By Ed Enright
Italian-born guitar virtuoso Pasquale Grasso continues a winning streak with this classy take on the music of Duke Ellington — joining the ranks of such archtop devotees as Joe Pass, Kenny Burrell and John Pizzarelli, each of whom has recorded notable tributes to the iconic big band composer. Consisting of five solo guitar performances, six trio tracks and two compelling vocal features, Pasquale Plays Duke is the second of three albums Grasso is putting out on Sony Music Masterworks this year and next. An expertly produced project, it measures up to the high standards the master guitarist set for himself on a spate of recent recordings he has dedicated to the repertoires of Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Billie Holiday. It’s also a bit of an eye-opener for anyone not yet familiar with the esteemed guitarist and his quickly expanding discography. Grasso is a brilliant jazz improviser whose elegant melodic lines and speed-demon runs reveal the ever-present influence of historic jazz pianist Art Tatum. When he’s not dazzling listeners with technical feats and creative spark, Grasso enraptures them with oceans of smooth harmonic motion and all-enveloping sonic auras. Like a one-man big band, he keeps Ellington’s familiar melodies afloat on rivers of counter lines, inner voices and bass movement that virtually pour out of his instrument. A more conversational vibe emerges on tracks featuring Grasso’s working trio with bassist Ari Roland and drummer Keith Balla, two spirited, simpatico players whose tasteful contributions keep things swinging and popping. The album’s two vocal tracks — one featuring the youthful Samara Joy (“Solitude”) and another by the nonagenarian Sheila Jordan (“Mood Indigo”) — further elevate the program by bringing to the surface some of the complex emotions that dwell deep in the heart of Ellington’s (and Billy Strayhorn’s) music. An active presence on New York’s jazz scene, Grasso can be heard in various settings both in and around the Big Apple and out on the road. Upcoming performance dates include trio gigs backing Joy at the Exit Zero Jazz Festival in Cape May, New Jersey, on Oct. 1; Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in New York on Oct. 17; and Walton Center in Fayetteville, Arkansas, on Dec. 10. He will also accompany Joy on a nine-gig European tour that begins Oct. 30 at the Flame Festival in Turku, Finland, and concludes Nov. 12 at Duc des Lombards in Nice, France. Grasso will play his standing duo gig with bassist Ari Roland at New York’s Mezzrow on Oct. 4, 11, 18 and 25, and Nov. 15, 22 and 29. And, he will take part in an Oct. 5–10 run of shows with singer/actress Laura Benanti at Feinstein’s/54 Below in New York.
By Frank Alkyer
Black Acid Soul is the sensational new recording by Marley Munroe, aka Lady Blackbird. This is heady, haunting, sexy, soulful, heartbreaking stuff. With a voice that suggests a cross between Mahalia Jackson and Nina Simone, Lady Blackbird tears your heart apart and puts it back together again on this 11-song set. The ease, growl, coo and convincing nature of her voice come naturally as she has been singing in front of audiences since childhood, and was signed to a Christian music label as a teenager. She has long since left that side of her career behind, but the soul of that music is always close by. When she pleads, “Come back, come back, come back/ I’ve had enough,” on Allen Toussaint’s “Ruler Of My Heart,” there’s a piercing search for love that can only be delivered by a very few. The great Irma Thomas made the song a classic back in 1963. Lady Blackbird matches the authenticity and originality in this remake. Her voice is an old friend confessing her secrets, drawing you into her world. Take, for example, the new but timeless nature of “Nobody’s Sweetheart,” written by artist-producer-songwriter Chris Seefried, who worked with Andra Day on her debut recording. It’s a beautifully touching ballad that could fit easily into the catalog of an icon like Burt Bacharach, packed with forlorn lyricism, punctuated by a sweet trumpet solo from Trombone Shorty. Lady Blackbird is best when dishing out torch songs like “It’s Not That Easy,” “Five Feet Tall” and “It Will Never Happen Again,” or instant jazz noir classics like the album’s opener, “Blackbird.” This is an album of smart wordplay, amazing song choices and elegantly understated musicality. Floating above it all is the voice and artistry of this new and incredibly exciting artist. We’ll be talking about this debut for many years to come.
By Daniel Margolis
Chicago-based Numero Group has long excelled at unearthing music that never should have disappeared from public consciousness, and the label has outdone itself with I Shall Wear A Crown, an archival box set summarizing the 50-year career of Pastor T.L. Barrett.
Based on the South Side of Chicago, Barrett is backed primarily by his 45-piece Youth For Christ Choir, and still leads his same congregation at the Life Center COGIC (Church of God in Christ), known colloquially as Chicago’s Prayer Palace.
So, one might assume this is standard gospel music. Wrong. The music resurrected here feels more like listening to classic, empowered ’70s soul than what you’d expect to hear in church. This stems from Barrett’s obvious innovation, first of all, but also his ability to attract the participation of Donny Hathaway and Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White and many of Chicago’s top session musicians.
Perhaps that’s why Barrett is, strangely, everywhere these days. He’s been sampled by Kanye West, T.I., DJ Khaled and more. People as far afield from each other as Radiohead’s Colin Greenwood and Golden State Warriors point guard Steph Curry sing his praises.
For the uninitiated, I Shall Wear A Crown does it all. It gathers up four of Barrett’s ’70s LPs — Like A Ship…(Without A Sail), Do Not Pass Me By Volume 1 and Volume 2, and I Found The Answer — records that it’d take a lot of crate-digging and Discogs-surfing to find. The box then stretches even further, offering a bonus album of singles and sermons. Across 49 tracks, Barrett blends social and racial commentary with biblical parables, using synthesizers, citing then-current r&b and interpolating songs by Aretha Franklin, The Beatles, Carole King and more.
Speaking to DownBeat, Barrett explained his unique perspective. “Both my theology and my musicology are different,” he said. “I was considered a renegade in the pulpit because I just didn’t teach the quote-unquote old-time religion gospel. My God is not up in the sky. My God is in my eye. Wherever you see life, particularly expressed in another human being, which is the highest form, that’s where God is and that’s where you should honor God.”
By Ed Enright
Without You, No Me is a Philly-centric big band feast of the ears celebrating the life and legacy of local jazz hero Jimmy Heath, who passed last year at age 93. It’s also trumpeter and Temple University Jazz Band director Terell Stafford’s personal expression of gratitude and debt toward the beloved tenor saxophonist, bandleader and composer, one of three iconic musical brothers from the City of Brotherly Love who made substantial contributions to the straightahead jazz canon. Stafford regarded Jimmy as a friend, colleague and mentor ever since touring with him in the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All-Star Big Band some 30 years ago.
Without You, No Me is the second new album released in the wake of the COVID pandemic by the Temple University Jazz Band under Stafford’s direction. While the first, Covid Sessions: A Social Call, was recorded long-distance — in students’ homes across the country, via portable sound rigs devised by recording engineer John Harris and Temple Music Technology Professor Dr. David Pasbrig — Without You, No Me was captured at much closer range. The musicians were able to convene in person in the spacious Temple Performing Arts Center in April 2021, with filters and covers over the bells of their horns. Harris and Pasbrig’s rigs were used to record remote contributions by two favorite sons of Philadelphia jazz, bassist Christian McBride and organist Joey DeFrancesco, who appear as special guests.
The album’s title track, originally penned by Heath for his mentor Dizzy Gillespie, comes full circle here, acknowledging the influence that Heath has had on Stafford, his students and future generations of jazz musicians. Todd Bashore, a former student of Heath’s at Queens College, composed album opener “Passing Of The Torch” in honor of his mentor. Heath’s compositional gifts are further represented by “The Voice Of The Saxophone,” rendered in lush and vibrant hues by this stellar student ensemble. Saxophonist and bandleader Jack Saint Clair, a Temple alumnus, composed the rollicking “Bootsie” in honor of another linchpin of the Philadelphia scene, tenor saxophonist Bootsie Barnes, who died in April at age 82. Saint Clair also contributes a brassy rendition of the standard “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” and a sultry arrangement of “The Blues Ain’t Nothin’ (But Some Pain),” a tune by another Philladelphia jazz giant, organist Shirley Scott. McBride’s “The Wise Old Owl” is an homage to the late Temple University basketball coach John Chaney, a sage mentor in the world of college sports. McBride lends his instrumental voice to John Clayton’s arrangement of the classic “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” engaging in a spirited exchange between his bass and the ever-attentive ensemble. At the album’s close, McBride joins his longtime friend DeFrancesco for an improv-fueled romp through Juan Tizol’s “Perdido.” DeFrancesco’s organ chops are on full display on his own composition, “In That Order,” which pianist Bill Cunliffe arranged for the occasion. Throughout Without You, No Me, a shared enthusiasm and heartfelt gratitude among Philly’s finest rule the day. DB