Wednesday, April 23, 2014


Year: 2014

Style: Jazz


Musicians: Matt Wilson - drums; Pete McCann - acoustic & electric guitar; Martin Wind - bass; Erik Augis - piano.

CD Review: Ever been out on a new date, not knowing what to expect, but once the conversation and body language kick in, you lose all sense of self, and time seems to stop? Well, that is the type of experience you are liable have with tenor saxophonist  Pete Mills latest CD: SWEET SHADOW. Scientists, and informed laypersons refer to this 'state' as "flow."

Essentially that's what Mills' music does...flow. And for good reason. The album consists of original music, "written for the sounds and talents of each of the guys" (Mills), with inspiration from a houseful of  twentieth century masters of 'flow' in jazz music composition from his boyhood headed by Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn, and Thelonious Monk. Add Erik Augis's Nat Cole/Oscar Peterson piano accents; impeccable time keeping by the inimitable percussionist Matt Wilson, whose recent work with saxophonists Ken Peplowski, Noah Preminger (2012 & 2013), pianist Falkner Evans (2011), and the New York Standards Quartet (2011), has certainly elevated him to the stature of 'percussive vendor of choice, and first-call.' In addition guitarist Pete McCann, who spent 20 years on the New York jazz scene, brings touches of John Scofield's guitar electricity, plus the influential fret magic of jazz masters Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall. German-born bassist/composer Martin Wind totes a Master's Degree in Composition, studying with Mike Richmond, Jim McNeeley, Tom Boras, Mike Holober, and Kenny Werner. He also appeared alongside such jazz luminaries as Lalo Schifrin, Monty Alexander, Pat Metheny, Clark Terry, Mark Murphy, Slide Hampton, Buddy DeFranco and others. And as "Der Bingle" and 'Satchmo'" harmonized as they interpreted Cole Porter, "Now, you has Jazz, Jazz, Jazz, Jazz."

Drummer Matt Wilson
That 'jazz' comes right out of the uptempo opening track ((Shiner); based on the Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer standard "My Shining Hour" and a conversation fixed firmly in the post-bop vernacular of Mills straight ahead blowin' gets started "over the magic carpet groove of (drummer) Matt Wilson and (bassist) Martin Wind" (Mills). In the mix, Pete McCann's guitar conforms to Wilson's driving Kenny Clark/Tony Williams-like percussive precision like its shadow. Time gets dilatory, and sense of self is imperceptible.   

Besides being a band leader, educator, and first-call sideman, Mills is a prolific composer/arranger. He is the musical architect behind eleven of the fourteen tunes on the CD; enough to fill two albums, which buoys "SWEET SHADOW" with significant added value. Mills' tone is dulcet, fluid, almost peerless. His 'sound' is slightly lighter than Getz's, with an appealing, burnished accent, indicative of quality time devoted to honing his formidable 'chops.' (Close to Never) . However Mills' playing is not all calmness of approach, and composure. His narrative is not without edge and swing, though he eschews hawking his virtuosity (Diamonds are a girl's Best Friend) allowing Wind's bass to showcase his excellent Paul Chambers inspired-bowing technique. On this1949 Jule Styne/Leo Robin Broadway tune, you may hear Carol Channing, but you'll feel Marylin Monroe.

Pianist Erik Augis
Mills is a man for all musical seasons delivering two off-the-ground, angular, free-flowing complex, musical vignettes (Duos 1 & 2) that speak of exciting nascent projects. His slower compositions, one of which is the breezy (Summer), showcases Erik Augis' awesome pianism, and coheres with Mills' assessment of his skills as "a new find." Augis, a native of Columbus, with a degree from the Cleveland Institute of Music, is an experienced musician across the genre, having worked with the Columbus Jazz Orchestra, Jazz 4 Kids, Vocal Impact, Andy Woodson, Kim Pensyl, Dan Faehnle, Louis Tsamous, and others. The other slow tempo track (Sweet Shadow),  beautifully arranged, imaginative, and memorable, shows a contemplative Mills being supported by Winds' poignant bass backing. But Mills puts his artistic bona fides in full play on Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn's tenderly melodic (The Star Crossed Lovers), McCann's beatific, melancholic acoustic guitar mimics one of his early influences, the great Jim Hall, as it communicates, innovates, and appears to  reprise outlines of Hall's images from a 1962 album with Lalo Schifrin (Piano, Strings, and Bossa Nova).

Guitarist Pete McCann
The coup de grace of "SWEET SHADOW" sees Mills taking a cue from Sonny Rollins' "strolling" piano-less trios of 1957, as he delivers a humorous, engaging rendition of Rasaan Roland Kirk's (Serenade To A Cuckoo), in fact, Mills reflects much of Rollins' sonority and phrasing. Both drummer Wilson, and bassist Wind display superb form and adaptability in the chordless trio format. Wilson in particular lays down thoughtful, resplendent, navigable tracks of rhythms for Mills' searching tenor saxophone .

Bassist Martin WInd
SWEET SHADOW is filled with exceptionally tasteful jazz played by well-schooled, visionary artists. The rhythm section is unshakable, talented, and not drawn to gaudy, stentorian, overplaying. It advances a less-is-more performing utility, and like other standard-setting quintets, raises the performance bar to the level of clinical. This is a group of skillful listeners, and it is reflected in the richness of their democratic musical discourse. Pete Mills in this environment, is always challenged to be nimble and agile with his thought-composing, which underscores his telling lyricism, yet somehow, he manages to understate his towering virtuosity.

Track Listing: Shiner; Summer; The Snagel; Duo 1; New School; Sweet Shadow; Serenade To A Cuckoo; Close To Never; Duo 2; The Star Crossed Lovers; Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend; Blues For Mel; Elora Dolce; Momentum.

Recorded at: Trading 8s Music, Paramus, NJ
Mixed by: Chris Sulit, Pete McCann & Pete Mills
Mastered by: Rob (Wacko!) Hunter at The Attic, Groton, NY
Poduced by: Pete Mills, Pete McCann, and Tom Christensen

Executive Producer: Cory Weeds

Saturday, April 19, 2014


Year: 2013

Style: Jazz

Label: Legacy

Musicians: Mark Braud - trumpet & backing vocals; Charlie Gabriel - clarinet/tenor saxophone & vocals; Clint Maedgen - tenor & baritone saxophones & vocals; Freddy Lonzo - trombone & vocals; Rickie Monie - piano & backing vocals; Ronell Johnson - tuba/piano & vocals; Ben Jaffe - tuba/string bass/percussion & backing vocals; Joe Lastie Jr. - drums & backing vocals; Jim James - backing vocals on "I Think I Love You."

Preservation Hall, New Orleans
CD: Review: PRESERVATION HALL, 726 St, Peter Street, New Orleans, Louisiana, was founded in 1961 to sustain, immortalize and insulate America's purest art form - Traditional New Orleans jazz; prompting Louis Armstrong to observe, "Preservation Hall. Now that's where you'll find all of the greats." Today, the Hall is still going strong, as is the PRESERVATION HALL JAZZ BAND. The band that has taken responsibility for ensuring that these vital objectives are met as it tours world-wide, playing this extraordinary music for the enjoyment of appreciative, dedicated audiences.

The release of their latest CD "THAT'S IT," breaks new ground for this historic band. It is the first time in the band's existence that it has recorded and released an album of all original material. It is a musical and artistic challenge that is met with PHJB's vigorous blend of melody, funk, and swing; effortlessly plumbing the depths of an impressive stack of music genres: big band, gospel/rock, traditional jazz, jazz funk, and blues/soul. All-in-all, eleven exciting, eclectic tracks meant to satisfy the purest tastes. When this change in repertoire is taken in conjunction its underpinning logic, summed up by leader Ben Jaffe this way, "...this is the music we want to play today. We'll continue to do the old standards along with new material that allows us to be creative and relevant. With this album I wanted to do something that would challenge us and make us proud," it says that, "THAT'S IT! is necessary, important, and PHJB is being extremely prudent in eschewing radical change that might jeopardize appeal, and not bent on revolutionizing the genre; instead creativity is enhanced by a searching, collective inner self, laying bare its deepest desire. And since the best jazz seems always to come from artists who play what suits them; all that remains is, to listen.

"THAT'S IT!" leaves no doubt that PHJB has maintained it visceral appeal to dancers, with vocalists and backing singers creating an atmosphere of familiarity and intimacy that describe community and belonging. The vocalists add effective pacing, and considerable creative flexibility to the CD, and live shows. They emerge integral to the 'story' of New Orleans Traditional Jazz; particularly its historical musical depth, and influence. Distinct outlines of color and tone consequential to the story can be imagined out of (Come With Me (To 'Nu-Orluns')) sung by the 'swingin' octogenarian, Charlie Gabriel, doubling on clarinet with classic Bourbon Street colors, and  accompanied by Mark Braud's faultless muted trumpet. Gabriel has a further hand (or voice) in nailing the most danceable tune of the date, the bitter/sweet (I Think I Love You), especially geared for close encounters of any kind, on any dance floor, anywhere, with Rickie Monie's piano, aiding and abetting the wicked harmony, like a 'sick pardner' in crime.
Introspection, redemption, rebirth, and raw, unbridled joy rise out of the Gospel-soaked pipes of vocalist Ronell Johnson (Dear Lord (Give Me The Strength)), and his high-octane show-stopper (Halfway Right, Halfway Wrong) a song that engages the full attention and energies of the ensemble, allowing deep aural appreciation of the band's rugged, engaging dynamism.

There is a palpable, though different type of dynamism in the tune that delineates the paradigm shift in the band's 'new,' bold, creative thinking and implications for future jazz dates (August Nights), written, and sung, by multi-instrumentalist Clint Maedgen. Contrary to the somber imagery stored in the song's title; creatively, it illuminates the spotlight surrounding Maedgen that sharply outlines viable, genre-hopping, jazz/soul/blues/gospel terrain to be mined. Maedgen exploits fully, powerful, elemental traditions of emotion and human nature, and packs them all into an impassioned interpretation of his lyric. He effectively delivers what is probably, the "sleeper" on the album. Maedgen is magnificent. Creatively he seems to be looking forward, as well as backwards, at the standard for jazz/blues/soul/gospel set by the late, great, 70s singing phenom, Donny Hathaway, never losing his way, control, or poise; singing with a similar, quiet, persuasive power, seductively embellished by Mark Braud's modern, Milesian, muted trumpet poignancy; telling the universal story of all the loves won, and lost, on 'hot' August nights.

On the whole, PHJB showcases artistic depth, versatility and fecund imagination across the four instrumentals that they play, jumping off with the title track, a rhythmically compact, bracing blast from the big band past, (That's It!); a top-to-bottom, rhythm-splashed, power check, which confirms clearly : everything workin'! They are very much in their element on the French Quarter-flavored, jazz/funk (Sugar Plum) that features stellar tenor saxophone work (Charlie Gabriel or Clint Maedgen, I'm not sure); achingly soulful; straddling Jaffe's super-funky, deep-bottomed, swinging, bass line; bringing to mind, Lucky Thompson's lyrical, melodic, and swinging tenor solo/counter, in Dizzy Gillespie's jazz classic "Blue 'N Boogie" from the Miles Davis All Stars 1954 album "Walkin'".

An equally arresting instrumental (Yellow Moon), features Charlie Gabriel's warm, Bechet-sounding clarinet, painting an emotive, aural image of the sweet, bewitching fragrance of wild Magnolias accompanying the sound of a pensive horn; floating in the night air; drifting across a dark, silent lagoon, or a mesmerizing, moon lit bayou, while Ben Jaffe's strollin' banjo plots each step the imagination cares to take. The exclamation point punctuating "That It!", is painted in Ricky Monie's doleful piano chords, and Joe Lastie's baleful drumming; a complete contrast to the album's beginning attack, and a convincing sound track to the legendary New Orleans slow-marching band processions (Emmalena's Lullaby), that brings the date to its end.

If  PHJB continues to turn out more 'con sabor a jazz' masterpieces like "THAT'S IT!" that sound better and better with each listening; that's it! (es eso!): The genre will be secure for the foreseeable future, and so will PHJB.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Roberta Gambarini...a striking, gorgeous thrush with gilt-edged intonation.

Jazz singer Roberta Gambarini and James Moody
Italian jazz singer, Roberta Gambarini, appeared at Yoshi's Jazz Club, San Francisco (one of the best Jazz clubs in the world: Her words), with Roy Hargrove's young and exciting quartet, for five extraordinary, and memorable evenings of jazz, March 26 - 30, 2014. The engagement had to be something of  challenge for this Turin native. A challenge, which in retrospect, she met with grace, charm and sublime professionalism having developed an extensive performance repertoire working with a plethora of rhythm sections throughout her career.

Originally, the date was billed as, "Roy Hargrove Quintet Residency, GRAMMY winning trumpeter returns for five nights!" but Hargrove came down with a medical emergency and had to sit out the engagement. However, the show went on, with Gambarini stepping in stylishly to fill the void, and lead this exceptional band through five nights of exquisite, eclectic jazz moments, in the process exhibiting a level of talent that has won over venerated pianist Hank Jones, and impelled him to proclaim her as the "best new jazz vocalist to come along in fifty years."

As happens when the best laid plans go awry, mice and man must improvise. Not surprisingly, this jazz engagement was filled with many bright moments and good swinging jazz. I've had Roberta Gambarini on my radar since I heard her on a local jazz station (KCSM 91.1FM) from the campus of the College of San Mateo, near San Francisco. I caught her doing an uptempo version of Antonio Carlos Jobim's, "No More Blues," improvising in vocalese with the freedom of a horn, and I immediately got a 'jones' for the unpretentious, honest, confident way she sang, and swung.

Roberta Gambarini did some pretty heavy lifting on opening night; a San Francisco Tuesday night that was rainy and blustery. Yet she filled the house with considerable warmth and joy, with her astute selection of ballads, jazz standards, popular songs, and the 'blues.' She became increasingly accessible, and familiar as the night wore on.

Appearing in a simple, yet stunning, white, strapless, form-fitting evening dress, she sang in Portuguese, French, Spanish and English; and she got wonderful support for Hargrove's quartet, with whom she enjoys great rapport. The rhythm section, pianist Sullivan Fortner, bassist Ameen Saleem, and drummer Quincy Phillips over achieved in power and appropriate nuance, backing up Justin Robinson's fire-breathing alto saxophone, to give Gambarini all she needed to mesmerize, and captivate the crowd like a pied piper. Their up tempo tunes had a funky edge, and an off-the-floor, spontaneous originality that was supernatural, and rare.

Gambarini opened the evening singing (Monk's Prayer) a cappella, a technique at which she is demonstrably adept. In this instance, it served to profile the limpid elegance and commanding vocal range she typifies; and as a preface to a ("Moodys Groove") swinging tribute for the late jazz saxophonist extraordinaire, James Moody who appeared as special guest on her 2006 critically acclaimed CD: "Easy To Love," and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Quickly, she jumped all over Gillespie's arrangement of the Jimmy McHugh/Dorothy Fields jazz standard "On The Sunny Side of The Street," taken from Gillespie's1957 album "Sonny Side Up," which featured colossal saxophonists, Sonny Stitt, Sonny Rollins and Dizzy's trade mark trumpet. Gambarini's vocalese chops ignited a lot of excitement when she executed the three classic original horn solos with frightening accuracy.

Gambarini primed a well-balanced performance with music from a variety of the top twentieth-century composers and lyricists of popular music; George & Ira Gershwin; Cole Porter; Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart; Ellington & Strayhorn; Antonio Carlos Jobim; Frank Sinatra and others. She revisited her 2006 CD: Easy To Love for five of the dozen or so, songs she sang. She dusted off, and put her personal interpretation on two Gershwin tunes that have become important works in The Great American Songbook; the ballad (Someone To Watch Over Me), and the popular song (Embraceable You), selflessly sharing the spotlight with pianist Sullivan Fortner, and his keyboard that flowed with brilliant, feather-light touches of elegance; perfectly complementing Gambarini's exquisite reading of the lyric. Fortner's strainless approach to swing seems to parallel the inimitable technique of bebop pianist Sonny Clark in articulation, form and color, but Fortner's touch is understandably more progressive.Gambarini described his pianism as 'incredible.'   

Gambarini likes medleys, and she strings them together tastefully, and expertly, as she did with (This Masquerade), Leon Russell's 1972 hit; (The Thrill is Gone) a 'blues' and (I'm a Fool to Want You) a ballad written by Frank Sinatra in 1951...a song not heard much these days. But Gambarini also likes to swing, and knows how, as she dug into her 2006 CD: "Easy to Love" for the title track written by Cole Porter; Antonio Carlos Jobim's (No More Blues/Chega de Saudade) the song that started the bossa nova craze, and (Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be)), one of Billie Holiday's staples. She swung them all. Justin Robinson's alto was all grit, edge and speed, clearing out space for the rhythm section of Fortner (piano), Ameen Saleem (bass), and Quincy Phillips (drums) to surround her with a deftly manicured ring of searing rhythmic patterns.

Gambarini comes prepared, not only to sing, but to give something extra to her audience, this makes her concerts memorable and describes the passion she feels for jazz, and those who make jazz what it is. Her knowledge of jazz, and jazz history is encyclopedic. Who else remembers clearly, and bothers to look back earnestly, at one of Duke Ellington's late 50s Newport Jazz Concerts when Ozzie Bailey, a jazz singer who sang ballads as slow "as a drip of pine resin," sang one chorus of Billy Strayhorn's (Rocks In My Bed)...and can reprise it accurately for the audience? Roberta Gambarini...that's who!  The room also learned that the tune (Summer/Estate), which she also sang, and that, Joao Gilberto made a world-wide hit, is not Brazilian, but was written by an Italian, Bruno Martino.

Occasionally, during a concert, an artist may be lucky to deliver a 'show stopper'; that sweet moment when all the hearts and breathing in the room stop; and no one knows for sure what the next move should be...there is usually a pregnant pause, followed by patrons 'losing it,' some applaud loudly; raucously; others whistle, scream, and holler; many too overcome to respond, just remain glued and quiet. Gambarini came as close to a 'glued and quiet' show stopper, as was possible, when she put all of her heart and soul into the Benny Carter/Sammy Cahn classic jazz standard (Only Trust Your Heart), another one of the tunes from her 2006 CD "Easy To Love."

It is easy to love Roberta Gambarini, the talented artist and person, and the weight of knowing that this show was nearing it end was palpable . She must have felt the sad vibe in the room, because she reserved Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's (Lover) as her finale. 'Lover' was the hardest swung tune of the night, somewhere in the din, Quincy Phillips got out of his cage, and his drums almost walked off the stage without him. It was enough to stop any rainy night dead in its tracks!

Roberta Gambarini is forever reaching for that artistic brass ring...she seems to get closer with each performance. She specializes in painting beautiful vignettes of color into the introductions to her songs, which she then expands across the tapestry of her music. Roberta Gambarini is a master painter; a striking gorgeous thrush with gilt-edged intonation.


Earlier in the evening, Gambarini had said that Cuban-born, eleven-time GRAMMY winner, multi-instrumentalist, Paquito D'Rivera was flying in from New York the following day (March 27) to join Gambarini and the quintet to complete the engagement.

I knew that I had to return to hear D'Rivera and Gambarini together..!

Next: Pacquito D'Rivera makes the S. F. scene!

Paquito D'Rivera Makes The San Francisco Scene At Yoshi's Jazz Club, With Singer Roberta Gambarini.

Multi-instrumentalist  Paquito D'Rivera
Well, I returned to Yoshi's Jazz Club in San Francisco on Friday Night, March 28, 2014 to hear Cuban multi-instrumentalist (alto saxophone, clarinet, soprano saxophone) Paquito D'Rivera in concert with singer Roberta Gambarini and the Roy Hargrove quartet. Gambarini unhesitatingly averred D'Rivera's stature as 'the maestro'; an eminence that remains grounded in humility, humor and sophisticated enlightenment; and revealed in the virtuosic playing of the many music genres (Brazilian, Classical, Bebop, Latin Jazz, Latin/Caribbean) at his command. D'Rivera's presence was especially timely because of his 2014 GRAMMY Award for Best Latin Jazz Album: "SONG FOR MAURA," "...a love song to the memory of the beautiful Maura, my mother" (D'Rivera).

Jazz Singer Roberta Gambarini
The Friday evening concert attracted a full house, (the weather was spectacular). The band opened with an instrumental uptempo burner to warm the room, and to prepare the scene for Gambarini's entrance; and enter she did, beaming in an elegant, off-the-hook, strapless, black evening dress; 'silky-smooth' on the eyes, perfectly poised anatomically for her opening offering; Benny Carter's (When Lights Are Low) backed with stellar alto work from Justin Robinson. Robinson has warp speed, agility, and precision over the alto's full register. But when he wraps his horn around a melody, as he did on Carter's most popular song, there are not many modern alto players that come close to his dexterity, interpretive acumen, and flow. He and Gambarini concocted a potent mix of intimidating sex appeal, and raw, unbridled, muscular blowin'.

Gambarini introduced Paquito D'Rivera to an appreciative audience with an air approaching reverence. She, singing in Portuguese, and the eleven-time GRAMMY winner then took off on Antonio Carlos Jobim's bossa nova precursor (Chega de Saudade/No More Blues), like two active kids enjoying the warmth of summer, frolicking on a beach at Ipanema. D'Rivera impressive facility on his horn was immediate, and showered the room in warm, exotic color, as he and Gambarini traded phrases the way front line horn players trade 'fours.' Everyone now understood why Gambarini called D'Rivera 'the maestro.' He embraces the 'melody,' does not play his reed or horns loudly, and his pacing is faultless. With these simple, but telling effects in place, Gambarini capitalized on a deeper, more assorted palette of colors to explore, which she exploited magnificently during the remainder of the evening.

Gambarini did not have to take the emotional temperature of the room before introducing her next selection (Oblivion/J'oublie), written by Astor Piazzolla. But she did pique their interests by uttering the key words "love" and "Paris." Two magical words that anticipate images of hedonistic adventure and romance, although, in this case, the anticipation eventuated into a realization of 'love lost in Paris,' flawlessly described by Gambarini in the language of romance and love: French. " (...mon bateau part, s'en va, quelque part/les gens se separent, j'oublie, j'oublie/ A boat leaves, goes away/People are parting, I forget, I forget). D'Rivera's clarinet highlighted the emotional theme of the song, against an aching, cimmerian background of despondency emerging from the measured chords of Fortner's piano, Ameen's bass, and Phillips' purposeful drum beat; offering a collaborative representation of the versatility of the ensemble.                                                                                                                                                
Oblivion's immediate legacy was a mood of heightened expectation and palpable anticipation which quickly dissipated once D'Rivera announced the next tune, the very exciting (Song For Mauda), the title track from his 2014 GRAMMY award-winning CD for Best Latin Jazz Album, which he played on alto in uptempo Latin/Caribbean style, and is a dedication to his mother's memory, an invitation to dance, that set the stage for a deep musical bow to Dizzy Gillespie, an important backer for D'Rivera when he first arrived in New York from Cuba. The tune (A Night In Inglewood), a slow bossa nova, bore a close rhythmic resemblance to Dizzy's "Night In Tunisia" with sumptuous scatterings of "Salt Peanuts" for added flavor, displaying infectious humor throughout.

Next, D'Rivera took the quartet, Gambarini, and the audience on a colorful and emotional tour of his Latin jazz soul, playing beautifully and articulately, intricately retracing musical paths imprinted with the classic work of the masters with images and quotes from Moises Simon's Cuban "street seller's cry" (El Manicero/Peanut Vendor), or Zequinha de Abreu's (Tico Tico). Again D'Rivera's approach was quiet, Clear. His images, parries and riffs emerging gracefully from the register of the alto, as his fingers danced over the keys in a lover's caress. Delicate. Keen. Fluid. A 'maestro' describing an enduring musical culture, as only a maestro is able.

Gambarini and the quartet released the room from its sweet reverie, with Harry "Sweets" Edison & Jon Hendricks' swinging (Centerpiece), but the die was could not possibly get any better during the remainder of the show...not even with another go 'round of (On The Sunny Side of The Street).

Roberta Gambarini and Paquito D'Rivera both possess very open personalities that exude confidence, and genuine camaraderie, qualities that draw audiences in, establishing trust and keen anticipation. Their serendipitous appearance on stage together at Yoshi's Jazz Club, San Francisco transcended the stimulating power of 'the jazz concert.' It made itself into an event that committed music lovers should not have missed.   

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Trumpeter Roy Hargrove - "The Night of the Jewel-Studded Glove"

I can't quite recall if I read somewhere, or heard it said, that trumpeter Roy Hargrove was the 21st Century incarnation of Miles Dewey Davis III. So, to satisfy my own curiosity, I went to see him perform at Yoshi's Jazz Club in San Francisco on Sunday, January 15, 2012.

Jazz Trumpeter Roy Hargrove
He does have a similar, young Davis, chiseled, welterweight, physical build. He visibly exudes cool Milesian confidence and authority in his playing; and the signature Davis mannerism - though not as overtly as Miles -of turning away from the audience, but not his back, when he is not playing his trumpet. He does however, acknowledge applause. His soloing technique is smooth, thoughtful and crisply coherent. Like Davis, he builds his solos with a keen sense of force, logical lyricism and searching clarity; not ending them unimaginatively by prematurely finishing his phrases. But...he eschews the early ultra-conservative Davis' riveting, consistent, 'on stage', sartorial elegance, though on this night, he managed to demonstrate enough sparkling theatre to upstage both "The Prince of Darkness,"and "The King of Pop," when he emerged on the bandstand wearing a single, jewel-studded glove, with flashing multi-color lighted fingertips on his right hand. His suit was exquisitely tailored to fit his svelte frame, and his wrap-around sunglasses were vintage Miles.

The band for this appearance - a quintet - consisted of Justin Robinson - alto saxophone; Sullivan Fortner - piano; Ameen Saleem - bass; Quincy Phillips - drums; Roy Hargrove - trumpet/flugelhorn.

Alto saxophonist Justin Robinson
Hargrove managed to attract a full house for his Sunday Night show, mainly because he is such a draw in the San Francisco Bay Area, and on this occasion, probably because the following day, Monday, January 16, was Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. He opened the 8pm show with Peter de Rose and Bert Shefter's beautiful ballad (The Lamp Is Low). Hargrove took the first solo on open trumpet, blowing carefully and eloquently as blue lights on the fingertips of his bejeweled right hand glove undulated eerily in the club's dim light as he manipulated the valves on the horn. I am not sure if I would describe the effect as distracting or a spectacle, however seeing it for the first time, it seemed, well...strange! Hargrove soon turned the stage over to alto saxophonist Justin Robinson, walked over the the right end of the stage and was seen transfixed, sequencing the glove's fingertip lights through a series of red/green/blue colors...uummm interesting, but still strange!

Anyway, I turned my attention over to Robinson's alto saxophone, and I became transfixed by his speed and dexterity moving through the registers. Though impressed by his playing, my personal opinion then, and throughout the remainder of the program during solos, and duets with Hargrove, was that the tenor saxophone would have been a better tonal fit, because the tenor's burnished sound hangs better in a large room, and in this instance, I thought the tenor saxophone combined with Hargrove's rounded, smooth flugelhorn would produce a deeper, more intimate sound and feel: but I do admit a strong bias towards the tenor and tenor players!

Pianist Sullivan Fortner
The quintet continued its tune-up on Duke Pearson's (Is That So), which featured an excellent duet between Hargrove and Robinson, leading into pianist Cedar Walton's hard-bop (Hindsight), with Hargrove now showing great confidence in his dynamite rhythm section, as they took off into the night like worked up kids at a Saturday night fish fry. The other significant events in this set saw Hargrove finally dispensing with the now 'famous jeweled glove,' and settling the audience into a new zone of wonderment and comfort by changing to his flugelhorn, on which he is nakedly stellar. The quintet hit its stride, shifted its focus, and fired up James Williams' (Alter Ego), with Hargrove becoming more daring in his approach, creating more space for Robinson's alto, letting him go as far out as he wanted, but not hesitating to ease him back from the ledge with cool, coherent lyrical oversight. Bassist Ameen Saleem, reacting with a deep understanding of the conversations taking place within the group, became a dominant force during this segment reaching down deep, for a well-rounded, melodic beat that accommodated a particularly energized polyrhythmic exchange between drummer Quincy Phillips and pianist Sullivan Fortner, punctuated and accented by Fortner's marvelously understated, harmonic vignettes that stilled the capacity crowd and resulted in one of the most sustained applause moments of the evening.

Pivoting perfectly from hard-bop to Jimmy Dorsey's lush standard (I'm So Glad There Is You, (In This World of Ordinary People)) showing the quintet's collective mastery at changing moods, or tempos, without anxiety or sacrificing form, and simultaneously providing a window for an intimate look into the artistic and professional relationship between Hargrove and his exceptional pianist Sullivan Fortner : two consummate performers joined at the heart, relating through a magical ether; communicating by subtle nuance with clarity and unambiguous dedication; and harvesting a vast crop of musical ideas planted during their youth.

Bassist Ameen Saleem
Turning back to the awesome alto 'chops' of Justin Robinson for his take on an uptempo version of Bronislau Kaper's (Invitation), developed into a serious rhythmic chase between him and drummer Quincy Phillips. Phillips is best appreciated as a very efficient, supporting element within the context of the rhythm section as a unit. Though not as rhythmically complex or sonically overpowering in his playing, as say, Blakey, or Elvin Jones, he does have blurring hand speed and a propulsive drive that was licking hungrily at the flames from Robinson's alto saxophone, until Hargrove, displaying an uncanny sense of timing and cool, took control, and saw everyone home safely and soundly. (Invitation) turned in to the most sizzling tune of the show, and everyone felt its heat.

Drummer Quincy Phillips

To end the evening, Hargrove and the group treated the audience to an extended groove of blues, funk and gospel, laced with subtle humor and a dizzying array of quotes with an agility that made them difficult to categorize or identify. Hargrove is without doubt one of the most important, young jazz trumpeters on the contemporary jazz scene. He shares some common traits with Miles Davis, not Davis' 'Harmon mute, Heim mouthpiece, close to the microphone voice,' but some of his style. He is electrifying, exciting, well trained, traveled, and super accomplished on both trumpet and flugelhorn, his repertoire is vast, he respects his musicians, gives them all the space they need (Like Miles gave Coltrane) and knows a thing or two about dressing.

There is a certain urbane cachet that informs Hargrove's performances, and the choices he makes of music, musicians, and composers. Simply put, he has a knack for selecting winners and gems. The guy has class, no doubt: he closed out the evening by descending from the stage, and strolling among the audience as he and Justin Robinson blew their horns until they reached the exit; the rhythm section remained on the stage playing; after a few moments, the drummer put away his sticks and quietly departed; seconds later, the bassist carefully laid his instrument down, leaving the pianist with the honor of playing the definitive note of the evening that cleared the deck, and the room. This was the cleanest, most orderly exit of a group of musicians from a bandstand I have witnessed.

No one asked for an encore! It was that cool! 

Watch Roy Hargrove play "Invitation"

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Tenor Saxophone Legend Sonny Rollins At Davies Symphony Hall In San Francisco.

President Barack Obama presenting
tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins with
the 2010 National Medal of Arts Award.
When Sonny Rollins was awarded the 2010 National Medal of Arts for outstanding achievements and support of the arts by President Barack Obama on March 2, 2010, I wonder if, among the many things that were going through his mind, was the time, "as a seventeen year old senior, and brilliant tenor player, attending Benjamin Franklin High School in New York, he used to go everyday up to Thelonious Monk's place (243 West 63rd Street, NYC) in Sugar Hill and practice with his band, along with tenor saxophonist Jackie McClean, drummer Art Taylor, pianist Kenny Drew, and bassists Arthur Phipps and Connie Henry - the original "Sugar Hill Gang." Monk helped Rollins, and encouraged him to develop his own sound, but most importantly, allowed him to play what he wanted." (Source: Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin D. G. Kelley). During those nascent days, he was known as Theodore Rollins, but his friends called him "Sonny."

Sonny Rollins 'practicing' on
the Williamsburg Bridge, NYC
circa 1960
On Sunday evening September 30, 2012, Theodore Walter "Sonny" Rollins, now eighty-two years old, made an appearance at the prestigious Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco,  as part of the city's 30th annual jazz festival, for an 8:30 PM concert before an audience in excess of two thousand patrons. They had come to hear, pay respects to, and celebrate a living jazz legend...and Sonny did not disappoint. Though the years had taken their natural toll on his physical frame, they had done nothing to his formidable 'chops.' The soaring power, electricity, energy and nimble, wonderfully melodic explorations burst forth from his tenor saxophone like time had stopped one day in the 1960s, high up on New York City's Williamsburg Bridge.

The band accompanying Sonny this night included, preeminent percussionist, Sammy Figueroa from the Bronx, New York; in demand trombonist Clifton Anderson from Harlem, New York, a former member of Slide Hampton's renowned "World of Trombones" group; Chicago, Illinois drummer Kobie Watkins, known for his ability to ignite searing spectrums of rhythm; from Cranston, Illinois, bassist Bob Cranshaw, who has had a long association with Rollins covering several decades, in addition to an extensive, and distinguished career; and New York-based guitarist, accomplished composer/producer Saul Rubin, who has enjoyed an especially diverse career.

For Rollins this was clearly an occasion to look back to some of the great jazz musicians and others he has known during his extended and glorious career; to recognize their contributions to jazz, while simultaneously using his considerable talent and legend to ensure that the flame of jazz music remains an eternal light of hope, peace, and love for future jazz players and audiences alike. The opening selection (D Cherry), a rhythmic, percussion-filled tune with a pronounced calypso beat, was dedicated to the late Don Cherry, an innovative trumpeter whom Rollins humbly described as a great trumpet player, further adding that he had also composed songs for pianists Tommy Flanagan, Thelonious Monk, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, and bassist Paul Chambers"these songs don't do these great people justice, so I accept that, but still it came from a good heart."

L - R Sonny Rollins, sax; Clifford Brown, tr;
Richie Powell, piano; Max Roach, drums
George Morrow, bass.
Sonny Rollins is a spiritual seeker. His next dedication was to a mystic called (Katandra), "...I used to know him...this was way back...and so this is the one I wrote for him, it's called (Katanchalee)." Not a total surprise, because Rollins traveled to Japan in 1963 & 1968 and became interested in Zen Buddhism. Shortly after (late 1968) he trekked to India and "spent four months at the Powaii Ashram in the Bombay suburbs, meditating on his life's mission and practicing hatha yoga." (George Goodman; Atlantic Monthly). What is surprising about this mystic dedication, was the strong Caribbean Calypso rhythmic chant from Rollins' saxophone that hearkened back to his West Indian roots and was repeated in circular waves; each wave inching toward a festival-like fever of sustained, rocking energy and blazing colors poured into infectious, explosive, undulating improvisational explorations from Rollins' now totally free saxophone; a freedom of movement that the rest of the band locked into with pounding harmonic and percussive frenzy. The audience suddenly found themselves in a carnival velodrome, as Rollins pushed the band higher; building fiery tension and anticipation of a climax that created audible, involuntary sound reactions from the crowd, morphing into a spontaneous eruption of released joy, even before Rollins' saxophone had reached the climax with his own coda of gut-busting notes. At the fourteen minute mark, there was a cacophony of hooting and hollering mixed with loud applause; those who could not contain themselves, just got to their feet, and simply shouted. Sonny Rollins and this incredible band had seared a stamp of memorable accomplishment on this very special evening.

Capitalizing on the surging energy that reached to the rafters, Rollins and the band launched in the perennial pleaser (St. Thomas). This classic composition will forever belong to Sonny Rollins; no one plays it like he does; tonight he played it how he wanted because, as he explained: "Somebody made a request. I usually don't play that song, but I did. I told you I was a nice guy!" The audience ate it up!

Rollins is known to have a 'jones' for show tunes, ballads and standards, and he plays them with transcendent feeling and authority. His classic albums of the 1950s contain many of them: Freedom Suite - 1958, Meredith Wilson's ("Till There Was You"); Newk's Time - 1957, Rogers & Hammerstein's ("Surrey With The Fringe On Top"; Saxophone Colossus - 1956, Don Raye & Gene DePaul's "You don't Know What Love Is"); The Sounds Of Sonny - 1957, Jerome Kern & Oscar Hammerstein's ("The Last Time I Saw Paris"), Adolph Green, Betty Comden & Jule Styne's ("Just In Time"), Cole Porter's ("Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye"), Jimmy Van Heusen & Johnny Burke's ("It Could Happen To You"); Tenor Madness - 1956, Einar A. Swan's ("When Your Lover Has Gone"); and Work Time - 1955, Billy Strayhorn's ("Rain Check"). The list goes on...but for this occasion he selected Michael Edwards and Bud Green's 1937 standard, ("Once In A While"). This tune showed the mastery and control that Rollins still maintains over all the registers of his horn, and that he is still able to express his wealth of spontaneous ideas with power, or subtlety. However, the tune's performance is memorable because of a deep-rooted, melodic, four-minute bass solo from Bob Cranshaw. I first became aware of the convincing playing ability of Cranshaw from his appearance on trumpeter Lee Morgan's ground-breaking album "The Sidewinder," with Joe Henderson on tenor saxophone, Barry Harris, piano, and Billy Higgins on drums. It was Cranshaw's playing on the title track that stood out then, as it did now on 'Once In a While,'  playing with absolutely masterful discipline, great imagination, and a keen lyrical sense that Rollins embroidered further with lissome, harmonic imprvisations; two jazz masters  supremely comfortable in their element.  

Eventually trombonist Clifton Anderson and drummer Kobie Watkins found the perfect vehicle in the song (Serenade) to showcase their playing skills. Anderson's playing was thoughtful, melodic and smooth, displaying the results of his professional associations with such musical giants as Frank Foster, McCoy Tyner, Clifford Jordan, Stevie Wonder, Dizzy Gillespie and others that secured him a place in his uncle's band (Sonny Rollins) since 1983. Drummer Watkins produced an extended solo that wrapped the room in suspenseful awe with a demonstration of his wizardry at changing tempos and rhythm with dramatic ease, and garnering him his most spirited, sustained applause. 

The final dedication was made to the late great trombonist J. J. Johnson, whom Rollins regarded as a mentor; an individual of impeccable personal and professional character; the musician who allowed him (Rollins) to play on his first record date. Rolling remembered J.J with a divinely sublime homage, accented with an occasional staccato change in tempo to match the initials "J.J." When the tune ended, Rollins offered a supplication for continued support, and long life for the art form that has been the bedrock of his existence, with a vibrant entreaty of "...more jazz, more jazz." 

The band and Rollins ended the program in rhythm as they had begun it, with the beat of the Calypso (Don't Stop The Carnival), staying true to the fiery colors, dance, and energy deep in his roots. The audience called for an encore, more out of love, longing and respect, I think, than musical thirst or selfish desire. Secretly, they had to appreciate that this octogenarian jazz legend had played for 90 minutes, almost non-stop, and had availed them of the opportunity one day, to tell their children and grandchildren...'I got to see the legendary jazz man Sonny Rollins one memorable night in San Francisco.'

Sonny and the band did return to the stage one last time to take a bow.

Rollins this night, proved not only to be a legendary tenor player, but also a consummate showman by keeping the audience engaged and in good humor throughout the evening with stories, perspectives, and priceless morsels of his unique musical and personal philosophy; providing great satisfaction, wonderful balance, and warmth, to a memorable program. He had come a long way from 243 West 63rd Street in New York City.

Thank You, Sonny!

Sonny Rollins with Max Roach: circa 1956

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Mesmerized By Hiromi

Jazz Pianist Hiromi
Flashy, reliable automobiles and state of the art electronic wonders are not the only commodities bearing the vaunted Japanese gold standard of excellence these days: In the arts, there is also the swelling contingent of impressive, well-trained Japanese jazz musicians who are making their presence felt, and appreciated, on the International jazz music scene. Pianist Hiromi is one of them, and she made one of her recurring appearances at Yoshi's Jazz Club in Oakland California for a four-night engagement, April 5 - April 8. 2012. I managed to catch a special matinee show on Sunday evening, April 8, 2012 at 6:00 p. m.

To be honest, I had not heard much of her work until I happened to tune into a local jazz radio station while they were in the middle of playing an intensely swingin' jazz piece, and the pianist was on fire. Just at that time, I was driving on the freeway, and I heard the DJ announce the pianist as one, Hiromi (even he sounded out of breath), who was currently in town at Yoshi's Jazz Club. That was it for me. My Sunday evening was booked!

I immediately became interested in learning all I could about Hiromi. What leaped out of her bio at me, besides the fact that she was born in Hamamatsu, Japan, was that, she was mentored by legendary pianists Ahmad Jamal at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, and Chick Corea. In Ahmad Jamal, Hiromi had as a teacher, a professional whose relationship with the piano, and respect for the instrument approached reverence. I recall a radio interview during which Jamal recounted an incident in a New York jazz club where he was performing; an inebriated patron stumbled over to his piano and spilled red wine on the keys, Jamal said something to the effect, "...when I saw that red wine all over those beautiful black and white keys, I immediately got up, called over Israel (Crosby: bassist) and Vernel (Fournier: drummer), packed up our instruments, went and got our car, and drove straight to Chicago." Shortly after arriving in Chicago the group became the 'House Trio' at Chicago's Pershing Hotel, and jazz history was about to be made.

The first sight that greeted me as I walked into Yoshi's jazz music room, was a drum setup that seemed to rise to the ceiling, and take up almost half of the stage; a magnificent Yamaha CFlll-S Concert Grand Piano took up the other half. The drum set resembled an edifice of transparent silver and aluminum spheroid objects, with six cymbals perched like flying saucers, high above the drummer's chair; not gaudy, but ultra modern, imposing, and impressive. It served to symbolize the body, soul and spirit of the Hiromi Trio Project.

Drummer Simon Phillips
When drummer Simon Phillips eventually took his position behind the drums, he literally could not be seen, but throughout the evening, the cathedral of sound he developed, of gusting staccato sequences and thrilling arpeggios, pummeled the surrounding room like a roaring hurricane making landfall; though when the mood demanded, he could be elegant, and feather gentle.

The Hiromi Project is theatre. It is music theatre of the highest order, put on by three compelling artists. Hiromi Uehara, piano; bassist Anthony Jackson, and drummer Simon Phillips. Hiromi, a virtuoso pianist, is the main character; the star, around whom the plot and the story revolve. Her performance proved it.

When Hiromi is playing she can become intense, sometimes she is animated and communicative with body and facial language. Sometimes she is a study in whimsical responses to her own playing, then she'll quickly shift to absorbed concentration, painting a picture of an artist committed to the idea of excellence as a hallmark of performance. She'll turn her piano stool into a theatrical prop, a springboard to launch her upright into an exclamatory, consuming, tonally dynamic, rhythmic orgasm. Hiromi is always modern, alive, exciting and subtly sensuous. Her theatre is integral to audience pleasure; it can heighten, or release tension, or cap a climax. She is many enigmas; enigmas solved only through the keys on her grand piano.

Hiromi started the evening show with one of her compositions (Delusion), on which she displayed intricate left hand harmonic and melodic figures. I was reminded of past great stride pianists whose great left hands were their pride (James P. Johnson; Art Tatum; Fats Waller; Mary Lou Williams; Thelonious Monk). The trio then rattled off a triptych of her compositions which demonstrated the power and cohesiveness of the unit as Hiromi took the room through a stunning variety of playing styles and music genres. First they played a funk-based fusion piece, with Hiromi switching to synthesizer, increasing the tempo and energizing the rhythm with brilliant keyboard colors; then she played the synthesizer with her right hand, and used her left hand to produce a tasty rhythmic brew from the piano, expertly, effortlessly making it all fit together. Drummer Simon Phillips was in his element, producing the riveting rhythmic dynamism developed during his stints with Toto, The Who & David Gilmour.

The second selection was more classical in order and execution, with it she changed the mood significantly and gave the audience an exhibition of her rigorous classical training. She incorporated Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" into the movement, re-fashioned the tune's harmonic architecture from inside to outside (much like pianist Bill Evans), utilizing direct visual contact and profound telepathic communication with drummer Phillips to change moods, tempi and direction very emphatically. Phillips to his credit understood the power of his drums, his role in this theatre, and he responded with complete control of the drum's dynamic range, allowing Hiromi to present faultlessly, some of the most exciting, demanding and challenging music of her program.
Bassist Anthony Jackson

Turning to gospel and the blues, taken at a very slow tempo allowed bassist Anthony Jackson to add deep feeling to Hiromi's searching piano forays into the music's indigo mood; at times she resorted to block chords to effect warmth against Phillips' gentle, bracing time signature and then when she instinctively felt that her audience had 'got down' as far as they might with her, she nimbly employed varying force and reversing colors for a tighter embrace. Prolonging the embrace, she turned her head sideways, placed her left ear down close to the piano keyboard, as if she were listening intently, then she used her right hand to pulse a hypnotic repeating pattern, as her left hand deftly walked away into the deep waters of the piano's lower register, embellishing the mood with more blues and swing for Anthony Jackson's bass to return to the melody and end the tune. It was breathtaking.  

Hiromi did not announce the names of these tunes before or after playing them. In retrospect, it was immaterial. Their music was exciting, dynamic, unforgettable; 'nobody was worried, and nobody seemed to care.' In any case, giving them names might have categorized the performance, and Hiromi is proving that she is beyond category.

Hiromi did however name her fifth selection of the show (Haste). It featured her on solo piano playing with clear classical overtones, in some sections as she gracefully meandered the piano keyboard, her technique, exquisite tonal color and enthusiasm, seemed to mirror those of the eminent twentieth century virtuoso classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz. She also demonstrated an uncanny ability to genuinely excite an audience.

For the program's final selection the trio returned with full power. Hiromi led with amazing playing intensity fueled by blurred hand speed, moving like a nectar-seeking hummingbird's oscillating wings; never losing focused intent, or harmonic balance; each expressed through genuine joy, without strain or overwrought piano histrionics; producing left hand rhythmic innovations, propulsion and accuracy much like the great jazz pianist McCoy Tyner. Explosively augmenting Hiromi's brilliance was Simon Phillips whose drumming now approached a seismic event. At the end, the room stood for a rousing ovation and demanded, in unison, an encore, which The Hiromi Trio Project graciously obliged. Hiromi had given her audience an exclusive look into the mega music theatre of her mind, from its mezzanine of blues/rock/jazz/fusion, to its sophisticated, charmingly furnished penthouse of the classics, and deepened the experience with a pianistic style that encompassed, stride, jazz, rock, gospel, fusion and classical. She is a joy to see, and hear.

Hiromi's music epitomizes excitement and adventure, it speaks out of a soul with trusting eyes, like a child's. Her music reveals the passion of an indomitable spirit, that once released, can unleash powerful external emotions; at any time; in any place: That is the essence and magic of Hiromi Uehara.



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