Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

HOPEFUL, NEW JAZZ RENEWS OUR OPTIMISM

November 20, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

November 20, 2020

THE UNITED STATES AIR FORCE BAND – WASHINGTON D.C. -“THE 2020 JAZZ HERITAGE SERIES” – Independent Label

Technical Sgt. Chris Ziemba, piano; Technical Sgt. Cameron Kayne, bass; Master Sgt. David McDonald, drums; Master Sgt. Geoff Reecer, guitar; Technical Sgt. Paige Wroble, vocals; SAXOPHONES: Technical Sgt. Kristian Baarsvik, lead alto/flute; Technical Sgt. Mike Cemprola, second alto/flute; Master Sgt. Tedd Baker, lead tenor/clarinet; Master Sgt. Grant Langford, second tenor/clarinet; Master Sgt. Doug Morgan, baritone/bass clarinet. TRUMPETS: Sr. Master Sgt. Brian MacDonald, lead trumpet; Chief Master Sgt. Kevin Burns, split lead; Master Sgt. Luke Brandon and Musician 1st Class Jonathan Barnes, third; Technical Sgt. Logan Keese and Master Sgt. Graham Breedlove, fourth. TROMBONES:  Master Sgt. Ben Patterson, lead; Master Sgt. Jeff Martin, second; Master Sgt. Kevin Cerovich, third; Master Sgt. Benjamin Polk, bass trombone.  

Dave Richards has composed and arranged “Power Outrage” a tune that opens this dynamic, big band recording.  The United States Air Force Band (Washington, D.C.) proudly brings people together through the power of music, and powerful they are!  Colonel Don Schofield is the commander and conductor of this recording that features the United States Air Force Band “Airmen of Note.”  Their production features three iconic jazz musicians as special guests; John Fedchock, Christian McBride and Randy Brecker. They also feature the distinctive vocals of Paige Wroble, singing “Honeysuckle Rose” on Track 2 with great success, scat-singing in a free and spirited way.  John Fedchock makes a stellar solo appearance on trombone, as part of the band’s Jazz Heritage Series and their plan of action on this recording is to collaborate with some of the top jazz musicians in the world.  Fedchock’s smooth, seamless sound can be heard on “Honeysuckle Rose” and “East of the Sun (And West of the Moon).” These special guests are meant to call attention to the legacy of America’s original art form of jazz in a healthy and definitive way.  Also, the performances on this disc gives the listener a sample of the excellence and professionalism by Airmen stationed around the world, who’ve come together as part of this musical production.  For example, Master Sgt. Geoff Reecer, who takes a dynamic guitar solo on this familiar “East of the Sun” jazz standard.  Fedchock has arranged this Cedar Walton tune, “Ojos de Rojo.”  David McDonald solos brilliantly on drums and Ben Patterson is amazing on trombone during this arrangement.  I also enjoyed the tone and dynamic baritone saxophone solo by Doug Morgan.  Christian McBride steps into the spotlight on his bass during a self-penned composition McBride wrote called, “Getting’ To It.”  Grant Langford, on tenor saxophone and Luke Brandon on trumpet are featured.  The last three songs, on this album of twelve, feature the arranger/composer talents of trumpeter, Randy Brecker.  The final tune, “Straphangin’” was composed by Randy’s talented brother, Michael Brecker.   

“Airmen of Note” offer us a dozen well-arranged standard and original compositions that swing hard and are played beautifully.  This album is bound to reignite a passion for big band jazz and introduce you to some excellent armed service musicians who bring verve and splendor to the bandstand.

* * * * * * * * * * *

THE MARIEL BILDSTEN QUINTET – “BACKBONE” – Outside In Music

Mariel Bildsten, trombone; Stacy Dillard, tenor & soprano saxophone; Sean Mason, piano; Ben Wolfe, bass; Evan Sherman, drums; Keisel Jimenez, percussion.

Mariel and her quintet recorded this project just before news of the pandemic, in January of 2019.  Things were looking hopeful, happy and prosperous back then.   You hear that in this recording; a joy de vivre and a mood of delight and playfulness.  At that time, Bildsten had just finished a week-long run at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in New York City, where she lives.  “Backbone” was recorded on one, cold, January night after that run at Dizzy’s.   The quintet was hot-to-trot, tight and familiar with the material and with each other.  The result is a half hour of music that features Mariel Bildsten’s trombone talents and also showcases the talents of her bandmembers. On the Kenny Dorham tune, “Monaco” they get loose and move at a brisk pace, giving Ms. Bildsten a platform to show-off her technique and spontaneity on the trombone.  I enjoyed her Bluesy arrangement of “The Man That Got Away” by Harold Arlen.  She and bassist, Ben Wolfe, take an intriguing duo walk, just trombone and bass, chatting with each other in a warm, wonderful way.  The quintet’s Latin arrangement of “The Lamp is Low” is tastily accentuated by the invigorating percussion of Keisel Jimenez and enhanced by the bright piano solo of Sean Mason. 

Mariel Bildsten is a product of the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music and she graduated in 2015.  She’s inspired by J.J. Johnson, Curtis Fuller and Lawrence Brown.  Ms. Bildsten has studied with Elliot Mason, Steve Turre, Vincent Gardner, Sam Burtis, Jimmy Owens, Reginald Workman, Mike LeDonne and Jane Ira Bloom.  This is Mariel’s debut release and it’s a nice introduction to the woman and her horn.  I hope to hear much more from her, perhaps with a bit more fire and groove.  But this is a strong start towards bigger and better things. 

* * * * * * * * * * *

ALEX WINTZ TRIO – “LIVE TO TAPE” –  Outside In Music

Alex Wintz, guitar/composer; Dave Baron, bass; Jimmy MacBride, drums.

Guitarist, Alex Wintz, has composed four songs on this seven-tune recording.  He opens with his original composition, “Idris,” a piece that runs nearly ten minutes long.  However, the trio keeps us totally interested and entertained, taking this time to amply showcase the talents of each musical member.  Jimmy MacBride is fluid and creative on drums, skipping along at a moderate pace.  Towards the last minutes of this arrangement, Dave Baron provides a solid, bluesy bass line to the mix and the music of the Wintz guitar becomes a slow blues.  It’s an attention-getting moment.  Next, I can picture myself walking happily down a sunny, tree-lined street during the Wintz’s composition, “On A Summer Day.”  This trio covers Herbie Hancock’s song “Textures” on Track 3.  Dave Baron opens this piece with a bass introduction.  Alex Wintz enters on guitar and delivers the melody in a warm, distinctive way.  In this trio format, the guitarist is solely responsible for painting an intricate and detailed picture for the listener.  Alex Wintz does not disappoint.   In collaboration with engineer and producer, Evan Sutton, Wintz and his trio have recorded, using vintage recording equipment, and making this recording on an iconic piece of analog tape, using the Studer A827 machine.  Consequently, the title of this CD became, “Live to Tape” and was recorded (similar to the old days) in only one session, one take, direct to tape.   It’s a beautiful guitar trio album and the musicians fit comfortably together, like hand in glove, giving us an hour of enjoyable and well-played jazz.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

THE AUBREY WILSON QUARTET – “HONEYSUCKLE ROSE”  –

Aubrey Wilson, vocals; Chris Bruder, piano/Wurlitzer; Tom Altobelli, bass; Sean Bruce Parker, drums; SPECIAL GUESTS: Luis Deniz, alto saxophone; Scott Taplay, guitar.

Aubrey Wilson has a lilting, lovely, soprano voice. This production is fresh and combines jazz with funk and contemporary arrangements that elevate these wonderful, old standards to higher heights.  Her trio is so creative and complimentary to this vocalist’s style.  They immediately captivate me with their unique approach while playing these familiar songs.  Opening their debut recording with the familiar standard jazz composition, “Nature Boy,” I am enthralled by the drum groove of Sean Bruce Parker, who firmly plants the roots of funk into the tune.  Special guest, Scott Taplay, adds his blues guitar licks to the mix.  Taplay lifts the song to new horizons with his amazing guitar solo.  He seems to imagine what Jimi Hendrix could have sounded like if he had recorded jazz.  Another special guest musician is Luis Deniz, who adds alto saxophone to the arrangements on both “I Will Wait for You” and “Lullaby of the Leaves.”   I have never heard “Honeysuckle Rose” arranged in a jazz/Hip Hop vein.  It’s quite effective and very compelling.  This Toronto-based jazz vocalist, with her band of excellence, intrigues me with their unusual arrangements.  Aubrey Wilson’s exquisite soprano vocal capabilities seals the deal. “Alice In Wonderland” is performed as a jazz waltz.  “When Sunny Gets Blue” is an easy listening experience, along with “When I Look In Your Eyes” and “Norwegian Wood.”  The vocalist’s interpretation of jazz standard, “Stolen Moments” shows us that she is indeed a jazz singer.  She starts out a ‘Capella, with no instrumentation at all except her sparkling, crystal-clear voice.  When the band does join her, they add a very contemporary spin to the straight-ahead jazz standard featuring a bluesy solo by pianist Chris Bruder.  Additionally, they give the drummer an opportunity to sing his own percussive song.  I am impressed by the piano background chords placed delicately beneath the drum solo without being obtrusive or repetitive. 

Aubrey Wilson comes from a musical background.  Her father was a vocalist with a successful barbershop quartet.  They toured across Canada and the United States.  He inspired her love of music, singing and performing.  She performed in her high school jazz band and attended Mohawk College’s Applied Music Program.  There, she met three of the members of her band; pianist, Bruder, Altobelli on bass and Parker on drums. This is her debut recording and offers us a warm introduction to the Aubrey Wilson voice and Quartet.  Sit back and enjoy their bright and uniquely different arrangements and Aubrey Wilson’s delicate vocal expressions. 

* * * * * * * * *

SIMONE KOPMAJER – “CHRISTMAS” – Lucky Mojo Records

Simone Kopmajer, vocals; John de Martino, piano; Geri Schuller, piano/Hammond B3 organ/keyboards/jaw harp; Boris Kozlow & Beate Wiesinger, bass; Reinhardt Winkler, drums; Aaron Heick, soprano & alto saxophone/clarinet; Terry Myers, tenor saxophone; Dominik Fuss, trumpet; Florian Fuss, saxophone; Georg Stepanek, bassoon; Lukas Ganster, dulcimer; Heinz Steinbauer, diatonic accordion; Stefanie Sommerhofer, Katrin Kanya, Melanie Unger-ofner & Tini Kainrath, background voices. Victor Gernot, Allan Harris & Wili Resetarits, duet vocalists. The Schick Sisters, Anna Catharina & Ina Regen, featured vocals.

Simone Kopmajer has a very inviting vocal tone and a warmth to her production that draws this listener into her project, like a fireplace on a cold, winter evening.   She opens with the familiar “Santa Baby” Christmas song, once made popular by Eartha Kitt. This is followed by “Jingle Bells,” arranged in a very jazzy way.  Simone shows off her jazz chops by scatting her way through this holiday song in very inventive, improvisational and impressive ways. 

Track 3, “Leise Rieselt Der Schnee” is sung in German, a reflection of her homeland of Austria and featuring The Schick Sisters.  These sixteen holiday songs have been recorded in various studios in both the United States and Austria and cover Christmas classics from all over the world.  I am prone to the arrangements that celebrate jazz.  However, you will hear folk songs sung in German and using traditional folk music instruments.  The Latin Christmas song, “Feliz Navidad” is also included and a couple of duets, like “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” featuring Viktor Gernot and Allan Harris on “The Christmas Song.”  It’s a perfect stocking stuffer, that will bring a musical celebration of the season to your household.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

SARAH ELIZABETH CHARLES & JARRETT CHERNER – “TONE” – Baldhill Records

Sarah Elizabeth Charles, vocals/composer; Jarrett Cherner, piano/composer.

The central message of this “Tone” project is perhaps, ‘love the world;’ a repeated message occurring at the end of the opening track titled, “Conscious Mind.”  This project didn’t start out with a subject or theme in mind.  It just sort of morphed into the love-lane; love in a broad sense of the word. 

“Much like the tradition of metta meditation in Buddhism, you start by practicing being kind to and loving yourself,” Cherner explained their creative concept.

When I listen to this duo music, I hear beautiful melodies, shaped like ripples in a lake, reaching out towards the far away sand.  The motion of the music is magical.  I wish I could understand the lyrics better.  Sarah Elizabeth sings beautifully, but she doesn’t always enunciate the words clearly.  Consequently, the meaning of these lovely songs gets lost in the musical interpretation and I really wanted to hear the written and sung prose.  I even put on headphones so I could better hear her words, but it didn’t help.  They should have included the lyrics in the CD jacket.  I did feel a great deal of spirituality in this project and the layering of vocals, along with Jarrett Cherner’s masterful piano playing, is both intriguing and beautiful. 

“…As you develop that heart muscle, you expand outward, you cultivate loving-kindness for your friends and family; for your acquaintances; for difficult people in your life and eventually for all beings,” Jarrett asserts. 

“Hanging on to Time” is quite lovely as a melodic composition.  I did manage to hear some of the lyrics that beg us to “welcome change with each breath” but again, the words were often lost or unclear.  On Track 3 titled, “Shine On” Sarah Elizabeth Charles sings, “No one’s perfect.  You’re better off finding something new … and shine bright as you can.”  I love the contrast of her layered alto vocals against Cherner’s piano playing.  On this song I can understand her lyrics much better as she encourages the listener to “Shine – shine on and love yourself.”  This duo’s music is hopeful, with an interesting crossover appeal to their arrangements.  On “Speak” Jarrett Cherner sounds like he’s playing an electric keyboard instead of a grand piano.  Perhaps it’s only an illusion, enhanced by the way Sarah Elizabeth Charles is singing through some electronic vocal analyzer.  This is a very artistic project and fun to listen to. As I said previously, it brings hope and entertainment in a beautifully wrapped package of sound and experimental music, sometimes sung without words.  At times, the two musicians reversed roles and Sarah Elizabeth Charles sat at the piano and played, while Jarrett Cherner sang.

“…We also experimented with reversing roles, where I would sing and Sarah would play piano, just to see what that would generate,” Jarrett explained in their press package.

On Track 5, “Wild One,” I have to eat my former words, because on this tune I can understand much of the song lyrics.  It seems that ‘love is a wild one,’ and I get that.  Sarah Elizabeth Charles is as vocally intoxicating as Joni Mitchell and just as free.  Only difference is, with Mitchell you can understand every word.  But Charles’ voice, her instrument, is pure and delightful to the ear.  Jarrett Cherner’s creative accompaniment on piano adds tension and support in the same breath, and this music is like a rare oil painting on mahogany.  It’s bright, brilliant and strong as the wood itself.  When Jarrett Cherner plays solo, it’s with such emotion and introspection that I become easily lost in his musical messages, in a pleasing kind of way.  This is an album of beauty and hope.  The music is fresh, unique and compelling.   Like the theme of this column, it makes me optimistic.

* * * * * * * * * * * * 

JAZZ REFLECTIONS ON A PANDEMIC

November 8, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

November 8, 2020

FRED HERSCH – “SONGS FROM HOME” – Palmetto records

Fred Hersch, piano

During these tumultuous times of mask wearing, hand sanitizer used like a hand lotion, alcohol bottles absent from store shelves and having to distance from friends and loved ones, here is some pleasing and relaxing solo piano music to sooth our souls.  Fred Hersch was among those of us locked down and he took to Facebook airwaves, offering his friends and fans a “Tune of the Day.”  This is the results of him sharing heartfelt music with us, during our time of need, using his music to both calm and entertain us.  It also inspired this album that celebrates his “Songs From Home.” 

“It’s kind of a comfort food album with a little badass stuff in there too.  I didn’t want to make an easy listening record, but I did want to play some music that would make people happy,” Hersch explains.

You will enjoy familiar pop and jazz standards like Wouldn’t It Be Loverly, Wichita Lineman, After You’ve Gone, Solitude and When I’m Sixty-four, to name just a few of the eleven tunes on this delightful album.  Hersch has also added two original compositions to the mix.  “West Virginia Rose” is quite beautiful.  The second song is titled, “Sarabande.”  

Fred Hersch has been nominated fifteen times for a Grammy Award and is a brilliant composer, improviser, accompanist, bandleader, educator and recording artist.  His technique and sense of jazz improvisation stuffs this offering, like a brightly colored piñata, with creative gifts that bring joy and happiness to the heart. 

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

ORLANDO LE FLEMING – “ROMANTIC FUNK: THE UNFAMILIAR” – Whirlwind Recordings

Orlando Le Fleming, upright & electric bass; Sean Wayland, keyboards/synthesizers; Kush Abadey & Nate Wood, drums; Philip Dizack, trumpet; Will Vinson, alto saxophone.

This funky bass line of Orlando Le Fleming opens the first cut of this production, along with the funk drums of Kush Abadey.   Bassist, Orlando Le Fleming has composed every one of the eight songs on this album. 

“In under two days in the studio, this album was all played live, with very few edits and overdubs.  The musicians are of such high quality that the risk taking paid off.  For me, the inexpressible magic of the group and moment in time was captured.  When Writing this album, I was very conscious of the improvisational sections being tailored for the specific musicians, allowing them freedom to express their quirks.  I encouraged risk taking and tried to make it fun for them without being too much of a control freak,” bandleader and bassist, Orlando Le Fleming asserted.

Philip Dizack enters on trumpet and introduces us to a melody that quickly becomes an exploration of improvisation.  This project is a warm mixture of straight-ahead and smooth jazz; funk and fusion.  Will Vinson’s alto saxophone spreads across this first tune like hot syrup on a stack of sweet, musical pancakes.  I’ll take a platter full of this “Romantic Funk” anytime.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

MAX HAYMER – “WHIRLWIND – LIVE AT SAM FIRST” – Emerald City Records

Max Haymer, piano; David Robaire, bass; Dan Schnelle, drums.

This is a delightful album of trio jazz that features the composer skills and piano genius of Max Haymer.  As a former top athlete, he attended UC Irvine on a soccer scholarship and spent four years playing Division 1 soccer.  You can hear his strength and power when he plays the piano. 

“I find that the physical act of playing the piano has a lot in common with sports.  They both require stamina and you have to physically train to perform at your fullest potential.  They both also require your composure under pressure while being fully aware of what your teammates or bandmates are doing as well,” Max Haymer explains his approach to his instrument.

The title tune, that Max has composed, is a lovely waltz.  David Robaire introduces himself to us on the bass with a long and inspired solo.  Haymer is quite lyrical in his approach to playing and composing.  He develops his melodies with care and compassion, introducing them to us note by note.  When he stretches out, his technique develops in a tenacious way with crescendos of energy and climatic, power-driven chords.   At the end of track 2, the trio’s attentive audience bursts into appreciative applause.  This album was cut ‘live’ (before the pandemic), at this stellar jazz spot, a short jaunt from the LAX airport; a club called, ‘Sam First.’ 

Haymer has been greatly influenced by his years of playing with Arturo Sandoval’s band.  He’s also the West Coast accompanist for singer, Jane Monheit.  A young Max began studying classical piano at age seven and became interested in jazz piano at fourteen.  He was a student of Los Angeles-based pianist, Tamir Hendelman during high school and continued his education at UC Irvine, where he graduated Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Music degree.  During his time at the Irvine University, he studied with Kei Akagi, who was a member of the Miles Davis band in the late eighties.

“Kei was an important influence on my playing and composing.  He used to say that the best melodies are the ones that fight gravity,” Max mused.

Drummer, Dan Schnelle and bassist David Robaire, are long time bandmates of Max Haymer’s.  Both have sparkling credentials, working with a number of A-list musicians before joining this trio production.  Together, they are a tight and cohesive group.  I enjoyed their interpretation of the familiar “Speak Low” tune as a warm bolero.  Other favorites are: “Gold Plated Dime” where Dan Schnelle takes the opportunity to introduce us to his prowess on the trap drums.  Another very beautiful ballad that Max Haymer composed is titled “Welcoming,” where his fingers turn into colorful, glow-in-the-dark butterflies flitting across the keys.  His exceptionally swift interpretation of “Love for Sale” showcases his technical brilliance. Actually, each tune on this project is a listening experience I enjoyed; almost like removing the silk fabric covering an artistic palette to proudly exhibit the art beneath.  We uncover his genius, song by song.

This is a passionate and dramatic pianist who finger paints vivid pictures with his musically inclined hands.   His creativity radiates bright colors that help express the energy and excitement he transmits through his piano instrument and within his well-written compositions.

* * * * * * * * * * *

PETER LEITCH AND HIS NEW LIFE ORCHESTRA – “NEW LIFE” –  Jazz House

Peter Leitch, bandleader/composer/arranger; Peter Zak, piano; Dennis James, arco bass; Yoshi Waki, bass; Joe Strasser, drums’ Chad Coe, acoustic guitar; Phiol Robson, electric guitar; Duane Eubanks, trumpet; Bill Mobley, trumpet/flugelhorn; Tim Harrison, flute; Jed Levy, tenor sax/flute/alto flute; Steve Wilson & Dave Pietro, alto & soprano saxophones; Carl Maraghi, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet; Matt Haviland, trombone; Max Seigel, bass trombone. PRODUCERS: Peter Leitch & Andy Farber.

Every great album of music has a story behind it.  It’s the emotional and/or challenging times in our lives that create, with spontaneity, compositions and productions that explore our lessons of life. Ultimately, it’s with great trepidation and honesty that musicians sometimes share these musical observations. With open arms and open ears, the audience welcomes the concerts and compositions into open hearts; thankful for the cultural richness that music can bring. 

When Peter Leitch was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer in 2012, he had a serious choice to make.  He could undergo a career-ending operation that could lengthen his life or die within months.   Eight years later, although he can no longer play his beloved guitar, he has begun a “New Life” that explores his other talents of composer/arranger extraordinaire.  Bandleader, Peter Leitch explained in his liner notes:

“The title ‘New Life’ refers not only to my own personal odyssey, but also to the music itself; to the act of breathing new life into the raw materials, the blues forms and song forms that have long been the structural basis of Black American music, and by extension and osmosis, all of American music.”

On Track 3 of Disc 1, you clearly hear the blues living inside Phil Robson’s guitar solo and a kind of Yusef Lateef blues-throw-back by Steve Wilson’s bluesy saxophone solo on “Sorta, Kinda.”  On Disc 2, it’s clearly reflected in the 12-bar blues of “The Long Walk Home” and also on “Back Story.”  Also, of note, is the Leitch tribute to iconic saxophone player and composer, my old friend, “Clifford Jordan,” (R.I.P.).

The first thing that stands out on this album is the plethora of amazing compositions that Peter Leitch has written for his New Life Orchestra.  His sense of beauty and diversity are reflected in these melodies, in a spectacular way.  It took Leitch a couple of years to compose, arrange and orchestrate this seventeen-piece ensemble project.  His goal was to write arrangements that expanded the voice of a medium-sized orchestra into a much bigger band-sound.  His carefully structured arrangements leave plenty of room for the individual musicians to improvise and express themselves in fluid and tasty ways.  This is a double set album full of carefully crafted original compositions, wonderful arrangements and a band of A-list musicians who have gathered to celebrate Peter Leitch’s “New Life” in the best possible scenario.  In addition to his original songs, Leitch has added a lovely arrangement of Monk’s “Round Midnight” tune and Jed Levy’s composition, “The Minister’s Son” as well as reimagining the Rodgers & Hart familiar standard, “Spring is Here.”  This is an enjoyable, entertaining and smooth-sailing orchestra that takes us on a cruise through musical times and tempos.  They give us a peek into the life-lessons-learned by Peter Leitch.  

* * * * * * * * * * *

ALONZO DEMETRIUS – “LIVE FROM THE PRISON NATION” – Onyx Productions

Alonzo Demetrius, trumpet/composer; Yesseh Furaha-Ali, tenor saxophone; Daniel Abraham Jr., piano/keybass; Benjamin Jephta, upright bass/electric bass; Brian Richburg Jr, drums.

When composing this recorded production, Alonzo Demetrius had a lot to get off his chest.  He was inspired to write this music while attending classes at Berklee College of Music.  He was working on his Master’s Degree and studying with iconic drummer and educator, Ralph Peterson and saxophonist Tia Fuller.  As a college student and talented trumpeter, Alonzo Demetrius recognized that he was coming up during a conflicted and revolutionary time in our nation.  With racial injustice in plain sight and political, congressional people feeding on social injustice and private interests, Demetrius had strong feelings.  After all, we pay congress their salaries to represent we the people.

“Inspired by the teachings of political activists … as well as interviews with current and ex-convicted felons, I created this album as a reflection of my ideas based on personal experience and the experiences of other Black people in my life,” Alonzo Demetrius writes in his liner notes. 

With the horrific backdrop of a global pandemic, the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the shooting of Jacob Blake, amidst the many brutal killings of Black lives by policemen and vigilantes across our great country, Alonzo is speaking his truth through the bell of his trumpet.

“The shootings … have sparked a resurgence of the Civil Rights Movement.  Sixty years in the making, this movement has finally begun to take root in the hearts and minds of people all over the world.  With this album, I aim to continue the global conversation and provide a platform for those whose voices are often left out,” Demetrius proclaims.

Trumpeter, Alonzo Demetrius, establishes a unique style on this, his premier recording, letting the two horns (his trumpet and Yesseh Furaha-Ali’s tenor saxophone) sing in unison to establish the melodies of his compositions.  He also incorporates protest speeches by Mumia Abu Jamaal and chants from recent protest marches.  By incorporating electronics and spoken word about dilemmas of today, he establishes his activist voice and gives the listener pause for thought.  On Track 1, “Expectations,” you hear the voice of Angela Davis, speaking about prison reform, just before Alonzo Demetrius steps forward with his trumpet. He is answered by the tenor sax of Furaha-Ali, as though the two horns are experiencing a social commentary; a chat between two old friends.  Then they sing in unison, before branching off into their solo improvisations.  The solid bass of Benjamin Jeptha holds the composition together like super glue and is sensitively attached to the pointed rhythms of Brian Richburg Jr., on drums.  Track 2, “The Principle” settles down the tempo and excitement.  It’s a rather melancholy musical statement that again features the two horns singing unison melodies and occasionally breaking out in warm harmonic conversation.  Track 4 previews a speech by Mumia Abu Jamaal about ‘Movement’ and is titled “Mumia’s Guidance” to celebrate this activist’s words and struggle.  Alonzo’s entire production was recorded ‘live’ at Berklee College of Music in May of 2019. 

Alonzo Demetrius Ryan Jr. began his musical journey studying piano at age eight and singing.  By age ten, he had fallen in love with the trumpet and was focused on classical training. Believe it or not, at age eleven he formed his own jazz sextet and began seriously performing and chasing his musical dream.  In 2019 he received his Masters from the Berklee Global Jazz Institute Master’s Program.  Demetrius is uniquely recognized for his implementation of electronic processing into his ‘live’ performance package.  Many young musicians are now incorporating movies, slides, electronic enhancements and in the case of Alonzo Demetrius, activist speeches into their work.  He’s entertaining us, while tickling our brains with an educational feather.

 * * * * * * * * * * * *

NATSUKI TAMURA & SATOKO FUJII & IKUE MORI – “PRICKLY PEAR CACTUS” – Libra Records

Satoko Fujii, piano/composer; Ikue Mori, composer/electronics; Natsuki Tamura, trumpet.

“Right before the pandemic, the three of us had a European tour, followed by a recording session in New York City. …The tour was in January and the recording session took place on February 12.  Back then, we had no idea of what was coming and how different the world would become.  All of our concerts and tours were cancelled.  So, we stayed at home and talked by email and Zoom.  Then we began this project,” Satoko Fujii explained.

The “Prickly Pear Cactus” album grew out of friendship and isolation.  It is the result of devastation on the entire global community by the insidious Coronavirus pandemic.  Although these musicians worked half a world apart from their homes, on their laptops and in their individual home studios, they still found a common thread that strung them together like shiny, new pearls. Natsuki Tamura swapped sound files over the Internet, adding his trumpet parts and creative ideas.  Satoko Fujii sat at her grand piano in New York and Ikue Mori was based in Kobe, japan.  The project started with a Zoom session, when Fujii mentioned she was biding her self-quarantine time recording piano solos at home.  Mori suggested she send a sound file to him and that’s how the collaboration began.  Then they asked Tamura to add his trumpet.

Satoko Fujii is celebrated as a virtuoso piano improviser, an original composer and bandleader and appears on more than one-hundred albums as either a co-leader or bandleader of various Avant-garde projects.  Her projects embrace contemporary classical, Avant-rock, folk music, synthesized jazz, large ensembles and duos; even solo projects.  Natsuki is internationally recognized.  He’s applauded for his jazz lyricism and dramatic approach to playing his instrument.  His projects have included adding his trumpet to Avant-rock jazz fusion with a group called First Meeting and he’s also been bandleader of his own quartet and performed with a group called Junk Box.  He focuses on combining European folk music and sound abstraction and has recorded three albums of solo trumpet and seven duet CDs with Satoko Fujii.  Ikue Mori is a native of Tokyo and relocated to New York in 1977.  As a drummer, she formed the seminal No Wave Band DNA.  They created a new brand of radical rhythms and dissonant sounds.  In the mid-80s, Ms. Mori began to experiment with drum machines. By 2000, she was using her laptop computer to expand her signature sound and to broaden her scope of musical expression.  This is a project that is totally improvised around a theme and embellished with electronic rhythms and sound patterns that add an ethereal content to this music.  All the titles embrace nature in eclectic ways like “Guerrilla Rain” that begins with electronic sounds and staccato piano notes that scurry up and down the keyboard and chords that jump like popping corn kernels.  “Mountain Stream” squeals and roars, like a jungle habitat at midnight. And then there is “Overnight Mushroom” that runs over ten minutes long.  This is a unique, artistic journey that stimulates your mind and imagination.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

JENI SLOTCHIVER – “AMERICAN HERITAGE” – Zoho Records

Jeni Slotchiver, piano.

Here is an artistic perspective by pianist Jeni Slotchiver that spans 125 years of music, from Louis Moreau Glottschalk’s “The Banjo,” written in the 1800’s, to “Down By the Riverside” published in 1979.  Glottschalk’s compositions and style predated the era and birth of Ragtime and jazz and was influenced by Caribbean, Latin and African music, as well of slave songs and rhythms.  Jeni uses her classical piano technique and emotional delivery to celebrate music from the Civil War to Civil Rights.  Although more classically trained, than displaying the freedom and improvisation of a jazz pianist, this is still a historically important look at “American Heritage” in music.  Here are eighteen, well-played songs, interpreted by Jeni Slotchiver, and embracing the full range of American music from gospel spirituals to African American work songs and secular tunes.  With this album, Ms. Slotchiver celebrates the African American musical contribution to American culture. Of the eight composers she tributes, six are African American and two are women.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

SCOTT ROUTENBERG – “INSIDE” – Summit Records

Scott Routenberg, keyboards/programming/vocals/composer; Howard Levy, harmonica/bamboo flutes/ pennywhistle; Sofia Kraevska, vocals; Chris Whiteman, acoustic guitar; Jonathan Raveneau, violin; Phil Doyle, tenor saxophone.

This is a dramatic merger of jazz and classical music created by pianist/composer, Scott Routenberg, while self-quarantined during the 2020 pandemic.  As he sat, like many of us, reflecting on his life and experiences, Scott recalled the garden around his house that was overflowing with a variety of spring and summer flowers.  He was inspired by that colorful garden of memories and created a song called “Pentamerous;” meaning a five-petaled flower.  It becomes Track 3 of this musical production and features the sweet voice of Sofia Kraevska improvising atop the chord structure.  Routenberg has composed every song on this eleven-song project.  It’s a musical diary about his days in lock-down at his home with a room full of musical instruments to keep him busy and happy.  On May 7th, he recalled the so-called ‘supermoon’ that appeared at the height of the pandemic.  He composed “Flower Moon,” a song that encourages Scott Routenberg to take an opportunity to improvise and show his piano skills, improvising above his programmed tracks.  There is a tango-feel incorporated into this arrangement.  On “Hidden Stars” he reflects on how city life can obstruct our view of the heavens.

“Hidden Stars recreates the two time I saw just how small we really are in the universe from the top deck of a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean and at Bryce Canyon in Utah.  Swirling, sparkling polyrhythms and swarm string swells support Sofia’s completely improvised vocalise,” he explains how this original song came about.

Ms. Kraevska’s improvised vocal melodies are quite hypnotic and memorable.  On “Home Sweet Home” Howard Levy is featured on harmonica.  Levy makes that harmonica talk, like a living, loving individual. The song moves from classical and jazz to a more Americana feel in the arrangement.  Jonathan Raveneau’s violin lends even more authenticity to this concept.  Routenberg knows how to layer grooves on the keyboard and with programmed drums and synthesizers to create moods and a stage for his guests to perform.  When interpreting his original “Fireflies” composition, for example, Scott uses various synthesized keyboard sounds to help us picture the brightly active and glowing flies he used to watch on hot July, Indiana evenings.  During his closing track, he uses the keyboard sound of raindrops on a window to amplify nature’s presence as humanity took refuge from COVID19 into their homes.  Tenor saxophonist, Phil Doyle, is a guest on this track titled, “The Day We Went Away,” but I found the featured appearance lacking in creativity.  Scott Routenberg asks us to use our imaginations while listening to his creativity, his frustrations, his joy, “Meltdowns” and “Days of Wrath” during his 2020 seclusion and unforgettable studio production.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

JULIAN GERSTIN – “LITTORAL ZONE” – Independent Label

Julian Gerstin, percussion/composer/vocals/bottles/ocarina/whistles/berimbau/ drums/shakers/ bells/wood percussive instruments and miscellaneous percussion; Anna Patton, clarinet; Steve Rice, marimba.

For this reviewer, there has always been something hypnotic, comfortable and inspirational about percussive instruments and drum beats.  Consequently, I was very interested to hear what Julian Gerstin, an expert on world rhythms and percussion instruments, had recorded.  His seventeen original songs celebrate Gerstin as a soloist on percussion.  While the world was taking protective and stressful steps through the tribulations of a pandemic, Julian Gerstin was concentrating on celebrating mollusks.  He has incorporated a number or Rasps into this production including guiro, reco-reco, quijada and even a wheelbarrow.  His shakers include oil cans, a whiskey flask, an espresso maker and cocoons (along with traditional shakers like maracas and shekere).  He performs on over four dozen instruments.   His music is dedicated to and named after his favorite mollusks.  Sea shells and mollusks dot his CD cover, inside and out.

“Over the years, I’ve enjoyed looking into tidepools with their seaweed and starfish and crabs, and especially, mollusks.  These pieces are semi-composed and semi-improvised and while inventing them I gave them molluscan names that fit their moods. … Only a few of these species, Crepidula, Littorina and Purpura, actually live in the “Littoral Zone,” Julian Gerstin explained.

He hopes that the crowded life of a tidepool evokes some spontaneous connection to his percussive sensibilities and the listener’s imagination.  Gerstin has an MFA in Music Composition and PhD in Anthropology.  He has studied percussion from a long list of international percussion masters in places like Ghana, Martinique, Cuba, Brazil, The Balkans and the Middle East.  Slip into your headphones and enjoy a very unusual and rewarding exploration of rhythm and culture.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

PAPO VAZQUEZ MIGHTY PIRATES TROUBADOURS – “CHAPTER 10: BREAKING COVER” – Picaro Records

Papo Vazquez, trombone/vocals/agogo bells/synth keyboard; Ivan Renta, tenor & soprano saxophone; Rick Germanson, piano; Ariel Robles, bass/chorus; Alvester Garnett, drums; Carlos Maldonado, percussion/congas/ Barril de Bomba/Pandero de plena/ bongos/minor percussion/chorus; Reinaldo Dejesus, Barril de bomba/ congas/Pandero de plena/minor percussion/chorus.

Papo Vazquez makes me feel joyful from the very first strains of Mr. Babu, I find myself wiggling in my computer chair and glancing towards my dancing shoes. The original music that Papo Vazquez writes is forceful, incorporating his signature fusion of jazz and Puerto Rican culture.  This album is his tenth record release as a leader and demonstrates why his four-decade career has made him a Grammy-nominated Latin music icon.  This release is a true product of the COVID19 pandemic.  His plans to record in April were derailed by the virus.  Finally, in June, when lockdown regulations loosened, he and his Mighty Pirate Troubadours started rehearsing.  This wonderful work of artistic beauty and excitement spotlights the smooth and emotional trombone of Papo Vazquez, along with his arranger and composer skills.  The seven Mighty Pirates Troubadours lend their brilliance to the project and Vazquez has invited special guests to add spice to an already red-hot project.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

CÉRÉMONIE / MUSIQUE – “WHAT HAPPENS IN A YEAR” – FiP Records

Josh Sinton, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet; Todd Neufeld, electric guitar; Giacomo Merega, electric bass.

As this year races to an end, Cérémonie Musique, (a trio of musicians) wanted to summarize their feelings and express their musical and emotional views referencing 2020; i.e. “What Happens in a Year.”  This was certainly no average year in the history of America.  We experienced a very challenging world pandemic that, to date, has killed nearly 300,000 Americans.  The year featured a very hot and disturbing political climate, an election for president and racial unrest.  The economy was challenged, while the government searched for a vaccine to save people.  Businesses closed and lots of people were out of work and hurting.  On top of all that, citizens were expected to live their lives in a normal, everyday fashion, and many were doing just that. The title of this album came from their guitarist, Todd Neufeld.

“I thought about three guys slogging out through these days of teaching, work, fatherhood, marriage and having this kind of musical ceremony when they met each week to make new music,” Todd shared his inspiration for this Avant-garde music and the title of their CD.

However, the original concept, by Josh Sinton, was far from what became the result of a simple studio rehearsal.

“Originally, my thought was to get the three of us together to improvise and record it.  Then, I’d go home with the field recording and turn it into compositions,” explained the baritone saxophone and bass clarinet player. 

“After our very first meeting, it was clear that the spontaneous improvisations, with their mysterious, enticing musical expression, made formal pre-written compositions superfluous,” Josh continued to analyze this very unique project and how it came about.

There is an openness and a thought-provoking essence to this modern jazz music of ‘Cérémonie Musique.’  As I sat listening to it, there were moments of unique expressiveness represented in their Avant-garde, collaborative, song development.  The trio is playing totally free, using improvisation and their camaraderie with each other, to colorfully paint this musical palate. 

“I’ve always viewed composition and improvisation as nearly identical creative activities, although the results of each can often be confused,” Josh Sinton mused.

Virtuoso bassist, Giacomo Merega, has been a popular and busy player in the New York improv and new-music scene.  He spoke about the concept of ‘ceremony’ in the title of their group.

“A ceremony is a ritual and if I didn’t have rituals, I’d be like a chihuahua in a jungle.  I wouldn’t last a day.  Among my rituals are making espresso, having breakfast with my daughter and improvising with Todd and Josh,” Merega explained in their press release.

The result of this musical meeting, and ultimate freedom of expression, is a very compelling and artistic production that captures a moment in time as three master musicians express themselves without boundaries.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

MEN IN JAZZ / 2020

November 1, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil/Jazz Journalist

November 1, 2020

KEMUEL ROIG – “GENESIS” – Independent Label

Kemuel Roig, piano/keyboard/percussion/composer/arranger; Lowell Ringel, bass; Hilario Bell, drums/percussion; Jose ‘Majito’ Aguilera, percussion; Chris Potter, Ed Calle & Roilan Vazquez, tenor saxophone; Randy Brecker, Mercy Brass, Julio Padron, Osvaldo Fleites & Gerardo Rodriguez, trumpets;  Alain Perez & Joel Hernandez, vocals; Bayron Ramos, trombone; Milton Sesenton, orchestra arranger & conductor.

Kemuel RoIg is no newcomer to music, performance, touring or recording, but this is his first jazz CD.  After touring as part of the illustrious trumpeter, Arturo Sandoval’s band, as both pianist and composer, Kemuel Roig is stepping into his own bandleader spotlight.  Eighteen years ago, he arrived in the USA from Camaguey, Cuba and settled in Florida.  With solid footing in his Christian belief, he has released four previous works that were well-received in New Age music circles and categorized as Christian music.  Roig has also established himself as a strong session man, performing or recording studio sessions with the likes of Al di Meola, Isaac Delgado, Brian Lynch, Giovanni Hidalgo and Aymee Nuviola.  But on this project, he spreads his fingers across the 88-keys and reaches for his dreams.

“Genesis” demonstrates the journey of my life thus far and is a testimony to a life spent learning about the music that I love and respect deeply; jazz!”  Kemuel Roig states.

The first track is titled “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm” and it’s gleeful, featuring the drums of Hilario Bell and the percussion of Jose ‘Majito’ Aquilera.  It’s quite contemporary in arrangement and gives Kemuel Roig an opportunity to lead the ensemble in a forceful, yet melodic way, issuing in the orchestrated horns with much flare.  This song features improvisational solos by Ed Calle on tenor sax and trumpeter, Mercy Brass.  The second tune is quite beautiful, titled “Genesis 41 (Recurring Dream)” that, in the bible, translates to Joseph’s test deciphering Pharoah’s dreams.  As the story goes, Pharoah dreamed of seven fat cows coming up out of the river followed by seven lean and starving cows.  The lean cows ate up the healthy, fat cows. Then Pharoah dreamed of seven healthy corn stalks and seven thin ears of corn that appeared and devoured the seven healthy corn stalks.  Joseph warned Pharoah that Egypt would have seven amazing and plentiful years followed by seven years of famine.  And so, it came to be.  This is one of seven original compositions that Kemuel Roig has penned and his piano performance on this lovely ballad is emotional and passionate.   Lowell Ringel plays a noteworthy bass solo during this arrangement. This arrangement is performed without horns, using only bass, drums and Roig’s brilliant piano playing.  I had to play this song twice to soak up all the nuances of beauty.

You will find Kemuel Roig paying tribute to God throughout this recording, also showcasing his Cuban roots and traditions in Latin music, while incorporating jazz and Gospel music.  He also is saluting the many amazing musicians who have inspired him to become an awesome pianist, composer, arranger and bandleader. Track 3, “Pare Cochero” brings his Cuban roots to the surface and encourages me to grab my dancing shoes. Alain Perez begins to sing; the horns blare and the party begins.

“We must never forget the Genesis of our voyage.  … In its infancy, the smallest steps appeared as blurry, momentary dreams.  We must always pay humble respect to the traditions that led us to this point in history and the truth of our evolved “Genesis,” says Kemuel Roig.

“Inner Urge” is jazz at its best with bold contemporary touches.  Chris Potter sparkles brightly on tenor saxophone and Hilario Bell shows off his mastery on trap drums in a dynamic way.  Kemuel Roig plays both keyboards and grand piano.  “Conversation” featured Randy Brecker on trumpet solo and is another original composition by Roig. There is a new age kind of repetitive line that runs through this song like the wire that holds a string of pearls in place.  Brecker is the bright emerald dangling from the pearl necklace.  Roig’s piano touches represent the diamonds that dot the necklace and circle the emerald.  This is a sparkling piece of music. 

One thing happened, while I was listening to Kemuel Roig, that was very unusual.  My daughter heard this music drifting to her part of the house and came to ask me who was playing?  She said the music was touching her heart and soul.  She said it was so spiritual that she had to come ask me who it was.  That has only happened a couple of times when I’m reviewing music.  She’s very selective about music and she’s also a very spiritual young lady.  When she told me, his music had touched her soul, she held her palm across her heart with sincerity.  This happened during the final song called, “Prayer.”

That says it all!

* * * * * * * * * * * 

NOAH HAIDU – “DOCTONE” – Sunnyside label

Noah Haidu, piano/keyboards/arranger; Billy Hart, drums; Todd Coolman, bass; Steve Wilson, alto & soprano saxophone; Gary Thomas, tenor saxophone; Jon Irabagon, Tenor & soprano saxophones; Dan Sadownick, percussion.

This album by Noah Haidu is a tribute to Kenny Kirkland, who was born September 28, 1955 and died from congenital heart disease in November of 1998.  He was 43 years old.  “Doctone” was released October 2, 2020, just a few days after what would have been Kirkland’s 65th birthday.  Kirkland was one of the dominant influences on Noah Haidu, and as Haidu said in his liner notes:

“Doctone is the first recording dedicated entirely to Kirkland’s original music.  I view Kenny as the most unique composer and pianist of his generation.  Because he died young and avoided the spotlight, his brilliant compositions have been overlooked for too long. … Kenny was known as Doctone by his close friends.  I never got to know Kenny, but after working on this project, I sometimes feel as though I did.”

Haidu opens this recording with “Doctor of Tone.”  Noah introduces the composition rubato, with only piano and drums.  It’s just a minute and twenty-seven seconds long, but serves to prepare the stage for “Midnight Silence” to enter.  That’s the title of track 2.  It moves from a sultry, pretty, moderately-tempo’d ballad to a slow swing, propelled by the great Billy Hart on drums.  Hart has worked with Kirkland in the past and has first-hand knowledge of Kenny Kirkland’s greatness. Since the 1970’s, Billy Hart had performed with Kirkland on various fusion, Afro-Latin and avant-garde projects.  Consequently, Noah felt he was the perfect drummer for this project.   

Noah Haidu’s first connection with Kirkland began in Haidu’s youth, when he was intrigued with Kenny Kirkland’s jazz solos and keyboard grooves that sparked the ‘post-Police’ tours with Sting.  With Sting Kenny recorded: The Dream of the Blue Turtles (1985); Bring on the Night (1986); Nothing Like the Sun (1987), Nada Como el sol (1988), The Soul Cages (1991), Mercury Falling (1996).

Noah’s “Doctone’ production is a multimedia project.  There’s this recording, an original book by Haidu (containing interviews with many of Kenny Kirkland’s contemporaries) and a film directed by Jeffrey Chuang.  Chuang’s documentary about Kirkland’s life was released on Sept 28, 2020.

“I typically set out to build a cohesive statement with each album so that the pieces fit together like chapters in a book.  This project was different.  I didn’t’ work through the repertoire on many gigs or do a lot of rehearsing, though I’ve always been moved by these songs.  The result was that in the studio, I had a visceral response to material that was fresh and emotionally compelling,” Noah Haidu clarified in his press release.

Kirkland’s two most familiar compositions are, “Steepian Faith” where Steve Wilson’s soprano saxophone explores the melody on this recent recording and “Dienda”, that Noah Haidu has divided into a part one and part two.  This arrangement changes meters and tempos numerous times.  This seems to happen a lot throughout Mr. Haidu’s interpretation of these Kirkland songs.  You will hear several rhythmic ideas explored during the ensemble’s playing both “Chambers of Tain” and Kirkland’s tune, “Fuschia.”  I enjoyed the fiery, hard bop approach on “Chambers of Tain” and another one of my favorites on this project was “Mr. J.C.” that was played straight-ahead in an uncompromising way. Gary Thomas is brilliant on tenor saxophone and Noah Haidu clearly shows off his technical abilities and creativity during a tenacious piano solo.  Hart pushes and prods the music forward on trap drums with obvious energy.   Todd Coolman can be heard walking briskly beneath the excitement on his double bass.  Most of all, aside from the excellent musicianship on Haidu’s album, the public’s introduction to the composer skills of Kenny Kirkland is palpable with this new project.  Thanks Noah!

* * * * * * * * * * * * 

MATT ULERY – “POLLINATOR” – WoolGatheringRecords

Matt Ulery, sousaphone; Paul Bedal, piano; Quin Kirchner, drums; Steve Duncan, trombone; Dustin Laurenzi, tenor; James Davis, trumpet.

This is the tenth album release from Matt Ulery, a celebrated composer and bandleader.  If you are a fan of the Roaring 20’s era and the sounds of King Oliver, jelly Roll Morton and/or Duke Ellington, then you will totally enjoy this album of original music, composed in celebration of that era. 

“With respect, we’d like to present this art project with joy, humor and sincerity in celebration of the innovators that helped give birth to this revolutionary age of American art music,” explained Matt Ulery.

“So Long, Toots” is one of eight compositions that Matt Ulery has composed.  It rolls off my CD player like a train pulling out of the station.  You can hear the train whistle in the horn arrangements and feel the powerful movement of a steam powered locomotive.  The trumpet of James Davis is exhilarating.  The tune, “Jelly” may be a musical nod to the brilliance of Jelly Roll Morton.  It’s a happy-go-lucky song that features Dustin Laurenzi on a smooth tenor saxophone solo with Matt Ulery’s sousaphone dancing strongly beneath the arrangement and competently replacing the double bass.  Unison horns sing the joyful melody of “Cakes” and then invite Steve Duncan to step out front on his slide trombone to solo.  Paul Bedal takes an opportunity to showcase his skills on piano. 

Ulery draws a parallel between the prohibition period that stained the 1920’s jazz age and issued in the popular ‘After-Hours’ clubs.  These private clubs sprang up to supply music and alcohol to their willing patrons.  Unfortunately, this current, pandemic, health crisis does not lend itself to crowded clubs, restaurants, concert venues, schools or almost anywhere that you can stand shoulder to shoulder with your fellow man. Today, we are advised to stand six to 12 feet apart, wear masks, don’t hug, wash your hands and carry disinfected-wipes around with you. This has probably encouraged jazz listeners to listen to a lot more music at home, both new and old.   Matt Ulery’s album is a pleasant, musical diversion.

“We didn’t expect to be releasing this record in such an extreme time of prohibition, but we’d like to invite you to put this album on, move to it, let some light in and feel free and good,” Ulery writes in his press release.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

DOUGLAS OLSEN – “2 CENTS” – Independent Label

Douglas Olsen, trumpet/flugelhorn; Dino Govani, tenor & alto saxophone; Tucker Antell, tenor Saxophone; Angel Subero, trombone/guiro; Yaure Muniz, trumpet; Tim Ray, piano; Dave Zinno, bass; Mark Walker, drums; Ernesto Diaz, congas.

Douglas Olsen has composed six out of nine songs on this, his debut recording.  He’s been a busy musician in the New England area, playing his trumpet and flugelhorn in a variety of jazz settings.  Olsen’s worked with the John Allmark Jazz Orchestra, Felipe Salles’ Interconnections Ensemble, Aretha Franklin, several Latin jazz orchestras and the Smithsonian Masterworks Jazz Orchestra, to name just a few.  He also leads his own Doug Olsen Quintet.

Opening with “Tailwind,” this composition encourages Mark Walker to solo distinctively on his trap drums.  It’s followed by the title tune, “2 Cents” that has a catchy melody, performed by harmonious horns at first, then parting the curtain so Dave Zinno can feature a solo on his bass instrument.  Dizzy Gillespie’s “Algo Bueno” is a spirited example of Olsen’s love of Latin flavored jazz and of course, of his admiration for Gillespie.   “Rat Race” is Straight-ahead jazz and rushes from my CD player like turnpike traffic at midnight.  It puts the pedal to the metal.  Douglas Olsen shows his mastery as the notes ripple out of the bell of his horn.  Dino Govoni follows suit, racing to the spotlight with a flurry of joyful saxophone notes.  The trumpet and saxophone hold a musical conversation, talking to each other, trading fours, then joining in the harmonic delivery of the song’s melody. The ensemble’s closing composition, “Passage” is an exciting arrangement that lets drummer, Mark Walker stretch out with spark and fire on his trap drums.  It also encourages the various musicians to fly free and improvise at their highest levels.  Tim Ray provides an exquisite interpretation on the 88-keys.  His solo reminds me of wild geese that flap and fly at an incredible pace to avoid the hunter’s bullet. 

This is a stellar premiere recording for Douglas Olsen, spotlighting his awesome strength as a composer, a bandleader and a very effective and memorable trumpet and flugelhorn player.

* * * * * * * * * * * *  

RICHARD BARATTA – “MUSIC IN FILM: THE REEL DEAL” – Savant Records

Richard Baratta, drums; Paul Rossman, percussion; Bill O’Connell, piano/arranger; Paul Bollenback, guitar; Michael Goetz, bass; Vincent Herring, saxophone; Carroll Scott, vocals.

Right off the bat, the first tune flies off this spinning CD player like a fast ball. “Luck Be A Lady” roars into view as an up-tempo Samba.  It gives Richard Baratta an opportunity to introduce himself to us boldly on his drum kit.   “Everybody’s Talkin’” swings hard.  Half way through, it flips into double time and the musician’s race for the exit.  Bacharach’s familiar song, “Alfie” settles the mood and is performed as a brush-stroking ballad with the spotlight shining brightly on Bill O’Connell at the grand piano and Vincent Herring on saxophone.

It’s been more than thirty years since Richard Baratta disappeared from the jazz scene and this is his sparkling reemergence to the world he loves.  Like so many talented musicians, Baratta soon realized that a musician’s salary wasn’t always complimentary to raising and supporting a family.  So, in 1984 he became a scout for the film industry, finding locations where films could be shot.  Baratta climbed from the gig of Location Manager to the prestigious ranks of Executive Producer.  He was part of over fifty films including such gems as Donnie Brasco, The Wolf of Wall Street and The Irishman. Most of the film world, where he worked, didn’t have a clue about his amazing drum skills, until Baratta started moonlighting at ‘The Astor Room’ in New York.  Soon the jazz world was buzzing about this talented and precocious drummer.  Lucky for us, Richard Baratta is back on the jazz scene in a very powerful way.  His trio from the Astor Room (now called George’s) has spilled over into this recording production.  There is a warm cohesion between guitarist Paul Bollenback, bassist Michael Goetz and Baratta.  Paul Rossman, on percussion, is Baratta’s cousin and longtime rhythm partner.  He has long appreciated the talented Bill O’Connell on piano and O’connell took pleasure in arranging the music they play on this project.  Vincent Herring’s saxophone adds the final touch to this energetic and expressive musical achievement. “Chopsticks” never sounded so good as when these musicians tackle it and transform the tune to a Latin classic. 

Every song on this album celebrates a film that this musical repertoire became a part of.  Remember “Luck Be A Lady” was featured in Mrs. Doubtfire“Everybody’s Talkin’” touched us in Midnight Cowboy.  “Alfie” is the title tune of the film Alfie and “Chopsticks” was in the 1988 film, Big. You will enjoy the “Theme from the Godfather” and “Seasons of Love” from the Rent movie that features the vocals of Carroll Scott.  Consequently, this prize-winning music and concept ties the two lives together of Richard Baratta (film maker and jazz drummer) in a beautiful way.  He plays all styles with ease and spontaneity.  Their New Orleans style arrangement on the Beatles familiar “Come Together” tune is spectacular.  Drummer, Richard Baratta is back and in full force! 

* * * * * * * * * * *

DUSTIN LAURENZI’S – “NATURAL LANGUAGE: A TIME AND A PLACE” – Woolgathering Records

Dustin Laurenzi, tenor saxophone/composer; Jeff Swanson, guitar; Mike Harmon, bass; Charles Rumback, drums.

Dustin Laurenzi is a Chicago composer and tenor saxophonist.  He has a silky, smooth tone.   At times, his horn sings unison with the guitarist, like on Track 2, “Albert” and Track 4, “Blocks.”  Charles Rumback rides free and captivates with his busy trap drums, while Mike Harmon, on bass, holds the tempo in place. That’s somewhat of a reversal of roles.  The bassist solidifies the rhythm section on “Albert,” while the drums brightly color this eight-minutes of abstract modern jazz.  Track 3 is titled “Ridgeway” and is a ballad of sorts, giving Mike Harmon an opportunity to showcase his solo bass skills.  There are only five tunes on this entire album, more like an EP than a CD.  However, each song is long-winded, with the final tune, “Slate” taking all of ten minutes to play-out.   Once Dustin Laurenzi establishes his original melodies, his composition arrangements repeat themselves melodically, over and over, as he improvises on top.  Some of these arrangements leave me wanting more; more musical exploration and more innovation.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

WILL BONNESS – “CHANGE OF PLANS”

Will Bonness, piano/composer; Julian Bradford, bass; Fabio Ragnelli, drums; Jon Gordon, alto saxophone; Jocelyn Gould, vocals.

“Burning Bridges” opens this CD.  This composition is volcano hot with Will Bonness, on piano, the obvious star.  Jon Gordon is featured on alto saxophone and flies like an eagle.  The drums are given an opportunity to thoroughly explore those burning bridges and drummer, Fabio Ragnelli does not disappoint.  He’s on fire too! 

Track 2 settles these musicians down with the familiar standard, “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” and features vocalist, Jocelyn Gould interpreting the ballad.  At first, there is only a duo arrangement, featuring the fresh and innovative chording of Will Bonness on piano and the jazz singer.  When Jon Gordon enters on saxophone, he sweetly enhances the production.  Will Bonness has mixed up the tracks by featuring various members of his ensemble. Sometimes he features a duo and other times uses a trio of his musicians, a quartet or a quintet.  It keeps this album interesting and diversifies the production, along with his repertoire choices.  He has composed five original songs and added a smattering of familiar jazz standards like “I Love You” and Bonness even re-arranged an alternative rock song ,“Bullet with Butterfly Wings,” originally recorded by The Smashing Pumpkins in 1995. These are some of Canada’s A-team musicians.  Sit back and enjoy.

* * * * * * * * * * * * 

STEVE FIDYK – “BATTLE LINES” – Blue Canteen Music (BCM)

Steve Fidyk, drums; Joe Magnarelli, trumpet/flugelhorn; Xavier Perez, tenor saxophone; Peter Zak, piano; Michael Karn, bass.

Steve Fidyk is a drummer and composer, who was inspired by his father, who played tenor saxophone.  At age eight, young Steve was encouraged to play drums by his family, with his dad, sax-man, John Fidyk, sometimes allowing him to play on gigs, as a substitute drummer, with his Pennsylvania jazz band.  While majoring in music at Wilkes University he played drums in their big band and became very interested in jazz.  He has studied with Joe Morello, Ed Soph, John Riley, Ralph Peterson, Robert Nowak and Angelo Stella.  For over twenty-one years, Steve Fidyk has been the drummer and featured soloist with the Army Blues Big Band and a premier 17-piece jazz ensemble stationed in Washington DC.  Consequently, he has performed for seven US Presidents and even more dignitaries.  He also traveled throughout the Middle East supporting our troops.

His current aggregation features some of the top players on the East Coast.  Opening with “Ignominy” an Eddie Harris straight-ahead jazz tune known for its unusual 20 measure length.  This tune gives Joe Magnarelli on trumpet, and Xavier Perez on tenor sax, an opportunity to stretch out and strut their talents across the studio stage.  Peter Zak takes a piano solo as well, but he really impresses me on track 2, written by Steve Fidyk and titled “Battle Lines.”    Zak flies across the piano keys at a rapid pace, spurred by the serious and energetic drums of Fidyk.  It’s a great tune!  This one is followed by another Fidyk original song called “Loopholes.”  It’s rooted in the blues and very funky.  Steve has composed seven of the eleven songs on this CD and each one exhibits his tenacious composer skills.  On his “Bebop Operations” composition, Fidyk introduces it to us with a distinct drum lick.  Then the horns take over. The drummer writes very melodically and his melodies always make me want to sing-along.  I did think that “Social Loafing” sounds a lot like “Social Call,” composed by Jon Hendricks and Gigi Gryce. 

When he isn’t recording and touring, he is an active member of the jazz studies faculty at Temple University, The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, PA and serves as an educational consultant for Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington Program.  Steve Fidyk is also a journalist and contributes columns on a regular basis to Modern Drummer Magazine.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

WOMEN IN JAZZ

October 26, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil

OCTOBER 26, 2020

Two exceptional pianists, ANGELICA SANCHEZ & MARILYN CRISPELL, merge their talents to record a spellbinding duo piano production.  Another pianist, RINA, showcases composer talents on her debut trio recording.  Bassist and vocalist, ESPERANZA SPALDING and pianist/composer FRED HERSCH release a 5-song duo EP to raise money for out-of-work jazz musicians.  MIKI YAMANAKA plays both vibraphone and piano with her jazz ensemble.  Singer, AMBER WEEKES, has a Christmas album available and violinist, JULIET KURTZMAN, joins jazz pianist, PETE MALINVERNI to combine classical violin with jazz piano.  BRANDI DISTERHEFT plays double bass, cello and sings on her fifth album release, featuring George Coleman.  JULIA KAROSI sings without words and interprets Hungarian classical music and LAILA BILAI releases a single to celebrate Joni Mitchell’s birthday.

ANGELICA SANCHEZ & MARILYN CRISPELL – “HOW TO TURN THE MOON” – Pyroclastic Records

Angelica Sanchez, piano/composer/educator; Marilyn Crispell, piano/composer.

The moon has long been thought to represent a female embodiment, while the sun represents the male. These two extraordinarily talented women aim to show us “How to Turn the Moon.”  They use their piano tenacity to create textures, melodies, and crescendos of improvisation.  As Track 1, “Lobe of the Fly” opens this CD and you can almost hear the fly’s wings breaking the air as the two pianists sing simultaneously.  When they stop, it’s sudden and startling; like a fly lighting atop the kitchen sink defiantly.  Their fingers dance and explore the 88 keys, like insects flying wildly and trying to avoid the fly swatter.  Their piano notes paint a vivid portrait of the fly. 

On track 2, “Ancient Dream,” Marilyn Crispell plays with the piano strings, creating mood and magic.  I know it’s Marilyn because in the studio the two pianists set up their instruments facing each other with Angelica appearing in the left stereo channel of their recording and Marilyn in the right.  Angelica describes the moment and the scene in the liner notes.

“The light through the window, the dog on the couch; the little universes that Marilyn and I created in the moment … love all around. Marilyn and I each get different sounds out of the piano. …It can be tricky with two pianos, to make sure there is enough space in the music; but she and I complement one another, naturally,” Angelica says in the liner notes. 

Marilyn has been a composer and performer of Avant-garde, contemporary improvised music for over four decades.  For ten years she was a member of the Anthony Braxton Quartet and the Reggie Workman Ensemble.  Ms. Crispell is the recipient of three New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship grants, a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust Composition Commission.

Angelica has composed seven of the ten compositions and she and Marilyn shared composer credits on three of the songs.  Sanchez is an Arizona native.  Her goal of moving to New York City, in 1994, was to meet with similar, artistic minds like Marilyn Crispell, Wadada Leo Smith, Paul Motian and a host of other contemporaries.  She has already released a number of critically acclaimed albums as a bandleader and holds a Master of Fine Arts in jazz Arranging from William Paterson University.  Sanchez currently works as a lecturer at Princeton University. 

Angelica Sanchez opens track 3 with a flurry of notes, some that are painted quite bluesy, other’s that are very classical in nature.   This composition is called “Calyces of Held” and caused me to go to my dictionary to try and interpret this title.  In zoology, a calyx (plural is calyces) is a cuplike cavity or structure.  In Botany, calyx is the sepals of a flower that encloses the petals and forms a protective layer around a flower in bud.   This duo is much like a blooming flower, colorful and delicate; growing into maturation before our ears.  They offer music to enjoy in the garden of our minds.  This is music to think by.  Music that inspires meditation or floats from our sound system while we are writing, reading or cleaning house.  This is woman music; she-ro music; people music; creative and spontaneous piano jazz.  This is Angelica Sanchez and Marilyn Crispell testing space and showering sound into the universe.  They are showing us “How to Turn the Moon” and offering a musical spaceship.  They dare us to explore and take an uninhibited ride.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

RINA –“RINA” – Yamaha Music Entertainment

Rina, piano/composer; Yasushi Nakamura, bass; Jerome Jennings, drums.

Rina’s piano talent is warm and richly rooted in European classical music.  She introduces us to her composition, “Tale of Small Wishes,” that she composed, based on the story of the Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, ‘The Little Match Girl.”  Rina said she wrote this after being touched by emotions while reading about hardship.   Born in Japan, but currently based in New York City, Rina holds a degree from Kunitachi College of Music, where she studied with master pianist Makoto Ozone.  In fact, her mentor, Makoto Ozone, produced this album.  As a student of Berklee College of Music, Rina received a full-scholarship to attend this Boston music conservatory and she graduated in 2018.  She explained her motivation to record.

“On this album, I wanted the music to be authentic; to represent myself, not only as a musician but also as a person.  It is still jazz, but rather than having the feeling of listening to a jazz album, I want people to be able to connect with my emotions through the stories I am telling.  I hope my music will create a positive vibe for listeners, who can then go on and connect with and reflect upon their own feeling in an honest way,” Rina explained.

For Track 2, “Shadows of the Mind” Rina explained:

“We face the unknown and we have to confront it on a daily basis.  This song expresses my state of mind going through these challenges.”

It starts out energetically, with the drums of Jerome Jennings spurring the moment.  The bass of Yasushi Nakamura pumps up the arrangement and walks briskly beneath Rina’s straight-ahead tune.  The trio swings hard on this one, led strongly by Rina’s piano brilliance.  All three players walk brightly into their individual solos to exhibit their unique talents.  “Journey” continues to swing and shows-off Rina’s melodic individuality on this song describing her life’s journey.  Jennings is given plenty of opportunities to show-off his drum mastery, trading bars with Rina, as though they are having a serious conversation.  “With You Always” is a jazz waltz, with the piano and the bass singing the pretty melody in unison.  Then Nakamura is given time to speak his truth on the double bass.  Rina described her arrangement.

“I wrote this song with a message to my father saying, I’m always with you, even if we’re apart. … I imagine the bass as my father and the piano as myself, spending time together.”

Rina’s composer talent is obvious on this, her debut recording.  She covers the gamut of musical styles, soaring on “Foxglove” with a very intense Latin groove and a joyful tempo. “Eternal Eyes” represents her melancholy side and is a beautiful ballad, sweetly interpreted by her dynamic trio.  It was rewarding to hear Yasushi Nakamura pick up his bow and play his beautiful bass instrument like a cello.  Jerome Jennings is featured on “J.J’s Painting” and shows off his drum chops,  briskly playing brushes.  

I enjoyed every song on this album.  Here is an up and coming star on the horizon, sparkling with hope and anticipation; talent and determination.  Most importantly, she is sharing a special part of her heart and soul with us.  If we listen closely, we can understand her genuine, musical stories.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

ESPERANZA SPALDING AND PIANIST/COMPOSER FRED HERSCH RELEASE A 5-SONG DUO EP

Because the COVID-19 pandemic has had such a devasting effect on the jazz community, visionary vocalist, bassist and composer, Esperanza Spalding, wanted to do something to help struggling musical artists.  Renowned pianist and composer, Fred Hersch also wanted to support his fellow musicians. so, the two made a plan.  Esperanza put down her bass and just brought her beautiful and free-spirited voice to the party. Fred Hersch joined her on the grand piano with all his brilliance on display.  They recorded and released this EP, unfortunately for us, it sold only in the month of June, 2020.  The sales and donations went to support the out-of-work jazz community.  Besides raising much-needed funds for this vital cause, they performed the recording ‘Live at the Village Vanguard’ and that provided a rare opportunity for listeners to enjoy this singular and thrilling collaboration between two amazing and gifted musicians.  I salute their hearts, that beat as huge as their talents.  Perhaps this will be an inspiration to others who would like to help struggling musicians through this challenging time.  In this case, all funds and donations went to the Jazz Foundation of America, a group that has been critically impacted by this ongoing crisis.

Esperanza Spalding is a four-time Grammy Award recipient and a lover of all music, especially improvisation-based productions that emerge from the African American culture of jazz.  You clearly hear this love of freedom and improvisation during Spalding’s performance with the legendary, Fred Hersch.  This was the first time I ever heard Esperanza Spalding perform singularly, as a vocalist, without her arms wrapped securely around her double bass.  She did not disappoint!  Ms. Spalding has taught at Berklee College of Music and Harvard University and is currently in the process of writing an opera in collaboration with the legendary, Wayne Shorter.

* * * * * * * * * * *

MIKI YAMANAKA – “HUMAN DUST SUITE” – Outside In Music

Miki Yamanaka, piano/vibes/composer; Anthony Orji, alto saxophone; Orlando Le Fleming, bass; Jochen Rueckert, drums.

This is Miki Yamanaka’s follow up album to her acclaimed piano debut CD, “Cellar Live,” released in 2018. She was inspired to compose this current production by Hungarian American conceptual artist, Agnes Denes’s photograph of “human Dust.”  The photo is of a mound of human remains after cremation.  After Miki Yamanaka first saw this photo on exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, she was moved to compose the “Human Dust Suite.”  Each movement represents a body part.  In her description, each composition title symbolizes something greater that leads to happiness.  For example, “Tummy” is inspired by a love for food and nourishment.  The Human Dust Suites are placed in the middle of her production and bookended by three songs on each side of these individual suites.  “Pre School” is the first song on her album and it was inspired by the Lee Konitz song, “Contrafact.”  

A year ago, Miki made a New Year’s Eve resolution to compose a song each month.  From January to April, she did pretty well.  Track 2 is one of those compositions and was inspired by Mulgrew Miller’s “Epicchords” song.    It’s titled “March”, which has nothing to do with a marching tempo or drum arrangements, but instead features Anthony Orji on’s alto saxophone.  This is straight-ahead jazz with Miki power-packing her improvisational attack on the keys.  On Cut 3, “First Day of Spring” Orlando Le Fleming offers us a bass solo that explores the chord changes in a slow and tender way, with Jochen Rueckert giving both intentional restraint and sensitive support on trap drums.

As I mentioned above, Ms. Yamanaka’s “Human Dust Suite” is composed of five individual suites; Brain, Hatsu, Tummy, Feet Go Bad First and Party’s Over.   In her liner notes she talks about the photograph that inspired these five suites.

“When I saw the photos of human cremation, I thought that everyone will look the same after we die; race, gender, occupation or success won’t change how we look when we get cremated.  I just would like to deliver this message.  Everyone dies and all we can do, ‘til the time comes, is to enjoy life fully.”

This journalist is hard-pressed to find the beauty in cremated body parts, however there are some beautiful, musical moments on this album. Yamanaka establishes herself as a thoughtful composer and is quite prolific on her instruments.  She surprises me on Tracks five through seven, adding vibraphone sounds to the mix that are over-dubbed atop her piano playing.  She offers us modern jazz, ballads and straight-ahead tunes that celebrate Miki Yamanaka’s personal life lyricism.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

AMBER WEEKES – “THE GATHERING” – Independent Label

Amber Weekes, lead vocal/background vocals; Mark Cargill, string & horn arrangements/producer/ arranger/solo violinist; Josh Nelson, Eddy Olivieri & Tony Capodonico, piano; John B. Williams, Kevin Brandon & Adam Cohen, bass; Nathaniel Scott, Fritz Wise & Sinclair Lott, drums; Jacques Lesure, Doug MacDonald & Paul Jackson Jr., guitar; Andrew Carney, trumpet; Richard Heath & Munyungo Jackson, percussion; Rickey Woodard, saxophone. Nio Wilson, Marcus D. Cargill & JoAnn Tominaga, background vocals; Ernie Fields Jr., bagpipes; Gregory Cook, celeste; Andrew Carney, trumpet.

Amber Weekes has a bell clear voice, perfect for the ten holiday songs she interprets on her debut Christmas album. The gift is ours.   Opening with “The Christmas Waltz” by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, enhanced by the muted trumpet of Andrew Carney, this is a lovely song that many have overlooked on their holiday albums.  Amber Weekes introduces us to the lyrics with her perfect enunciation and pleasing tone.  Mark Cargill adds strings and horns, like a satin pillow for Amber’s voice to lie upon.  On her rendition of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” Amber pulls out every nuance of this arrangement, with tones warm and smooth as Christmas taffy.  This vocalist throws in a familiar jazz standard “My Romance” and then continues reminding us of the holidays with songs like “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and “Silent Night.”   She performs “Some Children See Him” by Alfred Burt and it was a new song to my ears, with a lyric about Jesus being visible to the youth.  The bagpipes by Ernie Fields Jr., were a pleasant surprise in this arrangement.  The title tune was composed by Mark Cargill & Gregory Cook.  This melody is catchy and Amber Weekes penned the lyrics.  Cargill performs a stellar violin solo.  They employ background voices that sound child-like and are sung in unison.   I enjoyed Amber’s bluesy arrangement of “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve.”  Her musical ensemble swings on “Winter Wonderland” and “Let it Snow.”  Amber Weekes and her Los Angeles musicians offer us a little bit of everything to brighten up our holiday season.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * 

JULIET KURTZMAN & PETE MALINVERNI – “CANDLELIGHT-LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA” – Independent label

Juliet Kurtzman, violin; Pete Malinverni, Steinway grand piano.

This is a striking and emotionally infused album featuring violin and piano.  Juliet Kurtzman, who grew up in Houston, Texas, came from musical roots.  Her family was packed with pianists, but the little girl was drawn to the violin.  At age seven, she was studying with renowned violin teacher, Ms. Fredell Lack.  At the young age of fourteen, she debuted as a soloist with the Houston Symphony Orchestra.  At seventeen, she continued her studies at the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, becoming one of only two violinists accepted Internationally.  She has toured Europe as a symphonic violinist.  Juliet Kurtzman brings her classical talents to this recording with Pete Malinverni, who brings his jazz piano stylings to the studio.

Juliet has become a dedicated teacher for a dozen years, working at the 92nd Street Y, Kaufman center and the Special Music School.  As she passes her gifts forward, she looks with pride at her prize-winning students, who go forward, winning competitions and joining many prominent music conservatories.  While Juliet Kurtzman passes the baton, lucky for us, she has still taken time to record this beautiful duo album of music.

Pianist Pete Malinverni grew up in Niagara Falls, New York.  He started out studying classical piano and was later drawn to jazz.  Currently, he chairs the Jazz Studies program at Purchase College Conservatory of Music – SUNY.  He’s played in trios, small and large ensembles and solo.  Pete also was part of a Gospel Choir group.  On this production, he endeavors, quite successfully, to bridge the worlds of classical music and America’s indigenous artform of jazz.

“What unites us is stronger than those things that divide us.  Art that emanates from, and is directed to the heart, has always been important.  But now, as our world has come to a once-in-a-generation dual reckoning with mortality and injustice, the essential nature of art in service to human connection is ever more apparent,” Pete Malinverni gave us a glimpse into why he created this work of art.

The opening tune, “Pulcinella” was composed by Malinverni, and sounds like a very sexy tango.  The Kurtzman violin is the ballerina in a tango skirt, swishing delicately, but powerfully, across the polished floor.  Pete Malinverni adds the rhythm and groove on his Steinway grand piano.  On Track 2, the song is “Candelights” by Beiderbecke.  Pete’s piano is a tender reflection of the poignant melody that Juliet coaches from her violin.  It sounds as though the violin is weeping, emotionally.  Malinverni’s piano beautifully layers the melody with lush chords, giving solid confirmation to Beiderbecke’s composition.  They also interpret another one of Bix Beiderbecke’s compositions titled, “Davenport Blues.”  Beiderbecke was an American jazz cornetist, pianist and songwriter who was influential in 1920.  In fact, there are three other songs by that composer included in this production.  They also play Scott Joplin’s “Solace” song and offer their interpretation of the jazz standard, “Body and Soul,” where Malinverni finally stretches out during a solo piano interlude that mirrors shades of Thelonious Monk and the pianists of the 1930s.  “Por Una Cabeza” is a passionate tango, where the duo magnifies their talents. 

“Our collaboration characterized by a breadth of emotional and musical expression, and fueled by the joy of making music together has been a revelation for both of us,” Malinverni admits in his press package.

Their collaboration was certainly a lovely and artistic way for me to spend an Autumn evening.  This album will be available November 13, 2020.

* * * * * * * * * * *

BRANDI DISTERHEFT TRIO with GEORGE COLEMAN – “SURFBOARD” – Justin Time Records

Brandi Disterheft, bass/vocals/composer/cello; George Coleman, tenor saxophone; Portinho, drums; Klaus Mueller, piano.

Brandi Disterheft is a young, Juno-award winning bassist, composer and singer who has teamed with two octogenarian musicians; the iconic tenor saxophonist, George Coleman and the legendary Brazilian drummer, Portinho.  She also includes pianist, Klaus Mueller, who was born in Germany, then raised in Japan, Chile and Brazil.  He brings all that international, cultural richness, along with being a classically trained musician. 

Track 1 is an instrumental, written by Jobim, and celebrates the album’s title, “Surfboard.”  Mueller’s finger’s surf across the 88 keys, floating brightly above the rhythm tapestry that Portinho weaves.  Portinho is fondly known as the James Brown of Brazilian funk Samba.  On Track 2, Brandi previews her vocal tenacity and songwriter talents.  Frankly, I was disappointed to hear her sing lyrics obviously lifted from the old standard, “Something Cool” i.e.: “I don’t ordinarily drink with strangers” and the story is uncomfortably the same as June Christy’s hit record, even though it’s called “Prelude to Coup de Foudre.”  The melody is lovely and her soft, girlish voice sings it very well.  It’s followed by “Coup de Foudre” another original composition with lyrics about a one-night-stand.  George Coleman’s stellar tenor sax solo boldly lifts this song arrangement and he’s a wild bird in flight on “My Foolish Heart.”  Ms. Disterheft takes a short, but appropriate bass solo on this beautiful ballad.  She also steps into the spotlight on the Moacir Santos/ Telles tune, “Nana,” giving us a little longer, Latin-flavored solo, while Mueller brings the blues into play during his piano solo. “Manhattan Moon” is another Disterheft original composition, with prose lyrics.  I like the way she harmonizes vocally with her bass.  This is another song, strongly Brazilian flavored, as is “Pendulum at Falcon’s Lair” (an Oscar Pettiford composition).  On her tune, “One Dream” Brandi Disterheft opens with an attention-getting bass solo. Her light, soprano voice, against the deep bass of her instrument, creates a startling duo.  When the band enters, once again we recognize what beautiful melodies Ms. Disterheft writes.  Her lyrics remain more prose than rhymes, often without a ‘hook’ and that creates a somewhat unique songwriting stye of her own.   

This is Brandi’s fifth album as a bandleader.  The pandemic gave her time alone to work on this production.  Before the terrible COVID19 madness, Brandi Disterheft was busy working every single night.  She spent a lot of time playing with the recently departed pianist, Harold Mabern, who grew up with eighty-five-year-old, George Coleman in Memphis, Tennessee.  They were friends.  Disterheft has taken two palms full of standard jazz songs and whipped them into a Brazilian theme in a lovely way.  She lives in Vancouver, Canada, but the pandemic has kept her housed and quarantined in New York City.  She actually moved to New York to study with the great bassist, Ron Carter.  Her mom was a Chicago-born jazz organist.  Her Aunt Angie is a Grammy winning session singer in Los Angeles.  So, her roots are steeped in music.  She had the honor to be bassist on the “Pleased to Meet You” album by Hank Jones.  Debbie includes the Jones original, “Del Sasser.”  She has also been continuously working with drummer and mentor, Portinho for a decade, with emphasis on Brazilian musical roots. Finally, they have recorded together and the results is this entertaining “Surfboard” album.

* * * * * * * * * * *

JULIA KAROSI – “WITHOUT DIMENSIONS” featuring BEN MONDER – Challenge Records Int

Julia Karosi, vocals/composer; Ben Monder, guitar; Aron Talas, piano; Adam Bogothy, bass; Bendeguz Varga, drums.

The first song, the title tune, opens like an airliner at the starting gate.  The soft roar of the engine; that expectant feeling you have as you taxi down the runway; the sound of the rubber wheels on the tarmac, rolling with purpose, forward. The ensemble’s  musical instruments create the mood. Then enters Aron Talas on piano, followed by the warm vocals of Julia Karosi.  She sings without words, becoming a solo instrument. 

“I always wondered whether music belongs to any of the dimensions as theorized in the ‘standard model’ in modern physics.  I summarized my subjective answer as the title of this album,” Julia shares.

  This is an album that celebrates voice as an instrument.  I wouldn’t call Julia Karosi a jazz singer or a scat singer, because scat singers improvise on a theme.  Karosi is singing the melodies as written and incorporating her Hungarian heritage into the mix by drawing on her decades-long study of composer Bela Bartok, employing her classical roots and then adding a vocal concept without lyricism.  With the stellar accomplishments of her ensemble, Ben Monder on guitar, Talas on piano, Adam Bogothy on double bass and Bendeguz Varga on drums, her ensemble unleashes a host of musical possibilities and imaginative productions, many in a minor key.  Julia Karosi has composed the first two songs and the last five on this project.  Much of the music sounds very Middle Eastern.   In between her original music, she sings a “Hommage to Bela Bartok”, including an English translation (by Peter Bartok) of the “Bluebeard’s Castle Prologue” that Julia recites, like prose, atop the avant-garde ensemble music in the background.  It sounds like she’s speaking in Hungarian.  You will find the English translation inside the CD jacket. The musicians accompany with electronic guitar and crescendos of excitement that roll like a restless tide splashing against the sand.

As a vocalist, poet, composer, (perhaps even actress, as noted in her emotional delivery of Track 4), Julia Karosi brings us her experimental project, to exhibit why she is one of the most called-upon vocalists in her country and one of the premier, contemporary interpreters of Hungarian music.  But is this jazz?  That must be answered by the ears of the beholder.  I do not know Hungarian music well enough to hear if Julia is truly improvising.  Most of the music sounds as though she is singing an established melody, often times singing it in unison with her musicians. However, in this reviewer’s opinion, without the necessary and exceptional addition of ‘improvisation,’ a crucial element of what distinguishes music as jazz, any production without such freedom of improvisation misses the jazz mark.
* * * * * * * * * * *

LAILA  BIALI – “BOTH SIDES NOW”

Laila Biali, piano/vocals.

Laila Biali has the tone of an angel and her piano accompaniment is beautifully executed on this Joni Mitchell standard tune that we fell in love with in 1966 and beyond. Singer, songwriter, pianist, Laila, has a lovely way of connecting with her listening audience.  Some artists can only do this in person.  However, Laila’s emotional delivery jumps from her single, solo release as though she’s standing in our living room, singing singularly to us. This woman of jazz and pop has performed from Carnegie Hall to Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts in China.  She recently received the SOCAN Music Songwriting Award and in 2019 won the Canadian JUNO Award (similar to our Grammy Awards).  This current release is in celebration of Joni Mitchell’s birthday on November 7th and is a heartfelt experience not to be missed.

* * * * * * * * * * *

OUTSTANDING JAZZ ARRANGERS & COMPOSERS

October 14, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz journalist

October 13, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * * *

WALTER WHITE – “BBXL” – Independent Label

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * * *

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

RAPHAEL PANNIER – “FAUNE” – French Paradox

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * *  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * *

 BEN ZUCKER – “FIFTH SEASON” – Amalgam Records

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * * * *   

JAZZ IN AN ELECTION YEAR

October 5, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

October 5, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * 

MARIA SCHNEIDER – “DATA LORDS” – Artist Share

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * * *

JESSE FISCHER – “RESILIENCE” – Independent Label

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

LAFAYETTE GILCHRIST – “NOW” – Independent label

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * *

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * * * * 

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

DAVE  PIETRO – “HYPERSPHERE” – Artist Share

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * *

JAVIER NERO – “FREEDOM” – Outside In Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * *

NOCTURNES FOR A RAINY AFTERNOON

September 26, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

September 26, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * * *

KATCHIE CARTWRIGHT – “RAINY AFTERNOON” – Harriton Carved Wax

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

EDWARD SIMON – “25 YEARS” – Ridgeway Records

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

ZEENA QUINN – “GOING MY WAY” – Independent Label

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * * * 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * *

JOURNEY TO JAZZ TAKES MANY PATHS

September 19, 2020

by Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

September 19, 2020

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

MARIO ROMANO – “THE JOURNEY SO FAR”

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * *  

CHIEN CHIEN LU – “THE PATH” – Independent Label

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

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

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

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

                “Pennies in a stream.

                Falling leaves, a sycamore

                Moonlight in Vermont.”

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

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

* * * * * * * *

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

Jason Foureman, bass; Stephen Anderson, piano.

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * *

SCATTERED DIAMONDS, BIRDSONGS AND MORE

September 13, 2020

y Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

September 13, 2020

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

BARRETT MARTIN GROUP – “SCATTERED DIAMONDS” – Sunyata Records

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * *

CHAMPIAN FULTON – “BIRDSONG” – Independent Label

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

STÉPHANE SPIRA SPIRABASSI QUARTET – “IMPROKOFIEV”– Jazzmax Records

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

SUKYUNG KIM – “LILAC HILL” – Independent label

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * *

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * 

ALLEGRA LEVY – “LOSE MY NUMBER” – SteepleChase Records

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

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

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

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

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

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

                “These songs were not written for singers!”

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * * * 

  TOM GUARNA – “SPIRIT SCIENCE” – Destiny Records

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * *

BLUES IS THE ROOT OF JAZZ

September 3, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

Sept 3, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * * *

BETTYE LAVETTE – “BLACKBIRDS” – Verve Records

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * * * *   

MAGGIE HERRON – “YOUR REFRAIN” – Independent label

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * * *

MATT WILSON QUARTET – “HUG” – Palmetto Records

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * * * * * * *