By Ed Enright
Smile is the second album by veteran trumpeter Bill Warfield’s Hell’s Kitchen Funk Orchestra, a one-of-a-kind little big band that infuses classic r&b grooves with swinging jazz sensibility.
Warfield, who simultaneously has embraced jazz and commercial music throughout a career that dates back to the funk-fertile early 1970s, draws upon his love for horn-driven rock groups like Blood, Sweat & Tears and soul-testifying performers like James Brown on the new recording, which follows in the same celebratory spirit as HKFO’s 2015 debut, Mercy, Mercy, Mercy. Good times abound on Smile, whose wide-ranging cover tracks include Weather Report’s otherworldly “Cucumber Slumber,” the Booker T. & the MG’s funk classic “Hip Hug-Her,” Bobbie Gentry’s haunting “Ode To Billie Joe,” an expansive arrangement of “Theme From Law & Order,” the dreamy Paul Williams-Kenny Ascher waltz “Rainbow Connection,” a supercharged version of the Eurhythmics’ “This City Never Sleeps” and two takes of the tenderly poignant title track (one vocal, one instrumental), penned by silent movie star Charlie Chaplin.
Two original compositions fall right in the middle of the program: Warfield and company get downright cerebral on the leader’s 12-tone-derived piece “Mad Dog,” with its tightly executed stop-starts and interlocking line fragments, and they funkify the blues on his train-emulating “Dance Of The Coal Cars.”
Five of the tunes here are helmed by vocalists, with fine contributions from Jane Stuart, Julie Michels and Carolyn Leonhart. Notable soloists include Lou Marini on tenor and soprano saxophones, guitarist Matt Chertkoff, alto saxophonist Andrew Gould, organist Paul Shaffer, trumpeter John Eckert, pianist Cecilia Coleman and tenor player Dave Riekenberg; Warfield’s improvisations on trumpet and flugelhorn reveal a fun-loving, self-confident artist who feels quite at home on all points of the jazz-funk spectrum.
By Ed Enright
Vancouver-based composer Daniel Hersog’s debut big band album is largely inspired by his love for jazz orchestrator Gil Evans’ work with Miles Davis in large-ensemble settings.
Hersog, also known for his vital voice on trumpet, wrote much of the music on Night Devoid Of Stars with two particular soloists in mind: tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger and pianist Frank Carlberg. Hersog’s highly distilled, historically informed compositions and arrangements not only serve as an expression of his own artistic individuality, but provide wide-open platforms for his band members to construct bold, towering improvisations that amplify the innate sophistication and adventurousness of the material.
Preminger, whose connection to Hersog dates back to their days as students at New England Conservatory, distinguishes himself on the catchy “Cloud Break,” the brooding ballad “Makeshift Memorial” and the straight-rock groove of “Indelible.” Carlberg, who was an influential NEC teacher for the bandleader, makes some of his strongest solo statements on the gospel-flavored, Keith Jarrett-inspired “Motion,” during a dramatic interpretation on the Jerome Kern standard “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” and in the denouement of the album’s overarching title track. Other notable solo contributions come from trumpeter Brad Turner (on “Cloud Break”) and clarinet-doubling saxophonist Michael Braverman (“Indelible”).
Hersog’s orchestrations tend to exhibit a symphonic quality and exude a chamber-like vibe characterized by churchy brass choirs, unconventional instrumental pairings (usually involving various woodwinds) and an ever-present, Evans-like flow. The 16-piece Daniel Hersog Jazz Orchestra was booked to perform at this summer’s TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival—with Preminger and Carlberg onboard—but the event was canceled due to the coronavirus. Let’s hope listeners eventually get a chance to hear this remarkable Canadian ensemble take on these gorgeous new arrangements under Hersog’s baton in a live setting.
By Bobby Reed
Rarely do we get a precious gift from such a talented artist so close to their departure. A few months before his death on March 21 at age 85, prolific percussionist and Latin jazz icon Ray Mantilla approved the final mix of the tracks that appear on Rebirth. This album is the coda to a long career that included collaborations with Ray Barretto, Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Mann, Charles Mingus, Eddie Palmieri, Max Roach, Bobby Watson and many others.
The album title, which Mantilla chose, nods to the fact that during the last two years of his life, he was able to bounce back from a bout with cancer. The South Bronx native enthusiastically took his congas and other percussion instruments into the studio for what would be his final leader sessions, working with such longtime colleagues as Edy Martinez (piano, Fender Rhodes), Guido Gonzalez (trumpet, flugelhorn) and Ivan Renta (soprano and tenor saxophones).
Earworms abound on Rebirth. The version of Tito Puente’s “Philly Mambo” is so kinetic and catchy it could be the soundtrack to a nationwide exercise program. (Is it physically possible to stand still as Mike Freeman pounds out those hypnotic vibraphone riffs?) Martinez wrote nearly all the arrangements here, including a hip-swaying rendition of “Hit The Road Jack” spiced with staccato brass and woodwind blasts. Elsewhere, Freeman’s arrangement of the 1975 Bobby Hutcherson classic “Yuyo” is a delirious dose of sheer joy, while “Cumbia Jazz Fusion Experimental” evokes a mood of mystery, with Jorge Castro’s flute adding wondrous coloration.
The most outside-leaning cut here is the closer, “Rebirth Bata Rumba Experimental,” a percussion-heavy excursion that features Diego Lopez, Ogudaro Díaz and Rafael Monteagudo all playing batá drums. This, the last song on Mantilla’s final album, is the only original composition in the program. It’s a lovely farewell note from an irreplaceable player.
By Dave Cantor
Keyboardist Larry Willis touted a catalog—including his 1974 Groove Merchant release, Inner Crisis—that today remains a hallmark of an era when commercial strains of music merged with the art-world intentions of jazz.
That Willis, before his death on Sept. 29, 2019, worked with Hugh Masekela, Jerry Gonzalez And The Fort Apache Band, on straightahead dates and with soul outfits, speaks to his perspicacity, talent and ability to hear and see things that others just could not.
A pair of Willis originals were rerecorded on I Fall In Love Too Easily—the bandleader’s final leader date prior to his death—alongside contributions from his ensemble and some choice covers. But reimagining his “Heavy Blue,” which the keyboardist first recorded during his stint in Blood, Sweet & Tears, turns a bawdy funk jam into a showcase for Willis’ jagged chording, as trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and altoist Joe Ford take turns spinning out solos over what’s become a blue, bop excursion.
The title track, which serves as the album closer and likely the last new notes we’ll hear from Willis, are appropriately melancholy and wistful. The bandleader, alone, sounds like a rainy day. But there’s still beauty to take away from this: “I Fall In Love Too Easily” initially might have been intended to depict some long-forgotten romance, but on this HighNote record, it’s about falling for Willis at the keys and how we’re all worse off for his being gone.
By Bobby Reed
Soul singer Gerald McClendon has found a fine collaborator in Twist Turner. The two musicians had worked together before, but their partnership reaches new heights with Can’t Nobody Stop Me Now. Turner played drums on the album, composed all 12 of its tracks and recorded, produced, mixed and mastered the sessions at Delta Roots Sound Studios in McClendon’s hometown of Chicago. Blessed with a voice that exudes grit and swagger, the singer operates in the tradition of departed Windy City icons such as Otis Clay and Tyrone Davis. The lyrics to the album’s domestic drama “Cut You Once”—a frightening yet comedic tale of infidelity—seem to name-check Davis’ 1970 hit “Turn Back The Hands Of Time.”
Turner’s compositions focus on interpersonal relationships (often troubled ones), and episodes of sneaky infidelity emerge on numerous songs here, including “Where Do We Go From Here” (featuring Skinny Williams’ wailing, pleading tenor saxophone), “She Don’t Love Me Anymore” (anchored by Art Love’s muscular bass lines) and “Runnin’ Wild,” which is fueled by Stax-style horn charts and barbed lyrics: “Tippin’ in at 6 a.m./ Stayin’ out all night long/ Whatcha been drinkin’/ Your breath is stinkin’/ Your clothes ain’t fittin’ you right.”
The dynamic duo of McClendon and Turner isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel here, but with so many of Chicago’s soul stars now singing in the celestial sphere, it’s comforting to know that their legacy is being extended. With this potent program, McClendon vividly illustrates why he has earned a suitable nickname: “The Soul Keeper.”
By Dave Cantor
In a 2019 DownBeat interview, pianist and bandleader Kasia Pietrzko was asked about Polish jazz’s defining qualities.
She said, “Maybe just a little bit Romantic. This is what [Tomasz] Stańko has—really melancholic. I think all the Polish musicians have this melancholic thing, and now they can explore and mix together classical music and jazz.”
“Ephemeral Pleasures,” the opening title track of her second leader date, though, is buoyant and bright, bounding across a decidedly contemporary rhythmic backing. Within the first three minutes, Pietrzko effortlessly displays a deft and dynamic approach to voicing chords, unlooses a playful progression and pushes against the trio’s mounting volume, turning it into a few quizzical and quiet moments. In that interview from last year, she also discussed studying with pianist Aaron Parks, and his distinctly contemporary take on 21st-century piano-led troupes colors Pietrzko’s opening gambit here, as well as tracks like “Dark Blue Intensity Of Life” and “For T.S.,” despite that latter tune being dedicated to Stańko.
But there is a darker emotional hue that the pianist explores with her ensemble—bassist Andrzej Swies and drummer Piotr Budniak: The pensive “Dearest John” takes on the tonal colors Pietrzko surely encountered while studying classical music; and the series of five improvised “Episode” tracks sound as if they sprouted in tiny DIY rooms with pay-what-you-can fees and an interest in booking new-music.
That the bandleader’s able to so easily synthesize all of this amid a 10-track program—and during a relatively early part of her career—doesn’t mean she’s the next Stańko. But it does mean that we’ll likely be listening to her explore the nexus of these musics for a few decades to come.
By Bobby Reed
The success of an interpretive vocal jazz album often hinges on two elements: the quality of the arrangements and the depth of the singer’s connection to the material. Such is the case with Borjoner, a charming collection of 10 covers on which Calgary-based singer Aimee-Jo Benoit showcases her love of Canadian tunesmiths. Although the decisions to interpret Joni Mitchell’s “This Flight Tonight” and Jane Siberry’s “One More Colour” are far from revolutionary, Benoit excels by spicing in deft scat-singing on the former tune and rescuing the latter tune from the synth-soaked trappings of the composer’s 1985 hit single.
The aforementioned tracks are quite compelling, but Benoit and Trio Velocity—pianist Sheldon Zandboer, bassist Simon Fisk and drummer Robin Tufts—reap greater rewards when they explore 21st-century tunes by fellow Canadians. A version of Feist’s “Lonely Lonely” features rumbling drums, haunting cymbal swells and delicate piano lines that dance in tandem with the singer’s shifts in pitch. Fisk’s mesmerizing, 80-second bass solo and Benoit’s wordless vocals enliven a reading of “Repetition,” penned by Michael Feuerstack (aka Snailhouse). A rendition of “Exquisite Corpse” (by Chris Brown and Kate Fenner) illustrates how Benoit and her bandmates can show off their chops and still eschew any grandstanding.
Reshaping pop-rock material through a jazz aesthetic and improvisational flights results in sparkling gems throughout the band’s debut album. Looking beyond Canadian borders, the musicians deliver superb versions of The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” Nirvana’s “All Apologies” and the standards “Midnight Sun” and “Alfie.” The word borjoner is an Old French term that translates as “to put out buds.” With this album, Benoit has planted the seeds for what one hopes will become a lengthy discography.
By Ed Enright
When Dexter Gordon returned to America in 1976 following 14 years spent as an expatriate living in Europe and working with various rhythm sections, he longed to put together his own band. That dream came to fruition when a steady quartet consisting of himself, L.A. pianist George Cables, Chicago/New York bassist Rufus Reid and Newark, New Jersey-based drummer Eddie Gladden settled into place and began gigging extensively at festivals and clubs across the States and overseas.
During a European trip in the fall of 1978, the group appeared at the Châteauvallon Jazz Festival in southern France and put on a thrilling, 110-minute performance, captured here in a deluxe two-disc package. Gordon fans will get tremendous satisfaction from listening to this previously unreleased live material, which presents the tenor and soprano saxophonist at his finest. He comes across like he’s having the time of his life, indulging in favorites like the Jimmy Dorsey hit “Tangerine,” Horace Silver’s “Strollin’,” Jimmy Heath’s “Gingerbread Boy” and the standard “More Than You Know.” True to his nature, Gordon goes quote-crazy during extended improvisations peppered with humor and charged with reverence for the bebop tradition.
This welcome release from Elemental is especially significant for Gordon collectors, as this particular quartet lineup (which only lasted until mid-1979) issued only two official recordings, the 1978 albums Manhattan Symphonie and Live At Carnegie Hall.
By Dave Cantor
Separating the myth from the band, and the band from the culture, is tough to do.
The wandering, exploratory on-stage performances by The Grateful Dead always will be what the band’s best known for—and maybe rightly so. But a pair of studio dates released in 1970 offered a country inflection that Jerry Garcia championed and contained some of the troupe’s best-known songs.
To mark Workingman’s Dead‘s 50th anniversary, the album is being remastered and repackaged with a live set from Feb. 21, 1971, at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York, spread out over two additional discs. (The troupe’s other 1970 release, American Beauty, ostensibly serves to expand on what was laid down across Workingman’s.)
“Uncle John’s Band”—a tune pretty much everyone’s had jammed into their ears, if they’ve ever passed anywhere near a college campus—opens the proper album. Overexposure might be its only sin. And while “High Time’s” gentle guitar and fragile harmonies follow, a few songs on, one of the band’s most caustic and wry lyrics opens “New Speedway Boogie”: “Please don’t dominate the rap, Jack/ If you’ve got nothing new to say.” Bluesy rock stuff and folk excursions take up the rest of the disc, before “Casey Jones,” another tune dogged by its pervasiveness, closes things out.
A take of Janis Joplins’s “Me & Bobby McGee,” with Bob Weir on vocals, opens up the live material included on this anniversary set, which actually sidesteps some of the band’s most indulgent tendencies; there is a seven-minute version of “I’m A King Bee,” as well as 17 minutes of “Good Lovin’” a bit later on. In keeping with the roots feel on Workingman’s Dead, though, the band peppers its time on stage with “I Know You Rider” and the wobbly harmonies of “Cumberland Blues.”
With the sheer volume of live stuff from the Dead—especially dating to this era—the Capitol Theatre material comes off as a suitable and reasonable premise for nostalgia. But even as hearing Garcia and company a bit more clearly in the studio might be enticing, the bonus stuff here works mostly to mark the anniversary of a landmark turn in rock, roots music and psychedelia—not a momentous discovery.