By Dee Dee McNeil

September 23, 2021

In an era of pandemic blues, political chaos, wars and rumors of war, let’s continue to reach for the best within ourselves.  When I witness a young, twenty-something, African-American, female poet like Amanda Gorman, who both wrote and read an inaugural poem at the White House, that makes me hopeful!  When I witness a fifteen-year-old, jazz pianist, like Brandon Goldberg pushing boundaries with his sophomore album, he also makes me hopeful; hopeful for humanity and for the blossoming of a new generation. The artists I listened to recently are all breaking the rules in some kind-of-way.  Like Brandon Goldberg and Amanda Gorman, they are pushing against mediocrity and reaching for their highest good. Luckily, these artists are sharing their talent and treasures with us. These albums inspire us to look within and to grow. You will read about the Temple University Jazz Band and Jon Gordon’s unusually lovely original compositions and horn arrangements. Steve Million and Sarah Marie Young offer us music that’s unique and artsy.  Drummer Ches Smith mixes Haitian Vodou music with his own compositions. Vocalist, Alexis Parsons uses sincerity to snag the listener’s ear and Jim Yanda offers uninhibited improvisation to explore his feelings and express freedom on his guitar. 


Brandon Goldberg, piano/Fender Rhodes; Luques Curtis, bass; Ralph Peterson, drums; Stacy Dillard, saxophone; Josh Evans & Antoine Drye, trumpet.

Three years ago, pianist Brandon Goldberg was twelve-years-old.  He received plenty of attention when he released his debut CD titled, “Let’s Play!”  It was a trio endeavor with jazz veterans Ben Wolfe on bass and Donald Edwards on drums.  You could hear young Brandon’s genius and feel his passion on this very first recording.  On his latest release, the late, great Ralph Peterson is on drums and he also co-produced this awesome, sophomore release by Goldberg.  This was one of Peterson’s last recordings before his untimely death and the artist and group dedicate this production to his memory. 

“Authority” is the opening message from Ralph Peterson and is composed by Brandon Goldberg.  The drums are dominant and powerful.  They push the music forward, with Stacy Dillard impressive on saxophone.  The excitement and instrumental tenacity continue with Josh Evans sparkling on trumpet. This is straight-ahead jazz at its best.  When Brandon Goldberg takes center-stage, he lifts the music even higher, showing off his remarkable skills on piano.  The original composition, “Circles” calms us down a bit, lowering the heat from a hot boil to a sweet simmer.  Dillard picks up his soprano saxophone to show us he’s multi-dimensional on reeds.  Brandon Goldberg has no problem sharing the spotlight with his band members.  Once Stacy Dillard completes his masterful solo, in steps Goldberg, who takes complete control of the moment during this jazz waltz arrangement.  Track #3 is a very beautiful ballad titled, “Time,” where Luques Curtis moves me with an amazing solo on double bass.  It’s another well-written Brandon Goldberg composition.  He has contributed five original songs to this album and he’s arranged five cover songs including the familiar Wayne Shorter tune, “Nefertiti” and the Thelonious Monk standard, “Monk’s Dream.”   It’s obvious Brandon’s a sensitive composer and brilliant arranger, along with being super talented on the keys.  It’s hard to wrap my head around the fact this young man is only fifteen-years-young.  His ‘chops’ are so seasoned and his ideas feel rooted in wiseness and experience.  I am intrigued and I can hardly wait to see what he plays on “Monk’s Dream.”  Goldberg does not disappoint with flying fingers pirouetting across the black and white keys.  The group swings, led by Brandon’s precise piano interpretations and spurred by Ralph Peterson’s always on-point drums! I absolutely enjoyed hearing Brandon interpret “Someone to Watch Over Me” as a solo pianist.

Goldberg’s relationship with Peterson began in 2018 at the Litchfield Jazz Festival, where Peterson gave young Goldberg his card and said, ‘Dial it, don’t file it.’  However, Brandon procrastinated.   Six months later, they re-connected at Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center.  Peterson bluntly told him, ‘You didn’t call me yet.’  That’s when the phone calls began and the two had a musical meeting of the minds. Inspired by Peterson to compose and to follow his own tonal personality and musical direction, Goldberg co-conspired with Ralph Peterson.  Together, they lay the groundwork for this album. Goldberg also found inspiration from one of his heroes, Benny Green.   

“Benny told me there should be something swinging, something pretty, something funky, something spicy and something you can listen to without having to think about it,” Brandon Goldberg mused.

This jazz journalist feels confident saying, this album offers all of that and more!

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Terell Stafford, band director; RHYTHM SECTION: Anthony Aldissi, piano; Michael Raymond, guitar; Nathan Pence, bass; Maria Marmarou, drums; SAXOPHONES: Patrick Hill, alto I; Adam Abrams, alto II; Dylan Band, tenor 1; Ross Gerberich, tenor II; Gabe Preston, baritone sax; TROMBONES: Andrew Sedlacsik, trombone I; Bill Saurman, trombone II; David Choder, trombone III; Omeed Nyman, bass trombone; TRUMPETS: Fareed Simpson-Hankins, trumpet I; John Meko, trumpet II; John Brunozzi, trumpet III; Banks Sapnar, trumpet IV; Robby Cruz, trumpet V; Danielle Dougherty, vocals; SPECIAL GUESTS: Christian McBride, bass; Joey DeFrancesco, organ.

The rhythm section opens Track #1, “Passing of the Torch” with a deep bass presence and Maria Marmarou’s drums kicking the tune forward.  The tune was written by Todd Bashore, a former Queen’s College student of Jimmy Heath’s.  He composed this energized piece of music in tribute to his mentor.  The horns dance and harmonically glide throughout this tune in support of a swinging sax improvisation and a rich trombone solo. Nathan Pence speaks his mind on bass, as does Michael Raymond during his enthusiastic guitar solo.  It was January 19, 2020 when Temple University Jazz Band was awarded top honors at the inaugural Jack Rudin Jazz Championship during an event at Lincoln Center.  Sadly, that same night, the legendary saxophonist, Jimmy heath died at age ninety-three.

“Jimmy Heath was an incredible human being.  When I got the call saying he had just passed, I was totally devastated and broken,” Terell Stafford recalls.

Stafford, the Director of Jazz and Instrumental Studies at Temple University, immediately began working on a way to honor Jimmy Heath.  The band started preparing music and then the pandemic hit hard.  Thanks to the tenacity of Stafford and his university colleagues, “Without You, No Me” is the second album released by Temple University Jazz Band in the wake of the COVID pandemic.  The first, the aptly titled “Covid Sessions: A Social Call” was recorded from student homes across the country thanks to engineer John Harris and Temple Music Technology Professor, Dr. David Pasbrig.  This latest musical recording was able to bring musicians together at the Temple Performing Arts Center in April of 2021. They used a host of safety measures to make the project happen.

The title tune, “Without You, No Me” is a Jimmy Heath composition.  This song was originally commissioned by Dizzy Gillespie, acknowledging the foundational influence that Heath has had on generations of jazz musicians.

“He was almost like a father to me,” Stafford shares his feelings for Jimmy Heath.  “When I started at Temple, he was the first person I called.  He gave me such great advice; just teach yourself and teach who you are.  Figure out what you do, how you do it, and teach that,” Jimmy Heath had encouraged him.

This production brought everyone together in simpatico reverence, including legendary musicians who knew and loved Jimmy Heath, like Joey DeFrancesco and Christian McBride.  Jack Saint Clair, a Temple alumnus, composed the tune “Bootsie” to honor the great, Philadelphia-based, tenor saxophonist Bootsie Barnes, who also died this year in April.  Saint Clair also contributes a brassy arrangement of “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” with the addition of vocalist, Danielle Dougherty.  The Temple University Band’s spotlight rests on Philadelphia, because both Jimmy Heath and his famous brothers, Al “Tootie” Heath and Percy Heath are all Philly jazz royalty, along with Bootsie Barnes and the iconic organist Shirley Scott, who shared the stage with Bootsie many times.  On Track #5, Joey DeFrancesco is featured on organ to invigorate and infuse the tune “In That Order. ” It’s his composition and the great Bill Cunliffe has arranged it.  As mentioned, Joey also has deep roots in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania community. 

Another Philadelphia ‘special guest’ is bassist, Christian McBride.   McBride was bornto Renee McBridein Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His father, Lee Smith, and his great uncle, Howard Cooper, are well known Philadelphia bassists who served as McBride’s early mentors.  Christian has composed “The Wise Old Owl” inspired by the school’s avian mascot.  However, he could very well be referring to Jimmy Heath, who mentored so many young, talented musicians as a wise old professor and master musician.  Heath’s composition titled, “Voice of the Saxophone,” is another beautiful and memorable piece.  You will find an excellence of musical talent in this big band production.  Each song spirals into our hearts and celebrates the iconic Mr. Jimmy Heath, using all the incredible brilliance of the Temple University Jazz Band.

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 JON GORDON – “STRANGER THAN FICTION” – ArtistShare fan funded project

Jon Gordon, alto saxophone/composer/arranger; Fabio Ragnelli, drums; Julian Bradford, bass; Orrin Evans & Will Bonness, piano; Larry Roy, solo guitar; Jocelyn Gould, guitar/vocals; John Ellis & Anna Blackmore, bass clarinet; Reginald Lewis & Tristan Martinuson, tenor saxophone; Alan Ferber, trombone/arranger; Derrick Gardner, trumpet.

“Stranger Than Fiction” was released September 17th through ArtistShare and joins my list of creative, out-of-the-box, musical performances featuring composer, arranger and alto saxophonist, Jon Gordon.

“Around 2000, I began to be aware that things were not as I’d hoped in our country.  For all the troubles of our past, I had hope that the country was headed in a better direction.  But I became disillusioned and angered by so many people seeming to cede to a kind of non-reality and in the last few years, that’s only gotten more apparent,” Jon Gordon affirms in his press package.

Consequently, the title track of his album was written by Gordon at a time of this initial revelation.  Like me, he could hardly believe the crazy world of politics he was witnessing or the upside-down position in his personal and professional life when the pandemic startled the world and caused mass quarantines.  I often thought to myself, if I wrote this in a novel, no one would believe it.  However, we were living in a strange reality, not in a fiction-based novel.  Jon Gordon coined it accurately when he named this project, “Stranger Than Fiction.”

Fragments of horn sounds splatter into space and introduce a tune called “Pointillism.”  This immediately catches the listener’s ear and had me on the edge of my seat with great expectancy, waiting to see what was coming next.  Jon Gordon’s alto saxophone flutters like a drunken bird circling the sky.  His tone is round, full and echoes freedom against the backdrop of the Will Bonness piano parts.  Gordon’s “Havens” composition follows this Avant-garde presentation.  It settles the audience down with lovely horn harmonics that create a cushion of sound where Gordon can bounce his solo.  It’s a beautiful piece of music that is circular in nature, allowing his horn to figure-eight across the horizon.  Bonness is also given a piece of sky to explore, using his eighty-eight keys to solo until Julian Bradford takes a low bow on bass.  His double bass solo is richly supported by the drums of Pablo Ragnelli.   Then comes the title tune, infused by trombonist, Alan Ferber’s nine-piece arrangement.  Jocelyn Gould’s soprano voice becomes another horn on the “Sunyasin” composition and adds another depth to the arrangement.  I thought the beautiful ballad titled, “Bella” was enhanced by a whirlpool of horn harmonies that created a canvas for the guitar to paint upon.  Track #8, “Modality” is full of more warm chords hummed by a choir of horns and played at a moderate pace.  From a positive critique perspective, I wish the tempos had moved up like a good stew, first simmering and then into a full-fledged, spicey boil. That never happens.

Jon Gordon is a native New Yorker who started playing saxophone at age ten.  He’s classically trained, but fell in love with jazz after hearing a Phil Woods record.  He has worked with a plethora of legendary musicians including Clark Terry, Benny Carter, Maria Schneider, the Vanguard Orchestra, Ray Barretto and Jimmy Cobb to name only a few.  Gordon has released more than a dozen albums as a bandleader and has authored three books.                                                

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Steve Million, piano/composer; Sarah Marie Young, vocals; Jim Gailloreto, saxophone/flute; John Sims, bass; Juan Pastor, drums.

Steve Million has a piano style that mixes Ragtime and Thelonious Monk in a very unusual way.  You clearly hear this style and perspective on the first original tune he has composed titled “Heavens to Monkitroid” with a nod to Thelonious.  When vocalist Sarah Marie Young enters the picture, she lifts the piece several notches by busting into a lyrical vocal that’s written like a horn line.  Her voice is crystal clear and she exhibits a full range, bouncing from sweet soprano tones to alto beauty.  In the liner notes,  I learn that back in 1988 Steve was a semi-finalist in the Thelonious Monk Jazz Piano Competition.  He currently co-leads the all-original music sextet, “BakerzMillion,” a working band in Chicago.  Sarah Marie Young also was a semi-finalist in the 2010 Thelonious Monk Competition and won the 2011 Montreux Voice Competition that was judged by Quincy Jones.  To her credit, she’s also a songwriter and musician. Steve Million is well-respected by the Chicago-area jazz scene.  He grew up in Boonville, Missouri and was sparked to become a musician when his mother took him to hear Count Basie at the young age of eight.  Somehow, sitting in a front row near the Count, the mesmerized child caught the famed musician’s eye. Captivated by Count Basie’s warm smile and his piano playing, after the concert Basie took time to talk to young Million.  He even introduced the wide-eyed boy to the band.  That was the blooming of Steve Million’s musical career. 

Steve Million attended North Texas State University where he studied jazz and English.  Fascinated by Monk, who became his main influence, he continued chasing musical dreams.  His love of blues, rock and jazz allowed him to bounce around with different bands and play various genres, especially in the Kansas City area.  At that time, he was attending the University of Missouri.  Steve Million recorded his first album in 1995 on Palmetto Record label.  That was followed up with “Thanks a Million” in 1997 and “Truth Is” in 1999.  Several other albums followed and “Jazz Words” is the culmination of Million’s inventive piano playing and his blossoming composer skills.  Sarah Marie Young interprets his original music with much pizazz, using her outstanding vocals to add emotion, to sell the lyrics and introduce us to Million’s interesting melodies. For example, “The Way Home” is stunningly beautiful and on “Missing page” Million’s challenging and interesting melodies pour out of Sarah Marie, sweet as cake batter.  Ms. Young harmonizes with horn precision, dueting with Jim Gailloreto’s saxophone.  His solo lights the oven and warms the mood.  This is a unique and artistic project, sparsely produced, with the spotlight on Million’s compositions, using Sarah Marie Young’s lovely voice like icing on his cake.  I found the artwork on the jacket of Steve Million & Sarah Marie Young’s new album to be quite enticing and emblematic of the musical art within.  The artist is Azusa Nakazawa.  In fact, her cover design encouraged me to pick up this album and take a listen.  Also, the artistic merit of this music reminds me of another Chicago artist, Minnie Ripperton when she was with Rotary Connection and when she recorded “Come to my Garden.” Although Ms. Young sounds nothing like Minnie, this music is just that unique and artsy!

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Ches Smith, drums/percussion/kata/vocals/composer; Matt Mitchell, piano; Nick Dunston, bass; Sirene Dantor Rene, vocals; Daniel Brevil, Fanfan jean-Guy Rene & Markus Schwartz, tanbou/vocals; Miguel Zenon, alto saxophone.

Ches Smith decided to start a band based on the connections between Haitian Vodou music and his own musical expression.  Vodou music combines Roman Catholicism and African Religion, originally created by slaves brought to Haiti from Africa.  This album is the result of fifteen years where Smith studied cultural icons and musicians who had great knowledge of Haitian Vodou drumming.  Smith delved into polyrhythms, polytonality, improvisation, extended timbral awareness, channeled aggression and power.  Many of his teachers of the tanbou drum talked to him about mixing Vodou with jazz.  One of his mentors was Haitian drum pioneer, Frisner Augustin; a musician who loved jazz as much as he treasured his drum set.  As a composer, Ches has combined elements of polytonal relations using singers and drums to create musical conversations.  When I think of extraordinary music concepts, this is clearly one.  He uses an octet to orchestrate his compositions, with voices lacing through, like brilliantly braided multi-colored ribbons.

“There is no existing model marrying traditional Haitian songs with original instrumental compositions and contemporary improvisation in this way,” claims Ches Smith.

“We All Break 2020” is one disc of this double set.  The other is “We All Break 2015.”  I listened to the 2020 disc first.  They open with “Woule Pou Mwen” a short two-minutes and forty-one seconds long, but it’s strong in spirit and deep infectious energy.  Matt Mitchell opens the piece with a dynamic piano and is soon joined by African voices, spurred by Ches Smith manning the drums. It’s very percussive and Ches adds his voice to the others.  “Here’s the Light” follows and once again, this tune is pushed and elevated by the Ches Smith percussion, along with powerful vocal energy.  Smith has composed the music, but the song lyrics and melodies are by Daniel Brevil.  Miguel Zenon’s alto saxophone is king during this song arrangement.  He dips and soars and flies like a colorful, wild, Haitian butterfly.  There are some traditional Haitian songs included in these various arrangements.  Ches Smith used the traditional three drums; manman, segon and boula.  Each brings it’s on pitch from low to medium to high tones on the boula drum.  Although the piano of Matt Mitchell establishes the jazz brilliantly in these arrangements, the drums hold the culture in place.  The various breaks in the arrangements, create a platform for drums and vocals to speak to one another.  It brings groove and culture to this project like blood and bone.

Sirene Dantor Rene’s voice is beautiful and full of emotion.   Her delivery on “Leaves Arrive” is powerful and hypnotic; especially at the end of her vocal arrangement, when the other voices join in with rhythmic hand claps.  This is followed by an instrumental addition to the song that is well-played and creative.  “Women of Iron” is a song composed using Nigerian and Yorubic roots.  It employs the Nago rhythm that’s associated with warfare and the Haitian War of Independence in particular.  The elements of fire and iron are the realm of Ogou, symbolized by a machete and a red scarf along with a bottle of Barbancourt (Haitian rum) and a cigar. This song of strong women recalls a ceremony on August 14, 1791 that sealed an alliance between Haiti and their African ancestors to eradicate slavery.  You will learn much history and culture in the small booklets provided as part of this album package.

The Ceremonial Vodou music is explored on the 2015 disc.  This 2020 disc offers more recently composed pieces and, in some ways, more originality.  This double set of exploratory and excellent Vodou Jazz is explained in two small, 4-color booklets that accompany this colorful package of two CDs. An in-depth explanation of the various songs, their meanings, the accompanying drums and the awesome artists who make the music are included in these books.  The song lyrics are also translated in the provided booklet.

Speaking of ‘Pushing Boundaries’ and ‘Breaking Rules,’ this is a project that totally exemplifies the title of this column and its premise.  The music is symbolic of ritual, culture and change.  It’s creative and a fiery mix of Haitian culture, traditional songs and American jazz freedom music.  Ches Smith, in association with Pyroclastic Records, has brought the world an exceptional piece of art and music.  Smith and his group of talented musicians can feel triumphant.  Perhaps Smith summed it up best when he said:

                “If in Vodou the invisible become visible, here perhaps, the inaudible becomes audible.”

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ALEXIS PARSONS – “ALEXIS” – New Artists Records

Alexis Parsons, vocals; David Berkman & Arturo O’Farrill, piano; Drew Gress & Jonathan Gilley, bass; Matt Wilson & Willard Dyson, drums.

The thing that made me pause, on the very first tune rolling off Ms. Parsons’ album, was the pianist, David Berkman.  His introduction is a lovely mixture of classical and jazz; subtleness and surprise.  When Alexis Parsons enters the song, her voice snatches the attention like a seasoned pick-pocket. When she sings, You’d be so “Easy to Love,” I believe her.  She steals my attention away from her very excellent trio.  This lady knows how to sell a song.  She’s a vocalist that has notably been on the New York jazz scene for over two decades.  This is her third recording as a leader.  Certainly, the arrangements enhance her choice of standards.  She sings gems like “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” at an up-tempo speed, showing her listening audience she can ‘swing’ and giving Matt Wilson a time to shine on trap drums and spotlighting Drew Gress with his rich bass solo.  Her choice of seldom sung songs like “Make It Last” bring further interest to this compilation of Great American Songbook tunes. For the second half of her album, Ms. Parsons uses a trio headed by pianist Arturo O’Farrill.   O’Farrill’s portion of the production opens with Jonathan Gilley brilliantly bowing his double bass and O’Farrill playing interesting arpeggios that tinkle in the upper register of the piano.  The introduction to “Organ Grinder” is quite pensive and delicate.  Enter Alexis, telling the story of a village accordionist who is ignored and disrespected.  At first, it’s a ballad, but then the trio double-times the piece and O’Farrill adlibs beneath Parsons spoken word.  The arrangement is stellar, but her vocals, although quite emotional, are somewhat over-the-top.  She sounds more comfortable on the tune that follows, singing duet with Jonathan Gilley’s bass and swinging hard on “Devil May Care.”  “Summertime” is reinvented with an Avant-garde introduction I enjoyed.   O’Farrill’s arrangement of this Gershwin standard keeps interest in a well-covered composition.  Parsons’ voice leans towards the dramatic and at times is quite Broadway, making standards sound more like show tunes.  But it is her sincerity that snags the ear. 

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JIM YANDA – “A SILENT WAY” – Corner Store Jazz

Jim Yanda, amplified acoustic guitar/composer; Phil Haynes, drums/composer; Herb Robertson, trumpet/synthesizer/assorted instruments/composer.

Their album is titled “A Silent Way” but it is anything but silent or peaceful.  This trio combines guitar, trumpet, synthesizers and drums to create a sound that certainly stretches the boundaries and walls of jazz and music.  These gentlemen delve into jungle sounds; animal screeches and growls along with infant wailing and cries. You hear the chirping of birds and the gruff, guttural sounds of some unknown creature. This album, created in Yanda’s New Jersey living room as he experimented with a number of free improvised sessions, is an excursion into provocative improvisation.  Yanda invited Haynes and Robertson to join him, along with an engineer, so they could capture their impromptu moments of free expression.

“Right after the first session, it was universally agreed by all of us that there was something special here,” Yanda recalls.

Yanda found enough material from those spontaneous jam sessions to fill two discs.  This is a double disc project of modern, Avant-garde jazz, without rules or guardrails.  These musicians fly around the disc like Roller Derby champions doing pivots, flips and unheard-of-antics that both stun and entertain us.  By example of this creation, you would never know that guitarist Jim Yanda grew up on a dairy farm in Iowa and performed originally with a Western Swing band.  On this project, you will find no swing and no grooves that encourage you to tap your toes or dance.  Yanda idolized Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page.  In 1982, he turned a keen eye to jazz and Avant-garde music of the 20th Century.  Yanda and Phil Haynes have been working together since they were students at Coe College in Cedar Rapids.  They connected with Herb Robertson when they met in a Brooklyn rehearsal space.  This is their first time recording as a trio.  Fasten your seatbelt!               

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    […] By Dee Dee McNeil. Musicalmemoirs’s Blog […]

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