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Al Foster

Winning Spins By George Kanzler

Drummers are known as masters of the groove, the band members who keep ensembles percolating. Both of the albums covered here are from leaders who spend much of their time behind drum kits: One CD even has the word “groove” in the title. But this time around, leader Chuck Redd sticks to his other mallet instrument, vibes, leaving the groove-keeping to the master drummer Lewis Nash. The other album is from Al Foster, a versatile drummer famous for his work in Miles Davis’ later funk- and fusion-oriented bands. As Al’s current trumpeter, Jeremy Pelt, affirms, “No matter what the setting, Al is always swinging with a deep groove.”

On Al Foster’s Inspirations and Dedications (Smoke Sessions), he bookends 11 originals with tunes from leaders he greatly admires. Both Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island” and Miles Davis’ “Jean-Pierre” are fueled by variations of the shuffling, calypso-inflected groove known as Al’s “Fungi Mama” beat. Al’s memorable originals are surprising in that they are all composed by a drummer who doesn’t read much music and writes his songs intuitively on the piano, picking out melodies and harmonies by ear.

On this album, the drummer is ably abetted by his quintet members: tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens (who also supplies baritone on one track), trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, pianist Adam Birnbaum, and a longtime associate, bassist Doug Weiss. Al’s tunes celebrate family members, including his wife, his late son, four daughters, and a grandson, as well as Doug and himself. That last, “Aloysius,” begins with the album’s only extended drum solo. Most of Al’s pieces are introduced by Adam’s solo piano, and there is a cornucopia of varying times, tempos and rhythmic feels to the songs, with all propelled by what Dayna calls Al’s “loose precision.” Except for the short piano solo “Brandyn” and the Harmon mute trumpet dirge “Our Son,” both dedicated to Al’s deceased son, the mood of the album is celebratory. Among the highlights are the light-footed 6/8 “Simone’s Dance,” the pulsating Caribbean “Song for Monique,” and the shifting times (3/4, 6/8, 4/4) of “Jazzon,” a bright quintet salute to Al’s grandson.      

Al Foster’s quintet, featuring the personnel from Inspirations & Dedications, will play a CD release gig at Smoke Jazz & Supper Club, June 20-22.

Photo Credit:  John Abbott

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Neil Clarke

Another Reason To Celebrate By Elzy Kolb

Rhythm nation

Many musicians aim to be band leaders from the get-go, but Neil Clarke has found satisfaction through his long-running collaborations with a couple of musical masters. The percussionist worked with singer/songwriter/actor/activist Harry Belafonte for almost 15 years, followed by close to three decades with Randy Weston, until the pianist’s death in September 2018.

“I would definitely not be the musician I am today without my tenure with Randy. It was an incredibly inspiring and challenging opportunity, and it was totally liberating,” Neil notes. “Randy said he was trying to play drums on piano, and I was trying to play piano on drums. We met in the middle.”

Weston’s African Rhythms ensemble often performed without a drum set, which could be a surprise to concert-goers expecting the familiar piano-bass-drums configuration. “People believed Randy used percussion because of Africa,” Neil says, “But he preferred percussion because a drum-set player put time on the cymbals and that dominated the high register. Percussion left the high register wide open, without the overarching sustain of the ride cymbal. I use a cymbal to accentuate—not define—the time.”

These days, playing music he’s thoroughly familiar with presents a new challenge for the percussionist. He quotes the late trombonist Benny Powell, another African Rhythms mainstay, as saying: “Randy doesn’t have gigs, he has adventures.” Neil muses, “How do we navigate these adventures with Randy’s guidance but without his presence? That’s a new adventure.”

He continues, “Because of the amount of time I spent with him, there were instinctive communications between us. Now, it’s like Fred and Ginger swapped partners: Whoever you’re dancing with is just as good, but that intangible connection isn’t there.”

In the past year, Neil has been testing the waters as a leader, playing Weston compositions with unique instrumentation including percussion, bass, vibes and steel drums. He debuted the ensemble in Brooklyn in honor of the NEA Jazz Master’s 92nd birthday in April 2018, with Randy attending. “He was the first one through the door,” Neil recalls with a chuckle. “It was such an honor and such a challenge. Instead of stressing, over-thinking, over-orchestrating, I just took a page from Randy’s book and let it happen. It was an incredible evening, he loved it. I got to interpret his music in a configuration he never used.” Neil got the same players together again this year, celebrating what would have been Randy’s 93rd birthday. “He inspired and challenged me and sent me on a path I’m beginning to explore on my own now.”

Neil will reunite with African Rhythms bandmates saxophonist T.K. Blue and bassist Alex Blake, along with a special guest, trombonist Steve Turre, to perform as the Weston Alumni Band at the Highlights in Jazz concert. “Remembering Erroll & Randy” is the theme of the June 20 concert at BMCC Tribeca Performing Arts Center, paying tribute to Weston and fellow pianist Erroll Garner. Sharing the bill will be the Erroll Garner Project, featuring pianist Christian Sands, drummer Ulysses Owens and bassist Luques Curtis. Producer Jack Kleinsinger makes no secret of his hope that every Highlights in Jazz concert will end in a jam, so there could be some surprises in store.

June is a big month for saluting Randy Weston. Neil, T.K., Alex and others will honor him at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., June 9. On June 19, the Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium will induct the pianist into its hall of fame with a concert and celebration at Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation.

Photo Credit:  Solwazi-Afi-Olusola

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Scott Robinson

Scott Robinson: Much More Than Versatile By George Kanzler

Musicians who play reeds and at least some brass instruments are usually considered versatile, but to call Scott Robinson versatile is woefully inadequate. Scott not only knows his way around all the saxophones, flutes and clarinets, he also plays the brass family from trumpet all the way down to tuba. Not to mention his theremin, sheng, or bass marimba.

Scott’s versatility stretches beyond the lengthy list of instruments he’s at home with to encompass the kinds of music he’s comfortable with. Concert-goers at New Jersey Jazz Society gigs will fondly remember him playing trumpet, clarinet and C melody saxophone at their trad jazz-oriented events. Sun Ra fans will want to check out his work with Arkestra alumni in his Heliosonic Tone-tette’s Heliosonic Toneways CD on his own ScienSonic label. And followers of Maria Schneider’s award-winning orchestra will remember him as that band’s baritone saxophonist, who doubles on woodwinds like clarinet and flute.

When talking to Scott on the phone recently, I suggested that he, like the bassist Greg Cohen, is a jazz musician who can go in any stylistic direction, from trad and swing to avant-garde and everything in between.

“What I love about Greg is he’s so natural and genial and gets down with anything, making himself comfortable in any situation,” Scott says. “I’m a little different. I’m picky about music but I’m not picky about style.”

As to his astounding instrumental versatility, Scott notes, “I’ve never forgotten, but other people have, that tenor sax is my main instrument. I love all these other sounds, and still love to play trumpet but tenor is my main horn, it’s central to my world.”

The tenor Scott plays is a silver Conn 1924 model he bought in an antiques store in 1975, one that he has rehabbed and repaired many times but still prefers to other tenors he occasionally plays. It “just sings,” he explains.

His ScienSonic Laboratories, what Scott calls his “lab,” occupies a soundproof building behind his house in New Jersey. He became serious about his daily practice regimen in the lab last year when he agreed to take on pianist Frank Kimbrough’s project of recording all of Thelonious Monk’s compositions. The result is the six CD Monk’s Dreams album, with a quartet rounded out by bassist Rufus Reid and drummer Ray Drummond.

“I’m not so conceited as to say I learned 70-plus Monk tunes,” Scott says, “but I did listen to all of Monk’s recorded versions. But the word ‘learn’ is a very large word. It is not the same as ‘mastered,’ and I can’t say I’ve mastered all those Monk tunes. In fact, I still mix them up when I’m trying to remember one from another.”

Scott plays mostly tenor sax on the album, since Monk’s quartets always featured a tenor. “Of all these great tenor players, my favorite foil for Monk was Sonny Rollins, who was in synch with Monk rhythmically and harmonically,” he notes.

The musician turned 60 in April, a milestone that spurred him to step up his daily practicing, concentrating on tenor sax. It was also an impetus to start a dream project of his own, creating a symphony for 50 instruments. “It’s all improvised and I’m creating it one note at a time in my lab, playing all the instruments. I’m still working on the first note after a week, with sax, sousaphone, clarinet, bass drum, tuba and more. If I want a theremin, I can have it; I can have 13 theremins. It’s not music you can see done anywhere but I can do it, right here in my lab.”

A very different project is Scott’s new CD, his first exclusively on tenor sax, with his working quartet: Tenormore (Arbors Jazz). The band, with Helen Sung on piano, Martin Wind on bass, and Dennis Mackrel on drums, satisfies his yearning, as he puts it, “to get out there and swing jazz tunes with a conventional band, rather than the quartets with three tubas like I’ve had.”

The album begins with Scott thrice playing a high-pitched version of the introductory four-note phrase from The Beatles’ “And I Love Her.” When it’s suggested he’s playing falsetto, he begs to differ. “I try not to think of it as falsetto, I don’t want to have any ‘false’ in it,” he says. “I want pure notes, clean and beautiful. I figured out my own system for playing that high on tenor way back when I was in high school.” And just as he incorporates all the instruments he plays into his solo symphony, he incorporates all the registers available into his tenor sax playing.

Scott Robinson’s quartet from Tenormore will play Birdland Theater June 21-22.

Photo Credit:  Bud Glick

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Chuck Redd

Winning Spins By George Kanzler

Drummers are known as masters of the groove, the band members who keep ensembles percolating. Both of the albums covered here are from leaders who spend much of their time behind drum kits: One CD even has the word “groove” in the title. But this time around, leader Chuck Redd sticks to his other mallet instrument, vibes, leaving the groove-keeping to the master drummer Lewis Nash. The other album is from Al Foster, a versatile drummer famous for his work in Miles Davis’ later funk- and fusion-oriented bands. As Al’s current trumpeter, Jeremy Pelt, affirms, “No matter what the setting, Al is always swinging with a deep groove.”

On Groove City (Dalphine), Chuck Redd presides over a rhythm team that pairs Lewis with the formidably swinging bassist Nicki Parrott; pianist John di Martino rounds out the quartet. Tenor saxophonist Jerry Weldon, long a featured soloist in Harry Connick Jr.’s big band, joins in on five tracks. Chuck’s tune “A Groove for Gail,” dedicated to his wife, is a funky take on “I Got Rhythm” changes, alternating backbeat and straight 4/4 time behind soloists, including John’s only Fender Rhodes excursion on the album. There’s also a coruscating solo from Jerry, and shout chorus riffs punctuating Lewis’ drum solo. “Blues in the Shedd,” another original from Chuck, is a lively blues notable for intricate trade-offs between players during the theme, and spirited solos from all.

Almost more intriguing are Chuck’s choices of covers and standards, and his approach to arranging them. He has picked ballads perfect for the resonant sound of his vibes, including “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Cryin’” and “All or Nothing at All” (patterned after a 1966 Frank Sinatra-Nelson Riddle recording). Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing,” is a lyrical vibes/piano duet. Also mesmeric is the quartet’s subtly shifting perspectives on Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman,” emphasizing the melody’s deep resonance. Chuck keeps his Brazilian references fresh too, choosing “Tide,” Antonio Carlos Jobim’s lesser-known variation on his hit “Wave,” for the CD’s bossa nova, and turning Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence” into a high-stepping samba, with Jerry’s tenor sax featured. Chuck references the Caribbean in two compositions by Jamaican Monty Alexander, one of his favorite bandleaders. “Renewal” builds slowly from two introductory repeated notes through rising solos from Chuck, John and Nicki. “Regulator” is a hot riff tune built on funk beats that shifts to straight, hard-driving swing for Jerry’s sax solo. Throughout, the album lives up to Chuck’s promise of a rewarding jazz groove.

Chuck Redd and his band will celebrate the release of Groove City at Jazz at Kitano June 28-29.

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Brianna Thomas

Brianna Thomas: The Song is Her By Eugene Holley, Jr.

Since her arrival in New York in 2007, the Peoria, Ill.-born vocalist, composer and arranger Brianna Thomas is among the best-kept secrets in the Big Apple, though seemingly hiding in plain sight. She’s worked as a sidewoman with several jazz stars including Houston Person, Clark Terry and Russell Malone, but she is primarily known for her long association with Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center. Her supple soprano voice can effortlessly mine the deepest emotional nuances of any lyric, and deliver the most soulful and syncopated scat and the speed of swing. Brianna has been a welcome presence at JALC’s Columbus Circle headquarters and is also featured on Wynton’s soundtrack for the new movie Bolden.

This month, Brianna brings her band to Ginny’s Supper Club, a Harlem venue where she’s performed several times. She’ll be backed by pianist Conun Pappas, bassist Ryan Berg, Brazilian percussionist Fernando Saci, guitarist Marvin Sewell, and an alternating roster of drummers that includes John Davis, Kyle Poole, Wayne Smith and Darrian Douglas. The vocalist leads her ensemble through a pleasing potpourri of reimagined standards and original compositions, with a sound that purrs and percolates. “Everybody in the band likes all kinds of music, and has strong roots in blues, jazz and R&B,” she proudly proclaims. “Ryan Berg described the band as the sound of the Mississippi River, and I love that description! The band has that African diaspora, Great Migration sound.”

Among the originals Brianna plans to perform at Ginny’s is “You Are Not Mine,” a tune with a decidedly French-African character, which will be on her upcoming CD, tentatively titled Everybody Knows, produced by Grammy Award-winning producer Brian Bacchus. “The songs on the album speak some truths that I think everybody knows,” she says cryptically. “I did the arrangements on my first album, You Must Believe in Love [released in 2014]. There were four original songs on that album, and on this new album, we’ll have two original songs. This is my first recording with my working band. This album is going to show that we’re a family.”

Growing up in the Midwest, Brianna was surrounded by music from an early age, thanks to her mother, a non-musician who had an eclectic record collection, and her father, drummer/vocalist Charlie “CJ” Thomas, who took her to clubs when she was 2, and had her singing in his groups when she was 6. “My parents gifted me with an open mind to sound,” she says. “I was fortunate to grow up watching my father have a regular working band and hearing the sound they were able to achieve. And my mom listened to everybody from Bessie Smith and Dinah Washington to James Brown.”

Brianna’s familial music education paid off. At age 12, she toured Europe with the Peoria Jazz All-Stars, led by educator Mary Jo Papich. The singer moved to Nashville in 2005, after finishing high school, and performed in numerous bands, including a salsa ensemble. A year later, producer Todd Barkan invited her to sing in JALC’s Women in Jazz Festival in New York; she moved to the city in 2006 and enrolled at The New School, from which she graduated in 2011. Brianna spent years singing in local jam sessions, and eventually caught Wynton’s ear; he first hired her to perform in his Harvard University seminar, “Meet Me at the Crossroad.” She also appeared at a number JALC concerts, including Count Meets Duke, in 2017; Black, Brown and Beige, the Best of Basie and the Ever Fonky Lowdown, in 2018.That place has really created a situation for me as an artist, where it continues to give me something to live for, and that has been invaluable to me,” Brianna says.

What is intriguing about her career is that, in an era where the managerial infrastructure is often more responsible for artists’ success than the merits of their talent, Brianna has been able to build a solid reputation the old-fashioned way: via jam sessions, gigs, auditions, and by simply being in the right place at the right time. “When somebody calls you and they say, ‘You know, we hear you on this [gig], and we want you to do that,’ I just feel blessed and fortunate,” she says. “And every time it’s been something that has helped me to see myself in a different way, and how I envision myself.”

The Brianna Thomas Band will perform at Ginny’s Supper Club June 28-29.

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Miki Hayama

Another Reason To Celebrate By Elzy Kolb

New band, new sound

Fronting her own ensemble in clubs around Manhattan was once a regular thing for pianist Miki Hayama. But this working mom’s band leading has been on hiatus for a while, since her busy schedule has left her with scant time to devote to booking her own gigs. In recent years, she’s been playing, touring and recording with the likes of Nnenna Freelon, Sylvia Cuenca, Sharel Cassity, Victor Lewis, Lea DeLaria, Jazzmeia Horn, Adonis Rose, Greg Osby and others. Miki also has a regular church gig and sets aside time for composing. “Everyone thought I disappeared. That’s not so. I have stayed busy with other bands.”

That’s about to change, on June 26, when Miki is set to front a quintet in the Big Apple for the first time in seven years. She’ll be at Smoke Jazz & Supper Club as part of the New York Japanese Jazz Festival, produced by alto saxophonist Vincent Herring. “I’ve known him for 18 years, and I played in his band back in the day,” she notes. “There are so many people struggling to get gigs, I was honored to be called.”

Miki is known for her straight-ahead playing on countless gigs and four albums under her own name. But she notes that her style has evolved, thanks to a combination of life experience, her travels and music she’s playing in church. “As life goes on, I’ve met a lot of people, a lot of musicians. I’ve been influenced by the different environments, and that experience is moving my music in different directions. It feels natural to play and write music for where I’m at now.”

She continues, “There’s been a lot of influence from gospel music while playing Hammond organ at a black church for the past 10 years. It’s modern gospel with a lot of reharmonizing.” At Smoke, Miki plans to play piano and synthesizer: “I’ve been studying synthesizer for the past three years, that’s opened up a lot of possibilities in music for me.” She’s been writing steadily, and expects to premiere four originals and likely her take on a Japanese folk tune at the gig.

Accompanying her will be Mark Shim on tenor sax and wind controller, Jamie Baum on flute, Matt Brewer on electric bass, and Kweku Sumbry on drums and percussion. The tenor/flute combination is new for Miki, who has often led trios, sometimes adding an alto or trumpet. She has a long-running musical relationship with Mark and Jamie, but this will be her first outing with the rhythm section. “I played with Mark years ago, we toured with Mimi Jones and recorded with her. I knew that for my next project I’d call him. I like that he plays wind controller, which I’ve been into for a couple of years. Jamie is a great composer; I’ve known her for about 10 years. We used to jam at her place.”

She hopes to record with the quintet soon, which she assembled to reflect her new sound. “It has elements of avant-garde with a lot of groove, so it has to be the right musicians,” Miki notes, adding that there’s a good chance special guests will join the quintet on the bandstand at Smoke.

Photo Credit:  Gulnara Khamatova

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Mark Morganelli

The Latin Side of Hot House By Raul da Gama

Mark Morganelli: Por amor à música