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Johnathan Blake

Johnathan Blake’s Vibe Expansion By Stephanie Jones

After more than 20 years on the New York scene, Johnathan Blake continues refining his craft. The drummer and composer elevates his expression by creating disruptive contexts for spontaneity. “I really enjoy that freedom of exploring the unknown,” he says, “when anywhere each [band member] decides to go, we can go in an instant, and it’s cool.” 

A longtime drummer for legendary leaders Tom Harrell and Kenny Barron, the prolific artist came up alongside creative guidance from his father, violinist and composer John Blake, Jr. At their home in Philadelphia, John facilitated a deeply personal connection to music early in Johnathan’s development. In recent years, he’s further evolved his father’s commitment to honest self-expression, assembling new projects that compel him to stretch and explore. 

Both his trio with bassist Linda May Han Oh and saxophonist Chris Potter, and his Pentad quintet have allowed Johnathan to nurture his dual artistries as leader and collaborator. “My approach to the [trio] record was, I just want us to go in and play, and whatever happens happens. And I felt like that record is a really honest representation of where we were at that time. It was no holds barred—just going for it.” 

Putting together the project that would become the 2019 release Trion, Johnathan sought a collaborative approach among fellow risk-takers. He’d become familiar with Chris’ playing during their time together in the Mingus Big Band back in the ’90s. When acclaimed photographer and arts patron Jimmy Katz approached the drummer about releasing a trio project under his label, Giant Step Arts, Johnathan immediately thought of Linda as a bass player whom he trusted to be harmonically driven and wildly inventive. “She’s such a consummate professional,” he says. “She has great time, great harmony. And I thought, Man, this could really work.”

The three artists began playing gigs at The Jazz Gallery under the name BOP—for Blake, Oh and Potter. Though Johnathan had come to consider the project a collective, Jimmy had requested he record the album as a leader. “He said to me, ‘My idea is trying to have people who are lesser known as leaders step into the forefront.’” But in spite of the release, Johnathan maintains an awareness of the project as a cooperative ensemble. “They contributed so much to that record, not just with their playing but their compositions—their entire approach,” he says. “It felt like a very tight-knit group.” 

For Johnathan, the emergence of Trion felt like a quick transition from distinct expressions to intuitive band. “We jelled,” he says. “I didn’t know how far out we could take it—how much we could stretch the music. It wasn’t really until we started playing that I realized, Wow, I can go in so many different directions with this band. We don’t have to play ’50s and ’60s straight-ahead jazz. We can play something very free or some more Afrobeat stuff. It felt great to be able to document that point in my career.” 

The moment documented, Johnathan shifted his creative energy toward a new sound. That summer, he called bassist Dezron Douglas and pianist David Virelles, his former bandmates from Ravi Coltrane’s quartet, and rounded out the quintet with voices from the new generation: young Blue Note artists saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins and vibraphonist Joel Ross. He dubbed the new ensemble Pentab. After a successful hit at the Village Vanguard, Pentad headed into the studio to record the band’s forthcoming release. 

While he knew that Dezron and David—as well as Kris Davis who performed for part of their week at the Vanguard—would take the music where it wanted to go, Johnathan was delighted to observe how well Immanuel and Joel could intuit the same melodic nuance and spontaneity the older players had come to master. “They’re very mature—way past their years—with the way they play,” he says.  

Johnathan first performed with the young instrumentalists during a Smalls Jazz Club gig he co-led with Dezron: “I thought, Wow, they’re really bringing something different.” Part of the substance of their sound, Johnathan posits, derives from close attention they’ve paid to what’s come before them. Johnathan believes that Joel and Immanuel coming up in Chicago and Philly, respectively, only enhances their highly sophisticated melodic understanding. “That relationship with melody is something I look for, and I hadn’t really found it in the up-and-coming younger players. It’s more intellectual, very heady—a lot of notes and not a lot of breathing. With these two, they really sing melodies.” 

In his pursuit of pushing his own artistry in new directions, Johnathan has found that generational cross-pollination goes both ways. “I would hip them to certain records and, in turn, they’d be hipping me to new music from their generation that I hadn’t known to check out,” he says. “I feel like I’ve learned quite a bit from them, and I hope that they’ve learned from me, too.”

Johnathan Blake’s Pentad, featuring Dezron Douglas on bass, Kris Davis on piano, Immanuel Wilkins on alto saxophone and Joel Ross on vibraphone, livestreams March 7 from William Paterson’s Jazz Room Series at Home; his trio livestreams from Bar Bayeux (www.facebook.com/barbayeux) March 31. 

Photo by Jimmy Katz

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John Fedchock

John Fedchock: Honoring tradition By George Kanzler

Trombonist John Fedchock, now 63, belongs to the last generation of big band jazz musicians who traveled the road on buses. He toured with Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd from 1980 until 1987, and after he settled in New York he formed his own big band, the John Fedchock New York Big Band, which currently has released five recordings and is still intermittently active. However, John’s latest CD, Into the Shadows (Summit), which he is celebrating with a virtual release video concert this month, is by his NY Sextet.

“I model the sextet on classic quintets and sextets of the [post-swing] era,” John says. Album tracks reference everyone from Art Blakey (“Alpha Dog,” a Blakey shuffle) to Richie Powell’s work for the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet (“I Should Care” as scintillating hard bop). There’s also a “Nature Boy” eschewing the usual ballad treatment for a swinging 12/8. For John, the sextet allows him to bring some of the strategies of big band arranging into a more flexible and open format, with more individual space for soloists. Joining him in the sextet are Scott Wendholt, trumpet and flugelhorn; Walt Weiskopf, tenor saxophone; Allen Farnham, piano; David Finck, bass, and Eric Halvorson, drums.
John grew up in what he calls “a nonmusical family” in Cleveland. In middle school he tried out for band and was fascinated by how different the trombone looked from other instruments. “Since I was always tall for my age—I’m six foot six now—I was intrigued by the trombone and was able to play the entire range of the instrument earlier than most kids because of my height and reach.”

Two significant encounters pointed John toward what would become his career. When he was 12, an uncle gave him an album by the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. He was bowled over by Tommy’s playing: “His sound was incredible, otherworldly, and I was also impressed by how tight the big band was. I even tried to transcribe the arrangements to figure out how they worked.” Then, when he was in high school, the Woody Herman big band gave a concert at the school. “They played tunes by Chick Corea, John Coltrane, The Beatles,” remembers John, “showing me that big band jazz wasn’t just something from another era but could be as contemporary as any other kind of jazz.”

John never forgot his admiration for Woody as he pursued his education at The Ohio State University and the Eastman School of Music. After graduation he landed his dream job with Woody, not only anchoring the trombone section but also serving as musical director and arranger for the band for seven years. “We toured 48 or more weeks a year, so basically we lived on the road, on the bus and in hotels,” the trombonist says. Woody was not an arranger, but he always knew what he wanted from his arrangers. Though he never told them what to do, he would tell them when what they did was not his sound, since he had a definite idea of what his band’s sound should be.

When John left the road and settled in New York, the big band ethos was part of his blood, so he formed the John Fedchock New York Big Band, recruiting for its ranks from the myriad jazz musicians who call the New York-area home.

At the same time, John continued to develop his technique and mastery of the trombone. “It’s called the instrument closest to the human voice,” he says, “and that sound makes it unique. The sound comes before the notes, and every trombonist has his own personal sound. After Tommy Dorsey, I was into Urbie Green’s sound.” Since then, he’s also been influenced by such trombonists as Slide Hampton and Curtis Fuller, plus J.J. Johnson, specifically citing the album Stan Getz and J.J. Johnson at the Opera House for rare examples of J.J.’s extended improvisations.

The John Fedchock NY Sextet CD release concert for Into the Shadows takes place March 21, part of William Paterson University’s Jazz Room at Home virtual concert series.

Photo by Sanja Antic

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Adrian Cunningham

Adrian Cunningham: Making the Most of the Lockdown By Don Jay Smith

When 2020 began, Adrian Cunningham was looking forward to a banner year. His recording Adrian Cunningham & His Friends Play Lerner & Loewe (Arbors Records) had been just released to great reviews, including Downbeat magazine’s assessment of it as “a straight-ahead jazz gem.” Featuring pianist Fred Hersch, bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson, along with special guests trumpeter Randy Brecker and trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, the album garnered a lot of airplay, and Adrian and his septet had more bookings than ever.

“Things were looking amazing,” the multi-instrumentalist and composer recalls. “We had just come back from Thailand, and at the end of March we were headed for a European tour.” Adrian and his bandmates went from ebullience to despondency in just a couple of weeks. “At first I didn’t think that the crisis would last but then the gigs began to get canceled. Day after day, I was getting emails with another date gone until my calendar was empty and I was left wondering what to do.” The situation looked grim, as venues everywhere shuttered.

But he maintained an upbeat attitude and came to terms with the changes pretty quickly. “I was walking through Central Park when a song just popped into my head,” he says. “Looking for something positive in a bad situation, I finished the song and I shared it with my band. Recognizing that there was no way we could get together to play it, we decided to record remotely. So we did, and released the video online. Despite our putting it together so quickly, it sounded pretty good.”

With that, Adrian saw the unique opportunity for composing, arranging and recording offered by all the newly abundant free time. “I called Rachel Domber at Arbors Records, pitched the idea of a recording coming out of the pandemic, and she was all for it. Although unsure how it would work since we couldn’t record in a studio, she gave her blessing. From there, I spent the next few weeks writing original tunes. It was something positive to focus on in uncertain times.”

Out of that first composition, “It’s Alright,” has come a full-blown release from Professor Cunningham and His Old School, appropriately named The Lockdown Blues. The titles of Adrian’s originals are all reflective of the situation, including “A Quarantine Love Song,” “Sittin’ at Home, Drinkin’ Alone,” “Six Feet is Too Far From You,” “I’m Broke and She’s Gone,” “Lindy Hopper’s Lament,” and “Gimme a Sheet of that Sweet Sweet TP.” Versions of the Duke Ellington classic “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and the traditional “Over in the Gloryland” round out the collection.

Produced by Bill Moss, the CD includes trumpeter Jon Challoner, guitarist John Merrill, trombonist Dani Alonso, pianist Alberto Pibiri, bassist Jim Robertson and drummer Marti Elias. Their ability to record from home underscores how far technology has come. “We were fortunate in so many ways,” Adrian notes. “First, having a great engineer like Bill Moss was critical. He walked us through the process and was always there to help us with the best way to get a good sound. Second, because the band has been together for so long, we knew how we sounded. It gave us the necessary energy to make it as good as it is.”

But there were still challenges: For instance, Alberto had to plan his recording times carefully to avoid noisy disruptions from a nearby Long Island train station.

Originally from Australia and now living in New York, Adrian has been called “the Down Under sax star” by the Wall Street Journal and “Indispensable to New York’s jazz scene,” by Hot House Jazz Magazine, which awarded him the Fans Decision Jazz Award for Saxophone. He has performed with a long list of jazz luminaries including Wynton Marsalis, Jon Batiste, Jeff Hamilton, and Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks.

Fluent in traditional and modern genres, Adrian sums up his perspective by noting, “Jazz is one language just with different accents.” Fortunately for us, he has continued to speak despite the pandemic. 

Adrian Cunningham celebrates the release of The Lockdown Blues with a March 26 virtual concert featuring Professor Cunningham and His Old School. On April 1st, he will perform live at Shanghai Jazz in Madison, NJ.

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Brandi Disterheft

The Pause Refreshes: Brandi Disterheft By Elzy Kolb

The pandemic pause appears to be winding down far sooner than Brandi Disterheft expected. When the shutdown began, “I thought it would last five years, I was budgeting for the worst,” says the Canada-born, New York-based bassist, singer and composer. “I’m optimistic now. I hope New York will recover quickly, and hope people will come back. It could be a wonderful playground for young artists coming into the city.”

According to Brandi, developing an “exit strategy” is crucial as we look forward to easing our way out of the pandemic era into a changed world. “I’m anxious about reopening, getting back to the grind, back to the hustle. I want to be ahead of the game when the time comes,” she notes. Part of her plan includes finally getting a chance to officially celebrate her latest recording, Surfboard (Justin Time), which came out at the end of 2020. “An album release is a good stepping stone to gigs,” Brandi muses.

She describes Surfboard, her fifth CD, as “My interpretation of Brazilian jazz,” comprising originals, compositions by fellow bassists such as Oscar Pettiford and Sam Jones, standards, and seldom-heard pieces by Brazilian masters Antonio Carlos Jobim and Moacir Santos. Pianist Klaus Mueller and drummer Portinho round out Brandi’s trio, and NEA Jazz Master George Coleman appears as a special guest.

Pianist Harold Mabern, who toured with the bassist after playing on her 2016 album, Blue Canvas, introduced Brandi to the legendary saxophonist. “Harold and George grew up together in Memphis. It’s so generous of these great giants to share the music,” she says. “Seeing George play live drew me to him: He plays with such dexterity, prowess, power and speed. At the same time he’s so relaxed—he makes everyone else sound like a Jamey Aebersold record!”

Making music with octogenarians George Coleman and Portinho was a “dream come true” for Brandi. “You don’t always get that level of musicianship and support,” she muses. “George’s approach is ‘Anything I can do to help.’ Portinho is gentle and diplomatic, very nurturing. At times he’s very reserved, then you feel this force behind you. That’s why he’s known as the James Brown of Brazilian funk samba!”

Despite the pause, Brandi has been “surprisingly busy,” composing, practicing, focusing on videos and publicity for Surfboard, working with a Zoom student and more. “I miss going out, seeing friends, hearing peers, hooting and hollering in the audience,” she says. “As a bass player in New York, I was working practically every night, but now I’ve had the time to buckle down and practice every day, trying on new repertoire, setting goals.”

Brandi’s been working on a wish list of personnel and projects. “Lately I’ve been thinking I want to play with Russell Malone,” she reveals. “He’s so funny. I love his music and respect him. He was so kind to me at jams in Toronto years ago.”

New Orleans-based singer and guitarist Albanie Falletta is another name that pops up in conversation. “I’ve been trying to do everything on my own, but it would be nice to put two brains together. I’d like to compose for two voices and two instruments with another singer/player. I like to compose music and would like to collaborate on lyrics,” Brandi continues. “The writers in the Great American Songbook did that all the time. I’d love to get together with someone like Albanie Falletta for a weekly collaboration to bang out some tunes.”

This month, Brandi is looking forward to debuting some of her recent compositions March 29 at Smalls Jazz Club, with saxophonist Vincent Herring, pianist Anthony Wonsey, and drummer Joe Farnsworth. The foursome also plans to present several compositions by Cedar Walton. “Joe and Vincent both played with him. Vincent is amazing, he doesn’t make a mistake, even when reading through an original for the first time. His attention to detail is astounding, that’s probably why Cedar loved him.”

Brandi Disterheft plays Smalls Jazz Club March 29. Limited reservations may be available, in addition to the concert livestream at www.smallslive.com. She’s also set to play every Tuesday in March at The Flatiron Room, half of a duo with Anthony Wonsey. Check her website (www.brandidisterheft.com/news-item/47/brandis-club-live-7pm-show) for additional streams from Brandi’s Club Live.

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