Monday, April 25, 2016

Jazz Phenom Morgan Guerin Debuts "The Saga" at The Velvet Note

This past Tuesday evening there was an invitation only event held at the Velvet Note jazz club in Alpharetta. The occasion was the preview and first public listening of a new recording by a young multi-instrumentalist phenom, Morgan Guerin.

Morgan Guerin
Guerin explained to the crowd of interested cognoscenti that he had spent a majority of his youth living and absorbing the music scene in New Orleans, where his father Roland Guerin is an active professional bass player. A few years ago Morgan  found himself uprooted by the divorce of his parents. He was relocated to live with his mother, attorney Brianna Williams, to a new home in Atlanta. The traumatic experience became the source of much anxiety for the young Guerin, but like all artists he turned this trauma into the germ of inspiration. The experience was filled with apprehension and doubt. In New Orleans Guerin was surrounded by jazz luminaries that he came to know personally through his father’s professional and social associations. The Marsalis family, saxophonist Donald Harrison and trumpeter Christian Scott were all friends of the family and the young Guerin saw his father play with guitarist Mark Whitfield and pianists Marcus Roberts and Allen Toussaint among others.This rich cultural experience was the nurturing environment that encouraged Guerin to pursue his ultimate career choice to be a musician. It was a bit of a culture shock for the young man to come to Atlanta and see that jazz wasn’t the main focus of the music scene here. A variety of musical genres that seem to flourish in this city. hip hop, neo soul, techno dance and R and B were all part of the music scene and Guerin started to question whether there was a place for the music he loved, jazz, in Atlanta. He even found himself questioning the pursuit of his music, at times even considering a more traditional career path. Fortunately his love of the music prevailed and where there is such abundant talent, there is always an audience. It didn’t take long for the young man to find his way into the hearts and minds of the jazz community in Atlanta.  

He continued advancing his musical education by attending prestigious jazz camps like the Vail Jazz Workshop, the summer jazz programs at the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston and summer programs at the New School in New Orleans and he told me he plans to continue his studies after he graduates from high school this year at the  New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in NYC.. He was selected to be part of the Grammy Band that was featured week long at the 58th annual Grammy Awards presentations this past February. All the while the deeply introspective Guerin was composing and shedding, using all the beauty and angst that was part of his life and transforming it into complex compositions that he felt were representative of what he had experienced from his earliest memories to his current state of mind. The result is his debut album The Saga, a long, detailed, series of stories which we were there to hear for the first time that evening,

Morgan Guerin

To appreciate the talent that this young artist has, one has to recognize the magnitude of the accomplishment that this album represents. Guerin is a multi-instrumentalist. On The Saga he plays the drums, percussion, the piano and Fender Rhodes, both alto and tenor saxophones, the Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI), Moog bass, organ, flute and Vocoder. If that weren’t enough he also wrote all the songs and arranged and recorded them in his own home studio!  And let’s not forget the young man is just seventeen! The closest comparison to such a multi-talented young musician is the British phenom Jacob Collier who is now nineteen and studies jazz piano at the Royal Academy. The main difference between these two, is that while they both play multiple instruments and are adept at electronics, Collier also sings and harmonizes with himself on multiple levels. However Guerin writes and arranges his own music while Collier mostly re-arranges popular songs by other people.

As Morgan states in the liner notes all the songs are “… the result of hard work and meditation.” Hard work and extraordinary dedication has certainly paid off for Guerin as his compositions range from the opening hip-hop inspired “Parallel” with its electronic, funk driven vibe and featuring the rap vocal of Dashill Smith to the more cosmic “Blueprint” with Guerin’s probing saxophone and EWI work and a spoken poem by Allana Hudson at the coda.

“Tabula Rasa” is, by Guerin’s own admission, an aggressive, pleading cry for clarity as he was trying to reconcile leaving his beloved New Orleans and finding his way in his adopted city of Atlanta.  The song rises to what I perceive is a joyful, albeit energized ascension to acceptance. The music skillfully integrates electronic sounds and effects with more traditional instrumentation and Guerin has been able to get fellow students to seamlessly participate in the creative process while never actually being present in the same location. Patrick Arthur’s electric and acoustic guitar work and Brandon Boone on electric and upright bass are the two fellow musician whose work is heard throughout the album. Jules Rodriguez on organ and Paul “Papabear” Johnson on bass are heard on “Parallel.” On the beautiful “Sharynwood Drive,” a reference to his home in New Orleans, there is a bittersweet opening to the composition that features an achingly touching cello solo by Grace Sommer. Ultimately the music has a nostalgic tone, a place that Guerin identifies to this day as a happy place filled with good memories. Curtis Olawumi on flugelhorn, Daniel Wytanis on trombone and a touching electric bass solo by his father Roland Guerin lead the music to a place where it elevates to a joyous declaration played by Guerin on tenor.

Guerin’s memories of  another New Orleans location of importance to his development, is also represented joyfully by the uplifting, “Madeira”, a reference to the street name of his grandmother's home, where he had childhood memories of music filling the air. His tenor playing bursts with excited enthusiasm as the repeating rhythm he creates sweeps you up in an ever ascending swirl of elation.

The two-part suite “With a Peace of Mind” part 1 and 2 Guerin plays the melody on piano synchronously with Risa Pearl’s lilting voice and at times with Arthur’s electric guitar. The effect is quite tranquil and Guerin’s drums are ever present, accenting the breaks and coloring the lines in between.

The title song “Saga” is a floating composition where Gurein uses the Vocoder. He said it was inspired by some of Herbie Hancock’s work on the album Sunlight.  The song has elements of Lonnie Liston Smith’s celestially inspired work with the EWI and vocoder leading the way over the swelling synthesized melodies. Guerin’s tenor solo is fluid and sensuous as it climbs to ever higher peaks and the composition escalates to a cosmic end.

When speaking to Guerin at the club, he was totally engaging. it was interesting to hear some of this young man’s eclectic influences, like ethereal guitarist Pat Metheny, saxophonists, like the taciturn Mark Turner, the iconoclastic Jerry Bergonzi and the audacious Michael Brecker. He is also influenced by the young lions- upcoming saxophonists who now dominate the modern scene- like Seamus Blake, Donny McCaslin and Ben Wendel. I suspect with continued work and diligence, in the not too distant future, Morgan Guerin will join the ranks of these young lions of jazz.  He is certainly someone to keep your eye on and an artist who deserves our encouragement and support.

You can listen to the album and purchase by clicking here.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Rhythm Future Quartet brings Gypsy Jazz to Steve's Live Music in Sandy Springs, GA

Jason Anick, Olli Soikkeli, Ivan Pena and Greg Loughman at Steve’s Live Music

This past Sunday evening I made my way to yet another greater Atlanta music venue. This time it was Steve’s Live Music in Sandy Springs, GA. Where owner and music impresario Steve Grossman has been offering an eclectic blend of live music and a vegetarian menu to those in the know for the last four years. Unfortunately, Steve told me the venue will be closing in the next several weeks due to the ever rising costs of renting the space. Too bad, it’s a comfortable laid back showcase for live music and it will be sorely missed.  This particular evening the future of gypsy jazz came to entertain a full house of avid fans at Steve’s in the form of the Rhythm Future Quartet.  

The Rhythm Future Quartet is a Boston based group of four young, abundantly talented musicians who have taken up the mantle from giants of the genre like Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli and their famous “Hot Club of Paris” music. These young upstarts- the oldest is reportedly 32- have rocketed the music into the future by incorporating multiple influences from gypsy jazz to Balkan folk, Spanish Flamenco to Country swing, teaming it with their own virtuosity and playing it all with a joyful abandon that is downright infectious.

The quartet is made up of Jason Anick on violin, Olli Soikkeli on lead guitar, Max O’Rourke on rhythm guitar and Greg Loughman on acoustic bass.  On this evening O’Rourke was on another gig and the able Ivan Pena took the rhythm guitar chair. Together these guys make music that range from jump in your seat bounce to shedding a tear in your beer poignant.
On this particular night we had the fortune of attending the second of two sold out shows. The fortune comes because in order to play this kind of music at the rapid fire pace these guys do it’s always nice to have a warm up se. Warm they were as they burst into the music with an original composition by bassist Greg Loughman titled “Iberian Sunrise.”  The magical interchange between Anick’s fetching violin and Soikkeli’s fleet fingered guitar was a treat to behold. 

On the classic Jimmy Rosenberg title “Made for Wesley,” Anick’s moving virtuosity was on display as he made his violin sing creating a fusillade of notes that he bowed with amazing facility, alternating between rapid fire bursts and poignantly sustained bows. When it was Soikkeli’ turn to solo, the Finnish wunderkind gave a similarly stunning display of facility, machine-gunning a flurry of notes that were amazingly clean and equally inventive. There is both comradery and brotherly competition between Anick and Soikkeli as they push each other to more and more challenging excursions of improvisational daring, like two gunslingers waiting to test who has the fastest draw. All the while the Pena and Loughman kept impeccable time at ever increasingly challenging speeds.
The next tune was composed by guitarist Soikkeli for one of his mentors, guitarist Paulus Schafer, titled “For Paulus.”  At the opening, this slow sauntering gypsy jazz treat had the crowd bouncing to the infectiously strummed rhythm that is until it broke into a double time with Anick propelling the tune in his best imitation of the great Stephane Grappelli whom obviously has been a great influenced.

The more traditional fare was temporarily suspended as Anick spoke of being a Beatles fan and reworking one of their tunes. Loughman introduced the famous lead in bass line to the Beatles “Come Together” as the group gave the classic pop song their own twist. The song had me remembering such violin centric rock groups of the as Fairport Convention, The Flock and ELO.  Soikkeli did a burning acoustic solo on guitar that had it been on distorted electric would have been a ripper.

Anick’s exotic sounding “Vessala” is a Balkan folk music inspired tune evoking a scene with a traditional lace garbed folk dancer spinning to the music’s sinewy twists and turns. When Anick and Loughman both bowed their instruments the sound took on a distinctively chamber music feel.
On the beautiful “Soul ce Soir,” Soikkeli demonstrated a challenging technique of muting the strings with his forefinger as he picked them with his thumb producing a muted sound that was quite unique. Pena’s unerring strumming and Loughman’s bass kept the loping rhythm in perfect play. Anick’s melancholic Grappelli-like sound spanned the spectrum between sweet and sorrowful.

The group did a unique take on the Gershwin standard “Summertime” using the lead-in to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” to start and end the song. The clever pairing added a little suspense and humor to the classic standard that they used as blues-based improvisational vehicle. The audience loved it.
The group continued with several other songs including one that had Anick playing raw fiddle like it could be part of a country hoe down. The old standard “The Best Things in Life Are Free” was played in a way that could have easily conjured up memories of the great Joe Venuti in style.

The crowd at Steve’s came to hear the next generation of gypsy jazz and they were not disappointed. The audience gave the band a standing ovation and the band returned for one encore performance of guitarist Olli Soikkeli’s composition “Bushwick Stomp,” the first song he wrote when he came to America from his native Finland. The tune is a barn burner and has recently reached more than one million views on You Tube, fascinating viewers with its fluid swing, the technical facility and the finely honed synchronicity that these young artists display
The Rhythm Future Quartet is now on tour promoting their new album Travels which highlights their hectic schedule. According to a post on bassist Greg Loughman’s Facebook page the group performed in twenty-one states last year and if their popularity is any indication they should easily break that mark this year. One thing for sure if you have a chance to check out these Gypsy Jazz bandits don’t pass it up.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Mayor's Office of the City of Atlanta Announces Atlanta Jazz Festival Line Up for 2016

Atlanta Jazz Festival
Last Tuesday morning the Mayor of the City of Atlanta, Kasim Reed, and his Executive Director of Cultural Affairs, Camille Russell Love, unveiled the lineup for the upcoming 2016 Atlanta Jazz Festival to be held over Memorial Day weekend May 27-29th.  The press conference was held in the voluminous atrium space at City Hall.

This year’s Festival, the 39th of such annual events, is one of the largest free jazz festivals in the country and takes place in Atlanta’s historic and verdant Piedmont Park. The Festival is made possible by generous corporate and private sponsorship and by the continuing efforts by the Mayor's Office of Cultural Affairs and the Festival’s Board of Directors.

The press conference was kicked off by the performance of local artist Alex Lattimore, a contemporary soul and jazz singer/trumpeter and his quartet. The event unveiled the new Jazz Poster for this year’s event, created by Brazilian born and now Atlanta based artist Yoyo Ferro. The poster features a bright fancifully stylized trumpet player with the Atlanta City Skyline in the background, a scene the artist said was inspired while listening to jazz and viewing the skyline from his own home in downtown.

The artist Yoyo Ferro with Mayor Kasim Reed and Director Camille Russell Love
Mayor Reed and Ms. Love both spoke of the vital part art like the jazz festival plays in improving the quality of life here in Atlanta. The event remains free to all and if last year was any indication of the popularity of this event, this year’s artist line up, which has a more intentionally international and crossover roster, should ensure even greater participation.  While the Festival is the focal point of this Arts initiative there are many other venues and events that will create a month long music extravaganza in the City.

MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) Mondays were also announced for the month of May, with live jazz concerts in stations during commuter hours. Jazz performances will be presented from 3-5 pm starting on May 2nd st the Chamblee station, continuing on May 9th at the Five Points Station, May 16th at the Lakewood Station and May 23rd at the Midtown Station. For more information on who is playing click here

There is a neighborhood jazz series that features local artists, trumpeter Russell Gunn, the venerable crooner Freddy Cole, chanteuse Julie Dexter, and trumpeter Gordon Vernick at various parks within the City starting on May 1 through May 22nd.  See schedule here.

And if that's not enough for the die-hard jazz fan the local clubs are featuring a late night jazz series with local and some imported artist throughout the City for the entire month of May. You can access this calendar of events by click here.

Ms. Love said in prepared statement " We are excited about the lineup for this year's Atlanta Jazz Festival. from the soulful groove of Gregory Porter, the hip-hop inspired brass of Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, and the sensuous stylings of Brazilian songstress Eliane Elias, we've got a wide variety of jazz flavors." 

For the traditional jazzers out there, eighty-seven-year-old saxophonist Benny Golson will be bringing his straight ahead music to the main stage on Sunday preceding the soulful Mr.  Porter.

For those of you who are into more progressive jazz the Next Collective could be your ticket on Friday night on the main stage at 7 pm. This powerhouse group includes a front line of Logan Richardson on alto, Walter Smith III on tenor, Christian Scott on trumpet Gerald Clayton on keyboards, Ben Williams on bass and Jamire Williams on drums.

The Headhunters is a must see for those who love fusion/funk. With co-leaders and former Herbie Hancock band mates, the grooving Mike Clark on drums and Bill Summers on percussion and vocals, this latest iteration of the group include saxophonist Donald Harrison, Chris Severin on electric bass and Stephen Gordon on keyboards. The band takes the main stage Sunday at 5 pm.

For the internationally inspired there is Israeli guitarist Assaf Kehati and his trio, Afro Caribbean star trumpeter Etienne Charles and Chilean vocalist Camilla Mezza and her quartet.

A full schedule of the three-day festival can be accessed here. Plan on staking your claim to a spot on the lawn early as this event is a party that no one who loves great music wants to miss.

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Sal Gentile Trio's Sunday Jazz brunch at Bistro Niko in Buckhead

Local Atlanta Guitarist Sal Gentile
We are always in search of a good jazz brunch, that rare combination of great breakfast food that goes beyond scrambling a couple of eggs, a slightly decadent atmosphere that makes it seem like you’re celebrating a special occasion, impeccably attentive service and last but not least great music. Last Sunday we made our way to Bistro Niko in the heart of Buckhead to catch a glimpse of some local jazz talent and have what we were hoping would be a great brunch.

We arrived at the restaurant for a two o’clock sitting and the last set of guitarist Sal Gentile’s trio. Gentile is a former New Yorker who came to Atlanta in 1985 after spending over ten years in New Orleans. Gentile teaches and has been performing for years. Some of his guitar influences are Wes Montgomery, Grant Green and Joe Pass. Gentile’s music has spanned the spectrum of pop, rock, blues and jazz over the years. On this particular Sunday he shared the stage with upright bassist Kevin Smith and featured trumpeter Joe Gransden. These musicians are all local stalwarts of the Atlanta jazz scene and it is a pleasure to be able to enjoy a pleasant meal while being entertained by such accomplished artists.  

Joe Gransden, Sal Gentile and Kevin Smith at Bistro Nikos

The final set included a number of Great American Songbook standards including the Victor Young/ Ed Heyman composition “When I Fall in Love,” a medley of Ray Charles’ ”Georgia on My Mind” and Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” and by special request, one of my favorites the Coots/Gillespie classic  “You Go to My Head.” The trio also did a bebop favorite Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology” and a song from local trumpeter legend Kenny Dorham’s repertoire “Blue Bossa.” The trio features animated vocals by Mr. Gentile on the aforementioned “Georgia on My Mind” and “New York State of Mind” and on a specialty song I couldn’t quite place.  Mr. Gransden’s trumpet was mellifluous but sparse in this subdued trio setting and he instead crooned on some of the standards with great aplomb. Mr. Grandsen is a well know artist who also heads a big seventeen piece orchestra that plays around town. Mr. Smith is an established first call bassist in the area.The overall effect was quite enjoyable and we came away with both first rate entertainment and a tasty brunch.

For anyone looking for a great jazz brunch check out Bistro Niko on Peachtree in the Buckhead section of Atlanta. The food was good, the service great and the music top notch. Mr. Gentile is there every Sunday from 11am through 3pm and he often features other local artists like Mr. Gansden, Mr. Smith in a  trio setting. It's a can't miss destination.