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Benny Green

Winning Spins By George Kanzler

Pianists Benny Green and Eric Reed served formative apprenticeships with a couple of champions of straight-ahead post-bop modern jazz, Betty Carter and Wynton Marsalis. In careers spanning three decades, both Benny and Eric have continued to carry the banner, as their latest albums attest.

Then and Now (Sunnyside) finds Benny Green emphasizing not only his playing but also his composing and arranging. The album includes five of his own tunes, six by post-bebop era musicians, plus a ballad standard. Singer Veronica Swift appears on the standard, “Something I Dreamed Last Night”; she sings her own vocalese-like lyrics to Benny’s “Naturally,” and adds wordless vocals to three other selections. The Then and Now lineup also includes Benny’s regular trio partners, bassist David Wong and drummer Kenny Washington; flutist Ann Drummond is showcased on three tracks and percussionist Josh Jones on two.

The CD opener, “Donny Hath a Way,” is a short tribute to the late soul singer Donny Hathaway, featuring electric piano, flute and Latin percussion. Benny incorporates “The Closer I Get To You” into his original composition. On Cedar Walton’s “Latin America,” another track featuring flute and percussion, Benny plays the theme on electric piano but solos, in an exuberant, Cuban-inflected style, on acoustic piano.

The whole album is a display of Benny’s exuberance, his playing extroverted and brio filled. Whether he’s flying through the blistering bop tempo of Hank Jones’ “Minor Contention,” rolling out bluesy triplets on Hank Mobley’s “Hipsippy Blues,” or joining Veronica in shout kickers on his tight, intricate “Humphrey,” Benny is assured and assertive at the keyboard.

On three tracks with Veronica—“Humphrey,” Dexter Gordon’s “For Regulars Only” and Horace Silver’s “Split Kick”—she overdubs a second vocal. She sings to the melodies in tandem with Benny’s piano, and her scintillating scat solos function like a horn. The tunes Benny has resurrected from the oeuvre of deceased jazz masters of the second half of the 20th century prove that there is a rich trove of material that has not been sufficiently explored.

Benny Green commemorates his 56th birthday (April 4) with his trio at Birdland on April 2-6.

Photo Credit:  Don Dixon

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Eric Reed

Winning Spins By George Kanzler

Pianists Benny Green and Eric Reed served formative apprenticeships with a couple of champions of straight-ahead post-bop modern jazz, Betty Carter and Wynton Marsalis. In careers spanning three decades, both Benny and Eric have continued to carry the banner, as their latest albums attest.

On Everybody Gets the Blues (Smoke Sessions), Eric Reed prefers subtlety to flash, finding a strong but still spiritual center in playing that is never rushed or flamboyant. Eric makes strategic use of silence, spacing his notes and delivering them with a sure, crystalline touch. The most familiar tune he covers, Freddie Hubbard’s “Up Jumped Spring,” demonstrates his approach. He takes the piece—typically played at a brisk pace—at a slow tempo while retaining the waltz time, turning the usually hard-bop composition into a resonant ballad. Adding heft is the sonorous alto sax of Tim Green, who appears on five of the tracks. On board throughout are bassist Mike Gurrola and drummer McClenty Hunter.

Eric also creates a soft palette of Fender Rhodes keyboard for John Coltrane’s “Naima,” bringing a quiet, reverential approach at a slower than normal tempo. He does include a swinging waltz, pairing his tribute to Cedar Walton with a Stevie Wonder outro, “Cedar Waltzin’/Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing,” featuring a vigorous turn from Tim’s alto sax and a captivating piano solo judiciously mixing single note swirls and block chords. On Cedar’s “Martha’s Prize,” Eric incorporates call-response into his solo, as if dueting with himself.

Except for “Naima,” the tracks with Tim’s alto swing out; Eric is more contemplative in a trio setting. The title piece is an understated blues, taken at a slow walk; his melding of Jerome Kern and the Beatles, “Yesterday/Yesterdays,” is deeply, deliberately lyrical, even though it ends with a gospel flourish. “Dear Bud,” dedicated to Bud Powell, portrays the late pianist’s mental anguish in descending minor chords. With Tim on soprano sax, Eric’s “New Morning” builds from a slow piano intro through a ruminating, gospel-tinged theme, to a final climactic section infused with a churchy spirit. Gospel and swing come together in the CD’s finale, James Williams’ “Road Life,” a bright ending to an often moody recital.

Eric Reed celebrates the release of Everybody Gets the Blues at Smoke Jazz & Supper Club on April 11-13, with alto saxophonist Julius Tolentin, bassist Corcoran Holt and drummer McClenty Hunter.

Photo Credit:  Jimmy Katz

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Abdulrahman Amer

Fresh Takes By Nick Dunston

Abdulrahman Amer is a prominent voice in the expanding community of young virtuosos on New York’s jazz scene. The trombonist plays in ensembles such as Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, but also frequently leads his own band, Ba Akhu. “The name originates from my studies of ancient Egypt. The ba is our soul which manifests through our physical selves, called the khat. However, when we pass, our souls enter a state of akhu where there are no barriers preventing it from being one with everything. I believe this state of akhu to be achievable on Earth through healing and by destroying all the barriers we have created against love.”

Abdulrahman connects with his band as deeply as he does with his spirituality, saying “I love every second of exploring with them. There is a sensitivity to one another that exists because we love and trust one another. I can be the most vulnerable around them, and they have greatly contributed to helping me break the barriers that contain my true sounds. Trust creates freedom and gifts us the ability to discover new things.”

Abdulrahman Amer performs with Ba Akhu at the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning on April 11.

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Wycliffe Gordon

Wycliffe Gordon’s Vocal Warmup By Stephanie Jones

Perhaps best known as a trombonist, Wycliffe Gordon spends his time in the company of others: other like-minded artists, other inquiry-driven educators and, of course, other instruments. In addition to trombone, the composer and bandleader plays 22 instruments, including didgeridoo. Humanness in his phrasing and an evolving technical mastery have garnered the Georgia native a number of accolades in recent years. A DownBeat Critics Poll favorite, Wycliffe has received an International Trombone Association award, and the Louis Armstrong House Museum’s Louie Award for his commitment to preserving the legacy of Louis Armstrong.

An artist who always has had a profound connection to phrasing, Wycliffe found that when he began integrating singing into his big band rehearsals, and later into his performances, something unnamable began to resonate. “A lot of times we rely on markings in the music for everything from dynamics to how we articulate. You can mark it down, but when you sing something, you connect to it a certain way,” he explains.

A full-time faculty member at Augusta University and artist in residence at Johns Hopkins’ Peabody Institute in Baltimore, Wycliffe has honed a number of strategies for effective band leading, with singing often emerging as the magic bullet. “If I’m working with a trombone, trumpet or saxophone section, to get them to play a phrase, if you want them to learn how to play it almost immediately, get them to sing it. And then say: When you play it, just play it like you sing it. Almost immediately, it will come together,” he explains.

At a recent Peabody master class, Wycliffe observed his trombone students readying themselves to play an orchestral excerpt. He cites how singing immediately connected them to the music that was in their ears—or, at least, on the page—a method that benefits their playing, their phrasing and their listening. “They had to get their minds ready,” he notes. “It’s just simple. If you sing, you don’t even think about it.”

According to Wycliffe, singing phrases before playing them, particularly when rehearsing a big band, is one of the most effective ways for every player to work out similar phrasing so they can move together as a unit. He adopted this technique for his own bandleader’s tool kit after a fateful rehearsal with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in its early days. He recalls that the legendary trombonist and big band mainstay Britt Woodman played a part that had been written on the chart as a Charleston rhythm.

“But there was a way that he played it,” Wycliffe recalls. “I said, ‘Mr. Woodman, can you do that again?’ And it was just the way that he phrased it—and we haven’t yet figured out a way to mark that [articulation]. Hearing that one phrase, I thought, Wow. This is how some of the bands develop their sounds. You can’t really mark it—you can put dynamics, you can put marcato, staccato, legato, and even though we have things like turns or the appoggiatura, you have to hear it. It’s not on the horn. It’s something that’s completely human, and the best way to get to that is to sing.”

Another of Wycliffe’s missions as an artistic leader and a global mentor is to inspire institutions’ to continue evolving their understanding of American music. He and his fellow practitioner-educators work tirelessly with universities to instill values of historical exploration and forward thinking within their music programs through initiatives like the jazz masters series Wycliffe has started in Augusta.

“Several colleges like University of North Texas and Miami, they know it’s important to get the Euro-centric music that was prominent in the States, but [they also know] that a new music was being created out of America and it’s important to expose our students, as well as themselves, to that music, because it is right here—jazz being the biggest contributor, but there have been other forms or styles that have come after that.”

Big band culture and a commitment to enhancing higher education programs represent only part of Wycliffe’s artistic narrative. Over the course of his career he has released 29 recordings as a leader and co-leader, and worked with countless era-defining artists from Lionel Hampton to Wynton Marsalis to Shirley Horn. In recent years, he’s worked through many small ensemble compositions and arrangements for his International All-Stars, which includes pianist Ehud Asherie, saxophonist Adrian Cunningham, drummer Alvin Atkinson, and bass players Yasushi Nakamura and Corcoran Holt. Wycliffe’s upcoming performance reprises the ensemble’s multiple appearances at PJS Jazz Society and, as is always the case with his All-Stars, he looks forward to the hit. “It’ll be a pretty good showing,” he says with a laugh. Wycliffe also appears as a soloist with the Salvation Army Band at the Westside Presbyterian Church in Ridgewood, New Jersey, on April 13.

Wycliffe Gordon’s International All-Stars play PJS Jazz Society at First Presbyterian Church in Mount Vernon, New York, on April 14.

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John di Martino

Another Reason To Celebrate By Elzy Kolb

Here, there, everywhere