“LIVE @ VITELLOS”
Michael Wolff, piano/composer; John B. Williams, bass; Mike Clark, drums; Mark Isham, trumpet.
Michael Wolff welcomes us to his world, opening with his “Ballad Noir,” a sexy, dark blues ballad that allows trumpeter, Mark Isham, to spotlight his talents. Wolff, a master pianist and composer, stands stage center, tinkling the 88-keys in a free and poignant way. The song is in the genre of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and quite beautiful. It reminds me of a film score. I was immediately captivated by this original composition. Later, after listening, when I read Wolff’s press package, I discovered that indeed, he had written it for a Gary Winick-directed film titled, “The Tic Code” in 2000, that is based on Wolff’s life as a jazz pianist with Tourette’s syndrome. Michael Wolff provided the score for this movie and co-produced it.
No stranger to film and television, Wolff and his two talented sons, (Nat and Alex) who are both professional actors, starred in a Nickelodeon Musical comedy series, “The Naked Brothers Band.” For this project he received a BMI Cable Award for supervising and producing the music. A Seasoned veteran of jazz, he was the last pianist to work with Cannonball Adderley. As a kid, he joined the Cal Tjader band and for a time, he played Brazilian music with Airto and Flora Purim. You hear all these wonderful influences on this current release.
Wolff’s composition “Lagniappe” sounds like a jazz dance for bumble bees. Wolff’s fingers fly across the keys and John B. Williams’ bass chases them with power and precision. The drums of Mike Clark drive this arrangement at a rapid speed. Then, unexpectedly, they cut the time. Enter Mark Isham on his celebratory trumpet, soaking up all the energy in the room and transforming the time with a rubato interlude. But not for long! They all jump back into this exciting song arrangement at full speed ahead.
“The harmonic structure of “Lagniappe” is based on one pedal tone and allows us to change the color on a dime. We all listened to each other and let the music and spirit of the moment guide us,” Wolff recaptured the moment in his liner notes.
Not surprisingly, this gifted pianist and composer stayed busy in both film and music until 2015, when he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Consequently, this music is all the more precious. You can feel the rich, warm chemistry between these quartet players. Clark and Wolff have known each other since the 1970s when they were both touring with Cannonball Adderley and the Herbie Hancock Headhunters. They also joined forces in Wolff’s jazz-world band, Impure Thoughts. Williams and Wolff have known each other for the same amount of time, dating back to their days of playing in the Arsenio Hall Band on Arsenio’s popular late night television show. Michael Wolff was Hall’s musical Director from 1989 to 1994.
The Wayne Shorter composition “Fall” builds and crescendos, giving Wolff nearly four-minutes to stretch out and take his time developing the beauty of this song. Then, in struts Mark Isham on trumpet, who takes the song to another level, with the tenacious drums of Mike Clark strongly supporting the piece. When John B. Williams is given his solo, he makes the double bass growl and croon with his own unique song.
Track 4 is titled “Falling Down” and is another original composition by Wolff. It is a more contemporary piece of music, with traces of the 1970s and 80s permeating the arrangement, back when he spent time working with Herbie Hancock and The Headhunters. Track 5 is also a Wolff tune, “The Conversation” and an absolutely beautiful piece of music.
“I’m so happy to be able to present this music that was recorded live in such a fantastic venue. We all miss live music and this shows me how happy we will all be when it’s back!” Michael Wolff shared with me.
The final tune was penned by drummer Mike Clark and Jed Levy. It’s two minutes of solid funk. It ends way too soon and is punctuated by excited Southern California audience applause. This is a ‘live’ concert, obviously loved and supported by an appreciative group of friends and jazz fans. Once you hear this album, you will join them. Michael Wolff’s work is ‘standing ovation’ material.
Heart On The Line
(Phoenix Fire Records)
There are plenty of singer, player, songwriter/composer/arrangers around, but few who are also engineers and producers. Saxophonist/guitarist Vanessa Collier, born in Dallas, TX and raised in Columbia, MD covers all the bases. She’s a Berklee College of Music graduate who double-majored in Performance and Music Production/Engineering. That’s definitely not the typical background for blues/R&B performers, and after graduating Collier worked for Kathy Mattea, Bill Cooley, Patrice Rushen, and toured with Joe Louis Walker during 2012-2013.
As a solo artist Collier has impressively been the recipient of the Blues Music Awards Horn Player of The Year in 2019 and 2020, seven BMA nominations and won First Place for Lyrics in the International Songwriting Competition. Her 4th recording Heart On The Line showcases all facets of her talent, while not being indulgent.
The saxophonist/singer/songwriter, who has traits resembling Bonnie Raitt and the Tedeschi Trucks band immediately gets your attention with hot sax playing and sexy singing on “Super Bad,” “Take a Chance on Me” and Randy Newman’s rocking classic “(You Can) Leave Your Hat On.” Contrarily, Collier’s sensitive side is exhibited through “If Only,” “Weep And Moan” and the title track.
Tastefulness prevails profoundly, with the Maryland raised solo artist showing little interest in gritty Chicago or down-home Southern blues. Instead, Collier leans to urban Memphis R&B, and pop similar to Raitt. The bandleader does give a nod to Delta through “Bloodhound,” which features her playing Resonator acoustic guitar.
Otherwise, guitarist Laura Chavez boldly rips away and is best known for being So Cal blues vocalist Candye Kane’s guitarist for almost ten years before she died tragically in 2016. The remaining band members: Nick Stevens-drums, C.C. Ellis-bass, William Gorman-keyboards, Quinn Carson-trombone and Doug Woolverton-trumpet all turned in high-quality contributions to make Collier’s recording a praiseworthy effort. For more info go to: www.vanessacollier.com
JANIS MANN & KENNY WERNER
Dreams of Flying
Longtime friends, dynamic Los Angeles singer Janis Mann and New York wizard pianist Kenny Werner, reunited for their second project (the vocalist’s eighth) that’s truly an East-West affair. It began with the pair, supported by bassist Drew Gress and drummer Duduka Da Fonseca doing sessions at the Sumurai Hotel Recording Studio in Queens after performing at Kitano in Manhattan.
They recorded seven tracks by contemporary composer/songwriters Jimmy Webb, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Johnny Mandel/Alan & Marilyn Bergman, Paul Simon and Barry Manilow/Johnny Mercer. Several years later, Mann and Werner added more songs by doing a “live session,” and were aided by craftsman guitarist Larry Koonse for three of the four tracks at the legendary Capitol Studios in Hollywood. The collaborators drew again from the same well for material, with songs by Blossom Dearie/Mahriah Blackwolf, Steven Sondheim and Sandy Denny.
“Contemporary Standards” as they are now called, are, well different from the American Songbook, and can be a bit of a slippery slope. Mainly, because many originally were pretty far removed from jazz, and might have been pop, R&B or even folk songs.
Mann and Werner’s treatment of Mitchell’s “Edith And The Kingpin” (recorded in Queens) is vocally high-flying and additionally features the pianist coolly stretching out. Webb’s immortal “Wichita Lineman” was done in Hollywood as a duet Bergman-style and intelligently rendered as a ballad, disregarding the original melody. Somewhat in between was Simon’s anthem-like “American Tune” that was somber, yet had space to flow. Contrarily, for Wonder’s “Overjoyed” the New York ensemble swung in hip fashion as Mann sang remarkably.
Overall, some of the album’s numbers work incredibly well and others not so much.
Mann and Werner, though, have a buffer that smoothes out disparities immensely—their talent and sense of adventure. For more info go to: janismann.com or janismann.hearnow.com.
Russell Ferrante Trio
Talk about way overdue! Keyboardist Russell Ferrante, an original and continuing member of the Yellowjackets for 40 years, has been on hundreds of recording sessions since 1978. Despite that, not counting the Yellowjackets, Inflexion (which is available from www.bluecanoerecords.com) is his first album as a leader. Not only is that rather surprising, but he sticks exclusively to acoustic piano in a trio with bassist Michael Valerio and drummer Steve Schaeffer.
Four of the songs were originally recorded by the Yellowjackets but work well in this setting, particularly the lightly funky “Stick-to-it-iveness” and the wistful “Network Of Mutuality.” Ferrante also contributes three other originals including the joyful “Spoons” which was formerly recorded by Eric Marienthal. The close interplay between the three musicians (who have known each other for many years) results in these compositions evolving as they progress, taking the music into some surprising but always tasteful directions.
It is a particular joy hearing Ferrante stretch out on a trio of jazz standards (“Rhythm-a-ning,” “Isfahan,” and “How Deep Is The Ocean”), songs that one would certainly not automatically associate with him. He shows that he can swing hard and creatively, not sounding like bebop is his second language.
Russell Ferrante concludes the set with a tasteful and quietly emotional version of “We Shall Overcome.” While his other work is quite worthy, is it too early to be asking for an encore to Inflexion?
The Generations Quartet
Dave Liebman has been a musical giant since the beginning of the 1970s. He is always a versatile and consistently inventive player, whether working with Elvin Jones, Miles Davis or Richie Beirach, playing free improvisations, fusion, unaccompanied solos, with a large ensemble, or even a set of Sidney Bechet tunes with guitarist John Stowell.
After all of his experiences, it is a pleasure getting to hear Liebman performing the nine standards that comprise Invitation. The Generations Quartet received its name because, in addition to Liebman as a youthful elder statesman, the group has drummer Ian Froman (who Liebman first worked with in the 1980s), bassist Evan Gregor (a former student of Froman’s), and the equally young pianist Billy Test.
While Liebman, who switches between tenor and soprano, is the main star, the rhythm section is quite strong with Test taking many worthy solos while Gregor and Froman (who are stimulating in support of the lead voices) also make fine statements of their own. While there are two mistakes in the song listings (“Bye Bye Blackbird” is listed as “Blackbird” and “Don’t You Know I Care” is listed as “My Foolish Heart”), there are no missteps in the playing. Liebman joyfully returns to his roots while interpreting the classic material in his own distinctive way (the lengthy “You And The Night And The Music” is a highpoint) while his younger sidemen give him a foundation to play off of while challenging and inspiring him.
Invitation is easily recommended and available from www.generationquartet.info.
Zvonimir Tot’s Jazz Stringtet
Guitarist-composer Zvonimir Tot was born in Serbia, started on the guitar when he was 11, spent time living and playing jazz in Amsterdam, and moved to the U.S. in 2000. He has long been based as a performer and an educator in Chicago. While Tot has led several stimulating jazz combo recordings, his latest one is the most unusual.
Sarabande Blue is both an accessible and swinging jazz album and a rather unique project. Tot (sticking to acoustic guitar) and jazz bassist Rob Kassinger are joined by a string quartet (two violins, viola and cello) for nine Tot originals (three newly composed and six formerly heard with a more conventional instrumentation) and a traditional melody. The string quartet does not improvise much but it adds to the beauty, power, and depth of the music. Kassinger’s dancing bass lines act as a perfect foil for the guitarist and keep the music swinging.
As for Zvonimir Tot, his music and solos blend together melodic and bluesy jazz with his classical background and his East European heritage. His fluent solos are full of adventure, his interplay with Kassinger is always stimulating, and his acoustic guitar plays off of and sometimes flies above the other strings.
The delightful results are available from www.zt-music.com.
Sings The Songs Of Duncan Lamont
Tina May has long been one of Great Britain’s great jazz singers, whether interpreting lyrics or scatting. Duncan Lamont (1931-2019) was a British saxophonist both in the studios and in jazz groups. He was also an underrated composer and arranger who wrote songs that were recorded by a variety of singers including Cleo Laine, Blossom Dearie, Natalie Cole, Mark Murphy, and Norma Winstone.
This project, which was planned before Lamont’s passing, is a superior tribute to his writing. Tina May, who is joined by pianist James Pearson, bassist Sam Burgess, drummer Chris Higginbottom, and occasionally trombonist Mark Nightingale, percussionist Phil Hopkins and (on one song) accordionist Karen Street, performs 14 of Lamont’s songs (including two in a medley). Some of his originals hint at older standards, purposely in the case of “52nd Street” (which quotes some bebop licks), and one could imagine all of the tunes being played in the 1950s and ‘60s since they are written in a classic style.
Along the way, tributes are paid to the Algonquin Hotel (sounding a bit like “One For The Road”), Fred Astaire (with whom Lamont worked), Antonio Carlos Jobim, Judy Garland (“The Darker Side Of The Rainbow”), and Paris (“Camille”). A few of the songs have very different origins (including tunes written for a children’s television show) but they all receive worthy treatments. The concluding medley of “There Ain’t Nothing Like The Blues” and the infectious “I’ve Just Said Goodbye To The Blues” is among the highlights.
Tina May is heard throughout in prime form, displaying a wide range of emotions in her very attractive voice, sounding quite effortless in her singing even on the more complex pieces. Her heartwarming tribute to Duncan Lamont is available from www.33jazz.com.
For Such A Time As This
Always a brilliant pianist, Eric Reed has been an important part of the Los Angeles jazz community for many years other than periods spent living in New York. His latest recording teams him with bassist Alex Boneham, drummer Kevin Kanner and, on four of the dozen selections, the talented young tenor and soprano saxophonist Chris Lewis.
The music on this fine release (available from www.smokesessionsrecords.com) is mostly thoughtful and quietly emotional. Five of the selections are solo piano pieces that often display Reed’s roots in the church and gospel music, including his “Paradox Peace,” “Come Sunday,” “We Shall Overcome,” and “Hymn Of Faith.” With the full quartet he pays tribute to Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus (“Thelonigus”) and the late Wallace Roney (“Walitz”). They also jam through the chord changes of “Cherokee” on one of the few uptempo pieces (“Bebophobia”). Lewis displays plenty of potential, at one point hinting at Eric Dolphy but mostly playing in his own individual swinging style. As a bonus that fits the mood of the set, Reed welcomes the excellent and effective gospel singer Henry Jackson on “Make Me Better.”
For Such A Time As This is Eric Reed’s statement for 2020, reflecting his state of mind, the events of the time, and his continual growth as a creative musician.
Leon Lee Dorsey
Thank You Mr. Mabern
While bassist Leon Lee Dorsey is the leader of this trio set and plays quite well throughout as does drummer Mike Clark, its main significance is that this is the final recording of pianist Harold Mabern (1936-2019). Mabern appeared in the Los Angeles area (usually at Catalina’s) on an annual basis during the last years of his life, always playing very well and with energy and enthusiasm. Generally he appeared leading a trio or working with Pharoah Sanders although unfortunately never with his frequent East Coast musical partner tenor-saxophonist Eric Alexander.
Recorded just 11 weeks before his passing, Thank You Mr. Mabern features the pianist still in prime form. The music includes numbers on which the band grooves (including Mabern’s “Rakin’ And Scrapin,’” “Watermelon Man,” and “I’m Walkin,’”), swings (“Bye Bye Blackbird” and “Misty”) plus the hard-driving closer, John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice.” As usual, Mabern sometimes recalls McCoy Tyner (they had similar influences), particularly on the more straight ahead performances. Dorsey takes the melody during a couple of the numbers along with several satisfying solos while Clark shows to anyone who still doubts it that he can play jazz as credibly as he plays funk.
The result is an excellent showcase for each of the three musicians, and a rewarding final statement from Harold Mabern. Thank You Mr. Mabern is available from www.amazon.com.
Isaiah J. Thompson
Plays The Music Of Buddy Montgomery
This CD is a bit of a surprise. Buddy Montgomery (1930-2009) is remembered as a fine pianist and vibraphonist, Wes Montgomery’s younger brother, and co-leader (along with his other brother bassist Monk Montgomery) of the Mastersounds. Although he wrote occasional songs, none caught on and became a standard.
As far as I know, no musician had previously recorded a full set of Buddy Montgomery compositions. Pianist Isaiah J. Thompson, who graduated in recent times from Juilliard, has worked with Ron Carter, John Pizzarelli, Steve Turre, Christian McBride, and Buster Williams. For his debut, he performs ten Montgomery songs. Unfortunately the brief liner notes do not say what his motivation was and what attracted him to this body of work.
The songs, which range from boppish to soulful, vary tempos, moods and grooves. Thompson plays very much like a pianist who matured during Montgomery’s prime years, someone who could be a contemporary of Bobby Timmons and Wynton Kelly without copying either of them. Joined by bassist Philip Norris, drummer Willie Jones III, and (on two songs) percussionist Daniel Sandwick, Thompson does justice to the material, most if not all of which will be new to listeners. Highlights include the catchy “Ruffin It,” a tender “What If,” the joyful “Here Again,” and the uptempo “Aki’s Blues.”
The revival of all of these obscure songs is quite welcome. This project (available from www.wj3records.com) is an inspired idea and an excellent introduction to both the music of Buddy Montgomery and the talented playing of Isaiah J. Thompson.
Monty Alexander has been one of the top jazz pianists since the mid-1960s. His steady and very consistent output (reminiscent in ways of Benny Carter) may not generate headlines but, suffice it to say, he is reliably great virtually all of the time.
Solo is a reissue of one of his more obscure albums. Cut during an era when he also made recordings for Concord and Pablo, Solo was recorded Feb. 18, 1987 (although Tom Lord’s discography says April 10, 1980) in Ludwigsburg, Germany for the Jeton label. For Alexander, it may have been just another session, but the quality is so high that for other pianists this could have been considered a career highpoint.
Alexander contributed six of the ten compositions and, unlike on some of his more reggae-oriented projects, his playing here is sometimes reminiscent of Oscar Peterson. He swings hard, puts plenty of feeling into the ballads (which include “My One And Only Love” and “Mona Lisa”), and makes it all sound both full of joy and effortless.
Added on to the reissue are three very short “Boogie Variations” (around a minute apiece) from 1980 in which the pianist displays his wit along with his dazzling technique.
As with every Monty Alexander recording, Solo (which is available from www.mvdb2b.com) is easily recommended and quite enjoyable.
Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra
When one thinks of Leonard Bernstein’s music being performed by jazz musicians, it is of “Some Other Time” and his songs for West Side Story. Although Bernstein loved and admired jazz, he never claimed to be a jazz musician or an improviser and most of his work was in the classical field.
For this intriguing project, five arrangers (Scott Silbert, Mike Tomaro, Darryl Brenzel, Jay Ashby, and Steve Williams) took Bernstein music from a variety of contexts and turned them into jazz. Opening with the exciting and moody “Times Square Ballet” (from On The Town) and continuing with music from Peter Pan, Trouble In Tahiti, Bernstein’s Mass, the waltz section of his “Divertimento for Orchestra,” and concluding with the dramatic “Symphonic Suite” (part of his score for the film On The Waterfront), the 20-piece Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra does an impeccable job of interpreting the arrangements. There are some fine solos along the way with the conductor Charles Young being featured on alto during “Dream With Me,” steel drummer Victor Provost being in the spotlight on “Waltz,” and many other soloists including four of the saxophonists, three trumpeters, and pianist Tony Nalker.
But the emphasis is on the spirited ensembles, the inventive and episodic arrangements, and Bernstein’s original writing. The results (available from www.mcgjazz.org) are quite stimulating, fresh, and well worth hearing.
Pianist Max Haymer, originally from Los Angeles, has been playing piano since the age of seven, and jazz piano since he turned 14. By 2006 he was making a strong impression locally. Two years later he recorded his first album and began four years of living and playing in New York. Haymer has been back in Southern California since 2012 and has worked with Jane Monheit, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Mike Stern, Bill Holman, Justo Almario, Barbara Morrison, and extensively with Arturo Sandoval.
On Whirlwind, recorded at Sam First in 2019, Haymer leads his trio with bassist David Robaire and drummer Dan Schnelle. They perform three standards and six of the pianist’s originals, all of which could be considered modern straight ahead jazz. The trio is tight and obviously knows the arrangements well which leave plenty of room for spontaneity. Haymer’s songs explore a variety of moods and his versions of “So In Love,” “Speak Low,” and “Love For Sale” all contain some surprising moments.
Fans of the modern yet traditional piano trio will enjoy Whirlwind which is available from www.maxhaymer.com.
In A Big City
A fine acoustic bassist, Igor Kogan was born and raised in Russia. He started on the violin when he was seven, moved to Israel when he was 15, and relocated to the U.S. to attend the New School in New York. Kogan performed regularly in NY until 2014 when he moved to Los Angeles. Since then he has worked on many sessions as a bassist, composer and arranger, led a big band, and headed his own quintet.
In A Big City is Kogan’s debut jazz album. His group with saxophonist Jeremy Lappitt, trumpeter Joshua Aguiar, pianist Marco Apicella, and drummer Matthew Baker performs eight of his originals in a modern hard bop or post-bop style. On most of the selections, Kogan’s bass patterns are prominent behind the soloists, pushing his sidemen and also forming the basis of many of the songs. The individual solos are concise and several tunes have all five musicians getting opportunities to be in the spotlight.
Highlights include the relaxed “Takeoff,” an uptempo “Qwerty aka False Start,” the moody medium-tempo ballad “Illumination,” and the bluesy “New York Blues.” Tierney Sutton guests on “Vocalise,” contributing wordless singing both in her improvisation and in the ensembles.
In A Big City is a nice tasteful set of mostly relaxed music. It is available from www.koganigormusic.com.
Songs From Home
When jazz historians look back at the scene in 2020 (particularly after February), they will notice that a lot fewer recordings were made during that terrible year than usual, and a large percentage of those were by small combos or soloists. Pianist Fred Hersch decided to use him time in isolation usefully and he recorded a solo piano set that emphasizes songs that he heard while growing up in the 1960s.
The music covers a wide area of music, from Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want” to My Fair Lady’s “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” from “Wichita Lineman” to the Dixieland standard “After You’ve Gone.” Hersch displays a bit of wit on the latter tune and the Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty-Four,” while sounding more somber on some of the ballads. The pianist also contributes two originals: “West Virginia Rose” and “Sarabande.”
Overall this is a peaceful and thoughtful set that has enough variety (and typical Hersch brilliance) to make it a worthy acquisition. It is available from www.palmetto-records.com.
(Groove Art Records)
Guitarist/composer/arranger Zvonimir Tot, Clinical Associate Professor of Music at Chicago’s University of Illinois, releases his 6th solo project Sarabande Blue. As would be expected, the Yugoslavian/Serbian-born musician/educator has a solid classical foundation, first studying in his homeland prior to fleeing its war (led to Yugoslavia’s dissolution) and then continuing in Budapest, Hungary, Amsterdam, Holland and Hanover, Germany. Almost simultaneously, he was exposed to Latin American, Bossa Nova and jazz genres.
Since arriving in the U.S. 20 years ago, Tot has been involved in jazz and intermingled classical and sometimes Southeastern European folk. For Sarabande Blue he debuts his newly developed “stringtet”—string quartet (Carmen Kassinger-violin, Lisa Fako-violin, Cheryl Wilson-viola and Paula Kasower-cello) with the addition of double bassist Rob Kassinger from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The bassist gives the bandleader’s seven revised originals and three new compositions the extra muscle he feels is often lacking with string quartets.
The results are an appealing variety of styles and moods that are interesting and engaging. “Groove Me Wah” is a hip blend of guitar and strings, featuring Tot turning in a laid-back solo. Uniquely, “Bruce’s Dilemma” serves up bluesy guitar, and strings, while “Blue Quest” swings Ellington-style with touches of country swing.
Regarding the recording’s central focus, new piece “Aneri-Lament” is classically themed, bolstered by palatable guitar playing. The title composition is rhapsodic, laden with strings and gentle guitar layering. Somewhat related is “Fuga Longa, Vita Brevis” also featuring the strings and is Bach-like with traditional classical guitar. Along the same lines is “Fugue For Mr. N.P.” dedicated to Tot’s late mentor Russian-born composer Nikola Petin. For added energy the ensemble showcase jam-like interactions and peppy playing during “Maki (Guts And Glory).” Not to be overlooked is the final track “Brother Nicolau,” which is bossa-tango flavored. For more info go to: www.zt-music.com.