Archive for November, 2021

GIVING THANKS FOR THESE GREAT JAZZ MUSICIANS

November 24, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil

NOVEMBER 24, 2021

Happy Thanksgiving to each and every one of you.  So much amazing music crossed my desk this season, I hardly had room to fit them all into this column.  I begin with a spectacular ‘live’ recording by HAROLD MABERN, celebrating the genius of John Coltrane.  ALEX BROWN is a more contemporary pianist with a style and uniqueness all his own.  MICHAEL STEPHENSON, a unique vocalist who also plays saxophone, meets THE ALEXANDER CLAFFY TRIO with Benny Benack III on trumpet and its pure magic!  Brazilian pianist MARCOS ARIEL woos us with his solo piano tribute to flowers. GORDON GRDINA is a JUNO Award-winning Oud player and guitarist, whose career has spanned continents.  Summit Record’s “SIDEMEN” album features top jazz musicians and composer/producer/trumpeter, PETER WELKER.  Tenor Saxophonist, KEVIN SUN, records a love letter to Charlie Parker and DAVE YOUNG, one of Canada’s most celebrated bassists records a CD called “Mantra.”

HAROLD MABERN – “MABERN PLAYS COLTRANE”- Smoke Session Records

Harold Mabern, piano; Vincent Herring, alto saxophone; Eric Alexander, tenor saxophone; Steve Davis, trombone; John Webber, bass; Joe Farnsworth, drums.

As a lover of John Coltrane’s amazing music, I was eager to listen to Harold Mabern’s tribute recording to this iconic saxophonist.  Mabern is widely celebrated as a hard bop, post-bop pianist and composer who also dabbled in the soul-jazz field.  He was a great admirer of John Coltrane and he came up at a time when be-bop was king.  Harold Mabern played with legendary musicians like James Moody, George Benson, Clark Terry, Stanley Turrentine, Milt Jackson, Billy Harper and spent four decades with the great George Coleman.  He toured Europe with Lionel Hampton’s big band and accompanied respected jazz vocalists like Betty Carter, Johnny Hartman and Arthur Prysock.   He recorded his final four albums as a bandleader at the popular Smoke Jazz Club as part of their popular Smoke Sessions.   Harold Mabern experienced a heart attack and left this Earth on September 17, 2019.  He was eighty-one years old when he recorded this currently released piece of art. 

His grandson, Michael Mabern, shared memories of his grandpa in the liner notes of this album and talked about his grandfather’s relationship to John Coltrane. 

“He attended “Coltrane Courses” at the prestigious university known as Birdland’s non-air-conditioned basement in 1961 … sitting on a case of Budweiser’s for hours just to watch the master (John Coltrane) rehearse … well in advance of the “hit time” for his accompanist gigs with Dakota Staton and Johnny Hartman,” marveled Mabern’s grandson.

Mabern’s ensemble opens with “Dahomey Dance” introduced by a super tight horn section, they come out swinging harder than George Foreman.  They follow this with “Blue Train.”  Mabern was a giving, generous musician and a man who his grandson labels “Big Heart”; his musicians labeled him “Big Hands.”  Mabern is quick to give time and spotlight to his magnificent band members.  Vincent Herring shines brightly on alto saxophone and Eric Alexander is powerful on tenor.  Steve Davis takes his bow after a brilliant solo on trombone and John Webber establishes his talent and dexterity on double bass during a brief but powerful solo.  When Harold Mabern’s piano takes center stage, his fingers dance and tip toe across the keys like an expert high wire act.  He lifts the music and takes us higher with his innovative solo.  Always creative and expressive, Mabern’s piano abilities are balanced, solid and original.  The group is amply supported by the bright and powerful drums of Joe Farnsworth.  The ‘live’ audience bursts into spontaneous and appreciative applause after every tune they played.

“Playing John Coltrane’s music with Harold was like tapping into the source,” says Farnsworth. “He was like the vortex, and it all flowed through him. It was intense. Having Harold on the stage, given how much he loved John Coltrane, it elevated the spirit of the music tenfold.”

Every Coltrane composition included in this album celebrates tunes that fans have heard time and time again.  They are jazz standards today.  You will enjoy Mabern’s smoking hot interpretation of “Impressions” played at breakneck speed.  “Dear Lord” is opened by Harold Mabern’s solo piano with flash backs to Sunday morning church services and also the pianist’s love of Bach.  The group tackles “My Favorite Things,” “Naima” and “Straight Street.”  This is an album full of mastery and might.  These musicians give their all and freshly explore the dynamic beauty of John Coltrane.  This album will be available on December 3rd just in time to become a stocking stuffer for some lucky person.

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MICHAEL STEPHENSON MEETS THE ALEXANDER CLAFFY TRIO – Cellar Music Group

Michael Stephenson, voice/tenor saxophone; Alexander Claffy, bass; Julius Rodriguez, piano; Itay Morchi, drums; Benny Benack III, trumpet.

Michael Stephenson opens this CD with only his smooth tenor voice and Alexander Claffy playing upright bass.  Stephenson snaps his fingers from time to time, like a human drummer.  His voice is silky smooth, dancing atop Claffy’s beautiful bass lines with his tenor tones. They take a moderate swing through this track.  On Track #2, I was surprised because I hadn’t heard that Ray Charles “Greenback” tune in years.  It was quite nostalgic when Michael Stephenson sang it, using spoken word and song to deliver the old, familiar piece and adding his terrific talent on tenor saxophone.  Yes, Stephenson sings and plays the horn.  By the end of Benny Benack’s trumpet solo, I have completely fallen in love with this album.   Stephenson has a distinctive sound.  His vocals are impressive and unforgettable when he interprets Marvin Gaye’s song, “What’s Happening Brother?”  Alexander Claffy is the master arranger and he lays down outstanding tracks, creating a royal, musical stage for Stephenson to showcase his multi-talents. Julius Rodriguez is dynamic during his piano solo and puts the “J” in jazz.  Michael Stephenson reinvents the R&B tune, “When A Man Loves a Woman” with Claffy walking his bass and Itay Morchi swinging hard on the drums.  Benack III, on trumpet, continues the swing, joyful and reminding me of a Louisiana street parade.  This is another great arrangement!  Stephenson’s talent seems to be blossoming from a strong R&B background into the realms of jazz in a beautiful way.  He’s such an excellent singer that he could sing absolutely anything.  These arrangements, and his rare and impressive vocals, inspire me to play this wonderful album over and over again!  Other great arrangements and Michael Stephenson’s vocal tenacity shine on tunes like “On the Street Where You Live,” and the old American song of the South, “Tennessee Waltz” has a fresh face.   “Can’t Hide Love” is played at a speedy pace and swings like a pendulum.  The Alexander Claffy trio is strong as titanium and this straight-ahead arrangement brings back memories of John Coltrane.  Michael Stephenson is the vocal horn.   On the fade, trumpeter Benny Benack III reminds us of his brilliance.

The band takes a moment to remind us of their tenacity on a Ben Webster tune called “Did You Call Her Today” that shuffles its way into my heart and features Stephenson playing his tenor saxophone.  This album is a stunning projectile, hurling into our musical space without compromise or hesitancy. Michael Stephenson is a bright and powerful starship, making his way into our universe with unforgettable grace and beauty.  I walk away wanting more.

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ALEX BROWN – “THE DARK FIRE SESSIONS” – Alex Brown Music

Alex Brown, piano/composer/Fender Rhodes; Zach Brown, acoustic & elec. bass; Eric Doob, drums; Matthew Stevens, guitar; Eric Kurimski, acoustic guitar; Lucas Apostoleris, steel guitar; Paulo Stagnaro, percussion; Franco Pinna, bombo leguero; Sabastian Natal, candombe percussion; Sergio Martinez, cajon/flamenco percussion.

“The Dark Fire Sessions” is Alex Brown’s homage to the transformative process of regularly performing music with a group of companions who have become closer than blood.  This is his second release as a bandleader and he mixes warm Latin overtones, with sparks of percussion that light up the project and display his own piano brilliance.  While weaving his fiery talents on piano and keyboard into his arrangements, he offers us his composer skills.  The result is that Alex Brown has recorded a creative and diversified album.   Another reason for the album title, “The Dark Fire Sessions,” is that Alex and his brother, Zach Brown, founded a recording studio and independent rehearsal studio in Harlem that they named “The Dark Fire Sessions.”  One of my favorite tunes is “Chacarera” that establishes a catchy melody and allows Zach Brown to explore his improvisation on a theme.  The bassist exhibits strength and creativity on his instrument.  Chacarera is an Argentinian dance, somewhat like the Tango, that is entrenched in Argentina folk music.  The strength of Eric Doob on drums working in concert with brothers, Alex and Zach Brown, makes for a tenacious trio and rhythm section.  These three are close as peas in a pod and have toured the world together playing as a trio for a plethora of years.  They hold the project tightly together like magnets to metal. 

The Brown composition “24/7” is a minor blues and it swings hard. Zach shines on bass and Alex prowls across the keys, sounding quite like a lion on a hot tin roof top. 

Alex Brown started playing piano at age six.  He was taken to classical music concerts, including the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.  His parents enriched his life with museum visits, live theatre experiences and along the way, he fell in love with music.  It was in sixth grade, after joining an after-school jazz band, when he told his parents he had found his career path.  It was music. In high school, he began to take private lessons from Stanley Cowell.  Then he went off to the New England Conservatory where he studied with the great Panamanian pianist, Danilo Perez.  On this album Alex offers us profound keyboard lyricism, infectious melodies and unforgettable compositions, ranging from straight ahead jazz to contemporary, a touch of smooth jazz and all his arrangements seem soaked in percussive brilliance.  In fact, the percussionists stand out like Christmas tree lights, enriching the scene with their colorful beauty.  Sometimes Brown incorporates Afro Cuban rhythms and at other times explores Flamenco music. Check out his “New Flamenco” tune where he collaborates with Sergio Martinez, a traditional flamenco percussion player from Spain.   Alex explores the Fender Rhodes keyboard on “Novembro” and his brother applies the electric bass instituting contrasting rhythmic lines that dance with Doob’s drums in a very swinging way.  They create counterpoint to the piano’s expressive solo.  The opening bass line snatches the attention and becomes something like a ‘hook’ throughout the song.   These arrangements and compositions are ear candy.  Here is a young jazz pianist and composer, on the new horizon of his career.  Alex Brown invites us to listen, watch and enjoy as he rises like the sun.  His music burns, bright flames from “The Dark Fire Sessions.”

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MARCOS ARIEL – “PIANO BLOSSOMS” – Moondo Music
Marcos Ariel, piano/composer/producer.

This solo piano project by acclaimed Brazilian pianist, Marcos Ariel, celebrates nature and Ariel’s love of this planet; especially the beautiful flowers.  Each song celebrates a type of flower he might encounter in Brazil and/or Los Angeles, where he has been a part-time resident for over twenty-five years.  Opening with “Passionflower” I enjoy the beautiful melody that Marcos Ariel has composed. 

This is his 33rd album as a leader and the third release on his Moondo Music label.  As a native of Rio, he has been playing piano since age nine.

“Back then (in the 1970s), every home in Rio had a piano.  It was a piece of furniture, like a sofa or a table. …My music studies began when I first heard my two older sisters having music lessons.  After their lesson, I went to the piano and just played by ear the music they were learning,” he explained how he was drawn to the instrument.

Although his family dreamed of him becoming a prominent classical pianist, Marcos was drawn to traditional Brazilian music and American jazz.  He was deeply influenced by Chick Corea and became a full-time musician at age twenty.

On his original composition, “Narcissus,” I can almost see the flower blossoming; with petals opening like trembling lips.

“I enjoy taking long walks in the morning and looking at flowers that grow wild. … They evoke feelings and memories that I draw upon when I’m writing music,” Marcos Ariel explained.

I saw beautiful Bougainvillea’s climbing the walls of property in both Thailand and Singapore during my tours there.  The bright colors of the flowers were so attractive against the lush green of the leaves. Consequently, I enjoyed listening to the Marcos Ariel composition named for that flower. However, the one challenge about this solo production is that the mood and tempo of all the tunes are represented by slow ballads.  His compositions are very classically arranged and with very little change of rhythm to show us the various piano talents of Marcos Ariel.  This is the type of music they play while you’re getting a message, meditating, or sitting in the dentist office.  It’s very soothing, unobtrusive and played at a moderate tempo. 

“Chrysanthemum” was written as an homage to the pianist’s grandmother.  She loved chrysanthemums. His representation of “Orchid” sounds very regal and reminds me of a Rachmaninoff composition.  This original composition is quite dramatic, with the bass octaves played powerfully, like exclamation marks at the end of a statement.  “Fuchsia” is the only song on this album that was completely improvised, but it never steps outside the laid-back pattern of the overall production.  I missed hearing the colorful rhythms and excitement I always enjoy in Brazilian music.  Surely the composer must have seen flowers dancing and bobbing in the wind on those long, inspirational walks he took.

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GORDON GRDINA – “PENDULUM” – Attaboygirl Records

Gordon Grdina, classical guitar/oud.

Gordon Grdina is a JUNO Award-winning oud player and guitarist, whose career has spanned continents.  The JUNO Award is comparatively speaking, Canada’s GRAMMY Award.  Gordon’s exploration into free form improvisation, Avant-garde jazz, contemporary music, Indie rock and Arabian music has gained him recognition from highly regarded musicians in the jazz and improvisational world.  Mr. Grdina has performed with a long list of artists and familiar names like Gary Peacock and his own Haram ensemble that re-envisions Arabic, Persian and Sudanese music from the fifties and sixties, through an Arabic, Avant-garde improviser’s lens.  “Pendulum,” is Grdina’s third solo album and is specifically composed for classical guitar and oud.  It is the first album released on his on his Attaboygirl Record label, in collaboration with Genevieve Monro, a photographer and his business partner who will curate the visual style of their label.

The opening solo performance of Gordon Grdina celebrates a composition titled, “Koen Dori.”  It is a beautiful and melodic composition that showcases Grdina’s classical training and the mastery of his instrument.  He composed this song while in Japan and for a Japanese quartet to perform.  Grdina sports a discography that will number nearly twenty-four recordings by the year’s end. However, recording solo is something new for this creative guitarist.  His “Pendulum” performance shows off Grdina’s abilities on the oud as well as his mastery of the guitar. Always exploratory, he combines a number of styles and genres in these original works.  In the early days of his music career, Gordon was fascinated with the blues guitar.  In Vancouver, Canada, he spent many nights playing solo guitar and oud at local restaurants and coffee houses.  Back then, it was like paid rehearsal time and allowed him to develop his technique and practice standard tunes, harmony and improvising. Today, with so much wisdom stock-piled over years of composing, playing worldwide and sharing his talents, he returns to the challenge of playing solo with fresh eyes. 

The oud is a gift to American music from North Africa.  The oud is considered by Arabs to be one of the oldest, wooden string instruments on earth.  The sound projected from the oud vibrates inside its hollow, pear-shaped body and it has a fretless neck.  The instrument resembles a large gourd.  Gordon Grdina explained his approach to playing the oud.

“… All of my influences were starting to come out on the oud and maqam*, and oud ideas were coming out on the guitar.  Things started to get muddled together and out of that I think I’ve developed my own sound which is somewhere in between.  I hope it pays homage to tradition while creating with my own voice.”

*NOTE:  Maqam scales in traditional Arabic music are microtonal, not based on a twelve-tone equal-tempered musical tuning system, as is the case in modern Western music. Most maqam scales include a perfect fifth or a perfect fourth (or both).

Woodshedding during the pandemic sharpened Gordon Grdina’s acoustic skills and time spent practicing opened his heart and ears to new musical perspectives.  He introduces us to his classical guitar in romantic ways and on track #2 with arpeggio bliss and a melody that reminded me of angel harps.  You hear the Arabic charm on track #3, “The Chase,” with minor modes brightly coloring the tune and rich, baritone sounds pouring out of his oud.  Grdina is constantly reinventing himself.

I learned so much from listening to the magnificence and artistry of Gordon Grdina.  The first band he established blended Persian music and Iraqi music.  You will hear a lot of these influences in his compositions.   Grdina offers us world music, wrapped in American-made jazz music sheets and gifted to us like a birthday present or a love offering.   

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“SIDEMEN” – Summit Records

Peter Welker, flugelhorn/arranger/composer/trumpet/pianist; Frank Martin & Steve Carter, keyboards; David K. Matthews, piano; Ruben Valtierra, B-3 organ/piano/keyboards; Chris Smith, B-3 organ; Morris Acevedo, guitar; Todd Tribble, drums/percussion; Cliff Hugo, electric bass; Matthew Compagno & Niel Levonius, lead trumpet; Ella Steinberg, 2nd trumpet/flugelhorn; Nicholas Tribble, alto saxophone; Steve Steinberg, tenor saxophone/composer; Rob Sudduth & Greg Johnson, tenor saxophone; Robby Elfman, alto, baritone & tenor saxophone; David Schrader, alto saxophone; Matt Eakle, flute.  SPECIAL GUESTS: Tom Scott, tenor saxophone; Bill Champlin, vocals/B-3 organ; Steve Morse, guitar; Tony Levin, acoustic bass; Pete Levin, clavinet/string synthesizer.

The musicians play Musical Chairs during this production.  Various ‘cats’ are featured on different arrangements, with the long and varied list noted above.  Other’s pop in and out as special guests.  The “Sidemen” group opens with a number composed by Peter Welker called “Plugged In” with Steve Steinberg on tenor saxophone introducing us to the hypnotic melody that is begging for lyrics.  Frank Martin is on keyboards and offers us a delightful solo.  Composer, Peter Welker, is also a trumpeter, pianist and arranger.  His first six albums as a bandleader were straight-ahead jazz.  But this album shows his wide range of musical interests, including funk, R&B, soul and Latin.  After all, his credentials include working with or recording with Cold Blood, Jerry Garcia, Van Morrison, Santana, Huey Lewis and Dr. John among others.  

“I did all of the arranging and wrote or co-composed seven originals.  We used many guest artists (seven of whom are multi-Grammy winners) who are friends and really love our concept.  There are twenty-four musicians on this recording.  Each tune has its own personality,” Peter Welker explained his concept for the “Sideman” album.

Tom Scott’s emotional delivery on the familiar jazz standard “Save Your Love for Me” is poignant and memorable.  Morris Acevedo also shines on his solo during this arrangement.  The ensemble puts a Latin beat behind Welker’s tune, “Cielo Azul” with Ruben Valtierra on piano and Matt Eakle adding brightness of his flute.  I enjoy the horn harmonics that appear here and there, giving a nod to big band beauty.  For example, on the group’s arrangement of the Jimi Hendrix tune “Third Stone from the Sun,” I enjoyed Todd Tribble showing off his rock drumming techniques.  The drummer shines in the spotlight.  Steve Morse is also outstanding on his guitar solo. 

I was inquisitive to see how they interpreted the Miles Davis/Bill Evans tune, “Blue in Green,” featuring Peter Welker who steps away from his horn and sits down to the piano.  It’s just Tony Levin on acoustic bass and Welker at the eighty-eight keys for a too-short one minute and twenty-two second presentation.  But it’s very sweet, although way too brief.  All in all, this is a delicious mix of familiar songs and original tunes, played by an exceptionally talented group of musicians who are proud to be called, “Sidemen.”  However, each is an individual master and a super-star in their own professional universe, helping this project to shine brightly.

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KEVIN SUN – “˂ 3 Bird” – Endectomorph Music

Kevin Sun, tenor saxophone/clarinet; Adam O’Farrill, trumpet; Max Light, guitar; Christian Li, piano/fender Rhodes; Walter Stinson, double bass; Matt Honor, drums.

This is tenor saxophonist, Kevin Sun’s love letter to Charlie Parker.  Sun has composed twelve original songs to celebrate one of our brilliant jazz geniuses.  Many of the compositions incorporate the Parker songs inside these arrangements.  This music was developed during the 2020 pandemic lock-down.  It was a period when Kevin Sun soaked up seventy-two hours of Charlie Parker recordings and interviews.  You might say he became obsessed with Bird’s life and music. 

“It was a way to de-stress and take a break from the pandemic reality … just imagining what was happening on a given day or period in Bird’s life,” he remembers.  

2020 marked the centennial of Charlie Parker’s birthday, but the pandemic kept tributes and performances to remember Parker’s legacy pretty much mute.  Kevin Sun wanted to capture the essence and magical music of Parker.  For example, on the opening tune, “Greenlit” he blends lines from Bird’s famed Confirmation tune with his own imaginative composer skills.  One of my favorites on this production is “Onomatopoeia” that’s played at a flaming, up-tempo speed, borrowing elements of the famed “Be-bop” tune Parker composed and Parker’s tune “Segment” from Charlie’s Quadromania album.

Kevin Sun lives in New York City and has released three albums to date.  The tenor sax man has performed extensively in China and is the Artistic Director of the Blue Note China Jazz Orchestra.  He was named a finalist for the 2021 Jerome Hill Foundation Artist Fellowship and is lauded as a harmonic virtuoso by DownBeat Magazine.  However, every one of these tunes uses reimagined Charlie Parker melodies.  Although well played by both Sun and his group of talented musicians, this fact dulls a little of this project’s luster.  Sun recreates the 1945 original arrangement of “Salt Peanuts,” letting Matt Honor contribute powerhouse drum licks and rhythmic intrigue to the arrangement.  Christian Li is continuously creative and prolific on both piano and Fender Rhodes.  The double bass of Walter Stinson is powerful throughout and Max Light adds his guitar brilliance.  But it is always Kevin Sun, on clarinet and tenor saxophone who emulates the late, great Charlie Parker who inspires the band in his own unique way.

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DAVE YOUNG – “MANTRA” – Modica Music

Dave Young, bass/composer; Ewen Farncombe, organ; Terry Clarke, drums; Brian Dickinson, piano; Reg Schwager, guitar; Kevin Turcotte, trumpet; Perry White, tenor saxophone/bass clarinet; John Johnson, alto saxophone/flute; Les Allt, flute.

There is nothing more comforting to me on a cold, winter afternoon than to stumble upon an album of straight-ahead jazz.  Dave Young is one of Canada’s most celebrated bassists.  He has been a first-call musician for the likes of Oscar Peterson, Tommy Flanagan, Kenny Barron, Oliver Jones, Cedar Walton and too many more to list.  Based in Toronto, since 1967 Mr. Young has built a solid career as an in-demand studio session musician and sideman.  He has won the coveted JUNO Award, that is similar to our GRAMMY.  This is his sixteenth release as a leader and he offers us six original compositions out of ten swinging songs.  The group opens with Woody Shaw’s “Green St. Caper” and they swing their way right into my heart.  Young has composed “The Gypsy” that follows as track #2.  The horns dance and designate the melody.  Pianist, Brian Dickinson takes a happy-go-lucky, celebratory solo.  This “Mantra” album acts as a collector’s chest that stores some of young’s creative compositions.  His compositions stretch over the past twenty years.  We get an opportunity to lift the heavy chest top and uncover some of his best work.  Other tunes he has composed are “Waltz for Blue,” the title tune, “Mantra” and “Ode to the Southwest” all three tunes feature Ewen Farncombe on organ.  Monk’s “Evidence” composition swings hard and gives the various horn players an opportunity to strut their stuff.  When they play, “Opus de Funk” (a Horace Silver song), Dave Young steps into the spotlight on his double bass and shines as does Kevin Turcotte on trumpet & Reg Schwager during his guitar solo.  This album is sure to be another jewel in the crown of composer and bassist, Dave Young.

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THE CHANGING FACE OF JAZZ

November 14, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil

November 14, 2021

As I began to compile artists, who I thought best reflected my column concept of “The Changing Face of Jazz,” I was struck by how many young jazz artists of the twenty-first century are blending genres and pushing the walls of label identification.  I was also puzzled by those who use the label of jazz, but don’t ‘swing,’ don’t shuffle, don’t blossom from the ‘blues’ and seem to think that just being improvisational makes them jazz artists. Some of the music I reviewed was more experimental and less jazz.  From my perspective, jazz has to include rhythm, harmony and improvisation as it’s make-up, along with the musical ability to weave ‘the blues’ into the mix and the history of African American culture. Why, you ask?  Because it is African-Americans who created this unique, original, American art form of jazz.  It is a music that represents freedom, born from the breast of those oppressed. The music included in this column displays the many faces of jazz. Every album sent to me says it should fall into the ‘jazz’ category.  Some I enjoyed and appreciated more than others.  But it clearly gives us a look at where this musical blessing to the world called ‘jazz’ has been, where it is presently rooted and where it may be going.  Fasten your seatbelts.

LADY BLACKBIRD – “BLACK ACID SOUL” –  BMG Records

Lady Blackbird, vocals; Deron Johnson, piano/mellotron/Casio synthesizer; Jon Flaugher, double bass; Jimmy Paxon, drums/percussion; Chris Seefried, elec. guitar/acoustic guitar; Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, trumpet.

There is something hypnotic and magical about the strength and sincerity of Lady Blackbirds voice.  There’s something jazzy!  She draws us into each song with dynamics and emotional connection to her lyrics.  Not everyone can connect through a recording, but Lady Blackbird touches the heart from this disc.  I cannot wait to finally experience her ‘in person.’  She opens with the Nina Simone original composition, “Blackbird.”  Jimmy Paxon drums a rhythm that’s infectious and Jon Flaugher punches incredible rhythm on his double bass, using a bow to pull the beauty to the surface.  Deron Johnson is not only an able accompanist and pianist, he also shows us he is a master improvisor. Track #2 is a song called “It’s Not That Easy” where Lady Blackbird exposes her soulful roots, blending jazz with R&B in a very bluesy way.  After all, ‘the blues’ is one of the stepping stones to jazz.  Her ballad, “Fix It,” was inspired by the Bill Evans work called “Piece Peace” with lyrics by her guitarist, Chris Seefried and co-writer, Marley Monroe (who is actually Lady Blackbird).  This is a ballad that promises her power to ‘fix it’ with husky sincerity.  Sometimes I hear shades of Etta James and other times, a little bit of Nina Simone.  However, this vocalist is confident and tenacious in her own right.  She’s a stylist and a storyteller.  Another outstanding original song on this album, that both her producer/guitarist wrote along with Lady Blackbird is “Five Feet Tall.”  This composition is very jazzy and powerful.  Track #8, “Lost and Looking” is another jazz/blues showstopper.

The woman behind the moniker of Lady Blackbird is Marley Monroe.  She’s been singing since childhood and has bounced around the recording industry, crash-landing record deals that never fully captured her essence or exposed her amazing potential.  She sang in the gospel church as a child.  At age sixteen she was tied up in a record contract that was sitting on the shelf and going nowhere.  Finally, at age eighteen, Lady Blackbird was uncaged and allowed to fly free.  She tried making things work with L.A. Reid’s production company, but she flew into another dead end.  She worked the lucrative background singer circuit.  This led to her meeting a handful of music industry superstars including Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, Sam Watters, Louis Biancaniello, Tricky Stewart and The Heavyweights.  Finally, she ran into artist, writer and producer, Chris Seefried, who was GRAMMY Award nominated for his work with Andra Day’s debut album honed from the Billie Holiday biopic she starred in.  Chris and Lady Blackbird made an instant connection and you feel it in the production of this “Black Acid Soul” album.  Lady Blackbird is the perfect example of the changing face of jazz, with shades of Tina Turner’s tone laced throughout this production.  Her repertoire incorporates several genres of music and her vocal style encompasses the past, present and perhaps the future of jazz and blues.

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SARA SERPA & EMMANUEL IDUMA – “INTIMATE STRANGERS” – Biophilia Records

Sara Serpa, vocals/composer; Emmanuel Iduma, text/spoken word; Matt Mitchell, piano; Qasim Naqvi, modular synth; Onesiphore Nembe, poet reader; Sofia Rei & Aubrey Johnson, voices.

This very unique and creative project was made possible by the support of The NYC Women’s Fund for Media, Music and Theatre; City of New York Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, in association with the New York Foundation for the Arts.  The lyrical value of this project is the work of Nigerian writer, Emmanuel Iduma, with segments of his 2018 published book, “A Stranger’s Pose” that recounts his travels through more than a dozen African cities.  Vocalist, Sara Serpa, has composed all the music and her voice is a clear soprano that caresses each lyric with clarity and beauty.  This work premiered as a multi-media performance at Brooklyn’s National Sawdust in November of 2018, before the pandemic silenced the music world.  Sara utilizes the talents of Sofia Rei, a bandmate from an a cappella quartet and singer, Aubrey Johnson, to create challenging and unusual harmonic vocalese.  Their voices soar and swell between Emmanuel’s spoken word stories and Serpa’s compositions.  Her songwriting is often like melodic nursery rhymes that repeat melody over and over, then attach Iduma’s words, like rhymeless chants. Sara Serpa is a gifted improvisor.

“There were a lot of stories in Emmanuel’s book that really resonated with me.  While recognition dealt with my country’s past relationships with Africa, I felt like his book presents a much-needed perspective of what borders actually mean.  Through his travels and encounters with so many people just trying to cross into Europe, Emmanuel raises all these questions about traveling, migrating and leaving your home behind,” Sara Serpa shared her enthusiasm for this project and her choice of working with the award-winning journalist, Emmanuel Iduma.

 “My collaborative performance with Sara brought me closer to understanding how words worked in a pre-literate time, when writing was yet to be invented – when stories were passed from mouth to mouth; from memory to memory.  Sara’s composition distills “A Stranger’s Pose” to its essential groove and vital ballad,” Emmanuel writes in the liner notes.

This album of music unfolds like a Saharan dust storm in Northern Nigeria.  The music swirls around my ears from the lips of Serpa.  At the same time, Iduma’s stories become wind, whipping the music and his metaphors around my consciousness.  This is a different form of jazz.  Serpa’s wordless melodies fly around me like hot grains of sand. They sting and slap me awake, like Emmanuel’s provoking stories.

Sara Serpa, a native of Lisbon, Portugal, prides herself in being an improviser who implements unique instrumental arrangements to showcase her vocal prowess.  She is recognized and heralded for her distinctive, wordless singing and is known around New York for her experimental music since arriving in NYC around 2008.  She has produced and released ten albums as a leader.  Ms. Serpa was voted #1 Vocalist of the Year by the 2020 NPRA Music Jazz Critics Poll and Musician of the Year in 2020 by Portuguese magazine.  She and Emmanuel Iduma take us on an unexpected journey of music and storytelling, sure to provoke moments of deep thought, as we dive, ear-first, into unknown territories.

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CAMERON MIZELL & CHARLIE RAUH – “LOCAL FOLKLORE” – Destiny Records

Cameron Mizell, acoustic & electric guitar; Charlie Rauh, acoustic guitar.

Two composers and respected guitarists sat down one day, like old friends do, and discussed making a record together.   It was during the pandemic and they discussed recording remotely.  The result was a production of ten songs and a duo album called “Local Folklore.”  Charlie Rauh spoke about their organic and musical rapport.

“… I always feel pushed to try new approaches to the instrument as well as songwriting, because his (Cameron’s) creativity is so deeply personal,” Rauh praised making music with Cameron Mizell.

The first two songs on this album are original compositions, one is by Cameron Mizell and the second by Charlie Rauh.  The music is simplistic and country-rich.  It sounds like the soundtrack to a cowboy film. 

Mizell spoke about playing with Rauh saying, “We’ve played together so much over the years that I sometimes believe I can anticipate what he’ll do, only to be surprised by something new, yet still uniquely Charlie.”

Track #3, titled “Old Sardis Road” solidifies their Americana style of music and is co-written by Mizell.  There are no fancy solos here or fingers flying to improvise.  Instead, this is just down-home, folksy, authentic, country-western music that one might hear being played around a campfire or on the front porch of a Southern cabin, much like the one pictured on their album cover. The artwork is painted by Christina Rauh-Fishburne, Charlie’s sister.

Charlie Rauh grew up in Huntsville, Alabama and brings those deep Southern roots to his music.  The blossoming flower fully bloomed in New York City where he fertilized and nourished his art playing everything from pop, rock, folk and R&B to country, electronic music and jazz.  However, on this project you will hear mostly bluegrass and Americana.  I rarely review this type of music for my column; however, I did enjoy these compositions.  They have strong, well-written melodies and are presented with sincerity and simplicity.  Most of these songs could easily be arranged in a jazzy way.

Cameron Mizell is a Brooklyn-based guitarist and composer.  Like Rauh, he’s dipped his talents in a variety of pots, but remains stewed in Americana for this production.  He’s collaborated and produced artists on dozens of recordings from jazz-funk to avant-garde experimentation and even salsa.  Mizell has released eight albums as a bandleader in the past seventeen years.  This recent duet of acoustic guitars and original compositions is relaxing and melodic.  Nobody ‘swings’ or ‘shuffles’ on this recording, although some of the songs could easily have leant themselves to those kinds of arrangements. Since they have labeled their genre ‘jazz,’ I wish these two had offered us a bit more of jazz guitar during this production.   Still, I enjoyed listening to the duo and appreciated their musicianship.

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NICOLE HENRY – “TIME TO LOVE AGAIN” – Banister Records

Nicole Henry, vocals; Pete Wallace, piano/keyboards/organ; Doug Emery, B3 organ; Eric England, acoustic bass; David Chiverton, drums/percussion; Aaron Lebos, guitar; Camilo Velandia, electric guitar;  Dan Warner, acoustic guitar; Richard Bravo & Eduardo Rodriguez, percussion; Tom McCormick, Troy Roberts & John Michalak, tenor saxophone; Teddy Mulet, trumpet/trombone; Jim Hacker, trumpet; Jean Caze, trumpet/flugelhorn; Jorge Dorbal, Jr., trombone; Gregoire Maret, harmonica; Samantha Natalie, Nikki Kidd, Lenora Jaye & Rachel Brown, background vocals.

Nicole Henry grew up in a musical family in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.  Music, acting, dancing and singing inspired her study of cello and ballet.  She graduated from the University of Miami with a degree in Communications and Theatre.  Almost immediately, Nicole landed appearances in national commercials and was also hired to perform voiceovers.  She found her way to the theater stage, receiving praise for her appearance in the musical version of “The Bodyguard” and she will co-star in the upcoming Miami, Florida world premiere of the new musical about the life of Louis Armstrong. 

Ms. Henry opens with the familiar song “Feeling Good.”  She starts with only voice and percussion, which would have been very impressive if she had sung the melody correctly.  It’s acceptable to improvise on a melody in jazz, but generally speaking, the vocalist respects the songwriter the first time down by singing the original melody.  In this case, the melody is absolutely beautiful and deserves to be sung.  Nicole also changes the lyrics.  I’m not sure if she did it because she never learned the lyrics or if she thought it was more personalized saying “You know what I feel” instead of the original lyrics that were written, “You Know how I feel.”  The original lyrics were good enough for Nina Simone to sing and for Michael Buble to record.  So, I think (at least on the opening verse) Ms. Henry could have sung them as written.  That being said, vocally Ms. Henry’s voice is powerful and easy to enjoy.  I can tell she’s having a good time singing and that transmits to her audience.  Track #2 is the familiar pop song, “Midnight at the Oasis” originally recorded by Maria Muldaur.  Nicole puts her own spin on the tune and it’s very pleasing.  Grammy winner, Gregoire Maret, adds spice with his tasty harmonica solo.  The band arrangement turns pop-funk on the James Taylor tune, “your Smiling Face,” and Nicole Henry delivers her own unique stylized version of the song.   Finally, on track #4 she interprets the jazz standard, “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.”  Her musical conductor, David Cook, arranged this one with a funk groove and Pete Wallace excels on piano, while David Chiverton consistently slaps the rhythm in place on his trap drums. There’s a little of Ahmad Jamal’s rhythm, honed from the hit record ‘Poinciana’ and mixed into this arrangement.  It’s very effective and nostalgic.  Nicole shows us she can ‘swing’ atop this smooth jazz production.  Although she is clearly rooted in both R&B and gospel music, Ms. Henry is also a very fine jazz singer and has surrounded herself with top notch musicians who develop her arrangements with finesse and power.  This group is a perfect example of my column’s title, (The Changing Face of Jazz).  Nicole Henry and her band mix genres and styles, under the banner of jazz, in a very cool and contemporary way.  For example, I enjoyed Nicole’s take on the Sade song “Is It a Crime?” featuring Eric England on double bass.  She and the bassist open this arrangement as a duet of acoustic bass and voice.  It’s very effective and by the time the entire band joins in, the two have set up a strong, sexy groove.  I note that she slides away from the original melody again, on the all-important ‘hook’ of the song.  In spite of this deviation, I still find myself enjoying the band’s arrangement and Nicole’s approach to this hit record. 

Nicole Henry definitely has crossover appeal.  Her repertoire is an example of carefully chosen songs, mostly pop tunes, that she and her band reinvent, like their Latin-tinged rhythm track of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s hit song, “Until It’s Time for you to go.”   Nicole Henry applies the same technique of changing the melody when singing “Wild is the Wind.”   Perhaps this vocalist should pursue songwriting so she can come up with her own melodies.  I think she could be a very talented songwriter indeed.  Thank goodness she didn’t rewrite the starting melody of Stevie Wonder’s classic “Overjoyed” composition.   But she does take liberties, once again changing Stevie’s melody, but they are taken after she establishes the universally loved and respected melody at the top of his tune. 

I know I live in a world that celebrates the changing face of jazz, but from a songwriter perspective, I think every artist and musician should respect the beauty of proven hit records and standard jazz songs.  Songwriters create the substance and beauty that singers and artists perform.  They share their gifts openly with the world and by singing or playing their song, straight-down one time, just as the songwriter penned it, an artist celebrates and thanks the songwriter.  This is a lesson sometimes lost in translation on Nicole Henry’s album.

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DAGGERBOARD – “LAST DAYS OF STUDIO A” – Wide Hive Records

Erik Jekabson, trumpet/flugelhorn/arranger/composer; Gregory Howe, B3 organ/synthesizer/ percussion/composer; Mike Hughes, drums; Scott Brown, bass; John Wiitala, bass; Mike Ramos, guitar; Kasey Knudsen, alto & tenor saxophone; Mike Blankenship, Rhodes organ; Roger Glenn, vibraphone.

In October of 2018, a week before the famed Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, California closed, a group of musicians went into Studio A to record.  Three years later, this music has come to fruition by the ‘Daggerboard’ band and historically labeled, “Last Days of Studio A.”  This famed studio was built at a time when sound, not money, was the objective of making great records. 

The group, ‘Daggerboard’ adopted this name because it represents the theoretical center of lateral resistance within a sailboat.  It’s the trailing edge that allows the sailboat to make its way upwind. The title seems to signify strength and determination of movement against natural impediments.

The band opens with a tune called “Journey Down Parker” that features a catchy melody played by Erik Jekabson on trumpet and Kasey Knudsen on saxophone.  Once the tune is introduced by the horn players, it offers a platform for us to meet the other bandmembers.  Roger Glenn steps forward on vibes to solo and is followed by the smooth guitar work of Mike Ramos. He puts a touch of Flaminco music on the arrangement.  Track #2 is titled, “Rabbit Trap” and I expected an up-tempo tune, because of my vision of a swift moving rabbit.  However, this arrangement is a moderate tempo, pensive tune with beautiful horn harmonics.  Daggerboard’s group of musicians knows how to create magical moods and infectious grooves in a very mellow, laid-back kind of way.  Other favorite tunes are “Elyse’s Dance” with its counterpoint arrangement and smooth jazz feel and “Conducting Poppies.”  They close with the tune, “Steak Out,” that employs synthesizers to add effect and drama to their arrangement.  All the songs are original compositions by Jekabson & Howe.

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DARRELL KATZ & ODDSONG – “GALEANTHROPOLOGY” – JCA Recordings

Darrell Katz, composer/arranger/conductor/producer/spoken word; Paula Tatarunis, lyricist/poet; Rebecca Shrimpton, vocals/spoken word/arranger; Rick Stone, alto & tenor saxophones; Lihi Haruvi, alto & soprano saxophones; Phil Scarff, tenor, soprano & sopranino saxophones; Melanie Howell Brooks, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet; Helen Sherrah-Davies & Mimi Rabson, five-string violin; Vessela Stoyanova, marimba/vibraphone; Melanie Howell Brooks, Helen Sherrah-Davies, Rebecca Shrimpton & Vessela Stoyanova, spoken word; Melanie Howell Brooks & Helen Sherrah-Davis, background voices.

More and more I receive jazz recordings that feature spoken word or ‘rap’ incorporated into their arrangements.  Darrell Katz and his Oddsong group are another example of the changing face of jazz.  His Avant-garde music production has woven poetic prose into his “Galeanthropology” album, like polyester and petroleum threads.  Somehow, the final, synthesized product becomes rich with color and texture.  He features the poetry of his late wife, Paula Tatarunis and the vocals of Rebecca Shrimpton, who recites and sings the Tatarunis prose, with the occasional help from other voices.  The poems of Ms. Tatarunis are included in the CD package as part of an insert booklet.  Most of the poems do not rhyme and are sung to the very modern music that Darrell Katz has composed.  The title tune, “Galeanthropology” does have some rhyme in it.  Galeanthropogy is the state of believing one is a cat and this song reiterates that concept.  Darrell Katz actually wrote both words and music to this song. The violins purr and sound very much like felines during this arrangement as Rebecca sings, “Who wouldn’t want to be a cat?”  According to the press release, this song is a Katz tribute to his departed wife. 

Darrell Katz is the director of the Jazz Composers Alliance (JCA), an organization he helped found in 1985.  He’s released ten previous CDs that feature the work of his JCA Orchestra.  In 2015, one of his JCA Orchestra albums, “Wheelworks” was named DownBeat’s best CD.  This current OddSong ensemble debuted in 2016.  Katz has been creating unusual, humorous and Avant-garde work for decades and always includes social consciousness and thought-provoking words and music.

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GABRIEL ZUCKER & THE DELEGATION – “LEFTOVER BEATS FROM THE EDGES OF TIME” – ESP Disk

Gabriel Zucker, piano/composer/producer/vocals/lyrics/electronics; Matteo Liberatore & Tal Yahalom, guitar; Gabriel Globus-Hoenick, Alex Goldberg & Kate Gentile, drums; Bam Rodriguez & Mat Muntz, bass; Artemisz Polonyl & Lorena Del Mar, vocals; Mariel Roberts, cello; Joanna Mattrey, viola; Yuma Uesaka, clarinets; Anna Webber & Eric Trudel, tenor saxophone; Adam O’Farrill & Nolan Tsong, trumpet.

This is a double set CD, 90-minutes in length, that explores mixed mediums, virtuosic Avant-garde music, modern jazz perspectives and chamber music.  Throughout the production, there is a splash of horn harmonics and a ribbon of electronic improvisation, along with vocals that fight for their space against the over-powering tracks. Much respect to both Artemisz Polony & Lorena Del Mar for their vocal talents.  I am stunned when the engineer suddenly cuts everything off but a soprano vocal singing a solid, single, clear note.  It snatches my attention like a car crash. 

This production is divided into Part 1. The Past; Part II: Autumn 2016; Part III: Present; and Part IV: Future.   Gabriel Zucker and his large ensemble, who he calls “The Delegation,” are interpreting Zucker’s ideas, his arrangements and his compositions.  Gabriel Zucker’s piano is front-forward at all times and he is obviously a formidable musician on the 88-keys.  The addition of strings to this project adds classical overtones and chamber music charm.  But for the most part, this is improvised madness, swathed in Avant-garde wrapping paper like an unusual holiday present.  You can’t wait to open it, on the celebratory morning, but when you do, you are both shocked and enchanted by the uniqueness of the gift. 

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DAVE STRYKER with STRING QUARTET – “AS WE ARE” – StrikeZone Records

Dave Stryker, guitar/composer; Julian Shore, piano/composer; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums; Sara Caswell & Monica K. Davis, violins; Benni von Gutzeit, viola; Marika Hughes, cello.

I always look forward to the productions of Dave Stryker, because he is so inventive and always inspired.  On several of his albums he featured “Eight-Track” music from years ago in a very jazzy way.  He has covered ‘straight ahead,’ funk music, R&B tunes, organ combos and rearranged pop hit songs into interesting jazz productions.  Consequently, I was eager to hear what direction his music would take this time.

“It’s my dream project,” Stryker shared in his press package, which made me all the more curious.

This time he has recorded a suite of brand, newly composed originals and used a band of iconic, world-respected musicians including John Patitucci on bass and Brian Blade on drums.  Julian Shore joins in on piano and Stryker adds a string quartet for good measure.  The result is an album of well-written compositions and expert musicianship that flows, ocean wide and just as deep.  The music is melodic and embellished by the string quartet, who open the first piece like a chamber orchestra. This original song is appropriately titled “Overture” and was written by Stryker and Shore, his pianist on this project.  It unwraps this album with a one-minute interlude, then steps aside for a funky, but lovely tune called “Lanes.”  We move from sitting in a chamber concert to feeling like we are racing down some open highway with hair flying in the breeze and tires hot against the asphalt.  Dave Stryker steps up with his guitar and sets the mood aflame, like a hot, autumn afternoon sun.  He is propelled by Blade’s busy drum sticks and staunch rhythms.  Brian Blade is given several bars to show off his drum acrobatics, followed by Julian shore taking a very impressive piano solo.  Track #3 is tinged with the blues and Patitucci plays a significant role in setting the groove with his bass and implanting the mood. This song is titled “River Man” and richly infused with violins, viola and cello beauty.  It was written by Nick Drake and is the only cover-song on this album. 

As the CD progresses, I recognize that this production is like no other I’ve heard from Dave Stryker.  This is a surprise package of various moods and grooves, including a very Brazilian ballad arrangement on Stryker’s “Saudade” composition.  “One Thing at A Time” is my kind of straight-ahead jazz, pumped up by Patitucci and showing-off Stryker’s guitar tenacity during his double time solo.  For the most part, this is a very mellow Dave Stryker album of music.  It celebrates a side of Stryker I haven’t heard before.  I expected more funk and straight-ahead jazz.  This music showcases his composer skills and spotlights the diversity of his talents as a musician, bandleader and producer with a much more laid-back content.

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FELLA CEDERBAUM – “TRUTH AND DESTINY” – MahniVerse Productions

Fella Cederbaum, keyboards/spoken word/producer/poet/composer.

Fella Cederbaum has built an enthusiastic global following, as a poet who appears regularly on New York based WABC radio. With this release, she recites a dozen original poems while playing her original song themes on keyboards in the background.  She has authored three books: “Of Life and Other Such Matters” (Volume one and two) published in 2018 and 2019.  The third book, “That’s Why” is scheduled for a 2022 publication.  Her music is more classical than jazz and has found its way into numerous international film scores.  A multi-talented artist, Ms. Cederbaum is the writer and director of twenty-one short films featuring her alter-egos.  These short films have garnered several awards and been a part of several film festivals.  She took home top honors in her category during the 2021 New York City Independent Film Festival.  Born in post-World War II Germany, she relocated to England and later to Israel, where she earned a degree in psychology.  She also became Deputy Director of the Israel Chamber Orchestra.  After moving to Boston (where she’s now based) Fella Cederbaum earned her graduate degree and is a successful psychotherapist.  If that isn’t enough credits, she also paints and her art has been shown in exhibitions at Boston’s Holocaust Memorial event and at exhibitions in Germany’s Munchner Stadtmuseum.  She designed and created the artwork for her current album cover.  Who said we had to be one dimensional?  Her current project, the album “Truth and Destiny,” is the accumulation of her life experiences and she summarized it simply:

“All questions lead to love, heart, our own compass,” the poet advises.

“From the bottom of my heart, I bow in gratitude to Song Ahm for everything seen and unseen and to my teachers and un-teachers, who pointed the way,” she summarizes.

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JAZZ UNDER ONE SKY

November 1, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil

November 1, 2021

Today, there are so many styles, musicians, vocalists and innovators who represent the jazz idiom.  Like the title of Mark Lewandowski’s latest release, all fall under the expansive blue sky that covers our planet Earth.  Here are some reviews that articulate the beauty and diversity of the jazz world “Under One Sky.”

MARK LEWANDOWSKI – “UNDER ONE SKY” –  Independent Label

Mark Lewandowski, double bass/composer; Addison Frei, piano; Kush Abadey, drums.

On a tune called “Licks,” that is the second track of this bass player’s sophomore album, Mark Lewandowski takes an in-depth solo.  It introduces us to his instrumental skills on his upright bass. Clearly, we are all functioning “Under One Sky,” no matter where we are located. We are living, breathing, loving beneath the immensity of the universe and with earth’s sky hovering above us like a gigantic blue umbrella.  In Mark Lewandowski’s case, the sky covering he references covers London and New York City; two amazing communities of art, energy and music where he spent the most musical time.  The last time Lewandowski performed in the UK was as part of the Wynton Marsalis’ Quartet.  This album, “Under One Sky,” is Mark’s exploration into the places he’s lived (UK and the US) and the intricacies of himself that he uncovered along the way.  “Provavus” is Track #3 on his album and was recently released as a single.  Introduced by the tasty drum licks of Kush Abadey, Lewandowski’s bass line runs through the piece like a moving motor boat.  He is also the anchor for this piece.  Addison Frei is phenomenal on piano and dynamically infused by Lewandowski’s walking, double-time bass energy.  I asked Mark what the word “Provavus” meant.

“Provavus is a made-up word. I saw it as the name of a fossil of a snake (the composition is meant to be snake-like, cyclical and fluid.  The sound of the word just reminded me of the music. Nothing more than that really, it’s an aesthetic,” Mark told me during a text chat.

Track #4 is a tribute to pianist, Paul Bley.  This tune titled, “For Paul Bley” is steeped in the blues.  Pianist, Addison Frei, has his left hand moving with some historic boogie woogie licks as his right hand improvises and dances through the blues changes.  Addison’s two busy hands create a path of excitement.  Mark’s composition, “The Same Moon,” becomes a platform to let Mark Lewandowski sing his story on the double bass.   He takes another elongated solo on his tune “Very Well” that uses the opening ten melodic notes of the Hoagy Carmichael tune, “I Get Along Without You, very well.”  Still, the tune veers off and takes its own rich ride up some fresh composer path with vast and creative improvisations.  This trio music is enhanced by the busy drums of Kush Abadey throughout their exploration of original music. Abadey adds a splash of funk groove on the song, “Islands.” Lewandowski has composed all of the eleven songs and I found his music to be relaxing and beautifully played by this capable trio.

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CHRISTIAN McBRIDE & INSIDE STRAIGHT “LIVE AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD” – Mack Ave Records

Christian McBride, bass/composer; Peter Martin, piano; Carl Allen, drums; Warren Wolf, vibraphone/ composer; Steve Wilson, alto & soprano saxophones/composer.    

This November, of 2021, marks the 64th anniversary of the release of a ‘live’ recording at the Village Vanguard in New York City.  The first recording was made by the great Sonny Rollins.  So, it’s a high point in the career of Christian McBride to join the list of famous jazz cats who have recorded ‘live’ at this renowned jazz venue.  McBride has been dabbling in various musical settings and exploring a variety of genres.  For a while, he took a break from traditional and straight-ahead jazz working with a variety of artists including a duet with celebrated classical bassist, Edgar Meyer and working with Avant-garde composer and violinist, Laurie Anderson.  He’s performed with Sting and Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson of The Roots congregation. 

“When I would talk to a critic about James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Sun Ra, George Clinton or Chaka Khan, critics would always seem surprised.  Christian McBride, young jazz bassist likes funk? … He’s playing electric bass?  … In 1998, I decided that I wanted to get back to my real roots.  In January of that year, I recorded my third album for Verve, ‘A Family Affair’ under the guidance of George Duke.  In 2000, I reunited with my high school brother, (?uestlove) and the great pianist Uri Caine. We recorded ‘The Philadelphia Experiment.’  That same year, I started a new band. …My intention was to have a hybrid band.  It would be a funk, jazz, EDM, avant-garde, electric/acoustic band.  We recorded two albums; ‘Vertical Vision’ for Warner Bros and ‘Live at Tonic’ for Rope a Dope. … I joined Pat Metheny’s trio for a magical seven-year run,” McBride reviewed his time away from traditional jazz.

Somehow, in the middle of all that commercial success, contemporary touring and recording, Christian McBride realized he missed his original jazz roots.  Personally, I’m glad he’s back!

McBride’s ‘Inside Straight’ band opens with a Warren Wolf composition, “Sweet Bread.”  It’s a straight-ahead, post-bop arrangement with a challenging melody that allows plenty of space for the band members to solo and creatively contribute.  Wolf is a young, prodigy, vibraphone player on this album and a new addition to the former bandmates that McBride contracted for this recording.  The others were members of Freddie Hubbard’s group, namely, Carl Allen on drums, Steve Wilson on sax and Eric Reed on piano.  Eric Reed is replaced by Peter Martin for this recording.  Steve Wilson soars into space during his solo saxophone performance on “Sweet Bread” and Peter Martin elevates the energy when he steps forward on piano. Carl Allen is given several bars to insert his trap drum skills, right before the song fades out, enjoying much appreciative applause.  McBride has contributed four songs to the seven offered here.  Track #2 is one of them titled, “Fair Hope Theme.”  At last, we hear the full tone and improvisational talents of McBride on his bass instrument during a happy-go-lucky solo.  Saxophone player, Steve Wilson follows up with his composition, “Ms. Angelou,” that tributes the multi-talented, American treasure of multi-talented Maya Angelou.  It’s a sweet ballad.  I also enjoyed “The Shade of the Cedar Tree” by McBride and their straight-ahead arrangement.  Other favorites were Warren Wolf’s blues-soaked, “Gang Gang” with Asian overtones and McBride’s “Stick & Move” is a great way to close out this album with energy and bebop excitement.  I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation that McBride’s bass had with Carl Allen’s trap drums.  Very creative indeed!

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SKYLER FLOE – “ABSTRACTION” – Outside In Music

Skyler Floe, trumpet/composer; Sean Imboden, tenor saxophone; Greg Ward, alto saxophone; Steve Allee, piano; Nick Tucker, bass; Chris Parker, drums; Samantha Louise, vocals.

This is Skyler Floe’s debut album and it showcases his prowess as a trumpeter and a composer.

The “live” performance video above represents Skyler’s original composition during a recital he presented. I have included this video because he clearly illustrates what we were going through as a people living during a pandemic from 2019 to the present. 

On his album, Skyler’s septet opens with strong horn harmonies that build a platform for Skyler to stand upon.  His trumpet tone is fluid and opens the tune titled, “Terrace” with a string of arpeggio phrases and intense energy. He could have been a bird winging its way past the “Terrace” he references.  Track #2 is called, “Opinionated (Is Putting It Lightly).”  This tune gives the three horns plenty of room to solo, but first they establish an interesting melodic line, introduced by Steve Allee on piano. The bursts of staccato and the brief interludes of space between the melodic horn lines is attention-grabbing.  However, once the horns begin to offer us their unique solos, the repetitive background of piano chords takes away from the arrangement.  Still, Chris Parker’s drums push this piece ahead, like a feather in the wind.  The title tune, “Abstraction” is vocalized by Samantha Louise whose style seems to be tonal slides, with less interest in enunciation of the lyric.  Nick Tucker steps into the spotlight to offer his bass solo perspective followed by Samantha singing along with the horns in a sweet way.  Skyler Floe steps forward afterwards to proffer his own abstract, trumpet view of the situation.  I found the original composition “A Short Climb in Bare Feet” (actually the first of a suite in three parts) to be pensive and quite beautiful. It’s a quartet arrangement, with just the trumpet singing with bass, piano and drums. The second part of this abstract suite of music is titled “Reason’s Last Pitch” and gives Steve Allee an opportunity to solo on piano and introduce the tune and his piano skills.  Using one repetitive note, ding-ding-ding-ding, he brings in the other musicians.  Skyler takes advantage of the space and musical sensibilities by improvising on his horn. I found this suite of music both creative and compelling.  It most exemplified the title of “Abstraction” and explored the conversations between the horn players in the final suite titled, “The Plunge.”  I had been awaiting one composition that presented a groove base.  “Odd Chicago” did just that at first.  Finally, a solid groove for the horns to march upon and the feet to tap, but it did not linger.  Soon the piano solo explored the 88-keys and this tune morphed into a moderate tempo arrangement that pulled open the curtains for the saxophone to dance.  It was an entertaining composition, taking many twists and turns in their exploration of the melody.  “For Real” came screeching out, on the heels of the former tune, slapping us in the face with straight-ahead excitement and an up-tempo presentation.  I welcomed it with open arms.  Chris Parker is dynamic on trap drums. 

Skyler Floe and his ensemble displays the best of themselves on several levels.  During this production, they explore several styles of jazz and various arrangements that interpret Skyler’s composer talents.  They close with Skyler’s trumpet duetting with Parker’s drums.  Next, the piano and the drums duet.  It’s an effective opening for “The Top Floor” tune that features the percussive brilliance of Chris Parker.  We, the listeners, board the elevator and ride along to the penthouse, enjoying Skyler Floe’s creative music.  “Abstraction” is a strong debut album for this budding trumpeter.

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ANGEL ROMAN & MAMBO BLUE – “FESTIVE INTERPLAY” – Independent Label

Angel Roman, bass guitar/arranger/composer/producer; Joel Guzman, piano/synthesizer; Damian A. Garcia, piano/Fender Rhodes; Nicholas Litterski, piano; Jose Aponte & Brannen Temple, drums; Andy Smith, drums/percussion; Samuel Lopez & Carmelo Torres, percussion; John Mills, flute; Pete Rodriguez, trumpet; Justin Vasquez, alto saxophone; Russell Haight, tenor Saxophone; Andre Hayward, trombone.

https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=Angel+Roman+%22Festive+Interplay%22

The multi-talented Angel Roman is a composer, producer, arranger and bass player.  “Festive Interplay” is the fourth album released by Roman and his band, Mambo Blue.  Although the members of Mambo Blue have changed over time, the Latin excitement and warm mixture of jazz, fusion, Brazilian, Puerto Rican and pop music remains the core of this ensemble.  Beginning with “Why Not” that features Andre Hayward’s trombone creativity and Russell Haight’s smooth tenor saxophone, you get a taste of the excitement to come. The hand-slapping percussion licks and bold trap drums push the music forward with power and punch.  I began dancing in my desk chair as I typed this review.  There were various moods that moved this musical arrangement in a variety of directions, sometime double timing; other times settling into a groove that supports the horn solos.  Damian A. Garcia plays Fender Rhodes electric piano on this tune and that brings another character to the piece.  Angel Roman enjoys experimenting with tempos and changing grooves to delve into his Puerto Rican heritage using the Bomba rhythm that is said to be rooted in the island’s African slave history.  “Collective Cha” bursts into my listening room next.  It’s a cha-cha tune and I enjoy the way Angel Roman arranges breaks in his music.  He applies pieces of silence that snatch the attention and act like curtains partings to let the rhythm make a surprise appearance.  “Collective Cha” has a captivating melody and features the flute of John Mills, who becomes the Pied Piper of Mambo Blue’s smooth horn section, subtle but bold in the background.  “Dreaming in Bomba” is another interesting and refreshing arrangement that honors Angel’s Puerto Rican roots.  I am pleasantly entertained by the way Angel Roman blends jazz and Latin music.  He is also a formidable composer. “Never Far” is a mambo ballad that brings a peaceful relief from the preceding energies of Mambo Blue. But in the twinkling of an eye, the band incorporates a fusion feel into the Latin Rhythms on “Not Sure, So Sure” with Damian Garcia shining on his piano solo.

Roman is a native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, although his parents hail from Puerto Rico.  He attended Wisconsin Conservatory of Music and continued his musical pursuits at Berklee College of Music. Angel Roman moved to Florida, where studio work was abundant and he stayed busy working with Grammy-winning and Emmy nominated music producer, Joel Someillan.  Angel also became a first call studio cat, especially for visiting artists from Puerto Rico or South America.  He has spent time living and working in Nashville. There, he was part of a house band for The Tin Roof club with Henry Murphy and the Seahawks.  Currently, this talented bassist is based in Austin, Texas with his primary energy focused on his Mambo Blue Band and his respectable composing skills.

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NICK FINZER – “OUT OF FOCUS” – Outside In Music

Nick Finzer, trombone; Xavier Davis, piano; Jay Anderson, bass; Quincy Davis, drums; Reginald Chapman & Jennifer Wharton, bass trombone.

Nick Finzer’s opening tune is full of counterpoint melodies, using both the bass trombone of Reginald Chapmen, along with Nick’s featured trombone.  The band interprets Kenny Garrett’s composition, “Sing A Song of Song.”  But it’s Track #2 that snatches my attention. “The Star Crossed Lovers,” a Duke Ellington composition, is opened by the very vocal-sounding trombone solo of Finzer.  They say that the trombone instrument is the closest horn sound to the human voice.  This is obviously true of Finzer’s tone and presentation on this Ellington song.  Once again, he makes a counterpoint statement, with horn lines complimenting the main melody in unusual and sometimes arpeggio ways. The band develops this arrangement with a dirge-like, New Orleans, blues-basted production.   Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” is given a fresh face with funk drums and a more ‘smooth jazz’ arrangement.  I appreciate that Finzer is never contemporary and always straight-ahead and traditional with his sound and focus.  The mix of traditional with a rhythm section that is more modern is very nice.  Pianist, Xavier Davis, is given a moment in the spotlight to happily skip across the funk rhythm on the 88-keys.  The drums of Quincy Davis are very slightly reminiscent of Ahmad Jamal’s unforgettable groove on his hit recording of Poinciana.  Jay Anderson is solid on bass and takes a very creative solo.  

“Rather Than sit at home and complain, I decided to see what projects I could dream up that might only take place when you can’t be in the same place as your usual collaborators,” Nick Finzer explained his creative process and the result of living in a quarantine situation.

Nick Finzer opens the song “Laura” with a very intriguing introduction playing solo trombone.  I am impressed with his trombone technique and the creative inuendoes that earmarks Finzer’s style on his instrument.  He entertains us for the complete four-minute cycle of this song and completely holds my attention.  Beautiful!  You will also enjoy Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” and his composition, “Single Petal of a Rose.”  Finzer also reminds us of the great J.J. Johnson’s historic contribution with his tune, “Judy” and delves into the more modern composer, Pat Metheny’s music to interpret “Bright Size Life.”  This album, “Out of Focus” puts Nick’s composer pen aside and instead, explores compositions by some of the musicians and composers who have inspired him through the years.  The result is an album rich in substance and clearly focusing on the artistry of Nick Finzer and his outstanding trombone beauty.

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MICHAEL FEINBERG – “HARD TIMES” – Fresh Sound New Talent

Michael Feinberg, bass/electric bass/composer; Jeff Tain Watts, drums; Orrin Evans, piano; Leo Genovese, keyboards/synthesizers/organ/piano; Gabriel Globus-Hoenich, percussion; Godwin Louis, alto saxophone; Billy Buss & Randy Brecker, trumpet; Noah Preminger, tenor saxophone.

The opening tune of this artistic work is smooth, melodic, but a little too repetitious for my taste.  It was composed by Michael Feinberg and is titled “Introduction.”  However, the second track on Feinberg’s album, composed by Miles Davis in 1958, that one gets my attention!  On “Nardis” the harmonics are creative and clever with Feinberg establishing the groove on his bass.  The minor mode arrangement sets the stage for trumpeter Billy Buss to step forward and solo.  Feinberg races his bass line beneath, playing double time during the solo and planting a rich, bright ribbon of sound for Buss to dance upon.  The trap drums of Jeff Tain Watts are beacons of flash that beam and push the groove forward into the spotlight.

“Growing up in Atlanta, the jazz musicians were also the backing bands of many Hip Hop and R&B stars.  So, the music of the city has a different kind of groove to it.  I tried to bring those memories of playing with Gunn (my first bandleader, Russell Gunn) … to this track,” Feinberg explained his inspired arrangement.

Feinberg’s tune, “The Husafell Stone” becomes one of my favorites on this production. It’s Track #3 and the conversation between pianist Orrin Evans and Feinberg on bass open this tune up with straight-ahead energy and traditional jazz excitement.  The Billy Buss trumpet solo is once again spectacular and Jeff Tain Watts rolls across the trap drums like a locomotive engine at full speed.  Another favorite is the Latin flavored “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit” that offers mellow horn lines and energetic, thick percussion implementation by Gabriel Globus-Hoenich.  This is a McCoy Tyner tune, as is Track #5, “Three Flowers.”  Michael Feinberg mixes up his repertoire in an excellent and entertaining way.  He leaves lots of room for his adventurous musicians to show their skills, while he and Jeff Tain Watts are the nut and bolt of this rhythm section.   On “Three Flowers,” during this waltz Feinberg steps into the spotlight on his bass and is quite impressive, playing beneath the dynamic piano solo by Leo Genovese.  Feinberg’s artistry shines creatively and melodically, while still keeping the rhythm intact.  The Genovese piano solo is spellbinding.

The title, “Hard Times” refers to the pandemic and the challenge to Feinberg and so many musicians forced into seclusion and without work.  According to the Feinberg press release, “Hard Times” offers room to wail, room to contemplate and, at its core, room to stretch.  You will be incredibly entertained by this amazing band of jazz musicians sporting their independent skills on each instrument, along with bandleader and bassist Michael Feinberg splendidly leading the brigade.

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SYLVIE COURVOISIER & MARY HALVORSON – “SEARCHING FOR THE DISAPPEARED HOUR” – Pyroclastic Records

Sylvie Courvoisier, piano/composer; Mary Halvorson, guitar/composer.

Guitarist, Mary Halvorson, has composed tracks 1, 3, 6, 9 and 11.  Pianist, Sylvie Courvoisier, is the composer of tracks 2, 5, 7 and 10.  Together, they co-wrote tracks 4, 8 and 12.  Combined, this duo presents an hour’s worth of kaleidoscope, Avant-garde music. The music tracks flow into each other, sweet honey from the hive, dripping notes and melodies sticky across our ears. On track one, written by Halvorson, Sylvie’s fingers arpeggio across the piano keys, like hungry bees flying home.  The music swarms and grows; circles and buzzes.  Halvorson sprinkles guitar licks throughout that both compliment and challenge Sylvie.  So, develops Mary Halvorson’s opening song, “Golden Proportion.”

“I think this album is much more developed.  When I wrote pieces for Mary, I really thought about all the possibilities of the guitar.  Her music has pretty tonalities, great melodies and a very clear sense of harmony and melody, so I love to darken it,” pianist Sylvie Courvoisier explained her premise for this album.

“We both have an affinity towards darkening things,” Halvorson agrees, “which is great, because you can start with a joyous melody and there’s all kinds of room to mess with it,” the guitarist concludes.

You hear both the joy and the darkness on Track #2, composed by Courvoisier and titled, “Lulu’s Second Theorem.”  It’s a tribute to her cat.  Another tune mirrors a chaotic impression of congress, titled “Faceless Smears.”  Courvoisier says it was written on the most dramatic day of those Congressional hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brent Kavanaugh, before he was confirmed and when he was accused of sexual misbehavior.  “Moonbow” is a beautiful composition and the keyboard sounds like ice chips falling on hard surfaces.  Both women bring their own unique voices to the studio, blending like warm bread and melted butter.  They each explore the texture of the other and merge into every wrinkle and crevice of these musical arrangements, uninhibited and exploratory.  This is modern, contemporary improvisation by piano and guitar.  Together they create an unforgettable and unpredictable blend of duo talent.  If you think guitar and piano don’t work well together, you may find yourself amazed by the way Halvorson and Courvoisier complement each other.

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BRIAN LYNCH – “BUSSTOP SERENADE – SONGBOOK VOL. 1.” – Holistic MusicWorks

Brian Lynch, trumpet/flugelhorn/composer; Jim Snidero, alto saxophone; Orrin Evans, piano; Boris Kozlov, bass; Donald Edwards, drums.

This is an exciting, double CD set that features the original compositions of trumpeter and composer, Brian Lynch.  The first CD is called “The Express Route” and the second CD is titled, “The Alternate Route.” Both productions together total seventeen tunes that are smoking hot with fiery arrangements and excellent musicianship.  For some unknown reason I played CD2: “the Alternate Route” first.  It opens with “On the Dot” (take one) and flies onto the scene with humming bird wings.  This up-tempo arrangement gives drummer Donald Edwards an opportunity to mark his place in the band with powerful trap drums that not only solidify the rhythm section, but also solo with their own strength and singular talent.   What I noted about these two CDs is that these musicians pressed up both ‘takes’ of the tunes they recorded.  I’ve not seen that done before.  When you go into the studio, you often record the same song more than once, seeking the perfect performance.  In this case, Brian Lynch decided to keep both take one and take two.  So, I played “On the Dot” from CD 1 and compared it to CD 2.  They were both exciting arrangements and quite similar.  However, on CD 1 the fluidity of improvisation by both Jim Snidero on alto saxophone and Brian Lynch on trumpet seemed a hair more creative than on their take 2 version. Notice, I said ‘a hair’.  Also, Orrin Evans on piano did some creative comping the second time around, adding short phrases to compliment what the horns were singing and also during the trading of fours.  Of course, this ‘trading fours’ is a time to showcase the drummer.  But his merry men did not disappoint as the other band members displayed their individual talents in brief but very creative solo spots.  The group ends this song with a bright, staccato exclamation point at the end of their final musical phrase.  “On the Dot” was right on point.  Both versions were stellar.  In fact, both CD 1 and CD 2 present the listener with just plain high energy excitement.  These are excellent recordings of Brian’s original compositions.  They all sound as if they could be standard jazz tunes.  I see why the trumpeter kept both takes.  Lynch describes the incentive to begin recording his songbooks in his press package.

“I’m quite attached to all the tunes that I’ve written over the years and have often felt that they would benefit from a little attention in the form of new versions that would introduce them to contemporary listeners, who may not be familiar with my earlier work.  Also, I seem to have become quite stubborn in recent years about invoking artistic self-determination for myself at every opportunity. … Accordingly, I have embarked on a quest to re-record them for my own label, “Holistic MusicWorks.”   … I will be releasing a series of songbook albums,” Brian explains in his press package.

As a Grammy-nominated trumpeter and prolific composer, I expect Bryan Lynch’s music to be well-received, celebrated and enjoyed by any lover of jazz.  Both his talent and compositions are memorable.

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