THE AMAZING GIFT OF JAZZ MUSIC

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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THE ADAM LARSON TRIO – “WITH LOVE, FROM KANSAS CITY” – Outside in Music”

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 & THE UNITED UNDERGROUND ORCHESTRA –“RHAPSODY IN RED” – Independent label

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 – “HODGES: FRONT AND CENTER VOL. 1” – Independent label

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/TIM COFFMAN SEXTET featuring SHAREL CASSITY – “WESTERN SKIES” – Summit Records

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 – “OCTET AND ORIGINALS” – AAM Music

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, ROMAIN PILON, BRIAN BLADE – “FINDING LIGHT” –  Ridgeway Records

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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