Friday, April 3, 2020

Speaking To All of Us

Photo: Anna Webber
Any album and/or concert Kurt Elling presents/ creates is an adventure.  The vocalist, songwriter, and poet came out of Chicago 25 years ago singing jazz, cognizant of the music's history in that city and this country, melding poetry with music, telling stories.  Sometimes those stories were based in the blues, other times in the vocalese style of Jon Hendricks and Eddie Jefferson, and there were songs of a political nature.  Most recently, he teamed up with Branford Marsalis for a pair of albums on Okeh Records, 2016's "Upward Spiral" with Marsalis's Quartet and the other under his own name "Questions"(2018).

Late last year, the vocalist signed with Great Britain's Edition Records – his debut album for the label, "Secrets Are The Best Stories", is credited to Kurt Elling, featuring Danilo Pérez. The fascinating program is a collection of melodies by the pianist Perez and others, including the opening two tracks composed by Jaco Pastorius plus pieces from Wayne Shorter, Vince Mendoza, and two tracks composed by vocalist Sidsel Endresen with music by Django Bates.  The program is one of the most intimate and least orchestrated of Elling's oeuvre, with Pérez on 10 of the 11 tracks; bassist Clark Sommers appears on five and percussionist Rogério Boccato on four (Johnathan Blake, Jr. plays on two songs while alto saxophonists Miguel Zenón, guitarist Chico Pinheiro, and percussionist Romån Dîaz each appear on one.

Photo: Anna Webber
The intimacy can be right from the onset: "The Fanfold Hawk (for Franz Wright)" utilizes a Pastroius melody, multi-tracked voices, and Sommers's expressive bass to tell its story and leads directly into "A Certain Continuum" (based on the late bassist's "Continuum")––on this track, Pérez, Blake, Jr., and Dîaz join Sommers to create a chugging rhythm.  The lengthy piano solo is quite handsome. Pérez wrote the music for "Gratitude (for Robert Bly)", the second song dedicated to an American poet.  The piano and voice are so excellently paired and, when Sommers and Bocato enter, the music moves away into an airy Latin groove.

Photo: Anna Webber
But the three songs that truly stand out are "Beloved (for Toni Morrison)", "Song of the Rio Grange (for Oscar and Valerie Martinez-Ramirez)", and "Rabo de Nube".  The first track is not only the longest on the program (9:32) but features the largest ensemble.  Zenón's keening alto saxophone moves around Elling's voice then echoes the vocal in the fast-paced middle section.  Blake, Jr., Boccato, and Sommers raise the intensity beneath the hard-edged piano.  The final tune mentioned is composed by Cuban folk singer Silvio Rodríguez and translates to "Tail of the Tornado." Yet, Elling and Pérez handle this song about a great wind coming to clean away sadnesses and ugliness, leaving behind hope.

As for "Song of the Rio Grange", listen and watch below knowing that the song is dedicated to the father and his daughter who died crossing the river from Mexico to the United States.  Just Elling's multi-tracked voice and the amazing sounds of the prepared piano––fascinating lyrics and emotionally powerful music.

"Secrets Are The Best Stories" is an amazing musical and lyrical journey.  Built upon the words and dramatic vocals of Kurt Elling and the powerful, lyrical, musicianship of Danilo Pérez, this music will resonate inside you, asking you to listen and take action, even as the world hunkers down in isolation. The power of music and the power of the pen make yet turn the world towards empathy.

For more information, go to  To purchase this album and check out more of the album's music, go to

Here's the most powerful track on the album:

Photo: Jimmy Katz
So much has been written in the last seven+ years about Jimmy Greene and his family's personal tragedy of losing his daughter Ana Grace in the December 2012 school shooting in Sandy Hook, CT.  To their credit, he and his wife Nelba Marquez-Greene have done so much since the to raise awareness about the issues of mental illness, gun laws, and more (check out The saxophonist (soprano and tenor) has continued to perform, record, and teach––he is currently Associate Professor of Music and Co-coordinator of Jazz Studies at Western Connecticut State University.  His two albums on Mack Avenue, 2014's "Beautiful Life" and 2017's "Flowers – Beautiful Life, Volume 2", have shown his development as a musician and composer, his tenor sound maturing into a brighter, fuller, tone while his soprano playing gets better, richer, cleaner, with every passing year.

His new Mack Avenue album, 'While Looking Up", is a reunion of sorts.  Each musician – Lage Lund (guitar), Reuben Rogers (bass), Stefon Harris (vibraphone, marimba), Kendrick Scott (drums), and Aaron Goldberg (piano, Fender Rhodes) – have recorded with Greene in the past (Goldberg appeared on the saxophonist's 2000 Criss Cross debut "Introducing Jimmy Greene").  The 10 song program features seven Greene originals plus three tracks by associated with other artists.  The album opens with Cole Porter's "So In Love" with Greene essaying the melody on soprano sax while the band (minus Harris) dance beneath him, especially during his lyrical solo.  Lund and Goldberg follow within solos of their own.  Greene and company refashion Whitney Houston's major hit "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)" into a lovely ballad. Instead of the powerful dance rhythms of the original, one can truly hear the longing in the tenor saxophonist's phrasing of the melody. Be sure to notice the excellent brushes work from Scott and Rogers's melodic bass work. The stunning peformance of "Good Morning Heartache" (perhaps best know for Billy Holiday's 1946 recording) is one of the highlights of the album.  With Rogers and Scott creating a gentle cushion, Green's breathy tenor solo hearkens back to the sounds of Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster without sounding like either musician.

Photo: Anna Webber
Harris only appears on two cuts but both are worth noting.  Greene's flute introduction (with overdubbed clarinet and bass clarinet) to "April 4th" leads the listener in to a lovely light samba. His lovely soprano playing is framed by Goldberg's gentle piano, the excellent rhythm section especially Scott's dancing drums. Harris steps out on vibraphone, raising the temperature of the piece and locking into the drums.  He plays marimba on "Always There", a higher energy Greene tune with an insistent feels to the guitar and piano plus great push forward from the bass and drums.  The tenor, marimba, guitar, and piano swap 4-bar phrases right up to the final 75 seconds when Scott steps out (and does he ever!)

The album comes to a close with the title track plus "A Simple Prayer."  The former jumps forward on a subtle funky rhythm and features fine solos from Lund, Greene (on tenor– listen to the rhythm section dance behind him), and Goldberg (a sweet lyrical turn).  The final song lives up to its name, a slow blues with more than a touch of gospel.  Goldberg's rich piano work, a fine bass solo, and Greene's powerful statement over Scott's muscular drumming pulls one into the music and you find yourself on the edge of your seat shaking your head.

"While Looking Up" is a much-needed boost for the soul. The friendship of the musicians, their willingness to push each other higher, and the fine program written and/or arranged by Jimmy Greene is filled with good songs and great playing.  Such positive vibes with brighten your day and your life!

For more information, go to

Here's the sweet-sounding "April 4th":

Trumpeter Kenny Warren grew up in Denver, CO, and moved to NewYork City in 2002 to study music at SUNY-Purchase.  Since graduation, he has played and recorded with many ensembles and people including Slavic Soul Party, Andy Biskin's 16 Tons, the Angela Morris & Anna Webber Big Band, and others.  Warren also leads the Americana group "Laila and Smitty" (musical sample below) who have released three recordings since 2014. His debut jazz album, a quartet date titled "Thank You For Coming to Life", was issued in 2017 on Whirlwind Recordings.

For his second Whirlwind release, "In The Heat", Warren composed seven pieces for his trumpet, bass (Matthias Pichler), and drums (Nathan Ellman-Bell).  There are few trumpet trio albums although bassist Linda May Han Oh's debut disk featured her in a trio setting with trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and trumpeter/ cornetist Josh Baerman has recorded in several trio settings.  In many ways, this music sounds influenced by Henry Threadgill's writing for Air, not just for the intimate sound but also for how integral the bassist and drummer are to the development of the musical conversations.  There are also moments when the trumpeter's squeezed notes and sound remind this listener of Taylor Ho Bynum.

The music has an adventurous feel, often moving in surprising directions and pulling the listener along. In the course of any one of the songs, the trio takes off on an aural adventure.  Listen to the track below ("Pen In Hand"), to how Warren leads the bass and drums then immediately begins to play with the tempos, and then how playful their conversation becomes. The longest track, "Brain Phone Wired" (14:34), starts very slowly with the trumpet and the bass counterpoint taking their time to get into the body of the song. 2/3rds of the way through, the tempo picks up yet on can still hear how the three musicians are connected to each other rhythmically and melodically.  Even the shorter tracks, such as the three-minute closer "One Room In My Mind", says a lot in a short time.  The rhythm has a West African feel, the bass and drums locked in like Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell in Old and New Dreams with Warren dancing atop their joyful beat.

"In The Heat" is conversational, challenging, open, free (at times), quite rhythmic, an album to sit with  and let the sounds fill the room. Kenny Warren meets the challenge of the trio date with aplomb and joy.  Enjoy the ride!

For more information, go to  To purchase the recording and get evermore information, go to

Here's a track from the Trio:

And, as a special treat, here's the final track from "Laila and Smitty III" – the band features Warren (trumpet and vocals), Jeremiah Lockwood (guitars), Myk Lockwood (lap steel), Adam Hopkins (bass), and Carlo Costa (drums) :

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