Archive for March, 2022


March 25, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

March 25, 2022


Gabriel Mark Hasselbach, trumpet/flugelhorn/flute/alto flute/valve trombone/arranger/composer; Jason DeCouto, organ/bass; Nick Bracewell, Craig Scott & Paul Romaine, drums; John Lee, guitar; Mark Diamond & Miles Hill, bass; Andy Weil & Miles Black, piano.

One of the things I admire about multi-musician, Gabriel Mark Hasselbach, is his diversity.  He plays a plethora of instruments, and plays them all exceptionally well.  He also plays mainstream jazz with the same intensity and love that he gives to his contemporary artistic releases. I assume that I’m in for a treat the moment Gabriel Mark Hasselbach’s product hits my desk.  He explained this new album direction in his current press package.

“I figured I’d do something a little different for this recent album session.  The classic organ combo was the answer.  I grew up on Jimmy Smith and the whole cadre, and always had that smoky groove in the back of my mind.  Jason DeCouto, Nick Bracewell and I already had a working trio and we had all worked with John Lee (guitarist).  On these projects, rather than recording predominantly original material, as I often do, I chose soulful tunes from the fifties and sixties that have influenced me.  Songs that have a timeless quality. The result is a trifecta of jazz, where the sum is greater than the parts!”  Gabe asserts.

He opens with “Jonah’s Joint” Gabriel’s original composition and tribute to the great Jonah Jones.  It swings hard with his trumpet out front and leading the pack.  Jason DeCouto steps right up on the organ, never losing the excitement, the tempo or the groove.  He dances over the keys and his foot dances beneath them, pumping that organ like Muhammad Ali once pumped his fists against a gym boxing bag.  That’s just how hard-hitting this opening tune was.  Track #2 is another tribute tune, this time written to celebrate Blue Mitchell.  “Bring It Home to Me” shuffles along with warm harmonics by Gabriel’s trumpet and John Lee’s guitar.  Nick Bracewell is solid and power-packed on drums, locking tightly into Jason’s organ while Hasselbach solos on his trumpet.  When John Lee steps into the spotlight he doesn’t disappoint, followed by an organ solo that matches Hasselbach’s intensity.  Gabe’s friend and an icon in his own right, Randy Brecker, has contributed “Big Dipper” to the mix.  It’s a perfect composition for the organ quartet to explore.  Randy commented on this project in Hasselbach’s press package saying:

“Gabriel Mark Hasselback is constantly honing his various crafts, as a multi-instrumentalist, composer, arranger and producer.  He’s come up with a new album that is his best yet, delving into Hammond B3 Organ Trio territory.  I know that terrain well, growing up in Philly, PA (from whence this style originated) and Gabe and company are right in the groove! Poppin!!” Randy Brecker praised him.

On “Nutville” Gabriel replaces the organ with Andy Weil on piano and plays trumpet, flute, alto flute, flugelhorn and valve trombone during this arrangement.  I enjoy Gabriel’s tone and execution on alto flute during their interpretation of “Slow Hot Wind.”  He opens with the flute, then sets it aside to pick up his horn.  Beautiful!  This tune becomes one of my favorites.   The Horace Silver classic, “Senor Blues” is played with gusto by Mark Diamond’s steady and creative bass work, Weil on piano and Paul Romaine on drums.  In fact, that trio is the exciting rhythm section for tracks four through eight.  On tracks nine through fourteen, Miles Black takes to the 88-keys; Craig Scott lays down the drum grooves and Miles Hill mans the bass.  Consistently, Gabriel Mark Hasselbach contracts the best players and puts his heart and soul into the music he performs for our listening pleasure.

Hasselbach is a very lyrical trumpeter and flugelhorn player.  He has fifteen critically acclaimed albums as a bandleader and has won several JUNO Awards.  Those awards are recognitions similar to the U.S.A. GRAMMY Awards.  Hasselbach’s proud of his eleven certified Contemporary jazz Billboard hit records and his West Coast Music Award.  Additionally, he was crowned Instrumentalist of the Year at the 2011 Canadian Smooth Jazz Awards.  But this album is not Smooth Jazz.  It’s traditional jazz goodness that sprays across my listening room like summer sunshine.  It will lift your spirits and inspire you. 

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Misha Tsiganov, piano/Fender Rhodes; Boris Kozlov, bass; Donald Edwards, drums; Alex Sipiagin, trumpet/flugelhorn; Seamus Blake, tenor Saxophone.

Pianist, arranger, composer Misha Tsiganov has arranged the Gershwin tune “Strike Up the Band” as a sweet waltz at the band’s introduction. Unexpectedly, the band leaps into a fast paced, straight-ahead tempo that swings hard.  Misha takes the reins of the tune and rides it furiously on his 88-keys.  Then, the tempo takes a turn into a sultry, bluesy walk.  Seamus Blakes, on tenor saxophone, steps into view and glides across the rhythm section.  On the fade, Misha gives space for Donald Edwards to showcase his drum skills and Edwards reciprocates with fire.  Blake’s saxophone dances blissfully on top. This is one of my favorite tunes on the album. 

“…Donald and I have been together on many different projects.  I love his playing.  He knows modern vocabulary very well, plays mixed meters, crazy time signatures and the most difficult stuff with elegance,” Misha compliments his percussionist.

The artist’s title tune follows, “Misha’s Wishes.” Alex Sipiagin introduces the melody on his horn, before Boris Kozlov steps forward to showcase his beautiful double bass tones.

“Boris is the best bassist I can imagine.  His timing and power are unbelievable.  I’ve seen him swing a whole big band by himself. I’ve worked a lot in the Afro-Cuban, Salsa and Brazilian idioms and he can play all those styles, as well as mixed meters and straight-ahead,” Misha sings his bass players praises.

Misha has taken the Russian Folk Song, “There Was a Birch Tree in the Field, so What” and transformed it into straight-ahead jazz.  Alex Sipiagin spits trumpet excitement into the air with precision and technique.  He can hit those high notes on the trumpet, the way Dizzy Gillespie used to entertain us.  Misha Tsiganov’s piano solo steals the spotlight and shines.  This is another one of my favorite tunes on this album of ten songs, most of which Tsiganov has composed.  Donald Edwards pumps steadfast enthusiasm into this arrangement and never loses the spontaneity or time on his trap drums.  He is given a time to show-off all his drum skills at the close of this song and after Blake’s tenor saxophone takes a well-deserved bow.  Misha Tsiganov has put together an excellent band of musicians.  His tune, “Lost in Her Eyes” is a sensitive ballad that Misha introduces playing solo piano.  It has lovely chord changes and a pretty melody.  His solo piano sings beautifully, without accompaniment.  On “Just A Scale” the band rejoins their leader and the melody sounds exactly like the title as it moves up the scale, only changing the timing between notes.   Another favorite on this album is the Bill Evans composition, “Comrade Conrad” arranged with rich horn harmonies that sing, like background vocals, behind Misha’s sensitive piano solo.  The quintet closes with a very solemn original by Tsiganov titled, “Are You with Me?”  I was drawn to his piano solo and the emotional intensity he brought to the piece.  Here is another feather in the cap of Misha Tsiganov, stylish and entertaining as a composer, arranger and pianist.

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CALVIN JOHNSON JR., – “NOTES OF A NATIVE SON” –  Independent label

Calvin Johnson jr., tenor & soprano saxophones/vocals/composer; Ryan Hanseler, piano/Fender Rhodes; Trenton O’Neal, Alfred Jordan & Thomas Glass, drums; Evan Washington, elec. bass/piano/arranger; D’wayne Muhammad, percussion; Peter Harris, acoustic bass; Jennie Brent, violin & viola; Gabrielle Fischler, cello; Erica Falls, vocals.

The new Calvin Johnson Jr., album release displays his talents on both tenor and soprano saxophones.  However, one thing annoys me.  Jazz vocalization is as much an art as playing an instrument and serious singers spend years honing their styles and learning how to breathe, how to swing and how to sell a song.  I was not impressed with Mr. Johnson’s vocalization on the Fats Domino hit record, “I’m Walking.”  That being said, the rest of his album is palatable.  I was very pleased with the ensemble’s interpretation of “Summertime” where pianist Ryan Hanseler takes an outstanding solo and the group’s unique arrangement makes the old standard sound brand new!  

As a third-generation musician, who inherits the rich cultural legacy of New Orleans, Johnson Jr. brings a smattering of original compositions to this, his third album release.  I was particularly impressed with Track #5, “Resistance is Noble but Defeat is Imminent.”  He introduces the melody on tenor saxophone and I briefly hear traces of John Coltrane’s “Love Supreme” winding through this arrangement.  This song summersaults its way through key changes and Hanseler, on piano, brings a fresh perspective to the tune during his heavily arpeggio solo.  “Treme” settles into a beautiful melody pushed forward by the drummer’s very Ahmad-Jamal-influenced drum beat, reminding me of the Poinciana tune.  It’s a sweet arrangement.  Erica Falls is the featured vocalist on an original song called, “Streetcar Love.”  The melody is catchy, but the lyrics seem a bit outdated. The arrangement on “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is strong and the addition of strings played by Gabrielle Fischer and Jennie Brent definitely elevates the song.

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Sean Nelson, alto trombone/trombone/electric trombone/composer/bandleader/arranger; Doug Maher, guitar; Jen Allen, piano/Hammond B3 organ/Wurlitzer; Lou Bocciarelli, electric & double bass;  Nathan Lassell, drums/percussion; Megan Weikleenget, vocals; Chris Smith, steel pans/percussion; Rob McEwan, tabla; Megan Sesma, harp; WOODWINDS: Erik Elligers, alto saxophone/flute; Tyler Wilkins, alto saxophone/flute/clarinet/ bassoon; Robert Durle, clarinet/contrabass clarinet; Cedric Mayfield, tenor saxophone/flute/clarinet/tarogato; Josh Thomas, tenor saxophone/flute/clarinet; Ryan Foley & Laura Pirruccello, flute; Megan Nelson, alto flute; Jeff Emerich, baritone saxophone/contralto clarinet. TRUMPETS: Bryce Call, Seth Bailey, Haneef Nelson & Tom Brown, trumpets/flugelhorns. TROMBONES: Leroy Loomer, trombone; Brian Sturm, bass trombone; TROMBONE ENSEMBLE: Sean Nelson & Karna Millen, alto trombone; Vince Yanovitch, Topher Logan, Colton Kinney & Luke Conklin, trombones; Wes Mayhew, Ted Adams & Zachary Haas, bass trombone.

Trombonist and composer, Sean Nelson, had a dream that manifested with this incredibly entertaining package of big band music.

“For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to have my own big band; an epic jazz orchestra of seventeen plus musicians.  A band that would play music old and new, tunes ranging from the roaring 20s to brand new compositions written by band members.  Most of all, a band made up of the absolute best musicians,” Sean Nelson mused in his liner notes.

The New London Big Band opens with Sean’s original composition, “Social Hour!” and it swings pretty hard.  It’s followed by a low-down, dirty blues called “Brisket and Beans” that features the fluid and blues-drenched guitar of Doug Maher.  Nelson has also composed this song.  I am intrigued by the horn arrangements and the way he has them whine and moan during this blues production.  “El Chupacabra” is another original composition by Sean Nelson and it invites strong percussive accents and smooth horn lines.  “Countin’ Freckles” is a tune that reminds me of the Count Basie days.  It invites the swing dancers to the ballroom floor.  Track #5 was composed by their pianist, Jen Allen.  Called “The Clearing” is sounds like a movie soundtrack with its many moods and tempo changes from smooth 4/4 to double time swing with an under-current of 6/8 sliding in and out of the theme.    

The Sean Nelson New London Big Band was formed in 2016 and is comprised of some of the finest musicians New England has to offer.  The title tune is the band’s theme song and an homage to their regular appearance at a club called, “The Social Bar + Kitchen” in New London, Connecticut.  Sean Nelson pushes musical boundaries when he uses his electric trombone to interpret his composition, “Freaks in Mayberry.”  Arranged with the funk drums of Nathan Lassell pushing the tune forward forcefully, it also features a pensive and soulful solo on tenor sax by Cedric Mayfield.  Their elated and energetic arrangement on “When You Wish Upon a Star” will lighten your mood and is bound to make you smile.  These ‘cats’ are everything you want in a big band and more.  Their carefully constructed repertoire will keep you entertained from beginning to end, along with their tightly packaged arrangements, stellar solos and overall great playing by this seventeen-piece orchestra.  Sit back and enjoy!

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Kevin Eubanks, guitar; Orrin Evans, piano.

This is a duo album, and from the very first moments of listening, the peace and comfort that these two musicians recorded is palatable.  Clearly, both artists are adventurous and super talented. They share Philadelphia roots, but even more than being raised in the city of brotherly love, they each display a grittier side; they each acknowledge deep roots in the community and each strives to touch humanity through the power of sound, music and jazz.  Also, both bring decades of experience in the music business.   

Kevin Tyrone was born to Vera Eubanks on November 15, 1957 into a family rich with music history.  His mother is a gospel organist and pianist with a Master’s Degree in music education. His mom’s brother, Ray Bryant, was a celebrated jazz pianist who has worked with Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Sarah Vaughan and even John Coltrane.  Ray Bryant also had hit records of his own.  So, young Kevin Eubanks was exposed to world-class music and entertainers throughout his life.  His first instrument was violin at age seven.  His brother, Robin, became a trombonist, arranger and tenured professor of music at Oberlin College.  His other brother, Duane, became a trumpet teacher.  Kevin also studied trumpet before finally finding his deep love for the guitar more satisfying.  While attending Berklee College of Music and moving to New York City, his career took off.  He became a respected sideman with notable jazz icons like Slide Hampton, McCoy Tyner, Sam Rivers, Roy Haynes and Ron Carter (among others).  He also formed his own group and established himself as a bandleader.  He was twenty-five when his first album was released on the Elektra label.  Kevin’s cousins, the late bassist David Eubanks and pianist Charles Eubanks appeared on this recording.  Kevin Eubanks became guitarist and Musical Director for the Tonight Show band with Jay Leno for 18-years (1992 – 2010).   Moving to Los Angeles, during that gig with the Tonight Show, he began to score film.  In November, 2010, Kevin released the CD Zen Food (Mack Avenue Records).  It debuted in the Top Five on the Billboard Jazz Chart and was Kevin’s fastest selling record ever.  In February, 2013 his CD The Messenger (Mack Avenue Records) was released, garnering a 2014 NAACP Image Award nomination for “Outstanding Jazz Album.”  That same year, he toured extensively as a member of Dave Holland’s ‘PRISM.’ In March 2015, the acclaimed Duets (Mack Avenue Records) featured Kevin pairing with fellow guitarist Stanley Jordan. That album was released to rave reviews and several concert performances.  Now he is releasing a new duet album that is sure to also receive critical acclaim.

Orrin Evans is a well-respected jazz pianist, composer and bandleader.  He has deep roots in hard bop, post-bop, rhythm and blues and neo-soul music.  Born March 28, 1975 in Trenton, New Jersey, Orrin has led an extraordinary life of musical adventures.  Although born in Trenton, NJ, Orrin was raised in Philadelphia and studied with Kenny Barron while attending Rutgers University.  He worked with the great drummer, Ralph Peterson, with Bobby Watson and Kevin Eubank’s younger brother, trumpeter Duane Eubanks.  So, these two musicians go way back.  As a serious individualist on the music scene, Orrin has released twenty-five albums as a bandleader or co-leader.  As an educator, Orrin is passionate about helping people through the power of music and artistry.  Establishing his own label, “Imani Records,” his release of Captain Black Big Band, was GRAMMY nominated.  The genres and styles Orrin plays stretch from his Philadelphia roots to embrace funk, neo/soul/acid jazz and bebop.  That wide variety has stimulated his recordings with a long list of exceptional musicians including Smoke Sessions Records release of his recent piano trio featuring bassist Christian McBride and drummer, Karriem Riggins titled, “The Evolution of Oneself.”  This duo recording with Kevin Eubanks presents opportunity for a new evolution. 

There is undeniable chemistry between these two master musicians.  Both are fearless in their musical perceptions and abilities.  The repertoire they have chosen reflects their composer abilities and the comfort they exhibit while bouncing ideas and musical interpretations off each other.  It’s a thrilling listening experience.  “I Don’t Know” is buttered down and basted in the blues.  They co-wrote this one and its down-home delicious.  It reaches back to deep roots in the people-of-color community, conjuring up ghosts of John Lee Hooker, Little Milton and Robert Johnson.  Orrin Evans colors the track with his improvised piano parts, as gritty as Gene Harris or Les McCann.  On the Eubanks/Evans composition, “And They Ran Out of Biscuits!” the duo delves into freedom of expression, a little heart and Soul along with a taste of avant-garde.  This duo combination creates both excitement and art right before your ears.  The song “Dawn Marie,” penned by Evans, is a lovely ballad.  But tunes like “Variations on the Battle” stretch my imagination and tease my musical appetite.  I had to play this cut three times, because their musicianship was so inspired and in-depth.  The duo closes with “Variations on Adoration” and I walk away, adoring this experience and appreciating the complexity that just two musicians can bring to a project.

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Josh Nelson, piano/composer; Bob Bowman, bass; Steve Houghton, drums; Larry Koonse, guitar; Bob Sheppard, saxophone; Clay Jenkins, trumpet.

Here is a group of musicians and close friends who have come together to create a project of beauty and depth.  Bassist Bob Bowman first met trumpeter, Clay Jenkins in 1972 at North Texas.  Shortly after, he made the acquaintance of drummer Steve Houghton and a little later, woodwind player, Bob Sheppard.  As fate would have it, they all turned up in Southern California at about the same time.  In Los Angeles, Bob would meet guitarist Larry Koonse.  The young musician was still in high school. Eventually Bowman would meet and play with Josh Nelson.  He felt an immediate connection to the pianist and they talked about recording a duo album.  All these years later, this group of seasoned jazz musicians and old acquaintances wound up in Talley Sherwood’s studio to finally make this album.  They open with the title tune, a pensive reflection on the times we live in.  Josh Nelson is the composer and penned this tune during the challenge of COVID infections worldwide.  Today, the beauty and blessing of living life continues to be challenged by war and rumors of war, political disparities and cultural changes.  So, as he reminds us with this music, “Tomorrow is Not Promised.”

Josh said, “The title of the album seems more relevant than ever these days. …I strived to convey a sense of uncertainty and mystery, but also a feeling of determination and resolve.”

Bob Sheppard composed Track #2 titled, “Your Night Your Music.”  It swings hard.  “Sometime Ago” is a beautiful waltz and the tinkling beauty of Nelson’s piano magic leaps into my listening room, with Bob Bowman’s bass setting the pace and establishing the groove.  When Bowman steps into the spotlight, his solo is innovative and imaginative.  Larry Koonse has contributed his composition, “Blues for Albert E” to the project. Bob Sheppard’s saxophone interpretation puts a capital B in Blues and Clay Jenkins displays his bright talent on trumpet   Bowman has written “Yae San” and plays the introduction a’ cappella.  The arrangement on this tune embraces Asian influences, like the title.  Koonse uses his guitar to pluck the recurring melody, before soloing.   The ensemble reinvents popular tunes like “Weaver of Dreams” where drummer Steve Houghton steps into a bright spotlight to display his talents and they arrange the familiar Miles Davis tune, “Blue in Green” in an unforgettable way, featuring Josh Nelson and Bob Bowman.  It’s got to be one of my favorites on this album.  Yes.  Bob and Josh should record a duo project.  All in all, this is music that moves as smoothly as a well-oiled machine. You can tell that these musicians know each other very well and find comfort, inspiration and creativity blending together in this project.

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MATT HALL – “I HOPE TO MY NEVER” – Summit Records

Matt Hall, trombone/composer/arranger/producer; Charlie Arbelaez, alto saxophone/composer; Louis Valenzuela, guitar; Jason Shattil, piano; Mackenzie Leighton, double bass; Kevin Kanner, drums.

Matt Hall and his ensemble swing right out the gate.  “Biscuits & Gravy” is Matt Hall’s original composition and it quickly sets the tone for this album.  The bass of Mackenzie Leighton walks briskly beneath bright, swinging horn solos and Matt Hall’s trombone tells his story with gusto.  Kevin Kanner uses drums to powerfully push the ensemble forward.  When Jason Shattil takes his solo on piano, it leaves no doubt that Hall has assembled a group of connoisseur jazz cats to interpret his arrangements. Hall is a composer of note.  His song, “I Hope to my Never” is the title of this album and a tribute to his Great Aunt Joan.  Years ago, she expressed exasperation over Matt’s constant practicing and used to exclaim, “I hope to my never.”  Now her poetic phrase of frustration has become Track #2 of Matt’s debut album.  It’s a very melodic tune with a slow swing tempo and an opening line that reminds me of the song, I thought About You.  Matt Hall’s trombone skills skip along smoothly as the melody dances. “The Thing About Sloan Hill” is another tune that swings and features the smooth guitar mastery of Louis Valenzuela.  Mackenzie Leighton steps from the background into the forefront to sing his big, bad, bass song.  The tune “Spearhead” is another one of my favorites and also an original composition by Matt Hall.  In fact, he has penned seven out of the nine songs on this album and they are all well-written and beautifully arranged.  “No Going Back” was composed by alto saxophonist, Charlie Arbelaez and it’s another sparkling gem on this production. Played at lightning speed, the track gives a platform for the soloists to shine, starting with Valenzuela on guitar.  When Arbelaez steps into the spotlight, he takes us on a spirited ride, as does Jason Shattil on the 88-keys.  Hall and Arbelaez blend perfectly, promoting melody with horn harmonies at a swift pace.  Suddenly, Kevin Kanner silences the group with his drum solo and impresses me with his dexterity and technical skills.  This group loves to ‘swing’ and so do I.  Consequently, this journalist was perfectly happy with this album from beginning to end.

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Tony Monaco, Hammond B3 organ/composer; Willie B. Barthel III, drums; Kevin Turner, guitar/composer; Edwin Bayard, tenor & soprano saxes.

This is the 12th recording for Tony Monaco as a bandleader and it celebrates his half-century in the music business.  At age eight, Tony played the accordion.  But when he first heard Jimmy Smith on the organ, his fate was sealed.  He began working organ gigs in his native Columbus, Ohio while still a teenager. His early mentors were Hank Marr and Don Patterson.  He listened astutely to all the great organists including, Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Richard “Groove” Holmes, Charles Earland, Jack McDuff and Dr. Lonnie Smith.  At age sixteen, the great Jimmy Smith called him with encouraging words.  Jimmy Smith soon became Tony’s friend and teacher.  Four years after that call, the organ master invited Tony Monaco to come play a gig at Smith’s California supper club.  Once Monaco married, to support his wife and three daughters, like many jazz musicians he worked day jobs and played gigs at night.  After years of honing his craft, In 2000, the super talented organist Joey DeFrancesco offered to produce a debut album on Monaco.  This became a catalyst for touring and Tony finally attained international success.  Summit Records released two more records, charting in Jazzweek’s Top Ten list.  This album promises to follow in those self-same footsteps.  Opening with his original composition and the title of this album, “Four Brothers” the tune slams onto the scene with Willie B. Barthel III kicking the song off on his drum set.  Barthel rolls across the drums and settles into a happy shuffle.  Edwin Bayard joins the party on his saxophone until the spotlight turns to Kevin Turner on guitar.  By the time Tony Monaco enters for his organ solo, the band has laid down a smokin’ hot groove and Tony shines like gold!   Track #2, “You Can Always Count on Me” is another Monaco original composition.  It’s melodic and well-written with a wonderful bridge.  You will enjoy the quartet’s take on “Mas Que Nada” played at an up-tempo pace.  Kevin Turner (guitarist in the group) has penned “One for Everyone,” a very catchy tune, pumped up by Willie’s shuffling drums and enhanced with Monaco’s jazzy organ solo. The quartet’s take on Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” slows their groove down to unveil the sexy ballad.  Bayard’s saxophone opens this poignant composition with flair and beauty.  A tune called “Brothers-4” is written by Monaco’s mentor, Don Patterson.  Willie B. Barthel III sets the groove at the top of the tune, playing the drums like a melody and inviting Monaco’s organ onto the scene with power and pulse.  This is an album that uplifts the spirit and entertains in a very soulful way.  It celebrates the Columbus, Ohio jazz scene and Tony Monaco’s fifty years of powerful playing.  When he’s not recording or touring, he acts as Executive Producer of the Summit Records subsidiary, Chicken Coup Records.   He has recorded and released CDs for several undiscovered organists around the globe, passing the torch and using his role as educator and mentor to spread and cultivate many new hopefuls to the art of playing jazz organ.  Perhaps he says it best in his press package.

“After fifty great years, I want to take the opportunity to honor and thank my hometown, (Columbus, Ohio) and to find myself recognized as part of this town’s vibrant musical scene is personally very rewarding,” Tony Monaco proudly shines the spotlight on his hometown.

Additionally, he has surrounded himself with musicians who are the cream of the crop on the Ohio jazz scene.  Together, they guarantee the listener an album of fine music for now and into perpetuity.

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March 15, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

March 15, 2022

AZAR LAWRENCE – “NEW SKY” – Trazar Records

Azar Lawrence, tenor/soprano/Alto saxophones/composer; Munyungo Jackson, percussion; John Beasley, keyboards/composer; Sekou Bunch, bass; Tony Austin, drums; James Saez & Gregory Moore, guitar; Greg Poree, acoustic guitar; Destiny Muhammad, harp; Nduduzo Makhathini, piano; Lynne Fiddmont, Calesha “Bre-Z” Murray & Oren Waters, vocals.

I have been a fan of Azar Lawrence’s music since the early seventies.  He has been consistently creative and innovative for half a century.  This production is no exception.

“All of my skills that have been gathered throughout my career has been a journey and all of these energies that have been acquired throughout that journey are coming together in a focused manner.  This new album expresses that,” Azar writes in his liner notes.

Opening with “All in Love” Azar mixes cultural influences, lending his saxophone sound to a minor melody and improvisation that embraces Middle Eastern roots.  Munyungo Jackson lays down his always creative splash of percussive brilliance and a feature solo by guitarist James Saez is both exciting and provocative.  Azar Lawrence has composed or co-written all tracks. Track #2, “Peace and Harmony” becomes a platform to spotlight the exceptional musicians Azar has included on this project.  John Beasley executes a flurry of dancing notes on keyboard and Sekou Bunch is featured on a notable bass solo.  “New Sky” is a more contemporary arrangement featuring vocalist Lynne Fiddmont singing lyrics by Tiffany Austin.  Tony Austin’s drums put the funk in place and Azar Lawrence uses his saxophone talents to put the ‘J’ in jazz.  “Ain’t No Doubt About It” is another contemporary piece that makes me want to dance to Azar Lawrence’s soulful saxophone solo.  I was puzzled by lyrics that didn’t reflect the title at all.  In fact, the instrumental arrangement really didn’t need the vocals.  It’s the saxophone brilliance of Azar Lawrence that carries this arrangement, along with John Beasley’s brief keyboard solo.  Although Azar Lawrence is steeped in bebop and post-bop jazz, most of what you hear on this “New Sky” album is a crossover to smooth jazz.  His mastery of reed instruments is upfront and obvious as he plays alto, soprano and tenor saxophones on this project.  He’s also a competent composer.  Songs like “From the Point of Love” are a beautiful blend of contemporary jazz mixed with Lawrence’s haunting saxophone that sometimes reminds me of something Yusef Lateef would play.  On “Birds are Singing” Azar’s horn mimics the beauty of bird calls, trembling fluidly across space.  Another favorite on this album is the closing tune, “Revelation” that lasts eight minutes and is closer to the bebop, straight-ahead jazz I love to hear Azar Lawrence play.

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Roswell Rudd, trombone; Duck Baker, guitar.

Here is an intimate collaboration between the legendary jazz trombonist, Roswell Rudd (Nov 17, 1835 – Dec 21, 2017) and gifted guitarist, Duck Baker.  This project was recorded in 2002 and 2004.  Recently pulled from a dusty shelf, it was rejuvenated by Dot Time Records.  This duo recording reflects ties that both Baker and Rudd had to traditional music, Americana and jazz.  The trombonist and composer, Roswell Rudd, was a lover of Dixieland, but was more appropriately acknowledged for his work in free and Avant-Garde jazz.  Roswell Rudd worked for many years with Archie Shepp, starting in 1962.  He also collaborated with a number of icons including Don Cherry, Cecil Taylor, Steve Lacy, Larry Coryell, Gato Barbieri and Pharoah Sanders.  Rudd loved the music of Thelonious Monk and this duo explores Monk’s composition, “Well, You needn’t” with much pizazz and excitement.  As a bandleader, Rudd has recorded twenty-four albums. 

Duck Baker has twenty-one albums released as a bandleader and is acclaimed for his fast finger-work on guitar.  Like Rudd, Duck is steeped in traditional jazz, but also was an admirer of Bluegrass music, played around with Rock music as a youngster and dabbled in American folk music, blues, ragtime and gospel. He was also a lover of Irish and Scottish music and recorded an album of same.  Once he discovered The Jazz Crusaders, Jimmy Smith and Miles Davis, Baker was hooked on jazz.  Born in Washington, D.C., (July 30, 1949) Duck Baker grew up in Virginia and followed his career path of music, eventually moving to Europe.  He spent years touring the world with various bands and finally, Duck Baker settled down in San Francisco, California in the early 1970s.  That’s when he began recording albums as a bandleader. 

They play an arrangement of “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” at a slow swing pace and tribute trombone master JJ Johnson (who was often referred to as the Charlie Parker of trombone) with the tune “A Bouquet for JJ.”  Roswell Rudd plays this one a’ Capella.  “Melancholy People” becomes a track to showcase Baker’s expertise on guitar, with his fingers racing around the strings beneath the trombone’s exploration of the melody.  Roswell improvises, adding many familiar standard tunes within the framework of the chords, while Baker is given time to show off his guitar skills.  Somehow, Rudd manages to insert pieces of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Melancholy Baby” and more into this arrangement.  Listen closely to hear the way he wiggles them into the mix.

I have never heard a recording of just trombone and guitar before this one.  I marvel at Baker and the way he taps on the wooden guitar frame for rhythm.  He strums and hums and tickles the strings.  At times, his fingers pluck at a rapid speed and he improvises freely. Roswell Rudd is also incredibly creative, often incorporating five, six or seven different songs into the mix of the one they started off playing.  I witnessed chuckles from their ‘live’ audience, acknowledging that they too heard the unexpected tunes he plugs into each arrangement.   The unbridled freedom, creativity and spontaneity of these two musicians is quite entertaining.  This unusual and uncluttered recording spotlights each man’s talent in a bright, brilliant and intimate way. 

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Philip Topping, electronic valve instrument/composer/trumpet/flugelhorn/co-producer; Ian Vo, tenor saxophone/flute; Allen Mascari, tenor saxophone; Gary Herbig, flute/soprano saxophone; Andy Waddell, guitar; Mitch Forman, piano/keyboards; Peter Sepsis, bass/composer/co-producer; Dave Johnstone, drums; Baba Sissoko, percussion/vocals; Billy Hulting, percussion.

This collective of Los Angeles based jazz musicians call themselves, “Tritone Asylum” and offer a diversified album of funk, smooth jazz and easy listening that spotlights their great musicianship.  Trumpeter Philip Topping and guitarist Andy Waddell began jamming together in the late 2000s.  They soon ‘hooked-up’ with the super talented bassist and composer, Peter Sepsis and a keyboard player named Aubrey Scarbrough. The four men had common musical heroes including Charlie Parker, Weather Report, Pat Metheny, the Brecker Brothers, Herbie Hancock and Eddie Harris.  The early influence of these music idols helped develop the composer skills in both Topping and Sepsis.  Philip Topping’s tune, “Schizophrenic” snatches my attention with the funk drums of Dave Johnstone and the bass work of Sepsis.  It reminds me of the “Headhunter” album days.   The melody is catchy and dances between the keyboard and the horn lines. 

“Having the same bass player and drummer has allowed us to have a consistent groove despite other changes to the band’s personnel,” Sepsis explained the magic behind the tight, funky groove on this tune and others on this album.  He compliments his and Johnstone’s bass and drum talents.

After their original sax player, Allen Mascari, moved away from the group, they added saxophonist Ian Vo, who Topping met when they were both studying music at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts).

The band calls its music “electro-acoustic.”  They blend the sound of the EVI and electric bass, like cream and coffee.  The acoustic piano (Henri Wilkinson) and Gary Herbig’s soprano saxophone shine on track #4, a ballad called, “The Road to Hue.”   They creatively pull-off mixing electronic music with acoustic instrumentation.  Philip Topping’s EVI blows me away! 

“This music is the opposite of bedlam.  Sure, you’ll hear many voices in each piece, but they’re singing in the same resonant key … with care and exquisite balance between old and new,” Neil Tesser writes in their liner notes.

Their name, (“TriTone”) was adopted from music language.  A tritone is the note that precisely bisects the twelve-tone scale and it caused some hullabaloo when it first started being used. Some referred to it as ‘the devil’s interval.’   In this case, it opens a gateway into music that influenced these musicians and inspired new explorations to combine electric and acoustic in the same beautiful breath.  On the pretty ballad, “Malawi” they add chants that transport us to foreign shores and add an unexpected world music component to their arrangement.

“I like music that tells a story.  We don’t want to write music that’s so complicated you need to study harmony to understand it,” bass player and composer, Sepsis shares.  “We try to make music that reflects the sounds of the street.” 

Their opening, easy-listening/Latin composition by Sepsis called “Grasshopper” employs the percussion of Billy Hulting that adds a Calypso-feel.  “The 54 Blues” is not a typical 4/4 blues tune.  Instead, it employs a 5/4 rhythm and features pianist, Mitch Foreman, playing an organ-sounding keyboard.  It grooves and spotlights Toppin’s electronic valve instrument (EVI).  Ian Vo’s tenor saxophone and Andy Waddell’s inventive guitar are also featured.  On Topping’s tune, “Simple” it is anything but!  This arrangement is exciting and fat with energy!  Ian Vo is tenacious on tenor sax.

“… we move between an Afro groove, then funk, then Latin.  The sounds of the street are made by people in the diverse community that is Los Angeles.  If I’m not moving people, I’m not doing my job,” Sepsis assures us.  

I’d say the TriTone Asylum collective is definitely doing their job.

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Natsuki Tamura, Trumpet/piano/wok; Satoko Fujii, voice.

On this exploratory music by trumpeter and composer, Natsuki Tamura, you will experience layers of sounds, notes and creativity that are connected to Mother Nature in a very spiritual way. Expressed musically, not only by the trumpet, but by electronics and studio assistance, Tamura first laid down a foundation track for his four, lengthy pieces.  They sound more like suites than singular compositions.  In a spontaneous, but time-consuming process, two of the tracks, the title, “Summer Tree” and another track called “Summer Dream” have composed themes. Tamura’s lovely muted trumpet floats on top of several ethereal sounds of percussion, bells, low drones, hisses, bells, piano and electronic improvisation.  The other two tracks, “Summer Color” and “Summer Wind” are totally improvised.  Although he layered the production, Tamura used no post-production mixing, editing or other manipulations to create the album’s unearthly sounds.  He reached into his huge bag of techniques, using the instruments on-hand.   They create the sounds and textures on this album.  The title of his project, “Summer Tree” is spelled by two Chinese letter.  The “Natsu” in his name translates to ‘summer’ and “ki” means tree.  He was born in the summer and his parents gave him that name.  Natsuki Tamura has been recording for more than three decades.  Here is his fifth, mostly solo trumpet recording.  His wife, Satoko Fujii, adds her voice on one track only.  The rest is all Tamura.   He plays piano in a somewhat menacing rumble that sets the mood and builds the crescendo of sounds and music.  This is another of his always eclectic, thought provoking and excellent Avant-Garde musical interpretations.  We not only experience his trumpet mastery, but his lyricism on various pieces of metal that he taps upon; whispery techniques that moan and howl as he incorporates them to reflect his artistry and to entertain our imaginations.  

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Cory Weeds, tenor saxophone/composer; Phil Dwyer, piano/producer/arranger; John Lee & Maggie Hasspacher, bass; Jesse Cahill, drums; STRING SECTION: Cam Wilson, lead violin: Llowyn Ball, Elyse Jacobson, Molly MacKinnon, Jiten Beairsto, Madeline Hocking, Meredith Bates & Andrea Siradze, violin; John Kastelic & Genevieve MacKay, viola; Finn Manniche & Doug Gorkoff, cello.

I’m blown away by the sweetness of Cory Weeds latest project and the lush string arrangements that cushion his tenor saxophone tenacity.  This album reminds me of Harold Lands remarkable album recorded with the Ray Ellis string arrangements; arrangements that Ray originally wrote for Billie Holiday.  The Land project is called “A Lazy Afternoon.”  Weeds’ album also reminds me of Charlie Parker’s earth-shattering recording with strings.  Canadian-based Cory Weeds is just that good!  I didn’t think anyone could move me the way those two albums moved me, but Mr. Weeds is up to the task.  This is his 18th album as a bandleader and could be one of his most ambitious projects to date.  He interprets a number of standard tunes that we are quite familiar with like “I Wish You Love” and the title tune, “What is There to Say?”  But he also shines as a composer.  The sign of a well-written composition is that the listener feels comfortable with the song, as though it’s familiar and he’s heard it before.  Cory’s lovely “Waltz for Someone Special” is just such a tune.  Phil Dwyer’s lush string arrangements are inspirational and bring the best out of this sensuous tenor saxophone player and the string ensemble.  Cory’s original song titled; “Alana Marie” is quite beautiful.  He seems emotionally connected, blowing love notes from the bell of his tenor saxophone.  Track #5, is a medley that combines “The Phantom” with the hit song, “The in Crowd” and pulls the funk out of Jesse Cahill’s drums.  Phil Dwyer adds a blues drenched piano to the mix and the strings smoothly enhance the production.   Recorded at Armoury Studios in Vancouver, BC a year ago, this is a romantic, relaxing and emotional album of fine jazz.  Cory Weeds is a gifted and stellar saxophonist. The music’s perfectly mixed and beautifully produced.  I enjoyed the performance so much that I played it three times in a row.

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Enrico Rava, flugelhorn/composer; William Parker, double bass; Andrew Cyrille, drums.

Enrico Rava, William Parker and Andrew Cyrille are among the masters of improvised, modern jazz and considered elders in that realm.  With this album, featuring Rava’s flugelhorn, Parker’s double bass and Cyrille’s deft drumming, they have come together to celebrate the life of pianist and bandleader, Cecil Taylor (1929 – 2018).   They recorded at Studio Ferber in Paris a year ago on February 1 and 2 of 2021.  The songs are all original composition by the trio members and one standard, “My Funny Valentine.”  The simplicity of a production just featuring drums, acoustic bass and flugelhorn does not mean the music is simple.  The situation allows the listener to clearly hear each component of the musical trio and appreciate the creativity and mastery of each instrumentalist.  Enrico Rava’s flugelhorn presentation is both inspired and beautiful.  They open with “Improvisation No. 1” written by all three musicians and it sets the tone for the other nine tunes that follow.  William Parker steps stage front to solo his acoustic bass over a rich tapestry of trap drum improvisation.  It becomes an instrumental conversation until Enrico suddenly flies skyward, like a determined hawk above the fray, searching for a nesting spot.  Andrew Cyrille not only secures the time, he is quite creative, letting his drums sing along with the modern sound.  This is nearly eleven minutes of musical intrigue.  “Ballerina” was penned by Enrico Rava.  It twists and turns like the body of a ballerina, with crisp, starched notes spinning her skirt.  The rhythm is fast and locked down by Cyrille’s busy drum sticks.  He takes a solo that explores his cymbals.  I can almost visualize the “Ballerina” pirouetting across the stage on the tip of sparkling, pink, ballet slippers. 

On the “Blues for Cecil No. 1” the trio settles into a slow tempo that wraps arms around me like a lover.  Andrew Cyrille shuffles and swings.  William Parker casually walks his bass across my listening space, building a basement, ballroom floor for the fluegelhorn to dance upon.   Rava blows, screams and shudders in this perfect space.  “Improvisation No.2” is mournful, perhaps grieving the loss of Cecil Taylor and his incredible contribution to music.

“Cecil was a spokesman for individuality; a musical warrior always operating on a high level,” said Parker. “He was not Avant-Garde.  He was a human being who loved life as music.  He would not be boxed in…”

On Track #6, the trio seems to be slow-baking a musical cake. Their composition is bluesy and sweet.  Rava spreads flugelhorn excitement on it, like caramel-cake icing.  William Parker’s bass and Andrew Cyrille have whipped the batter up and now we taste it.  The listener can enjoy this “Blues for Cecil No. 2” as a dessert for all our senses.  It richly features William Parker on bass, burning bright as birthday candles.  Parker performed with the Cecil Taylor Unit from 1980 to 1991 and recorded with Taylor more than a dozen times.  Enrico Rava began his career in his native Italy in the mid-1960s and worked with Gato Barbieri and Steve Lacy.  With more than fifty recordings as both a leader or co-leader, he is one of the most internationally respected Italian jazz cats worldwide.  He met Cecil Taylor in the late 1960s and performed in Taylor’s Orchestra of Two Continents in 1984.  Later, in 1988 they reunited when he became a part of Cecil Taylor’s European Orchestra.  Cyrille was born in Brooklyn and felt he made his musical mark when he joined the Cecil Taylor Unit in 1964 and it lasted until 1975.  He emerged as one of the leading drummers in free, uninhibited, improvised music.  So, all three of these master musicians had a personal connection to the late, great Cecil Taylor.   They offer us a fascinating and improvised musical experience of modern jazz that properly tributes one of their great mentors.

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Eli Degibri, tenor & soprano saxophones/composer; Tom Oren, piano; Alon Near, bass; Eviatar Slivnik, drums.

Opening with the title tune, dedicated and memorializing Eli Degibri’s mother and father (“Henri and Rachel”) the group voices sing the melody in unison.  Eli’s horn floats over the vocals, like a delicate paint brush, adding color to the piece.  You may soon find yourself happily humming along.  It’s a very memorable melody.  On Track #2, Eli Degibri picks up his tenor saxophone and wows me with his interpretation of his original composition “Gargamel.”  Tom Oren takes a blues-fused solo, at times delicately tinkling the upper register of the piano.  Eli has composed all the songs but one for this album.

“When I write songs, I don’t usually know what the reason is. Only after it’s done, I think about the melody and ask myself what it means to me or who I see and feel when I hear it,” Degibri says.

Track #3 is the familiar jazz standard, “Like Someone in Love.”  The pianist starts off playing what sounds like a classical etude.  When Eli Degibri enters on saxophone, we immediately recognize the standard jazz composition.  It’s a unique arrangement that shows how closely America’s only original music of jazz is related to European classical music.  Tel Aviv-based Israeli saxophonist-composer, Eli Degibri, again reveals his ability to convey profound emotions in the language of notes and tones.

“I was thinking … of how Johann Sebastian Bach would play this song in 5/4,” says Degibri. 

This arrangement clearly shows how that would sound, followed by “Longing” which is more straight-ahead, leaning towards bebop and challenging the bass to walk with speed and purpose as the soprano saxophone flies ahead.  There is a Middle Eastern ‘swag’ to the melody and Oren’s piano solo is brief, but outstanding. The “Noa” composition is a sweet, sexy ballad that oozes emotion.  Eli Degibri pushes the ballad into improvised, straight-ahead territory with his tenor saxophone.  Somehow, I am reminded of the legacy of John Coltrane.  On a tune called “Ziv” his arrangement moves into more contemporary grounds; shades of Kenny G. The composition, “Preaching to the Choir” dabbles in African-American gospel music and blues. This quartet brings us a variety of original music that is innovative, personal and pleasing.  Eli Degibri is masterful on his horns and is also a stunningly talented composer and arranger. 

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Adam Larson, saxophone/composer; Clark Sommers, bass/composer; Dana Hall, drums.

“When I began to map out the idea of creating a trilogy of trio recordings, I looked to capture different musicians in cities that have played historical significance in my development and success as a musician,” explains Adam Larson in his press package.

Although Adam Larson is a Kansas City based saxophone player, his roots in Chicago, Illinois played a big part in Larson’s artistic growth.  It is where he explored his instrument and gained the confidence to develop into the artist he has become today.  Contracting his longtime collaborators, Clark Sommers on bass and Dana Hall on drums, he began his chord-less trio excursion into a production without guitar or piano.  Larson and Sommers have composed all the music and the trio opens with Adam’s tune, “Angolan Babysitter.” It’s spirited and leaves a lot of room for Dana Hall to display his drum power during a tenacious solo. 

Adam Larson’s music is cemented in the bebop and post bebop styles.  Songs like “The Time You Forgot You Knew,” composed by Clark Sommers, has an arrangement embracing the blues.  Certainly, Chicago is known for its strong blues community, so this song resonates that aspect of Adam Larson growing-up on his instrument, playing in and around the Windy City.  However, it soon transforms into a straight-ahead mode, with Larson’s saxophone creatively improvising.  The tune “Kansas to Chicago” incorporates a couple of genres with the Hall drums laying down a funky groove and Sommers walking the bass briskly.  Clark Sommers penned this song and he’s given an opportunity to solo.  When he steps aside, the drums showcase their brilliance. All the while, Larson is king on saxophone.  “In Waiting” is a beautiful ballad followed by the Thelonious Monk tune, “We See.”  I never even missed the piano or guitar that usually is a mainstay in many trio performances.  The creativity and clarity of Adam Larson’s trio is both entertaining and (as the Chicago Tribune put it) prodigious. * * * * * * * *


March 9, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

March 9, 2022

Women’s History Month is a celebration of women’s contributions to history, culture and society.   I thought I would introduce you to some women in jazz who are currently making history in our music world.  Awesome African vocalist, SOMI, brings a royal legacy with a tribute to the amazing South African Activist and vocalist, Mariam Makeba. Trumpeter, GRACE FOX, has taken on a monumental project.  She has created a big band that features some of the most formidable and talented female artists in jazz.  HINDA HOFFMAN joins some of Chicago’s hard hitters by fronting the SOUL MESSAGE GROUPKIM NALLEY has a voice and repertoire that brings back memories of Ruth Brown and Dinah Washington. There is a fireside warmth to ALEX HAMBURGER’s voice and she plays a mean flute.  British jazz vocalist and songwriter, JO HARROP, has released her sophomore album on vinyl and CD for an American audience.  CATHERINE RUSSELL makes me turn the clock back to the 1940s and 50s, reawakening what was happening on that jazz scene with soulful resolve.  LAURA STILWELL has spent much of her creative life as a jazz choreographer and a producer of jazz vocal workshops. She offers us her debut album.


Somi, vocals; Herve Samb, guitars; Nate Smith, drums; Michael Olatuja, bass; Keith Witty, bass/percussion; Toru Dodo, piano; Mino Cinelu, percussion; Cobhams Asuquo, organ/piano/percussion; Phindi Wilson, Bongi Duma, Nhalanhla Ngobeni & Vuyo Sotashe, vocal chorus. Lakecia Benjamin, alto saxophone; Jeremy Pelt, trumpet; Myron Walden, soprano & tenor saxophone; Mazz Swift & Juliette Jones, violin; Jessica Troy, viola; Marika Hughes, cello.

GRAMMY-nominated vocalist, Somi, has released a new single “Khuluma” from her upcoming album titled: Zenzile: The Reimagination of Miriam Makeba.  Somi is the first African woman nominated in any GRAMMY Jazz category and the first African artist nominated in the jazz vocal category.  That was in 2020, for her album “SOMI with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band” recorded Live at Alte Opera; arranged & conducted by John Beasley.  This album won the 2021 NAACP Image Award in the ‘Outstanding Jazz Vocal Album’ category. One of my favorite songs on this album is titled, “Holy Room.”

Somi’s latest album, celebrates the valuable musical contributions made by Miriam Makeba, (nick-named Mama Africa) who was a social activist at a time when there was great unrest and division in her South African native land.  This recording by Somi is being released during a time when Makeba would have been celebrating her 90th birthday on March 4th and during a month when we celebrate historic women.  How appropriate!  Makeba was born in Prospect Township, Near Johannesburg.  She died November of 2008.

I was totally engrossed by the opening song on Somi’s upcoming album. The song is titled, “Unhome,” where her vocals shine brilliant and powerful.  The arrangements represent African culture and exhibit excellent musicianship.    As her ensemble interprets “House of the Rising Sun” you will enjoy an outstanding trumpet solo by Jeremy Pelt and rich percussion work.   

On this project, Somi is joined by an impressive company of musical celebrities including Ladysmith Black Mambazo, singer-songwriter Msaki, vocalist and activist Thandiswa Mazwai, jazz pianist-composer Nduduzo Makhathini, vocalist Angelique Kidjo and vocal star Gregory Porter.  Track #3, Milele, features Seun Kuti and Thandiswa Mazwai.  In male-spoken word, they salute “Mama Africa,” which was a nickname given lovingly to Miriam Makeba.  It’s a tune that dances happily across my listening room.  The next song, “Hapo Zamani” is a shuffle arrangement, with Nate Smith slapping the rhythm in place on his trap drums, while the bass lays down a rich groove.  There is a chant inserted that reminds me of Lady Smith Black Mambazo as soon as I hear it.  The tight horn unit adds spice and spunk to the production.  On “Love Tastes Like Strawberries” Grammy Winning artist, Gregory Porter makes a guest appearance.  Somi and Gregory’s voice blend warmly, like sunshine and summer.  Somi begins the song with Michael Olatuja playing his bass melodically beneath her vocals, laying down the root of the chords, with the drummer joining them like the pendulum of a clock.  One of Miriam Makeba’s most popular songs was “Pata Pata.”  Somi reinvents it with a fresh arrangement.  Miriam Makeba was one of my favorite artists in the 1960s and I remember her rendition of “Pata Pata” very well.

Somi performs “Pata Pata” uniquely, accompanied by violins and a ‘cappella voices singing sweet harmonies.  At the introduction, you hear Miriam Makeba’s voice talking about racism and life in South Africa.  Somi’s musical arrangements are absolutely inspired.  They tattoo my senses with their beauty.  They crawl underneath my skin and entice my responses.  There are seventeen songs on this project and each one is like a star twinkling in the Big Dipper.  This album sparkles with joy, beauty, culture and history.  The message of love, life and strength of purpose is predominant.  Somi delivers every tune with vocal precision and power.  I’m certain this anti-apartheid activist and exquisite singer, Miriam Makeba, would be very pleased by this Somi musical tribute. On March 19th, Somi will perform at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York as part of the theater’s Africa Now! Festival.

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GRACE FOX – “ELEVEN O’ SEVEN” – Next Level/Blue Collar Records

Grace Fox, composer/arranger/bandleader/trumpet; Naomi Nakanishi, piano; Bryana Crockett, drums; Zoe Harrison, bass; Alexis Fox, vocals. TRUMPETS: Summer Camargo, Kellin Hanas, Kai Ferretti & Janelle Finton. SAXOPHONES: Veronica Leahy, Sarah Hanahan, Jade Elliott, Olivia Hughart & Noa Zebley. TROMBONES: Hailey Brinnel, Laura Orzehoski, Zhane Brown & Gina Benalcazar Lopez.

Grace Fox has taken on a monumental project.  She has created a big band that features some of the most formidable and talented female artists in jazz.  Inspired by The International Sweethearts of Rhythm and The Diva Jazz Orchestra, she decided to create a similar ensemble under her own name. She has arranged every song on this debut album and composed three out of seven tunes. The arrangements are quite impressive! 

“Growing up studying Black American Music, it was very clear that jazz is a heavily male-dominated industry.  Often times I would be the only woman in an ensemble, which would make me feel disconnected,” Grace Fox explained her inspiration for her female big band. 

They open with “Right on Red” that features trumpeter Kellin Hanas on trumpet, Zhane Brown on trombone and Jade Elliott on a very smooth and cool saxophone solo.  They are off and running at the very first strain of horn harmonies.  Bryana Crocket sets the tempo with bright, assertive drums.  The tune is moderately paced, but the arrangement is powerful and assertive.  There is a funk undertone that drives it, but Kellin Hanas is all jazz on her horn when she takes stage center.  Jade Elliott’s trombone is warm and wonderful.  I am immediately excited about this all-female big band.  “The Gospel” is a Roy Hargrove medley that Grace Fox has re-arranged with her own, fresh, big band arrangements.  There is a moaning of horns that set the mood.  Then Veronica Leahy splashes into the spotlight with her saxophone, dripping sensuous liquid notes all over the stage.  Ms. Hanas reappears on trumpet and she and Ms. Leahy trade fours in a creative conversation.  I love the close horn harmonies of this ensemble.  The familiar “I Just Found Out About Love” features lead vocalist, Alexis Fox.  Adding a vocalist to the mix changes the complexion of the production at just the right spot, as if their stage is bathed in soft purple and bright pink spotlights.  Her soprano power and unique adlibs add a fresh twist to the album repertoire.  The Grace Fox Big Band is a commanding, cohesive unit with awesome arrangements and the sensuality that women always bring to enhance life and music.

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Chris Foreman, Hammond organ; Greg Rockingham, drums; Greg Ward, alto saxophone; Lee Rothenberg, guitar. SPECIAL GUEST: Hinda Hoffman, vocals.

If it’s jazz/soul music that you’ve been searching for, your search is over.  This album brings two of the Chicago scene’s heavy-hitters together; the Soul Message Band and vocalist Hinda Hoffman.  This is new territory for the Soul Message instrumental group.  They have never included a vocalist in their performance package.  And this album, “People,” marks Hinda Hoffman’s first appearance with an organ group.   The Soul Message Band’s story started when Chris Foreman (organist) and drummer, Greg Rockingham got together thirty-seven years ago at a club on Chicago’s South side.  Both musicians admired Jimmy Smith and Jimmy McGriff so, they formed an organ trio called “Deep Blue Organ Trio.” Thus began an organ and rhythm-powered group that’s been entertaining audiences for two decades.  The two group founders soon welcomed Philadelphia-born guitar master, Lee Rothenberg into their group in 2014. Continuing to expand their musical ideas, they also invited Greg Ward on saxophone.  The trio blossomed to a quintet.  At one of the Soul Message Band’s popular gigs, Hinda Hoffman heard them and fell in love with their energy and style.  She felt so comfortable with the soulful musicians that she ‘sat-in’ with them that night.  The rest is history.

“I just felt so at home with them. They decided to put together a recording almost immediately after our first encounter in 2018,” Hinda Hoffman recalled.

Together, they have a 1960s kind of sound, combining the sexy organ energy and the powerful drums of Rockingham with a vocalist, a sax and a guitar brings back echoes of another era.  Hinda Hoffman has a powerhouse voice that blends nicely into the soulfulness of these musicians and they choose a repertoire that wraps that soulfulness around the Chicago blues and traditional jazz.  Hoffman is seasoned.  You hear it in her sound and you can feel her confidence.  I can tell this vocalist has been around a few blocks honing her craft and paying her dues.

They open with Cole Porter’s “All of You.”  They include an up-tempo, Latin-fused version of “How Insensitive” and then they tackle Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone to Love.”  At times, the clout of the band almost threatens to over-power the vocalist, but Hinda Hoffman holds her own.  She’s able to interpret and sell the songs, despite loud, exciting drums, a saxophone that solos throughout and a wild, soulful guitar played fluently by Lee Rothenberg.  You hear Rothenberg’s talent clearly on the title tune, “People.”  He slow-shuffles right along with Greg Rockingham’s drums and Chris Foreman’s Hammond B3 organ.  The Soul Message Band accompanies Hinda Hoffman in a deep, soulful way.  They incorporate some interesting key changes during this arrangement.  Their performance on “Old Devil Moon” is surprising and challenges the vocalist to hold the melody tightly in place against counter melodic chording.  This is good old mid-western soul/jazz and the Soul Message Band knows just how to lay down a groove and they improvise comfortably.  You can tell these musicians are quite familiar with each other and their band runs like a well-oiled machine.  Hinda Hoffman is the new kid on their block, but she’s an exciting, prepared and lyrical addition.

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Kim Nalley, vocals; Houston Person, saxophone; Tammy Hall, piano; Michael Zisman, bass; Kent Bryson, drums; Barry Finnerty, guitar; Maria Muldaur, guest vocals.

Kim Nalley has a voice that brings back memories of Dinah Washington and Ruth Brown; rejuvenating the 1950s by opening with the famous hit song by Ruth Brown from half a century ago, “Teardrops From My Eyes.”  Houston Person brings his bright and soulful horn to the party as the band shuffles along.  Nalley slows it down to sing us the familiar “Try A Little Tenderness” from a personal perspective singing I may get weary; women do get weary.”  Certainly, in the midst of a pandemic, uncertainty, war and political crisis, Kim Nalley, like much of the world, admits she is weary.  She chooses songs for this album that she hopes will uplift her listeners and bring joy to “an American society that seems determined to unravel,” she wrote in her liner notes.  She dived into the American songbook to choose nine songs that reflect a hopeful and loving attitude.  Most songs are familiar, with a few that may be new to your ears like, “I Hadn’t Anyone ‘til I Met You” by Ray Noble.  Nalley has a clear, rich voice with a quick tremolo coloring those long tones she holds with power and precision.   On the blues tune, “I Want a Little Boy” she performs a duet with pop star, Maria Muldaur, who had the hit record “Midnight on the Oasis.”  Kim Nalley has included the original song by Fred Rogers, “Beautiful Day in The Neighborhood” stylized in her own sweet way.  Tammy Hall places joy into her piano solo.  Kim rejuvenates the old standard, “It’s All in the Game” reminding us, with the poignant lyrics, “Many a tear has to fall, but it’s all in the game” and encouraging us to be hopeful.  The great Houston Person opens the tune, playing it down a couple of times before Kim re-enters.  It’s always pure pleasure to hear Houston play his amazing tenor saxophone. 

Kim Nalley was born November 14, 1969 and raised in New Haven, Connecticut.  She comes from a musical family and relocated to the San Francisco, California area in the late 1980s.   Nalley studied classical music and theater while attending the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) where she received a degree in History.  She has performed worldwide and lived a few years in Switzerland. When she returned to Northern California, she owned and managed the Jazz at Pearl’s North Beach Nightclub from 2003 – 2008.  Kim Nalley has recorded a half dozen albums as a bandleader.

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ALEX HAMBURGER – “AND SHE SPOKE” – Independent label

Alex Hamburger, flute/vocals/composer; Jose Luiz Martins, piano/ Fender Rhodes/arrangements; Doug Weiss, bass; Chase Kuesel, drums.

There is a fireside warmth to Alex Hamburger’s voice.  On her opening composition, “Walking in the City,” her alto tones sing the lyrics of poet, United States Medal of Honor awardee, Maya Angelou.  Her voice rises above a lush, musical track that Hamburger has created. The flautist’s concept for this debut album is to celebrate various female artists, from poets and activists to composers and songwriters.  She explores the work of pianists and composers like Geri Allen and Mary Lou Williams.  She tributes Grammy winning artists like Joni Mitchell and even her own grandmother, a poet and activist in her own right; Ana Maria R. Codas.  Alex Hamburger describes the conception of her recording as “standing on the shoulders of giants.”  Ms. Hamburger is not merely a vocalist, but she is also a proficient and sensitive flautist.  After singing several bars of prose, her flute takes stage center, along with bassist Doug Weiss.  An interesting and creative melody unfolds like a blanket.  It covers my listening room with comfortable possibilities, spreading musical phrases that allow her quartet to improvise and explore the chord changes.  I am enthralled with Alex Hamburger’s composition and her talents on the flute.  On these highly orchestrated, textural and creative arrangements, Alex presents a series of stories that share arcs of resistance, grace and grit.

“These women made it so women like me could have a voice,” Hamburger explains.  “Women like Terri Lynne Carrington, Toni Morrison, Sylvia Plath and Mary Lou Williams paved the way.”

The ensemble interprets Geri Allen’s composition, “Unconditional Love” featuring Doug Weiss soloing on bass at the introduction and José Luiz Martins’ Fender Rhodes electric piano tinkling beneath his solo.  After José steps forward to play the piano, Alex dances across the track on her flute, expressive, light and airy.  On her composition, “It Comes Unadorned” Alex sings the prose of Toni Morrison.  The Mary Lou Williams tune, “What’s Your Story Morning Glory” begins with just Hamburger’s flute telling its own fluid story.  After several bars, Chase Kuesel brings in the ensemble with a drum roll and they play a 6/8 rhythm to the melodic jazz waltz arrangement.  Hamburger and Doug Weiss duet on the opening of Joni Mitchell’s tune “Last Chance Lost.” Then, Kuesel and Martins join them to fatten the production. This tune floats into Lennon and McCartney’s “Across the Universe” song, with the hook repeated over and over.  Hamburger’s voice sings “nothing’s gonna change my world” with such sincerity that I believe her.  Alex Hamburger has created not only a tribute to great women of art, activism and music, but also has begun to build her own legacy with this lovely debut recording.

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JO HARROP – “THE HEART WANTS” – Lateralize Records

Jo Harrop, vocals/composer; Jamie McCredie, guitar/composer/arranger; Paul Edis, piano/arranger; Hannah  Vasanth, piano/Fender Rhodes/composer; Sam Watts & Jason Rebello, piano; Christian McBride, Jihad Darwish & Dishan Abraham, bass; Troy Miller & Pete Adam Hill, drums; Nicky Brown, Hammond organ; Joe Rodwell & Andy Davies, trumpet; John Spanyal, trumpet/euphonium; Toni Kofi, saxophone; Tommy Andrews, woodwind;  Sarah Bowler & Julia Graham, cello; Debs White & Dave Larkin, violin; Will Hillman, viola. CHOIR on Weather the Storm: Louise Golbey, Simone Kaye, Lisa Lewin, Fil Straughan, Kelly Dickson, Gillian Kohn, Natasha Hendry, Vimala Rowe, Robin Philips, Andrea Loizou, Fiona Ross, Damien Flood, Eileen Hunter, Rachel Sutton, Georgia Cecile, Natalie Williams, Esther Bennett, China Moses, Emrys Baird, Glenn MacNamara & Simone Craddock.

British jazz vocalist and songwriter, Jo Harrop, has released her sophomore album on vinyl and CD for U.S. audiences.  A bluesy piano, played by Hannah Vasanth, opens the first cut on this album and the title tune, “The Heart Wants” rolls out.  Jo and Hannah penned this tune.  Harrop’s voice is sultry and husky.  She puts me in mind of singers like the late Peggy Lee or the incredible Cleo Laine.  Andie Davies shines on trumpet and Jo Harrop’s voice emotionally sells the song.  The album, “The Heart Wants” is about love, life and finding oneself in the silence of a pandemic and once the applause fades away.  Harrop was born in a small Northeast England town.  Her parents were not amused when she chose music for a career; but sometimes a career chooses you.  In her early years she listened to Nina Simone, Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin.  That’s a pretty wide range of vocal styles.  But it was when her father took her to a Tony Bennett concert that she knew, not only did she love singing, but she wanted to be an entertainer.

“I was so moved and inspired, I realized that I needed to sing.  I wanted to be able to touch people with my music in the same way as Tony Bennett,” she expressed herself in her press package.

Her desire to perform led her to jam sessions and she started meeting musicians.  An agent heard her and hired her to work as a session singer for a variety of artists, including Neil Diamond, Rod Stewart and even Gloria Gaynor.  During that studio session work, Jo ran into pianist Hannah Vasanth and they became close friends.  Hannah is one of the pianists on this session along with Jason Rebello and Paul Edis.  One day, jazz club owner Mayank Patel heard Jo Horrop sing.  He was so impressed that he took the reins of her career.  They signed a management deal and he also became her record label.  Their first release was a duo project featuring guitarist Jamie McCredie.  That album was called, “Weathering the Storm” and was released in 2020.  On Track #4, you hear a sample of Harrop singing duet with Jamie’s guitar.

Harrop has been writing lyrics for years and she has written or co-written most of the songs on this album.  For this project, she has surrounded her sessions with some of the top jazz musicians in the UK; impressive names like Jason Rebello, who has won many of the major jazz awards in England.  You will also hear the drum talents of Troy Miller, who was in the Amy Winehouse band for five years.  He’s also played with Donna Summer, Chaka Khan, George Benson and Gregory Porter.  Also featured on this album is respected jazz bassist, Christian McBride.  Jo Harrop offers a dozen songs, with her honest and poignant lyrics along with her expressive vocals to introduce herself to American audiences.  She also covers the Tom Waits song, “Rainbow Sleeves” and a couple of standard tunes like Duke Ellington’s “All Too Soon” and the standard, “If Ever I Would Leave You.”  Most importantly, this new voice on the jazz horizon shares her songs with what sounds like an open and honest heart. 

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Catherine Russell, vocals/percussion; Matt Munisteri, guitar/musical director/banjo; Tal Ronen, bass; Mark McLean, drums/tambourine; Mark Shane & Sean Mason, piano; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; John Allred, trombone; Evan Arntzen, reeds; Paul Nedzela, baritone saxophone; Mark Lopeman & Aaron Heick, tenor saxophone; Phillip Norris, tuba.

Catherine Russell makes me turn the clock back to the 1940s and 50s, reawakening what was happening on the jazz scene with tunes like “Did I Remember.”  The ensemble swings us into reminiscing about the Jitterbug craze and those big band days.  I hadn’t heard “Send for Me” in years.  It was written by Ollie Jones, who was a member of the rhythm and blues group, ‘The Ravens.’ Matt Munisteri takes a bluesy guitar solo during this arrangement.  He’s Catherine’s Musical Director.  Catherine knows how to sing the blues and she wails on this one, as the band shuffles along.  Sean Mason is dynamic on piano.  In 1957, Nat King Cole recorded this tune and turned it into a pop hit.  Catherine Russell sure loves to swing.  You can clearly hear her joy throughout this production and a fine example of this is shown on “At the Swing Cats Ball.”  Her rendition of Betty Carter’s 1958 recording, “Make It Last” is a sweet ballad.  The horn arrangements are lovely.  I enjoy her rendition of “Going Back to New Orleans.”  Phillip Norris makes his tuba the star during an impressive solo.  One thing I notice about Ms. Russell.  She chooses songs with well-written lyrics and strong, memorable melodies.  Most have delightfully interesting chord changes and her arrangers (Mark Lopeman, Jon-Erik Kellso and Matt Munisteri) are to be complimented. Catherine Russell also introduces us to songs we may not have heard before and rejuvenates the ones we remember from back-in-the-day.  She explains it very simply when she says, “I love romance that swings.”

On “In the Night” Catherine Russell digs deeply into her blues roots and I hear a bit of Dakota Staton’s style in her delivery and a taste of Dinah Washington.  The band closes with “Million Dollar Smile,” a tune I was unfamiliar with.   I hear a lot of Dinah’s influence in Catherine’s vocals on this tune.  Here is an album that’s nostalgic, but is a very pleasant trip down memory lane.  It’s not surprising that Catherine Russell is reviving this era of jazz, because Russell’s deep connection to her chosen material may stem from family roots.  After all, she is the daughter of two pioneering and legendary musicians.  Her father was Luis Russell, a pianist, orchestra leader, composer and arranger who led his own congregation.  He worked with the greats of his day, including Louis Armstrong and Barney Bigard.  Catherine’s mother was Carline Ray, a noted bassist, guitarist and singer.  Carline Ray is a rich part of America’s jazz history and was part of the historic all female group, The International Sweethearts of Rhythm.  They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.  Catherine Russell is an example of this old saying, carrying on her family legacy in high style!

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LAURA STILWELL – “OUT OF A DREAM” – Independent label

Laura Stilwell, vocals; Tommy James, piano; Perry Thoorself, bass; Dennis Calazza, bass; Ron Steen, drums; Dave Evans, clarinet/tenor saxophone.

Laura Stilwell has spent much of her creative life as a jazz choreographer and a producer of jazz vocal workshops.  She has finally decided to record her debut CD titled, “Out of a Dream.”  Stilwell has chosen a repertoire pulled from the American Songbook and some songs from the newer collection offered by composers like Johnny Mandel and Paul Francis Webster.  I enjoyed her take on “If I Should Lose You,” starting with only bass accompaniment by Dennis Calazza.  When Tommy James joins them on piano, the duo has already set the groove and established the slow blues mood.  Stilwell has a pleasant, easy, nonchalance to her singing.  She puts the listener in a very relaxed mood.  Their opening tune, “Day In, Day Out” is sung with vigor and at a rapid, swing pace.  The vocalist handles both grooves with casual finesse.  The slow Latin production on “If You Never Come to Me” is caressed by Stilwell’s alto tones and gives Tommy James time to step into the spotlight and shine on his piano. When the vocalist comes back into the song, she sings in Portuguese.   The addition of Dave Evans on clarinet brings back the days of Benny Goodman on the old standard, “Don’t Be That Way.”  With her pleasant voice, a background in dance and stage productions, Laura Stilwell has performed extensively in New York, Portland, Tokyo, Brazil and Milan.  She has also been featured in several musical theater productions and she coaches singers, as well as performing in and around the New York area.

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