By Dee Dee McNeil

July 14, 2021


Tanya Dennis, vocals/composer/violins/castanets/handclaps/ Tibetan prayer bowl; Matt Berry, John Richards & Billy Panda, acoustic guitar; David Martin, acoustic guitar/handclaps; Jim Ferguson, bass; Scott Halgren, piano; Dann Sherrill, percussion/ handclaps; Hendrik Meurkens, harmonica;

Tanya Dennis is a multi-talented vocalist who also plays classical violin, guitar and composes music. She began performing at age sixteen, playing guitar at a deli in North Myrtle Beach.  Around this time, she also fell in love with the violin, after meeting George Kindler, a fiddle player with the David Bromberg band.  This fascination with the violin led her to jazz theory studies, electronic music, composition and the study of classical violin at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.  Tanya also spent three years at the University of Miami as part of their exceptional jazz program where she performed with an 80-piece jazz orchestra.  She also sang with a working, funk-fusion band.  Around the same time, Tanya Dennis was performing with the famed Ira Sullivan band.  She is an example of expanded musical talent and diversity.

Ms. Dennis has a cool, ice-cream sweet voice that entices you into its spell like the whipped cream on top.  She opens with an original composition titled, “Chiaroscura.”  This tune lilts across space, like a sail boat on a calm sea.  I am immediately taken by her lovely, unpretentious tone.  She has composed seven of the nine songs on this album.  I was not surprised, when I read, in her press package, that indeed this talented lady is an avid sailor. She gives us a hint with her CD cover and the album title.  Tonya purchased a 50-foot sailboat after experiencing a series of life-changing events and set sail around the keys, the Bahamas and the Caribbean in general, to settle her thoughts and clear her creative mind.  This song, (Chiaroscura) is a term for the play of contrasting light and shadow in the visual arts.  Consequently, this original composition was inspired by one evening when she witnessed the full moon glowing brightly on ocean waves; a perfect setting for light and shadow.

Tanya Dennis arranges music with Latin overtones that dip and dance like oars on a romantic lake.  For example, “Where You Are” is a song in this vein, colored by Dann Sherrill’s exciting percussion and stroked by the smooth vocals of Dennis.  On “White Sails” Tanya Dennis adds her talents on Tibetan prayer bowl.  You hear it clearly at the introduction of this pretty, bolero-like ballad. She sings lyrics that praise white sails and blue skies, new horizons and leaving the shore behind, in search of the good life.  This is a great composition and a good choice as the title of this entertaining and thought-provoking album.  Scott Halgren’s piano fills are sensitive and worthy of mention.  The acoustic and electric guitars are glitter on the cheeks of every song.  Hendrik Meurken’s harmonica is bright as lipstick or rouge, blushing against songs like “The World Can Do without Us Today.” 

When Tanya Dennis isn’t recording beautiful music as a bandleader, she is touring worldwide as a violinist, a rhythm guitarist, a mandolin player and even a back-up vocalist.  She has toured with legendary names like Faith Hill and Janie Fricke, who is a two-time CMA Female Vocalist of the Year winner. Tanya made waves with her premiere recording, “Waterdance” that mixed jazz, blues and country music to win her the “Rising Female Star European market” award.  She continues that legacy with this recent release.  You will want to play Tanya Dennis’ CD over and over again.  It’s just that good!

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Jeff Pearring, alto saxophone/composer; Billy Mintz & Francisco Mela, drums; Cameron Brown & Ken Filiano, bass; Claire de Brunner, bassoon; Daniel Carter, soprano saxophone; drums.

Jeff Pearring’s concept for this album grew out of the isolated flowerpot of pandemic blues. 

“This album is my improvisation to the experience of quarantine, lockdown and separation from the NYC community’s musical conversation during the pandemic of 2020.  These recordings provided the unique opportunity to release emotional energy through sound at a time when there was no certainty around,” Pearring explains in liner notes.

Jeff normally leads the “Pearring Sound” group as a quintet or trio.  He longed for musical camaraderie, and decided to play duets with six diverse, but talented musical friends.  He chose the musicians listed above to compliment his compositions, playing with each one singularly.  That created these eight duo performances.  “Twisting Pavement” opens with Billy Mintz providing drum licks, until Pearring joins in on his alto sax.  Jeff has a warm, compelling sound on the saxophone and at times uses staccato notes to push the melody forward.  Mintz is competent and creative on trap drums.  However, once the melody is established, I keep waiting for Pearring to stretch out and visit improv-land.  However, he stays very close to the melody and after a while, the piece begins to sound like someone practicing scales instead of performing.  I was more taken by Pearring’s bluesy take on Track 2., “Time in Isolation,” with Mintz brushing the pandemic dust off the blues.  However, at the fade of this tune Pearring once again resorts to scale practice, that for me takes away from the originality.  

Some cuts on this recording that rewarded my ear are his duet with bassoonist, Claire de Brunner on “Shapeshifter.”  The richness of the bassoon, played, descant fashion, against the tenor saxophone brought a spotlight to shine on both instruments as they held a conversation with each other; a conversation whose energy, at times, sounded somewhat like an argument.  In other words, there was never any solo space to expound on a theme or individually sing a melody.  The two instruments stayed busy.  Ken Filiano brings a ‘bass-ment’ for Pearring to build upon.  He holds down the piece titled, “A Continuous Conversation Renewed” with his double bass tenacity.  Jeff Pearring flits and flies around, like a busy bird, above the string bass and ever-circling the piece with wide wings. Cameron Brown takes over the bass playing when Jeff Pearring performs the familiar Miles Davis classic, “Solar.”  This song becomes my favorite, because it has such a happy, pleasing melody that gets to be played, clearly heard and digested.  This production is an assortment of Avant-garde duets that mirror the frustration and challenge being quarantined for over a year can inspire.  Jeff Pearring sums it up this way:

                “Jazz improvisation is the quintessential musical conversation.  Despite the numerous and seemingly miraculous, technological advancements throughout human history; conversations remain best in person.”

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Vince Mendoza, composer/arranger/conductor; Jan Hasenӧhrl, director; Marcel Javorcek & Ondrej Kabrna, piano; Lukas Chejn, guitar; David Ruzicka, Oleg Sokolov, Karel Fingl, Renata Janska, Jan Pistora, Jaroslav Minor, Matous Novak & Dalibor Nemec, drums; Lubomir Maryska, tuba; Roman Koudelka, Tomas Olevrel, Silva Gerykova, Jaromir Gardon, Petr Vasinka, Pavel Pospisil, Ondrej Stajnochr, Rostislav Tvrdik & Eri Ishikowo, double bass; Robert Heger, Martino Kustarova, Tim Kodlec, Trefna Pavla Ondrichova, Lenka Schichova & Jiri Loukola, flute; Jan Kolar, Pavel Korbicka, Anna Skreptacova, Dana Wichterlova & Martin Petr, oboe; Lubomir Legemza, Dusan Mihely, Zdenek Tesar & Matous Kopacek, clarinet; Jan Hudecek, Stepon Rimsky, Petr Nemecek, Rudolf Krula, Richard Srbeny & Pavel Rylina, bassoon; Jan Hasenohrl, Lukas Koudelka, Marek Vojo, Jan Hykrda, Jan Burian & Roman Kubol, trumpet; Jiri Novolny, Karel Kohout, Petr Frid, Bohumil Bydzovsky, Petr Cihak & Barbara Kolatova, trombone.

VIOLIN 1: Alexej Rosik, (concertmaster/soloist), Helena Jirikovska, Martin Tupy, Martin Sandera, Miluse Kaudersova, Vaclav Vacek, Miroslav Kosina, Voclav Dvorak, Richard Valasek, Rodana Vectomova, Josef Novotny, Ondrejka Dlouha, Radka Preislerova, Martin Valek, Ayako Naguchi, David Sroubek, Filip Silar, Frantisek Kosina, Libor Kanka & Petra Bohm. VIOLIN 2:  Zdenek Jirousek (soloist), Katarina Klemankova, Ana Crnes, David Vorac, Martina Suskovo, Jiri Kohoultek, Karel Selmeczi, Ayako Naguchi, Stanislav Rada, Simon Tosovsky, Tomas Prosek, Helena Gertichova, Roman Konecny, Stepan Lauda, Jana Svecova, Lenka Sanchez, Eva Brummelova, Renata Juristova & Stanislav Rada. VIOLA: Karel Untermuller (soloist), Marketa Sadecka, Filip Kemel, Frantisek Jelinek, Boris Goldstein, Michal Demeter, Jiri Zigmund, Adam Pechociak, Miroslav Novotny, Jan Stippl, Vladimir Bazant, Irena Stranska, Lenko Bosnovicova & Adela Bryan.  VIOLONCELLO:  Milos Jihoda (soloist), Stepanka Kutmanova, Adriana Vorackova, Roman Stehlik, Petr Janek, Olga Bilkova, Martin Havelik, Zuzana Dostalova, Jaroslav Ondracek & David Havelik.

According to his liner notes, conductor/arranger/composer, Vince Mendoza, feels this album titled, “Freedom Over Everything” seeks to answer a question; what does it mean to continue to create art in service of the times? 

Once you read his composition titles, they speak for themselves. “American Noise” opens the orchestrated concert.  Lukas Chejn steps into the spotlight on this tune to offer a very blues-driven guitar solo.  This is followed by the pensive and beautiful, “Consolation” composition.  “Hit The Streets” starts off percussively, featuring Antonio Sanchez on drums.  Horns blare in between a sweet marimba exploration by Oleg Sokolov, while the strings crescendo and twirl like spinning, whirling Dervish dancers.  On “Meditation” we hear the melancholy, but very lovely tenor saxophone of Joshua Redman, who brings jazz to the orchestra on a golden platter and serves it up generously. “Justice and the Blues” starts out with horns that sound as if they are introducing us to ‘his royal highness’ in some far-away land of orchestrated beauty.  Nearly four-minutes in, the arrangement switches to tenacious and funky drums that take control.   Enter “Freedom Over Everything,” a composition that incorporates funk drums and poet, Black Thought, lends his mind-tickling lyrics that, in part, say:

                “…You’re either with the evolution or against it; the difference is prison gates or picket fences.  It’s big business; death is expensive.  Look! Hunger games by another name / is what became of the oath that went up in flames/ when another man was slain, but ain’t nothin’ changed.”

There is a brief finale, that plays like an interlude and strokes our emotions with the bow of Alexej Rosik’s solo violin displays his talents on the instrument. The eighth composition is titled, “To the Edge of Longing” and features the rich, powerful vocals of soprano Julia Bullock.  In closing, Vince Mendoza offers his “New York Stories” (a concertino for trumpet and orchestra) that features Jan Hasenӧhrl.

This is an album of lush orchestration with special jazz and operatic guests. Mainly, it’s classical music. I enjoy the imagination and arranging skills that Vince Mendoza brings to his compositions.  The Prague-based Czech National Symphony Orchestra performs with emotional magnificence.

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Sam Blakeslee, composer/trombone; Chris Coles, alto saxophone/electronic effects; Brandon Coleman, guitar; Matt Wiles, bass.

Sam Blakeslee is a very melodic composer.  His current single “The Long Middle” is pulled from an upcoming July 30th album release.  This song is a lovely, moderate tempo tune that, without drums, depends on Brandon Coleman’s rhythm guitar to hold the pulse of the piece.  He does that very competently.   The entire group, “Wistful Thinking,” is somewhat like an intimate chamber-jazz production without the violins and cellos.  “Ashokan” is track 2 of this production and it’s sultry and pensive, featuring Chris Coles, on saxophone, at the onset.  Soon, the curtains part and Sam Blakeslee steps through with his trombone bleating out a relaxing melody until Coles joins in.  Then, the two horns have a very public conversation.  On the composition, “Bygones Are Bygones” the use of electronic effects paints a ghostly, Avant-garde picture, with the two horns dancing harmonically in the middle of the unexpected.  The tempo picks up with the “Franklin’s Blues” composition and gives a nod to Matt Wiles on bass, who plays a prominent part in this arrangement, notably walking his bass notes beneath the improvisation of Coles and Blakeslee.  Matt grounds the piece.  They give him a space to solo, and his rich, bass tone is bluesy and free.  When Coleman adds his guitar licks, it creates an interesting dynamic between the two string instruments.  The horns sing the happy melody and bring the composition full circle.  This is one of my favorites on this album of relaxing and ethereal music. 

On the tune called, “Bob” I get to enjoy Blakeslee’s beautiful tone on his trombone.  This is another one of my favorites.  Matt Wiles takes a solo on bass and vividly tells his wordless story, plucking the strings with determined grandeur.  But it’s Blakeslee’s trombone that sings from the heart and sells the song. 

Here is an album with arrangements that are both unexpected and unique.  Sam Blakeslee’s compositions are well written and melodic. Each member of “Wistful Thinking” brings their best to the party and with Sam Blakeslee’s trombone leading the way, enjoy a bright, relaxing and beautiful celebration.

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Dan Wilkins, tenor & soprano saxophones/composer; James Collins, piano/Fender Rhodes; Gene Perla, bass; Byron Landham, drums.

All compositions featured by Horizons Quartet were written by thirty-year-old Dan Wilkins.  He opens this energetic album with a tune called “Spiraling,” presenting us with a melody that circles from his tenor saxophone and inspires the others to join in.  The group is off and running.  When extraordinary pianist, James Collins along with Wilkins, decided to put a band together, they wanted their rhythm section to include the caliber of musicians that had inspired them to play jazz.  Collins had been inspired by celebrated Philly-based drummer Byron Landham, who has toured with Betty Carter and Houston Person, as well as working with organ icon, Joey DeFrancesco.  You can hear his power and precision during a solo on this first composition.  They also included bassist Gene Perla, who is a master musician and has played with Sarah Vaughan, Jimmy Cobb and Miles Davis.  At eighty-one, he still burns on the bass. 

One thing I noted, this quartet loves to build the tension and grow the music.  These arrangements are rich with energy and this multi-generational quartet offers us over an hour of exquisite jazz, mostly straight-ahead, well-composed and well-interpreted original music.  Arrangers Wilkins and Collins, allow each talent to express themselves vividly for our listening pleasure.  The quartet, as a whole, moves like a well-oiled engine, generating power, improvisation and precision that infuses each composition.  Every tune is enjoyable, but some of my favorites are “Benediction of the Moon” and “Get the Point” that begins with a drum solo where Byron Landham sets the tempo and the groove.  James Collins takes off like a rocket on piano and Perla pushes him ahead, fueling his flight with bass tenacity.  Dan Wilkins arrives, shooting flames out of his saxophone.  Finally, Landham is left alone in the spotlight to solo and introduce us to his powerful and relentless drum techniques.  Yes!  I “Get the Point.”  “Gaia’s Blessing” brings us ballad relief, with Collins turning to the sparkling tones of a Fender Rhodes to interpret this pretty tune.  Who doesn’t love a good jazz waltz?  They close with “Kindling of the Phoenix” and I’m left with a feeling of complete satisfaction.

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Julian Gerstin, composer/arranger/congas/timbales/percussion/lyrics/vocals/piano/drum set.  Zara Bode, Mario Inchausti, Carlene Raper, Wanda Houston & Sarah LeMieux, vocals; Josh Francis & Ben James, drums sets; Wes Brown & Jay Cook, bass; Bob Everingham, tenor guitar; Jason Ennis, lead & rhythm guitar; Eugene Uman, piano/keyboards/co-arranger; Derrik Jordan, violin; Anna Patton, clarinet/vocals; Jon Weeks, alto, tenor & baritone saxophones; Jim Heffron, baritone saxophone; Michael Zsoldos, alto & tenor saxophones; John Wheeler, trombone; Don Anderson, trumpet/flugelhorn.

During the past fifty years, Julian Gerstin has spent his life studying, teaching and performing traditional music from around the world.  He earned a PhD in Cultural Anthropology from Berkeley and has traveled the world in search of rhythmic roots.  Gerstin is a percussion expert.  He has lived in Martinque, studied music in Cuba and Ghana and worked around the United States in a variety of settings.  Julian leads the jazz-oriented Julian Gerstin Sextet and performs with Trio Mambo, with VT Shakedown (afrobeat, ska and funk) and Bomba de Aqui (a Puerto Rican traditional music group) in addition to collaborating with an assortment of top artists in a variety of musical fields.  Gerstin is also the co-author of The Musician’s Guide to Rhythm.  Consequently, with that type of background and credentials, you expect this project to be as diverse as his lifestyle.  You would be right on the mark. 

This production is strongly rhythm-based and mixes grooves with spoken word, prose and his original compositions.  Gerstin has composed eleven of the dozen songs on this album and each is firmly cemented in his hypnotic percussion. Wanda Houston recites Julian Gerstin’s prose, formed by using familiar phrases from various eras, to trace “American History” through song.  This is their opening tune on this collection of thought-provoking works.  You will want to dance to the music of this first tune, but Houston’s dramatic voice makes you pay attention and think about her words as the horns punctuate the piece like exclamation marks. 

Gerstin’s composition, “Too Happy to Sleep” sounds very South African influenced.  However, his liner notes correct me and state that it’s African dance music with roots in Nigeria and Ghana. Vocalist Sarah LeMieux is featured on “After the Sleep of Lies,” a moody song with her beautiful voice caressing the prose of Gerstin’s lyrics in a very sensual way.  Her lovely vocals make the sad words palpable.

“Spruce Street” is titled like many American shape note hymns, after the place it was written; a street with a purple house in Brattleboro, Vermont.  It features a crafted clarinet solo by Anna Patton.  “Long Journey Home” has a haunting melody and Sarah LeMieux is back with her silky, smooth vocals.  This song is an adaptation of the a ‘Capella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock’s anthem that Julian Gerstin arranged for their “Still on the Journey” CD.  Each song on this “Music for the Exploration of Elusive Phenomena” is enjoyable, infectious and spiritually rooted.  Here is music that showcases the diversity that makes jazz a continuous work in progress.  The horn parts accentuate the melody and the percussive excellence pushes each tune forward like a 16-wheeler forging down the highway.                     

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ORRIN EVANS – “THE MAGIC OF NOW” – Smoke Sessions Records

Orrin Evans, piano/composer; Immanuel Wilkins, alto saxophone/composer; Vicente Archer, bass; Bill Stewart, drums.

This is a recording made in December of 2020 at ‘Smoke Jazz Club’ in New York City.  Like so many musicians, pianist Orrin Evans was hungry for musical camaraderie.  In March of 2020, Evans had been touring with a trio in Chicago when reports of a rapidly spreading pandemic, COVID19, had the musicians scrambling to get home.  Days of isolation followed with no work; no club gigs, no festivals and no concerts. For some reason, Orrin Evans found himself grounded in a strange way, when the concept of his musical mission became clarified.

“That’s kind of what this record is about.  ‘The Magic of Now,’ is like, what’s happening right now.  Not tomorrow.  Not yesterday.  What are you doing right now, at this exact moment, to make tomorrow better?”  Evans poses the question in his album liner notes.

Orrin met saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins when Immanuel was eleven years old and attending a summer camp program where Evans was an instructor.  Today, at twenty-three-years-old, Immanuel Wilkins is a rising star on alto saxophone and a blossoming composer.  Wilkins has written three songs for this project and Orrin Evans has written three.  The seventh song was contributed by drummer Bill Stewart and the late Mulgrew Miller.  This quartet opens their CD with a medley of “Mynah and The Eleventh Hour.”  Their arrangement of Mulgrew’s tune from the “Widespan” album is open, improvisational and straight-ahead.  The quartet’s tempo is a hair slower than the original recording, but you hear the freedom in these musicians and Bill Stewart plows ahead on the drums, burning with energy and feeding the production with fire.  Wilkins sparks the tune with his alto sax and Vicente Archer pumps his bass in lock-step with the drums.  Orrin Evans provides his own hot temperature on the 88-keys.  He and Wilkins stand out on this opening number, like two boxers in the ring.  The musical licks fly.  Once Evans asserts his singular status, he is pumped up by the Stewart drums while delivering an awesome piano solo.  I played this cut twice, before continuing to listen to the entire album.  It’s over thirteen minutes long, but there was a lot to hear, as the tune flies by!  Bill Stewart shows that he can hold his own during a fiery and exploratory trap drum solo that ends this medley with a bang. 

Evans met Stewart through their work together in Steve Wilson’s band.  He found himself intrigued by Stewart’s distinctive sound.  Right then, he made a mental note to create a scenario for them to work together.  In 2014, Evans assembled a band that included Stewart on drums and bassist, Vincente Archer.

“Basically, for the last six or seven years, I’ve been waiting for a moment to put that band back together,” Evans shares.

“Mat-Matt” is an Orrin Evans composition that’s another favorite of mine and it swings hard.  You get to enjoy Orrin’s style and technique on his instrument, up close and personal.  “Momma Loves” is a Wilkins original and reminded me of something Thelonious Monk would have composed.  Then I read the liner notes and discovered that Evans felt the same way about this tune.

“Monk didn’t really write tunes with odd-numbered bars, but this is like Monk with a modern twist. …You really hear those sentimentalities, those extra two bars are turning around to make sure you have that tie on straight, that you remember to give her (your momma) a call.  If feels like all of that,” Orrin Evans stated about the “Momma Loves” tune.

Together, this ensemble offers us “The Magic of Now” using music to remind us how important every second of life is and reminding us to appreciate it.

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Scott Reeves, alto valve trombone/alto flugelhorn/electronics/composer; Russ Spiegel, guitar; Mike Holober, piano/electric piano; Howard Britz, bass; Andy Watson, drums.

This lost recording was originally performed ‘live’ at the City College of New York in 2005, sixteen years ago.  During the 2020 pandemic, when Scott Reeves had time on his hands, like thousands of other musicians, out of curiosity, Scott Reeves gave this long shelved project a listen. 

“I was excited to hear how the quintet played so well together and I felt this may have been among my own personal bests.  During the time of this recording, I was experimenting with electronic enhancements; a pitch follower and a ring modulator.  Russ Spiegel’s electric guitar paired well with my electronically nuanced alto flugelhorn and alto valve trombone in the front line, colored by mike Holober’s use of grand piano and Fender Rhodes.  It allowed us to find that border between the warmth of more traditional forms of jazz and the edginess of more experimental styles.  I decided that this music needed to be heard!”  Reeves explained.

They open the concert with “New Bamboo,” a song that allows a certain freedom for the musicians to improvise on top of the energy-driven, ‘vamp’ feel.  All five of the six songs recorded are composed by Scott Reeves.  “Shapeshifter” is track 2 and introduces an intense and challenging melody that is also quite beautiful.  Reeves steps forward to blow his solo from the bell of his horn.  He spews a rich and powerful tone.  Next, Andy Watson takes a notable drum solo, with Mike Holober playing staccato chords in the background.  After the drums, Holober introduces us to his piano expertise, sounding rather like a humming bird is flying up and down the 88-keys with trembling wings. There are electronic colorations in the background, that create unobtrusive highlights during this arrangement.  The band of five sounds a lot larger than a quintet.  “The Alchemist” is one of my favorites on this production and is the title tune.  It taps into fusion jazz and has a wonderful, repeatable melody that sticks to your brain like Velcro.

Scott Reeves plays trombone with the Dave Liebman big band and has performed with the Vanguard Orchestra, with Chico O’Farrill’s Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, as well as with familiar artists like John Patitucci, Ron Carter, Rich Perry, Kenny Werner, Steve Wilson and more.  Scott Reeves Jazz Orchestra has released two CDs and Scott is a Professor Emeritus at the City College of New York and has taught at the Juilliard School and various other universities.  His bandmates, guitarist Russ Spiegel and pianist Mike Holober are both prolific composers, especially for big band.  With this combination of players, all steeped in big band harmonics, could explain why this quintet has such a splendiferous, larger-than-life sound.  Holober is also a professor of Music at the City College of New York and has taught at the Manhattan School of Music.  He’s written music for the Frankfurt Radio Big Band and the WDR band, as well as arranged for artists like Joe Lovano, Randy Brecker, Dr. Lonnie Smith and John Scofield, to name a few.  London born Howard Britz is also a composer and not only a gifted bassist, but is also a competent pianist. He’s recorded four CDs as a bandleader and has been a sideman for jazz and Latin groups including work with Billy Pierce, Canilo Perez, Paquito de Rivera, Kenny Wheeler and Edsel Gomez.  Finally, drummer Andy Watson is celebrated on the East Coast for his unerring sense of time and groove.  He also is an astute sight-reader.  Close friends refer to him as “The Sheriff” because of his innate ability to lock-in any unruly horn sections.  Andy has performed with the Vanguard Orchestra and various iconic jazz artists like the great Benny Golson, the unforgettable Jon Hendricks, legendary Lew Tabackin, unforgettable James Moody, Joe Lovano, Woody Herman, Tashiko Akiyoshi and Jim Hall.  What’s not to love about this quintet? 

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