Vocalist and composer Gretchen Parlato first met guitarist and composer Lionel Loueke in 2001 while both were studying at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in Los Angeles, CA (renamed for Herbie Hancock in 2019). Both moved to New York City several years later, both were signed to ObliqSounds Records with Loueke playing on Ms. Parlato's first two albums––she returned the favor by singing on his 2006 "Virgin Forest" recording (his debut, "In a Trance", was self-released in 2005). She also sings on Loueke's 2012 Blue Note album "Heritage". When the COVID pandemic reared its ugly heads, the two artists began trading ideas, song fragments, and more from their home studios (Ms. Parlato lives in Los Angeles with her husband, drummer Mark Guiliana, and their son Marley while Loueke and his family live in Luxembourg.). They convened in LA in March of 2022 and, over three days, produced their first full album as a duo.
The results can be heard on "Lean In" (Edition Records), an intimate yet rhythmic journey that captures both the fears of the shutdown and the liberating power of music. From the opening seconds of Loueke's "Akwê" (first recorded by the guitarist in 2005 with the cooperative trio Gilfema), it's a bouncy piece with rapid-fire vocal breaks, the guitarist's crisp acoustic guitar work and mouth clicks, and a distinct connection to the music of West Africa. That's followed by Ms. Parlato's lovely rearrangement of "I Miss You", a Top 10 tune by Klymaxx from 1984. Later in the program, Ms. Parlato returns to one of the first Brazilian songs she ever learned, "Astronauta"––composed by Carlos Pingarilho and Marcos Vasconcellos, the gentle samba was first recorded by Os Cariocas in 1966. The duo give the piece a lovely, Joāo Gilberto feel with just voice, acoustic guitar, and overdubbed electric guitar.
Photo: Lauren Desberg
"Nonvignon", a Loueke original that both artists recorded for their 2005 debuts, is reprised here. The title translates to "good brother" and the duo have so much with the rhythm of the piece which can here in both vocals, the handclaps, and the sweet sounds of the guitars. The music reminds this listener of Paul Simon's "Spirit Voices" from his 1990 album "The Rhythm of the Saints". That's Mr. Simon's "Brazilian" album and one can hear the influence of the Black slaves who were transported to South America, who brought their customs, foods, music, and more. Listen below!
There are three short pieces included in the 12-song program. "Okagbé", the first one, features voices, guitar, balafon, and kalimba while "Mi Wa Se" features Marley Guiliana on vocals plus his dad on percussion, bassist Burniss Travis, and the guitarist who adds a quick vocal in the final 10 seconds of the piece that only lasts 58 seconds. The final piece, "Dow Wé Interlude", has both vocalists repeating a short phrase while Loueke jams with Travis and Guiliana on drums this time. That short tune leads into the album's final track, "Walking After You". Composed by Dave Grohl for Foo Fighters' "The Colour and The Shape" (issued in 1997), the piece is a lovely ballad. Ms. Parlato and Loueke speed up the song a bit yet the intimacy of the lyrics are not compromised. With several layers of guitars, hand-held percussion (Mark Guiliana's drums enter close to the fade), and gentle background vocals (including Marley also joining in the last minute), the song is a reminder of our need for community as well as music in dark times.
"Lean In" is a gem of an album, music to listen as you walk on the beach or through the woods, when you are sitting on your porch or lying in bed at night with windows open. Besides the excellent musicianship on and the superb sounds of this recording, I am impressed how Gretchen Parlato and Lionel Loueke combine their voices when they sing in unison and when they weave counterpoint beneath the lead. They'll be touring the US and Canada this Summer and have already scheduled a tour for the Fall. Go see and hear them! Buy this record!
I've been aware of saxophonist and composer Michael Blake since the mid-1990s when, along with bassist Ben Allison, pianist Frank Kimbrough, saxophonist Ted Nash, and trumpeter Ron Horton, he co-founded the Jazz Composers Collective. During that time, Blake was also a member of the Lounge Lizards and, by the end of the decade, co-founded Slow Poke with guitarist Dave Tronzo. Since then, he has worked with artists as diverse as Neil Sedaka, trumpeter Enrico Rava, guitarist Charlie Hunter, pianist Henry Butler, trumpeter Steven Bernstein, and many others. Along the way, he's recorded 14 albums for labels such Songlines, Sunnyside, Ropeadope, Newvelle Records (see below), and others.
Album number 15 "Dance of the Mystic Bliss" (P&M Records) is a fascinating program for the get-go. After Blake's Mother passed in 2018, the saxophonist felt no desire to write or even play. When the pandemic closed down the world, he felt his lethargy lift and began writing inspired by his mother's joy for living (she was a dancer and teacher). Blake built a unique ensemble for this project; four string instruments (violin, cello, electric guitar, and acoustic bass), two percussionists (drums, cymbals, shakers, marimba, etc.), and his expanded reed arsenal (soprano and tenor saxes plus flute and alto flute). The percussionists (Mauro Refosco and Rogerio Boccato) were tasked with creating the rhythm arrangements). Violinist Skye Steele (who has worked with artists such as Anthony Braxton, Willie Nelson, Deer Tick) suggested cellist Christopher Hoffman (Henry Threadgill, Anat Cohen, Anna Webber) while the leader brought in guitarist Guilherme Monteiro (Kenny Werner, Kurt Elling, Lila Downs) and bassist Michael Bates (Ben Monder, Donny McCaslin). Blake also brought 10 pieces, most new and the others rearranged for this ensemble (dubbed Chroma Nova).
What the interested listener gets is a playful yet melodic blend of "world" sounds (especially West African and Brazilian) with improvisation and more than a touch of blues. The album opener, "Merle the Pearl", is inspired by and dedicated to Blake's mother. Each time the song plays, I hear the influence of Arthur Blythe's "Down San Diego Way" in the mix of percussion, rhythm-inspired melody line, and how the saxophonist soars gleefully over the ensemble. Later in the program, "Sagra" takes a similar approach but Steele's "hoe-down" fiddle adds a new dimension. Blake builds his tenor solo off of Steele's riffs, digging into the percussive groove.
In conversation, Blake told me that, for this album, he started playing flute (he had been so blown away by the flute work of the late Thomas Chapin that he did not pick up the instrument for over a decade. One hears the flute in the intro of "Prune Pluck Pangloss" but the leader returns to tenor for a powerful solo. "The Meadows" also commences with a flute melody––this time, the leader creates a fine solo, first over the shimmering strings and coming to its close over the bass and rhythm section. After an excellent spot for Monteiro, Blake's flute takes flight, swirling, soaring, and fluttering while Refosco and Boccato create a rhythmic playground of sounds.
Besides the splendid percussion and delightful flute playing, the use of Steele and Hoffman's strings stand out. Not only is the former an impressive violinist but also his "exotic" instruments (the one-stringed gonji and the three-stringed rabeka or rebec) add so many different colors. Hoffman's cello and his deep resplendent sound gives the music a counter-weight to Blake's soprano sax as well as a counterpoint to Bate's foundational bass lines. Listen below to "Le Coeur du Jardin (The Heart of the Garden)" for its beauty and mystery and the excellent cello solo (which, as it moves along, breaks into two celli).
Whether it's insistent funk of "Little Demons" or the mysterious jungle of "Weeds", "Dance of the Mystic Bliss" satisfies on so many levels. The wit, the immediacy of the sound, the thoughtful solos, all that and more makes this album one to explore time and time again––just might want to get up and dance, who knows?
Listen to "Le Coeur du Jardin (The Heart of the Garden)":
In the Fall of 2022, Newvelle Records inaugurated its "Renewal Series" with albums by label co-owner and pianist Evan Mehler, Dave Liebman, Nadje Noordhuis, and Michael Blake. For "Combobulate", Blake (tenor and soprano saxes, flute) assembled a brass quartet composed of trumpet (Steven Bernstein), trombone (Clark Gayton), and two master tuba players (Bob Stewart and Marcus Rojas) to which he added drummer Allan Mednard. The music lives up to the series name as it renews the listener's faith in the power of music to give hope in dark times. The album opens with "Henry's Boogaloo" that rides in on the New Orleans "beat" and the bouncing tuba lines. Bernstein comes in with a riff playing off the rhythm and then Blake introduces the melody. The saxophonist solos over the tuba counterpoint and Mednard's "kicking" drums. Check out the fun on "Bills in the Bell", how Rojas (walking bass lines, no less) and Mednard push the piece, how Stewart's voice shows up in the background "horn arrangement", the rollicking solo from Bernstein, the drum solo with Rojas bobbing and weaving which leads the band into a slower yet no less funky beat while the flute joins the brass. Feeling blue, Buddy––turn up the volume and rock the house!
Watch and listen below to "Malagasy". Notice the smiles on Mednard's face as he kicks the band forward, note the concentration on Rojas's face, and how everyone's voice is part of the joyous African rhythm and melody. Love how trombonist Gayton dances in his chair while soloing. Pay attention to how the voices of the ensemble mesh throughout the piece
There are slower moments including the gospel-like tones and feeling of "Cuyahoga Valley" (such gorgeous low notes) as well as the plaintive "Bob The Bob". The emotional melody line that Blake plays gets a rich tuba counterpoint ––it's arguably the most soulful tune in the program. One of the two bonus pieces on the digital download, "Anthem for No Country", features album co-producer Elan Mehler on piano––there is a hint of Abdullah Ibrahim in the melody (the song first appeared on Blake's 2001 "Elevated" album) and a feel of South African Township music (on both versions actually).
"Combobulate" comes to a close with "The Parting Glass", a traditional song attributed to Scottish poet Robert Burns. There are dozens of versions, mostly vocal, of the song to be found online, and one can hear hints of Burns' "Auld Lang Syne" in the melody. The ensemble plays it straight, sans drums for the first half––when Mednard enters, his steady beat under the long tones of the horns which support Bernstein and Blake as they weave lines around each other, gives the music a touch of a 1960s "soul" ballad. However you decide what the song sounds like is fine, the piece is a gentle coda to an impressive collection of songs.
Michael Blake has proven time and again over his career how big his ears are, how open to the musics of different traditions he can be, and how his musical voices can elicit many different emotions in the course of a performance or recording. "Combobulate" certainly is music for a "renewal" of the spirit and the soul. Highly recommended!!
Brazilian native (Sao Paulo), saxophonist, composer, and arranger Felipe Salles came to the United States in 1995. Since then, he has worked with and led several different-sized ensembles and has taught at the University of Massachusetts/ Amherst for 13 years. As a composer, he's been quite interested in the Immigrant experience in the United States––in 2020, Tapestry Records issued "The New Immigrant Experience", his second album with his large band, the Interconnections Ensemble (their 2018 release, "The Lullabye Project", was based around tunes from the composer's Brazilian upbringing). The "...Immigrant Experience" is a multi-media project that combines Salles's powerful compositions with interviews featuring immigrants to the US as part of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). The stories within the music are heart-breaking, emotional, stunning, and question the attitudes of politicians around the country who hold the future of these people hostage.
The 19-member Ensemble's latest project is "Home is Here" (Tapestry Records) and finds Salles writing intricate and vibrant pieces for eight guest artists, all of whom left their countries of origin to pursue their artistic dreams in the US. The album opens with "Re-Invention", a vehicle for Paquito D'Rivera, the oldest guest in the project who, arguably, had the hardest journey to citizenship. Listen below to how Salles blends Cuban rhythms into the body of the piece plus uses the ensemble to paint an evocative portrait. Rivera's joyous clarinet solo (like most if not all of his solos) dances with glee through the musical landscape. "World Citizen" finds Terry, the other Cuban ex-pat, in a less formal setting, one in which the drums and percussion push the proceedings forward. The sensuous feel gives the soloists (bass trombonist Angel Subero and alto saxophonist Terry) just the right cushion (the setting for the sax solo has more fire but is positively effective).
The two tracks with vocals are quite different. Ms. Rei's moves easily through "Meridian 63", the mid-tempo "bouncing rhythm" supporting her voice as do the brass on the verse. Jonathan Ball's rollicking soprano sax gives the vocalist to scat along with the reeds and brass. Quiet flutes lead the group in on "Two Worlds Together", a "dark" ballad featuring Ms. Herrera. Note how Salles uses the sections to provide a gentle response to the huskiness of the wordless vocal. However, the emotion displayed by Ms. Herrera gives Tyler Burchfield's bass clarinet solo its focal point while freeing up the vibraphone playing of Luke Glavanovits.
"Home is Here" comes to a close with "Storytelling". After a quiet opening, the rhythm section propels the piece forward with tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana leading the ensemble through the theme. At the close of guitaristKevin Grudeki's solo, the ensemble drops out and Ms. Aldana steps out for a short, lovely, solo. She then leads the band back in to support her soaring and exuberant solo. The full-throated music reminds the listener that many musicians from other parts of the world, including Felipe Salles, have made their mark in this "Promised Land" thankful for the artistic freedom that the United States provides, finding their voice in the Creative Music. We listeners are thankful for the many sounds these artists have brought to our lives.
Hard to believe that it's been five years since Rudy Royston debuted his Flatbed Buggy quintet, the ensemble that includes John Ellis (bass clarinet), Gary Versace (accordion), Hank Roberts (cello), and Joe Martin (acoustic bass). The group's self-titled debut (issued by Greenleaf Music) certainly surprised a majority of the drummer/composer's fanbase in that the contents were far more than a "blowing session"; instead one heard a series of song stories that reflected Royston's upbringing in Texas and the images that invoked in his mind. The music felt more "Americana", in line with the music that the drummer was playing in Bill Frisell's ensemble.
"Day" (Greenleaf Music) reunites the band post-Pandemic. The 10-song program (eight by Royston with one each from Martin and Roberts) finds an ensemble comfortable in taking chances, pushing at the edges of composition to create not only delightful interplay but also strong solos. We move through the "Day" starting with "Morning", a melody that stretches out played over time by each musician. When Ellis lays down a rhythmical bass clarinet line that the other members of the band add their voices to, one gets the sense the group is "riffing" on Aaron Copland––Roberts' fine solo takes its cue from the bass clarinet line before Versace pushes the forward in a dialogue with Ellis. All the while, the rhythm section dances with abandon. "Thank You For This Day" opens with the cello melody that turns into rhythmical strumming over Martin's pulsating bass and the dancing high hat. Then, listen as the melody and solos unfold off the rollicking opening.
This album finds the quintet in more of a "barn dance" mode much of the time. "Five-Thirty Strut" kicks off with a melodic drum solo but then gets down and funky. Notice how Martin and Roberts lock into the groove (listen below and try to sit still) then get "jazzy" beneath Ellis's solo. Kudos to sound engineer and mixer for the clarity of the sound throughout the album. "Keep It Moving" is still funky but slinkier as well, the well-drawn melody moving atop a delicious "walking bass" line. Then, the cello play in unison for a while before a quick stop and into Martin's fine bass solo (hints of Charles Mingus's "Haitian Fight Song" in there).
Photo: R Royston
The album closes with Royston's short prayer-ballad "Time to Sleep" before moving into Robert's "A.M. Hours", a playful creep down the stairs for a late-night snack. The tip-toe quality of the melody is echoed in the cello and bass lines while the accordion watches from the top of the stairs with the bass clarinet looking over its shoulder. The drummer and his trap set sit this tune out, perhaps sleeping while the spirits play.
No matter what, "Day" is a splendid album, music for a breezy day, for a Summer night, sounds that caress and play with the listener like a good friend. Rudy Royston continues to grow as an artist, facilitator, arranger, and composer: Flatbed Buggy now seems to be his central mode of musical transportation and you should climb aboard!