Friday, January 31, 2014

Hearts & Soul (Part 1)

Over the past decade, vocalist Kate McGarry has issued 5 CDs on Palmetto Records that straddle the lines between jazz, pop and folk. She has done so with a clear voice, avoiding vocal tricks and cliches, making sure the listener hears the lyrics and melody.  On her most recent CD, "Girl Talk", she paid tribute to her influences ("role models", she calls singers such as Betty Carter, Sheila Jordan and others) without imitating any of them.

2014 finds Ms. McGarry moving to Sunnyside Records and releasing "Genevieve and Ferdinand", a mostly "live" recording on which she shares the billing and stage with her husband, guitarist Keith Ganz.   Over the course of 11 tracks, the duo mix heartfelt originals with intelligent arrangements of songs by Paul Simon ("An American Tune"), James Taylor ("Line "Em Up"), Tonino Horta ("Aquelas Coisas Todas/Third Wind/Aqui O"), Irving Berlin ("Let's Face The Music and Dance") and the team of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein ("Can't Help Lovin' That Man", from "Showboat").  Theo Bleckmann and Australian vocalist Gian Slater join the duo on a haunting rendition of Todd Rundgren's "Pretending to Care." Through it all, Mr. Ganz keeps the rhythm moving and offers quiet yet intelligent backing.  One hears the folk stylings of Bert Jansch in his finger-picking on the guitarist's original "Mr. Long Gones" while finely-articulated notes shimmer like starlight on "Beneath a Crozet Trestle Bridge" (from the pen of Virginia-based singer-songwriter Paul Curreri.) 

The immediacy of the recording (mostly recorded in concert at Soundpure Studios in Durham, North Carolina) makes the listener as if he is seated at the front table. There is an intimacy to the songs, a gentleness and wistfulness that transcends labels.  The CD takes its name from Ms. McGarry's middle name and her belief that her husband is, in her words like "the peaceful bull from that old children's book who only wants to sit under a tree and smell the flowers while the other bulls are fighting". "Genevieve and Ferdinand", Kate McGarry and Keith Ganz, whatever names they chose to be called, make music that is warm like a mug of mint tea on a winter day and cool like a spring breeze.  For more information, go to 

Such a joy to discover a vocalist who makes a recording that knocks you back in your chair.  Zara McFarlane, born to a Jamaican family living in a suburb of London, England.  She has studied Broadway musicals, sung in a ska orchestra, made "house music", worked with jazz orchestras and toured with British artists such as Soweto Kinch and Denys Baptiste.

That written, her sophomore release, "If You Knew Her" (Brownwood Records), will surprise you with its maturity and risk-taking.  She writes that her debut CD "Until Tomorrow" used the same lineup all the way through "to create a cohesive sound."   For the new recording, the focus is on the compositions and uses different musicians on almost every track.  Manu Delago's hang drum is the first sound one hears on "Open Heart" (the hang - pronounced "hung" - sounds, at times, like a high-pitched steel drum) and leads the listener into a soulful vocal. Ms. McFarlane's voice is rich and clear; she overdubs harmonies that work with Gavin Barras' bowed acoustic bass lines to fill out the sound.  Her rendition of "Police and Thieves", the classic reggae tune composed and recorded by Junior Murvin and Lee "Scratch" Perry, is quite dramatic. Built off the solid acoustic bass lines of Max Luthert (a member of the British trio Partikel), the track features a forthright vocal (not unlike Abbey Lincoln on "We Insist! Freedom Now Suite") and a strong tenor sax solo from Binker Golding, a member of Ms. McFarlane's Quintet. The vocalist also covers "Plain Gold Ring", a song Nina Simone recorded on her splendid debut Lp "Little Girl Blue."  With just Luthert's simple bass figures, hand percussion (supplied by the vocalist) and vocal overdubs, the song is emotionally rich that suggests at Ms. Simone's husky delivery but stands out as a creative remix.

Trumpeter/vocalist Leron Thomas joins Ms. McFarlane on the jazzy remake of Jamaican singer Nora Dean's "Angie La La" which also features the strong bass work of Gavin Barras and swinging drum work of Luke Flowers (of The Cinematic Orchestra) - this take suggests the work of the late Leon Thomas (no relation to the trumpeter) in the open chords, the trance-like rhythms and the often ethereal vocals.

The original composition "The Games We Played" suggest an African connection in the lyrics, with just the sweet vocal and the gentle piano of Peter Edwards (who appeared on her debut CD and whose Trio features bassist Luthert).  That leads into "Woman In The Olive Groove", a harder-edged piece with powerful chords from Edwards and a fiery tenor solo from Golding.  Edwards also appears on the final track, "Love", accompanying the vocalist with unembellished chords (though he has several short solos featuring rippling phrases) - Ms. McFarlane's vocal suggests a sweetness and maturity, a generosity of spirit and lack of ego that gives the piece (and, for that fact, the entire album) its honesty.

Honesty, creativity, spirit, all good (if somewhat inadequate) words to describe "If You Knew Her."  You should get to know Zara McFarlane as she is a young vocalist/composer who does not cover her voice with extraneous sounds (although some of the remixes on the Brownwood web site get pretty noisy) and her songs cut through the crap of everyday life with a firm but compassionate heart. For more information, go to  

Art of the Trio in Middletown

The Buttonwood Tree, 605 Main Street in Middletown, welcomes the Laszlo Gardony Trio on Saturday February 1 for an evening of exciting, interactive, pensive and far-reaching improvisations.

Pianist Gardony, a native of Hungary, came to the  United States in 1983 to study at The Berklee School of Music in Boston and, upon graduation, was offered a position on the faculty.  For the past decade, his main performance vehicle has been the Trio with bassist John Lockwood and drummer Yoron Israel.  They have played at numerous venues in this country and in Europe; their usual style is not to have a "set list" but to just begin to play, with each musicians making musical suggestions as to what direction the music will take.  Since all 3 are masters of their respective instruments and know hundreds, if not thousands, of songs, they rarely, if ever, repeat themselves.

Messrs. Lockwood and Israel have recorded 4 CDs with Mr. Gardony for the Sunnyside label, the latest being 2011's "Signature Time" which also features saxophonist Stan Strickland.   In 2013, the pianist released "Clarity", a 49-minute piano solo that he created one morning in October 2012.  Mr. Gardony sat down at a piano in a studio at Berklee, turned on a recording device and simply played. Best listened to in the fashion it was recorded (all the way through), "Clarity" is an excellent example of a fertile mind at play.

For the Buttonwood gig, it's the Trio. They are good friends and it shows in how they support, prod, push and interact on stage.  The show starts at 8 p.m.  For reservations, go to or call 860-347-4957.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Drummer-led Ensembles (Part 1)

Hard to believe that "Time's Tales" (Okeh Records) is drummer/ percussionist/composer Jeff Ballard's debut as a leader. Fans of creative modern music know the California-native from his work in pianist Brad Mehldau's Trio and his co-operative trio FLY (with Mark Turner and Larry Grenadier.  Over the past 2 decades, the drummer has worked and recorded with pianists Danilo Perez and Chick Corea as well as in Joshua Redman's Elastic Band.

For his debut CD, Ballard has created a trio (only seems natural) with  guitarist Lionel Loueke and alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon. Over the course of 10 tracks (57 minutes), the music moves around the globe, with stops in Africa (Loueke's "Virgin Forest" which opens the album),  New Orleans (the drummer's composition "Beat Street"), Cuba ("El Reperador de Suenos" from the pen of Silvio Rodriguez - it's one of the prettiest pieces on the disk), Tin Pan Alley (the Gershwin brothers' "The Man I Love", featuring an emotionally poignant solo from Zenon) and, perhaps the biggest surprise, the hard rock sounds of Queens of the Stone Age ("Hangin' Tree", with Lionel Loueke delivering scorching riff after riff.) Zenon holds his own on the last tune mentioned, playing with great fire as Ballard flails beneath the solos.

One can hear that this session is no "one-off", that the trio has worked together on numerous (in fact, since 2006) and, that while each one of them is a leader, this is a true group effort. The music goes in so many directions because these musicians have played so many different styles and bring such great ideas to the sessions.  "Dal (A Rhythm Song)" is based on a piece by Bela Bartok featuring a lovely saxophone solo over strong hand drumming and sparse yet effective guitar work.  The guitar and saxophone play the fascinating melody of "Western Wren (A Bird Call)", actually adapted from a recorded bird call, together (Loueke playing very high notes) and then spar over the active brush work of Ballard.  Two improvisations fill out the program, the short (:47 seconds) "Free 1" and the longer, much more involved "Free 3" that is the final track.  "Free" improvisation can be daunting yet the trio move the piece organically over the martial beat and staccato saxophone riffs.

Jeff Ballard may have waited until he was 50 before releasing his debut as a leader - for those of us who have enjoyed his efforts over the past 20 years, the wait was worth it and the results highly enjoyable.  "Time's Tale" is a joy to listen to and deserves your attention. For more information, go to  The Trio will be on a European tour in February and at selected venues in the United States starting in June of this year.  

Rudy Royston, born in Texas and raised in Colorado, is one of those drummers music listeners gravitate to.  He's an exciting, unpredictable, forceful yet gentle player.  He has worked to great effect with trumpeters Ron Miles and Dave Douglas, guitarist Bill Frisell, and saxophonist JD Allen.  Royston is an in-demand session player and now, with the release of "303" (Greenleaf Music), a leader.

The album, named for the zip code in the part of Colorado where Royston spent his formative years, features a septet with Jon Irabagon (saxophones), Nadja Noordhuis (trumpet), Nir Felder (electric guitar), Sam Harris (piano) and Mimi Jones plus Yasushi Nakumura (basses).  The music, all but 2 of the 11 tracks composed by the leader, is surprisingly soulful, especially the haunting rendition on Mozart's adaptation of a Eucharistic hymn "Ave Verum Corpus." Royston's quiet brush work and cymbal splashes color the strong saxophone work of Irabagon (he and Royston work together in Dave Douglas's Quintet). The other non-original is Radiohead's "High and Dry", with bass chords supporting the atmospheric guitar and the leader's hard-edged drums. It's quite a handsome melody and this version builds on it without losing the vision of the original.  There's a feel of "Philly soul" in the sounds of "Prayer (for the people)", a short piece featuring strong bass work from Ms. Jones (I believe), good piano from Harris and a horn arrangement that suggest s but not copies Abdullah Ibrahim.  Felder, whose debut was recently released on Okeh, is a sparkplug throughout the program.  His quiet and soul-stirring phrases lead the way into "Goodnight Kinyah" while his long tones and clicking rhythm underscore the horns and piano on "Mimi Sunrise."  His rippling lines soar over the driving drums and overdubbed percussion on "Play On Words", a piece with echoes of Miles Davis's mid-1960s Quintet, whereas "Miles to Go (Sunset Road)" has a funky Caribbean feel in the chunky guitar riffs and Royston's patterns.  The hypnotic interaction of Irabagon's tenor and Ms. Noordhuis's trumpet is soothing as the piece fades.  

To his credit, Rudy Royston has made a "group" recording, not a CD built around his drum solos.  He does step out on several occasions, especially on the fiery climax of "Gangs of New York" (Felder matches his intensity) and on the up-tempo romp "Bownze" (featuring a great sax solo and strong work from the bassists.)  There are moments when the music has the sound of Brian Blade's Fellowship or the afore-mentioned Miles Davis Quintet.  "303" is a solid debut for Royston, featuring an ensemble that can should mature as it plays in live settings (where the drummer usually does his finest work.) For more information, go to

Tarun Balani is a drummer/composer born in India who first came to New York City to study with at the Collective School, then went up to study with Ralph Peterson, Jr. and Jamey Haddad at the Berklee School of Music before moving back to India to form the Global Music Institute in New Delhi.  His debut CD, "Sacred World" (self-released), was recorded in Mumbai and issued there in 2012.  It's now out in the United States and well worth your time.

His ensemble, the Tarun Balani Ensemble, features his brother Aditya on guitars, Sharik Hasan (piano), the veteran bassist (and Berklee instructor) Bruno Raberg plus Suhail Yusuf Khan (sarangi on 3 of the 8 tracks with vocal on another 1).  If you do not listen closely to the opening 2 cuts - "Belief" and "The Other Side" - one would think that the program was going to be influenced throughout by the work of The Pat Metheny Group, circa 1980. The Metheny sound is noticeable in the textures and certainly in the chordal patterns of "Belief."  Suhail Khan's first appearance is on cut #3, "Azaan", which opens with acoustic guitar tuned differently than a Western guitar;  then Hasan and Raberg play a unison melody joined after a moment by the guitar leading up to Khan's vocal.  The pace is different, the percussion (once Balani enters) taking on a more melodic part interacting with the piano and vocal.  Aditya Balani switches back to electric guitar on the next track, "Pictures", and that Metheny/Mays influence returns but is less reverential. The title track is a long ballad, built from a handsome unaccompanied nylon-string guitar introduction.  One by one, the other musicians (save for Khan) enter starting with Raberg's melodic bass, then Hasan's resonant piano work and finally the cymbals.

The final 3 tracks adds Khan's sarangi, an ancient Indian stringed instrument that sounds like a violin.  One can hear clearly on "Varsha" the fusion hinted at in the earlier tracks plus Balani' approach to the drum kit changes, the bass drum becoming more prominent and the the rhythms played on the snare and tom have more of an Eastern feels.  The CD closes with "Arjuna" and "Arjuna Reprise" which continues along the lines of fusion of East and West.  The tracks are actually on long performance, the first part featuring a powerful electric guitar solo followed by Hasan's more rhythmic piano spotlight (the pianist is an excellent musician, with a rich sound on his instrument).  After a reiteration of the theme, the pieces changes to a slower pace for an unaccompanied piano solo -  that leads to a long, crackling, drum solo over insistent piano chords and a descending bass line before the rest of the group returns to the formal theme.

The power inherent in the music on "Sacred World" grows with each listen.   One moves past the influences and begins to listen to the interactions of the musicians, how they connect with each other, and how melody and rhythm are front-and-center throughout.  Tarun Balani has created quite an impressive work of art; one is curious to hear how his music will grow, expand and mature.  For more information, go to

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Music for Cold Winter Days & Nights

January can be a very long month, especially if the weather keeps you indoors listening to your furnace go on and off all night or if storm after storm has shoveling for hours at a time.  Music can often soothe the ravaged chest and shoulder muscles - what follows is the beginning of a series of reviews featuring excellent new music.

Despite the roiling waves on the CD cover, "From Water" (88 Records) is a series of clarinet solos from the creative mind of Doug Wieselman.  Most of the 10 tracks feature looping which often creates a trance-like feel as the musician builds his loops from simple figures.  "Train" opens the 10 track program (all originals save for a lovely reading of John Lennon's "Julia") - the music rises and falls on a short 4-note rhythmic figure which moves in and out of the foreground while Wieselman's melody lines float like train whistles on a frontier night.  "Pacific 2", inspired by standing down by the shore, has a circular melody similar to ones created by soprano saxophonist John Surman on his solo recordings.  "Salmon"builds off of longer tones, with silences that allows the melody to stand out. Halfway through the track, the looping begins and the piece becomes a lovely prayer with echoes of South African music.  As for the Lennon tune, the performance rises from the short chorus into the melody, the longing from the original vocal version evident in the handsome tones of Wieselman's vintage clarinet.

"Gloria Fleur Madre" is a composition for solo clarinet (no apparent overdubbing) that reminds this listener of the solo work of the late John Carter, with a melody that straddles blues and atonality.  Meanwhile, "Tennessee Valley 2" features a choir of voices performing the melody lines of an earlier instrumental version ("Tennessee Valley") of looped clarinet and vocal percussion.

"From Water" is haunting, challenging, meditative music that resonates long after the final notes fade. Doug Wieselman, who works with Antony & The Johnsons, co-leads Trio S and Kamikaze Ground Crew and has performed/recorded with Bill Frisell, Marty Ehrlich, Laurie Anderson and so many others, has given listeners quite a musical gift, the joy of losing one's self in a swirl of melodies.  For more information, go to

There are a slew of fine pianists working today, many of whom listeners often take for granted.  I'm thinking about mature players such as the late Mulgrew Miller, Ahmad Jamal, Kenny Barron, Harold Mabern, Fred Hersch and, most certainly George Cables who played brilliantly as leaders and sideman.  Their solos often have echoes of those who preceded them but are all their own.

Mr. Cables, the 69-year old native of New York City, has been a busy musician since the 1960s when he graced the groups of Max Roach and Art Blakey.  Moving to the West Coast in the early '70s, he worked with Joe Henderson, Sonny Rollins, Bobby Hutcherson, Woody Shaw, Dexter Gordon and, most important, alto saxophonist Art Pepper.  Due to his versatility, he has never lacked for work or recording contracts - for the past 5 years, he has toured and recorded with trumpeter David Weiss's The Cookers.

"Icons & Influences" (HighNote Records) is his new CD and features Victor Lewis (drums) and Hartford, CT, native Dezron Douglas (bass). Opening with the 3 originals in the program of 12 tracks, Cables pays tribute to Cedar Walton using the late pianist's name as the title of the sprightly cut while "Farewell Mulgrew" is soaked in blues and gospel lines in the first few minutes before the music picks up a serious head of steam.  The pianist's long solo builds off the forceful interactions with his rhythm section.  The final Cables original is a sweet, up-tempo, jaunt appropriately titled "Happiness."

The remaining 9 tracks range from recognizable standards such as "Come Sunday", hear heard as a duo for piano and bass, and "Nature Boy", the trio's version influenced by the John Coltrane Quartet version from 1965.  There are several pleasing surprises such as the sweet ballad reading of Bill Evans' "Very Early" and the solo piano rendition of Benny Golson's "Blue Heart" that closes the CD.  Perhaps the most pleasant of the surprises is the fun reading of "Mo' Pan" - composed by the legendary Calypso star Aldwyn Roberts (1922-2000), who is better known as "Lord Kitchener", the track is propelled by Lewis's exciting drumming, Douglas's solid dancing bass lines and Cables' 2-fisted recreation of steel drums.

Joy and sorrow intermingle on "Icons & Influences", with the former getting the upper hand.  While George Cables understands the role of loss in one's life as a person and a creative artist, he also understands the power of music to heal.  This recording illustrates how Mr. Cables is still growing, still playing at the top of his creative powers and just how good a piano trio can be.  For more information, go to

Saxophonist Russ Nolan (tenor and soprano) has a new CD - "Relentless" (Rhinoceruss Music) is his 4th recording as a leader and continues his fusion of Latin rhythms with strong melodic lines.  The rhythm section (bassist Michael O'Brien and drummer Brian Fishler) from his previous CD, 2012's "Tell Me", is back, giving the leader plenty of support and forceful nudging.  Manning the keyboard chair is Cuban-born Manuel Valera, a pianist with great rhythmic feel who also understands when to light a fire under the music.  Percussionist Yasuyo Kimura, a long-time member of Los Mas Valientes, adds even more punch on the 3 tracks she plays on.

This music jumps for the opening seconds of the title track to the climactic close of the final cut "Abakua." With the exception of a thoughtful re-arrangement of Duke Ellington's "Solitude", this music crackles with excitement.  Valera and Nolan fly over the rhythm section on that title track, taking flight as the bass and drums drive with great intensity (admirably without bombast.)  The blend of blues chords, splendid brush work and a sensual rhythm gives Nolan's tenor strong support on "Not While I'm Around", a Stephen Sondheim composition from "Sweeney Todd."  Pay close attention to Fishler's excellent bass drum work during both Nolan's and Valera's expansive solos.   Valera adds Fender Rhodes to several tracks, including "Mr. Moore" where he utilizes for colors behind his hearty acoustic piano chords.  "Limbo" (not a reference to the dance or the video game) has the feel of a work by Wayne Shorter in its expansive piano chords and the soaring soprano sax solo.  Valera picks up on the leader's intensity to create a solo that starts over a martial rhythm and escalates from there into a splendid statement.

If the music on "Relentless" warm you up, even make you want to dance (Russ Nolan is a accomplished Salsa dancer), then there may be little hope.  The sensuality and forward motion of songs such as "Cassa Cerado" played at high volume can just lift you out of your chair (be careful listening in the car - there are many moments when this music seems to make the automobile go faster.)  The musicianship is impeccable, the songs smartly composed and the rhythms irresistible - grab ahold and don't let go!  For more information, go to

Monday, January 20, 2014

Up Front at The Side Door + Matt Swings & Pete Rocks

Seemingly without much fanfare, The Side Door Jazz Club in Old Lyme, CT, has become quite the venue to see and hear music.  Located in the Old Lyme Inn, right off of Interstate Route 95, the nightspot is 15 miles from the nearest city (New London) but strategically placed close to both Boston and New York City (as well as Providence, Rhode Island, and New Haven.) Since Ken Pickering opened the doors back in the late Spring of 2013, the club has brought world-class musicians to play for joyous crowds.

 This coming week is no exception.  On Friday January 24, the venue welcomes saxophonist JD Allen and his Quartet, featuring pianist Orrin Evans.  Allen (pictured above), born in Detroit, has been on the scene for nearly 2 decades, has worked with a slew of jazz greats, from vocalist Betty Carter to trumpeters Dave Douglas and Jeremy Pelt to composer Lawrence "Butch" Morris to pianist Evans' various groups.  His series of Trio CDs for Sunnyside Records and Savant, recorded with bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston (issued between 2008 - 2012), displayed a composer, arranger and improviser who understood group dynamics and how interactions moved the music forward.  His 2013 Savant CD, "Grace", introduced his Quartet with pianist Eldar Djangirov and the Hartford, CT, rhythm section Dezron Douglas (bass) and Jonathan Barber (drums).

Doors open at 7:30 p.m. and the first notes commence at 8:30 p.m.

Saturday (1/25), The Side Door opens for the Andrew Atkinson Quartet.  Drummer Atkinson, born in Jamaica and raised in Miami, FL, brings many influences to his music, a fine and often fiery mix that leans towards mainstream jazz.  On Tuesday (1/28), the Matt Wilson Quartet + John Medeski (all pictured left) celebrate the release of "Gathering Call", the drummer's latest venture for Palmetto Records (reviewed below). This is a rare weeknight date for the Club but who can resist bringing Mr. Wilson and his compatriots in to play any night of the week.

For reservations to any and all gigs at The Side Door (including the Fred Hersch Trio on 2/7 + 8, vocalist Patricia Barber on 2/25 and Wayne Escoffery on 3/01), call 860-434-0886. To check out the impressive lineup, go to

No surprise that drummer/composer Matt Wilson gives the title "Gathering Call" to his latest CD to feature his Quartet of Jeff Lederer (soprano and tenor saxophone, clarinet), Kirk Knuffke (cornet) and Chris Lightcap (bass) plus John Medeski (piano).  Whenever and wherever Mr Wilson and his compatriots play becomes a "revival meeting" masquerading as a concert.  There is usually an infectious feeling when this band plays so that, even if the material is "in" or "out", soft or very loud, the listener is an active participant in the proceedings.

That sort of enthusiasm does not always translate to recordings but, no fear, the MWQ and Mr. Medeski have created a program that leaps out of the speakers and into your soul on "Gathering Call."  From the opening seconds of the "swinging" reading of Duke Ellington's "Main Stem" (from 1942) to the sweet melody of the traditional "Juanita", the music shimmers, shakes, squawks, shines, and, yes, swings.  Lederer's tenor work brings to mind, among other, Albert Ayler and Paul Gonsalves, with his ability to kick solos into a higher gear within seconds well on display here.  Knuffke's cornet lines blend so well with Lederer (they have played together a lot in the past few years), there are moments when it seems their 2 minda are thinking as one.  Lightcap is such a melodic bassist as well as a solid foundational player, he gives the other voices plenty of space to move around.  His counterpoint and chordal work on "If I Were A Boy" (a Beyonce hit from 2008) is quite fine while the band catches the sadness inherent in the lyrics.  Medeski, who first worked with the drummer when both were member of The Either/Orchestra in the early 1990s, sounds as if he's been in the group for years. His spare chordal work under the tenor solo on Charlie Rouse's "Pumpkin's Delight" leads to a sparkling solo that simmers with blues riffs while he injects a New Orleans feel to the raucous reading of Hugh Lawson's " Get Over, Get Off and Get On."  Wilson slows down the tempo of bassist Butch Warren's "Barack Obama", capturing the wistful feel of the melody (lovely clarinet work from Lederer)

The drummer contributes 6 originals to the 13-track program.  They range from the frisky rhythms of "Some Assembly Required" to the lovely, classically influenced, "Hope (For the Cause)." The highly rhythmical "Dreamscape" resembles an Ornette Coleman melody from the early 1960s and leads right into the hard-driving "How Ya Going?" with a polyphonic melody for piano, soprano sax and cornet.  Lightcap's thick tones open "Dancing Waters", a sweet, rubato, ballad with a unison melody for cornet and tenor plus Medeski's impressionistic chordal work.

"Gathering Call" was recorded in a 6 &1/2 hour session in late January of 2013 yet never sounds rushed or incomplete.  The participants are friends, comfortable with each other, knowing when to push or lay out.  This is very much "live" music, alive with possibility, melody and fun, in other words, a reflection of Matt Wilson.  He can be serious, he can be meshugenah but he's never phony. Neither are the members of the Quartet or guest John Medeski - they are musicians and this is good music.  For more information, go to

Alto saxophonist/composer Pete Robbins has worked with bassist Eivind Opsvik and drummer Tyshawn Sorey on numerous occasions while dreaming of playing with pianist Vijay Iyer.  "Pyramid" (Hate Laugh Music) is that dream come true, featuring all 3 alongside Robbins on  program that combines 5 songs that the saxophonist says "influenced and affected me earlier in my life and musical development" with 4 originals.  Sorey, who has worked alongside Iyer in the Fieldwork trio (with saxophonist Steve Lehman), is the driving force on this recording, often "kicking" the music into a higher gear.  Whether it's the funky reading of Stevie Wonder's "Too High" or the sweet reworking of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah", the drummer makes this music move in good directions.  Listen to the "strutting" Sorey does on "Wichita Lineman", pushing the music out onto the dance floor, nudging the soloists away from the melancholy that infused Jimmy Webb's melody.  Both Robbins and Iyer's solos pick up on the on that "push" and have an element of strength.  The arrangement of "Sweet Child O' Mine" (the Guns N' Roses classic) accentuates the handsome melody (Robbins overdubs clarinet to give his alto an interesting shadow). The piano solo has great power (not unlike Slash's guitar work on the original) and truly fires up Robbins whose solo rips over the intense rhythm section.  Nirvana's "Lithium" rises and falls on the interactions of Opsvik and Sorey with short solos that build quickly and burn brightly.

The Robbins original compositions are also quite strong, ranging from the slippery rhythms and trance-like melody lines of "Vorp" to the soulful piano chords that serve as the melody of the title track.  The leader sits out the song, giving the rhythm section full rein to deliver a powerful performance.   The intense drive of the rhythm section on "Intravenous" offers a good contrast to the leader's softer approach on alto - Iyer's 2-fisted solo is fiery and leads to Sorey's solo, which burns with great intensity.   Robbins' "Equipoise" lives up to its name with its blend of Opsvik's solid bass lines juxtaposed with Sorey's poly-rhythmic approach and Iyer's stabbing chords.  The saxophonist rides the equilibrium with a fine solo then everyone drops out save for Iyer, whose unaccompanied piano brings the piece to a quiet close.

The more I listen to "Pyramid", the more its grooves insinuate themselves in my brain (and feet).  Pete Robbins has found a great balance on this recording, allowing the intensity of the rhythms to co-mingle with his more melodic leanings.  With Vijay Iyer, Eivind Opsvik and Tyshawn Sorey, he's found partners who kick this music as hard as they support his vision.  Find this CD and let the sounds make you smile.  For more information, go to

Thursday, January 16, 2014

What We Have Here Is a Triumph in Communication

Ventured up to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Scullers Jazz Club to see and hear vocalist/composer Nicky Schrire and pianist Gerald Clayton perform music from "Space and Time".  It was the first of 2 gigs billed as "CD Release Performances" (the other occurring on 1/17/14 in The Kitano in New York City). The recording, one of my "Best of 2013", posits Ms. Schrire with 3 pianists - Mr. Clayton, Fabian Almazan and Gil Goldstein - performing standards, "pop" tunes, music from the vocalist's native South Africa and originals.

Over the course of 80 minutes, the duo played most of the tracks from the CD as well as newer pieces (one for the very first time).  Ms. Schrire is what I would call a "pure" singer, one who tells the "story" in every song without resorting to "flashiness".  She does engage in vocal percussion and wordless accompaniment but what she consistently accomplishes is getting to the "heart" of the lyrics in an emotionally satisfying (and, at times, stirring) performance.  Mr. Clayton, who turns 30 this year, is a fine musician with a strong left hand and who, in performance, created solo after solo that avoid cliches as well as complimented the emotions of the vocalist.  On Charles Trenet's "I Wish You Love", he amplified the sadness and resignation in the lyrics with an impressionistic solo that resonates still, several days after the performance.  The unaccompanied vocal opening verse of "Someone To Watch Over Me" was wistful, longing, and showed a vulnerability that drew the listener in.

For this evening, the audience became family thanks to Ms. Schrire's honest stage presence, her taking us into her confidence (for example, letting us know about her father's negative opinion of jazz), her humor, her joy at being in Boston, being on stage with Gerald Clayton, being with us.  There is no artifice, no distance between the performer and the audience; even when she sang in languages other than English, the music did not lose its emotional power.  The joy emanating from the stage was real, taking the chill from the rainy night and replacing the negativity of the long day with a soul satisfying warmth that enveloped the listeners like a hug.  To find out more about the performers, go to and

Vocalist/composer Lauren Kinhan is, perhaps, best known for her work with New York Voices and as 1/5th of MOSS (with Lucian Souza, Kate McGarry, Peter Eldridge and Theo Bleckmann).  "Circle In A Square" (Dotted i Records) is her 3rd "solo" CD and first to be self-released and is a triumph on numerous levels. All 12 tracks are original compositions (4 with collaborators) performed by a core group of musicians that includes Andy Ezrin (keyboards), Ben Wittman (drums), David Finck or Will Lee (bass) plus a strong group of guests that includes Randy Brecker (trumpet), Joel Frahm (tenor and soprano saxophones), Romero Lubambo (acoustic guitar), Aaron Heick (alto flute), Chuck Loeb (guitar), Donny McCaslin (tenor saxophone), John Bailey (flugelhorn), Gary Versace (accordion) and a string quartet.  However, it's the songs and Ms. Kinhan's powerful and vulnerable vocals that makes this recording so good.  These are "adult" songs with lyrics that celebrate jukeboxes (the title track), the frustration of everyday life ("Another Hill to Climb"), relationships that are in free-fall ("We're Not Going Anywhere Today"), fairy tales ("Bear Walk"), the craziness of single life ("Vanity's Paramour") and more. Ms. Kinhan's voice is so wonderfully malleable, blending in beautifully with the instruments (riding atop the beat on "Pocketful of Harlem") or digging deep into her soul to find sadness and truth ("The Deep Within").

As attractive as this music is on initial listening (Elliot Schneiner's production and and engineering makes each instrument stand out without hiding the vocal), it's the strength of the songs and the vocals that makes the deepest impression.  Ms. Kinhan's emotional delivery, her ability to bend a note to make a word sustain, and the poetry in much of the program is a joy to return to time and again.  And, she can swing!  "Bear Walk", a retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood saga, is one of several tunes that may remind the listener of the silky/sly funk of Steely Dan ("Aja" and beyond) but Ms. Kinhan's absolutely rocks the song.  Her vocal range, her interaction with guitarist Loeb plus her smart backing vocals kick "Pocketful of Harlem" into the stratosphere.  

The next time someone tells you that modern music is soulless, does not "speak" to the human condition, refer them to "Circle In A Square."  Lauren Kinhan and her ensemble has created music that  artfully and splendidly avoids labels such as jazz, pop or funk; this is music that connects on multiple levels with grace, fire and a mature understanding of how one navigates through the shifty terrain of modern life.  Dig deeply!  For more information and a list of tour dates to celebrate the CD, go to

Friday, January 10, 2014

Those Who Put the "Art" in Hartford + The "New" In New Haven

The New Year has arrived and it's time for new musical experiences.  The "Improvisations" series at Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor Street in Hartford continues to impress with the width and breadth of the collaborations that co-curators Stephen Haynes (trumpets, cornet) and Joe Morris (guitar, bass) have brought to the performance space.  This Sunday (1/12), percussionist Satoshi Takeishi (pictured) brings his unique talents and fascinating array of items to be struck, shaken, caressed and finessed.  The Japanese-born Takeishi, whose brother Stomu is a world-class bassist, studied at the Berklee School in Boston and then spent 4 years in Colombia studying and performing Central and Latin American music.  For the past quarter century, he has played and/or recorded with numerous creative musicians including bassist Marc Johnson, percussionist Ray Barretto, Anthony Braxton, cellist Erik Friedlander, guitarist Rez Abbasi and many others.

Looks like the weather will cooperate this weekend so you should have no problem making the 3 p.m show.  For more information, go to or 

Any recording by trombonist/composer/educator Steve Davis is a reason to celebrate.  A 1989 graduate of the HARTT School's Jackie McLean Institute (at the University of Hartford), Davis has performed with Art Blakey, Chick Corea, Christian McBride and so many others, especially the collective One For All.  He's also served on the faculty of his alma mater since 1991 as well as working with Hartford's Artist's Collective.

"For Real" is the title of Davis's 4th release for PosiTone Records and an apt description of the man himself.  Though he can play with great fire, Davis eschews histrionics in favor of a smooth, steady, tone and music that builds from solid melodic lines and a strong chordal structure.  Joining him for this date is long-time associates Larry Willis (piano) and fellow HARTT faculty member Nat Reeves (bass), McLean Institute graduate Abraham Burton (tenor saxophone) and the fine young drummer Billy Williams.  Right off the bat, the title track reminds this listener of the sounds of the Jazz Crusaders with its funky blend of 'bone, tenor sax and piano. Burton is a strong soloist, blending the drive of John Coltrane with the bluesy explorations of players such as Booker Ervin and Hank Mobley.  Willis, the 71-year old native of Harlem (New York City), is, at turns, playful, wistful, swinging, and always melodic.  On the rousing "Tactics" (all the songs on the CD are Davis originals save one), the pianist's solid chords give Reeves the freedom to fly while Williams supplies the drive.  Willis's impressionistic chords open the handsome ballad "I Found You" with its 2-part melody line - his graceful solo unwinds freely over the classy foundations supplied by his  partners in the rhythm section.  The trombonist's solo blends short phrases with longer, sweetly flowing lines. Brazilian rhythms underpin the sprightly closing track "Daylight", giving the soloists a springboard for imaginative and hard-driving explorations.  Burton's joyful romp builds off the energy created by Willis's ebullient solo.  The leader picks up on the dancing quality of Reeves' bouncy bass lines and Williams's enthusiastic percussion, delivering a sweet melodic statement.

Yes, "For Real" is just that - "real" music that is as exciting as it is entertaining.  Steve Davis connects with his audience on a number of levels, his honest approach to his art refreshing and certainly enjoyable.  For more information, go to

On Saturday January 11, the Uncertainty Music Series continues at 8 p.m. in Never Ending Books, 810 State Street in New Haven, with solo sets by Landon Knoblock (synths, keyboards) and series curator Carl Testa (electronics). Knoblock, whose latest recording features saxophonist Oscar Noreiga and drummer Jeff Davis (collectively known as CACAW), creates music that takes from all genres to create an aural stew that is often noisy as well as melodic. His solo music is multi-layered, with pieces such as "She Called Them Tributes" that blend the fire of Art Tatum with the electronics of Wendy Carlos.  Knoblock has a playful edge (give a listen at where anything goes, keeping the listener guessing. Carl Testa, whose impressive 2013 solo CD "IRIS" blended his bass playing with electronics, also has a playful edge and will keep you guessing as well.

For more information, go to

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Melodies Like Prayers + Mighty Winds

Soprano saxophonist and sound sculptor Jane Ira Bloom has been creating fascinating projects for nearly 4 decades.  Her first recording, "We Are", was a duet with bassist Kent McLagan (who now lives and plays in Colorado) issued on her own label (Outline Records) in 1978.  Over the ensuing years, Ms. Bloom has recorded for ENJA Records, CBS Records, Arabesque, ArtistShare, and, in 2008, returned to releasing on her own label.

What has not changed is her commitment to moving forward, to melody, to experimentation, to having a group of like-minded musicians who do not hold back their own creativity even as they support her whole-heartedly.  "Sixteen Sunsets" refers to the number of sunsets astronauts see in a day in space and provides the title for Ms. Bloom's new CD - the program is a collection of 14 ballads, 9 standards and 6 originals (there's 1 track that blends George Gershwin's "I Loves You Porgy" with Ms. Bloom's "Gershwin's Skyline") that finds the saxophonist in the company of bassist Cameron Brown, drummer Matt Wilson and the young pianist Dominic Fallacaro.  Fallacaro is a busy musician and producer based in Brooklyn, NY, who has toured with Kevin Mahogany and Freddie Cole plus producing CDs by younger up-and-coming vocalists.  His work on this album should win him many new fans.

The program opens with "For All We Know", a song first published in 1934 and made famous by Hal Kemp and Nat "King" Cole (among many others).  The interaction of Brown's melodic bass and Wilson's ever-so-quiet brush work with the pianist's impressionistic chords allows Ms. Bloom to not only caress the melody but move freely through her improvisation. That is followed by an original, "What She Wanted" that has a melody line reminiscent of Charles Mingus's "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat"; there's a bluesy quality to her soprano sound and a modal feel in the piano chords that gives the entire song a feeling of being suspended in mid-air.

Every melody is treated with love and close attention to details, whether it's "The Way You Look Tonight" (a duo for soprano and piano), the stunning take on Kurt Weill's "My Ship" (with the bell of the soprano sax pointed into the body of the keyboard) or the Latin tempo that drives "Ice Dancing (for Torvill & Dean)."  "The Way You Look Tonight" is also just piano and soprano; even as Fallacaro creates the lovely lines below the solo, he paints his own pictures.  One feels the longing in the unheard lyrics and the affection in the melody.

"Sixteen Sunsets" is music that serves as a healing balm as the end of a long day or to help through a period of emotional distress.  The sounds caress the listener so, by the time you reach the final track, "Bird Experiencing Light", one should feel as if a heavy weight has been lifted off his shoulders.  Jan Ira Bloom has not produced a "New Age" recording;  this is music that blends the search for peace with the joy of "playing." Kudos to all involved! For more information, go to

"Sixteen Sunsets" has been nominated for a 2014 GRAMMY (best Surround-Sound recording) and ended up on several prominent critics' "Best of 2013" list.  The digital release was in December 5, 2013 and the "physical" due date is January 7, 2014.

Any music scholar knows that the sackbut is the early name for the trombone.  From the French word "saqueboute" meaning "push-pull", the instrument was first employed as a lower register trumpet in the 15h Century.

Fast forward 5 centuries, trombonist Joe Fiedler (born 1965, Pittsburgh, PA), a musician who has played in the pit bands for touring shows, in big bands and small ensembles alike, has formed "Big Sackbut", a quartet for 3 trombones and tuba.  Composed of Fiedler, Ryan Keberle and Luis Bonilla on 'bones plus the majestic tuba of Marcus Rojas, the leader admits that the band is modeled after the World Saxophone Quartet.  Their self-titled debut CD was issued in 2012 and now we have "Sackbut Stomp" (Multiphonics Music).  The new CD features the slide trumpet of Steven Bernstein on 3 of its 9 cuts.  The Sex Mob-founder is featured on the 'Buts' sweet reading of Roger Miller's classic "King of the Road" a blues-drenched track with a sweet arrangement.  Bernstein also takes the lead on Gil Fuller and Chano Pozo's "Tin Tin Deo", originally composed for Dizzy Gillespie.  Rojas is the "rhythm section" for this version and he s magnificent in his role as "bass and drums".  The other "cover tune" is "Eight Page Bible" from the pen of saxophonist Bennie Wallace.  This is a bluesy, saucy, tune, which should come as no surprise to those who know that the "Bible" in the title refers to the pornographic comic books of the 1930s (and beyond).

The Fiedler originals include the lovely ballad "Pittsburgh Morning" on which the composer takes a fine solo, an uptempo feature for Keberle called "The Schlep", and the high-energy romp "Feet and Breathe" that features a rumbling bottom line supporting solos from both Fiedler and Bonilla.  Everybody gets a chance to shine on the funky title track, the polyphonic middle section hearkening back to "second-line" of New Orleans.

What stands out most on "Sackbut Stomp" are the impressive melodies and arrangements Joe Fiedler creates for his brass ensemble. While the solos are strong, the settings they are heard in range from unaccompanied to everyone in support.  Not only is Joe Fiedler's Big Sackbut worth listening for its striking musicianship but this music is a lot of fun.  For more information, go to

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Happy Every Day!

So many people make such a big deal about the New Year, as if turning the calendar was the first step in making those "monumental" resolutions one tends to break before the month is out.

Instead of relegating the previous year to distant history and designating the current year to be "the best ever", why don't we make every day we're on this earth the "best day".  By that, pay attention to the examples of human stupidity, carelessness, vitriol, and ignorance in the newspapers or on television or in your Twitter feed and resolve not to be that kind of person.  Get out of the house (if you're not snowed in or ill) and attend a live performance, a movie, an art museum (or any museum) and become involved.

Change begins at home and, if by home one means inside our selves, then so be it.  Looking at the state of the world or the human condition and saying "that's never going to change" is a sure sign that it won't change.  Feeding one hungry person does not save the entire city but it does help that one person.   If our kind gesture helps that one person back onto his or her feet and that person decides to "pay it forward" however he or she can, that's good.  If that person does not not do anything, so be it.  That does not mean you should not try again.

Happy Every Day! Not poetic or even awe-inspiring but I try to make it work for me.  Be well!