Sunday, March 10, 2024

Brief Notes On New Jazz Releases

Why are we still mired in the same horrid political landscape of 2016? Shouldn’t Donald Trump be in prison by now? The next several months are going to be tiring and vexing, and I am thankful for the musicians who will help keep us sane throughout the campaign. Here are notes on a few new jazz albums you might want to check out. This time, I chose all female artists. Woman can, and should, have a powerful voice in this election, if they choose to combat the Republican cult that is bent on eliminating their rights.

Ellie Lee: “Escape” – Ellie Lee is a pianist and composer originally from South Korea, and now based in New York. She studied at Berklee College of Music, where she moved from classical to jazz. Her new album features mostly original material. Joining her on this release are Steve Wilson on saxophone, Steve LaSpina on bass, and Jongkuk Kim on drums. Escape opens with its title track, and as it begins it does feel like an escape from the stress of everyday life, though perhaps some thoughts remain on the sources of that stress. There is joy here, but also need, and I think many people can relate to that feeling. The track features some particularly strong work on saxophone. “Escape” is followed by “Beyond The Blue,” which has a rather tense beginning, but soon relaxes as the saxophone comes in, with a briefly wistful feel, before building in power again to become an exciting piece. I love how the piano drives things forward with a great force at times. The mood turns gentler as “A Fine Day” begins, and the feeling is of letting one’s thoughts stray with the breezes, with no agenda except to keep negative thoughts to a minimum. There is some beautiful work on piano. And speaking of breezes, that track is followed by “Melrose Breeze,” which feels like a dance that takes place just above the ground, where maybe you are not even aware that your feet are no longer in contact with the earth. I particularly love the work on drums here. The album’s only cover is “Whisper Not,” written by saxophone player Benny Golson, here presented with an arrangement by Ellie Lee. As you might expect, the track features some excellent and lively work on saxophone. That’s followed by “Toss And Turn,” which has kind of a light vibe and features some wonderful work on bass. Nice solo work on piano gets “On The Road” off to a good start. This track has a warm feel to it, particularly the piano, and it leaves me feeling happy and optimistic. The album then concludes with “New Chapter,” which seems to move with confidence toward the future. Then nearly two minutes in, things get more fun. It feels like the musicians are really enjoying themselves, and there is a great energy to this track. This album is scheduled to be released on May 24, 2024.

Danette McMahon: “No More Excuses” – Vocalist and composer Danette McMahon’s new album features mostly original material, along with two interesting choices of covers. Joining her on this release are Joe LoCascio on piano, Andre Lienhard on piano, Phillip Jones on organ, Paul Chester on guitar, Anthony Sapp on upright bass, Mark Simmons on drums, Milton Comeaux on percussion, Woody Witt on tenor saxophone, Ed Lowe on trombone, Lay Arredondo on flugelhorn, and Patrick Moore on cello. The album opens with “Innocent Bystander,” which right away gets into a good groove, featuring some cool work on keys. Danette McMahon delivers a passionate vocal performance on this song about helping our fellow humans, those who might not be noticed. “How can I turn my head and look the other way/When the unspoken words can have so much to say/‘Do unto others’ kept pounding in my head/Then I heard a voice that clearly said, ‘You’re not an innocent bystander.’” It’s a strong song, though it does employ that “self”/“shelf” rhyme. It’s followed by “Come Dance With Me,” which contains some really nice guitar work, particularly at the beginning. It’s a sweet love song with a Latin groove. And if it doesn’t get you dancing, it should at least get you smiling and wanting to hold your special someone. Then in “Life Goes On,” a love has come to an end, and she has to gather herself to go on and perform. And what a great vocal performance she delivers here, with the right amount of ache. “I can sing of love/And make it sound so sweet/But when I close my eyes at night/I feel numb from my head to my feet.” This track also features some wonderful work on saxophone. Things then get lighter with “Road Trip,” certainly a good song to include on your traveling play list. One of my personal favorites is “Naughty Girl,” with its playful and sexy mood, and that great stuff on trombone. “I want to be a naughty girl/Leave my prim and proper ways behind/You can take my sugar, add a whole lot of spice/Hello to nasty, I’m done being nice.” Oh yes! Another of the disc’s highlights is “Don’t Pretend,” which features some excellent work on keys and a fantastic vocal performance. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “I was such a hopeless romantic/You, you were just hopeless/Now it all comes down to this/Who gets the house, who gets the cars/Who gets the kids that wear the scars.” The first of the two covers is “Wonderwall.” Yes, the Oasis song. But don’t let that scare you off. Danette McMahon chooses a really nice approach, her vocals supported by just piano and cello. And of course she has a much better voice than the guy from Oasis, so this rendition is far superior to the original. The other cover is “You And Me,” a Dave Matthews Band song. Though many of my friends love Dave Matthews, I have never been able to get into his stuff. But Danette McMahon delivers a sweet, positive and hopeful rendition that includes flugelhorn. The album concludes with another of its highlights, “The Lady I Never Knew,” which features a delicious groove, some cool work on organ, and a heartfelt vocal performance. This album was released on January 26, 2024.

Julia Vari: “Somos” – Vocalist Julia Vari is joined by Negroni’s Trio on her new album, Somos. The trio is made up of the father-and-son team of José Negroni on piano and Nomar Negroni on drums, along with Rafael Valencia on bass. Julia Vari sings in several languages, and opens the album with “La Bikina,” written by Rubén Fuentes, and immediately displays the power and passion and beauty of her voice. She is captivating from those opening moments, and then chooses points to become more intimate. Nathan Samuelson joins the group on trumpet for this track, delivering a wonderful lead in the second half. I love how Julia Vari gets playful at the end. That’s followed by “Nature Boy,” a song recorded by Nat King Cole in the late 1940s. Julia Vari’s rendition begins with some really nice work on piano, and then as she sings “A very strange, enchanted boy,” there is a bit of magic in her delivery. Ah yes, she is able to enchant all who listen, even as she riffs without actual words. And this track features some delicious work on piano. Then “Siboney” begins with some cool work on drums, and establishes an excellent rhythm before Julia’s seductive vocals come in. There is another fantastic lead on piano on this track. Julia Vari then puts her own spin on Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father,” with Portuguese lyrics by Carolina Pérez Sanz. She delivers another beautiful vocal performance, and this track features a great bass line. She slows things down with a gorgeous rendition of Agustín Lara’s “Noche De Ronda,” a song that was a hit for Elvira Ríos. Julia Vari does a tremendous job with this song, and it’s one of my personal favorites on the album. On this song, she is backed by just piano. Things get lively again with her rendition of “C’est Si Bon,” which she sings in French and English. She is once again seductive here, and this track features a good lead on bass, with Julia Vari offering some accompanying scat. The track becomes more playful toward the end. The album concludes with “Historia De Un Amor,” written by Carlos Eleta Almarán, and covered by a lot of artists over the years. Julia Vari delivers a passionate rendition. This album was released on February 16, 2024.

Lauren White: “Making It Up As We Go Along” – Vocalist Lauren White chooses a mix of pop and jazz numbers to cover on her new album, the songs dealing with different aspects of love and relationships. She opens things with “I’m Not The Same Without You,” written by Donald Fagen and included on his 2012 album Sunken Condos. While you might expect a song with that title to be about a longing, this song goes a different route: “I feel much stronger than I have in years/My mind is sharp now, and my spirit’s sound.” The line that always makes me smile is, “I can hold my breath for a really long time now,” and Lauren’s delivery is perfect. She is happy, even astounded at the changes, but not boasting. This track features a delicious lead on piano by Quinn Johnson, who also did the arrangements on this release. She then goes in a different direction with her rendition of “I’m Glad There Is You,” giving it a bossa nova vibe, which works with the friendly warmth of her voice. This track also features some excellent guitar work by Larry Koonse. Lauren White’s rendition of Ron Boustead’s “Unlikely Valentine” has a seriously cool opening section, with great stuff from the rhythm section, setting things in motion. I especially love Ken Axt’s work on bass. Lauren White’s vocal approach is bright and lively, and this track is a highlight. “It’s only love, don’t be afraid.” She then slows things down with “Our Game,” becoming more intimate. Ken Axt has a chance to shine on this track as well. Lauren White then has fun with “Tin Tin Deo,” which features some great stuff by Chris Wabich on drums, as well as a wonderful lead on flute by Katisse Buckingham. She follows that with Mark Winkler’s “Lowercase,” which was included on his Till I Get It Right album. This one features a cool rhythm. Ray Brinker is on drums, and Trey Henry plays bass on this track. Paul Jost then joins her on vocals for a good rendition of “Vrohoula,” delivering some fun scat. This track also features some phenomenal stuff by Larry Koonse on guitar. “We’re just as right as we are wrong/We’re making it up as we go along,” Lauren sings in the album’s title track. Ah, I believe that’s the case for all of us, making it up as we go. She draws us closer with her rendition of “I Have The Feeling I’ve Been Here Before,” then follows that with a strong rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Make Sure You’re Sure.” She wraps up the album with “Turn Out The Stars,” her vocals supported just by Quinn Johnson on piano. This album is scheduled to be released on March 15, 2024.

Andrea Wolper: “Wanderlust” – Vocalist and composer Andrea Wolper delivers a mix of original material and covers on her new album, opening it with a seriously cool take on Ray Charles’ “Light Out Of Darkness.” I love the way it kind of sneaks up on us at the beginning, building before her sexy vocals come in. And then, watch out, because she will own you before long. The band helps cast her spell over everyone who listens. John Di Martino is on piano, Ken Filiano is on bass, Michael TA Thompson is on drums, Charlie Burnham is on violin, and Jeff Lederer plays both clarinet and flute on this album. This first track features a wonderful lead on violin. She follows that with a cover of “Dog Day Afternoon,” written by Wayne Carson and recorded by Shelby Lynne, and puts her own spin on it, giving it a beautiful late-night vibe. What a gorgeous vocal performance. Then we get the first of the album’s original compositions, “Sobe E Desce,” which has a delightfully odd beginning, Andrea adding playful vocal elements, before the song settles into a pleasant groove, the flute accompanying her vocal line for a time. But what I love most here is the work on drums, even before that cool section where the bass and drums respond to each other. She switches gears with “Still Life,” another original number, this one with a somewhat contemplative air, her voice supported by piano. “I light a single candle/I watch the flame/And speak your name.” That’s followed by a cool rendition of Abbey Lincoln’s “The Music Is The Magic,” emerging from a dark corner of a hot club to snake and dance its way into your heart. Magic, indeed! She returns to original material with “The Nature Of Life,” an interesting piece that transports us to some distance place before she begins her spoken word delivery of the song’s lyrics. “Nevermore,” another original tune, begins with a captivating bass solo, setting the tone for the great allure of her vocal performance. “You beckon me, and then you close the door/Well, to quote ‘The Raven,’ darling, nevermore.” How can you not fall for a song this cool, particularly when it refers to Edgar Allan Poe? This album also includes a completely improvised piece, “Cisluna,” which has some nice peaks and moments of tension that are also somehow beautiful. Andrea Wolper wraps things up with “The Winter Of Our Content,” a title that I can’t help but love, as it is a play on the opening of Shakespeare’s Richard The Third: “Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this son of York.” This track is a delight, and its title isn’t the only nod to Shakespeare. She refers to a scene from Romeo And Juliet in the line, “Ever nightingale, never lark.” She also uses the expression “tempest-tossed,” which Shakespeare first used in Romeo And Juliet, and then used again in Macbeth. This album is scheduled to be released on April 12, 2024.

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