MOSTLY TRIOS

By Dee Dee McNeil

September 15, 2021

DAVE MILLER TRIO – “THE MASK-ERADE IS OVER” – Summit Records

Dave Miller, piano; Andrew Higgins, bass; Bill Balsco, drums.

Charlie Parker’s “Anthropology” opens the Miller Trio’s album in a joyful way.  From straight-ahead, they shuffle into “Be Careful It’s My Heart.”  Strangely, the album’s title track is listed as Track #3 but it’s not.  Instead, the tune that plays is “The Opener” which jogs along at a comfortable, moderate pace with Bill Balsco’s drums pushing the tune forward.  Andrew Higgins takes a well-played solo on bass. Then comes the album’s title tune, “The Masquerade is Over.”  Actually, Dave Miller has changed the spelling of the tune as the album title.  It’s meant to reflect our hopeful, collective, community joy in removing our masks worn during the pandemic.   I don’t think I ever heard this song played so rapidly.   The lyrics are sad and lament the dissolve of a romance, so most people play it as a ballad.  However, the Miller Trio zips happily along for three minutes and six seconds with the walking bass skipping alongside Dave’s up-tempo piano and the drums pumping the piece towards the finish line.  Dave Miller has a light touch on the piano.  His fingers dance briskly over the keys as he reminds us how much we enjoy standard jazz tunes like these: “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” “Yardbird Suite,” “Estate” and “Why Did I Choose You.”  This album reminds me of warm evenings, perched at a local, nightclub, piano-bar, while sipping a potent drink and listening to someone talented, like Dave Miller and his trio, play every favorite tune we love to hear.

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LEON LEE DORSEY – “FREEDOM JAZZ DANCE” – JazzAvenue 1

Leon Lee Dorsey, bass/composer; Manuel Valera, piano; Mike Clark, drums.

Leon Lee Dorsey, a veteran bassist, and drummer Mike Clark have a close working relationship and share a deep simpatico together.  The last four recording projects have featured these rhythm makers, each one adding a different third guest.  In this case, it’s the very talented, Cuban-born pianist, Manuel Valera.  Valera was once a full-time saxophone player in Havana, but switched to piano after moving to New York City in 2000.  This energetic and artistic album of music is dedicated to the late Puerto Rican-born piano master, Hilton Ruiz.  Dorsey played with Ruiz regularly, enjoying their camaraderie in his final years. The group features a couple of Ruiz compositions.  These collective songs, on Dorsey’s ”Freedom Jazz Dance” album, highlight a kind of bilingual aesthetic woven into the arrangements that Dorsey, Valera and Clark conjure up.  The trio’s chemistry is beautifully integrated and they fit together like red beans, spicey ginger rice and hot sauce.  Be it the drum propelled arrangement of the title tune, composed by Eddie Harris, where the tempo is cookin’ on high or “Home Cookin’” (a Hilton Ruiz tune), the trio wraps arms warmly around the blues.  These three musicians are obviously on-point and inseparable. 

“Until the End of Time” is a lovely ballad with Manuel Valera showing his tender, vulnerable side on piano.  These three awesome musicians present an enticing arrangement of “Autumn Leaves,” suddenly double-timing the tune midway through and spicing it up.  Dorsey sweetly plucks out the Jobim tune, “How Insensitive” on the upper strings of his double bass to introduce the tune.  Valera transforms the song with his brilliant improvisations, while Mike Clark infuses the arrangement with Latin percussive rhythms.  However, it’s songs like “New Arrival” that endear me to this trio.  It’s a composition that rolls up the straight-ahead tracks like a run-away locomotive.  They close with Dorsey’s tune, “Chillin.’”  Leon Dorsey’s bass walks with powerful steps and Valera’s piano moans the blues through his steady fingers.  Mike Clark colors the music brightly on drums and keeps the pulse crisp and in-the-pocket.  This is a recording I will enjoy playing time and time again!

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ADAM NOLAN TRIO – “PRIM AND PRIMAL” – Independent Label

Adam Nolan, alto saxophone/composer; Derek Whyte, double bass; Dominic Mullan, drums.

This is a free bop trio, based in Ireland, that explores improvised, conversational and modern jazz.  They blend double bass, alto saxophone and drums to create a puffed-up soufflé of Avant-garde music that stretches both restrictive walls and their creativity.  Adam Nolan takes flight on his alto sax and interplays with bassist Derek Whyte and drummer Dominic Mullan, allowing his fellow musicians to invoke their own space and voice.  Their resulting music evolves from lyrical conversations to fiery, unified statements.  Nolan originally played rock and funk drums in his hometown of Kilkenny, Ireland.  He switched to alto saxophone when he was fourteen and currently holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Jazz Performance and Composition.  He has worked with numerous groups as a sideman.  Finally, he decided to explore his own ideas and musical style in order to create an original brand of free jazz. Bassist, Derek Whyte is a major part of the Dublin jazz scene and drummer Dominic Mullan is an important musical name in Ireland who has also been part of the rhythm section behind many popular Irish jazz groups.  This is their first unified effort as a trio and the first time they have recorded together.  However, the trio sounds both compatible and comfortable, improvising spontaneously and giving the solid impression they have been playing together for decades.  On their album, “Prim and Primal” they unapologetically create spontaneous, exhilarating and honest emotion.  Each musician shows off their brilliant talents individually; then come together in a marriage of minds and music.

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GRAHAM DECHTER – “MAJOR INFLUENCE” – Capri Records Ltd

Graham Dechter, guitar; Tamir Hendelman, piano; John Clayton, bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums.

Guitarist, Graham Dechter, has reunited with his dream trio for this recording. The dream-team includes Tamir Hendelman, John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton.

Dechter has composed all but one song on this project. “Pure Imagination” is the cover tune that he co-arranged with master drummer, Jeff Hamilton.  Hendelman and Dechter join instruments (piano and guitar) to remind me of a 1950s radio jazz show theme song I used to listen to as a youngster.  It was hosted by White House Coffee and transmitted from Chicago to my Detroit radio.  Funny, how music reminds you of times and places in your life. The blues is laced throughout this arrangement, with Dechter’s guitar as beautiful as a field of bluebells or a trellis of lavender and blue morning glories. 

“When I first met nine-year-old Graham Dechter, I didn’t imagine that we would one day be working together.  His passion and conviction of the music have taken him where he wants to be.  He set goals and attained them by working hard.  For this, his third recording as a leader, he asked me to produce it.  I suggested he compose most of the material, since he is so talented in that area.  What you hear on this recording are mostly his originals, and by the end of each song, you would bet they were standards,” Jeff Hamilton praised Graham Dechter’s composer talents.

Dechter opens with a blues-based song called, “Orange Coals;” a title reflective of the energy and burning hot tempo of this tune.  Dechter generously shares the spotlight with his all-star band members.  They each take a solo to show off their tenacious talents.  Hendelman, as always, is brilliant on piano.  Track #2 is titled “Reference” and John Clayton’s rich bass is featured throughout.  I especially enjoyed the conversation Clayton and Hamilton musically shared on bass and drums.  Graham Dechter has a guitar style that bleeds navy, turquoise and sky-blue tones into these tunes.  One thing is obvious. He embraces the blues with an open heart.  Dechter says he was inspired by jazz luminaries like Herb Ellis and Wes Montgomery, but I wonder what blues guitar players he was also listening to?  You hear the Montgomery style somewhat incorporated into his title tune composition, “Major Influence.”  But on his original composition, “Moonithology,” you can tell he was also influenced by Charlie Parker.  This song opens with the powerful but tender drum brushes of Jeff Hamilton tap-dancing across his instrument.  Also, on “Bent on Monk” Dechter pays obvious homage to Thelonious and the quartet swings hard, adding those personal ‘licks’ that immediately conjure up familiar Monk tunes. 

At age nineteen, Graham Dechter joined the Clayton Hamilton Jazz orchestra.  He was the youngest member to join in the history of that band.  At twenty-two he released his first album as a bandleader; “Right on Time.”  You can hear his talent and potential blossoming on this, his third album release.  It’s bound to have a “Major Influence” on the world of jazz.  

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GERRY EASTMAN TRIO – “TRUST ME” – Independent Release

Gerry Eastman, guitar/composer; Greg Lewis, organ; Taru Alexander, drums.

Gerry Eastman learned to play guitar, bass and drums as a young man.  He studied at Cornell University and Ithaca College and was a member of the Count Basie Orchestra in 1986, with guitar as his main instrument of choice.  On this trio journey, the three musicians tread the path of creativity, using eight original compositions by Gerry Eastman as directional outposts.  The opening tune is titled “Trust Me” and is modern jazz with unchartered chord changes that take surprising twists and turns.  The melody is lost in a series of unpredictable key changes and modulations that frankly leave me baffled.  I listen to this composition twice, but liked it less the second time around. However, “St. Marteen Swing” is Track #2 and it is very melodic and well-played, giving free reign to Greg Lewis on organ and making a spotlighted space for Taru Alexander to solo and excel on his drums.  This tune swings and is reflective of the organ, guitar and drum trio that I always enjoy listening to.  “Native Son” follows, with an introduction by Eastman’s competent guitar setting the mood amidst a flash of drum cymbals and Lewis blending warm organ chords into the background.  This song is once again leaning heavily towards modern jazz and less towards the traditional organ trio sound.  At points, the tune dips into Avant-garde music, building the piece into a crescendo of energy, until at the very end, it leaves the listener hanging off the precipice of its unexpected ending. The tune “Learn from Your Mistakes” takes a sharp turn towards ‘straight-ahead’ jazz.  Gerry Eastman’s guitar solo is defined by his clean, articulate approach to improvisation, clearly singing note-for-note, his own unique melodies atop the busy drums of Alexander.  I am more impressed with Eastman’s skills playing guitar than his composing talents. 

Greg Lewis has been a strong player on the modern jazz scene and started playing piano and organ professionally in the New York area as a teenager.  He’s led his own trio and accompanied blues singer Sweet Georgia Brown.  Drummer Taru Alexander started playing drums at age seven and worked with his dad’s quintet as a teenager.  He made his first recordings when he was a mere sixteen and has played with many amazing jazz artists like Abbey Lincoln, Betty Carter, Roy Hargrove and Branford Marsalis.  All three of these musicians seem to be talented players, perhaps struggling to find cohesiveness within the original material and the arrangements.                          

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THE SCENIC ROUTE TRIO – “FLIGHT OF LIFE” – Cross Currents Jazz

Ollie Dudek, bass/composer; Javier Santiago, piano; Genius Wesley, drums.

This is a spirited trio that features the compositions of bassist, Ollie Dudek.  The very first tune sets the mood and the groove for this energetic threesome.  Titled “The Optimist,” these three musicians tear out of the studio on the wings of this swinging, up-tempo piece that quickly features the bass man trading fours with the other musicians and then taking off on his own to improvise and sing the melody.  This is the kind of tune that makes you joyful and gets your feet to tapping.  I’m quick to recognize that Dudek is a stellar composer and this debut recording by The Scenic Route Trio continues to mesmerize with a tune called, “Flight of Kawan.”   Kawan means hawk in a native Brazilian language called Tupi and this tune is dedicated to Ollie’s son, also named Kawan.  It flies along at a moderate swing pace and I can picture a hawk spreading wide wings and soaring through the San Francisco sky.  Dudek is based in the San Francisco Bay area of Northern California.  Javier Santiago takes a journey up and down the 88-keys of the grand piano, adding a touch of the blues and showing off his super talents.  All the while, Genius Wesley locks the rhythm tightly in place on trap drums.  This trio is both dynamic and entertaining. 

Other outstanding songs on The Scenic Route Trio are “Children of the Sun” that celebrates humanities unification and the life-giving powers of the sun. Many of these songs were written while Ollie Dudek was locked down in 2020, experiencing the pandemic days.  This tune lilts along with a Latin beat and Ollie’s sensitive bass dancing beneath the melody, beautifully introduced by Javier Santiago.    Speaking of the COVID pandemic, “Pandemia” is a composition that was written to document the confusion and anxiety of the uncertain times we are living through.  However, it didn’t sound anxiety driven.  In fact, it was a pretty happy, shuffle tune, until Wesley’s drums cut time and the arrangement dived into an unexpected ballad tempo.  Ollie soaked up the spotlight, soloing on bass and changing the mood and mission of his composition.  Afterwards, Genius Wesley kicks the piece back into gear, taking a brief eight-bar solo that returns us back to the happy-go-lucky, resilient tempo.  “Dreamscape” is a lovely tune that Ollie Dudek described as a piece to inspire us to hold fast to our dreams.  His music is so well-written that each song sounds like a standard jazz tune.  You will enjoy every composition, played vigorously and with much emotion by this outstanding trio.

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LISA HILTON – “TRANSPARENT SKY” – Lisa Hilton Music 

Lisa Kristine Hilton, piano/composer; Luques Curtis, bass; Rudy Royston, drums.

Pianist, Lisa Hilton has composed nine of the ten songs on this album.  Her piano playing, based solidly in classical study, is unobtrusive background music. This is easy listening.  It’s the kind of playing you hear as parlor music or someone tinkering at a small house party.  “Living in Limbo” is one of her more interesting and melodic compositions in an otherwise bland offering.  After reviewing albums by Oscar Peterson, Billy Childs, Llew Matthews, Kenny Barron, Yuko Mabuchi, Marion McPartland, Renee Rosnes and George Duke, this type of production lowers the bar for jazz.  When I heard “Chromatic Chronicles” I was hopeful, because it sounds as though Hilton based this composition on the Horace Silver song, “Sr. Blues.”   Finally, her title tune, “Transparent Sky” proffers a pretty composition that she interprets at the close of this album. Unfortunately, once again without notable improvisation.   Improvisation is one of the most important parts of playing jazz.  It’s not just scales and arpeggio runs.  Although Ms. Hilton continues to turn out CD recordings, like General Motors turns out cars, this reviewer just cannot consider her a jazz pianist until she includes one song that swings and expands her piano talent into the realms of improvisation. 

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CHAMPIAN FULTON & STEPHEN FULTON – “LIVE FROM LOCKDOWN” – Champian Records

Champian Fulton, piano/voice; Stephen Fulton, flugelhorn/trumpet.

During the pandemic lockdown, Champian Fulton captivated Online audiences with her Sunday evening webcasts.  Consequently, she figured it was time to release an album.  The pianist/vocalist called on her father, Stephen Fulton, to add his flugelhorn and trumpet.  Stephen’s instrument brightly colored her project.  The result is this appealing duo album of voice, piano and horn.  When COVID-19 hit Manhattan in 2020, Champian Fulton watched her gigs, tours and concerts fly out the window like bits of paper. For the love of music and to keep their chops up, Champion and her dad began performing from home for their virtual audience.   A few fans and friends grew to over 20,000 views on any given week.  The success of ‘live-stream’ acceptance and the growth of her fan community led Champian to begin recording the duo experience.  This talented pianist and songstress has a warm, soprano tone and a sincerity to her vocals that is hypnotic and comfortable.  You will recognize the thirteen familiar tunes this duo presents.  One of the tunes is Dinah Washington’s hit record, “Blow Top Blues,” Duke’s “Satin Doll,” Billie Holiday’s memorable recording of “You’ve Changed” and other standards like “Moonglow,” “What is This Thing Called Love” and the old pop tune “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.”  Ms. Fulton has a great piano technique and its jazz all the way, laced with blues.  At times, traces of Erroll Garner’s unforgettable style is evident.  Her bass hand is steady and strong, walking briskly beneath her upper register, where her right-handed fingers display strong melodies and improvisation.  Stephen Fulton is tasty and supportive with his horn, knowing just when to touch on the melody or highlight and improvise in the open spaces his daughter provides.  These two are perfectly comfortable with each other and that makes their listening audience comfortable too. 

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