By Dee Dee McNeil
WADADA LEO SMITH “A LOVE SONNET FOR BILLIE HOLIDAY” – TUM Records
Wadada Leo Smith, trumpet/composer; Vijay Iyer, piano/Fender Rhodes/Hammond B-3/electronics/ composer; Jack DeJohnette, drums/percussion/composer.
If you are looking to explore the inner and outer limits of space, time and music, these are the love songs for you. Los Angeles educator and trumpeter, Wadada Leo Smith, always stretches the creative possibilities of music. He taught at CalArts until 2014 and more recently, in 2019 he was awarded The Medal of Honor from UCLA for his amazing work at that University. Here, three jazz icons have united to bring us a tribute to Billie Holiday; Wadada Leo Smith, Jack DeJohnette and Vijay Iyer. Jack DeJohnette opens the title tune with a flurry of sensuous drum power, tinged with cymbal splashes. Using mallets, he softens the percussive sounds to sing this song of “Billie Holiday: A Love Sonnet.” Wadada Leo Smith first met and played with Jack DeJohnette in the late 1960s. More recently, the two have collaborated with increasing frequency. DeJohnette participated in the first recording of Smith’s Golden Quartet over two decades ago. In a later gathering of the Golden Quartet, Wadada Leo Smith had his first collaboration with Iyer’s piano virtuosity.
“A Love Sonnet for Billie Holiday” marks the first time all three have participated in a recorded production. This first song, “Billie Holiday: A Love Sonnet” was composed by Smith, but all three musicians have contributed their composer talents to this album. DeJohnette composed “Song for World Forgiveness” and Iyer contributed “Deep Time No. 1” with Malcolm X’s voice layered beneath the electronics with words from one of his historic speeches. There is often a haunting and beautiful quality to Wadada’s award winning trumpet. I find that Wadada magic here, exploring Iyer’s track #2. Jack DeJohnette incorporates his drums liberally, along with an excitement and creativity to match Smith’s and with Vijay Iyer’s piano and keyboard excellence intermingled they reach a spiritual and musical high. There is both freedom, originality and beauty in this trio’s exploration. We are pulled along like gold miners, pausing to shake musical pans and explore them for shiny, sparkling nuggets of inspiration.
“The keyboards, drum-set/percussion and trumpet … create their own sonic ranges. … with no bass at the bottom of the music, Vijay, Jack and Wadada’s instruments realize wider horizontal sonic fields and emotional ranges. Therefore, the performers reveal a complete and complex melodic and harmonic spectrum in a clear, musical exposition,” Wadada Leo Smith explained. No more need be said.
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DOUG MacDONALD – “LIVE IN HAWAII” – Dmac Music
Doug MacDonald, guitar/composer; Noel Okimoto, vibraphone; Dean Taba, bass; Darryl Pellegrini, drum.
Funny how things in life somehow go full circle. In Doug MacDonald’s case, although based for years in Southern California, he actually began his career performing in Hawaii with Trummy Young, Gabe Balthazar and Del Courtney. His latest release, “Live in Hawaii” immortalizes his triumphant return to playing straight-ahead jazz in Honolulu. Fellow bandmates include bassist Dean Taba, who grew up in Hawaii and worked in Los Angeles for years playing with a plethora of jazz masters. Also included in his impressive quartet is Noel Okimoto, best known as a drummer, but super-talented on Vibraphone. He is a native of Honolulu. On drums with MacDonald’s group is Darryl Pellegrini who has worked with Woody Herman, Lionel Hampton and Dizzy Gillespie. Pellegrini currently lives and teaches on the island. Together this quartet swings hard and this may be one of my favorite recordings by Doug MacDonald. They open with the stellar composition by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, “My Shining Hour.” Their six-minute, up-tempo arrangement sets the tone for this entire production. Recorded live at the Hawaii Public Radio Atherton Performing Arts Studio, their audience excitement is palpable. After each creative and classic solo, the attending patrons give supportive and spontaneous applause. Okimoto sounds amazing on vibraphone and Dean Taba takes a splendid bass solo, followed by Doug MacDonald and Darryl Pellegrini trading fours and focusing the spotlight on the drummer.
I enjoyed MacDonald’s composition, “Cat City Samba.” They do a gutsy arrangement of Oscar Pettiford’s popular “Blues in the Closet.” This entire concert was broadcast on HPR’s Sunday Morning show called, “Applause in a Small Room” by host and sound engineer Jason Almirez-Taglianetti. I enjoyed the unique interaction between Doug’s guitar and Noel Okimoto’s vibes. Replacing the expected standard piano as the center of the rhythm section, MacDonald plays both lead and rhythm guitar with ease. You will enjoy sitting on the edge of your seat, tapping your toes and listening to this spontaneous and energetic jazz quartet, led by Los Angeles based guitarist, Doug MacDonald. Other favorites on this album are “Star Eyes,” Doug’s original “Bossa Don” presented at a moderate, sexy tempo, propelled by Pellegrini’s warm drums and a nice surprise was hearing the wonderful “Stranger in Paradise” tune.
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FREDDIE HUBBARD – “THE HUB OF HUBBARD” – MPS Records
Freddie Hubbard, trumpet; Richard Davis, bass; Louis Hayes, drums; Roland Hanna, piano; Eddie Daniels, tenor saxophone.
This is an album released in 1969, a little over thirty-four minutes long and it features four songs played by trumpet legend Freddie Hubbard with gusto! Southern California natives wrapped warm arms around Freddie Hubbard and his trumpet genius for many years. This is an album recorded when he was at one of the high peaks of his career. “Without A Song” starts out in an exciting way. It swings hard and features Hubbard at his very best. At the tune’s top, Eddie Daniels echoes Hubbard’s melody on tenor saxophone before Hubbard takes off like a 747 cruising down the runway. The brilliant drums of Louis Hayes egg the take-off onward and Richard Davis pumps hard on his double bass, fueling the process. Only pure, spontaneous energy exuded from this quintet and it’s infectious. When Daniels enters for his solo, he lifts the piece a notch higher. This is the traditional, straight-ahead, bebop rooted jazz I grew up listening to and it is joyful music to my ears. I enjoy the creative and cohesive flavor of Roland Hanna on the piano. His comping behind the Davis bass solo is noteworthy because it’s so uniquely Hanna. He doesn’t just snap the chord changes under the bass solo. Instead, he has a conversation with the bass and plays unexpected and always on-point complimentary phrases. Master drummer, Louis Hayes, trades fours with the group and reminds the world of who he is and his extraordinary legacy. I didn’t understand the engineer’s choice to add echo on the fade of Freddie’s adlib trumpet, but I recall there was a lot of echo usage back-in-those 1960 days. At lightning speed, the ensemble takes on “Just One of Those Things.” They are playing so fast you can hardly count the time. It’s just an awesome and energy-driven arrangement. When they settle down and play a ballad, you get to enjoy Freddie Hubbard’s emotionally connected interpretation of “The Things We Did Last Summer.” Beautiful!
This is a collector’s dream album, featuring Freddie Hubbard at his prime, along with all the members of his group, who were stellar then and also became legendary in their own rights.
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THE JAZZ ALL STARS – VOL 1. – Le Coq Records
John Beasley, piano/Fender Rhodes; Bill Cunliffe, piano/arranger; Rich Eames, piano; John Patitucci & Chris Colangelo, bass; Vinnie Colaiuta, Marvin “Smitty” Smith & Joe Labarbera, drums; Alex Acuña, percussion; Jake Langley, guitar; Rick Margitza & Bob Sheppard, tenor saxophone; Charles McNeal & Brandon Fields, alto saxophone; Adam Schroeder, baritone sax; Bob Lockhart, Sal Lozano, Ken Fischer, Brian Scanlon, & Ralph Moore, saxophones; Wayne Bergeron, Kye Palmer, Mike Rocha, Anthony Bonsera, & Terell Stafford, Trumpets; Andy Martin, Francisco Torres, Bob McChesney, Michael Dease, Ryan Dragon & Ben Devitt, trombones; Andy James, vocals;
Although this album of music was released some months ago, great music is timeless. This “Jazz All-Stars Vol. 1” and features many Los Angeles based musicians and is exquisitely produced. Track 1 spotlights an outstanding drum solo by Vinnie Colaiuta and Alex Acuna (on percussion) during the John Beasley composition “Theme for Flotus,” arranged as a jazz waltz. It’s a lovely composition that swings hard (in spite of its waltz status) with the title celebrating the former First Lady of the United States; Michelle Obama. John Patitucci’s bass solo is warm and wonderful mid-way through the piece.
Track 2 is written by Bill Cunliffe, who also has arranged the music on this album. “Tu Wero Nui” has a lush horn section that gives this piece a big band flair. “Tu Wero Nui” is the Maori language meaning, “the ultimate challenge.” It was written by Cunliffe following a turbulent flight to New Zealand. Unfortunately, the liner notes on the CD cover do not tell us which wonderful saxophone player is soloing on this number, but that solo is rich and beautiful. The tune, Log jammin,’ written by Jake Langley, sounds like an Eddie Harris piece or a 1966 Cannonball Adderley tune called “Mercy – Mercy – Mercy” by Joe Zawinul. It has that kind of flavor with a solid groove provided by the drums of Marvin “Smitty” Smith. Langley makes a strong musical statement on guitar during this arrangement. He’s a veteran player with organist, Joey DeFrancesco’s trio. John Patatucci’s arrangement of “Afro Blue” is quite unique with just bass and Acuña’s percussion featured. Andy James is the vocalist on “Caravan” and floats like a cool summer breeze above the hot tracks that these all-stars lay down. I was disappointed that a fade ended the tune during an outstanding guitar solo by Langley. I could have enjoyed sixteen more bars of that guitar goodness and groove. This is an album of great music performed by outstanding West-Coast-based musicians. Their production also shows off the arranging talents of Bill Cunliffe, Rick Margitza and John Patatucci. Every composition and creative arrangement proffers ear candy. Thanks to the new, Las Vegas based record company, Le Coq, here is a sweet and joyful album of well-played music for the world to enjoy.
Piero Pata, founder of the Le Coq label, is an Italian-Australian native with a deep love of jazz, music, dance and art. We can happily expect a long list of all-star jazz artists to be released by this new record company. Stay tuned!
“Touring around the world as a Flamenco dancer, I got to know and perform with so many great jazz artists. So, when we started Le Coq, I focused on gathering together these incredible musicians. This album is a way to introduce the label through the vision of these artists who audiences know and who have been pushing the music forward for a lifetime,” Piero Pata sums it up.
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GERRY GIBBS THRASHER DREAM TRIOS – “SONGS FROM MY FATHER” – Whaling CIty Sound
Gerry Gibbs, drums; Chick Corea, Kenny Barron, Geoff Keezer & Patrice Rushen, piano; Ron Carter, Buster Williams & Christian McBride, bass; Larry Goldings, organ.
“Songs From My Father” was this year’s much-anticipated new album from renowned drummer and son of the legendary Terry Gibbs. Drummer, Gerry Gibbs, once based in Los Angeles and now living on the East Coast, is paying homage to the musical legacy of his 96-year-old father in a most incredible way. Terry Gibbs is not only the composer of eighteen songs on this recording, but he is also an accomplished vibraphonist. Gerry Gibbs has assembled some of the best and most celebrated jazz musicians to join him on this tribute album. It’s a double set recording where you will enjoy four very distinctive trios. Disc 1, track 1 is titled, “Kick Those Feet” and features Gerry Gibbs, with Kenny Barron on piano and Buster Williams on bass. The trio comes out racing forward with power and punch! Gerry Gibbs is a superb drummer, who not only solidly holds the rhythm and tempo in place, he also knows just when to color and accent the music. I am immediately enthralled with this composition, because of the happy melody and their dynamic arrangement. Yes, it will make you want to tap your feet and snap your fingers. Track 2, “Smoke ‘Em Up” features the brilliant Patrice Rushen on piano and Larry Goldings on organ. This song is rooted in funk jazz, with the addition of Goldings awesome talents on organ and Gibbs driving the trio ahead on his trap drums, they will have you once again toe-tappin’ and hand-clappin’. On the composition, “Bopstacle Course,” Gibbs pairs piano icon, Chick Corea with bass legend, Ron Carter. The excitement is palpable, straight-ahead and blossoms from the bebop era. The universe seems to explode on the composition called “Nutty Notes.” This time, Gerry Gibbs is joined by Geoff Keezer on piano and Christian McBride on bass. Their tempo is off the charts and flying faster than a shooting star. What a great tune and an exhilarating arrangement. I am spellbound! Gibbs slow-swings “Take It From Me” features Buster Williams holding court on the trap drums. When Kenny Barron enters, he becomes the whipped cream on the cool, musical sundae. Disc One is so good, I could hardly wait to hear what was on disc two. Disc 2 does not disappoint. Opening with the Terry Gibbs composition “Townhouse 3” the percussion parts add intrigue to the arrangement. L.A.’s own Patrice Rushen let’s her fingers dance across the keys like Olympic acrobats. “Waltz for My Children” is also beautifully played by Patrice and another one of my favorites is “Lonely Dreams” featuring the inventive playing of Geoff Keeser on piano with Christian McBride’s distinctive bass spotlighted. The final tune was composed by Chick Corea for this special project and is called, “Tango for Terry,” as a tribute to Gerry’s famous father.
This is certainly one of the pinnacles of Gerry Gibbs’ recorded works. Every song is well-written and played to perfection, with the drum mastery of Gibbs elevating these arrangements, employing excitement and perpetuating the distinguished legacy of his famous dad, Mr. Terry Gibbs. As I listened, this music definitely lent a healing and inspirational legacy that touched my soul and invigorated my spirit. This is a collector’s album, for sure! It’s a love song to his father and would make a wonderful love gift to someone special on this coming Valentine’s Day.
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RENEE ROSNES – “KINDS OF LOVE” – Smoke Sessions Records
Renee Rosnes, piano/Fender Rhodes; Chris Potter, saxophones/flutes/bass clarinet; Christian McBride, bass; Carl Allen, drums; Rogério Boccato, percussion.
Any piano player that can get the super gifted, Los Angeles-based, pianist Billy Childs to write their liner notes has got to be amazing! I was so happy when I received the Renee Rosnes “Kinds of Love” album release. Let me say, without a doubt, she is a dynamic composer and awesome pianist. Although she is rooted in traditional jazz, Renee brings originality to her work and is clearly a tenacious voice on the jazz scene. You hear it on her first tune “Silk (Dedicated to Donald Brown)” where she establishes her strength and talent, incorporating a memorable melody with chords that inspire Chris Potter to fly high on his saxophone. Carl Allen’s drum-rolls infuse the energy of this group and push the music forward. Renee Rosnes punches staccato piano parts that pump the quintet into a frenzy. When she takes over, her piano power is exciting, speedy and she comfortably chooses a solo path that sets her apart from the rest. I am enthralled.
Renee Rosnes has already recorded ten albums for the Blue Note label. This is her first for Smoke Sessions Records and it’s a doozy! Track 2 sooths the spirit and settles me into the womb of this ballad. Chris Potter pulls out his flute to soar above the beauty during this “Kinds of Love” arrangement. It is followed by the tune, “In Time Like Air,” a song that invites our attention, using Christian McBride’s creativity on bass and a whispered female voice singing softly in unison with pretty melody lines. The introduction is quite clever and has been arranged to carry us into a forest with unseen birds that sing on hidden branches.
This is an album full of musical surprises. Like on “The Golden Triangle” that starts out somewhat classically and then bursts into the blues, embracing a medium swing tempo with Renee’s imagination and creativity racing around the piano keys. Christian McBride entertains us grandly on double bass. Then enters Chris Potter on saxophone to elevate the arrangement a little higher. Renee Rosnes is other-worldly and knows how to grow the music. It’s a bean stalk that invites us to take a chance, hold on tightly and climb along with her.
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OSCAR HERNANDEZ & ALMA LIBRE – “VISION” – Ovation Records
Oscar Hernandez, piano; Justo Almario, saxophone/flute; Jimmy Branly, drums; Oskar Cartaya, bass; Christian Moraga, congas/percussion.
Decorated pianist, composer, Grammy winner and arranger, Oscar Hernandez is a bona fide Latin music legend. Like so many musicians, the preparation for this recording was created during the worldwide pandemic shutdown.
“The creative process was in full force during that time. Recording this album was a way to react positively and to counteract the negative circumstances surrounding the pandemic,” Oscar expressed.
In May of 2021, Oscar Hernandez and his Los Angeles based ensemble called ‘Alma Libre’ began to record this “Vision” album. The title tune opens energetically with a strong melody. It is one of ten tunes Oscar Hernandez composed for this recording. Oscar described the inspiration for composing his original composition, “Vision.”
“When I was young, I was taught by my family that you need to have a vision to accomplish things. I believe that if you see it and you believe it, you can achieve it,” Oscar asserts.
Hernandez is perhaps best known to modern audiences as the leader and producer of the highly acclaimed, award winning Spanish Harlem Orchestra. They are a 13-piece all-star, salsa, big band, and under his tutelage they have gone on to win three GRAMMY Awards and release eight critically acclaimed albums. I am certain this release will follow in those same footsteps. Oscar first recorded with the Alma Libre ensemble in 2016 when they released their debut CD “The Art of Latin Jazz.” One of the things I enjoy about the composition talents and bandleader skills of Oscar Hernandez is his sophisticated harmonies, infectious melodies and raw, cultural rhythms. His “Chick Forever” tune is dedicated to the genius of Chick Corea. As soon as you hear the melody, you want to hum along with it. That is one of the traits of a great songwriter. Justo Almario steps into the spotlight and offers us a brilliant saxophone solo. Then Oscar Hernandez blows in on the eighty-eight keys, breezing over the piano with energy and precision. Jimmy Branly brandishes his drum power and Oskar Cartaya plays a joyful bass solo. Throughout this arrangement, Oscar manages to weave in spicy pieces of the familiar ‘breaks’ from “Spain,” one of many Chick Corea hit records.
Oscar Hernandez dazzles us with his piano excellence, his composer talents, his arrangements and his leadership. Alma Libre is a tight ensemble made up of some of the crème de la crème of musicianship.
They accelerate and infuse Oscar Hernandez’s music and arrangements in the best possible way. You will want to play this album over and over again. I did!