Posts Tagged ‘jazz cd reviews’

THE AMAZING GIFT OF JAZZ MUSIC

October 1, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

October 1, 2022

Each month, as the packages of music pour into my post office box, I feel grateful to be one of the people listening and writing about these amazing and creative jazz project.  I remember when jazz journalists used to come out to our shows and review our performances. I recall when Leonard Feather documented jazz and jazz artists, creating legacy books. I miss local L.A. journalists like Bill Kohlhaase and Bob Camden, who came out to venues and listened to ‘live’ jazz. As this holiday season grows closer, remember to give the amazing gift of jazz.

ALEX ACUÑA “GIFTS”  – Le Coq Records                                                  

Alex Neciosup Acuña, drums/percussion/composer; Otmaro Ruiz, piano; John Pena, bass; Ramon Stagnaro, guitar; Lorenzo Ferraro, tenor & soprano saxophone; Giovanna Clayton, cello; Michael Stever, trumpet; Diana Acuña & Regina Acuña, vocals.

“Music has been a gift from God to me since I was three years old, when I started to imitate sounds with my mind, my hands and my heart!  My father and my five older brothers were my first musical heroes.  One of the main reasons I played music was to establish relationships and to share the gifts with others.  I still continue to keep nourishing the gift by shining and sharpening it with my friends, playing and displaying what we do best,” Alex Acuña proudly states his inspiration and goal in performing music.

Surrounded by an outstanding cast of musical characters, percussion master Alex Acuña offers us a diverse collection of songs that inspire and lift us. Beginning with Track #1, “In Town,” he lays down a super groove that will have you finger snappin’ and toe tappin.’  The ensemble really grabs my attention on the Joe Zawinul hit composition, “Mercy Mercy.”  John Pena offers a thrilling blues bass guitar at the introduction and Acuña throws down a funk groove that locks the band into place. Ramon Stagnaro rocks on guitar, digging deeply into the blues.

This is followed by an original Alex Acuña tune called “Amandote” that is tender, full of passion and very beautiful.  He co-wrote it with Abraham Laboriel and Rique Pantoja.  This quickly becomes one of my favorite songs on this wonderful album of music. Michael Stever adds his trumpet magic to the mix.  His composition, “Chuncho” is fun, with the percussion driving the tune in a brilliant way and the addition of voices by Diana and Regina Acuña add a festive feeling to the tune. Alex Acuña displays his mastery on percussion, shining brightly in the spotlight.

Alex Acuña is an incredibly talented Peruvian drummer and percussionist, internationally acclaimed from his work with the Mambo King, Pérez Prado, then gigging in Las Vegas with Elvis Presley and later, touring with Weather Report, famous as the fusion, funk band of the 1970s.  This album reunites him with old and extremely talented friends like Ramon Stagnaro on guitar, John Pena on bass and Otmaro Ruiz on piano.  They become his cement-solid rhythm section and were part of “The Unknowns” a group he put together in 1990. This group cut a record called, “Thinking of You.”  So, there is a familiarity and cohesiveness to these musicians that shimmers and shines on every tune.  Lorenzo Ferraro is a powerful Peruvian tenor player who also plays soprano sax on the heart-wrenching ballad, “Divina.” Acuña also adds Giovanna Clayton on cello to beautifully color some of his arrangements.  This is a product sure to please and like its title, a true musical ‘Gift.”

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GRANT GEISSMAN – “BLOOZ” – Futurism Records

Grant Geissman, 1966 Epiphone Riviera guitar/tambourine/shaker/composer/1965 Gibson SG guitar/ 1966 Martin OO-18 acoustic/1954 Gibson Les Paul goldtop; Jim Cox, Hammond B3 organ/piano/ Wurlitzer elec. piano; David Garfield & Emilio Palame, piano; Russell Ferrante, Fender Rhodes electric piano; Trey Henry, upright bass/1968 Fender Precision bass; Kevin Axt, upright bass; Ray Brinker & Bernie Dresel, drums; Tiki Pasillas, congas/timbales/shakere; Kevin Winard, congas/bongos; Robben Ford, 1954/1959 Gibson Les Paul conversion guitar; Josh Smith, FlatV1 guitar; Joe Bonamassa, 1952 Fender Telecaster elec. Guitar; Randy Brecker, trumpet; Tom Scott, tenor saxophone.

Guitarist Grant Geissman winds back time with his “Preach” tune ambling on the scene, straight out of the 1960’s music era.  Geissman is even playing a 1966 Epiphone Riviera guitar. Randy Brecker adds his more contemporary trumpet solo to the mix and it works! The song, “Side Hustle” is another throw-back tune.  There was a dance craze in the 1970s (The Hustle) that took the country by storm when Van McCoy had a big hit record called “The Hustle.” It was played in every discotheque across the globe. The Hustle was a so-called ‘Line’ dance, similar to the Electric Slide and the Wobble that are popular today.  Grant Geissman has composed all the music on this album, borrowing from various varieties of the blues. You’ll hear everything from Rock-a-Billy to ‘Down-home’ blues.   On “Time Enough at Last” he slides into a more jazz fueled blues.  Then on “Fat Back” We’re back to 1970-style blues that was popular in that day and age. Geissman adds Tom Scott to the mix on this one to pump more soul into the tune.  This is a retro album that turns back the hands of time to when soul music and jazz locked hands with the blues and groups like Les McCann and Eddie Harris soared to popularity, along with tunes like Mercy, Mercy that raced to the top of the charts.  Geissman also incorporates the 1950s and 1960s rhythm and blues grooves into his compositions. It’s a nice blend of “Blooz” for his album of the same title.

Track #6 quickly becomes one of my favorites.  Titled “Rage Cage” Grant Geissman shows off his guitar chops atop a strong shuffle beat.  A few of Grant’s licks remind me B.B. King on this tune, and Jim Cox kills it on organ! On “One G and Two J’s” Geissman has based this song on a really old record called “The Hambone”.  I started singing the words along to it. “Hambone, hambone have you heard?  Papa’s gonna buy you a mocking bird.” 

This is an album rich with history, funk, nostalgia and just plain fun. The Geissman composition, “Stranger Danger” is a Straight-ahead blues that makes my foot pat and my head bob with the tempo. I hear shades of Wes Montgomery on a few of Geissman’s licks and the rhythm section is as tight as an unopened champagne bottle, and just as good. Russell Ferrante gets his message across on the black and white keys, while Trey Henry walks his bass beneath Ferrante’s exciting solo.  All the while, Ray Brinker pumps energy into the band on drums. Geissman’s title says it all.  Here you have the “Blooz” in all its colorful and versatile beauty, celebrated by Grant Geissman and his musical, merry men.

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THE ADAM LARSON TRIO – “WITH LOVE, FROM KANSAS CITY” – Outside in Music”

Adam Larson, saxophone; Ben Leifer, bass; John Kizilarmut, drums.


Saxophonist, Adam Larson offers this follow-up album to his very well-received February 2022 album, “With Love from Chicago.”  This time he celebrates Kansas City, a place he moved to in 2019 and is now a leading creative force in a city famous for jazz and jazz musicians.  Once again, Larson offers us his flying, bird-like saxophone solos with a chord less trio, leaving our imaginations to explode along with the music. This time, he features Ben Leifer on bass and John Kizilarmut on drums.  This is the second of a planned trilogy of trio recordings that each celebrates a different city and the impact that place had on Larson’s musicianship and artistry.  Leifer and Kizilarmut were not on the preceding album but are strong musicians in their own right and based in Kansas City. I find Kizilarmut exceptionally creative on drums.  You can clearly hear his technique and attention to both time and melody on the tune, “Life Cycle,” that’s a Latin composition by Larson and swings briskly through the changes.  Adam Larson’s horn sings like a bird on steroids. 

Their rendition of Charlie Parker’s “Chi-Chi” composition is fast and fun.  Ben Leifer is given time to explore his bass solo chops, accompanied duo style by the very creative John Kizilarmut’s drums. “The Jewel” settles the trio down to a slow crawl.  It’s a jazz waltz and Leifer dances along on bass and partners with Larson’s melodic saxophone.  Leifer not only roots the chords and locks in the tempo with Kizilarmut, he also takes an opportunity to play a ’cappella on this tune as a solo piece. They close the album with “Beatitudes” showcasing its pretty melody with a happy Latin-feel to the tempo arrangement. I come away wondering, when does Adam Larson breathe?  His long, legato, expressive lines of saxophone music leave little room to gasp for air.  Impressive!

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JOHN ARAM & THE UNITED UNDERGROUND ORCHESTRA –“RHAPSODY IN RED” – Independent label

John Aram, trombone/bandleader; Tim Garland, composer/tenor saxophone/bass clarinet/flute; Joe Locke, vibraphone; Amy Keys, vocals; Arthur Hnatek, drums; Rob Luft, guitar; Tom Cawley, piano/keyboards; Phil Donkin, upright & electric bass; Tom Walsh & Jeff Baud, trumpet; Matthias Tschopp, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet; Graeme Blevins, saxophone/flute.

“Rhapsody in Red” is the first tune that dances off John Aram’s CD.  Obviously, it’s a redo of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, but with a uniqueness of its own.  Reed player, Tim Garland, is the main composer and one of the featured artists in the United Underground Orchestra.  He and the 12-piece Orchestra pay tribute to George Gershwin’s masterpiece in their own, very original way.   The vibraphone solo by Joe Locke is warm with improvisation and creativity.

Track #2, “We Got a Future” is arranged in a contemporary way, with the bass (Phil Donkin) taking stage center and the vocals of Amy Keys shining like sunrays. Amy has toured as a soloist with Herbie Hancock, as well as singing with just about every pop icon on the planet.  “Black Elk” continues to showcase the warm arrangements by Garland.  This tune steps with one foot in jazz to another foot placed solidly in classical music. These are interesting and artistic arrangements by Tim Garland, reminding me of something Gil Evans would have arranged.  I keep waiting for the Miles Davis trumpet to step through the curtains.  Instead, I thoroughly enjoy the improvisation of Joe Locke on vibraphone and the Swiss-based trombonist and band leader, John Aram blazing away, showcasing his amazing talent.

“I first met Tim Garland in the early 2000s, just after he had started working with Chick Corea.  I had been really influenced by an album Tim recorded called ‘Enter the Fire.’  We recorded an album together in 2003,” John Aram recalled in his press package.

Aram wound up asking Garland if he would be interested in writing a suite of music for a band John Aram was putting together.  That group would eventually be comprised of musicians from London, Switzerland and the United States and become his 12-piece United Underground Orchestra.  This project was composed during the horrible pandemic days.

On “Ambleside Nights,” a flying saxophone takes center stage.  That saxophone and Joe Locke on vibes each take solo turns, both impressive.  This entire ensemble of musicians sounds comfortable with each other.  Perhaps because Phil Donkin on bass, Tom Cawley on piano and reed master, Graeme Blevins, have all been members of John Aram’s quintet since 2010. Graeme and John worked together and toured with Phil Collins for a time.  The composition “Ambleside Nights” is Straight-ahead bliss, fueled by the young, Swiss drummer, Arthur Hnatek. The composition, “This is Just to Say” features once again the haunting and beautiful vocals of Amy keys.  This tune leans towards the pop side.  The trumpet soaks up the spotlight on “Little Psalm.”   There is something for everyone on this creative project.  These arrangements and compositions will keep you engaged, and the musicianship is outstanding.

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OWEN BRODER – “HODGES: FRONT AND CENTER VOL. 1” – Independent label

Owen Broder, alto & baritone saxophones; Carmen Staaf, piano; Barry Stephenson, bass; Bryan Carter, drums; Riley Mulherkar, trumpet.

Although Owen Broder is fluent in soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones, on this project he has chosen to display his talents on alto and baritone sax only.  One of the songs that made me fall under the ‘Broder spell’ was his baritone saxophone presentation on “Ballade for the Very Sad and Very Tired Lotus Eaters.”  It was such a sensitive and gorgeous example of a Johnny Hodges song, that I had to play this cut three times in a row. 

In case you don’t know who Johnny Hodges is, Broder explains: “Hodges was one of my first inspirations on the saxophone and I continue to be inspired by his sound and melodic approach to improvising.  As a saxophonist, I was interested in exploring Hodges’ music beyond his position in Ellington’s band, and was excited to discover record after record he made as a bandleader on which we can hear him stretch more as an improviser.” 

I wanted to post the absolutely beautiful ‘cover’ that Owen Broder played of that unusually long titled tune, but it wasn’t yet posted. His approach on baritone saxophone is lush and sensuous, really doing the Hodges composition justice. 

Johnny Hodges was born in July of 1907, over a hundred years ago, but his music and talent still bring the world great pleasure and respect.  He was the lead alto saxophonist for the Duke Ellington Big Band for several years.  His playing was respected as one of the unique and identifying musical sounds of Ellington’s Orchestra. His nickname was “Rabbit” thus the tune “18 Carrots for Rabbit” has a special ‘inside joke’ meaning. Bryan Carter excels on drums during this up-tempo arrangement.

“My generation is really a product of all that Charlie Parker brought to this music. … But Johnny Hodges has always been a big influence on my playing. I really enjoy his lyrical, melodic playing and the warm vocal quality of his approach to sound,” Owen Broder praises Johnny Hodges in his press package.

Owen Broder is a young, talented composer, as well as a gifted reed man and was recognized in 2018 by the Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award. He’s brought together an extraordinary group of musicians including trumpeter Riley Mulherkar, co-founder of the brass quartet called, The Westerlies, as well as a member of Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project.  Riley opens the swinging first tune on the album, “Royal Garden Blues” and trades conversation with Broder’s alto saxophone, also at moments playing trumpet in unison and, at pivotal times, harmonizing brightly with the bandleader.  Broder’s solo is smooth as fresh cream and makes for an inspired listen. I was impressed with Carmen Staaf’s piano solo. Barry Stephenson offers a happy-go-lucky bass solo on “Viscount,” a tune quite similar to the familiar composition “It Could Happen to You.”  Every song on this album not only celebrates the great Johnny Hodges but is a substantial testament to the excellent musicianship of Owen Broder himself, who takes the Hodges legacy to a refreshing, new level.

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MICHAEL HACKETT/TIM COFFMAN SEXTET featuring SHAREL CASSITY – “WESTERN SKIES” – Summit Records

Michael Hackett, trumpet/flugelhorn/composer; Tim Coffman, trombone/composer; Sharel Cassity, alto saxophone; Jeremy Kahn, piano; Christian Dillingham, bass; Bob Rummage, drums; Arno Gonzalez, timbale, guiro; Tony Castaneda, congas.

Trombonist, Tim Coffman first met trumpeter, Michael Hackett in the fall of 1983 when they both were playing in the Indiana University School of Music jazz ensemble under the direction of David Baker. They’ve been friends ever since.  This album began with a composition Dr. Michael Hackett wrote for his father who passed away in 2019. It is the title tune. He also decided to tribute a young student who graduated from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in the spring of 2017 and unfortunately was dead in June of that same year. The student was only twenty-four.  Dr. Hackett’s friend and colleague, Will Campbell, wrote the piece and it was titled “Twenty-four” to tribute Casey Blackwelder’s years on earth. It’s a Latin flavored composition with a pretty melody.  Tim Coffman’s trombone makes a strong improvisational statement.  Once the sextet was formed and they began to record songs, this project grew from two to eight songs.  Tim has written the first song, “Blues for MH” and it swings hard, at a medium tempo. It also gives each player a chance to strut their stuff. Sharel Cassity appears on alto saxophone and presents a powerfully impressive solo.  Jeremy Kahn is spontaneous and creative during his piano solo, followed by Christian Dillingham during his bass interpretation.  Bob Rummage takes several bars to explore his drums and both Dr. Hackett and Tim Coffman shine on their respective horns. Hackett has formidable composing skills and Coffman is a sensitive arranger.  Their blended talents offer us a pleasing product.  “Esox Fables” is one of my favorites on this production, with its bright tempo followed by the title tune, “Western Skies.” Here’s a lovely tune, with Michael Hackett’s horn stage front, singing his pain and pleasure through the bell of his horn and an outstanding piano tribute by Jeremy Kahn. The one cover tune is a McCoy Tyner composition, “You Taught My Heart to Sing” and is arranged with a dancing Latin beat.  This is a good, solid jazz production from beginning to end.

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ANTONIO ADOLFO – “OCTET AND ORIGINALS” – AAM Music

Antonio Adolfo, piano/composer/arranger; Ricardo Silveira, guitar; Jorge Helder, acoustic bass; Rafael Barata, drums/percussion; Rafael Rocha, trombone; Marcelo Martins, tenor saxophone/ flute; Danilo Sinna, alto saxophone; Jesse Sadoc, trumpet/flugelhorn.

This is the first album that Antonio Adolfo offers us ten of his own, original compositions, with not a single ‘cover’ tune.  The multi-Latin Grammy and Grammy nominated pianist is a competent and passionate composer.  I applaud his decision to finally create an entire album of his original works. In the past, I have been thoroughly entertained by Adolfo’s productions tributing the work of Antonio Jobim, Milton Nascimento and Wayne Shorter, to name just a few.  Antonio Adolfo’s name is one that resonates with productions of culturally rich music and beautifully composed and arranged tunes that please the ear.  This album is no exception.  But on “Octet and Originals” you will hear eight qualified and brilliant musicians who only interpret Adolfo’s compositions. This album sparkles with joy and innovation.  His arrangements mirror a panoply of Brazilian musical styles including samba, baião, bossa, Partido, alto, the quadrilha rhythm, toada, calango, maracatu and more.  However, Adolfo’s elegant arrangements and harmonic concepts easily fit into the jazz tradition and support his reputation as a Brazilian jazz master. There is always a sense of romance mixed into his well-composed tunes and arrangements, along with Brazilian and Latin rhythms.

Opening with “Heart of Brazil” Jorge Helder sets the mood on acoustic bass, and Ricardo Silvero’s guitar joins him to create a mood.  I quickly fall in love with this tune. The rhythm section creates a plush mattress of sound for the horns to bounce upon.  When Antonio’s piano solo enters, the horns blow like curtains in a summer breeze, supportive but never intrusive. This type of attentive arranging is visible throughout. That’s another thing I enjoy about Adolfo’s talents, his creative attention to detail and musicality.  Obviously, he is full of music.  For decades he has turned out album after album and his compositions have been covered by a multitude of iconic artists like Stevie Wonder, Earl Klugh, Herb Alpert, Sergio Mends and Dionne Warwick.  His breadth of creativity combines cultures and music.  You hear this in his “Boogie Baião” composition that starts out very pop-ish and morphs into jazz as smooth and sweet as syrup on pancakes. The tune “Emau” reminds me of a Quincy Jones production and features Jesse Sadoc blowing excitement from the bell of his horn atop a cushion of harmonic horns and the bright brilliant drums of Rafael Barata.  Every tune is memorable, and each arrangement is beautifully written and executed.  “Pretty World” has one of those melodies you fall in love with and I completely understand how it became an international hit recorded by many. As a plus,  Alan and Marilyn Bergman wrote English lyrics to this song in 1969 for the Sergio Mendes popular group, Brazil 66 to record.

This is quality music, once again, from the legendary Brazilian talent of Antonio Adolfo.

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JEFF DENSON, ROMAIN PILON, BRIAN BLADE – “FINDING LIGHT” –  Ridgeway Records

Jeff Denson, double bass; Romain Pilon, guitar; Brian Blade, drums.

As soon as I hear the second cut on this album, that happens to be the title tune “Finding Light” I am drawn into the tight chemistry and warm creativity of this trio.  It’s a melodic composition that gives each musician a space of their own to explore and improvise, at the same time holding down the rhythm and groove of the tune.  You can clearly hear each person adding their own distinct fire and energy.  Jeff Denson’s double bass dances and tightens up the rhythm section, locking in with Brian Blade on drums.  Blade is full of spunk and mastery on the trap drums, accenting, while all the time keeping the tempo consistent and creatively sparking and coloring the song.  Romain Pilon is compelling on guitar.  His style draws me in, like a spider to the fly.  He wraps his guitar message around me in a web of notes, melodies and technical mastery. He blends styles.  First, the French guitarist is adept at playing several styles of jazz.  He can swing with the best of them, plays bebop, and with the same ease he plays modern jazz. Also, this trio has no problem moving into realms of Avant-garde.  Sometimes I hear a bit of Wes Montgomery reflected in Pilon’s style, like during the “This Way Cooky” tune he composed for his pooch, who plays ‘tug of war’ with the leach when they go out for a walk.  The funk groove is solidly supported by Blade’s exciting drums and Denson’s bass footprints that march beneath.  “A Moment in Time” plays with the Avant-garde concept briefly and then sets the stage for some unexpected thriller moment, where a character jumps out the bushes and grabs you.  It conjures up that kind of scene.  All three of these musicians have a way of holding court together, each with their own unique dialogue, all talking at the same time, but blending sweetly like eggs and sugar in a batter bowl. They cook together. They make sense together.  They make music together.  They make magic together. No one left the cake out in the rain.  I can’t wait to taste the next tune.

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JAZZ BRIDGES CULTURES, COUNTRIES & CONSCIOUSNESS

September 1, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

  September 1, 2022

ANA NELSON – “BRIDGES” – Independent Label

Ana Nelson, alto saxophone/clarinet/composer; Jamaal Baptiste, piano; Jeremy Allen & Brendan Keller-Tuberg, bass; Steve Houghton & Carter Pearson, drums; Garrett Fasig, tenor saxophone;  Bill Nelson, tenor saxophone; Marina Alba Lopez & Jodi Dunn, violin; Alice Ford, viola; Kevin Flynn, cello.

Ana Nelson has composed all the songs offered on this, her debut, full-length album.  They are variously arranged, with strong classical sensibilities featuring Ana on both alto saxophone and clarinet.  “Wanderlust” introduces the project and is a smooth, medium tempo arrangement with Ana on alto sax and Carter Pearson on drums, prodding the music ahead with creativity and zest.  He is the spice in this musical stew who plays on the first four compositions.  Ana’s warm, hypnotic clarinet opens Track #2.  The piano solo of Jamaal Baptiste is very classical with long scale-like runs and arpeggio finger paths, while the drum solo soars.  “Blue Flower” opens with solo percussion and when Ana’s sweet alto saxophone enters, a budding flower opens atop the lush, earthy piano arpeggios of Baptiste.  My ears perk up.  This is a truly beautiful composition. On track #6, strings open this song called “Let the Light In.”  Ana Nelson’s clarinet blends beautifully with the string arrangements.   This is peaceful music, like the morning sun streaming through partially closed curtains and tickling sleepy eyes awake.  At last, on Track #7, “Fruit of the Groove” invites Straight-ahead jazz to the get-together, and the stage lights up!  Here is a serious jazz arrangement that spills across my listening space and drenches me with a horn ensemble windstorm.  On this tune, she is joined by her father, tenor saxophonist, Bill Nelson, drummer Steve Houghton, and bassist Jeremy Allen.  They swing hard!

“As a classical musician who fell in love with jazz, then later discovered Brazilian music, it’s difficult for me to label this album as any one specific genre. … I view it more of a melding of music and people I love.  The title, ‘Bridges’ is my way of reflecting that cross-blending,” Ana explains her music.

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TAUREY BUTLER – “ONE OF THE OTHERS” – Justin Time Records

Taurey Butler, piano/composer; Morgan Moore, bass; Wali Muhammad, drums.

I first heard Taurey Butler, a native of East Orange, New Jersey, play piano in Singapore. We were both touring Asia, thousands of miles from home. Taurey’s power and precision stunned me as his fingers raced over the piano keys.  Clearly, he was going on to bigger and better things.  He’s currently living in Montreal, Québec Canada and this is Butler’s second release for Justin Time records.  His first was his self-titled debut recording in 2011.  The Taurey Butler trio opens with the title tune, an original composition by Butler that makes for a powerful introduction to his style and technique. Morgan Moore takes a walking bass solo and Wali Muhammad fuels the piece with shuffle drums. Track #2 is a jazz waltz Taurey titles, “Artis’ Truth.”  On the fourth tune, “On the Natch” Taurey introduces his funky blues side.  This song reminds me of the early Ramsey Lewis days, when “I’m In With the In Crowd” was popping on all the radio stations. This could have been inspired by the time Taurey Butler spent touring with the great Eldee Young, the original bass player with Ramsey Lewis. 

Butler’s arrangement on “Smile” is wonderful, artistic and inspired as he plays with time and tempo.  Morgan Moore steps forward with his solo and afterwards the trio falls into a blues shuffle that satisfies the soul.  After the bass solo, a freefall piano exploration expands my imagination and I can clearly see Charlie Chaplin racing around a black and white screen on a silent film.  While Taurey’s arrangement of the actor, composer’s song plays, it inspires my imagination and I can see the Chaplin moves.  One of Taurey’s poignant moments at the piano is on the final track, “I Can Only Be Me” written by Stevie Wonder.  Perhaps Taurey Butler summed up this musical experience best when he said:

“Revisiting the theme of this project, individuality and uniqueness, I realized this Stevie Wonder song would be the perfect way to wrap a bow on the project.  In new locations, situations and circumstances, when it’s all said and done, we have no option but to be ourselves.  We all have unique gifts and when we let them shine, we find ourselves able to navigate through any obstacle successfully,” Taurey stated in his liner notes.

This project will be released on October 7, 2022.

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TRACYE EILEEN – “YOU HIT THE SPOT” –  Honey Crystal Records

Tracye Eileen, vocals; Jeremy Kahn & Dennis Luxion, piano; Jon Deitemyer & Linard Stroud, drums; Stewart Miller & Paul Martin, bass; Steve Eisen, reeds; Raphael Crawford, trombone; Victor Garcia, trumpet.

Chicago, Illinois artist, Tracye Eileen, blasts into my listening room with the popular “I Love Being Here With You.” The first thing I note about this vocalist is that she has her own style and timbre.  Tracye doesn’t sound like anyone accept herself, and that’s a good thing. Additionally, she has surrounded herself with a wonderful group of musicians who add authenticity and art to this project.  The tune “You Hit the Spot,” swings and is kind of a homecoming for Tracye, who was raised by a jazz drummer.  Her father, Ed Smith, missed a chance to join Count Basie’s band because he was drafted into the army and sent instead to Vietnam.

“My father, an accomplished jazz percussionist, was a major influence in my life.  His inspiration many years ago led to successful roles as lead singer in my high school and college jazz bands and my continued love of jazz music,” Tracye shared.

This is Tracye Eileen’s fourth album release.  She launched her recording career in 2012 with an album called “Love’s Journey” where she sang many of the familiar jazz songs she grew up listening to at her home. She was a student at the Bloom School of Jazz in Chicago and the owner encouraged her talent, briefly serving as her manager and he was very supportive of her album debut.  The second album was released in 2018.  This time Tracye dipped into her soul and R&B bag, showing the world she could sing it all.  Her third album, released in 2020, delved into Smooth jazz. Today, she comes full circle with “You Hit the Spot” singing eight familiar standard jazz tunes in her own, unique way.  Producer, arranger Thomas Gunther gives her some challenging arrangements with big band sensibilities, even though this is a small ensemble. They sound powerful throughout.  For example, on “The End of a Love Affair” the band introduces the tune with an under-current of well-orchestrated blues. Tracye digs deep, selling each lyric with honest emotion.  Steve Eisen adds his saxophone solo and lifts the production a notch.  At the end of this song, Tracye Eileen shows off her range, hitting a high note that rings across the room like morning church bells.

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GONZALO RUBALCABA & AYMÉE NUVIOLA – “LIVE IN MARCIAC” – 5 Passion Records

Gonzalo Rubalcaba, piano; Aymée Nuviola, vocals/composer.

Wow.  When I listen to the first number I am enchanted by this magical duo.  Gonzalo Rubalcaba is such a rich and unpredictably creative pianist.  Aymée Nuviola is an emotional and competent vocalist who brings her style and grace to the stage with her own powerful statement. Gonzalo hears so many dynamic and exceptionally creative harmonics, that his playing is intriguing, as well as challenging.  Aymée sounds as comfortable as a warm chair by the fireplace.  This is jazz.  This is innovation, bypassing expectation or boundaries.  This is what jazz is all about, as she sings “Besamé Mucho” in Spanish, nothing is left unsaid or unfelt.  These two pull at your heartstrings and stroke your excitement.  There is a comfort level here between two dynamic artists.  They have been friends since childhood, and both are internationally respected and world renowned.  “Live in Marciac” captures a historic concert of expressive and familiar Latin jazz classics, a few original compositions and Gonazlo Rubalcab’s undeniable mastery on piano that inspires and supports Aymée Nuviola’s powerful vocals.  Her timing and improvisational moments of surprise intoxicate and command. She is an entertainer and easily communicates with the audience at their ‘live’ concert.  She has them singing, clapping, stomping with anticipation and excitement. This is a musical art experience that you will want to relive time and time again.

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BURTON/McPHERSON TRIO FEATURING DEZRON DOUGLAS – “THE SUMMIT ROCK SESSION AT SENECA VILLAGE” – Giant Step Arts

Abraham Burton, tenor saxophone; Dezron Douglas, bass; Eric McPherson, drums.

Until I read the liner notes of this album, I never knew that in 1825, Central Park was a community called Seneca Village founded by free Black Americans.  It was the first such community in the city of New York and at that time, still under Dutch rule.  It was comprised of a complex of African-owned farms north of New Amsterdam and was controlled by people considered ‘half free.’  At its peak, this community had around 225 residents, three churches, two schools and three cemeteries.  Before the inhabitants were demanded to leave and the property was deemed ‘eminent domain,’ both Irish and German immigrants were also living there.  In the mid-1850s, all their houses and those homey, small town places were torn down and the construction of Central Park began. 

When Jimmy Katz, the current leader of the innovative non-profit, Giant Step Arts project, was strolling through Central Park during the pandemic, he got an idea of producing concerts there.  The area I have described above became the area of the park he chose for this music to be presented and produced.  He created a safe, socially distant environment where people could come hear the jazz without fear.  Summit Rock is the highest natural point of Central Park and is a part of Seneca Village.  Katz hosted thirty concerts there that began in September of 2020.  Stepping stage forward during this amazing series is Abraham Burton on tenor saxophone, Eric McPherson on drums and Bassist Dezron Douglas. They recorded on June 20th of 2021.  It captures their first ‘live’ performance since the shut-down impact of the pandemic. When Abraham Burton plays “If You Could See Me Now” my heart just opened up and received his emotional delivery like earth soaks up sunshine.  It was just natural and absolutely beautiful. The interplay between Abraham and Dezron Douglas on bass was perfect.  Burton also presented a new composition immortalizing the site called “Seneca Blues.”  It’s eight-minutes and fifty-five seconds of Straight-ahead, freely improvised modern jazz.  You can feel their incredible energy on this tune and on “Dance Little Mandisa” with Eric McPherson, on his trap drums, shining brightly, like the North Star. This recording captures the trio’s excitement to play and interact with a live audience after so many months of lockdown.  This is a supreme music experience from beginning to end.

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GORDON GRDINA, MARK HELIAS, MATTHEW SHIPP – “PATHWAYS” – ABG Records

Gordon Grdina, guitar/oud/composer; Mark Helias, bass; Matthew Shipp, piano.

Gordon Grdina has recently enjoyed one of the most productive, ambitious and fruitful periods of his career.  Based in Vancouver, Canada, he launched his own Attaboygirl Record label in 2021 and he has released a plethora of artists for public consumption as a record company owner. As an artist, Gordon is a master oud player, a respected guitarist and an inventive composer and improviser.  “Pathways” is his latest production as an artist. It features Mark Helias on bass and Matthew Shipp on piano.  The trio wanders through nine of Grdina’s original compositions, treading unknown paths, using their individual instruments to whack away at the unexpected, structured music patterns and to unveil brand new tributaries of creativity.  This Avant-garde jazz cements each song into place, like a highway to someone’s dreams or someone’s fears, depending on how the listener receives their creative production.

Gordon Grdina is a JUNO Award-winning oud and guitarist, whose career has spanned continents and decades. He is highly respected in the jazz-improv world and is globally popular for his unusual envisioning of Arabic, Persian and Sudanese music through the lens of free form improvisation, Avant-garde jazz and contemporary music.  This is his second merger with legendary pianist, Matthew Shipp and innovative bassist, Mark Helias, who are both exceptionally creative and technically astute.

“I can write anything for this band,” Grdina brags.  “It’s very complex music, rhythmically, harmonically, melodically, and in the way every piece fits together.  Those guys really can do anything.  Since the last album, the group has solidified its unique sound, which is exciting to hear develop on this second record. … We met at East Side Sound three years later and picked up right where we left off,” Gordon Grdina explained.

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SPANISH HARLEM ORCHESTRA – “IMAGENES LATINAS” – Ovation Rcords

Oscar Hernandez, piano/arranger/Musical Director; Marco Bermudez, vocals/coro/composer; Carlos Cascante, vocals/coro; Jeremy Bosch, vocals/coro/flute; Jerry Madera, bass; Jorge Gonzalez, bongos; George Delgado, congas; Luisito Quintero, timbales/maracas/güiro; Mitch Frohman, baritone saxophone/flute; Juan Gabriel Lakunza & Doug Beavers, trombones; Alex Norris & Manuel “Maneco” Ruiz, trumpets.

I’m always sure to have a good time when I listen to an album by the Spanish Harlem Orchestra.  They are culturally rich, energized and powerful.  Their music simply demands you feel joyful.  Led by the great pianist, composer and Musical Director, Oscar Hernandez, this three-time GRAMMY winning Spanish Harlem Orchestra honors the tradition of great Latin music and they are a bright light on the salsa reconstruction movement.  Some of my favorite tunes on this album are composed by Oscar Hernandez including the melodic “Romance Divino” with voices and harmonic horns telling the story with gusto.  The percussion is driving and demands you take to the dance floor. Jorge Gonzalez on bongos, George Delgado on congas and Luisito Quintero on timbales, maracas and Guiro, pump the band with excitement. “Como te Amo” is a slow, beautiful mambo composed by Hernandez with lyrics by Marco Bermudez.  “Mambo 2021” is another Hernandez original with a wonderful baritone sax solo from Mitch Frohman.  Another favorite is Track #10, “Mi Amor Sincero” co-written by vocalist, Marco Bemudez and Gil Lopez.    This is an all-star band of musicians who put spice and authenticity into every note they play.  The Hernandez arrangements are superb, and the repertoire is uplifting, happy and sincere.  You will play this album more than once and come away smiling broadly every time.

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MARSHALL GILKES – “CYCLIC JOURNEY”  –  Alternate Side Records

Marshall Gilkes, trombone/composer; Aaron Parks, piano; Linda May Han Oh, bass; Johnathan Blake, drums; Brandon Ridenour, trumpet/piccolo trumpet/flugelhorn; Ethan Bensdorf & Tony Kadleck, trumpet/flugelhorn; Adam Unsworth, horn; Joseph Alessi, trombone; Demondrae Thurman, euphonium; Nick Schwartz, bass Trombone; Marcus Rojas, tuba.

Marshall Gilkes composed the music for this creative adventure in March and April of 2022.

“I’ve had this idea, to bring these two worlds together, for quite some time and in terms of the theme, it really came to light through reflection on what’s most familiar to me.  That’s how I arrived at the idea to write a soundtrack to my daily external and internal existence,” Gilkes wrote in his liner notes.

So, this album, a musical diary of sorts, is actually a nine-movement suite inspired by Marshall Gilkes’ day-to-day life as a family man, an artist, a musician and composer. Track one, “First Light” opens like a sunrise with the horns blending warmly.   

“It’s really about the gears of life starting to turn at the beginning of each day,” explains Gilkes.

For the most part, the horns introduce us to the melody, while Gilkes is as smooth as butter on his trombone solos. Aaron Parks steps into the spotlight on grand piano and struts his stuff. Part II of this unusual suite is titled “Up and Down.”  It seamlessly flows into “The Calm” a very beautiful ballad with Linda May Han Oh taking a pensive solo on her double bass.

On “Respite” Gilkes lets his trombone shine, tackling the melody with bold tones and legato phrases. This has got to be one of my favorite tunes and arrangements.  This album is an interesting blend of classical music and jazz.  This is meditative jazz that seem to reflect the Gilkes days as full of peace and calm.  Surely, he has a couple of days when he’s feeling bluesy or just plain wants to ‘swing’ or shuffle or jump for joy.  I missed those life emotions that are such a stalworth aspect of jazz music.  Still, that takes nothing from the beauty of the Marshall Gilkes’ project, missing those elements of jazz, but reflecting a lovely album of moods and melancholy.            

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EVGENY POBOZHIY – “ELEMENTS FOR PEACE” –

Evgeny Pobozhly, guitar/compositions; Ben Wendel, saxophone; Aaron Parks, piano; Matt Brewer, bass; Antonio Sanchez, drums.

Evgeny Pobozhiy’s career took a promising turn in 2019.  The guitarist became the first Russian winner of the prestigious Herbie Hancock Prize in New York.  This jazz musician is hoping that his debut album can represent “Elements for Peace” during a war-torn time in our world.  He opens with a fusion influenced, high energy arrangement of a song called “Subliminal.” Evgeny Pobozhiy’s electric guitar soars and sings. This opening tune is a solid confirmation of good composition by Evgeny. He has composed seven of the nine songs on this album including “Song for my Daughter” that’s a very melodic tune.  Evgeny shows off his guitar techniques during this arrangement. The ensemble’s interpretation of Wayne Shorter’s jazz standard, “Infant Eyes,” is beautiful, as is Evgeny Pobozhiy’s featured guitar.  Another of my favorites is “Elements” the up-tempo tune that spotlights the saxophone of Ben Wendel.  The song Evgeny wrote for his wife, “Alina” is a lovely ballad that is so full of peace and love, anyone who is stressed out should just put this song on their CD player, close their eyes and relax.  Here is a wonderful debut album that introduces us to a young, talented composer and guitarist.  Meet Evgeny Pobozhiy.

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VOICES PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE

August 15, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

August 15, 2022

SAMARA JOY – “CAN’T GET OUT OF THIS MOOD” – Verve Records / a SINGLE RELEASE

Ben Paterson, piano; David Wong, double bass; Kenny Washington, drums.

Here is a young jazz vocalist who embodies Ella Fitzgerald’s smooth style, adding her own succinct and unique vocal qualities to captivate our ears as she sings, “Can’t Get Out of This Mood.”   This Is Samara Joy’s single release from her upcoming album, scheduled for a September 2022 release and titled, “Linger Awhile.”   

Samara Joy is a vocalist to watch.  I am certain she will climb the ladder to fame and fortune and her voice will carry the true jazz vocal torch straight up to the stars.  She is a product of a musical family.  Her grandparents, Elder Goldwire and Ruth McLendon, led the well-known Philadelphia-based gospel group “The Savettes.”  Her father toured with Andrae Crouch.  Consequently, her early musical influences are gospel based, but also include the inspiration from genius artists like Stevie Wonder, Lalah Hathaway, George Duke and Musiq Soulchild.  It wasn’t until she attended Fordham High School for the Arts that she discovered and fell in love with jazz.  She has already won Best Vocalist at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington competition and recently graduated as the Ella Fitzgerald Scholar.  Let me introduce you to 22-year-old Samara Joy, who gives me hope that jazz is alive and secure in the hands of a new, young, talented generation.

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DO’A – “HIGHER GROUND” – Outside In Music

Do’A, Vocals/guitar/piano/composer; Harold Lopez-Nussa, piano/vocals; Nando Michelin & Syhai Maestro, piano; Julio Cesar Gonzalez, bass; Shango Dely & Ruy Adrian Lopez-Nussa, percussion; Mayquel Gonzalez, trumpet.

Do’A is a vocalist with a haunting voice and a style all her own.  Her music is interesting and unique, blending Brazilian and Columbian cultures with her Albanian upbringing and elements of Albanian folk music. She sprinkles in jazz, samba and African rhythms to tantalize us with her multi-languages and honey-warm voice.  Currently, she is an artist-in-residency at the Music Center of Strathmore in North Bethesda, Maryland.  This project introduces us to Do’A who sings, plays piano, guitar and composes.  I am enamored by her composer talents. As soon as I heard this album, I thought the hit record, the crossover, commercial, original song written by Do’A  is “Lampara.”   Not only do I think “Lampara” is a hit, but I also think “Unidad” is a strong second. Both are sung in Spanish. Her melodies are hypnotic and, although I don’t understand the language, I am still intoxicated with the songs of Do’A.  On her opening song, “Flor de Lis” she sings in Portuguese.  Shai maestro’s piano playing introduces us to an Albanian Folk Song, “Pranvera” along with Do’A’s smooth and intimate vocals in her native language.  It’s my first time hearing Albanian folk music and I find it truly delicious to my ears. On the final song, Do’A sits at the piano to play her original composition called, “Krijim,” also sung in Albanian.  This is world music with an international theme.  She sings in English, Portuguese, Spanish and Albanian to interpret the theme of her album, “Higher Grounds.” Do’A hopes that her music is reflective of the interconnected nature of the human spirit. This is her debut album and it transcends borders, genres and traditions to introduce us to Do’A the artist. Her music also calls attention to the power and to the love that music can transmit. I look forward to hearing, not only her husky, emotional voice in the future, but more Do’A compositions. 

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JOHN MINNOCK – “SIMPLICITY” – Dot Time Records

John Minnock, vocals; Dave Liebman, soprano saxophone; Mathis Picard, piano/composer; Sean Mason, piano; Mark Lewandowski, bass; Pablo Eluchans, drums; Carolos Mena, bass.

There is nothing simple about John Minnock’s “Simplicity” album.  The songs are challenging, with technically difficult melodies, but Minnock sings them easily, fooling the listener into believing they are simple.  His vocal timbre somehow reminds me of Al Jarreau’s tone, although he has a completely different style and presence.  His band is smokin’ hot with master reedman, Dave Liebman, always a joy to hear on saxophone. The arrangements are interesting and for the most part, compliment his creativity. Pianist, Mathis Picard has composed several of these songs with lyricist Erick Holmberg and sometimes John Minnock contributing words. I love their bluesy “Cape’s End” and I’m intrigued with “Bordeaux” a song about a faraway place and a distant love that teases Minnock’s range and has a provocative melody with unusual intervals.  John sings a few standards you will recognize like “Angel Eyes,” “Maiden Voyage” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is.”  On both the Matt Dennis tune and Hancock’s composition, Dave Liebman is given free rein to explore all the nuances of the tunes before John Minnock takes center stage and does his own unique interpretations. On the Herbie Hancock tune, he improvises without lyrics and leaves the soloing to Liebman and Mathis Picard on piano. The voice becomes a human instrument that simply colors the tune at various points.  This is art for art’s sake and since jazz reflects freedom and creativity, this is a perfect example of just that.

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SHEILA JORDAN – LIVE AT MEZZROW – Cellar Music

Sheila Jordan, vocals; Alan Broadbent, piano; Harvey S., bass.

On a cold, wintry, October twenty-fifth evening, the jazz luminary, Sheila Jordan, took to the stage of the intimate Mezzrow Jazz Club. She opens with the Abbey Lincoln composition, “Bird Alone,” accompanied by two-time GRAMMY winner, Alan Broadbent on piano and Harvey S., on bass.  Harvey S. was one of the members of the quartet she established in 1979.  That ensemble included Steve Kuhn and Bob Moses. On this project, Sheila and Harvey come full circle. Sheila Jordan’s album becomes the inaugural release of the SmallsLIVE Living Masters Series with the Cellar Music Group.  It marks the first ‘live’ recording of Sheila Jordan in nearly a decade.

Born in November of 1928 in my hometown of Detroit, Michigan, Jordan has a rich legacy in jazz. Now ninety-three years old, she still can swing with the best of them. Jordan is one of the pioneers of bebop and scat singing.  In her prime, she made her mark in the jazz world by performing her unique vocal style with only the double bass.  It is said that the great Charlie Parker paid her an amazing compliment by calling her “the lady with the million-dollar ears.” Sheila Jordan dared to put lyrics to the tumbling and exuberant notes of Charlie Parker’s improvised horn parts.  Sheila went to New York where jazz was thriving and studied harmony and music theory with Lennie Tristano and Charles Mingus. She was always in the company of jazz greats and striving to break musical glass ceilings for vocalists.  In New York, she was a familiar face in Greenwich Village performing with pianist Herbie Nichols. Jordan recorded with icons in experimental jazz music like George Russell.  You can hear her on his album “The Outer View” singing “You Are My Sunshine.”

In the 1960s she released her own album called “Portrait of Sheila” on the popular Blue Note label.  She also played with Don Heckman, Lee Konitz, Carla Bley and Roswell Rudd. In 1975, she recorded “Confirmation” and a year later, recorded a duet album with Arild Anderson.  But her work with George Russell gives an example of her musical direction and groundbreaking vocal attitude early in her career.  That crystal clear, emotional delivery developed with nurturing from dynamic musicians like Charlie Parker, George Russell and her husband Duke Jordan.  Below, here is her interpretation of “Confirmation” on her 1975 presentation.

As a lyricist, songwriter, and for twenty-eight years as an Adjunct Professor of Music , Sheila Jordan inspired students at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the Vermont Jazz Center, InterplayJazz and Arts, as well as sharing her knowledge and creativity at International workshops.  This historic album become the twentieth she has recorded as a bandleader.

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PATRISHA THOMSON – “WILD IS THE WIND” – PT Designs Productions

Patrisha Thomson, vocals; Mon David, guest vocals; Steve Rawlins, piano/arranger/producer; Grant Geissman, guitar; Ken Wild, Jennifer Leitham & Bob Feldman, bass; Bernie Dresel, Bob Leatherbarrow & Gordon Peeke, drums; Brad Dutz, percussion; Scott Mayo, flute/alto flute; Tom Peterson, tenor saxophone; Michael Stever, trumpet; Ira Nepus, trombone.

Patrisha Thomson loves to sing, although she chose a career as a visual artist first and then became an educator.  Still, music and jazz were rooted deeply in her heart.  When her father passed away, Patrisha took over the presidency of his company.  With all those careers intermingling, she somehow found time for her passion to sing.  But it was much later in life that she decided to pursue becoming a recording artist.  Patrisha Thomson’s singing style is more cabaret than jazz, but she’s chosen a Bakers Dozen of familiar jazz standards to interpret. All the songs are pulled from the late 1930s through the 1940s.  Patrisha opens with the popular Ellington tune, “In a mellow Tone” where Michael Stever’s trumpet swings hard. She and her band of L.A. based musicians also cover “Dindi” and crowd pleasers like “Route 66” where Grant Geissman shines on guitar and jazz vocalist Mon David joins her as guest. Mon David puts the “J” in jazz.  Jennifer Leitham is featured on the title tune and lays her rich bass tones beneath Patrisha Thomson’s emotional delivery. Scott Mayo adds flute to the mix. Patrisha and Ken Wild open the tune, “Just Squeeze Me” made popular back in 1941, another Duke Ellington gem. “This Can’t Be Love” has a lovely Latin arrangement by Steve Rawlins. Ms. Thomson persuasively delivers Great American Songbook tunes, like “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” that the band swings and “Autumn Leaves,” as a slow ballad. Sometimes Patrisha Thomson’s voice reminds me of days I spent in Paris, listening to the emotional female jazz singers in those blue-lit European nightclubs. She even sings Autumn Leaves in French. Her finale song is an original ‘Happy Birthday Song’ she has penned herself.

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NATALIE CRESSMAN & IAN FAQUINI – “AUBURN WHISPER” – Groundup Records

Natalie Cressman, tenor trombone/bass trombone/composer/arranger; Ian Faquini, guitar/ vocals/composer.

Natalie Cressman’s mother, Sandy Cressman, is a jazz vocalist, steeped deeply in the traditions of Brazilian music.  Natalie’s father, Jeff Cressman, is a recording engineer and trombonist who recently concluded a two-decade run with Santana. They say the apple does not fall far from the tree.  In this case, that’s absolutely correct.  The twenty-something Natalie Cressman has honed her skills singing (like her mother) in Portuguese and is quite proficient, like her father, on the trombone. She’s also a composer and lyricist. Her partner on this album is Brazilian composer and guitarist, Ian Faquini. Cressman has studied at the Manhattan School of Music and Ian Faquini studied at the California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley and after graduating joined the faculty there. He is also on the faculty at California Brazil Camp. Clearly, both artists are super talented. Together, this duo offers a world music album of original music, with both artists contributing to the songwriting. I found their songs to be quite melodic. However, the over-dubbing of horn parts that are all quite legato often drags the music down. For example, on Track #11, “Hood River” the legato horn lines distract from what could have been a joyful, moderate-tempo tune. Some points of staccato horns could have lightened the mood and brightened the arrangement. Cressman has a light, soprano voice that is quite beautiful and Ian’s voice is a smooth baritone.  When they blend, together their sound is beautifully hypnotic. Track #2, “Rear Window” seems to be based on the chord changes of Mona Lisa, but Cressman’s voice interprets a very different melody once she sings the song and it’s lovely. When I listen to “Afoxe Pra Oxum” her voice is airy and joyful.  I wish she had incorporated some of that lightness and joy into her horn arrangements.

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ANNE WALSH – “THE ASTRUD PROJECT” –  A to Zink Music

Anne Walsh, vocals; Tom Zink, piano/arranger; Mitchell Long, guitar/cavaquinho; Kevin Winard, drums/percussion; Chris Wabich, drums; Mike Vacarro, flutes/clarinet/bass clarinet; Gary Meek, flute solos; Tony Guerrero, trumpets/flugelhorns; Andy Martin, trombone; Charlie Bisharat, violin; Tom Lea, viola; Irina Chirkova, cello.

In celebration of Brazilian jazz singer, Astrud Gilberto, Anne Walsh takes to the microphone. Astrud’s bright, clear tones helped to introduce the Bossa Nova movement of the 1960s to American audiences.  Anne Walsh, originally born in Boston and now living in Long Beach California, has a similar vocal style.  On the opening tune, “On My Mind” the happy melody dances from Anne’s lips triumphantly.  The trumpet of Tony Guerrero shares a joyful solo.  Gary Meek shines on flute during this arrangement. “Call Me” is a familiar pop tune.  Anne Walsh sings it rubato on the top and then steps into a Brazilian arrangement of this tune that is pleasant and danceable.  “Crickets” is a challenging song with swiftly moving lyric and a tempo that demands attention to both enunciation and the beautiful Latin rhythms that celebrate Brazil so naturally. Anne Walsh handles both the tempo and the Portuguese language very comfortably.  On the composition, “Take Me to Aruanda” Walsh is playful and duets with the horn.  On “Dindi” Tom Zink’s piano and the addition of Charlie Bisharat’s violin, Tom Lea’s viola and Irina Chirkova’s cello add delicate and lush beauty to this arrangement. Anne adds her own original song lyrics to the “Beach Samba” song, then scats her way through the tune.  This is Easy Listening Latin Jazz and Anne Walsh has a soothing, clear and compelling voice.

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CATHY SEGAL-GARCIA & PHILLIP STRANGE – “LIVE IN JAPAN” – Origin Records

Cathy Segal-Garcia, vocals/composer; Phillip Strange, piano.

This is a project recorded nearly thirty years ago, (1992) but it’s still fresh and exciting.  The ‘live’ performance shows off the very best of Cathy Segal-Garcia’s range and style.  It also features the wonderful and inventive piano playing of Phillip Strange.  It’s a 2-CD set, opening with “I’m In the Mood for Love” where Cathy sings the original melody, with quite a few of her own twists and complimentary turns, then stretches out to sing James Moody’s famous rendition (Moody’s Mood for Love).  This is a jazz duet that is fresh and complimentary with both artists innovative and improvising on a theme spontaneously. After all, that’s what makes jazz so wonderful.  The freedom it reflects and the intricacies of transforming the music into something fresh and new can be quite exciting. For example, they play “You’ve Changed” as an upbeat Latin number.  I enjoyed their take on “When You Wish Upon a Star.” The two musicians, offer us twenty-three songs in this double CD set. Cathy is constantly playing with time, stretching meters like taffy, but you can clearly hear the comfort level and warm camaraderie between these two musicians during this ‘live’ performance.

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MARIA MENDES – “SAUDADE, COLOUR OF LOVE” – LIVE IN AMSTERDAM with METROPOLE ORKEST CONDUCTED by JOHN BEASLEY” – Challenge Records

Maria Mendes, vocals/composer/arranger; John Beasley, conductor/arranger/orchestrator/ KeyWi/keyboards/producer/composer; Cédric Hanriot, piano/keyboards; Jasper Somsen, double bass; Mário Costa, drums/percussion.  METROPOLE ORKEST: 1st VIOLINS: Vera Laporeva, Jasper van Rosmalen, Sarah Koch, Pauline Terlouw, Christina Knoll, Saskia Frijns. 2nd VIOLINS: Herman van Haaren, Willem Kok, Ruben Margarita, Robert Baba, Xaquin Carro Cribeiro, Lonnid Nikishin; VIOLA: Norman Jansen, Mieke Honingh, Iris Schut, Isabella Petersen; CELLO: Joel Stepmann, Emile Visser, Annie Tángberg, Jascha Albracht. FLUTE: Mariël van den Bos, Janine Abbas; OBOE/ Cor anglaise; Maxime Le Minter; CLARINET: Christof May, Max Boreree; FRENCH HORN: Pieter Hunfeld.

There are few things as exciting and as challenging as singing with a full orchestra.  Maria Mendes has a voice, toned by technique and colored with emotion, that soars like another instrument atop the awesome arrangements of the Metropole Orkest conducted by John Beasley.  Mendes explores and explains the Portuguese word ‘saudade.’ This word refers to one’s desire to regain the past, hoping it will become the present again. It also represents the belief that destiny is something no one can escape. Some things are just meant to be.

“Surprisingly, I find these (meanings) comparable with love, as love can strike at any moment leaving us powerless, coloring our lives with grey as well as bright rainbow colors,” Maria Mendes explains in her liner notes.

‘Fado music’ has fused this project. It’s a music form familiar and popular with Portuguese people and fuels all those who seek nostalgic love of the past or, for that matter, love in the present. So that title of ‘Fado’ is almost a twin to ‘saudade.’  Mendes has embraced the two words during this project, combining jazz with the wonderful world of Portugal and her affection for that culture.  She offers us Portuguese Folk songs, colorfully arranged and plush with orchestration. The mastery of John Beasley as arranger and conductor shines like gold. This project is Maria Mendes’ dream-come-true album, recorded, May of 2022 in Amsterdam.  Her voice is as natural and multi-layered as the orchestra and her exquisite range soars above the instruments like a powerful bird in flight.  Maria’s range is astounding and the way she weaves jazzy scat sounds into the production is both unique and ear-catching.  John Beasley builds the production around her vocals beautifully, attentive to the details of her delivery, while all the time, enriching this amazing orchestra with his sensitive, dynamic arrangements. 

There is a photograph inside the album jacket, of a song penned expressly for Maria Mendes by Hermeto Pascoal.  He has written original, musical notes on the back of a plastic emergency exit instruction card for Maria to keep and treasure, the same way she treasures his talent and musical sensibilities. It’s a song he penned exclusively for her titled, “Hermeto’s Fado for Maria.”  She opens this arrangement with vocal scats and melodic tones, an instrument in her own right. Another favorite is track #6, the emotional ballad, “E Se Nao For Fado,” featuring Cédric Hanriot on piano. 

Here is an artistic and unusual project, infused with jazz, rich with classical overtones and culturally prominent.  it represents the Portuguese, historical, Fado folk music and the talent of Maria Mendes.  Perhaps she explained this musical experience best when she said:

“This is no Fado album.  This is no traditional jazz music.  This is an adventure that is real and can be felt by everyone, as love is.”

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WOMEN WHO ARE CHANGING THE FACE OF JAZZ

July 25, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

July 25, 2022

ELSA NILSSON – “ATLAS OF SOUND: COAST REDWOODS” – Ears&Eyes Records

Elsa Nilsson, flutes/composer; Jon Cowherd, piano; Chris Morrissey, bass.

Elsa Nilsson is a sensitive and technically astute flute player and composer.  This album is her first in a series she is calling, “Atlas of Sound.” It is inspired by the human connection to locations in the natural world.  She refers to coordinates she used to record a ten-movement suite that is a tribute to nature.

“The secret is in the tempo. How slow the redwoods move.  For me to hear them, I have to slow down, stay still; really, really listen.  When I do, I find music in every movement.  There’s a melody in the rustle of leaves as the wind blows through them and they release and float to the ground; a groove in the sound of footsteps, real or imagined,” she explains.

If this description sounds abstract, like the music, it is. What I feel when I listen to Elsa’s unique original compositions is a sense of peace and tranquility.  I float away with her trio on imaginary clouds that feed the Redwoods with sheets of moisture and filter the sunrays beaming over the huge trees. On their single, “Catching Droplets” there is a touch of Arabian music in the flute solo and Jon Cowherd’s piano playing is interesting with his jazzy, swing-infused solo framed in classical technique.  On “Proof of the Unseen” I enjoy Chris Morrissey’s bass solo sparkling brightly in the spotlight.  Elsa’s original tune, “Epicormic” is more modern jazz with each musician freely improvising.  They listen to each other and are inspired by each one’s musicality.   This is the longest song of the ten she has chosen to showcase here.  They play it for over ten minutes and captivate me with their creativity, tempo changes and mood swings. Epicormic is a word that describes a shoot or branch growing from a previously dormant bud on the trunk or limb of a tree.  Nilsson’s flute almost lets you see that tiny bud grow and blossom.  This is delightful music to both meditate by and relax. It’s Elsa Nilsson’s tribute to the beauty and magnificence of the Redwood tree.

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ROXY COSS – DISPARATE PARTS – Outside In Music

Roxy Coss, tenor & soprano saxophones/composer; Alex Wintz, guitar; Miki Yamanaka, piano/Fender Rhodes/composer; Rick Rosato, bass; Jimmy Macbride, drums/composer.

This is an album sparked with energy that merges jazz with rock on Miki Yamanaka’s opening song.  “February” is one minute and eleven seconds of pure excitement. For this “February”suite, Roxy Coss had written four songs that exemplify “The Body,” “The Mind,” “The Heart,” and “The Spirit.”  These four original compositions make up Track 2, 3, 4 and 5.  Roxy expresses her inspiration for creating this, her long-awaited follow-up album to her successful release of “Quintet” back in 2019:

“Everything for me goes back to being a woman in jazz.  That is my identity. … The different things that I do in my life are either for a certain part of me or accessing a certain part of me and they’re not integrated. Each of these pieces of the suite are the ‘Disparate Parts.’  As the project progressed, I went through the life changes of being pregnant and now, being a new mom, and felt that concept manifesting itself even more so in my own life.” Roxy Coss explained.

 “The Body” is high energy and very melodic, with a wild and fuzzy guitar part by Alex Winatz and Rick Rosato’s bass predominate and rich in the mix.  Roxy’s tenor saxophone flies above the fray, like a paper plane caught in a wind tunnel.  “The Mind” another part of her suite, is ethereal and cerebral where she and the pianist play tag with each other at the top of the tune.  Then the spotlight swoops to Miki Yamanaka on Fender Rhodes, who delivers a solo draped lightly in the blues, but is heavily saturated with modern jazz. This song screams freedom at the top of its lungs.  “The Heart” is all a flutter, with Jimmy Macbride’s drums pumping life into the arrangement.  Roxy Coss is the blood coursing through the veins of the song on her saxophone, establishing the melody.  Yamanaka is like the heart muscles driving the piece forward with improvisation. The tempo is how my heart feels after I’ve run a mile. My favorite part of this suite is “The Spirit” that gives Rick Rosato a time to shine on his bass and boldly features Roxy Coss on her tenor instrument. She offers her listening audience fourteen original compositions, inclusive of six written by her pianist, Miki Yamanaka and one composed by drummer Jimmy Macbride and “Ely, MN” composed by guitarist Alex Wintz.  The title tune, “Disparate Parts” meaning parts being essentially different in kind or incomparable, is the first composition that is truly Straight-ahead.  This tune pleases my artistic heart and becomes another favorite on this album.  Wintz takes the opportunity to solo on this one and make quite an impression, as does Macbride when they trade fours. Roxy Coss offers a little something for everyone during this production.

She says in her press package, “I’m still feeling this idea of having disparate parts of myself represented in different areas of my life, but it is even more prevalent now that I’m a new mom.”

Coss offers us musical pieces of her life journey, as interpreted by her quintet and their compositions. Like a diary, it unfolds in a very personal way.

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BEVERLY CHURCH HOGAN – “SWEET INVITATION” – Café Pacific Records

Beverley Church Hogan, vocals; Grant Geissman, guitar; John Proulx, piano; Lyman Medeiros, bass; Clayton Cameron & Dean Koba, drums; Kevin Winard, percussion; Bob Sheppard, saxophone.

Here is a singer I can tell has been singing jazz through a number of gigs and life experiences.  I believe Ms. Beverly Church Hogan when she sings, “Don’ Cha Go ‘Way Mad” and “Falling in Love With Love.” She swings and her amazing band inspires and pumps the hard bop music into John Proulx’s arrangements.  They solidly support her. This Montreal, Quebec native grew up enthralled with recordings by Frank Sinatra and Joe Williams.  She began singing as a pre-teen and was winning amateur contests at the age of twelve.  That win landed her a weekly gig singing on a local radio station.  The entertainment bug bit Beverly Church Hogan early.  She relocated to Los Angeles at twenty-one and almost immediately landed a recording contract with Capitol records.  Funny, how life can sometimes get in the way of dreams.  She was married with a baby at home when she finally secured that contract offer, but of course the record company wanted her to tour for the next 58 weeks to promote the record.  Consequently, she turned the offer down to be a stay-at-home wife and mother.

John Proulx’s piano magnificence shines during her delivery of “I Got Lost in His Arms.”  During the arrangement of “Invitation,” Bob Sheppard’s tasty and beautiful saxophone lines compliment her vocals sweetly, like hot tea and honey. Clayton Cameron tap-dances across the drums with his supple sticks on the “I’m Just Foolin’ Myself” tune and Lyman Medeiros steps forward to share a swinging bass solo.  Beverly Church Hogan seems to love singing beautiful ballads like, “When October Goes,” and “Why Try to Change Me Now,” but I particularly enjoy her ‘swing’ side the best.  You can tell she has lived these songs in her own, eighty-six years on earth. There is a believability to her melodic storytelling and what her vocals lack in control, she makes up for with emotional feeling and honesty. 

“This is the only life we’re granted and you have to take chances and follow your dreams no matter your age,” Beverly Church Hogan muses in her press package.

Bravo to that!

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XIOMARA TORRES – “LA VOZ DEL MAR” – Patois Records

Xiomara Torres, vocals/Guasa; Dan Neville, vibraphone/marimba/arranger; David Obregon, bass; Giovanni Caldas & Santiago Melo, piano; Miguel Salazar, accordion; John Benitez & Miguel Sanchez, bass; Adrean Areas, quinto; Marcel Mindinero Boku, conga/cununo/percussion; Miverr Andrés Mina Grueso ‘Timba’, Timbales/bombo; Yemayá Balafon & Ciro Silva, bamboo; John Santos & Omar Torres, Maracas; Rebecca Kleinmann, flute; Omar Julian Trujillo & Jhon Filteo, trumpet; Harlinson Lozano, saxophone; Wayne Wallace, Carlos Latoche, Adam Theis, trombone; Alejandro Escobar, cello; Maria Del Mar Castano Duque & Maria Del Mar Goyes Rojas, violin; Edmar Castaneda & Destiny Muhammad, harp; CHORUS: Nidia Gongora, Gloria Torres, Dayfa Torres, Victor Hugo Rodriguez, Mayssy Cundumi Montano, Michel Obregon, Ciara Medina Obregon, Paola Ponce, Jhon Edinson Garcia Sanchez & Ciro Silva.

Xiomara Torres sings in Spanish with passion and sincerity. Her voice is satin smooth and slides over the notes like hot oil.  The first song is “Me Quedo Contigo,” a spirited, up-tempo composition that had me dancing around the room.  It features John Benitez pumping his Latin bass line to propel the rumba rhythm. This album, “La Voz Del Mar,” has been recorded to share an extraordinary cultural heritage of a little-known region in Colombia. Dan Neville is a jazz vibraphonist and marimba player, who has spent years studying with master musicians in both Cuba and Colombia. The vocalist he features on this project is Xiomara (pronounced See-o-mar-a) Torres.  She comes from music royalty.  This album is a tribute to Xiomara’s uncle, the departed maestro and marimba player, Diego Obregon. This talented vocalist is acclaimed in the Pacific region for personifying her traditional roots and incorporating them with more contemporary musical styles including salsa, bolero, cumbia and vallenato. She was born in Guapi and based in Cali, Columbia.

“Cali is this place where there’s a unique confluence of folkloric Pacific coast traditions; salsa, jazz, reggaeton, vallenato and all these other styles.  It’s very unique and inspiring.  I think the songs on the album reflect that.  Xiomara is from Guapi and she sings with a certain swing that comes from folkloric music,” Dan Neville explained.

“Como Una Hoguera” includes the chorus, lifting the song higher and enthusiastically. The arrangement is inspired by bright, happy horn lines.  Giovanni Caldas shines on piano. On the tune “Tio,” Dan Neville soaks up the spotlight on his marimba and the ensemble supports the arrangement with jazzy Afro-Cuban or Afro-Colombian 6/8 time, a tempo that makes your hips sway and your feet pat. This album is just pure happiness and joy from start to finish. Xiomara’s interpretation and Neville’s arrangement of the Beatles hit song, “Let It Be” is the only song performed in English, but that doesn’t matter.  Music is a universal language and every song recorded here is splendid and touches my heart. Her voice is like a sweet, soothing balm.

Dan Neville’s deep commitment to Afro-Colombian culture is evident and sparkling on this project. Xiomara Torres is the diamond in his musical crown. This production reflects Neville’s in-depth studies with Diego Obregon. Dan Neville is an award-winning multi-instrumentalist, a prolific composer, performer and jazz big band arranger, who composed and arranged for the San Francisco Jazz Center’s Monday Night Big Band for seven seasons; from 2013 through 2016. He won first place in the Jazz Search West competition in 2017.  That same year, Neville released his “Tenerife” album that became a critically acclaimed success.  I believe this album will be another triumphant achievement for Xiomara and Neville.

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SATOKO FUJII & JOE FONDA – “THREAD OF LIGHT” – FSRecords.net

Satoko Fujii, piano/composer; Joe Fonda, bass/cello/flute/composer.

Whenever I see Satoko Fujii’s name, I know I am in for an exploratory rocket ship ride across the musical universe.  Her creative, Avant-garde arrangements, interwoven here with Joe Fonda’s composer skills and musical talents will suck you in like a black hole in space.  Their album cover even celebrates this concept with a thread of light encircling the moon, or perhaps that’s a photo of an eclipse of the sun.  Either way, that photo like their original music, invites us to question and explore the unknown and the beautiful. Both of these musicians collaborated during the pandemic. Fonda listened to Fujii’s solo piano creations posted on her Bandcamp page and came back with an interesting proposal.

“He emailed me saying he really enjoyed “Step on Thin Ice” and he actually could hear a way to create his own part to go with it.  Originally, I had played it as a solo, not as part of a duet, but he found the space to add to it and make it more perfect.  I was amazed at how great it sounded with his part added,” Satoko explained how this duo project was born.

“This is the first time I have ever done a CD like this.  I studied her tracks for weeks, making notes and tuning in to where she was coming from on each piece; what the vibe was, what the feeling was.  Then I started to play along, looking for how I might approach each song.  Every track was different,” Joe Fonda talked about his creative process.

The result is this incredible and freedom-fanned project. With the addition of bass, cello and flute, Joe Fonda boosts the spontaneity and excitement that Satoko always brings to her work.  They co-write all of the compositions but two; “My Song” is a Fonda composition and “Winter Sunshine” is Fujii’s composition. All the rest of these songs were created together.  Their ideas flow collectively, naturally, like salt and water. From the first co-written composition, “Kochi” I am fascinated by their intriguing blend of ideas and concepts.  Fonda’s basement of sound is a strong foundation, like a hundred-year-old redwood tree. Satoko Fujii’s busy piano flies about the production like a restless bird, settling on the Redwood’s branch to peck at the wood and then flying off again into space. On “Fallen Leaves Dance,” her fingers move hummingbird fast. Another of my favorites is titled, “Anticipating” where the two musicians tease space and improvise freely, often sounding like they are chasing each other, the way children do when playing tag. The sudden ending simply screams, “You’re it!”

Satoko Fujii has been challenging musical concepts and stretching boundaries since 1996, when she first burst on the scene. The beauty and freedom she and Joe Fonda have found in this duet project is stellar. Their astral association creates a solar atmosphere that invites the listener to let go and climb aboard their creative spaceship.  You can fasten your seatbelt or just float and enjoy the ride.

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HANKA G – “UNIVERSAL ANCESTRY” – Culture Bridge Records

Hanka G, lead vocals; James Hurt, piano/Fender Rhodes/co-producer/arranger;  Shedrick Mitchell, organ/piano/co-producer/ arranger; Rodney Kendrick, piano/co-producer/arranger; Rashaan Carter, electric & double bass; David Ginyard, electric bass; Sherrod Barnes, electric guitar; Marvin Sewell, guitars; Taru Alexander & Nathaniel Townsley, drums; Antoine Roney, tenor & soprano saxophone; Sisa Michalidesova, flute; Veronika Vitazkova, fujara; Keesha Gumbs & Terelle Tipton, background vocals.

Hanka G is a Slovakian vocalist. Although she has recorded other albums, this is her debut album recorded and released in the United States.  She is surrounded by a stellar group of New York-based musicians who bring their A-game to this project.  Hanka is no newcomer to the music business.  She’s a respected artist in Slovakia and other parts of Europe. Her last two albums were both nominated for “Best Jazz Album of the Year.”  Hanka G is a multi-racial Slovak nationalist and one of the first Slovakian singers to fuse Slovak folk music with jazz.  On this recording, co-producer and arranger, James Hurt, assisted her in transforming three Slovak folk songs into jazz. My favorite arrangement is on their interpretation of “Bird Has Started Singing.” It’s a beautiful tune and I think Mr. Hurt supported the melody and subject matter with his lovely arrangement.

“My latest project was framed through the lens of an immigrant in the USA trying to unite people with different musical heritages.  Regardless of our backgrounds, we all dream about love, happiness and freedom,” Hanka G reflects.

Her choice of repertoire mirrors Hanka’s deep spirituality and her love of gutsy, power-house voices like R&B diva, Chaka Khan, gospel composer/singer, Walter Hawkins and the late, great Whitney Houston. Hanka sings about universal love, relationships and the concept of being grateful.  One of her Slovak folk songs is titled “Dance Dance” and she sings it in her native tongue combined with English.

Hanka spent her childhood years in the Mongolian desert with parents who were geologists.  Some of the first melodies she learned were Mongolian.  Her father played guitar and sang. He loved American rhythm and blues, including artists like Chuck Berry and Aretha Franklin.  Once her country was liberated from communism, Hanka heard and became enchanted with Motown music.  Hanka G and Cassandra Wilson became friends after Wilson heard Hanka G’s “Essence” album.  Cassandra asked Hanka G to become her opening act for Wilson’s concert in Bratislave, the capital of Slovakia.  Wilson later suggested she relocate to the United States. In 2016, the talented vocalist did just that. Hanka now resides in New York City. 

I particularly liked her rendition of Donny Hathaway’s hit record, “Someday We’ll All Be Free” with just her vocals and the accompaniment of Shedrick Mitchell. I needed nothing more than to hear her amazing voice, uncluttered by a production and powerfully sensitive.

Rodney Kendrick plays piano for her on the Abby Lincoln tune, “Throw It Away.”  The production is very funky and I enjoy Hanka’s expressive vocals, but the musical arrangement was odd in places. She swings hard on “Them There Eyes” and holds solid on her pitch, no matter what the bassist played. Here is a vocalist, greatly influenced by Chaka Khan, who manages to hold her own, flying like a beautiful, wild bird on top of tracks that sometimes challenge instead of complimenting her rich vocal style. This made me think about Betty Carter and a conversation we once had.  She told me the reason she learned to pen and arrange her own charts was because the musicians never played the tunes the way she heard them in her head. She wanted arrangements that supported and complimented her vocals as a lead instrument. I found that to be a challenge here. However, I look forward to hearing more from this talented and dynamic vocalist.

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JOY LAPPS – “GIRL IN THE YARD” – Independent Label

Joy Lapps, tenor, bass, double guitar & alto steelpan/percussion/background vocals; Andy Narell, alto, tenor & bass steelpans; Shaquila Alexander, alto steelpan; Asha Lapps, double guitar steelpan; Courtenay Frazier, organ/Fender Rhodes/background vocals/melodica; Jeremy Leadbetter, clavinet/piano; Michael Shand, piano/Fender Rhodes/background vocals; Eddie Bullen, piano/synth.;Elmer Ferrer, guitar/tres; Eric St. Laurent, guitar; Kobena Aquaa Harrison, guitars/percussion; Andrew Stewart, programmer/bass;Bruce Skerrit, melodica; Larnel Lewis, drums/background vocals; Rosendo Chendy Leon, Brian Edwards & Diego Las Heras, percussion/congas; David Richards & Magdelys Savigne, percussion; Marito Marques, balafon/kalimba; Cheliz, surdo/cuatro; Mario Allende, pandeiro; Rob Christian, tenor & Soprano saxophone/flute/bansuri; Jesse Ryan, alto saxophone; Shelka Francis, alto saxophone; Marcus Ali, wooden flute; Colleen Allen, clarinet; Tara Kannangara, flugelhorn; Dionne Wilson, lead & background vocals; Elena Rawlins, background vocals. VIOLINS: Elizabeth Rodriquez, Alaksandar Gajic & Janetta Wilczewska; Aysel Taghi-Zada, viola; Jonathan Tortolano, cello.

Joy Lapps-Lewis is a composer and steelpan master who has been called a multi-modal artist.  This is her fifth album release as a bandleader, featuring her original music and her own arrangements. Joy is a celebrated Steelband players who won the treasured Canadian Juno Award in 2016. As an artist, she has made an international statement, performing with the Calypsociation in Paris, the Birdsong Steel Orchestra in Trinidad and Tobago, and this current ensemble, Pan Fantasy, in her native Toronto, Canada.  This album is a tapestry of West African influences, Afro-Caribbean music and her soaring arrangements create a rich fabric of world music that features Ms. Lapps’ mastery playing the steelpans.  This album paints bright, happy music in lovely, loud colors. Joy Lapps is the daughter of a mother and father who came from Antiqua and Barbuda to settle in North America.  This music is saturated with her cultural roots and infused with percussive brightness. Tunes like “Morning Sunrise” cross over and are arranged in a more ‘smooth jazz’ vein. Elmer Ferrer’s guitar provides a plush pillow of rhythm for Joy Lapps to lay down her creative solo. Rob Christian’s flute happily sparks the piece, while the background voices fuel the energy. This composition sounds like a crossover hit. Elizabeth Rodriquez shines like a star playing violin during their presentation of Joy’s composition, “Serena.”  On “Sharifa the Great” Larnel Lewis shows his powerful mastery of the trap drums with a very engaging solo. The producer of this album of unique music must be acknowledged, Andrew W. Stewart, who also had a hand in arranging.  Joy Lapps is a melodic composer. If her music is a reflection of her personality, Ms. Lapps is a very happy person, indeed! This album of music is a joyful listen!

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KATHERINE FARNHAM – “ALQUIMIA” – Voice Inside Records

Katherine Farnham, vocals/piano/keyboards/percussion/arrangements/guinga/background vocals; Denny Jiosa & Andrea Canola, acoustic & electric guitars; Guinga, guitars/vocals; Roy Vogt, bass; Marcus Finnie & Rich Adams, drums; Andres Canola & Rich Adams, percussion; Nestor Torres, flute;   

If you like a boisterous, joyful production, blended into Brazilian culture with spicey Spanish influences, you will enjoy award-winning artist, Katherine Farnham.  Ms. Farnham plays piano, percussion, composes and arranges her own music.  Add to this her powerful vocals and you get the picture of a multi-talented woman.  She is a nine-time, Global Music Award winner.  The first track on this project is a “Tango” sung in English with a teasing, provocative lyric that reflects her passion for love and life.

Track two, “Onde Esta Meu Amor” is sung in either Spanish or Portuguese. Katherine “Kool Cat” Farnham is fluid in both languages and sadly, this journalist is not. Farnham is a third-generation musician who fluctuates from her foreign languages to English, giving us a hint of what this love song is about, singing: “I am so jealous of the others.  I wanted to make you jealous too.  Just so you would kiss me.  Just so you would hold me.”  She’s no newcomer to the stage or studio.  At five years old she became the leading lady in her school play and also began to sing jazz.  Her mother was a concert pianist and vocal coach for the Sante Fe Opera company. So, Katherine Farnham has deep roots and early training in music.

On this “Alquimia” album, she premieres her first duet on her composition, “A Vox do Mundo” featuring famed Brazilian guitarist Guinga, who plays and sings with her. He has a smokey, sexy voice that caresses the lyrics and is in stark contrast to her powerhouse vocals. Katherine’s elegant version of “Besame Mucho” features four-time Grammy nominee, guitarist Denny Jiosa. The piano line is a surprise and supportive of her voice during this refreshed arrangement.  Consistently, Katherine Farnham’s band is plush with excellence and energy.  The “Kool Cat” (as she is fondly referred to) was classically trained and sports a four-octave vocal range.  She has appeared on Good Morning America, NPR Public Television and Telemundo television, as well as staying busy touring internationally.  In the past few years she has garnered a staggering twelve music awards and is one of the youngest recipients of the Albert Nelson Lifetime Achievement Music Award.  I have no doubt this “Alquimia” project will also win notoriety and accolades.

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VARIOUS JAZZ POINTS OF VIEW

July 11, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

July 11, 2022

CHRISTIAN JACOB – “NEW JAZZ STANDARDS VOL 5/THE MUSIC OF CARL SAUNDERS” –  Summit Records

Christian Jacob, piano; Darek Oles, bass; Joe Labarbera, drums.

Trumpeter Carl Saunders is one of the jazz world’s great technicians, a composer and improviser. 

“I have been writing tunes all of my life.  I had many of them sitting by the piano, unorganized and looking like a bit of a mess.  I finally decided to print them out and organize them in a folder. … Finally published them into a book which I call New Jazz Standards, which has over 300 songs. I let the artists pick whatever tunes they want to do from the book and interpret them in their own style,” Carl Saunders explained.

That’s how this wonderful album of music was created by French classical and jazz pianist, Christian Jacob, talented bassist Darek Oles and legendary drummer, Joe LaBarbera.  They open with “August in New York” at a moderate but swinging pace.  Another of the twelve Saunders’ tunes is one called “A Ballad for Pete Candoli.” It’s a very beautiful ballad celebrating this iconic jazz trumpeter who played with both the Stan Kenton and Woody Herman big bands. I enjoy the sensitive, light, airy touch Jacob has on piano.  His fingers seem to be skipping over the notes, free as uninhibited children at play.  Next, the trio breaks into a three-four tune titled “Zig Zag Waltz.”  All the Saunders’ tunes are melodic and leave plenty of room for the musicians to explore, improvise and express themselves. Oles offers a brief but awesome bass solo.  LaBarbera solidifies the waltz, first with brushes and then builds the excitement, ending with cymbals ringing and sticks flying. 

The composition titled, “The Hipper They Are the Harder They Fall” is straight-ahead bliss.  In fact, every tune on this CD is brilliantly interpreted and the trio arrangements offer something for everyone’s pleasure and enjoyment.  Other Favorites are: “A Pill for Bill” that races across space like lightening; “Dark Blanket” is a composition warm as a wool poncho and “Sweetness” is a sugar-soaked ballad begging for lyrics. Each of the Saunders compositions light up the universe, bright stars on the horizon. To me, they sound like jazz standards.

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BILL ORTIZ – “POINTS OF VIEW” – Left Angle Records

Bill Ortiz, trumpet/flugelhorn; Matt Clark, piano/Fender Rhodes; Brian Jackson, piano; Carl Wheeler, Hammond B3 organ; Marcus Shelby, bass; Marc van Wageningen, electric bass; Dennis Chambers, drums; John Santos, percussion/lead & background vocals; Javier Navarrette, percussion/background vocals; Azar Lawrence, tenor saxophone; Terrie Odabi & Christelle Durandy, lead & background vocals; Juan Luis Perez, Larry Batiste & Sandy Griffith, background vocals.

The first music arrangement of Bill Ortiz is robust and rolls out with the propulsive rhythm of Dennis Chambers, on drums, punching the funk into place.  They introduce the Eddie Henderson composition, “Sunburst” and it’s a great way to begin this album.  The trumpet of Ortiz announces the melody like a breath of fresh air and calls my ears to attention.  The arrangement dips and dives, with interludes that calm the tempo, until the drums become prominent again and continue driving the piece forward.  On Track #1, these musicians create a lovely blend of fusion with the more traditional, straight-ahead jazz.

Ortiz has his feet solidly planted in several jazz styles.  This is not surprising since he has spent forty-plus years playing a variety of music.  He toured for sixteen years with Santana and was part of that ensemble when they walked away with their multi-Grammy winning “Smooth” album. 

Bill Ortiz has recorded or performed with a long list of iconic names like Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Tito Puente, Pete Escovedo, Boz Scaggs, Buddy Guy, as well as R&B stars like Tony Toni Tone, TLC, En Vogue and Destiny’s Child. Each of the ten pieces of this Ortiz repertoire was chosen to become a vehicle that showcases the Ortiz personal voice on trumpet.  He explained:

“…Music makes people feel something. I wanted “Points of View” to feature important pieces that have been overlooked or forgotten; songs I felt could document the sounds and artists that were important to me in forming my voice, while updating and bringing my personal style to them,” Ortiz said.

To assist him, Bill Ortiz has selected a stellar ensemble of musicians including the flying fingers of Matt Clark on piano.  Clark is always innovative as a soloist and complimentary as a solid rhythm player and accompanist. You hear this on Track #4, “In Search of Truth,” a sweet and lovely ballad with piano lines cascading like small waterfalls. Azar Lawrence, on tenor saxophone, sings the melody in unison with Ortiz on trumpet.  On Track #6, “A Toast to the People” written by Brian Jackson and Gil Scott Heron, features Terrie Odabi on lead vocals.  She adds her special flavor to the mix and rejuvenates this Gil Scott Heron gem of a tune.  Track #9 is a favorite arrangement of mine, composed by Wayne Shorter, and titled, “Oriental Folk Song” and inclusive of the “John Coltrane” melodic line dancing through the melody.  It makes me want to sing, “John Col – Trane” over and over again. Fueled by percussive spirit, Azar Lawrence takes a star-studded tenor solo. I also enjoyed Track #3, the Wilton Felder tune, “Ain’t Gon Change a Thang” that features another inspired solo by Azar with Bill Ortiz spicing it up by adding various effects to the arrangement.  All in all, this is a delightful mix of talent and repertoire. The mastery of Bill Ortiz on trumpet and flugelhorn is consistently obvious, awesome and spellbinding.  Perhaps Ortiz described his project best when he said:

“I like players who, like me, color outside the lines and strive for exciting interactions that make people listen and react, so that every time they play it, it tells a different story and goes to fresh, unheard places.  I wanted these guys to play off each other and jump into the oblivion of the unknown.  Afro Cuban music is a huge part of my life, and I welcomed genre greats like John Santos, who could inspire me to take that passion to the next level.”

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EVAN DRYBREAD – “TIGER TAIL” – Independent Label

Evan Drybread, tenor & soprano saxophones/composer; Mark Buselli, trumpet/flugelhorn; Christopher Pitts, piano/Fender Rhodes/composer; Scott Pazera, electric & upright basses; Kenny Phelps, drum/percussion.

Evan Drybread reflects the era of bebop, inspired by the hard bop records from back in the early popular Blue Note years.  He admires musicians like Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley, Jackie McLean, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.  These musicians inspired Drybread to compose and pursue an album that reflected his love of saxophone and straight-ahead jazz.  Drybread opens this album with a wonderful original tune he wrote titled, “Blackball.”  Although he obviously has a deep love for bebop, Drybread was actually raised on fusion.  He wrote and included a tune to express that side of his jazz affections titled, “High Priestess” incorporating electronics.  He replaces the piano with a Fender Rhodes and Drybread pulls out his soprano saxophone during this arrangement. Kenny Phelps is absolutely inspirational on drums, taking a long and exciting solo.  The composition, “The Queen of Cups” slows the energy down and invites the trumpet of Mark Buselli to express himself.  He brings a warm, lovely tone to the party.

“Tiger Tail is my most recent composition.  I have been greatly inspired by the John Coltrane Quartet and wanted to capture the energy and spirituality of his music of the 60s.  I wanted to have a big, driving bass line in 6/4 with a soaring tenor melody.  This tune, in many ways, feels like my self-portrait, especially from the last seven years of my life. It has been a period filled with both personal and musical growth, but also great pain physically and emotionally.  Like a tiger, this song shows great strength, but also vulnerability,” Evan Drybread describes the title tune of his album.

In summary, I found Drybread’s album to be both innovative and enjoyable.  His composer qualities shine. 

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PETER ERSKINE TRIO – “LIVE IN ITALY” – Fuzzy Music

Peter Erskine, drums/composer; Alan Pasqua, piano/composer; Darek Oles, bass/composer.

The first original composition by Alan Pasqua, “Agrodolce” is sultry, pensive and drenched in classical music.  Pasqua opens, playing solo piano for the first half of this arrangement.  When the other two musicians join him, Peter Erskine’s brushes brighten the tempo and Darek Oles steps up to offer us a salty bass solo that’s both lyrical and relaxing. There is something comfortable and warm about this Peter Erskine Trio.  Their ‘live’ concert music draws me in.  Their repertoire is listed on the CD in the format of a restaurant menu.  Track #2 is titled “New Hope.” It’s another Pasqua original with a laid-back tempo, but beautifully written and played. “Old School Blues” struts onto the concert scene with Darek’s bass walking briskly beneath the groove that Peter Erskine’s drums lay down. Erskine’s drumming is strong and flavorful, like a thick Italian red sauce on fresh spaghetti. It’s a delicious arrangement. I tap my toes along with his swinging beat.

This is an easy listening trio of jazz played by three iconic gentlemen and recorded before a ‘live’ audience in Camogli, Italy on November 19, 2021.  The trio was in the midst of a two-week Italian tour. It was their first tour since the coronavirus lockdown. The Peter Erskine Trio offers a lip-smacking, toe taping menu of mostly original compositions. Erskine’s pepper-hot drums splatter across their arrangements with masterful sticks and brushes. He takes several solo spaces to sprinkle his talent over the captive audience. They reward him with appreciative applause. Erskine has composed “Three-Quarter Molly” that gives another platform for Pasqua to showcase his skillful piano creativity.  The tune “Turnaround” by Alan Pasqua is more energetic and tumultuous; a perfect platform for Erskine to shine, tap and tickle his drums.  Peter’s percussion opens the famed Dizzy tune, “Con Alma” tap-dancing on skins that double time beneath Pasqua and Oles. Darek Oles spotlights his bass in a dramatic solo during this tune. As the concert comes to an end, their audience responds with explosive hand claps.  The people demonstrate how much they appreciate what they heard.  I strongly concur.

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ESTHESIS QUARTET – “ESTHESIS QUARTET” –  Orenda Records

Dawn Clement, piano; Elsa Nilsson, flute/vocals; Emma Dayhuff, bass; Tina Raymond, drums.

This is a spirited, all-female quartet.  The first tune on the ‘Esthesis’ album is titled, “Cricket.” However, it sounds more like a boxing match than a chirping cricket.  I do enjoy the energy and excitement that this quartet produces. At the intro, Elsa Nilsson chirps like a cricket on her flute and Emma Dayhuff, on bass, mimics the cricket sounds briefly. But very quickly, Tina Raymond punches the drums in all the vulnerable spots and the staccato breaks remind me of gloves swinging and colliding with flesh. Dayhuff solos on bass and the energy grows. Nilsson’s flute flies in a flurry of punches and I’m caught up in the splendid excitement these four musicians create.  When Tina takes an extended drum solo, I can clearly see the two boxers duking it out at the end of the tenth round and then, boom!  Knock-out!  The song abruptly ends. “Two Moons” is track two. The moody melody is played sweetly on Elsa Nilsson’s flute.  This arrangement is burrowed in thigh deep blues.  The story behind the title is one that celebrates an American Indian Cheyenne chief.  He traveled to Washington, D.C. many times to discuss and negotiate a future for his Northern Cheyenne people. In fact, it is “Two Moons” who is featured on the American Buffalo Nickel coin.  Dawn Clement is brightly featured on piano during this arrangement, shining with creativity. Clement and Nilsson have collaborated on “Partial” with Nilsson writing the music and Clement has penned the lyrics.  Nilsson sings.

The quartet adopted the name ‘Esthesis’ which means: elementary sensations of touch.  They were formed as a creative support group to keep compositions coming and creative juices flowing during the awful COVID-19 pandemic.  After spending several sessions together on the Zoom app, the members headed to Los Angeles and recorded this, their debut album. Dawn Clement is a Denver, Colorado-based pianist and educator.  Currently she holds the role of Assistant Professor and Area Coordinator of the Jazz and American Music Department at Metropolitan State University in Denver.  Drummer, Tina Raymond is currently Assistant Professor and the Director of Jazz studies at California State University, Northridge.  Raymond blends traditional jazz percussion vocabulary with African polyrhythms and classical percussion techniques.  You hear this powerful blending on the quartet’s arrangement of “We Watch It All Burn” written by Nilsson.  Nilsson, who is now New York City based, originally came to the States from Gothenburg, Sweden.  She is an adjunct professor at the New School Paul Rauch and performs regularly at various New York venues.  Bassist, Emma Dayhuff, is a graduate from the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz Performance and only the fifth woman to ever participate in this prestigious program.  Dayhuff lives in Chicago and is pursuing a DMA at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Illinois.  She takes an extended solo journey during the “We Watch It All Burn” tune, exploring the full range of her upright bass and her unique creative instincts.  Raymond is by her side the entire way, fueling the solo piece with percussive intensity.  The song ends, like someone just blew out a candle and the burn abruptly stops.  Drummer, Tina Raymond, has composed “The Gardener” and it’s passive and precious introduction by Nilsson’s sensuous flute makes me want to gather my watering can and my spade to venture into my own garden. Like this music, there is a peacefulness to working with the earth.  The sixth and final tune on this very enjoyable musical concert is titled “Finding What’s Lost.” This song tributes Elsa Nilsson’s father, who passed away and her journey to finding a path back to life out of grief.  She vocalizes the melody, without words, in a scat-like way, dancing above the track in melodic whispers. This album was released May 27, 2022.

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HENDRIK MEURKENS THE WDR BIG BAND – “SAMBA JAZZ ODYSSEY” – Zoho Records

Hendrik Meurkens, harmonica/composer/arranger; Michael Philip Mossman, conductor/composer/ arranger; SAXOPHONES: Johan Hörlén, Pascal Bartoszak, Olivier Peters, Paul Heller, Jens Neufang. TRUMPETS: Andy Haderer, Wim Both, Rob Bruynen, Ruud Breuls. TROMBONES: Ludwig Nuss, Raphael Klemm, Andy Hunter, Mattis Cederberg. RHYTHM: Paul Shigihara, guitar; Billy Test, piano; John Goldsby, bass; Hans Dekker, drums.

Hendrik Meurkens is a German born, New York City based composer and harmonica player, with his own unique, recognizable sound and inspired by a deep love of Latin jazz.  Over his illustrious career, he has traveled to a number of countries and those influences of cultures and historic experiences is reflected in this album, “Samba Jazz Odyssey.” The big band opens with the Meurkens’ flamboyant composition, “A Night in Jakarta.” In my mind, I can still picture the colorful garments of Indonesian women with covered heads and I can hear the angklund instruments of Indonesia, locked melodically into my memory.  Meurkens competently captures the colors and energy of this Indonesian capital with the arrangements conducted by Michael Philip Mossman, a Grammy-nominated arranger.  Paul Heller on tenor saxophone and Raphael Klemm on trombone are brightly featured soloists, along with the harmonica brilliance of Meurkens himself. This is the beginning tune of a vivid voyage through samba jazz, featuring the composer skills of Meurkens.

Track #2 is titled “Manhattan Samba” and dances its way onto the scene, propelled by the able drums of Hans Dekker. Pascal Bartoszak on flute adds a light touch to the piece, with the horns pumping staccato beneath the excitement.  The Meurkens original tune, “Prague in March” is one of his compositions that has been ‘covered’ by many accomplished artists including Claudio Roditi, the popular Brazilian trumpet player. It’s a slow, sexy samba with a lovely melody that Meurkens wrote just before he immigrated to the United States and one year after the Berlin Wall fell.   “Sambatropolis” is a joyful composition, arranged so that Johan Hörlén, on alto saxophone, can engage in a lilting conversation with the harmonica of Meurkens.  I also love the baritone saxophone lines written into this arrangement that help keep the mood buoyant and happy. Meurkens was on a ride from Denver to Aspen, Colorado and while travelling through the American West, he was so inspired by the Rocky Mountains and their natural beauty that he composed “Mountain Drive.” The motion and movement of this tune makes me want to get in my car and head for the highway.  Conductor Mossman has composed a tune that lets the big band act as if they are a local jam session.  “You Again” spotlights Andy Hunter on trombone and Mattis Cederberg on bass trombone.  Jens Neufang, on baritone sax, gives us a true bebop influenced solo and Hans Dekker pushes the band forward on his powerhouse drums.  Paul Shigihara takes a noteworthy guitar exploration and Rob Bruynen soars on trumpet.  It sounds like a true jam session.

Every composition, every arrangement and each of these competent and talented musicians make this an album meant for your listening pleasure.

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DAN OLIVO – “DAY BY DAY” – Ava Maria Records

Dan Olivo, vocals; Ian Robbins, guitar; Lyman Medeiros, bass/ukulele/vocals/arranger; Joe Bagg, piano/Hammond B3 organ; Kevin Winard, drums/percussion; Kyle O’Donnell, tenor saxophone; Jamelle Adisa, trumpet; Garrett Smith, trombone; Renee Myara Cibelli, vocals.

Dan Olivo has a smooth, comforting voice; one you might hear and enjoy at a supper club or an intimate jazz room.  He has surrounded himself with an amazing cast of musicians who create tight, jazzy tracks and feature bright, outstanding instrumental solos.  Dan has chosen a dozen familiar songs for his repertoire.  He sings each one with sincerity and the well-written arrangements by Ian Robbins compliment Olivo’s vocal delivery.  Dan Olivo opens with the title tune, and the band swings as hard as a big band.  Olivo has a strong handle on music, having played saxophone in his Junior high school band and beyond.  It was during that period of his teen life that Dan was introduced to Harry Connick Jr.  Young Olivo watched and listened in awe as Connick Jr. fronted his big band and the teenager felt that he could do that too.  Soon he was also listening to Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, Nat ‘King’ Cole and Michael Bublé. You clearly hear these influences in this album presentation. I enjoyed his rendition of the Latin flavored tune, “Sway” competently colored by the drums of Kevin Winard.

Olivo is also an actor with work in theaters, on film projects and appearances on television shows.  He blends his love of acting with his love of music, picking tunes like the 1924 song, once performed during Vaudeville stage acts called, “How Come You Do me Like You Do?” and the popular tune from the Broadway play, “The Great Magoo” titled “It’s Only a Paper Moon.”  He delivers each composition with crystal clear enunciation and this male vocalist could be categorized as a new-comer to the ‘crooners’ society.  By the way, he also does a good job of swinging his way through tunes like “L.O.V.E.”, “I’m Walkin’” and the up-tempo version of “Time After Time.”

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NATE WOOLEY – “ANCIENT SONGS OF BURLAP HEROES” – Pyroclastic Records

Nate Wooley, trumpet/composer/amplifier. COLUMBIA ICEFIELD: Mary Halvorson, guitar; Susan Alcorn, pedal steel guitar; Ryan Sawyer, drums. Mat Maneri, viola; Trevor Dunn, electric bass.

In the wake-up call of the 2022 Supreme Court of the United States, the determination to expel environmental protection laws, this album seems particularly important.  Trumpeter, Nate Wooley, has joined forces with Mary Halvorson’s dynamic guitar, Ryan Sawyers power-house drums and Susan Alcorn’s creatively played pedal steel guitar.  They copiously interpret his original compositions. 

“I Am the Sea That Sings of Dust” is eighteen-plus minutes of sounds and music that seem to reflect nature and predict some kind of bleak destruction or disintegration. You will hear the seagull’s song in this composition and the wind; the sea gently roaring like a sleeping giant and even raindrops.  It was such an interesting production, I played it twice.  According to Nate Wooley’s press agent, this music is meant to describe the gravitational force of a shifting glacier.  It utilizes an hour-long platform.  The production seems to be warning us about the possible catastrophic results of not loving and protecting mother earth.  Are we simply watching the natural beauty of our planet unravel? Are we ignoring glaciers melting, shifting, floating away?  Mat Maneri adds his viola to the mix and the screech of strings against the Ryan Sawyer drums becomes cataclysmic, with instruments sounding like wind gusts in an ice storm.  Ten minutes into this suite of music, the mood changes to a pensive, quiet alternate universe, where Nate Wooley’s trumpet appears, muted, like sunrays through a shuttered window.

This production features a suite of compositions, interpreted as three titles.  “A Catastrophic Legend” was penned by Wooley as a love letter to his mentor, Ron Miles, who passed away in March.  The final title is called “Returning to Drown Myself Finally” and is based on a Swedish religious song called “Nu ar midsommar natt.” All in all, this project, like the album cover itself, is dark and ominous.  The Wooley compositions and improvised trumpet parts melt into amplification, feedback, vocalization and sometimes disturbing music that ruffles the spirit and tickles the brain.

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MATTHEW MUÑESES – “NOLI ME TANGERE” – Next Level Records

Matthew Muñeses, alto saxophone/composer; Miguel Zenon, tenor saxophone; Zubin Edaji, trumpet; Stu Mindeman, piano; Clark Sommers, bass; Dana Hall, drums.

According to reedman, composer and educator, Matthew Muñeses, he has composed music to interpret his impressions of the Phillipines’ revolt against Spanish control in 1896.  The opening track, “Alin Mang Lahi” expresses the 19th Century Filipino desire for sovereignty. Both this track and the second track are based in minor keys and brightly powered by the drums of Dana Hall and the saxophone of Matthew Muñeses. “Kundiman ni Rizal” is a love song generally sung by a young man to the desired woman of his dreams. Both compositions are written by José Rizal.  This ballad had a melody penned by Francisco Buencamino, who put music to the poetry of Rizal. Clearly Matthew Muñeses admires Jose Rizal, who is a poet, novelist and National hero of the Philippines.

Four songs on this production are composed by Matthew Muñeses and represent parts of the suite he wrote.  The Muñeses publicist says that a Rizal Novel titled “Provoked” inspired Matthew to write this suite of music in 2019. Those four compositions blossomed into this recording. Not only does this music intend to call attention to the early Filipino revolution, it also is a musical means of calling attention to continuing racism and separatism that Muñeses has experienced as a Filipino man growing up in America.  Songs from the composer’s suite titled, “Noli me Tangere” features compositions like “A Son Returns” and “Cruelty and Injustice.”

This suite refers to Matthew’s own soul-searching and him coming to terms with his racial mix, being half Filipino and half American. The piano solo by Stu Mindeman is quite stunning and inventive on Cruelty and Injustice (the second tune in the Muñeses suite).  Dana Hall also takes a notable drum solo during this arrangement. Matthew Muñeses hopes to connect the history of Philippine independence from Spain to the post-colonial Phillippines and finally, to the current battle for justice in America existing in the 21st Century.  His suite, “Noli Me Tangere” is a musical call for a more equitable and fair society.  Part three is titled “Education for All” and the fourth and final part of the suite is “Revolution and Liberation” which seems to take us back to the original premise of the 1896 through 1898 revolution.  Sadly, the circle of discontent just seems to repeat itself, whether on European soil, in the islands, in Asia, in America or in this music.

This is modern jazz, with the Muñeses and Rizal compositions providing chord changes that encourage improvisation and freedom.  The music is the revolving door we keep pushing forward.

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SEARCHING THE SPIRITUAL SIDE OF JAZZ

July 1, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

July 1, 2022

ALEXANDER SMALLS – “LET US BREAK BREAD TOGETHER” – SmallHouseProductions/Outside In Music

Alexander Smalls, vocals; Joseph Joubert, piano/Hammond B3 organ; Cyrus Chestnut, piano/B3 Hammond organ; Kevin Hays, piano/Fender Rhodes; Reuben Rogers & Ben Williams, upright & electric bass; Ulysses Owens jr., drums/percussion/co-producer; John Ellis, tenor & soprano saxophone/bass clarinet.

A deep spiritual bass line opens the song, “Wade in the Water” until Alexander Small’s emotional, baritone voice takes stage center.  His vocals are rich and remind me of the ferocious male choir soloists I heard in church; the ones who sang spiritual tunes with gusto, love and power; the ones who had backgrounds in operatic singing.

The second and third tracks feature instrumentals. They highlight the outstanding musicians on this recording, who make the music shine. One of my favorite tunes by Sonny Rollins is “St. Thomas.”  The band has arranged this jazz standard with joy and tenacious energy; first featuring a solo by Kevin Hayes on piano and then Ben Williams on bass.  John Ellis sings his reed song on saxophone and Ulysses Owens Jr., takes a spirited solo on drums.  They follow this with the familiar “Watermelon Man” composition by Herbie Hancock. John Ellis makes a thrilling bass clarinet appearance on “God Bless the Child.” Cyrus Chestnut is featured pianist on this recording and has added his original composition, “Rent Party” as a delightful solo piano piece.

The artist and vocalist, Alexander Smalls, was once a highly respected opera singer. In 1977, he gained international attention, winning a Tony Award and a Grammy for his contributions to the Houston Grand Opera cast that recorded “Porgy and Bess.” Then, his life journey suddenly turned up a path towards becoming a culinary artist.  His love of spiritual music perhaps inspired the title of this album (Let Us Break Bread Together) and also reflects his transformation into the professional world of cooking.  Today, he is celebrated as a renowned chef.  Consequently, this inspired project embraces jazz as a spiritual bridge between Alexander’s love of cuisine and his vocal interpretation of spiritual music.  When he sings, “Let Us Break Bread Together” it is both a prayer and an offer to share the intimacy of both his music and a meal. He makes it comfortable to take a seat at his musical table. 

Small’s rendition of the traditional spiritual “Hush” is beautifully delivered, as is “Poor Little Jesus” with the piano accompaniment of Kevin Hayes tasty and creative.  Ben Williams provides a stunning bass background during the spoken word of Alexander Smalls as he recites the Langston Hughes poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”

“Think about the richness of a melody,” Smalls encourages our introspection. “Think about how a melody starts in one’s soul, one’s mind, one’s spirit. People bring these extraordinary sounds sometimes from the depths of who they are,” the artist explains.

Surely Mr. Alexander Smalls has done just that; pulled from the depths of his own soul, exhibiting infectious emotion and talent during this presentation. He shares his spiritual experience with us and inspires the listener with both this spiritual recording and his formidable voice.

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BRIAN LANDRUS – “RED LIST” – Palmetto Records

Brian Landrus, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet/flute/alto flute/bass flute; Nir Felder, guitar; Geoffrey Keezer, Fender Rhodes/organ/piano/synthesizers; Lonnie Plaxico, electric & acoustic bass; John Hadfield, percussion; Rudy Royston, drums; Jaleel Shaw, alto saxophone; Ron Blake, tenor saxophone; Steve Roach, trumpet/flugelhorn; Ryan Keberle, trombone; Corey King, vocals.

Often times, music is used as a method of calling attention to some cause or life challenge.  Baritone saxophonist, reed master and bass clarinet player, Brian Landrus, has composed and arranged fifteen tunes dedicated to the preservation of some of our endangered, Earth creatures. This is Brian’s eleventh album released as a bandleader. It reflects his spiritual connection to earth and the animal kingdom in a warm, jazzy way.

“I’ve been an animal lover since I was a little kid.  I recently began researching the many endangered species on our planet.  It broke my heart to learn that there are only eight vaquitas, sixty-seven Javan rhinos and fewer than 850 mountain gorillas left on earth. Spreading awareness of this tragic global situation is part of the impetus for this album,” Landrus explains in his press package.

Each composition title exemplifies this purposeful album of music.  Landrus opens with “Canopy of Trees” that has a very orchestrated, smooth-jazz feel.  You can picture a forest of green, with the Landrus horn becoming the prowling creature beneath the lush canopy. On the title tune, “Red List” John Hadfield’s driving percussion energy fuels the arrangement, along with Rudy Royston on drums. Landrus delivers strong melodies and arranges the horns with tight harmonies that balloon the music like helium. The small ensemble sounds much bigger than it is and lifts me.  As I listen to the “Giant Panda,” composition, tenderly featuring a delightful Landrus bass clarinet solo, or “Tigris” pumping us up with a bright tempo and featuring the beautiful guitar talent of Nir Felder, the composer transmits the beauty and importance of protecting all life on earth with his music. He gives us a taste of his flute talents on “The Distant Deeps” and features the warm, husky vocals of Corey King.  I note that His arrangements exhibit the diversity of genres, embracing Straight-ahead jazz in some parts, (especially when Landrus is soloing) blending in easy-listening horn arrangements to buoy the tracks, along with smooth jazz grooves. For example, when he arranged “Save the Elephants” the jazz arrangement embraces a reggae beat. As I soak up this music, my imagination conjures up the elephant families lumbering along towards a drinking pond. Brian Landrus offers us music that is much like life itself, multi-faceted, colorful, uniquely different and beautiful. 

When he’s not composing or recording, Brian Landrus has taken his saxophone talents on the road with other jazz acts such as Esperanza Spalding, Fred Hersch, Billy Hart, George Garzone, the Maria Schneider Orchestra and his mentor Bob Brookmeyer. Landrus is not only a multi-talented musician who has mastered several reed instruments, but he’s adept at various musical genres.  Brain has toured with national pop acts like The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Coasters, The Drifters and Martha Reeves.  He holds a doctorate from Rutgers University and is currently on faculty at the School of Music, California State University Sacramento.

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JAKE LECKIE – “THE GUIDE” – Ropeadope Records

Jake Leckie, double bass; Nadav Peled, acoustic guitar; Elizabeth Goodfellow, drums.

“The Guide” is an acoustic folk-jazz trio with bandleader Jake Leckie at the helm on upright bass.  They open this recording with the title tune, bathed in the blues and slowly unfolding like a lyrical love ballad. Track two is titled “Patience” and features Nadav Peled on his acoustic guitar, dancing across the strings like an acrobat.  All eight of these compositions are composed by Jake Leckie and were recorded old school, on 2-track analog tape. They used no headphones, no isolation booths or overdubs.  This is live music that’s interactive, creative and improvisational.  This trio of musicians play spontaneously. On the “Patience” tune, Elizabeth Goodfellow is given a platform to shine on her trap drums.  This recording celebrates organic, acoustic music, along with creative compositions that are melodic and pleasant to the ear, like the tune “A Thing of Beauty.”  Track #6, “The Good Doctor” allows Jake Leckie to step out front and explore his rich, deep, double bass instrument.  This is a very Latin sounding composition.  The guitar is drenched in Spanish-sounding lyricism.  I wish the drummer had double-timed the rhythm to lift the arrangement and to move away from the same kind of tempo as the songs before this one.  A Samba or Cha Cha groove would have enhanced this well-written, original song, and would have accentuated the unexpected but tasty breaks in Jake’s arrangement.  A fresh, Afro-Cuban 6/8 rhythm dancing beneath Leckie’s bass solo could have been brilliant.  What I found missing in some of these songs was ‘the groove’ that my listening ears kept longing to hear.  The tune, “Adobe” finally slams into a funk groove with Leckie walking his upright bass and Goodfellow slapping the swing into place. Leckie’s composer skills are continuously impressive. The final tune could have been a real show-stopper with its up-tempo racy speed and strong jazz changes.  A spotlight is provided for Elizabeth Goodfellow to shine in, highlighting her drum skills.  However, the jazzy momentum and spiritual excitement that this composition inspires gets lost in the production.  I think a jazz drummer like the late, great Ralph Peterson, or like cutting edge female drummer, Terri Lyne Carrington or the iconic Jeff Hamilton could have elevated this project to a higher level.

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TOM COLLIER – “THE COLOR OF WOOD” – Summit Records

Tom Collier, vibraphone/marimbas.

Tom Collier has been heralded as “One of the best jazz vibraphonists on the planet” by Scott Mercado, a Modern Drummer Magazine contributor.  Collier offers us a solo album, exploring his talents and creativity on three different marimbas; a 1948 Musser Canterbury marimba, a Adams Soloist Model and a Yamaha Model 6100 marimba.  Each song unfolds, like the path amid a forest of tall trees.  His concept is warm and brown, “like the color of wood,” also the title of this album.  Beginning with five reflections on wood, he plays a suite of music that explores his talents as both a marimba player and a composer.

“Inspiration for ‘Five Reflections on Wood’ is based on art and activities from Ruthi Winter, Cindy Kelsey, Jim and Mary Burdett and Adelle Hermann Comfort. … and musical inspiration for over fifty-one years (and still counting) from my lovely wife, Cheryl,” Tom Collier expresses in his liner notes.

This artist shows how layering his marimba talents and expanding his solo horizons, demonstrates he can paint an album with the brilliant colors of a sunrise or capture the sounds of nature with his mallets.  When I listen to Tom Collier’s music, I see vivid images of raindrops kissing the petals of Bluebells and purple Irises.  He inspires me to look for stardust sprinkling down from the big dipper and his songs glimmer like moonglow in love-filled eyes, especially when he interprets Freddie Hubbard’s “Little Sunflower” composition.  With songs like the Hank Williams favorite, “I’m So Lonesome, I Could Cry” Collier reminds us that a well-written song crosses genres and can easily relax in the lovely arms of a jazz arrangement.  His original songs, like “Genesee” and “I Haven’t Seen the Rain” wrap the listener in a blanket of comfort and warmth. 

His song “Hopscotch” is happy and carefree, like a child jumping between the chalk lines on a city sidewalk. This is a musical tribute to the higher good in us all and the spiritual beauty that a master marimba player can bring to his instrument.  In so doing, he lifts us all to an elevated standard of peace, joy and happiness. 

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JOÃO LUIZ – “FROM SPAIN TO SAO PAULO” – Zoho Records

João Luiz, guitar: Sergio Abreu, 1997; Strings: Augustine Regal Blue.

I always have great admiration and respect for an artist who records an album of solo work.  In this case, not only is João Luiz performing solo, he is also covering famous, classical compositions and doing so displaying mastery on his classical Sergio Abreu guitar.  Sergio Abreu is a Brazilian guitarist and respected guitar maker. Almost all of this classical repertoire are originally written for guitar.  Although I rarely review classical music, this album was so striking and beautiful, I felt compelled to sing praise to the talents of Mr. Luiz.  Particularly since my article is titled “The Spiritual Side of Jazz” and surely this solo guitar music is sparked by spirit and jazz is inclusive of European classical music, along with Blues, American slave songs and the gift of improvisation. That is the one thing missing in this awesome recording; the beauty of improvisation.  In classical music, most of the time the pieces are played as written, without venturing off into improvisation.

This album opens with “Largo non Tanto, Op. 7” written by Fernando Sor, a nineteenth century Spanish composer.  João’s intimate interpretation of both this opus and the “Minueto Op. 25” that follows becomes a wonderful way to introduce us to his mastery of the guitar. The Luiz performance seems effortless and precise.  It is quite amazing to hear a solo guitarist perform with such sincerity and power, yet never echoing a squeak on the fretboard. This is the sign of a master musician. Guitar players will know exactly what I mean.  Some of these songs have been arranged by João Luiz, like “Serenata Espanola” that was composed originally for piano by Joaquin Malats, who was a Barcelona-based pianist.  João Luiz’s chords roll and the ascending lines are quite different from the original arrangement of this familiar classical composition. Perhaps there is a bit of jazz improvisation in this album.

Whether you are a jazz lover or an appreciator of classical music, here is a magnificent guitar presentation that celebrates music “From Spain to Sao Paulo” and pays homage to Spanish composers from the 19th and 20th century.   Two-time, Latin, Grammy-nominated guitarist, educator and composer, João Luiz, began to play the popular music of his native Brazil professionally during his childhood.  He was later trained in classical guitar by his mentor, Henrique Pinto. João’s interests include bridging Classical, Jazz, and Latin American music as a performer and composer.   João is equally at home with classical, Brazilian, jazz and world music. 

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DANA FITZSIMONS WITH BILL GRAHAM AND BRANDON BOONE – “FAULT LINES” – Independent Label

Dana Fitzsimons, drums; Bill Graham, piano; Brandon Boone, bass.

Dana Fitzsimons has been an ardent fan of free-style jazz for years.  Although he started out as a touring musician, the drummer soon had a young, growing family and decided to get his degree from William and Mary Law School. He then pursued a legal career.  However, Fitzsimons never discarded his love of music and today he is both a recording artist and a successful trusts and estates attorney. 

His trio includes two popular musicians who are mainstays on the Atlanta jazz scene.  Pianist Bill Graham has been teaching jazz, improvisation and composition for nearly fifteen years.  As a composer, he has contributed several songs to this album. Bassist, Brandon Boone is a touring musician with both Colonel Bruce Hampton’s Band and the Tedeschi Trucks Band. 

“The music we wanted to make requires a lot of close listening and allowing the music to take you wherever it wants to go, untethered from strict ideas about time, form and harmony.  With all this freedom, it was important to me that the music still be rhythmic and lyrical so that the music invites the listener in, even for people who are not accustomed to free jazz,” Dana Fitzsimons explained his musical concept.

“Slant Anagrams” is the opening track of this project.  It was composed by Bill Graham and is a sort of tribute piece to the iconic Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett and Paul Motian.  It’s the most Straight-ahead jazz track on the Fitzsimons album.  Rodgers and Hart’s famed “Where or When” tune is the only standard they cover.  The trio also plays the Joni Mitchell tune “Amelia.”  However, the other nine tunes were composed by either Graham or Fitzsimons. Track #3, titled “Crystals” was composed by all three musicians of the trio and it stretches imaginatively, each member contributing their own slice of creativity and improvisation.  The result is as sweet as a piece of fresh-baked pie.  “Ice Bridges Before Road” is dramatic and Graham plays with the upper register of the piano, using it to paint images of ice into the arrangement, along with the colorful drums of Fitzsimons.  With the exception of “Where or When”, arranged beautifully as a ballad with drifting tempos and legato movement; these pieces of music are more abstract than structured.  The musicians play off of one another, reacting and improvising generously during these free-form exchanges.  Their songs are like moods, changing and growing provocatively without structured charts to hold the music tightly in place.  Time and tempos change and flood into each other with tsunami-like strength or soft and whispery like hummingbird wings.  The music on Fault Lines is inventive, spiritual and strikingly free.  Like the California Fault Lines themselves, it may shake something loose inside you, without a warning, and with the unexpected power of an earthquake.

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SIMEON DAVIS GROUP -“NARRATIVES & NOCTURNES” – Outside In Music

Simeon Davis, Saxophone/Flute/Composer; Tyler Thomas & Rachel Azbell, vocals; Maria Wellmann & Alex Hand, guitars; Holly Holt, piano/keyboards; Jake Chaffee, Electric Bass; Josh Parker, drums; Aramis Fernandez, congas; Maxima Santana, trombone; Jonathan Shier, trumpet/flugelhorn; Jess Meadoer, violin.

This album is a collection of “Narratives and Nocturnes” brought to life by the Simeon Davis Group.  Exemplified by the titles of the Davis compositions, we are introduced to a cast of characters, places, moods and animals that live inside the mind of Simeon.  Opening with “The Diver” this arrangement is driven by a strong bass line and becomes part of a holistic storytelling experience that transcends genre norms.  The tune is structured more like a suite than a singular song.  It moves through moods and tempos like a restless bird exploring a foreign forest or perhaps a “Diver” searching through a ship wreckage beneath the sea.  There are lots of synthesizer accents and horn lines that leap and jump like notes on steroids.  In the same breath, there are some very beautiful parts to this arrangement that are soothing and melodic.  A voice accents the melody at the beginning and towards the end of the piece, singing wordlessly along with the instrumentation.  I am extremely impressed with the Davis composition, “Seven Come Wednesday” that recalls the brilliance of Chick Corea.  The addition of Tyler Thomas on vocals, singing throughout like a horn and the percussive brilliance of Aramis Fernandez coloring the arrangement along with the effective drumming of Josh Parker, turn this tune quickly into one of my favorites on this project.  The composition “Eden” features the sweet tenor voice of Tyler Thomas singing the melody in unison with the instrumentalists.  It explores the funk genre, with Parker’s drums slapping the groove into place and in your face. “Pleiades” uses handclaps and rhythm to propel the violin stage center. It’s a very lovely composition and continues to herald Simeon Davis as a gifted composer.  Holly Holt uses the piano to compliment and buoy the delicious violin solo by Jeff Meadoer.  I am absolutely captivated by the creativity and unique production that this Simeon Davis Band brings to his project. Simeon Davis lends several bars of his saxophone talent to this tune and “Pleiades” quickly becomes another one of my favorites. I listen to music all day, every day, but I’ve not heard something like this band in many moons. It’s refreshing! 

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CALEB WHEELER CURTIS – “HEATMAP” – Imani Records

Caleb Wheeler Curtis, alto & soprano saxophones/composer; Orrin Evans, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Gerald Cleaver, drums.

The title tune “Heatmap” is a reference to where the action is happening.  Curtis composed the music for “Heatmap” during an artist residency and retreat in 2021.  Perhaps it was the get-away inspiration, the natural splendor of nature surroundings or the solitude that inspired him to write these ten, amazing jazz tunes. The result of that retreat is formidable music.

“…I like music with space in it.  It’s easy to get wrapped up in the idea of throwing everything at the wall, which, in theory, sounds bigger and more confident.  But I wanted to appreciate the sound of the music in the air.  You can hear the detail in the playing and really hear the musicians as people.  And I’m working with three singular musicians whose playing has real weight,” Caleb explained.

Pianist, Orrin Evans, opens the title tune with a very classically colored introduction.  The thrust of Gerald Cleaver’s drumsticks pushes the arrangement forward and creates momentum.  Once the excitement has soared, Caleb Wheeler Curtis enters with an energetic and restless saxophone.  His solo is both melodic and innovative.  The group cools down with Track #2 titled, “Tossed Aside.”  Cleaver keeps the rhythm light and double-time, dancing beneath the melody like gently moving ocean waves, along with Eric Revis, perfectly in-step on bass.  This celebrated bassist has history with the pianist (Evans) and this musical relationship led Caleb Wheeler Curtis to Eric.  Prior to meeting Caleb, Revis played with Luques Curtis his Brother, recording on his CD. After that, Revis expressed interest in working with this saxophonist and artist. They are a good match.

There is freedom and fluidity throughout this album of original Caleb Wheeler Curtis music.  He allows his bandmates to dance on the chord changes, like acrobats at the circus, swinging from one bar to the next in perfect precision and astounding us with their various twists and turns.  For example, on “Limestone” the Curtis saxophone tumbles over the rolling drums of Cleaver in staccato reed notes and streams of improvisation.  His soprano sax sounds almost flute-like on “Trees for the Forest,” a ballad where Caleb and Orrin (on piano) duet quietly out-front. Cleaver percussively colors in the background and Eric’s bass falls like dark, green leaves on a forest floor. “Trembling” leaps into a speedy tempo, with four musicians racing around the CD like cars on a track. Caleb’s saxophone ‘cuts time’ on top of the energy. The music of Caleb Wheeler Curtis takes you on an adventure. This production is an unexpected rocket ship ride.  Just give yourself to the music and watch the universe explode with promise.

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THE ROAD STRAIGHT AHEAD

June 25, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

June 25, 2022

CLEMENS GRASSMANN – “GRASS MACHINE” –  Independent label

Clemens Grassman, drums/composer/arranger; Cole Davis, bass; Chris McCarty, piano; Chris Bittner & Sam Dillon, tenor saxophones; David Milazzo, alto saxophone; Aaron Bahr, trumpet.

The path of jazz has widened and merged; forked and wandered to new and various places along the pandemic way.  But the road ‘Straight-ahead’ remains one that I love the most.  This new project by Clemens Grassmann and his Grass Machine takes us on the long and precious road to ‘Straight-ahead’ jazz.  Starting from the very first tune titled, “Re.Cursive Op.Timization” I am in love with this recording.  Lately I’ve been inundated with music by drummers who not only play music but title themselves composers.  I have to say this is the best album composed by a drummer that I have heard in the past two years.  Many of the other projects I listened to had troubled melodies, no bridges, and were more like ‘loops’ than songs.  Clemens Grassmann has developed each song to its maximum creativity, with chords that allow his fellow musicians to improvise comfortable and creatively.  This first song holds my ears prisoner and then comes “Chicken on a Trane.” I assume this is a testament and a nod to the talents of John Coltrane.  It is a bright and boisterous tune that features Aaron Bahr on trumpet, David Milazzo on Alto Sax and Bittner and Dillon on tenor, blowing their hearts out with intricate harmonics.  Bahr steps out from the ensemble to solo and we are off and running at a vigorous pace.   He is followed briskly by the saxophone players, each stellar in their own spotlight.  Cole Davis takes a noteworthy solo on bass and all the while, Clemens Grassmann does what he seems to love.  He pumps the music up on his drums.  Grassmann never allows the rhythm to slack up, the tune to become boring or the energy to dive.  I am swept along with the musicians, enjoying every creative moment.  Chris McCarthy shows his superb talents on piano and then the bassist and Grassmann hold court, talking to each other like an attorney with his client.  Oh yes – throughout these arrangements you will hear musical conversations and arrangements that are both challenging and energized.

I must also compliment the art director and designer, Hollis King.  The CD cover is a winner!  I would pick this up and want to listen to it any day of the week.  I do wish the credits on the back cover had used a larger font for seasoned eyes.  All of the musician names should be in bright lights, because they all deserve it!

When Clemens Grassmann walked into the studio to record this project, they told him:

“We left the drums the way Billy Hart had set them up,” Grassmann recalled. 

“As I entered the drum booth, I had never felt such a sensation; a magical mix of devotion, humility and excitement.  To record my music at Rudy Van Gelder’s Studios, in the exact same room that gave birth to John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme,’ Herbie Hancock’s ‘Maiden Voyage’ or Wayne Shorter’s ‘Adams Apple’ … ,” the young drummer shared his awe in the liner notes and I could almost hear him sigh. 

“As the pandemic shut down NYC, it offered a vessel to pour my emotions into, assemble a group of extraordinary musicians and create a connection back to the roots…” Clemens Grassmann summed up exactly what this jazz journalist was feeling. 

Straight-ahead and back to the roots!

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PECK ALLMOND QUARTET featuring ED KELLY – “LIVE AT YOSHI’S 1994” – Eastlawn Records

Peck Allmond, tenor saxophone/trumpet/producer; Ed Kelly, piano; John Wiitala, double bass; Bud Spangler, drums; SPECIAL GUEST: Kenny Brooks, tenor saxophone; R.J. Spangler, co-producer.

Peck Allmond is proficiently multi-talented.  He plays trumpet, saxophone, flute and is often in demand for his valve trombone talents, clarinet and bass clarinet mastery. This is an historic album, tracing back to 1992 when Peck made a move from the Bay Area to Brooklyn, New York.  With all his skills and himself, a competent band leader and composer, he quickly became a highly sought-after sideman.  A year later, on July 5, 1994, Allmond returned to the San Francisco Bay Area to perform at the famous Nightclub, Yoshi’s.

“Hearing this lovely music now, with a distance of three decades and 3,000 miles, I’m grateful.  Grateful I grew up in the SF Bay Area, where an incredible public school music program allowed me to fall in love with jazz,” Peck Allmond wrote in his album liner notes.

This magnificent tribute to the straight-ahead jazz of the 1990s opens with Peck Allmond flying through the changes of the Sonny Rollins tune, “Tenor Madness” quick as a 747-jet plane.  Ed Kelly takes a spirited piano solo.  Ed was a highly respected musician on the Bay Area jazz scene who performed with Pharoah Sanders, Bobby Hutcherson, John Handy and many other iconic names.

“Ed Kelly was … a mentor. He, of course, is one of the giants of Bay Area jazz; true royalty. I had been listening to him since high school.  When he began hiring me a lot around 1987, I felt unready to play with him.  But he was patient.  Playing with him and just hearing him each night was a masterclass,” Peck Allmond recalled.

The band is inspired by Allmond at the lead and the able drums of Bud Spangler.  Spangler made his debut in Detroit, Michigan first, as a radio personality and music producer.  He added musician to those credits, playing and producing for such labels as Strata Records and Tribe Records.  In the Bay area, Bud Spangler continued his radio career at both KJAZ and later, KCSM radio as a disc jockey, producer and engineer. Spangler produced several Grammy-nominated recordings, including work with Shirley Horn, Denise Perrier, Mimi Fox, Ed Reed, Mary Stallings, Cedar Walton and more.  His drum talents are a welcome addition to the swing and straight-ahead spirit of this music. 

The bass solo on “Like Someone in Love” showcases John Wiitala’s awesome creativity and talent. John was a member of Peck’s regular working band for years.  There is a special camaraderie and comfort between the two.  Wiitala has also performed with James Moody, Jessica Williams, Arturo Sandoval and Joe Henderson to list only a few.  Peck’s solo on this tune, as well as all the others, is clever and hard-bop to the bone.  Allmond weaves in a piece of “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” seamlessly.  Listen for it. When the band silences, to let Ed Kelly soak up the spotlight, he mesmerizes me and the ‘live’ audience with his solo piano brilliance.  This band is smokin’ hot!  Everything on this album is dynamically played and soulfully infused with each musician’s raw emotions.  For example, their interpretation of the blues ballad, “I’m confessin’ (that I Love You)” with Allmond’s sexy saxophone caressing our ears, hearts and minds is impressive.  Wiitala’s upright bass dancing beneath the mix in the sweetest way.  At the second half of this tune, Allmond picks up his trumpet and blows our minds with his brilliant talent on this horn too. I am totally entertained by the follow-up of Ed Kelly’s solo piano arrangement on “Moment’s Notice” and the group’s unique interpretation of the familiar tune “Invitation.”  This is an album of music I will play over and over again.  What a sparkling, historic gem for any jazz collection!

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NYO JAZZ – “WE’RE STILL HERE” – Carnegie Hall Weill Music Institute

Sean Jones, Artistic Director/trumpeter/bandleader; Melissa Aldana, tenor saxophone; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; RHYTHM: Tyler Bullock II & Hannah Mayer, piano; Kai Burns, guitar; Aidan McCarthy & Ryoma Takenaga, bass; Colman Burks & Koleby Royston, drums. REEDS: Ebban Dorsey, Alto & baritone saxophones; Connor MacLeod, alto saxophone/flute; Emre Tekmen, alto saxophone; Ephraim Dorsey & Matthew Garcia, tenor saxophone; Noa Zebley, baritone saxophone. TROMBONES: Braxton Hart, Denali Kauffman, Oliver Tuttle, Kenji Wagner & Darien Baldwin, bass trombone. TRUMPETS: Cameron Davidson, Kellin Hanas, Nathan King, Levi Rozek, Ace Williams & Jonah Hieb, trumpet/flugelhorn. Gianna Pedregon, violin.

“The big band has always been America’s orchestral format and one of the most wide-ranging ensembles ever devised,” said Artistic Director and bandleader of NYO Jazz, Sean Jones.

Here is a rich, swinging basket full of original tunes and delicious arrangements performed by NYO Jazz (an extension of the National youth Orchestra) in all their big band beauty.  Opening with a Miguel Zenón composition entitled, “Oyelo” this group of outstanding music makers lets us know, right off the bat, that they are not only still here representing big bands, but they are swinging as hard as ever.  The energized Zenón composition features Melissa Aldana on tenor saxophone, singing her song atop the ever-spirited drums of Colman Burks and a horn section that swells and fills the piece with energy.  Kenji Wagner is featured on a notable trombone solo and Jonah Hieb adds his sweet trumpet talents to the mix.  Track #2, “Mr. Jones and Co.” was commissioned by Carnegie Hall and composed by Ayn Inserto.  It moves like the fast-pasted Pennsylvania turnpike, with the horns hitting their harmonic, hard-bop chords with precision and gusto.  The curtains part and Sean Jones steps out front featuring his exciting trumpet solo.  It is with the Sean Jones leadership that NYO is showcasing the astonishing potential of these super talented, young musicians; many who are only between sixteen to nineteen years old.  These special, youthful talents will soon find themselves touring and carrying the ever-evolving tradition of big band jazz around the world. Their goal is to impart knowledge and the pride of playing jazz, a music that is America’s indigenous musical artform.  Sean Jones realizes it is up to those who have come before these young people, to inspire and help them climb securely upon the shoulders of jazz veterans like himself.

“I try to make sure that the students bring their whole selves to jazz – – their minds, bodies, souls, spirits; so that they can offer the best versions of themselves in the music. Jazz is ultimately about individualism. I try to make sure they are being themselves, while respecting the tradition of jazz … making sure it is preserved for generations to come,” Sean explains some of his technique.

Under the direction of Jones and sometimes joined by Dianne Reeves and Kurt Elling, the NYO (launched in 2018) has already toured Europe.  These gifted students have already performed in some of Europe’s most prestigious concert halls and festivals. They’ve also toured Asia, debuting their big band jazz in Taichung, Beijing, Shanghai, Zhuhai and Hong Kong.  Their energy and enthusiasm are contagious.  When you listen to this album, you will not think that these are students of jazz.  They sound seasoned and confident.  The title tune, penned by the iconic trombonist, Wycliffe Gordon, is expressive.  It includes orchestra, vocal participation as Wycliffe prods and inspires the band to repeat after him on this Mardi Gras influenced music.  Music that makes you want to dance and shout. The “Hambone-hambone, have you heard” line is offered by the horns.  Then Wycliffe sings out and the voices repeat after him, letting the listeners know (with syncopated handclaps and a band that swings hard) this NYO Jazz group means it when they say, “We’re Here to Stay!”

Below is a video of the NYO Jazz performing the great Ralph Peterson piece “The Art of War.”  See for yourself why I’m so excited about this magnificent organization.

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JOHN LEE – “THE ARTIST” – Cellar Music

John Lee, bass/composer; Carl Allen, drums; Miles Black, piano; Cory Weeds, tenor saxophone.

Bassist John Lee is an in-demand player on the Vancouver, Canada jazz scene.  South Korea born, John Lee has established himself as a respected multi-instrumentalist in his Canadian community and beyond.  It was time for him to record an album.  He questioned himself about which instrument to choose and showcase on his debut recording project, because he is a master of many instruments.  Lee plays not only double bass but is quite proficient on drums, piano, organ and guitar.

“I’ve never considered any instrument to be my main instrument.  So, it was very difficult to choose what I would play on my first record,” he admitted in his press package.

Only twenty-eight years old, John Lee demonstrates a musicality and talent far beyond his nearly three decades on this earth.  He is sensitive and creative on the bass, while also proffering his composer skills and arranging strengths for our consumption.  The result is an album that is both delicious, refreshing and delightful.

Surrounded by brilliant sidemen, who are also independent artists in their own rights, the group opens with Mulgrew Miller’s “Soul Leo” tune.  John Lee’s acoustic bass sets the groove with Carl Allen joining him on drums.  This tune is the whistle that sets the quartet off and running.  They are competent and straight-ahead.  Cory Weeds races around on his tenor saxophone.  Weeds is a frequent collaborator with John Lee and also a respected mentor. He appears on only three of the eight songs recorded.   Miles Black brings brilliance to the party, his piano notes dancing like confetti sprinkled around my listening room.  John Lee takes a big, beautiful, but brief, bass solo and also closes the tune out soloing.  His music reminds me of a guest leaving the party feeling happy and fulfilled.  Track #2 is “Carl’s Blues” and spotlights the power and drive of Miles Black at the piano.  Carl Allen is fluid and driving on the drums, a percussive inspiration, continuously inspiring his fellow players.  He solos brightly during this trio track and, for our listening pleasure, let’s his awesome talents soar. I can see that John Lee relishes hard bop, swing and straight-ahead jazz in a most obvious way.  His music infuses me with energy and joyful feelings.  Each one of these players is absolutely and uniquely gifted. They make this project one that thrills and satisfies the listener.  I enjoyed the blues tones they added to “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise.”

“The musicians I chose to play with me all understand where I am coming from musically and not much had to be worked out in the studio.  We just went in and swung our asses off,” John Lee boasted.

I absolutely agree with him!  This quartet swings non-stop.  When they do take a breath, for instance, on the composition “Life is a Beautiful Thing” (an original song by John) their tenderness and attentiveness to detail and each other touches me like a warm hug.  John Lee is given an opening solo to establish the lovely melody and then hands the torch to Miles Black.  His sensual approach to this John Lee composition is admirable.  However, it’s the sweet and very poignant solo of Lee’s double bass that sings this well-written melody into my heart.  The trio is swinging again on one of my favorite tunes, “September in the Rain.”  Carl Allen’s drum licks sound like rhythmic raindrops on a tin roof and Miles Black is stormy and succinct on piano.  When John Lee enters to sing his solo, his bass becomes sunshine after the storm.  The title tune, “The Artist” is a great way to describe this multi-talented musician.  John Lee’s album introduces us to a young man on the rise.  Like a many-faceted diamond, Lee is bound to show us his multi-musical sides (on this project and those in the future) shiny and sparkling inside a jazz universe that eagerly awaits his promise.

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FELIPE SALLES – “TIYO’S SONGS OF LIFE” – Tapestry Records

Felipe Salles, tenor saxophone/arranger; Zaccai Curtis, piano; Avery Sharpe, bass; Jonathan Barber, drums. Tiyo Attallah Salah-El has written every composition.

It takes strength and determination to be imprisoned without the possibility of parole, and to still develop a creative outlet while keeping your self-respect. The late saxophonist, Tiyo Attallah Salah-El managed to become a prolific composer, author and activist while serving a life-long sentence inside a Pennsylvania State prison. He spent nearly half a century incarcerated before dying in 2018. Somehow, with the efforts and determination of a prison abolitionist named Lois Ahrens, today we can hear Salah-El’s music.  Ms. Ahrens is the founder of the Real Cost of Prisons Project and they provided blank sheets of music paper to Mr. Salah-El in 2005.  The composer quickly reciprocated by filling those blank sheets with his original compositions. 

Now, thanks to the talented tenor saxophonist and arranger, Felipe Salles, with Zaccai Curtis on the piano, Avery Sharpe on bass and Jonathan Barber stroking the drums, the music of Tiyo Attallah Salah-El is available today for public ears.  This is an album of extraordinary music, personifying straight-ahead jazz.  This quartet of musicians brings the composer’s work to life in a brilliant way. 

Starting with “Toetappin’ Tastey,” this composition is seven minutes and six seconds of a hard swinging jazz waltz.  Avery Sharpe walks his double bass into the spotlight, singing his creative solo until Zaccai Curtis takes over on piano.  Jonathan Barber’s powerful drums hold the piece rhythmically in place.  On Track #2, a “Blues to Change Your Views – On Stage in a Cage” we hear music that embraces bebop and offers the listener a well-written, sing-along melody. Salles is brilliant on tenor saxophone, establishing the melody and stretching out with his own unique improvisations on the theme.  The quartet swings harder than a Joe Louis punch. 

“When Lois contacted me, out of the blue, what interested me was the opportunity to make a musical connection to things that I actually cared about that were not necessarily musical.  We refer to incarceration as a correctional system, but it’s really just a punishment system, one that doesn’t treat people with dignity,” Felipe Salles expressed in his press package. 

“The system is so distorted that it becomes very difficult for anybody to succeed in being reformed.  So, prison just becomes a place where people rot and get worse and worse,” Salles concluded.

In the case of “Tiyo’s Songs of Life,” this composer was not the average prisoner.  He never gave up and the prison system did not break him.  His music is extraordinarily potent, with original songs that sound like jazz standards and titles that reflect hope, love and fortitude. Felipe Salles, a native of Sao Paulo, Brazil, uses his tenor saxophone to interpret these songs with sincere emotion and tenacious talent.  “Steppin’ Up” is arranged in a Latin format and “Live a Life of Love” recalls the days of John Coltrane’s inspired music at the arrangement’s introduction.  “My Love is Deep Inside” was composed for Lois Ahrens and it’s a lovely ballad.  On the tune “12 in 5” Avery Sharpe is brightly featured on bass and the ensemble challenges us to count the time.  This production is full of surprises and the arrangements by Salles are inventive and entertaining.

Felipe Salles is a professor of Jazz and African-American Music Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  He has been teaching there since 2010. Salles is also an active musician with his musical credits embracing a long list of major names who he has played or recorded with since 1995.  Salles has released eight critically acclaimed recordings as a bandleader. I found his ambitious CD/DVD set titled, “The New Immigrant Experience” to be groundbreaking and inspiring. That work took on an activist tone and dealt with the topic of immigration, employing an explosive big band to interpret the topic. Lois Ahrens made a wise choice sharing Tiyo’s song charts and original music with Felipe’s magnificent quartet.  These four gentlemen have certainly honored the spirit and artistic brilliance of Salah-El’s music.

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KALI RODRIGUEZ-PEÑA – “MÉLANGE” – TRRcollective

Kali Rodriguez-Peña, trumpet/composer/arranger; Gabriel Chakarji, piano/keyboards/Fender Rhodes; Bam Bam Rodriguez, acoustic & electric bass; Zack O’Farrill, drums; Victor Pablo Garcia, congas/barril/percussion; Kazemde George, tenor saxophone. SPECIAL GUESTS: Gina D’Soto & Jeremy Bosch, vocals/ Aruan Ortiz, piano.

Cuban born trumpeter, Kali Rodriguez-Peña, showcases his composer talents during this beautifully produced Straight-ahead jazz album.  His passion and tenacity fuel this project.  His power-driven group opens this album with a Wayne Shorter tune, “Yes or No.”  These musicians come out the gate like Kentucky Derby racehorses.  Track #2 reminds me of the music of Thelonious Monk combined with something Charles Mingus might compose.  It is an original composition by Kali titled, “A Student is Not a Disciple.”  Kali Rodriguez-Peña, currently based in the New York City area, has been polishing this band for the past five years.  The title of his album, “Mélange” is a French word for ‘mixture’ and Kali feels it succinctly describes his music, drawn from bebop and post-pop, Cuban timba, salsa and rumba and the world music of India and the Caribbean.

“They say most people listen to music today – the playlist – is a mélange of different albums and artists,” explains Kali. “I call it 21st century music, millennial music or playlist mode music,” he says.

As I soak up Kali’s music, the arrangements of his original tunes stretch the boundaries of just Straight-ahead into the freedom of modern jazz.  On his “La Historia de Erendira” composition, Kali’s beautiful trumpet playing takes the spotlight.  This song is full of energy and ebullience, inspired by Kali’s wonderful mastery of his instrument.  When he hands over the solo position to Gabriel Chakarji, on piano, he offers us a moment of brilliance and energy-driven improvisation.  On the traditional tune, “Drum Mobila,” I enjoy the lead vocals of Gina D’Soto singing in Spanish with Kali Rodriguez-Peña tastily interjecting his trumpet voice into the mix.  It’s as though Gina and Kali are having a serious and very personal conversation. This arrangement is hypnotic. On the familiar standard, “Like Someone in Love” Kali offers a very Cuban musical take on this arrangement, with a hot, percussive, double-time drive and Kazemde George sings his tenor saxophone song atop the rhythmic joy.   Chakarji’s piano solo cools the heat, but never lessens the energy.

Kali Rodriguez-Peña is a fresh voice on the jazz horizon, beaming like an orange and gold sunrise and promising us new music, fresh ideas and determined excellence.

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PLANET D NONET – “LIVE AT THE SCARAB CLUB: TRIBUTE TO BUDDY JOHNSON” – Eastlawn Records

Michael Zaporski, piano; Matt LoRusso, guitar; Shannon Wade, string bass; RJ Spangler, drums/bandleader/background vocals/announcer; Justin Jozwiak, alto saxophone; Jim Holden, tenor saxophone/musical director; Goode Wyche III, baritone saxophone; James O’Donnell, 1st trumpet/co-leader/background vocals; Charlie Miller, trumpet; Tbone Paxton, trombone/lead vocals; Camille Price & Leonard King, vocals.

One ‘swinging’ afternoon in Detroit, Michigan, at the Scarab Club, drummer RJ Spangler led an all-star band of Motown musicians in a ‘live’ performance concert.  The thing that made this concert so unique was that the group, “Planet D Nonet” was performing songs by 1940’s popular pianist, singer, songwriter and big band leader, Buddy Johnson.  It was 2018 when this album became a tribute to Buddy Johnson as these musicians recorded sixteen of his original tunes.  These songs were radio and dance hall favorites back-in-the-day.  Buddy Johnson was popular during the evolution of rock and roll, a music that borrowed from rhythm and blues.  Johnson’s music was a bridge between original R&B and the new rock music that became popular in the 1960s.  He employed big band jazz harmonics, swing and shuffle rhythms, along with catchy lyrics that please enthusiastic audiences and dancers alike. 

Planet D Nonet has contracted Camile Price, Leonard King and Tbone Paxton to sing some of these lyrics that helped make Buddy Johnson’s songs so popular.  The trumpet of James O’Donnell invites the first song, “South Main” to shuffle into the Scarab Ballroom.  The horns are arranged in a 1940 big-band-way and encourage swing dancers to the dance floor.  Michael Zaporski has a light, melodic touch on the piano and Shannon Wade makes a brief, but impressive double bass solo statement.  “Dr. Jive Jives” is a slow swing tune with bandleader and drummer, RJ Spangler, egging the ensemble on with his powerhouse ‘two and four’ rhythm.  The horns swing too, giving us a familiar, repeatable melody to sing along with.  Johnson’s music always offered his fans music they felt comfortable humming along with; melodies they could enjoy.  You clearly hear this in “Hello Sweet Potato” with vocals by Tbone Paxton.  In the 1940s, this was the popular and commercial music of the day.  You hear the boogie-woogie infused arrangement of “Walk ‘Em” next.  It features the guitar of Matt LoRusso with a warm, tight-knit horn section.  Goode Wyche III plays a spirited baritone saxophone solo on “Crazy ‘Bout a Saxophone” and the tune is just plain fun!  There’s a chorus of voices shouting, “Go – go – go” that the audience enjoys, shown by their loud, spontaneous applause.  Track #7, “Lil Dog” is a finger-snappin’, hand-clapping arrangement by Matt LoRusso and we get a generous taste of the blues on Buddy Johnson’s tune “Root Man Blues.”  It’s sung with emotional sincerity by Leonard King.   

This project is a wonderful, historic tribute to the talent and legacy of Buddy Johnson.  Although it is not ‘Straight-ahead’ jazz, Buddy’s music is a bridge between the 1930’s speakeasy jazz and the 1940’s rhythm and blues scene.  It’s what was happening just as Charlie Parker’s career was taking off, before Straight-ahead jazz was brought vividly to the public’s attention.  Things began to change after those trail-blazing arrangement Parker made to the tune “Cherokee” and I would say bebop developed and then Straight-ahead jazz.  Buddy Johnson came after speakeasies, when jazz was blossoming and just before bebop transformed and Straight-ahead was born.

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MUSICAL VISIONS

June 1, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

June 1, 2022

STEVE DAVIS  – “BLUESTHETIC” – Smoke Sessions Records

Steve Davis, trombone/composer/arranger; Peter Bernstein, guitar; Steve Nelson, vibraphone; Geoffrey Keezer, piano; Christian McBride, bass; Willie Jones III, drums.

This album offers ‘straight-ahead’ trombone bliss.  Steve Davis is a master of his instrument and has encircled himself with other musicians who bring their A-game to this “Bluesthetic” project.

“We all had major fun working with Stevie-D on this new album,” Christian McBride gushed on the liner notes, calling Davis by his nickname, Stevie D.  “This was simply a musical family reunion playing great music written by Steve.  Willie Jones III, Geoff Keezer, Steve Nelson and Peter Bernstein are all top-notch, well-established giants on their respective instruments. … But Steve’s got blue fire coming out of his horn.” 

Opening with one of ten original compositions by Steve Davis, “Encouragement” is a perfect vehicle to showcase the Davis ensemble.  The melodic integrity of the tune makes you want to whistle along.  Steve opens things up on trombone followed by an inspired solo from Peter Bernstein on guitar.  One of my favorite additions to the Davis sextet is Steve Nelson on vibraphone.  Geoffrey Keezer explores the eighty-eight keys during his piano solo, followed by Christian McBride’s power-packed bass improvisation.  All the while, Willie Jones III makes the music dance and swing on his trap drums.

You hear the strength of a great composer when you listen to these Davis tunes.  “Silver at Sundown” is another melody that inspires me to hum along.  His compositions and chord arrangements create the perfect, melodic stage for these awesome musicians to blow, bounce and bow.  Perhaps Christian McBride described it best when he said:

“If you take any song from this album and put a soul groove on it, you potentially have a top-ten, R&B hit on your hands,” McBride asserted.

I get that!  As a former songwriter for Detroit’s Motown Records, I know a well-written song when I hear one and Steve Davis composes great songs.  A well-written song can be translated to jazz, country, reggae or pop along with any good arrangement.  I found each of these ten original songs to be well-arranged and beautifully composed.  In the liner notes, McBride echoed my feelings.

“The music went from hip and swingin’ like “Off the Cuff” to the hip and sublime, “Bluesthetic.”  Every song is strong with a rebar-like harmonic and melodic sense,” McBride described their production.

This album is delightful from beginning to end.   Steve Davis’s satin smooth sound on the trombone is as beautiful as these arrangements and the sextet showcases his mastery as a composer.

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JONATHAN BARBER & VISION AHEAD – “POETIC” –  Independent label

Jonathan Barber, drums/composer; Taber Gable, Fender Rhodes/composer; Andrew Renfroe, guitar/ composer; Matt Dwonszyk, bass; Godwin Louis, alto saxophone/composer.

Jonathan Barber is such a dynamic drummer, you hear it right from the first four bars of his opening tune, “Poetic.”  The melody is introduced by Godwin Louis on alto saxophone, but the energy and poetry of the song is being played by Jonathan Barber on trap drums.  Track #2 titled “Gathering” is a composition penned by the group guitarist, Andrew Renfroe.  Taber Gable is spotlighted on Fender Rhodes piano during this arrangement and Renfroe also adds his own guitar solo, improvising freely.  The song by reedman Godwin Louis, “Give Us This Day” seems to be based on lines from the Lord’s Prayer with Barber’s driving drums peppering the rhythm.  “Acceptance” once again gives wings to Taber Gable on Fender Rhodes.  He also composed this song.  One of my favorite tunes on this album is “Denim” which has a well-constructed melody.  Otherwise, this seems to be an album made up of ‘loops’ and repetitive music phrases, mostly presented at a moderate tempo.

I would like to have heard more tempo changes to allow Jonathan Barber a stage to showcase his mad drum skills.  How about a jazz waltz, an Afro-Cuban 6/8 tune, a five/four piece or seven/four composition?  Jonathan did utilize the final tune to briefly spotlight his drum prowess, once again dancing brightly atop repetitive chord changes.  This is easy listening jazz, but I didn’t hear a tune that could become a standard like “A-Train” or “Misty;” “Hearts of Fire,” “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” or “Girl from Ipanema.”  Writing, producing and playing music the world wants to sing is a formidable goal.

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THE UNITED STATES AIR FORCE BAND AIRMEN OF NOTE – “THE 2022 JAZZ HERITAGE SERIES” – Dept. of the Air Force

RHYTHM: Sr. MSgt., Geoff Reecer, guitar; Tech Sgt., Chris Ziemba, piano; Tech Sgt., Ben Thomas, bass; Master Sgt., David McDonald, drums. VOCALS: Master Sgt., Paige Wroble & Diane Schuur (Special Guest). SAXOPHONES: Master Sgt., Kristian Baarsvik, lead alto flute; Tech. Sgt., Mike Cemprola, second alto flute; Master Sgt., Tedd Baker, lead tenor clarinet; Sr. Master Sgt., Grant Langford, second tenor/clarinet; Master Sgt. (Ret.), Doug Morgan, baritone/bass clarinet. TRUMPETS: Staff Sgt., Joshua Kauffman; Chief Master Sgt, Kevin Burns; Master Sgt., Luke Brandon/producer/Musical Director; Technical Sgt., Logan Keese; TROMBONES: Tech. Sgt., Matt Hettwer; Master Sgt. (Ret.), Jeff Martin; Master Sgt., Kevin Cerovich; Master Sgt., Benjamin Polk.

This is a swinging big band and they start off their Heritage Series by playing the very popular “Alright, Okay, You Win” that popularly featured vocalist Joe Williams back in the mid-1960s with Count Basie’s Big Band.  This time, MSgt Paige Wroble lends us her strong vocal rendition of this tune with gusto.  The second track titled, “Touch and Go” features the brilliant piano playing of TSgt Chris Ziemba and special guest trumpeter, Sean Jones.  There is also a star-studded space made for TSgt Mike Cemprola on alto saxophone and drummer MSgt David McDonald also offers a spirited solo on drums. 

This ‘Airmen of Note’ organization is the premier jazz ensemble of the United States Air Force.  They formed in 1950 to carry on Major Glenn Miller’s legacy.  They are an exemplary armed forces band and you will enjoy their high energy and professional musicianship throughout.

“Into the Sun” immediately caught my ear.  The horns fly and the excitement is palpable on this tune, penned by guest trumpeter, Sean Jones and arranged beautifully by Paul Ferguson. Special guest, Ted Nash is featured on saxophone atop a fusion jazz background propelled by the drums of David McDonald.  The band moves from fusion to straight ahead at the pop of a drum.  There is a flurry of interaction between trumpet and saxophone during the fade of this tune and a stellar, harmonic horn ending.  The Chick Corea composition, “Tones for Joan’s Bones” offers an opportunity for the horn players to step stage center and show-off their individual talents.  On the composition “You Can have It” award-winning vocalist, Diane Schuur steps forward.  The United States Air Force Band also has arranged and performed one of Ms. Schuur’s compositions, “Deedle’s Blues.”  They close with the familiar “Besame Mucho” tune that features Sean Jones on trumpet, Ted Nash on saxophone and Diane Schuur on vocals.  The ‘Airmen of Note’ performances on this disc represent a sample of the excellence and professionalism exemplified around the world in both music and in peace-keeping by the United States Air Force.

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RIQUE PANTOJA – “LIVE IN LOS ANGELES” – Moodo Music

Rique Pantoja, keyboards/piano/composer/arranger; Jimmy Earl, bass; Joel Taylor, drums; Ricardo Silveira, guitar; Cassio Duarte, percussion; Steve Tavaglione, saxophones/flute.

This artistic pianist has recorded and performed with some of the biggest names in both American and Brazilian jazz for over forty years.  The music of Rique Pantoja is a vision of peace, beauty and love.   In collaboration with his old friend, Juan Carlos Qintero, (owner of Moondo Music) this album became the perfect fit, representing the high-quality and artistically rendered jazz that Moondo Music distributes.

A native of Brazil, Pantoja attended a university to study engineering.  But this was his father’s vision and not Rique’s heart’s desire.  That’s strange, because both his father and his uncles all played musical instruments.  Maybe his father was trying to protect Rique from the rocky road of choosing music as a career.  After a frustrating year of engineering study, Rique’s father finally relented and sent his son to study in the United States and eventually at Berklee College of Music.  After all, Rique Pantoja had been studying classical guitar since the age of eight and switched to piano at thirteen years young.  By sixteen, he was already composing music. Rique Pantoja lived in the United States for a while as an exchange student.  During this time, the teenager won a talent show for his composing talents as a high school student. This encouraged him to keep composing.  The next step was attending Berklee School of Music. After graduating Berklee, the young pianist packed up his Fender Rhodes and relocated to Paris, France.  There, he formed a band consisting of French and Brazilian musicians that played all original compositions.  One night, the great Chet Baker heard the band playing in a club next door to where Chet was performing.  Baker popped into the club next door and was really impressed. In 1980, Rique’s band recorded with trumpet master Chet Baker, who, much to the surprise and excitement of young Rique Pantoja, came on board and decided to interpret Rique’s original songs.  That album is called, “Chet Baker and the Boto Brazilian Quartet.”

Once Rique Pantoja returned to Brazil, with success under his belt, he discovered his reputation burned like a five-alarm fire. He was in demand.  Pantoja toured two years with the great Milton Nascimento and became Musical Director for singer/songwriter, Djavan.  He was also an in-demand session player.  In 1991, at his wife’s insistence, the very busy Rique Pantoja needed a break and desired to spend more time with his family.  They moved to Los Angeles where the couple had many friends, including Ivan Lins. That short break turned into thirty fruitful years making music with California as his base.

Pantoja plays it all: classical, jazz, pop, gospel and of course Brazilian and international music.  Because of his diversity and excellent musical skills, Pantoja worked with a number of huge music names like Carlos Santana, Ernie Watts, Ricky Martin, classical guitarist Christopher Parkening, Gloria Estefan, Abraham Laboriel, Justo Almario, Lee Ritenour, Kirk Whalum and a score of others.  He has also written popular jingles for major brands like Coca Cola, Honda, Shell oil, Globo Reporter, DeBeers Diamonds, Pepsi, Nissan and Toshiba. 

Now, you can enjoy him on “Live in Los Angeles” working with some brilliant players like Steve Tavaglione on saxophone and flute, Jimmy Earl on bass, Joel Taylor, drums and Cassio Duarte on percussion.  He also includes Moondo Music labelmate, Ricardo Silveira on guitar.  This project shows Rique Pantoja’s exceptional visions on his instrument and spotlights his awesome composer talents.  Opening with “Arpoador” (that means harpooner in Portuguese).  Arpoador is also a small community, a peninsula, between Ipanema and Copacabana.  It’s an exciting and beautiful way to open this album, with changing moods and tempos, along with synthesizer brilliance during a solo that lifts the arrangement sky-high!

“Julinho” has a haunting melody interpreted by Steve Tavaglione’s sensual saxophone.  These two opening pieces quickly become two of my favorites on this album.  But let me say this.  Every Pantoja composition on this recording is brilliant.  Every arrangement is stellar and Rique Pantoja’s piano mastery infuses this music beautifully, giving each musician a musical palate to paint their hearts out.  “1000 Watts” is a tribute to Pantoja’s friend and popular, reedman, Ernie Watts and it’s drenched in funk.  His song, “Da Baiana” is based on an Afro-Cuban rhythm.  Pantoja’s composition “Be-Bop” kid introduces us to his vocal side.  Rique has a voice that’s honest and emotional.  I expected an up-tempo tune to exemplify be-bop.  Instead, this is a ballad and he sings the lyrical story in his native Portuguese with plentiful emotion. Then the arrangement changes, pendulum quick.  The ballad becomes a pop groove with Latin tinges.  Rique’s music is just pure fun!  As he plays the piano, he sings a scat line in unison with the melody.  His piano sparkles across each song, like sunshine on restless waves.  The flute solo by Tavaglione warms this arrangement, flying above the chord changes like a hungry seagull.  Also, the guitar solo by Ricardo Silveira is formidable.  For a moment, I am also captivated by the electric bass solo of Jimmy Earl.   Each song on this “Live in Los Angeles” album offers something more to entertain and surprise us.   It is a vision of complexity and artistic beauty you will enjoy listening to time and time again.

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BEN MARKLEY BIG BAND WITH ARI HOENIG – “ARI’S FUN-HOUSE” – OA2 Records

RHYTHM: Ben Markley, piano/keyboards/composer/arranger/bandleader; Evan Gregor, basses; Steve Kovalcheck, guitar; Ari Hoenig, drums/composer. SAXOPHONES: Will Swindler, alto & soprano saxophones/flute; Scott Turpen, alto saxophone; Peter Sommer, tenor saxophone; John Gunther, tenor saxophone; Sam Williams, baritone saxophone. TRUMPETS: Peter Olstad, Alan Hood, Greg Gisbert & Dan Jonas. TROMBONES: Adam Bartczak, Rob Borger, John Gauer & Paul McKee.

Pianist, arranger, composer and bandleader, Ben Markley feels this album is one of his most ambitious projects to date.  It all began in 2019 when Ben Markley and Ari Hoenig found themselves performing together at the Tarleton Jazz Festival in Texas.  As Markley began learning Hoenig’s original music and preparing for their performance, he was intrigued by the drummer’s melodic compositions.  Woven into Ari’s keen sense of rhythm were the most beautiful melodies.  Now, three years later, Ben Markley has arranged a big band album featuring the music of drummer Art Hoenig with the composer solid and powerful in the drum chair.

They open with “Birdless” featuring Will Swindler on alto saxophone.  Ben Markley’s piano expertise is featured and Steve Kovalcheck’s electric guitar soars.  This Markley arrangement makes certain to spotlight Ari Hoenig, popping and explosive on drums.  The horns dance and are drenched in ensemble harmonics.  This song is the perfect way to open up an innovative Markley big band album.  It establishes the energy and excitement that these musicians bring to the public ear.  Every song on this album is composed by Ari Hoenig.  “Lyric” is another gem, with a sparkling, bright melody explored by tenor saxophonist, John Gunther and Kovalcheck on guitar.  Markley’s sensitive arrangements always leave space to feature the composer.  Hot and heavy on his drum set, Ari remains the catalyst of this band with all his technical, percussive brilliance on display.  Ben Markley’s production flies each song like a proud flag, featuring various band members.  Also, his arrangements richly saturate the pieces in horn harmonies and punctuate the presentations rhythmically.  That’s one of the interesting things about these Hoenig compositions; the way rhythms, unexpected breaks, staccato punches and drum solos propel this project forward. 

“Lines of Oppression” reminds me of a powerful locomotive plundering forward.  Track #4 is called “Bert’s Playground” and it’s a happy, joyful composition that gives bassist, Evan Gregor, an opportunity to dance stage center on his double bass. The background horns mimic the sound of ambulance sirens, grabbing my attention, and then they break into a joyful sound of their own.  Paul McKee’s trombone steps out of the fray, richly improvising on the theme.  Greg Gisbert’s trumpet introduces us to a lovely ballad titled “For Tracy.”  Ben Markley opens this piece up with a poignant solo piano at the introduction.  The background horns swell and are dynamic against the sweetness of Gisbert’s horn.  “Arrows and Loops” sounds like something the Whirling Dervishes would dance to and Ben Markley takes a rousing solo on piano. The Ben Markley Big Band closes with a funky arrangement of “Green Spleen” which embraces modern jazz, contemporary fusion jazz, with even a taste of Charlie Mingus brilliance.  You will be thoroughly entertained by these Hoenig compositions and the Ben Markley Big Band interpretations of “Ari’s Fun-House.” 

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JOHN YAO’S TRICERATOPS – “OFF-KILTER” – See Tao Recordings

John Yao, trombone/composer; Robert Sabin, bass; Mark Ferber, drums; Billy Drewes, soprano & alto saxophones; Jon Irabagon, tenor & soprano saxophones.

Trombonist and composer, John Yao, vividly captures a sense of risk-taking and improvisational invention to create this boldly unpredictable album.  His vision is captured in the title “Off-Kilter” as he reunites his three-horn ‘Triceratops’ from an earlier album debut in 2019.  Once again, saxophonists Billy Drewes and Jon Irabagon join Yao along with drummer, Mark Ferber and bassist Robert Sabin. Sabin and Yao are longtime collaborators, once merging talents in Yao’s 17-piece big band.  On this recording, John Yao aims to be even more open and free.  He implements more complex compositions this time around, using plenty of open space for his counterparts to improvise and engage each other. 

What strikes me, right from the first tune, is the chordless structure of the band.  Leaning heavily on Sabin’s bass and Mark Ferber’s outstanding drum talents, the horns flutter and dance to their own content.  “Labyrinth” quickly becomes one of my favorites of Yao’s original compositions.  The pop of horns, using staccato unison notes, give Ferber’s drums a space to roll, solo and soar.  When the piece finally settles in, there is Robert Sabin’s walking bass holding the group solidly in place.  You can hear Yao’s love of big band harmonies in the way he has arranged the horn parts, lacing through the space like a bright, red, harmonic ribbon.  Yao’s trombone marches steadfast and straight-ahead, letting the background horns cheer him on.  Ferber’s drum licks double and clap like an inspired audience.  When Robert Sabin steps forward to solo on bass, his solo is exacerbated by the exciting compliment of Ferber’s improvisational drums that sing and soar, never losing the rhythm or dropping the tempo.  There are two interludes on this album. The first acts as a bridge between “Labyrinth” and a composition called, “Quietly.”  Both interludes are warm with horn harmonies and fired by the Ferber drums.  When the ballad “Quietly” appears, like a shy queen peeking out at the world behind lush, velvet horn harmonies, John Yao’s trombone is king.  Sabin’s bass sets the tone and tempo and the groove is Latin-esque.  It makes me tap my toe and want to cha cha across the room. 

“I love this band’s ability to go wherever everyone collectively or individually feels like they want to go, … to be part of something you can’t predict when you write a piece of music,” Yao explains his experience with the ensemble’s exploration of his original tunes.

This is an inspiring and creative exploration into the mindset and vision of John Yao, who has formerly contributed his trombone prowess with various Grammy-award winning ensembles including the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra.  They have certainly inspired him creatively.  He has also performed with Paquito D’Rivera, Eddie Palmieri, Danilo Perez, Chris Potter and Kurt Elling.  You hear his love of Latin music in the introduction to his composition “Crosstalk” combined with his appreciation of funk music, jazz swing and the blues.  All four music genres are wrapped in a ball of energy and excitement that dares the Triceratop-horns to fly free.  Amid their openness and rich improvisations, the three horns still manage to merge together harmonically, repeating a melodic theme and stitching the piece together like a seamstress’s needle.  I find John Yao’s compositions to be innovative and diverse.  His trombone talent is formidable.  This is musical art, showcasing all five players like a Broadway spotlight on the red carpet.   This album release date is June 10, 2022.

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AARON SEEBER – “FIRST MOVE” – Cellar Music Group

Aaron Seeber, drums/composer; Sullivan Fortner, piano; Ugonna Okegwo, bass; Tim Green, alto saxophone; Warren Wolf, vibraphone.

This is drummer, Aaron Seeber’s first recording as a bandleader and it’s a powerhouse debut.  It was recorded ‘live’ in Brooklyn at the Ornithology Jazz Club in October of last year.  The band’s energy is palpable and Seeber has surrounded himself with some of New York’s best jazz musicians.  They are the new wave of jazz with a vision and perspective all their own.  Aaron Seeber has chosen seven jazz tunes by recognizable composers and added one of his own originals for good measure called, “First Move.” That, of course, is the title of this, his first album.  The tune “Brandyn” is a great way to kick off this production with excitement and allows each member of the quintet to step forward offering creative solos.  I enjoy Warren Wolf on vibraphone.  He’s an asset and punctuation mark to this ensemble.  Seeber first met Warren Wolf on a Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra date.  Then, Tim Green, who shared many of Seeber’s first major performances with him, steps stage center on alto saxophone to woo the crowd.  Sullivan Fortner lays down the tune’s melody in unison with the vibes and sax.  Seeber has experienced a long association with the celebrated pianist, Sullivan Fortner since they first played together at New York City’s Fat Cat club.  They were both in the band of trumpeter Greg Glassman. Sullivan lays down a busy, but very tasty, piano accompaniment beneath the solo of Tim Green.  It’s almost as though the two instruments are wildly gossiping with each other, but in a very comfortable way.  Bass man, Ugonna Okegwo, began to play with Seeber several years ago and they are frequently heard together as part of the Pete Malinverni Trio.  Sullivan Fortner really stretches out on Track #2, “Out of the Past” by Benny Golson, a tune that calms the mood, but not the energy.  These musicians are pumped briskly by the drum mastery of Aaron Seeber, even on this moderate tempo.  Ugonna Okegwo is given his debut in the spotlight, making his double bass soulfully saunter and sing.  This is a really pretty tune by Golson that these musicians reinvent, celebrate and refresh in a most inspirational way. 

Aaron Seeber inspires excitement on the introduction to “Eleventh Hour.”  The alto sax and vibraphone speak in unison tones and Seeber answers them, sticks slapping across his drum set with a voice of their own.  These musicians are off and flying faster than a hungry hawk diving to catch its prey.  Wolf’s mallets race across his instrument and the audience spontaneously applauds, shouting words of encouragement and praise.  I want to do the same in my listening space. This group is on fire!  Green’s saxophone solo duets with Seeber’s drums being the catalyst.  It’s a wonderful arrangement that showcases both instruments simultaneously.  Towards the fade of this composition, Aaron Seeber steps forward to wildly display his incredible skills on the drums.  This is one of my favorite arrangements on this album, reminding us of the brilliance of composer Mulgrew Miller, and the live audience seems to agree, shouting their appreciation.

Aaron Seeber is a native of Washington, D.C. and is influenced by Billy Hart, Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Connie Kay, Mickey Roker and Otis “Candy” Finch to name just a few.  While attending high school in Washington, D.C., young Seeber attended Paul Carr’s Jazz Academy of Music (JAM) Camp.  Later, he attended SUNY Purchase, studying jazz drums with the renowned Kenny Washington and John Riley. Hungry for the music, he gobbled up opportunities to perform with greats like Eric Reed, Pete Malinverni, Cyrille Aimée, Freddie Redd, The Warren Wolf Trio and the award-winning group, The New York Voices to name only a few.  Currently, he leads his own quintet at the legendary Smalls Jazz Club. This debut album is bound to catapult this talented, young drummer into the stratosphere and beyond.

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VARIOUS & SUNDRY JAZZ VOICES

April 25, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

April 25, 2022

CHICAGO SOUL JAZZ COLLECTIVE MEETS DEE ALEXANDER – “ON THE WAY TO BE FREE” – JMARQ Records

Dee Alexander, lead vocals; Keith Brooks II, drums; Larry Brown Jr., guitar/vocals; Marques Carroll, trumpet; Amr Fahmy, Fender Rhodes/Elec. piano/clarinet/organ; John Fournier, tenor saxophone/composer; Victor Garcia, percussion; Dan Leali, tambourine; Andrew Vogt, bass.

If you are a lover of punch-driven, Tower-of-Power type horn harmonics and Earth Wind & Fire music, some of this album by the Chicago Soul Jazz Collective is reminiscent of that musical era.  Tenor saxophonist, John Fournier has composed eight of the songs out of the nine offered.  The musicians do an excellent job of interpreting this original material and Dee Alexander is a powerful lead vocalist.  They open with “Mama Are we There Yet?” which is quite reminiscent of the original Chicago based group, Earth Wind & Fire, featuring unison ensemble singing and funky horn lines with Keith Brooks II clearly slapping the rhythm into place.  Ms. Alexander is the lead singer on their title tune, “On the Way to be Free” arranged at a moderate swing pace.  John Fournier plays a tenor saxophone solo that puts the “J” in jazz as he floats above the funky rhythm track. Marquis Carroll offers a complimentary improvised solo on a tune called “Carry Me” and Larry Brown Jr. shows off his mad guitar skills.  The percussion of Victor Garcia peppers this tune with spicy licks.  “Behind the Crusaders” is a toe-tapping instrumental persuasion that moves and grooves.  The final tune spotlights the beautiful bass work of Andrew Vogt who opens the piece.  This is another instrumental that has a catchy horn line and gives a nod to Mr. Brooks II on drums with an energetic, featured solo by Arm Fahmy on electric piano.  The Chicago Soul Jazz Collective is a very soulful band that blends R&B, funk and jazz into a contemporary mix of excitement that’s interpreted by solid jazz players.

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SUSIE BLUE & THE LONESOME FELLAS – “BLUE TRAIN” – Seraphic Records

Solitaire Miles, lead vocals; Tom Hope, piano; Don Stille, Hammond organ; Paul Abella, cajon; Phil Gratteau, drums/percussion; Chris Bernhardt, bass; Neal Alger, guitar; Jack Galagher, trombone; Eric Schneider, saxophone; Howard Levy, harmonica; Dominic Halpin, guest vocalist; Jen Zias, Saalik Ziyad & Mike Harvey, background vocals.

This album of music is a throwback to the bands of the 1950s and 1960s.  It reminds me of the Rock and Roll shows presented in theaters with live bands like Sam the Man Taylor.  Solitaire Miles fronts the Lonesome Fellas with her pleasant voice and spicey attitude.  On “Lucky Lips” the band swings and Neal Alger shines on his guitar solo.  Solitaire Miles celebrates the music of Ruth Brown, re-arranging some of those 1950 hit records and presenting them with her own style and interpretation.   On “Forever Yours” Solitaire is joined by guest vocalist, Dominic Halpin.  After their duet, Howard Levy steps forward with a smart harmonica solo. This song is arranged more like a Country Western tune.  This group reminds me of roadside bars with local, crowd-pleasing entertainment and people two-stepping on sawdust covered floors.  Susie Blue & the Lonesome Fellas is a combination of early Rock and Roll, blues and a sprinkling of jazz. The band rearranges an old rockabilly tune called “She’ll Be Gone” and Solitaire refreshes it nicely with her adaptable vocals.  They shuffle their way through “Give Up That Honey” and the band encourages you to get up and swing dance your way through this energy-driven, up-tempo tune.  This album is just plain fun!  The song repertoire offers catchy lyrics, background voices that know how to punch the tune titles and a band that swings hard.

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MARK WINKLER – “LATE BLOOMIN’ JAZZMAN” – Café Pacific Records

Mark Winkler, vocals/composer/lyricist; David Benoit, Rich Eames, Jamieson Trotter & Jon Mayer, piano/composers/arrangers; Gabe Davis, bass; John Clayton, bass/arranger; Cameron Clayton & Christian Euman, drums; Kevin Winard, percussion. Grant Geissman, guitar; Bob Sheppard, flute/saxophone; Brian Swartz, trumpet; Nolan Shaheed, flugelhorn.

Mark Winkler has a way of carefully and deliberately picking a repertoire that suits his style and musicians that embellish his arrangements with their excellence.  Winkler may be a “Late Bloomin’ Jazzman” (whose voice sometimes reminds me of the ‘Rat Pack” days and Dean Martin) but he always brings sincerity and creativity to his projects.  He shares a rollicking, swing arrangement of the Michael Franks tune, “Don’t Be Blue.”  His arrangement will lift the spirits.  Mark is also a talented lyricist and songwriter.  I always look forward to his original compositions.  On this project he has included eight originals out of twelve songs and each one glitters with their own lyrical brilliance. “When All the Lights in the Sign Worked” is a perfect example of Winkler’s creative lyricism written to Joe Pasquale’s beautiful minor melody.  The trumpet of Brian Swartz is a welcome addition to the arrangement and Bob Sheppard’s saxophone embellishes the film noir, poignant story.

“It’s a rainy night on Western, cars are driving much too fast; neon coloring the raindrops, running down the windshield glass.  And the buildings all have fire escapes, but no one’s escaping from here.  Boarded up store fronts and the harms of another year.  …  I keep wondering what it must have been like, when all the lights in the sign worked on a long-gone Hollywood night.”

Gabe Davis opens the title tune with his double bass and provides a background groove for Mark Winkler as he strides into the spotlight, using spoken word to introduce himself.  This song reflects his love of theater and showmanship.  “In Another Way” is a tribute to his lost love.  The Latin inspired “Bossa Nova Days,” penned with Bill Cantos, is one of my favorites.  There is a theme in this album; a theme of aging, maturity and the wiseness that comes from living a full and appreciated life.  Songs like “Before You Leave” remind us of love’s magnet and life’s preciousness.  His tune “Old Enough” reviews a singer, songwriter’s life and the ignorance of youth that eventually teaches us well-lived lessons.  His lyrics on “Marlena’s Memories” is a tribute to his friend who is suffering with Alzheimer disease.  Nolan Shaheed adds a lovely flugelhorn touch to the tune and Jamieson Trotter’s emotional piano solo tells his own tender tale.  Trotter is also the co-writer of this composition.  As a published songwriter myself, I have great admiration and appreciation for Mark Winkler’s songwriting talents, his thought-provoking lyrics; his heartfelt performances and his passionate love of jazz.

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LADY COCO – “BESIDE MYSELF” – Independent Label

Lady Coco, vocals/songwriter/arranger; Chris Wilson, keyboards; Blake Morris, guitar; Aaron Mason, bass; Lance Lee, drums; Buddy McDaniel, saxophone; Kim Thomas & Charlotte Pope, background vocals; Preston Glass, producer/arranger/composer/piano. SPECIAL GUESTS: Rob Mullins, piano; Munyungo Jackson, percussion; Tomoka Nomura-Jarvis, flute; Larry Antonino, electric bass; Cal Rutherford, horns. Will Downing, background vocals; Eric Roberson, duet vocal on “How Could We Know?”

Lady Coco, in coordination with producer Preston Glass, has come up with a very pleasing new CD.  Opening with a catchy tune titled, “Jazz Junkie,” Lady Coco captivates with her crystal clear, soprano vocals and the repeatable ‘hook’ of the song.  She will have you singing along!  “Shoo be doo ya do – do ya – do ya.  Call me a jazz junkie, vibing to the beat.”   Her voice is honest, fun-loving and persuasive.  Lady Coco and producer, Preston Glass collaborated on this song and penned six others on this production.  Rob Mullins appears as a special guest playing a notable piano solo during this opening arrangement.  Lady Coco and Eric Roberson duet on another tune she co-wrote with producer Glass. It’s titled, “How Could We Know?”  Eric Roberson’s voice is a beautiful addition to this R&B mix and Blake Morris is dynamic on electric guitar.  Lady Coco’s project offers a blend of contemporary jazz, blues and pop music.  In the past, I was familiar with the blues-ier side of Lady Coco.  On this recording, she has expanded her talents to expose her composing skills and to explore more versatility in her music.  For example, when she performs the jazz standard, “Mister Magic.”  The band arrangement puts a funk groove into place on this one and spotlights Chris Wilson, who boldly tosses his jazzy saxophone into the mix.  They close this production with another original, “Stay in Your Lane.”  This jazzy arrangement is produced with a very danceable, disco-type groove.  It’s another Glass and Lady Coco composition and a joyful way to end this musical experience.

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JACKIE MESSINA – “NECESSARY ARRANGEMENTS” – JM Records

Jackie Messina, vocals; Bruce Barth, piano; Will Galison, harmonica; Paul Beaudry & Ed Howard, bass; Cliff Barbara, drums.

“Necessary Arrangements” is an album by vocalist Jackie Messina to tribute her musical collaboration with the late jazz pianist and educator Enos Payne.  Payne was the former conductor of the Jazz Vocal Workshop at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music and this album features unique arrangements from Messina’s five-year musical relationship with her mentor.  The addition of harmonica to her stellar jazz group is a beautiful touch on Messina’s debut album.  Will Galison’s harmonica adds excitement and expression to Jackie Messina’s interpretation of the Frank Loesser tune, “Inchworm.” 

“I Feel Pretty,” the hit song from the Broadway musical “West Side Story” was arranged by the late Enos Payne as a slow swing, rather than the waltz that had Natalie Wood prancing across the screen in the 1961 film of this show-stopper.  Payne’s arrangement compliments Jackie Messina’s voice and delivery.  Messina delves into the blues on “Easy Street” and swings the familiar “Wild is the Wind” with a catchy piano line created by Enos Payne that drives the piece.  Bruce Barth takes a powerful piano solo.    As a Former published poet, Jackie Messina has a great love of lyrics.  You can see this expressed in the Baker’s Dozen’ of tunes that make up her repertoire.  Jackie includes gems like Bobby Hutcherson’s “Little B’s Poem” and the Sinatra recorded lyrics of “I’m a Fool to Want You.”  I can tell that Ms. Messina takes a hard look at the lyrics of each song she performs; songs that lyrically touch her heart and soul. 

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ANDY JAMES – “RHYTHM IN NEW YORK” – Le Coq Records

Andy James, vocals/composer; Jon Cowherd, piano/organ/arranger; John Patitucci, bass/arranger; Nate Smith & Marcus Gilmore, drums; Marcus Strickland & Chris Potter, saxophone; Adam Rogers, guitar; Alex Acuna & Rogerio Boccato, percussion; David Mann, flute/alto flute; Chico Pinheiro, nylon guitar; Terell Stafford, trumpet; Marshall Gilkes, trombone; NYC Strings.

Andy James is back with another interpretation of fifteen jazz and pop standards; surrounded by some of the finest jazz musicians in the music business.  On the opening tune, “I’m Gonna Live ‘til I Die” the spotlight shines brightly on drummer Nate Smith.  On track #2, they move from swing to strings.  Chris Potter steps forward to woo us with his saxophone solo, introducing an arrangement by John Patitucci of a song penned by Andy James and Griesun Patitucci titled, “Day Dream.”  I was expecting the Billy Strayhorn tune, but this is another lovely ballad.  Ms. James has chosen a scattering of pop songs to include in this album.  There’s “Walk on By” and “What the World Needs Now” by Burt Bacharach, with arrangements by her pianist, Jon Cowherd.  However, what happened to the chord changes on the popular “People” song?  Something went askew on that arrangement.

Andy James and her husband, owner of the Le Coq Record label, have collaborated as songwriters for this project. Piero Pata and Andy have contributed original songs, “Time to Think” and “Just in Time” for this album.

“Working with Piero has really been easy,” Andy James says of their songwriting experience.  “Wherever I am, he seems to catch and remember the melodies that I’ve been casually humming around the house and later brings them to me with lyrics already attached.”

Andy James has a distinctive tone that makes her a very recognizable jazz stylist.  She and John Patitucci perform a duet on “I’ll Be Seeing You” that is quite poignant and emotional.  After the first time down, the band enters to fatten the sound. The duet blend was striking and impressive with its own stand-alone beauty.  The band closes with an original song Andy and her husband composed that ‘swings’ brightly and features Chris Potter’s saxophone and Marcus Gilmore displaying strength and excitement on drums.

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MAFALDA MINNOZZI – “CINEMA CITY JAZZ SCENE FROM ITALIAN FILM” – MPI Records

Mafalda Minnozzi, vocals; Tiago Costa, piano; Sidiel Vieira, acoustic bass; Ricardo Mosca, drums; Paul Ricci, guitars/musical director; Art Hirahara, organ; Dave Liebman, soprano saxophone; Graham Haynes, cornet/electronic FX; Luca Aquino, flugelhorn; Jorginho Neto, trombone.

Vocalist Mafalda Minnozzi celebrates film scores, carefully chosen to represent scenes from the peaks and valleys of her own personal life.   Opening with “La Dolce Vita,” her soprano tones blend instrumentally, performing without words and often sounding like a trumpet rather than a voice.  This music has been plucked from the silver screen and reflect Mafalada Minnozzi’s native Italy.  The distinctive flavor of these compositions is offered by Morricone, Mancini, Cipriani, Coppola and more.  On Mancini and Merrill’s composition, “Loss of Love,” from the Sunflower film, Tiago Costa’s piano solo is inspired and Minnozzi’s voice emotionally colors the lyrics. 

On “Metti Una Sera A Cena” she performs with a hip-swaying Latin rhythm.  It’s a familiar song that she often includes in her Brazilian concerts.  The “Cinema City” album was conceived and recorded in Brazil during the COVID-19 lockdown. 

Deanna Durbin sang the “Amapola” song in the 1939 film First Love. This song was also performed in other films by Alberto Rabagliati (1941) and Sara Montiel (La Bella Lola, 1962).  In Gabrielle Roy ‘s “The Tin Flute,” published in 1945, the character, Emmanuel, hums “Amapola”.  Paul Ricci’s guitar sets the mood on the very beautiful Rustichelli/Longo composition, “Amici Miel.”  This was a 1975 comedy film about four inseparable male friends facing a middle life crisis. Minnozzi sings this song and several others in Italian.  She often incorporates her pure vocal tones into the arrangements.  Her vocals become similar to another horn instrument.  Mafalda Minnozzi’s band does an exquisite and supportive job of interpreting these compositions in a very jazz-driven way.  Some of the Award winning songs were familiar to my ear like “Arrivederci Roma” from the 1957 sound track of the Italian-American musical film with the same title, released as Seven Hills of Rome in English.  I remember Mario Lanza singing this song.  I wish Mafalda Minnozzi had written her own lyrics to some of these songs that have no words and perhaps shared them with us in English, infusing them with her own poetic creativity and life experiences.  This is an album that shows how classically based compositions and pop soundtracks can expertly be delivered into the jazz idiom.

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TIERNEY SUTTON – “PARIS SESSIONS 2” – BFM Jazz

Tierney Sutton, voice/arranger/co-producer; Serge Merlaud, guitars/arranger/co-producer; Kevin Axt, basses/co-producer; Hubert Laws, flutes.

This “Paris Sessions 2” album is scheduled for release on May 6, 2022.  Tierney and her new husband, Serge Merlaud, open this album as a duo, with Jobim’s “Triste” lighting their fire in Latin brilliance.  Tierney Sutton’s voice dances around the tune, improvising with scat whispers.  She sings these lyrics in Portuguese.  Track #2 takes a lyrical turn towards the French roots of Serge Merlaud.  It’s a medley combining the composition of Vernon Duke and Yip Harburg, (“April in Paris”) with Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris.”  The familiar “April in Paris” is stretched out, arranged as a very slow ballad, giving Tierney Sutton time to taste each poignant lyric from the 1932 Broadway musical, Walk a Little Faster.  It’s a delightful medley with the unexpected Joni Mitchell flavor added like pepper to the slow boiling stew.

“We got married at the end of 2019, had a ceremony in Paris in October and another in L.A. at the end of December,” Sutton recalls.

Their duet work continues on the Gershwin song, “Isn’t It a Pity (we never ever met before).”  These lyrics perhaps mesh with the duo’s corresponding life path.  Serge Merlaud’s guitar-fills are beautifully placed between the lyrical Sutton’s vocal interpretation.  Merlaud is a sensitive and technically astute player. Their entire quartet makes its appearance on Jobim’s tune, “Zingaro” and features Hubert Laws on alto flute.  This is a precious merging of Tierney’s high soprano notes that are warm against the richness of Hubert’s flute. Tierney Sutton offers this fifteenth album release as a leader and she has dedicated it to the memory of the late Marilyn Bergman who passed away in January of 2022.  Bergman’s songs she has included are “Cinema Paradiso/I Knew I Loved You,” an Alan and Marilyn Bergman composition with Ennio Morricone, “Moonlight” which the married songwriters wrote with John Williams and “A Child is Born” where the Bergman’s collaborated with Dave Grusin.  Tierney and Serge are playful on “Pure Imagination,” where their musical comfort with each other continues to be palpable.  Tierney scats her way through Serge Merlaud’s arrangement of “Doralice,” letting her voice double with the guitar.  She lets her voice set the bass line in place and establishes the tempo, before Kevin Axt enters with his own superb bass support.  The solo by Hubert Laws flies through space like a wild and beautiful bird.  Serge Merlaud takes time to showcase his own unique interpretation of this familiar standard during his brief but power-packed guitar solo.  “Paris Sessions 2” is so well-played I didn’t even miss the drums.

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SPRING JAZZ HAS SPRUNG

March 25, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

March 25, 2022

GABRIEL MARK HASSELBACH – “MID CENTURY MODERN – VOL. 3” – Wind tunnel Records

Gabriel Mark Hasselbach, trumpet/flugelhorn/flute/alto flute/valve trombone/arranger/composer; Jason DeCouto, organ/bass; Nick Bracewell, Craig Scott & Paul Romaine, drums; John Lee, guitar; Mark Diamond & Miles Hill, bass; Andy Weil & Miles Black, piano.

One of the things I admire about multi-musician, Gabriel Mark Hasselbach, is his diversity.  He plays a plethora of instruments, and plays them all exceptionally well.  He also plays mainstream jazz with the same intensity and love that he gives to his contemporary artistic releases. I assume that I’m in for a treat the moment Gabriel Mark Hasselbach’s product hits my desk.  He explained this new album direction in his current press package.

“I figured I’d do something a little different for this recent album session.  The classic organ combo was the answer.  I grew up on Jimmy Smith and the whole cadre, and always had that smoky groove in the back of my mind.  Jason DeCouto, Nick Bracewell and I already had a working trio and we had all worked with John Lee (guitarist).  On these projects, rather than recording predominantly original material, as I often do, I chose soulful tunes from the fifties and sixties that have influenced me.  Songs that have a timeless quality. The result is a trifecta of jazz, where the sum is greater than the parts!”  Gabe asserts.

He opens with “Jonah’s Joint” Gabriel’s original composition and tribute to the great Jonah Jones.  It swings hard with his trumpet out front and leading the pack.  Jason DeCouto steps right up on the organ, never losing the excitement, the tempo or the groove.  He dances over the keys and his foot dances beneath them, pumping that organ like Muhammad Ali once pumped his fists against a gym boxing bag.  That’s just how hard-hitting this opening tune was.  Track #2 is another tribute tune, this time written to celebrate Blue Mitchell.  “Bring It Home to Me” shuffles along with warm harmonics by Gabriel’s trumpet and John Lee’s guitar.  Nick Bracewell is solid and power-packed on drums, locking tightly into Jason’s organ while Hasselbach solos on his trumpet.  When John Lee steps into the spotlight he doesn’t disappoint, followed by an organ solo that matches Hasselbach’s intensity.  Gabe’s friend and an icon in his own right, Randy Brecker, has contributed “Big Dipper” to the mix.  It’s a perfect composition for the organ quartet to explore.  Randy commented on this project in Hasselbach’s press package saying:

“Gabriel Mark Hasselback is constantly honing his various crafts, as a multi-instrumentalist, composer, arranger and producer.  He’s come up with a new album that is his best yet, delving into Hammond B3 Organ Trio territory.  I know that terrain well, growing up in Philly, PA (from whence this style originated) and Gabe and company are right in the groove! Poppin!!” Randy Brecker praised him.

On “Nutville” Gabriel replaces the organ with Andy Weil on piano and plays trumpet, flute, alto flute, flugelhorn and valve trombone during this arrangement.  I enjoy Gabriel’s tone and execution on alto flute during their interpretation of “Slow Hot Wind.”  He opens with the flute, then sets it aside to pick up his horn.  Beautiful!  This tune becomes one of my favorites.   The Horace Silver classic, “Senor Blues” is played with gusto by Mark Diamond’s steady and creative bass work, Weil on piano and Paul Romaine on drums.  In fact, that trio is the exciting rhythm section for tracks four through eight.  On tracks nine through fourteen, Miles Black takes to the 88-keys; Craig Scott lays down the drum grooves and Miles Hill mans the bass.  Consistently, Gabriel Mark Hasselbach contracts the best players and puts his heart and soul into the music he performs for our listening pleasure.

Hasselbach is a very lyrical trumpeter and flugelhorn player.  He has fifteen critically acclaimed albums as a bandleader and has won several JUNO Awards.  Those awards are recognitions similar to the U.S.A. GRAMMY Awards.  Hasselbach’s proud of his eleven certified Contemporary jazz Billboard hit records and his West Coast Music Award.  Additionally, he was crowned Instrumentalist of the Year at the 2011 Canadian Smooth Jazz Awards.  But this album is not Smooth Jazz.  It’s traditional jazz goodness that sprays across my listening room like summer sunshine.  It will lift your spirits and inspire you. 

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MISHA TSIGANOV – “MISHA’S WISHES” – Criss Cross Jazz

Misha Tsiganov, piano/Fender Rhodes; Boris Kozlov, bass; Donald Edwards, drums; Alex Sipiagin, trumpet/flugelhorn; Seamus Blake, tenor Saxophone.

Pianist, arranger, composer Misha Tsiganov has arranged the Gershwin tune “Strike Up the Band” as a sweet waltz at the band’s introduction. Unexpectedly, the band leaps into a fast paced, straight-ahead tempo that swings hard.  Misha takes the reins of the tune and rides it furiously on his 88-keys.  Then, the tempo takes a turn into a sultry, bluesy walk.  Seamus Blakes, on tenor saxophone, steps into view and glides across the rhythm section.  On the fade, Misha gives space for Donald Edwards to showcase his drum skills and Edwards reciprocates with fire.  Blake’s saxophone dances blissfully on top. This is one of my favorite tunes on the album. 

“…Donald and I have been together on many different projects.  I love his playing.  He knows modern vocabulary very well, plays mixed meters, crazy time signatures and the most difficult stuff with elegance,” Misha compliments his percussionist.

The artist’s title tune follows, “Misha’s Wishes.” Alex Sipiagin introduces the melody on his horn, before Boris Kozlov steps forward to showcase his beautiful double bass tones.

“Boris is the best bassist I can imagine.  His timing and power are unbelievable.  I’ve seen him swing a whole big band by himself. I’ve worked a lot in the Afro-Cuban, Salsa and Brazilian idioms and he can play all those styles, as well as mixed meters and straight-ahead,” Misha sings his bass players praises.

Misha has taken the Russian Folk Song, “There Was a Birch Tree in the Field, so What” and transformed it into straight-ahead jazz.  Alex Sipiagin spits trumpet excitement into the air with precision and technique.  He can hit those high notes on the trumpet, the way Dizzy Gillespie used to entertain us.  Misha Tsiganov’s piano solo steals the spotlight and shines.  This is another one of my favorite tunes on this album of ten songs, most of which Tsiganov has composed.  Donald Edwards pumps steadfast enthusiasm into this arrangement and never loses the spontaneity or time on his trap drums.  He is given a time to show-off all his drum skills at the close of this song and after Blake’s tenor saxophone takes a well-deserved bow.  Misha Tsiganov has put together an excellent band of musicians.  His tune, “Lost in Her Eyes” is a sensitive ballad that Misha introduces playing solo piano.  It has lovely chord changes and a pretty melody.  His solo piano sings beautifully, without accompaniment.  On “Just A Scale” the band rejoins their leader and the melody sounds exactly like the title as it moves up the scale, only changing the timing between notes.   Another favorite on this album is the Bill Evans composition, “Comrade Conrad” arranged with rich horn harmonies that sing, like background vocals, behind Misha’s sensitive piano solo.  The quintet closes with a very solemn original by Tsiganov titled, “Are You with Me?”  I was drawn to his piano solo and the emotional intensity he brought to the piece.  Here is another feather in the cap of Misha Tsiganov, stylish and entertaining as a composer, arranger and pianist.

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CALVIN JOHNSON JR., – “NOTES OF A NATIVE SON” –  Independent label

Calvin Johnson jr., tenor & soprano saxophones/vocals/composer; Ryan Hanseler, piano/Fender Rhodes; Trenton O’Neal, Alfred Jordan & Thomas Glass, drums; Evan Washington, elec. bass/piano/arranger; D’wayne Muhammad, percussion; Peter Harris, acoustic bass; Jennie Brent, violin & viola; Gabrielle Fischler, cello; Erica Falls, vocals.

The new Calvin Johnson Jr., album release displays his talents on both tenor and soprano saxophones.  However, one thing annoys me.  Jazz vocalization is as much an art as playing an instrument and serious singers spend years honing their styles and learning how to breathe, how to swing and how to sell a song.  I was not impressed with Mr. Johnson’s vocalization on the Fats Domino hit record, “I’m Walking.”  That being said, the rest of his album is palatable.  I was very pleased with the ensemble’s interpretation of “Summertime” where pianist Ryan Hanseler takes an outstanding solo and the group’s unique arrangement makes the old standard sound brand new!  

As a third-generation musician, who inherits the rich cultural legacy of New Orleans, Johnson Jr. brings a smattering of original compositions to this, his third album release.  I was particularly impressed with Track #5, “Resistance is Noble but Defeat is Imminent.”  He introduces the melody on tenor saxophone and I briefly hear traces of John Coltrane’s “Love Supreme” winding through this arrangement.  This song summersaults its way through key changes and Hanseler, on piano, brings a fresh perspective to the tune during his heavily arpeggio solo.  “Treme” settles into a beautiful melody pushed forward by the drummer’s very Ahmad-Jamal-influenced drum beat, reminding me of the Poinciana tune.  It’s a sweet arrangement.  Erica Falls is the featured vocalist on an original song called, “Streetcar Love.”  The melody is catchy, but the lyrics seem a bit outdated. The arrangement on “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is strong and the addition of strings played by Gabrielle Fischer and Jennie Brent definitely elevates the song.

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SEAN NELSON’S NEW LONDON BIG BAND – “SOCIAL HOUR!” – MAMA Records

Sean Nelson, alto trombone/trombone/electric trombone/composer/bandleader/arranger; Doug Maher, guitar; Jen Allen, piano/Hammond B3 organ/Wurlitzer; Lou Bocciarelli, electric & double bass;  Nathan Lassell, drums/percussion; Megan Weikleenget, vocals; Chris Smith, steel pans/percussion; Rob McEwan, tabla; Megan Sesma, harp; WOODWINDS: Erik Elligers, alto saxophone/flute; Tyler Wilkins, alto saxophone/flute/clarinet/ bassoon; Robert Durle, clarinet/contrabass clarinet; Cedric Mayfield, tenor saxophone/flute/clarinet/tarogato; Josh Thomas, tenor saxophone/flute/clarinet; Ryan Foley & Laura Pirruccello, flute; Megan Nelson, alto flute; Jeff Emerich, baritone saxophone/contralto clarinet. TRUMPETS: Bryce Call, Seth Bailey, Haneef Nelson & Tom Brown, trumpets/flugelhorns. TROMBONES: Leroy Loomer, trombone; Brian Sturm, bass trombone; TROMBONE ENSEMBLE: Sean Nelson & Karna Millen, alto trombone; Vince Yanovitch, Topher Logan, Colton Kinney & Luke Conklin, trombones; Wes Mayhew, Ted Adams & Zachary Haas, bass trombone.

Trombonist and composer, Sean Nelson, had a dream that manifested with this incredibly entertaining package of big band music.

“For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to have my own big band; an epic jazz orchestra of seventeen plus musicians.  A band that would play music old and new, tunes ranging from the roaring 20s to brand new compositions written by band members.  Most of all, a band made up of the absolute best musicians,” Sean Nelson mused in his liner notes.

The New London Big Band opens with Sean’s original composition, “Social Hour!” and it swings pretty hard.  It’s followed by a low-down, dirty blues called “Brisket and Beans” that features the fluid and blues-drenched guitar of Doug Maher.  Nelson has also composed this song.  I am intrigued by the horn arrangements and the way he has them whine and moan during this blues production.  “El Chupacabra” is another original composition by Sean Nelson and it invites strong percussive accents and smooth horn lines.  “Countin’ Freckles” is a tune that reminds me of the Count Basie days.  It invites the swing dancers to the ballroom floor.  Track #5 was composed by their pianist, Jen Allen.  Called “The Clearing” is sounds like a movie soundtrack with its many moods and tempo changes from smooth 4/4 to double time swing with an under-current of 6/8 sliding in and out of the theme.    

The Sean Nelson New London Big Band was formed in 2016 and is comprised of some of the finest musicians New England has to offer.  The title tune is the band’s theme song and an homage to their regular appearance at a club called, “The Social Bar + Kitchen” in New London, Connecticut.  Sean Nelson pushes musical boundaries when he uses his electric trombone to interpret his composition, “Freaks in Mayberry.”  Arranged with the funk drums of Nathan Lassell pushing the tune forward forcefully, it also features a pensive and soulful solo on tenor sax by Cedric Mayfield.  Their elated and energetic arrangement on “When You Wish Upon a Star” will lighten your mood and is bound to make you smile.  These ‘cats’ are everything you want in a big band and more.  Their carefully constructed repertoire will keep you entertained from beginning to end, along with their tightly packaged arrangements, stellar solos and overall great playing by this seventeen-piece orchestra.  Sit back and enjoy!

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EUBANKS-EVANS-EXPERIENCE – “EEE” – Imani Records

Kevin Eubanks, guitar; Orrin Evans, piano.

This is a duo album, and from the very first moments of listening, the peace and comfort that these two musicians recorded is palatable.  Clearly, both artists are adventurous and super talented. They share Philadelphia roots, but even more than being raised in the city of brotherly love, they each display a grittier side; they each acknowledge deep roots in the community and each strives to touch humanity through the power of sound, music and jazz.  Also, both bring decades of experience in the music business.   

Kevin Tyrone was born to Vera Eubanks on November 15, 1957 into a family rich with music history.  His mother is a gospel organist and pianist with a Master’s Degree in music education. His mom’s brother, Ray Bryant, was a celebrated jazz pianist who has worked with Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Sarah Vaughan and even John Coltrane.  Ray Bryant also had hit records of his own.  So, young Kevin Eubanks was exposed to world-class music and entertainers throughout his life.  His first instrument was violin at age seven.  His brother, Robin, became a trombonist, arranger and tenured professor of music at Oberlin College.  His other brother, Duane, became a trumpet teacher.  Kevin also studied trumpet before finally finding his deep love for the guitar more satisfying.  While attending Berklee College of Music and moving to New York City, his career took off.  He became a respected sideman with notable jazz icons like Slide Hampton, McCoy Tyner, Sam Rivers, Roy Haynes and Ron Carter (among others).  He also formed his own group and established himself as a bandleader.  He was twenty-five when his first album was released on the Elektra label.  Kevin’s cousins, the late bassist David Eubanks and pianist Charles Eubanks appeared on this recording.  Kevin Eubanks became guitarist and Musical Director for the Tonight Show band with Jay Leno for 18-years (1992 – 2010).   Moving to Los Angeles, during that gig with the Tonight Show, he began to score film.  In November, 2010, Kevin released the CD Zen Food (Mack Avenue Records).  It debuted in the Top Five on the Billboard Jazz Chart and was Kevin’s fastest selling record ever.  In February, 2013 his CD The Messenger (Mack Avenue Records) was released, garnering a 2014 NAACP Image Award nomination for “Outstanding Jazz Album.”  That same year, he toured extensively as a member of Dave Holland’s ‘PRISM.’ In March 2015, the acclaimed Duets (Mack Avenue Records) featured Kevin pairing with fellow guitarist Stanley Jordan. That album was released to rave reviews and several concert performances.  Now he is releasing a new duet album that is sure to also receive critical acclaim.

Orrin Evans is a well-respected jazz pianist, composer and bandleader.  He has deep roots in hard bop, post-bop, rhythm and blues and neo-soul music.  Born March 28, 1975 in Trenton, New Jersey, Orrin has led an extraordinary life of musical adventures.  Although born in Trenton, NJ, Orrin was raised in Philadelphia and studied with Kenny Barron while attending Rutgers University.  He worked with the great drummer, Ralph Peterson, with Bobby Watson and Kevin Eubank’s younger brother, trumpeter Duane Eubanks.  So, these two musicians go way back.  As a serious individualist on the music scene, Orrin has released twenty-five albums as a bandleader or co-leader.  As an educator, Orrin is passionate about helping people through the power of music and artistry.  Establishing his own label, “Imani Records,” his release of Captain Black Big Band, was GRAMMY nominated.  The genres and styles Orrin plays stretch from his Philadelphia roots to embrace funk, neo/soul/acid jazz and bebop.  That wide variety has stimulated his recordings with a long list of exceptional musicians including Smoke Sessions Records release of his recent piano trio featuring bassist Christian McBride and drummer, Karriem Riggins titled, “The Evolution of Oneself.”  This duo recording with Kevin Eubanks presents opportunity for a new evolution. 

There is undeniable chemistry between these two master musicians.  Both are fearless in their musical perceptions and abilities.  The repertoire they have chosen reflects their composer abilities and the comfort they exhibit while bouncing ideas and musical interpretations off each other.  It’s a thrilling listening experience.  “I Don’t Know” is buttered down and basted in the blues.  They co-wrote this one and its down-home delicious.  It reaches back to deep roots in the people-of-color community, conjuring up ghosts of John Lee Hooker, Little Milton and Robert Johnson.  Orrin Evans colors the track with his improvised piano parts, as gritty as Gene Harris or Les McCann.  On the Eubanks/Evans composition, “And They Ran Out of Biscuits!” the duo delves into freedom of expression, a little heart and Soul along with a taste of avant-garde.  This duo combination creates both excitement and art right before your ears.  The song “Dawn Marie,” penned by Evans, is a lovely ballad.  But tunes like “Variations on the Battle” stretch my imagination and tease my musical appetite.  I had to play this cut three times, because their musicianship was so inspired and in-depth.  The duo closes with “Variations on Adoration” and I walk away, adoring this experience and appreciating the complexity that just two musicians can bring to a project.

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JOSH NELSON BOB BOWMAN COLLECTIVE – “TOMORROW IS NOT PROMISED” – Steel Bird Records

Josh Nelson, piano/composer; Bob Bowman, bass; Steve Houghton, drums; Larry Koonse, guitar; Bob Sheppard, saxophone; Clay Jenkins, trumpet.

Here is a group of musicians and close friends who have come together to create a project of beauty and depth.  Bassist Bob Bowman first met trumpeter, Clay Jenkins in 1972 at North Texas.  Shortly after, he made the acquaintance of drummer Steve Houghton and a little later, woodwind player, Bob Sheppard.  As fate would have it, they all turned up in Southern California at about the same time.  In Los Angeles, Bob would meet guitarist Larry Koonse.  The young musician was still in high school. Eventually Bowman would meet and play with Josh Nelson.  He felt an immediate connection to the pianist and they talked about recording a duo album.  All these years later, this group of seasoned jazz musicians and old acquaintances wound up in Talley Sherwood’s studio to finally make this album.  They open with the title tune, a pensive reflection on the times we live in.  Josh Nelson is the composer and penned this tune during the challenge of COVID infections worldwide.  Today, the beauty and blessing of living life continues to be challenged by war and rumors of war, political disparities and cultural changes.  So, as he reminds us with this music, “Tomorrow is Not Promised.”

Josh said, “The title of the album seems more relevant than ever these days. …I strived to convey a sense of uncertainty and mystery, but also a feeling of determination and resolve.”

Bob Sheppard composed Track #2 titled, “Your Night Your Music.”  It swings hard.  “Sometime Ago” is a beautiful waltz and the tinkling beauty of Nelson’s piano magic leaps into my listening room, with Bob Bowman’s bass setting the pace and establishing the groove.  When Bowman steps into the spotlight, his solo is innovative and imaginative.  Larry Koonse has contributed his composition, “Blues for Albert E” to the project. Bob Sheppard’s saxophone interpretation puts a capital B in Blues and Clay Jenkins displays his bright talent on trumpet   Bowman has written “Yae San” and plays the introduction a’ cappella.  The arrangement on this tune embraces Asian influences, like the title.  Koonse uses his guitar to pluck the recurring melody, before soloing.   The ensemble reinvents popular tunes like “Weaver of Dreams” where drummer Steve Houghton steps into a bright spotlight to display his talents and they arrange the familiar Miles Davis tune, “Blue in Green” in an unforgettable way, featuring Josh Nelson and Bob Bowman.  It’s got to be one of my favorites on this album.  Yes.  Bob and Josh should record a duo project.  All in all, this is music that moves as smoothly as a well-oiled machine. You can tell that these musicians know each other very well and find comfort, inspiration and creativity blending together in this project.

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MATT HALL – “I HOPE TO MY NEVER” – Summit Records

Matt Hall, trombone/composer/arranger/producer; Charlie Arbelaez, alto saxophone/composer; Louis Valenzuela, guitar; Jason Shattil, piano; Mackenzie Leighton, double bass; Kevin Kanner, drums.

Matt Hall and his ensemble swing right out the gate.  “Biscuits & Gravy” is Matt Hall’s original composition and it quickly sets the tone for this album.  The bass of Mackenzie Leighton walks briskly beneath bright, swinging horn solos and Matt Hall’s trombone tells his story with gusto.  Kevin Kanner uses drums to powerfully push the ensemble forward.  When Jason Shattil takes his solo on piano, it leaves no doubt that Hall has assembled a group of connoisseur jazz cats to interpret his arrangements. Hall is a composer of note.  His song, “I Hope to my Never” is the title of this album and a tribute to his Great Aunt Joan.  Years ago, she expressed exasperation over Matt’s constant practicing and used to exclaim, “I hope to my never.”  Now her poetic phrase of frustration has become Track #2 of Matt’s debut album.  It’s a very melodic tune with a slow swing tempo and an opening line that reminds me of the song, I thought About You.  Matt Hall’s trombone skills skip along smoothly as the melody dances. “The Thing About Sloan Hill” is another tune that swings and features the smooth guitar mastery of Louis Valenzuela.  Mackenzie Leighton steps from the background into the forefront to sing his big, bad, bass song.  The tune “Spearhead” is another one of my favorites and also an original composition by Matt Hall.  In fact, he has penned seven out of the nine songs on this album and they are all well-written and beautifully arranged.  “No Going Back” was composed by alto saxophonist, Charlie Arbelaez and it’s another sparkling gem on this production. Played at lightning speed, the track gives a platform for the soloists to shine, starting with Valenzuela on guitar.  When Arbelaez steps into the spotlight, he takes us on a spirited ride, as does Jason Shattil on the 88-keys.  Hall and Arbelaez blend perfectly, promoting melody with horn harmonies at a swift pace.  Suddenly, Kevin Kanner silences the group with his drum solo and impresses me with his dexterity and technical skills.  This group loves to ‘swing’ and so do I.  Consequently, this journalist was perfectly happy with this album from beginning to end.

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TONY MONACO – “FOUR BROTHERS” – Summit Records

Tony Monaco, Hammond B3 organ/composer; Willie B. Barthel III, drums; Kevin Turner, guitar/composer; Edwin Bayard, tenor & soprano saxes.

This is the 12th recording for Tony Monaco as a bandleader and it celebrates his half-century in the music business.  At age eight, Tony played the accordion.  But when he first heard Jimmy Smith on the organ, his fate was sealed.  He began working organ gigs in his native Columbus, Ohio while still a teenager. His early mentors were Hank Marr and Don Patterson.  He listened astutely to all the great organists including, Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Richard “Groove” Holmes, Charles Earland, Jack McDuff and Dr. Lonnie Smith.  At age sixteen, the great Jimmy Smith called him with encouraging words.  Jimmy Smith soon became Tony’s friend and teacher.  Four years after that call, the organ master invited Tony Monaco to come play a gig at Smith’s California supper club.  Once Monaco married, to support his wife and three daughters, like many jazz musicians he worked day jobs and played gigs at night.  After years of honing his craft, In 2000, the super talented organist Joey DeFrancesco offered to produce a debut album on Monaco.  This became a catalyst for touring and Tony finally attained international success.  Summit Records released two more records, charting in Jazzweek’s Top Ten list.  This album promises to follow in those self-same footsteps.  Opening with his original composition and the title of this album, “Four Brothers” the tune slams onto the scene with Willie B. Barthel III kicking the song off on his drum set.  Barthel rolls across the drums and settles into a happy shuffle.  Edwin Bayard joins the party on his saxophone until the spotlight turns to Kevin Turner on guitar.  By the time Tony Monaco enters for his organ solo, the band has laid down a smokin’ hot groove and Tony shines like gold!   Track #2, “You Can Always Count on Me” is another Monaco original composition.  It’s melodic and well-written with a wonderful bridge.  You will enjoy the quartet’s take on “Mas Que Nada” played at an up-tempo pace.  Kevin Turner (guitarist in the group) has penned “One for Everyone,” a very catchy tune, pumped up by Willie’s shuffling drums and enhanced with Monaco’s jazzy organ solo. The quartet’s take on Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” slows their groove down to unveil the sexy ballad.  Bayard’s saxophone opens this poignant composition with flair and beauty.  A tune called “Brothers-4” is written by Monaco’s mentor, Don Patterson.  Willie B. Barthel III sets the groove at the top of the tune, playing the drums like a melody and inviting Monaco’s organ onto the scene with power and pulse.  This is an album that uplifts the spirit and entertains in a very soulful way.  It celebrates the Columbus, Ohio jazz scene and Tony Monaco’s fifty years of powerful playing.  When he’s not recording or touring, he acts as Executive Producer of the Summit Records subsidiary, Chicken Coup Records.   He has recorded and released CDs for several undiscovered organists around the globe, passing the torch and using his role as educator and mentor to spread and cultivate many new hopefuls to the art of playing jazz organ.  Perhaps he says it best in his press package.

“After fifty great years, I want to take the opportunity to honor and thank my hometown, (Columbus, Ohio) and to find myself recognized as part of this town’s vibrant musical scene is personally very rewarding,” Tony Monaco proudly shines the spotlight on his hometown.

Additionally, he has surrounded himself with musicians who are the cream of the crop on the Ohio jazz scene.  Together, they guarantee the listener an album of fine music for now and into perpetuity.

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