Monday, November 12, 2018

Large Ensemble, Sextet, Trio, & Solo Stories

Composer, arranger, educator and guitarist Darrell Katz has lived and worked in the Boston, MA, area now for over four decades. In 1985, he was one of the founders of the Jazz Composers Alliance, an organization with aims similar to those of the Chicago's AACM and New York City's Jazz Composers Collective; among those aims was to promote the work of a variety of artists in the area .  JCA also  formed an orchestra to work whose early concerts and commissions featured the likes of Julius Hemphill, Sam Rivers, Dave Holland, Maria Schneider, Fred Ho, and others.  The JCAO has been featured on the majority of Katz's albums.

His latest aural adventure, "Rats Live On No Evil Star" (JCA Recordings), is a sprawling set of songs that cover many topics and myriad genres. The opening track, the title song, is a multi-part composition originally composed for the chamber music duo Marimolin in 1987. Here, it is expanded for the 19-piece ensemble. The evocative marimba work of Vessela Stoynova, the powerful violin playing of Helen Sherrah-Davies, the wordless vocals of long-time JCAO associate Rebecca Shrimpton, the saxophones solos of Rick Stone (alto) and Phil Scarff (tenor), are highlights; then again, so is the brilliant orchestration and the use of Bill Lowe's expressive tuba along with Mike Connors funky drumming.

Photo: Andrew Hurlbut
After that concerto-style opening track comes the three-part "How To Clean a Sewer" - at 35+ minutes, the music goes in so many directions.  Part I, titled "3 or 4 Kinds of Blues", has so much going on, different groupings of instruments "conversing" with each other all revolving around a simple blues melody.  Again, the marimba is a major rhythmic and melodic voice as is the violin.  Part II, "Windfall Lemons (air, earth, water, fire)", is also blues-based but this time revolves around poem written by Katz's late wife Paula Tatarunis. It's fascinating how Ms. Shrimpton can make such "dark" lyrics sound so inviting.  Part III, "Attention", also revolves around lyrics: this time, it's Simone Weil's quote "Attention is the rest and purest form of generosity." Now, one hears the influence of Neal Hefti and Henry Mancini in the arrangement as well as more modern arrangers.

By this time, one is already 49 minutes into the album and there are still four more tracks. Each one of the remaining cut stands out but it's the album closer, "Red Sea", that truly stands out. Ms. Shrimpton adapted an essay from Ms.Tatarunis, a remembrance of a fascinating man that poet had met early in life who returned other life much later.  The vocalist also wrote the music along with Katz who plays guitar on the track. This trio piece is rounded out by pianist Alizon Lissance, yet another musician on the album who works at Berklee College with the leader and vocalist.  This music is quite handsome underneath Ms. Shrimpton's heartfelt vocal.  It's a gentle ending to a program that has great energy, at times, blending flashes of anger with long passages of  brilliant music.

"Rats Live On an Evil Star" is, like other Darrell Katz recordings, one that you should take time with. Enjoy the music, the hairpin curves, the quick turns, the powerful lyrics yet don't ignore the settings and the orchestrations that Katz creates throughout.  The brilliant juxtaposition of the mallet instruments with the "low" sounds of the baritone saxophone and the tuba, the voice with the violin, the sectional work and the short, pithy, solos; that and more makes this album an exciting adventure from beginning to end.

For more information, go to

Here's one of the tracks not in the review, "To An Angel":

Ernesto Cervini wears many hats. He's a drummer, composer, arranger, publicist, husband, father, and brother to vocalist Amy Cervini, all the while leading or co-leading several ensembles. One of those ensembles is Turboprop, a sextet that features bassist Dan Loomis (he of the thick tones and penchant for melodies), pianist Adrean Farrugia, tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm, alto and soprano saxophonist Tara Davidson (she also contributes flute), and trombonist William Carn.  The sextet has just issued its third album, "Abundance" (Anzic Records) that is an aptly titled collection of originals and standards.  The album gets its name from Loomis's "Abundance Overture", a splendid tune with a folky opening melody (played by flute and accompanied by Cervini's sticks. The horns enter, the piece takes on a jaunty feel and everyone plays with great joy.

This is quite a versatile ensemble that often sounds as if it's much larger.  Farrugia's "The Ten Thousand Things" is a high-powered romp with moments where the band drops out and you just hear the composer's fine chord work. The band really flies during Frahm's muscular solo, powers by a rampaging rhythm section.  The leader's "Song For Cito", perhaps the only song you'll ever hear dedicated to  the former manager of the Toronto Blue Jays Cito Gaston. Carn's hardy trombone solo is followed by a high-powered romp from the pianist.  "Gramps", the other original by Cervini, is a ballad dedicated to the drummer's grandfather yet it too has an intensity that shows up as the Ms. Davidson moves through her solo. The piece does return to its gentle roots as the ensemble slows to the finish.

On an album loaded with highlights, none shine brighter than the two back-to-back standards. First, there's the powerful "My Shining Hour", a Howard Arlen that Cervini heard on a Geoff Keezer solo piano album. The arrangement opens with a splay of all the instruments before the pianist leads the way into the melody that is played by the reeds and trombone.  It's the trombone that gets the lead on the gentle reading of "Smile", the Charlie Chaplin composition that the composer, writer, and director wrote for the soundtrack of his 1936 movie "Modern Times." The spotlight is on Carn for the first three minutes of the piece but do pay attention to how the rhythm section frames his solo.  Loomis steps out for a solo - he's so melodic, always going for the emotional heart of the song and not showing off his technique.

"Abundance" is the sound of a sextet that is comfortable with each other, willing to challenge each other, and having a great time making good music.  There's much to enjoy when Ernesto Cervini's Turboprop gets together - give them a close listen!

For more information, go to

Here's the opening track:

Every once is a while, the reviewer receives an album that wins you over initially on the strength of the joy that the musicians exude.  Such is the case with the debut recording by drummer, composer, and arranger Henry Conway III.  "With Pride For Dignity" (self-released) finds the Detroit, MI native leading a trio that features Kenny Banks Jr. (piano) and Kevin Smith (drums).  It's a cooperative ensemble with all three musicians contributing arrangements and/or songs. Listening to the opening track "Slippery" (composed by Ray Brown and arranged by bassist Smith), the first impressions I had after "how delightful" was how much the overall blues feel sounded like the musical approach of Phineas Newborn Jr. and what a lyrical bassist Smith is.  The leader does not impose his will on any song but you cannot miss his presence.  The title track (composed by Banks Jr.) is an episodic journey that, at times, feels like the history of jazz going into your ears. Note how the tempo changes happen on a dime, how the music swings with power, and all three musicians are tuned in to each other.

Photo: Adrian H. Tillman
The trio pays tribute to composer/musicians such as Duke Ellington ("Cottontail"), Jimmy Heath ("Gingerbread Boy"), Detroit native, and mentor to the drummer, Marcus Printup ("Hopscotch"), and the afore-mentioned Phineas Newborn Jr. ("Sugar Ray").  Each on of the tunes shines on the power of its melody and the reinvention of a modern ensemble.  Both the Printup and Newborn Jr. songs are "deep blues" with the former having an irresistible rhythm as well as the hint of "rent party" piano while the latter has such a jaunty feel with Banks Jr. digging into his solo over the walking bass lines and the "easy" beats from the drummer. "Cottontail" speeds forward on the power of the brilliant brushes work and an inventive bass line (here's where the listener detects the Ray Brown influence on Smith).  The leader starts on supplying the rhythm of "Gingerbread Boy" aided and abetted by the bassist and the pianist's left hand.  Once Conerway III switches to his sticks, the trio is off on a romp.

The pianist's "The Feel Goods" and the drummer's "Carvin's Agreement" closes the proceedings; the former is a delightful medium-tempo blues and the latter a solo drum piece.  Even though there are no ballads on the program, neither does that lack bother this reviewer.  At this time of such negativity in the U.S. and elsewhere, the brightness of this music, the obvious joy of the musicians as they move through the songs, the promise of more-to-come, is a breath of fresh air. Plus, this album reminds you of the power that the blues has to settle one's mind and to assure you we're all on this trip together.  Kudos to Henry Conerway III and his trio!

To find out more, go to

Over the past four decades, pianist, composer, educator, and author Kenny Werner has created music that can move one's feet, touch one's heart, capture one's mind, and explore the far corners of our world as well as our worlds of emotions.  "The Space" (Pirouet Records) is his 35th release as a leader or co-leader and his fifth solo recording. The program features three originals, two pieces from label owner and saxophonist Jason Seizer, two standards ("You Must Believe in Spring" and "If I Should Lose You"), and a fascinating take on a Keith Jarrett improvisation.  The Jarrett piece, "Encore From Tokyo", an excerpt of a piece first heard on the 1976 ECM album "Sun Bear Concerts", is one of those delightful pano romps the composer/improviser creates during his shows - here, Werner's performance finds the joy of the piece, the uptempo yet entrancing rhythm, and the lyricism that hints at Charles Lloyd's "Forest Flower."

The title track opens the album. At 15:57, it's the longest track on the recording, moving from melody to rhythm to a pleasing combination of both, soothing the listener, the "spacious" (no pun intended) sound and clear audio makes every note stand out.  Really, what the composer and the pianist expects is that the listener will surrender to the charms of the music, throw away labels, allow the music to bot out out extraneous sounds, close one's eyes, and relax.  This is not a "new age" trance dance but an adventure in which the listener is allowed into the mind of the creator. There is no other piece on the album that sounds like this one yet it sets the stage for all that follows, "loosens up" the listener, and you are ready to follow Werner everywhere his fertile mind takes him.

And, it's a treat. From the Jarrett tune to the lovely take of Michel LeGrand's "...Believe in Spring" to both of Seizer's elegant compositions to the gracious flow of the Rainger/Robin classic "If I Should Lose You" (from the 1936 movie "Rose of the Rancho"), this is music that gets its hooks (pun intended) into you. The other two Werner originals are "Fifth Movement" and the album's close track "Fall From Grace."  The former, which does right after the Jarrett piece, is somewhat more introspective yet also displays flashes of lengthy melodic flourishes throughout; but, listen to the pianist's left hand as it suggests both a rhythm and a bass line. The latter cut opens with a handsome, stately, melody.  The steady left hand chords set the pace and do not let down, hinting at a J. S. Bach air.  That slow but steady pace makes the piece very much of a closing statement.

"The Space" deserves tome listened to all the way through time and time again.  Kenny Werner continues to create music that follows no one's directions but his own. The avid listener is the grateful beneficiary.

For more information, go to

Here's one of the Werner originals:

Saturday, November 3, 2018

"Thelonious The Onliest"

I can't claim the sobriquet "Thelonious The Onliest" for my own creation (there are numerous references to where it came from) but it is certainly a fitting description.  Thelonious Sphere Monk (1917-1982) first came to critical notice in the mid-1940s during the birth of bebop and stayed popular through the 1960s.  The native of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, created a unique style with references to the "rent party" piano of James P. Johnson, the rollicking stye of Thomas "Fats" Waller, and others but, really, nobody sounded like Monk. His splintered lines and fractured rhythms stand beside his fascinating melodies as a touchstone for pianists and other instrumentalists over the past seven decades and there is no reason to think that influence will ever dissipate. He played and recorded in many settings, from solo to trio to quartet to large ensembles yet his musical style never wavered.  Songs such as "'Round Midnight", "Mistersioso", "Crepuscule With Nellie", "Well You Needn't" and so many more, show up on set lists every night in clubs and on stages from Chicago to Shanghai, New York City to New South Wales with musicians continually trying to decode his compositions.

2017 was Monk's "Centennial Year" and 2018 is shaping up to be the year where artists are making recordings of Monk's oeuvre.. Before the end of December, there will be three albums on the market.  First out of the gate in mid-August was "Work: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Monk", a solo gem from guitarist Miles Okazaki.  The guitarist, who has worked and/or recorded with Jane Monheit, Steve Coleman, and Jonathan Finlayson plus many more, started the project in early 2017 and discovered he needed to learn a slew of the songs before he recorded.  The album is only a digital form, available through Bandcamp, but Okazaki's liner notes (found on his website at tells the tale of how he came to record this project and why, what guitar he used, and about the importance of fellow guitarist Liberty Ellman in bringing this project to fruition.

If you are a long-time fan of the man and his music, it's a delight to hear what Okazaki does with the composition.  It's important to note what he doesn't do, including any overdubbing, changing melodies or even key signatures, never utilizing different guitars, just his trusting Gibson Charlie Christian archtop guitar.  What he does do is allow the listener to soak in each and every melody as well as expose the public to less often recorded Monk tunes ("North of the Sun", "Stuffy Turkey", and "A Merrier Christmas"). There is no shortage of rhythm on the album and the guitarist's approach truly brings out the influence of the blues on Monk. Plus, dig the bossa nova influence on "Bye-Ya", the flamenco-like lines of the title track, and the emotionally strong take of "'Round Midnight."    There are moments you might think you're hearing Mary Halvorson or Howard Roberts but comparisons disappear after two or three listenings.

You can purchase "Work" as one large digital file or as six separate files of approximately 50 minutes.  Whatever you choose to do, Miles Okazaki will, at turns, charm you, make you laugh, and become wistful.  All that's there is the music of Thelonious Monk - just listen!

For more information, go to

Take a listen:

In the summer of 2017, pianist Frank Kimbrough was invited to perform in a Monk Centennial program to take place later that year at The Jazz Standard in New York City. He assembled a band that featured multi-reed master Scott Robinson, bassist Rufus Reid, and drummer Billy Drummond.  After the concert, a long-time friend suggested that Kimbrough and company record the entire Thelonious Monk songbook. The pianist felt it was possible and, with the help of another good friend plus the head of Sunnyside Records François Zalacain, the project was put in motion.  The band (minus Robinson) played 15 songs in April 2018 one night at Jazz at Kitano's in NYC and then 15 more the next night (with Robinson). The ensemble them headed to engineer Matt Balistaris's Maggie's Farm recording studio and, over the span of six days (May 22-24 and May 28-30), recorded 68 tunes (Kimbrough returned in June to record the two piano solos).

The result, to be released by Sunnyside on November 23, is titled "Monk's Dreams: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Sphere Monk" - the album comes as an entire six-album set and each CD has a subtitle. The music is delightful throughout not just for the interactions of this fine group but also for the fact that Robinson is featured on tenor and bass saxophones, trumpet, echo cornet (a cornet with a fourth valve and a detachable second bell), bass clarinet, and contrabass sarrusophone! Once the listener gets over the sound of the lower reeds, you hear just how masterful Robinson is and how he can swing on absolutely every instrument he plays.  He even plays trumpet and tenor sax on one track ("Thelonious"). It's no gimmick - it adds to the joyous sounds emanating from the speakers.

The quartet does not mess around with the songs, no radical departures but also no rote repetition of the originals. Besides the two solo pianist pieces, there is a splendid piano-tenor sax duo on "Something In Blue" where the stride piano influence on the composer comes shining through. also, dig the bass - bass saxophone duo on "Reflections" for just how sweet both instruments sound and work together to tell Monk's story.  Kudos to all involved, from the four musicians to the excellent work of Balistaris to engineer, edit, and mix.  The sound is so fine and clear, the low notes of the contrabass sarrusophone and bass saxophone rumble in your gut, Reid's class bass work stands out, Drummond's cymbals shimmer at the sides of the spectrum, and the piano tones ringing out.

I have had the opportunity to live with this music for the past month so, listening to four or five tracks each time I sit down (more on several occasions), and, if you buy "Monk's Dreams", you'll want to do the same (even though bingeing seems to be the "in thing").  I recommend you do purchase this album (as I do with the Miles Okazaki digital album) - you'll come away with an even greater appreciation of Thelonious Monk and be blown away by the brilliant musicianship!

For more information, go to

Take a taste here:

Frank Kimbrough, Rufus Reid, Billy Drummond, and Scott Robinson (and his instrument menagerie) appears on November 27 and 28 at the Jazz Standard, 116 E. 27th Street, New York City, NY - call them at 212-576-2232 or go to

I did mention that there three recordings that will be released before the close of 2018. The last one to reach the public is the work of pianist Jed Distler - go here to read more.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Songwriters, Singers, Science, & Personal Journeys

When I try to explain to my friends about why I love the music of Lorraine Feather so much, I'm often at a loss for words.  In a recent post of another blog, I compared the ballads she writes and sings to those of Randy Newman. But, the jazzy inflections of other tunes might suggest comparisions to Joni Mitchell or Oscar Brown Jr.  Her lyrics to songs by Fats Waller and Duke Ellington have links to the work of Jon Hendricks, Annie Ross, and Bob Dorough. Yet, she sounds like none of the artist I mentioned above. What's a hapless writer to do?  Mea Culpa - Lorraine Feather is her own person, a fascinating lyricist who does not avoid humor, exposes her myriad interests in her songs, understands that "this is what I do, who I am (or, at least, as much I will let you into my life)", and is curious about so much.

"Math Camp", her latest musical adventure, is the 12th release since she first began her solo career in the mid-1990s. This is her "science" album (although one could argue, most of the music she has released since 2008 shows her fascination with the science of relationships) as well as the first since she headed back East from rural Washington state.  Seven of the 10 tracks were composed by long-time associate Eddie Arkin with the remainder by another long-time contributor Shelly Berg.  Four songs are just piano and voice, three feature the quartet of Fred Hersch (piano), James Genus (bass), Gilad Hekselman (guitar), and Terri Lyne Carrington (drums), and the remaining three feature the West Coast ensemble of Grant Geissman (guitar), Michael Valerio (bass), and Michael Shapiro (drums) joined on several tracks by co-producer/co-arranger Arkin on guitar or pianist Russell Ferrante, and  on two cuts, by reed master Dan Higgins (alto flute, clarinet).

Songs such as the title track, "Hadron, Meson, Baryon", "In a Hot Minute", "It All Adds Up", and "Some Kind of Einstein" all are related to the overall Science theme.  "Hadron..." is a jazzy, breezy, journey inspired by a magazine about physicists at a conference studying a "theory of everything" with the song's title not a law firm but a trio of sub-atomic particles.  It's a treat to listen to the NYC musicians grooving underneath the voice.  "...Hot Minute" and "...Adds Up" are inspired by quotes from scientists, the first from astro-physicist Neil de Grasse Tyson and the second from physicist Richard Feynman.  The former has a Latin groove delightfully transmitted by the NYC quartet while the latter is a "jump tune" taken a breakneck speed. Enjoy how Ferrante and Higgins (clarinet) play Berg's be-bop inspired riff alongside Ms. Feather's vocal.  Ferrante returns to accompany the voice on the emotionally rich ballad "The Rules Don't Apply", the title song from a 2016 Warren Beatty movie "Rules Don't Apply" - the piece was nominated for the Critics Choice Award.

"I'll See You Yesterday" (another one of the Berg melodies) takes its inspiration from Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse 5" as well as William Shakespeare. Berg's third contribution, "...Einstein", closes the album and is built off a splendid Mozart-inspired melody while one of the verses was inspired by a New York Times article from 1919 about an experiment conducted during a solar eclipse by British astronomer/ physicist Sir Arthur Eddington.  Note the lovely use of vocal overdubs.

Is "Math Camp" the first album that could be called "Geek Jazz"?  That's up to you. Ditch the label and just listen, laugh and sigh, tap your toes, enjoy the wonderful contributions from the musicians, and revel in the way Lorraine Feather sings, speaks, and writes.  In my youth, I was a horrible science student but, over the years, my fascination with what human beings and the physical world is composed of, has increased umpteenth fold (is there such a thing?).  As for outer space, like many of my contemporaries, I was equally fascinated by the "Space Race" and by the likes of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and other speculative fiction writers.  Who knew Ms. Feather was a kindred spirit?  It would not surprise that the singer/songwriter's fans around the world might croon to her "Teach Me Tonight." Seriously, "Math Camp" is a delight from start-to-finish and will send ripples through your personal universe for many a day and night.

For more information, go to

Go to to watch the promotional video!

Imagine if you can that you are raised in London, England, by a single mother.  Then, you move to the United States to begin career as a journalist. Now in your mid-20s, you discover that your birth father is a Black man from Trinidad and that your DNA contains numerous connections to Africa. Some years later, you decide to study jazz singing in New York City with the likes of Mark Murphy and Sheila Jordan.  Seven years later, in 2004, you record your first album.

That is a very short description of the life of Tessa Souter, the singer-songwriter whose fifth album, "Picture in Black And White" (self-released), is, in some ways, a musical autobiography as much as a fascinating collection of songs.  Ms. Souter, who also produced the album, works with a band throughout the program, an ensemble that includes her husband Billy Drummond (drums), Yotam Silberstein (guitars, oud), Adam Platt (piano), Dana Leong (cello), Keita Ogawa (percussion), and Yasushi Nakamura (bass).   The material blends originals with songs by Jon Lucien (a mentor to  the singer), Wayne Shorter, Ornette Coleman, McCoy Tyner, Terry Callier, U2, Milton Nascimento as well as folks songs and the standard "A Taste of Honey."

Photo: Richard Conde
There is a plethora of memorable moments on this album.  The intelligent blending of Callier's "Dancing Girl" with U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name" is emotionally rich while Lucien's "Child of Love" dances forward on the strength of the percussion work by Ogawa and Drummond and the handsome acoustic guitar playing.  Vicki Burns created a powerful and lyrical story for Tyner's "Contemplation" while also adding the title "Ancestors".  Led by Platt's powerful piano work and  Drummond's equally robust drumming, her voice rises above the musical storm to tell a story about a person's roots.  Coleman's "Lonely Woman" with its recognizable melody features voice, bass, cymbals, and drums. There's so much going on, the participants are fully invested, and the song becomes a haunting elegy.

There are three originals pieces (words and music) in the 12 song program and they appear in order 2/3rds of the way through the CD.  The title track features with just the bass and guitar (overdubbed, at least, twice); it is a bittersweet story of the memories that the singer has of her father, mostly through old photographs.  The pace picks up with "You Don't Have to Believe" with Silberstein playing both guitar and oud while Ogawa creates a steady beat on the frame drum. "Reynardine" is actually a traditional British folk ballad adapted for string bass, guitar, and oud.  Ms. Souter, who arranged the song, tells the tale-in-song in a powerful voice, the words clearly articulated. The piece would not sound out of place on a Sandy Denny album.

Earlier albums from Tessa Souter have appeared on Motema Records and the Japanese Venus label.
"Picture in Black and White" is her first self-released project and the freedom one gets from a "Do It Yourself" project is evident throughout as this program is so varied, the band (in its various forms) is with the leader from the beginning, and the results are rewarding for the listener.

For more information, go to

Here's the T Callier/U2 medley:

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Foreground Music

Someone asked me recently how I keep up with the all the music that he and I talk about.  I responded "I spend a lot of time in my car and, instead of listening to the news, I listen to music. When some album really catches my ear, I bring it inside, listen on better speakers, really paying attention and then, time willing, write about it."

Here are two such attentions grabbers.

While Yuhan Su is a new name to me, "City Animals" (Sunnyside Records) is her third CD as a leader - the first two were issued o Inner Circle Music and are well worth exploring. The vibraphonist and composer came to the United States in 2008 from her native Taiwan to study at Berklee College in Boston, MA, and has lived here ever since.  Her Quintet includes Matt Holman (trumpet, flugelhorn), Alex LoRe (alto saxophone), Petros Klampanis (bass), and Nathan Ellman-Bell (drums), all of whom (save for LoRe) appeared on her 2016 disc, "A Room of One's Own."  Her music is composed with these musicians in mind and both albums sound as if the material was played live numerous times before entering the studio.

This is definitely 21st Century music.  The rhythm section is very active, pushing the music forward while one can hear elements of many different styles of music.  Ms. Su spreads the solos around but  does not say away from the spotlight.  On the aptly-titled "Feet Dance", her exciting solo, who accompanies dancers as they create their work, gives way to a powerful turn from LoRe, all the while the bass throbs and the drums bounce joyfully underneath.  The title track has a rollicking call-and-response with the vibes and alto playing a line and Holman's trumpet responds.  I am a fan on clear tone and great sense of the power of his instrument. yet, he can be gentle and highly melodic - "Tutu & D" is a prime example of that aspect of his work. His phrases move over the melodic bass counterpoint, the vibes adding color while the drums scurry and the cymbals swish in support.

There are so many moments to enjoy on this album.  The trio of vibes, trumpet, and saxophone into to "Viaje" during which the musicians play over and under each other's lines before the bass and drums give the song its direction stands out (the duo of sax and trumpet after the theme section is powerful).  The three-part, 18 minute-plus suite "Kuafu" (inspired by a figure from Chinese mythology) moves in multiple direction over its course. Part 1, "Rising", has a powerful forward motion with equally powerful solos from LoRe, Holman, and Ms. Su.  Part II, "Starry, Starry Night", after its rubato beginning, turns into a handsome ballad (be sure to listen to the excellent bass work of Klampanis).  The last section, "Parallel Chasing", is, if possible, even more urgent than the opening movement of the Suite - here, it's Ellman-Bell's super drumming that will catch your ears on initial listening.

"City Animal" has much to offer the passionate listener.  Hard to sit still as this band kicks in and the solos stand out throughout the program. If you listen to her 2016 effort "A Room of One's Own" and then this fine album, you'll hear that Yuhan Su is not only an excellent instrumentalist but has matured into a fine composer whose music has depth, intelligence, wit, and power.  Listen closely - you should find much to enjoy!

For more information, go to

Here's the title track:

Since it's inception in 2006, NYSQ (New York Standards Quartet) has revolved the axis of David Berkman (piano), Tim Armacost (tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone), and Gene Jackson (drums). "Heaven Steps to Seven" is the group's fourth album for Whirlwind Recordings) and its first with bassist Ugonna Okwego.  The bassist has worked with the band before but has never recorded with them.  The band sees no need to change its modus operandi, its repertoire including songs from Broadway, from be-bop, post-bop, and more. What these four musicians do better than many who explore a similar milieu is to really explore, to deconstruct and reconstruct, making the most well-known pieces sound brand-new!

Listen to the first three tracks on this album.  They take Leonard Bernstein's "Tonight" (from "West Side Story") and caress the melody in the opening section (note Okwego's excellent bass work) - then, they kick into a higher gear still respecting the melody but pushing the heck out of the tune.  Armacost introduces "Cheryl", a classic Charlie Parker tune, and when the bas and drums, note how Jackson plays the melody as well.  When Berkman enters, the energy level kicks up another notch with the quartet seemingly reaching a climax. But, wait, it's just they step aside and make room for a delightful bass solo. Okwego then drops into a 4-note bass line and the rest of the group returns; yet now, the songs has a funky groove over which the pianist produces a rollicking solo.  "Peace", the classic Horace Silver tune, is a lovely ballad.  Notice how Jackson and Okwego play anything but in a standard manner underneath the handsome tenor and lyrical piano solos.

One is tempted to highlight each one of the eight tracks but, if you are a fan of NYSQ, you know to expect the unexpected.  Enjoy the artistry of Bud Powell's exquisite ballad "I'll Keep Loving You" and the pair of tunes from the pen of Cole Porter.  Every member of NYSQ is a master musician, each with a great respect for the tradition, each understanding they needn't play a piece note-for-note to show it respect but to expand on its ideas and let the listener in on the complexity as well as the enjoyment of the explorations.

If you have never heard NYSQ, you can start with "Heaven Steps to Seven" but - be warned - it'll be hard not to check out the rest of their excellent albums.  They play with great fire, with gentleness, wit, and always sound happy to be together.  Can't beat that.

For more information, go to

Here's the Quartet's splendid take of the Charlie Parker tune:

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Impressive Music from Earlier this Year (Pt 1)

The joy of teaching (for me, it is quite a joy) always gets in the way of reviewing. With the weekly influx of albums, worthwhile music gets pushed to the back of the shelf.  Such is the case with these two albums. As the great Charlie Parker so nicely stated on his 1945 Savoy recording, "Now's the Time"!

Photo: The Fresno Bee
As someone who has been a fan of poet Philip Levine (1928-2015) for over three decades, when the album "The Poetry of Jazz" (Origin Records) arrived in the mail in early March of this year, I was thrilled. This collaboration with alto saxophonist and composer Benjamin Boone began in 2010 when Boone met the poet on the campus of Fresno State University in California.  Levine was a "jazz poet" throughout his career, his collections peppered with poems about Erroll Garner, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and others.  I once saw and heard Levine read at Wesleyan University in a duo setting with a vibraphonist, a fascinating combination of melody, words, and rhythm.

For their collaboration, Boone composed music to fit Levine's words and his voice. He surrounds that voice on most tracks with the fine rhythm section of David Aus or Craig Von Berg (piano), Spee Kosloff or Nye Morton (acoustic bass), and Brian Hamada or Gary Newmark (drums) plus a slew of guests.  Many listeners will be attracted by the appearance of tenor saxophonist Chris Potter on "The Unknowable (Homage to Sonny Rollins)", trumpeter Tom Harrell on "I Remember Clifford (Homage to Clifford Brown)", alto saxophonist Greg Osby on "Call It Music (Homage to Charlie Parker)", and tenor saxophonist Branford Marsalis on "Soloing (Homage to John Coltrane)" - those songs are fascinating with great playing from all involved supporting poems that speak to the joy of the musicians they pay tribute to.

Yet, there are many other treasures on this 14-song program.  The sweet homage to "Yakov", an immigrant whom the poet met as a young man working in an automobile factory in Detroit. Boone contributes a wonderful soprano saxophone solo, keening high above the band withy support from the trumpet of Max Hembo.  One of Levine's most famous poems (a poem he wrote in 1968, a year after the riots in Detroit), "They Feed They Lion", arrives in a frenzy of soprano saxophone, trumpet, and French horn (the brass played by Boone's sons Atticus and Asher) - it's a riot of sound and fury.

Nat'l Endowment for the Arts
The album closes with "What Work Is" (another of Levine's most famous works as well as the title of one of collections), a lovely recollection of the poet's older brother who worked on the third shift at the Cadillac factory while studying opera during the day.  It's a stunning piece, especially with Boone's alto saxophone wrapping around Levine's voice, a handsome way to end a powerful program.

If you have never encountered the poetry and essays of Philip Levine, please check him out. Benjamin Boone is a new name to me.  A native of North Carolina, he studied at the University of Tennessee and did graduate work at Boston University and University of South Carolina. He has performed in many countries around the world and did work as a Fulbright Scholar in both the former Soviet Republic of Moldova and in Ghana.  This album was recorded at four different sessions over the course of two years (2012-2014), then took a while to find a home and was finally released in late March of this year.  Find the album, dig into the program, go back to the music and to the poetry, and celebrate this brilliant collaboration.

For more information, go to  To learn more about Philip Levine, go to

Here's a listen:

"New York Stories" (Sunnyside Records) is a delicious collaboration featuring the words and voice of Judy Niemack, the arrangements of Jim McNeely, and the powerful playing of the Danish Radio Big Band. The nine-song program was actually recorded/broadcast in November of 2013 but not released until August of this year (Ms. Niemack's second CD for Sunnyside).  Her supple voice, fine scat singing, and intelligent lyrics pay homage to how the blues influenced jazz, telling stories splendidly framed by McNeely.

The title track is an episodic journey to the vocalist's current residence. Note how the beat changes from the bluesy, even sultry opening section, getting "funky" in the middle as the brass and reeds play phrases from the oeuvre of Thelonius Monk and Charlie Parker. Five of the nine come from Monk. First, the ensemble digs into "In Walked Bud" which carries the name "Suddenly" and spotlights the lyrics of the late Jon Hendricks. It's one of the first arrangements McNeely wrote for Ms. Niemack (1993) and one can understand why the vocalist loves it.  It allows her to be sassy and for her voice to move in and out of the sections before and after the solos.  Elsewhere, Ms. Niemack and Mr. McNeely turn "Misterioso" into "A Crazy Song to Sing"; the opening would fit one of Alfred Hitchcock's movies but once the vocalist enters, the piece turns brighter. Slowly but surely, the music becomes a journey into the blues and then into big band euphoria.

The album also includes the vocalist's take on Clifford Brown's "Daahoud", here titled "I Should Have Told You Goodbye" - she most certainly captures the joy in Brown's music and joins in on the soloing with her vocal flight of fancy. The ensemble inhabits the reading of Sting's "Fragile", a plea for peace in the war-torn areas of Central America.  Accompanying Ms. Niemack's articulate vocal is an arrangement that lifts off from the rhythm section to places where the brass and reeds dance together that is both emotionally and melodically rich.

The album closes with the appropriately placed "It's Over Now", a delight-filled journey through Monk's "Well You Needn't".  Everybody jumps from the get-go with the rhythm section kicking along as the sections respond and retort to the soloists.  It's so much fun that it makes this listener want to go back to the beginning of the disc and start the 75-minute merry-go-round one more time.

"New York Stories" is an aural treat, a celebration of music that puts the spotlight on the voice and words of Judy Niemack and the delightful arrangements of Jim McNeely.  Kudos to the Danish Radio Big Band (musicians listed below) whose involvement helps to make this journey such an excellent one!

For more information, go to

Here's the closing track:


Jim McNeely - arranger, conductor 
Judy Niemack - vocals 
Anders Gustafsson - 1st trumpet 
Christer Gustafsson - 2nd trumpet 
Thomas Kjaergaard - 3rd trumpet 
Mads La Cour - 4th trumpet 
Lars Vissing - 5th trumpet 
Vincent Nilsson - 1st trombone 
Steen Nikolaj Hansen - 2nd trombone 
Peter Jensen - 3rd trombone 
Annette Saxe - 4th trombone 
Jakob Munck Mortensen - 5th trombone 
Nicolai Schultz - 1st alto sax 
Peter Fuglsand - 2nd alto sax 
Hans Ulrik - 1st tenor sax 
Frederick Menzies - 2nd tenor sax 
Anders Gaardmand - baritone sax 
Per Gade - guitar 
Nikolaj Bentzon - piano 
Kaspar Vadsholt - bass 
Søren Frost - drums

Friday, October 12, 2018

Music for the 21st Century, For Today

I do not receive Blue Note albums to review - I buy the ones I really want.  Over the past decade, trumpeter and composer Ambrose Akinmusire has caught my ear and mind, not only on his own recordings but also his work with David Binney, Walter Smith III, and Wolfgang Muthspiel (to name but three).  His own recordings stand out for the width and breath of his imagination. Yes, he's a fine musician yet it's the 36-year old Oakland California native's compositions and arrangements that truly set him apart.  Akinmusire absorbs all he hears on the bandstand, in concert halls, in practice room, on the radio, and in the streets, adding those myriad sounds to what he reads in books, essays, and in the daily papers.

"Origami Harvest", his fourth album for Blue Note Records, is, arguably, his most ambitious sonic adventure.  The six original compositions feature two members of his Quartet, pianist Sam Harris and drummer Marcus Gilmore, plus vocals from rappers Kool A.D. and LmbrJck_t as well as impressive string work from The Mivos Quartet.  I have yet to hear the entire album - still, judging from the fascinating video below, this is a major work.  Filmed in the streets and from the sky above his native city, the film compiles excerpts from the entire album, with natural images interspersed with impressionistic choreography and the powerful vocals. Experimental? Yes!  Thought-provoking?  Absolutely! Let this music soak in. Art has the power to disrupt even as it entertains.

For more information, go to

It would be remiss of me not to mention that Jason Crane and The Jazz Session is back.  You can see that in the right-hand corner of this blog.  In a bit of shameless self-promotion, I was fortunate to be interviewed by Mr. Crane as I am a sponsor of his work on Patreon and he asked if I would contribute to his "subscriber Bonus Material" by talking about one of my favorite albums.  Readers of this column how hard it is for me to pick a Top 10 every year (some years, as high as 42) but, for the sake of sanity, I chose two and went with a third, "Freedom Suite" by Sonny Rollins, his ground-breaking recording from 1958 featuring drummer Max Roach and bassist Oscar Pettiford.  I invite you to listen (click on the link) as that post is open to the public and I urge you to be a Patreon subscriber.  There are few interviewers, if any, more engaging than Jason Crane and you'll learn a lot about some fine creative artists.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Creative Explorations by Groups of Equals

Rudy Royston is one those drummers who makes an impact on the musicians he works with from the first note of a song. He plays with such fire, often pushing his fellow musicians to greater heights and, to my mind, more powerful solos.  Royston, a Texas native who came of age in Denver, CO, studied music in college but really learned about his craft (not just playing but composing, arranging, and listening) while working with trumpeter Ron Miles.  He's gone on to play with a great number of musicians including Bill Frisell, Dave Douglas. J.D. Allen, Ravi Coltrane, and Rudresh Mahanthappa.  In person, he's a joy to watch, mostly because he always looks like he's having the time of his life.

"Flatbed Buggy" is Rudy Royston's third album as a leader as well as the third to released by Greenleaf Music.  For this effort, which reaches back to the drummer and composer's childhood memories, he's gathered a topnotch group of collaborators including Gary Versace (accordion), John Ellis (bass clarinet, saxophones), Hank Roberts (cello), and Joe Martin (bass).  Those of you expecting a collection of hard-blowing "jams" will be pleasantly surprised by the delicate nature of much of this material and how melodic the material.  That does not mean it's "wimpy" or "smooth jazz" - tracks such as "Hourglass", "the opening "Soul Train" (sorry, no Don Cornelius), and the effervescent "Bobblehead" dance out of the speakers.  Yet, it's the blend of accordion and cello, the way Ellis weaves his bass clarinet in and out the music or adds his soprano to the exciting performance of "Bobblehead" that stand out.  Yes, this music has power and it comes from the interactions, from the irrepressible rhythms, the solid foundation that Martin's excellent bass work provides.  On occasion, you may hear the influence of Mr. Frisell's "Americana" music or the way the late Jimmy Giuffre weave folk melodies into his music but this is Rudy Royston telling his own tales.

Each song has a storyline.  "boy...MAN" opens with a lovely cello melody and then wraps that around there accordion and cello.  Here, Royston guides the ensemble forward, opening the piece up to a strong bass solo that builds intensity to a powerful close.  Later on in the program, "girl...Woman" starts as a lovely ballad again with Roberts in the lead and Versace playing counterpoint and in unison.  The track includes a stunning accordion solo, introspective and gentle, ref;active of a day spent in the country.  Ellis, Versace, and Martin weave their individual sounds each other over the quiet colors of cello and the leader's cymbals.  But, even with all these quiet interactions, the quintet drops into a lively, "pop music" groove to take the piece out.

"Flatbed Buggy" is one of those albums to listen to all the way through.  There's so much to "hear", so many stories and histories embedded in this music that it's impossible to appreciate what Rudy Royston has so majestically created on one pass through.  At times stunning, at others times, joyful yet always melodic and rhythmically rich, this album deserves your full attention!

For more information, go to

Put on your dancing shoes and listen to this:

Trumpeter and composer Jonathan Finlayson, long-time collaborator of saxophonist Steve Coleman, continues to spread his creative wings on "3 Times Around" his third album for Pi Recordings.  The new album features pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist John Hébert, and drummer Craig Weinrib, all of whom appeared on Finlayson's 2017 Pi release, "Moving Still", and replaces guitarist Miles Okazaki with tenor saxophonist/flutist Brian Settles and alto saxophonist Steve Lehman.  While the influence of Mr. Coleman is evident on the opening two tracks and the impressive 14-minute opus "The Moon Is New", this music is no cookie-cutter impression of Finlayson's mentor's music.

"Feints" and "Grass" open the program, their exciting rhythms and percussive melodies (and counterpoint) making for intense listening. The first extended solo one hears on cut one is by Mitchell - he does not disappoint as his solo hurtles ahead as he interacts with with Weinrib's powerful drumming spurring him on.  Then, the interplay of Settles, Lehman, and Finlayson soars atop the dynamic rhythm section.

The pace changes when you enter the rubato world of "A Stone, A Pond, A Thought" - here, the trumpet leads the saxes in atop rumbling piano, thrumming bass, and various "colors" from the drummer.  Hébert's impressive bow-work is featured in the middle of the nine-minute "sound sculpture" before the sextet returns to push the intensity higher but never falling into a rhythm.  That intensity carries over to the episodic "The Moon Is New" - after the powerful opening, the piece moves in several directions and puts the spotlight squarely on The leader, Lehman, Settles, and Mitchell, all the while the rhythm section scurrying around under those soloists.  The shorter yet no-less-powerful "Refined Strut" follows and the music is as advertised.  Concentrate on how the rhythm section creates the irresistible "strut" and the on how the reeds and trumpet decorate the melody.

Photo: Paul de Lucena
"3 Times Round" is dedicated to the late Muhal Richard Abrams (1930-2017) and the conceptualist/composer's sense of adventure is a large influence on how Jonathan Finlayson approaches his original music.  The sound of this ensemble is so full yet never cluttered nor cliched.  The sextet is emotionally and musically attached to this project all the way through - I really enjoy listening to and am deeply impressed by the playfulness of Craig Weinrib as he dances along with the ensemble.

For more information, go to

Here's the album's opening track:

Although you do not see it anywhere on the album cover, this is the second album from the quartet known as Dirigo Rataplan. The ensemble, organized by drummer and composer Devin Gray, features trumpeter David Ballou, tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, and bassist Michael Formanek.  In 2004, Gray assemble a trio owht the trumpeter and bassist, adding the tenor sax to the mix after moving to New York City several years later.  Their 2012 debut album, originally released on SKIRL Records, sets the soundstage for the quartet's new release.  Gray's music takes its influences from myriad sources, from folk melodies, funk rhythms, and blues changes, from "free" explorations and the classic interactions of Ornette Coleman's Quartet from the Atlantic Records years (1959-61) to create its contemporary sounds.

Chamber Music America
It's a real joy to hear how these musicians play together, how they explore the various routes that Gray's compositions offer them. When you have four such individual voices, the music can either be an exercise in technical virtuosity or a four-way street with everyone listening to each other, conversing as equals, giving the music their full attention.  That's what you get with "Dirigo Rataplan II". One supposes you could listen just for Eskelin's melodic saxophone or Ballou's articulated melodies and exploratory solos or Formanek's fascinating bass work (who has a more melodic approach to the bass than him?) or how Gray leads the band without commanding the spotlight.
Listen to "Quantum Cryptology" to hear how the band navigates the melody line and how each gets a solo while the rhythm section creates a different yet interactive foundation/counterpoint.  Note how "Trends of Trending" opens in the pocket then moves inward, the trumpet and saxophone conversing across the bass and drums. Hear how Formanek's bass lines up high on the neck of his instrument dances over the scuttling drums on "What We Learn from Cities." The softness of the opening of "Intrepid Travelers" hints at blues for the first half then moves subtly away.

Dirigo Rataplan II" contains music that asks you to listen, does not beseech the listener, but seduces with its melodies and interplay/interactions as well as the intelligence of the music.  Is this strictly intellectual music? A kind of "highbrow jazz"?  What Devin Gray has created with Ellery Eskelin, David Ballou, and Michael Formanek is a delight from start to finish.

For more information, go to  The quartet appears tomorrow in CT at Firehouse 12 - go to for more information. They'll travel down to Baltimore, MD, on the next day and back to Philadelphia, PA, to close their short tour.  For more information, go to

Here's the opening track: