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. * * * * * * * *


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