Posts Tagged ‘jazz cd reviews’

JAZZY DUETS AND INTRIGUING QUARTETS

January 12, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

January 12, 2021

LUKE SELLICK & ANDREW RENFROE – “SMALL VACATION” – Independent Label

Luke Sellick, bass; Andrew Renfroe, guitar.

“Hills of Mexico” is a traditional American folk song, often played by banjo and made quite famous by Roscoe Holcomb.  Holcomb was born in 1912 and was a popular Appalachian musician.  It’s interesting to hear his rendition of this song and then to enjoy the smooth jazz sounding arrangement by Luke Sellick and Andrew Renfroe.  This creative production of Country/Western popular music transforms folksy songs into an updated jazz style.

Their duo also transports pop and rock tunes through a musical and unique time machine, offering us creative arrangements and jazzy instrumental techniques.  You will hear Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” song in a freshly painted way, with a colorful bass solo by Sellick.  Petty was the lead singer of the Heartbreakers in his early career.  The Sellick and Renfroe arrangement is easy-listening jazz.  They also tackle Neil Young’s popular “Tell Me Why” tune.  Canadian/American, Neil Young, was often referred to as a rock-a-billy guitarist and songwriter.  In the early seventies, he was also an activist and was an important part of the Crosby, Stills and Nash group.

Sellick and Renfroe get down and dirty on “Someday Baby” by Mississippi Fred McDowell.  He was an African-American bluesman who once coached Bonnie Raitt on how to play the slide guitar.  Mississippi Fred was pleased when The Rolling Stones included one of his original songs (“You Gotta Move”) on their ‘Sticky Fingers’ album.  I think he would be just as pleased at Renfroe and Sellick’s arrangement of his old blues song, “Someday Baby.” This duo also takes Dolly Parton’s hit song, “Jolene” to another level.

“Small Vacation” is this duo’s first album as a duet and it reveals their unique way of revitalizing some country/pop/rock songs of yesteryear into new, jazzy, easy listening arrangements.  They close with a wonderful reflection on Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” composition.   Jazz musician, Russell Malone, wrote the liner notes for this production.  He said, “sit back and enjoy.  You will not be disappointed,” and he was absolutely right.

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THE GENERATIONS QUARTET – “INVITATION” – Independent label

Dave Liebman, tenor & soprano saxophones; Billy Test, piano; Evan Gregor, bass; Ian Froman, drums.

https://bethlehem.jazznearyou.com/billy-test-trio-at-17-00-on-february-23?width=1024

Recorded live at the Deer Head Inn, in Pennsylvania, The Generations Quartet opens with one of my favorite jazz tunes by Herbie Hancock, “Maiden Voyage.”   Excitingly, the members of this quartet represent three different generations of musicians.  This is their debut album and it captures the seamless merging of these generations into a very stellar package.  The young, talented pianist, Billy Test, won second place in the 2017 Montreux Jazz Pianist Competition.  Although he’s barely out of his twenties, Billy Test plays with high energy and brilliant technique.   He double-majored in jazz and classical piano and earned a Master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music.  He toured with Jaimoe Johanson, drummer with the Allman Brother’s Band.  They toured together for three years.  Test also worked with trumpeter Joe Magnarelli and the New York-based Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. 

The group’s bassist, Evan Gregor, first met Dave Liebman when he was attending high school and the seasoned woodwind player became one of Gregor’s mentors. The bass player attended Berklee School of music and in 2007, Liebman hired him to join a quartet gig where they were playing standard jazz tunes.  This was around the same time, Billy Test was studying for his Master’s degree, with Liebman and Markowitz, at the Manhattan School of Music. 

Finally, there was the addition of drummer, Ian Froman, who was once a student of the great Elvin Jones and has a thirty-year working relationship with the elder statesman of jazz, Dave Liebman.  Liebman is iconic for his work with Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Elvin Jones a half century ago.  This explains the group’s name, The Generations Quartet.

Theirs is the kind of jazz I live for.  Their music is straight-ahead, energy impacted and seriously innovative.  Dave Liebman is always a joy to listen to, with his exploratory approach to the music and his mastery of both tenor and soprano saxophones.  They play songs we know and love on this debut album including “Invitation” and “My Foolish Heart,” John Coltrane’s “Village Blues” and Jerome Kern’s “Yesterdays”.  The tried-and-true “Bye Bye Blackbird” song has a new face in the way that these musicians perform it.  They make me freshly appreciate this song with their unique and admirable musicianship.  I know this composition, like I know the back of my hand, but this band absolutely reconstructs it in a wonderful way.   Here is an album high on my list of best music for 2021, even though the year has just begun.

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QUARTETTE OBLIQUE – MICHAEL STEPHANS, DAVID LIEBMAN, MARC COPLAND & DREW GRESS – Sunnyside Label

Michael Stephans, drums; David Liebman, tenor & soprano saxophones/flute; Marc Copland, piano; Drew Gress, bass.

Here is another example of the genius and fluid beauty of David Liebman on tenor saxophone. Master drummer and one of the executive producers of this session, Michael Stephans, described this project in his liner notes.

“What can I possibly say about my musical brother, Dave Liebman, that hasn’t been said before?  He is arguably the living embodiment of the jazz art.  Saxophonist, flautist, pianist, drummer, composer, it’s all there inside one person.  To play with Lieb and other great New York musicians is one of the reasons my wife and I moved East from the West Coast.  I was an avid fan way before actually meeting him in 2004,” Michael explained.

Stephans originally recorded with David Liebman in 2005 on his CD, “OM/ShalOM” along with the great Bennie Maupin, another iconic woodwind master.  On this more recent production, performed before a live audience, they kick off the set with the familiar Miles Davis tune, “Nardis.”  Liebman flies like a graceful eagle and Marc Copland takes a stellar solo on piano.

“Marc Copland’s music has been part of my life for at least 20-years,” Michael Stephans shares. …  “I first heard him back in the early 70’s in Washington DC at a jazz club called Childe Harold.  He was playing electric piano. …I never forgot how great Marc sounded and how much I hoped to have the opportunity to play with him someday.  His exquisite touch on the acoustic instrument and his harmonic sensibilities place him in a class by himself as a creative improvising artist.”

I enjoyed Marc’s ingenuity on track 2, “Vertigo.”  It’s a moody, melodic, ballad composed by John Abercrombie, that gives Copland an opportunity to show off his splendid technique and unique love affair with the piano.  Drenched in classical nuances and propelled by an exploratory right hand, Copland builds the tension and power of the song, along with the capable drum support of Stephans.

“To me, the most important person in any rhythm section is the bassist.  As a drummer, I may provide the zing, bang, boom; however, if the bassist is not happening, then a group’s resiliency can easily evaporate.  Drew Gress brings something uniquely personal to this music.  He has a big heart, a beautiful sound and is totally present and in the moment each time we play together,” Michael Stephans praised the bass player in their group.

You can hear the beauty and thoughtfulness of Drew Gress’s bass playing during “In A Sentimental Mood” and throughout this recording.  He knows how to lock-in and hold the rhythm tightly in place with Michael Stephans, but he’s also a sensitive and outstanding bass soloist.

They play “All Blues” at a super-speed, that gives Michael Stephans an opportunity to stretch out on the trap drums and match the intensity and excitement that David Liebman always brings to the bandstand. It was quite amazing to hear.  Stephans also explores a creative drum solo.

“Quartette Oblique exemplifies what the Native American Ojibwe people call, ‘mizeweyaa’ or a coming together of different elements to form a unification – a convergence of feelings, ideas, rituals.  In other words, human beings moving into an often mystical-oneness,” Michael summed up the group’s production.

Heaven knows we need more oneness in the world.  From the crazy, mad applause of their audience, I gather that during this awesome musical concert, a single and pleasing joy of spirit was absolutely present and shared by all.   

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MARTY ELKINS & MIKE RICHMOND – “TIS AUTUMN” – Elktone Records

Marty Elkins, vocals; Mike Richmond, bass/cello.

On “In A Mellow Tone” Marty Elkins shows that she is a sincere jazz singer by vocally horn-scatting her way through an improvisational solo without echoing the Ellington/Gabler melody.  I’ve heard a number of fledgling jazz vocalists, who call themselves scat singers, but make the mistake of repeating the melody without the lyrics.  Marty Elkins is no such novice.  She knows that scatting across chord changes is meant as a discovery project for improvisers, prospective composers and in-tune artists.  The idea is to find freedom in re-establishing a fresh melody and with a different song perspective.  Impressively, Elkins does just that.

Mike Richmond is a master on his 170-year-old Tyrolean bass and his 120-year-old Czechoslovakian cello.  He is a seasoned bassist who once replaced Charles Mingus in the Mingus Dynasty group.  He participated in the Miles Davis and Quincy Jones collaborative during their Montreux, Switzerland jazz concert.  He has accompanied a wide arch of vocalists from pop to folk; straight-ahead jazz to Avant-garde.  These include the great Eddie Jefferson, Mark Murphey, Janis Siegel, Chet Baker, Bette Midler, Lainie Kazan, Sheila Jordan, Engelbert Humperdinck and Richie Havens, to list just a few. 

He and Elkins met half a dozen years ago, when she sat in on a gig he was playing. Richmond is an educator in bass technique with a method book published and a deep love for music.  Elkins is a vocalist who has been singing since the 1980s and has a huge following in New York City.  Sometimes her phrasing reminds me of Lena Horne and Billie Holiday combined, although tonally she sounds like neither.  Together they have picked songs popular as far back as 1926.  An example of this is “When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Bobbin’ Along” and jazz standards like “All of Nothing at All” that was recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1939 and released in 1944.  The songs are old, but well established. 

It’s certainly a challenge to present an album with no rhythm section and only the bass to establish the rhythm and the foundation of what Marty Elkins builds upon.   Her voice become the melody keeper and focal point of the music.  The bass becomes the rhythm and the root of the chords.  With only these two musicians, there’s not much left to do with arrangements.  On the Red Robin tune, Elkins did trade fours with the Richmond bass and the duet exhibits great timing and no pitch problems.  After the first couple of tunes, I just kept feeling how Marty Elkins and Mike Richmond would have benefitted from the addition of a full group of musicians or even a string ensemble.  Richmond tried over-dubbing, but that just wasn’t enough to fill up the empty spaces.  On “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues,” Elkins’ voice sparkles with genuine, blues believability.  While I admire this duo for their creative endeavor and acknowledge their strong, jazz sensibilities and extraordinary individual talents, I wish they had added full orchestration or even a jazz trio to this production for at least five of these ten songs.  I think that would have greatly elevated their unique and creative musical offering.

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KASPERI SARIKOSKI – “3 + 1” – Outside In Music

Kasperi Sarikoski, trombone/composer; Simon Willson, bass; Francesco Ciniglio, drums; Christian Li, piano.

Trombonist, Kasperi Sarikoski, has composed all the music on this “3 + 1” album.  With just bass, drums and trombone, this trio plus one creates an open and compelling sound.  Sarikoski uses the quality bass of Simon Willson and the drums of Francesco Ciniglio to create a basement for his trombone to build upon.  On the composition, “Birchwood,” without guitar or piano instruments to root the track, there is an openness to the arrangement that encourages freedom in their musical movements.   As the bass solos, Sarikoski’s trombone creates descants with his horn melodies.  On track 5, Christian Li joins the trio on piano.  The trombone sounds as if it is announcing the arrival of royalty at some distant king’s castle.  I enjoyed the addition of piano, but it’s only on this one song titled, “Onward and Upward.”  Track 6 returns to the open concept and features the drum talents of Francesco Ciniglio, who creatively slips his rhythm patterns and solos into the fabric of this music. Unusually, the “Intro to Such Sweet Sorrow” is longer than the song itself, but very beautifully played by Sarikoski and group.  The tune, “Wide Lanes” is straight-ahead jazz and they have included two takes of this very upbeat composition.  This is an intriguing musical exploration that features the unique instrumentation of trombone, bass and drums, with the one exception of adding a piano on track five.  

Kasperi Sarikoski has created a distinctive and enjoyable sound that initiates fresh arrangement-possibilities in the jazz idiom.

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LARRY NEWCOMB QUARTET featuring JAKE NEWCOMB – “LOVE, DAD” – Essential Messenger

Larry Newcomb, guitar/composer; Dave Marsh, drums; Thomas Royal, piano; Jake Newcomb, bass.

This is Larry Newcomb’s third album as a leader.  He mixes six of his original songs with four well appreciated jazz standards on this production and is joined by his son, Jake Newcomb on bass, Dave Marsh on drums and Thomas Royal on piano.  They open with “You Stepped Out of a Dream” where the quartet swings hard.  Thomas Royal celebrates the moment during a noteworthy piano solo.

Guitarist, Larry Newcomb started his career in music as a rocker working in both rock and pop bands including backing up Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits and vocalist, Leslie Gore.  It was during his study at the University of Maine that he became infatuated with jazz after hearing Jim Hall and Ron Carter’s duo album, “Alone Together.”

“When I heard that I said, that’s what I want to do!” Larry Newcomb expressed emphatically.

One of the senior Newcomb’s heroes was Grant Green.  He pays tribute to Green on the final track of this album.  Larry Newcomb explained:

“When I got to New York in 1999, I was transcribing a lot of Grant Green, including ‘The Song is You’, but I was also inspired by hearing Stan Getz play this song.  Later, I had a trio that played brunch for 17-years at ‘The Garage’ and we frequently played this tune.  I’m fascinated by it,” he reminisced.

They play the Jerome Kern song at a thrilling, up-tempo speed.  The title tune, “Love, Dad” is written for and dedicated to Newsome’s three sons.  It’s based on the chord changes of “Stella By Starlight.”  I enjoyed their arrangement of “Secret Agent Man,” a tribute to Sean Connery who originally played the part of 007 in that film series.  Every arrangement on this album is smoothly delivered by the quartet and features Larry Newcomb’s well cultivated style and mastery of his guitar.  

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MIKE SCOTT – “COLLECTING THINGS” – Independent label

Mike Scott, guitar/composer; Joe Bagg, piano/organ; Darek Oles, bass; Jake Reed, drums.

Mike Scott, opens this project with a composition called “Sol Minor Prelude,” playing solo and introducing us to his mastery of guitar in a beautiful way.  It’s a two-minute, fifteen-second glimpse into the mind and talent of this guitarist/composer.  I have always loved the clarity and tone of a nylon string guitar.  Scott brings out the best of this instrument.  The concept, explained in his press package, is that this composition grew out of the third open string on the guitar, tuned to a G.  Scott began to experiment with various harmonies to that one G note, which led him to a series of chord progressions, with the open G string ringing throughout the piece.  The result is a fascinating and relaxing concept.

Most of the music on this Mike Scott recording is laid-back and peaceful.  His guitar tone has a soothing, hypnotic effect. On Track 2, Scott is joined by his rich, Southern California trio of A-list musicians. Joe Bagg switches from organ to piano on various tracks.  His light, improvised touch adds much to Track 2, “Sol Minor.”  Darek Oles sets the time and groove on his bass when they play “Now and Later.”  Oles offers us an inspired solo on this tune, while Mike Scott shows off his deep classical roots throughout. 

“Classical guitar playing involves extensive use of your right hand.  Each finger plays a different sound, allowing you to control the dynamics and expressive quality of each note individually,” Mike Scott explains.

On “Jack’s Dilemma” you hear Scott’s blues roots creeping through.  You cannot be an extraordinary jazz player if you can’t play the blues.  Bagg brings his organ chops to this arrangement.  The funky drive of Jake Reed pushes the music forward on drums.  Reed is brightly featured on Track 5, “Boom Diddle It” with the staccato introduction by the band, letting the drums shine.  Mike Scott swings hard on this tune and bassist Darek Oles gets a big piece of the action.  This becomes one of my favorite songs and arrangements on this production, along with the familiar “On A Clear Day” that features a wonderful and creative bass line that runs through their arrangement, glistening like a gold thread.

The compositions and band presentation on Mike Scott’s “Collecting Things” album are both strong and entertaining.  Every tune is well-played and the musicians richly improvise and support Scott’s lyrical compositions in the best possible way.  Most importantly, Mike Scott shines as a composer, arranger and guitarist, like the jewels in a king’s crown.

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THE JUSTIN ROTHBERG GROUP – “HURRICANE MOUSE” – Independent Label

Justin Rothberg, guitar/mandolin; Todd Groves, tenor & soprano saxophones/flutes/melodica; Jon Price, bass; Hiroyuki Matsuura, drums; Andy O’Neill, percussion.

If you are prone to a more contemporary jazz excursion, sail over to the Justin Rothberg Group.  With Hiroyuki Matsuura laying down funky drum licks, along with Don Price on electric bass and Andy O’Neill adding percussion, they create strong tracks to support the solo work of both Justin Rothberg and woodwind player, Todd Groves.  Group leader, Rothberg, has composed all the songs except for one by Bob James, “Piece of Mind.” Their arrangement of this Bob James composition features Todd Groves and was quite entertaining, using various effects and melodica.   Justin Rothberg has a good sense of songwriting.  However, more than once his improvisational development veered off the melodic path during his guitar solos.  He’s a strong composer and colorful, rhythm guitar player.  My question is, does he need more focus on his blazing guitar improv techniques?  His arrangement on “Hotel Show Repeat” sounds very East Indian and gives Todd Groves an opportunity to introduce us to his flute talents.  Jon Price offers an energetic bass solo that dances across the solid drum rhythms of Matsuura.  I enjoyed the addition of Rothberg on mandolin.  Track 5, “Bad Apple” starts out sounding very bluesy but quickly changes directions and becomes a reggae arrangement.  These two tunes issue in a more world-music approach to Rothberg’s production.  “South Beach Banjo” is a shuffle blues that invites all the players to get loose and take advantage of solos full of freedom and fun.   Track 7, “Tom G” goes back to a smooth jazz characterization of their music. Here is a group that obviously can play many styles and genres of music and jazz, with emphasis on fusion.  This album reflects their wealth of talent, versatility and innovation, provoked by Justin Rothberg’s well-written compositions and an obvious love of what they do. 

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In closing this column, I am adding a group slightly larger than a quartet for all of you Avant-garde music lovers.

JUNK MAGIC – PSEUDONYM FOR CRAIG TABORN – “COMPASS CONFUSION” – Pyroclastic Records

Craig Taborn, piano/keyboards/synthesizer/producer/composer; Chris Speed, saxophone; Erik Fratzke, bass; Mat Maneri, viola; David King, drums.

If you are a music lover looking for repetitive, Avant-garde, experimental music, the Junk Magic group plays just that.  For more than a decade, Junk Magic has been honing a collective sound that relies on individual expressions, imagination and subversion.  Inspired by pianist/composer Craig Taborn, Junk Magic has transitioned into a sonic identity of electronic sound design, production techniques and elements of improvised music.  Says Taborn:

“You’re still trying to capture things in a moment; in a certain sense.  But then also, because of how the process works, you’re not.  There’s a lot of time to craft things after the fact.”

When I listen to this “Compass Confusion” album, I am transported to space, in an eerie setting of an empty space ship, with just the creepy sounds of silence and the groans and moans of wind and weather against hard steel.  This music places me in a strange state of being.

“There are different methods of attending compositionally.  If I were writing a traditional tune, it would be melody and some chord changes.  If I were writing a hip hop track, I would focus more on beats, loops and sound design.  If I were writing strictly ambient music, I would focus on the sound relationships; how the shapes are evolving with certain sonic elements.  On a lot of these pieces, I’m really playing with the foreground and background of all those things,” Craig Taborn explains.

This journalist gets bored quickly with repetitive loops and sounds.  It’s kind of like listening to the drip, drip of a leaking faucet in a perfectly quiet room.  Eventually you want to get up and call a plumber. 

NOTE:    The video posted with this review is from an earlier album release of Junk Magic.  I could not locate a more recent video to represent the Compass Confusion album.

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NEW YEAR! NEW MUSIC FOR 2021

January 2, 2021

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

January 2, 2021

DIANA KRALL – “THIS DREAM OF YOU” –  Verve Records

Diana Krall, piano/vocals; John Clayton Jr., Tony Garnier & Christian McBride, bass; Jeff Hamilton & Karriem Riggins, drums; Anthony Wilson, Russell Malone & Marc Ribot, guitar; Stuart Duncan, fiddle; Alan Broadbent, piano; Randall Krall, accordion; STRING SECTION: VIOLINS: Charles Bisharat, Mario DeLeon, Kevin Connolly, Neel Hammond, Tamara Hatwan, Natalie Leggett, Songa Lee, Katia Popov, Michele Richards, Kathleen Sloan, Marcy Vaj, Ina Veli & John Wittenberg. VIOLA: Andrew Duckles, Kathryn Reddish, Colleen Sugata & Michael Whitson; CELLO: Jodi Burnett, Alisha Bauer, Jennifer Kuhn & Cello Soloist: Vanessa Freebairn-Smith. CONCERTMASTER: Joel Derouin.

Her husky voice glides across the space like a lovely bird in flight singing, “But Beautiful.”  Diana Krall has a way of inviting you into the story of her song lyrics, as if she’s your best friend, whispering secrets across the table as you both sip drinks.  Her all-star band is complimented by a full string ensemble.  Track two features another sincere delivery on “That’s All” that shows her vulnerability vocally, while showcasing her jazzy piano playing.  On these first two songs her rhythm section is composed of John Clayton jr. on bass, Jeff Hamilton on drums and Anthony Wilson on guitar.  Then comes “Autumn in New York” arranged with Russell Malone on guitar and Christian McBride on bass. The flavor of the rhythm section changes.  During the first part of this tune, Diana Krall steps away from the piano and her voice soars.  Then, the string ensemble joins them.  The guitar solo by Russell Malone is stunning.  On Track 4, “Almost Like Being in Love” the pace picks up a wee bit with a shuffle rhythm.  Jeff Hamilton is back on drums and John Clayton Jr. mans the bass. During this arrangement, Diana Krall’s piano excellence takes the opportunity to stretch out and show-off her technical talents.  On “More Than You Know” Ms. Krall is joined by the iconic Alan Broadbent on piano.  She introduces us to the verse that prefaces this familiar American Standard tune and once again sells the song.  This is an album perfect to play during a romantic evening by a roaring fireplace or cuddling beneath the covers.  On Track 6., “Just You, Just Me” she once again switches up the players.  Now Tony Garnier is on bass, pumping the rhythm and locking in with Karriem Riggins on drums.  Marc Ribot is on guitar and a very country/Western sounding fiddle player named Stuart Duncan is featured.  Drummer Riggins takes stage center during this arrangement and is given ample time to solo and trades fours, displaying his chops.

Diana Krall pays tribute to Nina Simone’s historic song, “Don’t Smoke in Bed” as a duo piece featuring Alan Broadbent on piano.  Another duo she includes on this project is one with bass master, John Clayton Jr., on “I Wished on the Moon,” a straight-ahead piece where both musicians excel at doing what they do best.  The title tune, “This Dream of You,” is very folksy and it’s an odd fit with the jazz theme of this album.  It’s got a pretty melody and would have made a nice jazz waltz arrangement or even a rot-gut blues.  Instead, Krall stepped out of the realms of a jazz album and into a Country/Western, folksy production.  For me, it compromises the theme of this album.  Another disappointment was “How Deep Is the Ocean,” enhanced by mallets on the drums.  The muted rhythm sets a sultry mood, but then, to my surprise, Krall takes liberties with this breathtakingly beautiful melody.  Her arrangement moves so far from the original melody that it really becomes a new tune with the same lyrics. I found this very disappointing, because it destroyed the original beauty of Irving Berlin’s lovely composition.  On the whole, this is an easy listening, well-produced experience, with the exciting assistance of some of the best jazz names in the business, as well as a lovely string ensemble.  Diana Krall’s accomplished piano playing and sultry, singing style are always an entertaining and exploratory experience.

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MIGUEL ZENON AND LUIS PERDOMO – “EL ARTE DEL BOLERO” – Miel Music

Miquel Zenon, alto saxophone; Luis Perdomo, piano.

In September of 2020, during the raging pandemic that took so many innocent lives worldwide, Miguel Zenon picked up his alto saxophone and joined pianist, Luis Perdomo to record a concert at the Jazz Gallery in New York City.  That concert was livestreamed in November and this album release is the result of that amazingly beautiful music played to an empty space, with all the heartfelt emotion that these two iconic musicians could muster.   The song “Como fue” opens this artistic experience.  Their interpretation of this song stopped me in my tracks and made me sit quietly and listen to this entire album.  It was a spellbinding experience.  Track two, titled “Alma Adentro” is another pretty ballad that is caressed and cradled in the bell of Miguel Zenon’s horn.  The piano of Luis Perdomo is equally brilliant, not only adding spice and support during his accompaniment, but additionally expanding on their theme and improvising freely during his solo. 

I found sweet solace in this music.  During a time of such drama and trauma, it was wonderful to hear comfort music that was not only beautifully performed, but also music that offers tranquility and peace.  Miquel’s tone on his alto saxophone is smooth and soothing. He balances contradictory poles of jazz innovation with Latin tradition. Luis Perdomo’s piano playing is rich with emotion.  Every song on this duo production is entertaining and technically astute.  Clearly these are two master musicians.  Settle back in your favorite lounge chair and enjoy.  The digital-only release will be available January 8, 2021.

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HENRY ROBINETT – “JAZZ STANDARDS, VOL. 2: THEN AGAIN” – Nefertiti Records

Henry Robinett, guitar; Joe Gilman, piano; Chris Symer, bass; Michael Stephans, drums.

Henry Robinett has a light, precise touch on his guitar strings.  His bebop style skips along at a brisk pace on their opening number, “Yours Is My Heart Alone.”  It’s a great way to open this album and to introduce us to the players.  Joe Gilman steps into the spotlight with a bright, intriguing piano solo.  Michael Stephans, an extraordinary drummer, keeps the pace solidified and ever-moving.  He ‘trades fours’ with Gilman and Robinett, showing off his technical skills and strength.  Back in 2020, I enjoyed and reviewed the first release of Robinett’s 20-year-old recording project that he called “Jazz Standards, Vol. 1.”  At the time of this recording project, Henry Robinett was working as an engineer at ‘The Hangar’, a recording studio in Sacramento.  The quartet managed to record enough material in two days to create two volumes of exceptional music.  Although Robinett has gone on to make his mark as more of an electric jazz player, when he re-listened to these dynamite tracks, Henry recognized the brilliance and beauty he had overlooked in his younger years. 

“After listening to it again, after so many years, I like it.  I think it stands up well and shows another side to my playing,” Robinett explained in his press package.

Henry Robinett is not only a jazz guitarist, bandleader, composer and artist, but he’s also an educator.  He’s been in love with the guitar since age thirteen.  His diverse and extremely different musical influences were Jimi Hendrix and Charles Mingus, who was his father’s first cousin.  When Robinett isn’t performing, you may find him teaching in Vienna, Austria at the American Institute of Music or on the faculty of the University of the Pacific and Consumnes River College.

As a lover of ‘swing’ and bebop, I am drawn to Henry Robinett’s music like a fish to water.  I find a comfort level swimming in his clearly defined melodies and soaking up his rich improvisations.  The songs this quartet offers are mostly familiar and range from a swinging arrangement of “On the Street Where You Live” to the sexy ballad, “Body and Soul.”  They swing “Like Someone in Love” and shuffle through “Milestones.”  Every tune becomes a favorite and each arrangement is brilliantly highlighted by the gold-plated excellence of these musicians.

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RODERICK HARPER – “EVOLVING” – R. H. M. Entertainment, Inc.

Roderick Harper, vocals; Oscar Rossignoli, piano/percussion; Shea Pierre, Jesse Davis & Ellis Marsalis, piano; Robin Sherman, Roland Guerin & Amina Scott, bass; Chris Guccione, Gerald Watkins, Geoff Clapp & Jamison Ross, drums; Donald Harrison, saxophone; Thomas Dawson, string arrangement; Roderick Paulin, soprano saxophone; John Jones, Fender Rhodes piano.

Vocalist, Roderick Harper Muhammad, opens this album with an original composition titled “Infinite Heart” that he co-wrote with Donald Harrison.  I was unsure about this artist because of all the dissonance I heard on this first song.  Was it intentional?  Was the vocalist off pitch or were the chords strange?  But when I heard him sing, “Never Let Me Go” I had a completely different opinion of Roderick Harper Muhammad. This tune is the only one featuring the iconic Ellis Marsalis.  The Thomas Dawson string arrangement is beautiful as Harper-Muhammad pours his heart out.

When he tackled the Donny Hathaway hit record, “Someday We’ll All Be Free” he continued to make me a believer.  The man can sing.  Performing with only bass and piano, he was vocally strong.  However, I began to wish his piano accompanist had been more of a jazz pianist.  The musicians change on this recording, which also takes away from the continuity of the production and Harper-Muhammad has self-produced his project.  Sometimes an artist needs a producer to sit in the engineering booth and guide them to find the very best of themselves. That being said, the potential and vocal charm of this artist are clearly present.  He is a diamond in the rough.  But like he states in the title of this project, Roderick Harper is ‘Evolving.’ 

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TRIO GRANDE – Whirlwind Recordings

Will Vinson, saxophones/keyboards; Gilad Hekselman, guitars; Antonio Sanchez, drums.

What do you get when you mix Mexican, Israeli and British cultures into a contemporary jazz album?  It’s like a ball of colorful yarn that unravels and spins songs featuring saxophones, guitars, drums and a splattering of keyboards?  The answer is, “Trio Grande.” 

This is their debut statement and features three, inventive musicians who are working the New York music scene.  Will Vinson is British-born and plays saxophones.  Gilad Hekselman is an Israeli guitarist and Antonio Sanchez is a Mexico City native, a drummer who has been living in Queens for quite a while. Each musician is a bandleader of their own unique groups, but they come together on this recording to explore a bass-less situation.  Without a bass to ground the music, they are hoping to share a sort of musical freedom, while interjecting their diverse cultures. 

Each member is a composer.  Drummer, Sanchez composed the opening tune, “Northbound” and track 6, “Gocta,” that has a fluid, ethereal feel to it.   Hekselman’s love of song forms and melody, along with his appreciation of folk music and pop, is reflected in his composition, “Elli Yeled Tov.”  The addition of hand-claps and the isolation of instrumentation, soloing alone at first with only hand-clapping accompaniment, brings a child’s party atmosphere to mind.  I quickly learn the repetitive melody, but I notice that the rhythm patterns are more complicated than the simplistic melodic tones.  Will Vinson has composed “Oberkampf,” a brooding song with streaks of rock music threaded through the electric guitar lines.  It’s very dirge-like.  On the other side of the coin, his original song, “Upside” gives Antonio Sanchez the opportunity to play on the introduction with just his trap drums.  Once Vinson, the saxophonist enters, his composition transforms to a smooth jazz, contemporary-feel.  I found myself drawn to the song, “Firenze” by Sanchez, who takes a very melodic solo on drums. 

This is an interesting blend of cultures and music that, as Will Vinson muses:

“…The album’s magic lies in the way that so many disparate musical elements are woven together to create a coherent whole. … We’re all grounded in jazz, but all of us are also looking for other sounds and influences to bring in.”

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CARLA CAMPOPIANO – “CHICAGO/BUENOS AIRES CONNECTIONS, VOL. 11” – Independent Label

Carla Campopiano, flutes; Gustavo Cortinas, drums/percussion.

Having worked for three major record companies in the past, (United Artists/Bluenote and A&M) I know how important the cover or jacket of an album is to promotion, sales and artist development.  The artwork of Esperanza Gama certainly got my attention, with her multi-colored, decoratively painted hand on the cover of Carla Campopiano’s new CD.  Campopiano is a Chicago artist who has been blending her native Argentinean roots with jazz for several years.  On this recording she uses her flute to introduce us to several Argentine composers, sparsely using only a trio setting to explore these compositions.   It’s very South American folksy, slightly blended with jazz.  This project is dedicated lovingly to their talented vocalist, Alba Guerra, who passed away after the recording was completed. I was especially taken by her emotional delivery and interpretation of “La Pomena.” 

Carla Campopiano is a studied musician who mastered the Latin melodies and rhythms of candombe, chacarera, milonga and the tango.  She also has studied and played Middle Eastern music and found herself working with American heavy metal bands in Chicago.  As an educator, she shares her years of research into the history of tango music on a podcast that promotes Latin American artists showcasing their original music. This project invites listeners to enjoy Carla Campopiano’s warm flute talents and to be introduced to what classical music becomes when culturally combined with tangos, milongas, zambas, Argentinean composers, world music and jazz.

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AARON BURNETT & THE BIG MACHINE – “JUPITER CONJUNCT” – Fresh New Talent Label

Aaron Burnett, tenor saxophone/composer; Adam O’Farrill, trumpet; Joel Ross, vibraphone; Carlos Homs, piano/keyboard; Nick Jozwiak, bass; Kush Abadey, drums; Esperanza Spalding, vocals.

Aaron Burnett’s album title fascinated me, because this year issues in an astrological change that hasn’t happened in twenty years.  When Jupiter and Saturn conjuncted in December, their meeting created a very bright star in the sky.  Some astrologers think that was the north star that led the wise men to baby Jesus many years ago.  On this unusual 2019 Winter Solstice occasion, this conjunction is called a Grand Mutation.  It signals a big change on Earth and for those who believe in astrology, a pathway into the Age of Aquarius.  Aaron Burnett described the album title this way:

“Jupiter Conjunct is a testament to seek and perpetuate the evolution of my consciousness and my admiration of our creator and the connection to the All through sound.”

The group opens with his ballad composition “Color Durations” that is one in nine original pieces Burnett has written for this album.  It’s meditative in feel and sound, using the piano of Carlos Homs as a catalyst that sparkles like stars on a clear night. Track 2, “The Veil,” features the close harmonies of trumpeter Adam O’Farrill and Aaron Burnett on tenor saxophone.  This technique is used throughout the album.  I enjoyed the contrast during the trio performance of the Homs upper register keyboard against the rich bass sounds of Nick Jozwiak. Joel Ross adds vibraphone to the mix and its quite compelling, changing the face of the song, like adding lip gloss to a pretty model’s lovely face.  Once the mood has been set and Aaron Burnett steps into the spotlight on alto saxophone, he flushes out improvised ideas and spews his musical thoughts rigorously.  Burnett’s music is both melodic and Avant-garde.  The vocals of Esperanza Spalding, harmonizing with Burnett’s tenor sax, hooks into my ear like a gold earring.  Spalding’s scat singing enhances the production and introduces us to the melody of “Ganymede,” along with the vibes of Joel Ross, before Burnett takes over to pump the piece up on his horn.  Finally, on track 5, the song “10” races from the disc with energy and gives Kush Abedey, on drums, an opportunity to showcase his chops.  Up until this point, all the music had been pretty ‘laid back’.  I wish Abedey had put some funk into this piece or laid down sixteen or more bars of pure groove, just to lift the arrangement and let me snap my fingers to the two and four.  Sometimes ethereal is over-rated.  Aaron Burnett & the Big Machine offer an opportunity for Burnett to present his original compositions and arrangements to the world.  They repeat the song, “Ganymede” to close this album out as an alternate take.  It is one of the most interesting and charismatic songs on this project, reminding me a lot of the early art of Flora Purim with Airto Moreira. 

According to Jupiter’s conjunct status, in 2021, we are now moving into the realm of new ideas and explorations into technology.  Like the power he uses to blow his horn, we are now moving into an era propelled by the element of air.  I believe Aaron Burnett is growing into his power and talent, evolving with each new gig and every fresh composition. 

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DECEMBER ENDS THE YEAR ON A HIGH NOTE! JAZZ CD REVIEWS.

December 12, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil

December 12, 2020

ALEX DE GRASSI RELEASES SOLO HOLIDAY VIDEO & SINGLE – Tropo Records

Guitarist Alex de Grassi has been a unique voice in the world of acoustic guitar for over four decades.  Recently he released “The Bridge” an extraordinary album of solo guitar expression.  He continues that signature sound on this single, released December 7th, in celebration of the holiday season.  His holiday single was recorded at the legendary Skywalker Sound studio in Northern California with famous engineers, Leslie Ann Jones and Steven Miller who is renowned for his work with acoustic guitarists.  Animation by Greg Browe.

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DUDUKA DA FONSECA, HELIO ALVES, NILSON MATTA – “THE BRAZILIAN TRIO – AGUAS BRASILEIRAS”- Zoho Records

Duduka Da Fonseca, drums/composer; Nilson Matta, bass/composer; Helio Alves, piano/composer.

When I hear the Brazilian trio music of Helio Alves, Nilson Matta and Duduka Da Fonseca, it brightens my day.  This amazing threesome is known for performing and blending their cultural, Brazilian music with jazz in a lovely way.  They open with a song that celebrates Da Fonseca’s wife, Maucha Adner, titled, “Maucha na Praia.”  Composed by Da Fonseca, it’s quite melodic and joyful.  The Alvas piano mastery introduces us to this charming melodic samba and liberally improvises on the theme.  The second track becomes an immediate favorite of mine.  Composed by Nilson Matta and titled “Sampa 67,” it features the Matta bass during the introduction.  The bass is joined by a sparkling drum energy, then Helio’s piano dances with the melody.  This piece is a tribute to Milson Matta’s birthplace in Brazil.  I discovered that ‘Sampa’ is an abbreviation for Sao Paulo.  As the song develops, it gives space and time for each member of the trio to shine.  They often sound as if they are having casual conversations with each other instrumentally.  It’s a very intoxicating piece.  Duduka Da Fonseca is inspirational on his driving drums.  

Helio Alvas has penned “Aninha” (written for his daughter) and also their closing song, “Vila Madalena.”  This trio reinvents music from Black Orpheus with their stunning arrangement, allowing drums and bass to open the piece.  I love to hear a double bass player bow his instrument.  Matta does just that and it’s truly beautiful.  Da Fonseca’s drums propel the trilogy forward and Helio Alves dances atop the brightness on piano.  They have blended composers on this Black Orpheus trilogy of music, entertaining us in a delightful way, while featuring familiar songs by Jobim and Luiz Bonfa.  They incorporate “A Felicidade”, “Manha de Carnaval” and “Samba de Orfeu” during this medley.  The Charlie Mingus tune, “Boogie Stop Shuffle” is a musical surprise package, with the solos peeling off the arrangement like brightly colored ribbons.  It’s Brazilian blues at its best.  Track 8 is a hypnotic ballad, that sooths like a lullaby.  It’s titled “Aguas Brasileiras and is written by Matta.  “Manhattan Style” is track 9, composed by Da Fonseca and leaps straight-ahead into my listening room with gusto.  It has that trademark, New York energy and is played at a speedy tempo, reminding me of meteors racing across the sky.  Like the universe itself, this music unwinds and wraps around us in a very exciting and universal way.

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GAYELYNN McKINNEY AND McKINNEY ZONE – “ZOOT SUIT FUNK” – Independent Label

Gayelynn McKinney, drums/vocals/composer; Ibrahim Jones, bass; Alex Anest, guitar; Demetrius Nabors, keyboards; Trenita Womack, vocals/percussion; Rafael Statin, tenor & soprano Saxophones/bass flute/bass clarinet.

If you love passionate, funk jazz, drummer Gayelynn McKinney has recorded just such an album.  The title is self-explanatory and the music is hot, energized, modern and melodic.  On this album, the Detroit-based musician features her own compositions and a band of musical masters who propel and infuse her arrangements.  Gayelynn’s former album was a tribute to her talented father, Harold McKinney, who was a pianist, composer, educator and bandleader until his death in 2019.  On that album, Gayelynn played all of his original compositions. 

This time around, she shines the spotlight on her own songwriting and arranging talents.  She has a wonderful sense of melody along with her gift of time as she enthusiastically compliments each composition with her drum licks. This percussive master has been playing drums since age two.  She received her Bachelor of Music degree from Oakland University, but spent most of her life rubbing her drum talents next to Detroit masters like Teddy Harris, Ralph Armstrong, Marcus Belgrave and was co-founder and member of the all-girls group, ‘Straight Ahead’ that included bass impresario, Marion Hayden.  In 2014, Gayelynn won a Kresge Artist Fellows Award with the ‘Straight Ahead’ ensemble.  Adaptable and able to play all kinds of music, she has been a sideman with a number of icons including the great Benny Golson, vocalists Diane Shure, Freda Payne, Chaka Khan, the late Kevin Mahogany and more.  She was the last drummer to tour with Aretha Franklin, where she had the honor of playing before presidential hopeful, Hillary Clinton.  She also performed at the Tribeca Film Festival featuring a tribute to Clive Davis. Gayelynn is as comfortable playing straight ahead as she is funk jazz, Latin or going completely avant-garde.  For example, Ms.  McKinney has performed with the late, great Geri Allen, Larry Coryell, Rick Margitza, Randy Brecker, Roy Hargrove, Ralphe Armstrong, Steve Turre and James Carter, to list just a few.  Those genre bending artists clearly demonstrates her diversity.

Every song on this album is both entertaining and well-played.  The first song, “Stylin” is energy- propelled by Gayelynn’s dynamic drums and percussionist, Trenita Womack. The introduction tributes her Detroit/Motown roots, briefly reminding us of Stevie Wonder’s hit tune “I Wish,” before Rafael Statin takes over with his improvising saxophone.  The background vocals of Trenita Womack and Gayelynn McKinney enhance the production, singing the song’s title sporadically throughout.  On track 2, Ibrahim Jones solidifies the rhythm section on his bass, as the band invites us to meet “Space Goddess.”  I really enjoy the studio mix on this CD, as well as the mix of her repertoire.  Track 3 celebrates Jill Scott with Jill’s tune, “My Love.”  They ‘shuffle’ the neo-soul composition and it works!  Once again, Gayelynn and Trenita sing the hook.  Alex Anest takes an appealing solo on guitar.  Gayelynn’s “Gwendolyn” fusion-funk composition was written to celebrate her mother.

Gayelynn explained in her liner notes: “The quirky beat was my mother’s sassy side and the melody was her sweet side.”

There’s also a sweet nod to Bill Withers when the group re-explores his “Lovely Day” song.  They offer a delightful display of tenderness on “Peaceful Place,” another McKinney original composition. It’s the only ballad on this album, with Rafael Statin stepping away from his saxophone to supply the bass flute solo.  “Just A Little Bass and Drums” is interpreted by Ibrahim and Gayelynn McKinney using just that; bass & drums; along with Rafael Statin who adds his bass clarinet to the mix.  This arrangement features Gayelynn’s scat vocals that spice up the piece.  The title tune closes out this CD just the way it begins; tenacious and funky.  Gayelynn McKinney is ever present on her trap drums singing brightly, but never overpowering the band.  Instead, she prods, pushes and colors the music in a powerful way.   

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PATRICK CORNELIUS – “ACADIA: THE WAY OF THE CAIRNS” – Whirlwind Recordings

Patrick Cornelius, alto saxophone/composer; Kristjan Randalu, piano; Michael Janisch, double bass; Paul Wiltgen, drums.

Here is a collective of musicians, quite familiar with playing together. They were once known as the “TransAtlantic Collective.”  Fourteen years ago, Cornelius and bassist, Michael Janisch, (who is also the president of the Whirlwind record label) joined forces with drummer Paul Wiltgen and pianist Kristjan Randalu to play together as the TransAtlantic Collective and to tour.  On this project, they have reunited.  Today, they call themselves, “Acadia.” 

The music is all original, mostly composed by alto saxophonist, Patrick Cornelius.  Pianist, Randalu, has contributed track 6, “Valse Hesitante,” a melancholy ballad played quite sensitively with classical overtones.  Drummer, Paul Wiltgen” wrote “Ten Years Later,” that closed this album out, celebrating the band’s reuniting after a decade.  On the opening composition and title tune, Michael Janisch takes an exploratory bass solo that is quite captivating.  The tone and approach of Patrick Cornelius on his saxophone embraces a more relaxed, smooth-jazz feel. He reminds me a lot of Stan Getz.  His writing is quite melodic and you can clearly hear the youthful, smooth-jazz feel on “Star Party,” with Wiltgen pushing his rhythmic drums in a funk groove.  Kristjan Randalu steps into view with an improvisational piano solo that still keeps the melody front and center.  Cornelius explains that this tune is meant to commemorate a beachside star-gazing party. 

All the tunes, as well as the CD cover itself, are celebrating mother earth and her extraordinary importance to our lives.  The titles of these original compositions speak of her spellbinding beauty and remind us of the importance of earth as our home and the original mother of humanity.  You will hear tunes like “Personal Beehives” and “On the Precipice”; “Blueberry Mountain” presents a leaning towards straight-ahead jazz and “Seawall Sunrise,” is a lovely, moderate tempo’d tune with Wiltgen’s drums brushing the cymbals and recreating the tide splashing against a seawall.  On “Darkest Night” I love that they handed the melody to the bassist to introduce and once the composition is established and rooted, they let Michael Janisch get totally free on his double bass.  It’s an intriguing arrangement.  Perhaps Patrick Cornelius summed this project up best.

 “My idea was to feature the band as the lead voice, rather than myself.  There’s a definite chemistry here, not super-straight ahead, but not avant-garde either; embracing the European aesthetic, but with the ability to swing hard as well.  That’s the unique magic of this band,” Cornelius explained.

 “The Way of the Cairns” is easy-listening jazz that applauds the importance of Mother Earth and our planet in a very melodic way.

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GEOF BRADFIELD, BEN GOLDBERG, DANA HALL TRIO – “GENERAL SEMANTICS” – Delmark Records

Geof Bradfield, tenor & soprano saxophone/bass clarinet; Ben Goldberg, B flat clarinet/contra-alto clarinet; Dana Hall, drums/cymbals, percussion.

On their opening tune, a Cecil Taylor composition titled, “Air” Dana Hall shines brightly on drums.  Geof Bradfield’s tenor saxophone seems to be having a friendly debate with Goldberg’s clarinet, as they trade licks and spit melodic phrases at each other.  I am intrigued.   Geof Bradfield has composed track 2.  It’s called “Tioga Street Zenith” and it unfolds dramatically and slowly, like a butterfly shaking loose from its cocoon.  The song flies into the universe, wings spread and a beautiful melody flutters from the two horns.  This entire production showcases the composer talents of both Goldberg & Bradfield, as well as the trio embracing their own interpretations of Duke Ellington and Strayhorn’s composition, “Half the Fun,” along with Cecil Taylor and Hermeto Pascoal songs.  Without the expected piano, guitar or bass as part of their rhythm section, this unusual instrumentation becomes both unique and entertaining.  I think it freed these dynamic musicians up to reach past traditional instrument performances and add their own extraordinary improvisation and internal communication with each other.  There is an overall feeling of camaraderie and comfort.  I was especially taken with “Last Important Heartbreak of the Year”, written by Ben Goldberg.  It swings hard, even without a bass player.  Reminds me of the music you would hear in New Orleans.   On “Lamentation” I enjoyed the clarinet smoothly becoming the bass line, while drummer Dana Hall stirs the pots. This is another inspiring and melodic composition by Goldberg. 

If you are in search of something new, fresh and innovative on the jazz scene, this production will totally satisfy your artistic palate.

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THE JCA (JAZZ COMPOSERS ALLIANCE) ORCHESTRA LIVE AT THE BPC WITH STRINGS THEORY TRIO – JCA Recordings

Conductors: Tino D’Agostino, David Harris, & Darrell Katz. Rebecca Shrimpton, voice; Hiro Honshuko, flute/EWI; Rick Stone, alto saxophone; Lihi Haruvi, alto & soprano saxophones; Phil Scarff, tenor & soprano sax/clarinet; Melanie Howell-Brooks, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet; Mike Peipman, Dan Rosenthal & Jerry Sabatini, trumpets; Jim Mosher, French horn; Jason Camelio & Bob Pikington, trombones; David Harris, trombone & tuba. 5-string violin: Mimi Rabson, Helen Sherrah-Davies; Junko Fujiwara, cello; Maxim Lubarsky, piano; Gilbert Mansour, percussion; Tony ‘Thunder’ Smith, drums; Vessela Stoyanova, vibes/marimba; Jesse Williams, bass; Norm Zocher, guitar.

This album showcases four master jazz composers: David Harris, Darrell Katz, Bob Pilkington and Mimi Rabson.  Robson is a violinist, as well as a composer, and her composition, “Romanople” opens this project.  It pulls from the polka realms at the beginning.  Mimi explains that the song is based on the days of the Roman Empire when they had two capitals; Rome and Constantinople.  These two places had little in common culturally, but she has fused the two in her arrangement, beginning with odd-metered, Turkish, folk music that morphs into a dramatic brass band interpretation with the drums pushed by the busy mallets of Tony ‘Thunder’ Smith.  Track 2 is a David Harris composition inspired by McCoy Tyner’s 1976 album, “Fly with the Wind.”  It swoops into our ears with lush, orchestrated harmonies.  Harris wrote it after imagining what it would be like if Tyner’s large ensemble (inclusive of strings and woodwinds) had met with a group of traditional Thai instrumentalists. Titled “The Latest,” this piece features a beautiful solo by Melanie Howell-Brooks, who is smooth as satin on both baritone saxophone and bass clarinet.  Harris incorporates voices at the fade of his song, with a strong melodic influence that brings to mind how Stevie Wonder used voices in his 1970s Award-winning productions.  Composer/trombonist, Bob Pilkington, embraced his composer role by using a number sequence to write “The Sixth Snake.”   This piece commemorates his 60th birthday and is based on the Japanese ‘Year of the Snake.’  It uses harmonic structure represented by the number series, 27563.

“I’m a noodler by nature,” Pilkington explains. “I like to play around with ideas and build a piece.”   

Darrell Katz offers us track 5, “A Wallflower in the Amazon.”  This composition is based on a poem by Paula Tatarunis of the same title.  It features the vocals of Rebecca Shrimpton, who shares the poetic lyrics within the orchestrated structure of the Katz melody.  It’s not a melody the average person could sing or even hum along with, because it’s a more avant-garde arrangement and production.  Darrell Katz clearly had a different conception.

“I am always trying to make the melody and words be unified.  …I really want the listener to pay attention to the words and I want the music to help them,” Katz stated in their press package. 

“Super Eyes – Private Heroes” became one of my favorites on this album.  It’s fun, full of spunk and energy, and leans more towards the bebop side of jazz. Composed by Mimi Rabson, it features a very moving and engaging violin solo that wraps the sweet violin strings warmly around the blues.  This is Rabson’s tribute to sound tracks of super hero movies like James Bond or The Incredibles.  Soloists Melanie Howell Brooks, Helen Sherrah-Davies and David Harris are the heroes who step forward to save the day and totally entertain us. 

This entire album was performed ‘live’ at the Berklee Recording Studios, with engineer Alex Rodriguez at the helm in coordination with mixing, editing and mastering connoisseur, Antonio Oliart.  Perhaps composer and conductor, Darrell Katz, summed it up best when he stated:

“Recording ‘live’ is really different than recording in the studio.  There’s a more focused energy and a sense of urgency, … a real feeling of a community working together.”

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THE ROYAL BOPSTERS – “PARTY OF FOUR” – Motema Records

Amy London, soprano; Holli Ross, alto; Pete McGuinness, tenor; Dylan Pramuk, bass. THE ROYAL GUEST VOCALISTS: Bob Dorough & Sheila Jordan; Christian McBride, bass. THE BAND: Steve Schmidt, piano; Cameron Brown, bass; Steve Williams, drums; Steven Kroon, percussion.  THE ARRANGERS: Dylan Pramuk, Pete McGuinness & Steve Schmidt.

This reviewer has long been a lover of a’ Capella groups and vocal harmonies since listening to the street-corner, doo-wap, rhythm & blues groups singing in Detroit.  When I heard Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, I was totally hooked.  The Royal Bopsters carry on this marvelous, jazzy, vocal artform in a grand way.  Their tightly knitted voices create an electrifying group of arrangements, warm and comfortable as a cashmere sweater.   Here is a twelve-track album of swing and harmonic beauty, dedicated to one of their members, who sadly passed away in 2020; their alto singer, Holli Ross. 

The Royal Bopsters, “Party of Four” also incorporates a band into their group and pianist Steve Schmidt shows off his blues ‘chops’ on “Why’d You Do Me the Way You did?”  

I was intoxicated with The Royal Bopsters on t unes like “Daydream” (by Billy Strayhorn) which they perform a ‘Capella and the four voices are united as a single, harmonic sound.  They have such a special chemistry together.  I did not find their individual solo voices as compelling as their unified artistic presentation.  Bassist, Christian McBride is featured with Holli Ross on “Cuando Te Vea” and the group swings hard on this one, against a backdrop of strong Latin flavor.  This is another arrangement that quickly becomes one of my favorites.  Percussionist, Steven Kroon, is given an impressive time to shine in the spotlight.  “Baby, You Should Know it,” (composed by featured vocalist Bob Dorough and B. Tucker) is another spellbinding arrangement.  Also, two of the members, (Amy London and Pete McGuinness) surprise me with their original composition, “Our Spring Song” that sounds like a jazz standard.  McGuinness has also arranged several tunes on this album.  Another member, Dylan Pramuk, shines spectacularly as an arranger of the group’s music.  He has arranged seven of the dozen songs they proudly present to us.  Here is an exciting and beautifully produced album featuring magnificent vocal arrangements and special guest vocals by Bob Dorough (who passed away in 2018) and 92-year-old jazz icon, Ms. Sheila Jordan.  This is a historic album, with a uniquely selective repertoire that shows us the amazing vocal versatility of these four gifted singers and their featured arrangers.   Enjoy a masterclass in the art of vocalese. 

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JAZZ REFLECTIONS ON A PANDEMIC

November 8, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

November 8, 2020

FRED HERSCH – “SONGS FROM HOME” – Palmetto records

Fred Hersch, piano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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JENI SLOTCHIVER – “AMERICAN HERITAGE” – Zoho Records

Jeni Slotchiver, piano.

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

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SCOTT ROUTENBERG – “INSIDE” – Summit Records

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

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

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

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

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JULIAN GERSTIN – “LITTORAL ZONE” – Independent Label

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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MEN IN JAZZ / 2020

November 1, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil/Jazz Journalist

November 1, 2020

KEMUEL ROIG – “GENESIS” – Independent Label

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That says it all!

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NOAH HAIDU – “DOCTONE” – Sunnyside label

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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MATT ULERY – “POLLINATOR” – WoolGatheringRecords

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

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

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

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

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

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

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DOUGLAS OLSEN – “2 CENTS” – Independent Label

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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WILL BONNESS – “CHANGE OF PLANS”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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OUTSTANDING JAZZ ARRANGERS & COMPOSERS

October 14, 2020

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz journalist

October 13, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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WALTER WHITE – “BBXL” – Independent Label

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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RAPHAEL PANNIER – “FAUNE” – French Paradox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 BEN ZUCKER – “FIFTH SEASON” – Amalgam Records

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

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

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