By Dee Dee McNeil

AUGUST 22, 2022

AL FOSTER – “REFLECTIONS” – Smoke Sessions Records

Al Foster, drums/composer; Kevin Hays, piano/Fender Rhodes/composer; Vicente Archer, bass; Nicholas Payton, trumpet/composer; Chris Potter, tenor & soprano saxophones/composer.

Opening with the “T.S. Monk” tune composed by Al Foster, I am swept away by the beautiful harmonics of this arrangement and the hum-along melody.  It feels like I’m listening to an old familiar standard tune.  When Chris Potter enters on his tenor saxophone, his improvisations take us on a sweet journey. Nicholas Payton adds his own magic on trumpet and Kevin Hays is dynamite on piano.  But it’s the creative and every brilliant drums of Al Foster that make this song sing in an exciting and rhythmic way. The Foster ensemble attacks the Sonny Rollins tune, “Pen-up House” like a force of nature.  They swing hard on the McCoy Tyner tune, “Blues on the Corner.”  On “Half Nelson” Chris Potter’s rich saxophone solo reminds me of Charlie Parker with his fluidity.  Potter was a member of Al Foster’s band in the mid-1990s and played on the “Brandyn” album. They are seasoned partners.

“Chris is genius level, with his own way of playing; his own style,” Foster says.

Foster was influenced by drummers Art Taylor, Max Roach, Tony Williams, Joe Chambers and Jack DeJohnette.  He also was inspired by Thelonious Monk, who he had the opportunity to play with in August of 1969 upon Wilbur Ware’s recommendation. Al Foster was a fledgling drummer when he took to Monk’s bandstand at the Village Gate and they opened for the Miles Davis Quartet that included Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette.

“After the third night, monk asked for a lift, then invited me to his apartment.  On the elevator, he started telling me that critics thought he couldn’t write in ¾ time.  That’s why he wrote ‘Ugly Beauty.’ He talked through his teeth.  You could see his teeth closed.  In his apartment, he showed me his cufflinks and suede shoes and then I left,” Al Foster recalls that historic meeting vividly.

Today, Al Foster has settled into his own style and brilliance. Clearly, in the last decade he has spewed out a list of memorable recordings that memorialize Foster’s admirable talent.  This album is available August 26, 2022 for public consumption.

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George Lernis, drums/percussion/Santur/composer; Mehmet Ali Sanlikol, piano/voice/oud; Bruno Raberg, bass; Emiel de Jaegher, trumpet; Burcu Gülec, voice. FEATURED GUEST: John Patitucci, upright bass/elec. Bass.

George Lernis is no ordinary jazz drummer. He plays Santur, percussion and he has composed all the fascinating music on this album. “Between Two Worlds” is literally an exploration between Western culture and the Middle East.  Born and raised in Cyprus, Lernis brings inspiration from the Mediterranean and infuses this music with jazz, the ultimate music of freedom.  As an immigrant himself, the drummer expresses his cultural roots and represents the sweet fruit of hardworking immigrants who bring their hopes, dreams and culture to America.  Lernis blends his musical arrangements to embrace both worlds in a minor-chord-way. He incorporates the beautiful voice of Burcu Gülec, a spattering of poetry and instruments like the Oud and the Santur that establish his style and culture. The oud is a pear-shaped stringed instrument commonly used in Middle Eastern music. The Santur is a percussive, string instrument like a zither or small vibraphone that is struck when played.

Opening with his original composition called “Prayer” John Patitutcci’s thick, beautiful bass supports the tune and locks arms with Lernis to create a powerful rhythm section. A poem is recited, written by George Lernis and his mother, Eliza.  It celebrates the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis.  Ms. Gülec’s voice sings along with the horn lines, a human instrument demanding to be heard.  Mehmet Ali Sanlikol melodically infuses the piano into the mix and Burcu Gülec moves from the horn section to sing unison, along with the piano line.  It’s quite impressive for her vocals to try and keep up with Sanlikol’s piano brilliance and improvisational expression. There are no lyrics.  None are needed.  Pure emotion, pumps from her vocal cords and lungs, singing along with the black and white keys that fly beneath the fingers of Mehmet Ali. What sounds like miniature gongs opens track #2. I believe it is the Santur instrument.  Percussion drips into the track like honey from the cone.  Track #3 “Sailing Beyond” prefaces a suite of music representing the album’s title. Once again Burcu Gülec offers her expressive vocals to set the mood. This song is fused from a Cypress folk song called “I Trata Mas I Kourelou.”  “Origins” is the first part of the “Between Two Worlds” Suite and spotlights the Oud in all its pear-shaped beauty.  This is an album that combines jazz with Middle Eastern tradition in a unique and palatable way. 

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Craig Davis, piano; John Clayton, bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums.

Pianist Craig Davis is on a mission to reinform the jazz community by celebrating Pittsburgh, PA jazz man, Michael “Dodo” Marmarosa.  On “Mellow Mood,” the opening tune, Craig Davis opens this song with only solo piano.  It’s a composition Marmarosa wrote when he was only fourteen years old. After Davis plays the song down, with a strong 2-feel, Clayton’s big bold bass enters along with world renowned drummer, Jeff Hamilton.  Craig Davis has chosen two legendary jazz musicians to join him during this trio tribute to Marmarosa. 

Whenever I see the name Jeff Hamilton, I am immediately interested in hearing who this amazing drummer is playing with and what he has to say.  His musicianship speaks to me.  On track #2, “Dodo’s Bounce” I would expect Hamilton to use sticks for this up-tempo swing tune.  Instead, he dances brushes across the drum skins, holding the tempo in place like super-glue, but never losing the energy.  Craig Davis trades fours with Hamilton during this skip-to-my-bounce arrangement and Hamilton shines like the super-star that he is. 

The Craig Davis project titled, “Tone Paintings” has been in the making for more than a decade.  After the talented pianist earned his master’s degree from Manhattan School of Music in 2010, Davis prepared a concert debut at The Kitano Club in New York City.  He put his show together in celebration of some of Pittsburgh’s piano icons including Mary Lou Williams, Erroll Garner, Ahmad Jamal, Billy Strayhorn, Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines and his hero, “Dodo” Marmarosa.

“Dodo’s story really resonated with me, because he was such an enigmatic figure.  He never really got the recognition he deserved beyond having a flurry of fame in the forties,” Davis explained his fascination with the jazz pianist.

“We share similar stylistic interests.  I love bebop and of course he was a bebop innovator.  We’re both classically trained and bring those influences to our music. He also tried to push the art form forward a little bit and not just kind of settle on what was popular.  (Tommy) Dorsey didn’t like him because he was too progressive, but Artie Shaw loved it. So, here’s this guy who was boppin’ with Bird (Charlie Parker) and he was pushing the envelope at the same time. That may also have contributed to his lack of notoriety, but I respect the fact that he really cared about continuing to push boundaries within himself,” Craig Davis praised “Dodo” Marmarosa.

On the “Dodo’s Blues” tune, I hear shades of Gene Harris in the Davis piano style and John Clayton is given an ample opportunity to sing his bass solo. Jeff Hamilton opens the tune “Escape” tapping the tempo out at the top of the melodic, fast-paced tune.

The MCG Jazz record label, whose parent organization is Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild (MCG), was a place where Craig Davis’s early recording career began, way back in 1996. It was when drummer, Roger Humphries was recording his debut album, “A New Home: Recorded Live at Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild” and Davis was part of that ensemble.  Funny that Craig Davis has come full circle today, returning to this very label to release his second album. The first was recorded on Alanna Records in 2006 and called “Out of the Gate.”  For this project, Davis has transcribed all of the Marmarosa music, compositions that have never been published.  He transcribed these Marmarosa compositions from recordings that he discovered. Marmarosa also performed extensively with Pittsburgh native and bass icon, Ray Brown, including Marmarosa’s premiere recording session as a leader in 1946. Craig Davis offers us ten “Dodo” Marmarosa original compositions and one single original song of his own that he calls “A Ditty for Dodo.”  It’s a lilting, very melodic jazz ballad. 

This is an engaging album that not only introduces us to the music of Michael “Dodo” Marmarosa, but allows us to become acquainted with pianist, composer and arranger Craig Davis.  He’s in the best of company with hard-hitters like John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton as part of his swinging trio. 

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Billy Drummond, drums/composer; Dezron Douglas, bass/arranger; Micah Thomas, piano/composer; Dayna Stephens, saxophones.

Billy Drummond barrels onto the set with serious energy and wailing sticks dancing on the drum skins.  The Jackie McLean tune is called “Little Melonae” and there’s nothing ‘little’ about the arrangement; it’s huge. The tempo is crazy fast and Micah Thomas let’s his fingers fly over the upper register of the piano like an excited bird.  Drummond’s rhythms propel the tune and by the time Dayna Stephens solos on saxophone, the driving energy is on fire.

“The music presented here is a snapshot of my musical vision.  Where I am today, where I’ve been and where I might be headed.  I’ve been leading various aggregations of ‘Freedom of Ideas’ for well over a decade,” Billy Drummond explains the goal and direction of this album.

”Little Melonae” … arranged by Dezron Douglas (the voice of reason), is a disciple of Jackie McLean and, for me, McLean is the epitome of a purity in music that represents freedom in the true sense of the word,” Billy Drummond expounded in his liner notes.  “When I was a youngster, I played with Jackie on two occasions, which was a dream come true.  One of my treasures is an inscription from him on one of his recordings that reads, ‘To Billy, one of my favorite drummers of all time.”

Drummond spoke about his relationship with the title tune, “Valse Sinistre” composed by the Avant-garde artist, Ms. Carla Bley.

“I fell in love with this piece while I was working with her. … I think it’s a gem.  I was incredibly fortunate to play, record and tour with Carla in various ensembles over the years,” Drummond continued to explain why he had chosen various songs for this album release.

Because Tony Williams changed the way music was played and he also changed the way that drums were played, Drummond wanted to celebrate the Williams legacy as both a drummer and outstanding composer by covering his tune, “Lawra” as a gesture of his appreciation for the gone-too-soon percussion master. 

As a composer, Billy Drummond offers us “Changes for Trane & Monk” spotlighting the warm saxophone of Dayna Stephens propelled by Drummond’s energetic drums.  When Billy Drummond pulls out a pair of brushes to interpret the soft and beautiful tune, “Laura” we get to enjoy his tender and sensuous side.  This is an album both delicious and satisfying, like a well-cooked meal with friends and family. 

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Peter Kogan, drums/composer; Abebi Stafford & Will Kjeer, piano; Charlie Lincoln & Kameron Markworth, bass; Geoff LeCrone, guitar; Jake Baldwin & Mitch Van Laar, trumpet; Pete Whitman, tenor saxophone; Nick Syman, trombone. Dominic Cheli, solo piano on track #9.

Right out the gate, Peter Kogan races onto the scene with a hard-hitting drum solo that introduces us to a song he calls, “Pow, Pow, Pow, Pow – Yeah!”  This composition swings hard and has a memorable melody that’s presented by the horns after several bars of a power-packed drum solo.  It’s an exciting arrangement for this quintet to play, generously spotlighting each player, starting with Kogan’s percussive power. Pete Whitman, on tenor saxophone, blends beautifully with trumpeter Jake Baldwin.  Both offer rich solo excursions that represent Straight-ahead jazz at its best.  Abebi Stafford is dynamic on piano and Charlie Lincoln holds the rhythm section in a tight grip with his walking bass lines. If you love 1950 and 1960 jazz the way I do, this song turns back time in a wonderful way. The title tune follows, “Just Before Midnight (Etude #3).”  It’s introduced by Will Kjeer on piano, teasing us with chord changes that accentuate unexpected intervals.  They lead us to an up-tempo speed. This racing tempo challenges Kogan’s septet to bring their very best to the party, and they do.  Peter Kogan propels them forward with busy sticks and appropriate cymbal crashes.

During this production, you will experience Peter Kogan in various group situations.  He opens with a quintet, moves to a septet-setting, and then to a quartet.  There is also a sextet performance and even a solo piano addition, “Song Without a Word” interpreting Kogan’s original song and played by Dominic Cheli.  Peter Kogan intentionally created different groups of musicians to express the best of his original compositions.  For example, he reverts to a quartet to play his ode to John Coltrane that’s named, “Owed to J.C.” On this arrangement, Kogan plays with the tempo to explore the pulse of the tune, employing a 15/8, Afro-Cuban rhythm during the main body of the song and during the solos. “And Another Thing (Etude #1)” is a catchy title and introduces us to a jazz waltz arrangement that allows Jake Baldwin to brightly soak up the spotlight during his trumpet solo. Peter Kogan also solos on his waltz inspired drums. Geoff LeCrone is featured on guitar during the quartet’s interpretation of “I Dream of Danny Playing Guitar.”

Kogan is a percussionist who has dabbled with various musical genres.  He’s proficient playing jazz, but he also has history with rock music and the blues idiom.  He’s backed up iconic blues musicians like Honeyboy Edwards, Lightin’ Hopkins and Floyd Jones.  In the same breath, he can stand behind a set of timpani drums in a concert hall, and has played with symphony orchestras that include the Cleveland Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Honolulu Symphony.  Kogan represents this type of versatility on drums.  I’m also quite impressed with his composer skills. Peter Kogan has written and arranged all the songs on this album except “Hindsight” written by Cedar Walton.  Employing his various group productions, Kogan introduces us to amazing musicians and a stunning number of his original compositions. To his credit, the Kogan music sounds like standard jazz tunes we should know and love.

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Richard Baratta, drums/percussion; Bill O’Connell, piano/arranger; Michael Goetz, upright bass; Paul Bollenback, guitar; Paul Rossman, congas/percussion; Vincent Herring, alto saxophone.

Here is a conglomerate of compositions snatched from film scores that are not only interesting but entertaining.  The album opens with “Itsy Bitsy Spider” which is a familiar children’s song that is now public Domain.  Every child knows that song.  What I didn’t realize is that it was featured in the 1986 film, “Heartburn.”  They pluck the Quincy Jones tune “Soul Bossa Nova” from the Austin Powers 1997 film.  It’s driven by the Baratta drums and the Paul Rossman percussion.  Vincent Herring’s alto saxophone soars and sings us the melody over their rich percussive rhythms.  Other songs you will instantly recognize are “Theme form the Pink Panther,” “Last Tango in Paris” (from the 1972 film of the same name) and Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” composition.  Arranger, pianist, Bill O’Connell gives an impressive and improvisational solo on the Pink Panther tune.  The ensemble plays an arrangement that’s Straight-ahead and flies at a fast tempo.  Paul Bollenback’s guitar solo is stellar.  Richard Baratta finally steps out front and gives us a taste of his mastery on drums.  He sends sparks of excitement through my listening room. The “Pure Imagination” song from ‘Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory’ is arranged beautifully as a sweet ballad and features Bollenback’s guitar.

Baratta has a strong drum technique, and he swings hard on “You’ve Got A Friend in Me.”  Although drumming was his first creative love, he was also a gifted film producer. Richard Baratta has dozens of films to his credit including six Spider Man installments, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Irishman and many more.  In the 1970s, he was a drummer struggling to live on a gig-to-gig basis.  When an opportunity came his way in 1984, offering him big paychecks in the film business, Richard Baratta chose film production over his percussive skills.  I’m happy he returned to drumming and combined his love of films with music.   This is a sequel to his 2020 studio debut called “Music in Film: The Reel Deal.”  It’s a wonderful concept, well-played and entertaining.  The choice of repertoire is perfect.  You’ll enjoy eleven songs on this album, performed by these awesome musicians and inspired by the skillful drums of Richard Baratta.

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Steve Gadd, drums; Michael Abene, WDR arranger/conductor; Eddie Gomez, bass; Bruno Müller, guitar; Bobby Sparks II, Hammond B3 organ/Fender Rhodes; Simon Oslender, piano/Hammond B3 organ; Ronnie Cuber, baritone saxophone.  WDR BIG BAND: SAXOPHONES: Karolina Strassmayer & Johan Hörlén, alto saxophones; Malte Dürrschnabel & Paul Heller, tenor saxophones; Jens Neufang, baritone saxophone. TRUMPETS: Andy Haderer, Wim Both, Rob Bruynen, Ruud Breuls. TROMBONES: Ludwig Nuss, Raphael Klemm & Andy Hunter; Mattis Cederberg, bass trombone.

From the first strains of the familiar introduction to Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” composition, you’ll find your body moving to Steve Gadd’s drums and the WDR big band music.  Pushed forward by the dynamic drums of Steve Gadd, this is finger-snappin’, toe-tappin’ music. Bruno Muller’s guitar dances boldly and Simon Oslender’s piano solo is full of joy.  Gadd has reunited with bassist, Eddie Gomez and baritone sax man, Ronnie Cuber from their “Gadd Gang” days.  They join the Grammy Award-winning WDR Big Band, under the direction of Michael Abene, and the merger is magic.  Together, with this exuberant big band, Gadd and his gang reach back to pull a cluster of classics from their repertoire.  The first three tunes on this album are smokin’ hot and danceable.  Track #4 is a beautiful ballad, delivered with solos by Ronnie Cuber on his baritone sax and Eddie Gomez steps briefly into the spotlight on double bass. Trombonist, Ludwig Nuss is also featured, a WDR band member who plays beautifully.  After that song, the band is back to playing all those rhythm and blues licks, spirited and infused by Steve Gadd’s powerhouse drum presence. The tune is “Them Changes” and Simon Oslender brings his B3 organ to the party, along with Bruno Müller’s lead guitar that plants deep bluesy roots into the hard-swing arrangement.  On “Way Back Home” they let Steve Gadd loose, wrapping his funk beat like a coil winding tightly around the tune.  He holds everything in perfect place. The horn lines stutter their sweet, harmonic message across space until the rhythm guitar teases Gadd and dares him to come forward and spew his drum licks all over the place. Oh, but when they reach back and snatch that blast from the past, “Honky Tonk” they’ve got me just where they want me.  Michael Abene has arranged it as a medley, smartly incorporating this blues shuffle into the country/western tune, “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” although the transition wasn’t as smooth as it could have been. The arrangement sounded very similar to the Ray Charles big band arrangement. You can’t miss with that arrangement.

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Duduka Da Fonseca, drums/composer; Vinicius Gomes, guitars/composer; Helio Alves, piano/composer; Gili Lopes, bass/composer.

Unlike many bandleaders who are drummers, Duduka Da Fonseca does not try to submerge his talents inside the quartet arrangements.  Duduka Da Fonseca is right up front and spectacular throughout this production. Starting with the first track, “Samba Novo” you feel his powerful spirit fueling the arrangement with exciting drum-fills and engaged sticks.  He sets the rhythm and the time, making Helio Alves fingers race over the piano keys with precision and creativity.  The two are in perfect sync. When the spotlight swerves to highlight Vinicius Gomes on guitar, Gomes is ready and eager to showcase his technique.  Afterwards, Duduka steps from the background to the forefront and tantalizes the listening audience with his mastery.  Here is a 4-time GRAMMY Award nominee, a drummer who takes the reins of his band and rides at full pace into the outer limits of jazz and Brazilian rhythms.  He also opens the second track enthusiastically, his solo drums commanding attention and painting the production in loud, vivid, dramatic colors.  His artistic sticks dance, sway and tap across his trap drums with purpose and excellence. Dom Salvador’s composition, “Transition” is a bold tune that allows the quartet to veer from the melody and explore their own improvisational solos.  All the while, the drums push and prod them forward.  Every band has to have that one inspirationally driven purpose and that one person who inspires the others and leads the way.  Duduka Da Fonseca is THAT bandleader.

All four of these bandmates are soaked in Brazilian music and culture.  Consequently, they blend warmly together like Cafezinho (a respected coffee) and ‘rapadura’ (Brazil’s popular unrefined sugar). This project is sweet, strong and entertaining. 

On the Hermeto Pascoal composition, “Montreux” Gili Lopes offers us an emotional and beautiful bass solo. All of these musicians are excellent, each in their own right. They bring their best to this project, including their original compositions mixed into a repertoire of Brazilian icons. Pianist Alves has added his composition “Bebe” to this stew of cultures and classics.  It’s a Sambossa waltz and guitarist Gomes has co-written “Exodo” that leans more towards contemporary jazz, perhaps in the realm of something Chick Corea would play.  Dynamically, Duduka’s drums color and paint the arrangement with excitement. Gili Lopes adds “West 83rd Street” to the album and Vinicius’s guitar warmly introduces us to the pretty melody. Lopes takes a bass solo to explore his own interpretation of his original song. Finally, they close with “Dona Maria” that Duduka Da Fonseca has penned. The melody is quite compelling.  When Helio enters on piano he doubles the time and skips over the keys with intention and creative purpose.  Duduka’s drums chase the black and white keys, with the energy of a playful puppy running after ducks at the lake.  His drum solo that follows is spectacular! If you are looking for a Brazilian jazz super band, look no further.

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Chris Parker, drums/composer; Kyoko Oyobe, piano; Ameen Saleem, bass.

It has taken a couple of years before these three musicians could get back to the studio. The pandemic caused havoc with their lives and careers.  But it also gave Chris Parker time to compose and arrange original songs, in hopes of soon recording them.  “Tell Me” is the title of their third project together. It’s the eighth album for Chris Parker as a bandleader. Most of the compositions belong to Parker, with the exception of the opening Thelonious Monk tune that bass man, Ameen Saleem gave the nickname of “Coolypso.”  The trio swings with a very Calypso, Latin arrangement of Monk’s tune “Let’s Cool One.” Parker’s out front on his drums during the introduction and Ameen joins him on bass.  When Kyoko Oyobe adds her piano, they are complete and lock into a nice calypso groove.  It’s an unusual arrangement, but very likeable.  They Tango their way into Track #2 that Parker named “Desaparecido.”  His powerful drums keep everything moving, exciting and solid. When Ameen Saleem enters a final segment of the song by bowing his bass, it’s very electrifying.  Kyoko cements the pretty parts into the song with her fingers twirling in the treble register of the piano.

Chris Parker is a seasoned veteran on his drums.  At one point in his career, he was one of the best fusion/funk drummers around and recorded with The Brecker Brothers, “Live at the Bottom Line.”  But Chris longed to explore other percussive paths.  He heard music in his head, while the rhythm spewed from his body like the sweetest cologne. Consequently, Parker studied composition, arranging and jazz drumming.  This album showcases all of his talents, including the former funk and fusion player, as well as the more polished jazz drummer he has become. His skills have grown on the drums and now Chris Parker enjoys all the nuances and creativity that jazz has to offer, as well as the creativity and skill it takes to compose and arrange music.  Meet the complete, Chris Parker.

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