Elena Gilliam/Michael Le Van
Then Another Turns
(Shade Of Blue)

Elena Gilliam has long been a Los Angeles-area legend, a powerful and very expressive yet subtle jazz singer. She has performed for many years at local clubs and, although her fame has not stretched much beyond Southern California, she is well worth discovering.
On Then Another Turns, her first recording in a decade, Elena Gilliam is joined by the sensitive and swinging pianist Michael Le Van (whose trio is sometimes reminiscent of that of Bill Evans), either David Enos or Bruce Lett on bass, Paul Kreibich or John Ferraro on drums, and occasionally trumpeter Tony Guerrero and tenor-saxophonist David Moody.
The set begins with “Then Another Turns” which was composed by Le Van with lyrics by the late Bill Montemer. Ms. Gilliam builds up her vocal slowly before displaying quite a bit of power at the performance’s conclusion. Next is a medium-tempo version of “Misty” that really cooks, has fine piano and bass solos, and a closing shouting vocal that one could imagine Ernestine Anderson singing. Stevie Wonder’s “All in Love Is Fair” is given a slow version that climaxes with an impressive final note that rings out endlessly. Also quite enjoyable are an uptempo “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise” which gives the instrumentalists including the two horn players an opportunity to stretch out, the lowdown “Backwater Blues” (during which Ms. Gilliam really preaching the blues), and a duet with Le Van on “My Romance.” The memorable outing concludes with an uptempo “Cheek To Cheek” (highlighted by some fine scat-singing), a forceful and hard-driving “Get Out Of Town,” and a quietly dramatic “I’ll Be Seeing You.”
On Then Another Turns, which is available from www.elenagilliammichaellevan.hearnow.com and www.cdbaby.com, Elena Gilliam has made her definitive statement.


Maci Miller
Round Midnight

Maci Miller, who is based in Philadelphia, has overlapping careers as a jazz singer, songwriter, actress, and model. She has worked with the top local musicians in Philly (including tenor-saxophonist Larry McKenna and the late pianist George Mesterhazy), performed in New York as well as overseas, and had released three earlier CDs.
Round Midnight finds Maci Miller confidently singing 15 favorite standards as intimate duets with guitarist David O’Rourke. Only the best vocalists can excel in this sparse setting where timing and the contrast of sound with silence is so important. Miller, who has a sweet-toned voice, a wide range, and superior enunciation, has no difficulty. She can scat quite well when it fits the music and she puts plenty of understated feeling into the ballads. The contributions of her musical partner, guitarist O’Rourke, should not be overlooked. He functions as a one-man orchestra whether accompanying the singer, challenging her, or taking his own quietly creative solos.
On such songs as “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To,” “As Long As I Live,” “Let’s Get Lost,” and “Why Try To Change Me Now,” the team of Maci Miller and David O’Rourke create lightly swinging music that is a joy to hear. Round Midnight is available from www.macimusic.com.


Ted des Plantes’ Swe-Am Classic Jazz
Come On And Stomp!
(TdP Records)

Ted des Plantes has long been a major stride and 1920s jazz pianist. Back in the 1980s, he recorded several excellent albums of hot jazz for the Stomp Off label. Recently he came out with six CDs of vintage performances. Some of the performances were originally on Stomp Off or other lesser-known companies, while some others were never previously released.
Come on And Stomp! has the 13 selections from the 1986 Stomp Off album originally called Ted des Plantes’ Swedish-American Hot Jazz Collaboration plus three alternate takes and two unreleased version of “Come On And Stomp, Stomp, Stomp.”
The pianist jumped at the chance of recording with cornetist Bent Persson and clarinetist Tomas Ornberg (who doubles on soprano), both of whom were from Sweden but had international reputations in the classic jazz world. Persson had developed a style very closely based on Louis Armstrong’s in the 1920s (particularly from 1926-28), sounding as if he were playing new solos by Armstrong of that period. Ornberg played on a high level as did the Americans that des Plantes recruited for the project: Frank Powers on clarinet, alto and tenor, trombonist Jim Snyder, banjoist-guitarist Jack Meilahn, and drummer Hal Smith, plus on some cuts second trumpeter Roy Tate and either Mike Walbridge or Tom Cahall on tuba. A dozen performances feature the full band, four utilize the instrumentation of the Hot Five, and “Chicago Breakdown” and “I Ain’t Gonna Tell Nobody” showcase Persson in a trio with des Plantes and Smith.
All of the musicians were well versed in 1920s jazz and the results are spirited and filled with fresh creativity from the period. Among the many highlights are such numbers as “Don’t Forget To Mess Around,” “I’m Gonna Gitcha,” “Hot Tamale Man,” and “I Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” but every performance has its exciting moments.
Lovers of 1920s-style jazz and early Louis Armstrong should not only acquire Come On and Stomp but explore the other releases that Ted des Plantes has made available; more information can be found at www.soundcloud.com/teddesplantes.


Bobby Watson/Vincent Herring/Gary Bartz
Bird At 100
(Smoke Sessions)

The centennial of Charlie “Bird” Parker’s birth is being celebrated throughout 2020. Ranking as one of the most significant jazz artists of all time, and arguably its greatest saxophonist (although a strong case can be made for John Coltrane), Parker’s innovative brilliance changed jazz. Not only did the altoist have the ability to play solos full of rapid phrases that, if slowed down to half-speed, would reveal that each note fit perfectly, but his ability to improvise over chord changes with constant creativity helped found bebop. Bop has been the foundation of jazz ever since.
Bobby Watson, Vincent Herring and Gary Bartz each mastered the musical vocabulary of Charlie Parker before becoming major altoists themselves. Bird at 100 has the three saxophonists, who are joined by pianist David Kikoski, bassist Yasushi Nakamura, and drummer Carl Allen, in top form as they pay tribute to Bird.
The three great altoists stretch out on a trio of Parker’s compositions (“Klactoveedsedstene,” “The Hymn” and “Yardbird Suite”), each have their own ballad features, and also perform two originals based on Parker tunes plus Jackie McLean’s “Bird Lives.” Although it is tempting to debate over which of the saxophonists is the main star, the truth is that they battle to a three-way tie.
This often-fiery and always swinging live set is easily recommended and available from www.smokesessionsrecords.com. Bird Lives!


Stephane Wrembel
The Django Experiment V
(Water Is Life Records)

When the great jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt passed away in 1953, very few other guitarists in the world sounded like or were even much influenced by him. The jazz world was looking much more towards Charlie Christian for inspiration. But 30 years after his death and accelerating ever since, Django’s style, sound and repertoire have been the foundation of the Gypsy Jazz movement. Today there are scores of talented guitarists who have used his playing as the basis for their styles. Stephane Wrembel, who was originally from France but has been based in the U.S. in recent times, began recording in 2001. In 2017 he conceived of “The Django Experiment,” a group that can play just like one of Reinhardt’s bands but also sometimes stretches his music into surprising areas.
The Django Experiment V, the fifth CD from the band, features Wrembel playing with rhythm guitarist Thor Jensen, bassist Ari Folkman Cohen, drummer Nick Anderson, and Nick Driscoll on reeds. In addition, violinist Daisy Castro is a guest on many of the selections. Her presence often steers the group back in its style to the Quintet of the Hot Club of France (which featured violinist Stephane Grappelli) and results in a lesser role for Driscoll than on the previous recordings. Wrembel, a true virtuoso, has mastered the Django Reinhardt style as he shows on “Improvisation #1,” “Nymphets,” a swinging “Honeysuckle Rose,” and the waltz “La Manouche.” While Wrembel really tears into “Daphne,” building his solo up to a ferocious climax, and he stretches the music a bit on a lengthy version of “Caravan,” there are fewer departures from the Django approach than on the earlier CDs in this series. The renditions of “I’m Confessin’ That I Love You,” “Dinah,” and Reinhardt’s best-known original “Nuages” are somewhat conventional but quite enjoyable and filled with subtle creativity.
Django Reinhardt was only heard as an unaccompanied guitar soloist on very rare occasions in his career. He preferred to play with other musicians. When he was persuaded or coaxed into performing solo, he tended to play like a composer even when the entire piece was an improvisation. He made up sophisticated themes and played variations of the melodies, generally out-of-tempo and in a thoughtful manner.

Stephane Wrembel
Django L’Impressionniste
(Water Is Life Records)

Stephane Wrembel is the first guitarist to record his versions of all 27 of Django Reinhardt’s solo excursions. Django L’Impressionniste (which is available as a single CD or a double-Lp) finds him bringing back (mostly in chronological order) all of these mostly obscure works. Included are Reinhardt’s six “Improvisation” pieces (actually 11 since Wrembel also plays his versions of Django’s five alternate versions) plus “Parfum,” “Tea For Two,” “Naguine,” “Echoes Of Spain,” “Belleville,” and “Nuages.” While Wrembel often sounds similar to Django, comparisons of these versions with Reinhardt’s original recordings show that he has added a bit of his own “improvisations” to these numbers while holding on to the melodies and the introspective mood. Most extensive and adventurous are his versions of “Belleville” and “Nuages” although, throughout this intriguing project, he always sounds purposely similar to the masterful Django Reinhardt, really getting into the soul of his music.
Both of these fine sets are available from www.stephanewrembel.com.


New York All-Stars
Live Encounter
(Ubuntu Music)

In 2017, a group called the New York All-Stars made a fine record at the Pizza Express in London for the Ubuntu Music label. That group consisted of tenor-saxophonist Eric Alexander, pianist Harold Mabern, bassist Darryl Hall, and drummer Bernd Reiter. During Sept. 18-19, 2018, a new version of the band recorded Live Encounter.
This time around, Alexander and Reiter are joined by tenor-saxophonist Seamus Blake, Mike LeDonne on piano and organ, guitarist Erik Soderlind, and bassist Aldo Zunino. Alexander, Blake and LeDonne, who are listed as co-leaders, had never recorded or even rehearsed together before the three-night engagement. Live Encounter has much of the music from the final night.
Unfortunately the liner notes do not mention which tenor solos first. Alexander is slightly more traditional and sometimes influenced by John Coltrane while Blake occasionally flies outside, but the two tenors are quite complementary and their styles overlap. LeDonne, while fine on this set on piano, really excels on the organ. Soderlind contributes many stirring guitar solos while Zunino and Reiter groove in support of the lead voices.
The seven songs include two originals apiece by Alexander and LeDonne, a pair of standards, and Lionel Richie’s “Still.” The latter has a guest vocal by Ian Shaw and is turned into a soul jazz ballad. Among the highpoints are the raging blues “Incazzato,” the cooking organ romp “Second Impressions,” the 1930s swing tune “Heartaches,” and the closing “Eddie Harris.” The latter is a stretched-out funky blues that perfectly conjures up the late great tenor player.
The lively interplay between the two tenors and the consistently inspired contributions of LeDonne make Live Encounter a fun and stimulating listen. It is available from www.weareubuntumusic.com.


The Diva Jazz Orchestra
Diva + The Boys
(MCG Jazz)

Diva is not just the top female jazz big band of all time but one of the great jazz orchestras, period. They have been together under the leadership of drummer Sherrie Maricle for over 25 years and can always be relied upon to contribute hard-driving swing, strong and personal solos, and spirited ensembles.
Diva + The Boys differs from the big band’s previous recordings in that it has four male guests: clarinetist Ken Peplowski, trumpeter Claudio Roditi, trombonist Jay Ashby, and guitarist Marty Ashby (who produced the live set but does not solo). Other than on the final song, Diva is heard primarily in a supporting role although a few of its musicians get to solo next to the guests. The opener, Benny Goodman’s “Slipped Disc,” is modernized a bit and stars Peplowski and Janelle Reichman on clarinets. Jobim’s “A Felicidade” teams together Roditi and tenor-saxophonist Roxy Coss in a pleasing bossa nova. Jay Ashby’s “Deference To Diz” is based on the chords of “Confirmation” and has fine solos from the three guest horn players plus pianist Tomoko Ohno. Ashby’s warm trombone is featured on Ivan Lins’ “Noturna.”
A highpoint of this CD is Ken Peplowski’s hot clarinet playing on “The One I Love Belongs To Somebody Else.” “Piccolo Blues” features Roditi on piccolo trumpet along with Alexa Tarantino on soprano and trombonist Jennifer Krupa while Peplowski returns for “Estate.” The final number, the uptempo “Bucket O’ Blues” features short spots and tradeoffs for the saxophone section (Reichman and Coss on tenors, altoists Tarantino and Scheila Gonzales, and baritonist Leigh Pilzer) although pianist Ohno takes honors, as does the driving drumming of Maricle.
While Diva + The Boys would not be the first recording that I would recommend from Diva since the band is not fully showcased, it contains high-quality big band music and strong moments from the three guest horn soloists. It is available from www.mcgjazz.org.


Buddy Rich
Just In Time – The Final Recordings

Until now, the last official record by the Buddy Rich big band was 1985’s Live On King Street. However the phenomenal drummer toured with his big band during much of the next two years until his death. His later orchestra was only documented, until now, on a pair of bootleg CDs from the tiny Jazz Band label. One disc has their July 10, 1986 concert from Germany while the other has their Dec. 8, 1986 performance from Philadelphia.
Due to the existence of the latter set, the newly released Just In Time, which is from Nov. 19-20, 1986, is not actually Rich’s final recording, but it is the last authorized release. It captures the Buddy Rich Orchestra from their engagement at Ronnie Scott’s in London. The drummer, who had less than five months left to live, sounds exuberant and energetic throughout the set. In fact, the same can be said for his big band. All 14 songs on this disc are taken at least at a fast medium-tempo and some are quite a bit hotter; there are no ballads.
Performing high-powered arrangements by Matt Harris, Bill Holman, Bill Cunliffe, Sammy Nestico (“Wind Machine” which was originally played by Count Basie), Mike Barone, Keith Bishop, and Pete Myers (his classic chart of “Love For Sale”), the band is quite enthusiastic. Trumpeter Greg Gisbert, altoist Bob Bowlby, trombonist Tom Garling (whose rapid lines are quite outstanding), tenor-saxophonist Steve Marcus, and pianist Matt Harris are the main soloists and each one sounds inspired by the leader’s driving accompaniment. In addition, Buddy Rich’s daughter Cathy does a good job of singing “Twisted.”
As for Buddy Rich, he takes surprisingly few drum breaks, only creating a full-length solo on a medley of “Porgy And Bess” which, although not reaching the heights of his “West Side Story Medley,” has its outstanding moments. Otherwise, he is content to drive his band hard and enjoy his sidemen trying to keep up with him.
This fine release, which has been released at the same time as the definitive Buddy Rich biography One Of A Kind, is recommended and available from www.gearboxrecords.com.


AVA Trio
Digging The Sand
(Marocco Music)

The AVA Trio consists of baritone-saxophonist Giuseppe Doronzo, bassist Esat Ekincioglu, and drummer-percussionist Pino Basile. Formed in the Netherlands in 2015, the group has toured Europe and China, appeared at many European festivals, and made their recording debut with 2017’s Music From An Imaginary Land.
Digging The Sand has the group sometimes hinting strongly at the Jimmy Giuffre Trio of the late 1950s. Giuffre, who had cool tones on baritone, tenor and clarinet, utilized folk melodies as the basis of his often-gentle improvisations. While a bit more modern and drawing their folk heritage from the Netherlands and Europe, the AVA Trio recalls Giuffre in how they can play freely yet sound melodic and peaceful.
Digging The Sand, which is comprised of six originals by the baritonist and two from the bassist, explores a variety of moods, features close interplay between the three players (with Doronzo usually the lead voice), and is both subtle and colorful. The accessible yet explorative music is well worth hearing several times. Digging The Sand is available from www.maroccomusic.com.


Eric Lilley Trio
Joie de Vivre
(Twin Goat Music)

A fine pianist based in Colorado, Eric Lilley has developed his own sound within the modern mainstream of jazz. His harmonies are sophisticated, he generally does not sound like anyone else, and he swings soulfully even on his more complex originals.
While Lilley sometimes plays rock and funk on electric keyboards, Joie de Vivre is strictly an acoustic affair. The pianist teams up with bassist Mark Diamond and drummer Paul Romaine, both of whom he has known and worked with occasionally since the 1980s. Their familiarity with each other’s playing is obvious as they perform nine of the pianist’s songs.
The opener, “Twirler,” has a fairly whimsical but unpredictable melody that is part Thelonious Monk, part Chick Corea, and all Eric Lilley. “Tournesol” (French for sunflowers) is the first of several jazz waltzes on the program, featuring Lilley’s close interplay with bassist Diamond and a mysterious yet joyful feel. “Burnt Ribs” is a boppish swinger while “Zooey” is a lyrical and melodic ballad that starts out with unaccompanied solo piano before it becomes a sensitive vehicle for the trio.
“Poppy” is a tender jazz waltz which the pianist infuses with plenty of feeling. “Everybody Knows” could serve a tribute to Bill Evans for Lilley captures his chord voicings and musical closeness with the trio without directly copying him. Both the light swinger “Luck Of The Draw” and the minor-toned “Ronae” could become standards in the future if they are adopted by other musicians. Both are very likable hard bop pieces that inspire creative solos. Joie de Vivre concludes with the happy title cut which perfectly wraps up the enjoyable set.
Joie de Vivre, which is available from www.ericlilley.com, serves as a perfect introduction to Eric Lilley, a pianist and composer who deserves to be much better known.


Bob James & Kirk Whalum
Joined At The Hip

In 1996 keyboardist Bob James and tenor-saxophonist Kirk Whalum joined forces to record Joined At The Hip for the Warner Bros. label. James and Whalum had crossed paths on numerous occasions during the previous 12 years and, despite James’ seniority, they were co-leaders on this popular set. Both James and Whalum were (and still are) stars of what was called “contemporary jazz,” pop/jazz that puts the emphasis on long melody statements and soulful solos.
Prior to recording this set, James and Whalum toured with the quintet on this set which also includes guitarist Jeff Golub, bassist Chris Walker and drummer Billy Kilson, working out the material. Particularly notable in the eight songs is Whalum’s “Soweto” (celebrating the end of apartheid in South Africa) which has some of the tenor’s best playing, an infectious cover of “Midnight At The Oasis” with Hilary James and Whalum on vocals, and the warm closer “The Prayer.” On a few numbers, guitarist Hiram Bullock and percussionist Doc Gibbs are guests. While nothing all that “heavy” occurs, the music is melodic, grooving and pleasing. And unlike most so-called smooth jazz, the performances sound spontaneous, as if they were being played for the fun of it rather than being concerned about potential radio airplay.
For the Evosound reissue (available from www.evosound.com), the original eight songs have been remastered and they now sound better than ever. Recently the quintet (with guitarist Will Patrick in Golub’s place) had a reunion and toured Japan, playing the entire album during their concerts. There is little doubt that this accessible and timeless music will please their audiences.


Phyllis Chapell
4 Love
(Illumination Records)

Phyllis Chapell is known for her beautiful voice, her ability to sing in as many as 13 languages, and for performing folkish originals (which she calls “world songs”) with her jazz-oriented group SIORA. Veteran jazz disc jockey Bob Perkins admired her voice and suggested to her that she would sound even more wonderful if she recorded some standards. The four-song EP 4 Love proves him right.
Joined by members of Siora (pianist Dave Posmontier who plays organ on one number, either Dave Brodie or Rob Swanson on bass, and drummer Doug Hirlinger), Ms. Chapell uplifts and refreshes the four standards. “My Baby Just Cares For Me” balances swing and sensuality, “Lover Man” is given honest feeling, “I Thought About You” cooks, and “Nature Boy” is quite atmospheric. In addition to her interpretations of the lyrics, the singer displays the ability to improvise wordlessly (particularly excelling on “Nature Boy”), scat, and always hold one’s interest.
4 Love is a delight. Hopefully there will be more from this project for 21 minutes is only long enough to whet one’s appetite. 4 Love is available from www.phyllischapell.com.


Annie & The Hedonists
Bring It On Home

Annie and the Hedonists perform a fascinating mixture of styles. Headed by the excellent singer Annie Rosen and featuring guitarist Jonny Rosen, Peter Davis on clarinet, tenor guitar, piano, alto-sax and vocals, Donald Young on string bass, electric guitar, ukulele and vocals, and drummer Jerry Marotta, the band sounds equally at home playing 1920s classic blues and jazz, swing, 1930s blues, and Western swing as it does country, doo wop, early r&b and even early rock and roll.
Bring It On Home displays both the band’s versatility and their skill at a variety of vintage styles. Starting with a 1928 Tommy Johnson blues (“Big Road Blues”) that sounds here like it was recorded in the mid-1950s, and including 1929’s “Do Do Something” (on which Annie Rosen does a light impression of Helen Kane), an original lowdown blues “Bring It On Home To Mama” (featuring guest John Sebastian on harmonica), Porter Grainger’s witty 1924 “Prescription For The Blues” (one of two numbers on which cornetist Randy Reinhart and trombonist Dave Davies help out), a doo wopish “I Miss You So,” and even a credible “Under Paris Skies,” the result is a consistently successful set full of bright moments.
This would clearly be a great band to see live. Since they are based in New York, Bring It On Home gives listeners a strong sampling of what Annie & The Hedonists can do. It will have to suffice, at least until some enterprising booking agent brings the group out to the West Coast. Bring It On Home is easily recommended and available from www.annieandthehedonists.com.


Metropolitan Jazz Octet and Dee Alexander
It’s Too Hot For Words

The Metropolitan Jazz Octet was originally a band headed by tenor-saxophonist Tom Hilliard that recorded just one album, 1959’s The Legend Of Bix. In later years, Hilliard became an influential educator at DePaul University. When his health was failing around the turn of the last century, he gave the group’s charts to tenor-saxophonist and arranger Jim Gailloreto. After Hilliard’s death, Gailloreto formed a new version of the band, at first playing Hilliard’s arrangements. But the new unit, which made their debut recording with 2018’s The Road To Your Place, has evolved and now performs new arrangements of their own while keeping the original group’s concept.
It’s Too Hot For Words is a tribute to Billie Holiday performed by the revived Metropolitan Jazz Octet with the very skilled Chicago-based singer Dee Alexander and (on four of the ten numbers) six strings. Most of the charts are by Gailloreto (who wrote four of the arrangements), altoist John Kornegay, trumpeter Doug Scharf, and pianist Doug Sutter, with only one arrangement coming from outside of the group.
There is no attempt to recreate the past on this project. Alexander does not alter her naturally swinging style to imitate Lady Day and the arrangements are often much more modern than those heard on her recordings. Most of the songs are fairly joyful (a dramatic “Strange Fruit” with strings is an obvious exception as is a version of “I’m A Fool To Want You” that is full of longing) although the majority are taken at slower tempos. Nearly all of the repertoire was originally recorded by Holiday in the 1930s and ‘40s. Her spirit can be heard in these new recordings, along with the original emotional intent of the songs. While there are many short solos that are sprinkled throughout the set, the focus is mostly on the singer and the ensembles, and both come through in style.
One suspects that Lady Day and Tom Hilliard would have enjoyed this CD. It is easily recommended and available from www.delmark.com.


Potato Head Jazz Band
Stompin’ Around
(Big Bear Records)

The Potato Head Jazz Band, which plays hot jazz from the 1920s, is a sextet based in Spain that also includes musicians from Australia and Argentina. Formed in 2003 and a festival favorite in Europe, the group consists of trumpeter Alberto Martin, clarinetist Martin Torres, trombonist Valentin Garcia, Antonio Fernández on banjo and guitar, bassist Alejandro Tamayo, and drummer Luis Landa.
Most impressive about the performances on Stompin’ Around are the fresh frameworks (hinting at the original recordings while not copying them), the use of breaks, and the group’s obvious familiarity with the vintage styles. All of the musicians are strong soloists and the horn players display their own lively musical personalities. While Martin does an excellent job of emulating early Louis Armstrong on “Once In A While,” he sounds pretty original on the other selections.
Highlights include “Stevedore Stomp,” a Brazilian-flavored “Maple Leaf Rag,” “Once In A While,” “Smoke Rings,” and “Jubilee Stomp.” Even the group’s humorous rendition of “Shirt Tail Stomp” (which originally had Benny Goodman and his contemporaries making fun of the cornier bands of the time) has its charm.
Stompin’ Around, which is self-released but handled in the UK by the Big Bear label, is available from either www.potatoheadjazzband.com or bigbearmusic.com.