June 22, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil

June 22, 2021

June is Black Music Month and jazz was created and established by black people in America.  Jazz is the music of power and endurance.  It epitomizes America’s constant aspiration towards freedom for all.

CURTIS J. STEWART – “OF POWER” – Outside In Music

Curtis J. Stewart, violin/vocals/prose/electronics/co-producer/engineer; Nick Revel, engineer; Louis Levitt, co-producer.

This album opens with a solo violin, singing like a joyful bird at a classical concert and interjecting folk and jazz improvisation into the scheme of things.  Curtis J. Stewart spreads wide wings over various genres of music and poetry.  He is brave and flamboyant, stepping forward with his violin, his bow, his imagination and a mastery of his instrument.  This violinist uses electronics and his voice to grapple with themes of resilience, resistance and the nature of power juxtaposed to the powerless.  He weaves a confessional narrative about revolution and protest during his production.  Stewart plays his music, solo, transcribing it through the eyes of a black man in America who is searching for authenticity and the answers to unanswered questions.  This is the kind of art and beauty that is both emotional and brilliant; classical and hip hop; R&B, jazzy and folksy.   Obviously, Mr. Curtis J. Stewart is an extraordinary musician, a master of technique on his violin, but also a deep thinker.  Using prose to spice his musical stew, Stewart bares his soul vocally as well as musically.  He throws music into a blender and spins compositions by Bach, Stevie Wonder, John Coltrane, Paganini and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson together.  The result is a culturally rich concert. 

Curtis J. Stewart pulls every nuance out of James Weldon Johnson’s Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”   Inspired by the untimely and unforgivable murder of George Floyd, and the continuing rise of a movement that shouts, “Black Lives Matter,” Mr. Stewart has also composed a number of original songs that shout truth to power.  He has written prose poetry that echoes frustration and encourages change. His songs pump like blood, feeding our consciousness. He shows that he can play Beethoven with the same energy and genius as he plays Hip Hop arrangements or rot-gut blues.  Clearly, Stewart pulls from the deepness of his soulful life experiences. 

This musician is not just a jazz player.  Curtis J. Stewart can perform with classical perfection.  He also offers his take on Pop music classics.  “#HerName” is based on the J.S. Bach Sonata No. 3 in C major, but his original composition celebrates the untimely and inexcusable death of Breonna Taylor, shot in her own home by police who raided her house mistakenly.  “Mangas” is a tribute to his mother, that celebrates a ‘man of the hood’ or leader of people and the strength a mother offers her son.  It’s a song with a reggae twist.  “Our Past is a Privilege” speaks to a health issue he and his mother faced together and also speaks to ignoring a past we are ashamed of, instead of being prideful of our history and the ‘now’ that we live inside. This song moves flawlessly into an interpretation of John Coltrane’s “After the Rain.”  We are offered hope with Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” and celebrate a woman we love and respect with “Isn’t She Lovely.”   Here is an album of music that speaks proudly “Of Power” and is totally unforgettable, pulsating with freedom and art.

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Roy Hargrove, trumpet/flugelhorn; Mulgrew Miller, piano.

Resonance Records is appreciated for their historical recordings and distinguished catalog of great jazz artists.  Roy Hargrove and Mulgrew Miller, these two iconic artists, joined the ancestors much too soon and have left a bright and brilliant catalogue of work behind for us to admire and enjoy.  Hargrove was born in 1969 and died on November 2, 2018.  Mulgrew Miller was born in 1955 and passed away on May 28, 2013.  This album is comprised of thirteen duo performances that were culled from two ‘live’ concerts they performed.  It’s the first time ever that Roy Hargrove has delivered an album of music without a drummer.

Opening with “What is This Thing Called Love” each dynamic musician exhibits their personality and technique, moving at a brisk pace and speaking, as if their instruments were in verbal conversation.  At first, with Hargrove leading the conversation in a stream of notes and improvisation and the piano supports and overlaps the stream of trumpet majesty, with Miller bringing his own royal perspective. Mulgrew Miller floats strategically over the eighty-eight keys.  After Miller’s substantial solo, the two master musicians trade fours with agility and creativity bursting at the seams during their spontaneous performance.  It’s magical to behold!

Hargrove and Miller bring lush, Southern United States roots to the surface during this project.  Hargrove is a son of Dallas, Texas and Mulgrew Miller was born in Greenwood, Mississippi. Their African American Southern heritage shines brightly, infusing their styles and musical attitudes.  They combine talents with a respect for the younger jazz generation and their admiration for the traditional and magnificent elders who paved the way for these young musicians to thrive. You clearly hear their black cultural influences on tunes like “Monk’s Dream” and “Blues for Mr. Hill.”

 “This is Always” begins with Miller’s hands floating up and down the piano, caressing the introduction from the black and white keys in preparation for Hargrove’s entry.  Mulgrew Miller pulls open the curtains with busy arpeggio scales and Roy Hargrove steps forward, exhibiting a rich, melancholy sound on his horn; one so beautiful I can hardly breathe for fear of disturbing the flow of his solo melody.  Clearly, this is a master class in duo dynamics and jazz spontaneity.  Mulgrew Miller takes his time during his solo performance, peeling the fruit of the melody from the piano and wrapping us in the sweetness.  “Triste” manages to hold the Latin rhythm tightly in place, with no drums and only the genius of Mulgrew Miller’s rich piano chops.  Mulgrew keeps the Latin beat in place, even while he’s improvising, with staggering lines of creativity dancing on top of his left hand’s constant rhythm development.  It’s so impressive!

Hargrove cut his musical teeth sitting-in at Bradley’s, a Greenwich Village piano room and space where musicians gathered after their gigs to drink, play and ‘conversate.’  There was one night Roy Hargrove claims he will never forget, when he sat in with George Coleman and Walter Davis, Jr.

“We went through the keys on “Cherokee” which was a lesson on harmony and then another lesson on rhythm.  Then we played “Body and Soul” and George started changing up the meters.  He played in three and then in five and then BLAM, really fast!  Then he turns around to me and goes; you got it.  I go, what am I going to do after all of that?  It was like your master’s degree.  You go in there and you’re playing and there’s Freddie Hubbard at the bar.  What do you do?  Everything I’m playing right now I owe to that whole scene,” Roy Hargrove recalls, talking about his growing pains.

Accompanying this ‘must-have’ CD is an intriguing book of liner notes. The glossy book includes several pages of great jazz musicians singing the praises of both these amazing musicians.   You will read how each master recalls first meeting, hearing and even working with Roy Hargrove and Mulgrew Miller.  There are impressions from Sonny Rollins, Christian McBride, George Cables, Kenny Baron, Victor Lewis, and many others.  Better yet, hear this awesome recording for yourself.  It’s a double-set that captures    No do-overs, no retakes or studio punches and edits.  You will hear, enjoy, love every brilliant nuance of these two unforgettable jazz musicians.  May their legacy live on forever!

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Mark Masters, arrangements; Mark Ferber, drums; Bruce Lett, bass; Les Benedict, Dave Woodley & Art Baron, trombone; Scott Englebright, Les Lovitt, Ron Stout & Tim Hagans, trumpet; Adam Schroeder, baritone saxophone; Danny House, alto saxophone/clarinet; Kirsten Edkins, Jerry Pinter, tenor & soprano saxophone.

Art Baron was the last to occupy the plunger trombone chair in the Duke Ellington Band.  He was a long-time member of Duke’s band from 1973 until Ellington died.  After that, Baron stayed on when Mercer Ellington took over the band.  Mark Masters wanted to show the classy and substantial status of Ellington’s amazing compositions, while spotlighting the richly popular years between 1940 and 1942. This was when Ben Webster was in the band and Jimmie Blanton was heralded as their groundbreaking bassist.    Those early 1940-years highlighted the rich, cultural legacy Duke Ellington left with us, offering his wonderful orchestra arrangements and unforgettable compositions.  Mark Masters thought, what better person to showcase than Art Baron, who knew Duke’s music so well?

Masters ensemble opens with “All too Soon” that brightly features the bassist, Bruce Lett, spotlighted as the orchestra trades fours with him. Bruce competently represents the legacy of Jimmie Blanton.  Art Baron’s trombone is also featured along with Kirsten Edkins on tenor saxophone.  “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” again features the warm, intoxicating sound of Baron’s trombone and Adam Schroeder’s baritone saxophone.  Strayhorn’s “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” opens as an unexpected waltz and Ron Stout’s muted trumpet sounds like a human voice.  It’s a beautiful arrangement.  Throughout the entire production, Bruce Lett and Mark Ferber lock tightly as the ensemble’s rhythm section groove masters and Lett is super creative on bass.  The horns add the harmonics and you hardly miss the piano.  “Perdido” features Danny House, smooth as silk on clarinet.  The horns in the background sound very much like human voices singing, doo-wap, doo-wap, in a very cool way.  It’s those little nuances that call attention to Mark Masters’ creative arrangements.  On “Ko-Ko” special guest Tim Hagans is featured on trumpet and Art Baron is consistently impressive on his trombone.

“Art is one of a kind as a player and as a person.  He’s a great student of the music and knows all the history, plus he’s an original with a unique sound.  It was a joy to be able to craft my writing specifically for him and that plunger mute specialty,” Masters says in their press package.

Mark Masters is recognized as one of the great jazz arrangers of the last few decades.  He formed his first ensemble in 1982.  Masters founded the non-profit American jazz Institute and this is an album full of compositional gems that Duke Ellington blessed Earth with, along with the fine arrangements of Mark Masters, competently played by his ensemble of master musicians.

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Ralph Peterson, drums/trumpet/Kalimba/Tounge drum/Rain stick/Frame drum/Djimbe/ Cajon/ tambourine/cowbell; Zaccai Curtis, piano/keyboards; Luques Curtis, bass; Jazzmeia Horn, vocals; Eguie Castrillo, conga/timbale/cowbell/cymbal.

This project, “Raise Up Off Me” is the final full-length album from master drummer, bandleader and composer, Ralph Peterson Jr., released in late May, one day after what would have been his fifty-ninth birthday.  Peterson’s latest release on his Onyx Label features a handful of original compositions and some of the up-and-coming important jazz musicians on the East Coast.  They include brother’s, Zaccai Curtis and Luques Curtis.  Zaccai is brilliant and noteworthy on piano and Luques is solid on double bass.  Eguie Castrillo adds his colorful percussive touches.  He is brightly spotlighted on Peterson’s “Blue Hughes” tune.  One of my favorite young, jazz vocalists on the scene today is Jazzmeia Horn.  She brings poignant and emotional sustenance to Peterson’s original composition “Tears I Can Not Hide.”  This song actually brought tears to my eyes.  Jazzmeia also slays the John Hicks tune, “Naima’s Love Song.” This production is music that celebrates Ralph Peterson’s composer skills, his drum mastery and his political consciousness.  Before his death, on March 1, 2021, Peterson was determined to make a societal statement on issues he found important.  Among them were drug addiction and recovery, the complexities of mental health, the Black Lives Matter movement and his daily struggle for life, while fighting cancer for the past six years.  Peterson gives us a spirited rendition of the Patrice Rushen tune, “Shorties Portion,” at breakneck speed and brightly spotlights Zaccai Curtis on piano.  Ralph Peterson takes his own solo adventure and shows off why he is such a celebrated drummer and master technician. 

His statement on the title of this project was, “In this era, where we still feel the foot on our necks, the pepper spray and mace that burns our eyes and face, the bullets and the batons, I find it necessary to remind you that Black Lives Matter … and for my life to matter, you have to raise up off me.”

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HAYS STREET HART – “ALL THINGS ARE” – Smoke Sessions Records

Kevin Hays, piano; Ben Street, bass; Billy Hart, drums.

These three musicians have been some of the busiest in the business of jazz for decades. Kevin Hays, Billy Hart and Ben Street joined hands and hearts to create this album.  Here is a unique trio, drawn together during the frustrating and intimidating time of the pandemic lock-down, joined in celebration of Billy Hart’s 80th birthday.  Although Hart and Ben Street were in a quartet together and comfortable with their musical camaraderie, playing with well-respected Kevin Hays was new.  The three musicians met at the Smoke Jazz Club, in New York City, for the gig.  It was December 4th and 5th of 2020 when they ‘livestream’ recorded this music. It was challenging, only because all three had been quarantined for so long, there was concern by each musician about playing in a ‘live’ interactive group setting.  This album is proof that everything worked out quite well. 

They open with “New Day,” one of six original compositions by pianist, Kevin Hays.  Hays describes the tune as moving from ‘one/four’ to ‘two/five,’ (referencing chord changes) which isn’t necessarily typical as a song form.  He also has written the bridge with an odd five bars.  It’s a moderate tempo’d piece, with some time-changes that fall unexpectedly, letting the spotlight bathe warmly over Hays at the piano.  When Street and Hart re-enter the arrangement, they swing hard.  So, the session began with the musicians wearing masks and surrounded by protective plexiglass, letting their individual talents meet like old friends enjoying the birthday party; music bounced around the room like helium balloons.

“I thought that with no rehearsal, because of COVID, it would help for us to just hit,” Kevin Hays recalls.

Hart and Street had roots in the Billy Hart Quartet, so they quickly locked into a well-oiled rhythm unit; fluid and familiar with each other.  They also had history, working together as a trio with pianist Aaron Parks.

“Kevin has always been one of my very favorite piano players, but I never get a chance to play with him.  He doesn’t get nearly enough credit, compared to how gifted and original he is and Ben’s arguably, in today’s world, my favorite bass player,” Hart affirms.

Track 2 is titled, “Elegia.”  It’s romantic, ethereal, and Hays creates lots of space during the introduction, setting things up until Hart and Street enter and subtly drive the music forward.

“What he has, … you see it in Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan.  It’s a depth of feeling. … His choice of notes is very moving to me,” Billy Hart compliments Kevin Hays. 

On “Elegia,” Ben Street holds the center of the music strongly in place and knows just when to go with the flow and when to quietly lay out and let the music untangle itself on the eighty-eight keys. 

“Hays is one of those everybody’s favorite pianist,” Ben Street speaks about Hays.

“And Billy really focused it for me.  He seemed to be hearing Kevin as a singer,” Ben Street added.

For familiarities sake and perhaps to challenge himself, Kevin Hays re-composed Charlie Parker’s “Scrapple From the Apple” into a tune he calls “Unscrappulous.”  It’s recognizable enough for Street and Hart to jump into deep water with both feet, but the tune is completely redressed, wearing a similar form but a different swim suit.  Ben Street is quite melodic, on bass, during this up-tempo, but brief three-minute and thirty-six second excursion. One of my favorites on this album is the lovely way Hays plays the standard jazz ballad, “For Heaven’s Sake.”  The piano harmonics are so rich, colorful and often unexpected. Ben Street builds a solid basement for the structure to stand upon playing his double bass.

“And to play with someone like Billy, who is such a responsive musician, I noticed some little telepathy-type things that were going on.  How did we both do that at the exact same time?”  Hays marveled.

The title tune is based on Jerome Kern’s chord changes for “All the Things You are” and it dances along at a brisk, but comfortable pace.  Hays has a piano style that flutters.  His fingers fly across the keys in spurts of genius and creativity.  On “Sweet Caroline” Hart and Street open the piece, establishing a blues groove.  I know where Gene Harris or Monte Alexander would have taken it, but Kevin Hays is more about the beauty than the blues.  All in all, this is a musical art exhibit awaiting the listener’s provocative review and appreciation.  Each song becomes its own unique and intriguing sculpture, built before our very eyes, in the imitable way that jazz grows; through improvisation, freedom and creativity.

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REBECCA ANGEL – “LOVE, LIFE, CHOICES” – Timeless Grooves Records

Rebecca Angel, vocals/background vocals; Jason Miles, keyboards/drum programming/Moog synthesizer bass; Dean Brown, Romero Lubambo, Nir Felder, Christian Ver Halen, Ira Siegel & Jonah Prendergast, Guitar; Reggie Washington, bass; Gene Lake & Brian Dunne, drums; Bashiri Johnson, Richie Morales & Cyro Baptista, percussion; Mark Rivera, congas; Jimmy Bralower, drum programming/percussion; Butterscotch, beatboxing; Dennis Angel, trumpet/flugelhorn; Maya Azucena, background vocals; Ada Rovatti, tenor saxophone; Hailey Niswanger, alto saxophone; Pamela Driggs, vocals; Jay Rodriquez, flute; Gottfried Stoger, soprano saxophone; Steve Wolf, drum programming.

Rebecca Angel has a whispery, warm quality to her voice.  This album is Pop/Jazz that uses synthesized programming and the talents of producer, keyboardist and drum programmer, Jason Miles, to lay down tracks for Angel to vocally dance upon.  It features her soft soprano voice pirouetting across the chord changes.  Rebecca tackles standard pop songs like the familiar Bill Withers tune, “Just the Two of Us,” and has released this song as her current single from this album.  It’s Ada Rivotti, on tenor saxophone, who puts the ‘J’ in jazz during this arrangement and gives us a splendid sax solo to enjoy. 

“Waiting in Vain” is a reggae song written by the late, great Bob Marley.  Rebecca Angel applies her own unique delivery.  Jobim’s famed “Corcovado” gives us a brief peek into her jazzier side.  However, for the most part, this is easy-listening, sleepy-time music.  Even the funky arrangement on “Waters of March” doesn’t lift us from that relaxed, laid-back vibe.  Her take on the Sade song, “Maureen” continues the moderate tempo saga of this album, with an improvised fade that is sometimes slightly off-key.  The last two songs are original compositions by Rebecca Angel.  One is titled “thoughts and Prayers,” a protest song that mirrors the tragic violence that is staining our nation’s reputation with too many mass murders.  The final song of this production is “Summer Song,” another Angel original composition.  After listening, I recognize that Rebecca Angel has a good voice, however she is not a jazz singer.  Two things are missing.  Unless she can ‘swing’ and sing the blues, this young and talented vocalist cannot claim to be a jazz vocalist.  However, her pop music potential is clearly visible.

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Chris Saunders, vocals/cornet/flugelhorn; Ken Cook, piano/organ/arranger; Michael Aragon, drums; Rob Fordyce, electric bass; Luis Carbo, percussion.

If blues is your thing, pop this CD into your player, settle down and enjoy their opening tune, Percy Mayfield’s standard, “River’s Invitation.”  Chris Saunders has a voice steeped in the down-home, Southern blues flavor.  He’s a songwriter/singer, unpretentious and raw.  His co-writer is Ken Cook, pianist, arranger and organist of the group. The multi-talented Saunders is also a cornet player and trumpeter.  His vocals are reminiscent of Mose Allison phrasing.  Some of Saunders home-grown lyrics have a comic truth at their base, similar to Allison’s songwriting.  For example, his song “Butterflies and Chicken Wings” longing for those simple things sums up his desire to live simply and enjoy his life.  That song is steeped in blues changes with a shuffle drum provided by Michael Aragon and complimented by Luis Carbo’s percussion touches.  “I Wonder” is another blues, but this time it’s a ballad.  What Saunders lacks in vocal technique he makes up for with his emotional delivery.  His sad blues song is believable and his horn solo is a definite, well-played plus.  Arranger, Ken Cook, is a notable addition on piano.  He has a sweet touch and offers a jazzy solo on the 88-keys.  A big part of these arrangements is quite Latin oriented and the old American songbook standard “Am I Blue” is reimagined with a cha cha beat.  He also covers the Ray Charles recording of “I Don’t Need No Doctor” with Rob Fordyce playing a mean electric bass line and Ken Cook adding his bluesy piano licks.  I enjoy Chris Saunders playing his flugelhorn and cornet.  I appreciate his blues vocals.  However, when he steps outside of singing within the blues niche, I get lost. 

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June 14, 2021


By Dee Dee McNeil

                                                                                         June 14, 2021

                June is Black Music Month.  When I received the Ralph Peterson CD, his final, musical chapter captured on disc, I was inspired to celebrate this amazing musician’s life.  As a lover of hard bop, I was joyful each time I received an album release from this brilliant percussionist.  His talent, drive, example and educational tenacity shone with star-bright effervescence over a span of nearly four decades.  Ralph Peterson lost his battle with cancer on March 1, 2021 at the age of fifty-eight, but his brilliance lives on.

                Orrin Evans wrote in the Peterson liner notes about this recent recording:              

“If you know Ralph, you knew whenever he titled a song or album, it directly correlated to something going on in his life.  “Reclamation Project” was Ralph’s way of telling us he was reclaiming his life and career. “Art” was his tribute to his mentor, Art Blakey, who had just passed.  “The Trials of Trust and Treachery” was his homage to the difficulty, but importance of long-term relationships.  “Raise Up Off Me” can easily be associated with 2020, the Black Lives Matter Movement and the pandemic; the message I hear is Ralph’s fight to LIVE!”

                Ralph Peterson was born May 20, 1962.  His father played drums and was also the first black police chief of their hometown; Pleasantville, New Jersey.  His father later became the town’s first black mayor, while his mother worked as the manager of an aviation research company.  Within the family lineage, there were a slew of drummers.  Ralph’s grandfather played cymbals in the church.  Peterson also had four uncles who were drummers.  It wasn’t surprising that young Ralph took to the drums at age three and never looked back.

                “Later, I wanted to learn how to read music,” Ralph recalled his early musical journey.[1] 

“Because I was playing drums in funk bands and R&B bands of the late 60s and 70s, but I had no discipline to learn how to read music on drums.  If I couldn’t get it right away, it didn’t hold my interest.  Cyrille grew up in Brooklyn, a cousin of mine, and at the wake for my Uncle Bud, Cyrille sat on the steps of the back porch playing trumpet,” Ralph Peterson explained how he became infatuated with the trumpet and eventually learned to read music.

“In Brooklyn, Cyrille was known as the General of Jazz. Funny, because I call my student soldiers. My cousin was also a Black Belt in Taekwondo and I just earned my fifth degree,” Ralph Peterson recalled the impact his cousin Cyrille had on him.

                “I started playing the horn in the fourth grade.  By the 7th grade, I was playing trumpet in the high school band.  I played trumpet in the marching band for six years, but in the jazz band I played drums.

“1982 I played my first gig in New York with Walter Davis, a great piano player and Jazz Messenger, at the Barry Harris’ Jazz Showcase.  So, Wynton & Branford Marsalis were on horns; Phil Bowler on bass from Bridgeport, Connecticut.  On Walter Davis’s last trio record, a record called Scorpio Rising, me, Walter and Santi Debriano; all three of us have Scorpio as an ascendant in astrological charts. So, our linkage was cosmic for us.  No rehearsal.  We went into the studio and Walter would just start playing.  That’s the way they used to do it.  They take you to the deep end of the pool and drop you in,” Peterson relived his precious formative years in jazz.

Ralph Peterson began recording as a leader in 1988, with an all-star quintet consisting of Terence Blanchard on trumpet, Steve Wilson on saxophone, Geri Allen at the eighty-eight keys and Phil Bowler on bass.  They released two albums called V and Volition on the Blue Note Label.  Ralph also worked with Allen and Bowler as a trio, but on the recording “Triangular” Essiet Essiet replaced Bowler.  

In 1989, Ralph Peterson recorded in the quartet format as “The Fo’tet” with Don Byron, Steve Wilson (later Bobby Franchesini), Melissa Slocum, who later was replaced by Belden Bullock and percussionist and vibraphonist, Bryan Carrott.  

After relocating and living in Canada for some time, Peterson returned to the United States, where he worked again with “The Fo’tet,” and recorded a Triangular 2 album, with Slocum and Uri Caine.  Ralph also led the group “Hip Pocket,” with whom he played trumpet.  At his passing, Ralph Peterson had recorded twenty-six albums as a bandleader and numerous albums as a sideman.

In his early twenties, this innovative drummer was swept under the wings of the great Art Blakey.  Ralph Peterson became the longest and most consistent young drum protégée to play in Blakey’s renowned Jazz Messengers band.  He joined Blakey’s band in 1983.  When the iconic Blakey passed away, on October 16, 1990, Ralph Peterson stepped in to proudly become protector of his mentor’s legacy.  He formed a group called “Messenger Legacy” that included seventeen former players from the Jazz Messengers.

“Art Blakey is arguably one of the most important bandleaders in American history, because of how many bandleaders came out of his groups. The ‘Messenger Legacy’ is a conclave of messenger alumni.  I don’t like the term Former Messengers, because once you’re a Messenger you’re always a messenger.  The impact and influence on your playing by Art Blakey remains, regardless of what direction you take your music.  Historically, the Messengers started with Horace Silver, Art Blakey and Seventeen Messengers.  With that in mind, I assembled seventeen alumni for this latest recording, our ‘Onward and Upward’ recording,” Ralph Peterson explained in an Online interview by Dom Famularo.[2]

Peterson’s work came to the attention of the jazz world during the Blue Note stable project.  It was to herald an 80’s jazz renaissance period.  Ralph sort of stumbled into that job by a quirk of fate.

“There was an audition, when, for whatever reason, Lewis Nash stepped out of the project and they found me.  JoAnn Jimenez put together the group that originally included Lewis Nash, who was their first drum choice.  I had recorded with Blanchard and Donald Harrison and just started my apprenticeship with Art Blakey.  Through my study with Michael Carvin, who taught me, for auditions to find out the material, learn it so you don’t have to read it and set up a half hour before the thing starts or you’re late.  I got the gig.  We made three recordings.  Out of the Blue, Inside Track and Live at Mount Fujii,” Peterson recalled.[3]

It’s not always lucrative to be a jazz musician and so many jazz cats began to take university and college professor gigs to support their families and lifestyles.  Ralph Peterson discussed how he started teaching.

“I started my college teaching gig, maybe way before I was worthy of earning it.  I had the great honor of being hired by Essex Community College in Newark, NJ, by bassist, professor Aaron Bell (who played with Duke Ellington’s orchestra and with Dizzy Gillespie).   Denzel Washington said luck is when preparation and opportunity intersect.  That eventually brought me to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia; to Julliard, the New School; Rucker’s, Princeton and now I’m in my fourteenth year at Berklee College,” Ralph told Michael Vosbien.

As a professor at Berklee College of Music, he and his students released “I Remember Bu,” another tribute to Art Blakey by the GenNext Big Band Peterson formed.  This was a student big band recording that celebrated Art Blakey’s adopted Muslim name of Buhaina.  Buhaina means lover of travel and a person of keen understanding.  Well, that certainly reflected the life of Art Blakey and his musical genius.  It also spotlights the talent and genius of young musicians who, under the tutelage of Ralph Peterson, are carrying forward the Blakey legacy.

Peterson’s latest release on his Onyx Label features a handful of original compositions and some of the up-and-coming important jazz voices on the East Coast.  They include brother’s, Zacai Curtis and Luques Curtis.  Zacai is brilliant and noteworthy on piano and Luques is solid on double bass.  Eguie Castrillo adds his colorful percussion touches.  He is brightly spotlighted on Peterson’s “Blue Hughes” tune.  One of my favorite young, jazz vocalists on the scene today is Jazzmeia Horn.  She brings poignant and emotional sustenance to Peterson’s original compositions “Tears I Can Not Hide” and she slays the John Hicks tune, “Naima’s Love Song.” This is music that celebrates Ralph Peterson’s composer skills, his drum mastery and his political consciousness. As he said in a recent interview on the Mapex Artist interview by Dom Famulero:

“I believe the movement, not the organization, but the movement of Black Lives Matter, has reached the point where you can’t put toothpaste back in the tube.  I’m an American.  I love being an American and because I’m an American, I have the right to criticize America,” Peterson left his political message behind, for us to digest, along with this new music.

“ … As a black community and an American community, we all don’t have to attack the problem in the same way.  We can have anonymous and financial contributors who peacefully make a difference. You can’t fix a problem that you don’t own.  If you don’t name it and claim it, you can’t fix it.  These demonstrations look different from the 1960 demonstrations, but we have to stay in the fight and stay focused on the problem.  My white brothers and sisters need to understand that if you’re part of the solution, you don’t have to feel guilty about your ancestral part of the problem.  We know it wasn’t you; maybe not your parents or even your grandparents.  We need to understand, we were viewed as a commodity and not as human beings during slavery.  The legacy of that doesn’t get undone, with the reciting of a great speeches or a million black men marching. We need each other to fix it,” Ralph Peterson reminds us.

“Jazz is African American classical music.  That’s the truth.  In order to deal with the highest expressions of it, you have to go to artists who look like me.  In America, socially and politically speaking, that can be uncomfortable for some people.  But that’s what makes it real.  The truth about America is that African Americans are the only ethnic group of people who didn’t immigrate to this country.  We were bought in chains.  The Native Americans were here and we were bought in chains.  And to suggest that the whole legacy of that ended when Barack Obama became President can only seem reasonable if you don’t know what that legacy is.  So that’s ignorant; the absence of truth.  But you have to be honest about what you’re playing when you play it.  To deny the African American part of the music is not embracing truth.” 

Ralph Peterson’s latest album sums it all up in the title; “Raise Up Off Me.”  He has left behind both wise words, a committed jazz legacy and a host of drum students guided and inspired by his wise words and great musical accomplishments.

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[1] Interview on Drummer Nation with Michael Vosbien – 2016




June 4, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil

June 4, 2021


Brian Bromberg, double bass/piccolo bass & hollow body piccolo bass guitar/electric bass/ some horn arrangements/composer/arranger; Joel Taylor & Tony Moore, drums; Tom Zink, keyboards; Jerry Cortez & Ray Fuller, rhythm guitar; Lenny Castro, percussion; Everette Harp, Darren Rahn & Elon Trotman, tenor saxophone; Andrew Neu, alto, tenor, baritone saxes/clarinet/ horn arrangements; Dave Koz, alto saxophone; Marion Meadows, soprano saxophone; Michael Stever, trumpet/piccolo trumpet; Nick Lane, trombone; Nathan Tanouye, horn arrangements; Craig Fundyga, vibes; Mitch Foreman, accordion; Charlie Bisharat, solo violin; Member of the National Symphony Strings arranged & conducted by Corey Allen; Milena Zivkovik, cello solo; the Social Distancing Orchestra: violins, violas, cellos.

“A Little Driving Music” is the third Brian Bromberg album created in quarantine, during the COVID19 pandemic.  It features an all-star cast of musicians that include Dave Koz, Marion Meadows, Elan Trotman, Everette Harp, Gary Meek and Nick Colionne as special guests.  Along with his normal bandmates, this album is packed with star-power!  They open with “Froggy’s,” a tribute to the choir of frogs that often croak to the composer at his Southern California home.  On this energy-driven, funk tune, Bromberg surprises with a blistering solo on piccolo bass.  A piccolo bass has each string tuned an octave higher than usual. The sound could easily be mistaken for a shredding, electric guitar.  Bromberg has popularized that piccolo bass sound over the years.  Joel Taylor pounds this track forward with his powerhouse drums and Bromberg’s bass line locks relentlessly into the groove.  They supply a rhythm track that bounces like a trampoline for Everette Harp to showcase his dancing saxophone.  Track 2, “Quarantine” flows smooth as satin out of my speakers and certainly does sound like ‘driving music.’ Brian Bromberg plays electric bass on this selection, along with the hollow body piccolo bass guitar. Tony Moore slaps a medium tempo drum beat into place and I can picture myself cruising along the Pacific Ocean coastline, up PCH towards Pelican Beach.  Track 3 titled “That Cool Groovy Beatnik Jazz” has a killer bass line.  “Walking on Sunshine” (the only ‘cover’ tune) features Dave Koz on alto saxophone and has an infectious melody line that makes you want to sing the song title right off the bat.  Ray Fuller’s rhythm guitar adds colors bright as fire flames.  The title tune has a very rock and roll feel, with Lenny Castro’s relentless percussion mastery beating the melody forward.  “Jedediah’s Gold” is enhanced with strings arranged by pianist, Tom Zink and spiced with Blue Grass flavors.  The tune “Baton Rouge” takes me to a blues joint in Louisiana and spotlights Nick Colionne on guitar.   This is a joyful ride down an open highway that marks Bromberg’s twenty-ninth album release as a bandleader.  You’ll enjoy every composition along the way.

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Marques Carroll, trumpet/flugelhorn/composer; Amr Fahmy, piano; Christian Dillingham, upright & electric bass; Greg Artry, drums; Brent Griffin, alto saxophone. SPECIAL GUESTS: Victor Garcia, congas; Alex Wasily, trombone; Sharon Irving, vocals.

Marques Carroll is a Chicago-based trumpeter, a fluid composer and an astute bandleader.  He has composed eight songs that celebrate the importance of recognizing your ancestral history, culture and family. 

“I have been a firm believer, throughout my life, that our elders and ancestors are the foundation to our beginning.  I have been fortunate to have had so many of these great spirits in my life show who lead the way for me in my darkest hours and in my brightest moments,” Marques affirms.

Marques Carroll opens with “The Ancestors’ Call upon Us,” arranged in an African 6/8 tempo with special guest, Victor Garcia adding congas that fatten the mix.  Marques has composed this song to reflect an old man’s pathway of life, with the drums calling him (like ancestor voices) and the melody leading him up a pathway to his destiny.  Carroll believes it is the ancestor wisdom that helps us all master the art of living.  As he blows his trumpeted melodies, fat with knowledge and wisdom, his wish is that these compositions uplift and inspire communities to work together.  His songs reflect unity and the determination to fight injustice.  This is the theme of his musical gifts.  The Carroll composition titles encourage “Generational Response” and to “Assemble the Enlightened.” Greg Artry on drums catches every lick and nuance in the arrangement for “Assemble the Enlightened.”  It’s a highly energetic, exciting arrangement.  “Beyond the Battle” is more Avant-Garde and indeed, sounds like a battle during the intro, until it settles down into a pulsating, rhythm-driven, very melodic groove, harmonically led by Carroll’s trumpet and Brent Griffin’s alto saxophone.  Amr Fahmy’s piano solo is sweetly provided, like warm, caramel icing poured over a Bundt cake, while Griffin’s improvisational sax solo is spicy.  The master composer and bandleader, Marques Carroll takes a spirited horn solo and then he and Griffin play a duet, answering each other as though they are conversating.  On the tune, “Urgency” you can hear the spontaneous merging of these musicians, using Latin influence to engage the listener.  I felt like I was in Spain at a bull fight when this composition played.    Sharon Irving’s vocals on “Aires Goddess” is beautiful and powerful.  She encourages us to fly away, fly away and rise above.  She interjects a brief spoken word to sum up the premise of this project, in between her vocalization. The ensemble closes with a reminder that “The Ancestors’ Final Words” are worth paying attention to and treasuring.

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Andre Ferreri, guitars/composer; Mark Stallings, piano/B3 organ; Sean Higgins & Phillip Howe piano; Ziad Rabie, tenor saxophone; Kobie Watkins, drums; Anna Stadlman, acoustic bass; Brad Wilcox, trumpet.

Guitarist, Andre Ferreri, has assembled a quintet that swings.  Based in Charlotte, North Carolina, Andre is first call guitarist with the Charlotte Symphony and he’s co-founder of Laser Records.  His “Numero Uno” sounds just like a number one on the jazz charts.  It’s joyful music, spurred by the extraordinary musicians in his ensemble.  This is traditional, straight-ahead jazz at its best and Andre Ferreri has composed every song.  Each composition is well-written and allows space for his musicians to feature their talents.  Sean Higgins brings fire and excitement to the piano on the opening tune, “Mighty Fine.” Ziad Rabie lends his tenor saxophone richness to the mix, introducing us to the melody and expanding on it.  Andre Ferreri named his group the Italian version of quintet, because the project has a Euro-Italian feel to it and he is paying homage to both his heritage and the inspiration he found during time spent in Italy.  He brings us, in both his compositions and talents on the guitar, a love of bebop, trad jazz and swing.  There’s nothing better for my ears!   Anna Stalman steps into the spotlight on this premiere swing tune, playing her double bass, she walks all over this tune in a very pleasing way.  Kobie Watkins, on drums, drives the piece like a 16-wheeler and shows off his trap drum mastery.  He’s played with everyone from Kurt Elling and Arturo Sandoval to Sonny Rollins.  As a seasoned jazz veteran, with deep roots in his home state of New York, Andre Ferreri and his ‘quintetto’ bring us a powerful presentation and interpret his compositions flawlessly.  This group puts a capital ‘E’ in EXPLOSIVE!

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Tim Mayer, tenor, soprano saxophone & alto flute; Rodney Whitaker, bass; Ulysses Owens Jr., drums; Anthony Stanco, trumpet; Adam Rongo, alto saxophone; Tony Lustig, baritone saxophone; Michael Dease, trombone; Miki Hayama & Emmet Cohen, piano.

From the very first track on this album titled, “Big P” Tim Mayer establishes the swinging, straight-ahead groove I love so much.  The horns come out blasting, in a big band style, and then Rodney Whitaker struts out on his double bass, locks horns with Ulysses Owens on drums and Miki Hayama’s piano completes the tight and supportive rhythm section.  Whitaker, a bassist I have long admired, steps into the spotlight and takes a noteworthy solo, sparked by tasty horn licks in the background. Diego Rivera has written all the octet arrangements.  “Big P” is a smokin’ hot arrangement and sets the tone for this awesome album of jazz.  “Bye Bye Blackbird” features a trio performance with Tim Mayer picking up his soprano saxophone to sing the melody, then engaging a meaningful and creative conversation with both Whitaker on bass, before trading fours with Owens on drums towards the end of the tune.  That’s when Ulysses is happy to show us his tenacious abilities on the trap drums.  The Cedar Walton composition, “Hand in Glove” is played at a speedy tempo and features the horns flying and the rhythm section, spurred by the drums of Ulysses Owens.  When the curtain’s part, to feature Miki Hayama’s piano, you hear her rich technique and inspired creativity.  “Blame it on My Youth,” a favorite standard of mine, gives Tim Mayer an opportunity to introduce us to his smoky tenor saxophone.  When Whitaker sings this beautiful melody on his double bass, he starts by reaching up to the top of the strings.  Later, Rodney improvises his way down to the richness at the bottom of his instrument, duetting with Mayer’s tenor in an extraordinary way.  This album is lusciously creative.  Mayer has written two compositions for this release.  “Blues by Four” is Track 5 and “Get Organized” is Track 8. The “Blues by Four” is joyful with a catchy melody.  The horns take this opportunity to harmonize and punch the groove; Anthony Stanco on trumpet, Adam Rongo on alto saxophone and Tony Lustig on baritone sax, along with Michael Dease on trombone.  Tim Mayer’s tenor solo gets busy and the other cats support this tune with wonderful choruses, fluidly written by Rivera.  His arrangements make the octet sound like a big band. Their production of Coltrane’s familiar “Naima” tune is fresh and is one of Tim Mayer’s personal arrangements for this date.  He reinterprets this beautiful composition in a fresh way, letting the band trade fours and giving each musician an opportunity to shine and showcase their talents. 

This collection of music is spirited, spontaneous and emotional.  It reminds us of what a talented woodwind player Tim Mayer is and it tributes some of his jazz heroes from past generations.  He refers to them, and perhaps to his current octet in his album title, “Keeper of the Flame.”    This music is burning hot and will light you up, swing hard, put your feet to the fire and warm your heart.

Here is a sample of his saxophone style from his last CD release, “Resilience.”

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Alex Conde, piano/arrangements; John Santos, percussion; Jeff Chambers, bass; Colin Douglas, drums; Sergio Martinez, cajon/djembe; mike Olmos, trumpet; Jeff Narell, steel pan; Jose Luis de la Paz, guitar.

This is my first time hearing a tribute to Bud Powell, illuminating his compositions with Latin fusion excitement.  Bandleader, Alex Conde, is a Spanish pianist who has boldly reimagined the brilliant Powell’s bebop music with soulful Caribbean colors and percussive richness.   All the while, Alex Conde shows off his amazing piano ‘chops’ and tenacious technical mastery of his instrument.  His piano playing is provocative and emotional.  He dedicates this album to the fathers of jazz, the Black American composers who created this music and who, he has admired for many decades.   This work of art is the second in a series he calls, “Descarga.”  The first one was released in 2015, a “Descarga for Monk” on the Zoho label.  On this current release, Conde transforms the familiar compositions by Bud Powell into various Latin arrangements.  “The Fruit” becomes a Buleria.  “Oblivion” is a joyful Tango, and one of my favorites. 

“Bouncing with Bud” is an Alegria, “Dusk in Saudi” is a Solea and “Wail” is a Calypso that made me dance in my desk chair.  On “Parisian Thoroughfare” Alex Conde’s fingers move swiftly, reminding me of a piece of Bach I used to play years ago.  It’s very jazzy, but with classical overtones strongly resonating.  “Hallucinations” is a title that resonates with the legendary history of Bud Powell’s mental struggles that kept him going in and out of psyche wards for years.  Jeff Chambers is given an opportunity to solo on his bass and John Santos brightly lights the stage with his percussive licks.  “Celia” is arranged as a bright and bubbly Buleria.  This is music that explores Powell’s brilliance, but also showcases the sparkle and genius of Alex Conde and his band of wonderful musicians.  They bring a fresh perspective to jazz music with their own cultural beauty.

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Kendall Carter, organ; Dave Stryker, guitar; Kenny Phelps, drums.

I love a great organ trio. Kendall Carter is a new organist on the block and he’s added the dynamic Dave Stryker on guitar along with Indianapolis drummer, Kenny Phelps slapping the rhythm in place.  Kendall Carter has been making a name for himself in the Midwest of the country as a jazz organist.  He received a master’s degree in jazz composition and arranging from the University of Louisville in Kentucky; so, he puts that training to use during this debut recording.  The trio opens with “Blame It on the Boogie,” transforming the Michael Jackson hit record to a jazzier rendition of Jackson’s original pop hit.  They add shuffle drums and a swing groove.  I think the engineer had a little trouble mixing and mastering this project.  Aside from that, this first cut comes out the gate full speed ahead.  I didn’t care for the drums on “Afro Blue.”  I missed the strong 6/8 feel that both Carter and Stryker were playing.  Phelps was just busy instead of holding down the Afro-Cuban beat.  But Kendall Carter showed off his skills on the organ. 

When Carter isn’t recording or gigging, he serves as Minister of Music at the Greater Faith Church of Deliverance in Louisville.  He brings his strong gospel roots to the studio on tunes like “The Masquerade is Over” and “That’s All.”  Their arrangement on the latter is fresh and swings hard.  On track 4, Stryker opens up Kenny Dorham’s “Short Story” composition, letting his guitar sing the melody and then veering off to explore the path of improvisation.  When Carter steps onto the exploratory path, he shows off his organ skills.  This is followed by the trading of fours, that brightly spotlight Kenny Phelps’ brilliance on drums.  They’re back to that old familiar shuffle groove on Lee Morgan’s “Speedball” tune and Phelps holds them tightly in that groove, locking into Carter’s organ rhythm and Stryker’s bluesy guitar.  What I miss is that walking bass line that Jimmy Smith used to do so well, stomping his busy feet across the organ pedals.  However, that missing walking bass line takes a little of the excitement out of this production. I take this CD off of one of my players and put it onto another.  That’s when I realize it’s the engineer or the mastering technician that lost the important foot-pedal bass line, because it’s there.  Kenny Carter is doing his job. “The Masquerade is Over” quickly becomes one of my favorite ‘cuts’ on this album, although I do hear some distortion.  Yes, I think the problem is at the feet of the engineer.  On the whole, this is a strong debut for organist, Kendall Carter and his swinging trio.  I look forward to hearing much more from this talented organist.

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Wadada Leo Smith, trumpet; Milford Graves, drums/percussion; Bill Laswell, basses.

This is a project that Wadada Leo Smith and Bill Laswell dedicate lovingly to Milford Graves, who passed of heart failure in 2021, due to amyloid cardiomyopathy.  He was diagnosed in 2018.  This music was recorded between 2015 and 2016.  A deeply admired musician and man of the community, Graves was not only a respected drummer, but a healer, an herbalist, an acupuncturist and a martial artist.  In 1964, he recorded the now historic studio session with poet, Leroi Jones, who later adopted the name Amiri Baraka.  Amiri was reciting his poem, “Black Dad Nihilismus.”  This distinguished drummer’s given name was Ron Wynn and his skill on the percussive instruments embraced a deep knowledge of African drumming and East Indian drumming.  He studied the Tabla from Wasantha Singh and was one of the glitziest and most animated drummers of the ‘free mode’ style.  Milford Graves is the recipient of the DownBeat International Award and the Critics Award.  He also received the national Endowment for the Arts grant and was honored with a Guggenheim Fellowship.[1] A documentary was released in 2018 called, “Full Mantis.” 

Believe it or not, Graves took the Guggenheim Grant money and invested in laboratory equipment to do heartbeat research in his Jamaica, Queens basement.  In 2017, he co-invented a process that can repair stem cells using heartbeat vibrations, for which he was awarded a patent.

This is a 3-CD box set.  The first disc is a duo between Wadada Leo Smith on trumpet and Milford Graves on drums and percussion.  They create very spiritual music together.  The Avant-garde, spiritual percussionist joins talents with Wadada Leo Smith, also a master musician, trumpeter, educator and one of the early members of Chicago’s historical AACM collaborative.  Wadada created his own music language and music philosophy. He has composed all the music for this duo suite with Milford Graves called Nyoto: Parts 1-3.  It’s an enchanting excursion into melody, space and time.  The 5th track is written by both Graves & Smith titled “Celebration Rhythms.”  The starkness of just trumpet and rhythm is both engaging and beautiful. They also collaborated on composing the 6th track, “Poetic Sonics.” Wadada Leo Smith pulls the tones out of the bell of his horn like thick strands of sweet taffy.  Milford Graves chops the strands up with his drum sticks and adds to the sweetness; tastes the flavor; spices up the improvised notes of Wadada Leo Smith as only Milford Graves can; cayenne pepper hot. 

Disc 2 features barrier-breaking, electric bassist Bill Laswell with seven ceremonial compositions that celebrate everyone from Prince to Tony Williams; from Minnie Riperton to Donald Ayler.  Once again, Wadada Leo Smith has composed four of the seven songs and co-written the other three with Bill Laswell.  Laswell, a Detroiter who moved to NYC in the late 1970s, made a name for himself combining rock influenced electronic experimentation and improvisation on his bass.  As a producer, he is best known for his collaborations with Herbie Hancock and their Grammy-award winning single, “Rockit” on the album “Future Shock.”   Laswell has produced albums for Mick Jagger, Yoko Ono, The Last Poets and Pharoah Sanders.  Musically, he has participated as a performer with several groups and released two solo bass recordings.  Disc 3 combines the talents of these three innovative and spiritually inspired jazz artists, culminating their path to “Sacred Ceremonies” by sharing their spiritual and musical discoveries with us along the way.

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Lorraina Marro, vocals; Steve Rawlins, piano; Grant Geissman, guitar; Jennifer Jane Leitham, bass; Steve Pemberton, drums; Dr. Bobby Rodriguez, trumpet; Rickey Woodard, tenor saxophone.

Vocalist Lorraina Marro has gathered ten lovely and memorable songs for this, her third CD release.  I became fascinated by her choice of repertoire.  For example, she introduces me to “I’m Not Alone” by Ivan Guimaraes Lins, Victor Martins & Will Jennings. It’s a Latin tinged ballad that lyrically praises a strong relationship, both in person and in memory.  It’s a poignantly beautiful song and features a lovely solo by Grant Geissman on guitar.  Another gem is the Arthur Hamilton tune, “Rain Sometimes,” that I had never heard and thoroughly enjoyed, with lyrics like:

 “…There’ll be Champagne sometime, Lobster flown from Maine sometime; we’ll ride the gravy train sometime, just you wait and see” are such great storytelling words.

Steve Rawlins is a sensitive and competent accompanist on this project and also arranges many of the songs.  Ms. Marro has surrounded herself with some of the best players in Southern California like Rickey Woodard on tenor saxophone, Dr. Bobby Rodriguez on trumpet, Jennifer Jane Leitham on bass and Steve Pemberton manning the drums.  The tracks are strong and compensate for this seasoned veteran’s uncontrollable tremolo that textures her voice.  She compensates for that with an emotional delivery that allows her sincerity to shine though.  I remember when the great Billy Eckstine had that challenge with his vocals. Lorraina Marro sings “Viajera Del Rio” and “Esta Tarde Vi Llover” in Spanish.  She also reminds us how much we love the Great American Song Book with tunes like “Stairway to the Stars,” and “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes.” 

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BRUCE HARRIS – “SOUNDVIEW” – Cellar Music Group

Bruce Harris, trumpet/composer; Sullivan Fortner, piano; David Wong, bass; Aaron Kimmel, drums; Samara Joy, vocals.

I love the very first cut and title tune, right off the bat!  Bruce Harris is someone Wynton Marsalis says is:

“One of the five young players you should know.”

I agree with Wynton!  With the assistance and support of producer, Jeremy Pelt, this up-and-coming trumpeter has embraced the Black American Songbook.  His goal is to showcase the voices of Black artists and composers like Track 2, “Satellite” by Gigi Gryce.  Gryce was a Black American reedman, arranger, composer and educator. 

He also chooses the music of the great Hank Mobley on “Hank’s Prank” that races onto the scene like a squad car in pursuit of run-away justice. The Bruce Harris trumpet is as bright and attention getting as a siren or the red and blue lights sparkling in the night. The beautiful Mercer & Malneck tune, “If You Were Mine” features the honey-sweet vocals of Samara Joy.  Harris also showcases a composition by Eubie Blake and A. Razaf that is absolutely beautiful titled, “You’re Lucky to Me.”  Harris’ trumpet glides smoothly across the melody like an Olympic skater.  Sullivan Fortner’s piano improvisation is thoughtful and creative, sometimes reminding me of the Thelonious Monk style, but Sullivan is always his own man.  David Wong has a strong bass voice and asserts it during his solo in the spotlight.  This fantastic quintet also celebrates Duke Ellington during a suite of the bandleader’s music.  They delve into Avant-garde music half way through and drag us by the ear to the ‘outside’ of the music. They also tribute Barry Harris, playing his “Bird of Red and Gold,” enhanced by Samara Joy’s lyrical interpretation. She is the Sarah Vaughan Competition Champion and has a voice that caresses each note and clearly enunciates each word and meaning.  Bruce Harris interjects his horn tastily, coloring the production delicately as they deliver “the almighty’s gift to you.” They close with “Saucer Eyes” by Randy Weston and it’s a fitting closure to a beautifully produced and executed album of unforgettable jazz.  Aaron Kimmel is given an opportunity to solo on his trap drums and he lifts the music exuberantly.  I liked this group so much; think I’ll play this CD again.

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May 26, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil

May 26, 2021


Noah Haidu, piano; Buster Williams, bass; Billy Hart, drums.

“Slowly: Song for Keith Jarrett” is a masterpiece.  First of all, this trio is magnificent, each individual member a musician and composer.  They bring to this project, not only the best on their instruments, but their vivid memories of the legendary Keith Jarrett.  The first song, “Air Dancing” was composed by Buster Williams and I never wanted it to end.  It was incredibly beautiful. 

This project was imagined when the news broke that our beloved piano genius, Keith Jarrett, was retiring due to a pair of debilitating strokes. 

“When I heard about Keith, I was profoundly moved and I started to envision the recording with Billy and Buster, as a kind of musical response to these events and Keith’s body of work,” Noah Haidu shared.

“My father and I had a tradition of going to hear Jarrett together for several years running,” recalls Noah Haidu.  “My dad, who was largely responsible for introducing me to jazz, passed away a week before Keith’s final concert.  Dad and I had been planning to attend that show together, but his illness came on quite suddenly and a few weeks before the end, he handed me the tickets and said, you’d better find someone else to go with.  No one knew, at the time of the concert, that it would be Keith’s final performance.  Attending that concert was one of the ways I was able to mark dad’s passing and start a new chapter in my own life.  My seventeen-year marriage came to an end and I refocused my energies on performing and recording with my own group,” Noah Haidu gave us a peak into his amazing love for Keith Jarret and his life in jazz, the music his father first introduced to him.

“Duchess” is a composition by phenomenal drummer, Billy Hart.  It is Track 2 on this splendid recording that was postponed because of the COVID19 pandemic and rescheduled for a studio recording in late November, 2020.  At that point, COVID’s second surge was well underway. 

“We decided not to put off the session a second time,” says Haidu.   “… We put on our masks and played our hearts out.”

The standard jazz song made unforgettable by the great Dinah Washington, “What A Difference A Day Makes” is included in this recording, skipping along at a moderate, swing pace and showcasing the close mesh of these musicians.  Each individual is shining, as part of a tightly woven and intricate trio.

And what a difference 2020 made for Noah Haidu.  He is one of the first rising star pianists to address the remarkable legacy of pianist Kenny Kirkland on his album, DOCTONE, also released on Sunnyside Records.  Doctone was a reference to Kenny Kirkland’s nickname.  It made Noah the first jazz artist to be released in tandem with a documentary film and a book.  Billy Hart was the drummer on that historic and highly praised album.  Hart was also Kenny Kirkland’s drummer of choice. 

At age nineteen, young Noah was studying at Rutgers University with great pianist, Kenny Barron. After two years of college, Haidu left academia and moved to Brooklyn to pursue gigging and practicing.  His dream was to become an accomplished jazz pianist.  In 2011 he was heralded as a ‘rising star’ in JazzTimes magazine.  DownBeat Magazine has singled him out as an ‘innovative composer.’ Looks like his dreams are manifesting.

Buster Williams and Billy Hart were fledgling musicians when the late, great Betty Carter scooped them up back in 1969 to work a Chicago concert with her.  Both have played on classic albums by Miles Davis, but when they joined Herbie Hancock and Bennie Maupin’s sextet, Mwandishi, they toured and recorded together for four years.  So, they know each other very well, both personally and musically.  Each musician is widely praised for their amazing work in both acoustic and electric jazz, as well as being major composers and bandleaders of their own ensembles.  Billy Hart just turned eighty years old within a few days of this recording and Buster Williams just turned seventy-nine on April 17th

To join their seasoned dreams with Noah Haidu’s more current ones is pure enchantment.  The trio creates a treasured and everlasting tribute to Keith Jarrett, but also to the legacy of three incredibly talented musicians.  You hear their fervor and ingenuity on “Georgia,” a slow bluesy arrangement that pulls every drop of beauty from the song.  They also deliver over twelve minutes of awesome music when they play Jarrett’s composition, “Rainbow,” giving both Hart and Williams time to flavor the arrangement with their memorable solos.  “Slowly” was composed by Noah Haidu and dedicated to Jarrett’s solo piano style.  Perhaps the most prolific and encouraging words that Haidu received during this session came from the lips of the wise, Buster Williams.  After they completed the recording of “Air Dancing” Williams gave the younger musician some fatherly advice.

“You’re doing a beautiful job, but this time, just go for anything you hear. Don’t worry about downbeats and playing every chord.  Billy and I got that covered,” Buster assured him.

As I listen to this recording, I can tell Noah Haidu did just that.  The result is rich, beautiful, sincere and freeing.  This piece of art is technically judicious and jazzily improvisational, with a warm nod to the man, Keith Jarrett, and his unforgettable, musical gift to the universe.

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Dara Tucker, vocals/arranger/composer; Cyrus Chestnut & Sullivan Fortner, piano/Fender Rhodes/arranger; Dezron Douglas & Vincente Archer, bass; Johnathan Blake, drums; Joe Dyson, drums/tambourine; Giveton Gelin, trumpet; John Ellis, tenor & soprano saxophone/horn arrangements.

Here is a voice that is pleasing, tonally beautiful and emotionally connected to each lyric she sings.  I was so happy to hear Dara Tucker, who has picked a bouquet of songs that sweetly encourage and colorfully protest in the same intoxicating breath.  Opening with James Taylor’s “Secret O’ Life” tune, with arrangements that are creative and fresh.  Track 2 she pays homage to Stevie Wonder with his “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” composition.  I found the chord changes to be interesting, but not necessarily supportive of Stevie’s original melodic idea.  Never mind!  Dara Tucker sang the song flawlessly, no matter what Sullivan Fortner played.  One of my favorite songs is Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free.”  She is full of electricity and emotional energy on this one.  Her original composition, “Do We Sleep?” is a very beautiful ballad with a thought-provoking lyric.  Dara Tucker’s voice floats effortlessly across space, a golden bird in flight, leaving a trail of music for us to enjoy.  Her songs give voice to social justice issues, drawing compositions from the 1960’s and 70’s.  This collection of compositions, with lyrical importance, sum up the title of this album and call on humanity to wake up and to change.  Each hand-picked song encourages us to be better and to do better.  You will enjoy popular songs like “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and Bacharach & David’s “What the World Needs Now is Love.”  She reinvents Carole King’s “You’ve Got A Friend” and the traditional gospel song and slave anthem, “Wade in the Water” (arranged by David M. Rodgers) is very jazzy with a spectacular bass solo by Dezron Douglas.  Her vocals refresh standard jazz songs from the American Song Book like “Make Someone Happy” and Marvin Gaye’s pop anthem, “What’s Going on?” in a timeless way.   The ‘Marvin’ message is important all these years later.  Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s in Need of Love Today” is arranged in a fresh and inventive way.  This is a vocalist to watch on her upward rise.  She has the talent, the voice and the delivery to make a difference.

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Nick Finzer, trombone/composer; Dave Meder, piano; Quincy Davis, drums; Eric Hitt, bass; Lucas Pino, saxophone.

At the beginning of 2020, just as the pandemic was getting a foothold in the United States, trombonist, Assistant Professor of Jazz Trombone and bandleader, Nick Finzer, was prepared to release his album project titled, “Cast of Characters.”  Then came the lockdown.  He had just booked a concert tour and the group managed to perform this one “live” show and record it for video and EP release before most of his dates were cancelled.  Consequently, this digital EP and Video Production celebrates songs from his 2020 album, finally released this year. The entire production takes place before a responsive audience, with the music making a few unique twists and turns. 

They open with “A Sorcerer … Is a Myth” with Lucas Pino soaring on saxophone while the ensemble experiments with mixed meters. It begins dirge-like and develops more energy when Pino solos.

“Sorcerer is all about the inner journey we go on, through our artistic development,” explains Finzer.

“Evolution of Perspective” is a more straight-ahead tune and Quincy Davis fuels this tune with percussive energy on trap drums.  Once again, Pino soars on sax and invigorates the production.  He and Finzer are the original members of the “Cast of Characters” Project.  When Nick Finzer steps into the spotlight, only Eric Hitt backs him up on double bass.  It’s a very dynamic moment and showcases Finzer’s complete mastery of his trombone.  When Davis adds drums and Dave Meder starts comping on piano, they build the bebop energy.  Finzer flies on his trombone, a wild bird taking full advantage of his improvisational moments in space.  Dave Meder is given a piece of sky to explore the eighty-eight keys.  Both Dave and Quincy are a part of the faculty at University of North Texas, celebrated for their amazing jazz program and gifted professors.  Experienced student, Eric Hitt, doesn’t miss a beat on the bass.  His fast-walking string bass locks in tightly with the Quincy Davis drums.  This is an entertaining EP and I’m sure that once you get to view the video simultaneously, “Live from Denton” it will be like attending a well-played concert inside the comfort of your own home.  The digital EP released with Video on May 21, 2021.

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STEVE COLE – “SMOKE + MIRRORS” – Mack Avenue Records

Steve Cole, tenor saxophone/synth bass; David Mann, keyboards/synth bass/drum programming/ tenor & baritone saxophone/flute/producer/horn arrangements; Bernd Schoenhart, guitar; Trevor Neumann, trumpet/flugelhorn; Mel Brown, bass/piccolo bass/bass fills; Mark Egan, bass; Todd Sucherman & Brian Dunne, drums; Ricky Peterson, organ.

Here is a smooth jazz production with all songs composed by Steve Cole and his longtime songwriting partner, musician, producer and arranger, David Mann. The tunes are well written and well-played by a host of stellar musicians who were corralled remotely from their homes during the pandemic quarantine.

“Everybody’s stuck at home,” Cole points out with a laugh. “There are a lot of musicians that I would love to work with, but it’s impossible because they’re always on the road.  So, there was a little silver lining in the fact that I could call old friends like Todd Sucherman (drummer) and Brian Dunne (drums), or amazing artists like Mark Egan (bassist), and they were actually available.”

“Smoke and Mirrors” is a magical album that is not meant to fool an audience with trickery or sleight-of- hand, but rather invites listeners to hear an intimate and personal reflection of Steve Cole’s true self. The two songwriter’s offer titles that invite you into their thought processes for this enjoyable, easy-listening experience.  Take the opening song, “Living Out Loud.”  It’s a joyful tune, propelled by Brian Dunne’s drums and spurred by Steve Cole’s tenor saxophone.  Track 2 is seductive, featuring a sexy bass line by Mel Brown and Bernd Schoenhart’s guitar strumming away beneath Cole’s melody line on tenor saxophone.  It’s titled “Loves me, Love’s Me Not” and the melody is as strong and memorable as that old saying.  I wish they had added vocals to sing that ‘hook’ line, but it’s still a very strong production.  “Covent Garden” is another composition with a melody that begs for lyrics. There’s one thing that endears me to this project and that’s the songwriters.  They offer us well-written compositions with strong melodies and great arrangements.  Steve Cole has a thin sound on his tenor saxophone, but it’s full of emotion and passion.  He knows how to sell these songs.  “It’s a House Party” is full of funk and will make you want to get up and get busy!  It has some very interesting chord changes and the breaks are arranged to snatch your attention and compliment the groove.  This album of music is just pure fun and solid enjoyment!

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DEE DANIELS – “THE PROMISE” – cellar Music Group/La Reserve

Dee Daniels, lead vocals/background vocals/string arrangements; Felton Offard & Bill Coon, guitar; Bobby Floyd, piano/Hammond B3 organ; Michael Mitchell, keyboards; John Toney & Tim Fullerton, bass; Y. L. Douglas, Randall Stoll & Dartagnon Gunn, drums; Dave Pierce Keyboard/synth programmer; Terry Frewer, string synth programmer; Sal Ferraras, percussion; John Clayton, string arrangement; Meredith Bates, violin 1; Serena Eades, violin II; Tony Kastellic, viola; Cristian Markos, cello; Evan Bates, contrabass; Tania Hancheroff, Steve Grisette, Amy Grissette  & Martha Lynn Smith, Doug Fleming, background vocals.

Dee Daniels’ is a compelling vocalist who touches the heart with her original, spiritually-based songs of compassion and Christianity.  This is a vocalist who has travelled worldwide on the wings of her talent.  She has performed in several countries overseas and recorded nine albums.  You could say that this soulful singer has led a blessed and charmed life.

“I have a wonderful family life, many dear friends, a successful career,” she shared in her liner notes.

When she expressed a need to travel to New York City to pursue and grow her career opportunities, her loving and supportive husband understood.  It was in autumn of 2011 that she left Vancouver, Canada and settled into a Brownstone smack dab in the center of Harlem.  Blessings flowed.  She recorded two CDs and was offered a teaching position at Queens College in the Vocal Master’s Program. Her name was buzzing all over New York City and she performed in all the major jazz venues.  Imagine how shocking it must have been to be diagnosed with breast cancer in October of 2014.  This album is the result of her spiritual growth and healing.  She returned to her gospel roots and as she fought the ‘big C,’ she rediscovered, through meditation, her gift of creative songwriting.  Dee Daniels was always a songwriter, but now, Beautiful compositions flow through her like water through a sieve.  They manifest themselves during the realization of this production.  You experience Dee Daniels, a vocalist who has sung R&B, jazz, and rock music professionally, return to her roots in gospel music.  These artistic and infectious songs mirror her journey through life and her rebirth into what her publicist labels, ‘Jazz Inspirational’ music.  Her four to five octave vocal range is in sparkling, good health.  Dee Daniels has written eleven soul-warming and inspirational songs.  Sharing them with the world, she hopes they will uplift and that her music becomes a healing balm to those who listen.  I found her musical journey very inspiring and her original music wonderfully communicable with peace and joy.

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Scatman Crothers, vocals/composer; Victor Feldman, piano/vibraphone/percussion; Mike Melvoin, piano/B3 organ; Ralph Humphrey & Earl Palmer, drums; Ray Brown & Dennis Belfield, bass; Arthur Adams & Al Ciner, guitar; Sherlie Mae Matthews, Dianne Brooks, Clydie King & Grace Cosgrove, background vocals.  Featuring the Tonight Show Horn Section: Reeds: Tommy Newson & Bill Green.  Trumpets: Snooky Young, Oscar Brashear, John Audino & Jimmy Zito. Trombones:  Chauncey Welsh & Ernie Tack.

Benjamin Sherman ‘Scatman’ Crothers(1910-1986) was a true star of stage, screen and television. Now, nearly forty years after his death, Panda Digital has released a CD of Scatman’s creative jazz exploration and a couple of original compositions.  Scatman first started performing, as a teenager, singing in clubs and drumming.  He wound up performing on Chicago’s speak-easy circuit in the latter part of the ‘Roaring 20’s.  You can hear the New Orleans jazz influence in the musical arrangement of his original composition, “Scatman’s.”

Then, in 1931, Crothers found himself hosting his own radio show on WFMK in Dayton, Ohio.  He became well known for scatting over instrumental tracks while broadcasting on-air. Billing himself as ‘Scat Man,’ he formed his own trio, ‘Scat Man and His Cats.’  They toured the Southern United States extensively.  In the composition I mentioned above, (Scatman’s) he is referencing his own ‘nick name.’  The lyrics of Crothers’ songs are positive and uplifting like “Still Going Strong.”  The Michael Dees’ love song titled “You’re Pretty,” features a lovely vibraphone solo by Victor Feldman.  In fact, this album is plush with super-star jazz musicians like bassist Ray Brown, Rock and Roll Hall Awardee, drummer Earl Palmer and featuring the entire Tonight Show horn section during their prestigious time on the Johnny Carson Show.

“Louie is Your Garbage Man” sounds like an Ike Turner production, with its strong R&B roots and pounding-heartbeat-tracks. This Crothers’ tune makes you want to dance. It’s actually a tribute to the garbage man character that Crothers played on that NBC television series, Chico and The Man

The arrangements on this entire recording project are ‘dated.’ It was produced by Andrew A. Melzer back in 1975.  Melzer also penned some of the songs.  You can hear shades of the Isaac Hayes-type music on some arrangements.  “Scoot on Over to Scat’s” is soaked in the disco tradition.  On this particular song, I’m reminded of the “Shaft” movie tracks.  Speaking of films, Scatman moved to Hollywood, California in 1943 and immediately landed work on a Paramount network TV show, “Dixie Showboard.”  In fact, this artist appeared in hundreds of television programs and movies. He was an in-demand actor.  Some of the motion pictures where he made his appearance are: The Shining, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Bronco Billy, Aristocats, The Shootist, Silver Streak, The Lady Sings the Blues, Scavenger Hunt and Transformers: The Movie.

On Track 7, “Stanley Does It All,” you hear shades of Bobby McFerrin’s unique style.  It features just Scatman Crothers with a percussive back-beat.  He sings a’cappela, with lyrics that tribute movie mogul Stanley Kubrick.  Crothers was part of the cast in the Kubrick production, “The Shining.”  I don’t know why the editor/producer of this project continuously goes back to what appears to be a theme song, “Still Going Strong.” It opens this project, it’s stuck in the middle and closes the album out. 

Crothers was honored with a star on the Hollywood Blvd Walk of Fame, right in front of the famed Egyptian Theater.  Perhaps this music could be used as a soundtrack for a tribute film documentary.  It would be the perfect accompaniment in celebrating this extraordinary man’s accomplishments in the entertainment business.  After all, in 1934, this African American artist appeared on the Cotton Club Stage and has been recording for labels like RCA, Capitol, Decca and even Motown over his lifetime.  He even was part of the cast in a short film called “Symphony in Black, that featured Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday. Scatman Crothers would go on to act in 45 more motion pictures.  Although the musicians creating the tracks for his music are legendary jazz players, this music sounds more like a soundtrack than a jazz album. Granted, this is an untold story that should be historically documented.

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Evan Arntzen, reeds, voice; Dalton Ridenhour, piano; Tal Ronen, bass; Mark McLean, drums; Arnt Arntzen, guitar/banjo; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Mike Davis, trumpet; Charlie Halloran, trombone. SPECIAL GUEST: Catherine Russell, vocals.

Evan Arntzen is a multi-reed player, a vocalist and bandleader.  This is his third album and it’s steeped in Dixieland styled, New Orleans jazz that celebrates its title, “Countermelody.”   All of this music is a collective of African American music emanating from the first half of the 20th century.  Arntzen debuts many of his own arrangements of early, popular New Orleans and Chicago jazz compositions including songs composed by historic composers like Bennie Moten, Sidney Bechet, King Oliver and Kid Ory.  He features special guest, Catherine Russell on vocals and Evan Arntzen also sings lead on the Sidney Bechet and Mary E. Karoley 1941 composition titled, “Georgia Cabin.” 

This ensemble celebrates the album title, “Countermelody” named for 3 reasons. One, the interplay and interaction of instrumental melodies that was made famous by music born in New Orleans. Two, it celebrates music coming out of the first half of the 20th century.  Third, the music was recorded ‘old school’ with all the musicians in the same room, spontaneously improvising and interacting freely with each other.  This album was recorded during the pandemic, a time when the world around these musicians was falling to pieces and they found togetherness in playing their swing music and blues. If you love Dixieland jazz and early, New Orleans musical history, you’ll be perfectly happy with this album of music. 

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Jalen Baker, vibraphone/composer; Paul Cornish, piano; Giveton Gelin, trumpet; Gavin Moolchan, drums; Gabriel Godoy, bass. STRINGS: Jessica McJunkins & Orlando Wells, violin; Andrew Griffin, viola; Susan Mandel, cello. Ulysses Owens Jr., producer.

In May of 2019, Jalen Baker performed in what appears to be a college concert.  His potential was sparkling even then.

“I wrote all of the music based on my life experiences with things such as racism, depression, heartbreak, career disappointments, success, triumph and healing.   … Nothing is unique to just me.  These are things most of us deal with and I want people to know that they’re not alone,” Jalen Baker explains why this album of music is so important to him.

As I listen, I conclude that Jalen Baker writes music as though he’s creating suites.  On the first song, “So Help Me God,” the tempo changes and arrangements sound as though there are various songs being played.  The outstanding part of this first seven-and-a-half-minutes of music is Baker’s beauty on his vibraphone.  His talent on vibes shines throughout.  We are introduced to his string section, to Giveton Gelin on trumpet and the inspirational Paul Cornish on piano during Track 1.  Jalen Baker has composed nine out of ten songs on this, his premiere album.  Track 2 is titled “Don’t Shoot” and it calls to mind Black Lives Matter and the protests against police shootings of black and brown people.  But the composition is so pretty, it doesn’t seem to express the title.  Jalen’s busy mallets on his vibraphone tell a story, but does that story depict the fear, outrage and strength of consciousness to represent a person shouting, “Don’t Shoot?”  For me, that title just doesn’t seem to match up with this original tune or arrangement.  “Healing” is a composition that enters like a chant on the breath of wind, with its repetitive theme.  In moments where Baker solos on his vibes, we are drawn into his music by his creativity and talent.  However, his melody on this song of “Healing” does not lend itself to familiarity or a song melody I would remember to sing.  During this composition, and most of the ones that follow, I find myself disappointed in the drums.  They don’t ‘root’ the music.  I keep wondering if it was the engineer’s fault?  Where are the cymbals?  Where’s the bass drum?  Where’s the two and the four?  Where are the percussive colors to enhance Jalen Baker’s brilliance on his vibraphone?

Paul Cornish is competent and creatively expressive on piano.  On the composition, “Faith,” his harmonics are tasteful and supportive.  This song offers a pretty melody and quickly becomes one of my favorites on this album.  Bassist, Gabriel Godoy, shimmers powerfully in the spotlight during a well-executed bass solo during this arrangement. “Patience” spotlights the string section and is quite beautiful, opening the curtains to expose Giveton Gelin’s trumpet prowess. When Jalen Baker enters on his vibes, the tenderness of what he plays intoxicates the moment.  He is a fluid improviser.  However, his compositions don’t always offer melodic structure to encourage the listener to sing, hum or recall his melodies.  When you hear a Hoagy Charmichael tune, or a Stevie Wonder composition or listen to Thelonious Monk’s music, you’re always struck by the amazing melodies they offer the listener.  Speaking of Stevie Wonder, who I believe is one of our great American composers, he has penned the final tune that Jalen Baker plays on this album. Wonder’s lyrically important and melodically prudent song, “Love’s in Need of Love Today” features Jalen Baker playing this one solo, in his own outstanding and inimitable way.  There is great potential in this musician and I’m certain we’ll be hearing much more from the talented vibraphonist, Mr. Jalen Baker.

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Masabumi “Poo” Kikuchi, piano/composer. (October 19, 1939 – July 6, 2015)

This Japanese, jazz pianist and composer was born in Tokyo and studied music at the Tokyo Art College High School.  His colorful life embraced work with legendary musicians like Lionel Hampton, McCoy Tyner, Mal Waldron, Elvin Jones, Miles Davis and Gary Peacock.  Always in search of perfection and freedom in his music, Masabumi Kikuchi, has a discography that reflects a wide range of styles from straight-ahead and post-bop to fusion, vanguard, classical jazz and synthesized music. He was awarded a scholarship to Berklee College of Music and played piano for Sonny Rollins.  He’s been a band leader, a sideman and featured guest on various albums over his decades of experimenting with improvisation, electronic music and new musical forms.  This is his final musical breath, in the studio at age seventy-five, recording “Hanamichi” that celebrates his mastery and joy playing the eighty-eight keys.

Opening with “Ramona” (written originally as a brisk Spanish waltz) he transforms the Mabel Wayne composition to a slowly played ballad, that sounds poignantly like “I’ll Be Seeing You” at certain places. He employs a languid tempo, along with his pedal use that echoes the tones, ringing brightly through the harmonics that over-lap and create resonating, humming overtones.  He appears to be obsessive at the sustain pedal.  You hear the way he plays with this pedal during his presentation of the Gershwin standard, “Summertime.”  He wrings the melody out of this song, very slowly and with much emotion.   Octaves are played by his wide-spread right hand.  Masabumi Kikuchi explores each song on this solo performance, pushing the boundaries of time, tempo and harmonics in his own improvised way.  He transforms “Summertime,” then “My Favorite Things” and finally, embarks on addressing his own, two original compositions, “Improvisation” and “Little Abi” written for his daughter.  “Poo” a nick-name he was called lovingly by close friends, exhibits the spirit of freedom and exploration that makes jazz so important to the world.

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May 14, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil

MAY 14, 2021

ADAM MOEZINIA blends folk-music with jazzy arrangements. OJOYO plays “Safrojazz,” richly embroidered into South African culture. AMBER WEEKES re-imagines and remixes an old studio project into something brand new.  HENRY “SKIPPER” FRANKLIN surrounds himself with some of LA’s jazz royalty to celebrate “Showers of Blessings.”  FRANCESCO AMENTA presents an international play on jazz and the KEITH BROWN TRIO highlights black music and “African Ripples.” Finally, FRANK MORELLI & KEITH OXMAN blend European classical music and hard-bop jazz in a unique and unusual way.


Adam Moezinia, guitar; Dan Chmielinski, bass; Charles Goold, drums.

Adam Moezinia has brought a fresh perspective to folk music, infusing his original folksy compositions with jazz improvisation in a very creative and unique way. He is richly supported by Dan Chmielinski on bass and the fiery Charles Goold on drums.  They open with the original composition, “Celebration” and the party begins! 

“I was going through a period of frequent writing when I realized that almost all of my compositions contained a certain element, the Folk Element; elements from more, simple, folk-based music, less commonly found in jazz.  From there, I started upon a sort of musical exploration, discovering for myself some of the different kinds of folk music from around the world.”

On Track 2, “School Daze,” Chmielinski steps to the front of the stage with an inventive solo.  The trio tackles the Duke Ellington tune, “Azalea,” arranged in a dirge-like manner at the top and then developing melodically into a beautiful flower.  It blossoms brilliantly before our ears.  They also add a Bob Dylan tune, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and the famed Robert Johnson blues song, “Come on In My Kitchen.”  Otherwise, Adam Moezinia has penned the remaining songs, except the traditional folk song “Lisa Lan.”   Moezinia’s style and grace on his guitar is well-executed and his composing talents shine.  This trio is sophisticated and intrinsically meshed together.  They fit like fish to water, each contributing talent as individuals, swimming closely together in perfect harmony.

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Morris Goldberg, saxophone/pennywhistle/composer; Anton Fig, drums; Bakithi Kumalo & Chulo Gatewood, bass; Tony Cedras & Richard Cummings, keyboards; Cyro Baptista, percussion; John Guth & Dan Carillo, guitar; Kofo, talking drum; Chris Botti & Diego Urcola, trumpet; Cecilia Tenconi, tenor saxophone.

From the first strains of a song called “Station Road Strut” I felt that I was in South Africa.  This music oozes the joy and happy spirit of the South African people.  When I picked up the press information on this group, the first sentence I read was:

“Saxophonist, penny whistle master and composer Morris Goldberg is perhaps best known for his association with Hugh Masekela.”

That explained it.  I was completely on point.  Not only did Goldberg work with Hugh Masekela, he himself was born in Cape Town.  “Ojoyo Plays Safrojazz” is a reissue of Morris Goldberg’s debut album, with overdubs by some amazing jazz musicians like Chris Botti on trumpet, keyboardist Tony Cedras and bass man, Bakithi Kumalo.  Drummer Anton Fig and percussionist Cyro Baptista boost the rhythm section and a number of other guest players add color and energy to this infectious music.  All nine songs are Goldberg originals and mirror his South African roots.  In his hometown of Cape Town, Morris pursued music early-on, with emphasis on blending African music with bebop.  He debuted his concept with pianist John Mehegan in 1959 and their recording was one of the first jazz sessions in South Africa.  Goldberg has recorded with the great Miriam Makeba and Harry Belafonte in the 1980s and was part of Paul Simon’s award-winning Graceland album.

This is music that instantly makes you happy and lifts your spirits.  Even though the music was originally recorded decades ago, it’s as lively, fresh and entertaining as it was then and maybe even more so. Since the composer has added so many new voices, they bring additional energy and vigor to his original project.  It’s like the already beautiful mansion of music got a fresh coat of paint.

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Amber Weekes, vocals; Danny Grissett, piano; Eddy Olivieri, piano/organ; Trevor Ware, Bass; Sherman Ferguson, drums; Phil Upchurch & Greg Cook, guitars; Louis Van Taylor, tenor, soprano & alto saxophone/ alto flute/flute; Scott Steen, trumpet; Mark Cargill, producer/string arranger/conductor/violin/atmospheric sound design; Joey De Leon, percussion; Dwayne Benjamin, trombone; Nathaniel Scott, Hi-hat; Miller Pertrum, vibraphone; Lynne Fiddmont, background vocals; HANDCLAPS: Trevor Ware, Sherman Ferguson, Danny Grissett, Peter C. Ross & Amber Weekes.

Vocalist, Amber Weekes, purrs her way through this album.  This is a CD, fully remixed, remastered and reorchestrated from a promotional recording Amber and her all-star band made back in 2002.  She has gathered a bouquet of colorful torch songs to interpret.  They are songs that she has been coveting and longing to sing since childhood. 

Amber grew up surrounded by music.  Her father, the late Martin Weekes, was a jazz singer and trombonist who idolized Frank Sinatra. Her New York household was full of music. She heard Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson, Nat King Cole, Barbra Streisand and Shirley Bassey constantly spinning on their record player.  Young Amber started singing at age four, inspired by the music she heard and encouraged by her father.  There are a couple of up-tempo numbers that show you she can swing with the best of them, like “Lovers.” Additionally, she and the band open with a rousing rendition of “Hazel’s Hips,” penned by Oscar Brown Jr.  It sounds like we’re at a rollicking house party and richly enjoying ourselves.  The over-all arrangements on these songs are fantastic. Mark Cargill’s string arrangements add high quality to this project.  Of special note is the Thelonious Monk composition, ‘Round Midnight arranged by bassist Trevor Ware and pianist Eddy Olivieri.  It’s played with a sultry Latin rhythm and a recurring groove for the intro and at the fade that hypnotizes the listener.  Amber takes some improvisational twists and turns on this jazz standard that explore her range and technique, holding and performing some notes like a horn-player.   She blesses this album with her artistic rendition of the “Cristo Redentor” medley that includes “I Want Jesus to Walk With Me.”  Amber Weekes dedicates this album of well-produced, quality music to her family, her father, to romance and her New York City roots.

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Henry Franklin, bass/composer; Theo Saunders, piano/composer; Willie Jones, drums; Teodross Avery, tenor & soprano saxophone; Ryan Porter, trombone; Nolan Shaheed, trumpet/fugal horn; Benn Clatworthy, alto flute/composer; Najite Agindotan, percussion; Yaakov Levy, wooden flute.

When I see the name Henry ‘Skipper’ Franklin in the credits of any given music, I know the jazz will be quality and the product will be noteworthy.  “Showers of Blessings,” The Skipper’s latest CD release, is no exception.  The project opens with his whispered and percussive “Message to Marjorie” for a brief introductory 57 seconds.  It’s a prayerful nod to his late cousin.  The talented Najite Agindotan sparkles on percussion and Yaakov Levy introduces us to his illustrious wooden flute.  This is followed by Theo Saunder’s composition, “The Return of The Skipper.”  It’s a happy-go-lucky tune that dances across the space with a catchy melody and blues chord changes that invite improvisational solos of merit.  For example, Teodross Avery, on tenor saxophone, grabs the spotlight and our immediate attention with his tone and presence.  Ryan Porter’s trombone solo parts the curtains and marches stage front, followed by Nolan Shaheed’s innovative trumpet solo.  

On this recording, Henry Franklin fattens his trio sound with beautiful horn arrangements played by some of the best Southern California musicians available.  Theo Saunders lends his composer skills to the project, as well as his whimsical innovation on piano.  On McCoy Tyner’s pretty “Ballad for Aisha” you can appreciate the outstanding, intricate horn harmonics, arranged by reedman, Benn Clatworthy.  Franklin and his sextet give a respectful nod to the legendary McCoy Tyner, who sadly passed away in March of 2020.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, The Skipper (as we fondly refer to Henry Franklin) decided to record a project of music to celebrate events and people who have greatly impacted his life.  Not only did our country lose over half a million souls to the virus, we also faced a ‘Black Lives Matter’ moment, when several people of color, both brown and black, died at the hands of America’s city police.  Theo Saunders penned a composition to memorialize “Black Lives Lost.”  It features a heartfelt trumpet solo by Nolan Shaheed, whose popular recording studio was also the birthplace of this intimate album of music.  I enjoyed hearing Clatworthy pick up his alto flute and colorfully incorporate it into “The Valley of Search” arrangement.  Clatworthy always brings his best to every project and usually is playing saxophone.  This is a wonderful example of his woodwind diversity.  Henry Franklin takes a solo that digs deeply into the valley of his bass tones, displaying adroitness of his instrument and displaying why he is celebrated as a bass master. One of my favorites on this album is the Clatworthy composition, “Skipper Meets Pharoah” in celebration of two mighty musicians and their friendship over many memorable years.  The saxophone of Teodross Avery dances atop Franklin’s powerful, walking bass line and the always exciting Willie Jones III spurs the sextet straight-ahead on drums.  His trap drum solo shows us why he is an innovative, in-demand drummer both on sessions and on stage.  Another favorite of mine is “The Guardian” with its throwback theme and arrangement that reminds me of my teenage years and 1960 jazz, watching Art Blakey’s group in a smoke-filled coffee house called “The Minor Key” in Detroit. The closing tune is a Franklin composition titled, “Little Miss Laurie.”  It’s a Latin-flavored ending to a dynamic album of music.  With a cha-cha groove, Henry Franklin’s composition sprays joy from my CD player. 

This is just good, solid jazz from top to bottom; beginning to end.  You will want to slide this CD back into your player and listen to it time after time

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FRANCESCO AMENTA – “MIDTOWN WALK” – AMI (Amenta Music International)

Francesco Amenta, tenor saxophone; Cyrus Chestnut, piano; Kimon Karoutzos, bass; Gary Kerkezou, drums.

This album features an international ensemble of personalities.  The female drummer (Gary Kerkezou) and bass player (Kimon Karoutzos) are both natives of Greece.  Bandleader and composer, Francesco Amenta was born and raised in Northern Italy, but planted roots in New York City in 2017.  On this project, these three expats joined forces with American jazz pianist, Cyrus Chestnut and Grammy winning bassist, John Lee, who produced their album.  The result is a project of memorable jazz that celebrates Francesco Amenta’s composer talents and a blend of mixed cultures.  The compositions and cultures meet like old friends on this winding, international, music path.

“I loved studying traditional jazz styles in Italy and the Netherlands, but jazz is a style of music that always evolves and there’s no better place to hear a broad range of jazz styles than in New York City,” Francesco explains his move to the East coast of America.

Saxophonist, Francesco Amenta, has studied with some of America’s iconic jazz cats like Barry Harris at the Conservatory in Verona.  Then, at the American School of Modern Music in Paris, he was under the superb tutelage of Charles Lloyd and Johnny Griffin.  In constant search of perfection on his tenor saxophone, Francesco attended the prestigious Royal Conservatory in The Hague, Netherlands.  There he had the opportunity to study with Dave Liebman and Joshua Redman.  As a teenager, the young woodwind player was infatuated with the tone and style of Sonny Rollins.  Each original composition he has written for this, his second album release, was inspired by a person or event in his life.  One of this journalist’s favorite composition is titled, “Number 9” and was inspired by pianist McCoy Tyner.  He wrote it after Francesco attended a NYC concert and experienced the great composer and pianist in person. He was so moved, that Francesco Amenta wrote this modal composition.  Cyrus Chestnut shows off his piano chops on this tune and the quartet flies at a challenging pace, whipping the arrangement into a frenzy, then settling it down with Francesco’s melodic horn line and a cut-time-feel.  The energy of this song also reminds me of a Herbie Hancock composition.  At the fade, they give the drummer, Gary Kerkezou, several minutes to explore her drums and impress us she does! 

Francesco’s song, “06/22” is a sweet, sultry ballad and represents the day he first landed a gig as a bandleader in New York City. Unfortunately, it was also, the sad day his father died.  Francesco Amenta plays his tenor saxophone with much emotion and tenderness during this arrangement.  I am impressed by the changes and the pretty melody that weeps across the chords.  This becomes another favorite tune for this reviewer.  I enjoyed the bass solo by Kimon Karoutzos, who received his Master’s Degree in Jazz Double Bass at New York’s Manhattan School of Music.  Drummer, Gary Kerkezou also received her Master’s Degree at the same school of Music and is additionally adapt at playing violin. 

Francesco Amenta is a force of nature.  His music is like a breath of fresh air or a sunrise that paints the sky purple, orange and pink.  He is not only a colorful woodwind player, but a pianist and a blossoming composer.  His first album was the result of a soundtrack he wrote for a Dutch movie that became a part of the 2015 International Documentary Film Festival at Amsterdam.  it was titled, “Colors and Ties.” 

With the tinkling, upper-register piano accompaniment of Cyrus Chestnut, who tastefully enhances the quartet’s arrangement of the Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” composition, they end this album like a prayer on the lips of the wind, whispered from the bell of Francesco Amenta’s horn.

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Keith Oxman, tenor saxophone/composer; Frank Morelli, bassoon; Jeff Jenkins, piano; Ken Walker, bass; Todd Reid, drums.

What do you get when you put a classical bassoonist, chamber musician and educator together with a burnished tenor saxophonist steeped in jazz?  The result is “The Ox-Mo Incident.” This CD is an unexpected blend of America’s classical artform called jazz, flowering with improvisation, and the stricter, more classical European style of music.  The title tune, Track 5, quickly becomes one of my favorites on this unusual musical production.  It’s straight-ahead jazz, composed by Keith Oxman and enhanced by Jeff Jenkins on piano, Ken Walker’s walking bass and his strong double bass solo, along with tasty horn harmonics for saxophone and bassoon.  The two master players, Oxman and Morelli, open with a tune I used to love to hear Nancy Wilson sing on her original release with Cannonball Adderley’s group called, “Happy Talk.” 

This is followed by a theme from Sergei Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto number 2.  The familiar “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” (a Rodgers & Hammerstein composition) is performed as a slow swing.  In the blink of an eye, Track 6 is based on a theme from the third movement of Johannes Braham’s Symphony No. 3 and titled “three for Five.”  Clearly, you get the drift of this production.  It swings like a pendulum between classical familiarity to standard jazz and show tunes.  You will enjoy their take on “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” that I remember was quite popular in the 1950s.  I believe it was from a musical called “Kismet” and recorded by Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and a host of other pop and jazz celebrities. 

Frank Morelli studied at both the Manhattan and Juilliard Schools of Music and was awarded a doctorate by the Juilliard School. He’s made nine appearances at the revered Carnegie Hall as a soloist. His solo soars on “Stranger in Paradise,” letting the deep, richness of the bassoon highlight the melody.  I also enjoyed his interpretation on “Poor Butterfly.”

Keith Oxman’s style of playing embraces jazz styles like Sonny Stitt and Charles McPherson.  Based in Denver, Colorado, Oxman is an educator who encourages students at Denver’s East High School.  He’s collaborated with legendary names like Curtis Fuller, David Liebman and Houston Person.  When speaking of this unusual, but very successful collaboration he said:

“I’m not a classical player and Frank didn’t see himself as a heavy jazz guy, so between the two of us we were like the blind leading the blind in some ways.  But we were both thrilled with the results.  Frank is just an unbelievable musician.  I was really excited when he suggested this, even though jazz might not be his musical field, good musicians are good musicians.”

That says it all!

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Keith Brown, piano/Fender Rhodes/Synthesizers/composer/arranger; Dezron Douglas, acoustic & electric bass; Darrell Green & Terreon ‘Tank’ Gully, drums. SPECIAL GUESTS: Russell gunn, trumpet; Anthony Ware, tenor saxophone; Melanie Charles, Camille Thurman, vocals; Tamara Brown, background vocals; Cyrus Aaron, spoken word; Negah Santos, percussion.

Keith Brown uses this latest release as a musical diary to express his many moods, personal experiences, critical thinking and to exemplify how black music ripples out in a multitude of directions.  He uses spoken word, lyrical voicings and his trio arrangements to exemplify this premise.  Brown hopes his music will touch on the common, human experiences of his listening audience and reflect our commonality.

“I hope that the energy and soul we put into this recording gives … energy and uplifts the soul,” Brown says about his project goals.

“The more life that I live, the more I try to become more comfortable with the truth, whatever that truth may be,” he tells us.

Cyrus Aaron incorporates his spoken word offering on the opening composition; the title tune.  His words stand as an ‘Epigraph’ or summary theme of this project, lyrically bouncing atop the groove laid down by Brown’s trio.

“… Life and death, one synonym, wrecking balls that tie into pendulums, a swing-swung-set, destruction in motion … a distraction or an escape? Who you countin’ on?  My contribution spoken for and this train of thought, progress can be slowed down, but it cannot be stopped. This free hand and the free ride on this free land, free men.  Call it magic, call it ministry, call it music, ain’t it amusing how we chase a dream with no brakes?” Cyrus asks us in beautiful poetic form.

Track 2 speaks about “Truth and Comfort” as Keith Brown peels the melody from the sweet fruit of his composition.  Terreon ‘Tank’ Gully is expressive and creative on drums.  Dezran Douglas holds the rhythm section solidly together with the grip of his bass.  Track 3, “NAFID” is contemporary, energetic and rooted in modern jazz soil.  On the familiar, “Just You, Just Me” standard, Brown has created a brilliant arrangement with a solid funk base.  Douglas steps out of the background, where his creative, solid bass lines are holding this song together like Velcro and into the forefront for his memorable solo. Then comes Gully on a drum excursion that splashes color and dynamics all over this musical palette. Track 8, “Queen” is full of percussive excitement.  The drums bring strong ‘African Ripples’ to the forefront. The voices of Tamara Brown and featured vocalist Camille Thurman add beauty to this arrangement without lyrics. Camille’s amazing soprano sings bird-like above the track at unexpected intervals, while Brown’s piano excellence shines in the spotlight. Dedicated to his wife, this might be one of my favorite Brown compositions on this album of great music. This journalist is a big Stevie Wonder and Syreeta fan. It was wonderful to hear Brown’s inclusion of “I Wish That I Could Come Back as a Flower” featuring vocalist, Melanie Charles. Another favorite is “118 & 8th Street” so straight-ahead and in-your-face; melodic and percussive.   Each of Keith Brown’s arrangements and compositions surprises me in lovely ways, like opening presents on Christmas morning; you never know what you’ll get, but it’s always sweet.  I will be listening to this album time and time again.

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May 1, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil

MAY 1, 2021

As people rush to get a COVID vaccine pumped into their arms and pray for a cure, the disease continues to ravage the world. Musicians from all over the continents have continued to use the healing power of music, not only to entertain, but to bring people together.  Some examples of music that was born out of this pandemic are listed below. ARTURO O’FARRILL & THE AFRO LATIN JAZZ ORCHESTRA is a testament to resilience and determination, recorded ‘Online’ between April through October of 2020, during one of the worst worldwide pandemics in the history of humanity.  O’Farrill brought together musicians from all over the world to inspire us. REBECCA KILGORE is praised by some as one of the most prolific vocalists on today’s jazz scene and a master of delivering songs from the Great American Songbook.  Italian guitarist/composer, GABOR LESKO, brings fusion jazz into the spotlight.  THE SPIKE WILNER TRIO is a product of SmallsLIVE Foundation and I also review Chicago pianist, PAUL BEDAL.  MADRE VACA is an Avant-garde group and so is SATOKO FUJII’S TOKYO TRIO. VINCENT HERRING’S quartet brings hard bop and straight-ahead jazz to the forefront and ALCHEMY SOUND PROJECT uses music to celebrate nature and hopefully, to bring peace to a world in chaos.


Arturo O’Farrill, piano/conductor; Bam Bam Rodriguez, upright bass/elec. bass/karkabas; Vince Cherico, drums; Keisel Jimenez, conga drums; Carly Maldonado, bongo drums/bell/guiro/cajon/doumbek/timbales. SAXOPHONES: Alejandro Aviles, alto & soprano saxophones/flute; Adison Evans, alto saxophone/flute; Roman Filiu, alto Saxophone; Ivan Renta, tenor & soprano saxophones; Jasper Dutz, tenor sax/clarinet; Jeremy Powell & Livio Almeida, tenor saxophone; Larry Bustamante, baritone saxophone/ bass clarinet. TRUMPETS: Seneca Black, Bryan Davis, Adam O’Farrill, Walter Cano, Rachel Therrien & Kai Sandova. TROMBONES: Rafi Malkiel, euphorium; Mariel Bildsten, Abdulrahman Amer, Xito Lovell, Ben Barnett, Earl McIntyre, bass trombone/tuba; James Rogers, bass trombone. SPECIAL GUESTS: Malika Zarra, voice; Gili Sharett, bassoon; Ghazi Faisal Al-Mulaifi, guitar/voice; BOOM DIWAN: Sulaiman Mayouf Mejally, Abdulaziz Al-Hamli, Abdulwahab Al-Hamli, Khaled Bunashi; Ghanem Salem, percussion; Paquito D’Rivera, alto saxophone; Richard Miller, guitar; Everton Isidoro, cuica/pandeiro/caxixi; Gustavo Di Dalva, atabaque.

The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra opens with an energetic, rhythm propelled composition called “Gulab Jamon.”  That title is a combination of Arturo O’Farrill’s two favorite, spicy cuisines; Indian and Spanish. 

This album is a testament to resilience and determination, recorded ‘Online’ between April through October of 2020, during one of the worst worldwide pandemics in the history of humanity. Players contributed from New York, New Jersey, California, Puerto Rico, Quebec, Brazil, Peru, Spain, France, Switzerland, the UK, Abu Dhabi and Kuwait.  This “Virtual Birdland,” project is meant to be a candle in the darkness, that illuminates what is possible when good people come together to create beauty and understanding in the world.  Although 2020 was a year that will go down in history as one of misfortune and misgiving, these musicians joined from all over the world, coming together in unity and creativity to inspire us.

“The inspiration came from thinking about water and how it can exist in many forms, but is essentially the same.  We should see humanity as existing in many forms but being of the same essence.  We do not dilute our essence when we embrace others,” Arturo O’Farrill advised.

The composition, “Pouvoir” (that translate to power in French) and is written by a Moroccan artist, Malika Zarra. It incorporates Chaabi, a traditional style of North African dance music.  Malika currently resides in France.  I love the African chanting voices and Malika’s sweet lead vocal. 

“Nightfall” is an up-tempo arrangement.  This percussive-driven arrangement soars towards the end of this song and made me leave my desk to dance freely around the room. Those percussionists set this composition on fire.

Track 5 is a piece that represents global cooperation, as described by Arturo O’Farrill.  Composed by Ghazi Faisal Al-Mulaifi from Kuwait, it’s titled, “Ana Mashoof” and was originally performed in Abu Dhabi during a concert called ‘Cuba Meets Khaleeji.’   During this arrangement you will experience the Boom Diwan, a band of expert percussionists and a blend of Middle Eastern music with the Afro-Latin Jazz orchestra, bringing together American & European musicians with their Middle Eastern counterparts.

Paquito D’Rivera’s “Samba for Carmen” was written for jazz vocalist, Carmen McRae and arranged by Maestro Chico O’Farrill. This tune ‘swings’ and features Paquito, who is one of the most awesome clarinetists of our time.

Arturo O’Farrill is celebrated as a musical activist and a humanitarian who is always looking for resources to support his creative community.  He’s also a dynamic pianist.  His rich, exciting arrangements and tenacious piano playing infuse every second of this project.  Perhaps he summed it up best by saying:

“When… this pandemic happened, this time of national and global reckoning, we were blindsided and even though the sky seemed like it was falling, we rose up and were determined to play music and heal others.  This recording is proof that we are interconnected globally, even when we are not allowed to leave our homes.”

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Rebecca Kilgore, vocals; Randy Porter, piano; Tom Wakeling, bass; Dick Titterington, cornet.

Rebecca Kilgore is praised as one of the most prolific recording and performing vocalists on today’s jazz scene, with fifty or more recording projects as a leader or co-leader.  She’s worked with the who’s who of Pacific Northwest jazz cats and beyond.  This vocalist is well respected for her interpretation of the Great American Songbook.  The video above is vintage. 

On this current project, Kilgore has joined talents with Randy Porter on piano, Tom Wakeling on bass and Dick Titterington is featured on cornet.  Opening with Dave Frishberg’s “Dear Bix” Rebecca’s clear vocals establish the mood and tempo, with only accompaniment from the bass of Tom Wakeling.  When Randy Porter joins on piano, the trio is complete.  Kilgore has carefully picked a delightful bouquet of songs from stage shows, film and the Great American Songbook; songs that entertain and delight. Track 2, she sings the familiar “Day In, Day Out.”  This is followed by the introduction of Titterington’s cornet, before she sings “Somebody Just Like You” with a very bluesy arrangement.  The uncluttered production and simplicity of this recording makes me think I am sitting at a piano bar inside some antique hotel bar, smiling at Rebecca Kilgore and her trio over a martini with two olives. 

Based in Oregon, this vocalist blossomed from a mother who was a visual artist and a father who was the choir director at a Unitarian Church.  She started singing at a young age and has won a number of awards, including being named an honoree of the Oregon Music Hall of Fame and Jazz Society of Oregon Hall of Fame.  In 2020, she was awarded the Portland Jazz Master Award by PDX Jazz, the largest organization presenting jazz performances in the Pacific Northwest.  She has performed in concert with Michael Feinstein at Carnegie Hall, at New York’s Mabel Mercer Cabaret Convention, at Town Hall and Lincoln Center.  In 2016 she was honored as a Jazz Legend at San Diego’s popular Jazz party.  Here is an intimate, unpretentious, well-sung album of jazz songs we know, some we may have forgotten and some we never heard until this delightful moment.  Each song Rebecca Kilgore sings is embellished by her wonderful musicians and her completely captivating tone.

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GABOR LESKO – “EARTHWAY” – Creativity’s Paradise Music

Gabor Lesko, guitars/keyboard/composer; Dave Wecki, Marco Fuliano, Sophie Alloway, Eugenio Mori, Gergo Borlai, drums; Hadrien Feraud, Federico Malaman, Jimmy Haslip, bass; Guido Block, vocals; Eric Marienthal, saxophone section; soprano sax solo. Special Guest: The Milwaukee Brass Ensemble.

The music of Gabor Lesko is well represented by the CD Cover artwork of an open highway.  Lesko’s compositions are generously packed with energy, motion and melody.  These arrangements create tightly woven tracks for the musicians to come center stage and solo upon.  Gabor Lesko himself is such an outstanding guitar artist and composer, that just listening to him solo is exhilarating and impressive.  His style of playing is his own and he captures the magic of contemporary jazz.  Rushing from his fingertips, like gold threads, his guitar stitches us up in his comfort-spell. 

A native of Italy, Gabor Lesko is a multi-instrumentalist who also plays keyboards on this project.  The title tune, “Earthway” sets the tone for his production.  It is exciting and fluid.  You can picture yourself on a highway, racing along to someplace you’ve never been before.  Lesko says, “This composition is a tribute to the wonders of both music and outer space.”

I imagine the pandemic has made many of us wish that we could escape to outer space.  Gabor Lesko’s arrangements are soaked in high-powered fusion guitar and creativity that draws us into his music.  On Track 3, he surprises this listener with a sexy ballad titled, “Still Here for You,” just to show his audience that he can also speak passionately and beautifully, letting his guitar strings sing a love story.  His technique and style seem to make his guitar talk.  I find Gabor Lesko’s music both inspirational, conversational and exhilarating.  He stirs our emotions with his instrument, enthusiastically arousing our senses and piquing our curiosity to see what he will play next. 

This is Gabor Lesko’s eighth album as a bandleader and it continues his legacy of inventive playing, fine composing and a mastery of his instruments with the goal of keeping fusion and contemporary jazz in a vivid spotlight.

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Spike Warner, piano/composer; Tyler Mitchell, bass; Anthony Pinciotti, drums.

Listening to the Spike Wilner Trio makes me feel like I popped into a local jazz club to enjoy an evening of excellent entertainment.  I close my eyes and settle back as Warner’s lightning speed piano dances into the room, propelled by Anthony Pinciotti’s power-packed drums and Tyler Mitchell’s bass profundity.  Wilner has composed six out of the nine songs the trio offers us.  My favorite original compositions are: “Mindset” the title tune, “Aliens & Wizards” and “Prayer for Peace” that Spike Wilner approaches in a very bluesy way on his piano.  Another original, “Trick Baby” closes the CD out. At moments, it sounds very much like the jazz standard Love for Sale, but has its own strong melody and mood.  On this tune, Pinciotti is given time to show-off his drum power as they trade fours. The trio plays this one at racehorse speed.

Pianist, composure, bandleader and club manager, Spike Wilner stands knee-deep in jazz.  He has spent a long tenure on the New York City and global jazz scenes, performing with Artie Shaw’s Big Band, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, Maynard Ferguson and Lennie Cuje, while managing jazz shrines like ‘Smalls’ club and ‘Mezzrow.”  The SmallsLIVE Foundation is carrying out one of its mission by supporting and funding this album. The trio’s production was recorded as the height of the pandemic swarmed the nation. This release marks the beginning of a growing collaboration between Cellar Music Group and the SmallsLIVE Foundation. 

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Paul Bedal, piano/composer; Nick Mazzarella, alto saxophone; Matt Ulery, double bass; Charles Rumback, drums.

Based in Chicago, Illinois, Paul Bedal is a pianist and composer and this is his second release as a bandleader.  Bedal received recognition from Chicago’s “Luminarts Cultural Foundation.”  He was awarded top prize in the 2015 composition contest.  His music has been used in films such as “Cooke Concrete” and in Sydney O’Haire’s, “Being Here” and a short film by Lauren Bedal titled “Airplay” that was nominated to the 2017 San Francisco Dance Film Festival.

Bedal’s compositions lean towards smooth jazz, with compelling melodies that repeat within the theme and are enhanced by Nick Mazzarello’s alto saxophone.  There are moments when Mazzarella steps outside the parameter of smooth jazz and points the bell of his horn towards avant-garde jazz; for example, on track 4, “Panorama.”  I keep waiting for Paul Bedal to take us on an improvisational solo discovery, but mostly he remains a part of his tight rhythm section.  On an original tune he’s titled, “Compass,” once again, Mazzarella steps forward as the soloist.   Midway through the arrangement, Paul Bedal soaks up the spotlight, finally playing a solo that is more beautiful than energetic and very classically influenced. Also, we hear from the talented Matt Ulery on double bass during a very interesting and creative bass exploration.  Astonishingly, “Summer Fade” maintains the same tempo as the other songs herein, and that is a disappointment. Bedal does step forward on this arrangement to solo in a very classical way, letting his technique shine.  I just wanted to hear one speedy transition into combustible energy that celebrates jazz freedom.  That never happens.

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MADRE VACA – “THE ELEMENTS” – Madra Vaca Records

Jarrett Carter, guitar/composer; Thomas Milovac, bass/composer; Jonah Pierre, piano/composer; Benjamin Shorstein, drums/composer.

This is a musical quilt of Avant-garde and modern jazz that has been sewn and creatively composed to represent the four elements of earth; Fire, Water, Earth and Wind.  Each of these quartet members has composed one of the elements, beginning with “Fire” by Benjamin Shorstein, the drummer.  This is not a very lyrical or melodic segment.  It was my least favorite on this project, because I never felt it settled down into a groove.  The drummer/composer took this opportunity to splash his percussive colors all over the place, but never settled down to lock in the rhythm.  Sometimes this listener just wants to feel the two and the four. Even fire has a beat to its flicker. Towards the end of the arrangement, the pianist settled the rhythm into place, with the tinkling of the upper register and Thomas Milovac’s double bass softly lacing the rhythm through the background.  There are a lot of arpeggios and very little melody.  Finally, the spotlight settles on a spontaneous drum solo.  One thing I can say is that this composition gives free reins to the quartet of players, allowing them space to create and improvise. 

“Water” composed by Jarrett Carter, the guitarist, is a beautiful tune; a peaceful ballad, starting with a dripping note, like one-note-at-a-time music from a leaking faucet.  I enjoy Milovac bowing his bass, cello-like and classical.  Here is a melody that one can hear and hum along with after a few moments. Carter’s guitar tenacity and technical talents are obvious throughout.  There is a hint of Middle Eastern influence in this composition.  Jonah Pierre’s piano helps build this piece into a crescendo of sound, rushing like water in a storm, or waterfalls tumbling into a raging lake, then trickling away.  The third suite is “Earth” and was composed by bassist, Thomas Milovac.  It seems appropriate that the bass player would write about the earth, upon who all things are built, planted and grow; Like the bass, who is always the basement of the production and the solid foundation of the song.  This tune is more Avant-garde than melody; more improvisation than structure and seems to celebrate contrast and confusion.  A ribbon of the blues ties everything together with guitar strings and then the tempo races, letting Shorstein’s drums propel the music into a hurricane of rhythm.   Jonah Pierre has composed “Wind” for the final suite of this album.  At first, it settles the music down, like a sweet whistle from the lips of angels. But that soon changes to a repetitious, energetic ending.  Since 2017, the members of Madre Vaca have recorded and released seven albums.

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Satoko Fujii, piano; Takashi Sugawa, bass/cello; Ittetsu Takemura, drums.

A smattering of piano introduces the first Fujii composition, “Hansho,” and Takashi Sugawa steps forward to beautifully solo on his double bass.  The trio was recorded ‘live’ at Tokyo’s famous jazz venue, Pit Inn.  Bassist, Sugawa, and drummer Takemura are two of the youthful, up and coming musicians on the Japanese jazz scene.  Inspired by the very competent and Avant-garde artist, Satoko Fujii, the two young musicians brightly shine and showcase their capabilities with awesome speed and ingenuity.  Their technique, creativity and excitement are obvious and visible.  This merger of generations brings a whole new audience to Satoko Fujii’s exquisite musical works.   On this first composition, Ittetsu Takemura’s drums are given a spotlight to dance in.  His playing is colorful and creative.  Once Satoko Fujii takes the wheel, she steers the arrangement into the hemisphere.

“I played with Takashi (Sugawa) several years ago with Natsuki,” Satoko Fujii reminisces.  “He also plays straight ahead, but he’s very open and loves free improvisation.  When he toured Japan with his trio, which included Tom Rainey on drums, I went to see them and was impressed by the sincerity of his playing.”

Once Satoko Fujii establishes the framework for a tune, the freedom of improvisation emerges like a dragon breathing fire and ice into the music.   Fujii stimulates any player she works with, to bring their ‘A-game’ to the party.  This music is like wild confetti, helium balloons and firecrackers. 

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Vincent Herring, Alto Saxophone; Cyrus Chestnut, piano; Yasushi Nakamura, bass; Johnathan Blake, drums.

Despite the darkness of 2020, Vincent Herring offers this album as a silver lining.  He hopes it will deliver optimism and hope.  The energy from the first tune is an original composition by the alto saxophonist.  The song swoops into my office like a breath of fresh, spring air with all the excitement of a new born nature day.  On “Dudli’s Dilemma” I can feel the birds fluttering and the May wind whipping.  This song sets the mood for an entire album of great jazz.  Track 2 is “Old Devil Moon” with an invigorated arrangement, inspired by the Benny Golson “Killer Joe” groove.  It allows the alto saxophone of Vincent Herring to race across space like a spring thunder storm.  He is a brilliant and creative player.  Pianist, Cyrus Chestnut, brings his chops to the spotlight and swings hard.  Johnathan Blake accentuates on drums and tightly locks the groove into place, with Yasushi Nakamura’s solid and complimentary bass lines infusing the piece with hard bop magic.  Their arrangement is intense. This is the kind of album you put on when you want to get pumped up, entertained and inspired.  You’ll hear a rich repertoire, all arranged in a very straight-ahead way, including tunes by Cedar Walton, (“Ojos de Rojo”), Lionel Richie’s “Hello” and Wes Montgomery’s “Fried Pies.”  Cyrus Chestnut contributes his original composition, “Minor Swing” and there’s some Duke Ellington magic when they play “In a Sentimental Mood.”  Also included is the Joe Henderson song, “Granted” and Stevie Wonder’s timeless, “You Are the Sunshine of My life.”  Vincent Herring has penned the title tune, “Preaching to the Choir.” Every song is a treasure to be listened to more than once.  Every arrangement is creative and awe inspiring.  Vincent Herring explained it this way.

“We have to have hope for the future. I’ve been in a constant state of disbelief with so much going on that is negative in the world, but I try to look at the positive side of everything.  I’m grateful to be here.  Grateful to be putting out a new recording and grateful to have the opportunity to express myself musically.

Here is an exciting and spontaneous recording.  This quartet of musicians offers excellence, substance and emotion to their listening public.  They also endeavor to infuse hope into the mix, along with a universal spirit of love and their personal message of gratitude. 

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ALCHEMY SOUND PROJECT – “AFRIKA LOVE” – Artists Recording Collective

Erica Lindsay, tenor saxophone/clarinet/alto flute/composer; Salim Washington, tenor saxophone/flute/bass clarinet/oboe/composer; Sumi Tonooka, piano/composer; David Arend, double bass/ composer; Chad Taylor, drums; Samantha Boshnack, trumpet/composer; Michael Ventoso, trombone.

“Afrika Love” is Salim Washington’s tribute to his South African compatriot, pianist Afrika Mkhize, the son of renowned pianist and composer, Themba Mkhize.  One day, in a conversation with Afrika Mkhize, they discussed a distinctive pitch system native to Zulu musical tradition.

“I began experimenting with this system and decided to write a composition with it,” Washington shared in his press package.

You clearly hear Salim Washington’s tenor saxophone establish the tone dramatically at the start of this tune. Later, Washington’s oboe soliloquy highlights the rich, original melody and unique pitch system.  Chad Taylor’s drums pump and spur the music onward and upward.  This title tune of the Alchemy Sound Project quickly becomes one of my favorites on their latest album.  Sumi Tonooka’s piano solo is both spontaneous and inventive.  This is followed by a beautiful piece composed by trumpeter, Samantha Boshnack and titled, “The Cadillac of Mountains.”  It was written to describe being awestruck by nature’s magnificence and grandeur.  I know that feeling each morning when I admire the brand-new way the sky is painted. Washington offers counter melodies on bass clarinet to Boshnack’s trumpet lines, an arrangement to depict the beauty of nature.  Lindsay’s tenor saxophone sings and the rhythm section evokes nature’s tendency toward unpredictable shifts, featuring David Arend’s double bass dramatically accenting this song.  Tonooka’s piano and Chad Taylor’s drums play a duet that takes the arrangement to another level.  There are several references to nature and the elements of earth.  For example, the opening song composed by the bassist, David Arend and titled “The Fountain” celebrates water.  The drums portray the drip, drip, drop of water and the melody and movement grows to provoke a gushing fountain. When Sumi Tonooka composed “Dark Blue Residue” she was considering the various ways people are brought together.

“… People move on.  People move forward, but there’s a residue quality of what’s left behind …,” she explains.

On their 3rd album release, Alchemy Sound Project features five compositions and showcases five compelling and gifted musicians, each with their own unique and powerful creative vision.  Their music recognizes this is a pivotal period in race relations, health consciousness and social justice.  Consequently, their music reflects a positive example of cooperation and mutual respect for each other and the world around them.  Despite 2020 being one of the most tumultuous years in the recent history of the United States, they hope their multi-gendered, multi-racial makeup as a group offers a positive example of cooperative humanity.

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April 21, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

April 21, 2021

LAUFEY – “TYPICAL OF ME” –  Independent label

Laufey Lin, vocals/guitar/cello/piano/composer; Josh Jacobson, keyboards; Magnus Johann Ragnarsson, Keyboards.

Track 1 on this new EP by Laufey snagged my ear and held on, like a diamond earring.  Her voice has a soft, warm, lovely tone, and on “Street by Street,” Laufey makes it clear she is a blossoming singer/songwriter.  The young artist mixes genres, blending jazzy chord changes and beautiful melodies with pop music, rhythm and blues, all in a very embraceable way.   When Laufey returned to her native Iceland last summer, she was surprised when she pumped on the car radio and her song, “Street by Street” was playing.

“That’s when I realized something big was happening,” she told her publicist.

The production is sparse, but very effective.  The finger snaps and her guitar accompaniment, with vocals harmonizing in the background, allows us to clearly hear her lyrics and the groove is infectious.  Her latest single, from this debut EP titled, “Magnolia,” is a ballad with a lyric about a beautiful woman. Actually, the lyrics pose a love letter to women who don’t recognize their own beauty and strength.  Track 3 is titled “Like the Movies” and is a throw-back to the 1920s or 30s type music, with its slow, strumming shuffle-feel and her voice scatting atop the production in a sweet and affectionate way.  Laufey’s unique tone and the addition of the synthesized horn makes this ‘cut’ very jazzy.  She follows this production with a cover of “I Wish You Love” just to make it clear she can sing jazz standards with the same energy and style that she uses when singing her original songs.

“I’ve always loved classical music.  I’m definitely very influenced by composers like Ravel and Chopin,” Laufey shares.  “But when I discovered the Great American Songbook and the music of George Gershwin and Richard Rodgers, it felt like this middle ground between jazz and classical suited me perfectly.  It was something I could love on my own terms,” she explained her stylized musical approach.

Laufey has performed with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra at the young age of fifteen.  But deep inside, she knew she wanted to blend her classical training with more modern influences.  She longed to expand her writing and repertoire with jazz influences, with pop, R&B overtones and with her own sense of creativity and uniqueness.  You can hear all that in her very first release and debut single, “Street by Street.”  This song sent international waves crashing against commercial music shorelines. 

As a result of collaborating with peers at Berklee College of Music, the day before their campus was shut down due to COVID-19, she embraced the down-time while self-quarantined to work on her first recording project.  Laufey began recording at home, playing piano, guitar, singing, composing and adding cello to the mix.  Other instrumentation was delivered remotely by her fellow student musicians.  When I listen to “James,” another original composition, I note her expressive way of phrasing, singing, scatting and the lyrical way she writes.  Laufey’s artistically fascinating.

Once she posted the first tune, Laufey’s project went viral!  She had a hit single on Icelandic Radio Charts and her music grew a massive, universal following.  Before she could blink twice, the BBC announced they wanted to present a music series for BBC Radio 3 that featured “Happy Harmonies with Laufey.”  This series began on April 10th of 2021.  Laufey’s entire EP project is absolutely fresh, charming and unique.  Ms. Lin is a gifted singer, plays multiple instruments and is a talented songwriter.  I expect great things from this young lady and a bright future. 

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John Daversa, trumpet; Justin Morell, guitars/orchestrator/composer/arranger. Scott Flavin, orchestra conductor; Amanda Quist, choir conductor; CHOIR: Emily Finke & Safia Zaman, sopranos; Alexandra Colaizzi & Kate Reid, altos; Sidney O’Gorman & Noah Zaidspiner, tenors; Thandolwethu Mamba & Dylan Melville, basses. GUEST MUSICIANS: Conrad Fok, piano; Lev Garfein, violin. RHYTHM: Tal Cohen, piano; Justin Morell, guitars; Dion Kerr, bass; David Chiverton, drums. PERCUSSION: Antoni Olesik, timpani/ vibraphone/ glockenspiel/ marimba. Orchestra Bass: Brian Powell & Ethan Olaguibel.  VIOLIN 1: Abby Young (concertmaster), Sheena Gutierrez, Karen Lord-Powell, Steffen Zeichner, Ashley Liberty & Gregory Carreno. VIOLIN II: Svetlana Kosakovskoya, Yuhao Zhou, Orlando Forte, Katarina Nazarova & Julia Jakkel. VIOLA: Matt Nabours, Vishnu Ramankutty & Ross DeBardelaben; CELLO: Brent Charran, Shea Kole & Tadao Ito; WOODWINDS: Jennifer Grim, flute; Alyssa Mena, flute/alto flute; Melvin Butler & Troy Roberts, soprano & tenor saxophones; Matt Clarke, clarinet; Franke Capoferri, clarinet/bass clarinet; Gabriel Beavers & Melanie Villarreal, bassoon; Richard Todd Stan Spinola, horn.

When John Daversa approached Justin Morell about writing a large-scale orchestral jazz piece for his album project, Morell conceived the project from the perspective of a parent with an autistic child.  This album is a tribute and a reflection of love in raising a 16-year-old, non-verbal son.  The title is reflective; “All Without Words.”   It is a story, unfolding in the orchestrated music, about connection and compassion; pain and prevailing love in the face of every challenge. 

A multi-Grammy winner, John Daversa is an orchestral jazz trumpeter whose albums reflect important social themes.  Justin Morell said this about composing this elaborate music.

“Loren (his autistic child) can be wonderfully spontaneous and always in the moment.  One evening, I sat with him and listened to the singing and sounds that he often makes, recording them on my phone.  I quickly returned to the recordings and transcribed two different segments of beautiful melody.  These segments became the theme that is the basis for the eleven variations,” Justin explained.

Loren’s voice is represented by Daversa’s distinctive trumpet sound.  This album was recorded at the Frost School of Music recording facilities at the University of Miami, where Daversa is Chair of Studio Music.  These top musicians based in South Florida, are both classically proficient and others are steeped and specialized in jazz.  Because of the pandemic and social restrictions, each section of the orchestra was recorded separately.  However, this does not interrupt the beauty or flow of this project.  Here is a tender, gorgeous album.  John Daversa becomes the voice of a voice-less child in the most perfect and soulful sense. 

The orchestra transmits to us emotionally, via these amazing musicians, with their colorful arrangements.  It’s an awesome combination of composer magic and musicians who play life into their music.  I found Daversa and Morell’s project to be peaceful and healing; inspired and lovely.  Perhaps producer, Kabir Sehgal sums the experience up best.

“This is a poignant and profound work. … This collaboration speaks not only to their mutual respect and admiration, but to their interest in doing good in the world,” Sehgal says in the press package. 

I agree!

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Ulysses Owens Jr., drums/producer/bandleader; Takesi Ohbayashi, piano; Yasushi Nakamura, bass; Charles Turner III, vocals; SPECIAL GUEST: Stefon harris, vibraphone; WOODWINDS: Alexa Tarantino & Erena Tarakubo, alto saxophones; Diego Rivera & Daniel Dickinson, tenor saxophones; Andrew Gutauskas, baritone saxophone. TRUMPETS:  Walter Cano, lead trumpet; Benny Benack III, Summer Camargo, & Giveton Gelin.  TROMBONES: Michael Dease, Eric Miller & Gina Benalcazar. Wyatt Forhan, bass trombone.

Ulysses Owens Jr. is a drummer with a big sound, a big band and big career plans.  On this, his debut recording as a big band leader, he has gathered a host of excellent musicians that reflect multi-gender, multi-ethnic and multi-generational participation.  From the very first Dizzy Gillespie/John Lewis familiar composition of “Two Bass Hit” you hear the UOJ Big Band’s exuberance and high energy.  Ulysses Owens Jr. takes a mind-blowing solo excursion on his trap drums.  I appreciate his power, his creativity and technical wizardry.  Perhaps he explained his ultimate goals best in his liner notes.

“I finally feel like I have a record that is emanating a sound that I can confidently create forever,” Owens Jr. asserted.

On the original composition, “London Towne,” By Benny Benack III, who plays second trumpet, Stefon Harris makes a guest appearance on vibraphone.  On Track 3, Yasushi Nakamura steps out from the rhythm section and takes an impressive solo on double bass, followed by a soulful saxophone improvisation played by Diego Rivera, who also arranged this tune.  Titled, “Beardom X,” the horn harmonics soar and punch the arrangement in all the right places.  Bandleader and dynamic drummer, Owens Jr., takes a short but colorful solo on this original song that he has composed.  The staccato breaks by the horns build the dynamics during this presentation.

Intermittently, audience applause speckles this soulful ‘live’ recording.  The big band is quite impressive and distinguishes their high level of musicianship and tight, preparedness for this production.  There’s no over-dubs or engineering punch-marks when you record ‘live.’  Obviously, they need no such engineering helpmates.  I enjoyed hearing the “Soul Conversations” of each band member, expressed to the others.  I applaud the structured, creative arrangements that were written by various band members.  For example, on the original composition, “Language of Flowers” bassist, Yasushi Nakamura both wrote and arranged this lovely ballad.  The UOJ Big Band includes contemporary pieces like Michael Jackson’s hit record, “Human Nature” featuring Harris’s vibraphone and more straight-ahead pieces like John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.  You will find every song on this project delightful, inspired and entertaining. However, the driving force behind their entire production is the amazing and relentless drum skill of Ulysses Owens Jr.

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Berta Morena, tenor saxophone/vocals/composer/lyricist; Alana Sinkey, vocals; Manuel Valera, piano/keyboards; Maksim Perepilica, bass; Raphael Pannier, drums; Franco Pinna, percussion/ArpaLeguera; Maria Alejandra Jimenez, Sinuhé Padilla-Isunza, Berta Moreno & Alana Sinkey, choir voices.

The happy first track of this project showcases Berta Moreno’s saxophone and composer talents.  Alana Sinkey is the vocalist that introduces us to the contemporary jazz tune Moreno has written, with its slick, African influenced time changes and infectious melody.  Moreno’s tenor saxophone improvises above the rich African percussion.  Manuel Valera brings excitement and beauty during his piano solo.  

After taking a life-changing trip to Kenya and experiencing a Kawangare neighborhood, Berta Moreno was infatuated with the Kenyan African culture, people and music.  Kawangare is an economically disadvantaged area. Moreno, a native of Madrid, Spain, had volunteered to teach at the Little Ray of Hope School. Her album title, “Tumaini” translates to “Hope” in Swahili and was inspired by the children of Kawangare.  Their bright smiles and positive attitudes touched Berta Moreno’s heart.  That explains the happy, up-tempo tunes on this project and the addition of a choir of voices and rhythmic ideas she honed from the music of East Africa. 

Track 2, “Afrika” is also joyful and is bolstered by the drums of Raphael Pannier and Franco Pinna on percussion.  The Moreno composition titled, “Beauty of the Slum” introduces us to a lovely melody.  Moreno is a strong songwriter, who knows how to place the ‘hook’ of her songs in full view of the listener and strongly accentuates the titles of her songs. 

Sometimes Alana Sinkey, who has a beautiful voice and a lovely style of singing, falls flat on certain improvisation parts.  This is something that with practice and patience she can improve upon. I like the way she and Berta Moreno sometimes sing unison together (vocals and horn) and Ms. Sinkey also sounds wonderful harmonizing with Berta’s tenor saxophone.  Their blend is natural.  Musically, the album concept and Berta Moreno’s compositions make this project both unique and inspired.

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Jacqui Naylor, vocals/composer; Art Khu, piano/organ/Rhodes/guitars; Jon Evans, basses/guitar/background vocals; Josh Jones, drums/percussion.

Jacqui Naylor has a distinctive tone that enriches her alto vocals.  She offers us, not only her unique and pleasant sound, but an expert trio of jazz musicians.  Art Khu is magnificent and creative on piano.  He and Naylor co-wrote “Love Look What You’ve Done,” that becomes track 5 on this artistic venture.  It’s a jazz waltz with beautiful lyrics.  Best known for her ability to interpret a diverse repertoire and blend genres and generations, Jacqui Naylor’s album explores love with both original music and familiar songs.  Speaking of blending, the trio plays a Miles Davis background riff that is immediately recognizable from his band arrangement of “It Never Entered My Mind.”  Surprisingly, Ms. Naylor slaps the Coldplay song, “Fix You” on top, like a cherry on an ice cream Sunday.  It becomes a delicious arrangement. 

Over time, this artist’s eleven album releases have been named in the “Top 10” lists of USA Today, Jazziz Magazine and The Washington Post.  Naylor’s version of REM’s “Losing My Religion” was featured on the hit, television competitive series, “So You Think You Can Dance.”  Her three dynamic musicians contribute to the original and provocative arrangements with their supportive and intuitive talents.  Naylor’s vocals are a slightly reminiscent mixture of Amy Winehouse and Marlena Shaw.  In a sea of jazz vocal releases, it’s delightful to hear a vocalist and a creative artist with her own dynamic style and musical perspective.

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Steve Tintweiss, double bass/melodica/vocals/composer/bandleader; Laurence Cook, drums; Judy Stuart & Amy Sheffer, vocals; James DuBoise, trumpet; Mark Whitecage, tenor saxophone/flute; Trevor Koehler, baritone saxophone.

Steve Tintweiss is playing bass on a slew of Albert Ayler albums.   Tintweiss is perhaps best remembered for his Avant-garde appearances on the jazz scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s.  He was well-known for his stimulating improvisation as a sideman and revolutionary approach to the double bass.  He performed with singer, Patty Waters, and with great jazz players like Sam Rivers, Gato Barbieri and Perry Robinson.  Although Tintweiss has remained steadfast to his bass style and continuously performed on the jazz scene, this is a throwback album that was recorded in 1968 at St. Marks Church.  The group was part of a fundraising concert for the victims of the Nigerian/Biafran conflict.  The concert line-up included Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Pete Seeger, Country Joe McDonald and Jimi Hendrix.  This recording showcases the 20-minute segment featuring Steve Tintweiss and his ensemble.  Also included is their Town Hall concert of September 14, 1968.  This is fifty-one minutes of historic Avant-garde music from the protest time of the late 1960s. 

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Ted Nash, conductor/soprano sax/composer/arranger; Dan Nimmer, piano; Carlos Henriquez, bass; Obed Calvaire, drums; SPECIAL GUESTS:  Glenn Close, Wayne Brady, Amy Irving, Matthew Stevenson, Eli Nash & Wynton Marsalis.  Members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.  WOODWINDS: Sherman Irby (lead); Marc Phaneuf, Victor Goines, Mark Lopeman & Paul Nedzela.  TRUMPETS: Ryan Kisor (lead); Tatum Greenblatt, Marcus Printup, Wynton Marsalis.  TROMBONES: Vincent Gardner (lead); Christopher Crenshaw, Elliot Mason.

“Transformation is the highest expression of change.  Transformation dictates a dramatic alteration of form or character – sometimes both.  The highest compliment one can give a piece of music, or writing, is that it has been transformative for the one who experiences it,” quotes Ted Nash of this project.

Ted Nash has created an orchestrated back-drop for the spoken word story of “Transformation,” shared by the amazing voices of both actors, Glenn Close and Wayne Brady.  This creative jazz project opens with “Creation, Part 1.”  Soloists featured on this cut are Sherman Irby on alto saxophone and Wynton Marsalis on trumpet.  Track 2, “Creation, Part II” features Chris Crenshaw on trombone and Paul Nedzela on baritone saxophone.  This is followed by Eli Nash’s spoken word, delivering a coming-out message in his “Dear Dad/Letter.”  With Dan Nimmer’s piano as a backdrop, Eli Nash begins talking about being a transgender and Ted Nash add his soprano saxophone and horn harmonics.

Glenn Close said of her participation in this project, “We are so fractured and in need of healing.  I wanted to create an experience from which people are comforted, but also inspired, to discover their shared humanity.”

Performed before a live audience, this is a concert that combines artforms, using orchestrated spoken word to bridge soulful conversations about life and living.  There are stories of being incarcerated in the composition, “One Among Many” and they approach the subject of right-wing racism in “Rising Out of Hatred.”   Wayne Brady has written and speaks “A Piece by the Angriest Black man in America (or How I Learned to Forgive Myself for Being a Black man in America” that addresses fratricide and self-loathing. Ted Nash hopes his music and the spoken word helps to promote forgiveness, love and humanity.  It all begins with various soul conversations.

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April 14, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

April 14, 2021


Jeremy Monteiro, piano; Jay Anderson, Double bass; Lewis Nash, drums.

Jeremy Monteiro is considered one of the top jazz pianists in Singapore.  This journalist met him many years ago while appearing on-stage in Singapore myself at a club called “Harry’s.”  Jeremy is a sensitive, but very powerful player.  He’s an amazing accompanist, as well as being a dynamic solo pianist, a creative improviser and a very well-rounded player.  To put it simply, Jeremy  Monteiro can play anything and make it sound great.  On this enjoyable album, you can hear his classical training, but you can also hear how beautifully he listens and supports his trio, giving the iconic Lewis Nash on drums space to shine and featuring the beauty of Jay Anderson’s double bass.  He gives his band members free-rein to solo.  Jeremy is no newcomer when it comes to playing with some of the best in the business.  He’s an EFG Bank Global Arts Ambassador and has played with such luminaries as Bobby McFerrin, Randy Brecker, Lee Ritenour, Herbie Mann, Benny Golson, Michael Brecker, James Moody, Carmen Bradford and the list goes on and on.  His piano virtuosity has carried him all over the world. In 1988, he performed as part of the famous Montreux Jazz Festival with the late, great bassist, Eldee Young and Redd Holt, who were two-thirds of the original Ramsey Lewis Trio. 

They open with Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way” and gently ‘swing’ it.  This trio’s performance of “Just In Time” flies.  Once Jeremy sets the pace and introduces the tune, he hands the reins to Jay Anderson, who gallops across the strings of his upright bass melodically and rhythmically, supported by the always impressive, Lewis Nash.  This is a ‘Live’ recording and you hear the appreciative audience, from time to time, burst into supportive applause.  When Jeremy Monteiro steps back into the spotlight, he and Nash are powerful energy-builders, making the song crescendo and dance like nobody’s business!   Every song choice in this trio’s repertoire is worthy of playing more than once.  They are just boiling-hot throughout this recording.  Jeremy Monteiro has carefully selected each song and a couple of them are played like an anthem to some of his real-life mentors.  For example, in memory of the legendary James Moody, he has composed “Mode for Love.”  Jeremy explains that the experimentation Moody did, late in his career, by inverting some of the modes used by John Coltrane, impressed Monteiro so much that he created this tune, modally-based.  His original tune isn’t Bebop, but it celebrates the spirit of the iconic Moody saxophone and his amazing jazz legacy.  Another historic nod is given to Redd Holt and the unforgettable Eldee Young on Jeremy’s original composition titled, “Mount Olive.”     

Jeremy Monteiro has received several awards and honors for his piano mastery, including the Cultural Medallion.  That is the highest artistic recognition available in Singapore.  For his memoir, “Late Night Thoughts of a Jazz Musician” Monteiro received a journalistic literary award and he also garnered a Silver Medal for Best Music Score from the International Radio Festival in New York that included his original composition, “Overture in C Major: The Story of Singapore.”  This production, featuring Nash and Anderson, is his 45th jazz album release.  It is iconic for both Jeremy and his two American jazz players. Their project is both historic and intoxicating to the ears.  Sit back and enjoy.

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Dan Wilson, guitar/composer; Christian Sands, pianist/synthesizer/organ; Marco Panascia, bassist; Jeff “Tain” Watts, drummer; Joy Brown, vocals; Christian McBride, producer/bass.

Akron, Ohio native, Dan Wilson, has named this awesome and energy spiked project, “Vessels of Wood and Earth.”  He chose that name because he feels society, with few exceptions, seems to become attracted to the glitter and gold exterior of life instead of paying attention to the important foundation of life; the wood and earth that supports our life structures.  The title tune, Track 4, sets a groove with Wilson strumming his guitar, before introducing us to the pretty melody of his original composition, followed by branching off into the improvisational hemisphere.  Christian Sands finds the blues inside the tune and pulls it gently to the surface during his piano solo.  The groups modern jazz approach to Stevie Wonders “Bird of Beauty” composition is both beautiful and uniquely arranged.

Wilson is a competent composer, opening this album with his original tune, “The rhythm Section” at a race-driver speed, challenging himself and his bandmates to keep up.  Jeff “Tain” Watts has no qualms about fast-paced arrangements and his drum sticks breeze along, pumping excitement into the tune on his trap drums, while inspiring the band.  Wilson spotlights his admirable technique and stellar approach to his stylized guitar, flying across the strings with mad perfection.  Marco Panascia steps upfront on his double bass with straight-ahead power.  You can clearly hear him holding down the rhythm, along with Watts, during a dynamic Christian Sands solo on piano.   Dan Wilson brings his experience working with organ master, Joey DeFrancesco to the party.  He was part of DeFrancesco’s 2017 album, “Project Freedom” that was nominated for a Grammy Award.  Wilson came up listening to the duets of Wes Montgomery and jazz organ legend, Jimmy Smith.  His guitar playing is inspired.

“I was maybe fourteen or fifteen when my uncle took me into his basement and played me Wes and Jimmy.  I was like, Oh – this is it for me.  I want to do that!  I just want to do that forever,” he recollects that moment of musical awakening.

Songstress, Joy Brown, adds her feminine touch and is a pleasant surprise with Dinah Washington influenced vocals on several tunes including “Save the Children,” and “Inner City Blues.”  Brown brings an old-school stability to this modern jazz recording that is both refreshing and stylized; every now and then she wows us with that little break in her voice.  I enjoyed her rendition of “Cry Me A River” accompanied by Wilson’s sensitive guitar strokes. 

Christian McBride has done a wonderful job of producing Dan Wilson and his ensemble.  They are the artists signed to McBride’s new imprint “Brother Mister Productions” and they become his label’s second release. McBride performs a duo with Dan Wilson on the Pat Metheny tune “James” that is quite extraordinary.  Every tune on this album is a shiny example of great musicality, creativity and inspired by Dan Wilson’s youthful and developing guitar brilliance.

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Diego Baliardo, guitars/vocals; Antoine Ona, bass; Pacheco Rodolfo, percussion; Marlon Baliardo, guitar/back-up vocals; Gibson Baliardo, guitar/back-up vocals/piano.

If you are in search of music that’s happy, energetic and inspires movement and dance, this is the perfect recording.  Diego Baliardo is one of the founders of the world-famous Gipsy Kings, who were based in France and so popular that a 1996 PBS documentary was made about their evolutionary sound.

The historic formation of this musical group began in 1987, founded by two sets of brothers from both the Baliardo and Reyes families.  They were Spanish Romani who fled to France during the Spanish Civil War.  Back in 1979, Nicolas Reyes and Tonino Baliardo began touring throughout France, like their ancestors before them had done. They were making the music that inspires people to feel joyful and celebratory.  That music wound up selling over 20-million albums in their 35-year history.  In fact, that makes them the biggest selling musical group to come out of France.  Their music embraces a number of cultures, blending traditional flamenco with Western pop, Latin rhythms and Arabic music, traces of reggae and their gypsy freedom is reflected in their jazzy guitar work.  Some of their presentations celebrate Gypsy master Django Reinhardt.

This album is made up of members of the Baliardo family and friends.  Marlon and Gibson Baliardo are Diego’s grandsons, singing back-up vocals and playing guitars. The bassist, Antoine Ona, is a friend of Gibson’s and Pacheco Rodolfo is a percussionist who often performs with Diego Baliardo.  Together they make music that presents polyrhythmic styles and make you want to leave your seat to dance like no one is watching.  Their music, like the original Gipsy Kings, is infectious and hypnotic.  Appropriately, the CD title, Este Ritmo, translates to ‘This Rhythm.’  As Diego Baliardo explains, the heritage of their family music has been preserved for over one-thousand years.

“Music is central to the gypsy way of life and heritage.  We have picked up musical styles from all the cultures we’ve interacted with and blended them into our own culture. … Music is in my blood.  I can’t imagine not playing music.  Though at my age now, I think my music is a little mellower than it has been in the past.  …Although I still enjoy performing before an audience, I’m also enjoying spending more time in the studio and not travelling as much,” Diego admitted.

This reviewer has truly fallen in love with this folksy, high-energy gypsy band and the heritage they so proudly share with us.  Favorite tunes are: “Me Voy A La Playa,” and “No Tengo Dinero.”  “Cara Bonita” makes me want to pack a bag, hop a train and speed across the country to a place of carefree joy.  The various guitar rhythms and percussive work both entertain and hypnotize.  “Mi Cintura” is a fine example of that.  “Loquita Loca” is a moderate tempo tune that has a lovely melody and interesting percussive motion.  You may find yourself singing along.  All this music has been wonderfully composed and produced by Diego Baliardo.  He offers us a musical journey, displaying his cultural roots.  One that the listener will find inviting to explore.

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JOY HARJO – “I PRAY FOR MY ENEMIES” – Sunyata Records/Sony Orchard Distribution

Joy Harjo, spoken word/vocals/saxophone; Barrett Martin, drums/upright bass/keyboards/production; Peter Buck, electric guitar/feedback/Mike McCready, electric guitar solos; Krist Novoselic, acoustic guitar; Rich Robinson, electric guitar solos; Rahim Alhaj, Iraqi oud master; Dave Carter, trumpeter/percussion; Owen Sapulpa, surdo drum; Lisette Garcia & Harjo’s stepdaughters, backing vocals.

Joy Harjo is a Native American and a United States Poet Laureate.  This is her first new recording in a decade, showcasing her spoken word, songs and saxophone solos.  She seeks to heal our troubled world with prose, song and music.  Joy Harjo has appropriately titled this work, “I Pray for my Enemies.”  She opens this production with “Allay Na Lee” a welcoming folk song of the Muscogee Creek Nation.  It opens with Native American drums setting the groove and the mood.  Joy Harjo sings only with drum accompaniment, until the bridge of the song where dance music arrangements enter and elevate this folk song to a disco-like presentation.   A male voice chants ‘Allay Na Lee No’ at the fade of this song, announcing the art of this project with the very first tune.  “An American Sunrise” is Track 2, a song about alcoholism that unfortunately has been an ongoing problem for American Indian nations. 

“We were running out of breath as we ran to meet ourselves,” Joy Harjo recites wise and poetic words.

There is a stunning rock guitar solo during this song and Joy Harjo scat sings, adding a multi-layered vocal chant, accompanied by her very jazzy saxophone work.  There is freedom deeply embedded in this music, like strong eagle feathers growing from the elegant bird’s body. This project is a living, breathing history lesson. Exposed inside these lyrics and beautiful prose recited by Harjo, you will find truth, politics, activism and entertainment.  For example, “Calling the Spirit Back” is taken from one of her published collections and speaks of giving back with gratitude and loving Mother Earth. It was taken from her book titled, “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings.”  Her song, “How Love Blows Through the Trees” was written by Harjo during the COVID-19 pandemic, when it infected her home in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  It echoes the suffering of the world, balancing the trauma with a beautiful trumpet solo by Dave Carter and Harjo’s haunting, poignant, and expressive jazz saxophone.  Track 5, “Earth House” opens with a kalimba type sound as Harjo speaks of inspiration from a friend or family member, recalling the warmth emanating from her home; the baby swallows nesting on her porch and the love that warms a chilly spirit.  Joy Harjo speaks of “Fear” during Track 6.  She chants and speaks saying, “I release you.  You are my beloved and hated friend,” speaking of fear.  Joy Harjo stirs our emotions and touches our heart with this project. It is a delightfully fresh approach to jazz, to music, to spoken word and at the same time is thought provoking and mind bending.

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Jeff Coffin, Bass flute/alto flute/D whistle/tenor saxophone/ soprano saxophone/bass clarinet/composer/clarinet/percussion/didgibone/voice; Helen Gillet, cello/cello looping/cello slaps/percussion/voice/lyrics.  SPECIAL GUEST: Roy ‘Futureman’ Wooten, cajon.

This duo album combines the talents of Grammy-winning reedman, Jeff Coffin and visionary cellist, Helen Gillet.  They are joined on two songs by their special guest, Roy ‘Futureman’ Wooten on a square wooden-box, a percussive instrument called a cajon.  Their “Round & Round” production is a composition by Jeff Coffin.  It is propelled by an arrangement that circles, with sounds that curl off my CD player like celebratory confetti. Helen Gillet’s tune, “Unzen” is warm, fresh and honey-sweet. I could wrap up in this composition. it’s just that cashmere soft.  “Lampsi has a very middle Eastern sound, played in afro-Cuban 6/8 time. I can almost visualize a snake charmer performing to this composition.  On the whole, the music of Jeff Coffin & Helen Gillet personifies peace.  These lovely, subdued and calming arrangements make their recording the perfect meditative or sleepy-time music.

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Matt Panayides, guitar; Matt Vashlishan, wind synthesizer; Rich Perry, tenor saxophone; Robert Sabin, bass; Mark Ferber, drums.

Matt Panayides explains the title of this album on the CD jacket.  “An any given moment, we all exist within numerous fields; a field of time, space, sound or light.”

Panayides has taken his music abilities and creativity to create his own field using original compositions. Track 1, Titled, “Kite Flying,” is a memory of his boyhood and flying a kite, lying on his back in the grass and getting lost in that moment of sky and personal space.  I found “Disturbance” to be melodically disturbing.  Panayides’ original tune called “Closer Now” starts out sounding like a minor blues and gives Panayides a platform to improvise upon.   I enjoyed his warm, electric guitar tone that introduces this composition.  The addition of the electric wind instrument (EWI) gives the production an odd, musical charisma, very space-age and unusual.  The title tune, “Field Theory” begins with Mark Ferber laying down a funk beat.  The horn and wind synthesizer harmonize in between bursts of percussive energy and the time is beat out in a 7/4 groove.  This is modern jazz, punctuated by moments of Avant-garde and dissonant harmonies.  Track 6, “Energy Mover” is very fusion-like.  Robert Sabin is marching his bass at a quick tempo and Panayides improvises as if his life depends on it.  This tune I found both complex and pleasant listening.  Melding the EWI and electric guitar with a double bass and tenor saxophone   creates a unique sound with unexpected arrangements. When Rich Perry adds his beautiful tenor tones, he softens the grooves and sandpapers the rough edges with his horn.  Pentafolk is a suite in four parts.  Panayides says he envisioned a visit to an alien planet when he composed the final four tunes of this project.  “Field Theory” is an art project, with instruments bursting on the scene like splashes of colorful paint on a canvas. Joanna Mitchell portrays this when she provided the beautiful CD cover artwork.

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RONI BEN-HUR – “STORIES” – Dot Time Records

Roni Ben-Hur, guitar; George Cables, piano; Harvie S., double bass; Victor Lewis, drums; Ingrid Jensen, trumpet; Magos Herrera & Tamuz Nissim, vocals.

Roni Ben-Hur was born in a small, provincial, Israeli, desert town in 1962 and relocated to New York when he was twenty-three.  By that time, Brazilian, Middle-Eastern and African music had seeped into his life-blood and guitar style.  Although he is revered for his straight-ahead jazz power and respected as a guitar virtuoso, Roni Ben-Hur wanted to create an album of stories; stories told by his guitar and an eclectic group of musicians. For this project, he has surrounded himself with amazing talents to express his genre-busting, 40-year, multicultural-music journey.

Track 1 titled, “La Serena” features the haunting and emotional vocals of Magos Herrera. Ingrid Jensen adds her unique trumpet solo to the mix.  One of my favorites on this CD is an original tune by Roni Ben-Hur called, “But I Had to Say Goodbye.”  It’s a lovely, heartfelt ballad.  George Cables takes a rich, poignant solo on piano and Roni Ben-Hur wrings every ounce of emotion out of his guitar. Harvie S. puts the exclamation mark on the song at the end, bowing his big, bad bass. 

This album reflects struggles of the oppressed.  For example, the tune “Redoblar” is the story of people rising up and marching for freedom and equality.  Today, we see that happening all over the world.  Magos Herrera, often referred to on Latin Jazz networks as a great contemporary vocalist, is featured. Also, the dynamic drums of the great Victor Lewis introduce the song a’cappela and forcefully, like a solo tap dancer in the spotlight. This album is a mixture of cultures, a stew-pot of flavorful compositions that celebrate both family and spicy activism.  Tamuz Nissim translates a song from Hebrew to sing, “You shall walk in the field, alone, without being burnt by the fires on the roads that bristled from terror and blood,” on “Ha’Omnam” and on “After the Morning” (a tribute to the beauty of pianist John Hicks) Harvie S. gives us a bass solo to remember; along with Ingrid Jensen’s trumpet  that sings the story with flare and feeling.  Roni Ben-Hur’s album closes with George Cable’s “Melodious Funk” tune, reminding us of the vast influence of Thelonious Monk.  I am left feeling completely happy and satisfied that this will be a collection of “Stories” marking a celebration of magnificence and talent.  I salute Roni Ben-Hur’s guitar skills and this group of stellar musicians.

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Tivon Pennicott, tenor saxophone/composer/arranger; Yasushi Nakamura & Dominique Sanders, bass; Joe Saylor, drums/timpani; Oliver Glissant, primary conductor; Yoojin Park, violin conductor; VIOLINS: Jae Young Bca, Charlene Bishop, Luis Casal, Erin Dupree, Kiku Enomoto, Alley Jenkins, Nanhoom Kim, Tesia Pennicott-Moss, Ina Paris, Gabriela Rengel, & HyunJoon Shin; VIOLAS: Joshua Kail, Jocelin Pan, Marco Sabatini & Kenny Wang; CELLOS: Boubacar Diallo, Amy Kang, Reenat Pinchas & Lutz Rath; DOUBLE BASSES: Carlos Barriento & Johannes Felscher; Philip Dizack, trumpet.

A swirl of sound rises from the orchestrated strings, with mallets whipping the drums powerfully, like distant thunder in the background.  Then, bells are tinkling. This first original composition titled, “Spring Storm” starts out melancholy, but beautiful, as Tivon Pennicott unfolds his “Spirit Garden.”  When Pennicott’s smooth tenor saxophone enters, there is a flurry of improvised notes, reminiscent of Charlie Parker’s style and excellence.   Track 2 is titled, “Fermented Grapes.”  It begins with just horn, drums and bass, soon joined by trumpeter, Philip Dizack, where saxophone and trumpet blend and harmonize the catchy melody Pennicott has penned. 

A Georgia native who spent time living in New York City, Tivon earned his Bachelor of Arts in Music from the Frost School of Music at Miami University.  Pennicott has already garnered three Grammy Awards.  One was for appearing on Esperanza Spalding’s 2012 album.  The next two awards came from his appearances on Blue Note Record artist, Gregory Porter’s “Liquid Spirit” album and the “Take Me to the Alley” release. On this recent release by Tivon Pennicott, he wants to show us a completely different side of himself.  Track 3 is titled “Celery Juice” and has a Latin feel to it, followed by “Shameless Shame,” that is full of staccato horn lines and has a blues theme that drags through it like a loose rope in the sand.  The melody leaves its impression, until the full ensemble comes into play, with Yasushi Nakamura’s bright double bass line marching proudly and straight ahead in the rhythm section.  Both Pennicott’s saxophone and the trumpet take time to solo and fly above their double time, Straight-ahead arrangement.  Drummer, Joe Saylor is given solo time and soars above the staccato horns.  That’s how the tune ends; abruptly and with a drum exclamation point. 

This is a sophomore album for Pennicott that is meant to showcase his composing skills and his orchestration and arranger prowess.  On “Galatians Five Twenty-Two,” the strings soar and rise like the sun in the Eastern sky.  The Galatian people inhabited Asia Minor years ago.  I wonder about this title that Tivon has created and what it means to him.  The ballad itself is quite lovely and this tune, along with the others on this album, seem to showcase the softer side of Tivon Pennicott.  His tenor saxophone is bluesy and powerful during this arrangement, but the track support is soft and cushiony, like puffy clouds pinned on a blue sky.

Tivon Pennicott’s orchestration is both creative and exploratory.  “Jump for Joy” is arranged at a moderate tempo, giving Joe Saylor’s drums lots of moments to pop and place the funk beneath the sweetness of the strings.  However, it didn’t make me want to jump for joy, dance or sing.   For some reason, the title doesn’t seem to fit the arrangement.  Speaking of Saylor’s drums, he opens the familiar jazz composition, “Con Alma,” with a drum introduction that reminds me of rain on a tin roof.  At first you only hear the smooth and lovely tenor saxophone and the double bass enter the drum space.  That trio is enough.  

The first time I saw Tivon play ‘in person’ was when I saw him perform with Kenny Burrell in Los Angeles.   I was so impressed with his aura and his musical energy and excellence.  Later I enjoyed him as part of Gregory Porter’s band.  I miss that kind of stage energy on this production.  Although it’s well-produced and enjoyable, I wish Tivon Pennicott had shared some of that extraordinary emotional energy he displays when he’s playing ‘live.’  Although well-produced and beautifully orchestrated, I miss the raw spirit of Tivon Pennicott that I have witnessed in person.  On the tune, “Bad Apple,” he almost captured that energy.  There was funk on the bottom and strings softening the production in the hemisphere.  There were time changes and unexpected background horn harmonies that punctuated the soloists and the melody.  Pennicott absolutely captured the sound of rain on the song, “Rain Dance.”  I think this tune, along with several others on this album, could easily become part of a movie soundtrack.  Pennicott’s music has all the magic and drama you look for in film orchestration. 

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April 7, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

April 7, 2021

CELESTE – “NOT YOUR MUSE” – Polydor / Universal Records

Celeste, vocals/composer; Jamien Nagadhana, bass/composer; Joe Harris, guitar; Josh Crocker, drums/guitar/vibraphone/composer/ brass string arrangements/harp; Jamie Hartman, piano/composer; Sebastian Plano & David Rossi, performed & directed strings; Jamie Houghton, drums/percussion; Kaidi Alkinnibi, tenor saxophone/ string & brass arrangements; Dominic Canning, Piano; Elias Atkinson, trumpet; Misha Fox, trombone; Jermaine Amissah, baritone saxophone; Mark Mollison, elec. guitar;  Simon Aldred, acoustic guitar; Charlie Hugall, percussion/acoustic guitar/horns/Wurlitzer; Tom Henry, synth/glockenspiel; Sebastian Plano, cello;  Parthenope Wald Harding, flute;

Born May 5, 1994, Celeste Epiphany Waite, whose stage name is simply “Celeste,” is based in Britain.  The moment I ran across a voice like Celeste’s singing a unique song titled, “Strange” it inspired interest and anticipation. Here was a vocalist who pursued her own expression and crossed genres with unique musical vocals, original music and interesting lyrics.  Celeste is a combination of pop, rhythm and blues, contemporary and jazz all rolled into one ball of creativity.  She is shades of Corinne Bailey Rae’s honest delivery, combined with the husky emotional delivery of Amy Winehouse and a twinge of Macy Gray.  This is a new artist to watch.  On the original composition, “Strange” she reveals that little sexy break in her voice, a huskiness that wraps her lyrics in a soft cocoon of emotion.  There is a hint of Nina Simone hiding inside her style like a possibility.

Songs like “Stop This Flame” remind me of something Adele would compose or Maroon 5 would sing. It samples music written by Nina Simone. Celeste’s lyrics and melodies are strong, thought provoking, and always showcase tenacious ‘hooks.’  This composition is a throwback to disco days and easily could be a hit on the dance party circuit. There are pop hits stacked inside this music, like stairsteps to success. For instance, “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know.” But many other tunes cross boundaries and are genre undefinable, like “Some Goodbyes Come with Hello” and “The Promise” or “A Kiss” that easily could be arranged as folk music or a sweet jazz tune.  The title tune, “Not Your Muse” is haunting and jazzy.  Celeste offers us an art project and a strong lesson in songwriting and composing.  This is an album that makes us pay close attention while we soak up the genuine joy inside this unique musical message.

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BOBBY RODRIGUEZ – “FREEDOM” – Independent Label

Bobby Rodriguez, composer/trumpet/flugelhorn/vocals; Rickey Woodard, tenor saxophone; Wendall Kelly, trombone; Joey Navarro, Karen Hammack & Billy Mitchell, keyboards; Barry Polhmann, guitar; Del Atkins, Derrick Oles & Rene Camacho, bass; Alex Acuña & Yvonne deBourbon-Rodriguez, hand percussion; Aaron Serfaty, Clayton Cameron & Maria Martinez, drums; Kei Akagi & Joe Rotundi Jr., piano; Alan Goldman, strings & voices; Raffia Thomas, vocals; George Oldziey, strings;

The opening, title tune struts out of the gate like a proud thoroughbred pony.  “Freedom” is a funk based contemporary jazz composition that involves a strong horn section and Latin rhythms to propel the melody forward.  Trumpeter, Bobby Rodriguez, has composed every song on this album.  One of the hit tunes on the project is “Jazz It Up,” a very commercial, contemporary, funk jazz tune that makes you joyful just listening to it. This is followed by “Little Henry,” a song he composed for his newest grandson.  It’s another up-tempo, happy composition with a memorable melody played joyfully from the bell of Rodriguez’s trumpet.  “Mia’s Lullaby” is a beautiful ballad and celebrates another grandchild, his granddaughter, Mia.  It’s not the traditional ¾ waltz-time lullaby.  Instead, it’s a very jazzy 4/4 that surprises us and adds a little funk near the fade of the song.  Track 5, “Bailar Merengue” offers Latin voices, singing the title like a chant, and projects a party groove that encourages listeners to shake their hips and move their feet. “Robin Star” is a beautiful composition and shines a spotlight on some of the excellent players Bobby Rodriguez has assembled for this project, including Bob Mintzer on tenor saxophone.  Rodriguez uses his flugelhorn on this ‘live’ recording of his “Robin Star” composition.  Kei Akagi is inspiring on piano.  The composition “Yvonne” celebrates Bobby’s wife and is a very pretty ballad.  “Raise Your Hands” is a composition brewed with a thick, gospel-feel and it’s fueled by the funky drums of Marie Martinez and the steady, dancing bass of Del Atkins.  Raffia Thomas adds her soulful vocals to the mix.  This project offers the listener a variety of repertoire that features Dr. Rodriguez as a competent and engaging composer and arranger.  The stellar line-up of Los Angeles musicians enhances his arrangements and perpetuates the “Freedom” title with unbridled energy and enthusiasm.  I felt that same excitement when I attended the 80th birthday celebration of Kenny Burrell, produced by Dr. Rodriguez, that became a television program. That was the night I first heard Dr. B’s song, “Jazz It Up.”

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Sandra Booker, vocals/composer/lyricist/arranger/background vocals/exec. producer; Robert Turner, keyboards/organ/arranger/drum & bass programming (Logic Pro) synthesizers/co-producer.

Sandra Booker sounds vocally powerful on her new ‘single’ release titled, “Until We Meet Again.”  It’s a beautiful ballad that tributes loved ones lost, either because of the COVID 19 pandemic or otherwise.  Her song crosses genres and could be marketed as R&B or jazz.  The track is very jazzy, featuring Robert Turner as a master on synthesizer.  With COVID-19 keeping many of us self-quarantined and away from studio sessions, Sandra and Robert Turner have somehow created a single release that sounds like the whole band is involved.  Kudos to Robert Turner for creating this strong track! Booker’s voice is as smooth and comforting as satin sheets.  She glides across the music like raindrops on glass windowpanes or tears on cheeks. Together, this duo has created a stellar product, that is the beginning of an album they hope to release by the end of the year.  Their single, “Until We Meet Again” is currently available On-Line.

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Logan Richardson, alto saxophone/piano/keyboards/synthesizer/ composer; Igor Osypov, electric/ acoustic guitars; Peter Schlamb, vibraphone/keyboards/key bass; Dominique Sanders, bass/key bass/production; Ryan J. Lee, drums/bass; Corey Fonville, drums; Laura Taglialatela, vocals; Ezgi Karakus, strings; Busta Rhymes, spoken word.

This production is ‘rock’ meets fusion, meets contemporary smooth jazz.  It’s very electronic, right from the beginning arrangement of the original composition by Logan Richardson, “Say My Name.” The poor mix on this tune makes it challenging to hear the spoken word by Stephan Harris.  The next three songs follow suit with electronic music and rock drums, until we get to “For Alto.”  Richardson has composed every song on this album.  For once, we hear the pure jazz tone out of Logan Richardson’s alto saxophone on this tune; blown through his horn like a solo prayer.  When the electronics enter, it changes the jazz prayer to a pretty ballad, convoluted with overtones, echoes and repetition.  You can hear Logan’s creative orchestration during this production and his mastery of many instruments.  As an arranger, and working with producer Dominique Sanders, they dribble vocal beauty and dabs of activist statements throughout this production.  On Track #11 titled, “Photo Copy,” the featured voice of Busta Rhymes complains about music business inequities.  There are protest moments that dot the production in seductive ways, tickling the listener’s brain when it’s least expected.  However, sometimes the music is so busy that it becomes noise.  This reviewer appreciates the exceptional talents of Mr. Richardson, but I’d like to see more sensitivity in the arrangements; crescendos and rest spots that let the music, like nature and life, breathe every now and then. 

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Anais Reno, vocals; Emmet Cohen, piano/bandleader/arranger; Russell Hall, bass; Kyle Poole, drums; Tivon Pennicott, saxophone; Juliet Kurtzman, violin.

Her vocal style and tone sound seasoned.  However, Anais Reno’s CD cover portrait appears to be a very young woman.  From the deep ocean of memorable tunes that Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn left this world, this vocalist has plucked some of the most iconic for her debut album. Surprisingly, she was only sweet sixteen when she began singing these   challenging songs.  I knew she was young, but I didn’t realize this emotional delivery belonged to a teenager.   With roots in music, I suppose this was her destiny.  Her father was a former opera singer who performed in Europe and her mother is an accomplished violinist.  Both talented parents recognized their child had a love for music when, at just Kindergarten age, she was singing songs from the Broadway show, Aladdin. While taking voice lessons, her teacher introduced her to Etta James when she was just-eight years old.

“When I was eight-years old, I didn’t realize I was doing anything special.  I didn’t know that singing was actually very complex and that there was a difference between someone who like to sing and a trained singer.  I just knew I loved to sing and I loved the soulfulness of ‘At Last.’  That led me to listen to jazz extensively.  It consumed my whole life,” Anais Reno confessed in her press package.

At eleven-years old, she was part of the New York Philharmonic’s Very Young Composers program and had the opportunity to perform with the orchestra.  By the time she was twelve, she was performing at open mic sessions at Birdland. At thirteen, she played her first gig as a solo artist at a local New York club.  They were so impressed with her vocal abilities, they featured her on three solo shows.  She won the 2016 Forte International Competition’s Platinum Award at Carnegie Hall and Miss Reno came in First Place at the 2019 Mabel Mercer Foundation competition in NYC.  In 2020, she won the Julie Wilson Award.  When I hear her emotional delivery on “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing,” it’s difficult to believe this is a sixteen-year-old singing with that much storytelling narrative in her vocal delivery.  Her slow jazzy arrangement on “I’m Just a Lucky So and So” is pleasing to the ear and the young lady can ‘swing’ and scat.  You hear a piece of her soul shining through when she performs, “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues.”  Clearly, she is becoming a jazz force in her own unique way.  Anais Reno shows great insight beyond her years when she writes:

“…You see, I don’t think hearing music I relate to makes me ‘normal;’ are any of us, really? I think hearing music I relate to makes my flaws, my affinity for blueness, my complexities, okay.  They’re okay because if they weren’t, why would this music be just as complex as I am?  Why would it be just as complex as human beings are?  As I write this, I have just turned seventeen.  There are an infinite number of people and things I will never know and there are an equally infinite number of people and things I will get to know.  … I know now that the music of Ellington & Strayhorn understands me.  This is why I want to honor it and this is why maybe one day, I will understand myself,” Anais Reno shares her thoughts on this debut album.

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Steve Gadd, drums; Walt Fowler, trumpet/flugelhorn; Kevin Hays, keyboards/vocals; Jimmy Johnson, bass; David Spinozza, guitar.

An eerie introduction kicks off the first funk-fueled tune titled, “Where’s Earth?”  It’s pumped up by Jimmy Johnson’s electric bass licks.  Kevin Hays dances across the keyboard keys with nimble fingers and David Spinozza takes a funky guitar solo.  This is ‘live’ fusion jazz at its best.

According to Modern Drummer magazine, Steve Gadd is one of very few drummers who has changed the way musicians hear music.  He’s been slapping the groove into place in his own impassioned way for the past fifty plus years.  Gadd’s unforgettable recordings are iconic, from his infectious beat on Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” to his jazzier projects with Chick Corea, Chuck Mangione and Al Di Meola.  Steve Gadd’s legendary execution on drums moves from jazz to pop in the blink of an eye. That’s why so many versatile artists have requested he work with them.  He’s spent time on-the-road or in-the-studio with such icons as Diana Ross, Dr. John, Gato Barbieri, Al Jarreau, Bob James, George Benson, Joe Cocker and a host of others too lengthy to print here.  On Track 4, “Hidden Drive” composed by guitarist Spinozza, Gadd lays down a blues groove that makes me turn up my sound system.  Then on “Walk With Me” (Track 5) pianist Kevin Hays adds his vocal charm, singing his self-penned song, while Gadd settles the Hays composition into a steady and infectious groove that reminds me of the powerful Bill Withers tunes and their in-the-pocket drum beats.  Jimmy Johnson’s tune, “One Point Five” brings Latin jazz to the stage and gives Gadd a platform to solo and show-off his mastery of the drums.  This song is propelled by Johnson’s steady bass riff and enhanced by Walt Fowler’s melodic trumpet. 

There is something for everyone in this versatile concert repertoire. Steve Gadd leads an all-star ensemble, featuring bandmates he has known, appreciated and respected for years.  David Spinozza, an associate of Gadd’s since the 1970’s, replaced his usual guitarist, Michael Landau. With that exception, all the other ensemble members are longtime bandmates.

“Michael wasn’t able to do the tour, so I was glad that David could do it.  He’s an old friend of mine.  I met David years and years ago, before he even came to New York. … We did a bunch of bands and recordings.  I love the way he plays,” Steve Gadd praised his new addition to the band.

The tunes chosen were honed from a 4-night run at the famous Blue Note Tokyo club in December of 2019.  They close out with a Bob Dylan tune, “Watching the River Flow,” a long time Gadd favorite song.

“I recorded that song on a Joe Cocker album that Allen Toussaint produced in 1978,” he recalled. 

As they shuffle their way out of this album, I decide to listen again.  It was just that pleasurable.

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Alyssa Allgood, vocals/composer; Mike Allemana, guitar; Dennis Carroll, bass/composer; George Fludas, drums.

I am immediately captivated by the first tune.  Alyssa and her capable musicians perform “There Are Such Things” (by Stanley Adams/Abel Baer/G. Meyer) at a medium swing tempo.  On this performance, Ms. Allgood checks the boxes that many consider the sign of a competent jazz singer.  1) She can swing.  2) she has a pleasant tone and sells the lyrics, and 3) she can scat.  She adequately ‘trades fours’ with George Fludas on drums.  One of her original composition, words and music, is called “Time Found” and it’s well-written and performed with a long solo scat piece that showcases Alyssa’s understanding of chord changes and harmonics.  Her interpretation of Milton Nascimento’s beautiful composition, “Bridges” is well-done and features Mike Allemana on guitar.  “Try your wings” is a happy song that invites Dennis Carroll to solo on his bass. Although I was quite taken by the opening tune, I found myself disappointed in some of the musical arrangements. For example, the original song she and bassist Dennis Carroll wrote is a solid song, but the arrangement features so much guitar dissonance that he did not seem to support the melody or the vocals.  Mike Allemana’s mixture of Avant-garde type accompaniment does not benefit this artist’s presentation.  I would like to hear Alyssa Allgood recorded with a piano trio. Mr. Allemana’s solos were strong, but surprisingly his support of the vocalist seemed reckless and non-supportive on some occasions.  They did a fine job on “This Bitter Earth” and as a duo on “For All We Know” they beautifully complement one another.   I note that Alyssa Allgood produced this album herself.  Perhaps she should consider finding a producer and an arranger, who can carve the music around her tenacious and stylized vocals to better support her original music, her tonality and her musical grace.

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Ricardo Silveira, guitar/composer.

Solo guitar can be absolutely beautiful when properly played and produced.  Ricardo Silveira does not disappoint.  His technique and precision infuse this music that warms my heart. As a composer, he offers six original compositions out of eleven songs.  One of my favorites is “That Day In Tahiti.”  Another is Track 5, a Carlos Jobim tune, “Luiza.” Silveira gives us a very sweet and lovely presentation of this song.  I enjoyed his interpretation of “My Romance,” a favorite jazz tune across the spectrum. 

Ricardo Silveira is a native of Rio de Janeiro and soaked up all the beauty of Brazilian music in his early years.  As a beginning guitarist, he participated in school performances and at local festivals.  Ricardo continued pursuing music in college.   He’s a studied musician, who came to America and enrolled in a guitar course at Berklee College of Music in Boston.  That summer course changed his life.  The music school immediately recognized Silveira’s talent and potential.  They awarded him a scholarship to continue his study at Berklee.  The rest is history. 

Ricardo Silveira has recorded over a dozen albums as a leader or co-leader and made historic music with a host of legendary musicians including Wayne Shorter, Gilberto Gil, Ivan Lins, Milton Nascimento, Elis Regina, Diana Ross, Vanessa Williams and many, many more.  When Herbie Mann heard Ricardo Silveira play his guitar, he hired him on the spot.  He had been searching for a Brazilian guitarist who also could play Straight-ahead jazz, play the blues and various other styles of music. Silveira fit the bill.  Ricard has recorded with Randy Brecker on “Randy in Brazil.”  That album won a Grammy in 2009 for Best Contemporary Jazz Album.  Confined to his home, with all his touring dates cancelled because of COVID-19, Ricardo took that ‘down’ time to create this solo artistic accomplishment.   Although I found some of the arrangements to be long-winded, they are all romantic and inspired.  You will not hear the urgency and sexy, danceable rhythms of Brazil in this presentation.  Instead, you can enjoy the beauty of Ricardo Silveira’s peaceful style of playing his songs solo, with tranquility wrapping this project in colorful chords and gorgeous melodies.  Ricardo’s composing talents are the bow on top.

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TODD COCHRAN – “TC3” – “THEN AND AGAIN, HERE & NOW” – Sunnyside Records

Todd Cochran, piano; John Leftwich, bass; Michael Carvin, drums.

Todd Cochran opens his CD with an inspired arrangement of “Softly, As in A Morning Sunrise.”  His fingers skip across the keys to punctuate the unusual time changes.  When John Leftwich steps forward on his double bass, he swings hard and solos creatively.  Cochran displays his rich and unique jazz interpretations, using the 88-keys as a diving board, then he swims through the melodic arrangements with fresh nuances and fluctuating time signatures.  On “A Foggy Day,” Cochran utilizes the upper register of the piano to present a music-box-introduction.  As Leftwich walks his bass briskly beneath, Michael Carvin holds the up-tempo steady and solid on drums. Todd Cochran dances to the forefront, his hands and ten fingers racing, sprinter-style, and heading relentlessly towards the finish-line.  This song morphs into an extended fade that finds a groove and sticks to it like Velcro.  The trio’s arrangement of “I Got Rhythm” is fresh-faced and intriguing.  It gives Michael Carvin freedom to explore his technique and free rein to be as creative as he likes on the trap drums.  Cochran does not soak up all the spotlight, but conscientiously shares it with his fellow musicians. Each member of this trio is a master in his own right. As many times as I have heard this standard jazz tune (I Got Rhythm) this time it is brand new to my ears.  I must compliment Todd Cochran for his amazing ability to transform songs we know very well to eclectic pieces of art. This is one of the finest jazz pianists I’ve listened to in a long time.  He is unselfish and offers us fifteen songs to delight upon. 

A San Francisco native, as a teenager he was greatly influenced by such Northern California icons as Herbie Hancock, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Woody Shaw, Bobby Hutcherson, John Handy and Eddie Henderson, to name just a few.  Now, after a ten-year hiatus from recording, to nurture his son into adulthood, Todd Cochran returns to the joy, freedom and his love of music.  With this album, he proffers his amazing talent with the world.  Sit back and enjoy!

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April 3, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist


I first met George Davidson when I was a baby girl, not quite twenty-one, and using fake identification to go hear Aretha Franklin at the Twenty-Grand nightclub in Detroit, Michigan.  I was there with my close friend, Marthea Hicks, who hosted a radio show locally, and we went backstage to say ‘hi’ to Ms. Franklin.  Marthea’s father was a popular minister in the Detroit area and he and C. L. Franklin (Aretha’s father) were good friends.  Marthea and Aretha knew each other and I remember being star-struck just to meet the great Queen of Soul.  George Davidson was playing drums for her that fateful evening and he was amazing!  The video below is a recorded concert performed in 1968 with George accompanying Aretha Franklin in Amsterdam, Holland.

George didn’t start out being a drummer.  His dream was to be a great tap dancer, inspired by the inimitable Sammy Davis Jr. or the iconic Nicholas Brothers. He and his family were living on the East side of Detroit, when he began studying tap at the Sophie Wright Settlement House, on Mitchell Avenue, under the tutelage of Clara Wilson.

“I was born on the East side of Detroit, in a Polish neighborhood, right across from where Mr. Kelly’s was located on Chene Street.  It was the Garfield Bowling Alley at that time.   Next, we moved right across the street from Sophie Wright Settlement,” George recalled. 

At Greusel Middle School, Davidson auditioned to be in the band.  He had developed an interest in drumming and Fred Paxton, a pianist, became his first music teacher.  At North Eastern High School, he was tutored by the unforgettable Mr. Rex T. Hall, a percussionist and music educator.

“A lot of folks who became stars attended North Eastern High with me.  Alice Coltrane went to school there, but she graduated before I did.  Barry Harris went to school there too. A couple of the Supremes went there; Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard.  Martha Reeves from Martha and the Vandellas was a student and so was Willie Tyler, the popular ventriloquist.  When I was touring with the Four Tops, Willie used to open for us. I also got to play his show a few times.  He appreciated background music, just like a lot of the comedians I used to play behind,” George shared memories from his early days in music.

Like many Detroit artists and musicians, George Davidson wet his feet, bathing in the recording waters of Johnnie Mae Matthews. In 1958, Johnnie Mae Matthews was the first African American woman to establish a record company.  She set up business at 2608 Blaine Street in Detroit, Michigan.  It was known as Northern Recording Company and Davidson became the ‘on-call’ drummer for most of her sessions.  Known fondly as the ‘Godmother of Detroit Soul,’ Johnnie Mae recorded several artists destined to become super stars like David Ruffin, who would become a lead singer for the Temptation group and his talented brother, Jimmy Ruffin.  She originally primed the group called “The Distants” featuring Richard Street.  Most of the members of that group later changed their name to the Temptations and signed with Motown.  Berry Gordy credits Johnnie Mae Matthews for teaching him the record business and she helped get Smokey Robinson and The Miracles get airplay and a distribution deal with Chess Records for their first 1959 hit record, “Bad Girl.” George remembers some of the sessions he played on for Johnnie Mae Matthews.

“I was the session drummer who recorded on most of the Johnnie Mae Matthews projects that she produced.  She had acts like, Timmy Shaw, T.P., the lead singer with the Originals; Bettye LaVette and Bobby St. Thomas. I played on all those sessions and more. I remember when Bettye LaVette was an underaged teenager hanging out at Phelps Lounge with me and Ms. Cubie. The police would come in there and Bettye, me and Ms. Cubie (another Detroit vocalist whose real name is Betsy Barron) would run and hide in the back room ‘cause we were all under the legal age. We were chasing the music.”

George Davidson recalled his international tour with the Four Tops.  “I enjoyed working with the Four Tops.  They were really cool.  We were in Europe at that time with the first African American brother that modelled for the J. L Hudson Company, he was an icon and he was also our Road Manager.  So, one pay day, Motown didn’t send me all my money.  They shorted me. That was the first part of 1970.  We were in Europe, so I told the road manager to give me my airplane ticket, because I was going home.  I’m outta here, I told him angrily. 

“The morning I arrived back in Detroit, I got a call from Paul Butterfield.  He wanted me to come on the road with them, ‘cause Phillip Wilson (their drummer) had went nuts on them.  I told him I had just got back in town that morning.  I needed a couple of days rest.  That was Monday morning.  He said, he’d have the plane ticket for me at the airport on Wednesday.  So, I went out there and rehearsed with them in San Francisco.  I remember that Tower of Power was rehearsing right down the hall from us.  They came strolling down the hallway to hear us play. We recorded for Elektra, The Butterfield Blues Band ‘Live.’  We recorded it at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. That was in 1970.  I also played on their album, Sometimes I Just Feel Like Smilin’. That was in 1971. I may be on one of his compilation albums; Golden Butter/The Best of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.  Around this same time, I cut the Little Sonny album, “New King of the Blues harmonica.”

Although in the early years, George Davidson cut his teeth on R&B music and the Blues, he has also played jazz with some of the best in the business.  In 1974, he recorded with jazz trombonist, Phil Ranelin on an album called “The Time Is Now.”  This was followed up by a 1976 recording with the Tribe group that included Ranelin, Wendell Harrison, Marcus Belgrave, Harold McKinney and Rod Hicks. They recorded “Vibes from the Tribe.”  His early influences were great jazz drummers like Max Roach, Art Blakey, Jo Jones and Elvin Jones. 

“I remember I used to sit at the side of Elvin Jones when he was with Trane. I was sitting by his drums saying, oh my goodness, look at that.  Will I ever be able to do that stuff?” George smiles remembering.

He applied himself, practiced, took all the gigs that came his way and soon, he found himself playing with many of the masters he admired.  Not only did he go to school with Kenny Cox, he played many gigs with the Detroit-based pianist and composer.  He worked with renowned trumpeter, Dr. Donald Byrd and pianist, arranger, Teddy Harris.  George was the drummer with Teddy’s Be Bop Orchestra group.  Donald Harrison came and sat in with the orchestra one day.  Harrison labeled George ‘The Groove Meister.’

“That’s the first thing I teach my students, you know.  How to groove.  Karrim Riggins is one of my students.  One of the leading drummers in Las Vegas, he’s one of my former students; Angelo Stokes. I taught Shawn Dobbins, and another one is Gayelynn McKinney.  She’s got a very nice, new CD out. The first thing I teach them is how to set the mood, by laying the swing out properly.  Anchor first, before you go anyplace, and don’t play behind the beat.  Play on top of the beat,” George shares some technique advice.

George Davidson, Teddy Harris and Don Mayberry were the house trio at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge for years. Rooted in Detroit, Baker’s is celebrated as the oldest jazz club in the country.  The list of people George has worked with could fill a book.  I asked him about his time working with iconic jazz pianist, Dorothy Donagan.

 “Dorothy Donagan was a sweetheart.  She’d look over at me and say, hey, give me some of that Papa Jo (talking about Jo Jones) cause she liked to play really fast.  Her little body would get to twitching and moving.  I worked with her so much, that when she would do her little body movements, I would catch each one with my drum licks. Oh, she loved that!”

He and vocalist Leon Thomas were ace buddies.  George toured with Thomas for two years.  He also performed with saxophone masters Teddy Edwards and the late, great Eddie Harris.

“The last time I worked with Eddie Harris he gave me a great compliment.  He said, hey, you’re playing your butt off man.  One time we were down in Ohio and he spent 2-1/2 hours on stage.  Eddie could play the piano, he could sing, he would yodel, he’d play the saxophone and turn those machines on and sound like a whole band.  That’s when Claude Black was on piano,” George reminisced.

“My good friend, Claude Black, called me a few days before he passed and told me what the doctor had told him.  They said he didn’t have but a few days before he would die.  He passed away three days later,” George paused and the silence fell like an invisible tear across the phone line. 

NOTE: Claude Black (1933 – January 17, 2013) was an American jazz pianist who performed with Stan Getz, Charlie Parker, Wes Montgomery and Aretha Franklin. Black was born in Detroit. He began his jazz career in 1948 but his big success was in 1965 when he began his tour with Aretha Franklin.[1]

The now defunct, Bird of Paradise, was a popular club in Ann Arbor. George Davidson played with Kenny Burrell at that club, among other great jazz artists.  He worked with amazing vocalists like Sheila Jordan, Marlena Shaw, Ernestine Anderson, Barbara Morrison, Mary Wells, Spanky Wilson, The Sweet Inspiration with Whitney Houston’s mother, of course Aretha Franklin and her sister, Carolyn and Roseanna Vitro to name just a few.  Davidson is a sensitive player on his trap drums.  He knows just when to embellish the music and just how to lay back behind a vocalist, and compliment the vocals without being too loud or overbearing.   Just ask folks like Award winning vocalist Jerri Brown based in Montreal, Canada.  He also accompanied the legendary Jon Hendricks.  Davidson played with Kevin Mahogany, Edwin Starr and Johnny Nash, who had that big hit record, “I Can See Clearly Now.”  Davidson toured with Mary Wilson for years and was the drummer of choice to tour with the Supremes including Mary Wilson, Sherri Payne and Susaye Green, who he complimented saying they were the hottest of all the Supreme groups.  He played with all the other Supreme groups that followed that powerhouse vocal trio.  Davidson was also part of the Michigan Jazz Masters and he recorded “Urban Griots” with that group.

In 1980 and 1985, George recorded with Wendell Harrison on “Dreams of A Love Supreme” and “Reawakening,” and on the “Fish Feet” album with guitarist Ron English, In 2009.

In the early 60s, George Davidson recorded with Melvin Davis.  You can hear his driving drums on a 7” single with “I Won’t Come Crawling Back To You” and “I Don’t Want You” on the flip side.

George told me a funny story about recording with the late Bill Doggett, famous for his hit record, “Honky Tonk.”

“I was with Bill Doggett when he re-recorded Honky Tonk for the second time. that was the last time I saw Bill before he passed.  How I got that gig was Edwin Starr called me from the studio.  Bill Doggett was having problems with his drummer, so Edwin called me and asked me to come over to the studio.  I went over and set my drums up next to his drummer.  They told his drummer to just follow me and we recorded a second version of Honky Tonk.  Edwin Starr opened for us when I was in the UK touring with the Supremes. We were longtime friends.”

I think the funniest stories that George Davidson shared with me were about playing with comedians. I had forgotten that comedians often had musicians play to open their shows or actually play throughout their performances.  George told me he played with the historic Redd Foxx at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge. He worked with Professor Irwin Corey, Flip Wilson, Slappy White, Phyllis Diller and even Moms Mabley.

“I worked with Moms Mabley out there in California.  All the ladies would follow around after Moms like little puppies.  When moms came off the stage and put on her regular clothes, you’d never know it was her.  She would be so sharp and she had soft hair.  She didn’t have to straighten her hair.  Moms was put together and looked like a business lady.  She looked like corporate America.  Oh, you would not know it was her once Moms Mabley came out of her costume.

“We would play comedians on and off the stage.  But you know the one that made me laugh the hardest, so hard in fact, she made me leave the stage?  It was Phyllis Diller.  I was crying I was laughing so hard.  I mean I had to leave the stage and get myself together.  Oh, she was hilarious.  And you had to play her music exactly the way it was written on the paper.  Some of the comedians had charts and some didn’t. But she was serious about us playing her charts,” he told me.

The George Davidson legacy has made its way around the world.  He has toured on almost every continent and with a variety of entertainers.  In August of 2017, George found himself lying in a hospital bed.  A huge fan base and a long list of Detroit musicians turned out to celebrate his lifelong musical contributions.  Diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) George has been recuperating at his home in the Motor City and had to momentarily step away from his drums.  However, his rhythmic skills and percussive excellence will live on for years to come, perpetuated by his many successful students and the historic recordings that spotlight his performances.

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