Archive for October, 2022


October 28, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

Oct 28, 2022


Russ Hewitt, solo/rhythm/tres guitar/composer; Bob Parr, bass/keyboards; Elijah M. Parr & Walfredo Reyes jr., drums; Efren Guzman & Raphael Padilla, percussion; Nuno Bettencourt, Marty Friedman, Jorge Strunz, Tri Nguyen  & Ardeshir Farah, guitars.

Russ Hewitt brings us a very Spanish influenced CD of original compositions that dance and sway with Latin rhythms.  You will hear his ten-track creativity expressed by a number of competent guitarists, including Russ himself. His strong rhythm section includes two master percussion players, Guzman and Padilla.  The opening tune, “Allende,” sets the tone of this production.  During Hewitt’s compositions, you will hear samba beats along with montuno, milonga, rumba, Flamenco rhythms and more.  On Track #2, the title tune, “Chasing Horizon” features the guitar mastery of Nuno Bettencourt, whose name you might recognize from his best-known work with the rock band ‘Extreme.’ On this arrangement, he plays a nylon guitar, instead of his electric one. He and Russ Hewitt slap the rhythm into place, going toe-to-toe on their guitars with the percussive players. Raphael Padilla has played with the Miami Sound Machine, Gloria Estefan, and Shakira to name just a few.  Efren Guzman’s percussion playing has colored the music of Andrea Bocelli, Armando Manzanaro and Alejandro Fernandez. This Flamenco number rumba’s across my room in 7/8 time, dragging joy by the hands and spreading it all over my listening room.  Hewitt’s collaboration with various talented guitarists keeps this project interesting and fueled with unexpected energy.  A powerful slap of drums opens a song called “Vivir Libre” featuring another guest guitarist. It’s Marty Friedman, known for his work with the heavy metal Megadeth band.  This song is soaked in montuno rhythm. You will be pleasantly surprised when the song “Amor Perdido” features a visit from the Bucharest All-Star Orchestra.  Recorded at the Savannah Street Studio and the SGO Music Factory in Bucharest, Romania, this is an album featuring several talented guitarists, along with Russ Hewitt himself and showcasing Hewitt’s awesome composer skills.

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GENE ESS – “AH – BOP” SIMP Records

Gene Ess, guitar/composer; Scott Colley, acoustic bass; Clarence Penn, drums.

It’s been four years since Gene Ess released an album on SIMP Records.  This time, the guitarist has chosen to record as a trio with Scott Colley on bass and Clarence Penn manning the drums. Ess, a native of Okinawa, Japan is a former member of the Rashied Ali Quintet and has played alongside luminaries like Ravi Coltrane, Eddie Henderson, Carlos Santana and Archie Shepp to list just a few.

“To me, the trio is a huge challenge, as the guitar is completely naked in the sonic landscape.  It’s harder for me than solo or duets, as the nature of the guitar makes it very difficult. So, I was pushed by the challenge. Also, having a chord less accompaniment to my solos was fresh,” Gene Ess explained his feelings about this project.

Gene Ess composed all this music while in Tokyo.  Because of COVID, he had to wait in Japan until it was safe to return to New York.  Once back in the ‘States’ Ess contacted bassist Scott Colley for this project.  Scott was the bass player on a European tour with Tony Moreno years before, in the mid-90s.  They clicked. Clarence Penn was the drummer on Gene’s last three recordings, so it was a no-brainer to add his talents to the mix.  The concept of Gene’s compositions and the basis of this album was creating a ‘song cycle’ with the eight compositions. This concept is popular with classical composers like Schubert, Schumann and Mahler.  A ‘song cycle’ exhibits unifying features of the music, using musical procedures that require a type of coherence, but also has many variations. The first tune, “Ah Bop” does just that; it bebops into my listening room in a Thelonious Monk kind of style. Clarence Penn surges on drums, pushing the song ahead like a freight train. Ess uses open strings to pluck the melody out and Colley walks his bass beneath the arrangement, tightly holding the trio in place.  The next song is simply titled, “Waltz” and becomes a stage for Scott Colley to explore an impressive bass solo.  “Yuki” is a very beautiful ballad with a particularly familiar sounding melody.  It allows Gene Ess to take time with his guitar in a tender, pensive way. Yuki can be a female name, but it also translates in Japanese to ‘snow.’ However, I find this composition to be warm, rather than winter cold, and thoughtful, perhaps a little melancholy too.  Gene Ess has a clean, clear tone on his instrument and his solo fades into Scott’s bass solo flawlessly, allowing Ess to provide chorded guitar rhythm for Scott Colley to briefly bounce upon.  Ess goes from beauty to a beastly arrangement on “Array” that puts distortion on his clean, clear guitar tones and shows a whole new musical personality. The time is set in 5/4 and this tune dabbles with a hard rock style, like jazzy toes dipping in unfamiliar waters and finding them too cold to stay. This must be the cyclic variations that Gene Ess explains in his liner notes.  Then they play “Dark Blues” with a classic West African rhythm called Bembe dancing beneath the ‘Straight-ahead’ jazz feel of this tune.  The drums fly, like gazelles racing across African plains, and Scott’s bass walks swiftly, supporting the dynamic Ess improvisational solo. The chord changes might be blues inspired, but the tune wanders off into other musical territories.  Each individual solo that features the trio members, is like a painting we pause to explore and admire.  I find myself searching for the meaning in each of these cyclic songs and enjoying the trio’s rich and colorful presentation. 

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JUSSI REIJONEN – “THREE SECONDS / KOLME TOISTA” – Challenge Records International

Jussi Reijonen, fretless & electric fretted guitar/classical guitar/oud/composer/arranger; Vancil Cooper, drums; Kyle Miles, acoustic & fretless bass; Utar Artun, piano; Keita Ogawa, percussion; Naseem Alatrash, cello; Layth Sidiq, violin; Bulut Gülen, trombone; Jason Palmer, trumpet/flugelhorn.

Jussi Reijonen’s music is dramatic. He is a master fretted and fretless guitarist, an oud player, and a composer/arranger. This project is his follow-up album to an acclaimed 2013 recording debut. This CD is transcultural and reflects Jussi Reijonen’s vast experience living in a variety of world places. Jussi is Finnish, born in Rovaniemi, Finland, but has lived in Jordan, Tanzania, Oman, Lebanon and most of his adult life in the Boston and New York communities of the United States.  In his music, you will hear Middle Eastern influences, generously mixed with  African and American music, as well as incorporating his own Nordic roots. This sophomore album features a 9-piece ensemble meant to reflect his international awareness and various cultural influences. There are three Americans in his band, along with a Turkish trombonist and pianist,  a Jordanian/Iraqi violinist Layth Sidiq, who lends his talents, and Naseem Alatrash who is a Palestinian cellist.  Keita Ogawa is a Japanese percussion player.  Together, these international musicians bring Jussi Reijonen’s multi-cultural music alive.

Like so many people, while hunkering down during the pandemic, Jussi Reijonen took that solo time to find clarity in his thoughts and music.  This album reflects an inspired story of his own internationalism, including a lost and found cultural awakening and Jussi’s solidarity with his individualism.  These compositions have become a suite of music he calls “Three Seconds” or in his Finnish language, “Kolme Toista.”  A lot can happen in three seconds, and this space of time also represents three strangers and the revelations they experience that gives each a new outlook on life. Perhaps an introspection into three personalities contained in one body. A blossoming.  A change of mind, body, and soul.  Jussi’s brand, new music represents all of this. 

Opening with “The Veil” a strong influence of Middle Eastern music runs through the arrangement like a silver ribbon. The bass of Kyle Miles opens this piece. In the background, Layth Sidiq’s lovely violin generously colors the music.  There is harmony and dissonance, drama and excitement, like a lover’s quarrel.  Vancil Cooper’s drums first spur the composition forward and then calm the moment for Utar Artun’s piano to offer a solo conversation that settles the argument amiably. Keita Ogawa’s percussion brilliance makes every moment memorable. Thanks to Jussi’s arrangement, the horns harmonize smoothly in the background to soften the mood.  This opening composition by Jussi Reijonen sets the tone and mood of this very inspired album of music. Jussi offers us music without boundaries. It’s orchestrated to both entertain and surprise us. Meantime, in whatever spare time this artist has, Jussi is a member of the New York Arabic Orchestra and is also an educator in both the United States and Europe. When he isn’t exploring the outer spaces of his mind, instruments and creativity, Jussi Reijonen currently splits his time between Amsterdam, Boston and New York City.

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Jim Witzel, guitar/composer; Brian Ho, Hammond B-3 organ; Jason Lewis, drums; Dann Zinn, tenor saxophone.

Bay area guitarist and composer, Jim Witzel, offers the listener a combination of his modern jazz compositions and a handful of cover tunes including “I Love You, Porgy” and “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise.”  Inspired by a group of guitar players who he labels, ‘the Great Eight,’ Witzel grew to love the guitar listening to Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, Kenny Burrell, Joe Pass, George Benson, Pat Martino, John Abercrombie and Pat Metheny.  Today, seasoned and strong in his own talent and style, Witzel opens with the swinging, title tune, “Feelin’ It” that he composed. It sets the tone for his energetic Straight-ahead music.  Jim’s trio follows up with “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise” that also ‘swings’ hard, inspired by the Sonny Rollins and Jim Hall version.  Witzel let’s us catch our breath when he performs the Lennon/McCartney hit song, “Norwegian Wood,” arranged at a moderate tempo with his guitar singing the lovely melody in a smooth, crystal-clear way. Witzel has a warmth to his style and a precise technique that brings clarity to any melody, before exploding with improvisation. Jim grew up in San Rafael, California and started practicing guitar as a preteen.  In high school, he began to study jazz guitar with well-known Bay Area educator and artist, Dave Smith.  Jim Witzel spent a decade in the Los Angeles area, paying dues freelancing with notable jazz players like Bob Sheppard, Scott Colley, Henry Butler, Richie Cole, Casey Schuerell and Clay Jenkins.  At the same time, he was working clubs and concerts with busy saxophonist Dave Lefebvre and his six-piece jazz-fusion group. This new album features Witzel’s awesome composer talents.  His song “Beyond Beijing” sounds like a jazz standard and so does “Ms. Information” inspired by Wayne Shorter.  This is another hard-hitting, Straight-ahead jazz tune that’s rooted in the blues.  Witzel’s arrangement invites Dann Zinn to competently explore his tenor saxophone for our listening pleasure, after a rousing solo guitar performance by Jim. This original composition by Witzel also spotlights the talents of Jason Lewis on drums.  I enjoy the camaraderie between Brian Ho on Hammond B-3 organ and Witzel’s guitar.  One of this reviewer’s favorite things is an organ trio. This one is spectacular.  I love the way they have arranged “If Ever I Would Leave You” as a Bossa Nova that gives Brian Ho a platform to shine and showcase his organ excellence. The tender, passionate way that Jim Witzel plays “I Loves You, Porgy” is stunning and memorable. As he plays a clean, clear melody line, he accompanies himself on rhythm guitar. Witzels’ style and technique sparkles, clearly showing us he needs nothing more than his guitar to both entertain and please our ears. Every tune on this album is well-played, beautifully arranged and Jim Witzel’s original compositions are well-written and remind me of hard-bop days in a very wonderful way.

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Tim Fitzgerald, guitar; Tom Vaitsas, piano; Christian Dillingham, bass; George Fludas, drums; Victor Garcia, trumpet; Greg Ward II, alto saxophone; Chris Madsen, tenor saxophone.

Tim Fitzgerald is a Chicago-based guitarist and bandleader.  For more than two decades, Tim has studied, transcribed and been inspired by the work of Wes Montgomery.  Tim and his group even borrowed the name for his band, “Full House,” from a Montgomery composition. The band and their incredible arrangements do not disappoint!  They open with “S.O.S,” arranged by trumpeter, Victor Garcia. They perform this Straight-ahead Montgomery tune with zest and vigor. Over the years I have enjoyed a number of Chicago musicians who always bring energy and excitement to the bandstand.  After all, Chicago has spawned legendary talent like Nat King Cole, Herbie Hancock, Bud Freeman, Benny Goodman, Gene Ammons, Ramsey Lewis and a host of guitar greats and blues icons like Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamsons, Muddy Waters and Junior Wells.  Now, Tim Fitzgerald joins the brigade.  George Fludas opens their first arrangement with a flurry of drum sticks that solidly set the tempo in place. Fitzgerald’s solo is a stream of improvisational runs that settle into a groove supported by the rich harmonies of the horn section.  These guys really swing.  I’m intoxicated by their music.  Each horn players steps dynamically into the spotlight and you get to know Victor Garcia on trumpet, Greg Ward on alto sax, and Chris Madsen on tenor.  Tom Vaitsas soaks up the spotlight on piano and absolutely matches the energy of Full House on the eighty-eight keys.  The drummer also takes every opportunity to show off his percussive skills.  You will be properly pumped up after listening to Time Fitzgerald’s Full House ensemble.  Tim has arranged the Montgomery favorite, “Four on Six” and I enjoy his technique and smooth, fluid guitar playing.  All ten songs celebrate the composing skill of the icon, Wes Montgomery, but also act as a stage for these Mid-western musicians to shine. The group was founded in 2015 and their main goal has been to carry-on the Wes Montgomery legacy.  The drummer, George Fludas, had a direct connection to the legendary guitarist.  He was a former sideman with Buddy Montgomery, a brother of Wes.  On “Far Wes” you’ll get the opportunity to enjoy Christian Dillingham’s melodic double bass solo.

“This record is a love letter to Wes.  I knew I didn’t want to sound like West,” Tim pauses.  “Not that I ever could.  But I knew I wanted to get close to his music and eventually take that inspiration and do my own thing.”

Mission accomplished!  Every tune on this recording is packed with punch and creativity. Not only will you admire and appreciate their reimagining of Wes Montgomery’s tunes, but you will relish these tight arrangements and excellent musicianship.  I hope that Tim Fitzgerald’s Full House septet gets on ‘the road’ and lets more people hear and enjoy their brilliance.  

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JOHN STEIN – “LIFELINE” – Whaling City Sound

John Stein, guitar/composer; Keala Kaumeheiwa, John Lockwood, Dave Zinno & Frank Herzberg, bass; Ed Lucie, bass guitar; Greg Conroy,  Dave Hurst, Yoron Israel, Matias Mingote German & Zé Eduardo Nazario, drums; Pedro Ito, percussion; Daniel Grajew, Jake Sherman, Koichi Sato & Koichi Sato, keyboards; Ken Clark, Hammond organ; Alexandre Zamith, piano; David “Fathead” Newman, saxophone/flute; Phil Grenadier, trumpet; Fernando Brandão & Rebecca Kleinman, flute; Evan Harlan, accordion; Ron Gill, vocals.

This is a double set album, offering two discs of amazing guitar music to enjoy with many tunes not only played by, but also composed by John Stein.  On Disc #1, he opens with his original composition titled “Up and at ‘em” that swings and dances across my listening room. At the top, he and the iconic David “Fathead” Newman on saxophone open the arrangement with a duet of guitar fluidly talking and interacting with the reed instrument.  They set the groove along with Greg Conroy on drums.  When Keala Kaumeheiwa enters on bass, the complete ‘straight-ahead’ jazz settles into an up-tempo swing groove. On Disc #2, they open with the popular jazz standard “Nica’s Dream.”  Once again, the energy is palpable.

With this “Lifeline” release, John Stein celebrates several decades of his musical career.  After his recent retirement from Berklee College of Music (as a professor since 1999) he decided to take some time to synthesize his remarkable body of work into this compilation.  Track #2 on this Disc #1 is a Bossa Nova with a melody that seems to have been inspired by “The Good Life.” It’s titled “Brazilian Hug” and it’s a delightful tune, this time with Zé Eduardo Nazario pumping life into the tune on drums with Frank Herzberg on bass. Daniel Grajew adds an inspired keyboard solo. This is followed by the familiar and beautiful tune, “Invitation.”  Once again, the musicians play musical chairs.  This time, Koichi Sato is on the keyboards and John Lockwood is the bassist.  Zé Eduardo Nazario remains consistent on drums.

What you will hear on this double set album is hand-picked representation from fifteen albums that John Stein has released.  You can soak up all the rich, warm sounds of the Gibson archtop jazz guitar that Stein plays.  He chose this guitar because of his predecessors.  I’m talking about Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, Kenny Burrell and Grant Green who also played that instrument.  Surprisingly, Stein didn’t start studying jazz seriously until he was thirty.  In 1980, he enrolled at Berklee as a student.  He had played in a bunch of bands earlier in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri and later, crisscrossed the band scene in Vermont for ten years. But he wasn’t playing jazz.

“I was living in a cabin in the woods and learning to be a carpenter.  At the same time, I was in a number of bands in Vermont; rock, country rock, and folk rock.  Eventually I wore that music out.  I wanted to grow musically and gravitated towards jazz,” John Stein shared in his liner notes.

I would never have guessed that John Stein was a late bloomer to jazz.  His sound and tone are both technically spontaneous and proficient.  But it’s his emotional power that’s plugged into Stein’s guitar and radiates beauty that touches my heart.  This album reflects what a marvelous composer John is, as well as a noteworthy guitarist.  He has composed eight of the thirteen songs he offers us on Disc 1.  “Jo Ann” is Brazilian to the bone, while “The Roundabout” adds Koichi Sato on organ-keyboard, who plays around with the blues, giving John Lockwood a spotlight on his bass solo. Their treatment of “Green Dolphin Street” is a Bossa Nova surprise.  I don’t think I’ve heard “On Green Dolphin Street” played with such a lovely Latin arrangement. John Stein also invites Ed Lucie to play bass guitar and the two guitarists have a wonderful way of complimenting each other.  Mike Connors is the drummer this time around. On Stein’s “Recoleta” tune, the accordion is a sweet addition and Evan Harlan colors the music with a European jazz flavor.  I’m so happy I was introduced to John Stein and bask in his talent on these recordings.  On “Weaver of Dreams” Stein plays solo guitar and accompanies Ron Gill’s jazz vocals. The duet is a nice way to end the first disc.

Listening to this album, pulled from the several recordings he has made over his lifetime, made me feel as though I know John Stein. Enjoying his compositions and arrangements is as delicious as sopping my biscuits in thick gravy and smacking my lips, with the pure pleasure of tasting this delicious offering.

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Finally, to close out this column, I add the amazing music of a group of Asian musicians who bring forward their traditional cultures, with arms gently wrapped around jazz and improvisation.  These musicians raise awareness of the AAPI, Asian American Pacific Islander music and movement.  The music they offer is made up of string instruments.  The unique thing about their presentation is the lack of harmony.  They are melodic, but not arranged in the traditional way we harmonize with each other when playing instrumental jazz.


Amjad Ali Khan & Amaan Ali Bangash & Ayaan Ali Bangash, sarod; Wu Man, pipa; Shane Shanahan, percussion.

Both Wu Man and Shane Shanahan are the founding members of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad project.  Those are incredible credentials. Wu man, who plays pipa on this project, continues to be active touring and teaching as a member of the popular Silkroad Ensemble.  Amjad Ali Khan has incorporated his two sons into the production.  Both Ayaan Ali Bangash and Amaan Ali Bangash follow in their father’s footsteps and play the sarod.  For those who are unfamiliar with either the pipa or the sarod, the pipa is a string instruments dating back to the Han dynasty, over 2,000 years ago. Players hug the instrument to them in an upright position. The pipa is made of wood, pear-shaped, with a fretted fingerboard and four strings. You might think of it as the great, great grandfather of the guitar. The sarod is also a string instrument, looking like a very long-necked banjo and held in a similar fashion. It’s an East Indian instrument, very important as a concert instrument in Hindustani music and often accompanied by the tabla drums.  The sarod has a narrower wooden body, covered with goatskin and it features a fretless, metal fingerboard.  This is the key factor in enabling the slides that are essential to East Indian music. Using these instruments, this ensemble parts the curtains and walks onto the world stage, ably accompanied by percussionist, Shane Shanahan.

As these unique instruments are played, the musicians transcend expected jazz boundaries and cross world borders.  This album brings us music from thousands of years ago that developed in China and India.  The odd thing about this music is that the instruments do not harmonize with each other.  They concentrate on individual melodies and share solo conversations with each other. But as their liner notes remind us, ‘harmony’ is joining together, not just musically but as a people and ‘harmony’ is the blending of cultures.  The title of this project, “Music for Hope” says it all.

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October 15, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

October 15, 2022


Samara Joy, vocals; Ben Paterson, piano; David Wong, double bass; Kenny Washington, drums; Pasquale Grasso, guitar; Kendric McCallister, tenor saxophone; Terell Stafford, trumpet/flugelhorn; Donavan Austin, trombone.

Samara Joy is a voice that will mesmerize and throw us back to the 1940s, a time when we were intoxicated by the sound of Ella Fitzgerald. She has a voice that reflects many Fitzgerald nuances, as well as Sarah Vaughn influences.  Samara’s vocals are smooth as butter and her replica of horn player riffs melts across these arrangements like honey on hot toast.  Clearly, she isn’t exactly copying the Vaughn and Fitzgerald sounds, but instead has incorporated their specialties into her own style with careful precision.  If I were to hear Samara Joy on the air waves, I would quickly recognize her tone and voice.  That’s a plus! It moves her out of the realm of normal female vocalist into the echelon of recognizable jazz stylist.

Opening with “Can’t Get Out of This Mood,” Samara Joy swings competently and with ease. Her vocal smoothness is as comforting as warm lotion on a masseuse table.  While I tap my feet to the beat, I’m comfortable and relaxed listening to her silky presentation.  Pianist, Ben Paterson opens the familiar Nancy Wilson tune, accompanying Ms. Joy as she presents the introduction to “Guess Who I Saw Today.” When the other’s join in, I notice and enjoy guitarist Pasquale Grasso carefully and unobtrusively placing his complimentary licks beneath Samara Joy’s storytelling. On the Fats Navarro composition, “Nostalgia, (The Day I Knew)” Samara reminds me of Annie Ross, from Lambert, Hendricks & Ross fame.  She actually covers a tune by Jon Hendricks and Qusim Basheer, “Social Call” and does it her way.  One of my favorite tunes sung by the great Gloria Lynne was “Sweet Pumpkin.”  I was eager to hear how Samara Joy would interpret this one and she did not disappoint.  Like Gloria, she ‘swung’ the tune, but in her own sweet way. Other familiar songs we know and love that Samara Joy covers are “Misty,” and Monk’s “Round Midnight.”  There is a lovely duet with guitarist Pasquale Grasso on “Someone to Watch Over Me.”  You will find something for everyone on this introduction to a jazz vocalist who I believe will be around for decades. I predict, this is a young lady who will grow to be as popular and as respected as her iconic predecessors.

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Jean Baylor, vocals; Marcus Baylor, drums; Terry Brewer, piano/keyboards; Yasushi Nakamura, bass; Keith Loftis, tenor & soprano saxophones; Darren Barrett, trumpet.

There’s nothing like a ‘live’ performance to spotlight the true talent and professionalism of an artist.  The Baylor Project captures the excitement and improvisational power that appearing before a ‘live’ audience can inspire. I’ve been looking forward to the return of this exciting ensemble that features the amazing talents of husband and wife, Jean and Marcus Baylor.  The Baylor Project has charisma and their outstanding live performances have brought audiences to their feet worldwide.  They are former winners of the 53rd NAACP Image Award for their “The Baylor Project – Generations” album in the Outstanding Jazz Vocal category.

On this current ‘live’ recording, they were hired by Gabriel Hendifar, who is the Artistic Director of APPARATUS, a New York based interdisciplinary design studio that explores the relationship of lighting, furniture, and objects in their environments.  With the addition of a ‘live’ band and vocalist, the artistic Mr. Hendifar added groove, tone and color to his event. 

Gabriel explained, “All the elements of performance should be integrated.  Nothing could be left to chance; all must be directed toward the same end.”

Gabriel Hendifar designed the room, the stage and the setting for a three-day-reveal.  Like the improvisational music that jazz is famous for, this was a one-time experience. With American music creating the substance and American stylized art creating the mood, patrons were in for a treat. The Baylor Project covered it all. This album incorporates their musical message including religious standard songs like “Lord Keep me Day by Day” (an instrumental) and “Great is Thy Faithfulness” sung by Jean Baylor. “Call of the Drum” features Marcus Baylor on trap drums and recalls the African heritage deeply instilled in America’s people of color culture. This three minute and twenty-five second solo by Marcus Baylor spotlights his talent and agility.  This is followed by the entry of trumpeter Darren Barrett, who plays an introduction to Jean Baylor’s reappearance to sing “Tell me a Story.”  This song is a lyrical reimagining of Herbie Hancock’s “Tell Me a Bedtime Story.” Jean’s soprano voices dances across the room like a ballerina, leaping gracefully, flying through space on the pointed toes of contemporary jazz.  The appearance of Keith Loftis on soprano saxophone ‘wows’ the crowd and they respond with great applause. Marcus Baylor’s drum solo also creates excitement and inspires the crowd to erupt in whistles and handclapping. 

Jean Baylor’s vocals on the standard Sarah Vaughn hit record, “Tenderly” Is a showstopper.  At first, accompanied only by Terry Brewer’s sensitive piano, during the over eight minutes of this presentation, you will be thoroughly entertained by the saxophone of Keith Loftis and an awesome, melodic bass solo by Yasushi Nakamura. Here is a ‘live’ experience, captured as a recording, that shares the appreciation and one-time-only performance of jazz musicians, unafraid to explore their creativity and the magic of a moment. 

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Kirsten Lambert, vocals; John Brown acoustic bass; Jim Crew, piano; Dan Davis, drums; Nels Cline, Scott Sawyer & Bill Frisell, guitar; Will Campbell, saxophones.

The first two songs on this production are pretty pop-ish, but the vocalist’s voice is magnetic.  Her fresh, musical innocence is evident and compelling.  Track #3 grabs my attention titled “The Woman Who Walks the Sea.” It’s a beautiful jazz waltz tune with a memorable melody.  Kirsten Lambert nails the intervals of this jazzy melody.  There is a naturalness to her vocal composure, like someone sitting on the front porch and singing because they love to sing. “Occasional Shivers” is another well-written composition, with Will Campbell adding his saxophone licks as colorful fillers between Kirsten’s melodic lyrics.  Most of these songs are ballads, written and produced by Chris Stamey.  It becomes a project that seems to be a way to promote the composer’s work, hand in hand with introducing Kirsten Lambert’s voice. It’s an album, more like a well-produced demo, that draws interest to the composer’s songs. “Insomnia” is another ballad.  The repertoire makes it a sleepy-time production featuring easy-listening arrangements.  “Song for Johnny Cash” is a Country Western ballad that is perfectly sung by Lambert’s smooth jazzy tones.  She rejuvenates the song, along with the saxophone of Will Campbell, and they reinvent it into a jazz arrangement.  Kirsten Lambert could easily sing Country Western music or pop songs. Her style remains multi-fluid. One of my favorite compositions by Chris Stamey is “I Didn’t Mean to Fall in Love with you.”  I just wish these musicians, and the producer, had added more variety to the arranging, perhaps adding a Bossa Nova beat behind one of the ballads or a shuffle. Finally, “There’s Not A Cloud in the Sky” puts the swing groove into place.  All in all, these are well-written songs by composer, producer Chris Stamey that are competently showcased by the vocalist, Kirsten Lambert.

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TAWANDA – “SMILE” – Resonance Records

Tawanda, vocals; Josh Nelson & Tamir Hendelman, piano/arrangers; Kevin Axt, bass; Gene Coye & Ray Brinker, drums; Anthony Wilson, guitar; Gary Meek, saxophones. SPECIAL THANKS: Mirabai Daniels.

In June of 2021, this hopeful, talented jazz vocalist tied for first place in the ninth Annual Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition.  The judging panel included respected vocalists Carmen Lundy and Vanessa Rubin, along with jazz bassist, Christian McBride.  They all co-signed Tawanda’s obvious talent. This is her debut album, and she has refreshed several, beautiful songs, some we recognize from contemporary releases like Sting’s “Sister Moon” where she digs deeply into blues roots, or the Barbra Streisand popular song, “A Child is Born” arranged as a jazz waltz, but somehow misses the mark as jazz.  She covers Maureen McGovern’s pop tune, “Bring Back My Dreamer” and it stays in the pop idiom.  However, singing at a speedy pace, Tawanda sings the Billie Holiday standard, “What a Little Moonlight Can Do.”  She shows us her scatting possibilities by trading fours with the drummer and this is a jazz arrangement supporting a jazz vocalist. Tawanda seems to be searching for what type of vocalist she wants to be, pop, cabaret or jazz?  Tawanda has a palatable second-soprano warmth to her voice, at times reaching into a rich alto range and on this project, she is surrounded by amazing musicians who put the spark into these arrangements.  However, although pleasing, there was not the fire and excitement in this voice to make it burn brightly, or to single it out from the pack of jazz singers trying to be heard.

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Roberta Donnay, vocals/producer/co-arranger; Mike Greensill, piano/arranger; Ruth Davies, bass; Mark Lee, drums; José Neto, guitar; David Sturdevant, harmonica; MB Gordy, percussion.

At the first phrase of “Roberta’s Blues” you hear the tone and phrasing that brings to mind jazz vocalist, Blossom Dearie.  This is an album that celebrates Ms. Dearie’s music using the talent and voice of Roberta Donnay.  She has a similar, little-girl innocence to her vocal presentation, one that Dearie always exhibited.  Award-winning Roberta Donnay has released this, her tenth album to remind us of the iconic Blossom Dearie and her jazz legacy.

Donnay is more than just a vocalist.  As a composer, she was recognized by the prestigious ASCAP Composers Award for her song, “One World” selected as a world-peace anthem for the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations. She frequently performs with the Prohibition Mob Band, a swing dance band that portrays, with costumes and music, the era of speakeasies back in the 1920’s and 1930s.  Her “Bathtub Gin” EPK exhibited this side of her musical repertoire.

“Blossom-ing!” is a fresh labor of love for Donnay, who features a similar vocal style as her predecessor, but adds her own sassy tone and bluesy interpretation to this repertoire. On “Just One of Those Things” Roberta Donnay features her unique vocal styling, opening the tune as a duo with only bassist Ruth Davies.  When the rest of the band joins them, they go from a dramatic rubato to an up-tempo swing. It’s a terrific arrangement. Guitarist, José Neto introduces us to the song, “Inside a Silent Tear” before the Latin drenched drums of Mark Lee enter and propel this song forward.  Donnay has an easy, nonchalant way of selling each song and dramatizing each lyric.  She’s chosen sixteen songs associated with Blossom Dearie for this album, including the popular “Peel me A Grape” and tunes from the great American Song Book like “Someone to Watch over Me” and “The Party’s Over.” Roberta Donnay can swing with the best of them and when she sings “Plus Je T’Embrasse” she swings while singing in French. There’s a deep-rooted blues tone to her songs and these two embellishments (blues and swing) are what truly solidifies Donnay as a real jazz singer.  Although we often think of a blues singer as having a deep, growling powerhouse voice, Roberta Donnay shreds that stereotype with her kittenish, playful vocal style.  Her ability to sing fluidly in French and English expands her territory and garners her international possibilities and audiences. The other thing I like about Donnay’s style is that she doesn’t over-sing the songs or use long, legato lines, fancy runs or tricks to express herself. Roberta Donnay is simply unique in her style, solid in her presentation and honest in her delivery.

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Kate Baker, vocals/composer; Vic Juris, guitar/composer.

There’s nothing as vulnerable and intoxicating as guitar and voice, especially if they are both master musicians.  This is the case with Kate Baker and Vic Juris.  They open this delightful album with a song titled, “God Only Knows.” 

“Having Vic as my husband and collaborator on the bandstand made ours more than a musical partnership and more than a marriage,” Kate Baker informs us in her liner notes.

They had been performing as a duo for two decades and after the twenty-year performance schedule, decided to record themselves so they could sit back and hear what their responsive audiences heard. They entered engineer Paul Wickliffe’s recording studio with the plan to lay down six tunes.  It was kind of like a woodshed tape, one they could listen to and improve upon.  Vic Juris, a guitar giant, and an influential educator who acted as a ‘first call’ studio sideman for more than forty years was prone to scoff at rehearsals. Juris encouraged his wife, with the beautiful voice, to find freedom in the moment instead of rehearsing a set pattern of presentation.  Together they are as fluid and strong as a rushing brook rippling across shiny, multi-colored stones.  Their music brings peace and comfort.

Baker too is an educator, a vocal coach and planted her feet in contemporary music as well as jazz. Their uncommon musical symbiosis leaves audiences floored, but totally satisfied.  The diversity of their music is pleasant and appealing. On this album, when they move from a lovely, jazzy presentation of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face” transitioning to the song, “Black Crow.” In other words, from jazz to what could have been a 1960 rock record doesn’t even ripple our appreciation pool.  Songs like “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” is a duo artistic masterpiece.  Their repertoire is a lesson in ‘song selling’ by Kate Baker.  The way she approaches the melodies, the improvisations and her sharing of lyrics is stunning, honest and sung like the seasoned vocalist she is.  Just listen to her rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” tune and how Kate seems to relate to those poignant lyrics and trust us with the message.

In late December of 2019, Vic Juris passed away after a brief but valiant battle with nuero-endocrine cancer.  His untimely death, at age 66, shocked his loved ones and the music world. His career included a twenty-year gig in saxophonist Dave Liebman’s band.

“When we were thinking about songs to do, we wanted to do all new tunes and there was no theme.  But in reality, the theme was there all along.  But neither of us knew what was coming.  I think the spiritual world was giving us a message,” Kate Baker reflected.

We, the listeners, are blessed to hear the purity, love and camaraderie that is captured on this couple’s debut album.  Produced by guitar great, Dave Stryker, “Return to Shore” spotlights some of Vic Juris and Kate Baker’s innovative duet magic.  It also captures the outstanding guitar gift that Vic Juris had, his technique and creativity shine, along with his sensitivity to accompanying his wife and longtime partner, Kate Baker, in a tasty, comfortable, and improvisational way.  

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JUDY NIEMACK – “WHAT’S LOVE?” – Sunnyside Records

Judy Niemack, vocals/composer; Peter Bernstein, guitar/composer; Sullivan Fortner, piano; Doug Weiss, bass; Joe Farnsworth, drums; Eric Alexander, alto saxophone.

Guitarist, Peter Bernstein and vocalist, composer Judy Niemack have collaborated on the first two songs on this “What’s Love?” album.  As co-writers, they parade their talent and songwriting skills for this production.  The opening song, “Feelin’ It in Your Bones” is well-written and splashed liberally in the blues. It’s a strong jazz tune with a well-composed lyric.  The chord structure is perfect for these musical players to strut their stuff and showcase their individual talents.  It begins with Peter Bernstein taking his guitar solo, followed by the flying fingers of Sullivan Fortner on piano. Doug Weiss makes an inspired statement on double bass before Judy Niemack re-enters the song.  This entire album showcases Niemack’s strength as a composer.  She has penned ten of the thirteen songs she offers the listener.   Additionally, she ‘covers’ the jazz standard “For All We Know” and the Tina Turner hit record, “What’s Love Got To Do With It.”  The third cover is “Born to be Blue.” Judy Niemack’s talents abound on the Internet, but for me, it’s her songwriting talents that sparkle.  Quite a few of her original compositions are very well written. Favorite original compositions are Track #1, “Just When I Thought” and the ballad “With You” that she performs with just Bernstein’s guitar to accompany her.

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Nica Carrington, vocals; John Proulx, piano/arranger/producer; Chuck Berghofer, bass; Joe Labarbera, drums.

It’s pleasant to hear a voice so pure, so clear and unpretentious.  Nica Carrington brings a freshness to old standards, starting with “Skylark.”  With the accompaniment and arrangements of pianist John Proulx, they begin as a duet and the other musicians join in later.  Carrington offers no vocal acrobatics or intricate riffs and runs.  As a child, she was infatuated with Frank Sinatra and his wonderful way of lyrically telling stories.  She has incorporated that quality into her own style and presentation.  Her honesty shines through on tunes like the obscure Mal Waldron and Billie Holiday composition, “Left Alone” and the more familiar, “When Sunny Gets Blue” or “We’ll Be Together Again.” Carrington has been a long-time jazz fan for years.  Before the COVID lockdown, Carrington had begun taking vocal lessons.  She had always wanted to sing, but finally decided to hone her naturally beautiful voice. Once teacher and student could no longer meet in person, she went Online looking for a Plan B.  That’s when she discovered L.A.’s very own, John Proulx.

“He’s so supportive and encouraging, so I took a chance and asked him if he would work with me on an album.  It turned out to be a great move,” Nica mused.

Proulx became her arranger and producer for this project, bringing on board the wonderful Chuck Berghofer on bass and renowned drummer, Joe LaBarbera.  Both are popular session musicians who have worked with people Nica Carrington had only heard on records.  Berghofer has played with Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, Peggy Lee and even Carrington’s favorite, Frank Sinatra.  Labarbera was a member of the Chuck Mangione Quartet and has worked with jazz icons like Jim Hall, Phil Woods, Art Farmer and Toots Thieleman, to list only a few.  The awesome thing about working with John Proulx, he is not only a gifted pianist, but he’s an amazing vocalist himself, with several albums to his artistic credit. So, surrounded with this trio of historic excellence, Nica Carrington plunged into the work of creating her own jazz legacy.  The one thing I love about Nica Carrington’s voice is her warm intimacy and ability to connect with her audience.  It’s her truthfulness, when she sings these songs, that draws the listener into her space.  Her voice dials back to a time when the object of singing was to tell the song’s story and share personal passion by being vulnerable.  This is a voice you will remember and the old standards she sings will make you believe you are hearing these songs for the first time.

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October 1, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

October 1, 2022

Each month, as the packages of music pour into my post office box, I feel grateful to be one of the people listening and writing about these amazing and creative jazz project.  I remember when jazz journalists used to come out to our shows and review our performances. I recall when Leonard Feather documented jazz and jazz artists, creating legacy books. I miss local L.A. journalists like Bill Kohlhaase and Bob Camden, who came out to venues and listened to ‘live’ jazz. As this holiday season grows closer, remember to give the amazing gift of jazz.

ALEX ACUÑA “GIFTS”  – Le Coq Records                                                  

Alex Neciosup Acuña, drums/percussion/composer; Otmaro Ruiz, piano; John Pena, bass; Ramon Stagnaro, guitar; Lorenzo Ferraro, tenor & soprano saxophone; Giovanna Clayton, cello; Michael Stever, trumpet; Diana Acuña & Regina Acuña, vocals.

“Music has been a gift from God to me since I was three years old, when I started to imitate sounds with my mind, my hands and my heart!  My father and my five older brothers were my first musical heroes.  One of the main reasons I played music was to establish relationships and to share the gifts with others.  I still continue to keep nourishing the gift by shining and sharpening it with my friends, playing and displaying what we do best,” Alex Acuña proudly states his inspiration and goal in performing music.

Surrounded by an outstanding cast of musical characters, percussion master Alex Acuña offers us a diverse collection of songs that inspire and lift us. Beginning with Track #1, “In Town,” he lays down a super groove that will have you finger snappin’ and toe tappin.’  The ensemble really grabs my attention on the Joe Zawinul hit composition, “Mercy Mercy.”  John Pena offers a thrilling blues bass guitar at the introduction and Acuña throws down a funk groove that locks the band into place. Ramon Stagnaro rocks on guitar, digging deeply into the blues.

This is followed by an original Alex Acuña tune called “Amandote” that is tender, full of passion and very beautiful.  He co-wrote it with Abraham Laboriel and Rique Pantoja.  This quickly becomes one of my favorite songs on this wonderful album of music. Michael Stever adds his trumpet magic to the mix.  His composition, “Chuncho” is fun, with the percussion driving the tune in a brilliant way and the addition of voices by Diana and Regina Acuña add a festive feeling to the tune. Alex Acuña displays his mastery on percussion, shining brightly in the spotlight.

Alex Acuña is an incredibly talented Peruvian drummer and percussionist, internationally acclaimed from his work with the Mambo King, Pérez Prado, then gigging in Las Vegas with Elvis Presley and later, touring with Weather Report, famous as the fusion, funk band of the 1970s.  This album reunites him with old and extremely talented friends like Ramon Stagnaro on guitar, John Pena on bass and Otmaro Ruiz on piano.  They become his cement-solid rhythm section and were part of “The Unknowns” a group he put together in 1990. This group cut a record called, “Thinking of You.”  So, there is a familiarity and cohesiveness to these musicians that shimmers and shines on every tune.  Lorenzo Ferraro is a powerful Peruvian tenor player who also plays soprano sax on the heart-wrenching ballad, “Divina.” Acuña also adds Giovanna Clayton on cello to beautifully color some of his arrangements.  This is a product sure to please and like its title, a true musical ‘Gift.”

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GRANT GEISSMAN – “BLOOZ” – Futurism Records

Grant Geissman, 1966 Epiphone Riviera guitar/tambourine/shaker/composer/1965 Gibson SG guitar/ 1966 Martin OO-18 acoustic/1954 Gibson Les Paul goldtop; Jim Cox, Hammond B3 organ/piano/ Wurlitzer elec. piano; David Garfield & Emilio Palame, piano; Russell Ferrante, Fender Rhodes electric piano; Trey Henry, upright bass/1968 Fender Precision bass; Kevin Axt, upright bass; Ray Brinker & Bernie Dresel, drums; Tiki Pasillas, congas/timbales/shakere; Kevin Winard, congas/bongos; Robben Ford, 1954/1959 Gibson Les Paul conversion guitar; Josh Smith, FlatV1 guitar; Joe Bonamassa, 1952 Fender Telecaster elec. Guitar; Randy Brecker, trumpet; Tom Scott, tenor saxophone.

Guitarist Grant Geissman winds back time with his “Preach” tune ambling on the scene, straight out of the 1960’s music era.  Geissman is even playing a 1966 Epiphone Riviera guitar. Randy Brecker adds his more contemporary trumpet solo to the mix and it works! The song, “Side Hustle” is another throw-back tune.  There was a dance craze in the 1970s (The Hustle) that took the country by storm when Van McCoy had a big hit record called “The Hustle.” It was played in every discotheque across the globe. The Hustle was a so-called ‘Line’ dance, similar to the Electric Slide and the Wobble that are popular today.  Grant Geissman has composed all the music on this album, borrowing from various varieties of the blues. You’ll hear everything from Rock-a-Billy to ‘Down-home’ blues.   On “Time Enough at Last” he slides into a more jazz fueled blues.  Then on “Fat Back” We’re back to 1970-style blues that was popular in that day and age. Geissman adds Tom Scott to the mix on this one to pump more soul into the tune.  This is a retro album that turns back the hands of time to when soul music and jazz locked hands with the blues and groups like Les McCann and Eddie Harris soared to popularity, along with tunes like Mercy, Mercy that raced to the top of the charts.  Geissman also incorporates the 1950s and 1960s rhythm and blues grooves into his compositions. It’s a nice blend of “Blooz” for his album of the same title.

Track #6 quickly becomes one of my favorites.  Titled “Rage Cage” Grant Geissman shows off his guitar chops atop a strong shuffle beat.  A few of Grant’s licks remind me B.B. King on this tune, and Jim Cox kills it on organ! On “One G and Two J’s” Geissman has based this song on a really old record called “The Hambone”.  I started singing the words along to it. “Hambone, hambone have you heard?  Papa’s gonna buy you a mocking bird.” 

This is an album rich with history, funk, nostalgia and just plain fun. The Geissman composition, “Stranger Danger” is a Straight-ahead blues that makes my foot pat and my head bob with the tempo. I hear shades of Wes Montgomery on a few of Geissman’s licks and the rhythm section is as tight as an unopened champagne bottle, and just as good. Russell Ferrante gets his message across on the black and white keys, while Trey Henry walks his bass beneath Ferrante’s exciting solo.  All the while, Ray Brinker pumps energy into the band on drums. Geissman’s title says it all.  Here you have the “Blooz” in all its colorful and versatile beauty, celebrated by Grant Geissman and his musical, merry men.

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Adam Larson, saxophone; Ben Leifer, bass; John Kizilarmut, drums.

Saxophonist, Adam Larson offers this follow-up album to his very well-received February 2022 album, “With Love from Chicago.”  This time he celebrates Kansas City, a place he moved to in 2019 and is now a leading creative force in a city famous for jazz and jazz musicians.  Once again, Larson offers us his flying, bird-like saxophone solos with a chord less trio, leaving our imaginations to explode along with the music. This time, he features Ben Leifer on bass and John Kizilarmut on drums.  This is the second of a planned trilogy of trio recordings that each celebrates a different city and the impact that place had on Larson’s musicianship and artistry.  Leifer and Kizilarmut were not on the preceding album but are strong musicians in their own right and based in Kansas City. I find Kizilarmut exceptionally creative on drums.  You can clearly hear his technique and attention to both time and melody on the tune, “Life Cycle,” that’s a Latin composition by Larson and swings briskly through the changes.  Adam Larson’s horn sings like a bird on steroids. 

Their rendition of Charlie Parker’s “Chi-Chi” composition is fast and fun.  Ben Leifer is given time to explore his bass solo chops, accompanied duo style by the very creative John Kizilarmut’s drums. “The Jewel” settles the trio down to a slow crawl.  It’s a jazz waltz and Leifer dances along on bass and partners with Larson’s melodic saxophone.  Leifer not only roots the chords and locks in the tempo with Kizilarmut, he also takes an opportunity to play a ’cappella on this tune as a solo piece. They close the album with “Beatitudes” showcasing its pretty melody with a happy Latin-feel to the tempo arrangement. I come away wondering, when does Adam Larson breathe?  His long, legato, expressive lines of saxophone music leave little room to gasp for air.  Impressive!

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John Aram, trombone/bandleader; Tim Garland, composer/tenor saxophone/bass clarinet/flute; Joe Locke, vibraphone; Amy Keys, vocals; Arthur Hnatek, drums; Rob Luft, guitar; Tom Cawley, piano/keyboards; Phil Donkin, upright & electric bass; Tom Walsh & Jeff Baud, trumpet; Matthias Tschopp, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet; Graeme Blevins, saxophone/flute.

“Rhapsody in Red” is the first tune that dances off John Aram’s CD.  Obviously, it’s a redo of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, but with a uniqueness of its own.  Reed player, Tim Garland, is the main composer and one of the featured artists in the United Underground Orchestra.  He and the 12-piece Orchestra pay tribute to George Gershwin’s masterpiece in their own, very original way.   The vibraphone solo by Joe Locke is warm with improvisation and creativity.

Track #2, “We Got a Future” is arranged in a contemporary way, with the bass (Phil Donkin) taking stage center and the vocals of Amy Keys shining like sunrays. Amy has toured as a soloist with Herbie Hancock, as well as singing with just about every pop icon on the planet.  “Black Elk” continues to showcase the warm arrangements by Garland.  This tune steps with one foot in jazz to another foot placed solidly in classical music. These are interesting and artistic arrangements by Tim Garland, reminding me of something Gil Evans would have arranged.  I keep waiting for the Miles Davis trumpet to step through the curtains.  Instead, I thoroughly enjoy the improvisation of Joe Locke on vibraphone and the Swiss-based trombonist and band leader, John Aram blazing away, showcasing his amazing talent.

“I first met Tim Garland in the early 2000s, just after he had started working with Chick Corea.  I had been really influenced by an album Tim recorded called ‘Enter the Fire.’  We recorded an album together in 2003,” John Aram recalled in his press package.

Aram wound up asking Garland if he would be interested in writing a suite of music for a band John Aram was putting together.  That group would eventually be comprised of musicians from London, Switzerland and the United States and become his 12-piece United Underground Orchestra.  This project was composed during the horrible pandemic days.

On “Ambleside Nights,” a flying saxophone takes center stage.  That saxophone and Joe Locke on vibes each take solo turns, both impressive.  This entire ensemble of musicians sounds comfortable with each other.  Perhaps because Phil Donkin on bass, Tom Cawley on piano and reed master, Graeme Blevins, have all been members of John Aram’s quintet since 2010. Graeme and John worked together and toured with Phil Collins for a time.  The composition “Ambleside Nights” is Straight-ahead bliss, fueled by the young, Swiss drummer, Arthur Hnatek. The composition, “This is Just to Say” features once again the haunting and beautiful vocals of Amy keys.  This tune leans towards the pop side.  The trumpet soaks up the spotlight on “Little Psalm.”   There is something for everyone on this creative project.  These arrangements and compositions will keep you engaged, and the musicianship is outstanding.

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Owen Broder, alto & baritone saxophones; Carmen Staaf, piano; Barry Stephenson, bass; Bryan Carter, drums; Riley Mulherkar, trumpet.

Although Owen Broder is fluent in soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones, on this project he has chosen to display his talents on alto and baritone sax only.  One of the songs that made me fall under the ‘Broder spell’ was his baritone saxophone presentation on “Ballade for the Very Sad and Very Tired Lotus Eaters.”  It was such a sensitive and gorgeous example of a Johnny Hodges song, that I had to play this cut three times in a row. 

In case you don’t know who Johnny Hodges is, Broder explains: “Hodges was one of my first inspirations on the saxophone and I continue to be inspired by his sound and melodic approach to improvising.  As a saxophonist, I was interested in exploring Hodges’ music beyond his position in Ellington’s band, and was excited to discover record after record he made as a bandleader on which we can hear him stretch more as an improviser.” 

I wanted to post the absolutely beautiful ‘cover’ that Owen Broder played of that unusually long titled tune, but it wasn’t yet posted. His approach on baritone saxophone is lush and sensuous, really doing the Hodges composition justice. 

Johnny Hodges was born in July of 1907, over a hundred years ago, but his music and talent still bring the world great pleasure and respect.  He was the lead alto saxophonist for the Duke Ellington Big Band for several years.  His playing was respected as one of the unique and identifying musical sounds of Ellington’s Orchestra. His nickname was “Rabbit” thus the tune “18 Carrots for Rabbit” has a special ‘inside joke’ meaning. Bryan Carter excels on drums during this up-tempo arrangement.

“My generation is really a product of all that Charlie Parker brought to this music. … But Johnny Hodges has always been a big influence on my playing. I really enjoy his lyrical, melodic playing and the warm vocal quality of his approach to sound,” Owen Broder praises Johnny Hodges in his press package.

Owen Broder is a young, talented composer, as well as a gifted reed man and was recognized in 2018 by the Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award. He’s brought together an extraordinary group of musicians including trumpeter Riley Mulherkar, co-founder of the brass quartet called, The Westerlies, as well as a member of Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project.  Riley opens the swinging first tune on the album, “Royal Garden Blues” and trades conversation with Broder’s alto saxophone, also at moments playing trumpet in unison and, at pivotal times, harmonizing brightly with the bandleader.  Broder’s solo is smooth as fresh cream and makes for an inspired listen. I was impressed with Carmen Staaf’s piano solo. Barry Stephenson offers a happy-go-lucky bass solo on “Viscount,” a tune quite similar to the familiar composition “It Could Happen to You.”  Every song on this album not only celebrates the great Johnny Hodges but is a substantial testament to the excellent musicianship of Owen Broder himself, who takes the Hodges legacy to a refreshing, new level.

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Michael Hackett, trumpet/flugelhorn/composer; Tim Coffman, trombone/composer; Sharel Cassity, alto saxophone; Jeremy Kahn, piano; Christian Dillingham, bass; Bob Rummage, drums; Arno Gonzalez, timbale, guiro; Tony Castaneda, congas.

Trombonist, Tim Coffman first met trumpeter, Michael Hackett in the fall of 1983 when they both were playing in the Indiana University School of Music jazz ensemble under the direction of David Baker. They’ve been friends ever since.  This album began with a composition Dr. Michael Hackett wrote for his father who passed away in 2019. It is the title tune. He also decided to tribute a young student who graduated from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in the spring of 2017 and unfortunately was dead in June of that same year. The student was only twenty-four.  Dr. Hackett’s friend and colleague, Will Campbell, wrote the piece and it was titled “Twenty-four” to tribute Casey Blackwelder’s years on earth. It’s a Latin flavored composition with a pretty melody.  Tim Coffman’s trombone makes a strong improvisational statement.  Once the sextet was formed and they began to record songs, this project grew from two to eight songs.  Tim has written the first song, “Blues for MH” and it swings hard, at a medium tempo. It also gives each player a chance to strut their stuff. Sharel Cassity appears on alto saxophone and presents a powerfully impressive solo.  Jeremy Kahn is spontaneous and creative during his piano solo, followed by Christian Dillingham during his bass interpretation.  Bob Rummage takes several bars to explore his drums and both Dr. Hackett and Tim Coffman shine on their respective horns. Hackett has formidable composing skills and Coffman is a sensitive arranger.  Their blended talents offer us a pleasing product.  “Esox Fables” is one of my favorites on this production, with its bright tempo followed by the title tune, “Western Skies.” Here’s a lovely tune, with Michael Hackett’s horn stage front, singing his pain and pleasure through the bell of his horn and an outstanding piano tribute by Jeremy Kahn. The one cover tune is a McCoy Tyner composition, “You Taught My Heart to Sing” and is arranged with a dancing Latin beat.  This is a good, solid jazz production from beginning to end.

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Antonio Adolfo, piano/composer/arranger; Ricardo Silveira, guitar; Jorge Helder, acoustic bass; Rafael Barata, drums/percussion; Rafael Rocha, trombone; Marcelo Martins, tenor saxophone/ flute; Danilo Sinna, alto saxophone; Jesse Sadoc, trumpet/flugelhorn.

This is the first album that Antonio Adolfo offers us ten of his own, original compositions, with not a single ‘cover’ tune.  The multi-Latin Grammy and Grammy nominated pianist is a competent and passionate composer.  I applaud his decision to finally create an entire album of his original works. In the past, I have been thoroughly entertained by Adolfo’s productions tributing the work of Antonio Jobim, Milton Nascimento and Wayne Shorter, to name just a few.  Antonio Adolfo’s name is one that resonates with productions of culturally rich music and beautifully composed and arranged tunes that please the ear.  This album is no exception.  But on “Octet and Originals” you will hear eight qualified and brilliant musicians who only interpret Adolfo’s compositions. This album sparkles with joy and innovation.  His arrangements mirror a panoply of Brazilian musical styles including samba, baião, bossa, Partido, alto, the quadrilha rhythm, toada, calango, maracatu and more.  However, Adolfo’s elegant arrangements and harmonic concepts easily fit into the jazz tradition and support his reputation as a Brazilian jazz master. There is always a sense of romance mixed into his well-composed tunes and arrangements, along with Brazilian and Latin rhythms.

Opening with “Heart of Brazil” Jorge Helder sets the mood on acoustic bass, and Ricardo Silvero’s guitar joins him to create a mood.  I quickly fall in love with this tune. The rhythm section creates a plush mattress of sound for the horns to bounce upon.  When Antonio’s piano solo enters, the horns blow like curtains in a summer breeze, supportive but never intrusive. This type of attentive arranging is visible throughout. That’s another thing I enjoy about Adolfo’s talents, his creative attention to detail and musicality.  Obviously, he is full of music.  For decades he has turned out album after album and his compositions have been covered by a multitude of iconic artists like Stevie Wonder, Earl Klugh, Herb Alpert, Sergio Mends and Dionne Warwick.  His breadth of creativity combines cultures and music.  You hear this in his “Boogie Baião” composition that starts out very pop-ish and morphs into jazz as smooth and sweet as syrup on pancakes. The tune “Emau” reminds me of a Quincy Jones production and features Jesse Sadoc blowing excitement from the bell of his horn atop a cushion of harmonic horns and the bright brilliant drums of Rafael Barata.  Every tune is memorable, and each arrangement is beautifully written and executed.  “Pretty World” has one of those melodies you fall in love with and I completely understand how it became an international hit recorded by many. As a plus,  Alan and Marilyn Bergman wrote English lyrics to this song in 1969 for the Sergio Mendes popular group, Brazil 66 to record.

This is quality music, once again, from the legendary Brazilian talent of Antonio Adolfo.

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Jeff Denson, double bass; Romain Pilon, guitar; Brian Blade, drums.

As soon as I hear the second cut on this album, that happens to be the title tune “Finding Light” I am drawn into the tight chemistry and warm creativity of this trio.  It’s a melodic composition that gives each musician a space of their own to explore and improvise, at the same time holding down the rhythm and groove of the tune.  You can clearly hear each person adding their own distinct fire and energy.  Jeff Denson’s double bass dances and tightens up the rhythm section, locking in with Brian Blade on drums.  Blade is full of spunk and mastery on the trap drums, accenting, while all the time keeping the tempo consistent and creatively sparking and coloring the song.  Romain Pilon is compelling on guitar.  His style draws me in, like a spider to the fly.  He wraps his guitar message around me in a web of notes, melodies and technical mastery. He blends styles.  First, the French guitarist is adept at playing several styles of jazz.  He can swing with the best of them, plays bebop, and with the same ease he plays modern jazz. Also, this trio has no problem moving into realms of Avant-garde.  Sometimes I hear a bit of Wes Montgomery reflected in Pilon’s style, like during the “This Way Cooky” tune he composed for his pooch, who plays ‘tug of war’ with the leach when they go out for a walk.  The funk groove is solidly supported by Blade’s exciting drums and Denson’s bass footprints that march beneath.  “A Moment in Time” plays with the Avant-garde concept briefly and then sets the stage for some unexpected thriller moment, where a character jumps out the bushes and grabs you.  It conjures up that kind of scene.  All three of these musicians have a way of holding court together, each with their own unique dialogue, all talking at the same time, but blending sweetly like eggs and sugar in a batter bowl. They cook together. They make sense together.  They make music together.  They make magic together. No one left the cake out in the rain.  I can’t wait to taste the next tune.

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