SEARCHING THE SPIRITUAL SIDE OF JAZZ

By Dee Dee McNeil

July 1, 2022

ALEXANDER SMALLS – “LET US BREAK BREAD TOGETHER” – SmallHouseProductions/Outside In Music

Alexander Smalls, vocals; Joseph Joubert, piano/Hammond B3 organ; Cyrus Chestnut, piano/B3 Hammond organ; Kevin Hays, piano/Fender Rhodes; Reuben Rogers & Ben Williams, upright & electric bass; Ulysses Owens jr., drums/percussion/co-producer; John Ellis, tenor & soprano saxophone/bass clarinet.

A deep spiritual bass line opens the song, “Wade in the Water” until Alexander Small’s emotional, baritone voice takes stage center.  His vocals are rich and remind me of the ferocious male choir soloists I heard in church; the ones who sang spiritual tunes with gusto, love and power; the ones who had backgrounds in operatic singing.

The second and third tracks feature instrumentals. They highlight the outstanding musicians on this recording, who make the music shine. One of my favorite tunes by Sonny Rollins is “St. Thomas.”  The band has arranged this jazz standard with joy and tenacious energy; first featuring a solo by Kevin Hayes on piano and then Ben Williams on bass.  John Ellis sings his reed song on saxophone and Ulysses Owens Jr., takes a spirited solo on drums.  They follow this with the familiar “Watermelon Man” composition by Herbie Hancock. John Ellis makes a thrilling bass clarinet appearance on “God Bless the Child.” Cyrus Chestnut is featured pianist on this recording and has added his original composition, “Rent Party” as a delightful solo piano piece.

The artist and vocalist, Alexander Smalls, was once a highly respected opera singer. In 1977, he gained international attention, winning a Tony Award and a Grammy for his contributions to the Houston Grand Opera cast that recorded “Porgy and Bess.” Then, his life journey suddenly turned up a path towards becoming a culinary artist.  His love of spiritual music perhaps inspired the title of this album (Let Us Break Bread Together) and also reflects his transformation into the professional world of cooking.  Today, he is celebrated as a renowned chef.  Consequently, this inspired project embraces jazz as a spiritual bridge between Alexander’s love of cuisine and his vocal interpretation of spiritual music.  When he sings, “Let Us Break Bread Together” it is both a prayer and an offer to share the intimacy of both his music and a meal. He makes it comfortable to take a seat at his musical table. 

Small’s rendition of the traditional spiritual “Hush” is beautifully delivered, as is “Poor Little Jesus” with the piano accompaniment of Kevin Hayes tasty and creative.  Ben Williams provides a stunning bass background during the spoken word of Alexander Smalls as he recites the Langston Hughes poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”

“Think about the richness of a melody,” Smalls encourages our introspection. “Think about how a melody starts in one’s soul, one’s mind, one’s spirit. People bring these extraordinary sounds sometimes from the depths of who they are,” the artist explains.

Surely Mr. Alexander Smalls has done just that; pulled from the depths of his own soul, exhibiting infectious emotion and talent during this presentation. He shares his spiritual experience with us and inspires the listener with both this spiritual recording and his formidable voice.

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BRIAN LANDRUS – “RED LIST” – Palmetto Records

Brian Landrus, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet/flute/alto flute/bass flute; Nir Felder, guitar; Geoffrey Keezer, Fender Rhodes/organ/piano/synthesizers; Lonnie Plaxico, electric & acoustic bass; John Hadfield, percussion; Rudy Royston, drums; Jaleel Shaw, alto saxophone; Ron Blake, tenor saxophone; Steve Roach, trumpet/flugelhorn; Ryan Keberle, trombone; Corey King, vocals.

Often times, music is used as a method of calling attention to some cause or life challenge.  Baritone saxophonist, reed master and bass clarinet player, Brian Landrus, has composed and arranged fifteen tunes dedicated to the preservation of some of our endangered, Earth creatures. This is Brian’s eleventh album released as a bandleader. It reflects his spiritual connection to earth and the animal kingdom in a warm, jazzy way.

“I’ve been an animal lover since I was a little kid.  I recently began researching the many endangered species on our planet.  It broke my heart to learn that there are only eight vaquitas, sixty-seven Javan rhinos and fewer than 850 mountain gorillas left on earth. Spreading awareness of this tragic global situation is part of the impetus for this album,” Landrus explains in his press package.

Each composition title exemplifies this purposeful album of music.  Landrus opens with “Canopy of Trees” that has a very orchestrated, smooth-jazz feel.  You can picture a forest of green, with the Landrus horn becoming the prowling creature beneath the lush canopy. On the title tune, “Red List” John Hadfield’s driving percussion energy fuels the arrangement, along with Rudy Royston on drums. Landrus delivers strong melodies and arranges the horns with tight harmonies that balloon the music like helium. The small ensemble sounds much bigger than it is and lifts me.  As I listen to the “Giant Panda,” composition, tenderly featuring a delightful Landrus bass clarinet solo, or “Tigris” pumping us up with a bright tempo and featuring the beautiful guitar talent of Nir Felder, the composer transmits the beauty and importance of protecting all life on earth with his music. He gives us a taste of his flute talents on “The Distant Deeps” and features the warm, husky vocals of Corey King.  I note that His arrangements exhibit the diversity of genres, embracing Straight-ahead jazz in some parts, (especially when Landrus is soloing) blending in easy-listening horn arrangements to buoy the tracks, along with smooth jazz grooves. For example, when he arranged “Save the Elephants” the jazz arrangement embraces a reggae beat. As I soak up this music, my imagination conjures up the elephant families lumbering along towards a drinking pond. Brian Landrus offers us music that is much like life itself, multi-faceted, colorful, uniquely different and beautiful. 

When he’s not composing or recording, Brian Landrus has taken his saxophone talents on the road with other jazz acts such as Esperanza Spalding, Fred Hersch, Billy Hart, George Garzone, the Maria Schneider Orchestra and his mentor Bob Brookmeyer. Landrus is not only a multi-talented musician who has mastered several reed instruments, but he’s adept at various musical genres.  Brain has toured with national pop acts like The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Coasters, The Drifters and Martha Reeves.  He holds a doctorate from Rutgers University and is currently on faculty at the School of Music, California State University Sacramento.

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JAKE LECKIE – “THE GUIDE” – Ropeadope Records

Jake Leckie, double bass; Nadav Peled, acoustic guitar; Elizabeth Goodfellow, drums.

“The Guide” is an acoustic folk-jazz trio with bandleader Jake Leckie at the helm on upright bass.  They open this recording with the title tune, bathed in the blues and slowly unfolding like a lyrical love ballad. Track two is titled “Patience” and features Nadav Peled on his acoustic guitar, dancing across the strings like an acrobat.  All eight of these compositions are composed by Jake Leckie and were recorded old school, on 2-track analog tape. They used no headphones, no isolation booths or overdubs.  This is live music that’s interactive, creative and improvisational.  This trio of musicians play spontaneously. On the “Patience” tune, Elizabeth Goodfellow is given a platform to shine on her trap drums.  This recording celebrates organic, acoustic music, along with creative compositions that are melodic and pleasant to the ear, like the tune “A Thing of Beauty.”  Track #6, “The Good Doctor” allows Jake Leckie to step out front and explore his rich, deep, double bass instrument.  This is a very Latin sounding composition.  The guitar is drenched in Spanish-sounding lyricism.  I wish the drummer had double-timed the rhythm to lift the arrangement and to move away from the same kind of tempo as the songs before this one.  A Samba or Cha Cha groove would have enhanced this well-written, original song, and would have accentuated the unexpected but tasty breaks in Jake’s arrangement.  A fresh, Afro-Cuban 6/8 rhythm dancing beneath Leckie’s bass solo could have been brilliant.  What I found missing in some of these songs was ‘the groove’ that my listening ears kept longing to hear.  The tune, “Adobe” finally slams into a funk groove with Leckie walking his upright bass and Goodfellow slapping the swing into place. Leckie’s composer skills are continuously impressive. The final tune could have been a real show-stopper with its up-tempo racy speed and strong jazz changes.  A spotlight is provided for Elizabeth Goodfellow to shine in, highlighting her drum skills.  However, the jazzy momentum and spiritual excitement that this composition inspires gets lost in the production.  I think a jazz drummer like the late, great Ralph Peterson, or like cutting edge female drummer, Terri Lyne Carrington or the iconic Jeff Hamilton could have elevated this project to a higher level.

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TOM COLLIER – “THE COLOR OF WOOD” – Summit Records

Tom Collier, vibraphone/marimbas.

Tom Collier has been heralded as “One of the best jazz vibraphonists on the planet” by Scott Mercado, a Modern Drummer Magazine contributor.  Collier offers us a solo album, exploring his talents and creativity on three different marimbas; a 1948 Musser Canterbury marimba, a Adams Soloist Model and a Yamaha Model 6100 marimba.  Each song unfolds, like the path amid a forest of tall trees.  His concept is warm and brown, “like the color of wood,” also the title of this album.  Beginning with five reflections on wood, he plays a suite of music that explores his talents as both a marimba player and a composer.

“Inspiration for ‘Five Reflections on Wood’ is based on art and activities from Ruthi Winter, Cindy Kelsey, Jim and Mary Burdett and Adelle Hermann Comfort. … and musical inspiration for over fifty-one years (and still counting) from my lovely wife, Cheryl,” Tom Collier expresses in his liner notes.

This artist shows how layering his marimba talents and expanding his solo horizons, demonstrates he can paint an album with the brilliant colors of a sunrise or capture the sounds of nature with his mallets.  When I listen to Tom Collier’s music, I see vivid images of raindrops kissing the petals of Bluebells and purple Irises.  He inspires me to look for stardust sprinkling down from the big dipper and his songs glimmer like moonglow in love-filled eyes, especially when he interprets Freddie Hubbard’s “Little Sunflower” composition.  With songs like the Hank Williams favorite, “I’m So Lonesome, I Could Cry” Collier reminds us that a well-written song crosses genres and can easily relax in the lovely arms of a jazz arrangement.  His original songs, like “Genesee” and “I Haven’t Seen the Rain” wrap the listener in a blanket of comfort and warmth. 

His song “Hopscotch” is happy and carefree, like a child jumping between the chalk lines on a city sidewalk. This is a musical tribute to the higher good in us all and the spiritual beauty that a master marimba player can bring to his instrument.  In so doing, he lifts us all to an elevated standard of peace, joy and happiness. 

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JOÃO LUIZ – “FROM SPAIN TO SAO PAULO” – Zoho Records

João Luiz, guitar: Sergio Abreu, 1997; Strings: Augustine Regal Blue.

I always have great admiration and respect for an artist who records an album of solo work.  In this case, not only is João Luiz performing solo, he is also covering famous, classical compositions and doing so displaying mastery on his classical Sergio Abreu guitar.  Sergio Abreu is a Brazilian guitarist and respected guitar maker. Almost all of this classical repertoire are originally written for guitar.  Although I rarely review classical music, this album was so striking and beautiful, I felt compelled to sing praise to the talents of Mr. Luiz.  Particularly since my article is titled “The Spiritual Side of Jazz” and surely this solo guitar music is sparked by spirit and jazz is inclusive of European classical music, along with Blues, American slave songs and the gift of improvisation. That is the one thing missing in this awesome recording; the beauty of improvisation.  In classical music, most of the time the pieces are played as written, without venturing off into improvisation.

This album opens with “Largo non Tanto, Op. 7” written by Fernando Sor, a nineteenth century Spanish composer.  João’s intimate interpretation of both this opus and the “Minueto Op. 25” that follows becomes a wonderful way to introduce us to his mastery of the guitar. The Luiz performance seems effortless and precise.  It is quite amazing to hear a solo guitarist perform with such sincerity and power, yet never echoing a squeak on the fretboard. This is the sign of a master musician. Guitar players will know exactly what I mean.  Some of these songs have been arranged by João Luiz, like “Serenata Espanola” that was composed originally for piano by Joaquin Malats, who was a Barcelona-based pianist.  João Luiz’s chords roll and the ascending lines are quite different from the original arrangement of this familiar classical composition. Perhaps there is a bit of jazz improvisation in this album.

Whether you are a jazz lover or an appreciator of classical music, here is a magnificent guitar presentation that celebrates music “From Spain to Sao Paulo” and pays homage to Spanish composers from the 19th and 20th century.   Two-time, Latin, Grammy-nominated guitarist, educator and composer, João Luiz, began to play the popular music of his native Brazil professionally during his childhood.  He was later trained in classical guitar by his mentor, Henrique Pinto. João’s interests include bridging Classical, Jazz, and Latin American music as a performer and composer.   João is equally at home with classical, Brazilian, jazz and world music. 

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DANA FITZSIMONS WITH BILL GRAHAM AND BRANDON BOONE – “FAULT LINES” – Independent Label

Dana Fitzsimons, drums; Bill Graham, piano; Brandon Boone, bass.

Dana Fitzsimons has been an ardent fan of free-style jazz for years.  Although he started out as a touring musician, the drummer soon had a young, growing family and decided to get his degree from William and Mary Law School. He then pursued a legal career.  However, Fitzsimons never discarded his love of music and today he is both a recording artist and a successful trusts and estates attorney. 

His trio includes two popular musicians who are mainstays on the Atlanta jazz scene.  Pianist Bill Graham has been teaching jazz, improvisation and composition for nearly fifteen years.  As a composer, he has contributed several songs to this album. Bassist, Brandon Boone is a touring musician with both Colonel Bruce Hampton’s Band and the Tedeschi Trucks Band. 

“The music we wanted to make requires a lot of close listening and allowing the music to take you wherever it wants to go, untethered from strict ideas about time, form and harmony.  With all this freedom, it was important to me that the music still be rhythmic and lyrical so that the music invites the listener in, even for people who are not accustomed to free jazz,” Dana Fitzsimons explained his musical concept.

“Slant Anagrams” is the opening track of this project.  It was composed by Bill Graham and is a sort of tribute piece to the iconic Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett and Paul Motian.  It’s the most Straight-ahead jazz track on the Fitzsimons album.  Rodgers and Hart’s famed “Where or When” tune is the only standard they cover.  The trio also plays the Joni Mitchell tune “Amelia.”  However, the other nine tunes were composed by either Graham or Fitzsimons. Track #3, titled “Crystals” was composed by all three musicians of the trio and it stretches imaginatively, each member contributing their own slice of creativity and improvisation.  The result is as sweet as a piece of fresh-baked pie.  “Ice Bridges Before Road” is dramatic and Graham plays with the upper register of the piano, using it to paint images of ice into the arrangement, along with the colorful drums of Fitzsimons.  With the exception of “Where or When”, arranged beautifully as a ballad with drifting tempos and legato movement; these pieces of music are more abstract than structured.  The musicians play off of one another, reacting and improvising generously during these free-form exchanges.  Their songs are like moods, changing and growing provocatively without structured charts to hold the music tightly in place.  Time and tempos change and flood into each other with tsunami-like strength or soft and whispery like hummingbird wings.  The music on Fault Lines is inventive, spiritual and strikingly free.  Like the California Fault Lines themselves, it may shake something loose inside you, without a warning, and with the unexpected power of an earthquake.

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SIMEON DAVIS GROUP -“NARRATIVES & NOCTURNES” – Outside In Music

Simeon Davis, Saxophone/Flute/Composer; Tyler Thomas & Rachel Azbell, vocals; Maria Wellmann & Alex Hand, guitars; Holly Holt, piano/keyboards; Jake Chaffee, Electric Bass; Josh Parker, drums; Aramis Fernandez, congas; Maxima Santana, trombone; Jonathan Shier, trumpet/flugelhorn; Jess Meadoer, violin.

This album is a collection of “Narratives and Nocturnes” brought to life by the Simeon Davis Group.  Exemplified by the titles of the Davis compositions, we are introduced to a cast of characters, places, moods and animals that live inside the mind of Simeon.  Opening with “The Diver” this arrangement is driven by a strong bass line and becomes part of a holistic storytelling experience that transcends genre norms.  The tune is structured more like a suite than a singular song.  It moves through moods and tempos like a restless bird exploring a foreign forest or perhaps a “Diver” searching through a ship wreckage beneath the sea.  There are lots of synthesizer accents and horn lines that leap and jump like notes on steroids.  In the same breath, there are some very beautiful parts to this arrangement that are soothing and melodic.  A voice accents the melody at the beginning and towards the end of the piece, singing wordlessly along with the instrumentation.  I am extremely impressed with the Davis composition, “Seven Come Wednesday” that recalls the brilliance of Chick Corea.  The addition of Tyler Thomas on vocals, singing throughout like a horn and the percussive brilliance of Aramis Fernandez coloring the arrangement along with the effective drumming of Josh Parker, turn this tune quickly into one of my favorites on this project.  The composition “Eden” features the sweet tenor voice of Tyler Thomas singing the melody in unison with the instrumentalists.  It explores the funk genre, with Parker’s drums slapping the groove into place and in your face. “Pleiades” uses handclaps and rhythm to propel the violin stage center. It’s a very lovely composition and continues to herald Simeon Davis as a gifted composer.  Holly Holt uses the piano to compliment and buoy the delicious violin solo by Jeff Meadoer.  I am absolutely captivated by the creativity and unique production that this Simeon Davis Band brings to his project. Simeon Davis lends several bars of his saxophone talent to this tune and “Pleiades” quickly becomes another one of my favorites. I listen to music all day, every day, but I’ve not heard something like this band in many moons. It’s refreshing! 

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CALEB WHEELER CURTIS – “HEATMAP” – Imani Records

Caleb Wheeler Curtis, alto & soprano saxophones/composer; Orrin Evans, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Gerald Cleaver, drums.

The title tune “Heatmap” is a reference to where the action is happening.  Curtis composed the music for “Heatmap” during an artist residency and retreat in 2021.  Perhaps it was the get-away inspiration, the natural splendor of nature surroundings or the solitude that inspired him to write these ten, amazing jazz tunes. The result of that retreat is formidable music.

“…I like music with space in it.  It’s easy to get wrapped up in the idea of throwing everything at the wall, which, in theory, sounds bigger and more confident.  But I wanted to appreciate the sound of the music in the air.  You can hear the detail in the playing and really hear the musicians as people.  And I’m working with three singular musicians whose playing has real weight,” Caleb explained.

Pianist, Orrin Evans, opens the title tune with a very classically colored introduction.  The thrust of Gerald Cleaver’s drumsticks pushes the arrangement forward and creates momentum.  Once the excitement has soared, Caleb Wheeler Curtis enters with an energetic and restless saxophone.  His solo is both melodic and innovative.  The group cools down with Track #2 titled, “Tossed Aside.”  Cleaver keeps the rhythm light and double-time, dancing beneath the melody like gently moving ocean waves, along with Eric Revis, perfectly in-step on bass.  This celebrated bassist has history with the pianist (Evans) and this musical relationship led Caleb Wheeler Curtis to Eric.  Prior to meeting Caleb, Revis played with Luques Curtis his Brother, recording on his CD. After that, Revis expressed interest in working with this saxophonist and artist. They are a good match.

There is freedom and fluidity throughout this album of original Caleb Wheeler Curtis music.  He allows his bandmates to dance on the chord changes, like acrobats at the circus, swinging from one bar to the next in perfect precision and astounding us with their various twists and turns.  For example, on “Limestone” the Curtis saxophone tumbles over the rolling drums of Cleaver in staccato reed notes and streams of improvisation.  His soprano sax sounds almost flute-like on “Trees for the Forest,” a ballad where Caleb and Orrin (on piano) duet quietly out-front. Cleaver percussively colors in the background and Eric’s bass falls like dark, green leaves on a forest floor. “Trembling” leaps into a speedy tempo, with four musicians racing around the CD like cars on a track. Caleb’s saxophone ‘cuts time’ on top of the energy. The music of Caleb Wheeler Curtis takes you on an adventure. This production is an unexpected rocket ship ride.  Just give yourself to the music and watch the universe explode with promise.

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