JAZZ IS AN OPEN WINDOW TO CHANGE

By Dee Dee McNeil

August 6, 2022

One thing I know about jazz, it’s respected and revered all over the world.  It’s our sacred American folk music, created by African Americans and embraced by all cultures who appreciate the concept of pure art and freedom. The albums I have reviewed for this column, each in their own unique way, musically reverberate this notion.

MIGUEL ZENÓN – “MUSICA DE LAS AMERICAS – Miel Music

Miguel Zenón, alto saxophone/composer; Luis Perdomo, piano; Hans Glawischnig, bass; Henry Cole, drums; Emil Martinez, Edwin ‘Wechin’ Avilés, Joshuan Ocasio, Joseph Ocasio & Jeyluix Ocasio, Panderos/percussion/vocals; Paoli Mejias, percussion; Victor Emmanuelli, Barril de Bomba; Daniel Diaz, congas.

Because of this renowned saxophonists’ deep love of music, geography and history, Miguel Zenón has often wondered what the Americas, post-colonization, were like?  What did this part of the world look like before 1491?  Who lived here and how did they arrive on these lands?  His album pays tribute to that concept. Best known for his ability to blend and enhance American jazz with modernism, soaked in folk and traditional Puerto Rican music, this new music is meant to reflect Americas various cultures and their encounters with European colonists.  Often, the tunes seem to portray two instruments sparring with each other. This is extremely evident on “Opresion y Revolucion.”  The percussive excitement is palpable throughout this album.

On the opening tune, “Tainos y Caribes,” Luis Perdomo’s piano solo is fluid and energy driven. Henry Cole’s drums are an amazing source of spirit and drive as Perdomo’s fingers race up and down the 88-keys. Miguel Zenón is inspired on his alto saxophone.  The melody unfolds, rolling like a rich red carpet down the jazz improvisation path. There is the feel of native American Indian music playing beneath Miguel’s solo, beating like a tom-tom, expressed by the piano and bass.  Then Hans Glawischnig steps into the spotlight with his double bass, continuing that rhythmic mix of cultures. At the tune’s ending, Miguel Zenón’s saxophone is a bird, an arrow, a prayer whispering across a moonlit sky. 

“… two predominant societies, who were very different; the Tainos were a more passive agricultural society, while the Caribes were warriors who lived for conquest,” explains Zenón, who endeavors to capture the clashing of societies in this arrangement.

The Western exploitation of South America’s resources became Zenón’s inspiration for composing “Venas Abiertas.” He composed this song after reading the classic Eduardo Galeano’s “Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent.” This is told to us in the press package, but for this innocent listener’s ears, I only hear the complexity of the arrangement, the beauty of Miguel’s alto saxophone and the dynamic percussive contributions.

Victor Emmanuelli introduces us to Track #6 with his awesome ‘Barril de Bamba’ percussion solo. He really snatches my attention. The term ‘Bambula’ is a reference to a dance brought to American shores by African slaves. Over time, ‘Bambula’ became the term for a rhythm commonly called “habanera.”  It’s prominent in much of Latin American music today. 

“It’s a thread from New Orleans to Brazil to Central America, back to Africa and across all these eras from the past to contemporary pop,” Miquel Zenón teaches us with his music.

Six minutes into the song, he arranges a sultry, sexy ballad to step forward into the mix, giving us just a surprising minute of relief from the intense energy and then races back into the original tempo, carrying us along with the band on a musical train to outer limits. His alto saxophone ends the piece with a repetitive call to action, like a warning bell from the past, flashing red light signals to the dangerous and aggressive present.

As a multiple Grammy nominee and Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellow, Miguel Zenón is one of a select group of musicians.  His goal of blending the often-contradictory poles of jazz freedom, creativity and tradition is to be applauded.  Zenón’s unique voice, both as a composer and on his tenor saxophone, continue to startle our senses alive.  Miguel Zenón’s music awakens something deep within the soul and human spirit. He invites us to just sit still, listen, contemplate and be open to change.

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DENNIS MITCHELTREE – “GOLDEN RULE” – Dengor Music

Dennis Mitcheltree, tenor saxophone/composer; Johannes Wallmann, piano; Jesse Crawford, bass; Bill McClellan, drums.

Dennis Mitcheltree has composed all nine songs on his recent release and the quartet opens with a jazz waltz he wrote for his son “Tai.” It’s a pleasant listen. This is Mitcheltree’s sixth album as a bandleader. He has named Track #2 after the COVID virus.  It’s called “Omicron” and gives drummer Bill McClellan a platform to showcase his percussive skills. “Sarah” is a pretty but sad ballad, with an introduction by Johannes Wallmann’s piano.  Dennis Mitcheltree has a warm tone on his tenor saxophone. He reminds me a little bit of Stan Getz.  Mitcheltree delivers this “Sarah” tribute to his girlfriend in a very pensive way, coloring the sweet and interesting melody with saxophone tenderness.  One of my favorite tunes on this album is the Mitcheltree composition “Via Dance” where the quartet lays down a moderate swing in a very finger-snapping sway. 

His tune “Bling Tone” sounds like it’s based on the standard tune “If I Were A Bell” and becomes another vehicle to allow Mitcheltree to take flight with tenor saxophone improvisation. His “Golden Rule” album speaks directly to doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.  If people paid more attention to this one passage from the bible, it would quickly solve most of the world’s problems. Dennis Mitcheltree’s album is scheduled for an October 2022 release.

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  DAVE SLONAKER BIG BAND – “CONVERGENCY” – Origin Records

Dave Slonaker, composer/arranger/bandleader; Larry Koonse, guitar; Ed Czach, piano; Edwin Livingston, bass; Peter Erskine, drums; Brian Kilgore, percussion; REEDS: Bob Sheppard, alto & soprano  saxophones/flute; Brian Scanlon, alto & soprano saxophone/flute/clarinet; Rob Lockart, tenor saxophone/clarinet; Tom Luer, tenor saxophone/clarinet; Adam Schroeder & Jay Mason, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet; TRUMPET/FLUGELHORN: Wayne Bergeron, Dan Fornero, Ryan Deweese, Clay Jenkins & Ron Stout. TROMBONES: Alex Iles, Charlie Morillas, Ido Meshulam & Bill Reichenbach, bass trombone/tuba.

This album of quality music opens with what sounds like a country/western music gathering and then explodes into a rich, boisterous jazz big band arrangement. It’s the title tune of Dave Slonaker’s latest recording, “Convergency,” and it’s a wonderful way to open-up this impressive production. The horns dance and sway like curtains in the wind.  Then Adam Schroeder steps into the spotlight on baritone saxophone, shining bright as sunshine. The light touch of Ed Czach’s fingers across the piano keys gives a few seconds of sweet tension release, after the much-appreciated baritone sax solo.  The amazing Peter Erskine drum solo closes this piece out with finality and brilliance.

Here is an artistic production that celebrates big band beauty in an unforgettable way.  Part of the reason for this masterpiece are Dave Slonaker’s compositions and arrangements.  The other part of the brilliance is thanks to the A-list of Southern California jazz cats.  They bring their own mastery to the party, interpreting each of Slonaker’s original songs the way a diamond cutter polishes his stones. Just listen to Larry Koonse, on guitar, deliver his solo on “Uncommonly Ground” or Bob Sheppard fly around the chord changes of “Duelity” on his alto saxophone with mad improvisation, dueling with Stout’s trumpet interpretations.  Ron Stout’s trumpet brings out his own “Inner Voices” during this composition along with Rob Lockart’s tenor sax. The trumpet of Clay Jenkins takes “A Curve in the Road” and makes me feel like I’m riding with him in his sporty coupe, speeding down an open highway. Clay’s horn is expressive, fluid and creative.  When Tom Luer’s tenor kicks into the tune, it feels like that coupe I visualize just had a gear change. The harmonic horn parts blow like a hot summer breeze and Brian Scanlon’s alto saxophone infuses this piece with very cool tones. Once again, Erskine’s tumultuous drums infuse the arrangement with high energy and slap the ending into place like the screech of brakes. Slonaker’s “A Gathering Circle” was inspired by a visit to a Native American Indian village museum.  It’s meant to epitomize a meeting place where people gather and that idea of ‘coming together.’  In a nation that currently seems so polarized, Brian Scanlon’s soprano saxophone sings like a bird of peace. The guitar improvisation of Larry Koonse is warm and wonderful. I love the circular feel to the rhythm that reminds us of the American Indian culture and propels this piece throughout Slonaker’s entire arrangement. It’s one of my favorite tunes on this album.

Every original composition and each awesome arrangement by Dave Slonaker offer intrigue and surprise. Slonaker’s arrangements are well-written chapters of a musical book. Like any good novel, this album has me totally engaged. Each tune becomes another intriguing page for me to read, turn with great expectation, and enjoy.

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CALVIN KEYS – “BLUE KEYS” –  Wide Hive Records

Calvin Keys, guitar/composer; Henry Franklin, bass/composer; Scott Brown, bass; Mike Blakenship, piano/composer; Gregory Howe, organ/piano/percussion/composer; Mike Hughes & Thomas McCree, drums; Gary Bartz & Doug Rowan, saxophones; Mike Renta, trombone; Steve Turre, trombone/trumpet shells; Babatunde Lea, congas/percussion.

Calvin Keys always brings something fresh and creative to the studio. This album is no exception to that rule. I remember him from his music on Gene’s Black Jazz Record label. Calvin Keys has always been able to blend jazz with funk, strong R&B grooves with Straight-ahead power, and his extraordinary and unique guitar style.

The songs on this new album are inspired and the arrangements kept me entertained and surprised. That’s what jazz is about. Reinventing music with new perspectives. Opening with “Peregrines Dive,” the saxophone mimics a falcon winging its way across the skies. The music dips and dives, with the drums propelling the energy forward. Composed by Calvin Keys with co-writers, trombonist Mike Renta, piano man, Mike Blankenship, and the multi-talented Gregory Howe, this is a brilliant way to begin a musical escapade that celebrates various grooves, moods and genres. I would have enjoyed crediting each musician for their contributions, but there are multiple bass players, drummers and pianists listed on this wonderful album of original music. I can’t tell who is playing on which tune, thanks to the CD cover design. The fault lies with the album designer, and I might add, all those low-level blue tones on the cover make it impossible to see the artists and difficult to read their names on the CD cover. What a shame! And is Babatunde’s name misspelled? Despite this less-than-stellar design of the CD jacket, the music is spectacular. Track #2, “Ck 22” is an exciting and funk-based jazz tune with a prominent bass line that becomes the melodic backbone of the tune by Calvin Keys. “Ajafika” was written by Gregory Howe, and I love the way those drums and percussion parts color this creative music. Calvin adds his electronic guitar sounds to the mix, with an undercurrent of rock and roll. Still, this arrangement makes perfect sense, even though it’s not like anything I’ve really heard lately, and I listen to music every single day.  That’s a nod and a fist pump to the genius of Calvin Keys. Many of his band members are also composers and contribute to this project in a very positive way.  That blues guitar on “Making Rain” just thrilled me to the bone. Composed by Henry Franklin and Calvin Keys, these two expert musicians shine in a trio situation, with the drummer placing tasty licks of rhythm at all the appropriate places. The title tune is another blues, with Calvin Keys wailin’ on the guitar and the horn section moaning harmonically in the background.

It’s nice to have Calvin Keys back on the recording scene. For a short while, he had to lay low and recuperate after a quadruple bypass surgery on his heart, back in 1997. However, he quickly rebounded and was on the road again promoting his album ‘Detours into Unconscious Rhythms,’ another Wide Hive Records release.  Three other albums followed. In 2005 his ‘Calvinesque’ album climbed up the jazz charts and reached #30. Calvin Keys remains relevant and working in Northern California, where he is a teacher at the Oakland Public Conservatory (OPC) and Calvin also gives private lessons. This is a strong production of creative, original jazz music and creme-de-la-crème of seasoned jazz players.

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GLENN DICKSON – “WIDER THAN THE SKY” – Naftule’s Dream Recordings

Glenn Dickson, clarinet & live loops.

Glenn Dickson’s music sounds open and ethereal, like space itself.  His music personifies the title of this unusual recording where Dickson is playing his clarinet along with recorded loops and exploring the outer limits of his own creativity. He opens with “Introit” and his clarinet sounds like a flute, like a bird, like a Leprechaun dancing through Irish fields. He inspires my imagination.  His composition, “Gentle Touch” is music that is quite meditative.  With the use of electronics and over-dubbing on work by guitarist Robert Fripp, flautist, Paul Horn and various klezmer clarinetists, Glenn Dickson builds layers of music, as sweet as cake, letting his silky clarinet tones drip like icing over the melodic dessert.  His compositions sooth and relax me. On Track #4, “Memories Lost” I get the feelings that I’m floating in space, surrounded by galaxies and stars, moons and planets.  No wonder Glenn Dickson titled this work, “Wider Than the Sky.”  His music has a feeling of spaciousness.

As a bandleader and creative artist, Glenn Dickson has recorded albums, played major jazz festivals worldwide, played with the Philly Pops and on Woody Allen and Sidney Lumet’s movie soundtracks.  He has created award-winning collaborations with Maurice Sendak (i.e., “Pincus & the Pig”) and NPR’s Ellen Kushner’s (“The Golden Dreydl”).  As a composer he has received a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Grant.  Always looking for new and fresh ways to explore his instrument and his creativity, Dickson has toured with an eclectic rock band called Hypnotic Clambake and with Greek bands Revma and Taximi.  He uses his imagination to push the boundaries of jazz, blowing down the walls with his clarinet creativity. Glenn Dickson encourages us to think outside the perimeters that bind us.  He wants us to think “Wider Than the Sky.”

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STEVE KNIGHT – “PERSISTENCE” – Independent Label

Steve Knight, guitar/composer; Justin Peterson, bass; Jeff Stitley, drums.

Steve Knight is a Chicago-based guitarist and composer.  “Persistence” is the title of this, his debut album, and perhaps he says it all in the title.  Knight says it took him 18-COVID locked-down months to compose the opening track, “Suspects” but only twenty minutes to pen his composition, ”Real Type Things.”  He mused in his liner notes, that the tune seemed to write itself. The “Suspects” song is catchy and reminds me of Wes Montgomery’s “Tequila” hit record with his first few notes.  It soon melodically changes to offer us Knight’s own melodic path, but I can hear, in his playing, that he studied Montgomery’s guitar style. “Real Type Thing” is soaked in the blues, with Jeff Stitley pumping a funk drum lick underneath the arrangement to spur it forward. Justin Peterson, another respected Chicago jazz cat, takes a bass solo, but it’s Steve Knight’s bright guitar lines that carry this debut album into the new-artist spotlight.  His music is a mix of jazz and commercial viability. Steve Knight and his trio began working on this album during the pandemic shutdown, presenting weekly concerts from Knight’s backyard and later, their popularity inspired the city council to invite them to perform in the local park for the pleasure and appreciation of the neighborhood.

“I don’t like music that seems to be written just for other musicians.  A jazz guitarist is part poet and part athlete.  I think (George) Benson strikes the perfect balance.  He’s an incredible technician on the guitar, but his music is very accessible for a general audience,” Steve Knight explains his purposeful recording goal. 

Knight began to play guitar at twelve-years old.  He stepped off his skateboard and into music, when he became fascinated by a Sears electric guitar with a built-in, 9-volt powered amp.  He was encouraged to practice and dive into mastering his guitar chops when he was grounded by his parents for six long months.  Knight says it was a totally legitimate punishment, but the boring hours at home helped him to practice and improve his guitar playing. Knight attended  Emporia State University in Kansas and majored in theater.  But because he could play guitar and read music, he was soon invited to join the college orchestra and the school’s big band.  Always in search of artistic outlets, Steve Knight graduated college and worked in theater as a director.  He also became a professor who played jazz gigs on the side. He moved to New York City and before he could get his feet properly grounded in the Big Apple, Knight was hired by Carnival Cruise Lines to play in their dance and theater bands while sailing around the world. That’s a wonderful opportunity to tighten up your ‘chops.’ Once he planted his feet on solid ground again, Steve Knight began studying with guitar masters like Mark Sherman, Mark Whitfield and Jack Wilkins. Inspired by Herbie Hancock, George Benson, Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall and Grant Green, he enjoys teaching guitar, composing and performing.  He moved to Chicago, Ill in 2016 and joined their vibrant and demanding jazz scene.  His composition, “Chop Chop” reflects the excitement and fast tempo that Chicago always inspires.  It also showcases the technical tenacity of all three musicians, giving each one an opportunity to solo and strut their stuff. This is an enjoyable listen with the persistent spotlight shining brightly on Steve Knight and his guitar.

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FRANK KIMBROUGH – “LULLABLUEBYE, VOL. ONE”/”PLAY, VOL. TWO” – Palmetto Records

Frank Kimbrough, piano/composer; Ben Allison & Masa Kamaguchi, bass; Matt Wilson & Paul Motian, drums.

This is a tribute album that celebrates the life and musicianship of the late pianist and composer Frank Kimbrough, recorded in a trio setting.  Kimbrough unexpectedly passed away in December of 2020.  This is a compilation, double-set album that celebrates his art from 2003 through 2006. It’s a beautiful listen, featuring two different trios and Kimbrough’s exquisite composer skills.

“Everytime I play music it is a special occasion, especially when I’m playing with these gentlemen,” Frank Kimbrough once said about his choice of trio players.

You will hear Kimbrough’s comfort-level on these two CDs with his choice of two sets of bandmates.  His piano mastery is both subtle and melodic; thoughtful and creative.  Kimbrough is well-known for his 25-year tenure with the Maria Schneider Orchestra.  Soon after he arrived in New York City, during the early 1990s, Kimbrough and bassist, Ben Allison co-founded the Jazz Composers Collective. When Frank Kimbrough merged talents with the Herbie Nichols Project, that brought him to Palmetto Records and they recorded his 2001 album, “Strange City.”

Frank Kimbrough had the ability to present something that sounds quite simplistic in a rare and deeply intricate way. Take, for example, the title track of “Lullabluebye.” His composition is a 22-bar blues (not the eight or twelve-bar-blues you might expect) in the simplistic key of C.  But don’t get it twisted.  There is nothing simple about the way Kimbrough composes or arranges his music.  He just makes it sound easy.  This tune opens volume one of Kimbrough’s two-set CD and clearly introduces us to Frank Kimbrough, the pianist. I note that he is quite succinct with his musical ideas. I enjoy the way Ben Allison plays tag with Kimbrough’s piano, especially on the fade where they seem to be playfully chasing each other, using spontaneous improvisational lines. I enjoyed his composition “Centered” which is based on an augmented triad that he centered over the chord changes in various and unexpected ways. That may not mean much to you, if you aren’t a musician, but for layman ears this song sounds pensive and exploratory, perhaps like someone trying to find the center of themselves. His tune “Ode” is a tribute to Kimbrough’s friend and inspired musician, Andrew Hill. Kimbrough said this composition is based in perseverance and dignity, a high compliment to Mr. Hill. On the funk-based song “Eu Bu,” Matt Wilson is given an extended drum solo and the bass of Ben Allison is prominent, not only in the rhythm section but also as a featured instrument. Allison contributed one well-written, original song to this Vol. 1 titled simply, “Ben’s Tune.” 

On Volume Two, the disc is titled “Play.”  Track #2 is called “The Spins” and sounds like it was inspired by Thelonious Monk. It’s an uptempo waltz and Kimbrough says he wrote it in memory of Steve Lacy, but it’s very Monkish. On this second CD, Paul Motian’s drums propel the music forward and Masa Kamaguchi takes a significant bass solo during the track-two arrangement.

This is a lovely recording that musically memorializes the talented composer/pianist Frank Kimbrough. I will enjoy playing it again and again because of the peace and tranquility it exudes.

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GEOFFREY KEEZER & FRIENDS – “PLAYDATE” –  Markeez Records

Geoffrey Keezer, piano/composer/arranger; Shedrick Mitchell, Hammond B3 organ/composer; Ron Blake, tenor & soprano saxophones; Richie Goods, acoustic and electric basses; Kendrick Scott, drums; Munyungo Jackson, percussion; Nir Felder, guitar; Aayushi Karnick, guitar; Elizabeth Steiner, Harp; Rachel Drehmann, French horn. VIOLINS: Lady Jess (lead/ contractor); Sara Caswell, Claire Chan, JD Hunter, Hajnal Pivnic, Curtis Stewart, Tiffany Weiss, Orlando Wells. VIOLAS: Tia Allen, Andrew Griffin, Celia Hatton & Trevor New. CELLOS: Maria Jeffers, Sasha Ono & Zsaz Rutkowski.

A sweeping string section introduces us to Geoffrey Keezer’s first original tune called “Refuge.” When the horns enter, it becomes a full-fledged orchestra.  Then the spotlight moves to pinpoint Geoffrey Keezer, sitting at the piano.  It’s a thrilling moment. His piano solo changes the entire texture of the tune and puts the “J” in jazz.  Talk about ‘opening a window to change,’ in the first twenty-four bars of this song, Keezer and his amazing ensemble of musicians take us on a magic carpet ride. Fasten your seatbelt.  Keezer and friends cover all the nuances that you look for in jazz; melody, harmony, improvisation, surprise and technical skill.  It’s all here.

“I want there to be moments on this record that make you do a double take.  I want it to be unpredictable and exciting and fun to listen to,” Geoffrey Keezer shares.  

Well mission accomplished, Mr. Keezer!  When Shedrick Mitchell appears on his Hammond B3 organ, letting Ron Blake introduce him with a straight-ahead and inventive tenor solo, I am already captivated by the variations in this arrangement.  Aayushi Karnik continues the pleasant surprises with his fusion guitar solo and Munyungo Jackson adds percussive brilliance throughout, locked in with Kendrick Scott’s drums and fattening the rhythm.  This opening song was such a mind-blowing surprise that I had to play it twice.

Track #2, I.L.Y.B.D. is spurred by the blues and there is nothing I love more than an organ playing the blues. It reminds me of nights I spent sitting in Jimmy Smith’s historic club on the West Coast and soaking up his rot-gut, jazzy organ blues. Blake swings hard on saxophone and then Geoffrey Keezer enters. His technical and spiritual merge, like coffee and cream.  I just want to drink up his amazing talent.  I know that part of the title of this tune means “I Love You Because…” but what does the ‘D’ stand for?

Shedrick Mitchell has composed the very beautiful ballad, “Her Look, Her Touch.”  We get an opportunity to hear Geoffrey Keezer expand his ferocious talents in a slow and emotional way. Ron Blake’s interpretation on tenor is both tender and expressive. The ensemble’s interpretation of Quincy Jones’ hit record composed by the Johnson brothers and singer, songwriter Siedah Garrett is beautifully reinterpreted.  “Tomorrow” never sounded so good.

This album has Grammy written all over it.

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ROGER LEWIS “ALRIGHT!” Irresistible Revolutionary Records

Roger Lewis, alto/baritone/soprano/tenor saxophones; Herlin Riley, drums; Kirk Joseph, sousaphone; Don Paul, spoken word vocals; Erica Falls, singing vocals; Michael Torregano Jr., keyboards; Mario Abney, trumpet.

Roger Lewis first saw a saxophone in his cousin Alvin Bailey’s room, sticking out from under his bed. Curious, the young boy picked it up and tried it out; blew into it; examined it; ran his fingers along its length.  The instrument stirred something deep and emotional inside of Roger.  He began to craft saxophone shapes out of rolled-up newspapers. So began his infatuation with music.

Born October 5, 1941, Roger Lewis is in his eightieth year and still going strong.  He has dedicated sixty years to music and this is his debut album as a bandleader.  It’s stuffed with spirit, memories, poetry, ghosts of the past and hope for the future. Roger is playing all four saxophones to express himself.  He’s a native of New Orleans and his music reflects that soulful, Louisiana jazz legacy.  He toured with Eddie Bo and a plethora of bands. Roger started gigging around the New Orleans scene before he was seventeen. He worked with Deacon John and the Ivories.  As part of the DDBB, George Wein signed them to Concord Records and they travelled to Europe, moving from a lounge band to playing at the Montreux Jazz Festival. DDBB recorded four albums for Columbia from 1989 to 1992. Herlin Riley brings youth and excitement on his drums and the soothing voice of Don Paul on spoken word is an unexpected addition to the recording. I enjoyed the sensitive interaction of Don’s voice with Roger’s expressive saxophone improvisation. Roger Lewis has interwoven poetry, history and spirits into his horn-playing like knitting needles weaving a shawl.  His music covers us, warms us and surprises us with both its intensity and rawness.

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