Sunday, May 28, 2017

Trolling for Jazz at the 40Th Annual Atlanta Jazz Festival

Legends Stage 
This year’s Atlanta Jazz Festival marks the fortieth year of one of the largest free jazz festivals in the country. With strong corporate and community support the festival is a celebration of music, a drawing together of neighborhoods near and far and a kick off to the summer season here in Atlanta. To celebrate this milestone, the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs commissioned a book of pictures, photographs taken from the Festival’s forty-year history, that best captures the spirit of this tremendous yearly spectacular. The coffee table book features the work of photographers Jim Alexander, Ernest Gregory, Susan Ross, Michael Reese and Julie Yarborough and can be purchased by linking here.

So far, the weather has cooperated and the festival seems to be enjoying record crowds. I was able to  attend part of Friday night’s session. The evening started out with the Pedrito Martinez Group at 7:30 pm on the main stage which by all accounts had the house rocking. I got there in time to catch the genre bending Robert Glasper Experiment which was the headliner on the Main or Legends Stage at 9 pm.

Robert Glasper
Glasper is a contemporary pianist and keyboard artist who often plays in a modern trio format as well as his more progressive, electronic group The Experiment. He recently won the Grammy for his work on the soundtrack to Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis movie Miles Ahead as well as for his fifth studio album from 2012 Black Radio. His work is an amalgam of R & B, Hip/Hop, Groove based music with jazz oriented improvisations.

Glasper came onto the Legends stage in high spirits. It appeared as if he was feeling no pain, amusingly rapping with the audience before he even got started about how they should show their appreciation for him and his group, whether or not they were any good, because the concert was free. This version of the Experience featured Glasper on keyboards, Casey Benjamin on saxophone and vocoder, Mike Severson on guitar, Burniss Travis on electric bass and Justin Tyson on drums. The band started with “Cherish the Day” a Sade tune from his Black Radio album and proceeded with a set of mostly groove based tunes that had the crowd vibing.  Mr. Benjamin has an arresting voice with a high range that he processes along with his saxophone through a vocoder. The eerie sound can be compelling but is best used sparingly. Guitarist Severson whose credits include work with singer/rapper Bilal, showed some gutsy  rock playing that at times recalled Carlos Santana’s guitar work.  Glasper was most effective when he played solo, a dedication of sorts to Miles Davis whose birthday was the day before, on the Cyndi Lauper pop tune that Davis memorialized into the jazz canon “Time After Time.” The crowd sang willingly along and glassy eyed Glasper seemed to have them all in the palm of his hand.

Randy Weston

On Saturday I made my way to the Legends Stage and caught the first few songs of the maestro Randy Weston and the infectious sounds of his African Rhythms Quintet. Mr. Weston, an incredibly vital ninety-one-year old, brought together a stellar group of musicians on the big stage. Joining Mr. Weston was his core group of T.K. Blue on alto saxophone, Alex Blake on contrabass and Neil Clarke on percussion. The tenor saxophone legend Billy Harper, a longtime collaborator also played on this gig. To watch Mr. Weston bounce his feet while playing his piano with such exuberance is a real treat. Harper’s tone is so focused, mellow and penetrating as to be its own reward. The group just played beautifully swinging and deeply soulful music.

I made my way across the throngs of people, past the rows of tents, the spread blankets, the myriad of camper chairs, the parade of porta-potties and countless concession stands to the Contemporary stage in anxious anticipation of Nicholas Payton’s performance scheduled for 5:30pm. The lawn that faces the bandstand was brimming with people for yards and yards. It was a beautiful day and the crowd was into a party. At forty-three, New Orlean’s born trumpeter Nicholas Payton is a force to be reckoned with. He has made his bones touring with such legends like Elvin Jones and Marcus Roberts. He received a Grammy for “Best Instrumental Solo” for his work on the album Doc Cheatham & Nicholas Payton from 1997. While his work is always evolving, his distinctive, rich trumpet is always at his ready command. He is a prolific writer and social commentator who has challenged conventional thinking on racial inequities. 
The Crowds swelled  at the Contemporary Stage
For this concert, Payton brought his group from his recently released Afro-Caribbean Mix Tape album, and sat behind a stack of keyboards, his trumpet was mounted to his right on a bracket that allowed him to both blow and play keys simultaneously. Turntable artist DJ Lady Fingaz deftly maneuvered the scratches and taped vocals into the flow of the music. Bronx bopper Daniel Sadownick laid down the Afro-Cuban groove on percussion, with Joe Dyson on drums and Vincent Archer on bass. Payton’s grooves skillfully integrate musical influences developed from world influenced beats, harmonies and melodic roots. At the same time his signature clarion trumpet utilizes a variety of notes, slurs and trills that complement the music brilliantly. It was especially interesting to listen and watch as the rhythmic patterns developed by Fingaz’s turntable melded so seamlessly with Sadownick’s congas and Dyson’s rhythmic patterns.

Nicholas Payton
I hurried over to the New Gen stage, quite a trek at the far end of the park, to catch the Marquis Hill “Blacktet” which started at 6:30 pm. Marquis Hill was new to me, but he and his group of young pumped up musicians, thrilled the smaller more intimate crowd at this venue. The twenty-nine-year old Hill is from Chicago and won the prestigious Thelonious Monk Trumpet Competition in 2014. He is considered one of the new wave of players to be reckoned with. The group did a set of tight, well-conceived music, mostly standards, but rearranged by Hill and company to better express their modern sensibilities. With Hill on trumpet and, was the formidable Mike King on Fender Rhodes, Josh Johnson on alto sax, an animated Jeremiah Hunt on bass and Jonathan Pinson on drums. I caught a few songs the most recognizable was a potent version of the Herbie Hancock standard “Maiden Voyage.” Hill claims Donald Byrd as a major influence and one can see some similarities, but the young man has a fluid style that is rapidly becoming his own. It was interesting to see Nicholas Payton checking out the younger Hill from the sidelines.

Marquis Hill,  Jeremiah Hunt and Josh Jackson on the Next Gen Stage
I made my way back to the Contemporary stage to catch a few songs of one of the evenings headliners Macy Gray and take some pictures. Ms. Gray has a distinctive, gravelly voice that can be very engaging. As a seasoned entertainer, she played to the large overflowing audience with aplomb.  She wore a slick, dark gray leather gown with a red and black boa and pink shoes. I surveyed the lawn in front of the stage and it was more overflowing then I had ever seen in in the last two years of being here. A very impressive showing for an artist whose appeal is more pop than jazz. The band was tight and professional and Ms. Gray accommodated the crowd with some of her popular favorites like “I Try.”

Macy Gray

I moved my way to the Legends stage to try to catch some of Rene Marie’s act. Ms. Marie looked elegant in her tightly clipped silver gray hair, wearing a white tunic over black pants. Ms. Marie, a talented singer who writes much of her own music, finally achieved some national recognition when her last album Sound of Red was one of those nominated for Best Jazz Vocal Album for 2016. She brought a stellar cast of musicians with her on the Legends stage including pianist John Chin, bassist Elias Bailey and drummer Quintin Baxter. Inspired performances by the energetic pianist Chin and a masterfully bowed solo by Bailey added to the set.

Rene Marie, Quintin Baxter,ELias Bailey and John Chin on the Legends Stage
Ms. Marie has a beautiful voice with a full range and a sophisticated delivery that is quite compelling. Her bluesy, soulful sound is always a treat and she was warmly received by the enormous crowd.
The evening’s top bill on the Legends Stage was saxophone and flute legend Charles Lloyd who started just before nine pm. The seventy-nine-year old Mr. Lloyd was nattily attired in his signature pork pie hat, blue deck shoes and a white loosely fit blazer under a horizontally stripped deck pullover shirt. Mr.  Lloyd is a west coast musician who has a long and storied history of going his own way. In the sixties, he was musical director for drummer Chico Hamilton’s Group and was with Cannonball Adderley’s Group for Two years.  In 1965, he formed a legendary quartet with pianist Keith Jarrett, bassist Cecil Mc Bee and drummer Jack De Johnette, whose recording Forest Flower was one of the first crossover jazz albums to sell over a million copies. His experiments with fusing psychedelic rock, avant-garde and free jazz were revolutionary.

Charles Lloyd
The always morphing Lloyd still attracts top talent as his most recent rhythm section demonstrates. On the stage, he was joined by the facile Reuben Rogers on upright bass and the ubiquitous Eric Harland on drums. Rogers was in top form as he pushed the pulse along with Harland’s dancing traps. Mr. Lloyd rocked the music, his spindly figure wielding his large tenor as if it was one with his being. Lloyd has a youthful energy that he communicates through his horn and the two younger musicians were visibly prodded on by his enthusiasm. On one tune, Mr. Lloyd picked up his flute and started to play a soulful peppered vamp that Mr.  Rogers countered to with his own staccato response. It was quite entertaining to watch the younger musicians follow the lead of the master.

As the evening wore on the crowd started to dissipate, as many were there from mid-afternoon. For the truly fanatic, there was a sold-out Jazz Jam, hosted by local drummer “Little John” Robert’s and his All-Star Band and featuring trumpet master Russell Gunn and percussionist Mino Cinelu, after eleven pm at the Park Tavern at Piedmont Park.

If you missed the events of the last two days you still have Sunday when the lineup will include local  saxophonist  Frank Houston, trumpeter Darren English, chanteuse Kemba Cofield, Cleveland Jones, singer Julie Dexter, Joe Gransden’s Big Band, trumpeter Russell Gunn and saxophonist Kebbi Williams and the venerable crooner Freddy Cole to name just a few. 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Saxophonist Dayna Stephens: Knowing the Meaning of "Gratitude"

Gratitude is a state of mind. A sense of seeing all the benefits that life has bestowed on one and demonstrating a true appreciation for having received them. Sometimes gratitude takes the form of a prayer of thanks to one’s creator. Sometimes it is a simple expression of showing those around you that you care and have not taken their kindness or love for granted. Sometimes it is a simple moment of acknowledgment that briefly crosses past one’s consciousness amongst all the daily clutter. For saxophonist/composer Dayna Stephens Gratitude is a musical expression of joy, appreciation and a celebration of life.

The thirty-nine-year-old Brooklyn born saxophonist grew up in the San Francisco Bay area before attending school at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston on scholarship. He has studied with piano legend Kenny Baron, pianist Ed Kelley, trumpeter Terrence Blanchard and the iconic Wayne Shorter among others and was on his way to establishing himself as one of the top young voices of a new generation of saxophonists when he was diagnosed with Focal Segmental Glomerulosclerosis, a rare kidney disease, in 2009. After struggling with the limitations of the disease, awaiting a suitable transplant that somehow often seemed just out of, and with the challenge of finding the funds necessary to get the expensive anti-rejection drug treatment needed for the transplant, Stephens finally received a transplant from his Aunt Lauren Bullock in October of 2015. All during the process Stephens maintained his music as his own personal lifeline. Meanwhile the musical community, both friends and fans, rallied for him, planning benefit concerts, outreaching to the public for donations to help the young musician defray some of the costs of his operation and treatments.Stephens sees this new lease on life as a gift that he cannot take for granted and thus this heartfelt album Gratitude is his musical expression to all those that helped, encouraged and stood by him in his time of need.

The music is a splendid offering by a deeply talented musician. His sound is warm and liquid, and conveys great emotional depth with an earnest but joyful intensity.  The band features a stellar cast of today’s most sort after musicians; Brad Mehldau on piano, Julian Lage on guitar, Larry Grenadier on bass and Eric Harland on drums. 

Stephens’ musical selections are marvelously diverse and uber contemporary. He has skillfully distilled the music of such diverse artists as the French composer/violinist Olivier Manchon, the poetic stylings of Rebbeca Martin, the electronica-jazz driven music of Michelle Amador, the Americana tinged work of guitarist Julian Lage, the durable music of guitar legend Pat Metheny and the perennially masterwork of Billy Strayhorn, into a modern interpretation of what this music means to him.

Starting with the beautifully rendered “Emilie,” we get a taste of Stephens deeply personal approach to sound. His tone is honey-throated, an authentic extension of his voice. Pianist Mehldau, exploratory as ever, responds to this sensitive piece with a probing solo that traverses the outskirts of the melody without ever losing its bearings. Grenadier and Harland offer turbulent, but somehow totally in sync backup, that redefines what it means to be provide rhythmic support. 

On the pianist Aaron Parks moving “In a Garden” Stephens sincerely states the melody and then bassist Grenadier takes an ambitious, plucky solo as Lage’s filigreed guitar work provides a delicate backdrop.

On Michelle Amador’s “Amber is Falling” Stephens is again the lead voice. The band swirls around him in a mist of sounds in the intro, until the song takes on a more forceful launch with Stephens again leading the way with his fluid tenor that brims with clarity and purposeful direction. The superb rhythm section builds the song into a flurry of tension that allows Stephens to soar above the roil. Mehldau spins his pianistic magic on a solo of inspired imagination, spurred along in part by the limitless percussive wellspring of ideas that Harland’s drum kit provides. Stephens ends the piece holding a contemplative note to silence.

On guitarist Julian Lage’s cinematic “Woodside Waltz” we are transported back to a time of wagon wheels and five-cent a beer saloon’s with a honk-tonk piano tucked off to the side of the bar. Mehldau employ the “tack” piano to produce the nostalgic sound. Stephens’ offers a plaintive sound on his tenor which is contrasted nicely by Lage’s nimble, Western-tinged guitar solo.  

On Pat Metheny’s ruminative composition “We Had a Sister,” Stephens uses his EWI/synthesizer to create an otherworldly sound. The electronics are nicely counterpointed against Mehldau’s, by comparison, stark acoustic piano sound. The composer originally played this song acoustically with his trio, but Metheny’s own subsequent electronic explorations could easily be the source of inspiration for Stephens version of this quiet gem.

Stephens’ sole composition on this album is “Timbre of Gratitude.” The song features Stephens’ and Lage playing synchronous lines. On his solo, Lage traverses the fretboard with a gossamer touch that flows like droplets of water running down the silken strands of a spider’s web.

Billy Strayhorn’s exotic “Isfahan” finds Stephens on the big baritone saxophone. His tone is rich with a lustrous vibrato that burrows its way into your chest cavity.  The interplay between him and Lage’s masterful guitarwork is especially noteworthy.

On Rebecca Martin’s beguiling “Don’t Mean a Thing at All,” Stephens’ tenor is warm and inviting and resonates into your soul. The marvelous melody is accentuated with a subtle synthesizer accompaniment by Stephens as Lage darts around the melody with his deft guitar accents.

The closing song is a medley of two songs titled “Clouds.” The first by Massimo Biocati is a synthesized series of vamps with Stephens’ sole tenor voice singing against a trap drum background. The second is by Louis Cole and has a more magisterial, orchestral sound, again with Stephens tenor and synthesizer. Both offer an interesting look at mixing electronics with acoustic instruments to create intriguing aural landscapes.

With Gratitude Stephens has returned from his brush with illness in renewed and inspired form. He has created a  distinctive suite of music, with intriguing contemporary melodies, that should satisfy even the most demanding of listeners.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Joe Gransden's Big Band Jazz Camp June 18th thru June 23rd

For those of us who love this music we call jazz, there is no better way to preserve the tradition- to preserve the only truly indigenous American art form- than to honor the musicians who play it by supporting them through our attendance at live music concerts and shows where they perform. Another worthy way to ensure continuity is to support music education in our schools. Education in all the arts, especially music, is being decimated by chronic underfunding and a general attitude that has come to value monetary gain over artistic excellence. The traditional avenues for developing fine young musicians in our primary and secondary schools has been seriously compromised by this paucity of funding and cannot, by itself, be relied upon to provide all that is necessary to set a firm foundation for a future in music. It is thus a grand opportunity for all of us to embrace individual efforts to recognize and elevate the music by offering our youth with a life changing experience that celebrates this great American art form. Joe Gransden’ Big Band Jazz Camp is just the type of worthy endeavor that deserves our attention and support

Joe Gransden, an Atlanta musician/bandleader and vocalist, has been working as a professional musician since his first professional gig with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra when he was barely twenty. Since 2001, when he arrived in Atlanta permanently, his ubiquitous presence and congenial personality has made him a central figure in the jazz community around not only Atlanta but the Southeast United States. On any given night Joe and his golden Monette trumpet can be seen fronting a jazz duo, a trio, a quartet or his seventeen piece Joe Gransden Big Band at any one of several local area establishments. 

This year Joe came up with an idea to offer youthful musicians between the ages of thirteen and nineteen a rare opportunity to attend an intensive jazz camp at a very nominal cost.  The camp will be held between Sunday June 18th thru Friday June 23rd at Cambridge High School in Milton, GA. The camp will allow students, who must be accepted via an audition process, a chance to work in multiple formats (duo, trio, quartet and big band) under the supervision of some of the area’s most successful professionals and world class educators. The intensive five-day program give attendees a chance to receive rare mentorship with professionals, many who play the very same instruments theses students are trying to master. The opportunity to work and develop alongside fellow students who have the same passion and desire in a nurturing environment will also add to this life altering experience.

Joe tells me spaces in the program are filling up fast so anyone who has a child that is gifted or shows a proclivity for this music should not delay in signing up for this once in a lifetime experience. The cost for the full five-day program is a modest $400.00. There are also half-day programs available. The program is also accepting sponsorships and donations from private individuals. These funds will allow the program to accept worthy individual students who might otherwise not be able to attend due to lack of funds.If you love this music and you want to see it continue please consider making a donation or sponsoring one child in this worthy cause. You can find information as to how you contribute by clicking here and following the prompts on Joe’s site. 

Some of the amazing musicians who will be teaching and mentoring at the camp besdies Joe include acclaimed trombonists Lee Watts and Wes Funderburk; incendiary trumpeter Melvin Jones; guitarist Trey Wright; Grammy Award winning saxophonist Kebbi Williams and saxophonist Luke Weathington; Multi-reed specialist Hal Melvin; bassist Neal Starkey and Tim Aucoin; Grammy nominated drummer Sammy K and pianist/educator extraordinaire Kevin Bales. 

You can learn more about the camp and register by visiting

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Vocalist Mark Winkler celebrates life with "The Company I Keep"

It is not easy to lose someone who you are close to. Grief can be debilitating, especially if the person you lose has been the object of your undying affection for thirty-five years. Vocalist Mark Winkler experienced this when he lost his husband and friend movie executive Richard  Del Belso last year.

Instead of using the experience to sit and sulk, Winkler turned the emotions this loss elicited into a source of inspiration to renew friendships, immerse himself in his music and create his latest album, The Company I Keep. Winkler is one of the few hip, male singers that has both the chops and the intellectual affinity for writing clever lyrics of the type we associate with the Great American Songbook.

On The Company I Keep, Winkler has shown he also has an ear for great collaborations. The album features duets with longtime collaborator Cheryl Bentyne of Manhattan Transfer fame, vocalists Jackie Ryan, Claire Martin, Sara Gazarek and Steve Tyrell. The musicianship on this album is stellar with arrangements by Jamieson Trotter, John Beasley, Josh Nelson and Rich Eames.  

My favorite tracks feature Mark singing his own lyrics. Songs like the campy Bill Cantos’ composition  “Midnight in Paris”  with special kudos to the clarinet work of Don Shelton and the poignant violin of Paul Cartwright. The Bourbon Street flavored “But It Still A’int So” with Steve Tyrell singing with a gusto reminiscent of a young Mac Rebennack, is another highlight, punctuated with a gusty tenor solo by the yeoman Bob Sheppard.

Winkler is a developed taste, like appreciating a fine bourbon, he grows on you over time with his smooth, smoky delivery. His voice just nails all the right notes and he has a mastery of that long-lost art of storytelling.

If you have any doubts, just listen to his captivating story about an old jazz singer on “That Afternoon in Harlem” featuring the magical stride-like piano work of Eric Reed, the soulful trombone of Bob McChesney and the incomparable brush work of Jeff Hamilton. The musical scene just lingers in your mind and then as the lyrics lament “For a moment the world just fell away.”

Mark was strongly influenced by the late jazz vocalist Mark Murphy. His treatment of one of Murphy’s lyricized versions of Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments” is a special tribute. The duet with Claire Martin includes Winkler’s own lyrics that accurately depicts seeing the singer famously performing his daring do “without a net,” capturing Murphy’ spirited, vocal adventurism.  A delicately bowed bass intro/outro and a subsequent pizzicato solo on the tender “Loves Comes Quietly” by the great John Clayton is a real treat. The song also features Reed’s sensitive piano comping and again Jeff Hamilton’s superb trap work.  

The joyful Leonard Berstien song "Lucky to Be Me" features David Benoit on piano and uplifting clarinet solo by the versatile Bob Sheppard. Rich Eames gorgeous piano accompanies Winkler's heartfelt rendition of "Here's to Life."

This is Winkler’s fifteenth cd and features an eclectic repertoire of songs from composers as diverse as Gershwin, Donald Fagen, Prince, Leonard Bernstein and Oliver Nelson. There is something here for everyone. The man has exquisite taste and a beguiling voice that deserves widespread attention. Bravo Mark,  I’am sure Richard would be most proud.