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Sarah McKenzie

Another Reason to Celebrate by Elzy Kolb

On the road

You practically need to get out your passport to keep up with Sarah McKenzie, whose story encompasses a variety of cities and regions and even more than one hemisphere. The Australia-born pianist, singer, composer and arranger moved to Paris in 2015, after completing her studies at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Now London-based, she has a busy international touring schedule, and she recorded in both New York and California during a visit to the U.S. last summer. If things go according to plan, she hopes to become a Big Apple resident soon.

Her most recent release even includes a geographic reference in the title: Paris in the Rain (Impulse!). The 2017 album contains five originals along with eight standards by writers such as the Gershwins, Jobim, and Kenny Rankin. Sarah, who thinks of herself as a songwriter first and foremost, aims to write songs that will work well with the classics, striving for tunes that will flow together seamlessly. Her recent New York recording, slated for early 2019 release, combines seven of her own compositions with material from the Great American Songbook.

She explains, “It’s important that I sing and important that I play piano as well. I love to do the arrangements that gives me complete creative control over the song. I need all those parts to do what I do. I work constantly at each one separately, but songwriting is at the heart of my music. I’m not a Sarah Vaughan, with a great big beautiful voice. There are certain limitations to what I’ve been given. Songwriting is the strongest element.”

The California session was a particularly unique and satisfying experience, capturing a 12-tune suite called San Francisco—Paris of the West, which a Bay Area arts association commissioned Sarah to write.

This is her first album comprising totally original songs, and it was recorded in L.A.’s historic Capitol studio, with a band that included John Clayton, Jeff Hamilton and others. “It was a great honor to record in the studio where so many greats have been,” she notes, “you can feel the history.”

Sarah is grateful that her performing calendar is chockful, but she’s a little nostalgic for her student days in Boston. She recalls that at Berklee, “I had all the resources I needed at my fingertips, plus I had time.” But thanks to her busy travel schedule, now she has to carve out time to write.

She’s back in the Big Apple for a Nov. 13 gig at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, where she showcases new material, along with a few favorites from Paris in the Rain, with drummer Alvester Garnett, guitarist Perry Smith and bassist Matthew Rybicki.

Sarah hopes that before long she’ll be able to call New York her home. “I love the music, the energy, the great musicians in New York; they’re the tops in the world,” she muses. “It would be inspiring and challenging to live there.”

Photo Credit:  Philippe Levy

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Ellis Marsalis

The Patriarch and the Pianist by Eugene Holley Jr.

The world knows the New Orleans pianist and NEA Jazz Master Ellis Louis Marsalis Jr. as a fisrt-rate educator, as evidenced by his successful sons, saxophonist Branford, trumpeter Wynton, trombonist Delfeayo and drummer/vibraphonist Jason, and by his many star pupils from the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA) which include Harry Connick Jr., Terence Blanchard, Kent and Marlon Jordan and Nicholas Payton, to name a very select few. But Ellis’ four-day, 84th birthday celebration at Jazz at Lincoln Center, the “House of Swing,” which Wynton co-founded, is also going to show that he is an equally compelling and accomplished pianist, composer and bandleader.

Backed by his current New Orleans quintet comprising Derek Douget on sax, trumpeter Ashlin Parker, bassist Jason Stewart and drummer Adonis Rose, Ellis commemorates the special occasion performing standards, blues, Monk tunes and original compositions from his latest CD, The Ellis Marsalis Quintet Plays the Music of Ellis Marsalis—his 20th as a leader—ranging from the modernist, post-bop swing of “12’s It,” and “Nostalgic Impressions” to the Lee Morgan-ish, “Chapter One” the laid-back, mid-tempo mood of “Crescent City Summer” and his wistful ballad, “Zee Blues.”

Ellis’ lyrical pianism, which echoes Wynton Kelly’s swinging lines and Kenny Barron’s sounds of surprise, is an extension of his teaching, which he’s been honing from the beginning of his career. “The process is still the same,” he says. “I don’t really work towards becoming a ‘better pianist.’ What I try to do is refine what I already know.”

What Ellis knows about recording, performing and teaching comes from what he learned growing up in New Orleans, as a budding pianist in the bebop and post-bop eras, a graduate from Dillard University, as a sideman with Al Hirt, Nat Adderley and drummer Ed Blackwell, as co-founder of The American Jazz Quintet with saxophonist Harold Battiste and drummer James Black in 1956. He became an educator to make ends meet, and in 1974, joined NOCCA, teaching there for 12 years.

“The philosophy was simple, Ellis says. “If you leave here, and finish this program, and you major in music and go to a conservatory, and you find out you’re not prepared, then that’s on us. If you finish, and you don’t want to continue with music, then that’s a choice you made, but you were prepared to do so.”

As Ellis’ pupils would go on to many premier music schools like Peabody, Eastman, Berklee and Julliard, he moved on from his hometown to teach at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond from 1986 to 1989. He returned home to head the jazz program at the University of New Orleans until his retirement in 2001. Although Ellis has seen the quality of jazz education rise in this country, he feels that there is still work to be done regarding how the music should be taught.

“There’s a level of recognition that has to occur by looking historically at the reality of the early jazz music, from an aural point of view,” he says. “We need to take an objective look at Jelly Roll Morton, Joe Oliver, Louis Armstrong. The possibilities of that happening seem to be brighter today than it was in the past.”

Two institutions that merit Ellis’ optimism for the future of jazz education: The Inaugural 2018 Ellis Marsalis International Jazz Piano Competition, took place last June at Marshall University in Huntington, W. Va., with Philadelphian Ben Patterson taking first place. Ellis is a consultant for The Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, a performance, education and recording venue named in his honor, located in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, created to provide the area’s underserved youth with a first-class arts education.

But Ellis’ most prized pupils remain his sons. As Branford Marsalis told writer Ted Panken in 2002, “the great thing he passed on to us was to always go for something you like because it’s about expanding, not finding your little place in the box and staying there.” But the elder Marsalis credits his wife Dolores, who died last July at age 80, as the great stabilizing force behind his family’s success.

“The role she played in the development of the guys was clearly understated, which has much to do with our culture,” Ellis said with loving reverence. “I tried to keep out of the way as they were growing up, so that they could have developed into whatever they going to do.”

Photo Credit:  Zack Smith

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Eri Yamamoto

Eri Yamamoto: In the flow by Elzy Kolb

Running the vacuum cleaner may not seem like the ideal activity for getting the creative juices flowing, especially for a composer. It seems like that sound would get in the way. But you never know where or when inspiration will strike. Just ask Eri Yamamoto.

One day while Eri was cleaning the floors at home, the pianist hummed a little melody along with the repetitive back-and-forth motion of the vacuum. She eventually recognized it as “Goshu Ondo.” “It was the first phrase of the Japanese folk dance music I grew up with. When I was little, every village had a stage during the summer. There would be taiko drummers and singers playing ‘ondo,’ folk dance music. People would get together and make a circle, have a good time with good food, family and friends. Kids would get goodies and adults would get sake. They’d celebrate and have a good time all night long,” she explains. “I thought, yeah, I’m going to write this so more people can participate.”

That same day, Eri began writing the music for her longtime trio mates, bassist David Ambrosio and drummer Ikuo Takeuchi, plus vocal parts for a choir. From that moment, paper and pencil were never far from her hands as the simple melody—it’s only about one minute long in its original form—grew into a 50-minute, nine-movement suite.

Though she had never written for choir before, Eri created parts for soprano, alto, tenor and bass voices, expanding the existing lyrics and singing the parts herself whenever she had a minute. “For three months I worked on it night and day. I don’t use a computer and it came to 84 hand-written pages. I held the pencil for so long I couldn’t open my right hand, I had to do yoga so I could play piano.”

Eri searched the web and asked friends and colleagues for recommendations for a choir. She focused on Choral Chameleon, one of the region’s most innovative choir groups, and sent an email to director Vince Peterson, explaining her project. “He listened to my trio on my website and responded on the same day,” the pianist recalls with a laugh. “This is what New York’s about—click, click, ‘Let’s do it!’ I love that!”

She has been rehearsing with the Choral Chameleons since September. Not only is it Eri’s first time working with a choir, it’s the ensemble’s first time working with a jazz pianist. Typically, the singers would work from a completed score from the get-go, but for Eri, “cooking the music together is more natural than me deciding from the beginning how it should sound.” For example, “When I composed I didn’t put dynamics in the score. Once I hear the singers, the music will tell us naturally what dynamics will be best.”

The vocalists seem delighted with the process: About 40 showed up for the first rehearsal, but the ranks have swelled since then. Close to 60 singers are expected to be on hand for the concert, which is the first event of the choral ensemble’s new season.

“I had no idea what the choral community was like, the people are very nice, and very different from the jazz community. They have a different sense of humor and different way of communicating. It’s refreshing to meet people in a different field.”

Diversity in the choir has led Eri to ponder what it means to be American. “The variety of people in the choir, and the trio, too, that’s so New York. The singers are East Coast, West Coast, Asian, African, European, that’s perfect for this piece. I wanted to express the celebrations of human beings. The world is crazy, but music gives us a smile. There are so many tech advances, but humans sharing time in a room creating music, that’s very nice. We need that!” The choir members are not only going to sing but also dance at the world premiere of the “Goshu Ondo Suite” in New York this month.

“The audience is very welcome to join in,” Eri says. “During the last movement I hope everyone will make a big circle and celebrate the fun night.” Live audio and video recording of the performance is scheduled. Eri notes that the music will be different each night: “The trio part has only chords written, so it will be fully improvised. The three of us are jazz musicians. We improvise!”

Their improvisation is coming from a rock-solid foundation: This year, Eri and her trio also celebrate the 20th anniversary of their residency at Arthur’s Tavern. The band appears there each week, taking a break from their home base only when the pianist is out of town. Eri declares her amazement over the longevity of the gig. “We play original music, it’s rare to do that at a weekly gig, at the same venue,” she muses. “It’s perfect, I write something, and the same night the trio can try it out. I love the process.”

The world premiere of “Goshu Ondo Suite” with the Eri Yamamoto Trio and the Choral Chameleon Choir takes place Nov. 17-18 at the Studios of the Paul Taylor Dance Company. Her trio also appears at Arthur’s Tavern, Thursday through Sunday each week.

Photo Credit:  Jimmy Katz

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Ken Peplowski

Winning Spins by George Kanzler

Two reed players, one who’s been a fixture on the scene since the 1980s, and the other who has established herself in the last decade, are leaders on this month’s Winning Spins. Ken Peplowski, a stalwart of the late 20th Century swing revival, pays tribute to the big band era, and sticks to just clarinet on his album.  Even though she’s been a Rising Star in polls for soprano sax for five years, Roxy Coss mostly plays tenor sax as she showcases her original compositions with a quintet on her latest.

Sunrise, The Ken Peplowski Big Band (Arbors Records), finds the clarinetist taking oblique inspiration from two of his heroes, Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington. But this CD doesn’t try to recreate the music of either since Ken commissioned all but three of the dozen arrangements; the exceptions being adaptations of tunes arranged by Billy May for the Sinatra-Ellington album of 1967.

What inspired him, as he explains in the notes, is the way both artists worked in the studio, recording “live” with all the musicians in the same room, often working out final preparations on the spot. Also evident is the close rapport achieved in Duke’s band between written and improvised, solo and ensemble parts.

His clarinet is prominent in both lead and solo roles, and Ken is the only soloist on half of the tracks. Some of the melding of clarinet and ensemble verges on the magical. Dennis Mackrel’s chart of the non-Brazilian bossa (Italians wrote it) “Estate” blends a spare clarinet lead into harmony with the reed section in the opening, and has Ken enveloped by high brass and low reeds during his solo.

Duke is represented by Marks Lopeman’s inventive expansion of “Duet,” originally written for clarinet and bass, into a bounding big band chart; and “I Like the Sunrise,” with Ken sharing solo space with Adrian Cunningham’s tenor sax.

The late Allan Ganley’s take on “When You Wish Upon A Star” has a liquid-toned clarinet poured over backgrounds of reeds and muted brass. One of the most gorgeous numbers is Mark’s chart of the Rodgers and Hart standard, “Spring Is Here,” done in pastel shades contrasting with deep chiaroscuro, all sans rhythm section.

Ken’s clarinet, with its supple tone and easy, legato flow, is wonderful on ballads, but he’s also a committed swinger, as well as adept at the challenges of bebop. He proves the latter on Sonny Stitt’s “The Eternal Triangle,” in a barnburner arrangement by Mark that also features two tenor saxophones, Ken’s trading fours with the ensemble, and an assertive piano solo from Ehud Asherie. “Come Back to Me,” recalling the Frank-Duke swinger, closes the album with a flourish.

Ken Peplowski leads his big band for a CD release concert at Birdland Nov. 25.

Photo Credit:  Stephen Pariser

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Sheila Jordan

Another Reason to Celebrate by Elzy Kolb

Everlasting love

After her daughter, Tracey, jazz is vocalist Sheila Jordan’s greatest lifelong love, passion and focus. She recalls dropping a nickel in a jukebox to play “Now is the Time,” by Charlie Parker and his Reboppers. "Yes, Reboppers,” she emphasizes. “After the first five notes, I knew: That’s the music I’ll dedicate my life to.”

To say the path to recognition was not always smooth is an understatement. Besides decades of working a day job to support her art, in her early years Sheila found herself in trouble more than once for associating with African Americans. She recalls being taken to police stations several times for questioning, and stern scolding. In an even uglier attack, Sheila was beaten by two white men, who knocked out her tooth. During the assault, “I saw a man in a nice suit with a gun running across the street, and I thought I was dead,” the vocalist recalls. She didn’t immediately realize it was a plainclothes policeman coming to her assistance. The trigger for these incidents was being seen in the company of black men, often her vocal partners Skeeter Spight and Leroi Mitchell, whom Sheila credits with teaching her to scat.

Despite the pressures, “I was not giving up on jazz,” she declares. A ground-breaking song stylist, Sheila is known for pioneering bass and vocal duets, first with Steve Swallow, followed by Harvie S, and now with Cameron Brown. “I love bass and voice, all the space it gives me. I love the freedom, I love the sound of the bass. It’s a different approach when you add in piano and drums.”

Regardless of the accompaniment, Sheila has a unique way of musical storytelling, incorporating into her lyrics everything from historical and biographical tales to describing how her day has been going. “It’s not anything I plan, I talk about the music and what it means to me. It’s like a conversation I’m having with the audience and the musicians.”

Sheila also built a reputation as an educator through long associations with the New School, Manhattan School of Music, the University of Massachusetts and elsewhere. “I started a vocal workshop at City College; John Lewis [of the Modern Jazz Quartet] encouraged me to do it, and a classical teacher said, ‘We need you to work with the singers.’ I didn’t have a degree, but John said, ‘Teach what you know.’ It was very gratifying.”

The vocalist has received several honorary degrees since then. She continues to do master classes, workshops and private lessons, but eventually gave up regular classroom time. “I tour too much, I felt I couldn’t give the students what they deserve, I’m out of town too much of the time,” she explains.

The recipient of multiple honors such as the 2008 Mary Lou Williams Award for a Lifetime of Service to Jazz, Sheila was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2012, and just last month garnered the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation’s Satchmo award.

On the verge of her 90th birthday on Nov. 18, Sheila continues to inspire with her positive attitude and unflagging energy. When queried about her full schedule, she cracks, “How many weeks a year don’t I work is a shorter answer!”

Help Sheila blow out the candles when she celebrates her birthday in New York at the Blue Note on Nov. 26 with the Steve Kuhn trio. It’s likely there will be special guests on hand, as half the singers in town usually show up to mark the occasion.

Photo Credit:  Andrea Canter

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Frank Kimbrough

Another Reason to Celebrate by Elzy Kolb

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Frank Kimbrough has played some of Thelonious Monk’s compositions for 35 years, but there are others he never tried his hand at before this year. What brought the pianist to tunes such as “Skippy,” “Humph,” and “Who Knows?” The decision to record Monk’s entire body of work for his newly released six CD set, Monk's Dreams: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Sphere Monk (Sunnyside).

Though Frank has always loved Monk’s music, recording the 70 compositions over slightly more than six days deepened the pianist’s respect for the jazz icon. “I found more meaning and more relevance than I’d found before,” he says. “You see more and more in the tunes the deeper you go in. It’s an incredible body of work.”

Of the seldom-heard compositions that were new to him, he says, “Monk didn’t write any bad ones; there’s not one that’s filler. They’re all good compositions, worthy of being played. Quantity isn’t everything; Monk wrote comparatively few tunes, but I can’t find much wrong with any of them.”

Frank was totally immersed in the project from its conception in October 2017, initiated by the executive producer, Frank’s longtime friend Mait Jones, through recording and repeated listens during the phases of production. The pianist says, “I felt like I was giving birth—to sextuplets!” For the albums, Frank recruited three longtime friends and colleagues: multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson, bassist Rufus Reid and drummer Billy Drummond. With a history going back about two decades with Rufus and Billy and twice that with Scott, “I knew they’d do their homework.”

Frank adapted his usual style to suit the music, playing harder than usual and with less pedal. “If I played like Bill Evans it wasn’t going to sound right,” he muses. “I love an impressionistic, floaty sound, but that’s not going to work for Monk. I wanted to respect his compositions and his way of playing.”

The foursome talked through each of the tunes before playing them, with everyone contributing ideas and suggestions. “On ‘Locomotive,’ I was hearing bass clarinet, but otherwise Scott made decisions about what to play. I love the way he brought six instruments [tenor and bass saxophones, trumpet, echo cornet, bass clarinet, contrabass sarrusophone],” Frank notes. “So much was done on the fly. We were so simpatico, it was an ideal situation. Our only agenda was to play the music well and express ourselves through it.”

There were no pre-recording rehearsals; the quartet had played around 45 of the tunes over three gigs in the previous months. But at studio time, there were more than two dozen compositions they had never played together. Nevertheless, there are about 30 first takes on the finished product. “That’s a tribute to the people in the group, they were all responsible to the music, and we all listened to one another. Everyone could feel to be themselves, in context. We wanted to respect the compositions.”

He continues, “There wasn’t a moment anyone got cranky or down or frustrated, it was a joyful experience from start to finish. Exhausting, but joyous.”

Catch Frank, Scott, Rufus and Billy in action at Jazz Standard Nov. 27-28, as they celebrate the release of Monk's Dreams: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Sphere Monk.

Photo Credit:  Marielle Solan

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