Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Saxophonists Take Center Stage + Two Collectives

Tenor saxophonist and composer Melissa Aldana, born and raised in Santiago, Chile, first played the saxophone when she was six years old with her musician father as her teacher. Her musical life was accelerated upon meeting pianist Danilo PĂ©rez who invited her to play at The Panama Jazz Festival. From there, she auditioned for was admitted to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. After graduation she recorded her first albums for Greg Osby's Inner Circle Music (2010 and 2012) -in 2013, Ms. Aldana became the first South American person to win the Thelonious Monk Jazz Saxophone Competition.  Her third album, released on Concord Jazz in 2014, and fourth, released in 2016 on WOMMusic, both featured her Crash Trio comprised of bassist Pablo Menares with drummers Francisco Mela (2014) and Jochen Rueckert (2016).

Her fifth album as a leader, "Visions", finds her on the Motema Music label. Menares is still with her but now the ensemble is expanded to a quartet featuring Sam Harris (piano, Rhodes) and drummer Tommy Crane with special guest Joel Ross (vibraphone) on eight of the 11 tracks.  The addition of Harris obviously fills the sound out and also opens up Ms. Aldana's compositions to new possibilities. The title song, composed with Frida Kahlo in mind, features powerful piano chords (a la McCoy Tyner and Fabian Almazan) which give the music depth and, really, unlimited range. On first impressions, this music may remind you of Miguel Zenon's Quartet in the way the musicians interact, how Crane and Menares give the music such space and breathing room yet are also an integral part of the melodic development. Hear the duo shine on the ballad "Abre Tus Ojos" and then how they drive the band on the next track "Elsewhere." On the latter track, the bass line suggests "A Love Supreme" but the propulsive drive from the drums and piano moves the music in other directions.

Photo: Anna Yatskevich
The music is also quite dramatic. On "Dos Casas Un Puente" and "The Search", the group takes its tie setting up the melody and them playing its way through the head before opening up to solos.  It's fun to hear both Ross and Ms. Aladana ride the percussive drive on the latter track snd how the vibraphonist sets up the former tune's attractive melody line (playing in unison with the saxophonist).  The bassist's "Perdon" is a handsome ballad with fine harmonic flourishes from Harris.  The other piece not composed by the leader is "Never Let Me Go" - composed by Ray Evans and Jay Livingston for the long forgotten movie "The Scarlet Hour" (1956 - Nat "King" Cole" played the song in the movie). It's a sweet ballad with a lovely unaccompanied opening from Ms. Aldana as well as a handsome piano solo.

Photo: Harrison Weinstein
"Visions" is a mature statement from Melissa Aldana who has, over the past decade, grown steadily as a musician and composer.  She has moved past the influences of her father, of teachers Joe Lovano, Bill Pierce, and George Coleman into her own voice. And, the fact that she works with this band on a regular basis is a big plus. Five of these songs appear on a live recording made in late August in Santiago, Chile (available on iTunes and Amazon.com) - it's a quartet date (Joel Ross is not on the album) and it's fascinating to compare the songs (there's really not much difference only that the songs are longer on the live date and Harris's contributions stand out even more).  All told, "Visions" is an album to savor, to play all the way through because the stories that Ms. Aldana and her group tell are so involving! Also, dig the great cover art from Cecile McLorin Salvant.

For more information, go to www.melissaaldana.net. As, a link to her purchase page - melissaaldana.lnk.to/visionsEM.

Here's a track:

Alexa Tarantino, who plays alto and soprano saxophones plus flutes, is a graduate of the prestigious jazz program at Hall High School in West Hartford CT, and graduated from both the Eastman School of Music (Rochester, NY) and the Juilliard School (NYC). She's worked and recorded with drummer Sherrie Maricle's DIVA Orchestra plus with Arturo O'Farrill's Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, and with Cecile McLorin Salvant's OGRESSE.  She leads her own Quartet and is co-leader of LSAT (with baritone saxophonist Lauren Sevian).

2018 was a very busy year of recording for Ms. Taratino resulting in three releases in the first five months of 2019. "Winds of Change" is her debut as a leader for Posi-Tone Records. With the splendid rhythm section of Christian Sands (piano), Joe Martin (bass), and Rudy Royston (plus trombonist Nick Finzer on three tracks), she glides, soars, and dances her way through 10 tracks, eight of which are originals.  Listen to the band swing on "Breeze" (complete with a sweet alto sax solo) and set the speakers on fire with the infectious "Face Value."  She's generous with the solos, making sure that Sands, who is a delight throughout, gets the spotlight on numerous occasions (his far-ranging statement on "Undercurrent" is a real treat).

Photo: Anna Yatskevich
Ms. Tarantino plays with authority and assurance throughout - she is certainly ready to be a leader. The alto flute is featured on Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Zingaro" - note how softly the rhythm section plays yet still moves the song forward (excellent counterpoint from bassist Martin).  The ensemble roars with delight on "Ready or Not", a hard bop original played at breakneck speed.  She matches Sands's incredible solo with a very statement of her own - notice how she interacts with both the pianist and Royston plus leaves plenty of room for Finzer to raise his own ruckus.  On the appropriately titled "Calm", she creates a handsome melody for her alto and for the echoing trombone.  It's fun to hear her weave the melodic lines together. Check out what the rhythm section is playing under both the trombone and alto solo, how they push the music a bit "out"when Ms. Tarantino reenters and raising the ante for her solo, truly disrupting the "calm."   The album closes with "Without"; the song opens as a duo for alto and piano before the rhythm section tiptoes in. There's just a hint of Johnny Hodges in the alto sound, not surprising as the tune also resembles Billy Strayhorn's "Blood Count."  Yet, the final minute of the song leads the listener in a much different direction.

Photo: Steven Sussman
"Winds of Change" is a powerful debut for young Alexa Tarantino (26 as of the writing).  No telling where her journey will take the composer and instrumentalist but it should be fun to hear.  Great choice of sidemen on this date as each brings such great strength and creativity; they make each song "sing" in its own fashion. That written, Ms. Tarantino gives them some excellent material to work with! A pleasure to sit down and spend time with, "Winds of Change" is worth your attention.

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

Here's the opening track:

Here are the two "collective" albums Alexa Tarantino was part of for Positive-Tone Records.

Posi-Tone co-owner and producer Marc Free put Ms. Tarantino together with trombonist Finzer and drummer Royston for the June 2018 recording session that resulted in "Maximum Enjoyment." Filling out the sextet - named Something Blue - are tenor saxophonist Sam Dillon (whose Posi-Tone debut was issued in early May of this year), pianist Art Hirahira, and bassist Boris Kozlov. The ensemble plays five originals from its members plus seven other tunes from the label's stable of artists.  Opening with Behn Gillece's "Slick", the music hits hard with good solos all around. Other Posi-Tone artists represented here are guitarist Amanda Monaco ("Coppertone"), saxophonist Jacam Manricks (the appropriately titled "Cluster Funk"), bassist Peter Brendler ("Stunts and Twists", a bluesy ballad, no less), and saxophonist Travis Sullivan (the hard-hitting album closer "New Directions").

 Photo: Sara Pettinella
Pianist Art Hirahara contributes two excellent songs to the album including the handsome "Aoi Blue." The blend of the saxophonists with trombone suggests Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers with Curtis Fuller but note the fie percussion work from Royston (pictured left).  Ms. Tarantino's "Breeze" (which she also plays on her debut) has a bluesy feel, especially in the loping rhythms and opens to feature solos from the composer, Finzer, and the pianist.  The fine mid-tempo ballad "Shift" serves as a spotlight for its composer, tenor saxophonist Dillon. The excellent rhythm section work is such a pleasure to hear as is Hirahara's expansive yet short solo. "Why Aren't You Excited", from the trombonist, is actually more introspective than one might expect from the title. Fine work all around from the band and the soloists.

"Maximum Enjoyment" reveals the fine talent that Posi-Tone Records and producer Marc Free has been able to cultivate over the past decade (Rudy Royston and Boris Kozlov appear on large number of the label's releases not to forget the composers whose work is recorded here). Something Blue certainly refers to the many times Blue Note Records made Lps featuring their sterling lineup of artists in the late 1950s and throughout the 60s.  Smart concept and good exposure for both the artists and the label - give it a whirl.

Here's one of the two Behn Gillece pieces:

The day after Alexa Tarantino recorded her debut, she went into Brooklyn NY's Acoustic Recording studio with a sextet created by guitarist Amanda Monaco.  Lioness came together during a monthly concert series in Flushing NY that the guitarist curates. Producer Marc Free suggested she put together a group of women musicians, baritone player Lauren Sevian suggested the name, and the sextet was formed.  Featuring the three instrumentalists mentioned above, tenor saxophonist Jenny Hill, organist Akiko Tsuruga, and drummer Allison Miller fill out the group. Note the absence of a bassist - Ms. Tsuruga, who has previously recorded with drummer Jeff Hamilton and worked alongside Lou Donaldson plus saxophonist Ralph LaLama and trumpeter Joe Magnarelli, is a classic Hammond B-3 player, meaning that her feet supply the solid foundation.

Photo: Enid Hill
All six members contributed songs to their debut "Pride and Joy" released in March on Posi-Tone Records. The rhythm section - guitar, organ, and drums - gives the music a different and, to these ears , quite inviting, feel.  On pieces such as Carla Bley's classic "Ida Lupino", their work allows the alto of Ms. Taratino to solo freely. Really, it's Allison Miller's funky, danceable, "Mad Time" that opens the album and sets the mood. Then there's the Caribbean feel that permeates Ms. Hill's "Sunny Day Pal" - note the delightful bounce under the guitar solo and the New Orleans drumming under the three saxes as they restate the theme.

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Ms. Monaco takes centerstage as the reed players sit out on the sweet reading of the late Emily Remler's "Mocha Spice."  The gentle drumming of Ms. Miller and supportive organ work makes this piece a highlight.  There's a short and highly funk reading of Aretha's "Think", hearken back to the days of Booker T. & The MGs and The Bar-Kays.  Ms. Tsuruga's aptly titled "Funky Girl" provides a bluesy finish to the album plus a number of delightful low notes for Ms. Sevian. She also gets the first solo and sets the stage for Ms. Tarantino and Ms. Hill to dig in. The guitarist and the composer both get the spots and make the most of it.

"Pride and Joy" is suffused with excellent musicianship and is a whole lot of fun, especially if you play the album at higher volume.  Not sure if Lioness will stay together in its present form as its members are so busy as leaders and side persons.  Nevertheless, this is a delightful recording.

Go to www.facebook.com/pg/lionesswomeninjazz/posts/ for more information.

Here's the first cut - try not to dance, I dare you!

Photo: Michelle Grace Hunder
Alto saxophonist, educator, and composer Angela Davis came to the United States from her native Australia a decade ago to study.  She stayed for six years, recording and self-releasing both her debut album "The Art of the Melody" and its followup, "Lady Luck." Both albums featured her quartet (with bassist and fellow Australian Linda May Han Oh); the second one also included a string section arranged by pianist Dan Tepfer.

She moved home a few years ago and is now a Lecturer of Jazz at the James Morrison Academy of Music at Univ. of SA. And, Ms. Davis now has a new album.  "Little Did They Know" (ABC Music).  Featuring pianist Tony Gould and bassist Sam Anning, the eight-song program features four originals and a song each from Charlie Haden, Bill Frisell, Sammy Fain, and George Frederic Handel.  The song choices lean more to ballads - even Fain's "Love is a Many Splendored Thing" (from the 1955 movie of the sane name) starts with Gould playing a lovely unaccompanied reading with variations of the theme.  When Ms. Davis and Anning enter, the pace picks right up and the music takes on a light-hearted feeling highly by the sweet sounds of the alto sax (one can hear a bit of Paul Desmond in the leader's tones). Ms. Davis's "Circuit for Three" is more up-tempo - the excellent melodic line is followed by strong solos from Gould and Anning.

Photo: Hayley Miro
Haden's "Our Spanish Love Song", which the late bassist composed for his duo recording with Pat Metheny, has a handsome memory inferred by the composer's love of Iberian music.  The sympathetic nature of the trio's interactions really make this song move forward while pulling you into the emotional power of the melody.  Later in the program, Ms. Davis's "Hymn for Haden" celebrates the person and his love for traditional music.  Anning's simple yet powerful counterpoint to Gould's sparkling solo is a highlight of this track and actually occurs throughout.  Ms. Davis's "The Light Between Us" also feels like a hymn with its classic melody line, the soft chords, and the sweet singing alto sax sound.

Photo: Hayley Miro
"Little Did They Know" is a melodic gem, music to start the day (if the windows are open in Spring and Summer, the songs of the birds often fit in) and to close the evening.  It's fitting that the program closes with Handel's aria "Lascio Ch'io Pianga"; the quiet melody, the short saxophone solo that takes its lead from the many singers who have performed the piece, and the gentle piano accompaniment, all combine to bring hope in a new day.  Angela Davis lives, breathes, and cherishes melody; the listener is the beneficiary of her love.

For more information, go to angeladavismusic.com.

Here's the Charlie Haden song:

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