GIVING THANKS FOR THESE GREAT JAZZ MUSICIANS

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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