By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

April 7, 2021

CELESTE – “NOT YOUR MUSE” – Polydor / Universal Records

Celeste, vocals/composer; Jamien Nagadhana, bass/composer; Joe Harris, guitar; Josh Crocker, drums/guitar/vibraphone/composer/ brass string arrangements/harp; Jamie Hartman, piano/composer; Sebastian Plano & David Rossi, performed & directed strings; Jamie Houghton, drums/percussion; Kaidi Alkinnibi, tenor saxophone/ string & brass arrangements; Dominic Canning, Piano; Elias Atkinson, trumpet; Misha Fox, trombone; Jermaine Amissah, baritone saxophone; Mark Mollison, elec. guitar;  Simon Aldred, acoustic guitar; Charlie Hugall, percussion/acoustic guitar/horns/Wurlitzer; Tom Henry, synth/glockenspiel; Sebastian Plano, cello;  Parthenope Wald Harding, flute;

Born May 5, 1994, Celeste Epiphany Waite, whose stage name is simply “Celeste,” is based in Britain.  The moment I ran across a voice like Celeste’s singing a unique song titled, “Strange” it inspired interest and anticipation. Here was a vocalist who pursued her own expression and crossed genres with unique musical vocals, original music and interesting lyrics.  Celeste is a combination of pop, rhythm and blues, contemporary and jazz all rolled into one ball of creativity.  She is shades of Corinne Bailey Rae’s honest delivery, combined with the husky emotional delivery of Amy Winehouse and a twinge of Macy Gray.  This is a new artist to watch.  On the original composition, “Strange” she reveals that little sexy break in her voice, a huskiness that wraps her lyrics in a soft cocoon of emotion.  There is a hint of Nina Simone hiding inside her style like a possibility.

Songs like “Stop This Flame” remind me of something Adele would compose or Maroon 5 would sing. It samples music written by Nina Simone. Celeste’s lyrics and melodies are strong, thought provoking, and always showcase tenacious ‘hooks.’  This composition is a throwback to disco days and easily could be a hit on the dance party circuit. There are pop hits stacked inside this music, like stairsteps to success. For instance, “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know.” But many other tunes cross boundaries and are genre undefinable, like “Some Goodbyes Come with Hello” and “The Promise” or “A Kiss” that easily could be arranged as folk music or a sweet jazz tune.  The title tune, “Not Your Muse” is haunting and jazzy.  Celeste offers us an art project and a strong lesson in songwriting and composing.  This is an album that makes us pay close attention while we soak up the genuine joy inside this unique musical message.

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BOBBY RODRIGUEZ – “FREEDOM” – Independent Label

Bobby Rodriguez, composer/trumpet/flugelhorn/vocals; Rickey Woodard, tenor saxophone; Wendall Kelly, trombone; Joey Navarro, Karen Hammack & Billy Mitchell, keyboards; Barry Polhmann, guitar; Del Atkins, Derrick Oles & Rene Camacho, bass; Alex Acuña & Yvonne deBourbon-Rodriguez, hand percussion; Aaron Serfaty, Clayton Cameron & Maria Martinez, drums; Kei Akagi & Joe Rotundi Jr., piano; Alan Goldman, strings & voices; Raffia Thomas, vocals; George Oldziey, strings;

The opening, title tune struts out of the gate like a proud thoroughbred pony.  “Freedom” is a funk based contemporary jazz composition that involves a strong horn section and Latin rhythms to propel the melody forward.  Trumpeter, Bobby Rodriguez, has composed every song on this album.  One of the hit tunes on the project is “Jazz It Up,” a very commercial, contemporary, funk jazz tune that makes you joyful just listening to it. This is followed by “Little Henry,” a song he composed for his newest grandson.  It’s another up-tempo, happy composition with a memorable melody played joyfully from the bell of Rodriguez’s trumpet.  “Mia’s Lullaby” is a beautiful ballad and celebrates another grandchild, his granddaughter, Mia.  It’s not the traditional ¾ waltz-time lullaby.  Instead, it’s a very jazzy 4/4 that surprises us and adds a little funk near the fade of the song.  Track 5, “Bailar Merengue” offers Latin voices, singing the title like a chant, and projects a party groove that encourages listeners to shake their hips and move their feet. “Robin Star” is a beautiful composition and shines a spotlight on some of the excellent players Bobby Rodriguez has assembled for this project, including Bob Mintzer on tenor saxophone.  Rodriguez uses his flugelhorn on this ‘live’ recording of his “Robin Star” composition.  Kei Akagi is inspiring on piano.  The composition “Yvonne” celebrates Bobby’s wife and is a very pretty ballad.  “Raise Your Hands” is a composition brewed with a thick, gospel-feel and it’s fueled by the funky drums of Marie Martinez and the steady, dancing bass of Del Atkins.  Raffia Thomas adds her soulful vocals to the mix.  This project offers the listener a variety of repertoire that features Dr. Rodriguez as a competent and engaging composer and arranger.  The stellar line-up of Los Angeles musicians enhances his arrangements and perpetuates the “Freedom” title with unbridled energy and enthusiasm.  I felt that same excitement when I attended the 80th birthday celebration of Kenny Burrell, produced by Dr. Rodriguez, that became a television program. That was the night I first heard Dr. B’s song, “Jazz It Up.”

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Sandra Booker, vocals/composer/lyricist/arranger/background vocals/exec. producer; Robert Turner, keyboards/organ/arranger/drum & bass programming (Logic Pro) synthesizers/co-producer.

Sandra Booker sounds vocally powerful on her new ‘single’ release titled, “Until We Meet Again.”  It’s a beautiful ballad that tributes loved ones lost, either because of the COVID 19 pandemic or otherwise.  Her song crosses genres and could be marketed as R&B or jazz.  The track is very jazzy, featuring Robert Turner as a master on synthesizer.  With COVID-19 keeping many of us self-quarantined and away from studio sessions, Sandra and Robert Turner have somehow created a single release that sounds like the whole band is involved.  Kudos to Robert Turner for creating this strong track! Booker’s voice is as smooth and comforting as satin sheets.  She glides across the music like raindrops on glass windowpanes or tears on cheeks. Together, this duo has created a stellar product, that is the beginning of an album they hope to release by the end of the year.  Their single, “Until We Meet Again” is currently available On-Line.

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Logan Richardson, alto saxophone/piano/keyboards/synthesizer/ composer; Igor Osypov, electric/ acoustic guitars; Peter Schlamb, vibraphone/keyboards/key bass; Dominique Sanders, bass/key bass/production; Ryan J. Lee, drums/bass; Corey Fonville, drums; Laura Taglialatela, vocals; Ezgi Karakus, strings; Busta Rhymes, spoken word.

This production is ‘rock’ meets fusion, meets contemporary smooth jazz.  It’s very electronic, right from the beginning arrangement of the original composition by Logan Richardson, “Say My Name.” The poor mix on this tune makes it challenging to hear the spoken word by Stephan Harris.  The next three songs follow suit with electronic music and rock drums, until we get to “For Alto.”  Richardson has composed every song on this album.  For once, we hear the pure jazz tone out of Logan Richardson’s alto saxophone on this tune; blown through his horn like a solo prayer.  When the electronics enter, it changes the jazz prayer to a pretty ballad, convoluted with overtones, echoes and repetition.  You can hear Logan’s creative orchestration during this production and his mastery of many instruments.  As an arranger, and working with producer Dominique Sanders, they dribble vocal beauty and dabs of activist statements throughout this production.  On Track #11 titled, “Photo Copy,” the featured voice of Busta Rhymes complains about music business inequities.  There are protest moments that dot the production in seductive ways, tickling the listener’s brain when it’s least expected.  However, sometimes the music is so busy that it becomes noise.  This reviewer appreciates the exceptional talents of Mr. Richardson, but I’d like to see more sensitivity in the arrangements; crescendos and rest spots that let the music, like nature and life, breathe every now and then. 

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Anais Reno, vocals; Emmet Cohen, piano/bandleader/arranger; Russell Hall, bass; Kyle Poole, drums; Tivon Pennicott, saxophone; Juliet Kurtzman, violin.

Her vocal style and tone sound seasoned.  However, Anais Reno’s CD cover portrait appears to be a very young woman.  From the deep ocean of memorable tunes that Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn left this world, this vocalist has plucked some of the most iconic for her debut album. Surprisingly, she was only sweet sixteen when she began singing these   challenging songs.  I knew she was young, but I didn’t realize this emotional delivery belonged to a teenager.   With roots in music, I suppose this was her destiny.  Her father was a former opera singer who performed in Europe and her mother is an accomplished violinist.  Both talented parents recognized their child had a love for music when, at just Kindergarten age, she was singing songs from the Broadway show, Aladdin. While taking voice lessons, her teacher introduced her to Etta James when she was just-eight years old.

“When I was eight-years old, I didn’t realize I was doing anything special.  I didn’t know that singing was actually very complex and that there was a difference between someone who like to sing and a trained singer.  I just knew I loved to sing and I loved the soulfulness of ‘At Last.’  That led me to listen to jazz extensively.  It consumed my whole life,” Anais Reno confessed in her press package.

At eleven-years old, she was part of the New York Philharmonic’s Very Young Composers program and had the opportunity to perform with the orchestra.  By the time she was twelve, she was performing at open mic sessions at Birdland. At thirteen, she played her first gig as a solo artist at a local New York club.  They were so impressed with her vocal abilities, they featured her on three solo shows.  She won the 2016 Forte International Competition’s Platinum Award at Carnegie Hall and Miss Reno came in First Place at the 2019 Mabel Mercer Foundation competition in NYC.  In 2020, she won the Julie Wilson Award.  When I hear her emotional delivery on “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing,” it’s difficult to believe this is a sixteen-year-old singing with that much storytelling narrative in her vocal delivery.  Her slow jazzy arrangement on “I’m Just a Lucky So and So” is pleasing to the ear and the young lady can ‘swing’ and scat.  You hear a piece of her soul shining through when she performs, “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues.”  Clearly, she is becoming a jazz force in her own unique way.  Anais Reno shows great insight beyond her years when she writes:

“…You see, I don’t think hearing music I relate to makes me ‘normal;’ are any of us, really? I think hearing music I relate to makes my flaws, my affinity for blueness, my complexities, okay.  They’re okay because if they weren’t, why would this music be just as complex as I am?  Why would it be just as complex as human beings are?  As I write this, I have just turned seventeen.  There are an infinite number of people and things I will never know and there are an equally infinite number of people and things I will get to know.  … I know now that the music of Ellington & Strayhorn understands me.  This is why I want to honor it and this is why maybe one day, I will understand myself,” Anais Reno shares her thoughts on this debut album.

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Steve Gadd, drums; Walt Fowler, trumpet/flugelhorn; Kevin Hays, keyboards/vocals; Jimmy Johnson, bass; David Spinozza, guitar.

An eerie introduction kicks off the first funk-fueled tune titled, “Where’s Earth?”  It’s pumped up by Jimmy Johnson’s electric bass licks.  Kevin Hays dances across the keyboard keys with nimble fingers and David Spinozza takes a funky guitar solo.  This is ‘live’ fusion jazz at its best.

According to Modern Drummer magazine, Steve Gadd is one of very few drummers who has changed the way musicians hear music.  He’s been slapping the groove into place in his own impassioned way for the past fifty plus years.  Gadd’s unforgettable recordings are iconic, from his infectious beat on Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” to his jazzier projects with Chick Corea, Chuck Mangione and Al Di Meola.  Steve Gadd’s legendary execution on drums moves from jazz to pop in the blink of an eye. That’s why so many versatile artists have requested he work with them.  He’s spent time on-the-road or in-the-studio with such icons as Diana Ross, Dr. John, Gato Barbieri, Al Jarreau, Bob James, George Benson, Joe Cocker and a host of others too lengthy to print here.  On Track 4, “Hidden Drive” composed by guitarist Spinozza, Gadd lays down a blues groove that makes me turn up my sound system.  Then on “Walk With Me” (Track 5) pianist Kevin Hays adds his vocal charm, singing his self-penned song, while Gadd settles the Hays composition into a steady and infectious groove that reminds me of the powerful Bill Withers tunes and their in-the-pocket drum beats.  Jimmy Johnson’s tune, “One Point Five” brings Latin jazz to the stage and gives Gadd a platform to solo and show-off his mastery of the drums.  This song is propelled by Johnson’s steady bass riff and enhanced by Walt Fowler’s melodic trumpet. 

There is something for everyone in this versatile concert repertoire. Steve Gadd leads an all-star ensemble, featuring bandmates he has known, appreciated and respected for years.  David Spinozza, an associate of Gadd’s since the 1970’s, replaced his usual guitarist, Michael Landau. With that exception, all the other ensemble members are longtime bandmates.

“Michael wasn’t able to do the tour, so I was glad that David could do it.  He’s an old friend of mine.  I met David years and years ago, before he even came to New York. … We did a bunch of bands and recordings.  I love the way he plays,” Steve Gadd praised his new addition to the band.

The tunes chosen were honed from a 4-night run at the famous Blue Note Tokyo club in December of 2019.  They close out with a Bob Dylan tune, “Watching the River Flow,” a long time Gadd favorite song.

“I recorded that song on a Joe Cocker album that Allen Toussaint produced in 1978,” he recalled. 

As they shuffle their way out of this album, I decide to listen again.  It was just that pleasurable.

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Alyssa Allgood, vocals/composer; Mike Allemana, guitar; Dennis Carroll, bass/composer; George Fludas, drums.

I am immediately captivated by the first tune.  Alyssa and her capable musicians perform “There Are Such Things” (by Stanley Adams/Abel Baer/G. Meyer) at a medium swing tempo.  On this performance, Ms. Allgood checks the boxes that many consider the sign of a competent jazz singer.  1) She can swing.  2) she has a pleasant tone and sells the lyrics, and 3) she can scat.  She adequately ‘trades fours’ with George Fludas on drums.  One of her original composition, words and music, is called “Time Found” and it’s well-written and performed with a long solo scat piece that showcases Alyssa’s understanding of chord changes and harmonics.  Her interpretation of Milton Nascimento’s beautiful composition, “Bridges” is well-done and features Mike Allemana on guitar.  “Try your wings” is a happy song that invites Dennis Carroll to solo on his bass. Although I was quite taken by the opening tune, I found myself disappointed in some of the musical arrangements. For example, the original song she and bassist Dennis Carroll wrote is a solid song, but the arrangement features so much guitar dissonance that he did not seem to support the melody or the vocals.  Mike Allemana’s mixture of Avant-garde type accompaniment does not benefit this artist’s presentation.  I would like to hear Alyssa Allgood recorded with a piano trio. Mr. Allemana’s solos were strong, but surprisingly his support of the vocalist seemed reckless and non-supportive on some occasions.  They did a fine job on “This Bitter Earth” and as a duo on “For All We Know” they beautifully complement one another.   I note that Alyssa Allgood produced this album herself.  Perhaps she should consider finding a producer and an arranger, who can carve the music around her tenacious and stylized vocals to better support her original music, her tonality and her musical grace.

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Ricardo Silveira, guitar/composer.

Solo guitar can be absolutely beautiful when properly played and produced.  Ricardo Silveira does not disappoint.  His technique and precision infuse this music that warms my heart. As a composer, he offers six original compositions out of eleven songs.  One of my favorites is “That Day In Tahiti.”  Another is Track 5, a Carlos Jobim tune, “Luiza.” Silveira gives us a very sweet and lovely presentation of this song.  I enjoyed his interpretation of “My Romance,” a favorite jazz tune across the spectrum. 

Ricardo Silveira is a native of Rio de Janeiro and soaked up all the beauty of Brazilian music in his early years.  As a beginning guitarist, he participated in school performances and at local festivals.  Ricardo continued pursuing music in college.   He’s a studied musician, who came to America and enrolled in a guitar course at Berklee College of Music in Boston.  That summer course changed his life.  The music school immediately recognized Silveira’s talent and potential.  They awarded him a scholarship to continue his study at Berklee.  The rest is history. 

Ricardo Silveira has recorded over a dozen albums as a leader or co-leader and made historic music with a host of legendary musicians including Wayne Shorter, Gilberto Gil, Ivan Lins, Milton Nascimento, Elis Regina, Diana Ross, Vanessa Williams and many, many more.  When Herbie Mann heard Ricardo Silveira play his guitar, he hired him on the spot.  He had been searching for a Brazilian guitarist who also could play Straight-ahead jazz, play the blues and various other styles of music. Silveira fit the bill.  Ricard has recorded with Randy Brecker on “Randy in Brazil.”  That album won a Grammy in 2009 for Best Contemporary Jazz Album.  Confined to his home, with all his touring dates cancelled because of COVID-19, Ricardo took that ‘down’ time to create this solo artistic accomplishment.   Although I found some of the arrangements to be long-winded, they are all romantic and inspired.  You will not hear the urgency and sexy, danceable rhythms of Brazil in this presentation.  Instead, you can enjoy the beauty of Ricardo Silveira’s peaceful style of playing his songs solo, with tranquility wrapping this project in colorful chords and gorgeous melodies.  Ricardo’s composing talents are the bow on top.

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TODD COCHRAN – “TC3” – “THEN AND AGAIN, HERE & NOW” – Sunnyside Records

Todd Cochran, piano; John Leftwich, bass; Michael Carvin, drums.

Todd Cochran opens his CD with an inspired arrangement of “Softly, As in A Morning Sunrise.”  His fingers skip across the keys to punctuate the unusual time changes.  When John Leftwich steps forward on his double bass, he swings hard and solos creatively.  Cochran displays his rich and unique jazz interpretations, using the 88-keys as a diving board, then he swims through the melodic arrangements with fresh nuances and fluctuating time signatures.  On “A Foggy Day,” Cochran utilizes the upper register of the piano to present a music-box-introduction.  As Leftwich walks his bass briskly beneath, Michael Carvin holds the up-tempo steady and solid on drums. Todd Cochran dances to the forefront, his hands and ten fingers racing, sprinter-style, and heading relentlessly towards the finish-line.  This song morphs into an extended fade that finds a groove and sticks to it like Velcro.  The trio’s arrangement of “I Got Rhythm” is fresh-faced and intriguing.  It gives Michael Carvin freedom to explore his technique and free rein to be as creative as he likes on the trap drums.  Cochran does not soak up all the spotlight, but conscientiously shares it with his fellow musicians. Each member of this trio is a master in his own right. As many times as I have heard this standard jazz tune (I Got Rhythm) this time it is brand new to my ears.  I must compliment Todd Cochran for his amazing ability to transform songs we know very well to eclectic pieces of art. This is one of the finest jazz pianists I’ve listened to in a long time.  He is unselfish and offers us fifteen songs to delight upon. 

A San Francisco native, as a teenager he was greatly influenced by such Northern California icons as Herbie Hancock, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Woody Shaw, Bobby Hutcherson, John Handy and Eddie Henderson, to name just a few.  Now, after a ten-year hiatus from recording, to nurture his son into adulthood, Todd Cochran returns to the joy, freedom and his love of music.  With this album, he proffers his amazing talent with the world.  Sit back and enjoy!

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