SPRING JAZZ MOVES LIFE FORWARD

By Dee Dee McNeil

March 15, 2021

CHAD McCULLOUGH – “FORWARD” – Outside In Music

Chad McCullough, trumpet/flugelhorn/composer; Rob Clearfield, piano; Matt Ulery, bass; Jon Deitemyer, drums; Ryan Cohan, keyboards/programming.

Chad McCullough’s trumpet is soothing, like a spiritual balm.  From the first mellow notes blowing from his horn on McCullough’s original composition, “November Lake,” I am intoxicated by his sound.  This is the Chicago-based musician’s 8th album as a bandleader.  His original compositions are rich and warm.  They wrap musical arms around the listener and offer a big hug.  With the capable assistance of Ryan Cohan, who adds brilliant keyboards and the lush programming to thicken this project, these arrangements are rich. McCullough’s ensemble is made up of three, trailblazing, mid-western music voices.  Rob Clearfield excels on piano.  Matt Ulery is splendid on bass and Jon Deitemyer rounds out the rhythm section on drums.  This is Chad McCullough’s first release in a dozen years, under his own name, and it is certainly a triumphant re-appearance.  In the years between, McCullough recorded with several other artists.  He’s been co-leader on two albums with The Spin Quartet and participated in a series of five album releases with Belgian pianist Bram Weijters.  McCullough has appeared on jazz festivals from Seattle to Russia, from Canada to Belgium, from New York to Chicago.    Chad holds a M.M. from the University of Washington, and a B.M. from the University of Idaho, where he was a Lionel Hampton Scholar.  This talented trumpeter was also the premiere student to graduate with a jazz emphasis on his degree.  Excuse me, while I happily replay this album for the third time.

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VERONICA SWIFT – “THIS BITTER EARTH” – Mack Ave Records

Veronica Swift, vocals; Emmet Cohen, piano; Yasushi Nakamura, acoustic bass; Bryan Carter, drums; Armand Hirsch, elec. guitar; Lavinia Pavlish & Meltar Forkosh, violins; Andrew Griffin, viola; Susan D. Mandel, cello; Aaron Johnson, alto saxophone/flute/bass flute; Will Wakefield & Ryan Paternite, background vocals; Stone Robinson Elementary School Choir & Walton Middle School Girls Choir, background vocals.

Veronica Swift paints “This Bitter Earth” with a brand, new face.  I learned to love this song by listening to the queen of jazz, Dinah Washington, sing it.  Ms. Swift approaches this song from a completely different perspective.  She adds strings, but it’s the opening of this once bluesy song that establishes the
Steven Feifke unique arrangement.  The shocking treble piano line and the classically influenced string arrangement that builds the track, produces a cushion for Veronica Swift’s voice to float upon. The time is freer and the blues is set aside for a more chamber-jazz moment. 

Ms. Swift sings a Baker’s dozen of songs, mixing standard jazz songs with some compositions rarely heard, like the Rodgers & Hammerstein tune, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”  Every now and then Ms. Swift throws in a scat line, or twists a lyric to remind us how much she admires Ella Fitzgerald.  She is a very unique artist with a strong vocal style and ability.  She adds the verse to the familiar “Getting To Know You” and glides across the lyrics like Olympic Gold winner, Michelle Kwan spins across ice.  Yasushi Nakamura duets with Veronica Swift on his double bass and when she swings this song, she really swings!  Emmet Cohen’s piano style suits this vocalist perfectly.  When Cohen does solo, he paints each opportunity with bright colors.  Swift’s unique and creative approach to her songs is perfectly exhibited on “The Man I Love,” where she lets her voice dip and dive over the lyrics, showing off her wide range and her need to fly free. Speaking of flying, the trio takes an up-tempo flight on “You’re the Dangerous Type” and Veronica Swift scats like a horn.  Aaron Johnson brings his alto saxophone to the spotlight and continues the mood Swift set with her spontaneous vocal solo.  The one song I wish she had left in the discarded pile was a Carole King composition with lyrics by Gerry Goffin that approves of a woman being brutalized and hit.  The title is “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss).  No woman should endure such behavior or feel that it’s a mark of love to be beaten or abused.  There’s too much of that going on in society.  That being said, there is something for everyone on this album of fine music.  Veronica Swift is a new voice on the jazz horizon, rising like a bright promise above the mediocrity.

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GREGG KARUKAS – “SERENATA” – NightOwl Records

Gregg Karukas, pianist/composer.

If you are a lover of piano, this solo album by Gregg Karukas will absolutely intoxicate your senses.  It’s a true work of art.  This Grammy-winning composer, pianist and producer has a dozen CD’s released as a bandleader. This production is number thirteen and the first time he has ever recorded solo.  It’s an amazing, emotional and entertaining musical journey.  Gregg Karukas’ mastery of his instrument is evident.  He has picked some familiar and beautiful Brazilian music by iconic Brazilian composers including Milton Nascimento and Dori Caymmi.  He opens with Nascimento’s “Travessia.”  Starting with the treble keys singing out the melody, he captures the listener’s attention.  His lush chords follow and continue to unwrap the melodic message, like a present for our ears. 

Karukas recalls his years touring with Sergio Mendes, with Dori Caymmi and Ricardo Silveira.  It was the 1990s and these years became some of his favorite musical experiences.  During the COVID isolation, looking through a dusty box of old tapes, he rediscovered recordings made during some of those Brazilian music tours.  They inspired Karukas to sit down at his C7 Yamaha grand piano and re-explore some of the beautiful compositions he once enjoyed playing. Track 3 is the title tune, “Serenata” and a Gregg Karukas original.  It’s a very peaceful and spiritual composition that made me sit quietly and listen intently.

Originally from the Washing, D.C. and the Maryland area, young Gregg spent hours in the 1960’s enthralled by the jukebox music of his father’s roadside tavern.  His love of music and the piano blossomed early.  Soon he was playing in small bands and listening to Cannonball Adderley and the Jazz Crusaders.  That first band became a top crossover group, playing jazz, pop and top-forty music.  A local jazz club chef turned Gregg on to Brazilian LPs and thus began his long-term love affair with Latin music.  At age 26, Karukas relocated to Los Angeles, and landed gigs with prominent names like Richard Elliot, Brenda Russell, Patti Austin, Shelby Flint, Ronnie Laws and Melissa Manchester. His piano skills were enriched by his appreciation of the keyboard.  He soon was touring with Boney James, Dave Koz, Larry Carlton, Rick Braun and even pop singer, Jeffrey Osborne.  He embraced smooth jazz with the same energy and love that he played Brazilian music.  Gregg is so diversified, and plays so many genres of music, that he’s a session player who has appeared on over 100 albums.  Gregg Karukas won “Best New Age Grammy” in 2013 as producer, pianist, composer and arranger.  His gift and solo talent on the 88-keys is certain to please and “Serenata” is bound to become another innovative accomplishment that demands attention and inspires praise.

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DENISE MININFIELD – “MY TURN” – Independent label

Denise Mininfield, vocals/lyricist; Christy Smith, William Gathright & Brian Batie, bass; Troy Lipkin, bass; Jeff Chin and Chris Roberson, keyboards; Stephan Perry, guitar; Billy “Shoe” Johnson & Gabriel “G-Man” Pitts, drums; Henry James, percussion; Marcus Printup, trumpet.

Soul Jazz is the only description that comes to mind when I hear Denise Mininfield sing “Just Say It,” a cut from her latest album entitled, “My Turn.”  In the musical lane of Jill Scott or Erika Badu, Mininfield brings her breathy, husky tone to the party with heavy jazz influence. 

This music could be programmed on Smooth Jazz, R&B and Pop stations, as well as for progressive jazz airplay.  Mininfield blends genres smoothly.  On “Just For Tonight” there is an outstanding solo on synthesizer.  “Call Me” is an absolute hit record, but I wish it could have been titled, “I Can Call on You.”  I say that only because of the hit record Aretha Franklin made with the same title of “Call Me.”  That being said, other hit picks on this album are: “Say You Will,” “Just Say It” and “The Game.”  Mininfield has provided well-written lyrics for three of the songs on her album of ten original compositions.  Much of the lyrical content is politically charged with songs of life, living, love and protest. The ‘hooks’ are strong and encourage the listener to sing-along, both melodically and lyrically.  American singer, Denise Mininfield has been making a life and living in the far East for the past several years.  I first met her in Singapore and Thailand, during my world travels.  We also ran into each other in Shanghai, China.  Currently based in Malaysia, she’s a strong on-stage performer and I’m happy to see that she has finally released an album. It’s good listening!  Check her out on youtube.com.

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DANIELE GERMANI – “A CONGREGATION OF FOLKS” – Gleam Records

Daniele Germani, alto saxophone/composer; Justin Salisbury, piano; Giuseppe Cucchiara, bass; Jongkuk Kim, drums.

Daniele Germani has a tentative sound on his alto saxophone, as though he is contemplating each note before he blows it from the bell of his horn.  This is his debut album and it features a tight and in-sinc trio that supports a Baker’s dozen of Germani’s original songs.  Italian-born and a graduate of the Conservatory of Frosinone, Daniele Germani moved to Boston in 2013 to study at Berklee College of Music.  This album tributes “A Congregation of Folks” that he met on American soil; folks from all over the world, who gathered at the famed Wally’s Jazz Café in Boston.  Among his acquaintances, are those musicians on this recording.  The title tune is melancholy and beautiful.  It’s evident, Germani is a sensitive composer and player.  The first four compositions on this recording are moderate or ballad tempo.  I keep waiting for him to stretch out, spread wings and fly.  There is a tad of energy on track 5, but the piano work of Justin Salisbury is so classically rich, it usurps any possibility of swing or straight-ahead. Jonqkuk Kim takes an opportunity, at the fade of this song titled, “Half Believe,” to profile his impressive drum chops.  Track 8, “Eres Luz,” gives bassist Giuseppe Cucchiara an opportunity to step forward.  His double bass solo is lovely.  All in all, this is a low-key production that doesn’t really showcase the versatility of the composer.  The arrangements keep everything about the same tempo and the all-important “swing” and diversity in jazz is missing.  However, if you are just looking for background music during a quiet evening with a good book, this is the perfect pleasure.

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IAN CHARLETON BIG BAND – “A FRESH PERSPECTIVE” – Independent Label

Ian Charleton, leader/arranger/composer; Bart Kuebler, piano; Wes Wagner, guitar; Ryan Persaud, bass; Bob Habib, drums; SAXOPHONES: Richard Garcia, alto/soprano saxophones; Jason Hammers, alto sax; Michael Ferrante  & Keith Philbrick, tenor sax; David Fatek, baritone sax. TRUMPET/FLUGELHORNS; Mark Oates,lead; Pete Sutorius, Mark Nixon & Kerry Moffit. TROMBONES: John Lloyd, lead; Lisa Drefke, Carl Lundgren & Dandrick Glenn, bass trombone. Emily Charleton, vocals.

Track one opens with a Count Basie-esk arrangement, with the piano and bass out front before the entire big band joins them.  They play an Ian Charleton original composition titled, “West 67th Street” that features Bart Kuebler on piano and John Lloyd on trombone.  Ian Charleton leads an eighteen-piece big band and they feature his impressive composer talents.  Charleton is a Senior Chief Musician who was Head of Academics at the Naval School of Music and taught arranging.  He is a graduate of the University of North Texas.  Charleton grew up in Kentucky, moved to Illinois, then to Texas.  He began to play the saxophone in the fifth grade and was greatly influenced by Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderley.  He began to compose his own tunes at age fifteen and has never looked back.  As a Navy man, he’s led navy bands on five continents and continues his legacy of composing and band-leading with this newly recorded music.  Favorite tunes are the title tune, “A Fresh Perspective.” It features Richard Garcia on soprano saxophone and gives Bob Habib a chance to showcase his drum skills on this happy waltz tune.  I enjoyed their lovely arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” featuring Kerry Moffit on flugelhorn. The closing tune, “Party on Park” swings hard and gives Wes Wagner a platform to showcase his guitar capabilities.  I love a good baritone saxophone solo and David Fatek does not disappoint. Ryan Persaud is given a place in the spotlight playing his double bass.  When I listen to Ian Charleton’s big band, I picture a dance hall full of swing dancers sliding across the polished wooden floor.  This is an album that recreates that joyful era of music.

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SATOKO FUJII PIANO SOLO – “HAZUKI” – Libra Records

Satoko Fujii, solo piano.

Track one opens with the sound of piano strings being played.  It’s a sound like no other; strange but beautiful.  The twang of the musicality reminds me of Asian instruments.  Satoko Fujii plays every part of the piano, not just the 88-keys.  Her music is improvisational, experimental and fresh.  Track two is more classically structured and full of surprises.  Satoko’s fingers race across the keyboard, creating great crescendos of sound.  She makes use of the bass keys and they sometimes sound like angry giant steps marching up the ivory and ebony staircase. Like many isolated musicians, through the pandemic, Ms. Fujii has remained committed to her art and creativity. 

“I have been playing my piano for more than 45-years,” she explains in her press package. “And we know each other well.  I never expected that I would record on it, but the COVID19 situation forced me into doing it.  On tour, I play a different piano at each concert.  Sometimes I meet annoying pianos.  Sometimes I meet really great pianos.  It’s a gamble.  But I have to tell you, it’s easy for me to play my piano, because I already know it very well.”

She recorded this album at home, in the month of August.  “Hazuki” (the title of the album) is an old Japanese word for August.  Her original compositions and her approach to her instrument are both powerful and dramatic.  Critics hail Satoko Fujii as one of the most original voices in jazz today. 

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GREG SKAFF – “POLARIS” featuring RON CARTER & ALBERT “TOOTIE” HEATH – SMK Jazz

Greg Skaff, guitar; Ron Carter, bass; Albert “Tootie” Heath, drums.

Opening this musical adventure with “Old Devil Moon,” Greg Skaff and his trio kick off at an up-tempo swing pace.  Albert “Tootie” Heath has always been a very melodic drummer.  He sings his licks with the drum sticks, voicing his pleasure and his power.  This is clearly heard on the opening tune.  The iconic Ron Carter takes a solid and exciting solo on double bass. 

“Polaris” is Greg Skaff’s first trio album.  He’s worked with the Stanley Turrentine group, backed up Bobby Watson, played with Ruth Brown and been a member of the orchestra pit during the “Wicked” Broadway production.  But never has he been a bandleader of his own trio.  What better combination than to use two legendary musicians as his camrades; Ron Carter and Al Tootie Heath.  You can’t get much more dynamic than that. 

Carter and Heath are no strangers to each other.  They’ve wrapped musical arms around Wes Montgomery’s guitar projects and they worked together recording and touring with jazz pianist, Bobby Timmons.  Carter holds the Guinness world record as the most recorded jazz bassist ever.  Heath and Carter became reunited on this project after not playing together in over three decades.  Each is an iconic elder of the jazz scene. 

Heath had never played with or heard Greg Skaff before this project. Their first session happened in August of 2019.  Time passed and then, in the midst of the Corona Virus pandemic, the second session was scheduled.  It was also around the same time Tootie Heath had just lost his older brother, jazz saxophonist, Percy Heath.  During this second time around, the trio laid down six more tunes to complete Skaff’s album.

Track 2 reinvents Duke Ellington’s “Angelica” into a New Orleans arrangement, with Tootie’s bright drums dancing calypso rhythms all over the piece.  “Little Waltz” is a Ron Carter original and he and Greg Skaff perform it as a duo.  It’s quite compelling, with a haunting melody and gives Skaff an opportunity to show off his guitar chops, both as an improvisor and a rhythm guitarist.  Later on, they play this composition again as a trio.  “Paris Eyes” is a composition of organist Larry Young.  He originally recorded this piece with Grant Green on guitar.  Greg Skaff talked about his appreciation for Green.

“He’s one of my favorites for tone.  It doesn’t seem to matter what guitar Grant Green plays, but especially when he plays a Gibson ES-330, which has what are called P-90 pickups; they’re single coil.  It’s a jazz tone, but it cuts in a certain way.” 

One of my favorites on this album is the trio’s shuffle rendition of “Yesterday,” where Skaff burrows into the rhythm of the tune with Heath, and offers the melody as a gift for Ron Carter to unwrap.  When Skaff does solo on the tune, he brings the blues along as a side-kick.  Another favorite is the title tune, “Polaris,” an original composition by Skaff.  Here is a guitar trio album you will treasure, and it’s also blessed with great historic value.

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