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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