By Dee Dee McNeil/Jazz Journalist
Sept 1, 2020
When I listen to Teodross Avery’s saxophone music, I feel like I know him. When I hear his compositions, they sound familiar (like jazz standards) and when I interviewed him recently, we talked like old friends instead of artist and journalist. He’s got an easy way about him. He’s personable and that comes across in his music. I didn’t feel anything pretentious blowing out of the bell of his horn. His saxophone is honest, pure, emotional and well-played.
He was born in Northern California, (the Vacaville/Oakland area) and he comes from a mid-sized, loving family. There was little Teo, two sisters, a step-brother, a step-mother and father and his real mother was also in the mix.
“My father played various instruments around the house just for fun; the harmonica and Bongos. He bought me a guitar when I was just five years old,” Teo shared with me.
“Like a kid’s guitar or a toy guitar?” I asked him.
“No. It was a real electric guitar and I thought I was rockin’ hard in those days. (laughter) I started taking lessons at ten. But before lessons, I had my real guitar and I was playing while very young.”
The Avery house was always full of music. His father boasted a huge record collection and young Teodross heard a range of music including West African music, soul, rock and jazz. At age thirteen, the sound of John Coltrane jolted Teo onto a new musical path. The young Avery put down the guitar and picked up the saxophone. Two years later, the impetuous teenager heard that Wynton Marsalis was coming to town. Always in search of ‘live’ music, he enjoyed hearing the various jazz artists in-person; artists like Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard, Nat Adderley, Pharoah Sanders and Elvin Jones. Teo was determined to meet trumpet icon, Wynton Marsalis.
“Yeah, he was passing through the Bay Area and performing at UC Berkeley. I would always go hear ‘live’ music in the Bay area. I would stake out. I’d get to the venue early and I’d wait for the musicians to arrive,” he chuckles remembering.
“It was kind of unique, because how often would musicians see a fifteen-year-old kid waiting for them to arrive? So, they opened the music up to me, which was really cool. At the time, Wynton was helping out a lot of young musicians. He always had you introduce yourself first. Like hi, my name is blah blah and I’m from such and such a place. Then he’d say – ok. Pull out your horn. I want to hear what you have to say on your instrument. Let’s hear what you got. Then, he’d critique you and inspire you. He’d direct you if he thought you had something you needed to work on. After he heard me play, he told me to talk to his saxophonist, Wessell Anderson. After playing for Wes, I told them I needed a new horn, since they were helping musicians get better instruments. They told me they would arrange a new instrument for me and I was really, really, appreciative,” Teodross Avery spoke sincerely. “I was fifteen.”
Doors flew open for the talented young man. At seventeen he got a scholarship to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston. At nineteen, he landed a record deal with GRP/Impulse and cut his first album, using a slew of exceptional musicians. For two days, I listened to this man’s early work on YouTube. He was not even of legal age to drink alcohol, but his music had an old soul. That first album was bebop-tight and fluid. He was soulful and sounded like a veteran player instead of a nineteen-year-old college student. I asked him about that time in his life.
“I was playing with Carl Allen and at the time, he had a music copyist who knew a management person (Anna Sala) who knew an A&R person. That A&R person (Carl Griffin) knew there was a call out from GRP/Impulse Records. They were looking for a saxophone artist. When the copyist heard me on Carl Allen’s record date, he asked me to send them my information. That’s how I got that deal, and interestingly, that music copyist, who’s also a trumpet player, is leading an amazing group today called “The Cookers.” I’m sure you’ve heard them. His name is David Weiss. He’s been in a few groups, but this was a great group with Billy Harper, Eddie Henderson, Donald Harrison, George Cables, Cecil Mcbee and Billy Hart. He hooked me up.”
Dee Dee: You used Roy Hargrove on that first album. I love that song “High Hopes.” How did Roy come to be on that album?
“When Roy would come through Boston, I would go hear him and we used to wind up at this bar named Wally’s. Everybody went there to jam. You’d go to Wally’s to learn how to play. It was like Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, back in New York. One of those places where you went and just played. Our friendship evolved like that and he wound up on my album. I composed nine out of the eleven songs on that album,” Teo Avery flashed back to his Berklee College days.
I reminded Teo that one of the songs I listened to on that album was “Edda”, a Wayne Shorter composition. I asked him if Wayne Shorter was one of his inspirations.
“Oh sure. He’s probably one of the greatest composers in jazz. His music is very strong. I was also influenced by John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, Michael Brecker, Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock; oh, there’s so many,” he mused.
Teo’s next project came in 1996, when he released his “My Generation” album. His first album was bebop influenced and straight-ahead. But this next release blended genres. He enlisted the talents of Mark Whitfield, John Scofield and Peter Bernstein on guitar, Charles Craig on piano, Greg Hutchinson on drums and Rodney Whitaker on bass.
“I’ve been knowing Rodney since those days of going to hear Roy Hargrove. I heard him perform with Roy. He and Greg Hutchinson played so well together. They just locked. I was like, I gotta have these guys on my record,” he recalled with excitement in his tone.
On one of their songs he featured “Blackthoughts” from “The Roots” group, a popular house-band featured on the Jimmy Fallon Late Night TV show. Avery also did a very cool arrangement of Janet Jackson’s hit record, “Anytime, Anyplace” on this album.
“I grew up playing jazz, but I grew up in Hip Hop too. So, I like to bring those elements out,” he explained why he included a Hip Hop rapper and a pop/R&B hit song on that particular album.
Teo continued to record. In 1998, he released “Teodross Avery & the 5th Power, New Day, New Groove.” Years later he released, “Post Modern Trap Music.”
In between recording and composing, the young saxophonist and budding composer graduated Berklee and moved to New York City. While attaining his Master’s degree in Music from the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University, he found his way to producing soundtracks for movies like “Love Jones” where he actually played a musician and performed on stage (1996) and they used his original music in the movies “Beauty Shop” and “Brown Sugar.” As a musician who blends styles and genres, he found his way onto the first gold-record album Amy Winehouse released, co-writing a song she sang called “Brother” on her “Frank” project.
Teodross Avery found himself on tours and in studios that put him in contact with a number of iconic entertainers including Aretha Franklin, Mos Def, Roy Ayers, Lauren Hill and Leela James. On the jazzy side of the coin, his horn embellished bandstands with Ben Riley, Hank Jones, The Roy Hargrove Big Band, Lewis Nash, Donald Harrison, Bobby Watson and Dee Dee Bridgewater, to name just a few. I asked Teo who made the biggest impressions on him.
“Oh, that’s so hard to say because each person has strengths that are different from each other. You might be on stage with somebody who’s selling lots of albums and they might do two things really well, that you’re observing. Then you might be on the road with someone else who really isn’t as big of a star, but they might do two other things better. Everybody has something to offer and if you’re there to be observant and to play and be supportive; if you’re there to learn, then every opportunity is an opportunity to grow. Sometimes you learn what to do and other times, what not to do,” he shared.
“Lauryn Hill has this ability to make emotional music that resonates with a lot of people. She knows how to talk about things lyrically that people tap into, especially women. She knows how to really connect in a very emotional way. I learned about that from her. On the flip side, you have somebody like Leela James. She’s all about that soul and making you feel real good with that gospel soul-funk. So, there’s a time when you need to sit down and focus on being soulful. That’s what she showed me.”
Dee Dee: What made you take the teaching position at California State University Dominquez Hills?
“It was in 2010 I had done everything I wanted to do in New York and I was seeking a way to come back to California. So, it was really like a good time to go back to school and get my doctorate. When I was done with that (2012 to 2016), I started looking for jobs. This one came up here in L.A. My wife and I were expecting a child and we were already in Los Angeles and we didn’t have to move to another State. It was just the right time. I didn’t want to be that musician who was gone away from their family. I’ve been on the road and seen musicians being away from their families and away from their wives at very critical times. I just couldn’t let that happen. I couldn’t raise my child like that, not being around. I saw my dad being a good parent and I wanted to give that to my child,” he explained.
“Currently, we’re teaching completely online via Zoom. I feel like I’d rather be safe than sorry. Who wants to take a chance on catching COVID19? After all, I have a family. I’d rather wait it all out,” he spoke about the pandemic that’s currently ravaging our California state.
In 2016, Teodross Avery received his Doctorate degree in Jazz Studies from the University of Southern California (USC). Dr. Avery is currently the head of Jazz Studies and Contemporary Music at California State University Dominguez Hills (CSUDH).
In 2019, Dr. Avery recorded a tribute to one of his music heroes, “After the Rain: A Night for Coltrane.” On this release, he returned to his bebop roots. This year, (2020) he has continued his love of straight-ahead jazz with the release of his latest album, “Harlem Stories: The Music of Thelonious Monk.” Once again, he uses an all-star lineup of musicians to interpret Monk’s amazing compositions. He has divided the album in half, featuring one group on the first five songs including Willie Jones III on drums (who also produced this project for his label, WJ3 Records), Anthony Wonsey on piano, Allakoi “Mic Holden” Peete on percussion and Corcordan Holt on bass. Then Teo changes the band for the next five tunes, with the addition of DD Jackson on piano, the final five compositions are interpreted in a very abstract way. He keeps Holt on bass, but adds Marvin “Bugalu” Smith on drums.
Teodross Avery fell in love with the music of Thelonious Monk when he was just fifteen years old. His dad used to play the genius pianist and composer’s music all the time. Teodross recalls:
“I used to listen to Monk’s album, ‘Monk’s Dream’, with the volume on ten on my dad’s huge speakers. I began to hear how important the swing rhythm was to Thelonious Monk’s music. It became clear to me that Monk wanted his complex melodies and harmonies to affect the musicians and the listeners alike with non-stop swing rhythms.”
Without a doubt, Dr. Avery has put together a group of musicians who swing hard and non-stop. He also brings (along with the historic sound of Monk’s group), his own perspective and arrangements that add a kaleidoscope of colorful shades, beauty and brilliance. Right from the very first song, “Teo” I am intrigued and absolutely intoxicated by the energy and creativity of this varied ensemble. “Teo” is a wonderful Monk composition, inspired by the composer’s appreciation of tenor sax-man and longtime producer, Teo Macero. Folks were likely to hear Monk and his band of merry men play this tune often at Minton’s Playhouse in New York while Thelonious was the house pianist in the mid-1940s. Every composition on this album is the work of this piano genius. When Avery interprets “Ruby My Dear” he surprises me with the funk drums at the top and the smooth, Latin, rhythmic vibe he inserts. When the melody arrives, like a beautiful woman making her grand entrance after the party has started, it both pleases and astonishes this listener. This arrangement is dynamic and fresh. It will make all the party attendees swivel their heads towards the ballad’s entrance. Teodross Avery’s arrangement could have been influenced by the fact that this tune was penned for Monk’s girlfriend at that time, a spicy, Cuban-born beauty named Rubie Richardson. The piano of Anthony Wonsey is the sparkle, like jewelry around the song’s long, lovely body.
“Evidence” vividly showcases Willie Jones III on drums. This, of course, is a standard jam session jazz tune that drummers love to dig their sticks into. Willie Jones III does not disappoint. The
Teodross Avery Quartet brings a classic, hard-bop menu to the table. It’s just what my taste buds needed to begin this early Saturday morning. Like “Evidence,” the classic tune, “Rhythm-a-ning,” allows Teodross Avery to swing and race at top speed on his tenor saxophone. He has a tone and attack that exploits the best in whatever he plays. Corcoran Holt is stunning and convincing on his bass solos. His up-tempo precision attack throughout, features his swiftly-walking double bass that locks into the drums and makes the perfect basement for this quartet to jam inside. A melodic mixture of improvised piano notes scurry beneath the sensitive fingers of Wonsey. This is an exciting and serious representation of master Monk’s work and explores the talents of these awesome musicians.
DD Jackson sits down to the piano to introduce us to “In Walked Bud” in a very inventive and blues-laden way. He has a totally different style of playing than Wonsey, but is no less dynamic or brilliant. He brings something new and inventive to the tune. The drums roll, like a two-ton truck barreling down the freeway, underneath this spontaneous ensemble. Teodross Avery is magnificently present on his tenor saxophone. Mr. Jackson takes a serious solo that makes me sit up and pay close attention. This is the way jazz is supposed to make you feel. Marvin “Bugalu” Smith parts the curtains and demands our consideration during his drum solo, full of spunk and fire. “In Walked Bud” never sounded so good!
We get a breather on “Ugly Beauty,” the only waltz Monk ever wrote and it’s sweetly presented, yet still with those powerful drums edging the band on. Teodross Avery plays beautifully on soprano saxophone this time, sounding like a wild, beautiful bird. He glides, dips and flies over our heads and makes me look up. This music lifts me. DD Jackson answers some of his conversational horn lines on piano, as though they are having a private conversation. His fingers move rapidly; humming bird or butterfly wings dusting the piano keys.
Every song and each individual production on this album of great music is worthy of a replay. I spent a couple of hours listening, so I could soak up every nuance; every drop of colorful creativity. Teodross Avery is masterful as a woodwind player, but also as a bandleader, arranger and musical inspiration.
By Dee Dee McNeil
The Spanish Harlem Orchestra blends Latin fire, sparkling, percussive energy and traditional jazz in a multi-colored spotlight. The leader of this Grammy Award winning congregation is Oscar Hernandez. He’s a man that comes from humble roots that were proudly planted in the Bronx of New York. One of eleven brothers and sisters, born to Emilio and Providencia Hernandez, he is the only one that chose music as a career path.
“I grew up in a beautiful time; a time of great cultural development in the Latino and Hispanic communities. I grew up in the South Bronx and that was predominantly inner-city. Andy and Jerry Gonzalez were very important to me. They were a couple of years older than me and they had their own apartment downstairs from where their parents lived. It was a place where musicians used to congregate and do nothing but listen to music and jam. They had a huge record collection. For being young guys, they had a lot of knowledge about the music. I learned a lot about Latin music from them. We learned about the history of our music. We used to listen to a lot of jazz as well. We listened to the roots of Bebop; Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and I listened to Bud Powell, who influenced me as a pianist. Other guys who were making the music so important were people like Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Wynton Kelly, Redd Garland and so many people who became part of the fabric of what jazz was in the fifties and sixties. We were Latinos, but we had our ears to the ground as to what was happening in jazz,” Oscar recalled that youthful, impressionable time in his life.
The Hernandez family originally relocated from Puerto Rico to the United States in the 1950s. They settled into an apartment in the heavily Latino populated South Bronx. Oscar is the youngest of their eleven children. When someone gave one of his big brothers a piano, they managed to drag the musical gift into the basement of their inner-city apartment building. Oscar Hernandez found himself magically drawn to the instrument. He started playing the piano by ear.
“I think music saved my life, because I don’t know what I would have done without music. I’m sure I would have done something positive, but it was just awesome to discover my natural talent,” he told me.
As a small boy, Oscar Hernandez heard the music of Tito Puente, Willie Colon and Tito Rodriguez dancing from the windows of his neighborhood and spinning on the record players of his family and friends. At a popular local Boys & Girls Club, he took trumpet lessons for a while. But once his small fingers touched the black and white keys of that first, battered, upright piano, he put the brass down.
“I often tell people that the education I got as a young musician in New York City from age sixteen to twenty-five, all the way to age thirty, by playing with all the people that I got to play with, you couldn’t get that kind of training at the best university in the world. It was an incredible time for me. There was so much music happening. We went to not only the Latin clubs, but to the jazz clubs as well, like the Village Vanguard. We went to Birdland and a lot of places that were really happening back then. We used to be part of Jazz mobile, an organization that put on a lot of concerts around the city.”
As a teenager, Oscar was already playing with Joey Pastrana and later with the Ismael Miranda band. Under age and eager to learn, he was sneaking into nightclubs to hear the music of popular folks like Ray Barretto, Eddie Palmieri and Richie Ray. During an interview with George Rivera, Oscar Hernandez talked about being eighteen and playing with Ismael Miranda. At that time, they were a very
popular band and working all the time. Performing often times seven days a week will strengthen your playing and like Oscar said, it’s a learning experience. It helped him hone his craft. But the crowning gig was when he joined a celebrated American conga drummer and bandleader who introduced the country to a music popularly known as Boogaloo. Boogaloo would later be labeled, ‘salsa.’ This band was also solidly rooted in traditional Puerto Rican music. They explored New York’s modern Latin sounds, and threw in some charanga (a popular Cuban dance music) and conjunto styles. Conjunto is a mixture of accordion and Mexican-American music.
“When I played with Ray Barretto, I was in my mid-twenties and it was like going to the best university. He was one of the most knowledgeable people about all walks of music that you could ever be associated with. He was also making history with regards to his own music,” Oscar praised his friend and bandleader.
“Rican/Struction, (on Fania Records and released in 1979) was an important record that happened in the late seventies and for me to be part of that recording, oh man! What a feather in my cap. I feel so grateful. I recorded six records with Ray and (pardon my French) They’re all kick ass! You can go back and listen to that stuff now and go like, Wow – that sounds amazing. It’s funny, because my success with my own band, the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, I have to say Ray’s band was a precursor to what I’m doing with my band today,” Oscar told me.
“My early mentors on piano were (on the Latin side) Eddie Palmieri and his brother, Charlie Palmieri. Obviously, they were kind of at the forefront of that music when I grew up. The music that was coming from Cuba inspired me and people like Perucihn, a Cuban pianist, as well as Arsenio Rodriguez and many other that we were listening to. On the jazz scene, of all the people I learned from were the early guys. Bud Powell was important. Red Garland, Wynton Kelly and Bill Evans; then the people who were in the forefront of contemporary jazz like Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner,” Oscar recalled the piano players who he considered mentors.
Oscar Hernandez’s new release on ArtistShare Records is the Spanish Harlem Orchestra (SHO) presenting us with “The Latin jazz Project.” He has already racked up three Grammy Awards for his SHO salsa albums. Established in 2001, their first recording was released in 2002. “Un Gran Dia En El Barrio,” was nominated by the Grammy’s for “Best Salsa Album.” In 2003, They garnered the Billboard Grammy Award for “Salsa Album of the year” and in 2005 they actually won the Grammy Award with their second CD release, “Across 110th Street” for “Best Salsa Album.” They won a second Grammy for their fourth CD, “Viva La Tradicion.” In 2019, they won their 3rd Grammy with their “Anniversary” release. On every recording, Oscar Hernandez is the pianist, the orchestra leader, music producer and arranger. The Spanish Harlem Orchestra is praised as one of the best Salsa and Latin jazz music ensemble in the world. Currently, “The Latin jazz project” is their 7th album release. I asked Oscar what was the difference between salsa music and Latin Jazz. he talked to me about this recent release and the difference between this project and their former SHO recordings.
“It’s funny, because the band has performed all over the world. I’m really proud that the Spanish Harlem Orchestra has played almost every jazz festival that exists and the reaction we get is amazing. I’ll give you a perfect example. We played the John Coltrane Jazz Festival in High Point, North Carolina last year. I remember the presenter, the booking agent, was going back and forth about booking us or
not. He was saying, I don’t know how Latin music will go over here. It’s mostly a black audience, you know. So, he finally agreed and we performed. I actually wrote an arrangement for ‘Mr. P.C.’ which is a John Coltrane composition. After our show, the audience was on their feet giving us a standing ovation. The guy came back and said, man – was I ever wrong. Wow – you practically stole the show! And that’s the reaction that we get across the board. So, for me, that feedback is priceless. I make a living off this and I make money. But it’s not about that at all. For me, it’s the reaction I get when we perform. It’s just spiritually uplifting and it basically validates my whole life’s work and what I do.
“I mean, I am blown away to have special guests like Kurt Elling, Tom Harrell, Miguel Zenon and Bob Mintzer on this current project. Those guys are kind of my heroes. In the past we had Chick Corea as a guest on our 5th record and we had Joe Lovano as a guest. On the “Anniversary” record, we featured Randy Brecker. We always include a little Latin jazz in all our recordings. So, this “Latin Jazz Project” was bound to finally happen. It’s pretty cool.
“In terms of the difference between salsa and Latin Jazz, the biggest difference is that Latin Jazz is mostly instrumental, as opposed to Salsa, where they’re singing some Spanish songs and we feature a vocalist. Once you integrate those elements of jazz, be it harmony or melody or improvisation with Latin rhythm, then you have Latin jazz,” Oscar Hernandez explained.
For the past fourteen years, Oscar Hernandez has firmly planted his feet in Southern California and settled down in Los Angeles.
“I’m in New York a lot. I’m a die-hard New Yorker. But I got divorced in New York and then I got married to a woman who’s from out here in L.A. I always liked Los Angeles, so, I moved out here. We have a thirteen-year-old daughter. I have two sons in New York and I have an older daughter that was born and raised in Los Angeles. She’s such an amazing woman. It’s a blessing to be here with her; with both my daughters in L.A. and to have my two sons in New York,” he speaks in a loving way about his children.
“I just want my legacy to be about good music. My music comes from a real place. It comes from a place where I am a part of that history. It’s been close to fifty years now and I’ve had the opportunity to keep putting my music out there; music that I feel in my heart. I’ve played with Ray Barreto. I’ve played with Celia Cruz, Earl Klugh, and Paul Simon on Broadway. I played with Julio Iglesias, Willie Colón, Oscar D’Leon and Ruben Blades, who I won a Grammy with in 1986 on the “Escenas” album. I’ve played with so many people that are a part of the history of this music, that I want my legacy to be about keeping our music on a pedestal. I want people to learn about the beauty of Latin jazz music. I want my legacy to be somebody that contributed their drop in the bucket with regard to good music. I mean, I think what drives me first and foremost is my passion for the music. I love the music. I feel like now I’m really clear that It was divine intervention. GOD put it in my path for a reason. I didn’t choose it, it chose me.”
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SHO – SPANISH HARLEM ORCHESTRA – “THE LATIN JAZZ PROJECT” – A REVIEW ArtistShare
Oscar Hernandez, piano/arranger/composer/leader; Hector Colón, Jonathan Powell, & Manuel “Maneco” Ruiz, trumpet/flugelhorns; Doug Beavers & Noah Bless, trombones; Jorge Castro & Mitch Frohman, baritone saxophone; Luisito Quintero, timbales/shekere/shakers/chimes; George Delgado, congas; Jorge Gonzalez, bongos; Gerardo “Jerry” Madera, bass; Jeremy Bosch, flute/vocal; Marco Bermudez & Carlos Cascante, vocals. SPECIAL GUESTS: Kurt Elling, vocals; Joe Locke, vibraphone; Jimmy Haslip, bass; Tom Harrell, Jonathan Powell & Michael Rodriguez, trumpets; Dave Liebman, Bob Mintzer, Bob Franceschini & Miguel Zenon, saxophones.
Opening with an original composition by producer/arranger, Oscar Hernandez, “Ritmo De Mi Gente” dances off my Cd player. Orchestra leader, Hernandez, is featured on piano and has arranged this up-tempo, hip-swaying tune. Jeremy Bosch is brightly featured on the flute. For the past seventeen years, this three-time Grammy Award winning Spanish Harlem Orchestra (SHO) has earned their reputation as a premier salsa ensemble and lauded for their ability to blend their Latin cultural music with jazz. The director and orchestra leader, Oscar Hernandez, is celebrated by many as one of the most important Latin jazz pianists of his generation.
“We have always been steeped in the tradition of Latin jazz. It makes sense for us to finally get to this point. I couldn’t be more proud of this project and this band,” Hernandez elaborated in his liner notes.
Track two, “Bobo,” features L. A. based, big band leader, Bob Mintzer, lending his talents on saxophone. On the familiar and beautiful standard, “Invitation,” the distinctive vocals of Kurt Elling are prominent, with a rich saxophone solo by Miguel Zenon. The orchestra propels these songs with excitement and percussive brilliance by Luisito Quintero, George Delgado and Jorge Gonzalez. Throughout this production, the surprise appearances of several iconic musicians add credence and icing to this sweet, musical cake. You will hear former Yellow Jackets member, Jimmy Haslip, on electric bass during their arrangement of “Silent Prayers” along with the iconic Dave Liebman on saxophone. The energetic arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” becomes a Salsa stage to feature the trumpet of Jonathan Powell. All in all, here is a lovely Latin album featuring tight, well-rehearsed arrangements, stellar orchestra members and a star-studded list of special guests. What’s not to love? This could easily become another Grammy Award Winning album for Oscar Hernandez and the Spanish Harlem Orchestra.
THE MARK MASTERS ENSEMBLE
“THE ALEC WILDER SONGBOOK FEATURING GARY SMULYAN – NIGHT TALK”
Capri Records Ltd.
By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist
Ed Czach, piano; Putter Smith, bass; Kendall Kay, drums; Jerry Pinter, tenor & soprano saxophone; Don Shelton, alto saxophone/alto flute; Bob Summers, trumpet; Gary Smulyan, baritone saxophone; Dave Woodley, trombone.
Featuring some of the Los Angeles music communities A-list musicians, this CD is plush with harmony, swings hard and has tightly executed arrangements that send this ensemble soaring into the big band jazz universe. Alec Wilder is the composer of all the songs and The Mark Masters Ensemble amply interprets them with fire and finesse. All arrangements are written by Mark Masters. The musicians are such amazing technicians on their instruments that they sound like an orchestra. I am not surprised, because I’m familiar with the excellence of Ed Czach on piano, Putter Smith on bass, Kendall Kay on drums and folks like Bob Summers on trumpet. The entire ensemble is made up of first-class, Southern California musicians.
Alec Wilder is an iconic, amazing composer and you probably would recognize some of his popular American Songbook tunes; among them, “I’ll Be Around.” The Mark Masters Ensemble opens with “You’re Free,” a great tune that swings hard and is driven by the awesome baritone saxophone of Gary Smulyan. Masters’ collaboration with Smulyan has embraced twenty-one friendly years, starting with when he invited Smulyan to perform his music with strings at California’s Claremont McKenna College. Later, he was featured on the Mark Masters tribute to Clifford Brown Project in 2003. Clearly, Gary Smulyan’s beautiful, rich sound on his baritone saxophone immediately grabs the attention. His tone is smooth as satin, as he creatively improvises or boldly sings out the melody. Either way, he will intoxicate the listener.
“Writing this project with Gary in mind, I wanted to feature him as if he was performing with a symphony orchestra. The goal was to set him apart from everything else and to highlight his sound and his unique voice. I know that whenever he’s playing, it’s going to sound great. But I want to make sure that I do everything to put him and everybody else in the best light,” Mark Masters explained in his press package.
There is no doubt that this project shines brightly, spotlighting the dynamic Wilder compositions and brilliantly showcasing a crème-de-la-crème of some of our best Los Angeles musicians. Mr. Masters has long been heralded as one of the great, modern-day, jazz arrangers. He formed his first ensemble in 1982 and has recorded a variety of tributes to some iconic jazz men including Jimmy Knepper, Clifford Brown, Dewey Redman, Duke Ellington, and in 2013, the music of Walter Becker and Donald Fagan. He has also reimagined works by Gerry Mulligan and Charlie Mingus on his acclaimed “Blue Skylight” album. This will definitely become another plume in his arranger’s cap.
I’m a Netflix subscriber and find this network’s roster of shows to be quite entertaining. Their original shows are diverse and they have a little something-somethin’ for everyone. When I ran across this series, I was both excited and surprised. This original Netflix show, “The Eddy” reminds me of my days enjoying foreign films. It’s a drama, shot in Paris, France, and the language moves from English to French, with subtitles. But the exciting thing about this show (“The Eddy”) is that it takes place in a jazz club with the music front and center. The plot is about the two owners of the club, an Arab and an African American man, and their struggle to stay relative, artistic and in business. The Arab man plays trumpet and handles the business of the club. The black man is a jazz pianist, composer and oversees the house-band. This multi-ethnic cast includes a jazz band that performs a plethora of original music. All of us, in the business of jazz, can appreciate the constant struggle it is to keep our music relevant and alive. Created by six-time GRAMMY winning songwriter, Glen Ballard, this is a story that puts the music upfront, blended in with a murder mystery, a struggling relationship between father and daughter, romances and some incredible jazz music performed live. It stars Andre Holland as club owner and jazz pianist (character name, Elliot), Amandla Stenberg as his 16-year-old daughter, (Julie) and sultry singer, Maja, played by Joanna Kulig. Tahir Rahim plays Farid, the co-owner of their jazz club and Leila Bekhti (a popular French film actress) plays his wife. Check out “The Eddy” on Netflix. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
By the way, you can also find some great music documentaries on this independent network including one on Quincy Jones, “Quincy”; a special on Nina Simone, “What Happened Miss Simone?,” the story of the top background singers in the United States, including L.A’s own, Merry Clayton, called “20 Feet from Stardom”; an amazing documentary on Clive Davis titled, “The Soundtrack of Our Lives”; The Miles Davis Story, “Birth of the Cool”; a look at Bob Marley’s life called, “Who Shot the Sheriff?”; the life of Lee Morgan, “I Called Him Morgan,” and so much more. With all this time on our hands, being locked down during a worldwide pandemic becomes the perfect time to sit back and enjoy our music in documentaries and movies.
By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist
I recently received an e-mail inviting me to soak up some inspirational music On-line by Los Angeles based pianist, Yuko Mabuchi. During this time of quarantine and stressful confinement, she offers her perspective on Mozart. I happily clicked on the website above where Yuko has combined classical music with her jazz arrangement. It’s quite entertaining. Using the inspiration for her composition titled, “Little Mo,” Yuko borrows from Mozart’s Piano Sonata #11 and intrigues us with her self-quarantined production, adding programmed drums and bass.
Let me tell you a little bit about Yuko Mabuchi. She’s a wisp of a woman, petite and delicate, until she sits down at the piano. Then, before our very eyes, she transforms into a powerful giant on the keyboard. I witnessed this myself, on May 8 of 2016, when she was a special guest of piano master, Billy Mitchell at the historic Maverick’s Flat nightclub. Once her slender fingers touched the piano keys, we were all captivated by Ms. Mabuchi’s enormous energy and spirited performance. Her leg kicks out (reminding me a bit of the late-great Dorothy Donegan) and she sometimes jumps up from the piano bench. Yuko throws her head back, caught in the joy of the musical moment. I watched her feet dance, unencumbered beneath the piano bench.
Born June 21st in Fukui, Japan, a small seaside city West of Tokyo, little Yuko was surrounded by music early on. Her mother is a classical piano teacher and Yuko began studying the piano at age four. Her father played Earth, Wind and Fire records and listened to Latin music and the Brazilian jazz of Jobim. As a child, Yuko was surrounded by a variety of musical genres and she embraced them all. At first, she played piano by ear, picking out the melodies and soaking up the grooves of the popular music scene, including pop and hip hop. She mastered classical study, but there was a freedom she found in jazz that touched something deep inside of her.
As a teenager, Yuko tuned-in to the Japanese jazz station on her radio. She became familiar with Oscar Petersen and Herbie Hancock. When she attending concerts in Japan, she was further inspired by the work of artists like Gerald Clayton Jr., Donald Vega, Kenny Baron, Junior Mance, Hiromi and Cyrus Chestnut. She was still studying classical music, but after high school Yuko attended the AN School of Music in Kyoto, Japan. Under the tutelage of Kunihiro Kameda, she blossomed. Right away, he noticed the young student’s amazing potential and affinity toward jazz. Professor Kameda had once lived in the United States. One of the friendships he made was with our own West Coast drummer, Kenny Elliott. So, Kameda-san called Kenny and with the drummer’s help, made arrangements for his student to study in the Los Angeles area. He suggested that if Yuko really was serious about pursuing jazz, she should go to America where it was bred and born. Yuko’s father agreed, although both he and his wife were concerned about their daughter’s jazz direction. Her mother had hoped their talented daughter would become a famous, classical, concert pianist. Neither parent had in mind that their first born would pursue a jazz pianist career.
In 2010, Yuko Mabuchi arrived in Southern California and enrolled at the Music Performance Academy in Alhambra, a California community of mainly Asian and Latino cultures with a sprinkling of others. MPA (Music Performance Academy) was Japanese owned and brought many Japanese students to America encouraging their study of American music and artistic culture. This is where I first met Yuko, because I taught Artist Development and Vocals at that school for approximately three years; part time. Billy Mitchell and Gary Shunk became the young lady’s mentors, while soaking up the recordings of Monte Alexander, George Duke and Gene Harris. She hunkered down, learning the funk and groove that Mitchell was teaching her and the technique and improvisation that Shunk inspired. She studied voice and artist development with me and I saw her growth and willingness to practice and challenge herself. Under the direction of Billy Mitchell, she recorded her first demo project entitled, “Red Special.” It was sponsored by MPA and featured her original composition skills.
Yuko donated her time as the accompanist for the Watts-Willowbrook Youth Symphony and took great pride in inspiring young people from that Los Angeles inner-city. It wasn’t long before she began performing all over town; at Catalina Jazz Bar, downtown at the Biltmore Hotel, in Old Town Pasadena at the Levitt Pavilion Summer Concert Series, at small jazz clubs and popular hotel chains like the Crowne Plaza. Her name and reputation were growing.
Yuko Mabuchi’s first full length CD was released in 2011 on Vista Records titled, “Waves.” Clearly, she was becoming a self-assured and talented composer. In 2013, Yuko returned home triumphant, new CD in hand, with her artistic development evident. She busied herself with work, forming a jazz trio and performing at the Jazz Spot J in Shinjuku, Tokyo and also as a participant of the Fukui Jazz Festival in 2014 and 2015. She also appears as a regular soloist at Keio Plaza in Tokyo.
Her next CD release on Vista Records was “My Life,” in 2014. Again, her composer skills were flowering and featured. This time, she added jazz reedman, the great Justo Almario on flute as well as smooth jazz saxophonist, Andre Delano. This album is a testament to her growth and polish as an artist and as a jazz musician. In 2017, she released “The Yuko Mabuchi Trio” on Yarlung Records. It was recorded ‘live’ at USCs Cammilleri Hall. This was followed by a “Tribute to Miles” album, released on both vinyl and CD.
Yuko Mabuchi enjoys teaching and inspiring young people, but her goal is to become a great musician and to work at her craft, tour the world, and leave her mark as a respected jazz pianist and composer. That dream is unfolding right before our eyes. I look forward to attending one of her concerts in the near future, once this pandemic has run its course. Until then, thank goodness for ‘YouTube.’
ARTURO O’FARRILL AND THE AFRO LATIN JAZZ ORCHESTRA – asks “FOUR QUESTIONS” – Zoho Records
By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist
An avid supporter of all the arts, Arturo O’Farrill is the Professor of Global Jazz Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Herb Alpert School of Music. He is also on the faculty at The New School of The Manhattan School of Music, (where he received some of his formal music education). Born in Mexico, O’Farrill grew up in New York and began his professional career with the legendary Carla Bley Band. He was a mere nineteen-years-old. O’Farrill credits Carla Bley for teaching him about integrity and the importance of art. She drilled into the talented teenager that it was more important to perform and compose for the sake of art and not just for fame and money. The young pianist took that wise encouragement to heart.
As his reputation blossomed, he also worked with such legends as Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Bowie, Wynton Marsalis, Steve Turre and Harry Belafonte. In 2007, Arturo O’Farrill founded the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance (ALJA) as a non-profit organization dedicated to the performance, education and preservation of Afro Latin music. (http://www.afrolatinejazz.org)
They say the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree. Arturo is the son of renowned jazz trumpeter, bandleader and arranger, Chico O’ Farrill. His father was originally from Havana, Cuba. Arturo’s mother was a Mexican vocalist. Consequently, their house was always ripe with music. In 1965, they relocated to the United States. At age six, young Arturo was less than enthusiastic about taking piano lessons. However, he came to love the instrument and was greatly influenced by Bud Powell and Chick Corea. Although he studied and played a number of genres with various bands, in the 1990s Arturo returned to his Latin roots. In 1995 he became Music Director of his famous father’s Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra.
When Wynton Marsalis asked Arturo to pull together and lead an Afro-Cuban Jazz Band to perform at the Lincoln Center, that’s when O’Farrill formed the Afro Latin jazz Orchestra (ALJO). The rest is history.
“Baby Jack” is the first track on the Afro-Latin, Jazz Orchestra’s current album. The Brass section blares! Arturo O’Farrill’s piano enters the picture like a referee, stepping in between the dueling horns and bringing a melody that moves like an ascending staircase. We are lifted up. When the sexy saxophone comes into the picture, (featuring David DeJesus) the mood changes to pensive and seductive. This arrangement is both enchanting and captivating. Track #2 is titled “Jazz Twins” and is dedicated to Arnold and Donald Stanley from Los Angeles; two close knit staples of the jazz community. But it’s the third tune and the title tune, “Four Questions” that combines O’Farrill and his 18-piece orchestra with the spoken word and the revolutionary spirit of Dr. Cornell West. Together, they usher in a jolt of truth that demands that we, as a concerned people, come face-to-face with the social and political horrors of this time in world history. Like many true artists, Arturo O’ Farrill seeks to incorporate honesty and political awareness into his musical conversation. He uses his full orchestra, with a choir of voices, to express these unique arrangements.
The “Four Questions” that Dr. Cornell West addresses on this album were actually posed by the great African American civil rights activist and journalist, W.E.B. Du Bois in his 1903 book, “The Souls of Black Folk.” Dr. West based his book, “Black Prophetic Fire” on these very important “Four Questions.”
1) What does integrity do in the face of adversity and oppression?
2) What does honesty do in the face of lies and deception?
3) What does decency do in the face of insult?
4) How does virtue meet brute force?
Amidst dramatic horns and orchestral contrary motion, a rhythmic groove is established to support the Dr. West eloquent oratory. He speaks about everybody being for sale. But where is integrity? “It’s in your struggle,” he says. “It’s in the music.”
To address the second question, he reminds us that we live in an age of criminality. Crimes rage on Wall Street, but they don’t go to jail. We have a corrupted system of incarceration.
“Are we willing to tell the truth; to unveil honesty?” he asks.
The dynamic arrangements of Arturo O’Farrill accentuate the Dr. West verbal diatribe. His music brings beauty to an ugly truth. The drums embrace cultures and blend into the presentation like the cultures within our own country. Music and art call attention to the tribe of humanity that populates Earth. This is sixteen minutes and fourteen seconds of historic realization.
Dr. West asks us: “How do you preserve the humanity of the others who are dehumanizing you? How do you preserve your spirit? Folks can’t ride your back unless it’s bent,” the learned man asserts.
Arturo O’Farrill’s music crosses cultures, blends borders and scratches against our brains like the spoken words of Dr. West. In harmony, they speak to us. Demand to be heard. This piece ends with an old, gospel spiritual song, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” the horns ask us. Arturo Asks us. Dr. Cornel West asks us. The piano asks us. The orchestra whispers and weeps.
This is a project of pleasure and pain, like life itself. I will be surprised if this doesn’t join the list of Grammy Awards that Arturo O’Farrill has already won. At the 2008, 51st Grammy Award Ceremony, he won Best Latin Jazz Album for his “Song for Chico.”
In 2014, Arturo O’Farrill and the Chico O’Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra won the Latin Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Album titled, “Final Night at Birdland.” In 2015, he released “The Offense of the Drum” and Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra won a Grammy Award for Best Latin jazz Album. In August of 2015, Arturo and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra released “Cuba: The Conversation Continues”, which was recorded in Havana 48 hours after President Obama announced plans to normalize diplomatic relations between the USA and Cuba. This album was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Large Jazz Ensemble in 2016. Meantime, his “Afro Latin Jazz Suite” won the 2015 Best Instrumental Composition Award. Again, in 2017, he won for Best Instrumental Composition for “Three Revolutions.”
Perhaps Arturo O’Farrill best summed-up his music and his artistic direction with this quote:
By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalis
Born April 5, 1937, Charles Owens has been a mainstay of our jazz community for nearly half a century. Charlie O, as I sometimes fondly call him, is a master woodwind musician. His passion and love of the saxophone started when he was a small child. Born in Phoenix, Arizona, his mother and father divorced during his early years. When Charles’ mother met and married William Owens, their family moved from Phoenix to Portland Oregon.
“Right around the beginning of the second World War, we moved to Portland, Oregon. My parents were looking for work in the shipyard, because they were making ships in Oregon. We lived in Oregon until the end of the war and then in 1945, on Thanksgiving weekend, we moved from Portland, Oregon to San Diego. I remember because the car broke down on our way and we had to stay at the filling-station all week-end, because the guy wouldn’t open up and fix the transmission. Finally, the mechanic came back on Monday, after the holiday weekend, and fixed it. We went on to San Diego. My mother and stepfather moved there because the aircraft industry at Convair was hiring. I went to elementary school, all the way through part of college in San Diego. We lived in Logan Heights,” Charles told me.
Shortly after, Charles and his parents travelled to Oklahoma on a short vacation. He was around nine years old.
“We went down to Sapulpa, Oklahoma to visit my father’s people. There were all kinds of instruments laying around their house; trombones, saxophones, drums, piano, whatever. I was there for a week and I had a chance to try all of them. I fell in love with a Silvertone alto saxophone made by Sears & Roebuck. Everyone in my dad’s family played an instrument. My Uncle Harry played the saxophone. My Uncle Herman played the trumpet and was pretty good. Aunt Eloise, my father’s sister, played piano and somebody played the drums. My dad liked to sing. He sounded a lot like the smooth lead singer of the Inkspot group. So, I just had a ball that week making all kinds of noise on all those horns and instruments. When I got back to San Diego, I asked my mom if I could get that Silvertone alto saxophone. She bought it for me and it cost fifty bucks,” Charles recalled.
I asked Charles who was his early influence on saxophone.
“Well, my first was Charlie Parker. I saw him in a movie and he had on this white coat and he was decked out, looking good and playing alto. Just something lit up in me. It was the best feeling. It was just beautiful to hear Bird play. I was eight or nine-years-old. I went to the Victory theater and there was Bird playing on the big screen. it was just heavenly. He thrilled my soul and made me happy.
“Everybody in my little gang of friends played saxophone. There was a guy named Johnny Hodges (not the famous Johnny Hodges) and then Daniel Jackson. Daniel would come by the house. We had a piano in the front room. He would play the piano and I would play saxophone. Then I would play piano and he would play saxophone. We’d learn songs together like, “I Remember April” and “Cherokee.” Then there was James Hatcher. He played alto and we’re still buddies today. I got this gig with Tommy Wilson and the Kingsmen. They were the hottest band around San Diego during my high school years. We bought our little cars and kept them running off the gigs we played on the weekends. We had San Diego sewed up. Every time they had a house-party, people had to have Tommy Wilson and the Kingsmen. I was also inspired by Teddy Pico. He was a large, wonderful saxophone man and a big influence on all of us aspiring saxophone players. Daniel Jackson was another one of my main influences. He would show me stuff that would take me years to learn on my own. Growing up, I also loved Stan Getz. He played so pretty. Also, Gene Ammons was a big influence on me. I remember, as a kid, walking home from school and past this hole-in-the-wall joint that had a juke box. I’d hear Gene Ammons playing “My Foolish Heart” and it really spoke to me. I’d stand outside and listen.
“I majored in music and went to San Diego State for a couple of years and then went to Prayer View A & M University just outside of Houston, Texas. That’s where I met my wife, Mildred. We came back to San Diego from Houston. I was working at a ‘Jack in the Box’ making burgers and I thought, if I’m going to be in music, I’ve got to make a living some kind of way. So, I joined the Air Force to be in their band. That’s what kept me in music after college. My wife went on to college and I went to March Air Force base. It was a wonderful experience.”
When Charles Owens completed his stint in the Air Force, he continued his music education at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
“I met Dwight Dickerson at Berklee. Dwight and I were playing in a strip joint. Dwight was playing piano. Hershel Dwellingham was playing drums and I was playing saxophone. We had a good time and made $125/week. I played the afternoon shift; 4 to 9PM. Dwight played from 9pm to whatever. Some kind of way, we became best friends. I’ll never forget this beautiful Puerto Rican lady. Oh, she hated my guts. She complained constantly that I never played the melody. He’s always playing some outside shit, she said. I did play the melody once, but after that, she was right. I was trying to be Coltrane,” Charles chuckled.
Charles Owens played with the Buddy Rich band from 1968 to 1970. He recorded with Buddy Rich in ’68, playing on an album titled, “The New One!” and he did some arranging on another album titled, “Mercy, Mercy.” In 1970, Charles began to play regularly with Mongo Santamaria and was a guest player on Mongo’s 1969 release of their “Afro-American Latin” album. On May 10, 1971, Owens relocated to Los Angeles and with the help of Ernie Watts and Don Menza, he became active as a studio session musician. The same year, Owens appeared on the Bobby Bryant CD, “Swahili Strut” and released his first album on the Discovery label titled, “Mother Lode.” in 1973, he played saxophone on Henry Franklin’s album, “The Skipper.” He talked to me about some of those studio sessions and television specials that he worked on.
“I had the pleasure of recording with Natalie Cole several times. I recorded with Marvin Gaye on the ‘Here My Dear’ album and Les McCann from time to time on his small band stuff. I didn’t record with Diana Ross, but I did play with her on tour for six weeks. I think I made $3,000 on that gig. That paid for my daughter’s birth. I worked with Michael Jackson too. It was a funny thing. He recorded all that great music, but he couldn’t sing the melody to A-Train. It was during a television taping and they tried and tried to teach him the melody,” Charles Owens sings me the melody that challenged Michael.
“But he just couldn’t learn that one part, so they discarded the idea of Michael singing A-Train. Another time, I worked with James Brown and this one night he forgot the words to “Livin’ in America”. He couldn’t remember the words to a song he had written, so they had to cancel the TV show we were taping. I also worked with H. B. Barnum and he was producing a lot of stuff. That work definitely helped me raise my family. By that time, we had a daughter and two sons.”
In 1978, he recorded with jazz vocalist, Lorez Alexandria, on an album titled, “A Woman Knows.” For this project he played flute and both soprano and tenor saxophones. Then, in 1979, Charles recorded his second album as bandleader, “The Two Quartets” for Discovery Records, featuring John Heard and Louie Spears as bassists, Alex Acuna and Carl Burnett on drums, Dwight Dickerson and Theo Saunders as pianists and Charles playing his tenor saxophone.
When the 80s rolled around, Charles Owens was in serious demand. He got the call to join the Ellington Orchestra under the direction of Mercer Ellington.
“He would fly me out to New York. I’d make my little money and come back to L.A.,” Charles told me.
“It was a great inspiration to be around all of those truly wise and great players like Johnny Hodges, and hang out with Chuck Conners, a famous bass trombone player with the Duke Ellington orchestra. Also, Rudy Woods was another trombone player I met and Bubber (Miley). These are legendary Duke Ellington trombone players. It was like getting the stamp of approval for being a jazz player. It these cats dug you, they’d give you their flask and say, take a drink buddy. You’re alright. I was living my whole life, not wasting it. Being accepted by these real giants in the business, gave me that stamp of approval. Being around Mercer and Barrie Lee Hall Jr., a trumpet player that took the Cootie Williams spot in the orchestra, was great!”
NOTE: (Barrie Lee Hall was given Cootie William’s last trumpet when he joined the Ellington Orchestra. Barrie Lee was praised as one of the greatest plunger players of all times. He led the orchestra for about a year and sometime took over for Mercer Ellington in a leadership role when Mercer was absent.)
Around the same time, (1980), Charles recorded another album called, “Charles Owens New York Art Ensemble” with a group of iconic jazz players including bassist Ray Brown, pianist George Cables, drummer Roy McCurdy, that also featured James Newton and Red Callender. On this studio project they celebrated the music of Harry Warren. However, the album Charles Owens calls his ‘greatest achievement’ is the “Joy” album. That was released in 2010.
“That recording is the last one I did with Ron Carter, Mulgrew Miller and Lewis Nash on it. I flew back to New Jersey to record it in Rudy Van Gelder’s studio. He was one of the greatest A&R men and that was my greatest achievement. It was a dream come true and I’m elated how it turned out. I believe it’s the best thing I ever put on a CD,” Charles shares with me.
There are many, many more albums that Charles Owens can be heard on. As a leader, back in 2007 he released the “So Far So Good” CD that he recorded in Europe, March 26th and 27th, right around his birthday.
Charles told me, “For the ‘So Far So Good’ recording, I flew to Germany. We played outside of Munich in a little town where this guy Steffan had a wonderful studio in the woods. Kirk Lightsey, Reggie Johnson and Doug Sides were living over there. It was really, really special working with Kirk Lightsey. Reggie Johnson is the bass player, that when Charlie Mingus died, he took Charlie Mingus’s place in the Mingus ensemble. He’s a great bass player. The record was released on the Organic Music label.”
Currently, the great Charles Owens has been sharing his talent, experience and knowledge with a plethora of young musicians, teaching both at UCLA and privately. Owens has an eye for talent. Back in the eighties, before anyone had ever really heard about saxophonist Rickey Woodard, Charles sent him to New Zealand to be our featured act at the grand opening of the first downtown jazz club in Auckland, that Dwight Dickerson and I hosted. Charles Owens was also one of the first to start singing the praises of Kamasi Washington. Both of these L.A. based musicians have skyrocketed in the jazz business and have become popular recording artists. Two other young lions he mentored are Azar Lawrence and Louis Taylor. He suggested Azar go to New York to further develop his career. The next thing he heard, Azar had landed a gig with McCoy Tyner. Charles tells me that Mr. Hamilton (who teaches at Berkley High School in Northern California) has sent him a number of excellent saxophone and bass students. A couple of young musicians that he recently has been mentoring are a San Diego trumpeter named Sam Kirdica and a Santa Barbara based saxophonist named Zane St. Andre. Professor Owens has high hopes for these two young talents.
The day I interviewed Charles, he told me he was leaving for Chicago, Illinois in the morning.
“I’m going to Chicago tomorrow to play with the Clayton/Hamilton orchestra and I’ll be back home Sunday. I’ve been playing in their band for about thirty years,” Charles alerted me.
I might add, he has recorded with this popular band on several occasions. Most recently, Owen’s recorded with the Clayton/Hamilton Orchestra featuring Barbara Morrison and Ernie Andrews. The album is called,” The L.A. Treasures Project: Live at Alvas Showroom.” In 1995, he was part of their “Absolutely!” recording and in 1999 he played clarinet and tenor saxophone on their album titled, “Explosive.” In 2000, Owens played soprano and tenor sax on their “Shout Me Out!” album and again in 2005 on the “Live at MCG” recording.
“Speaking of big bands, I have my big band that’s going to be playing over at a French school on Pico near Beverly Glen this month. It’s a French private school where the children have to speak French and English in their curriculums. Then tomorrow we’ll be playing jazz in the Palisades for three and four-year-olds. The kids liked it so much last time we did it that the teacher wanted us to come back and do it again. Drummer, Donald Dean Sr. and I have been promoting jazz in the schools for several years. We have a Black History Month concert tomorrow on 108th Street. We did one yesterday at the 52nd St School and we were very well received,” pride colors the tone of the reedman’s voice.
While riding to gigs that inspire our youth to appreciate jazz, you will find him playing “Soul Eyes” by John Coltrane on his car stereo system.
“That’s my favorite song right now. After teaching, I get into my car, turn it on and if I’m in traffic, it cools me right out. On “Soul Eyes” Coltrane is really playing from the heart.”
When it comes to teaching and mentoring, Charles Owens has strong views about the best way to inspire students.
“I think it helps to have an older person, that knows what they’re doing, to tell you what to do and to be kind and offer positive suggestions. I try to explore what students can do better. I may encourage them to work on their tone or to practice, … but I always try to be nice. A teacher has to be able to inspire people. Sometimes you need to tell someone something to help them improve, but no matter how nice you tell them, they don’t want to hear it. A teacher’s job is to make them aware of what they have to do and to help them get to the next step. I’ve discovered that sometimes that helps me get to the next step. Teaching has taught me how to treat people. It’s so easy to give a person a compliment, along with the lesson, and see their face light up,” Charles counsels.
Finally, I asked Charles Owens, since he has lived on both coasts of the United States, what he thought the difference was between West Coast Jazz and East Coast Jazz?
“Well, the New York musicians tend to be a little more adventurous and a little less in tune than the West Coast musicians. The West Coast musicians are better musicians, because for a while there was so much work out here and you could get it if you could play in tune and if you could blend. Because of the studio sessions and the recording and performance band opportunities, West Coast musicians are a little more thoughtful about what they play. The New York musicians are more original and play a little more out of tune. That’s the difference I found,” Charles answered.
You can catch the Charles Owens Quartet on March 28th at the World Stage in Leimert Park. https://www.theworldstage.org/ He will also be in concert at The Merc in Temecula, California at the Sherry Williams venue for jazz on April 2nd. https://tickets.temeculatheater.org/eventperformances.asp
By Dee Dee McNeil
It’s a pleasure and an inspiration to see so many fresh faces on the jazz scene. Consequently, I’ve created my New Artist Series, to introduce some of these exceptional musicians to you. Just because they are new to us doesn’t mean they haven’t been practicing, developing their skills and consistently performing at various venues around the globe. To paraphrase what Lizzo recently stated on the Grammy Awards show, I guess you have to be constantly performing and working for ten years to become an overnight sensation. Well, this is a young man who just may become a jazz legend. Pianist Joshua White, a resident of San Diego, California, is my featured gifted artist.
Born August 17, 1985, Joshua began formal piano training at the age of seven.
“When I was growing up, we had a piano in the house. I guess it was just my natural curiosity about the instrument that intrigued me. I had a love for music as well.”
His love for music led him to explore all the classical masters, to bask in the rich flavors of R&B, Hip Hop and to enjoy Top-40 Pop radio music. He also became the organist and pianist at his local church. By age eighteen, Joshua White found himself drawn to jazz. I asked this talented pianist, what made him move from classical to jazz?
“Well, I wouldn’t say there was a movement from one to the other, because I still listen to Brahms, Schumann, Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky and all of those other artists. I think it was just an expansion. Being introduced to new artists and composers expanded what I was already developing. I also grew up playing in church, which has helped inform me in a different tradition. So, I’m about expanding these traditions and learning as much musical history and as much about musical theory as I possibly can. I don’t feel I moved from one to the other. It was just the addition of more musical knowledge and tradition. Ultimately, it helps me to find what I want to say. All that knowledge provides you with more options in which to ask better, deeper and more profound questions,” Joshua White told me in a telephone interview.
Encouraged and supported by some world-renowned, master musicians like noted pianist Mike Wofford, flautist, Holly Hofmann, innovative bassist, Mark Dresser and composer Anthony Davis, Joshua White continued to grow and flourish. Once Joshua began to make himself known in the Southern California jazz community, he rubbed shoulders and shared stages with many virtuoso players like legendary reedmen, Daniel Jackson and Charles McPherson; bassists, Marshall Hawkins and Rodney Whitaker; drummers, Carl Allen and Marvin ‘Smitty’ Smith and trumpeter, Gilbert Castellanos, to mention only a few.
In 2011, Joshua entered the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition, performing in Washington, D.C. and he placed second out of 160 competitors. One of the judges was the iconic pianist, composer Herbie Hancock. Hancock told music critic George Varga:
“I was impressed by his (Joshua White’s) daring and courageous approach to improvisation on the cutting edge of innovation. He is his own man. I believe that Thelonious Monk would have been proud of the performance of this great, young artist.” It was a beautiful stamp of approval coming from the Grammy Award winning Hancock.
In 2017, Joshua White released his first recording as a bandleader. Titled, “Thirteen Short Stories” on the Fresh Town Record label out of Barcelona, Spain. It’s available on Amazon and all streaming platforms. It features his original compositions and introduces us to his uniquely, creative and sometimes Avant Garde style.
Below is an example of Joshua White playing solo. His technique fills the room with splashes of continuous sound, a pulsating pedal and a rush of piano mastery that spills, like a waterfall, and floods the room.
(You are my Sunshine) at Vibrato
This coming Friday, February 7th Joshua White will perform at the Broad Stage, a 499-seat theater located at 1310 11th Street, Santa Monica, California. His trio includes bassist, Alex Boneham and drummer Tyler Kreutel. Joshua talked about the instrumentalists that he chooses to work with.
“What I look for in musicians is not necessarily a comfort level, but I look for something stimulating within them. What I mean by that, I don’t want to know what you’re going to do. I want someone who wants to be provocative, thought provoking and who has an interesting commentary. Someone who doesn’t look to be told what to do and who has a sort of critical esthetic in terms of how they interpret music. I don’t know if there’s any one thing that I’m looking to express, but I would say that instead of a literal type of expression, it’s more of a curiosity, a question. I ask myself, what are the possibilities of the composition? What are the possibilities in the sounds that I can get from the instrument? What are the possibilities from working in a collaborative environment? Where can we go? What are we constructing?” he elaborates.
(At Hollywood concert)
I asked Joshua if he thinks about the lyrics of a song when he plays standards.
“I wouldn’t say that I think of the lyrics when I’m playing, but I would say that I have definitely been informed by the great vocalists from the improvised tradition. Even when I’m learning standards, I’m looking at the vocal versions of the song and listening to the lyrics, you know, from Abbey Lincoln to Betty Carter, to Billie Holiday, Blossom Dearie, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Carmen McCrae, or Carmen Lundy , Dianne Reeves, Nnenna Freelon; everybody,” Joshua lists a number of respected jazz vocalists.
“Also, by playing for the church choir, I learned all the vocal parts. I know how to create vocal arrangements. I’ve even written songs that we’ve played in church. I have a wide range of experience of working with many different kinds of songs and working with many different musicians and many different ensembles; working with different kinds of musicians, configurations and instrumentation. I’ve helped arrange on a small scale, but I would love to have the means and the time to write for a symphony orchestra. I would love to do that.”
You can experience the expansive breadth and width of Joshua White’s ‘live’ trio performance this Friday night in Santa Monica, California at The Broad Stage. The show starts at 8PM.
(Bye Bye Blackbird at Palm Springs concert)
By Dee Dee McNeil/ Jazz Journalist
Keb Mo is the second born of four children and the only son of Lauvella Cole.
“My mom was a beautiful, hard-working woman. She was raised by a sharecropper and she didn’t mess around. She raised her children well. She was from Hooks, Texas just outside of Texarkana. She was an amazing mother. She was a hair dresser. She sang in the choir. We went to church regularly. You know how that goes,” Keb Mo chuckles, generously sharing his childhood with me.
He tells me he has three sisters, but Keb Mo is the only professional musician of his siblings. His love of music started early. Besides the influence of the church, at ten years old, he was playing trumpet in the General Rosecrans Elementary school band. When his family moved from one Compton residence to another, he continued his passion for music by joining the Victory Park Elementary School band. They put him out the band because, according to the faculty, his grades were not good enough.
“Isn’t that the reason for studying music, to develop your brain?” he quips.
Keb Mo is the first to tell you he was never crazy about school or academics. It was music that came naturally to the young man. Music was his passion. He was intoxicated with the sound of percussion instruments and hypnotized by the rhythm of the drums. So much so, that Keb Mo started playing the steel drums with a local calypso group called, the Young Calitino Steel Drum band. He played steel drums in that band from eleven-years-old to age nineteen. Their group was popular around the South Los Angeles area and at that young age he began working hotel gigs with them and private parties.
“I started playing the steel drums because a guy in our Compton, California neighborhood built and played the steel drums. Coincidentally, he was probably the only American making steel drums who came from Trinidad and happened to live on my block. He’s not around anymore. He passed away a few years ago. But his name was Chuck Countee. I’m still really good friends with his son Carlos. I got so good that at the age of fourteen I was hired to play my first studio session on steel drums at the Gold Star Recording studios and I even got paid union scale. I was really green, but I was having a lot of fun.”
Although he was a competent drummer, Keb Mo wasn’t satisfied with just playing trumpet and drums. While attending Compton high school, his band director encouraged him to play the French horn, because they needed a French Horn player. Consequently, Keb Mo expanded his talents and learned the French Horn.
“I played French horn in the tenth, eleventh and twelfth grades. I became first French horn in the Compton High School Band. That’s back in the sixties, when Compton had an orchestra and a youth orchestra. I was just starting out in music. Then, I took a year off and went to LATTC (L.A. Trade Tech) for architectural drafting, because after high school I didn’t really think I had what it took to seriously pursue music as a career. But my friends kept asking me to play gigs, so I jumped back in.
“I was good at a couple of little things; like I could play steel drums. But more than that, I knew how to play in a band. I worked well with others. For many years, I felt like I was just dragged along by the universe.
“I have played all the instruments in the steel drum band. I started off on the bass pan. Then I went to the double pan. I played that. Then I went to the lead pan. After that I went to trap drums and congas. I even did the Limbo. I explored every percussion instrument and I learned all the basic, traditional, Afro-Cuban beats on the congas. In high school my friend Larry had two sets of drums. He let me borrow one of his drum sets and I set it up in my garage. I taught myself how to play some basic grooves on the trap drums.”
Along his musical path, Keb Mo was soon drawn to the guitar. He dabbled on the bass guitar during his time playing with the steel band. But he was in awe of Taj Mahal and also impressed with the talents of Jose Feliciano.
“I had been down to the Troubadour with the steel band. We played down there one night. There was this guitar store, McCabe’s, next door to the Troubadour. I saw all these guitars with hubcaps on them. I was around fourteen or so. That same night, I saw Jose Feliciano, this blind guy playing in the lobby, sittin’ there with his guide dog and playing ‘Light My Fire’. We (the band) were like, Oh shit. We were blown away.
“My Uncle Herman Wyatt had started teaching me guitar at age twelve. Then my friend Stanley Freeman lived around the corner. He was taking lessons at the Compton Music Center and he’d come back and show me what he learned at his lessons. That was good, because I had no money for lessons. I got a book on guitar and bass. Much later, I went to GIT and studied guitar with Joe Diorio. He was one of the pioneer teachers at GIT (the Guitar Institute of Technology) before it became MI (Musicians Institute). I took several courses at GIT including jazz guitar and harmony. Then I was playing with Papa John Creach. I was always kind of looking for something better. I wasn’t really interested in school. I didn’t really like school. I was somewhat artistic, but I knew I wasn’t going to college. Not with my grades. (laughter) I just coasted through.”
Keb Mo’s relationship with Papa John Creach and the Jefferson Starship group garnered him his first Platinum record. When he was just twenty-one years old, he co-wrote “Git Fiddler” for the “Red Octopus” album with Papa John and John Parker. Surprisingly, in 1975 that instrumental became a big hit for the blues and soft-rock band, zooming up the Billboard charts to #1. When Papa John Creach left Jefferson Starship as their lead singer and violinist, he formed his own band. It included the fledgling songwriter and guitarist, Keb Mo. Keb spent the next five years on the road with Papa John Creach.
“I had three pretty good road gigs; Papa John Creach, Taste of Honey and Deniece Williams. After I stopped playing with Papa John, I had an apartment over by Hollywood Blvd on Grammercy Place. I landed a job delivering flowers and I decided to start writing songs. From 76 to 77, I had some little local gigs and I was mostly songwriting. That time was a whole other chapter in my life. Around 1977 or 78, I had a friend, Chuck Trammell, who had a gig doing demos over at Irving Almo (A&M Record Company’s publishing arm). I was his right-hand guy. From 1977 to 1980, I was probably in the studio every morning, at least three days a week cutting demos. It didn’t pay like union sessions, but it was alright; $25 to $50 per tune. We were in studio B and that was like my college. We had to record two demos per session. I’d get up and prepare the charts. I would plan out what the band was going to do and lead the sessions. Chuck was the producer. He didn’t play anything. He was very charismatic and he had worked a lot with Quincy Jones. He actually was a really fine producer. I got to call the players. I would call the late Robert Russell (bassist), Gerald Albright (saxophonist), Michael King on keys and sometimes James Gadson would come in on drums.
“After our demo sessions were over, all the top session guys would be working union sessions in the studio. I’d poke my head in the door and I would witness greatness! I started working with the top background singers of the day. I was doing a lot of different tasks in the studio and learned how to hold my own and how to be a professional studio musician. Now that I have a nice studio at my home, all that experience gets used all the time.”
In 1979, Keb Mo discovered he had nodes on his throat and he had to go in and have them surgically removed. This stopped his ability to sing for at least a year, so the demo session work was a blessing and probably helped him polish his already shiny guitar skills.
“I had a lucky break in the early 80s. I got a gig to sub for this guitar player named Spencer Bean. He’d call, from time to time, and ask if I would cover for him. So, he had this one-night gig with Monk Higgins and Charlie Tuna of the Who Dunnit Band. Spencer asked me to cover the gig for him for the first two weeks because he had to go to Atlanta. I said cool. I gotcha. He went to Georgia and never came back. Those guys took me under their wing and they trained me in the blues. We were at Marla Gibbs’ Memory Lane and all these people came through, like great vocalist, Merry Clayton. She’d show up; Albert Collins would show up and Big Joe Turner. Pee Wee Crayton, Billy Preston; all these legendary people would show up and sit-in with the band. I was like, wow! That got me back on the club scene. I kept that gig for about two years straight. Barbara Morrison started hiring me for a little bit. I also started gigging with the Rose Brothers.” (An R&B group of four brothers on the Muscle Shoals Record label).
Keb Mo also worked with another blues and R&B legend, Vernon Garrett.
“I was with Vernon Garrett for two years. I played with Vernon and I was always a big fan of Taj Mahal. When he played the blues, he really intrigued me. Taj Mahal was jumping outside the box. I first heard Taj Mahal play in 1969 when he played at my high school. I said, wow. Wait a minute. I had never seen nothing like that. He pulled out that steel guitar and really surprised me.
“It was the late 80s when I started singing again or around that time. After I healed, I had a whole lot of vocal coaching. I studied with Gloria Bennett for a long time. Then I had another vocal coach, Robert Edwards who was a student of Seth Riggs.”
Around 1980, Keb Mo released an album called, “Rainmaker,” under his birth name of Kevin Moore. He was working with a mutual friend of ours, a drummer by the name of Quentin Dennard. Quentin nick-named him Keb Mo and that name stuck. It was the perfect stage name. Lots of other blues artists had adopted names. For example, Taj Mahal’s name is actually Henry St. Clair Fredericks and Muddy Waters birth name is McKinley Morganfield.
So, in 1994, when SONY Record label discovered Kevin Moore’s unique talents, he was then using the stage name of Keb Mo. He had polished his guitar chops and was a competent songwriter. His voice was plump with emotion and he had a pleasing huskiness to it. That first SONY album won him the W. C. handy Award for Best Country and Acoustic Blues Album in 1995. After years of playing gigs and honing his craft, the spotlight was finally shining brightly on Keb Mo.
“I had learned how to be a professional. So, when I got signed to SONY, that record took off. I used all the skills I had learned on that record. I knew what I was doing. I had a hell of a producer; John Porter. By that time, I had two publishing deals and I had stacked up songs. I had a lot going on.”
After the super success of the “Keb’ Mo” release in 1994, he followed up with another SONY album titled, “Just Like You,” with special guests Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne. That record won him a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album in 1997. In August of 1998, the talented songwriter, singer and guitarist released his “Slow Down” album. It also won a Grammy Award. He was on a roll.
In 2000, he released “The Door” and another album called “Sessions at West 54th that was recorded ‘live’ in New York. In 2001, he recorded a children’s album called, “Big Wide Grin.” You may have seen him on the popular television show, “Sesame Street” promoting that wonderful recording. Then there was the 2003 “Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: Keb’ Mo” album that was part of Scorsese’s blues Series. It seemed that everything Keb’ Mo’ recorded was nominated for a Grammy. In fact, he can boast fourteen Grammy nominations to date. Then, in 2004 he won his third Grammy Award for his album, “Keep It Simple.”
Keb Mo is a quiet man with a warm smile that can light up a stage brighter than any spotlight. He’s also a deep thinker. You hear it in his lyrics and the poignant, heartfelt way he describes things. Like when he wrote about his mother’s house in Compton, California in a song called, “There’s More than One Way Home.”
Daddy came around every once in a while, but momma, she was there all the time. And summertime in Compton was not like TV, but we were right there where we needed to be, And the Thurmond Boys on Peach Street with only their dad, so proud of themselves and that old Pontiac they had. And Miss Brooks, her Bible and her three little boys, At the Double Rock Baptist Church makin’ a joyful noise.
There’s more than one way home Ain’t no right way, ain’t no wrong. And whatever road you might be on, you find your own way, cause there’s more than one way home
This prolific songwriter is also an activist. His album release in 2004 attests to that by its very title, “Peace … Back by Popular Demand.” You can also hear it in the hit record by the Dixie Chicks who co-wrote and recorded a song he co-wrote titled, “I Hope,” on their “Taking the Long Way” album.
Sunday morning, I heard the preacher say Thou shall not kill
I don’t wanna hear nothing else about killing
And that it’s God’s will
‘Cause our children are watching us
They put their trust in us
They’re gonna be like us
So let’s learn from our history
And do it differently
I hope for more love, more joy and laughter
I hope we’ll have more than we’ll ever need
I hope we’ll have more ‘happy ever after’
I hope we can all live more fearlessly
And we can lose all the pain and misery
I hope, I hope.
The recordings and the awards kept coming. He recorded his “Suitcase” album in 2006, “Live and Mo’” in 2009 and “The Reflection” was released in 2011. In 2015 Keb’ Mo’s album, “BLUESAmericana” won the Contemporary Blues Album category at the annual Blues Music Awards celebration. As a concerned citizen of the world, he’s generous and caring. Kevin continues to donate 5% of his royalty money from the BLUESAmericana album to charity.
In 2016, he released “Keb’ Mo’ Live: That Hot Pink Blues Album”. Then, something amazing happened to Keb Mo. Years after witnessing his guitar idol perform at his public school, you can imagine Keb’s joy to finally record with the legendary Taj Mahal. It was 2017 when they recorded an album titled, “TajMo.” This collaboration garnered Kevin his fourth Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album and was a highlight in his career. More recently, he has released the popular “Oklahoma” album in 2019 and a Christmas album titled, “Moonlight, Mistletoe & You.”
There have been several of Keb Mo’s songs covered by other artists. You may not know this, but he co-wrote (with Josh Kelley) the theme song for the television series, “Mike and Molly.” He also performed that song.
Kevin continues to turn out albums of original and expressive music. Blues music is one of the deep origins of jazz and it reflects our rich, African American history and heritage. Keb Mo is proudly carrying that tradition forward. Even performing at the White House for President Barack Obama.
During this month of February, while we are celebrating Black History month, I salute an artist with deep roots in his Los Angeles/Compton neighborhood. Keb Mo is worthy of our continuous applause. Using his lyrical magic, his husky voice and guitar mastery, this ‘Angelian’ is authentically making positive, cultural input across the entire world.
By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist
From the time she was small enough to climb upon her mother and father’s coffee table and pretend it was a stage, Amber Weekes found comfort bursting into song. She has always known singing was her destiny. Maybe her passion for vocalizing began in the womb, when her father was crooning love songs to her mother with his Frank Sinatra, smooth-styled voice spilling across their room. Maybe Amber was inspired by the jazz vocalists she heard being played on the Los Angeles radio station, KBCA, famous for playing John Coltrane’s song, “Spiritual” as a morning-drive, theme song. Perhaps it was while little Amber was listening to disc jockeys like Jai Rich or Talley Strode who were pumping out jazz formats and playing Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. Even the late, great, bandleader Gerald Wilson had a noon day show on her mom’s favorite radio station titled, “Jazz Capsule.” The young child was listening. Later, Amber Weekes studied musical comedy and acting in high school, but singing was always Amber’s priority.
AMBER: “I remember vividly that on Sunday, daddy would go to church and mama would be busy fixing Sunday dinner. KBCA (105.1) would be playing and when daddy was coming home from church, as he drove up the street, he could hear the jazz floating out of our house. My parents were really into us having exposure to music. Their musical tastes were very eclectic. We listened to Ray Charles, The Beatles and early Barbra Streisand. They played records by Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan and Dianne Carroll.
“My paternal grandparents were immigrants to the United States. My grandfather was from Barbados and my grandmother was from Jamaica. They had six children to raise and my father, Martin Weekes, was one of six. My grandparents ran ‘Weekes Luncheonette,’ which was on the corner of 155th and St. Nicholas Place and that’s the way they supported their family. My aunts and my uncle and my dad all worked in the restaurant. It was open 24-hours a day, 365 days a year. I don’t know exactly when they opened it, but I believe it was sold in the sixties when drug activity in Harlem became very high. Duke Ellington lived right around the corner and Lena Horne lived close by and so my father and his siblings had contact with Duke and Lena and Sidney Portier and Harry Belafonte. One of the stories that my father tells is that when he was a teenager, around sixteen, in the late forties, I remember him repeatedly talking about how Duke would come in after the gig, two-o-clock in the morning, and Duke loved to have a fried egg sandwich. My father was a short order cook. He used to fix it for him. It was neat to have that history. Daddy said that he remembered that Duke would have his shirt unbuttoned and you could see the neck of his T-shirt underneath his buttoned-down shirt.”
According to a biography by Dana Avant, St. Nicholas Place between 150th and 155th streets was a middle-class neighborhood, with many of the neighbors either famous or they would become famous. Folks like James Bailey of the Barnum and Bailey Circus lived near Weekes Luncheonette and at the northern part of St. Nicholas Place a famed ballpark called the ‘Polo Grounds’ was where Willie Mays hit many unforgettable homeruns. Mays also lived on St. Nicholas Place, right across the street, in an apartment building near Polo Grounds. Other historic figures who popped into the popular 24-hour candy store and restaurant were historic names like Paul Robeson, Father of the blues, W.C. Handy, Langston Hughes, Teddy Wilson, Billy Strayhorn and Ellington. Such public figures as the male singers who made up The Inkspots group, lived in the Sugar Hill neighborhood. So did John Bubbles of Buck & Bubbles, a popular Vaudeville Comedy duo. In 1935, John Bubbles was part of the original cast of Gershwin’s “Porgy & Bess” production. He played the part of ‘Sportin’ Life.’ It was said that the Weekes daughters were so beautiful that men flocked to the Weekes Luncheonette and referred to it as, ‘Glamour Manor.’  They looked forward to catching a glimpse of Aunt Winnie, Aunt Delores, Cousin Blossom and the other brown beauties. Amber shared a story of how a famous actor fell in love with her Aunt Delores.
(L to R. Back row: Aunt Delores Sheldon, Aunt Winnie Weekes, Uncle Robbie Sheldon, Aunt Muriel Weekes, & my father, Martin Weekes; Front row: Grandmother Nettie Weekes, Aunt Joy Weekes, and paternal grandfather, Wilfred Weekes.)
AMBER: “If you ever read Sidney Portier’s book, ‘This Life,’ there’s a chapter of the book called, Cry the Beloved Country, where he actually mentions the luncheonette. Sidney Portier was a young actor at that time and a regular patron at the Luncheonette. In fact, that’s where he met my oldest aunt, Delores. They dated and they were engaged. It’s all in his book. Delores was my father’s oldest sister. Mr. Portier mentions all four of my aunts in the book and that my grandfather had two sons. Sidney and my Aunt Delores were friends until she died. To have that kind of history in my family is amazing. All my life, I’ve heard stories about my dad and my uncles being young people at that special time in Harlem, and how they met so many celebrity folks, like Duke Ellington and Dianne Carroll. Dianne was there at that time. I did meet Ms. Carroll once, when I was very young, and she remembered the luncheonette, saying that when she was a kid it was her candy store of choice. People forget that Dianne Carroll was a singer. I found myself much more interested in her when she was a summer fill-in for the Carol Burnett television variety show. She and my mother had the same piano teacher. Mom, Evan Weekes (pronounced Yvonne), loved to sing and was the church soloist in the church choir.”
DEE DEE: So, your mom and dad were both musicians?
AMBER: “Well, daddy was just musically inclined without even trying. He was able to play the piano by ear. He played the trombone and when he was very young, he was like a Frank Sinatra clone. Daddy always sang. In fact, when he was in the army, he was in a talent show in Germany and was offered a record contract or there was some conversation about him pursuing a music career. But he was a child of the Depression era and my grandparents were struggling. He really wanted to do something that he felt would give him a more stable life. When daddy left the service, he became an Aerospace engineer and then a lawyer. My father was really an extraordinary man. My mom loved to sing as well, but she leaned more towards the classical side of things. Mom is still alive. I have two sisters. Both have beautiful voices and we all sang and played instruments as children. My sister Dwan Weekes-Glenn is a retired entertainment lawyer. Nicole Y. Weekes is a Neuropsychologist and tenured faculty member at Claremont Pomona College. Unlike me, both my sisters are marvelous dancers too.
“Before I forget, my first album, ‘Round Midnight’ came out a long time ago in 2002 and perpetuates a promise I made to myself. I’m a big fan of Oscar Brown Jr., and I’ve committed myself to record at least one of his songs on every album. My first album had his song, “Hazel’s Hips” on it. So “Hazel’s Hips” was kind of an acknowledgement of my mother introducing me to the work of Oscar Brown Jr., and also a way of acknowledging the luncheonette that my grandparents had and the relationship that Sidney Portier had with my Aunt Delores.”
When I looked up these lyrics to Oscar Brown Jr.’s song, they perfectly exemplify Amber’s grandparent’s famed luncheonette and their pretty daughters.
Hazel’s hips are a concert of contours and curves, as she slips to and fro
’round the tables she serves; I buy six meals a day in my fav’rite cafe,
’cause I see hazel that way.
hazel’s eyes are divine and her hair is so fine, but her hips bring the tips!
hazel dips me my soup, serves me my cup of tea, my heart flips when i see
hazel smilin’ at me; so I say, ‘honeybunch, can’t I have you for lunch?’
but hazel just gives me a hunch. Hazel’s legs are a toast and her waist is the most,
but her hips bring the tips!
On Amber Weekes’ newly released “Pure Imagination” album, she continues to celebrate Oscar Brown Jr. Scotty Barnhart is outstanding on trumpet during her polished presentation of Oscar’s famed composition, “The Snake.” On Oscar Brown Jr.,’s “Brown Baby” composition, Weekes and Trevor Ware duet, effectively showcasing Amber’s voice with only bass accompaniment. Ware pulls out his bow, during this arrangement, to beautifully sing his solo.
Trevor Ware is currently bassist with the Count Basie band and he’s an in-demand studio musician, as well as a popular bassist in and around Southern California. Ware helped co-produce this latest Amber Weekes’ release. I asked Amber how Ware got to be a co-producer on her recent album.
AMBER: “Well, Trevor started playing with me when I first began performing in Los Angeles clubs. I met him originally through vocalist, performer Sweet Baby Jai. He did a couple of shows with her. A long time ago, there was a place called the Tower Restaurant that was inside the TransAmerica building. It was a beautiful restaurant. I was doing a gig there and it was either Baby Jai or Barbara Collins (who was representing Baby Jai at the time), who recommended that I use Trevor Ware. It may actually have been Elliott Douglas who was playing piano on that gig. I know that Elliott and Trevor had worked together quite a bit. Anyway, Trevor wound up working that gig with me. There was something about Trevor that resonated with me in a different kind of way. After that gig, we became good friends. He was my steady bass player for a long time and for a while he was my musical director. We recorded the “Round Midnight” album in 2002. Trevor Ware and reedman, Louis Van Taylor produced it. I knew Louis and we had worked together, but I’ve had a longer relationship with Trevor. There’s just a level of comfort that I have with Trevor. So, I hadn’t done an album in a really long time and I was ready to do another one. Trevor just seemed like the logical person to call. There’s a kind of organic engagement between the two of us. He and I started putting together the concept of the album and of course it changed over the two years it took, from conversation to completion. But it really did start with him. You know, over the years we haven’t worked together that much because he’s just become the A-list bass player for everybody. When it came time to do the recording, I really wanted him involved. He started the production, helped me figure out most of the album and what the repertoire was going to be. Because of Trevor’s busy schedule, it seemed challenging to finish it in the time-frame that I wanted. So, it just evolved into including other producers and musicians like Mark Cargill, who I’ve known longer than I knew Trevor. I’ve known Mark since I was nineteen. Mark is an extraordinary violinist and string arranger. He does the string arrangements for the television series, ‘Dancing With the Stars.’ Mark had seen my Facebook posts about doing the album and he offered to assist.
“I had gone to Louisiana in April and when I came back, we were trying to complete things. We thought, well why don’t we do “Gone at Last”? But I want it to sound New Orleans authentic. Trevor said, well, I can’t write a ‘second line.’ Let’s get Kenny Sara to do it.”
Kenny Sara produced the Paul Simon tune, “Gone at Last” and Amber Weekes employed the Bucjump Brass Band to authenticate the Louisiana sound and production that she wanted. Kenny Sara headlines the Sounds of New Orleans, a four-piece band whose forte is New Orleans based jazz music, R&B and funk. They have become an entertainment fixture at Downtown Disneyland’s Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen for over ten years. On this latest release, “Pure Imagination,” Weekes captures the toe-tapping excitement of Sara’s production, with the band adding gospel overtones, vocal chants and modulations that make you want to dance and shout.
Amber Weekes has a smooth, pleasing style. Her voice is crystal clear and during this repertoire, she pleasantly performs a Baker’s Dozen of notably familiar songs. Opening with the title tune, borrowed from the Willy Wonka movie, Amber Weekes invites jazz vocalist Sue Raney to make a guest appearance. She has studied with Raney and their voices blend nicely. I am struck by the Weekes way of stylizing her music, leaving space for the songs to breathe. Her phrasing is measured, like an instrumentalist rather than a singer. She doesn’t hold the tones out for long periods of time or delve into lengthy legato phrasings. Weekes displays skills by going straight to the notes without sliding. Every word is clearly enunciated and every melody is emotionally enriched. Her choice of tunes shows an expansive appreciation for many genres of music and includes compositions by Paul Simon, Duke Ellington, Oscar Brown Jr., Barry Manilow and Johnny Mercer. She introduced me to “When He Makes Music” by Marvin Fisher and Jack Segal. Lyrics like:
“His laughter is an echo in the breeze, that hushes larks and thrushes in the trees and calms the wave that rushes from the seas, when he makes music,” are lyrics that remind me of what makes a great song. Producer, Mark Cargill, adds an amazing violin solo on this ballad. His instrument sprinkles angel dust over Amber’s sweet delivery.
All in all, this is a treasure trove of great songs by a vocalist who understands the importance of an honest and emotional delivery. Blessed by her ancestry, music is just part of Amber’s DNA. The release date of this Amber Weekes project is scheduled for January 3, 2020.
Players on the Pure Imagination album include: Amber Weekes, vocals; Peter Smith & Tony Compodonico, pianists; Trevor Ware, bass/co-producer/background vocals; Jeff Littleton, bass; Charles Ruggiero & Nathaniel Scott, drums; Mitchell Long & Ramon Stagnaro, guitars; Justo Almario & Danilo Lazano, flute; Keith Fiddmont, alto & tenor saxophone; Dale Fielder, baritone saxophone; Curtis Taylor, Jeff Kaye & Scotty Barnhart, trumpets; Mark Cargill, violin/string arranger/conductor & co-producer; Munyungo Jackson, David Jackson & Don Littleton, percussionist; Nick Mancini & Gabriel “Slam” Nobles, vibraphone; Sue Raney & Mon David, vocals; Paul Baker, harp; Brian Swartz, horn arrangements; Mark LeVang, accordion; THE BUCKJUMP BRASS BAND: Robbie Hiokie, trombone; Randall Willis, tenor saxophone; Louis Van Taylor, baritone Saxophone; Vince Tividad, sousaphone; Mark Justin, piano; Kenny Sara, bass drum/snare drums/percussion/background vocals/ handclaps.
By Dee Dee McNeil
John Coltrane, tenor saxophone; McCoy Tyner, piano; Jimmy Garrison, bass; Elvin Jones, drums.
It seems that several tapes originating at the Rudy Van Gelder studios in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, have been recently re-discovered and resurrected. Among them is this classic John Coltrane recording session that was saved to analog tape in June of 1964. This was during a time when Coltrane’s spiritual recordings were soaring in popularity and transforming his career path, as well as the world of jazz. It was between his recording of the “Crescent” album and Coltrane’s super successful, “A Love Supreme.” The songs on this new project may be familiar, but the actual recordings have never been heard, in their entirety, before this release. The classic Coltrane band is in place, featuring all-stars, McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums. Of course, John Coltrane was on tenor saxophone and you will hear the legendary musicians playing “Naima,” a take One and take two exploration of this beautiful composition begins and ends this album.
This recording came about when filmmaker, Gilles Groulx, approached John Coltrane to score a French film titled, “Le Chat Dans le Sac,” (translated to The Cat in the Bag). No one was sure Coltrane would do it. Monsieur Groulx explained it was a love story, taking place in Montreal, Canada, with political undertones. The unexpected result of this request was that John Coltrane agreed and brought his band into the studio to revisit songs he had already recorded. Their session was recorded on quarter inch, analog, mono tape and mixed by Rudy Van Gelder. Groulx happily took the master to Canada to use in his film. The final film production only included ten minutes of Coltrane’s 37-minutes of recording time. Now, we can hear their entire session.
The title tune, “Blue World,” opens with Jimmy Garrison setting up the tempo and mood on his double bass, soon joined by the piano chords of McCoy Tyner and the skipping drum sticks of Elvin Jones, galloping across the piece with precision and inspired time. John Coltrane takes his stance into the spotlight with slow deliberation, making the tenor saxophone sing in only the way he can. Blasting into a crescendo ending, with Elvin Jones going wild on trap drums and the music building to a frenzied pitch, the finale of this song is dramatic. “Village Blues” is recorded three times and you will enjoy all three takes. Additionally, there is the “Like Sonny” composition and an over seven-minute rendition of “Traneing In.” The mix is crystal clear and the tracks are better than the original, previous recordings. They sound freshly improvised and crisp, like new money.
FRANCE LINE-UP: Louis Armstrong, trumpet/vocals; Jack Teagarden, trombone/vocals; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Earl Hines, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Sid Catlett, drums. GERMANY LINE-UP: Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocals; Trummy young, trombone; Bob McCracken, clarinet/vocals; Marty Napoleon, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Cozy Cole, drums.
Imagine, stepping into a magical transformer and being whisked back in time. For a minute, just pretend you have entered a time machine. Moments later, you are sitting in a small jazz club in New Orleans, it’s 1946, and just mere feet away from your table, a young man, destined to become a living legend, is blowing his horn. Other’s on the scene are Jack Teagarden on trombone and Barney Bigard on clarinet. Crouched over the piano keys is Earl “Fatha” Hines. Arvell Shaw stands tall next to his double bass and Cozy Cole is slapping the trap drums. The leader, standing center stage in a dark suit and bow tie, is Louis Armstrong. The ensemble is performing together in preparation for a European tour.
It appears that eventual tour was recorded on February 22 – 23, 1948 during the Nice International Jazz Festival. It was recorded live at the famed Nice Opera House and also at the Titania Palast in Berlin, Germany. The group of musicians varies. Velma Middleton is featured, along with Louie, on vocals. Sometimes the dynamic Sid Catlett is the drummer and other times, it’s Cozy Cole. Earl Hines is the pianist in France and Marty Napoleon plays piano in Germany. But the steadfast trumpeter and star of this live production is Louis Armstrong.
This recording is part of Dot Time’s Legacy Series and these treasured tracks were recovered in forgotten, European archives of a live performance of Louie Armstrong and his All Stars in both Nice, France and later, in Germany, during a Berlin recorded broadcast on RIAS (Radio in the American Sector) files.
On the bluesy presentation of “Rockin’ Chair,” Jack Teagarden lends his smooth vocals to the mix, with Armstrong playfully answering him in his signature vocal style and adding a bit of comic relief during their duet. One thing I always admired about Louis Armstrong, (other than his amazing musical agility on his trumpet) was his penchant for entertaining. Sometimes musicians play only for themselves and each other, forgetting about the audience or having the attitude you can love it or leave it. Louie Armstrong knew that singing was a strong audience pleaser and always included this in his shows, as well as adding comedy relief. Louis Armstrong understood the importance of entertaining. The story goes that Armstrong’s manager at the time, Joe Glaser, told him before his European tour not to sing. He said they were all foreigners and didn’t speak any English. Armstrong nodded gravely, but as you hear, he paid absolutely no attention to Glaser’s instruction not to sing. In his own way, he was a serious activist, using music as his catalyst. He opened every concert singing Fats Waller’s poignant “Black and Blue” composition. It reflected the racism in America and always was received with marvelous applause and appreciation. You will hear his performance of that song on this album, along with the popular, “Sunny Side of the Street.”
He scats his way through “Them There Eyes,” as only Louie could do and I was intrigued with the blues song, “My Bucket Got a Hole In It,” featuring the boogie-woogie bass line I used to hear my own father play on our upright piano. Louis Armstrong then pays homage to his roots on “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans” and on “Mahogany Hall Stomp” the band has an on-stage jam session with Arvell Shaw making a strong statement on his bass and Barney Bigard swinging his clarinet solo boldly into the audience. Closing with “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” Louis Armstrong leaves us a message from beyond this world and a promise, like a blown kiss, that love crosses all boundaries the same way great music does.
This amazing deluxe, seven-CD or 10-LP package of music reminds us that Nat King Cole was a piano master. This delicious compilation of Nat Cole’s early years, between 1936 to 1943, offers nearly 200 recorded tracks by the illustrious jazz musician before he ever signed with Capitol Records.
“This is a really important project for Resonance,” says co-president or the label, Zev Feldman. “We’ve done some pretty substantial packages over the years, such as our three-disc Eric Dolphy and Jaco Pastorius sets with 100-page booklets, but this Nat King Cole box is truly a definitive, king-sized set.”
Many people only recall Nat King Cole as the silky, satin-smooth voice that made the “Christmas Song” a forever-hit-holiday standard. When Nat Cole sang, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose …” the entire universe swooned. But long before he became a popular voice on the recording scene, Nat was inspiring great piano players like Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner and George Shearing with his amazing style and technique. Nat King Cole grew up in the jazz business, listening to icons like Earl “Fatha’ Hines and Art Tatum. You can clearly hear some of their influence in this amazing set of early recordings.
The tune, “With Plenty of Money and You” was cut in 1938. Nat King Cole is playing piano so swiftly he sounds like the studio engineers speeded up the tape. He has perfect time as his finger race across the piano keys. It’s just a spectacular listen, with Oscar Moore on guitar and Wesley Prince on bass. This was the very first recording session for Nat’s trio and unique because there was no drummer. Even before this release, the very first recordings Nat Cole made was with his brother Eddie for Decca Records. He was only seventeen-years-old, but it was obvious, even then, that Nat King Cole was a piano prodigy. You will enjoy Nat’s first versions of “Sweet Lorraine” in this collection, that later in his career became a huge R&B and pop record hit. You can hear how his tone and vocal style developed, from the 1930’s to his expansive success in the 1960s. but even more significant is Nat King Cole’s amazing abilities on the piano. This recording documents his astonishing talents on piano, as well as bringing several unforgettable songs alive that we may have forgotten and deserve to be remembered like, “All for You,” and “There’s No Anesthetic for Love.” This is a ‘must-have’ for any jazz collector’s library! Release date is November 1, 2019.
Dee Dee McNeil CDs, “STORYTELLER” and “WHERE CAN OUR LEADERS BE?” are Online at CDBaby.com or Amazon.com. As a journalist, Dee Dee is available to write liner notes, biographies and feature articles on jazz musicians and singers. Contact her at email@example.com or leave your message and phone number at 248-262-6877.
DEE DEE McNEIL
Dee Dee McNeil is An Educator/Singer/Songwriter/Poet/Journalist/Producer & Playwright. Originally from Detroit, Michigan, her poetry was published in the first edition of Dudley Randall’s poetry anthology, “The Broadside Annual.” Several other anthologies followed. As a contract songwriter for Motown Records, several iconic artists have recorded her music including Diana Ross & the Supremes, Gladys Knight & the Pips, David Ruffin, Edwin Star, The Four Tops, Nancy Wilson, Rita Marley, Kiki Dee, Jonah Jones, Side Effect, Rapper ‘Styles’, LL Cool J, Gip Noble, The Marvelettes, Robert McCarther, Peggy Duquesnel and the historic Rap group, The Watts Prophets, of which Ms. McNeil was a member. She moved to Los Angeles in 1970 and became an alumnus of Budd Schulberg’s Watts Writers Workshop. She was one of the first women to Rap in the late ‘60s and early 70’s, speaking up for women’s rights. She recorded as a member of the Watts Prophets in 1970, reciting her original poetry, playing piano, singing and adding original music to their premiere release entitled, “Rappin’ Black In A White World,” named from a song McNeil penned with co-writer, Marthea Hicks.
Her articles and Cd reviews have appeared in Cadence Magazine, All About Jazz Newspaper and she had a jazz blog at www.lajazz.com for five years. As a freelance journalist, her articles have appeared in Good Old Boat Magazine, Pathfinders Travel Magazine, Ambassador National Italian-American Foundation magazine and many more. she was a music journalist for the AOL.com owned Patch Online newspapers. Her Column was called “Music Matters.” She once had a Jazz column in the Michigan Chronicle Newspaper. Another of her syndicated entertainment columns appeared in several newspapers across the country and in Canada. In 2009 her book “Haiku In My Neighborhood” was published, featuring the photography of Roland Charles.
In 2010, she presented her “Haiku In My Neighborhood” literary enrichment program as part of the City of Inglewood Parks, Recreation and Community Services, teaching haiku to children aged five to eleven as part of an after-school program. In 2011, she successfully presented the same program for older children at the Horace Mann Junior High School in Los Angeles. In 2012, one of her short stories was chosen and featured by the Sally Shore “New Short Fiction Series” read and presented by actress Angela Gibbs at the Watts Towers under the banner of “From the Ashes Revisited” to tribute the Watts Writers Workshop alumni. In 2014, her short story entitled “Singing My Way Through Adversity” was published in “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries – 101 Stories of hope, Healing, and Hard Work.” In 2016, her essays were published in three separate “Chicken Soup for the Soul” books: “The Spirit of America”, “My Very Good, Very Bad Dog,” and “The Joy of Less.” Currently, she has a jazz blog where she previews CDs and writes feature articles about jazz artists at www.musicalmemoirs.wordpress.com and she contributes to LA Jazz Scene.buzz with a column called “Dee Dee’s Jazz Diary.”