He began his career, years ago, as pianist and arranger for the Buddy Rich Big Band and has more than a dozen albums under his own name as bandleader.  Like his fellow trio members, he’s worked with a long list of luminaries and was quite excited to take this Trio ride with his longtime friends.

“I was like a kid in a candy store,” Cunliffe gushed.  “It was pretty challenging because it’s just three guys in a room.  But it was fun, because these are two master musicians whose work I’ve loved for years. I like jazz music that has shape.  …a beginning, middle and end and drama.  Usually, I craft those elements in my arrangements.  John and Vinnie are able to create those qualities on the spot.”

Patitucci, perhaps best recognized as the amazing bass sound working with Chick Corea and Wayne Shorter, is a celebrated as a member of Corea’s Akoustic and Elektric Bands and for the last two decades applauded as an integral member of Wayne Shorter’s Quartet. But he’s also played with Herbie Hancock, Stan Getz, Pat Metheny, Wynton Marsalis, Joshua Redman, McCoy Tyner, Nancy Wilson, Sting and the list goes on and on and on.

Colaiuta is one of those drummers who can play it all, but has deep roots in jazz. You hear his mastery throughout this trio album, but he flies like a wild bird on “7 Steps to Heaven.”  He rose to fame playing with Frank Zappa, but he’s a musical chameleon who can easily switch styles and has backed-up Joni Mitchell, Sting, Herbie Hancock, Barbra Streisand, James Taylor and even Billy Joel.  For a while, Colaiuta and Patitucci shared the stage as a version of Chick Corea’s Akoustic Band.  All three musicians have pleasantly crossed paths over the years, playing with each other in various situations, but never as a trio.  So, this assembly is fresh, new and absolutely stunning to the ear.  You will hear both brilliant and memorable conversation between these three masters, as they challenge each other and themselves, playing in the moment, without arrangements or music, yet finding that common thread that makes this project golden.  Together, they sparkle and shine.

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MARK WINKLER & DAVID BENOIT – “OLD FRIENDS” – Café Pacific Record

Mark Winkler, vocals; David Benoit, piano/organ; Gabe Davis, bass; Clayton Cameron, drums; Pat Kelley, guitar; Stefanie Fife, cello; Kevin Winard, percussion.

The things I admire most about Mark Winkler is his choice of repertoire and his song writing.  Opening with the Bob Dorough song, “I’ve Got Just About Everything,” we are off to a swinging start with a great lyric to enjoy and to ponder.  Winkler is a storyteller in his own right, like Dave Frishberg, so it’s not surprising that he chooses to sing Frishberg’s very wonderful tune, “Sweet Kentucky Ham.”   Winkler takes the liberty of adding fresh, new lyrics to “Better Than Anything” personalizing it and referencing his wonderful musicians; Gabe Davis on bass, brush master, Clayton Cameron on drums and Pat Kelley on guitar.  Singer and lyricist, Mark Winkler has been good friends with pianist/composer, David Benoit for thirty-seven years.  This is an album, featuring these two talented souls, that’s been a long time coming and it’s the result of the pandemic.  When Benoit’s tour in Japan was cancelled, alone at home, he invited his friend Winkler over for dinner.  Afterwards, like all musicians do, they gravitated to the grand piano and Benoit began accompanying Winkler on some familiar tunes. Halfway through “The Shadow of Your Smile” Benoit suggested they make an album together, in the midst of a pandemic. 

“We talked on the phone a lot, coming up with ideas for the album.  After a while, I did go over to his house to practice once a week.  It turns out, you can actually sing while wearing a mask.  It was easy to stay separated.  He sat playing at one end of his 9-foot grand and I stood singing at the other end,” Mark Winkler recalled the pandemic’s isolated days where he found solace in music.

Paul Simon’s song, “Old Friends” probably sums up the beauty and compatibility of these two seasoned veterans of music and it’s the album’s title tune.  Stefanie Fife’s cello work on this arrangement is lovely and heartfelt.  On “When This Love Affair is Over” David Benoit surprises out ears by doubling on the Hammond B3 organ.  I was eager to hear the compositions that Winkler and Benoit collaborated on.  The first is “In A Quiet Place,” (co-written with Shelly Nyman) with a warm, wonderful lyric about friendship and lovers finding the ultimate peace in a quiet place.  It’s dedicated to Benoit’s wife.  The cello of Fife opens the tune “Dragonfly,” along with the notable piano accompaniment of David Benoit and is another song penned by Winkler and Benoit.  It has a pop/country/western flavor with a poetic look at the freedom and beauty of a dragon fly and the insect’s relationship to someone searching for love.   The most poignant song they composed, along with songwriter, Heather Perram Frank, is “Thirty Years (Only Sunshine Days)” that seems to sum up the beauty of a close friendship in well-written lyrics and with a memorable melody. 

Perhaps David Benoit described this project best when he said:

“Working with Barbara Brighton (producer) and Mark was a highlight for me.  I think this is Mark’s best work.  He is restrained and heartfelt. …You can hear the communication with Mark and me, and it’s superb.  This is a result of a certain maturity that only comes with age and a willingness to put the time and effort into the project.  This could be a happy result of COVID-19, giving us all the time, we needed to make it right.”

So, light the fireplace, put on your listening ears, and soak up the great repertoire these two seasoned friends and musicians offer in their own inimitable ways.

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MIKE FREEDMAN – “INTO THE DAYBREAK” –  Independent Label

Mike Freedman, guitar/composer/arranger; Jeremy Ledbetter, piano; Max Senitt, drums/percussion; Kobi Hass, Bass; Curtis Freeman, Alexis Baro, trumpet; Chris Gale, tenor saxophone; Louis Simão, Cuica.

Toronto-based guitarist, Mike Freedman, has released his debut album as a bandleader, after three decades of experience on the Toronto, Canada music scene.  This album features nine of Freedman’s original compositions and each one is a sparkling gem.  Mike Freedman’s music is melodic and contemporary.  He’s a solid composer with fresh eyes on song structure and melody.  Take for example “Lamentation Revelation” with it’s surprising chord changes.  Most of Freedman’s music is laid-back and relaxing.  However, on “Samba on the Sand” he picks up the pace and adds a cuica, played by Luis Simão.  The word ‘cuica’ means gray, four-eyed opossum in Portuguese, but it’s actually a Brazilian friction drum that has a large pitch range.  It’s popularly used in Samba music and known for its high- pitched cry.  It adds richness to the production.  Freedman’s fingers fly across the guitar strings, like busy Sea Gulls circling the beach.  “Snake in the Grass” is played in a minor mode and sounds very Middle Eastern.  With his repertoire and arrangements, Mike Freedman offers a variety of original music for our listening pleasure.  Most is presented in a smooth jazz way that features his skills on guitar and a very creative imagination.

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FREDERIC VIALE QUINTET – “l’ENVOL” – Diapason Records

Frederic Viale, accordion/composer/arranger; Chloé Cailleton, voice; Julian Leprince-Caetano, piano; Nelson Veras, guitar; Natallino Neto, bass; Zaza Desiderio, drums.

Having spent precious time in Paris, I learned there are a plethora of fine French musicians and I came to appreciate the accordion as a viable jazz instrument.  Frederic Viale is a master accordion player, a composer and arranger.  On this, his sixth album, he has composed eight of the ten songs.  On track 1, (the title tune) he has employed the smooth, emotional vocals of Chloé Cailleton to enhance the melody.  She becomes a human horn during this project, singing melodies without lyrics.  Julian Leprince-Caetano is the pianist who makes his voice clearly heard on the Quintet’s first track, unleashing an impressive solo.  Track 2, “Ultime Atome” reminds me a wee bit of a Flora Purim & Airto arrangement, with a slight Latin influence and a melody that encourages staccato notes sung by Chloé’s crystal, clear voice.  Soon, the smooth legato sound of Frederic Viale’s accordion takes stage center.  You can immediate appreciate he is technically astute. These first two songs are original compositions by Frederic and exhibit strong melodies.  Track 4, “Les Arbres Bleus” is a beautifully penned ballad that features the sensitive Viale technique on accordion.  He also chords the accordion beneath the solo of pianist Julian Leprince-Caetano in a heartfelt way.  At times, the Viale accordion sounds like a flute.  In other settings, Frederic plays it like a horn solo.  You can plainly hear the guitar of Nelson Veras during the arrangement of “Odonata.”  Obviously, Frederic Viale has classical training, but he’s very jazzy in his approach and his composition style.  The Hubert Giraud tune, “La Tendresse” is the only production where Chloé Cailleton sings the French lyrics and that closes out this album.  Here is a musical production cutting new pathways into the jazz tradition.  Using the accordion, Frederic Viale’s immense talent unveils itself with compositions that are cement strong, flawless technique and variety of repertoire.

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TABER GABLE – “HIDDEN DRIVEWAYS” – Independent label

Taber Gable, keyboards/piano/synthesizers/vocals/composer/arranger/producer; Sarah Hanahan, alto saxophone; Andrew Renfroe, elec. guitars; Jonathan Pinson, drums; Kyle Miles, electric bass.

Taber Gable is a composer, pianist and vocalist.  He opens this album with one of eleven compositions he has penned.  This opening tune is titled, “Don’t Let Life Hold You Down.”  It features a stunning guitar solo by Andrew Renfroe.  This is modern, contemporary, electric jazz, with a funk undercurrent provided by drummer Jonathan Pinson.  Gable has a way of setting up the groove and creating a loop of music that make you want to move.  His vocals institute a repetitive melody and his creative keyboard work establishes style and uniqueness.  There is a great deal of Hip Hop influence in his original compositions.  On “Ache” I can visualize Jill Scott laying down her spoken word. The track is strong, but the vocals are mixed way down in the music.  I question, why?  The song “Pride” is reminiscent of a melody that Earth, Wind & Fire might sing and arrange.  Once again, the mix is poorly executed.  Taber Gable layers his vocals and his keyboard-work fattens the track with electronic implementation of effects and thick harmonic chords.  This tune is smooth jazz.  Taber Gable has an individual vocal tone, that could easily make this artist recognizable.  We call that a ‘stylist’.  But his vocals are mixed so far down in the track you have to strain to hear them.  You can more clearly hear him on his R&B based song, “Tears,” as he sings the catchy line, “I hear your tears falling like the rain.”  

Taber Gable offers cross-genre arrangements and a performance style that heralds his multi-talents.  But like the very dark CD cover of his project and the title of his album, “Hidden Driveways” the artist is pictured behind a camouflage of trees and unfortunately, his vocals are also hidden in the recording.  I believe, sometimes an artist needs a producer instead of trying to do everything themselves.   Unfortunately, I think much of the power and punch of this production was lost in the mix and the mastering. 

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ALLAN HARRIS – “KATES SOULFOOD” – Love Productions

Allan Harris, voice/guitars/composer; Shirazette Tinnin, drums; Nimrod Speaks, bass; Marty Kenney, acoustic & electric bass; Arcoiris Sandoval, piano/Hammond B3; Grégoire Maret, harmonica; David Castaneda & Jhair Sala, percussion; Curtis Taylor, trumpet; Alex Budman, alto saxophone; Keith Fiddmont, tenor saxophone; Ondre J. Pivec, organ; Tonga Ross-M’au, guitar; Carolyn Leonhart, Doreen Wilburn, Jordan Wilburn & Whitley Wilburn, background voices; CHILDRENS VOICES: Angela Whitley, James Whitley, David Whitley & Micah Whitley, Jr.; Producer: Kamau Kenyatta.

Allan Harris reflects on his life in Harlem as a place of opportunity, inspiration and love.  He opens up this album with a self-penned song called “I Grew Up (Kate’s Place)” that is arranged as a cross between R&B and Jazz in a sweet, old-school kind of way.  Hand claps introduce us to the groove along with a blues guitar that joins in with the voices of children in the background.  The lyrics roll off his tongue like the honey-sweet, wise words of a seasoned poet. He sings:

“I took the train up to Harlem … a spring afternoon.  Going to the Appollo, hear all that jazz, soul and downhome blues. Nina, Sarah and Ella; Duke and Basie would swing, that’s a fact!  Jackie, Smokey and                       Marvin; James Brown and Aretha never walked through the back.”

Enter the background voices, “Harlem is the place where I live,” they sing with a gospel clap egging them on.  Enter Gregoire Maret on his jazzy harmonica solo and Shirazette Tinnin’s drums push the music ahead with hot and heavy strokes.  Shirazette is also Allan’s musical conductor.  This is a great way to start Allan Harris’s fourteenth album release.  It’s based on recollections of his Aunt Kate’s well-loved luncheonette, once located near the Apollo Theater.

“I experienced many pivotal moments at my aunts’ restaurant.  It was there I found my voice,” Allan Harris reminisces.

His beautiful, baritone vocals are as smooth as melted brown butter.  His poignant memories pour from my CD player and tell me stories of his life.  This is ‘soul jazz’ at its best.  Another one of the Harris originals, “One More Notch (Put Down Your Gun),” talks about the violence in the streets; violence that perhaps he, himself, has experienced.  His words touch me and expose the soft, underbelly of inner-city life that can muddy and destroy a future, or the hope and determination that can bless and uplift a soul.

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BENOIT DELBECQ – “THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT” – Pyroclastic Records

Benoit Delbecq, solo piano.

The title of this project is so poetic and intriguing, I was eager to hear the music.  The facts behind the title are unusual.  Some 35 years ago, Benoit Delbecq’s physicist brother proved that light has mass.  Delbecq took poetic license to change ‘mass’ to ‘weight’ as his album’s title.

“Hardly any people know that light has a mass,” Delbecq exclaims in his promo package. 

I believe that one of the reasons he would be excited about this discovery is because Benoit Delbecq is a visual artist, as well as a musician.  He designed his own CD cover.  This album cover mirrors his desire to feature architecture, because he visualizes it when he composes new music; including how different structures interact with light.  This French pianist regards his instrument as a vessel for his artistic expression and art expansion. 

“When I’m composing, it’s exactly like I’m looking at inventing the future shape of an object.  So, I look at it from different places.  It’s like a 3-D way of conceiving things that have to do with optical phenomena.  If I move around it, it will reveal shapes that are hidden at other angles,” Benoit Delbecq describes his composition technique.

You hear it in his improvised music on this album. It’s quite fascinating.  Benoit’s compositions are expressive in a mysterious and untethered way. This is a solo project with him utilizing the piano strings and creating his own rhythm, as well as playing the 88-keys for melody and creative expression.  In addition to being a performer, composer and producer, Delbecq served as founder of the Hask Collective Paris from 1992 to 2004 and presently is a founding member of Bureau de Son Paris and the dStream label. This is the internationally acclaimed pianist’s first solo record release in more than a decade.

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KRISTIANA ROEMER – “HOUSE OF MIRRORS” – Sunnyside Records

Kristiana Roemer, vocals/composer; Addison Frei, piano; Alex Claffy, bass; Adam Arruda, drums; Gilad Hekselman & Ben Monder, guitar; Dayna Stephens, saxophone; Rogerio Boccato, percussion.

This vocalist incorporates her composing talents with an introspective look at her own life, reflected in the title of her debut album, “House of Mirrors.” Kristiana Roemer adds her own prose.

“I imagine a ‘House of Mirrors’ inside of each of us where we can hold and honor all the possibilities of ourselves that we could have drawn upon; chances taken, potentials cultivated, paths pursued and so on,” Roemer says in her liner notes.

Roemer’s music presents interesting chord changes for the band to improvise upon.  On the title song, Gilad Hekselman makes a stark statement with his guitar solo. However, Kristiana Roemer’s melodies are not easily repeatable and her lyrics are often non-rhyming prose.  An example is track 2, “Beauty Is a Wound” performed with only percussion and bass.  The title is never mentioned.  “Virgin Soil” is another song that doesn’t mention the title anywhere, and has no ‘hook’ that the listener can hang onto or sing along with.  Dayna Stephens’ saxophone briefly improvises and the track is strong, with the bass of Alex Claffy dancing along with the rhythm section and making a statement with his instrument.  He is as strong as the featured vocalist. 

Unfortunately, I just don’t relate to the melodic stories that Kristiana Roemer is sharing.  She sings “Deine Hande” (Your Hands) sung in what might be German.  The press package doesn’t tell us, nor do the liner notes.  On track 5, “Dark Night of the Soul” I am disappointed by the guitar solo of Ben Monder and the mixing of this song.  On the poem, her voice should have come up in the mix and the track should have been pulled down, so we can better hear her poetry.  These little studio adjustments are so important to a project.  The tune I found most enjoyable is “Lullaby for N,” a beautiful ballad.  Addison Frei is a sensitive accompanist on piano throughout this production.  I was eager to hear Ms. Roemer tackle Stanley Turrentine’s famed “Sugar,” tune.  She didn’t swing it, but sang it legato at first and even though her band wanted to swing, Kristiana Roemer just could not do it.  The ability to ‘Swing’ is part of being a jazz musician or vocalist.  Alex Claffy on bass has no problem in the ‘Swing’ department.  They close with “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love” composed by Charlie Mingus.  It showcases the beauty of Kristiana Roemer’s bell-clear voice and gives an opportunity for Addison Frei to sport his talents, with fingers racing up and down the 88-keys.  Ms. Roemer is a good singer, but her songwriting is still developing and to call herself a jazz singer she must learn to improvise and to ‘Swing.’

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THE DAVID ANGEL JAZZ ENSEMBLE – “OUT ON THE COAST” 3-DISC ANTHOLOGY – Bassett Hound Music

David Angel, tenor saxophone/conductor/composer/arranger; Paul Kreibich, drums; Susan Quam, string bass; John Chiodini, guitar; Jim Self, tuba/bass trombone; Scott Whitfield, trombone; Stephanie O’Keefe, horn; Ron Stout, trumpet/flugelhorn; Jonathan Dane, trumpet/flugelhorn; Bob Carr, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet; Tom Peterson, tenor saxophone/flute/alto flute; Jim Quam, tenor saxophone/clarinet; Gene Cipriano “Cip,” alto & soprano saxophones/clarinet.

David Angel arranges music like a free-flowing, two-lane highway.  Just pretend you are in a helicopter looking down on the cars and trucks streaming North and South.  In music, when instrumentation moves that way, it’s referred to as contrapuntal.  Just like the cars are smoothly moving counterpoint to each other, the musical instruments are doing the same thing in many of the David Angel arrangements.  His comfort level in classically rooted music and America’s classical music called ‘jazz’ is obvious.  These two technical gifts shine brightly in Mr. Angel’s composing and arranging skills.  Jim Self, an expert tuba player and bandmember in the David Angel Jazz Ensemble, probably summed up Mr. Angel’s talents best when he said, “I like to describe his stuff as Gil Evans meets J.S. Bach.”

You clearly hear the Angel technique on the opening tune of disc one.  It’s an original composition by David Angel that is also the title of this three-disc set of music.  “Out on the Coast” rolls along in a happy-go-lucky way, with a melody you want to whistle along with and the horns richly harmonizing in the background.  Track 2 is another original penned by David Angel and titled “Wig.”  It has a little Latin flair to it and meanders along at a moderate pace.  Listen for the counterpoint movements of the horns, that melt together, smooth as oil on glass, parting the stage curtains to feature Tom Peterson on tenor saxophone, with Ron Stout and Jonathan Dane on flugelhorn.  There is also an unexpected patch of time where the percussion mastery of Paul Kreibich is featured.

David Angel has been conducting this jazz ensemble since 1969.  It began as a rehearsal band and over years of experimenting with his arrangements and composing talents, the band has featured some of the West Coast giants of jazz like Bill Perkins, Bob Cooper, Kim Richmond, Bob Brookmeyer, Bud Shank, Pete and Conte Condoli, Art Pepper and Pete Christlieb, to list just a handful of the stars who have played the David Angel charts.  I find myself drawn to his melodic songwriting and unique arranging.  Recently David offered lessons in composition and theory to working composers for ASMAC. ASMAC seeks to educate new audiences on the role and impact of music arrangers and composers by presenting a series of talks at educational institutions, ranging from middle and high schools to universities and community colleges.

The other provocative and selfless thing that David Angel does as an arranger and composer is to leave plenty of room to showcase the talents of his bandmates.  His lush arrangements build and crescendo, then drop back down to spotlight a solo by some of his many talented musicians.  This is a project bursting with genius, presenting familiar and well-played music and showcasing the composer, arranger and conductor skills of David Angel.  It’s an absolutely beautiful project and longtime labor of love.

I couldn’t find a sample of the new album, but here is a bluesy piece from a former CD he released.

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