Saturday, July 13, 2019

Music From the Heart & The Soul

Historians believes that before early man created instruments, the first "music" was created by the voice.  Perhaps these sentient beings heard the songs of the birds, the cooing of mothers with their babies by their side, or other forms of communications that had melodic and/or rhythmic qualities.

On a personal level, I was first attracted by the voices coming from the radio. Later I heard marching bands in parades and on local football fields: then and there, I realized the importance of the drums. Nowadays, I listen to the rhythm section first and, with music that features a vocalist, I listen to the melody first and then pay close attention to how the singer responds to his accompaniment (and vice versa).

Here are two new albums which are quite different yet both speak to the heart of the creators and listeners as well as to the soul of the listener.

Peter Eldridge (pictured left) is a vocalist, composer, arranger, pianist, and educator whose voice I find to be quite compelling and handsome.   He was one of the founding members of New York Voices in 1988, has released seven solo albums as a leader since 2001, works on-and-off with the vocal quartet known as Moss, and is now on the faculty of the Berklee College of Music. He also travels to conduct workshops throughout the United States and internationally.  Eldridge is currently in the midst of creating his first full-fledged musical that will tell the story of Austrian painter Gustav Klimt (1862-1918).

Pianist, composer, arranger, author, and educator Kenny Werner has been involved with the creative music for four decades.  He has worked with so many musicians ranging from Toots Thielemans to Stan Getz to Dave Douglas to Pat Metheny to Mel Lewis and many others.  As a leader, he has released over three dozen albums and has worked as a co-leader and sideman on so many others.  He is also the author of "Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within" (Alfred Music), in which he offers struggling musicians (as well as other creative artists) who feel "stuck" and can't move forward.  He, too, plays in venues and with groups throughout the United States and Europe.

Now Mr. Eldridge and Mr. Werner have collaborated on "Somewhere" (Rosebud Music) – the program posits the vocalist (he plays piano on one track) in front of a quartet led by Werner (piano, electric piano, arrangements), Eugene Friesen (conductor, cello), Matt Aronoff (string bass), and Yoron Israel (drums) alongside the "Fantastical String Orchestra", a 19-member ensemble composed of violins, violas, cellos, string basses, and a harpist.  If you are familiar with Eldridge's music, you know he's worked with strings before but has rarely recorded a collection of such lush orchestrations.  Eldridge composed four of the tracks, adding lyrics to two others:  Werner also composed four with one he also wrote the words for.

The album opens with the Eddy Arnold classic "You Don't Know Me."  With the strings leading the voice in, this version hearkens back to the Ray Charles 1962 version but Eldridge does not channel the original but gives it his own spin.  The title track is part of a medley in which the Bernstein classic (from "West Side Story") comes first and is a lovely, powerful, reading with just Werner's piano like a harp behind the voice: it's paired with "A Time For Love", composed by Johnny Mandel and Paul Francis Webster for the 1966 movie of the same name. Here, the voice is supported by the strings who sometimes serve as counterpoint but mostly create a lush backdrop for the lyrics. Eldridge created the lyrics for "Minds of Their Own", an Ivan Lins melody first recorded in 2004 by Nancy Wilson.  There is not an overt Brazilian influence – instead, the piece sounds like a classic ballad of the 1940s and 50s.

The originals range from the sweet, introspective, "That Which Can't Be Explained" to the bluesy "Ballad For Trane."  The latter track features a handsome tenor saxophone solo from George Garzone yet neither the song nor the tenor saxophone sound connected to John Coltrane (or, in the case of the vocalist, to Johnny Hartman.  Nevertheless, the piece stands out for its melody line and the fine vocal. Eldridge's "Less Than Lovers" (with lyrics by Douglas Worth) is a  ballad on the fence between love and hate with sweeping strings and splendid accompaniment from Werner on both acoustic and electric piano.  The influence of Randy Newman can be heard on "Distinct", especially in Eldridge's parlor-room piano and the dancing strings.

The album closes with two fascinating pieces.  Werner's "Untitled Lament" opens with the vocalist over the basic quartet then stops to allow a fantasia of strings to lead back into the pianist's reimagining of the melody.  Then, it's solo piano that tells the story before the vocalist returns with the quartet now augmented by the string orchestra.  It's a fascinating arrangement that leads into the final track, "Day Is Done (Prayer for Diego)".   Eldridge sings his song at the top of his range with the band locked in with him plus the deep, sonorous, strings.  Friesen's cello steps out for a solo – he sings along for a stretch, wordless lines that have a joyous quality.  Werner follows with his own romp before the vocalist returns to finish his prayer.

"Somewhere" is lovely music, filled with passionate melodies, strong arrangements, and sympathetic musicianship.  This is music that speaks to the heart, sings of love that goes beyond a person to a world of daily discovery, of hope, and understanding in times of despair.  Peter Eldridge and Kenny Werner have made a recording which soothes the soul and stirs the imagination.

For more information, go to

Give a listen to this jazzy waltz:

I first met percussionist, trap drummer, composer, and educator royal hartigan (he's always spelled his name sans capital letters) in the 1980s when he was working towards his Masters degree and PhD in world music and ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University.  This was after he had studied at University of Massachusett/ Amherst where his instructors included Max Roach, Archie Shepp, and Reggie Workman.  While at Wesleyan, he studied with and played alongside teachers such as Bill Barron, Bill Lowe, master drummer Abraham Adzenyah, Ed Blackwell, and noted ethnomusicologist David McAllester.  He often played in the Student Union with visiting artists and other students including saxophonist David Bindman and bassist Wes Brown.

hartigan went on to teach in New York City and San Jose State University, finally returning east to join the music faculty of UMASS/Dartmouth.  He also has played with numerous artists including Kenny Barron, Clifford Jarvis, Fred Ho's Afro-Asian Music Ensemble, Rudresh Mahanthappa's Dakshina ensemble, and vocalist Dominique Eade. He also performed West African music alongside percussionist Martin Kwaakye Obeng, Helen Abena Mensah, and so many others here in the United Staes as well as in Ghana.  He, along Bindman and Brown, became the royal hartigan ensemble and, along with guitarist Kevin McNeal recorded "Blood Drum Spirit" in 1993, released on CD in 2004 on Innova Recordings.  The group added pianist Art Hirahara in 2003 and he  appeared on 2008's "Live In China" (also on Innova).

"Time Changes", the group's third album and first to be credited to just Blood Drum Spirit, came out early in 2019. It's a sprawling two-CD set with 21 songs spread over 161+ minutes.  With this much music, one is initially overwhelmed – you'll see that four of the pieces are over ten minutes long, six more are over seven minutes, and the rest range from 1:52 to 6 minutes.  Where to begin?  Start with track one, "Hits."  The song literally introduces the band with the bass and percussion leading the way while the percussive piano plays beneath the tenor saxophone melody.  You'll hear how the band uses dynamics to build and maintain its message.   Bindman rides the waves of energy produced by Brown, hartigan, and Hirahara before the pianist enters ushered by a wave of cymbal splashes.  One can hear influences of West African and Latin music in the rhythms and the early 60s John Coltrane Quartet in the energy and in the searching.  Before th song comes to its close, everyone has had a chance to solo.

That leads into "Donna Notaso", Hartigan's talking drum and steady high-hat accompanied by a bluesy piano. Soon, the bass is setting a pace alongside the drummer and the tenor sax is building the melody.  Note how the tempo changes as Hirahara steps out.  The talking drum is in constant conversation with the bass and the soloists: the listener probably does not notice he or she are getting carried away by the exuberance of the music and its creators.

Photo: Sara Pettinella
As you continue through the program, you'll note that there are five solo drums tracks.  First up is "Drum Solo for Clifford Brown/Lenny McBrowne/Max Roach/Clifford Jarvis/Ed Blackwell", a short (1:45) dance around the trap set.  Next up is the "Fomtomfrom Suite" – four times as long as the first solo, hartigan sets up a hypnotic rhythm on his drums that hearkens back to his love for West African music. Basically, he's using three parts of his kit; the tom, a ride cymbal, and bass drum. Later in the piece, he adds the high hat but the music rarely varies. The appropriately-titled "Dancing on the Drums" is a hard-edged rhythmic romp (on brushes, no less).  "Penteng" is short (1:52) but it rolls forward with an immediacy and excitement that is so attractive.  The final solo piece is "Blues For Mister Charlie and Miss Ann": One might think that the piece is dedicated to Charles Mingus and Eric Dolphy (one of his pieces had the title "Miss Ann") – in actuality, the piece is inspired by author and playwright James Baldwin and is the drummer's dedication to the Black victims of police violence. The piece is also inspired by Max Roach's "Triptych: Prayer, Protest, Peace" from his landmark 1960 album "We Insist: Freedom Now Suite."  

Photo: Sara Pettinella
That last piece closes with a martial beat on the snare which leads into the next track, a 10 minute-plus exploration of W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues."  It's fun to hear the quartet (Bindman on soprano sax) swing with such glee with the drummer leading the way with his "parade" drums.  After a powerful bass solo, Hirahara steps out with a barroom piano solo before the band returns and the piece goes in a slightly different direction. Suddenly, the tempo shifts once again, more of a Latin feel, and the piece picks up speed.

Photo: Sara Pettinella
CD 1 closes with a long exploration of Coltrane's "Naima", a piece with a series of strong solos and mood changes, talking drums and dancing piano riffs, bouncing bass and lovely solos from Hirahara and Bindman (tenor sax).  CD 2 opens with the longest track on the program.  "Circle of Creation/Adzohu Suite" is a multi-sectioned dance through several powerful melodies and shifting rhythms. Pay attention to the drummer's long solo (complete with vocalizations of the rhythm he is playing – that leads into a long, exciting, piano solo that resonates with a blend of American jazz and West African rhythms If you listen closely, you can really hear the interactions and connection of the rhythm section.  Brown and hartigan have worked together for over three decades: they support each other, prod each other, and listen to the rest of the band.  Bindman has been along for all those years and he, too, shares a special musical relationship.  The pianist is the "new guy", 15 years, yet he, too, is an integral member of this working unit.

"Time Changes" refers to the different rhythms throughout this highly listenable album.  Also, time always moves on and we change. What has not changed – if anything it's stronger – is Blood Drum Spirit and royal hartigan's dedication to, love for, and continual exploration of world music and how it is so much a part of jazz.

For more information, to listen, and to purchase), go to Check out the band's website – – for even more information. That will lead you to the documentary "We Are One", a movie about the quartet's trip to Ghana to teach, to collaborate with local musicians, and to connect and reconnect with master musicians and dancers. That can be found at

Give a listen to the quartet's take on the famous Eddie Harris composition:

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