Thursday, April 8, 2021

Springing and Swinging!

One of the joys of Spring (for some of us) is opening the windows, sitting outside, and listening to music. Here are three viable candidates for backyard (or indoor) enjoyment. 

Photo: Anna Yatskevich
Saxophonist, flutist, composer, and arranger Alexa Tarantino is a busy musician. She plays with DIVA! Jazz Orchestra, with Arturo O'Farrill & His Latin- Jazz Orchestra, with the Steven Feifke Big Band, with vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant, and others.  Ms. Tarantino is adept on soprano and alto saxophones, flute, alto flute, and clarinet who serves her well in her various musical assignments. She's also an educator serving on the Faculty of Jazz at Lincoln Center as well as the founder and director of the Rockport Jazz Workshop (Rockport, Ma).  Posi-Tone Records producer Marc Free has posited Ms. Tarantino in his "curated" groups such as Lioness, Works for Me, and Something Blue plus paired her with baritone saxophonist Lauren Sevian.  She's issued two CDs as a leader for Posi-Tone and has been a featured soloist in several ensembles.


The third album under her name, "Firefly", finds the young lady in the company of Behn Gillece (vibraphone), Art Hirahara (piano, Fender Rhodes), Boris Kozlov (bass), and Rudy Royston (drums and percussion).  The four gentlemen are Free's choice for his "Lockdown" group as they have became (along with drummer Donald Edwards) his rhythm section during the pandemic recording sessions.   All but two of the 12 tracks on the disk are originals by the leader and group members with a pair of Wayne Shorter tunes ("Iris"and "Lady Day") filling out the program. The album opens with the pianist's "Spider's Dance", a medium-tempo tune with a sweet melody for alto sax and the comforting vibes providing a soft cushion for the song. Gillece contributes the next piece, "Mindful Moments" which finds the leader on flute and Hirahara on Rhodes.  There's a gentle quality to both of these tracks with the latter rising on the easy push from the bass and drums plus the sweet combination of Rhodes, vibes and flute.

Photo: Anna Yatskevich
Ms. Tarantino's piece, "Daybreak", has the funky feel of Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On" with the insistent nature of the Motown classic.  Kozlov and Royston do a fine of job of making sure the music has a groove and always moves forward.  "Surge Capacity" leaps out of the speakers on top of rapid "walking" bass lines and frolicking drums. Ms. Tarantino and pianist Hirahara really get fired-up when it's their time to solo plus they enter into a delightful "trading fours" with Royston before all is said and done.  Rhodes and bass introduce the powerful "Rootless Ruthlessness"; when the band enters, the music scurries forward propelled by the rampaging drums and Kozlov's furious bass lines.  When the alto sax solo begins, the band has dropped into slow-motion with Royston all over his drums, Hirahara running his hands up and down the Rhodes, and the bassist sending urgent musical messages. Soon, the music is at break-neck speed and rushing to its climax.  

Ms. Tarantino caresses Wayne Shorter's melody on "Lady Day", the lovely ballad evoking Billie Holiday's unique way of presenting a melody.  Kozlov's lovely bowed bass solo is a highlight as is the leader's ever-so-sweet alto solo.  Shorter's "Iris" is a also a ballad for alto sax and features an impressionistic piano solo, lovely colors from Gillece, and the intelligent work of the bassist and drummer.

 "Firefly" closes with "The Firefly Code", another medium-tempo piece that is dedicated to the resilience of people as well as musicians since the pandemic began.  The sound of the flute supported by the vibes feels comforting plus there is a surprising drum solo that raises the intensity level; listen for the "surprise" ending!  Overall, "Firefly" is an aural treat on which Alexa Tarantino shares the spotlight with her four-piece band. She is generous in sharing the spotlight, the songs do not dawdle with only a pair over six minutes, and the sound quality is clear and cool.  Enjoy! 

For more information, go to https://alexatarantino.com/

Photo: Anna Yatskevich
A month before Ms. Tarantino's September 2020 recording sessions, Behn Gillece took Messrs. Royston, Kozlov, and Hirahara into the studios to record the 10 tracks that make up his fourth Posi-Tone album "Still Doing Our Thing".  The vibraphonist contributed seven originals to the program, several of which have titles that reference the musician's issues with the pandemic. Songs such as "Back to Abnormal", "Don't Despair", "Going On Well", the title track, and Royston's "Glad to Be Back" carry titles that illustrate how these musicians are dealing with having their lives turned upside down. Yet, the overall feeling one gets listening to this music is the joy the musicians have for being able to get together and play.  


One of the most impressive aspects of Gillece's compositions is that while the music does not seem complex, the pieces are well-organized, have strong melodies and rhythmic fire, and are ripe fodder for soloists.  Take the opening track, "Extraction".  The composer introduces the melody; the rhythm section with Hirahara on Rhodes set a wicked pace and the vibraphonist takes off.  Chances are you'll dig the solo but do pay attention how Kozlov and Royston set the torrid pace while the pianist lays down the chordal structure.  The next track, "Rattles", has a similar opening but this time Hirahara and Gillece share the melody while the beat is decidedly funky.  Both the pianist (acoustic) and the leader share the solo space feeding off each other's lines.  The rhythm section is relentless during the solos, pushing, shoving even, as the intensity level rises to the boiling point.

Among the other highlights is the leader's lovely ballad, "Blue Sojourn", which shows the influence of Billy Strayhorn.  The song is a duet for vibes and piano and includes an emotional and lovely solo from Hirahara.  There's plenty of space in the vibes solo giving the notes time to breathe. Kozlov's "Outnumbered" finds the bassist going "electric" supported by the pulsating chords from the Rhodes.  The piece may remind some of Chick Corea's Return To Forever especially in Kozlov's throbbing bass, Royston's "attack-mode" drumming, and the incredible forward motion.  Tenor saxophonist Nicole Glover joins the trio (Royston sits out) for Hirahara's "Event Horizon", her lighter attack a pleasing contrast to the flowing yet percussive piano and vibes.   

Photo: Anna Yatskevich
The album closes with Gillece's soulful musical plea, "Don't Despair".  The ballad has a handsome melody played by the leader and Kozlov (electric bass).  Hirahara is back on Rhodes, the lighter sound of the keyboard meshing well with the rounder bass tones (listen to the excellent music the bassist is creating) and Gillece's soothing vibes chords.  

It's good to know that Behn Gillece, his compatriots, and producer Marc Free are "Still Doing Our Thing".  This music has the power to pull listeners out of their doldrums, giving us hope for when we can get out and see/ hear music in person.  In the meantime, open the windows and let this music flow!

For more information, go to www.behngillece.com.  To hear more and purchase the album, go to. https://behngillece.bandcamp.com/album/still-doing-our-thing

Give a listen to the closing cut:




Saxophonist, educator, and radio show host Tom Tallitsch never fails to impress when it comes to making music, having a great cohort of musicians, and swinging with abandon.  If one has to classify his music, it comes out of the flow of the late 1950s through the mid-1960s Blue Note/Prestige Records sounds.  Much of the music kicks hard but rarely boils over.  Yes, there is a hint of John Coltrane's emotional style in the tenor saxophonist's phrasing and an urgency in his uptempo piece that show the influences of Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner, and Jackie McLean.  He's not a zealot for any particular style but Tallitsch has a melodic streak a mile wide making his songs stand out for their emotional strength and, yes, the fire that comes from really exploring his repertoire.

Earlier this year, Tallitsch issued his 11th album as a leader, "Message", the fourth release on his TT Productions label. Featuring his working band of Mike Kennedy (guitar), Neil Podgurski (piano), Matthew Parish (bass), and Dan Monaghan (drums), the program features nine original pieces by the leader.  The album opens with the appropriately-titled "Let's Go!" which jumps out from the first note and does not relax for seven-plus minutes. Fueled by the thick piano chords, a romping bass, and rock-steady drums, Tallitsch takes the first solo flying over the rhythm section with glee.  Kennedy displays touches of Herb Ellis and John Pizzarelli in his lively spot while you hear hints of McCoy Tyner in Podgurski's lively solo.  Parish's short yet powerful solo leads to the everybody "trading 4's" with Monaghan.  

The leader switches to soprano sax for the medium tempo "Bubble". Meshing his sound with the guitarist on the melody, the tune feels a breath of fresh after a long winter (and the album was recorded in January 2020!)  "Dusk" is a bluesy ballad with Tallitsch's tenor sketching the melody. Podgurski, who works with the Capt. Black Big Band and drummer Chad Taylor's Trio, creates an impressionistic solo supported by the melodic bass and steady drumming. Listen to what guitarist Kennedy adds in the background especially during the leader's delightful solo. Then, there's "Mablestates", a lovely reconstruction/ tribute of and to Benny Golson's classic "Stablemates."  Golson first recorded the piece in 1958 with his Philadelphians; Tallitsch's loving remake is also performed by musicians active in the Philly jazz scene. There's a "cool" feel to the tune and, once again, the leader's sax plays the melody in tandem with the guitar.  

The album's final two tracks are like day and night.  "In The Weeds" is a powerful, hard-bop, filled with fiery work in the rhythm section and strong solos from piano, tenor sax, and guitar. There is a clever change near the end that should make you smile.  "Moon" closes the album, a ballad that is takes its time to unfold. The richness in Tallitsch's tenor sound stands out, an emotional highpoint on the album.  The guitar solo starts quietly before picking up in intensity but Kennedy knows when to back off so as not to upset the gentler nature of the ballad.

This "Message" is clear –– Tom Tallitsch and company make human music, not trying to overwhelm you with technique but reminding us all that there is room in this music for melody, for rhythm, and for intelligent interplay. Give a listen!

For more information, go to www.tomtallitsch.com.  To hear more and to purchase the album, go to  https://tomtallitsch.bandcamp.com/album/message.  

Here's the band in the studio recording the opening track:



Friday, April 2, 2021

The Joys of Spring (Pt 2 – Large Ensemble Edition)

During the pandemic, we have gotten used to seeing and hearing small group performances.  But, here are two classy large ensemble recordings that captured my attention and imagination.

Photo: Hyemi Kim
Originally from South Korea (now living in New York City) composer and arranger Jiyhe Lee came to the United States in 2011 to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. In her native land, Ms. Lee had been a fairly popular "indie pop" singer –– within her first year at Berklee, she won the school's prestigious Duke Ellington Prize (she won it again the next year). Over the past decade, Ms. Lee has won numerous awards and commissions, worked with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Her self-released debut album, "April", came out in 2017 and received glowing reviews from the Jazz press.  The pieces on that recording were based on Ms. Lee's  response to a tragedy; the Korean ferry Sewol, which sank en route from Incheon to Jeju, claiming the lives of 304 innocent passengers, most of whom were teenage children. You should listen to her conversation with Jason Crane of "The Jazz Session" as it gives an excellent picture of the composer's career, influences, and more –– go to www.thejazzsession.com/2021/02/17/the-jazz-session-545-jihye-lee/ and pay attention.

Her new album, "Daring Mind" (Motema Music), is a dazzling display of original music, savvy arrangements, and excellent musicianship.  Album one featured Boston-based musicians while this is a NewYork-centric ensemble as befits her move to the City after graduation in 2015.  What stands out throughout the nine-song program are the strong melodies, the excellent section writing, and the emotional strength.  Pieces such as the opener, "Relentless Mind", and "I Dare You" have such a conversational feel with the reeds jousting with the brass and the soloist Quinsin Nachoff (tenor sax) getting both support and push back from underneath on the latter cut. On the former track, it's the rhythm section that pushes the piece forward during the exciting Sean Jones trumpet solo (his playing is  impressive throughout the program) and Alan Ferber's trombone dance.  Listen near the end of the track when the sections interact with drummer Mark Ferber. 

Ben Kono's alto sax leads the way into "Unshakable Mind", a ballad whose lovely opening melody is carried by the reeds until the brass and martial drums enter, causing the piece to turn dark. The insistent rhythmic pulse has the fell of Ravel's "Bolero" but there is much more shading here, quiet moments when bassist Evan Gregor and guitarist Sebastian Noelle carry on a conversation built upon the melody.  Kono returns again later in the piece to create a splendid solo as the intensity inevitably ratchets up to an amazing close.  

There is not a weak track on the album.  "Struggle Gives You Strength" has the feel of a soulful ballad from Burt Bacharach with hints of Aretha Franklin as well as Ashford & Simpson.  The sectional writing is exceptional as their phrases move upwards throughout the first half of Jone's trumpet solo.  "Revived Mind" has a lilting melody, with a traditional feel, played by the flutes and piccolos. The song moves forward over a soulful rhythm with the trombones responding to the trumpets and flute. Trombonist Mike Fahie solos over the rhythm, although it has not changed, feels more South African.  Listen to how the bass trombone and bass clarinet dance on the bottom while the sections sway behind the soloist.  "Why Is That" opens as a torch-y blues tune with going to the reeds and trumpets. The trombones enter and, a moment later, the music gets even more playful.  There are moments where everybody swings –– suddenly, the piece goes into double-time for a fine alto sax solo from Rob Wilkerson.  Jones's solo also starts in double time as the sections converse while the trumpeter proclaims for all the world to hear.

The album closes on a ballad, "GB", that is another spotlight for trumpeter Jones.  After he leads the song in, the reeds share the melody line.  There's a quick transition, with the low brass adding darker colors to the piece while the trumpets and reeds play powerful phrases.  The middle of the song to Jones and the responsive yet supportive piano of Adam Birnbaum . As the trumpet solo continues, the sections reenter pushing Jones to an exciting climax.  When the music continues, two alto saxophones play the melody, the baritone counterpoint, while the brass play long tones. Jones reenters, rising above the sections as the music winds down.  Its a stunning close to a dramatic work.

"Daring Mind" is a musical triumph. In just two recording, Jihye Lee has proven herself to be a mature composer and arranger, creating music that engages both the musicians and the listeners. And one does want to go back and listen because one cannot hear just how well-crafted and played this music is on initial contact.  Spend time with this music because the joy emanating from the sounds will create joy in and around you.   

For more information, go to https://jihyemusic.com/. To hear more and purchase "Daring Mind", go to https://jihyeleeorchestra.bandcamp.com/.  

Here's the band in action in the studio:


Personnel:

Ben Kono: Alto Saxophone
Rob Wilkerson: Alto Saxophone
Quinsin Nachoff: Tenor Saxophone
Jeremy Powell: Tenor Saxophone
Brian Pareschi: Trumpet
Sean Jones: Trumpet
John Lake: Trumpet
Alex Norris: Trumpet
Mike Fahie: Trombone
Alan Ferber: Trombone
Nick Grinder: Trombone 
Mark Patterson: Trombone (replaces N Grinder on two tracks )
Jennifer Wharton: Trombone
Adam Birnbaum: Piano (six tracks)
Haeun Joo: Piano (three tracks)
Sebastian Noelle: Electric Guitar
Evan Gregor: Double Bass
Mark Ferber: Drums


Photo: Chris Lee
I first heard pianist Steve Feifke play in the intimate confines of The Buttonwood Tree in Middletown, CT.  He was part of a quartet with saxophonist Chad Lefkowicz-Brown, drummer Jimmy Macbride, and  bassist Raviv Markowitz.  The group of friends had gotten together to stretch their musical wings and they certainly filled the venue with exciting sounds as well as youthful exuberance.  Feifke, a graduate of New England Conservatory of Music Preparatory School, New York University, and Manhattan School of Music, is busy as a performer, lecturer, composer, arranger, and orchestrator.  Even though he is yet to turn 30 (he will on June 29 of this year), his list of credits is quite impressive. His works have been commissioned by the Mingus Big Band, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, and the Manhattan School of Music Jazz Orchestra (to name but three), he's written music for televisions shows such as "Animaniacs", "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee", and TruTV's "Impractical Jokers". Feifke has performed or recorded with artists such as Randy Brecker, Chad LB, Veronica Swift, and Ulysses Owens Jr.   His debut as a leader, "Peace In Time", was self-released in 2015 and served to show Feifke's skill as a composer and pianist.

"Kinetic" (Outside In Music) is Feifke's fourth album as a leader or co-leader. Besides "Peace In Time", he co-led a date with trumpeter/ vocalist Benny Benack III, a Christmas EP with his Big Band.  There's also a Big Band date from 2019 titled "Prologue" that is only available through Feifke's website (when you download the mp3s, the folder bears the name "The Story Begins" - go figure).  Featuring a similar lineup, the program is totally different, more "standards", but still quite exciting music.  The new album starts off with the title track, a roaring fast-paced original that has tinges of McCoy Tyner in both the arrangement and the leader's rollicking solo spot. Trumpeter Gabriel King Medd is up next and he sparkles before giving way to drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. –– it's his only appearance on the album and he makes the most of driving the band as well as soloing with abandon.

You'll notice that the energy level of this band is quite high. "Unveiling of a Mirror" starts in a relaxed mode but as soon as the soloists hit, the band, powered by drummer Joe Peri and excellent section play, goes for broke.  Even "The Sphinx", which starts in a sultry manner has moments that really rock especially in the first part of saxophonist Lucas Pino's long, delightful, solo.  Powered by drummer Jimmy Macbride, the music grabs ahold and never lets go. Veronica Swift joins the band on the true ballad, "Until The Real Thing Comes Along", a song that beens recorded Erskine Hawkins, Andy Kirk & His Mighty Clouds of Joy, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, even Rod Stewart.  Feifke envelops Ms. Swift in mellow tones from the reeds and brass, strummed guitar a la Freddy Green, tinkling piano, and swishing cymbal splashes.  Kudos to all involved as they treat the song and its lyrics (which is credited to five different writers) with respect.

Ms. Swift returns later in the program for a bluesy take on "On The Street Where You Live" –– she sings it fairly straight but the band takes more of a 1940s Duke Ellington approach. In the middle of the second verse, the groove gets smoother, the sections play it cool, and the music careers forward. Solos by Robert Edwards (trombone) and Andrew Gutaukas (bass clarinet) liven up the tune.  Feifke supplies a fascinating arrangement of Thelonious Monk's "Nica's Dream", giving the tune a Latin feel. Both Benack III and the leader play strong solos, especially Fiefke who gets into quite a conversation with Macbride.  "Midnight Beat" offers the ensemble the opportunity to get funky and they do.  Bassist Chmielinski "gets down" with the funky rhythm guitar and "fatback" drums while Alexa Tarantino plays a singing solo that twists and turns above the rampaging rhythms.

A lovely and short chorale of brass and reeds introduces the final track, aptly titled "Closure."   The ballad has a heartfelt melody played by Sam Dillon (tenor sax)whose muscular yet melodic slo fils the middle section of the tune.  Again, the section writing stands out in its orchestral sound as they support Dillon as well as returning to the melody several times.  

For "Kinetic", Steven Feifke takes sounds and songs that feel familiar (some of them are) and shapes then so they sound new, fresh, and alive.  Many of the musicians in the Steven Feifke Big Band are the leader's contemporaries, younger musicians on the cusp of greater popularity who already play with great presence and creativity.  Very strong effort that bodes well for the future.

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

Here's the Band in the studio with Ms. Swift:




Personnel:

Andrew Gould - Alto Saxophone, Soprano Saxophone, Flute

Alexa Tarantino  - Alto Saxophone, Flute

Lucas Pino - Tenor Saxophone, Clarinet, Flute

Sam Dillon - Tenor Saxophone, Clarinet, Flute

Andrew Gutauskas - Baritone Saxophone, Bass Clarinet

Alex LoRe - Alto saxophone (for Ms.Tarantino on "The Sphinx")

Max Darche, John Lake, Benny Benack III, and Gabriel King Medd: Trumpet, Flugelhorn

Robert Edwards, Jeffery Miller, and Armando Vergara - Trombone 

Jennifer Wharton - Bass Trombone

Alex Wintz - Guitar

Steven Feifke - Piano, Composition, Conducting, Arrangements and Orchestrations

Dan Chmielinski - Bass

Jimmy Macbride - Drums on six tracks

Joe Peri - Drums on "Unveiling of a Mirror"

Bryan Carter - Drums on two tracks

Guests: 

Ulysses Owens Jr - Drums on title track

Veronica Swift - Voice on two tracks