Sunday, February 18, 2018

Emory Jazz Fest 2018: Peter Erskine, Darek Oles, Warren Wolf and Gary Motley perform at the Schwartz Center

Gary Motley, Darek Oles, Warren Wolf and Peter Erskine at Emory's Schwartz Center
On Friday February 9th the 2018 Emory Jazz Fest presented a sophisticated quartet at the beautiful Schwartz Center featuring the world class drummer Peter Erskine, the vibraphonist Warren Wolf, the bassist Darek Oles and Emory’s own director of Jazz Studies Gary Motley on piano. The concert on Friday was the highlight of a series of master classes that professor Motley arranged with the drummer/educator Peter Erskine to conduct on Thursday for the jazz studies students. Bringing in musicians of Mr. Erskine’s caliber, to share their in-depth insight, makes the musical educational experience at Emory appreciably more vibrant and Professor Motley should be applauded for his continuing efforts in this direction. Past performers at the Emory Jazz Fest have featured an impressive array of artists including the trumpeter Nicholas Payton, the saxophonist Theodross Avery, the drummer Carl Allen, the bassist Rodney Whitaker, the clarinetist Anat Cohen, multi-reed artist Victor Goines, the violinist Regina Carter and drummer Terreon Gulley.  The Emory Jazz Alliance should also be commended for their dedication to supporting the jazz studies program at Emory by raising awareness of this admirable art form.

The concert on Friday night was a highlight open to the public. A drum clinic on Saturday morning was opened to the public and was packed with drummers who wanted to get some of the inside scoop on techniques from the jubilant Mr. Erskine. Erskine, a roundish almost jovial presence, peppered his Saturday morning clinic and demonstration with some pithy anecdotes about his career and the various characters that he has worked with over the years, from Walter Becker and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan to Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter from his Weather Report Days. 

Erskine’s work can be heard on over seven hundred recordings starting with the Stan Kenton Big Band,  the seminal fusion group Weather Report and the cutting edge group Steps Ahead and including his work with artists from Joni Mitchell, Diane Krall and Jaco Pastorious to Bob Mintzer and Pat Metheny. He is a drummer’s drummer.

I attended both the Friday night concert and the Saturday morning drum clinic with Mr. Erskine. I was unable to attend the Saturday performance where Mr. Erskine and Mr. Oles performed with Mr. Motley and the Emory jazz orchestra and the Emory Symphony Strings.

The Friday night concert was nearly sold out, with the audience anxious to see this talented group perform. The group started with Erskine’s own composition “Twelve” which is a swinger loosely based on Cole Porter’s “Easy to Love.” Warren Wolf, whose vibraphone was center stage, took the lead solo; a smoothly executed cascade of high register notes. Mr. Motley seated at the piano stage left, took the second solo, a brief one featuring some interesting block chording ala George Shearing. The bassist Oles (whose full name is Darek Oleszkiewicz) offered a facile, deep-toned solo of his own before Erskine ended the piece with his own rousing barrage.

“Solstice” was the next selection, a pretty melody written by Mr. Motley and featured on his fine album No Reservations Required, released in 2017, but played here at a slower more sensitive pace. Kenny Barron’s “The Traveler” became the vehicle for some nice synchronous playing between Wolf’s vibraphone and Motley’s piano. Watching Erskine was like a lesson in technique. While the drummer for the most part played very laid back, he utilized sticks, brushes, the back of his brush, mallets and every other technique to get the sound he wanted.

Mr. Wolf led the proceeding for the most part when he was on stage. His composition “Sweetbread,” an upbeat swinger, was the next selection and his work on the vibes was light and liquid. He drew upon that tubular sound of his instrument to great effect letting the ring of those metal tubes linger in the air when appropriate. Erskine started to push the proceedings along a bit and Mr. Motley seemed to respond to the prodding with his own invigorated piano work.

Mr. Wolf’s beautiful ballad “Annoyance” from his album Wolfgang was said to be inspired by an annoyingly repeated note in one of Mozart’s compositions. Mr. Wolf, who credits the vibraphonist Dave Samuels as his mentor, can be quite moving on his instrument. The talented Wolf can also play drums, marimba and piano.

Mr. Wolf then left the stage and the quartet turned into Mr. Motley’s trio. The group did a Cole Porter tune “Everything I Love.” The song started out with a call and response between Oles and Erskine. You could see the intuitive nature of these two communicating on the stand as they have worked numerous times together over the years. Being the odd man out, Motley at times during the evening seemed a bit tentative, but on this one his solo work was a fountainhead of creativity and nuance. It became obvious that it became his trio and the three musicians responded to his commanding direction.

Wolf returned, and the quartet did a Stevie Wonder composition “Knocks Me Off My Feet” from his Songs in the Key of Life for the final song. The funky arrangement featured a nice solo by Wolf.  The group took a bow and the audience stood applauding until they came back for a final encore.

The group did an encore of “You and the Night and the Music,” which featured one of Motley’s most adventurous solos of the night. Wolf was as smooth as silk. Oles kept a rock-solid tempo throughout the evening and Erskine made his nuanced drum work look like it was effortless. The drummer ended the set with a rolling tom solo that scintillated the crowd.

The group never got too out of the box but presented a very polished performance that was reminiscent of the sophisticated work of John Lewis and Milt Jackson with their seminal group the Modern Jazz Quartet. 

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Guitar Wizard Charlie Hunter Brings His World Class Trio to the Red Light Cafe in Midtown Atlanta

Charlie Hunter
On Tuesday night February 6, 2018, at Atlanta’s Red Light Café, I was lucky enough to attend a performance of guitarist Charlie Hunter and his trio. To see this seven-string guitarist in action in such an intimate setting as the Red Light is a real treat, and based on the sold out audience, I was not alone in my assessment. The Red Light is located on the eastside of Piedmont Park in the Amsterdam Walk section of Midtown. A storefront location with painted concrete block walls that are loosely adorned with funky local artwork gives this bare bones listening room a homey, comfortable vibe.  The venue features roots rock, folk, bluegrass, blues and occasionally comedy and burlesque nightly. To see a jazz artist of the caliber of Hunter and his trio mates at this venue is something special.

I have been fortunate to have seen the New Jersey native previously and he did not fail to surprise and delight with his touring trio on this occasion. Hunter has mastered a mind-blowing technique on his custom seven and eight string guitars where he plays bass on the upper strings and comps himself with chording or single note bursts almost simultaneously. If you don't see him actually do this with your own eyes you would not believe it is possible. The great guitarist Joe Pass would often accompany himself with a similar technique on a six-string guitar, but Hunter has taken the technique to a more rhythmically vibrant dimension with his custom seven string instrument. Hunter is a phenom and has recorded and played with the likes of rapper Mos Def, contemporary R & B artist D’Angelo, singer Norah Jones, rocker John Mayer as well as many contemporary jazz artists. He is also one of those musicians who seems never content to sit on his laurels, always searching for new avenues of musical expression.

This tour was originally billed to be a duo with Hunter and the Mexican songstress Silvana Estrada, who Hunter met while teaching a master class at the university in Mexico City. He was so impressed with her unique musicality that he stayed on and recorded an album of songs with her and drummer Carter McClean. According to the information on Hunter’s website, despite having an authentic sound that was born in her southern Mexican Jarocho tradition, the new immigration authorities in their infinite wisdom, determined that her music wasn’t sufficiently culturally unique enough to warrant a performing visa. This is unfortunately the state of affairs in our present- hostile to immigrants- political environment fostered by the present administration. 

With his tour pre-booked Hunter had to scramble and enlisted the percussionist Keito Ogawa of Snarky Puppy fame and the singer Lucy Woodward to join him for the North American tour. In talking to Ms. Woodward between sets, she got the call and the trio had to quickly come up with a suitable repertoire for the tour.

Keita Ogawa, Charlie Hunter and Lucy Woodward at the Red Light Cafe in Atlanta
The set started with a funky version of Duke Ellington’s “Blue Pepper” with just Mr. Hunter and Mr. Ogawa playing as a duo. The two feeding off each other in sympathetic response. Hunter’s facility on full display and Ogawa making a variety of sounds from a very unconventional looking drum set that used a dried gourd as his bass drum.

Keita Ogawa's Drumset complete with three toy pigs and a gourd bass drum
The duo did a slow, slithering blues written by Hunter “(Wish I Was) Already Paid and On My Way Home” and featured on his 2016 release cleverly titled Everybody Has A Plan Until they Get Punched in the Mouth. Hunter’s dexterity and technique on full display as he played the bass lines and ripped a gutsy solo using only his thumb and forefinger and a peculiar pickless-finger style.

The group introduced vocalist Lucy Woodward to the stage and they performed the Nina Simone classic “Plain Gold Earring.”  Woodward's pedigree includes back-up singing with Rod Stewart, Chaka Khan, Joe Cocker and Snarky Puppy. Born of English-American parents, Ms.  Woodward is an attractive, thirty-something with a sensuous voice that has elements of the chanteuse Shirley Bassey in it. Her bodacious smoky delivery also reminds me of a cross between Peggy Lee and Julie London. The group dynamic was smooth and joyful as Woodward added some vocal color to the music.

Ms. Woodward seemed to become more comfortable as the night went on, especially on blues like  “Walkin’ the Line” or “I Put a Spell on You” where her husky, breathy tone added a bit of  Janis Joplin-like rasp to full effect.  Hunter continued to astound with his steady rhythmic beat and his facile finger work. Ogawa added unique sounds to the mix from his treasure chest of percussive instruments.

One of the highlights of the evening, if just for the sheer originality of it all, was when Hunter and Woodward left the stage and Keita Ogawa performed an astonishing solo using three squeaky pig toys that he said he bought at Walmart. It claims on his website that the Japanese percussionist “…can virtually play any percussion instrument and musical style with fluency and unparalleled musicality.”  Click here to see  this brief cut and see if you don’t agree.

The band did a series of songs that featured Ms. Woodward’s fetching voice including Cole Porter’s “Too Darn Hot” with a scorching solo by Hunter and Lucinda Williams “It’s Over But I Can’t Let Go” which featured some call and response between Ogawa and Woodward.

After a brief intermission- the audience given a chance to interact with the musicians and purchase some albums-the group restarted with a seething hot blues “I Don’t Know”  where Hunter played deftly on a wah pedal. Then proceeded on to  the Willie Dixon classic “Spoonful” where the guitarist had hints of Hendrix in his free flowing lines.

The set continued with “Dream,” “Making Whoopee,” and ended the evening with “I Go Insane.” The evening was a superlative event filled with funk, grit, blues, soul, jazz and swing. Mr. Hunter is a treasure of creativity, Mr. Ogawa a master of rhythm and Ms. Woodward a wonderful vocalist. The three musicians were incredible, and the crowd was on their feet at the end of the evening realizing they had seen a world class musical event in midtown Atlanta. Afterwards, a friend who I had brought gushed on about how it was one of the best concerts he had ever been to! What more could you ask for?

Here is a sample of Charlie's incredible guitar work with drummer Scott Amendola on Ellington's "Blue Pepper"

Saturday, February 3, 2018

The Art of the Storyteller in Song: Kate McGarry's Trio "The Subject Tonight is Love" at the Velvet Note in Alpharetta, GA

Kate McGarry, Keith Ganz and Gary Versace The Subject Tonight is Love Binxtown Records
The songstress Kate McGarry is one of those rare performers whose heartfelt interpretation of the lyrics and earnest vocal delivery capture you in a very visceral way. She has a tonally pure voice that she employs to portray everything from innocence to sultriness, wiliness to wonder and passion to pain. But at the very heart of her musical strengths is her authenticity, a sincerity that cannot be faked. When this woman sings a song, she is not just miming the words, she has absorbed them into her being and her voice  brings you into their essence in a deeply personal way.

Kate McGarry
I have had the opportunity to see Ms. McGarry previously, at this very same venue back in July of 2016 when, at the time, she and Mr. Ganz were doing a tour as a quartet with the vocalist Tierney Sutton and the guitarist Serge Merland. You can check out that review by clicking here. I was taken by the remarkable affinity her and Mr. Ganz had when they did songs like Kenny Dorham’s “Fair Weather” and at the time I wrote “Her voice has an earnest quality that captivates the listener, spinning imagery and wonder that recalls the best qualities of a great storyteller.”

Fast forward to 2018 and McGarry is as wizened a storyteller as ever. The addition of another sympathetic voice with the keyboard work of Gary Versace just adds to the beautiful dynamic that this trio has created on their new album The Subject Tonight is Love, which was released yesterday and was the basis for much of the show that I caught.

The album was inspired by a poem from the fourteenth century Persian poet Hafez titled “The Subject Tonight is Love” and is the springboard Ms. McGarry and company used in her selection of the ten songs on her album of the same name.

On the album the trio neatly bookends the music with a prologue where Ms. McGarry speaks/sings a few words about the title poem and an epilogue where the group does an impromptu and inspiring rendering of the Beatles “All You Need is Love,” McGarry’s voice with Versace on organ and piano, Ganz on drums and Ron Miles adding his clarion trumpet to the mix.

Gary Versace, Keith Ganz and Kate McGarry 
On Friday night, I attended the late show at the Velvet Note in Alpharetta. The trio will be performing another two shows on Saturday Feb 3, 2018 at the club. My suggestion is to get yourselves over there if tickets are still available. This is a show not to be missed.

The group started out with a Ganz composition Mr. Sparkle, that morphed into the canon standard What a Difference a Day Makes, arranged by Ganz with a Bossa beat. The intuitive interplay between Mr. Ganz’s guitar and Ms. McGarry’ voice being most prominent when she vocalized in sync with his improvised guitar lines; Mr. Versace, all ears, delicately comping and interjecting his own complementary lines in response.

The program continued with a song not on the album, “It Happens All the Time in Heaven” which found McGarry at her most poignant. The singer can easily evoke innocence or pathos with a turn of a phrase. She spoke of her love of the openness of jazz and you could see that openness in action. The trio respond to her every inflection with open ears and intuitive accompaniment, following her improvised phrasing seamlessly.

What is a tribute to love without a Gershwin tune like “Love Walked In” which was originally played in the 1938 musical “The Goldwyn Follies.”  Ms. McGarry’s voice donned a cabaret lustiness for this one. Mr. Ganz picked up his acoustic bass and Mr. Versace proved how facile he was playing an electric keyboard at the same time as his grand piano. Versace’s piano solo was the epitome of tasteful restraint and space. His almost Basie-like sparseness was sprinkled with some well-placed chordal dissonance that surprised and delighted.

The under the radar guitarist Steve Cardenas, wrote the music and Ms. McGarry penned the lyrics to the gorgeous “She Always Will/ The River.” Ms. McGarry is at her story telling best with this tale of maternal love and the lasting pull of home. Her voice is achingly real and moving, just beautiful. Mr. Ganz plays a wrenchingly sensitive guitar solo and Mr. Versace’s playing is crystalline in response, the three weaving their voices into a tapestry of rare beauty.

Keith Ganz and Kate McGarry
The trio did a more contemporary folk song by the Seattle raised songwriter Paul Curreri titled “God Moves on The City.” Mr. Ganz fingerpicked this roots-based song as Mr. Versace added chords and notes from both keyboards. Ms. McGarry’s voice is amazingly pliable and she takes on the Americana feel of this tome with an authentic hominess that is deserving of these moving lyrics. McGarry told me that this beautiful song will soon be released on a forth coming album.

Mining material from all eras, the next selection of the set was from a 1928 Victor Herbert song titled “Indian Summer.” The sauntering tune is like a pleasant stroll through a park with McGarry. Ganz plays bass as Versace adds a thoughtful piano/keyboard solo. Mc Garry introduces some slippery vocal inflections that just hint at scat.

The group took a Dorothy Parker lyric and put a rhumba beat to the song “I Wished at the Moon.”

The finale was the Ganz/McGarry re-imagination of the Rogers and Hart standard “My Funny Valentine.” Before introducing the song, McGarry spoke of the challenge for a vocalist to do a song like this. A song so thoroughly identified with one artist (in this case Chet Baker), and one that has been sung by countless other artists before. As she stated in the album liner notes “I never thought I would want to sing this most abused of love songs until Keith found a new doorway for me…”  For McGarry the song became more of a vehicle to express self-love. Love for the parts of ourselves that feel somehow inadequate or unloved.  

Ganz introduces a repeating guitar line with Versace adding celeste-like tones in the background before McGarry’s voice is heard reciting the unforgettable words. The pace is liquid and not rushed.  McGarry’s clear tone is transcendent as she sings these well-worn lyrics “…is your figure less than Greek, is your mouth a little weak.”  You believe that she has come to a place of confidence where she believes in herself, flaws and all. The trio plays this one with sublime sensitivity and feeling.

I found out that the brilliant poetic argument with the spectres of her Irish ancestors titled “Climb Down,” was played at the first set, so unfortunately, I didn’t get to hear her perform it live. That bluesy delve into the ancestral ghosts of one's heritage is sure to be a nominee for one of the best original songs of the year. The album is a tour de force for this talented singer who is the modern torchbearer for lost art of the singer as storyteller. If you get a chance to see these three perform live you will not be disappointed.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Grammy nominated Jazzmeia Horn Lights Up the Stage at The Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta

Jazzmeia Horn A Social Call Prestige 
Last night at Atlanta’s Woodruff Art Center, the rising star and Grammy nominated vocalist Jazzmeia Horn lit up the stage of the four hundred plus seat Rich Auditorium. This performance was the second of a series of exciting concerts given under the banner of Emerging Jazz Icon Series. The series is a synergistic collaboration between the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs (OCA) and the Atlanta Jazz Festival (AJF) under the direction of Camille Russell Love, the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC) and Public Broadcasting Atlanta (PBA) home radio station WABE-FM.

In a recent telephone conversation with Ms. Love, she spoke of being approached by Woodruff CEO Doug Shipman about doing something together that could further promote jazz at the Woodruff. The collaboration of these two entities along with Atlanta's PBA made possible the booking of three concerts for this series that promotes new and emerging artists in jazz.

The first concert was held back in November 4, 2017 and featured the rising star vocalist Charnée Wade. Wade placed second in the prestigious Thelonious Monk vocal competition in 2010, losing only to vocal sensation Cécile McClorin Savant and edging out formidable new comer vocalist Cyrille Aimée.

Last night was the second concert in this series and what a concert it was. Ms. Horn is a photogenic image of a youthful, vivacious and proud Afro-American woman. She wore here hair in her now emblematic traditional African headwrap and print Dashiki-like gown of purple, maroon and gold. 

Kenny Bank Jr., Kevin Smith, Jazzmeia Horn, Henry Conerway III at the Woodruff 

Full disclosure here, I wrote very favorably about Ms. Horn’s debut album A Social Call, back in June on my blog and in the Huffington Post (a link to that article can be accessed by clicking here.) At the time I called her “An impressive new voice.” I named her album on my year end "Best of 2017" list as well as best debut for the year, so needless to say, I was pumped to be finally getting the opportunity to see this promising vocalist perform.

The concert, which was advertised to start at 8:00pm, didn’t actually commence until after 8:30pm. The light rain and a snafu with some patron’s tickets at the door perhaps contributing to this delay.  When Ms. Horn entered the stage, she was greeted with warm and inviting applause from a dapperly dressed, enthusiastic albeit demographically older audience. Her band was a top-notch group of Atlanta based musicians. The ever-ebullient pianist Kenny Banks Jr., the stalwart bassist Kevin Smith and the percussive traps artist Henry Conerway III. Having had multiple opportunities to see these guys perform at various venues around Atlanta, I was convinced that any one of these musicians were worth the price of admission. But it was Ms. Horn who we came to see, and she made sure she didn’t disappoint.

The show featured seven selections from her album A Social Call and started with the Betty Carter tune “Tight.” Ms. Horn has obviously been influenced by the idiosyncratic style of Ms. Carter and it was especially evident on the lead song. The angular delivery of the lyrics in this serpentine song was quite impressive. Even more impressive was the ‘tight” arrangement and execution by this band that probably had no more than an afternoon’s rehearsal with the singer before the show.  The only thing missing from this one was the elastic interplay between Ms. Horn and the tenor of Stacy Dillard on the album.

Ms. Horn and company continued with the Rodgers and Hart classic “I Didn’t Know What Time it Was,” which has been sung by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Sarah Vaughan. The singer has a tremendous voice with an impressive range that allows her to do acrobatic intervallic leaps and she did so on this one. Drummer Conerway gently brushed his traps and bassist Smith offered a booming and creative solo. Ms. Horn twisted her voice at one point creating an almost yodel-like effect that was reminiscent of Leon Thomas’s work.

The third selection of the evening was “Up Above My Head,” a song written by Dallas based choir director Myron Butler, is a gospel inspired song arranged here with a funky break. Ms. Horn’s voice sometimes reminds me of the great Nancy Wilson, especially when she emotes into the lyrics, but for whatever reason she often chooses to wordlessly scat rather than pursue the depths of a lyric.  There is no doubt that her voice is marvelously flexible, dexterously controlled and often pitch perfect, but for me she would be better served to embellish but not abandon the lyrics and be more judicious in her use of scat and vocalese. 

On her debut album, Ms. Horn wanted to A Social Call to entertain but also make a social statement. On the next selection, she introduced the Stylistics soul classic “People Make the World Go Round” with a politically charged excoriation of the powers that be; those that seem to allow the continued deterioration of the earth and would rather promote divisiveness over community and love. This is a tricky thing to do in front of a paying crowd of undoubtedly mixed political persuasions that came to be entertained and not be proselytized, but she has a marvelously likeable stage presence and the audience responded positively.

The highlight of the musical evening may have come when Ms. Horn and Mr. Banks did their own intimate version of Jimmy Rowles “The Peacocks.” This beautiful composition is difficult to pull off because it has such a quirky melodic line, but Horn has mastered this one to perfection. I thought the studio version with pianist Victor Gould was exceptionally well done, but Banks own idiosyncratic approach in accompanying her was delightful and inventive, and the duo had the crowd in the palm of their hands.

Kevin Smith and Jazzmeia Horn at the Woodruff
When the group returned to the stage, the jubilant bassist Kevin Smith, a stalwart around the Atlanta area, shinned with his facile bass introduction to “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.” Horn again had a distinctively Betty Carter coo to her voice. There was a point in the song where she took on the role of another improvising instrument from stage right, bantering in vocalese with Banks Jr. In the jazz tradition this is normally a showdown of sorts, a two-instrument call and response, with the gymnastic Ms. Horn's vocal improvisations sometimes hard for the smiling Banks Jr. to counter to in kind.

The finale was a medley of the gospel “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (where Horn got the compliant crowd singing along with her) and the Art Blakey classic “Moanin’.”  Ms. Horn scatted at times like a saxophone and at times like a trumpet. Drummer Conerway was rock-solid throughout the evening. On this one he was given a chance to break out a little and indeed he did with a percussive explosion and some marvelous interplay between himself and Ms. Horn.

The concert was a resounding success and an elated Ms. Horn received a bouquet of flowers from Ms. Love at the end of the show, a parting gift from the City of Atlanta.  Ms. Horn will be off to the Grammy awards tonight in New York City where she will perform and, if there is any justice, receive the Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal album for 2017.

The Woodruff Arts Center, Camille Russell Love and the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs and Public Broadcasting of Atlanta should all take a well-deserved bow for creating such a wonderful showcase for up and coming jazz artists. It is thoughtful, progressive programs like these that ensure that this only truly indigenous American art form will not only survive but flourish, and that there will be a place for these artists to perform.  

The Emerging Jazz Icon series at the Woodruff has one more concert planned, this one by the piano phenom Christian Sands, on Saturday April 7, 2018. This young firebrand has toured extensively as part of the Grammy nominated Christian McBride Trio. Be sure to secure your tickets in advance as this one will surely sell out.

Monday, January 22, 2018

John Raymond's Real Feels Trio: Connecting to a Youthful Pulse on "Joy Ride"

John Raymon and Real Feels Joy Ride Sunnyside Records  SSC 1501
With four years of collaboration and two previous albums under his belt, the trumpeter/flugelhornist John Raymond and his Real Feels trio presents their clearest vision statement yet as to the direction they want to bring their music . Joy Ride, due for release on Sunnyside records on February 9th, finds Raymond choosing to use the warmer, rounder tone of his flugelhorn exclusively on this outing.  It is that tonal choice and the fact that he wanted to write music that people could sing to that gives this album its aura of authenticity making it so compelling. With fellow bandmates guitar wizard Gilad Hekselman and trap master Colin Stranahan, Raymond weaves a gorgeous tapestry of songs that reflect a refreshing indie sensibility with a penchant for understated improvisational skill. The result is an album that is modern and electric.

The songs are a combination of five Raymond originals and five reimagined pop and traditional songs.  The trio has been touring the US and recently appeared in our area at Rudy’s Jazz Club in Nashville, TN and The Velvet Note in Alpharetta, GA to sold out crowds.

The title track and opener “Joy Ride,” is reminiscent of  the music of indie-jazz crossover artist bassist/composer Ben Allison and his collaborative guitarist Steve Cardenas’ work. If you listen to the Little Things That Run the World from 2008, where the trumpet/flugelhorn of Ron Horton was an integral part of the mix, Raymond’s music seems to have a similar sound and pulse. Whether he was moved by Allison’s trail-breaking ideas, or perhaps, like Allison,  the indie rock sensibilities of his youth led him to this place, he has used these influences as a launching point to form his own musical direction. Raymond’s bass-less trio instead relies on the dexterous Hekselman, to play both bass lines and guitar parts using his formidable skill and electronic looping. The music is dynamic and pulsing, sweeping you up in Raymond’s slippery, honey-toned flugelhorn sound that plays in direct counterpoint to the choppy grooves created by his rhythmic partners. Hekselman has a light touch and a deft command of the electronics. His playing has elements that remind me of the atmospherics of the late great John Abercrombie’s work.  

Raymond has an inherent intuition as to what pop songs will fit his musical conceptions. Take Paul Simon’s “I’d Do It for You Love,” which is played with a fractured cadenced drum line by Stranahan giving it a slightly quirky feel. Raymond’s tone is pure and warm when he plays the melody with little embellishment but with an abundance of inspiration and feeling. Hekselman’s clever use of bass lines to accompany his own guitar solo reminds me of the seven string guitar work of Charlie Hunter.  

Raymond’s composition “Follower” has a wandering, enigmatic melody where his burnished tone is most effective over a shuffling groove. Hekselman’s solo here is feathery, floating and something to savor.  Where the horn player and the guitarist leave plenty of space in their soloing, Stranahan dances on his traps with a syncopation that seems to deftly fill in the voids without ever becoming overpowering. As the song progresses the interplay becomes evident as the trio finds a slipstream, meshing in intuitive unity.

The trumpeter originally hails from Minneapolis, Minnesota and the next selection is a song that one of his North country influences, Wisconsin native Justin Vernon from the group Bon Iver, wrote titled “Minnesota, WI.” The song opens with some effervescent guitar loops from Hekselman, a sort of agitated but controlled chaos, with percussive accents and shimmering cymbals that lead up to the prog-rock melody line that lingers in your brain. Raymond ‘s clarion horn is like a plaintive call to sanity bursting through the fog. Hekselman rips on a very impressive electric guitar solo that swells with power and passion. The guitarist soars to the heavens as Stranahan plays with a heavy back beat. This one could well become a new classic in the world of creative improvisational music.

On the traditional hymn “Be Still My Heart,” we find the flugelhornist at his most poignant. His mellifluous tone transports you into a place of serenity and calm. The sparse composition, with roots in Americana, showcases Raymond’s confidence, maturity and growth as a solo player. Stranahan’s brushes are whisper soft and Hekselman’s guitar lines float in the air like wisps of vapor. The trio builds the tension to an excitable climax, with Henkleman’s filigreed guitar work, Stranahan’s fills and Raymond’s slurs creating an other-worldliness to the ending.

Raymond’s “Fortress” features an indie-rock vibe with its laid-back vamp and repeating flugelhorn refrain. The group uses a descending motif at the bridge to good effect before returning to the loping melody. Raymond is judicious when he solos. He prefers using long lingering lines over abrupt bursts of notes and smooth transitions rather than jagged breaks.

Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” is opened with a straight playing of the melody on horn before the ever surprising Hekselman creates an astonishing solo. This guy is the real deal. In one solo you can hear he has absorbed the electric stylings of Bill Frisell to the distinctive percussive picking of Beninesian player Lionel Loueke. Raymond overdubs himself, he and the trio play a repeating refrain as his overdubbed solo horn rises above with authority.

The road song “En Route” is another Raymond original. Hekselman finger picks the sauntering feel good melody. The guitarist provides a country-flavored electric solo as Stranahan expertly plays his brushes.  Raymond’s horn solo is fluid and spritely. Listen to these guys play in unison at the end with such easy familiarity.

The album continues on its folk and hymnal path with the dirge-like version of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”  The 1964 protest song, is particularly relevant in today’s fractured world where common ground seems to be a chimera. Hekselman’s guitar is delicate and retains a country-inspired twang while at the same time adding sliding glissandos to the mix. There is a respect to the sentiment of the song heard loud and clear through Raymond’s nakedly sincere playing here. Dylan should be delighted by this skillful treatment of his folk masterpiece.

The closer for this excellent album is the Raymond composition simply titled “Hymn.” The unfeigned reverence with which Raymond plays, accompanied only by Hekselman’s scant guitar lines, reveals a deeply spiritual side to this musician. His music is uplifting and brimming with a sense of hope that is sorely needed in these trying times of divisiveness.

Joy Ride is indeed just that a joyous ride.We can only hope that Raymond and company will continue to mine more gems from contemporary music, play them with such informed and polished aplomb and in doing so connect to the pulse of a more youthful audience who wants the music of their generation being more thoughtfully portrayed. 

Thursday, January 18, 2018

A Voice to be Savored on Sinne Eeg's "Dreams"

Sinne Eeg Dreams  Artist Share AS0153
At forty years of age, the Danish singer Sinne Eeg is among that rare breed vocalists that can take anything they sing and make it their own. She has a voice to be savored. A force to be reckoned with in her native Scandinavia, her work is little known here in the US. The most recent recording Dreams is just her second release here despite nine outings as a leader. What immediately grabs you about her voice is the natural effortlessness with which she sings. Eeg has a warm supple tone, a wide range, exquisite control and an inherent sense of swing and phrasing that is impeccable. She cites Betty Carter, Nancy Wilson and Sarah Vaughn as influences, and one can certainly find some traces of their styles in her voice, but make no mistake, she is clearly on her own path and it is a refreshing one at that.

Her first US release was a duo album Eeg-Fonnesbaek from 2015 that she did with accomplished Danish double-bassist Thomas Fonnesbaek. The album’s darkly sparse treatment of some of the classics from the Great American Songbook, with Eeg’s gloriously fluid and tonally transcendent voice playing off Fonnesbaek’s warm, bellowing bass was deservedly well received.

Dreams, which just came out in December, took a different tact. It was recorded in Brooklyn, NY in January of 2017. It utilizes the multiple voices of  a very talented backing quartet.  The musicians are some of jazz’s crème de la crème, with the stellar rhythm section of bassist Scott Colley and drummer Joey Baron, the always tasty Larry Koonse on guitar and her longtime collaborator fellow Dane, Jacob Christoffersen holding down the piano chair. If Eeg was hoping to expand her audience on this side of the pond or for that matter around the world, then Dreams should certainly go a long way to achieving that goal.

Of the ten featured songs on the album, two are by Cole Porter, one by Rodgers and Hart and one by Gene De Paul, the remaining six are all Eeg originals and quite compelling.  The opener “The Bitter End” is a slow-cooked, funky blues that features Colley’s bass and Christoffersen’s piano, with Eeg’s expressive voice shining through with authenticity and feeling.

The perky “Head Over High Heels,” written by Eeg and Mads Mathias, has a musical theater, dance-like quality to it.  Eeg’s considerable scat abilities are on display as she and Colley parry in a complementary dialogue that is both slippery and simpatico.

Eeg’s “Love Song” is a torchy ballad that is gorgeously sung with a melancholic expressiveness and also features a gossamer guitar solo by Larry Koonse.

Listening to Eeg and drummer Joey Baron on the imaginative intro to the well-worn Porter standard “What is This Thing Called Love,” is to hear the song with new ears. The walking bass of Colley and the swinging piano of Christoffersen enter the fray with just enough juice to re-energize this classic. Baron’s traps are buoyant and Eeg’s vocals are facile and flawless.

On Richard Rodgers “Falling in Love with Love,” the singer, bassist and guitarist play like a well-oiled trio of seasoned instrumentalists.  Eeg’s vocal scatting is glass-like, so integrated with the music as to be seamless- sliding in and out of the group interplay with ease- you almost forget she’s singing until she returns to the lyrics. Koonse picks another masterful solo.

On the title song “Dreams,” Eeg goes totally wordless, instead using impressionistic vocalization. The song has a nebulous feel to it and Christoffersen’s piano has a  Jarrett influence to it, lightly skipping over the melody, with the rhythm section gently pushing the music along.

As if being such an accomplished vocalist isn’t enough, Eeg’s “Aleppo,” a song she wrote inspired by seeing images of the child victim who was tragically washed up on the seashore while trying to flee the Syrian conflict, is a moving political statement and a testament to this woman’s compositional skills. The evocative music is reverently somber, and her lyrics are sung with an emotional pathos that is quite moving. She proves herself to be a formidable story-teller, a forgotten talent few modern singers seem to have cultivated.  The slow beating bass line, the muted strings on Koonse’s guitar and the delicately sparse Christoffersen piano accompaniment are perfect complements to Eeg’s sincere plaintive verse. “At least we cry for the victims of war and let those children cry no more.”

There is a contemporary pop feel to Eeg’s “Time to Go,” probably my least favorite song on the album.

The arrangement of Gene De Paul’s “I’ll Remember April” is satiny and sleek. Eeg’s voice modulates with a calm assurance, like the steely nerve of an accomplished tightrope walker who works without a net. Her intonations are clear, unstrained and sinewy. Eeg has an abundance of “chops” but what is thoroughly refreshing is her astute awareness of when and how to use them. There is never even a hint of over the top showmanship that seems to be de rigueur with today’s female divas who revel is showing off their range or raspiness. Instead we find nuance, spacing and silky smooth transitions.

The finale is a sparse upbeat duo version of Porter’s “Anything Goes” featuring Sinne’s lilting voice and her accomplished pianist Christoffersen. The two musically dance with each other and around the melody in a comfortable rendering that accentuates the Porter wit.

If Dreams doesn’t make this Danish wonder woman, Sinne Eeg, into a familiar name in the world of jazz music than people are simply not listening.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Bassist Mark Wade & Trio : "Moving Day"

The bassist Mark Wade is a new name to me, but after hearing the warm booming sound of his bass on his sophomore album Moving Day, be assured I will follow his career more closely. In a world that has so many accomplished musicians it is often difficult to separate yourself from your peers. To have a voice that is all your own is important, but just as important is that indefinable quality that allows you to magically make a connection with your audience. Wade seems to have found that happy medium. He is an orchestral as well as a jazz player and teaches at the Jazz Studies program at Leigh University. His debut album Event Horizon from 2015 was well received.

On Moving Day Mark’s rich, burnished bass is complimented by his sensitive trio mates Tim Harrison on piano and Scott Neumann on drums. Together these three present seven of Wade’s compositions and two reimagined standards that simply delight and satisfy. By his own admission this album is less abstract and more personal than his last, drawing from his experiences.

The opening and title track “Moving Day” starts with a repeating piano motif over which Wade plays a moving melody. The composition captures the anxiety and anticipation of moving to a new place. Harrison’s piano has a light airy feel, dancing with hope, and Neumann’s splashing cymbals and rolling toms capture the organized chaos of moving. Wade’s fleet bass solo is agitated and full of excitement, but with an underlying sense of future promise. His articulation is so strong, clear and uplifting that even at its most boisterous you are carried away with its authenticity of feeling.

“Wide Open,” another Wade composition that utilizes a repeating motif, is a driving song that features odd meters, shifting rhythmic patterns and ascending piano lines. Harrison’s piano meanders over the changing time all the while building to an apex. Wade’s bass is featured on a percolating solo, while accentuated by the rolling tom and dashing cymbal work of Neumann, before once again ascending to the coda and a repeat of the original motif.

You can hear a bit of Wade’s classical leanings on “The Bells,” an interestingly impressionistic piece that integrates a melody fragment from Debussy’s “La Mer” (The Sea). Wade weaves the fragment into his own jazz rhythm with starts and stops that have their own internal dynamic. Opening with a declaratory piano intro, it then morphs into a more sauntering composition, with an ebullient walking bass line by Wade. Suddenly the tempo shifts and it’s like we enter a zone, an aural seascape made up of piano, bowed bass and cymbals with its own organic feel. The music becomes declarative, as Wade takes a deeply introspective and free sounding solo of placid serenity, before the group switches back again to a more defined tempo. Harrison’s piano is relentless, like a sea surge in his repeated motif at the close.

Where Wade seems to shine is his reimagining of songs from the canon. On his “Another Night in Tunisia,” a play on Dizzy Gillespie’s famous composition, he and his trio are not content to swing it in straight four time, but wind up finding ways to cut it up with multiple variations that often involve changing tempos that they execute flawlessly.

Wade puts a similarly interesting twist to the standard “Autumn Leaves,” which he cleverly juxtaposes with Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage" to great effect. The bassist effectively bends and slides his strings creating controlled deep glissandos of sound that are quite impressive. Harrison’s piano has a crystalline shimmer to it.

Wade’s other compositions include a ballad about the promise and excitement of budding love affair “Something of a Romance;” the evocative “Midnight in the Cathedral,” a musical, third stream stroll through a Cathedral at night where we are given a chance to listen to Wade’s concept of the universality of music from the medieval to the modern; and the lively New Orlean’s inspired march “The Quarter,” with its bouncy drum cadence by Neumann and Wade’s buoyant bass lines.

The closing composition is titled “The Fading Rays of Sunlight” and is the perfect way to end this impressive and enjoyable album. Wade and Harrison play an ascending melody line like the last shimmering rays of a setting sun, luminous and warm. Neumann offers a steady but subdued rhythmic sway as Harrison plays an uplifting solo that finds him at his most lyrical. Wade’s final bass solo is nimble, joyous and brimming with possibilities. It’s as if the fading rays of today’s sunset give promise to   tomorrows’ anticipated sun rise. The light dims, and the colors deepen in tone and majesty, but the promise of a return is implicit. The group ends in a triumvirate of satisfied calm.