ASTUTE ARRANGING AND EXCITING YOUNG TALENT SURFACES ON SPRING CD RELEASES
April 22, 2017
By Jazz Journalist/Dee Dee McNeil
Spring always brings forth new life. To epitomize this, I received a batch of CD releases that both surprised and pleased me. Amazing arranger, MICHAEL ABENE created nine unforgettable orchestral arrangements for the Temple University Studio Orchestra in celebration of Frank Sinatra’s musical genius. He is joined by a full-bodied orchestra ensemble and the talents of trumpeter/educator,TERELL STAFFORD and alto saxophonist/recording artist/clinician,DICK OATTS. I was absolutely floored by the piano talents of CHRISTIAN SANDS. Guitarist,GREG SKAFF, moves jazz into the realm of funk and hard rock, while vocal/composer, MARK WINKLER continues to stride the path of performer/songwriter, featuring a host of jazz dynamo’s and popular recording vocalists like JACKIE RYAN,STEVE TYRELL and CHERYL BENTYNE.
TERELL STAFFORD & DICK OATTS WITH THE TEMPLE UNIVERSITY STUDIO ORCHESTRA – “LUCK BE A LADY – A TRIBUTE TO FRANK”
RHYTHM: James Collins, piano; Sam Harris, bass; Donovan Pope, drums; Ethan Fisher, vibraphone; Sean Markey, guitar; PERCUSSION: Travis Goffredo, Ryan Wood, & Jason Yoder; VIOLIN 1: Celine Jeong Kim, Luis Cuevas, Frederic Henry, Ayano Kato, Juana Pinilla-Paez, Amanda Roth & Benjamin Weaver; VIOLIN II: Hanna Lee, Yena Choi, Hannah Jordan, Rachel Miller, Amanda Montera, Emma Scott, Chesy Tronchoni-Bello & Morgan Warner; VIOLA: Jeremy Tonelli-Sippel, Bria Blackshear, Adam Kohibus, Akhmed Mamedov, Deanna Mead, Laura Palm; CELLO: Justin Yoder, Yeliza Aleman-Gaelan, Alyssa Almeida, Christian Parker & Elena Smith; BASS: Neil Walters, Vincent Luciano, Patrick Oberstaedt & David Weiss; FLUTE: Ji Young Lee & Nicholas Hall; OBOE: Danica Cheng & Andrew Dotterer; CLARINET: Elisa Montoya Sanchez & James Campbell; BASSOON: Dominic Panunto & Rebecca Krown; SAXOPHONE:Chris Oatts, alto 1; Simon Crosby-Arreaza, alto II; Christian Lewis, tenor 1; Jack Saint Clair, tenor II; Joshua Lee, baritone; HORNS: Hillary Charen, Michael Fries, Jeffrey Lynch & Martina Smith; TRUMPET: Fareed Simpson-Hankins, Jacob Hernandez, David El-Bakara & Noah Hocker. TROMBONE: Sean McCusker, Hailey Brennel, Neal Williamson & Adam Kowalski. ARRANGER: Michael Abene.
Michael Abene is a man nominated for multi-Grammys, as well as being a Grammy Award winning composer, arranger, producer, band leader and gifted pianist. He’s worked with a few of the biggest names in music including Chick Corea, Dizzy Gillespie, Patti Austin, Buddy Rich and the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band. He was musical director and the principal arranger/composer of the WDR Radio Big Band of Cologne, as well as director of the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop. Now he injects the Temple University Studio Orchestra with a dose of his amazing and creative arranging skills. The result is dazzling.
The Dean and Vice Provost for the Arts at Temple University is Robert T. Stroker. He commissioned Michael Abene for the college and summed-up this musical project by explaining:
“One of our ambitious goals at Boyer is to regularly commission new works by living composers for our students to perform. This provides the unique opportunity for our students to rehearse and record with composers, giving them insight into the creative and artistic process of composing and arranging.”
On this project, the youthful orchestra is inspired by a host of iconic talents, including trumpeter Terell Stafford, who pianist McCoy Tyner complimented as being “One of the great players of our time.” Stafford has recorded six albums as a leader and as a sideman, he’s infused his trumpet talents on ninety various recordings including such luminaries as Kenny Barron, Diana Krall, Jimmy Heath, John Faddis, Bobby Watson, Shirley Scott and the list goes on and on. In 2013, Stafford was named Artistic Director of the newly formed Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia. Currently, Stafford is Chair of Instrumental Studies and Director of Jazz Studies at Temple University. This has to be very inspirational to the student body.
On this musical endeavor, Stafford pairs his talents with Dick Oatts, a member of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. Oatts is a Steeplechase recording artist and has released six albums as a leader. For three decades, Oatts has appeared at college jazz festivals as a soloist and clinician, not only in the United States, but worldwide. Additionally, Oatts has leant his alto saxophone talents on numerous projects, including work with Red Rodney, Eddie Gomez, Bob Brookmeyer, Fred Hersch, Lalo Schiffrin, Mel Lewis, Paquito D’Rivera and several vocalists including pop/R&B stars, Luther Vandross and James Taylor; also jazz vocal icons including Mel Torme, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn and Joe Williams. Oatts reflected about this project in the liner notes.
“What influenced me most about Sinatra was how he put himself into the melody and lyrics as much as he did putting himself in a role as an actor. Playing with Terell Stafford is exactly like that for me. It is a different magic every time. Michael Abene and Andreas Delfs brought out the best from our students, who were simply amazing.”
Next, you have conductor, Andreas Delfs, who was acting as music director of the Temple University Symphony Orchestra in 2015. He too boasts exceptional affiliations, including work with Yo-Yo-Ma, Joshua Bell, Renee Fleming and world celebrated ensembles like the London Symphony Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra, New York City Opera, Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and many, many others. Together, these four incredible talents have joined forces to inspire a sixty-three-member orchestra. United, this musical coterie presents an outstanding tribute to the hit recordings of Frank Sinatra. The orchestra’s performance is formidable, filled with conviviality and gusto, tenderness and emotion, to remind us of the man and his music. I nearly wept when I heard their arrangement of “I’m A Fool To Want You.” This newly released project was recorded in 2015 to celebrate Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday and released this season. These young musicians should be loudly lauded for this professional sound-recording.
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CHRISTIAN SANDS – “REACH”
Mack Avenue Records
Christian Sands, piano; Marcus Baylor, drums; Yasushi Nakamura, upright bass; Gilad Hekselman, guitar; Cristian Rivera, percussion; Marcus Strickland, tenor saxophone/bass clarinet. SPECIAL GUEST, Christian McBride, bass.
Beginning with “Armando’s Song,” the piano playing of Christian Sands leaps from my compact disc and lights up the room. This young man has a unique style and introduces a crystal-clear path of technique, fingers dancing fluidly along the black and white keys. His sense of continuity and improvisation, mixes like cake batter, thick and sweet to the ear. The first thing I notice is how lush and full this trio sounds and how melodic Sands is, starting with the first two cuts on this recording. He has composed eight of the ten songs recorded and is still evolving as an artist at only twenty-seven years young. But Christian Sands is not young to the music. As a native of New Haven, Connecticut, Sands composed his first song at age five and was well on his way to becoming a professional musician by age ten. His parents realized his musical gifts early-on. They enrolled him in prestigious institutions like the Neighborhood Music School and the Educational Center for the Arts in New Haven. He went on to attain both bachelor and Master degrees from the Manhattan School of Music. Since then, he’s been nominated for five Grammy Awards. Speaking of Grammy Awards, his production team on this recording are both Grammy Award winning musicians; Al Pryor (A&R guru at Mack Ave Records) and bassist Christian McBride.
Sands explained, “…When I first sat in with his (McBride’s) Inside Straight band, I realized that we think about music the same way. When I got signed to Mack Avenue, I asked if Christian could produce me, as someone who knows my playing and what I want to accomplish in my music.”
Sands’ compositions are embellished by Marcus Baylor on drums. He plays a stunning part in delivering the energy and excitement on “Armando’s Song” and elsewhere. On “Song of the Rainbow People,” Yasushi Nakamura is prominent and tenacious on upright bass, echoing the ‘hook’ of cut #2 with deliberate bass breath, supported once again by Baylor’s crashing cymbals and steady excitement throughout. Sands knows how to build crescendos from single notes of beauty into plush, harmonic, two-fisted chords that punch the grand piano into submission. Here is a young artist who brings not just amazing technique, but visceral emotions to his music.
On “Pointing West” and “Freefall” Marcus Strickland joins the group, adding a tasty tenor saxophone. He takes the element of straight ahead jazz to a heightened level. These are another two Sands original compositions. “Pointing West” propels forward at a swift pace. I am intoxicated by the ebullience of this artist’s music. “Freefall” is more thoughtful and provocative, with Sands giving abundant freedom to his fellow bandmates to stretch out and expand their improvisations. He tinkles the keys on top, using the upper, treble register against the tenor saxophone richness. “iÓyeme!” enters like horse hooves against wood, featuring Cristian Rivera on percussion and introducing an Afro-Cuban production that is wildly happy music. Rivera shines, making his drums talk and dance at the same time. Sands keeps the piano rhythms strong in the background, coaching the Latin groove repetitiously, while supplying a platform for his percussionist to soak up the spotlight. It’s a wonderful arrangement! Christian McBride makes a guest appearance on cut #8, during a creative production of the Bill Wither’s hit, “Use Me,” with Hekselman adding his guitar to the mix. Sands puts the Blues into the slowed-down version of Bill’s song and it’s sexy, although hardly recognizable. Christian McBride puts the finishing touches on the arrangement by pulling out his bow and expertly tagging the fade. Every tune and every production on this Christian Sands CD is intoxicating and pleasurable. You will probably play this album over and over again. I did.
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GREG SKAFF – SOULMATION
Greg Skaff, guitars; Fima Ephron, electric bass; Pat Bianchi, Hammond organ, Jonathan Barber & Charley Drayton, drums.
Here is a tightly mixed package of jazz funk that incorporates the guitar magic of Greg Skaff into productions that ooze soul, blues and Rock-influenced original compositions. Sometime in the 1980’s, Skaff arrived in New York from Wichita, Kansas and landed a gig with Stanley Turrentine that lasted five years. He has added his jazz chops to the bandstands of Freddie Hubbard and David “Fathead” Newman. But always, in the back of his mind, were hardcore Rock innovators like Jeff Beck. In the twelve tunes recorded on this CD, Skaff reaches into his hat of magic tricks and ventures into an amalgamation of musical ideas, pulling styles, like white rabbits, into eclectic view. His music bridges straight-ahead and bebop backgrounds, stretching into a more funk/hard-rock sound. He explores his composer skills and they are impressive. Skaff has written nine of the twelve songs on this recording. A song titled, “Bottom Feeder” is dynamic, with Barber’s drums slamming the tune into the listeners face as hard as cement. Duke Ellington’s “Fleurette Africaine” is stimulated by the drums of Jonathan Barber once again and veers from Rock-mode to a Latin-tinged World music. Skaff shows off his flying finger skills and fluid solo work, especially notable on “Porcupine Hat,” where he trades fours with Barber, who once again shines. This is an enjoyable hour of new music by a richly gifted guitar master and his astute crew.
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MARK WINKLER – “THE COMPANY I KEEP”
Café Pacific Records
Mark Winkler, vocals/composer; Jamieson Trotter, piano/Hammond B3; Rich Eames, Eric Reed, Josh Nelson, John Beasley, piano; Lyman Medeiros, John Clayton, bass; Mike Shapiro, Jeff Hamilton, drums; Kevin Winard, percussion/drums; Larry Koonse, Bob Mann, guitar; Bob McChesney, trombone; Ron Blake, Brian Swartz, trumpet; Bob Sheppard, tenor saxophone; Don Shelton, clarinet; Paul Cartwright, violin; GUEST VOCALISTS: Jackie Ryan, Cheryl Bentyne, Steve Tyrell, Claire Martin, Sara Gazarek. Vocal Arrangements, Michele Weir.
Lyman Medeiros walks his big bass sound on the first cut, (a Donald Fagen tune), and Mark Winkler comes in with his caramel smooth vocals, coating the bass background with a lyric that tells a story about rainy days with two lovers making-up as they “Walk Between the Raindrops.” What a great concept. Winkler and Jackie Ryan sell the song, as they swing between the great horn arrangements by Jamieson Trotter. Bob Sheppard puts the ‘P’ in Pizazz on his tenor sax solo. “Strollin” is the music of Prince. Winkler invites vocalist, Cheryl Bentyne, to join him on this one. Michele Weir has written this vocal arrangement and the arrangement for the Donald Fagen cut as well. Bentyne, Winkler and the band easily manage to reconstruct a pop tune into a jazzy arrangement. I love the Medeiros bass line that puts the funk into the tune and Larry Koonse is dynamic on guitar.
This is Winkler’s fifteenth CD release as a leader and over 250 of his songs have been sung or recorded by himself and other artists like Jane Monheit, Dianne Reeves, Liza Minnelli, Cheryl Barnes and several others. He, and co-writer Phil Swann, have penned the lyrics to “Midnight In Paris,” a Bill Cantos tune, soaked in violin and clarinet harmonics, with John Clayton making a guest appearance on bass. ‘But It Still Ain’t So,” is a bluesy shuffle tune by Louis Durra, with a very compelling lyric by Winkler. Steve Tyrell makes a guest appearance with that growly character to his vocals and the ability to Swing as easy as a child at the playground. Great lyrics and a fine delivery by both gentlemen. “That Afternoon in Harlem” is another favorite original composition of mine by Winkler. The production is sparse and his voice carries the story with sincerity and emotion. Winkler knows how to compose stories and he draws you in with his candor. Eric Reed is featured on piano and Jeff Hamilton mans the drums to perfection. Bob McChesney knows just where to add his trombone licks and expands the music of composer, Marilyn Harris, on his solo. “Stolen Moments” features the beautiful voice of Claire Martin, interpreting, (in duet style), the creative lyrics of Mark Murphy and the music of the great Oliver Nelson. I apologize for being unfamiliar with the voice of Claire Martin, but I am now a big fan. “Love Comes Quietly” is lovely with a lyric that is both intriguing and relatable. Winkler is a wonderful lyricist and surrounds himself with the best in the music business to interpret his musical whims and fantasies. For me, it is his songwriting ingenuity that makes this artist so interesting and entertaining. “The Company I Keep” is an album full of master musicians and compelling vocalists who happily find Winkler’s music as titillating and inspirational as I do. He can’t go wrong with this kind of company.
Winkler’s West Coast CD Party will be held Wednesday, May 31st, at the famed Los Angeles jazz club, Catalina’s Bar & Grill in Hollywood at 8:30PM. You’re invited.
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