THE ROAD STRAIGHT AHEAD

By Dee Dee McNeil

June 25, 2022

CLEMENS GRASSMANN – “GRASS MACHINE” –  Independent label

Clemens Grassman, drums/composer/arranger; Cole Davis, bass; Chris McCarty, piano; Chris Bittner & Sam Dillon, tenor saxophones; David Milazzo, alto saxophone; Aaron Bahr, trumpet.

The path of jazz has widened and merged; forked and wandered to new and various places along the pandemic way.  But the road ‘Straight-ahead’ remains one that I love the most.  This new project by Clemens Grassmann and his Grass Machine takes us on the long and precious road to ‘Straight-ahead’ jazz.  Starting from the very first tune titled, “Re.Cursive Op.Timization” I am in love with this recording.  Lately I’ve been inundated with music by drummers who not only play music but title themselves composers.  I have to say this is the best album composed by a drummer that I have heard in the past two years.  Many of the other projects I listened to had troubled melodies, no bridges, and were more like ‘loops’ than songs.  Clemens Grassmann has developed each song to its maximum creativity, with chords that allow his fellow musicians to improvise comfortable and creatively.  This first song holds my ears prisoner and then comes “Chicken on a Trane.” I assume this is a testament and a nod to the talents of John Coltrane.  It is a bright and boisterous tune that features Aaron Bahr on trumpet, David Milazzo on Alto Sax and Bittner and Dillon on tenor, blowing their hearts out with intricate harmonics.  Bahr steps out from the ensemble to solo and we are off and running at a vigorous pace.   He is followed briskly by the saxophone players, each stellar in their own spotlight.  Cole Davis takes a noteworthy solo on bass and all the while, Clemens Grassmann does what he seems to love.  He pumps the music up on his drums.  Grassmann never allows the rhythm to slack up, the tune to become boring or the energy to dive.  I am swept along with the musicians, enjoying every creative moment.  Chris McCarthy shows his superb talents on piano and then the bassist and Grassmann hold court, talking to each other like an attorney with his client.  Oh yes – throughout these arrangements you will hear musical conversations and arrangements that are both challenging and energized.

I must also compliment the art director and designer, Hollis King.  The CD cover is a winner!  I would pick this up and want to listen to it any day of the week.  I do wish the credits on the back cover had used a larger font for seasoned eyes.  All of the musician names should be in bright lights, because they all deserve it!

When Clemens Grassmann walked into the studio to record this project, they told him:

“We left the drums the way Billy Hart had set them up,” Grassmann recalled. 

“As I entered the drum booth, I had never felt such a sensation; a magical mix of devotion, humility and excitement.  To record my music at Rudy Van Gelder’s Studios, in the exact same room that gave birth to John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme,’ Herbie Hancock’s ‘Maiden Voyage’ or Wayne Shorter’s ‘Adams Apple’ … ,” the young drummer shared his awe in the liner notes and I could almost hear him sigh. 

“As the pandemic shut down NYC, it offered a vessel to pour my emotions into, assemble a group of extraordinary musicians and create a connection back to the roots…” Clemens Grassmann summed up exactly what this jazz journalist was feeling. 

Straight-ahead and back to the roots!

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PECK ALLMOND QUARTET featuring ED KELLY – “LIVE AT YOSHI’S 1994” – Eastlawn Records

Peck Allmond, tenor saxophone/trumpet/producer; Ed Kelly, piano; John Wiitala, double bass; Bud Spangler, drums; SPECIAL GUEST: Kenny Brooks, tenor saxophone; R.J. Spangler, co-producer.

Peck Allmond is proficiently multi-talented.  He plays trumpet, saxophone, flute and is often in demand for his valve trombone talents, clarinet and bass clarinet mastery. This is an historic album, tracing back to 1992 when Peck made a move from the Bay Area to Brooklyn, New York.  With all his skills and himself, a competent band leader and composer, he quickly became a highly sought-after sideman.  A year later, on July 5, 1994, Allmond returned to the San Francisco Bay Area to perform at the famous Nightclub, Yoshi’s.

“Hearing this lovely music now, with a distance of three decades and 3,000 miles, I’m grateful.  Grateful I grew up in the SF Bay Area, where an incredible public school music program allowed me to fall in love with jazz,” Peck Allmond wrote in his album liner notes.

This magnificent tribute to the straight-ahead jazz of the 1990s opens with Peck Allmond flying through the changes of the Sonny Rollins tune, “Tenor Madness” quick as a 747-jet plane.  Ed Kelly takes a spirited piano solo.  Ed was a highly respected musician on the Bay Area jazz scene who performed with Pharoah Sanders, Bobby Hutcherson, John Handy and many other iconic names.

“Ed Kelly was … a mentor. He, of course, is one of the giants of Bay Area jazz; true royalty. I had been listening to him since high school.  When he began hiring me a lot around 1987, I felt unready to play with him.  But he was patient.  Playing with him and just hearing him each night was a masterclass,” Peck Allmond recalled.

The band is inspired by Allmond at the lead and the able drums of Bud Spangler.  Spangler made his debut in Detroit, Michigan first, as a radio personality and music producer.  He added musician to those credits, playing and producing for such labels as Strata Records and Tribe Records.  In the Bay area, Bud Spangler continued his radio career at both KJAZ and later, KCSM radio as a disc jockey, producer and engineer. Spangler produced several Grammy-nominated recordings, including work with Shirley Horn, Denise Perrier, Mimi Fox, Ed Reed, Mary Stallings, Cedar Walton and more.  His drum talents are a welcome addition to the swing and straight-ahead spirit of this music. 

The bass solo on “Like Someone in Love” showcases John Wiitala’s awesome creativity and talent. John was a member of Peck’s regular working band for years.  There is a special camaraderie and comfort between the two.  Wiitala has also performed with James Moody, Jessica Williams, Arturo Sandoval and Joe Henderson to list only a few.  Peck’s solo on this tune, as well as all the others, is clever and hard-bop to the bone.  Allmond weaves in a piece of “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” seamlessly.  Listen for it. When the band silences, to let Ed Kelly soak up the spotlight, he mesmerizes me and the ‘live’ audience with his solo piano brilliance.  This band is smokin’ hot!  Everything on this album is dynamically played and soulfully infused with each musician’s raw emotions.  For example, their interpretation of the blues ballad, “I’m confessin’ (that I Love You)” with Allmond’s sexy saxophone caressing our ears, hearts and minds is impressive.  Wiitala’s upright bass dancing beneath the mix in the sweetest way.  At the second half of this tune, Allmond picks up his trumpet and blows our minds with his brilliant talent on this horn too. I am totally entertained by the follow-up of Ed Kelly’s solo piano arrangement on “Moment’s Notice” and the group’s unique interpretation of the familiar tune “Invitation.”  This is an album of music I will play over and over again.  What a sparkling, historic gem for any jazz collection!

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NYO JAZZ – “WE’RE STILL HERE” – Carnegie Hall Weill Music Institute

Sean Jones, Artistic Director/trumpeter/bandleader; Melissa Aldana, tenor saxophone; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; RHYTHM: Tyler Bullock II & Hannah Mayer, piano; Kai Burns, guitar; Aidan McCarthy & Ryoma Takenaga, bass; Colman Burks & Koleby Royston, drums. REEDS: Ebban Dorsey, Alto & baritone saxophones; Connor MacLeod, alto saxophone/flute; Emre Tekmen, alto saxophone; Ephraim Dorsey & Matthew Garcia, tenor saxophone; Noa Zebley, baritone saxophone. TROMBONES: Braxton Hart, Denali Kauffman, Oliver Tuttle, Kenji Wagner & Darien Baldwin, bass trombone. TRUMPETS: Cameron Davidson, Kellin Hanas, Nathan King, Levi Rozek, Ace Williams & Jonah Hieb, trumpet/flugelhorn. Gianna Pedregon, violin.

“The big band has always been America’s orchestral format and one of the most wide-ranging ensembles ever devised,” said Artistic Director and bandleader of NYO Jazz, Sean Jones.

Here is a rich, swinging basket full of original tunes and delicious arrangements performed by NYO Jazz (an extension of the National youth Orchestra) in all their big band beauty.  Opening with a Miguel Zenón composition entitled, “Oyelo” this group of outstanding music makers lets us know, right off the bat, that they are not only still here representing big bands, but they are swinging as hard as ever.  The energized Zenón composition features Melissa Aldana on tenor saxophone, singing her song atop the ever-spirited drums of Colman Burks and a horn section that swells and fills the piece with energy.  Kenji Wagner is featured on a notable trombone solo and Jonah Hieb adds his sweet trumpet talents to the mix.  Track #2, “Mr. Jones and Co.” was commissioned by Carnegie Hall and composed by Ayn Inserto.  It moves like the fast-pasted Pennsylvania turnpike, with the horns hitting their harmonic, hard-bop chords with precision and gusto.  The curtains part and Sean Jones steps out front featuring his exciting trumpet solo.  It is with the Sean Jones leadership that NYO is showcasing the astonishing potential of these super talented, young musicians; many who are only between sixteen to nineteen years old.  These special, youthful talents will soon find themselves touring and carrying the ever-evolving tradition of big band jazz around the world. Their goal is to impart knowledge and the pride of playing jazz, a music that is America’s indigenous musical artform.  Sean Jones realizes it is up to those who have come before these young people, to inspire and help them climb securely upon the shoulders of jazz veterans like himself.

“I try to make sure that the students bring their whole selves to jazz – – their minds, bodies, souls, spirits; so that they can offer the best versions of themselves in the music. Jazz is ultimately about individualism. I try to make sure they are being themselves, while respecting the tradition of jazz … making sure it is preserved for generations to come,” Sean explains some of his technique.

Under the direction of Jones and sometimes joined by Dianne Reeves and Kurt Elling, the NYO (launched in 2018) has already toured Europe.  These gifted students have already performed in some of Europe’s most prestigious concert halls and festivals. They’ve also toured Asia, debuting their big band jazz in Taichung, Beijing, Shanghai, Zhuhai and Hong Kong.  Their energy and enthusiasm are contagious.  When you listen to this album, you will not think that these are students of jazz.  They sound seasoned and confident.  The title tune, penned by the iconic trombonist, Wycliffe Gordon, is expressive.  It includes orchestra, vocal participation as Wycliffe prods and inspires the band to repeat after him on this Mardi Gras influenced music.  Music that makes you want to dance and shout. The “Hambone-hambone, have you heard” line is offered by the horns.  Then Wycliffe sings out and the voices repeat after him, letting the listeners know (with syncopated handclaps and a band that swings hard) this NYO Jazz group means it when they say, “We’re Here to Stay!”

Below is a video of the NYO Jazz performing the great Ralph Peterson piece “The Art of War.”  See for yourself why I’m so excited about this magnificent organization.

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JOHN LEE – “THE ARTIST” – Cellar Music

John Lee, bass/composer; Carl Allen, drums; Miles Black, piano; Cory Weeds, tenor saxophone.

Bassist John Lee is an in-demand player on the Vancouver, Canada jazz scene.  South Korea born, John Lee has established himself as a respected multi-instrumentalist in his Canadian community and beyond.  It was time for him to record an album.  He questioned himself about which instrument to choose and showcase on his debut recording project, because he is a master of many instruments.  Lee plays not only double bass but is quite proficient on drums, piano, organ and guitar.

“I’ve never considered any instrument to be my main instrument.  So, it was very difficult to choose what I would play on my first record,” he admitted in his press package.

Only twenty-eight years old, John Lee demonstrates a musicality and talent far beyond his nearly three decades on this earth.  He is sensitive and creative on the bass, while also proffering his composer skills and arranging strengths for our consumption.  The result is an album that is both delicious, refreshing and delightful.

Surrounded by brilliant sidemen, who are also independent artists in their own rights, the group opens with Mulgrew Miller’s “Soul Leo” tune.  John Lee’s acoustic bass sets the groove with Carl Allen joining him on drums.  This tune is the whistle that sets the quartet off and running.  They are competent and straight-ahead.  Cory Weeds races around on his tenor saxophone.  Weeds is a frequent collaborator with John Lee and also a respected mentor. He appears on only three of the eight songs recorded.   Miles Black brings brilliance to the party, his piano notes dancing like confetti sprinkled around my listening room.  John Lee takes a big, beautiful, but brief, bass solo and also closes the tune out soloing.  His music reminds me of a guest leaving the party feeling happy and fulfilled.  Track #2 is “Carl’s Blues” and spotlights the power and drive of Miles Black at the piano.  Carl Allen is fluid and driving on the drums, a percussive inspiration, continuously inspiring his fellow players.  He solos brightly during this trio track and, for our listening pleasure, let’s his awesome talents soar. I can see that John Lee relishes hard bop, swing and straight-ahead jazz in a most obvious way.  His music infuses me with energy and joyful feelings.  Each one of these players is absolutely and uniquely gifted. They make this project one that thrills and satisfies the listener.  I enjoyed the blues tones they added to “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise.”

“The musicians I chose to play with me all understand where I am coming from musically and not much had to be worked out in the studio.  We just went in and swung our asses off,” John Lee boasted.

I absolutely agree with him!  This quartet swings non-stop.  When they do take a breath, for instance, on the composition “Life is a Beautiful Thing” (an original song by John) their tenderness and attentiveness to detail and each other touches me like a warm hug.  John Lee is given an opening solo to establish the lovely melody and then hands the torch to Miles Black.  His sensual approach to this John Lee composition is admirable.  However, it’s the sweet and very poignant solo of Lee’s double bass that sings this well-written melody into my heart.  The trio is swinging again on one of my favorite tunes, “September in the Rain.”  Carl Allen’s drum licks sound like rhythmic raindrops on a tin roof and Miles Black is stormy and succinct on piano.  When John Lee enters to sing his solo, his bass becomes sunshine after the storm.  The title tune, “The Artist” is a great way to describe this multi-talented musician.  John Lee’s album introduces us to a young man on the rise.  Like a many-faceted diamond, Lee is bound to show us his multi-musical sides (on this project and those in the future) shiny and sparkling inside a jazz universe that eagerly awaits his promise.

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FELIPE SALLES – “TIYO’S SONGS OF LIFE” – Tapestry Records

Felipe Salles, tenor saxophone/arranger; Zaccai Curtis, piano; Avery Sharpe, bass; Jonathan Barber, drums. Tiyo Attallah Salah-El has written every composition.

It takes strength and determination to be imprisoned without the possibility of parole, and to still develop a creative outlet while keeping your self-respect. The late saxophonist, Tiyo Attallah Salah-El managed to become a prolific composer, author and activist while serving a life-long sentence inside a Pennsylvania State prison. He spent nearly half a century incarcerated before dying in 2018. Somehow, with the efforts and determination of a prison abolitionist named Lois Ahrens, today we can hear Salah-El’s music.  Ms. Ahrens is the founder of the Real Cost of Prisons Project and they provided blank sheets of music paper to Mr. Salah-El in 2005.  The composer quickly reciprocated by filling those blank sheets with his original compositions. 

Now, thanks to the talented tenor saxophonist and arranger, Felipe Salles, with Zaccai Curtis on the piano, Avery Sharpe on bass and Jonathan Barber stroking the drums, the music of Tiyo Attallah Salah-El is available today for public ears.  This is an album of extraordinary music, personifying straight-ahead jazz.  This quartet of musicians brings the composer’s work to life in a brilliant way. 

Starting with “Toetappin’ Tastey,” this composition is seven minutes and six seconds of a hard swinging jazz waltz.  Avery Sharpe walks his double bass into the spotlight, singing his creative solo until Zaccai Curtis takes over on piano.  Jonathan Barber’s powerful drums hold the piece rhythmically in place.  On Track #2, a “Blues to Change Your Views – On Stage in a Cage” we hear music that embraces bebop and offers the listener a well-written, sing-along melody. Salles is brilliant on tenor saxophone, establishing the melody and stretching out with his own unique improvisations on the theme.  The quartet swings harder than a Joe Louis punch. 

“When Lois contacted me, out of the blue, what interested me was the opportunity to make a musical connection to things that I actually cared about that were not necessarily musical.  We refer to incarceration as a correctional system, but it’s really just a punishment system, one that doesn’t treat people with dignity,” Felipe Salles expressed in his press package. 

“The system is so distorted that it becomes very difficult for anybody to succeed in being reformed.  So, prison just becomes a place where people rot and get worse and worse,” Salles concluded.

In the case of “Tiyo’s Songs of Life,” this composer was not the average prisoner.  He never gave up and the prison system did not break him.  His music is extraordinarily potent, with original songs that sound like jazz standards and titles that reflect hope, love and fortitude. Felipe Salles, a native of Sao Paulo, Brazil, uses his tenor saxophone to interpret these songs with sincere emotion and tenacious talent.  “Steppin’ Up” is arranged in a Latin format and “Live a Life of Love” recalls the days of John Coltrane’s inspired music at the arrangement’s introduction.  “My Love is Deep Inside” was composed for Lois Ahrens and it’s a lovely ballad.  On the tune “12 in 5” Avery Sharpe is brightly featured on bass and the ensemble challenges us to count the time.  This production is full of surprises and the arrangements by Salles are inventive and entertaining.

Felipe Salles is a professor of Jazz and African-American Music Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  He has been teaching there since 2010. Salles is also an active musician with his musical credits embracing a long list of major names who he has played or recorded with since 1995.  Salles has released eight critically acclaimed recordings as a bandleader. I found his ambitious CD/DVD set titled, “The New Immigrant Experience” to be groundbreaking and inspiring. That work took on an activist tone and dealt with the topic of immigration, employing an explosive big band to interpret the topic. Lois Ahrens made a wise choice sharing Tiyo’s song charts and original music with Felipe’s magnificent quartet.  These four gentlemen have certainly honored the spirit and artistic brilliance of Salah-El’s music.

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KALI RODRIGUEZ-PEÑA – “MÉLANGE” – TRRcollective

Kali Rodriguez-Peña, trumpet/composer/arranger; Gabriel Chakarji, piano/keyboards/Fender Rhodes; Bam Bam Rodriguez, acoustic & electric bass; Zack O’Farrill, drums; Victor Pablo Garcia, congas/barril/percussion; Kazemde George, tenor saxophone. SPECIAL GUESTS: Gina D’Soto & Jeremy Bosch, vocals/ Aruan Ortiz, piano.

Cuban born trumpeter, Kali Rodriguez-Peña, showcases his composer talents during this beautifully produced Straight-ahead jazz album.  His passion and tenacity fuel this project.  His power-driven group opens this album with a Wayne Shorter tune, “Yes or No.”  These musicians come out the gate like Kentucky Derby racehorses.  Track #2 reminds me of the music of Thelonious Monk combined with something Charles Mingus might compose.  It is an original composition by Kali titled, “A Student is Not a Disciple.”  Kali Rodriguez-Peña, currently based in the New York City area, has been polishing this band for the past five years.  The title of his album, “Mélange” is a French word for ‘mixture’ and Kali feels it succinctly describes his music, drawn from bebop and post-pop, Cuban timba, salsa and rumba and the world music of India and the Caribbean.

“They say most people listen to music today – the playlist – is a mélange of different albums and artists,” explains Kali. “I call it 21st century music, millennial music or playlist mode music,” he says.

As I soak up Kali’s music, the arrangements of his original tunes stretch the boundaries of just Straight-ahead into the freedom of modern jazz.  On his “La Historia de Erendira” composition, Kali’s beautiful trumpet playing takes the spotlight.  This song is full of energy and ebullience, inspired by Kali’s wonderful mastery of his instrument.  When he hands over the solo position to Gabriel Chakarji, on piano, he offers us a moment of brilliance and energy-driven improvisation.  On the traditional tune, “Drum Mobila,” I enjoy the lead vocals of Gina D’Soto singing in Spanish with Kali Rodriguez-Peña tastily interjecting his trumpet voice into the mix.  It’s as though Gina and Kali are having a serious and very personal conversation. This arrangement is hypnotic. On the familiar standard, “Like Someone in Love” Kali offers a very Cuban musical take on this arrangement, with a hot, percussive, double-time drive and Kazemde George sings his tenor saxophone song atop the rhythmic joy.   Chakarji’s piano solo cools the heat, but never lessens the energy.

Kali Rodriguez-Peña is a fresh voice on the jazz horizon, beaming like an orange and gold sunrise and promising us new music, fresh ideas and determined excellence.

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PLANET D NONET – “LIVE AT THE SCARAB CLUB: TRIBUTE TO BUDDY JOHNSON” – Eastlawn Records

Michael Zaporski, piano; Matt LoRusso, guitar; Shannon Wade, string bass; RJ Spangler, drums/bandleader/background vocals/announcer; Justin Jozwiak, alto saxophone; Jim Holden, tenor saxophone/musical director; Goode Wyche III, baritone saxophone; James O’Donnell, 1st trumpet/co-leader/background vocals; Charlie Miller, trumpet; Tbone Paxton, trombone/lead vocals; Camille Price & Leonard King, vocals.

One ‘swinging’ afternoon in Detroit, Michigan, at the Scarab Club, drummer RJ Spangler led an all-star band of Motown musicians in a ‘live’ performance concert.  The thing that made this concert so unique was that the group, “Planet D Nonet” was performing songs by 1940’s popular pianist, singer, songwriter and big band leader, Buddy Johnson.  It was 2018 when this album became a tribute to Buddy Johnson as these musicians recorded sixteen of his original tunes.  These songs were radio and dance hall favorites back-in-the-day.  Buddy Johnson was popular during the evolution of rock and roll, a music that borrowed from rhythm and blues.  Johnson’s music was a bridge between original R&B and the new rock music that became popular in the 1960s.  He employed big band jazz harmonics, swing and shuffle rhythms, along with catchy lyrics that please enthusiastic audiences and dancers alike. 

Planet D Nonet has contracted Camile Price, Leonard King and Tbone Paxton to sing some of these lyrics that helped make Buddy Johnson’s songs so popular.  The trumpet of James O’Donnell invites the first song, “South Main” to shuffle into the Scarab Ballroom.  The horns are arranged in a 1940 big-band-way and encourage swing dancers to the dance floor.  Michael Zaporski has a light, melodic touch on the piano and Shannon Wade makes a brief, but impressive double bass solo statement.  “Dr. Jive Jives” is a slow swing tune with bandleader and drummer, RJ Spangler, egging the ensemble on with his powerhouse ‘two and four’ rhythm.  The horns swing too, giving us a familiar, repeatable melody to sing along with.  Johnson’s music always offered his fans music they felt comfortable humming along with; melodies they could enjoy.  You clearly hear this in “Hello Sweet Potato” with vocals by Tbone Paxton.  In the 1940s, this was the popular and commercial music of the day.  You hear the boogie-woogie infused arrangement of “Walk ‘Em” next.  It features the guitar of Matt LoRusso with a warm, tight-knit horn section.  Goode Wyche III plays a spirited baritone saxophone solo on “Crazy ‘Bout a Saxophone” and the tune is just plain fun!  There’s a chorus of voices shouting, “Go – go – go” that the audience enjoys, shown by their loud, spontaneous applause.  Track #7, “Lil Dog” is a finger-snappin’, hand-clapping arrangement by Matt LoRusso and we get a generous taste of the blues on Buddy Johnson’s tune “Root Man Blues.”  It’s sung with emotional sincerity by Leonard King.   

This project is a wonderful, historic tribute to the talent and legacy of Buddy Johnson.  Although it is not ‘Straight-ahead’ jazz, Buddy’s music is a bridge between the 1930’s speakeasy jazz and the 1940’s rhythm and blues scene.  It’s what was happening just as Charlie Parker’s career was taking off, before Straight-ahead jazz was brought vividly to the public’s attention.  Things began to change after those trail-blazing arrangement Parker made to the tune “Cherokee” and I would say bebop developed and then Straight-ahead jazz.  Buddy Johnson came after speakeasies, when jazz was blossoming and just before bebop transformed and Straight-ahead was born.

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