OUTSTANDING JAZZ ARRANGERS & COMPOSERS

October 14, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz journalist

October 13, 2020

JIM WALLER BIG BAND – “BUCKET LIST” – Independent Label

Jim Waller, arranger/composer/tenor & soprano saxophones/ Hammond XK-5 organ; Chris Villanueva & Andy Langham, piano; Jason Valdez, electric guitar; Jim Kalson, electric bass; Georgie Padilla, congas/percussion; Will Kennedy, drums; Joe Caploe, timpani; Bill King, lead alto saxophone/flute; Adam Carrillo & Matthew Maldonado, tenor saxophone; Brian Christensen, alto saxophone/flute; Dr. Joey Colarusso, baritone saxophone; Libby Barnette, French horn; Karlos Elizondo, lead trumpet; Dr. Adrian Ruiz, Al Gomez, Lee Sparky Thomason  & Curtis Calderon, trumpets; Jaime Parker, lead trombone;  Gilbert Garza & Mark Hill, trombones; Matthew Erickson & Dr. Martin McCain, bass trombones; STRING SECTION: Anastasia Parker, concertmaster; Dr. Stephanie Westney & Eric Siu, Violins; Yang Guo & David Wang, viola; Ken Freudigman, cello; Jacqueline Sotelo, vocals.

Some might consider Jim Waller an over-achiever.  He is a competent player of alto & soprano saxophones, the trombone, organ, piano and is a well-respected arranger and composer.  No wonder that he found himself eager to put together a big band to interpret his original compositions and play his arrangements.  The “Bucket List” album presents a number of familiar standard songs with five of Waller’s original songs included.  You could say this 21-piece Jim Waller Big Band is a big accomplishment from his personal bucket list.

Waller’s first original opens this album and is titled, “Samba for Suzell.”  It dances onto the scene and features a spirited tenor saxophone solo by composer/bandleader, Jim Waller; a strong piano improvisation by Chris Villanueva and a spunky drum solo featuring Will Kennedy, (a former member of the Yellow Jackets).  The familiar showstopping song penned by Peggy Lee and William Schluger, “I Love Being Here With You,” is well-sung by Jacqueline Sotelo, who adds her scat vocalise to the mix. Her vocals are also dynamic and gospel-rich on the band’s rendition of “Georgia On My Mind.”  This entire album offers a delightful mix of Latin, ‘swing,’ blues, waltzes and ballads. All fourteen compositions are arranged beautifully and played well.  Other favorites are: “Waltz for Laura,” a Jim Waller composition; their Bluesy introduction on “Rhapsody in Blue” with the various time changes enriching the arrangement and their closing composition written by Jim Waller, “This Is It.”

Jim Waller was born in Santa Barbara, California and attended Fresno State College.  He formed a successful surf group who called themselves The Deltas.  They recorded two albums in the 60s. In the 70s he changed directions, becoming an important member of the groundbreaking jazz/rock octet called “Los Blues.”  They were a popular working group in Las Vegas from 1967 to 1973.  Waller arranged their music and produced an album for the United Artists Record label.  In 1977, he moved to San Antonio, Texas where he joined a group called “Road Apple.”  He also became a sideman for a number of legendary performers like Etta James, Marvin Gay, Bill Watrous, Willie Nelson, Richie Cole, Paul Gonsalves and Pete Fountain.  He’s currently a well-appreciated educator and owns a recording studio where he stays busy producing both music and jingles.  With the release of this album, he can cross another accomplishment off of his “Bucket List” and add to his biography, ‘success as a big band leader.’

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WALTER WHITE – “BBXL” – Independent Label

Walter White, trumpet/flugelhorn/composer/arranger; Gary Schunk, piano; James Simonson, Rubin Rodriguez & Jack Dryden, bass; Jeff Trudell & Graham Hawthorne, drums; Oscar Cruz, congas; Pablo Batisto, percussion; SAXOPHONES: Tristan Cappel/alto; Donnell Snyder, tenor/baritone; Alex Foster, soprano/alto/tenor; Ron Blake, alto/tenor; Steve Kenyon, baritone; TROMBONES: Conrad Herwig, Dave Masko, Adam Machaskee, Altin Sencalar, Chris Glassman & David Taylor; TRUMPETS: Wayne Bergeron& Ken Robinson.

Walter White composed the first track, titled “Atlantic Bridge.” In liner notes, he explains the title as an imaginary bridge between Galicia, Spain and New York City.  The catchy tune is based on a Galician bagpipe melody.  White’s lush arrangement has a big band propensity with the sounds of Spain juxtaposed against a bebop feel.  The ensemble comes out swinging hard and Alex Foster offers a sparkling soprano saxophone solo.  “Blue Rondo a la Turk” begins with a royal horn announcement after which, Gary Schunk’s piano steps into the spotlight, bold and bluesy.  This is another dynamic arrangement by Walter White that paints the face of this Dave Brubeck jazz standard with brand, new make-up.

“I was excited to arrange Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk” as a commission for the Detroit Jazz Festival’s Tribute to Brubeck.  Chris Brubeck showed me his dad’s chord voicings, which I incorporated into the chart.  Not many piano players can handle a part as difficult as this as well as Gary Schunk,” Walter White explained.

There are two more familiar jazz standards that follow including Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island” and Horace Silver’s popular “Nica’s Dream.”  This was originally arranged for Maynard Ferguson’s band.  At one point in his colorful career, White was a member of Maynard’s aggregation, proudly swapping double high C’s with Maynard and being featured as a soloist by his boyhood idol.  He also played with the Woody Herman orchestra, Harry Connick Jr., the Mingus Big Band, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, the Manhattan jazz Orchestra and Arturo Sandoval.

Then comes a Walter White original, “Portus Apostoli” performed with just Schunk at piano and White’s trumpet taking center stage at the introduction.  You can marvel at all his Dizzy Gillespie-type high notes that whistle from the bell of his horn.  Walter White plays with concentrated emotional connection a warm, vibrant tone.  Another of his original compositions closes this record out titled, “Yo Conecto.” It’s a spirited, Latin-flavored piece with background voices that chant the title as Walter White’s trumpet dips and dives above the invigorating horn section.  This tune is named after an ancient seaport near Noia, Spain.  It was written as a tribute to White’s friend, Kenny Wheeler, who had a profound impact on Walter’s playing and writing.

“Rick Margitza’s elegant tenor solo is a highlight as he melodically navigates the complex chord changes,” White compliments one of many iconic players who make up his big band sound.

Because it took two-years, at various studios and locations around the globe, you will notice the listing of several and various musicians who participated in this work of art.  Many are band leaders in their own right. This is an all-star effort that elevates Walter White, the trumpeter, arranger and composer as another one of our unsung heroes in jazz.  His dexterity and emotional delivery on his horn is memorable throughout.  White’s arrangements are lush and beautifully executed.  You can feel the excitement soaring from your CD player.  Perhaps White himself sums up the experience best when he said:

“After all the tracks were recorded, I got back to my studio and felt like a hyped-up kid on Halloween night dumping out my stash to tally up the goodies.  I got a lot of king-sized treats!!”

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CÉSAR OROZCO & KAMARATA JAZZ – “ROOTED FORWARD” – Independent Label

César Orozco, piano/keyboard/composer/arranger/lead vocals; Rodner Padilla, elec. bass; Gabriel Vivas, double bass; Pablo Bencid, drums; Jorge Glem, Venezuelan cuatro; Diego ‘El Negro’ Alvarez, batcusion/ Cajon/Afro-Venezuelan drums (cumaco, clarin & laures); Fran Vielma, congas/guiro/Afro-venezuelan drums; Roberto Moreno, congas/quinto/chekere/clave/cata; Troy Roberts, tenor  & soprano saxophone; Antonio Luis Orta, tenor, soprano & alto saxophone; Tyler Mire & Alex Norris, trumpets; Luke Brimhall & Natasha Bravo, trombone; Marcial Isturiz, lead vocals; Zamira Briceno & David Alastre, backing vocals.

“When I started to plan the album during the summer of 2019, I thought it was time to do an album that could showcase my composer and arranger side a little bit more than I had on the previous ones,” César Orozco affirmed in his press package.

With this production, Orozco has incorporated roots of traditional rhythms from Venezuela and Cuba.  You will hear Cuban danzon, son, chachacha, Venezuelan joropo, merengue and Afro-Cuban styles, obvious and beautiful, weaved into these arrangements, along with contemporary harmonies, sweet tastes of big band salsa, a mixture of meters, tempos and the key element of jazz; that exhibits improvisation galore.  On Track 1, The horns rule. Their harmonic arrangement blasts open the stage drapes and the song, “Heavy Waver” features a stellar trumpet solo by Alex Norris propelled by brilliant, percussive energy provided by Diego Alvarez and Jorge Glem’s cuatro.  The addition of Jorge Glem’s Cuatro instrument adds spice to this production.  The instrument is very close to a guitar sound.  Next, the ensemble pulls back the curtains for César Orozco to showcase his piano magic.  His hands move like a wand across the keyboard, spinning out melodic notes and improvisation.  The tune is happy, exuberant and is one of seven songs penned by César Orozco.  This album spotlights his composer strength.  It is steeped in various hot rhythms and lovely, flavored melodies that our ears soak up and enjoy.  These songs are invigorating and reflective of Orozco’s rich culture.  At the same time, these arrangements move forward into a more contemporary and modern jazz world.  This is reflected in the album’s title, “Rooted Forward.”    César Orozco has cleverly orchestrated this music to not only entertain, but to embrace the best of both worlds.

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RAPHAEL PANNIER – “FAUNE” – French Paradox

Raphael Pannier, drums/composer/arranger; Miguel Zenon, alto saxophone/musical director; Aaron Goldberg, piano; Francois Moutin, upright bass; Giorgi Mikadze, classical piano.

Opening with Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” composition, drummer, Raphael Pannier, displays a certain fearlessness.  The song starts out so beautifully poignant and emotional with Miguel Zenon’s alto saxophone pushing loneliness through the bell of his horn.  When Aaron Goldberg solos on piano, he continues the emotional rendering.  Beneath all that emotion is Raphael Pannier, pushing, prodding, electrifying us with his technical skills on the drums.  As Zenon weeps and moans with his horn, Pannier takes a spirited percussive solo.  Then, Francois Moutin walks up on his double bass and the studio goes absolutely quiet.  Just the plucking fingers of Moutin, telling his bass story with intention and grace.  This is a stellar arrangement!

Raphael Pannier was born in Paris in 1990 and started playing drums at age five.  By thirteen, he was performing professionally and soon earned a scholarship to Berklee College of Music in Boston.  He honed his skills with the exceptional tutelage of jazz drum legends Terri Lyne Carrington, Ralph Peterson Jr., and Hal Crook.  Currently living in Harlem, New York, Pannier is always pushing himself to learn more, study more, and create more.  He completed his master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music and attended the competitive Betty Carter Jazz Ahead Program at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.  He received a scholarship to study with Mark Turner and Alex Sipiagin at the “Generations” workshop in Switzerland and won 1st prize in the Six Strings Theory Competition organized by Lee Ritenour, legendary guitarist.  Always inquisitive, for a while Pannier performed a unique fusion between jazz and Mugham.  Mugham is a traditional, highly complex music from Azerbaijan.  On this debut album, “Faune,” he displays his artistic vision as a drummer and composer.  Pannier also showcases his composer skills, spotlights his drumming mastery and balances his music between traditional jazz, his French culture and classical roots and Modern jazz.   His musical director’s Puerto Rican and Latin jazz traditions blow from the bell of Miguel Zenon’s horn.  He adds spice to the project.  This is Pannier’s premiere recording as a band leader and he sought out the warm tradition and brilliance on piano that Aaron Goldberg brings to his project.  He wanted the hot, Latin excitement that Miguel Zenon interprets on his saxophone and the freedom and exceptional creativity that self-taught bassist, Francois Moutin offers.  Additionally, Raphael enlisted the talents of Giorgi Mikadze, who is a classical Georgian Pianist, to solidify the traditional classical scores they play on this album.  So, there you have Faune; an album title that translates to ‘wildlife’ or animal spirit in a mythical sense.  This is a reference often made to French painters and the modernism of Debussy and Mallarmé.  In a beautiful way, Raphael Pannier colors and paints with his drum sticks and brushes.  You hear him, even on ballads like his composition “Lullaby” always coloring the music with interesting rhythms and techniques.  On his original composition, “Midtown Blues,” Raphael dances and taps, accenting the breaks and shuffling fluidly beneath Moutin’s intriguing bass solo.  Pannier has penned seven compositions for this debut release, including a very exciting introduction into the Miles Davis jazz standard, “ESP.”  The production gains momentum, as the quartet plays, taking off into space like a swarm of startled Starlings or frightened Doves.  Goldberg shines during his piano solo.  The composition, “Fauna,” is very pretty, very classical and as always colored vividly with Pannier’s creative drums.  Giorgi Mikadze adds his classical touch on Olivier Messiaen’s “Le Baiser de L’Enfant Jesus,” and Ravel’s “Forlane” composition.  But my favorite is the contrasting between classical and jazz, when Zenon’s saxophone brightens Mikadze’s piano interpretations on Raphael Pannier’s tune, “Monkey Puzzle Tree.”  This is a complex and very well produced album by a budding star on the jazz drummer horizon.

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BEN ROSENBLUM – “NEBULA PROJECT: KITES AND STRINGS” –  Independent Label

Ben Rosenblum, piano/accordion/composer/arranger; Wayne Tucker, trumpet; Jasper Dutz, tenor saxophone/bass clarinet; Rafael Rosa, guitar; Marty Jaffe, bass; Ben Zweig, drums/percussion/ conductor; Jeremy Corren, piano; Jake Chapman, vibraphone; Sam Chess, trombone.

Ben Rosenblum is a composer/arranger who has written eight of the ten songs on his third album release as a bandleader.  “Kites & Strings” is the first album where he is featuring his arranger talents and his original compositions.  They are songs he’s been writing over the past ten years.   The first tune, inspired by Cedar Walton’s jazz standard, “Bolivia,”is developed from a propulsive bass line by Marty Jaffe.  Once a chord vamp enters, Wayne Tucker lays down a catchy melody on his trumpet.  The song, titled “Cedar Place,” is presented in an up-tempo 7/4meter, where Rosenblum, on accordion, can dance freely. 

Track 2 is the title tune, “Kites and Strings.”  During this arrangement, I can almost see the buoyant kites floating above my head, bobbing in the wind.  The vibes of Jake Chapman add an ethereal climate to this arrangement and Rosenblum’s sensuous accordion adds an ‘old world’ flavor to a contemporary sound.  Rosenblum has surrounded himself with legendary jazz cats who have both encouraged him, inspired him and mentored his talents.  In high school, he connected with his first mentor, Israeli-born pianist, Roy Assaf.  It was Assaf who connected Rosenblum to the amazing drummer, Winard Harper, and Ben became part of Winard’s jam session house band.  Veteran vocalist, Deborah Davis, took young Rosenblum under her tutelage wings and the songbird taught him how to accompany a singer. Davis recommended the budding jazz pianist to famed bassist, Curtis Lundy and Curtis became another mentor.

“He was somebody who provided tough love in a way that was great for my development,” Ben Rosenblum recalled.

“I needed to hear about getting my left hand together and being rhythmically solid, how to lead a piano trio and the importance of listening to certain recordings.  I also received some beautiful instruction from Bruce Barth at Columbia and Frank Kimbrough at Juilliard.  I continue to learn the most playing with other people,” he asserted. 

He also studied with Vitor Goncalves and several accordion masters before touring Europe with New York-based, Croatian jazz vocalist, Astrid Kuljanic.  This “Nebula Project” is a culmination of Ben Rosenblum listening, learning, and growing into the multi-talented musician, composer, arranger and bandleader he has become.  He credits the musicians in his current group for helping him explore new horizons and interpreting his arrangements and compositions, inserting their own flavor and talents in a relaxed and natural way.

“I love playing with them so much!  They’re willing to be as adventurous musically as I want to be.  … I want to explore a lot of different styles.  Two of them have a deep knowledge of traditional jazz and hard bob and how to swing, but they’re willing to spend the hours to learn about, say, Brazilian music in a deep way,” Ben Rosenblum praises his ensemble members. 

You hear their camaraderie and individual talents throughout this production.  There is Puerto Rican Guitarist, Rafael Rosa; trumpeter Wayne Tucker, borrowed from his recent tour with vocalist Cyrille Aimee.  Wayne brings an R&B/hip hop groove to their bandstand.  Woodwind player, Jasper Dutz, is classical-minded.  Bassist, Marty Jaffe has been touring as part of Rosenblums’ trio along with drummer Ben Zweig for several years.  They cement the rhythm section like polished marble.  The addition of Rosenblum’s piano and composing skills, plus his accordion talents, bring a very European and Latin American texture to their contemporary musical arrangements. 

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YELLOWJACKETS – “JACKETS XL + WDR BIG BAND – Mack Ave Records

Russell Ferrante, piano/Fender Rhodes/Synthesizer; Bob Mintzer, tenor saxophone/EWI/flute; Dane Alderson, bass; William Kennedy, drums. WDR BIG BAND MEMBERS: Paul Shigihara, guitar; TRUMPETS: Wim Both, Rob Bruynen, Andy Harderer & Ruud Breuls; TROMBONES: Ludwig Nuss, Raphael Klemm, Andy Hunter & Mattis Cedarberg; SAXES, WOODWINDS: Johan Harlen, Kristina Brodersen, Olivier Peters, Paul Heller & Jens Neufang. PRODUCERS: Bob Mintzer, Joachim Becker & Christian Schmitt.

How exciting to hear the Yellowjackets performing with the world-famous WDR Big Band.  The Yellowjackets are celebrating their 25th album in a nearly four-decade history of electro-acoustic music.  This production spotlights the merging of electronic jazz and traditional jazz, made clearly evident when they joined forces with this Cologne, Germany-based big band. All of these original songs have been penned by Russell Ferrante, Bob Mintzer and former bassist with the quartet, Jimmy Haslip.  A few of the compositions recorded here also feature other co-writers.  For example, Yellowjackets’ drummer, William Kennedy, helped write their tune, “Mile High” along with Bill Gable.  This track showcases a very contemporary arrangement by Bob Mintzer, who also solos on this number, while Kennedy makes his drums talk back to the big band horn section.

Mintzer has been with the Yellow jackets group since 1990 is also the principal conductor of the WDR Big Band since 2016. He’s arranged seven of the ten tunes on this album.  Vince Mendoza arranged the other two compositions.

“The four of us are the most adaptable musicians I’ve ever worked with; any setting, any style, we know we can do it.  As for the WDR, they’re one of the best large jazz ensembles in the world.  I knew the two groups would make for a nice marriage,” Bob Mintzer shared. 

Mintzer is right.  This merge of these musical talents creates a rich, plush, orchestrated sound with tangible funk and their contemporary, spicey flavor still front and center.  On the Mintzer composition, “Red Sea” Russell Ferrante is brightly featured on piano. The horn arrangements push the groove forward like wagon wheels, rolling their harmonies around in a forward and aggressive manner.  

Track 5, “Even Song” is a mixture of funk and country/western, with tinges of gospel music woven throughout.  This is a Vince Mendoza arrangement and it features the funky guitar of Paul Shigihara as a guest soloist, along with Mintzer soloing on tenor sax, Alderson on electric bass and Ferrante on piano. Another favorite tune of mine is “Dewey.”  I thought Paul Heller’s tenor solo was stellar on a new song penned by Russell Ferrante titled, “Tokyo Tale.”  They close with the joyful “Revelation” song co-penned by Lorraine Perry.  Russell adds his blues chops to the mix on the piano and the big band swings grandly.

It was fun listening to the Yellowjackets with a big band partner.  They complement each other and lift the music.  Some of the familiar songs by the Yellowjackets, (extracted from other album releases), have been rejuvenated on this project.  Perhaps Mintzer summed it up perfectly when he stated:

“It was like putting a new set of clothes on.  This represents how the Yellowjackets play now.” 

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 BEN ZUCKER – “FIFTH SEASON” – Amalgam Records

Ben Zucker, vibraphone/composer; Mabel Kwan, piano; Eli Namay, bass; Adam Shead, drums.

Currently based in Chicago, Illinois, this is the debut recording for Ben Zucker.  He is lauded as a multi-instrumentalist, composer and improviser.  Surrounded by proficient musicians and his composer charts, Ben Zucker went into the studio with an open mind and encouraged active collaboration with his fellow peers. Their goal was to create something new and free.  Track 2 is the beginning of a suite of five songs that reflect this album title, (Fifth Season).  It reminded me of this approaching Halloween season.  At times, I can imagine some horrific monster jumping out from behind a creaking door.  Eli Namay, builds the excitement and suspense on his bass, with the vibes of Ben Zucker relaxing the listener with beautiful melodic improvisation and Mabel Kwan coloring the production on piano. This song features sudden, stark breaks that come in crescendo waves of energy.   Throughout, Adam Shead is dynamic, tasty and supportive on drums.  Track 3, is “Fifth Season II” and Track 4 is “Fifth Season III.” This suite of music builds Zucker’s improvisational concept.  There are pieces that are beautiful and show the mastery of these musicians and other moments of shock and surprise.  This is a quartet that freely explores all the possibilities in experimental music.  Zucker’s compositions are pulled, like cayenne taffy, stretching individual freedoms of expression hot, sweet and spicy.

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JAZZ IN AN ELECTION YEAR

October 5, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

October 5, 2020

In 2020, during this Presidential election year in the United States, (not to mention during a worldwide pandemic), the artists I have been reviewing are writing and interpreting music that celebrates freedom, family and resilience. Here are musical compositions that are standing up for democracy, diversity and independence.  These artists also reflect hope for the future and love for humanity. Music and art are always a sign of the times. Listen to these musical opinions.

JOHN DAVERSA – “CUARANTENA: WITH FAMILY AT HOME” – Tiger Turn Records

John Daversa, trumpet/flugelhorn; Gonzalo Rubalcaba, piano; Carlo De Rosa, bass; Dafnis Prieto, drums; Sammy Figueroa, percussion.

The first thing I notice about this album is the melodic simplicity in the tune#45, which is Track 1.  It’s the kind of melody you want to sing over and over again.  Enter the horn of John Daversa, with a flurry of notes and a double time feel, before he settles back down to the original medium tempo.  Daversa’s sweet tone coming from the bell of his horn opens the curtains for Gonzalo Rubalcaba to sit in the spotlight at his grand piano.  Lightly, his fingers dance across the black and white keys. As I listen, I recall the album I reviewed by Mr. Daversa, in 2018, that won three Grammy Awards; “American Dreamers: Voices of Hope, Music of Freedom.”  Consequently, knowing his activist roots, I wondered if he is referring to the 45th President of the United States with this first song.  He has three songs that are titled with numbers; #19, #22 and #45.  He explains in his press package:

“My father is a brilliant trumpet player.  He was a studio musician in Los Angeles studios for many years.  I’m excited to share these melodies on this album.  He almost never wrote titles for his songs, he just numbered them,” Daversa recalled.

I must compliment the senior Mr. Daversa for his extraordinarily warm melodies that have made their way onto this recording.  His son portrays them beautifully.

During this pandemic time and turbulent political era, there are extended periods when people have been locked down with their families much more than usual.  Out of this closeness grew the concept for this album.  It appears that Daversa and pianist Rubalcaba were discussing bolero and how boleros were played by many of the families they knew, becoming a strong bond that unified those family.  On Track 3, “Growing Up in A Musical Family,” John Daversa speaks atop the music to explore his feelings about this time and space in regards to family.

“This quarantine, with its tremendous challenges is an opportunity to reflect on what we want for our lives.  … For me it’s been a wonderful moment to cherish, love and hug my family.  It’s also a chance to appreciate the gift I have been given in this life.  I want to be sure I use them in a way that serves humanity.  Many of the musicians playing on this album grew up in a musical family or came from a musical neighborhood.  For the Daversa family, music is a big part of what glues us all together.  When I was a kid, what’d we do after dinner?  We’d start playing music.  My grandfather would start playing the accordion.  My dad would play some trumpet.  I played some trumpet too and the bass.  My grandmother would be out there with the maracas, or on piano or flute and sing.  …Now, my wife has added the expression of dance to the equation.”

Perhaps, in tribute to that element of dance that his wife has embraced, John Daversa named Track 4, “La Ballerina (para Tatiana)”.  It’s a lovely, delicate song with a brightness to it.  You can almost see the ballerina’s pointed-toed, satin shoes swishing across the stage floor. I enjoyed the way bassist, Carlo De Rosa, engaged the piano solo, doing a dance of their own.  He not only held the rhythm down, but also was quite creative in his bass delivery.  The arrangement is engaging, sometimes doubling the notes against the moderate tempo, lending the effect of ballet dance moves to the mix.

This is an album, where one composition flows smoothly into the next with a quiet, spontaneous energy.  This music is all about our emotional connection to friends, to pets, to children, spouses and the ideals of standing together with a feeling of ‘one’.  Daversa’s song titles give us a peek into his private life.  For example, the “Puppitas” tune that he wrote for their two puppies, Lea and Maya.  The Piano and trumpet duet that he named in memory of his beloved paternal grandparents, Molly and Johnny, whose parents immigrated to America from Italy through Ellis island and became American citizens.  In a book his grandfather kept, much like a personal diary, Daversa found  his grandfather’s love notes on how he met his grandmother while working at the San Francisco canneries.  That love inspired this song;”Fabrica de Conservas de San Francisco (La Historia de Molly y Johnny).” 

Sammy Figueroa takes a minute to share his family life with us on Track 6, introducing listeners to “Sammy Figueroa Plays for Charlie Figueroa.”  One of the things I found completely refreshing and creative about the works of John Daversa is how he weaves the spoken word (in essay form) into the jazz and Latin musical vernacular to clarify the meaning of compositions and arrangements.  He paints musical pictures, like museum portraits, with the words describing the artwork pasted beneath the exhibit.

Sammy Figueroa explained, “Home to me is the most important thing to me, because I grew up in a family that was very musical.  In Puerto Rico, my aunt was a singer, my uncle was a singer, so there was always music around my house.  John (Daversa) said why don’t we do a tune for your father?  I said really?  I’m honored. … You’re going to do an intro for the spirit of your dad.   When we were doing that and I finished, I said OMG, man.  I could feel his presence hovering and I said thank you.  It was pretty emotional!”

This album of music celebrates  family-love and the interconnection of people that enrich our lives.  It’s a very beautiful expression of solidarity and the desire to procreate and hold dear our rich and various cultures, the memories and the beauty that families, like musicians, make; working together towards a common goal; one love.

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MARIA SCHNEIDER – “DATA LORDS” – Artist Share

Maria Schneider, composer/producer/conductor; Ben Monder, guitar; Jay Anderson, bass; Frank Kimbrough, piano; Johnathan Blake, drums/percussion; Gary Versace, accordion;  WOODWINDS: Rich Perry, tenor saxophone; Steve Wilson, alto & soprano saxophone/clarinet/flute & alto flute; Dave Pietro, alto saxophone/clarinet/flute/alto flute/piccolo; Donny McCaslin, tenor saxophone/flute; Scott Robinson, B-flat, bass & contra-bass clarinets/baritone saxophone/muson. TROMBONES: Keith O’Quinn, Ryan Keberle & Marshall Gilkes; George Flynn, bass trombone.  TRUMPETS/FLUEGELHORN: Michael Lenssen, trumpet electronics programming; Mike Rodriguez, Nadje Noordhuis, Greg Gisbert, & Tony Kadleck.

The first thing I noted about this double album CD by Grammy Award-winning composer and bandleader, Maria Schneider, is the high-quality, artistic design and artwork.  Included inside the CD package was a 32-page booklet with photos. There were two CD jackets.  One titled “The Digital World” and the other called, “Our Natural World.”  Maria Schneider’s band of all-star musicians has tackled “A World Lost” that references a simpler time, when people were more connected to the earth and each other.  It becomes the first track on “The Digital World” CD where everyone’s eyes are glued to computers, I-pods and ‘smart phones.’ She portends we are being manipulated by technology and algorithms. 

“No one can deny the great impact that the data-hungry, digital world has had on our lives.  As big data companies clamor for our attention, I know that I’m not alone in struggling to find space to keep connected with my inner world, the natural world, and just the simpler things in life,” explains Maria Schneider.

With this premise in mind, Schneider began to score “Data Lords,” an album meant to examine the conflicting relationships between the digital and natural worlds.  For this project, she features her orchestra of eighteen world-class musicians. Track one, “A World Lost” is hauntingly beautiful, featuring soloists Ben Monder on guitar and Rich Perry on tenor saxophone.  Schneider muses that in her school years, instead of looking at a smart phone (that weren’t even invented yet), she would delve into her imagination to kill time. 

“I think empty space makes us ripe for daydreaming and creativity,” Maria Scheidner tells us.

And, she’s right. When you take away the freedom of our own imagination and dreams to replace them with computerized ideas and voices, that can stagnate people’s creativity. Today, too many people grab a device to fill a vacancy or a quiet moment in their lives.  Consequently, multi-million-dollar companies stalk and track our every nuance.  This can allow them to monitor and even change our behavior. It also makes them rich. That’s what this production is all about.  Each song represents a unique story disclosed in detail inside their 32-page booklet.  “Don’t Be Evil” is a warning to companies like Google and FaceBook, who are using and selling data collected from the public for power and money.  They often provide platforms where youth can be goaded and/or bullied into self-injury or suicide. The title tune, “Data Lords” also is composed to challenge data-collecting companies.  Maria Schneider reminds us that Google’s apologist predicts computers will have human-level intelligence by 2029.  What does that mean for our society?  This music demands we stop, look and listen, not only to this orchestrated masterpiece, but to the world around us. The second CD, titled “Our Natural World” offers more positive composition titles like “Look Up” and “Braided Together.” 

“Musicians have been the canary in the coal mine,” Schneider says. “We were the first to be used and traded for data.”

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JESSE FISCHER – “RESILIENCE” – Independent Label

Jesse Fischer, piano/keyboards/Fender Rhodes/Wurlitzer/Hammond B-3 organ/moog little phatty/Prophet Rev2/Juno 106/ARP Omni/mandolin/voice/percussion/production/composer; Michael Valeanu &   Jordan Peter, guitar; David Cutler, bass; Obed Calvaire, drums; Keita Ogawa & Mino Cinelu, percussion; Daniel Winshall, upright bass; Morgan Guerin, tenor saxophone/EWI/drums; Godwin Louis, soprano & Alto saxophones; Billy Buss, trumpet; Sarah Elizabeth Charles & Becca Stevens, vocals.

Although this music project was conceived and recorded prior to the corona virus pandemic and before the publicized national reckoning on race and policing, many of Jesse Fischer’s themes on this “Resilience” album are absolutely relevant.  By the time the music was ready for release, the title had taken on new meaning in relationship to our current political climate.

“I wrote most of this new material soon after becoming a father,” Fischer shared in his press package.

“I was overcome with joy and gratitude at home. Yet I was witnessing the outer world crumble into fear, xenophobia and ignorance; watching dictatorships replace democracies; ongoing state-sanctioned violence against African Americans and the gulf between political and ethnic groups growing wider and more insurmountable,” the composer explained.

The music of Jesse Fischer is a well-balanced mixture of smooth jazz, his Jewish heritage and contemporary jazz.  As a pianist, a producer and a composer, Mr. Fischer mixes groove-based modern jazz with Jazz’s African diaspora roots.   You hear this on the “Play Date” tune, rich with percussion undertones.  Billy Buss swoops and skates across the vibrant percussion during his trumpet solo.  On an original composition that Jesse Fischer titles, “The Wanderer” Gregoire Maret adds beauty and luster to the ballad on his chromatic harmonica.  “Same Mistakes,” another Fischer composition, where he also co-wrote lyrics, that plead with humanity to stop making the same blunders over and over again. Great lyrics!  But the melody and arrangement step outside the realm of jazz. I’m not sure what genre this song falls into; perhaps world music with its Spanish-sounding, Bolero roots.  He closes with a song called, “Meditation on Peace.”   We certainly need more of that!

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LAFAYETTE GILCHRIST – “NOW” – Independent label

Lafayette Gilchrist, piano/composer; Herman Burnie, bass; Eric Kennedy, drums.

Lafayette Gilchrist is a very rhythmic piano player and prolific composer.   As a bandleader, on this album he returns to the trio format and offers us a double disc, double dose of fiery originality.  His combustible band is invigorated by the drum chops of Eric Kennedy and the solid bass of Herman Burney.   They open Disc One with “Assume the Position,” a protest tune that musically profiles police violence.  This song was featured on HBO’s crime drama, “The Wire.”  You can feel the frustration and the anger in this arrangement, marked by Lafayette’s unrelenting rhythm attack.  This album contains other socially and politically conscious compositions.  On “Bamboozled,” Herman Burnie opens this arrangement on his upright bass.  Then, while Gilchrist chords out the melody, it becomes a half-time melodic adventure against a double time, improvisational flurry of Eric Kennedy’s drums.  It makes for a very interesting and dynamic arrangement. 

Based in Baltimore, Lafayette Gilchrist has resided in Maryland since 1987.  He has performed with a number of jazz legends like David Murray, singer Cassandra Wilson, bassist William Parker, drummer Andrew Cyrille and trombonist, Craig Harris.  He formed his first ensemble, called New Volcanoes, in 1993.  They released an album titled; The Art is Life that same year.  Since that debut endeavor, Gilchrist has released a Baker’s Dozen of albums as bandleader.  His music has been features on television shows like “The Deuce” and “Treme.”   While attending University of Maryland, Baltimore, at age seventeen he stumbled into a recital hall and began picking out melodies on the piano.  So began his career.

Lafayette Gilchrist blends funky grooves, intense drums (that are highly improvisational), a keen sense of melody and a sprinkle of Hip Hop to create a hybrid jazz that is quite forceful.  Gilchrist knows how to create ‘hooks’ in his compositions.  He brings the listener back to a repeatable melodic line, neatly tying the whole musical package together with this familiar ‘hook.’  You hear this on “Rare Essence” where Herman Burnie steps stage front on his big, bad bass instrument.  Another tune Lafayette wrote called, “On Your Belly Like A Snake” is inspired by a scene from Haile Gerima’s 1993 movie Sankofa.  This instrumental depicts a conversation between a rebellious field slave, Shango, and a compliant house slave named Shola.  Shango has just been beaten and the house servant is advising him to be more compliant and avoid violence with the master.  Shango fires back angrily.  Throughout this production, Lafayette Gilchrist offers socio-political concerns attached to his various compositions and trio presentations.   The accompanying press package explains that his music has been inspired by the American wealth gap between societies; from talk shows and motion pictures; from the horrible death of Freddie Gray while in police custody and the continuing struggle for equality in America. Gilchrist may not be an extraordinary jazz pianist, but he is a notable groove master and composer.  With titles like “Bmore Careful” and “Tomorrow Is Waiting Now” you get a sense of his messaging.  He asks us (with music) to “Get Straight to The Point” and “Can You Speak My Language?”  His arrangements are packed with intensity and forcefulness as he demands our attention, with few exceptions. It was a nice relief to hear a ballad now and then like, “Say A Prayer For Our Love” and the moderate tempo of “The Midnight Step Rag” sweeps us to a New Orleans neighborhood smelling of gumbo and French bread.

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NOSHIR MODY – “AN IDEALIST’S HANDBOOK: IDENTITY, LOVE & HOPE IN AMERICA 2020” – Indie Collaborative Official Artist

Noshir Mody, electric & acoustic guitars/composer/arranger; Kate Victor, vocals; Mike Mullan, alto & tenor saxophone; Benjamin Hankle, trumpet/flugelhorn; Campbell Charshee, piano; Yuka Tadano, elec. bass/double bass.

The compositions and arrangements on this recording, including lyrics, are the work of guitarist, Noshir Mody.  Vocalist Kate Victor has a lovely voice and interprets Mody’s, “Illusions Grow” tune with emotion and tonal accuracy.

Noshir Mody is a self-taught guitarist born and raised in Bombay, India.  He relocated to New York when he was twenty-two years old and for the next twenty-five years, he’s developed his talents, combining his minor mode, Indian culture with Fusion Rock and Jazz.  He has been bandleader of an Ethni-Fusion Rock Ensemble and an Ethni-Fusion Jazz group, while also performing around New York City as a trio.  The title of his album inspires hope and love, but with the exception of “Illusions Grow” and the ballad sung by Kate titled “Illustrating Rise” his instrumental compositions are rather redundant in structure.  Most of his compositions lend themselves to electronic jazz fusion or rock music.  His solo guitar on the song, “Sketching Under A Starlit Sky” was a nice break from the full ensemble productions and let the listener clearly hear the artist’s talent on his instrument. There is a strong leaning towards World Music and quite a bit of dissonance in some of his arrangements.  However, in the current global climate and during the USA election year, we definitely need more idealists.

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TOBIN MUELLER – WHAT SURVIVES (RADIO EDITS) – Independent Label

Tobin Mueller, B3 organ/pianos/synthesizers/drums; Chris Mueller, acoustic piano; Jeff cox, acoustic bass;  Dane Richeson, drums/percussion; Ken Schaphorst, flugelhorn; Bob Levy, trumpet; Tom Washatka & Doug Schneider, tenor saxophone; Woody Mankowski, vocals/soprano saxophone. GUEST ARTISTS:  Ron Carter, bass; Bill Barner, clarinet; Martyn Kember-Smith, fiddle; Emily Rohm, vocals.

If you are feeling blue, this first cut on Tobin Mueller’s production should lift you up and bring happiness to your heart.  Titled, “Cliff’s Edge” this Mueller composition is fusion jazz at its best.  Mueller plays his B3 organ on this tune and it reminds me of the days when Herbie Hancock’s “Headhunter” album was blowing our minds.  This song wreaks of that kind of inspiration and energy.  The staccato punches and funk groove inspire both Doug Schneider on tenor saxophone and Woody Mankowski on Soprano sax to strut their stuff above the plush rhythm section and horn harmonies.  What a great way to open this album.  Now they have my full attention. 

In the middle of a pandemic, with over 200,000 Americans dead and an administration that seemingly turns a blind eye to this disease and  its dying citizens, and during an election year we approach with an avalanche of political polarization ; with people marching in the street for equal rights and other’s marching against wearing masks that might protect other’s from infection; with the Internet and the news waves full of contradictory information and everyone seeming at odds with each other over one thing or another, I often feel like I’m on the “Cliff’s Edge.”  This music hit the mark on the head for me.

Mueller’s music is based on a Broadway show, written by Tobin Mueller in 1995.  The musical show was based on the Frankenstein story.  Consequently, the compositions and lyrics are meant to paint a portrait of a young Victor Frankenstein as he heroically conquers death, but then gets sidetracked by other ambitions.  The song, “A Promise” is rich with blues.  It offers a lyric sung by Woody Mankowski.  Ron Carter’s genius walking bass opens Track 4.  Enter Mueller on organ and he also plays drums on this cut.  Originally, this was a progressive rock opera.  It was later when Mueller began to record his music incorporating jazz, fusion, R&B, blues and contemporary music into the mix.  You will enjoy fifteen original compositions, with five bonus tracks available on their digital release.  The ballads are lovely and emotional, but the other compositions snatch energy out of the universe and toss it around like a meteor shower. 

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DAVE  PIETRO – “HYPERSPHERE” – Artist Share

Dave Pietro, alto, C Melody & soprano saxophones/flute; Alex Sipaigin, trumpet/flugelhorn; Ryan Keberle, trombone; Gary Versace, piano/Fender Rhodes/Hammond B3 organ; Johannes Weidenmueller, bass; Johnathan Black, drums; Rogerio Boccato, percussion.

According to the Dave Pietro press package, “Hypersphere” represents the artist’s reflection on our modern human experience and all the spheres that make up our lives.  We either balance them or let them stress us out.  This recognition of the human spirit’s quest for peace, amidst chaos, is reflected in his eight compositions.  Pietro says in his liner notes:

“The experience of living in quarantine, slowing down and simplifying my life, made the message of this project that much more meaningful to me. The music of this CD addresses some of the life dimensions that all of us must negotiate during our time here on this sphere called Earth.  I wrote the first tune on this CD, “Kakistocracy,” while contemplating the social structures that we have to live under; particularly our government (and the 24-hour cable news din that accompanies it).  The three-part counterpoint of the opening melody is intended to sound like numerous people talking at once, mainly at and over one another.”

Dave Pietro explained that much better than I could.  He succeeded in his counterpoint musical maneuvers.  This first song sounds stressed out and like several instrumental voices talking to and over each other.  Track 2 is titled “Boulder Snowfall.”  This composition by Pietro was inspired by watching a Colorado snow storm and thinking of man’s precarious relationship with nature.  The tune, “Gina” features Gary Versace on Hammond B3 organ opening the ballad, a tribute to Pietro’s wife.  Johannes Weidenmueller  lends an improvisational solo on double bass and Pietro incorporates a trombone into the mix featuring Ryan Keberle. 

“This song is dedicated to my amazing wife, the love of my life, who also happens to be a wonderful trombonist (thus the trombone counterpoint on the melody),” he explains.

The title tune gives trumpeter, Alex Sipiagin, and Pietro on his saxophone, an opportunity to showcase their unique talents and also allows Johnathan Blake, on drums, to take an inspired solo. I enjoyed the way pianist Versace played softly beneath his drum solo, adding depth to the moment.  For the most part, I found the drummer to be very colorful on every tune, but sometimes you just want to hear a solid two and four to cement the groove in place.   Blake is busy, busy.   I enjoyed the horn arrangements on “Quantum Entanglements” making use of unison lines, instead of so much harmony.  Also, playing with tempos and time changes kept the production interesting.  Once again, Blake was completely busy throughout, almost as if he and the pianist were sparring in a boxing ring.  Pietro’s composition, “Orison” closes the album.  Orison is an archaic word for prayer and symbolizes Dave Pietro’s personal journey and the journey that we all take alone and together, as we try to understand what the higher meaning of our existence really is. 

“Perhaps the most personal and private dimension of our lives is our spiritual life,” Dave reminds us.  

This is modern jazz that explores themes of interconnectedness, truth and prayer on Dave Pietro’s 8th release as a bandleader and gives him a disc to share his composition talents and saxophone tenacity. 

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JAVIER NERO – “FREEDOM” – Outside In Music

Javier Nero, trombone/vocals/composer/arranger; Tom Kelley, alto & soprano saxophone/flute; Jean Caze, trumpet/flugelhorn; Melvin Butler, tenor & soprano saxophone; Tal Cohen, piano; Dion Kerr, acoustic & Electric bass; Aaron Kimmel, drums; SPECIAL GUESTS: Brian Lynch, trumpet/flugelhorn; Shelly Berg, piano; Russ Spiegel, electric & acoustic guitar; Kyle Athayde, vibraphone; Lauren Desberg, vocals/background vocals; Murphy Aucamp, percussion.

“Double Vision” is the first song that leaps off this CD with excitement and energy.  Trombonist, Dr.  Javier Nero, has composed every song on this recording.  He blends jazz with elements of folk, Americana and blues to introduce the listener to his creativity on this debut album inspired by the word “Freedom.”  Amidst the current politically-charged time, Dr. Nero has written twelve songs, and assembled a group of all-star talents to interpret his arrangements.  On Track 2, titled “Cachaca” Kyle Athayde steps into the spotlight and introduces us to his talents on the vibraphone.  The warm harmonics of the horn players create a plush cushion where the vibes can bounce.  This is a happy, joyful tune with a catchy and repeatable melody.  Murphy Aucamp is given a solo space to competently place his percussion magic at the fade of the song.

Tracks 3 & 4 share the same title: “I Tried So Hard.” The first exploration into this song is Part 1 and the next becomes Part 2.  Lauren Desberg lends her soft, warm vocals to this arrangement, layering the background vocal support in a lovely way.  Javier Nero has such a steamy, inviting sound on his trombone.  Tal Cohen pumps energy into the arrangement on grand piano, sparkling in the spotlight after Javier’s solo. 

“My father was probably the reason I became interested in music and particularly interested in jazz.  I remember long road trips as a child and listening to music where my father introduced me and my brothers to artists like Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, Slide Hampton, Tower of Power, Earth Wind & Fire, to name a few.  I remember my dad always bothering my brother and me to harmonize with him over old Motown records and identify the instruments we heard playing solos as we rode along,” Javier Nero muses. 

Special guest, Shelly Berg opens Track 6 with solo piano.  The song is called “Just Let Go” and becomes a platform for Javier Nero and Berg to dance duo.  It’s a gorgeous composition and gives us an opportunity to hear every nuance and tone, showcasing Nero’s technical skills on the trombone. Berg sparkles his piano genius across the keys like stardust.  On the composition titled, “Reality” Aaron Kimmel slaps the funk into the tune from his drum set.  Javier Nero smoothly blends traditional jazz with his young spirit and knows how to interweave a groove inside of his arrangements.  Consequently, he crosses genres and infuses his music to embrace both the young and old generations.  His composition, “Discord” clearly represents this unique talent, borrowing a lick from the great Ahmad Jamal’s Poinciana masterpiece on drums. 

Dion Kerr, on electric bass, sets the tone and tempo on “Midnight Groove” until the horns enter like a harmonic chorus line. They kick the curtains open for Javier Nero, who becomes the focal point of this music. Then, he comfortably shares his spotlight performance with Jean Caze on trumpet.  This music is as relaxing and healing   as a professional spa massage and just as enjoyable.

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NOCTURNES FOR A RAINY AFTERNOON

September 26, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

September 26, 2020

Well, the last day of summer was Tuesday, September 22nd.  The weather will begin to cool off now, as Autumn shakes her head and stirs the winds.  This season causes the leaves to turn beautiful, brilliant oranges, reds and gold; then, they drift to the ground.  In some geographic places, the rains come and the days grow shorter. Late evening sunshine disappears.  Here are some jazzy listening suggestions to enhance those rainy afternoons. Slide into your favorite chair, pull on your headphones, or turn your stereo or computer up full blast and enjoy these artists.

JOHN FINBURY – “AMERICAN NOCTURNES – FINAL DAYS OF JULY” – Green Flash Music

John Finbury, piano/composer/arranger; Bob Patton, arranger; Tim Ray, piano; Eugene Friesen, cello; Roni Eytan, harmonica; Claudio Ragazzi, guitar; Vitor Goncalves & Roberto Cassan, accordion; Peter Eldridge, vocalise. 

John Finbury started out as a drummer while in high school.  Today, he is an established pianist and composer who has offered a variety of music to my listening room.  I’ve heard his original compositions lyrically enriched by Thalma De Freitas, (a Brazilian vocalist and lyricist) on an album titled “Sorte”.  It was nominated for a Grammy Award.  Finbury also won a Latin Grammy nomination in 2016 (in the ‘Song of The Year’ category) for a piece he penned on his “Imaginario” album.  On his “Quatro” album, that I reviewed in early 2020, he was celebrating cultural diversity and immigration, employing Peruvian and Mexican music styles in his compositions.  There was an activist cry for freedom and justice in the songs he composed.  John Finbury, the composer, has immersed himself in Latin music until this project.  His current release is a complete surprise.  This album eliminates the percussive rhythms and Latin energy he has been noted for in the past.  Here is an album of Chamber Music, with jazz over-tones that twine their way into his production.   A nocturne is music that reflects a romantic or dreamy quality.  To achieve this, Finbury uses no bass or drums at all during these lovely arrangements.  Instead, John features accordion, piano, guitar, harmonica and cello.  Speaking of cello, Eugene Friesen gives us a dynamic and emotional rendering during his cello work on Track 5, “Fantasma,” as does the sweet harmonica work of Roni Eytan. Peter Eldridge adds his vocalise on this tune.

Another favorite of mine is “Black Tea.”  Notably, I didn’t miss the bass and drums at all.  The melodic content of these songs is elegant, classical and the arrangements are relaxing to the ear.  Finbury gives us a taste of his piano prowess on the final tune, performing solo on “Waltz for Patty.” As a unit, these gifted musicians offer us a platter-full of beautifully played “American Nocturnes” that celebrate John Finbury’s delicious composing skills. He warmly serves up a romantic project titled, the “Final Days of July” for our consumption.

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KATCHIE CARTWRIGHT – “RAINY AFTERNOON” – Harriton Carved Wax

Katchie Cartwright, flute; Marco Antonio Santos, guitar; Fabio Augustinis, drums; Jan Flemming, accordion.

Flutist and ethnomusicologist, Dr. Katchie Cartwright, along with her trio of guitar, drums and accordion, explores 19th-century Choro music. This is a musical style developed in Rio de Janeiro.  Every note and phrase emanating from Katchie Cartwright’s flute expresses the musical interaction between Choro and jazz.   When Ms. Cartwright was introduced to Choro by clarinetist, Anat Cohen, she became enthralled.  Having already been introduced to Brazilian music by her grandfather’s album collection, she was almost hypnotically drawn to that spicy, cultural music.

“The feeling is deeply Brazilian, but it’s also mischievous, like bebop” Katchie says in her press release.

As a musician, over years of study and world travel, Katchie has embraced various musical influences including jazz, folk, Indian music and the compositions of John Cage. For a while she was a Fulbright Senior Specialist for the U.S. Department of State.  All the while, as she began performing and seeking out her own sound, Katchie kept coming back to Brazilian music. 

“It just feels more like a place where I’m not trying to prove something,” she says in her liner notes.

This is an album of music, both playful and happy, that features the drums of Fabio Augustinis propelling the rhythm section and the tasty guitar licks of Antonio Santos.  Jan Flemming adds authenticity with his complimentary accordion touches.  It’s a very folksy presentation, that allows Katchie Cartwright to fly above the groove like a wild improvisational bird. 

When she’s not touring or recording, Katchie Cartwright took time to mentor and chair the Sisters in Jazz Program for the International Association for Jazz Education, before its untimely demise.  She currently hosts a successful radio program, “Caminhos do Jazz” which airs Saturday mornings on KRTU, 91.7 FM in San Antonio, Texas.

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SYSTEM 6 – “BENNIE’S LAMENT” – Skipper Productions

Benn Clatworthy, alto & tenor saxophones/clarinet/bass clarinet/flute/alto flute/composer; Joey Sellers, trombone; Ron Stout, trumpet; Bryan Velasco, piano; Bruce Lett, bass; Yayo Morales, drums/percussion.

I spoke to Benn Clatworthy on the phone today.  He’s a member and the founder of System 6, along with two other members formerly of the Francisco Aquabella Latin Jazz Band.  He explained to me how this recording came about.

“This is actually my work of art.  There’s just three of us left from our days of playing in the Francisco Aquabella Latin Jazz Band; Joey Sellers, Bryan Velasco and me.  Francisco Aquabella was a famous Cuban conga player, born October tenth in 1925. I worked for a long time in his band.  When he died in 2010, I was honored when his family wanted me to continue to lead the band.  I tried for a while and I made three records.  Two represented the Aquabella Jazz Band and were called Aquabella. Then I changed the name to System 7 because we were a septet.  Now it’s become System 6, because there are only six of us in the band,” Clatworthy told me.

“I learned a tremendous amount playing with Francisco Aquabella and I started writing music for that group.  I wasn’t writing Latin music.  I was just writing what came into my mind at the time.  Like on the tune “In Strayhorn’s bag,” I based that song on the first two chords where there’s a dominant seventh with a sharp eleven.  It reminded me of a tune by Strayhorn and I developed my tune from there”

Track 10, “In Strayhorn’s Bag” is one of my favorites on this album and it was nice to hear the story of how Clatworthy composed it. On “How They Talk,” Ron Stout takes the spotlight on trumpet and this is another one of the Clatworthy originals I enjoyed.  The rhythms on “Two Little Brothers” is intoxicating and Clatworthy brings his bebop chops to this Latin-fused party.  Drummer, Yayo Morales keeps the momentum hot and fiery consistently.  I can hear the Coltrane influence on Benn’s title tune, “Bennie’s Lament.”

When he isn’t recording, Benn takes time to teach and motivate young players.

“I’m happy to see so many young people inspired by music.  Playing an instrument takes a lot of discipline.  Doing anything well takes discipline.  You’ve got to practice like your life depends on it.  I get up in the morning and practice.  Every day, I try to improve as a musician and as a human being,” he told me.  “Right now, during this pandemic thing, I’m practicing a lot because there’s no work.  We can’t wait to get back on-the-road and promote this CD.”

We can’t wait to hear you and System 6, live and in-person, Benn. Until then, we can pop your recent compact disc on our CD players, sit back and enjoy.

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HAZAR featuring AL DI MEOLA – “REINCARNATED” – IAN Productions

Hazar, guitar/handclaps/producer; Al Di Meola, guitar/cajon (Spain)/handclaps; Piotr Torunski, bass clarinet; Mike Roelofs, piano; Mehmet Katay, percussion.

This journalist listens to a lot of guitarists on recordings and ‘live’.  I have to say, this is one of the finest acoustic guitar recordings I’ve heard in a very long time.  Known professionally as “Hazar,” Ulas Hazar has been lauded for his outstanding virtuosity on his instrument and he has received international acclaim.  He holds a Master’s degree in jazz with saz.  Saz is a Middle Eastern string instrument, sometimes referred to as a Baglama.  A Baglama can have a short or long neck and has seven strings and they are divided into courses of two, two and three.  Actually, the saz that Hazar mastered had only three strings and a long neck.  His microtonal music and polyrhythms on those strings was inspired by Pace de Lucia.  After mastering the ‘saz,’ Hazar was encouraged by John McLaughlin, chatting at a concert in Cologne, that he should switch to acoustic guitar. 

“I had nothing more to tell with the saz,” Hazar shared in a recent article.

Consequently, we are blessed with this album that he calls “Reincarnated” because, of course, he has been reborn musically moving from his love of ‘saz’ to his accomplished and challenging performance on the acoustic guitar.  Hazar has a sound that reminds me, at times, of Gypsy music, but at the same time, is extremely classical in a very technical way and a great deal more complicated.  The extraordinary way Hazar plays sounds so easy and smooth, but much of it should be technically impossible.  This journalist finds herself constantly verbalizing out loud, in my listening room, “Whoa!”  His long and inspired ‘runs’ are performed flawlessly and with much attention to the song’s melody.  Beginning with his recording of “Made for Wesley” I am stunned by the intricate guitar lines and the way Hazar sets up the rhythm on his nimble strings.  Al Di Meola plays Cajon on the Chick Corea tune, “Spain.”  There is some controversy about whether the cajon drums were adaptations of the African box drums by slaves when they were banned from having instruments of communication.  The word ‘cajon’ means box or drawer.

“I would especially like to thank the great guitarist, Al Di Meola, who has always been an inspiration to me for his contributions to this record,” Hazar states in his liner notes.

“Black Orpheus,” track 4 on this outstanding record, gives Mike Roelofs (on piano) an opportunity to step forward and perform a beautiful introduction.  When Hazar enters, the sexy, Latin groove arrives with his guitar interpretation and the support of Mehmet Akatay on percussion.  Track 5, “Made in France” gives Akatay on percussion the spotlight.  He opens the track and when the curtains part and the guitarist emerges as the soloist, he executes at a lightening quick pace.  This is the fastest waltz I’ve ever heard. 

On “Summertime” and “For Sephora” Piotr Torunski joins the trio on his bass clarinet, adding color and beauty. The Charlie Parker composition, “Donna Lee” races onto the scene like a New York Taxi driver on the open highway.  Hazar has perfectly blended Eastern and Western music, enhanced by the African-American invention of jazz.  This is an impressive album I will play over and over again.  By example, it lifts Hazar and his guitar brilliance into the realm of musical greatness.

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EDWARD SIMON – “25 YEARS” – Ridgeway Records

Edward Simon, piano/keyboards/composer; Ben Street, Scott Colley, Avishai Cohen, John Patitucci, Roberto Koch, Joe Martin, Matt Penman & Larry Grenadier, bass; Adam Cruz, drums/percussion/steel drum; Brian Blade, Obed Calvaire & Eric Harland, drums; Adam Rogers, guitar; Pernell Saturnino, Rogerio Boccato & Luis Quintero, percussion; David Binney & Miguel Zenon, alto saxophone; David Sanchez, tenor saxophone/percussion; Mark Turner, tenor saxophone; John Ellis, bass clarinet; Mark Dover, clarinet; Shane Endsley & Sean Jones, trumpet; Alan Ferber, Robin Eubanks & Jesse Newman, trombone; Luciana Souza, Lucia Pulido, Gretchen Parlato & Genevieve Artadi, vocals; Marco Granados & Valery Coleman, flute; Jorge Glenn, cuatro; Edmar Castaneda, harp; Leonardo Granados, maracas; Toyin Spellman-Diaz, oboe; Monica Ellis, bassoon; Jeff Scott, French horn; Warren Wolf, vibraphone.

Edward Simon gifts us with a compilation, double-set recording that celebrates the highlights of his career as a Venezuelan-born pianist, composer and bandleader.  This easy-listening and beautiful music has been siphoned from thirteen albums stretching from 1995 releases to 2018.  It covers a wide-spectrum of his musical journey as pianist/composer over the past quarter century.  It also celebrates his 50th years on the planet.  Simon was serious enough about playing piano that at age fifteen, he left Venezuela and moved, by himself, to Pennsylvania to enroll at the Philadelphia Performing Arts School, a now-defunct private academy.   He was studying classically, but it was here that he discovered jazz.  At that time, he was mentored by bassist, Charles Fambrough and guitarist, Kevin Eubanks.  It was Eubanks who encouraged Edward Simon’s relocation to New York City.  Edward’s style embraces classical roots, his Latin American heritage, and the improvisational roots that jazz inspires.  On Disc 1, Track 4, I am enchanted with the rich percussion work of Pernell Saturnino, on the composition, “Fiestas.”   In concert with Adam Cruz’s drums, the percussionists dance beneath the inspired piano playing of Simon.  This is honed from his 2005 album titled, “Simplicitas” and bookmarks where he was inside the chapters of his life, fifteen years ago. 

“There’s a sense of a certain kind of freedom and at the same time, there’s a rawness in those early recordings,” says Simon.

As a founding faculty member of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s Roots, the Jazz & American Music Program, Edward Simon has continuously explored the idea of bringing jazz, America’s indigenous art form, together with the traditional music he loves.

“I grew up playing Latin American music, the genres under that large umbrella.  They’re traditions I continue to explore and love, particularly the rhythms, but also the song forms that come with them.  My early albums capture that exploration, … wrapped up with the classical music element that I really love,” Simon explains his inspiration in playing and composing.

As part of the first disc, I was surprised to hear his song, “Simplicity” which, is almost note-for-note, a replica of the popular American ballad and pop song, “Too Young.”  This first disc is pretty laid-back and features a host of well-known jazz names who add their talents to Simon’s performances. Among them, John Patitucci offers a breathlessly beautiful bass solo on Simon’s composition, “Pathless Path” recorded in 2013. The tune, “Impossible Question” closes out the first disc in a fiery way, reaching back to his Criss Cross Jazz recording in 2007 on an album titled, “Oceanos.”  Luciana Souza makes a vocal appearance on this cut. Edward Simon’s fingers race across the piano keys with purpose and spontaneity.  This is an example of beautifully blending his classical training with Straight-ahead jazz.  David Binney makes a stellar appearance on alto saxophone.  The Edward Simon composition “Barinas” stands out on the second disc, where the arrangement includes bass clarinet, flute, and Edmar Castaneda’s exciting harp playing.  Another favorite on this disc is “Navigator” that features his hard-swinging trio; Eric Harland on drums, John Patitucci on bass and Edward Simon brilliantly Straight-ahead on piano.  Disc 2 continues to combine Edward Simon’s years of recording, like a delicious mixed cocktail, we sip from his musical cup and become more and more intoxicated by his talent.

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ZEENA QUINN – “GOING MY WAY” – Independent Label

Zeena Quinn, vocal/background vocal; Adam Shulman, piano; Seth Asarnow, Bandoneon/piano; David Rokeach, drums; Peter Barshay & Sascha Jacobsen, bass; Edgardo Cambon & Ami Molinelli Hart, percussion; Nika Rejto, flute; Mads Tolling, strings; Steve Heckman, alto & bass flutes/soprano & tenor saxophones.

Zeena Quinn is supported by an excellent ensemble of jazz musician.  The first one that stands out is her pianist on their opening Rodgers and Hart tune of “Lover.”  Adam Shulman, on piano, takes a spirited and creative piano solo.  Ms. Quinn has chosen a dozen jazz standards to interpret on this album, including some very challenging and beautiful songs like the Charles Mingus tune, “Weird Nightmare” and the demanding Rowles and Winstone composition, “The Peacocks.” Nika Rejto adds her fluttering and complimentary flute work on this arrangement.

On Track 4, Zeena surprises this listener by singing “Amado Mio” in Spanish and later, she interprets “O’ Cantador” in Portuguese, showing off her linguist skills. “Nica’s Dream” by Horace Silver is a favorite of mine and Zeena Quinn gives us her smooth but spirited take on the tune.  Heckman swings hard on tenor saxophone, as does Adam Shulman on the 88-keys.  Drummer, David Rokeach, holds the Latin tinged rhythm tightly in place, while Ami Molinelli Hart (the percussionist) adds color and dynamics to this track.  Zeena Quinn sings “It Might as Well Be Spring” in French and the band swings hard.  The second time around, Quinn sings the familiar song in English.  This is an album of well-produced and arranged jazz songs, that features the silky-smooth vocals of Quinn.  Zeena shows off her vocal range on the Wayne Shorter tune, “Infant Eyes.”  This is another beautiful and difficult song for a vocalist to interpret because of the rangy intervals.  Zeena Quinn performs it fearlessly.

Born on the Northwest side of Detroit, Michigan, Zeena started in the entertainment business as a professional dancer, able to execute Flamenco dancing with castanets, Afro-Brazilian dance, ballet, tap and jazz. It came natural to her.  Perhaps, because her father, John Ohanian, was a dancer and also played clarinet and saxophone. Her father’s brother, Uncle Jack Ohanian, was a saxophone player who played in downtown Detroit jazz bars for years.  Additionally, Zeena’s Aunt Mary played an eleven string Oud at popular nightclubs in Greek Town, a popular Detroit area famous for restaurants and nightlife.  Music and entertainment appear to be in her genes.  Zeena Quinn also is a SAG/AFTRA actress, one who has worked in television and enjoyed voice-over assignments.  Based in the San Francisco area of Northern California, Ms. Quinn has performed with the Mel Martin All Star Big Band, the Cab Calloway Orchestra and opened for John Lee Hooker. This elegant, debut recording continues the legacy of vocal jazz in high style.

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NATE WOOLEY – “SEVEN STOREY MOUNTAIN VI” – Pyroclastic Records

Nate Wooley, trumpet/amplifier/composer/arranger; Samara Lubelski & C. Spencer Yeh, violins; Chris Corsano, Ben Hall, Ryan Sawyer, drums; Susan Alcorn, pedal steel guitar; Julien Desprez & Ava Mendoza, electric guitars; Isabelle O’Connell & Emily Manzo, keyboards; Yoon Sun Choi, Mellissa Hughes, & Megan Schubert, voices/choir leader.

This music reminds me of a film score; birds flocking in hordes to the telephone lines and wings flapping uproariously.  It could be an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, like ‘the birds’ or a science fiction movie; a ship hurling into outer space where it encounters alien beings.  The use of guitars, violins and electronics, with keyboard coloration, makes for an experience of openness.  Without an obvious drum beat, there is nothing to hold the groove in place.  There is no groove.  It’s quite ethereal. I stopped and started it again, to see if I was missing something. As I listen, I feel an element of spirituality and some connectivity to nature sounds.  Most of the first twenty-minutes of non-stop sound reminds me of the quiet music played in a church as you walk up the aisle with your offering.   Actually “Seven Storey Mountain VI” premiered live, in November of 2019, at Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan. Suddenly, Wooley’s music rises from a redundant hum to the power of a 21-piece choir. It’s sometimes chaotic.  I felt the music was attacking someone or something.  You cannot dance to this music or sing to a melody.  It’s just sounds, tones, repetitive chord changes, where trumpet, amplifiers, violins and guitars rule.  I notice vocal words blended into the musical fray.  They are not mixed clearly enough for me to understand those spoken comments, and there are moans and groans of tones.  If you are into totally free and Avant-garde music, you will find this recording hits the mark.  Twenty-seven minutes in, I had to turn it down.  For me, it is not beautiful or pleasing to my ear, with sounds like sirens and shrieks, like laughter in an insane asylum.  It starts out calm and grows into a crescendo of tonal madness, culminating into a massive arc of energy and protest.  According to Wooley, the artists are playing at their rawest, most vulnerable states of consciousness.  At one point, I thought I heard a horde of African bees buzzing in for an attack.

“A lot of the parts can feel aggressive,” Wooley admitted.  “I view all of that as something that is necessary to the production of something new.  That feeling of ecstasy has to come from some sort of pressure,” he asserts. 

I’m not sure I agree with the ‘ecstasy’ part of his opinion. 

Thirty-nine minutes into this music, the “Reclaim the Night” protest song by Peggy Seeger enters.  It musically calms the moment.  However, the startling words of protest, sung by female voices, offer lyrics that read (in part):

“…A husband has his lawful rights, can take his wife whene’er he likes; and courts uphold time after time, that rape in marriage is no crime. The choice is hers and hers alone, submit or lose your kids and home. … when exploitation is the norm, rape is found in many forms; lower wages, meaner tasks, poorer schooling, second class.” 

They fade on the repeated chorus of “you can’t scare me – you can’t scare me.”  The Cd ends on this note, after 45 minutes.  There are no breaks in the musical production.  It is one, long, pulsating suite, that at times reminds me of a shocking acid trip.

At 13, trumpet player and composer, Nate Wooley, was playing professionally in his father’s big band.  They resided in Clatskanie, Oregon, where his dad was a saxophonist.  In 2019, Wooley debuted as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic and is considered one of the people leading the American movement to redefine the physical boundaries of the horn.  In his improvised production, there are no restrictions or walls.  He has received the Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grants to Artists Award and is currently working as editor-in-chief of a quarterly journal entitled, “Sound American.” 

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JOURNEY TO JAZZ TAKES MANY PATHS

September 19, 2020

by Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

September 19, 2020

The journey to jazz travels global paths.  MARIO ROMANO combines his Argentinian and Canadian roots on his path to jazz.  Classically trained vibraphonist and contemporary percussionist, CHIEN CHIEN LU, brings her Asian roots and Brooklyn, New York influences to the studio. BUIKA is a big selling jazz and world music artist based in Spain.  CLIFTON DAVIS, composer of the song “Never Can Say Goodbye,” sings the Great American songbook with the BEEGIE ADAIR TRIOTOMOKO OMURA’S awesome violin takes jazz to another level, blending it with her Japanese culture.   The Duo of JASON FOUREMAN & STEPHEN ANDERSON offer us a pathway to jazz from North Carolina roots. ERIC REVIS, award-winning bassist, calls our attention to “Slipknots Through a Looking Glass” and THROTTLE ELEVATOR MUSIC invites us to their “Emergency Exit.” Read all about it.

MARIO ROMANO – “THE JOURNEY SO FAR”

Mario Romano, piano/accordion/composer; Roberto Occhipinti, acoustic & elec. bass; Larnell Lewis, Mark Kelso, Mark McLean, & Amhed Mitchell, drums; Maninho Costa & Rosendo Leon, percussion; Roni Eytan, harmonica; Reg Schwager & Elmer Ferrer, guitar; Pat LaBarbera, tenor saxophone.  William Sperandei, trumpet; Jackie Richardson, Magda Giannikou, Kristy Cardinali & Adis Rodriguez, vocals.

After hearing the first song, “And if You Please” (featuring Jackie Richardson on vocals) I am hooked.  This is a beautiful production with orchestrated ‘live’ strings and Mario Romano’s sensitive accompaniment on piano. Track 2 is a Latin Samba with the wonderful harmonica of Roni Eytan taking stage center, along with the soprano vocals of Magda Giannikou dancing happily atop the fluid rhythm section.  This is a compilation album that features nine exceptional songs from Mr. Romano’s previously released albums; seven of them are his own original compositions.  Track 3 is a beautiful ballad that features another talented vocalist.  This time it’s Kristy Cardinali singing “Those Damn I Love Yous.”  On the fourth track we get the opportunity to enjoy Mario Romano’s technical perfection playing accordion.  On “Si Tu Quisieras,” you will experience a very emotional delivery in Spanish by Adis Rodriguez.  It’s both beautiful and compelling.  Elmer Ferrer soars on guitar during this arrangement.  You will enjoy a very Straight-ahead exploration into Romano’s jazz roots on the tune, “Via Romano” where bassist Roberto Occhipinti excels.  Once Mark Kelso and Occhipinti hook arms in a succinct rhythm dance, Mario Romano comes forward on piano.  Then Pat LaBarbera swings hard on tenor saxophone in a very Coltrane-ish way. William Sperandei, on trumpet, reminds us of the ‘All Blues’ days of Miles Davis when he interprets the familiar standard, “You’re My Everything.” Sperandei has a lovely tone on his trumpet and also appears on the instrumental execution of “And If You Please” that closes this production and track 8, “Non Dimenticar.”  Here is an album that has a little something for everyone on it.

Mario Romano is a Canadian composer, pianist and accordion master who was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina (October 5, 1951) as the son of Italian immigrants. At age 13, his family moved to Canada and the young Romano had to learn all about a new culture and a new language.  But the language of music remained one where he could easily communicate.  As a young teenager, he had already mastered the accordion and, before the move, when his dad brought a piano into their Argentinian home, he began to be interested in jazz. That love of jazz and his brilliance on both accordion and piano developed into a life-long love affair.  However, although he was very talented, he took a nine-to-five entrepreneurial path into the Real Estate business and is currently super-successful in the Toronto area as a real estate tycoon.  Lucky for us, Mario Romano has returned to music.  He shares with us this stellar album that features seven of his original compositions and a bevy of beautiful voices from the Canadian jazz pool.  I believe you will enjoy every song on this album, spurred by the dynamic musical prowess of Mario Romano and his exceptionally talented musical comrades.  If I was giving out stars, this album would be a five-star winner.

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CHIEN CHIEN LU – “THE PATH” – Independent Label

Chien Chien Lu, vibraphone/marimba/composer/arranger; Shedrick Mitchell, piano/organ; Quintin Zoto, guitar; Richie Goods, acoustic & electric bass/arranger; Allan Mednard, drums; Ismel Wignall, congas/percussion; Yoojin Park, violin; Phebe Tsai, cello; Jeremy Pelt, trumpet; Lisa Lee, vocal.

Chien Chien Lu is a classically trained vibraphonist and contemporary percussionist.  She has toured and recorded with the Jeremy Pelt Quintet and this album is her debut as a leader.  She opens with the Roy Ayers composition, “We Live in Brooklyn Baby,” with Allan Mednard pumping up the funk rhythm on drums.  This is followed by Richie Goods’ very Latin fused arrangement of “Invitation.” The familiar song is dressed in a brand-new gown; sparkling and energized.  Ismel Wignall’s percussion work is impressive and Jeremy Pelt offers a quality and exciting solo on trumpet.  It’s an impressive arrangement by Lu’s bassist.  When Chien Chien enters on vibraphone she lifts the energy to a new level.  Shedrick Mitchell is competent and pushes the rhythm section’s creativity with his piano excellence.  This ensemble is hot!  Track 3 is an original composition by Chien Chien Lu, who arranges her song for optimum enjoyment, adding rhythmic surprises along the way. She and Richie Goods on bass dance beside each other in the middle of this arrangement, with only percussion to hold their musical steps in place.  It’s a nice way to tickle our attention.  The tune is titled, “Blind Faith” and it showcases this artist’s creative composition skills. In between the songs, Ms. Lu adds something she calls “The Path Interludes” where she speaks to us about her musical journey and life, amidst a musical background.  I think her voice could have been brought up a bit more in the mix. This talented artist, like many in the music business, didn’t have a major record deal for this release.  Instead, she instituted a crowd share project to fund her debut production.  But I can guarantee, she will have no problem getting a major deal for her next one.  Here is a project full of passion and beauty, that showcases the awesome vibraphone talent of Chien Chien Lu, along with her all-star ensemble.

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BUIKA – “LA NOCHE MAS LARGA (THE LONGEST NIGHT) – which was released in June of 2013 on the Warner Music/Spanish label.

Thanks to my friend and jazz vocalist, Shahida Nurullah, I was made aware of this amazing talent known by one name: BUIKA.  I love her sexy, soulful sound.  Her path winds from Guinea to Palma de Mallorca, Spain.  Originally, she planned to be a drummer and bassist; both instruments she plays proficiently.  But in Spain, Buika claims no one wanted to hire a female drummer, so she started singing.  She’s an outstanding poet, producer, composer and vocalist.  Reviewers have compared her stage show artistry to Nina Simone and Amy Winehouse.  I have not seen her in person, but I certainly find myself infatuated by her unique sound and emotional delivery on YouTube.  Check her out.  I think her music crosses and blends genres smoothly, like applying icing to the cake.  It makes the dessert sweeter and enhances the cake’s already lovely appearance.  She has recorded one jazz CD titled, “Mestizuo.”  Her mother was a great jazz lover.  Her work with Latin, Grammy-Award-winning, flamingo guitarist and producer, Javier Lemon, won critical acclaim with their album, “Mi Nina Lola” and reached #11 on the Spanish album charts.  Last I heard, she had relocated to Miami, Florida and continues to record.

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CLIFTON DAVIS WITH THE BEEGIE ADAIR TRIO – “NEVER CAN SAY GOODBYE” – Clifton Davis Productions

Clifton Davis, vocals; Beegie Adair, piano; Roger Spencer, trio arranger/bass; Chris Brown, drums; Monica Ramey, duet vocal; Jeff Taylor, accordion; Mark Kibble, vocal arrangements/background vocals; Take 6, background vocals; Kevin Toney, synthesizer strings/string arrangements; Charles Mims, string arrangements/synthesizer; Pablo Hopenhayn, string producer/arranger/violins/violas; Pablo Saltzman, string arranger; Cecilia Garcia, violin/viola; Paula Pomeraniec, cello.

Clifton Davis has this reviewer’s utmost respect for the popular song he wrote entitled, “Never Can Say Goodbye.” It’s a great song and the title of his new CD release.  Davis is also an accomplished actor.  This album introduces us to the singing-side of Mr. Davis.  I believe the singing bug bit him when he attended his first New York Broadway show. Shortly after that experience, he quit his job to work in New Jersey stock theater. That led to an audition for the 1968 Broadway musical, “Hello Dolly,” starring Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway.  Davis was cast as an ensemble singer and given an understudy role. Thus, began his love of not only acting, but singing as part of his performance package.  In 1972, Davis and Melba Moore hosted their own televised, musical, variety series and Clifton was in fine vocal form.

From 1974 to 1975, Davis was busy starring in the popular sitcom, “That’s My Mama” on television.  He also co-starred with Sherman Helmsley for five years on the NBC television sitcom, “Amen.”  Ironically, Clifton Davis played the part of a minister.  I say ironically, because the path of life leads us down many unexpected streets.  There came a time when Clifton Davis took a break from the Hollywood and Broadway scenes to pursue an ecclesiastical education and received his BA in Theology, as well as a Master of Divinity degree from Andrews University.  That made him a bona fide minister.  Impressively he has taken his interdenominational ministry around the world for three decades.

When Clifton Davis teamed with Beegie Adair’s trio, a new path of creativity developed.  This album is the culmination of these two artists (Davis and Adair) meeting in 2015 and beginning a friendly journey towards a recording project.  Although they have chosen a rich repertoire of great songs and enlisted the musical services of dynamic talents like the group Take 6 (renowned a’ Capella singers) and Kevin Tony (Jazz pianist with the Blackbyrd group), Clifton Davis, the vocalist, sounds a bit tenuous and fragile. As a songwriter, had he chosen to showcase his original songwriting, perhaps this album would have made a more substantial impact. He does include a well-written original song, “Swept Away” and one other gospel original titled, “Leaving It Up to You.” 

That being said, this album of songs from the Great American Songbook are well-produced and well-played.  The arrangements are lovely and amply support Clifton’s vocal delivery. The Beegie Adair Trio is admired and respected worldwide and her trio has sold over two-million albums. Together, the trio and Davis present an enjoyable interpretation of songs we love, that introduce us to Clifton Davis, the talented songwriter and cabaret singer.

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TOMOKO OMURA – “BRANCHES – VOL. 1” – Outside in Music

Tomoko Omura, violin/composer/arranger; Jeff miles, guitar; Glenn Zaleski, piano; Pablo Menares, bass; Jay Sawyer, drums.

Imaginative. Surreal. Creative.  Tomoko Omura takes us on a magical, mystical path to violin places we’ve never been before.  Tomoko is a virtuoso violinist and composer, inspired to write this album of music mirroring Japanese folktales.  She has written four of the six compositions and included the familiar standard “Moonlight in Vermont” and a popular Japanese song by Kosaku Yamada. Omura has uniquely arranged each song.  Her mastery of the violin is obvious and she has surrounded her genius with an amazing quartet of musicians.  Glenn Zaleski on piano produces sensitive accompaniment throughout and solos beautifully on the opening song.  Haiku is a Japanese form of poetry, based on five syllables for the first line, seven syllables for the second line and five for the final line.  “Moonlight in Vermont” is a haiku poem.  Tomoko Omura’s violin is poetry in motion.

                “Pennies in a stream.

                Falling leaves, a sycamore

                Moonlight in Vermont.”

The titles of the various compositions represent four folktales.  Track 2 is the story of a boy in search of a witch named Oni-baba who lives in the mountains.  A monk gifts him with “Three Magic Charms” to protect him, but he still gets caught by the witch.  Tomoko Omura’s violin soars and swoops through an intricate melody. Pablo Menares, on bass, lays down a monotone bass line that plays rhythmically against the melody.  The pianist builds the excitement in crescendos while Jay Sawyer taps out the tempo and colors the song on his trap drums.

The tempo picks up on Track 3, “The Revenge of the Rabbit” and the music becomes more Avant Garde.  “Return to the Moon” features a haunting guitar played by Jeff Miles and a poignant bass solo.  This music is dramatic and intoxicating.

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JASON FOUREMAN & STEPHEN ANDERSON – “DUO” – Summit Records

Jason Foureman, bass; Stephen Anderson, piano.

Jason Foureman is an in-demand bassist who lives and teaches in North Carolina.  He was greatly influenced by legends like Nina Simone, Oscar Peterson, Charlie Haden, Rufus Reid and Lester Young.  Jason has been the bassist for the North Carolina Jazz Repertory Orchestra since 2008 and conducts the youth big band at the Durham North Carolina Jazz Workshop.  When he’s not gigging, you will find him comfortably sharing his massive talent with students at UNC – Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University. 

Dr. Stephen Anderson is a respected composer and pianist.  He too is a faculty member and Director of Jazz Studies at the University of North Carolina and is Director of the UNC Summer Jazz Workshop.  As a composer, many of his compositions have been recorded and performed worldwide at a number of festivals and in concerts from South America to Europe. 

Jason Foureman is also a composer and the duo performs two of his original songs including “Through and Through” a song he wrote for his wife and daughters one Christmas, after they had experienced a local carnival. The composition is based on a conversation about flying.  Stephan’s fingers fly across the keys like wild birds and Foureman’s solid bass lines attach themselves to the moment, like the strings on a soaring kite.  It’s a happy tune and the two musicians are each expressive and technically astute throughout. “Ultra Blues” is another original song by Foureman and closes this album out.  Stephen and Jason seem to be talking to each other during the opening introduction of this song.  First the piano lays down a bluesy lick and Foureman answers on his double bass.  After twelve bars of their insightful conversation, they break into a raucous, low-down blues composition.  As they progress with their blues interpretation, Jason walks his bass and Stephen improvises brightly, never once losing the groove.  This song is pure joy from start to finish.  Jason Foureman compliments his musical partner in the liner notes by saying:

“Hey man … in the studio, everything just flowed into place; the music nearly playing itself; us not taking breaks because we so wanted to capture the flow we had.  And then, going home thinking, man, this is how it’s supposed to be!”

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ERIC REVIS – “SLIPKNOTS THROUGH A LOOKING GLASS” – Pyroclastic Records

Eric Revis, bass/composer; Kris Davis, piano; Chad Taylor, drums/mbira; Justin Faulkner, drums; Bill McHenry, tenor saxophone; Darius Jones, alto saxophone.

Staccato notes and a groove, provided by the bass of Eric Revis and propelled by Justin Faulkner’s drums, opens this production.  The alto and tenor saxophones punch the notes.  Enter Kris Davis on piano with a spontaneous and improvisational presence.  Track 1 titled, “Baby Renfro” sets the mood of this musical production that features eight out of eleven original compositions written by bassist, Eric Revis.  Track 2 features Chad Taylor on Mbira, an instrument similar to a hand kalimba or thumb piano.  It adds a mystical and African-feel to this arrangement, featuring only the trio; Revis on bass, Chad on Mbira and Kim Davis on piano. The three have composed this song together. 

“The image of “Slipknots Through A Looking Glass” came up and I thought, wow, this is really cool.  … I wanted more emphasis on the energy than on exact notes or notation. … The idea of a journey, although it wasn’t something that I set out to do, it’s a theme that runs through all of this record,” Revis explains.

Eric Revis has been a band leader, composer and award-winning bass player, playing as part of the Branford Marsalis quartet since 1997.  In addition, Revis has worked with iconic jazz folks like Betty Carter, Jason Moran, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Andrew Cyrille.   Revis is an artist fascinated by the surrealist movement and I can tell he enjoys pushing the boundaries and knocking down the walls between what is and what could be.

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KENNY KOTWITZ & THE LA JAZZ QUINTET – “WHEN LIGHTS ARE LOW”- PM Records LLC

Kenny Kotwitz, accordion and celeste; John Chiodini, guitar(s); Nick Mancini, vibraphone; Chuck Berghofer, upright bass; Kendall Kay, drums/percussion.

This album of music is a centennial tribute to the Art Van Damme Quintet.  Art was a trail blazer among jazz accordionists.  He recorded 42 albums as a leader and another 100 as a sideman and boasted a 15-minute, NBC radio program that ran for 139 episodes (The Art Van Damme Show) back in the 1940s. One of Van Damme’s few students is accordionist, Kenny Kotwitz. Consequently, producer Peter Maxymych reached out to Kenny Kotwitz when he discovered him on YouTube.

                “I needed the right accordion player for the project.  I heard Kenny Kotwitz play on YouTube and I knew that his style would be perfect for this.  After contacting him, I found that he had been a close friend of Art Van Damme, so it all made perfect sense,” the producer explained.

Kenny Kotwitz picked the musicians he wanted to be in the LA Jazz Quintet and did all the arranging for this album.  Kenny had fond memories of Art Van Damme.

“When I studied with Art, he would give me an arrangement each week.  I would take it home; hand copy it and analyze what was written for the instrumentation.  Since they were doing a radio show five days a week for NBC, they had a lot of material.  I knew that was the style Peter Maxymych was looking for and I knew that these L.A. master musicians would fit easily into that sound,” Kotwitz shared.

John Chiodini shines on “Estate” (that translates to ‘summer’), laying down a beautiful guitar introduction and amply supporting Kenny Kotwitz during his accordion spotlight.  Nick Mancini adds his tenacious vibraphone work to the mix with Chuck Berghofer on double bass and drummer Kendall Kay locking the Latin rhythm tightly in place.  This album is a testament to Van Damme’s unique, stylized accordion work and graces each listener with a bakers-dozen of familiar jazz standard songs, played in a sweet, moderate-tempo way.  You’ll enjoy these Los Angeles music masters as they interpret “Skylark,” the sultry “Cry Me A River,” and the title tune, “When Lights Are Low,” along with many more you will recognize. 

This is easy-listening music, lovely and relaxing, that features Kenny Kotwitz, a protégé of Van Damme, who became a busy studio musician in Los Angeles in 1966 and has gone on to become a master accordion player, a pianist, an arranger and competent composer.  In 1983, he even recorded an album with his idol titled, “Art Van Damme and Friends.”   With the completion of this project, Kenny Kotwitz imagines Art Van Damme smiling down at this project from heaven and enjoying it, the same way you will. 

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THROTTLE ELEVATOR MUSIC –“EMERGENCY EXIT” –  Wide Hive Records

Matt Montgomery, bass/guitar/piano/songwriting; Gregory Howe, guitar/bass/B3 organ/ synthesizer/ songwriter; Erik Jekabson, trumpet/flugelhorn/arranger; Kamasi Washington, tenor saxophone; Mike Hughes & Lumpy, drums; Kasey Knudsen, alto & tenor saxophone; Ross Howe, fender guitar; Mike Blankenship, Farfisa organ/synthesizer.

On Track 6, “Innerspatial Search” this group finally gets my attention.  Until then, the compositions were a little lack-luster for my taste.  They featured too much repetition in the rhythm section, almost like Rock and Roll tracks that are being prepared for some amazing soloist to come in and overdub on top.  Indeed, that is what Kamasi Washington does throughout on tenor saxophone, as well as Erik Jekabson on his triumphant trumpet.  On track 7, “Rattle Thicket” the group is invigorated with rhythm and they sound very much like a rock band jam session.  It’s a brief composition (2-minutes 18-seconds) but its fearless and thunders on the scene with exciting energy. “Art of the Warrior” is more smooth jazz, but as the arrangement unfolds, this song blossoms with increased energy and presence.  This group leans heavily towards rock music with jazz overtones.  Sometimes it’s very Grunge-like.  Montgomery and Howe are the composers of this music, except Kamasi’s composition, that happened to be the song that finally captured my full attention (Innerspatial Search).  The multi-talented Matt Montgomery and Gregory Howe each play numerous instruments, as well as being the songwriters on this project.  The resultant material is comprised of productions that have been sitting on the studio shelf from 2001 through 2014.  They showcase a young, music-hungry Kamasi Washington, striving to express himself and grow his music.  The group seeds of creativity are obvious on this recording, as these musicians plant their feet solidly and express themselves.  They have included the past nine recording years, in both Wide Hive and Fantasy studios, to create this project. Consequently, it becomes a compilation and history of Throttle Elevator Music’s journey into 2020.

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SCATTERED DIAMONDS, BIRDSONGS AND MORE

September 13, 2020

y Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

September 13, 2020

As Autumn settles in, I have reviewed a number of newly released jazz albums.  Read all about them here at my Musical Memoirs blog.

BARRETT MARTIN GROUP – “SCATTERED DIAMONDS” – Sunyata Records

Barrett Martin, drums/vibraphone/bata drums/tablas/vocables/double bass/Fender Rhodes/elec. guitar/ Gamelans/kalimba/mbira/gong/steel drums/clavinet/koto/synthesizer/ dumbek/tambura/bells/ berimbau; Kevin Hudson, elec. bass; Luis Guerra, Kevin Hudson & Evan Flory-Barnes, upright bass; John Rangel, piano; Joe Doria, Fender Rhodes/piano/ Keyboard/Hammond organ; Ryan Burns, piano/Hammond Organ; Wayne Horwitz, processed piano/Hammond Organ; Paul Fischer, Kim Thayil & Andy Coe, Elec. guitar; Peter Buck, acoustic guitar; Ben Thomas, vibraphone; Thione  Diop, bata drums/ surdo/clave; Curtis Macdonald, alto saxophone; Kanoa Kaluhiwa & Skerik, tenor saxophone; Hans Teuber, baritone & tenor saxophone; Dave Carter, trumpet; Ed Ulman, trombone; Hans Touber, baritone saxophone; Lisette Garcia, sleigh bells/ cowbell/surdo/clave/ surdo shakers/tambourine; Rahim Alhaj, Iraqi Oud; Craig Fiory, flute; Mehnaz Hoosein, Hindustani vocals; Seth Amoaku, Ghanajian drums.

Barrett Martin has composed or co-written every song on this album.  Beginning with the rhythmic driven song, “Roll the Bones,” where Kanoa Kaluhiwa (a New Mexico-based saxman) takes an exciting solo on tenor saxophone.   This is the ninth studio album from Barrett Martin, a Latin Grammy-winning producer, percussionist and composer.  On this release, Martin features the amazing works of various musicians from around the globe, like Rahim Alhaj, a Grammy-nominated Iraqi Oud Master and Seth Amoaku, a popular Ghanaian master drummer.   The arrangements are plush with horn harmonics and the full, rich expressiveness of several talented, world-applauded musicians.  Dave Carter is dynamic throughout on his trumpet.   But it is the sustained drum strength provided by Barrett Martin that drives this music powerfully.  His interest in ethnomusicology has inspired him to produce this “Scattered Diamonds” project.  He has also authored two books.  One is titled, “The Singing Earth: Adventures from a World of Music (2017) and the more recent one is called, “The Way of the Zen Cowboy: Fireside Stories from a Globetrotting Rhythmatist.”

“Scattered Diamonds is a collection of my best songs and collaborations with friends from around the world.  The album represents my global music influences, and it seems particularly timely now, because they feature musicians and singers from the Middle East, West Africa and India, as well as several jazz and rock musicians who I have worked with over the years.  Scattered Diamonds encapsulates … their immense talents, organized into one concise album. … their unique example of how music can be expressed globally.”

On Track 2, “Way Down,” he explores various time changes and his hard rock drums move like wagon wheels beneath the members of his Barrett Martin Group, brightly propelling them forward.  On the “Firefly” tune, John Rangel pumps the blues into the arrangement on piano.  On Track7, the vocals of Mehnaz Hoosein singing Hindustani vocals whisks us away to the Middle East and we sample a taste of the culture and the music through this piece titled, “Sarasvati.” Hoosein also co-wrote this tune with Martin.

Barrett Martin is generous with his music and his talent.  He plays so many instruments on this recording that his credits read like a one-man-band.   Most CDs offer ten, eleven or twelve songs. The Barrett Martin Group offers you seventeen well-written instrumentals for your listening pleasure.  This album is full of world beats, rock and roll grooves, big-band horn lines, contemporary coloration and a bit of the blues becomes a part of this jazzy celebration.  What’s not to love?

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CHAMPIAN FULTON – “BIRDSONG” – Independent Label

Champian Fulton, piano/voice; Scott Hamilton, tenor saxophone; Stephen Fulton, flugelhorn; Hide Tanaka, bass; Fukushi Tainaka, drums.

This bold and unique vocalist/pianist is celebrating Charlie Parker’s centennial with her delightful release of “Birdsong.”  The first thing I love is that Champian Fulton has her own style and vocal personality.  She’s not copying anyone else and she’s not a cabaret singer.  She is the real deal.  Champian Fulton is a jazz singer!

Perhaps this is because, when she was a new born baby, her daddy was playing one of my favorite ‘Bird’ albums, “Charlie Parker with Strings” where Parker recorded with a full orchestra.  It was her father’s favorite album and she grew up hearing it consistently throughout her lifetime.  Consequently, she has a particular kinship with ‘Bird’ and his amazing music.  Her father, Stephen Fulton, is also a jazz musician and makes a flugelhorn appearance on his daughter’s production.  She explained her inspiration to tribute Charlie Parker.

“…I feel very connected to that Southwest jazz tradition.  That intangible something that has to do with a commitment to swing and an approach to the music that’s joyful, instinctual and at the same time intellectual,” Champian Fulton says in her liner notes.

Opening with “Just Friends” I immediately fall in love with Champian Fulton’s vocal sound and her improvisational twists and turns.  She is a competent and expressive pianist who gives her all to the music when she’s playing it or singing it.  “Yardbird Suite” is presented as an instrumental and gives each member of her quintet an opportunity to shine.  Scott Hamilton’s tenor saxophone is smokey and complimentary throughout.  I enjoy the way he colors the spaces around her vocals when she sings the familiar standard, “This Is Always.”  After Hamilton’s impressive solo, Ms. Fulton enters on piano making bird sounds in the upper register that remind me of songs from a tropical forest.  She has a light, airy touch on the piano and at the same time, she’s powerfully emotional and creatively improvisational. Take, for example, her extraordinary interpretation of “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm” at an incredibly up-tempo speed.  She is dynamic! Fukushi Tainaka holds the rhythm tightly in place on trap drums, using brushes, but losing no power at all. He and Champian trade fours at this rapid pace, racing like two children playing in an open field. 

Champian Fulton’s choice of songs exhibit her technical mastery of the piano.  Her tender and imaginative vocal interpretations are compelling.  Fulton hopes, with this album release, to expose Charlie Parker’s music to a multitude of young audiences and at the same time, show that one-hundred years later, Bird’s music is truly important and timeless. 

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STÉPHANE SPIRA SPIRABASSI QUARTET – “IMPROKOFIEV”– Jazzmax Records

Stéphane Spira, soprano saxophone; Giovanni Mirabassi, piano; Donald Kontomanou, drums; Steve Wood, bass; Yoann Loustalot, flugelhorn.

The first track is titled, “Ocean Dance” where Stéphane Spira introduces us to his smooth, fluid, honey-warm sound on soprano saxophone.  Piano and drums brush against the quiet to establish the groove and support the melody. Then, the band enters.  The players stimulate interest in this Stéphane Spira original composition. 

Track 3, “After Rain” is another original composition by Spira and he flies like an eagle on his soprano saxophone.  This song is quite Straight-ahead with Latin tinges, featuring a drum solo at the introduction from Donald Kontomanou.  Steve Wood, on bass, dances beneath the lovely melody that Spira plays on the Erik Satie song, “Gymnopedie No 1.”  Wood is quite noticeable with his solid bass lines, that sing melodically, while holding the rhythm tightly in place.

I find Stéphane Spira’s soprano saxophone unexpectedly pleasant.  I say that because this is an instrument I often associate with smooth jazz.  But Spira’s music is definitely not smooth jazz.  He clearly reflects his straight-ahead jazz chops, developed in Parisian jam sessions, as a self-taught musician.  Spira attended school in France and obtained an engineering degree, although music was his passion.  He did a short stint as an engineer in Saudi Arabia, until 1990.  That’s when he returned to his hometown of Paris to pursue music full time.  For fifteen years, he chased his musical dreams and honed his talents on soprano saxophone in France.  He released two albums and played in a multitude of Parisienne clubs.  Then he headed to New York.

“It’s unique to have such a level of playing everywhere you look,” Spira spoke about his realization when arriving in New York City.

His current ensemble creates a tightly meshed rhythm section, a space and sky where Stéphane Spira can spread his wings and let his soprano sax fly.  He discovered jazz as a teenager and acquired his first saxophone at the age of 22.  He immediately fell in love with the instrument.

“I love the soprano saxophone so much because it gets back to the voice.  New York is great medicine for your ego because you can see such immense and great players.  But I’ve had time now to say, this is who I am.  I wanted to expose myself honestly and let my personality kick-in,” Stéphane Spira shares.

Perhaps he feels this way because he has, over time and living life, honed his craft, paid his dues and come to a realization about his music.  He knows who he is and he puts that knowledge and belief into his music.

“My father was really into Russian gypsy music, so by extension, he loved Django Reinhardt.  I was really into jazz and by extension of that, I loved Django,” the saxophonist recalled his roots and his family ties. He and his father would often play together.  His father’s favorite music was a traditional Russian tune titled “Moscow Windows.”

Stephane Spira was introduced to the Prokofiev piece nearly fifteen years ago by a Turkish jazz presenter and radio host.  When he heard Spira play his saxophone, he recognized echoes of the Russian composer’s dense harmonies.  The soprano saxophonist found himself intrigued by this Russian music.

“He really opened my ears.  I love a melody that you can sing but that’s supported by harmony that isn’t obvious, but sounds totally natural.  I immediately heard it as a vehicle for a jazz band.”

Consequently, the second half of this CD is titled “Improkofiev Suite” with excerpts from Sergei Prokofiev’s violin concerto #1 and is compiled of three movements that Stéphane Spira has reimagined.  The first is “Improkofiev,” (this CD’s title) which is funk driven by Donald Kontomanou on drums and embellished by Yoann Loustalot on flugelhorn.  Giovanni Mirabassi is brilliant on piano during this piece and throughout.  The second piece of the suite is “New York Dream” (a romantic-sounding ballad) and the final piece of the suite is “No Strings Attached.”

Here is an album that represents a culmination of experiences and life lessons that propelled a promising soprano sax player from France to the United States, to seek his celebrity and fortune.  He’s recently moved back to his native France after a decade abroad.  This newly formed quartet, Spirabassi, reunites him with Italian-born pianist, Giovanni Mirabassi, who he was recording with in 2009, just before he relocated to the USA.  Here is a production that represents a full circle of his life and music.

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SUKYUNG KIM – “LILAC HILL” – Independent label

Sukyung Kim, piano/Fender Rhodes keyboard/composer; Luca Alemanno, bass; Paul JuBong Lee, guitar; Jongkuk Kim, drums; Ethan Helm, alto saxophone.

A 5/4 tune, inspired by Sukyung Kim’s dream of a purple hill where the composer felt safe and secure, opens this production.  It becomes the title tune of this CD, “Lilac Hills” and represents her safe place; music and jazz.  Ms. Kim is a jazz pianist and composer from Korea, who is now residing in Brooklyn, New York.  She has enlisted the talents of Luca Alemanno on bass who opens “Lilac Hills” with his big, bass sound.  Ethan Helm is featured on alto saxophone and Paul JuBong Lee adds his guitar to the mix.  Jongkuk Kim is on drums. Track 2 features Sukyung Kim using the upper piano register to paint a galaxy of sounds that mimic twinkling stars.  The tune is titled, “Stargazers” and Ms. Kim allows her classical technique to paint the tune with sparkling arpeggios, while Alemanno walks his bass beneath her interpretation.  What I don’t hear is ‘groove.’  The drums are all over the place.  This is very contemporary in arrangement, but it never settles into a swing, a straight-ahead or even a funk groove.  The drummer is featured on the fade and soaks up his spotlight appearance with a flurry of sticks, but where is he during the rest of the tune?  I hear him coloring the arrangement, but I fervently search for the two and the four?  Paul JuBong Lee adds a stellar guitar solo, with rhythm support more from Alemanno than the drummer.  All compositions are by Sukyung Kim and although the songs are well-written, this is music without a solid drum foundation.  For me, that’s a problem.

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THE MICHAEL O’NEILL QUARTET – “AND THEN IT RAINED” – Jazzmo Records

Michael O’Neill, tenor, alto & soprano saxophones/clarinet/composer; Michael Bluestein, piano; Dan Feiszli, acoustic bass; Jason Lewis, drums.

This is Michael O’Neill’s fifth release as a bandleader and unlike his other releases, he has composed every song on this album.  O’Neill is a popular and sought-after San Francisco Bay Area jazz musician with a penchant for using vocalists on his former releases.  Although currently based in Northern California, O’Neill grew up surfing near the shores of San Diego in Southern California. On his tune, “Early Spring” he fully captures my attention.  Inside the CD jacket, O’Neill explains this composition is based on the harmonies of the Bill Evans tune, “Very Early.”  This is one of my favorites on O’Neill’s album and features a beautiful bass solo by Dan Feiszli. The song “One for Kenny” is written for Bay area jazz vocalist, Kenny Washington, who O’Neill has worked with for years.  It’s an up-tempo, straight-ahead piece that gives Michael Bluestein an opportunity to stretch out across the 88-piano keys and improvise boldly.  Track 5 is titled, “Cloudscape,” a ballad with a lovely melody.  As I listen to O’Neill’s original music and the way he plays his horn, I can tell he has been influenced by John Coltrane, perhaps Yusef Lateef, and other great jazz quartets like The Charles Lloyd group. There’s also quite a bit of Latin influence in the music he writes and arranges, like “Port of Spain” and “Suite Iris.”  This is the very first time he has finally brought his composer skills to the lime light and it’s obvious he is a gifted composer.  His woodwind work is as impressive as his writing skills.  Other favorites on this album include “Mavericks Samba” that dances and sways, encouraging my feet to move and the blues-based tune titled, “The Dreams We Left Behind” is a lovely ballad and a sweet way to complete this album.

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ALLEGRA LEVY – “LOSE MY NUMBER” – SteepleChase Records

Allegra Levy, vocal; Carmen Staaf, piano; Carmen Rothwell, bass; Colleen Clark, drums; John McNeil, trumpet; Pierre Dorge, ukulele.

If you are searching for something that will tantalize your jazz taste buds and take you on an unexpected journey into the outside-in of unique, this Allegra Levy album is the answer.  She is celebrating the extraordinary music of John McNeil, a composer that challenges the vocal register with his unanticipated melodic structure.  Obviously, these songs and their creative melodies lend themselves to instruments other than the voice.  Why?  Because of the intervals and the sudden, challenging ranges.  Allegra Levy makes it sound easy to sing these unusual compositions, but I know singing this music is anything but easy.  Opening with “Samba de Beach” I immediately think of the great Betty Carter.  Allegra doesn’t sound anything like Betty, but this song is so outside the realm of anything I expected and so challenging for a vocalist, that I immediately recall Betty and how she liked to challenge the status quo of jazz music.  That’s what Allegra Levy is doing.  She and her trio are challenging the norm.  In the final analysis, isn’t that’s what every jazz musician strives to do?

Allegra talks about the challenges involved in singing “Samba de Beach.” 

“I heard this melody and immediately thought about my frustrations regarding the musician’s life, and especially the jazz scene.  I think a lot of jazz musicians would feel this kind of frustration right now!”

Of course, she is referring to the current pandemic and how it has shut down the world and locked the doors to live music, clubs and concert halls.  It has also given Ms. Levy time to learn these incredibly difficult melodies and to match them with innovative and sometimes very humorous lyrics.

I was surprised to discover that until this album, there had been only one John McNeil composition sung on record.  One of the reasons was that his music didn’t have lyrics.  The other was that McNeil does not necessarily construct melodies that invite lyrics. For some predestined reason, Allegra was drawn to the work of trumpeter/composer John McNeil.  Their decade long musical-friendship started when she created words to his composition, “Livin’ Small.”  Levy confirms in her liner notes:

                “These songs were not written for singers!”

This declaration is obvious as you listen to the way her voice chases the tempo changes, slides into the interval jumps and takes the metric U-turns like a race car driver.  Levy is formidable on this project! Once she sings the melody and the unique lyrics she has written, her trio takes over and you hear how wonderful these songs are for a jazz trio to explore.  They lend themselves to instrumental development and improvisation. 

“John’s lines are complex and innovative, but they’re always tuneful and really memorable.  That’s the reason I always wanted to do this project.  I wanted to make them more accessible by putting words to them, so I could share them with even more people,” Allegra Levy explains.

Allegra Levy not only sweetly adds her lyrics, she scats too; sometimes harmonizing with the trumpet, like on “Strictly Ballroom,” or using her voice as colorful ‘filler’ lines in “Living Small.”  The tune “Strictly Ballroom” puts me in the mind of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross.  It has a lyric that reflects a tongue in cheek sarcasm and is quite comedic.  “Tiffany” is one of my favorites.  It’s a sensuous ballad and challenges Allegra’s voice to explore her low alto range.  Carmen Rothwell improvises with a beautiful solo on her double bass.  Carmen Staaf is a prolific pianist, who sensitively tells her stories on the eighty-eight keys during awesome solos and she’s also a sensitive accompanist.  Colleen Clark is ever present on trap drums, adding tasty licks and colorful additions to heighten the song’s musical moments. Allegra’s all-female trio is fiery hot!

Allegra Levy is a gifted lyricist, a sweet-toned vocalist with excellent pitch and definitely is a jazz singer. However, the one missing element in this talented singer/songwriter’s bag of excellence, is a style.  That is to say, when you hear Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Betty Carter, Julie London, Diana Krall, Carmen McCrae or even Chaka Khan, they have a distinctive sound; a vocal style.  That is not a criticism, but more my observation and an important one for any jazz singer.  For this reviewer, Allegra’s voice is like so many others I’ve heard without the distinction of having their own unique sound.  Importantly, on Levy’s first two albums, where she wrote both music and lyrics, she clearly established herself as a competent composer.  She also is obviously fearless when it comes to challenging her vocal strengths and technique.  Her songwriting gifts are a plus.  Here is a project you may find yourself listening to, again and again, to soak up all the richness of Allegra Levy’s lyrical wisdom and the challenging way she has adorned the music of John McNeil with her wonderful words.

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  TOM GUARNA – “SPIRIT SCIENCE” – Destiny Records

Tom Guarna, electric & acoustic guitar; Ben Wendel, tenor saxophone/bassoon; Aaron Parks, piano/Fender Rhodes keyboard/synthesizer; Joe Martin, bass; Justin Faulkner, drums.

Guitarist, Tom Guarna’s CD cover is very geometrical, as are the inside panels of the CD jacket.  I wondered about this, until in the liner notes I read Guarna’s explanation:

                “Sacred geometry; those laws that drive everything in existence; it’s where math and science meet with spirit and matter; ideas that humans have studied since the ancients, from Pythagoras to Da Vinci.  Exploring that changed my perspective on music. … Once you’re aware of it, you see those implications everywhere.  With Spirit Science, I wanted to evoke those primary, essential shapes, spirals, circles, squares, in my compositions.”

Most of Tom Guarna’s composition titles relate to scientific and spiritual concepts.  As a layman, a journalist and a jazz lover, I listen with open ears, but I’m no scientist or mathematician.  I had no idea (until I read the liner notes) that Track 1, “A Trion Re” refers to the sixth Platonic solid whereby light is an object. For me, this song is contemporary cool with a notable solo by Ben Wendel on saxophone.  Track 2 is a pretty ballad (Platonic Solids) with a catchy melody, brought to our attention by Aaron Parks on synthesizer, with Ben Wendel improvising over the theme on tenor saxophone.   On the title tune, Joe Martin soaks up the spotlight on bass with a long and melodic solo.  One of my favorites of Guarna’s compositions is his tribute to Kofi Burbridge titled, “A Reflection in a Reflection.”   The bassoon of Ben Wendel adds a fresh dimension to the music and Aaron Parks is colorful on synthesizer, on the Rhodes and the piano throughout this album.  “Metatron’s Cube” is straight ahead and the way it’s arranged makes the guitar sound like a full horn section, when blended with the sax and piano.  Justin Faulkner, on drums, holds the original compositions tightly in place

“I had never performed with Justin before, though I knew his playing with Branford Marsalis.  I had the idea that he and Joe would be good together and I was right.  Their hookup was fantastic,” Guarna expressed his admiration for the group’s drummer.

Guarna is a graduate of the Juilliard School.  The guitarist has performed with such icons as Stanley Clarke, Branford Marsalis, Randy Brecker, Mulgrew Miller, Billy Hart, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Les McCann, Gary Bartz and more.  He’s a solid composer and a diversified player, showing off his strengths on both acoustic and electric guitar during this unique project.  

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  DAVID SILLS DOUBLE GUITAR QUINTET – “NATURAL LINES” – Gut String Records

David Sills, tenor saxophone/alto flute; Mike Scott & Larry Koonse, guitars; Blake White, bass; Tim Pleasant, drums.

This, the 17th album release for reed player, David Sills.  It features seven original compositions by Sills and tunes by Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Jimmy Davis, Alan Broadbent and two of Sills’ accompanists, guitarists Larry Koonse and Mike Scott.  Opening with Scott’s “Minor Monk,” this group swings hard and the catchy melody repeats in your head.  This is the sign of a well-written composition.  The Sills’ group has a tight, cohesive sound.  When David Sills comes to the forefront on his horn, his mellow tone lights up the musical stage.  I played this song twice before moving on.  You rarely hear a quintet that utilizes two guitars, but it works!  David Sills explained:

“In recent years, most of my performances have taken place in venues in which no piano was available, so to fill the role of the missing piano, I began adding a second guitar.  This instrumentation seemed to open up many musical possibilities and allowed for an interesting mix of sonic colors.  Thus, the idea for this recording, featuring a double guitar quintet, was born.”

Certainly, it helps to use some of the best players in Southern California like Larry Koonse and Mike Scott, who is a founding member of the Los Angeles Jazz Collective.  Together, Scott and Koonse create a rich, beautiful rhythm section, along with Tim Pleasant on drums and Blake White on bass. They become a cohesive palate where Sills can paint his silky, smooth tenor saxophone sound.   “Sonny’s Side” is a David Sill original composition and it’s another swinging arrangement.  I wondered if it was a tribute to Sonny Rollins. When reading the publicist’s promo package, I discovered it actually was.  Tim Pleasant colors the music on his trap drums and holds the swing time in perfect place.  Half way through, the ensemble give’s Pleasant a time to shine on an impressive drum solo.  Blake White, on double bass, locks in with Pleasant and the groove is impeccable.

On the Alan Broadbent tune, “Quiet Is the Star” Sills picks up his alto flute and serenades us.   David Sills stays busy as a recording and performing artist, as a composer and an educator.  He puts out albums every other year, tours the United States, Europe and Asia as a bandleader and still finds time to perform with David Benoit, The Acoustic Jazz Quartet, the Line Up and the Liam Sillery Quintet. His current project, “Natural Lines” is a whole new adventure, for the first time featuring his double guitar quintet and offering us a dozen well-played songs for our listening pleasure.

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BLUES IS THE ROOT OF JAZZ

September 3, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

Sept 3, 2020

CHARLES McPHERSON’S “JAZZ DANCE SUITES” – Chazz Mack Music

Charles McPherson, alto saxophone; Terrell Stafford, trumpet; Lorraine Castellanos, voice; Jeb Patton & Randy Porter, piano; Yotam Silberstein, guitar; David Wong, bass; Billy Drummond, drum.

Charles McPherson has long been one of my favorite bebop saxophone players.  So, I was both excited and expectant when his “Jazz Dance Suites” came across my desk.  McPherson’s music is always steeped in blues and he’s a master of his instrument.  However, I didn’t know what to expect when I discovered this was a groundbreaking collaboration with the San Diego Ballet; an association that began in 2015. According to the liner notes, his daughter Camille is a solo ballerina in her eighth season with the prestigious dance company.  Impressive!

                “In the spring of 2016, my father (whom I endearingly call Bub) and I had a performance together at the Lyceum Theatre in Downtown San Diego.  It was not the first time we’d performed together, and it would not be the last.  Sweet Synergy Suite, which consists of some of my favorite music and choreography of all time, was on the bill that evening.  We had performed this ballet twice together before, but in the spring of 2016, it felt different,” Camille writes in the liner notes.

The first suite is called “Song of Songs” and includes “Love Dance” that starts out quite bluesy.  Then, the sweet voice of Lorraine Castellanos enters singing in Yiddish.  When McPherson ventures into the land of solo horn, his saxophone is blues-bound with a taste of Middle Eastern music woven into the fabric of his composition. Yotam Silberstein takes a fluid and inspired guitar solo. He brings the blues back into view.  But right away, I can tell this is going to be more than the bebop icon I know and love.  Clearly, McPherson is exploring new directions and treading uncharted paths.  At age 80, he’s still growing and pushing the boundaries of his own creativity and talent. “Heart’s Desire” continues with the Middle Eastern cadenzas rich with culture.  The “Wedding Song” is track 3 and arranged as a playful samba.  “Hear My Plea” features horn and voice, without solos.  It’s a melancholy ballad that invites Silberstein’s guitar towards the end of the song, to join in.  Meantime, Billy Drummond colors the song with cymbals and rhythm licks on his trap drums.  The first strains of a song Charles McPherson calls “Thinking of You” immediately reminds me of Canadian Sunset, an old, popular song  from the 1950s.  However, it soon morphs into its own uniquely beautiful melody and arrangement.  Randy Porter performs a magnificent solo presentation of “After the Dance,” composed using echoes of the rhythm and harmony of the “Love Dance” composition.  Vocalist Lorraine Castellanos brings her unique tone and emotional delivery to “Praise.”  She sings a duet with Yotam Silberstein’s awesome guitar talents and it’s very effective and vocally intriguing.  “The Gospel Truth” shuffles in with blues overtones and McPherson’s bebop, bluesy, alto saxophone is featured.  That wraps up the first suite.  McPherson generously shares the spotlight with Jeb Patton on piano and Billy Drummond cuts loose on trap drums.

This album offers fifteen cuts and three suites of music.  I reviewed the first suite , which is followed by “Reflection of an Election.”  This suite was written in response to the 2016 U.S. presidential election and was originally composed for saxophone, violin, cello and bass.  Once again Charles McPherson brings his deep sense of blues to the party and adds his new rhythm section.  This is musical activism and a giant step back into his strong jazz roots, proudly playing his familiar bebop legacy. 

The final piece is titled “Sweet Synergy Suite” and closes this album.  It was actually the first work composed by McPherson for the San Diego Ballet and was originally created as an Afro-Latin/Jazz fusion number. This suite features six songs and is as sensitive, interesting and artistic as the former suites.  The final song, “Tropic of Capricorn” seemed to be inspired by an old standard titled “Out of this World”.  During this production, Charles adds the trumpet of Terrell Stafford.  McPherson’s arranging and composition demonstrates his genius blend of musical genres and his artistic prowess used to embrace ballet stories and the concept of creating music for dance. Here is fresh, new and powerful music by the legendary Charles McPherson.  Even more beautiful is that he was inspired to write and create these “Jazz Dance Suites” for his artistic and talented daughter.   

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BETTYE LAVETTE – “BLACKBIRDS” – Verve Records

Betty LaVette, vocals; Steve Jordan, drums; Smokey Hormel, guitar; Leon Pendarvis, keyboards; Tom Barney, bass; Nioka Workman, Cello; Charisa Rouse, Ina Paris, Rose Bartu, violins.

The distinctive voice of Bettye LaVette opens her latest CD with a song sung by Nina Simone titled, “I Hold No Grudge.”  When Bettye LaVette sings, you believe every word.  Her band is soulful and oozes the blues.  There’s a long, inspired guitar solo by Smokey Hormel that fades-out Track 1.   Track 2 is the current single release by Ms. LaVette titled “One More Song,” written by Sharon Robinson.  The lyrics are poignant:

“One more teardrop, every note.  Another lyric caught in my throat.  What was all this lovin’ for, just to strike another minor chord?”

Bettye LaVette delivers the lyrics with assertion and paints them with believability, as only she can. The same holds true when she sings the Della Reese recording, “Blues for the Weepers.”  On this project,  Bettye LaVette has chosen music made popular by some of the female entertainers she’s admired over the years.  Her gutsy, raspy voice snatches up the lyrics of each song and throws them at our ears like prophesy.  When you listen to Betty LaVette, you know she’s a straight-shooter.  She’s lived these lyrics and experienced these stories herself.  You feel her emotions, as she shares each song with you.  She released her first single from this album a few months ago, during the precarious state of the United States and after the continuous murders of black men across America, culminating in the photographed execution of George Floyd.  That song release was “Strange Fruit,” her ode to Billie Holiday’s activist offerings, over half-century ago.  Sadly, the saga continues today in 2020.

                “It really is horrifying that nearly 80-years later, through Billie’s lifetime and now my 74 years, the meaning of this song still applies.  It might not be men and women hanging from trees, but these public executions are now on video and it feels like they’re doing it for sport.  I hope the song will be a reminder that we have had enough and I support the Black Lives Matter movement,” spoke LaVette from the pages of her liner notes.   

One of my favorite songs by the Queen of the Blues, Dinah Washington, was “I’m Drinking Again” and Bettye does it justice.  Listening to her sing, I think back to evenings at Bert’s, a downtown nightclub in Detroit, where Bettye LaVette and I sometimes ran into each other at the bar, sipping our cocktails and listening to the great, Motown music talent.  Bettye is a native Detroiter and cut her very first record in 1962 for Atlantic Records.  She was just sixteen-years-old.  This was followed by top-40 charted single releases like, “He Made A Woman Out of Me” and “Do Your Duty.”  To date, this amazing, soulful singer has recorded ten albums, been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, and sung for the President of the United States, Barack Obama. 

Much credit must be given to producer, Steve Jordan, whose rhythm tracks support and inspire Bettye LaVette and bring out the very best of her emotional vocals.  You have to sit up and take notice of how this unique artist presents the Nancy Wilson hit record, “Save Your Love for Me.”  It’s stunning and Bettye owns that song.  As popular as Nancy Wilson made it, Bettye LaVette takes it to the next level. If you didn’t know it was a blues, now you do!

The final song on this album is the Beatles popular standard and the title tune, “Blackbird.”  Once again, Ms. LaVette puts her indelible stamp of uniqueness and blues on this tune.   She has been nominated for a total of five Grammys.  This should be the recording that finally brings the Grammy home.

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TEODROSS AVERY – HARLEM STORIES THE MUSIC OF THELONIOUS MONK – WJ3 Records

Teodross Avery, tenor & soprano saxophone; Anthony Wonsey & DD Jackson, piano; Corcoran Holt, bass; Willie Jones III & Marvin ‘Bugalu’ Smith, drummers; Allakoi Peete, percussion.

Teodross Avery fell in love with the music of Thelonious Monk when he was just fifteen years old.  His dad used to play the genius pianist and composer’s music all the time.  Teodross recalls:

“I used to listen to Monk’s album, ‘Monk’s Dream’, with the volume on ten on my dad’s huge speakers.  I began to hear how important the swing rhythm was to Thelonious Monk’s music.  It became clear to me that Monk wanted his complex melodies and harmonies to affect the musicians and the listeners alike with non-stop swing rhythms.”

Without a doubt, Dr. Avery has put together a group of musicians who swing hard and non-stop.  He also brings (along with the historic sound of Monk’s group), his own perspective and arrangements that add a kaleidoscope of colorful shades, beauty, blues and brilliance. Right from the very first song, “Teo” I am intrigued and absolutely intoxicated by the energy and creativity of this varied ensemble.  “Teo” is a wonderful Monk composition, inspired by the composer’s appreciation of tenor sax-man and longtime producer, Teo Macero.  Folks were likely to hear Monk and his band of merry men play this tune often at Minton’s Playhouse in New York while Thelonious was their house pianist in the mid-1940s.  Every composition on this album is the work of this piano genius. When Avery interprets “Ruby My Dear” he surprises me with the funk drums at the top and the smooth, Latin, rhythmic vibe he inserts.  When the melody arrives, like a beautiful woman making her grand entrance after the party has started, it both pleases and astonishes this listener.   This arrangement is dynamic and fresh.  It will make all the party attendees swivel their heads towards the ballad’s entrance.  Teodross Avery’s arrangement could have been influenced by the fact that this tune was penned for Monk’s girlfriend at that time, a spicy, Cuban-born beauty named Rubie Richardson.   The piano of Anthony Wonsey is the sparkle, like jewelry around the song’s long, lovely body. 

“Evidence” vividly showcases Willie Jones III on drums.  This, of course, is a standard jam session jazz tune that drummers love to dig their sticks into.  Willie Jones III does not disappoint.  The Teodross Avery Quartet brings a classic, hard-bop menu to the table.  It’s just what my taste buds needed to begin this early Saturday morning.  On “Evidence,” and the classic tune, “Rhythm-a-ning,” Teodross Avery swings tenaciously and races at top speed on his tenor saxophone.  He has a tone and attack that exploits the best in whatever he plays.  Corcoran Holt is stunning and convincing on his bass solos.  Holt’s up-tempo, precision attack throughout, features his swiftly-walking double bass that locks into the drums and makes the perfect basement for this quartet to jam inside.  A melodic mixture of improvised piano notes scurry beneath the sensitive fingers of Wonsey.  This is an exciting and serious representation of master Monk’s work, while exploring  the talents of these awesome musicians. 

DD Jackson sits down to the piano to introduce us to “In Walked Bud” in a very inventive and blues-laden way.  He has a totally different style of playing than Wonsey, but is no less dynamic or brilliant. He brings something new and inventive to the tune.  The drums roll, like a two-ton truck barreling down the freeway.  Teodross Avery is magnificently present on his tenor saxophone.  Mr. Jackson takes a serious solo that makes me sit up and pay close attention.  This is the way jazz is supposed to make you feel.  Marvin “Bugalu” Smith parts the curtains and demands our consideration during his drum solo, full of spunk and fire.  “In Walked Bud” never sounded so good! 

We get a breather on “Ugly Beauty,” the only waltz Monk ever wrote and it’s sweetly presented, yet still with those powerful drums edging the band on.  Teodross Avery plays beautifully on soprano saxophone this time, sounding like a wild, beautiful bird.  He glides, dips and flies over our heads and makes me look up.  This music lifts me.  DD Jackson answers some of his conversational horn lines on piano, as though they are having a private conversation.  His fingers move rapidly; humming bird or butterfly wings dusting the piano keys. 

Every song and each individual production on this album of great music is worthy of a replay.  I spent a couple of hours listening, so I could soak up every nuance; every drop of colorful creativity.  Teodross Avery is masterful as a woodwind player, but also as a bandleader, arranger and musical inspiration.

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SAN GABRIEL 7 FEATURING FEMI KNIGHT – “RED DRESS” – JRL – SGS Records

Femi Knight, vocals; Chad Edwards, keyboards/Hammond B3; Matt Weisberg, keyboards; Chris Gordon, grand piano/background vocals; Steve Gregory, guitar; Jonathan Pintoff, bass; Randy Drake, drums; Scott Breadman, percussion; HORN SECTION: Mike McGuffey & Kye Palmer , trumpet; Jeff Jarvis, trumpet/flugelhorn; Glen Berger, tenor/alto saxophone; Jim Lewis, trombone.

Femi Knight is a singer/songwriter who plays piano and brings a sweetness and a soulfulness to the San Gabriel 7 ensemble.  She may be best remembered for her long association as lead vocalist with Sergio Mendes. The San Gabriel 7 opens with her original composition, “I’m Going Home Tonight.”  This song is a blend of smooth jazz, R&B and straight-ahead jazz.  The San Gabriel 7 group blends the walls that divide those three elements of music into one solid funk arrangement.  Knight’s voice tells the story, while the horn section punches harmonically to enhance her composition.  Randy Drake’s drums forcefully boost the production.  This ensemble brings back the Tower of Power kind of energy.  On “West Indian Brown” (where the Red Dress lyrics are prominent) the percussion of Scott Breadman is tasty on this tune and the horns once again dance and prance around the vocalist.  When they solo, the music transitions from R&B-soul to jazz-funk. 

Chris Gordon on grand piano also sings background and on several songs Femi Knight layers her voice and joins him as a background singer.  On the tune, “The Next Best Thing” Glen Berger plays a notable and very jazzy saxophone solo.  “New Tomorrow” crosses into the realm of Christian contemporary music and features Jeff Jarvis and Kye Palmer, strong and visible on their trumpets.   Steve Gregory, on guitar, steps forward with an innovative improvisational solo on the song “Stranger.” 

This is a group that will invigorate any party.  They are a sample of the new genre of music that incorporates various styles of music, based and rooted in blues, inspired by jazz and propelled by the fine contemporary songwriting of Femi Knight. 

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REGINA CARTER FREEDOM BAND – “SWING STATES HARMONY IN THE BATTLEGROUND” – Tiger Turn Records

Regina Carter, violin/arranger; Jon Batiste, piano; John Daversa, trumpet/flugelhorn/arranger; Kabir Sehgal, bass/percussion; Harvey Mason, drums; Alexis Cuadrado, bass; Brian Gorrell, tenor saxophone.

Regina Carter opens her CD with a short, spoken essay about growing up in Detroit and the embracing of many cultures, as well as the important privilege of voting.  Her violin plays softly in the background as she speaks. 

Track 2 pays tribute to “Georgia On My Mind.”  The groove is set by Jon Batiste’s strong and rhythmic piano line.  John Daversa drives his trumpet message into the spotlight and shines.  Carter has been probing the blues-based, country side of her heritage for some time and you hear her unique and awe-inspiring violin style peel back the layers of culture during this production.  She exposes the blues roots of jazz, as well as honoring the influences of many cultures from around the world.  On Track 3, “Rocky Mountain High Colorado” (by John Denver & Mike Taylor), takes on a whole new perspective.  Kabir Sehgal sparkles his percussive magic across the music, along with the charismatic Mr. Harvey Mason on trap drums.  The drums and Regina Carter take center stage on this arrangement and the beauty of just violin and percussion is quite striking and hypnotic.  When the band joins in, the party continues in full force. This is one of my favorite arrangements on this album. 

I expected “Dancing in the Street (Detroit Michigan)” to be full of fire and funk.  It arrives as a pensive ballad, with Regina Carter’s sensuous violin accentuating the melody of this familiar hit record by Martha and the Vandellas in ways I never expected.  During this arrangement, Regina Carter’s violin takes on a voice as dynamic and powerful as freedom itself.  When John Daversa puts his trumpet to his lips to blow his solo, Alexis Cuadrado walks proudly alongside of him on bass. They plant the blues firmly at the feet of the violinist.

“It’s not about the Red states or the blue States,” speaks Jon Batiste.  “It’s about the ‘Swing States,’ and actually, we have fifty Swing States’ and a few territories.  I’m proud to be from Louisiana,” he states as he plays his blues piano.  “Music brings us together because it’s a force that can speak the universal language of love and truth.”

His music blends into the familiar song, “You Are My Sunshine” (Louisiana-style) and Regina parts the quiet with her violin pronouncements in a slow execution of the melody.  Soon, the tempo picks up and she is joined in a raucous arrangement of the song featuring bright horn work and Regina Carter’s dancing violin, along with Batiste’s innovative piano compliment and solo.  With the tempo change,the arrangement embraces the joy of a New Orleans street band. 

This is a production full of sweet surprises, as delicious as “We Shall Overcome” sung solo by the Carter violin or Harvey Mason’s commentary on his hometown of Kansas.  Ms. Carter has pulled her excellent band together from a multitude of States.  John Daversa speaks about Florida and the Everglades.  They sing a tribute to the “Swanee River” and add a twist of Country/Western jazz and blues to  “Home on the Range” arrangement.   Her entire album offers fourteen songs and short essays, stacked like buttermilk pancakes, fresh off the griddle and drizzled with warm buttery blues, like hot Alaga syrup. Regina Carter hopes that this ‘Freedom Band’ will innovate people, State to State, to vote this coming November, 2020 and also hopes she can pull people together under the umbrella of good music. 

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MAGGIE HERRON – “YOUR REFRAIN” – Independent label

Maggie Herron, vocals/piano/composer; Dawn Herron, composer; Larry Goldings & Bill Cunliffe, Piano ; David Enos, Mike Gurrola & Dean Taba, bass; John Ferraro & Jake Reed, drums; Larry Koonse & Jim Chiodini, guitar; Duane Padilla, string arrangements; Gillian Margot & Brandon Winbush, background vocals; Bob Sheppard, soprano saxophone; Debbie McQuillan, tin Whistle.

Maggie Herron is a bright presence on the Waikiki, Hawaii jazz scene.  For over four decades, she has been playing piano, singing her songs of life and has become a sort of jazz fixture within the island community.  Her music has a little bit of blues running through it, like a bright turquoise ribbon.  It’s prominent on the opening tune, “WhatNot,” penned by Maggie and her daughter; Dawn Herron.  This entire album is a tribute to her daughter who passed away from an unexpected bicycle accident in April of this year.  She was forty-nine-years young and left a husband and two teenage sons behind, along with her mother grieving the loss of her precious and talented daughter.  As a published songwriter myself, this journalist became a fan of the music Maggie and her daughter wrote and recorded.  I have reviewed two other releases by Maggie Herron and I was shocked and saddened when I received this latest album and realized Maggie had lost her beloved child.  The lyrics to the album’s title tune, “Your Refrain” are enhanced by a string arrangement prepared by Duane Padilla.  They read:

                “I listen closely to hear your refrain.  A celestial rhythm the heartbeat of rain. Without breath, without sound, you still remain. I held you closely and watched your breath fall. Touched by an angel, soft and so calm. Your ember quietly fading away, spirit escaping this first and last day.”

Her husky, smokey alto voice caresses the lyrics.  Maggie Herron is a stylist.  Once you hear her, you will always recognize her sound.  Maggie’s unique tone reminds me of the great Cleo Laine’s lower register.  Track 4 is titled, “Watching the Crows” and in her liner notes, Maggie said it was daughter’s favorite collaboration.  On this original composition, she features Bob Sheppard on soprano saxophone.

                “Dawn had been writing short stories and poems most of her life and I kept asking her to write lyrics for me.  I knew she would be great at it.  With this newest release, we now have nineteen songs recorded as co-writers.  My plan is to record several others that I haven’t yet gotten to,” Herron explained.  

Maggie created this album during the pandemic, while sheltered in place.  She sent the tracks out to her talented collaborators with her piano and vocal treatments of the songs.  They took it from there.

                “They could hear what I was looking for; the feel.  My plan was to take a year to record the album, a really slow pace.  But then, after Dawn’s passing, for my own sanity I decided, no – – -I’m just going to do it now.”

This album is an excellent example of original music, both poetic and humorous, like “He Can’t Even Lay an Egg” and “I Can’t Seem to Find My Man,” or poignant and honest tunes  like “Touch.”  

It’s both entertaining and a lovely tribute to the collaboration of mother and daughter.  Maggie Herron also includes two standard songs.  One of my favorites by Joni Mitchell, “Both Sides Now” and “God Bless the Child.”  When Maggie Herron released her debut album in 2011 (In the Wings) she was already a polished songwriter, competent pianist and stylized singer with an extensive book of original pieces.  She followed-up with her 2015 release of “Good Thing” and then, “Between the Music and the Moon.”  The last two albums both won Na Hoku Hanohano Jazz Album of the Year Awards and featured music collaborations with her daughter, Dawn.  I expect this latest release may also be an award winning project.

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MATT WILSON QUARTET – “HUG” – Palmetto Records

Matt Wilson, drummer/composer/xylophone/voice; Jeff Lederer, tenor, alto & soprano saxophones/clarinet/piccolo/voice; Kirk Knuffke, cornet/soprano cornet/voice; Chris Lightcap, acoustic bass/electric bass/8-string space bass/boice; Strings on “Hug” tune arranged & played by Matt Combs.

Gene Ammons was one of my favorite jazz saxophonists on the planet.  His music was rooted in blues and he made no bones about it. I enjoyed hearing Ammons play ‘live’ many times in smokey, packed Detroit nightclubs. Remember when you could smoke in a club?  Mat Wilson opens with a Gene Ammons tune titled, “The One Before This” and it swings and bounces the blues along, letting the various players take their solos.  Jeff Lederer is powerful on his saxophone and Chris Lightcap takes a walking bass solo.  Enter drummer and bandleader, Matt Wilson to show off his chops.  Throughout, Kirk Knuffke adds his cornet sparkle and splash, like colorful confetti bombarding  the project.

Track 2 sweeps me away to New Orleans, as the Wilson Quartet joyfully explores the Abdullah Ibrahim “Jabulani” composition.  When Wilson solos, he sings on his trap drums.  The staccato horn lines add punch and interest to the arrangement.  Track 3 swings so hard and at such a rapid pace, I feel like I should fasten my seat belt and I’m seated in my office lounge chair.  This Quartet has their own unique sound and create amazing excitement.  Referencing Charlie Haden’s “In the Moment” piece, Wilson said:

“It’s not one of the ballads that Charlie wrote so beautifully.  What’s really interesting is that it actually sounds very Paul Motian-like.  I played with Charlie for a long time and I wanted to recognize that spirit.  He was so important and special to me,” Wilson explains.

As a composer, Matt Wilson has composed six of the eleven song recorded.   He offers us tongue in cheek humor with his “Sunny and Share” song and his “Space Force March/Interplanetary Music” (co-written with Sun Ra and using the 45th president’s voice announcing his Space Force as a backdrop).  The music dives into the outside, far-to-the-right universe and adds a clownish melody with all the quartet singing “It’s a planetary music” atop an Avant-garde arrangement with marching drums and a two-feel on the bass.  It really had me laughing heartily!  The “Sunny and Share” tune reinvents “The Beat Goes On” and “I Got You Babe” (from the 1960s contemporary pop classics book) into an Ornettified arrangement. 

“I’m a huge Cher fan,” Wilson reminds us that he grew up watching the popular Sonny and Cher television show.  

A pivotal figure for more than three decades, Wilson is an innovative educator, poll-topping drummer, prolific composer and inveterate collaborator.  “Hug” is his fourteenth album as a leader.

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SPOTLIGHT ON BIG BANDS & STRAIGHT-AHEAD ENSEMBLES

August 28, 2020

by Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz journalist

August 28, 2020

CHRISTIAN McBRIDE BIG BAND – “FOR JIMMY, WES AND OLIVER” – Mack Ave Records

Christian McBride, bass/bandleader/producer; Joey DeFrancesco, organ; Mark Whitfield, guitar; Quincy Phillips, drums; TRUMPETS: Frank Greene, Freddie Hendrix, Brandon Lee, Nabate Isles & Anthony Hervey. TROMBONES: Michael Dease, Steve Davis, James Burton, Douglas Purviance. WOODWINDS: Steve Wilson, Todd Bashore, Ron Blake, Dan Pratt & Carl Maraghi.

Christian McBride, bassist, arranger, producer and big band leader has assembled an all-star group of musicians to celebrate the unforgettable impact that organ master, Jimmy Smith, phenomenal guitarist and composer, Wes Montgomery, and iconic arranger, Oliver Nelson have made on Earth.

At the peak of his career, Oliver Nelson was producing and arranging music for jazz vocalist, Nancy Wilson, R&B trend-setter, James Brown, The Temptation singing group, organist Jimmy Smith and Diana Ross.  He was also composing for television shows like Ironside, Longstreet and The Six Million Dollar Man.  You may remember his composition “Stolen Moments” that became an anthem for jazz musicians around the world.  Nelson also played tenor saxophone on the original release of this trend-setting song, along with Paul Chambers on bass, Bill Evans on piano and Roy Haynes on drums. We can’t forget that Eric Dolphy doubled on the alto saxophone on this recording. 

Oliver Nelson also arranged an old favorite of mine, “Night Train,” that opens this CD with a huge bang.  The band comes out swinging harder than Muhammad Ali at the ‘rumble in the jungle’ fight.  Track 2 follows this with the Wes Montgomery hit composition, “Road Song.”  Featuring a spirited solo by Mark Whitfield.

The premise for this Christian McBride Big Band album came from a session back in 1966 at the famous Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey studio of Rudy Van Gelder.  Over the course of two day, Wes Montgomery and Jimmy Smith merged their talents to record two magical albums arranged by the great Oliver Nelson.  The first release was titled “The Dynamic Duo” and the second was marketed in 1968 as “Further Adventures of jimmy and Wes.”  Both Christian McBride and master organist, Joey DeFrancesco played those 33-1/3 albums over and over for years.  Their musical friendship has been nearly four decades in the making.  Once they realized how much both of them admired those two historic albums of music by Smith and Montgomery, a plan began to take shape. 

“Joey is, without question, my oldest friend in music,” McBride shared in his press package. “We met in middle school playing in the Settlement Music School Jazz Ensemble.  We’ve recorded a few things here and there over the years, but we’ve never recorded an entire album together until now.  It seemed logical to salute the two albums that we listened to quite a bit as kids.”

Joey DeFranceso crashes into the spotlight on “Up Jumped Spring,” and this song is arranged specifically for the quartet.  DeFrancesco has long been one of this journalist’s favorite organ players, probably because he has a style and attack very similar to the late, great Jimmy Smith.  Joey plays with so much soul!  Christian McBride steps up on his double bass to share a wonderful solo, with Quincy Phillips dancing happily beneath him, using tasteful, rhythmic brushes.  “Milestones” races in, familiar to any jazz ear, with horns powerfully singing that opening none of us will ever forget.  DeFrancisco and Whitfield settle into their respective instruments and they are off and running.  Did you know that Miles Davis famously recruited Joey DeFrancesco into his band when the young man was just out of high school?  So, this song is particularly historic to the forceful organ player.  Mark Whitfield introduces us to the bluesy-side of the familiar ballad, “The Very Thought of You.”  Christian McBride bows his double bass with sensuosity and technical brilliance.

The three featured players on this project have each offered one original composition to be explored by the band.  Joey DeFrancesco adds “Don Is,” a sly tribute to bassist and record executive, Don Was, that is a compelling shuffle, propelled dynamically by Quincy Phillips.  This too is a quartet tune and it swings relentlessly.

Mark Whitfield has written a tribute to murdered civil rights activist, Medgar Evers, titled “Medgar Evers Blues.”  The 17-piece Christian McBride Big Band is certainly one of the most intoxicating of all the modern jazz big bands on the scene today.  They return, in force, during this arrangement, led by the sensitive and compelling guitar of Whitfield.   The big band’s debut album wowed the jazz community with its release on Mack Ave Records back in 2011. It could be because of their mix of up-and-coming star-quality players and veteran musicians, many who are bandleaders in their own right.  You hear their precision attacks and sweet crescendos during this piece.  The horns cushion and electrify the stage for both DeFrancesco and Whitfield to solo.  You can clearly hear McBride walking his bass steadfastly beneath the powerful band and Quincy Phillips strongly supports everyone, adding his own tasteful licks and sixteenth notes on his trap drums, but never discarding the solid two-and-four support that holds this groove together effortlessly.  That’s one of the reasons The Christian McBride Big Band has racked up two Grammy Awards for both their other album releases.  I expect this one has the brilliance and star-power to do just that.

Christian McBride offers us “Pie Blues,” co-written with Joey DeFrancesco, to close out this album. Happily, they give a couple of their outstanding horn players an opportunity to solo and shine.   It’s a low-down, soulful blues, whose groove makes you wanna sop your biscuit in gravy and slow dance with someone you love. 

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THE RADAM SCHWARTZ ORGAN BIG BAND with DAVID F. GIBSON on drums – “MESSAGE FROM GROOVE AND GW” – Arabesque Records

Radam Schwartz, organ/bandleader; Charlie Sigler, guitar; David F. Gibson, drums; SAXOPHONES: Anthony Ware & Danny Raycraft, alto saxophones; Abel Mireles & Gene Ghee, tenor saxophone; Ben Kovacks, baritone sax. TRUMPETS: Ted Chubb, Ben Hankle, James Cage & Lee Hogans. TROMBONE: Peter Lin & Andrae Murchison.

The Radam Schwartz Organ Big Band shuffles onto the scene with a swing-dance gem called “Trouble Just Won’t Go Away,” written by Schwartz.  It’s a great jazz swing tune.  I want to grab a partner and hit the dance floor. Charlie Sigler takes a spirited guitar solo during this arrangement.   Organist, Radam Schwartz, remembers how exciting it was to hear Richard “Groove” Holmes collaborate with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra.  On that record, he recorded two songs playing all the bass parts himself.  Radam Schwartz decided to become the first organist, technically strong enough, to play all the bass lines throughout an entire big band album.  Consequently, he has dedicated this album to his inspirations: “Groove” (Holmes) and Gerald Wilson (GW).   Additionally, Schwartz has written three original compositions for this project and arranged five of the ten songs included. John Coltrane’s composition “Blues Minor” is the next track.  The band swings and Danny Raycraft (on Alto saxophone) and Abel Mireles, on tenor sax, each make impressive solo statements.  Schwartz has arranged the Aretha Franklin hit record, “Aint No Way” (penned by her sister Carolyn), as a jazzy swing number.  This was done in the tradition of organist Charles Earland, who was known to turn an R&B hit song into a swinging jazz arrangement. Trumpeter, Ted Chubb, solos on this arrangement along with Gene Ghee on tenor sax and guitarist Charlie Sigler sings the melody.  When Radam Schwartz enters on his organ, the background horns play call and response to his chords and organ licks. This ensemble is exciting and their grooves are what we call, ‘in-the-pocket’ !  All the players perform tightly together as a unit and are sparkling stars individually.  The entire Radam Schwartz album is pure fun.  Drummer David F. Gibson pushes the band’s performance on his busy drum set.  He’s a solid player with an impressive resume.  Gibson has recorded with Count Basie Orchestra, the Duke Ellington orchestra, Odean Pope’s Saxophone Choir and Harry “Sweets” Edison to list just a few.  He’s very familiar with organ players, having worked with the great Shirley Scott, the inimitable Jimmy McGriff and Don Patterson.

Radam Schwartz is no newcomer to the entertainment scene and the business of jazz.  Originally a pianist, at a casual jam session he touched the organ and fell in love with that instrument.   He has performed with several amazing jazz names including silky smooth jazz crooner, Arthur Prysock, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Russell Malone, Cecil Brooks III, David “Fathead” Newman and Russell Gunn.  Schwartz has been a busy session musician, appearing on over forty recordings.  This is his tenth album release, after leading or co-leading nine other albums.  As a jazz educator, he’s been an instructor at Jazz house Kids for the last thirteen years.  He’s also the director of the Rutgers Newark Mosaic Jazz Ensemble.

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RALPH PETERSON –“THE MESSENGER LEGACY: ONWARD & UPWARD” – Onyx Records

Ralph Peterson, drums/arranger/composer/bandleader; Joanne Brackeen, Anthony Wonsey & Zaccal Curtis, piano; Peter Washington, Melissa Slocum, Lonnie Plaxico & Essiet Essiet, bass; Relnaldo DeJesus, percussion; Kevin Eubanks, guitar; Craig Handy, alto saxophone; Bill Pierce & Jean Toussaint, tenor saxophone; Phillip Harper & Brian Lynch, trumpet; Steve Davis & Robin Eubanks, trombone.

Master drummer, Ralph Peterson, continues to celebrate his late mentor, Art Blakey, on this latest recording.  One exciting thing about Peterson’s historic production is that he has brought together a number of former Jazz Messengers (fourteen in all) and three Legacy Messengers for this production.  The choice to include seventeen musicians on this project was deliberate.  The number “17” is a reflection of Blakey’s first working band back in 1947.  At that time, Art led a large ensemble that was called “The Seventeen Messengers.”   However, although Peterson has purposefully included a large number of musicians, this is no big band.  Most of the tunes showcase sextets, along with one septet and one quintet production.

You will hear the great Joanne Brackeen on piano during the opening tune, a Ralph Peterson original composition titled, “Forth and Back.”  Ms. Brackeen takes a spontaneous and delightful solo, with the horns punching sometimes dissonant chords that immediately grab my attention.  Phillip Harper, on trumpet, tenor saxophonist, Jean Toussaint and Craig Handy on Alto take turns soloing.  Peter Washington, on double bass, also strides into the spotlight with fervor and zeal. He played with a version of the Jazz Messenger Big Band in 1988 at the Mount Fuji Jazz Festival.

“I met NEA Jazz Master, Joanne Brackeen, while a student at Rutgers when she came to perform with our Big Band there.  She brought the challenging tune Egyptian Dune Dance to that concert and I remember being the only drummer there who could play it.  I’ve been a fan ever since and now we are colleagues at Berklee College of Music.  Her tune on this project, ‘Tricks of the Trade’ was great fun to play,” Peterson praised the legendary pianist.

On Track 2, The song “Sonora” is named for the daughter of Ralph Peterson and Melissa Slocum. Slocum makes a dynamic bass solo appearance on this track. 

There are eleven well written and performed songs on this “Onward & Upward” CD that perpetuates the Jazz Messenger legacy.  There are notes included in their CD jacket that explain, at length, each players relationship to being a part of this brilliant legacy.  This project sparkles with excellence in both personnel, composition, arranging and the value of historic accomplishments in jazz.

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SOUTH FLORIDA JAZZ ORCHESTRA – “CHEAP THRILLS” – THE MUSIC OF RICK MARGITZA – Summit Records

Chuck Bergeron, acoustic & electric bass/orchestra leader; Martin Bejerano, piano; John Hart, guitar; John Yarling, drums; Xavier DeSandre Navarre, percussion; WOODWINDS & SAXOPHONES: Gary Keller, Gary Lindsay, Ed Calle, Jason Kush & Mike Brignola;David Leon,baritone saxophone/bass clarinet;Phil Doyle, tenor sax. TRUMPETS: Greg Gisbert, Jason Carder, Alex Norris, Pete Francis, Augie Haas, Jesus Mato, Jared Hall & John Daversa; Brian Lynch, featured trumpet soloist. TROMBONES: Dante Luciani, John Kricker, Andrew Peal & Major Bailey; Derek Pyle & Haden Mapei, featured trombonists.  PRODUCERS: John Fedchock & Rick Margitza.

The music of Rick Margitza is being celebrated on this album of fine music by The South Florida Jazz Orchestra.  Rick Margitza was born in Detroit, Michigan on October 24, 1961 and at the age of four, his beloved, paternal grandfather taught him to play violin.  His father played violin with the Detroit Symphony orchestra. Young Rick played oboe and piano too, but in high school, he finally settled on a genuine love for the tenor saxophone. 

Chuck Bergeron is the bassist and bandleader of the South Florida Jazz Orchestra.  Over the years, Margitza and Chuck Bergeron’s paths kept crossing. They first met in New Orleans, where the young sax man moved in 1984 to work at a World’s Fair gig.  Rick Margitza encouraged Chuck Bergeron to study at the University of Miami.  Bergeron took him up on the suggestion.  Later, the two friends both wound up moving to New York,where they performed together and were also roommates.

“When I first met Rick, he was just an amazing tenor player from Detroit,” Bergeron recalled in his press package.  “It developed into a thirty-year friendship.  He’s one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever worked with; the kind of player that raises the level of all the musicians around him.  For me, it’s always been a real special treat to get to play music with Rick.”

Clearly, Rick Margitza made an impression on everyone around him.  Bergeron appears on Margitza’s first Blue Note Record label release on a compilation produced and titled, “New Stars on Blue Note.” One icon who recognized the young man’s talent was Miles Davis, who asked him to play with him on his “Human Nature” album.  You can detect the influence of Margitza’s Gypsy background on some of his saxophone improvisations.  He also toured with Maynard Ferguson and played for years with the Maria Schneider Orchestra.

“Cheap Thrills” celebrates the fifteenth anniversary of Chuck Bergeron’s South Florida Jazz Orchestra and Bergeron has brought together an all-star ensemble representing the best from their South Florida jazz scene.  Many are fellow faculty members at the University of Miami and are familiar with both Rick Margitza and his compositions.  Bergeron’s amazing orchestra models itself after the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra (also known as the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra).  Chuck Bergeron is proud of his orchestra’s residency at Miami’s now-defunct Arturo Sandoval Jazz Club. 

Their opening tune, and the title of this album, is “Cheap Thrills” and features an awesome solo by Rick Hart on guitar, with strong horn lines that sing the catchy melody.  The composition, “Widow’s Walk” is a very beautiful, Latin-flavored ballad and brings back memories of another time and place for Chuck Bergeron.

“Widow’s Walk, for instance, was one of the two songs documented for the ‘New Stars on Blue Note’ album.  It’s one of the tunes that I most equate with him.  To me, it’s signature Margitza.  We recorded it with a small band when he was first starting out, so it’s very nostalgic and special to revisit it with him and my big band all these years later,” Bergeron shared.

There are plenty of bright musical moments on this John Fedchock production.  “Brace Yourself” originally was recorded on Margitza’s Blue Note debut titled, “Color.”  It swings pretty hard, with strong percussion lines that interject Afro-Cuban influences into the arrangement. They shine the spotlight on drummer John Yarling, who takes full advantage of it with an unforgettable solo.  “45 Pound hound” features the exciting trumpet of Grammy Award-winner, Brian Lynch.  The biggest challenge came, according to Bergeron and producer, John Fedchock, on the tune “Premonition.”   This composition is long and after rehearsals, Fedchock and Bergeron agreed at two stopping points in the nearly 10-minute tune.  They wanted to break it up into three parts for the benefit of the band.  However, for some reason, the band played straight through the ‘stopping points’. Afterwards, there was stunned silence in the studio until Fedchock’s voice whispered into the mic, “What did you think about that?”  Bergeron’s voice bellowed in response, “I love this f—ing band!”

Chuck Bergeron was born and raised in New Orleans, the celebrated womb of jazz, and has been an in-demand bass player forty years and is still going.  After studying at Loyola University and the University of Miami, he joined the Woody Herman and Buddy Rich band before moving to New York.  It didn’t take long for his reputation to inspire a host of celebrities to invite him on performance and recording dates. Some of the legendary musicians he has worked with are Stan Getz, Randy Brecker, Sheila Jordan, Dee Dee Bridgewater, John Abercrombie, James Moody, Stanley Jordan and Elvis Costello.  He has released eight albums as a bandleader and four with the South Florida Jazz Orchestra. Twenty years ago, he accepted a teaching position at the University of Miami and he currently runs the Jazz Bass Studio and is Director of the Jazz Pedagogy Program at the University’s Frost School of Music.

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THE BIG BAD BONES FEATURING SCOTT WHITFIELD – “EMERGENCY VEHICLE BLUES” – Summit Records

Ben Tweedt, piano/keyboard/composer; Doug Montera, drums; Mike Haar, acoustic & electric bass; Steve Wilson, bass trombone; Scott Whitfield, Brett Stamps & Pete Madsen, tenor trombones.

This album is a fresh and wonderful production that features a montage of trombone excellence.  Opening with the title tune, “Emergency Vehicle Blues,” the trombones blend smoothly and seamlessly.   Their harmonies, sung by a group of all-star trombone players, present a warm and silky sound. Doug Mantera pushes the Straight-ahead groove on his trap drums and Mark Haar’s walking bass locks into the mix appropriately.  The piano solo of Ben Tweedt stands out brightly at the top of the tune.  Towards the end, we are drawn into a city of sirens, asphalt and horn cries.  Scott Whitfield, based in Los Angeles, is internationally respected, having appeared from Australia to Zurich and everywhere in between.  He is the featured trombonist on this album. Whitfield is a complimentary member of the Nat Adderley Sextet and also performs regularly as a guest player with the United States Army Blues Jazz Ensemble.  Tenor trombonist, Brett Stamps is the composer of all the original music on this production and he’s the in-house, resident composer for The Big Bad Bones Band.  Brett is an alumnus from the Stan Kenton Orchestra and can be heard on three different Kenton records. 

“Writing music is exhilarating.  Performing it with this group of musicians is incredibly rewarding.  What a pleasure to be part of this endeavor,” gushes Brett Stamps in the liner notes.

Pete Madsen is the other tenor trombone player.   He resides in Omaha and is the current Coordinator of Jazz Studies at the University of Nebraska.  Steve Wilson is also a respected educator, based in Texas where he serves as Music Department Chair at the University of El Paso.  Ben Tweedt lives in Cincinnati, Ohio and bassist, Mark Haar, resides in Omaha. Despite these musicians joining The Big Bad Bones from different parts of our country, they blend handsomely, fitting their talents together like a custom-tailored suit on a very tall man.  This awesome band towers above the standard, sharing unique arrangements, expertly written compositions and personalized talents.    

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JAZZ: AMERICA’S CLASSICAL ART FORM

August 17, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil

AUG 18, 2020

Jazz has long been celebrated as America’s true, classical music. These albums I’m reviewing for my Musical Memoirs column strongly exhibit this premise.  Saxophonist, arranger and composer, QUINSIN NACHOFF clearly embraces both the freedom of jazz and the structure of classical European music in his latest release, “Pivotal Arc.”  RICHARD GRILLI brings a more contemporary skill to his music, combining classical training and Brazilian roots by composing music that embraces jazz, his Latin culture and his classical constraints.  Trombonist, JOHN FEDCHOCK strives to keep the tradition of jazz sextets alive and modernized.  Classically trained pianist, YUKO MABUCHI, tributes the genius of Miles Davis in a captivating quartet ‘live’ concert recorded on disc. MEHMET ALI SANLIKOL & WHATSNEXT? featuring DAVE LIEBMAN make a strong, political statement with music.The EVENT HORIZON JAZZ QUARTET showcases all original jazz compositions by two of their members.  Finally, MIKE FAHIE JAZZ ORCHESTRA –“URBAN(E)” combines music idioms, presenting the classical master composers with a jazz twist.

QUINSIN NACHOFF – “PIVOTAL ARC” – Whirlwind Recordings

Quinsin Nachoff, tenor saxophone; Nathalie Bonin, violin soloist; MOLINARI STRING QUARTET: Olga Ranzenhofer & Antoine Bareil, violins; Frédéric Lambert, viola; Pierre-Alain Bouviette, cello; JC Sanford, conductor; Michael Davidson, vibraphone; Mark Helias, bass; Satoshi Takeishi, drums/percussion; Jean-Pierre Zanello, piccolo/flute/clarinet/soprano saxophone; Yvan Belleau, clarinet/tenor saxophone; Brent Besner, bass clarinet; Jocelyn Couture & Bill Mahar, trumpets; David Grott, trombone; Bob Ellis, bass trombone.

Quinsin Nachoff’s new album, “Pivotal Arc” may represent his most ambitious album to date.  He is featuring Nathalie Bonin on violin. On the very first tune, Nathalie Bonin stands front and center on the production.  Born in San Francisco, (but raised in Montreal, Canada) Nathalie is now based in Los Angeles and has also been a guest soloist with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and also with the Société de Musique Contemporaine du Québec (SMCQ).  She has played many years in the Orchestre Metropolitain and with l’Opéra de Montréal.  Her talents on violin are widely respected and in-demand.  She plays everything from contemporary music to tango; from world music to jazz and even pop music.  Ms. Bonin has recorded or performed with a vast array of familiar performers like Stevie Wonder, Chance the Rapper, Gino Vannelli, Cirque du Soleil and recorded on a number of movie and television soundtracks. Her beautiful violin expression is stellar on the Quinsin Nachoff, three-part violin concerto that he has composed.  He could not have picked a better person to interpret his work.

The first movement represents a deconstructed Tango.  It allows Bonin to improvise and explore her extraordinary range and versatility on her instrument.  The Suite is very classically oriented.  You may hear traces of Stravinsky echoing in Nachoff’s music.  The second movement is a ballad where (according to the Nachoff press notes) Berg meets Ellington.  The final movement is Balkan-infused and is very rhythmic.  I enjoyed the addition of Michael Davidson’s vibraphone and the Mark Hellas bass solo is noteworthy during this suite of music.

Quinsin Nachoff’s addition of The String Quartet showcases some of Nachoff’s most intricate writing to date.  He explained this challenging work in his liner notes.

“I like to keep up with what’s happening now in quartet writing and this gave me the opportunity to explore some of those ideas – pitch axis, using quarter tones, but still keeping a jazz influence because that’s a large part of my background.”

He has written a quartet piece in four movements.  The first features the violins. The second spotlights the viola, followed by the third movement that is written for the cello.  The final movement is written for an intense violin expression.

Quinsin Nachoff is a celebrated New York City saxophonist and composer.  He has been heralded for writing music that flows fluidly between jazz and the classical world.  This artist and composer knows how to blur the lines between classically written and composed pieces, while still allowing the freedom that jazz encourages and the space for improvisation to become part of his ensemble’s unique delivery.

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RICHARD GRILLI – “1962” – Tone rogue Records

Ricardo Grilli, guitar/composer; Mark Turner, tenor saxophone; Kevin Hays, piano; Joe Martin, bass; Erick Harland, drums.

“1962” is the year of Richard Grilli’s mother’s birth.  That is why Grilli chose this number-title for his album.  The CD before this one was titled 1954, and that was the year of his father’s birth.  So, this Brazilian-born guitarist and composer has been celebrating his parents in these productions.  According to the liner notes, this production emulates the way music was influencing that 1962-time-period.  He would have to be somewhat of a historian to understand what was going on in 1962, because clearly, he wasn’t born yet.  I was, however, and I remember that era well.   Questionably, Mr. Grilli’s music does not remind me of that jazz music period.  In 1962, American jazz was plush with some of the greatest hard-bop and straight-ahead recordings of all time including music by Art Blakey, the amazing piano playing of Bill Evans, the trumpet mastery of Freddie Hubbard, vibraphone master, Milt Jackson, the bluesy horn of Jackie McLean and the cross-over, South African trumpet of Hugh Masekela.  Mingus was around and Oscar Peterson was a beast on piano. George Russell was challenging the outer limits of jazz, as was Cecil Taylor. We cannot forget that Wes Montgomery was stunning us with his genius guitar playing and composer skills.  In the 1960s, Motown was thriving in Detroit and changing the face of Rhythm and Blues and commercial pop music.  Actually, the Motown sound was infused by Detroit Jazz musicians who were in the studios cutting all those hit records.  According to Ricardo Grilli, in Brazil it was a tumultuous and revolutionary time.  The political scene was messy and in 1964 they experienced a coup d’etat that ushered in two decades of military, totalitarian rule.  This music reminds me more of that kind of turmoil.  It does not embrace the warm samba sounds and beautiful melodies that I associate with Brazil.  Ricardo Grilli is more modern in his approach and less melodic.  His composition structures are repetitious and lend themselves to musical trampolines where soloist can bounce off improvisational ideas.  Mark Turner is quite outstanding on tenor saxophone.  I hear a lot of turbulence and unrest in Grilli’s compositions.  I did enjoy his original song, “ERP.”  When I read in the liner notes, I discovered he was celebrating bop pioneer, Bud Powell on this song.  That cut was my favorite on this album.  I also enjoyed the second track titled, “Mars.”  Track-8, titled “183 W. 10th St” is the address of the famed Smalls jazz club in New York City.  I thought this melody and production was strong.  It gives Kevin Hays an opportunity to strut his stuff on the piano keys and Joe Martin is spotlighted brightly on his upright bass.  On the fade, Erick Harland is dynamic on trap drums.  I think this song shines as another one of Ricardo Grilli’s stand-out compositions. 

Ricardo Grilli has written mainly a CD of contemporary jazz music featuring electric guitar.  In 2013 he released his debut album, “If on A Winter’s Night, a Traveler.”   Grilli graduated with honors from Berklee College of Music and holds a Master’s degree in Jazz Studies from New York University.

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JOHN FEDCHOCK NY SEXTET – “INTO THE SHADOWS” – Summit Records

John Fedchock, trombone; Scott Wendhold, trumpet & flugelhorn; Walt Weiskopf, tenor saxophone; Allen Farnham, piano; David Finck, bass; Eric Halvorson, drums.

John Fedchock opens with an original composition he calls, “RSVP,” applying his velvet smooth trombone talents to introduce the song.  Scott Wendholt adds his trumpet solo to the mix, as does Walt Weiskopf on tenor saxophone.  It’s a straight-ahead jazz tune that allows the various players to all get a piece of the song and flex their talents like muscle men.  Eric Halvorson pushes them ahead with a Latin jazz feel and at one point, trades ‘fours’ on the trap drums, while the horns dance in tight, harmonic phrases.  You can hear Farnham, on piano, punch the Latin salsa feel, but when he solos, it’s straight-ahead improvisation.  This is a spirited way to open Fedchock’s album.  He follows with another original composition called, “Alpha Dog.”  It displays a hint of blues, but once Weiskopf steps up to the mic on his tenor sax, we are swept into a more ‘Coltranish’ arrangement.  They finally pull back the curtains to reveal Allen Farnham on piano.  His fingers pull the blues out of the black and white 88-keys.  David Finck also takes an attention-getting solo on his double bass. 

This is Fedchock’s tenth album release as a leader and on this production, he is spending more time in the spotlight as a trombone soloist, a composer and arranger.  Brightly applauded for his work with the New York Big Band, Fedchock explained his interest in forming this smaller ensemble.

“Working with the sextet is the best of both worlds.  While still giving plenty of space for individual soloists, the configuration offers unique, creative writing options and maintains a sleek and mobile blend.  My biggest challenge in forming this NY Sextet was to honor that distinguished tradition and create something individual.”

John Fedchock’s third track, “Manaus” is named after a city in Brazil’s Amazon region.  His arranging style continues to feature very harmonic horn lines, similar to his 16-piece New York Big Band arrangements.  The horns of this sextet are like a colorful blanket, wrapped around the production, cashmere soft and warm. While Finck solos on bass, the horns are ever-present to support him and reiterate the melody.   The old standard, “I Should Care” is played at a swift pace, once again featuring harmony-driven horn licks.  Fedchock steps center stage and soaks up the spotlight, exploring his improvised trombone chops.  You will also enjoy the Sextet’s creative arrangements on familiar tunes like “Nature Boy” and “Star Eyes.”   “Nature Boy” is one of my favorites on this album, arranged in a very modern jazz and Afro-Cuban way.

The title tune, “Into the Shadows” opens with just Fedchock’s trombone with Eric Halvorson’s drum accompaniment.  It’s a pensive tune, inspired during Fedchock’s time at the Yaddo artist’s retreat.   Perhaps his opening introduction reflects a bit of that solitude time, until the dense harmonies provided by Wendholt and Weiskopf join in. The three horns blend sweetly.  Farnham takes a sensitive solo on this tune.  His piano playing seems always seasoned with a bit of blues.  It’s a nice touch.  On their final tune, another Fedchock composition titled, “On the Edge” they allow Farnham, along with the sextet, to stretch their blues chops out to the maximum.

A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Fedchock started his musical path in 1980 when he joined the legendary Woody Herman Orchestra as soloist, musical director and chief arranger.  He has also toured worldwide with jazz legends like Gerry Mulligan, T.S. Monk, Louie Bellson, Bob Belden and the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band.  With this endeavor, John Fedchock carries on the strong tradition of distinguished jazz sextets.

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MEHMET ALI SANLIKOL & WHATSNEXT? FEATURING DAVE LIEBMAN – “THE RISE UP” – Dunya Records

Mehmet Ali Sanlikol, voice/ney/zurna/ud/composer/arranger; George Lernis, darbuka/tet/ nekkare/kos/tambourine/castanets/triangle/cymbals/tubular bells; Bertram Lehmann, drums; Fernando Huergo, bass; Phil Sargent, classical & electric guitars; Utar Artun, piano; Bill Lowe, tuba; Angel Subero, bass trombone; Bulut Gulen, Chris Gagne & Bob Pilkington, trombones;  Mike Pelpman, Jeff Claassen, Sam Dechenne & Jerry Sabatini, trumpet/flugel horn; Rebekah Lorenz, French horn; Melanie Howell Brooks, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet; Rick DiMuzio & Aaron Henry, tenor saxophones/clarinets; Rick Stone, alto & soprano saxophones/flute; Mary Cicconetti, oboe/English horn; SPECIAL FEATURED GUEST: Dave Liebman, soprano saxophone; Ken Schaphorst, conductor.

The composer, Mehmet Ali Sanlikol, explains in the liner notes of “The Rise Up” album what inspired him to write, arrange and produce this album.

“I have been saddened and personally affected by the recent political turmoil and malignant stereotyping of Muslims and minority communities in the US.  As a result, I decided to construct this piece around three episode from Middle Eastern history which chronicles dark and traumatic events followed by human inspiration and/or transcendental creation in order to demonstrate my belief and hope that we, humanity, will rise up and above these difficult times.”

“I received the greatest honor of my life when, in early 2017, Dave Liebman asked me to write an extended programmatic piece for jazz orchestra featuring himself as soloist.  Such a high compliment coming from a jazz icon (whom I grew up listening to) meant the world to me but, the task certainly had its challenges.  Dave Liebman specified that the piece should draw on both Turkish and Sephardic Jewish musical elements, as well as cultural and historical resources.  Not wanting to disappoint my musical hero, I took nearly two years in coming up with a concept that would both honor Dave Liebman’s request and inspire me to write such a work,” he concluded.

The result of Mr. Liebman’s challenging request is this magnificent album.  In the first suite of music, Mehmet Ali Sanlikol celebrates the mystical poetry of ‘Rumi’ and the 13th century, when Sufi poet, Mevlana Celaleddin-i Rumi was well celebrated.  The second suite of music is created with the traditions of the Sephardim in mind.  This was the time when the Jewish people were expelled from Spain and welcomed by the Ottomans.  This led to a cultural flowering, precious and treasured to the present day.  The third suite, titled ‘Sinan’ explores the story of a young Christian boy who was taken forcefully by the Ottomans and taught to embrace a Muslim identity.  That young man rose to great heights in the mid-16th century as a master architect of several distinguished mosques that he built. 

I found these suites to be powerfully executed by these awesome musicians and very spiritual in nature.  This project is the perfect blend of Middle Eastern culture, jazz and classical music.  It is beautifully produced and written.  The arrangements transport us to a time and space where religions of the world blossomed.  The inclusion of Mehmet Ali Sanlikol’s vocal chants is both stunning and historic. I’ve listed all of the participating musicians above because the expansion of this orchestra, implementing instruments from the Middle East culture like the ney (an end-blown flute) and the double reed pipe called a zurna or the short-necked lute referred to as an ‘ud’ brings this music alive.  The percussionists add much to this production, incorporating the ‘tef’, a small frame drum with cymbals and the goblet-shaped drum called the darbuka.   Perhaps inspired by the Gil Evans arrangements for Miles Davis on one of my favorite albums of all time, “Sketches in Spain,” Mehmet Ali Sanlikol has added wind and brass instruments that enhance this production in amazing ways.

This album is like a brightly colored orchid, rising from the dust and turmoil that hate breeds.  It shines, like a piece of golden nugget, uncovered and shimmering in a pile of dirt. This music glows in the light of love.  You will be drawn into these lush arrangements and the brilliance of Dave Liebman on soprano saxophone.  You will be hypnotized by the classical, yet subtle jazz-fluidity this group of outstanding musician’s proffer.   This is Grammy Award-winning music.  You will be transformed, and that’s really what great music is all about; transformation and rebirth.

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EVENT HORIZON JAZZ QUARTET – GRB Records

Jim Kaczmarek, saxophones/flute; Scott Mertens, piano/ keyboards; Donn DeSanto, string bass; Rick Vitek, drums.

The Event Horizon Jazz Quartet presents a well-arranged album of original jazz tunes composed by reedman, Jim Kaczmarek and pianist, Scott Mertens.  Opening with Merten’s “Chelsea Playground,” this song sets the tone for the album. This tune featured straight-ahead jazz with a strong melody.  Kaczmarek plays soprano saxophone on this number.  Every reedman has a tone to their playing and I was perplexed by Jim Kaczmarek’s tone, that sometimes slides (ever so slightly) into the pitchy zone. On track two titled, “Guess Not” the press package says this song was the result of a romantic break-up for Kaczmarek, who composed the song. It’s another strong composition.

Event Horizon band members are regulars on the Chicago jazz scene and all the members are music educators.  Kaczmarek grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and decided he was going to become a professional musician when he was in the 8th grade.  By age sixteen, his dream materialized and he was playing professionally.  He moved to Chicago in 1995 to teach and got caught up in the city’s amazing jazz scene.  Mertens received a Master’s degree from Northern Illinois University and he and Kaczmarek have been close friends for many years.  Mertens was a graduate assistant for Ron Carter, who was the Director of Jazz Studies.  Originally from Missouri, Scott Mertens has been playing piano since middle school. Bassist, Donn DeSanto graduated from DePaul University in Chicago.  He teaches bass at Chicago State University. DeSanto studied bass privately with the great Ray Brown, with Rufus Reid and Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, as well as studying classical bass with members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  Drummer, Rick Vitek, is an in-demand studio session player who moved to Chicago from Cleveland, Ohio in 1981. He’s worked with familiar names like Richie Cole, the great jazz vocalist, Kurt Elling, the iconic Joe Lovano and Reggie Thomas, just to name a few. Together, these talented musicians have formed Event Horizon Jazz Quartet and are a working unit on the Chicago jazz scene.  Mertens and Kaczmarek are both skilled composers.  I enjoyed all the well-crafted, original music on this album. 

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YUKO MABUCHI “PLAYS MILES DAVIS” – Yarlung Records

Yuko Mabuchi, piano; JJ Kirkpatrick, trumpet; Del Atkins, bass; Bobby Breton, drums; Bob Attiyeh, Producer.

One of the things that always impresses me about Yuko Mabuchi is her ability to transform familiar songs into shiny, new, gem-like pieces.  For example, on her presentation of “All Blues,” (arranged on her tribute to Miles Davis album), she turns the waltz-time upside down by playing the piece in 5/4 and 4/4 time.  It works!  She follows this pleasant surprise with a poignant and heart-felt analysis of “Blue in Green.”  You may remember that Bill Evans and Miles Davis composed this one and it’s a star on the ‘Kind of Blue’ album. This is such an emotionally heavy song and pianist, Yuko Mabuchi, along with JJ Kirkpatrick on trumpet, squeeze out every ounce of beauty.  I had to play this one twice.  I also enjoyed Yuko’s intricate introductory phrasing at the top of the “Milestones” composition.  The band gallops in and sets off at a brisk, exciting tempo.  She and her trio swing hard.  Miles Davis’ music will always remind me of the modern jazz excitement that permeated the 1950s and 60s jazz scene.  Yuko has spiced up this delicious pot of Miles Davis stew with three of her original compositions.  One is, “Ikumi’s Lullaby” written for her niece.  Another is “Sky With No Tears,” that is her musical plea to humanity, imploring people to stop spewing so much pollution into the air.  Sitting down at the piano, she stirs the pot briskly while offering her unique take on the standard jazz tune, “So What.”  The way she introduces this song is very creative and engaging.  It refreshes the iconic composition in a delightfully special way.  Bobby Breton is given space to showcase his drum power during this arrangement.  Yuko always incorporates her classical training and it shimmers and dances around on the black and white keys during her expressive, improvisational solo.  Here is another one of my favorites on Mabuchi’s album, that was recorded ‘live’ in the Brain and Creativity Institute’s Cammilleri Hall on April 25, 2018.

Track six reminds us of the song Miles Davis wrote for Cannonball Adderley’s album, ‘Portrait of Cannonball’ and titled “Nardis.”  It was 1958 when this song was first introduced to the public, during the Miles Davis modal period.  Bill Evans also recorded it multiple times. Yuko plays in the upper register on this arrangement, bringing out the music-box-tenderness of the piano’s soprano range.  Then, she suddenly dips into the mid-register and the bass register.  Her small, but powerful hands make the bass ring resonantly from the grand piano.  Mabuchi’s strength and attack always surprises me, because she’s such a petite, delicate lady.  But don’t let that fool you.  Yuko Mabuchi is a beast on the piano keys. 

Del Atkins takes a well-deserved bass solo during their dramatic arrangement of “Nardis” that smoothly blurs into the blues.  As Yuko turns this song down blues alley, she re-imagines it with a Gene-Harris-like groove.  “Nardis” immediately becomes an additional favorite of mine on this album. 

Finally, to close their concert, Yuko has written, “Missing Miles.”  I too miss the legendary music and genius of Miles Davis.  I think he must certainly be smiling down on these unique arrangements and interpretation of his music by Yuko Mabuchi, JJ Kirkpatrick, Del Atkins and Bobby Breton.  Together, they have modernized some unforgettable, classic music, while paying tribute to one of our historic geniuses of jazz.  The ‘live’ audience also approves, snapping fingers and clapping spontaneously on the fade of their final song.  In conclusion, the approving audience gives their stamp of approval with a hearty ovation.

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MIKE FAHIE JAZZ ORCHESTRA –“URBAN(E)” – Greenleaf Music, Inc

Mike Fahie, trombone/euphonium/arranger/orchestrator; Jeff Davis, drums; Randy Ingram, piano; Pedro Giraudo, bass; Jeff Miles, guitar; WOODWINDS: Aaron Irwin, Anton Denner, Cher Doxas, Quinsin Nachoff & Carl Maraghi; TRUMPETS: Brian Pareschi, David Smith, Sam Hoyt & Brad Mason; TROMBONES: Matthew McDonald, Nick Grinder, Daniel Linden & Jennifer Wharton.

Mike Fahie created his jazz orchestra with the premise of marrying both jazz and classical idioms.  All of the music you will enjoy herein are songs by the great classical music composers.  The Fahie Jazz orchestra opens with “Prelude, Op. 28 no. 20” by Chopin.  The lovely way he transposes this composition to a jazz production is absolutely the epitome of what this column is all about.  On their opening track, pianist Randy Ingram sparkles and shines with a bright, attention-getting solo.  The orchestra invites Jeff Davis on drums to solo and he does a splendid job, with flying drum sticks and impressive rhythms.  Also featured is Carl Maraghi on baritone saxophone, whose beautiful tone is definitely noteworthy.  Mike Fahie explained why he chose to arrange and perform this piece in his liner notes.

“This beautiful, 12-bar prelude was one of the first pieces I wanted to arrange.  It’s known as the Chordal Prelude because it’s mostly simply quarter note chords.  I knew that a piece based on chords would be ripe for jazz interpretation.  I began by orchestrating the prelude itself, then doubled the tempo twice and wrote a whole new melody based on the chords.  For a little flavor, I added a Brian Blade-inspired vamp at the end and hid the melody inside of it,” Fahie shared.

If you are a classical buff, you will enjoy compositions by Puccini, Stravinsky, Debussy, Bartok, Bach and Tchaikovsky.  Mike Fahie has generously gathered master pieces from all these genius, classical composers and arranged their compositions in very jazzy ways.  They are all quite involved and each is over seven-minutes long, but they are so well-played and beautifully produced that they didn’t seem long at all.  Each piece tantalized my undivided attention and drew me into the unique Fahie-arrangements; the way a master painter captures your eye at the foot of his painting.  You stand there, mesmerized by the art and in awe of the beauty.  I felt that way, listening to this album of fine music, partially because of the Mike Fahie genius arrangements and partly because of the awesome musicians he used.  For example, the way Quinsin Nachoff plays tenor saxophone on “Excerpts from The Firebird” by Igor Stravinsky transcends the classical constrictions and allows Nachoff to fly into space with his rich, jazz, tenor sax solo.  Mike Fahie described his arrangement this way:

“The Firebird is, of course, a ballet with its own story, … but I decided to do something different and write my own narrative.  The original Firebird is a protective spirit of the forest, but mine is more of a dragon! … The hunger of a thousand years sets in and she goes to hunt.  The melody changes modes and is taken over by the hungry saxophone of Quinsin Nachoff.”

Certainly, these gifted musicians and soloists keep this music interesting.  They show us why jazz is America’s classical art form.  When Jennifer Wharton enters with her tuba on the Stravinsky tune, she brings more surprise and color to paint the arrangement even more vividly.  This is a project that musically documents the awesome, fluid beauty that jazz contributions have made worldwide. In this case, transforming European classical music, (one of the roots of jazz) with improvisation, shows the strength of jazz and the benefit of freedom in musical expression.

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A VARIETY OF DISTINCTIVE VOCALS ON DISC

August 10, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil

AUG 10, 2020

From the Grammy Award winning vocals of extraordinary Cuban artist AYMÉE NUVIOLA  with the amazing piano virtuosity of GONZALO RUBALCABA to the historically smooth voice of PAULETTE McWILLIAMS, who has worked with iconic artists like Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Quincy Jones and Aretha Franklin, my August tenth column explores a wide variety of vocal jazz, blues and cabaret artists.  JOHN MINNOCK with special guest DAVE LIEBMAN presents an album of original jazz compositions, along with a twist of cabaret music that celebrates the LGBTQ communities.  AL GOLD has produced an album of his original blues music and SISSY CASTROGIOVANNI sings songs in her Sicilian dialect. SUSIE MEISSNER uses some Philadelphia jazz greats to celebrate music from the Great American Song Book and SUSAN TOBOCMAN is a composer, lyricist and vocalist.   Read all about it.   

GONZALO RUBALCABA & AYMÉE NUVIOLA – “VIENTO Y TIEMPO” – A TRIBUTE TO THEIR MOTHERS & THE MUSICAL CITY OF HAVANA – Liueat Blue Note Tokyo – Top Stop Music

Aymée Nuviola, lead vocal; Gonzalo Rubalcaba, piano/synthesizers/percussion; Christobal “El Profe” Verdecia, bass; Reiner Guerra, drums; Neiger “Majito” Aguilera, percussion; Kazuhiko Kondo & Yainer Horta, Soprano & Alto saxophones; Lourdes Nuviola, background & lead vocals; Alfredo Lugo, background vocals.

Aymée Nuviola has a voice like lightening; bright, powerful and fiery.  It strikes across the silence with a bolt of excitement.  It’s as big as her vivid, orange Afro hairstyle that frames her beautiful face like a sunrise.  Pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Aymée Nuviola are both award-winning artists, who have cradled a longtime dream of collaboration.  This project is the fulfilling of that dream. It sounds like a party!  As childhood friends, their paths have moved unilaterally, but on the same musical highway.  Each artist seemed to be racing, in parallel fast lanes, towards honor, success and distinction. 

As a bandleader, Gonzalo Rubalcaba has released nearly three dozen albums, many on the Blue Note label.  His music has won him four Grammy Awards.  In 2002, his album “Nocturne” won Best Latin Jazz Album and his album “Supernova” also won in the Latin Grammy Award category.  In 2005, he won for producer of “Land of the Sun” another Best Latin jazz Album Grammy and in 2006 he won the Latin Grammy Award for his album “Solo.”

In 1985, when Dizzy Gillespie first heard Gonzalo play the piano he exclaimed, “He’s the greatest pianist I’ve heard in the last ten years.” 

Charlie Haden thought Gonzalo was the master of musical structures; a man with a smart heart.  Many have praised Gonzalo Rubalcaba as one of the greatest Afro-Cuban jazz pianists on the planet. 

Born January 8, 1973, Aymée Nuviola is a well-respected Cuban singer, pianist, composer and actress.  She is celebrated for playing Celia Cruz in the Colombian telenovela “Celia.”  She recently won a Grammy for “Best Tropical Latin Album” with her project titled “With A Journey Through Cuban Music.”  This is not her first Grammy Award.  She has collaborated on multiple other Grammy winning albums.  Born and raised in a very musical family, she began to sing professionally at age nine.  Her music is said to be a fusion between jazz, Timba, Son, Guaguanco, Charanga and Guaracha, creatively held together using electronic wire-power.  She is admired for his philanthropy, helping to provide more than 3-tons of food for victims of Hurricane Maria that devastated Puerto Rico and she has supported the “League Against Cancer” for a dozen years in the city of Miami.  Aymée also belongs to the organization “Walk Now for Autism Speaks.”  She has released five albums under her own name, several single records and has recorded over twenty collaborative albums.

This album of excellence was recorded at a sold-out, six-night performance at the prestigious Blue Note Tokyo jazz club in 2019.  The songs are driven by percussive energy and Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s tenacious joy at the piano, along with Aymee’s vocal power.  The harmonic addition of background vocals by Alfredo Lugo and Lourdes Nuviola enhances their production.  On track 3, the familiar song, “El Manisero,” features both Gonzalo and Aymée opening the song to showcase each artist’s magnificent strength.  Accompanied by percussion, the piano is dominant and profoundly creative.  His two hands sound like four racing across the keys.  His technique is awesome.  After his piano solo, Aymée Nuviola adds her scat singing improvisation amidst the background vocal chants.  Yainer Horta’s saxophone dances atop the groove.  Here is a project full of the excitement that ‘live’ music inspires and the brilliance of two great artists, who spark the fire and passion that burns inside their band members.

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PAULETTE McWILLIAMS – “A WOMAN’S STORY” – Blu Jazz

Paulette McWilliams, voice; Hugo Suarez, piano; Trevor Ware, upright bass; Terreon Gully, drums; David Castaneda, percussion; Gregoire Maret, harmonica; Curtis Taylor, trumpet; Alex Budman, alto saxophone; Keith Fiddmont, tenor saxophone; Charean Carmon, Kenya C. Hathaway, Daneen Wilburn & Lynn Davis, background vocals.

Paulette McWilliams has put her magical twist on tunes we know and love, making them uniquely her own with the fresh arrangements of Kamau Kenyatta.  She opens this album with a jazzy rendition of Marvin Gaye’s composition, “Just to Keep You Satisfied” driven by percussive amplification and horn arrangements that embellish the track and sweeten McWilliam’s smooth vocals. Track two, “If You Give Them” is a beautiful song with a challenging melody.  Her voice caresses the notes, sliding over the intervals sweetly and clearly enunciating the lyrics.  McWilliams offers the words like pearls of wisdom.

“But even in the depths, find the things that make you live,” she sings.

It was a pleasant surprise to hear her ‘cover’ the Janis Ian song, “At Seventeen” with an emotional solo by Gregmoire Maret on harmonica.  I thought this arrangement took many liberties with both the melody and the chord changes, but the beauty of the song still shines honest and true.  McWilliams has a range that moves from contralto to soprano with surprising ease and confidence. 

Then comes her take on the Luther Vandross hit record, “So Amazing.” It’s beautifully interpreted and she puts her own spin on it. When the lady sings, “Do it In the Name of Love,” Paulette McWilliams steps strongly into a jazz stride.  Trumpeter, Curtis Taylor, slides flamboyantly into the spotlight and drummer Terreon Gully tenaciously pushes the ensemble to higher heights.

Ms. McWilliams has a magnificent voice and she clearly shows that she can sing anything by her eclectic selection of repertoire.  I would have enjoyed hearing her sing some contemporary and/or fusion-funk jazz and perhaps at least one straight-ahead, up-tempo song.   “Life is the Fountain” is a great song with a tempo that once again lilts along at a moderate pace.  I found, on the whole, although the production is lacking the excitement and vigor that this vocalist stimulates, she remains so powerful and strong in her own talent that you’re captivated by her emotional delivery.  Ms. Williams closes with the Joni Mitchell standard, “Both Sides Now,” as a duet with pianist, Hugo Suarez.  I wish it has been with Herbie Hancock or Billy Childs. 

Ms. McWilliams has worked with some of the icons in the music business, including Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross, Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Aretha Franklin, Johnny Mathis, Celine Dion and Quincy Jones.  Her voice has tantalized us on familiar name-brand commercials like Folgers coffee, McDonalds, Diet Pepsi (with Britney Spears), for Cadillac and American Express, among others.  Paulette McWilliams was the original lead singer with “Ask Rufus” and introduced the group to Chaka Khan when she decided to explore more solo opportunities.  Paulette McWilliams’ voice, like her credentials, are both historic and a shining testament to “A Woman’s Story,” featuring undeniable talent and tenacity. 

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JOHN MINNOCK – “HERRING COVE” – Dot Time Records

John Minnock, vocals; Dave Liebman, saxophone/wood flute/executive producer; Enrique Haneine, piano/Fender Rhodes/musical director; Carlos Mena, bass; Pablo Eluchans, drums; Deborah Lippmann, vocals.

The Cher hit record, “If I Could Turn Back Time,” (penned by award winning songwriter Diane Warren) is reimagined by John Minnock.   As many times as I’ve heard this song, I never listened to the lyrics so intently.  It sounds nothing like the original Cher production, but it is still intriguing and well-arranged in a very jazzy way.  John Minnock’s voice is compelling.  Dave Liebman is magnificently present on his saxophone.  Minnock shows he is unafraid to leap into the world of scatting and to turn his voice into a more diversified instrument.  He’s also unafraid to use his vocal platform as an activist for the LGBTQ community.  He has penned six original compositions that illustrate, like a musical diary, various paths in the LGBTQ community.  This is particularly poignant on his song “Unconditional.”

In the liner notes he explained:

“My hope is to musically express myself with honesty and integrity; something I feel can be done best in a jazz setting.  I hope that this new project offers listeners a greater understanding of the LGBTQ community, and most importantly, that they like what they hear.”

On the bluesy song “It Goes Like It Goes” he shows off his sweet tenor range on the unexpected melodic intervals and the lyrics are once again thought-provoking and rich with double entendre.  This tune was plucked from the Academy Award winning song used in the movie, ‘Norma Rae.’  He sings:

“Ain’t no miracle being born.  People do it every day. Ain’t no miracle growing up.  People just grow that way.  So, it goes like it goes, like the river flows and time rolls right on.”

John Minnock explains why he chose this song in the liner notes. 

“…I’m a David Shire super-fan and have always loved this song. The beautiful lyrics are by one of the best in the business, Norman Gimbel, who penned ‘Bluesette’ and all the English lyrics to Antonio Carlos Jobim songs … and the iconic, ‘Killing Me Softly with His Song’ also,” Minnock proclaims.

Minnock’s vocals move from jazz to cabaret in the wink of an eye.  He is expressive, honest and emotional, whatever the genre.  His original compositions are well-written and he gives himself and his musical ensemble permission to wring the last drops of sincerity from his lyrics.   You hear this on his tune, “A Melody.”  It opens with a beautiful bass introduction by Carlos Mena, using his bow in a tender, sensitive way.  Minnock’s voice leaps and dances between baritone and tenor, as he attempts to perorate his feelings.  I had to play this song twice to soak up both the beauty of the melody and the lyrical meaning.  I felt like Minnock might be a big fan of Stevie Wonder’s composer skills, as I listened to this particular original song.  He talks about his time and effort in creating this composition.

“This was like playing chess-by-mail; make a move, review the board for a long time, move again,” John Minnock.

The musicians he uses on this project are all outstanding.  John invites his friend and vocalist, Deborah Lippmann, to duet with him on one song.  I was particularly impressed with the colorful way drummer, Pablo Eluchans adds creative fills and crescendo energy to enhance each song production.  Pianist, Enrique Haineine, plays brilliantly throughout and NEA Award winning reedman and executive producer of this CD, Dave Liebman, puts the polish on the project. 

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SUSAN  TOBOCMAN – “TOUCH & GO” – Soliterra Records

Susan Tobocman, vocals/composer/lyricist/arranger; Joel Frahm, tenor & soprano saxophone; Dave Eggar, cello; Pete McCann acoustic & electric guitar/producer; Henry hey, piano/Fender Rhodes; Matt Pavolka, acoustic & electric bass; Michael Sarin, drums.

Vocalist, Susan Tobocman, is also a composer and lyricist.  She has penned five songs of the twelve recorded on this, her fourth album. Two of the five are all instrumental.  Her production on “What’ll I Do?” is fresh and jazzy.  It opens the album in a pleasing way, re-dressing an old standard with a brightly-colored arrangement.  The Jimmy Webb pop tune, “Wichita Lineman” is a surprise, featuring a cello solo.  This song production sounds like a cross between a Country/Western arrangement and a classical concert.  The song, itself, seems strangely out of place; mainly because it’s not arranged with a jazz sensibility.  It has such a great melody and could have easily become a ‘slow walk’ jazz arrangement.  But track 3 redeems the vocalist, when she steps up to the mic and swings hard and strong on “The Man I Love”.  She sings with gusto and at a very bright, fast-moving tempo, with only a walking bass accompaniment.   The band joins in at the end of the 2nd verse.  Ms. Tobocman used her energy to set it up for Joel Frahm on tenor saxophone to fly straight-ahead and furiously over her tight rhythm section.  Henry Hey performs a stand-out piano solo and this song arrangement is all jazz, start to finish. 

Susan Tobocman has composed “Make Believe” and it moves along at a slow swing.  It’s a well-written composition and the kind of tune I would have loved to have heard arranged in a more Brazilian way.   “Touch and Go”, the title tune, is another Tobocman original composition with a strong melody and performed totally as an instrumental.  Her composer skills are evident.  This song gives her excellent musicians an opportunity to stretch out and show their individual talents.  

Susan Tobocman’s voice is sweet and pensive on “Where Is Love?”   She makes you listen to her well-articulated words and thirstily drink up her stories.   She makes me feel as though she’s lived these stories in person and to the fullest.  Guitarist, Pete McCann, is a sensitive and notable accompanist during this arrangement.   He also acts as co-producer on her project.  From a critic’s view, the fact that this artist mixes genres on both Wichita Lineman and her second take on the Beatles “Help!” (which is very much rock and roll) confuses me.  The first version of “Help” she recorded as a waltz and it’s very jazzily performed.  I don’t know why the other arrangement was added to this album, especially since she’s promoting her recording as a jazz CD.  Other than that, well done.

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AL GOLD – “AL GOLD’S PARADISE” – Independent label

Al Gold, vocals/electric & slide guitar/mandolin/composer; Jerry Cordasco, drums/percussion; Mitch Eisenberg, electric/acoustic & baritone guitar; Jared Gold, organ; Eric Heilner, piano/organ; Terry Hemmer, bass guitar; Vd King, bass guitar/guitar; Cassidy Rain, Vocal/acoustic guitar; Baron Raymonde, saxophone; Tom Rice, electric guitar; Johnny Sansone, harmonica; Dave Stryker, guitar; Anthony Tamburro, acoustic guitar.

If ‘blues’ is your thing, this is a very southern-sounding, down-home blues recording.  It’s a surprise when you realize these musicians are based in New Jersey and not Mississippi or Tennessee.  Al Gold has adopted the sound and certain southern inflections in his vocal presentation.  He has a Memphis Slim-kind-of-soulfulness. 

Utilizing his Suburban Rhythm Kings ensemble, a group who has played with him for many years, Al Gold built his recording session band from that familiar rhythm section, adding other stellar, local blues players on a song-by-song call.  There are plenty of shuffle blues productions thrown in for good measure, but mostly solid, Southern-styled blues.  Johnny Sansone’s harmonica work is noteworthy on “Boogie in the Dark,” featuring Cassidy Rain on background vocals.  There are also traces of boogie-woogie blues and 1950s, Chuck Berry-type tunes like “Got A Mind.”  For good measure, Al Gold has also composed some well-written blues ballads like “Won’t Sleep Tonight.”

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SISSY CASTROGIOVANNI – “TERRA” – Manu Records

Sissy Castrogiovanni, voice; Tim Ray, piano; Jesse Williams, upright & elec. bass; Lihi Harum, soprano saxophone; Jamey Haddad, percussion; Jorge Perez-Albela, drums/cajon/djembe. SPECIAL GUESTS: Puccio Castrogiovanni, marranzano/pipes/voice; Claudio Ragazzi, guitar; Fabio Pirozzolo, frame drums; Marcus Santos, percussion. STRINGS: Layth Al-Rubaye, violin; Shaw Pong Liu, violin; Eve Boltax, viola; Catherine Bent & Eugene Friesen, cello. BACKGROUND SINGERS: Paola Munda, Anna Signorini, Agney Mulay, Carlotta Amato, Micaela Cattani, Manfredi Caputo, Claire McFarland & Eleonora Rancati.

Sung in her Sicilian dialect, Sissy Castrogiovanni has written seven of the ten compositions on this album to celebrate our planet Earth.  Her voice is crystal clear and pleasing as it floats above contemporary jazz harmonies and African and Mediterranean rhythms.  I cannot understand her words, but her emotional delivery is precise and lovely.  On track 2, ‘A Panza, her bassist, Jesse Williams, shows strength and purpose during a brief solo.  He also steps up later on the CD to accompany her solo on track 9, “Stranizza D’Amuri.”  Back to track 2, Jorge Perez-Albela pushes the rhythm with his drums and the addition of melodious, harmonic, background voices cushion the production.  “Magia” is very African-influenced, with the background voices chanting at the song’s introduction.   Although there are glimpses of contemporary jazz in this production, for the most part this is World Music that lyrically is celebrating the process and creation of life.  I know that because the English translation of these songs is printed inside the CD jacket.  Claudio Ragazzi makes a tenacious guitar statement on “Magia” and at the fade, there is a call and response kind of production interacting with Castrogiovanni’s lead vocals.

Sissy Castrogiovanni explains:

“It has been happening on the Earth every single second for billions of years.  Terra, Mother Earth, knows what and how to do things much better than us.  We have lots to learn from her.  This album is about the Earth’s astonishing power, which also lives with us.  Terra is about trusting this power, the magic of life, and the Earth’s millennial wisdom.”

Sissy Castrogiovanni is a strong singer/songwriter.   All of her lyrics are telling stories of love and life; mostly positive and uplifting.  Many implore us to love and respect the planet, the air, the water and especially the earth.  This message works and is meaningful in any language.

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SUSIE MEISSNER – “I WISH I KNEW”  – Lydian Jazz Records

Susie Meissner, vocals; John Shaddy, piano/arranger; Lee Smith, bass; Byron Landham, drums; Paul Meyers, guitars; Larry McKenna, tenor saxophone; Ken Peplowski, clarinet; John Swana, trumpet/EVI/flugelhorn.

This is the fourth album release for Susie Meissner and mirrors her love of the all-American songbook.  She opens with one of my favorite swing tunes, “The Great City” as a tribute to her beloved Philadelphia, the current place she’s chosen as home base for ten-plus years.   Susie Meissner features a group of outstanding Philadelphia-based musicians including drummer Byron Landham, Lee Smith on bass and Larry McKenna on saxophone.  John Shaddy on piano is from outside of Philly, and is a willing and sensitive accompanist who has worked with Meissner in the past.  Philly’s own John Swana brings his trumpet, EVI and flugelhorn to the production with energy and tastefulness.  His solo on “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” is beautiful and heartfelt. 

Originally from New Jersey and the Buffalo, New York areas, Meissner felt this opening song’s lyric could be talking about any great big city with its pitfalls, challenges and allure.  It’s a great way for Susie Meissner to open her production and her band swings hard!  Meissner has included a dozen familiar standard songs, giving her excellent musicians an opportunity to shine in the turntable spotlight.  You will hear Susie’s take on the title tune, “I Wish I Knew” and other ballads like “Alfie” and “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.” 

Featuring the familiar drum line that made Ahmad Jamal’s composition “Poinciana” so popular, Byron Landham introduces this tune and Meissner’s smooth, second-soprano voice caresses the lyrics.  Paul Meyers’ bright guitar dances on the scene with a happy solo.  On “In A Mellow Tone,” Ken Peplowski’s clarinet bring authenticity to a time and place when Duke Ellington’s big band played in dance halls across the country.  This is a well-produced and excellently arranged production by a band of jazz masters who are backing up a seasoned cabaret singer.

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MUSIC THAT MOVES ME

August 1, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil

Aug 1, 2020

JIMMY HEATH – “LOVE LETTER” – Verve Records

Jimmy Heath, soprano & tenor saxophones/arranger; Kenny Barron, piano; Russell Malone, guitar; Monte Croft, vibraphone; David Wong, bass; Lewis Nash, drums; SPECIAL GUESTS: Wynton Marsalis, trumpet; Cécile McLorin Salvant & Gregory Porter, vocals.

You might say, Jimmy Heath went out swinging, in a slow, melancholy way.  This final release showcases Heath’s ability to merge his historic and unrelenting talent and tone, with a younger generation of musicians who bring interest and commerciality to his music.  Opening with the lovely and melodic, “Ballad from Upper Neighbors Suite,” this is Heath’s first ‘all-ballads’ production.  It’s as though he was writing a love letter to all his fans, family and friends before he got out of here.  Jimmy Heath’s tone and power on his tenor saxophone is as precise and stunning as it was thirty years ago.  Hard to believe that he was playing with this much strength and character at ninety-three years old.  On Track two, “Left Alone” he features the celebrated vocals of Cecile McLorin Salvant and the esteemed guitarist, Russell Malone.   Cecile’s crystal-clear voice is tender and heart-rendering on this Billie Holiday composition.  It’s a composition Ms. Holiday never got to record herself, but I think she’d be pleased with Salvant’s interpretation.   Enter Jimmy Heath on his horn, after Cecile’s beautiful performance.  He plays with so much soul and finesse that I just want to rewind his solo over and over again.

During His illustrious career, Jimmy Heath has worked with some of the most iconic jazz musicians in the entire world.  He’s performed on more than one-hundred albums and he’s written more than one-hundred-twenty-five compositions.  Some of those original songs have become jazz standards and have been recorded by renowned artists like Cannonball Adderley, Chet Baker, Miles Davis, James Moody, Milt Jackson, Ahmad Jamal, Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, J.J. Johnson and Dexter Gordon.

Wynton Marsalis comes on board to blend horns seamlessly with Jimmy Heath on “La Mesha.”  What a gorgeous song and arrangement!  This is a Kenny Dorham composition.  When Kenny Barron takes his piano solo, I marvel at the jazz master’s impeccable touch.  Gregory Porter sings the familiar standard “Don’t Misunderstand” with the astute and beautiful accompaniment of Mr. Barron on piano.  The trio is warm and supportive of the baritone’s rich vocals.  Enter Jimmy Heath, improvising with a brand, new melody and honey warm sweetness on his horn.  For me, this is a tear-jerk moment.  Sometimes music can touch you like that.

On Gillespie’s popular “Con Alma,” the arrangement is spruced up by the soulful vibraphone work of Monte Croft during a sexy, Latin arrangement of this familiar song.  Heath opens the tune, then fluidly melts into a bluesy jazz walk, propelled by David Wong’s bass and Lewis Nash tapping the rhythm out in profoundly perfect ways.  Jimmy Heath has written and executed this arrangement.  It’s both fresh, sultry and stunning.

There is not a bad tune on this entire album of spectacular music.  I could play it all day.  “Fashion or Passion” features Croft on vibraphone again and Heath’s warm saxophone blowing beauty into the air.  Although this original composition by Jimmy Heath is a ballad, it still swings.  The song comes from a 2004 Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra commission.   His album closes with Billie Holiday’s, “Don’t Explain” a treasure of a tune.   Jimmy Heath takes full responsibility for interpreting the heart-wrenching lyrics, letting his saxophone sing the song’s meaning without words.  I hear you, Jimmy Heath.  I hear you!

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ALISTER SPENCE – “WHIRLPOOL”  – Independent Label

Alister Spence, solo piano.

Alister Spence has made a powerful impact on the world of improvised music.  His reputation as a pre-eminent, creative force in jazz and avant-garde music began in his native Australia.  Twenty-five years later, he’s celebrated worldwide, lauded as being a contemporary music composer and performer who adds his brilliance to film scores, theater and various group recordings.  Spence holds a Doctor of Philosophy degree from University of NSW, where he is the Lecturer in Music.

On this CD release, Alister Spence wraps you in the “Whirlpool” of his solo production.  I find myself being totally intrigued and sucked into the extreme creativity of his spontaneous compositions.  These compositions are full of surprise and piano genius.  This Australian jazz pianist and composer creates an engaging and deeply emotional album that draws the listener into the depths of his presentation.  You become hypnotized by his music.  This double-disc album of solo piano is both splendid and irresistible, showcasing Allister’s unmistakable piano technique and classical training, as well as his flair for the dramatic. Spence explained his project this way:

“In the session, I tried to create surprises for myself, starting somewhere without a clear idea of what that would sound like and, as a result, creating puzzles or mazes which I try to follow or not to follow.”

While listening, I found myself following his musical notes, like bread crumbs in a Hansel and Gretel story.  I was intoxicated by his imaginative offering and as he piqued my curiosity, I went scurrying after his notes and nuances.  Alister Spence plays every part of the piano, both inside and out; plucking at the inner strings or dancing in the treble register like a finger ballerina.  When he attacks the lower register, his hands are powerful and demanding.  His compositions can be both hauntingly beautiful and suddenly dark and sinister, like storm clouds on the horizon.  One moment he’s a music box and the next, his fingers crash against the ivory and ebony like a restless ocean tide.  His left and right hands give us a lesson in contrary motion and his nimble fingers move swiftly, sometimes as fast as humming bird wings. I also felt as if the two hands were somehow speaking to each other in a foreign-language conversation I was eavesdropping on.  Here is an example of skill, creativity, freedom and years of practice, joy and pain, unleashed by the mastery of eighty-eight keys and the human spirit.

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BENNY RUBIN JR. QUARTET – “KNOW SAY OR SEE” – Independent Label

Benny Rubin Jr., tenor & Alto saxophones; Lex Korten, piano; Adam Olszewski, bass; JK Kim, drums.

Here is a saxophone player whose blues touches my soul.  I’m hooked from his very first track titled, “Know.”   At this point, the trio featured is just bass, saxophone and drums.  What a way to capture the listener’s attention.  Benny Rubin Jr. sure can play the blues! Track two opens with pianist, Lex Korten appearing on the scene and giving us a solid, very classically oriented introduction on the 88-keys. When Benny Rubin Jr. enters on his horn, he whips us into his own personal outer space with a flurry of freedom notes.  This composition is titled “Say” and is another one of six original compositions that Benny Rubin Jr. has written for this project; and this song is quite avant-garde.   The beautiful Jimmy Van-Huessen ballad, “Darn That Dream” follows and settles us down.  Rubin’s tone on his instrument is now warm and inviting. 

I enjoy the diversity in Rubin’s repertoire and his delivery.  The quartet’s arrangement on the Horace Silver tune, “Kiss Me Right” is stellar.  “Down They Go” is another original composition by Benny Rubin Jr., that features Adam Olszewski opening the song on double bass.  As the arrangement develops and the other instruments join in, I am whisked back to the time of John Coltrane.  Benny Rubin Jr., let’s his talent fly in a hurricane of powerfully played notes coupled with an emotional delivery.  Lex Korten builds the intensity on piano and adds his own exciting take on the tune.  The final original composition lets JK Kim cut loose on his trap drums.  The drums are front and center on this Rubin composition.  Here is an album full of sweet surprise and straight-ahead jazz excitement.  It offers enough multiplicity to show Benny Rubin Jr.’s competence on both his horns, as well as his excellence as a composer and it certainly showcases the brilliance of his players. 

When I read the liner notes, I discovered Benny Rubin Jr., was born in Flint, Michigan and raised in my hometown of Detroit.  He worked with many old friends of mine like Wendell Harrison and graduated from the Detroit School of Arts.  In 2016 he performed in the worldwide, acclaimed Detroit Jazz Festival with the Detroit Jazz Festival youth All-stars.  This is his second album release.  The first was titled, “What’s Next.”   

The title of this latest album “Know Say or See means the things that people don’t want you to know, say or see,” Benny Rubin Jr. explained.  Well, one thing I ‘know’ is that this album is very well produced.  I ‘say’ it in this review (just like I mean it) and I ‘see’ great things on the horizon for Benny Rubin Jr.  I enjoyed playing his album a second and a third time on my CD player, and I liked it better with each revolution.

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BRECKER BROTHERS – “LIVE AND UNRELEASED” – Piloo Records

Randy Brecker, trumpet/vocals; Michael Brecker, tenor saxophone; Mark Gray, keyboards; Barry Finnerty, guitar; Neil Jason, bass/vocals; Richie Morales, drums.

Flash-Back!  On July 2, 1980, there was a buzz of excitement inside the legendary Onkel P’s Carnegie Hall in Hamburg, Germany.  A contemporary jazz-funk band, The Brecker Brothers, was appearing and it was during the peak of the band’s popularity. The place was packed!  This album was recorded during that concert appearance and it reflects the energy, the exciting arrangements and spectacular talents of these legendary musicians.  If you’re someone who loves funk and fusion jazz, this album definitely ought to be in your collection.

The Brecker Brothers march onto the scene, opening with the tune, Strap Hangin,’ on Disc One of this double disc set.  Neil Jason sets the tone on electric bass, with Richie Morales adding his power-packed drums to propel this song into high gear.  On Disc two, the blues pops up on a tune by Randy Brecker titled, “Inside Out” that becomes a perfect musical trampoline for Mark Gray to jump up and down on his synthesizers, embellishing his very creative and captivating abilities during a sparkling solo.  And you can’t miss the powerful bass licks by Neil Jason throughout, often throwing in some 1950 and ‘60 R&B bass lines from hit records back-in-the-day.  Enter Finnerty, on guitar, with fingers flying atop the serious shuffle laid down by Morales on trap drums.

Randy Brecker spoke about this project in the liner notes.

“This, the ‘Great tour of 1980’ featured this iteration of the second great Brecker Brothers Band.  In July of 1980, we hit the road for five-weeks in Europe resulting in this fine recording, “Live and Unreleased;” … including guitarist Barry Finnerty, who had played on Heavy metal Bebop and who was also taking a break from The Crusaders and their ‘Street-life’ tour.  The keyboard chair was held by the late, great mark Gray who was totally obsessed with the latest technology and was a first call guy in NYC. …Our bassist, Neil Jason, who had co-written and sung on one of our hits ‘East River’ was also a first call guy. … On drums is the great Richie Morales, who I first met during my tenure producing a band called ‘Sky King’ for Columbia Records.  He spent several years with us, then went on to Spyro Gyra, Mike Stern and many more. … So, enjoy this long, lost, live concert which brings back to life a lot of pleasant memories of great music, late nights on ‘the hang’ and many a story a little too risqué to repeat here.”

You will enjoy the innovation on the Mini-Moog and on the Prophet-5, fully polyphonic, analog synthesizer played by the late Mark Gray.  Barry Finnerty is tenacious and unrelenting on his instrument, burning fire across the stage with his scorching guitar chops.  But it’s Michael Brecker that stuns with his power, tone and excitement on tenor saxophone and his brother, Randy Brecker, unapologetically adds his trumpet talents to the mix just to remind us why the band is called, the Brecker Brothers.  Not to mention, the two brothers have composed every tune on this funky double set except one.

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SWINGADELIC – “BLUESVILLE” – Zoho Records

John Bauers & Mitch Woods, piano/vocals; Kyle Koehler, organ; Andy Riedel, guitar/vocals; Boo Reiners & Joe Taino, guitar; Dave Post, bass; Colby Inzer, drums; Vanessa Perea, vocals; Ken Robinson, Alto saxophone/clarinet/flute; Audrey Welber, alto saxophone; Mike Weisberger & Bill Easley, tenor saxophone; John DiSanto, baritone, saxophone/piccolo 8; Bryan Davis, John Martin & Carlos Francis, trumpet; Robert Edwards, Neal Pawley, & Alex Jeun, trombone.

One of the featured vocalists with this swinging big band is John Bauers, who also plays piano. The ‘Swingadelic’ ensemble opens up with the Dakota Staton’s hit record and also one of the Count Basie Orchestra’s popular tunes, “Late Late Show.”   John Bauers knows how to ‘swing’ and his voice dances along with this shuffle arrangement.  The big-band horn section punches as he smoothly sings “Gee, it’s cozy in the park tonight. When you cuddle up and hold me tight.  Stars above they seem to know, we’re putting on the Late Late Show.”  It’s a great way to start this album.

On Track two, vocalist Neal Pawley takes the mic and is deeply reminiscent of Mose Allison when he sings, the Muddy Waters composition, “I Love the Life I Live.”  The drums shuffle like a well-oiled motor -machine and Colby Inzer drives this band forward with spirit and energy on drums. 

‘Swingadelic’ is an ensemble perfect for a swing-dance party.  Vanessa Perea’s rendition of the Mary Lou Williams tune, “What’s Your Story, Morning Glory” reminds me of how Sonny Burke and Paul Francis Webster plagiarized this 1938 hit by Mary Lou Williams and wrote “Black Coffee” using the identical two verses that Mary Lou composed in “What’s Your Story Morning Glory.”  There was talk of a law suit, but I don’t think it ever came to anything.  The band also covers the Ray Charles hit record, “Mary Ann” featuring a guitar solo by Joe Taino and a trombone solo by Alex Jeun.  This ‘Swingadelic’ ensemble scoops the blues up and repurposes it in their own sweet way. 

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RYAN COHAN – “ORIGINATIONS”   – Origin Records

Ryan Cohan, piano/composer/arranger; James Cammack, acoustic bass; Michael Raynor, drums; John Wojciechowski, flute/alto flute/clarinet/tenor saxophone; Geof Bradfield, bass clarinet/soprano saxophone; Tito Carrillo, trumpet/flugelhorn; Omar Musfi, RIQQ/frame drum & dumbek. THE KALA STRING QUARTET: Victoria Moreira & Naomi Culp, violin; Amanda Grimm, viola; Hope DeCelle, cello.

The first tune unfolds like a book’s introduction, with Hope DeCelle’s prominent and beautiful cello solo. It makes me wonder about the chapters to follow.  When I look at the title, this arrangement makes even more sense.  It’s titled, “The Hours Before Dawn” and Ryan Cohan’s piano fingers rush along the keys like hands pushing the clouds away from the suns face. 

Cohan’s use of the Kaia String Quartet sets a lovely tone and ambience to this piece of musical art.  “Originations” is composed of six independent compositions that celebrate an eleven-piece jazz chamber ensemble.  On this first composition, you can picture the sun rising from the hours just before dawn, enhanced by the string parts and the unexpected time changes.  Mother Nature is certainly full of unexpected changes and beauty.  There is a very Middle Eastern or North African theme that ribbons its way throughout this project.  When I read the liner notes, I understood that this influence reflects Ryan Cohan’s mixture of Jewish and Arab linage.  Cohan explained an experience he recently had while touring.

“How can a strange land be at once familiar?  Although I had never been in Amman, Jordan I felt strangely at home there.  After every performance or while exploring the streets, people would come up to me and ask if I was Jordanian.  The locals clearly saw something recognizable in me as I did in them.  It was surreal,” Cohan recalled. 

His piano strength and talent are broadly introduced on “Imaginary Lines” where his solo soars. There is great energy and excitement in his playing.  I can feel the love and spontaneity just leap off the CD player.  John Wojciechowski’s beautiful interpretations on reed instruments add greatly to the texture and enjoyment of this music, be it on flute, alto sax, clarinet or alto flute. 

This experience caused Ryan Cohan to seek out his Palestinian roots, when he discovered that particular tour had landed him smack dab in the middle of his Paternal homeland.  Consequently, this album of delightful music explores the assimilation of the composer’s Arab heritage and his Jewish upbringing.  It’s a celebration of the rich beauty of two cultures, intertwined and mixed into a musical production.

“Seeing life through a dual heritage lens, … has made clear that neither side’s existence is more indispensable than the others. The vital human and spiritual links embodied in the reconciliation of my Jewish and Arab origins extends to the connections we all share as a global community.”

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HORIZONS JAZZ ORCHESTRA PAYS TRIBUTE TO COMPOSER/ARRANGER LEE HARRIS WITH “THE BRITE SIDE”

Gary Mayone, keyboards; Ranses Colon, bass; Luke Williams, guitar; George Mazzeo, drums; REEDS: Scott Klarman, lead alto/flute/soprano saxophone; Mike Brignola, 3rd Alto saxophone/flute/clarinet; Billy Ross, guest tenor saxophone/flute/clarinet; Joe Mileti, tenor saxophone/flute; Randy Emerick, baritone saxophone. TRUMPETS: Dennis Noday, lead trumpet/flugelhorn; Ryan Chapman, split lead flugelhorn; Jack Wengrosky, split lead, flugelhorn; Fernando Ferrarone & Chaim Rubinov, trumpet/flugelhorn. TROMBONES: Michael Balogh, lead trombone/conductor; Jason Pyle & Tom Lacy, trombone; Steve Mayer, bass trombone.

This Is a beautifully produced and arranged tribute to Lee Harris.  Harris was a respected baritone saxophonist, a composer and arranger, who co-founded and co-led the popular “Superband.”  They were a big band with a fresh perspective, that mainly performed Lee’s original compositions.  When this Horizons Jazz Orchestra project got underway, Lee Harris was quite ill and unfortunately, he passed away months before this recording was completed.  However, the album will proudly stand as his legacy. 

With the significant help of veteran trombonist, Michael Balogh (who was also lead trombone player in the “Superband”) and brilliant trumpeter, Dennis Noday, who co-led the “Superband” with Lee Harris, along with the Executive Producer for “The Brite Side,” Ms. Jeannette C. Piña, they have created a memorable project.  The producers have enlisted the talents of virtuoso trumpeter, Carl Saunders, featured on five of the ten tracks and Grammy-winning drummer, Jonathan Joseph propels the project with vigor and tenacity.  Reedman, Billy Ross, was invited to join them on four of the tracks.  Ross has been playing woodwinds with Woody Herman’s Orchestra since he was seventeen and has leant his talents to many an iconic recording.  The list includes Barry Manilow and Natalie Cole; the Four Tops and the O’Jays to name only a few.

“The Brite Side” spotlights five original compositions by Lee Harris, with the other five are jazz standards that showcase the Harris arrangements.  I enjoyed the addition of Gary Mayone on the B3 Organ.  Producer Michael Balogh has certainly created a loving tribute to his friend and fellow musician, Lee Harris. This production exposes the listeners to some well-written compositions and a host of outstanding musicians who play the Lee Harris arrangements with gusto and creative clarity.

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MON DAVID & JOSH NELSON – “D + N + A” – Dash Hoffman Records

Mon David, vocals; Josh Nelson, piano.

Mon David and Josh Nelson balance, with two hands and a rich baritone voice, a dozen classic songs plush with thought provoking lyrics and memorable melodies.  Here is a duo that make me feel as though I’m sitting at one of those old piano bars, martini in hand and drooling over the rich, provocative music.  The duo opens with a song I’m unfamiliar with; composed by Albert Hague & Allan Sherman and titled, “Did I Ever Really Live.”  The lyrical content is rich. Mon David sings:

                “You’re born, you weep, you smile, you speak, you cling, you crawl, you stand, you fall.  You stand again and try and then, you walk.  You eat, you drink, you feel, you think, you play, you grow, you learn, you know and then one day you find a way to talk.  You’re young, you fly, you laugh, you cry, you’re grown, you’re on your own at last.  You lose, you win, your days begin to slip away too fast. … is it too late to ask, Did I ever love?  Did I ever give? Did I ever really live?”

Those poignant lyrics drive this project.  These one-dozen songs delve deeply into the mystery of life and living; gain and loss. One of my favorite jazz ballads follows, “You Must Believe in Spring.”  I still remember the first time I heard Cleo Laine sing this song ‘live’ at the Hollywood Bowl.  Mon David caresses the lyrics with sensitive vocal strength, while Josh Nelson’s hands work like an artist’s paint brushes.  His piano-playing gently strokes the keys and chords to support Mon David’s emotional delivery.  They follow this song with several other’s we have come to love over jazz decades.  The duo interprets Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” and Artie Butler and Phyllis Molinary’s candid composition, “Here’s to Life.” 

Mon David is multi-talented.  He sings, but he also plays guitar, piano and drums.  He explained his decision to record a duo album.

“For me, the human voice is the primary instrument for expressing the emotional depth of a song, but the piano is a close second.  That’s why I wanted to work with Josh.  His solo performances are terrific, but when he plays with a singer or other instrumentalists, his music has an almost symphonic quality.  He’s also very spontaneous.  He listens so closely.  I realized we really didn’t need charts for these songs, because we were able to collaborate and create them on the spot.  That’s why I named the album DNA, which is an acronym for David-Nelson-Agreement.  It’s a real conversation between the two of us.”

There are moments when Mon David becomes a percussion instrument with his voice, like on their arrangement of “Devil may Care” and at other unexpected moments, his voice bounces octaves to a head-register tone, like a horn-player or a swiftly moving tennis ball.  His tenor voice swoops into view and grabs our attention.  He scats and purrs his way through familiar songs like “Billie’s Bounce,” and “Blame It on My Youth,” John Lennon’s “Imagine” and challenging compositions like “Waltz for Debby” in a medley praising the genius of Bill Evans. That medley is one of my favorites on this production.  He also introduces us to newer songs like the Bill Canton and Mark Winkler song, “I Chose the Moon.”  This is a vocalist who shows, by his choice of repertoire, that he is confident, courageous, thoughtful, well-prepared and well-lived.

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