MUSICAL VISIONS

By Dee Dee McNeil

June 1, 2022

STEVE DAVIS  – “BLUESTHETIC” – Smoke Sessions Records

Steve Davis, trombone/composer/arranger; Peter Bernstein, guitar; Steve Nelson, vibraphone; Geoffrey Keezer, piano; Christian McBride, bass; Willie Jones III, drums.

This album offers ‘straight-ahead’ trombone bliss.  Steve Davis is a master of his instrument and has encircled himself with other musicians who bring their A-game to this “Bluesthetic” project.

“We all had major fun working with Stevie-D on this new album,” Christian McBride gushed on the liner notes, calling Davis by his nickname, Stevie D.  “This was simply a musical family reunion playing great music written by Steve.  Willie Jones III, Geoff Keezer, Steve Nelson and Peter Bernstein are all top-notch, well-established giants on their respective instruments. … But Steve’s got blue fire coming out of his horn.” 

Opening with one of ten original compositions by Steve Davis, “Encouragement” is a perfect vehicle to showcase the Davis ensemble.  The melodic integrity of the tune makes you want to whistle along.  Steve opens things up on trombone followed by an inspired solo from Peter Bernstein on guitar.  One of my favorite additions to the Davis sextet is Steve Nelson on vibraphone.  Geoffrey Keezer explores the eighty-eight keys during his piano solo, followed by Christian McBride’s power-packed bass improvisation.  All the while, Willie Jones III makes the music dance and swing on his trap drums.

You hear the strength of a great composer when you listen to these Davis tunes.  “Silver at Sundown” is another melody that inspires me to hum along.  His compositions and chord arrangements create the perfect, melodic stage for these awesome musicians to blow, bounce and bow.  Perhaps Christian McBride described it best when he said:

“If you take any song from this album and put a soul groove on it, you potentially have a top-ten, R&B hit on your hands,” McBride asserted.

I get that!  As a former songwriter for Detroit’s Motown Records, I know a well-written song when I hear one and Steve Davis composes great songs.  A well-written song can be translated to jazz, country, reggae or pop along with any good arrangement.  I found each of these ten original songs to be well-arranged and beautifully composed.  In the liner notes, McBride echoed my feelings.

“The music went from hip and swingin’ like “Off the Cuff” to the hip and sublime, “Bluesthetic.”  Every song is strong with a rebar-like harmonic and melodic sense,” McBride described their production.

This album is delightful from beginning to end.   Steve Davis’s satin smooth sound on the trombone is as beautiful as these arrangements and the sextet showcases his mastery as a composer.

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JONATHAN BARBER & VISION AHEAD – “POETIC” –  Independent label

Jonathan Barber, drums/composer; Taber Gable, Fender Rhodes/composer; Andrew Renfroe, guitar/ composer; Matt Dwonszyk, bass; Godwin Louis, alto saxophone/composer.

Jonathan Barber is such a dynamic drummer, you hear it right from the first four bars of his opening tune, “Poetic.”  The melody is introduced by Godwin Louis on alto saxophone, but the energy and poetry of the song is being played by Jonathan Barber on trap drums.  Track #2 titled “Gathering” is a composition penned by the group guitarist, Andrew Renfroe.  Taber Gable is spotlighted on Fender Rhodes piano during this arrangement and Renfroe also adds his own guitar solo, improvising freely.  The song by reedman Godwin Louis, “Give Us This Day” seems to be based on lines from the Lord’s Prayer with Barber’s driving drums peppering the rhythm.  “Acceptance” once again gives wings to Taber Gable on Fender Rhodes.  He also composed this song.  One of my favorite tunes on this album is “Denim” which has a well-constructed melody.  Otherwise, this seems to be an album made up of ‘loops’ and repetitive music phrases, mostly presented at a moderate tempo.

I would like to have heard more tempo changes to allow Jonathan Barber a stage to showcase his mad drum skills.  How about a jazz waltz, an Afro-Cuban 6/8 tune, a five/four piece or seven/four composition?  Jonathan did utilize the final tune to briefly spotlight his drum prowess, once again dancing brightly atop repetitive chord changes.  This is easy listening jazz, but I didn’t hear a tune that could become a standard like “A-Train” or “Misty;” “Hearts of Fire,” “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” or “Girl from Ipanema.”  Writing, producing and playing music the world wants to sing is a formidable goal.

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THE UNITED STATES AIR FORCE BAND AIRMEN OF NOTE – “THE 2022 JAZZ HERITAGE SERIES” – Dept. of the Air Force

RHYTHM: Sr. MSgt., Geoff Reecer, guitar; Tech Sgt., Chris Ziemba, piano; Tech Sgt., Ben Thomas, bass; Master Sgt., David McDonald, drums. VOCALS: Master Sgt., Paige Wroble & Diane Schuur (Special Guest). SAXOPHONES: Master Sgt., Kristian Baarsvik, lead alto flute; Tech. Sgt., Mike Cemprola, second alto flute; Master Sgt., Tedd Baker, lead tenor clarinet; Sr. Master Sgt., Grant Langford, second tenor/clarinet; Master Sgt. (Ret.), Doug Morgan, baritone/bass clarinet. TRUMPETS: Staff Sgt., Joshua Kauffman; Chief Master Sgt, Kevin Burns; Master Sgt., Luke Brandon/producer/Musical Director; Technical Sgt., Logan Keese; TROMBONES: Tech. Sgt., Matt Hettwer; Master Sgt. (Ret.), Jeff Martin; Master Sgt., Kevin Cerovich; Master Sgt., Benjamin Polk.

This is a swinging big band and they start off their Heritage Series by playing the very popular “Alright, Okay, You Win” that popularly featured vocalist Joe Williams back in the mid-1960s with Count Basie’s Big Band.  This time, MSgt Paige Wroble lends us her strong vocal rendition of this tune with gusto.  The second track titled, “Touch and Go” features the brilliant piano playing of TSgt Chris Ziemba and special guest trumpeter, Sean Jones.  There is also a star-studded space made for TSgt Mike Cemprola on alto saxophone and drummer MSgt David McDonald also offers a spirited solo on drums. 

This ‘Airmen of Note’ organization is the premier jazz ensemble of the United States Air Force.  They formed in 1950 to carry on Major Glenn Miller’s legacy.  They are an exemplary armed forces band and you will enjoy their high energy and professional musicianship throughout.

“Into the Sun” immediately caught my ear.  The horns fly and the excitement is palpable on this tune, penned by guest trumpeter, Sean Jones and arranged beautifully by Paul Ferguson. Special guest, Ted Nash is featured on saxophone atop a fusion jazz background propelled by the drums of David McDonald.  The band moves from fusion to straight ahead at the pop of a drum.  There is a flurry of interaction between trumpet and saxophone during the fade of this tune and a stellar, harmonic horn ending.  The Chick Corea composition, “Tones for Joan’s Bones” offers an opportunity for the horn players to step stage center and show-off their individual talents.  On the composition “You Can have It” award-winning vocalist, Diane Schuur steps forward.  The United States Air Force Band also has arranged and performed one of Ms. Schuur’s compositions, “Deedle’s Blues.”  They close with the familiar “Besame Mucho” tune that features Sean Jones on trumpet, Ted Nash on saxophone and Diane Schuur on vocals.  The ‘Airmen of Note’ performances on this disc represent a sample of the excellence and professionalism exemplified around the world in both music and in peace-keeping by the United States Air Force.

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RIQUE PANTOJA – “LIVE IN LOS ANGELES” – Moodo Music

Rique Pantoja, keyboards/piano/composer/arranger; Jimmy Earl, bass; Joel Taylor, drums; Ricardo Silveira, guitar; Cassio Duarte, percussion; Steve Tavaglione, saxophones/flute.

This artistic pianist has recorded and performed with some of the biggest names in both American and Brazilian jazz for over forty years.  The music of Rique Pantoja is a vision of peace, beauty and love.   In collaboration with his old friend, Juan Carlos Qintero, (owner of Moondo Music) this album became the perfect fit, representing the high-quality and artistically rendered jazz that Moondo Music distributes.

A native of Brazil, Pantoja attended a university to study engineering.  But this was his father’s vision and not Rique’s heart’s desire.  That’s strange, because both his father and his uncles all played musical instruments.  Maybe his father was trying to protect Rique from the rocky road of choosing music as a career.  After a frustrating year of engineering study, Rique’s father finally relented and sent his son to study in the United States and eventually at Berklee College of Music.  After all, Rique Pantoja had been studying classical guitar since the age of eight and switched to piano at thirteen years young.  By sixteen, he was already composing music. Rique Pantoja lived in the United States for a while as an exchange student.  During this time, the teenager won a talent show for his composing talents as a high school student. This encouraged him to keep composing.  The next step was attending Berklee School of Music. After graduating Berklee, the young pianist packed up his Fender Rhodes and relocated to Paris, France.  There, he formed a band consisting of French and Brazilian musicians that played all original compositions.  One night, the great Chet Baker heard the band playing in a club next door to where Chet was performing.  Baker popped into the club next door and was really impressed. In 1980, Rique’s band recorded with trumpet master Chet Baker, who, much to the surprise and excitement of young Rique Pantoja, came on board and decided to interpret Rique’s original songs.  That album is called, “Chet Baker and the Boto Brazilian Quartet.”

Once Rique Pantoja returned to Brazil, with success under his belt, he discovered his reputation burned like a five-alarm fire. He was in demand.  Pantoja toured two years with the great Milton Nascimento and became Musical Director for singer/songwriter, Djavan.  He was also an in-demand session player.  In 1991, at his wife’s insistence, the very busy Rique Pantoja needed a break and desired to spend more time with his family.  They moved to Los Angeles where the couple had many friends, including Ivan Lins. That short break turned into thirty fruitful years making music with California as his base.

Pantoja plays it all: classical, jazz, pop, gospel and of course Brazilian and international music.  Because of his diversity and excellent musical skills, Pantoja worked with a number of huge music names like Carlos Santana, Ernie Watts, Ricky Martin, classical guitarist Christopher Parkening, Gloria Estefan, Abraham Laboriel, Justo Almario, Lee Ritenour, Kirk Whalum and a score of others.  He has also written popular jingles for major brands like Coca Cola, Honda, Shell oil, Globo Reporter, DeBeers Diamonds, Pepsi, Nissan and Toshiba. 

Now, you can enjoy him on “Live in Los Angeles” working with some brilliant players like Steve Tavaglione on saxophone and flute, Jimmy Earl on bass, Joel Taylor, drums and Cassio Duarte on percussion.  He also includes Moondo Music labelmate, Ricardo Silveira on guitar.  This project shows Rique Pantoja’s exceptional visions on his instrument and spotlights his awesome composer talents.  Opening with “Arpoador” (that means harpooner in Portuguese).  Arpoador is also a small community, a peninsula, between Ipanema and Copacabana.  It’s an exciting and beautiful way to open this album, with changing moods and tempos, along with synthesizer brilliance during a solo that lifts the arrangement sky-high!

“Julinho” has a haunting melody interpreted by Steve Tavaglione’s sensual saxophone.  These two opening pieces quickly become two of my favorites on this album.  But let me say this.  Every Pantoja composition on this recording is brilliant.  Every arrangement is stellar and Rique Pantoja’s piano mastery infuses this music beautifully, giving each musician a musical palate to paint their hearts out.  “1000 Watts” is a tribute to Pantoja’s friend and popular, reedman, Ernie Watts and it’s drenched in funk.  His song, “Da Baiana” is based on an Afro-Cuban rhythm.  Pantoja’s composition “Be-Bop” kid introduces us to his vocal side.  Rique has a voice that’s honest and emotional.  I expected an up-tempo tune to exemplify be-bop.  Instead, this is a ballad and he sings the lyrical story in his native Portuguese with plentiful emotion. Then the arrangement changes, pendulum quick.  The ballad becomes a pop groove with Latin tinges.  Rique’s music is just pure fun!  As he plays the piano, he sings a scat line in unison with the melody.  His piano sparkles across each song, like sunshine on restless waves.  The flute solo by Tavaglione warms this arrangement, flying above the chord changes like a hungry seagull.  Also, the guitar solo by Ricardo Silveira is formidable.  For a moment, I am also captivated by the electric bass solo of Jimmy Earl.   Each song on this “Live in Los Angeles” album offers something more to entertain and surprise us.   It is a vision of complexity and artistic beauty you will enjoy listening to time and time again.

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BEN MARKLEY BIG BAND WITH ARI HOENIG – “ARI’S FUN-HOUSE” – OA2 Records

RHYTHM: Ben Markley, piano/keyboards/composer/arranger/bandleader; Evan Gregor, basses; Steve Kovalcheck, guitar; Ari Hoenig, drums/composer. SAXOPHONES: Will Swindler, alto & soprano saxophones/flute; Scott Turpen, alto saxophone; Peter Sommer, tenor saxophone; John Gunther, tenor saxophone; Sam Williams, baritone saxophone. TRUMPETS: Peter Olstad, Alan Hood, Greg Gisbert & Dan Jonas. TROMBONES: Adam Bartczak, Rob Borger, John Gauer & Paul McKee.

Pianist, arranger, composer and bandleader, Ben Markley feels this album is one of his most ambitious projects to date.  It all began in 2019 when Ben Markley and Ari Hoenig found themselves performing together at the Tarleton Jazz Festival in Texas.  As Markley began learning Hoenig’s original music and preparing for their performance, he was intrigued by the drummer’s melodic compositions.  Woven into Ari’s keen sense of rhythm were the most beautiful melodies.  Now, three years later, Ben Markley has arranged a big band album featuring the music of drummer Art Hoenig with the composer solid and powerful in the drum chair.

They open with “Birdless” featuring Will Swindler on alto saxophone.  Ben Markley’s piano expertise is featured and Steve Kovalcheck’s electric guitar soars.  This Markley arrangement makes certain to spotlight Ari Hoenig, popping and explosive on drums.  The horns dance and are drenched in ensemble harmonics.  This song is the perfect way to open up an innovative Markley big band album.  It establishes the energy and excitement that these musicians bring to the public ear.  Every song on this album is composed by Ari Hoenig.  “Lyric” is another gem, with a sparkling, bright melody explored by tenor saxophonist, John Gunther and Kovalcheck on guitar.  Markley’s sensitive arrangements always leave space to feature the composer.  Hot and heavy on his drum set, Ari remains the catalyst of this band with all his technical, percussive brilliance on display.  Ben Markley’s production flies each song like a proud flag, featuring various band members.  Also, his arrangements richly saturate the pieces in horn harmonies and punctuate the presentations rhythmically.  That’s one of the interesting things about these Hoenig compositions; the way rhythms, unexpected breaks, staccato punches and drum solos propel this project forward. 

“Lines of Oppression” reminds me of a powerful locomotive plundering forward.  Track #4 is called “Bert’s Playground” and it’s a happy, joyful composition that gives bassist, Evan Gregor, an opportunity to dance stage center on his double bass. The background horns mimic the sound of ambulance sirens, grabbing my attention, and then they break into a joyful sound of their own.  Paul McKee’s trombone steps out of the fray, richly improvising on the theme.  Greg Gisbert’s trumpet introduces us to a lovely ballad titled “For Tracy.”  Ben Markley opens this piece up with a poignant solo piano at the introduction.  The background horns swell and are dynamic against the sweetness of Gisbert’s horn.  “Arrows and Loops” sounds like something the Whirling Dervishes would dance to and Ben Markley takes a rousing solo on piano. The Ben Markley Big Band closes with a funky arrangement of “Green Spleen” which embraces modern jazz, contemporary fusion jazz, with even a taste of Charlie Mingus brilliance.  You will be thoroughly entertained by these Hoenig compositions and the Ben Markley Big Band interpretations of “Ari’s Fun-House.” 

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JOHN YAO’S TRICERATOPS – “OFF-KILTER” – See Tao Recordings

John Yao, trombone/composer; Robert Sabin, bass; Mark Ferber, drums; Billy Drewes, soprano & alto saxophones; Jon Irabagon, tenor & soprano saxophones.

Trombonist and composer, John Yao, vividly captures a sense of risk-taking and improvisational invention to create this boldly unpredictable album.  His vision is captured in the title “Off-Kilter” as he reunites his three-horn ‘Triceratops’ from an earlier album debut in 2019.  Once again, saxophonists Billy Drewes and Jon Irabagon join Yao along with drummer, Mark Ferber and bassist Robert Sabin. Sabin and Yao are longtime collaborators, once merging talents in Yao’s 17-piece big band.  On this recording, John Yao aims to be even more open and free.  He implements more complex compositions this time around, using plenty of open space for his counterparts to improvise and engage each other. 

What strikes me, right from the first tune, is the chordless structure of the band.  Leaning heavily on Sabin’s bass and Mark Ferber’s outstanding drum talents, the horns flutter and dance to their own content.  “Labyrinth” quickly becomes one of my favorites of Yao’s original compositions.  The pop of horns, using staccato unison notes, give Ferber’s drums a space to roll, solo and soar.  When the piece finally settles in, there is Robert Sabin’s walking bass holding the group solidly in place.  You can hear Yao’s love of big band harmonies in the way he has arranged the horn parts, lacing through the space like a bright, red, harmonic ribbon.  Yao’s trombone marches steadfast and straight-ahead, letting the background horns cheer him on.  Ferber’s drum licks double and clap like an inspired audience.  When Robert Sabin steps forward to solo on bass, his solo is exacerbated by the exciting compliment of Ferber’s improvisational drums that sing and soar, never losing the rhythm or dropping the tempo.  There are two interludes on this album. The first acts as a bridge between “Labyrinth” and a composition called, “Quietly.”  Both interludes are warm with horn harmonies and fired by the Ferber drums.  When the ballad “Quietly” appears, like a shy queen peeking out at the world behind lush, velvet horn harmonies, John Yao’s trombone is king.  Sabin’s bass sets the tone and tempo and the groove is Latin-esque.  It makes me tap my toe and want to cha cha across the room. 

“I love this band’s ability to go wherever everyone collectively or individually feels like they want to go, … to be part of something you can’t predict when you write a piece of music,” Yao explains his experience with the ensemble’s exploration of his original tunes.

This is an inspiring and creative exploration into the mindset and vision of John Yao, who has formerly contributed his trombone prowess with various Grammy-award winning ensembles including the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra.  They have certainly inspired him creatively.  He has also performed with Paquito D’Rivera, Eddie Palmieri, Danilo Perez, Chris Potter and Kurt Elling.  You hear his love of Latin music in the introduction to his composition “Crosstalk” combined with his appreciation of funk music, jazz swing and the blues.  All four music genres are wrapped in a ball of energy and excitement that dares the Triceratop-horns to fly free.  Amid their openness and rich improvisations, the three horns still manage to merge together harmonically, repeating a melodic theme and stitching the piece together like a seamstress’s needle.  I find John Yao’s compositions to be innovative and diverse.  His trombone talent is formidable.  This is musical art, showcasing all five players like a Broadway spotlight on the red carpet.   This album release date is June 10, 2022.

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AARON SEEBER – “FIRST MOVE” – Cellar Music Group

Aaron Seeber, drums/composer; Sullivan Fortner, piano; Ugonna Okegwo, bass; Tim Green, alto saxophone; Warren Wolf, vibraphone.

This is drummer, Aaron Seeber’s first recording as a bandleader and it’s a powerhouse debut.  It was recorded ‘live’ in Brooklyn at the Ornithology Jazz Club in October of last year.  The band’s energy is palpable and Seeber has surrounded himself with some of New York’s best jazz musicians.  They are the new wave of jazz with a vision and perspective all their own.  Aaron Seeber has chosen seven jazz tunes by recognizable composers and added one of his own originals for good measure called, “First Move.” That, of course, is the title of this, his first album.  The tune “Brandyn” is a great way to kick off this production with excitement and allows each member of the quintet to step forward offering creative solos.  I enjoy Warren Wolf on vibraphone.  He’s an asset and punctuation mark to this ensemble.  Seeber first met Warren Wolf on a Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra date.  Then, Tim Green, who shared many of Seeber’s first major performances with him, steps stage center on alto saxophone to woo the crowd.  Sullivan Fortner lays down the tune’s melody in unison with the vibes and sax.  Seeber has experienced a long association with the celebrated pianist, Sullivan Fortner since they first played together at New York City’s Fat Cat club.  They were both in the band of trumpeter Greg Glassman. Sullivan lays down a busy, but very tasty, piano accompaniment beneath the solo of Tim Green.  It’s almost as though the two instruments are wildly gossiping with each other, but in a very comfortable way.  Bass man, Ugonna Okegwo, began to play with Seeber several years ago and they are frequently heard together as part of the Pete Malinverni Trio.  Sullivan Fortner really stretches out on Track #2, “Out of the Past” by Benny Golson, a tune that calms the mood, but not the energy.  These musicians are pumped briskly by the drum mastery of Aaron Seeber, even on this moderate tempo.  Ugonna Okegwo is given his debut in the spotlight, making his double bass soulfully saunter and sing.  This is a really pretty tune by Golson that these musicians reinvent, celebrate and refresh in a most inspirational way. 

Aaron Seeber inspires excitement on the introduction to “Eleventh Hour.”  The alto sax and vibraphone speak in unison tones and Seeber answers them, sticks slapping across his drum set with a voice of their own.  These musicians are off and flying faster than a hungry hawk diving to catch its prey.  Wolf’s mallets race across his instrument and the audience spontaneously applauds, shouting words of encouragement and praise.  I want to do the same in my listening space. This group is on fire!  Green’s saxophone solo duets with Seeber’s drums being the catalyst.  It’s a wonderful arrangement that showcases both instruments simultaneously.  Towards the fade of this composition, Aaron Seeber steps forward to wildly display his incredible skills on the drums.  This is one of my favorite arrangements on this album, reminding us of the brilliance of composer Mulgrew Miller, and the live audience seems to agree, shouting their appreciation.

Aaron Seeber is a native of Washington, D.C. and is influenced by Billy Hart, Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Connie Kay, Mickey Roker and Otis “Candy” Finch to name just a few.  While attending high school in Washington, D.C., young Seeber attended Paul Carr’s Jazz Academy of Music (JAM) Camp.  Later, he attended SUNY Purchase, studying jazz drums with the renowned Kenny Washington and John Riley. Hungry for the music, he gobbled up opportunities to perform with greats like Eric Reed, Pete Malinverni, Cyrille Aimée, Freddie Redd, The Warren Wolf Trio and the award-winning group, The New York Voices to name only a few.  Currently, he leads his own quintet at the legendary Smalls Jazz Club. This debut album is bound to catapult this talented, young drummer into the stratosphere and beyond.

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