Matt DeMerritt: “Fool’s Journey” – Saxophone player Matt DeMerritt has recorded and performed with a large number of artists over the years. Fool’s Journey is his debut album as band leader, and it features mostly original music that he composed. It begins with “Zero Intro,” a short but wild piece that immediately transports us into another world, one that might seem overwhelming. Interestingly, it is followed by the more soothing and earthy vibes of “Wellspring,” with some nice vocal work by Suzy Williams. Soon that good groove takes over, percussion playing a prominent role here, with Matt DeMerritt’s saxophone coming alive over it. Sam Barsh also delivers a wonderful lead on keys on this track. “Elixir” also has a delicious groove to keep us grounded in a joyous land while Matt DeMerritt’s saxophone dances around and above it. Jamelle Adisa joins Matt on trumpet on this track, adding some lively, bright touches, and helping to make this one of the disc’s highlights. That’s followed by “Loner’s Waltz,” which has quite a different vibe, and feels perfect for this time of isolation and social distancing, a waltz you can perform on your own. Sad and beautiful. And “Lunedi” features some excellent drumming. As for the cover material, Matt DeMerritt delivers a warm and pretty rendition of “A House Is Not A Home,” written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David and originally recorded by Dionne Warwick, his version featuring some nice work on piano and bass as well as saxophone. This disc also includes a sweet rendition of Hermeto Pascoal’s “Montreux” that features Fabiano Nascimento on guitar, and a cool, funky version of Joe Henderson’s “Earth” that features Josh Lopez on guitar, Oliver Charles on drums, Satnam Ramgotra on tablas, and Davey Chegwidden on percussion. This album is scheduled to be released on September 18, 2020.
The Flying Horse Big Band: “Florida Rays” – Just the kind of thing to raise our spirits in these dark days of anxiety, The Flying Horse Big Band celebrates the music and spirit of Ray Charles on the new release, Florida Rays. The disc opens with a swinging rendition of “One Mint Julep,” a tune written by Rudy Toombs and originally recorded in 1952 by The Clovers. But it is Ray Charles’ 1961 rendition that really made the tune popular. That’s followed by a delicious version of “Let The Good Times Roll,” featuring a seriously enjoyable performance by guest vocalist Rob Paparozzi, and some wonderful work on trombone. Rob Paparozzi also leads the band in a lively and fun rendition of Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah I Love Her So” and a wonderful rendition of “Busted.” DaVonda Simmons joins the band on vocals for a sexy and cool version of “Lonely Avenue,” another of the disc’s highlights, as well as on a seriously fun rendition of “Hit The Road, Jack.” One of my favorite Ray Charles recordings is his take on “You Don’t Know Me,” which never fails to move me. The Flying Horse Big Band does a really good job with it, their version featuring Vance Villastrigo on vocals and piano. The most surprising song choice on this delightful album is “(It’s Not Easy) Bein’ Green,” written by Joe Raposo and sung by Kermit The Frog (Jim Henson). Ray Charles included the song on his 1975 LP Renaissance, and also performed it with Kermit on Cher’s television show that same year. Khristian Dentley delivers a moving vocal performance on this rendition, which also features some wonderful work by Ryan Devlin on saxophone. This album was released on September 1, 2020.
Tania Grubbs Quintet: “Live At Maureen’s Jazz Cellar” – This album was recorded at a special room in Nyack, New York, a club that vocalist Tania Grubbs and her husband, bass player Jeff Grubbs, make a point of visiting each year. You can hear the love they have for the venue in the warmth of these tracks. In addition to Tania and Jeff, the quintet is made up of David Budway on piano (Budway is also owner of Maureen’s Jazz Cellar, the venue name after his sister), James Johnson III on drums, and Ron Affif on guitar. The album opens with a really good rendition of Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing,” but it is the following track, “Bird On A Wire,” that first got me excited about this release. I am a huge fan of Leonard Cohen’s work, and count myself fortunate that I was able to see him perform several times and meet him once. I am always excited to see how other artists will approach his material. This rendition moves along at a slightly more breezy pace, and has a sweet, joyous air about it, and includes a wonderful instrumental section. I also like that added vocal part toward the end. Another track that stands out is “Hope Is A Thing With Feathers,” in which Tania Grubbs sets the famous Emily Dickinson poem to music. (Of course, whenever I read this poem, I can’t help but also think of that Woody Allen joke, about his nephew being the thing with feathers.) This track features a good lead on bass, which gets some deserved applause from the audience. I also really enjoy the rendition of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon,” which features a pretty vocal performance and some nice leads on guitar and piano. And check out Tania Grubbs’ smooth vocal work on “Wichita Lineman.” Probably the coolest track, however, is the disc’s closing number, “Don’t Take Your Love From Me,” which features, in addition to a phenomenal vocal performance, some delightful work on piano. This album was released on April 20, 2020.
The Radam Schwartz Organ Big Band: “Message From Groove And GW” – The disc’s opening track is titled “Trouble Just Won’t Go Away,” and that seems an apt description of life in the United States under the current administration. If anything might ease the troubles, it’s music like this. The track swings and moves, and features some great stuff on organ, as well as from the horn section. It’s an original composition by Radam Schwartz. The album contains a mix of original material and covers. Among the covers, there is a particularly good version of John Coltrane’s “Blues Minor,” that work by Charlie Sigler on guitar standing out. And there is a phenomenal version of “Work Song,” written by Charles Mingus. But for me the original material is the stuff to get most excited about, especially “Dig You Like Crazy,” which begins with a brief but cool drum solo, and then takes off from there, featuring some delicious work from Ted Chubb on trumpet and Anthony Ware on saxophone, as well as an excellent lead from Radam Schwartz. It is a fun track that never stops moving. The album’s title track is likewise is an exciting and groovy number with plenty of fantastic playing, particularly by Ben Kovacs on baritone saxophone and Ben Hankle on trumpet, making it certainly another of the disc’s highlights. And of course Radam Schwartz delivers some excellent work as well. I also love David F. Gibson’s work on drums, particularly toward the end of the track. This album was released on August 14, 2020.
David Sills: “Natural Lines” – Saxophonist David Sills offers a lot of excellent original material on his new album, Natural Lines, as well as a few good choices of covers. The music is performed by the David Sills Double Guitar Quintet, which is made up of David Sills on tenor saxophone and alto flute, Mike Scott on guitar, Larry Koonse on guitar, Blake White on bass, and Tim Pleasant on drums. The album opens with a piece composed by Mike Scott, “Minor Monk,” a catchy and totally enjoyable track featuring lots of nice work on guitar and a good rhythm. I love Tim Pleasant’s work on drums here, which includes a brief solo near the end. That is followed by a piece composed by the quintet’s other guitarist, Larry Koonse, “Sync Or Swim,” which, like “Minor Monk,” includes quite a bit of good work on guitar. Then, halfway through, we get David Sills’ lead on saxophone, which has a rather cheerful and bright quality, not as hopping as his work on the first track, but something about this lead relaxes me and lifts my spirits. The first piece by David Sills, “Sonny’s Side,” has a delightful movement to it, and is an homage to Sonny Rollins. It ought to help you shake away the blues. “Foggy Daze” is a lot of fun, and that section with saxophone and guitars at the end is fantastic. I also dig the loose, cool style on “Mellow Stone.” And “Jones’ Tones” features a good bass solo. As for covers, this album includes a rendition of “Lover Man” that is both sweet and cool, with a wonderful lead by David Sills. I recommend listening to that track on headphones, or at least the section when both guitarists are playing. The album concludes with a good rendition of Bill Evans’ “Interplay,” with David Sills on alto flute. This album is scheduled to be released on CD on September 11, 2020, but was apparently made available digitally last December.