Saturday, February 1, 2014


The lanky, unassuming young man in street-worn slip-ons and a hoodie, fiddled with cords and gearboxes on the small secondary stage at Rockwood Hall last November, a compact room in New York’s Bowery neighborhood on the gentrified lower East Side. He could have passed for one of the tech crew, but he was guitarist Nir Felder and when he turned on his axe and started to play, everybody in that room was transfixed. Previewing songs from his debut release Golden Age, Felder interacted with his band with the casual nonchalance that comes with friendship, and pianist Aaron Parks, drummer Nate Smith and bassist Orlando LeFleming (substituting for Matt Penman) dug into this joyous material with enthusiasm.

Felder has been a go-to sideman on many high-profile gigs, supplying superior fretwork and textures to projects by Terri Lyne Carrington, Esperanza Spalding, the singer José James and saxophonist Brian Landrus.

His debut scores on many fronts – the songs are modestly epic, performed by a band that’s locked tight with groove and invention, and combined with the leader’s awe-inspiring gifts as a composer and player, Golden Age heralds the arrival of a fresh new voice on jazz guitar. The all-originals playlist naturally reflect Felder’s influences and aspirations, from grunge-like chords and blues riffs to soaring waves of sound (“Lights”), tight harmonic rhythms and heartfelt melodies (“Bandits”). Better still is “Code,” a power ballad with a Prince-like backbeat and a precise pace -- it resonates with Felder’s distinctive chord effects that give this track its ethereal beauty. Dipping into the jazz/R&B realm, “Lover” fuses a bright groove with Parks’ intricately beautiful piano solo.

Another element Felder employs to great effect is voiceover, specifically segments of speeches from political and cultural figures. The juxtaposition is used sparingly, but winningly on “Sketch 2,” where a sample of former NY Governor Mario Cuomo’s rebuttal to then President Reagan’s “shining city on the hill” speech segues into an urgent impressionistic track that nonetheless conveys an ever-present optimism that weaves through Felder’s compositions.

When Felder played on the Rockwood Hall stage that late night, he and his Mexican Stratocaster were one voice. Felder’s body was stretched tall and loose, his face aimed to the ceiling and while the music he played was amplified, it sounded as if it radiated out from his body. It turns out that the guitar is Felder’s original instrument that he bought as a teenager, putting heavy strings on it early on (“like Stevie Ray Vaughan did”) and it’s the instrument that Felder uses on all tracks but one on Golden Age, his fearless and resplendent first recording. (10 tracks; 61 minutes)
my lousy photo of the great band at Rockwood Hall, NYC, 2013

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Updated February 21, 2014

I feel fortunate to have made the acquaintance of Amy Cervini. She’s a whirlwind of positivity no matter what hat she wears - -singer, songwriter, producer, manager and mom. Who knew she had it in her to make one of the freshest vocal records I’ve heard in a while? And if I didn’t know better, a recording called Jazz Country might not be one I’d reach for in my stack of CDs for review consideration, but Amy Cervini is not boxed in by labels or genres and that's what makes the music on Jazz Country so rewarding. You can frequently catch her in performance at NYC’s 55 Bar, where I took these quick snaps of her performing earlier this month with tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm, bassist Linda Oh and keyboardist Michael Cabe.

WRTI, Philadelphia’s Classical and Jazz Source, has posted my review of Jazz Country – read it here.


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Updated February 21, 2014

If you haven’t heard of pianist Helen Sung, her new recording Anthem For A New Day is a great introduction to her music and highly recommended. She’s been on my radar for a while now, ever since she sent me her 2011 Steeplechase Records release (Re)Conception – that I reviewed here.

From the titles of her recordings, you can tell that this classically trained musician is forging her own path in jazz, relentlessly exploring new sounds while opening up the possibilities on existing standards. It was by happenstance that I found her playing a late night set at 55 Bar in NYC last year with her band – drummer Obed Calvaire, bassist Rueben Rogers, violinist Meg Okura and a crushing frontline of trumpeter Marcus Printup and saxophonist Jaleel Shaw – under the moniker “Helen Sung Electric Company.” Modest and unassuming, she told me that a new record was forthcoming and she was writing music for electric keyboards. Her creative instinct was right -- the new album is her best yet.

Read my review of Anthem here on the WRTI website, Philadelphia's Jazz and Classical station.

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 photo by Jimmy Katz
Among the most prolific of musicians, jazz or otherwise, Pat Metheny is far from your average guitarist. After playing more than 100 concerts with his Unity Band – their terrific 2012 debut recording netted him his 20th Grammy award – he sets about composing a new record with even more moving parts and adds multi-instrumentalist and pianist Guilio Carmassi to an already tight crew that’s comprised of saxophonist Chris Potter, bassist Ben Williams and drummer Antonio Sanchez – warranting the name change.

Kin (<-->) overflows with typical Metheny touches. The grand lead off tune, the 15-minute long “Day One,” covers these bases with expansive writing, remarkable solos over delicate layers of sound, complete with blazing synths, soaring wordless vocals and buzzy orchestration. Metheny has always been a musician of the world, incorporating influences and textures from cultures across the globe, and “Rise Up” bursts with his unique brand of optimism -- percussive Latin rhythm, blissful acoustic guitar, percolating saxophone, deep, and popping bass gives way to a high-flying electric guitar solo that dips and dives like a stunt plane at an aerial show. It culminates in a blizzard of harmonic intensity and instrumentation that is as dazzling as it is complex.

“Born” is among the guitarist’s most beautiful ballads – it’s lushly cinematic in scope and feeling and the group’s simpatico interplay consistently pulls you in. Halfway through the title track, there’s an impressive trading of solos between bassist Williams and saxophonist Potter, underscored by a zippy electronic foundation that crackles and fizzes throughout. The tune’s denouement rests on the shoulders of Sanchez and he consistently astonishes on his kit. Dispatching an arsenal of percussion, he’s an ever-inventive soloist, a powerful player and leader in his own right, and as with all of Metheny’s projects, the drummer gives this music its backbone.

In the press release, Metheny states “writing this music and putting it together for this incredible collection of players and integrating all the materials at hand was one of the biggest challenges I have ever undertaken.” That could be an understatement because Metheny’s control and intuition, plus the input from the quartet of players that he’s assembled that give rise to his compositions, is what puts him in a class of his own. The groove and street-wise beats that make “We Go On” weave and bounce ultimately codifies the popular achievement that is Kin (<-->) and it further secures Metheny’s rep as among the most revered and appreciated artists in music. Essential listening.  (9 tracks; 70 minutes)

The Pat Metheny Unity Group launches a 44-city tour in North America, hitting Philadelphia at the Keswick Theater on March 22. www.keswicktheater.com

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Beautiful Life is an upscale entertainment that confidently establishes Dianne Reeves as an adult contemporary R&B singer of romantic ballads and mid-tempo love songs. Producer Terri Lynn Carrington surrounds Reeves with first-rate jazz and studio players and the recording sounds deep and lush. Obviously designed for maximum radio play, with arrangements that employ up-to-the-minute grooves and after-hours rhythm, Reeves gives Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” a quiet storm makeover, Ani DiFranco’s “32 Flavors” a funky, slam-dunk read and offers up a dazzling original, “Cold,” that features an irresistible chorus.

Reeves is indisputably one of the world’s great jazz singers, a splendid and charismatic entertainer with a luminous voice that evokes the likes of Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington. After many fine records for Blue Note, four Grammy Awards and a bravura turn in the George Clooney directed film Goodnight and Good Luck (her companion soundtrack album is among the best examples of her vocal mastery), Reeves waited five years until this superior effort that pairs her voice with all-star contributions from singer/composer and bassist Esperanza Spalding who accompanies Reeves on the uplifting “Wild Rose,” the in-demand jazz pianists Robert Glasper and Gerald Clayton, along with vocalist Gregory Porter who clicks with Reeves on a fine duet called “Satiated”. Drummer Terreon Gully supplies notably tight beats. And in a bittersweet turn, Reeves cousin, the late George Duke takes a final bow with a synth solo on “Feels So Good (Lifted).”

Some may find Reeves’ typical exuberance curbed somewhat on Beautiful Life. She’s celebrated for scatting and voice effects in concert and record, but apart from the improvised coda on Bob Marley’s “Waiting In Vain” and the wordless boffo original called “Tango,” Reeves plays it mostly cool. Producer Carrington is gifted in so many ways and she treats Reeves with the respect she deserves. Life remains a success and is destined to reach many new listeners not familiar with her greatness.  Regardless, Beautiful Life flows easily between jazz and soul and this album is nothing less than a gift from Reeves to her fans. (12 tracks; 69 minutes)

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Thursday, December 12, 2013


Powerhouse records were released in 2013 from some of the most respected jazz musicians (Wayne Shorter, Charles Lloyd and Jason Moran, Tomasz Stanko and Chucho Valdes) and I heard and studied about 150 releases throughout the year, but my final choices for top jazz releases in 2013 were shaped by newer voices and rising stars, all of them uniquely notable for their artistry and leadership. Honored to have my choices submitted to the annual critics poll, curated by Francis Davis, and posted on the NPR website submitting my list to the Jazz Journalists Association site. All in all, a tremendous year for music and listeners.

1. Terri Lyne Carrington, Money Jungle: Provocative In Blue (Concord Jazz)
This is Carrington’s most satisfying record, its unifying themes shaped by the drummer’s self-assurance as much as her astounding rhythm team that’s profoundly in sync with the material. Carrington takes a risk and brilliantly re-imagines and contemporizes the classic Ellington/Mingus/Roach recording by adding killer arrangements and infectious grooves to protest current social ills.

2.  Brian Landrus Kaleidoscope, Mirage (Blueland Records)
Landrus’ voice on the baritone saxophone recalls the poetic sound of Gerry Mulligan. On this highly addictive all-original program he assembles a first-rate band and adds a string section conducted by Ryan Truesdell. While there are honorable swathes of R&B, soul and contemporary jazz folded into the mix, Landrus has an uncanny ability to weave serene and gorgeous straight-ahead melodies together that make an ultimate connection directly to the heart of the listener.

3.  John Escreet, Sabotage and Celebration (Whirlwind Records)
Pianist John Escreet is on the ascent and has an affecting playing style developed from all kinds of inspiration (Glenn Gould, Andrew Hill, Ligeti.) Approaching 30, he describes his creative process as being driven by making new music, so you listen to his records with an ear tilted for the unexpected that Escreet confidently delivers in a sweeping listening experience that’s boldly communicative. His four previous albums were excellent; Sabotage is driven by genuine purpose and it’s his best yet.

4.  Cecile McLorin Salvant, WomanChild (Mack Avenue)
Accompanied by label mate (and arranger) pianist Aaron Diehl, jazz singer Salvant’s powerful debut presents beautifully crafted tunes that will make you think of singers like Ella and Sarah Vaughan, not stylistically, but in terms of originality and poise. Her version of “I Didn’t Know What Times It Was” is infused with a vitality that bursts out of your speakers. Not in a long while have you heard as captivating a voice or performance that brings groove and grace together so effectively.

5.  Christian McBride Trio, Out Here (Mack Avenue)
McBride makes his most seriously entertaining and musically affecting trio record. They tip their hat to the great Oscar Peterson and leap off from there with fresh renditions of “My Favorite Things” and a stunningly crafted original “I Guess I’ll Have To Forget” that showcases the expressive and mature style of pianist Christian Sands and drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr. whose contributions throughout are especially rewarding.

6.  Jamie Baum, In This Life (Sunnyside)
As satisfying as it is heartfelt, flutist Baum and her ace band vividly evoke many moods with tunes inspired by her trip and experiences in India and Asia. By turns breathtaking -- she’s a masterful composer of dramatic harmonies for brass -- Baum sets herself free from the constraints of straight-ahead jazz, incorporating a range of subtle world-music styles that ultimately gives In This Life its altogether different and welcome contours.

7.  Etienne Charles, Creole Soul (Culture Shock Music)
Creole Soul flaunts a polished groove, heavy on the beats and the bass that dares you to try to sit still. Trinidad-born trumpeter Etienne Charles is the man behind the positive sound, a uniquely fired up combination of calypso and modern jazz that reflects his musical upbringing. Pianist Kris Bowers, bassist Ben Williams and drummer Obed Calvaire help fuel the fire.

8.  Gregory Porter, Liquid Spirit (Blue Note)
Singer and songwriter Gregory Porter’s baritone is one the most captivating instruments in jazz. Liquid Spirit keeps Porter’s strong production team and musicians in place from his previous albums and adds original compositions that freely merge jazz with soul, gospel and R&B that’s beautifully exercised on the title cut -- a gospel-tinged tune fueled by hand-claps and a punchy Les McCann style piano break.

9.  Stan Killian, Evoke (Sunnyside)
You can trace saxophonist Stan Killian’s sound back to the glory days of 1960’s Blue Note and the exuberant records by Sonny Rollins and Dexter Gordon, but his tenor is firmly planted in the now. It’s easy to lean on hyperbole to describe Killian whose keen ear and strength as a leader is evident throughout -- He brings refreshing originality and deft swing to this winning date.

10.  Kendrick Scott Oracle, Conviction (Concord Jazz)
An exhilarating exploration of contemporary jazz, Scott lets straight-ahead beats collide with the modern architecture of contemporary sounds, bringing both a sharp focus and disciplined craftsmanship to this artful recording - along with some tight grooves that sonically endure. With Joe Sanders, Mike Moreno, Taylor Eigsti, John Ellis and Alan Hampton on vocals.

11.  Dave Holland, Prism (Dare2 Records)
Bassist Dave Holland has been in the jazz business for 40 years, forever looking forward as an artist and musician. Since releasing five acclaimed albums on his own label since 2005, Holland shifts gears and personnel for Prism, a groove-centric, hyper-fresh collection of tunes featuring guitarist Kevin Eubanks, keyboardist Craig Taborn and drummer Eric Harland. Hard-hitting rhythms collide with edgy harmonies and plugged in electronics to prove that Holland remains one of the most vital and important voices in jazz.

12.  Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, Jack DeJohnette, Somewhere (ECM)
Recorded live in July 2009 in Switzerland, Somewhere captures the trio (together 30 years) at the height of their talents. The live gig weaves rapturous improvisation with straight-ahead swing. Indeed, the title track, coupled with Leonard Bernstein’s “Tonight,” gives the concert its center with a tender reading that bypasses sentiment and manages to open a deeper emotional vein. 

Honorable mentions:
  • Alexis Cuadrado, A Lorca Soundscape (BJU Records)
  • John Abercrombie, 39 Steps (ECM)
  • Chucho Valdes & The Afro-Cuban Messengers, Border-Free (Jazz Village)
  • Tomasz Stanko, Wislawa (ECM)
  • Antonio Sanchez, New Life (CAMJazz)
  • Aaron Diehl, The Bespoke Man’s Narrative (Mack Avenue)
  • Noah Preminger, Haymaker (Palmetto)
  • Giacomo Gates, Miles Tones (Savant
  • Tierney Sutton, After Blue (BFM)
  • Bob James and David Sanborn, Quartette Humaine (Okeh Records)
  • Rene Marie, I Wanna Be Evil (Motema)
  • Ahmad Jamal, Saturday Morning (Jazz Village)
  • Patricia Barber, Smash (Concord Jazz)

Best Reissues: 
·       Tommy Flanagan, Giant Steps (Enja Jazz Classics)
·       Miles Davis, The Original Mono Recording (Columbia/Legacy)
·       Sarah Vaughan, Sophisticated Lady: The Duke Ellington Songbook Collection (Pablo)


Thursday, December 5, 2013


Appearing with her septet at the Jazz Standard in New York on November 19 in support of In This Life, an astonishing and beautiful album, I watched a busy and conscientious Jamie Baum dart about the club making last minute changes to her set list and double-checking the soloing order of her musicians. A determined and focused flute player, Baum’s recording was inspired by her travels to India and South Asia, and most directly the devotional music of singer Pakistani Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. But, as she explains “my goal was not to compose or play in these styles, but to have my experiences inspire new ways of writing and improvising.”

I first saw Baum perform with her group over two years ago in a small now-defunct club and even then her creativity seemed larger than her small stature. On the Standard’s bandstand, she led a group that she’s remarkably kept assembled for 14 years, making resoundingly original music that’s warmly accessible and unerringly performed. Currently comprised of some of New York’s finest jazz musicians (many with their own current solo projects), a testament to her leadership skill, Baum spoke in humble tones about the inspiration that resulted from her cultural experiences, both secular and religious that provided an existential epiphany that’s memorably expressed through In This Life.

Baum’s superior charts give the project a small big band sound -- she layers waves of quietly majestic sound enriched by first-class trumpeters Amir ElSaffir and Taylor Haskins, and horn players Chris Komer and Douglas Yates. Propelled by bustling rhythm and brass, "Nusrat" is a brief yet bracing feature for the entire septet. Bassist Zack Lober and conga player Samuel Torres lay a deep groove on “Ants and Other Faithful Beings,” a rhythmic gem with a riveting theme and gorgeous solo by pianist John Escreet. Baum’s solo style favors warm, chamber jazz-like phrasing, reminiscent of Hubert Laws, one of Baum’s many teachers and influences.

As satisfying as it is heartfelt, Baum’s experiences vividly evokes many moods, especially the title cut that’s framed with the soft, medium tempo of a ballad and wistful licks by downtown guitarist Brad Shepik, but contains a jumpy mid-section that sports jagged piano lines and dramatic harmonies for brass.  On the poetic and loving “While We Are Here” and the anthem-like “The Game” (dig that Dan Weiss tabla accompaniment), Baum sets herself free from the constraints of straight-ahead jazz, incorporating a range of subtle musical styles that ultimately gives In This Life its welcome contours. (11 tracks; 65 minutes)

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RENE MARIE, I WANNA BE EVIL (with Love To Eartha Kitt)

Moods collide in the most harmonious way on Rene Marie’s saucy homage to Eartha Kitt, I Wanna be Evil, an album of signature Kitt tunes and lesser-known songs that underscore Ms. Marie’s originality and strong point of view. While she doesn’t sound like or imitate Kitt, Marie unquestionably lets her spirit move her with evocative renditions of “I’d Rather be Burned As A Witch” and the title cut, both which succeed due to the scorching dynamic between Marie and her ace band, plus the high-octane horn arrangements by hot, young trumpeter Etienne Charles who rounds out the frontline trio along with trombonist Wycliffe Gordon and saxophonist Adrian Cunningham.

Marie’s own arrangement of the old Rosemary Clooney hit, “Come On-A My House” utilizes exotic percussion by Quentin Baxter to conjure up all kinds of illicit pursuits and her investment in the lyric gives this standard a modern sensual twist. The band floats “C’est Si Bon” on a cottony cloud of rhythm, plush and inviting, as Marie coos the song with a sophisticated wink and nod. Charles is highlighted again on “Santa Baby,” arranged by pianist Kevin Bales and sung at a Shirley Horn tempo – perhaps the best after-hours rendition of this classic tune you’ll hear.

The album concludes with “Weekend,” an original song by Rene Marie that carries the emotional gravity of Billie Holiday's “Strange Fruit.” Only an artist as talented as Ms. Marie could write a song about sexual abuse that resonates so deeply, maybe because its message connects more easily with a soul-jazz groove. It’s a sobering closer to be sure, but points to the better musical choices that Marie makes and her production standards that make I Wanna Be Evil a truly great jazz vocal record. (10 tracks; 60 minutes)

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What is it about vinyl records that cause listeners to swoon? As a recent convert myself (I’ll cop to the fact that I’ve recently invested in a Clearaudio turntable rig), I can say that despite the slight nuisance of getting up every 15 minutes to turn over the platter, the sound of vinyl captures the essence of a performance in a way that digital media cannot. The warmth of analog sound, together with the depth and dynamic range of vinyl is sonically apparent to most listeners and even non-audiophiles. A welcome resurgence of interest of vinyl has not gone unnoticed by recording labels, since most of them offer a vinyl edition and CD to accompany their current digital releases.

To satisfy this renaissance of vinyl, the classy, independent label Mack Avenue Records, founded by Detroit businesswoman Gretchen Valade and Tom Robinson, have recently issued some of their best recordings on audiophile-quality 180-gram double-LP records:

·       Cecile McLorin Salvant, WomanChild
·       New Gary Burton Quartet, Common Ground
·       Christian McBride & Inside Straight, Kind Of Brown
·       The Christian McBride Big Band 
·       Stanley Jordan, Friends
·       Kenny Garrett, Seeds From The Underground
·       Kevin Eubanks, Zen Food
·       Yellowjackets, Timeline

So, back to the swooning thing -- out of all of these Mack Avenue LP releases, two albums stand out in particular. Apart from getting extra-deluxe gatefold packaging on Christian McBride’s Kind Of Brown two-record set, it’s the only one in this group that’s pressed on 210-gram vinyl, which results in a flatter LP and a lower noise floor when played on your own turntable. And it includes a link for a digital download of the full album. Like each of the Mack Avenue LPs, this sings with clarity and astonishing vividness – there’s a tangible feeling to McBride’s band as if you are sitting directly in front of them. Drummer Carl Allen, pianist Eric Reed, sax player Steve Wilson and vibraphonist Warren Wolf blend seamlessly across the soundstage.

The album from singer Cecile McLorin Salvant is a solid candidate for 2013 jazz vocal record of the year. Winner of the 2010 Thelonious Monk International jazz Competition, Salvant is accompanied by label mate and swinging pianist/arranger Aaron Diehl, bassist Rodney Whitaker, guitarist James Chirillo and drummer Herlin Riley, on beautifully crafted tunes that will make you think of singers like Ella and Sarah Vaughan, not stylistically, but rather in terms of originality and poise. Salvant’s version of “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” is seized with a vitality that bursts out of your speakers. Not in a long while has one heard as captivating a performance, one that brings together groove and grace so beautifully. A once and future star, let’s hope that Ms. Salvant continues to light up the night in song for a long time to come.

Vinyl has come full-circle, no longer on life-support or sustained by handful of rebel labels, collectors and fringe audiophiles. Mack Avenue Records is supporting the effort by partnering with the well-respected vinyl producer, RTI Technologies (the same company that produced the invaluable Miles Davis monaural LPs.) Each of their eight initial offerings provides an exceptional reason to reinvest in vinyl. Perhaps it’s time to repurpose the phrase coined at the launch of CD technology back in the ‘80s, which promised “perfect sound forever” – turns out it never went away.

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