MUSIC OF POWER AND ENDURANCE: JAZZ KEEPS HOPE ALIVE

By Dee Dee McNeil

June 22, 2021

June is Black Music Month and jazz was created and established by black people in America.  Jazz is the music of power and endurance.  It epitomizes America’s constant aspiration towards freedom for all.

CURTIS J. STEWART – “OF POWER” – Outside In Music

Curtis J. Stewart, violin/vocals/prose/electronics/co-producer/engineer; Nick Revel, engineer; Louis Levitt, co-producer.

This album opens with a solo violin, singing like a joyful bird at a classical concert and interjecting folk and jazz improvisation into the scheme of things.  Curtis J. Stewart spreads wide wings over various genres of music and poetry.  He is brave and flamboyant, stepping forward with his violin, his bow, his imagination and a mastery of his instrument.  This violinist uses electronics and his voice to grapple with themes of resilience, resistance and the nature of power juxtaposed to the powerless.  He weaves a confessional narrative about revolution and protest during his production.  Stewart plays his music, solo, transcribing it through the eyes of a black man in America who is searching for authenticity and the answers to unanswered questions.  This is the kind of art and beauty that is both emotional and brilliant; classical and hip hop; R&B, jazzy and folksy.   Obviously, Mr. Curtis J. Stewart is an extraordinary musician, a master of technique on his violin, but also a deep thinker.  Using prose to spice his musical stew, Stewart bares his soul vocally as well as musically.  He throws music into a blender and spins compositions by Bach, Stevie Wonder, John Coltrane, Paganini and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson together.  The result is a culturally rich concert. 

Curtis J. Stewart pulls every nuance out of James Weldon Johnson’s Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”   Inspired by the untimely and unforgivable murder of George Floyd, and the continuing rise of a movement that shouts, “Black Lives Matter,” Mr. Stewart has also composed a number of original songs that shout truth to power.  He has written prose poetry that echoes frustration and encourages change. His songs pump like blood, feeding our consciousness. He shows that he can play Beethoven with the same energy and genius as he plays Hip Hop arrangements or rot-gut blues.  Clearly, Stewart pulls from the deepness of his soulful life experiences. 

This musician is not just a jazz player.  Curtis J. Stewart can perform with classical perfection.  He also offers his take on Pop music classics.  “#HerName” is based on the J.S. Bach Sonata No. 3 in C major, but his original composition celebrates the untimely and inexcusable death of Breonna Taylor, shot in her own home by police who raided her house mistakenly.  “Mangas” is a tribute to his mother, that celebrates a ‘man of the hood’ or leader of people and the strength a mother offers her son.  It’s a song with a reggae twist.  “Our Past is a Privilege” speaks to a health issue he and his mother faced together and also speaks to ignoring a past we are ashamed of, instead of being prideful of our history and the ‘now’ that we live inside. This song moves flawlessly into an interpretation of John Coltrane’s “After the Rain.”  We are offered hope with Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” and celebrate a woman we love and respect with “Isn’t She Lovely.”   Here is an album of music that speaks proudly “Of Power” and is totally unforgettable, pulsating with freedom and art.

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ROY HARGROVE & MULGREW MILLER – “IN HARMONY” – Resonance Records

Roy Hargrove, trumpet/flugelhorn; Mulgrew Miller, piano.

Resonance Records is appreciated for their historical recordings and distinguished catalog of great jazz artists.  Roy Hargrove and Mulgrew Miller, these two iconic artists, joined the ancestors much too soon and have left a bright and brilliant catalogue of work behind for us to admire and enjoy.  Hargrove was born in 1969 and died on November 2, 2018.  Mulgrew Miller was born in 1955 and passed away on May 28, 2013.  This album is comprised of thirteen duo performances that were culled from two ‘live’ concerts they performed.  It’s the first time ever that Roy Hargrove has delivered an album of music without a drummer.

Opening with “What is This Thing Called Love” each dynamic musician exhibits their personality and technique, moving at a brisk pace and speaking, as if their instruments were in verbal conversation.  At first, with Hargrove leading the conversation in a stream of notes and improvisation and the piano supports and overlaps the stream of trumpet majesty, with Miller bringing his own royal perspective. Mulgrew Miller floats strategically over the eighty-eight keys.  After Miller’s substantial solo, the two master musicians trade fours with agility and creativity bursting at the seams during their spontaneous performance.  It’s magical to behold!

Hargrove and Miller bring lush, Southern United States roots to the surface during this project.  Hargrove is a son of Dallas, Texas and Mulgrew Miller was born in Greenwood, Mississippi. Their African American Southern heritage shines brightly, infusing their styles and musical attitudes.  They combine talents with a respect for the younger jazz generation and their admiration for the traditional and magnificent elders who paved the way for these young musicians to thrive. You clearly hear their black cultural influences on tunes like “Monk’s Dream” and “Blues for Mr. Hill.”

 “This is Always” begins with Miller’s hands floating up and down the piano, caressing the introduction from the black and white keys in preparation for Hargrove’s entry.  Mulgrew Miller pulls open the curtains with busy arpeggio scales and Roy Hargrove steps forward, exhibiting a rich, melancholy sound on his horn; one so beautiful I can hardly breathe for fear of disturbing the flow of his solo melody.  Clearly, this is a master class in duo dynamics and jazz spontaneity.  Mulgrew Miller takes his time during his solo performance, peeling the fruit of the melody from the piano and wrapping us in the sweetness.  “Triste” manages to hold the Latin rhythm tightly in place, with no drums and only the genius of Mulgrew Miller’s rich piano chops.  Mulgrew keeps the Latin beat in place, even while he’s improvising, with staggering lines of creativity dancing on top of his left hand’s constant rhythm development.  It’s so impressive!

Hargrove cut his musical teeth sitting-in at Bradley’s, a Greenwich Village piano room and space where musicians gathered after their gigs to drink, play and ‘conversate.’  There was one night Roy Hargrove claims he will never forget, when he sat in with George Coleman and Walter Davis, Jr.

“We went through the keys on “Cherokee” which was a lesson on harmony and then another lesson on rhythm.  Then we played “Body and Soul” and George started changing up the meters.  He played in three and then in five and then BLAM, really fast!  Then he turns around to me and goes; you got it.  I go, what am I going to do after all of that?  It was like your master’s degree.  You go in there and you’re playing and there’s Freddie Hubbard at the bar.  What do you do?  Everything I’m playing right now I owe to that whole scene,” Roy Hargrove recalls, talking about his growing pains.

Accompanying this ‘must-have’ CD is an intriguing book of liner notes. The glossy book includes several pages of great jazz musicians singing the praises of both these amazing musicians.   You will read how each master recalls first meeting, hearing and even working with Roy Hargrove and Mulgrew Miller.  There are impressions from Sonny Rollins, Christian McBride, George Cables, Kenny Baron, Victor Lewis, and many others.  Better yet, hear this awesome recording for yourself.  It’s a double-set that captures    No do-overs, no retakes or studio punches and edits.  You will hear, enjoy, love every brilliant nuance of these two unforgettable jazz musicians.  May their legacy live on forever!

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THE MARK MASTERS ENSEMBLE FEATURING ART BARON & GUEST, TIM HAGANS PLAYS THE MUSIC OF THE BLANTON/WEBSTER BAND (1940 – 1942) – Capri Records.com

Mark Masters, arrangements; Mark Ferber, drums; Bruce Lett, bass; Les Benedict, Dave Woodley & Art Baron, trombone; Scott Englebright, Les Lovitt, Ron Stout & Tim Hagans, trumpet; Adam Schroeder, baritone saxophone; Danny House, alto saxophone/clarinet; Kirsten Edkins, Jerry Pinter, tenor & soprano saxophone.

Art Baron was the last to occupy the plunger trombone chair in the Duke Ellington Band.  He was a long-time member of Duke’s band from 1973 until Ellington died.  After that, Baron stayed on when Mercer Ellington took over the band.  Mark Masters wanted to show the classy and substantial status of Ellington’s amazing compositions, while spotlighting the richly popular years between 1940 and 1942. This was when Ben Webster was in the band and Jimmie Blanton was heralded as their groundbreaking bassist.    Those early 1940-years highlighted the rich, cultural legacy Duke Ellington left with us, offering his wonderful orchestra arrangements and unforgettable compositions.  Mark Masters thought, what better person to showcase than Art Baron, who knew Duke’s music so well?

Masters ensemble opens with “All too Soon” that brightly features the bassist, Bruce Lett, spotlighted as the orchestra trades fours with him. Bruce competently represents the legacy of Jimmie Blanton.  Art Baron’s trombone is also featured along with Kirsten Edkins on tenor saxophone.  “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” again features the warm, intoxicating sound of Baron’s trombone and Adam Schroeder’s baritone saxophone.  Strayhorn’s “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” opens as an unexpected waltz and Ron Stout’s muted trumpet sounds like a human voice.  It’s a beautiful arrangement.  Throughout the entire production, Bruce Lett and Mark Ferber lock tightly as the ensemble’s rhythm section groove masters and Lett is super creative on bass.  The horns add the harmonics and you hardly miss the piano.  “Perdido” features Danny House, smooth as silk on clarinet.  The horns in the background sound very much like human voices singing, doo-wap, doo-wap, in a very cool way.  It’s those little nuances that call attention to Mark Masters’ creative arrangements.  On “Ko-Ko” special guest Tim Hagans is featured on trumpet and Art Baron is consistently impressive on his trombone.

“Art is one of a kind as a player and as a person.  He’s a great student of the music and knows all the history, plus he’s an original with a unique sound.  It was a joy to be able to craft my writing specifically for him and that plunger mute specialty,” Masters says in their press package.

Mark Masters is recognized as one of the great jazz arrangers of the last few decades.  He formed his first ensemble in 1982.  Masters founded the non-profit American jazz Institute and this is an album full of compositional gems that Duke Ellington blessed Earth with, along with the fine arrangements of Mark Masters, competently played by his ensemble of master musicians.

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RALPH PETERSON – “RAISE UP OFF ME” – Onyx Records

Ralph Peterson, drums/trumpet/Kalimba/Tounge drum/Rain stick/Frame drum/Djimbe/ Cajon/ tambourine/cowbell; Zaccai Curtis, piano/keyboards; Luques Curtis, bass; Jazzmeia Horn, vocals; Eguie Castrillo, conga/timbale/cowbell/cymbal.

This project, “Raise Up Off Me” is the final full-length album from master drummer, bandleader and composer, Ralph Peterson Jr., released in late May, one day after what would have been his fifty-ninth birthday.  Peterson’s latest release on his Onyx Label features a handful of original compositions and some of the up-and-coming important jazz musicians on the East Coast.  They include brother’s, Zaccai Curtis and Luques Curtis.  Zaccai is brilliant and noteworthy on piano and Luques is solid on double bass.  Eguie Castrillo adds his colorful percussive touches.  He is brightly spotlighted on Peterson’s “Blue Hughes” tune.  One of my favorite young, jazz vocalists on the scene today is Jazzmeia Horn.  She brings poignant and emotional sustenance to Peterson’s original composition “Tears I Can Not Hide.”  This song actually brought tears to my eyes.  Jazzmeia also slays the John Hicks tune, “Naima’s Love Song.” This production is music that celebrates Ralph Peterson’s composer skills, his drum mastery and his political consciousness.  Before his death, on March 1, 2021, Peterson was determined to make a societal statement on issues he found important.  Among them were drug addiction and recovery, the complexities of mental health, the Black Lives Matter movement and his daily struggle for life, while fighting cancer for the past six years.  Peterson gives us a spirited rendition of the Patrice Rushen tune, “Shorties Portion,” at breakneck speed and brightly spotlights Zaccai Curtis on piano.  Ralph Peterson takes his own solo adventure and shows off why he is such a celebrated drummer and master technician. 

His statement on the title of this project was, “In this era, where we still feel the foot on our necks, the pepper spray and mace that burns our eyes and face, the bullets and the batons, I find it necessary to remind you that Black Lives Matter … and for my life to matter, you have to raise up off me.”

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HAYS STREET HART – “ALL THINGS ARE” – Smoke Sessions Records

Kevin Hays, piano; Ben Street, bass; Billy Hart, drums.

These three musicians have been some of the busiest in the business of jazz for decades. Kevin Hays, Billy Hart and Ben Street joined hands and hearts to create this album.  Here is a unique trio, drawn together during the frustrating and intimidating time of the pandemic lock-down, joined in celebration of Billy Hart’s 80th birthday.  Although Hart and Ben Street were in a quartet together and comfortable with their musical camaraderie, playing with well-respected Kevin Hays was new.  The three musicians met at the Smoke Jazz Club, in New York City, for the gig.  It was December 4th and 5th of 2020 when they ‘livestream’ recorded this music. It was challenging, only because all three had been quarantined for so long, there was concern by each musician about playing in a ‘live’ interactive group setting.  This album is proof that everything worked out quite well. 

They open with “New Day,” one of six original compositions by pianist, Kevin Hays.  Hays describes the tune as moving from ‘one/four’ to ‘two/five,’ (referencing chord changes) which isn’t necessarily typical as a song form.  He also has written the bridge with an odd five bars.  It’s a moderate tempo’d piece, with some time-changes that fall unexpectedly, letting the spotlight bathe warmly over Hays at the piano.  When Street and Hart re-enter the arrangement, they swing hard.  So, the session began with the musicians wearing masks and surrounded by protective plexiglass, letting their individual talents meet like old friends enjoying the birthday party; music bounced around the room like helium balloons.

“I thought that with no rehearsal, because of COVID, it would help for us to just hit,” Kevin Hays recalls.

Hart and Street had roots in the Billy Hart Quartet, so they quickly locked into a well-oiled rhythm unit; fluid and familiar with each other.  They also had history, working together as a trio with pianist Aaron Parks.

“Kevin has always been one of my very favorite piano players, but I never get a chance to play with him.  He doesn’t get nearly enough credit, compared to how gifted and original he is and Ben’s arguably, in today’s world, my favorite bass player,” Hart affirms.

Track 2 is titled, “Elegia.”  It’s romantic, ethereal, and Hays creates lots of space during the introduction, setting things up until Hart and Street enter and subtly drive the music forward.

“What he has, … you see it in Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan.  It’s a depth of feeling. … His choice of notes is very moving to me,” Billy Hart compliments Kevin Hays. 

On “Elegia,” Ben Street holds the center of the music strongly in place and knows just when to go with the flow and when to quietly lay out and let the music untangle itself on the eighty-eight keys. 

“Hays is one of those everybody’s favorite pianist,” Ben Street speaks about Hays.

“And Billy really focused it for me.  He seemed to be hearing Kevin as a singer,” Ben Street added.

For familiarities sake and perhaps to challenge himself, Kevin Hays re-composed Charlie Parker’s “Scrapple From the Apple” into a tune he calls “Unscrappulous.”  It’s recognizable enough for Street and Hart to jump into deep water with both feet, but the tune is completely redressed, wearing a similar form but a different swim suit.  Ben Street is quite melodic, on bass, during this up-tempo, but brief three-minute and thirty-six second excursion. One of my favorites on this album is the lovely way Hays plays the standard jazz ballad, “For Heaven’s Sake.”  The piano harmonics are so rich, colorful and often unexpected. Ben Street builds a solid basement for the structure to stand upon playing his double bass.

“And to play with someone like Billy, who is such a responsive musician, I noticed some little telepathy-type things that were going on.  How did we both do that at the exact same time?”  Hays marveled.

The title tune is based on Jerome Kern’s chord changes for “All the Things You are” and it dances along at a brisk, but comfortable pace.  Hays has a piano style that flutters.  His fingers fly across the keys in spurts of genius and creativity.  On “Sweet Caroline” Hart and Street open the piece, establishing a blues groove.  I know where Gene Harris or Monte Alexander would have taken it, but Kevin Hays is more about the beauty than the blues.  All in all, this is a musical art exhibit awaiting the listener’s provocative review and appreciation.  Each song becomes its own unique and intriguing sculpture, built before our very eyes, in the imitable way that jazz grows; through improvisation, freedom and creativity.

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REBECCA ANGEL – “LOVE, LIFE, CHOICES” – Timeless Grooves Records

Rebecca Angel, vocals/background vocals; Jason Miles, keyboards/drum programming/Moog synthesizer bass; Dean Brown, Romero Lubambo, Nir Felder, Christian Ver Halen, Ira Siegel & Jonah Prendergast, Guitar; Reggie Washington, bass; Gene Lake & Brian Dunne, drums; Bashiri Johnson, Richie Morales & Cyro Baptista, percussion; Mark Rivera, congas; Jimmy Bralower, drum programming/percussion; Butterscotch, beatboxing; Dennis Angel, trumpet/flugelhorn; Maya Azucena, background vocals; Ada Rovatti, tenor saxophone; Hailey Niswanger, alto saxophone; Pamela Driggs, vocals; Jay Rodriquez, flute; Gottfried Stoger, soprano saxophone; Steve Wolf, drum programming.

Rebecca Angel has a whispery, warm quality to her voice.  This album is Pop/Jazz that uses synthesized programming and the talents of producer, keyboardist and drum programmer, Jason Miles, to lay down tracks for Angel to vocally dance upon.  It features her soft soprano voice pirouetting across the chord changes.  Rebecca tackles standard pop songs like the familiar Bill Withers tune, “Just the Two of Us,” and has released this song as her current single from this album.  It’s Ada Rivotti, on tenor saxophone, who puts the ‘J’ in jazz during this arrangement and gives us a splendid sax solo to enjoy. 

“Waiting in Vain” is a reggae song written by the late, great Bob Marley.  Rebecca Angel applies her own unique delivery.  Jobim’s famed “Corcovado” gives us a brief peek into her jazzier side.  However, for the most part, this is easy-listening, sleepy-time music.  Even the funky arrangement on “Waters of March” doesn’t lift us from that relaxed, laid-back vibe.  Her take on the Sade song, “Maureen” continues the moderate tempo saga of this album, with an improvised fade that is sometimes slightly off-key.  The last two songs are original compositions by Rebecca Angel.  One is titled “thoughts and Prayers,” a protest song that mirrors the tragic violence that is staining our nation’s reputation with too many mass murders.  The final song of this production is “Summer Song,” another Angel original composition.  After listening, I recognize that Rebecca Angel has a good voice, however she is not a jazz singer.  Two things are missing.  Unless she can ‘swing’ and sing the blues, this young and talented vocalist cannot claim to be a jazz vocalist.  However, her pop music potential is clearly visible.

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THE CHRIS SAUNDERS BAND – “DANCING WITH THE WIDOW ST. JAMES – Independent label

Chris Saunders, vocals/cornet/flugelhorn; Ken Cook, piano/organ/arranger; Michael Aragon, drums; Rob Fordyce, electric bass; Luis Carbo, percussion.

If blues is your thing, pop this CD into your player, settle down and enjoy their opening tune, Percy Mayfield’s standard, “River’s Invitation.”  Chris Saunders has a voice steeped in the down-home, Southern blues flavor.  He’s a songwriter/singer, unpretentious and raw.  His co-writer is Ken Cook, pianist, arranger and organist of the group. The multi-talented Saunders is also a cornet player and trumpeter.  His vocals are reminiscent of Mose Allison phrasing.  Some of Saunders home-grown lyrics have a comic truth at their base, similar to Allison’s songwriting.  For example, his song “Butterflies and Chicken Wings” longing for those simple things sums up his desire to live simply and enjoy his life.  That song is steeped in blues changes with a shuffle drum provided by Michael Aragon and complimented by Luis Carbo’s percussion touches.  “I Wonder” is another blues, but this time it’s a ballad.  What Saunders lacks in vocal technique he makes up for with his emotional delivery.  His sad blues song is believable and his horn solo is a definite, well-played plus.  Arranger, Ken Cook, is a notable addition on piano.  He has a sweet touch and offers a jazzy solo on the 88-keys.  A big part of these arrangements is quite Latin oriented and the old American songbook standard “Am I Blue” is reimagined with a cha cha beat.  He also covers the Ray Charles recording of “I Don’t Need No Doctor” with Rob Fordyce playing a mean electric bass line and Ken Cook adding his bluesy piano licks.  I enjoy Chris Saunders playing his flugelhorn and cornet.  I appreciate his blues vocals.  However, when he steps outside of singing within the blues niche, I get lost. 

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One Response to “MUSIC OF POWER AND ENDURANCE: JAZZ KEEPS HOPE ALIVE”

  1. Rowena Ken Says:

    Beautiful

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