Mike Denny Trio
Live At Laurelwood
(Soaring Music)

Guitarist Mike Denny, who passed away last year at the age of 64, was originally from Eugene, Oregon and played music from the age of 13. He worked in Oregon in the 1980s, spent time playing in New York City, Washington D.C., Denver, Paris and Barcelona, and ended up back in Oregon where he performed music and was an important educator. Along the way he led and co-led several albums including recording I’ll Think Of Something with bassist Greg Nathan in 2013.

Live At Laurelwood, which was cut in 2019, is arguably the guitarist’s finest showcase on records. Denny is featured leading a trio with bassist Tyler Abbott and drummer Ken Mastrogiovanni at a live performance in his native Eugene. He displays a melodic style, some boppish solos, and a relaxed approach. Among the songs that Denny uplifts are “How Insensitive,” “Tenderly,” a beautiful rendition of “A House Is Not A Home” and a soulful version of “The Shadow Of Your Smile.” The one uptempo tune is “Blow Out,” an original based on “Impressions” that at one point becomes a fiery guitar-drums duet. Abbott and Mastrogiovanni have their spots and are excellent in support throughout the nine selections. Mike Denny never became famous but, as is evident throughout Live At Laurelwood, he was a world class jazz guitarist. Live At Laurelwood is recommended and available from www.soaringmusicpublications.com.

Bridgetown Sextet

Bridgetown Sextet: Functionizin' – Rivermont Records

The Bridgetown Sextet has been based in Portland, Oregon for the past 15 years but actually sounds like a top-notch territory band from the late 1920s, perhaps one from St. Louis. Best-known among their players is their pianist Andrew Oliver, a student of Jelly Roll Morton’s music who can play in a variety of vintage styles. The group also features trumpeter-cornetist Sam Dechenne, trombonist John Moak, David Evans on tenor and clarinet, Doug Sammons doubling on banjo and guitar, bassist Eric Gruber, and drummer Tyson Stubelek. Sammons contributes an occasional vocal, singer Dee Settlemier memorably guests on the vaudevillian “He May Be Your Man (But He Comes To See Me Sometime),” two songs add Garner Pruitt on cornet, and Chris Shuttleworth plays tuba on the rousing “When Jenny Does Her Low Down Dance.”

With a few exceptions, the repertoire on Functionizin’ is filled with superior obscurities. The opening version of Morton’s “State And Madison” starts out a bit polite but it gains momentum and excitement as it evolves. “Fickle Fay Creep” is the other Morton tune that the sextet plays and, with its colorful framework and inventive development, is one of the best versions ever recorded of the song. “I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues,” the only standard of the set, is a feature for trombonist Moak that also includes a bass solo. It finds the band sounding more modern than elsewhere, like a 1950s mainstream group. Other highlights include the rollicking Clarence Williams piece “Them Things Got Me,” the band’s version of Fats Waller’s “Functionizin’,” and a rendition of “Tight Like This” that has Oliver emulating Earl Hines while Dechenne does his best to hint at 1928 Louis Armstrong.

Classic jazz fans will want to discover the Bridgetown Sextet and will enjoy Functionizin’ which is available from www.rivermontrecords.com.

Omar Sosa
Omar Sosa’s 88 Well-Tuned Drums

Omar Sosa's 88 Well-Tuned Drums - DL Media Music

Recently a documentary about pianist Omar Sosa, 88 Well-Tuned Drums, has been released. The Lp of the same name has eight selections that are used in the film. Since they are drawn from eight different previously released albums and they feature the pianist in a variety of different settings, this album acts as an excellent introduction to the musical worlds of Omar Sosa.

Omar Sosa was born in Camaguey, Cuba. He began playing with local bands in the 1980s, making his first recordings. In 1993 he moved to Ecuador and that was followed by periods living in Spain, the San Francisco Bay area, and then in more recent times back in Barcelona, Spain. Sosa has released at least 22 CDs as a leader since 1997. Throughout his career he has always kept an open mind, collaborating with artists from North America, Africa, Europe, India, Latin America, and the hip hop world. While much of his music is based in Afro-Cuban jazz, Sosa has never performed music that is overly predictable.

On this Lp, Sosa plays two pieces as a solo pianist (a quiet number and the energetic “Angustia With Tumbao”), a duet with percussionist Adam Rudolph, and a ballad with tenor-saxophonist Sheldon Brown (“Para Ella”). The other four numbers are with larger groups and are often quite energetic. “Toridanzon” is a rousing Afro-Cuban jazz number with prominent percussion and ensemble vocals. “Promised Land” utilizes a medium-sized ensemble, the spoken words of Langston Hughes, and spirited singing from Tim Eriksen. “So All Freddie” is a complex original (a tribute of sorts to Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue) with a jazz octet that includes tenor-saxophonist Peter Afelbaum and percussionist Pedro Martinez. And best of all is “Cha Cha Du Nord,” an exhilarating performance with the NDR Big Band. 88 Well-Tuned Drums is available from www.omarsosa.com.

Kirsten Edkins
Shapes & Sounds

Kirsten Edkins is a young tenor-saxophonist with a lot of potential. Part of the jazz scene in Southern California for the past 15 years, she has been a member of big bands led by Bill Holman, John Daversa, John Beasley (MONK’estra) and Johnny Mandel in addition to recording her debut album as a leader, Art & Soul.

For Shapes & Sounds, Edkins is joined by pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Ahmet Turkmenoglu, and drummer Chris Wabich. On seven of her originals plus the ballad “Dedicated To You,” Edkins plays in an unhurried and relaxed style, displaying a hard tone that sometimes recalls early Dexter Gordon. The opener, “Party Slug,” is a lightly funky tune that could have been written by Eddie Harris. “Bird Shapes” is boppish and parts of each chorus hint at Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation” but the chord changes take plenty of other twists and turns. The saxophonist shows plenty of maturity in the way she uses space on “Dedicated To You” and Edkins sounds effortless playing the tricky and unpredictable melody line of “The Goose,” a quirky song that utilizes the chord changes of “Indiana.”

Trombonist Lemar Guillary guests and is a strong asset on the second half of the program. ‘“Sweet Pickles” is a boogaloo blues with a bridge that has Wabich playing New Orleans rhythm parades. “Wuhoo” looks more towards the freebop of the early Ornette Coleman Quartet while swinging hard. Edkins switches to soprano for the complex yet rhythmically catchy “Proprietary Minor.” The closing “Hula Hoop” has the trombonist’s most extensive solo and is an infectious piece that one could imagine other musicians recording in the future.

Shapes & Sound, an impressive release by Kirsten Edkins, is easily recommended and available from www.kirstenedkinsmusic.com.

Altered Five Blues Band
(Blind Pig)

Play Testifyin' by Altered Five Blues Band on Amazon Music

The Blind Pig label is back! One of the most important blues record companies, Blind Pig was founded in 1977 and released scores of significant and high-quality albums but, after being sold, it became inactive. Now, after eight years, Blind Pig is back to signing new artists and releasing CDs.

The Altered Five Blues Band is a group from Milwaukee that had previously released several albums on Blind Pig. Testifyin’ is a five-song EP that features singer Jeff Taylor, the fiery guitar of Jeff Schroedl, keyboardist Steve Huebler, bassist Mark Solveson, and drummer Alan Arber. Jason Ricci guests on harmonica during three of the numbers.

Much of the music on Testifyin’ is quite passionate and even defiant, particularly “Don’t Tell Me I Can’t” and “I’ve Got The Scars To Prove It,” leavened a little by a bit of levity on “Whiskey Got Me Married,” Performing no-nonsense blues along with a blues ballad, the Altered Five Blues Band (which has been together for 22 years) proves to be the perfect lead-off band for the revived Blind Pig label. Testifyin’ is available from www.blindpigrecords.com.

Tina Schlieske
The Good Life
(Shifting Paradigm)

Best known in her native Minneapolis as a rock singer and the leader of Tina and the B-Sides, Tina Schlieske makes her debut as a jazz singer on The Good Life. She recently moved to Santa Barbara but her EP The Good Life was recorded shortly before she left Minnesota. For this set, she is joined by trumpeter Jake Baldwin, tenor-saxophonist Brandon Wozniak, pianist Bryan Nichols, bassist Cody McKinney, and drummer Pete Henning with organist Kevin Gastonguay guesting on “Caravan.”

Tina Schlieske has a deep and distinctive voice and digs into the words that she interprets. While clearly showing the inspiration of Billie Holiday (in the 1950s) and Nina Simone, Schlieske actually has a stronger voice and never directly copies the giants. Her repertoire includes such classics as “Don’t Explain” (during which trumpeter Baldwin sounds a bit like Miles Davis), a swinging “Them There Eyes,” and a heartfelt version of “You Go To My Head.” The recording quality, which seems a bit smoky, makes the music sound at times as if it were performed in a late 1950s nightclub, which is the atmosphere the singer was clearly going for.

To her credit, throughout The Good Life Tina Schlieske never sounds like a rock singer moonlighting in jazz. This set has a haunting quality that makes it well worth picking up. It is available from www.shiftingparadigmrecords.com.

Fred Tompkins
Rising Modes

An adventurous flutist and composer, Fred Tompkins worked with Elvin Jones, has composed Third Stream music that combines together aspects of jazz and classical music, and has participated in many free improvisations. He has led at least ten albums in his career, all of which contain challenging and thought-provoking original music.

Rising Modes is comprised of performances that are full of spirit and close interplay, all of which is well worth several listens. Most of the pieces feature Tompkins in a trio with pianist Greg Mills and drummer-percussionist Gene “Papa” Wright Jr. While their music is mostly comprised of free improvisations, the close interplay and communication between the three musicians make some of the passages sound as if they had been written out beforehand. Tompkins plays particularly well on “Contours” and “Boxwood Rhythms,” creating fresh melodies spontaneously throughout the improvisations, and attention is always paid to mood variations.

Two other works utilize the opposite approach. Other than the drum parts played by Kyle Honeycutt, all of the music on the eight-minute “Rising Modes” and the 13 ½ minute “Currents“ was written out by Tompkins yet the episodic performances sound improvised. The former piece has Paul DeMarinis on soprano and tenor, clarinetist Dana Hotle, pianist Johanna Ballou and Honeycutt forming a quartet while the lengthy “Currents” features DeMartinis on soprano and Honeycutt with pianist Maryse Carlin.

Listeners who enjoy modern classical music and the more melodic side of avant-garde jazz will find much of interest throughout Rising Modes which is available from www.tompkinsjazz.com.

Joe Fonda
From The Source
(Fundacja Sluchaj)

From The Source - Jazz Messengers

Joe Fonda has been a major bassist in the avant-garde since the 1980s. He gained attention as Anthony Braxton’s bassist during 1994-99 (including recording a duet album with Braxton in 1995), worked with such notables as Wadada Leo Smith, Dave Douglas, Katie Bull, Michael Rabinowitz, and Archie Shepp, and has also frequently led his own sessions.

From the Source is a reissue of a set from 1996 that was originally released by the German Konnex label. In addition to using a pianoless quartet with Anthony Braxton on a variety of reeds, trumpeter Herb Robertson, and drummer Grisha Alexiev, Fonda utilizes the tap dancing of Brenda Bufalino as both a solo voice and part of the ensemble, and Vickie Dodd contributes a bit of otherworldly vocalizing.

The opener, “Something From the Past,” is an episodic work that serves to introduce the group including Braxton having a stretch on contrabass clarinet, Dodd’s eccentric singing, and Bufalino adding narration. A bit more accessible is “High Tech #1” which has Fonda playing a bass pattern in 7/4 and inventive flute playing by Braxton along with a drum solo. “From The Source” begins with dramatic cinematic music that has Bufalino’s tap dancing in the forefront. There are assertive solos by Braxton on alto, Robertson and Fonda before it ends with some quiet tapping. The first half of “My Song” is a showcase for Fonda’s thoughtful bass. All of the varied performers get to cut loose on the often-noisy “An Internal Look” while Ms. Bufalino sings and taps on “No One There At All” which was written in tribute to her mentor Honi Coles.

From The Source contains more than its share of variety and will be most enjoyed by those with open ears and no preconceptions on what jazz should sound like. It is available from www.joefonda.com and www.amazon.com.

Jeanfrancois Prins
Blue Note Mode
(Gam Records)

New album "Blue Note Mode" available for pre-order Now! - Jeanfrançois Prins

Jeanfrancois Prins was born and raised in Belgium, started on the guitar when he was 18, and within a year was performing with his own band in Brussels. He moved to New York in 1993 where he married jazz singer Judy Niemack (they were divorced in 2016) and worked steadily as both a leader and a sideman (most notably with his wife and Lee Konitz). Since moving back to Brussels in 2017, the guitarist has run the GAM label. Blue Note Mode is his eighth album as a leader.

On Blue Note Mode, Prins performs a wide-ranging program with pianist Danny Grissett, bassist Jay Anderson, and drummer E. J. Strickland. Four songs also include trumpeter Jeremy Pelt (whose playing adds fire and color to the date) and three (including one with Pelt) has altoist Jaleel Shaw expanding the group. The guitarist performs four of his post-bop originals, three standards, two obscurities, and a song apiece by Julian Priester, Wayne Shorter, and Wynton Marsalis.

Prins has a clear tone, a quietly adventurous style, and an appealing sound. On this set he pays tribute to the legacy of Blue Note by occasionally hinting at the styles recorded by that label during its classic years. That inspiration is most notable on the opener, the funky “Blue Note Mode.” Some of the performances (particularly “I’m Movin’ On” and “Our Prayer For Peace”) are thoughtful and emphasize his interplay with pianist Grissett. Other highlights include Julian Priester’s “Blues Sea” (a spacey blues which could have been written by Thelonious Monk and that has Shaw hinting a bit at Jackie McLean), the guitarist’s uptempo tribute to Ornette Coleman and Lee Konitz (“Ornette-Lee”), a heated version of Clifford Brown’s “Daahoud,” Prins’ solo on a medium-tempo “’Round Midnight,” and the explosive uptempo cooker with both horns, “Move Or Be Moved.” Prins also takes an effective vocal on the closing “Too Late Now.”

Blue Note Mode is an excellent showcase for Jeanfrancois Prins as both a guitarist and a composer, and for his talented sidemen who make the most of their spots. It is available from www.gam-music.com.

June Yun
Enlightenment – Solid Waves

Emerging from the flourishing New York City jazz scene is singer/composer/arranger/producer and educator June Yun. She was born in South Korea, raised in London and returned to Korea to study music, focusing on pop and R&B songwriting. In that vein, Yun successfully collaborated with Korean singer Seunghwa Park, but afterwards was unfulfilled.

She subsequently, moved to NYC to study jazz, earning a BFA from the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, and a Masters from the Manhattan School of Music. Since earning those degrees, she has thrived as an artist and educator, and worked with many top-flight musicians. Among them are Jean Baylor, Theo Bleckmann, Shai Maestro, Joel Ross, Ingrid Jensen, Amy London, Mike Moreno, Jeremy Manasia and Dr. Richard Harper.

Enlightenment – Solid Waves, actually two different tracks, is Yun’s debut release and showcases superb vocal, arranging and producing skills. Musically, the recording possesses an ethereal, somewhat meditative quality, yet also includes appealing singing and invigorating post-bop playing. Core support comes from pianist Maestro, bassist Kanola Menderhall and drummer JK Kim. Guests, vibist Vid Jamnik, guitarist Brad Kang and alto saxophonist Nicola Caminiti round out the project with tasteful solos and engaging band interactions.

Yun serenely sings and scats on “Little Mighty Soul” and “You Whom She Saved” with Caminiti gorgeously backing and soloing to a lightly pulsing backdrop. Otherwise, she sings wordlessly for Enlightenment, “Wherever Dark Takes You There Shall be Light,” “Light in Your Eyes,” “Light Cycle,” and “Mirrors (Dear Mom)” a spiritual duet with her pianist. Vastly different is the second title track, Solid Waves, a spoken word affirmation to be yourself and turn dreams into reality. Unquestionably, a promising debut! For more info go to: www.juneyunmusic.com

Chick Corea & Orchestra da Camera Della Sardegna

The Chick Corea Elektric Band
The Future Is Now
(Candid Records)

Chick Corea fans looking to expand their collections will be delighted to find two new previously unreleased recordings, Sardinia and The Future is Now. Sardinia is classical and features the renowned pianist who was trained in the genre while growing up and returned to it intermittently throughout his celebrated career that sadly concluded in 2021.

He is accompanied by Sardinia, Italy’s Orchestra da Camera della Sardegna, conducted by Simone Pittau in 2018. The program/sub title is A Night of Mozart & Gershwin, which also were reoccurring themes for the pianist. From Mozart’s 27 piano concertos, No. 24 with Allegro, Larghetto and Allegretto with improvisation were magnificently rendered by Corea and orchestra.

Most significant throughout the works is Corea’s extremely light and nimble prowess that is perfectly synchronized with Pittau and the assembly. Contrarily, the Gershwin section will sound more familiar to listeners and in the introduction, Corea cited that the composer was basically a jazz musician who wrote songs.

Comparatively, The Future Is Now seems like it’s from another planet with Corea and cohorts, Eric Marienthal-reeds, John Patitucci-bass, Frank Gambale-guitar and Dave Weckl-drums. The hard-hitting lineup with a couple of hiccups and hiatuses remained intact for 30 years and last performed in 2018. This recording captures some of their live performances between 2016 and 2018, beginning and ending at Catalina in Los Angeles, with shows at the Blue Note in New York and Tokyo, along with one in Sonoma, CA.

Though not as powerful as Corea and Stanley Clarke’s Return to Forever, this group generates plenty of firepower that is nuanced and occasionally grooves. Among the tunes are “C.T.A.” and “Johnny’s Landing,” fusion jamming “Charged Particles,” classical/Latin flavored “Alan Corday,” and signature tune “Got a Match” featuring the master keyboardist wailing away on synth. For more info go to: candidrecords.com and chickcorea.com.

Claudia Villela
Cartos ao Vento
(Taina Music)

San Francisco Bay Area treasure, Brazilian vocalist/pianist/composer Claudia Villela returned to her homeland to visit family, and was so taken by the experience that she decided to record her first album originating from there. To make it happen she enlisted old friends from her adolescence, such as drummer Marcelo Costa, bassist Jorge Helder and producer/arranger Mario Adnet.

Additionally, top Brazilian guitarists Toninho Horta and Romero Lubambo, reedists Edu Neves and Zé Nogueira, and accordionist Vitor Goncalves were recruited for Cartas ao Vento (Letters to The Wind in Portuguese).

The results are astounding and her original songs track beautifully from start to finish. Villela’s mesmerizing singing in Portuguese and melodic playing easily transports listeners to the pulsating rhythms and vivacious spirit of her hometown Rio de Janeiro. Also in that regard, the singer sought not to make a jazz record and wanted everything to be part of the song, without emphasis on virtuoso solos.

Moreover, the Brazilian’s songwriting is stellar, beginning with the inviting title piece. “Agua Santa” embodies a classic mix of samba and bossa including enchanting singing with the band and a cappella, along with a well-integrated bass solo. Villela’s singing for “Chamego” is sanguine with a heavenly intro. While ballad “Flores Do Mais” is based on South American poet Ana Cristina Cesar’s writing and texturally resembles Jobim’s “Insensatez” with very impassioned singing.

“Instrumento” influenced by Mario Palomares’s poem is by no means an instrumental and instead is lifted by unearthly singing and gentle saxophone accentuation. Villela furthermore takes things to an even higher level on “Chorinho Pra Elas,” with beyond belief scatting and is fluidly supported by her players. Ending on a high note is “Batucador,” dedicated to master percussionist Airto, with Villela and accordionist Goncalves getting into intense exchanges. For more info go to: https://claudiavillela.bandcamp.com and www.claudiavillela.com

Stacey Kent
Summer Me, Winter Me
(Naïve Records)

London-based American, Grammy Nominated singer Stacey Kent has amassed an impressive international following, winning numerous awards. Among them are France’s Chevalier dans Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and the Jazz Japan Award for Best Vocal Album. In 2023, the Prix Ella Fitzgerald at the Montreal International Jazz Festival and the La Granada del Festival de Jazz at the Granada International Jazz Festival.

Besides possessing a purring mezzo-soprano voice, Kent has an affinity for languages. She studied Italian, German, Portuguese and French at Vermont’s Middlebury Language School, and has recorded French and Brazilian themed albums. Summer Me, Winter Me produced by her reedist/multi- instrumentalist/arranger husband Jim Tomlinson highlights the singer’s appealing talents.

Additionally, the project is in response to fans’ inquiries about songs she’s performed in concert, but aren’t on any of her recordings. In that regard she gracefully rendered the title song composed by Michel Legrand with Marilyn and Alan Bergman, “Under Paris Skies” popularized by Andy Williams in the ‘60s and Jacques Brel’s beautifully interpreted “Ne Me Quitte Pas.” It was also sung in English as “If You Go Away” (the first time she recorded one song twice on the same album).

Another serving of Kent’s soothing French vocal prowess comes by way of Legrand’s superlative “La Valse des Lillas” and included exceptional tenor saxophone playing from Tomlinson. He also contributed several of his own gently sung ballads, “Thinking About The Rain” adorned with his flute playing and “A Song That Isn’t Finished Yet” accented by saxophone. They both were cowritten with lyrist Cliff Goldmacher. While, the producer’s “Postcard Lovers” previously recorded by Kent with lyrics by his longtime collaborator, Nobel Prize-winning writer Kazuo Ishiguro was modified to an easy flowing ¾ cadence. Overall, a comforting record perfect for snuggling and other things… For more info go to: staceykent.com

Scott Mayo
Meu Brasil
(Cornell House Records)

A dinner conversation between Sergio Mendes and his longtime Musical Director/collaborator Scott Mayo after he finished the film Babylon’s soundtrack, was the impetus for the reedist/multi-instrumentalist/singer’s Meu Brasil. Mayo through projects with many stellar Brazilian artists has become quite adept at interpreting South American music.

Besides Brazilians, he has worked with R&B/contemporary jazz superstars Earth, Wind & Fire, Beyonce, pop EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony winnerJohn Legend and reggae legion scion Damian Marley. Furthermore, Mayo performed on big TV network special programs, such as the Motion Pictures Academy and Grammy Awards, along with playing at the White House when Obama was President.

Interestingly, Mayo’s third album focuses on his connection to many of the 16 songs on his third solo record. Helping him bring the music to fruition were Legend, Mendes and wife Gracinha Leporace, Brazilian master composer/guitarist/singers Guinga and Dori Caymmi, and his son, fast emerging vocalist Michael Mayo. Central to the absorbing tracks is the headliner’s amazing musicality that includes layers of reeds, keyboards and vocals all impressively arranged.

Opening tune, Milton Nascimento’s “Ponta de Areia” abounds with Mayo’s willowy multi-reed playing and piano support, and Mendes bandmate Michael Shapiro on percussion. It seamlessly segs into breezy bossa “Trezinho do Corcovado” with his feathery flute enhanced by Guinga’s cool guitar strumming.

Alternately, son Michael melodically sings and scats on “Samba Gringo” with dad profoundly soloing on baritone saxophone. Mayo also does some spirited singing with Leporace for funk grooving “Vista do Corcovado” and expressively for “Don’t Say Goodbye” with Mendes and Legend helping out on backing vocals. While ballad “Folhas Secas” features Caymmi doing lead vocals with Mayo and wife Jen Guess-Mayo supporting. For more variety, uptown jam “Onda Negra” features percussionist Gibi dos Santos and hot brass choruses from Mayo. For more info go to: www.scottmayomusic.com

SAM ROSS – “LIVE AT THE MIRA ROOM, VOL. 11” – Independent Label

Sam Ross, piano/Fender Rhodes; Simba Distis, upright & elec. Bass; Dr. Mimi Mured, drums.

This is one of those albums where you immediately are intoxicated by the piano player’s music and his recording transports you right into the club, along with the enthusiastic audience you hear applauding loudly. Sam Ross is excellent at what he does. Immediately I am drawn into his swinging piano presentation as he and his bassist play a song called “Breakfast for Dinner.” After a couple of choruses of that song, Dr. Mimi Mured drops in on drums and the trio punches harder than Joe Louis in his prime. This is classic bebop!

Sam Ross has composed every song on this album and even designed the CD cover. A strong bass line opens a tune called “New Shoes” with the drums slapping the groove into place. Ross enters with the blues on display and shows us his soulful side. His press package says that he’s an artist who lives in Long Beach, California and I immediately want to go out and hear him play ‘live.’ On this ‘shoes’ tune, the bass takes an impressive solo and Dr. Mured builds the arrangement by adding colorful drums and energy to the piece. Ross can lay a groove down like Les McCann or Gene Harris. His nimble fingers explore the keyboard and deliver not only soulful rhythms but memorable melodies. This tune is followed by another original titled, “What is TOP.” It begins with a repetitious six-note melody, then stretches out and becomes a real ‘cooker’ that invites a spirited bass solo and spotlights the drums on a trading-fours part of the tune, with a full drum solo at the end. “New Socks” is a funk tune that reminds me of something Herbie Hancock might have played, more electric than the other arrangements have been, and Ross is playing a Fender Rhodes electric piano on this one. The trio closes out with Sam Ross tributing Chick Corea with a tune he penned called “Dear Chick.” Every song on this album showcases Sam Ross’s composer abilities. But there is something else that must be said. It’s a very unusual aspect to this recording. Simba Distis, listed as the bass player, is actually an anagram of Midi Bassist and Dr. Mimi Mured does not exist either. The drummer is a program called Midi Drummer and Sam Ross is actually playing every instrument of this trio. What?? !! Yes, and playing all three instruments dynamically. Sam Ross used the lock-down period caused by the COVID pandemic to master production, playing the piano parts, and programming the bass and drums using Loic Pro X. He did this album solo (all by himself) and it was good enough to fool me. There is no Mira Room. He simply invited thirty of his friends to attend his solo concert and asked them to react the way they would in a real nightclub.

Sam Ross earned degrees in both Sociology and Jazz Studies at the University of Michigan. Of course, he has performed jazz with other human beings at clubs and festivals around the

Southern California area. He also prides himself as being a jazz educator and enjoys inspiring his students. In 2023, Ross won the Downbeat Graduate Student Arranging Award for his version of “Blue in Green.”

This album sparkles with brilliance and ingenuity, and it features Sam Ross in top form as not only a pianist and composer, but also an innovator, arranger and leader of his own unique and well-played trio, a trio that he created himself playing every instruments. Impressive!

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

DONALD VEGA – “AS I TRAVEL” – Imagery Records

Donald Vega, piano/composer/arranger; Lewis Nash, drums; John Patitucci, bass; Luisito Quintero, percussion.

A flurry of drumbeats opens this album. Lewis Nash and Luisito Quintero provide the percussion that perpetuates Vega’s tune titled, “Baila! Dance Like No one’s Watching.” Here is a piece of original music by pianist/composer Donald Vega that makes you want to get up and dance, or at least tap a toe. The tempo is energized.

We are all on a journey in this lifetime. Vega refers to that life travel as an ode to the family and community that empowered him to make a physical, musical and a career path towards his metaphorical journey; a journey that has taken him to where he is today.

At age fourteen, Donald Vega fled his Nicaraguan country and immigrated to the United States. That was 1989. As a blossoming pianist, who was trained classically on piano in Nicaragua, young Vega worked locally (in Los Angeles) with jazz legends like Billy Higgins, John Clayton, Francisco Aquabella and Al McKibbon. He attended Crenshaw High School and the Coburn School of the Performing Arts. Next, he sought higher education at University of Southern California, then off to the East Coast where he attended the Manhattan School of Music and the Julliard Music School. In fact, Donald Vega is currently a professor at the Julliard School of Music and based in New York City.

In 1991, Vega was awarded the Los Angeles Music Center’s Spotlight Award. He was labeled Downbeat Magazine’s 2007 Jazz Student Soloist Award, and garnered 1st Place at the 2008 Phillips Jazz Piano Competition at the University of West Florida. That same year he released his debut album as a bandleader called “Tomorrows.” In 2012, Vega released “Spiritual Nature” and in 2015 he recorded a tribute to piano icon, Monty Alexander, “With Respect to Monty.” Vega featured seven of Alexander’s original compositions.

This recent album, (cut in a single day) showcases Donald Vega’s own, respectable, composing skills. He offers the listener nine self-penned tunes that are plush with lovely melodies and rich, cultural rhythms. The title tune is Track #2 and exemplifies Vega’s love of motion and melody in his music. John Patitucci is showcased on bass during the arrangement of “I Know You Can Fly.” Vega has surrounded himself with music masters, who stand as a testament to Vega’s own awesome and celebrated musical journey.

This album embraces Donald Vega’s world travels, his cultural Nicaraguan roots, as well as his impressive piano playing. His love of jazz music and the freedom it inspires is obvious along with his wonderful composing talents. Donald Vega is the whole, universal package. It’s a joy traveling with him during this presentation of “As I Travel,” riding along while listening to his own personal and musical autobiography.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


Rob Dixon, tenor & soprano saxophone; Steve Allee, piano; Amanda King, vocals; Nick Tucker, bass; Greg Artry & Kenny Phelps, drums; Derrick Gardner, trumpet.

Standards Deluxe Album Release Party @ The Jazz Kitchen - Feb 23, 2024,  7:00PM

On the Caravan composition, Rob Dixon plays his soprano saxophone and on Love for Sale he switches to a gutsy solo improvisation on his tenor saxophone. Both sax solos are impressive.

After the Dixon solos, Steve Allee tinkles the piano to invite Amanda King to the party. They slow their roll on “the Very Thought of You” where Amanda presents her interpretation of this favorite. She appears with just a trio at first. On verse two, Dixon re-enters and tastefully accompanies the vocalist with tender saxophone touches. This quintet embraces the lovely vocals of Amanda King on other tunes, including familiar standard jazz tunes like “Love for Sale” and “Caravan.” She does a wonderful job of swinging both tunes, enunciating each lyric with casual precision and unfolding the song lyrics like pages of a novel.

Amanda began her career in showbusiness as an actress in Louisville, KY, then switched to singing in 2000, once she moved to the San Francisco area. There, Amanda King found success in recording and stage work. She made a big splash in Northern California with her one-woman show, “It’s About Damn Time!” This was followed by another show met with positive reviews and great acclaim, “Chanteuse.” It soon became the title of her CD release in 2008, featuring a Bay Area trio. In 2018, she released a Christmas holiday EP, co-produced by Barry Manilow’s musical director, Joey Melotti, and featuring some of Las Vegas’s finest musicians. That same season, she opened “Ella Fitzgerald: A Centennial Celebration” in the Venetian Room of the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, alongside Lillias White, Freda Payne, Sony Holland & Janis Siegal. She has also performed as the title character ‘Queenie’ in the Oakland Opera Theater’s rendition of Duke Ellington’s incomplete and rarely performed jazz opera, “Queenie Pie.”

California vocalist, Amanda King is brightly featured on this new album along with the Rob Dixon and Steve Allee Quintet. This woman has taken all her talents and combined them to become an in-demand vocalist and actress across the country. In February of 2024, the Dixon/Allee Quintet album will be available. It’s a winner!

* * * * * * * * * * * * *


Julie Kelly, vocals/guitar; Josh Nelson, piano/keyboard; Larry Koonse, guitar; Luca Alemanno, bass; Dan Schnelle, drums; Aaron Serfaty, percussion; Danny Janklow, alto saxophone/flute; Andrew Synowiec, guitar.

Julie Kelly's "Freedom Jazz Dance" CD Release PARTY! Tickets, Sun, Mar 3,  2024 at 3:00 PM | Eventbrite

Julie Kelly grew up in Oakland, California, a city in the San Francisco area. She and her twin sister, Kate, loved music and sang in their Catholic School choir. The two formed a folk singing act in the 1960s and worked the coffee house circuit. They even opened for Peter, Paul, and Mary, a very popular folk/pop group back-in-the-day. Meantime, she was listening to jazz, blues, and gospel.

“When I was thirteen, I was listening to Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, as well as Dave Brubeck, and those wonderful albums with Miles Davis and Gil Evans. It wasn’t long before I was sneaking into clubs in Oakland to hear people like Earl “Fatha” Hines. The Blues is what guides me, and the great ones have shown the way,” Julie Kelly says in her online bio.

But before she had crossed that vocal threshold of jazz, in 1971 Kelly packed a backpack and her guitar, (like a hippie) she and a friend took buses and boats down the Amazon landing in Rio de Janeiro. There, Kelly developed a great love of Brazilian music.

On this album she sings “A Ra” which translates to “The Frog” with the wonderful accompaniment of Josh Nelson on piano, who also co-produced this album. Impressively, Kelly sings in Portuguese. I was surprised to hear her interpret a Gregory Porter tune, “Take Me to the Alley.” That was no easy feat. The tune is very beautiful, quite spiritual, and has a challenging melody. Julie Kelly successfully put her own artistic stamp on it.

In 1984, she released her debut album on Pausa Records called “We’re On Our Way” and this is the voice I remember.

I also recall hearing Julie on her album “Kelly Sings Christy” and enjoying her “Never Let Me Go” album. Her vocals are no longer the powerhouse they used to be, but Kelly still knows how to tell a story with her songs. She is emotional and honest. I can appreciate that. Barbara Brighton, Kelly’s old friend, produced this album. Brighten is a very fine producer, who also produced Kelly’s former album release called, “Happy to Be.”

One thing I have always admired is that Julie Kelly knows how to choose and interpret songs with lyrics she believes in and melodies that are unique and lovely. For instance, her take on the Sting tune, “Practical Arrangement” is striking and reflects vulnerability. The guitar additions of Larry Koonse and Andrew Synowiec on this project lends sensitivity and beauty. Kelly was co-writer on “River People” a song composed with memories of her trip down the Amazon. Her folk roots become apparent when she chooses the Gordon Lightfoot tune, “Early Morning Rain.” The Brazilian arrangement on Bill Wither’s composition, “Hello Like Before” is wonderful.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *


Erik Jekabson, trumpet/arranger/composer; Matt Clark, keyboard/piano; Gregory Howe, percussion/ composer; Mike Clark, drummer; Henry ‘the Skipper’ Franklin, bass; Mads Tolling, violin; Kasey Knudsen, alto saxophone; Mike Rinta, trombone/tuba; Ben Davis, cello; Jonathan Ring, French horn; William Winant, timpani/marimba.

Daggerboard- Escapement (PREORDER)

What better way to start the day than to put on some solid, Straight-ahead jazz and let it soak into the morning air. The new album by Daggerboard was the perfect way to begin my day, opening with the original song of Gregory Howe and Erik Jekabson, “Centrifugal.” It’s a blend of old-school jazz with contemporary overtones. Funny, the title tune, “Escapement” sounds more like the motion of a centrifuge than the opening track. I participated in lab work during biology class, and we often had to use a centrifuge to separate matter. It spins in a certain way, and the introduction of the title tune reminded me of that circular spin, of how it starts slowly than gains momentum. However, Daggerboard’s arrangement soon settles down to a smooth, unobtrusive groove. Matt Clark steps forward with a piano solo that puts the ‘J’ in jazz. Erik Jekabson’s trumpet dances over the chord changes bringing light and energy to the arrangement. All the music has been composed by Erik Jekabson and percussionist, Gregory Howe. “Shiva’s Mode” has a very Middle Eastern essence with Howe’s precise percussion riding alongside Mike Clark’s trap drums like horse’s hooves. The addition of Mike Rinta’s tuba and Jonathan Ring’s French horn to this project bring delightful color to these arrangements. Their tune called “The Balance Board” takes me back to the early1960s when Coltrane was king (1961 – My Favorite Things). Daggerboard offers us a pretty ballad with Jekabson’s trumpet introducing the melody and sirens echoing ominously in the background. I Flashback to the Peter Gunn television series, a popular detective series that ran from 1958 to 1960, that utilized jazz as their music of choice. The bass of Henry Franklin is distinctive beneath Clark’s piano solo and throughout their arrangement. Mike Clark shows off his brilliance on drums, building the suspense in the song. This is perfect music for that new series, Mr. & Mrs. Smith or any detective show.

I have reviewed several of the Daggerboard albums in the past and this one is my favorite to date. The compositions are creative, inspiring, imaginative, and just good listening. The blend of horns and electronics are perfectly matched with Erik Jekabson’s orchestral arrangements lifting the production beautifully.