By Dee Dee McNeil
November 1, 2023
I first met Les McCann in 1971, at the historic Maverick’s Flat, a non-alcoholic nightclub on Crenshaw Blvd. Today, that building has been designated a historic Los Angeles treasure. Owned and run by John Daniels, it was a dance club and a hang-out for the who’s who of Black Hollywood, both actors and musicians. I was working there as a member of the early rap group The Watts Prophets. I was playing electric piano, as a singer/songwriter, adding my original songs and reciting poetry with the group. I was their female member, and we were the opening act for Les McCann and Roberta Flack, two artists who I greatly admired. I remember feeling so honored to be in that position.
Les McCann knows how to put the blues into everything he plays and has a natural ability to pump funk, gospel, and energy into his music that both entertains and inspires his audiences. That’s why I was so excited to receive this newly released Les McCann album on the Resonance record label titled “Never a Dull Moment!” It’s a three-disc CD, with the first disc featuring my old friend Stan Gilbert (R.I.P.) on bass, recorded in January of 1966, and the dynamic percussionist, Paul Humphrey on drums.
“When my manager, Alan Abrahams, told me that there were some recently uncovered recordings from the 60s that have never been released before, I was really curious if they were any good. People were always sending me cassettes that they have come across over the years and the sound was usually shit. When I was informed that these live recordings were from the Penthouse in Seattle (a cool venue) and also from the Village Vanguard in New York (another really cool venue), I held my breath. Then I heard them, and I said, damn!” said Les McCann.
Pianist, singer, composer and bandleader, Les McCann was born September 23, 1935, in Lexington, Kentucky. His dad loved jazz and his mother was said to hum opera songs around their house. As a youth, McCann played tuba and drums, performing in his school marching band. He picked up piano with an uncanny, natural ability to play the eighty-eight keys. It seemed to come natural to him. Les, along with his siblings, attended church regularly. You can clearly hear the gospel influence in his playing. He had the ability to merge gospel, soul, funk, and world rhythms into his arrangements. He played both upright, grand and electric piano, clavinet, synthesizer and was one of the first to add electric instruments to his concerts, before electronic jazz was popular. I would say, Les McCann helped to make electronic jazz popular.
In the late 1960s, McCann merged talents with Eddie Harris and produced a hugely successful album called, “Swiss Movement” which emphasized McCann’s wonderful vocal abilities. That album contained a song that Roberta Flack would later record called, “Compared to What.” It became a chart-topping hit record on Billboard’s Pop chart for McCann’s discovery, Miss Roberta Flack. However, the first time it was recorded was ‘live’ at the Montreux Jazz Festival. L.A.’s own Donald Dean was on drums and laying that groove down, while Les McCann was riding the piano bench like it was a bucking bronco.
Les McCann 1980 photo
This recently released Resonance Records album has Les on grand piano, reminding me of his early days when he recorded for Pacific Jazz Records, when he was working with Ron Jefferson (lovingly referred to as ‘Vous Ete’ by the jazz musicians in Los Angeles) on drums, and Herbie Lewis on bass.
Les McCann, Herbie Lewis & Vous Ete (Ron Jefferson)
Recorded ‘live’ at the Penthouse in Seattle, his recent release opens with a Dizzy Gillespie composition, “Blues ‘n’ Boogie” that sets the mood for the Les McCann genius, style, and piano technique to introduce himself to the concert-goers. McCann has a formidable style. Once you hear Les McCann, you will never forget him. The second song on this exciting release is “Could Be,” a Les composition, originally recorded with Gerald Wilson’s Orchestra. The third cut is a Monty Alexander tune called, “The Grabber.” It swings hard at an up-tempo pace with lots of staccato notes dancing beneath Les McCann’s fingers. Some years back, it was Les McCann who brought Monty Alexander from Kingston, Jamaica to the United States, introducing him to the world on an LP titled, “Les McCann Introduces Alexander the Great.” Humphrey shines like a meteor shower during his drum solo. The next piece is a song he calls “Yours is My Heart Alone.” It’s a beautiful ballad, where his left hand trembles against the mid-register, as his right hand tenderly plays the melody. I am stunned when he reaches inside the grand piano to caress the strings, strumming them as he pulls surprising music out while using this technique. It’s as though he’s playing a harp.
Another ballad that I loved by Les McCann was “With These Hands.” It is a touching and lovely ballad that he sang, years ago, with so much emotion it brought tears to my eyes.
“The Shampoo” was one of Les McCann big hit records back-in-the-day and it still sounds like a hit, incorporating a drum lick that comes close to being a tambourine player. This song takes you to church and to the juke joint, all in the matter of five and a half minutes. Stan Gilbert steps into the spotlight briefly to show off his double bass skills. I used to work often with Gilbert in my trio, and he always knew how to padlock the groove into place. Between him and the groove master himself, Les McCann, this tune will make you want to walk the room and wave a white hanky.
The Baptist church continues to inspire McCann’s arrangements, holding hands with the blues on “Wait for it,” another McCann original. They close with Steve Allen’s standard tune, “This Could Be the Start of Something Big.” It’s arranged at a thrilling pace, with Humphrey’s drumsticks sounding like machine guns firing rounds. This is just the first of three discs in this wonderful package of music.
It was the 1950s when Les McCann arrived in California and settled here. He immediately started making the rounds of jazz clubs and coffee houses. In the 1960s, an era was issued in that was called the Hippie movement. Les explained:
“I met Gene McDaniels here in Hollywood. He wrote Compared to What. Los Angeles had a lot of service men, and farm boys. I don’t know how many black farm boys you know, but they were around back then.” McCann told this story on a radio interview in 2011 with Dave Lawrence.
“I’d go to my coffee house keys to play the piano by myself. Hollywood had coffee houses everywhere and I worked at all of them. I’d go to college, get out and go play at the coffee houses. I was known as the king of the coffee houses back then. I met Gene and he told me he was a songwriter and every time he wrote a song he’d call me up and play it for me. I loved “Compared to What” when I heard it. He played guitar over the phone and sang me the lyrics.
“Eddie Harris and I flew to be on the Montreux Jazz Fest. The idea came to me how to arrange that song right there when we walked out on that stage. We wound up recording it because Eddie and I were on the same Atlantic Record Label. Joel Dorn, the producer, suggested we record together. We hadn’t ever rehearsed it. I played it, the band fell in, and it was a golden blessing,” Les McCann recalled how that hit song became a classic recording.
Disc 2 of this triple disc set starts out with the same infectious soul/jazz groove that made “Compared to What” so hypnotic. Les McCann just has his way with the piano. They open Disc 2 with a song called “Out in the Outhouse.” It will remind the listeners of how funky this artist can be. The ‘live’ audience responds with much applause. His ensemble put a new spin on “Night in Tunisia” and as always, Les McCann puts his own mark of excellence on the arrangement.
Inclusive of this triple disc album release are recordings with Tony Bazley on drums and Victor Gaskin on bass. Also, they recorded McCann’s live show in New York, at the Village Vanguard in 1967. There is also music played with the great Leroy Vinnegar on bass. I used to see Leroy playing and hanging out at the Al Williams jazz club in Long Beach. Leroy was an amazing talent. McCann also adds the drums of Frank Severino.
In 1995, Les McCann suffered a stroke on stage in Germany that incapacitated him from playing piano the way you will hear him on these awesome, ‘live’ recordings. However, he rehabilitated and I saw him performing ‘live’ at a Merle Kreibich hotel concert about six or seven years ago.
The University of Kentucky honored Les McCann in 2015, awarding him an honorary doctorate for his extraordinary body of musical work that he has gifted to the world. This album is a wonderful addition to any record collection, and you will enjoy hearing some of the best of Les McCann, when he was absolutely in his prime.
On the Jake Feinberg Show in May of 2022, Les McCann summed up his life and music mission saying this:
“Nothing is more important than my music…. In Kentucky, I was inspired by Nat King Cole, Louie Jordan, and Stan Kenton on the radio. It was a show broadcasted from Galveston, Tennessee, called Randy’s Record Shop. Years later I met Randy when he moved out to California. … That’s where I first heard Mile Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, they were playing everything, all the good stuff.
“I have 135 CDs out. When I walk into the studio, I tell them I want an engineer who does not know the words, I can’t do that. When I walk into the studio, turn the tape on instantly. Record everything you hear. … I am here to be on this planet to be me. The great Reggie Workman said, playing jazz is a matter of life and death. Every moment of my wide-awake hours is about the music.”
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By Dee Dee McNeil
September 1, 2023
Paul Solomon is the owner of Sam First, an intimate jazz club that sponsors nightly jazz, including world-class modern, eclectic, and Straight-ahead jazz players, located quite near the Los Angeles Airport. (LAX). Since opening in 2017, this intimate setting has grown in popularity and employed a number of L.A.’s finest jazz musicians.
“The jazz scene in Los Angeles overall is so strong, it just seems right to record it for posterity,” Solomon said.
Enlisting the expertise of some of the top audio engineers in Southern California, Sam First artistic director (David Robaire) outfitted the club with state-of-the-art analog to digital recording gear. Then the club began documenting the amazing jazz acts that Sam First featured in their mostly acoustic line-up. Thus, was born, Sam First Records.
To date, Sam First Records is featuring vinyl albums by pianists Justin Kauffin and Josh Nelson. They recently released an album featuring legendary drummer, Joe La Barbera. Another project features pianist Rachel Eckroth’s “Humanoid” that is scheduled for release in October. On August 25th, Eckroth celebrated her birthday with the Digital release of “Humanoid.”
“This record is a departure. It’s back to jazz, back to acoustic. And so, it’s more human…. just piano. And for the most part, acoustic instruments,” Rachel explained.
This is Rachel Eckroth’s first “live” recording, and she is joined by a group of like-minded musicians including bassist, Billy Mohler, drummer Tina Raymond and guitarist Andrew Renfroe. They are all on-the-spot improvisers and as Eckroth says, “willing to be very open … to try new things on the fly and make it sound good at the same time.”
The mysterious sounding, whimsical, title track was written specifically for this album, and highlights her strong chemistry with Renfroe, her guitarist. Eckroth said:
“I started off as a pianist, and I just put out a solo piano record. I’m in this world right now. I studied piano for a long time before I really got into keyboards and writing songs, and all the other stuff that happened in the last 15 years. I think this project is just a way to simplify my life a little bit, simplify the projects that I’m doing and the way I’m thinking about music, and maybe going a little slower.”
This album will also showcase her composer strengths. In 2021, she released her Grammy-nominated, synth-forward album called “The Garden” on Rainy Day Records and earlier this year she recorded a completely solo piano album that features her skills and style as a pianist and improvisor.
Rachel has been playing piano since age five and she says, “In a way, I’m going back to my roots, while taking everything that I’ve learned along the way and putting it into this album. Now it’s this new thing. I think this album reflects some of the best straight-ahead playing I’ve done.”
Another artist in the Sam First Records catalogue is Justin Kauflin and his trio. Justin is both a Quincy Jones artist and a Yamaha representative. During a time of creative awakening, while Justin was a student at William Paterson University in New Jersey, Justin had the good fortune of studying piano with Mulgrew Miller and Harold Mabern. He also was taken under the fatherly wings of legendary trumpeter, Clark Terry, who subsequently asked Justin to join his band. It was Clark Terry who introduced young Kauflin to another early student of his, none other than Quincy Jones.
Q quickly signed Justin to his Quincy Jones Agency and management company. On this new album, launched on August 4, 2023, Justin Kauflin’s “Live at Sam First” features David Robaire on bass and drummer, Mark Ferber.
On the same day, the newly formed record label released Kauflin’s piano trio album, they also released another familiar name around the Southern California area, pianist/arranger and composer, Josh Nelson. Josh has recorded with several amazing musicians over his impressive career including Natalie Cole, Benny Golson, John Clayton, and Kurt Elling to list just a few. He is an in-demand accompanist who singers love as much as instrumentalists do. Josh Nelson has recorded a wide variety of music, including seven critically acclaimed records as a bandleader. This latest venture titled, “LA Stories: Live at Sam First” is on the new record label and Sam First Records offers this album as a disc and a licorice pizza; which is what I call an old-fashioned 33-1/3 rpm record. You will hear Walter Smith the third on tenor saxophone, Larry Koonse on guitar, Dan Schnelle on drums, Luca Alemanno on bass and Gaby Moreno, a special guest on vocals.
Also added to the Sam First Record catalogue is the Joe La Barbera Quintet. His project is called “World Travelers” and features the extraordinary talents of a drummer who has played with the crème de la crème of jazz musicians. La Barbera is possibly best known for his records and live performances with the great Bill Evans. This was in the legendary pianist’s final performances of his stellar career. Joe La Barbera has also been the drummer of choice for Woody Herman’s band, Tony Bennett, Chuck Mangione and Joe Farrell. Of course, he has played with a number of local groups and musicians in Southern California as a popular on-call sideman. On this Sam First Record release, bandleader, La Barbera, features Bob Sheppard on tenor saxophone, Clay Jenkins playing trumpet, Bill Cunliffe on the piano and bassist Jonathan Richards.
In November, Sam First Records will release the Jeff Babko, Tim Lefebre, Mark Guilliana trio as an album called “Clam City.” These are three good friends who got together one night at the Sam First club to make good music and walked away with a terrific album.
If you are looking for a memorable nightclub, where you can hangout and hear ‘live’ jazz, consider heading for the LAX based cocktail bar called Sam First and have an amazing musical experience at one of the top jazz spots in Los Angeles. They are located right in front of the Marriott Courtyard and West of the Hilton Homewood Suites at 6171 W. Century Blvd #180, Los Angeles, CA 90045. Tell them Dee Dee at LA Jazz Scene sent you.
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By Dee Dee McNeil
August 1, 2023
He was born in Chicago on March 14, 1933, and this year, Quincy Jones turned 90-years-old. The Hollywood Bowl, in coordination with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, honored the many achievements of Quincy Jones in the music industry last Friday and Saturday nights. Quincy Delight Jones Jr. has made his mark on the music industry like a meteor hitting earth. During a career that spans seventy-years, his innovative musical escapades have won Quincy 80 Grammy Award nominations. He has taken home 28 Grammy Awards and in 1992 the music community and the Grammy Foundation honored him with a Grammy Legend Award.
The Jones achievements stretch like a golden thread, needling through the lives and musical accomplishments of legendary entertainers. He either created or collaborated with some of the most iconic acts in American history. To name a few, his life-long friend, Ray Charles, the unforgettable crooner, Frank Sinatra, Queen of the Blues, Dinah Washington, R&B powerhouse, Chaka Khan, Lesley Gore of “It’s My Party” fame, and R&B/pop legend, Michael Jackson.
Whoever could have thought that small, innocent boy, running down to the river to catch rats and bring them home for his grandmother to fry for dinner, would become a multi-millionaire and change the history and the face of modern-day music?
I first met the amazing Mr. Jones at A&M Records, when bass icon, Ray Brown was his manager, and I was hired as the first African American female publicist for a major record company in Hollywood. It was 1973, and Quincy Jones was working with unknown, but exceptionally gifted talented writers, like Bernard Ighner (of Everything Must Change fame) and Leon Ware (a fellow Detroiter) who wrote hit after hit for Marvin Gaye and others. Both of those fantastic writers would appear on Quincy’s huge hit crossover album titled “Body Heat.”
I was asked to publicize and support that production and I knew, as soon as I heard it, that Quincy Jones had stepped into a new beginning of his music career. That particular album would move him from an easy listening artist into a Gold Record, crossover producer position, and spotlight him as a national treasure. It also spotlighted fresh talent. Quincy has always had an ear and an eye for exceptionally gifted musicians and entertainers. He’s the one who insisted Oprah Winfrey play the part of Sofia in the Color Purple film. It was Quincy who got Will Smith that starring role in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. But back to music, I was proud to help publicize that ‘Body Heat’ album and bring it from a limited adult and an easy listening marketing plan, into the African American community and the larger worldwide pop market.
In his autobiography, Quincy mentions me as the person who turned him on to ‘Rap.’ That was long before hip hop had developed into a national treasure and during the time when I was a member of the Watts Prophets group. Our poetry and music, along with the East Coast sensations, The Last Poets, introduced a new form of activism mixed with music, truth, and innovation. We called what we were doing ‘rapping’ and it would lay the groundwork for Hip Hop. Quincy was open to new ideas and young people. He has always stayed one step ahead, because he’s never been afraid of change or trying something new.
On July 29, me, and my friend (the ‘Sparkle’ actress) Dwan Smith, were thrilled to be part of thousands who attended Quincy’s birthday celebration at the Hollywood Bowl. That venue has a capacity seating of 17,376 people, and the place was packed. Celebrated by the diversity of several exceptional entertainers who performed, we got a taste of Quincy’s magnificent ability to excel in composing, in jazz, R&B, Hip Hop, film soundtracks and big bands, lush orchestras and pop music. Quincy can write it, arrange it, produce it and make it sell like ice cream on a hot, 105-degree, Los Angeles day.
The show opened with Patti Austin (Quincy’s famous God daughter and a fantastic singer) who strutted stage center in a sparkling peach evening gown, with her white hair flowing down to her shoulders. She praised the impeccable rhythm section that had joined the orchestra for the night’s performance, that included fantastic keyboardist, Greg Phillinganes, and she introduced the orchestra conductor, Jules Buckley. Patti acknowledged the brilliant, young pianist Alfredo Rodriguez, who Quincy recently presented at a Jazz Bakery concert, where Rodriguez performed, solo piano.
Next, the young, extremely talented vocalist, Samara Joy appeared in a form-fitted orange gown and sang us “Misty” personifying the style and smoothness of both Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. Her voice is absolutely stunning. She was followed by male singer Aloe Blacc, recalling the Frank Sinatra days with the familiar, “Fly me To the Moon” tune. The audience collectively gasped when Jennifer Hudson was introduced. She came to the stage in a long, pink dress and received huge applause. Jennifer sang, “You Don’t Own Me” with a group of background singers that were powerful and harmonically astounding. Ms. Hudson brought the house down with her gutsy and exciting delivery of this 1964 hit song by Lesley Gore, closing it a ‘cappella, with just her voice echoing through the Hollywood Bowl like thunder.
Patti Austin returned to sing “How Do you Keep the Music Playing” that she had recorded years ago with the late, great James Ingram.
We were all beside ourselves with joy, when Stevie Wonder came to the stage, sat at the electric piano and accompanied Patti Austin who sang Quincy’s lyrics to that song, “Betcha Wouldn’t Hurt Me” from his ‘Dude Album.’ Afterwards, Stevie spoke a few kind words of praise with sincerity, talking about meeting Quincy for the first time as a teenager and how excited he was when he heard that Quincy was good friends with Ray Charles, an artist Stevie idolized. Stevie Wonder told us that music is a solution that brings people together, unlike the politicians we hope will bring us together and they don’t. Stevie recalled how thrilled he was when Quincy Jones recorded two of his songs on Jones’ albums. One was “Superstition” and the other was a favorite of mine, “You’ve Got it Bad Girl.” Then he sang the song and thrilled the attentive audience.
When they introduced Stevie Mackey as ‘L.A.’s own’ this was a new name to my ear. Mr. Mackey exhibited a rich, baritone delivery on the James Ingram hit record, “Just Once” and his rendition just blew the stars out of that foggy LA sky. What a voice! What a terrific stage presence. He is one of the many voices that Quincy is nurturing and was part of their tenacious background group. Another was Avery Wilson. Quincy Jones has always enjoyed mentoring new talent. The group of backup singers on stage were dynamic.
“There will never be another Miles, Basie, Ellington, Dizzy, Sinatra, Ella, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan or Michael, to name a few of the greats that I’ve worked with,” Jones said in a Variety Magazine interview.
“What I always tell young artists is to learn everything that has been done by every artist that came before you, and to use that as your foundation. Once you do that, you can build on it to find your voice or sound. And that is how the rich legacy of our music continues to evolve and be passed on… and I know everyone on this lineup can handle it.”
Quincy was right. Everyone that crossed that stage handled it like the pros that they are, including Sheléa, who sang “You Put A Move On My Heart” produced by Quincy and originally recorded by Tamia. Afterwards, there was a short intermission.
The second half of the show continued to feature the Quincy Jones background singers, who are each amazingly gifted. One named Vula Malinga who opened Set Two with Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Something.” She sang with gusto and energy, setting the tone for the rest of the evening. What a powerful vocalist! Ollie Brown added spice to the night on percussion. Avery Wilson was introduced, and he had the audience singing along with him and jumping from their seats. Avery’s voice reminded me a lot of the wonderful Mr. Freddie Jackson. Stevie Mackey returned to the spotlight singing, “Don’t Stop ‘til you Get Enough.” The audience went crazy! During the outstanding line-up of talent, Ibrahim Maalouf was featured as a trumpet soloist. Suzie Collier, wrapped in black sparkles, entered to conduct the orchestra while her son, Jacob Collier, was featured on piano and voice. Siedah Garrett strutted onto the stage in tall, thigh-high, silver boots and she looked and sounded fabulous. Her Afro Hair style resembled a queenly crown. You may remember that Siedah Garrett and Glen Ballard wrote that song that Michael Jackson made famous, “The Man in the Mirror,” after producer Quincy Jones invited Garrett to his home with a group of other songwriters and asked them to write material for Jackson’s next album. This song was released in 1988, the fourth single released from Jackson’s “Bad” album.
To close the show, all the amazing talent from the first set congregated on stage and they sang the Ray Charles hit record, “Let the Good Times Roll,” featuring Gregg Field on drums. Gregg has played with the Count Basie Band, Quincy Jones, Ray Charles, Barbra Streisand and many more legends. Stevie Wonder concluded the all-star show with his Martin Luther King Jr. anthem, singing “Happy Birthday To Ya” and the audience joined in.
It was a night to remember and more importantly, a man to remember. Happy Birthday Quincy Jones and thank you!
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By Dee Dee McNeil
July 1, 2023
In 2019, Stepanyan was like any other tourist. He went to see Hollywood Boulevard and view the stars implanted in cement on the Walk of Fame. He saw the famed Capital Records building and there was a star for Dave Koz sparkling right there in front of Stepanyan’s inquisitive eyes. At that time, he had dreamed of meeting and working with the iconic reed player but had no idea that one day he would indeed collaborate with Koz.
Dave Koz said in a recent documentary about Vahagn Stepanyan’s latest album release:
“Sometimes you run into people that come out of nowhere with chops and skills that are so off the charts it makes you ask, who is that and where are they from? I discovered he is Armenian and has a massive profile in his own country, with a lifelong dream of coming to the United States and he did it. … He’s one of those rare talents. … he loves to collaborate. He has this ability to connect musically.”
Dave Koz is featured on Vahagn new album, the Synergy tune. This adds to a growing list of credits. Vahagn Stepanyan has worked with artists from thirty countries. Wearing an assortment of colorful hats, Stepanyan plays keyboard, acoustic piano, he produces, arranges, and is a master engineer. I became aware of Vahagn Stepanyan when his publicist, Rick Scott, sent me his latest album release. I was so impressed with Stepanyan’s mastery of keyboard instruments, the rhythm effects, electronic grooves and his slick, melodic, contemporary production that I decided to research this man’s credentials. Not only does he play pop music, blues, gospel and smooth jazz, Stepanyan can transform his talents to complement a symphony orchestra. This year, he won the Grammy for his participation as featured keyboardist and additional engineer of “An Adoption Story,” a classical album by Kitt Wakeley, featuring Starr Parodi and The London Symphony.
On June 22nd, I chatted with Vahagn and asked him about his diverse career and how he was inspired to pursue music.
“My daddy is a musician as well, but he plays by ear. He plays accordion and guitar. But my grandfather was also a musician. He played an Armenian instrument called TAR.
NOTE: The Tar is a long-necked string instrument.
“My sister is a classical flute player. She has a master’s degree in music. I grew up in Yerevan, Armenia. I actually raised myself in music. I learned my fundamental studies from just watching Gospel Video Cassettes. In the 1990s, when I was only eight years old, I would save my money and buy those video cassettes and learn. I would listen 100 times, over and over, because at that time I was training as a classical pianist. That was not giving me the techniques that I needed to learn jazz, blues and pop music. My first gospel video I studied was Ron Kenoly, “Sing Out.” I was listening to him and then albums by Eric Marienthal, Dave Koz and others.”
“I remember my first video cassette. I took it to my piano teacher and said, whenever I grow up, I’m going to play with these huge musicians. She said, forget about it because these people are great Grammy winners. You will never ever be playing with them.”
Who would have guessed that a small, ten-year-old boy from war torn Armenia would affirm to his piano teacher, that he would one day play music with American luminaries? Vahagn Stepanyan did just that. Even though his piano teacher told him his ambitions were ridiculous, Vahagn Stepanyan paid no attention. He dreamed big, did his due diligence, soaked up knowledge about music, polished his piano and synthesizer work, explored his composer skills, mastered studio engineering, and built a successful business in Europe. He explained some of his accomplishments to me.
“I am very passionate. Like when there is a goal, I set it in front of me, no matter what’s the price, I’m going for it. I’m reaching that goal. For example, I had always dreamed to have the best recording studio in my country. When I started building the studio, it took me about eight years. People were coming to the studio, watching the building process, and they were laughing at me. They were saying, why are you building this kind of crazy studio in Armenia? Nobody’s going to come. You’re investing, but you’re not going to get your investment back. I don’t care what they say. I was passionate. If it takes twenty years, ten years, five years, eight years, I’m going to make it happen. In 2015, I opened Stepanyan Studio, and it became the best recording studio in Armenia.
“The whole time, from childhood to grown man I was buying those videos by gospel players and later, CDs. I was listening, because even in our school, we did not have jazz classes. So, I did not have any place to go and learn. But everybody was saying, you are talented. I was thinking, ok, I’m talented but who is going to show me the techniques and give me the skills to learn how to play this other music? I had a deep passion. I always said, when I grow-up I’m going to play with jazz musicians and gospel musicians. So now, when I play with Dave Koz, Eric Moore, Melvin Lee Davis, Nathan East, Eric Marienthal, I’m playing with them on gigs and they are on my record and I produce their albums, I’m like … Ok! What’s next?”
The video above is Stepanyan going to Las Vegas to Meet Eric Moore at the Hide Out studios.
Vahagn’s American dream didn’t come true right away. While working in his Armenian recording studio he was busy scoring films and producing artists, but also sending videos of his work out on the Internet. His goal was to gain American interest in his work and talent.
“In 2009, I had an offer to sign a contract and work with some huge band in America, but I rejected that offer. That was my first trip here, after serving in the Armenian army. I saw how musicians were receiving me and acting speechless when they saw me play. I started thinking, are you serious? Am I really that talented? (laughter) … And suddenly, I knew then that I could get the gold here. I rejected the contract and went back home to start working on my own material. I started getting calls to come to the United States and I was busy recording artists in Armenia and scoring films. That’s how I started my career,” Stepanyan shared his extraordinary story with me.
The next step towards his American dream slowly manifested. He was flown back and forth from Armenia to America to act as keyboardist, composer and/or producer for a number of American artists. He has accompanied pop stars like Jhene Aiko singing “10K Hours.”
On the Greg Howe & Phil Lassiter’s recording, Stepanyan is saturated in funk and smooth jazz, playing grand piano and Keyboards.
Somehow, Vahagn finds time to act as a judge for Sound Design Contests. He also creates Sound Design himself and I asked him about that unusual creative aspect of his career.
“I just create. I use my imagination. I like to write and produce sounds that are really unique. So, for example, I represent some of the best top seventy companies in the world, instrumental companies like Moog, and video companies. I can use any sounds from their libraries that I want to use. But I like creating my own sound designs because I write my own sounds for companies. I write, imagining how something would sound in real time. Instead of using the ones that are packaged, I create real ones. So that’s how I got into sound design. If I want a dog to bark, I want to bring the real dog to bark. In that case, I don’t use the samples,” he explained.
“After that, I got an offer from the Foley The World Awards Show, which is an international competition for Sound Designers. I wanted to submit my work for that competition, but they got back to me and instead they wanted me to be a judge. So I did that.
“I recently won two Grand Awards from the Akademia Music Awards for naming my album songs, ‘Synergy’ and ‘Motion,’ Best Jazz Songs. My song ‘Motion’ also won a Global Music Awards Silver Medal. I was recently nominated ‘Musician of the Year’ by Josie Music Awards. That award show will be held on October 22nd at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville, TN. A song from my album was nominated by the Hollywood Independent Music Awards (HIMA) in the Jazz (Fusion/Bebop) category.”
Clearly, Vahagn Stepanyan recognizes the power of thought, the power of dreams and the power of words to affirm your destiny. He knows there is also power in music. It can heal us. It can make us joyful or pensive; sad or inspired.
“Our album is on Billboard charts which is the first time in Armenian Music history that an independent artist from Armenia is on the Billboard Music Charts. In 2021, I left everything in Armenia when I got an offer to work in the United States. I decided yes, I’m moving.
“Once, there was a jazz musician I called up and said to him, I just want to know what’s the right way to play and what’s not right? He said there’s not such a rule. You just play whatever comes to your head or mouth, whatever melody you hear, try singing that in your mind, try repeating it in your head. After that I was like, are you serious? I was waiting for someone to come and teach me, but after that, I found out I had it in my head all the time and I just started playing. I never had jazz teacher to say you need to play like this or that.
“Today, I just write, arrange, compose. I believe for every music genre the foundation is classical music and jazz. Classical is the foundation for the rules, your fingers, your speed, your tempos, but jazz is the power of freedom. You need that to create rock music, pop, or whatever you want to play. If you’re a jazz musician, it’s very easy to make the transition.”
On the day that I interviewed Vahagn Stepanyan, his current album “A New Chapter” was charting at #5 on the famed Billboard Contemporary Jazz Album chart and #19 on the Jazz Albums Chart. At the same time, his album is slowly easing its way up the Top 100 Billboard all-around Chart, currently at #97. As his music becomes more and more visible, his phone is ringing constantly. The offers are streaming in as Vahagn Stepanyan’s American dream unfolds like a rainbow across the sky.
“I have a studio. It’s in Armenia and I’m not using it. I’m here. This is a new chapter. That’s why I called the album ‘A New Chapter’ because I’m starting everything again from zero. I’m just reborn again. Right now, I have some offers from Walt Disney and I’m trying to answer these opportunities in America, because that’s what I like to do; film scores. I did many television and movie soundtracks in Armenia. I don’t limit myself,” Vahagn reminds me.
Based in Los Angeles, Vahagn Stepanyan continues to be visible, creative, a musical force of nature and amazingly productive. Listen for his name and his music!
By Dee Dee McNeil June 1, 2023
Although pianist, composer, producer and singer Patrice Rushen is petite in stature, she is large in accomplishments. On February 26th of this year (2023), she was in Boston, Massachusetts to receive the “Make Them Hear You” 2023 Award. It celebrated her awesome contributions to the artistic community. It was also a fundraiser for Boston’s Hamilton-Garrett Center for Music and Arts, that will provide music education for city youth.1 That is only one of several achievements and awards that Patrice has received during her spectacular career.
Rushen’s musical directing talents began in 1988 when she handled the music for the “Partners in Crime” television show. Perhaps you remember another television show honed from a book by Gloria Naylor called, “The Women of Brewster Place?” It aired in 1989 and Patrice Rushen was the Musical Director on that project. In 1990, she was the first woman to act as Musical Director (MD) for the annual Grammy Award presentation and Patrice occupied the same status during three more consecutive shows in (2004, 2005 and 2006). Did you know, Rushen was the first female music director/ conductor and arranger for a late-night television show called “The Midnight Hour?” It aired on CBS in 1990. Rushen is a trailblazer.
The gifted pianist also became the first female in forty-three years to become Head Composer and Musical Director for the televised Emmy Awards program. The credits kept rolling with Ms. Rushen serving as the NAACP Image Award Musical Director for a dozen years. She is the only woman chosen to head the People’s Choice Awards as a Musical Director. As a female, Patrice Rushen continued to pop the glass ceiling by acting as MD/Conductor and Arranger for HBO’s Comic Relief television special. Then, in 2002, she was Musical Director for the 8th Annual BET Walk of Fame, honoring the phenomenal Stevie Wonder2 and she repeated this position in 2003 when the Walk of Fame honored ‘Queen of Soul’ Aretha Franklin, and again, in 2004 when the Walk of Fame honored Motown legend, Smokey Robinson.
I feel like we need a drumroll, because at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Patrice Rushen became Musical Director/Composer for Newsweek’s premier American Achievement Awards show. From 1993 to 1995, she served as MD for Janet Jackson’s World Tour and as record producer, Rushen took on the project of “No Strings” by Sheena Easton, producing an album of jazz standards for the singer including “The Nearness of You” with Sheena singing it on the hit film, “Indecent Proposal.
June is Black Music Month, a perfect time to celebrate the legendary Patrice Rushen? As a Southern California native, this little lady with the big talent was nurtured by loving parents Allen and Ruth Rushen. She grew up in Los Angeles and is the eldest daughter of two girls. At age three, her parents enrolled her into a specialized music program at University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music (USC). This resulted as a suggestion from their nursery schoolteacher, who noticed Patrice Rushen’s natural musical talents. She suggested, to Mr. and Mrs. Rushen, they enroll little Patrice into this selective program for gifted children. This is where Patrice was taught piano and music theory. By the time she was in the first grade, Patrice was performing classical music recitals.4 Funny how time can turn things upside down in the most unexpected ways. Today, Patrice Rushen is the Chair of the Popular Music Program at USC’s Thornton School of Music, the very place where she began her music education at age three.
As music lovers themselves, her parents were listening to all genres of music, plus they belonged to a record club. Consequently, the Rushen house was full of music. The three-year-old Patrice Rushen heard the radio blasting top forty tunes like Elvis Presley spitting out his hit record ‘Jailhouse Rock’ and Sam Cooke crooning, “You Send Me.” The L.A. based, Coasters were a singing group that was thrilling the 1957 R&B airwaves with a tune called “Searchin” and their hit record, “Young Blood.” Records spinning on the Rushen house turntable could have included best-selling albums by Count Basie’s Orchestra or Miles Davis playing “Birth of the Cool” on his trumpet. The blessing of music intoxicated the little girl’s ears.
Patrice Rushen’s career took off when she was still a teenager. At seventeen, she won a music competition and was invited to perform with her Locke high school bandmates at the very popular Monterey Jazz Festival. Executives from Prestige Records (a division of Fantasy Records) witnessed that performance. Patrice was quickly signed to their label and released three albums. The first was “Prelusion” released in 1974. The second was “Before the Dawn” in 1975 and the final release was “Shout It Out” in 1977. The following year, she began recording for Elektra Record company. She released the single, “Haven’t You Heard” in 1980 and “Forget Me Nots” in 1981. Those hit records, ‘crossed over’ from jazz to pop and R&B, putting the whole world on notice. The listening public fell in love with ‘Baby fingers,’ an adorable nickname for Patrice Rushen.
Those tiny, creative and technically astute hands were already becoming legendary in the jazz community. Patrice appeared with the iconic pioneer of violin, Jean-Luc Ponty on his 1975 and 1976 albums for Atlantic Records. “Upon the Wings of Music” and “Aurora,” were albums that reflected the funk groove of contemporary jazz. The young pianist shines brightly on these early recordings, where you can hear her style of piano playing in development stages.
Around that same time, Patrice recorded with Eddie Henderson on both the Blue Note and Capitol labels, (“Heritage” and “Comin’ Through” albums). In 1980, she recorded with Kenny Burrell on the “Heritage” album, and she also worked with Herbie Hancock in 1982. More recently, in 2016 she recorded with trumpeter Wallace Roney for HighNote Records on an album titled, “A Place in Time.”
On her own, Patrice Rushen has recorded fifteen albums as a bandleader and her music has been described as crossover jazz, post-disco, jazz funk, R&B, soulful and of the quiet storm genre, probably because she can play it all. Labels have always bothered me. Patrice Rushen can play it all and her resume exemplifies this. She has also recorded two albums with “the Meeting”, a world-renowned jazz group that included Rushen, bassist, Alfonso Johnson, drummer extraordinaire, Ndugu Chancler, and famed reedman, Ernie Watts.
This does not include her impressive recordings as a sideman with legendary jazz artists or her own ‘greatest hits’ compilation albums. Another area of music where Rushen has made an indelible mark is in film. Her music is heard in movies like “Waiting to Exhale,” in “Hollywood Shuffle,” and “Men in Black” to name just a few. It wasn’t an easy road to travel for a female to score Hollywood motion picture credits or to be hired to write soundtracks.
“I’m female, short and black. It taught me how important it is that I walk through those doors offering them something to think about that hadn’t been on their mind. Later, becoming a film writer, the money and the treatment is different than that for male film scorers. I still did my best and went beyond the call of duty to make sure what I did was professional and represented the best I could be. I came before the Me-too Movement. Yes, we’ll run up across the situations where our male counterpart is paid more or gets more opportunities. Still, we have to carry ourselves with pride and self-realization that we are prepared, and we can do the job with the same energy and care and excellence that the men can do. Men have to start speaking up for women to be included. Men have to say we need that female perspective. Men have to remind the powers that be that women should be included and respected in the film workplace,” Patrice Rushen shared in a Preston Williams interview.
Sampling has become a huge commodity in the music business and Rushen’s tune “Forget Me Nots” has been sampled multiple times. It was used as part of the music track for the 1997 film “Men in Black,” crediting her as a composer along with Will Smith and Terri McFadden.
Her song can also be heard on the George Michael’s dance song “Fastlove” and it was used in the film “Big.” Rushen’s other big hit record, “Haven’t You heard” was sampled by Kirk Franklin and his inspirational Gospel choir. They called it “Looking For You” and it became a huge crossover Gospel hit recording that reached #5 on the R&B/Hip-Hop song chart and 61 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. ASCAP presented her with the songwriter’s award for that 2007 ASCAP hit Gospel Song.
based on Patrice Rushen song Haven’t You Heard.
Not only is she a masterful internationally acclaimed pianist, but Patrice Rushen also has composed several symphonic works. Some were commissioned by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. She is respected as “Ambassador of Artistry in Education” at Boston’s Berklee College of Music and received an Honorary Doctorate of Music degree in 2005 from that same institution. In 2006, she was honored by Jazz at Lincoln Center at “The 2nd Annual Diet Coke Women In Jazz Festival” held at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in New York. Once again, Rushen was heralded for her awesome contributions to the world of music. In March of 2008, she was Music Director and host of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “L.A. Phil Presents: A Tribute to Ella” featuring singer, actor T. C. Carson, Manhattan Transfer member, Janis Siegel, jazz legend Mark Murphy, the smooth vocals of Ann Hampton Callaway and 2008 Grammy nominee and show-stopper, Ledisi.
Patrice Rushen admits that Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, Wayne Shorter and Benny Golson are some of her heroes. She listened to certain jazz piano elders too, like McCoy Tyner, Oscar Peterson, Keith Jarrett, and George Duke. She was drawn to a more urban market, although she was steeped in both classical music and traditional jazz. When signed to Elektra/Asylum Records in the late 1970s, they wanted her to sing, although she wasn’t crazy about the idea. Rushen admits she likes singing, but never considered herself “a singer.” To help promote her tune “Forget Me Nots” she went to dance joints and disco places to get the DJs to play the catchy tune. Patrice is certain that stepping outside the normal promotional record path helped to make that song a hit record. In October of 2022, a compilation CD was released honoring Patrice Rushen’s music titled, “Feels So Real: The Complete Elektra Recordings 1978 – 1984.
Her performance appearances with the crème de la crème of music reads like the who’s who of the jazz world and includes Nancy Wilson, Carlos Santana, Prince, Diane Reeves, Lionel Hampton, Stevie Wonder, Christian McBride and Lee Ritenour, just to list a few. Always writing, arranging and touring, in August of 2021 she performed at the Carr Center in Michigan featured with piano master, Billy Childs during a “Duos & Duets” concert. I was surprised and impressed to learn that Rushen’s song “Hang It Up” was featured on the 2005 video game ‘Fahrenheit.’
Somehow, this amazing artist, composer, arranger, soundtrack writer for film and television, singer and Musical Conductor for numerous artists and events, found time to marry Marc St. Louis, and to raise two children, a boy and a girl. Patrice Rushen is my She-ro! She is a Los Angeles icon and what better time to celebrate her than during Black Music Month.
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Special thanks to footnoted research at: The Boston Globe story by Juliet Pennington; Patrice Rushen bio info – https://patricerushen.com/full-length-bio; Wikipedia; The Preston Williams interview; www.youtube.com ; Imdb.com & music.usc.edu; https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0430870/ ;
HARRY BELAFONTE: A FILM CELEBRATES HIS AMAZING LEGACY
By Dee Dee McNeil
May 1, 2023
I clearly recall one February evening in 2012 when I drove to the Pasadena Laemmle Playhouse Theater to review a documentary film titled “Sing Your Song.” It was a movie that traced the life and times of the great and memorable singer, actor and activist, Harry Belafonte. On Tuesday, April 25, 2023, at the age of ninety-six-years old, Belafonte took his final bow. He passed away at his New York home from congestive heart disease, with his third wife, Pamela, by his side.
I was raised listening to Belafonte’s amazing calypso records and hearing my Aunt Doris gush about how sexy and good looking the man was. On top of being good looking and talented, he had a revolutionary, humanitarian spirit.
“What more could you want in a man?” my revolutionary, forward-thinking aunt exclaimed, while playing Harry Belafonte in the background. She was spinning a 33-1/3rpm album where Harry sang, “Matilda, she take me money and run Venezuela.”
Belafonte’s extraordinary documentary film was produced by Susanne Rostock and it traces Harry’s life, beginning with his birth in Harlem on March 1, 1927. He had Jamaican roots. Like many immigrants, his mom came to America seeking a better life for herself and her son, originally named Harold George Bellanfanti Junior. However, when Harry was a small boy, she returned to Jamaica. While living on that tropical island, Belafonte was drawn to music and soaked up the folk songs he heard. They would eventually propel him to fame.
At the beginning of World War II, Harry, his mother and a brother returned to New York. Now, in high school, Harry had trouble adjusting to New York’s fast-paced, hectic life and American society. He dropped out of school and joined the Navy. After his discharge from the Armed Services, young Harry Belafonte returned to New York and searched for a job, settling on a Janitor’s position. One unexpected day, Harry’s employer complimented him on the fine job he was doing and gifted Harry with a ticket to the American Negro Theater. That evening, while watching those black actors entertaining a spellbound audience, Harry Belafonte was hooked. Not only did he decide to start acting, he also planned on becoming a singer, because singing came easy to him and music made him happy. In a matter of months, he was performing in New York clubs and pursuing a career as a jazz singer.
Most entertainers and musicians explore other venues and listen to other acts. One unpredictable day, Harry Belafonte witnessed a show by Huddie Ledbetter. Later, known as “Leadbelly,” the man was wailing on his guitar at the famed Village Vanguard, while singing folk songs, slave songs and blues. This music was completely different from the polished jazz music Harry was singing, but it inspired him.
Totally captivated by Ledbelly, Belafonte decided to explore folk music and to perform culturally rich songs from his Caribbean childhood, instead of jazz standards. This transition from jazz to Calypso/folk music would garner him six gold records, including one for his extremely popular calypso song, “Day – O (the Banana Boat Song).” This genre was completely his, because no one was performing and recording that kind of Caribbean music in the 1950s and 1960s except Harry Belafonte.
While pursuing his singing career at night, during the day Harry was going to various auditions and trying to land an acting role. His first leading role was in a play called “Juno and the Paycock.” In 1953, he debuted in film as co-star with the gorgeous and talented, Dorothy Dandridge in a movie titled, “Bright Road.” Next, Harry won a Tony Award in 1954 for his outstanding performance in the musical revue by John Murray Anderson, “Almanac,” where Harry Belafonte used both talents, singing and acting. Familiar names like Polly Bergen and Orson Bean were a part of that all-star cast. Belafonte was rumored to be on his way up the stairway to the stars. For that show, he became the first black male Broadway actor to win a Tony Award. He was also the first black matinee idol and the first recording artist to sell over a million records.
Harry Belafonte was more than a talented actor and a gold record recording artist. He was a thinker and an activist. The blossoming entertainer was seriously concerned about his community and his country, the United States of America. This filmed documentary reflected on Harry’s activism and how close Belafonte became to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The film is peppered with amazing, historic clips of Belafonte marching arm in arm with Dr. King and a host of popular celebrities who Belafonte himself recruited. For instance, I viewed film footage of super stars like Marlon Brando, Tony Bennett, Anthony Perkins, Shelly Winters, Sidney Portier and too many more to list here. All were part of peaceful protest marches led by Dr. King. Along with Harry Belafonte, these Hollywood celebrities were lending their voices and star-quality in support of civil rights. Harry helped organize the march on Washington that featured Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Many people don’t know that Dr. King was arrested for a minor traffic infraction during his protest marches in the South. He was prosecuted in DeKalb County, Georgia and sent to serve time on a chain gang as punishment. The film documents how Belafonte went to Robert Kennedy and got the young politician involved. Belafonte introduced Kennedy to the terrible injustices that African Americans were facing in the 1950s and 60s. Due to Harry’s insistence, Kennedy arranged Dr. King’s release and the charges were dropped. Robert Kennedy also became a staunch supporter of the civil rights movement, thanks in part to the determined Mr. Belafonte.
The “Sing Your Song” documentary explains how Belafonte had short-lived success with a 1959 television show called “Tonight With Belafonte.” They included clips from the variety show where Harry featured a multi-cultural cast and showcased folks like the great jazz singer Gloria Lynn and the extraordinary folk singer, Odetta.
Harry Belafonte was the first black man to win an Emmy Award in 1960 for the Revlon Review on his Tonight With Belafonte Show.
During those days, an integrated television show was frowned upon. Advertisers immediately objected to the white and black mixed cast, especially the mix of white women with men of color. Harry Belafonte had a way of rubbing the entertainment powers the wrong way. Another time he stirred up controversy was when Petula Clark invited him to be a guest on her show. While performing a song together, she was filmed clutching Belafonte’s ample bicep in 1968. It was on her own Petula Clark television special and company executives and advertisers went absolutely berserk. It is sad to admit that only fifty-three years ago, we had such terrible prejudice and racial divide in our great country, and some of that continues today.
Belafonte fought for equal rights until his demise. He had the ear of great people like actor, singer, activist, Paul Robeson, Eleanor Roosevelt (wife of the 32nd President of the U.S.), Nelson Mandela (former political dissident and eventual President of South Africa), dynamic South African singer, Miriam Makeba, Senator John F. Kennedy (who would become President) and many more.
As a humanitarian, one of Belafonte’s endeavors was to assist gifted, but poor Africans. After visiting the continent, Belafonte established a non-profit that brought thirty or more African exchange students to America, so they could pursue educational opportunities. This popular organization actually sponsored the man who would become former President Barack Obama’s father. He was part of Belafonte’s humanitarian project. Who could have guessed that the senior Obama would bring forth a child who would later become the forty-fourth President of the United States?
Harry Belafonte fought for equal opportunities in the Hollywood system, targeting the motion picture industry, on-stage in theatrical venues, and worldwide. Despite being put on the ‘Un-American list’ during the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s, Belafonte never gave up fighting for justice and equal opportunities for all. During the film’s preview, I was hypnotized by the film clips that historically traced Harry’s amazing rise to fame in movies. I saw him acting with Dorothy Dandridge, Ethel Waters, Sidney Portier and Dianne Carroll. I watched him featured on the Ed Sullivan Show and enjoyed watching him sing and dance on the Cavalcade of Stars television production. Bellefonte established his own production company to produce, direct and hire people of color for movies.
It was Belafonte who came back to America from an African visit and inspired Quincy Jones and other hugely notable people to create a song, with the proceeds donated to fight poverty in that drought-stricken country. The result was the unforgettable hit record of “We Are the World.”
This is a documentary film that will open your eyes to, not only a man and his music, but to the depth of Belafonte’s activism. In later years, Harry Belafonte even tackled the difficult project of addressing gang violence in both the black and Latino communities of America.
After the film, there was a short Q & A period, with one of Belafonte’s children hosting the discussion. It appears Harry Belafonte has passed the spark of humanitarianism on to his children. In 2012, Gina Belafonte had been carrying on the work with gang intervention for over a decade.
Harry Belafonte received the National Medal of Arts in 1994 and in 2000, the two-time Grammy recipient was honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Awards.
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Harry Belafonte and second wife, Julie Robinson with children Gina and son, David. Other child is from the first marriage
Shari & Gina Belafonte with their father in 2003. – Photo by David Buchan/Shutterstock
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By Dee Dee McNeil
April 1, 2023
When Robert Kyle isn’t recording his own albums, he’s busy producing, arranging and playing on other people’s projects. For example, recently he recorded all of the saxophone and flute parts and created horn arrangements for the New Zealand based ensemble, ‘Groove Express’ on their hit release, ‘Amsterdam.’ The ‘Groove Express’ album surged up the Billboard contemporary Jazz Chart to number one. Recently, Robert also produced an album on iconic jazz pianist and vocalist, Betty Bryant to celebrate her 88th birthday titled, “Project 88.” Betty’s music is the opposite of contemporary jazz. She’s rooted in Kansas City blues and that project showcases Kyle’s diversity as a player and producer. Kyle can play it all.
In addition to recording with historic icons like Lou Rawls on his “Christmas Is the Time” album., Kyle performs regularly with a number of diverse and popular musicians including trumpeter, Tony Guerrero’s Quintet; pianist, producer Billy Mitchell; the Heartbeat Brazil group, and his own bands including work with his better half, pianist, singer Alyse Korn. They have recently released a new album titled, “Tuesday’s Child” on Robert’s ‘Dark Delishious Music’ label. Robert Kyle and Alyse enjoy playing instrumental Brazilian jazz, contemporary Latin arrangements, and their own original compositions. In fact, their recent project features several of their original compositions. Kyle’s original music has been recorded by Alessa, Betty Bryant, Bobby Zee, Zoe (Bob Soler), Leslie Paula, Miguel Gutierrez, Larry Williams, and Anna Estrada. Additionally, his compositions have been featured on television shows like “Earth Angel,” an ABC movie of the week, “White Hot,” the Jayne Mansfield Story, Miscellaneous shorts on The Playboy Channel, “the Young & Restless” and the ER television shows. In movies, his music enriched the Cinemax production, “Molly & Tina,” the film “Let It Be Me,” “Night shift” and a Walt Disney Picture titled “Giving Up the Ghost.” Additionally, his compositions have been used to enhance international commercials.
Alyse is also a composer. She wrote the opening tune on their “Tuesday’s Child” album. The composition is titled “Gratitude” and its warm, Brazilian arrangement wraps musical arms around me. She has a sweet voice that caresses the melody, singing along with the piano part at the top of the song, wordless, but emotional.
Unlike Robert Kyle, who was born and bred in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles, Alyse was born and raised in Miami, Florida.
“My grandmothers were both classically trained pianists and my dad played trumpet. He was a real jazz aficionado who had an incredible collection of jazz LPs. My earliest jazz memory was listening to Monk. I used to dance to his music (Lulu’s Back in Town from the “It’s Monk’s Time” album), so my family nicknamed me Lulu. I was exposed to all this incredible music, not only from my dad’s albums, but also growing up in Miami, hearing Cuban bands and Puerto Rican bands, Jamaican music, Trinidadian music, you know, such a rich culture.” Alyse shared.
Drawn to the piano, Alyse Korn took lessons and started playing on stage at age fourteen with the local Mike Ramirez Big Band. She cut her teeth working with community college jazz bands who needed a piano player. While attending the University of Miami, she got calls to work in trio settings. One of those experiences was performing with Dr. Ed Calle, a Latin Grammy Award Winner for Best Instrumental Album and a reedman who is a five-time Grammy nominee. She also honed her craft working at various hotels, playing solo piano gigs. After earning her BM from the University of Miami in Studio Music and Jazz, she moved to Los Angeles and earned her MFA from Cal Arts in Jazz Piano performance. When California musicians realized she could play Salsa, Alyse found herself working with some of the most popular Los Angeles based Latin bands like Susie Hansen, Orchestra Opa Opa and Son Mayor. Additionally, the busy pianist was hired to play Brazilian music with Sonia Santos and Anna Gazzola for their Brasil Brazil shows. She also played with Jennifer York’s jazz quintet and toured Japan with contemporary jazz saxophonist, Sonya Jason. Alyse was featured on Chilean composer and guitarist Waldo Valenzuela’s contemporary jazz album titled, “The Light of the Sixth Sun.” Lately, Alyse and Robert have been performing with Brazilian guitarist, Valenzuela, and vocalist Téka. Below is a video from a recent performance with that band in Ojai, California.
Similar to Robert Kyle, Alyse enjoys composing and has contributed three songs to their new album release.
“Ron Miller, a former composition teacher at University of Miami, was the one that encouraged and inspired me to start writing. He became my mentor,” Alyse told me.
NOTE: Ron Miller was Professor Emeritus of Jazz Studies at the University of Miami. His compositions have been performed by iconic artists including Red Rodney, Pat Metheny, Ira Sullivan, Stan Getz, Joe Lovano, Billy Hart and many more. He is a published author: “The Music of Ron Miller,” a song book and his academic book, “Modal Jazz Composition and harmony Vol. 1 & Vol. 2”.
Robert Kyle spent a decade as the Musical Director for blues singer and actress, Linda Hopkins.
“Oh my God. It changed my life, really. When she first got back from performing on Broadway doing “Black and Blue” it was my first time really playing with her. That was 1991. We did a week at the Cinegrill and then after that she invited me to go to Japan with her, where we played at the Keystone Corner. Then, I went on my first European tour with Linda Hopkins in 1992. We did six weeks all over Europe, at summer festivals and clubs. From there on, I did pretty much everything she did, performing with her small band until 2005 to 2006. when she had a couple of small strokes. During that time, for six to eight years, we were doing this show called “Wild Women Blues” featuring Linda, Maxine Weldon, and Mortonette Jenkins. We played all over Europe. It was a great experience. It was more structured than the small band work. Linda Hopkins was a great lady! She taught me how to work with an artist, understand what they need and what they want and how to get the band to do what the band needs to do,” Robert Kyle reminisced.
Robert has found his way onto a number of stages playing his reed instruments. In the early 2000’s he participated in the televised Emmy Awards show. In 2003, he played as part of the band for the BET Awards Show, and he has also been a part of the ensemble behind the scenes of the popular television show, “The Voice.”
So, how did these two diverse musicians get together? Alyse recalled the first evening they had a meeting of the minds.
“It was June of 2014. I was working at Picana Grill in Burbank with the artist, Alessa, who sings Brazilian music. I noticed that Robert’s name was on their charts. Alessa said Robert Kyle was going to come by the club that night and sit in with us. Later, he quietly slid up on our stage and started playing. We had a great musical connection and after the gig I suggested we go hear friends who were playing at a nearby restaurant in a Cuban band. Rob said, yeah, I’ll go,” Alyse recalled.
“That night we discovered we have a lot in common. In addition to jazz, we enjoy Afro-Cuban and Brazilian music. I thought that was very special,” Robert chimes in.
The pair would soon find they had even more in common. Kyle was a private reed teacher and Alyse loved working with youth. She taught classes for ten years under the umbrella of the Suzuki Institute of America, offering her Childhood Music Program for Young People ages zero to four-years-old. Her job with Suzuki Institute took her all over the United States, Canada and Brazil. She also enjoys mentoring teens in jazz piano. Additionally, the couple discovered they both leaned towards using their music to heal and calm the spirit. Robert discovered Yoga in 2002 and told me it really changed his life.
“It healed my chronic back pain. … Entertaining can take a toll. We’re not only playing and performing, but our job involves a lot of driving, plus loading and unloading gear. Yoga has really been helpful to me, as a practice, and with my breathing,” Kyle was enthusiastic when he spoke about Yoga.
Alyse Korn chimed in: “I introduced Rob to the Alexander Technique. That was one thing that brought us up here to Ojai, where we live. We’d come up for getaways and Alexander lessons with our teachers, Michael Frederick and Carol Prentice,” she said.
NOTE: The Alexander Technique is taught at Juilliard School of Performing Arts in New York, at the Royal College of Music in London, and the Boston Conservatory of Music among others. Even the Mayo Clinic uses it. This technique addresses pain in our bodies and teaches how to remove it, based on having awareness of our body. Poor posture has a lot to do with it and changing bad habits and releasing tension in the body. It teaches how to become more aware of your body movements. Nikolaas Tinbergen, winner of the 1973 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine, devoted a major portion of his acceptance speech to the benefits of the Alexander Technique. In the music world, it can help singers, pianists, horn players, violinists and all musicians.
I noticed on Alyse Korn’s website that she was an ‘Advanced Biofield Tuning Practitioner.’ I asked her what that was, and she explained it this way:
“So, I am certified in Sound Therapy. I use medical grade tuning forks that produce sound waves to calm the nervous system. You might compare it to a crystal sound bowl, have you seen those?” she asked me.
As a matter of fact, I had seen the Tibetan singing bowls. She told me she places the forks near the body, but they don’t have to be on the body. It is a method she learned from Eileen McKusick.
“The forks are similar to your normal tuning fork, but kind of on steroids. They’re bigger and thicker and they vibrate really much more loudly than the tuning forks we’re used to seeing and dealing with,” Robert shared his opinion on the tuning forks.
This is a picture of a tuning fork.
Alyse added, “It’s just a powerful approach to health and well-being and it helps in relaxing and restoring the nervous system.”
During the pandemic, that both petrified and paralyzed people worldwide, musicians needed something to replace gigs, relax and to occupy lockdown time. Alyse and Robert found solace in their music. During the COVID scare, they worked on songs as a duo.
“We chose songs that I would say are in the medium to slower vibe, because I think we wanted to express the way we felt, being out here in the more rural community of Ojai. There was so much craziness and chaos in the world. We started out just recording the album as a duo. We found a great studio in Carpinteria, California which is 25 minutes away, and we recorded the tracks. Somewhere along the way, we decided it would be fun and it would enhance the music if we added some musical friends to play on it,” Robert said.
Hussain Jiffry brings his bass to the party on “Vivian’s Danzon,” however it is Kevin Winard’s tasty percussive licks that wrap this package of Latin goodness with bright ribbon colors. Kyle’s exquisite flute dances stage center and captivates. Alyse Korn shows off her piano technique during a brief but provocative solo, with a couple of licks that remind me of the Thelonious Monk style. I was surprised when Robert told me they had added the other musicians to the mix by internet downloads. The tracks actually sound very natural, as if the group is playing in the same space together.
Track #3 (“Your Light”) is a lovely ballad with beautiful changes. Korn’s piano tinkles in the upper register and teases our senses as an introduction. It makes me want to lean forward to hear what’s coming next on this Robert Kyle composition. Kyle wrote this song to capture the grace and kindness he finds in Alyse, his wife. The title tune, “Tuesday’s Child” has an intriguing melody and the harmonics that Kyle has in his head are magical and completely on display during this arrangement. It’s just the two of them, and together, this husband-and-wife team, project a feeling of tranquility, love and peace of mind.
“There’s a lot of turmoil in the world today. We hope that when people listen to our music, they will feel the peace that we feel when we play it,” Alyse explains their musical point of view.
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By Dee Dee McNeil
January 1, 2023
Tuba master, Jim Self, has a new album out titled “My America 2: Destinations” that incorporates songs with American city, state and area titles that were formerly hit tunes in their day. This is not a unique idea for Jim. His original album titled “My America” was released twenty-years ago as a novelty album, and celebrated songs that were associated with Americana like “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad” and “When Johnny Comes Marchin’ Home Again.”
“It featured songs from the various parts of the country where I had lived and worked. I asked composer, arranger Kim Scharnberg to write the charts. At the time, he was working in the Los Angeles area. … Musically, it covered a lot of styles from Dixieland to Country to silly and humorous. Kim has a brilliant musical sense of humor and command of styles. Each tune had a slightly different group of musicians, all L.A. top studio guys,” Jim Self affirmed.
The first song of this new album opens with his tuba sounding like a freight train plowing down the tracks and setting the mood for a song we know quite well, “Chicago.” The arrangement is once again by Kim Scharnberg and brings back the Ragtime jazz-feel of the “Roaring Twenties.” Self and Scharnberg open with this tune because Chicago was a city whose jazz scene greatly influenced Kim Scharnberg early in his career. This was the biggest city near to where he grew up. Scharnberg employs a Dixieland arrangement that mirrors the early jazz style that tugged at his creative ear and mirrors a retro-ish version of a wild ride on the ‘L’ train.
“This CD is dedicated to my life-long friend, Daniel Perantoni. We met as members of the tuba section of the US Army Band in 1965. I looked up to him for his great playing and beautiful solo tone,” Jim Self recalled.
“Today, he is Provost Professor of Tuba at the Jacobs School of Music, Indiana University. … Mr. P., as his students call him, is a legendary tuba artist, teacher and pedagogue, as well as a trailblazer in a variety of genres including work as a solo recitalist, chamber musician, jazz musician and instrument designer. He was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the executive board of I.T.E.A. … My life has been enriched by his friendship,” Jim Self bragged about one of his mentors and close friends.
This is Self’s twentieth solo recording where he features his prowess on tuba and Fluba instruments. In 1983, Jim Self produced his very first album titled “Children at Play.” Featuring his unique jazz tuba and a harmonica. This album received world-wide acclaim. On his second recording, (1988) he dived into fusion jazz. This recording was called “New Stuff” and was birthed as a CD on the popular Discovery-Trend label. “Tricky Lix” was his third album, released on Concord Jazz label, and the music just kept pouring out of Jim Self like honey from the cone.
“I get to play melodies and improvise in the low register of my instruments and play them with emotion and beauty. It’s a very personal quest!” Jim expounds with genuine excitement.
On Track 2, Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” becomes a quick favorite of mine. This ballad gives Jim Self time and space to introduce us to his talented tone on his rich, bass instrument. Jim Self pleasantly recalled this song in the liner notes.
“I have fond memories of this lovely song from my days on the road as a bass player,” Self remembers when he used to play both string and electric bass instruments.
Jim Self and arranger, Kim Scharnberg, surprise us on Track 3. It’s titled Kansas City, but it combines two different songs of the same title. The medley begins with the Richard Roger’s song, at a moderate tempo, plaintively singing the melody from the Rogers & Hammerstein Broadway version of Kansas City. About a minute into the arrangement, Scharnberg borrows a lick from the duck-walking-artist, Chuck Berry, to introduce us to the familiar shuffle arrangement of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s version of Kansas City. The Los Angeles based band takes off and swings hard!
“This tune shows off the swing and shuffle grooves the best. While there are lots of solos, the rhythm section of John Chiodini, Steve Fister, Bill Cunliffe, Lem Wild and Kendall Kay are the stars here,” Jim Self asserts.
Jim has performed on several Randy Newman albums, and he loved the idea of including Newman’s iconic song, “I Love L.A.” into his project. On it, Self plays his cimbassos in F and BBb with Bill Booth adding euphonium parts and Brian Kilgore spicing things up on percussion.
Jim Self has made Los Angeles his home-base for forty-eight years and he knows all these contributing musicians like the back of his hand. As an on-call studio musician, Jim Self has worked for all the major Hollywood studios, performing in over fifteen-hundred motion pictures and on hundreds of television shows and a vast assortment of recording dates. His solos are featured in major films you are probably familiar with including Jurassic Park, Home Alone and Home Alone 2, among several others.
When you listen to this recent release that celebrates the United States and American music traditions, you will hear a variety of arrangements and styles. Another of my favorites on this album is the medley of music he calls “King of Route 66” that’s a lovely swing arrangement combining two pop classics; Route 66 (of course) and “King of the Road.” They blend deliciously, like toast and butter. “Blue Bayou Bossa features Ron Stout on trumpet and Tom Peterson on tenor saxophone and the arrangement perfectly melds the tune Blue Bossa with Blue Bayou. Jim Self has included one song he has composed. It’s titled “S.L.O. Blues” a piece inspired by the tiny but beautiful California town of San Luis Obispo where he has a vacation home. His neighbor, rock guitarist Steve Fister plays an outstanding solo on this tune.
Jim Self is past president of I.T.E.A., a former faculty member of the University of Tennessee and a former member of the United States Army Band. A native of Franklin, PA, he was born in 1943 and holds degrees from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Catholic University and he is a Doctor of Musical Arts from the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music. There, he continues to be an adjunct professor of Tuba and Chamber Music. His educational credits are dynamic and impressive. Self was voted the Most Valuable Player Award for Tuba on three occasions by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS). He is also brilliant on bass trombone, cimbasso, contra-bass trombone and at times in his impressive career has played both string and electric basses, as well as the Steiner EVI (electronic valve instrument). On this project, he will introduce you to his talents on the Fluba instrument. If you can, picture a tuba-sized flugel horn, you will have an idea of what the Fluba looks like. Self is also the author of the chapter titled “Doubling for Tubists” in the Tuba Source Book. An energetic musician, composer and arranger, Self has written about sixty titles for brass, string and woodwind chamber music. His arrangement charts include works for band, orchestra, solo tuba and trombone.
Jim Self is another musical hero in our Southern California community whose horn needs to be tooted. “My America 2: Destinations” is a musical journey across America, but it’s also a unique way of taking us on a trip into possibilities and creativity. Every tune Jim plays becomes a closer look into the beauty and potential of the tuba, the Fluba and the man himself.
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By Dee Dee McNeil
December 1, 2022
California is the home of exceptional jazz musicians and vocalists. Many amazing recordings were released this year. I invite you to check them out and reacquaint yourself with the magnificent international talents who live right here in our own California backyard. These recordings will make great stocking stuffers and support local musicians! I celebrate recordings by guitarists Jim Witzel’s Trio & quartet, Doug MacDonald, & Grant Geissman. I review vocalists, Nica Carrington, Cathy Segal Garcia, Tierney Sutton, Carmen Lundy, & Roberta Donnay. You will also read about The Skipper, Henry Franklin with Robert Turner and Carl Burnett; Oscar Hernandez and the Spanish Harlem Orchestra; Reed master, Azar Lawrence and the historic recording of the Dave Brubeck Trio. I also recommend The Josh Nelson Bob Bowman Collective who reminds us tomorrow isn’t promised and The Scott Whitfield Jazz Orchestra West sends us postcards from Hollywood and the album Hubub by Bay Area pianist Ted Kooshian. Enjoy. I list all the players, because it takes all of these brilliant musicians to create these unforgettable projects.
JIM WITZEL TRIO & QUARTET – “FEELIN’ IT” – Joplin & Sweeney
Jim Witzel, guitar/composer; Brian Ho, Hammond B-3 organ; Jason Lewis, drums; Dann Zinn, tenor saxophone.
Bay area guitarist and composer, Jim Witzel, offers the listener a combination of his modern jazz compositions and a handful of cover tunes including “I Love You, Porgy” and “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise.” Inspired by a group of guitar players who he labels, ‘the Great Eight,’ Witzel grew to love the guitar listening to Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, Kenny Burrell, Joe Pass, George Benson, Pat Martino, John Abercrombie and Pat Metheny. Seasoned and strong in his own talent and style, Witzel opens with the swinging, title tune, “Feelin’ It.” He’s the composer. It sets the tone for his energetic Straight-ahead music style. Jim’s trio follows up with “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise” that also ‘swings’ hard, inspired by the Sonny Rollins and Jim Hall version. Witzel lets us catch our breath when he performs the Lennon/McCartney hit song, “Norwegian Wood,” arranged at a moderate tempo with his guitar singing the lovely melody. Witzel has a warmth to his style and a precise technique that brings clarity to any melody before exploding with improvisation. He grew up in San Rafael, California and started practicing guitar as a preteen. In high school, he began to study jazz guitar with well-known Bay Area educator and artist, Dave Smith. Jim Witzel spent a decade in the Los Angeles area, paying dues freelancing with notable jazz players like Bob Sheppard, Scott Colley, Henry Butler, Richie Cole, Casey Schuerell and Clay Jenkins. At the same time, he was working clubs and concerts with busy saxophonist Dave Lefebvre and his six-piece jazz-fusion group.
This new album features Witzel’s awesome composer talents. His song “Beyond Beijing” sounds like a jazz standard and so does “Ms. Information,” inspired by Wayne Shorter. This is another hard-hitting, Straight-ahead jazz tune, clearly rooted in the blues. This arrangement invites Dann Zinn to competently explore his tenor saxophone after a rousing solo guitar performance by Jim. This original composition by Witzel also spotlights the talents of Jason Lewis on drums. I enjoy the camaraderie between Brian Ho on Hammond B-3 organ and Jim Witzel. One of this reviewer’s favorite things is an organ trio and this one is spectacular. I love the way they have arranged “If Ever I Would Leave You” as a Bossa Nova that gives Brian Ho a platform to shine and showcase his organ excellence. The tender, passionate way that Jim Witzel plays “I Loves You, Porgy” is stunning and memorable. As he plays a clean, clear melody line, he accompanies himself on rhythm guitar. Witzel’s style and technique sparkles, clearly showing us he needs nothing more than his guitar instrument to both entertain and please our ears. Every tune on this album is well-played, beautifully arranged and Jim Witzel’s original compositions are well-written and remind me of hard-bop days in a very wonderful way.
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NICA CARRINGTON – “TIMES LIKE THESE” – Independent Label
Nica Carrington, vocals; John Proulx, piano/arranger/producer; Chuck Berghofer, bass; Joe Labarbera, drums.
It’s pleasant to hear a voice so pure, so clear and unpretentious. Nica Carrington brings a freshness to old standards, starting with “Skylark.” With the accompaniment and arrangements of pianist John Proulx, they begin as a duet and the other musicians join in later. Carrington offers no vocal acrobatics or intricate riffs and runs. She just sells the song. As a child, Nica Carrington was infatuated with Frank Sinatra and his wonderful way of lyrically telling stories. She has incorporated that quality into her own style and presentation. Her honesty shines through on tunes like the obscure Mal Waldron and Billie Holiday composition, “Left Alone” and the more familiar, “When Sunny Gets Blue” or “We’ll Be Together Again.” Carrington has been a long-time jazz fan for years. Before the COVID lockdown, Nica Carrington began taking vocal lessons. She had always wanted to sing, but finally decided to hone her naturally beautiful voice. Once teacher and student could no longer meet in person, she went Online looking for a Plan B. That’s when she discovered L.A.’s very own, John Proulx.
“He’s so supportive and encouraging, so I took a chance and asked him if he would work with me on an album. It turned out to be a great move,” Nica mused.
Proulx became her arranger and producer for this project, bringing on board the wonderful Chuck Berghofer on bass and renowned drummer, Joe LaBarbera. Both are popular L.A. session musicians who have worked with people Nica Carrington had only heard on records. Berghofer has played with Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, Peggy Lee and even Carrington’s favorite, Frank Sinatra. Labarbera was a member of the Chuck Mangione Quartet and has worked with jazz icons like Jim Hall, Phil Woods, Art Farmer and Toots Thieleman, to list only a few. The awesome thing about working with John Proulx, he is not only a gifted pianist, but he’s an amazing vocalist himself with several albums to his own credit. So, surrounded with this trio of historic excellence, Nica Carrington plunged into the work of creating her own jazz legacy. The one thing I love about Nica Carrington’s voice is her warm intimacy and her truthfulness when she sings these songs. She’s vulnerable. This is a voice you will remember and the old standards she sings will make you believe you are hearing these songs for the first time.
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DOUG MACDONALD – “I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS” – Dmac Music
Doug MacDonald, guitar; Tamir Hendelman, piano; John Clayton, bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums.
Doug MacDonald’s quartet rejuvenates an old tune called, “I’ll See You In My Dreams.” MacDonald’s guitar is beautifully supported by three of the top musicians based on the West Coast; Tamir Hendelman on piano, John Clayton on bass and Jeff Hamilton on drums.
This quartet’s interpretation of Duke Ellington’s bluesy “I Got it Bad (and That Ain’t Good)” unfolds like shiny Christmas paper. Their lovely musicianship is the present wrapped inside all that glitter and glam. On “Don ‘Cha Go ‘Way Mad” they shuffle down the road, slow swinging their way along, while happily dragging the listener by the ear. John Clayton takes a bass solo, concentrating on the melodic structure with his bow sliding against the strings in a stellar way. When Tamir comes in, with his funky, blues-driven solo piano, his excellence is prominent. Doug MacDonald is no newcomer to the music scene. He has over two dozen album releases as a bandleader and his crisp, individualized style on guitar always appreciates the melody. This is obvious on these nine well-produced songs. On the composition, “My Ship,” the quartet surprises us with an up-tempo Latin version of this song, highlighting the brilliance of drummer Jeff Hamilton. Another highlight of this album is Doug’s original composition “New mark” where the group settles into a rot-gut blues introduction that snatches my attention and takes the music all the way back to its roots. I was so happy that MacDonald chose to include his original and celebrate the blues. Then, he changes the groove and swings his way into another key and another groove that steps out of the blues and changes into a straight-ahead groove, perfect for swing dancers to enjoy. Clayton’s walking bass locks into Hamilton’s driving drums and the party is on!
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SPANISH HARLEM ORCHESTRA – “IMAGENES LATINAS” – Ovation Records
Oscar Hernandez, piano/arranger/Musical Director; Marco Bermudez, vocals/coro/composer; Carlos Cascante, vocals/coro; Jeremy Bosch, vocals/coro/flute; Jerry Madera, bass; Jorge Gonzalez, bongos; George Delgado, congas; Luisito Quintero, timbales/maracas/güiro; Mitch Frohman, baritone saxophone/flute; Juan Gabriel Lakunza & Doug Beavers, trombones; Alex Norris & Manuel “Maneco” Ruiz, trumpets.
I always know I’m going to have a good time when I listen to an album by the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, led by the awesome pianist and orchestra leader, Oscar Hernandez who is based right here in Southern California. The Spanish Harlem Orchestra is culturally rich, energized, and powerful. Their music just simply demands you feel joyful. Led by composer and Musical Director, Oscar Hernandez, this three-time GRAMMY winning Spanish Harlem Orchestra honors the tradition of great Latin music. They are one bright light of the salsa reconstruction movement. Some of my favorite tunes on this album are composed by Oscar Hernandez including the melodic “Romance Divino” with voices and harmonic horns telling the story with gusto. The percussion is driving and demands you take to the dance floor. Jorge Gonzalez on bongos, George Delgado on congas and Luisito Quintero on timbales, maracas and Guiro pump the band with excitement. “Como te Amo” is a slow, beautiful mambo composed by Hernandez with lyrics by Marco Bermudez. “Mambo 2021” is another Hernandez original with a wonderful baritone sax solo from Mitch Frohman. Another favorite is Track #10, “Mi Amor Sincero” co-written by vocalist, Marco Bemudez and Gil Lopez.
Here is an all-star band of musicians who put spice and authenticity into every note they play. The Hernandez arrangements are superb, and the repertoire is uplifting, happy and sincere. You will play this album more than once and come away smiling broadly every time.
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GRANT GEISSMAN – “BLOOZ” – Futurism Records
Grant Geissman, 1966 Epiphone Riviera guitar/tambourine/shaker/composer/1965 Gibson SG guitar/ 1966 Martin OO-18 acoustic/1954 Gibson Les Paul goldtop; Jim Cox, Hammond B3 organ/piano/ Wurlitzer elec. piano; David Garfield & Emilio Palame, piano; Russell Ferrante, Fender Rhodes electric piano; Trey Henry, upright bass/1968 Fender Precision bass; Kevin Axt, upright bass; Ray Brinker & Bernie Dresel, drums; Tiki Pasillas, congas/timbales/shakere; Kevin Winard, congas/bongos; Robben Ford, 1954/1959 Gibson Les Paul conversion guitar; Josh Smith, FlatV1 guitar; Joe Bonamassa, 1952 Fender Telecaster elec. Guitar; Randy Brecker, trumpet; Tom Scott, tenor saxophone.
Guitarist Grant Geissman winds back time with his “Preach” tune, that ambles on the scene, straight out of the 1960’s music era. Geissman is even playing a 1966 Epiphone Riviera guitar. Randy Brecker adds his more contemporary trumpet solo to the mix, and it works! The song, “Side Hustle” is another throw-back tune. There was a dance craze in the 1970s (The Hustle) that took the country by storm when Van McCoy had a big hit record of the same title, “The Hustle.” It was played in every discotheque across the globe. The Hustle was a so-called ‘Line’ dance, similar to the Electric Slide and the Wobble, contemporary dances that are popular today. Grant Geissman has composed all the music on this album, borrowing from various varieties of the blues. You’ll hear everything from Rock-a-Billy to ‘Down-home’ blues. On “Time Enough at Last” he slides into a more jazz fueled blues. Then on “Fat Back” We’re back to 1970-style blues. Geissman adds Tom Scott to the mix on this one to pump more soul into the tune. This is a retro album that turns back the hands of time to when soul music and jazz locked hands with the blues and groups like Les McCann and Eddie Harris soared to popularity. You may recall the tune Mercy that raced to the top of the charts. Geissman also incorporates the 1950s and 1960s rhythm and blues grooves into his compositions. It’s a nice blend of “Blooz” for his album of the same title. This is an album rich with history, funk, nostalgia and just plain fun.
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ROBERTA DONNAY – “BLOSSOM-ING!” – Village Jazz Café
Roberta Donnay, vocals/producer/co-arranger; Mike Greensill, piano/arranger; Ruth Davies, bass; Mark Lee, drums; José Neto, guitar; David Sturdevant, harmonica; MB Gordy, percussion.
At the first phrase of “Roberta’s Blues” I hear the tone and phrasing that brings to mind jazz vocalist, Blossom Dearie. This is an album that celebrates Ms. Dearie’s music using the talent and creativity of Roberta Donnay. She has a similar, little-girl innocence to her vocal presentation, one that Dearie always exhibited. Award-winning Roberta Donnay has released this, her tenth album to remind us of the iconic Blossom Dearie and her jazz legacy.
Donnay is more than just a vocalist. As a composer, she was recognized by the prestigious ASCAP Composers Award for her song, “One World” selected as a world-peace anthem for the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations. She frequently performs with the Prohibition Mob Band, a swing dance band that portrays, with costumes and music, the era of speakeasies back in the 1920’s and 1930s. Her “Bathtub Gin” EPK exhibited this side of her musical repertoire.
“Blossom-ing!” is a fresh labor of love for Donnay, who features a similar vocal style as her predecessor, but adds her own sassy tone and bluesy interpretation to this repertoire.
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AZAR LAWRENCE – “NEW SKY” – Trazar Records
Azar Lawrence, tenor/soprano/Alto saxophones/composer; Munyungo Jackson, percussion; John Beasley, keyboards/composer; Sekou Bunch, bass; Tony Austin, drums; James Saez & Gregory Moore, guitar; Greg Poree, acoustic guitar; Destiny Muhammad, harp; Nduduzo Makhathini, piano; Lynne Fiddmont, Calesha “Bre-Z” Murray & Oren Waters, vocals.
I have been a fan of Azar Lawrence’s music since the early seventies. He has been consistently creative and innovative for half a century. This production is no exception.
“All of my skills … gathered throughout my career, have been a journey and all of these energies that have been acquired throughout that journey are coming together in a focused manner. This new album expresses that,” Azar writes in his liner notes.
Opening with “All in Love” Azar mixes cultural influences, lending his saxophone sound to a minor melody and improvisation that embraces Middle Eastern roots. Munyungo Jackson lays down his always creative splash of percussive brilliance and a feature solo by guitarist James Saez is both exciting and provocative. Azar Lawrence has composed or co-written all the tracks. Track #2, “Peace and Harmony” becomes a platform to spotlight the exceptional musicians Azar has included on this project. John Beasley executes a flurry of dancing notes on keyboard and Sekou Bunch is featured on a notable bass solo. “New Sky” is a more contemporary arrangement featuring vocalist Lynne Fiddmont singing lyrics by Tiffany Austin. Tony Austin’s drums put the funk in place and Azar Lawrence uses his saxophone talents to put the ‘J’ in jazz. His mastery of reed instruments is upfront and obvious as he plays alto, soprano and tenor saxophones on this project. Azar’s also a competent composer. Songs like “From the Point of Love” are a beautiful blend of contemporary jazz mixed with Lawrence’s haunting saxophone that sometimes reminds me of something Yusef Lateef would play. On “Birds are Singing” Azar’s horn mimics the beauty of bird calls, trembling fluidly across space. Another favorite on this album is the closing tune, “Revelation” that lasts eight minutes and is closer to the bebop, straight-ahead jazz I love to hear Azar Lawrence play.
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CATHY SEGAL-GARCIA & PHILLIP STRANGE – “LIVE IN JAPAN” – Origin Records
Cathy Segal-Garcia, vocals/composer; Phillip Strange, piano.
This is a project recorded nearly thirty years ago, (1992) but it’s still fresh and exciting. The ‘live’ performance shows off the very best of Cathy Segal-Garcia’s range and style. It also features the wonderful and inventive piano playing of Phillip Strange. It’s a 2-CD set, opening with “I’m In the Mood for Love” where Cathy sings the original melody, with quite a few of her own twists and complimentary turns. The song arrangement quickly stretches to embrace James Moody’s famous rendition (Moody’s Mood for Love). This is a jazz duet that is fresh and complimentary with both artists innovative and improvising on musical themes spontaneously. After all, that’s what makes jazz so wonderful. The freedom it reflects and the intricacies of transforming the music into something fresh and new can be quite exciting. For example, they play “You’ve Changed” as an upbeat Latin number. I enjoyed their take on “When You Wish Upon a Star.” The two musicians, offer us twenty-three songs in this double CD set. Cathy is constantly playing with time, stretching meters like taffy, but you can clearly hear the sweet comfort level and warm camaraderie between these two musicians during this ‘live’ performance.
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DAVE BRUBECK TRIO – “LIVE FROM VIENNA 1967” – Brubeck Editions
Dave Brubeck, Piano; Eugene Wright, bass; Joe Morello, drums.
I got so excited when this album came across my desk, because I saw the photo of Eugene Wright on the cover with Joe Morello and Dave Brubeck. This photograph brought a bright smile to my face. I remember singing many a night with “The Senator” (as we fondly referred to Eugene Wright) with Karen Hernandez on piano at a small club called The Money Tree in Southern California. That was many years ago, when I was a working jazz vocalist. What an extraordinary bassist he was! in the press package, we were reminded ‘The Senator’ was the last surviving member of the Dave Brubeck quartet until December 30, 2020.
This historic album was recorded ‘live’ in Vienna back in 1967 and is the only available album that features Dave Brubeck in a trio setting. What an extraordinary rhythm section! It seems that Paul Desmond got distracted the night before, when he hung out with a friend in Hamburg, Germany and missed their morning flight to Vienna. As a trio performance, these iconic musicians are given plenty of space to solo and show off their amazing talents individually.
“I think, if our dad were alive to hear this Brubeck Trio recording now, he’d be flashing his famous, big smile. He would be extremely proud to hear how, more than half a century ago, he, Gene and Joe got thrown a curve ball and knocked it out of the park!” Chris Brubeck said of this historic musical treasure.
It is absolutely awesome to hear Dave Brubeck and his trio perform in their tight, cohesive way. Without the horn, Dave Brubeck explores and embellishes each piece they play with rich improvisation and elongated technical brilliance. This is an unearthed treasure. It belongs in every jazz collector’s portfolio.
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TIERNEY SUTTON – “PARIS SESSIONS 2” – BFM Jazz
Tierney Sutton, voice/arranger/co-producer; Serge Merlaud, guitars/arranger/co-producer; Kevin Axt, basses/co-producer; Hubert Laws, flutes.
This “Paris Sessions 2” album was recorded over two days at Val d’Orge Studio in the City of Lights and during the pandemic lockdown that took over a million American lives. Tierney and her new husband, Serge Merlaud, open this album as a duo, with Jobim’s “Triste” lighting their fire in Latin brilliance. Tierney Sutton’s voice dances around the tune, improvising with scat whispers. With an international audience in mind, she sings these lyrics in Portuguese. Track #2 takes a lyrical turn towards the French roots of Serge Merlaud. It’s a unique medley combining the composition of Vernon Duke and Yip Harburg, (“April in Paris”) with Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris.” The familiar “April in Paris” is arranged as a very slow ballad, giving Tierney Sutton time to taste each poignant lyric from the 1932 Broadway musical, Walk a Little Faster. It’s a delightful medley with the unexpected Joni Mitchell flavor added like pepper to the slow boiling stew.
Their duet work continues on the Gershwin song, “Isn’t It a Pity (we never ever met before).” These lyrics perhaps mesh with the duo’s corresponding life path. Serge Merlaud’s guitar-fills are beautifully placed between the lyrical Sutton vocal interpretations. Merlaud is a sensitive and technically astute player. Their entire quartet makes its appearance on Jobim’s tune, “Zingaro” and features Hubert Laws on alto flute. This is a precious merging of Tierney’s high soprano notes that tinkle warm against the richness of Hubert’s flute. Tierney Sutton offers this fifteenth album release as a leader. She has dedicated it to the memory of the late Marilyn Bergman, who passed away in January of 2022. Other Bergman songs she has included are “Cinema Paradiso/I Knew I Loved You,” an Alan and Marilyn Bergman composition with Ennio Morricone, “Moonlight” which the married songwriters wrote with John Williams and “A Child is Born” where the Bergman’s collaborated with Dave Grusin. Tierney and Serge are playful on “Pure Imagination,” where their musical comfort with each other continues to be palpable. Tierney scats her way through Serge Merlaud’s arrangement of “Doralice,” letting her voice double with the guitar. She also uses vocals to set the bass line and establish the tempo, before Kevin Axt enters with his own superb bass support. The solo by Hubert Laws flies through space like a wild and beautiful bird. Serge Merlaud takes time to showcase his own unique interpretation of this familiar standard during his brief but power-packed guitar solo. “Paris Sessions 2” is so well-played I didn’t even miss the drums.
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HENRY FRANKLIN, ROBERT TURNER & CARL BURNETT – “3 MORE SOUNDS PLAY RAY CHARLES”- SP Records
Henry Franklin, bass; Robert Turner, piano; Carl Burnett, drums.
This is my kind of trio, bluesy and swinging! These three incredibly talented musicians have chosen to celebrate the unforgettable brilliance of Ray Charles. Well, to do that you have to be able to play the blues, drenched in gospel, and also know how to swing. No problem! Each of these players are more than proficient in doing just that! Opening with “Let the Good Times Roll,” this trio splashes on the scene with confidence and credibility. You have to be amazing players to pay tribute to the legendary Three Sounds, a jazz group originally comprised of Gene Harris, Bill Dowdy and Andy Simpkins. These three gentlemen were some of my favorite jazz musicians on the planet. Franklin, Turner and Burnett wave the “swing” flag brightly and precociously. Each is a master musician and technical expert on their instrument. Just listen to their take on Ray’s “Unchain My Heart” or “Hit the Road Jack,” flush with gospel flavor, straight-ahead arrangements, and solid jazz swing. When they play, “Georgia” I am captured by the dexterity and deep, blues inuendoes that Robert Turner plays on the piano. What a wonderful and uniquely talented pianist he is!
Henry Franklin has long been a mainstay of jazz bass in the Southern California community. At age eighteen, he was the bassist with the now historic Roy Ayres congregation.
“Roy had the Latin Jazz Quintet that included Bill Henderson (piano), sometimes Elmo Jones on piano, me and Carl Burnett (drums),” Henry recalled.
Henry has worked with Billy Higgins, Willie Bobo, and was part of the Hugh Masekela ensemble that recorded the historically famous “Grazin’ in the Grass” hit single. He recorded with Stevie Wonder on the “Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants” album and recorded with Gene Harris for Blue Note’s “Soul Symphony” release and “Live at the IT Club.” Franklin has toured with jazz nobility like Freddie Hubbard, Archie Shepp, O.C. Smith, Count Basie and Al Jarreau, just to name a few. He continues to be an in-demand, Southern California-based bandleader and sideman.
Carl Burnett, the drummer in this 3 More Sounds group, has also experienced an illustrious career and is based right here in the Los Angeles area. Carl’s drums have backed artists ranging from Sarah Vaughn, Freddie Hubbard, Billy Childs, Art Pepper and Eddie Harris to Marvin Gaye and O.C. Smith. He can be heard on albums by Horace Silver, Art Pepper, the Three Sounds, Freddie Hubbard and Kenny Burrell, among others. Together, these three very impressive gentlemen offer an album beautifully produced and exquisitely played to tribute not only Ray Charles, but the unforgettable memory and music of The Three Sounds.
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JOSH NELSON BOB BOWMAN COLLECTIVE – “TOMORROW IS NOT PROMISED” – Steel Bird Records
Josh Nelson, piano/composer; Bob Bowman, bass; Steve Houghton, drums; Larry Koonse, guitar; Bob Sheppard, saxophone; Clay Jenkins, trumpet.
Here is a group of musicians and close friends who have come together to create a project of beauty and depth. Bassist Bob Bowman first met trumpeter, Clay Jenkins in 1972 at North Texas. Shortly after, he made the acquaintance of drummer Steve Houghton and a little later, woodwind player, Bob Sheppard. As fate would have it, they all turned up in Southern California at about the same time. In Los Angeles, Bob would meet guitarist Larry Koonse. The young musician was still in high school. Eventually Bowman would meet and play with Josh Nelson. He felt an immediate connection to the pianist, and they talked about recording a duo album. All these years later, this group of seasoned jazz musicians and old acquaintances wound up in Talley Sherwood’s studio to finally make this album.
They open with the title tune, a pensive reflection on the times we live in. Josh Nelson is the composer and penned this tune during the challenge of COVID infections worldwide. Today, the beauty and blessing of living life continues to be challenged by war and rumors of war, political disparities and cultural changes. So, as he reminds us with this music, “Tomorrow is Not Promised.”
Josh said, “The title of the album seems more relevant than ever these days. …I strived to convey a sense of uncertainty and mystery, but also a feeling of determination and resolve.”
Bob Sheppard composed Track #2 titled, “Your Night Your Music.” It swings hard. “Sometime Ago” is a beautiful waltz and the tinkling beauty of Nelson’s piano magic leaps into my listening room, with Bob Bowman’s bass setting the pace and establishing the groove. When Bowman steps into the spotlight, his solo is innovative and imaginative. Larry Koonse has contributed his composition, “Blues for Albert E” to the project. Bob Sheppard’s saxophone interpretation puts a capital B in Blues and Clay Jenkins displays his bright talent on trumpet Bowman has written “Yae San” and plays the introduction a’ cappella. The arrangement on this tune embraces Asian influences, like the title. Koonse uses his guitar to pluck the recurring melody before soloing. The ensemble reinvents popular tunes like “Weaver of Dreams” where drummer Steve Houghton steps into a bright spotlight to display his talents and they arrange the familiar Miles Davis tune, “Blue in Green” in an unforgettable way, brightly featuring Josh Nelson and Bob Bowman. It’s got to be one of my favorite tunes on this album. You can tell that these musicians know each other very well and find comfort, inspiration and creativity playing together on this project.
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THE SCOTT WHITFIELD JAZZ ORCHESTRA WEST – “POSTCARDS FROM HOLLYWOOD” – Summit Records
Scott Whitfield, trombone/bass trombone/bandleader/arranger; Jeff Colello, piano; Jennifer Latham, bass; Kendall Kay, drums; Rusty Higgins, alto & soprano saxophone/flute/piccolo; Kersten Edkins, tenor & soprano saxophone/clarinet; Brian Williams, baritone saxophone; Tony Bonsera, lead trumpet/flugelhorn; Dave Richards, lead trumpet; Kye Palmer & Anne King, trumpet flugelhorn; Gary Tole & Ira Nepus, trombones; Rich Bullock, bass trombone. SPECIAL GUESTS: Pete Christlieb & Rickey Woodard, tenor saxophone; Dick Nash, trombone; Brad Dutz, percussion.
This project has pulled several favorite songs from motion picture scores and titled the project, “Postcards from Hollywood.” You will hear songs that became popular from films like Gone with the Wind (1940), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), and Cleopatra (1963). Prior to his arrival in Southern California, Scott Whitfield developed a keen interest in film soundtracks. He even wound up studying the art form at a UCLA Extension course.
“My goal with this recording is to pay homage to a cross-section of the greats, through the medium of my Jazz Orchestra West. Some of these themes will be very familiar to the listener, while others are much more obscure. In some cases, I stayed pretty close to the original concept of the piece. In others, the muse led me on a much more circuitous route,” he wrote in his liner notes.
The Scott Whitfield Jazz Orchestra West opens with “The Magnificent Seven,” a main theme from the movie of the same title. Kye Palmer makes a soaring statement on his trumpet solo and Kendall Kay is magnificent on drums. “Sally’s Tomato” from the “Breakfast at Tiffany” film is a warm, lilting, Latin arrangement where Jennifer Latham takes a memorable bass solo and Scott Whitfield’s trombone shines in center stage. Whitfield has included special guests in this production and familiar names on the Southern California scene like Rickey Woodard and Pete Christlieb on saxophones, Brad Dutz on percussion and Dick Nash on trombone. The bandleader has also built a band that celebrates the wealth of Los Angeles talent including respected names like Jeff Colello on piano, and Anne King playing trumpet and flugelhorn. Speaking of King, she plays beautifully while soloing during the “Tara’s Theme” arrangement as does Rusty Higgins on soprano saxophone. Other favorites on this album are arrangements of “A Time for Love” plucked from the “An American Dream” film. Kirsten Edkins offers a lovely tenor saxophone solo and Kye Palmer plays a mean flugelhorn. But it’s Whitfield who sparkles and swings in the spotlight on his trombone solo. With the strong bass support of Jennifer Latham on her upright instrument, Whitfield puts down his trombone and shows off his vocals, singing “Spellbound” from the movie of the same title. On “The Pawnbroker” Rickey Woodard plays with his usual soulful dexterity and emotional sincerity on his tenor saxophone solo. This might be my favorite tune on the whole album.
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CARMEN LUNDY – “FADE TO BLACK” – Afrasia Productions
Carmen Lundy, vocals/composer/arranger/ guitar/percussion/ keyboards/horn arrangements/backing vocals; Julius Rodriguez, piano; Matthew Whitaker, organ/keyboards/string arrangement/programming; Kenny Davis, acoustic & electric bass; Terreon Gully, drums; Curtis Lundy, acoustic bass; Giveton Gelin & Wallace Roney jr., trumpet; Morgan Guerin & Camille Thurman, tenor saxophone.
Lundy has composed and arranged all of the material on this album. She opens with “Shine A Light,” dedicated to the first responders and hospital workers who showed their selfless bravery during a time of worldwide health crisis. The melody is catchy and has a few challenging intervals thrown-in, they do indeed shine a light on her composing skills. Lundy has a way of mixing straight ahead and contemporary jazz. This first song is one of my favorites. “So Amazing” is very contemporary and Lundy’s voice uses its full range to sing the message with joy and competence. “Daughter of the Universe,” with its blues groove and strong bass line captures my interest immediately. I enjoy the way she doubles the vocals in specifics places and celebrates her alto voice range. This song and the one that follows, “Ain’t I Human” were inspired by Harriet Tubman’s famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech. This was during Tubman’s struggle for freedom and equality, as not only an African American, but as a woman in a man-controlled world. The tune “Reverence” is another one of my favorites and is a referendum on privacy. Lundy’s lyrics float like colorful, revolutionary flags above chords that set a groove pattern beneath the flapping cloth of truth. This is music with a message and Carmen Lundy is a woman with a purpose and a strong creative opinion. She is also a visual artist. Ms. Lundy has designed the cover of her CD and hosted art gallery premieres of her paintings and sculptor work. As a multi-talented artist, Carmen Lundy is quite striking.
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TED KOOSHIAN – “HUBUB!” – Summit Records
Ted Kooshian, piano/electric keyboards/composer/arranger; Greg Joseph, drums; Dick Sarpola, double bass/elec. Bass; David Silliman, percussion; Jeff Lederer, tenor saxophone; John Bailey, trumpet; Katie Jacoby, violin; Summer Boggess, cello; Jim Mola, vocals.
Ted Kooshian is a pianist who grew up in the Bay Area of California and was greatly influenced by his band director in junior high school.
“In the seventh grade there was a new, young band director at our junior high school, who wanted t6o start a jazz band. He played an Oscar Peterson record for me and it completely turned me around. I immediately thought, man this is what I want to do!” Kooshian recalls.
Surrounded by his longtime friends and musical colleagues, Ted Kooshian opens with an original composition that he wrote back in 1992. The title tune, “Hubub!” struts onto the scene, swinging hard and introducing the listeners to each musician as they step forward to solo, beginning with John Bailey on a spirited trumpet solo. Jeff Lederer on tenor saxophone steps up to the microphone next. Jeff and Ted Kooshian are longtime buddies and Lederer has appeared on every one of Kooshian’s recordings. Next coms Kooshian, tickling the 88 keys and keeping the ‘swing’ alive and in your face. Dick Sarpola is a sensitive bassist who pumps his solo out of the double bass, spreading joy sweet as jam. Then comes Greg Joseph on trap drums, trading bars with the band members and showing off his skills. Ted Kooshian has composed all the music, with the exception of the familiar tune, “Somewhere.” He has contracted violinist Katie Jacoby who is a member of the Ed Palermo Big Band, which is a band Kooshian has been a primary member of for nearly thirty years. But jazz is not his only choice of music. Ted Kooshian has toured with rock icons, ‘The Who’ and has worked with Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Marvin Hamlisch, Edgar Winter, Sarah Brightman and II Divo. His musical sensibilities and reading skills have landed him in several Broadway orchestra pits including Mamma Mia, The Lion King, Aida, Come Fly Away, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Spamalot. Seemingly a musician for all times, this album celebrates his composer talents, as well as his piano skills.
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By Dee Dee McNeil
November 1, 2022
John D. Stephens has a quiet spirit, but inside his head is swirling with music. He’s a composer, arranger, producer and big band leader. Stephens plays a wide range of woodwind instruments including alto, tenor, soprano and baritone saxophones, flute, clarinet and bass clarinet. Born in Beaumont, Texas, he grew up twenty minutes away in the small town of China, Texas. It was there, he started out as a member of his high school band, playing saxophone.
“In Texas, I played with Rhythm and Blues bands and because we were near the Louisiana border, right there at Lake Charles, I played some Zydeco and French music too and some Delta blues,” John told me.
“My mom played piano, and I had a brother who was a bandleader. There were six boys and a girl in my family. My dad was killed in an automobile accident in Texas when I was five. About three years later, my mother re-married and I had a wonderful stepfather. Consequently, our family grew. As a teenager, I was playing tenor saxophone in the high school band and around town. When I graduated, I joined the Marines and they dropped me off in San Diego, California. I had signed up for a four-year commitment. I had another friend of mine from Beaumont, Texas who joined the Marines around the same time. He got out a month ahead of me and he convinced me to go to school for music at Cal State Northridge. I had been playing in the United States Marine Corps Band for those four years and I was ready to expand my knowledge and get my B.A. music degree.”
John Stephens took to Southern California like a duckling to water. Beaumont and China, Texas had been small ponds, but here he was at the foot of the Pacific Ocean and swimming around with all these big fish.
“One morning I was getting ready for college and my phone rang. I got a call from an unfamiliar voice. He said, your friend, Grover Mitchell suggested I give you a call. I need a baritone sax player for my band and we’re about to go on tour. Well, I stood there in shock. The voice wanted to know if I was available. I couldn’t believe my ears when he told me who he was. It was Count Basie! I told him that I had promised my mom I’d finish college before I went on the road. Mr. Basie said he understood and respected me for respecting my mother’s good advice. I’ll never forget that call, as long as I live,” John reminisced.
Stephens had roots with R&B music back in Texas, and with his degree finally in hand, the first major tour he joined was as part of Marvin Gaye’s aggregation.
“Marvin Gaye’s tour was the first major group I had ever worked with. It was on the 1976 “I Want You” tour, playing in the band with folks like Leslie Drayton, David I, and Nolan Shaheed. Eventually, here comes Buddy Collette and Gerald Wilson stepping into my life along with Teddy Edwards. They became my mentors. Gerald Wilson was teaching the history of Jazz at the college. That’s where I met Ernie Watts. Ernie Watts sat next to me in the Gerald Wilson band. I was a little slow on my horn and one day Ernie took his hand and hit me on the leg and said, ‘Come on man. Let’s go.’ He said it firmly, but in an encouraging way,” John laughs recalling that moment.
John Stephens admits that the study of music and working with so many iconic big bands was awe inspiring. He loved the big band sound, their intricate harmonies, the swing, and the charisma of so many musicians blending together to make beautiful music. He was hired by the Gerald Wilson big band, Buddy Collette’s band, and Benny Carter’s band. John was infatuated with orchestration, and he was good at writing it.
“I worked with a guy once who knew I could write orchestration and he knew I was struggling to get in the business. He had an inroad into Solar Records. At the time, Leon Silvers was producing artists over there like Shalamar, The Whispers and Dynasty. Leon would cut the rhythm tracks and give them to my friend. He’d run them over to my house for me to orchestrate, with the promise that I would get arranging credit. I also contracted some of those sessions, but I never got credit for those orchestrations or arrangements. Live and learn. I guess you could say I was a ghost-orchestrator.
“I started a big band to showcase my composer and orchestrator skills. I actually play all the saxophones, and I was always a good reader, but not such a great improvisor. I didn’t get the gig calls that I wanted. After a while, I said, I’ll start my own big band and feature my own orchestrations. Today, I’ve got so many charts I’ve written and I’m grateful to the lord who gave me time to do this.
“I’m dedicating my time and energy now to keeping my current project going as a musician and bandleader. The John Stephens Big Band is working on a new project, “Songs & Tunes of My Mentors.” It’s an album concept. Currently I have two singles from that album that I released in October,” John explained his current project.
I listened to his two singles. One is titled “Come On In” that he arranged and composed. It’s a Latin-tinged song with a fluid tenor saxophone solo by guest artist, Rickey Woodard and a trumpet solo from Dr. Bobby Rodriguez. Drummer, Lance Kellogg propels the piece, and the horn arrangements are warm and act as a plush, harmonic cushion for the melody to bounce upon. The other single is titled “It’s You” and it’s a big band arrangement featuring a Buddy Collette composition. Once again, Lance Kellogg mans the drums and the tune swings hard, in tribute to the extraordinary talent of my friend and mentor, the iconic Buddy Collette.
John Stephens & Buddy Collette from the John Stephens collection.
What a blessing for John Stephens to have worked with music masters like Buddy Collette, Gerald Wilson and Benny Carter. I asked him about his time playing with Carter’s band.
“Benny Carter was such a gentleman with his music. I did four tours with him to Japan. On one trip I got to hang out with Dizzy Gillespie. Also, Marlena Shaw was on that tour and the Little Giant, Johnny Griffin. Wow. I was thrilled! We did a gig at the Hollywood Bowl that featured Cleo Laine and her husband John Dankworth, who played clarinet and was a magnificent arranger. We did two dates for the Playboy Jazz Festival and on one of them, Ella Fitzgerald was the headliner of Benny’s band. We played first and Benny played his alto. After a while, they introduced Ella and she came out and started talking to the hushed audience about losing her eyesight. She was going blind and she shared that with her fans. Then she started singing and in the middle of the song she started literally shouting the song and Ella hit a note I’ll never forget. It was almost like a scream into the night.
“Anyway, all these people helped me along the way. They influenced me and mentored me and I’m grateful for every experience. That’s why I’m putting all this energy into my soon to be released album that tributes some of them,” John reminded me.
For more information about The John Stephens Big Band project, he is fundraising at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tLBSdkE8h6E
The Southern California-based musicians who are working on this project include: RHYTHM: Greg Poree, guitar; Yuko Mabuchi, piano; Trevor Ware, bass; Lance Kellogg & Al Threats, drums. SAXOPHONES: Mike Nelson & Cindy Lee Bradley, alto saxophone; Dave Thomasson & Derek McLyn, tenor; Dennis Kaye, baritone saxophone; TRUMPETS/FLUGELHORNS: Ron Barrows, Jeff Kaye, Curt Sletten, Bob Parino. TROMBONES: Les Benedict, Christopher Johnson, Dan Weinstein, George Thatcher. SPECIAL GUESTS: Rickey Woodard, tenor saxophone and Dr. Bobby Rodriguez, trumpet.
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CARMEN LUNDY FINDS VALUE IN THE ANCESTORS
By Dee Dee McNeil
October 1, 2022
Carmen Lundy is one of those productive people who is highly creative, gifted and artistic. Born November 1st in Miami, Florida, it didn’t take little Carmen long to discover music tantalized her ears. From day one, there was music in their house and she had a song in her heart. At Age four, her tiny fingers plucked out melodies on the household upright piano. Carmen’s mother was also full of song and a role model as the lead singer in a gospel group called “The Apostolic Singers.” Her auntie, Emma Teresa Miller, was a pianist for that gospel group, and she inspired Carmen to love the instrument. In fact, Carmen has always found value in lessons from the ancestors.
“My mother is the oldest of fifteen children and I am the oldest of seven siblings. When she wasn’t doing the eight-hour job-thing, my mother would do housekeeping on the side. The lady that she did that for was a classical piano player. That lady offered me piano lessons without having to pay for them. Mrs. Leslie Bloss was my first piano teacher. She also was Curtis’s first teacher,” Carmen referred to her famous brother, jazz bassist Curtis Lundy.
“I took lessons from Mrs. Bloss until I was about eight or nine; maybe ‘til the age of ten. From age twelve to about fourteen I studied piano with Mr. Poznanski. But pianist, Emma Miller, my mother’s sister, was throwing down the gospel stuff from the time I was four or five. That’s probably where I picked up playing piano, from watching her. I never studied with her. I was just amazed at her facility. You know, people always ask me who are your influences? And I have to say, a lot of them are people the world doesn’t know. They were the ones who showed me the music informally. My grandfather played guitar. My grandmother played the organ. An in-law named Joe Louis was somewhere in between B.B. King and George Benson. He had a mellow sound, but he could also ‘rip” on guitar. He would electrify the whole room. We were church going folks, and music was the salvation and expression that got us through another day,” Carmen told me about her musically inspired, youthful years.
After graduating from the University of Miami and moving from Miami to New York City, for nearly eighteen years Carmen Lundy acted as a clinician at the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead Program. Betty Carter brought her Jazz Ahead program to the Kennedy Center in 1998. It has helped launch the careers of several of today’s stars, including Cyrus Chestnut, Kendrick Scott, Jason Moran, Jazzmeia Horn, Nate Smith, Arco Iris Sandoval, and Matthew Whitaker, among others.1 I asked Carmen Lundy about that exciting time in her life.
“Well, you know Curtis, my brother, gave that program the name Jazz Ahead while he was working with Betty Carter. She started the program at Brooklyn Academy of Music, up the street from where she lived. Dr. Billy Taylor became the Artistic Advisor of Jazz at the Kennedy Center and this was around the mid to late nineties. So, Dr. Taylor invited Betty Carter to bring her Jazz Ahead Program into the Kennedy Center in April of 1998.2 Betty Carter passed away in September of 1998. She had just gotten her foot in the door of the Kennedy Center, and she was gone. So, my brother, Curtis Lundy, came in and became the helm of Jazz Ahead that year. Curtis recommended me, because I think it made sense that there should be a female representation, since Betty had started it, and it just so happened that I was also a jazz vocalist.”
Of course, it also helped that Carmen Lundy had graduated from the University of Miami where she received her B.M. degree in studio music and jazz. She started out as an opera major but changed direction and became the first jazz vocal major at the University of Miami. Ms. Lundy had also been performing since her college days, first in Miami and then at jazz hot spots all over New York City. She reads music and is accomplished in composing and arranging. Not to mention, at the time of her appointment, she had record releases to her credit. Carmen’s credentials made her the perfect fit as faculty for Betty Carter’s program.
“Dr. Taylor was smart. He knew that the Kennedy Center people needed that credential like he had, so he invited Dr. Nathan Davis from the University of Pittsburgh to oversee the Jazz Ahead Program, along with me, Curtis Fuller and George Cables who were all part of the faculty. Then, the question became, where are we going to get these kids from? Where will we get these musicians? Betty Carter was handpicking everybody, so what do we do? We started a submissions program. Everybody was submitting from all over the world, and they were sending their cassettes with their bios and all that good stuff. We would sit there with boxes of cassettes delivered to our front door. We would have to listen to hours upon hours of submissions. In fact, that’s how I met pianist, Julius Rodriguez who’s on my CD and trumpeter Giveton Gelin and Matthew Whitaker on organ and keyboards,” Carmen credited some of the young musicians from the Jazz Ahead program as being part of her new album. Speaking of her new release, Lundy has composed and arranged all the material on her latest album, “Fade to Black.” She opens with “Shine A Light,” dedicated to the first responders and hospital workers who showed their selfless bravery during a time of the COVID worldwide health crisis. Her opening melody is catchy and has a few challenging intervals thrown-in for good measure. Melodically, these unexpected intervals do indeed shine a light on Ms. Lundy’s composing skills and vocal range. Carmen Lundy has a comfortable way of mixing straight ahead and contemporary jazz. This first song is one of my favorites. “So Amazing” is very contemporary and Lundy’s voice uses its full range to sing her message with joy and competence. “Daughter of the Universe,” has a blues groove and a strong bass line delivered by Curtis Lundy on the introduction. The bass line captures my interest immediately. Inside the song, Kenny Davis plays bass. I enjoy the way Carmen doubles her vocals in specifics places and celebrates her alto voice range. This song and the one that follows, “Ain’t I Human” were inspired by Harriet Tubman’s famous “Ain’t I A Woman” speech that reflected Tubman’s struggle for freedom and equality, not only as an African American, but as a woman in a man-controlled world. The tune “Reverence” is another one of my favorites and is a referendum on privacy. Lundy’s lyrics float like colorful, revolutionary flags above chords that set a groove pattern beneath the flapping cloth of truth. This is music with a message and Carmen Lundy is a woman with a purpose and a strong creative opinion.
Lundy’s latest recording is her sixteenth album release. She admits, getting record deals has been an up-hill struggle. Carmen Lundy shared her personal determination to succeed in the music business.
“It was 1978 when I moved to New York City. All the guys I went to University of Miami with were finishing school and moving to NYC. So, I did the same thing. But my goal was to make records. The first year I got there, I sang every weekend in NY for fifty dollars a night at a club called Jazz Mania. It was a loft thing and a gig for everybody. I met Kenny Barron there, Walter Bishop Jr., and an endless list of players. Day after day, I went to every major record company that was making jazz records. I submitted to every, last one of them and every one of them turned me down. As a matter of fact, the third demo tape I submitted to Columbia Records turned out to be my first record. They gave me a licensing deal. But they originally turned down the same record that they could have put out and helped me to establish myself in the 80’s.”
Carmen explained, “What happened was, Father Peter O’Brien was managing Mary Lou Williams for most of her career. Mary Lou Williams passed in 1981. I saw Mary Lou perform in summer of 1979 and in 1980. Father O’Brien read a Village Voice cover article about me in 1983 and he contacted me. He was doing a concert to honor Mary Lou Williams with Jon Faddis participating and he asked me to sing some of her music. After that, he took a shine to me and became my manager. So, Father O’Brien handled the whole thing with Columbia. He was the one who was smart enough to know what to do when they passed on me as an artist. He was the one who contacted Herb Wong at Black Hawk and that’s how I got that ‘Good Morning Kiss’ record released, through Father O’Brien. It was a distribution deal and stayed on the Billboard chart for weeks.”
With the guidance of Father Peter O’Brien, Carmen Lundy’s career blossomed.
“In part of Mary Lou’s Will, she requested that the legacy of her music be passed on to children. Father O’Brien asked me to teach Mary Lou’s Mass to young people. He was then the Chaplain at Fordham University. I went into the Parochial school in Harlem and hand-picked the voices to teach them Mary Lou’s Mass. I also worked with the Harlem Boys Choir and the New York Boys Choir. I acted as the soloist for anything that required a soloist in Mary Lou’s Mass, and I performed Mary Lou’s Mass for a good twelve to fifteen years. When Father O’Brien hooked up with Geri Allen, then Geri and I started doing the mass together. Before Geri, Marian McPartland was at the piano chair when we did it at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., with David Baker conducting. Mary Lou wrote two pieces based on Martin Luther King speeches. One of them is called, I have a Dream, which we all know. The other one she wrote is called ‘Tell Them Not to Talk Too Long.’ Those two, Father O’Brien commissioned me to write the chorale arrangements. I did, and we performed them in Los Angeles with the Master Chorale.
I asked Carmen Lundy what made her leave New York and relocate to Los Angeles.
“I moved to Los Angeles in the early nineties. I was burned out. The Crack thing, that epidemic, had decimated the New York Community. My manager at the time booked me on the Duke Ellington Broadway “Sophisticated Ladies” show that was Phyllis Hyman’s role. They had a National company and they had a European company. I ended up doing the European tour. That was a great way to know and live Duke Ellington’s music. The first run was twenty-nine shows without a day off. I had a six-month contract. I did make a record for a label called Arabasque. It was an independent label. When the record came out, it was around the same time I had moved to Los Angeles.”
“I came out to L.A. to visit my friends who had made their big hit in Ain’t Misbehavin’ with Nell Carter, Ken Page, Amelia McQueen, Andre DeShields, Charlayne Woodard, all the cast from Ain’t Misbehavin’. They were all coming back and forth, trying to get into film and TV out here. A lot of them did well with film and television. While visiting, I got sent on an audition by my agent in New York for a TV show and I got the part. They gave me a car, they gave me an apartment and a nice piece of change. So, I said, oh – L.A. isn’t so bad after all. Twenty-something years later, I’m still here.”
Although the television pilot Carmen shot never materialized, she settled into West Coast living and has continued to be productive as both a singer, actress and a visual artist. She also produces short films and in September she debuted her film, “Nothing But the Blood – The True Story of the Apostolic Singers of Miami,” at the Regal Theater in downtown Los Angeles. It’s a story of her Miami musical family.
As a visual artist, she has painted and designed several of her album covers, including this recent “Fade to Black” release. Her extraordinary art and multi-media sculptures will be featured as part of the upcoming “Shifting the Narrative: Jazz and Gender Justice” exhibit, opening at Detroit’s Carr Center on October 14, 2022. You can check out an eye-opening gallery of her visual art at her website: www.carmenlundy.com.
As our conversation wound down, Carmen Lundy offered these thoughtful words of wisdom.
“The beautiful thing is the value of a mentor. Having Betty Carter as a mentor, ok?! My mother as a mentor! Once you get here, it’s the result of your standing on somebody’s shoulders. Generations that are moving forward must regard and respect their ancestors for giving them everything that they can. It benefits us and enriches us. I just have to say, the value of what we do is on the shoulders of those who have walked this walk and carved this path for us.”
True to her own counsel, Carmen Lundy is doing the work, creating the art and offering opportunity to youthful talent by example, by teaching, by employing and by believing, as ‘the ancestors’ did, in the evolution and support of our blossoming, new generations.
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By Dee Dee McNeil
Sept 1, 2022
Not only is she Director of the Watts Towers Art Center Campus, Rosie Lee Hooks is also a gifted singer, a filmmaker, an arts administrator, photographer, educator, a first degree black belt in Tang Soo Do karate and the producer of the Annual Simon Rodia Watts Towers Jazz Festival and producer of the Day of the Drum celebration. Currently, Rosie Lee Hooks is rolling up her sleeves to produce both festivals. They will celebrate 100 years of L.A’s treasured Watts Towers, singularly built by Simon Rodia and world renowned, these famous towers have inspired this Los Angeles County community art space.
I asked Rosie Lee Hooks what these Watts Towers festivals mean to her and to the community.
“Watts is truly amazing. Everybody talks about the rebellion of 1965 when they mention Watts, but the Watts community is rich in culture. We have the famed Locke High School, a facility that has mentored so many talented musicians like Patrice Rushen, Ndugu Chancler, Reggie Andrews, Raymond Pounds, two recent members of the Earth Wind and Fire horn section, Tyrese Gibson, Billy Preston, Musical Director Rickey Minor and so many more. Ever since I’ve been here, for the last twenty something years, I’ve been working hard to make sure people understand we are more than 1965. We deserve recognition for being an area where more artists, in all disciplinaries, have developed from this very Watts area.”
Rosie Lee Hooks has credentials as deep as the cultural roots of the Watts Community. It was Rosie Lee Hooks who produced the very first Central Ave Jazz Festival. This was during the time she was Director of Festivals and Gallery Theatre for the City of Los Angeles Dept of Cultural Affairs. She told me about that.
“You know I’ve done about twenty something films documenting culture here in L.A., to include many of the festivals like the Central Ave Jazz festival, the Mariachi Festival, the first three Cuban Festivals, the first three Puerto Rican festivals, the Armenian Festival and more. I’ve produced a lot of Festivals here in the City of Los Angeles and I’ve documented many of those festivals in film and put them on-line. They show on the Youtube channel.
“I had already started the jazz mentorship program and Mayor Tom Bradley, during his tenure, asked us to focus on music. He brought together educational institutions, commercial institutions, radio and private institutions. Mayor Bradley brought us together to say, we want to make ‘live’ music available to the constituency in L.A. and what can we do? What programs can you design? I was working for DCA, (Dept of Cultural Affairs) and we designed the jazz mentorship program.
“As you know, Los Angeles is full of master musicians, and they are the crème de la crème of musicians. So, we chose these masters to go into places where young people were. We focused on the youth, whether it was in schools, community centers, juvenile hall, or otherwise. We went to young people wherever they were, to bring them ‘live’ music with live musicians. When we asked the kids, have you ever been to a ‘live’ music concert, all the hands would go up, but we quickly discovered they meant ‘live’ on television. I said, no. ‘live’ where you can bring your instrument and play. We encouraged young musicians to bring their instruments and get on stage with Patrice Rushen, Buddy Collette, Ndugu Chancler, Nedra Wheeler and Bobby Rodriguez. That was our initial core that we started with. The first sessions were at the California African American Museum. They used to have a theater there called Kinsey Auditorium. It’s not there anymore. But the first four concerts were done there around 1992. After the Watts rebellion, they were not letting people congregate at all. Anytime black people or minority people congregated, there were helicopters buzzing and all of that. So, we invited a lot of the housing project community, and those young people were encouraged to attend with adult supervision. We did the first four jazz mentorship programs in association with the African American Museum. After that, we ventured out to those other schools and community centers. The program was also sponsored by the Musician’s Union. And when those funds dried up, we had to transition. We transitioned into that first production of the Central Ave Jazz Festival.
“I had all of those people from the Mentorship Program involved in producing that festival. I also filmed it. Documentation is important. June of 1996 was when it began. Again, the model was what I had already done while working at the Smithsonian Institution. We did have a panel on stage with Buddy Collette and Patrice Rushen as the moderators. We had Melba Liston on stage, Roy Porter, Clora Bryant, and Bobby Rodriguez. I conceptualized, developed and produced that festival based on what I was doing at the Smithsonian Institution (years before) and focused on the different aspects of black life in our community that included sacred and secular music, community activities, and the marketplace. We do a lot of things in the marketplace; cooking, hair braiding, woodcarving, all of those kinds of things, storytelling, things that are part of our life and allow us to express ourselves culturally,” Rosie Lee Hooks told me how the Central Ave Jazz Festival began.”
That festival was only one of more than three-hundred multi-cultural and multi-discipline festivals that Rosie Lee Hooks has produced, along with special events and various theatrical programs. Her Jazz Mentorship Program is now thirty-plus years old, and still growing with the goal of exposing youth to America’s indigenous and celebrated musical art form of jazz. In Washington D.C., she was employed by the Smithsonian Institution from 1972 to 1977, where she honed her talents in festival production and cultural activities.
“When I was working for Educational Projects and Research Corporation, I travelled domestically throughout the United States. When I went to the Smithsonian, I travelled for the International Department with an official passport to carry the official invitation from the Smithsonian and the United States of America to ministers of Institution in Africa, the Caribbean and South America. I worked directly with the Ambassadors of various countries; the Ministers of Culture in mostly West African nations including Senegal, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierre Leone, Gambia, Ghana and maybe a couple of others. I didn’t know where I was going, a little colored girl from Alabama, but I knew I was going somewhere. Every door that opened, I went through it.”
During those ‘walk-through’ years, she pushed open doors and was unafraid to explore new paths and opportunities. Rosie Lee Hooks shattered glass ceilings with her head held high. She is the first female Director of the Watts Towers Arts Campus.
Her early background was in Childhood education, working with Head Start Programs for youth, then moving to administration and producing. She was probably very comfortable working with children, because Rosie Lee Hooks grew up with twenty-three siblings. Her family was more like a tribe, based in Bessemer, Alabama. When she moved to Washington, D.C., she sang with the popular, award winning all female group, “Sweet Honey in the Rock.” Once relocating to California, she acted in movies like The Bodyguard, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and appeared on television shows like NYPD Blue. Believe it or not, acting came into her life because Rosie Lee Hooks wanted to overcome her natural shyness.
Always seeking ways to expand and share knowledge that uplifts her community, Rosie Lee Hooks came up with a unique plan to spread the word about jazz and jazz artists.
“Along the way, you know, I’d never seen a bookmark with black people on it, so wanting to disseminate information and leave something with those young people in our Jazz Mentorship Program, I started to design bookmarks. The first bookmarks were Buddy Collette, Patrice Rushen, Ndugu Chancler, Melba Liston, Billy Higgins, Horace Tapscott, Clora Bryant and Bobby Rodriguez. Each student was given a bookmark. Dorothy Donegan was one of them too. I remember taking Dorothy Donegan to Crenshaw High School with a young bassist, Nedra Wheeler. It was very interesting. Dorothy was a character. At the concert, Ms. Donegan started out with blues, playing piano, and then she put that leg up on the piano and kept on playing; then she went right out of the blues and into Rachmaninoff.”
I could hear the wonder and artistic appreciation for pianist Dorothy Donegan echoing in Rosie Lee’s tone of voice. I too have experienced Ms. Donegan ‘live’ and she was an unpredictable ball of talent that rolled across her spellbound audiences with energy and brilliance. What a blessing and an inspiration for those young people to experience that kind of genius in person, thanks to Rosie Lee Hooks.
Rosie Lee Hooks has received several prestigious awards. I asked her about the NAACP Image Awards that she has won.
“The first one, I think, was for 227. I created the role that Jacqui does on television. I created that role in a theatrical production and I got the Image Award for that role. Then, I got one for “Moliere’s Misanthrope.” The other one, “Knock Me a Kiss” was where I played W.E.B. Dubois’ wife. I received a Cast Award for “Knock Me a Kiss.” I think I’ve won three Image Awards out of five nominations,” Rosie Lee told me.
Her work has been honored with other Awards, including the Rainbow Award from the Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival. She has also received numerous Community Service Awards from the Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center, the Charles Drew School of Medicine Foundation, and in 2011 she was appointed a Southern California Freedom Sister by the Museum of Tolerance.
This year’s Annual Free Watts Towers Jazz Festival and Day of the Drum Festival are events that the whole family will enjoy. On September 24 through September 25, 2022, free Valet Parking will make the festival easily accessible from 10AM to 6PM.
“The Day of the Drum Festival is very special. It gives us an opportunity to pay tribute to traditional culture and will feature Aztec Traditional dancing, the One plus One Duo that’s a mix of Middle Eastern and Persian percussion, the La Bamba Collective, which is Afro and Puerto Rican drums and dance, as well as a tribute to drummer, James Gadson. Mr. Gadson is eighty years old now and he’s never really been recognized properly. So, we’ll be honoring Mr. Gadson and Munyungo Jackson is putting together that ensemble,” Rosie Lee explained about the Day of the Drum Festival.
“Our Masters of Ceremony will be James Janisse and Torrence Brandon Reese. The Simon Rodia Watts Towers Jazz Festival opens with a Yoruba Ground Celebration uniting all cultures based on common ground and principles. We’ll feature the prized Watts Willowbrook Strings, under the direction of pianist/producer/educator Billy Mitchell, who’s doing a wonderful job down here teaching them classical music. Since the Watts Towers were singularly hand-built by an Italian artist, we always include an Italian entertainer. This year it’s the wonderful jazz singer, Jasmine Tommaso. Also, singer Wendy Barnes will be here with the Influentials. We’ll have the jazz mentorship all-stars performing. Patrice Rushen will pull that together. The day will end with The Ark, founded by Horace Tapscott. Reed man, Michael Sessions is contracting that group. We’ll have a food court and a shopping area. Also, there’s a children’s area where we’ll be teaching people about native plants, succulents and doing mosaic tiling activities. Kenzi Shiokaza recently passed, but he was a big part of our Watts Towers Garden, and our garden art center was built around his work. The children will enjoy art projects and be introduced to our turtle pond where we house a twenty-year-old African tortoise,” the excitement in Rosie Lee Hooks voice is contagious.
I’ll see you at the Annual Watts Towers Jazz Festival, where you can meet Ms. Rosie Lee Hooks, strolling around the campus, like the perfect hostess that she is, making sure everyone is having a good time.
CELEBRATING LOS ANGELES LEGENDS: WASHINGTON RUCKER
By Dee Dee McNeil
Aug 1, 2022
WASHINGTON RUCKER is a name you may not have heard lately, but one we should never forget. He was born Washington Irving Rucker in Tulsa, Oklahoma on March 5, 1937 in a small room above a neighborhood grocery store. His maternal great grandfather was part American Indian Creek and moved to Washington, D.C. to become a professional translator for the tribe. He fell in love with the District of Columbia and named his son Washington. That name was passed down the chain of the Barnett Black Creek Freedmen to Washington Rucker from his great grandfather.
The young Washington Rucker developed a love for music and became infatuated with drums before he was five years old. It happened when he heard a bandmember in the famous Tulsa Booker T. Washington Parade band. They called the legendary drummer Crazy Red, but his given name was James Williams. Washington’s eyes became wide with excitement when he heard how the drums propelled that band. He used his mother’s cast iron skillet, a knife and a fork to mimic what he heard Crazy Red playing on those drums. Ms. Georgia Barnett indulged her son, seeing how happy he was creating rhythms. She had her hands full, because Washington Rucker was one of eight children.
Washington was taken under the wings of a world-renowned Tulsa drummer, Clarence Dixon, who saw his potential and inspired the young man. Dixon was voted the number two drummer in the world, right under Chick Webb, from 1937 to 1942. He taught Washington Rucker the basic elements of drumming. One thing he pounded into Washington’s head was belief in his own potential.
“You can take a pair of sticks and go anywhere in the world if you want to go,” Mr. Dixon promised.
Washington Rucker eventually became the drummer for that same Booker T. High School Band, the one that had originally drawn his four-year-old ears to music. It was 1952 when Cecil McBee, the clarinetist, invited sixteen-year-old Washington Rucker to play drums with him at Love’s Lounge in Tulsa. McBee knew about the young drummer because Washington attended junior high school with his sister, Shirley McBee, and everyone was talking about Washington’s mad talent on the drums. But playing in the Booker T marching band and playing a set of trap drums were two entirely different experiences. Washington Rucker said it was Cecil McBee who taught him how to play a back beat. He landed his first professional job in his teens, playing drums with a local bluesman, Jimmy “Cry Cry” Hawkins. They toured all over Oklahoma playing juke joints. After graduating high school, Washington Rucker joined the Navy. That’s where he discovered the “Navy School of Music,” and that opportunity redirected his life.
“So, I go to the Navy School of Music. There were 150 drummers, my name was 147, and I had to climb that high up. That’s when I really became a real musician, because I used to practice and study almost twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Didn’t hang out, didn’t do nothing, I just played in the band,” Washington Rucker explained to the Voices of Oklahoma Historical Society.1
Once out of the Navy, Washington Rucker spent time in Pennsylvania and Washington D.C. He relocated to Los Angeles in September of 1966. He had been living in Washington, D.C and was the house drummer for the famous Howard Theater. In that position, Washington, the drummer, pumped his rhythms into every well-known entertainer you can imagine from James Brown to Marvin Gaye; from Otis Redding to Chuck Jackson, Sam Cooke and Bobby Timmons. He played with the best of the R&B, Blues and jazz acts. When his marriage ended, Washington left D.C. and headed for the West Coast. One of his first gigs was at Dupree’s on 42nd Street and Avalon with Curtis Peagler on saxophone and Roy Brewster on baritone horn. Preston Love had heard good things about Washington Rucker’s drum skills from the bandleader at the Howard Theater. He knew Washington could read music and called him, asking if he’d like to tour with Stevie Wonder. In 1969, Washington went on tour with Little Stevie Wonder and became the drummer on Stevie’s first overseas gig. Washington told me he loved Stevie and thought he was a genius, but Motown’s money was short and their respect for musicians, in those days, was even shorter. When he returned to Los Angeles, Nancy Wilson’s Gal Friday called him and said Nancy had heard about him and asked if he would tour with her.
“Nancy paid four-times more money than Motown,” Washington told me.
“Don Trenner was her Musical Director. They had just fired Mickey Roker and Buster Williams. We went to Las Vegas for six weeks. I toured Europe with Nancy Wilson in 1970 and 1971. I also played at the Ambassador Theater with Linda Hopkins and Bradley Bobo on bass for that play, ‘Me and Bessie.’ I believe I was the first drummer to play with Linda on that gig. We also took that act to Europe,” Washington Rucker shared with me.
“I think Hampton Hawes was the best be bop piano player I ever played with. He called me up one day. Told me Jimmy Hopps had recommended me and told me to come over to his house to rehearse. I took a snare drum, a high hat and some brushes. He lived in East L.A. in what appeared to be a Latino area. His wife, Josie Black, was a Latino. He had a fake fireplace and up there on the mantle was a Presidential Pardon from JFK,” Washington Rucker remembered that meeting like it was yesterday, during an interview with John Erling, of Voices for Oklahoma .
When Washington Rucker asked Hampton Hawes how he got that Presidential Pardon, Hampton told him he’d had a drug problem and was sentenced to five years in prison. Hawes wrote to President Kennedy and reminded him of Howard Rumsey’s “Concerts by the Sea” a California Club where Hampton Hawes used to perform. John Kennedy often popped into that ocean jazz club to hear Hampton play. Hawes asked President Kennedy if he could help him. The result was, a month later, Hampton Hawes received the Presidential Pardon.
Washington Rucker has played with a variety of artists in every genre of music, from coast to coast. His credits include Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Stitt, vocalists Sherwood Sledge, Joe Williams and Maxine Weldon; the iconic Ray Charles, gospel artists Rev. James Cleveland and Shirley Caesar, and jazz trumpet master, Freddie Hubbard, to name just a few. He recorded with B. B. King and played on three or four albums with Big Joe Turner. Washington Rucker released one album as a bandleader called, “Bridging the Gap.”
When I asked him who were some of his favorite Los Angeles-based artists he told me, bassist, Larry Gales for bebop and Bradley Bobo was one of his favorites on the electric bass. He also praised pianist Randy Randolph.
Rucker added. “I really enjoyed working with saxophonist, Curtis Peagler too. I had my own quartet that featured Herman Riley on tenor saxophone and Art Hillary on piano.”
Washington lived for a while in Europe and this video was during a television special appearance on Romanian National TV.
1981 was the year he graduated from UCLA. He won the Frank Sinatra Award for Jazz and Pop music in 1981 and he started the Jazz for Wee People in 1981 to inspire youth and teach them the beauty and historic relevance of jazz. He taught at UCLA briefly, for two years and in 1998 Washington Rucker was inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame. The multi-talented Washington Rucker is also an actor. He studied acting, cosmetology and clothing design. He appeared in a movie called “Mob City” and he portrayed Papa Jo Jones in the Clint Eastwood film, “Bird.” As an author, he wrote a now, out-of-print biography titled “Jazz Road.” Here is a Los Angeles-based Living Legend of immense talent whose legacy must never be forgotten.
By Dee Dee McNeil
June 1, 2022
The music of Rique Pantoja is a vision of peace, beauty and love. This artistic pianist has recorded and performed with some of the biggest names in both American and Brazilian jazz for over forty years. In collaboration with his old friend, Juan Carlos Qintero, (owner of Moondo Music) his latest album is the perfect fit for Moondo’s high-quality and artistically rendered jazz label.
A native of Brazil, at first Pantoja attended a university to study engineering. But this was not his heart’s desire. It was his father’s vision. That’s strange, because both his father and his uncles all loved music and played musical instruments. Perhaps his father was trying to protect Rique from the rocky road of choosing music as a career. But, after a frustrating year of engineering study, Rique’s father finally relented and approved of his son pursuing music as a career. You see, Rique Pantoja had been studying classical guitar since the age of eight and exhibited a deep infatuation with music. He switched to piano at thirteen years young and by sixteen, he was already composing songs.
Rique lived in the United States for a while as an exchange student. During this time, the teenager won a talent show for his composing talents. I asked him how that came about.
“As you know, I came from Rio de Janeiro. I grew up there. One of my dreams was to come to the United States and study English. I studied in Brazil, in a private school, where I had to learn both English and French. I thought the best way to learn a language is to go to that country. So, I lived with a family in La Crosse, Wisconsin and it was a great experience. I was seventeen. I was already playing music and playing guitar since I was eight years old. I played Choro music which is part of Brazilian folk music and I started playing piano when I was thirteen. The family in La Crosse enrolled me in high school. My school in Brazil was very demanding. Consequently, I was a little more advanced. I told my math teacher, no – I already studied Algebra. He thought I was kidding. So, he challenged me to do all the exercises on the last page of our book. I did and he said, okay, you know this! So, they moved me, promoted me to be a high school senior. At the same time, I got involved with other people playing music there. It was a great experience. I got to graduate and wear a cap and gown. But then, they had a talent show. I applied. I was writing a song for my girlfriend back in Brazil. I was playing piano and guitar. And one of my songs got to be the winning song for that talent show. So, that definitely was an incentive and an encouragement for me to continue writing. From there, I wrote all sorts of music. I’ve written kids songs and classical music for Christopher Parkening, a famous classical guitarist; one of the best in the world. He recorded two of my classical compositions,” Rique told me with pride.
After high school, his next step was to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachussettes. Later on, after graduating Berklee, the young pianist packed up his Fender Rhodes and relocated to Paris, France. There, he formed a band consisting of French and Brazilian musicians and that band played mostly original compositions. Rique recalled how he wound up in Paris.
“Besides studying at Berklee, I was studying privately with Charlie Banacos. He was a legendary teacher and I had many other mentors like Michael Brecker and Mike Stern. Even though I had an opportunity to study and learn so much, I still felt as though I was green. I had all this information, but I couldn’t really execute it the way I wanted to play. This great pianist from Brazil, Egberto Gismonti, who released some stuff on ECM, came into town to play some gigs in Boston. Appearing with him was Nanã Vasconcelos, a great Brazilian percussionist who has played with many different bands including Pat Metheny. I invited Nanã to come over to my place. I told him I was at a crossroads. Should I stay here in Boston or go back to Brazil? I learned so much, but I still couldn’t translate through my fingers what I learned. He said Rique, I’ll tell you what I think. You should go to Paris. They love jazz and they love Brazilian music. With your compositions, the stuff you’re writing, man you’ll be working in no time. I got all excited. So, I took the cheapest flight, a Red Eye from New York to London. I got on a train carrying my Fender Rhodes in a suitcase and arrived in Paris. I didn’t even know where I’d be staying. I was 24-years-old. Paris opened up so many incredible opportunities, including recording with Chet Baker,” Rique recalled.
One night, the great Chet Baker heard a band playing in a Parisian club next door to where the famed trumpeter was performing. Baker popped into the club and was totally impressed by the music of young Rique Pantoja. The result was, in 1980, Rique’s band recorded with trumpet master Chet Baker, who was so impressed by the youthful composer that he came to the studio to record Rique’s original songs. That album is called, “Chet Baker and the Boto Brazilian Quartet.”
After living in Paris for two and a half years, Rique Pantoja returned to Brazil, with success under his belt. He discovered his reputation burned brightly in Buenos Aires like a five-alarm fire. He was in demand. Pantoja toured two years with the great Milton Nascimento and became Musical Director for singer/songwriter, Djavan. He also was an in-demand studio session player.
“Yeah – and even after I went back to Brazil, Chet kept recording my songs. There’s a version of my song, ‘Arborway’ that’s on an album Chet recorded in Japan on the CD ‘Chet Baker in Tokyo.’ … I had an opportunity to do this jazz festival in Brazil and they asked if I could get Chet Baker to come there. So, I reached out to Chet and he came to Rio, played in that festival and we wound up doing another album together. One was recorded in Paris back in 1980 and the other one was done in Brazil called Rique Pantoja and Chet Baker,” Rique told me.
In 1991, at his wife’s insistence, the very busy Rique Pantoja agreed he needed a break and desired to spend more time with his family. They chose Los Angeles as a place to vacation, where the couple had many friends, including Brazilian super star, Ivan Lins. That short break turned into thirty fruitful years of making music with California as his base.
Pantoja plays it all: classical, jazz, pop, gospel, worship music and of course Brazilian and international music. Because of his diversity, his sensitivity and excellent music skills, Pantoja worked with a number of huge names like Carlos Santana, Ernie Watts, Ricky Martin, classical guitarist Christopher Parkening, Gloria Estefan, Abraham Laboriel, Justo Almario, Lee Ritenour, Kirk Whalum and a score of others. I asked Rique who were some of his favorite musicians and he responded.
“I really learned from and enjoyed working with Ernie Watts,” Pantoja affirmed.
In fact, he has written a song that celebrates Ernie Watts on his latest album titled “Live in Los Angeles.” The composition, “1000 Watts” is a tribute to Pantoja’s friend and popular, reedman, Ernie Watts. The composition is drenched in funk.
“Abraham Laboriel, that’s another one of my favorite friends and players,” Rique Pantoja continued his list. “Alex Acuña and Frank Gambale, who’s a phenomenal guitar player. I went to Australia a few years ago with him. Frank played with Chick Corea in the electric band. … I have played with so many amazing musicians, also Brazilian musicians. I was musical conductor for Djavan. I played with Milton Nascimento for two years and I played with Gilberto Gil. I’ve had so many opportunities in my life and feel so blessed to learn and to be inspired, while at the same time working with talents like these and Chet Baker.”
Rique’s composing skills shine. He has penned and arranged themes for hit television shows like “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” Pantoja has also written popular jingles for major brands like Coca Cola, Honda, Shell oil, Globo Reporter, DeBeers Diamonds, Pepsi, Nissan and Toshiba. His music appears on the sound track of Disney’s hit comedic film, “Jungle 2 Jungle.” Recently, Rique was also part of the musical soundtrack of the animation film, “Rio” with Sergio Mendes and film composer John Powell.
Now, you can enjoy him on his newly released album “Live in Los Angeles.” He’s recorded with some brilliant players including Steve Tavaglione on saxophone and flute, Jimmy Earl on bass, Joel Taylor manning the drums and Cassio Duarte on percussion. He also includes Moondo Music labelmate, Ricardo Silveira on guitar. This project shows pianist, Rique Pantoja’s exceptional vision on his instrument and it spotlights his awesome composer talents.
The album opens with “Arpoador” (that means harpooner in Portuguese). Arpoador is also a small community, a peninsula, between Ipanema and Copacabana in Brazil. It’s an exciting and beautiful way to open this production, with changing moods and bright tempos, along with synthesizer brilliance during a solo that lifts the arrangement sky-high! Ricardo Silveira’s guitar solo is tantalizing. Cassio Duarte showcases his hot, percussion talents along with Joel Taylor, a powerhouse on drums.
“Julinho” has a haunting melody interpreted by Steve Tavaglione’s sensual saxophone. These two opening pieces quickly become two of my favorites on this album. But let me say this. Every Pantoja composition on this recording is brilliant. Every arrangement is stellar and Rique Pantoja’s piano mastery infuses this music beautifully, offering each musician a musical palate to paint their hearts out. His song, “Da Baiana” brings another genre to the party and is based on Afro-Cuban rhythms. I enjoyed the happy flute of Steve Tavaglione. Pantoja’s composition “Bebop Kid” introduces us to his vocal side. Rique has a voice that’s honest and emotional. I expected an up-tempo tune to exemplify bebop. Instead, this is a ballad and he sings the lyrical story in his native Portuguese with plentiful emotion. Suddenly, the arrangement changes, pendulum quick. The ballad becomes a pop groove with Latin tinges. Rique’s music is just pure fun!
As he plays the piano, Pantoja sometimes sings a scat line in unison with the melody. His piano sparkles across each song, like sunshine on restless waves. The flute solo by Tavaglione warms this arrangement, flying above the chord changes like a hungry seagull. Also, the guitar solo by Ricardo Silveira is formidable and I am captivated by the electric bass solo of Jimmy Earl. Each song on this “Live in Los Angeles” album offers something more to entertain and surprise us. It is a vision of complexity and artistic beauty you will enjoy listening to time and time again.
As if recording, touring and composing were not enough to keep him busy, Rique has still another life as a respected music educator! He teaches courses at Southern California’s Biola University and Cal Baptist University. Rique Pantoja has led workshops at Maranatha Worship Training and the Los Angeles Music & Performance (LAMP) School. Professor Pantoja is proficient in Pro Tools & Logic School Audio graph (AGI) and offers master classes at a number of schools, including Pepperdine University on the Malibu campus. I asked him if he had any advice for young musicians.
“I’ve been teaching for sixteen years. I taught at Biola University in LA. They have a conservatory. I taught some writing and also at CBU I taught some production with software. So, I really dedicate a lot of time encouraging and teaching young musicians. My advice would be to honor the gift you’ve been given. Develop it with a spirit of excellence. Because you know, the gift is given and the whole purpose of it is to share it. If you give me a gift and I keep the gift in the closet and never share it or you give me a nice shirt and I never wear it, it’s a waste. The same goes to any kind of gift we share. When we share, we fulfill the purpose of that gift. So, to any students that aim to be great and to learn music, it’s just a beautiful art form that has no end. I’m still studying. I am studying orchestration. Even though I’m not writing for an orchestra right now, I still want to learn more. I study Ravel’s string quartet that’s twenty-eight minutes long. There are all these most beautiful things inside that one piece. I go back and pay attention and study the score for art’s sake. It’s not that I want to be more famous. I’m over sixty, so I’ve done so much already. My goal is to keep growing and to do it passionately. I have the hope that my music will get out there and touch the lives of people and bless them.”
By Dee Dee McNeil
May 1, 2022
FEATURING: Chris Standring, guitar/keyboards/programming/arranging/composer; Rodney Lee, keyboards; Andre Berry, bass; Chris Coleman, drums; Kevin Axt upright bass; Gary Meek, tenor saxophone.
Back in the 1990s, Chris Standring was combining Hip Hop and smooth jazz with a group called “Solar System” that included the same keyboard genius he still collaborates with, Rodney Lee.
But before he moved from England to the West Coast of the United States, he was polishing his guitar chops and practicing his arranging skills at the BBC. I asked him about that time in his life.
“Back in the 80s, there was a show on Radio 2. You know, we have Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 3, Radio 4, etc., in England. It’s National radio programming across the country. On Radio 2, BBC had a late-night radio show called Night Owls. There were two late night programs. I can’t remember what the other one was called. Night Owls invited bands into the studio to record. So, you would crank out as many songs as you could during that time. They would mix them, master them, and then play them on the radio and you’d get paid royalties actually quite well from that exposure. I probably did fifteen or twenty of those in the period of a few years. That was in the late 80’s,” Chris informed me.
A native of Aylesbury (in the county of Buckinghamshire, England) Chris has been currently based in Southern California for the past three decades. He moved to Los Angeles in 1991. Standring has had thirteen Billboard Top 10 singles and six singles that reached number one on the Billboard Chart. In fact, a song from his recent album, “Change the World” followed suit. Chris often writes music for others to record and this song was meant to be gifted to another artist. At the last minute, Standring decided to keep the tune for himself. He released it as a single and the song powered up to #1 on the Billboard Chart.
After settling in Los Angeles, Chris was quickly embraced by the West Coast music scene. He found himself recording with gospel royalty like Bebe and Cece Winans, pop and R&B singer, Jody Watley and smooth jazz artists like Rick Braun, Bob James, Richard Elliott, Peter White, Kirk Whalum, Marc Antoine and Al Stewart.
“One of the reason’s I moved over here was so I could do things on a bigger level. I was quite ambitious,” Chris explained.
His recent album, “Simple Things” continues his successful path of well-played, contemporary jazz interpreted by seasoned West Coast musical veterans. From the very first original composition (“Shadow of Doubt”) on Chris Standring’s new album, I hear shades of Wes Montgomery. There is something about the strong, powerful ‘groove’ Chris pumps into his guitar playing that reminds me of Wes. Colorfully accompanied by the tenacious drumming of Chris Coleman, who slaps the funk into place, Standring’s music just makes me happy! Indeed, according to his publicist’s notes, Standring confirmed:
“…the theme of this album is joy, positivity, hope and because I’m a sucker for a beautiful melody, a little sadness as well.”
Years ago, this journalist was a part of the Motown staff in Detroit as a songwriter and almost all the amazing players on those early Motown studio sessions were competent jazz players. The groove and the funk I hear from Chris Standring, Andre Berry on bass, Chris Coleman on drums and Rodney Lee on keyboards remind me of those early Detroit days. These Chris Standring arrangements and compositions make me want to dance, just like the Motown music used to do. Standring soars on his Benedetto guitar and makes a joyful sound atop the excellence of his dynamic rhythm section, but you can clearly still hear his jazz roots.
“I saw a YouTube video of Bootsy (Collins) explaining his basic funk formula. The bass line he demonstrated is so funky that it inspired me to write Something of my own. Of course, I had to thank him, which I did on my tune, “Thank You Bootsy,” Standring explained, celebrating an artist who has influenced his composing and arranging style.
Chris Standring began studying classical guitar when he was just six years old. He was drawn to jazz early-on, but he didn’t become a serious jazz musician until he attended the London College of Music. His mentors were great bebop players like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Budd Powell and Chet Baker. Later he became a fan of Joe Pass. His father was a big Oscar Peterson fan and often played Peterson’s records at their home. His mother played both piano and harp, more as a hobby than as a studied musician. Chris’s older brother played flute and his sister was a classical guitarist. So, there was always music being played or listened to at their house. When he arrived in the United States, Chris became familiar with the work of Pat Martino and greatly admired that legendary guitarist. Sometime later, he got to meet him in person.
“I had the opportunity to take one lesson with him a few years ago. I happened to be on tour in Philadelphia and I knew Pat lived there because a friend of mine had taken a lesson with him. I thought, why don’t I do that? So, I called him up and we scheduled the meeting. I was so excited, I didn’t sleep a wink that night, awaiting the next day, so I could take a lesson with Pat Martino. The lesson was really great. That evening, he came to my show with his wife,” Standring recalled the joy of that meeting and the treasured memory of that lesson. I could still hear the ‘happy’ in his voice.
Chris has realized that sometimes it’s the little things that make the biggest impression on our lives. When it comes to music, he has been a serious and dedicated musician for decades. As a recording artist, he is always exploring the music with fresh eyes. He loves jazz, but he’s also a lover of funk, gospel, Rhythm and Blues.
“I’m a big fan of Prince, who learned about funk studying the music of people like Bootsy Collins. I wrote the opening track, “Shadow of Doubt” after hearing a particular bass line by Prince that I really liked and I wondered what I could do with something similar,” Chris Standring shared.
You can clearly hear the Prince influence on tunes from his latest release like, “Face to Face” and “Ain’t Nothin’ But A Thing” featuring Rodney Lee on organ. There is also a trace of James Brown influence in these funky, danceable compositions that Chris has penned and arranged. Still, Standring’s ability to seamlessly combine jazz, funk and dance music is ever evolving. When his album “Don’t Talk, Dance!” was released back in 2014, it was a crowd pleaser. What I love about Standring’s creative perception is that although he loops his grooves, he also spontaneously improvises. He is free and creative, like any great jazz player would be. He doesn’t get stuck in that groove. His technique on guitar shows the world that his jazz chops are strong and intact.
On his album, “Soul Express” Standring rearranges the standard jazz tune “Giant Steps” in a very creative way.
Back to his current release, you hear the softer side of Chris playing the pretty ballad, “A Thousand Words (for Samantha)” that features Kevin Axt making a guest appearance on upright bass. The melody is compelling and the bridge is absolutely beautiful. Chris has composed all eleven songs on this new recording. It’s his 14th CD release as a bandleader. I found each one of his compositions to be a sparkling gem. As a prolific composer, Chris Standring has penned or co-written over one-hundred compositions to date. I asked him when he started composing music?
I actually think of myself as much of a composer as a guitar player these days. I’ve always written music, going back to when I was a teenager, playing in pop bands. The music of the time, back in England, was more progressive rock music. It wasn’t so much about jazz. Everybody was taking chances and doing these crazy things that really didn’t always make musical sense. It was just interesting to take that very free approach to things. That really inspired me as a composer. Today, when I’m composing, I don’t have the luxury to have another guy, by my side, to play everything. So, I’ve certainly gotten good enough on keyboard and programming tools to execute ideas I hear in my head. Yeah – that’s the great thing about being able to write and have a studio. I can just go in there and put things down,” Chris explained.
In 2021, Standring reached back to his early jazz roots and recorded a group of jazz standards for the first time on an album titled, “Wonderful World.” On this project, he incorporates a full orchestra and it’s an absolutely beautiful production.
In 2022, his “Simple Things” album is scheduled for a May release. One song he created, “Too Close for Comfort” was written after he experienced a health scare last year. Chest pains and a trip to the hospital reminded Chris how fragile life really is. Thus, the title of this album, “Simple Things” is a reminder for him to appreciate every moment of life and to spend time with loved ones and be present in every moment of each day. “Simple Things” (the album) is a musical message I will enjoy listening to and playing over and over again.
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By Dee Dee McNeil
This April 30th, a special Non-profit event to raise funds to assist musicians is being presented by The California Jazz Foundation at the Los Angeles Omni Hotel; 251 South Olive St; Los Angeles, CA 90012. This annual event will feature musical performances honoring DON WAS by Marcus Miller, Ronnie Foster, Paul Jackson Jr. and Clayton Cameron, along with musicians honoring the memory of JEFF CLAYTON to include Rickey Woodard, Adam Ledbetter, Don Littleton, Edwin Livingston and Charles Owens. It’s an all-star event that will be hosted by ALONZO BODDEN. The evening, starting at 5:30pm, will feature a red-carpet reception, live and silent auctions, gourmet dinner, video tributes, award presentations and a live concert. The “Give the Band a Hand” annual gala is an important source of financial support for CJF.
“The California Jazz Foundation fills a critical void by assisting California’s jazz musicians in need,” says Edythe L. Bronston, CJF founder and president. “The COVID pandemic closed jazz clubs and concert halls, leaving musicians of all ages without a source of income. In addition, many older musicians have neither Social Security nor any or inadequate health insurance, and some see no residuals from their important work. They rely on us and we rely on the community to keep the Foundation financially sound and swinging.”
For more information on the gala tickets, tables and auction, call 818-261-0057 or visit www.californiajazzfoundation.org.
The California Jazz Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit membership organization created to aid and assist California jazz musicians in crisis.
By Dee Dee McNeil
April 1, 2022
BILL EVANS – “MORNING GLORY” & “INNER SPIRIT” – Resonance Records
Bill Evans, piano/composer; Eddie Gomez, bass; Marty Morell, drums.
A few weeks ago, I spent a luxurious couple of hours listening to the Resonance Records release of two, brilliant Bill Evans concerts in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Resonance Records is the leading independent American outlet for Archival jazz Releases. This April 23, they will issue a pair of double-set-LP packages featuring the amazing music by the late, great Bill Evans.
One of the albums features trio members, Eddie Gomez on bass and Marty Morell on drums. It was recorded June 24, 1973, an early Sunday morning in the South American Capital. The tape of these concerts was recorded by soundman, Carlos Melero and have been filed away all these years. There were no effects or EQ added. This is raw, unadulterated beauty! The second concert happened on September 27, 1979 at the Teatro General San
Martin facility with a different trio. This concert featured bassist, Marc Johnson, with L.A. based Joe LaBarbera on drums. Carlos Melero, the sound-engineer, recalled that concert in the liner notes.
“I remember when Alejandro Szterenfeld, who produced Bill Evan’s concerts in Argentina, told me that I was going to do the sound. … He said, Carlos, we have to do a Bill Evans concert at 10:00 in the morning at the Cine Teatro Gran Rex. … Why is it so early, I asked. It seems it was a question of the trio’s other tour commitments.”
Professor Oscar Daniel Chikowski also recalled the experience. He was one of the attendees and a huge fan of Bill Evans. Regardless of the early morning concert and the icy cold weather, the 2500-seat hall was packed. Several famous Argentinian musicians were on-hand and buzzed with much anticipation. Some snuck in portable tape recorders.
“This event was the most important concert I ever saw in my life,” the professor shared. “The conditions were difficult. His hands must have hurt from the cold. Still, personally, my memory of the concert is that it was heavenly. … I thought it was Evans at his best. … I was with my wife. I walked in and saw Hugo Diaz, my friend and the great harmonica player. … The first piece began after a silence so quiet it felt as if it were practically coming from the grave. It was a mystical, almost introverted version of “Re: Person I Knew.” The audience was under his spell from the moment he started. … It wasn’t at all gimmicky or bombastic. It was complex, remarkable and elaborate before an expectant audience,” the professor described his impression of the Bill Evans original composition, the title being an anagram of the name of producer, Orrin Keepnews.
“There are no audiences like the one in Buenos Aires that morning,” Professor Chikowski continued with his recollection.
“The level of emotion, sophistication and fanaticism among Argentinian audiences is legendary. We let him know how much we appreciated him. I understand that Bill Evans didn’t like to play encores, but he played them for us. … The last one, after thunderous applause, was ‘My Foolish Heart.’ I was drenched in tears,” he admitted with sincerity.
The accompanying booklets with these newly discovered CDs are full of rich, emotional stories from those who attended this Bill Evans trio concert. As I listen, the audience roars, applauds, stomps and claps furiously. You can hear them on the recording. They are completely captivated by the magnificent and imaginative beauty Bill Evans brings to the piano. He rewards them by playing “Waltz for Debby.” I too am intoxicated and hypnotized by the talent and delivery of Evans. Not to be minimized are his two comrades.
They bring glitter and glitz to the party, each a master in his own right. Eddie Gomez has many outstanding bass solos and it is mentioned in the liner notes that no one in Buenos Aires had really seen that level of expertise on the double bass by a jazz artist before viewing this concert. Mr. Morell is also dynamic and powerful on drums, both supportively and as a solo percussionist during exciting moments of spotlight.
Bill Evans was raised in North Plainfield, New Jersey and was the son of Harry and Mary Evans. His dad ran a golf course and was a heavy drinker and quite abusive. His mother descended from a family of coal miners. Unfortunately, their household was stormy. The Sr. Harry Evans often drank and gambled. His father displayed an angry personality, often causing his mother to grab her two young sons and seek refuge at a sister’s house in a neighboring town. Young Bill looked up to his older brother Harry Jr. When his brother began taking piano lessons, at age five to seven, baby Bill was fascinated. Although two years younger, he expressed interest in playing piano too. Bitten early by the music bug, Bill Evans studied not only piano, but played violin in school, the flute and the piccolo. He had a love for Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. They became his first composer influences. In high school, he discovered Stravinsky’s Petrushka. But even before high school, at age twelve, he enjoyed Tommy Dorsey and his imagination was captured by jazz. He was infatuated with the freedom and expression that jazz encourages. Bill Evans was so competent, that at age thirteen the young teen was asked to sit-in for a sick pianist in Buddy Valentino’s rehearsal band. I’m sure the older members of the band were quite startled to see this small boy play the piano like a seasoned veteran. This helped give him the credibility and confidence to take gigs locally. Back-in-the-day, he was making about a dollar an hour to play at weddings and local dances. At that point, Bill Evans was quite proficient at playing boogie woogie, blues and polkas. Later, he found himself enamored by the playing of Coleman Hawkins, Bud Powell, Earl Fatha Hines, George Shearing, Stan Getz and Nat King Cole. Remember, that in the early days of his career, Nat King Cole was a pianist and not a singer. Bill Evans particularly admired the piano playing of Nat Cole. During his college days, at Southeastern Louisiana University, he met Mundell Lowe and appreciated his guitar work. They formed a trio after graduation that included bassist, Red Mitchell. Then, the three took off to New York City. The young musicians soon found out that getting a trio gig wasn’t as easy as they had supposed. They had to get their hustle on! Evans joined the Herbie Fields band and wound up with a tour backing the great Lady Day; Ms. Billie Holiday. Not too long after that, Bill Evans was drafted. His career was uprooted while he spent time in the United States Army. But of course, he joined the Army Band. From 1951 to 1955, he played not only piano but flute and piccolo. After the armed forces, he returned to New York City and enrolled in the Mannes School of Music. During this time, he met the incredible Thelonious Monk and the legendary George Russell. Evans soon began to work with Russell’s ensemble that included Art Farmer, bassist, Milt Hinton, and guitarist, Barry Galbraith.
Producer, Orrin Keepnews was the first to record Bill Evans as a bandleader and that album received critical acclaim. It was 1958, when Evans heard that Miles Davis wanted to meet with him. George Russell went to pick up Evans and drove him over to where the Davis Sextet was performing at the Colony Club in Brooklyn. Imagine what Bill Evans must have been thinking when the Davis group, composed of John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones, invited him to play with them. Red Garland had recently been fired from the sextet and Bill Evans was immediately hired to replace him.
“Bill had this quiet fire that I loved on piano. The way he approached it, the sound he got was like crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall. I had to change the way the band sounded again for Bill’s style by playing different tunes, softer ones at first,” said Miles Davis of that personnel change. 1
Cannonball Adderley commented, “When we started to use Bill, Miles changed his style from very hard to a softer approach.”
Bill Evans left the Davis group in November of 1958. He returned in 1959, at the request of Miles, to record “Kind of Blue.” That album is often praised as one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time.
Although his career stretched like a rainbow across the world, the talented Mr. Bill Evans had his own demons to deal with. Before joining the Miles Davis group, he was using heroin and his struggle with drugs continued throughout his career. Evans contracted hepatitis in the 1960s, a problem disease often associated with the use of dirty needles.
Drug use did not seem to interrupt the pianist’s career. Sometime around the middle of 1959, Bill met Scott LaFaro. The bassist told him he wanted to start his own trio. LaFaro suggested they put the group together and use drummer, Paul Motian. Evans agreed. At the end of the year, in December, the band recorded for Riverside Records, “Portrait in Jazz.”
Evans was pleased with his newly formed trio, but continued working on various other projects, like the recording he made with Frank Minion, “The Soft Land of Make Believe” with Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb. He also took many studio session jobs and recorded with George Russell. Additionally, his trio went back in the studio and soon released “Explorations” in February of 1961. Things were going smoothly for Bill Evans career-wise. Then, unexpectedly, his friend and trio member, Scott LaFaro died in a car crash at the young age of twenty-five. Evans took his friend’s death very personally and did not perform again for several months. He submerged himself in heroin-use and grief. It didn’t help that his long-time girlfriend, Ellaine, was also an addict. It took coaching from producer and friend, Orrin Keepnews, to pull the brilliant pianist out of his funk and back to gigging. In 1963, Bill Evans recorded “Conversations with Myself.” This album was created with several overdubs of his piano technique, layering up to three tracks of piano for each song. The Verve album won Bill Evans his first Grammy Award.
While his addiction was still prominent in his life, Bill Evans continued his soar to success. At one point, he plunged a needle into a nerve and still continued to play his gig, to the astonishment of his audience, using only one hand. It was 1966 when Bill Evans met young bass player, Eddie Gomez. That meeting sparked evolvement in the Evans trio concept. You hear their comfort and compatibility on the “Morning Glory” double-set album from 1973. Also in 1966, he released “Bill Evans at Town Hall” that introduced his beautiful “Turn Out the Stars” composition with the great Jim Hall on guitar. The “Bill Evans at the Montreux Jazz Festival” in 1968 won him his second Grammy Award. This is one of two albums Bill Evans recorded using drummer, Jack DeJohnette. Also, in 1968, Evans and Gomez hooked up with Marty Morell on drums and he remained with the Evans trio until 1975. In 1971, the popular pianist recorded “The Bill Evans Album” that won two more Grammy Awards and featured all original compositions.
Although he endeavored to stop using drugs, in the 1970s, Evans was busted at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York with heroin in his suitcase. This led to he and his partner, Ellaine, to begin a methadone program rather than being sentenced to jail time. Three years later, Bill Evans was in Southern California and fell in love with a young woman named Nenette Zazzara. When he told his steady partner of several years about the affair, tragedy struck his life again. His live-in partner, Ellaine, committed suicide by throwing herself under a subway train. Once again, Bill Evans fell off the wagon and returned to his heroin addiction. In 1973, Bill Evans married Nanette and they had one son, Evan.
In 1978, bassist Eddie Gomez left the trio and Bill Evans hired Marc Johnson and Joe LaBarbera. This would be his last trio and they are the ones who returned to Argentina for the newly released Evans’ album titled, “Inner Spirit.” At that time, the Argentine country was plagued with political unrest when the trio returned to The Teatro General San Martin to perform their Buenos Aires concert. There were right-wing death squads murdering thousands of political dissidents in Buenos Aires and the city was full of fear. LaBarbera told a journalist:
“It was a bad time down there politically. There was tension with the military presence in Buenos Aires, but people on the streets and the musicians we met were still joyous and excited to hear Bill.”
This time, Bill Evans added a Latin touch to that concert performance on September 27th. He also played his original composition, dedicated to his son; “Letter to Evan.” The young bassist, Marc Johnson described his experience.
“The trio had arrived at a pretty good place. We were definitely on a rise, performance-wise. The plateau we hit was pretty high; pretty dependable and reliable. The music was getting to a really fun place. By then, in 1979, I was definitely playing with a little more authority and conviction. Joe sounds amazing on it, as usual, just phenomenal really. He helped keep that trio going and swinging …”
The same year that this project was recorded, 1979, Bill Evans met a 28-year-old Canadian waitress that he began an ongoing relationship with until his death in 1980. Around this same time, his beloved brother Harry committed suicide at age fifty-two. Bill’s desire to play and work diminished after his brother’s death. Evans became severely depressed. He was participating in the Methadone Program to stay away from heroin, but that didn’t stop him from becoming cocaine addicted. Evans stopped his treatments for chronic hepatitis and told his young girlfriend he would die soon. It was Joe LaBarbera who went to the hospital with Bill Evans on a September afternoon in 1980. He had been bedridden for several days, complaining of acute stomach pains. He died at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York of a peptic ulcer, cirrhosis of the liver, bronchial pneumonia and untreated hepatitis. He was interred next to his brother Harry in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Bill Evans’ left behind a plethora of recordings, both as a bandleader and sideman. The pianist’s two, historic, double set albums will be released this April 23, 2022 on the Resonance Record label. They are definitely collector items and a beautiful addition to any jazz collection.
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By Dee Dee McNeil
This talented percussionist, Matt Gordy, moved to Los Angeles in 2006, leaving behind a successful career in Boston as one of their busiest drummers. Upon his West Coast arrival, Matt made the rounds of popular jazz spots, playing at Herb Alpert’s Club Vibrato, at the now defunct Blue Whale and Charlie O clubs, the popular Vitello’s and historic Lighthouse Café in Hermosa Beach. I asked him what was the difference between the Boston jazz scene and the L.A. jazz club scene in 2006.
“Good question. At that time, Boston was kind of limping along. Several clubs had closed. There definitely was a scene, but it wasn’t like gangbusters. When I came out here, you have to realize I was already fifty-five years old; which was not maybe the smartest thing I could have done,” he chuckles. “But my only regret, of very few, was that when I left Boston, I had been playing music for over twenty years. I went to school there and then I left for a symphony job in Venezuela (for nine years) and then I came back to Boston. Until then, I was playing a multiple of gigs, both jazz and classical. I was performing fourteen years with the Boston Lyric Opera and also the Boston Ballet, the Boston Pops; various and sundry classical gigs around town. But when I moved out to L.A. I was looked at as just a jazz guy. That has to do with the contractor. When I moved here, the whole classical side of my resume was out the window. In L.A., I was just a jazz drummer. Most don’t know I play piano. They don’t know I spent 11 years studying with Charlie Banacos, a music guru in the Boston area who taught me piano.1 I don’t like to toot my own horn too much. But now that I’ve come out with this project, I guess I have to a little bit.”
Gordy’s reputation spread like California wild fires. I can see why, as I listen to his latest release as a bandleader. Throughout this album, Matt Gordy is the exemplary force and motion behind his talented sextet.
Funny how lives sometimes go full circle. In the case of Alan Pasqua and Gordy, these two musicians have known each other for half a century. At first, they were both students at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston where they originally met.
“His playing kills me! He singlehandedly steers the direction through the music on every tune. He has the ears to do that on the fly,” Matt Gordy praised Alan Pasqua’s talents and piano contribution to his recent album.
On this latest recording, “Be With Me,” the Matt Gordy Jazz Tonite Sextet roars into view, propelled by that popular Eddie Durham tune, “Topsy.” Chris Colangelo leads the way on solo bass. Matt Gordy’s drum groove inspires the band, setting an up-tempo time pattern. Alan Pasqua steps front and center, innovative and creative on piano. I enjoyed the arrangement of just drums and piano during the tune’s introduction. Then, the ensemble swings hard, giving Ron Stout’s horn an opportunity to shine. Next, Ido Meshulam soaks up the spotlight on trombone, followed by featured guest artist, Jeff Ellwood on his sensuous tenor saxophone. Matt’s latest album features four of his original compositions and six standard tunes. Track #2 is a swing version of “You and the Night and the Music” that Gordy dedicates to the late pianist Mulgrew Miller. Gordy’s arrangement is based on Mulgrew’s solo heard on drummer Tony Williams’ trio album. This song is followed by a Gordy original titled, “Camouflage,” where the bassist, Chris Colangelo, dances brightly beneath the horn lines, hand-in-hand with Gordy’s warm drum beats. Those drum licks somehow remind me of an Ahmad Jamal record I used to love. The sextet has a fireside warmth on this tune, with the horns flaming bright like red-glowing coals. Matt Gordy is not only a drummer, but a composer and arranger. I asked him what other instruments he played?
“Piano was my first instrument at the age of seven. I didn’t switch to drums until age twelve. One day, my music teacher in ninth grade played us ‘Take Five.’ I heard that two-and-a-half-minute drum solo and I said to myself, I gotta check this out. I was in the Boston area at that time, where I was raised up. I was lucky enough to have a really good drum teacher. He’s still alive today and he’s gotta be 87 or 88. His name is James Latimer. He taught at the ‘All Newton Music School.’ He gave private lessons there and only taught for a short time before moving back to Madison, Wisconsin where he still leads the big band back there,” Matt Gordy told me.
Matt Gordy childhood photo
Gordy credits a few specific drummers for sparking his creativity and greatly impressing him during his teenage years and college days.
“The first jazz record I ever bought was Herbie Hancock’s ‘Maiden Voyage.’ Of course, Tony Williams; I just couldn’t believe him! Then Elvin Jones; I used to listen to a lot of Coltrane. I didn’t really grow up with that much ‘Rock’ but I did listen to Jimi Hendrix and that was with Mitch Mitchell; a jazz drummer playing rock; of course, Ringo with the Beatles. But I was kind of a weird hybrid and drawn to jazz early on. I would come home every day from high school and play Maiden Voyage and then put on that John Coltrane record, that had that “Out of This World” cut on it. That blue album. Remember that one?” Matt asked me.
Of course, I had that in my collection as well, I told him.
Right after college, Matt Gordy was offered a gig with the world-renowned Maracaibo Symphony Orchestra in Venezuela. He thrived and blossomed in that 100-piece orchestra, made up of mostly foreign nationals, including thirty Americans. He grew to love the people and culture of Venezuela. He married an Argentine woman who he met there. They lived nine years in Maracaibo, but in the 1980s, the government and the economy began collapsing. The couple moved back to the United States. I asked him what it was like to live in South America and not be able to speak Spanish.
“In hind sight, I think I took ten or eleven lessons in Spanish before going on that job. Back then, everyone in school was taking French; I don’t know why, but I took French too. When you move to another country, I don’t mean vacationing, I mean working and living there; you have to be able to communicate, to understand and be understood. The good news was, I was a government employee with the 100-piece orchestra. That’s like being a post office employee in the United States. Thirty orchestra members were Americans and 30 were Polish. The conductor, Eduardo Rahn, was actually trained at Julliard. He had a master plan. He brought brass players and woodwind players from the United States. He also sought out the string players, mostly Polish, some Romanian and a couple of Argentines. Believe it or not, at that time there were only two Venezuelans in the orchestra. This is what’s known as “El Sistema,” a government sponsored program. We would go to the local barrios and take instruments. You wanna play clarinet? Drums? Trumpet? They would provide the instruments and teach the young students for free. So, they wouldn’t have to spend money out of pocket, because many couldn’t afford it. That was part of our musician contract. I started as the principal percussionist and when the timpani player left, I became the timpanist. The band members also taught at the Conservatorio Luis Paz in Venezuela. I had five to ten students. That was the whole master plan of this Eduardo Rahn conductor.
“One of the proudest things of my life was teaching Jefferson Pavajeau. This young man was impressive. I had to teach music to these kids, how to read music, play snare drum, mallets, Marinda, timpani and I was still learning Spanish myself. I taught Jefferson for five years. He applied for a scholarship at the New England Conservatory of Music, in Boston, where I had once attended. He studied with Vic Firth, the same timpanist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra that I studied with. Jefferson won that scholarship and studied there two years. I think the money ran out and he returned home to become the principal timpanist of the Maracaibo Orchestra in Venezuela.”
While performing in Venezuela, Matt Gordy decided to form a trio and play jazz around town during the orchestra’s ‘down’ time.
“Around early 1980, I decided to start a band called El Primer Trio. It was made up of musicians from the orchestra. I had Tim Valdes on drums, Alain Rocheleau on bass and myself on keyboard. We mainly just played tunes from the Real Book. At the time, there was NO jazz at all in Maracaibo, Venezuela, which was the 2nd largest city with a population of around 2 million. All the music you heard on radio and live was salsa or Gaita, which was their folk music.”
After nine years of working in Venezuela, Matt Gordy returned to Boston, Massachusetts. In 1988, he got a call to play with the Boston Ballet who were performing Prokovief’s “Romeo & Juliet.” Consequently, Matt Gordy spent the next twenty-one-years playing a multitude of classical gigs, including with the Boston Pops and building a reputation as a musician who could play just about any style from Latin to jazz to pop and who was proficient in classical music too. He also wound up working with some pretty famous names you might recognize; Joni Mitchell, Aretha Franklin, and Frank Sinatra Jr.
“Well, again it’s all about the contractor,” Matt told me. “This particular one, his name was Joe Giorganni. He was in the Boston area at that time and contracted a lot of star-studded concerts including Aretha Franklin, who I played with six times. But Joni Mitchell, I got to tell you, of all the people I played with, Joni Mitchell was one of the most unbelievable musical experiences I’ve had in that situation. She had a full orchestra, conducted by Vince Mendoza, who won a Grammy for “Both Sides Now” and rightfully so. We played the entire album, in the order of the songs recorded on that album. So, here I am with Peter Erskine, Bob Sheppard, Chuck Berghofer; I think Wallace Roney was on the tour too, from New York. We only did six or seven cities. It was a wonderful experience!”
A few years back, Matt Gordy’s Jazz Tonite Sextet tributed Jaco Pastorius. At that time, he was using Sam Hirsh on piano.
This drummer’s recently released ”Be With Me” project is a culmination of Matt Gordy’s extensive and successful world of percussion excellence. He has mastered many types and styles of playing, and because of his diverse and challenging career, his ability to play drums, piano and his background as a master percussionist, these talents infuse his composing and make his arrangements shine.
On the song, “Spring Ahead,” the musicians are back to a solid swing arrangement. Jeff Ellwood flies on his saxophone, like a joyful bird. Ron Stout joins him in-flight on trumpet. I enjoy the undertow of a melody that counters the solos and is played like a refrain that captures your imagination. I find myself whistling along with it, as though it’s an old familiar tune. For me, this is the sign of a well-written composition. I really enjoy Matt Gordy’s arrangement talents. “Chloe” is a pretty ballad written as a gift for his granddaughter’s tenth birthday. The melody is so powerful, you hear her name “Chloe” being sung over and over without any vocals. Gordy’s final original composition is the title tune, “Be With Me,” vocalized by the satin smooth voice of Sherry Williams with lyrics by Gregg Arthur. She also sings the commercial pop tune, “Sunny” arranged in a very sweet and jazzy way.
Other tunes I enjoyed were, ”Soul Eyes,” spiced and splashed with blues and inspired by McCoy Tyner’s version from the 1962 John Coltrane release. The familiar “My Shining Hour” is included and Gordy’s arrangement uses five pedal points (played by Colangelo on bass) to add both tension and interest to the tune. Matt Gordy shares that he learned this technique from Charlie Banacos, a Boston educator who mentored several jazz musicians in composing and arranging back in the day.
Gordy’s latest release mixes all the many facets and talents he has honed over the years into a memorable and enjoyable album. This month, his CD release parties begin in Temecula with Sherry Williams at the Merc, Feb 3rd. Then the Matt Gordy Jazz Tonite Sextet will be at the Sam First club by LAX on March 9th and finally, in Ventura at the Grape, April 9th.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.”