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Claire Daly

Hot Flashes by Seton Hawkins

Musicians Talk Inspirations

Hearing baritone saxophonist Claire Daly in performance is always a joy. Wielding a rich and luscious tone, she brings to her playing a wonderful blend of romanticism and bite. While her exquisite sound and chops have made her a vital member of many ensembles, Claire truly shines as a bandleader, where her creativity in unusual song choices and versatile genre-crossing ideas have developed some truly innovative and fascinating projects. Through it all, Claire has made a truly compelling case for the baritone saxophone’s role as a lead instrument.

Perhaps then it is not surprising that Claire cites the patron saint of saxophone iconoclasts—Rahsaan Roland Kirk—as an influence, singling out his 1976 masterpiece The Return of the 5000 Lb. Man as a particular inspiration. “I heard it when I was pretty young, and I was so touched by Rahsaan,” she explains. “There’s a lot of variety on the album that reached out to me. Rahsaan allowed himself to use pop tunes as a vehicle for himself, sure, but he put them alongside ‘Giant Steps!’”

The influence of Rahsaan Roland Kirk can certainly be heard in Claire’s own work, in which thorough reworkings of Thelonious Monk’s music can give way to heartfelt homages to Motown hits. “That inclusion of many styles that Rahsaan did opened the door to me; it showed me that you can do just about anything in a jazz context,” Claire notes.

That versatility and spirit of exploration is on full display Feb. 24 at Smalls Jazz Club—her first time at the club as a band leader—as Claire celebrates her birthday with a quartet performance alongside pianist Bruce Barth, bassist Marcus McLaurine and drummer Peter Grant, plus some special guests. Featuring repertoire drawn from an array of Claire’s projects, the evening serves as a superb treat to current fans, and an excellent introduction to her work for newcomers. “It’s a very tasty band,” she notes. “It’s going to be a great night of music.”

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Brittany Anjou

Another Reason To Celebrate

by Elzy Kolb

International ears

Pianist Brittany Anjou divides her time between her Brooklyn home and a long-term gig in Kuwait, where she teaches jazz theory and more to kids and adults. “The students are hungry for jazz, and want to understand theory. Any time I travel and play abroad, people are really listening, it’s like you’re valued more there,” she says. “In Kuwait, the people are focused on the melody. At house concerts, people care in a different way” than in other locales and venues.

One listener worried that Brittany’s music might be too avant-garde for Kuwait. He urged her to stick to straight-ahead renderings for fear that the audience would think she didn’t know the tunes. His comment inspired her “try a little gentle social work to open minds and ears” by organizing the musicians in the audience into a New York-style open improv vocal jam. The participants hesitated at first, trying to bow out because of tired voices and the like. But they soon got the hang of it and had a great time. “This is the true spirit of jazz,” enthused one happy participant—the same guy who had shared his concerns earlier.

Brittany has been active on the New York jazz scene since moving here from Seattle 16 years ago. Her new recording, Enamiĝo Reciprokataj (Origin), is her first release leading a jazz ensemble.

The album title is in Esperanto, a constructed international language developed in the late 19th century by creators hoping to forge an international means of communication that could be used among people of all nationalities. Translated as “Reciprocal Love,” the album’s original compositions reflect Brittany’s love of mainstream jazz piano giants such as McCoy Tyner, Oscar Peterson, Red Garland and Ahmad Jamal, presented from her own unique musical point of view. Stravinsky was a further inspiration for the five-movement title suite.

“I care about the layout of the record, I’m not with the digital trend these days,” Brittany notes with a laugh. “I only ever wanted to make a CD. It has to be 60 minutes long or people aren’t getting their money’s worth.” She’s looking forward to the release gig at (Le) Poisson Rouge on Feb. 25, with bassist Gregory Chudzik and drummer Shirazette Tinnin. “I’ll focus on music from the album, I want to give the music a chance to live and breathe, to share that with people in a big way.” There’s a chance they’re going to mix in new music Brittany’s working on in Kuwait, and possibly a vocal composition, “How Many Women Are In Your Band.”

In addition to English and Esperanto, Brittany knows a mix of other languages including German, Czech, Spanish, and Arabic. She could also be considered fluent in a range of musical languages in addition to jazz. “In New York, you wind up doing a million things,” she notes, including working with the cult band The Shaggs. “They were the grandmothers of punk, it was such a gift to work with them.” The controversial band, originally founded in 1967, was a favorite of Frank Zappa; the members continue to reunite periodically, to the delight of an extremely dedicated fan base. “You could call their music a train wreck or you could call it glorious. There’s such a deep sense of belonging and community around their music. I have all the songs in my head.”

Photo Credit:  Jeff Chase

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Cyrille Aimée

Another Reason To Celebrate

by Elzy Kolb

Setting a standard

Vocalist Cyrille Aimée knows the Great American Songbook inside and out, and by extension the Broadway repertoire that figures so prominently in the collection. The timeless compositions—a mainstay for many jazz mavens—fueled this self-described songbook super fan’s desire to move to the U.S. But even with such a thorough immersion in show tunes, the France-born Cyrille didn’t discover Stephen Sondheim till 2013, when she co-starred in a City Center tribute concert with Broadway icon Bernadette Peters, backed by Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

Exploring Sondheim’s diverse and challenging body of work delighted the singer, and on opening night at City Center, the composer sought her out to declare, “You made me laugh; you made me cry.”

Cyrille included his “Live Alone and Like It” on her 2018 Live album. When it came time to plan a new recording project, “I thought: Let me concentrate on this Sondheim guy,” Cyrille recalls. She celebrates the result, her brand-new release, Move On: A Sondheim Adventure (Mack Avenue), at Birdland Feb. 26 through March 2.

“I’m only doing what jazz has done forever—turning show tunes into standards,” she says. His lyrics for West Side Story elevated Sondheim to musical theater superstar status, but his compositions have rarely reached the jazz world in recent decades; Cyrille also notes that he is not well known in France. She hopes her new recording will open ears among jazz musicians, as well as introduce Sondheim to listeners in her native land.

“There’s so much meat on the harmonies, on the melodies. There’s so much to have fun with,” she muses. “He breaks all the rules, pushes boundaries, he’s so contemporary. You expect his lyrics to have a certain rhyme, but he doesn’t go where you think he would go. Learning Sondheim has been a slap in the face. He woke me up. He inspires me as a songwriter.”

Move On came together at a time of personal and professional change, which saw Cyrille quitting her band of five years, breaking up with her boyfriend and relocating to New Orleans. She found comfort and catharsis in the music.

“The order of the songs on Move On tells the story from meeting my boyfriend through the breakup and move. I was depressed and working on this saved me. As I got more connected, the more I felt the songs were about me, the more I was in tune with the story they told,” she reveals. “That’s the job of an artist—to let people in.”

In choosing songs for Move On, Cyrille read through several volumes of Sondheim lyrics, marking the ones she could most relate to, then repeated the process with the music. “I got so passionate about it, it’s very intimate and personal.” She avoided seeing any of the plays in which the tunes originated until after recording, to keep her vision pure. “I didn’t look up the context, I didn’t want to be influenced. I wanted to make the songs my own and turn them into standards.”

Arranging was challenging, as Cyrille aimed for a lyric-based focus rather than band-based sound, and wanted to vary the instrumentation to fit each song. “I wanted to take the listener for a ride.”

Once again, her efforts have earned the Sondheim seal of approval: Cyrille reports that after hearing the recording, the Broadway giant dropped her a note via snail mail, describing Move On as “thrilling.” Her Sondheim adventure is clearly not over: Cyrille recently hit the studio to record “Losing My Mind,” from his show Follies

Photo Credit:  Noe Cugny

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Alfredo Rodriguez Pedrito Martinez

Winning Spins by George Kanzler

This edition of Winning Spins focuses two albums featuring young pianists who share an executive producer, Quincy Jones. The legendary producer is credited with originally signing and shepherding the careers of both Alfredo Rodriguez, who defected from Cuba in 2007, and Justin Kauflin, who was mentored earlier by the late Clark Terry, as memorably documented in the film Keep On Keepin’ On. Aside from sharing Quincy as executive producer, with the attendant precise and polished production one would expect, the two pianists and albums don’t have much in common. Alfredo teams up in a duo with a fellow Cuban, percussionist Pedrito Martinez, in a program heavily weighted toward the island’s deep musical traditions. Justin, with the help of electronic keyboards and synths as well as acoustic piano, explores a panoply of jazz-pop-rock strategies.

Duologue, Alfredo Rodriguez/Pedrito Martinez (Mack Avenue), highlights Alfredo’s electric keyboard-synth as well as acoustic piano playing. But the album’s opening number begins with Spanish-language vocals (possibly overdubbed through multitracking) from the twosome, over hand claps, and a continuous choral chant of the title, “Africa,” throughout. The piece expands to include a smorgasbord of percussion from Pedrito, plus Alfredo’s piano and keyboards. All but 3 of the CD’s 11 tracks are compositions by the pair, many deeply rooted in Cuban folkloric and religious ritual traditions. Most feature vocals that comprise chants, choral-like sections and lead solo singing in the semi-improvised son Latin American style. Originals range from the chanting and delicate acoustic piano improvisations of “Estamos Llegando” to the florid ballad “Flor,” with its choral vocal and rich mix of acoustic piano over electric keyboard sonic cushions. They run the gamut from the simplicity of the piano/congas “Duologue” to the aurally and atmospherically dense layering of voices, percussion and keyboards on the anthemic “Yo Volveré.”

Two of the covers are surprising. Besides doing the Cuban standard “El Punto Cubano” replete with traditional lead son vocal and kinetic Afro-Cuban percussion, they also do versions of Michael Jackson’s signature hit “Thriller,” and the theme from the video game “Super Mario Bros 3.” “Thriller” displays the duo’s ability to subsume a pop hit into the Afro-Latin jazz universe, while also highlighting Alfredo’s virtuoso piano chops. There’s a contagious, almost giggling joy to the fun the pair have with the video game jingle, including calliope-like keyboards and snare drum and bass lines into their playful elaborations. The closest the two come to Cuban pop song sensibilities is on the original “Jardin Soñador,” featuring duo harmony/unison singing over gently rolling piano and hand drums.

Alfredo Rodriguez and Pedrito Martinez appear at Jazz Standard Feb. 28-March 3.

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