Thursday, December 6, 2018

Big Bands with American Roots & European Musicians

The Norrbotten Big Band, based iLuleå, Sweden, has the distinction of being the northernmost large jazz ensemble in the world. The city of 75,000, over 450 miles away from from Stockholm, is located up in the northern corner of Sweden close to the Arctic Circle.  Thanks to the Gulf Stream winds, it has a milder climate than one might expect for a city that far north.  A busy port city, there's plenty to do all year long, especially rich with  arts and cultural offerings. The NBB has been in existence since the late 1980s but first made critics sit up and take notice when American trumpeter and composer Tim Hagans became artistic director in 1996. Currently, the 16-member ensemble's AD is saxophonist and composer Joakim Milder.

Photo: Antonio Porcar Cano
Bassist and composer Anne Mette Iversen moved to the United States from her native Denmark in 1998. During her 15 years living and working in the New York City area, she was one of the 10 co-founders of the Brooklyn Jazz Underground, helping to establish a cooperative where musicians and artists could present their work. The group founded BJU Records in 2008, a label that has released nearly 70 recordings including eight by Ms. Iversen and featuring several of her different ensembles. In 2012, she and her family moved to Berlin, Germany where she maintains a busy schedule, still working with her American Quartet + 1 (featuring saxophonist John Ellis, pianist Danny Grissett, drummer Otis Brown III, and trombonist Peter Dahlgren) plus her Ternion Quartet (with saxophonist Silke Eberhard, trombonist Geoffroy De Masure, and drummer Roland Schneider, all Berlin-based musicians).

In 2016, Ms. Iversen was invited to be the composer-in-residence for the Norrbotten Big Band's 2016-17 season.  In her various trips to Luleå, she experienced all four seasons. The different climatic conditions reminded her of the many places she has visited during her career and she began to create music that reflected her responses to those fascinating seasons.  The results can be heard on "Everything In Between" (Prophone Records). The 10-song, 98 minute program, is spread over two CDs. The music begins in Spring (two songs), moves to Summer (four songs), on to Fall (two songs), and concludes with Winter (two songs).  What stands out throughout the album is the fine musicianship - all but one member  of the NBB here is European; the lone exception is drummer E.J. Strickland.  He and trombonist Dahlgen are the only two who have worked or still work with Ms Iversen.  

The album, while very much a suite, was recorded live in three separate venues (one on11/12/2016 in Luleå and two in Denmark on 7/22-23/17).  One of the most delightful aspects of this music is that the songs cover so much territory. Yes, you hear traces of Duke Ellington/ Billy Strayhorn, Bob Brookmeyer, Kenny Wheeler, Thad Jones, and others but nothing overt (to my ears).  And, the music is so melodic. Listen throughout to hear how Ms. Iversen orchestrates each song, often using the brass or the reeds to state the thematic material, how often there are two or three instruments soloing over the ensemble.

Photo: Solving Hockings
From the opening notes of "The Big (Band) Bang I", the music glides, flows, jumps, and dances on the power of the rhythm section (pianist Adam Forkelid, bassist Petter Olofsson, and drummer Strickland).  There are certainly a number of strong solos on every track (the credits lists the personnel but not who solos on each song) but, again it's the section writing and execution that really make this music so impressive. The Ellingtonian opening of "A Lighthouse Blinks In The Northern Sky" uses a blend of muted trumpets and reeds over an African drum rhythm to paint a lovely and lively picture but Janne Thelin's unaccompanied contrabass clarinet spot moves the piece into a more contemplative direction. He's soon joined by the flutes and rhythm section for a quiet ballad section. A few moments later, after the muted trumpets have had a short interlude, the piece moves forward on a fine alto sax solo.Forkelid also has a lovely spotlight, his piano lines rippling over the sympathetic bass and drums; only at the end do the earlier voices (trumpets, reeds, and the drums rhythms) return for a short reprise.

If you enjoy adventurous large ensemble music, then "Everything In Between" should really grab your attention.  Like many suites it's best listened to all the way through but one can also jump in on any track and be pleased.  Anne Mette Iversen sets aside her bass for the conductor's baton to lead the Norrbotten Big Band through this delightful aural journey; there are moments throughout when one can sense the waves crashing or the countless stars in the cool, clear, night sky.

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Here's the opening track:

Anne Mette Iversen - composer and conductor

Hakan Brostrom - alto and soprano sax, alto flute (only for the 11/12/16 concert)
Johan Christoffersson - alto and soprano sax, alto flute
Janne Thelin - alto sax, Bb clarinet, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet
Mats Garberg - tenor sax, flute
Robert Nordmann - tenor sax, Bb clarinet, flute
Per Morberg - baritone saxophone, flute

Trumpets and flugelhorns:
Magnus Ekholm (only for the 11/12/16 concert)
Bo Strandberg
Frank Brohdahl
Dan Johansson
Jacek Onuszkiewicz

Peter Dahlgren
Arvid Ingberg (also euphonium)
Christine Carlsson
Urban Widborg (only for the 11/12/16 concert)
Bjorn Hangsel - bass trombone, flute

Rhythm section:
Adam Forkelid - piano
Petter Olofsson - acoustic bass
E.J. Strickland - drums

Trombonist and composer Marshall Gilkes came to love jazz and his instrument through his father who was a trombonist and conductor of the Air Force Band. The Gilkes family traveled the world going to Air Force bases and concert halls while the budding trombonist began to absorb all types of music. After studying at The Juilliard School in New York City, Gilkes settled there and played in dozens of ensembles as well as recording several small group albums between 2004-2012.  He's also a prominent member of the trombone section in the Maria Schneider Orchestra and tours with the Edmar Castañeda Trio. 

In 2019, he played with the WDR Big Band based in Köln (Cologne) Germany for a concert with vocalist Patty Austin. The following year, he came back to play in the band behind guitarist Mike Stern and was invited to be a full-time member.  During his tenure that lasted until 2013, Gilkes played numerous concerts throughout Europe.  He was invited back one month later to play a "farewell concert" of his original music and the resulting album, "Köln", was issued in 2015

"Always Forward" (Alternate Sides Records/WDR) reunites Gilkes with the WDR Big Band and was recorded over three days in early September 2017. As with the previous album, the program features mostly originals compositions and all arrangements by the trombonist (he also conducts the band) plus two standards.  In one instance, the 19-member ensemble dances its way through Cole Porter's "Easy To Love."  The melody is introduced by the brass sections (note how drummer Hans Dekker accentuates the melody). The song then is handed over to the reeds before alto saxophonist Johan Hörlen steps out for a delightful solo. The other is the oft-recorded "Portrait of Jennie", the title song of a 1948 movie that has been covered by Nat "King" Cole, Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard, Wes Montgomery, and many, many others. Here it serves as a showcase for a classically inspired opening plus an impressive flugelhorn solo from Andy Haderer.  

I imagine just how much fun it must have been for Gilkes to stand in front of the band but even more fun to solo on four of the 10 tracks. The album opens with the powerful and playful  "Puddle Jumping"; Gilkes' solo is a tour-de-force, blending the sweeter sounds of the 'bone with long flowing lines and octave leaps, "blats" and deep low notes. He returns for the beautiful "Morning Smiles."  This piece, composed for his infant son, would not be out of place on a Maria Schneider album. The lovely flute-dominated opening and the handsome trombone melody lead the listener into a wonderland of sounds. The elegant use of reeds and brass in the background before the rhythm section enters is simply stunning while the solo will make you sit forward and follow the musician all the way through.

The centerpiece of the album is the three-part "Denali Suite."  Not surprisingly, the song is inspired by a trip Gilkes and his wife took to Alaska for a wedding followed by a vacation.  The composer states in the liner notes that the "melody in the middle section is one  came up with while on the trip.." On his return home, he fleshed out the melody and orchestration, adding the opening and closing sections.  "Part II", in particular, is a thoughtful ballad played mostly by the brass yet, when the rhythm section comes in, the flutes are utilized to introduce the piano solo.

Photo: All About Jazz
The Maria Schneider influence is loud and clear on the title song which is also the album closer. Again, Gilkes is the only soloist but he gives the different sections various parts of the melody.  On many of the songs, the brass takes the lead but here it is a subtle blend that moves the song forward. Gilkes begins his solo with only bassist John Goldsby offering support in the form of counterpoint. The drums and piano enter next then the reeds and the brass. All the while, the leader builds a dynamic, emotionally rich solo, one that dances even as it sings. The brass and reeds reintroduce the opening melody before the trombonist reenters for a quick recapitulation of his opening theme.  The song closes as the trombone fades yet the piece does not resolve; it is left "open to remind all of us to think and act "always forward!"

Marshall Gilkes has matured before our very ears. He has long proven to be a dynamic and thoughtful soloist. Yet, these two albums with the WDR Big Band has shown us that he is a splendid orchestrator, arranger, and composer. "Always Forward" may be his credo In this time of global indecision and a turn away from democratic principles, this music makes a great case for art informing people, teaching people, even while entertaining people.

For more information, go to

Enjoy this lovely ballad:


Marshall Gilkes composer, arranger, conductor, trombone

WDR Big Band Personnel 
Johan Hörlén-alto saxophone/flute/clarinet 
Karolina Strassmayer-alto saxophone/flute/clarinet 
Olivier Peters-tenor saxophone/clarinet 
Paul Heller-tenor saxophone/clarinet/bass clarinet 
Jens Neufang-baritone saxophone/bass clarinet 

Ludwig Nuss-trombone 
Shannon Barnett-trombone 
Andy Hunter-trombone 
Mattis Cederberg-bass trombone 

Andy Haderer-trumpet/flugelhorn 
Rob Bruynen-trumpet/flugelhorn 
Lorenzo Ludemann trumpet/flugelhorn 
Ruud Breuls- trumpet/flugelhorn 
John Marshall-trumpet/flugelhorn 

Simon Seidl-piano 
Paul Shigihara-guitar 
John Goldsby-bass 
Hans Dekker-drums

Monday, December 3, 2018

Attractive Opposites

Even before one hears the music, there's the fascinating cover of "The Terror End of Beauty" (Sunnyside Records). It's looks like the negative image of a black hole, the phenomenon that occurs throughout the known (and unknown) universes. Then, listen to the music on this recording, the fifth from Harriet Tubman, the trio of Melvin Gibbs (electric bass), J.T. Lewis (drums), and Brandon Ross (guitars). It's a fascinating blend of funk, hard rock, r'n'b, noise, dance music, electronics, the songs hard-edged melodies propelled by the thundering bass and drums that shakes the speakers. Seven of the 10 tracks are credited to the trio plus producer/engineer/sonic shaper Scotty Harding, who takes the often-raucous material and helps to clarify and even muddy the sonic waters.

Listen to "The Green Book Blues", the tune named for "The Negro Motorist's Green Book", a compilation of articles published annually (and then sporadically) in one volume that helped to guide African Americans on vacation trips initially in 1936 for New York State travelers and, one year later, for journeys  throughout the United States. This modern blues tune builds off the rock-hard drums and fundamental bass lines, how Ross's processed guitars rails, rants and roars.

The album opens with the rhythmically charged "Farther Unknown" - one of two songs penned by bassist Gibbs, the piece dances in on delightful and hypnotic drums while Ross rises over the band with searing sounds.  Still, the tune quiets down for a gentle guitar melody over the composer's chordal bass lines. Gibbs also contributed the title track. Opening as a soulful ballad, the music slowly builds upon the bass and quiet drums for the first few minutes until the intensity levels rises; then, in a manner reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix, the thrumming bass, the rampaging drums, and the soaring guitar lines that roar even as they convey the melody, the music careers forward only to suddenly return to the opening melody before the sustained guitar chords fade away.

The album's one song from outside the band is a powerful reading of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song."  The various guitar lines and fuzz bass intro leads to a plaintive reading of the melody, originally recorded as an acoustic ballad. Ross's elongated notes slowly move forward until Lewis's drums (seemingly at the bottom of the sound spectrum) fade in and out threatening to upset the proceedings but never take over.

"The Terror End of Beauty" is Harriet Tubman's third album since signing with Sunnyside Records.  If you listen back to the band's 1998 debut recording "I Am A Man", you can hear that band's vision was fully firmed at that time. Two decades later, that vision has been been expanded while its focus has sharpened. Like the indispensable "...Green Book", Harriet Tubman (The Band) visualizes the pitfalls and dangers of the road ahead without offering panaceas but by being honest, open, and "in your face", all the while the music is in your ears and mind.

For more information about the trio, go to

One gander at the cover of "The Stylings of Champian", the new  self-released double-disc set from pianist/vocalist Champian Fulton, and it's summer again.  One listen to this breezy album, decked out with standards and jazz favorites, and you'll be bopping your head. tapping your feet, wishing you were on the beach. She's in the company of her "New York Band" - the rhythm section consists of bassist Hide Tanaka and drummer Fukushi Tainaka with her father Stephen Fulton bringing the dusky sounds of his flugelhorn to many, but not all, of the tracks. Listen to how Dad swings on "I Only Have Eyes For You" and it's easy to hear Ms. Fulton learned how to swing. Thanks to her father, her first paying gig was the 75th Birthday celebration for his friend Clark Terry - she was 10 years old at the time.

Not only can Ms. Fulton play piano but she has a delightful, distinctive, voice. Listen to the vocal-bass duet on "Body and Soul" - she moves through the lyrics like a saxophonist, embellishing the melody like a saxophonist.  The interaction of that voice and the rich tones that Tanaka creates plus the fact that the song is a compact 3:14 and it's a true winner.  Throughout, the musicians create an intimate feeling on every song. Even when there's swinging with a purpose, the focus is on playing together and making older songs sound fresh and ones that the listener may not remember or even know (such as "Martha's Prize" from the pen of Cedar Walton) fascinating adventures.

One can hear echoes of Fred Astaire on Irving Berlin's "It's a Lovely Day" - the great dancer was also a delightful interpreter of popular songs.  Father Fulton's flugelhorn dances along gracefully leading to a sly and sweet romp by his daughter. Her vocal on "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" (from the team of Rodgers and Hart) is supported by the dancing drums and highly melodic bass. When Ms. Fulton moves into her solo, the three musicians move as one. Her reading of "Lonesome and Sorry" (first recorded in 1926 by Jean Goldkette's Orchestra as well as Ruth Etting) leans a bit closer to the 1962 version by Nat "King" Cole yet still has a playful "swing" to it.

The album closes with a quartet reading of "All the Things You Are", an energetic reading that opens with a high-powered flugelhorn solo as the rhythm sections dances underneath. Ms. Fulton with an understated romp before the bassist struts her stuff. The song also features drummer Tainaka trading fours with father and daughter before the song closes on a coda that suggests the opening.

"The Stylings of Champian" is a treat from start-to-finish, filled with strong songs and excellent musicianship.  Champian Fulton is both a delightful pianist and an evocative, assured, singer, never just "going through the motions" to show off her "chops" but making each song her own.  This, her 10th album, is well worth exploring and enjoying!

For more information, go to

Here's her take on the Irving Berlin tune:

Way North is a quartet (three Canadians, one American) who organized in Brooklyn NY, in 2014. Composed of Rebecca Hennessy (trumpet), Petr Cancura (tenor saxophone, clarinet), Michael Herring (acoustic bass), and Richie Barshay (drums), they are each so busy as musicians, teachers, and festival organizers (Cancura is the Programming Director of the Ottawa International Jazz Festival) that they only get together sporadically to play. When they do, the music they create is a delightful amalgam of early jazz, gospel, and blues influences played with a sweetness and dedication that is truly "soul-deep".  The member's choice of material, original songs to interpretations of early jazz classics, will remind some of the classic Chicago trio Air; especially because the two "classic tunes" are Jelly Roll Morton's "Buddy Bolden's Blues" and "King Porter's Stomp", both of which appeared on the 1979 album "Air Lore." 

"Fearless and Kind" (self-released) is the band's second release and the connection to Air's (Henry Threadgill, Fred Hopkins, and Steve McCall) classic work cannot be denied. The lack of a chordal instrument (although, like Hopkins, Herring is a melodic bassist), the active yet sensitive drummer, and the desire to show jazz is an ever-changing river of sounds are what connects them. It's such a treat to hear tunes such as "You Know A Song" and how Hennessy wraps her brash trumpet sounds around the buttery, bluesy, tones of Cancura's tenor while Herring and Barshay dance beneath them. Dance is a major component of many of the songs. "Boll Weevil" opens the proceedings - with its "second-line" drums and bouncing bass, the songs jumps forward with powerful solos from both tenor sax and trumpet. I dare you to sit still.  The muted trumpet introduces the title track, a ballad that moves ever-so-slowly. Listen to how Ms. Hennessy interacts with the bass and drums during her sweet solo. Then, the tenor sax rises up "testifyin'" as the rhythm section "drags" the beat.  

The quartet is not stuck "in the tradition" but expands upon the various possibilities. The raucous and highly-charged "Airport to Knowhere" barrels forward on a head of percussive steam while "Birds for Free" has a sweet Caribbean feel in its rhythmic drive yet moves in numerous directions throughout the hardy tenor solo and high-powered trumpet spot.  Kudos to Mr. Barshay - his "stop on a dime" reflexes give the piece such its playful feel (with a subtle nod to the classic Atlantic Records Ornette Coleman Quartet).  The sweetness of the melody on the closing track,"The River's Flow", the intelligent interactions (such fine counterpoint throughout from Herring), and the splendid musicianship fills this observer with wonder. The four musicians try listen to each other. This music is not about "showing off" but about communal creativity.  The little touches on the track - the saxophone and trumpet without the rhythm section for 30 seconds, Barshay's "dancing hands" that support the bass solo - is so joyous.

I know consumers want music that fits their expectations but "Fearless and Kind" with its endless possibilities, really should opens one's ears to the delight of creative interactions. Yes, there's plenty of rhythmic fun,  numerous strong solos, but Way North is a true band, a honest collaboration of like minds, whose spirit and musicianship brings this listener such bliss.

For more information, go to  

Here's a cut to savor: