Monday, March 27, 2017

The Kevin Bales Quartet Steams up the Mason Tavern

Pianist Kevin Bales

This past Saturday the quartet of the fine pianist Kevin Bales entertained the patrons of the Mason Tavern in North Decatur. The Tavern has been revitalized with the addition of partner Sam Yi, of Churchill Grounds fame, and his inclusion of Thursday night jazz sessions since December 8, 2016. The formula has worked so well that Sam recently expanded the music to include Saturday night shows.

Yi has been a fixture on the Atlanta jazz scene as the proprietor of the venerable jazz club “Churchill Grounds.”  The club was forced to close last July after a twenty-year run.  In search of an alternate venue, Sam was able to institute pop-up jazz events at the Mason Tavern, a local North Decatur eatery on Clairmont Road, and to date some extraordinary jazz has been played at this welcoming venue.
The venue has featured a stable of local and nationally recognized talent with names like Louis Heriveaux, Russell Gunn, Dave Potter, Craig Shaw, Darren English, Terrence and Deshawn Harper, Marlon Patton, Gary Motley and Chris Burroughs appearing on multiple occasions.  It has also seen the likes of Jason Marsalis, Carl Allen, Rodney Witaker, Theodross Avery and Russell Malone all sitting-in at the Tavern.
Kevin Bales and Sam Yi at Mason Tavern
On this evening, the renowned pianist Kevin Bales brought together a cooking ensemble, with Kevin Smith on upright bass, Robert Boone on drums and E.J. Hughes on saxophones. Bales is one of the Southwest’s busiest on-call jazz keyboard artists. A graduate from the University of North Florida music program, he has toured and recorded with iconic saxophonist Bunky Green, guitarist Nathen Page, trumpeter Marcus Printip, and Grammy nominated vocalist Rene Marie to name a few. His journeyman work as a sideman always adds a touch of inventiveness and energy to any artist he supports. He is a busy educator who offers individual and group lessons through his music company, Kevin Bales Music.

Robert Boone, dr; EJ Hughes,saxs; Kevin Smith, b; Kevin Bales, keys
After a brief introduction by Mr. Yi, the evening started out with Bales and company playing an Ellis Marsalis composition that I was unfamiliar with,” Swingin’ at the Haven.” The group took this easy swinger immediately into high gear with Bales pushing the pace and Boone and Smith responding in kind. E.J. Hughes played a sedate but tasteful soprano saxophone solo. The animated pianist soloed on his electronic keyboard with abandon.  He bounced on his small stool , jostling his keyboard with a joyous elan that shook the stand to the point of precariousness. His fleet right hand blurred the separation between notes with speed and agility.

The set continued with the classic “Time After Time,” a song originally penned for the film It happened in Brooklyn. Hughes on tenor this time using a vibrato-less, soulful tone that had no pretense or flash. Bassist Smith produced nice, plump walking bass notes over which Bales played a particularly bluesy piano solo.

The quartet proceeded with the traditional New Orleans standard “House of the Rising Sun,’ popularized by Eric Burden and the Animals in 1964. Under Bales direction the group took a deep, down and dirty approach to this blues classic. Bassist Smith showed off his arco abilities by bowing a soulful passage. Saxophonist Hughes also elicited some mournful notes on his sparse tenor. Drummer Boone tastefully kept the pace as Bales, a master of dynamics,  led his group up through a crescendo of tension ultimately easing the music back down to a skillful release.

“If I Were a Bell,” a song penned for the 1955 musical Guys and Dolls and made famous by Miles Davis rendition on his 1956 album Relaxin” with the Miles Davis Quintet, was next on the playlist.  The group played this with tremendously intuitive interplay, Boone being especially attentive to Bales musical suggestions along the way. Smith knowing precisely where to place purposeful bass line for maximum effect. This was surprising as Bales admitted to having not discussed the playlist with his rhythm section prior to the gig.

The group ended the first set with the title track from the 1990 Spike Lee movie of the same name “Mo Better Blues.” Bales switched the tone of his electronic keyboard to sound like an organ. The tone was perfect for the gospel inspired composition that had the band cooking, with Bales directing the up and down of the pace at will. Bales is an incredibly facile player who seems to have an inner wellspring from which percolates creativity and expansion in his playing. His ebullient personae is infectious spurring on his bandmates and assuring his audiences a night of musical adventure and steamy delight.

You can listen here:

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A Night of High Art : Atlanta's High Museum "Jazz on Fridays" : The Dave Potter Quintet

  Miguel Alvarado sax, Darren English trpt, Louis Heriveaux Keys, Craig Shaw bass, Dave Potter Drums.
Last Friday night, as part of the “Jazz on Fridays” series at Atlanta’s High Museum, patrons of the museum were treated to some of Atlanta’s finest jazz musicians as they performed standards from the American songbook and some original music.  The featured group was The Dave Potter Quintet with Louis Heriveaux on keyboard, Craig “Shawbox” Shaw on upright bass, Darren English on trumpet, Miguel Alvarado on saxophones, and drummer/ leader Dave Potter.

Potter is an Atlanta based drummer who studied music at Florida State University under the mentorship of the pianist Marcus Roberts. He received his master’s degree from FSU in 2008. Besides sharing the stage with pianist Roberts, trumpeter Marcus Printup and others he has been an integral part of Jason Marsalis’s Vibe Quartet and recorded with the vibraphone artist on several albums including his latest, highly received The Twenty-First Century Trad Band.

On this early evening, there was a line of people anxiously awaiting the opening of the atrium where Potter and company would perform. The atrium area at the High Museum is a soaring, light filled expanse that is surrounded by an exposed stairwell that coils its way to the upper floors of the museum and offers a view of the City. The architectural firm of Richard Mier and Partners consciously designed the High museum with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim in mind. The glass exterior wall floods the area with natural light, which in the designer’s plan is a symbol of the enlightenment an institution of art and culture brings to its community and to all who enter the museum’s doors.
The Light Filled Atrium at the High Museum 
There were by some counts upwards of one thousand patrons enjoying the music. Some were seated, some stood, others milled around the atrium enjoying the diverse, cosmopolitan community that is Atlanta in all its splendor, while being thoroughly entertained by these top-notch musicians. For the uninitiated, it was a time of discovery as most of these musicians are all based in Atlanta and can be seen fairly regularly in local venues as well as with nationally touring acts.  Lest anyone fear they have to go to New York or New Orleans to see great jazz, these gentlemen shot an arrow into that balloon of nonsense.

After a brief introduction by WCLK Jazztones DJ Jay Edwards, the group started the set off with a quick paced, hard bop blues composed by the trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. Mr. Potter resplendent in his white suit with dark shirt and light tie leading the way. Mr. English and Mr. Alvarado charging into the melody in synchronous precision. They moved into the Jimmy Van Heusen/Johnny Mercer standard “I Thought About You” followed by another Van Heusen song “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” where Heriveaux enchanted the crowd with his marvelous keyboard work. If there is one criticism I can levy it is the disappointing lack of a real grand piano in this space. For such a marvelous musician as Mr. Heriveaux not to have a suitable piano here is a crime.

The band followed with the contemporary sound of Wayne Shorter’s “Night Dreamer.” After a spell I took off my journalist’s hat and just listened to and enjoyed the music, paying less attention to what songs they were playing and more into how well they were being played. The front line of trumpeter Darren English and saxophonist Miguel Alvarado was sensational. They often stated the melody line in crisp unified form before each taking robust and creative solos. The rhythm section, driven by Potter and anchored by Shaw and Heriveaux was superb. The pace of the music was often double time, with the rhythm section driving the two horn soloists to step up their game not to be left behind
This was my first exposure to the saxophonist Miguel Alvarado who now hails from Nashville, Tennessee and what a pleasant surprise he was. His tenor had a rich, deep tone reminiscent of sax legend Houston Person, but when the pace was pushed by Potter and company he became an incendiary soloist of the highest order. The young South African, now native Atlanta trumpeter Darren English did an admirable job trading solos with Alvarado. English used mutes effectively to change up the sound of his open bell  trumpet and intensify the exchange with Alvarado. Not enough can be said about the stabilizing influence of “Shawbox” Shaw’s bass who kept an unerring pulse to the often-frantic proceedings and offered some nice solo work of his own invention.

The second set was more exploratory in that it offered some original tunes by Potter’s mentor Marcus Roberts, a Thelonious Monk composition and a rendition of “The Nearness of You” that had Alvarado ‘s tenor sounding very Dexter Gordonish. The group also did a Potter original “The Ratio Man” with Alvarado picking up the soprano saxophone for this one.  “Letting Loose” was an off to the races sprint that had Potter pushing the tempo with Elvin Jones like flourishes.

While I did not stay for the third set, the atrium was still SRO by the end of the second set. It is clear that Atlanta’s sophisticated listeners appreciate a good time and good music and will support highly cultural experiences like “Jazz on Fridays.” My only wish is that the crowd be a little quieter in respect to the musicians. The din was some times distracting. The High Museum, in association with WCLK, should be proud for presenting such a community service that obviously fills a need and at the same time preserves our only truly all American art form.To paraphrase a famous saying from an endearing baseball movie “If you present it , they will come.”

A view from above The Dave Potter Quartet

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Unified Vision: The Music of "Tetraptych"

Tetraptych: Max Ridley b, Hery Paz  ts, Bert Seager p, Dor Herskovits dr
The definition of the word Tetraptych ( Tet-trup-tick) is a picture made up of four parts or four panels. Each panel can stand on its own as a complete picture, but together the four make for a more expansive and unified theme. Now it can also be defined as a talented group of four musicians, each capable of their own voice, who together have create a unified musical vision that is much bigger than any could produce individually.

The musicians that make up Tetrapytch are pianist Bert Seager, Hery Paz on tenor saxophone; Max Ridley on upright bass and Dor Herskovits on drums. The songs, on this self-titled album, are all by Seager, with the exception of the free spirited “Equanimous Bosch” which was a group collaboration. Bert Seager has been a leading player around Boston as has bassist Max Ridley. Hery Paz is Cuban born and NYC based and Dor Herskovits is Israeli born and raised. The group has strong ties to the New England Conservatory of Music and their faculty.

From the opening syncopation of Herskovits drums on “Welcoming the Water,” to the conversational quality of Paz’s tenor and Ridley’s bass, you can tell this is a working band following their own path. Composer’s Seager’s stacatto piano, in tandem with Paz’s tenor, establish the traces of a melodic line; an intriguing repeating cadence that has a rumbling, modernistic AfroCuban pulse, with Ridley in intuitive counterpoint. The quartet smoothly transitions into a progressive hard bop section where Paz’s precise, Bergonzi-like intonation and Seager’s deft lyricism are on display. A Herskovits drum solo-featured at about the eight-minute mark- is like a jeweled centerpiece to this intriguing collaboration. The song closes stirringly with the group rejoining in a grand restatement of the theme in a unified musical vision.

Seamlessly Seager’s solo piano introduces Paz’s eerie, vocal tenor sounds that opens the start of “Last Snow”.  This operatic piece features Ridley’s arco-bass under Seager’s classical sounding piano and Herskovits shimmering cymbal work. It is Paz’s fierce and pleading tenor that takes the lead role, bellowing like Pavarotti in I Pagliacci, until the finale when his horn barely whispers in his forlorn breath.

The intro to “Star Wise” has a film noir sound accentuated by Paz’s echoed tenor and Seager’s understated piano. The song, based on the jazz standard “Star Eyes,” morphs into a straight swinger with Ridley’s firm, pulsing bass leading the way. Paz’s surprisingly adventurous solo is a model of harmonic invention. Seager’s piano solo is also pushes the boundaries of the song’s melodic structure. Ridley’s quicksilver bass is the glue that holds this one together.

The freely improvised “Equanimous Botch” is a study in how ideas can evolve communally when band members have spent some time together and find they have developed a universal mind. The group interaction is intuitive and crisp.

“Distances” has the deliberate pace of choreography. Perhaps a slow Tango best describes the feel of this musical movement between Seager’s piano and Paz’s tenor. Each one embracing the other’s moves in one sensuous and symbiotic motion. Paz’s voluptuous tenor is a marvel of sensitivity and restraint.

“Blues You Can Use” is a ¾ time swinger, with Herskovits and Ridley providing the unerring groove and Seager deftly comping as an unleashed Paz roars over the changes with a Coltrane-like intensity. Seager’s solo work is accentuated with Tyner-like block chording and fleet right handed invention. Ridley and Herskovits have a spirited exchange before the group returns to the main vamp, ending it all with flurry and punctuation.

This is fresh, inventive music at its finest. Hopefully we will hear more from Seager and Tetrapytch.

Check out "Star Wise" on Soundcloud:

Friday, March 10, 2017

An Interview with Singer José James as he embarks on his tour "Love in a Time of Madness"

Jose James
There is one thing you can count on when the vocalist José James puts out a new album, it will be unlike anything he has done before. The thirty-nine year old singer has been confounding his audience and critics alike with his insistence on not settling on his past musical laurels. He is first and foremost an artist, who primarily wants to push himself and his art into new and sometimes uncomfortable territory. For him these forays into the unknown are stretching exercises, yoga for his creative spirit. The Minneapolis born singer has always felt singing was his calling and he takes his mission very seriously.

Ever since attending the New School of Contemporary Music in NYC in 2008, James has been on a search to expand his musical horizons. He was mentored by the pianist Junior Mance and the drummer/bandleader Chico Hamilton. He claims his jazz influences as John Coltrane and Billie Holiday, but his lineage also includes the music of Marvin Gaye and A Tribe Called Quest, and you can hear the cadence of Gil Scott-Heron and the silky smoothness of Johnny Hartman in his luxurious baritone.

My first exposure to James was at the Carmoor Jazz Festival back in 2010. At that time I was so impressed that I wrote "He is a young artist that needs to be watched." In 2015 I caught James “live” when he came to the Variety theater in Atlanta in support of his Yesterday I Had the Blues, a tribute to Billie Holiday. His stage presence was noticeably more polished and his performance was inspired.

His debut album Dreamer was self-produced and introduced in 2008  to critical acclaim, with James ushering in a new era of jazz vocals that incorporated elements of hip hop into the repertoire. He released Blackmagic, a neo-soul classic that pushed further onto new ground. With little concern about alienating his core audience, James daringly released a sparse duet album of jazz standards with the British pianist Jef Neve, For All We Know. The album received international recognition garnering the Edison Award and L' Accademie du Jazz Grand Prix for best Vocal Jazz Album of 2010. 

In 2012 James was signed to the prestigious Blue Note record label where he released his single “Trouble” and the album No Beginning, No End in 2013 and While You Were Sleeping in 2014. In 2015, in honor of what would have been of Billie Holiday’s One Hundredth birthday, James released the impressive Yesterday I Had the Blues, where the singer skillfully interpreted songs of Lady Day in his own inimitable style. Critics hailed the album and it was named on many best of jazz for 2015 lists including my own.

James most recent album is titled Love in aTime of Madness and once again is a departure from the vocalist’s past outings, taking on a distinctive vibe that explores the soul, R and B, and funk of the late seventies, modernizing it with electronica techniques like trap beat. 

Notes on Jazz spoke to James about his new album and his upcoming tour via telephone on March 8, 2017.

NOJ: You are starting a tour that will kick off in Atlanta, this time at CenterStage, on March 16, 2017. This will be in support of your latest album Love in a Time of Madness. Let’s get started on how this album came about.

JJ: A lot of people will be surprised to know this, but the actual constructive beginning of this album and this process began with the Blue Note catalogue. I was going through a now defunct Spotify app that was amazing. It was all about Blue Note samples. It was this ingenious app that let you hear pretty much every Blue Note sample in the history of the label. It was incredible. I was going through it thinking about, what is some stuff I  haven’t really checked out. I came across all of this great material from the seventies with the Mizzell Brothers producing, Hubert Laws, Donald Byrd and I realized that I knew those albums through hip-hop samples, but I really didn’t actually know the albums. So I spent a lot of time listening to the albums themselves. That actually pointed me in the direction of the kind of funk jams, live your fantasy and all that kind of stuff that you hear on Life in the Time of Madness.

NOJ: You have a tour in support of this album and you starting off that tour right here in Atlanta at Centerstage. Why start in Atlanta?

JJ: Atlanta for me is easily one of the top three places to play in the world. If I had to pick one city in the U.S. to play in the year it would be Atlanta, just on a pure enjoyment level. I find it has the kind of intellectual sophistication and musical appreciation, like New York or LA, but it has that realness of like a Detroit or Chicago. People just really love music. It also has this real spiritual and African American perspective that really puts it in a special place for me all on its own. I love it, I know I have to start strong in Atlanta.

NOJ:  I myself am a transplant to Atlanta from the metro NY area and I was pleased to find a vibrant and strong jazz community that is talented and quite dedicated. Although audience participation in pure jazz is a little weak here.

JJ: I can see that.

NOJ :It is guys like you that I see as a bridge to a wider audience and that is an important aspect to your music and your appeal.

But let’s continue about your new album. The title of your new album Love in a Time of Madness. Is that a conscious derivative of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez book and what is the madness you are referring to?

JJ: For the longest time it was my working title and I wasn’t sure if it was going to be my actual title. It was about two and a half years ago when we started this. We weren’t in the full Trump era yet and all of this extended police brutality against African Americans and people of color hadn’t really hit the point where it is now. I find it almost debilitating. It has been kind of on my mind. Trump had started making remarks about women and I think the concept of trying to find something to hold on to, in a literal time of madness, was really attractive to me and I started to work towards that. 

The madness part started to get totally crazy, it just got totally bananas man. You know the racism, the sexism, the economic instability, the Brexit vote, immigration wow. I just got overwhelmed by the realities of the news every day. So I thought, I don’t know if people want me or need me to put out a political album? It‘s so in your face already. The twenty-four-hour news cycle has been tough for me. So I decided to focus on a solution. For me that’s love. That is trying to connect to someone else, other than yourself. Also there are higher levels of the writing on the album that I hope people pick up on, you know trying to connect to a higher power or a higher source. Also to be honest with yourself. This is an honest album for me, you know it is not all roses and cupcakes.

NOJ: Not at all. I can see the gamut of emotions in this album. You touch on loss, fidelity, infidelity, arrogance, desire, infatuation. I mean it’s all there.

JJ: Yeah.

NOJ: I guess you were trying to convey love and all its messy truths, as an antidote to all the madness around you is that an accurate reading?

"I just got overwhelmed by the realities of the news every day. So I decided to focus on a solution. For me that's love." 

JJ: Absolutely. Really, that is the only solution that I have been able to come up with. The economy is unstable. I perform in like forty countries a year. I have a lot of friends all over. We are all in the same boat. Everyone is just trying to pay the rent and stay focused and have a future. The only constant that I can see that we can draw on is either faith or love. And love is the one thing that sort of crosses not only genres but different religions and faith. Not to get super John Lennon on you, but I think love is the only way forward for all humanity.

NOJ: Love is all there is.

JJ: It’s all there is man. The opposite of love is kind of what we’re up against. Distrust and fear, and that is not just a long-term solution.

NOJ:  You have always seem to push yourself musically. a commendable trait. You have always blurred genres and challenged yourself to be true to the music as you saw it at any given time. What was challenging to you about the music in this new album?

JJ: The challenging thing was twofold. First getting out of the way. I have always been such a control freak over my career. I have produced or written most of my albums that were not standards. This was really one of the first times when I said, I just want to be a singer. I want to write a little bit. I want to write as much as I want to and I want to focus on really expanding my voice. I started taking voice lessons again for the first time in twenty years. I started pushing myself the way like an Olympic athlete would push themselves, really specific stuff. The other thing was I had to change the way that I sang completely. I don’t mean technically, but stylistically. In jazz you are way more behind the beat, you have a wide vibrato. There is a wide sense of pitch sometimes, like you slide into notes differently. R andB there is no vibrato, it’s on, it’s a straight eighth note. So I really had to work hard, changing up my style because what I didn’t want it to sound like was someone who came from jazz singing R & B. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but I wanted it to be very serious, contemporary R & B. It took a minute to switch over. I had been singing Billie Holiday for a solid year.

NOJ: You have an extraordinary instrument, why change your style so dramatically, embellish the music with so many electronics and effects that it subjugates that instrument to a less prominent role?

JJ: This is the kind of way I want to sing right now. If you look at it in terms of like a writer. If you write a certain kind of fiction, maybe you want to try writing a crime novel. For me its more about trying to expand my craft. It was really the Billie Holiday album; that album, that material, that trio- for me I kind of like I of hit my zenith in jazz right now. I can’t imagine surpassing that album artistically and frankly I am not satisfied with anything less than excellence. So I said ok, what else do I want to do, what is it that I have not done.

NOJ: You were once quoted as saying no other music is as satisfying as jazz. You went to the New School and studied with Junior (Mance) and you studied with Chico (Hamilton). Do you still feel that way about jazz or has it changed?

JJ: I don’t think it has changed per se. I just think change is good. I don’t want to say I will never sing jazz again. The irony of all this is that Fifty Shades Darker the soundtrack is out now and its number one on Bill Board and I am singing “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “You Can’t Take That Away From Me.” So there you go.

NOJ: Yeah, I get it. When you become too enamored with something you stop growing. It’s like when Miles was asked why he stopped playing ballads he answered “because I like them too much.”

JJ: Absolutely.

NOJ: Most singers gravitate toward a good melody and good lyrics. You once said for you music is about the rhythm. Can you expound on that?

JJ: Well, I believe I read Charlie Parker talking about this somewhere. The rhythm is what advances first. If you’re talking about jazz music, you’re talking about Black music your talking about African music or African-American music, then the rhythm has always been the catalyst that really changes everything. So like, swing was this new beat that everyone jumped on and it had endless variations. That evolved into a lot of things, the backbeat, rhythm and blues, and all this other stuff. To me I always get excited by the beat, you know the rhythm. When I was in London, I fell in love with dubstep, drum and bass, broken beat and right now, what is exciting to me, is what we call trap beat, because it’s the newest beat for me since J. Dilla behind the beat hip-hop. Definitely it’s a growing thing. I see Glasper is experimenting with it. Definitely Christian Scott is working it out with Justin Brown and his band. Its interesting for me as a musician to take the parts of popular music and popular culture and put my own thing on top of it. Which is what we did on “Let if Fall” or Last Night.”

"...rhythm has always been the catalyst that really changes everything."

NOJ: Is there any song that you are closest to or particularly fond of on this album ?

JJ: As a performer I really like “What Good is Love” because it is the most operatic. The range is super wide and lyrically ... I have written some of my favorite lyrics. Singing with Oletta Adams, that is just a dream come true. “I’m Yours,” to be able to write a song and give it to an artist of her stature and her not only liking the song, but also wanting to record it and sound so good on it, that’s huge. Both of the collaborations, the one with Mali Music, is really special because I think we actually collaborated, meaning we created something new for each of us.

NOJ: (Robert) Glasper was recently quoted in an interview with Ethan Iverson as saying that he sometimes wanted to forgoe improvisational soloing and just get into long extended grooves.

JJ: It just feels good. You know what I mean. There is a reason why I am touring with just a drummer, because that is the most important part of my setup. Really, it always has been. I am more connected to the drums.

NOJ: So on your concert tour it’s just you and drummer Nate Smith?

JJ: Nate Smith for the U.S. and Richard Spaven for the E.U. and South America. Got to give the drummer some.

NOJ: How do you incorporate the art of improvisation in your music?

JJ: On this particular album?

NOJ: In general.

JJ: I think I am just open to the moment. I have come to the place where I believe it has to mean something for me to leave the written word or the melody. When I was younger, I definitely sang just to hear how it would sound and I was infatuated with Coltrane and Bird like everybody else. There is definitely something to that process, but I think any artist gets to the point where it has to have an emotional resonance. To me that is exciting. If you have done a variation on something that has been done before and to know that it is different because your different, that’s what is cool to me.

NOJ: Your delivery, especially on some of your rap and soul material, is reminiscent of the great Gil Scott-Heron. Was he an influence?

JJ: Yes and no. I was definitely aware of him and loved his catalogue. Early on people said Gil Scott-Heron when the Dreamer came out. He wasn’t anyone that I studied like I did with Billie or Coltrane. There were a few names that always came up right away Terry Callier, Gil Scott-Heron and Jon Lucien.

NOJ: Wow, Jon Lucien is a name I haven't heard in quite a long time. He did a magical version of "Dindi" from 1970 that just killed it.

JJ: Yeah, these guys are amazing. So, to get back to your question, Gil wasn’t a huge obvious influence, but he was a very influential person who I respect tremendously. What you said makes sense, he probably influenced a bunch of people who influenced me. Like every person in hip-hop.( Laughing)

NOJ: You always seem to have two or three projects on the burner what can we expect next from you?

JJ: The second I’m finished with one album I start working on the next one, so I am already working on that. I am hoping actually, without giving away too much, I am hoping to work with Christian McBride a little bit closer than I have in the past. We have collaborated on a few things. We really work well together.  He is the busiest man in show business.

NOJ: My wife, who is not the biggest of jazz fans, loves him. We have seen him several times. The man has so much talent its astounding.

JJ: So much talent, so much. I want to do more stuff with him and I don’t know exactly what shape it will take, but we are going to make it happen.

NOJ: You start this tour March 16, 2017 at Center Stage in Atlanta and the how many dates do you have booked?

JJ: We are going through May 18, 20017 ending in Santiago, Chile. We go through April in the U.S ending in Seattle and then we go onto the E.U. for the rest of April and into May and then down to Mexico and South America so it’s a world tour. It’s going to be going all year.

NOJ: That’s quite rigorous. You are married and have a young daughter that must be tough.

JJ: Yeah, you know I love performing. I think anybody who is with a professional performer that is just part of the deal. I wouldn’t be happy if I couldn’t do it. I’m home a week and I start to think about gigs.(Laughs)

NOJ: I read somewhere that you did a bit of acting in the movie Fifty Shades of Darker?

JJ: That was an amazing experience. We recorded the songs for the soundtrack at Capital in studio "B" where Frank Sinatra originally recorded them using the same microphone. I got chills just walking in there with all that history. My first takes were just terrible because there was just too much history. We recorded everything as authentically as possible. I believe the tenor player was the same guy that was on the original Sinatra recording.

NOJ: How did you get into the acting gig?

JJ: In Fifty Shades of Darker, music is like the star in both the book and the movies, which is super cool. They really wanted, the director James Foley, wanted, an authentic feel across the board. The music, the sets, and everything about it. They were looking for a real jazz singer, who could really deliver the song, but also that had a look that was very multi-cultural, super cool and young. Thankfully I got the call. I went to Vancouver, and had an amazing three days of just working on one of the biggest projects I have ever been a part of. To this date, I think it has grossed $350 million dollars worldwide.

NOJ: I also read that you have aspirations to write a novel?

JJ: I do man. I have been taking notes for about eight years at this point. Every year I tell myself I am going to carve out some time to nail to nail down the first chapters, and every year I get busier and busier. The goal is to get busy enough so that I can take an entire year of and then I can sit down and just write this thing. It will be a crime novel based in New York City.

NOJ: Cool. I’m sure your listening fan base would be distraught if you took off a whole year without singing, but you got to do what you got to do. Follow your muse where ever it goes.

JJ: Exactly, but I’ll be happy when I get a book down.

NOJ: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. I appreciate it. Good luck with the album, the tour and your career. 

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Beguiling Voice of Marilyn Scott on "Standard Blue"

The California based singer Marilyn Scott has one of those soft, sultry, beguiling voices that just sends me to another place. In many respects, she reminds me of Julie London with her controlled, simmering delivery that is not about vocal range or gymnastics, but more about heartfelt interpretation of a song’s sentiment. She has been singing since she was eleven years old and credits seeing  Big Mama Thorton play at Newport Beach when she was 15 years old as a life changing experience. It was the blues that spoke to this young woman and for over forty years she has been following that muse. Over the years, Ms. Scott’s voice has been heard backing up Tower of Power and John Mayhall’s Bluesbreakers.

She has been produced by such musical luminaries as Bob James, Bobby Womack and George Duke. Her musical collaborations with Russell Ferrante and Jimmy Haslip of the Yellowjackets has extended her blues roots and help shape a distinctive jazz sensibility to her vocals.

Her latest album is titled Standard Blue with the word standard spelled in reverse mirror image just to let you know there is nothing standard about her treatment of these songs. The band is made up of a superb rhythm section with Russell Ferrante on keyboards, Jimmy Haslip on electric bass, Michael Landau on electric guitar and Gary Novak on drums.  Saxophonist Bob Mintzer and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire are also featured on one song, the Kurt Weil/Ogden Nash classic “Speak Low.”  The song list is made up predominantly of songs that were written between 1932-1956, songs that speak to Ms. Scott and “…have in common the reality of the blues.”

Ms.  Scott opens the music with the well-worn “Willow Weep for Me,” but one would be hard pressed to find another version quite as compelling. Mr. Ferrante’s floating arrangement is cloud-like, Ms. Scott’s voice like a siren’s call of sensual loss and pathos. Meanwhile powerhouse drummer Novak is the model of restraint as Landau’s guitar sings with echoed poignancy. Beautiful.
The more orchestrated “Speak Low” features Haslip’s pulsing bass and the bass clarinet and trumpet of Bob Mintzer and Ambrose Akinmusire respectively. The Mintzer arranged intro is unique, running counterpoint to the song’s melody line. Scott navigates the unusually tricky mix with an assured confidence, never losing the song’s core feel. Ferrante adds a short piano solo before Mintzer counters with his own woody, bass clarinet solo.  Landau’s tasty guitar licks are never far from the mix.

Scott and company obviously have a thing for Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington as she has included three songs by the songwriters, “A Flower is A Lovesome Thing,” Day Dream” and “I’ve Got It Bad and That A’int Good.” On Stray’s lamenting “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” Landau’s guitar cries out on a beautifully realized solo of sublime sensitivity. Scott’s voice has those rarest of qualities, true of all great storytellers, earnestness.  

“Never Let Me Go” is played in a buoyant shuffle by Novak and Haslip with Ferrante’s keyboards painting a dreamy soundscape over which Scott’s voice pleads.

“Day Dream” is one of my favorites on the album. Ms.  Scott’s slow, smoky delivery draws you in like a bee to a fragrant blossom. Mr. Ferrante’s arrangements are lush with electronic orchestration. Mr. Landau’s guitar weeps with emotion.

“Blue Prelude” is a Gordon Jenkins song that is right in Ms. Scott’s blues wheelhouse. Her understated delivery has a cool, Michael Frank’s-like removed feel that works into the changes of the song with a laid-back assuredness. At the apex of the song she decides to assert herself, stabbing at the lyrics with authority, matching her voice pointedly with Novak’s synchronous drums. This one is a keeper.

Unfortunately, the album tails off starting with “I Wouldn’t Change It,” which is the only Scott/Ferrante composition on the album. Ms. Scott sings this in a more pop adult contemporary vein losing some of her blues bite-not my cup of tea. The set ends with a disco-esque “East of the Sun,” a lumpy “I’ve Got it Bad And That A’int Good” and a pseudo honky-tonk “The Joint is Jumpin’.” 

Ms. Scott’s Standard Blue, backed by an all-star band, offers some compelling renditions of blues-based, jazz standards sung by a unique songstress that knows how to bring new life to old stalwarts.


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Noah Preminger's " Meditations on Freedom"

Noah Preminger's Meditations on Freedom Dry Bridge Records 005
From the opening plaintive notes of the first track of his new album Meditations on Freedom- Bob Dylan’s “Only a Pawn in Their Game”- tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger sets the stage for an entire album of social commentary. At the same time, Preminger is reminding us-do not despair, we have been here before. Dedicated to the spirit of vigilance, peaceful dissention and hope, Preminger found his disappointment in the direction of his country’s politics as an igniting force in his own creative spirit. He recorded this suite of songs on December 17th, just forty-three days after the election, in a rush to declare his musical thoughts on the concept of freedom and what it has meant and continues to mean to an artist.

The songs are carefully chosen for their thematic consistency, with “Only a Pawn in Their Game” containing the darkest indictment of societal dysfunction. Dylan’s controversial conspiratorial call out of the systematic brainwashing of poor whites toward Blacks, resulting in the murder of Medgar Evers. The two horns of Preminger on tenor and Jason Palmer on trumpet cry out, almost in a somber dirge to the fallen Civil rights leader. When bassist Kim Cass and drummer Ian Froman enter the song, it is to lend a loosely swaying backdrop over which Preminger and then Palmer explore their own personal sentiments that the music inspires.

Bruce Hornsby’s “Just the Way It Is,” explored and condemned the moral courage of those who decided that racial injustice was something that “Just is the way it is,” and accepted the idea that “some things will never change.” Preminger and Palmer join in a unison statement of the melody before the saxophonist detours to what seems like a free exchange of ideas, stated first by Preminger and responded to in kind by drummer Froman. Then Palmer takes his with an equally liberated cross conversation, this time with bassist Cass, with Froman also contributing to the mix. The entire group reprises the melody at the coda.

The Sam Cooke classic “A Change is Gonna Come” maybe the most moving song on the album. The slow, deliberately soulful rendering finds Preminger’s tenor at its most inspirational, as Cass’s bass walks the line. With a beautiful tone on his tenor, Preminger moves along the changes with a deep sense of purpose. Palmer’s trumpet solo is equally as emotional with his prudent use of slurs and his succinct use of the mid register of his horn.

The remaining six tracks are all Preminger original compositions, with the exception of the hopeful George Harrison tune “Give Me Love,” which the group performs to an almost Caribbean Cha cha tempo. As the thirty-year old composer states his objective when composing instrumental music “is to heighten emotions.”  With titles like “We Have a Dream.” “Mother Earth,” “Women’s March,” “The 99 Percent” and “Broken Treaties” we can see the man has very specific ideas that he wants to portray with his music. The group works together like a unified whole. On “We Have a Dream,” Cass’s nimble bass opening, Palmer’s restrained high register trumpet as juxta posed against Preminger’s rich, Rollin-esque tenor make for some beautiful ensemble music.  On “Mother Earth” we again open with a Cass bass intro that leads to the front line of Palmer and Preminger playing off each other harmonically on a theme. It’s the deliberate tones that strike you here. The two horns each finding their own way within the structure of the tune. Preminger’s solo is an exploratory reach, but a calm, measured approach. Froman gets an opportunity to lay down some interesting fills over Cass’s ostinato bass line before Palmer enters exploring the possibilities of his trumpet with exquisite control and a total lack of bombast. “Women’s March” brings attention to an important, spontaneous development in modern day organized protest. Appropriately Preminger’s saxophone solos is frenetic and excitable, as I’m sure the organizers of the March were. Palmer’s trumpet solo is more organized in its approach using some repeated linearity.  The message; spontaneity can lead to fruitful action, hopefully this movement will be able to build upon its first surprising success. “The 99 Percent” is a reference to the majority of the electorate, those who have not participated in the upwardly mobile prospects of the one percenters. The two horns state a mournful opening that to my ears is filled with despair and longing. As a working musician, Preminger knows all too well the vagaries of the changing economic climate as it relates to job compression, technological dislocation and the devaluation of intellectual property (like the work of artists, musicians and writers).  Hopefully awareness will lead to improvement in the prospects for all.

The final track is titled “Broken Treaties.”  With the Dakota Pipeline in the news, and its threat to Indian water supplies, the music is a reminder of the many failings we have allowed to happen, often under the guise of economic profit and job creation. The musicians have a dialogue that often seem like two parties speaking in two different languages, only coming together at the hopeful ending when their voices are more in harmony.

I realize that my take on this music is only one man’s opinion and perhaps the artist had something completely different in mind when he went into the studio. It really doesn’t matter. If we are inspired by the music to recognize its relevant and timely topics, then Meditations on Freedom has artully heightened our emotions and stirred our imaginations and Noah Preminger should be applauded for his earnest effort.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Pianist Gianni Bianchini 's Trio: Type I

Gianni Bianchini Type I
The Florida based pianist/educator/organist  Gianni Bianchini has a new album to be released on Feb 21, 2017 titled Type I. The title is reference to his recording debut and the fact that he fights with Type I diabetes which has been an influence on his life and so also his music. Perhaps his condition has given the gifted pianist a sense of urgency and if so that urgency has colored his music.

On this album, Dr. Bianchini, who is also a professor of jazz piano at Universidade de San Francisco de Quito Ecuador, is joined by bandmates Brandon Guerra on drums, Richard Mikel on bass. The liner notes indicate Jason Marsalis plays percussion, although to my ears one would be hard pressed to know exactly where he plays.

Bianchini has a deft touch and a joyful delivery that can be downright alluring.  His trio runs through American songbook standards like Rogers and Harts’ “My Romance” and “My Heart Stood Still,” Julie Styne and Sammy Cahn’s “Time After Time”, George and Ira Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day,” Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer’s “I’m Old Fashioned,” and others that are played with a sense of authentic respect, pristine clarity and astute modernism. The man can certainly swing on a melody with creative arrangements and a sense of time that is quite impressive. Check out his version of “Softly as In a Morning Sunrise.”  The band is tight and stirs up an impressive froth.

Bianchini’s playing is brimming with a vibrancy and attitude that is infectious. Bassist Mikel and drummer Guerra know how to dig deep and keep the music grooving. If there is one downside it is Bianchini’s vocals. They leave a little to be desired. Though he sings adequately and with the same upbeat swagger of his piano, his voice just isn’t nearly as musical or his delivery that compelling. The trio is much better served by the vocal talent of Karen Tennison who guests on “I Wish I Knew.”  Ms. Tennisson sings with a breezy ease, with words that float and scats that have a refined coolness. Mr. Bianchini’s piano work on this one is very impressive.

Mr. Bianchini takes on Bill Evan’s bouncy “Peri’s Scope,” a challenging piece for any pianist, which he and bandmates pull off with marvelous aplomb. Mikel’s buoyant bass and Guerra ‘s brush work are of special note. The cd ends with a Henry Mancini poignant composition “Two For the Road” with Mikel offering an arco bass opening.

Type I is by and large a successful debut by a fine pianist and a sympathetic rhythm section who know their history and mine the Songbook’s possibility with vim, vigor and a sense of modernism.