Mike Clark
Kosen Rufu
(Wide Hive)

It has long been an open secret that Mike Clark, who is perhaps best known for his association with the Headhunters, loves to play modern jazz rather than being typecast as a funk drummer. Kosen Rufu features him playing in a wide variety of creative jazz idioms. It is an album that is certainly filled with spirit and often quite rambunctious.

Utilizing a group with the ageless trumpeter Eddie Henderson, Skerik on tenor, pianist-keyboardist Wayne Horvitz, bassist Henry Franklin, and percussionist Bill Summers, Clark’s Kosen Rufu is filled with forward-looking music that ranges from bordering on the avant-garde to 1970s Miles Davis grooves (with a prominent role for Henderson’s trumpet) and free bop. Other than two songs, the compositions are all originals by band members with each musician other than the trumpeter contributing at least one piece.

The opening “First Motion” includes many stirring ensembles, Eric Dolphy’s “Hat And Beard” gets a rare revival and the soulfully swinging “MC’s Thing” has Skerik sounding a bit like Stanley Turrentine in spots. “Distance Between Leaves” manages to be both soothing and a bit unsettling at the same time while “Olivia” swings in a post-bop manner but also has some freeform playing by the rhythm section. “BBQ On Auseon” is definitely a ragged party song, “One or Mganga” is Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis, free bop a la Ornette Coleman dominates “Love Mingus,” “Signature” is joyfully funky, and the uptempo blues “Luconchu’s Night Out” is quite nutty with screaming tenor and eccentric comping by Horvitz. The closing “Apparition” has hints of all of the above.

Definitely not background music, this colorful set is arguably Mike Clark’s finest recording as a leader even though he refrains from soloing, clearly enjoying the controlled chaos. Kosen Rufu is available from www.widehiverecords.com.

Sarah McKenzie
Without You
(Normandy Lane)

Pianist-singer Sarah McKenzie grew up in Australia and at 15 was so impressed by Oscar Peterson’s Night Train album that she knew that she wanted to be a jazz pianist. She later moved to the U.S. to attend Berklee, settled in Los Angeles, and recorded five albums prior to Without You.

Since McKenzie has long loved Brazilian music, Without You is her tribute to Brazil. She is joined by cellist Jaques Morelenbaum (who worked early on with Antonio Carlos Jobim), the great guitarist Romero Lubambo, bassist Geoff Gascoyne, drummer Peter Erskine, percussionist Rogerio Boccato, and (playing flute and soprano on one song apiece) Bob Sheppard.

The set includes nine Jobim songs, Luis Bonfa’s “The Gentle Rain,” Lubambo’s “Without You” (which has lyrics by McKenzie), and three of the singer’s originals. Rather than just recreate the usual arrangements on such songs as “Corcovado,” “Once I Loved,” “Wave,” “Dindi,” and even “The Girl From Ipanema,” Sarah McKenzie gives a fresh spin to many of the tunes while still paying homage to the early versions.

Among the highlights are a cinematic medium-slow rendition of “Gentle Rain,” her tribute to Jobim (“The Voice Of Rio”), the fast samba “Mean What You Say” which has a bit of scat singing, the blending of voice and cello on “Fotografia,” a solo piano rendition of “Modina,” and the playful “Quo! Quo! Quo!”

The overall results are delightful and will certainly please fans of Brazilian jazz. Without You is available from www.normandylanemusic.com.

Geri Allen & Kurt Rosenwinkel
A Lovesome Thing

Pianist Geri Allen (who passed away in 2017) and guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel only performed together a few times and, despite enjoying each other’s musical company, a joint studio album never got beyond the talking stages. However this previously unreleased concert performance (their only opportunity to play as a duo) from 2012 not only demonstrates what could have been but resulted in some timeless music.

Allen and Rosenwinkel were never shy to stretch standards in adventurous ways. During this concert, while the emphasis is on slower tempos for such songs as Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing,” “Embraceable You” (which is mostly well disguised), and Thelonious Monk’s “Ruby My Dear,” the improvising is never obvious or overly predictable. Best are the two originals: Rosenwinkel’s medium-tempo “Simple #2” and an extensive exploration of Allen’s “Open Handed Reach.” The pianist and guitarist complement each other very well and often think along similar lines.

While it is a pity that no other joint recordings exist, the release of A Lovesome Thing is a happy event, documenting a fertile collaboration that few knew existed. The music is thought-provoking, a bit historic, and easily recommended. The CD is available from www.motema.com and www.heartcore-records.com.

Brian Clemens
Beneath The Blue

Pianist-arranger Brian Clemens, who is based in Southern California, makes his recording debut on Beneath The Blue. His treatment of ten songs, which includes standards and a few originals, is consistently impressive.

The first seven numbers feature Clemens’ arrangements for a small big band that includes eight horns plus (on five of the songs) Anna Crumbley, Jamie Shaw or Luke Carlsen on vocals. Ms. Crumbley infuses “I’ve Never Been In Love Before” with some particularly warm singing and the arrangement swings. Jamie Shew gives “Heart Of The Country” an attractive mixture of scatting and words, the instrumental “Callout” has excellent if brief statements from piccolo, trumpet and trombone (unfortunately the soloists are not identified) along with Clemens’ piano, and Shew swings throughout “If You Were Mine.” The other larger band numbers include an easy-listening instrumental version of “Matchmaker,” some lush backing by horns behind Crumbley on “Twilight Time,” and brief soulful statements at a perfect medium-slow tempo for Carlsen’s feature on “Sentimental Journey.”

Trio renditions of “Witchcraft” (which has some flashy piano from the leader) and “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” (which has some very nice ballad singing from  Andrea Miller) precede Clemens’ sensitive solo piano version of “Both Sides Now” which closes the pleasing set.

All in all, Beneath The Blue (which would have benefitted from liner notes) is a fine debut for Brian Clemens. It is easily recommended and available from www.amazon.com.

Harold Danko

Veteran pianist Harold Danko has been exploring the music of Igor Stravinsky in recent times, but in his own way. On his Steeplechase albums Spring Garden (a 2019 quartet set with tenor-saxophonist Rich Perry) and 2021’s solo piano outing Rite Notes, Danko composed themes based on ideas from Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring. Trillium (available from www.steeplechase.dk) continues along that path with a trio that features Perry and cornetist Kirk Knuffke.

While Danko has written 18 originals in this series, only the closing “Vernal Eternal” (a fiery piece that includes some stirring group improvising) is newly composed; the other nine selections on this CD receive their second or third recording. But needless to say, every version of each piece is different due to the change in instrumentation and the three musicians’ brilliance in improvising new ideas.

The absence of a rhythm section besides Danko is never a factor in these often-dramatic performances which, while harmonically advanced, swing in their own way. Perry and Knuffke blend together effortlessly and take consistently inventive solos while being pushed by the pianist. Danko’s adventurous post-bop pieces are jazz-oriented with “Rising Aspirations” becoming a medium-tempo blues while the celebratory “Address Unknown” almost sounds like a Mingus composition. Listeners who are familiar with the Rite Of Spring will enjoy recognizing the regular references to Stravinsky’s themes.

Now that Harold Danko’s “Rite Of Spring” pieces have been recorded by solo piano, a trio and/or a quartet, is a big band recording in the future?

Toots Thielemans
Captured Alive

Toots Thielemans was not only a pioneer as a jazz harmonica player but he has yet to be equaled. While he was a very skilled guitarist and whistler, his ability to find ways to play uptempo bebop on the harmonica (where half of the notes are achieved by inhaling rather than exhaling) remains unparalleled.

Captured Alive, a reissue of Toots’ 1974 album, helped start his renaissance in jazz after a period mostly working as a studio musician. Thielemans is joined by the brilliant pianist Joanne Brackeen (already distinctive this early in her career), bassist Cecil McBee, and drummer Freddie Waits for a consistently enjoyable set of straight ahead jazz.

This CD begins with “Days Of Wine and Roses” (switching between two keys the way that Bill Evans did it), Johnny Mandel’s warm ballad “I Never Told You,” Thielemans’ minor blues “Dr. Pretty,” and an uptempo jam on Sonny Rollins’ “Airegin.” Brackeen’s “Images” (which finds the pianist sounding a bit like McCoy Tyner) is followed by a melodic version of Duke Ellington’s “Day Dream,” “Giant Steps” (what other harmonica player could perform this?) and Brackeen’s one-chord rhythmic riff “Snooze” which concluded the original program. The CD reissue adds two selections that were only previously released in Japan: “Stella By Starlight” and the Thielemans’ “Revol.”

Toots Thielemans would record many worthy albums during the three decades that followed, but Captured Alive still ranks as one of his best. It is available from www.candidrecords.com.

David Lopato
Short Stories
(Global Coolant)

Pianist-composer David Lopato has worked with many notables (including Ray Anderson, Dave Liebman, Joe Lovano, Mark Helias, Jane Ira Bloom, Wadada Leo Smith, and Marty Ehrlich), written music for television and film, and taught at the New School since 1991. Short Stories is his fifth album as a leader.

For this set, Lopato heads a quintet also featuring trombonist Ed Neumeister, Lucas Pino on tenor, soprano, clarinet and bass clarinet, bassist Ratzo Harris, and drummer Michael Sarin plus (on four of the nine songs) either two or three percussionists. Anson Jones’ voice is utilized as part of the ensembles during two numbers.

The music on Short Stories, all Lopato originals except for Wayne Shorter’s “Prince Of Darkness,” is essentially modern straight ahead jazz. The blend between trombone and Pino’s reeds (particularly his bass clarinet) is colorful, many moods are explored, and the music swings while keeping one guessing. Among the highlights are the episodic “For Chick” (a jazz waltz that starts off melancholy but has its joyful moments), the hyper “Stuttersteppin’.” Neumeister’s plunger mute work (shades of Tricky Sam Nanton) on “Through The Veil,” the bass pattern on “Clarity,” the old-time feel of “Looking For Mr. Babar,” and the fast samba “Papagayo.”

It is fair to say that none of the nine performances are sleepers, predictable, or lacking in surprises. David Lopato plays quite well throughout and all of the musicians are world class, but it is the leader’s frameworks and arrangements that really make Short Stories special. This consistently stimulating set is highly recommended and available from www.davidlopato.com.

Ben Allison/Steve Cardenas/Ted Nash
Tell The Birds I Said Hello
(Sonic Camera Records)

Herbie Nichols (1919-63) was a very original pianist and composer who never really made it during his lifetime. A contemporary of Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, Nichols only had opportunities to record his own music on three albums, all of which featured him in a trio. Much of his career was spent playing Dixieland in lower-level clubs (the trad jazz musicians appreciated his playing) and most of his compositions were not documented until long after his death. Decades later several groups, including one called the Herbie Nichols Project, unearthed some of his works from the Library Of Congress and recorded them for the first time.

60 years after the composer’s passing, the trio of bassist Ben Allison, guitarist Steve Cardenas and tenor-saxophonist Ted Nash on Tell The Birds I Said Hello debuts six Herbie Nichols compositions plus revives two others that were not initially recorded until 2000.

Nichols’ music has probably never been heard with this instrumentation, and most of these songs were never played in public before.

Of the more memorable selections, “She Insists” has an unpredictable melody that one could imagine Eric Dolphy writing, “The Afterbeat” is a medium-tempo jazz waltz, “Tell The Birds I Said Hello” has a sweet melody, and “Van Allen Belt” swings hard while having unusual chord changes. Unusual is a term that can generally be applied to most of Nichols’ music for rarely do his melodies go where one would expect, and his chord changes are generally quite original and a bit futuristic. However the Allison-Cardenas-Nash trio’s mellow tone masks the music’s complexity a bit while bringing out the beauty in Herbie Nichols’ music.

Any listener with an interest in Herbie Nichols or in hearing “new” music from an earlier great will find Tell The Birds I Said Hello to be well worth acquiring. It is available from www.benallison.com.

Jeremy Monteiro

Jeremy Monteiro is a veteran world class jazz pianist from Singapore. His playing always swings as can be heard on his nine previous albums.

Sings is a bit of a surprise for it is Monteiro’s first full-length vocal album, He displays a charming and musical voice with a tasteful delivery that is a little reminiscent of Nat King Cole. Monteiro is joined by bassist Ben Pohn, drummer Hong Chanutr Techatananan, saxophonist Tony Lakatos, two guests (guitarist Wesley Gehring on the first two numbers and Jens Bunge who plays harmonica on “Moon River”) and, on five of the ten selections, a string section.

Jeremy Monteiro generally takes the first chorus as a vocal, features concise solos (including occasional spots for his piano), and sings during the piece’s final part. The music consists of easy-listening versions of eight standards (including “Candy,” “Blame It On My Youth,” a medium-tempo “Let’s All In Love,” and “My Romance”), the lesser-known “Softly As I Leave You,” and his original “Josefina.” Monteiro sticks to the lyrics and melody in his good-humored singing and the music swings lightly. While few chances are taken and one wishes that the group had more opportunities to stretch out, Sings (which is available from www.amazon.com) is a pleasing set that is easy to enjoy.

Mads Tolling
Cool Yule – A Nordic Christmas
(Madsman Records)

Violinist Mads Tolling was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, grew up playing classical music and Danish folk songs, attended and graduated from Berklee, and had long stints working with Stanley Clarke and the Turtle Island String Quartet. He formed his own trio in 2007 and has been primarily heard as a leader since 2012. A versatile player, one of his CDs is a tribute to the Danish swing violinist Svend Asmussen.

Cool Yule is mostly a look back at the traditional music that Tolling heard in Denmark around Christmas time when he was growing up. In addition to such standbys as a slow and respectful version of “The Christmas Song,” the sly and somewhat sensuous “Santa Baby,” a surprisingly somber rendition of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” a jubilant version of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” that benefits from a boogalooish rhythm, and the title cut (which has a hip vocal from guest Sonny Fredie-Pederson), there is one folk song apiece from Denmark, Iceland, Sweden and Norway.

Tolling is featured in a quartet that also includes keyboardist Colin Hogan (who hints at McCoy Tyner during “My Favorite Things”), bassist Gary Brown, and drummer Eric Garland. Cool Yule contains plenty of variety in mood and rhythms and gives Tolling the opportunity to play both beautiful melodies and some adventurous improvisations (particularly on “Let It Go”).

As with the best Christmas-based albums, it will sound good all year round.

Cool Yule is a fine release that is available from www.madstolling.com.

Peter Xifaras
(Music With No Expiration)

While fusion, the combination of rockish rhythms and instrumentation with jazz improvising, was at the height of its popularity in the 1970s, it has continued as a viable way of playing music during the half-century that followed. Guitarist Peter Xifaras, who has played everything from rock to classical (including with his Symphonex Orchestra), put together a quintet for Fusion that plays funky music that recalls some of the grooves that Miles Davis performed in the 1980s. His group consists of trumpeter Shunzo Ohno (whose electronic distortions in this setting actually looks back to 1970s Miles), violinist Xander Nichting, bassist Max Gerl and drummer Scott Jackson.

This 31-minute seven-song EP has plenty of catchy (if not always subtle) rhythms, passionate solos from Ohno and Nichting, and heated statements from Xifaras who in addition to his blazing guitar, is also heard (mostly in an accompanying role) on keyboards. As with the best fusion, the improvisations over the grooves uplift the music far beyond instrumental rock. Highlights include “Chaos” and “B Blues” but each of the concise performances has its moments. In addition to the quintet numbers, a change of pace is offered on “While My Guitar Weeps For Mehdi Rajabian,” a ballad on which Xifaras is joined by the Czech Symphony Orchestra.

While I wish that some of the jams were a lot longer (the closing groove piece “Till We Meet Again” does not quite make it to two minutes), what is included on Fusion is full of spirit and inventive ideas. It is available from www.PeterXifaras.com.

Joe Policastro Trio
(Jeru Jazz)

The Chicago-based bassist Joe Policastro grew up in Cincinnati, spent time living and playing in Germany, and has been part of the Chicago jazz scene since 2003. Among those with whom he has performed and recorded have been such notables as Diane Schuur, Phil Woods, Ira Sullivan, Howard Alden, David “Fathead” Newman, and Jim Snidero. In addition, Policastro has paid tribute to baritonist Gerry Mulligan in several groups, using Mulligan’s nickname of Jeru as the name for his label.

Joe Policastro has also had a long-time trio with guitarist Dave Miller and drummer Mikel Avery. Ceremony is their fifth album together and serves as a rewarding introduction to the group for those who have not heard them previously.

Ceremony features close interplay by the intimate trio. The set begins with the title cut, a catchy number that explores several moods and finds the unit sounding a bit like a band that Pat Metheny might have led. The bassist’s “Poioumena” creates a mysterious mood but also swings while Miller’s “Mojave Lifeline” is quite infectious. Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou” is a bluesy number with a country tinge that has a fine bowed bass solo by Policastro.

The trio makes Thelonious Monk’s thorny “Brilliant Corners” sound easy to play, is energetic on the leader’s “Scene Missing,” and is in top form on his very likable “Possible Music.” The set concludes with Joao Bosco’s “Bala Com Bala” which, in this version, often sounds like an early Ornette Coleman piece.

While Dave Miller’s guitar is often in the lead, all three musicians make major contributions to the group’s sound on Ceremony, they are open to each other’s spontaneous ideas, and together they display a distinctive musical identity. Ceremony is available from www.jerujazzrecords.com.