WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH: FEMALE ARTISTS EXPOSE MANY FACETS OF JAZZ

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

March 1, 2021

YULIA MUSAYELYAN TANGO PROJECT – “OBLIVION” – Zoho Label

Yulia Musayelyan, flute/voice/bass flute; Maxim Lubarsky, piano; Fernando Huergo, bass; Mark Walker, drums.

Russian born, Boston resident, Yulia Musayelyan plays beautifully.  Her flute is bright & bubbling with emotion and energy.  “Fuga Y Misterio” is the first track, plucked from the well-known Astor Piazzolla’s 1968 opera, Maria de Buenos Aires.  It’s an up-tempo Latin tune, very classically arranged, and dances through space like a humming bird with rapidly fluttering wings.   This album is dedicated to Tango music and Yulia Musayelyan applies her mastery of the flute and her love of this genre of music, to create an awesome celebration.  Maxim Lubarsky is fluid and quick across the piano keys.

In Moscow, Yulia studied the flute starting at age four.  Before long, she was winning awards from respected organizations like the National Foundation for the Advancement in the Arts Award.  She is currently a professor at Berklee School of Music.  As a performer, she has appeared on over thirty albums.  Her selection of repertoire includes a style of ‘tango vals’ which have a ¾ beat and are adaptations from the European waltz.  On this arrangement, Fernando Huergo’s bass line is as rhythmic as Mark Walker’s drums and very melodic.  The title track, “Oblivion” is another Piazzolla composition with co-writer Angela Terenzi.  It’s performed as a dark and sultry ballad, with the flute predominate in the spotlight during a most entrancing performance.  This is a sexy, love song without words.

“I heard it as a teenager on an orchestra tour in Havana, Cuba,” Yulia explained the moment she was captivated by this song. 

This is an emotional, exciting and brilliant production, interpreted by her cosmopolitan ensemble that celebrates her Russian heritage, Lubarsky’s Ukraine roots, an Argentinean bassist (Fernando Huergo) and Mark Walker from the windy city of Chicago, Illinois.  This very international, all-star band contributes to the star quality Yulia Musayelyan offers us on her flute.

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V R SMITH, MICHAEL KANA, CHUCK MANNING, TIM PLEASANT, PUTTER SMITH – “ONCE I LOVED” – Skipper Productions

V R Smith, vocals; Michael Kanan, piano; Chuck Manning, tenor saxophone; Tim pleasant, drums; Putter Smith, bass.

Her voice has a soothing quality.  When Mrs. V. R. Smith sings, she compels us to listen.   There is something hypnotic about her honesty and tenderness.  As a jazz vocalist, this is clearly a seasoned veteran of the music world.  Although there is no great range to her voice, she is persuasive.  This lady takes no big risks and flaunts no vocal riffs, like circus performers twirling across space.  Instead, she simply sings the stories and tells the truth.  You can appreciate that this stylist, like Billie Holiday, has lived life well.

Surrounded by some of the best musicians in Los Angeles, you will hear love wrapped around this music like a bright, blue ribbon.  Putter Smith’s rich, supportive bass stands strong in the rhythm section, the same way he did in her life.  Michael Kanan is beautifully supportive on piano and outstanding during his frequent solo excursions.  Just sit back and enjoy Kanan’s emotional delivery during “Why Did I Choose You.”   Chuck Manning, as always, brings his tenor saxophone excellence to the bandstand.  Drummer, Tim Pleasant, applies tasty rhythms and is the glue that bonds this quartet.  You can hear his steady and colorful drums fly on “Who Cares,” a Gershwin composition I rarely hear played.   Pleasant is given a space to shine on this swinging arrangement.

When I review the list of V R Smith’s repertoire, songs like “Once I Loved” and “Why Did I Choose You,” along with “You’re My Everything” and “Young and Foolish,” I conclude this is a love letter to someone very special in her life.  I know that she and Putter Smith were together on a life journey for at least four decades.  Although this vocalist joined a chorus of angels a week before the release of this heartfelt production, her music will live on, captured in the recording studio one last time.

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SOAR – “QUESTIONS LEFT UNANSWERED” – Soaring Records

April May Webb, vocals/composer; Randall Haywood, trumpet/flugelhorn/composer; James Austin, piano; Charlie Sigler, guitar; Jacob Webb, bass; Nathan Webb, drums; Riza Printup, harp.

Trumpeter, Randall Haywood and vocalist, April May Webb have merged talents to become “SOAR,” which stands for Sound of A&R.  Not only does April May sing, she’s also a very competent composer and they feature some pretty catchy songs on this, their third studio album.  One of my favorites is the video posted above, “They Keep Saying No,” where she shows off her melodic and lyrical skills, along with her jazzy ability to scat sing.  On the popular “Social Call” jazz standard, Randall Haywood steps into the spotlight to show off his horn brilliance. I also enjoyed the improvisations and silky, smooth tone of Charlie Sigler on guitar.  In 2019, this lively and infectious couple won “Best Jazz Group” at the NYC Readers Jazz Awards.  They have both charisma and talent.  On “Killing Me Softly” there were moments when the vocalist seems to over-sing, instead of just selling the wonderful lyrics of this standard pop tune.  Still, her voice is engaging and her style sets a tone you will remember and recognize the next time you hear her.  At times, she exhibits shades of Sarah Vaughan.  One of her outstanding talents is as a songwriter.  She has written (or co-written) seven of the fourteen songs on this album. “Moments When I Was a Kid,” is a tune Randall and April May have co-written.   It’s a good song, great lyric, but the trumpet solo displayed a few unsettling pitch problems.  Track 8-9, “The Skin I’m in Prelude” and her extended song adds Riza Printup on harp for a very ethereal introduction.  April May & Randall have also co-written the title tune, where April May spits her prose like a singing poet.  Their arrangement of “I’m Old Fashioned,” is fresh and contemporary.  Nathan Webb introduces the listener to an extended reprise of “Killing Me Softly” on his drums; tenaciously showing off his chops. All in all, the group “SOAR” is bound to do just that.

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ROSEANNA VITRO – “LISTEN HERE” – Independent Label

Roseanna Vitro, vocals; Kenny Barron & Bliss Rodriguez, piano; Buster Williams, bass; Ben Riley, drums; Arnett Cobb, saxophone; Duduka de Fonseca, percussion; Scott Hardy, guitar.

When seasoned vocalist, Roseanna Vitro and her engineer husband, Paul Wickliffe, started re-listening to her original album releases, that included some of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, they must have had an epiphany.  Settling into the winter of your days, enjoying your grandchildren and each other, is often a time when you start thinking back on the chapters of your life.

“It was time to take stock of my life and look back at my career,” Roseanna Vitro concurred. “I think these early recordings stand the test of time and I want to introduce them to a new generation.”

When I saw the list of iconic jazz musicians on this album, this journalist was truly impressed.  How can you go wrong when you have Kenny Barron on piano, Buster Williams on bass and Ben Riley on drums?  Not to exclude the soulful saxophone of Arnett Cobb, the coloration of percussionist Duduka de Fonseca and the guitar excellence of Scott Hardy?  They open with “No More Blues” and Roseanna Vitro sings straight ahead and fearlessly.

It was Arnett Cobb, so many years ago, who noticed the youthful Roseanna Vitro exploring jazz as a vocal platform.  He encouraged her and she became his protégé.  Born in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Roseanna soon became a regular on the Houston, Texas Jazz scene and rooted herself in The Green Room for a steady gig.  It was the right place at the right time.  She sang with jazz greats like Oscar Peterson, Tommy Flanagan and Bill Evans.  Her reputation spread and when she moved to New York City, she soon became a part of the fast-paced jazz scene. 

The re-release of “Listen Here” (originally recorded in 1984) presents Roseanna Vitro at the beginning of a rich career.  She sings songs we know and love and a few that we’ve forgotten.  Ms. Vitro warmly rejuvenates tunes like “This Happy Madness” by Jobim.  Her bluesy delivery on “Centerpiece” is very soulful, as is her rendition of “Black Coffee.”  Ellington’s “Love You Madly” shows her swinging side. 

On ballads like “A Time for Love” her crystal-clear delivery and enunciation showcase the lovely lyrics of this song.  Her rendition of “Easy Street” spotlights the talents of Buster Williams on upright bass.  Those of us who remember Roseanna Vitro, from back-in-the-day, will be happy to re-examine this amazing album, and young listeners will be introduced to a new and inspired voice.

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JANINAH BURNETT – “LOVE THE COLOR OF YOUR BUTTERFLY” – Clazz Records

Janinah Burnett, vocals/co-arranger; Christian Sands, Sullivan Fortner & Keith Brown, piano; Luques Curtis & Ben Williams, bass; Casey Benjamin, vocoder; Terreon ‘Tank’ Gully, drums/producer/co-arranger.

Janinah Burnett is an unusual and brilliant talent.  She’s a jazzy diamond in the raw and a rising star, searching for her place in the expansive sky of music excellence.  The challenge is, where does an artist, who sings several different genres of music, find her niche?  Obviously, Janinah Burnett is a gifted and world-travelled opera singer.  She clearly shows off her skills in the classical music realm on the very first cut of this album, “Creole Girl.” Her classical soprano voice soars against the modern jazz arrangement of Terreon ‘Tank’ Gully, with ‘Tank’ taking an extended drum solo on the fade of this song.  She continues the classical trend when singing track 2, “Habanera,” when suddenly the arrangement takes a turn and becomes a medley featuring the Cole Porter standard “What Is This Thing Called Love.”  That’s when we hear Janinah Burnett’s jazz-singer-voice tenderly caressing the lyrics of this Porter tune and later, in the arrangement, showing us she can ‘swing.’  Clearly, Janinah Burnett can sing both jazz and opera.  My question is, do these arrangements best support her awesome talents?

“The repertoire in ‘Love the Color of Your Butterfly’ represents my most beloved styles and genres: art songs, spirituals, opera, rhythm and blues and jazz.  In choosing to present these varying elements, it was imperative to feature some of the world’s greatest composers of these genres; Bizet, Gershwin, Ellington, Puccini and Wailer,” Janinah Burnett explains her concept for this debut album.

Burnett has named the album after something her mother, Imani Constance, told her years ago.  “You can’t be another butterfly, you have to love the color of your butterfly.”

Track 3 whisks us back to classical as she sings “E Lucevan Le Stelle,” an aria from Puccini’s ‘Tosca’ opera.  Christian Sands takes an improvised solo on piano that elevates the music from classical to America’s classical music; jazz!   His approach is inspired and takes the arrangement to another level of creativity.  I think this is what the artist desired from the very beginning, a merging of cultures and musical genres.  These musicians seem up for the challenge. 

Lauded as a world-renowned soprano, Ms. Burnett was lovingly renamed “La Janinah” by her adoring Italian fans who consider her a marvel of versatility.  She flaunts her originality when Grammy nominated bassist, Ben Williams, supplies the introduction to “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” a traditional gospel song that shows us a completely different side of Janinah Burnett.   Next, she tackles the Ellington tunes, “My Love,” (in her classical voice) “In A Sentimental Mood,” (sung in her jazz voice) and “TGTT,” (from the Sacred Concerts of Duke Ellington).  The acronym stands for “Too Good to Title.”  It features Keith Brown on piano.  Gulley reimagines the harmonics to become more modern jazz than the traditional interpretation Ellington had in mind.  Janinah Burnett becomes an operatic bird, her voice soaring and classically interpreting the challenging melody above the accompaniment of Mr. Brown. 

Burnett’s powerful voice should not surprise us.  After all, she has performed with the Metropolitan Opera, the Arizona and Michigan Operas, NYCO, Nashville Opera and Teatro dell’ Opera di Roma, to name just a few.  Her voice is strong and well-trained.  However, on Donny Hathaway’s inspired composition “Someday We’ll All Be Free” (sung in her classical voice) I’m not sure her operatic vocals suited this song.  I wish she had sung this beautiful, moving tune in her jazz voice.

Aside from singing, in 2012 Janinah made her film screen debut in Spike Lee’s “Red Hook Summer” and in 2020 she landed a television spot on an episode of FBI. 

Ms. Burnett has a voice suited for both opera stages and Broadway.  She could easily be a church choir lead songstress or sparkling and innovative on jazz stages.  Janinah Burnett is diverse.  This album exposes us to her multi-talents in a mixed genre presentation.  La Janinah has broken free of the music business cocoon and invites us to love the colors of her butterfly.

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TAIKO SAITO & SATOKO FUJII – “BEYOND FUTARI” – Libra Records

Taiko Saito, vibraphone; Satoko Fujii, piano.

This is an experiment and experience in sound and music.  These two women, Taiko Saito on her vibraphone and Satoko Fujii on the piano, search for extreme measures of creativity and exploration of both musical instruments and emotions.  This duo is like no other you have heard.  “Futari” is Japanese that translates to “two people” and like the title of this production, it is “Beyond Two People.”  You will become completely engaged in the first few seconds of this unique, Avant Garde music.  Satoko Fujii gives us some background on this project.

“I first met vibraphonist, Taiko Saito, about fifteen years ago.  She was a music student at Berlin University of the Arts.  She just happened to come to a concert by my quartet in Tokyo while she was home for a visit.  … My first impression was of a very neatly dressed girl of high school age.  The next time we met was in 2006 at a concert by my quartet at a club in Dresden. … In 2007, she sent me a CD by KOKO, her project with the pianist Niko Meinhold.  I was awed by the level and sensibility of her music,” Satoko Fujii explained how the two originally met.

“Beyond Futari” is a very lyrical and intense combination of piano and vibes. It is fifteen years in the making.  The two women combine their improvisational freedom with poignant melodic phrases and many abstract sounds.  The result is a haunting performance.  Sometimes Satoko Fujii reaches inside the grand piano to play with the thick strings and rattle feelings with percussive response out of the piano’s innards.  Taiko Saito blends sustained tones from her Korogi vibraphone and produces overtones that she plucks from the vibe keys.  Saito creates expressive compositions and exciting, unexpected pieces of music.  Together, the women have collaborated on two compositions.  Fuji has composed six of the nine songs and Saito has written “Todokanai Tegami” on her own.

“I think we both were looking to get a special something from the piano-vibraphone duo.  I mean, these instruments are so much alike and it’s not easy for them to play together,” Satoko Fujii says in her press package.

She is correct.  You rarely hear a duo of piano and vibraphone.  However, I believe this inspirational work may change the minds of many. 

Award Winning mallet player and composer, Taiko Saito was born in Sapporo, Japan but lives in Berlin. In 2003, she founded the marimba/vibraphone/piano duo with a German jazz pianist; Niko Meinhold. They recorded in 2005 and 2014.  She is a founding member of the Berlin Mallet Group. Pianist and composer, Satoko Fujii synthesizes jazz, contemporary classical, Avant Garde and folk music in a unique and exciting way.  Both women have received wide acclaim for their individual talents.  Now, they combine those individual geniuses into one amazing production that you will not soon forget.

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CARLA MARCIANO QUARTET – “PSYCHOSIS” (HOMAGE TO BERNARD HERRMANN) – Challenge Records

Carla Marciano, alto & soprano saxophones/arranger; Alessandro La Corte, piano/keyboards; Aldo Vigorito, double bass; Gaetano Fasano, drums.

Italian saxophonist and composer, Carla Marciano, is considered by music critics to be one of the best European woodwind players in jazz and certainly, one of the strongest female saxophonists recording today.

This album is my heartfelt homage to one of the greatest geniuses of film score, the composer and conductor Bernard Herrmann, whose music has dazzled me since I was a child,” Carla Marciano muses.

I am captivated by the Marciano arrangements and her extraordinarily strong abilities on the saxophone.  She plays with such determination, excitement and tenacious abilities that it’s hard to imagine this is a female player.  She is so strong!  Her concepts are melodic, but she’s not playing with us.  Carla Maricano veers from straight ahead to experimental in the short span of a bar.  She’s here to make a statement and that’s clear.  She takes the compositions of Mr. Herrmann to a whole new level.  Carla Marciano commands our attention in a delightful way.  Clearly, she is greatly influenced by John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy.  This is an album you will listen to over and over again, with pure surprise and pleasure.

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JIHYE LEE ORCHESTRA – “DARING MIND” – Motema Records

Jihye Lee, composer/conductor; Mark Ferber, drums/tambourine; Evan Gregor, bass; Adam Birnbaum & Haeun Joo, piano; Sebastian Noelle, guitar; WOODWINDS: Ben Kono, alto & soprano saxophone;/piccolo/ flute/ clarinet; Rob Wilkerson, alto saxophone; piccolo/flute; Quinsin Nachoff & Jeremy Powell, tenor saxophone/flute/clarinet; Carl Maraghi, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet.  TRUMPETS: Brian Pareschi, John Lake & Alex Norris, trumpet/fluegelhorn; SPECIAL GUEST: Sean Jones. TROMBONES: Mike Fahie, Alan Ferber, Nick Grinder; Jennifer Wharton, bass trombone.

Jihye Lee is a competent and exploratory South Korean composer.  All her compositions on this “Daring Mind” album reflect her fascination with the human brain and the various states of the human psyche.  In her arrangements, she explores rage, confusion, enlightenment, heart and soul.  As a female, contemporary jazz composer, orchestra conductor and bandleader, Jihye Lee encourages her orchestra to dive into her work with vigor and excitement.  The titles of her tunes continue to identify with the album’s title.  Songs like “Relentless Mind” and “Unshakable Mind” mirror her tenacity.

“Unshakable Mind” is about my admiration for the determined spirit that preservers through hardship and remains unwavering in the face of adversity.  One repeating note, an “A”, symbolizes this ethos, staying constant throughout the piece,” Jihye explains.

I would like to have known who the player was on this song’s notable saxophone solo.  With two exceptions, the CD liner notes do not distinguish soloists, which I think is a shame.  I also found the teeny-tiny font size used to design the CD annoying for seasoned eyes, even with bi-focals.

You will hear Jihye Lee’s musical interpretation of “Revived Mind” and “Dissatisfied Mind” as well as a song called “Suji” dedicated to one of her dearest friends.  Perhaps she sums up her determination and creativity sparked by living in New York City during the composition, “Struggle Gives you Strength,” featuring special guest trumpeter, Sean Jones.  This is an exciting orchestra led by a thriving talent and award-winning composer who is clearly exploring the many sides of her own mind and exposing them to the eager ears of the listener.

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One Response to “WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH: FEMALE ARTISTS EXPOSE MANY FACETS OF JAZZ”

  1. REVIEWS: Janinah Burnett, Jihye Lee & Sounds of A&R on Musicalmemoirs's Blog - LYDIALIEBMAN.COM Says:

    […] By Dee Dee McNeil, Musicalmemois’s Blog […]

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