Posts Tagged ‘jazz cd reviews’

CD’s THAT BRING JOY TO THE SEASON

December 19, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

December 19, 2022

THE BIRMINGHAM SEVEN – “JUST PASSING THROUGH” – Summit Records

Rob Alley, trumpet/composer; Jon Noffsinger, alto saxophone/composer; Gary Wheat, tenor saxophone/composer; Daniel Western, baritone saxophone/composer; Tom Wolfe, acoustic & electric guitars; Chris Kozak, double & electric basses; Michael Glaser, drum set.

Caught in the Middle – YouTube

The Birmingham Seven ensemble immediately reminds me of the bebop era with their straight-ahead dynamics and swinging arrangements. This is the group’s premier recording, although they have been working together off and on, for over twenty-five years.  They formed this Birmingham Seven ensemble in 2006 and they are not only fine musicians, but they are fine friends too.  Based in Birmingham, Alabama, they offer eleven original compositions by various horn members in the group and every tune sounds like a jazz standard. Daniel Western has composed most of the songs, and his baritone saxophone is beautiful to my ears.  If you are a lover of music by Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Duke Ellington’s orchestra, these beautiful melodies, rooted in ‘swing’ and featuring dance tune arrangements is the perfect album for you.

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SANTI DEBRIANO & ARKESTRA BEMBE – “ASHANTI” –  Jojo Records

Santi Debriano, bass/composer/arranger; Adrian Alvarado, guitar; Mamiko Watanabe, piano; Robby Ameen, drums; Emile Turner, trumpet; TK Blue, alto saxophone; Tommy Morimoto, tenor saxophone; Ray Scro, baritone saxophone; Andrea Brachfeld, flute.

Santi Debriano is an emigrant to the United States from Panama.  He arrived here at age four, with music propelling his life and ultimately his career.  As a composer, he has translated the roots of Afro-Caribbean tradition and West African ritual into his compositions. Along with his Arkestra Bembe, bassist Debriano uses the power of music to introduce the listener to Yoruba tribal influence and melodies that celebrate food, drink, music and dance. He incorporates these cultures seamlessly into his music.

Santi Debriano & Arkestra Bembe Imaginary Guinea – YouTube

Santi Debriano is quite well-known on the NYC jazz scene as a communal practitioner, inviting jazz musicians to gather and inspire each other.  His place of music also became a sanctuary for frustrated musicians during the pandemic lockdown.  They came to play and it was during these impromptu sessions that Santi Debriano began composing the songs you will hear on this album. His imagination bloomed and grew like the endangered Quora, an off-white orchid celebrated as the National Flower of Panama.  You will enjoy the sweetness and lovely melodies that Debriano creates, using his Arkestra Bembe to translate this original music from the page to the stage. Favorite tunes on this album are: “Imaginary Guinea” and the happy-go-lucky tune titled “Spunky.”  You will have heard this music on several television shows as a show theme.  Ray Scro thrills me with his baritone saxophone solo on this arrangement. “Basilar” is another unforgettable tune with its staccato horn lines and catchy melody.  When Santi Debriano steps into the spotlight and solos, his rich, solid bass mastery is beautiful and formidable.  Andrea Brachfeld soars like a dancing butterfly on the flute with Debriano’s bass pumping the tune ahead like a steam engine. Whenever Adrian Alvarado enters to spotlight his guitar, I am both stunned and entertained by his improvisational creativity.  “Mr. Monk” sounds a lot like something Thelonious Monk could have composed and of course is a tribute to the American, genius, piano player and composer.  The final tune, “Portrait” is a solo performance by Santi Debriano where he shows his brilliance on the bass. These songs are intimate, spontaneously arranged, and they offer a platform and stage for these amazing musicians to shine warmly. Like Christmas decorations, Santi Debriano & Arkestra Bembe sparkle!

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TED KOOSHIAN, “HUBUB!” – Summit Records

Ted Kooshian, piano/electric keyboard/arranger/composer; Greg Joseph, drums; Dick Sarpola, bass/elec. Bass; David Silliman, percussion; Katie Jacoby, violin; Summer Boggess, cello; John Bailey, trumpet/flugelhorn; Jeff Lederer, tenor saxophone; Jim Mola, vocals.

Ted Kooshian’s fingers skip across the piano and awaken the glee and joy of this holiday season. It’s his fifth album and the first one that showcases Kooshian’s composer talents.  Every tune is spirited, with horn harmonies woven into arrangements like crochet needles into yarn.  The final product is rich, creative and warm like a Christmas sweater. Ted Kooshian started loving jazz in the seventh grade. He grew up in the Bay area of Northern California and after hearing his band director play an Oscar Peterson record, Ted was hooked on jazz.

“Man, that’s what I want to do!”  Ted Kooshian affirmed and never looked back. 

His original compositions traces chapters of his life.  For example, “Sparkplug – She Came to Play” is a tribute to his beloved eleven-year-old dog. Ted’s piano fingers race, as if they are chasing the ball that his dog is sprinting after.  There are dissonant chords, mainly during the introduction, that remind me of the canine tumbling and falling happily in tall grass. 

Sparkplug – She Came to Play – YouTube

The title track was written in 1992, upon Ted’s return to the bustling lifestyle of New York City and leaping into the “hubbub” of it all.  “Wandelen” translates from Dutch to ‘walking,’ a pastime that Ted Kooshian enjoys daily. Trumpeter John Bailey” takes a hearty solo during this animated arrangement, as does Jeff Lederer on tenor saxophone.  The only song on this album that isn’t an original is the familiar “Somewhere” composition by Leonard Bernstein. “Schiermonnikoog” is a mouthful and the title of a song inspired by the smallest Dutch North Sea island,a place he and his wife visited when vacationing in that part of the world. 

Ted Kooshian has been blending his love of music and jazz as a member of the Ed Palermo Big Band for nearly thirty years and explores his love of rock music when touring with groups like, ‘The Who’. You will hear this rock influence during his original composition arrangement of “McQueen.”  This song exposes his love of action heroes as does the tune “Shatner” that’s an ode to one of Kooshian’s lifelong heroes, William Shatner, from the original Star Trek show.   

“I’m a huge fan and have been since the sixties,” Kooshian admits. “I saw his show on Broadway twice and saw him at a Star Trek convention once.  Hopefully he’ll like this tune that I dedicated to him.”

Ted Kooshian’s talented piano hands have accompanied numerous super stars including Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry, Edgar Winter, Marvin Hamlisch, Sarah Brightman, Blood, Sweat & Tears and II Divo.  He’s also found work on Broadway, playing behind such outstanding hit shows as The Lion Kind, Aida, Mamma Mia and more.  If you’re in New York any time soon, you’ll find him perched behind the grand piano five nights a week at Center Bar, one floor below Jazz at Lincoln Center in the Time/Warner Building.

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DAVID BLOOM & CLIFF COLNOT – “SHADOW OF A SOUL” –  Fire & Form Records

David Bloom, alto flute/composer/co-producer; Cliff Colnot, arranger/co-producer; Ryan Cohan, piano; Larry Kohut, acoustic bass; Jose Porcayo, bass; Ron Hall, electric bass; Dana Hall & Khari Parker, drums; Joe Rendon, congas/bongo; Luis Rosario, timbales; Albert Sierra, bongos; Donnie Simmons, percussion; David Bugher, vibraphone; Kraig McCreary, guitar; Dave Liebman, soprano saxophone; Mike Smith, soprano & alto saxophone; Anthony Bruno, tenor saxophone; Scott Burns, Ted Hogarth & Linda Van Dyke, baritone saxophone; Mary Stolper & Jennifer Clippert, alto flute; Tim Munro & Alyce Johnson, flute; Victor Garcia & Joe Clark, trumpet; Constantine Alexander, Rob Parton, Don Sickler & Joe Clark, flugelhorns; Joe Sanchez & John Yeh, clarinet/bass clarinet; Andrew Nogal & Anna Velzo, oboe; Miles Maner & Bill Buchman, bassoon; Steve Duncan, Tim Coffman & Tom Garling, trombones; Anne Bach, English horn; Dave Griffin & Oto Carrillo, horn in F; Alyce Johnson & Jennifer Clippert, piccolo; Scott Metlicka, alto & bass flute. VIOLINS: Stefan Hersh, Brian Hong, Roberta Freier, Paul Zafer, Carmen Abelson, Rika Seko, Carmen Kassinger, Teresa Fream, Yuan-Qing Yu, Minghuan Xu, Peter Labella, Clayton Penrose-Whitmore, Baird Dodge, Robert Hanford, Sheila Hanford, Sharon Polifrone, Brian Ostrega, Myra Hinrichs & Janis Sakai. SOLO VIOLIN: Paul Zafer. CELLOS: Steve Balderston, Brant Taylor, Jocylyn Butler, Hope Shepherd, Joshua Zajac. Bass Cello: Rob Kassinger. SOLO CELLO: Steve Balderston. VIOLA: Sixto Franco Chorda, Li Kua Chang, Anthony Devroye. 

Like so many frustrated musicians during the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, David Bloom found himself composing music like crazy.  It gushed out of him like a faucet, spraying his creative room with ideas and splashing those ideas on music paper. During a time when COVID 19 was ravishing the earth, Bloom composed thirty tunes.  Fifteen of these appear on this album. The ensemble opens with a tribute to one of his students who passed away during these challenging and chaotic times. It’s titled, “Mischievous Mark Colby” and features the soprano saxophone excellence of Dave Liebman. Liebman also appears on the title tune, “Shadow of a Soul.” Bloom joins him on alto flute in a moody arrangement. The composition “Samba” dances off the CD and makes me want to shake hips across the room.  Ryan Cohan is dynamic on piano. Joe Rendon adds percussive pepper and spice to the thick stew of joyful rhythms. To surprise us, Cliff Colnot has arranged strings to compliment this happy tune. Bloom has written a song to celebrate the great Eddie Palmieri titled “For Eddie P” and it swings with a Latin flair that’s flashy and rhythmic. Anthony Bruno soaks up the spotlight, playing his tenor saxophone with gusto and the percussion soars. Trumpeters Victor Garcia and Joe Clark are outstanding, acting as clear motivators for these energetic percussion players. This song will make you happy, no matter what your mood! 

For Eddie P. (Palmieri) Composed by David Bloom – YouTube

David Bloom was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois and is multi-talented.  He is a composer, an educator, an artistic painter and a musician.  At age eight he was studying folk guitar and started listening to jazz at eleven years young. He has been a touring musician with several bands, but in 1981, began to concentrate all his efforts on composing. .Bloom is accomplished on alto flute. His arranger and co-producer, Cliff Colnot, is a distinguished conductor who boasts an international and respected reputation in music.  Together, they offer a project that will bring joy and excellence to the ears of any music lover.

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GEBHARD ULLMANN – “THE CHICAGO PLAN” – “FOR NEW ZEALAND” – NotTwo Records

Gebhard Ullmann, tenor saxophone/bass clarinet/composer; Steve Swell, trombone/composer; Fred Lonberg-Holm, cello/electronics; Michael Zerano, drums.

Welcome to the Red Island – YouTube

I have a great love for the country of New Zealand.  It is one of the cleanest, most climate conscious countries I have visited (with the exception of Singapore) and also one of the most beautiful and pristine places on earth.  Consequently, I was eager to hear what Ullmann’s group, “The Chicago Plan” would offer musically.  Saxophonist, multi-instrumentalist and composer, Gebhard Ullmann, decided to celebrate his November 2nd birthday by releasing three exploratory and diverse records.  This production is one of them. It is an avant-garde project and spotlights the Berlin-based musician’s extraordinary talents on reed instruments. This work celebrates 65 years of Ullmann’s life and musical growth.  Steve Swell has composed half of the tunes on this album and Ullmann has composed the other half. 

Gebhard Ullmann was celebrated as one of the finest improvising artists in the world by the late, great Paul Bley. He has recorded over sixty albums, during the course of his career, nearly matching his current age. His music continues to blur the lines between improvisational freedom, contemporary classical, electric avant-garde and jazz.  In 2022, Ullman’s home country of Germany gifted him with the highest honor for music; the Deutscher Jazzpreis for Woodwinds.

“The Chicago Plan,” a transatlantic quartet, opens with a Swell composition and the title tune, “For New Zealand.”  The Swell composition features splashes of sounds and instruments that sometimes groan and roar like wild animals. In other moments, the arrangement captures the listener’s attention with moody, melodic reflections as Ullmann’s saxophone links notes with Swell’s trombone and they dance (arm in arm) across space. On Ullmann’s composition, “Welcome to the Red Island” I love the tone of his bass clarinet.  This tune is also somewhat moody. During the first half of the arrangement, I keep waiting for something to ‘jump out the bushes and grab me.’  But this classical drama piques the interest and pulls at my ear like a scolding parent.  When the trombone solo’s, the blues and jazz appear like a burglar stealing the spotlight from the classical moodiness. Gebhard and Steve are a team.  Ullmann’s musical friendship with trombone innovator, Steve Swell, goes back twenty-years. This album is a tribute, created in 2016, to draw attention to the horrible Christchurch City Mosque shootings that stunned the world.

“Steve and I have always followed our own visions, regardless of the so-called ‘rules’ that you’re supposed to follow to be successful,” Gebhard Ullmann says in his press package.

 Perhaps Ullmann sums it up best when he explains, “We always build on top of a foundation that has been laid by other musicians before us.  It doesn’t make a difference if they are musicians from the contemporary music scene, the avant-garde jazz scene, the contemporary rock scene or whatever.  If it’s good music, it’s good music, and we can find a way to build upon it.  Maybe it takes 65 years to realize that it’s all really one thing!”

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MATHIEU SOUCY – “RECOLLECTING” – Inner Bop Records

Mathieu Soucy, guitar/composer/arranger; Gentiane MG, piano; Mike De Masi, bass; Jacob Wutzke, drums; Caity Gyorgy, vocals.

Where or When (feat. Caity Gyorgy) – YouTube

Twenty-seven-year old Mathieu Soucy graduated with a degree in jazz performance from Canada’s McGill University in 2019.  He’s a blossoming jazz guitarist exhibiting his own sound and style on this, his premiere record album.  The first song is titled “Lennie’s Changes” and could be a subtle tribute to piano player Lennie Tristano, who was legendary back in the 1940s. This is a solid opening tune, that showcases a swing arrangement with a unique melody and an opportunity for each of Soucy’s musicians to step into the limelight and proffer their unique solos. Once we meet the band, Caity Gyorgy steps stage center to sing the familiar Rodger’s and Hart tune, “Where or When.”  Caity is a strong improviser and shows off her scat capabilities during this arrangement.  You can hear a lot of Ella Fitzgerald’s influence in her phrasing, and that’s a plus!   Mathieu ‘covers’ a Monk tune (Reflections) but the majority of his well-written repertoire celebrates Soucy’s own composer skills.  Here is a young, talented, up-and-coming jazz artist that I believe we will be enjoying here and into the future.

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SAM BLAKESLEE & WISTFUL THINKING – “BUSY BODY” –  Outside In Music

Sam Blakeslee, trombone/electronics/composer; Chris Coles, alto saxophone; Brandon Coleman, electric guitar/electronics; Matt Wiles, electric bass/Moog synthesizer; Jamey Haddad, percussion; Dan Pugach, drums; Brian Crock, alto flute/bass clarinet.

Busy Body – YouTube

Trombonist and composer, Sam Blakeslee, has music that falls somewhere in the cracks between electronic, fusion jazz and funk.  Blakeslee explained:

“Delving into the vast world of electronic production was a way to cope with the uncertainty of 2020.”

This is Blakeslee’s second album release, and it takes a turn from chamber jazz music to a more eclectic dive into compositions that cross the lines of genre.  The title tune opens this album and is steeped in funk, perpetuated by the percussion of Jamey Haddad. The fluid alto saxophone work of Chris Coles glides over the groove and the synthesizer electronics fatten the track. When Brandon Coleman enters on electric guitar, he brings spice to the party.  His solo is on fire.  Sam Blakeslee has written all ten tunes on this project, and he incorporates electronic manipulation to diversify his arrangements. “Hollandaise Sauce” is all fusion/funk and makes me want to dance along with Dan Pugach’s drum licks, while the trombone solo of Blakeslee brightens the tune, conversing boldly with the electronics. Yes, this tune will get your body busy!  The “Wistful Thinking” group is an exploratory band project, who richly incorporate electronics into their music.  The synthesized additions are like the corn starch you stir into vegetable stew to thicken it.  It makes Sam Blakeslee’s songs pop!  They are uniquely arranged, with a young, energetic take on a more conservative jazz style. The addition of a Bass clarinet played by Brian Crock on the brief, but powerful production of “Preinterlude” is lovely. Sam steps forward on trombone during the “Wistful Thinking” tune and shows off horn talents that compliment his composer skills.  Track #5, “Klepto” leans heavily towards heavy metal rock music, with Matt Wiles driving full speed ahead on electric bass and Moog synthesizer. It’s only two minutes and twenty-seven seconds long, more like an unexpected interlude than a song.  The music and imaginative mind of Sam Blakeslee offers the jazz listener some alternative music that is both ethereal and unique. His tone and style on trombone are wonderful and his compositions demand that we fly with him, to open spaces and unusual places.

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SIRINTIP – “CARBON”- Ropeadope Records

Sirintip, vocals/vocal effects/vocoder/percussion/programming/synth bass/Thai guitar programming/deforestation & industrial programming/drill/sand/plastic trash percussion/  marimba/composer; Nolan Byrd, drums/marimba/programming synth bass/plastic trash percussion/plastic water jugs/Thai percussion programming/metal trash can/ composer; Kengchakaj Kengkamka, piano/Moog One/Moog Matriarch/Fender Rhodes/ Korg Minilogue/ Buchia 200 series modular system/ Hammond B-3 organ/ marimba/composer; Owen Broder, baritone saxophone/composer; Alex Hahn, flute; Chris McQueen, Moollon guitar; Bangkok Frogs & North Carolina Crickets, Ambient vocal performance; Daniel Migdal, violin/viola; Matthew Peterson, string arrangements; Michael League, electric bass/Minimoog Model D; Nic Hard, vocal scrubbing/synth bass programming/ electric guitar/ deforestation & industrial programming/ cube & drum programming/engineer; Mahasarakham University, Thai electric guitar/Morlam vocals/Thai percussion.

Sirintip ‘Carbon’ – Album Teaser – YouTube

Sirintip is an artist who defies boundaries and boxes.  Her whispery voice and plaintive lyrics inspire.  This project is a blend of Disco music, with pop bass lines that pump the production upward.  The first song titled “Hydrogen” jumps like fireworks from my CD player.  I can picture a smokey, blue dance hall, with speakers larger than life blowing out the walls of the room.  This song is followed by “Agi” (another original composition) that is a little more like smooth jazz than Disco, with layered tracks and layered vocals.  Sirintip uses a vocoder, percussion programming and various electronics including Thai guitar programming.  When you mix the original music, composed by Sirintip and co-writer Nolan Byrd, with assorted synthesized programs, you wind up with a refreshing and unique production that challenges the boundaries and walls of genre. This production lands somewhere between smooth jazz, pop music, Asian Disco and contemporary arrangements.  Sirintip is a master producer with knowledge of using synthesizers and a variety of electronic programs to create her unique sound and enhance her compositions. She borrows from the Hip Hop culture, and mixes in Thai and Swedish roots with a vast pool of endless imagination.  Sirintip is an internationally respected composer and lyricist.  The goal of this album is to appeal to the public and encourage a new conversation about climate change and protecting humanity’s earthly home.

“Climate change is something that affects everyone.  … I didn’t want the project to be preaching. … That’s what the news does.  I thought, what if I don’t put the message in the lyrics?  What if I compose it into the music? Then maybe people, including me, might become more curious to learn new ways for us to interact with our planet,” Sirintip explains. 

“Carbon,” is an unusual album and I’m not convinced it should be labeled jazz. Sirintip offers music that goes way beyond description.  I personally wouldn’t call her music jazz, although it incorporates an air of improvisation and uniqueness. Instead, I think Sirintip’s music leans far more towards the ‘pop’ genre. For example, on Track #12, titled “It’s Alright,” she reminds me of artist Erykah Badu, whose music blends Hip Hop with jazz and R&B.

Sirintip has a pleasurable tone of voice and her lush production, splashed brightly with electronic highlights, is quite contemporary and definitely commercial-friendly.  I applaud her vision of making the world more aware of our climate challenges and clearly, she wants to make a  difference.  This Bangkok-born singer, producer and multi-modal artist is someone to watch.  I just hope her career advisors promote her in the right lane, because she has the makings of a successful pop star.

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SUGGESTED STOCKING STUFFERS / JAZZ CDs MAKE GREAT GIFTS

December 2, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

December 2, 2022

DIANA PANTON – “BLUE” – Independent Label  

Diana Panton, vocals; Don Thompson, piano/Fender Rhodes; Reg Schwager, guitar; Jim Vivian, bass; Phil Dwyer, saxophone; PENDERECKI QUARTET: Jeremy Bell & Jerzy Kaplanek, violin; Katie Schlaikjer, cello; Christine Vlajk, viola.

Diana Panton has a voice that’s warm like soft butter.  She has chosen a group of wonderful songs, some more familiar than others, and all with delightful lyrics containing special stories to share. She is a two-time, Canadian Juno Award winner and this album is the final installment in a trilogy of love and loss recordings. Her first release of the trilogy was titled “Pink” followed by “Red” (an interpretation in song about the passion of true love.) That was in 2015.  Now, with the release of “Blue,” she delves into heartbreak and lost love. All three releases have been carefully spread out, over a decade.

“The release dates were deliberately spread over a decade from the first to the final album in the trilogy for the music to better reflect different stages in a relationship.  I knew that my voice and perspective would be more mature if I waited to record the “Blue” album a little later in my life,” the vocalist explained.

She opens with a favorite composition of mine, “Where Do You Start?” a question that she weaves into the song with emotional believability. Then she interjects another song titled, “Once Upon a Time” and Diana Panton creates a delightful medley. Ms. Panton must have perfect pitch, because she begins this project a’ Cappella, in fine voice and emotionally charged.  About halfway through the lyrics, Don Thompson joins her on piano, and they complete the medley as a duet. Don has been Diana’s musical arranger on all of her recordings. Phil Dwyer’s saxophone brings a fresh presence to this project on her third song, “Without Your Love” that slow swings across space. During this arrangement, Diana Panton’s voice dances along and brings back memories of the 1940s swing era. Her soft, girlish voice is perfectly paired with the Sondheim lyrics to “Losing My Mind” from the 1971 musical “Follies.” I hadn’t heard “This Will Make You Laugh” composed by Irene Higginbotham.  It’s a great song with a well-written lyric that Diana Panton transmits with smooth sincerity.  Each hand-picked flower of a song is carefully unfolded by Diana’s sweet vocals, like the Alan and Marilyn Bergman & Dave Grusin collaboration, “The Trouble with Hello is Goodbye.” I enjoyed the slow bossa nova arrangement of “To Say Goodbye,” with the tinkling piano of Don Thompson sweetly coloring the piece and the addition of the Penderecki String Quartet bolsters the beauty.  Diana Panton reminds us of how important the storyline is to these wonderful compositions and pulls at our heartstrings with the stories she sings.

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JASON PALMER – “LIVE FROM SUMMIT ROCK IN SENECA VILLAGE” – Giant Step Arts

Jason Palmer, trumpet; Mark Turner, tenor saxophone; Edward Perez, bass; Johnathan Blake, drums.

During the atrocious pandemic of the 2020’s, Giant Step Arts decided to create an outdoor space for jazz to be performed in NYC.  They called Jason Palmer to come and play, offering a simultaneous recording opportunity at a very historic place on Manhattan Island.  Seneca Village was once a 19th-Century settlement of mostly African American landowners in what is today known as Central Park.  The settlement was located near the current Upper West Side neighborhood, bounded by Central Park West and the axes of 82nd Street, 89th street and Seventh Avenue.  It was the first Black American community in the city after the Dutch rule.  At its peak, the black community has approximately 225 residents, two schools, three churches and three cemeteries.  That community existed until 1857. 

It was here that the stage was set and the participating musicians took their places. The clarity and powerful, ringing tone of Jason Palmer on his trumpet called the people and quickly attracted them to this outdoors location.  Like the walls of Jericho, the invisible walls that separated us during the COVID quarantine years came tumbling down in Central Park, at the Seneca Village location. People flocked to the free jazz concerts. 

On Palmer’s first original tune, “Falling In” He plays the first three minutes a ‘Capella and then Johnathan Blake joins in on drums, making a mighty sound.  Mark Turner harmonizes on the ‘hook’ of the song with Palmer’s trumpet and Edward Perez holds the group down with his succinct bass notes, locking tightly in with Blake’s drums and additionally, soloing.  It was May 31, 2021 and the quartet was perched on Summit Rock, in Seneca Village.  Jason gave the downbeat, and the small ensemble was off and running. This was Jason Palmer’s third recording for Giant Step Arts.  He features Mark Turner on saxophone and bassist Edward Perez.  Track #2 gives the stage completely to Johnathan Blake on trap drums.  It’s an exciting nearly four-and-a-half-minute introduction to this composition “Landscape with an Obelisk (Flinck).”  When Jason Palmer and Mark Turner enter on trumpet and tenor saxophone, the speedy excitement continues.  Jason Palmer mentions in his liner notes how excited he was about this concert because it was his first gig as a leader, featuring his own compositions.  This album is lush with Palmer’s original music and the individual talents of each participating musician.  They are all exceptionally gifted musicians and bring their talents to the stage, not only to interpret the Palmer tunes, but to express their own artistry and explore innovative creativity.  This is a ‘live’ recording that would fatten any jazz lover’s collection of music.

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RICHARD WILLIAMS – “HOLLYWOOD CHRISTMAS” – Independent Label

Richard Williams, piano/bandleader/arranger/composer; Trey Henry, bass; Bernie Dresel, drums; Brady Bills, guitar; SAXOPHONES: Eric Marienthal & Sal Lozano, alto saxophones; Brandon Fields & Dan Kaneyuki, tenor saxophones; Will Vargas, baritone saxophone. TRUMPETS: Wayne Bergeron, Rob Schaer, Kye Palmer & Mitchell Cooper. TROMBONES: Andy Martin, Joey Sellers, Erik Hughes & Robert Todd. VOCALS: Alex Stiles, Nate Bryant, Robecca Lopez, Evon Collett, Connor Ross, Taylor Miranda, Hayley Kirkland, Dmitry Noskov, Benny Benack III, Chelsea Brooke Olson & Julie Seechuck. COMPANY B SINGERS: Hayley Kirkland, Clara Campbell, Kate Plewe. WOMEN’S CHOIR: Jean Williams, Ruth Gardner, Erika Felsted, Rose Lofthouse, Jeri Mellor& Carol Olson.  

Opening with the popular “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” Richard Williams features the smooth, jazzy vocals of Alex Stiles. Stiles is also featured vocalist on “The Christmas Song.”  Williams has orchestrated these familiar holiday songs to revisit big band jazz and Christmas orchestral music. He’s created a nice, easy-listening ride through this holiday season. 

Williams was born in Utah, but his family relocated to Salinas, CA.  As a youth, he performed in his school band beginning in early, elementary days and learned to play several instruments including trombone, clarinet, saxophones, trumpet and piano.  At a very young age he was mesmerized by the music in his mind and Richard began composing.  In college, he majored in film scoring and Japanese.  You can tell by this lush production that orchestra music is Richard Williams’ first love. He captures Christmas with a diverse choir of voices and orchestral lushness.

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SONICA: NICOLE ZURAITIS, THANA ALEXA, JULIA ADAMY – Outside In Music

Thana Alexa, vocals/percussion/additional keyboards/production; Nicole Zuraitis, vocals/keyboards; Julia Adamy, vocals/bass/synth bass; Ross Pederson, Dan Pugach & Antonio Sanchez, drums.

This trio of talented women open with a siren like chant that reminds me of the fictitious sea maidens who were purported to sing to passing sailors at sea and wrap their spell around them.  These female voices blend beautifully on “Doyenne,” their original song, as they present their specialized contemporary jazz style for our consumption. Track #2 reminds me of The Pointer Sisters and features drummer Ross Pederson propelling their tight harmonics and chant-like arrangement. Their debut recording was produced straight out of Alexa’s home studio in Queens, New York. Recognizing that the human voice is a powerful instrument and the original instrument, before instruments were even created.  These three music divas not only look spectacular, but their harmonies spill out as natural as earth, wind and water. Together they have written all the music and Nicole adds her keyboard talents. A sought-after studio musician, Julia Adamy plays the bass.  Thana Alexa plays keyboards and percussion.  After years of working together in various collaborative performances, these three women enter a space of their own called “Sonica.”  This album is fresh and unique, as the talented ladies blend jazz with elements of pop music, soul, electronics and even folk.  They throw in a spoken word piece for good measure.  A pleasant surprise was Julia Adamy’s arrangement of “Loves In Need of Love Today.” The Stevie Wonder composition is reborn in a very creative way. However, I do miss some of Stevie’s piano chord changes and the hook is totally reinvented.  Still, I look forward to their next recording to see what they come up with, because this debut product is fascinating, entertaining, well-written and just the beginning of something that may become very big.

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AKIKO AOKI – “PURE IMAGINATION” –  Independent Label

Akiko Aoki, vocals; Tim Ray, piano/synthesizer/arranger; Marshall Wood, bass; Tommy Campbell, drums; Mark Walker, drums/percussion; John Baboian, guitar/arranger; Greg Hopkins, trumpet; Ken Peplowski, tenor saxophone; Mike Monaghan, saxophone; Hiro Honshuku, flute; Mari Aoki, vocals.

Akiko Aoki grew up in Sendai, Japan but was born in Morioka.  She sang in choruses throughout her school years.  At seventeen, young Akiko performed in local television shows and by the time she turned nineteen, she was singing professionally in clubs. She came to the United States to study at the famous Berklee College of Music. After obtaining her degree, the young, talented lady returned to Tokyo, Japan where she taught in music schools and performed in a number of jazz festivals. Like many female artists, she put aside her musical touring career when she got married and started a family. Staying close to home, she raised her children, taught Japanese and voice and managed her husband’s restaurant business.  She also sang at the restaurants. After the death of her husband, Akiko was drawn back into her passion of expression and decided to record this album.  Accompanied by the Tim Ray trio and several special guests, she offers us thirteen familiar tunes.  They open with “Almost Like Being in Love.”  It’s the Ken Peplowski saxophone that takes center stage and makes this old standard swing. This song introduces us to the full ensemble, each stepping into the spotlight to give us brief solos and expose their individual talents.  I enjoyed the song “Yesterday I heard the Rain” which was fresh and new to my ears.  Akiko has a sweet voice and uses long legato lines to express her melodies and lyrics. Sometimes, when you swing a song, you have to use a more staccato technique to really capture the jazzy feel. However, when she tackles challenging songs like Henry Mancini’s “Two for the Road” her legato tones gently caress each note and her emotional attachment to the lyrics is clearly evident. Tim Ray takes a long and lovely piano solo during this arrangement. On “No More Blues” she joins the horn section at the top and the band taps out a Bossa beat as Akiko sings the Jon Hendricks lyrics to Jobim’s famed composition. This production becomes a family affair when Akiko and her mother sing together on “Moondance,” on the Bill Withers classic, “Just the Two of Us” and on “Smile.”  Although this reminds one of family get-togethers where family members gather around the piano and recklessly share their hidden and unexplored talents in the comfort of their own home, it detracts from the professionality of this project.

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OUTSIDE – “A NEW BEGINNING” – Dorado Records

Matt Cooper, keyboard/drums/multi-instruments; Nichol Thomson, bass; Matt White, guitar; Francesco Sales, slide guitar; Vancho Manoilovich, drums/percussion; Cleveland Watkiss, piano; Jim Knight, additional synthesizer.

Matt cooper, who is recording again, under the name of ‘Outside,’ brings us four (4) EP tracks after a twenty-year creative hiatus.  If you are a lover of contemporary jazz and electronic music, then this recording is the perfect one to stuff into your stocking.  Matt plays both keyboard, drums and several other instruments on this project that was conceived during the 2020 pandemic lockdown.  He co-produced this beautiful production with Valentina Pahor, recording in both London and Portugal.  Writing and playing solo, the same way he did at the height of his career in 1993. Cooper offers us four beautiful compositions that spotlight his unique musical vision.

“I’ve evolved the mixture of modern and retro.  That’s the ‘Outside’ sound,” Cooper explained.

It was Matt Cooper who was one of the rebellious and creative innovators of the 1990s London music revolution.  His music was released on the experimental Dorado Label, known for their Acid Jazz and founded by Ollie Buckwell.  Dorado Records celebrates three decades in business this year.

“I wanted to make quality records that would stand the test of time.  I was blown away by Matt’s talent,” Buckwell praised the artist.

Opening with the title tune, the electronic bass line and the funk drums are infectious on “A New Beginning.”  Track two is titled “Searching, Finding” and features the beautiful, haunting talents of Francesco Sales on slide guitar.

Cooper is part of the UK soul act ‘Incognito’ acting as Musical Director and has worked as M.D. and an instrumentalist for legendary artists like Chaka Khan, Jocelyn Brown, Whitney Houston, Terry Callier, Leon Ware, Marlena Shaw, Freddie Hubbard and Ronnie Laws.

Matt Cooper’s piano/keyboard work drives this project, along with his ability to manipulate electronic rhythms that compliment his hypnotic grooves.  This is sexy music.  Pop the bubbly by a roaring fire and play this EP in the background.  Magic! 

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KIRK LIGHTSEY – “LIVE AT SMALLS JAZZ CLUB” Cellar 20 Music Group

Kirk Lightsey, Piano; Santi Debriano, bass; Mark Whitfield, guitar; Victor Lewis, drums.

For nearly seventy years, Detroit, Michigan native Kirk Lightsey has made his mark in the jazz world as a pianist, composer and recording artist. What a blessing to hear Lightsey, in the company of his longtime and masterful friends, perform ‘live’ as part of the SmallsLIVE Living Masters Series. They open jubilantly with “In Your Own Sweet Way” letting Mark Whitfield’s guitar shine dynamically. On Track #2, “Freedom Jazz Dance” Lightsey takes the reins and rides the familiar Eddie Harris tune into my listening room, uniquely arranged and spiced-up by Victor Lewis on trap drums.  Lewis makes sure every accent, every nuance is carefully measured and rhythmically placed.  Lightsey has added a Latin groove to this arrangement that inspires me to cha cha around my room.  His original composition, “Heaven Dance” has a rich bass line that weaves its way throughout this presentation, first on the piano and then carried solidly by Santi Debriano on bass.  Whitfield’s guitar soaks up the spotlight during his solo and Victor’s drums punch the song with funk drums that give the tune a contemporary feel.  J. J. Johnson’s composition, “Lament” is a lovely ballad.  Kirk Lightsey caresses this tune with his piano tenderness and Mark Whitfield explores every bar of the song with his tenacious guitar. When Santi Debriano takes out his bow and dances it across the double bass strings, it’s a wonderful moment of improvised art. All in all, here is a historic recording by four jazz legends that represent the beauty, legacy and bountifulness of Kirk Lightsey and his inimitable quartet. 

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PATRICIA BRENNAN – “MORE TOUCH” – Pyroclastic Records

Patricia Brennan, vibraphone with electronics/marimba/composer; Marcus Gilmore, drummer; Mauricio Herrera, percussion; Kim Cass, bass.

The first thing I noticed about this unique project is the electronic manipulation of the vibraphone.  The blurred lines between quarter tones slip and slide from key to key, creating an other-worldly sound. It’s both hypnotic and beautiful.  The second thing I notice is the strange album cover, that might have made sense if the title of the album was ‘Fingerprint.’  But then, we do use “More Touch” when we feel things with our fingertips, so perhaps this black background with a fingerprint on it does imply the album title.

While attending Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, Patricia Brennan participated in several percussion ensembles.  You can hear her love for percussion and infatuation with rhythm throughout this album. We are introduced to it immediately on the very first tune, “Unquiet Respect.”

“A percussion quartet is all about creating a collective texture or timbre.  At the same time, there’s a very strong improvisational culture in my hometown of Veracruz, because of the Afro-Cuban music and Son Jarocho influence,” Patricia explains.

Referring to her percussionist, Brennan says that Mauricio knows these traditions inside and out as a Cuban-born master percussionist.  He also spent four years in Mexico, soaking up their percussive culture, before relocating to New York.  Her drummer, Marcus Gilmore, is a modern jazz player who is rich in the traditions of Cuban, African and Carnatic music. Kim Cass provides the grounding element.  His bass instrument is the sturdy foundation for their music, along with Brennan’s vibraphone and marimba contributions.  Kim can also become his own lead voice, both melodic and rhythmic. His presence is clearly showcased on the compositions “Convergences” and “The Woman Who Weeps.”  All the original music of this album has been written and arranged by Patricia Brennan. The “Women Who Weep” is a song dedicated to Patricia’s aunt and godmother, Gloria, who passed away in January of 2021.  This original song represents a search for comfort during moments of despair. Each tune on this album unfolds, similar to the intriguing pages of a well-written novel.  The compositions bring surprise and intrigue, emotional connection and thoughtful phrases of beauty and mystery to the music. “Square Bimagic” reflects happiness and gaiety, dancing from my CD player like a bright, joyous party.

Patricia Brenna has performed with top symphony orchestras in Mexico while in her teenaged years. She is steeped in Classical music and was a member of several orchestras including the Grammy-nominated John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble.  Brennan’s percussive quartet explores her composing skills and unique musical capabilities.  She re-introduces us to both the marimba and vibraphone with a peek into her very creative mind.  Obviously, Patricia Brennan is a person who pushes the boundaries of her instrument with imagination and gusto.  Brennan’s music is inspirational and Avant-garde in a modern jazz, contemporary kind of way. This is visionary music and Brennan introduces us to it with stark originality.

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JOEL QUARRINGTON – “THE MUSIC OF DON THOMPSON” – Modica Music

Joel Quarrington, bass #1; Travis Harrison, Joseph Phillips & Roberto Occhipinti, bass; Don Thompson, piano/arranger/composer.

This project opens with a magnificent bass solo, bowed by the very talented Joel Quarrington and grandly supported by Don Thompson on piano.  I guarantee, you have never heard an arrangement of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square” quite like this one. In fact, I had to play it three times in a row to soak up all the awesome tenderness, technical beauty of the bass and jazzy merger of this duo, with Don Thompson at the piano. Joel Quarrington is a highly praised classical bassist.

“A few years ago, Joel called me again and this time, he was asking me to write a piece for him to play at a concert in Rochester, New York.  He told me how, on a break from a rehearsal, he’d gone to sleep under the piano and was awakened by me playing it. I was playing “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” and as he was listening, he was thinking that he’d like to play that song with me someday with those chords.  I’d been playing with George Shearing and Mel Torme for a few years, and Nightingale was one of their showstoppers, so I knew it really well.  The challenge for me was to find a way to write it so it would be special for Joel. I thought that going into a Brazilian feel after the melody would work nicely with the chords, and I remembered that cadenza that John Coltrane played at the end of ‘I Want to Talk About You’ so, I guess my arrangement was inspired by Mel Torme, John Coltrane and Jobim,” Don Thompson explained how this arrangement came about.

“I remember well, the first rehearsal we had for the piece.  Joel drove down from Ottawa … and came into my studio. … We just played it straight through, cadenza and all, without stopping.  Then, he asked me just what exactly I had in mind.  I said I wanted it to sound like a combination of Phil Dwyer and John Coltrane.  (Phil is one of the greatest musicians in Canada and a fantastic saxophone player) and Joel said, Oh, I know exactly what you want.  I won’t waste any more of your time now.  I’ll take it home and learn it.  And he did!  A couple of weeks later, he came back, and I think he’d memorized most of it.  It was amazing.  We played it in Rochester, and it was a huge success,” Don Thompson recalled.

This recording by Joel Quarrington is a unique and exceptional meeting of musicians from jazz and classical backgrounds.  They perform music specifically written for this project by bassist Joel Quarrington, considered one of the greatest classical bass players in the world today.  To add to that brilliance, it’s a collaboration with the great jazz artist and pianist, Don Thompson, who not only is renowned as a bassist, but is equally gifted as both a pianist and vibraphonist. This is an extraordinary listening experience.

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CHRIS RUGGIERO – “CHRISTMAS WITH CHRIS RUGGIERO” – Independent Label

Chris Ruggiero, vocals; Christian Tamburr & Rick Krive, piano; Lindsey Blair, acoustic & electric guitars; Nicky Orta, electric bass; Matthew Rybicki, elec. Bass & double bass; Mike Harvey & Al Sergel, drums; Armando Arce, percussion; Ed Calle, tenor saxophone/flute; Mike Brignola, baritone saxophone/flute; Jim Hacker & Peter Francis, trumpet/flugelhorn; Francisco Dimas & Wayne Bergeron, trumpet; John Kricker, trombone; Joseph Mirrione, Leesa Richards & Jimmy Gallagher, background vocals. Tom Schizzano, additional instrumentation.

This is a warm, easy listening Christmas album.  Chris Ruggiero has a fireside, friendly vocal approach that iHeart radio has recently added to their broadcast platform.  They are showcasing his album on the national adult contemporary holiday playlist.  You may have enjoyed one of his national PBS-Television appearances, honed from the thirty-seven-city tour he just completed. Chris Ruggiero lets no grass grow under his feet or slippery snow slow his pace.  His vocals are cushioned by the beautiful arrangements of Charles Calello and Christian Tamburr. These creative arrangers reinvent several standard Christmas songs we love to hear, including some blues songs like “Please come home for Christmas” and the famed Spector pop song, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).”  Chris has invited the legendary Darlene Love to duet with him on “Grown-Up Christmas List” which is a beautiful song featuring a dynamic melody with a sweeping arrangement to accentuate the interesting bridge, and blossoming hook of the song. Ruggiero has a voice that can crisscross genres with ease.  His jazzy arrangement of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas “is joyful and improvisational, featuring Wayne Bergeron on an outstanding trumpet solo. Chris Ruggiero’s tenor voice is sweet, jazzy, emotional, and relaxing. Also, the musicality of this production is exceptional.

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SMALL & BIG BANDS SWING US INTO THE HOLIDAYS

November 18, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

November 18, 2022

EYAL VILNER BIG BAND – “THE JAM!”  –  Independent Label

Eyal Vilner, alto saxophone/clarinet/flute/conductor/arranger/composer; Imani Rousselle, Brianna Thomas & Brandon Bain, vocals; Caleb Teicher, tap shoes; Jon Thomas & Jordan Piper, piano; Ian Hutchison, bass; Eran Fink, drums; TRUMPETS: John Lake, Brandon Lee, Bryan Davis, Michael Sailors & James Zollar. SAXOPHONES: Bill Todd & Jordan Pettay, alto saxophone; Julieta Eugenio, Michael Hashim & Evan Arntzen; Josh Lee & Eden Bareket, baritone saxophone. TROMBONES: Ron Wilkins, Robert Edwards & Mariel Bildsten.

Born in Tel Aviv, Eyal Vilner moved to New York in 2007 and by the following year he had formed his big band.  His band became a popular accompaniment for New York City’s swing dance clubs.  The band has also appeared as part of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s lineup, The Guggenheim Museum, Birdland, Dizzy’s Club, Smalls Jazz Club and Minton’s Playhouse.  In fact, bandleader Eyal Vilner got so inspired watching the swing dancers, he decided to take swing dance lessons himself. This led to a venture with professional dancer Gaby Cook, who encouraged him to provide live band music as inspiration for the dancers.  That working union wound up inspiring Vilner himself.

“I get inspired by a syncopated move.  It can be just as inspiring as hearing a great musician or reading a book.  There’s open conversation between swing music and swing dancing. Both of these are forms rooted in improvisation,” Vilner explained.

The Eyal Vilner Big Band opens with the familiar Duke Ellington Orchestra tune “Just a Lucky So and So” with the contemporary voice of Imani Rousselle singing the lead lyric.  This band swings and I can see why the dancers flock to Eyal Vilner’s Big Band music. The next four tunes are penned by Eyal Vilner.  He is brightly featured on Track #2, “Chabichou,” that happens to be named after Vilner’s favorite cheese and features the composer playing alto saxophone. Pianist John Thomas is spot lit on Track #3, using licks that remind us of Thelonious Monk’s music.  “Another Time” is a song Vilner wrote many years ago when he first relocated to NYC. The polka beat behind the Monk-esck tune is a little surprising to my ear, but I admit it’s unique. “The Jam” takes us back to a swing dance mode giving Eran Fink a time to shine on drums. The idea of writing about the pandemic quarantine becomes a tongue-in-cheek comedic lyric where the quarantine word is pronounced like the word ‘valentine,’ titled, “Will you Be My Quarantine?” This song is sung by Ms. Rousselle.  It’s a creative and laughable lyric, sung to a catchy melody.  She sings the lyrics from a song co-written by Tal Ronen.

“We will spend our lonely days together.  Taking pictures of our food and wine. If you’ll just remove your mask, long enough to ask, baby, will you be my quarantine?”

This joyful Big Band also plays ‘cover’ tunes you will probably recognize like “Hard Hearted Hannah” and the 1939 hit, “Tain’t What You Do” by Sy Oliver & Trummy Young, where the band vocalizes as background voices chanting the title behind Brianna Thomas, who’s the featured lead singer. This is a song I remember Ella Fitzgerald once made popular. All in all, this album is just plain joy!

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THE SCOTT WHITFIELD JAZZ ORCHESTRA WEST – “POSTCARDS FROM HOLLYWOOD” – Summit Records

Scott Whitfield, trombone/bass trombone/bandleader/arranger/vocals; Jeff Colello, piano; Jennifer Latham, bass; Kendall Kay, drums; Rusty Higgins, alto & soprano saxophone/flute/piccolo; Kersten Edkins, tenor & soprano saxophone/clarinet; Brian Williams, baritone saxophone; Dave Richards, lead trumpet; Kye Palmer & Anne King, trumpet flugelhorn; Tony Bonsera, lead trumpet/flugelhorn; Gary Tole & Ira Nepus, trombones; Rich Bullock, bass trombone. SPECIAL GUESTS: Pete Christlieb & Rickey Woodard, tenor saxophone; Dick Nash, trombone; Brad Dutz, percussion.

This project has pulled several favorite songs from motion picture scores and titled the project, “Postcards from Hollywood.”  You will hear songs that became popular from films like Gone with the Wind (1940), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), and Cleopatra (1963).  Prior to his arrival in Southern California, Scott Whitfield developed a keen interest in film soundtracks.  He even wound up studying the art form at a UCLA Extension course.

“My goal with this recording is to pay homage to a cross-section of the greats, through the medium of my Jazz Orchestra West. Some of these themes will be very familiar to the listener, while others are much more obscure.  In some cases, I stayed pretty close to the original concept of the piece.  In others, the muse led me on a much more circuitous route,” he wrote in his liner notes.

They open with “The Magnificent Seven”, a main theme from the movie of the same title.  Kye Palmer makes a soaring statement on his trumpet solo and Kendall Kay is magnificent on drums.  “Sally’s Tomato” from the “Breakfast at Tiffany” film is a warm, lilting, Latin arrangement where Jennifer Latham offers a memorable bass solo and Scott Whitfield’s trombone shines, center stage.  Whitfield has included special guests in this production and familiar names on the Southern California scene like Rickey Woodard and Pete Christlieb on saxophones, Brad Dutz on percussion and Dick Nash on trombone.  The bandleader has also built a band that celebrates the wealth of Los Angeles talent including respected names like Jeff Colello on piano, and Anne King on trumpet and flugelhorn. Speaking of King, she plays beautifully while soloing during the “Tara’s Theme” arrangement as does Rusty Higgins on soprano saxophone.  Other favorites on this album are arrangements of “A Time for Love” plucked from the “An American Dream” film.  Kirsten Edkins offers a lovely tenor saxophone solo and Kye Palmer plays a mean flugelhorn.  But it’s Whitfield who sparkles and swings in the spotlight with his trombone talent.  Uniting with the strong bass support of Jennifer Latham on her upright instrument, Whitfield puts down his trombone and shows off his vocals, singing “Spellbound” from the movie of the same title.  On “The Pawnbroker” Rickey Woodard plays with his usual soulful dexterity and emotional sincerity during his tenor saxophone solo. This might be my favorite tune on the whole album.

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THE JON COWHERD TRIO – “PRIDE AND JOY” – Le Coq Records

Jon Cowherd, piano/composer/arranger/Hammond B-3 organ; John Patitucci, Acoustic & Elec. Bass/composer/arranger; Brian Blade, drums/ composer/arranger; Chris Potter, tenor & soprano saxophone; Alex Neciosup Acuña, percussion.

The Jon Cowherd Trio expands to a quintet on the very, first composition that Cowherd has penned, “Grand Mesa.”  Cowherd, Blade and Patitucci add the stellar saxophonist, Chris Potter, to the mix along with exceptional percussionist, Alex Acuña.  Cowherd has written and arranged six out of the eight songs on this album.  I am particularly impressed with “The Colorado Experiment” where John Patitucci shines and sparkles during his bass solo.  Cowherd’s composition skill is quite evident on this tune. I love the way he begins the arrangement with just acoustic piano and his left hand and right-hand shadow boxing around the melody.  During Cowherd’s solo, Brian Blade is powerful and creative on drums, not only holding down the tempo, but coloring the bandleader’s solo with interesting and effective drum licks. Clearly, Jon Cowherd has surrounded himself with creme de la crème musicians.  Track #3 becomes one of my favorites on this album.  Cowherd’s composition, “Honest Man (For Ellis Marsalis)” is a pensive, beautifully constructed arrangement that celebrates the Marsalis music legend in a lovely way.  The title tune, “Pride and Joy,” once again expands the trio to a quintet with the percussion of Alex Acuña pumping excitement into the production.  This is Straight-ahead jazz that gives the great Chris Potter a platform to steal the spotlight during his saxophone solo.  Listen as his notes glitter and glide through the arrangement. Potter is a talent to be reckoned with, spurred ahead by the awesome drums of Brian Blade. This is another one of my favorites on Jon Cowherd’s album.  Cowherd and drummer, Blade, share a close friendship ever since they met at New Orleans Loyola University some twenty-three years ago. It was through Blade that Jon met Patitucci.  At the time, John Patitucci and Brian Blade were performing as part of the Wayne Shorter Quartet.  This album is titled as a reference to Jon Cowherd’s three-year-old daughter who, of course, is his “Pride and Joy.”  The compositions are well written, and the group’s energy is palpable. I also enjoyed the Patitucci composition, “Chickmonk” that gives Jon Cowherd not only an opportunity to play acoustic piano, but also invites him to add his talents on B-3 organ. Patitucci has arranged his original song contribution. Brian Blade is given time to play a highly creative solo on trap drums, singing his own rhythmic melody. They close with an original composition by the drummer called “Quilt City Blues.”   It features Jon Cowherd on solo piano, sounding more like a country/western tune than a blues. 

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MARCO PIGNATARO – “CHANT FOR OUR PLANET” – Zoho Records

Marco Pignataro, soprano, alto & tenor saxophones/composer; John Patitucci, bass/composer; Chico Pinheiro, guitar; Anastassiya Petrova, piano; Nadia Washington, vocals/composer; Terri Lyne Carrington, drums; Joe Lovano, tenor saxophone/bass clarinet/alto flute/mezzo soprano sax/composer.

If you listen closely, you can hear the rich spectrum of rhythms, melodies, and natural sounds in our universe, as Mother Nature plays them each and every day.  There is always music around us.  The whistle in the wind.  The tinkling sound of raindrops on the roof.  The flap of bird wings disturbing space, or the splash of ocean against the shore; perhaps a solo cricket’s song. Marco Pignataro has obviously been inspired by these amazing natural Earth wonders. He has incorporated nature sounds into his “Chant for our Planet” project. Marco hopes this music will jolt us out of complacency and infuse our interest in the beauty of Mother Earth.  After all, this is the planet we call home. The Pignataro project is meant to advocate for reforming climate policies. It’s a mandate to inspire us and a plea for more care given to our world.

“Jazz music has historically been a powerful artistic medium to inspire, educate, empower and advocate for social change in our community,” Marco Pignataro explains his musical journey.

You can get a sense of his theme from the tune titles of Pignataro’s repertoire. The master bassist, John Patitucci has composed the first suite of music that opens this album.  Titled “Terra – Mare- Cielo” (Earth, Sea & Sky). It unfolds in three parts, propelled by the mastery of Terri Lyne Carrington on drums and colorfully intoxicated by the vocals of Nadia Washington. Anastassiya Petrova’s piano opens the familiar Jobim tune, “Aqua de Beber” (Water to Drink), sung in Portuguese by Nadia Washington.  Antonio Carlos Jobim reminds us that, without clean water for humanity to drink, we will not survive.  Chico Pinheiro takes a notable solo on guitar and Marco Pignataro soars on tenor saxophone. On Pignataro’s composition, “Moon Threads” I fall under the spell of his alto saxophone presentation.  This piece is very meditative, with shades of Middle Eastern minor mode influences. The legendary Joe Lovano has contributed a composition titled, “As It Should Be” that ventures into the realms of Avant-garde music. On “Irene’s Path,” Pignataro’s composition was inspired by the destructive Hurricane Irene and its horrific aftermath.  The powerful storm wreaked havoc from West Africa to the Americas, causing significant damage. 

Pignataro has surrounded himself with master musicians who play seamlessly together and with the musical intent and purpose to tackle the conversation about climate change.  Like the beauty and importance of jazz, Marco Pignataro believes the security and protection of our planet should be paramount in our minds. We must make sure our world is safe and secure for future generations and treasure it, the way we treasure jazz music. Marco Pignataro musically provides art, beauty and original music to inspire humanity towards love and respect for our planet.

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MATT ULERY – “BECOME GIANT” – Woolgathering Records

Matt Ulery, double bass/composer; Zach Brock, lead violin; Jon Deitemyer, drums; KAIA String Quartet: Victoria Moreiera & Joy Curtin, violins; Oana Tatu, viola; Hope DeCelle, cello.

If strings are your thing, this current project produced and composed by bassist, Matt Ulery, features Zach Brock on lead violin, a string quartet, his own double bass and Jon Deitemyer on drums. Nearly five years ago, Nathan Cole, First Associate Concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, reached out to Ulery.  Mr. Cole was looking to feature a guest composer at the Chamber Music Festival in Lexington, Kentucky.  He wanted a piece written expressly for Cole’s string quartet, with world renowned violinist, Zach Brock acting as the violin soloist. This album is the result of that project.

“The music I write is usually recorded and released pretty quickly from when I start the process of writing it and playing it live.  So, this is the first time I’ve ever had a piece active for such a long time before recording. It’s been growing steadily between sets,” Matt Ulery explained the transitions that his compositions have made in five years.

What began as a commission for a single festival has turned into a beautiful gift that keeps on giving.  It’s a work that has unfolded across the United States, pre-pandemic.  The group, including and using the brilliant Chicago-based KAIA String Quartet, has toured and worked on their arrangements and blended their musical identities in support of the iconic violinist, Zach Brock.  Now, the suite is lovely, polished, whimsical and expertly played, culminating into this recording that was released in August of this year. Titled “Become Giant” here is nearly forty minutes of music, written in six movements, with a closing composition entitled “Shine Faintly with a Wavering Glow” that closes this album. Here is a gorgeous parlor presentation, intimate and classically infused, that highlights the beauty of string chamber music. Cuddle up next to a warm fire or a warm body and enjoy.

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STEVE TINTWEISS SPACELIGHT BAND – “LIVE AT NYU: 1980” – Inky DoT Media

Steve Tintweiss, 5-string double bass/melodica/voice/composer/bandleader; Charles Brackeen, tenor & soprano saxophones; Byard Lancaster, alto & soprano saxophones/flute/piccolo/bass clarinet; Genie Sherman, vocals/spoken word; Lou Grassi, drums/percussion.

One introspective day, Steve Tintweiss pulled a dusty tape from his shelf and listened to his ‘live’ concert recording from way back in 1980.  It was his ‘Spacelight Band’ performing a music series at the Loeb Student Center of New York University. At that time, Steve was already a respected avant-garde bassist who had performed on the final tour of saxophone icon, Albert Ayler.

Tintweiss had also played on the “Patty Waters Sings” 1969 album as part of the Marzette Watts Ensemble, characterized as a bone-chilling underground milestone.  The music on this ‘live’ historic concert production that Steve Tintweiss stumbled upon is also, at times, bone-chilling. The Spacelight Band certainly pushes the boundaries of experimental jazz. This current CD is a double disc release, offering nearly two hours of free-flowing experimentation and improvisation of the Steve Tintweiss compositions.  On the opening cut of Disc #1, Genie Sherman adds wordless vocals to the mix, exploring her high soprano notes, then swooping to her lower register. Lou Grassi opens the composition with his marching drums cementing the tempo into place.  He is known to have one foot planted in Straight-ahead jazz and the other in experimental music.  Byard Lancaster’s flute pierces the auditorium silence.  Charles Brackeen joins in, playing his tenor sax in unison with the flute and then with the voice.  Tintweiss plucks the strings of his 5-string double bass and seems to inspire Genie’s improvised vocal sounds as they become more aggressive.  When they recorded this, it was Saturday, November 8, 1980, and students with IDs gained concert access for $2.50, while the general public paid an additional dollar for admission.  The concert was funded by the “Meet the Composer’ group.  Steve Tintweiss formed this band in 1976 and they stayed together until 2003. The third track on Disc One is titled “Whistle Stop Tour” and has a catchy melody that the vocalist explores with freedom and scats.  She sometimes adds the title as a lyric and then takes liberties to explore the chord changes with her improvisational voice.  Once the music becomes more instrumental and less vocal, we get an opportune chance to enjoy each musician’s talent and technique.  On “Risk-O-Disc” Steve Tintweiss lays down a bass groove that is hypnotic and the flute of Byard Lancaster (who is a multi-reedist) is dominant and beautiful. This quickly becomes one of my favorite tunes.  If you are looking for something free and improvisational, inspired by the compositions of Tintweiss and uniquely presenting itself as a cord-less ensemble, this historic project will satisfy any avant-garde lover.

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360 DEGREE JAZZ INITIATIVE – “PLEASE ONLY TELL ME GOOD NEWS” – Summit Records

Stephen Anderson, piano/composer/band director; Baron Tymas, guitar; Jason Foureman & Christopher Law, bass; Dan Davis & Michael Shekwoaga Ode, drums; Juan Alamo, marimba/percussion; Emma Gonzalez & Ramuné Marcinkeviciute, voice; Alex Upton, alto saxophone; Rahsaan Barber, alto/tenor & baritone saxophone.  SPECIAL GUESTS: Rachel Therrien, trumpet; Roland Barber, trombone.

For a small ensemble, this group has a very big band sound. They are an interactive ensemble, comprised of faculty and students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Their goal is to demonstrate jazz as a living art form and bring awareness publicly to the rich history of jazz. The project opens with “What Now?” a composition by pianist and band director, Stephen Anderson.  Stephen’s piano solo is wonderful.  Enter special guest, Rachel Therrien, a female French-Canadian trumpeter, composer, producer and winner of the 2015 TD Grand Prize Jazz Award at the renowned Montreal International Jazz Festival.  She also, in 2016, won the Stingray Jazz Rising Star Award.  Her tone is as smooth as fresh frozen ice and just as cool. Juan Alamo is stellar on marimba and Rahsaan Barber’s saxophone strength is prominent.  Barber is the Assistant Professor of Jazz Studies and Saxophone at the University of North Carolina.  He’s played with a plethora of musicians including Christian McBride, Brian Blade, The Temptations, Delfeayo Marsalis, the famed Spanish Harlem Orchestra, the iconic Taj Mahal, pop star Cyndi Lauper, gospel legend, Kirk Franklin and gold record artist Meghan Trainor, to list just a few.  As you can see, his horn is a diversified tool and he competently crosses genres.  On this first cut, you meet the musicians, who step up to interpret Stephen Anderson’s composition, giving it their very best.  The second track is also an Anderson composition, “False Pretense,” where you get to enjoy Anderson’s piano solo, sometimes richly infused with the blues.  We also get to meet drummer, Michael Shekwoaga Ode, on this tune.  He is masterful on his instrument, given free rein to explore excitement and creativity on his drums.  At the fade, he steals the spotlight during a memorable drum solo. As a Nigerian American composer, drummer, bandleader and educator, Mr. Ode was born in Philadelphia but spent developmental years in North Carolina.  Michael received a scholarship to study at Oberlin Conservatory under jazz legend, Billy Hart.  Track #3, “Adversities” features the beautiful vocals of Ramuné Marcinkeviċiuté.  Bass player, Christopher Law takes a solo and soaks up the spotlight, while drummer Dan Davis sounds spectacular on this cut.  “Open Sesame” is composed by saxophone master, Rahsaan Barber and arrives in a splash of a Straight-ahead jazz arrangement.  This time the bassist is Jason Foureman, who steps forward with confidence and creativity on a melodic solo, followed by the composer on his saxophone, exploring all his improvisational possibilities. On Disc #2, the “Latindia” tune composed by Barber turns up the Latin Heat and gives percussionist Juan Alamo an opportunity to shine.  I love the baritone saxophone that Barber uses to color this arrangement. Baron Tymas has written “Looking Up” and uses his piece to showcase his mad guitar skills.  I love the addition of Alamo’s marimba.  On the standard song, “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man of Mine” the composition recalls the voices of both Lena Horne and Ethel Waters.  Although Emma Gonzalez has a lovely voice, I don’t believe she sold us the lyrical content.  It’s a woman who loves her man, in spite of his behavior.  It’s a story of painful, unconditional love and Emma sounds pretty, but not believably distraught.  All in all, Disc 1. & Disc 2 of this double disc set of music is entertaining, well-written and arranged, as well as played and interpreted by a group of excellent musicians.

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TOBIAS HOFFMANN JAZZ ORCHESTRA – “CONSPIRACY” – MONS Records

Tobias Hoffmann, co-producer/composer/conductor; RHYTHM: Vilkka Wahl, guitar; Philipp Nykrin, piano/synthesizer; Ivar Roban Krizic, double & electric bass; Reinhold Schmölzer, drums/electronics; SAXOPHONES/WOODWINDS: Patrick Dunst, alto & soprano saxophones/flute; Andy Schofield, alto saxophone/flute/clarinet; Robert Unterköfler, tenor & soprano saxophone/clarinet; Martin Harms, tenor saxophone/clarinet; Jonas Brinckmann, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet.  TRUMPETS/FLUGELHORNS: Dominic Pessl, Bernhard Nolf, Felix Meyer, Simon Plötzeneder, Jakob Helling. TROMBONES: Kasperi Sarikoski & Daniel Holzleitner, trombone; Robert Bachner, trombone/euphonium; Johannes Oppel, bass trombone/tuba.

The title tune, also the album opener, is dynamic. The orchestra soars.  Tobias Hoffmann, the composer and conductor of this entertaining orchestra says, “This is one of the most challenging compositions I have ever written. … I am very proud that this composition was awarded the 3rd prize at the Bill Conti Big Band Contest of 2021, which was organized by the American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers based in Los Angeles.”

The thing that struck this journalist, about his composition, was the many layers of emotion and mood changes Hoffmann’s music projected.  The tenor saxophone solo by Robert Unterköfler is beautifully executed and puts the ‘J’ in jazz.  “Elegy” slows the tempo to a sweet ballad that features the horn section only, no rhythm section.  No problem.  They don’t need one. The closely knit harmonies of the horn section run beautifully through this project, like an uninhibited river.  “Awakening” is a composition that’s dark and brooding.

Tobias Hoffmann recorded this project in Vienna, Austria, the last week of August 2021. The conductor was born in Goppingen, Germany in 1988.  He quickly discovered his passion for music and began to seriously play saxophone during high school.  He studied at the University for Music, Drama and Media in Hannover and graduated from Prins Claus Conservatorium Groningen in the Netherlands with a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in 2013. Hoffmann also studied Jazz-Saxophone at the Musik und Kunst Universitat Wien, and also studied Jazz Composition and Arranging, receiving a Master of Arts degree with distinction in 2015.  Tobias Hoffmann’s compositions have won numerous awards.  A sample of that is on Track #5, “Relentless” that won first prize in the “Original Composition, Large Ensemble category at the 2022 45th Annual Downbeat Student Music Awards.”  Patrick Dunst is the main soloist on alto saxophone.  I enjoy a good baritone saxophone solo and Jonas Brinkmann is given the opportunity to strut his stuff on the straight-ahead composition titled, “Trailblazers.” 

You will enjoy the brilliance of an amazing orchestra, along with the unique arrangements of gifted composer, Tobias Hoffmann, who has a warm place in his heart for horns and the beautiful music they make. 

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SKIP & DAN WILKINS QUARTET – “IN THE STARS” – Deer Head Records

Skip Wilkins, piano; Dan Wilkins, saxophones; Tony Marino, bass; Bill Goodwin, drums.

Here is a project bursting with bebop.  You hear the joy played by veteran pianist and composer, Skip Wilkins, after a too-long hibernation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.  Like so many, Skip Wilkins found himself on lockdown at his home in the Delaware Water Gap. Wilkins had just completed a recording that featured his son Dan on saxophone and his regular and longtime friends and musicians, Tony Marino on bass and Bill Goodwin on drums. The project had been scheduled for release in 2020, but the pandemic was raging and there were no tours planned to promote their album.  With unexpected time on their hands, the locked-down musicians practiced, played solo, learned new tunes and waited.  This recent release is titled “In The Stars.” It includes a carefully chosen repertoire that celebrates jazz master Phil Woods, a friend and musician that Skip played with frequently as a member of the Festival Orchestra. The Wilkins Quartet breathes new life into classic songs, some familiar, but many underappreciated gems that they have polished up.  This album sparkles like stars, with well-arranged, great American tunes played by a fan-friendly quartet. 

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PAUL MARINARO – “NOT QUITE YET” – Independent Label

Paul Marinaro, vocals/composer; Mike Allemana, guitar/arranger; Tom Vaitsas, piano/Fender Rhodes/Hammond B3 organ; John Tate, bass; George Fludas, drums; Jim Gailloreto, flute; Rajiv Halim, clarinet; Greg Ward, alto saxophone; Chris Madsen, tenor saxophone; Raphael Crawford, trombone; Marques Carroll, trumpet; KAIA STRING QUARTET: Victoria Moreira & Naomi Culp, violin; Amanda Grimm, viola; Hope DeCelle, cello. Alyssa Allgood & Sarah Marie Young, backup vocals.

Opening with the popular Mel Torme & Robert Wells composition, “Born to be Blue,” Marinaro’s voice is cushioned by this lush big band arrangement. The dramatic production supports Paul Marinaro’s voice as it splashes onto the scene.  With waves of rhythm guitar, provided by Mike Allemana (who is also the all-star arranger of this project), Track #2 sets the tone and creates a Brazilian rhythm tempo.  The Jobim tune, “Someone to Light Up My Life” is effervescent.  Singer, Paul Marinaro has a style all his own.  It’s a good thing not to sound like anyone but yourself.  Marinaro’s voice may be familiar to his Chicago, IL audiences and probably to New Yorkers who have enjoyed his jazzy style at the Birdland Jazz Club in NYC.  However, his vocals are new to me.  I find Paul’s voice fresh and pleasant to the ears.  His choice of repertoire shows off his ability to swing hard and to sell a lyric.  “Make Me Rainbows” is a perfect example of this, with the delightful lyrics written by Marilyn and Alan Bergman to a John Williams melody.  On the David Bowie tune, “5:15 The Angels Have Gone” Paul Marinaro is elbow-deep in the pop genre.  I can tell that Marinaro is influenced by the platinum recording artist, David Bowie.  He has plucked the title of this album, “Not Quite Yet,” from a Bowie song called “No Plan.” Which, by the way, Paul also covers this Bowie tune on his album.  He includes the blues tune, “No One Ever Tells You,” showing another side to his voice. I think Paul knows that If you claim to be a jazz singer, you have to be able to sing the blues.  He accomplishes that musical style with ease.  I appreciate Marinaro’s tender tones, like the ones that caress the lyrics during his presentation of “The Island.”   Sometimes his style reminds me of the tremolo voice of Johnny Mathis, but Marinaro definitely has his own style.  At times, his big, long, legato notes overpower the emotion of his interpretations and become more vocal technique instead of emotional surrender.  A big plus are the arrangements of Mike Allemana that shine and sparkle like Christmas tree ornaments.  These arrangements definitely decorate the singer’s repertoire in a beautiful way.  Paul Marinaro and his ensemble offer fourteen songs, several pulled from the great American songbook.  As a songwriter, the vocalist has collaborated with A. Barosso on a tune called “Searching” that displays great lyrics, a strong melody and is delightfully arranged as a Bossa Nova. Marinaro also introduces us to not so familiar tunes like the great song “On A Wonderful Day Like Today.”  Paul Marinaro puts happiness into the moment and hope into our hearts.

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FEELING THANKFUL: LISTENING TO JAZZY MUSIC THAT REFLECTS HOPE, JOY & INNOVATION

November 5, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

November 5, 2022

GUSTAVO CORTINAS – “KIND REGARDS (SALUDOS AFECTUOSUS)” – Desafio Candente Records

Gustavo Cortinas, drums; Meghan Stagl, vocals/piano; Erik Skov, guitar; Katie Ernst, upright bass; Emily Kuhn, trumpet.

In 2021, Gustavo Cortinas released Desafio Candente, an album that earned a place on the Jazziz Magazine list of the Best Releases of the year. I wouldn’t be surprised if this album also becomes an award winner. This time, the subject matter is focused on the immigrant experience in the United States.  The CD album cover features a seesaw with two brown children riding on the playground equipment.  The body of the moving seesaw is stuck through a fence that divides Mexico and the United States.  Gustavo’s music begins with a piece titled, “I Hope You Have a Good Phone Call Today” sung by the light, bright voice of Meghan Stagl.  Her delivery is appealing, honest and innocent-sounding, very much like a child’s voice.  Her soprano vocals drew me into music.  All of Gustavo’s music is pleasing to the ear.  His compositions are well-written and have a definite groove.  But of course, they would have a groove, because Gustavo Cortinas is an amazing drummer.  His creative rhythms propel this production and enhance his compositions. Gustavo has also written the lyrics to his songs.  Some are performed in English and others are sung in Spanish.  Gustavo explains his concept and inspiration for this music.

”Kind Regards gives life, through music, to words that attempt to build bridges and understanding in times of borders and ignorance; words that focus on our feet and the dust on which they walk, instead of the stars under which they dream,” the bandleader and composer shares these words of wisdom in his press package to describe this lovely, musical work of art.

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AHMAD JAMAL – “EMERALD CITY NIGHTS / LIVE AT THE PENTHOUSE (1965-1966) – Jazz Detective / Deep Digs Music Group

Ahmad Jamal, piano/composer; Jamil Nasser, bass; Chuck Lampkin, Vernel Fournier & Frank Gant, drums.

It’s a funny thing, but just two days ago I was searching my amazing album collection for an Ahmad Jamal record to enjoy. I found a recent album by Mr. Jamal, but the newly arranged “Poinciana” on that album did not satisfy me the way the one I loved from the 1960s did.  So, I was thrilled to receive this double set, two-album release of Ahmad Jamal’s Trio performing ‘Live’ in Seattle at “the Penthouse.”  There the song, “Poinciana” was, on CD #2, Track #4 in all its glory!  There is just something so hypnotic about that drum lick and that bass line that merges with Ahmad Jamal’s awesome piano playing. To my ears, the 1960s rendition is perfection just the way it is.  Of course, the ‘live’ rendition is not exactly like the one on my old licorice pizza album of yore, (1958 “Live at the Pershing”) but it’s close and I found great satisfaction listening to music that I grew up with in the 1960s.

These recordings take me back in time to 1963 through 1968, when a series of performances at The Penthouse, located not high up in the air, but a club on the ground floor of the Kenneth Hotel.  This project was being recorded ‘live’ for KING – FM radio. The concerts were hosted by famed disc jockey, Jim Wilke.  At that time, Charlie Puzzo Sr was the owner of the Penthouse and engineered these recordings.  Currently, his son, Charlie Puzzo Jr., keeps his father’s jazz tape collection safe and archived. Thankfully, Mr. Jamal was happy with these recordings and approved their current release.

Born July 2, 1930, Jamal was referred to as a child prodigy.  He was trained in both European and American classical music by respected singer and educator, Mary Caldwell Dawson. She founded the Negro Opera Company. Meantime, by fourteen, Ahmad Jamal was playing all around Pittsburgh and was a card-carrying member of the local Musician’s Union. Ahmad left home in 1948, touring with the George Hudson Big Band and consequently settled in Chicago, Illinois. He garnered deep respect from his peers, as well as those following in his esteemed footsteps.  In fact, Miles Davis wrote in his autobiography:

“All my inspiration comes from Jamal,” Miles quoted.  “He knocked me out with his concept of space, his lightness of touch, his understatement and the way he phrased notes and chords and passages … I loved his lyricism on piano.” 

On records, Miles Davis proved his appreciation for Ahmad Jamal’s talents by recording songs Jamal made notable like, “A Gal in Calico” “New Rhumba” and “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top.”

Ahmad had his own view on the music he was playing.  Quoted in his liner notes of this CD he said, “I studied Ravel, Debussy, Duke Ellington and Art Tatum along with all my other European works; Czerny and so on.  So, I never called it jazz.  I called it American classical music.  I started playing American classical music at three years old… Now, I’m ninety-two.”

I can let greater voices than mine speak for Ahmad Jamal’s historic and intriguing music. When they asked Ramsey Lewis for his opinion on the iconic pianist.

“He uses the whole 88-keys on the piano.  With many jazz piano players, the left-hand comps and the right hand does a lot of work. … Ahmad is one of the ‘both-hands’ piano players.  Left hand, right hand.  Ahmad can take care of business,” Ramsey Lewis sang his praises.

Jon Batiste said, “When you hang with Jamal, you realize he’s a spontaneous composer, in the same way that someone would improvise a solo.  He has the ability to compose at that level of hyper speed.”

Kenny Barron said, “The first time I heard Ahmad, I was in high school.  I was getting ready to go to bed and I had the jazz station on.  This was in Philadelphia, where I’m from, of course.  And this song came on, ‘Music! Music! Music! (Put Another Nickel In)’ which I remembered from having heard Theresa Brewer do it.  So, it was a song I knew and somebody was playing piano on it.  As I was listening, I was asking myself, “Who the hell is that?” Because it was just so unbelievable.  The radio announcer said it was Ahmad Jamal, whom I’d never heard of before.  It was on Ahmad Jamal’s album, ‘Ahmad Jamal Trio at the Pershing/But Not for Me.’  Theresa Brewer’s record was a hit when I was in junior high school.  And then I heard Ahmad Jamal’s version on the radio and the piano trio, and I just couldn’t believe it. I immediately went out and bought the record the next day, because it was just so fantastic.  And I’ve been an Ahmad Jamal fan ever since then.”

Me too, Kenny Barron.  Me too!

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JULIUS RODRIGUEZ – “LET SOUND TELL ALL” – Verve Records

Julius Rodriguez, piano/Fender Rhodes; drums/organ/moog bass/producer/composer/arranger; Ben Wolfe & Philip Norris, double bass; Joe Saylor, Jongkook Kim, Giveton Gelin & Brian Richburg Jr., drums; Morgan Guerin, electric bass/saxophone; Daryl Johns, bass; Marian Cameron & Samara Joy, lead vocals; Vuyo Sotashe & Nick Hakim, background vocals; Hailey Knox, vocals; Giveton Gelin, trumpet.

The new single from the Julius Rodriguez album is the Stevie Wonder, Morris Broadnax song, “All I Do” and it features Rodriguez’s childhood friend and singer, Mariah Cameron.   She sings the lead on a very well-produced arrangement of this gold-record-song.  Ms. Cameron has a crystal-clear voice that rings with power.  Julius wows us on both drums and piano, an obvious master on both.  Referred to in several press releases as a rising jazz phenom, Julius Rodriguez brings us a new perspective on the Wonder song and rejuvenates it in his own unique way.  His drumming is as impressive as his piano skills and he’s also a gifted composer.

Applause opens the initial tune on this album.  The listener joins the ‘live’ audience as part of the enthralled ears that soak up this Rodriguez music.  Julius Rodriguez swings hard on the piano as he and his trio introduce us to “Blues at the Barn,” an original composition with Philip Norris chasing Julius’s piano agility on his fast-moving, double bass.  Joe Saylor adds tenacious drums to the mix.  In my opinion, they could have left the short “Interlude” piece off the album.  It doesn’t add anything to the brilliance of this overall project.  The first single release from “Let Sound Tell All” is “Gift of the Moon” and it is the fourth track on this project. “Two Way Street” is a dance between the saxophone of Morgan Guerin and Julius Rodriguez on piano.  This tune moves seamlessly into the album’s title tune, “Let Sound Tell All.”  “Where Grace Abounds” features Julius Rodriguez on both organ and piano, playing a song that sounds like a religious standard.  The arrangement changes halfway through when the drums of Brian Richburg Jr., lay down a funk groove.  The composition, “Elegy (For Cam)” opens with the bass line of Philip Norris setting the tempo and groove.  Julius Rodriguez lends a tenderness to his piano playing that touches the soul.  The vocals of Hailey Knox round out the production, playing sweetly in the background, they fatten the production.  The thing about the Rodriguez compositions is that they sometime take a surprising turn, using tempo and production skills to change the arrangement suddenly and creatively.  This is the case during the very beautiful presentation of this song.  “In Heaven” was written by Darlene Andrews and is sung soulfully by Samara joy. This song and arrangement moved me!  The sensitive piano playing of Julius Rodriguez is as heartfelt as Ms. Joy’s amazing vocal presentation.

Julius Rodriguez closes with a very short tune called, “Philip’s Thump” which could be a tribute to his bassist, Philip Norris.  The bassist is certainly thumping away during this arrangement.  It’s only one minute and four seconds long, but every note is perfectly effective in this brief time. Perhaps Rodriguez will develop this into a full-fledged, extended arrangement for the next recording.  I look forward to it.

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WALKING CLICHÉ SEXTET – “MICRO-NAP” –  Endectomorph Music

SeaJun Kwon, bass/composer/bandleader; Erez Dessel & Jacob Hiser, piano; Avery Logan & Charles Weller, drums; Aaron Dutton, alto saxophone; Jacob Schulman, tenor saxophone; Michael Prentky, tuba.

Korean-born and New York based, SeaJun Kwon enjoys exploring “micro-naps” in his music.  You may ask, “What is a micro-nap?” 

Kwon explains, “A micro-nap is an example of non-linear and broken moments.  Usually, these extremely short, non-linear moments are dense, noisy, and full of energy.  … This album reflects my emotional frustrations, non-linearity, the transience of feelings, and the emptiness of noise, as well as my attraction to them.”

SeaJun’s band features three horns upfront and an Avant-Garde presentation.  He enjoys the sextet format, because it exists somewhere in between a small, intimate group and the intricate arrangements demanded by larger bands.  As an exchange student, SeaJun Kwon came from Seoul, South Korea to study computer science and machines.  At that point, he was tinkering with an electric bass, but he didn’t consider the bass a career option. That quickly changed.

“I really liked listening to jazz.  So, I took a lesson on acoustic bass.  It became serious when I realized that I really liked learning it.  I had no formal music education before that.  From that point on, I had to learn everything very fast!” Kwon explained.

Kwon graduated from Boston’s New England Conservatory (NEC) and settled into a Brooklyn lifestyle.  He’s been leading the group ‘Walking Cliché Sextet’ since 2019 and it’s made up of fellow students from his NEC days. Track #1 features a piano that at times sounds like a music box. As the intensity grows, this concept changes into a more aggressive arrangement. Track #3, the growling, title tune, pretty much capsulizes the entire Avant-garde project of unexplainable, unpredictable music. The addition of Michael Prentsky’s tuba is a fresh touch and tone. Although the sextet members obviously are interpreting cord changes composed by SeaJun Kwon, they push boundaries with their ability to veer into realms of improvisation and often dissonance that challenges these arrangement walls. The musicians boldly repaint these abstract, musical portraits.  The sextet members step outside the box.  On Track #4, there is a monumental drum solo by Avery Logan that ends the piece. Track #5 titled “Rumination” settles the ensemble down to a slower pace and spotlights a lovely saxophone solo that opens the composition.  Both track #6 & #7 are part of a suite that Kwon calls “Transient.”  For me, it conjures up imaginative pictures of a mad scientist, standing amidst a huge pot of steam and possibilities.  This music paints test tubes in my mind and swirling, whirling centrifuges of sound and motion. Jacob Hiser plays piano on this composition and repeatedly stings the keys with a continuous, circular melody.  He changes the mood of the piece, using his left hand to darken the emotion with the bass register. This climatic piece is repetitious and titled, “Trio interlude.”  It lasts over seven minutes.  The final part of this suite culminates with the “Transient” title and lets the horns lead the way.  These last two closing pieces of the ‘Transient Suite’ fall, like puzzle pieces, into perfect place.  There is something quite beautiful about their finality. Where, in the earlier pieces, I was sometimes tempted to lift the invisible victrola needle from the licorice-pizza spinning beneath, I now find myself quite interested and enthralled by this composition, with the pianist pulling random lines from Duke Ellington’s A-Train and the sextet finally sounding like a connected and beautiful jazz ensemble that comes together as a whole.  I play this final composition again, for good measure.

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LEO BROUWER & MARIEL MAYZ – “CUBAN SKETCHES FOR PIANO” Zoho Records

Mariel Mayz, solo piano; Leo Brouwer, composer.

Leo Brouwer is an acclaimed Cuban composer and conductor.  He has been heralded as a modern-day Mozart.  His compositions and arrangements have spanned formats from quartets to orchestras.  Since Brouwer is a masterful guitarist, who was classically trained, many compositions are written expressly for guitar.  He also writes for solo piano and that’s where Mariel Mayz come into the picture.

This original music is dramatic, deeply emotional, and beautifully played by pianist, Mariel Mayz.  This CD is completely composed by Leo Brouwer.  It opens with ten suites of music under the banner of “Diez Bocetos” and composed by Brouwer between 1961 and 2007.  Each Piece is titled after a Cuban visual artist.  From the title of the album, I expected a rhythmic, very Latin-fused production.  Instead, I found this music to be delightfully meditative and some of the pieces are very easy-listening, soothing, and peaceful.  In fact, while listening, I nearly nodded off.  “Nuevos Bocetos Para Piano” translates to new sketches for piano and consists of three Brouwer pieces he composed and completed more recently in 2021.  They were sent to Mayz in early 2022.  Mayz, as a gifted pianist who liberally shares her artistry and technical ability during this solo performance.  The blending of these two unique talents is vividly on display and they both shine brightly in a rich, multi-colored spotlight.

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JEFF COFFIN – “BETWEEN DREAING AND JOY” – Ear Up Records

Jeff Coffin, soprano, alto, tenor, baritone & electro saxophones/Tarogato/piccolo/ alto & bass flutes/C flute/clarinet/bass clarinet/melodica/vocals/percussion/coke bottles; Vincente Archer, Tony Hall, Michael League, Stefan Lessard, Felix Pastorius, Alana Rocklin, Jonathan Wires and Chris Wood, bassists; Richard Aspinwall, Mike Baggetta, Robben Ford, Marcus King, Bob Lanzetti, guitarists; Keith Carlock, Kris Myers, Jordan Perlson, Derrek Phillips, Chester Thompson & Derico Watson, drums/percussion; Jeff Babko, Nigel Hall, David Rodgers, Buddy Strong, & Chris Walters, keyboards. Emmanuel Echem & Bill Fanning, trumpets; Ray Mason, trombone; Bernardo Agular, Brazilian percussion; Michael League, Moroccan Frame drums; Sarah Ariche, vocals/Ngoni; Jennifer Hartswick, vocals; DJ Logic, turntables.

If you are a lover of contemporary jazz, Jeff Coffin’s new project will satisfy your soul.  Opening with “Vinnie the Crow” we take flight, funky wings spread upwards and racing towards outer space.  If you’re willing and ready, this music will carry you along.  The sing-song melody is full of joy and makes you want to sing along to this Jeff Coffin composition, co-written with Alex Clayton.  In fact, other than this collaboration, Coffin has singularly penned all ten songs on this funk-driven exploration into modern jazz.  Jeff Coffin has contracted a variety of amazing players to participate on this project. Listed above are eight bass players, seven drummers, five guitar players, four keyboardists, Moroccan vocals, Brazilian percussion, a set of Middle Eastern frame drums, a turntable artist, multiple horns, an ice cream truck, a Hungarian Tarogato, an African Ngoni and a Partridge in a pear tree.  Lol.  Just kidding about the Partridge.  Not to mention, Jeff Coffin spotlights his talents on soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and electro saxophones.  He also plays the Tarogato, the piccolo, alto and bass flutes, the C flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, melodica, and he adds vocals to the list, percussion and even plays coke bottles.  The man’s talents overwhelm me. This production took two years in pandemic isolation to create. Coffin says each component felt like an unexpected jigsaw puzzle piece that fell perfectly into place.  Favorite tunes are: Vinnie the Crow, Ruthie (featuring Jeff Babko on keyboards and Bob Lanzetti coloring the piece with his electric guitar licks), Tip the Band, (a soulful funk piece), Behind the 8 Ball, Busting Out All Over, (where Derico Watson & Jordan Perlson pump their percussive drums and push energy into this arrangement along with Coffin’s saxophone), and the very Middle Eastern arranged composition titled “When Birds Sing” with Jeff Coffin showing off his vocal skills.  This album is stuffed with joy!

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JASON KAO HWANG & J.A. DEANE – “UNCHARTED FAITH” – Tone Science Music

Jason Kao Hwang, Tucker Barrett solid-body electric violin with a Richard Barbera bridge, Atomic amplifier 12 multi-FX processor (overdrive, distortion, fuzz, wah-wah, phaser, whammy, pitch shift, delay); J.A. Deane, electronics (Sensei Morph touch controller, Spacecraft granular synthesizer software, Akai MPC Live Digital Audio Workstation).

When I heard this album, I felt as though I was being transported from Earth to outer space.  It’s an Avant-garde production with emphasis on electronics.  J.A. Deane was an electronic master.  Unfortunately, he passed away before this album came to fruition.  Dino (as his friends called him) had a long history of being in the music business, starting with a stint with Tina Turner.  In the 1980s, he was playing with the Butch Morris Ensemble.  More recently, after the death of his longtime partner, Colleen Mulvihill, J.A. Deane left Denver, Colorado and moved into a tiny house placed in a remote, rural field in Cortez, Colorado.  His mission was to write and complete his biography. In December of 2020, he sent the finished product to his friend and fellow musician, Jason Kao Hwang.  In return, Hwang sent J.A. Deane a couple of his duo albums, including one with Karl Berger.  That was a recording Deane was particularly drawn to and he soon contacted Jason to suggest they record a duo project together.  That’s how this album came to be.

“Despite the pandemic, we agreed to collaborate.  I heard his zoom concert for the Red Room in Baltimore.  Dino’s phantasmagoric symphonies, vivid and luxuriant, with unique sounds, were stunningly beautiful. … Dino proposed that I send him five to ten minutes of solo acoustic violin improvisations.  He would work with it, then send me tracks to overdub.  In March of 2021, I sent him my tracks.  Every track on this CD, from both Dino and myself, are completely improvised,” Jason Kao Hwang reminisced.

I am completely in awe of Jason Kao Hwang’s lovely and quite unique approach to playing the electric violin. He masterfully incorporates his spontaneous creativity and technical abilities into the modern music that he and J.A. Deane have composed.  Hwang’s most recent releases include “The Human Rites Trio” and “Conjure.” Both recordings have received critical acclaim.  I completely understand why the El Intruso International Critics Poll voted him #1 for violin and viola music recordings in 2012, 2013, 2018, 2019 and 2020. His rich, sensuous sound punctuates this current production with beauty and surprise.

J.A. Deane was a pioneer of live electronics.  He worked for some time with a popular San Francisco art/punk band called ‘Indoor Life.’  Deane originated the technique of ‘live sampling.’  He often incorporated this technique live and onstage.  Today, live sampling permeates this generation’s music.  Deane would record members of the band singularly while they were performing live, then manipulate the audio and play it back as though it were an instrument.  He also created theatrical sound designs for many artists. He and his longtime love (Colleen) created over fifty works of musical art.  Other artists who he collaborated with are Sam Shepard and Julie Hebert.  In November of 2020, J.A. Deane published his book, “Becoming Music: Conduction and Improvisation as forms of QiGong.”  In 2021, J.A. Deane transitioned from this world to the next, but he leaves behind a legacy of electronic music and innovation for us to enjoy.

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CLARK SOMMERS LENS – “INTERTWINE” – Outside In Music

Clark Sommers, bass/composer; Matt Gold guitar; Dana Hall, drums/cymbals; Chris Madsen, tenor saxophone; Geof Bradfield, bass clarinet/soprano & tenor saxophone.

Bass man, Clark Sommers is a huge fan of Donny Hathaway and was greatly influenced by Hathaway’s bassist, Willie Weeks.  So much so, that Clark composed a song to honor the bass player that he titled, “Weeks & Weeks.”  He also draws inspiration from Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles.  These are all rock, pop and rhythm and blues stars, popular for their innovation and energy. But Sommers music is not necessarily energized and leans heavily into contemporary jazz.  His ensemble opens with a waltz feel on “Also Tomorrow” that introduces the players in Sommers band, each stepping forward to showcase their talents during solo spots.  I try to figure out what the drummer is doing on this tune and I’m left puzzled.  The ¾ tempo is being played by the ensemble, but not accented by the trap drums. This music is not lively or particularly dynamic, which is surprising since Clark Sommers clearly notes artists he admires, and they are each very powerful and full of vitality.  This production, on the other hand, is very ‘laid-back.’  Where his heroes are famous for their ‘groove,’ I found the groove lacking on many of these tunes.  However, the intent is there.  The compositions by Sommers are well-written.  On “James Marshall” Track #2, Sommers opens the piece on his double bass and hands the spotlight over to Matt Gold on guitar.  This piece is saturated in the blues, but again, the groove just never shows up.  The horns appear and they are strong with emotional solos, but once again I’m frustrated with what Dana Hall is playing on drums.  “Second Guesses” is a straight-ahead jazz number with arrangements that accentuate breaks and are meant to highlight the catchy melody.  Once they get into the meat of the matter, the saxophone is off and running. This tune quickly became one of my favorites on this album. Another favorite is the joyful “Silent Observer” that doesn’t play silent at all.  With just the woodwind instrument and drums performing a duet, Dana Hall finally shines and Geof Bradfield soaks up the spotlight in a shiny and talent specific way.  This is a great tune and a powerful arrangement.  It should have opened this album.  The musicians sound in perfect synchronization with each other and the song itself is a formidable composition by Sommers.  Other favorites: “Invisible Arrow” and “Nichols on the Quarter.”

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ERIC VLOEIMANS & WILL HOLSHOUSER – “TWO FOR THE ROAD” – Challenge Records

Eric Vloeimans, trumpet; Will Holshouser, accordion.

Here is a duo album that features the unusual combination of trumpet and accordion.  The accordionist is based in New York and the trumpeter is best-known in his native country of the Netherlands.  Eric Vloeimans has won four Edison prizes, which is their Dutch Grammy.  He’s quite famous in Europe and has toured through the continent of Asia, as well as the United States working with artists like Mercer Ellington, John Taylor, Peter Erskine, various orchestras and of course his own group.  Both musicians share an eclectic musical background and the music that I hear is steeped deeply in the European classical realm.  Both are respected composers, and they have each added their own compositions to this project.  The challenge for me is that one of the premises of jazz is the ability to improvise on a theme. That’s what has immortalized jazz to the attentive ears of the world.  Also, jazz was born of slave songs, gospel and blues music. This root of the music developed into ‘swing’ and ‘shuffles’ and eventually Avant-garde, modern jazz, bebop and more.  When I listen to Vloeimans and Holshouser, I hear two amazingly and technically talented musicians, but am I listening to jazz?  Their music is made up of original compositions and I hear the chord changes and melody, because I too am a musician.  Then I wait to see if they are going to improvise on their themes or swing or shuffle along.  I do hear the blues on Track #5, “Innermission 2,” composed by Eric Vloeimans.  Every song up to that point is clearly classical and not what I would call jazz.  This album reflects a chamber music concept without the strings. As mentioned in their press package, “…several pieces range from introspective, almost Schubert-like meditations…”  “Redbud Winter” begins as an up-tempo composition reflective of a type of folk music and composed by Will Holshouser.  It moves through a number of tempo and mood changes, the way a soundtrack for a motion picture might move.  I have heard Will Holshouser perform with his trio and with Musette Explosion. These groups remind me of polka bands. I was looking forward to hearing Track #10, dedicated to Louis Armstrong, and I enjoyed this ballad drenched in New Orleans soulfulness.  At last, an arrangement and production that sounds like jazz music.  However, for the most part, “Two for the Road” is an interesting musical concept played by two acclaimed musicians, who are quite innovative, but I wouldn’t necessarily put this entire album into a jazz category.

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JASON YEAGER SEPTET – “UNSTUCK IN TIME: THE KURT VONNEGUT SUITE – Sunnyside Records

Jason Yeager, piano/synthesizer/composer; Jay Sawyer, drums; Danny Weller, upright & elec. Bass; Yuhan Su, vibraphone; Miguel Zenon, alto saxophone; Lucas Pino, clarinet/bass clarinet/tenor saxophone; Patrick Laslie, tenor saxophone/flute/bass clarinet; Alphonso Horne & Riley Mulherkar, trumpet & flugelhorn; Mike Rahie, trombone.

Jason Yeager is a New York based pianist/composer and a committed educator.  He is currently Assistant Professor of Piano at Berklee College of Music in Boston. For this project, he chose to celebrate novelist, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., born November 11, 1922. Vonnegut Jr. was an American writer, famous for his dark humor and satirical novels.  Within his five-decade career, he successfully published fourteen novels, three short-story collections, five plays and five nonfiction works.  He died in Manhattan on April 11, 2007.  This year, the journalist would have turned one-hundred years old. Jason Yeager is a big fan!  He has turned the pages of many Vonnegut books and decided to pay tribute to this novelist by composing eleven new compositions for Vonnegut’s centennial.  The release will happen on Vonnegut’s birthday (Nov. 11th) at the Vonnegut Library and Museum in Indianapolis, IN.  Jason knew that Vonnegut once had a secret desire.  The author had voiced it aloud saying:

“What I would really like to have been, given a perfect world, is a jazz pianist.  I mean jazz.  I don’t mean rock and roll.  I mean the never-the-same-twice music the American black people gave the world,” Vonnegut once announced.

So, jazz pianist, Jason Yeager, decided to gift the spirit of Vonnegut with this suite of music. He was inspired by the science fiction novels Vonnegut created.  Cut #1 is titled, “Now It’s The Women’s Turn” and it’s a beautiful, melodic piece with a lilting drumbeat provided by Jay Sawyer and an outstanding clarinet solo by Lucas Pino.  When Jason Yeager enters the piece on piano, he brings his double fisted charm to the party. It took Yeager nearly a decade to compose all these songs.  This first one reflects what Yeager thinks is one of the underrated masterpieces by Kurt Vonnegut titled ‘Bluebeard.’  “Ballad for Old Salo” is moody and written for a character that appears in several of Vonnegut’s stories; a character that has one huge eye and stands two feet tall and in need of love. Yeager’s piano solo during this arrangement is quite classical and Yuhan Su’s vibraphone brings a sweet touch to the arrangement.  The horns used in these arrangements are lushly provocative and beautifully cushion the melodic solos.  Yeager says that he sees Kurt Vonnegut something of a Thelonious Monk figure in the world of fiction.  He broke a lot of literary rules and it took time for both artists to become accepted and with wide audience appeal.

“Monk is one of my musical touchstones and Vonnegut has a similarly unique voice and is unapologetically himself,” Yeager asserts.

“Kilgore’s Creed” is a straight-ahead composition that depicts a scientist character from Vonnegut’s “Timequake” novel and was described as the journalist’s alter-ego.  “Unk’s Fate” employs a march tempo to mirror the Martian military march that takes place in “Sirens of Titan.”   In “So It Goes” Yeager adds spoken word voices that repeat the title and grab the attention from the Avant-garde background music tinkling behind the voices. Yeager also gives us a taste of the blues in his piano excursions. Speaking of blues, “Blues for Billy Pilgrim” digs deeply into another one of Vonnegut’s characters from his World War II novel, “Slaughterhouse Five.”  All of these Yeager compositions certainly makes me want to read the books of Kurt Vonnegut. What a wonderful tribute to the author’s brilliance and creativity, with a whole musical jazz album devoted to exploring his characterizations. Here is a truly unique project, one that explores all the nuances of jazz and introduces us to an American literary author through the composition skills of Jason Yeager. Impressive!

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LUIS DENIZ – “EL TINAJON” – Modica Music

Luis Deniz, alto & soprano saxophones/composer; Rafael Zaldivar, piano/keyboards; Roberto Occhipinti, acoustic bass; Ahmed Mitchel, drums/vocals; Adis Galindo, vocals; Jorge Luis Torres (Papiosco), percussion/congas/Bata drums.

The sound of Luis Deniz’s horn is so sweet, it stops me in my tracks.  At first, the arrangement has the Deniz alto saxophone soloing alone, but then the percussion joins him, smoothly, like horse hooves against cobblestone. There is something historic, archaic, tribal in this arrangement. The saxophone notes soar and flutter, a restless bird in flight.  This tune is titled “Reflexiones” and introduces us to this gifted artist, Luis Deniz.  There is no full rhythm section on this opening composition by Deniz. No need. Jorge Luis Torres is enough to accompany the bandleader, Deniz.  Jorge’s brilliant on percussion.  The rhythm section steps stage center on Track #2, “La Ceiba de Mayuya” where we meet Roberto Occhipinti on double bass, Rafael Zaldivar on piano and trap drums played by Ahmed Mitchel.  The pianist reminds me of butterfly wings flapping wildly across sky and space.  The original music of Luis Deniz is intoxicating and hypnotic.  Track #3 employs the voices of the band members, chanting and reflecting Afro-Cuban roots on “Rumba Para Camaguey/Equality.”  This is the debut album from Luis Deniz, a Cuban-born, Toronto, Canada-based saxophonist. The album’s title, “El Tinajon” reflects the name of a clay pot, brought to Cuba by the Spanish in the early 1500s.  These pots were originally used to collect rainwater and for Luis, they represent his humble beginnings and the importance of water to the survival of humanity and consequently, the survival of human art.  None of us can live or be productive without water.   His compositions are beautifully written and mirror his musicality and polished technique.

“As a composer, I really just let myself write what I hear.  I’m not preoccupied with compositions sounding hard, difficult, or anything of the sort.  To me, music is about people, and songs should reflect emotions,” Luis Deniz reflects in his press package.

I agree with his sentiments.  Clearly, he has succeeded in his intent. * * * * * * * * * *

GUITAR PLAYERS CHASE HORIZONS ACROSS JAZZ SPACE

October 28, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

Oct 28, 2022

RUSS HEWITT – “CHASING HORIZONS” – Independent Label

Russ Hewitt, solo/rhythm/tres guitar/composer; Bob Parr, bass/keyboards; Elijah M. Parr & Walfredo Reyes jr., drums; Efren Guzman & Raphael Padilla, percussion; Nuno Bettencourt, Marty Friedman, Jorge Strunz, Tri Nguyen  & Ardeshir Farah, guitars.

Russ Hewitt brings us a very Spanish influenced CD of original compositions that dance and sway with Latin rhythms.  You will hear his ten-track creativity expressed by a number of competent guitarists, including Russ himself. His strong rhythm section includes two master percussion players, Guzman and Padilla.  The opening tune, “Allende,” sets the tone of this production.  During Hewitt’s compositions, you will hear samba beats along with montuno, milonga, rumba, Flamenco rhythms and more.  On Track #2, the title tune, “Chasing Horizon” features the guitar mastery of Nuno Bettencourt, whose name you might recognize from his best-known work with the rock band ‘Extreme.’ On this arrangement, he plays a nylon guitar, instead of his electric one. He and Russ Hewitt slap the rhythm into place, going toe-to-toe on their guitars with the percussive players. Raphael Padilla has played with the Miami Sound Machine, Gloria Estefan, and Shakira to name just a few.  Efren Guzman’s percussion playing has colored the music of Andrea Bocelli, Armando Manzanaro and Alejandro Fernandez. This Flamenco number rumba’s across my room in 7/8 time, dragging joy by the hands and spreading it all over my listening room.  Hewitt’s collaboration with various talented guitarists keeps this project interesting and fueled with unexpected energy.  A powerful slap of drums opens a song called “Vivir Libre” featuring another guest guitarist. It’s Marty Friedman, known for his work with the heavy metal Megadeth band.  This song is soaked in montuno rhythm. You will be pleasantly surprised when the song “Amor Perdido” features a visit from the Bucharest All-Star Orchestra.  Recorded at the Savannah Street Studio and the SGO Music Factory in Bucharest, Romania, this is an album featuring several talented guitarists, along with Russ Hewitt himself and showcasing Hewitt’s awesome composer skills.

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GENE ESS – “AH – BOP” SIMP Records

Gene Ess, guitar/composer; Scott Colley, acoustic bass; Clarence Penn, drums.

It’s been four years since Gene Ess released an album on SIMP Records.  This time, the guitarist has chosen to record as a trio with Scott Colley on bass and Clarence Penn manning the drums. Ess, a native of Okinawa, Japan is a former member of the Rashied Ali Quintet and has played alongside luminaries like Ravi Coltrane, Eddie Henderson, Carlos Santana and Archie Shepp to list just a few.

“To me, the trio is a huge challenge, as the guitar is completely naked in the sonic landscape.  It’s harder for me than solo or duets, as the nature of the guitar makes it very difficult. So, I was pushed by the challenge. Also, having a chord less accompaniment to my solos was fresh,” Gene Ess explained his feelings about this project.

Gene Ess composed all this music while in Tokyo.  Because of COVID, he had to wait in Japan until it was safe to return to New York.  Once back in the ‘States’ Ess contacted bassist Scott Colley for this project.  Scott was the bass player on a European tour with Tony Moreno years before, in the mid-90s.  They clicked. Clarence Penn was the drummer on Gene’s last three recordings, so it was a no-brainer to add his talents to the mix.  The concept of Gene’s compositions and the basis of this album was creating a ‘song cycle’ with the eight compositions. This concept is popular with classical composers like Schubert, Schumann and Mahler.  A ‘song cycle’ exhibits unifying features of the music, using musical procedures that require a type of coherence, but also has many variations. The first tune, “Ah Bop” does just that; it bebops into my listening room in a Thelonious Monk kind of style. Clarence Penn surges on drums, pushing the song ahead like a freight train. Ess uses open strings to pluck the melody out and Colley walks his bass beneath the arrangement, tightly holding the trio in place.  The next song is simply titled, “Waltz” and becomes a stage for Scott Colley to explore an impressive bass solo.  “Yuki” is a very beautiful ballad with a particularly familiar sounding melody.  It allows Gene Ess to take time with his guitar in a tender, pensive way. Yuki can be a female name, but it also translates in Japanese to ‘snow.’ However, I find this composition to be warm, rather than winter cold, and thoughtful, perhaps a little melancholy too.  Gene Ess has a clean, clear tone on his instrument and his solo fades into Scott’s bass solo flawlessly, allowing Ess to provide chorded guitar rhythm for Scott Colley to briefly bounce upon.  Ess goes from beauty to a beastly arrangement on “Array” that puts distortion on his clean, clear guitar tones and shows a whole new musical personality. The time is set in 5/4 and this tune dabbles with a hard rock style, like jazzy toes dipping in unfamiliar waters and finding them too cold to stay. This must be the cyclic variations that Gene Ess explains in his liner notes.  Then they play “Dark Blues” with a classic West African rhythm called Bembe dancing beneath the ‘Straight-ahead’ jazz feel of this tune.  The drums fly, like gazelles racing across African plains, and Scott’s bass walks swiftly, supporting the dynamic Ess improvisational solo. The chord changes might be blues inspired, but the tune wanders off into other musical territories.  Each individual solo that features the trio members, is like a painting we pause to explore and admire.  I find myself searching for the meaning in each of these cyclic songs and enjoying the trio’s rich and colorful presentation. 

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JUSSI REIJONEN – “THREE SECONDS / KOLME TOISTA” – Challenge Records International

Jussi Reijonen, fretless & electric fretted guitar/classical guitar/oud/composer/arranger; Vancil Cooper, drums; Kyle Miles, acoustic & fretless bass; Utar Artun, piano; Keita Ogawa, percussion; Naseem Alatrash, cello; Layth Sidiq, violin; Bulut Gülen, trombone; Jason Palmer, trumpet/flugelhorn.

Jussi Reijonen’s music is dramatic. He is a master fretted and fretless guitarist, an oud player, and a composer/arranger. This project is his follow-up album to an acclaimed 2013 recording debut. This CD is transcultural and reflects Jussi Reijonen’s vast experience living in a variety of world places. Jussi is Finnish, born in Rovaniemi, Finland, but has lived in Jordan, Tanzania, Oman, Lebanon and most of his adult life in the Boston and New York communities of the United States.  In his music, you will hear Middle Eastern influences, generously mixed with  African and American music, as well as incorporating his own Nordic roots. This sophomore album features a 9-piece ensemble meant to reflect his international awareness and various cultural influences. There are three Americans in his band, along with a Turkish trombonist and pianist,  a Jordanian/Iraqi violinist Layth Sidiq, who lends his talents, and Naseem Alatrash who is a Palestinian cellist.  Keita Ogawa is a Japanese percussion player.  Together, these international musicians bring Jussi Reijonen’s multi-cultural music alive.

Like so many people, while hunkering down during the pandemic, Jussi Reijonen took that solo time to find clarity in his thoughts and music.  This album reflects an inspired story of his own internationalism, including a lost and found cultural awakening and Jussi’s solidarity with his individualism.  These compositions have become a suite of music he calls “Three Seconds” or in his Finnish language, “Kolme Toista.”  A lot can happen in three seconds, and this space of time also represents three strangers and the revelations they experience that gives each a new outlook on life. Perhaps an introspection into three personalities contained in one body. A blossoming.  A change of mind, body, and soul.  Jussi’s brand, new music represents all of this. 

Opening with “The Veil” a strong influence of Middle Eastern music runs through the arrangement like a silver ribbon. The bass of Kyle Miles opens this piece. In the background, Layth Sidiq’s lovely violin generously colors the music.  There is harmony and dissonance, drama and excitement, like a lover’s quarrel.  Vancil Cooper’s drums first spur the composition forward and then calm the moment for Utar Artun’s piano to offer a solo conversation that settles the argument amiably. Keita Ogawa’s percussion brilliance makes every moment memorable. Thanks to Jussi’s arrangement, the horns harmonize smoothly in the background to soften the mood.  This opening composition by Jussi Reijonen sets the tone and mood of this very inspired album of music. Jussi offers us music without boundaries. It’s orchestrated to both entertain and surprise us. Meantime, in whatever spare time this artist has, Jussi is a member of the New York Arabic Orchestra and is also an educator in both the United States and Europe. When he isn’t exploring the outer spaces of his mind, instruments and creativity, Jussi Reijonen currently splits his time between Amsterdam, Boston and New York City.

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JIM WITZEL TRIO & QUARTET – “FEELIN’ IT” – Joplin & Sweeney

Jim Witzel, guitar/composer; Brian Ho, Hammond B-3 organ; Jason Lewis, drums; Dann Zinn, tenor saxophone.

Bay area guitarist and composer, Jim Witzel, offers the listener a combination of his modern jazz compositions and a handful of cover tunes including “I Love You, Porgy” and “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise.”  Inspired by a group of guitar players who he labels, ‘the Great Eight,’ Witzel grew to love the guitar listening to Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, Kenny Burrell, Joe Pass, George Benson, Pat Martino, John Abercrombie and Pat Metheny.  Today, seasoned and strong in his own talent and style, Witzel opens with the swinging, title tune, “Feelin’ It” that he composed. It sets the tone for his energetic Straight-ahead music.  Jim’s trio follows up with “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise” that also ‘swings’ hard, inspired by the Sonny Rollins and Jim Hall version.  Witzel let’s us catch our breath when he performs the Lennon/McCartney hit song, “Norwegian Wood,” arranged at a moderate tempo with his guitar singing the lovely melody in a smooth, crystal-clear way. Witzel has a warmth to his style and a precise technique that brings clarity to any melody, before exploding with improvisation. Jim grew up in San Rafael, California and started practicing guitar as a preteen.  In high school, he began to study jazz guitar with well-known Bay Area educator and artist, Dave Smith.  Jim Witzel spent a decade in the Los Angeles area, paying dues freelancing with notable jazz players like Bob Sheppard, Scott Colley, Henry Butler, Richie Cole, Casey Schuerell and Clay Jenkins.  At the same time, he was working clubs and concerts with busy saxophonist Dave Lefebvre and his six-piece jazz-fusion group. This new album features Witzel’s awesome composer talents.  His song “Beyond Beijing” sounds like a jazz standard and so does “Ms. Information” inspired by Wayne Shorter.  This is another hard-hitting, Straight-ahead jazz tune that’s rooted in the blues.  Witzel’s arrangement invites Dann Zinn to competently explore his tenor saxophone for our listening pleasure, after a rousing solo guitar performance by Jim. This original composition by Witzel also spotlights the talents of Jason Lewis on drums.  I enjoy the camaraderie between Brian Ho on Hammond B-3 organ and Witzel’s guitar.  One of this reviewer’s favorite things is an organ trio. This one is spectacular.  I love the way they have arranged “If Ever I Would Leave You” as a Bossa Nova that gives Brian Ho a platform to shine and showcase his organ excellence. The tender, passionate way that Jim Witzel plays “I Loves You, Porgy” is stunning and memorable. As he plays a clean, clear melody line, he accompanies himself on rhythm guitar. Witzels’ style and technique sparkles, clearly showing us he needs nothing more than his guitar to both entertain and please our ears. Every tune on this album is well-played, beautifully arranged and Jim Witzel’s original compositions are well-written and remind me of hard-bop days in a very wonderful way.

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TIM FITZGERALD – “TIM FITZGERALD’S FULL HOUSE” – Cellar 20 Music Group

Tim Fitzgerald, guitar; Tom Vaitsas, piano; Christian Dillingham, bass; George Fludas, drums; Victor Garcia, trumpet; Greg Ward II, alto saxophone; Chris Madsen, tenor saxophone.

Tim Fitzgerald is a Chicago-based guitarist and bandleader.  For more than two decades, Tim has studied, transcribed and been inspired by the work of Wes Montgomery.  Tim and his group even borrowed the name for his band, “Full House,” from a Montgomery composition. The band and their incredible arrangements do not disappoint!  They open with “S.O.S,” arranged by trumpeter, Victor Garcia. They perform this Straight-ahead Montgomery tune with zest and vigor. Over the years I have enjoyed a number of Chicago musicians who always bring energy and excitement to the bandstand.  After all, Chicago has spawned legendary talent like Nat King Cole, Herbie Hancock, Bud Freeman, Benny Goodman, Gene Ammons, Ramsey Lewis and a host of guitar greats and blues icons like Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamsons, Muddy Waters and Junior Wells.  Now, Tim Fitzgerald joins the brigade.  George Fludas opens their first arrangement with a flurry of drum sticks that solidly set the tempo in place. Fitzgerald’s solo is a stream of improvisational runs that settle into a groove supported by the rich harmonies of the horn section.  These guys really swing.  I’m intoxicated by their music.  Each horn players steps dynamically into the spotlight and you get to know Victor Garcia on trumpet, Greg Ward on alto sax, and Chris Madsen on tenor.  Tom Vaitsas soaks up the spotlight on piano and absolutely matches the energy of Full House on the eighty-eight keys.  The drummer also takes every opportunity to show off his percussive skills.  You will be properly pumped up after listening to Time Fitzgerald’s Full House ensemble.  Tim has arranged the Montgomery favorite, “Four on Six” and I enjoy his technique and smooth, fluid guitar playing.  All ten songs celebrate the composing skill of the icon, Wes Montgomery, but also act as a stage for these Mid-western musicians to shine. The group was founded in 2015 and their main goal has been to carry-on the Wes Montgomery legacy.  The drummer, George Fludas, had a direct connection to the legendary guitarist.  He was a former sideman with Buddy Montgomery, a brother of Wes.  On “Far Wes” you’ll get the opportunity to enjoy Christian Dillingham’s melodic double bass solo.

“This record is a love letter to Wes.  I knew I didn’t want to sound like West,” Tim pauses.  “Not that I ever could.  But I knew I wanted to get close to his music and eventually take that inspiration and do my own thing.”

Mission accomplished!  Every tune on this recording is packed with punch and creativity. Not only will you admire and appreciate their reimagining of Wes Montgomery’s tunes, but you will relish these tight arrangements and excellent musicianship.  I hope that Tim Fitzgerald’s Full House septet gets on ‘the road’ and lets more people hear and enjoy their brilliance.  

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JOHN STEIN – “LIFELINE” – Whaling City Sound

John Stein, guitar/composer; Keala Kaumeheiwa, John Lockwood, Dave Zinno & Frank Herzberg, bass; Ed Lucie, bass guitar; Greg Conroy,  Dave Hurst, Yoron Israel, Matias Mingote German & Zé Eduardo Nazario, drums; Pedro Ito, percussion; Daniel Grajew, Jake Sherman, Koichi Sato & Koichi Sato, keyboards; Ken Clark, Hammond organ; Alexandre Zamith, piano; David “Fathead” Newman, saxophone/flute; Phil Grenadier, trumpet; Fernando Brandão & Rebecca Kleinman, flute; Evan Harlan, accordion; Ron Gill, vocals.

This is a double set album, offering two discs of amazing guitar music to enjoy with many tunes not only played by, but also composed by John Stein.  On Disc #1, he opens with his original composition titled “Up and at ‘em” that swings and dances across my listening room. At the top, he and the iconic David “Fathead” Newman on saxophone open the arrangement with a duet of guitar fluidly talking and interacting with the reed instrument.  They set the groove along with Greg Conroy on drums.  When Keala Kaumeheiwa enters on bass, the complete ‘straight-ahead’ jazz settles into an up-tempo swing groove. On Disc #2, they open with the popular jazz standard “Nica’s Dream.”  Once again, the energy is palpable.

With this “Lifeline” release, John Stein celebrates several decades of his musical career.  After his recent retirement from Berklee College of Music (as a professor since 1999) he decided to take some time to synthesize his remarkable body of work into this compilation.  Track #2 on this Disc #1 is a Bossa Nova with a melody that seems to have been inspired by “The Good Life.” It’s titled “Brazilian Hug” and it’s a delightful tune, this time with Zé Eduardo Nazario pumping life into the tune on drums with Frank Herzberg on bass. Daniel Grajew adds an inspired keyboard solo. This is followed by the familiar and beautiful tune, “Invitation.”  Once again, the musicians play musical chairs.  This time, Koichi Sato is on the keyboards and John Lockwood is the bassist.  Zé Eduardo Nazario remains consistent on drums.

What you will hear on this double set album is hand-picked representation from fifteen albums that John Stein has released.  You can soak up all the rich, warm sounds of the Gibson archtop jazz guitar that Stein plays.  He chose this guitar because of his predecessors.  I’m talking about Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, Kenny Burrell and Grant Green who also played that instrument.  Surprisingly, Stein didn’t start studying jazz seriously until he was thirty.  In 1980, he enrolled at Berklee as a student.  He had played in a bunch of bands earlier in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri and later, crisscrossed the band scene in Vermont for ten years. But he wasn’t playing jazz.

“I was living in a cabin in the woods and learning to be a carpenter.  At the same time, I was in a number of bands in Vermont; rock, country rock, and folk rock.  Eventually I wore that music out.  I wanted to grow musically and gravitated towards jazz,” John Stein shared in his liner notes.

I would never have guessed that John Stein was a late bloomer to jazz.  His sound and tone are both technically spontaneous and proficient.  But it’s his emotional power that’s plugged into Stein’s guitar and radiates beauty that touches my heart.  This album reflects what a marvelous composer John is, as well as a noteworthy guitarist.  He has composed eight of the thirteen songs he offers us on Disc 1.  “Jo Ann” is Brazilian to the bone, while “The Roundabout” adds Koichi Sato on organ-keyboard, who plays around with the blues, giving John Lockwood a spotlight on his bass solo. Their treatment of “Green Dolphin Street” is a Bossa Nova surprise.  I don’t think I’ve heard “On Green Dolphin Street” played with such a lovely Latin arrangement. John Stein also invites Ed Lucie to play bass guitar and the two guitarists have a wonderful way of complimenting each other.  Mike Connors is the drummer this time around. On Stein’s “Recoleta” tune, the accordion is a sweet addition and Evan Harlan colors the music with a European jazz flavor.  I’m so happy I was introduced to John Stein and bask in his talent on these recordings.  On “Weaver of Dreams” Stein plays solo guitar and accompanies Ron Gill’s jazz vocals. The duet is a nice way to end the first disc.

Listening to this album, pulled from the several recordings he has made over his lifetime, made me feel as though I know John Stein. Enjoying his compositions and arrangements is as delicious as sopping my biscuits in thick gravy and smacking my lips, with the pure pleasure of tasting this delicious offering.

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Finally, to close out this column, I add the amazing music of a group of Asian musicians who bring forward their traditional cultures, with arms gently wrapped around jazz and improvisation.  These musicians raise awareness of the AAPI, Asian American Pacific Islander music and movement.  The music they offer is made up of string instruments.  The unique thing about their presentation is the lack of harmony.  They are melodic, but not arranged in the traditional way we harmonize with each other when playing instrumental jazz.

AMJAD ALI KHAN, WU MAN, AYAAN ALI BANGASH, AMAAN ALI BANGASH & SHANE SHANAHAN – “MUSIC FOR HOPE.” –  Zoho Records

Amjad Ali Khan & Amaan Ali Bangash & Ayaan Ali Bangash, sarod; Wu Man, pipa; Shane Shanahan, percussion.

Both Wu Man and Shane Shanahan are the founding members of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad project.  Those are incredible credentials. Wu man, who plays pipa on this project, continues to be active touring and teaching as a member of the popular Silkroad Ensemble.  Amjad Ali Khan has incorporated his two sons into the production.  Both Ayaan Ali Bangash and Amaan Ali Bangash follow in their father’s footsteps and play the sarod.  For those who are unfamiliar with either the pipa or the sarod, the pipa is a string instruments dating back to the Han dynasty, over 2,000 years ago. Players hug the instrument to them in an upright position. The pipa is made of wood, pear-shaped, with a fretted fingerboard and four strings. You might think of it as the great, great grandfather of the guitar. The sarod is also a string instrument, looking like a very long-necked banjo and held in a similar fashion. It’s an East Indian instrument, very important as a concert instrument in Hindustani music and often accompanied by the tabla drums.  The sarod has a narrower wooden body, covered with goatskin and it features a fretless, metal fingerboard.  This is the key factor in enabling the slides that are essential to East Indian music. Using these instruments, this ensemble parts the curtains and walks onto the world stage, ably accompanied by percussionist, Shane Shanahan.

As these unique instruments are played, the musicians transcend expected jazz boundaries and cross world borders.  This album brings us music from thousands of years ago that developed in China and India.  The odd thing about this music is that the instruments do not harmonize with each other.  They concentrate on individual melodies and share solo conversations with each other. But as their liner notes remind us, ‘harmony’ is joining together, not just musically but as a people and ‘harmony’ is the blending of cultures.  The title of this project, “Music for Hope” says it all.

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EIGHT VOICES EXPLORE JAZZ IN THEIR OWN UNIQUE WAY

October 15, 2022

By Dee Dee McNeil

October 15, 2022

SAMARA JOY – “LINGER AWHILE” – Verve Label

Samara Joy, vocals; Ben Paterson, piano; David Wong, double bass; Kenny Washington, drums; Pasquale Grasso, guitar; Kendric McCallister, tenor saxophone; Terell Stafford, trumpet/flugelhorn; Donavan Austin, trombone.

Samara Joy is a voice that will mesmerize and throw us back to the 1940s, a time when we were intoxicated by the sound of Ella Fitzgerald. She has a voice that reflects many Fitzgerald nuances, as well as Sarah Vaughn influences.  Samara’s vocals are smooth as butter and her replica of horn player riffs melts across these arrangements like honey on hot toast.  Clearly, she isn’t exactly copying the Vaughn and Fitzgerald sounds, but instead has incorporated their specialties into her own style with careful precision.  If I were to hear Samara Joy on the air waves, I would quickly recognize her tone and voice.  That’s a plus! It moves her out of the realm of normal female vocalist into the echelon of recognizable jazz stylist.

Opening with “Can’t Get Out of This Mood,” Samara Joy swings competently and with ease. Her vocal smoothness is as comforting as warm lotion on a masseuse table.  While I tap my feet to the beat, I’m comfortable and relaxed listening to her silky presentation.  Pianist, Ben Paterson opens the familiar Nancy Wilson tune, accompanying Ms. Joy as she presents the introduction to “Guess Who I Saw Today.” When the other’s join in, I notice and enjoy guitarist Pasquale Grasso carefully and unobtrusively placing his complimentary licks beneath Samara Joy’s storytelling. On the Fats Navarro composition, “Nostalgia, (The Day I Knew)” Samara reminds me of Annie Ross, from Lambert, Hendricks & Ross fame.  She actually covers a tune by Jon Hendricks and Qusim Basheer, “Social Call” and does it her way.  One of my favorite tunes sung by the great Gloria Lynne was “Sweet Pumpkin.”  I was eager to hear how Samara Joy would interpret this one and she did not disappoint.  Like Gloria, she ‘swung’ the tune, but in her own sweet way. Other familiar songs we know and love that Samara Joy covers are “Misty,” and Monk’s “Round Midnight.”  There is a lovely duet with guitarist Pasquale Grasso on “Someone to Watch Over Me.”  You will find something for everyone on this introduction to a jazz vocalist who I believe will be around for decades. I predict, this is a young lady who will grow to be as popular and as respected as her iconic predecessors.

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THE BAYLOR PROJECT – “THE EVENING LIVE AT APPARATUS” – Be A Light

Jean Baylor, vocals; Marcus Baylor, drums; Terry Brewer, piano/keyboards; Yasushi Nakamura, bass; Keith Loftis, tenor & soprano saxophones; Darren Barrett, trumpet.

There’s nothing like a ‘live’ performance to spotlight the true talent and professionalism of an artist.  The Baylor Project captures the excitement and improvisational power that appearing before a ‘live’ audience can inspire. I’ve been looking forward to the return of this exciting ensemble that features the amazing talents of husband and wife, Jean and Marcus Baylor.  The Baylor Project has charisma and their outstanding live performances have brought audiences to their feet worldwide.  They are former winners of the 53rd NAACP Image Award for their “The Baylor Project – Generations” album in the Outstanding Jazz Vocal category.

On this current ‘live’ recording, they were hired by Gabriel Hendifar, who is the Artistic Director of APPARATUS, a New York based interdisciplinary design studio that explores the relationship of lighting, furniture, and objects in their environments.  With the addition of a ‘live’ band and vocalist, the artistic Mr. Hendifar added groove, tone and color to his event. 

Gabriel explained, “All the elements of performance should be integrated.  Nothing could be left to chance; all must be directed toward the same end.”

Gabriel Hendifar designed the room, the stage and the setting for a three-day-reveal.  Like the improvisational music that jazz is famous for, this was a one-time experience. With American music creating the substance and American stylized art creating the mood, patrons were in for a treat. The Baylor Project covered it all. This album incorporates their musical message including religious standard songs like “Lord Keep me Day by Day” (an instrumental) and “Great is Thy Faithfulness” sung by Jean Baylor. “Call of the Drum” features Marcus Baylor on trap drums and recalls the African heritage deeply instilled in America’s people of color culture. This three minute and twenty-five second solo by Marcus Baylor spotlights his talent and agility.  This is followed by the entry of trumpeter Darren Barrett, who plays an introduction to Jean Baylor’s reappearance to sing “Tell me a Story.”  This song is a lyrical reimagining of Herbie Hancock’s “Tell Me a Bedtime Story.” Jean’s soprano voices dances across the room like a ballerina, leaping gracefully, flying through space on the pointed toes of contemporary jazz.  The appearance of Keith Loftis on soprano saxophone ‘wows’ the crowd and they respond with great applause. Marcus Baylor’s drum solo also creates excitement and inspires the crowd to erupt in whistles and handclapping. 

Jean Baylor’s vocals on the standard Sarah Vaughn hit record, “Tenderly” Is a showstopper.  At first, accompanied only by Terry Brewer’s sensitive piano, during the over eight minutes of this presentation, you will be thoroughly entertained by the saxophone of Keith Loftis and an awesome, melodic bass solo by Yasushi Nakamura. Here is a ‘live’ experience, captured as a recording, that shares the appreciation and one-time-only performance of jazz musicians, unafraid to explore their creativity and the magic of a moment. 

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KIRSTEN LAMBERT – “FROM A WINDOW TO A SCREEN” – BellaJu Music

Kirsten Lambert, vocals; John Brown acoustic bass; Jim Crew, piano; Dan Davis, drums; Nels Cline, Scott Sawyer & Bill Frisell, guitar; Will Campbell, saxophones.

The first two songs on this production are pretty pop-ish, but the vocalist’s voice is magnetic.  Her fresh, musical innocence is evident and compelling.  Track #3 grabs my attention titled “The Woman Who Walks the Sea.” It’s a beautiful jazz waltz tune with a memorable melody.  Kirsten Lambert nails the intervals of this jazzy melody.  There is a naturalness to her vocal composure, like someone sitting on the front porch and singing because they love to sing. “Occasional Shivers” is another well-written composition, with Will Campbell adding his saxophone licks as colorful fillers between Kirsten’s melodic lyrics.  Most of these songs are ballads, written and produced by Chris Stamey.  It becomes a project that seems to be a way to promote the composer’s work, hand in hand with introducing Kirsten Lambert’s voice. It’s an album, more like a well-produced demo, that draws interest to the composer’s songs. “Insomnia” is another ballad.  The repertoire makes it a sleepy-time production featuring easy-listening arrangements.  “Song for Johnny Cash” is a Country Western ballad that is perfectly sung by Lambert’s smooth jazzy tones.  She rejuvenates the song, along with the saxophone of Will Campbell, and they reinvent it into a jazz arrangement.  Kirsten Lambert could easily sing Country Western music or pop songs. Her style remains multi-fluid. One of my favorite compositions by Chris Stamey is “I Didn’t Mean to Fall in Love with you.”  I just wish these musicians, and the producer, had added more variety to the arranging, perhaps adding a Bossa Nova beat behind one of the ballads or a shuffle. Finally, “There’s Not A Cloud in the Sky” puts the swing groove into place.  All in all, these are well-written songs by composer, producer Chris Stamey that are competently showcased by the vocalist, Kirsten Lambert.

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TAWANDA – “SMILE” – Resonance Records

Tawanda, vocals; Josh Nelson & Tamir Hendelman, piano/arrangers; Kevin Axt, bass; Gene Coye & Ray Brinker, drums; Anthony Wilson, guitar; Gary Meek, saxophones. SPECIAL THANKS: Mirabai Daniels.

In June of 2021, this hopeful, talented jazz vocalist tied for first place in the ninth Annual Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition.  The judging panel included respected vocalists Carmen Lundy and Vanessa Rubin, along with jazz bassist, Christian McBride.  They all co-signed Tawanda’s obvious talent. This is her debut album, and she has refreshed several, beautiful songs, some we recognize from contemporary releases like Sting’s “Sister Moon” where she digs deeply into blues roots, or the Barbra Streisand popular song, “A Child is Born” arranged as a jazz waltz, but somehow misses the mark as jazz.  She covers Maureen McGovern’s pop tune, “Bring Back My Dreamer” and it stays in the pop idiom.  However, singing at a speedy pace, Tawanda sings the Billie Holiday standard, “What a Little Moonlight Can Do.”  She shows us her scatting possibilities by trading fours with the drummer and this is a jazz arrangement supporting a jazz vocalist. Tawanda seems to be searching for what type of vocalist she wants to be, pop, cabaret or jazz?  Tawanda has a palatable second-soprano warmth to her voice, at times reaching into a rich alto range and on this project, she is surrounded by amazing musicians who put the spark into these arrangements.  However, although pleasing, there was not the fire and excitement in this voice to make it burn brightly, or to single it out from the pack of jazz singers trying to be heard.

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ROBERTA DONNAY – “BLOSSOM-ING!” – Village Jazz Café

Roberta Donnay, vocals/producer/co-arranger; Mike Greensill, piano/arranger; Ruth Davies, bass; Mark Lee, drums; José Neto, guitar; David Sturdevant, harmonica; MB Gordy, percussion.

At the first phrase of “Roberta’s Blues” you hear the tone and phrasing that brings to mind jazz vocalist, Blossom Dearie.  This is an album that celebrates Ms. Dearie’s music using the talent and voice of Roberta Donnay.  She has a similar, little-girl innocence to her vocal presentation, one that Dearie always exhibited.  Award-winning Roberta Donnay has released this, her tenth album to remind us of the iconic Blossom Dearie and her jazz legacy.

Donnay is more than just a vocalist.  As a composer, she was recognized by the prestigious ASCAP Composers Award for her song, “One World” selected as a world-peace anthem for the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations. She frequently performs with the Prohibition Mob Band, a swing dance band that portrays, with costumes and music, the era of speakeasies back in the 1920’s and 1930s.  Her “Bathtub Gin” EPK exhibited this side of her musical repertoire.

“Blossom-ing!” is a fresh labor of love for Donnay, who features a similar vocal style as her predecessor, but adds her own sassy tone and bluesy interpretation to this repertoire. On “Just One of Those Things” Roberta Donnay features her unique vocal styling, opening the tune as a duo with only bassist Ruth Davies.  When the rest of the band joins them, they go from a dramatic rubato to an up-tempo swing. It’s a terrific arrangement. Guitarist, José Neto introduces us to the song, “Inside a Silent Tear” before the Latin drenched drums of Mark Lee enter and propel this song forward.  Donnay has an easy, nonchalant way of selling each song and dramatizing each lyric.  She’s chosen sixteen songs associated with Blossom Dearie for this album, including the popular “Peel me A Grape” and tunes from the great American Song Book like “Someone to Watch over Me” and “The Party’s Over.” Roberta Donnay can swing with the best of them and when she sings “Plus Je T’Embrasse” she swings while singing in French. There’s a deep-rooted blues tone to her songs and these two embellishments (blues and swing) are what truly solidifies Donnay as a real jazz singer.  Although we often think of a blues singer as having a deep, growling powerhouse voice, Roberta Donnay shreds that stereotype with her kittenish, playful vocal style.  Her ability to sing fluidly in French and English expands her territory and garners her international possibilities and audiences. The other thing I like about Donnay’s style is that she doesn’t over-sing the songs or use long, legato lines, fancy runs or tricks to express herself. Roberta Donnay is simply unique in her style, solid in her presentation and honest in her delivery.

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KATE BAKER & VIC JURIS – “RETURN TO SHORE” –  THE DUO SESSIONS – Strikezone Records

Kate Baker, vocals/composer; Vic Juris, guitar/composer.

There’s nothing as vulnerable and intoxicating as guitar and voice, especially if they are both master musicians.  This is the case with Kate Baker and Vic Juris.  They open this delightful album with a song titled, “God Only Knows.” 

“Having Vic as my husband and collaborator on the bandstand made ours more than a musical partnership and more than a marriage,” Kate Baker informs us in her liner notes.

They had been performing as a duo for two decades and after the twenty-year performance schedule, decided to record themselves so they could sit back and hear what their responsive audiences heard. They entered engineer Paul Wickliffe’s recording studio with the plan to lay down six tunes.  It was kind of like a woodshed tape, one they could listen to and improve upon.  Vic Juris, a guitar giant, and an influential educator who acted as a ‘first call’ studio sideman for more than forty years was prone to scoff at rehearsals. Juris encouraged his wife, with the beautiful voice, to find freedom in the moment instead of rehearsing a set pattern of presentation.  Together they are as fluid and strong as a rushing brook rippling across shiny, multi-colored stones.  Their music brings peace and comfort.

Baker too is an educator, a vocal coach and planted her feet in contemporary music as well as jazz. Their uncommon musical symbiosis leaves audiences floored, but totally satisfied.  The diversity of their music is pleasant and appealing. On this album, when they move from a lovely, jazzy presentation of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face” transitioning to the song, “Black Crow.” In other words, from jazz to what could have been a 1960 rock record doesn’t even ripple our appreciation pool.  Songs like “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” is a duo artistic masterpiece.  Their repertoire is a lesson in ‘song selling’ by Kate Baker.  The way she approaches the melodies, the improvisations and her sharing of lyrics is stunning, honest and sung like the seasoned vocalist she is.  Just listen to her rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” tune and how Kate seems to relate to those poignant lyrics and trust us with the message.

In late December of 2019, Vic Juris passed away after a brief but valiant battle with nuero-endocrine cancer.  His untimely death, at age 66, shocked his loved ones and the music world. His career included a twenty-year gig in saxophonist Dave Liebman’s band.

“When we were thinking about songs to do, we wanted to do all new tunes and there was no theme.  But in reality, the theme was there all along.  But neither of us knew what was coming.  I think the spiritual world was giving us a message,” Kate Baker reflected.

We, the listeners, are blessed to hear the purity, love and camaraderie that is captured on this couple’s debut album.  Produced by guitar great, Dave Stryker, “Return to Shore” spotlights some of Vic Juris and Kate Baker’s innovative duet magic.  It also captures the outstanding guitar gift that Vic Juris had, his technique and creativity shine, along with his sensitivity to accompanying his wife and longtime partner, Kate Baker, in a tasty, comfortable, and improvisational way.  

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JUDY NIEMACK – “WHAT’S LOVE?” – Sunnyside Records

Judy Niemack, vocals/composer; Peter Bernstein, guitar/composer; Sullivan Fortner, piano; Doug Weiss, bass; Joe Farnsworth, drums; Eric Alexander, alto saxophone.

Guitarist, Peter Bernstein and vocalist, composer Judy Niemack have collaborated on the first two songs on this “What’s Love?” album.  As co-writers, they parade their talent and songwriting skills for this production.  The opening song, “Feelin’ It in Your Bones” is well-written and splashed liberally in the blues. It’s a strong jazz tune with a well-composed lyric.  The chord structure is perfect for these musical players to strut their stuff and showcase their individual talents.  It begins with Peter Bernstein taking his guitar solo, followed by the flying fingers of Sullivan Fortner on piano. Doug Weiss makes an inspired statement on double bass before Judy Niemack re-enters the song.  This entire album showcases Niemack’s strength as a composer.  She has penned ten of the thirteen songs she offers the listener.   Additionally, she ‘covers’ the jazz standard “For All We Know” and the Tina Turner hit record, “What’s Love Got To Do With It.”  The third cover is “Born to be Blue.” Judy Niemack’s talents abound on the Internet, but for me, it’s her songwriting talents that sparkle.  Quite a few of her original compositions are very well written. Favorite original compositions are Track #1, “Just When I Thought” and the ballad “With You” that she performs with just Bernstein’s guitar to accompany her.

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NICA CARRINGTON – “TIMES LIKE THESE” – Independent Label

Nica Carrington, vocals; John Proulx, piano/arranger/producer; Chuck Berghofer, bass; Joe Labarbera, drums.

It’s pleasant to hear a voice so pure, so clear and unpretentious.  Nica Carrington brings a freshness to old standards, starting with “Skylark.”  With the accompaniment and arrangements of pianist John Proulx, they begin as a duet and the other musicians join in later.  Carrington offers no vocal acrobatics or intricate riffs and runs.  As a child, she was infatuated with Frank Sinatra and his wonderful way of lyrically telling stories.  She has incorporated that quality into her own style and presentation.  Her honesty shines through on tunes like the obscure Mal Waldron and Billie Holiday composition, “Left Alone” and the more familiar, “When Sunny Gets Blue” or “We’ll Be Together Again.” Carrington has been a long-time jazz fan for years.  Before the COVID lockdown, Carrington had begun taking vocal lessons.  She had always wanted to sing, but finally decided to hone her naturally beautiful voice. Once teacher and student could no longer meet in person, she went Online looking for a Plan B.  That’s when she discovered L.A.’s very own, John Proulx.

“He’s so supportive and encouraging, so I took a chance and asked him if he would work with me on an album.  It turned out to be a great move,” Nica mused.

Proulx became her arranger and producer for this project, bringing on board the wonderful Chuck Berghofer on bass and renowned drummer, Joe LaBarbera.  Both are popular session musicians who have worked with people Nica Carrington had only heard on records.  Berghofer has played with Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, Peggy Lee and even Carrington’s favorite, Frank Sinatra.  Labarbera was a member of the Chuck Mangione Quartet and has worked with jazz icons like Jim Hall, Phil Woods, Art Farmer and Toots Thieleman, to list only a few.  The awesome thing about working with John Proulx, he is not only a gifted pianist, but he’s an amazing vocalist himself, with several albums to his artistic credit. So, surrounded with this trio of historic excellence, Nica Carrington plunged into the work of creating her own jazz legacy.  The one thing I love about Nica Carrington’s voice is her warm intimacy and ability to connect with her audience.  It’s her truthfulness, when she sings these songs, that draws the listener into her space.  Her voice dials back to a time when the object of singing was to tell the song’s story and share personal passion by being vulnerable.  This is a voice you will remember and the old standards she sings will make you believe you are hearing these songs for the first time.

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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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