Archive for May, 2021


May 26, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil

May 26, 2021


Noah Haidu, piano; Buster Williams, bass; Billy Hart, drums.

“Slowly: Song for Keith Jarrett” is a masterpiece.  First of all, this trio is magnificent, each individual member a musician and composer.  They bring to this project, not only the best on their instruments, but their vivid memories of the legendary Keith Jarrett.  The first song, “Air Dancing” was composed by Buster Williams and I never wanted it to end.  It was incredibly beautiful. 

This project was imagined when the news broke that our beloved piano genius, Keith Jarrett, was retiring due to a pair of debilitating strokes. 

“When I heard about Keith, I was profoundly moved and I started to envision the recording with Billy and Buster, as a kind of musical response to these events and Keith’s body of work,” Noah Haidu shared.

“My father and I had a tradition of going to hear Jarrett together for several years running,” recalls Noah Haidu.  “My dad, who was largely responsible for introducing me to jazz, passed away a week before Keith’s final concert.  Dad and I had been planning to attend that show together, but his illness came on quite suddenly and a few weeks before the end, he handed me the tickets and said, you’d better find someone else to go with.  No one knew, at the time of the concert, that it would be Keith’s final performance.  Attending that concert was one of the ways I was able to mark dad’s passing and start a new chapter in my own life.  My seventeen-year marriage came to an end and I refocused my energies on performing and recording with my own group,” Noah Haidu gave us a peak into his amazing love for Keith Jarret and his life in jazz, the music his father first introduced to him.

“Duchess” is a composition by phenomenal drummer, Billy Hart.  It is Track 2 on this splendid recording that was postponed because of the COVID19 pandemic and rescheduled for a studio recording in late November, 2020.  At that point, COVID’s second surge was well underway. 

“We decided not to put off the session a second time,” says Haidu.   “… We put on our masks and played our hearts out.”

The standard jazz song made unforgettable by the great Dinah Washington, “What A Difference A Day Makes” is included in this recording, skipping along at a moderate, swing pace and showcasing the close mesh of these musicians.  Each individual is shining, as part of a tightly woven and intricate trio.

And what a difference 2020 made for Noah Haidu.  He is one of the first rising star pianists to address the remarkable legacy of pianist Kenny Kirkland on his album, DOCTONE, also released on Sunnyside Records.  Doctone was a reference to Kenny Kirkland’s nickname.  It made Noah the first jazz artist to be released in tandem with a documentary film and a book.  Billy Hart was the drummer on that historic and highly praised album.  Hart was also Kenny Kirkland’s drummer of choice. 

At age nineteen, young Noah was studying at Rutgers University with great pianist, Kenny Barron. After two years of college, Haidu left academia and moved to Brooklyn to pursue gigging and practicing.  His dream was to become an accomplished jazz pianist.  In 2011 he was heralded as a ‘rising star’ in JazzTimes magazine.  DownBeat Magazine has singled him out as an ‘innovative composer.’ Looks like his dreams are manifesting.

Buster Williams and Billy Hart were fledgling musicians when the late, great Betty Carter scooped them up back in 1969 to work a Chicago concert with her.  Both have played on classic albums by Miles Davis, but when they joined Herbie Hancock and Bennie Maupin’s sextet, Mwandishi, they toured and recorded together for four years.  So, they know each other very well, both personally and musically.  Each musician is widely praised for their amazing work in both acoustic and electric jazz, as well as being major composers and bandleaders of their own ensembles.  Billy Hart just turned eighty years old within a few days of this recording and Buster Williams just turned seventy-nine on April 17th

To join their seasoned dreams with Noah Haidu’s more current ones is pure enchantment.  The trio creates a treasured and everlasting tribute to Keith Jarrett, but also to the legacy of three incredibly talented musicians.  You hear their fervor and ingenuity on “Georgia,” a slow bluesy arrangement that pulls every drop of beauty from the song.  They also deliver over twelve minutes of awesome music when they play Jarrett’s composition, “Rainbow,” giving both Hart and Williams time to flavor the arrangement with their memorable solos.  “Slowly” was composed by Noah Haidu and dedicated to Jarrett’s solo piano style.  Perhaps the most prolific and encouraging words that Haidu received during this session came from the lips of the wise, Buster Williams.  After they completed the recording of “Air Dancing” Williams gave the younger musician some fatherly advice.

“You’re doing a beautiful job, but this time, just go for anything you hear. Don’t worry about downbeats and playing every chord.  Billy and I got that covered,” Buster assured him.

As I listen to this recording, I can tell Noah Haidu did just that.  The result is rich, beautiful, sincere and freeing.  This piece of art is technically judicious and jazzily improvisational, with a warm nod to the man, Keith Jarrett, and his unforgettable, musical gift to the universe.

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Dara Tucker, vocals/arranger/composer; Cyrus Chestnut & Sullivan Fortner, piano/Fender Rhodes/arranger; Dezron Douglas & Vincente Archer, bass; Johnathan Blake, drums; Joe Dyson, drums/tambourine; Giveton Gelin, trumpet; John Ellis, tenor & soprano saxophone/horn arrangements.

Here is a voice that is pleasing, tonally beautiful and emotionally connected to each lyric she sings.  I was so happy to hear Dara Tucker, who has picked a bouquet of songs that sweetly encourage and colorfully protest in the same intoxicating breath.  Opening with James Taylor’s “Secret O’ Life” tune, with arrangements that are creative and fresh.  Track 2 she pays homage to Stevie Wonder with his “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” composition.  I found the chord changes to be interesting, but not necessarily supportive of Stevie’s original melodic idea.  Never mind!  Dara Tucker sang the song flawlessly, no matter what Sullivan Fortner played.  One of my favorite songs is Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free.”  She is full of electricity and emotional energy on this one.  Her original composition, “Do We Sleep?” is a very beautiful ballad with a thought-provoking lyric.  Dara Tucker’s voice floats effortlessly across space, a golden bird in flight, leaving a trail of music for us to enjoy.  Her songs give voice to social justice issues, drawing compositions from the 1960’s and 70’s.  This collection of compositions, with lyrical importance, sum up the title of this album and call on humanity to wake up and to change.  Each hand-picked song encourages us to be better and to do better.  You will enjoy popular songs like “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and Bacharach & David’s “What the World Needs Now is Love.”  She reinvents Carole King’s “You’ve Got A Friend” and the traditional gospel song and slave anthem, “Wade in the Water” (arranged by David M. Rodgers) is very jazzy with a spectacular bass solo by Dezron Douglas.  Her vocals refresh standard jazz songs from the American Song Book like “Make Someone Happy” and Marvin Gaye’s pop anthem, “What’s Going on?” in a timeless way.   The ‘Marvin’ message is important all these years later.  Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s in Need of Love Today” is arranged in a fresh and inventive way.  This is a vocalist to watch on her upward rise.  She has the talent, the voice and the delivery to make a difference.

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Nick Finzer, trombone/composer; Dave Meder, piano; Quincy Davis, drums; Eric Hitt, bass; Lucas Pino, saxophone.

At the beginning of 2020, just as the pandemic was getting a foothold in the United States, trombonist, Assistant Professor of Jazz Trombone and bandleader, Nick Finzer, was prepared to release his album project titled, “Cast of Characters.”  Then came the lockdown.  He had just booked a concert tour and the group managed to perform this one “live” show and record it for video and EP release before most of his dates were cancelled.  Consequently, this digital EP and Video Production celebrates songs from his 2020 album, finally released this year. The entire production takes place before a responsive audience, with the music making a few unique twists and turns. 

They open with “A Sorcerer … Is a Myth” with Lucas Pino soaring on saxophone while the ensemble experiments with mixed meters. It begins dirge-like and develops more energy when Pino solos.

“Sorcerer is all about the inner journey we go on, through our artistic development,” explains Finzer.

“Evolution of Perspective” is a more straight-ahead tune and Quincy Davis fuels this tune with percussive energy on trap drums.  Once again, Pino soars on sax and invigorates the production.  He and Finzer are the original members of the “Cast of Characters” Project.  When Nick Finzer steps into the spotlight, only Eric Hitt backs him up on double bass.  It’s a very dynamic moment and showcases Finzer’s complete mastery of his trombone.  When Davis adds drums and Dave Meder starts comping on piano, they build the bebop energy.  Finzer flies on his trombone, a wild bird taking full advantage of his improvisational moments in space.  Dave Meder is given a piece of sky to explore the eighty-eight keys.  Both Dave and Quincy are a part of the faculty at University of North Texas, celebrated for their amazing jazz program and gifted professors.  Experienced student, Eric Hitt, doesn’t miss a beat on the bass.  His fast-walking string bass locks in tightly with the Quincy Davis drums.  This is an entertaining EP and I’m sure that once you get to view the video simultaneously, “Live from Denton” it will be like attending a well-played concert inside the comfort of your own home.  The digital EP released with Video on May 21, 2021.

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STEVE COLE – “SMOKE + MIRRORS” – Mack Avenue Records

Steve Cole, tenor saxophone/synth bass; David Mann, keyboards/synth bass/drum programming/ tenor & baritone saxophone/flute/producer/horn arrangements; Bernd Schoenhart, guitar; Trevor Neumann, trumpet/flugelhorn; Mel Brown, bass/piccolo bass/bass fills; Mark Egan, bass; Todd Sucherman & Brian Dunne, drums; Ricky Peterson, organ.

Here is a smooth jazz production with all songs composed by Steve Cole and his longtime songwriting partner, musician, producer and arranger, David Mann. The tunes are well written and well-played by a host of stellar musicians who were corralled remotely from their homes during the pandemic quarantine.

“Everybody’s stuck at home,” Cole points out with a laugh. “There are a lot of musicians that I would love to work with, but it’s impossible because they’re always on the road.  So, there was a little silver lining in the fact that I could call old friends like Todd Sucherman (drummer) and Brian Dunne (drums), or amazing artists like Mark Egan (bassist), and they were actually available.”

“Smoke and Mirrors” is a magical album that is not meant to fool an audience with trickery or sleight-of- hand, but rather invites listeners to hear an intimate and personal reflection of Steve Cole’s true self. The two songwriter’s offer titles that invite you into their thought processes for this enjoyable, easy-listening experience.  Take the opening song, “Living Out Loud.”  It’s a joyful tune, propelled by Brian Dunne’s drums and spurred by Steve Cole’s tenor saxophone.  Track 2 is seductive, featuring a sexy bass line by Mel Brown and Bernd Schoenhart’s guitar strumming away beneath Cole’s melody line on tenor saxophone.  It’s titled “Loves me, Love’s Me Not” and the melody is as strong and memorable as that old saying.  I wish they had added vocals to sing that ‘hook’ line, but it’s still a very strong production.  “Covent Garden” is another composition with a melody that begs for lyrics. There’s one thing that endears me to this project and that’s the songwriters.  They offer us well-written compositions with strong melodies and great arrangements.  Steve Cole has a thin sound on his tenor saxophone, but it’s full of emotion and passion.  He knows how to sell these songs.  “It’s a House Party” is full of funk and will make you want to get up and get busy!  It has some very interesting chord changes and the breaks are arranged to snatch your attention and compliment the groove.  This album of music is just pure fun and solid enjoyment!

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DEE DANIELS – “THE PROMISE” – cellar Music Group/La Reserve

Dee Daniels, lead vocals/background vocals/string arrangements; Felton Offard & Bill Coon, guitar; Bobby Floyd, piano/Hammond B3 organ; Michael Mitchell, keyboards; John Toney & Tim Fullerton, bass; Y. L. Douglas, Randall Stoll & Dartagnon Gunn, drums; Dave Pierce Keyboard/synth programmer; Terry Frewer, string synth programmer; Sal Ferraras, percussion; John Clayton, string arrangement; Meredith Bates, violin 1; Serena Eades, violin II; Tony Kastellic, viola; Cristian Markos, cello; Evan Bates, contrabass; Tania Hancheroff, Steve Grisette, Amy Grissette  & Martha Lynn Smith, Doug Fleming, background vocals.

Dee Daniels’ is a compelling vocalist who touches the heart with her original, spiritually-based songs of compassion and Christianity.  This is a vocalist who has travelled worldwide on the wings of her talent.  She has performed in several countries overseas and recorded nine albums.  You could say that this soulful singer has led a blessed and charmed life.

“I have a wonderful family life, many dear friends, a successful career,” she shared in her liner notes.

When she expressed a need to travel to New York City to pursue and grow her career opportunities, her loving and supportive husband understood.  It was in autumn of 2011 that she left Vancouver, Canada and settled into a Brownstone smack dab in the center of Harlem.  Blessings flowed.  She recorded two CDs and was offered a teaching position at Queens College in the Vocal Master’s Program. Her name was buzzing all over New York City and she performed in all the major jazz venues.  Imagine how shocking it must have been to be diagnosed with breast cancer in October of 2014.  This album is the result of her spiritual growth and healing.  She returned to her gospel roots and as she fought the ‘big C,’ she rediscovered, through meditation, her gift of creative songwriting.  Dee Daniels was always a songwriter, but now, Beautiful compositions flow through her like water through a sieve.  They manifest themselves during the realization of this production.  You experience Dee Daniels, a vocalist who has sung R&B, jazz, and rock music professionally, return to her roots in gospel music.  These artistic and infectious songs mirror her journey through life and her rebirth into what her publicist labels, ‘Jazz Inspirational’ music.  Her four to five octave vocal range is in sparkling, good health.  Dee Daniels has written eleven soul-warming and inspirational songs.  Sharing them with the world, she hopes they will uplift and that her music becomes a healing balm to those who listen.  I found her musical journey very inspiring and her original music wonderfully communicable with peace and joy.

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Scatman Crothers, vocals/composer; Victor Feldman, piano/vibraphone/percussion; Mike Melvoin, piano/B3 organ; Ralph Humphrey & Earl Palmer, drums; Ray Brown & Dennis Belfield, bass; Arthur Adams & Al Ciner, guitar; Sherlie Mae Matthews, Dianne Brooks, Clydie King & Grace Cosgrove, background vocals.  Featuring the Tonight Show Horn Section: Reeds: Tommy Newson & Bill Green.  Trumpets: Snooky Young, Oscar Brashear, John Audino & Jimmy Zito. Trombones:  Chauncey Welsh & Ernie Tack.

Benjamin Sherman ‘Scatman’ Crothers(1910-1986) was a true star of stage, screen and television. Now, nearly forty years after his death, Panda Digital has released a CD of Scatman’s creative jazz exploration and a couple of original compositions.  Scatman first started performing, as a teenager, singing in clubs and drumming.  He wound up performing on Chicago’s speak-easy circuit in the latter part of the ‘Roaring 20’s.  You can hear the New Orleans jazz influence in the musical arrangement of his original composition, “Scatman’s.”

Then, in 1931, Crothers found himself hosting his own radio show on WFMK in Dayton, Ohio.  He became well known for scatting over instrumental tracks while broadcasting on-air. Billing himself as ‘Scat Man,’ he formed his own trio, ‘Scat Man and His Cats.’  They toured the Southern United States extensively.  In the composition I mentioned above, (Scatman’s) he is referencing his own ‘nick name.’  The lyrics of Crothers’ songs are positive and uplifting like “Still Going Strong.”  The Michael Dees’ love song titled “You’re Pretty,” features a lovely vibraphone solo by Victor Feldman.  In fact, this album is plush with super-star jazz musicians like bassist Ray Brown, Rock and Roll Hall Awardee, drummer Earl Palmer and featuring the entire Tonight Show horn section during their prestigious time on the Johnny Carson Show.

“Louie is Your Garbage Man” sounds like an Ike Turner production, with its strong R&B roots and pounding-heartbeat-tracks. This Crothers’ tune makes you want to dance. It’s actually a tribute to the garbage man character that Crothers played on that NBC television series, Chico and The Man

The arrangements on this entire recording project are ‘dated.’ It was produced by Andrew A. Melzer back in 1975.  Melzer also penned some of the songs.  You can hear shades of the Isaac Hayes-type music on some arrangements.  “Scoot on Over to Scat’s” is soaked in the disco tradition.  On this particular song, I’m reminded of the “Shaft” movie tracks.  Speaking of films, Scatman moved to Hollywood, California in 1943 and immediately landed work on a Paramount network TV show, “Dixie Showboard.”  In fact, this artist appeared in hundreds of television programs and movies. He was an in-demand actor.  Some of the motion pictures where he made his appearance are: The Shining, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Bronco Billy, Aristocats, The Shootist, Silver Streak, The Lady Sings the Blues, Scavenger Hunt and Transformers: The Movie.

On Track 7, “Stanley Does It All,” you hear shades of Bobby McFerrin’s unique style.  It features just Scatman Crothers with a percussive back-beat.  He sings a’cappela, with lyrics that tribute movie mogul Stanley Kubrick.  Crothers was part of the cast in the Kubrick production, “The Shining.”  I don’t know why the editor/producer of this project continuously goes back to what appears to be a theme song, “Still Going Strong.” It opens this project, it’s stuck in the middle and closes the album out. 

Crothers was honored with a star on the Hollywood Blvd Walk of Fame, right in front of the famed Egyptian Theater.  Perhaps this music could be used as a soundtrack for a tribute film documentary.  It would be the perfect accompaniment in celebrating this extraordinary man’s accomplishments in the entertainment business.  After all, in 1934, this African American artist appeared on the Cotton Club Stage and has been recording for labels like RCA, Capitol, Decca and even Motown over his lifetime.  He even was part of the cast in a short film called “Symphony in Black, that featured Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday. Scatman Crothers would go on to act in 45 more motion pictures.  Although the musicians creating the tracks for his music are legendary jazz players, this music sounds more like a soundtrack than a jazz album. Granted, this is an untold story that should be historically documented.

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Evan Arntzen, reeds, voice; Dalton Ridenhour, piano; Tal Ronen, bass; Mark McLean, drums; Arnt Arntzen, guitar/banjo; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Mike Davis, trumpet; Charlie Halloran, trombone. SPECIAL GUEST: Catherine Russell, vocals.

Evan Arntzen is a multi-reed player, a vocalist and bandleader.  This is his third album and it’s steeped in Dixieland styled, New Orleans jazz that celebrates its title, “Countermelody.”   All of this music is a collective of African American music emanating from the first half of the 20th century.  Arntzen debuts many of his own arrangements of early, popular New Orleans and Chicago jazz compositions including songs composed by historic composers like Bennie Moten, Sidney Bechet, King Oliver and Kid Ory.  He features special guest, Catherine Russell on vocals and Evan Arntzen also sings lead on the Sidney Bechet and Mary E. Karoley 1941 composition titled, “Georgia Cabin.” 

This ensemble celebrates the album title, “Countermelody” named for 3 reasons. One, the interplay and interaction of instrumental melodies that was made famous by music born in New Orleans. Two, it celebrates music coming out of the first half of the 20th century.  Third, the music was recorded ‘old school’ with all the musicians in the same room, spontaneously improvising and interacting freely with each other.  This album was recorded during the pandemic, a time when the world around these musicians was falling to pieces and they found togetherness in playing their swing music and blues. If you love Dixieland jazz and early, New Orleans musical history, you’ll be perfectly happy with this album of music. 

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Jalen Baker, vibraphone/composer; Paul Cornish, piano; Giveton Gelin, trumpet; Gavin Moolchan, drums; Gabriel Godoy, bass. STRINGS: Jessica McJunkins & Orlando Wells, violin; Andrew Griffin, viola; Susan Mandel, cello. Ulysses Owens Jr., producer.

In May of 2019, Jalen Baker performed in what appears to be a college concert.  His potential was sparkling even then.

“I wrote all of the music based on my life experiences with things such as racism, depression, heartbreak, career disappointments, success, triumph and healing.   … Nothing is unique to just me.  These are things most of us deal with and I want people to know that they’re not alone,” Jalen Baker explains why this album of music is so important to him.

As I listen, I conclude that Jalen Baker writes music as though he’s creating suites.  On the first song, “So Help Me God,” the tempo changes and arrangements sound as though there are various songs being played.  The outstanding part of this first seven-and-a-half-minutes of music is Baker’s beauty on his vibraphone.  His talent on vibes shines throughout.  We are introduced to his string section, to Giveton Gelin on trumpet and the inspirational Paul Cornish on piano during Track 1.  Jalen Baker has composed nine out of ten songs on this, his premiere album.  Track 2 is titled “Don’t Shoot” and it calls to mind Black Lives Matter and the protests against police shootings of black and brown people.  But the composition is so pretty, it doesn’t seem to express the title.  Jalen’s busy mallets on his vibraphone tell a story, but does that story depict the fear, outrage and strength of consciousness to represent a person shouting, “Don’t Shoot?”  For me, that title just doesn’t seem to match up with this original tune or arrangement.  “Healing” is a composition that enters like a chant on the breath of wind, with its repetitive theme.  In moments where Baker solos on his vibes, we are drawn into his music by his creativity and talent.  However, his melody on this song of “Healing” does not lend itself to familiarity or a song melody I would remember to sing.  During this composition, and most of the ones that follow, I find myself disappointed in the drums.  They don’t ‘root’ the music.  I keep wondering if it was the engineer’s fault?  Where are the cymbals?  Where’s the bass drum?  Where’s the two and the four?  Where are the percussive colors to enhance Jalen Baker’s brilliance on his vibraphone?

Paul Cornish is competent and creatively expressive on piano.  On the composition, “Faith,” his harmonics are tasteful and supportive.  This song offers a pretty melody and quickly becomes one of my favorites on this album.  Bassist, Gabriel Godoy, shimmers powerfully in the spotlight during a well-executed bass solo during this arrangement. “Patience” spotlights the string section and is quite beautiful, opening the curtains to expose Giveton Gelin’s trumpet prowess. When Jalen Baker enters on his vibes, the tenderness of what he plays intoxicates the moment.  He is a fluid improviser.  However, his compositions don’t always offer melodic structure to encourage the listener to sing, hum or recall his melodies.  When you hear a Hoagy Charmichael tune, or a Stevie Wonder composition or listen to Thelonious Monk’s music, you’re always struck by the amazing melodies they offer the listener.  Speaking of Stevie Wonder, who I believe is one of our great American composers, he has penned the final tune that Jalen Baker plays on this album. Wonder’s lyrically important and melodically prudent song, “Love’s in Need of Love Today” features Jalen Baker playing this one solo, in his own outstanding and inimitable way.  There is great potential in this musician and I’m certain we’ll be hearing much more from the talented vibraphonist, Mr. Jalen Baker.

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Masabumi “Poo” Kikuchi, piano/composer. (October 19, 1939 – July 6, 2015)

This Japanese, jazz pianist and composer was born in Tokyo and studied music at the Tokyo Art College High School.  His colorful life embraced work with legendary musicians like Lionel Hampton, McCoy Tyner, Mal Waldron, Elvin Jones, Miles Davis and Gary Peacock.  Always in search of perfection and freedom in his music, Masabumi Kikuchi, has a discography that reflects a wide range of styles from straight-ahead and post-bop to fusion, vanguard, classical jazz and synthesized music. He was awarded a scholarship to Berklee College of Music and played piano for Sonny Rollins.  He’s been a band leader, a sideman and featured guest on various albums over his decades of experimenting with improvisation, electronic music and new musical forms.  This is his final musical breath, in the studio at age seventy-five, recording “Hanamichi” that celebrates his mastery and joy playing the eighty-eight keys.

Opening with “Ramona” (written originally as a brisk Spanish waltz) he transforms the Mabel Wayne composition to a slowly played ballad, that sounds poignantly like “I’ll Be Seeing You” at certain places. He employs a languid tempo, along with his pedal use that echoes the tones, ringing brightly through the harmonics that over-lap and create resonating, humming overtones.  He appears to be obsessive at the sustain pedal.  You hear the way he plays with this pedal during his presentation of the Gershwin standard, “Summertime.”  He wrings the melody out of this song, very slowly and with much emotion.   Octaves are played by his wide-spread right hand.  Masabumi Kikuchi explores each song on this solo performance, pushing the boundaries of time, tempo and harmonics in his own improvised way.  He transforms “Summertime,” then “My Favorite Things” and finally, embarks on addressing his own, two original compositions, “Improvisation” and “Little Abi” written for his daughter.  “Poo” a nick-name he was called lovingly by close friends, exhibits the spirit of freedom and exploration that makes jazz so important to the world.

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May 14, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil

MAY 14, 2021

ADAM MOEZINIA blends folk-music with jazzy arrangements. OJOYO plays “Safrojazz,” richly embroidered into South African culture. AMBER WEEKES re-imagines and remixes an old studio project into something brand new.  HENRY “SKIPPER” FRANKLIN surrounds himself with some of LA’s jazz royalty to celebrate “Showers of Blessings.”  FRANCESCO AMENTA presents an international play on jazz and the KEITH BROWN TRIO highlights black music and “African Ripples.” Finally, FRANK MORELLI & KEITH OXMAN blend European classical music and hard-bop jazz in a unique and unusual way.


Adam Moezinia, guitar; Dan Chmielinski, bass; Charles Goold, drums.

Adam Moezinia has brought a fresh perspective to folk music, infusing his original folksy compositions with jazz improvisation in a very creative and unique way. He is richly supported by Dan Chmielinski on bass and the fiery Charles Goold on drums.  They open with the original composition, “Celebration” and the party begins! 

“I was going through a period of frequent writing when I realized that almost all of my compositions contained a certain element, the Folk Element; elements from more, simple, folk-based music, less commonly found in jazz.  From there, I started upon a sort of musical exploration, discovering for myself some of the different kinds of folk music from around the world.”

On Track 2, “School Daze,” Chmielinski steps to the front of the stage with an inventive solo.  The trio tackles the Duke Ellington tune, “Azalea,” arranged in a dirge-like manner at the top and then developing melodically into a beautiful flower.  It blossoms brilliantly before our ears.  They also add a Bob Dylan tune, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and the famed Robert Johnson blues song, “Come on In My Kitchen.”  Otherwise, Adam Moezinia has penned the remaining songs, except the traditional folk song “Lisa Lan.”   Moezinia’s style and grace on his guitar is well-executed and his composing talents shine.  This trio is sophisticated and intrinsically meshed together.  They fit like fish to water, each contributing talent as individuals, swimming closely together in perfect harmony.

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Morris Goldberg, saxophone/pennywhistle/composer; Anton Fig, drums; Bakithi Kumalo & Chulo Gatewood, bass; Tony Cedras & Richard Cummings, keyboards; Cyro Baptista, percussion; John Guth & Dan Carillo, guitar; Kofo, talking drum; Chris Botti & Diego Urcola, trumpet; Cecilia Tenconi, tenor saxophone.

From the first strains of a song called “Station Road Strut” I felt that I was in South Africa.  This music oozes the joy and happy spirit of the South African people.  When I picked up the press information on this group, the first sentence I read was:

“Saxophonist, penny whistle master and composer Morris Goldberg is perhaps best known for his association with Hugh Masekela.”

That explained it.  I was completely on point.  Not only did Goldberg work with Hugh Masekela, he himself was born in Cape Town.  “Ojoyo Plays Safrojazz” is a reissue of Morris Goldberg’s debut album, with overdubs by some amazing jazz musicians like Chris Botti on trumpet, keyboardist Tony Cedras and bass man, Bakithi Kumalo.  Drummer Anton Fig and percussionist Cyro Baptista boost the rhythm section and a number of other guest players add color and energy to this infectious music.  All nine songs are Goldberg originals and mirror his South African roots.  In his hometown of Cape Town, Morris pursued music early-on, with emphasis on blending African music with bebop.  He debuted his concept with pianist John Mehegan in 1959 and their recording was one of the first jazz sessions in South Africa.  Goldberg has recorded with the great Miriam Makeba and Harry Belafonte in the 1980s and was part of Paul Simon’s award-winning Graceland album.

This is music that instantly makes you happy and lifts your spirits.  Even though the music was originally recorded decades ago, it’s as lively, fresh and entertaining as it was then and maybe even more so. Since the composer has added so many new voices, they bring additional energy and vigor to his original project.  It’s like the already beautiful mansion of music got a fresh coat of paint.

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Amber Weekes, vocals; Danny Grissett, piano; Eddy Olivieri, piano/organ; Trevor Ware, Bass; Sherman Ferguson, drums; Phil Upchurch & Greg Cook, guitars; Louis Van Taylor, tenor, soprano & alto saxophone/ alto flute/flute; Scott Steen, trumpet; Mark Cargill, producer/string arranger/conductor/violin/atmospheric sound design; Joey De Leon, percussion; Dwayne Benjamin, trombone; Nathaniel Scott, Hi-hat; Miller Pertrum, vibraphone; Lynne Fiddmont, background vocals; HANDCLAPS: Trevor Ware, Sherman Ferguson, Danny Grissett, Peter C. Ross & Amber Weekes.

Vocalist, Amber Weekes, purrs her way through this album.  This is a CD, fully remixed, remastered and reorchestrated from a promotional recording Amber and her all-star band made back in 2002.  She has gathered a bouquet of colorful torch songs to interpret.  They are songs that she has been coveting and longing to sing since childhood. 

Amber grew up surrounded by music.  Her father, the late Martin Weekes, was a jazz singer and trombonist who idolized Frank Sinatra. Her New York household was full of music. She heard Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson, Nat King Cole, Barbra Streisand and Shirley Bassey constantly spinning on their record player.  Young Amber started singing at age four, inspired by the music she heard and encouraged by her father.  There are a couple of up-tempo numbers that show you she can swing with the best of them, like “Lovers.” Additionally, she and the band open with a rousing rendition of “Hazel’s Hips,” penned by Oscar Brown Jr.  It sounds like we’re at a rollicking house party and richly enjoying ourselves.  The over-all arrangements on these songs are fantastic. Mark Cargill’s string arrangements add high quality to this project.  Of special note is the Thelonious Monk composition, ‘Round Midnight arranged by bassist Trevor Ware and pianist Eddy Olivieri.  It’s played with a sultry Latin rhythm and a recurring groove for the intro and at the fade that hypnotizes the listener.  Amber takes some improvisational twists and turns on this jazz standard that explore her range and technique, holding and performing some notes like a horn-player.   She blesses this album with her artistic rendition of the “Cristo Redentor” medley that includes “I Want Jesus to Walk With Me.”  Amber Weekes dedicates this album of well-produced, quality music to her family, her father, to romance and her New York City roots.

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Henry Franklin, bass/composer; Theo Saunders, piano/composer; Willie Jones, drums; Teodross Avery, tenor & soprano saxophone; Ryan Porter, trombone; Nolan Shaheed, trumpet/fugal horn; Benn Clatworthy, alto flute/composer; Najite Agindotan, percussion; Yaakov Levy, wooden flute.

When I see the name Henry ‘Skipper’ Franklin in the credits of any given music, I know the jazz will be quality and the product will be noteworthy.  “Showers of Blessings,” The Skipper’s latest CD release, is no exception.  The project opens with his whispered and percussive “Message to Marjorie” for a brief introductory 57 seconds.  It’s a prayerful nod to his late cousin.  The talented Najite Agindotan sparkles on percussion and Yaakov Levy introduces us to his illustrious wooden flute.  This is followed by Theo Saunder’s composition, “The Return of The Skipper.”  It’s a happy-go-lucky tune that dances across the space with a catchy melody and blues chord changes that invite improvisational solos of merit.  For example, Teodross Avery, on tenor saxophone, grabs the spotlight and our immediate attention with his tone and presence.  Ryan Porter’s trombone solo parts the curtains and marches stage front, followed by Nolan Shaheed’s innovative trumpet solo.  

On this recording, Henry Franklin fattens his trio sound with beautiful horn arrangements played by some of the best Southern California musicians available.  Theo Saunders lends his composer skills to the project, as well as his whimsical innovation on piano.  On McCoy Tyner’s pretty “Ballad for Aisha” you can appreciate the outstanding, intricate horn harmonics, arranged by reedman, Benn Clatworthy.  Franklin and his sextet give a respectful nod to the legendary McCoy Tyner, who sadly passed away in March of 2020.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, The Skipper (as we fondly refer to Henry Franklin) decided to record a project of music to celebrate events and people who have greatly impacted his life.  Not only did our country lose over half a million souls to the virus, we also faced a ‘Black Lives Matter’ moment, when several people of color, both brown and black, died at the hands of America’s city police.  Theo Saunders penned a composition to memorialize “Black Lives Lost.”  It features a heartfelt trumpet solo by Nolan Shaheed, whose popular recording studio was also the birthplace of this intimate album of music.  I enjoyed hearing Clatworthy pick up his alto flute and colorfully incorporate it into “The Valley of Search” arrangement.  Clatworthy always brings his best to every project and usually is playing saxophone.  This is a wonderful example of his woodwind diversity.  Henry Franklin takes a solo that digs deeply into the valley of his bass tones, displaying adroitness of his instrument and displaying why he is celebrated as a bass master. One of my favorites on this album is the Clatworthy composition, “Skipper Meets Pharoah” in celebration of two mighty musicians and their friendship over many memorable years.  The saxophone of Teodross Avery dances atop Franklin’s powerful, walking bass line and the always exciting Willie Jones III spurs the sextet straight-ahead on drums.  His trap drum solo shows us why he is an innovative, in-demand drummer both on sessions and on stage.  Another favorite of mine is “The Guardian” with its throwback theme and arrangement that reminds me of my teenage years and 1960 jazz, watching Art Blakey’s group in a smoke-filled coffee house called “The Minor Key” in Detroit. The closing tune is a Franklin composition titled, “Little Miss Laurie.”  It’s a Latin-flavored ending to a dynamic album of music.  With a cha-cha groove, Henry Franklin’s composition sprays joy from my CD player. 

This is just good, solid jazz from top to bottom; beginning to end.  You will want to slide this CD back into your player and listen to it time after time

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FRANCESCO AMENTA – “MIDTOWN WALK” – AMI (Amenta Music International)

Francesco Amenta, tenor saxophone; Cyrus Chestnut, piano; Kimon Karoutzos, bass; Gary Kerkezou, drums.

This album features an international ensemble of personalities.  The female drummer (Gary Kerkezou) and bass player (Kimon Karoutzos) are both natives of Greece.  Bandleader and composer, Francesco Amenta was born and raised in Northern Italy, but planted roots in New York City in 2017.  On this project, these three expats joined forces with American jazz pianist, Cyrus Chestnut and Grammy winning bassist, John Lee, who produced their album.  The result is a project of memorable jazz that celebrates Francesco Amenta’s composer talents and a blend of mixed cultures.  The compositions and cultures meet like old friends on this winding, international, music path.

“I loved studying traditional jazz styles in Italy and the Netherlands, but jazz is a style of music that always evolves and there’s no better place to hear a broad range of jazz styles than in New York City,” Francesco explains his move to the East coast of America.

Saxophonist, Francesco Amenta, has studied with some of America’s iconic jazz cats like Barry Harris at the Conservatory in Verona.  Then, at the American School of Modern Music in Paris, he was under the superb tutelage of Charles Lloyd and Johnny Griffin.  In constant search of perfection on his tenor saxophone, Francesco attended the prestigious Royal Conservatory in The Hague, Netherlands.  There he had the opportunity to study with Dave Liebman and Joshua Redman.  As a teenager, the young woodwind player was infatuated with the tone and style of Sonny Rollins.  Each original composition he has written for this, his second album release, was inspired by a person or event in his life.  One of this journalist’s favorite composition is titled, “Number 9” and was inspired by pianist McCoy Tyner.  He wrote it after Francesco attended a NYC concert and experienced the great composer and pianist in person. He was so moved, that Francesco Amenta wrote this modal composition.  Cyrus Chestnut shows off his piano chops on this tune and the quartet flies at a challenging pace, whipping the arrangement into a frenzy, then settling it down with Francesco’s melodic horn line and a cut-time-feel.  The energy of this song also reminds me of a Herbie Hancock composition.  At the fade, they give the drummer, Gary Kerkezou, several minutes to explore her drums and impress us she does! 

Francesco’s song, “06/22” is a sweet, sultry ballad and represents the day he first landed a gig as a bandleader in New York City. Unfortunately, it was also, the sad day his father died.  Francesco Amenta plays his tenor saxophone with much emotion and tenderness during this arrangement.  I am impressed by the changes and the pretty melody that weeps across the chords.  This becomes another favorite tune for this reviewer.  I enjoyed the bass solo by Kimon Karoutzos, who received his Master’s Degree in Jazz Double Bass at New York’s Manhattan School of Music.  Drummer, Gary Kerkezou also received her Master’s Degree at the same school of Music and is additionally adapt at playing violin. 

Francesco Amenta is a force of nature.  His music is like a breath of fresh air or a sunrise that paints the sky purple, orange and pink.  He is not only a colorful woodwind player, but a pianist and a blossoming composer.  His first album was the result of a soundtrack he wrote for a Dutch movie that became a part of the 2015 International Documentary Film Festival at Amsterdam.  it was titled, “Colors and Ties.” 

With the tinkling, upper-register piano accompaniment of Cyrus Chestnut, who tastefully enhances the quartet’s arrangement of the Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” composition, they end this album like a prayer on the lips of the wind, whispered from the bell of Francesco Amenta’s horn.

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Keith Oxman, tenor saxophone/composer; Frank Morelli, bassoon; Jeff Jenkins, piano; Ken Walker, bass; Todd Reid, drums.

What do you get when you put a classical bassoonist, chamber musician and educator together with a burnished tenor saxophonist steeped in jazz?  The result is “The Ox-Mo Incident.” This CD is an unexpected blend of America’s classical artform called jazz, flowering with improvisation, and the stricter, more classical European style of music.  The title tune, Track 5, quickly becomes one of my favorites on this unusual musical production.  It’s straight-ahead jazz, composed by Keith Oxman and enhanced by Jeff Jenkins on piano, Ken Walker’s walking bass and his strong double bass solo, along with tasty horn harmonics for saxophone and bassoon.  The two master players, Oxman and Morelli, open with a tune I used to love to hear Nancy Wilson sing on her original release with Cannonball Adderley’s group called, “Happy Talk.” 

This is followed by a theme from Sergei Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto number 2.  The familiar “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” (a Rodgers & Hammerstein composition) is performed as a slow swing.  In the blink of an eye, Track 6 is based on a theme from the third movement of Johannes Braham’s Symphony No. 3 and titled “three for Five.”  Clearly, you get the drift of this production.  It swings like a pendulum between classical familiarity to standard jazz and show tunes.  You will enjoy their take on “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” that I remember was quite popular in the 1950s.  I believe it was from a musical called “Kismet” and recorded by Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and a host of other pop and jazz celebrities. 

Frank Morelli studied at both the Manhattan and Juilliard Schools of Music and was awarded a doctorate by the Juilliard School. He’s made nine appearances at the revered Carnegie Hall as a soloist. His solo soars on “Stranger in Paradise,” letting the deep, richness of the bassoon highlight the melody.  I also enjoyed his interpretation on “Poor Butterfly.”

Keith Oxman’s style of playing embraces jazz styles like Sonny Stitt and Charles McPherson.  Based in Denver, Colorado, Oxman is an educator who encourages students at Denver’s East High School.  He’s collaborated with legendary names like Curtis Fuller, David Liebman and Houston Person.  When speaking of this unusual, but very successful collaboration he said:

“I’m not a classical player and Frank didn’t see himself as a heavy jazz guy, so between the two of us we were like the blind leading the blind in some ways.  But we were both thrilled with the results.  Frank is just an unbelievable musician.  I was really excited when he suggested this, even though jazz might not be his musical field, good musicians are good musicians.”

That says it all!

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Keith Brown, piano/Fender Rhodes/Synthesizers/composer/arranger; Dezron Douglas, acoustic & electric bass; Darrell Green & Terreon ‘Tank’ Gully, drums. SPECIAL GUESTS: Russell gunn, trumpet; Anthony Ware, tenor saxophone; Melanie Charles, Camille Thurman, vocals; Tamara Brown, background vocals; Cyrus Aaron, spoken word; Negah Santos, percussion.

Keith Brown uses this latest release as a musical diary to express his many moods, personal experiences, critical thinking and to exemplify how black music ripples out in a multitude of directions.  He uses spoken word, lyrical voicings and his trio arrangements to exemplify this premise.  Brown hopes his music will touch on the common, human experiences of his listening audience and reflect our commonality.

“I hope that the energy and soul we put into this recording gives … energy and uplifts the soul,” Brown says about his project goals.

“The more life that I live, the more I try to become more comfortable with the truth, whatever that truth may be,” he tells us.

Cyrus Aaron incorporates his spoken word offering on the opening composition; the title tune.  His words stand as an ‘Epigraph’ or summary theme of this project, lyrically bouncing atop the groove laid down by Brown’s trio.

“… Life and death, one synonym, wrecking balls that tie into pendulums, a swing-swung-set, destruction in motion … a distraction or an escape? Who you countin’ on?  My contribution spoken for and this train of thought, progress can be slowed down, but it cannot be stopped. This free hand and the free ride on this free land, free men.  Call it magic, call it ministry, call it music, ain’t it amusing how we chase a dream with no brakes?” Cyrus asks us in beautiful poetic form.

Track 2 speaks about “Truth and Comfort” as Keith Brown peels the melody from the sweet fruit of his composition.  Terreon ‘Tank’ Gully is expressive and creative on drums.  Dezran Douglas holds the rhythm section solidly together with the grip of his bass.  Track 3, “NAFID” is contemporary, energetic and rooted in modern jazz soil.  On the familiar, “Just You, Just Me” standard, Brown has created a brilliant arrangement with a solid funk base.  Douglas steps out of the background, where his creative, solid bass lines are holding this song together like Velcro and into the forefront for his memorable solo. Then comes Gully on a drum excursion that splashes color and dynamics all over this musical palette. Track 8, “Queen” is full of percussive excitement.  The drums bring strong ‘African Ripples’ to the forefront. The voices of Tamara Brown and featured vocalist Camille Thurman add beauty to this arrangement without lyrics. Camille’s amazing soprano sings bird-like above the track at unexpected intervals, while Brown’s piano excellence shines in the spotlight. Dedicated to his wife, this might be one of my favorite Brown compositions on this album of great music. This journalist is a big Stevie Wonder and Syreeta fan. It was wonderful to hear Brown’s inclusion of “I Wish That I Could Come Back as a Flower” featuring vocalist, Melanie Charles. Another favorite is “118 & 8th Street” so straight-ahead and in-your-face; melodic and percussive.   Each of Keith Brown’s arrangements and compositions surprises me in lovely ways, like opening presents on Christmas morning; you never know what you’ll get, but it’s always sweet.  I will be listening to this album time and time again.

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May 1, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil

MAY 1, 2021

As people rush to get a COVID vaccine pumped into their arms and pray for a cure, the disease continues to ravage the world. Musicians from all over the continents have continued to use the healing power of music, not only to entertain, but to bring people together.  Some examples of music that was born out of this pandemic are listed below. ARTURO O’FARRILL & THE AFRO LATIN JAZZ ORCHESTRA is a testament to resilience and determination, recorded ‘Online’ between April through October of 2020, during one of the worst worldwide pandemics in the history of humanity.  O’Farrill brought together musicians from all over the world to inspire us. REBECCA KILGORE is praised by some as one of the most prolific vocalists on today’s jazz scene and a master of delivering songs from the Great American Songbook.  Italian guitarist/composer, GABOR LESKO, brings fusion jazz into the spotlight.  THE SPIKE WILNER TRIO is a product of SmallsLIVE Foundation and I also review Chicago pianist, PAUL BEDAL.  MADRE VACA is an Avant-garde group and so is SATOKO FUJII’S TOKYO TRIO. VINCENT HERRING’S quartet brings hard bop and straight-ahead jazz to the forefront and ALCHEMY SOUND PROJECT uses music to celebrate nature and hopefully, to bring peace to a world in chaos.


Arturo O’Farrill, piano/conductor; Bam Bam Rodriguez, upright bass/elec. bass/karkabas; Vince Cherico, drums; Keisel Jimenez, conga drums; Carly Maldonado, bongo drums/bell/guiro/cajon/doumbek/timbales. SAXOPHONES: Alejandro Aviles, alto & soprano saxophones/flute; Adison Evans, alto saxophone/flute; Roman Filiu, alto Saxophone; Ivan Renta, tenor & soprano saxophones; Jasper Dutz, tenor sax/clarinet; Jeremy Powell & Livio Almeida, tenor saxophone; Larry Bustamante, baritone saxophone/ bass clarinet. TRUMPETS: Seneca Black, Bryan Davis, Adam O’Farrill, Walter Cano, Rachel Therrien & Kai Sandova. TROMBONES: Rafi Malkiel, euphorium; Mariel Bildsten, Abdulrahman Amer, Xito Lovell, Ben Barnett, Earl McIntyre, bass trombone/tuba; James Rogers, bass trombone. SPECIAL GUESTS: Malika Zarra, voice; Gili Sharett, bassoon; Ghazi Faisal Al-Mulaifi, guitar/voice; BOOM DIWAN: Sulaiman Mayouf Mejally, Abdulaziz Al-Hamli, Abdulwahab Al-Hamli, Khaled Bunashi; Ghanem Salem, percussion; Paquito D’Rivera, alto saxophone; Richard Miller, guitar; Everton Isidoro, cuica/pandeiro/caxixi; Gustavo Di Dalva, atabaque.

The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra opens with an energetic, rhythm propelled composition called “Gulab Jamon.”  That title is a combination of Arturo O’Farrill’s two favorite, spicy cuisines; Indian and Spanish. 

This album is a testament to resilience and determination, recorded ‘Online’ between April through October of 2020, during one of the worst worldwide pandemics in the history of humanity. Players contributed from New York, New Jersey, California, Puerto Rico, Quebec, Brazil, Peru, Spain, France, Switzerland, the UK, Abu Dhabi and Kuwait.  This “Virtual Birdland,” project is meant to be a candle in the darkness, that illuminates what is possible when good people come together to create beauty and understanding in the world.  Although 2020 was a year that will go down in history as one of misfortune and misgiving, these musicians joined from all over the world, coming together in unity and creativity to inspire us.

“The inspiration came from thinking about water and how it can exist in many forms, but is essentially the same.  We should see humanity as existing in many forms but being of the same essence.  We do not dilute our essence when we embrace others,” Arturo O’Farrill advised.

The composition, “Pouvoir” (that translate to power in French) and is written by a Moroccan artist, Malika Zarra. It incorporates Chaabi, a traditional style of North African dance music.  Malika currently resides in France.  I love the African chanting voices and Malika’s sweet lead vocal. 

“Nightfall” is an up-tempo arrangement.  This percussive-driven arrangement soars towards the end of this song and made me leave my desk to dance freely around the room. Those percussionists set this composition on fire.

Track 5 is a piece that represents global cooperation, as described by Arturo O’Farrill.  Composed by Ghazi Faisal Al-Mulaifi from Kuwait, it’s titled, “Ana Mashoof” and was originally performed in Abu Dhabi during a concert called ‘Cuba Meets Khaleeji.’   During this arrangement you will experience the Boom Diwan, a band of expert percussionists and a blend of Middle Eastern music with the Afro-Latin Jazz orchestra, bringing together American & European musicians with their Middle Eastern counterparts.

Paquito D’Rivera’s “Samba for Carmen” was written for jazz vocalist, Carmen McRae and arranged by Maestro Chico O’Farrill. This tune ‘swings’ and features Paquito, who is one of the most awesome clarinetists of our time.

Arturo O’Farrill is celebrated as a musical activist and a humanitarian who is always looking for resources to support his creative community.  He’s also a dynamic pianist.  His rich, exciting arrangements and tenacious piano playing infuse every second of this project.  Perhaps he summed it up best by saying:

“When… this pandemic happened, this time of national and global reckoning, we were blindsided and even though the sky seemed like it was falling, we rose up and were determined to play music and heal others.  This recording is proof that we are interconnected globally, even when we are not allowed to leave our homes.”

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Rebecca Kilgore, vocals; Randy Porter, piano; Tom Wakeling, bass; Dick Titterington, cornet.

Rebecca Kilgore is praised as one of the most prolific recording and performing vocalists on today’s jazz scene, with fifty or more recording projects as a leader or co-leader.  She’s worked with the who’s who of Pacific Northwest jazz cats and beyond.  This vocalist is well respected for her interpretation of the Great American Songbook.  The video above is vintage. 

On this current project, Kilgore has joined talents with Randy Porter on piano, Tom Wakeling on bass and Dick Titterington is featured on cornet.  Opening with Dave Frishberg’s “Dear Bix” Rebecca’s clear vocals establish the mood and tempo, with only accompaniment from the bass of Tom Wakeling.  When Randy Porter joins on piano, the trio is complete.  Kilgore has carefully picked a delightful bouquet of songs from stage shows, film and the Great American Songbook; songs that entertain and delight. Track 2, she sings the familiar “Day In, Day Out.”  This is followed by the introduction of Titterington’s cornet, before she sings “Somebody Just Like You” with a very bluesy arrangement.  The uncluttered production and simplicity of this recording makes me think I am sitting at a piano bar inside some antique hotel bar, smiling at Rebecca Kilgore and her trio over a martini with two olives. 

Based in Oregon, this vocalist blossomed from a mother who was a visual artist and a father who was the choir director at a Unitarian Church.  She started singing at a young age and has won a number of awards, including being named an honoree of the Oregon Music Hall of Fame and Jazz Society of Oregon Hall of Fame.  In 2020, she was awarded the Portland Jazz Master Award by PDX Jazz, the largest organization presenting jazz performances in the Pacific Northwest.  She has performed in concert with Michael Feinstein at Carnegie Hall, at New York’s Mabel Mercer Cabaret Convention, at Town Hall and Lincoln Center.  In 2016 she was honored as a Jazz Legend at San Diego’s popular Jazz party.  Here is an intimate, unpretentious, well-sung album of jazz songs we know, some we may have forgotten and some we never heard until this delightful moment.  Each song Rebecca Kilgore sings is embellished by her wonderful musicians and her completely captivating tone.

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GABOR LESKO – “EARTHWAY” – Creativity’s Paradise Music

Gabor Lesko, guitars/keyboard/composer; Dave Wecki, Marco Fuliano, Sophie Alloway, Eugenio Mori, Gergo Borlai, drums; Hadrien Feraud, Federico Malaman, Jimmy Haslip, bass; Guido Block, vocals; Eric Marienthal, saxophone section; soprano sax solo. Special Guest: The Milwaukee Brass Ensemble.

The music of Gabor Lesko is well represented by the CD Cover artwork of an open highway.  Lesko’s compositions are generously packed with energy, motion and melody.  These arrangements create tightly woven tracks for the musicians to come center stage and solo upon.  Gabor Lesko himself is such an outstanding guitar artist and composer, that just listening to him solo is exhilarating and impressive.  His style of playing is his own and he captures the magic of contemporary jazz.  Rushing from his fingertips, like gold threads, his guitar stitches us up in his comfort-spell. 

A native of Italy, Gabor Lesko is a multi-instrumentalist who also plays keyboards on this project.  The title tune, “Earthway” sets the tone for his production.  It is exciting and fluid.  You can picture yourself on a highway, racing along to someplace you’ve never been before.  Lesko says, “This composition is a tribute to the wonders of both music and outer space.”

I imagine the pandemic has made many of us wish that we could escape to outer space.  Gabor Lesko’s arrangements are soaked in high-powered fusion guitar and creativity that draws us into his music.  On Track 3, he surprises this listener with a sexy ballad titled, “Still Here for You,” just to show his audience that he can also speak passionately and beautifully, letting his guitar strings sing a love story.  His technique and style seem to make his guitar talk.  I find Gabor Lesko’s music both inspirational, conversational and exhilarating.  He stirs our emotions with his instrument, enthusiastically arousing our senses and piquing our curiosity to see what he will play next. 

This is Gabor Lesko’s eighth album as a bandleader and it continues his legacy of inventive playing, fine composing and a mastery of his instruments with the goal of keeping fusion and contemporary jazz in a vivid spotlight.

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Spike Warner, piano/composer; Tyler Mitchell, bass; Anthony Pinciotti, drums.

Listening to the Spike Wilner Trio makes me feel like I popped into a local jazz club to enjoy an evening of excellent entertainment.  I close my eyes and settle back as Warner’s lightning speed piano dances into the room, propelled by Anthony Pinciotti’s power-packed drums and Tyler Mitchell’s bass profundity.  Wilner has composed six out of the nine songs the trio offers us.  My favorite original compositions are: “Mindset” the title tune, “Aliens & Wizards” and “Prayer for Peace” that Spike Wilner approaches in a very bluesy way on his piano.  Another original, “Trick Baby” closes the CD out. At moments, it sounds very much like the jazz standard Love for Sale, but has its own strong melody and mood.  On this tune, Pinciotti is given time to show-off his drum power as they trade fours. The trio plays this one at racehorse speed.

Pianist, composure, bandleader and club manager, Spike Wilner stands knee-deep in jazz.  He has spent a long tenure on the New York City and global jazz scenes, performing with Artie Shaw’s Big Band, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, Maynard Ferguson and Lennie Cuje, while managing jazz shrines like ‘Smalls’ club and ‘Mezzrow.”  The SmallsLIVE Foundation is carrying out one of its mission by supporting and funding this album. The trio’s production was recorded as the height of the pandemic swarmed the nation. This release marks the beginning of a growing collaboration between Cellar Music Group and the SmallsLIVE Foundation. 

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Paul Bedal, piano/composer; Nick Mazzarella, alto saxophone; Matt Ulery, double bass; Charles Rumback, drums.

Based in Chicago, Illinois, Paul Bedal is a pianist and composer and this is his second release as a bandleader.  Bedal received recognition from Chicago’s “Luminarts Cultural Foundation.”  He was awarded top prize in the 2015 composition contest.  His music has been used in films such as “Cooke Concrete” and in Sydney O’Haire’s, “Being Here” and a short film by Lauren Bedal titled “Airplay” that was nominated to the 2017 San Francisco Dance Film Festival.

Bedal’s compositions lean towards smooth jazz, with compelling melodies that repeat within the theme and are enhanced by Nick Mazzarello’s alto saxophone.  There are moments when Mazzarella steps outside the parameter of smooth jazz and points the bell of his horn towards avant-garde jazz; for example, on track 4, “Panorama.”  I keep waiting for Paul Bedal to take us on an improvisational solo discovery, but mostly he remains a part of his tight rhythm section.  On an original tune he’s titled, “Compass,” once again, Mazzarella steps forward as the soloist.   Midway through the arrangement, Paul Bedal soaks up the spotlight, finally playing a solo that is more beautiful than energetic and very classically influenced. Also, we hear from the talented Matt Ulery on double bass during a very interesting and creative bass exploration.  Astonishingly, “Summer Fade” maintains the same tempo as the other songs herein, and that is a disappointment. Bedal does step forward on this arrangement to solo in a very classical way, letting his technique shine.  I just wanted to hear one speedy transition into combustible energy that celebrates jazz freedom.  That never happens.

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MADRE VACA – “THE ELEMENTS” – Madra Vaca Records

Jarrett Carter, guitar/composer; Thomas Milovac, bass/composer; Jonah Pierre, piano/composer; Benjamin Shorstein, drums/composer.

This is a musical quilt of Avant-garde and modern jazz that has been sewn and creatively composed to represent the four elements of earth; Fire, Water, Earth and Wind.  Each of these quartet members has composed one of the elements, beginning with “Fire” by Benjamin Shorstein, the drummer.  This is not a very lyrical or melodic segment.  It was my least favorite on this project, because I never felt it settled down into a groove.  The drummer/composer took this opportunity to splash his percussive colors all over the place, but never settled down to lock in the rhythm.  Sometimes this listener just wants to feel the two and the four. Even fire has a beat to its flicker. Towards the end of the arrangement, the pianist settled the rhythm into place, with the tinkling of the upper register and Thomas Milovac’s double bass softly lacing the rhythm through the background.  There are a lot of arpeggios and very little melody.  Finally, the spotlight settles on a spontaneous drum solo.  One thing I can say is that this composition gives free reins to the quartet of players, allowing them space to create and improvise. 

“Water” composed by Jarrett Carter, the guitarist, is a beautiful tune; a peaceful ballad, starting with a dripping note, like one-note-at-a-time music from a leaking faucet.  I enjoy Milovac bowing his bass, cello-like and classical.  Here is a melody that one can hear and hum along with after a few moments. Carter’s guitar tenacity and technical talents are obvious throughout.  There is a hint of Middle Eastern influence in this composition.  Jonah Pierre’s piano helps build this piece into a crescendo of sound, rushing like water in a storm, or waterfalls tumbling into a raging lake, then trickling away.  The third suite is “Earth” and was composed by bassist, Thomas Milovac.  It seems appropriate that the bass player would write about the earth, upon who all things are built, planted and grow; Like the bass, who is always the basement of the production and the solid foundation of the song.  This tune is more Avant-garde than melody; more improvisation than structure and seems to celebrate contrast and confusion.  A ribbon of the blues ties everything together with guitar strings and then the tempo races, letting Shorstein’s drums propel the music into a hurricane of rhythm.   Jonah Pierre has composed “Wind” for the final suite of this album.  At first, it settles the music down, like a sweet whistle from the lips of angels. But that soon changes to a repetitious, energetic ending.  Since 2017, the members of Madre Vaca have recorded and released seven albums.

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Satoko Fujii, piano; Takashi Sugawa, bass/cello; Ittetsu Takemura, drums.

A smattering of piano introduces the first Fujii composition, “Hansho,” and Takashi Sugawa steps forward to beautifully solo on his double bass.  The trio was recorded ‘live’ at Tokyo’s famous jazz venue, Pit Inn.  Bassist, Sugawa, and drummer Takemura are two of the youthful, up and coming musicians on the Japanese jazz scene.  Inspired by the very competent and Avant-garde artist, Satoko Fujii, the two young musicians brightly shine and showcase their capabilities with awesome speed and ingenuity.  Their technique, creativity and excitement are obvious and visible.  This merger of generations brings a whole new audience to Satoko Fujii’s exquisite musical works.   On this first composition, Ittetsu Takemura’s drums are given a spotlight to dance in.  His playing is colorful and creative.  Once Satoko Fujii takes the wheel, she steers the arrangement into the hemisphere.

“I played with Takashi (Sugawa) several years ago with Natsuki,” Satoko Fujii reminisces.  “He also plays straight ahead, but he’s very open and loves free improvisation.  When he toured Japan with his trio, which included Tom Rainey on drums, I went to see them and was impressed by the sincerity of his playing.”

Once Satoko Fujii establishes the framework for a tune, the freedom of improvisation emerges like a dragon breathing fire and ice into the music.   Fujii stimulates any player she works with, to bring their ‘A-game’ to the party.  This music is like wild confetti, helium balloons and firecrackers. 

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Vincent Herring, Alto Saxophone; Cyrus Chestnut, piano; Yasushi Nakamura, bass; Johnathan Blake, drums.

Despite the darkness of 2020, Vincent Herring offers this album as a silver lining.  He hopes it will deliver optimism and hope.  The energy from the first tune is an original composition by the alto saxophonist.  The song swoops into my office like a breath of fresh, spring air with all the excitement of a new born nature day.  On “Dudli’s Dilemma” I can feel the birds fluttering and the May wind whipping.  This song sets the mood for an entire album of great jazz.  Track 2 is “Old Devil Moon” with an invigorated arrangement, inspired by the Benny Golson “Killer Joe” groove.  It allows the alto saxophone of Vincent Herring to race across space like a spring thunder storm.  He is a brilliant and creative player.  Pianist, Cyrus Chestnut, brings his chops to the spotlight and swings hard.  Johnathan Blake accentuates on drums and tightly locks the groove into place, with Yasushi Nakamura’s solid and complimentary bass lines infusing the piece with hard bop magic.  Their arrangement is intense. This is the kind of album you put on when you want to get pumped up, entertained and inspired.  You’ll hear a rich repertoire, all arranged in a very straight-ahead way, including tunes by Cedar Walton, (“Ojos de Rojo”), Lionel Richie’s “Hello” and Wes Montgomery’s “Fried Pies.”  Cyrus Chestnut contributes his original composition, “Minor Swing” and there’s some Duke Ellington magic when they play “In a Sentimental Mood.”  Also included is the Joe Henderson song, “Granted” and Stevie Wonder’s timeless, “You Are the Sunshine of My life.”  Vincent Herring has penned the title tune, “Preaching to the Choir.” Every song is a treasure to be listened to more than once.  Every arrangement is creative and awe inspiring.  Vincent Herring explained it this way.

“We have to have hope for the future. I’ve been in a constant state of disbelief with so much going on that is negative in the world, but I try to look at the positive side of everything.  I’m grateful to be here.  Grateful to be putting out a new recording and grateful to have the opportunity to express myself musically.

Here is an exciting and spontaneous recording.  This quartet of musicians offers excellence, substance and emotion to their listening public.  They also endeavor to infuse hope into the mix, along with a universal spirit of love and their personal message of gratitude. 

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ALCHEMY SOUND PROJECT – “AFRIKA LOVE” – Artists Recording Collective

Erica Lindsay, tenor saxophone/clarinet/alto flute/composer; Salim Washington, tenor saxophone/flute/bass clarinet/oboe/composer; Sumi Tonooka, piano/composer; David Arend, double bass/ composer; Chad Taylor, drums; Samantha Boshnack, trumpet/composer; Michael Ventoso, trombone.

“Afrika Love” is Salim Washington’s tribute to his South African compatriot, pianist Afrika Mkhize, the son of renowned pianist and composer, Themba Mkhize.  One day, in a conversation with Afrika Mkhize, they discussed a distinctive pitch system native to Zulu musical tradition.

“I began experimenting with this system and decided to write a composition with it,” Washington shared in his press package.

You clearly hear Salim Washington’s tenor saxophone establish the tone dramatically at the start of this tune. Later, Washington’s oboe soliloquy highlights the rich, original melody and unique pitch system.  Chad Taylor’s drums pump and spur the music onward and upward.  This title tune of the Alchemy Sound Project quickly becomes one of my favorites on their latest album.  Sumi Tonooka’s piano solo is both spontaneous and inventive.  This is followed by a beautiful piece composed by trumpeter, Samantha Boshnack and titled, “The Cadillac of Mountains.”  It was written to describe being awestruck by nature’s magnificence and grandeur.  I know that feeling each morning when I admire the brand-new way the sky is painted. Washington offers counter melodies on bass clarinet to Boshnack’s trumpet lines, an arrangement to depict the beauty of nature.  Lindsay’s tenor saxophone sings and the rhythm section evokes nature’s tendency toward unpredictable shifts, featuring David Arend’s double bass dramatically accenting this song.  Tonooka’s piano and Chad Taylor’s drums play a duet that takes the arrangement to another level.  There are several references to nature and the elements of earth.  For example, the opening song composed by the bassist, David Arend and titled “The Fountain” celebrates water.  The drums portray the drip, drip, drop of water and the melody and movement grows to provoke a gushing fountain. When Sumi Tonooka composed “Dark Blue Residue” she was considering the various ways people are brought together.

“… People move on.  People move forward, but there’s a residue quality of what’s left behind …,” she explains.

On their 3rd album release, Alchemy Sound Project features five compositions and showcases five compelling and gifted musicians, each with their own unique and powerful creative vision.  Their music recognizes this is a pivotal period in race relations, health consciousness and social justice.  Consequently, their music reflects a positive example of cooperation and mutual respect for each other and the world around them.  Despite 2020 being one of the most tumultuous years in the recent history of the United States, they hope their multi-gendered, multi-racial makeup as a group offers a positive example of cooperative humanity.

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