Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Folks Music (2019)

TuneTown, the trio composed of Kelly Jefferson (saxophones), Artie Roth (acoustic bass), and Ernesto Cervini (drums), first came together in 2016.  Each member of the trio is busy in their native Canada and in the lower 48 states. Readers of this blog know  Cervini as a tireless drummer and composer, leading or co-leading several groups (including Turbopop and Myriad 3).  Jefferson studied at McGill University in Montreal and earned his Masters Degree at the Manhattan School of Music.  He has played with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Maria Schneider, Kenny Werner, Brian Blade and a slew of others.  Roth also studied in the U.S. thanks to grants from the Canada Council and has been a busy sideman and leader for over two decades.  He's issued three albums since 2005 as the leader of the Artie Roth Quartet.

Not surprisingly, the band's debut album "Here To There" (Slammin' Media) features a wide spectrum of pieces, from originals to fascinating re-arrangements of Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady" and Cole Porter's "All of You."  Roth's melodic bass leads the Ellington into a rubato landscapes of long tones from the tenor sax and colors splashing from the brushes and cymbals.  The conversation in the rhythm section continues as Jefferson plays the lovely melody.  The airiness of the music makes the music more plaintive.  Meanwhile, the Porter classic gets a straight-ahead, swinging, reading with more fine brushes work and handsome counterpoint from Roth.  Cervini tap-dancing drumming beneath the fine tenor solo imbues the music with a joyous feel. When the drummer switches to sticks, the music picks up steam with all three charging ahead.

There's plenty to like on the original pieces.  Pieces such as Cervini's "The Monks of Oka" can play within and without the "tradition" – the piece has a bop feel and a drive from the rhythm section that feels unstoppable.  There's a funky backbeat to "Split Infinity" and the interaction between Roth's throbbing, droning, bass lines and Jefferson's echo-heavy tenor sax has a mysterious feel, staying clear of cliché. Listen the playful stick work that permeates "The Mayor", a short ditty with rampaging percussion, the boisterous tenor, and melodic underpinnings from the bass that hearkens back to Trio Air and its "ragtime" deconstructions.

"Here to There" closes with the bassist's "A Transient Space" – it's a quiet ballad with numerous silences, Jefferson's soprano sax keening at times and sounding oboe-like at others, while Roth fills the bottom with melodic murmurs and Cervini's changes the rhythmic feel from time-to-time, dropping in-and-out of a flow.  A blues feel creeps in 2/3rds of the way through, the volume increases, and Jefferson begins wailing.  Yet, the music turns back towards the quiet side and easily comes to a close.

TuneTown has created a delightful debut recording, a 44-minute journey into the collective minds of Kelly Jefferson, Artie Roth, and Ernesto Cervini. Certainly sounds like they are having fun and there's a great possibility the avid listener will as well.

For more information, go to tunetownjazz.com.

Listen to the three musicians discuss their music:

Pianist and composer Florian Hoefner was born and raised in Germany where he first began his musical studies and career – not only did he study piano but also trumpet and accordion.  Upon his graduation from the University of Arts in Berlin, he received a Fulbright Scholarship which took to New York City to earn a Master of Music from the Manhattan School of Music where was a student of Jason Moran, Dave Liebman, and Garry Dial.  He recorded a  number of albums in Europe for ENJA Records and other labels as a member of the German quintet Subtone plus he co-led a session for Fresh Sound New Talent with Kurt Rosenwinkel.  He's issued four albums in the United States including three for Origin Records, two with a quartet and a lovely solo piano.  That album, "Coldwater Stories", was the first Hoefner recorded after moving to St. Johns, Newfoundland, Canada.

He has pared his group to three musicians, a trio with bassist Andrew Downing and drummer Nick Fraser.  The Florian Hoefner Trio's debut album, "First Spring" (ALMA Records) is quite a blend of traditional songs associated with Hoefner's new home, three originals, two pieces composed or arranged by contemporary folksinger Sam Amidon, Byron Issac's "Calvary" (a piece discovered by the pianist when his quartet's bassist Sam Anning brought Levon Helm's "Dirt Farmer" on the road), and composer Luciano Berio's reimagining of an Armenian folk song "Loosin Yelav."  That final song listed is one of the lovelier works on the album – the melody unfolds slowly as the rhythm section proceeds (on tip-toes at times).  Bassist Downing creates a fine, melodic, solo statement before the pianist with an introspective spot of his own.

Photo: Bo Huang
The album opens with "Hound's Tune"; composed by legendary Newfoundland fiddler Rufus Guinchard (1889-1970), the piece opens with Downing's bowed bass playing the original melody and then moves into more "modern" territory thanks to he pianist's inventive arrangement.  "The Maid on The Shore", a Scottish ballad quite popular with the inhabitants of the Atlantic Canada region.  The song has quite a handsome melody which, in the hands of the trio, is opened up in the manner that John Coltrane approached "Greensleeves." There is tremendous energy and joy in the trio's interactions.

Photo: Bo Huang
Listen to how Downing and Hoefner play the melody and countermelody on "Calvary" – it's certainly melodic but just as funky.  the album is filled with examples of excellent ensemble interactions.  The title track, dedicated to the pianist's son and influenced by the work of the bassist Edgar Meyer, blurs the line between Americana and contemporary jazz as it's fills with various tempo changes and feels plus contains a smashing bass solo.  Amidon's "Short Life" has a plaintive expressed by Downing's bowed bass (he's also a fine cellist) and the powerful piano work of Hoefner.

Photo: Mike Meyer
The album closes with the trio's interpretation of Amidon's arrangement of the traditional "Rain and Snow."  The quiet opening has the feel of a snowstorm on a cold winter's night, the flakes blowing in the air (here represented by the pianist's rippling fills); soon, the music turns bluesy, the rhythm is funeral-march slow, and Hoefner's lines are filled with articulate single-note runs.  Nothing is rushed and the listener gets to soak in the sounds.

"First Spring" is a delight-filled album, a program that lets the light of a Newfoundland spring shine as opposed to the more scholarly "Coldwater Stories" from 2017.  Both are excellent albums. Kudos to Nick Fraser and Andrew Downing, two Canadian musicians who deserve more recognition south of the Canadian border.  Florian Hoefner has found a home in Newfoundland while its countryside and people have found a home in his creative soul.

For more information, go to www.florian-hoefner.com.

Here's the playful opening track:

Pianist and composer Jason Yeager released his first album "Ruminations" in 2011 on Greg Osby's Inner Circle Music. He's released three since them, one a duo with saxophonist Randall Despommier and another duo album with violinist Jason Anick. He's also recorded with Ran Blake and the Ayn Inserto Jazz Orchestra plus a number of others.  Yeager has performed with drummer Matt Wilson, vocalist Luciana Souza, and saxophonist George Garzone as well as many others.  He teaches on the faculty of the Berklee College of Music in Boston, even while living in New York City.  Currently, Yeager holds the piano chair in both Ms. Inserto's Orchestra and in La Banda Ramirez.

Album #5, "New Songs of Resistance", finds the pianist on Nick Finzer's Outside In Music and in a feisty mood.  Yeager has a created a program that meshes his original music with songs from the Chilean and Brazilian protests in the 1950s, 60s and 70s (known as the "New Song Movement" plus today, pieces by Violeta Parra (1917-67), Chico Buarque, Victor Jara (1932-1973), and the contemporary duo of Leôn Gieco and Luis Gurevich. The nucleus of the band posits the pianist with the rhythm section of Fernando Huergo (electric bass) and Mark Walker (drums, percussion) – selected tracks features Milena Casado (Spain – flugelhorn), Naseem Alatrash (Palestine – cello), Matthew Stubbs (California – bass clarinet, clarinet), Cosimo Boni  (Italy – trumpet) with vocalists Erini (Crete), Farayi Malek (Idaho), and Mirella Costa (Brazil).

The album opens with Ms. Parra's "Gracias a la Vida" ("Thanks to Life"), a lovely piece celebrating long life and the ability to see all facets. After Erini sings the opening verse over a slow reading pf the melody by the ensemble (plus flugelhorn, cello, and bass clarinet), the piece opens up to a faster Brazilian rhythm, another verse, then solos from Yeager, Casado, and Alatrash's cello counterpoint.  Erini also interprets Pablo Neruda lyrics (music by Jara and Patricio Castillo) on "Aqui Me Quedo" ("I'll Stay Here"), a piece dedicated to the Chilean workers who fought oppression in the 1970s with references to the colonialization of the country by Spain. Ms. Malek interprets the leader's lyrics on "In Search of Truth", a musical scree against those who do not believe in Civil Rights, human rights, climate change, a free press, or empathy. The music moves from a dark melody beneath the words and fast-paced instrumental passages. There's a powerful instrumental with wordless vocals moving alongside the piano while Huergo and Walker stoke the fire.

In addition to the various vocal tracks, there are three short solo piano "Interludes" – titled "Uncovering", "Resistance", and "Factitudes", Yeager's introspections range from contemplative to foreboding to quiet wonder.  One other short piece, "Protest", actually features sounds from a street protest march with the piano, bass, and drums creating a powerful rage beneath the protesters.  Ms. Malek's wordless vocals join Matt Stubb's clear clarinet tones to set the stage on Yeager's "Reckoning."  Everyone gets the opportunity to make statements, especially Walker with his powerful drum solo near the close of the tune.  The urgency of the bass and drums at the onset of "Mother Earth" along with Yeager's melodic piano brings Leonard Bernstein to mind. Adding the clarion-call trumpet of Boni to the mix gives thematic even more power. His solo, filled with fire and emotion, is a highlight.

"New Songs of Resistance" closes with a rousing reading of Buarque's 1970 anthem "Apesar e Você" ("In Spite of You"). The lyrics thumbs its nose at the authorities. Composed after the Brazilian writer returned from a short self-imposed exile to Italy (check out the video here), the song has an irrepressible bounce to it.  Ms. Costa makes the most of her sole appearance on the recording, clearly enunciating the Portuguese lyrics over the exciting rhythms.  Perhaps this joyous piece that closes the album is a sign that Jason Yeager feels hope even in the teeth of the political monsters spread around the world.  Listeners will enjoy the music, the voices, and the young soloists (many of whom are students at the Berklee College of Music where the pianist is on the faculty as are Fernando Huergo and Mark Walker).  Exciting music that speaks to the struggles of Latin America, the United States, and the world; listen closely and pay attention.

For more information, go to www.jasonyeager.com.

Here's the opening track:

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Music with Many Influences + 1000!

Photo: Desmond White
Alto saxophonist and composer Alex LoRe is an impressive young musician.  Moving to New York City after completing his undergrad studies at The New England Conservatory in Boston, MA., he did his grad work at the Manhattan School of Music. LoRe studied with and was tutored by saxophonists such as George Garzone, Lee Konitz, James Moody, and Steve Wilson plus has appeared on stage with the likes of Dave Liebman, pianists Aaron Parks and Dan Tepfer, trumpeter Ralph Alessi, and drummer Ari Hoenig.  He is a member of fellow reed player Lucas Pino's No Net Nonet and has recorded with the DanJam Orchestra and fellow saxophonist Paul Jones.  He's released two albums on Greg Osby's Inner Circle Music, the first (2014) a trio date and the second (2016) with a quartet that featured bassist Desmond White, pianist Glenn Zaleski, and drummer Colin Stranahan (who, like White, also appear on the earlier CD).  What impressed this listener about those albums was the amount of space in the music, the excellent melodies and arrangements as well as the interactions of the musicians involved.  Also, LoRe's influences come from myriad sources, classical to jazz and beyond.

"Karol" (Challenge Records) illustrates the influence of classical composers and performers with eight of the 12 compositions dedicated to classical composers.  They range from J.S. Bach to 16th Century Spanish composer Maddalena Casulana to Henry Cowell to Julius Eastman to Karol Symanowski.  His quartet (with drummer Allan Mednard replacing Stranahan) now has a name – Weirdear – and, even more than on his previous two albums, seem to be more involved in the creative process.  There is sensitivity, swing, and melody that moves in and out of many of these pieces including the opener "Skyward."  The song, not dedicated to any composer in particular, gives the entire band a chance to step out.  In this instance, it's Zaleski's handsome piano leading the way into the song then doubling the melody line with the alto saxophone.  White and Mednard are quite active in support of solos – it's as much fun to concentrate on their efforts as it is to listen to the pianist and alto saxophonist.

Photo: Desmond White
LoRe does an excellent job in their liner notes explaining the influence of each composer on the particular composition.  It's the use of rhythm and the complex harmonies of Igor Stravinsky's "Symphony for Wind Instruments" that inspired "Orahcle" while it was Charles Ives use of "Americana" melodies that sets the tone and direction of "Casey Jones".  But, notice the clear-as-a-bell tone of the alto saxophone, the dancing march-inspired rhythms from the drums and bass, and the strutting piano lines on the latter. The listener should be entranced by "Light" with its three chorales for soprano saxophone and piano.  This tribute to Johann Sebastian Bach leaves room for short improvised phrases by the saxophonist as well as freedom for the rhythm section throughout. "Eastman" is inspired by composer-pianist Julius Eastman (1940-1990) whose work was dubbed "post-minimalist" and really shook the contemporary classical music scene in New York in the late 1970s and early 80s.  Eastman was not afraid to speak of racial injustice and issues within the gay community.  LoRe treats his subject to a lovely melody, pushed forward by the fine brushwork of Mednard; he also adds the tenor saxophone of George Garzone. Their interactions are like a conversation in poetic verses, sometimes rhythmical, other times lyrical, all without tension or dispute.

The title track, dedicated to Polish composer Karol Symanowski (sp – the last name should contain a "z" – Szymanowski) who was born in 1887 and died in 1937.  His music changed a great deal over his composing career (approximately 23 years) ranging from pieces influenced by Wagner and the "Romantics" to creating his own "voice" with the use of "folklore" plus innovations in his compositional techniques that placed the composer in the "Modernist" camp. LoRe's piece is a distillation of those different voices with echoes of Stravinsky and Satie mixed with the approach of Jimmy Giuffre, especially at the period when that composer began to move from his "Americana" sound into a "freer" phase.  The quartet moves through various sections with ease and a sense of curiosity as well as with a forward motion created by the excellent playing of Mednard and White.

"Karol" also contains three "Miniatures", short compositions (between 2:25 and 2:36) in which melody and improvised are juxtaposed.  These cuts are exercises in economy and expansion, melodic structure and improvised rhythms, individual voices and collective sound.  In fact, the entire album is filled with examples of those exercises writ large; pieces that are organic and open to interpretation.  In a word, the playing is splendid.  Alex LoRe continues to create music that is involving as it is evolving, free of clutter and cliché, rich with possibilities.

For more information, go to alexlore.com.

Here's the opening track recorded live in December 2018 (two months after the recording session for the album):

Time has a way of erasing years even as it fills our memories.  It's been 20 years since pianist, composer, and arranger Guillermo Klein recorded the first album by his 11-piece ensemble Los Guachos.  Sunnyside Records released "Los Guachos II" ("I" was scrapped) in early 1999 – listeners were introduced to a sound that blended elements of the composer's Argentinean upbringing, his study of American jazz, and more.  Amazingly, the personnel (see below) has only changed slightly over the decades while the musical explorations continue to evolve and expand.

"Cristal" (Sunnyside) is the eighth Klein album to feature Los Guachos (the Orphans) continuing the composer's quest to meld his native country's older popular music and dance rhythms with a more modern approach.  On this recording, melody s just as important as rhythm. There are certainly of fine solos yet one should pay attention to the multitude of colors created by Klein's writing for the various sections. The program opens with an interpretation of "Melodia De Arrabal" – composed in 1932 by the extremely successful Argentinean duo of Carlos Gardel and Alfredo Le Pera, the song served as the title tune of a 1933 movie.  This modern take is actually a rearrangement of a rearrangement that Klein created for saxophonist Joshua Redman and the modern string quartet Brooklyn Rider.  The newer take accentuates the handsome melody line and also makes room for Jeff Ballard's brilliant drum work.  Take the time to listen to the blend of rhythm instruments, how the quiet guitar chords are echoed by the piano, and how the rhythms speed up and slow down as if elegant dancers were sliding across the floor in front of the ensemble.

Photo: Antonio Porcar Cano
"Burrito Volver" combines a rhythm from Klein's "Burrito Hill" (recorded with Los Guachos on the 2012 album "Carrera" with a reinterpretation of Gardel and Le Pera's "Volver", a tune that also shows up later in the album.  The first tune mentioned features a roaring solo from guitarist Ben Monder while the reeds and brass sway underneath.  The later take is more up-tempo with a dazzling interplay of the reeds and brass, excellent solos, and a powerful rhythm created by Ballard, percussionist Richard Nant, and electric bassist Fernando Huergo.  The three saxophonists – alto Miguel Zenón, tenor Bill McHenry, and baritone Chris Cheek (who is the album and group's MVP) – have wonderful interplay with the brass – trumpeters Taylor Haskins and Diego Urcola plus trombonist Sandro Tomasi.  Zenón takes the lead on "Quien Te Ve", first interpreting the handsome melody and then creating a far-ranging, emotionally rich solo.

"Cristal" closes with a new arrangement of Klein's "Flores" first recorded on 2005's "Una Nave." The composer's vocal is replaced first by the band working through the verses and then by Cheek's soaring soprano saxophone.  It's a dazzling, swirling, whirling, statement pushed forward by the powerful percussion and melodic bass.  The gentle ending of just guitar and quiet keyboard is a perfect way to let the listener relax and exhale.

Like the finest contemporary composers and arrangers, Guillermo Klein has slowly, steadily, built a repertoire that stands out for so many different reasons.  Los Guachos, formed in the wake of Klein's 17-member Big Van, is a splendid ensemble filled with great individual voices who mesh together making music that often soars while it moves the feet.

"Cristal" will be available on September 27, 2019 – in the meantime, here's a delicious taste:


Miguel Zenon - alto sax 
Bill McHenry - tenor sax 
Chris Cheek - soprano, tenor, baritone sax 
Diego Urcola - trumpet, flugelhorn 
Taylor Haskins - trumpet, flugelhorn 
Sandro Tomasi - trombone 
Ben Monder - guitar 
Guillermo Klein - piano, vocals, arrangements 
Fernando Huergo - electric bass 
Jeff Ballard - drums 
Richard Nant - percussion, trumpet

All compositions composed by Guillermo Klein except "Melodía de Arrabal" and "Volver" composed by Carlos Gardel & Alfredo Le Pera 


Step Tempest first posted in December 2009, a month after The Hartford Courant closed down the blogs (including mine) of numerous free-lancers.  Here we are, nearly 10 years later, and much has transpired but my love of, curiosity about, and desire to listen to music and write reviews remain unabated.  I have met, talked to, and heard many of the musicians I have written and continue to write about – their dedication to the music is, for a vast majority of them, remains powerful even as the music "business" continues to reinvent itself.  My productivity slowed a bit in 2010 when I began teaching as an adjunct Professor in the Seminar Series at Quinnipiac University; plus, I was able to develop several courses about the popular musics of the United States, working and learning with students about the origins of what we listen to today.

Above all, I still love this music, a love than continues to grow as the years keep passing by.  It's been over 50 years since I posted my first concert review for the UCONN Daily Campus – wow!  Seems like only a week ago.

Thank you so much for reading and for listening.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Blues + Beats + Bop (All Soul edition)

Some readers may remember that organist Chris Foreman and drummer Greg Rockingham were two-thirds of Deep Blue Trio – along with guitarist Bobby Broom, the Chicago-based ensemble recorded four albums, two on Delmark and two on Origin Records, from 2004 until 2011. Though the Trio in various iterations had been playing since 1992, they waited to record after a decade+ of gigs in the Midwest and beyond.  After the trio split, Foreman and Rockingham formed Soul Message Band with guitarist Lee Rothenberg and alto saxophonist Greg Ward.

"Soulful Days" marks the organist and drummer's return to Delmark Records as leaders. SMB's debut recording takes its name from Cal Massey's "These Are Soulful Days" – recorded in 1961 on the trumpeter-composer's one and only album as a leader, "Blues to Coltrane" but not released by Candid Records until 1987 (15 years after Massey's passing), this updated version slows the piece down to a bluesy shuffle featuring guest tenor saxophonist Geoff Bradfield (he's on three tracks), Rothenberg, and Foreman stepping out over the groove. And, it's quite soulful.  Ward contributes one of the two original pieces, the sprightly "Uncertainty".  Not at all like it's title, the piece dances forward on Rockingham's active (but not intrusive) drums and Foreman's delightful bass lines.  The guitarist composed "Sir Charles", the tune that opens the album; it's a tribute to both NBA star Charles Barkley and the great organist Charles Earland. The shuffle beat and easy interactions, delightful solos and the lack of ego, sets the tone for the album.  The band is telling the listener these "Soulful Days" are made for swinging, relaxing, and getting into the groove.

Every song is worth spending time with but here are two particular high spots.  Ward's singing alto and Foreman's gospel-infused organ lines open up the sweet Rodgers & Hart ballad "Little Girl Blue."
There are bluesy solos from Rothenberg, Foreman (it's the longest and most exciting one), and Ward (who plays such lilting phrases).  The quartet absolutely soars on Louis Bellson's "Easy Time" –it's another shuffle but, thanks to the interactions and fine solos from the guitarist, alto saxophonist, and organist plus the drummer's power rising from below, you will want to dance.

"These Soulful Days" lives up to its name. This music will wash away your troubles and sounds so good as it cleaned the soul!  Dance along with Soul Message Band as they put their spin on the organ-led band that has been a staple of soul-jazz for many, many decades.

For more information, go to www.soulmessageband.com. No videos or audio downloads but you can get a taste of the album by going to delmark.com/product/5030/.

Upon first listen, "Point Less" (Rugged Ram Records) struck me as an excellent debut by vocalist and composer Ola Onabulé. A little bit of research took me to his website whereupon I discovered the Nigerian-born, Great Britain resident, had released eight albums since his debut in 1995.  Therefore, this 2019 album is his ninth for the singer with the wonderful range; naturally a tenor, he can really sing quite high and surprisingly low (he has a three-and-ahalf octave range!). But, as appealingly the rhythms are in the majority of the 14-song, 77-minute program, listen to what he's singing about.  Themes of equality and inequality, promises made and broken, of violence perpetrated on people of all colors,  and how the lower class is held physically and fiscally move through all songs.  While the rhythms of "The Old Story" will remind many listeners of Santana's "Smooth", the theme of dominating the "other" reverberates in verses such as "I don't victim but why/Must I exist, just to tell a man/I must prepare him to die...."

"And Yet" opens with a splendid funky beat while Onabulé sings "Staring down a barrel again" then going on to "Don't blow Mister, Big Controller, do the rags bother/Maybe I could loose the hoodie for ya/...We all know you hold the rod of power."  All this to a rhythm that would not feel out of place on a Steely Dan album, especially "Aja" and beyond. On "Exit Wound", the singer exclaims "Don't send me all your thoughts and prayers/If they make it, they'll be no use here."  All this to a lively Latin-flavored beat provided by drummer Chris Nickolls, bassist Phil Mulford, percussionist Will Fry, pianist John Crawford, and guitarist Al Cherry. Nickolls plays on three on the tracks while Jack Pollitt pushes the band on the other 11.

The messages in the lyrics may seem relentless; it's best to put yourself into the composer's life.  Even the lovely ballad "Tender Heart" (kudos to Cherry for his soulful accompaniment and the powerful piano work of John Crawford) is not a respite from the issues people face in a soul-less world.  But Onabulé's vocals are soothing and give hope.  The harmonica of Berthold Matschat is handed to the final two tracks. He dances along with the leader's wordless vocal on "Pas Famille", interacting behind as the song turns to tell the story about a person who has no issues selling out his brethren (the title translates to "not family"). The excellent harmonica solo, with its blend of long, flowing, phrases with short melodic passages, stands out. The final track, "You Can't Depend On Love", opens with the harmonica introducing the melody while the lyrics speak of moving carefully through your life.  But, "Until you find a soul to some to/You'll find/You can't rely on hope" until the the singer changes the final chorus to "You can't depend on love." You can't help miss the lilt of Horace Silver in the melody and rhythm and the subtle honesty of Cole Porter in the lyrics.

Yes, "Point Less" is a long album yet it is worth taking your time to explore.  Ola Onabulé writes all the music and lyrics, produced these sessions, and released it on his own label.  He has stories to tell with a voice that does just honestly, melodically, soulfully, and without pity but filled with empathy. There's power in the rhythms and the beats as well.  All his albums are on Bandcamp and there's much to discover.

For more information, go to www.ola-onabule.co.uk.

Here's a video of Onabulé in studio (note the excellent guitar solo):

The language of hard bop was created in the 1950s nurtured by the likes of Clifford Brown, Theolonious Monk, Kenny Clarke, Sonny Rollins, Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Max Roach, and many others.  In the 1960s, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Albert Tyler (to name but four), began searching in multiple directions opening up the music while, often, scaring away older listeners. Even 60 years later, hard bop may sound obsolete to young listeners but, in the hands of musicians who understand the blues and "freedom" at the roots of the musical style, the music still can excite and electrify audiences.

Trumpeter Jimmy Smith and saxophonist James Hughes, both natives of the Detroit, MI, area, have been working together since 2012, recording three albums as a quintet.  For "The Gates" (Shifting Paradigm Records), Smith and Hughes added trombonist John Yao (from Chicago IL) to the front line (making him a co-leader to boot) as well as putting a new rhythm section (pianist Corey Kendrick, bassist Jeff Pedraz, and drummer Nick Collins – all three live and work in Detroit). The front line first came together several years ago when they were all studying in New York City. The nine-song program, with four sings by Hughes, three by Yao, and two by Smith, features intelligent music, great interaction, and excellent solos.  The rhythm section is delightful, with Kendrick's Horace Silver-inspired piano work, Pedraz's melodic and foundational bass, and Collins' delightful drumming.

While the first two tracks (Smith's "I-75 @ 5" and Yao's "Hell Gate" – the former moves faster than any highway I've been on at 5, p.m. that is) – swing with joyous abandon, Hughes's "Subterranean Miner" is a mysterious twisty blues line with fine bass work, a languid melody, and fine solos. Bassist Pedraz, who introduces the piece, also gets the first solo; his impressive melodic lines leads to a three-way conversation between Hughes (soprano), Smith (flugelhorn, perhaps), and Yao. The proceedings get a bit noisy before the band calms down to take the piece out. Hughes also composed the handsome ballad "Sophia's Song" – he plays the emotionally rich melody and takes the first solo (with Yao and Smith adding color in the background) the turns the spotlight over to Kendrick for a wide-ranging solo sans horns.  His playing truly sings even as he hands the song back to the front line.

The title track (composed by Smith) adds a Brazilian feel while giving the feel of a Lee Morgan piece.  Smith's crisp trumpet sound leads the way; the bounce in the rhythm section inspires his solo spot.  Yao, too, is inspired, his solo dancing along with Collins sweet cymbal work.  The drummer alters his attack a bit for Hughes's tenor spot, a playful romp from the co-leader.  The album closer, Yao's "Dog Days", is one of several that bring to mind Mr. Blakey's Jazz Messengers.  While the rhythm section is not as relentless as the master drummer's could be, the relaxed but powerful bop they create is highly appealing.  Kendrick, the composer, and Smith get the solos and they have a great riding the waves from the bass and drums.

"The Gates" opens wide and the avid listener gets to enjoy the delightful interactions of the Yao/Smith/Hughes Sextet.  The music brings to mind the hard-bop sounds that filled urban clubs in the 1950s and early 1960s, sounds that have never really gone out of style.  Dg in to this feast – the music satisfies!

For more information, go to www.shiftingparadigmrecords.com/yao-smith-hughes-sextet.html and/or to www.johnyao.com or www.jimmysmithmusic.net or www.jameshughesmusic.net – they all have sounds and pictures of the band.

Here's the title track:

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Saxophone In Flight

Contemporary jazz played by a quartet that's been together for two decades with one only change in personnel is a rarity these days.  Alto saxophonist and composer Miguel Zenón began organizing his Quartet in 1999 with pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig, and drummer Antonio SánchezHenry Cole replaced Sánchez in 2005 and that's been the lineup ever since.  Of the 12 albums that Zenón has released as a leader or co-leader, nine have featured the Quartet by itself or with guests.

Album #12 (the ninth for the Quartet) is "Sonero: The Music of Ismael Rivera" and is released on Zenón's Miel Music label. Rivera (1931-87) had a career that lasted from the mid-1950s right up to the time of his passing.  His most "influential" years were the 1970s when his "stories" about life in Puerto Rico and throughout the Caribbean and parts of Latin America.  His vocal and rhythmical advancements and experiments made him extremely popular.  Even now, his recordings sell well and his influence is widespread.  This album opens with Rivera's voice from a 1966 a cappella recording with music arranged by Zenón for bass, piano, handclaps, and percussion beneath.  It gives the new listener a blueprint of what's to come.

Zenón and his cohorts have great fun with this music, rearranging many of the pieces with the alto saxophone as the lead "singer."  The rhythm section leads the dancers onto the floor while Perdomo not only supports the leader but plays with great abandon. Pieces such as "El Negro Bembón" and "Colobó" are infectious, both sprinting off at the beginning.  The latter tune is played at breakneck speed et manages to still be quite melodic.  Zenón, who has always been a splendid soloist, has rarely sounded this joyful. The arrangements, all by the leader, pay homage to the originals yet often take fascinating turns.

Don't miss the ballad "Si Te Contara" with its bolero rhythm, lovely alto tone and solo plus Glawischnig's splendid, rhythmical, bass spotlight.  The powerful piano backing and Cole's sympathetic, intelligent, drumming makes the song a highlight. The sweet call-and-response of the alto sax with the bowed bass leads the listener into "Hola" – the song is built up from Perdomo's block chords with Zenón's powerful solo standing out.

"Sonero" closes with "El Nazareno", a song written by Henry D. Williams that tells of a spirit watching over the singer's family in his time of serious addiction.    The alto sounds heavier in the beginning of the song while reading the theme yet the pall rises during the solo.  Perdomo's piano spot picks up on the positive energy, pushed forward by Cole's powerful drums.  After a sparkling unaccompanied alto solo, the band returns and Cole gets the spotlight.  His impressive statement is often breath-taking yet he never loses his way or plays outside the theme of the song.

Miguel Zenón continues to mine the rich veins of the music from his native Puerto Rico.  He's never been wary of exploring the "popular" and folk musics of the island. "Sonero" is a celebration of Ismael Rivera, illuminating how lively, timely, and timeless his music is.   Zenón's is a Quartet you will want to see in person and, depending where you live in the United States or Europe, they'll be on tour with this music for much of the rest of 2019.  In the meantime, this album shines brightly in a discography filled with blazing stars!

For more information, go to miguelzenon.com.

Here's a video with Miguel Zenón talking about Ismael Rivera and the singer/songwriter's influences on his life and music:

Here's the full version of "Las Tumbas":

For her fifth album as a leader, tenor and soprano saxophonist Roxy Coss made the decision to select material from her first four albums (her self-released debut, the second on Origin Records, and two recent excellent releases on Posi-Tone Records) plus a new arrangement of the standard "All or Nothing at All."   The new album, titled "Quintet", is her first for Outside In Music – the program posits her in the midst of her touring group composed of Alex Wintz (guitar), Rick Rosato (bass), Jimmy Macbride (drums) and newest member Miki Yamanaka (piano, electric piano).

While this is a studio date, the results have the feel of a live gig. Ms. Coss is quite proud of the band and its enthusiasm for her material, how each musician makes it better with their desire to get the song's message across loud and clear.  Take "Mr. President" for example – composed in response to the election of the current United States leader (?), the piece begins and ends as a Russian funeral march.  The band uses the march as a jumping off point to hit a hard groove with fine solos from the leader and Ms. Yamanaka.  "Enlightenment" is a sweet, blues-drenched ballad with a long, luxurious, tenor solo plus a handsome piano spot. "The spotlight falls on bassist Rosato and guitarist Wintz on "You're There" – Macbride, the CT native who is quickly becoming a first-call drummer in New York City, really pushes the soloists on the track with his explosive fills and driving beat.

Photo: Desmond White
The one non-original, "All or Nothing at All", finds Ms. Coss taking the lead on soprano sax.  The piece has a delightful Latin feel with a hard-bop release. After the flowing soprano solo, Wintz strums his way into a sweet solo prodded forward by the powerful bass and drums combination. Ms. Yamanaka keeps the chords coming on electric piano as the guitarist hits his stride.

It's Ms. Coss's tenor sax pushing the proceedings on the final track "Females Are As Strong As Hell" – not only does she take a fiery solo but the rest of the Quintet, save for Rosato, get to speak their piece.  It's the shortest track on the program (4:43) but it's packed with power from the opening second to the final fade.

"Quintet" sounds great – Roxy Coss uses this release to look back over her career and previous recordings while the use of her "regular" band shows she's ready to move forward with these musicians, create new music with and for them. Play it loud and let the sounds and the incredible spirit wash over and throughout you!

For more information, go to www.roxycoss.com.

Here's the Quintet in action:

For his eighth album as a leader for Pi Recordings (and 10th over all as a leader), alto saxophonist and composer Steve Lehman pairs his long-standing trio mates, bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Damion Reid, with pianist Craig Taborn. The album title, "The People I Love", comes from a quote from vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson and is particularly relevant in his case and in Lehman's as well.  His original material has always been quite challenging but his long relationship with these musicians gives this 10-song program a warmth as well as an adventurousness that sounds exhilarating and emotionally strong.

Three of the pieces are Lehman originals, three are duets with pianist Taborn, one medley that pairs a Lehman composition with one by Jeff "Tain" Watts, plus  one each by the electronica duo Auterche, Kurt Rosenwinkel, and the late Kenny Kirkland.  The strength of these performances is that no piece sounds out-of-place. The Rosenwinkel piece, "A Shifting Design", was recorded eight months before the rest of the album (September 2018 as opposed to May 2019) – it's a trio blowout of the tune that the composer released in 2001. It skitters along atop the splendid drumming and rapid-fire bass work.  Lehman rarely pauses for a breath yet never overplays.

There are moments when Lehman's alto is bouncing around in a manic style – those are the times that the saxophonist's attack remind this listener of fellow alto saxophonist Steve Coleman.  Lehman also is an extremely rhythmical player.  Note what he does on the original "Ih Calam & Ynnus" and the medley "Echoes/The Impaler". His melody lines seem to explode in sheets of notes and his solo ups the ante. On the former tune, his energy enliven the solos by Taborn and Brewer plus the tension created by the piano's block chords and Reid's chattering drums is palpable. The latter track opens with Lehman, Taborn, and Reid seemingly carrying on different conversations with only Brewer carrying the beat and, even without the listener notice, the music begins to cohere (or, perhaps, we get to used t the jagged rhythms.

The first 1:45 of Lehman's "Beyond All Limits"is a spotlight for  Brewer's unaccompanied bass. He sets the pace for the band to follow and they jump on the rhythm he provides.  As he does throughout the program, Reid cedes the bottom to the bass until he drops into the rhythm underneath alto solo. The drummer gets friskier beneath Taborn on the pianist's wide-ranging solo.

Kirkland's medium-tempo ballad "Chance" (first recorded for drummer Billy Hart's 1984 "Oshumare" album and then again on the pianist's 1991 debut album as a leader) has quite a different feel. The tension that can be felt on most of the quartet pieces and the one trio piece has dissipated, replaced by emotionally rich solos from both the leader and the pianist with sympathetic brush working intelligent counterpoint from the bassist.

"The People I Love" closes with the third duo track from Steve Lehman and Craig Taborn. "Postlude", like the previous two duos, is short, like haikus in the midst of longer stories. Just as powerful, these reflections stand out from the other tracks but do not interfere with the overall theme of the album, to make music with "the people I love."  Steve Lehman continues to mature as a composer and saxophonist, creating music that challenges, educates, and moves the listener.

For more information, go to www.stevelehman.com.

Here's the full version of the track in the video:

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Love, Life, Live!

Photo: Shervin Lainez
If you enjoy vocalists, it's easy to enjoy the work Sara Gazarek. The Seattle, WA, native has been "on the scene" since the early 2000s releasing is albums as a leader or co-leader since 2005.  She really inhabits songs, articulates the lyrics, the emotions are real (and never forced), and records songs from across a wide spectrum from "pop", folk, rock, blues, Broadway, and jazz.  Ms. Gazarek possesses a seemingly effortless voice with a wide range – she can sing really high up in that range and always make it sound good.

Album #7 is "Thirsty Ghost." The singer produced the album and it's her first to be self-released. Working with a crackerjack trio – Stu Mindeman (piano, Rhodes), Alex Boneham (bass), and Christian Euman (drums) – the 12-song program is her most emotionally varied.  Take "Never Will I Marry", the Frank Loesser song the 1960 musical "Greenwillow"; the Caribbean rhythms, the responsive reeds and brass, her joyous scat singing, and Mindeman's bubbling electric piano make the piece a declaration of independence.  And, as break-up songs go, Hoagy Carmichael's "I Get Along Without You Very Well" is one of the sadder ones.  Missing the rarely used subtitle, "Except Sometimes", Ms. Gazarek makes us believe those two words without every uttering them.  The sympathetic bass and drums (subtle brush work) and Mindeman's soul-tinged piano is excellent, a smart arrangement by the vocalist and pianist.

Photo: Andrew Southam
Then, there's Stevie Wonder's "I Believe When I Fall In Love", arguably one of the songwriter-performer's better tunes.  Ms. Gazarek's reading, replete with a horn section and backing vocals, takes its time to get to the chorus – when she does, it's such a quiet yet intense emotional release. Plus, that leads directly into an equally emotional alto sax solo from Josh Johnson.  Ms. Gazarek's wordless vocal in the final 30 seconds is breathtaking.  She follows with a smashing Geoff Keezer arrangement of Dolly Parton's "Jolene".  The rhythm section hits hard and really creates a whirlwind of tension-and-release while the vocalist pleads her hopeless case.  One has to be impressed how big the sound of the trio and voice are here without being shrill or over-blown.  Note the delightful drumming by Euman (you'll see him at play in the video below).

Photo: Shervin Lainez
Three of the twelve piece are original lyrics by Ms. Gazarek  including two with melodies by Larry Goldings (who contributes organ on the tracks) and the other by Brad Mehldau.  "Easy Love" is a soft, swinging, tune with excellent piano by Mindeman with Goldings' organ coloring. The organ has a more atmospheric role on "Gaslight District", a tune that has the feel of Steely Dan's "Aja" with an excellent horn arrangement by trombonist Alan Ferber.  There's tenderness and vulnerability in the vocal plus a wistful hope for a better day. The album closes with "Distant Storm", the Mehldau melody. Opening with Ms. Gazarek's voice supported by Ferber's horn arrangement. Listen closely for the background voices of Erin Bentage and Kurt Elling – their subtle contributions help lead us to the verse and chorus.  Elling takes a verse after a fine Johnson solo, the poetry of the alto lines nicely expanded upon by the vocalist.  Ms. Gazarek returns, reminding the listener that although the "storms" that often make our lives so scary, there is hope with each new dawn.  She takes out the song with just Mindeman's piano and the reminder to "move on".

"Thirsty Ghost" is a triumph for Sara Gazarek.  Her song selection is spot-on, her voice sounds more assured than ever before, and the musicians she partners with play with such commitment and soul.  And, it sounds so good!  You'll feel better listening after listening to this music, so much so there should be no guilt playing it over and over.

For more information, go to saragazarek.com.

Here's Ms. Parton's tune with the fine Geoff Keezer arrangement:

The Curtis Brothers, pianist Zaccai and bassist Luques, grew up in Hartford, CT, and were the beneficiaries of the school that Jackie and Dollie McLean created, The Artists Collective.  They both studied in Boston, MA, Zaccai at the New England Conservatory of Music and Luques at The Berklee College; after graduation, they formed their own band while maintaining an impressive number of sideman gigs.  Zaccai has worked with Ralph Peterson, Wallace Roney, and Donald Harrison while Luques has been in-demand since moving to New York City, working with Eddie Palmieri, Etienne Charles, Albert Rivera, and many more. They started their Truth Revolution label in 2009 and now, with the arrival of "Algorithm", have released five albums (including one recorded nine years before they had their own label).

The new label is a live date recorded in February of 2018 at The Side Door Jazz Club in Old Lyme CT.  The nine-song program is the result of a Chamber Music America grant that Zacccai won; originally composed for their own band, this recording three of their mentors, drummer Ralph Peterson, trumpeter Brian Lynch, and alto saxophonist Donald Harrison.  Thanks to the presence of Mr. Peterson, much of this music is volcanic in nature (having seen the drummer perform in the space, he is surrounded by plastic for the recording; otherwise, his sound would swamp the band).  But the drums are not the only focal point. Zaccai is an excellent composer with an ear for intelligent melodies and fine harmonies.  He fashioned these songs to tell a story about the Brothers upbringing and the various mentors they encountered.  "Chief" is Donald Harrison's vehicle and he owns the space, his rippling phrases and powerful solo over the rollicking rhythm section is a joy to hear.  Touring with the "Big Chief's" band was the Brothers first professional gig.

Photo: Ramsey De Give/WSJ
The spotlight turns on Brian Lynch for "The Professor", a finely-etched tune, well-constructed, a blues-soaked ballad that he makes his own with long phrases, breathless runs, snappy notes, at times in dialogue with Peterson while the Brothers hold the piece together.  Luques takes a short but fine solo as the music fades to a close.  Several tunes pay tribute to the sound and feel of Art Blakey's Jazz Messenger, none moreso than "Undefined." The front line blares out while Zaccai's piano sets the stage. Soon, Lynch takes over, his muscular solo riding the waves of sound from the drums. Harrison roars into his solo and throughout, he too in dialogue with the drums. The thunder recedes for the beginning of the piano solo – the piano and drums engage in cat-and-mouse game before Zaccai dances forward, his brother's bass lines dancing beneath him.  You will scream alongside Side Door owner Ken Kitchings during the drum solo.

The album closes with "Sensei" and one its to hear Ralph Peterson in the lead. Zaccai and Luques supply the rhythmical melody line and the drummer tell the story.  The shortest track on the disk (4:01), one still is impressed by the power and the determination that Peterson brings to the song (as well as the entire program).

"Algorithm", with its Latin sensibilities and its impressive execution, is worth hearing for so many different reasons including the story lines, the wonderful musicianship, and to hear how the roles of the rhythm section and the front line can be blurred to great effect. Yes, the themes are well-drawn, the solos fiery yet often melodic, and the rhythms seductive and thunderous – for those of us in central Connecticut, The Curtis Brothers have grown up before our very ears, matured into excellent  and thoughtful musicians.  This album will rock your speakers (and your world) the way the performances rocked the audience at The Side Door.

For more information, go to truthrevolutionrecords.com/artists/curtisbrothers.

Here's the album's opener:

Photo: Ulysse Lemerise
Jacques Kuba Séguin is a trumpeter and composer based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  He is one of the more celebrated trumpeters in Canada, winning several awards for the work he has done with two of his groups, including his Litania Projekt quartet collaboration with the Quatuor Bozzini, the Montreal-based string quartet. Besides creating his own label, Odd Sound, for his various ensembles, he's traveled to Germany, Poland, and China.  One of his bands, Odd Lot, has more of an electric edge with keyboards, synths, and pedals.

His latest album, "Migrations", has its roots in the composer's interviews with various cultural groups in Quebec Province.  Séguin, who is of Polish origins, created a musical program that addresses the hopes, dreams, fears, and joys of the people he talked with.  Playing the seven-song program is an ensemble that features highly acclaimed saxophonist Yannick Rieu, equally as acclaimed pianist Jean-Michel Pilc, vibraphonist Oliver Salazar, bassist Adrian Vedady, and drummer Kevin Warren.  One may be surprised on much this music swings. For example. "L'érivain" would not sound out of place on a mid-1960's Miles Davis album or coming from Dave Douglas.

The album opens with "Hymn" which opens with a solemn melody played by the trumpet with the tenor sax in counterpoint.  The band enters with a gospel lilt before the bass and drums drop into a loping rhythm underneath the lilting yet bluesy trumpet.  Check out the delightful piano solo followed by a fine tenor turn.  "I Remember Marie in April", a title which sounds as if should be for a lovely ballad, is quite a active post-bop tune that would not sound out of place on Wynton Marsalis's "Black Codes From The Underground."  The piece has a contagious rhythm and features exciting solos from Séguin and Pilc (dig his "Giant Steps" quote), a hopping vibes solo, and excellent counterpoint from bassist Vedady.

The powerful ballad, "Preimiére Neige (You're Not Alone)", features the leader's lyrical trumpet playing, filled with emotion, long notes, and, at times, sadness.  The album closer, "Mosaïques", has a Middle-Eastern feel in its rhythm and sinewy melody line.  The bassist has a long solo, then a short call-and-response with the entire group before stepping out once more.  The group takes the song out with the melody.  What makes this program so good is how the blend of solos and group playing are on an equal level, one not more important than the other.

"Migrations" is my introduction to the music and musicianship of Jacques Kuba Séguin.  He's organized an excellent band, Jean-Michel Pilc has rarely sounded so joyous, and the rhythm section truly supports and pushes the rest of the band.  Check it out.

Give a listen: