By Dee Dee McNeil

May 2, 2022


Oscar Peñas, Guitars/composer/arranger; Marta Sanchez, piano/Fender Rhodes; Ron Carter & Pablo Asian, bass; Richie Barshay, drums; HARLEM QUARTET: Limar Gavilan & Melisa White, violins; James Amador, viola; Jody Redhage-Ferber, cello.

Oscar Peñas has created an album that draws inspiration from a fishing tradition that reflects Andalucian culture thousands of years ago.  Here are twelve original tracks of music meant to celebrate man and his infinite dance with nature.  To interpret the Peñas compositions, Oscar enlisted the talents of master bassist, Ron Carter and another extraordinary bass man, Pablo Aslan, along with sensitive pianist, Marta Sanchez and dynamic Richie Barshay on drums.  As whipped cream on top of this deliciously sweet musical sundae, he adds the Grammy-winning Harlem Quartet.  Peñas opens with the tune, “Traveling Through Water” where the Catalonian guitarist combines his classical and flamenco flavors.  This piece prompts my imagination to visualize a calm ocean and a sailboat floating above the gentle waves.  Especially when Ron Carter takes his solo and mimics slapping the waves against the hull of the ship with sliding notes from his bass.  This is a beautiful, peaceful tune, energized by Barshay’s tasty drums and designed to be exemplary of an ancient fishing tradition.

“Almadraba is an Arabic name,” Peñas explains the title of his album.  “It’s a sustainable fishing method first practiced by the Phoenicians and brought to Andalusian, Spain about 2000 years ago.  It’s still in practice today in fact, on the coast of Cadiz.  Schools of bluefin tuna travel from the North Sea to the warmer waters of the Mediterranean to spawn.  On the first full moon in May, the fishermen there set up the labyrinth of nets to force the fish into a center area and then pull them out, very dramatically, and take only the biggest ones.  The rest are returned to the sea,” Peñas describes the long history of a Spanish fishing tradition that is dear to his heart. 

This is the fifth album by this artist.  It perpetuates the customs and beauty of his culture through the lens of jazz, comfortably blended with classical roots and Iberian essences.  Although this music is peaceful and calming, the actual battle of the fisherman, with poles and lines, struggling on the wet and slippery wood of their boats is pretty dramatic.  You hear a bit of this during the Peñas arrangement of “Almadraba’s Waltz” where he adds strings for both beauty and excitement.  Tunes like “Habanera de la Almadraba” pull at the heartstrings with its romantic melody.  Marta’s piano solo dances like sunlight on ocean waves.  The struggle of the fishermen becomes more obvious during the arrangement of “La Levanta” with Ron Carter’s bass prominent and tenacious and the Harlem Quartet letting their strings splash like captured fish on the boat’s floor. 

Oscar explains that on land, the big tunas are filleted for auction and on ‘El Ronqueo’ Senior Peñas evokes the sound of the fishermen’s knives scraping on fish bones.  This suite of music has finally satisfied Oscar’s need to combine his love of jazz with his classical roots and his rich, Spanish culture. The salty spice of bebop and afro-Cuban music permeates some compositions, but the string quartet softens and bolsters the pieces.  There is sensitive beauty in this production and the compositions cover us, like the nets of the fisherman of Cadiz.   

* * * * * * * * * *

SAN GABRIEL 7 – “UNDER THE STARS” – Independent Label

Sinne Eeg, lead vocals/background vocals/composer; Andrea Miller, Fletcher Sheridan & Trist Curless, background vocals; Jim Lewis, trombone; Kye Palmer, trumpet/flugelhorn; Glen Berger, alto, soprano & tenor saxophone/ /flute/alto flute/oboe/English horn; Alex Budman, alto & tenor saxophone; baritone sax/flute/clarinet/bass clarinet; Dave Holben, tuba; Chad Edwards, piano/Hammond B3; Steve Gregory, guitars; Chris Gordon, piano/arranger/producer; Jonathan Pintoff, upright bass; Randy Drake, drums; Scott Breadman, percussion.

The group, San Gabriel 7, was formed by trombonist Jim Lewis.  Surprisingly, he was a spacecraft engineer who worked at JPL, a federally funded research and development center managed for NASA by Caltech and located in Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley.  At first the group was made up of JPL employees who played instruments, with Lewis being the bandleader.  The San Gabriel 7 has changed music personnel over time but keeps the same emphasis on a tight horn section and exciting arrangements.  Soon after the 9/11 incident, Jim Lewis, who was also an active member of the National Guard, was deployed to Afghanistan.  He asked Dave Cushman to lead the San Gabriel 7 band.  Under new direction, Cushman enlisted a number of top L.A. jazz players to join the group as guest artists.  The group also engaged vocalists.  Jim Lewis was especially fond of singer/songwriters.  The San Gabriel 7 popularity spread.

This recent San Gabriel 7 release, “Under the Stars,” features the regular band members and the lovely talents of lead vocalist, Sinne Eeg.  She is considered the preeminent jazz vocalist in Scandinavia and is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Danish Music Award, won four times for ‘Best Danish Jazz Vocal Album.’   She’s also the first vocalist to receive the Ben Webster Prize, France’s prestigious Prix du Jazz Award.  As an awesome composer, Sinne Eeg brings not only her brilliant vocals to the project, but she has written or co-written every song on this production.  Chris Gordon has done an outstanding job of arranging and producing most of the music.  They open with Sinne’s “Rocket Blues” a 13-bar wordless song where Ms. Eeg scats her way through the tune, becoming a human horn.  “I’m In the Mood for Love” is a jazz waltz with wonderful, harmonic horn parts and a delightful melody with original lyrics.  Both these songs sound like they could be jazz standards and Glen Berger’s saxophone solo sounds like a beautiful wild bird. 

“Much of my composing is melody driven.  I might write something with a bar missing or an extra bar.  I just like to keep in the flow of the melody.  A song may wind up with a tricky, mixed meter; but it usually makes sense because the melody makes sense,” Sinne Eeg described her writing style.

Percussion opens their arrangement of “The Barista” and features the propelling drums of Randy Drake and Scott Breadman on percussion.  Kye Palmer’s trumpet sings a happy, spontaneous solo and the lyrics reflect having a crush on the coffee shop guy who prepares her cappuccino.  It’s a cute lyrical message.  The title tune, “Under the Stars” is a lilting ballad with a Latin, smooth-jazz flavor and allows space for Sinne’s creative melody to blossom and her scat vocals to dance atop the interesting chord changes.  I enjoyed the piano solo of Chad Edwards and the tightly arranged horn parts.  “Getting Along with Love” has an R&B flair and shows the soulful side of Sinne Eeg.  This tune brings to mind a Bobby Caldwell production.  I could see this tune easily crossing over to pop stations for air play.  This composition is playful and invites you to sing along with those catchy horn lines.  When the background voices come on the scene, they really slap the groove into place during the fade.  This is a well-produced album of excellent material and great arrangements.  Talented composer, Sinne Eeg has a voice that floats atop the melodies like oil on water and you won’t miss a lyric.  Her enunciation is wonderful and her style is her own. 

* * * * * * * * * * *

MANEL FORTIA – “DESPERTAR” – Segell Microscopi

Manel Fortia, upright bass/composer/arranger; Marco Mezquida, piano; Raphael Pannier, drums.

Barcelona-born bassist and composer, Manel Fortia, bridges his Spanish, classical influenced music and his Mediterranean roots with modern New York jazz.  The result is an amazing trio album of sustenance and beauty.  It features three extraordinary talents who combine their charming creativity to interpret the compositions of Manel Fortia in a rich and rewarding way.  I am enchanted by the tenderness and vulnerability I hear in the first tune titled, “Dormir.” In a way, it reminds me of a lullaby without the waltz.  On “Circular” I am possessed by the drums of Raphael Pannier.  His technique and percussive capabilities shine.  In concert with the strength of the drums is Marco Mezquida on piano, who moves his fingers rapidly over the keys, projecting mad technique, motion and energy.  When Manel Fortia steps into the spotlight, his bass continues the storytelling.  On the album credits, Manel says that the JFK Air-Train inspired this original composition and the piece is absolutely full of movement.  On the fade, Mezquida challenges Pannier’s drums on piano.  Pannier sparkles brightly, making the drums sound like fast-moving wheels against asphalt or steel sparking against train tracks.  At the conclusion, the instruments chug slowly to a stop.  This entire production has a European classical edge to it that is both lovely and relaxing, but still, there’s obvious energy that these musicians bring to the project.  On the third cut, Marco Mezquida makes me feel as though I’m at a classical concert.  His piano chops are spellbinding.  Manel enters, a whispered bass voice that calms the music and sings melodically to his captive audience. On “Espiritual” (an ode to Harlem) Mezquida pulls a gospel groove out of the piano in the sweetest way.  Manel Fortia sings along on his bass, not only acting as the root of the rhythm section, but singing his own inspired song. 

Marco Mezquida is a multi-award-winning Spanish pianist who has worked with Lee Konitz, Dave Liebman, Bill McHenry, Chicuelo and Noa.  Clearly, he is closely connected to Manel’s music and he brings dynamism to the project.  You can tell the musicians listen closely to each other, as does their French drummer, Raphael Pannier.  These three super-talented musicians complement each other.  On track #5, you hear all the richness in Manel’s bass instrument.  This original song is titled “El dia después” and it’s a song for his beloved Barcelona. He also is broadly featured on “Aires de Libertad” a celebration of prospect Park.   From beginning to end, I heard this album as a message of peace and beauty.

“This album is very important to me because it reflects one of the most transcendent moments in my artistic life.  I feel that living in New York City changed me tremendously and I grew a lot there.  It is also the first time I recorded a full album featuring all my compositions … playing them with two of my favorite musicians with whom I have a great connection personally and musically is like a dream come true,” Manel Fortia says in his press package.

Perhaps the title of this album and the last tune sums up the total picture of Manel Fortia’s project.  The Spanish title “Despertar” translates to ‘awakening.’  This production has been an awakening of sorts for both the composer and his bandmates.  They offer us a very melodic, original, dreamy journey that’s full of brilliance and sparkle along the way. 

* * * * * * * * * *

ERIK PALMBERG – “IN BETWEEN” – Prophone Swedish Jazz

Erik Palmberg, trumpet/flugelhorn/composer; Anton Dromberg, piano; Niklas Wennstrom & Robert Erlandsson, double bass; Sebastian Voegler & Jonas Backman, drums; Karin Hammer, trombone; Hampus T. Adams, baritone saxophone.

Erik Palmberg has a very distinctive sound on his trumpet and flugelhorn.  He is also a composer and has penned nine of the ten songs on this album.  The only exception is “Taking a Chance on Love” written by Vernon Duke and presented as a lilting, effective, Latin arrangement.  The challenge for this group comes at the very end of this tune, when the horns begin to improvise loosely.  Perhaps this area needs to have written horn arrangements that would keep their harmonic sound tight and cohesive.  At the album’s introduction, Erik’s ensemble opens with a song called “Pathways” that gives the spotlight to Hampus T. Adams on baritone sax.  I also enjoyed Anton Dromberg’s light and airy solo on piano.  The title tune, “In Between” is very contemporary sounding, with a melodic melody played at a moderate tempo.  The rhythm section creates a strong platform for Palmberg’s horn to solo upon.  The creative arrangement, with the piano’s repetitive line driving the music underneath the trumpet’s melody, is splendid.  On Palmberg’s composition “Frost Flowers,” Niklas Wennstrom’s bass steps stage center and soaks up the spotlight with his improvised solo.  Once the trumpet takes over, the piece is elevated, grows and blossoms, spurred by the drums of Sebastian Voegler and the power of Erik’s horn.  A tune called “The Lighthouse” is moody and pensive.  I can picture a quiet ocean and the white lights flashing warning signals across the lapping waves.  On Track #8, “Conversations” the trombonist and the trumpeter hold a spirited musical discussion.  Robert Erlandsson bows his bass instrument at the top of a tune called “Lingering Thoughts” and catches my ear.  He’s almost hidden beneath the horn lines.  Still, Erlandsson steps out from behind the curtains to set the tempo and provides the mood for this song with a single upright bass note.  When it’s his turn to solo, Erlandsson slow-swings across my listening space with impressive creativity.  Erik Palmberg and his jazz band are based in Sweden.  He grew up listening to his father playing trumpet and French horn.  As a youth, his parents played jazz around the house and he studied trumpet until age twelve.  For a while, he put the instrument aside, but in his twenties, Erik was drawn back to the horn.  He was accepted at the Royal College of music in Stockholm where the great Peter Asplund became his trumpet teacher during his college days.  

“I started playing in different projects at the school, but also gigs around Stockholm. My last year of studies was done at the Jazz -Institut -Berlin as an erasmus student. … One of my inspiring teachers was of course my main trumpet professor, Gerard Presencer.  Since I finished my studies in 2010, I have had the opportunity to play with a lot of prominent jazz artists and interesting projects in Sweden; but also, around Europe, especially in Germany where I have done several tours,” Erik explains at his website.

In 2018, Erik Palmberg released his debut album “First Lines” recorded in 2017 for Stockholm Jazz Records and this production is his sophomore album, released in December of 2021.

* * * * * * * * *  

CHRIS STANDRING – “SIMPLE THINGS” – Ultimate Vibe Recordings

Chris Standring, guitar/keyboards/programming/arranging/composer; Rodney Lee, keyboards; Andre Berry, bass; Chris Coleman, drums; Kevin Axt upright bass; Gary Meek, tenor saxophone.

On the very first tune of Chris Standring’s recording titled, “Shadow of Doubt” I hear shades of Wes Montgomery.  There is something about the strong ‘groove’ Chris establishes that reminds me of Wes.  With the powerful drumming of Chris Coleman slapping the funk into place, Standring’s music just makes me happy.  Indeed, according to his publicist’s notes, Standring says:

“…the theme of this album is joy, positivity, hope and because I’m a sucker for a beautiful melody, a little sadness as well.”

This is well-played, contemporary jazz played by seasoned jazz veterans.  I was a part of the Motown staff in Detroit as a songwriter and almost all the amazing players on those early Motown studio sessions were competent jazz players.  The groove and the funk I hear from Andre Berry on bass and Rodney Lee on keyboards reminds me of those early Detroit days.  These ‘Chris Standring’ arrangements make me want to dance.  Standring soars on his Benedetto guitar and makes a joyful sound against the excellence of his rhythm section. 

“I saw a YouTube video of Bootsy explaining his basic funk formula.  The bass line he demonstrated is so funky that it inspired me to write Something of my own.  Of course, I had to thank him which I did on my tune, “Thank You Bootsy,”

On the pretty ballad, “A Thousand Words (for Samantha)” Kevin Axt makes a guest appearance on upright bass.  The melody is compelling and the bridge is absolutely beautiful.  Chris has composed all eleven songs on this, his 14th CD, and I found each one to be a sparkling gem.  As a prolific composer he has penned or co-written over one-hundred compositions.

Standring, a native of England and currently based in Southern California, has had thirteen billboard Top 10 singles and six singles that reached number one on the Billboard Chart.  He began studying classical guitar when he was just six years old.  He was drawn to jazz early-on and became a serious jazz musician when he attended the London College of Music.  His mentors were great bebop players like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Budd Powell and Chet Baker. Later he became a fan of Joe Pass and Pat Martino.  When you listen to this album, it is obvious he is also a lover of funk, Rhythm and Blues. 

“I’m a big fan of Prince, who learned about funk studying the music of people like Bootsy Collins.  I wrote the opening track, ‘Shadow of Doubt’ after hearing a particular bass line by Prince that I really liked and wondered what I could do with something similar,” Chris Standring shared.

You can clearly hear the Prince influence on other tunes like “Face to Face” and “Ain’t Nothin’ but A Thing” featuring Rodney Lee on organ.  There is also a trace of James Brown influence in these funky, danceable compositions. 

Chris Standring moved to Los Angeles in 1991 and he was quickly embraced by the West Coast music scene.  He found himself recording with gospel artists, Bebe and Cece Winans, pop artist, Jody Watley and smooth-jazz artists like Rick Braun; Bob James, Richard Elliott, Peter White, Kirk Whalum, Marc Antoine and Al Stewart. He often writes music for others to record and for Track #3, “Change the World” that was the case.  At the last minute, Standring decided to keep the song for himself.  He released it as a single and the song powered up to #1 on the Billboard Chart. 

The song “Too Close for Comfort” was written after his health scare last year.   Chest pains and a trip to the hospital reminded Chris how fragile life really is.  Thus, the title of this album, “Simple Things” is a reminder for him to appreciate every moment of life and to spend time with loved ones and be present in each moment of every day.  This is a musical message I will enjoy listening to and playing over and over again.

* * * * * * * * *

MIKE ALLEMANA – “VONOLOGY” – Ears&Eyes Records

Mike Allemana, guitar/composer/arranger; Michael Raynor, drums; Matt Ferguson, acoustic bass; Tomeka Reid, cello; Kendall Moore, trombone; Geof Bradfield, tenor saxophone; Greg Ward, alto saxophone; Victor Garcia, trumpet/flugelhorn. VOCALS: Sue Demel, Gabriela Allemana, Austin Burgett, Alton Smith, Angel Rodriguez, Bill Brickey & Lindsay Weinberg.

Here is an experiment in sound and harmony that pushes the boundaries of familiarity and explores the sanctity of freedom.  After all, that’s what jazz is all about; freedom!  Von Freeman was a charismatic music master in Chicago for many years and an inspiration to his community and the world.  He was an NEA Jazz Master saxophonist and celebrated as one of the founders of the Chicago School of Jazz.  To name just a sprinkling of lives he touched, Von Freeman mentored three generations of rising stars including his son, Chico Freeman, celebrated jazz vocalist, Kurt Elling, award winning reed man, Steve Coleman and trumpeter Brad Goode, to name only a few.  Mike Allemana worked for fourteen years in the Freeman quartet.  Von Freeman is lovingly celebrated with Allemana’s project titled, “Vonology,” a play on Astrology and Von’s name.

“Numerous musicians of Von’s generation interpret the world to some degree using an astrological lens.  Because of Von’s interest in astrology, I decided to investigate his natal horoscope … a Libra born in October 1923.  …  This is not a tribute in the traditional sense, but an original work that represents, through sound and text, the ways in which Von musically and spiritually connected with others and transformed people’s lives,” Mike Allemana explained.

Allemana has composed all of the music.  His expressive pieces move like suites of sound and expression offering nearly forty-minutes of creativity.  The composer incorporates voices and rich, harmonic horn lines to punctuate his arrangements.  I am hypnotized by Track #3, “Communion and Renewal” that’s beautifully performed by both Allemana on his beguiling guitar solo and saxophonist Greg Ward, who warmly blankets the tune with his reed mastery.  This sensuous ballad quickly becomes one of my favorite pieces on Allemana’s unique presentation of original compositions. 

“Von told me that he judges musicians not on technical prowess, but whether they can perform a ballad convincingly, with emotion…” Allemana shared.

All I can say is, Mike Allemana has done Von Freeman proud.  From the first tune, “Welcome, Enter” that moves like a cyclone through space, with tenor sax man, Geof Bradfield referencing one aspect of Freeman’s tone; perhaps displaying the guttural edges during his blistering solo.  Kendall Moore follows with a poignant trombone solo and the movement climaxes with drummer Michael Raynor, who played in Freeman’s band for more than two decades, power-housing through the musical bars.  On the closing composition, “The mentor’s Benediction” there is spoken word presented by vocalist, Bill Brickey, to encapsulate Von’s philosophy and written by Brian Allemana.  This suite of music tinkers with bebop to incorporate Freeman’s *AACM-period of growth and spontaneous creativity, including inspiration from Sun Ra’s Arkestra, a group Freeman played with for a brief period of time and a band that brightly colored outside any confining lines.  This is a dynamic and poignant tribute to the late, great Von Freeman and an example of the talent and ingenuity of Mike Allemana, a guitarist who competently composed and arranged music to celebrate his friend and fellow musician.  This project also becomes a formidable stage for Allemana’s talented band members and spotlights their excellence.

NOTE: *AACM = Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a Chicago organization formed in 1965.

* * * * * * * * * * *


Chris Torkewitz, conductor/composer/tenor saxophone/flute. JAZZ CHAMBER ENSEMBLE: Jay Rattman, clarinet; Curtis Stewart, violin; Vicky Chow, piano; Kathryn Andrews, harp; Lisa Dispigno, flute; Amanda Gookin, cello; Aleksandr Karjaka, bass clarinet; Adam Matthes, viola; Jannina Norpoth, violin; Markus Schieferdecker, bass; Austin Walker, drums.  JAZZ ORCHESTRA: Rhythm:  Olli Hirvonen, guitar; Florian Hoefner, piano; Markus Schieferdecker, bass; Austin Walker, drums. Saxes & Woodwinds: Dave Ashton, alto & soprano saxophone/flute; Jay Rattman, alto saxophone/flute; Jim Saltzman & Ben Bryden, tenor saxophone; Mat Schumer, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet. Trombones: Tim Vaughn, Bradley Madsen & Isaac Kaplan; Max Seigel, bass trombone. Trumpets & Flugelhorns: Sam Hoyt, David Smith, Dan Blankinship & John Raymond.

If great jazz orchestration, lyrical classical compositions and melodic chamber music is your thing, then this album by Chris Torkewitz will be very satisfying.  I find myself both soothed and captivated by the Torkewitz blend of classical music arrangements with jazz sensibilities.  Composer, arranger, saxophonist, flutist and pianist, Torkewitz, had one of the highpoints on his many careers on March 21, 2013.  That’s when he presented a concert of his original music with the support of his Jazz Chamber Ensemble and Jazz Orchestra.  Today, in 2022, he is releasing a recording of this concert entitled, “NY Ensembles.”  It opens with four Chamber Suites: Vista, Farbtoene, Noticias and Epilogo.   

“Vista, this suite was born out of a piano sketch with Afro-Cuban leanings that nagged at me,” Torkewitz described the inspiration for his first suite.

Farbtoene is a quieter string arrangement and Noticias (that translates to ‘news’) was realized as a cluster of ideas strung together like newsworthy articles.  “Epilogo” concludes the four suites, featuring the piano of Vicky Chow and performed quickly, like a dinner prayer by a hungry father.  Then the Torkewitz 17-piece Jazz Orchestra takes over with a flamboyant piece called “Filou.”  It draws me into the music, clearly displaying a jazzy attitude, giving drummer Austin Walker an opportunity to shine and the muted trumpet of David Smith somehow conjures up the ghost of Miles Davis during his modern jazz, fusion era. It also gives a platform for Olli Hirvonen’s guitar and the soprano-saxophone solo of David Ashton.  

Chris Torkewitz is originally from Germany and began composing music at age eighteen.  Once arriving in the United States, he earned degrees at the Manhattan School of Music, served on the school’s faculty and led a trio. When he returned to Germany, he became a professor of popular music at the University of Arts and Applied Sciences in Freiburg.  When not educating and inspiring students, he tours worldwide. This recording was a long time coming, but definitely worth the wait.

NOTE: Special thanks to Joe Dimino for the video of The Neon Jazz YouTube Channel interview.

* * * * * * * * *


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: