Thursday, October 3, 2019

The Artistry of Bob Sheppard : "The Fine Line"

Bob Sheppard The Fine Line Challenger CR73458
For those who follow music, in all of its many different genres, the name of Bob Sheppard may not be immediately recognizable, but the chances are his work on the saxophone, flute or clarinet has been listened to and admired by many of us since the early nineteen nineties.

The now sixty-seven year old Sheppard was raised in Trenton, NJ, under the influence of the vibrant Philadelphia music scene. He got valuable experience, playing in funk and dance bands, backing up popular artist like The Fifth Dimension and Tony Bennett, and earning a spot in trumpeter Chuck Mangione’s orchestra.

Sheppard eventually relocated to the Los Angeles area and the move paid off when he landed a spot in the band of hard bop trumpet legend Freddie Hubbard, a gig that lasted several years. Sheppard has written “Playing on the same stage as Freddie was a breathtaking and frightening experience.” Hubbard hiring Sheppard gave the saxophonist unimpeachable authenticity and the kind of ‘on the job’ experience that proved priceless to the saxophonist's musical maturity. 
Freddie Hubbard and Bob Sheppard (photo credit unknown)
The industry started to take notice of this unassuming multi-reed artist and the session work became steady. He was utilized by a sea of popular music artists including Walter Becker and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, Rod Stewart, Rickie Lee Jones, Bette Midler, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell to name a few.

In the television and movie industry of Los Angeles, Sheppard's horn has been heard on the soundtracks of movies including Jerry Maguire, Goodfellas and Forrest Gump and on television shows like Seinfeld, Cheers and Late Night with David Letterman.

Bob Sheppard (photo credit unknown)
In the world of jazz Bob Sheppard’s masterful horn work as a sideman is impressive and ubiquitous. As he says in the liner notes, even after all his years playing “To this day, there are so many elements within the study of music and the arcane nature of jazz that continues to intrigue and challenge me.”  His curriculum vitae as a sideman includes work with artists like Chick Corea, Billy Childs, Peter Erskine, John Beasley, Chris Botti, Bill Cunliffe, Stanley Clarke and Kenny Barron to name a few. His work was equally in demand for backing up on records featuring singers like Dianne Reeves, Michael Buble, Karrin Allison, Kurt Elling, Leonard Cohen and the great Ray Charles. As if these achievements are not enough Sheppard also finds the time to educate at the USC Thorton School of Music.

Sheppard hasn’t released an album as a leader since his absorbing Close Your Eyes from 2012. His latest release The Fine Line was patiently awaited by those who respect his work. The genesis of this album came about when Sheppard was introduced to the Netherlands Double Bassist Jasper Somsen at a Jazz Network event in Bremen, Germany in 2013. The introduction became a friendship and the two resolved to try to work together. With both artists maintaining demanding schedules, this album was delayed until 2016. Somsen was given the go ahead from Challenge Records to produce the record and the band recorded the music in California in March 24-26, 2018.

Sheppard’s gathered a band for the project including talented pianist John Beasley, a muse and friend of Sheppard’s since the two worked together in Freddie Hubbard’s septet. He commandeered the extraordinary drummer Kendrick Scott who the saxophonist has said has the “ability to shape the music with extraordinary groove and swing.” Dutch double bassist Jasper Somsen flew in from the Netherlands for the date. Somsen contacted his former teacher bassist John Clayton, who graciously allowed him to use Ray Brown’s double bass for this recording. The bass Brown used in his days with Oscar Peterson. 

Jasper Somsen, Bob Sheppard, Kendrick Scott, John Beasley and Sound Engineer Talley Sherwood
 The band fills out with guest artists Mike Cottone on trumpet on track 2, Simon Moullier on Vibraphone on tracks 1,6 & 8, Benjamin Shepherd on electric bass on tracks 2 & 4, Aaron Safarty on shaker on tracks 3 & 6 and Sheppard’s wife Maria Puga Lareo on vocal on the title song.

Sheppard compositions like “Edge of Trouble.” start the album off with the airy  sound of Sheppard’s sinewy soprano saxophone leading this driven composition. Sheppard’s soprano and Moullier’s complimentary vibraphone link in tandem, building on the theme like empathetic songbirds, before Moullier veers off with his own inspired improvisation. Somsen’s buoyant, pulsing bass, Beasley’s slashing keyboard work and Scott’s propulsive drums heighten the tension in superb unity.  Beneath it all, Sheppard’s presence is always felt, the quiet but powerful driving impetus in the music.  The pace changes as the instruments (bass, piano, vibes and soprano) quickly execute a fast, repeating line, forming a framework, that allows drummer Scott the space to skillfully ignite with his own creative explosion of rhythmic improvisations.

Sheppard’s “Run Amok” has a catchy, funky groove ignited by Benjamin Sheperd’s slinky electric bass lines and Scott’s Caribbean-inspired drum work. The tenor of Sheppard is clear, punctuated and Rollins-like and there is some muted trumpet work, that reminds me of Randy Brecker, by trumpeter Mike Cottone. The song has a happy, feel-good funk that recalls the Brecker Brothers in their day.

The title song, “The Fine Line,” is a gorgeous, reposeful ballad that features the wordless, celestial vocals by Maria Puga Lareo. The Sheppard composition may become a classic as it offers much room for improvisational expression over a memorable melody. The arrangement is particularly well conceived with Bob’s moving tenor and overdubbed flute and Beasley’s expressive piano sustaining the tranquil mood. Somsen’s bass is warm and large and Scott’s subdued traps are perfectly played.

Sheppard takes a piece from the world of classic soul with the Stylistics’ “The People Make the World Go ‘Round” from 1971 and re-imagines it, modernizing it and utilizing a particularly lively bass line by Benjamin Shepherd. Bob Sheppard’s vibrant tenor gives the song his imprimatur which has its own soul and emotion. 

Sheppard uses the Rodgers and Hammerstein composition, “I Didn’t Know What Time it Was,”-first played Broadway’s Too Many Girls in 1939 and later in 1957 in Pal Joey with Frank Sinatra- and contemporizes the song. Sheppard’s serpentine soprano is superb-light, nebulous and sprightly. He and Beasley seem to have, in some small way, been inspired by John Coltrane’s repurposing of “My Favorite Things” in their treatment of this classic. The beautiful song simply sings in these guys hands.

Sheppard returns to another of his own compositions, this time the Latin-inspired “Maria Tango” which features some outstanding solo work and a floating rhythm.  Somsen provides an plucky bass solo that resonates with deep tone and feeling. Some gorgeous vibes work by Moullier and Beasley’s journeyman-like accompanying piano are always a delight, but it is Sheppard’s engaged tenor saxophone work here that is just impassioned and emotionally superlative.

Somsen offers the somewhat rambunctious tune, “Above and Beyond,” that just percolates with energy and tension. The rhythm is anchored with Scott’s circular storm of drums, Somsen’s anchoring bass and Beasley’s creative and phrenetic piano. The darting soprano of unpredictable Sheppard can range from sensitive to frantic as the mood suits him and the music demands.

“Joegenic,” another Sheppard composition, saunters with swing and cool, as Somsen bass pulses the beat in tandem with Scott’s inventive drums. Sheppard’s gorgeous tone on tenor is a voice of strength and conviction that just sweeps you away with his intensity. Moullin adds some sensitive vibe work and John Beasley’s piano solo is enthusiastic and inventive. Just listen to his gorgeous cascading lines. Besides being friends for years ,it’s clear Beasley and Sheppard's have an innate intuition when playing together.
John Beasley and Bob Sheppard (photo credit unknown)
Sheppard reimagines a well-known but rarely played classic “Thanks for the Memory,” a song forever identified as comedian Bob Hope’s theme song. He and Beasley, who arranged this together, erase the schmaltz and instead inject the song with earnestness, inventiveness and cool.  Sheppard’s tenor is gorgeously Johnny Hodge-like in its hue and warmth. Somsen’s bass solo probes the lines with creativity and respect. This one brings a smile to your face.

This excellent album ends with Billy Strayhorn’s emotive “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing.” Sheppard arranges the song with a more swaggering rhythm. Beasley, Somsen and Scott create the tempo and Sheppard’s tenor articulates the theme with a commanding confidence and superb creativity, always in control and inspired by the song’s possibilities.

The Fine Line, an exceptional album and should memorialize Bob Sheppard’s artistry as both a leader and one of the most versatile and imaginative saxophonists of our time.

Monday, September 23, 2019

"Conjure" : The spontaneous improvisation of Karl Berger and Jason Kao Hwang

Conjure Karl Berger and Jason Kao Hwang

Every once in a while it is both exciting and challenging to let yourself walk on the wild side and openly  listen to an unscripted, free improvisational work. In this case, a work that centers around the spontaneous interplay that can occur when two talented musicians join together to stretch each other's perceptions and have faith enough in each other's creativity to let what will happen, just happen.

I recently received Conjoure, a work by composer/pianist/vibraphonist Karl Berger and composer/string master ( violin and viola)  Jason Kao Hwang. The album will be released on Oct 1, 2019.  Both of these musicians are well respected and appreciated for their creative work and the mastery of their instruments. They have both collaborated with some of the jazz world's most contemporary and creative musicians of this era and have explored music that probes areas on the outskirts of the mainstream. This album is free-wheeling, improvisational interplay, that is not necessarily based on a fixed melodic or rhythmic theme. It is more "conjured up" from the momentary cerebral inspirations of the artist who leads and influenced by his partner's responses. Clearly Conjoure is a totally apropos title to this album.

The two artists seem  perfectly at ease with each others directional inclinations and they add some unexpected twists and turns to the path that they spontaneously create, leading the music in a direction that is unpredictable to both the listener or the musicians. If you let yourself be taken by this music there is an eerie attraction to being sent directionless and totally afloat.

The music includes eight compositions made in collaboration with the two musicians and recorded in Berger's home studio in Woodstock, NY on March 20, 2014. The music has evocative titles like  "Prophecy," "Beyond Reach," "Vanishing Roots,", "Arise" and "Below Zero."

My favorites are "Silhouettes" that features Berger on a hollow, hauntingly echoing vibraphone line that sets the theme of being caught in a phantasmagorical loop, as Kwang plays his piercing violin like a captured entity, mesmerized by the repeating sounds. Caught like a silhouette entranced by  Berger's drone. There is a desperation and lack of resolution to this music that is just captivating and at the same time eerily spooky.

"Faith" opens with Kwang's poignant viola and features Berger on piano which rings with a beautiful resonance. The two explore and follow each other through the emerging music as it develops organically from the muse of the musician who takes the lead, which in most instances seems to be Berger, and then expanded on by his band mate, often Kwang.

"Water Finds Water" features a simulated flow of streaming water as created by Berger's masterful hammering vibes and Kwang's fluttering viola The two musicians manipulate their instruments to create a world of suspension, a liquid atmosphere of water and flotation. It is quite unreal to listen to this music with your eyes closed. You envision yourself being weightlessly propelled through an other world conjured up by these two musicians fertile imagination.

The music of Conjure may be lost to some listeners or fail to touch other listeners, who are harnessed to the norms of more traditional music.  If you allow yourself to listen to this music with an open mind and take an unfamiliar journey into foreign territory, then I can say listening to Conjure  will turn out to be an enjoyable and expanding experience.

  • Tuesday, September 17, 2019

    Sara Gazarek's "Thirsty Ghost" A Tour de Force

    Sar Gazarek's Thirsty Ghost
    The vocalist and rising star, Sara Gazarek, has released a new album titled Thirsty Ghost.  The release is filled with well-selected, theme-oriented compositions that both surprise and delight. The title alludes to Gazarek’s inner musical ghost,a desire always thirsting for creative expression and growth. After taking a close listen, an astute observer should conclude that Gazarek has certainly satiated those personal goals with this creative and rewarding album.

    Each song is thoughtfully arranged and impeccably executed with Gazarek’s crystalline voice always able to evoke an authentic sincerity that grabs the listener. She is a natural storyteller, a singer whose supple voice energizes the lyrics to life with skillful modulation, remarkable range and a spectral passion. The compositions are a carefully selected mix of classics and contemporaries, most theme-centered, around the human condition of love lost and how one chooses to respond. The collaborators that Gazarek has worked with are uniformly impressive. With all this going for it Thirsty Ghost is a tour de force and on odds on favorite for being included in the top vocal albums of this year.

    “Lonely Hours” finds Gazarek’s voice masterfully navigating the changes of the song by Hy Glaser/Jerry Solomon that was made famous by the great Sarah Vaughan back in 1964. Gazarek’s voice paired with Josh Johnson’s alto move almost as if a single entity at times, like empathetic dancers moving in sync through the music.  Johnson arranged this song and his alto adds a soulful mellifluousness to the music. Alex Boneham’s bass is especially buoyant. Almost as a homage to Vaughan’s vocal athleticism, Gazarek demonstrates her own precisely delivered vocalese skills, a wordless vocalization modernized by her own effervescent and vitality.

    Sara Gazarek ( photo credit Andrew Sotham)
    An under covered gem that came out of the Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley album was “Never Will I Marry,”  a brilliant choice. Arranged beautifully with Gazarek by pianist Stu Minderman, who has worked with Kurt Elling, the song takes on a funky, reggae-inspired rhythm that stakes out its own territory on this classic. Wisely never imitating Ms. Wilson’s approach, Gazarek pays homage to the master's work in her own contemporary style. It is expertly played by drummer Christian Eumon, bassist Alex Boneham and adds a tight horn section. Gazarek scats through the music with aplomb, comfortably executing an impressive leap between intervals during the song, showing her formidable range and control.  Gazarek’s ability to seamlessly move through the different styles of music on this album is a credit to her versatility and training.

    Not to be pigeonholed by the classic repertoire alone, the album includes the popular 2014 Sam Smith composition “I’m Not the Only One.” Gazarek sings in an emotional, alternative folk/soul style that is embellished nicely by Minderman’s electric Rhodes accompaniment. Erin Bentlage and Michael Mayo lend some beautiful harmony backup vocals and Josh Johnson’s soulful alto solo all bring this song into its own life. Gazarek’s voice is warm, flexible and emotionally moving especially as she hits the chorus with such strong confidence.

    “Easy Love” is a collaboration written with Gazarek and Larry Goldings, who also arranged this song. The pianist had previously produced Gazarek’s 2012 album Blossom & Bee, an album that revealed Gazarek’s respect for vocalist Blossom Dearie. On this swinging, free-flowing blues, with Goldings adding some of his signature organ touches, Gazarek brings out her most natural of voices. Gazarek gives this album a loose, happy, loose rendition that could easily have been inspired by Dearie’s refreshing approach. 

    The Hoagy Carmichael ballad, “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” is an unusual selection rarely covered and features Gazarek’s luminescent voice lightly accompanied by Stu Minderman’s sparkling piano, Boneham’s pacing bass and Christian Euman’s lightly feathered drums.

    The album adds the 1972 released Stevie Wonder/Yvonne Wright composition “I Believe When I Fall in Love” that adds the horn section of Johnson, Ido Meshulan’s trombone and Brian Walsh’s  bass clarinet.

    The  composition “Jolene,”written by Country star Dolly Parton, is creatively arranged to create tension by pianist Geoff Keezer. Gazarek and Minderman work together to transport this tale of desperation into a poignant plea of fairness. Gazarek rips at the lyrics demanding attention and consideration with a passion that is hard to ignore.  

    Goldings and Gazarek team up again to compose the gorgeous “Gaslight District” which is arranged here by pianist Minderman.  Alan Ferber’s arrangement for the horn section is precisely timed and flawlessly executed. Gazarek’s expressive voice is alive and fervent especially on the chorus, and Minderman’s piano solo is succinctly expressive. The song ends with Gazarek’s delicate wordless vocalizing as Goldings perfectly placed organ accents to the coda. This is one to savor.

    The record continues with “The River/River Man, “the first part, “The River,” a poetic-like composition from Sara Teasdale/Josh Nelson and the “River Man” is originally by Nick Drake from 1969.  Drake’s music is so ethereal and haunting. Gazarek sings this Josh Nelson arrangement, with an amazing sensitivity and personal attachment that is palpable. Minderman’s Rhodes floats like a cloud of notes that hover over the scene and the horns, arranged by Johnson, add to the dreamy feeling.

    “Intro: Chyrsalis” is a 33 second bass solo lead in by composer bassist Alex Boneham. This leads into the Bjork/Thomas Knack composition “Cocoon”. Gazarek’s vocal has such a versatile range and clear sustainability. The duet of bass and voice is beautifully executed. The band is quite adept at aurally creating an atmosphere that simulates the gossamer lightness of being in a Cocoon. Gazarek’s voice is like a whisper of clear presence within.

    The pianist Brad Mehldau collaborated with Gazarek on the final composition of this album titled “Distant Storm.”  This one is arranged by Minderman and Gazarek and the horns are arranged by Ferber. Gazarek conquers the lower levels of the register on the opening bars which she navigates brilliantly.  Josh Johnson offers a bright, fluid alto solo and the vocalist Kurt Elling adds his unmistakably burnished baritone.  Gazarek’s beautiful instrument tackles the higher register with equal aplomb and finishes the song with her own pristine control and clarity.    

    Thursday, August 29, 2019

    "The Hope I Hold": Ryan Keberle & Catharsis

    Ryan Keberle & Catharsis The Hope I Hold Greenleaf Music GRE-CD-1072

    Ryan Keberle has been steadily earning a well-deserved reputation as a splendid trombonist. He has won the Downbeat’s rising star award for his work on his instrument and has contributed his talents on projects by popular mainstream artists like David Bowie and Alicia Keyes. He is a valued member of the brass section of the prestigious, Grammy winning Maria Schneider’s Orchestra and worked with jazz traditionalist Wynton Marsalis, Brazilian composer Ivan Lins and the forward-thinking composer/arranger Darcy James Argue to name a few. His work as an educator has included numerous improvisational trombone seminars in many prominent music schools and he has directed the jazz program at Hunter College since 2004.

    Ryan Keberle 

    Keberle’s most progressive and inspired work has been recorded since he started his group Catharsis in 2012. Keberle’s Catharsis has included, at various times, trumpeter Michael Rodriguez, guitar/vocalist Camila Meza, bassist Jorge Roeder, multi-reedist Scott Robinson and drummer Eric Doob.

    The word Catharsis means purification; the processing of releasing and therefore providing relief of strong or repressed emotions. Unfortunately, in today’s world, “strong or repressed emotions” often include a fair share of hatred and fear, but Keberle and Catharsis use their music as a vehicle to promote and accentuate the positive. Their music offers sensitivity and creativity, using music as a path to enlightenment. Their music has espoused the importance of love and hope even when faced with prevailing negative forces. Over several albums, the group has offered a positive mantra that promotes inclusion, represented by the band’s diverse ethnicity and celebrated by their ability to create such a strong cohesiveness, as witnessed by the  joy that is overwhelmingly apparent in their music.

    On the latest recording The Hope I Hold, Keberle’s artistry is inherently bonded to his socially altruistic message. “The Hope I Hold Suite” is inspired by his admiration for Langston Hughes searing 1935 poem “America Will Be.”  I’ve re-read the full poem (you can read it here) and recognize that, despite a passage of over eighty years, the aspirations often committed to have still been stubbornly elusive to an  unconsciously large portion of our population.
    Keberle’s message restlessly refuses to accept the inevitability of a failed dream. His hope, like a North Star, is a beacon that leads us to continue to strive for universal rights and equitable equality. Keberle admirably believes the realization of this dream can only be found through truth, love and inspired music. I'm with him on this.

    The group is amazingly empathetic, melding their individual musical personalities into a unified sounding symphony. The first four songs are all part of a "The Hope I Hold" suite that honors the Hughes poem. Not just an exemplary trombonist, Keberle is an accomplished pianist who opens the set with an elegant tingling simulation of clanking chains on “Tangled in the Ancient Endless Chains.” He plays some airy Fender Rhodes as Reoder’s booming bass paces the rising melody and the music grows in intensity. Camila Meza’s haunting wordless voice finds a compatriot with Scott Robinson’s responsive tenor and Doob’s splashing cymbals and exploding toms. Meza’s voice is interpretative and moving. She beautifully vocalizes Hughes' verse, the fourth paragraph of his poem, and brilliantly adapts the lyrics to the music with only slight word substitutions to make it work for her. Robinson’s soaring tenor is uplifting and hopeful, Meza’s electric guitar solo follows, lending another color to this aural watercolor that offers promise.

    Left to Right Jorge Roeder, Eric Doob, Camila Meza, Ryan Kebrle and Scott Robinson,
    Earshot Jazz Festival ( photo credit unknown)
    Keberle’s emotive trombone opens “Despite the Dream.” He and Meza’s guitar match notes and sounds before her plaintive wordless voice is joined with Robinson’s tenderly searching tenor in a three-instrument conversation. Meza’s voice adds lyrics, vocal backups are included by Keberle and Roeder, as the rhythm section of Doob and Roeder establish the swaying pace. Robinson’s tenor is a joy on the bridge and Keberle’s trombone is like a force of emotion and expressiveness, artful. The music retains an orchestration that is positive and inspiring.

    “America Will Be,” the third song in the four-song suite, starts out with a dirge-like feel. Eventually the music elevates to a stirring apex with Keberle’s probing trombone, Robinson’s atmospheric tenor, Meza’s spidery guitar, Roeder’s booming bass and Doob’s militarily cadenced drums. The years together have tempered these musicians into a precise, empathetic and responsive ensemble. The composition has, at times, a solemn feeling, but hope and defiance is also present and Hughes’ words “O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, and yet I swear this oath-America will be.”  Meza’s melodic voice singing the defining statement both codifies existing disappointment but also demands realization of the promised dream.

    “Fooled and Pushed Apart” is a dynamic, fluid song that utilizes a driving rhythm section of Roeder and Doob, a responsive front line of Robinson and Keberle and a tantalizing, Flora Purim-like wordless performance by Meza. Keberle’s composition has a modern, Blue Note-era feel to it and it just bristles with precision, excitement and vibrancy. Keberle’s trombone has a liquid bellow to it and his intonation is flawless.  Robinson’s tenor artfully darts around Keberle’s trombone adding subtle and effective accompaniment that seem improvised on the spot. Upon multiple listens you find more and more things to like about this one.

    “Campinas” features Keberle’s trombone accompanied by his overdubbed Rhodes. Jorge Roeder’s voice offers a wordless opening over his own electric bass lines and Doob’s cadenced drums, which seem to be the one constant in this song. Meza and Roeder weave their wordless voices expertly as Keberle adds his spacey Korg Minlogue accents and Meza’s guitar eventually adds another voice to the mix.

    The second part of the album features three drum-less Catharsis trio songs. Keberle, Meza and Roeder take on a Latin vibe. The program includes “Para Volar” a buoyant Latin song sung and composed by Meza and accompanied by her guitar, Keberle’s trombone and Roeder’s bass. Meza’s voice always has a joyous sound to it as she sings the lyrics in Spanish and Keberle’s trombone takes on a warm, Latin feel.

    The beautiful “Peering” is written by bassist Roeder and features Keberle’s trombone, Meza’s guitar and wordless voice and Roeder’s looping bass. Meza sings precisely in sync to her own guitar. Keberle compliments her emotively on trombone. The three musicians who have played together for the past seven years have developed an undeniable musical telepathy that can’t fail to impress. 

    “Zamba de Lozano” is a folk-like composition by Manuel Jose Castillo and Gustavo Leguizamon has a slow, romantic flow to it with Meza’s guitar and voice, Roeder’s and Keberle’s accompanying vocals and Keberle’s trombone.

    “Becoming the Water” is uplifting composition of hope by Keberle and Mansta Miro and reprises the song from previous Catharsis album Find the Common, Shine a Light but this time without Michael Rodriguez’s trumpet.

    The finale is titled “Epilogue/Make America Again” is the final composition and a bit of a reprise of the previous song “America Will Be” restating the sentiments. The song features Meza’s electric guitar, Keberle’s electric piano and trombone, Roeder’s bass, Doob’s drums and Scott Robinson’s tenor. The music has the cadence of a march with the ensemble raising the sound and tension to a peak of excitement before allowing the music to calm and settle, with Meza’s tactile voice resubmitting the moving Hughes words at the coda to great effect.

    Ryan Keberle continues to show his progression as a serious composer, a deft leader and a brilliant instrumentalist whose music is always passionate, moving and timely. Keberle and Catharsis have progressed their musical mission with The Hope I Hold, and hopefully their music and message will inspire listeners  who aspire to achieve a better world for all of us.

    Monday, August 26, 2019

    "Heartbeat" from Jelena Jovovic: A Gift of Love

    Heartbeat Jelena Jovovic

    It is always a joy when you surprisingly come across an album from someone who you have never heard of before. Perhaps they are from a geographically different place, a place like Serbia. Maybe their music piques your interest and stirs that something inside you that makes you want to listen again and again. Maybe this is someone you should be aware of, to pay attention to. Jelena Jovović is just that kind of musician. A Serbian vocalist whose new album Heartbeat is precisely the kind of gem-in-the-rough that makes exploring new and unknown music such a joy and worth all the effort.

    Jelena Jovovic

    Ms.  Jovović s career included studies at University of Arts in Graz, Austria, a masters from University of Arts in Belgrade, Serbia and a professorship at Music School of Stankovic in Belgrade, where she presently teaches. While living in South Africa, she established a vocal curriculum at Cape Town University and Pretoria Tech School of Music. She has played with American artists like saxophonist Bob Mover, veteran drummer Steve Williams and bassist/composer/arranger Chuck Israels.

    On Heartbeat, we find out just how sonorous Ms. Jovović ’s voice can be. There is a beautiful flow to her intonation, a hip sense of modulation, an art carefully developed by years of studying with some of jazzes best vocal interpreters. Vocal masters who have an instrumental approach to the voice like Mark Murphy, Sheila Jordan, Jay Clayton and Andy Bey. Jovović has precise control, impeccable timing and an astute sense of taste in her choices of the music to record. Modern music from composer/artists like Wayne Shorter’s “Witch Hunt”, which Jovović’s voice and her talented Serbian band make it their own. Pianist Vasil Hadzimanov’s sprite Rhodes work, Rastko Obradovic’s probing tenor solo and Milan Nikolic’s vibrant double bass solo all make this a winning cd right out of the gate.

    Jelena Jovoic and some members of her band

    Hadzimanov’s gorgeous piano introduction and accompaniment on the Bruneti folk song ballad “Paladin” and Jovović’s incandescent vocals are a real treat to anyone who loves a sensitive song delivered with an unforced authenticity and fervor.

    Modern jazz meets ancient Balkan music with Oleg Kireyev’s haunting Tater throat singing that opens Jovović’s nimble and funky “The Countless Stars.” Listen to the flawless modulation of her voice toward the coda, simply masterful.

    The title song ‘Heartbeat” is another Jovović composition that expresses the singer’s upbeat approach to the universe and her sentiment that love can resonate with the world over anything. Another soulful tenor saxophone solo by Obradovic compliments Jovović’s flexible vocals.

    “Bubu’s Song” is a bouncing, bright song that Jovović’s created for her daughter Sara and features some tubular vibes by Milos Branisavljevic that interacts seamlessly with Jovović’s elastic scatting.

    “Sweet Music” is a deeply emotionally sung composition that memorializes the importance of music in the singer’s life and soul. A moving trumpet solo by Stjepko Gut communicates intuitively with Jovović’s emotive voice. Hadzimanov’s empathetic piano accompaniment seems to be hard-wired to Jovović’s vocal explorations.

    Claus Raible’s “Little Freddie Steps” is referred in the liner notes as a boogaloo and has a definitive groove to it and perhaps my least favorite song on the album.

    “Time is Here” is another Jovović  composition that she sings in both English and a beguiling French. An airy soprano solo by Obradovic and some ethereal Rhodes work by Hadzimanov make this special. The liner notes refer to Joni Mitchell’s work on “Mingus” and I can certainly hear the influences from Ms. Mitchell in Jovović’s approach, although the voice is all Jovović’s.

    “Mad in Heaven”, daringly morphs from one time to another and Jovović’s lyrics about gender relations is played using a distinctively staccato approach. Jovovic is clearly no one trick pony with her music and her stylistic varriations.

    Don Grolnick wrote and played his song “Pools” when he was in the progressive group “Steps Ahead.” Jovović’s deft understanding of this modern, angular music comes through with Jovović’s smart arrangement and the facile execution by her impressive band on this neglected gem from 1985.

    Jelena Jovović’s is a surprising delight. A multi-talented vocal talent from Serbia. whose music simply validates the universality of this music we call jazz. Let’s face it we can all use a dose of love from such a gift like Heartbeat.

    Thursday, August 8, 2019

    Sliding "Across Oceans" : Ross Hammond and Poly Varghese

    Ross Hammond and Poly Vaghese  Across Oceans
    There is a recently released album by a Sacramento, CA based resonator guitarist Ross Hammond and the Indian Mohem Veena player Poly Varghese and if you like your music played without a net you owe it to yourself to experience this vibrant collaboration.

    The cd is aptly titled Across Ocean. You might expect the music from these two culturally diverse musicians to be oceans apart as the title suggests, but in actuality these string masters have found a strong, aurally rooted commonality in the music they spontaneously created in these five musical mantras.

    The Mohen Veena is an instrument built around a Hawaiian guitar. An expressive, drone producing, Southern Indian inspired slide guitar that was modified and created by the Indian master Vishna Mohan Bhatt. Bhatt taught and was mentor to the musician Poly Varghese, who has become quite proficient at this unique instrument and is also an experimental theater actor.

    Mohen Veena

    I have followed the Californian based Ross Hammond for a while and he is a master of the soulful, Americana sound of the steel resonator guitar that is used predominantly in country, bluegrass and blues music. These two met at a concert in Sacramento and were inspired to play together, explore their common love of improvisation and use the expressive use of the slide over strings to make their music.

    Ross Hammond (photo credit unknown)

    The songs are impromptu elaborations that bring out the best of these creative artists. They establish a symbiotic connection when they play together; a mood created when the vibe is right, and the music is flowing.  The titles include “The First Glimpse of the Morning,” “Rashmon Blues,” Global Blues,” “For Mary Oliver” and “Across Oceans.”  The music has a spiritual element to it. Two instruments that can lead you on an unexpected journey of exploration and wonder, if you let yourself be absorbed by it.

    The opener “The First Glimpse of the Morning” is a musical representation of dawn accentuated by the duel sounds of the two slide masters. The men listen intently, sometimes providing background, sometimes introducing a new direction. The intensity of their instruments rise in anticipation like the radiance of the morning sun.  The blue-based tunes like “Rashmon Blues” and “Global Blues” seem to provide the basis for the most exciting, loose improvisational excursions from both these players.  Hammond’s resonator has a warm, melodic tone and Varghese’s Mohenn Veena offers a higher pitched, drone-based sound that creates a spiritual chant-like undertone to the music.

    Well respected American poet Mary Oliver recently passed at the age of eighty-three in Florida in January of 2019. Hammond’s “For Mary Oliver” is a dedication to the poet whose work was a helpful inspiration to the guitarist. The song is a mournful combination of Hammond’s modulating slide work and Varghese’s cascading, sitar-like explorations. 

     “Across Oceans” is a wonderfully peaceful song with Hammond playing a delicate finger-picked guitar and some bottle slide. Varghese finds his way into some country-inspired slide guitar sound on his Mohen Veena. The music is a fusion; two identities that merge from two cultures Indian and American. Hammond and Varghese create an inspiring conversation, trading ideas, leading each other into new and exciting musical directions, and they take us willingly along with them.

    There is another element to this music. Ross Hammond and Poly Varghese are two travelers from different worlds, from Across Oceans, who have found a bond in their music and in their cultural differences. If we all could learn this simple lesson of inclusion there is no doubt that this would be a lot better world to live in.

    You can listen to and buy his album by clicking here.

    Ross Hammond on Resonator Guitar "Codes"

    Poly Varghese: 

    Wednesday, July 24, 2019

    Musical Magic while "Hiding Out" Mike Holober and The Gotham Jazz Orchestra

    Mike Holober:The Gotham Jazz Orchestra Hiding Out  Zoho  ZM201906

    The pianist/composer/arranger/educator Mike Holober is a man of many gifts. His guiding leadership has been a quiet but effective force behind some creative and moving big band projects in the last several years. You may not be aware of his work, but that’s barely an excuse to miss this man’s excellent and modern contributions to the world of music. 

    Holober is a classically trained pianist whose career in jazz started to emerge in 1986 when he moved to New York.  He began building a reputation as a pianist and arranger when working with the talented baritone saxophonist Nick Brigola in the late 90’s. His talent as a serious chart master is respected among his peers. Mike was the Director/Conductor of the Westchester Jazz Orchestra (WJO) for over six years where he wrote and arranged for artists as renowned as Joe Lovano, Kate McGarry, John Scofield and Randy Brecker, to name a few. I was fortunate enough to catch him and this band for several impressive performances when I lived in CT and I was immediately interested in this man's trajectory.

    He has also been invited to write and conduct esteemed European big Bands like the HR Big Band and the WDR Big Band, where he wrote, arranged and conducted for noted artists like Kurt Rosenwinkel, Al Foster, Billy Cobham and Miguel Zenon. Mr.  Holober also served as the Associate Director of the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop with Director Jim McNeely for several years. He has maintained a working quintet whose debut album Canyon was released in 2003, and his big band The Gotham Jazz Orchestra (GJO) first recording Thought Trains is from 1996 but was finally released in 2004. Mr. Holober teaches at Manhattan School of Music and is a full professor at the City College of New York.

    Mike’s latest release from the GJO is a meaty, two-disc project titled Hiding Out and will be released on Zoho Records on August 9, 2019. The album includes an arrangement of the Antonio Carlos Jobim composition “Carminhos Cruzados,” which Mike re imagined as a vehicle for virtuoso trumpeter Marvin Stamm,  two suites “Flow”, commissioned by the Westchester Jazz Orchestra, and the “Hiding Out” suite commissioned by The Philadelphia Museum of Art. As with many of Mike’s modern projects, his Gotham Jazz Orchestra is made up of a group of first call musicians based out of the New York area.  The “Hiding Out” suite was crafted at a 20,000- acre ranch in northeastern Wyoming with a view of the snow-capped Big Horn Mountains. The “Flow” suite was penned at the famed MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, where artists liked Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein found a wellspring of inspiration at the bucolic setting.
    Mike Holober (photo credit unknown)
    Holober has often seen his work as a balancing act between his love of outdoors and his passion for creating music. It’s not surprising that these two suites balance the excitement and awe of nature with the urbanity and exuberance of the life of a New York based jazz musician.

    There is a lot to listen to and absorb. “Rumble,” originally written for the US Army Jazz Nights in 2008,  opens the first cd and is  named for an isolated lake in the Sierra Nevada. The stream of sounds that emerge from this taut machine pulse and probe like a unified aqueous body in motion.  Holober guides his group with precision, but like an impressionistic painter, he allows for the band to have its own organic aspiration, its own distinct vitality. Like a painter, Holober loves to introduce colors to his palette, like the fusion-dated sound of  his Rhodes, Jon Gordon’s piquant alto and Jesse Lewis’ shredding electric guitar work too. The result is a thoroughly modern piece that just gets more enjoyable  the more you listen to it.

    Movement one of “Flow” is titled “Tears of Clouds” and opens with a peaceful section that builds upon a wavy, undulating rhythmic feel. Holober piano and rhythm section creates a repeating motif that simulates the sound of falling water in a slow but persistent drip. The searching, urgent tenor saxophone of Jason Rigby is the sole voice that is featured above the band, as Holober’s arrangement allows the band to employ deft use of tension and release.  

    “Opalescence” opens with Marvin Stamm’s clarion trumpet as the band plays the almost liturgical sounding music behind him. Stamm is a master of tone and expression and Holober’s song utilizes his strengths beautifully. Mid song, Stamm changes to the more mellow flugelhorn and Holober’s piano accompaniment is superb and expressive. As the pace changes, the vibrant bass of John Herbert beautifully anchors the song with a firm pulse.

    “Interlude” is a short but potent composition that features what feels like a spiritual Native American inspired solo on penny whistle by Ben Kono. There is an authentic Americana feel ( in a true sense) to this peaceful song that transitions into a more urban inspired composition “Harlem” with the saxophone solo by altoist Billy Drews and joined by bassist Herbert and drummer Mark Ferber. The arrangement has a more traditional, almost Ellingtonian- inspired big band feel; full of swing and energy. Trumpeter Scott Wendholt offers a high energy, upper register solo that raises this one. Holober utilizes a series of rhythmic changes during the composition. He effectively employs the explosive drums of Ferber and the booming bass line of Herbert as the foundation to allow the big band to pulse using well timed sectional accents. About three quarters through, Holober’s piano shifts from lyrical to driving and this sends the band into a more excited fury, allowing several band members to break out in featured solos that erupt with passion.

    The title of this suite “Hiding Out” has a dual meaning. Despite his respected reputation, the musician feels that he has previously “hidden” in a way by concentrating his musical skills  as a sideman, an arranger for others and an educator.  Holober also likens the title “Hiding Out” to his frequent escape to the reinvigorating environs of natural beauty and majesty-places that allow him to concentrate on creation.

    Conductor Mike Holober (photo credit unknown)

    “It Was Just the Wind” is perhaps the most adventurous composition of the suite. In many respects “Hiding Out” is the most recent effort by Holober to enrich the world of music by composing with his own personal vision in mind. The suite is bold, authoritative and imaginative. He and his band are consummately able to bring his vision to life. The introduction, with its serene use of woodwinds, supported by the more brilliant tones of the brass section on “Prelude,” is the perfect entre to the suite.  The probing “Compelled” carries the music forward, featuring Holober’s gentle and cadenced piano-his deft arrangements drift sections of spectacular sound into and out of the music with ebbs and flows of his music. Steve Cardenas, a superb guitarist, adds a modern, textural but lyrical solo that floats over the musical atmosphere created.  “Four Haiku” is a short piece that utilizes brilliant sectional harmonies creating a feel of majesty and reverence.   “Interlude” is our chance to hear solo pianist Holober weave a beautiful lyrical melody that is moving and just simply gorgeous.

    Holober opening the piece with an exploring solo that morphs into a rhythmically driving pulse led by Herbert and Ferber.  The music escalates its sense of urgency with each bar, the brass and woodwinds melting into a unified wall of multi-timbered sounds. Soloists like altoist Jon Gordon and tenor saxophonist Adam Kolker bring persuasive individual improvisational voices into the forefront. Composer Holober fearlessly adds elements of fusion and Brazilian rhythms into the song, increasing the pace on his tubular sounding Fender Rhodes. This band responds to the adventure with true excellence and marvelous sectional precision.  The eighteen minute song ends with some soaring ethereal guitar by Cardenas and explosively roiling drums by Ferber, as this incendiary band brings the music to new heights at the coda. This is a modern big band at its best.

    This two disc set closes with two takes of Jobim’s romantic “Carminhos Cruzados” which Holober has re-imagined for his band and for trumpeter Marvin Stamm. The lilting music is accented by the exquisite tone of Stamm’s gorgeous flugelhorn. You can’t help but be drawn in by the motion this music instills in your body. It’s like listening to a love song that caresses you with Stamm’s horn and is accentuated by Holober’s potently orchestrated band.

    Here is a link to one of the new album's songs.