SPOTLIGHTING GUITARS & STRINGS

By Dee Dee McNeil

May 16, 2022

RON JACKSON – “STANDARDS AND MY SONGS” – Roni Music

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

Ron Jackson says, “There’s no love like the love of music,” and I agree.  With the able assistance of Ben Wolfe on bass and Willie Jones III on drums, this seven-string guitarist offers us an eleven-song mixture of original music and standard tunes.   I was swept away by the trio’s arrangement of Ron’s composition, “Walk Fast.”  It’s quite melodic and propelled by the dynamism of Willie Jones III on trap drums who offers us an impressive solo.  Jackson’s original, “From Dusk to Dawn” is drenched in the blues and Ben Wolfe’s walking bass line is prominent.  The melody is catchy and Ron’s striking guitar sings it to us unapologetically.  This is a slow swing tune that showcases Jackson’s mastery of his 7-string guitar and spotlights his distinctive style.  Charlie Parker’s “Moose the Mooche” is arranged with Willie Jones III slapping a funk beat into place and Ben Wolfe walking his bass briskly beneath the melodic lines.  When the drums and guitar fall silent, Ben takes a solo walk on his upright bass, until they trade fours with Willie’s drums.  There are two compositions on this album that pay tribute to guitarists who have influenced Ron Jackson.  “For Pat” is dedicated to Pat Martino.  “This Nearly Was Mine” (a Rodgers and Hammerstein piece) is dedicated to Bucky Pizzarelli.  Another Jackson composition is dedicated to Ron Luque titled “Roundabout.”

“Ron Luque was a big jazz fan who hired me and other musicians for private events here in New York City. … He lived in Temecula, CA.  His wife Marie commissioned “Roundabout” in October to honor him and his fight with Aphasia.  He (Ron Luque) passed away on March 31st.  He was a happy, energetic, life of the party guy.  … A truly great person.  His wife brought me and his favorite musicians to perform at his memorial in California,” Jackson explained to me the sweet story behind his composition tribute to Ron Luque.

I enjoyed Ron Jackson’s arrangement of the popular Quincy Jones production of “Secret Garden.” I used to love to hear Barry White share his spoken word monologue at the introduction of “Secret Garden” on Quincy’s 1989 “Back on the Block” album.  Jackson’s group adds the organ talents of Brian Ho during this arrangement.  On Track #8, they speed through the tune, “Will You Still Be Mine?” in a straight-ahead way.  Ron Jackson is stellar during this up-tempo performance.  The Trio closes with “Time After Time,” the familiar jazz standard featuring just bass and guitar.  Ben Wolfe and Ron Jackson swagger through the tune, with Jackson lending a shuffle-feel with his rhythm guitar talents and still playing a healthy melodic interpretation.  All in all, Impressive!

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MARGARET SLOVAK TRIO – “BALLAD FOR BRAD” – Slovak Music

Margaret Slovak, nylon string & electric guitar/composer; Harvie S., bass; Michael Serin, drums.

“I started to play the guitar at age eleven, initially exploring folk, soft-rock and classical music.  But when I was fourteen, in the basement of our parents’ house in Aurora, Colorado, my older brother Paul played me guitarist Pat Metheny’s “Right Size Life” trio LP with bassist Jaco Pastorius and drummer Bob Moses.  I was stunned! …  I came to jazz through ECM artists like Pat, Ralph Towner, Egberto Gismonti and John Abercrombie.  Later on, I discovered jazz guitar masters such as Jim Hall, Kenny Burrell, Pat Martino, Steve Kohn, Wes Montgomery, Dale Bruning, Gene Bertoncini and Jack Wilkins,” Margaret Slovak explained her journey to jazz.

She had been on a musical path for years when, in 2003, something unexpected occurred. Margaret was an up-and-coming guitarist with great potential, securing her own style and sound.  Then, shockingly she was severely hurt in a car accident.  Margaret’s right hand, her arm and shoulder were seriously damaged.  To her credit, after many operations and years of struggle, she has returned to the jazz scene and her love of guitar.  The result is this album, “Ballad for Brad.”  Ms. Slovak’s trio opens with a jazz waltz titled “Again.” This is followed by a tune that immediately captures my heart called “Flowers for Marie.”  It’s a very lovely ballad that showcases Margaret’s technique and tenacity on nylon guitar.  Harvie S. takes a melodic bass solo during this arrangement.  Drummer, Michael Sarin opens the next tune with a percussive, Latin feel.  It’s called “The Answer Within” and it’s arranged with an Afro Cuban beat, accompanied by Harvie’s bass walking steadily beneath the energy.  At times, it sounds as though he’s having a serious conversation with Margaret’s guitar.  Slovak’s compositions are inspired, often complex and beautifully interpreted.  Her musical melodies are interesting and often surprising, taking paths we don’t necessarily expect.  “Song for Anne” sings like chamber music in a front-room parlor.  According to her press package, the tune “Courage, Truth and Hope” was written to tribute journalist Bill Moyer and gives her bassist a platform to solo upon.  There is a gutsy song called, “Carrot Cake Blues” that’s playful. Michael Sarin puts a funk beat in place behind the blues changes.  Harvie S. has fun spreading his own blues feelings over the chord changes as a prelude to Margaret’s solo.  Towards the conclusion of this arrangement, Sarin takes a brief percussive solo.  The title tune is a loving dedication to Margaret’s husband and on her original composition, “Thirty-three,” Harvie S. gives us a solo creatively bowing his double bass.  This quickly becomes another favorite tune of mine on Margaret’s album.  

When she isn’t in the studio or touring, Margaret Slovak donates time to hospice patients, playing her guitar to sooth, relax and entertain them.  There is a study that shows how healing jazz music can be.  The patients she plays for say that they feel better after her visits.  I would be remiss if I did not mention the striking album cover artwork.  I was surprised to learn it was painted and created by Margaret Slovak herself, clearly a woman of many talents.  It’s light, bright, colorful and imaginative, just like this album of music.

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GEORGE FREEMAN – “EVERYBODY SAY YEAH!” – Southport Records

George Freeman, guitar/composer; Tatsu Aoki, Harrison Bankhead & Penny Pendleton, bass; Alejo Poveda, Phil Thomas, Hamid Drake & Michael Raynor, drums; Ruben Alvarez, timbales/congas; Von Freeman, Lou Gregory & Kirk Brown, piano; Chico Freeman, tenor & soprano saxophone; Eldee Young, bass/vocals; Joanie Pallatto, vocals; John Devlin, 6-string electric bass/accordion; Luiz Ewerling, drums/percussion; Billy Branch, harmonica; Mike Allemana, guitar.

The George Freeman album opens with a ‘riff’ that reminds me of an old African American work song called “Pick A Bale of Cotton.”  We used to sing it as children.  George’s rhythm guitar talents set the tempo and the blues saturates this piece like gravy on hot cornbread.  It’s titled, “Peak.” There is a rawness about this recording.  You can hear Freeman conversing with his guitar, singing along with it and sometimes scatting with his guitar lines.  There is a casual freedom to this piece and to this entire production.  It’s like I’m sitting on the front porch steps of his home while he wails on his guitar. 

Track #2 is the familiar standard “There Will Never Be Another You” with the late, great Von Freeman on piano making a joyful sound.  This album, “Everybody Say Yeah,” is a compilation of songs from various, historic releases by George Freeman.  The first song, “Peak” is from the ‘George Still Burns!’ album.  The standard is taken from the Freeman 1995 album release called “Rebellion.”  “My Scenery” was honed from George’s “All in the Family” 2015 album release. They swing with a Latin sway on “It’s Cha Time.” This one is a George Freeman composition that features my old friend and dearly departed Eldee Young on bass and vocals.  On Freeman’s project, various recording sessions feature a variety of players.  But one thing that is absolutely consistent is the swing and the ‘in-the-pocket’ guitar power of George Freeman.  The ensemble’s arrangement on “Summertime” change the familiar tune to a blues with cultural traces of Native American Indian music.   It’s quite unique, especially with Alejo Poveda’s funk drums propelling their groove.  Joanie Pallatto caresses the lyrics with her warm vocal tones and she also scats.  The tune “George Burns” cloned from an album of the same name, swings hard in a bebop style, with bandleader George Freeman slapping those unexpected tasty slides into place on his guitar.  This guitar technique calls for attention in a very musical way.  You will find that each tune on his compilation project offers joy to your ears. There are fourteen tunes included that celebrate George Freeman’s discography on Southport Records.  His music represents a tight-knit and prolific jazz scene in Chicago, Illinois.  On April 10, 2022, George Freeman celebrated his 95th birthday.  This CD release tributes George Freeman’s long and historic musical life. 

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SHIRI ZORN & GEORGE MUSCATELLO – “INTO ANOTHER LAND” – Independent Label

Shiri Zorn, vocals/composer; George Muscatello, guitar/composer; Mauricio Zottarelli, percussion.

Shiri Zorn and George Muscatello have shared a nearly decade-long collaboration.  While incubated during a lockdown demanded by the pandemic, this album idea bloomed.  It is a project produced by Los Angeles based vocalist, Tierney Sutton.  Shiri Zorn’s voice floats and dances above the guitar brilliance of George Muscatello as they open with “Witch Touch,” an original composition.  The stark simplicity of the production draws the listener in and allows an appreciation for each contribution by the guitarist, the percussionist and the vocalist. Their interpretation of “How Deep is the Ocean” is totally unique, propelled by Mauricio’s rich, Brazilian, percussive talents.  George Muscatello creates the fiery rhythm for Shiri Zorn’s soprano voice to flicker above, like a burning match.  The trio blends perfectly, guitar and percussion creating a solid and creative stage where Shiri Zorn scats and improvises.  Track #3 is titled “Zingaro (Retrato Em Branco E Preto).  It is a haunting composition with a challenging melody, at points presented in unison blending Zorn’s voice with Muscatello’s guitar.  But mostly, Shiri Zorn shines in a solo spotlight that illuminates her awesome and powerful vocals.  The familiar tune, “Beautiful Love” is another expressive production illuminating the power of three.  Another original composition by Muscatello & Zorn is titled, “I Wasn’t Ready,” but obviously they are.  There is mutual trust between the players and a comfort level that allows them to veer into unexpected musical territories and to challenge tempos, time and melodic formats in lovely ways.  You will appreciate the way they play with time and their Latin-tinged arrangement on “Willow Weep for Me.”  The spoken word added on the fade of this tune is quite striking and sensual.  it moves from English to a foreign language in the blink of an eye.  Their music is steeped in jazzy talent and rises, hot and steamy like smoke from the tea kettle.  Here is trio music that warms and refreshes while it entertains us; a project that reflects a sacred, explosive, musical expression. This is art!  It will be available June 10th, 2022.

This video was filmed back in April of 2019.

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ALEKSI GLICK – “GUITAR & ME” –  Independent Label

Aleksi Glick, solo guitar/composer.

When you choose to play one of the most popular instruments in the world, it’s imperative that you have an original sound.  This young, New York virtuoso, Aleksi Glick, brings us an album of solo guitar music that is both original, enthusiastic and entertaining.  His sound is uniquely his own and his talent promises us a bright and boisterous future in music. 

Opening with a tune titled, “With Ease” this is one of six original compositions he plays on this album called, “Guitar & Me.”  He composed it after attending a memorable and inspirational time at Mardi Gras in New Orleans.  Aleksi Glick is rooted in jazz and blues, but Glick’s album pushes the boundaries of genres.  He seamlessly floats through an eclectic mix of styles including R&B, folk, rock, and Bossa Nova.  The title tune starts out smooth and lovely, then quickly takes on a joyful Brazilian flavor with a pretty melody riding on top of Glick’s rhythm guitar licks.  Next, he interprets the popular tune by Billie Holiday & Arthur Herzog Jr., “God Bless the Child” draping it in blues and arpeggio guitar lines that stitch through the arrangement like gold threads.  He’s listened to everyone from Jimi Hendrix to John Scofield; from Derek Trucks to Wes Montgomery.  Still, Aleksi Glick has an awesome style all his own and it makes for an intriguing listen.  He covers tunes composed by Jerry Garcia, Paul Simon, Frederic Weatherly’s “Danny Boy” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia on My Mind.”  Aleksi surprises me by singing at the very end of this “Georgia on My Mind” arrangement.  His vocals are pleasant and honest.  Glick’s original compositions are a force in their own right and brightly showcase his composer talents.  It takes real faculty, guts and aptitude to perform an entire album solo.  There is only you, the musician, standing naked and vulnerable in the spotlight.  But no worries!  Aleksi Glick shines brilliantly as both a composer, guitarist, arranger and obviously a rising-star artist.  I can’t wait to hear his next project!

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LEONOR FALCON – “IMAGA MONDO VOL. II” –  FalconGumba Records

Leonor Falcon, violin/viola/composer/arranger; Christof Knoche, bass clarinet/alto saxophone; Juanma Trujillo, guitar; Zachary Swanson, bass; Juan Pablo Carletti, drums/percussion.

“Imaga Mondo” translates to ‘imaginary world’ in Esperanto language.  Leonor Falcon’s debut album was released in 2017 and established her as a stylistic violinist and violist exploring Avant Garde and improvisational music, she was also described by some as an iconoclastic composer.  This album is a continuation of these descriptions and a deep dive into her musical world images.  New York based, Leonor Falcon is a native of Venezuela and is classically trained.  She began playing in the orchestra at age six.  She became part of the acclaimed chamber music group, Virtuosi de Caracas.  At the same time, she was active on her local music scene, performing with pop, rock and Latin groups.  Simultaneously, she was also honing her skills in jazz and improvised music.  In 2007, Leonor attended the Conservatory of Geneva, Switzerland to obtain her Master in Music Performance.  After she succeeded in this accomplishment, Leonor moved to New York City when she completed her second Master’s Degree in Jazz Performance at Queens College.  Then the recording began.

The first tune on this album, “Improv 1” features three core members who played on her first album; Christof Knoche on bass clarinet and alto saxophone. Falcon is assertive on viola during this arrangement.  In the blink of an eye, Leonor Falcon snatches us into her imaginary world.  I am struck by how beautiful Track #2 is with a haunting melody and a blend of harmonic strings.   In the publicity notes, I discover that she composed this ballad when she was pregnant with her first child, named Emilio. 

“Expecting during a pandemic was a transformative experience.  It made me question many things, including the way I’ve been approaching music so far,” Leonor Falcon shared in her press package.

Her Composition, “Cursing Parrots” has a Bluegrass flavor at first, but soon allows the bandmembers to step into their improvisational creativity like a pair of overalls.  There is a stunning solo on electric guitar by Juanma Trujillo that transforms this piece into jazz/rock.    

Her composition titled “Nita” embraces a South American folk music quality.  Her publicist describes it as a combination of Argentine chacarera and a Mexican son jarocho.  The accompanying YouTube video portrays an energetic, playful and innocent little girl, that perhaps represents the childlike freedom and spirit within Leonar Falcon herself.  Children are so honest and innocent, like some of this music.  “The Monks” is a composition that spotlights her bassist Zachary Swanson and the beauty of acoustic Avant-Garde jazz.  On the tune, “A,” Christof Knoche steps stage center to feature his rich, bass clarinet solo.  Leonar Falcon blends her traditional music with classical spices, home-grown Venezuelan roots and peppery hot improvisations.  She seasons this Volume Two release of her imaginary world with South American herbs and stirs the pot of strings, offering us a flavorful jazzy stew that well-represents her “FalconGumba” record label.  In a way, Falcon’s musical compositions embrace the concept of Gumbo, inviting us to taste her delicious bowl of music without preconceived notions or expectations.  Just stick your spoon into the broth and enjoy!

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DAN BRUCE’S :BETA COLLECTIVE – “TIME TO MIND THE MYSTICS” –                          Shifting Paradigm Records

Dan Bruce, electric & nylon string guitar/composer/Ableton live programming; Chris Coles, alto & tenor saxophone; vocoder; Brad Wagner, soprano & tenor saxophones; bass clarinet; Caleb Smith, trombone; Will Wedmedyk, vibraphone; Theron Brown, piano/Fender Rhodes/Melodica; Aidan Plank, acoustic & electric bass; Anthony Taddeo, drums/percussion; Joel Negus/synthesizers.

Dan Bruce leads a group of Midwest-based improvisers.  He describes his musical concept as a way of exploring the nexus between composition and improvisation; tradition and future; constraint and freedom.  In 2020, guitarist Dan Bruce won the Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award.  Bruce has written all eight compositions for this project.  Once heralded as an important member of the Chicago, Illinois Jazz Scene, Dan Bruce relocated to Ohio.  However, he is active throughout the Midwest United States as a performer, a recording artist, composer and educator.  Over his decades of performing, starting when he was just seventeen years old, he has recorded on more than thirty albums as a sideman and released two albums as a bandleader.  Dan has also enjoyed playing with the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra.  As a composer, Bruce’s work has been featured in The Chicago Composers Collective series and the Jazz Institute of Chicago NextGen Jazz Series.   His compositions and arrangements have been published in Fingerstyle Guitar Magazine.  Bruce is currently on faculty at Youngstown State University and Cuyahoga Community College.

Opening with the title tune, “Time to Mind the Mystics” Dan Bruce establishes his production style by blending programmers with acoustic and electronic instruments.  It seems to wants to establish technology as an innovation in our current culture and blend it with classical training, jazz improvisation and arrangements that mirror a big band.  Using the horns of Wagner and Coles, along with trombonist Caleb Smith to play the melody of this title tune, he soon takes the spotlight on his electric guitar.  It’s a stunning solo that elevates the mood, employing a rock-band synthesis with a fusion jazz feel.  Some of his “Beta Collective” ensemble also take turns to solo and strut their stuff.  This is ten minutes of mind-expanding music.  “Blueprint” is a tune that invites vibraphonist, Will Wedmedyk to shine.  Drummer, Anthony Taddeo, brilliantly propels the band forward and is quite creative while holding down the rhythm. Dan Bruce somehow blends ring modulators, whirling vocoders, synthesizers, programming and acoustic instruments together in a delicious musical soup.  The taste of his music is both unique and addictive.  You can get lost in the various styles and the musician interpretations of Dan’s compositions.  Aidan Plank, on bass, opens up “Insignificance (a Love Song)” and sets the tempo and mood along with Dan’s innovative guitar.  Later in the arrangement Plank moves impressively into the spotlight to offer a very beautiful bass solo.  These Bruce compositions are all very long, spanning over six and half minutes or more, yet I never got bored. That is because they offer lovely melodies and extraordinary solos, where each musician can explore and share their creativity with us.  They are more like arranged suites of music rather than individual songs. On Track #3, Dan Bruce beautifully explores his nylon string guitar.

Dan Bruce explains his creation as a collection of thought experiments. 

“At the core is the idea that our embrace of technological innovation cannot come at the sacrifice of generational knowledge and ancient wisdom.  Our humanity needs to be celebrated and technology should play a supporting role,” reflects Dan Bruce.

This jazz journalist feels Dan Bruce has discovered a happy balance in both his concept (humanity and technology) and his modern jazz music.                            

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CHIMYTINA  – ”CONSTELLATIONS” – La Reserve

Dan “Chimy” Chmielinski, bass; Martina Dasilva, vocals/composer; SPECIAL GUESTS: Marquis Hill, trumpet; Grace Kelly, alto saxophone; Lucas Pino, tenor saxophone; Joel Ross, vibraphone; Ken Kubota, cello; Andrew Renfroe, guitar.

Chimytina is the name of a vocal-bass duo celebrated for their innovative arrangements of jazz classics.  Marquis Hill, their special guest on trumpet, shines like a star on their opening tune “I Want to Be Happy.”  Dan “Chimy” Chmielinski trades fours briefly on bass with his partner, Martina Dasilva on vocals.  Martina’s soft, warm voice floats over the melody of “As Praias Desertas” singing in Portuguese the melodic composition of Jobim.  Marina first caught the ear of the universe in 2014 when she released a series of duo performance videos.  She racked up thousands of views on social media.  In 2019, the duo released their debut album, “A Very ChimyTina Christmas.”  These two talented musicians (Chmielinski & Dasilva) offer unique arrangements, exceptional talent on their instruments (bass and voice) and have combined this with outstanding musical guests.  For example, “Deep Night” features the awesome guitar work of Andrew Renfroe. 

“A good word for this album is trust,” Chimy, the bassist, explains.  “We’re trusting that the world will return and we’ll be able to do what we love again,” he refers to the way the pandemic of COVID has challenged touring and performing.

Martina sings “Nice Work If You Can Get It” on top of Chimy’s walking bass and the saxophone intersperses the arrangement with tasty licks.  The voice becomes a horn and harmonizes with the saxophone, trading fours with Dan on bass.  Martina’s choice of repertoire is perfect and she throws in a couple of original songs including “Twin Flame” and “My Universe.”  Both are well-written and superbly delivered.  On the tune, “I’ll Never Be the Same” Lucas Pino makes a star-studded appearance on tenor sax.  His solo is wonderful, but even more impressive is the way he interjects his instrument into Martina’s vocals.  It’s very artsy and tasteful.  Some of these compositions are songs I haven’t heard before like “It’s All in Your Mind” by Charles La Vere.  The lyrics are smart and the melody is quite captivating.  Chimy takes time to improvise on the theme, letting his bass sing melodically across space until Renfroe enters with smooth guitar licks.  Marina and Chimy turn a Country/Western tune (“Cold Cold Heart” by Hank Williams) into a jazzy experience with just bass and vocals swinging through the universe like shooting stars.  I always enjoy the inclusion of a vibraphone into jazz arrangements.  Joel Ross displays a master solo on the “My Universe” tune penned by Martina.  The vocal half of ‘Chimytina,’ (Martina) sings the blues using the familiar song “Trouble in Mind” as a vehicle and featuring the talented alto saxophonist, Grace Kelly with Dan Chmielinski swinging briskly on bass beneath both vocals and saxophone.  He’s so strong with the groove that you won’t even miss the drums.  They close with “Lush Life,” Billy Strayhorn’s masterpiece.  The arrangement whisks us into a chamber music space.  Chimy bows his bass in a beautiful way.  The duo shines and sparkles.   This is definitely an album I will enjoy time and time again!

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PASQUALE GRASSO – “BE BOP!” – Sony Music Masterworks

Pasquale Grasso, guitar; Ari Roland, bass; Keith Balla, drummer. SPECIAL GUEST: Samara Joy, vocals.

Pasquale Grasso’s single from the album “Be-Bop!” is “A Night in Tunisia” played with zest by this awesome guitar virtuoso.  He’s a native of Southern Italy’s Campania region and relocated to New York City in 2009.  Before long, until his reputation on the guitar was in demand.  His approach to guitar playing commands amazing technique of the fretboard, moving like lightening between single notes and chords, while at the same time showcasing independent bass lines.  Many have compared his guitar playing to the master pianist, Art Tatum.  What a great testament to Pasquale’s ability and talent. 

Since I was a little kid, I always had this sound in my head, then slowly it’s coming out,” he explained. “I was never too much influenced by guitar players, for some reason. I grew up listening to Art Tatum, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. Those were my guys. For guitar, I always liked Charlie Christian and Oscar Moore, but I never really listened to too much guitar players. Of course, when I hear Barney Kessel and Chuck Wayne and Jimmy Raney, I love them. They’re all great artists but they never really got me when I was a kid. I was more into Bird and Bud, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge and Louis Armstrong.   So, I was always more influenced by horn players and piano players than guitar players,” Pasquale Grasso admits.

This upcoming album, due to be released on June 17th, celebrates those same be-bop masters he listened to as a young musician; Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Dizzy Gillespie. They have greatly inspired Pasquale’s growth and technique.  Grasso achieves an astonishing balance of technical wizardry and swing on the guitar, often sounding like two guitars playing simultaneously in concert. In 2015, Pasquale won the Wes Montgomery International Jazz Guitar Competition and that included a performance with guitar legend Pat Martino’s organ trio.  After this, he was signed to a deal with Sony Masterworks.  This “Be-Bop” trio album features the talented young vocalist Samara Joy on their tune, “I’m in a Mess” and the musicians offer a super, up-tempo rendition of “Shaw Nuff.”  Other familiar compositions from the be-bop era include Monk’s “Ruby My Dear” and “Ornithology.” 

In support of this new project, Pasquale Grasso starts an international tour this month, performing worldwide throughout the summer and finally reaches California shores on October 1st when he will appear at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa and on October second, he zips up to half Moon Bay, California in concert at “Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society.”  If you have the opportunity, be there!

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