CURTIS ROBERTSON JR. CELEBRATES SYREETA WRIGHT AND TRIBUTES MUSIC’S ANCESTRAL TRANSMISSION

June 28, 2019

By Dee Dee McNeil/jazz journalist
June 28, 2019

Knowing Curtis Robertson Jr. for several years, one thing was clear to me right away. Not only is he a talented and technically astute bass player, Curtis Is also a very conscientious man. He always seems to be in search of knowledge, but with a cool, laid-back attitude. His smile can light up an auditorium, like his bass playing. But he also has a thoughtful, contemplative side. For Black Music Month, I enjoyed talking to Curtis Robertson Jr. about his life in the music business and his current project to tribute vocalist/songwriter, Syreeta Wright. In our conversation, he shares transformative steps within his music career and in his life. Curtis believes that musicians proudly wear a garment that reflects common, ancestral threads.

Curtis was born and raised in Hyde Park on the southside of Chicago, Illinois. His father’s parents were part of the migration from the South to a hopeful new future up North. His mother, a preacher’s daughter, came from West Virginia seeking the same. I asked Curtis if he came from a musical family and although no one was a formally trained musician he credited his mom for musical inspiration.

“My mother could sing. She had vocal lessons when she was young, and she sang hymns in church. She also played a little piano. She was born in 1924 and when she was in her twenties and thirties she listened to the standards.” NOTE: some call them the great American songbook.

“My mother was always singing around the house. She sang songs her mother and older sisters taught her from songs of her day and listened to songs played on the radio.

“After a few years of playing guitar, I began learning standard tunes.I’d play the chord changes and voicings I learned from Chicago guitarist and educator, Reggie Boyd and my peer mentor, great guitarist, John Thomas. My mother would be in the kitchen cooking, and I would bring my guitar into the kitchen. She could sing in-tune and she’d sing along. She knew the melodies and all the words. That’s how I learned many a tune.

“My father loved music too and he sure could whistle! He had range, good intonation and tone. He listened to a lot of West Indian and African music. He was raised by West Indians as a youth. We had a good stereo system and my father had quite a record collection. My parents would play Paul Robeson, Mahalia Jackson, Baba Olatunji’s ‘Drums of Passion’ record and opera-sounding records like ‘Oklahoma.’ I heard Harry Belafonte, Odetta, Woody Gutherie and Burl Ives. My parents were social activists in the late fifties and early sixties. They weren’t big blues people, but they had Billie Holiday records and Dave Brubeck; not a lot of jazz. I heard more island music and albums like ‘Porgy and Bess’ at the house.

“I started out playing guitar as a youngster. In my teen years, I was in a band. I was in the eighth grade, so I was thirteen. No one wanted to play the bass. I’ve always been kind of a peace-maker, so I said to my arguing bandmates, I’ll play it. The singer in our band had a bass, so that’s how I started playing that instrument. Early on, I knew music was what I wanted to do. I enjoyed the attention from the girls and we all thought having a band was cool. There was also a good camaraderie between the fellow musicians. Back then we were playing Jimi Hendrix, Cream, B.B. King and Buddy Guy. As I grew, I moved up to adding Coltrane and Miles to my repertoire.

“Lena McLin was a high school choir director at my Hyde Park high school and she really was one of my main influences in Chicago. I was in the high school jazz band and she was doing the choir and also teaching opera. Ms. McLin used to take me aside on her lunch period and tutor me. She used to drill me. She made sure I knew my music theory.

“My other early mentor was Reggie Boyd. He was a genius. You could go over to Reggie’s house and he had transcribed a solo by Coltrane or Paul Chambers. He had a great ear and he would teach us chord changes, technique and theory. Reggie Boyd is responsible for really getting me into my bass.”

NOTE: Reggie Boyd was known as THE teacher for many Chicago guitarists including blues legends Otis Rush, Howlin’ Wolf, James Wheeler, Louis Myers, Willie Johnson, Billy Boy Arnold and Dave Specter, to name just a few. His knowledge of theory and technique was formidable, according to many historians. His only recording was a 45rpm titled “Nothing But Good/ Nothing But Poison.” Reggie Boyd died in October of 2010.

Curtis Robertson Jr. also credits Louis Satterfield (before he was an Earth Wind & Fire member) for teaching him how to play the blues in the early 1970s by listening to him play on BB King’s ‘Live at the Regal’ album.

“I would listen to those bass lines over and over again.”

“Satterfield is the one who played that amazing bass-line on the Fontella Bass hit R&B record, ‘Rescue Me.’

“My mother used to take me to the Regal Theater where I saw B. B. King and James Brown. I started listening to Jack Bruce, Cream’s bass player and Noel Redding, (bass player with Hendrix). I was also listening to Motown music and they had James Jamerson in the Funk Brothers. The older I got, I began listening to Paul Chambers, Sam Jones, Mingus and a lot of Ron Carter on Miles Davis records. I also listened to Wes Montgomery. Of course, I was influenced by Cleveland Eaton, who was playing with Ramsey Lewis. We used to listen to that album over and over again. It was produced by Charles Stephney.”

Note: Maurice White (Earth Wind & Fire founder) and famed arranger, Charles Stephney, produced Ramsey’s “Salongo” album in 1972 incorporating members of Earth Wind & Fire into the production and White produced the 1974 Ramsey Lewis album titled, “Sun Goddess”, experimenting with electronic sounds. Personnel included: Ramsey Lewis (syn, g, p, e-p, string machine, arr) Cleveland Eaton (bass) Maurice Jennings (dr, perc) Richard Evans (Horn & String arr) Byron Gregory (g) Maurice White (voc, dr, perc) Verdine White (bass, voc) Johnny Graham (guitar) Philip Bailey (perc, voc) Don Myrick (ts) Charles Stepney (g, key) Derf Rehlee Raheem (perc, voc)

“Well, some of the richest experiences I’ve had was playing right here in Los Angeles. at the clubs and with some of these local players. I loved so much playing at Marla’s Memory Lane, working with Milton Bland, aka: Monk Higgins. It was wonderful to play with Cal Green and pianist, Billy Mitchell. Billy Mitchell and Reggie Andrews played keyboards in Syreeta’s first band. Reggie Andrews was teaching at Locke High School and he couldn’t go on the road, so the great Lanny Hartley took his place. By meeting Lanny, I met a lot of other cats. Some of those were Washington Rucker, Randy Randolph, Harold Acey and Terry Evans. This is how I met Jake Porter. That was one of the greatest experiences I ever had. I say that because Jake Porter would play different tunes, not just standards. He would play things like, “Alexander’s Rag Time Band” and “Hello Dolly.” He pulled tunes from further back. Jake would count off the tune and give us the key. I would say hey, what is it? I wanted to know the title of the tune. Jake would answer, ‘You’ll hear it, youngster.’ Then he’d hold one finger down for key of F; two fingers down for B flat; three fingers for E flat. It was an on-stage training! Jackie Kelso was playing clarinet and Lanny Hartley would be on piano. Washington Rucker played drums and Terry Evans was on guitar. Coming up playing with those cats was really a great experience for me. Jake worked a lot and kept a lot of cats working. I look at my music experiences as a bridge. Jake was a bridge to a whole other time. I call that ancestral transmission.”

NOTE: Jake Porter was a trumpet and cornet player who cut his musical teeth playing in Lionel Hampton’s big band. After serving in the U.S. Military, he played with such jazz masters as Benny Carter, Fats Waller, Noble Sissle, Fletcher Henderson and Benny Goodman’s band. He was born in Oakland, California, but eventually settled in Los Angeles. Porter died in L.A. at age 76, on March 25, 1993.

As Curtis Robertson Jr.’s career expanded and blossomed, he found that many people opened unexpected doors for the young bass player to walk through.

He met and fell in love with Syreeta Wright in the early seventies, shortly after her divorce from Stevie Wonder. They were soon writing songs together and he became part of her touring band.

“I had worked with Syreeta touring in 1974. But my first big gig was in 1975, when I got the call to work with Gary Bartz. Back in the day, I went to high school with Chaka Khan in Chicago. A lot of the musicians used to hang out at Chaka’s parent’s house. I knew her husband, Hassan Khan. He used to play bass with the Staple Singers and the Five Stairsteps.”

Note: The FIVE STAIRSTEPS recorded a popular song called “Oo – oo Child” that Rolling Stone magazine dubbed one of the 500 Greatest Songs of all time.

“So, when I went over to the house where the band was staying, that’s where I met Nate Morgan. Nate was playing piano with Gary Bartz. Gary hired me, sight unseen, thanks to the recommendation of Nate Morgan and we played our very first gig in Dayton, Ohio at a club called ‘Gillys.’ That was my first gig with Gary Bartz. He had just left Miles Davis, so he was playing that Bitches Brew kind of stuff. That fit right into my background, from playing Hendrix stuff and Motown stuff. But, if he called ‘Impressions’ up-tempo, I could play that too. Afterwards, Gary called and said, we’re getting ready to go to Europe. You wanna go? I said, well hey man, Syreeta is pregnant. She’s getting ready to have a baby. I don’t know. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go on tour with Syreeta, about to have our baby. However, as time went on, we already had a back-up plan with moms and Syreeta’s younger sister, Kim. So, when he offered me the contract, I said to myself, you know what? You’ve got to go on and do this gig. So, we ended up travelling all over Europe.

“Gary Bartz is one of my heroes. We did a lot of gigs. Our first gig together was the George Wein Newport Jazz Festival tour. I got to hang out on the side of the stage with all these famous musicians like Charles Mingus. The band knew how much I admired Charles Mingus and I wanted to go over there and get Mingus to sign my program and just talk to him. Everybody was saying, Naw man – don’t go over there and bother Charlie Mingus. uh-huh – don’t go over there! Especially Bartz and Jackie McClean. Those two were like, don’t go bothering Charlie Mingus. But Mingus was my hero. So, I went walking backstage in Yugoslavia. I walked over to him and said, hey Mr. Mingus, I’m a big fan of yours. All the musicians were just watching the scene from a distance and they acted like he was going to cold-cock me or something. I handed him my program, not sure what his response was going to be. Lo and behold, he signed it for me. He kept mumbling, ‘These god damn Communists. I hate these Communists.’ I just nodded, said, yes sir, took my program and eased on away. When I got over to where the cats were standing, we were all relieved that it went so well.”

Curtis Robertson Jr.’s career changed direction again in 1980 when he was hired to work with groove master, Les McCann. Eddie Harris joined McCann on-tour in 1987 and Curtis worked another three years with both of those master musicians. Listen to Curtis Robertson Jr.’s powerful bass line and solo on the Eddie Harris “Live At the Moonwalker” LP recorded in Switzerland, October, 1989. The tune is titled, “Walking the Walk.” The trio is Eddie Harris on saxophone, paino and vocals, Curtis on bass and Norman Fearrington on drums.


https://www.discogs.com/Eddie-Harris-Live-At-The-Moonwalker/release/4362217

The 1989 Mr. Fuji Jazz Festival in Japan, with a BlueNote Record line-up, features Curtis on stage performing with Les McCann, Stanley Turrentine and Lou Rawls. You can fast forward 48 minutes into the video below to see them rocking the audience on “Stormy Monday Blues.”

“Tony St. James was playing drums and Bobby Bryant Jr. was on tenor and alto saxophone. His dad is Bobby Bryant Sr., the trumpet player and educator. Les called me one day and said, ‘Hey Curtis, this is Les McCann. Come to this audition to be in my band.’ So, I went and two weeks later I was working with his band in Australia. I liked that band because Les kept the band fired up.”

Before touring with Les McCann, Curtis worked with a number of diverse artists. One memorable position was working in Maxine Weldon’s band.

“Maxine Weldon was one of my favorite singers. I worked a lot of gigs with Maxine in the late 1970s and 1980s. I went to Europe with Maxine and worked all over town with her in L.A. I still hear her in my mind. I love the variety of covers she did. She sang that old Ink Spots song, The Gypsy.”

“I also worked with guitarist, Robben Ford. He’s a bad man in a very good way! He used to play with Jimmy Witherspoon, Tom Scott, Miles Davis, Larry Carlton and Joni Mitchell. He was one of the founding members of the Yellowjackets group. Someone heard me play and referred me to his management team. They put my name in the hat to tour with Robben Ford’s group. The bass player, at that time, was Jimmy Haslip. So, at one point, I took Jimmy’s place on tour. I think they liked my blues handle, you know, my being from Chicago and all.”

In 1976 and 1977, Curtis joined a group of all-star jazz players and they called themselves ‘Karma.’ They were signed to A&M’s Horizon records and released two extraordinary albums. One was titled “Celebration” and the other was called, “For Everybody.”

“That was the first label I was signed to as a band. The band was called ‘Karma’ and we made two albums. At that time, George Bohanon was dating Deniece Williams. He was in the group and when he and Niecy came down to the studio, I said to her, why don’t you sing on this song? So, she and Syreeta sang on the Celebration record.”

NOTE; COMPLETE LINE-UP: Reggie Andrews (Heshimu) (Keyboards), George Bohanon (Saeed) (Trombones, Baritone Horn), Ernie Watts (Tenor & Soprano Sax), Oscar Brashear (Chache) (Trumpet), Curtis Robertson, Jr. (Bass), Josef Blocker (Drums, Vocals), Vander “Stars” Lockett (Percussion, Vocals), Syreeta Wright, Deniece Williams (Vocals).

Recorded in 1976; together they had an Earth Wind & Fire sound and energy steeped in electronic funk or soul jazz, and played by some of the top players in the Los Angeles area
.

“So, that was an opportunity to rehearse a lot, you know. It was great to rehearse with that amazing horn section we had. I had time on my hands because I had just finished the tour with Gary Bartz. I got Syreeta on that Gary Bartz record too.”

“Gary put her on two of his records. I played on his CDs “Love Affair” and “It’s My Sanctuary.” I was also on “Ju Ju Man” on the Prestige label in 1976. We played some good tunes on there. Syreeta sang “My Funny Valentine” and it was beautiful. Howard King was on drums, Charles Mims Jr. on piano and me on bass. Pat Britt produced the session.”

From 1990 to 2005, the bass work you hear on all those hit records by Lou Rawls is the mastery of Curtis Robertson Jr. He was a part of the Rawls touring ensemble. Curtis Robertson Jr. also worked with Randy Crawford, (the vocalist who had the big hit record, “Street Life” with The Jazz Crusaders). His stellar bass sound was embraced by Gladys Knight, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, Freddie Hubbard, David T. Walker, Richard Thompson and Steve Hillage. These are just a few of the people he’s worked with over his career. But for many years his energy was directed in songwriting and producing music with Syreeta. Their union produced two albums and two sons. The albums were titled, “One to One” and “SYREETA”, both released on Tamla Records, a Motown subsidiary.

“It was 1976 and I met with Suzanne de Passe at Motown to discuss Syreeta’s upcoming project. I had been singing Charles Stephney’s praises. I let Syreeta hear Minnie Ripperton’s “Come to My Garden” record. We both wanted Charles Stephney to come in and do the arranging. So, Ms. de Passe met with Charles Stephney and it was a go. Unfortunately for us, on May 17, 1976 Charles Stephney died. We wound up doing the record with Leon Ware and David Bromberg. They did a fantastic job. Leon was a genius. He knew how to get the most out of an artist. There’s a song Syreeta and I wrote titled, Rest Yourself” on that album that I really love.”

“The way this current project to tribute Syreeta came about was in 2003, Syreeta came to my studio to continue our musical collaborations. She knew she was ill and asked me to promise to finish the songs we’d record and share them with her fans. Before she passed, she put vocals on four songs we were recording. This single that I released this month titled, “If It Is Love,” is the first part of A Promise Kept. That will be the name of the EP. There are two versions of ‘If It Is Love,’ the single version for radio play, and the extended-play version that features solos by veteran guitarist David T. Walker, Grégoire Maret on harmonica and pianist/organist, Deron Johnson. I have to thank Arthur Walton of Samurai Records, who resurrected this project with his heart, soul and skills when I had all but given up.

“I’ve kept in touch with Charles Mims, the pianist/arranger who I met through Reggie Andrews. I met Reggie through Syreeta. Charles Mims and Patrice were high school sweethearts. Charles did a lot of co-writing with Patrice Rushen, who’s a dynamic pianist/recording artist and arranger herself. Mims is a very prolific writer and arranger too.

“When Syreeta and I decided to do a reunion session, I got Gary Bartz and Charles Mims on it. In fact, we did a song Syreeta and I wrote that Maria Muldaur covered titled, ‘There is a Love.’ I’m almost done with mixing that song. I just have to do a few more little things to it.”

“There’s a bunch of great talents and dear friends on this project. Land Richards plays drums and Munyungo Jackson is on percussion. Harold Barney (aka Jasper Stone) plays Fender Rhodes keyboard. Tracy Wannomae brings in the woodwinds and Rocio Marron did string arrangements for me. I played a little acoustic piano on it and bass. Deron Johnson did most of the piano work, played the Hammond B3 and the mellotron.

“I’m just full of gratitude. I’m grateful that I’m still here and able to make this happen. I’m thankful to the musicians and engineers who nurtured and supported this project and made it possible. It’s been a long time coming, but I’ve learned that everything happens in God’s time. Thank you Syreeta for sharing your beauty, your heart, your love, your belief in me and your profound gift of song. Now we can share it with your friends and fans.”

BLACK MUSIC MONTH AND REMEMBERING THE AMAZING SYREETA WRIGHT

This journalist has always been a huge ‘Syreeta’ fan. Her original album, produced by Stevie Wonder, was one of my favorite collector items. Stevie first discovered the amazing voice of Syreeta Wright and signed her to his production company. I played that album over and over again back in the 1970’s

Born August 3, 1946, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Syreeta was raised by her mother and her grandmother. Her dad was off fighting in the Korean War. She and two sisters were bounced between South Carolina and Detroit until she became high school age. Once settling down in the Motor City, she secured a job as a receptionist for the then, fledgling Motown Record company. The former ballerina and music lover soon became a secretary for producer Mickey Stevenson. Of course, what her real dream was to become a singer/songwriter at the company. She knew she had an outstanding voice and was secure in her songwriting abilities. Once some of the Motown producers heard her lovely voice, she became their ‘go-to’ for studio demo sessions. That’s how she met Stevie Wonder in 1968. A year later, they began dating and writing music together. In 1970, they were married. Their first collaboration was in 1969 and became a hit record on the Spinners group titled, “It’s A Shame.” That was certainly one of my favorite Spinner songs. Then, in 1971, the Wonder/Wright song “If You Really Love Me” soared up the Pop and R&B charts and featured Syreeta’s outstanding vocals singing background behind Stevie Wonder’s lead. It was obvious that her voice was special and one to be reckoned with. It stood out.

I’m a collector of Stevie Wonder’s music and some of my favorite music was written by Syreeta and Stevie on his “Music of My Mind” album and the “Talking Book” master piece. Her debut solo album was exquisite, but didn’t get the company support in promotion and marketing that I thought it should have received. That same year, her marriage to Stevie Wonder ended, but their close friendship continued. Stevie produced her second album titled, “Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta” in 1974.

After her marriage dissolved with Stevie Wonder she met bassist, Curtis Robertson Jr. and they fell in love. She and Curtis recorded a couple of albums together.

Her 1979 hit record with Billy Preston singing “With You I’m Born Again” is probably familiar to a lot of readers and music lovers. It was written and produced for a movie called “Fast Break” and raced up the charts worldwide, becoming #2 on the UK charts and #4 on the United States Billboard chart.

In 1992, she decided to retire from the business of recording and began a new musical challenge performing in the national touring cast of “Jesus Christ Superstar” in the role of Mary Magdalene. Her star-studded cast included the original film stars Ted Neeley and the wonderful actor/vocalist, Carl Anderson. She stayed in that cast until 1995.

Now, after her untimely death in July of 2004, new music is being released to celebrate this great singer/songwriter by producer, songwriter and bassist, Curtis Robertson Jr. Since Syreeta was an activist and was very active in her community, it seems perfect that her music is being released during Black Music Month.
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JAZZMEIA HORN – “LOVE AND LIBERATION” – A BLACK MUSIC MONTH FEATURE

June 26, 2019

JUNE 26, 2019

JAZZMEIA HORN – “LOVE AND LIBERATION” Concord Jazz
Reviewed by Dee Dee McNeil/jazz journalist

Jazzmeia Horn, vocals/composer; Victor Gould,piano & SPECIAL GUEST: Sullivan Fortner, piano; Ben Williams, bass; Jamison Ross, drums/vocals; Stacey Dillard, tenor saxophone; Josh Evans, trumpeter; Chris Dunn, producer.

Jazzmeia Horn has returned to the jazz scene with a dozen songs full of energy, substance, rooted in cultural consciousness and nurtured by her dynamic vocals. As a composer, she has written seven of the twelve songs she’s recorded. Beginning with “Free Your Mind,” I am reminded of 1960 jazz messages of peace and freedom; of Betty Carter and Coltrane; of Lambert, Hendrix and Ross. Those mentioned are all icons and I expect this vocalist will take her place in the sunshine of success as well. Here is a talent to watch and enjoy.

The second cut, “Time” is a short poem, followed by the speedy, bebop tune titled, “Out the Window.” It showcases Jazzmeia’s comfort level with scatting, while showcasing her perfect enunciation and ability to swing as hard as Sarah Vaughan or Mel Tormé. “No More” is a song deeply rooted in the blues, written by Hubert Laws and Jon Hendricks, and proclaiming Horn’s female power and independence. Sullivan Fortner is delightful on piano, putting the ‘B’ in blues and Jazzmeia Horn shows how powerful she is with a full ensemble, or in this case, only a trio. The fade adds gospel background vocals chanting the theme, “No More.” “When I Say” is, once more, a declaration of power and female liberation. It’s a lyric full of ultimatums and declarations, reminding me at times of a Marlena -Shaw-tone when in her heyday she sang, “Let the doorknob hit cha where the dog should of bit cha”.

The lovely ballad, “Legs and Arms” lyrically seems to be written for a man to sing about some crush he has on a brunette beauty. The bridge challenges Horn’s competent vocal range and is very melodic and ear-pleasing. This song features a sensual tenor saxophone solo by Stacey Dillard. At her live, overseas performance, at the Jazz Ahead Trade Fair, Jazzmeia Horn explained what inspired her to write this song. It was a peeping Tom she busted while attending college. She caught him staring (with binoculars), into her window. He was there when she awoke to take a shower each morning. She explained how we can often find something good to come out of a negative experience. So, she composed this song about that very moment and what he may have been thinking.

Criss-crossing from straight-ahead and bebop into the realms of Hip-Hop, she refreshes the Erykah Badu tune, “Green Eyes” with a band that clearly understands and embraces her desire to explore all music through the prism of jazz arrangements. Jazzmeia Horn evokes kaleidoscope colors with her music; a colorful mixture of historic jazz and current genres. She is fearless, covering “Reflections of my Heart,” written by the late icon, George Duke and the great vocalist, Rachelle Ferrell. This is recorded as a duet with her awesome drummer and singer, Jamison Ross. Ross has a stunningly emotional voice that blends perfectly with Horn’s purity of soulful sound. To close this album, Ben Williams struts his stuff on double bass during the standard song, “I Thought About You.” Jazzmeia Horn and Williams are a formidable duo.

According to the liner notes, it was Horn’s jazz-loving, piano-playing grandmother who suggested christening the child with the splendid name of “Jazzmeia.” Born in Dallas, Texas, the little girl with the jazzy name grew up surrounded by the love and musicality of her family. As a toddler, she was already singing her songs and exhibiting her fascination with music. Jazzmeia Horn attended Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, known for launching the careers of great musicians including Roy Hargrove, Norah Jones and Erykah Badu. Later, her education included mentoring by jazz masters like Betty Carter, Bobby McFerrin and Abbey Lincoln. When she relocated to New York City in 2009, in constant search of perfecting her craft, the youthful vocalist enrolled in The New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music Program. She studied and blossomed. After four-years, people started noticing her talent and ability. In 2013, she entered and won a Newark-based contest named for the sassy Ms. Sarah Vaughan, an international jazz competition. I hear a lot of Sarah’s influence in Jazzmeia’s presentation. In 2015, Horn won the Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition. Part of her prize was a contract with Concord which led to her former debut release, “A Social Call.”

“Honestly, I’m way more excited now about ‘Love and Liberation,’ because this is mostly my original music. Don’t get me wrong. I love ‘A Social Call’ and all the acclamations were great … the reviews in Downbeat, The New York Times and London Times. But now, I’m like, you guys don’t really know what’s coming. Boy, do I have something in store for you,” Jazzmeia Horn warns.

If this current album of amazing music and creativity is an example of her warning, I say, bring it on!
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A CD Review for Black Music Month: VIVIAN SESSOMS

June 22, 2019

JUNE 22, 2019

A CD REVIEW FOR BLACK MUSIC MONTH
BY Dee Dee McNeil/Jazz Journalist

VIVIAN SESSOMS – “LIFE II” ropeadope Records

Vivian Sessoms, vocals/producer/arranger; Chris Parks, bass/producer/arranger/electric piano/ programmer/keys; Shedrick Mitchell, piano/organ/arranger; Christian Gates, keys/programming;/ guitar/drum programming; Dave Archer, keys; Sherrod Barnes & Mark Whitefield, guitar; Donald Edwards, Eric Brown & Billy Kilson, drums; Kenyatta Beasley, trumpet; Vincent Gardner, trombone; John Isley, saxophone; Casey Benjamin, saxophones/Fender Rhodes; Adi Yeshaya, string arranger; Charisa the violin diva, strings; Meku Yisreal, conga; Gregoire Maret, harmonica.

Vivian Sessoms is a composer, producer and vocalist. She has made her mark in the music business after years of preparation and practice. As a young talent, at the tender age of nine, Vivian was already doing television and radio voice overs. Her parents saw her artistic potential and she received classical training in voice and piano. Her first major tour was with Ryuichi Sakamoto, a pianist and composer. On the road with this brilliant artist and mentor, along with a band of awesome musicians including Manu Katche, Victor Bailey, and Darryl Jones, this fledgling songbird blossomed and took flight. She even learned to sing in Japanese. Her amazing vocal ability has impressed both in the studio and ‘live,’ such artists as P. Diddy, Michael Jackson, Donna Summer, Sinead O’Connor, Pink, Chaka Khan and Stevie Wonder, to list just a few. You probably have heard her vocals on any number of commercial jingles including Adidas, Afrosheen, Burger King, Calvin Klein, Campbells Soup, Coke, Dark & Lovely, Hersheys, Hyatt, even the IRS.

Listening to her lovely vocals on “The Best Is Yet To Come” I hear shades of Chaka Khan phrasing and a penchant towards Rhythm and Blues grit. She makes the song hers, far from the Frank Sinatra version, reinventing it to a more smooth-jazz production.

There is a Hip-Hop rap interval that follows this song featuring Major TRUTH Green that protests police violence against innocent-until-proven-guilty victims. This is followed by Sessoms’ gospel fused, R&B tune, “I Can’t Breathe.” Sessoms’ vocals soar, powerful and sincere like queen Aretha. Mark Whitfield is prominently featured on guitar and Shedrick Mitchell is effective and notable on organ as the lyrics mirror the heart-wrenching plea from Eric Garner as police choked him to death. It is clear this is a political statement triggered by the continued institutional, racial violence against people of color in America.

“There are so many things happening in the world that I care about and want to see change in, but none so much as halting the killing of black people,” Vivian Sessoms states.

“If They Only Knew” clearly shows this artist’s amazing vocal gift. It’s a beautiful ballad that features the sweet harmonica solo of Gregoire Maret. This song is a fusion jazz arrangement where Sessoms showcases her perfect pitch, awesome range and spectacular ability to deliver a lyric with an abundance of recognizable emotion.

The idea of segueing into Vivian Sessoms songs with musical interludes and hip-hop rap is interesting, but on the whole, distracts from Vivian Sessoms’ talent and delivery. It breaks up the flow of this production. Stevie Wonder’s composition, “As” is painted with an unusual minor-keyed, rhythm arrangement, but Sessoms holds true to the melody with her powerful vocals. This is obviously an experimental project that sounds more like a group effort than a single artist’s project. I definitely don’t see it as a jazz project. However, I admire Vivian Sessoms talent and her artistic desire to bring about change and political protest with her voice and musical choices.

The bass propels this project, thanks to the mastery of Chris Parks, who is also her partner in this production. Additionally, they have collaborated to songwrite and produce for a number of celebrity artists on other projects.

On the composition, “Thing” I hear shades of Esther Satterfield and at times, a throw-back to Minnie Ripperton’s style and grace; not the range, but the phrasing. The echo effects and over-lapping voice-overs on many of the songs can become a distraction. This vocalist doesn’t need effects to enhance her already powerful vocals. I would love to hear Vivian Sessoms featured in a more authentic jazz production, perhaps like the Jean Carn and Doug Carn original project or maybe celebrating Nancy Wilson. However,I recognize this album is a mixture of many musical styles and genres.

Although I rarely review this type of production, because my column is all about jazz, I was still smitten with this artist’s incredible voice and political character. There is no doubt, Vivian Sessoms is a stunning vocalist and a voice to be heard throughout the generations. Consequently, I wanted to feature her talents during Black Music Month.
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Howlett Smith: A Los Angeles Treasure, Educator, Jazz Pianist, Composer & More

June 19, 2019

By Dee Dee McNeil/ Jazz Journalist

JUNE 19, 2019 – Celebrating Black Music Month

I first heard the beautiful voice and amazing piano playing of Howlett Smith in the 1970s. My friend and the original bassist with Thelonious Monk, Mr. Larry Gales, was performing with Howlett at the popular Bob Burns restaurant in Santa Monica, California. So,I dropped in to enjoy the music. They were the regular duo at a piano bar near the front entrance of the crowded venue. If you were lucky, you could grab a seat at the half-circular bar that surrounded their grand piano and hear all your favorite standard jazz tunes and thoroughly enjoy the great American songbook. Howlett Smith,(fondly called “Smitty” by friends and cohorts), could also whistle like a flute, perhaps better than that reed instrument, because he added a little vibrato to the whistle. The customers went crazy for his whistle and so did I.It was stunningly beautiful and quite an attention-getter. Also, at the Bob Burn’s venue, a parade of singers would stroll in late night, after the dinner crowd had gone home. Singers loved to ‘sit-in’ with Howlett, who is quite a sensitive accompanist. If you knew your song and what key you sang it in, that’s all ‘Smitty’ needed to know. If you didn’t know your key, after you hummed a little of it, he’d know exactly what to play. Howlett Smith was one of the regular entertainers at the Bob Burns club for over twenty years and performed there until the doors of the restaurant finally closed permanently.

Watching Howlett Smith interact with the singers and guest musicians, I could tell right away that Howlett was a music educator. Over the years, he has worked with a plethora of vocal students, including running a vocal workshop at the famed ‘World Stage’ in Leimert Park, a mainly African American art community in central Los Angeles. He also served as choir director at his church for many years and was once part of the El Camino College faculty, teaching in the Applied Music Program.

Howlett ‘Smitty’ Smith was born in Phoenix, Arizona and educated at the School for the Blind in Tucson and he attended the University of Arizona. His natural talents as a superb pianist, a composer, and a talented vocalist led him to become involved in radio, television, movies, touring with jazz bands and even Broadway. He was greatly influenced by the great Nat King Cole’s trio.

“My dad was a drummer and my aunt was a vocal and piano teacher,” he told me. “At the age of six-years-old, I moved to Tucson, Arizona and was enrolled in the school for the blind. They eventually recognized my musical talents.

“I came to California for the first time in 1958. My brother invited me to stay with him and I stayed a couple of weeks. I loved California. Soon after, I relocated to Los Angeles. I picked up work on radio for KPFK playing background piano music.”

Howlett was always a composer and very religious. When he came up with the idea of writing a song about a “Little Alter Boy” he had no idea it would become a hit record in the commercial pop market. This song was recorded by a slew of singers including, Vic Dana in 1961. It was released as a single 45rrpm record and rose up the Billboard Hot 100 chart to number forty-five. Even better, in 1962 that song was sung by Dana in a motion picture called, “Don’t Knock the Twist.” Next, in 1965, Andy Williams, recorded Howlett’s ‘Alter Boy’ song on a Christmas album. This was followed by Glenn Campbell re-recording the song in 1968 for his, “That Christmas Feeling” album released on CapitolRecords. A&M Records got in the mix in 1984, when The Carpenters recorded a version of ‘Smitty’s’ song on their “An Old-Fashioned Christmas “album and also released it as the ‘B’ side of their single release of “Do you Hear What I Hear.” The royalties for a songwriter whose song was so extensively covered and popular, including film rights, should have gifted Howlett Smith with healthy residuals. So,imagine my surprise when ‘Smitty’ told me today:

“Little Alter Boy launched my career in the music business. It was taken over by two crooks; Lenny and Benny Weissman. They took my publishing and they never paid me.”

This was the beginning of Howlett Smith’s introduction to how unfair and criminal the music business can be when you are trusting and don’t truly understand how to protect your music and yourself from publishing predators.

NOTE: On June 26, 2019 I received an e-mail from Judy Smith in response to this article. She told me that Howlett gets confused about things since he had a stroke last year. He is collecting royalties for this song currently from Sony and from performance rights organizations. Judy Said, “He did not have representation when the Weissman brothers presented the publishing contract to him many years ago. We eventually had a lawyer renegotiate the contract. He gets more than the original contract but still not as much as he should.”

His next composition to be scooped up and recorded was “Let’s Go Where the Grass is Greener” sung by the late, great, jazz icon, Nancy Wilson. That was in 1964.

Later, it was also recorded by jazz vocalist, Blossom Dearie in 1967. In 1989,Sonya Hedenbratt re-recorded the popular song,followed by Steve & Eydie who covered it in 1990. Karen Francis re-recorded it in 1996, Ava Logan in 2008 and Lori Carsillo in 2014. It was also recorded by jazz bands like Pete Jolly and his trio, Bud Shank, as well as the epic Three Sounds with the Oliver Nelson Orchestra. That goes to show you that a great song will be recorded time and time again and by a variety of artists. Smitty’s melody was as strong as his lyrics.

Howlett Smith’s “Let’s Go Where the Grass is Greener” composition was followed by a hit record on another vocalist, Spanky Wilson, titled, “The Last Day of Summer.”

More recently, it was recorded by a blossoming, young, jazz vocalist named Darynn Dean. She is the granddaughter of iconic drummer Donald Dean, who recorded on the Les McCann and Eddie Harris hit record, “Compared to What?”

Many years ago, I went to a Los Angeles stage play that celebrated the legacy of blues vocalist, Bessie Smith. The star of that one-woman-show was the great Linda Hopkins and it was a show-stopping, standing-ovation performance. The musical conductor for that musical titled, “Me and Bessie,” was the very talented Howlett Smith. That play went on to New York for a long-term run on Broadway.

Speaking of musicals, ‘Smitty’ has written and produced several musicals inclusive of one titled, “The Carpenter” which is a depiction of the life of Jesus Christ. It features a 20-voice harmony Choir and an eclectic mix of musical genres, including gospel, jazz, spiritual and traditional music.

One of the things I love about ‘Smitty’ is his great sense of humor. When he began recording his original music, he always featured some compositions with lyrics that would entertain and tickle your funny bone. For example, one of his songs is titled “Ugly Woman.” Some of the lyrics read:

“I’m one of those guys, who lets his eyes
Go roving now and then; Check out them girls, from toe to curls
I’d love to find myself a ten.
My looks survived, on fours and fives, when I go out for fun.
But last night in desperation I approached a minus-one; and she said, NO!
An ugly woman told me no. Nothing makes you feel as low, as when an ugly woman tells you no.”

Smitty’s albums are numerous and personify his extraordinary talent on the piano. His smooth, emotional vocals touch your heart, and his lyrics make you bust out laughing. He has mad composer talents. Howlett made a vinyl recording with a pair of hands on the piano keys titled, “With These Hands – Recorded ‘live’ at Sterling’s Cocktail Lounge. His next LP reflected his nickname, “Smitty!” Another vinyl album was titled, “Here I Come” and featured Howlett with his trio. In 2001, He recorded an album titled, “Lets Go Where the Grass is Greener.” In 2007, he released “Songs You Can Get Killed for Singing.” One of my favorite recordings by Howlett is with he and bass player, Larry Gales titled, “Here For You.” Another favorite of mine celebrates his unique lyrical ability and sense of humor titled, “Funny Side Up.” As recent as 2016, Franny McCartney released her CD titled “As Is” featuring Howlett Smith on piano.

Recently, the 86-year-old pianist, composer, vocalist, playwright, producer and educator has slowed down his pace. In 2018, because of health challenges, he retired from his seven-year stint teaching vocals at the World Stage. However, he continues to play piano, faithfully attends church services and stands tall as a positive inspiration to us all.
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HAPPY FATHER’S DAY: A CELEBRATION OF MEN IN JAZZ

June 11, 2019

BY Dee Dee McNeil/Jazz Journalist
June 11, 2019

DWIGHT TRIBLE: MOTHERSHIP Gearbox Records

Dwight Trible, vocals; Mark de Clive-Lowe, piano; Mala, harp; Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, viola; Carlos Nino, hand percussion; Derf Reklaw, percussion; Ramses Rodriguez, drums; Kamasi Washington, tenor saxophone; John B. Williams, double bass.

One of the most exciting and extraordinarily original vocalists in jazz today has got to be Dwight Trible. His latest album titled,” Mothership,” explores the music of one of his deep influences and his friend, Oscar Brown Jr. with songs like, “Brother Where Are You” that plead for unity and respect for one another in both lyric and the tone of treble’s voice. Ramses Rodriguez establishes the heartbeat of this song on his trap drums. Reaching into his bag of Latin tinged arrangements, Trible sings “It’s All About Love.” The percussion by Derf Reklaw colors the arrangement and the lyrics summarize the explosive emotions that Trible personifies on recording and in person. His ‘live’ performances are magnetic, visually exciting and genuine. In fact, that’s what this artist is all about; being genuine.

There appears to be an homage to motherhood on this album, in its many nurturing forms. Bassist, James Leary, has composed “Mother,” and it’s a beautiful song with warm, tribute lyrics and a haunting melody. Trible’s voice caresses each word, caramel sweet, letting his thick baritone vocals coat each sentence with love and respect. The title tune, “Mothership,” epitomizes a spiritual teaching from ‘The Nation’ as well as a compliment once again to motherhood, the womb of life and to the importance of teaching spirituality and respect for the knowledge of elders. The lyrics are deep. You have to listen twice, maybe three times to soak up all the goodness provided by Mark de Clive-Lowe on piano, Carlos Nino on hand percussion and the dynamic tenor saxophone of Kamasi Washington.

Dwight Trible is the epitome of what jazz should be. Freedom! Honesty. Soul. Messages of universal nature and stature. Space. Room for musicians to explore and emotions to soar. This artist got his vocal palate wet working with the phenomenal Horace Tapscott and the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra and singing with the iconic Pharoah Sanders Quartet. He’s an experimental artist, unafraid to cross musical genres, but always steeped and cemented solidly in jazz. He’s worked with L.A. Reid, D.J. Rogers, pianist/recording artist, Patrice Rushen, and ventured into electronic and hip-hop with Carlos Nino. He has recorded a duet album with great pianist/arranger, John Beasley. Dwight’s diversity of choices in music are evident, but one thing remains strong and undeniable. That is Dwight Trible’s desire to change the world with his music and to inspire peace, love, harmony and unity. When he sings, “Standing in the Need of Prayer,” soaring vocally from his rich baritone to his crystal-clear tenor tones, he seems to be pulling his source from the gates of heaven. Dwight Trible is channeling his music from a higher power and offers it to us in his own unique way, endeavoring to open our hearts and our minds.


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ERIC ALEXANDER – “LEAP OF FAITH” GiantStepArts

Eric Alexander, tenor saxophone/composer/piano; Doug Weiss, bass; Johnathan Blake, drums.

Right out the gate, this trio is stomping, powerful and with a straight-ahead march, minus piano or guitar. This is tenor saxophone, bass and drums taking a ‘Leap of Faith’ to translate Eric Alexander’s original compositions from sheet music to a ‘live performance.’ His is a chord-less concept.

“You have to trust what you’re doing, or it can be very hard to be genuine,” Alexander explained about this new direction in his music.

On the first tune, “Luquitas” played at a brisk speed, Johnathan Blake takes a solo that re-establishes him as one who is at the forefront of the new and powerful jazz drummers. This tune establishes the unrestricted and boundless energy these musicians bring to the stage. This is a ‘live’ performance, recorded at the Jazz Gallery in New York City.

The second track, “Mars,” starts out at a moderate tempo but soon, pushes into a double-time, bebop groove, propelled by the powerful walking bass of Doug Weiss. Alexander says that this original composition was inspired by pop star, Bruno Mars and his tune, “Finesse”. The jazzy respect given to Bruno and Cardi B. from Eric Alexander is admirable and musically unifying, bridging the genres. I played the video below while listening to Alexander’s “Mars” composition and believe me, you won’t hear a slice of this pop sensation’s song, in melody or rhythm. However, the chord changes are twisted into a jazz composition that takes on new dimensions. I’m sharing the Bruno Mars Video and wish I could have found a video of Eric Alexander’s “Mars” so you could compare the difference.

On his composition,” Corazon Perdido,” Eric Alexander sits down to a piano and plays a few chords in between his saxophone explorations. I was surprised to hear the piano, since, for the most part, this album is devoid of a chord instrument. You will hear the influence of John Coltrane in some places of this production. I found Eric Alexander, Doug Weiss and Johnathan Blake’s music to be completely satisfying and artistic.

Below is a video of Alexander at a live ‘Bronx’ performance including a pianist. He’s performing ‘live’ at Linda’s Jazz Nights with the great Harold Mabern on piano and dueling with Vincent Herring. This is nothing like his Avant Garde music on “Leap of Faith,” but shows the commercial side of Alexander in a more relaxed setting. He still never loses his unique style and expert improvisational skills, pushing the boundaries of his horn and his horn harmonics. Also featured on this 2015 video is Kenny Washington on drums and Phil Palombi on bass.

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JOHN DOKES – “TRUE LOVE” Rondette Jazz

John Dokes, vocals; Mark Gross, alto saxophone; Steve Einerson, piano; Alex Claffy, acoustic bass; Lawrence Leathers, drums.

John Dokes is a gentleman with a penchant for expressing himself through song in a smooth, baritone voice. On this CD, he has surrounded his vocal talent with a quartet of exceptional musicians who make these standard jazz songs come alive. Mark Gross, on alto sax, puts the ‘J’ in jazz. Steve Einerson’s piano talents are riveting, not only as an accompanist, but also as an outstanding jazz soloist and arranger. Einerson was raised in a small city outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin and is the son of music educators. He has performed or recorded with great jazz artists like Marlena Shaw, Eric Alexander, Slide Hampton, Jim Rotondi and Dr. Eddie Henderson, to list just a few. Dokes has chosen nine songs the listener is probably familiar with, including “A Sleepin’ Bee,” “Never Let Me Go”, “Pure Imagination,” and “Eleanor Rigby.” On “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” the arrangement races and the lyrical meaning of these poignant words somehow get lost in the double time. Dokes sings it well, but I don’t hear the heartbreak and sadness that this popular standard usually echoes. The arrangement is buoyant and bubbly, rather than melancholy and elegiac. I think that musicians often forget about the lyrics when they arrange music and that’s a big mistake. However, I enjoyed the Dokes rendition of Bernard Ighner’s “Everything Must Change” composition. This production is similar to a “Funny Valentine” arrangement by Billy Childs for Diane Reeves on her first album. The groove is infectious.

Surprisingly, Dokes was once part of a hip-hop dance crew during his high school years.

“My love for the music came from dancing to it,” Dokes shared. “I always imagine what my feet would be doing to whatever music I’m producing, because they tend to have a mind of their own.”

The tenth song on this CD is composed by John Dokes and titled, “Cool Enough.” It introduces us to John Dokes as a composer. His silky, smooth enunciation lets you enjoy every lyric. Yes – John Dokes is the epitome of a cabaret singer in an intimate night club and he’s definitely ‘cool enough.’
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FRED NARDIN TRIO featuring OR BAREKET & LEON PARKER – “LOOK AHEAD” Independent Label

Fred Nardin, piano/composer/producer: Leon Parker, drums; Or Bareket, double bass.

Fred Nardin makes delicious music. He is a creative composer and a technically imaginative pianist. This is a French production, recorded in March of last year. The trio opens with his original composition, “Colours.” It’s straight-ahead jazz at its best. Incorporating a more shuffle drive, “Just Easy” gives Leon Parker a time to shine on drums. He has a light touch on this tune, using brushes to briskly stroke the rhythm and to ‘trade fours.’

All of Nardin’s compositions are both melodic and arranged with interesting time changes. On track #3, his classical training is obvious as his flying fingers quickly map out the melody and explore all the secret places inside this song. On “New Direction” the introduction is executed with vocal percussion and what sounds like a tap dancer tapping in the background. Suddenly the sixth track comes barreling-in titled, “One Finger Snap” where Or Bareket takes the opportunity to display his mastery of the double bass. Playing at a brisk speed, he’s supportive as the basement for the group, but then he dazzles us with a long, improvisational solo, before racing into a double time exhibit of speed and excitement on his instrument. Leon Parker also solos on this tune, making his sticks dance and explode during their up-temp enthusiasm. Fred Nardin’s final composition on this production is titled, “Prayers” and it’s stunningly beautiful. This entire production is entertaining, well-written and exceedingly well-played by three masterful musicians.

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THE PETE McGUINNESS JAZZ ORCHESTRA – “ALONG FOR THE RIDE” Summit Records

Pete McGuinness, conductor/trombone/composer/arranger/vocals; Andy Eulau, bass; Mike Holober, piano; Scott Neumann, drums; Chris Rogers, flugelhorn; Bill Mobley, trumpet; Rob Middleton & Tom Christensen, tenor saxophone; Dave Pietro, alto & soprano saxophone; Matt Haviland, Bruce Eidem & Mark Patterson, trombone; Dave Reikenberg, baritone saxophone; Mark Phoneuf, alto saxophone.

Orchestras are so lush and this one is no exception. The Pete McGuiness Jazz Orchestra has been playing and recording critically acclaimed music for thirteen years in the New York area. This is their third release and sure to become another feather in their proverbial cap. To open the album, the arrangement of “Put on A Happy Face” is mesmerizing. It bounces off my CD player like a buoyant beach ball rolling across hot sand. The unusual chord harmonies and exuberant playing is bound to captivate the listener, pumping your spirit up with happiness. Tom Christensen dances across this jazzy arrangement on tenor saxophone. The next song, “You Must Believe in Spring” employs the vocals of Pete McGuinness, who sings melodic horn lines, without words, blending smoothly with the horns. It’s a lovely arrangement. Then, to my happy surprise, Pete shares the wonderful lyrics of this song with us. He even scats and he’s a wonderful vocal improvisor; or was that scat part written? Either way, it was whimsical and excellent in elevating the orchestral arrangement. “Old Roads” is an original composition by Pete McGuinness and gives orchestra drummer, Scott Neumann, an opportunity to solo and strut his sticks around the trap drums with power and precision. Chris Rogers is fluid and dramatic on flugelhorn. Pianist, Mike Holober, makes his own sinuous statement once the horns quieted down. This is one of four original compositions that Pete McGuinness has penned and arranged for this project.

His “Point of Departure” tune becomes a platform for McGuinness to pull out his trombone chops and royally serenades us. This original song also features a solo by Rob Middleton on tenor saxophone and one by Bill Mobley on trumpet, is also noteworthy. The orchestra has a way of swelling and building, like the ocean waves during a storm. The soloists float atop the rich arrangements like sturdy ships at sea. There is vivid motion and movement to these arrangements by Pete McGuinness. At times, the orchestra horns echo each other, repeating lines in a very timely, natural and harmonic way. Scott Neumann continues to hold the ensemble tightly in place with his drumming and also steps front and center to spotlight his percussive talents on this tune. And was that a baritone sax player who eggs him on and catches my ear with a rich, deep, delightful sound? Another favorite of mine on this album is “May I Come In,” a song I’m unfamiliar with that features a great lyric, amply shared by the smoky, baritone vocals of Pete McGinnis. He sure knows how to sell a song.

An alumnus of the Buddy Rich Orchestra, McGuiness is a competent composer, a trombonist, vocalist, arranger and formidable orchestra leader. He’s also a longtime jazz educator who appears on over fifty jazz CDs, inclusive of Maria Schneider’s Grammy Award Winning, “Concert in the Garden.” McGuiness has also appeared in numerous orchestra pits for Broadway shows, heads his own big band and is an Associate Professor of Jazz Studies/Arranging at William Patterson University.

This latest recorded music is an emotional journey of beauty and bravo. I’m very glad and grateful I was invited “Along for the Ride.”
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ROB RYNDAK, TOM LOCKWOOD featuring BRIAN LYNCH – “GRATITUDE” Pacific Coast Jazz

Rob Ryndak,piano/percussion/composer; Tom Lockwood,tenor,alto,soprano & baritone saxophones/clarinet/bass clarinet/flute/composer; Brian Lynch,trumpet/flugelhorn; Sasha Brusin, electric & acoustic guitar; Karl E.H. Seigfried, electric & acoustic bass; Jeff Moehle, drums; Victor Gonzalez, Jr., congas/bongos/percussion; Micah Rutschman, vibraphone; Ryan Koranda, cello; Steve Talaga, piano/electric piano.

This album meanders into my space, strong on percussion and rich on Latin groove. Chicago-based pianist and percussionist, Rob Ryndak along with his musical partner reedman, Tom Lockwood, combine talents and composer skills to create an entertaining project. Each composed six songs for this production and Ryndak’s composition, “Equilibrium” is the first tune on their album. Ryndak was raised on Chi-town’s northside and comes from a musical family. This is his sixth CD release as either leader or co-leader. His musical tastes bounce from rock music to jazz, from Latin, pop and world music to funk. You hear a mixture of funk and jazz on Lockwood’s composition, “Jackie McFunk.” The horns are prominent and punch on this arrangement. Ryndak and Lockwood feature Grammy-Award-winning trumpeter, Brain Lynch on this project. Lockwood and Lynch each perform admirable solos on this track. The Waltz arrangement on Lockwood’s “So Little Time” composition is sweetly played and features a memorable solo by guitarist, Sasha Brusin. The occasional addition of a vibraphone, played by Micah Ruschman is intoxicating and adds a nice touch to several arrangements.

For the most part, this is an easy listening project with a big band sound and arrangements that explore the composition skills of both Ryndak and Lockwood. The production is consistently propelled by the exuberance of Ryndaks percussive grooves and colorfully painted with Lockwoods assorted reed instruments.

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MICHAEL EATON – “DIALOGICAL” Destiny Records

Michael Eaton,tenor & soprano saxophones/composer; Lionel Loueke, guitar; Brad Whiteley,piano; Daniel Ori, bass/gimbri; Shareef Taher,drums; Brittany Anjou, vibraphone; Cheryl Pyle,flute; Enrique Haneine, udu; James Brandon Lewis & Sean Sounderegger, tenor saxophone; Jon Crowley,trumpet; Dorian Wallace,piano/prepared piano; Sarah Mullins,marimba/triangels.

Michael Eaton is a composer who has written a dozen songs for this album. His originality stretches from his composing talents to the production of this music. According to Webster’s dictionary, dialogic is a form of dialogue. According to Michael Eaton, the title “Dialogical” refers to a notion of hybridity in language. Eaton notes that a Russian literary philosopher named Mikhail Bakhtin, thought that “appropriating words of others and populating them with one’s own intention” is perfectly fine. Using that as a premise for his production, Eaton explores a fusion of jazz into the more modern-day looping effect produced by a hip hop influenced culture. His original compositions are based on solid melodies and Eaton uses a repetitious groove to hammer the melody home. Perhaps this is his consideration of fusion by looping. However, on track #2, “Anthropocene,” the band surprises me by stretching out into serious jazz realms and employing improvisation that is inspired by Lionel Loueke on guitar. Then, Michael Eaton lets his amazing tenor saxophone skills soar. It was as if the bird was caged by those repetitious chords earlier and then someone opened the door and set the bird free.

On the 4th track, flutes play tag and sing to each other like dancing Sparrows in space. On cut 6, voices are added to the mix in a bebop-kind-of-way, singing sounds, using notes of expression without words. Eaton expands the music by adding vibraphone, gyil and udo on this tune. A gyil is a type of Balafon instrument or percussive instrument with roots in West Africa. He also incorporates a gimbri instrument, played by bassist, Daniel Ori. It snatches the attention on the tune “I and Thou”. The gimbri is a string instrument carved from a log and covered on the playing side with camel skin. These odd instruments and the talented musicians speak to each other and to the listener. They offer exploratory jazz, pushing the limits of creativity. However, I found the repetition on cuts #10 and #11 completely annoying.

Michael Eaton explained it this way:

“I’m thinking about how the minimalist canon might provide a different way of looking at the overlapping or looping rhythmic cycles that are utilized in modern jazz by people like Steve Coleman, Dave Holland and Chris Potter. I want to interface different styles to see how they all reflect different parts of me.”
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ART “TURK” BURTON – “ANCESTRAL SPIRITS” T.N’T Music ATBCD

Art “Turk” Burton, conga/bongo drums; Eddie Beard, piano/organ; Dushun Mosley, drums; Yosef Ben Israel, bass; Sammie “Cha Cha” Torres, bongo/percussion; Luis “Preito” Rosario, timbales. Featured artists: Maggie Brown, vocals; Edwin Daugherty, alto & soprano saxophone; Ari Brown, tenor/soprano saxophone/piano.

Here is an album that recalls the jazz music of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s; back when percussion, parks and spoken word were locked familiarly, like hands on drum skins. It recalls poetry echoed atop conga drum beats and civil rights attitudes being reflected in the lyrical word. Back when Eddie Jefferson’s singing poetry reinvented the solos of Moody, Prez and many more with spell-binding lyrics. On Art “Turk” Burton’s album, Maggie Brown sings Eddie Jefferson’s “Night in Tunisia” on this recording. However, the spotlight is on the percussion throughout this production.

On the first track, Art “Turk” Burton’s wife recites her original poetry during this exploration of generational jazz. She celebrates iconic drummers.

“Drummers here … drummers everywhere … Mongo Santa Maria, …we celebrate his life … not to be missed or dismissed; Ray Barretto … Tito Puente, Chano Pozo … Willie Bobo …,” says Patrice “Peresina” Burton.

This Chicago ensemble gives much praise and appreciation to the Ancestors during their recording. Reflected in the title tune, the liner notes dedicate this arrangement to two of the original members of the AACM; Kelan Phil Cohran and Muhal Richard Abrams. This is Avant Garde music, perpetuated by history, culture, freedom of instrument and purpose.

Art “Turk” Burton has a long history of performing with iconic jazz personalities including Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Bowie, Henry Threadgill, Randy Weston, Sonny Stitt, Lou Donaldson, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman and Elvin Jones.

When he isn’t playing his percussive instruments, Burton is writing books and has published three history non-fictions. They are titled, “Black, Buckskin and Blue (African American Scouts and Soldiers on the Western Front)”, “Black, Red and Deadly (Black and Indian Gunfighters of the Indian Territories 1870 – 1907)” and “Black Gun, Silver Star (The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshall Bass Reeves).” Like his books, the music of Art “Turk” Burton, while deeply rooted in rhythmic culture,his international interest in the history of music is obvious.

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THE DAVE WILSON QUARTET –“ONE NIGHT AT CHRIS’ JAZZ CAFE” Dave Wilson Music

Dave Wilson,tenor & soprano saxophones; Kirk Reese,piano; Tony Marino,acoustic bass; Dan Monaghan,drums.

Dave Wilson recorded this album one night in March of 2018, at the Jazz Café in Philadelphia. His low notes on the tenor saxophone registered with me and sparked my attention right off the bat. He opens with a well-written original song titled, “Ocean Blues.” When he was just fifteen, and while studying the clarinet, young Dave Wilson was inspired by John Coltrane. Another influence was Dexter Gordon. In the early 1970’s, Wilson switched his clarinet instrument to tenor saxophone.

In Wilson’s early years, like most youth, he embraced the top-40 hits and the rock music of his generation. In his case, that was the Grateful Dead rock group. On this project, he celebrates this group by adding “Friend of the Devil” arranged with a Latin groove and he plays soprano sax on this track.

This is a ‘live’ club recording and it includes danceable funk tunes like, “My Own Prison,” a Creed tune plucked from the 90’s. Dave Wilson’s saxophone talent keeps the arrangements jazzy, even though his group sometimes loses the momentum. On occasional moments, it seems that the engine propelling the quartet’s music stalls. This could be because the drummer, who often gets lost in his own playing, appears to forget to hold the rhythm section in place. This is quite noticeable on the 5th cut, “The Biggest Part of Me”. On the whole, Dave Wilson’s Quartet sounds like a local jazz group to enjoy at Philadelphia’s Jazz Café. His horn playing is steeped in bebop, even though he adds songs to his repertoire that are not necessarily jazz tunes. At times, despite Wilson’s energy and ability on saxophones, the groove is missing from this trio. This often distracts from an otherwise entertaining live performance.


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TIMBALE MASTER: CELEBRATING DYNAMIC DRUMMER, RAMON BANDA

June 2, 2019

By Dee Dee McNeil/jazz journalist

June 1, 2019

Ramon Banda was connected to his drum set lovingly, the way he was connected to his family and his band members. The drums were an integral part of his life; his body; his career; his love. Ramon once proudly said he had played the same ride-cymbal for close to twenty years. When I first heard Ramon Banda play, I was mesmerized by his technique and spiritual connection to the music. Like Ramon, it’s always been important to me to have a spiritual connection to the music and to my band. The moment I heard Ramon play, I knew that he too had that spiritual connection to the music.

Standing at his hospital bedside on May 29, 2019, I saw a lion of a man laying quietly on his pillow, still determined and hopeful. His beautiful cousin was there, praying for his recovery and well-being. She told me someone from his family was constantly at his side. His wife, Rachel, was on the way to the hospital after attending a graduation ceremony. I was surprised when I stepped off the elevator and discovered Ramon was in the Intensive Care Unit. Still, he recognized me immediately, but I didn’t stay long. I knew he needed to rest. I didn’t want him to feel he had to host my visit. I was compelled to tell Ramon, in person, what a joy it was to work with him and to watch him perform over the years. I thanked him for his warm and giving spirit. When I was producing television promo clips for Suicide Prevention, he was one of the first jazz cats to say he would be there to participate. Ramon cared about his music, his family and his community.

Ramon Banda was raised in the Norwalk neighborhood of Los Angeles and he and his younger brother, Tony, have been playing music for over half a century. He grew up hearing his mom playing piano and his uncle playing beautifully on the tenor saxophone. Ramon’s father was a professional drummer. Young Ramon started out as a guitar player, playing in his uncle’s group. His brother, Tony, played bass. Although his uncle was a horn player and enamored with Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins’ horn talents, their little group played traditional Mexican music and Top-40. Their family group worked around the Los Angeles area. When Ramon’s cousin was drafted and sent to Vietnam, Ramon switched to the drums to take his cousin’s place. Music is a common link and was always a blessing to the Banda family.

Tony and Ramon Banda were longtime musicians in Poncho Sanchez’s Latin Jazz band. Ramon also played in Cal Tjader’s band. Ramon and his brother were the heart and soul of both those bands, but soon established their own family music group labeled The Banda Brothers. Their sextet stretched into bebop and straight-ahead jazz. With Poncho’s group, Ramon played timbales. But with the Banda Brother’s sextet, he played trap drums. Tony had a distinctive sound on double bass. Latin was their root and culture, but they played jazz just as passionately. Often times, not only in the Sanchez band but also in their own band, the two brothers would grab Shekeres, (sometimes spelled Chekeres), those percussive gourds covered in bright beads, and they would enchant the audience with their percussion skills. In fact, the Banda brothers also had a business making and selling those colorful Shekere instruments. Ramon was greatly influenced by Mongo Santamaria. He said he fell in love with the sound of the Shekere listening to Mongo’s album. The brothers had a percussion friend named Taumbu who showed them how to make the African based Shekere instrument. When work was slow and gigs were few and far between, Ramon and Tony got busy making them and selling Shekeres to pay the rent.

As teens, Poncho Sanchez was singing with Ramon’s two older cousins, who were also musicians. One unexpected afternoon, Poncho and his older brother needed a drummer and Ramon was recommended. They swung by his house and asked him to join them. He packed up his drums and the rest is history. Ramon recalls that in 1966, when they first met, Poncho Sanchez wasn’t even playing congas.

As a youngster, Ramon Banda was attracted to heavy metal music. Some of his favorites were Terrorizer & Morbid Angel. He admired Pete Sandoval who was the drummer with them and is epitomized as the founder of the so-called, ‘blast beat’. He also liked Mike Hamilton with Deeds of Flesh and was intrigued with the way Hamilton played those thunderous bass drum licks. Other drummers like Flo Mournier with Cryptopsy and Mick Harris of Napalm Death influenced Ramon’s early playing. As he branched out, he discovered jazz and drummers like Elvin Jones and Buddy Rich. He began to listen closely to Tito Puente’s band. Ramon Banda was also a master timbale player. He was inspired by and idolized the great Manny Oquendo.

All in all, Ramon was one of the most well-rounded drummers I knew. He could play it all, from rock and roll, R&B, to Pop, from bebop to straight-ahead jazz, or express himself fully with his own cultural, Latin percussion brilliance.

As his reputation proceeded him, Ramon met many great musicians and it was a young drummer named Willie Jones III who encouraged the Banda Brothers to go into the studio and record. The result was an album titled, “Acting Up!”

I enjoyed seeing Ramon Banda fire up Joey Francesco’s band. He has also been a stalwart drummer for Bill Cunliffe. Over his lifetime, Ramon Banda recorded on over 250 albums and some of them were Grammy Award winners. A partial list of those luminaries he recorded with include: Henry “the Skipper” Franklin, Mort Weiss, José Rizo, Carmen McRae, Woody Herman, Marcos Loya, Taumbu International Ensemble, Tierra, Stanley Clarke, Gary Hoey, The Jazz Crusaders, H.M.A. Salsa Jazz Orchestra, Fred Ramierez, Joey Altruda, Azar Lawrence, Theo Saunders, Dave Askren, Geoff Stradling, Papa John DeFrancesco, Juan Carlos Quintero, Scott Martin, Al McKibbon, Marilyn Fernandez, Charly, Francisco Aquabella, Phobia, Cal Tjader, Brent Lewis, Elliot Caine, Karen Hammack, Red & the Red Hots, Poncho Sanchez, Jazz on the Latin Side All Stars, Joey DeFrancesco & Bette Midler.

Ramon will be dearly missed by our jazz community, but his memory, like his music, will linger on throughout the generations. Rest in peace, my dear brother and thank you for your amazing music and loving spirit.
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INSPIRE ME BIG BANDS, ORCHESTRAS & MORE

May 25, 2019

INSPIRE ME BIG BANDS, ORCHESTRAS & MORE
By Dee Dee McNeil/Jazz Journalist
May 25, 2019

RALPH PETERSON & THE MESSENGER LEGACY – “LEGACY ALIVE – VOL. 6 AT THE SIDEDOOR” Onyx Productions

Ralph Peterson,drums/leader;Bill Pierce,tenor saxophone;Bobby Watson,alto saxophone; Brian Lynch,trumpet; Essiet Essiet,bass; Geoffrey Keezer,piano.

This is my straight-ahead dream band. If you love bebop, like I do, this production will totally entertain and inspire you. It’s a two-set CD highlighting the brilliance of Ralph Peterson’s drum talents. That being said, this is not to diminish his ensemble, who are obviously the cream of the crop. Disc One opens with a Curtis Fuller composition, “A La Mode” whose arrangement energizes and excites. The group pulsates through the first three songs before settling down to perform the lovely balled, “My One and Only Love”, featuring Bill Pierce on tenor saxophone and enhanced by the polished piano playing of Geoffrey Keezer. Although this is not a big band, the harmonics and arrangements are lush and have the power and precision of a larger ensemble. On Disc two, Essiet Essiet offers an outstanding solo on “That Ole Feeling.” All in all, there’s not one bad, nor one average or boring tune on this album.

Peterson is determined to keep the legacy of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers alive and well by endeavoring to duplicate Blakey’s hard-swinging arrangements and bebop sensibilities. in the music of his “Legacy Alive” production, Ralph Peterson accomplishes this feat. All of this production is a reminder of the incredible discography of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messenger’s group. I believe that this October would have been Blakey’s 100th birthday. If you are a Jazz Messenger fan, you will recognize each and every song that Peterson and his group interpret. You’ll enjoy Golson’s “Along Came Betty, Wayne Shorter’s, “Children of the Night” the nursery rhyme, “Three Blind Mice” that Curtis Fuller arranged back in 1962, and Freddie Hubbard’s, “The Core” that was a dedication to the congress of Racial Equality, a 1960’s popular civil rights and action group.

This is exquisitely performed and arranged music. It brought back many warm memories for me and was so well-done, I played both CDs four times, then took a break and came back for more.
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JENTSCH GROUP NO NET – “TOPICS IN AMERICAN HISTORY” Independent Label

Chris Jentsch, electric guitar/composer; Michel Gentile, flutes; Michael McGinnis, clarinets; Jason Rigby, saxophones; David Smith, trumpet/flugelhorn; Brian Drye, trombone; Jacob Sacks, piano; Jim Whitney, acoustic bass; Eric Halvorson, drums/percussion. JC Sanford, conductor.

Guitarist, Chris Jentsch, earned his B.A. in history at Gettysburg College. This album was released late last year. It was recorded during a ‘live’ concert and features guitarist/composer, Jentsch, interpreting seven historic events using his original compositions. For example, the first song is titled, “1491.” The music is meant to explain the influx of Europeans into the Caribbean islands. Did I hear that in the tune? Not really. However, the composition is exploratory and imaginative, like this entire project. The second song, “Manifest Destiny” is composed to exhibit the 1800s and the belief that expansion of the country across North America was unstoppable. The fourth tune is titled “Tempest Tost” a line from the scribe written on the Statue of Liberty and “Suburban Diaspora” was a title I hadn’t heard before. I thought the Diaspora usually referred to the dispersion of people from their homeland. Jentsch has taken this concept a step further. His piece is referring to suburban middle-class families relocating to cities. The final tune, “Meeting at Surratt’s” is a dirge-like composition and when I read the Jentsch explanation, it made perfect sense. Hanged in 1865, Mary Surratt was found guilty of conspiring to assassinate President Lincoln. She let those who plotted to kill him meet at her home, a few blocks from the Ford Theater. The federal government executed her for complicity.

His ensemble sounds much larger than it is, sparkling with lush arrangements and dramatic interludes, where various musicians step forward to solo. I chose to place this review with my big band reviews because of the richness of the arrangements and the full sound of these creative, orchestral compositions. Chris Jentsch has released five albums and earned his Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Miami. This current project was commissioned by Chamber Music America/Doris Duke New Jazz Works and was recorded at ShapeShifter Lab in Jentsch’s hometown of Brooklyn. These Chris Jentsch suites are beautiful and mind expansive.
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STEVE HAINES AND THE THIRD FLOOR ORCHESTRA Justin Time Records

Steve Haines, double bass/producer/orchestration; Becca Stevens, vocals; Chad Eby,soprano saxophone; Joey Calderazzo,piano; Greg Hyslop,guitar; Kobie Watkins, drums; Kevin Geraldi,conductor, plus thirty-six various orchestra players.

This is chamber music with human voice. Steve Haines and his Third Floor Orchestra present an eleven-song concert of classically influenced jazz, incorporated with Celtic traditions, original compositions and pop music. It’s an odd combination, but it works. The second track is an original composition by vocalist Becca Stevens, William Stevens and W. Song titled, “No More.” You hardly hear the jazz until Chad Eby’s soprano saxophone enters. The arrangement places percussion licks beneath the horn solo to call attention to Eby’s jazzy sound. Becca Stevens has a voice as sweet as honey. It floats atop the orchestra the way cream rises to the top of milk. Becca introduces the melody and carries the entire piece with her soprano tone, clear and inviting, like a human flute. This is an unusual recording in my collection of music. It does not fit the singular mold of jazz. Even so, it’s quite beautiful; pleasant to the ear and soothing to the spirit. Bassist and group leader, Steve Haines has also composed a few of the songs. This is easy listening music, enhanced by Steve Haines’ orchestral arrangements.

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DARRELL KATZ AND THE JCA ORCHESTRA – “RATS LIVE ON NO EVIL STAR” JCA Recordings

Darrell Katz,guitar/composer/conductor/producer;
The JCA Orchestra consists of 29 talented musicians.

The opening orchestral composition is the title tune and was produced from something Darrell Katz wrote thirty-one years ago. Originally, it was composed for a violin and marimba duo. Consequently, there’s a lot of violin solo work with additional string parts. But you will also hear inspired saxophone solos. The title is off-putting, in that I have no great love for rats. Still, the music itself is compelling, original and imaginative. Katz proudly helped found and is the current Director of the Jazz Composers Alliance (JCA). This orchestra of talented musicians has become a vehicle to feature forward-thinking composers and a home for some of Boston’s best musicians and improvisers. They provide a platform of international community building through music. According to the Boston Phoenix newspaper, “Darrell Katz is one of Boston’s most ambitious and provocative jazz composers.” He incorporates poetry into his orchestra arrangements with words that provoke thought and echo political overtones.

“I am always trying to make the melody and words be unified,” Katz explains. “I am very much trying to put the poetry across, always looking for what seems like a good fit. I really want the listener to pay attention to the words, and I want the music to help them. But it’s hard to describe, a lot of it is intuitive. A lot of meaning and feeling is rather abstract, but it’s what I’m looking to match.”

One of the suites of music called, “How to Clean a Sewer” incorporates three parts. The first is titled, “Three or Four Kinds of Blues,” which does not sound like a blues at all. The second part of the Suite is titled, “Windfall Lemons” (air, earth, water, fire) with ear-catching trombone solos by Bob Pilkington and Dave Harris. There’s a tuba player who also catches my attention. His name is Bill Lowe. The over-all Suite of music is inventive and seems to encourage the various musicians to speak with their individual sounds and voicings. They merge and blend like a crowd of boisterous, talkative families; a taste of avant-garde. Katz uses a pause technique in his compositions and arranging to bring drama and attention to his pieces. The vibraphone occasionally takes stage center, as does the haunting soprano vocals of Rebecca Shrimpton. Now deceased poet, Paula Tatarunis, inspired the “How to Clean A Sewer” song and “To An Angel” features Shrimpton on vocals.

As a change of pace, “The Red Dog Blues” written by Darrell Katz asserts:

“I don’t stop on red. I smoke in bed. I talk back to the boss. I don’t even floss. If there’s a bad choice that’s what I’ll choose. I’m in the doghouse with the red dog blues.”

“…With a big mouth full of lies, and a soul filled with junk, he likes to brag about his tower. And his haircut is bad news. He’s in a solid gold toilet with the red dog blues,” takes a lyrical turn to 2019 political opinion.

Darrell Katz is a guitarist, composer, conductor and producer of this project. He is also a current professor at Berklee College of Music.
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RICHIE BEIRACH – GREGOR HUEBNER DUO with THE WDR BIG BAND – “CROSSING BORDERS” Zoho Music

Richie Beirach, piano; Gregor Huebner, violin; Rich Derosa, conductor/arranger; The WDR Big Band: Johan Horlen, alto saxophone/alto flute/lead; Karolina Strassmayer, alto saxophone/alto flute; Olivier Peters & Paul Heller , tenor sax/clarinet; Jens Neufang, baritone sax/bass clarinet; Andy Haderer & Wim Both, trumpet/flugelhorn (lead);, Rob Bruynen, Ruud Breuls, & John Marshall, trumpet/flugelhorn; Ludwig Nuss (lead), Andy Hunter & Shannon Barnett, trombone/euphonium; Mattis Cederberg, bass trombone/tuba; Joachim Schoenecker, guitar; John Goldsby, bass; Hans Dekker, drums.

Richie Beirach has composed the first two songs, presented as a medley and titled “Rectilinear/Paradox”. It opens with the full big band and then breaks down to a straight-ahead groove featuring Beirach’s piano solo playing brightly with John Goldsby’s bass walking briskly beneath Beirach’s electric piano improvisation. In fact, throughout, Goldsby’s bass is prominent and outstanding. On the second cut, a Violin Concerto No. 3 composed by featured violinist/composer, Gregor Huebner, the beauty of the arrangement and the performances by the musicians pull at the heartstrings. This composition’s first movement is melancholy, but when the horns blare, the bass walks and the violin solos, we move into a big band call to attention. The time doubles and Huebner chases the bass line, making his violin race tornado-like and tenacious.

This “Crossing Borders” project is a conversation between cultures, countries and political agendas using music as the catalyst. It’s a call for unity. An extended musical hand, reaching across differences and holding a big band olive branch. This music has a welcoming spirit and intentionally blends borders between a classical jazz orchestra and big band illumination. Huebner and Beirach have collaborated with each other for some twenty-three years. Their concerto achievements, arrangements and various compositions interlock talents with ease, like entwined fingers or palms pressed together in prayer.

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THE FELIPE SALLES INTERCONNECTIONS ENSEMBLE – “THE LULLABY PROJECT” Tapestry Records

Felipe Salles,soprano saxophone/composer/conductor/arranger/ producer; RHYTHM SECTION:Nando Michelin,piano/melodica;Kevin Grudecki,guitar; Ryan Fedak,vibraphone; Keala Kaumeheiwa,double bass;Bertram Lehmann,drums.

SAXOPHONES/WOODWINDS:Richard Garcia & Jonathan Ball, alto & soprano saxophones/flute; Mike Caudill, tenor & soprano saxophone/clarinet; Jacob Shulman, tenor saxophone/clarinet; Tyler Burchfield, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet. TRUMPETS/FLUGELHONRS:Jeff Holmes & Yuta Yamaguchi, (lead); Eric Smith & Doug Olsen, soloists. TROMBONES:Joel Yennior, (lead); Clayton DeWalt, Dan Hendrix, & Randy Pingrey. Angel Subero, bass trombone.

This is a beautiful execution of five movements for jazz orchestra, composed and arranged by Felipe Salles. He has based this entire project on various Brazilian lullabies, extracting musical segments from these popular lullabies and composing original music of his own. He has also added three compositions that are Tango inspired and arranged for a large jazz ensemble. Every arrangement engages the listener and is motivating the orchestra players, who bring brilliance and shine to a sparkling project. A native of Sao Paulo, Brazil, Dr. Felipe Salles brings an element of his culture, warmly wrapped with American jazz, and blanketed with European classical influence. Throughout these richly written and interpreted compositions, improvisation is woven into the multi-cultural fabric of the Salles compositions and Felipe gives time and spotlight to various orchestra members during provocative solos.

As an Associate Professor of Jazz and African-American Music Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Salles somehow has found time and attention to release seven critically acclaimed recordings as a leader. All his recordings have been highly praised, winning favor by top jazz magazines and peers alike. In 2018, Felipe Salles became a Guggenheim Foundation Composition Fellow. This is only one of many grant winning projects he has created. As an active musician in the United States since 1995, he has performed with and recorded with a long list of prominent jazz artists. Some of those include Randy Brecker, David Liebman, Lionel Loueke, Duduka Da Fonseca, Luciana Souza and Bob Moses. Dr. Salles is a D’Addario Woodwinds Select Reeds Artist and clinician, as well as an Andreas Eastman saxophone artist and clinician. Currently, he leads the Felipe Salles Group and the Felipe Salles Interconnections Ensemble. He is also a member of the new World Jazz Composers Octet. He has somehow found more open time on his burgeoning schedule, to also participates in the Kyle Saulnier’s Awakening Orchestra and Alex Alvear’s Mango Blue and Gonzalo Grau’s (Grammy Nominated) La Clave Secreta. Felipe Salles’ current Lullaby Project offers 73 minutes and 29 seconds of incredible musicality.
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WAYNE WALLACE LATIN JAZZ QUINTET – “THE RHYTHM OF INVENTION” Patois Records.net

Wayne Wallace,trombone/composer;Murray Low,piano; David Belove,bass;Colin Douglas,drums/percussion;Michael Spiro, congas/percussion.
GUEST MUSICIANS: Mary Fettig,flute/soprano & alto saxophone/bass clarinet; Masaru Koga, tenor saxophone; Melecio Magdaluyo,baritone saxophone; Erik Jekabson & John Worley , trumpet; Brennan Johns,bass trombone; Miro Sobrer,Sean Weber & Matthew Waterman, trombone; Dayren Santamaria, Eugene Chuklov, Niki Fukada, Maria Romero, & Daniel Stein, violins; Edith Szendrey & Rose Wollman, viola; Kelly Knox & Monice Scott, cello; Akida Thomas,spoken word; Dr. David Baker,pre-recorded interview on cut #5.

The Wayne Wallace Latin jazz Quintet has the full and appealing sound of a larger ensemble. If you are looking for a well-balanced, Latin production, danceable tunes and invigorating percussive energy, you will find all of that here. Opening with “Vamanos Pa’l Monte, (written by Eddie Palmieri) the group Salsa-dances its way into your heart. Paul Desmond’s popular “Take Five” composition, widely appreciated for its unique quintuple meter, 5/4-time signature, and unforgettable melody, is tackled as their second cut. Wayne Wallace’s quintet institutes a 5/8 clavé pattern-arrangement, steeping their production in Afro-Cuban richness. It’s well done, preserving the memorable melody and expanding the rhythm towards a 6/8 African-feel and featuring multi-talented Mary Fettig on saxophone. The quintet incorporates solid horn harmonies in the background and a Coro, or Afro-Cuban chant at the fade. It’s a unique arrangement for this top-selling jazz tune.

Akida Thomas adds spoken word to the fifth track and title tune, “The Rhythm of Invention,” also featuring the music of Wayne Wallace. His trombone soars and the lyrics by Akida add commercial and youthful expression. The percussive excellence of Colin Douglas and Michael Spiro support Akida’s spoken word. The strings and horns sail in the background, like waves licking the belly of a freedom ship. Unexpectedly, the voice of Dr. David Baker is super-imposed over this fluid music, with his comments recorded in 1970 at the radio station WFIU of Indiana University. This is exciting and exploratory big band arranging. Wayne Wallace has composed four of the ten songs recorded. His outstanding arrangements elevate this project. I was captivated by the bass work of David Belove on track seven, “El Arroyo,” another Wallace original tune. Belove makes that tune come alive, placing his happy and creative bass lines confidently beneath the music, and adding an exciting bottom for the chords to embellish.

Wayne Wallace, once based in the Bay Area of California, is well-known for his encyclopedic knowledge of Afro-Cuban rhythms. He was music director of the John Santos Machete Ensemble for twenty years. His creation of the Patois Record label, not only is the source of this production, but expands to encompass artists like vocalists Kat Parra and Alexa Weber Morales, as well as highly regarded anthologies of Bay-Area salsa and the Latin jazz scene. As an educator, he taught at San Jose State University and at Stanford University. Currently, he is professor of jazz trombone and practice in jazz studies at the Jacobs School of Music within Indiana University.

Here is a delightful and infectious production that is solidified by the Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet and embellished by a host of Guest Musicians, who enhance the arrangements with big band boldness and spoken word.
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WONDER-WOMEN OF JAZZ

May 16, 2019

By Dee Dee McNeil/Jazz Journalist
May 16, 2019

HAPPY BIRTHDAY BETTY CARTER! In keeping with the Month of May, a month that celebrates mothers with a national holiday, I have concentrated on reviewing recently recorded females in jazz. They are varied and doing a little bit of everything from playing trombone to lighting up the piano keys; from singing to composing, arranging and producing. I also celebrate the great vocalist and improviser, Betty Carter, born May 16th, whose music must never be forgotten. I wonder why some of these female jazz artists aren’t performing more of Ms. Carter’s original works. Her compositions will always stand the test of time. Here is an interview I did with Betty Carter for the Soul & Jazz Record Magazine, which was published back in 1976. And Yes, I’ve been writing about jazz for that many years.

BETTY “BE-BOP” CARTER: EXTRAORDINARY JAZZ INSPIRATION FOR THE WORLD!
Reprinted (in part) from The Soul & Jazz Record Magazine, 3rd quarter issue – 1976; written and personally interviewed by jazz journalist, Dee Dee McNeil.

I entered Miss Carter’s hotel room attempting a cool composure with whispered awe breathing goose bumps down my neck. She sat there, naked feet propped belligerently on the glass table top, her pale, flowing lounge out-fit clinging to her curves and no make-up. Just a natural, iridescent beauty that peeped through the chocolate freckles peppering her face.

That day, when I originally interviewed her, Betty Carter had been offering the world her unique style for over 30-years. Her music was given freely, with few inhibitions to hamper her unique delivery. She was a true living legend, who weathered the musical storm and witnessed the changes from Be-bop days to R&B/Pop commercialism. However, back then, Betty Carter did not believe her endurance was a big thing. She told me:

“I don’t see me like you see me. I’ve been doing this so long that it’s natural for me. I thought it was OK to learn new music; learn how to write and to arrange your stuff. It took a long time to realize that a lot of singers have other people doing their arrangements. But I wanted to do my own. So, that meant I had to learn about the music. So, I did that when I was with Lionel Hampton. … I couldn’t do anything else if I wanted to. I couldn’t sing like Aretha Franklin … it’s just not my ‘bag’. I was doing nothing but me. I think everybody’s strong and survives in being themselves. I think that’s what you were supposed to do in the first place. I think that’s what ‘the man’ put you here for; to be yourself. He made every one of us different. You’re an individual. Just be you!”

Betty Carter has appeared with practically every great name in jazz and headlined at the Apollo twice a year from 1949 to 1965. She employed a plethora of youthful musicians in her band, helping to skyrocket their fledgling careers. She talked to me about some of the successful shows she performed over the years that defied category. So, what if she’s celebrated as one of the greatest jazz vocalists in the world? She did it all and she did it her way.

“Miles, Monk, Moody, Moms Mabley and me. That was one show. Another show I did was John Lee Hooker, T-Bone Walker, Muddy Water, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee and Bo Diddley… alright?!” She looked at me with piercing eyes, weighing my reaction.

“I did one with the Isley Brothers. The Flamingoes … Now!” She settled back in her chair eyeing me carefully and perhaps wondering if I could relate to her struggle, her diversity and her seething talent.

“This put me on through the years. So, nobody could tell me that my thing wasn’t going.”

She was talking about her long fight for acceptance in the business. Whether we like it or not, the music business and jazz is still tightly controlled by men. They don’t make it easy for women to break the jazzy glass ceiling, especially vocalists. It takes a lot of strength of character and big breaks to climb the gold-record-stairs.

“It’s really pathetic at this point, how much we don’t know about our own craft,” Betty shook her head sadly side-to-side.

“We did it to ourselves. … I finally got with a major record company. They wanted to give me some money for my integrity. You know, I would record for a record company for no money if I could just keep my integrity and do what I wanna do. That’s difficult. People don’t want you to do you. They want to tell you who to be. They want their egos stimulated. They need to say, I made that … I groomed that … I … I … I, all over the place.”

Betty Carter, unique, stylized, volatile, outspoken, opinionated, but sincere. She recorded on her own label for years so that she could have artistic freedom. Her strength of character, her tone and composition skills, her arranging tenacity and her take-no-bull-shit attitude, endears her to me. She is one of those great talents we can treasure and remember for generations to come. Enjoy her “Live” Hamburg Jazz Festival of 1993 below with the amazing Geri Allen on piano, Dave Holland on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums.

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YOKO MIWA TRIO – “KEEP TALKIN’” Ocean blue Tear Music

Yoko Miwa, piano/composer; Will Slater, acoustic bass; Scott Goulding, drums; Brad Barrett, acoustic bass on track 11.

The first thing I notice about pianist, Yoko Miwa, is her ability to bear-hug the blues. Her piano style is rich and radiant with blues tones, obvious and pronounced on her opening original composition, “Keep Talkin’.” She follows up with the popular Monk tune, “In Walked Bud.” It too is saturated with blues tones. Her mood changes slightly on “Secret Rendezvous,” another well-written composition by Ms. Miwa. She brings Latin flavors to this arrangement, encouraging Will Slater to dance, bob and weave on his bass. Yoko Miwa shows that her left hand is as powerful as her right hand on this tune. She rhythmically splashes her arrangement with groove, using the thrust of her bass notes to challenge her right-handed groove chords. It’s a powerful display of her piano dexterity. Scott Goulding is prominent and precise on drums. He continuously propels the music forward, inspiring this trio to swing hard and steady. On “Sunset Lane” they take a breather, slowing the tempo down briefly to let the listener enjoy the lovely melody Yoko Miwa has created. Will Slater makes a prominent statement on acoustic bass and then, Yoko Miwa’s hands make the piano keys tremble and flutter like humming bird wings.

This prolific artist was born in Kobe, Japan, a city famous for its beef and its beautiful and busy seaport. This journalist spent time there in 1995, leaving just two weeks before the huge earthquake that shook the city to its core. Yoko Miwa was greatly inspired and mentored by Minoru Ozone, a Japanese pianist, educator and club owner who instilled in her the importance of playing piano by ear. She learned to absorb the jazz language and mastered listening and transcribing the music. Paying her dues as a waitress at his popular jazz club, she also worked as a music teacher and accompanist. She enrolled at the Koyo Conservatory of Music. That’s a Berklee affiliate school, where she auditioned for a scholarship prize at the main Boston based Berklee College. That first prize win opened the door for her arrival in America, where she fell in love with the city and people of Boston.

“I was the last one to leave a practice room every night at 2 a.m.,” she reminisced. “I was just so excited to meet great musicians, my teachers and fellow students from all over the world.”

Her talent to accompany vocalists led her to work in master classes with the late Kevin Mahogany and also to work on stage with him as part of his group. She has also performed with luminaries like Esperanza Spalding, Terri Lyne Carrington, Arturo Sandoval, Sheila Jordan, Slide Hampton, Jon Faddis, Johnathan Blake and many, many more. Ms. Miwa participated in the Lincoln Center performance program “Marian McPartland & Friends.” She continues to challenge herself and to inspire others as a Berklee professor in the classroom and a formidable, innovative pianist on stage. This album shines with her strength of talent, her technical prowess and brilliant creativity and composer skills. Yoko Miwa is a musical force. She tackles the music of Charles Mingus, The Beatles, Joni Michell and Thelonious Monk with determination, rhythmical brilliance, power and tenderness. Here is an album you will want to play time and time again.

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ELIZABETH TOMBOULIAN – “LOVE’S IN NEED OF LOVE TODAY” http://www.quantumstarsong.com

Elizabeth Tomboulian, vocals/piano/guitar; Lee Tomboulian, piano/Nord/vocals; Cliff Schmitt, bass; Alvester Garnet, drums; SPECIAL GUESTS: Ingrid Jensen, trumpet/flugelhorn; Roseanna Vitro, vocals.

As both a pianist and vocalist, Elizabeth Tomboulian has been performing all over the country; from her native Arkansas to Houston, New Jersey to Louisiana, Wisconsin to New York, in Tennessee and on the West Coast. Her second song on this premier Cd is probably the one she should have opened this recording with. Why? because of the way her sincere voice and the minimal production touches the heart of this listener. The first song felt contrived and commercial, but “Time After Time” by composer, Cindy Lauper, makes an impression. I also appreciate the arrangement, replacing some of the expected piano chords with unique voicings. Her husband, Lee Tomboulian, is also a pianist and does much of the accompaniment on this album. There is a special blend of vocals and energy when the married couple sings together. This is obvious on cut #3, a medley of “Nutty” and “If I Love Again,” where Elizabeth trades fours, scatting in between the bass solo by Cliff Schmitt and the drum solo by Alvester Garnet. During the opening intro and on the fade, she and Lee Tomboulian sweetly harmonize on the “Nutty” melody. It’s a great arrangement. This could have been an outstanding album opening tune. “For Tomorrow” clearly shows Elizabeth Tomboulian’s clean tones and easy ability to perform a true jazz tune. Her voice is rich as cream and believable. Ingrid Jensen’s wonderful trumpet solo flies over the moon on this song. When Lee Tomboulian adds his harmonic voice to the mix, after the solos, they lift the arrangement with their smooth harmonies and perfect blend. On the “Ballad of the Snow Leopard and the Tanqueray Cowboy,” Elizabeth Tomboulian accompanies herself on piano and reverts back to her blues and folk roots, performing as a single artist. She and her piano present a convincing duo. Elizabeth shows off her blues chops on “Good Old Wagon,” playing piano and singing the popular American folk song by Dave Van Ronk. She adds a little scat singing to keep things jazzy. On her live performance of this song, she sometimes plays guitar.

Elizabeth Tomboulian is a lover of Latin music and I wish I could have gotten a taste of songs from her history of recording and performing with her Latin group called, Circo. I think the blend of her voice with her husbands would have been spectacular on Latin songs. In fact, the Stevie Wonder title tune could have become a great Latin arrangement.

The highlight of this album were songs that featured the married couple performed together vocally. As explained by Elizabeth, she hopes this album of music reflects the “Loves in Need of Love Today” theme from the Tomboulian’s repertoire into our listening hearts.

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LAUREN DESBERG – “OUT FOR DELIVERY” Independent Label

Lauren Desberg, vocals/composer; Kris Bowers, piano; Ben Shepherd, electric bass; Jonathan Barber, drums; Braxton Cook, saxophone; Andrew Renfroe, guitar; Russell Hall, acoustic bass; Will Wells, executive producer/composer.

Lauren Desberg is a consummate songwriter, with stories that evolve like a painting, colorful and sometimes abstract. On her opening tune, “The Way you Feel Inside” she explores the thoughts of a woman who is searching for her inner self. Andrew Renfroe’s electric guitar sings a stellar solo and fades the tune with an echo-filled studio enhancement. Desberg displays a little-girl voice full of innocence and sincerity when she sings “Yes Unless” and warns some unsuspecting guy, not to take her too seriously. This album of music showcases the artist’s composer cleverness. It’s more pop than jazz, but the compositions hold your attention. The productions are supported by her band, incorporating a lot of echo effects and the beautiful baritone voice of some mystery man who is not mentioned on the album credits. Songs like “Come With me” and “Something Wrong with Me” are melodically memorable with strong lyrics and very strong productions.

Sometimes the effects used in the production take away from the purity of Desberg’s stylized voice. She’s like a pop Erykah Badu in tone and uniqueness. The synthesized parts often play over-the-top, but certainly add an unusual perspective to this album, as do the seconds-long vocal intervals like “Hold On” that pop upon the scene and too-soon leave us longing to hear more of the song. Perhaps the “Falling Dominoes” lyrics describe an overall view of this project’s positive message.

“… No fear – no doubt, ‘til everything I found I figured out comes crashing down without a sound. Struggling to see the light. The end of the tunnel nowhere in sight. The voice is right, we can make it easy if we try, to see we’re right where we belong. The world will keep on spinning and I will keep on singing … believing is just a state of mind. You’ll find a way to smile, tomorrow.”

Lauren Desberg throws in a familiar standard, “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.” The track is fresh and while Russell Hall walks his double bass, Jonathan Barber slaps a shuffle in place and Kris Bowers plays an unexpected and classical type piano lick. It makes for a nice listen and gives the listener a recognizable song they can hum along to. Braxton Cook’s saxophone adds a nice, jazzy touch. She only sings two standards. The second is Rogers & Hammerstein tune, “The Sweetest Sounds” establishing her as a singer who can excel at pop and jazz. I do feel that sometimes the production overwhelms the vocals and her voice could have been pulled out in the mix, just a hair. On the whole, this is an enjoyable voyage into waters that bubble around a very talented vocalist and songwriter.

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NATALIE CRESSMAN & IAN FAQUINI – “SETTING RAYS OF SUMMER” Cressman Music

Natalie Cressman, trombone/vocals/producer; Ian Faquini, guitar/vocals/producer

This is a duo whose music projects a folk/world music attitude and beauty. Ian Faquini and Natalie Cressman each have lovely voices that sound delightful in solo settings and mesh warmly, like sunshine sparkling on calm seas, when they harmonize. Their music rolls over us in gentle waves. All the music is composed by Ian Faquini and Ms. Cressman lends her lyrical poetry. They sing mostly in Portuguese, sometimes in French, but for the most part his acoustic guitar and her trombone celebrate Brazilian roots. Both artists have albums of their own. This is Cressman’s fifth release as a leader and Faquini’s third. Together, it becomes their debut collaboration. The opening song is titled, “Tere” and the story is explained in the liner notes. It is an angry, social outcry deriding the violence against women. I wish they had included English lyrics in their album jacket, because the majority of these songs are not sung in English.

Faquini’s guitar is busy, rhythmic and incorporates baiao, samba and ijexa in the various arrangements. Ijexa is a Brazilian folk music influenced greatly by African rhythms. Natalie Cressman has penned the French lyrics to the “L’aube” song. This is followed by “Debandada” imploring the ijexa musical legacy. She plays a soothing trombone solo on this composition. We hear her sing in English on the title tune, “Setting Rays of Summer.” It has a very compelling melody and Natalie Cressman’s sincere and intimate vocal delivery sells the song and shines against Ian Faquini’s sensitive guitar accompaniment. Cressman wrote these lyrics too. Their voices duet and dance on “Mandingueira” in Portuguese. It is an up-tempo composition that begs for a drummer and a percussionist. Faquini himself adds vocal percussiveness at the introduction. Perhaps it is the simplicity of this production that beckons the listener to come closer, with open hearts, and to soak up the purity of their musical message. This music is not what I would call jazz, but it is drenched in the folklore and the hypnotic rhythms and language of Brazil. It’s a sweet listen.

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BEATA PATER – “TET” B&B Records

Beata Pater, vocal; Hiromu Aoki, piano; Dan Feiszli bass; Brynn Albanese & Emily Lanzone, violin; Peter Jandula-Hudson, viola; Barbara Spencer, cello; Steffen Kuehn, trumpet/flugelhorn; John Gove, trombone; Meredith Brown, French horn; Aaron Lington, bass clarinet/flute.

This is Beata Pater’s ninth CD release and “Tet,” the album title, is the ninth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, as well as the symbol for nine. In numerology it stands for completion. Beata Pater explained her description of “Tet.”

“It is symbolic of creativity; a vessel which holds something within a womb for creation. Goodness is hidden within it.”

Opening with the Freddie Hubbard gem of a tune, “Little Sunflower”, Beata Pater’s smoky voice tenderly caresses his song. There is something about this vocalists’ voice that creates a signature sound, much like the great Morgana King or the memorable Shirley Horn. Once you hear Beata Pater, you will remember her sound. She has a unique tremolo, along with her rich alto tones that suddenly soar into a sweet, second soprano. She slides sleepily and laid-back up and down the scale on “It’s a Lazy Afternoon.”

Pater’s vocalization is hypnotic. Hiromu Aoki’s piano solo tinkles the upper register, with the string ensemble beautifully cushioning their arrangement. It’s an intriguing arrangement that highlights Beata Pater’s vocals, expertly framing the colorful tones of her voice. There’s also the hint of an accent to uniquely make her style unforgettable. She tackles some challenging melodies on this album like Chick Corea’s “Crystal Silence” and the haunting song, “Invitation.” Alex Danson’s string arrangements are stunning, as are the rhythm section arrangements that Hiromu Aoki and Beata created. As a violinist herself, Beata Pater pulls from her multi-musical talents and worldwide experiences. After all, she draws from Polish roots, has lived in England, and spent a decade in Japan. Currently, she has settled in San Francisco.

On this project, she scats and plays with the familiar “Old Devil Moon” tune, making it one of the few up-tempo arrangements she offers us. With her serious classical studies and playing concert violin for several years in her native Poland, she brings a fresh face to these old standards, perhaps thinking more like a violinist than a vocalist. During the ten years she spent playing, teaching and performing in Japan, she met Aoki, who is one of Tokyo’s top, first-call accompanist for singers. They work well together, with neither afraid to jump off the mountain top without a parachute.

In celebration of her album title, Beata Pater has recorded nine songs and puts her own stamp on each one. This project is a tribute to modern jazz singing and arranging. Beata Pater has surrounded herself with outstanding musicians who play beautifully behind her unique and one-of-a-kind voice. She is the epitome of jazz, in her own delightful way.

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JUDY WEXLER – “CROWDED HEART” Jewel City Jazz

Judy Wexler, vocals/producer; Alan Pasqua, piano/melodica/whistling/co-producer/arranger; Larry Koonse, guitar; Josh Johnson, alto saxophone; Bob Sheppard, alto flute; Stefanie Fife, cello; Darek Oles, bass; Steve Hass, drums; Aaron Serfaty, percussion.

Vocalist, Judy Wexler, has chosen ten songs for this project, some by a group of younger composers on the jazz scene. A few of them are female jazz singers like Sinne Egg and René Marie. Sinne Egg’s “Crowded Heart” song is an extraordinary composition with a creative, challenging and lovely melody. It is the title tune of this album of fine jazz. Alan Pasqua’s arrangements shine on this song and all the others. Judy’s interpretation of Grammy Award Winning composer and artist, Gregory Porter, titled “Painted on Canvas” is sincere. It features a lilting saxophone solo by Josh Johnson. Porter is another fresh composer of lyrical jazz compositions that tickle the brain. “Stars” by Fred Hersch and Norma Winstone, becomes another fabulous pick, joining this abundant basket of winning compositions for Wexler to interpret. It allows Pasqua’s flying fingers to sound-paint original pictures on piano and Judy Wexler is once again challenged by a difficult melody with unusual intervals. She rises to that challenge fearlessly. Wexler has good pitch and enunciates perfectly, so her audience can enjoy every poetic nuance of the lyrics. However, her tone is sometimes quite nasal. This may cause her style to lean towards an acquired taste.

Alan Broadbent and Georgia Mancio’s “The Last Goodbye” is one of my favorites on this recording. This composition, tenderly explored by Judy Wexler, highlights her natural, chest register and her lower tones. The lyrics are rich and captivating.

In fact, all the lyrics of these well-chosen songs are beautifully written and gently scratch at the palate of the listener’s creative heart. Another song that rewards and inspires is René Marie’s “Take My breath Away.” The striking guitar of Larry Koonse introduces her final tune, “And We Will Fly.” This is arranged as a sultry, ebullient Brazilian song with Wexler’s voice bubbling happily above the ensemble. Steve Hass is king on drums.

Judy Wexler and her band of mighty men (plus Stephanie Fife on cello) celebrate songs we’ve heard but may not have listened to. They encourage us to appreciate newer, more modern composers and great lyrics. I commend her for steering away from the over-sung standards and choosing such a royal and ear-opening repertoire.
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PUSHING BOUNDARIES: JOYFUL AND STRAIGHT-AHEAD

May 7, 2019

PUSHING BOUNDARIES: JOYFUL AND STRAIGHT-AHEAD
By Dee Dee McNeil

May 7, 2019

JOHNATHAN BLAKE – “TRION” Giant Step Arts

Johnathan Blake, drums; Chris Potter, tenor saxophone; Linda May Han Oh, bass.

This is a two-record set that features the amazing dexterity and charisma of drummer, Johnathan Blake. On Disc 2, (that for some reason I listen to first) Blake opens cut #1. titled, “Bedrum,” with a flurry of trap drum power and innovation. No other instruments are necessary. He says it all. The next tune titled, “Good Hope” is a platform for Chris Potter, on tenor saxophone, Linda May Han Oh on bass and Blake on drums to explore Potter’s original composition. This song was originally inspired by South Africa and Potter uses a unique percussive approach on his saxophone. Blake is expert and captivating on his drum set.

The album title, “Trion,” is a physics term that determines a singlet state formed from three atoms of different colors. Blake originally created this trio as a collective. They called themselves, the BOP Trio, inspired not only by a reference to bebop, but definitely representing the initials of each member’s last name (Blake, Oh and Potter). They’ve been playing together for some time, not only as BOP, but in various other musical settings. Consequently, there is a chemistry and closeness evident on this recording. This music was captured and recorded ‘live’ at New York City’s famed Jazz Gallery before a spellbound audience. Blake plays drums with fire and power. He commands the attention throughout this recording. Johnathan Blake has jazz running through his DNA. His father was the late jazz violinist, John Blake Jr.

Linda May Han Oh begins the introduction of the “Eagle” composition on her bass. Both she and reed master, Chris Potter are impressive modern jazz players. Ms. Oh is given a lengthy opportunity to solo during this composition and throughout this recording. Potter is creative and formidable on his tenor axe, lending consistent powerful solos.

“I’m in awe of both Linda and Chris. This was a really beautiful chance for us to make some honest music together and I really enjoyed the process. We all felt very comfortable in the cordless format. We really know how to fill up the space without getting in each other’s way, which gives each one of us the opportunity to have our shining moments,” Blake shared his appreciation for his bandmates in his liner notes.

Blake, also a composer, wrote some original music for this project that reflects his early days, growing up in Philadelphia’s Germantown and embracing the hip hop and funk music of his younger years, incorporating it smoothly into a jazz format. This trio’s music definitely reflects freedom as they continuously explore expert and creative improvisation.
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MARK DRESSER SEVEN – “AIN’T NOTHING BUT A CYBER COUP & YOU” Cleanfeed Records

Mark Dresser, double bass /Mclagan Tines/composer; Nicole Mitchell, flute/alto flute/piccolo; Marty Ehrlich, clarinet/bass clarinet/alto saxophone; Keir Gogwilt, violin; Michael Dessen, trombone; Joshua White, piano; Jim Black, drums/percussion.

“Black Arthur’s Bounce” opens this CD. Bassist/leader, Mark Dresser has composed this song and all ten of the compositions on this album. His opening tune is avant-garde, with plenty of dissonance and shocking horn harmonies to awaken the senses. It’s written in memory of alto saxophonist, Arthur Blythe, who left a legacy of experimental and extreme modern jazz for the public to consume. Nicole Mitchell’s flute adds brightness and bounce to these dark chords. This is a twelve-minute tune, allowing each ensemble member to step forward and spray improvisational notes all over the place. Joshua White’s piano solo provokes my attention. He’s fluid, strong and attacks his solo with two-fisted, ten-finger power. Jim Black, on drums, never stops inspiring these musicians. His trap drums beat consistently and tenaciously throughout, propelling each song and accenting each musician’s creative improvisation. Here is a musical excursion into the outer limits. Both Marty Ehrlich (reedman) and leader Mark Dresser played with Arthur Blythe’s band before his departure from this Earth on March 27, 2017. Consequently, there is a warm and close connection to their friend and musical mentor.

The waltz composition, “Gloaming” is very melodic and beautiful, showing the tender side of Dresser. The violin addition by Keir Gogwilt sings sweetly. There is no question, Dresser writes lovely melodies and the tunes inspire the spirit, if the listener can let go and dive deep. Between the composed works, Dresser includes short bass solos and improvisations on the McLagan Tines. The McLagan Times instrument is a set of seven graduated steel rods, looking similar to a kalimba, but with larger, rounder tines. This may be another salute to Arthur Blythe, who always included various odd and little-known instruments into his concerts and recordings.

The title tune, “Ain’t Nothing but a Cyber Coup & You” cries out to his public in an activist voice, perhaps referring to the Russian intervention into our elections and using the internet to hack, mislead and influence American voters. In his liner notes, Dresser gives credit for this composition and title to a column written by journalist, Paul Krugman, a New York Times opinion columnist. Dresser describes his piece as an honorarium to the current “reality-horror-show of corruption, malice, xenophobia and class warfare” apparent under the current administration and trickling from the top, downward.

“Let Them Eat Paper Towels” is another protest title that refers to the horrible way Donald Trump treated the victims of Hurricane Maria upon visiting a devastated Puerto Rico. Any news-watcher will recall how America’s rogue president visited the island and shocked us by disrespectfully tossing paper towels into the crowd. The bass line of this tune is an abstraction of the melody of “Que Bonita Bandera” that is the unofficial national anthem of Puerto Rico. Dresser built the counter-lines on this musical basement.

All in all, this is an hour’s worth of creative, ethereal and modern jazz expression, encapsulated and cushioned in avant-garde arrangements and the freedom of technically trained and proficient musicians who showcase Mark Dresser’s composing skills.
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PABLO LENOUGUERE – “ECLECTICO” Independent Label

Pablo Lanouguere, upright & electric bass/composer; Nick Danielson, violin; Fredrico Diaz, guitar; Emilio Teubal, piano; Franco Pinna, drums; Fernando Otero & Antonio Boyadjian, synthesizer.

Argentinian bassist, Pablo Lenouguere, is a composer who offers a dozen original tunes on this album. Born in Buenos Aires, he earned a degree in jazz from the Escuela de Musica Popular de Avellaneda. Six years ago, he moved to New York. His original music embraces modern tango, classical music and his Argentine culture. The first composition showcases the strength and character of his drummer, Franco Pinna. Pianist, Emilio Teubal, plays a very classical role on this track. Pablo Lenouguere’s composition titled, “Piano Piano” features time changes that create suspense and space for his ensemble to improvise, with Nick Danielson’s violin often playing in unison with the piano’s melodic lines. On Cut #3, “Villa,” Lanouguere steps forward on his bass to also sing the tune’s melody, doubling with the piano once again. His compositions are very classically influenced and sometimes melodically repetitious. Lenouguere’s style seems to be based in looping the melodies. These melodies play over and overagain during these compositions, the way hip-hop artists loop their background music. The difference is, this production is quite classical, dramatic and splashed with Tango elements.

https://www.youtube.com/user/pablolanouguere

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MARK TURNER MEETS GARY FOSTER Capri Records

Gary Foster, alto saxophone; Mark Turner, tenor saxophone; Putter Smith, bass; Joe LaBarbera, drums.

On this recording, you will find long, suite-like pieces of music, featuring alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, bass and drums. With the dynamic Putter Smith on bass and the iconic Joe LaBabera at the drums, Mark Turner and Gary Foster are left with plenty of room for saxophone freedom of expression. This project was recorded live and encompasses a two-CD set of brilliant bebop and straight-ahead music. This first tune, “Background Music” offers twelve minutes of recording space for each of these four master musicians to explore their instruments and spotlight their sparkling talents. Below is a recording that features Gary Foster with Joe LaBabera, John Heard on bass and Jimmy Rowles manning the piano.

Although three decades separate Foster and Turner, there is a kindred spirit that connects them musically. Gary Foster, born May 25, 1936, has played on soundtracks that celebrate the work of such iconic artists as Toshiko Akioshi, Lew Tabackin, Barbra Streisand, Mel Torme, Frank Sinatra and too many more to list. He’s been around the jazz and music scenes for over half a century and his talents have meshed with Clare Fischer, Louie Bellson, Jimmy Rowles, Poncho Sanchez and Cal Tjader. Gary Foster’s influences on saxophone embrace historic players like Charlie Parker, Lester Young and Stan Getz. He moved from Leavenworth, Kansas to Los Angeles in 1961 and established a friendship with the great composer/arranger Clare Fischer and composer/tenor saxophonist, Warne Marsh. In fact, Marsh composed the opening song on this album. Foster is a popular studio musician who can easily adapt to any musical style. He plays pop music as flawlessly as jazz and also enjoys his work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the L.A. Opera orchestra. He has also played on Grammy, Emmy, and Oscar-winning soundtracks.

Mark Turner is a Scorpio, born in 1965, nearly thirty years after Gary Foster’s birth. Turner grew up in Fairborn, Ohio, the son of a family whose house was always full of jubilant music. In their African-American, mid-western home, there was R&B, jazz, soul and gospel being played consistently. In elementary school, young Turner played clarinet before gravitating to the saxophone. His professional parents instilled in him a strong work ethic. In search of becoming the best he could be, young Turner studied the music of Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Lester Young, John Coltrane and Warne Marsh, to name just a few. Little did he suspect that one day he would meet and play with someone who had been a dear friend of Warne Marsh. Turner graduated Berklee College of Music in 1990 and recorded five albums of his own. He has developed a style that leans heavily on melodic resourcefulness and modern jazz creativity. For example, listen to the ingenuity he uses during the cadenza introduction to the standard, “Come Rain or Come Shine.” But there is a story behind this unique recording with Gary Foster. Foster explained their meeting this way.

“What follows is my recollection of the details of the concert that became the new Capri CD. It was February 2003. Mark Masters brought Mark Turner to perform on a concert series that Masters and faculty member of Claremont College, Ron Teeples, had established at the school. I had heard, but had not met Mark Turner prior to that date. We had one brief rehearsal. The inclusion of the Konitz-Marsh-Tristano originals and the standards were common repertoire and were chosen at that rehearsal. All of the Claremont events were recorded and, I believe, that when Mark Masters and Tom Burns decided to release this CD, the original recording required no sound or performance editing. Masters, Turner and I were together in 2017 for the Capri recording “Our Metier” and spoke then of the 2003 concert at Claremont,” Mr. Foster told me.

Because these two horn players share mutual idols including Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh and Lennie Tristano, in spite of the fact that they had not played together until that 2003 college concert, they sound perfectly matched, inventive and comfortable on this recording. Additionally, you will enjoy their interpretation of the Sonny Red tune, “Teef” and thrown in for good measure, two quickly recognized standards; “What’s New?” and “Come Rain or Come Shine.”
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BILLY BRANDT – “CITY NOIR” Independent Label

Billy Brandt, vocals/composer/guitar; Chris Symer, acoustic & elec. bass; Emmanuel del Casal, acoustic bass; Jamie Maschler, accordion; Bradley Hawkins, cello; Tim Kennedy & John Hansen, piano; Alexey Nikolaev, saxophone; Jeff Bush, percussion; Brad Boal, drums/bongo; Jamael Nance, drums; Brian Monroney, acoustic guitar/12-string guitar/baritone guitar; Joe Doria, Hammond B3 Organ; David Arteaga, Hans Brehmer, Kelly Ash & Darelle Holden, backup vocals.

Based in Seattle, Billy Brandt is a composer, vocalist, guitarist and bandleader. This album is based on his concept of a black and white film of Seattle City, portraying lives and scenes with poetry, lyrics and music that he has composed. The music is a blend of jazz, R&B and soul music. To my ears, he sounds like a storyteller/songwriter rather than a jazz singer. His music is more blues than jazz, and leans more towards soul and R&B. Brandt’s lyrics reflect contemporary city life and the people entrapped in big, city blues and struggle. From the “Frances Doesn’t Care for the Blues” tune to “Ooh Sha Dooby,” (the title garnered from a Rolling Stone tune), he paints lyrical pictures of hard times and dead-end streets. The composer is definitely a poet and his lyrics are strikingly picturesque. However, musically, his melodies are repetitive and sound more like folk music than jazz; almost rock-folk. His product appears to be more like a songwriter’s well-produced demo, than an artist’s album. The band makes this record praiseworthy. At the end of his production, the addition of David Arteaga as a background vocal on the Cuban Reprise of “Ooh Sha Dooby,” rejuvenates Brandt’s composition and brings life to this project.
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ERNEST TURNER – “MY AMERICANA” Independent Label

Ernest Turner, piano; Lance Scott Jr., bass; Jon Curry, drums.

As energy and awesome musicianship leaps from my CD player, I’m enthralled. Ernest Turner comes out like a heavy weight boxer, strong and challenging on the piano. “Return of Thanos” is an exciting original composition and one of three that Turner has composed and arranged for this production. He is ably assisted in the delivery of an outstanding jazz project by Lance Scott Jr., on bass and Jon Curry, dynamic on drums. Turner punches his piano with two-fisted determination. Jon Curry smashes his trap drums in the most amazing way.

“Dienda” is a lovely ballad composed by Kenny Kirkland. I once heard Sting sing this song and it’s very beautiful, both melodically and lyrically. The melodic bass lines of Lance Scott Jr., support Ernest Turner’s musical storytelling in a rhythmic and sensitive way.

“In thinking about “My Americana,” I wanted to cover songs that reflected how I grew up. So I focused on what I call the ‘Black American songbook,’ including songs from the church and spiritual traditions, while running the pop/jazz gamut from Stevie Wonder to Thelonious Monk and Kenny Kirkland,” Turner explained in his liner notes.

Both artistic and creative, this pianist has worked with iconic musicians including Frank Foster, the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, the Heath Brothers, Ron Blake, Nnenna Freelon and some of the Marsalis family; like Delfeayo and Jason. He’s also leant his piano mastery to ‘pop’ and soulful arenas including a collaboration with John Legend on his recent Christmas album.

Every song on this album is well-played and enjoyable, from “Monk’s Dream” to the Fats Waller standard of “Ain’t Misbehavin” and the Stevie Wonder Classic, “If It’s Magic.” He blesses us with Thomas Dorsey’s classic church hymn, “Precious Lord” and finalizes his CD with the Civil Rights hymnal, “We Shall Overcome.” Well done!
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CHRISTIAN LI & MIKE BONO – “VISITORS” Tone Rogue Records

Mike Bono, guitar; Christian Li, piano; Jared Henderson, bass; Lee Fish, drums; Alex Hargreaves, violin; Chris Marion, strings; Dayna Stephens, saxophone; Jimmy Macbride, drums.

Mike Bono’s guitar solo becomes the focus on his opening composition titled, “Puddles.” Although this is a small ensemble, their arrangements are plush and fat. I regret that it took me so long to listen to this well-written and well-played CD.

Christian Li has composed the second cut, “Little Rascals” and the pianist’s racing fingers, paired with an improvised drum solo by Lee Fish splashes into my room with colorful improvisation and creativity. Bono and Li have composed all of this repertoire for their production and the compositions are memorable. This is quality improvised music, utilizing piano and guitar as the centerfold of arrangements that spreads open like a glossy, well-read magazine. Here is imaginative and sensuous music that incorporates Alex Hargreaves violin excellence, Dayna Stephens saxophone skills, and Jared Henderson’s double bass. Chris Marion adds synthesized strings on track nine and along with the drum power of Lee Fish, Jimmy Macbride plays trap drums on a couple of tracks. These music masters project Bono and Li’s original compositions with gusto and technical precision. You will hear an improvisational and melodic beauty to every arrangement.
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TIERNEY SUTTON BAND – “SCREENPLAY” BFM Jazz

Tierney Sutton, vocals; Christian Jacob, piano; Kevin Axt, & Trey Henry, bass; Ray Brinker, drums/percussion. SPECIAL GUESTS: Serge Merlaud, guitar; Alan Bergman, vocals.

Tierney Sutton has a voice as warm and inviting as a summer sunrise. This outstanding jazz vocalist has chosen to interpret songs from screenplays as her project’s theme. She opens with the popular and haunting song, “The Windmills of Your Mind,” an Academy Award winning composition by Michel Legrand with lyrics penned by the Bergman’s. Not only is Ms. Sutton an interpreter of the lyrical content, she lends believability to the stories. Tierney Sutton ventures easily into scat singing, using the full power of her vocal excellence and whimsical imagination.

One of the outstanding things about this project are the arrangements. On her first song, for example, with only sparse accompaniment, Tierney Sutton’s voice sings legato above Christian Jacob’s piano and the creative drum licks of Ray Brinker. Sutton draws us into the melody with her inventive arrangement of this tune. Her choice of songs explores nearly eighty years of American film. You will be entertained by fifteen tracks of familiar music including, “Moon River,” that always recalls the Breakfast at Tiffany’s movie. She makes this presentation a medley, adding “Calling You,” and borrowing this arrangement from one of my favorite Natalie Cole albums, while she and Trey Henry add a little arrangement twist of their own.

Other familiar songs you will enjoy are, “How Do you Keep the Music Playing,” “If I Only Had A Brain” from the Wizard of Oz, and “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” On the popular standard, “On A Clear Day,” Christian Jacob is dynamite on piano. The double-time trap drums, by Ray Brinker, masterfully inject a spirited pulse into this tune. Tierney Sutton and her band always entertain with excellence and creativity, painting each arrangement with fresh colors and allowing the brightness of Sutton’s soprano voice to apply the finishing touches.
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SMALL COMBOS WITH BIG SOUNDS

April 27, 2019

By Dee Dee McNeil / jazz journalist

April 27, 2019

JORDON DIXON – “ON!” Independent label

Jordon Dixon, tenor saxophone; Allyn Johnson, piano; Herman Burney, bass; Carroll V. Dashiell III, drums; J. S. Williams, trumpet.

Composer, tenor saxophone player, Jordon Dixon has a gritty, blues-laced sound on his horn. On the first composition, “Notes From the Nook,” and one of my favorite cuts on this CD, his ensemble steps out with a bang. Pianist, Allyn Johnson, is featured and is a member of the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) faculty. He spearheads their jazz program. Once Jordon Dixon offers up his melody, groove and inspired saxophone solo, Johnson lays down his own improvisational beauty on the grand piano.

Bassist, Herman Burney, has been greatly influenced by the church, inspired by artists like Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin and James Cleveland. In younger years he played clarinet, drums and tuba, before embracing his love for the bass instrument. This could have been inspired by the booming bass voice of his father, who sang the bass part in an a‘Capella group.

Drummer, Carroll V. Dashiell III has a stellar resume. Among many accomplishments, he was the Kelvin Washington Orchestra drummer. Then, from 2005 – 2012, he performed on the Congressional Black Caucus Awards Television Show, with the Clarence Knight Orchestra. He also has his own CD release, “Heir to the Throne.”

The talented group leader, Jordon Dixon, is a native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He began playing saxophone at twelve-years-old. By the time he was a teen, you could see him sitting-in at the local jam sessions where folks realized and praised his talent and determination. When he turned nineteen, Dixon joined the U.S. Marines and for the next eleven years, he played his horn with their orchestra. Once honorably discharged, he pursued a music education degree at UDC. Jordon Dixon was heralded by the Washington City Paper as “the Best Tenor Saxophonist of 2016.” This album clearly supports that tribute. His lovely ballad, “We Kin” whose title I interpret two ways, an homage to family and a slang spelling of ‘we can,’ has got a lilting, afro-Cuban feel that stages a groove and platform for Jordon Dixon to explore and share his tenor talents. The title tune, “On!” is ethereal and unfolds in a magical way with arpeggio piano and a heavy brush of cymbals. Then it bebops into my room with a swagger, like a well-dressed, eye-candy, catching my undivided attention.

Dixon’s composer skills are evident and the players mesh and blend into each other comfortably, like old friends or family. I enjoy Burney’s big, beautiful bass skills on the double bass. When he opens the next tune, “Flame and Friction” he establishes the melody and sings it strongly before Dixon and his guest trumpeter, J.S. Williams, join him. This is a deep-seeded blues number that gives Williams an opportunity to strut his trumpet stuff with excellence and verve. This quickly becomes another one of my favorites on this remarkable recording. I do love me some good blues! All in all, I would have to say that every single cut on this album is worthy of several enjoyable listening experiences. Jordon Dixon is an important member of the Washington, D.C. jazz community and bound to make a prominent, soulful and hard-bop-mark on the worldwide jazz scene with this release.
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EHUD ASHERIE TRIO – “WILD MAN BLUES” Capri Records, Ltd.

Ehud Asherie, piano; Peter Washington, bass; Rodney Green, drums.

This is an entertaining and creative exploration into early New Orleans jazz by pianist Ehud Asherie. His dynamic trio opens with the title tune, “Wild Man Blues,” a Louis Armstrong composition. This melodic journey gives us an opportunity to meet all three players; Asherie on piano, Peter Washington, persuasive on bass and Rodney Green, forceful and tasty on drums.

“Parker’s Mood gives the ‘blues’ a twirl around the compact disc dance floor. They pick up the pace on “Flying Down to Rio,” and clearly Ehud Asherie has the chops and the timing to explore the outer limits of this tune with integrity and technique on the grand piano. He has chosen a repertoire that embraces the American song book and adds popular jazz standards for good measure. His interpretation of “Chasin’ the Bird” Is fresh and ear-appealing. His piano arrangement embraces the contrapuntal, two-horn lines in a very innovative way on the 88-keys.

A fresh face on the international jazz scene, born in 1979, Asherie is a native of Israel, who lived for six years in Italy and then moved to New York with his family. Surprisingly, he is largely self-taught and cut his jazz teeth sitting in at Smalls in NYC and becoming a fixture at the jam sessions. The late Frank Hewitt took young Asherie under his wing and mentored him. He has studied and mastered the art of stride piano and he can swing with the best of them. One of his acclaimed albums celebrates the music of Eubie Blake. He also plays organ and has recorded duet projects featuring saxophonist, Harry Allen. His recording accomplishments include being one of the players on “Boardwalk Empire” that won the 2010 Grammy Award for the soundtrack of that HBO televised program. Both Peter Washington and Rodney Green are genuine forces in their own musical rights and add spice and flavor to this project.
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AKIRA TANA & OTONOWA “AI SAN SAN – LOVE’S RADIANCE” Vega Records

Akira Tana, drums/fan drums/bongos; Noriyuki Ken Okada, bass; Art Hirahara, piano; Masaru Koga, tenor & soprano saxophones/flute/shakuhachi; GUEST MUSICIANS: Shoko Hikage, koto (Japanese zither); Kenny Endo, taiko & percussion; Tetsuya Tatsumi, cornet.

The First tune, “Antagata Dokosa” is a traditional Japanese song arranged in such a way that the group seems to celebrate John Coltrane in style and presentation. It’s bebop smart, melodic and straight-ahead. I think to myself, if this is a sample of the music I’m about to hear, I’m all in!

But the second song becomes a tribute to pan-piper music. “Ai San San”, the title tune is poignant and features Masaru Koga moving from tenor saxophone to flute. Although well-played, it’s a pretty drastic change from the first composition and arrangement. The flute he plays is the shakuhachi flute and the song is also featuring Kenny Endo on taiko drums. However, when you set the bar so high on the first tune, to trade straight-ahead jazz magic for smooth jazz is a bit shocking to the senses.

The third tune is another moderate-tempo ballad. It’s not until I read the liner notes that I realize what this group of musicians called, Otonowa, is trying to accomplish. They are arranging traditional Japanese songs into jazz and, at the same time, making tribute to the people affected by that horrific Eastern earthquake and tsunami that occurred in March of 2011. That nature-event destroyed much of the coastal regions of Northern Japan and claimed over 20,000 lives. This Cd is made to pay homage to the survivors and those who lost their lives to this terrible event. “Ai San San” translates to “Love’s Radiance.”

The fifth tune is joyful, arranged by bassist Noriyuki Ken Okada, and is obviously based on the Sonny Rollins hit, “St. Thomas.” It gives us an opportunity to enjoy the likes of drum maestro, Akira Tana, and the bass perfection of Okada-san. The sixth composition, “Hamabe No Uta,” reminds me of the sensitivity and melodic beauty of “Danny Boy,” a beloved Irish composition, enjoyed worldwide. On composition number 7, “Summer” (a theme from “Kikujiro No Natsu”), master drummer, Akira Tana cuts loose and shows off his powerful ‘chops.’ On cut #8, we return to the energy of the opening song. It’s been composed to remember and tribute Coltrane and it’s titled, “Taiyo Ni Hoero” with notable arrangements by bassist, Okada. Art Hirahara shines brilliantly on piano, Akira Tana keeps the rhythm section pumped up on trap drums and Masaru Koga flies powerfully on his horn, like a wild eagle into the wind. Akira Tana takes to the bongos on “Kando,” introducing this tune rhythmically before the ensemble joins him. This composition has an afro-Cuban-feel to it, blended uniquely with Asian minor chords and melodies. It was written in tribute to Chris Kando lijima, a pioneer of the Asian/American movement and founder of Asian Americans for Action, a civil rights organization of the sixties. Finally, they close with Horace Silver’s popular composition, “Peace.” This is World Music, flavored by Japanese culture and interpreted using American jazz as the catalyst.
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SKIP WILKINS QUARTET FEATURING DANIEL WILKINS – “CZECH WISHES” New Port line

Skip Wilkins, piano; Tomas “Kastan” Baros, bass; Marek Urbanek, drums; Daniel Wilkins, tenor saxophone; Miroslav Hloucal, trumpet/flugelhorn.

Daniel Wilkins has a sweet, husky sound on his tenor saxophone as he opens this CD with a tune titled, “Teacher.”. Daniel and Skip Wilkins have been collaborating musically since 2012, when they released a Cd titled, “Father and Son. Skip is the father and his son, Daniel, is his featured saxophonist on this project. It was developed after Skip Wilkins travelled, on tour, to the Czech Republic and fell in love with their music, art and culture. Consequently, these original compositions mirror a Prague/ Pennsylvania connection. Beginning with his “Teacher” composition. I think, perhaps it reflects the sabbatical he took from Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania to write a collection of original works. However,the liner notes tell me it was written for his Czech language teacher.

For a decade, Skip Wilkins had an opportunity to teach and perform throughout Europe. But it was the Czech Republic that stuck an arrow into the heart of his music. Below, view one of his ‘live’ performances at AghaRTA Jazz Club in Prague.

Wilkins has incorporated young Czech musicians into this project. In 2016, the logistical planning for “Czech Wishes” began. That’s when Skip Wilkins began composing for this CD. It was January of that year, and he was touring. He knew what Czech musicians he was going to use, and they are the ones listed above, including Miroslav Hloucal, a virtuoso trumpeter. I enjoyed his solo on the first cut.
Skip Wilkins writes very melodically and plays piano with passionate exuberance. His arrangements leave plenty of room for these musicians to showcase their individual talents. Daniel Wilkins brings saxophone fire and energy to the group. Marek Urbanek shows his drum skills, especially obvious on “Munchkins of Karlovy Vary” where the ensemble swings hard and up-tempo. Urbanek takes advantage of the appropriate breaks in the arrangement, showing awesome prowess on his trap drums. On “The Box-Checkers” you can hear the grit and gusto in Tomas “Kastan” Baros’ bass playing. He’s walking that double bass at a swift pace, chasing Skip Wilkins’ bright piano licks and flying fingers.

This is an album full of bright, harmonic horn lines, fresh compositions and inspiring arrangements. All the musicians are skillful and their repertoire covers hard bop, blues, Ballads, and a blend of American and Czech jazz that captivates and entertains.
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BEN WINKELMAN TRIO: MATT PENMAN, OBED CALVAIRE – “BALANCE” OA2 Record Label

Ben Winkelman, piano; Matt Penman, bass; Obed Calvaire, drums.

Pianist/composer, Ben Winkelman was born in Eugene, Oregon, but grew up in Melbourne, Australia. He’s been living and working in New York City since 2010. This is his fifth album release and his goal is to find balance between composition and improvisation; planning and spontaneity. His music is wrapped in the originality of his compositions as he and his trio strive for balance between the intellectual and the intuitive. I am drawn into his work on the third tune titled, “Wheels.” It’s hard bop at its best, with Winkelman’s fingers flying across the keys precisely and with astute technique. Matt Penman is up for the challenge, making the double bass swing and sing at maximum speed. His bass solo is beautiful and his timing is impeccable. Obed Calvaire, on drums, pushes the trio energy with maximum, but tasty power, soloing on the fade. Yes, this tune sounds gospel-based, but races straight-ahead, like its title, “Wheels” that could be attached to cars at the Indianapolis 500 races.

“Santiago” is beautifully performed by Winkelman, taking tender time in the upper-register of the grand piano, with Penman once again creating a lush bottom of bass for the pianist to sit upon.

All tracks have been composed by Ben Winkelman with the one exception, “Bye-Ya” by Thelonious Monk. Winkelman has arranged tune in his own way and states, in liner notes, that Monk is one of his favorite jazz composers. “Merri Creek” becomes a great platform for Obed Calvaire to dance on his trap drums. He and Winkelman seem to have a contrary motion moment at the introduction and before they settle into a moderate tempo, Latin-tinged tune. I enjoy the blend of Latin and straight-ahead that Winkelman integrates within this arrangement.

Winkelman is an award-winning pianist and recording artist, who has utilized grant support from the Australia Council and other arts organizations. He holds a Master of Music degree from SUNY Purchase College and has toured Europe, Asia and extensively in Australia.
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NICK SANDERS TRIO – “PLAYTIME 2050” Sunnyside Communications, Inc.

Nick Sanders, piano/composer; Henry Fraser, bass; Connor Baker, drums.

The cover of Nick Sanders’ album is startling. New Mexico-based artist, Leah Saulnier has painted a young girl in pigtails, wearing a gas mask, cuddling her stuffed rabbit, also donning a gas mask.

“When I first saws the image, I found it really interesting and weird, not to mention starkly different from any artwork I’ve seen in the jazz world. I liked its tongue in cheek look at the state of the world today, with the silver-lining being that it’s clearly about surviving,” explained Sanders.

The Sanders album reflects, in art and music, a warning and inference to protect our air and our planet. It also, by way of Nick Sanders playful piano excellence and the little girl on the cover, seems to personify the innocence and hopefulness that children always reflect in their forgiving, hopeful attitudes. The style and personality of Sanders’ piano delivery has been shaped by his New Orleans roots, combined with his respect and inspiration from mentors like Jason Moran and his love of influential composers like Herbie Nichols, Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman. With that in mind, his “Live Normal” composition, as well as cut two, “Manic Maniac” are both built on solid melodies before stretching out like bubble gum being pulled playfully from a child’s mouth. Sanders stretches the limits as far as arms-length and fingers allow. His improvisations are thoughtful and deliberate. Henry Fraser, on bass, roots the music and holds the chord changes solidly in place, especially noticeable with the sudden time element changes and fluctuations. “Playtime 2050,” the title tune, is more bebop than modern jazz and pleases this listener’s musical palate. Nick Sanders manages to insert his style and new, modern jazz ideas into this tune, with Connor Baker on drums and Fraser’s walking bass becoming the sturdy tree from which Sanders can branch out. There’s a saying in the music community that “you can’t lose when you choose the blues” and the Nick Sanders original composition titled, “Prepared for the Blues” shows us he can get down and dirty with the best of them.

When this young talent first tackled the piano, he was a second-grade student. His classical performances won him numerous regional and national competitions, before jazz lured him away with her sensuous freedom. You can hear the deep classical roots inside Sanders’ collection of thirteen original compositions. During the time of polishing his craft and student studies at the New England Conservatory, he studied with such luminaries as John McNeil, Ran Blake, Cecil McBee and Fred Hersch.
Nick Sanders concludes, “This is my contribution to the idea of pushing the music forward, which I think is extremely crucial in keeping the music alive and culturally important.”
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RUSS JOHNSON – “HEADLANDS” WOOLGATHERINGRECORDS.COM

Russ Johnson, trumpet/composer; Rob Clearfield, keyboard; Matt Ulery, bass; Jon Deitemyer, drums.

In 2015, Russ Johnson was commissioned to premiere a set of compositions for the Hyde Park Jazz Festival in Chicago. The result is this album, a Suite, featuring six compositions connected by solo improvised passages that gives each member of Johnson’s ensemble an opportunity to spread wings and fly. His music is modern jazz, open and elasticized to allow maximum freedom and flexibility by each musician. Johnson’s trumpet enters and calms the fray. With Jon Deitemyer brilliant and bashing on drums, Russ Johnson walks his trumpet to center stage and brings a magical, meditative effect during the second track, titled “Serpent Kane.” His tone is soothing and the stories his horn tells are engaging. Johnson’s trumpet solo morphs into cut #3 titled, “Transition” where Johnson makes an a ‘Capella, solo debut. These ‘transitions’ happen throughout this recording, affording each musician a solo time to make their musical statement. There is no space between tunes, so the suite of music plays smooth and uninterrupted. It’s a compelling and creative album that mixes styles like a thick stew, baked in a modern jazz pie crust and seasoned generously with classical technique.

“This is music that takes risks; the goal is not finding ‘perfection’ within a performance, but to truly create the Suite anew with every new opportunity,” summarizes Russ Johnson.
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DAVE STRYKER – “EIGHT TRACK III” Strikezone Records

Dave Striker, guitar/producer; Stefon Harris, vibraphone; Jared Gold, organ; McClenty Hunter, drums; Mayra Casales, congas/percussion.

I was looking forward to listening to this new Dave Stryker album, because he has a way of using organ and guitar groups to reinvent R&B and funk tunes into very jazzy arrangements. Starting with Curtis Mayfield’s, “Move On Up,” he and Jared Gold on organ establish a swinging rendition of this tune. McClenty Hunter smacks the groove into the production with unrelenting drum licks and Stefon Harris brightens this arrangement on the vibraphone. Cut #2 reaches into the Motown archives and pulls out the popular “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” that the Temptation group turned into Gold record history. Hunter lays down that solid drum lick so popular on the original tune, and they keep the bass line as well. Stryker offers the melody on his capable guitar and Gold’s organ puts the swing into the song. There are some real gems on this album. They’ve reinvented two of Stevie Wonder’s iconic hits including “Joy Inside My Tears” and “Too high”.

The Roy Ayers hit record, “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” will invigorate you on Harris’ stellar solo, but I miss the groove from the original recording. Mayra Casales’ percussive additions help elevate the arrangement. However, the melodic line of this song gets lost in Stryker’s arrangement. The Leon Ware/Marvin Gaye collaboration of “After the Dance” is perfectly re-arranged into a bop-shuffle, with Stryker’s guitar singing the melody atop the rich organ chords of Jared Gold and McClenty Hunter shuffles his drums provocatively to keep the motion moving.

Their interpretation of “We’ve Only Just Begun” composed by Roger Nichols and Paul Williams, is performed as a beautiful ballad, giving space for featured guest, Stefon Harris, to solo on vibes. Karen Carpenter’s amazing vocals are unforgettable. The ensemble swings hard on “This Guy’s in Love With You” a Bacharach and David classic. This arrangement made me wish for a swing dance partner and had me rocking back and forth in my office chair.

Stryker always had in mind creating a trilogy of music by producing three albums that reinvented classic songs from R&B, funk and pop groups, turning them into jazzy standards with his talented trio of musicians. Their repertoire was pulled mostly from the days of Eight Track tape recorders, wide-legged pants and Super Fly attitudes. I enjoyed his first two albums. With the addition of his special guest and friend, Stefon Harris, the trilogy dream is now complete.
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THE OGJB QUARTET – “BAMAKO” TUM Label

Oliver Lake, alto & soprano saxophones; Graham Haynes, cornet/doussin gouni; Joe Fonda, bass; Barry Altschul, drums/percussion/mbira.

From the first strains of music, this quartet has a big sound. They are only four musicians, but they sound like a much larger group. The powerful drums of Barry Altschul immediately grab my attention as they roll and race beneath the opening tune titled, “Listen to Dr. Cornel West.” The modern jazz spewing from my Cd player is aggressive and in-your-face, like the speeches and comments of Dr. West. Saxophonist Oliver Lake and cornet player, Graham Haynes shout at each other and sometimes harmonize tightly, locking horns like arms. Joe Fonda rolls and rubs his double bass, finally stepping out front to take a solo and quieting the other members of this boisterous ensemble. The OGJB Quartet is a collaborative effort based in New York. Members Lake and Altschul are pioneers of modern, improvised music since the 1960s. The other two members, Haynes and Fonda began their association with the genre in the late 70s. All four artists are composers and each is highly acclaimed on their instrument. Haynes, Fonda and Altschul are all New Yorkers. Oliver Lake is a native of St. Louis and respected as one of the founders of the Black Artists Group (BAG). Lake lived briefly in Paris, France and finally settled in New York where he founded the World Saxophone Quartet with David Murray, Julius Hemphill and Hamiet Bluiett. He’s also a co-founder of Trio 3, comprised of himself with Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille.

Flexing a full, rich sound, the OGJB Quartet lifts the listener with music that inspires. This is no easy task, since the expected guitar and/or piano, as part of the rhythm section, is missing. However, it does not hinder or minimize the creative juices of these players and their magnificent presence and sound.

Graham Haynes, on cornet and doussin gouni, grew up in Queens. He enjoys fusing jazz with elements of electronic music and hip-hop. Back in 1979, he and alto saxophonist Steve Coleman played together as a group called Five Elements. Haynes always incorporates African, Arabic and South Asian music into his performances. He too spent time living and playing his horn in Paris before returning to New York. When he’s not performing on stage or touring, you will find him bent over music paper and composing for films.

Joe Fonda attended Berklee College of Music. On bass, he’s recorded with Wadada Leo Smith and has collaborated with Anthony Braxton. Fonda wrote the opening composition, “Listen to Dr. Cornel West”.

On cut #2, Oliver Lake recites his poem, “Broken In Parts” atop the title tune, “Bamako” with Asian sounding music unfolding beneath the spoken word. The music runs like a stream, moving briskly and uniquely in the background. It was written by Graham Haynes and he is featured on the doussin gouni, a guitar-like string instrument from the African continent.

Barry Altschul soars on drums during his solo on the original composition, “GS #2.” He steals the attention with his powerful sticks and technique. Altschul is an old pro, having honed his percussive teeth working with highly influential and iconic musicians like Paul Bley, Anthony Braxton, Chick Corea and Sam Rivers. These were some of the hottest bebop/freebop players to gain notoriety in the 1970s and 80s. After living a decade in Europe, he returned to New York to teach and inspire young musicians. Altschul established the FAB Trio and recorded the “History of Jazz in Reverse” CD and led the 3dom Factor with saxophonist Jon Irabagon and Joe Fonda, both produced for the TUM label. When you wrap all four of these unique and world-class musicians together, they create a quartet offering spontaneous combustion, creativity and jazz originality.
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