By Dee Dee McNeil

February 15, 2022


James Gaiters, drums; Edwin Bayard, tenor saxophone; Kevin Turner, guitar; Robert Mason, Hammond organ.

James Gaiters is a Columbus, Ohio drummer and bandleader.  He’s comfortable in the jazz organ tradition and Gaiters brings that background to us on his recent project.   His Soul Revival group joins him in celebrating the swinging remembrance of jazz pioneer, John Patton.  In 1968, Blue Note records released Patton’s album titled “Understanding” and James Gaiters has reinvented that recording.  Opening with a tune called “Ding Dong,” James Gaiters slaps a funk beat into place.  The familiar R&B hit record, “Soul Man” by Sam and Dave follows.  The improvisations by Kevin Turner on guitar strays from the melody and explores other creative avenues of expression.  This turn takes the group into a rock-based arrangement and features Robert Mason on Hammond organ, James on drums and Turner on guitar in a trio setting.  James was greatly influenced by organist and jazz icon, Jimmy Smith.  Smith certainly cemented the Hammond B3 organ into jazz history with his gutsy, bluesy sound.  James Gaiters’ Soul Revival continues that legacy.  On the Sonny Rollins composition, “Alfie’s Theme” Edwin Bayard steps into the spotlight on tenor saxophone.  The tempo is bright and Gaiters takes advantage of an eight-bar solo section to dance and spin around his drum set.  The Kenny Burrell tune, “Chitlins con Carne” is reinvented and walks slowly, in a very bluesy way onto the scene.  It comes from the Burrell hit recording, “Midnight Blue” that was a huge success for Kenny in 1963. This quartet soulfully embodies tradition and history, applying their own creativity and fresh arrangements in celebration of the master musicians who paved the way for them.

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SARA SCHOENBECK – Pyroclastic Records

Sara Schoenbeck, bassoon/composer; Matt Mitchell, piano; Robin Holcomb, piano/voice; Wayne Horvitz, piano/electronics; Harris Eisenstadt, drums; Nicole Mitchell, flute; Roscoe Mitchell, soprano saxophone; Nels Cline, electric guitar/electric bass; Mark Dresser, bass; Peggy Lee, cello;

Sara Schoenbeck offers a vivid, wide-ranging consideration for the versatility and beauty of the bassoon, an instrument that remains a rarity in jazz and improvised music circles.  But Sara always heard the potential and possibilities that the bassoon offered.  She explored these qualities on the bassoon, hoping to become a first call instrument on the jazz scene.  Sure enough, Schoenbeck soon became synonymous with the bassoon and successful in reaching her dream. 

“I feel like the bassoon is an incredibly flexible instrument, as well as a really awkward one.  But with that awkwardness can come great beauty.  I set out to play in as many different styles of music as possible, while maintaining the inherent qualities of the bassoon; not making it sound like some other instrument.  I like the bassoon best in an intimate playing situation, because it’s a quiet instrument.  That’s why I thought of recording a series of duos with some of my favorite musicians,” Schoenbeck said.

With that concept in mind, Schoenbeck has hand-picked various musicians to interpret her original music or to play their own compositions with her as duets.  This entire album is one of various duets. 

“Collaboration is so central to my musical life, that when I was offered the opportunity to record as a bandleader, I wanted to make a bit of a survey of the people that I’ve loved playing with and who have made an impact on my musicianship.  Of course, there are many more than are represented on this record, but I also wanted to create a series of vignettes that come together to feel like a single, unified piece,” Sara Schoenbeck explained this concept in her press package.

Schoenbeck opens with her original composition “O’Saris,” a song that is rooted in the B flat mode and presents melodic phrases from the mouth of the bassoon, accompanied by drummer Harris Eisenstadt, a friend and fellow musician Sara has been playing with as a duo since 2000.  On her second track, “Sand Dune Trilogy” (also penned by Schoenbeck) she combines her bassoon with the flute of Nicole Mitchell.  The contrast of the fluttering flute with the low, growl of the bassoon is stunning; like a bear and a bird conversating.  Track three is titled “Lullaby” and features a duet with Nels Cline, a hero of the 1990s Los Angeles improv scene.  Their ballad duet is beautiful, tinged with Rock music magic.  The iconic Roscoe Mitchell, founder of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, is a master of reed instruments and famous for his free improvisation and Avant-Garde approach to jazz.  He joins Sara on the 4th track, “Chordata” which is completely improvised material.   Schoenbeck and her friends have recorded nine duets, all played at a moderate or slow pace.  Each tune unfolds like a short story of their life and times.  On Robin Holcomb’s song, “Sugar” a haunting voice is added by Holcomb with a lyric that is impressive.  The bassoon dances beneath their interaction in a sugar-sweet way and Holcomb adds piano to the mix.  All in all, these Avant-Garde duets celebrate unusual creativity and freedom, while introducing us to Schoenbeck’s bassoon in unique and lovely ways.

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Steve Million, piano; Steve Cardenas, guitar; John Sims, bass; Ron Vincent, drums.

This is the story of four friends who came together in Kansas City, over five decades ago, to make music.  Today, they are reuniting and going back to their original musical concepts.  Steve Million has composed all the music for this project, including several tunes that the musicians hadn’t played since their 1970 gigs in the Mid-west.  Originally, Arnold Young was on drums, Jeff Rendlen was their bassist and Million was on piano.  When Steve Cardenas joined the band (back in Kansas City) they expanded to a quartet.  Over the years, some of the band members, especially Cardenas and Million, often spoke of getting back together to play original music.  The band was interrupted when Ron Vincent and Steve Million moved from Kansas City to New York City in 1981.  Million moved again in 1988, relocating to Chicago.  That year, he was a semifinalist in the internationally respected Thelonious Monk Piano Competition.  He took a great deal of pride in that and admits, he was greatly influenced by pianist, composer Thelonious Monk.  Million even formed a two-keyboard band that he named “Monk’s Dream.”   Steve Million still performs as a piano duo today, bonding talents with Jeremy Kahn, they call themselves, “Double Monk.”  That being said, this album sounds nothing like Monk, post-bop jazz or be-bop, even though both Steve Cardenas and Ron Vincent have deep roots in various bop music forms. Steve Cardenas was a longstanding member of the Paul Motian Electric Bebop band.  Just the opposite, this album sounds very laid-back, contemporary and is without funk or fire.  The original compositions are melodic and well-played, but there are no explosive moments; no straight-ahead; no blues.  Nothing really exciting here.  Just well-played, unobtrusive music that is pleasant to listen to and provides melodic chords for the musicians to improvise upon.  There is a “Waltz for Mr. Abercrombie.”  Million says that his original band was greatly influenced by the John Abercrombie Quartet.  John Sims takes a noteworthy bass solo during this arrangement.  The title tune has a soft Latin undertone, pushed forward by the drums of Ron Vincent.  But you won’t want to salsa dance, rhumba or cha-cha-cha.  This is music to relax with and to listen to with appreciation for their smooth musicianship. 

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Dee Bell, vocals/arrangements; Marcos Silva, electric piano/acoustic piano/arranger; Al Plank, piano; Romero Lubambo, elec. & acoustic guitars; John Stowell, electric guitar; Scott Thompson, electric bass; Tyler Harlow, elec. & acoustic, bass; John Wiltala, double bass; Celso Alberti, Colin Bailey, Phil Thompson, & Zack Mondlick, drums; Erik Jekabson, flugelhorn; Houston Person & Chris Sullivan, saxophones; Michael Spiro, congas/percussion.

It’s nice to hear a female, whose rich, alto voice interprets these songs so delightfully. Indiana-born Dee Bell is currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Pairing her talents with Marcos Silva’s arranging skills, she opens with Abbey Lincoln’s “I Got Thunder (and it Rings)” propelled by Celso Alberti’s rich Samba beat.  Romero Lubambo is featured brightly with a fuzzy electric guitar solo and then Scott Thompson takes a brief solo on electric bass.  The second track is the beautiful standard, “I’ll String Along With You” that features Romero Lubambo’s guitar.  You can feel that these two (Dee Bell and Lubambo) have worked together for a while.  There is a lovely comfort level when this arrangement opens with only voice and guitar.   

Dee Bell has a sound that is seasoned.  Her recordings stretch back to the days of meeting the late, great, jazz vocalist, Eddie Jefferson and being inspired by his words when he told her “That’s a fine sound mama, just keep on singing.”  And she did! Her first two albums were on the Concord Jazz label. These were followed by four albums on the Laser Label.  I enjoy her choice of repertoire.  She sings Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” in a very jazzy way with Chris Sullivan putting the “J” in jazz with his stellar saxophone solo.  One thing bothers me about this album and it’s the ‘mix.’  Sometimes the engineer buries Dee Bell’s beautiful voice in the track.  This is clearly a problem at the top of the “Beijo Partido (Broken Kiss)” tune, and there are other places where this artist is usurped by her band.  I feel her voice just needs to be brought up a couple of notches.  Michael Spiro, on percussion, adds spark and spice to the band’s production of “You’re My Thrill.”  They play the melancholy song up-tempo and it’s an unexpected, but enjoyable arrangement.   Ms. Bell sings in Portuguese on “Boa Nova” and swings on “Watch What Happens.”  Houston Person sounds soulful on saxophone in support of Dee Bells smooth, sultry vocals on this song and two others. 

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Gordon Grdina, guitar/oud/composer; Mat Maneri, viola; Shahzad Ismaily, bass/moog; Christian Lillinger, drums.

Prolific, Vancouver-based guitarist and Oud player, Gordon Grdina, has a new album and it is to mark the official debut of his Attaboygirl Record label.  The label debuted in late October of last year and it is a partnership with Genevieve Monro, a photographer and his collaborative business partner.  Currently, it is a vehicle to promote and press Gordon’s own Avant-Garde material. The company name echoes a saying Gordon’s father used to use often and also alludes to the merger of a boy and girl, (woman and man) going into business together.  Eventually, the label plans to expand to include other artists.  “Square Peg” is an exploratory quartet that Grdina has formed in support of his masterful playing of guitar and Oud.  The Oud is an ancient, wooden, string instrument that is considered by Arabs to be one of the oldest instruments on earth.  It has a lovely pear-shaped body and a fretless neck.

For this album, Gordon Grdina penned several short, modular compositions.  They tie together like a pearl necklace, each one becoming part of the complete and beautiful piece of sparkling bling.  The guitarist continues to evolve his work, using traditional Iraqi and Arabic folk music like a necklace clasp, holding the jewels together.  He blends cultures with his own unique creativity.  On “Sulphur City” I am taken by the way he strings the melody of the composition through the arrangement, using Mat Maneri’s viola.  It weaves like a deep green thread throughout the piece, while Christian Lillinger’s drums push and inspire the tempo with energy.  Gordon Grdina’s guitar-fingers pluck and pull the improvisation to the surface and seem to be having a conversation with the viola.  Shahzad Ismaily’s bass cements the rhythm section in place with Lillinger’s drums.  The piece builds and swells, inspiring my imagination to picture a bright morning sunrise.  I can visualize a swarm of Starlings unexpectedly flying across the orange and gold sky.  This piece almost moves from jazz to a rock arrangement.

“It’s very complex music, rhythmically, harmonically, melodically and in the way every piece fits together.  These guys really can do anything.  Since the last album, the group has solidified its unique sound, which is exciting to hear develop on this second record,” Gordon praised his band.

Gordon Grdina is a Canadian, JUNO Award-winning oud and guitar artist.  His Avant-Garde career has spanned continents.  He has performed in a wide range of collaborative efforts with important artists like Gary Peacock, Paul Motion, Marc Ribot, Mark Feldman, Eyvind Kang and many others.  Currently, he leads multiple ensembles in both Vancouver and New York, blending his Avant-Garde composing talents with his Arabic, Persian and Sudanese repertoire.  This is fascinating music combining cultures, creativity and freedom in a very unique way.

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Alex “Apolo” Ayala, bass/composer/arranger; Ivan Renta, alto & soprano saxophones; Fernando Garcia, drums; Nelson Mateo Gonzalez, barril de bomba (bomba drum); small percussion; Anna Louise Andersson, vocals.

Alex “Apolo” Ayala combines Afro-Caribbean music with jazz on his debut album.  The title “Bambula” in the Bantu language means the memory of a forgotten place, finding yourself and tapping into the collective unconscious.  Also, the “Bambula” is the oldest known rhythm of the Bomba drums, that are so predominant in Puerto Rico’s oldest and purest musical art form.  According to Alex’s press package, Bomba is the music that his African ancestors brought with them to the Americas and “the most authentic expression of Puerto Rican blackness” the bassist explains.  

On his composition, “Jibaro Negro” he employs the 6/8 rhythms popular in Afro-Cuban music.  While this debut album is his first as a leader, Alex “Apolo” Ayala is well-appreciated on the East coast and on the New York City Latin music circuit.  During this song, he steps forward on his bass instrument to expose his skills, while Ivan Renta explores improvisation on saxophone above the Fernando Garcia drum work.  I enjoyed the excitement and cultural roots woven into the tune “Bozales.”

Every song Ayala has composed for this project is specific to a memory, a piece of history or a life lesson he has lived and learned.  He reimagines his musical arrangements and compositions to embrace the memories of Cirita Barrios Pastrana and Esther Ratrana Audain, his beloved mother and grandmother; He blends those memories with authentic expressions of Puerto Rican culture, as a tribute to his ancestors.  Track 5 was written for Esther Pastrana Audain and is titled “Matriarca” to celebrate the matriarch of Ayala’s family and Alex “Apolo” Ayala takes an extended bass solo during this arrangement.  On “Café y Bomba Eh” the drums are appropriately featured along with the powerful vocals of Anna Louise Andersson.  Her voice chants the cultural beauty of the song forward, before bursting into vocal scats that show her powerful ability to improvise and perform traditional jazz along with her Latin jazz sensibility.  I enjoy the bass and drum introduction to the tune, “Agosto” that features the soprano saxophone of Ivan Renta.  It’s quite beautiful in its uncluttered simplicity.  Once again, Alex steps forward to woo us with his creative and sincere bass work.  Here is a cultural gift, wrapped in Latin music arrangements and steeped in creativity that inspires and entertains us.

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MICHAEL MAYO – “BONES” – Mack Ave Records

Michael Mayo, songwriter/vocal arranger/composer/vocalist; Jacob Mann & Andrew Freedman, keyboards/synthesizers; Nick Campbell, elec. bass/synth bass; Ryan McDiarmid & Robin Baytas, drums; Eli Wolf, programming/producer.

“The Way” is a single from his upcoming album.

This new jazz vocalist brings something fresh and exciting to the jazz player’s table.  His songwriting and vocal arranging are fresh and thought provoking.  Keep an eye out for this new artist whose CD “Bones” will soon be released on the Mack Ave Record Label.  He braids Hip Hop into traditional harmonies and creates lovely melodies with lyrics that tickle the brain.  His voice is smooth and delicious as freshly baked bread.  This is a new male artist on the jazz scene who is reimagining the music of freedom in uniquely creative and unexpected ways.  

“20/20” is another single from the upcoming album release.

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Ron Jackson, 7-string guitar/composer; Willie Jones III, drums; Ben Wolfe, bass; SPECIAL GUESTS: Brian Ho, Hammond B3 Organ; Clark Gayton, trombone.

The latest release by guitar master, Ron Jackson, is a sequel to his earlier albums where Jackson played standards, some pop music and even a rap song that was adapted to jazz.

“This one is standards and my original compositions.  I took a couple of hits like the soft rock tune, ‘Brandy’ and R&B tune, ‘Secret Garden’ by Quincy Jones, adapting them to jazz,” Jackson stated in his press package.

On “Brandy,” Willie Jones III smacks the rhythm into place and puts the funk in gear on his trap drums.  He and Ben Wolfe lock tightly to form a duo rhythm section (bass and drums) while Ron Jackson explores the tune’s melody on guitar.  I enjoyed track #2 titled “Walk Fast.”  This composition showcases Ron Jackson’s mastery of his guitar instrument more vividly than the opening number.  Jackson’s arrangement gives Willie Jones III several bars to showcase an exciting drum solo.  The melody is catchy and the trio keeps it moving at a jazzy, up-tempo, post-bebop pace.  I find Jackson’s original composition, “From Dusk to Dawn” enjoyable and stewed in the blues.  In his press package Ron Jackson says that this tune was inspired by Freddie Hubbard.  The guitarist’s salute to one of his mentors, Pat Martino, is heard on the ballad, “For Pat” where Ben Wolfe is given an opportunity to show-off his bass skills. You can hear other influences in his guitar style, including Wes Montgomery and also George Benson, but Jackson is quick to tell you he has studied with a range of other iconic guitarists like Bucky Pizzarelli, who is the one that encouraged Ron’s interest in the seven-string guitar a decade ago.  Ron made it his business to not only study the 7-string instrument, but to perfect and hone his guitar interpretations on it.  I enjoyed his arrangement of one of my favorite tunes from Quincy’s “Back on the Block” album, that featured the sexy monologue of Barry White and the vocals of James Ingram and El Debarge; “Secret Garden (Sweet Seduction Suite).”  During this arrangement, you hear Ron Jackson utilize the full range of his guitar.

Born in the Philippines, but raised mostly just outside of Boston, Ron Jackson was initially drawn to Rock music.  Once he heard Wes Montgomery, George Benson and Pat Metheny, Jackson switched to jazz.  He studied at Berklee School of Music and for a while, he lived and worked in Paris, France.  Upon his arrival in New York City, Ron found himself in demand as a studio session musician and recorded on dozens of albums including Ron Blake, T.K. Blue and Hal Singer.  He also was called to work with super stars like Dee Dee Bridgewater, Gary Bartz and Randy Weston; not to mention he also found plenty of work on Broadway theater gigs.  This is an album that, in its trio simplicity, brightly spotlights three exceptionally talented musicians.  At the same time, it paints guitarist Ron Jackson in brilliant, rainbow colors.  When I finished listening to this recording, I had great appreciation for Jackson’s undeniable talents that shimmer and glow like the ultimate pot of gold at the rainbow’s end.

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JORGE GARCIA – “DEDICATED TO YOU” – Independent label

Jorge Garcia, guitar/composer; Richie Cole, saxophone; Rick Doll & Jamie Ousley, bass; James Cotmon & John Yarling, drums; Paul Banman, piano; Hendrick Meurkens, harmonica; Gino Castillo, percussion; Wendy Pedersen, vocals.

Although I was not familiar with the talent of Cuban-born guitarist, Jorge Garcia, his work with several iconic jazz talents clearly establishes him as crème de la crème and supports his credibility.  He has worked with respected names like Tony Bennett, Cecile McLorin Salvant, Chuck Redd, Jon Faddis and Ignacio Berroa.  On this project, he is joined by the great Richie Cole and the celebrated harmonica master, Hendrik Meurkens.  The ensemble opens like trailblazers dancing to an up-tempo rhythm that flies at racehorse speed.  The tune is “Minority” and was the Richie Cole choice when asked what he wanted to record.  Back in 2009, Cole was visiting South Florida (where Jorge Garcia was based) and playing dates.  When Jorge Garcia suggested they do some recording at a local studio he chose “Minority,” a Gigi Gryce tune.  It allows Cole to race across space on his saxophone, powerful as a jet plane.  Rick Doll’s bass solo is impressive, although it needed to be raised up in the mix when mastered.  Jorge Garcia matches their energy, note for note and his improvisational ability on guitar is impressive.  James Cotmon mans the drums and whips the tempo into place, egging the musicians onward to perform at their very best.  Jorge composed “This One’s for Richie” and it swings hard!  Jorge Garcia is based in Florida and he was Richie Cole’s first-call guitarist whenever Richie was performing in that state.  Sadly, Richie passed away in May of 2020.  Another one of my favorites on this album is Garcia’s interpretation of “You Fascinate Me So” and the groups fast paced arrangement of “S’Wonderful” featuring an exciting, speedy and technically brilliant guitar solo by Jorge over the burning hot rhythm section of Ousley, Banman and Cotmon. The final tune, an original by Jorge Garcia is the title tune, “Dedicated to You.”  It slows the pace, presenting us with a lovely ballad played atop a synthesized string section.  Garcia sounds pensive and emotionally connected to this closing, original composition.  It’s only one-and-a-half minutes long, but it’s a warm and beautiful way to end this album.

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Tony Malaby, tenor & soprano saxophones; Ben Monder, guitar; Michael Formanek, double bass; Tom Rainey, drums.

The pandemic caused a shift in humanity’s consciousness.  It tested our patience.  To date, it’s killed over 900,000 Americans and terrorized communities worldwide.  It stabbed at our political consciousness and challenged our patience, work ethics and survival skills.  To help him cope, saxophonist, Tony Malaby, began hosting regular sessions underneath a turnpike-overpass near his home in New Jersey. 

“My artistic discipline comes from playing sessions.  I just couldn’t let that go.  It was something I needed just to keep my head above water with everything that was happening; the pandemic and the presidential election.  Everything was nuts!  So, I just had to go down there and throw sound with my guys.  It got me through and kept me positive,” Malaby divulged how music sustained him through difficult times.

These self-same turnpike sessions inspired much of this project.  That melding of wind, pedestrian and automobile sounds, bird calls mingling with their instruments and nature changing the atmosphere and the scenery every new day inspired Malaby and his group of determined musicians.  “The Cave of Winds” became his nickname for the unusual rehearsal space, later reimagined in the recording studio.

“It was like a tunnel down there.  Wild, crazy things would happen while we were playing in that cavern.  Trucks were rolling by, sirens going off, birds singing.  We would be down there in 30-degree February weather and the wind would be howling.  It was incredible,” Malaby recalled.

Resultantly, you hear all of that frustration, excitement, determination and inspired creativity in Malaby’s music.  It is saturated with their artistic fortitude and Avant-Garde brilliance.  Opening with Tony Malaby’s tenor saxophone leading the way, “Corinthian Leather” sets the stage, played at a moderate but powerful pace.  Picking up his soprano saxophone, Tony whispers to us like a singing bird begging our attention.  Michael Formanek plucks the strings of his double bass and Ben Monder chords quietly on his guitar.  Tom Rainey colors the piece with cymbals flashing like siren lights and mallets encouraging muted drum sounds.   The tune is titled, “Recrudescence” which means “Revival of material or behavior that had previously quiesced or been recovered.”  The entire ensemble improvised and created this piece as a unit.  It seems to clearly mirror the overpass experience.  Malaby has composed all the other songs.  I was completely taken by Track 3, “Scratch the Horse” whose opening introduction features a fuzzy guitar.  That jerked me out of my jazz sensibility and back to the Jimi Hendrix days of rock and raucous stage shows.  Rainey’s drums pound and groove, while Malaby’s tenor spits improvised protest across the track.  Malaby is tornado wind tough and free as a bird call.  He rips across Rainey’s drums and the guitar fuzz is like a hot sunbeam parting the clouds and burning its way to earth. 

Malaby has been celebrated by ‘All About Jazz’ as one of the most distinctive artists of his time.  He’s adventurous and blends post-bop jazz with free improvisation in extraordinary ways.  I was particularly taken by the title tune, “The Cave of Winds” where Tony begins the piece a ‘Capella.  When Michael Formanek joins him on double bass, playing counter melodies, they are soon joined by Monder’s sweet guitar improvisation and Rainey’s propelling drums.  This is a ballad of sorts, that twists and turns its way across my disc.  I am intrigued by this piece that lasts 18:26 minutes. 

An Arizona native, Tony Malaby has been based in New York City for the past two and a half decades.  His former affiliations include being part of Charlie Haden’s Liberation Orchestra, Paul Motian’s Electric Bebop Band, Mark Helias’ open Loose ensemble and the Fred Hersch Quintet.  Not only is he on the faculty of Berklee College of Music as a respected educator, he is also a bandleader of several projects including: Apparitions, The Tony Malaby Cello Trio, the Quartet Paloma Recio and the Trio Tamarindo.  

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