THE PANDEMIC INSPIRES MUSIC & TOGETHERNESS

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 THE AFRO LATIN JAZZ ORCHESTRA – “VIRTUAL BIRDLAND” –  Zoho Records

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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THE REBECCA KILGORE TRIO – VOL 1. – Heavywood Label

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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THE SPIKE WILNER TRIO – “ALIENS & WIZARDS”- Cellar Music Group

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 – “CERULEAN STARS” – Bace Records

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 TOKYO TRIO – “MOON ON THE LAKE” – Libra Records

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 – “PREACHING TO THE CHOIR” – Smoke Sessions Records

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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