Not just an up-and-coming altoist but one of the finest around today, Sharel Cassity is also a talented composer as her Fearless set shows. Originally classically trained as a pianist and saxophonist, she plays and composes in jazz’s modern mainstream and has developed her own voice as an altoist in addition to occasionally playing soprano and tenor. She worked with the Diva Orchestra during 2007-14 and has performed with the Dizzy Gillespie Latin Experience, Nicholas Payton, Cyrus Chestnut, Jimmy Heath, Roy Hargrove, Lewis Nash, Darcy James Argue, Wynton Marsalis and many others. She is currently based in Chicago and Fearless is her fifth CD as a leader.
At the time that she recorded Fearless in 2019, Sharel Cassity was battling Post Lyme Disease which was considered incurable. Fearing that she might not be able to record again, she put everything she could into the recording; fortunately she has since beat the disease.
Joined by pianist Richard Johnson, bassist Alex Claffy, and drummer Mark Whitfield Jr, Cassity performs seven originals, Johnson’s “Last Minute,” and a modernized version of “The Very Thought Of You.” While she switches to soprano on two numbers (playing quite effectively on “Road To Dukhan”) and tenor on the hyper “Last Minute,” the focus is mostly on her alto playing and her interaction with her excellent quartet. She is particularly skilled at making the optimal use of space and never taking solos that outlast their welcome. Cassity’s sound is original and she consistently comes up with fresh ideas. A special bonus are her songs, several of which (particularly “Whimsy,” “North Street” and “Not A Samba”) one could imagine other jazz artists covering in the future.
Fearless features Sharel Cassity giving the music her all and swinging hard but with tasteful restraint. Her set is highly recommended and available from www.sharelcassity.com.
What’s The Hurry
(Lower 9th Records)
Singer Kenny Washington (no relation to the drummer of the same name) has been a San Francisco Bay area legend for quite some time. But with the exception of a few selections on a Storyville CD from 2015, What’s The Hurry is his first CD as a leader.
He was born and raised in New Orleans, studying music at Xavier University as both a saxophonist and a vocalist. For nine years Washington performed as a singer with Navy bands. He settled in the Bay area after his discharge, had a featured role in the theater production Fire at Keaton’s Bar & Grill, worked and recorded with vibraphonist Joe Locke in 2010, and made a few other recordings as a sideman, most notably with tenor-saxophonist Michael O’Neill, Marcus Shelby and Wayne Wallace. But even after all of this time, Kenny Washington is regularly “discovered” by audiences who were previously unfamiliar with his singing.
What’s The Hurry (?) could serve as the answer to the question “Why haven’t you recorded more?” Washington is heard at the peak of his powers, performing a variety of his favorite standards while joined by pianist Josh Nelson, bassist Gary Brown, drummer Lorca Carter, and several guests including guitarist Jeff Massanari on three numbers, trumpeter Mike Olmos (who has a colorful spot on “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But The Blues”), and Victor Goines (one song apiece on tenor and clarinet). The instrumentation changes throughout the set with “Sweet Georgia Brown” being a scat-filled duet with bassist Dan Feiszi, and three other numbers matching Washington with guitarist Massanari.
But even with the excellent instrumental support, the main star throughout the set is Kenny Washington whose warm voice shows versatility on soulful ballads, medium-tempo romps, and when scatting, highlighted by an outstanding version of “No More Blues.” While he could have picked some lesser-known standards, Washington consistently comes up with fresh interpretations and sounds relaxed and friendly throughout, making one wish that he had already recorded a dozen other albums as a leader in his career. What’s The Hurry (available from www.amazon.com) is one of the best vocal recordings of 2020.
Horace Tapscott (1934-99) was more than just a very original jazz pianist. He was the spiritual leader of a large group of up-and-coming African-American improvisers based in Los Angeles during the 1960s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. As with Sun Ra, he lived in a large home (called The Great House) along with many of his musicians so they were free to play music around the clock if they liked, learning from each other. His Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra was an inspiration for a few generations of young players, emphasizing original music inspired by Africa and American jazz. Tapscott’s band was not as radical as Sun Ra’s but its musicianship was sometimes superior to Ra’s and it had a similar mission.
Unfortunately the Arkestra did not record all that often but luckily some tapes have survived. Ancestral Echoes has four lengthy performances from Jan. 1976 that in its present form are decently recorded. Featured is an ensemble consisting of two pianists (Tapscott and Linda Hill), seven saxophonists, two flutists, one trumpeter, one trombonist, a French horn player, Red Callender on tuba, two bassists, two drummers, and congas.
The Arkestra starts off with “Ancestral Echoes” which has poetry read by Kamau Daáood and strong solos from Tapscott, trumpeter Steven Smith and soprano-saxophonist Jesse Sharps. “Sketches Of Drunken Mary,” one of the pianist’s better-known works, has a heated improvisation from altoist Michael Sessions. Guido Sinclair’s hard-driving “Jo Annette” (Charles Chandler’s tenor and Wendell C. Williams’ on French horn are the soloists) precedes Fuasi Abdul-Khaliq’s 27 1/2 minute “Eternal Egypt Suite.” The latter is quite stirring and includes spots for flutist Adele Sebastian, Tapscott, trumpeter Smith, and Khaliq on tenor.
Although this is a studio session, Ancestral Echoes gives one an idea what it was like to see Horace Tapscott’s Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra live in concert. Available from www.amazon.com, it still sounds modern and relevant today.
I Wish I Knew
One of the top singers on the jazz scene today, Susie Meissner (who is based in Philadelphia) certainly deserves to be much better known. She has a beautiful instrument, sometimes recalling Barbra Streisand at her warmest when she holds long notes on ballads although she is a lot hipper in her phrasing. She also swings at all tempos and clearly loves the music that she performs.
I Wish I Knew is a superior showcase for Susie Meissner’s singing talents. She is joined by pianist John Shaddy, guitarist Paul Meyers, bassist Lee Smith, and drummer Byron Landham on most of the selections with guest appearances by clarinetist Ken Peplowski, tenor-saxophonist Larry McKenna, and John Swana on trumpet and EVI. The set begins with a “Killer Joe” vamp on an infectiously swinging rendition of “The Great Cit.” During “I Wish I Knew” (which co-stars Peplowski), “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face” (featuring a mellow trumpet chorus by Swana) and “You Go To My Head” (during which Swana takes an atmospheric spot on his EVI), Ms. Meissner shows that she can confidently sing ballads at a pretty slow tempo without wavering or losing one’s interest.
Of the other highlights, a cooking “It Could Happen To You” features some delightful interplay between Peplowski and McKenna, “Alfie” has particularly heartfelt vocalizing, and “The Shadow Of Your Smile” is a quietly emotional duet by the singer with guitarist Meyers.
I Wish I Knew (which is available from www.susiemeissner.com) is filled with enjoyable moments and is easily recommended.
Rebecca Kilgore Trio
The wonderful swing singer Rebecca Kilgore and trombonist Dan Barrett have performed together many times in the past, often with guitarist-singer Eddie Erickson as the group B.E.D. Kilgore and Barrett have a reunion on their new CD, this time in a trio with pianist Paolo Alderighi who is best-known for his musical and marital partnership with fellow pianist Stephanie Trick.
The emphasis is on lesser-known tunes and, out of the 15 numbers, only Joe Bushkin’s “Oh, Look at Me Now,” “Three Coins In The Fountain” (performed as a piano solo), “Cry Me A River,” and “Soft Winds” would be considered standards that are occasionally played these days.
Ms. Kilgore’s singing is as delightful as always, uplifting each song. There are also five instrumentals (four trombone-piano duets plus Alderighi’s feature) and, on “Mis’ry And The Blues,” Barrett switches to piano so there are two pianists accompanying the singer. It is enjoyable hearing such obscurities as “Daddy Won’t You Please Come Home” (made famous by Annette Hanshaw), “Lucky Day,” Fletcher Henderson’s “I’m Rhythm Crazy Now,” “I’m In A Lowdown Groove,” and Duke Ellington’s “Serenade To Sweden” getting welcome revivals.
All of the three artists are heard throughout this set in top form. The intimate program, while being mostly laidback, has a surprising amount of variety in tempos and moods. Just Imagine (available from www.blueswing.com) is recommended to anyone who enjoys small group swing.
Brian Swartz Quartet
To Be With You
Brian Swartz is best-known as a cool-toned and fluent trumpeter. To Be With You also displays two other sides of the talented musician, revealing him to be a personable singer and a fine songwriter too.
To Be With You teams Swartz with guitarist Steve Cotter, bassist Chris Colangelo, and drummer Kendall Kay with a guest appearance by keyboardist John Beasley and two apiece from tenor-saxophonist Keith Fiddmont (a major asset on the instrumental “Molly and Vern”) and organist Scott Healy. The musicians perform six of the trumpeter’s straight ahead originals (the title cut is played twice) plus seven standards with Swartz singing on most of the selections. Of the newer songs, “To Be With You,” “Old Friends,” and “Who’s Bob” are most memorable.
While his singing is pleasing, effective and occasionally witty (most notably on an over-the-top section of “You Don’t Know What Love Is”), Brian Swartz fortunately does not neglect his trumpet and flugelhorn playing. In fact, the way that he usually takes a short vocal and then immediately plays his horn is a little reminiscent of Chet Baker.
This is a fun CD that is recommended and available from www.brianswartz.com.
Jose Rizo is famous in Los Angeles as the host of the long-running Jazz On The Latin Side (30 years and counting) on KKJZ-FM. He is also a notable bandleader and songwriter who in 2000 put together the Jazz On The Latin Side All-Stars. While that group has recorded four albums, Mongorama, which he founded in 2009, has now recorded three.
Mongorama is inspired by the great Mongo Santamaria’s early 1960s band. On Mariposas Cantan, Rizo features flutist-musical director Danilo Lozano, tenor-saxophonist Justo Almario, violinist Dayren Santamaria, pianist Joe Rotondi, bassist Ross Schodek, Joey De Leon on congas, Alfredo Ortiz on bongo, guiro and chekere, singer James Zavaleta, a few guests (most notably trombonist Francisco Torres who wrote nine arrangements and co-write five songs with Rizo), and the late timbale master Ramon Banda who was making his final recordings. Banda’s spot is taken by George Ortiz on half of the set.
The CD is dedicated to Banda who took his last recorded solo on “Mongorama” and is celebrated on the exuberant “Descarga Ramon Banda.” Other highlights include the fluent violinist Santamaria’s playing on “Mambo Mindoro,” the stirring work by the percussionist on “Helen Of Jazz” (for the late disc jockey Helen Borgers), the warm melody of “A Little Dab’ll Do Ya,” a playful version of Mongo Santamaria’s “Quindimbia,” and the strong tenor solo of Almario on “Watermelon Man.”
This is a fun set of danceable Afro-Cuban jazz, arguably the finest recording so far by Mongorama. It is available from www.saungu.com.
One of the great trumpeters to emerge during the 1960s and ‘70s, Charles Tolliver always had a fat and accessible tone, the ability to shift gracefully between hard bop and freer sounds, and an exciting solo style. He was well featured on a series of classic recordings made for Strata-East, a label that he co-founded with pianist Stanley Cowell. But after the 1970s, his appearances on record were much less frequent. There were a few dates as both a leader and a sideman during 1988-91, nothing until the 2005-08 period, and then silence on records until the recent Connect.
Fortunately Tolliver, who was 77 at the time of this 2019 recording, is still in prime playing form. His tone is intact and he shows impressive energy during four of his originals. Teamed with veterans (bassist Buster Williams and drummer Lenny White) and younger players (altoist Jesse Davis, pianist Keith Brown, and guest tenor Binker Golding), Tolliver sounds both comfortable and explorative during his four inventive pieces. “Blue Soul” features a rhythm a bit reminiscent of American movie westerns, “Emperor March” has stop and start phrasing, “Copasetic” swings in a modern fashion, and drummer White is quite assertive throughout the stirring “Suspicion.”
There are many fine solos from Davis and Brown, Golding fits in well during his two appearances, and Tolliver sounds ageless. Connect (available from www.gearboxrecords.com) is the trumpeter’s welcome return to records and is well worth picking up.
Cecil Taylor and Tony Oxley
(Fundacja Sluchaj Records)
Cecil Taylor (1929-2018) was the most adventurous of all jazz musicians, playing high-energy improvisations that were atonal, full of density, and as powerful as a thunderstorm. He took jazz far beyond its former reliance on chords and riffs into a much more mysterious and unpredictable area of music. Taylor certainly showed a great deal of courage in his early years from the mid-fifties on when he broke all boundaries and paved the way towards avant-garde and free jazz.
Taylor never mellowed with age (there were no late period albums of standards) but his playing became a bit gentler in his older years. Taylor recorded relatively little after 2002; just two duet albums with drummer Tony Oxley in 2008 and this one from Nov. 18, 2011. Birdland/Neuburg 2011 is his last full-length recording to be released thus far although he took a final recorded solo at Ornette Coleman’s funeral in 2015.
Taylor and Oxley first recorded together in 1988 and made many recordings during the next two years and again in 2002. Oxley’s drumming with Taylor was intuitive. He left plenty of space, was never predictable, and was never content to just keep time or engage in displays of his technique, Oxley functioned more as a free-form percussionist, adding color and power to the pianist’s music.
Birdland/Neuburg 2011 consists of a 40-minute improvisation (the first ten minutes are surprisingly mellow for Taylor) and then another 15 minutes of playing. Due to the often-quiet interplay and the laidback quality of much of the music, this set can serve as a fairly accessible entry into Cecil Taylor’s music in addition to being his final major statement. It is available from www.fsrecords.net.
Running In The Background
Bruce Gertz, who has been the Professor of Bass at Berklee since 1976, has a resume that any musician would envy including associations with such masters as Gary Burton, Jerry Bergonzi, Joe Lovano, George Garzone, John Abercrombie, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Mike Stern, Larry Coryell, and even Count Basie and Cab Calloway. He has led over 20 albums in his career thus far and, in addition to his virtuosic bass playing, is a very skilled composer.
Running In The Background features nine of Gertz’s pieces performed by an all-star quintet that also includes tenor-saxophonist Walter Smith III, guitarist Vic Juris, pianist-keyboardist Lawrence Fields, and drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith. Recorded on May 25-26, 2019 and now being released, this is one of the last recordings of Juris who passed away seven months later and has been missed ever since.
Bruce Gertz’s compositions utilize original chord changes and modern harmonies that inspire inventive solos and alert interplay. The superior musicians are certainly up to the challenge and the recorded results grow in interest with each listen. In fact, one could spend a rewarding hour just concentrating on the playing and interplay of Gertz and Smitty Smith behind the lead voices.
The program begins with the sophisticated melody of the title cut and the expressive playing of Walter Smith III. The energetic “Rhythm Of Gravity” hints a little at Chick Corea, has strong forward momentum, and includes fiery piano, guitar and tenor solos. “Cyber Hypnosis” has a slightly whimsical melody along with serious solos and a haunting bassline at its conclusion.
“Big Bite” gives listeners a strong sampling of New Orleans parade rhythms and dancing bass playing even while the other musicians take modern improvisations over the groove. The momentum and close interplay do not slow down on the warm ballad “Debra.” “Too Much Work” gives the musicians an opportunity to stretch out on a bluesy “Work Song”-like strut. The laidback jazz waltz “Song For Crumbles” (which has a particularly lyrical guitar solo), a tribute to Elvin Jones (“Elvin”), and the relatively somber “Sam’s Pillow” conclude the stimulating set.
Running In The Background is one of Bruce Gertz’s finest recordings. It is available from www.brucegertz.net.
There have been many tributes to Django Reinhardt’s guitar playing, gypsy swing style, and compositions through the years. Rez Abbasi’s Django-Shift is the one of the most unusual. At times it almost asks the question, “What would it sound like if Tony Williams’ Lifetime had recorded an album of Django’s tunes?”
Guitarist Abbasi, who has always been an adventurous player with his own sound, teams up with organist Neil Alexander and drummer Michael Sarin for an exploration of seven Reinhardt songs plus two standards (“Anniversary Song” and “September Song”) that Django recorded in the 1940s. The treatments are much closer to fusion than to swing and are certainly in a different area than the usual “Gypsy Jazz” recording.
Abbasi keeps the melodies intact but changes the rhythms, chord changes, harmonies and overall sound. Emphasizing the trio’s ensemble over individual solos, Abbasi, Alexander and Sarin create modern mood music that sometimes sounds as if they are thinking aloud, even during the more passionate moments. Certainly these versions of “Swing 42,” “Django’s Castle,” “Douce Ambiance,” and “Hungaria” sound unlike any previous recording.
This is thought-provoking music, worthy of several listens for those with open ears. Django-Shift is available from www.whirlwindrecordings.com.
A Woman’s Story
To say that Paulette McWilliams has had a busy and productive career is an obvious understatement. As both a lead and a background singer she has worked with the likes of Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross (for 20 years), Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Bette Midler, Dolly Parton, Diana Ross, David Bowie, Whitney Houston, Patty LaBelle, and Johnny Mathis among many others. In addition, her voice has been heard on many notable commercials.
With all of that experience, one could be excused for expecting Ms. McWilliams’ new CD to be strictly a set of r&b, particularly when it is mentioned that along the way she pays tribute to Luther Vandross, Donny Hathaway and Marvin Gaye. However she is actually a versatile soul and jazz singer who can sing quite well in any genre as this diverse set demonstrates.
Paulette McWilliams is joined by a fine jazz rhythm section (pianist Hugo Suarez, bassist Trevor Ware, drummer Terreon Gully, and percussionist David Castaneda), and occasional contributions are made by harmonica wizard Grégoire Maret, trumpeter Curtis Taylor, altoist Alex Budman, and tenor-saxophonist Keith Fiddmont.
Marvin Gaye’s “Just To Keep You Satisfied” begins the set with her warm singing, a catchy groove, and a fine trumpet solo. She stretches herself a bit on the sophisticated ballad “If You Give Them More, and does a fine job of interpreting the philosophical lyrics of Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen,” assisted by Maret’s harmonica playing. McWilliams shares honors with trumpeter Taylor on Donna Hathaway’s “Chasing The Sun” and sounds quite at home during the infectious r&b tune “Never Letting Go” which has her supported by three background singers.
The music becomes more jazz-oriented starting with Luther Vandross’ “So Amazing,” a warm ballad that one could imagine Sarah Vaughan singing in a similar fashion. Kenny Rankin’s “In The Name Of Love” is a jazz waltz that has very expressive vocalizing that is followed by a wild trumpet solo and McWilliams floating over the closing vamp. Her wordless singing near the end of “Ruby” is fetching and, on “Life Is The Fountain,” a nice jazz tune that she co-wrote with trumpeter Tom Harrell, her light vocal perfectly fits the song’s mood. This excellent outing concludes with the singer’s interpretations of two soulful ballads (“Let’s Go Out Tonight” and her original “Where’s Home” which really displays the beauty of her voice), and a slow and sensitive version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.”
A Woman’s Story is arguably Paulette McWilliams’ most rewarding recording, and it makes the case for her being one of the finest singers around today, no matter the genre. It is available from www.blujazz.com.
The Best Of Kenny Wright Experience
Bass guitarist Kenny Wright has headed six CDs since the late 1980s and is the leader of the Kenny Wright Experience, a group that is quite popular in the Mid-Atlantic region. His band is expert at setting up attractive grooves over which they play colorful and melodic solos.
Kenny Wright’s latest CD is a sampling of what his group offers. The personnel differs throughout the set but usually features Wright on bass and occasionally guitar, keyboardist Charles Etzel, and drummer Kenny Moe as the core personnel. The opener, “Kymberlies Promise,” has Hassan Sabre’s soprano in the lead and sets the pattern for what is to follow. “On The Money” is a nice relaxed showcase for the rhythm section while “Ellerbe” is a bit funky. “Five Or Six,” which is partly in 5/4 time, features pianist Elliot Levine and the passionate playing of Jacob Yoffee on soprano.
“Spirit Never Dies,” which is also in 5/4, has trumpeter Wendall Shepherd adding depth to the ensembles. “Keep Looking Up” is a change of pace, featuring some spoken word and singing by the leader and Satu. “1964” is a particularly infectious bit of groove music with David Smith joining on soprano. Smith switches to tenor on the catchy “D Poo” while the set concludes with “A Quiet Fire” which has Kelly Sheppard’s soprano being propelled by the leader’s bass.
Kenny Wright, who wrote all of the material, has succeeded at creating music that is accessible and danceable yet containing enough variety and unpredictability to make it stand out from the crowd. This CD is available from www.kennywrightexperience.com.
Marvin Stamm/Mike Holober Quartet
Live @ Maureen’s Jazz Cellar
(Big Miles Music)
A top-notch trumpeter for over 60 years, Marvin Stamm was part of the big bands of Stan Kenton, Woody Herman and Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, spent time as a member of the Benny Goodman Sextet and, as a studio musician for decades, appeared on a countless number of recordings. Along the way, he led at least eight albums of his own prior to the new one.
Recorded live on Dec. 20, 2019, Stamm and pianist Mike Holober are joined by bassist Mike McGuirk and drummer Dennis Mackrel. They stretch out on seven songs with only one being briefer than seven minutes (just barely) and five exceeding ten minutes. Stamm plays quite well on the five standards (which include an obscurity by Horace Silver, “Out Of The Night Came You”) and two Holober originals. The pianist is in excellent form and the extra time during these performances results in McGuirk also getting a generous amount of solo space.
The music is modern, straight ahead, mostly taken at relaxed tempos, and thoughtful. The hottest number is the closer, Bill Evans’ “Funkallero.” Other highlights include a jazz waltz version of “All The Things You Are” (which makes it sound like a completely new piece) and Horace Silver’s “Peace.”
This excellent outing is available from www.marvinstamm.com.
Steele In Love
While many jazz singers are capable of turning a standard inside-out with abstract improvising, sometimes it is just fun to hear a vocalist taking it straight, sticking close to the melody and the lyrics while swinging gently. For that, veteran singer Ken Steele perfectly fits the bill.
A professional singer in Winnipeg, Canada as far back as the 1940s, he sang regularly in Toronto for decades before moving to Los Angeles where he wrote for television sitcoms and radio. In 2002, Steele moved to Palm Springs and began singing again. Now 90, on Steele In Love he shows that he still has a good voice, a quietly expressive style, and impeccable taste in picking out songs to perform.
Ken Steele is joined by guitarist Peter Curtis (who takes many fine solos) and the supportive bassist Baba Elefante for 11 well known standards, Cy Coleman’s lesser-known “Firefly,” and his own “You’re Not There.” While most of the songs are taken at ballad tempos, a few cook at a medium-tempo pace including “A Beautiful Friendship” and “Them There Eyes.” Other selections include such excellent tunes as “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me,” “Let’s Get Lost” and “It Could Happen To You,” each of which benefit from Steele’s affectionate interpretations.
This enjoyable set is available from www.petercurtismusic.com.