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Index of SEMJA reviews


Recent Recordings by Area Musicians


This installment of our review section covers a broad range of musical territory, from electric blues to the electro-acoustic avant-garde, highlighting the variety of creative music in our area.

I Can Make That HappenVeteran singer and guitarist Johnny Bassett provides a sophisticated mix of down home blues, funk, R&B, and even some jazz on I Can Make That Happen (SLY3012) accompanied by a first rate studio band that includes the Motor City Horns (Keith Kaminski, John Rutherford, Bob Jensen, Mark Byerly), bassists James Simonson, drummer Skeeto Valdez, as well as Chris Codish, who also wrote some of the songs.

The success of this CD derives from the well-programmed variety of tunes, styles, and arrangements. Bassett stays away from the crude rock and rollish stuff that so often passes for blues these days, preferring to explore more laid back territory without compromising on swing, drive and emotion. He plays electric blues, but also can expound on slow ballads such as “Teach me to Love,” which also features the singing of Thornetta Davis and a perfectly idiomatic sax solo by Kaminski.

Throughout this recital Bassett shows off his highly individual guitar style, which fits so well in many contexts. There are love songs here, raunchy ones, as well as inspirational tunes about his hometown that bookend the CD: “Proud to be in Detroit” and “Motor City Blues.” And as a tag we get a swinging party song: “Let’s Get Hammered.”

Note: Johnny Bassett passed away on August 4, 2012, shortly after this issue of SEMJA Update went to press.

At SundownIt is difficult to keep track of the various groups led by bassist Paul Keller. For the past two years he has been working around the area with a drumless quartet that is perfectly geared for restaurants and bars, featuring vocalist and clarinetist SarahD’Angelo in the company tenor saxophonist Ben Jansson and pianist Duncan McMillan.

The Paul Keller Quartet has produced its first CD, At Sundown (PKO 59). This is an ambitious seventy minutes of relaxed and sophisticated jazz that exploits an interesting choice of tunes from the earlier days of jazz. Some of the songs are well known (“Jeepers Creepers”), others, such James P. Johnson’s “Whisper Sweet” may be less so. D’Angelo’s singing is most appealing; she has her own sound and perfect intonation. In addition, she occasionally picks up the clarinet to provide more tonal variety to the proceedings. McMillan, who also plays regularly in Keller’s big band, is a melodic soloist and his rich chording provides a carpet for all to ride on. Keller, as usual, holds it all together, walking, soloing and providing his own arranged and improvised ornamentation. He also shines as leader and arranger: due to his efforts this seems like more than a quartet and the variety of songs and approaches guarantees the success of the record as a whole. He outdoes himself on the bossa arrangement of a movement of one of Beethoven’s piano sonatas!

Keller always chooses his musicians with style in mind and knows how to use them wisely. Ben Jansson is the perfect saxophonist for this quartet. The roots of his style lie in the swing and early bop eras with the accent on perfection of sound and emotional honesty. He solos idiomatically with surprising twists but also weaves his way around D’Angelo’s voice with just the right choice of rhythms and notes.

Casa VersaillesThe Cuban jazz combo Tumbao Bravo has been together much longer and they have just released their fourth CD, Casa Versailles (PKO 58). Leaders Alberto Nacif (conga, guiro), and Paul VornHagen (bari, tenor, soprano saxes, flute, piccolo) are joined by Bob Mojica (trumpet), Brian DiBlassio (piano), Javier Barrios (percussion), bassist Patrick Prouty, and with special guest Pepe Espinosa on bongos.

Rather than revisit Cuban standards, the bands plays compositions by Nacif, VornHagen, Prouty, and Mojica. There is a togetherness and idiomatic purity here that reminds the listener that this band has been playing continuously for nine years. They cover almost every corner of Cuban music, exploring a wide range of rhythms with a naturalness born of pure love of the idiom. Mojica’s trumpet has an expressive, pensive, almost sad tinge that is extremely effective in this context. VornHagen brings his jazz sensibilities to the proceedings, soloing with romantic grace on his various horns. His baritone saxophone work is perhaps most impressive, as he exploits the softer sounds that the instrument has to offer rather than the gruff timbres that are often used in such contexts. No matter what your musical tastes may be, you will not be able to stay still listening to this wonderful dance music.

We Travel the SpacewaysTrumpeter James O’Donnell and drummer RJ Spangler, once members of the Sun Messengers, have for the last two years been leading the Planet D Nonet, dedicated to exploring and preserving the work of Sun Ra. Their two-CD album, We Travel the Spaceways: The Music of Sun Ra (ELD-022), preserves performances from the Scarab Club, The Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit and from the Detroit Jazz Festival. The Nonet at various times consists of saxophonists Justin Jozwiak, Jim Holden, Joshua James, Rick Steiger, and Joe O’Mara, trumpeters Ken Ferry, Patrick Hessian, and Kenny Robinson, trombonists John Paxton and Tony Buccilli, pianist David Gadd, bassists Noah Johnson, Will Cafarro and Jeff Reynolds, Mahindi Massai on congas, the leaders as well as guests Salim Washington on tenor sax and oboe and Kenny Millions on tenor sax and clarinet.

Most of the repertoire consists of earlier Sun Ra compositions from his more boppish period of the fifties and early sixties. Numerous soloists contribute idiomatic lines to this material, which highlights Ra’s arranging skills. The later versions of the Arkestra are referenced as we get into the third track of the second CD, where guest Kenny Millions comes in from the audience to play some wonderfully outrageous multiphonic clarinet, leading into a short collective version of “Ancient Aiethiopia,” which segues into the Fletcher Henderson arrangements of “King Porter Stomp” and “Big John Special” that Ra liked to feature in the later phases of his career. Another out clarinet solo by Millions links these swing era arrangements. A reprise of “Ancient Aiethiopia” rounds out the proceedings. This album is a loving tribute to the man from Saturn that keeps his music alive in a robust and non-academic fashion, driven with steady force by Spangler’s drums.

In The TraditionAnother double CD is Sirius by the Detroit-based band In The Tradition (AFJS 1905/6). There are numerous musicians on the album, but the core of the group consists of Charles Hopkins, (trumpet, flugelhorn, mellophone, alto horn); Olujimi Tafataona, (soprano, alto, tenor saxes and flute); Foluke Shearer (keyboards, vibes); Imari Jendayi, (vocals/percussion); Kefentse Chike (djembe/conga); Greg Cook (bass); Melanie White (trombone); Mark Berger (baritone saxophone, flute, bassoon); Djalo Djakate (drums). The band started out as a post-bop combo and their love of the idiom permeates much of their work, but they have expanded their scope to encompass a broader expanse of African diaspora traditions.

The first CD consists mainly of modern jazz classics such as Curtis Fuller’s “Chantized,” Freddy Hubbard’s “Crisis,” Donald Byrd’s “Fancy Free,” and Wayne Shorter’s “Children of the Night.” The use of traditional percussion transforms these pieces, and soon the group moves on to a James Brown tune, followed by sambas and a ballad. The second CD features a wide variety of African-inspired tunes that bridge various forms of popular, traditional, and jazz music, leading up to the most ambitious piece here, “A Pan-African Prayer (Bridge to Tomorrow),” featuring the lyrics and voice of Aurora Harris. This deeply spiritual poem is sung with extraordinary feeling by the author together with The Nationnaires of the Shrine of the Black Madonna of the Pan-African Orthodox Christian Church Choir.

The variety of music that is featured on this album somehow works well together; the skill of the musicians and their obvious love and respect for the Tradition really comes through in an inspiring and entertaining manner.

FablesThe modern movements in jazz and improvised music that were pioneered by Sun Ra and others finds expression in bassist and composer Ben Rolston’s debut album Fables (envoi1201). Acoustic and electric bassist Rolston, who composed all the pieces, is joined here by Ingrid Racine (trumpet); Marcus Elliot (tenor Saxophone and EWI); Alex Levine (guitar); Ian Finkelstein (piano and Wurlitzer electric piano); Julian Allen (drums and programming) with the addition of Stephen Rush (Wurlitzer and harmonium; Andrew Bishop (bass clarinet, soprano sax) and Annlie Huang (cello) on some tracks.

These “fables” are not a random compilation; they add up to a virtual suite. Bookended by elegiac versions of “The Tar Sun,” Rolston presents eight compositions that explore a gamut of rhythmic and melodic settings, using different writing techniques and instrumental combinations to explore a range of moods and feelings. Rolston has learned much from Mingus and Ellington: he leads the band from the bass, setting up rhythms that propel his compositions and writes in a manner that exploits the specific styles of his band mates. Elliot has a breathy, sparse, harmonically sophisticated way of playing, marked with a twinge of melancholy that is well suited to the subtle, sly compositions that feature him out front. The same holds true for Racine’s trumpet playing, which seems just right for the pensive meditation on “The Disappearance of Clarence Shaw,” named after the Detroit born trumpeter who at one time played with Mingus. Improvisations are often short, as are many of the tunes, making this very much a composer’s showcase, and the shifting timbres and riffs provide constant surprises.

Meg MellAnother modernistic bass player and composer, Tim Flood, has also released a new recording, leading a quartet on Meg Mell with Andrew Bishop (soprano saxophone, alto flute, bass clarinet); Jacob Sacks (piano); Gerald Cleaver (drums, percussion). These are all old friends and, as expected, they mesh together perfectly. Flood has complete control here; he wrote the compositions but also handled the overall sound by electronic manipulation, providing a variety of echo and distortion, expanding the quartet in different directions, stamping them with his personal sonic signature.

The seven pieces are short—the longest rack is 3:54 minutes—but packed with sounds and explorations. These little compositions are full of dynamic power, and yet somehow manage to be lyrical at the same time. Halfway through, Sacks and Flood play a duet of modernistic piano and electronic sounds that sets up a completely different mood on “Flowing Backwards,” which is followed by “Glitter Spirit,” in which similar piano sounds are accompanied by brash electronics, guitar, and drums, and quickly joined by Bishop’s skittering soprano. The piece offers its own wild ride, but is ever the more effective sequenced right after the piano track. When “Souls Stained” arrives, with Bishop wailing multiphonics on the bass clarinet, the trip becomes even wilder, and at the same time even more irresistible. When it is all over, one realizes the wisdom of Flood’s timing choices: he and his friends say much in short bursts, but it all comes together as a complete recital..

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