Monday, June 20, 2022

Juneteenth Music

 This post is not a review but to tell you about two albums that lovers of small group Creative Black Music should enjoy.

Giant Step Arts, the recording label owned by photographers Jimmy & Dena Katz, sponsored a series of live concerts in Central Park in New York City in late Spring/ early Summer 2021.  They were held on the grounds that once was Seneca Village, an area where a group of free Blacks had established a village in 1825.  Within 20 years, Irish and German immigrants had moved in but the City took the land through eminent domain and everyone was kicked out.  For Juneteenth 2022, Giant Step releases two recordings; the first one "Live from Summit Rock in Seneca Village", features Jason Palmer (trumpet, compositions) leading a group including Mark Turner (tenor saxophone), Edward Perez (bass), and Jonathan Blake (drums).  The quartet plays five pieces, three from Palmer's 2020 album inspired by a number of art works in Boston, MA's famous Isabella Stewart Gardner, one from 2019's Giant Step album "Rhyme or Reason", and one from his 2014 SteepleChase album "Places".  

To find out how to purchase the album, send an email to 

The second release is the Giant Step Arts debut of the Burton/ McPherson Trio with Dezron Douglas.   This album, titled "The Summit Rock Session at Seneca Rock", was recorded on the first day of Summer 2021, features the muscular tenor saxophone of Abraham Burton and drummer Eric McPherson with bassist Douglas.  If you've only heard McPherson with the Fred Hersch Trio, you'll be impressed by the power in his percussive work.  Saxophonist Burton, the drummer's long-time running partner, combines the power of John Coltrane and David Murray with the improvisatory elegance prowess of Sonny Rollins.  With Douglas's rock-solid bass work as its foundation, the concert is a real treat.  

To find out how to purchase this album, send an email to

To find out more about Giant Step Arts and its mission, go to

Monday, June 13, 2022

Wadada Leo Smith Tells Stories with String Quartet & Conversations With Drummers

 Wadada Leo Smith is quite the musical adventurer with a fertile mind and desire to continue to grow as a composer, arranger, and musician even as he moves through his ninth decade in this world.

Photo: Jimmy Katz
Mr. Smith has found a willing partner with the Finnish record company TUM. The label has been in business since 2003; In 2011, the label has released the trumpeter/ composer's "Dark Lady of The Sonnets", the first of 11 recordings on TUM (so far), four of which have been multiple disk sets.  Every package has original art on the cover, contains a book of liner notes filled with information about the artists as well as an essay by the composer/ performer about his inspiration for the music. Many of the compositions bear dedications to artists, musicians, statesmen, or the individual work has a question or comment attached.  Mr. Smith's makes one think, makes one contemplate issues and events outside the performance of the music.  Like his other AACM brethren Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton, the late Muhal Richard Abrams, and Roscoe Mitchell (you can throw Oliver Lake and Julius Hemphill into the mix, both graduates of the Black Artists Group (BAG) out of St. Louis, Mo), he is a true original, a champion of Black Creative Music, and a tireless conceptualist. 

TUM Records has now issued a seven-CD set titled "Wadada Leo Smith: String Quartets NOs. 1 - 12".  The music is performed by the RedKoral Quartet (pictured below) as well as a sprinkling of guests on various movements. The musicians in the Quartet––Shalini Vijayan (first violin, Mona Tian (second violin), Andrew McIntosh (viola), and Ashley Walters (cello)––first met when Mr. Smith was on the faculty of CalArts (all but Ms. Walters) and has been featured on the composer's "Ten Freedom Summers" (Cuneiform Records) as well as TUM's "Rosa Parks: Pure Love, An Oratorio in Seven Songs".  The 12 string quartets on the new boxed set includes four composed between 1965-2001, four between 2005-2011, and four between 1987-2019.  In his introduction to the recordings, the composer talks of myriad influences ranging from the Delta Blues of his youth (Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, etc) to Claude Debussy, Anton Webern, Dmitri Shostakovich, and John Lewis to Scott Joplin, William G. Still, George Walker, Florence Price, Tania Leon, and Alvin Singleton. A number of the Quartets consist of one movement while "No. 11" has nine movements and is spread over two of the disks. The vast majority of the pieces and/or the movements carry dedications while "Quartet No. 2" and "4" have none. 

Photo: Kot Nockels
The music is spacious, making great use of close harmonies, silence, and long tones. The first 10 of the "Quartets" were recorded in late September and early October 2015 while the last two were recorded over three days in February 2020.  Even when extra "voices" are added––for instance, the leader's trumpet and the baritone vocal of Thomas Buckner on "No. 8 ("Opuntia Humifusa")–the piece takes it time. Yes, there are more intense moments but never at the cost of clarity and melody. "String Quartet No. 6 "Taif: Prayer in the Garden of Hijaz" has the most extra voices with the Quartet (Lorenz Gamma replacing second violinist Mona Thian) plus Mr. Smith's trumpet, Anthony Davis (piano), and Lynn Vartan (percussion including cymbals and marimba).  The contrast between the three "extras" and the strings is fascinating as is the subtle call-and-response built into the music.  Acoustic guitarist Stuart Fox (Professor Emeritus at CalArts) joins the string ensemble for the beautiful "String Quartet No. 7 "Ten Thousand Ceveus Peruvanus Amemvical (In Remembrance of Dorothy Ann Stone)"––the music is contemplative, impressionistic, and emotionally strong. 

Photo: Kot Nockels
Disk seven is somewhat of an anomaly in the collection.  The RedKoral Quartet now consists of four violists including Mr. McIntosh, Mr. Gamma, Linea Powell, and Adrianne Pope. The 20:33 album contains both movements of "String Quartet No. 12" with the first movement dedicated to "Billie Holiday (1915-1959)" and the second to "Pacifica".  There is a darker quality to the music (the viola is bigger and pitched a 5th down from the violin); when the Quartet plays in unison, there is a trance-like feel to the music.  Yet, the high notes are well-articulated, both movements have quite a dramatic quality with the former seemingly touching on the mournful side of the great singer's life and the latter filled with long notes soon interrupted by several glissandi up and down. The piece closes with a high-pitched, sustained, unison note which is striking, solemn yet serves as a moment of unity.

To do these 12 quartets justice, you need the time to sit and listen deeply, to pick out the different voices, the different themes, how they move together and apart, and how the experience changes you.  Therefore, you should listen more than once as you have to match your breathing to the movement of the music. Easier to do when there's a steady pulse yet most of this music flows in shorter statements and quick turnabouts.  Never is it static.  That's asking a lot of the contemporary listener, to devote that much of one's time––however, if you do, these "String Quartets 1 - 12" will open numerous doors of perception.

For more information, go to  

Hear "String Quartet No. 1, Movement 1":

Next to the work created by Wadada Leo Smith's Golden Quartet/ Quintet and his Great Lakers Quartet, my favorites among his many recordings are his trumpet and drum duets. Because his trumpet sound is so strong and expressive, the conversations with drummers are incredibly absorbing.  Mr. Smith has done a slew of these recordings since his first one, "The Blue Mountain's Sun Drummer" (Kabell) with Ed Blackwell in 1986.  Since then, he's recorded with Soyo Toyozumi (1992 and 1994), Adam Rudolph (2002), Gunter Baby Sommer (2006), Jack DeJohnette (2008), Louis Moholo-Moholo (2011), and Milford Graves (2016).  The intimacy and excitement of these collaborations make for an engrossing listening experience.  "The Emerald Duets" (TUM) collects five more duet albums, two with Mr. DeJohnette plus one each with Pheroan akLaff, Han Bennink, and Andrew Cyrille.  The recording sessions began with Mr. Bennink in 2014, then Messrs Cyrille and akLaff in 2019, and Mr. DeJohnette in January of 2020.  In the booklet that accompanies the set, Mr. Smith writes "My own favorite duet music of all time is Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines performing "Weather Bird," and Parts 1 and 2 of "Mu" by Donald Cherry and Edward Blackwell." The spirit of those duets, the bursts of creativity that went into those recordings, how those individual voices merged to forge "new" music, all that and more is in the DNA of these five albums.

The first CD in the box, "Litanies, Prayers and Meditations", features the trumpeter with Pheroan akLaff. The youngest musician in the set (67), he first played with Mr. Smith in 1976; in fact, one of the drummer's first recordings was 1977's "New Delta Akhri" (Kabell Records).  Listening to their latest collaboration, one can hear how Mr. akLaff is an engaging musical conversationalist and his cymbal work throughout the 75 minute, 11-track, is impressive. He doesn't play a groove but is part of the thematic material and responds organically to where Mr. Smith goes during the improvisations. Hard to pick out a favorite track but "A Sonic Litany on Peace" stands out on initial listens.  

Photo: Enid Farber
While Andrew Cyrille (82) has not worked a lot with the trumpeter, Mr. Smith was featured along with guitarist Bill Frisell on the drummer's 2018 ECM recording "Lebroba". This duet session, titled "Havana, Cuba", consists of eight pieces including tracks inspired by and dedicated to people such as US. Representative Ilhan Omar (Dem. – Minnesota), vocalist Jeanne Lee, and trumpeters Donald Ayler, Tomasz Stanko, and Mongezi Feza (each one a distinctive voice on the instrument) plus a song dedicated to the drummer's homeland of Haiti.  The mixture of the expressive trumpet and steady shuffle on "Jeanne Lee in a Jupiter Mood" stands out for its simplicity, the power of the melody, and the gentle yet powerful drive forward while "Haiti, An Independent Nation in 1804 but Not Recognized by Britain, France, Germany, the United States and Others: A Designed Tragedy!" is a powerful rebuke to the racist attitudes of the early 19th Century and today. 

Photo: Ton Mijs
As noted above, Mr. Smith's sessions with Han Bennink (80) in 2014 set the stage for the boxed set.  It's quite possible this album, subtitled "Mysterious Sonic Fields", documents the first time the two ever recorded together. Nevertheless, the nine tracks cover much musical territory with moments when the trumpeter really gets into the swinging groove the drummer creates (most notably on "Louis Armstrong in New York City and Accra, Ghana").  On "The Call – A Duet between Joseph "King" Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton", the duo hit the ground running and, save for a short respite halfway through, the listener is pulled along in the musical mischief.  Bennink's "tap dancing" beneath the muted trumpet on "Johnny Dyani, the Artist Who Imagined a New South Africa. A Celebration" is yet another treat that makes one sit up and listen closely to how the two musicians inspire each other.

The last two CDs in the box feature Wadada Leo Smith with Jack DeJohnette (80). They met in Chicago in the 1960s at a time when the drummer had already made a name for himself playing with Charles Lloyd and was beginning a three-year tenure with Miles Davis.  It wasn't until 2000 when the trumpeter invited Mr. DeJohnette to join his Golden Quartet that the two began working and playing together on a regular basis.  In 2009, Tzadik Records released "America", their initial recording of duets. Mr. Smith guested on Mr. DeJohnette's 2015 ECM recording "Made in Chicago", a live album that also featured Henry Threadgill, Roscoe Mitchell, and bassist Larry Gray.

Photo: Enid Farber
Disk four, "Freedom Summer, The Legacy", sounds different than the others as it opens with the drummer playing piano on the impressionistic "Sandalwood and Sage". Mr. Smith is most lyrical while Mr. DeJohnette blends sounds and long sustained notes.  On the title track, the trumpeter moves to piano playing a deliberate melody as the drummer dances around his trap set. On the third (of five) tracks, "Meditation: A Sonic Circle of Double Piano Resonances", Mr. Smith stays on piano while Mr. DeJohnette moves to Fender Rhodes, creating a meditative koan.  The final cut, "Silence, Quietness and Very Still" is also a keyboard duet–notice how this most gentle of pieces creates a feeling befitting its title. Notice how melodic the interaction is as well.

Photo: Enid Farber
Disk Five is dedicated to the five-part "Paradise: The Gardens and Fountains". Back to just trumpet and drums, the music has a clarity of both sound and vision; how assured and lyrical Mr. Smith sounds while Mr. DeJohnette's feel as if they are reaching out of the speakers and touching one's heart. The intimacy of this music, at times, is breathtaking as if you can hear the two musicians breathing and listening to each other. The final part, subtitled "Pomegranates and Herbal Teas", is a short (2:02) trumpet solo that seemingly ends in the middle of a phrase as if Mr. Smith was assuring the listener his musical journey is not complete.

Photo: Jimmy Katz
Three of the four drummers (all but Bennink) perform "The Patriot Act, Unconstitutional and a Force That Destroys Democracy", a composition whose title sets the stage for the dramatic music.  If music is indeed a "healing force", it also can expose the wounds of a people and a nation grappling with understand the meanings of equality and justice, of fairness, of standing together in the face of storms and tragedies. Each of the three versions is different as befits the drummer; two feature the trumpet and drums starting together while Mr. DeJohnette opens the third version with a long and powerful solo–when the trumpeter enters, the two musicians take off at a furious pace that slows on occasion for the trumpet or the drums to suggest a different direction or to play a solo or insert a new melodic phrase.  At 20:03, the third version is the longest single track on the set but its fire and message is inescapable. 

"The Emerald Duets" is "alive" music at its best, a five-CD collection that will reward the eager listener for years to come. Next to "String Quartets Nos. 1 - 12", these "conversations" are immediately more accessible but no less engrossing.  Both projects contain exciting music, challenging one's expectations at nearly every turn. Both projects contain moments of pure beauty, making time stand still, making one wish for more time to enters these sonic worlds in the midst of the daily hustle. Through his music, Wadada Leo Smith offers visions of a master at work and at play––we are the beneficiaries of his creative benefactions.

For more information, go to  

Hear "The Patriot Act" with Jack DeJohnette:

Monday, June 6, 2022

Piano Music with Deep Memories & Music of the Natural World & Inspired by the Pandemic


Like many musicians from Eastern Bloc countries (in this instance, Ukraine) pianist and composer Vadim Neselovskyi first studied classical music before he and his family moved to Dortmund, Germany.  Yet, the pianist had already been turned on to jazz by sailors visiting his home city of Odesa, a port city on the Black Sea.  In Germany, Neselovskyi continued his classical studies while working as a jazz musician at night.  He moved to the United States to study at the Berklee College of Music where he came into contact with Pat Metheny and Gary Burton. In fact, it was Metheny who produced a promotional recording that featured the pianist alongside bassist Esperanza Spalding and trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah.  Neselovskyi moved on to the Thelonious Monk Institute (now the Herbie Hancock Institute) in Los Angeles, CA, where he played alongside Mr. Hancock as well as Terence Blanchard, Wayne Shorter, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and many others.  He came back to the East Coast to work with his former Professor Gary Burton, appearing on, composing for, and arranging for the vibraphonist band and for recordings.  

His new album, "Odesa: A Musical Walk Through a Legendary City" (Sunnyside Records), is a tribute to the city he was born in.  Recorded before the current invasion, the music is, nevertheless, filled with passion, with emotions such as joy, anger, defiance, good and bad memories both from Neselovskyi's lifetime and before. Not surprisingly, there's a classical feel to much of this music––in interviews, the pianist mentions being inspired by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition", especially in form and focus. Over the course of the 13-song program, this music covers a wide swath of musical territory.  What stories this music tells! Whether it's the "Potemkin Stairs" (photo below) or the blooming "Acacia Trees" or playing the "Waltz of Odesa Conservatory" of the memories of "My First Rock Concert", the passion and emotions stand out.

Start "Odesa" at the beginning and don't stop until the final notes of "The Renaissance of Odesa" fade away. Listen in the morning at dawn and, with the birds singing, you could be sitting on those stairs. Vadim Neselovskyi has created a masterpiece and it's not just because of the current war raging in his homeland. In fact, the bulk of the album was recorded in
August of 2020 and finished a year later. While some of the music is elegiac, there are pieces that explode out of the speakers, songs that rock, roar, and dance.  "Odesa" is both a celebration of a great city but also the story of Vadim Neselovskyi as he is finding his place in the world. Brilliant music and performance like this should not, must not, be missed.

For more information, go to To purchase the album, go to

Hear "Potemkin Stairs":

While studying and living in New York City, German-born pianist/ composer Florian Hoefner had become a busy composer and bandleader.  But, his wife got a tenure-track position at a university in Newfoundland and he willingly followed. Eventually, Hoefner also was offered a teaching position and they settled into their new home.  The pianist still manages to maintain his Quartet (three albums on Origin Records) and ties with Subtone, a quintet he co-founded while living in Germany; but since moving up North, he organized a trio with two well-established Canadian musicians, bassist Andrew Downing and drummer Nick Fraser.  Hoefner made the time to study the rich world of Canadian folk and maritime music to fit into his surroundings as well as to make new musical connections.

The Canadian trio issued its debut album "First Spring" (Alma Records) in 2019.  The pianist's immersion into the folk music of his new community was evident on several tracks––even more evident was how comfortable the trio delving into Hoefner's music and arrangements.  The pandemic began in earnest after the trio finished its first full-length tour. The three musicians retreated to their "safe homes" and the lockdown gave the pianist time at home with his young family and more time to read, to listen, and practice.  The results of his pandemic hiatus can be heard throughout the Trio's second Alma release "Desert Bloom".  Named for the rare occurrence when a desert area gets a lot of rain and the vegetation, which has lain dormant for many years, erupts in all its beauty (see photo below). That's how the pianist felt during COVID with his ensemble projects on hold and teaching relegated to ZOOM.  He returned to composing with renewed energy especially after he watched a television program about desert bloom. His thoughts turn to re-creation, reemergence, and new life.

Photo: Martin Bernetti
Atacama desert, Chile
The album opens quietly with "Between The Lines"––Downing plays the opening verse supported by the ostinato piano and the swirling cymbals. Hoefner takes the first solo, his bluesy yet expansive lines rising over the powerful bass counterpoint and the driving drums. The title track opens with bowed bass and soft cymbal taps as the leader introduces the theme. Downing's arco solo is richly melodic (his lower notes pull at the heart).  When he's done, the pianist the piece into gear, playing a repetitive figure with with the pizzicato bass.  The music is filled with interplay, with melodic and rhythmic invention, it pulls the listener in.

Two songs speak to the pandemic experience.  The rubato opening of "The Day Everything Stopped" imitates the stasis one felt as the world closed down; that leads to a powerful ballad noted for the splendid ensemble work, a probing bass solo, and the thunderous (even angry) drum spotlight. The piece ends with a return to the main melody which now sounds contemplative. "The End Of the Tunnel" follows––not surprising, the piece has a sense of urgency, of the joy of the possibility of normalcy. There are moments during Downing's solo when the music becomes pensive but that does not last long thanks to the power in Fraser's drumming and the energetic piano.  

"Desert Bloom" is often bright, sometimes shy to open up but ultimately a delightful way to spend 65 minutes. The music opens even further as one listens again and again; concentrate on each instrument and then listen again to the collective. There has been a large amount of excellent piano trio music released in the first six months of 2022 and much more to come.  This album by the Florian Hoefner Trio is certainly one of the best of this or any year!

For more information, go to
Here's "Shelter":

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

What I'm Listening To (2)

 I continue my journey through the new releases of 2022.

Guitarist and composer Gilad Hekselman started work on his new recording (his debut on Edition Records) just as the world was shutting down in March 2020.  Slowly but surely, the guitarist learned the process of "self-recording" as well as "distance" recording, building the songs layer by layer.  He moved back to New York City in December 2020 and continued the process for another six months.  The results can be heard on "Far Star"––you can't help but notice that the results are more joyful than introspective, the songs steeped in melody and rhythmic excitement.

The eight-song program opens with "Long Way From Home"; introduced by Hekselman whistling the melody, special guest Eric Harland jumps right in and the song takes off. The leader overdubs keys and bass but the focal point is the interaction between the guitar and drums.  The drummer appears on four other tracks including the hard-edged "Magic Chord" (which you can hear below) and "Fast Moving Century", a romp that features the keyboard work of Shai Maestro as well as a fiery guitar solo from Hekselman.  The title track is a sensitive ballad/ playful romp featuring the violin and viola work of Nathan Schram plus the fine rhythm section play of Oren Hardy (bass) and fellow Israeli Alon Benjamini on drums and percussion.  "The Headrocker" is actually a funky ditty enlivened by a hummable (or whistle-able) melody and the bright keyboard work of Nomok and percussionist Amir Bresler (two more Israeli-born artists).

The album closes with the guitar-drums duo (with overdubs)––this time, Hekselman shares the studio with Ziv Ravitz.  While the guitarist sticks to his more melodic side, Ravitz dances and cavorts, every once in a while returning to a more straight-forward role. Instead of bringing the program full-circle, the track continues the guitarist's search for new ways to connect traditional melody with different rhythms.

Now 10 albums as a leader into his career, Gilad Hekselman has continued to mature as a composer and musician. "Far Star" has much to offer the curious listener. 

For more information, go to  To hear more and to buy the album, go to  to

Hear "Magic Chord" featuring Eric Harland:

Photo: Lauren Desberg
The trio of Jeremy Siskind (piano, compositions), Nancy Harms (vocals), and Lucas Pino (tenor saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet) came together a decade ago as the Housewarming Project. The ensemble's goal was to introduce "accessible art music to audiences through in-home concerts" (from and they succeeded playing over 150 concerts and an on-line series of YouTube videos before the pandemic shut them down.  Yet, the cessation of concerts plus a 2020 New Jazz Works grant from Chamber Music America gave Siskind the opportunity to create an original program for the ensemble.

"Songs of Rebirth" (Outside In Music) is credited to Mr. Siskind with Ms. Harms and Mr. Pino; not the Housewarming Project because the two-CD, 22-song program was created and recorded during the Lockdown. Separated into two thematically-linked groups of tunes, Disk 1 is subtitled "True Believers" because the majority of the 12 pieces talks about positive changes created by the forced slowdown. Disk 2, or "Cynics and Snags", is comprised of "darker" tunes. Still, Siskin "dots" the program with five takes of "Quarantine" open with the line "I break/broke quarantine for you, my dear/sweet/love"––no version is over 1:13 and each has a different arrangement.  The last two have quite dark lyrics but subtle yet humorous musical backgrounds ("#3" is my favorite due to the delightful arrangement for three clarinets.  

Ms. Harms' vocal stand out. "Long Beach, In Fog" (on disk 2) is a stunning take on a love song while the swinging "New York City" has the feel of a Broadway shop-stopper.  Pay attention to how Pino plays throughout the album, how he'll shadow the vocal line or the pianist's left hand, how his range on bass clarinet allows him to set the pace or solo with abandon.  There's a chamber music feel to "Normal"; at times, the trio play together, at others, the piano and bass clarinet both play counterpoint (first few times through, the song was reminiscent of a Stephen Sondheim piece although there's also a touch of JS Bach there as well). 

While "Normal" closes Disk One, Two closes with two splendid pieces.  First is the ruminative "Forgiveness", an elegy for lost love while "Another Birthday" is a melodic rant against about getting old. Yet dig the delightful solos from piano and clarinet and the playful vocal.  Over all, "Songs of Rebirth" is an impressive program not for the trio's technical prowess but for how they present each song, each one a story, each one told with wit, with emotion and intelligence.  Don't shy away because there are "art songs"––embrace the musical adventure.  Kudos to Jeremy Siskind, Nancy Harms, and Lucas Pino for stoking the fires of imagination!

For more information, go to To hear more and to purchase the two-CD or digital set, go to

Hear "Drinking Song":