LOVE INSPIRED JAZZ RECORDINGS

BY Dee Dee McNeil

February 2, 2022

There are so many sides to love and this is the season we celebrate it the most in the USA.  We revere Valentine’s Day as we shower each other with hearts, candy, romantic dinners and song.  Here are some artists who have reached inside their souls to use their various instruments to remind us of the beauty and healing properties that music and love bring to our lives. 

JAVON JACKSON – “THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO NIKKI GIOVANNI”-  Solid Jackson Records

Javon Jackson, tenor saxophone; Jeremy Manasia, piano; David Williams, bass; McClenty Hunter, drums; Nikki Giovanni, vocals; Christina Greer, spoken word.

In this project, love, as projected through music, has arms tightly wrapped around Christian music, hymns and spiritual songs.  Love has seen us through slavery and tragedy; war, death and rebirth; bondage survival and the building of golden empires.   These songs reflect a deep, historic, spiritual love.

This project opens with the familiar gospel tune, “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel” featuring a spirited rendition by Javon Jackson on tenor saxophone.  It was originally made popular by the great Paul Robeson in 1937.  This is followed by “Wade in the Water” played at a mid-tempo swing pace with the bass of David Williams walking briskly next to McClenty Hunter’s syncopated ride-cymbal.  The hymns, spirituals and gospel songs for this project were hand-picked by Nikki Giovanni, a journalist and poet who was the first person to be awarded the Rosa L. Parks Women of Courage Award.  Ms. Giovanni has long been an admired part of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s.  Christina Greer speaks the words of Nikki Giovanni at the very fade of “Wade in the Water” in the African-American spoken word tradition. 

“I want to write an image, like a log cabin quilt pattern and stretch it across all the lonely people who just don’t fit in.  We might make a world if I do that.  I want to boil a stew with all the leftover folk whose bodies are full of empty lives.  We might feed a world if I do that.  Twice in our lives we need direction.  When we’re young and innocent; when we’re old and cynical.  Since the old refused to discipline us, we now refuse to discipline them… ,” she recites the Nikki Giovanni words.  

This is followed by an amazingly beautiful rendition of “Night Song.”  Javon Jackson’s tenor saxophone is like a tender lullaby being sung at the cradle of Christ himself.  Nikki Giovanni surprises me and sings this lyric.   Her reason being, she identifies with her close friend, the late, iconic, civil rights activist and entertainer, Nina Simone.  She said it was one of Nina’s favorite songs. Ms. Giovanni is not a jazz vocalist, but her sincerity and determination make us pay attention to the lyrics.

“Nina was a friend of mine and I knew that one of her favorite songs was ‘Night Song’ and even though I’m not a singer, I told Javon I wanted to sing it because I just wanted Nina to be remembered,” Nikki explained in the press package.

This merge of talents and history came about when Javon Jackson, a faculty member of the Hartt School at the University of Hartford and director of its Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz invited Giovanni to speak to his students.

“I felt that the school would be well-served to bring great scholars of color and scholars who were freedom fighters and activists, if you will.  So, I brought in Dr. Cornel West, Sonia Sanchez, Angela Davis and Michael Eric Dyson.  Then in February of 2020, I brought Nikki Giovanni,” Javon Jackson explained how this project came about.

That meeting and performance culminated in Ms. Giovanni receiving an honorary doctorate degree.  After she spoke to the students, Nikki paid rapt attention to the music being played in the auditorium.  It was Hank Jones and Charlie Haden who had recorded hymns and spirituals on a recording done in 1994 titled “Steal Away.”  She expressed to Javon how much she loved their album and the importance of these spirituals and Christian hymnals.  Two day later, Nikki’s phone rang at her home in Roanoke, Virginia.  It was Javon calling and she had inspired him.  He explained he was calling to see if she would be interested in selecting ten hymns for his next recording project.   

Javon Jackson’s arrangement of “Mary had A Baby, Yes Lord” is another one of my favorites on this album.  Most impressive are the piano talents of Jeremy Manasia during this arrangement.  Each carefully selected song is a gem that glitters and shines like gold.  Mahalia Jackson once made famous the hymn, “I’ve Been Buked” and Javon Jackson lets the bow of David Williams open this arrangement, on his upright bass.  It’s quite dynamic. “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” is produced as a calypso number, infused with Latin rhythms, after Javon introduces the tune on tenor sax with a dynamic solo. 

“This music is something that people will probably be a little surprised to see coming from me,” Jackson admits.  “But given the state of the world, it could be just in time.  Both poet and saxophonist stand on the shoulders of their ancestors on The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni.”

This CD will be available February 18, 2022.

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BRAD FELT – DANA SESSIONS – “DUETS WITH JOHN DANA” – BradfeltMusic.com

Brad Felt, euphonium; John Dana, double bass.

There is something soothing, smooth and organic when I listen to Brad Felt’s euphonium.  This duet recording with Dana Session was released posthumously in 2021, over a decade after these sessions has been recorded.  Felt introduces us to the euphonium as an instrument of modern jazz.  Many refer to the euphonium as the little cousin of the tuba and it’s never been a popular spotlighted instrument in jazz.  That is, until Brad Felt showed us how beautifully it could become the centerpiece of a jazz concert.   The euphonium is a three to four valve brass instrument, somewhat bulky in appearance and can be played in the bass clef (as a non-transposing instrument) or it can be played in the treble clef as a transposing instrument.  Many big bands, especially European big bands, use it as a treble-clef instrument.  When I listen to  the Euphonium, it has a very similar sound to the baritone horn, although many say the conical shaped instrument has a more mellow sound than the cylindrical baritone sax.   Brad Felt, originally a trumpeter until about aged ten, switched to the tuba and later the euphonium instrument as a teen.  In music college, he realized their potential as a featured instrument in jazz, consequently he introduced them as a possibility in modern jazz music.  That’s what you will hear on this duet album with bassist, Dana Sessions.  You hear the possibilities and the beauty of the euphonium instrument as a lead instrument interpreting jazz.  The inclusion of two original songs; a ballad titled, “You Walked Away” by Brad Felt and “Sometime in the Fall” introduce us to the composer side of this musician.   His tune “Sometime in the Fall” swings hard and has a strong melody line.

Other songs you will recognize and enjoy are “Star Eyes”, “Stablemates” the old standards “Darn that Dream” and “Up Jumped Spring.”  Brad Felt and his duo partner, John Dana also remind us of how beautiful songs like “I Wish I Knew” are, as well as a song I used to enjoy hearing Johnny Hartman sing, “You Are Too Beautiful.”   This is a collector’s item that establishes the euphonium as worthy solo instrument in a modern jazz setting.

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ANNA LAURA QUINN – “OPEN THE DOOR” – Outside In Music

Anna Laura Quinn, vocals; Ed Barrett, guitar; Ben Fox, upright bass; Brad Webb, drums; Kate Campbell-Strauss, tenor & baritone saxophones; Brent Ross, tenor saxophone/flute.

The late, great Abbey Lincoln has left us a legacy of original compositions that reflect her unique style and talent.  It’s nice to see young artists choose to ‘cover’ Ms. Lincoln’s tunes.  New Orleans-based vocalist, Anna Laura Quinn, opens with Abbey’s “Talking to the Sun.”  This arrangement features Ms. Quinn’s sweet, crystal-clear vocal singing a’ Capella.  Soon, she is joined by percussion and we hear only her voice with drums. Finally, the band enters and Brent Rose offers us a lovely flute solo.  The last riff by Anna’s smooth vocals ends this song and it’s musically inspired.  “Comes Love” is sprinkled with blues, from the Ben Fox double bass bottom to the light, airy vocal rendition celebrating the catchy lyrics by Ms. Quinn.  This entire album is delightfully arranged and the choice of repertoire embraces old standards like “Speak Low,” (a well-loved composition from the American songbook) as well as French and Brazilian music.  Anna reminds us of more contemporary composers like Abbey Lincoln and Ellis Marsalis with her interpretation of his “Cry Again.”   She has named her album for the Betty Carter tune, “Open the Door” and also reminds us of the majesty of Duke Ellington by arranging “The Single Petal of a Rose,” featuring Kate Campbell-Strauss on baritone saxophone.    There is something for everyone on this unique and delightful album of jazz.  The horn arrangements are stellar and the inclusion of jazz vocals backing up Anna Laura Quinn on “Very Good Advice” (I assume all the voicings are sung by this artist) add a unique and ear-pleasing quality to the composition.  This album was a well-received surprise package I’m glad I opened. 

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MATT GORDY – “BE WITH ME” – Independent label

Matt Gordy, drums/arranger/composer; Alan Pasqua, piano; Chris Colangelo, double & electric bass; Ido Meshulam, trombone/valve trombone; Ron Stout, trumpet/flugelhorn; Sherry Williams, vocals. FEATURED GUEST: Jeff Ellwood, tenor/soprano saxophones.

The Matt Gordy Jazz Tonite Sextet roars into view, propelled by that popular Eddie Durham tune called, “Topsy.”  Matt Gordy invites the band in on his drum set, setting the up-tempo time and joining Chris Colangelo’s quick stepping bass.  Alan Pasqua steps front and center, innovative and creative on piano.  I enjoyed the arrangement of just drums and piano at this tune’s introduction.  Then, the ensemble swings hard, giving Ron Stout’s horn an opportunity to shine.  Next, Ido Meshulam soaks up the spotlight on trombone, followed by featured guest artist, Jeff Ellwood on his sensuous tenor saxophone.  Matt’s album features four of his original compositions and six standard tunes.

This talented percussionist moved to Los Angeles in 2006, from a successful career in Boston as one of their busiest drummers around town.  Upon arriving on the West Coast, he made the rounds of popular jazz spots, playing at Herb Alpert’s Club Vibrato, at the now defunct Blue Whale and Charlie O clubs, the popular Vitello’s and historic Lighthouse Café in Hermosa Beach.  His reputation spread like California wild fires.  Throughout this album, Matt Gordy is the exemplary force and motion behind his talented sextet.  Funny how lives sometimes go full circle.  In the case of pianist Alan Pasqua and Gordy, these two musicians have known each other for half a century.  They were both students at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston when they first met.

“His playing kills me!  He singlehandedly steered the direction through the music on every tune.  He has the ears to do that on the fly,” Matt Gordy praised Alan Pasqua’s piano talents. 

Track #2 is a swing version of “You and the Night and the Music” that Gordy dedicates to the late pianist Mulgrew Miller.  Gordy’s arrangement is based on Mulgrew’s solo on the drummer Tony Williams trio album.  This song is followed by a Gordy original titled, “Camouflage,” where the bassist, Chris Colangelo, dances brightly beneath the horn lines, hand-in-hand with Gordy’s warm drum beats and somehow reminds me of an Ahmad Jamal record I used to love.  The sextet has a fireside warmth on this tune, with the horns flaming brightly like red-glowing coals.  “Spring Ahead” follows and the musicians are back to a solid swing arrangement.  Jeff Ellwood flies on his saxophone, like a joyful bird.  Ron Stout joins him in flight on trumpet.  I enjoy the undertow of a melody that counters the solos and is played like a refrain that captures your imagination.  I find myself whistling along with it, as though it’s an old familiar tune.  This is the sign of a well-written composition.  I enjoy Matt Gordy’s creative arrangements.  “Chole” is a pretty ballad written as a gift for his granddaughter’s tenth birthday. Gordy’s final original composition is the title tune; “Be With Me,” vocalized by Sherry Williams with lyrics by Gregg Arthur.  She also sings the commercial pop tune, “Sunny” arranged in a very sweet and jazzy way.  I enjoyed, ”Soul Eyes,” spiced and splashed with blues and inspired by McCoy Tyner’s version on the 1962 John Coltrane release.  The familiar “My Shining Hour” is included and Gordy’s arrangement uses five pedal points (played by Colangelo on bass) to add tension and interest to the tune.  Matt shares that he learned this technique from Charlie Banacos, a Boston educator who mentored several jazz musicians in composing and arranging back in the day. 

This project is a culmination of Matt Gordy’s extensive and successful world of percussion excellence.  He has mastered many types of playing, accompaniment and styles because of his diverse and challenging career.  Right after college, Matt Gordy was offered a gig with the world-renowned Maracaibo Symphony Orchestra in Venezuela.  He thrived and blossomed in that 100-piece orchestra of mostly foreign nationals, including thirty Americans.  He grew to love the people and culture of Venezuela, even falling in love and marrying an Argentine woman he met there.  They lived nine years in Maracaibo, but in the 1980s, the government and the economy began collapsing.  The couple moved back to the United States, arriving home to Boston, Massachusetts.  In 1988, Matt got a call to play with the Boston Ballet who were performing Prokoviev’s “Romeo & Juliet.”  Consequently, Matt Gordy spent the next twenty-one-years playing a multitude of classical gigs, performing with the Boston Pops and building a reputation as a musician who could play just about any style from Latin, to jazz, to pop and was proficient in classical music too.  He wound up working with some famous names you might recognize; Joni Mitchell, Aretha Franklin, and Frank Sinatra Jr.

This album, his latest accomplishment, mixes all the many facets and talents of this wonderful drummer in a both memorable and enjoyable way.

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DANILO PEREZ – “CRISÁLIDA” – Mack Ave Records

Danilo Perez, piano/gankeke bell/lyricist/arranger/composer; Tareq Rantisi, percussionist (multi-instruments); Vasilis Kostas, laouto player; Layth Sidiq, violinist/vocals; Naseem Alatrash, cello; Farayi Malek, vocals; GUEST MUSICIANS: Roman Diaz, bata drums/spoken word; Faris Ishaq, Ney flute; Erini Tornesaki, vocals; Patricia Zarate Perez, spoken word; Kalesma Children’s Choir of the Ark of the World.

The Danilo Perez album is romantic, colored by parlor strings and harmonic background vocals.  Pianist, composer, humanitarian and activist, Danilo Perez, believes in a global perspective for the arts and that social justice are keys to moving humanity forward in harmony.  This Grammy Award winning pianist, composer, educator and social activist offers us his latest album titled, “Crisálida.” For this project, Perez has convened his Global Messengers, who are former Berklee College of Music students with worldwide roots including Palestine, Greece, Cuba, Chile, the U.S. and Jordan.  He’s asked them to contribute their musical talents and their respective cultural influences.  Perez’s goal is to build community through music without borders.  His is a love song to the world.

Danilo recently received the 2021 Doris Duke Artist Award. He’s a 3x GRAMMY® Award-winning Artist, Goodwill Ambassador to UNICEF, UNESCO Artist for Peace, Cultural Ambassador to the Republic of Panama.  He’s also the Founder and Artistic Director of the Panama Jazz Festival and has been a member of Wayne Shorter Quartet since 2010.  His inspiration for this group that he calls ‘Global Messengers’ was Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nations Orchestra.  In fact, that organization helped launch Perez’s international career.

“I envision “Crisálida” as a protected space where we all come together, whether we’re addressing immigration issues, climate change, environmental justice, science, interconnecting different art forms; we need to work together to build our new Crisálida, which to me, is the emotional, mental and physical state of protection in our early development,” Danilo Perez explained his concept for this musical journey.

This album is made up of suites, beginning with a four-part “La Muralla (Glass Walls) suite.  It opens with a composition called, “Rise From Love” that features the vocals of Farayi Malek and the sweet youthful voices of the Kalesma Children’s Choir of the Ark of the World.  The melody is lovely and makes you immediately want to hum along with it.  The song is flavored with batá drums played by Cuban born, Román Diaz.  Perez explains that these drums are a symbol of Africa arriving to the Western World and the African worldwide influence on music.  The next part of the suite, “Pathways” features the exciting string work of Layth Sidiq and Naseem Alatrash, with the prize-winning piano beauty of Danilo Perez always assertive and inspiring throughout these arrangements.  This project is a delicious blend of classical beauty, jazz improvisation and world music.  Middle Eastern, minor melodies loop through these compositions and suites like a bright, red ribbon.  Various languages are both spoken and sung during the production.  On the third part of the first suite, percussionist Tareq Rantisi makes a bold percussive statement at the top of the tune and rhythmically propels it forward.  The brilliant Perez piano is part of the propulsion and continuous energy.  This entire production seems to be a love call for change and a prayer to the divine. 

“I want to continue my journey of exploring this pathway of using the power of music to unite and humanize.  I want to promote music that acts as a bridge and to inspire younger artists to continue the journey and leave something positive that other generations can draw upon,” Danilo says in his press package.  

I believe this will be another proud moment in Danilo Perez’s amazing career, both musically and spiritually. This album will be available on March 18, 2022.

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THE CHRISTIANE KARAM QUINTET – “NAR” – SR Records

Christiane Karam, vocals/Bendir/Tupan/spoken word; Vadim Neselovskyi, piano; Naseem Alatrash, cello; Peter Slavov, bass; Keita Ogawa, percussion.

The Christiane Karam Quintet is a love letter to Beirut.  The project opens with Middle Eastern melodies sung by Christiane Karam against the beat of Keita Ogawa’s percussion excellence.  There is an upright bass that joins the mix along with Vadim Neselovskyi on piano, playing thick, staccato chords.  Ms. Karam’s voice is wordless.  She creates sound with tones and melody leaving lyrics behind.  This is modern jazz infused with a multilingual and Lebanon cultural musical tapestry.  “Nar” is Christiane Karam’s fourth album release, but it’s a first using a quintet.  She grappled to explain what had compelled her to compose and produce this album.

“Something was shifting and it was time to document who I was now becoming, both as an artist and as a composer,” she shared in her press package.

When tragedy struck Karam’s hometown of Beirut in 2020, when that horrible explosion destroyed one-third of the city and left mass human casualties, Karam was draped in grief.  Christiane turned to her music to help heal her pain, at the same time to express her emotion. 

“The process of making this record in the midst of the pandemic and the tragedy in Beirut was raw, exhilarating, childlike and profound all at once,” Christiane Karam described her studio experience while creating this album.

“Nar” was taken from the Arabic word for ‘fire.’  Fire burns whatever it touches and makes room for something new to replace the charred remains of the past.  Christiane Karam’s Quintet burns away any preconceptions of what their music will be.  The musicians are multi-cultural, coming from various nations across the globe.  They offer us something bright, beautiful and fresh that combines world music, modern jazz and Beirut culture with their own international talents. This artist, Christiane Karam,  is also a poet and includes her spoken word during these arrangements.  I find the quintet’s production to be beautifully hypnotic and sweet to the ear, including Ms. Karam’s interesting and melodic original compositions, like the title tune and “Petlite Peyat” where Maseem Alatrash offers his cello talents as a lovely, musical voice, while Christiane weeps her message across the string accompaniment in words I do not understand, but feelings that touch my soul. 

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TENOR TIME – Afar Music

Scott Burns, John Wojciechowski, Geof Bradfield, tenor saxophones; Richard D. Johnson, piano/Fender Rhodes; Clark Sommers, bass; Greg Artry, drums.

If it’s just plain straight-ahead bliss that you’ve been searching for, Tenor Time is the project for you.  Three of Chicago’s finest tenor players have joined horns to display energy-driven brilliance; Scott Burns, John Wojciechowski and Geof Bradfield. The pianist in the group, Richard D. Johnson, established the record company and these jazz titans marched into the studio along with bassist Clark Sommers and drummer, Greg Artry.  The rest is history.  All their material is original, well-written and well-played. The composers are the three tenor players and the pianist.  Here’s perfect music to pop into your CD player while enjoying a romantic Valentines dinner or cuddled in front of a roaring fireplace.  Favorite tunes: All of them!

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