WONDERFUL WIZARDS OF CREATIVE MUSIC

By Dee Dee McNeil

Aug 1, 2021

WADADA LEO SMITH – “TRUMPET” – Tum Records

Wadada Leo Smith, trumpet/composer.

This collector’s album is a unique, extended collection of solo trumpet music recorded over one summer week, in the beautiful, natural acoustics of St. Mary’s Church.  St Mary’s is a medieval stone church in the town of Pohja on the Southern Coast of Finland.  This amazing new work of musical art features fourteen new compositions by Wadada Leo Smith, spread over three CDs.  It was recorded in July of 2016, at the historic church that was constructed between the years 1460 and 1480 and is said to be very close to its original condition.  As usual, Wadada Leo Smith explores all the tones, textures and possibilities of the trumpet. 

“The acoustics were perfect for the trumpet sound.  The recording took place over four days during the summer.  It was a beautiful moment for creating art,” Wadada Leo Smith recalled.

“The trumpet is a metallic vehicle and, because of its architectural design, it has the potentiality of offering the music creator the ability to create a pure and sometimes unimaginably beautiful music.  That music of the trumpeter is heard in this world and across space.  It is an instrument made for the dreamer of dreams, the one who can authenticate the dream into reality,” Smith described his chosen instrument.

This beautifully constructed album package consists of a CD sized booklet full of art and wise words that perpetuate the legacy of master musicians like Albert Ayler, Miles Davis, Howard McGhee, Steve McCall and spiritual innovator, Malik al-Shabazz.  Wadada Leo Smith dedicates his music to these historic figures and more.  In the booklet, he gives opinions on each icon that inspired his music and why they mean so much to him.  There are also several color photographs of Wadada and a rich biography that traces his early musical life to the present. The historic St. Mary’s Church is photographed and there are many pages of original artwork in the booklet and gracing the covers of the three CDs; art created by the multi-talented Wadada Leo Smith.  Several of his previous art scores have been featured exhibits at major American museums.

Smith received his original musical inspiration from his stepfather, Alex “Little Bill” Wallace, who was one of the first Delta blues singers to play electric guitar.  Wadada Leo Smith’s Leland, Mississippi home was always full of music with frequent guests like Little Milton, Elmore James and B.B. King.  As a trumpeter, he thought of himself as a descendent of Louis Armstrong, although he was also greatly influenced by Miles Davis, Booker Little, Clifford Brown and Don Cherry.  However, Wadada was always his own man; a musician who pushed the boundaries.   After leaving the army in 1967, he moved to Chicago and joined saxophonist, Anthony Braxton to become part of the blossoming AACM, (the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians).  As part of his music theory exploration, Wadada Leo Smith developed the two basic systems of music he has used in his compositions ever since: the system of rhythm-units and the notation system he termed “Ahkreanvention” that literally means to create and invent musical ideas simultaneously utilizing the fundamental laws of improvisation and composition.  With his rhythm-unit concept, each single sound or rhythm, or a series of sounds or rhythms, is accepted as a complete piece of music.  Smith’s creation of Andhrasmation Symbol Language has been significant in his development as an artist and educator.

Professor Smith has been on the faculty of the University of New Haven, The Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, New York and Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson.  He also served as Director of the African-American Improvisational Music Program at the Herb Alpert School of Music at CalArts.  In 2016, Wadada Leo Smith received the Doris Duke Artist Award and an honorary Doctorate of Arts degree from CalArts, where he was celebrated as Faculty Emeritus.  In 2019, Smith received the UCLA Medal, the campus’s highest honor and in 2021 he was named one of the 2021 USA Fellows by the United States Artists.  This album is another example of Wadada Leo Smith’s excellence, unique creativity, craftsmanship and brilliant talent.  With his beautiful tone and emotional connection, his music makes me feel one with the universe.  It opens like a blooming flower and roots itself into the soul of his listening audience.         

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ALEX COLLINS, RYAN BERG, KARL LATHAM – “TOGETHER” – DropZoneJazz Records

Alex Collins, piano; Ryan Berg, bass; Karl Latham, drums.

There’s nothing quite like ‘trio music’ when the players are as creative, talented and inspired as these three musicians.  On the well-loved tune, “Stella by Starlight” they open sweetly like a music box.  Soon, the spotlight turns to the bassist, Ryan Berg.  He basks in the light and thoroughly entertains us on his upright instrument.  When Alex Collins enters on piano, both his solo and style are stunning and unusual.  I am captivated by his approach on the piano and the freedom he exhibits, with Karl Latham slapping the drums into high gear to perpetuate the excitement.  Sometimes it sounds as if two pianists are playing instead of one.  Alex Collins is extremely gifted. 

Drummer Karl Latham has produced this session.  Karl is listed on the DrummerWorld ‘Top’ Drummers List.  He is also the Recording Engineer on this project.  The clarity he captures is wonderful.  His talents are prominent and exploratory on “Alone Together” a song usually recorded as a pensive ballad.  In this case, the trio has double-timed the arrangement and the tune streaks by on humming bird wings.  Latham takes a long and inventive drum solo on this piece, until the time resolves, slowing down to wrap us in a warm, somewhat classical piano arrangement.  The creativity presented by this trio is dynamic and much appreciated.

Ryan Berg opens “Green Dolphin Street” setting the groove with his double bass, offering a rich, provocative tone.  Berg has performed with Gregory Porter, Mark Whitfield, Lindsey Webster, JD Allen, Lenny White, Gerald Clayton and more.  He’s a bass staple on the New York City jazz scene. 

Alex Collins is a composer and arranger, as well as a uniquely talented pianist.  He’s performed with Michelle Coltrane, Gerry Gibbs, The Dizzy Gillespie All-Stars, Lennie White and in 2003, Collins received the Wynton Kelly Jazz Foundation Award for Jazz Achievement.

When you combine these three exceptionally talented individuals, you get an opportunity to hear what the perfect jazz trio should sound like, under the best of circumstances.  This is an album I will enjoy time after time, year after year, always discovering something fresh and exciting to please my jazz palate.  Their music is absolutely delicious!

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LAUREN HENDERSON – “MUSA” – Brontosaurus Records

Lauren Henderson, vocals/composer/background vocals; Sullivan Fortner, piano; Paco Soto & Nick Tannura, guitar; Eric Wheeler, bass; Joe Dyson, drums; Marquis Hill, trumpet; Sabu Porrina, percussion; Daniel J. Watts, spoken word.

Lauren Henderson made a conscious effort to be sure this new release exemplified her traditions and the cultures that have influenced her style and vocals. 

“I wanted my next record to blend jazz, flamenco and Afro-Latina music,” explained Henderson.

Opening with her breathy, tremolo voice caressing the lyrics to “I Concentrate on You,” she overdubs and harmonizes with herself on this tune.  Sullivan Fortner is notable and complimentary on piano.   This is Henderson’s eighth release as a leader. She includes original compositions as part of this repertoire and she sings several songs in Spanish.  Track two is one of her original songs titled, “La Marejada,” that she performs in Spanish.  Paco Soto is emotional and full of passion on Flamenco guitar.  The tune “Forget Me” is one I heard Shirley Horn sing and Lauren Henderson gives bassist Eric Wheeler the introduction on solo bass to draw us into this song.  Joe Dyson’s seductive drum licks add the perfect punch and Marquis Hill’s muted trumpet is sexy and fills in the empty spaces until it’s solo time.  Then he flies high as does Fortner on piano. 

“Corazon, No Llores” is very tango-like at the top of the verse and once again Henderson sings in Spanish.   As the song unfolds, it spreads joy like sweet jam.  On this arrangement, Nick Tannura steps forward with his guitar featured brightly.  Lauren Henderson has a soft sound, reflective of what she describes as her ‘shy’ personality.  But there is a sexy undertone that whispers her lyrics and is quite provocative.  You clearly hear it on “Wild Is the Wind.” 

“I’m not a belter.  It’s more nuanced.  While intensity is a powerful tool that we can use in a beautiful way and in a positive way, I can be more private at times. … I think I bring some of that to the stage.  I’m so grateful for people who take the time to listen.  I’m saying more with less and people have to listen to be able to receive it,” she says. 

The arrangement on “Ahora” is exciting and features Sullivan Fortner and Eric Wheeler on bass.  Joe Dyson’s drums push the track ahead and Lauren once again chooses to sing in Spanish.  The rhythm section is powerful on this track.  The title tune, “Musa” is another Henderson composition and is sung in Spanish.  It becomes one of my favorites on this album.  It’s very melodic and the arrangement is lilting and happy.  Eric Wheeler sparkles during his bass solo.  Lauren Henderson’s project is fun, diverse and creative.

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DETROIT COMPOSERS COLLECTIVE – “REALISM” – MUSIC OF KENN COX, BRAD FELT & MARK LIPSON – DCC Records

Cliff Monear, piano; Michael Malis, keyboards; Jeff Pedraz & Miles Brown, upright bass; Jesse Kramer & Sean Dobbins, drums; Pepe Espinosa, Latin percussion; Dwight Adams, trumpet/flugelhorn; Andrew Bishop, tenor saxophone; Terry Kimura, trombone; Rafael Statin, tenor saxophone/flute; Mark Lipson, producer/arranger.

The work of three Detroit composers is featured on this straight-ahead, legacy album of music; Mark Lipson, Kenn Cox and Brad Felt.  Lipson founded the Detroit Composers’ Collective (DCC) in 2015 to preserve some of Detroit’s many great jazz musicians and composers.  Lipson is a drummer and composer in his own right and was an admirer of Kenn Cox.  Two of his songs are included on this recording; “The Masters” that opens the CD and Track 2,“Tony’s Trip.”  As the producer and arranger of this project, Mark Lipson has employed some of the top players around the Motor City.  Opening with his own tune, “The Masters” this title epitomizes the work of himself, Kenn Cox and Brad Felt.  This tune barrels into my listening room with tenacious energy, in a jazz waltz vein.  As the horns blare, Cliff Monear is complimentary and supportive in the rhythm section, on piano.  Andrew Bishop takes an inspiring tenor saxophone walk around the tune, as does Dwight Adams on trumpet.  On “Tony’s Trip” we are transported to South America with spicy, hot Salsa music.

Like many master musicians who came out of Detroit, Kenn Cox was a graduate of the legendary Cass Technical High School.  After graduating Cass Tech, he went to the Detroit Conservatory of Music (1949-1958), as well as the Detroit Institute of Music Arts from 1959-1961. Then Cox left for New York City.  Although his initial dive into the music world was on the trumpet, Cox became attracted to the piano early on and that became his instrument of choice.  In New York City, he landed an accompanist position with the great Etta Jones and was her Musical Director until 1966.  He also worked with the legendary Helen Humes and Ernestine Anderson.  Upon returning to Detroit, he joined the hard bop quintet headed by trombonist, George Bohannon.  This was followed by Cox forming his own group; Kenny Cox and the Contemporary jazz Quintet.  They recorded for Blue Note Records.  With roots deeply embedded in post-bop, hard bop and bebop, Kenn Cox was a prolific composer.  On Mark Lipson’s “Realism” album he has interpreted two compositions by Cox.  The first is “Cuernavaca,” named for a Mexican City heralded as The City of Eternal Spring.  This Latin influenced composition, with Pepe Espinosa propelling the tune on percussion, features a lush melody and a beautiful solo on flute by Rafael Statin.  “Samba de Romance” is the second tune penned by Kenn Cox.  Drummer, Sean Dobbins, holds this piece rhythmically in place along with Espinosa on percussion and bassist, Jeff Pedraz, bows a beautiful solo on his upright instrument.   Michael Malis skims along the keyboard keys and Rafael Statin flutters his flute.  Terry Kimura makes a solo appearance on his trombone.

Brad Felt’s compositions close out this CD.  He was born May 6, 1956, full name, Bradley James Felt, and grew up in Royal Oaks, Michigan. Felt made his musical mark playing tuba, euphonium and composing music.   Like Cox, he started by playing trumpet in grade school.  Once he got braces, playing trumpet became challenging, so he switched to tuba at age fourteen.  Following his high school band participation, he attended Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, sponsored by a performance scholarship.  He studied with Sam Sanders, Doc Holladay and Herbie Williams, as well as being part of the jazz workshop led by trumpet master, Marcus Belgrave.  Brad Felt extended his tuba playing into the world of jazz and in 1990, he featured his own compositions during a concert at the Detroit Institute of Arts entitled “The Tuba Rules!”

Felt’s arrangements are more Avant-Garde and his compositions give this talented ensemble freedom to stretch-out and improvise broadly atop his creative chord changes.  “Existentialism” is up-tempo and Rafael Statin picks up his tenor saxophone and flies free as an eagle.  Sean Dobbins is exciting on trap drums.   On the “P.J. Lids” composition, they add a Latin beat and feature Espinosa on Latin percussion.  This tune is brightly enhanced by a provocative horn ensemble.  The production closes with Mark Lipson’s tune, “Spinning,” featuring Andrew Bishop on tenor saxophone, Cliff Monear on piano, Miles Brown on double bass and Jesse Kramer manning the drums.  All in all, here is an entertaining production that introduces the listener to some of Detroit’s best jazz composers interpreted by an outstanding group of Motor City players.

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TRINEICE ROBINSON – “ALL OR NOTHING” – 4RM Music Productions

Trineice Robinson, vocals/background vocals; Laura-Simone Martin, background vocals; Lindsay Martin Jr., vocals/background vocals; Cyrus Chestnut & Phil Orr, piano; Kenny Davis, bass; Vince Ector, drums; Kahil Kwame Bell, percussion; Joe ‘Stretch’ Vinson, guitar; Don Braden, tenor & alto saxophones; Ian Kaufman, trombone; John Meko, trumpet; Nils Mossblad, tenor saxophone.

The ensemble backing up Trineice Robinson is so strong that I am immediately drawn into this project like quicksand.  Don Braden opens the first piece, “All or Nothing at All” on saxophone and sets the tone.  The group swings hard.  Robinson arrives vocally and sings this standard from the great American Songbook with vigor and strength.  Cyrus Chestnut adds a spirited piano solo.  The group’s arrangement of “Footprints,” the second song, is too busy.  Trineice Robinson and Nandita Rao have written lyrics to Wayne Shorter’s tune.  Don Braden has arranged the piece and features Vince Ector on drums and the colorful percussion of Kahlil Kwame Bell.  Unfortunately, it sounds like Robinson is fighting the ensemble for space to vocalize.  She’s such a strong singer that the production is a disappointment, because it’s so busy featuring the band, the vocalist seems to have lost her spotlight.  Trineice Robinson’s rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” shows her strong R&B side.  She has worked regularly with an R&B band since her college days.  As a multiple stylist, she was raised in the gospel church and has been singing gospel music since she was a young child.  Dr. Robinson also has extensive classical training.  You can clearly hear her powerful alto voice on “Come Sunday.”  This is an arrangement that simply features her voice and Chestnut’s piano. 

As a teacher, Trineice Robinson has dedicated her life to helping others achieve success on their journey to discovering and honing their vocal talents. She teaches jazz, gospel/Christian music, R&B, rock, country and pop singing styles.  She has created ‘Soul Ingredients’ a teaching methodology for developing a singer’s musical style and to teach interpretation in African American, folk-based music styles.  It’s meant to personalize a singer or performer’s own expression. 

This is Dr. Robinson’s debut album. You hear the full breadth and width of Trineice Robinson’s vocals on the beautiful ballad, “You Taught My Heart to Sing” written by McCoy Tyner and Sammy Cahn.  “La Costa” has long been a favorite tune of mine and I was happy to hear Dr. Robinson cover this song, featuring Phil Orr on piano with Don Braden’s beautiful flute licks complimenting sweetly. The background vocal harmonies are refreshing as they lilt along with this Latin flavored tune.  Robinson snatches a piece of the blues while covering the Nancy Wilson hit song, “Save Your Love for Me.”  I was impressed by her original tune, arranged as a shuffle blues. “Let it Shine” does just that.  This is a strong composition with a positive, uplifting lyric and it’s soaked in gospel.  She’s joined by her two children, Laura-Simone Martin and Lindsay Martin, Jr. who sing background.  Kenny Davis takes an impressive bass solo on the Thelonious Monk song, “You Know Who (I Mean You).”  Trineice scats with the horn, singing along in unison. 

Dr. Robinson comes from a large, close-knit religious family.  There are three generations of preachers in her family and she sang with a gospel choir from the age of five.  Obviously, her children are following in her footsteps. The closing song, “This Little Light of Mine” featuring Lindsay Martin Jr., singing with spontaneous sincerity and joy.  Here is an album that     introduces us to the rich voice and many vocal styles of Dr. Trineice Robinson.

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ANTONIO ADOLFO – “JOBIM FOREVER” – AAM Music

Antonio Adolfo, piano/arranger/producer; Lula Galvao, guitar; Jorge Helder, double bass; Paulo Braga & Rafael Barata, drums; Dada Costa & Rafael Barata, percussion; Jesse Sadoc, trumpet/flugelhorn; Danilo Sinna, alto saxophone; Marcelo Martins, tenor & soprano saxophones/flutes; Rafael Rocha, trombone; Zé Renato, vocals.

Brazilian composer extraordinaire, Antonio Carlos Jobim, has blessed the world with amazing songs that will live on forever.  Like so many of us, pianist Antonio Adolfo also admires the Grammy Award winning composer, Jobim, who introduced Bossa Nova to the United States and the world.  Antonio Adolfo has chosen to re-imagine nine of Jobim’s beautiful compositions from the 1960s. They are treasures that reflect Adolfo’s own unique artistry.  Antonio Adolfo is a composer himself, who has recorded over two dozen albums as a bandleader, some that featured all his own compositions.  In fact, more than 200 of his original works have been recorded by major artists including Sergio Mendes, Earl Klugh, Herb Alpert, Stevie Wonder, Dionne Warwick and others.

Adolfo became a professional jazz pianist at age seventeen, when he formed and led his own trio.  He toured with famous singers like Flora Purim and Elis Regina.  He also toured with Milton Nascimento, whose music he commemorated in a 2020 recording tributing that great musician; (BruMa – Celebrating Milton Nascimento).  For this recent project, Adolfo has assembled some of the top musicians in Brazil.  He opens this album with probably one of Jobim’s biggest hit recordings, “The Girl from Ipanema.”  The ensemble embraces the rich, Bossa Nova rhythm, but also incorporates a soft ‘swing’ groove into the mix.  Antonio re-colors the original arrangement, giving the horns space to show-off.  Danilo Sinna’s sweet alto saxophone wraps the swing around his solo, then invites Adolfo to present his enthusiastic solo on piano.  On “Wave” Lula Galvao is brilliant on guitar and Rafael Rocha’s trombone is king! 

Antonio Adolfo was just establishing his career in music during the early 1960s, at the same time Jobim was becoming an international success and Brazilian music was intoxicating the world.  It was around this same time that he met Antonio Carlos Jobim.

“When he returned to Brazil, after the Bossa Nova concert at Carnegie Hall in 1962, I met and hung out with Jobim on several occasions.  He was captivating and witty.  He shared his knowledge of music and nature, subjects about which he was passionate and knowledgeable.  We would spend hours talking and I was charmed by his wisdom,” Adolfo recalled his time spent with Jobim.

On Track 3, we get to enjoy the smooth beautiful voice of Ze Renato singing the ‘happiness’ song, “A Felicidade.”  We also hear the trumpet excellence of Jesse Sadoc on this familiar tune.  With Adolfo’s piano pumping life and energy into the arrangement, along with the percussive magic of Rafael Barata and Dada Costa.  I love the alternate chording and fresh harmonics that Antonio Adolfo adds to “How Insensitive.”   Then, on “Favel (O Morro Nao Tem Vez)” his arrangement slips into a minor blues suit and features straight ahead, improvised saxophone and trumpet solos that stand out as colorfully as a red & white polka dot bow tie.  This arrangement is playful and full of joy.

Adolfo explains his creative process: “When I create arrangements for my albums, I play the music literally dozens of times on the piano until I start to feel a kind of partnership with the composer.  After I thoroughly absorb the music, I can start hearing my own voice emerge, and I then can create the different harmonies, meters, phrasing and forms that I adapt to the instruments in my concept.”

With all the respect and love that Antonio Adolfo has for his hero, he has arranged and played this wonderful music, endeavoring to repaint the solid structure with his own bright colors and artistic shading.  You will enjoy the flavor of each tune and feast at the table of Antonio Adolfo, tasting each delicious bite of rhythm and harmony, and enjoying the rich succulence of every song arrangement.  Adolfo’s modern jazz sensibilities and arranger skills are the perfect ingredients for creating a meal of music fit for queens and kings to devour                           

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KENNY GARRETT – “SOUNDS FROM THE ANCESTORS” – Mack Ave Records

Kenny Garrett, alto saxophone/vocals/electric piano/composer; Vernell Brown, Jr., piano; Corcoran Holt, bass; Ronald Bruner, drums; Rudy Bird, percussion/snare; SPECIAL GUESTS: Jean Baylor, Linny Smith, Chris Ashley Anthony, Sheherazade Holman & Dwight Trible, vocals; Dreiser Durruthy, bata/vocals; Pedrito Martinez, vocals/congas; lenny White, snare; Johnny Mercier, piano/organ/Fender Rhodes; Maurice Brown, trumpet.

Kenny Garrett tells us “It’s Time To Come Home,” the name of  his opening tune, featuring Rudy Bird’s percussive beauty that nudges this production and supports Garrett’s silky smooth alto saxophone. This song has an Afro-Cuban feel to it with the voice of Jean Baylor featured, softly harmonizing with Garrett’s horn.  Dreiser Durruthy adds his bata talents and vocals, speaking to us and singing to us in what sounds like Yurabic. Track 2 is a tribute to trumpet master, Roy Hargrove (“Hargrove”) and features Maurice Brown on trumpet, with a choir of harmonic voices in the background who add another dimension, the way a string section would do; ever smooth and beautiful.  The melody is catchy, as Garrett and Brown punch it out in unison before exploring their individual improvisations. Kenny Garrett has composed all the music on this recording. 

“For Art’s Sake” features the drums of Ronald Bruner with Kenny’s saxophone calling out powerfully to the listener’s ear.  Also, we hear Garrett’s piano talents at the electric piano.  I am assuming this song is written to tribute the great Art Blakey, only because the drummer is so brillianly spotlighted.  Speaking of ‘art,’ the cover artwork on this album is amazing and created by Rudy Gutierrez.

“What Was That” is straight-ahead and exciting, giving Garrett a platform to fly free on his alto sax.  Vernell Brown, Jr., takes an exploratory trip around the 88 keys and wows us with his fluidity.  Rudy Bird’s colorful percussion is spotlighted during this tune and breathes fire and flame into the composition.   Ronald Bruner’s drums are hotly present on track 6, “Soldiers of the Fields/Soldats des Champs.”  As Kenny Garrett delivers his brilliant saxophone solo, Bruner’s powerful percussion fuses the tune, like a match to a kerosene lamp.  His double-time dances beneath this song and is flammable.  Special guest, Lenny White, is also here adding snare-snap to the drum sounds. However, it is always Kenny Garrett who fans the flames and enriches these songs with his inspirational musicianship.   The title tune, “Sounds from the Ancestors” begins with a sweet piano introduction that sets the mood and solidifies the melody.  Enter Pedrito Martinez on congas and vocals, whisking us up and reminding us of Cuban and African roots. Los Angeles based vocalist, Dwight Trible improvises on this song.  Kenny Garrett has invited several guest vocalists onto this project. He invites them to infuse his music with their spirits and free-vocal improvisations.  The melody of this particular song is so beautiful, I wish I had heard Trible’s beautiful baritone voice sing it down just once, but the pianist does a magnificent job of delivering this melodic message.  Garrett’s album ends with him playing percussion, using his air and alto saxophone to create breathy, rhythmic passages. This composition offers us the same kind of Afro-Cuban arrangement we heard at this album’s beginning, perhaps to remind us that “It’s Time to Come Home.”

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