LOVE INSPIRED JAZZ RECORDINGS

February 2, 2022

BY Dee Dee McNeil

February 2, 2022

There are so many sides to love and this is the season we celebrate it the most in the USA.  We revere Valentine’s Day as we shower each other with hearts, candy, romantic dinners and song.  Here are some artists who have reached inside their souls to use their various instruments to remind us of the beauty and healing properties that music and love bring to our lives. 

JAVON JACKSON – “THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO NIKKI GIOVANNI”-  Solid Jackson Records

Javon Jackson, tenor saxophone; Jeremy Manasia, piano; David Williams, bass; McClenty Hunter, drums; Nikki Giovanni, vocals; Christina Greer, spoken word.

In this project, love, as projected through music, has arms tightly wrapped around Christian music, hymns and spiritual songs.  Love has seen us through slavery and tragedy; war, death and rebirth; bondage survival and the building of golden empires.   These songs reflect a deep, historic, spiritual love.

This project opens with the familiar gospel tune, “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel” featuring a spirited rendition by Javon Jackson on tenor saxophone.  It was originally made popular by the great Paul Robeson in 1937.  This is followed by “Wade in the Water” played at a mid-tempo swing pace with the bass of David Williams walking briskly next to McClenty Hunter’s syncopated ride-cymbal.  The hymns, spirituals and gospel songs for this project were hand-picked by Nikki Giovanni, a journalist and poet who was the first person to be awarded the Rosa L. Parks Women of Courage Award.  Ms. Giovanni has long been an admired part of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s.  Christina Greer speaks the words of Nikki Giovanni at the very fade of “Wade in the Water” in the African-American spoken word tradition. 

“I want to write an image, like a log cabin quilt pattern and stretch it across all the lonely people who just don’t fit in.  We might make a world if I do that.  I want to boil a stew with all the leftover folk whose bodies are full of empty lives.  We might feed a world if I do that.  Twice in our lives we need direction.  When we’re young and innocent; when we’re old and cynical.  Since the old refused to discipline us, we now refuse to discipline them… ,” she recites the Nikki Giovanni words.  

This is followed by an amazingly beautiful rendition of “Night Song.”  Javon Jackson’s tenor saxophone is like a tender lullaby being sung at the cradle of Christ himself.  Nikki Giovanni surprises me and sings this lyric.   Her reason being, she identifies with her close friend, the late, iconic, civil rights activist and entertainer, Nina Simone.  She said it was one of Nina’s favorite songs. Ms. Giovanni is not a jazz vocalist, but her sincerity and determination make us pay attention to the lyrics.

“Nina was a friend of mine and I knew that one of her favorite songs was ‘Night Song’ and even though I’m not a singer, I told Javon I wanted to sing it because I just wanted Nina to be remembered,” Nikki explained in the press package.

This merge of talents and history came about when Javon Jackson, a faculty member of the Hartt School at the University of Hartford and director of its Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz invited Giovanni to speak to his students.

“I felt that the school would be well-served to bring great scholars of color and scholars who were freedom fighters and activists, if you will.  So, I brought in Dr. Cornel West, Sonia Sanchez, Angela Davis and Michael Eric Dyson.  Then in February of 2020, I brought Nikki Giovanni,” Javon Jackson explained how this project came about.

That meeting and performance culminated in Ms. Giovanni receiving an honorary doctorate degree.  After she spoke to the students, Nikki paid rapt attention to the music being played in the auditorium.  It was Hank Jones and Charlie Haden who had recorded hymns and spirituals on a recording done in 1994 titled “Steal Away.”  She expressed to Javon how much she loved their album and the importance of these spirituals and Christian hymnals.  Two day later, Nikki’s phone rang at her home in Roanoke, Virginia.  It was Javon calling and she had inspired him.  He explained he was calling to see if she would be interested in selecting ten hymns for his next recording project.   

Javon Jackson’s arrangement of “Mary had A Baby, Yes Lord” is another one of my favorites on this album.  Most impressive are the piano talents of Jeremy Manasia during this arrangement.  Each carefully selected song is a gem that glitters and shines like gold.  Mahalia Jackson once made famous the hymn, “I’ve Been Buked” and Javon Jackson lets the bow of David Williams open this arrangement, on his upright bass.  It’s quite dynamic. “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” is produced as a calypso number, infused with Latin rhythms, after Javon introduces the tune on tenor sax with a dynamic solo. 

“This music is something that people will probably be a little surprised to see coming from me,” Jackson admits.  “But given the state of the world, it could be just in time.  Both poet and saxophonist stand on the shoulders of their ancestors on The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni.”

This CD will be available February 18, 2022.

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BRAD FELT – DANA SESSIONS – “DUETS WITH JOHN DANA” – BradfeltMusic.com

Brad Felt, euphonium; John Dana, double bass.

There is something soothing, smooth and organic when I listen to Brad Felt’s euphonium.  This duet recording with Dana Session was released posthumously in 2021, over a decade after these sessions has been recorded.  Felt introduces us to the euphonium as an instrument of modern jazz.  Many refer to the euphonium as the little cousin of the tuba and it’s never been a popular spotlighted instrument in jazz.  That is, until Brad Felt showed us how beautifully it could become the centerpiece of a jazz concert.   The euphonium is a three to four valve brass instrument, somewhat bulky in appearance and can be played in the bass clef (as a non-transposing instrument) or it can be played in the treble clef as a transposing instrument.  Many big bands, especially European big bands, use it as a treble-clef instrument.  When I listen to  the Euphonium, it has a very similar sound to the baritone horn, although many say the conical shaped instrument has a more mellow sound than the cylindrical baritone sax.   Brad Felt, originally a trumpeter until about aged ten, switched to the tuba and later the euphonium instrument as a teen.  In music college, he realized their potential as a featured instrument in jazz, consequently he introduced them as a possibility in modern jazz music.  That’s what you will hear on this duet album with bassist, Dana Sessions.  You hear the possibilities and the beauty of the euphonium instrument as a lead instrument interpreting jazz.  The inclusion of two original songs; a ballad titled, “You Walked Away” by Brad Felt and “Sometime in the Fall” introduce us to the composer side of this musician.   His tune “Sometime in the Fall” swings hard and has a strong melody line.

Other songs you will recognize and enjoy are “Star Eyes”, “Stablemates” the old standards “Darn that Dream” and “Up Jumped Spring.”  Brad Felt and his duo partner, John Dana also remind us of how beautiful songs like “I Wish I Knew” are, as well as a song I used to enjoy hearing Johnny Hartman sing, “You Are Too Beautiful.”   This is a collector’s item that establishes the euphonium as worthy solo instrument in a modern jazz setting.

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ANNA LAURA QUINN – “OPEN THE DOOR” – Outside In Music

Anna Laura Quinn, vocals; Ed Barrett, guitar; Ben Fox, upright bass; Brad Webb, drums; Kate Campbell-Strauss, tenor & baritone saxophones; Brent Ross, tenor saxophone/flute.

The late, great Abbey Lincoln has left us a legacy of original compositions that reflect her unique style and talent.  It’s nice to see young artists choose to ‘cover’ Ms. Lincoln’s tunes.  New Orleans-based vocalist, Anna Laura Quinn, opens with Abbey’s “Talking to the Sun.”  This arrangement features Ms. Quinn’s sweet, crystal-clear vocal singing a’ Capella.  Soon, she is joined by percussion and we hear only her voice with drums. Finally, the band enters and Brent Rose offers us a lovely flute solo.  The last riff by Anna’s smooth vocals ends this song and it’s musically inspired.  “Comes Love” is sprinkled with blues, from the Ben Fox double bass bottom to the light, airy vocal rendition celebrating the catchy lyrics by Ms. Quinn.  This entire album is delightfully arranged and the choice of repertoire embraces old standards like “Speak Low,” (a well-loved composition from the American songbook) as well as French and Brazilian music.  Anna reminds us of more contemporary composers like Abbey Lincoln and Ellis Marsalis with her interpretation of his “Cry Again.”   She has named her album for the Betty Carter tune, “Open the Door” and also reminds us of the majesty of Duke Ellington by arranging “The Single Petal of a Rose,” featuring Kate Campbell-Strauss on baritone saxophone.    There is something for everyone on this unique and delightful album of jazz.  The horn arrangements are stellar and the inclusion of jazz vocals backing up Anna Laura Quinn on “Very Good Advice” (I assume all the voicings are sung by this artist) add a unique and ear-pleasing quality to the composition.  This album was a well-received surprise package I’m glad I opened. 

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MATT GORDY – “BE WITH ME” – Independent label

Matt Gordy, drums/arranger/composer; Alan Pasqua, piano; Chris Colangelo, double & electric bass; Ido Meshulam, trombone/valve trombone; Ron Stout, trumpet/flugelhorn; Sherry Williams, vocals. FEATURED GUEST: Jeff Ellwood, tenor/soprano saxophones.

The Matt Gordy Jazz Tonite Sextet roars into view, propelled by that popular Eddie Durham tune called, “Topsy.”  Matt Gordy invites the band in on his drum set, setting the up-tempo time and joining Chris Colangelo’s quick stepping bass.  Alan Pasqua steps front and center, innovative and creative on piano.  I enjoyed the arrangement of just drums and piano at this tune’s introduction.  Then, the ensemble swings hard, giving Ron Stout’s horn an opportunity to shine.  Next, Ido Meshulam soaks up the spotlight on trombone, followed by featured guest artist, Jeff Ellwood on his sensuous tenor saxophone.  Matt’s album features four of his original compositions and six standard tunes.

This talented percussionist moved to Los Angeles in 2006, from a successful career in Boston as one of their busiest drummers around town.  Upon arriving on the West Coast, he made the rounds of popular jazz spots, playing at Herb Alpert’s Club Vibrato, at the now defunct Blue Whale and Charlie O clubs, the popular Vitello’s and historic Lighthouse Café in Hermosa Beach.  His reputation spread like California wild fires.  Throughout this album, Matt Gordy is the exemplary force and motion behind his talented sextet.  Funny how lives sometimes go full circle.  In the case of pianist Alan Pasqua and Gordy, these two musicians have known each other for half a century.  They were both students at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston when they first met.

“His playing kills me!  He singlehandedly steered the direction through the music on every tune.  He has the ears to do that on the fly,” Matt Gordy praised Alan Pasqua’s piano talents. 

Track #2 is a swing version of “You and the Night and the Music” that Gordy dedicates to the late pianist Mulgrew Miller.  Gordy’s arrangement is based on Mulgrew’s solo on the drummer Tony Williams trio album.  This song is followed by a Gordy original titled, “Camouflage,” where the bassist, Chris Colangelo, dances brightly beneath the horn lines, hand-in-hand with Gordy’s warm drum beats and somehow reminds me of an Ahmad Jamal record I used to love.  The sextet has a fireside warmth on this tune, with the horns flaming brightly like red-glowing coals.  “Spring Ahead” follows and the musicians are back to a solid swing arrangement.  Jeff Ellwood flies on his saxophone, like a joyful bird.  Ron Stout joins him in flight on trumpet.  I enjoy the undertow of a melody that counters the solos and is played like a refrain that captures your imagination.  I find myself whistling along with it, as though it’s an old familiar tune.  This is the sign of a well-written composition.  I enjoy Matt Gordy’s creative arrangements.  “Chole” is a pretty ballad written as a gift for his granddaughter’s tenth birthday. Gordy’s final original composition is the title tune; “Be With Me,” vocalized by Sherry Williams with lyrics by Gregg Arthur.  She also sings the commercial pop tune, “Sunny” arranged in a very sweet and jazzy way.  I enjoyed, ”Soul Eyes,” spiced and splashed with blues and inspired by McCoy Tyner’s version on the 1962 John Coltrane release.  The familiar “My Shining Hour” is included and Gordy’s arrangement uses five pedal points (played by Colangelo on bass) to add tension and interest to the tune.  Matt shares that he learned this technique from Charlie Banacos, a Boston educator who mentored several jazz musicians in composing and arranging back in the day. 

This project is a culmination of Matt Gordy’s extensive and successful world of percussion excellence.  He has mastered many types of playing, accompaniment and styles because of his diverse and challenging career.  Right after college, Matt Gordy was offered a gig with the world-renowned Maracaibo Symphony Orchestra in Venezuela.  He thrived and blossomed in that 100-piece orchestra of mostly foreign nationals, including thirty Americans.  He grew to love the people and culture of Venezuela, even falling in love and marrying an Argentine woman he met there.  They lived nine years in Maracaibo, but in the 1980s, the government and the economy began collapsing.  The couple moved back to the United States, arriving home to Boston, Massachusetts.  In 1988, Matt got a call to play with the Boston Ballet who were performing Prokoviev’s “Romeo & Juliet.”  Consequently, Matt Gordy spent the next twenty-one-years playing a multitude of classical gigs, performing with the Boston Pops and building a reputation as a musician who could play just about any style from Latin, to jazz, to pop and was proficient in classical music too.  He wound up working with some famous names you might recognize; Joni Mitchell, Aretha Franklin, and Frank Sinatra Jr.

This album, his latest accomplishment, mixes all the many facets and talents of this wonderful drummer in a both memorable and enjoyable way.

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DANILO PEREZ – “CRISÁLIDA” – Mack Ave Records

Danilo Perez, piano/gankeke bell/lyricist/arranger/composer; Tareq Rantisi, percussionist (multi-instruments); Vasilis Kostas, laouto player; Layth Sidiq, violinist/vocals; Naseem Alatrash, cello; Farayi Malek, vocals; GUEST MUSICIANS: Roman Diaz, bata drums/spoken word; Faris Ishaq, Ney flute; Erini Tornesaki, vocals; Patricia Zarate Perez, spoken word; Kalesma Children’s Choir of the Ark of the World.

The Danilo Perez album is romantic, colored by parlor strings and harmonic background vocals.  Pianist, composer, humanitarian and activist, Danilo Perez, believes in a global perspective for the arts and that social justice are keys to moving humanity forward in harmony.  This Grammy Award winning pianist, composer, educator and social activist offers us his latest album titled, “Crisálida.” For this project, Perez has convened his Global Messengers, who are former Berklee College of Music students with worldwide roots including Palestine, Greece, Cuba, Chile, the U.S. and Jordan.  He’s asked them to contribute their musical talents and their respective cultural influences.  Perez’s goal is to build community through music without borders.  His is a love song to the world.

Danilo recently received the 2021 Doris Duke Artist Award. He’s a 3x GRAMMY® Award-winning Artist, Goodwill Ambassador to UNICEF, UNESCO Artist for Peace, Cultural Ambassador to the Republic of Panama.  He’s also the Founder and Artistic Director of the Panama Jazz Festival and has been a member of Wayne Shorter Quartet since 2010.  His inspiration for this group that he calls ‘Global Messengers’ was Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nations Orchestra.  In fact, that organization helped launch Perez’s international career.

“I envision “Crisálida” as a protected space where we all come together, whether we’re addressing immigration issues, climate change, environmental justice, science, interconnecting different art forms; we need to work together to build our new Crisálida, which to me, is the emotional, mental and physical state of protection in our early development,” Danilo Perez explained his concept for this musical journey.

This album is made up of suites, beginning with a four-part “La Muralla (Glass Walls) suite.  It opens with a composition called, “Rise From Love” that features the vocals of Farayi Malek and the sweet youthful voices of the Kalesma Children’s Choir of the Ark of the World.  The melody is lovely and makes you immediately want to hum along with it.  The song is flavored with batá drums played by Cuban born, Román Diaz.  Perez explains that these drums are a symbol of Africa arriving to the Western World and the African worldwide influence on music.  The next part of the suite, “Pathways” features the exciting string work of Layth Sidiq and Naseem Alatrash, with the prize-winning piano beauty of Danilo Perez always assertive and inspiring throughout these arrangements.  This project is a delicious blend of classical beauty, jazz improvisation and world music.  Middle Eastern, minor melodies loop through these compositions and suites like a bright, red ribbon.  Various languages are both spoken and sung during the production.  On the third part of the first suite, percussionist Tareq Rantisi makes a bold percussive statement at the top of the tune and rhythmically propels it forward.  The brilliant Perez piano is part of the propulsion and continuous energy.  This entire production seems to be a love call for change and a prayer to the divine. 

“I want to continue my journey of exploring this pathway of using the power of music to unite and humanize.  I want to promote music that acts as a bridge and to inspire younger artists to continue the journey and leave something positive that other generations can draw upon,” Danilo says in his press package.  

I believe this will be another proud moment in Danilo Perez’s amazing career, both musically and spiritually. This album will be available on March 18, 2022.

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THE CHRISTIANE KARAM QUINTET – “NAR” – SR Records

Christiane Karam, vocals/Bendir/Tupan/spoken word; Vadim Neselovskyi, piano; Naseem Alatrash, cello; Peter Slavov, bass; Keita Ogawa, percussion.

The Christiane Karam Quintet is a love letter to Beirut.  The project opens with Middle Eastern melodies sung by Christiane Karam against the beat of Keita Ogawa’s percussion excellence.  There is an upright bass that joins the mix along with Vadim Neselovskyi on piano, playing thick, staccato chords.  Ms. Karam’s voice is wordless.  She creates sound with tones and melody leaving lyrics behind.  This is modern jazz infused with a multilingual and Lebanon cultural musical tapestry.  “Nar” is Christiane Karam’s fourth album release, but it’s a first using a quintet.  She grappled to explain what had compelled her to compose and produce this album.

“Something was shifting and it was time to document who I was now becoming, both as an artist and as a composer,” she shared in her press package.

When tragedy struck Karam’s hometown of Beirut in 2020, when that horrible explosion destroyed one-third of the city and left mass human casualties, Karam was draped in grief.  Christiane turned to her music to help heal her pain, at the same time to express her emotion. 

“The process of making this record in the midst of the pandemic and the tragedy in Beirut was raw, exhilarating, childlike and profound all at once,” Christiane Karam described her studio experience while creating this album.

“Nar” was taken from the Arabic word for ‘fire.’  Fire burns whatever it touches and makes room for something new to replace the charred remains of the past.  Christiane Karam’s Quintet burns away any preconceptions of what their music will be.  The musicians are multi-cultural, coming from various nations across the globe.  They offer us something bright, beautiful and fresh that combines world music, modern jazz and Beirut culture with their own international talents. This artist, Christiane Karam,  is also a poet and includes her spoken word during these arrangements.  I find the quintet’s production to be beautifully hypnotic and sweet to the ear, including Ms. Karam’s interesting and melodic original compositions, like the title tune and “Petlite Peyat” where Maseem Alatrash offers his cello talents as a lovely, musical voice, while Christiane weeps her message across the string accompaniment in words I do not understand, but feelings that touch my soul. 

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TENOR TIME – Afar Music

Scott Burns, John Wojciechowski, Geof Bradfield, tenor saxophones; Richard D. Johnson, piano/Fender Rhodes; Clark Sommers, bass; Greg Artry, drums.

If it’s just plain straight-ahead bliss that you’ve been searching for, Tenor Time is the project for you.  Three of Chicago’s finest tenor players have joined horns to display energy-driven brilliance; Scott Burns, John Wojciechowski and Geof Bradfield. The pianist in the group, Richard D. Johnson, established the record company and these jazz titans marched into the studio along with bassist Clark Sommers and drummer, Greg Artry.  The rest is history.  All their material is original, well-written and well-played. The composers are the three tenor players and the pianist.  Here’s perfect music to pop into your CD player while enjoying a romantic Valentines dinner or cuddled in front of a roaring fireplace.  Favorite tunes: All of them!

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PIANO REFLECTIONS FROM 2021 AND BEYOND

January 23, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

January 23, 2022

SATOKO FUJII TRIO –THIS IS IT! – “MOSAIC” – Libra Records

Satoko Fujii, piano/composer; Natsuki Tamura, trumpet; Kashi Itani, drums/percussion.

Last year, Satoko Fujii released a solo album and her duet album.  This is the pianist’s first pandemic album recorded in real time.  Amazingly with one band member (Takashi Itani) 400 miles away in a Tokyo suburb and trumpeter Natsuki Tamura at home in Kobe, Japan.  Despite geographic and technical obstacles, this trio sounds as though they are all in the same studio location.

“This pandemic pushed me to find new ways to create that I have never tried before,” Ms. Fujii explained. 

Her attitude and success are not surprising.  She is the kind of artist who seems to thrive off of challenges and who leaps hurdles in a single bound, like the superwoman she is.  Satoko Fujii and her musicians would not be denied. 

“I can make music exchanging files online, but this trio plays spontaneous improvisation and needs the inspiration that we get when we play together.  So, we decided to record a session on the Internet,” she said.

However, Internet connections can sometimes delay transmissions of sound.  Satoko realized quickly that they would have to technically compensate for the time lapses.  So, she made specialized adjustments.  The trio opens with “Habana’s Dream” played fiercely and with Satoko Fujii reminding me somewhat of the great Cecil Taylor on piano.  Natsuki Tamura’s trumpet lines stitches in between the Avant-garde piano performance, like a tailor’s needle, improvising and colorfully matching the musical threads.  The busy and combustible drums of Kashi Itani crash and whisper; frolic and swing.  This first tune of five original compositions is over nine minutes of improvised excitement. The composition, “Dieser Zug” prompts Itani to pick up mallets and walk over to his vibraphone.  The percussionist takes his time, unfolding rich, ringing tones, sweet as Indonesian angklungs or Kobe cow bells. Tamura’s rich orange trumpet tone rises in the background, in my mind like a sunrise.  Although quite successful, Satoko Fujii discussed the challenges of this project in her press package.

“If we play in the same room, listening is as natural as breathing.  I’m almost unaware that I’m doing it.  But on the Internet, it was not like breathing.  My ears worked like listening carefully to another language.  It required a little extra effort, but we found we could make music in this way,” Satoko summarized.

Regardless of the obstacle course this trio travelled, they proudly present us an Avant-garde package of brilliance.  Satoko Fujii is a creative and introspective composer.  In 2020, she became recipient of the ‘Instant Award in Improvised Music’ to recognize her artistic intelligence, her independence and integrity.  You will hear all of this on her current recording with the magic and majesty of her two musical partners. Her trio says it all with their name; ‘This Is It!’

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DAVE MEDER – “UNAMUNO SONGS AND STORIES” – Outside In Music

Dave Meder, piano/vocals; Marty Jaffe, bass; Michael Piolet, drums; Philip Dizack, trumpet; Miguel Zenon, alto saxophone.

We all had plenty of time to ourselves in 2021, to think about life, death, love and politics.  Dave Meder uses this recording as a musical response to recent sociopolitical turmoil in the United States.  His unusual and unexpected tempo-changing-arrangements and his original compositions are meant to reflect life with themes of hope, love and peace; but also to raise awareness of the growing threats to our cherished American democracy.

“It feels as though we are at a societal breaking point.  Increasingly, our political discourse pits factually justified positions against pure misinformation, and independently verifiable truth against ‘personal truth.’ It forces us into tribes, so that pride and ego prevent us from evolving in our own understanding of the world,” Dave Meder wrote in his press package.

His recording opens with Meder’s original composition, “Song of Secret Love.”  His quintet plays it with gusto, after Meder opens the arrangement quietly, with his piano trio using a whisper of drums to brush the tempo into place. Marty Jaffe steps stage center on double bass and offers a provocative solo.  Meder’s piano accompaniment is painted in classical colors and quite melodic.  It’s a peaceful, quiet way to begin this musical protest package. 

I wondered about the title of Dave Meder’s project.  Who was Unamuno?  Meder explains, he found himself drawn to Unamuno’s writings during the pandemic and current, political climate in our country.  Turns out, Miguel de Unamuno was a complex political figure and a Basque/Spanish philosopher, poet, novelist, essayist and educator.  He was best celebrated for his work in the lead-up to the Spanish Civil War and he lived from 1864 to 1936.   

Admittedly, Meder has composed nine songs based (not only on Unamuno’s philosophy) but on jazz tradition, Bach chorales, blues and Dave is highly influenced by the piano work of Spanish composer, Isaac Albeniz.  Track #2 is titled “Augusto’s Dilemma” and sounds heavily influenced by Thelonious Monk and the blues. “Meditation: Doubt” is Track #3 and propelled by the flying fingers and arpeggio runs of Dave Meder, tinkling up and down the keyboard like a bouncing teeter-totter.  It’s less than a minute long and then bleeds into the fourth cut, “I Look for Religion in War.” This composition reflects more modernistic jazz and Michael Piolet lends hefty support on trap drums as the crescendos build.  Philip Dizack enters on his trumpet and the piece turns Avant-garde.  Soon, the arrangement morphs into a sultry, very pretty ballad with hymnal-like changes.  Marty Jaffe bows his bass and Meder caresses the eighty-eight keys in tender ways.  This arrangement actually seems to move from war to peace.  The one of two cover tunes that Meder and group recorded is the beautiful standard, “If Ever I Would Leave You.”  Dave Meder’s rendition is lovely.  His piano playing is almost harp-like at the start and the ending of this tune, with appropriate support from bassist, Marty Jaffe and drummer, Michael Piolet.  The other cover tune is Roland Hanna’s “Century Rag” and is unexpectedly Latin influenced.  The arrangement is as unique as the cover of this CD designed by Adrien H. Tillmann.  I applaud music artists who seek to match their musical art with cover material as imaginative, creative and captivating as their music. Hands shaped to make a face, inclusive of glasses and the blooming of a beard on the lower part of a thumb joint reflects like shadow hand shapes on the wall.  This album cover gives us a very creative look into the artist himself and what’s important to him.  His senses; sight, smell, taste; and his hands for playing piano and touching us both creatively and spiritually.

Dave Meder is a recent recipient of the prestigious Fulbright US Scholar Award for Visual and Performing Arts, which will bring him to Egypt as a guest artists and lecturer in 2022.

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OSCAR HERNANDEZ & ALMA LIBRE – “VISION” – Ovation Records

Oscar Hernandez, piano; Justo Almario, saxophone/flute; Jimmy Branly, drums; Oskar Cartaya, bass; Christian Moraga, congas/percussion.

Decorated pianist, composer, Grammy winner and arranger, Oscar Hernandez is a bona fide Latin music legend. Like so many musicians, the preparation for this recording was created during the worldwide pandemic shutdown.

“The creative process was in full force during that time.  Recording this album was a way to react positively and to counteract the negative circumstances surrounding the pandemic,” Oscar expressed.

In May of 2021, Oscar Hernandez and his Los Angeles based ensemble called ‘Alma Libre’ began to record this “Vision” album.  The title tune opens energetically with a strong melody.  It is one of ten tunes Oscar Hernandez composed for this recording.  Oscar described the inspiration for composing his original composition, “Vision.” 

“When I was young, I was taught by my family that you need to have a vision to accomplish things.  I believe that if you see it and you believe it, you can achieve it,” Oscar asserts.

Hernandez is perhaps best known to modern audiences as the leader and producer of the highly acclaimed, award winning Spanish Harlem Orchestra.  They are a 13-piece all-star, salsa, big band, and under his tutelage they have gone on to win three GRAMMY Awards and release eight critically acclaimed albums.  I am certain this release will follow in those same footsteps.  Oscar first recorded with the Alma Libre ensemble in 2016 when they released their debut CD “The Art of Latin Jazz.”  One of the things I enjoy about the composition talents and bandleader skills of Oscar Hernandez is his sophisticated harmonies, infectious melodies and raw, cultural rhythms.  His “Chick Forever” tune is dedicated to the genius of Chick Corea.  As soon as you hear the melody, you want to hum along.  That is one of the traits of a great songwriter.  Justo Almario steps into the spotlight and offers us a brilliant saxophone solo. Then Oscar Hernandez blows in on the eighty-eight keys, breezing over the piano with energy and precision.  Jimmy Branly brandishes his drum power and Oskar Cartaya plays a joyful bass solo.  Throughout this arrangement, Oscar manages to weave in spicy pieces of the familiar ‘breaks’ from “Spain,” one of many Chick Corea hit records. 

Oscar Hernandez dazzles us with his piano excellence, his composer talents, his arrangements and his leadership.  Alma Libre is a tight ensemble made up of some of the crème de la crème of musicianship.  They accelerate and infuse Oscar Hernandez’s music and arrangements in the best possible way.  You will want to play this album over and over again.  I did!

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FRED HERSCH – “BREATH BY BREATH” – Palmetto Records

Fred Hersch, piano/composer; Drew Gress, bass; Jochen Rueckert, drums; Rogerio Boccato, percussion; Crosby Street String Quartet: Joyce Hammann & Laura Seaton, violins; Lois Martin, viola; Jody Redhage Ferber, cello.

This is the first recording that the iconic Fred Hersch has produced with a string quartet and all the music on this project celebrates his original compositions.  Hersch says that he has drawn inspiration from his long-time, mindful meditation.  The Crosby Street String Quartet, named for the New York City address where they first rehearsed with Fred Hersch, is comprised of four very busy freelance string players; violinists, Joyce Hammann & Laura Seaton; Lois Martin on viola and Jody Redhage Ferber on cello.

“String quartets have been some of my favorite music to listen to my whole life. I grew up listening to string quartets as a very young musician in Cincinnati. My piano teacher was the wife of the cellist in the famous LaSalle Quartet. I used to lie on the rug in their living room, as an elementary school student while they rehearsed, quietly following along, hearing how the viola part meshed with the first violin, or the second violin and the cello.  Ever since I started studying composition at age eight, almost all of my music has always focused on four melodic parts.  So, string quartets are a natural musical configuration for me,” Hersch exudes excitement just talking about it.

Fred Hersch says his meditation practice saved him during the pandemic’s long, locked-down days.  The first movement on this recording is symbolic of our new year and is simply titled “Begin Again.”  It references the cycle of renewal and his arrangement begins with the piano sounding like a ticking clock or swinging pendulum.  It has a mild Latin rhythm perpetrated by Jochen Rueckert’s drums.  The Hersch piano line pirouettes above the rhythm section, while the string section trembles and sways beneath it.  When Hersch steps out solo, playing his piano singularly, he is soaked in classical waters.  The title tune, “Breath by Breath” has a heartbeat played by the bass that is infectious. We are rewarded when Drew Gress steps out-front and offers his lovely bass solo.  This Hersch composition quickly becomes one of my favorites.  The sweeping strings are featured also, encircling the bass that pulsates beneath their beauty like a living, breathing individual.  Each composition offers a mood for the music to gobble up and improvise upon.  On track #4, Hersch’s piano has a long conversation with the plucking, staccato strings, as though the instruments are engaged in trading fours or having a musical debate. This is followed by another of my favorites, “Rising, Falling” that’s a beautiful ballad and reminds me of a garden full of birds nesting, with tree leaves rustling like the string instruments do.  All in all, this is a peaceful production that provides a platform for Fred Hersch to share his influential creative talents and fulfills his lifelong obsession to incorporate a string quartet into his production.

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GRANT RICHARDS – “BALLYHOO” – Grant Richards Music

Grant Richards, piano/keyboards/composer/arranger; Damian Erskine, electric bass; Reinhardt Melz, drums/percussion; Carmelo Torres, congas/percussion.

Grant Richards, once known as a pianist deeply immersed in bebop and blues, has taken a new direction.  This recording called “Ballyhoo” is an Afro-Cuban celebration and features his special guest percussionist, Carmelo Torres.  Grant’s other players, who comprise his rhythm section, are longtime friends and members of his trio for the past decade.  For several years, Grant Richards had longed to produce an album that celebrated Afro-Cuban music.  The Pandemic of 2020 gave him time to begin composing for just such a recording.  Then he and his group began rehearsing the new music.

“Being able to rehearse these tunes together was the thing that helped me get through 2020,” Grant Richards shared.

Richards was born in Portland, Oregon and surprisingly, recorded his first album as a leader at age fourteen.  It was comprised entirely of his own compositions and he did all the arranging.  Before being accepted in college, Downbeat Magazine had already honored him with prestigious Student Music Awards including Best Solo Instrumentalist; Best Jazz Arrangement and Best High School Arrangement.  That was back in 2004, 2005 and 2006.  In 2009, Grant Richards enrolled in Berklee College of Music. Later, he accepted a teaching position at an international music school in Tokyo, Japan for two and a half years.  Now, back in NYC, Richards, who was always drawn to the grooves and excitement of Afro-Cuban music, decided to challenge himself.  He set out to compose songs that would embrace Afro-Cuban arrangements.  Richards is a big fan of Eddie Palmieri and Danilo Perez.  “Bonenkai” opens his CD with energy and great input from the percussionist.  On the title tune, “Ballyhoo” you hear joyfulness as the celebratory music bounces and rolls around the room.  Richards and his musicians bring a collective groove to this arrangement, along with his special guest percussionist, Carmelo Torres.

They keep the easy-going, Latin groove on track #4, “The Bloom,” but their arrangement lacks the spice and flavor of “Ballyhoo” or “Bonenkai.”  The ballad “Elizabeth” is absolutely beautiful and becomes another one of my favorites of this production.  We are back to groove-city on the “Portmanteau” composition.  It starts out like a slow rubato and quickly changes pace, spurred by the congas of Carmelo and Grant Richards supplying dynamic piano energy.  Damian Erskine is ever-present and supportive on electric bass, locking in with Reinhardt Melz on drums.  Track #7 starts out with all percussion and the surprise is when the Thelonious Monk composition comes bursting out the gate like a Cuban racehorse.  It’s “Bye-ya” arranged in a total Afro-Cuban way.  I love it!  This is followed by four suites of music written for bass, and an original called “Space,” that employs synthesized effects to tease our perception of the universe.  Grant Richards and his ensemble close with the popular, “Secret Love” tune, played in a very afro-Cuban way that’s pleasing to the ear.  Its up-tempo flavor is propelled by creative, percussive inspiration.  At the fade, the drums take over and dance their way home.

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PETE MALINVERNI PLAYS LEONARD BERNSTEIN – “ON THE TOWN” – Planet Arts

Pete Malinverni, piano; Ugonna Okegwo, bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums.

Often times on the path of life, we encounter a person or experience an unexpected meeting or opportunity that influences our direction deeply.  It was several years ago, when a young pianist named Pete Malinverni was working one of those ritzy New York restaurant gigs playing solo piano.  He was informed that on the following night a bevy of opera buffs would be gathering at the club and management asked Pete to entertain them by playing arias on that evening.  So, on the following opening night, there he sat at the club during a cast party for Franco Zeffirelli’s production “Tosca.” Many celebrities were in attendance, but when Pete Malinverni saw Leonard Bernstein stride into the room, he was star-struck.  Malinverni, a huge Bernstein fan, immediately broke into Bernstein’s tune, “Lucky To Be Me.”  That tune was like a rainbow that stretched across the room and drew Mr. Bernstein to the pianist, sitting at his pot of gold and celebrating Bernstein’s music.  That momentous meeting is one that would change Pete’s life forever.  This project has been simmering in Malinverni’s gut ever since.   During his piano performance, he and Leonard Bernstein chatted about music and life all that evening.  The young, solo pianist was astounded at how down-to-earth and accessible the great composer was and they quickly established that both Pete Malinverni and Leonard Bernstein shared a deep love for New York.  You clearly hear that love shimmering like gold dust throughout these original arrangements of Bernstein’s music. 

Pete Malinverni is joined by the creative Ugonna Okegwo on bass and the expert drumming of Jeff Hamilton.  Togther, this trio unravels the music of Leonard Bernstein like a banner across the sky. 

“…this music really took on a life of its own,” Pete Malinverni commented in the press package.

“Ugonna Okegwo and Jeff Hamilton are real artists.  You know, if you go scuba diving you discover that there are just as many colors underwater, but the spectrum is the reverse of what you see up here on the surface.  I found that in playing Bernstein’s music with these amazing musicians, there were all these textures and colors underneath the music that they could really bring to light.”

Pete has recorded fourteen albums as a bandleader.  He loves playing trio, but has also recorded solo piano, quartet, quintet, big band and in the choral context.  Currently, Pete Malinverni serves as Head of Jazz Studies at the Conservatory of Music at Purchase College, State University of New York.  This current album tribute to Leonard Bernstein was released January 14, 2022.

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MATHIS PICARD – “LIVE AT THE MUSEUM”  Inside Out Music

Mathis Picard, solo piano/composer.

Mathis Picard offers an album of solo piano featuring classical music, standard jazz tunes and original compositions.  He was performing ‘Live’ at the National jazz Museum of Harlem and opens with John Lewis’s composition, “The Creation of the World.”  This is followed by “Cuttin’ Out” composed by Willie ‘the Lion’ Smith.  Picard’s arrangement delves into stride piano references and prominently displays the pianist’s busy, rhythmic left hand.  Clearly, Mr. Picard is a gifted pianist with stellar classical training and a creative mind.  This, his second album release, honors the works of the great classical and jazz composers who were influential to Picard’s personal musical journey.  I was looking forward to his composer skills.  The first I heard was “Earthalude,” followed by another original titled, “Snake Song.”  I did not find either melody memorable, although Mathis Picard did lay down a very full-sounding, solo piano track in support of his original arrangements.  Still, there was no prominent melody.  I did enjoy his original song, “Like, Blue.” 

His arrangement of “Leia’s Theme” by John Williams is beautifully played and the melody is stunning.  Consequently, I might lean more towards Mathis Picard’s talents as a gifted pianist and a developing composer.

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NEW JAZZ RELEASES FOR THE NEW YEAR

January 4, 2022

BY Dee Dee McNeil

January 3, 2022

MARTIN WIND QUARTET – “MY ASTORIAN QUEEN” – Laika Records

Martin Wind, bass/composer; Bill Mays, piano; Matt Wilson, drums/percussion; Scott Robinson, tenor & bass saxophone/clarinet/trumpet.

As soon as I heard this quartet play the first two verses of the Thad Jones composition, “Mean What You Say” I felt like I was home.  There was something warm and comfortable about this quartet’s music like a roaring fireplace on a winter’s eve.  Martin Wind’s quartet swings hard on this tune and Scott Robinson shows off his skills on both trumpet and clarinet.  Wind, the Bassist and bandleader, locks into the rhythm section, tight as the lock on a Brink’s truck.  Bill Mays plays powerful piano and briskly trades fours with Matt Wilson on drums.  An original composition by Martin Wind follows.  It’s titled “Solitude” and is a ballad played in a minor mode.  Martin Wind steps forward to feature his big, beautiful bass sound during his stellar solo.  Robinson’s clarinet sings like a soaring bird circling above the track.  I enjoy the bass saxophone on the familiar tune, “Broadway” that I used to love hearing Dakota Stanton sing.  It’s not often that you get to enjoy a smooth, uninhibited bass sax solo being played in a quartet setting.  Martin Wind’s bass dances in the background, not only holding the rhythm secure, but creatively sparkling and coloring the arrangement as it walks boldly beneath the Mays piano solo and beyond.  This is the kind of swinging, well-played group of musicians that surprise and please the jazz palate, like peppermint candies or hot chocolate with rich whipped cream.  Like the cream, these jazz cats rise to the top!

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SAMUEL MÖSCHING – “ETHEREAL KINKS” – Bronzeville Music

Samuel Mӧsching, guitars/basses/drums and synthesizers; Renda “Victoria” Jackson & Jeremiah Hunt, bass; Juan Pastor & Reuben Gingrich, drums.

For the majority of these original compositions by Samuel Mӧsching, he is playing all the instruments; guitar, bass, drums or synthesizer.  He was born and raised in Switzerland and began playing guitar when he was ten years old.  Two years later, he was captivated by John Coltrane before he was even a teenager.  On the first song, “No Dancing” he employs the tasty bass instrument of Renda “Victoria” Jackson to establish both rhythm and groove.  It’s a funky song that, in spite of its title, makes you want to dance.  Samuel Mӧsching supplies the catchy melody on his guitar. Mӧsching displays an obvious talent as a one-man-band and composer.  However, sometimes when you layer a production, you lose the spontaneity and the human factor of interacting with other personalities and musicians.  Samuel Mӧsching has a very laid-back approach to his production and often establishes a strong guitar melody, but the bass lines don’t always match or elevate the production.  I could hear the difference when he added Juan Pastor on drums during his “Modesta” arrangement.  Later, adding Jeremiah Hunt on bass and Reuben Gingrich on drums during the “Winnemac” tune, Mӧsching seemed to play more freely atop the track they laid down.   I thought this song showed off his guitar skills in a way I hadn’t heard on earlier cuts.  His production on “Strict Dancer” was very creative and this song caught my ear, but a little over one minute in, it was over before it even got started.  His original tune “Indigenous” is fused with blues.  Mӧsching closes this album with his “The Belief in Magic” composition, where you can enjoy his guitar licks and spontaneous improvising techniques.  Once again, he plays all the instruments and provides a strong groove on drums.  This song exhibits more energy and becomes one of my favorites. It’s a great way to end his guitar concert and to show his mastery on a variety of instruments.

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THE DAVE WILSON QUARTET – “STRETCHING SUPREME” – Dave Wilson Music

Dave Wilson, tenor & soprano saxophone; Kirk Reese, piano; Tony Marino, bass; Alex Ritz & Dan Monaghan, drums.

Dave Wilson and his quartet explore the music of John Coltrane on this, Wilson’s sixth release, including ‘live’ performances that were recorded at a premiere music venue called the Chris Jazz Café in Philadelphia.  Wilson is not only a musician who plays tenor, alto and soprano saxophones, clarinet and flute, but he also is a successful entrepreneur.  The jazz reed player runs his Dave Wilson Musical Instrument business, specializing in buying and selling vintage and contemporary woodwind and brass instruments in Pennsylvania’s Delaware Valley area.  Simultaneously, Wilson’s quartet tours and plays concerts in and around the Central Pennsylvania area, Philadelphia, Pittsburg, Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and New York City. The quartet opens with the first two movements of Coltrane’s suite from “A Love Supreme” including “Acknowledgement and “Resolution.”  The ‘live’ recording was made March of 2018, without the group’s knowledge.  Resident club sound engineer, Sean Svadlenak, recorded the group’s performance that night in 2018 and afterwards, offered the recording casually for Wilson to take a listen.  Wilson was so pleased with their performance that he immediately decided to use five of seven recorded tunes.  Consequently, they became the root of this “Stretching Supreme” album.  Later, Wilson added “On the Prairie,” an original composition, and the familiar “Days of Wine and Roses.” Coltrane’s “Dear Lord” prayerful composition and “Naima” close out this production.  For me, Dave Wilson’s post-bop flavored presentation showcases his love of John Coltrane’s influence and skills, but clearly spotlights Wilson’s own dexterity and style on woodwinds.  You will enjoy his free form exploration of this music, especially on his singular, original composition.  Wilson said he awoke from a dream, where he first heard “On the Prairie,” and immediately sketched-out the chord changes.  It has become one of the quartet’s favorites.  I also enjoyed their exploration of “Days of Wine and Roses” lending a fresh and innovative arrangement on a tune as familiar as the back of my hand.  The quartet was quite improvisational and Kirk Reese is given time to show us his piano creativity during a spirited solo.  Dan Monaghan fuels the piece on his trap drums and Tony Marino finally steps out from the rhythm section and offers us a rich, double bass solo that explores the entire range of his instrument. This is an innovative project that I enjoyed from start to finish.  

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HILARY KOLE – “SOPHISTICATED LADY” – Hilary Kole Music

Hilary Kole, vocals; Chris Byars, woodwinds/arranger/orchestrator; John Hart, guitar; Adam Birnbaum, piano; Paul Gill, bass; Aaron Kimmel, drums; Tom Beckham, vibraphone.

New York City staple, Hilary Kole, is a breath of fresh air on a cold winter afternoon.  Her voice is clear and captivating.  She scats and croons and caresses each tune in her own unique and sincere way.  Known as the youngest vocalist to ever perform at NYC’s legendary Rainbow Room for a year and a half.  She honed her craft performing six night a week at this popular and historic venue.

“When I was contemplating making a new record, I thought back to my days as a young singer at the Rainbow Room.  Most of the standards I sang then were the songs one could always call with a pick-up band.  Every musician at the time knew them.  As I transitioned into more headline work and the worlds of jazz and cabaret, it became clear to me that it was important not to sing the same songs that everybody knew,” Hilary Kole reminisced.

On this project, she comes full circle, reverting to the early Rainbow Room days and picking classic standard songs that will please your selective palate.  Her arrangements are sweet to the ear. Opening with “Sophisticated Lady” Hilary Kole shows us what a smooth and unique voice she has.  Other familiar old favorites that she offers us are “Old Devil Moon” with a lovely arrangement by woodwind player, Chris Byars (playing flute) while Tom Beckham is featured quite tastily on vibes. Kole’s soprano voice blends beautifully with the flute.   On “Somebody Loves me” she adds the little-heard verse and then swings into the melody we know so well.  There are traces of Ella Fitzgerald’s influence on some phrasing that Ms. Kole offers, but she is clearly her own person and exhibits her own style on every presentation.  I enjoyed the amazing bass solo by Paul Gill, who pulls out his bow and still swings across the double bass strings.  “Make Me A Rainbow” is a surprise piece with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman and a melody by Johnny Williams.  It features Adam Birnbaum on piano, wooing us with his inventive solo. This time Paul Gill puts his bow aside and plucks the bass with confidence and rhythm.  We also get to enjoy the guitar mastery of John Hart on this arrangement.  Throughout, Aaron Kimmel pops the drums into place, dancing hotly like corn kernels in a hot, covered skillet.   Hilary Kole is an impressive and spirited vocalist.  Her repertoire is fulfilling and her musicians are excellent.  They add their own magic to this project.  Every song is well played and beautifully sung for your listening pleasure.     

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CECIL TAYLOR UNIT – “THE COMPLETE, LEGENDARY, LIVE RETURN CONCERT at THE TOWN HALL, NYC – NOVEMBER 4, 1973” – Oblivion Records

Cecil Taylor, piano/composer; Andrew Cyrille, percussion; Sirone, bass; Jimmy Lyons, alto saxophone.

Back in the early 1970s, Avant-garde jazz was thriving.  Cecil Taylor had long been celebrated as one of the innovators of this music, but had taken a hiatus from performing to teach as a visiting professor at Antioch College and University of Wisconsin-Madison.  For five years, he had taught and concentrated on composing in his free time.  So, when Cecil was offered an opportunity to reunite with Jimmy Lyons and put a quartet together for a concert performance at New York City’s Town Hall, he embraced the idea as a tantalizing prospect.  Alto saxophonist, Jimmy Lyons, had been a mainstay member of Cecil Taylor’s unit from its inception.  Lyons and Taylor had been playing together for a decade and both were searching for artistic freedom.  This concert also reunited Taylor with Andrew Cyrille and new bassist on the scene, Sirone.  Cecil Taylor has long been referred to as a giant of free improvisation and you hear it right off the bat on the very first disc of a double set.  Disc 1 features “Autumn/Parade” eighty-eight minutes of exciting improvisational performances by this unit.  Cecil Taylor’s fingers fly over the keys as easy as a winter breeze blows smoke from a fireplace chimney.  Taylor speaks to the improvisation of Jimmy Lyons’ alto saxophone and they hold a spirited conversation of instruments. In the final half hour of this gripping composition, the two musicians seem to reach a musical peak with many crescendos of creative expression.  Lyons pulls sounds out of his alto saxophone that surprise me and Cecil Taylor splashes piano chords across space like waterfalls rushing downhill.  Their music is spontaneous and energy driven.  Disc 2 features “Spring of Two Blue-J’s”, first presented solo and then produced as a quartet offering.  The “Complete, Legendary, Live Return Concert by Cecil Taylor will be available as a digital streaming release on February 11, 2022.  Accompanying this release is a beautiful, twenty-three-page booklet with liner notes written in long-hand by Cecil Taylor and an essay by journalist, Alan Goodman.   Alan was a DJ and engineer at WKCR, where he also produced news and cultural programming. This is an important and historic recording where you will hear Cecil Taylor at his best, displaying perhaps his most impressive piano with brilliant inventions. 

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ADRIANNE DUNCAN – “GEMINI” – Independent Label

Adrianne Duncan, vocals; Ian Herman, piano/musical director; Nick Mancini, vibraphone; Dan Lutz, bass; Jimmy Branly, drums; Katisse Buckingham, flute/saxophone; John Tegmeyer, clarinet.

Adrianne Duncan is a multi-talented musician who plays piano, sings, composes and arranges her own music.  An Atlanta native, who has recently relocated to Los Angeles, Adrianne is the daughter of the renowned classical guitarist, Charles Duncan.  She studied classical piano from a young age and won several major competitions.  She also plays celeste, organ and keyboards, as well as once performing as a member of the Atlanta Youth Symphony.  She has studied theater, gaining a degree from Northwestern University and she also was writing fiction and screenwriting during high school.  Her well-written lyrics reflect her love of journalism.

“My starting to write was a direct result of studying jazz piano,” Adrianne Duncan shared in her press package.

“… My intention was just to start accompanying myself.  I studied with John Novello, who’s a fantastic B3 player, and I was learning all the Bill Evans voicings.  I made flashcards, put them in a box and shook them up and I’d randomly get some chords next to each other.  That’s how I started writing,” she unwrapped her composer secret like a gift.

Her voice is clear with a delicate tremolo frosting the tail-end of her tones.  She definitely has a style all her own, although I’m not quite sure it falls completely into a jazz category.  I would say it leans heavily towards pop/folk.  However, the first tune, “He’s Not Quite You” is very jazzy indeed with a wonderful lyric. The addition of Nick Mancini’s vibraphone lends jazz and sparkle to her arrangement. It’s always refreshing to hear lyrics that are relatable and not like any we’ve heard before. For example:

“But it isn’t quite right.  I never used to want to turn out the light, or be polite; it isn’t quite right.” 

Duncan’s composition, “Elijah” paints the song with vivid words, setting the scene; dark road, winter night, sharp moonlight cutting across her face.  Duncan is quite a lyricist. 

But I believe the arrangements and the voicing of certain chord changes could have added much more interest to this song.  The lyrics are so strong and beg for a tenacious arrangement.  Sometimes when an artist tries to wear all the hats, they lose a wee bit of clarity and/or creativity.  She is the producer, the arranger, the composer and the artist.  That’s a lot of hats to wear at the same time.  However, her brilliance is duly noted on other projects including Otmaro Ruiz and Catina DeLuna on the Grammy-nominated Lado B Brazilian Project and she toured Brazil with them, playing keyboards and singing.  She recorded on ‘The Jazz Chamber’ with the iconic, multi-reed player Bennie Maupin.  She also performs regularly with her vocal improvisation collective with Cathy Garcia, the “Fish to Birds” vocal ensemble.  Duncan’s gifted enough to act as Musical Director of a show called “Twins” during its premiere in Berlin, Germany.   Her piano playing can be heard on film soundtracks including The Chameleon and The Young Kieslowski.  All those accolades, I applaud.  However, it’s the musician who make this project pure jazz.  Kotisse Buckingham’s bright and fluttering flute on “Home at Last” raises the bar on this arrangement from a repetitive folk melody to an improvisational jazz piece.  I enjoyed the title tune, “Gemini” with its odd meters and strong bass piano line, showing off Ms. Duncan’s strength as a pianist/composer.  Next time around, I would like to see someone like John Beasley, Billy Childs or Quincy Jones produce and arrange some of Adrianne Duncan’s unique and well-written compositions.

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DAWN DEROW – “MY SHIP – SONGS FROM 1941” – Zoho Records

Dawn Derow, vocals; Ian Herman, Musical director/pianist; Tom Hubbard, bass; Daniel Glass, drums/percussion; Sean Harkness, guitar; Robin Zeh, Joyce Hammann & Paul ‘Dale’ Woodie, violins; Katarzyna Bryla, viola; Deborah Assael, cello; Benny Benack III, trumpet/cornet; Aaron Heick, saxophone/flute/clarinet; Dan Levine, trombone; Paul Rolnick, producer.

Dawn Derow’s repertoire brings back good memories of music from the 1940’s.  In fact, this album title (Songs From 1941) makes her choices clear and reflect gems from that era like “My Ship,” “Loverman” and “Chattanooga Choo Leverman.” This production takes us back to the World War II era and the music that calmed the nerves of a country and a world full of pain and turmoil.  Dwan Derow is a polished cabaret vocalist with a full- bodied range and crystal-clear tone.  She caresses tunes like “Skylark” and “White Christmas” then belts out the “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy Medley.”   She swings “Let’s Get Away from It All” in medley with “How About You” and teases us with “Why Don’t We Do This More Often?”  “My Ship – Songs from 1941” is a well-produced, musical tribute to that 1940’s era of Glenn Miller music, The Andrews Sisters, Tommy Dorsey, Jo Stafford and Bing Crosby’s vocals. 

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STOCKING STUFFER SUGGESTIONS

December 15, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil

December 15, 2021

In my 2021 “Stocking Stuffer” column, I wanted to offer a little something for everyone.  My idea was to include a variety of jazz recordings that each, in their own unique way, offer something totally unusual and remarkable in the same breath.  I include music icons who have long been established and applauded, alongside fledgling jazz talents who offer us their premiere CD releases.  I have included straight-ahead, bebop, interesting composers, historic vocals and a variety of jazz styles.  You choose and then share. 


JOHN COLTRANE – A LOVE SUPREME: LIVE IN SEATTLE, 1965 – Impulse Records John Coltrane, tenor saxophone/percussion/composer; McCoy Tyner, piano; Jimmy Garrison, upright bass; Elvin Jones, drums; Donald Rafael Garrett, upright bass; Pharoah Sanders, tenor saxophone/percussion; Carlos Ward, alto saxophone; Ravi Coltrane, producer.

If you are looking for iconic, legendary jazz to give as a gift, after nearly six decades this private recording of a very rare John Coltrane performance in a Seattle nightclub is currently available.  Joe Brazil, a Seattle saxophonist and educator, has coveted the reel-to-reel tapes of this historic performance.  It features Coltrane’s four-part “A Love Supreme” suite performed ‘live.’   It is an historic revelation, because most jazz buffs believed that the only recorded public performance of “A Love Supreme” happened at a French festival in Juan-Les-Pains, France in July of 1965.  However, this current release dates back to October of 1965, when Coltrane was adding members to his band including Pharoah Sander on a second saxophone and Donald Garrett on a second bass with Jimmy Garrison also solid on upright bass.  Carlos Ward, who back then was just a young and exploratory sax man, sits-in during this live performance.  Surprisingly, here is Coltrane’s only performance and appearance as a bandleader in the city of Seattle, which makes this recording even more rare.  Not to mention, the band of genius musicians on his bandstand who are inclusive of Elvin Jones on drums and McCoy Tyner on piano.  This music was the spiritual path that Coltrane was walking during those mid-60s, enlightened years.  John Coltrane called his composition of “A Love Supreme” his humble offering to the Divine.  In fact, it is considered a sermon by many.  All four parts of this historic work were performed and recorded at The Penthouse in Seattle, Washington.  This is an amazing musical documentation of one of the greatest compositions ever written by John Coltrane, including Part 1: Acknowledgement; Part II: Resolution; Part III: Pursuance and finally, Part IV: Psalm.  Tossed in between are various short interludes of music.  What better way to celebrate the holidays and the generosity of giving, than to stuff someone’s stocking with this Impulse Record masterpiece!

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JOHN PATITUCCI & ANDY JAMES – AN EVENING WITH JOHN PATITUCCI & ANDY JAMES – Le Coq Records

Andy James, vocals; John Patitucci, bass/arranger; Marvin ‘Smitty’ Smith, Vinnie Colaiuta & Marcus Gilmore, drums; Jon Cowherd, organ/piano/arranger; Alex Acuna, percussion; Bill Cunliffe, piano/arranger; John Beasley, piano/Fender Rhodes; Dan Higgins, baritone saxophone/flute/piccolo; Chris Potter & Rick Margitza, saxophones; Terell Stafford, trumpet; Chico Pinheiro & Jake Longley, guitars.

“An Evening with John Patitucci and Andy James” features a bouquet of classic, familiar songs and a stellar ensemble of colorful, musical guests.  They open with the beautiful ballad, “Autumn in New York” lush with string arrangements.  The album doesn’t tell me if this orchestration is synthesized or ‘live,’ but it’s lovely all the same.  John Patitucci steps forward and wows us with his bass solo, followed by a stellar Chris Potter saxophone story.  You will enjoy curling up with a warm drink, or perhaps a fireplace to enjoy this music with songs like “Moonlight in Vermont” and their lovely arrangement of Billy Strayhorn’s “Day Dream” tune.  Their arrangement on “Fire & Rain” features Rick Margiza’s expressive saxophone.  Other romantic, sad songs that Ms. James reinvents vocally are “Burn for Love” and “Some Other Time.”  This is a well-produced album with each song turning a page and lyrics interpreted by vocalist, Andy James, to amply describe chapters in a life. 

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HALLEY-CLUCAS-REED-HALLEY – “BOOMSLANG” – Pine Eagle Records

Rich Halley, tenor saxophone; Dan Clucas, cornet; Clyde Reed, bass; Carson Halley, drums.

“Boomslang” features a mix of Rich Halley’s compositions and spontaneous improvisations that showcase the inventiveness of this group.  Rich has composed the second track, “Northern Plains” and the drum beat, supplied by Carson Halley, conjures up American Indian rhythms.  The tenor sax and cornet join hands and dance around the open plains, like a wild, Northern wind.  First their hands are joined, in unison.  But soon, each instrumentalist moves away and finds a spot in the sun all their own.  There is only the bass and drums to hold their rhythm together, so you might say the production is uncluttered. However, it allows the horns to be brightly featured. 

https://youtu.be/0SxVFVpHbQ0

The group’s album cover pictures a pile of snake.  Their entire production is named for a type of snake; the Boomslang.  It is a highly poisonous creature based in South Africa. The males are bright green in color and usually seclude themselves in trees.  The female Boomslang is brown.  Halley lives no place near the Boomslang snake, although it resonates in his imagination.  He resides in Portland, Oregon and has been exploring improvisational music for a couple of decades.  To date, he has released twenty-four recordings as a bandleader.  He offers four original compositions for this production of slithery, snake songs that wind their way, using horn solos to twist and turn above the powerhouse drums of Carson Halley and the bass of Clyde Reed. The other five songs are free improvisations, created untethered by the entire quartet.  This is experimental jazz that pushes the outer limits of their creativity and, like the Boomslang snake, manifests itself as unexpected and dangerous in new and unforeseen forms.

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DELICATE CHARMS LIVE AT THE GREEN MILL – Woolgathering Records Matt Ulery, double bass/composer; Paul Bedal, piano; Quin Kirchner, drums; James Davis, trumpet; Greg Ward, alto saxophone.
In April of this year, after the COVID pandemic had shut down music venues to protect the population, the Delicate Charms quintet was excited to perform ‘live’.  Matt Ulery had been busy composing new music during their self-imposed lock-down.  This project explores six of the master bassist’s new compositions, created during the 2020 pandemic. 

Ulery explained: “The tunes on this record have long, dynamic forms requiring intense engagement of the musicians. …I wanted to create something new (to me) that has the composure of chamber music while having the agility through these forms only potent improvisers can bring to the flow. … These guys absolutely crushed the new material.”

The Green Mill is a legendary Chicago institution and was a great way to record Delicate Charm’s music. It was presented over two days, with the band playing six sets from 8pm to midnight each night.  Wow! Six sets!  Proprietor Dave Jemilo mixed and recorded the live music.  The result is an album containing half a dozen of Ulery compositions, played to a responsive and appreciative audience.  The new music features James Davis on trumpet and Greg Ward on alto saxophone.  The horns present and explore the melodies on most of these arrangements.  Paul Bedal steps into the spotlight during some of these tunes, like on “The Arrival,” to display his piano tenacity, as he improvises on the musical theme.  Quin Kirchner, on drums, and Ulery on bass, sustain the rhythm section adeptly, holding everything in place like a lock and key.  Kirchner plays brilliantly during this arrangement, crashing his rhythms to incendiary levels while Bedal solos. The audience is responsive and exhilarated during their exciting improvised performance.  You hear people shout, comment and clap for this very Avant-garde performance.  Throughout their concert, the listener can feel the patron’s hungry anticipation on a night of musical freedom.  After so many months of being locked-down and starving for ‘live’ music, the audience appreciation is palpable and responsive to Delicate Charms’ musical energy. 

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JOSH SINTON – “b.” – FIP Recordings
Josh Sinton, baritone saxophone.

I am a lover of the rich, full, bass sound of a baritone saxophone.  As a solo artist, Josh Sinton has created an album that explores the various tones and jazzy ideas he can express on this unique instrument.  Clearly, he entered the studio with an idea to record improvisational ideas and explore an album of possibilities.

In his press release, Josh Sinton explains, “When I was nineteen, I made a very conscious decision to commit myself to a life in music.  Even back then, I knew this was going to obligate me to try to manifest every part of my life in a musical format.  Given that some of my life was very intellectual and some of it very emotional, some of it very angry and some of it very laconic; my music was going to cover a lot of ground. …Being nineteen, I didn’t realize just how long it was going to take me to acquire the technical facility and listening experience this kind of proposition demanded.”With this premise, his project is a sonic manifestation and philosophic use of musical notes, instead of words.  The stories, that unfold like chapters, are perhaps to display the difference between improvisation and composition.  This album, “b,” embraces methods and techniques, using sounds and ‘riffs’ as compositions.  However, I did not relate to them as songs.  The challenge for this artist is that for the layman ears, his Avant-garde production may sound like someone practicing on the baritone saxophone. I longed to hear just one beautifully played, melodic song to caress my ears and to touch my emotions.  Track 4, “b.1.iv,” almost delivers this experience, as it develops a melody with bluesy infusions and an experience I could almost whistle along with.  Track #5 is totally exploratory and introduces me to sounds I didn’t even know the baritone saxophone could produce.  In conclusion, for the open and super creative mind, or for a saxophone player or studied musician, this could be a unique and stimulating gift to stuff their stocking.

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ERIC GOLETZ – “A NEW LIGHT” – Consolidated Artist Publications, LLC (CAP Records)
Eric Goletz, trombone/keyboards/composer/arranger; Jim Ridl, piano; Allen Farnham, keyboards; Henry Heinitsh, guitar; Marco Panasola, bass; Steve Johns, drums; Joe Mowatt, percussion; Will DeVos, French horn; Bob Magnuson, alto saxophone; TRUMPETS: Tony Gorruso, Freddie Maxwell, Kent Smith. TROMBONES: Erick Storckman, Chris Rinaman & Jonathan Greenberg, bass trombone; Matt Ingman, tuba; THE STRINGS: Robin Zeh & Paul Woodiel, violins; Michael Roth & David Gold, violas; Sarah Hewitt-Roth, cello.


This spirited, big band album features trombonist, Eric Goletz.  It’s scheduled for release January 21, 2022.  You won’t be able to stuff your Christmas stocking with this upbeat treasure, but do make a note to yourself to look for it first of next year.  Here is a production bursting with energy and percussive excitement that features all original compositions by Eric Goletz with the exception of “Dig” by Miles Davis, the familiar “Sunrise Sunset” and “Song for Elizabeth” written by Jonathan Butler.  Goletz grew up in Denver, Colorado but moved to New York City, pursuing his musical career, where he instantly became busy as an in-demand sideman and studio musician.  Eric loved composing early on and wrote for Sal Salvador’s album, “Lorinda’s Kitchen.”  (Salvador was Stan Kenton’s former guitarist.)  With the release of “A New Light,” Goletz shows an expansion of his original ideas and compositions by creating complex arrangements for an expanded horn section and adding a string ensemble.  He is dynamite on his trombone and his arrangements push the limits of his all-star band members.  The tunes are up-tempo and reflect happiness and joy.  The title tune, “A New Light” opens the album and sets the pace.  This is followed by “Edge of Night” and “Dig” that both swing hard.  Track #5, “Enchanted” slows the pace with Latin overtones and sweet string lines that enhance Eric Goletz’s trombone solo.  Eric writes beautifully and he’s an astute and creative arranger.  This trombonist also knows how to lay down a groove and mix R&B excitement, (sometimes reminiscent of a Earth, Wind & Fire repertoire) into his unique jazzy arrangements.  Steve Johns is a master on trap drums and Joe Mowatt pushes the rhythm forward with percussive authority.  I enjoy all of the Eric Goletz powerful composing skills and appreciate the way he arranges his music.  For example, “Don’t Gimme That!” establishes a bright, memorable melody before inviting Allen Farnham on organ-keyboards to soak up the spotlight. When Eric Goletz presses the trombone to his lips, out spills improvisation and energy that inspires.  Randy Brecker shines on his trumpet and then he and Goletz play tag, trading fours mid-way through the tune.   I love the percussion that is happening in the background, showing how skillful Mowatt is; always present, but never getting in the way of solos or melody. He’s steady and dependable as a ceiling fan; being just as cool!  The tune titled, “The Mirror” is funky, jazzy and tastily mixes ‘rock’ into the mix.  The final song, “After the Light” uses themes from all the other tunes on this disc to create a fascinating medley of the entire recorded concert.  There’s something for everyone on this album.  If you love orchestrated energy, creative arranging and trombone brilliance, slide this into your CD player, sit back and enjoy.

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WADADA LEO SMITH – “A LOVE SONNET FOR BILLIE HOLIDAY” – TUM Records
Wadada Leo Smith, trumpet/composer; Vijay Iyer, piano/Fender Rhodes/Hammond B-3/electronics/ composer; Jack DeJohnette, drums/percussion/composer
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If you are looking to explore the inner and outer limits of space, time and music, this is the stocking stuffer for you.  Three jazz icons have united to bring us a tribute to Billie Holiday.  Jack DeJohnette opens the title tune with a flurry of sensuous drum power, tinged with cymbal splashes. Using mallets, he softens the percussive sounds to sing this song of “Billie Holiday: A Love Sonnet.”   Wadada Leo Smith first met and played with Jack DeJohnette in the late 1960s.  More recently, the two have collaborated with increasing frequency.  DeJohnette participated in the first recording of Smith’s Golden Quartet over two decades ago. In a later gathering of the Golden Quartet, Wadada Leo Smith had his first collaboration with Iyer’s piano virtuosity. 

“A Love Sonnet for Billie Holiday” marks the first time all three have participated in a recorded production. This first song, “Billie Holiday: A Love Sonnet” was composed by Smith, but all three musicians have contributed their composer talents to this album.  DeJohnette composed “Song for World Forgiveness” and Iyer contributed “Deep Time No. 1” with Malcolm X’s voice layered beneath the electronics with words from one of his historic speeches.  There is often a haunting and beautiful quality to Wadada’s award winning trumpet.  I find that Wadada magic here, exploring Iyer’s track #2.  Jack DeJohnette incorporates his drums liberally, along with an excitement and creativity to match Smith’s and with Vijay Iyer’s piano and keyboard excellence intermingled, they reach a spiritual and musical high.  There is both freedom, originality and beauty in this trio’s exploration.  We are pulled along like gold miners, pausing to shake musical pans and explore them for shiny, sparkling nuggets of inspiration.

“The keyboards, drum-set/percussion and trumpet … create their own sonic ranges. … with no bass at the bottom of the music, Vijay, Jack and Wadada’s instruments realize wider horizontal sonic fields and emotional ranges. Therefore, the performers reveal a complete and complex melodic and harmonic spectrum in a clear, musical exposition,”
Wadada Leo Smith explained.

No more need be said.
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DOUG MacDONALD – “LIVE IN HAWAII” – Dmac Music
Doug MacDonald, guitar/composer; Noel Okimoto, vibraphone; Dean Taba, bass; Darryl Pellegrini, drum.

Funny how things in life somehow go full circle.  In Doug MacDonald’s case, although based for years in Southern California, he actually began his career performing in Hawaii with Trummy Young, Gabe Balthazar and Del Courtney.  His latest release, “Live in Hawaii” immortalizes his triumphant return to playing straight-ahead jazz in Honolulu. Fellow bandmates include bassist Dean Taba, who grew up in Hawaii and worked in Los Angeles for years playing with a plethora of jazz masters.  Also included in his impressive quartet is Noel Okimoto, best known as a drummer, but super-talented on Vibraphone.  He is a native of Honolulu.  On drums with MacDonald’s group is Darryl Pellegrini who has worked with Woody Herman, Lionel Hampton and Dizzy Gillespie.  Pellegrini currently lives and teaches on the island. Together this quartet swings hard and this may be one of my favorite recordings by Doug MacDonald.  They open with the stellar composition by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, “My Shining Hour.”  Their six-minute, up-tempo arrangement sets the tone for this entire production. Recorded live at the Hawaii Public Radio Atherton Performing Arts Studio, their audience excitement is palpable.  After each creative and classic solo, the attending patrons give supportive and spontaneous applause.  Okimoto sounds amazing on vibraphone and Dean Taba takes a splendid bass solo, followed by Doug MacDonald and Darryl Pellegrini trading fours and focusing the spotlight on the drummer. 


I enjoyed MacDonald’s composition, “Cat City Samba.”  They do a gutsy arrangement of Oscar Pettiford’s popular “Blues in the Closet.”  This entire concert was broadcast on HPR’s Sunday Morning show called, “Applause in a Small Room” by host and sound engineer Jason Almirez-Taglianetti.  I enjoyed the unique interaction between Doug’s guitar and Noel Okimoto’s vibes. Replacing the expected standard piano as the center of the rhythm section, MacDonald plays both lead and rhythm guitar with ease.  You will enjoy sitting on the edge of your seat, tapping your toes and listening to this spontaneous and energetic jazz quartet, led by Los Angeles based guitarist, Doug MacDonald.  Other favorites on this album are “Star Eyes,” Doug’s original “Bossa Don” presented at a moderate, sexy tempo, propelled by Pellegrini’s warm drums and a nice surprise was hearing the wonderful “Stranger in Paradise” tune.
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IGOR BUTMAN – “ ONLY NOW“ – Butman Music Records
Igor Butman, tenor saxophone/composer; Evgeny Pobozhly, guitar; Oleg Akkuratov, piano; Eddie Gomez & Matt Brewer, bass; Antonio Sanchez, drums.

This Is Russian saxophonist, Igor Butman’s eighteenth studio album as a bandleader.  He opens with “Egyptian Nights” that features Antonio Sanchez on drums setting the groove in a ‘Cozy Cole’ kind of way.  The tune is straight-ahead jazz with a spirited piano solo by Oleg Akkuratov, who is also a talented vocalist.  Oleg recently won the Sarah Vaughan Vocal Competition.  Igor Butman has a smooth, seamless way of blending Straight-ahead jazz with a contemporary flavor, but never loses the power and prestige of traditional jazz.  You clearly hear this on track #2, “Verdict” that swings harder than a Muhammad Ali punch.  The Russian sax man is joined by longtime friend and the first-ever Russian Herbie Hancock Prize winner, Evgeny Pobozhly, who is creatively astute and spontaneous on guitar. 

The tune “You’ve Got E-mail” is spurred by the funk drums of Sanchez and the sweet strains of Butman’s tenor saxophone sings the melody and sets a more contemporary groove with his soulful, bluesy tone. The keyboard of Oleg Akkuratov improvises brightly and is always compelling.  “Golden Sun Ray” shows Igor Butman’s tender side.  He has such a distinctive sound on his saxophone and it was pleasant to hear him settle down from all the energetic songs to introduce this contemporary ballad with a groove that drops-in like an unexpected rain storm.  Evgeny’s guitar solo is colorful as a rainbow and Butman’s saxophone is warm as sun shining through puffy rainclouds.  Every song on this album is sure to please the astute jazz listener.  The original tunes are well-written and arranged by Igor Butman.  On track #5, the quintet is back to business as usual, burning hot on “Only Now.”  Butman has tributed his long-time friend, Wynton Marsalis, with two tunes he composed called Blues for Wynton, Pt. 1. and Pt. 2.  He adds the magic of two American bassists on this project; Matt Brewer and Eddie Gomez.  One of them steps stage front to give us an impressive solo on this tune.  “Falling Grace” is exciting and spontaneous featuring another strong bass solo. “Baby I Love You’ was written by Wynton Marsalis and Bobby McFerrin and is vocalized by Oleg Akkuratov, who (I might remind you) is also the group’s magnificent pianist.  Igor Butman is building jazzy bridges between Moscow and New York.  His unique blend of cultures and countries is the perfect stocking stuffer and shows us how jazz music unifies and excels in the name of unity, peace and freedom.
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CHAD LAWSON – “CHRISTMAS IN MY DREAMS” – Decca Records
Chad Lawson, pianist; Dinah Washington, vocals; other musician information not provided.

If you are looking for something totally unique, pianist, Chad Lawson, has recorded four-tracks on an EP with one ‘cut’ that features the iconic voice of Dinah Washington.  The Queen of Blues sings “Silent Night” in all her glory.  What a gift to hear her dynamic voice again!  Chad Lawson follows this with “Have Yourself a Merry Christmas” featuring a string quartet and “The Christmas Waltz” played solo piano as well as “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Lawson is one of America’s post-classical artists who has surpassed over 140 million global streams for a track called “Stay” that is a celebrated fixture on the Top 25 Billboard Classical chart for 74 consecutive weeks. 

A former jazz musician, Chad spent two years touring with Julio Iglesias before turning his direction to the classical market.  He’s been introducing the new generation to classical music using contemporary techniques and interpretations.  Now, he introduces a young generation to the legendary vocals of Dinah Washington, one of America’s greatest jazz and blues singers.   Thanks, Chad Lawson!

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AS IS (ALAN SCHULMAN & STACEY SCHULMAN) – “O HOLY NIGHT” – Independent Label
Alan Schulman, Rhythm/lead guitar; Stacey Schulman, lead vocal; Leonardo Lucini, bass; Alejandro Lucini, drums/percussion.

When Native Brazilian brothers, Leonardo and Alejandro Lucini merged their South American rhythmic talents with Alan Schulman’s tasty guitar and Stacey Schulman’s crystal-clear vocals, they created a fresh sound for the familiar Christmas carol, “O Holy Night.”  Alan and Stacey perform under the banner of “AS IS” and with the addition of this bassist and percussionist, they have re-imagined a holiday favorite in a brilliant way.  It was released as a ‘single’ on December 3rd and adds Latin spice to the joy of the season!

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PHIL PERRY – “SOUL OF THE HOLIDAYS” & “A CONTEMPORARY CHRISTMAS”

Every now and then a voice comes along that is not categorized as ‘jazz’ but when you hear that voice, you know it can cross all genres.  Los Angeles based, Phil Perry, is one such artist.  He is often listed as a soul or R&B artist; however, his beautiful vocals have also recorded on several contemporary jazz albums.  This season, I want to remind you of his album of holiday music that I believe each and every one of you would enjoy.  Phil Perry’s amazing vocals rise from rich baritone to an exhilarating tenor and exhibit a powerful range, technique and tone that thrills the listener.  I think his holiday album makes an amazing stocking stuffer.  Phil Perry is a renowned singer, songwriter and actor, who has recorded a vast discography of songs since 1969 in the R&B & Jazz genres.  He is known for his soulful and captivating stage performances throughout the world; not only with his own group but with jazz icons like Quincy Jones, Lee Ritenour, Ernie Watts, Anita Baker, George Duke and Najee, just to list a few.  On June 23, 2021, Phil was rewarded for his 50-years of recorded music excellence, by becoming inducted into the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame.  His “Soul of the Holidays” album and his contribution on “A Contemporary Christmas” CD are memorable recordings and will make stellar stocking stuffers.


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By the way, Norah Jones has a holiday album released this year titled, “I Dream of Christmas”.  Here’s a small taste.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS, everyone.  From me, Dee Dee McNeil, I’m praying for more peace, joy and love in the coming New Year and lots more jazz!

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NEWLY RELEASED CHRISTMAS MUSIC – 2021

December 1, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil

December 1, 2021

JEFF HAMILTON – “MERRY & BRIGHT” – Capri Records

Jeff Hamilton, drums; Jon Hamar, bass; Tamir Hendelman, piano.

At this time of year, there is absolutely nothing that brings me more joy than a swinging trio who offers a concert of holiday jazz.  This is a recording that features Jeff Hamilton’s favorite Christmas tunes, along with his powerful drumming.  Here are three awesome players, known to bring the best to whatever they play.  In this instance, it’s holiday music that will definitely put you in the mood for the season.

They open with a smoking rendition of Kay Thompson’s “It’s the Holiday Season.”  Back in the day, vocalist Andy Williams recorded this song that was played on radio stations coast-to-coast.  Hamilton recalls hearing it as a youngster.   I also enjoy their arrangement of “Caroling, Caroling,” where Jeff Hamilton propels the music ahead with his creative and always inspired drumming.  

“I’ve always enjoyed holiday music and have been planning on doing a Christmas project for many years.  I finally did it during the pandemic and got my trio into the studio to record it direct to 2-track; like I used to do.  We were very happy with the outcome. We put together these arrangements and got the recording done in only a few hours,” Jeff explained his mindset for the production of this holiday album.

“The Little Drummer Boy” is given a new and inspired arrangement with Hamilton’s unique drum arrangements on brushes spurring the production.  I enjoy the tasty and pensive way that Tamir Hendelman unfolds the tune, exploring new and jazzy chord changes.  It’s an absolutely beautiful arrangement of this familiar Christmas song.  I had to play it twice. 

I like the crisp, clean arrangement on “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let it Snow!” Jon Hamar steps briefly into the spotlight to share his bass virtuosity with us.  Hamilton learned “Bright Bright the Holly Berries” from a ‘Singers Unlimited” recording.  This trio performs it as a jazz waltz.   If you like the blues and a good shuffle, you will love their arrangement of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” followed by the Gene Autry composition, “Here Comes Santa Claus.”  For all you young folks, Gene Autry was a popular cowboy on early black and white television shows.   Not many people remember that he was a songwriter and collected a lot of royalties for his hit record of “Here Comes Santa Clause.”  For history’s sake, I found this old 1947 video of him performing the song in a movie.  Then, you can enjoy how Hamilton’s group jazzes it up.

You’ll also find provocative, jazzy productions of “Santa Baby,” “O Tannenbaum” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”  All of these songs not only mirror this holiday season, but reflect peace, happiness and love in every arrangement.  You will probably enjoy playing this album all year round.

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UPTOWN VOCAL JAZZ QUARTET – “FOOLS FOR YULE”  – HouseKat Records

Ginny Carr Goldberg, Robert McBride, Holly Shockey & Lane Stowe, vocals; Frank Russo, drums; Max Murray, bass; Alan Blackman, piano; Donato Soviero, guitar; Chuck Redd, vibraphone. SPECIAL GUEST: Keith Carr, Irish Bouzouki.

There’s nothing like a good vocal chorus to enhance the holiday spirit.  These four talented singers bring not only their best voices to interpret familiar holiday tunes, but they also offer a few new, original songs for us to consider.  The title tune, “Fool for Yule” is a slow swing with a memorable melody and cute lyrics.  It was composed by CD arranger and group vocalist, Ginny Carr Goldberg.  Chuck Redd adds a vibraphone solo that is perfectly festive for the season.  Other favorites on this jazz vocal Christmas album are: Christmas Time Is Here, Winter Wonderland and Silent Night.  Their original ballad, “Whisper” (another Goldberg composition) showcases their tightly woven harmonies and Alan Blackman takes a well-executed solo on piano.  Goldberg has also penned a song in French titled, “L’Amour Nous Entoure Ce Soir” that translates to “Love surrounds us this evening.”  This arrangement has Latin overtones wrapped in laid-back joy.  “The Christmas Song” is all vocals and shows off the mastery of these a cappella voices.  The song, “Santa Dear, Where’s Mine?” is sung from the perspective of Mrs. Clause and it offers a very comical take on the holiday and reflective of a wife who feels a bit neglected by her busy, working husband.  Frank Russo shuffles his drums and Max Murray briskly walks his bass.  This is a very humorous tune written by Marilyn Shockey.  For those of you who love classical music, they have added “St. Ita’s Vision,” arranged by vocal member, Robert McBride and features one of the female vocalists in the group.  Unfortunately, this CD does not designate who the featured vocalist is on this number.  “It Doesn’t Feel Like Christmas” is another original song by Goldberg, whose lyrics tell the story of missing a loved one at Christmas.  The group closes with a beautiful rendition of “Silent Night.”  Here is an album of holiday music that will warm any chilly winter evening with their lovely harmonics and beautiful vocal arrangements.

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MICK KOLASSA – “UNCLE MICK’S CHRISTMAS ALBUM” – The Blues Foundation/ Endless Blues Records, Inc.

Mick Kolassa, vocals/guitar/producer/arranger/composer; Jeff Jensen, guitar/arranger; Bill Ruffino, bass; Rick Steff, keyboards; James Cunningham, drums; Eric Hughes, harmonica; Marc Franklin, trumpet; Reba Russell & Susan Marshall, back-up vocals.

Here is a Christmas album that was recorded on a ninety-five-degree day in Memphis, Tennessee. This blues album is 100% Memphis; every musician, the engineers and even the special guests call Memphis home.  So, if it’s a bluesy holiday you’re looking for, this is the album you’ll enjoy popping into your CD player.  They open with the Mariah Carey/Walter Afanasleff pop tune, “All I want for Christmas Is You.”  However, you won’t recognize it the way Mick Kolassa has arranged it.  It’s brand new and all blues!  “Frosty the Snowman” is a Second Line kind of arrangement that reminds us of New Orleans jazz bands with Marc Franklin’s trumpet brightening the production, along with Eric Hughes pumping his harmonica into the mix for good measure.  Mick Kolassa not only sings all vocals on this production, but he also has written some of the tunes.  “The Best Christmas Ever” is one of his tunes he composed and arranged with funk drums and female background singers.  Another original where he rocks out is “Christmas Morning Blues.”  This is a blues jam session that celebrates Christmas from a Memphis point of view.

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JAN DALEY – “HOME FOR CHRISTMAS” – LOG Records

Jan Daley, vocals/piano arrangements; Mischa Segal & Craig Garfinkle, orchestrations & performances; David Cohen & Misha Segal, piano & strings; Craig Garfinkle, piano/guitar/bass & strings; Nate Light, bass; David Johnstone, drums/percussion.  

Jan Daley has a warm, inviting voice.  She has chosen a Baker’s Dozen of holiday songs, presented to us like piping hot Christmas cookies just pulled from the oven.   Her rendition of “The Christmas Song” is a delicious show-stopper, with a fresh arrangement, tinged by Latin rhythms and an unusual piano accompaniment that is bound to please.  She approaches songs we know and love with very creative productions.  Take for instance her wonderful arrangement on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”  She has repainted the face of this song with warm orchestrations and a piano part at the top of the tune that catches the attention in a lovely way.  The piano sounds like a pendulum swinging or a clock ticking down to a bewitching hour where all the toys beneath the tree will come alive.  There is something magical about the way Ms. Daley presents this song.  In fact, Jan Daley sprinkles each song with holiday cheer.  Her vocal delivery is festive, like wreaths of holly or silver bells hanging from the Christmas tree. Her voice sparkles and dances. This is a delightful holiday album, containing many of your favorite songs including, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “O Holy Night,” “Winter Wonderland,” and “White Christmas.”   You will also enjoy songs you may not be that familiar with, like Barbra Streisand’s “The Best Gift,” or the David Foster and Linda Thompson tune, “Grown-up Christmas List,” where Daley sings: “no more lives torn apart; that wars would never start … that everyone would have a friend… and love would never end.”  We certainly need more of that mindset.  Also, this was my first time enjoying the Alan & Marilyn Bergman composition, “A Christmas Love Song.”   Jan Daley’s album is just like Christmas morning; full of sugar-sweet surprises.

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BENNY BENACK III with the STEVEN FEIFKE BIG BAND – SEASON’S SWINGIN’ GREETINGS DELUXE EDITION” – Cellar Music Group

Benny Benack III, trumpet/vocals; Steven Feifke, piano/conductor; Sasha Berliner &Warren Wolf, vibraphone; Dan Chmiellnski, Griffin Fink & Emiliano Lasansky, bass; Joe Perl, Charles Goold, TJ Reddick & Bryan Carter, drums; Alita Moses, lead vocals on duet; SAXOPHONES: Andrew Gould & Alex LoRe, alto saxophone/flute; Sam Dillon & Michael Stephenson, tenor saxophone; Andrew Gutauskas, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet; Alexa Tarantino, alto & tenor saxophones/flute; Lauren Sevian, baritone Saxophone. TRUMPETS: Max Darché, John Lake, Walter Cano, Bijon Watson & Gabriel King Medd. TROMBONE: Robert Edwards, Javier Nero, Armando Vergara & Gina Benalcazar, bass trombone. VIOLINS: Lavinia Pavlish & Caroline Drexler.  Laura Sacks, Viola; Susan D. Mandel, violincello.

Benny Benack III has a voice as smooth as a holiday sharkskin suit.  He opens up with a very comedic holiday song titled, “My Girlfriend is an Elf.”  After singing the tune down once he picks up his trumpet and shows off his other awesome talent as a talented horn player.  Benny has composed this cute tune and bandleader, Steven Feifke, has arranged and orchestrated it.   They follow up with the beautifully orchestrated familiar ballad, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”  Track #3 is another Benny Benack original composition; “My Wishlist Is You” and features a duet with the lovely voice of Alita Moses.  I enjoyed his interpretation of “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” where Benny Benack III shows that he not only is a crooner, but he’s also a talented improviser and scat singer.  The big band of Steven Feifke is superb and their repertoire is both familiar and enjoyable.  You will appreciate “The Christmas Song” and an up-tempo arrangement of “Sleigh Ride” (featuring Benack on trumpet).  They include “The Dreidel Song” and “Ma’oz Tzur” is a song of Hanukah sung in Yiddish.   Also, there are two more original songs introduced: “When Christmas Time Comes Around,” co-written by Benack with Steven Feifke and “A Midnight Wish” closes the CD out with multiple songwriters.  If you enjoy smooth voices similar to Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, you will enjoy Benny Benack III and the wonderful Steven Feifke Big Band.

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KIRK WHALUM – “HOW DOES CHRISTMAS SOUND?” – Mack Ave Music Group

Kirk Whalum, soprano, tenor & baritone saxophone/composer/flute; Mark Jaimes, guitar; Kortland Whalum, Chantae Cann & Kevin Whalum, lead vocals; James McMillan, keyboards/trumpet/trombone/ programming; Mark Edwards, piano; Kyle Whalum, bass; Marcus Finnie, drums; John Stoddart, keyboards; Take 6 & John Stoddart, background vocals.

Grammy Award-winning saxophonist, Kirk Whalum offers us an album of holiday music that is refreshing and fun.  Some of the songs are original and Whalum features a few talented relatives including his nephew, Kortland Whalum, who is featured as lead vocalist and his son, Kyle, handling the bass duties.  The title song establishes the tone for this beautifully produced holiday record.

“My discography is always about family and this record is no different.  Whenever I record music, I’d be crazy not to use my son who plays with Kelly Clarkson, my nephew who is out doing Broadway shows and my other nephew who plays with Bruno Mars,” Kirk Whalum proudly brags about his talented family members.

The relative who is currently part of the Bruno Mars aggregation is trombonist Kameron Whalum.  Currently, he’s so busy touring with Bruno Mars, he was unable to participate in his uncles Christmas album.  However, the other two are Kirk’s son, Kyle Whalum who plays bass, Kevin Whalum who sings lead and his nephew, Kortland Whalum, who is a talented actor and singer featured on Kirk’s original song, “How Does Christmas Sound?”

Track #2 features the familiar Mariah Carey song, “All I Want for Christmas” but it’s rearranged as a ballad with Kirk Whalum’s sexy saxophone setting the tone.  I love his expressive and fluid presentation of “What Are You Doing New Years?”   This is followed by “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” where Kirk picks up his flute to explore the melody and pleasantly surprise the listener.  Pianist, Mark Edwards, shows off during his spotlight solo.

“We had to sit out a Christmas.  I realized, during the pandemic, that Christmas means more to me now than it ever did.  Like my faith, Christmas is axiomatic to my life and I have evolved spiritually in so many ways,” Kirk Whalum reflected.

Kirk has included some familiar songs and some contemporary music, like the popular “Mary Did you Know” sung beautifully by the whispery vocals of Chantae Cann.   There is a little something for every listener, from the Black National Anthem of “Lift Every Voice & Sing” to little known holiday gems like “Thorns In the Straw” and “Angels We Have Heard on High.”  Using a bit of studio magic, Kirk Whalum layers three of his saxophones (tenor, soprano and baritone) for a unique arrangement on “Angels We Have Heard on High.”  He creates percussion sounds using the hammering of his saxophone keys. Kirk’s second original song on this project is titled “Seven” and features Kirk Whalen’s lead vocals with the background voices of Take 6 providing lush harmonies.  This is an amazing holiday album that brought me great peace and comfort as I listened to it.  I appreciate the diversity in repertoire and the creative arrangements that highlight the multi-saxophone talents of the brilliant and blessed, Kirk Whalum.

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MONTY ALEXANDER – “HERE COMES THE SUN” –  MPS Records

Monty Alexander, piano; Eugene Wright, bass; Montego Joe, percussion; Duffy Jackson, drums.

Duffy Jackson sets up a brisk pace on drums, introducing the opening tune and Monty Alexander leaps in with both hands busy and creative.  “Montevideo” swings in a very Latin way.  Alexander is famous for blending jazz with the sounds of his Jamaican culture.  All of the songs on this exceptional album have been remastered from his original analogue master tapes of 1972.  Consequently, they have a very warm and inviting sound.  If you were looking for an album that offers piano brilliance, happy, Caribbean calypso overtones, along with the percussive excitement of Montego Joe and the virtuoso bass work of Dave Brubeck’s longtime bassist, Eugene Wright, you will find great pleasure with this production. 

Monty Alexander manages to mix the blues into every corner of his music, be it Latin, swing or ballad.  You hear his brilliant ability on track #2, “Where Is Love?”  The talented pianist introduces the listener to the lovely melody, all the while soaking the song in shades of turquoise, navy and royal Caribbean blues.  Next, Alexander transforms the Beatle’s popular “Here Comes the Sun” into a blues-laced, Latin inspired arrangement in a most untraditional, but complimentary manner.  It’s bright, up-tempo and funky with Montego Joe’s percussion licks stroking the groove that dynamic Duffy Jackson lays down on trap drums.  Eugene Wright, who we used to fondly refer to as ‘The Senator,’ sways his double bass in perpetual motion and I just want to get up and dance!  Towards the end of the tune, Alexander punches out a boogie-woogie lick that both surprises and pleases me.  On “Love Walked In,” track #4, Alexander continues to swing and demonstrates his straight-ahead jazz chops.  The quartet joins in without reserve, racing along with the piano master, while Wright walks his bass at the swift speed of a fast-moving locomotive.  Duffy Jackson is given a bright spotlight to showcase his magic on the trap drums.  They about-face and step back into a calypso groove on their adaptation of “Brown Skin Girl.”   You’ll enjoy the happiness that spins and circles from this disc.  The quartet’s pretty arrangement of “This Dream of Mine,” along with a ten-minute arrangement of the Miles Davis’s standard, “So What” completes their concert.  This is perfect music for any holiday party or Christmas get-together.  For all your jazz friends, who love to swing hard, who appreciate be-bop and iconic piano playing, this album is a flawless stocking stuffer.  

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THE SINGERS UNLIMITED WITH LEADER, GENE PUERLING – “CHRISTMAS” – MPS Records

Gene Puerling, group leader/founder/vocals; Len Dresslar, Bonnie Herman and Don Shelton, vocals.

Legendary jazz singer, Jon Hendricks once compared Gene Puerling’s ‘Singers Unlimited’ a cappella group to iconic, ground-breaking saxophonist, Charlie Parker.

“Gene broadened the harmonies, like Bird did with bebop,” Jon Hendricks proclaimed.

This album has been remastered from the original analogue master tapes dating back to their historic 1971 studio sessions.  This timeless work of art features harmonic concepts that influenced groups like Manhattan Transfer, Take Six and Brian Wilson.  The Singers Unlimited group recorded fifteen albums for MPS Record label, but this “Christmas” album is best-known by fans of the popular a cappella singers. The talented quartet presents traditional Christmas music like Deck the Halls, It Came Upon A Midnight Clear, Joy to the World and Silent night. They also add jazzy arrangements on more modern tunes, including seven original compositions by trumpeter, Alfred Burt.  The vocal quartet was first formed to record commercials.  They were such a tight unit that it didn’t take long for MPS Records to convince them to sign-on as recording artists.  They recorded for MPS from 1971 to 1982.  Gene Puerling’s vocal arrangements are dynamic, unique and respected by many in the jazz community.  Their bass singer, Len Dresslar, was best known as ‘The Jolly Green Giant’ voice after he made the canned food jingle famous with his ‘Ho ho ho’ bass line.  Bonnie Herman made the State Farm Insurance Company commercial famous for her line, “Like a Good Neighbor” that she sang.  That line continues to be popular today and a trademark for the popular State Farm Company.  Bonnie was also the daughter of musician and band leader Lawrence Welk.

This is an historic album of beautiful, harmonic voices delivering Christmas holiday music you will enjoy listening to year after year.

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GIVING THANKS FOR THESE GREAT JAZZ MUSICIANS

November 24, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil

NOVEMBER 24, 2021

Happy Thanksgiving to each and every one of you.  So much amazing music crossed my desk this season, I hardly had room to fit them all into this column.  I begin with a spectacular ‘live’ recording by HAROLD MABERN, celebrating the genius of John Coltrane.  ALEX BROWN is a more contemporary pianist with a style and uniqueness all his own.  MICHAEL STEPHENSON, a unique vocalist who also plays saxophone, meets THE ALEXANDER CLAFFY TRIO with Benny Benack III on trumpet and its pure magic!  Brazilian pianist MARCOS ARIEL woos us with his solo piano tribute to flowers. GORDON GRDINA is a JUNO Award-winning Oud player and guitarist, whose career has spanned continents.  Summit Record’s “SIDEMEN” album features top jazz musicians and composer/producer/trumpeter, PETER WELKER.  Tenor Saxophonist, KEVIN SUN, records a love letter to Charlie Parker and DAVE YOUNG, one of Canada’s most celebrated bassists records a CD called “Mantra.”

HAROLD MABERN – “MABERN PLAYS COLTRANE”- Smoke Session Records

Harold Mabern, piano; Vincent Herring, alto saxophone; Eric Alexander, tenor saxophone; Steve Davis, trombone; John Webber, bass; Joe Farnsworth, drums.

As a lover of John Coltrane’s amazing music, I was eager to listen to Harold Mabern’s tribute recording to this iconic saxophonist.  Mabern is widely celebrated as a hard bop, post-bop pianist and composer who also dabbled in the soul-jazz field.  He was a great admirer of John Coltrane and he came up at a time when be-bop was king.  Harold Mabern played with legendary musicians like James Moody, George Benson, Clark Terry, Stanley Turrentine, Milt Jackson, Billy Harper and spent four decades with the great George Coleman.  He toured Europe with Lionel Hampton’s big band and accompanied respected jazz vocalists like Betty Carter, Johnny Hartman and Arthur Prysock.   He recorded his final four albums as a bandleader at the popular Smoke Jazz Club as part of their popular Smoke Sessions.   Harold Mabern experienced a heart attack and left this Earth on September 17, 2019.  He was eighty-one years old when he recorded this currently released piece of art. 

His grandson, Michael Mabern, shared memories of his grandpa in the liner notes of this album and talked about his grandfather’s relationship to John Coltrane. 

“He attended “Coltrane Courses” at the prestigious university known as Birdland’s non-air-conditioned basement in 1961 … sitting on a case of Budweiser’s for hours just to watch the master (John Coltrane) rehearse … well in advance of the “hit time” for his accompanist gigs with Dakota Staton and Johnny Hartman,” marveled Mabern’s grandson.

Mabern’s ensemble opens with “Dahomey Dance” introduced by a super tight horn section, they come out swinging harder than George Foreman.  They follow this with “Blue Train.”  Mabern was a giving, generous musician and a man who his grandson labels “Big Heart”; his musicians labeled him “Big Hands.”  Mabern is quick to give time and spotlight to his magnificent band members.  Vincent Herring shines brightly on alto saxophone and Eric Alexander is powerful on tenor.  Steve Davis takes his bow after a brilliant solo on trombone and John Webber establishes his talent and dexterity on double bass during a brief but powerful solo.  When Harold Mabern’s piano takes center stage, his fingers dance and tip toe across the keys like an expert high wire act.  He lifts the music and takes us higher with his innovative solo.  Always creative and expressive, Mabern’s piano abilities are balanced, solid and original.  The group is amply supported by the bright and powerful drums of Joe Farnsworth.  The ‘live’ audience bursts into spontaneous and appreciative applause after every tune they played.

“Playing John Coltrane’s music with Harold was like tapping into the source,” says Farnsworth. “He was like the vortex, and it all flowed through him. It was intense. Having Harold on the stage, given how much he loved John Coltrane, it elevated the spirit of the music tenfold.”

Every Coltrane composition included in this album celebrates tunes that fans have heard time and time again.  They are jazz standards today.  You will enjoy Mabern’s smoking hot interpretation of “Impressions” played at breakneck speed.  “Dear Lord” is opened by Harold Mabern’s solo piano with flash backs to Sunday morning church services and also the pianist’s love of Bach.  The group tackles “My Favorite Things,” “Naima” and “Straight Street.”  This is an album full of mastery and might.  These musicians give their all and freshly explore the dynamic beauty of John Coltrane.  This album will be available on December 3rd just in time to become a stocking stuffer for some lucky person.

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MICHAEL STEPHENSON MEETS THE ALEXANDER CLAFFY TRIO – Cellar Music Group

Michael Stephenson, voice/tenor saxophone; Alexander Claffy, bass; Julius Rodriguez, piano; Itay Morchi, drums; Benny Benack III, trumpet.

Michael Stephenson opens this CD with only his smooth tenor voice and Alexander Claffy playing upright bass.  Stephenson snaps his fingers from time to time, like a human drummer.  His voice is silky smooth, dancing atop Claffy’s beautiful bass lines with his tenor tones. They take a moderate swing through this track.  On Track #2, I was surprised because I hadn’t heard that Ray Charles “Greenback” tune in years.  It was quite nostalgic when Michael Stephenson sang it, using spoken word and song to deliver the old, familiar piece and adding his terrific talent on tenor saxophone.  Yes, Stephenson sings and plays the horn.  By the end of Benny Benack’s trumpet solo, I have completely fallen in love with this album.   Stephenson has a distinctive sound.  His vocals are impressive and unforgettable when he interprets Marvin Gaye’s song, “What’s Happening Brother?”  Alexander Claffy is the master arranger and he lays down outstanding tracks, creating a royal, musical stage for Stephenson to showcase his multi-talents. Julius Rodriguez is dynamic during his piano solo and puts the “J” in jazz.  Michael Stephenson reinvents the R&B tune, “When A Man Loves a Woman” with Claffy walking his bass and Itay Morchi swinging hard on the drums.  Benack III, on trumpet, continues the swing, joyful and reminding me of a Louisiana street parade.  This is another great arrangement!  Stephenson’s talent seems to be blossoming from a strong R&B background into the realms of jazz in a beautiful way.  He’s such an excellent singer that he could sing absolutely anything.  These arrangements, and his rare and impressive vocals, inspire me to play this wonderful album over and over again!  Other great arrangements and Michael Stephenson’s vocal tenacity shine on tunes like “On the Street Where You Live,” and the old American song of the South, “Tennessee Waltz” has a fresh face.   “Can’t Hide Love” is played at a speedy pace and swings like a pendulum.  The Alexander Claffy trio is strong as titanium and this straight-ahead arrangement brings back memories of John Coltrane.  Michael Stephenson is the vocal horn.   On the fade, trumpeter Benny Benack III reminds us of his brilliance.

The band takes a moment to remind us of their tenacity on a Ben Webster tune called “Did You Call Her Today” that shuffles its way into my heart and features Stephenson playing his tenor saxophone.  This album is a stunning projectile, hurling into our musical space without compromise or hesitancy. Michael Stephenson is a bright and powerful starship, making his way into our universe with unforgettable grace and beauty.  I walk away wanting more.

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ALEX BROWN – “THE DARK FIRE SESSIONS” – Alex Brown Music

Alex Brown, piano/composer/Fender Rhodes; Zach Brown, acoustic & elec. bass; Eric Doob, drums; Matthew Stevens, guitar; Eric Kurimski, acoustic guitar; Lucas Apostoleris, steel guitar; Paulo Stagnaro, percussion; Franco Pinna, bombo leguero; Sabastian Natal, candombe percussion; Sergio Martinez, cajon/flamenco percussion.

“The Dark Fire Sessions” is Alex Brown’s homage to the transformative process of regularly performing music with a group of companions who have become closer than blood.  This is his second release as a bandleader and he mixes warm Latin overtones, with sparks of percussion that light up the project and display his own piano brilliance.  While weaving his fiery talents on piano and keyboard into his arrangements, he offers us his composer skills.  The result is that Alex Brown has recorded a creative and diversified album.   Another reason for the album title, “The Dark Fire Sessions,” is that Alex and his brother, Zach Brown, founded a recording studio and independent rehearsal studio in Harlem that they named “The Dark Fire Sessions.”  One of my favorite tunes is “Chacarera” that establishes a catchy melody and allows Zach Brown to explore his improvisation on a theme.  The bassist exhibits strength and creativity on his instrument.  Chacarera is an Argentinian dance, somewhat like the Tango, that is entrenched in Argentina folk music.  The strength of Eric Doob on drums working in concert with brothers, Alex and Zach Brown, makes for a tenacious trio and rhythm section.  These three are close as peas in a pod and have toured the world together playing as a trio for a plethora of years.  They hold the project tightly together like magnets to metal. 

The Brown composition “24/7” is a minor blues and it swings hard. Zach shines on bass and Alex prowls across the keys, sounding quite like a lion on a hot tin roof top. 

Alex Brown started playing piano at age six.  He was taken to classical music concerts, including the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.  His parents enriched his life with museum visits, live theatre experiences and along the way, he fell in love with music.  It was in sixth grade, after joining an after-school jazz band, when he told his parents he had found his career path.  It was music. In high school, he began to take private lessons from Stanley Cowell.  Then he went off to the New England Conservatory where he studied with the great Panamanian pianist, Danilo Perez.  On this album Alex offers us profound keyboard lyricism, infectious melodies and unforgettable compositions, ranging from straight ahead jazz to contemporary, a touch of smooth jazz and all his arrangements seem soaked in percussive brilliance.  In fact, the percussionists stand out like Christmas tree lights, enriching the scene with their colorful beauty.  Sometimes Brown incorporates Afro Cuban rhythms and at other times explores Flamenco music. Check out his “New Flamenco” tune where he collaborates with Sergio Martinez, a traditional flamenco percussion player from Spain.   Alex explores the Fender Rhodes keyboard on “Novembro” and his brother applies the electric bass instituting contrasting rhythmic lines that dance with Doob’s drums in a very swinging way.  They create counterpoint to the piano’s expressive solo.  The opening bass line snatches the attention and becomes something like a ‘hook’ throughout the song.   These arrangements and compositions are ear candy.  Here is a young jazz pianist and composer, on the new horizon of his career.  Alex Brown invites us to listen, watch and enjoy as he rises like the sun.  His music burns, bright flames from “The Dark Fire Sessions.”

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MARCOS ARIEL – “PIANO BLOSSOMS” – Moondo Music
Marcos Ariel, piano/composer/producer.

This solo piano project by acclaimed Brazilian pianist, Marcos Ariel, celebrates nature and Ariel’s love of this planet; especially the beautiful flowers.  Each song celebrates a type of flower he might encounter in Brazil and/or Los Angeles, where he has been a part-time resident for over twenty-five years.  Opening with “Passionflower” I enjoy the beautiful melody that Marcos Ariel has composed. 

This is his 33rd album as a leader and the third release on his Moondo Music label.  As a native of Rio, he has been playing piano since age nine.

“Back then (in the 1970s), every home in Rio had a piano.  It was a piece of furniture, like a sofa or a table. …My music studies began when I first heard my two older sisters having music lessons.  After their lesson, I went to the piano and just played by ear the music they were learning,” he explained how he was drawn to the instrument.

Although his family dreamed of him becoming a prominent classical pianist, Marcos was drawn to traditional Brazilian music and American jazz.  He was deeply influenced by Chick Corea and became a full-time musician at age twenty.

On his original composition, “Narcissus,” I can almost see the flower blossoming; with petals opening like trembling lips.

“I enjoy taking long walks in the morning and looking at flowers that grow wild. … They evoke feelings and memories that I draw upon when I’m writing music,” Marcos Ariel explained.

I saw beautiful Bougainvillea’s climbing the walls of property in both Thailand and Singapore during my tours there.  The bright colors of the flowers were so attractive against the lush green of the leaves. Consequently, I enjoyed listening to the Marcos Ariel composition named for that flower. However, the one challenge about this solo production is that the mood and tempo of all the tunes are represented by slow ballads.  His compositions are very classically arranged and with very little change of rhythm to show us the various piano talents of Marcos Ariel.  This is the type of music they play while you’re getting a message, meditating, or sitting in the dentist office.  It’s very soothing, unobtrusive and played at a moderate tempo. 

“Chrysanthemum” was written as an homage to the pianist’s grandmother.  She loved chrysanthemums. His representation of “Orchid” sounds very regal and reminds me of a Rachmaninoff composition.  This original composition is quite dramatic, with the bass octaves played powerfully, like exclamation marks at the end of a statement.  “Fuchsia” is the only song on this album that was completely improvised, but it never steps outside the laid-back pattern of the overall production.  I missed hearing the colorful rhythms and excitement I always enjoy in Brazilian music.  Surely the composer must have seen flowers dancing and bobbing in the wind on those long, inspirational walks he took.

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GORDON GRDINA – “PENDULUM” – Attaboygirl Records

Gordon Grdina, classical guitar/oud.

Gordon Grdina is a JUNO Award-winning oud player and guitarist, whose career has spanned continents.  The JUNO Award is comparatively speaking, Canada’s GRAMMY Award.  Gordon’s exploration into free form improvisation, Avant-garde jazz, contemporary music, Indie rock and Arabian music has gained him recognition from highly regarded musicians in the jazz and improvisational world.  Mr. Grdina has performed with a long list of artists and familiar names like Gary Peacock and his own Haram ensemble that re-envisions Arabic, Persian and Sudanese music from the fifties and sixties, through an Arabic, Avant-garde improviser’s lens.  “Pendulum,” is Grdina’s third solo album and is specifically composed for classical guitar and oud.  It is the first album released on his on his Attaboygirl Record label, in collaboration with Genevieve Monro, a photographer and his business partner who will curate the visual style of their label.

The opening solo performance of Gordon Grdina celebrates a composition titled, “Koen Dori.”  It is a beautiful and melodic composition that showcases Grdina’s classical training and the mastery of his instrument.  He composed this song while in Japan and for a Japanese quartet to perform.  Grdina sports a discography that will number nearly twenty-four recordings by the year’s end. However, recording solo is something new for this creative guitarist.  His “Pendulum” performance shows off Grdina’s abilities on the oud as well as his mastery of the guitar. Always exploratory, he combines a number of styles and genres in these original works.  In the early days of his music career, Gordon was fascinated with the blues guitar.  In Vancouver, Canada, he spent many nights playing solo guitar and oud at local restaurants and coffee houses.  Back then, it was like paid rehearsal time and allowed him to develop his technique and practice standard tunes, harmony and improvising. Today, with so much wisdom stock-piled over years of composing, playing worldwide and sharing his talents, he returns to the challenge of playing solo with fresh eyes. 

The oud is a gift to American music from North Africa.  The oud is considered by Arabs to be one of the oldest, wooden string instruments on earth.  The sound projected from the oud vibrates inside its hollow, pear-shaped body and it has a fretless neck.  The instrument resembles a large gourd.  Gordon Grdina explained his approach to playing the oud.

“… All of my influences were starting to come out on the oud and maqam*, and oud ideas were coming out on the guitar.  Things started to get muddled together and out of that I think I’ve developed my own sound which is somewhere in between.  I hope it pays homage to tradition while creating with my own voice.”

*NOTE:  Maqam scales in traditional Arabic music are microtonal, not based on a twelve-tone equal-tempered musical tuning system, as is the case in modern Western music. Most maqam scales include a perfect fifth or a perfect fourth (or both).

Woodshedding during the pandemic sharpened Gordon Grdina’s acoustic skills and time spent practicing opened his heart and ears to new musical perspectives.  He introduces us to his classical guitar in romantic ways and on track #2 with arpeggio bliss and a melody that reminded me of angel harps.  You hear the Arabic charm on track #3, “The Chase,” with minor modes brightly coloring the tune and rich, baritone sounds pouring out of his oud.  Grdina is constantly reinventing himself.

I learned so much from listening to the magnificence and artistry of Gordon Grdina.  The first band he established blended Persian music and Iraqi music.  You will hear a lot of these influences in his compositions.   Grdina offers us world music, wrapped in American-made jazz music sheets and gifted to us like a birthday present or a love offering.   

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“SIDEMEN” – Summit Records

Peter Welker, flugelhorn/arranger/composer/trumpet/pianist; Frank Martin & Steve Carter, keyboards; David K. Matthews, piano; Ruben Valtierra, B-3 organ/piano/keyboards; Chris Smith, B-3 organ; Morris Acevedo, guitar; Todd Tribble, drums/percussion; Cliff Hugo, electric bass; Matthew Compagno & Niel Levonius, lead trumpet; Ella Steinberg, 2nd trumpet/flugelhorn; Nicholas Tribble, alto saxophone; Steve Steinberg, tenor saxophone/composer; Rob Sudduth & Greg Johnson, tenor saxophone; Robby Elfman, alto, baritone & tenor saxophone; David Schrader, alto saxophone; Matt Eakle, flute.  SPECIAL GUESTS: Tom Scott, tenor saxophone; Bill Champlin, vocals/B-3 organ; Steve Morse, guitar; Tony Levin, acoustic bass; Pete Levin, clavinet/string synthesizer.

The musicians play Musical Chairs during this production.  Various ‘cats’ are featured on different arrangements, with the long and varied list noted above.  Other’s pop in and out as special guests.  The “Sidemen” group opens with a number composed by Peter Welker called “Plugged In” with Steve Steinberg on tenor saxophone introducing us to the hypnotic melody that is begging for lyrics.  Frank Martin is on keyboards and offers us a delightful solo.  Composer, Peter Welker, is also a trumpeter, pianist and arranger.  His first six albums as a bandleader were straight-ahead jazz.  But this album shows his wide range of musical interests, including funk, R&B, soul and Latin.  After all, his credentials include working with or recording with Cold Blood, Jerry Garcia, Van Morrison, Santana, Huey Lewis and Dr. John among others.  

“I did all of the arranging and wrote or co-composed seven originals.  We used many guest artists (seven of whom are multi-Grammy winners) who are friends and really love our concept.  There are twenty-four musicians on this recording.  Each tune has its own personality,” Peter Welker explained his concept for the “Sideman” album.

Tom Scott’s emotional delivery on the familiar jazz standard “Save Your Love for Me” is poignant and memorable.  Morris Acevedo also shines on his solo during this arrangement.  The ensemble puts a Latin beat behind Welker’s tune, “Cielo Azul” with Ruben Valtierra on piano and Matt Eakle adding brightness of his flute.  I enjoy the horn harmonics that appear here and there, giving a nod to big band beauty.  For example, on the group’s arrangement of the Jimi Hendrix tune “Third Stone from the Sun,” I enjoyed Todd Tribble showing off his rock drumming techniques.  The drummer shines in the spotlight.  Steve Morse is also outstanding on his guitar solo. 

I was inquisitive to see how they interpreted the Miles Davis/Bill Evans tune, “Blue in Green,” featuring Peter Welker who steps away from his horn and sits down to the piano.  It’s just Tony Levin on acoustic bass and Welker at the eighty-eight keys for a too-short one minute and twenty-two second presentation.  But it’s very sweet, although way too brief.  All in all, this is a delicious mix of familiar songs and original tunes, played by an exceptionally talented group of musicians who are proud to be called, “Sidemen.”  However, each is an individual master and a super-star in their own professional universe, helping this project to shine brightly.

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KEVIN SUN – “˂ 3 Bird” – Endectomorph Music

Kevin Sun, tenor saxophone/clarinet; Adam O’Farrill, trumpet; Max Light, guitar; Christian Li, piano/fender Rhodes; Walter Stinson, double bass; Matt Honor, drums.

This is tenor saxophonist, Kevin Sun’s love letter to Charlie Parker.  Sun has composed twelve original songs to celebrate one of our brilliant jazz geniuses.  Many of the compositions incorporate the Parker songs inside these arrangements.  This music was developed during the 2020 pandemic lock-down.  It was a period when Kevin Sun soaked up seventy-two hours of Charlie Parker recordings and interviews.  You might say he became obsessed with Bird’s life and music. 

“It was a way to de-stress and take a break from the pandemic reality … just imagining what was happening on a given day or period in Bird’s life,” he remembers.  

2020 marked the centennial of Charlie Parker’s birthday, but the pandemic kept tributes and performances to remember Parker’s legacy pretty much mute.  Kevin Sun wanted to capture the essence and magical music of Parker.  For example, on the opening tune, “Greenlit” he blends lines from Bird’s famed Confirmation tune with his own imaginative composer skills.  One of my favorites on this production is “Onomatopoeia” that’s played at a flaming, up-tempo speed, borrowing elements of the famed “Be-bop” tune Parker composed and Parker’s tune “Segment” from Charlie’s Quadromania album.

Kevin Sun lives in New York City and has released three albums to date.  The tenor sax man has performed extensively in China and is the Artistic Director of the Blue Note China Jazz Orchestra.  He was named a finalist for the 2021 Jerome Hill Foundation Artist Fellowship and is lauded as a harmonic virtuoso by DownBeat Magazine.  However, every one of these tunes uses reimagined Charlie Parker melodies.  Although well played by both Sun and his group of talented musicians, this fact dulls a little of this project’s luster.  Sun recreates the 1945 original arrangement of “Salt Peanuts,” letting Matt Honor contribute powerhouse drum licks and rhythmic intrigue to the arrangement.  Christian Li is continuously creative and prolific on both piano and Fender Rhodes.  The double bass of Walter Stinson is powerful throughout and Max Light adds his guitar brilliance.  But it is always Kevin Sun, on clarinet and tenor saxophone who emulates the late, great Charlie Parker who inspires the band in his own unique way.

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DAVE YOUNG – “MANTRA” – Modica Music

Dave Young, bass/composer; Ewen Farncombe, organ; Terry Clarke, drums; Brian Dickinson, piano; Reg Schwager, guitar; Kevin Turcotte, trumpet; Perry White, tenor saxophone/bass clarinet; John Johnson, alto saxophone/flute; Les Allt, flute.

There is nothing more comforting to me on a cold, winter afternoon than to stumble upon an album of straight-ahead jazz.  Dave Young is one of Canada’s most celebrated bassists.  He has been a first-call musician for the likes of Oscar Peterson, Tommy Flanagan, Kenny Barron, Oliver Jones, Cedar Walton and too many more to list.  Based in Toronto, since 1967 Mr. Young has built a solid career as an in-demand studio session musician and sideman.  He has won the coveted JUNO Award, that is similar to our GRAMMY.  This is his sixteenth release as a leader and he offers us six original compositions out of ten swinging songs.  The group opens with Woody Shaw’s “Green St. Caper” and they swing their way right into my heart.  Young has composed “The Gypsy” that follows as track #2.  The horns dance and designate the melody.  Pianist, Brian Dickinson takes a happy-go-lucky, celebratory solo.  This “Mantra” album acts as a collector’s chest that stores some of young’s creative compositions.  His compositions stretch over the past twenty years.  We get an opportunity to lift the heavy chest top and uncover some of his best work.  Other tunes he has composed are “Waltz for Blue,” the title tune, “Mantra” and “Ode to the Southwest” all three tunes feature Ewen Farncombe on organ.  Monk’s “Evidence” composition swings hard and gives the various horn players an opportunity to strut their stuff.  When they play, “Opus de Funk” (a Horace Silver song), Dave Young steps into the spotlight on his double bass and shines as does Kevin Turcotte on trumpet & Reg Schwager during his guitar solo.  This album is sure to be another jewel in the crown of composer and bassist, Dave Young.

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THE CHANGING FACE OF JAZZ

November 14, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil

November 14, 2021

As I began to compile artists, who I thought best reflected my column concept of “The Changing Face of Jazz,” I was struck by how many young jazz artists of the twenty-first century are blending genres and pushing the walls of label identification.  I was also puzzled by those who use the label of jazz, but don’t ‘swing,’ don’t shuffle, don’t blossom from the ‘blues’ and seem to think that just being improvisational makes them jazz artists. Some of the music I reviewed was more experimental and less jazz.  From my perspective, jazz has to include rhythm, harmony and improvisation as it’s make-up, along with the musical ability to weave ‘the blues’ into the mix and the history of African American culture. Why, you ask?  Because it is African-Americans who created this unique, original, American art form of jazz.  It is a music that represents freedom, born from the breast of those oppressed. The music included in this column displays the many faces of jazz. Every album sent to me says it should fall into the ‘jazz’ category.  Some I enjoyed and appreciated more than others.  But it clearly gives us a look at where this musical blessing to the world called ‘jazz’ has been, where it is presently rooted and where it may be going.  Fasten your seatbelts.

LADY BLACKBIRD – “BLACK ACID SOUL” –  BMG Records

Lady Blackbird, vocals; Deron Johnson, piano/mellotron/Casio synthesizer; Jon Flaugher, double bass; Jimmy Paxon, drums/percussion; Chris Seefried, elec. guitar/acoustic guitar; Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, trumpet.

There is something hypnotic and magical about the strength and sincerity of Lady Blackbirds voice.  There’s something jazzy!  She draws us into each song with dynamics and emotional connection to her lyrics.  Not everyone can connect through a recording, but Lady Blackbird touches the heart from this disc.  I cannot wait to finally experience her ‘in person.’  She opens with the Nina Simone original composition, “Blackbird.”  Jimmy Paxon drums a rhythm that’s infectious and Jon Flaugher punches incredible rhythm on his double bass, using a bow to pull the beauty to the surface.  Deron Johnson is not only an able accompanist and pianist, he also shows us he is a master improvisor. Track #2 is a song called “It’s Not That Easy” where Lady Blackbird exposes her soulful roots, blending jazz with R&B in a very bluesy way.  After all, ‘the blues’ is one of the stepping stones to jazz.  Her ballad, “Fix It,” was inspired by the Bill Evans work called “Piece Peace” with lyrics by her guitarist, Chris Seefried and co-writer, Marley Monroe (who is actually Lady Blackbird).  This is a ballad that promises her power to ‘fix it’ with husky sincerity.  Sometimes I hear shades of Etta James and other times, a little bit of Nina Simone.  However, this vocalist is confident and tenacious in her own right.  She’s a stylist and a storyteller.  Another outstanding original song on this album, that both her producer/guitarist wrote along with Lady Blackbird is “Five Feet Tall.”  This composition is very jazzy and powerful.  Track #8, “Lost and Looking” is another jazz/blues showstopper.

The woman behind the moniker of Lady Blackbird is Marley Monroe.  She’s been singing since childhood and has bounced around the recording industry, crash-landing record deals that never fully captured her essence or exposed her amazing potential.  She sang in the gospel church as a child.  At age sixteen she was tied up in a record contract that was sitting on the shelf and going nowhere.  Finally, at age eighteen, Lady Blackbird was uncaged and allowed to fly free.  She tried making things work with L.A. Reid’s production company, but she flew into another dead end.  She worked the lucrative background singer circuit.  This led to her meeting a handful of music industry superstars including Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, Sam Watters, Louis Biancaniello, Tricky Stewart and The Heavyweights.  Finally, she ran into artist, writer and producer, Chris Seefried, who was GRAMMY Award nominated for his work with Andra Day’s debut album honed from the Billie Holiday biopic she starred in.  Chris and Lady Blackbird made an instant connection and you feel it in the production of this “Black Acid Soul” album.  Lady Blackbird is the perfect example of the changing face of jazz, with shades of Tina Turner’s tone laced throughout this production.  Her repertoire incorporates several genres of music and her vocal style encompasses the past, present and perhaps the future of jazz and blues.

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SARA SERPA & EMMANUEL IDUMA – “INTIMATE STRANGERS” – Biophilia Records

Sara Serpa, vocals/composer; Emmanuel Iduma, text/spoken word; Matt Mitchell, piano; Qasim Naqvi, modular synth; Onesiphore Nembe, poet reader; Sofia Rei & Aubrey Johnson, voices.

This very unique and creative project was made possible by the support of The NYC Women’s Fund for Media, Music and Theatre; City of New York Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, in association with the New York Foundation for the Arts.  The lyrical value of this project is the work of Nigerian writer, Emmanuel Iduma, with segments of his 2018 published book, “A Stranger’s Pose” that recounts his travels through more than a dozen African cities.  Vocalist, Sara Serpa, has composed all the music and her voice is a clear soprano that caresses each lyric with clarity and beauty.  This work premiered as a multi-media performance at Brooklyn’s National Sawdust in November of 2018, before the pandemic silenced the music world.  Sara utilizes the talents of Sofia Rei, a bandmate from an a cappella quartet and singer, Aubrey Johnson, to create challenging and unusual harmonic vocalese.  Their voices soar and swell between Emmanuel’s spoken word stories and Serpa’s compositions.  Her songwriting is often like melodic nursery rhymes that repeat melody over and over, then attach Iduma’s words, like rhymeless chants. Sara Serpa is a gifted improvisor.

“There were a lot of stories in Emmanuel’s book that really resonated with me.  While recognition dealt with my country’s past relationships with Africa, I felt like his book presents a much-needed perspective of what borders actually mean.  Through his travels and encounters with so many people just trying to cross into Europe, Emmanuel raises all these questions about traveling, migrating and leaving your home behind,” Sara Serpa shared her enthusiasm for this project and her choice of working with the award-winning journalist, Emmanuel Iduma.

 “My collaborative performance with Sara brought me closer to understanding how words worked in a pre-literate time, when writing was yet to be invented – when stories were passed from mouth to mouth; from memory to memory.  Sara’s composition distills “A Stranger’s Pose” to its essential groove and vital ballad,” Emmanuel writes in the liner notes.

This album of music unfolds like a Saharan dust storm in Northern Nigeria.  The music swirls around my ears from the lips of Serpa.  At the same time, Iduma’s stories become wind, whipping the music and his metaphors around my consciousness.  This is a different form of jazz.  Serpa’s wordless melodies fly around me like hot grains of sand. They sting and slap me awake, like Emmanuel’s provoking stories.

Sara Serpa, a native of Lisbon, Portugal, prides herself in being an improviser who implements unique instrumental arrangements to showcase her vocal prowess.  She is recognized and heralded for her distinctive, wordless singing and is known around New York for her experimental music since arriving in NYC around 2008.  She has produced and released ten albums as a leader.  Ms. Serpa was voted #1 Vocalist of the Year by the 2020 NPRA Music Jazz Critics Poll and Musician of the Year in 2020 by Portuguese magazine.  She and Emmanuel Iduma take us on an unexpected journey of music and storytelling, sure to provoke moments of deep thought, as we dive, ear-first, into unknown territories.

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CAMERON MIZELL & CHARLIE RAUH – “LOCAL FOLKLORE” – Destiny Records

Cameron Mizell, acoustic & electric guitar; Charlie Rauh, acoustic guitar.

Two composers and respected guitarists sat down one day, like old friends do, and discussed making a record together.   It was during the pandemic and they discussed recording remotely.  The result was a production of ten songs and a duo album called “Local Folklore.”  Charlie Rauh spoke about their organic and musical rapport.

“… I always feel pushed to try new approaches to the instrument as well as songwriting, because his (Cameron’s) creativity is so deeply personal,” Rauh praised making music with Cameron Mizell.

The first two songs on this album are original compositions, one is by Cameron Mizell and the second by Charlie Rauh.  The music is simplistic and country-rich.  It sounds like the soundtrack to a cowboy film. 

Mizell spoke about playing with Rauh saying, “We’ve played together so much over the years that I sometimes believe I can anticipate what he’ll do, only to be surprised by something new, yet still uniquely Charlie.”

Track #3, titled “Old Sardis Road” solidifies their Americana style of music and is co-written by Mizell.  There are no fancy solos here or fingers flying to improvise.  Instead, this is just down-home, folksy, authentic, country-western music that one might hear being played around a campfire or on the front porch of a Southern cabin, much like the one pictured on their album cover. The artwork is painted by Christina Rauh-Fishburne, Charlie’s sister.

Charlie Rauh grew up in Huntsville, Alabama and brings those deep Southern roots to his music.  The blossoming flower fully bloomed in New York City where he fertilized and nourished his art playing everything from pop, rock, folk and R&B to country, electronic music and jazz.  However, on this project you will hear mostly bluegrass and Americana.  I rarely review this type of music for my column; however, I did enjoy these compositions.  They have strong, well-written melodies and are presented with sincerity and simplicity.  Most of these songs could easily be arranged in a jazzy way.

Cameron Mizell is a Brooklyn-based guitarist and composer.  Like Rauh, he’s dipped his talents in a variety of pots, but remains stewed in Americana for this production.  He’s collaborated and produced artists on dozens of recordings from jazz-funk to avant-garde experimentation and even salsa.  Mizell has released eight albums as a bandleader in the past seventeen years.  This recent duet of acoustic guitars and original compositions is relaxing and melodic.  Nobody ‘swings’ or ‘shuffles’ on this recording, although some of the songs could easily have leant themselves to those kinds of arrangements. Since they have labeled their genre ‘jazz,’ I wish these two had offered us a bit more of jazz guitar during this production.   Still, I enjoyed listening to the duo and appreciated their musicianship.

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NICOLE HENRY – “TIME TO LOVE AGAIN” – Banister Records

Nicole Henry, vocals; Pete Wallace, piano/keyboards/organ; Doug Emery, B3 organ; Eric England, acoustic bass; David Chiverton, drums/percussion; Aaron Lebos, guitar; Camilo Velandia, electric guitar;  Dan Warner, acoustic guitar; Richard Bravo & Eduardo Rodriguez, percussion; Tom McCormick, Troy Roberts & John Michalak, tenor saxophone; Teddy Mulet, trumpet/trombone; Jim Hacker, trumpet; Jean Caze, trumpet/flugelhorn; Jorge Dorbal, Jr., trombone; Gregoire Maret, harmonica; Samantha Natalie, Nikki Kidd, Lenora Jaye & Rachel Brown, background vocals.

Nicole Henry grew up in a musical family in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.  Music, acting, dancing and singing inspired her study of cello and ballet.  She graduated from the University of Miami with a degree in Communications and Theatre.  Almost immediately, Nicole landed appearances in national commercials and was also hired to perform voiceovers.  She found her way to the theater stage, receiving praise for her appearance in the musical version of “The Bodyguard” and she will co-star in the upcoming Miami, Florida world premiere of the new musical about the life of Louis Armstrong. 

Ms. Henry opens with the familiar song “Feeling Good.”  She starts with only voice and percussion, which would have been very impressive if she had sung the melody correctly.  It’s acceptable to improvise on a melody in jazz, but generally speaking, the vocalist respects the songwriter the first time down by singing the original melody.  In this case, the melody is absolutely beautiful and deserves to be sung.  Nicole also changes the lyrics.  I’m not sure if she did it because she never learned the lyrics or if she thought it was more personalized saying “You know what I feel” instead of the original lyrics that were written, “You Know how I feel.”  The original lyrics were good enough for Nina Simone to sing and for Michael Buble to record.  So, I think (at least on the opening verse) Ms. Henry could have sung them as written.  That being said, vocally Ms. Henry’s voice is powerful and easy to enjoy.  I can tell she’s having a good time singing and that transmits to her audience.  Track #2 is the familiar pop song, “Midnight at the Oasis” originally recorded by Maria Muldaur.  Nicole puts her own spin on the tune and it’s very pleasing.  Grammy winner, Gregoire Maret, adds spice with his tasty harmonica solo.  The band arrangement turns pop-funk on the James Taylor tune, “your Smiling Face,” and Nicole Henry delivers her own unique stylized version of the song.   Finally, on track #4 she interprets the jazz standard, “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.”  Her musical conductor, David Cook, arranged this one with a funk groove and Pete Wallace excels on piano, while David Chiverton consistently slaps the rhythm in place on his trap drums. There’s a little of Ahmad Jamal’s rhythm, honed from the hit record ‘Poinciana’ and mixed into this arrangement.  It’s very effective and nostalgic.  Nicole shows us she can ‘swing’ atop this smooth jazz production.  Although she is clearly rooted in both R&B and gospel music, Ms. Henry is also a very fine jazz singer and has surrounded herself with top notch musicians who develop her arrangements with finesse and power.  This group is a perfect example of my column’s title, (The Changing Face of Jazz).  Nicole Henry and her band mix genres and styles, under the banner of jazz, in a very cool and contemporary way.  For example, I enjoyed Nicole’s take on the Sade song “Is It a Crime?” featuring Eric England on double bass.  She and the bassist open this arrangement as a duet of acoustic bass and voice.  It’s very effective and by the time the entire band joins in, the two have set up a strong, sexy groove.  I note that she slides away from the original melody again, on the all-important ‘hook’ of the song.  In spite of this deviation, I still find myself enjoying the band’s arrangement and Nicole’s approach to this hit record. 

Nicole Henry definitely has crossover appeal.  Her repertoire is an example of carefully chosen songs, mostly pop tunes, that she and her band reinvent, like their Latin-tinged rhythm track of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s hit song, “Until It’s Time for you to go.”   Nicole Henry applies the same technique of changing the melody when singing “Wild is the Wind.”   Perhaps this vocalist should pursue songwriting so she can come up with her own melodies.  I think she could be a very talented songwriter indeed.  Thank goodness she didn’t rewrite the starting melody of Stevie Wonder’s classic “Overjoyed” composition.   But she does take liberties, once again changing Stevie’s melody, but they are taken after she establishes the universally loved and respected melody at the top of his tune. 

I know I live in a world that celebrates the changing face of jazz, but from a songwriter perspective, I think every artist and musician should respect the beauty of proven hit records and standard jazz songs.  Songwriters create the substance and beauty that singers and artists perform.  They share their gifts openly with the world and by singing or playing their song, straight-down one time, just as the songwriter penned it, an artist celebrates and thanks the songwriter.  This is a lesson sometimes lost in translation on Nicole Henry’s album.

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DAGGERBOARD – “LAST DAYS OF STUDIO A” – Wide Hive Records

Erik Jekabson, trumpet/flugelhorn/arranger/composer; Gregory Howe, B3 organ/synthesizer/ percussion/composer; Mike Hughes, drums; Scott Brown, bass; John Wiitala, bass; Mike Ramos, guitar; Kasey Knudsen, alto & tenor saxophone; Mike Blankenship, Rhodes organ; Roger Glenn, vibraphone.

In October of 2018, a week before the famed Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, California closed, a group of musicians went into Studio A to record.  Three years later, this music has come to fruition by the ‘Daggerboard’ band and historically labeled, “Last Days of Studio A.”  This famed studio was built at a time when sound, not money, was the objective of making great records. 

The group, ‘Daggerboard’ adopted this name because it represents the theoretical center of lateral resistance within a sailboat.  It’s the trailing edge that allows the sailboat to make its way upwind. The title seems to signify strength and determination of movement against natural impediments.

The band opens with a tune called “Journey Down Parker” that features a catchy melody played by Erik Jekabson on trumpet and Kasey Knudsen on saxophone.  Once the tune is introduced by the horn players, it offers a platform for us to meet the other bandmembers.  Roger Glenn steps forward on vibes to solo and is followed by the smooth guitar work of Mike Ramos. He puts a touch of Flaminco music on the arrangement.  Track #2 is titled, “Rabbit Trap” and I expected an up-tempo tune, because of my vision of a swift moving rabbit.  However, this arrangement is a moderate tempo, pensive tune with beautiful horn harmonics.  Daggerboard’s group of musicians knows how to create magical moods and infectious grooves in a very mellow, laid-back kind of way.  Other favorite tunes are “Elyse’s Dance” with its counterpoint arrangement and smooth jazz feel and “Conducting Poppies.”  They close with the tune, “Steak Out,” that employs synthesizers to add effect and drama to their arrangement.  All the songs are original compositions by Jekabson & Howe.

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DARRELL KATZ & ODDSONG – “GALEANTHROPOLOGY” – JCA Recordings

Darrell Katz, composer/arranger/conductor/producer/spoken word; Paula Tatarunis, lyricist/poet; Rebecca Shrimpton, vocals/spoken word/arranger; Rick Stone, alto & tenor saxophones; Lihi Haruvi, alto & soprano saxophones; Phil Scarff, tenor, soprano & sopranino saxophones; Melanie Howell Brooks, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet; Helen Sherrah-Davies & Mimi Rabson, five-string violin; Vessela Stoyanova, marimba/vibraphone; Melanie Howell Brooks, Helen Sherrah-Davies, Rebecca Shrimpton & Vessela Stoyanova, spoken word; Melanie Howell Brooks & Helen Sherrah-Davis, background voices.

More and more I receive jazz recordings that feature spoken word or ‘rap’ incorporated into their arrangements.  Darrell Katz and his Oddsong group are another example of the changing face of jazz.  His Avant-garde music production has woven poetic prose into his “Galeanthropology” album, like polyester and petroleum threads.  Somehow, the final, synthesized product becomes rich with color and texture.  He features the poetry of his late wife, Paula Tatarunis and the vocals of Rebecca Shrimpton, who recites and sings the Tatarunis prose, with the occasional help from other voices.  The poems of Ms. Tatarunis are included in the CD package as part of an insert booklet.  Most of the poems do not rhyme and are sung to the very modern music that Darrell Katz has composed.  The title tune, “Galeanthropology” does have some rhyme in it.  Galeanthropogy is the state of believing one is a cat and this song reiterates that concept.  Darrell Katz actually wrote both words and music to this song. The violins purr and sound very much like felines during this arrangement as Rebecca sings, “Who wouldn’t want to be a cat?”  According to the press release, this song is a Katz tribute to his departed wife. 

Darrell Katz is the director of the Jazz Composers Alliance (JCA), an organization he helped found in 1985.  He’s released ten previous CDs that feature the work of his JCA Orchestra.  In 2015, one of his JCA Orchestra albums, “Wheelworks” was named DownBeat’s best CD.  This current OddSong ensemble debuted in 2016.  Katz has been creating unusual, humorous and Avant-garde work for decades and always includes social consciousness and thought-provoking words and music.

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GABRIEL ZUCKER & THE DELEGATION – “LEFTOVER BEATS FROM THE EDGES OF TIME” – ESP Disk

Gabriel Zucker, piano/composer/producer/vocals/lyrics/electronics; Matteo Liberatore & Tal Yahalom, guitar; Gabriel Globus-Hoenick, Alex Goldberg & Kate Gentile, drums; Bam Rodriguez & Mat Muntz, bass; Artemisz Polonyl & Lorena Del Mar, vocals; Mariel Roberts, cello; Joanna Mattrey, viola; Yuma Uesaka, clarinets; Anna Webber & Eric Trudel, tenor saxophone; Adam O’Farrill & Nolan Tsong, trumpet.

This is a double set CD, 90-minutes in length, that explores mixed mediums, virtuosic Avant-garde music, modern jazz perspectives and chamber music.  Throughout the production, there is a splash of horn harmonics and a ribbon of electronic improvisation, along with vocals that fight for their space against the over-powering tracks. Much respect to both Artemisz Polony & Lorena Del Mar for their vocal talents.  I am stunned when the engineer suddenly cuts everything off but a soprano vocal singing a solid, single, clear note.  It snatches my attention like a car crash. 

This production is divided into Part 1. The Past; Part II: Autumn 2016; Part III: Present; and Part IV: Future.   Gabriel Zucker and his large ensemble, who he calls “The Delegation,” are interpreting Zucker’s ideas, his arrangements and his compositions.  Gabriel Zucker’s piano is front-forward at all times and he is obviously a formidable musician on the 88-keys.  The addition of strings to this project adds classical overtones and chamber music charm.  But for the most part, this is improvised madness, swathed in Avant-garde wrapping paper like an unusual holiday present.  You can’t wait to open it, on the celebratory morning, but when you do, you are both shocked and enchanted by the uniqueness of the gift. 

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DAVE STRYKER with STRING QUARTET – “AS WE ARE” – StrikeZone Records

Dave Stryker, guitar/composer; Julian Shore, piano/composer; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums; Sara Caswell & Monica K. Davis, violins; Benni von Gutzeit, viola; Marika Hughes, cello.

I always look forward to the productions of Dave Stryker, because he is so inventive and always inspired.  On several of his albums he featured “Eight-Track” music from years ago in a very jazzy way.  He has covered ‘straight ahead,’ funk music, R&B tunes, organ combos and rearranged pop hit songs into interesting jazz productions.  Consequently, I was eager to hear what direction his music would take this time.

“It’s my dream project,” Stryker shared in his press package, which made me all the more curious.

This time he has recorded a suite of brand, newly composed originals and used a band of iconic, world-respected musicians including John Patitucci on bass and Brian Blade on drums.  Julian Shore joins in on piano and Stryker adds a string quartet for good measure.  The result is an album of well-written compositions and expert musicianship that flows, ocean wide and just as deep.  The music is melodic and embellished by the string quartet, who open the first piece like a chamber orchestra. This original song is appropriately titled “Overture” and was written by Stryker and Shore, his pianist on this project.  It unwraps this album with a one-minute interlude, then steps aside for a funky, but lovely tune called “Lanes.”  We move from sitting in a chamber concert to feeling like we are racing down some open highway with hair flying in the breeze and tires hot against the asphalt.  Dave Stryker steps up with his guitar and sets the mood aflame, like a hot, autumn afternoon sun.  He is propelled by Blade’s busy drum sticks and staunch rhythms.  Brian Blade is given several bars to show off his drum acrobatics, followed by Julian shore taking a very impressive piano solo.  Track #3 is tinged with the blues and Patitucci plays a significant role in setting the groove with his bass and implanting the mood. This song is titled “River Man” and richly infused with violins, viola and cello beauty.  It was written by Nick Drake and is the only cover-song on this album. 

As the CD progresses, I recognize that this production is like no other I’ve heard from Dave Stryker.  This is a surprise package of various moods and grooves, including a very Brazilian ballad arrangement on Stryker’s “Saudade” composition.  “One Thing at A Time” is my kind of straight-ahead jazz, pumped up by Patitucci and showing-off Stryker’s guitar tenacity during his double time solo.  For the most part, this is a very mellow Dave Stryker album of music.  It celebrates a side of Stryker I haven’t heard before.  I expected more funk and straight-ahead jazz.  This music showcases his composer skills and spotlights the diversity of his talents as a musician, bandleader and producer with a much more laid-back content.

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FELLA CEDERBAUM – “TRUTH AND DESTINY” – MahniVerse Productions

Fella Cederbaum, keyboards/spoken word/producer/poet/composer.

Fella Cederbaum has built an enthusiastic global following, as a poet who appears regularly on New York based WABC radio. With this release, she recites a dozen original poems while playing her original song themes on keyboards in the background.  She has authored three books: “Of Life and Other Such Matters” (Volume one and two) published in 2018 and 2019.  The third book, “That’s Why” is scheduled for a 2022 publication.  Her music is more classical than jazz and has found its way into numerous international film scores.  A multi-talented artist, Ms. Cederbaum is the writer and director of twenty-one short films featuring her alter-egos.  These short films have garnered several awards and been a part of several film festivals.  She took home top honors in her category during the 2021 New York City Independent Film Festival.  Born in post-World War II Germany, she relocated to England and later to Israel, where she earned a degree in psychology.  She also became Deputy Director of the Israel Chamber Orchestra.  After moving to Boston (where she’s now based) Fella Cederbaum earned her graduate degree and is a successful psychotherapist.  If that isn’t enough credits, she also paints and her art has been shown in exhibitions at Boston’s Holocaust Memorial event and at exhibitions in Germany’s Munchner Stadtmuseum.  She designed and created the artwork for her current album cover.  Who said we had to be one dimensional?  Her current project, the album “Truth and Destiny,” is the accumulation of her life experiences and she summarized it simply:

“All questions lead to love, heart, our own compass,” the poet advises.

“From the bottom of my heart, I bow in gratitude to Song Ahm for everything seen and unseen and to my teachers and un-teachers, who pointed the way,” she summarizes.

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JAZZ UNDER ONE SKY

November 1, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil

November 1, 2021

Today, there are so many styles, musicians, vocalists and innovators who represent the jazz idiom.  Like the title of Mark Lewandowski’s latest release, all fall under the expansive blue sky that covers our planet Earth.  Here are some reviews that articulate the beauty and diversity of the jazz world “Under One Sky.”

MARK LEWANDOWSKI – “UNDER ONE SKY” –  Independent Label

Mark Lewandowski, double bass/composer; Addison Frei, piano; Kush Abadey, drums.

On a tune called “Licks,” that is the second track of this bass player’s sophomore album, Mark Lewandowski takes an in-depth solo.  It introduces us to his instrumental skills on his upright bass. Clearly, we are all functioning “Under One Sky,” no matter where we are located. We are living, breathing, loving beneath the immensity of the universe and with earth’s sky hovering above us like a gigantic blue umbrella.  In Mark Lewandowski’s case, the sky covering he references covers London and New York City; two amazing communities of art, energy and music where he spent the most musical time.  The last time Lewandowski performed in the UK was as part of the Wynton Marsalis’ Quartet.  This album, “Under One Sky,” is Mark’s exploration into the places he’s lived (UK and the US) and the intricacies of himself that he uncovered along the way.  “Provavus” is Track #3 on his album and was recently released as a single.  Introduced by the tasty drum licks of Kush Abadey, Lewandowski’s bass line runs through the piece like a moving motor boat.  He is also the anchor for this piece.  Addison Frei is phenomenal on piano and dynamically infused by Lewandowski’s walking, double-time bass energy.  I asked Mark what the word “Provavus” meant.

“Provavus is a made-up word. I saw it as the name of a fossil of a snake (the composition is meant to be snake-like, cyclical and fluid.  The sound of the word just reminded me of the music. Nothing more than that really, it’s an aesthetic,” Mark told me during a text chat.

Track #4 is a tribute to pianist, Paul Bley.  This tune titled, “For Paul Bley” is steeped in the blues.  Pianist, Addison Frei, has his left hand moving with some historic boogie woogie licks as his right hand improvises and dances through the blues changes.  Addison’s two busy hands create a path of excitement.  Mark’s composition, “The Same Moon,” becomes a platform to let Mark Lewandowski sing his story on the double bass.   He takes another elongated solo on his tune “Very Well” that uses the opening ten melodic notes of the Hoagy Carmichael tune, “I Get Along Without You, very well.”  Still, the tune veers off and takes its own rich ride up some fresh composer path with vast and creative improvisations.  This trio music is enhanced by the busy drums of Kush Abadey throughout their exploration of original music. Abadey adds a splash of funk groove on the song, “Islands.” Lewandowski has composed all of the eleven songs and I found his music to be relaxing and beautifully played by this capable trio.

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CHRISTIAN McBRIDE & INSIDE STRAIGHT “LIVE AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD” – Mack Ave Records

Christian McBride, bass/composer; Peter Martin, piano; Carl Allen, drums; Warren Wolf, vibraphone/ composer; Steve Wilson, alto & soprano saxophones/composer.    

This November, of 2021, marks the 64th anniversary of the release of a ‘live’ recording at the Village Vanguard in New York City.  The first recording was made by the great Sonny Rollins.  So, it’s a high point in the career of Christian McBride to join the list of famous jazz cats who have recorded ‘live’ at this renowned jazz venue.  McBride has been dabbling in various musical settings and exploring a variety of genres.  For a while, he took a break from traditional and straight-ahead jazz working with a variety of artists including a duet with celebrated classical bassist, Edgar Meyer and working with Avant-garde composer and violinist, Laurie Anderson.  He’s performed with Sting and Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson of The Roots congregation. 

“When I would talk to a critic about James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Sun Ra, George Clinton or Chaka Khan, critics would always seem surprised.  Christian McBride, young jazz bassist likes funk? … He’s playing electric bass?  … In 1998, I decided that I wanted to get back to my real roots.  In January of that year, I recorded my third album for Verve, ‘A Family Affair’ under the guidance of George Duke.  In 2000, I reunited with my high school brother, (?uestlove) and the great pianist Uri Caine. We recorded ‘The Philadelphia Experiment.’  That same year, I started a new band. …My intention was to have a hybrid band.  It would be a funk, jazz, EDM, avant-garde, electric/acoustic band.  We recorded two albums; ‘Vertical Vision’ for Warner Bros and ‘Live at Tonic’ for Rope a Dope. … I joined Pat Metheny’s trio for a magical seven-year run,” McBride reviewed his time away from traditional jazz.

Somehow, in the middle of all that commercial success, contemporary touring and recording, Christian McBride realized he missed his original jazz roots.  Personally, I’m glad he’s back!

McBride’s ‘Inside Straight’ band opens with a Warren Wolf composition, “Sweet Bread.”  It’s a straight-ahead, post-bop arrangement with a challenging melody that allows plenty of space for the band members to solo and creatively contribute.  Wolf is a young, prodigy, vibraphone player on this album and a new addition to the former bandmates that McBride contracted for this recording.  The others were members of Freddie Hubbard’s group, namely, Carl Allen on drums, Steve Wilson on sax and Eric Reed on piano.  Eric Reed is replaced by Peter Martin for this recording.  Steve Wilson soars into space during his solo saxophone performance on “Sweet Bread” and Peter Martin elevates the energy when he steps forward on piano. Carl Allen is given several bars to insert his trap drum skills, right before the song fades out, enjoying much appreciative applause.  McBride has contributed four songs to the seven offered here.  Track #2 is one of them titled, “Fair Hope Theme.”  At last, we hear the full tone and improvisational talents of McBride on his bass instrument during a happy-go-lucky solo.  Saxophone player, Steve Wilson follows up with his composition, “Ms. Angelou,” that tributes the multi-talented, American treasure of multi-talented Maya Angelou.  It’s a sweet ballad.  I also enjoyed “The Shade of the Cedar Tree” by McBride and their straight-ahead arrangement.  Other favorites were Warren Wolf’s blues-soaked, “Gang Gang” with Asian overtones and McBride’s “Stick & Move” is a great way to close out this album with energy and bebop excitement.  I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation that McBride’s bass had with Carl Allen’s trap drums.  Very creative indeed!

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SKYLER FLOE – “ABSTRACTION” – Outside In Music

Skyler Floe, trumpet/composer; Sean Imboden, tenor saxophone; Greg Ward, alto saxophone; Steve Allee, piano; Nick Tucker, bass; Chris Parker, drums; Samantha Louise, vocals.

This is Skyler Floe’s debut album and it showcases his prowess as a trumpeter and a composer.

The “live” performance video above represents Skyler’s original composition during a recital he presented. I have included this video because he clearly illustrates what we were going through as a people living during a pandemic from 2019 to the present. 

On his album, Skyler’s septet opens with strong horn harmonies that build a platform for Skyler to stand upon.  His trumpet tone is fluid and opens the tune titled, “Terrace” with a string of arpeggio phrases and intense energy. He could have been a bird winging its way past the “Terrace” he references.  Track #2 is called, “Opinionated (Is Putting It Lightly).”  This tune gives the three horns plenty of room to solo, but first they establish an interesting melodic line, introduced by Steve Allee on piano. The bursts of staccato and the brief interludes of space between the melodic horn lines is attention-grabbing.  However, once the horns begin to offer us their unique solos, the repetitive background of piano chords takes away from the arrangement.  Still, Chris Parker’s drums push this piece ahead, like a feather in the wind.  The title tune, “Abstraction” is vocalized by Samantha Louise whose style seems to be tonal slides, with less interest in enunciation of the lyric.  Nick Tucker steps into the spotlight to offer his bass solo perspective followed by Samantha singing along with the horns in a sweet way.  Skyler Floe steps forward afterwards to proffer his own abstract, trumpet view of the situation.  I found the original composition “A Short Climb in Bare Feet” (actually the first of a suite in three parts) to be pensive and quite beautiful. It’s a quartet arrangement, with just the trumpet singing with bass, piano and drums. The second part of this abstract suite of music is titled “Reason’s Last Pitch” and gives Steve Allee an opportunity to solo on piano and introduce the tune and his piano skills.  Using one repetitive note, ding-ding-ding-ding, he brings in the other musicians.  Skyler takes advantage of the space and musical sensibilities by improvising on his horn. I found this suite of music both creative and compelling.  It most exemplified the title of “Abstraction” and explored the conversations between the horn players in the final suite titled, “The Plunge.”  I had been awaiting one composition that presented a groove base.  “Odd Chicago” did just that at first.  Finally, a solid groove for the horns to march upon and the feet to tap, but it did not linger.  Soon the piano solo explored the 88-keys and this tune morphed into a moderate tempo arrangement that pulled open the curtains for the saxophone to dance.  It was an entertaining composition, taking many twists and turns in their exploration of the melody.  “For Real” came screeching out, on the heels of the former tune, slapping us in the face with straight-ahead excitement and an up-tempo presentation.  I welcomed it with open arms.  Chris Parker is dynamic on trap drums. 

Skyler Floe and his ensemble displays the best of themselves on several levels.  During this production, they explore several styles of jazz and various arrangements that interpret Skyler’s composer talents.  They close with Skyler’s trumpet duetting with Parker’s drums.  Next, the piano and the drums duet.  It’s an effective opening for “The Top Floor” tune that features the percussive brilliance of Chris Parker.  We, the listeners, board the elevator and ride along to the penthouse, enjoying Skyler Floe’s creative music.  “Abstraction” is a strong debut album for this budding trumpeter.

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ANGEL ROMAN & MAMBO BLUE – “FESTIVE INTERPLAY” – Independent Label

Angel Roman, bass guitar/arranger/composer/producer; Joel Guzman, piano/synthesizer; Damian A. Garcia, piano/Fender Rhodes; Nicholas Litterski, piano; Jose Aponte & Brannen Temple, drums; Andy Smith, drums/percussion; Samuel Lopez & Carmelo Torres, percussion; John Mills, flute; Pete Rodriguez, trumpet; Justin Vasquez, alto saxophone; Russell Haight, tenor Saxophone; Andre Hayward, trombone.

https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=Angel+Roman+%22Festive+Interplay%22

The multi-talented Angel Roman is a composer, producer, arranger and bass player.  “Festive Interplay” is the fourth album released by Roman and his band, Mambo Blue.  Although the members of Mambo Blue have changed over time, the Latin excitement and warm mixture of jazz, fusion, Brazilian, Puerto Rican and pop music remains the core of this ensemble.  Beginning with “Why Not” that features Andre Hayward’s trombone creativity and Russell Haight’s smooth tenor saxophone, you get a taste of the excitement to come. The hand-slapping percussion licks and bold trap drums push the music forward with power and punch.  I began dancing in my desk chair as I typed this review.  There were various moods that moved this musical arrangement in a variety of directions, sometime double timing; other times settling into a groove that supports the horn solos.  Damian A. Garcia plays Fender Rhodes electric piano on this tune and that brings another character to the piece.  Angel Roman enjoys experimenting with tempos and changing grooves to delve into his Puerto Rican heritage using the Bomba rhythm that is said to be rooted in the island’s African slave history.  “Collective Cha” bursts into my listening room next.  It’s a cha-cha tune and I enjoy the way Angel Roman arranges breaks in his music.  He applies pieces of silence that snatch the attention and act like curtains partings to let the rhythm make a surprise appearance.  “Collective Cha” has a captivating melody and features the flute of John Mills, who becomes the Pied Piper of Mambo Blue’s smooth horn section, subtle but bold in the background.  “Dreaming in Bomba” is another interesting and refreshing arrangement that honors Angel’s Puerto Rican roots.  I am pleasantly entertained by the way Angel Roman blends jazz and Latin music.  He is also a formidable composer. “Never Far” is a mambo ballad that brings a peaceful relief from the preceding energies of Mambo Blue. But in the twinkling of an eye, the band incorporates a fusion feel into the Latin Rhythms on “Not Sure, So Sure” with Damian Garcia shining on his piano solo.

Roman is a native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, although his parents hail from Puerto Rico.  He attended Wisconsin Conservatory of Music and continued his musical pursuits at Berklee College of Music. Angel Roman moved to Florida, where studio work was abundant and he stayed busy working with Grammy-winning and Emmy nominated music producer, Joel Someillan.  Angel also became a first call studio cat, especially for visiting artists from Puerto Rico or South America.  He has spent time living and working in Nashville. There, he was part of a house band for The Tin Roof club with Henry Murphy and the Seahawks.  Currently, this talented bassist is based in Austin, Texas with his primary energy focused on his Mambo Blue Band and his respectable composing skills.

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NICK FINZER – “OUT OF FOCUS” – Outside In Music

Nick Finzer, trombone; Xavier Davis, piano; Jay Anderson, bass; Quincy Davis, drums; Reginald Chapman & Jennifer Wharton, bass trombone.

Nick Finzer’s opening tune is full of counterpoint melodies, using both the bass trombone of Reginald Chapmen, along with Nick’s featured trombone.  The band interprets Kenny Garrett’s composition, “Sing A Song of Song.”  But it’s Track #2 that snatches my attention. “The Star Crossed Lovers,” a Duke Ellington composition, is opened by the very vocal-sounding trombone solo of Finzer.  They say that the trombone instrument is the closest horn sound to the human voice.  This is obviously true of Finzer’s tone and presentation on this Ellington song.  Once again, he makes a counterpoint statement, with horn lines complimenting the main melody in unusual and sometimes arpeggio ways. The band develops this arrangement with a dirge-like, New Orleans, blues-basted production.   Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” is given a fresh face with funk drums and a more ‘smooth jazz’ arrangement.  I appreciate that Finzer is never contemporary and always straight-ahead and traditional with his sound and focus.  The mix of traditional with a rhythm section that is more modern is very nice.  Pianist, Xavier Davis, is given a moment in the spotlight to happily skip across the funk rhythm on the 88-keys.  The drums of Quincy Davis are very slightly reminiscent of Ahmad Jamal’s unforgettable groove on his hit recording of Poinciana.  Jay Anderson is solid on bass and takes a very creative solo.  

“Rather Than sit at home and complain, I decided to see what projects I could dream up that might only take place when you can’t be in the same place as your usual collaborators,” Nick Finzer explained his creative process and the result of living in a quarantine situation.

Nick Finzer opens the song “Laura” with a very intriguing introduction playing solo trombone.  I am impressed with his trombone technique and the creative inuendoes that earmarks Finzer’s style on his instrument.  He entertains us for the complete four-minute cycle of this song and completely holds my attention.  Beautiful!  You will also enjoy Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” and his composition, “Single Petal of a Rose.”  Finzer also reminds us of the great J.J. Johnson’s historic contribution with his tune, “Judy” and delves into the more modern composer, Pat Metheny’s music to interpret “Bright Size Life.”  This album, “Out of Focus” puts Nick’s composer pen aside and instead, explores compositions by some of the musicians and composers who have inspired him through the years.  The result is an album rich in substance and clearly focusing on the artistry of Nick Finzer and his outstanding trombone beauty.

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MICHAEL FEINBERG – “HARD TIMES” – Fresh Sound New Talent

Michael Feinberg, bass/electric bass/composer; Jeff Tain Watts, drums; Orrin Evans, piano; Leo Genovese, keyboards/synthesizers/organ/piano; Gabriel Globus-Hoenich, percussion; Godwin Louis, alto saxophone; Billy Buss & Randy Brecker, trumpet; Noah Preminger, tenor saxophone.

The opening tune of this artistic work is smooth, melodic, but a little too repetitious for my taste.  It was composed by Michael Feinberg and is titled “Introduction.”  However, the second track on Feinberg’s album, composed by Miles Davis in 1958, that one gets my attention!  On “Nardis” the harmonics are creative and clever with Feinberg establishing the groove on his bass.  The minor mode arrangement sets the stage for trumpeter Billy Buss to step forward and solo.  Feinberg races his bass line beneath, playing double time during the solo and planting a rich, bright ribbon of sound for Buss to dance upon.  The trap drums of Jeff Tain Watts are beacons of flash that beam and push the groove forward into the spotlight.

“Growing up in Atlanta, the jazz musicians were also the backing bands of many Hip Hop and R&B stars.  So, the music of the city has a different kind of groove to it.  I tried to bring those memories of playing with Gunn (my first bandleader, Russell Gunn) … to this track,” Feinberg explained his inspired arrangement.

Feinberg’s tune, “The Husafell Stone” becomes one of my favorites on this production. It’s Track #3 and the conversation between pianist Orrin Evans and Feinberg on bass open this tune up with straight-ahead energy and traditional jazz excitement.  The Billy Buss trumpet solo is once again spectacular and Jeff Tain Watts rolls across the trap drums like a locomotive engine at full speed.  Another favorite is the Latin flavored “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit” that offers mellow horn lines and energetic, thick percussion implementation by Gabriel Globus-Hoenich.  This is a McCoy Tyner tune, as is Track #5, “Three Flowers.”  Michael Feinberg mixes up his repertoire in an excellent and entertaining way.  He leaves lots of room for his adventurous musicians to show their skills, while he and Jeff Tain Watts are the nut and bolt of this rhythm section.   On “Three Flowers,” during this waltz Feinberg steps into the spotlight on his bass and is quite impressive, playing beneath the dynamic piano solo by Leo Genovese.  Feinberg’s artistry shines creatively and melodically, while still keeping the rhythm intact.  The Genovese piano solo is spellbinding.

The title, “Hard Times” refers to the pandemic and the challenge to Feinberg and so many musicians forced into seclusion and without work.  According to the Feinberg press release, “Hard Times” offers room to wail, room to contemplate and, at its core, room to stretch.  You will be incredibly entertained by this amazing band of jazz musicians sporting their independent skills on each instrument, along with bandleader and bassist Michael Feinberg splendidly leading the brigade.

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SYLVIE COURVOISIER & MARY HALVORSON – “SEARCHING FOR THE DISAPPEARED HOUR” – Pyroclastic Records

Sylvie Courvoisier, piano/composer; Mary Halvorson, guitar/composer.

Guitarist, Mary Halvorson, has composed tracks 1, 3, 6, 9 and 11.  Pianist, Sylvie Courvoisier, is the composer of tracks 2, 5, 7 and 10.  Together, they co-wrote tracks 4, 8 and 12.  Combined, this duo presents an hour’s worth of kaleidoscope, Avant-garde music. The music tracks flow into each other, sweet honey from the hive, dripping notes and melodies sticky across our ears. On track one, written by Halvorson, Sylvie’s fingers arpeggio across the piano keys, like hungry bees flying home.  The music swarms and grows; circles and buzzes.  Halvorson sprinkles guitar licks throughout that both compliment and challenge Sylvie.  So, develops Mary Halvorson’s opening song, “Golden Proportion.”

“I think this album is much more developed.  When I wrote pieces for Mary, I really thought about all the possibilities of the guitar.  Her music has pretty tonalities, great melodies and a very clear sense of harmony and melody, so I love to darken it,” pianist Sylvie Courvoisier explained her premise for this album.

“We both have an affinity towards darkening things,” Halvorson agrees, “which is great, because you can start with a joyous melody and there’s all kinds of room to mess with it,” the guitarist concludes.

You hear both the joy and the darkness on Track #2, composed by Courvoisier and titled, “Lulu’s Second Theorem.”  It’s a tribute to her cat.  Another tune mirrors a chaotic impression of congress, titled “Faceless Smears.”  Courvoisier says it was written on the most dramatic day of those Congressional hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brent Kavanaugh, before he was confirmed and when he was accused of sexual misbehavior.  “Moonbow” is a beautiful composition and the keyboard sounds like ice chips falling on hard surfaces.  Both women bring their own unique voices to the studio, blending like warm bread and melted butter.  They each explore the texture of the other and merge into every wrinkle and crevice of these musical arrangements, uninhibited and exploratory.  This is modern, contemporary improvisation by piano and guitar.  Together they create an unforgettable and unpredictable blend of duo talent.  If you think guitar and piano don’t work well together, you may find yourself amazed by the way Halvorson and Courvoisier complement each other.

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BRIAN LYNCH – “BUSSTOP SERENADE – SONGBOOK VOL. 1.” – Holistic MusicWorks

Brian Lynch, trumpet/flugelhorn/composer; Jim Snidero, alto saxophone; Orrin Evans, piano; Boris Kozlov, bass; Donald Edwards, drums.

This is an exciting, double CD set that features the original compositions of trumpeter and composer, Brian Lynch.  The first CD is called “The Express Route” and the second CD is titled, “The Alternate Route.” Both productions together total seventeen tunes that are smoking hot with fiery arrangements and excellent musicianship.  For some unknown reason I played CD2: “the Alternate Route” first.  It opens with “On the Dot” (take one) and flies onto the scene with humming bird wings.  This up-tempo arrangement gives drummer Donald Edwards an opportunity to mark his place in the band with powerful trap drums that not only solidify the rhythm section, but also solo with their own strength and singular talent.   What I noted about these two CDs is that these musicians pressed up both ‘takes’ of the tunes they recorded.  I’ve not seen that done before.  When you go into the studio, you often record the same song more than once, seeking the perfect performance.  In this case, Brian Lynch decided to keep both take one and take two.  So, I played “On the Dot” from CD 1 and compared it to CD 2.  They were both exciting arrangements and quite similar.  However, on CD 1 the fluidity of improvisation by both Jim Snidero on alto saxophone and Brian Lynch on trumpet seemed a hair more creative than on their take 2 version. Notice, I said ‘a hair’.  Also, Orrin Evans on piano did some creative comping the second time around, adding short phrases to compliment what the horns were singing and also during the trading of fours.  Of course, this ‘trading fours’ is a time to showcase the drummer.  But his merry men did not disappoint as the other band members displayed their individual talents in brief but very creative solo spots.  The group ends this song with a bright, staccato exclamation point at the end of their final musical phrase.  “On the Dot” was right on point.  Both versions were stellar.  In fact, both CD 1 and CD 2 present the listener with just plain high energy excitement.  These are excellent recordings of Brian’s original compositions.  They all sound as if they could be standard jazz tunes.  I see why the trumpeter kept both takes.  Lynch describes the incentive to begin recording his songbooks in his press package.

“I’m quite attached to all the tunes that I’ve written over the years and have often felt that they would benefit from a little attention in the form of new versions that would introduce them to contemporary listeners, who may not be familiar with my earlier work.  Also, I seem to have become quite stubborn in recent years about invoking artistic self-determination for myself at every opportunity. … Accordingly, I have embarked on a quest to re-record them for my own label, “Holistic MusicWorks.”   … I will be releasing a series of songbook albums,” Brian explains in his press package.

As a Grammy-nominated trumpeter and prolific composer, I expect Bryan Lynch’s music to be well-received, celebrated and enjoyed by any lover of jazz.  Both his talent and compositions are memorable.

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RETIREMENT, ROYALTY AND JAZZ LEGACIES

October 22, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil

October 22, 2021

TONY BENNETT & LADY GAGA – “CHEEK TO CHEEK” – Streamline Records

Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga, vocals; Tom Ranier & Mike Renzi, piano; Alex Smith, piano/arranger; Paul Francis & Harold Jones, drums; Scott Richie & Marshall Wood, bass; Steve Kroon, percussion; Gray Sargent, guitar; Joe Lovano, tenor saxophone; Paul Horn, flute; Steve Kortyka, saxophone/arranger; Brian Newman & George Rabbai, trumpet; Orchestra conductor: Jorge Calandrelli, Marion Evans; Vocal & Rhythm Arrangements: Lee Musiker. Orchestra Members: Susan Jolles, harp; Pamela Sklar & Katherine Fink flutes; Diane Lesser, oboe/English horn; Pavel Vinnitsky, clarinet; Bob Carlisle, Nancy Billman, Theo Primis & Stewart Rose, French horn. VIOLINS: Elena Barere, Jorge Avila, Laura Bald, Sean Carney, Barbara Danilow, Sanguen Han, Karen Karlsrud, Yoon Kwon, Ann Leathers, Nancy McAlhaney, Laura McGinnis, Kristina Musser Gitterman, Alex Sharpe, Catherine Sim, Sebu Serinian, Lisa Tipton, Una Tone, Uri Vodovoz, Xiao-Dong Wang, Nancy Wu, Eric Wyrick & Robert Zubrycki. VIOLAS: Vincent Lionti, Sarah Adams, Katherine Anderson, Kimberly Foster Wallace, Todd Low, Martha Mooke, Alissa Smith, Celli Richard Locker, Diane Barere, Stephanie Cummins, Jeanie LBlanc, Saetunn Thorsteinsdottir & Ellen Westermann. BRASS: Lou Marini & Lawrence Feldman, alto saxophone; Dave Mann & Andy Snitzer, tenor sax; Ron Janelli, baritone saxophone. TRUMPETS: Tony Kadleck, Bob Millikan, John Owens & Bud Burridge. Mike Davis, Larry Farrell & Keith O’Quinn, tenor trombone; George Flynn, bass trombone.

It is with great feelings of expectancy and melancholy that I unwrap Tony Bennett’s final album release, featuring pop star, Lady Gaga.  I’m melancholy because this marks the retirement of one of our great jazz legends after eighty-plus years in the music business.  Tony’s been a working vocalist since the age of thirteen, when he tackled the job of ‘singing waiter’ at Italian restaurants in his Queen’s neighborhood.  Now, pairing with gold-record winning, contemporary singer, Lady Gaga, the two present a spellbinding album that covers tunes we know and love.  Opening with the Cole Porter smash, “Anything Goes,” with Tom Ranier on piano, these two super stars set the pace for what is to follow.  Their energy is contagious as they start with lyrics from verse two of this swinging tune. Creatively, some of the song lyrics have been changed to make them more contemporary.  Sweet!  The vocal arrangements are stellar and there’s a wonderful tenor saxophone solo by the great Joe Lovano.

Throughout this production, the tight, vocal harmonies that Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett share are both challenging and beautiful, with a nod to vocal arranger, Lee Musiker.  Marion Evans has arranged the title tune, “Cheek to Cheek.”  Lady Gaga opens it Legato and then it swings when Tony enters.  Jorge Calandrelli arranged and conducted the orchestra and Marion Evans arranged the brass. The result is spell-binding.  Gaga and Bennett’s interaction feels natural and clearly, they are comfortable with each other.  The two vocalists are as spicy as salt and pepper. Every song is deliciously arranged.  For example, their up-tempo arrangement on “Firefly” is quite exciting and really ‘swings.’ 

Lady Gaga holds her own during this historic production.  What an honor to work with Tony Bennett at this pivotal point in her career.  She could easily transition her pop talents into the jazz mainstream.   It is a challenging task and I mean this to be an admirable compliment.  Not many can transform a pop career into the challenge of singing jazz and Gaga’s vocals resurrect shades of Judy Garland.  

The love and respect between these two super-stars are palpable. You hear it in their unique harmonic blends and you feel it in their emotional deliveries.  Gaga performs Billy Strayhorn’s composition, “Lush Life” on her own.  She does not disappoint. Tony sings “Sophisticated Lady” to his young, jazz protégé and it touches my heart.  With the lovely accompaniment of Mike Renzi on piano, I can hear the whisper of 95 years gently brushing Bennett’s vocal palate. Even though the tones are somewhat muted and no longer crystal-clear, still his vocal artistry is emotional, honest and beautiful. 

Bennett is a master vocalist who has sixty-one studio albums, eleven ‘live’ recordings, thirty-three compilation albums, three video albums and eighty-three single releases to his legendary credit.  Tony teaches us the value of meaning every word you sing and living every moment in the present and to the fullest.  This is a collector’s album that, like Tony Bennett’s voice and legacy, will never grow old.

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OSCAR PETERSON – “A TIME FOR LOVE; LIVE IN HELSINKI, 1987” – Two Lions/Mack Ave Records

Oscar Peterson, piano/composer; Joe Pass, guitar; Dave young, bass; Martin Drew, drums.

It was amazing to receive this historic, 1987 “live” recording by Oscar Peterson’s Quartet.  It’s the result of a recorded concert performed during a long international tour.  Peterson’s remarkable quartet features the iconic Joe Pass on guitar, Dave Young on bass and Martin Drew on drums.  The first set spotlights Peterson’s original compositions exclusively.  They open with “Cool Walk” to much applause and showcasing Martin Drew on drums.  Then, in walks Dave Young who adds his bass magic and Joe Pass whose complimentary guitar licks contribute to the growing rhythm section. More applause radiates from the packed concert hall.  The listener can tell when Oscar Peterson arrives, because the audience goes absolutely wild!  You can hear and feel their excitement. The unfolding “Cool Walk” is just that; a cool walk, steeped in the blues. 

Oscar Peterson and Joe Pass are both historic lions of the jazz industry.  It’s their genius and generosity that set the bar for musical excellence and has inspired so many to learn, pursue and grow jazz music.  When Oscar Peterson begins to improvise, his fingers fly so fast I don’t know how he can hit the keys with such precision.  Peterson has long been one of my favorite pianists to have ever walked the earth.  He and Art Tatum could both make the instrument sound like more than one person was playing it.  “Sushi” is Track #2 and it’s also a scorcher, inflamed with high energy; an energy that gives Joe Pass the opportunity to strut his stuff.  Pass is smooth, quick and melodic with his improvisational abilities.  He’s rhythmic at the same time, never leading us down a groove-less path. His legendary solos challenge and inspire Oscar Peterson.  By the time Peterson enters the scene, there’s nothing he can do but elevate the piece.  Any moment I expect all four of these musicians to start floating into air like helium balloons.  They lift my mood and spirit.  The whole first set is just non-stop and imaginative jazz energy.  Then, we are wow’d by “A Salute to Bach” where Oscar Peterson lays out an enchanting, three-part journey of jazz integrity.  His presentation is mixed with his early classical training skills and his love of Sebastian Bach’s music.  It’s a stunning twenty-minute-long presentation that simply takes my breath away.

The second set features the Peterson Quartet exploring songbook classics we know and love.  This is a two CD set and on CD 2 you will enjoy jazz standards like “How High the Moon,” “Waltz for Debby,” a Duke Ellington medley of songs and the album’s title tune, “A Time for Love.”  Every jazz lover and jazz collector should want this time capsule of musical history in their library.

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MARK ZALESKI BAND – “OUR TIME: REIMAGINING DAVE BRUBECK” – Origin Records

Mark Zaleski, alto & soprano saxophone; Glenn Zaleski, piano; Mark Cocheo, guitar; Danny Weller, upright/electric bass; Oscar Suchanek, drums; Michael Mayo, vocals; Jon Bean, tenor saxophone.

Boston-based bandleader, Mark Zaleski credits Dave Brubeck and his wife, Lola Brubeck, for helping him become the musician he is today.  The Brubeck couple were married seventy years, until Dave’s death in 2012.  Zaleski is one of the early graduates of the prestigious Dave Brubeck Institute in California.  Dave Brubeck composed wonderful music and Mark Zaleski and his band have chosen seven of Brubeck’s songs to celebrate.  He opens with the very famous, “Blue Rondo a la Turk” from his celebrated “Time Out” album.  Dave was inspired, during a 1958 Department of State tour, by Eurasian music he heard and that when he began composing music out of the normal, acceptable time signatures.  The music on this album included tunes written in 9/8 time and 5/4 time (“Take Five”).  The record company was slow to release such an experimental concept and were shocked, when they finally did release it and the album became a Platinum-selling success.  At that time, our own Eugene Wright (who we in the Southern California community fondly called, ‘The Senator’) was Brubeck’s bassist of choice.  Mark Zaleski’s Band offers us an evocative arrangement, very reminiscent of the original, but with a more contemporary flare.   Glenn Zaleski does a formidable job on piano and Jon Bean, on his tenor saxophone, harmonizes comfortably with Mark’s saxophone at the forward part of the tune.  However, once the composition expands, so do the innovative horn solos and the freedom of the group teeters on the Avant-garde.  It’s a very creative and exploratory arrangement. 

On Track #2 they rejuvenate “The Duke,” a song I believe to be celebrating Duke Ellington, was written in 1955 and performed by Brubeck’s Quartet at Basin Street in New York with Paul Desmond on alto saxophone, Bob Bates on bass and Joe Dodge on the drums.  Columbia Records recorded that ‘live’ appearance.  Zaleski’s band also reminds us of the Brubeck compositions, “Softly, William, Softly,” (a pretty ballad) and “Unsquare Dance” a full-of-fun, swing number. Michael Mayo’s smooth vocals sing the composition, “They Say I Look Like God.”  It’s a powerful piece written by Dave & Lola Brubeck.  Lola was a strong lyricist and it was originally written for Louis Armstrong to sing.  It’s one of the songs honed from Brubeck’s stage musical, “The Real Ambassadors.” That original, soundtrack album, that featured Louis Armstrong, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, along with Carmen McRae, was a musical performed at the 1962 Monterey Jazz Festival.   It was supposed to show the world that America’s racism was a thing of the past.  Unfortunately, almost sixty years later, we continue to fight for equal rights and a land where everyone can feel acceptable and equally free.  Zaleski’s band also plays a poignant rendition of “The Golden Horn” and ends with Brubeck’s “Fujiyama” composition.

You will enjoy every one of these milestone original Brubeck songs, re-arranged in a lovely way by the Mark Zaleski Band.  This production is both pleasing to the ear and tributes a jazz legacy.  Mark Zaleski’s band supports the historic beauty of Brubeck, the man and his music.  

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WYCLIFFE GORDON, NICHOLAS PAYTON, JACKIE HARRIS & COMMON – “BLACK AND BLUE” (A single release from “A GIFT TO POPS” CD) –  Verve Records

Louis Armstrong, vocals/trumpet; Russell “Big Chief” Moore, trombone; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone/vocals/co-producer; Nicholas Payton, trumpet/co-producer/vocals; Ashland Parker & Wynton Marsalis, trumpet; Herlin Riley, drums/vocals/arranger; Danny Barcelona, drums; Roderick Paulin, tenor saxophone/clarinet; Bill Kyle & Courtney Bryan, piano; Davell Crawford, piano/clavichord/vocals/B3 organ; Reginald Veal & Arvell Shaw, bass; Derwin “Big D” Perkins, guitar; Eddie Shu, clarinet; Don Vappie, banjo; Menia Chester, background vocals; Common, spoken work.

A group of top name artists have combined talents to celebrate the legacy of Louis Armstrong, who passed away in 1971 at the age of sixty-nine.  These popular musicians, poet and producers have united their geniuses to produce THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG ALL-STARS.  These young, energetic talents have pulled from five decades of Louie Armstrong music to re-invent tunes like “The Peanut Vendor” (recorded in 1930) to the most successful song Louie Armstrong gifted to humanity, “What a Wonderful World.”

Nicholas Payton has arranged seven of the compositions on this album, “A GIFT TO POPS” adding his brilliant trumpet to the mix.  He has taken a more contemporary approach to arranging Louie’s music.  The recently released single from this album is the Fats Waller song, “Black and Blue,” a very strong protest song back in 1929 with lyrics by Harry Brooks and Andy Razaf.  The song was originally part of a Broadway musical called “Hot Chocolates” by Edith Wilson and is still relevant today.   Poet and rapper, Common, adds his spoken-word take on the tune and trombone master, Wycliffe Gordon commented:

“Common added a different spin to the tune.  It seemed like things we had talked about as a country had changed, but they didn’t, which is why this is important,” Gordon expounded.

The project emanated in 2018 by the LOUIS ARMSTRONG EDUCATIONAL FOUNDATION (LAEF) through the recommendation of Jackie Harris, Executive Director of LAEF.  It is meant to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the New York organization founded by Louie Armstrong and his wife Lucille.  This recording is a team effort started by the Foundation and completed by a slew of excellent musicians and creative artists, who each put their own signatures on the songs.  Because of the pandemic and other factors, the 50th anniversary is a little late, but it has finally come to fruition.

You will find the entire album offers some old standards with fresh, brightly painted faces, like “St. Louis Blues” sung very well and emotionally by Herlin Riley.  What a fantastic groove and a very modern arrangement that features some creative drumming and a very bluesy solo by Davell Crawford on piano. There are splashes of genius by Nicholas Payton on trumpet, Roderick Paulin on saxophone and Wycliffe Gordon on trombone.  A special thanks to all who participated in singing, playing and speaking the legacy of Louis Armstrong.

The “Black and Blue” single from the Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong All-Stars became available October 15, 2021.

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PAUL JOST  – “WHILE WE WERE GONE” – Paul Jost Music

Paul Jost, vocal/harmonica; Jim Ridl, piano; Dean Johnson, Lorin Cohen & Martin Wind, bass; Tim Horner, drums.

The first thing I heard from Paul Jost’s performance was his extraordinary ability to connect with me on an emotional level.  It wasn’t that he had a smooth, silky jazz voice like Bennett or an exciting, energy-driven performance like Gregory Porter, but similar to those two masters, it was the way Paul Jost transmitted his passion and sincerity through song.  Clearly, Jost has mastered the ability to fly free and to improvise with lyrics and melodic expression.  His technique and excellent creativity profoundly label him a formidable jazz singer.  But Jost has something more.  Some of us in the music business refer to it as the “IT” factor. In addition, this project is politically motivated from the very first medley of songs.  I am totally engaged and intrigued by both the vocals of Paul Jost, his captivating presentation, his poetry and his unique musical arrangements.

“I truly love this country, which is why I open with the melody of ‘Shenandoah’ that ends with a phrase from ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’  I know how lucky I am to be born here and to have the opportunities afforded me.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot of room for improvement,” Paul Jost explains his politicized lyrical arrangement. 

On Track #1, “Shenandoah” he plays harmonica and that’s a striking introduction for the poem he recites over this medley of songs.  

“Lies of convenience that we accept light the way to self-inflicted darkness.  If truth becomes too great a weight to bear, too deafening to hear, too blinding to see, hearts can weaken and be convinced that what’s wrong is right; that kindness is weakness or that tolerance is too steep a price …,” Jost recites in part.

Jim Ridl is absolutely stellar on piano, hallmarking his own abilities to both accompany, to solo with brilliance and to improvise on a theme.  Paul Jost improvises too.  He vocalizes over several familiar tunes, implanting his own unique lyrics and political points of view atop the chord changes.  Jost scats and croons.  His voice dips and dives. He seems to think and perform like a jazz horn.  His is both a compelling and unique vocal.

“I like to present songs in ways that perhaps no one has heard before.  It’s not that I’m just trying to be different, but I have my own perspectives that I try to present truthfully and honestly,” Paul Jost says in his press package.

The first song is like a suite and includes “Lies of Convenience” with Bye Bye Blackbird woven into the arrangement, like a deep, dark ribbon.  This song segues into “Forever” with the inspiration being the horrifying death of George Floyd.  Jost composed “Who Says?” and that tune concludes the medley or suite of songs.  Once again, he inserts the jazz standard, Bye Bye Blackbird, with new lyrics that touch on racial injustice. 

Paul Jost, with his husky vocals, caress these songs like sensitive, work-worn fingers.  Still, there’s a softness and vulnerability that is wrapped up in his baritone beauty.  Shades of Sting’s style shadow the production, along with a tad of Mark Murphy’s inflections.   But Paul Jost is ninety-percent Paul Jost.  His creativity and unique approach to singing jazz, reciting spoken word or sometimes playing harmonica, lend themselves to creating a style all his own.  He also explores his tenor voice without hesitancy, like adding an exclamation mark at the end of a sentence.  Paul is a multi-instrumentalist.  He plays guitar and Jost is an amazing drummer, who has played with Mark Murphy, Billy Eckstine, Ron Carter and Ann Hampton Calloway to list only a few.  

Jost and his talented musicians presents a double set CD of 33 songs, all performed ‘live’ at the Soapbox Gallery in Brooklyn, New York, recorded over a period of five months.  If you are hungry for something deliciously fresh and organic, this is it!  Any forward-thinking, artistic and jazz-loving person will find these recordings inspirational, thought-provoking and musically grand. Thank you, Paul Jost, for sharing your musical genius with us; serving it unadulterated with a huge helping of food-for-thought and lots of pepper and spice. 

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ALBUMS REFLECT THE INTERNATIONAL AND POLITICAL INFLUENCE OF JAZZ

October 11, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil

October 11, 2021

JEREMY MONTEIRO & ALBERTO MARSICO  – “JAZZ-BLUES BROTHERS” – JazzNote Records

Jeremy Monteiro, piano/composer; Alberto Marsico, organ/composer; Eugene Pao, guitar; Shawn Kelley, drums; Miz Dee Logwood, vocals; Shawn Letts, tenor saxophone.

Alberto Marsico opens this album by setting a groove on his B3 organ that reminds me of days gone by, sitting in ‘The Valley’ community of Los Angeles at Jimmy Smith’s Supper club and listening to the great organist and his merry men hypnotize the crowd.  Jeremy Monteiro and Marsico partner on organ and piano to bring us a blues-infused, “Opening Act;” an original composition by Alberto Marsico. This tune was so nice, I had to play it twice! 

This is Jeremy Monteiro’s 46th album release as a bandleader.  He is world-renowned, but also very loved and respected in his native Singapore as one of their foremost jazz musicians.  Jeremy has teamed up with one of the most celebrated B3 players in all of Europe, Alberto Marsico.  They met several years ago when the organist was performing in Singapore.  As it happened, Marsico called Jeremy for help when he could not locate a Hammond B3 organ in Jeremy’s Asian city.  That call led to a long-lasting friendship and of course, Jeremy helped Alberto find an organ to play.

On the opening tune, Shawn Letts (originally from Oklahoma) adds a tenor saxophone solo that dips, dives and swings.  Next, we are introduced to the guitar skills of Eugene Pao, a Hong Kong native who has worked with a number of names you may recognize including Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner.  The drums of Shawn Kelley hold the rhythm section in place like super glue.  Shawn is a native of Syracuse, New York who has lived in Southeast Asia for many years and performed locally, as well as with artists like Ernie Watts, James Moody and Eric Marienthal.   Tune Two is an anthem to the Olympics that Jeremy penned.  He was inspired while watching the television broadcast of the Olympics on television during a Los Angeles visit.   This tune actually made its debut on an Ernie Watts album back in 2012 and the video below features Los Angeles native, Christy Smith on bass.

Their guest vocalist, Miz Dee Logwood comes from Northern California and brings the blues.  This band offers the perfect accompaniment for this soul singer and they squeeze out every drop of the blues, spraying it all over the bandstand.  Miz Dee is also featured on the Etta James showstopper titled, “I’d Rather Go Blind” that was recorded ‘live’ at the prestigious Elgar Room in the Royal Albert Hall of London.  Monteiro composed “Mount Olive” in tribute to the Mount Olive Baptist Church he visited in Washington, D.C.   Jeremy was so enraptured by the church music he witnessed, that he composed this tribute.  Their arrangement is richly emersed in traditional gospel music.  Marsico composed “Lou” in tribute to Lou Rawls.  It’s a slow, poignant ballad enhanced by the sax solo of Shawn Letts.  Alberto Marsico is a native of Turin, Italy, who has lived in both Europe and Asia.  He has also spent time and recorded in the San Francisco Bay area.  Jeremy Monteiro became a professional jazz pianist when he was sixteen years old in his native Singapore.  As a mere teenager, he was already leading a house band at a local jazz club.  Jeremy’s a jingle writer, with over five-hundred jingles for major companies to his credit and he has proudly composed the Singapore National song, “One People, One Nation, One Singapore” which has a similarity to “America the Beautiful” in the USA.

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LENA BLOCH & FEATHERY – “ROSE OF LIFTA” – Fresh Sound Records

Lena Bloch, tenor saxophone/composer; Russ Lossing, piano; Billy Mintz, drums; Cameron Brown, bass.

Lena Bloch’s unique Feathery quartet was founded in 2014, with inspiration drawn from jazz, Middle Eastern music, Eastern European musical concepts and 20th – 21st century classical music.  All of Feathery’s music is original and penned by either Lena Bloch or pianist, Russ Lossing.  Their concept is based on collective improvisation and spontaneous invention during their interpretation of these original composition.  The results are beauty, creativity and an imaginative blend of European culture with the American art from of jazz.

Bloch is a Russian-born saxophonist, composer and bandleader who currently resides in New York.  She’s been performing her original music since 1990, traveling to Israel, Europe and throughout the United States.  Her ensemble’s name perhaps best describes the key to her originality and purpose.  She and her quartet offer light, flexible music that floats like a feather, drifting in various directions and flowing freely.  Their music is propelled by an invisible energy that touches our hearts and souls like a cool, Autumn wind.  It ruffles our senses.  Lena Bloch has composed the first two songs, “Promise of Return” and “Mad Mirror.”  The first composition opens with Cameron Brown’s melodic and rhythmic bass line to establish the tune’s melody.  Once the group joins this Middle Eastern, minor mode arrangement, Russ Lossing colors the composition with sparkling piano improvisation.  Billy Mintz holds the piece in place with the snap of unrelenting drums. The piano and horn sing in unison and captivate the attention.  At the other end of the spectrum, “Mad Mirror” is more reflective; no pun intended.  The music is thoughtful and allows Lena Bloch to sing her saxophone song solo, wrapping the tone around us like paper mâché streamers blowing in the breeze. When Russ Lossing adds his piano perspective to the mix, I am captivated by their windswept duet.  This is music that makes me visualize ballerinas and wild birds flying above the stage.  Steeped in classical technique, strong as Israeli tea leaves, the flavor of their artistic work is full of sweetness and surprise.

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NICHOLAS PAYTON, RON CARTER, KARRIEM RIGGINS & GEORGE COLEMAN – “SMOKE SESSIONS” – Smoke Session Records

Nicholas Payton, trumpet/piano/Fender Rhodes; Ron Carter, bass; Karriem Riggins, drums; SPECIAL GUEST: George Coleman, tenor saxophone.

Karriem Riggins opens Track #1 with a funk drum beat for the first eight bars.  Then he’s joined by the bluesy piano of Nicholas Payton and the solid bass beat of Ron Carter.  The party has begun!  

With a deep admiration for Miles Davis and his 1966 album “Four and More,” Nicholas Payton invited two legendary musicians who played with Davis on that very album (Ron Carter and George Coleman) to join him on this project.  Payton has composed all composition except “No Lonely Nights” by Keith Jarrett and “Toys” by Herbie Hancock.  This album opens with “Hangin’ in and Jivin’” that reflects both the Afro-American slang and the Seventies African American, soul culture.  It becomes a platform for Payton to establish his strength on piano, as well as on trumpet.  When the piano disappears, it’s because Nicholas Payton has picked up his horn.  Although, extraordinarily, there are places where Nicholas Payton actually chords on the piano while playing his trumpet.  He, along with Ron Carter’s bass and Karriem’s well-executed drums, become a formidable trio.  

Payton explains that this first composition is an homage to artist/painter, Ernie Barnes, whose work I also admire.  You may remember Mr. Barnes provided the artwork for Marvin Gaye’s famed album, “I Want You.”  The painting was actually called “Sugar Shack” and also appeared on the “Good Times” television show.  “Big George” is the second track and serves as a springboard for the iconic George Coleman to bounce his tenor saxophone upon.  It’s a laid-back groove, very open and inviting, somewhat influenced by the current trend of hip-hop mixed with a taste of soul music.  At the same time, it’s straight-ahead jazz that leans mightily towards bebop roots.  Yes, Payton’s compositions embrace all these concepts with a fluidity that is impressive.  The genres seem to flow and swim into each other, like various breeds of fish mingling in an expansive ocean.  One moment you think Nicholas Payton has composed some contemporary jazz music and then, with a wink, Ron Carter is leading you down a rabbit hole of strong swing.  Carter walks his bass proudly down traditional-sounding interludes, always veering onto a creative and unexpected path.  Carter represents quintessential acoustic bass mastery, perfected over six decades of working on his instrument, his style and playing with the masters.  Nicholas Payton has long admired Ron Carter and he’s been looking forward to recording with the icon for quite some time.  On this album, it has finally happened.   Ron Carter had his own opinions.

“I was quite pleased and had fun playing with him as a piano player as well as a trumpet player.  Listen to him play trumpet.  He’s listening to my response to what he does.  If the trumpet players of today want to try to put him in a place, he should be up there, because he listens to what the bass player contributes to his solo,” Ron Carter praised Nicholas Payton.

The music that Payton has composed is fresh and inspired.  It’s creative and intriguing.  On “Levin’s Lope” he blends Latin music into the arrangement gently, like folding eggs into a rich cake batter.  The result is sweet!   Payton seems fascinated by harmonies and is unafraid to venture off the familiar path into harmonic risk-taking.  Karriem Riggins always adds something unexpected and tasty to his drum licks as he pushes the music forward.  The bass line on this tune is repurposed from another Payton composition titled “Cyborg Swing” and the title of the tune celebrates Ron Carter’s middle name.

“The sound of how I hear bass in an ensemble comes basically from Ron Carter and Ray Brown, so a lot of the music that I write is tailor made for what Ron Does.  I didn’t have to make any alterations to accommodate him, because I write with his sound in mind anyway,” Nicholas Payton explained.

In pursuit of mastering the piano, Payton found inspiration from Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett.  His love of music has expanded and he’s embraced instruments the same way he embraces genres and styles.  Consequently, his piano talents are as impressive as his trumpet skills.  I enjoyed “No Lonely Nights” and the interplay between Carter and Payton, when the ballad turned to a double-time tempo. It was exciting and flush with freedom.  The dirge-like composition dedicated to Danny Barker, a New Orleans music legend, is a two-parter and titled, “Lullaby for a Lamppost.” 

“Danny Barker gave me my first regular gig at this club on Bourbon Street in New Orleans called the Famous Door,” Payton says in his press package.

George Coleman beautifully compliments the “Turn-a-Ron” tune.  “Q for Quincy Jones” is another song that tributes one of our jazz icons and richly swings.  Once again, the camaraderie between Payton and Carter is as sweet and natural as pancakes with syrup. 

Payton’s compositions are brilliantly written and engaging. When he picks up his horn, great joy comes barreling out of the bell.  This is definitely a collector’s album.  The chemistry and communication between the elder and the younger generation of musicians who perform on this project are a testament that jazz lives and will live on.

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SHEDRICK MITCHELL – “WHAT DO YOU SAY?” – Independent Label

Shedrick Mitchell, piano/keyboards/producer/composer; Travis Sayles, additional keyboards; Charles Haynes, drums; Burniss Travis, Thaddaeus Tribbett & David Ginyard, bass; Nir Felder & Sherrod Barnes, guitar; Immanuel Wilkins, saxophone; Pablo Battiste, percussion; Aaron Marcellus, Ayana George & Helen White, vocals; Oswin Benjamin, rap/spoken word; STRING PLAYERS: Andrew Griffin, Susan Mandel, Nicole Neely, Orlando Wells, Lody Jess, Alicia Enstrom & Njioma Grevious; Nicole Neely & Geoffrey Keezer, string arrangements.

This is an album that’s a joy to my ears! Shedrick Mitchell checks all the creative and musical boxes.  Jazz is exploratory and improvisational.  Jazz swings and speaks to the heart.  Jazz stands as a beacon of light for freedom and ever propagating change.  This album is a montage of genres and talent that embraces all of this and more.  The group incorporates bebop and straight-ahead with the same energy and talent they use to explore hip hop culture, R&B and spoken word.  Mitchell wraps strong arms, hands and fingers around every tune this pianist has composed.  He and his musicians produce a ribbon of protest and pride, to encircle their package of love and beauty.  Shedrick Mitchell is obviously one of this generation’s influential and significant musical voices, unafraid to blend soul, R&B, Hip Hop and jazz in this masterwork of originality. 

“It’s hard to put certain music in a box,” Shedrick Mitchell explains in his press package.  “Jazz, to me, is improvisation and whatever that means, but I just love music.  The project connotes jazz and you hear us improvising and taking solos, but for me, this album is about what I embody.  I want this record to be all of who I am.”

Pianist, producer, composer and bandleader, Mitchell definitely has accomplished his goal.  From the melodic tune, “The Truth, The Way, The Light,” that opens with the solid drums of Charles Haynes setting the tone, this song offers a melody that flows like autumn sunshine through my listening-room window.  This Shedrick Mitchell composition is similar to a portrait of a young girl in a mini-dress wearing her grandmother’s pearls.  It’s a perfect balance of smooth jazz and traditional jazz. 

The title tune, “What Do You Say?” is sung by two magnificent voices as a duet between Aaron Marcellus and Ayana George. “Memories” incorporates a choir of vocal harmonies and features Nir Felder on guitar.  “E.A.D.B.” starts out quite contemporary and becomes a platform for Shedrick to spotlight his piano talents.  His fingers race across the keys with style and purpose.  There is no doubt about his jazz sensibilities as Shedrick introduces us to both his technique and his straight-ahead composing skills.  Immanuel Wilkins takes a stunning saxophone solo and hammers the straight-ahead piece into place.  This quickly becomes one of my favorites on this album.  “The Don Medley” song employs strings, voices and gospel music; a layer cake of musical sweetness.  The vocals of Aaron Marcellus touch my very soul.  This beautifully arranged medley shifts from Shedrick’s original music to “On My Own” that Patti LaBelle made so famous and morphs into Stevie Wonder’s hit “Overjoyed.”  The arrangement is painted richly with string parts that elevate the production in lovely ways. 

His song, “Faith,” once again features Aaron on vocals, but also uses strings to grow the music and blossom the flower that is Shedrick Mitchell on piano.   His fingers swiftly execute the notes, precise and fast as humming bird wings.  They draw out the sweet nectar of the song.  Oswin Benjamin’s spoken word is powerful on the song “Black Lives Matter.”  

St. Louis native, Shedrick Mitchell, brings us the best of himself and his accompanying musicians.  Here is a concert of music I played two days in a row with great appreciation. 

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BRASUKA – “A VIDA COM PAIXÃO”– Outside In Music

Rosana Eckert, vocalist/keyboard; Denny Robinson, keyboards/piano; Tom Burchill, acoustic & Electric guitars; Brian Warthen, bass/percussion; Jose Aponte, drums/percussion; Ricardo Bozas, percussion; SPECIAL GUESTS: Drew Zarembe, flute/tenor saxophone; Jeff Robbins, tenor saxophone/flute; Daniel Pardo, flutes/melodica.

“Brasuka” is the name of this band.  They are based in Dallas, Texas and steeped in the joy and beauty of Brazilian music.  The six-member ensemble, along with three special guests, also dabble in splashes of rock, reggae and Latin spiced jazz.  They formed their group ten years ago as an offshoot of a Sergio Mendes tribute where Rosana Eckert and Ricardo Bozas both performed.  Eckert said they discussed forming a band after that musical meeting.

“Four years later, we started writing our own songs.  Oftentimes, we’d write together.  We’d start with a nugget and then explode it,” Rosana Eckert recalls the very beginning of their dream group.

As a collective, there’s no one leader.  The band is comprised of experienced musicians and educators.  Many are participating in other bands, but they came together in rehearsals and to collaborate as composers and arrangers.  Today, they stand, solid as a rock, influenced by music from Sergio Mendes to Ivan Lins.  They are a multi-ethnic organization.  Eckert is Mexican-American.  Bozas was born in Uruguay and Denny Robinson is Cuban.  Tom Burchill and Brian Warthen are American. Drummer, Jose Aponte, is Puerto Rican.

“Samba Jiji” (written by Rosana Eckert) introduces us to a beautiful, lilting Brazilian groove reminiscent of the music of Moacir Santos.  The melody is lovely and the voice of Rosana blends wordlessly with the rhythmic track like rainbows in thunder skies.  The saxophone solo by Jeff Robbins is smooth as butter. 

“This song best represents the band.  It’s based on the Partido Alto rhythm which is a different kind of samba that is modern and funky,” Rosana Eckert explains.

Track #2, “A Vida Com Paizao” (translates to A Life With Passion).  it has a reggae feel.  The synthesizer solo is an outstanding addition to this arrangement along with what sounds like steel drums.  The composition “Road to Hermeto” was written by all band members.  It’s inspired by innovative Brazilian composer, Hermeto Pasqual, who was notorious for his complex melodies.  I enjoyed the flute solo and the modern jazz harmonics used by the vocal chorus.  “Marakandombe” has a smooth jazz flavor and is composed by Eckert & Bozas.  They combine Uruguayan candombe and Brazilian maracatu with a nod to rock music, incorporating Burchill’s scorching guitar solo.  “Reina’s song” showcases the beauty of vocalist/ keyboardist Rosana Ecker’s ability to emotionally connect to a song’s lyrics.  Perhaps that’s because she also composed this song.   “Praia Felix” is joy-filled and happy.  The percussion tap-tap-tapping with movement and energy propels this music.  It’s sung in both Portuguese and English. 

Denny Robinson wrote a song inspired by a fig tree, titled “La Higuera.”  The pianist uses his voice to sing this composition, his vocals dancing on top of the strong percussion. They employ a candombe groove.  Brian Warthen offers a mellow, bass solo.  The arrangement bursts into a sing-along party on “Confundido” reflecting Robinson’s Cuban heritage.  This song stirs it up with Latin fusion and straight-ahead jazz.  Brasuka is an exploratory and talented group to keep our eye on.  I believe they have a bright future.

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JAZZ DADDIES – “MOONTOWER NIGHTS” – Independent Label

Randy Larkin, guitar/composer; Gary Feist & Marty Mitchell, bass; Kenny Felton, drums; Andrew Malay, saxophone; Shane Pitsch, trumpet/flugelhorn.

Randy Larkin is the guitarist and composer for the group “Jazz Daddies” who are based in Austin, Texas.  He has contributed all the original compositions for this entertaining album of music.  The group sometimes performs as a quintet and, at other times, as a quartet.  Either way, they are a tightly knit ball of entertainment that incorporates a taste of the seventy’s music with the more modern jazz of today. 

Kenny Felton, their drummer, is a graduate of Indiana University and also leads his own local band, ‘Gumbo Ya Ya.’  Felton has established a nonprofit music education program for school aged youth in the Austin area.  Saxophone player, Andrew Malay, is a product of North Texas State University and holds a Master’s degree in music. Malay has a warm, honey-sweet tone on his saxophone.  Trumpeter, Shane Pitsch, boasts a PhD in trumpet performance from UT Austin and leads his own band, as well as being a productive member of the “Jazz Daddies” ensemble.  Marty Mitchell is one of two bass players used in the group and he’s self-taught.  You can enjoy his big, bass sound on this group’s premier track, “Voyage to Nepal” where he solos and struts his stuff.  He did attend university and helped pay for his education by playing in a popular college band.  Marty also sings.  Gary Feist is the other bassist and a professional videographer and photographer who owns a company called Yellowdog Films.  His company creates commercials.  Gary is a strong vocalist as well as a bass player with deep roots in the New Orleans music culture. You hear his electric bass style on the tune, “Cool Island Walk.”

Their title tune, “Moontower Nights” sounds as if it’s based on the changes of Wes Montgomery’s “Tequila” tune.  In case you were wondering, a Moontower was a popular way of street-lighting before the construction of Austin’s city lights.  They are currently iconic and protected structures in Austin, Texas.  The most popular one serves as a colorful, annual Christmas tree of lights in Austin’s Ziker Park.

This is an album that mixes jazz with strong R&B grooves.  For example, “Hot Dog” is a Randy Larkin composition that invites the musicians to shout out the title at choreographed spots during the arrangement.  It’s a happy song, lending the spotlight to Andrew Malay on saxophone and the bright, energetic trumpet of Shane Pitsch spices the tune up.  Kenny Felton pumps his drums and infuses the group with dynamism.

This “Jazz Daddies” group blends swing, blues, bebop, Latin and funk music, offering us ten well-played original songs.  “On Call” is a jazz waltz and “Bossa Verde” encourages me to cha-cha-cha across the room as does the tune, “Rico,” with its catchy guitar melody highlighted by Kenny’s solid percussion and splashed with jazzy colors from Andrew Malay’s sax solo.

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AL HAMMERMAN – “JUST A DANCE” –  Independent Label

Al Hammerman, composer/lyricist; Mark Maher, keyboards; Phil Ring, guitar; Zeb Briskovich, bass; Miles Vandiver, drums; R. Scott Bryan, percussion; Jason Swagler, alto saxophone; Ben Reece, tenor & alto saxophone/flute; Andy Tichenor & Garrett Schmidt, trumpets; Cody Henry & Jim Owens, trombone; Abbie Steiling & Emily Rockers Bowman, violins; William Bauer, viola; Andy Hainz, cello; FEATURED VOCALISTS: Erin Bode, Feyza Eren, Arvell Keithley, Brian Owens & Alan Ox; Background vocals: Valencia Branch & Amber Sweet.  

Al Hammerman is a talented songwriter and his first song brings back the golden days of Las Vegas male singers and the “Rat Pack” fame with Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.  I would quickly learn this is a compilation Cd featuring various vocals and song styles.  Alan Ox sings Track 1, “What Else.”  He opens Hammerman’s album with his super smooth vocals.  However, the challenge with this recording is that after Alan Ox opens, the songwriter then incorporates an entirely different vocalist with a different sound and approach.  She delivers his second song, “Everybody Knows.”   The same challenge continues with track #3; a new song, a new vocalist.  I suddenly realize, this album is like a songwriter’s ‘pitch’ tape.  If Hammerman had stuck with the smooth vocals of Alan Ox throughout, he might have produced a stunning album that really showcased both his songwriting talents and the talented male singer.

The composer, Al Hammerman, stands tall in his own bright light.  You may have heard his music in movies like Passengers, Gotti and Kin or on popular television shows like Criminal Minds, The Kominsky Method, Drop Dead Diva and Dynasty. This production offers a dozen of his well-written songs. 

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MICHAEL ECKROTH GROUP – “PLENA” – Truth Revolution Recording Collective

Michael Eckroth, piano/composer; Alex “Apolo” Ayala & Edward Perez, bass; Joel Mateo & Juan Felipe Mayorga, drums; Mauricio Herrera, congas; Peter Brainin, tenor & soprano saxophone/percussion; Carlos Maldonado, percussion; Samuel Torres, congas; John Fedchock, trombone; Brian Lynch, trumpet.

The first thing I did was look up the meaning for the word “Plena.”  The Collins Dictionary described it as: an enclosure containing gas at a higher pressure than the surrounding environmentThe Oxford Dictionary had a very different meaning: a traditional style of singing and dancing showing African influences and characterized by a highly syncopated rhythm and often satirical lyricsWikipedia said it was a music from Puerto Rico That was a result of the mixing of the culturally diverse popular class, where their workplace, neighborhood, and life experiences met to create an expressive, satirical style of music.In the press package it was labeled ‘Latin Jazz.’  Now I was ready to apprise this piece of art and decide which meaning best fit.

A wonderful percussive drive opens the album, with the inclusion of Joel Mateo on drums, Mauricio Herrera on congas, along with a couple of percussion masters.  They definitely present an Afro-rhythm based, Latin flavored production. Like gas under pressure, this group is explosive. 

The piano genius of Michael Eckroth is very technically European classical, brightly mixed with jazz and tinged with Latin cultural roots.  The Eckroth compositions are often modern and contemporary and the group itself is a tight-knit, cohesive band.  For example, on the first cut “And So It Goes” Eckroth leads the band on a merry chase across the black and white keys.  Peter Brainin, on tenor saxophone, plays the jazz card and trumps the arrangement; steals the spotlight. When the drums arrive, they rip open the curtain so we can enjoy the rich, cultural, Latin rhythms. The Alex “Apolo” Ayala bass lines beneath the beauty of this tune are perfectly placed and solid.  The Puerto Rican style of folk music, “Plena” is explored on Track #4 as their title tune.      

“I’m not attempting to recreate folkloric playing styles.  This is carving out an individualistic path, all with respect to the creators of these varied folkloric and jazz forms,” Michael Eckroth assures us.

“Invernadero” is track #5 and exudes energy, giving Edward Perez (on bass) a wide opportunity to solo and it’s a wonderful, musical experience.  Eckroth trades fours with the percussionists, showing off his piano mastery in brief snatches of brilliance.  This up-tempo original composition becomes one of his arrangements I particularly enjoyed.  “Soul Cha” is another favorite, based on afro rhythms and the blues.  It gives Brian Lynch an opportunity to add his spicy trumpet solo to the mix. “Exotic particles” is two minutes and fifty-six seconds of bright melodies played by the horn section and Eckroth’s unique exploration of the piano.  The drums are dominate and splash the tunes with colorful patterns of rhythm.  “Rain Song” is another well-written composition by Michael Eckroth that closes this album out in a thought-provoking way.  This is not only jazz, it’s international music that can make the world smile.

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