Veronica Swift is one of the finest jazz singers around today, particularly from her generation. She has a beautiful voice, a wide range, is a masterful scat-singer, and is very familiar with the history of jazz singing. Only a handful of jazz vocalists are on her level.
` However she does not want to only be known as a jazz singer. On her self-titled Mack Avenue CD, Ms. Swift definitely keeps one guessing, stretching out to adaptations of classical melodies and high-powered rock in addition to jazz.
She begins the CD with “I Am What I Am,” scatting a couple of impressive unaccompanied choruses and then swinging hard during a tour-de-force that includes some Bach-type counterpoint with pianist Adam Klipple. “Closer” switches between heavy funk rhythms and a fast walking bass. “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me” is given a unique treatment, taken as a very passionate lowdown blues with the raging guitar of Chris Whiteman who is an important part of each of the more rock-oriented pieces.
The next four selections all utilize classical themes in unusual ways. “The Show Must Go On” features Veronica Swift’s expressive ballad vocalizing. The vintage ballad “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” (borrowing heavily from Chopin) is taken pretty straight with Swift’s singing showing off her sense of drama, use of space, and the tone of her voice. “In The Moonlight” has a Beethoven melody interpreted as a rockish pop song while a Puccini theme becomes a folkish duet with singer-guitarist Austin Patterson.
As if there were not enough variety, Veronica Swift sings as if she were an opera singer on two numbers: in French on “Je Veux Vivre” (while joined by a Gypsy jazz group that includes guitarist Samson Schmitt) and in Portuguese for a surprisingly slow version of “Chega de Saudade.” The final two numbers (Queen’s “Keep Yourself Alive” and “Don’t Rain On My Parade”) end this very eclectic set with no-nonsense rock.
Veronica Swift has put together an uninhibited program that lets her display many of her musical interests and talents. Open-eared listeners will find much to enjoy on her set which is available from www.mackavenue.com.
Solo In Barcelona
Mulgrew Miller (1955-2013) was one of the finest jazz pianists to emerge during the 1970s and ‘80s. He worked for three years with the Duke Ellington Orchestra (under the direction of Mercer Ellington), was with Betty Carter for eight months, and had important associations with Woody Shaw (1981-83), Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (1983-86), and the Tony Williams Quintet (1986-93). Miller began having his own record dates in 1985 and was primarily a leader during his last 20 years.
Other than his lesser-known album from 2000 titled Solo, the previously unreleased Solo In Barcelona (a live set from 2004) is the only full-length album to feature Mulgrew Miller playing unaccompanied. It is also his next-to-last album as a leader, just followed by a 2012 set with a European big band for the Stunt label.
Miller’s playing style was similar to McCoy Tyner’s when he was in a trio or a larger group, but this solo performance finds him sounding quite a bit different. At various times he is
closer to a classic bop pianist (particularly on a brilliant version of “I Love You”), a hard bop player, or an adventurous bluesy gospel pianist on his original “Excursions In Blue,” a multi-tempoed work that holds one’s interest for 14 1/2 minutes. Other highlights include “Milestones,” a tender “Misty” (which has him playing some relaxed stride piano), and “Just Squeeze Me.”
Greg Abate/Paul Del Nero Quartet
Saxophonist and flutist Greg Abate and bassist Paul Del Nero are old friends who first played together in 1977 in the fusion band Channel One. They also both toured in the mid-1980s as members of the Artie Shaw Orchestra when it was directed by Dick Johnson. After that time, Abate became well known as a masterful bop-based soloist while Del Nero taught at Berklee for 30 years while also maintaining a playing career.
Reunion has the two musicians getting back together and co-leading a quartet that also includes pianist Matt DeChamplain and drummer Gary Johnson. They perform eight Abate originals, three by Del Nero, and Charlie Parker’s “Quasimodo.”
The music ranges from classic bop (including “Maria’s Ocean” and “Quasimodo” which was Parker’s medium-tempo exploration of the chord changes of “Embraceable You”) to the jazz waltz “Light Speed,” the medium-tempo ballad “Clare’s Ostinado” (an excellent showcase for Abate’s flute playing), and the harmonically advanced “Within Reach.” Abate is mostly heard on alto where his sound is most personal but he also sounds impressive playing a bit of tenor, soprano (most notably on “Fifth Season), and flute. DeChamplain displays a fluent, witty and swinging style, occasionally putting in song quotes (including “Moanin’” on “DSR”). Johnson is a subtle and supportive drummer while Del Nero takes a fair number of relatively brief solos and keeps the quartet constantly swinging.
It all works quite well, making Reunion (which was recorded live at radio station WICN in Worcester, Massachusetts) easily recommended to anyone who enjoys high-quality straight ahead jazz. It is available from www.summitrecords.com.
A very good jazz singer from Canada, Laila Biali is also a skilled pianist and songwriter. Rather than perform her own originals on her fourth release as a leader, For Your Requests, she plays ten well known standards that were requested by fans over social media. Rather than perform them the usual way, Ms. Biali reharmonized and modernized the songs a bit while retaining their melody and lyrics.
With Kelly Jefferson on tenor and soprano, bassist George Keller, drummer Larnell Lewis and/or drummer-percussionist Ben Witman plus guests, Laila Biali succeeds at making many of the songs sound contemporary and modern. “Bye Bye Blackbird” has its melody stretched out a bit and benefits from Jefferson’s heated tenor solo. “Blame It On My Youth” is
electrified, resulting in a wistful and futuristic treatment. “But Not For Me” has clarinetist Anat Cohen in a cameo appearance while “My Funny Valentine” (a song that certainly does not need to be revived) is an eccentric vocal duet with Kurt Elling.
Laila Biali, who has a very attractive voice, blends in well with Emilie-Claire Barlow on “My Favorite Things” and Caity Gyorgy on “Pennies From Heaven.” Harmonica great Gregoire Maret is in excellent form on “Corcovado” while Kelly Jefferson plays very passionate soprano on “Autumn Leaves.” The continually enjoyable set concludes with Laila Biali in the spotlight on a beautifully sung “The Nearness Of You” (which also has a prominent role for bassist Keller) and an instrumental version of “All The Things You Are.”
All in all, Your Requests is an outstanding set by a skilled jazz singer. It is easily recommended and available from www.lailabilali.com.
An important straight-ahead jazz guitarist since at least his recording debut in 1994, Roni Ben-Hur can always be relied upon to make rewarding recordings. Love Letters features him in a quartet with trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, bassist Ugonna Okegwo, and drummer Jason Tiemann.
The musicians perform four originals by the guitarist plus a song apiece by Barry Harris (“To Dizzy With Love” which is given a samba rhythm), Benny Golson (“Fair Weather”), Leonard Bernstein, Luiz Eca, and Victor Young. The combination of trumpet and guitar works quite well throughout the set and it is particularly enjoyable to hear Ingrid Jensen in this setting; her often-blazing solos sound consistently inspired.
Ben-Hur’s originals include the medium-tempo ballad “Seul, á Paris,” “The House That Yosef Built” (which includes some dramatic trumpet), the mournful “Faint Memories,” and the straight-ahead blues “Waiting For JH.” Ben-Hur is showcased quite effectively on Bernstein’s “Lonely Town” and “Love Letters,” and his tradeoffs with Jensen on “Fair Weather” are stirring.
Love Letters is heartily recommended and available from www.mightyquinnrecordsmusic.com.
Based in Philadelphia, Maci Miller is a top-notch jazz singer and songwriter in addition to being an actress, model and spokesperson. She has a sweet but assertive voice that is attractive while also being purposeful. On Nine, her fifth album as a leader, she does a fine job on Chick Corea’s High Wire” and a version of “The Nearness Of You” on which guest trumpeter Jeremy Pelt contributes a warm statement. Otherwise, she wrote the lyrics that she sings to Cedar Walton’s “Firm Roots” and collaborated with pianist Aaron Graves in co-composing the other six numbers.
After performing swinging renditions of “High Wire” and “Firm Roots” (scatting quite effectively on the latter), Maci Miller is quite soulful on “Love Me For Who I Am” and “Little Bird.” The swinging “Complicated,” which is quite charming with clever lyrics and some scatting, and the adventurous “I Can’t Wait” are memorable enough that these originals should
be covered by other singers looking for fresh material. The atmospheric “Strange Is The Night” rounds out this enjoyable release.
Joined throughout by Graves on piano and organ, bassist Mike Boone, and Byron Wookie, Josh Orlando or Leon Jordan Sr. on drums, the singer also welcomes guest soprano-saxophonist Victor North on “High Wire” and the great veteran tenor Larry McKenna for two numbers including “Complicated.”
Maci Miller is a talent well worth discovering by the jazz world. Nine is recommended and available from www.macimusic.com.
Matt Von Roderick
On Celestial Heart, trumpeter-singer Matt Von Roderick offers listeners an electronic space trip through music. His group, consisting of keyboardists Gil Goldstein and Barry Goldberg, guitarist Johnny Lee Schell, bassist Mike Valerio, drummer Jim Keltner, and violinist Alvin Shulman, grooves while often engaging in free improvisations. Von Roderick’s trumpet playing (which is sometimes electrified) is a bit reminiscent of 1970s Miles Davis while tempered a little by the sensitivity of a Chet Baker.
A spacey (pun intended) version of “Fly Me To The Moon” has an eerie vocal with electronics and a bit of trumpet over the other-worldly sounds of the supporting cast. After the relatively quiet groove of “Waking Up On Mars,” the leader’s singing on Mose Allison’s “The Seventh Son” (maybe it should have been retitled “The Seventh Sun”) at first seems a bit out of place with the plot of the album although it works well by itself. Von Roderick’s trumpet playing is quite expressive and a bit wild on this shuffle blues. The voyage continues with the subtle groove of “Crepuscule On Jupiter,” the electric “Cantaloupe Island,” and the spontaneous but mostly melodic “Playing Among The Stars.” The program concludes with Von Roderick’s muted and wistful trumpet on “I Fall In Love Too Easily” sounding as if he is thinking about the outer space journey that he just took.
One could certainly imagine all of this music forming a soundtrack to a colorful story. Matt Von Roderick’s Celestial Heart (available from www.mattvonroderick.com) is a trip worth taking.
Impressions Of Ella
Back in 2006, Robin McKelle recorded her debut album (Introducing Robin McKelle), a very impressive outing for her jazz singing. Since that time, while performing some jazz, she has developed into a successful singer-songwriter in a variety of genres. Impressions Of Ella finds the vocalist returning to her earliest inspiration by paying tribute to Ella Fitzgerald.
Fortunately Robin McKelle does not attempt to sound like Ella, and instead performs 11 songs out of the countless number that Fitzgerald recorded but in her own style. Joined by the unbeatable rhythm section of pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Peter Washington, and drummer Kenny Washington, she swings without copying Ella.
Among the highlights are “Old Devil Moon,” a duet with Barron on “My One And Only,” her superior ballad singing on “Embraceable You,” and a surprisingly soulful rendition of “Do Nothing ‘Til You Hear From Me.” Robin McKelle welcomes Kurt Elling for a vocal duet on “I Won’t Dance,” interprets “Soon” as a quietly emotional ballad, and revives “How High The Moon” although I wish she had improvised much more on the latter. She comes the closest to sounding like Ella on “Robbin’s Nest” but, in contrast, her samba version of “April In Paris” is pretty original.
Impressions Of Ella is a fine effort and will hopefully be followed by more jazz recordings from this excellent singer. It is available from www.robinmckelle.com.
You’ve Got To Learn
While based in classical music and jazz, singer-pianist Nina Simone crossed many musical boundaries during her career. She was in her prime during the 1960s when she was strongly involved in the civil rights movement and showing a great deal of courage and creativity by making passionate statements about injustice in her original music.
You’ve Got To Learn makes available for the first time Nina Simone’s brief set from the 1966 Newport Jazz Festival. She is featured on six songs totaling 33 minutes with a quartet that also includes guitarist Rudy Stevenson, bassist Lisle Atkinson, and drummer Bobby Hamilton.
On the opening “You’ve Got To Learn,” Nina Simone offers some sage advice about how to deal with adversity. She next performs her first and greatest hit, “I Loves You Porgy,” slowly, with obvious affection, and a bit of nostalgia. Displaying her versatility, she performs “Blues For Mama,” a lowdown blues that has her music and Abbey Lincoln’s lyrics; guitarist Stevenson gets featured for an emotional solo.
“Be My Husband” is a picturesque and slightly scary country blues love song. Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” is her classic protest song and for this performance it is updated a bit as she comments on then-current events. For her encore, Simone closes with “Music For Lovers,” a passionate out-of-tempo love song that includes some impressive long notes from the singer.
Although one wishes that her set had been twice as long, it is a happy event that this 57-year old music has finally been made available. Nina Simone’s performances still sound timeless and relevant. You’ve Got To Learn is available from www.amazon.com.
Jon-Erik Kellso and the EarRegulars
Live At The Ear Inn
During the past 16 years, trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso has led a group called the EarRegulars on Sunday nights at the Ear Inn in New York. While there has been a revolving cast of players, the combo (which does not have a pianist or drummer) usually features guitarist Matt Munisteri and often includes trombonist John Allred, Scott Robinson on various reeds, and a bassist. They perform music ranging from New Orleans jazz to hot swing with none of the spontaneous performances being rehearsed or arranged beforehand. The musicians simply call out superior vintage tunes and make up the framework and solos as they go along.
Live At The Ear Inn preserves some of the performances from Jan. 15 and 29, 2023. Two songs from one night have Pat O’Leary on bass while the other five selections include bassist Neal Miner. Guests include guitarist Chris Flory on two songs, altoist Jay Rattman and clarinetist Evan Christopher for “I Double Dare You,” and singer Catherine Russell on the closer, a rousing and r&bish version of “Back O’Town Blues.”
There are many exciting performances heard throughout this CD. The musicians riff behind each other’s solos (a lost art that should be utilized more often), they constantly surprise each other, and the endings generally make everyone smile. Scott Robinson is heard on tenor, taragato (which sounds a bit like a soprano-sax) on “I’m Coming Virginia,” and takes a solo on alto Normaphone (which could be mistaken tone-wise for a bass trumpet) on “No One Else But You.” Allred is showcased on “Indian Summer,” the two guitarists get to trade off during Hank Jones’ “Vignette” (a song based on “Sweet Sue”), and “I Double Dare You” includes some particularly heated ensembles.
With Jon-Erik Kellso (one of today’s giants in this idiom) in fine form, Live At the Ear Inn (available from www.arborsrecords.com) makes for a very enjoyable listen. Hopefully there will be many more recordings from that important venue coming out in the future.
Jay Migliori (1930-2001) had a very busy career. After a stint with Woody Herman’s orchestra, he became a studio musician in Los Angeles in the mid-1950s while playing jazz at night. Migliori appeared on over 4,000 sessions and was a member of Supersax. During his life he led three albums of his own.
Equinox is his fourth recording as a leader. Recorded Sept. 17-19, 1984, it sat in a garage and went unreleased for 39 years. Musically there was no reason for it not to come out because the music is as rewarding as anything that Migliori recorded. Joined by pianist Joe Lettieri (who takes many excellent solos), bassist Jim Crutcher, and drummer Chiz Harris, Migliori is heard throughout this album at the peak of his powers on tenor and soprano.
The same group with trumpeter Conte Candoli had recorded Migliori’s previous album The Courage in 1981. This CD mistakenly lists Candoli in the personnel but he is not present.
Migliori and the quartet perform John Coltrane’s “Equinox,” Jimmy Giuffre’s “Four Brothers,” Thelonious Monk’s “Ask Me Now,” and four of the saxophonist’s originals. In addition, the set concludes with alternate takes of his “Ya Know,” “Equinox” and “Four Brothers.” The tenor sounds a bit like Stan Getz on the first “Equinox” which soon becomes a swinging minor blues. The second version features him on soprano. On “Four Brothers” he swings hard on tenor while the alternate take has Migliori on four saxes (via overdubbing) and taking a heated baritone solo. “Ya Know” has a catchy melody that one does not mind hearing in two different versions. The other selections (which include “Blue Jay” which is a relative of “Giant Steps,” and “Davana,” a jazz blues waltz with a scalar tongue-twisting melody) also feature Jay Migliori in top form.
Equinox might have been recorded in 1984 but it sounds as fresh as if it were recorded last week. Available from www.omnivorerecordings.com, it gives one an excellent opportunity to remember and admire the musical talents of Jay Migliori.
The Montreux Years
Mac Rebennack (1941-2019) was originally a versatile session pianist and singer who created Dr. John, a memorable character who had a hit with “Right Place, Wrong Time” and led a touring band. In his later years, he often emphasized his brand of New Orleans-flavored funk but he had a wider range than he often showed in concerts.
One should never underestimate Dr. John’s piano playing. The first four songs and the final selection on this 14-song collection of previously unreleased performances feature him as a solo pianist/singer at the 1986 Montreux Jazz Festival. His powerful boogie-woogie playing is well showcased as he tears into a variety of blues and gives Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene” more fire than heard in any other version.
Dr. John is also featured with his working band on selections taken from the 1993, 1995, 2004, 2007, 2011, and 2012 Montreux Jazz Festivals. Among his sidemen are baritonist Ronnie Cuber, tenor-saxophonist Alvin “Red” Tyler on tenor, guitarist Bobby Broom (featured on “Let The Good Times Roll”), trombonist Trombone Shorty, and keyboardist-singer Jon Cleary although Dr. John is the main star throughout.
The band numbers include a rollicking “Accentuate The Positive,” the thoughtful and soulful ballad “Rain” (written after Hurricane Katrina), a lengthy “Going Back To New Orleans” which is given a Latin groove, “Makin’ Whoopee,” “Big Chief” (a Mardi Gras party blues that goes on a bit too long) and, of course “Right Place, Wrong Time.”
The Montreux Years is a fine cross section of Dr. John’s music during the 1986-2012 period although his timeless solo performances from 1986 are the main reason to acquire this attractive package. It is available from www.bmg.com and www.amazon.com.
Tim Ray Trio
Fire & Rain
(Whaling City Sound)
Pianist Tim Ray, bassist John Lockwood, and drummer Mark Walker are longtime musical friends. In 2014 the three musicians recorded as Greg Abate’s rhythm section on the quartet album Motif (the first of four records that they made with the altoist). It resulted in Ray’s trio getting to record their own album, Windows which, like the Abate series, were made for the Whaling City Sound label. Before that, Lockwood had been on the pianist’s early recording in 1994 and in the late 1990s they recorded together on sets led by trombonist Jeff Galindo and singer Kris Adams. Ray and Walker have also crossed paths on several recordings since 2011.
Suffice it to say that this new album finds the three musicians frequently thinking as one and giving most of these performances spontaneous flights. The trio performs a few standards and covers: Thelonious Monk’s “Bye Ya,” “Stolen Moments,” and a song apiece by Jobim (“Mojave”), Dave McKenna, Carla Bley (“Lawns”), Oscar Peterson, Keith Jarrett, and even James Taylor (“Fire And Rain”). In addition, each musician brought in one song and they share the credit for “Improv #1 (for Chick).” While Ray has the majority of the solo space, Lockwood and Walker make the most of their periods in the spotlight and the set never loses one’s interest.
The music is generally melodic and logical in its development while still being unpredictable. To name a few highlights, the spirited romp “NO Worries” has Ray on keyboards emulating an organ and Walker giving the music some New Orleans parade rhythms.
Lockwood’s “The Meeting” is a touching and reverential melody while McKenna’s “Theodore The Thumper” (for baseball star Ted Williams) is a real swinger. James Taylor’s “Fire And Rain” is taken to places where the song had never ventured before. Carla Bley’s “Lawns” has such a haunting melody that it should become a standard. The trio is particularly inventive and tight on Keith Jarrett’s infectious inside/outside piece from the 1970s “The Windup.”
The Tim Ray Trio’s Fire & Rain grows in interest with each listen and contains plenty of style, tempo and mood variations. It is available from www.whalingcitysound.com and well worth checking out.