GUITAR PLAYERS CHASE HORIZONS ACROSS JAZZ SPACE

By Dee Dee McNeil

Oct 28, 2022

RUSS HEWITT – “CHASING HORIZONS” – Independent Label

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 TRIO & QUARTET – “FEELIN’ IT” – Joplin & Sweeney

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 – “TIM FITZGERALD’S FULL HOUSE” – Cellar 20 Music Group

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, WU MAN, AYAAN ALI BANGASH, AMAAN ALI BANGASH & SHANE SHANAHAN – “MUSIC FOR HOPE.” –  Zoho Records

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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