Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Attention to Details!

The dynamic young alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin is steadily maturing into one of the more exciting musicians on the contemporary scene.  Ms. Benjamin, born in New York City, attended the Fiorello LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts and went on to the New School. She has performed with Clark Terry and Reggie Workman, appeared onstage with Stevie Wonder and The Roots, toured with Macy Gray, Alicia Keys, and Gregory Porter, and released her debut album on Motema Music in 2012.  That recording and her 2018 "Retox" (Ropeadope Records) showed the saxophonist in modern r'n'b, funk, and dance modes with a touch of jazz yet one could hear Ms. Benjamin's biting tone, sassy attack, and the influence of players such as David Sanborn ad Greg Osby.

For her third album and second for Ropeadope), Ms. Benjamin enlisted the aid of bassist Workman––they set about to create "Pursuance: The Coltranes", a tribute to the legendary saxophonist and his second wife Alice. Over the course of 13 songs and 70 minutes, right from the opening track, "Liberia" which pairs her with alto saxophonist Gary Bartz, to the blazing finale, "Affinity" (with its front line of alto saxophonists Greg Osby and Bruce Williams) this music explores just how powerful the music the couple created in their lifetime. Whether she's playing the themes or digging into her solo, Ms. Benjamin's vision is laser-focused and her sound is often keening, always moving forward.

There are highlights galore.  The saxophonist teams with pianist Bertha Hope on "Alabama" (the saxophonist's musical eulogy to the four young victims of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL); supported by the basses of Mr. Workman and Lonnie Plaxico plus the muscular drumming of Darrell Green, the music sears the soul as it did when John Coltrane first recorded the piece in 1963. That segues right into "Acknowlegement" (from "A Love Supreme") with a spoken word intro from Abiodun Oyewole (founder of The Last Poets) and a splendid call-and-response featuring Ms. Benjamin and vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater.  That jumps directly into "Pursuance" (also from "A Love Supreme"), a high-energy romp with Green and bassist Jonathan Michel pushing the saxophonist and pianist Marc Cary forward.

Six of the 13 pieces in the program were penned by Alice Coltrane including the sweet "Prema" (from her 1978 "Transfiguration" Lp) that features a five-person string section plus the harp of Brandee Younger. The ensemble, powered by Green, Plaxico, and pianist Surya Botofasina (who, as a child, studied at the ashram Ms. Coltrane founded in Los Angeles, CA), keeps the music roiling throughout. Georgia Ann Mudrow speaks the words of "Om Shanti" while Ms. Benjamin's alto wheels around the sound system and bassist/ vocalist Meshell Ndegeocello joins the leader singing the  Buddhist mantra. Botofasina returns for "Turiya and Ramakrishna", a medium tempo ballad that the alto saxophonist creates a prayer-like reading of the theme.  The piano solo starts with rippling, harp-like, figures before moving into a gospel-fueled statement that rises in intensity leading to Ms. Benjamin's sweet, blues-soaked, solo.

The afore-mention "Affinity" (also found on "Transfiguration") is a fiery close to the program with great solos from the three alto saxophonists plus excellent rhythm section fire provided by Green, Radway, and Reggie Workman (who played on the original album). "Pursuance: The Coltranes" is not for the faint-of-heart but for hearts (and minds) that need spiritual and physical cleansing, that need to understand the power of the music that both John and Alice Coltrane created, music that stands the test of time.  Lakecia Benjamin pulls no punches, cuts no corners, and plays with great emotion and dedication.  The album is a giant step forward in her maturation, music that will serve as a blueprint to continued growth as an artist.

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

Here's the powerful opening track:

Vocalist, composer, educator, and producer Thana Alexa may be best known for her work with groups led by guitarist/ composer Gene Ess and her husband Antonio Sanchez & Migration.  Born in New York City to Croatian parents who moved back home when Ms. Alexa when a young teenager.  While living in Zagreb, she attend the Rock Academy of Music where she switched her attention from violin to voice.  She started college at Northeastern University before transferring to the New School in New York City where Ms. Alexa double-majored in jazz vocal performance and psychology!  She released her debut album "Ode to Heroes" (Harmonia Mundi) in 2015 – what stands out most in her music is the way she combines myriad musical genres to create emotionally rich stories.

"ONA" (self-released) is an often stunning step forward.  The theme of the album is right there in the title (the word translates to "she" from Croatian) – Ms. Alexa is interested in education the listener about the "feminine spirit", about the mysteries, joys, and more that being a 21st Century woman deals with. Along with her husband on drums, percussion, and keyboards, the instrumentalists include Carmen Staaf (piano, Fender Rhodes, keys), Jordan Peters (guitars), and Matt Brewer (acoustic and electric bass). On the title track which opens the album, Ms. Alexa utilizes 10 additional voices including the Rosa Vocal Group plus Nicole Zuraitis, Sofia Rei, Claudia Acuna, and Sarah Elizabeth Charles––the lyrics celebrates the determination of women in times of strife especially in a male-dominated world.

Poet, activist, and spoken work artist Staceyann Chin is featured on "The Resistance", another shout for freedom of spirit.  Before Ms. Chin appears to read an excerpt from her poem "Raise The Roof", the band builds a thumping beat that, at times, resembles the music from "Hamilton".  Ms. Chin's fiery words are framed by equally fiery music that, like her words, rises to a raging finish.  Violinist Regina Carter joins the ensemble for "Pachamama", and her overdubbed violin parts create a powerful counterpoint to the words.  "Set Free" is the first real ballad on the 10-song program: Ms. Staaf's introspective piano intro leads the song in and she is the only accompaniment for Ms. Alexa's fine vocal. The next piece, "You Taught Me", is introduced by Peters's acoustic guitar and he alone frames the vocal for the first verse. The sound and song opens up when the drums and bass come in but hushed quality of the opening never really disappears.  Becca Stevens shows up on "He Said She Said" to share the lead vocal plus add ukulele and 10-stringed charango.  It's a lovely story about love bringing people together from different countries and the sacrifices they make for love.

There are two cover tracks on the album.  "Teardrop", originally written and performed by Massive Attack, opens quietly with Ms Alexa's wordless vocal. As she sings the opening verse, her only accompaniment is her overdubbed voice. The band comes in and the piece picks in intensity until a roaring guitar solo; then it's back to quieter sounds.  The album closes with "Everybody Wants to Rule The World", the Tears for Fears hit from 1985 that has been showing on other jazz albums in the past year.  Here, Ms. Alexa and the band kick the tune quite hard with numerous tempo changes, tremendous drumming, power piano chords, and voices rising out of the mix, and a hard-edged guitar solo that carries the song and the album to its conclusion.

"ONA" is an ode to the power, to the creativity, to the necessity of speaking out, that Thana Alexa wants everyone to understand that this is also important for all women around the world. Originally recorded in early 2017, right after President Trump was elected and sworn-in, the music serves as a reminder of his administration's (and others around the world) desire to push back against the rights women, immigrants, and people of color have striven for through the 20th and early 21st Centuries.  Ms. Alexa points no fingers at any elected officials but her message is clear and her music reflects her passion.  Highly recommended!

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

Listen closely to "The Resistance":

Photo: Kyra Kverno
Duchess––Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner, and Melissa Stylianou–– are girls, okay, ladies, who just want their audiences to have fun when they perform.  They first organized in 2014, recording their self-titled debut that featured their case harmonies, soaring voices, and sparkling arrangements by Oded Lev-Ari.  With The Boswell Sisters as their inspiration, Duchess will lift your spirits and brighten your day.  Plus, they have a cracker-jack band backing them up––Michael Cabe (piano), Jesse Lewis (guitar), Matt Aronoff (bass), and Jared Schonig (drums)––who also join in on the fun

As much fun as their albums can be, it's in-person where Duchess shines.  So, after two studio efforts for Anzic Records, the ladies and their band spent two nights in The Jazz Standard in New York City. Now, with "Live at Jazz Standard", you'll hear what you've been missing. Yes, the songs are great, the harmonies splendid, and the band tight but it's the stage "patter"thats a treat – the "Band Introduction" is flat-out hilarious. That leads into Cy Coben's "It's a Man" (composed for Betty Hutton) which is delightfully (modern) politically incorrect.  The sound of the recording is crisp and clear as you can easily hear all the voices (oh, those sweet harmonies), the snap of the snare drums, the delightful piano interjections, the solid bass lines, and crackling guitar solos.

Photo: Kyra Kverno
The material comes from the 1920s, 30s, and 40s with standards such as "On The Sunny Side of the Street" and "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen" rubbing shoulders (elbows, these days) with specialities such as "Heebie Jeebies" (recorded in the 1920s by both Louis Armstrong and Ethel Waters) and "Three Little Sisters" (composed in 1944 and recorded by The Andrews Sisters) – the last tune listed also features the group's horn section (the vocalists on kazoos). There's a lovely take on Duke Ellington's "Creole Love Call" (the arrangement comes from Wycliffe Gordon) plus a deeply swinging take on "Chatanooga Choo Choo."

No politics, just fun, when Duchess takes the stage and, if you don't join in on the applause at the end or get off the couch with a smile or even forget for a moment about the social distancing, you're not relaxing enough.  "Live at The Jazz Standard" is wonderfully alive, funny, swinging, and a delight  from start to finish.  Go ahead, indulge!

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

Here's the gang with a delightful Peggy Lee song:

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Major Issues: The Large Ensemble Responses

Guitarist, composer, arranger, and occasional vocalist Joel Harrison is certainly s musical polymath, taking his guitar and songs into many genre-blurring areas.  His guitar can squawk, squeal, dance, fly, and be gentle all in the cause of telling a story.  His musical adventures in North and South Indian music, country music, film scoring, Americana, the music of George Harrison (no relation), classical music, etc, has opened his creative mind and opens the listener's mind to the endless possibilities in music

In 2013, Harrison released "Infinite Possibilities" (Sunnyside Records), his first foray in large ensemble writing (all tolled, 23 musicians including two vocalists) and, now, seven years later, his second effort for his large ensemble is here."  America At War" (Sunnyside) posits Harrison in the midst of 18 musicians plus one guest (Ned Rothenberg on shakuhachi for one track).  These compositions take their inspirations from the composer's father's experiences at the end of World War II ("My Father in Nagasaki"), a former President's assertions to his country that Saddam Hussein was preparing chemical weapons ("Yellowcake"), the composer's praise for people who not only fight our wars but also those who fight for peace ("Honor Song"), and the 1963 "March on Washington", the march for "Jobs and Freedom".  Some of the music is angry with solos that tear across the sound spectrum (trombonist Curtis Hasselbring and tenor saxophonist Jon Irabagon on "Yellowcake"). "Gratitude" takes a quieter approach, a soulful tune that not only takes into accounts the composer's recovery from a traumatic brain injury but also the people who work with soldiers dealing with PTSD (Ingrid Jensen's trumpet solo rising out of the collective ensemble is quite handsome). The quiet vibraphone phrases of Wilson Torres takes the piece to its gentle conclusion.   

Photo: Scott Friedlander
Harrison composed all nine tracks save for Tom Waits's "Day After Tomorrow" (from 2004's "Real Gone" album).  The guitarist sings the plaintive melody whose lyrics tell the story of a young soldier from Illinois (Rockford, to be exact) writing home to his wife from the battle front. While there are no solos, the background is stunning in its support in how the sections frame the voice, capture the emotion, and advance the melody.

The program closes with the pointedly titled "Stupid, Pointless, Heartless Drug Wars"––the composer points his finger at how the casualties of this long and senseless battle, the prisoners, the poor, the various communities, the children who suffer from their parents addiction, have such a poor survival rate. Instead of education and support, those who command choose to incarcerate and, upon release, let the freed prisoners swing in the wind.  There are those who will say "if you mess with this s**t, you deserve the consequences" but the U.S. is a country of second chances a beast, for those who can afford it), where rehabilitation can be a path to a positive life.  As the music progresses, Harrison's arrangement becomes more claustrophobic, angrier, and the conclusion is unsatisfying.  Note the powerful alto saxophone solo from Ken Thompson as well as the muscular work of bassist Gregg August and drummer Jared Schonig.

Photo: Scott Friedlander
"America at War" pokes the listener, pushes to make one more aware of the costs that wars have on society, and prods one to speak out in the face of jingoism and nationalism. Joel Harrison + 18 is a formidable ensemble, an assemblage that can roar, can purr, can get you of your chair (and stupor). Yes, this is emotional music, the song titles are provocative, the playing often acerbic––music that demands a response.  In this time of societal isolation, think on these topics and see how you might change.

The album will be released on 4/24/2020.

For more information, go to joelharrison.com.

Here is the substantial opening track:


Joel Harrison - composer, arranger, guitar, voice 
Matt Holman - conductor 
Seneca Black - trumpet 
Dave Smith - trumpet, flugelhorn 
Ingrid Jensen - trumpet (five tracks) 
Chris Rogers - trumpet (four tracks) 
Marshal Sealy - French horn 
Alan Ferber - trombone 
Sara Jacovino - trombone 
Curtis Hasselbring - trombone 
Ben Staap - tuba 
Ben Kono - English horn, soprano, alto saxophone & flute 
Ken Thomson - alto saxophone, Bb clarinet & bass clarinet 
Stacy Dillard - tenor saxophone 
Jon Irabagon - tenor saxophone, flute 
Lisa Parrot - baritone saxophone & bass clarinet 
Daniel Kelly - piano 
Gregg August - electric & acoustic bass 
Jared Schonig - drums 
Wilson Torres - vibraphone, timpani, concert bass drum, bongos, bells & shaker 
Ned Rothenberg - shakuhachi (on "My Father In Nagasaki")

The Chicago Yestet, the brainchild of trombonist and composer Joel Adams, a veteran of the Woody Herman Orchestra as well as the Chicago music scene, is a unique large ensemble.  The band, in existence for a dozen years, includes three saxophones, two trumpets, two trombones, guitar, bass, drums, a vocalist plus a spoken word artist.  Their music combines elements of jazz, r'n'b, hip hop, and more with messages that speak about current issues and the age-old topic of love.  The ensemble, listed below, is composed of musicians who are active throughout the Chicago area plus lead their own groups.

The band's third album, "Not There Yet" (self-released), take sits name from the opening track, a funky tune that may remind some of Curtis Mayfield (especially the muted trumpets in the opening section). Keith Harris's rap speaks on the relationship beween black people and the police––the title refers to the fact that, since the Civil Rights Acts, African American have been granted entry into American Society but only so many and only so far.  Vocalist Maggie Burrell takes over from Harris yet her soulful vocal picks up the topic. The band is musical sympathetic but one is surprised on initial listening by Adam's highly amplified trombone solo ("megabone").  Yet, his harsh voice is in keeping with the lyrics.  Bassist Clark Sommers and, especially, drummer Xavier Breaker stoke the fire throughout. The all-instrumental "Moment of Truth" opens with a passionate statement from Geoff Bradfield (tenor sax) before the rest of the musicians enter.  The melody is developed by the section before Russ Johnson grabs the lead. Listen to how Breaker leads the band forward, taking a powerful as everyone vamps. Close to the end, Bradfield returns for a short but fiery solo.

Photo: Janet Takayama
Ms. Burrell's voice rides the waves of sound on "So It Goes", a multi-sectioned piece that, at times, resembles the music of the band Chicago as well as Isaac Hayes "Theme from Shaft." In the middle of the track, pianist Stu Mindeman (most recently with Kurt Elling as bassist Sommers is now) takes off on a fine solo. The ensemble hits hard on Adams's arrangement of John Coltrane's "Wise One" (from the 1964 Impulse "Crescent" album). Again, it's Breaker who provides the energy while the section writing goes from explosive to flowing melodically. Both Bradfield and guitarist Mike Allemana solo but not until after the sections get their say.  

The album contains a song that could be a big hit on the "adult contemporary" charts.  "I've Been Meaning to Tell You" (lyrics by Cherise Thomas plus a rhythmical rap from Harris), at times, sounds as if it would fit right in on an East, Wind, & Fire album, what with the funky backbeat, the chunky guitar chords, and the soaring reeds and brass.  The long middle section allows the band to shows its versatility plus the fine tenor sax solo from Chris Madsen. Both Ms. Burrell and Harris are emotionally "real"; an off-note for some may be that the vocal tells a heartfelt love story while the rap deals with a couple's separation from the perspective of the husband.

The final track, "Anthem for a New Generation of Sociopolitical Reactionaries", is a fascinating duo between the soundbites of President Donald Trump and the responses of Keith Harris.  Depending on your politics, you'll either find the track irresponsible or humorous but it really is a poignant take on what many people on all political sides feels is a divisive politician.  The writing for the band has great power, serving as a bluesy rallying call to the listeners.  

"Not There Yet" stands out for its impressive writing, the handsome ensemble playing, the excellent rhythm section, plus the intelligent lyrics.  This music keeps your attention all the way through its 68 minutes; this music begs to heard and seen in person. Kudos to Joel Adams for his great work in bringing this music to light. 

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

Here's the "hit" song:


Maggie Burrell - vocals, lyrics
Keith Harris -  spoken word artist 
Geof Bradfield, Chris Madsen, and Nick Mazzarella - saxophones
Chuck Parrish and Russ Johnson - trumpets 
Tom Garling and Joel Adams (leader) - trombones 
Clark Sommers - bass
Mike Allemana - guitar
Stu Mindemann - piano
Xavier Breaker - drums

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Since We Should/Must Stay Inside, Make The Best of It!

Viewing & Listening Tips for those who need to learn patience (and soon):

1) - Fred Hersch is posting a video everyday at 1 pm on his Facebook and then it is archived––check it out.


You can tune in at 1 p.m. or find the link to his daily mini-concert.

Plus, you should follow the link to "The Ballad of Fred Hersch" – created by the team of Charlotte LaGarde and Carrie Lozano, the documentary was released in 2016 and, like his 2017 autobiography "Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz" (Crown Archetype), paints a honest picture of the pianist's life , his coming-to-terms with AIDS, and the coma that nearly claimed his life in 2008. The movie contains a number of long musical performances plus shows the composers hard at work at recovering and creating "My Coma Dreams", his 2014 jazz/theater piece only available on DVD.

Here's the link:

2) - Just discovered this morning that, for the next two weeks (through 4/7/20), you can view for free "Rambling Boy", the 2009 Charlie Haden documentary created by Reto Caduff. Haden was the essence of "Speak softly but carry a big stick" in that he had a a quite voice but his bass and music stood up against tyranny at home (the United States) and and the world world.  Haden left many legacies including his musical family, his work with Ornette Coleman, Pat Metheny, Keith Jarrett, Old & New Dreams as well as the Liberation Music Orchestra.

Here's the link to the movie:

3) – The number of music documentaries, concerts, and daily musical interludes on YouTube, Amazon Prime, Netflix, NPR.org, etc is amazing. Jazz at Lincoln Center announced they'll post free videos every week starting today with the JALC's shows about Miles Davis, South African Music, and a Family Concert: "Who is Chick Corea?"  Go to https://www.jazz.org for more information.

4) - Podcasts: While you're hanging about or out for a walk/jog/run, there are a slew of podcasts (seemingly more everyday) for your distraction/entertainment. Check out my friend Jason Crane (you'll see links in the right-hand corner of this blog page) plus the often-brilliant "A Noise From the Deep" (trumpeter Dave Douglas's monthly conversations with modern musicians/creators––go to https://greenleafmusic.com/podcasts/). Make time for Leo Sidran's "The Third Story"podcast to be found at www.third-story.com as well as trombonist/label owner Nick Finzer's "Outside In Music Podcast" at www.outsideinmusic.com/podcast. Of course, there are a ton more––if you have a favorite, send me a link at richard_b_kamins@snet.net.

Stay safe!

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Posi-Tone at 25 (and Still Growing)

Posi-Tone Records, based in Los Angeles, CA, continues to carry on in the jazz tradition of Blue Note, Prestige, Mainstream, and other labels from the 1940s-1960s. Co-owner and producer Marc Free gathers great, often young, talent, gives them guidance, a studio, and the big ears of co-owner/ Chief Engineer Nick O'Toole, smart packaging, and tireless promotion. Over the past 15 years (the label opened for business in 1995 but really rebooted in early 2006), starting with the debut album by pianist Ehud Asherie's"Lockout"), Free and O'Toole have recorded and released albums by organists Jared Gold and Brian Charette, trombonists Steve Davis, Nick Finzer, and Michael Dease, saxophonists Doug Webb, Roxy Coss, Ralph Bowen, and Tom Tallitsch, pianists Orrin Evans, Art Hirahira, and Jon Davis, bassists Ben Wolfe and Peter Brendler, trumpeter Jim Rotondi, and so many others. The label has also debuted projects by Evans's Captain Black Big Band, trumpeter Josh Lawrence, vibraphonist Behn Gillece, pianist Theo Hill, and saxophonist Alexa Tarantino. Over the past several years, Free has been putting together artists from the label's roster and creating a series of "studio" groups starting with 2018's "Straight Forward" by the sextet New Faces that combined the talents of Ms. Coss, Lawrence, Gillette, Brendler, Hill, and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza.

Now, in 2020, Posi-Tone continues to do what the co-owners do best––make good music that swings! Happy Birthday to them!

Photo: Anna Yatskevich
Farnell Newton was born in Miami, FL and then moved to Philadelphia, PA. He is a big man and gets a big sound out of his trumpet. After graduating from Oberln Conservatory of Music, Newton moved to Portland, OR, where he and family still live. Newton has played with lots of people from various genres including Bootsy Collins, Jill Scott, Stevie Wonder, Galactic, and the Portland String Quartet plus he leads his bow funk band, The Othership Connection.  He's self-released a number of different albums and singles on his Portland-based label and signed to Posi-Tone in 2017. His first album for the label, a quintet date titled "Back To Earth", featured his West Coast band on a program that really swung.

"Rippin' & Runnin'" is his second date for Marc Free; this time, Newton is supported by Brian Charette (organ) and Rudy Royston (drums) while his front-line partner is Brandon Wright (tenor saxophone), all veterans of numerous recordings on Posi-Tone.  The eight-song program features four Newton tunes and one each from Wright, Ezra Weiss, Tom Tallitsch, and Duke Ellington.  The music ranges from the greasy funk of Tallitsch's "Gas Station Hot Dog" (check out the organ and drums–oh my!) to the leader's fast-paced title track to Weiss's New Orleans-soaked "The 5 A.M. Strut" (marvelous trumpet work and it's a pleasure to hear Wright strut his stuff). Charette and Royston are a delight throughout (Mr. Producer, give them their own album, please).

Photo: Anna Yatskevich
On such a powerful album, the ballads are bound to standout.  Te leader's "Little Bird Rose" moves ever-so-slowly, its sound and feel more aligned to soul/ r'n'b music than to jazz.  The only solo goes to Charette (just his keys and Royston's quiet brush work) while the trumpet and tenor sax read the theme and reprise it at the end.  The program closes with Ellington's masterful "Come Sunday."  Newton arranges the melody section that he plays the opening two lines alone and then Wright joins in on the last; the sax leads the way into the chorus and the trumpet joins for the last line.  The trumpet solo is pure gospel (with a touch of Louis Armstrong and Lester Bowie) while the tenor solo has shades of the blues throughout.  Perfect close to a fun listen!

"Rippin' & Runnin'" might not heal any diseases but chances are quite good you'll feel a lot better listening to this quartet having so much fun making music. Farnell Newton sounds great and his bandmates are top-drawer––all in all, get in the groove and move to this music!

For more information, go to farnellnewton.com.

Here's one of the delightful Newton originals:

Photo: Anna Yatskevich
To mix old quotations, Idle Hands makes "such sweet music".  There are six sets "Hands" in this Marc Free-organized ensembles; the sextet includes Will Bernard (guitar), Sam Dillon (tenor saxophone), Behn Gillece (vibraphone), Art Hirahara (piano), Boris Kozlov (bass) and Donald Edwards (drums). Like most of Free's "groups", each musician has with recorded for or with the label.  This rhythm section is a true knock-out, Kozlov well-known for his work with the Mingus Big Band while Edwards is best known for his solo albums on Criss Cross plus his  dates with pianist Orrin Evans (the drummer also has worked with the Mingus BB). Hirahara is a stalwart whose Post-Tone albums are quite impressive.  Gillece, who is in several of these label "groups" continues to impress while Dillon is the "kid" here but his elders give him plenty of room to play. Bernard, whose funk-driven albums are delightful, is an excellent voice in this mix.

"Solid Moments" is a good name for the sextet's debut.  The 12-song program features, at least, one original from each member plus  pieces composedly Stevie Wonder and Freddie Hubbard. Of Gillece's two pieces, "Maxwell Street" swings in a slippery, funky, fashion and features strong solos from Dillon, Hirahara, and the composer while his "Barreling Through" opens the album in an exciting fashion with a bopping melody and several tempo changes. Bernard's "Silver Bullet" jumps right along with a fiery solo from Dillon and a "cool" solo from the composer. You'll love the bounce in the ensemble's steps on Edward's "Dock's House" – the music moves is such a sinuous fashion thanks to the rhythm section (after all, the drummer was born in New Orleans). Fine solos all around from Dillon, Bernard, Gillece, and, especially, Hirahira whose fingers are dancing with glee.

Photo: Anna Yatskevich
Two pieces that stand out for this listener are the pianist's (pictured left) "Event Horizon" and Kozlov's handsome ballad "Ashes".  The former rides in on a long melody, well-designed, melody; Dillon gets the first solo with support from the composer's excellent work in the background, Gillece's ringing vibes, and Bernard well-placed chords.  Hirahara's solo piano introduction on the latter track is quite dramatic leading to a gentle, powerful, melody line played by guitar, vibes, and piano.  The rhythm section drops and the piano has a short interaction with the vibes before the band comes back in for Dillon's take on the melody.

Idle Hands are hardly dormant on "Solid Moments"––in fact, they seem to be having an enjoyable time playing together.  This album stands out not only the musicianship but also the overall high quality of the compositions. One hopes that someday this sextet will get to perform in person but, in the meantime, wrap your hands around the album!

Here's the Art Hirahara original:

Photo: Anna Yatskevich
Works For Me, one more group organized and named by Marc Free (after one of his favorite John Scofield recordings), is a fascinating blend of veterans and newcomers, women and men. Featuring Alexa Tarantino (alto and soprano saxophones, flute), Caili O'Doherty (piano), Adi Myerson (bass), Tony Davis (guitar), and Joe Strasser (drums), the quintet explores on its debut a nine-song program including seven originals (three by the bassist plus two each by the pianist and guitarist) as well the opening "Jinrikisha" (Joe Henderson) and the closing "Send One Your Love" (Stevie Wonder).

Ms. O'Doherty composed the title track, a medium-fast piece with fine soprano sax work from Ms. Tarantino, dancing drums, and a graceful melody. The pianist, whose 2015 debut album "Padme" (Sunnyside) was quite impressive, is an excellent soloist as is Davis whose guitar phrases truly push the piece forward.  His tune, "Lake Sebago", has a handsome melody played by Ms. Tarantino on flute – listen to the chordal structure of the piece as it's quite intelligently constructed.  Davis also composed "El Gran Birane", a piece that its roots in contemporary r'n'b yet retains a jazz feel.  Thick piano chords and solid drumming support the guitar solo while Ms. O'Doherty creates her adventurous solo over just bass and drums.   Ms. Tarantino really digs down deep – there are moments when her alto sounds more like a tenor sax – for a short yet pithy pair of choruses.

Photo: Anna Yatskevich
Ms. Myerson's "Your Smile (Keeps Me Sane)" is a lovely ballad with delicate work from the rhythm section plus smart solos from the alto saxophonist and the pianist (pictured left) with the guitar only utilized during the readings of the song's melody.

The quintet delivers a sweet version of Mr. Wonder's "Send One Your Love" (an apropos message for these times). Strasser and Ms. Myerson create a solid cushion for the front line and Davis take full advantage, creating a delightful solo that hints at Wes Montgomery as well as being quite soulful.

"Reach Within" is a good debut with the only caveat that several of the pieces could stretch out a bit more.  That aside, Works For Me is a quintet filled with promise and this writer looks forward to hearing more from each artist over the coming decades.

Here's the title track (composed by Ms. O'Doherty):

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Riches of the Large Ensemble (Part 2)

Photo: National Sawdust
As we sit in our homes in the early stages of the pandemic, music and arts seem even more important.  Other issues seem to be swept under the legislative carpets but not immigration––for all intents and purposes, no one is legally crossing the borders.  Still, we should all sit and watch the DVD that comes in the new 3-disk set from Felipe Salles Interconnections Ensemble "The New Immigrant Experience: Music Inspired by Conversations with Dreamers" (Tapestry).  No matter how you feel about the immigration situation in the United States and around the world, putting a human face and voice to the issue is so important.

The music stands up well without the video; in fact, this is a brilliant program that Salles has composed and arranged.  His 2018 Tapestry release, "The Lullaby Project (and Other Works for Large Ensemble",  was excellent (one of my Top Ten recordings of that year)––this music is even better. Salles, a Brazilian by birth, uses numerous rhythms from his homeland during this 11-song program.  Kudos to the rhythm section and, especially to the composer's use of Ryan Fedak's mallet percussion. Also worthy of mention is how brilliant (as in "illuminating") the sections sound, how they serve to advance the melody and open up spaces for solos. And this is not a program with many people soloing on every song (the average length of which is nine minutes).  When they do occur, the results are uniformly excellent. There's even a touch of modern electronic playfulness on several tracks e.g. guitarist Kevin Grudecki's heavily amplified solo on "IV: A Part And Not The Other" plus the "electronics"-enhanced trumpet solo (Eric Smith) and tenor sax solo (Mike Caudill) on "IX: These Things That Are Taken For Granted".

Truly, the best part of "The New Immigrant Experience" is the writing––this music, some of whose melodies are based on the cadence of certain words spoken by the people the composer interviewed during the process), stands out from the opening moment until the last notes have faded.  Even after listening to the stories of the nine "Dreamers", the feeling one gets from the music is hope, positive hope. Please listen to the stories, then listen to the music.  Then listen again and share with friends and your state and federal politicians. Felipe Salles has something to say and he does so brilliantly, especially with the aid of the Interconnections Ensemble.

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

Here's # "I":


Felipe Salles, composer and conductor
Jonathan Ball, alto and soprano saxes, flute, piccolo
Mike Caudill, tenor and soprano saxes, flute, clarinet, electronic effects
Rick DiMuzio, tenor sax, clarinet
Tyler Burchfield, bari sax, bass clarinet, clarinet

trumpets/ flugelhorns
Jeff Holmes; Don Clough; Yuta Yamaguchi; Eric Smith, electronic effects; Doug Olsen

Clayton DeWalt; Randy Pingrey, Bulut Gülen, Angel Subero, bass trombone

Nando Michelin, piano
Kevin Grudecki, guitar
Ryan Fedak, vibraphone
Keala Kaumeheiwa, bass
Bertram Lehmann, drums, percussion

Anna Webber (tenor saxophone, flute) and Angela Morris (tenor saxophone, flute) started their big band, in fact the Webber/Morris Big Band, in 2015, gathering an ensemble of New York City musicians to play music that refers to the past, is very much of the present moment, and often looks to the future.  The W/MBB has just issued its debut album, "Both Are True" (Greenleaf Music) and, like the aggregation's live show, this music is bound to turn grab one's attention.

Over the course of 58+ minutes, so much happens.  Voices step out of the songs, the different sections take on various roles, the music is both introspective and communal, emotional and cool, pulsating and ruminative, yet always alive.  "Climbing on Mirrors" (A.W. composition) opens the program with an urgent three-note staccato; immediately, other horns ands reeds pick up on playing slight variations a la Steve Reich. Only drummer Jeff Davis gets to move around freely. When the entire band enters, it's only for a short moment and one hears shades of the music of Darcy James Argue. As alto saxophonist Charlotte Greve moves into her solo, pay attention to what else is occurring. Soon, a "groove" emerges with Davis, bassist Adam Hopkins, and vibraphonist Patricia Brennan the spark plugs. Still, this is "slippery" music in that the shapes are continually shifting, creating a tension that is never quite dispelled.

For some listeners, the elusive quality of the music may be off-putting but, for this writer, it's engaging. Both Anna Webber and Angela Morris have roots in the avant-garde, creative classical music (Ms. Webber), and pop (Ms. Morris) with their individual works covering much territory. That's the spirit which pervades this music. Whether it's the two short duos performed by the leaders or the sombre "Coral" (A.M. composition), an elegy for orchestra out of whose floating chords and little "noises" the solo voice of Adam O'Farrill rises with short notes and long tones that begin to coalesce  into a series of phrases that pick up in intensity as the ensemble roils below him. Other voices give chase but soon the bottom disappears and the clarion call of the trumpet leads to a gentle finish.

Photo: Hiroyuki Masuro
There's much more, such as the rollicking "And It Rolled Right Down" (A.W.) with its triumvirate of Adam Schneit (clarinet), Jake Henry (trumpet), and Reginald Chapman (bass trombone) "conversing" over the stumbling rhythms plus Ms. Webber's "Reverses" that closes the album. With an opening  melody that suggests "The Peacocks" by Jimmy Rowles, the music picks up speed thanks to the insistent trumpets before dropping down to tolling piano chords.  The rhythm section revives the "groove" and the ensemble pushes forward even as the brass and reeds are playing the long, slow, phrases from the opening. Halfway through the 11:39 track, the trumpet of Kenny Warren steps out of the once again diminished ensemble, creating a solo that is filled with quick runs. The brilliance in the arrangement is how the arrangement frames the solo with occasional full-on blasts from the assembled multitude before all drop back. Yet, they all jump back in leading to the close where various voices recite Maya Angelou's poem that the track took for its name.

Give "Both Are True" the time to infiltrate your mind, take the time explore the melodies and how the sections move in and out, how the soloists use their time in front so intelligently, and the seeming infinite colors the Webber/Morris Big Band creates.  This music lives, breathes, and, in the long run, lifts one higher.

For more information, go to angelamorrismusic.com/bigband/

Here's the opening track:


Angela Morris: conductor, tenor saxophone, flute 
Anna Webber: conductor, tenor saxophone, flute 
Jay Rattman: alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute 
Charlotte Greve: alto saxophone, clarinet 
Adam Schneit: tenor saxophone, clarinet 
Lisa Parrott: baritone saxophone, bass clarinet 
John Lake: trumpet, flugelhorn 
Jake Henry: trumpet, flugelhorn 
Adam O’Farrill: trumpet, flugelhorn 
Kenny Warren: trumpet, flugelhorn 
Tim Vaughn: trombone 
Nick Grinder: trombone 
Jen Baker: trombone 
Reginald Chapman: bass trombone 
Patricia Brennan: vibraphone 
Dustin Carlson: guitar 
Marc Hannaford: piano 
Adam Hopkins: bass 
Jeff Davis: drums 

By this time, you should know the name and the voice of Luciana Souza.  Born and raised in São Paulo, Brazil, Ms. Souza actually began her career at the age of three (!) when she recorded a radio jingle. She was quite busy in the advertising world through her middle-teens and soon moved into the world of entertainment. She came to the United States, studied and rtaught at the Berklee School, then earned a Master's Degree at The New England Conservatory of Music, and also taught at the Manhattan School of Music. Ms. Souza's list of recordings is impressive, not only for the 12 releases under her own name (most on the Sunnyside label) but also for her collaborations with artists such as The Yellowjackets, Ryan Truesdell Gil Evans Centennial Orchestra, Bobby McFerrin, the vocal quartet MOSS, Herbie Hancock, the Maria Schneider Orchestra, and more. 

Among the "more" is composer-arranger Vince Mendoza––she appears on his 2011 album "Nights On Earth." In 2017, Ms. Souza and Maestro/ arranger Mendoza joined forces with the WDR Big Band Köln for "Storytellers" (Sunnyside), an album and concert celebrating great Brazilian songwriters. Over the course of the 10-song program, one hears music from Ivan Lines, Edu Lobo & Chico Buarque, Gilberto Gil, Djavan, Guinga, Chico Pinheiro & Tiago Costa pone piece each from Ms. Souza, Mr. Mendoza as well as two pieces from Antonio Carlos Jobim.  In the liner notes, the singer writes Matita Perê” is at the center of this recording. It is Jobim’s tribute to the vast and relentless presence of nature in Brazil". Composed in 1972 at a time when Brazil was going through martial law, censorship, and the Right Wing's consolidation of power, the piece celebrates the greatness of the country and its vast ecological power––while the lyrics are quite abstract, the music is extremely powerful (too bad there is no English translation in the liner notes).

The album moves between lovely ballads, such as Lobo/Buarque's stunning "Beatriz" (with a melody that invokes Stephen Sondheim) and delightful uptempo songs such Lins's "Se Acontecer" (whose tempo suggest Steely Dan circa "Royal Scam" and "Aja").  Mendoza's arrangements utilize the Big Band in intelligent fashion, with the brass and reeds often shadowing the voice, doubling her wordless vocals (as they do on his "Choro #3" which includes a delightful clarinet solo from Johan Hörlen as well as a dancing spot from trombonist Andy Hunter); the band gets to swing and float––check out Ms. Souza's "Baiäo" and how the rhythm sections buoys the flutes while the brass connect with the wordless vocal.  

Photo: Kim Fox
The other Jobim tune, "Choro Coração", is such a gentle piece. Besides the lovely vocal, Karolina Strassmeyer contributes an emotionally rich alto saxophone solo which is followed by a handsome muted trumpet solo courtesy of John Marshall.  Pay attention to how gentle the rhythm section is, especially pianist Rainier Böhm, bassist John Goldsby, and drummer Hans Dekker; smooth but ever-so-enchanting.  

"Storytellers" closes with the elegant "Sim ou Näo" (Djavan) where one hears Ms. Souza's voice joined by multiple flutes and supportive brass.  There's a fine flugelhorn from Ruud Bruels and such a gentle sway from the rhythm section that one finds it quite easy to fall under the spell of this special music.  Luciana Souza, Vince Mendoza, and the WDR Big Band Köln are a perfect match and this album is joyful listening in many different ways. Don't miss this recording!

For more information about the vocalist, go to www.lucianasouza.com.  For the WDRBB, go to www1.wdr.de/orchester-und-chor/bigband/ (it's all in German).  For Vince Mendoza, go to vincemendoza.net.  

Here's the delightful Ivan Lins tune:



Luciana Souza - vocals 
Vince Mendoza - producer, arranger & conductor 

WDR Big Band Köln: 
Johan Hörlen - saxophone 
Karolina Strassmayer - saxophone 
Olivier Peters - saxophone 
Paul Heller - saxophone 
Jens Neufang - saxophone 
Stefan Karl Schmid - saxophone 
Wim Both - trumpet 
Rob Bruynen - trumpet 
Andy Haderer - trumpet 
Ruud Breuls - trumpet 
John Marshall - trumpet 
Bastian Stein - trumpet 
Ludwig Nuss - trombone 
Shannon Barnett - trombone 
Andy Hunter - trombone 
Mattis Cederberg - tuba 
Paul Shigihara - guitar 
John Goldsby - bass 
Rainer Böhm - piano 
Hans Dekker - drums 
Marcio Doctor - percussion