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TK Blue

Winning Spins By George Kanzler

Musicians embracing the music and rhythms of cultures outside their North American homes are the forces behind two new albums. Alto and soprano saxophonist, flutist and thumb piano player T.K. Blue (also known as Talib Kibwe) pays tribute to his longtime leader and mentor, Randy Weston. The pianist, jazz’s leading apostle of African rhythms as the music’s roots and bedrock, died last year at 92. Jane Bunnett, the Canadian soprano saxophonist and flutist, presents the latest offering from her 5-year-old all-female collective sextet, Maqueque, a band rooted in Afro-Cuban traditions.

The title of T.K. Blue’s The Rhythms Continue (Jaja Records), alludes to the name Randy gave his combos: African Rhythms; T.K. was a member of those bands for three decades.  He reunites here with two African Rhythms stalwarts, bassist Alex Blake and percussionist Chief Baba Neil Clarke, on a number of tracks that showcase a lineup similar to Randy’s. Pianist Sharp Radway invokes the late master’s spirit. Those band tracks are mostly T.K. Blue originals with prominent African-inspired rhythms, but they are but just facet of this recording’s myriad sides. On Randy’s “Kucheza Blues,” tenor saxophonist Billy Harper joins the basic ensemble, adding a solo that inspires T.K.’s following one as a CD highlight. Randy’s most famous tune, “Hi Fly,” also features Billy, as well as the four-handed piano duo of Mike King and Keith Brown, in a rendition that forgoes the head (lead melody) as well as the usual 6/8 beat in favor of a fast, swinging flag-waver.

Five of Randy’s compositions are played by T.K. alone. Four are resonant a cappella alto sax solos; the fifth, “Night in Medina,” comprises both soprano and alto saxes, a cappella as well as sometimes overdubbed (or played together) in the manner of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Two distinctive tunes represent Melba Liston, the trombonist who was Randy’s frequent orchestrator and arranger. The catchy “Insomnia” and the deeply lyrical “Just Waiting: A Sister’s Lament” are both done as duets of T.K.’s alto sax and the rhapsodic piano of Kelly Green.

On a handful of tracks (the album boasts 19 altogether) the saxophonist also plays one or more of his four African thumb pianos, creating a traditional vibe accentuated by Neil’s polyrhythmic percussion. T.K.’s “The Wise One Speaks” has thumb piano lines dubbed under his soprano sax solo, while the Senegalese-rhythmed “At the Crossroads of Touba” finds him soloing on flute over thumb piano riffs. The CD ends on an elegiac note with Talib’s “World 3: The Last Goodbye,” quoting “In a Sentimental Mood” (Randy revered Duke Ellington) in a gentle piece with piano, bass, flute and hints of thumb piano.

T.K. Blue appears at Turnmill Oct. 9; Mist Harlem, Oct. 25; and Minton’s Playhouse, Oct. 31.

Photo Credit: Enid Farber

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Kenny Washington

That Sound! How Kenny Washington Found His Voice By Stephanie Jones 

When he was a child, Brooklyn-born drum master Kenny Washington and his family moved from the Bronx to Staten Island, per his mother’s desire. The move had a curious impact on the young artist. There, he would come to understand the importance of sharing the music, not as a personal prerogative, but as a family value.

“My father was big on trying to get cultural things out on the island,” Kenny says. “It always bugged him that the Bronx and, of course, Manhattan and even Queens, they always got much more in terms of jazz.”

Because he wanted to offer his community the experience of hearing the music and its masters live, Kenny’s father befriended Jazzmobile’s then-director, drummer Dave Bailey. Together, they brought the music to the outer borough, and his father became an influential figure in Kenny’s connection to the music.

“He had a giant impact on me,” Kenny notes. “He didn’t have as many records as I have now. But what was slick about my father’s collection was that from every era, he had the key ones that would inspire you.”

From that collection, Kenny remembers one recording in particular that shocked his system and changed him forever: the 1958 Argo recording Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing: But Not for Me. He recalls the moment he first heard Vernel Fournier play brushes. “It was that sound, the sound of his brushes, and the way it fit in with Ahmad Jamal’s trio. When I heard that record, the first thing I’m thinking is, ‘I want to learn how to do that,’” Kenny explains.

After that first listen, Kenny wore out that record to where it would only crack and pop and spit. Then he wore out the next one. “We didn’t have any copies for a long time,” he says. “My father just refused to bring any more in.” But Kenny couldn’t get enough of that brushwork. And he had other drummers on other records to wear out with equal fervor. At a small record store on East 12th Street, he found a copy of Jo Jones Trio (Everest, 1959). “The sound of Jo Jones’ brushes, that knocked me out.” He devoured Ed Thigpen records and Oscar Peterson Trio records, and brush sounds from Denzil Best and Joe Morello.

For Christmas one year, Kenny’s father gave him a Music Minus One record from Charlie Perry titled Fun with Brushes. The box included the LP, a diagram for playing and, of course, a pair of brushes. “This is before VHS and DVDs,” he says. “So I learned a little bit from [the diagram], but basically it was the hearing, then copying this guy—trying to get that sound.”

Kenny would go on to develop his own connection to the brush sound—and the full fire of sound—sitting on his smooth black throne. He landed gigs with such enduring figures as Lionel Hampton, Johnny Griffin, Betty Carter, and even Ahmad Jamal. The drummer currently tours the world as a key member of the Bill Charlap Trio. But the time he spent observing the great Art Blakey lit a fire in his gut that’s still burning.

“Everybody knows Art Blakey as the ultimate talent scout,” Kenny says. “He knew how to pick bands.” But Kenny contends one side of Blakey people often take for granted is what Kenny calls his ensemble playing.

“Sculptors, they take this lump of clay, and the next thing you know there’s a complete image. That’s what Art Blakey is. He’s a sculptor. He really shapes the whole tune into something. There’s something about the colors he uses, his rhythms, how he phrases things—he makes that tune into something that even the leaders hadn’t thought of.”

Kenny recalls his first time out with Betty Carter who shared the bill with Blakey for one performance. During soundcheck, he sat back and observed how Blakey interacted with his band, gleaning tips for orchestrating dynamics. “He stops the band and he says, ‘You’re not playing it soft enough. I want this so soft I can hear a rat pissin’ on cotton.’ And he got the pianissimo that he wanted.”

The year Blakey played the Mount Fuji Jazz Festival as an honored guest remains a potent memory for Kenny. As everyone gathered for rehearsal, Blakey was still missing, so Kenny filled the chair. “Finally, Art comes down in a robe,” Kenny recalls. He didn’t see Blakey enter the room, but all of sudden, he felt a hand on the back of his shoulder.

“I turned around and it was Art, so I automatically got up and he said, ‘No, no, no! Play! Play! Play!’ So I sat up there playing, and he’s walking around with his arms crossed, listening. He would stop the band and say, ‘What part is that?’ so we’d say, ‘That’s letter C.’ He’d say, ‘Cut that out. We don’t need that.’ So we go on playing, and he does this quite a few times. After he gets through, he sits down at the drums and plays his ass off. He played the whole arrangement. He played it like he wrote it. This cat could hear wet paint drying.”

Years of experience have fashioned Kenny into a deliberate artist with a personal connection to the music. Ahead of the Art Blakey Centennial Celebration at Smoke, he admits taking time to select repertoire that pays a particular kind of tribute to a particular kind of artist. “I want to try to make it fun for the other musicians as well, play things that are not often played. It’s a lot of good stuff. And there’s a lot of music out here.”

Kenny Washington plays the Art Blakey Centennial Celebration with Josh Bruneau, Eric Alexander, Mike LeDonne and Clovis Nicolas at Smoke Jazz and Supper Club, Oct. 10-13. 

Photo Credit: Chris Drukker

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Paul Austerlitz

The Latin Side Of Hot House By  Raul da Gama

Paul Austerlitz: Spirits Dancing in the Flesh

If you are fortunate you will catch Paul Austerlitz when he comes up for air. But you might ask, Where has he been? The truth is that Paul has been totally immersed in music; temporally—primarily as a bass clarinetist—and spiritually, as a pursuer of the truth in music and its effects on human existence. For more than three decades he has been fully engaged in the cultural topography of Dominican and Haitian music, studying its origins in Mother Africa. This has led to a doctorate in ethnomusicology. He credits as his inspiration the great Milford Graves, as he is quick to remind anyone who will give an ear.

But in reality, when he was studying at Bennington College with the iconic percussionist, this inspiration came sometime after a continuing and total absorption in the music of John Coltrane. “Milford Graves taught a course on the influence of music and suggested that I study non-Western musical cultures, particularly the Afro-Caribbean one,” Paul recalls. “He planted in me a deep and abiding curiosity about the efficacy of music, a drive to understand the ways that music can affect the mind and body. It was a life-altering experience for me.” Another epiphany came when the legendary trumpeter Bill Dixon suggested he pick up the bass clarinet (in addition to the B♭ and the saxophone).

An important piece in the jigsaw of Paul’s early formation came from the late poet and teacher Michael S. Harper. “He opened my mind to the fact that African American improvised music—jazz—is an amphitheater of word-consciousness, one piece of powerful sisterhood and brotherhood,” Paul notes. “It became my mantra and set me off to seek a universal communion in my ethnomusicological journey.” Since then, music has come in titanic waves at the confluence of the bass clarinet’s wooden timbre, the African drum and the human voice.

Paul’s music has taken him through Europe and the U.S., and to the Dominican Republic and Haiti for extended periods. Along the way he has been heavily influenced by the legendary king of merengue, Joseíto Mateo, who paved the way for his doctorate in ethnomusicology. Paul’s dissertation later gave rise to the book Merengue: Dominican Music and Dominican Identity (Temple University, 1997). He has also authored Jazz Consciousness: Music, Race and Humanity (Wesleyan, 2005) and Machito and His Afro-Cubans: Selected Transcriptions (A-R Editions, 2016), co-written with Jere Laukkanen.

Meanwhile Paul’s concentration on Dominican and Haitian cultures has produced a number of recordings. This mystical journey was first documented on Journey (Innova) and has since ascended to a rarefied realm with a recent trilogy. Dr. Merengue, The Vodou Horn and Water Prayers for Bass Clarinet were all released in 2018. This music is spectacular, with melodic lines, harmonic shapes and visceral rhythms; it is the product of a creative spirit, awakened by the dormant powers of the soul to further the evolution of human consciousness.

Paul Austerlitz performs Oct. 14 at Bushwick Public House.

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Dick Hyman

Dick Hyman: Timeless Master By Ken Dryden

Whether it is ragtime, stride, swing or bop, pianist Dick Hyman plays it all with authority. During a career spanning more than seven decades, Dick has recorded extensively as a solo pianist and in duos with Ruby Braff, Ken Peplowski, Derek Smith, Ralph Sutton, Dick Wellstood and Roger Kellaway, among others. In addition, as a leader he has recorded with groups of various sizes, composed and recorded soundtracks for Woody Allen’s films, and enjoyed a long career in television. Dick’s mental library of songs is likely unsurpassed, including standards and obscurities in both popular music and jazz.

Honored as an NEA Jazz Master in 2017 for his contributions as a keyboardist, composer and arranger, Dick remains a formidable improviser and educator on the bandstand, often making it seem effortless. He also takes time to give background about many of the songs he plays. Even at 92, Dick is still adding new material to his repertoire, though he jests: “There’s another factor when you get to be as old as I am. You not only want to learn new stuff, you want to be sure that you still know your old stuff! I often review music to be sure I’m familiar with the old ways of doing it. Things you did well in one era can be done possibly better in another era.”

Dick’s chief influence was his elder brother Arthur. He recalls, “He really showed me around the keyboard at an early age. He was six years older than I. When he was in college, he began to collect 78 rpm records, bring them home and show me the marvels of stuff that had been done in the 1920s. Very early on, I heard Art Tatum, Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke and all kinds of people. Those records became very familiar to me and I can now play them in my head at any given moment. I also had an uncle named Anton Rovinsky, a concert pianist who played major halls in New York. He was my teacher later on, so I owe a great debt to him. My mother was musical and she was sympathetic with anything along those lines.”

One of the turning points for Dick occurred while he was studying at Columbia. He explains, “I became aware of a jazz piano competition. I went down and won the contest, the prize was a dozen lessons with Teddy Wilson, who was one of my heroes. Teddy was a wonderful guy, a very good teacher and I learned many things from him.”

In recent years, the pianist has been delighted to perform as a twosome with Ken Peplowski. He explains, “I’ve known Ken for quite a while, but we began to work together as a duo about five years ago. That led to recordings and other appearances, but we had been together in various bands and concerts that I produced at the 92nd Street Y. I knew Ken when we were both doing something for Benny Goodman. Working with Ken is like having a double personality, we don’t know quite how it works, but we are able to act as a double unit, think in unison and express points of view back and forth and have the other respond immediately or even simultaneously, it’s like it’s two brains in one. It was always excellent, but it didn’t come about perfectly till the recent year or two. That’s what I think we captured on the new album.”

Dick and Ken’s new CD, Counterpoint Lerner & Lowe (Arbors Records), is due out in October. “We were fortunate to meet with a person who has an interest in the publishing of those songs and wanted to reintroduce and present them again to the public, because they are getting rather dated chronologically. This person wants to make them known to the present generation. ‘Waitin’ For My Dearie’ is an unlikely piece to find something hip in, but I think that we did. It’s from Brigadoon.” The album also includes songs from Paint Your Wagon, Gigi, My Fair Lady and other Broadway musicals.

Pianist Bill Charlap joins Dick and Ken at Dizzy’s this month to celebrate the release of the new CD. Bill took over the reins of the 92nd Street Y jazz series from Dick and was among the performers who played tribute to him at his NEA Awards gala. Dick notes, “He’s my third cousin. I’ve known him since he was 15, his mother, the singer Sandy Stewart, brought him to my studio. Bill is one of the great pianists now. Bill is going to preside over the official release of the new album by Ken and me at Dizzy’s and add an extra piano to our duet.”

Dick Hyman celebrates the release of Counterpoint Lerner & Lowe at Dizzy’s Oct.16.

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Sasha Berliner

Fresh Takes By Addie Vogt

Bay Area-native Sasha Berliner made her move to New York around three years ago to attend the New School, and has risen in the jazz scene as a vibraphonist and composer. Her voice has been heard not only through her music, but also through her writing advocating for women in jazz, which has been featured by The New York Times, The PBS NewsHour and elsewhere. Her album Azalea is set for release this winter, and Sasha cites Esperanza Spalding, Ambrose Akinmusire, Tyshawn Sorey, Radiohead, Brad Meldhau and Donny McCaslin as her main influences. “The album is supposed to resemble going through the motions of a coming of age...making music into a professional career; sociopolitical dominance, dealing with and witnessing discrimination, recovering from/coping with depression and anxiety, the passing of some close friends; love, companionship and peace,” she says. 

Sasha uses her position as a prominent young female musician to advocate wherever and whenever she can. “I talk about my position as a white woman in a black American art form at almost every concert I play now, and I advocate openly for programs like We Have Voice, and the accountability and awareness all musicians should have.”

Catch Sasha Berliner at the BRIC Jazz Festival Oct. 24, featuring Jongkuk Kim on drums, Kanoa Mendenhall on bass, and Chris McCarthy on piano, keyboards and synths.

Photo Credit: Feldheim Gaya

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Kenyatta Beasley

Another Reason To Celebrate By Elzy Kolb