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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