Sunday, May 26, 2013

May Flowers with Sounds

Trumpeter/educator/producer John McNeil is quite a presence in the world of creative music. As a faculty member of the New England Conservatory of Music since 1980, he has mentored, coached and performed with many contemporary musicians (including Dave Douglas and Noah Preminger.)   His previous 2 CDs featured saxophonist Bill McHenry, another one of his former students.

McNeil is part of a quartet whose self-titled CD, "Hush Point" (Sunnyside), features 2 more NEC graduates in Jeremy Udden (alto saxophone) and Aryeh Kobrinsky (bass) plus Vinnie Sperrazza (drums). McNeil is quite comfortable in small ensembles without chordal instruments.  His music reflects the influence of both the "West Coast Sound" of the 1950s, groups led by Chet Baker and Jimmy Giuffre, as well as the liberating sounds of the early Ornette Coleman groups (the instrumentation is the same as Coleman's quartets.) Yet, while the sound may be somewhat similar, the music stands out on its own.  Udden, whose most recent recordings are grounded in the "Americana" sound, has a light tone on alto, with a lyrical style - his solo on "New Bolero" is sweet, lilting and, when he meshes with the trumpet, their 2 distinctive tones paint impressive pictures.  On "Peachful", the dancing groove created by the bass and drums spark the front line to put a bit of "swing in their steps."  Bassist Kobrinsky is solid and quite musical; his active lines are both foundational and often provide counterpoint.  Sperrazza, who those of us in Central Connecticut know from his work with pianist Noah Baerman, is the undersung hero in this music.  Because the majority of these pieces are quiet in nature, the drummer is often using his brushes.  Listen to how he and the bassist turn the rhythm section into a locomotive on Giuffre's "The Train and The River" and how he scrambles beneath the trumpet on "Get Out." Sperrazza is so soft as he supports Udden's fine solo on "Fathers and Sons"; still he continues to propel the piece forward along with Kobrinsky's "walking" bass.

Lyricism, originality, musicians who listen to each other and respond intelligently, serving the music and not some commercial artifice make "Hush Point" worth owning. There's wit, a hint of blues, a bit of bop -  the playing of John McNeil, Jeremy Udden, Aryeh Kobrinsky and Vinnie Sperrazza will grab hold and draw you into their world.  It's a pleasant place to be.  For more information and to hear several tracks, go to

Reviewers love it when they find a new artist whose music knocks them out.  Then, you find that the musician has been active nearly 2 decades and has released 3 CDs in 17 years.  Drummer/composer Marko Djordjevic came to the United States from his native Serbia to attend the Berklee School of Music in the early 1990s and has worked with artists such as Bill Frisell, Lionel Loueke, Aaron Goldberg, bluesman Lucky Peterson and numerous others.

His 4th CD as a leader, "Something Beautiful (1709-2110)" (Goldkeeper Records), finds the drummer in the company of bassist Desmond White and the fine young pianist Bobby Avey - tenor saxophonists Eli Degibri and Tivon Pennicott appear on 3 tracks each (the group goes by the name of Sveti.)  The influence of the late Tony Williams permeates the uptempo jazz pieces such as the frenetic "Heart Bop" and the melodic swing of "Which Way Is Down", the 2 tracks that open the program (the latter has a melody line similar to the Doris Day hit from 1954, "Secret Love.")  Avey plays with great authority and inventiveness throughout the album.  He easily navigates the various multi-rhythmic patterns Djordjevic creates as well as the several tracks influenced by the music of Yugoslavia.  The classically inspired melody that opens "Svetlana" is quite handsome and the pianist's rich chordal sounds are inviting. A number of emotions are revealed in his playing on the closing track, "Svetlana Swinging on a Summer Evening."  The Eastern European feel of "Home Made" is strengthened by the fine saxophone work of Degibri who also playfully maneuvers through the high-powered rhythmic drive of the leader on "Heart Bop." The young saxophonist Tivon Pennicott, who has worked with Esperanza Spalding and Kenny Burrell adds his soulful sounds to the medium-tempoed "Something Beautiful" whose melody lines reflect both modern jazz and Balkan music. Pennicott's plaintive work on "War Song" reflects the influence of John Coltrane. This song is the most abstract on the CD, with the musicians shaping a dissonant world.  Bassist White is a solid presence throughout, laying the foundation of each tune which allows the leader more freedom to play with such zest.

There are moments on "Something Beautiful (1709-2110)" (and, no, I'm not sure what the dates stand for or if there are even dates at all) when the drummer sounds as if he is about to boil over.  Yet, he neither overwhelms the piano and bass nor ever drowns out the soloists. Marko Djordjevic & Sveti celebrate life and freedom, melody and interplay; by doing so, they create a world in which family and art are valued over war and destruction.  For more information, go to

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