Whenever I hear the word ambitious used by critics, I take pause, because it rings of a generosity that references an artist who has made a conscious decision to cover the music of an icon. The artist is often convinced that they have the chops to give a new life to the music; however, they are often the singers who release the adequate. And then there are those vocalists who are the light at the end of the tunnel and successfully walk into posterity. This offering by Virginia Schenck, however, happens to be a case of the latter and this is her moment.
The last time I saw this talented interpreter of lyrics I was amongst a gathering of jazz enthusiast under a beautiful Atlanta evening sky. During her set while singing Caged Bird, providence stepped forward and a small flock of birds answered her call with an appropriate and timely response. I knew a higher power was at work and everyone felt the energy pass throughout the audience. There are very few occasions when I experience a connection with nature in an urban setting as I did that night.
So to choose to pay homage to a poet of Abbey Lincoln stature was not only adventurous but exhibited a resolve that resulted in a highly rewarding experience. As I sat listening to Virginia’s delivery, with each composition hope blossomed again and again into a blissful reality. This was no mere one or two listens to this compendium of songs, but a dozen or more at different times in light and darkness, at different levels of volume and not all songs at the same time. I became engrossed in the conversation between musicians and heard the joy and pain, the laughter and sadness, the troubles and the victories as each song unfolds and began feeling the spirit of Abbey in every word from this messenger.
Though the subtitle states this recording is a tribute, this is so much more. It is a conversation between Abbey and Virginia. If you are familiar with Ms. Lincoln, then you know each vocalist is holding her own tempo and pacing within the understanding of the lyrics. Ms. Schenck’s choice of compositions were well thought out, with a precision that compliments her voice and clearly represents thirteen of Abbey’s best. To be true to the emotion and exhibit every side of the composer, these musicians invite you to be privy to the conversation between poet and vocalist.
Virginia hangs with a few of Atlanta’s best in the recording studio for a session that may appear perfunctory, however, it is the banked talent that makes it look and sound effortless in their execution that allows one to hear the voice until it’s time for the musicians to shine. With Kevin Bales tickling the 88, Rodney Jordan walking the bass, Marlon Patton keeping time on the drums and their special guest on alto saxophone Kebbi Williams, they bring a fresh breath of interpretation to these 13 songs. It is here that we hear the musical dialogue between the rhythm section and Virginia as they playfully emote their understandings. Kebbi’s frenetic improvisation keeps pace, adding complementary emphasis to Schenck’s spoken word of The River.
The arrangements. Listen but listen most carefully and you will hear the subtleties in the playing of piano, bass and drum that will entice you to desire more. This project goes beyond the borders of convention as collectively and individually each musician contributes their thoughts to each song that will touch, move and inspire each listener differently.
So, suffice it to say, Ms. Schenck has made a joyful noise in honoring one of America’s preeminent lyricists by crossing the borders of time, race and emotion with Aminata Moseka. She has raised the bar a few feet and what she leaves behind is an indelible audible mark on the industry that she loves. I would be remiss if I didn’t compel you to sit and listen, then read the liner notes for context, then listen again to truly hear the magic of Virginia and company talking to the sun.
Carl Anthony / Notorious Jazz / August 28, 2017
If you’ve ever been to the Crescent City, then you are well aware of the charms that seduce its visitors, as its residents are already under the city’s spell. Within its confines and in neighboring jurisdictions belies a cornucopia of delights in the aromas of varied cuisines, ample drinks and lots of music. It is, however, the latter that embraces and stimulates the enthusiast and aficionado to move to the myriad of rhythms.
So don’t allow the cover art to tempt you to pigeonhole this group of world class musicians in some staid understanding of what NOLA offers, for you just may miss their stellar performances. And for you initiates who have yet to sample the delights there is no better place to begin your journey than with a tasting of Sweetness. This is a recording representative of the talent that continues to spring forth from the city that has heralded the title of the birthplace of jazz.
Sweetness not only lends itself to the cuisine of the Crescent City but also invokes the very nature of the musicianship that is its tapestry. Herein lies the beauty of the compositions performed by drummer Rick Bear, guitarist John Fohl, bassist Jason Stewart and trumpeter/trombonist Ken Gregory. Stir in the piano and organ of Herb Avery and the vocals of Hampton B. Cole and you understand why jazz remains such an integral component to the gumbo that is New Orleans.
The base ingredients of this gumbo of compositions are Bechet, Waller, Rodgers & Hart, Henderson, Monk, Mitchell, Hines, Hancock, Ronell, Patton and Bernie who set the stage for this compendium of jazz standards. There is nothing subtle about their choices as they pay homage to the jazz canon and the Great American Songbook. So put aside any and all biases as to what may be and enjoy listening to these arrangements.
The set opens with the Sidney Bechet classic Petite Fleur where Spanish trumpet and French guitar influences conjoin in a flourish of style. The rest of the album follows with jazz standards – Willow Weep For Me, Rosetta, My Funny Valentine, Honeysuckle Rose, Bye Bye Blackbird, ‘Round Midnight, Hard Times, Jitterbug Waltz, Cantaloupe Island, Funky Mama and Sweet Georgia Brown.
Gregory takes the lead on most songs and his interpretations of My Funny Valentine and Round Midnight, the two ballads presented here, mournfully take you into a place of melancholy. The trumpet and trombone spell out his attributes, begging Valentine not to leave. On the latter, Fahl’s guitar quietly releases the anguish of a soul as it spells out its woes.
Hard Times is juxtaposed against its name with a rhythm that is anything less than enjoyable. Composed by Paul Mitchell during the turbulent Sixties, Americans on both sides of the struggle found lighter moments. Just the same way society did in finding its fun during the war years in the Jitterbug Waltz of Fats Waller.
Fohl opens up Cantaloupe Island with an easy strum and accompanies Gregory through what puts me in the mood for a hammock, warm breezes, sand and a cooler as the Hammond B3, guitar and the trombone swing you into a toe-tapping, finger snapping mode on Funky Mama. The closing tune on the album, Sweet Georgia Brown, opens with a ends the set on a fun note, a fitting tribute to the vocals of their recently departed friend, Colonel Bruce Hampton (Hampton B. Cole), making this final studio recording and an apt farewell.
Throughout the project, Rick Bear leads his compatriots and keeps time, allowing each musician to bring his sensibility to the signature sound that emanates from this city. Subtle though it may be, this session extolls a synchronicity in the songs that tell stories that are American made, as are the players whose star-power has not diminished.
To return to an earlier statement, allow me to clear up any misconception it was not my intent to disregard the thought behind the cover. I merely mentioned not to be distracted or form an opinion of what lay behind because there is a sellable story in the art. The missing part of the sign painted on the side of the building is A. J. ‘S Produce Co. Inc, 3162 Chartres. Angelo Benandi, the son who broke away from the family produce business at the French Market, established it in 1983. The Creole Tomato is grown in Louisiana soil in the river parishes along the Mississippi where the soil is richer. They are large, meatier, heat resistant, stay on the vine longer and hit the table so much sweeter. So when you’re down in New Orleans feel the pulse of the city, have a robust taste of homegrown and you’ll begin to understand the flavor that is The Big Easy.
Carl Anthony / Notorious Jazz / August 3, 2017
Choice, style and interpretation are the cornerstones of this vocalist who has an innate ability to proffer songs that allow him to eloquently emote. Having followed his career over the years there has been little he has been unable to do. Bringing four songs to the session that he penned, Allan deftly selected seven additional tunes composed by music’s elite that crosses all genres. Coupled with this, is his choice of musicians who pull off this roundhouse of songs that will definitely knock your socks off, if not off your feet. After numerous listening sessions and dancing around myself, I warn you now and it is my suggestion that you prepare to move about unabashedly through a variety of tempos. What is truly amazing is that Harris pulls this off without the use of any brass or wind instruments, producing not the sound but the feel of a Sixties rock and roll rhythm section.
This latest offering, Nobody’s Gonna Love You Better is evidence of that fact. An accomplished composer and lyricist, Allan kicks off this compendium of music with the uptempo wisdom of Mother’s Love, the formal name of the title track. Ever the griot, Harris plants thoughts worthy of rumination without being preachy but more of a gentle reminder for every son. He returns with Steely Dan’s brotherly advice by telling us Any Major Dude Will Tell You, giving the listener another lesson in keeping it real.
Covering a hit song is always a tribute to the original artist and requires it be performed just as well if not better. If you were around in 1969 then you remember a quintet called the Spiral Staircase who made More Today Than Yesterday popular for a couple of generations coming of age. Putting the right amount of swing in the mix he stays in the pocket with a big scoop of organ that will have you patting you foot and snapping your fingers, if not dancing around the house.
Giving us the opportunity to breathe a little lighter he drops down to ballad tempo to deliver a heartfelt rendition of the Johnny Mercer/Victor Schertzinger tune I Remember You. Love lost is not love forgotten and Mercer penned this song to Judy Garland, reminiscing over their short-lived romance when she was just 19. For those who may ask has Harris gone through this heartache himself given his superb delivery or like the bass keeping the heartbeat alive, does he just understand the emotional distress in the words, as does pianist Pascal Le Boeuf, who mirrors the sentiment throughout. Be comforted that he is just that good.
Rising up from the samba of Bahia, the bossa nova craze of Rio took the world by storm when the movie Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus) hit the silver screen. Out of that explosion was birthed a host of composers, musicians and singers that included Dorival Caymmi and Antonio de Almeida who wrote Doralice. Fluently beautiful in the Portuguese language, Allan transports easily us to the side of her lover who is in strife because he loves her so but wants no wife, so he asks her what are they to do. For Brazil and bossa nova, it is nearly always about love. The rhythm is deceptive in its lightness for these star-crossed lovers.
Time has no meaning when one searches for the right song to add to their playlist and the Fields/McHugh tune I’m In The Mood For Love fit the bill perfectly. It was, however, refreshed with an improvised solo on the 1935 melody by James Moody and the lyrics by Eddie Jefferson, we add to the Great American Songbook the tune Moody’s Mood For Love. Harris stays away from the original rendition of performing the woman’s response in a high voice, delivering his version in ballad and taking the woman’s response to a mid-tempo beat and finishing his final words with brashness befitting someone who is smitten and confident and laying his emotions on the table.
Swing says it all in the title and having penned this one himself, Allan celebrate the big band era when teenagers and young adults all over America filled ballrooms like the Savoy, Palomar and Trianon and danced to jazz by Ellington, Goodman and Basie. A fitting tribute to the country’s most popular music between the Depression and a World War.
Hollywood is not off limits for this purveyor of song as he takes the theme song composed by Heinz Roemheld for the film Ruby Gentry. The lyrics by Mitchell Parish were added long after the tune had received wide acclaim. With a tempo suitable for dancing cheek to cheek, Harris speaks to the heart of the Ruby lyric and exposes the anguish, love and futility for this beauty that only the unloved would know. One will notice the bass line quietly captures the mood, with guitars in tow.
Your toes will tap once more as you are introduced to a swinging version of Jimi Hendrix’s Up From The Skies. This exemplifies Harris’ true talent in taking a rock song and giving it new life in jazz. The arrangement features the Hammond B3 gives it the punch need to get you on the floor or at the very least bopping in your seats and leaving you exhausted.
Blue Was Angry comes from the musical Cross That River that he wrote about the Black contributions, trials and accomplishments in the expansion of the West. Closing out this concert with a final ballad that he penned Secret Moments, he leaves us with a bit more wisdom about love and life.
I would be remiss if I didn’t pay my respects to the band that put in the hours to make this a winning project. Joining Allan Harris on Vocals, Acoustic Guitar, Resonator Guitar, D’Angelico Electric Guitar are Russell Hall – Acoustic Bass, Electric Bass; Pascal Le Boeuf – Piano, Fender Rhodes, Hammond B3; Shirazette Tinnin – Drums, Cajon; and Freddie Bryant playing Electric Guitar and Classical Guitar. Listening to them perform I can only surmise they truly had fun putting this one in the can and look forward to hearing them live. You chose well Mr. Harris.
What caught my eye at first glance were the classic songs that were chosen and the order in which they were placed. Introducing new songs, especially those you pen yourself, can often be a difficult task, but he does it well mixing them into the lineup. Next my ear was put to task to stay with a song to see developmental possibilities. As a deejay, I look for order and I will give any artist one opportunity to delight me. The song order in which Harris chose to present was pleasantly received having no inclination to skip a song or change the order. I was taken through all the emotions these composers and lyricists put into their compositions and felt buoyant and fully entertained. I heard versions of classics that were unexpected but fresh in their arrangements. If this is his brand, and I believe it is, he is not to be typecasted but embraced for the pioneering spirit that pushes his envelope to include all genres in this tapestry we call jazz.
For in this disposable world of short attention spans, where music is in your pocket, sold by the track, a click away from changing a song and one cannot listen longer than thirty seconds, there is no more getting up or walking across the room to the turntable, lifting the needle, moving to the next song or having to flip to the B side. I recognize the amount of thought that went into the order of his lineup and hopefully you will also. It may be a rollercoaster ride of emotions that begins on the downhill side of the first climb, winds around all the emotional twists and turns the music offers as it flows smoothly to a halt and we see just what has influenced his life and made him the superior musician and vocalist who has carved out his own niche in this world.
Carl Anthony / Notorious Jazz / January 3, 2017
There is a reason for cover art. It speaks in silence for the artist. Thus, the listener should take a moment to immerse him/herself to visually understand the message the artist is attempting to convey. What I found in the artwork was a mini story of the instrumental journey from boyhood to arrive with a full arsenal by manhood. I realized I was viewing the preface of what was to come. Aptly titled The Saga, I knew a journey had taken place to get to this point as I inserted the disc into my computer. What I heard was an unexpected voice of a young man who had traveled far beyond his musical prowess. I was immediately reminded of Herman Hesse and Siddhartha’s sojourn, who left home to discover life through the lens of the world, only to return with greater self-awareness and peace.
To say he is compelling storyteller falls short of the message his music delivers. He is a messenger, come from a long line of griots who has given voice to a generation that unwillingly is forced to take the baton as have generations before him. From deep in the Louisiana culture you will hear the Second Line and rhythm and blues influences in his music. The very first drumbeat of Parallel sets the tone for his acknowledgement of the turbulent ecological and racial times the country is in. I am hearing the protest songs of the Sixties expressed in a rap delivered by Dashill Smith.
Blueprint delivers another message and eases us into a zone where discomfort is our journey foretelling, through the voice of Allana Hudson, the lies to humanity that contradict our ancestor’s wisdom. A fusion of sound that is ethereal beckons us forward in Tabula Rava, reminiscent of Mahavishnu, Santana, Zawinul and Return to Forever. Beginning with an Eastern calling and announcement of something majestic approaching, it builds to a cacophonous revelry in the spirit. It’s like witnessing something for the very first time that takes your breathe away or gives you pause. That tingly feeling of excitement that leaves you fulfilled for that brief moment in time. In The Saga is the journey of ups and downs, loves and loss, in the varied experiences that greet us along the way.
In Madeira there is settledness I hear when one finds a space that is easy and comfortable. This is where find solace With A Peace Of Mind that remains constant throughout our lives if we only allow it. Sharynwood Drive is my return home with all that has been discovered and learned, to be passed on to a new generation of explorers.
The Saga is a simple story told through the complexities of the music. The voices used to tell his story vary in emotion but the message is consistent. Listen carefully and you will see he has taken on a journey through the history of jazz, incorporating his youthful sensibilities within the standard language of jazz. One can feel the pulse of the music and there is beauty in the nuances throughout with the able assistance of his 11 accomplices. This was my musical journey with this young man of infinite wisdom, yet to be fully unleashed upon the world.
For those legions of jazz enthusiasts following the music trends, we await patiently for each decade to spew forth those chosen few who will humbly add their talent to the lexicon of the music. We guard the bastion for the rise of the exceptional to step forth onto the global stage. To our delight, our stalwart diligence has revealed just such a young man from amongst his peers. Hailing out of the birthplace of jazz, the name is familiar to us. It is Guerin… Morgan Guerin.
His Instruments: Drums, Alto & Tenor Saxophones, Piano, Fender Rhodes, EWI, EWI Vocoder, Organ, Flute, Moog Bass and Percussion.
The Band: Curtis Olawumi/flugelhorn, Daniel Wytanis/Trombone, Grace Sommer/violin, Julius Rodriguez/organ, Roland Guerin/electric bass, Paul “PapaBear” Johnson/electric bass, Risa Pearl/vocal, Dashill Smith/rap, Allana Hudson/spoken word, Patrick Arthur/electric & acoustic guitar, Brandon Boone/electric & upright bass.
Carl Anthony / Notorious Jazz / September 7, 2016
Every now and then, if you’re lucky, you run across a bandleader who understands how to make a joyful noise. The days of the solo arranger and set configuration of players have been replaced with diversity bringing new ideas to eleven old songs. On his latest project Time & Rhyme, producer and drummer EC has collaborated with Niki Haris (Gene Harris’ daughter) and together have selected an incomparable set list that is no small feat to honor. Kicking off the set is a Tyrone Jackson arrangement with vocalist Niki Harris swinging an upbeat, straight-ahead version of the Hart/Rodgers tune Falling In Love With Love.
Traveling across the musical landscape Niki again takes center stage to present a poignant and tender rendition of another Jackson arrangement of the Bell/Creed composition Stop, Look, Listen. Not many vocalists have made me sit down and listen as intently as she did with the clarity and beauty of her interpretation. I could attempt to describe the emotional delivery Ms. Haris rendered on this song that five guys out of the Philly sound machine made famous, but the effort would be feeble at best and would be an injustice as you listen to her immense talent.
To challenge oneself to play a master is EC’s forte and he delivers with aplomb Dizzy’s Night In Tunisia opening with a strong bass line and sliding easily into an Afro-Cuban beat that can only be viewed as homage to a rhythm so dear to Mr. Gillespie’s heart. I was immediately transported to the backstreets of Havana and the raucous clubs full of flute, percussion and mambo.
Jackson steps in again with an easy bossa nova arrangement utilizing Frankie Quiñones percussive endowment to compliment Niki’s voice on Abbey Lincoln’s Throw It Away. Interestingly modal, they take it to a middle-eastern groove towards the end of the song, which gives Lincoln’s tune a refreshing outlook.
One can only think of the hapless scarecrow in the Wizard Of Oz when you see the words If I Only Had A Brain. Having heard this catchy Arlen/Yarburg tune many times, I was curious about the arrangement that would set this apart from the pack. Wade Beach set the tone for bassist Zack Pride’s conversation with EC’s drums. One can actually envision walking down the yellow brick road as they playfully execute the melody.
Billy Paul pulled the world’s heartstrings with Me & Mrs. Jones, however, Niki emotes a sense of fun and enjoyment in her relationship with Mr. Jones. One gets the sense that she is as comfortable with the relationship the way it is as she is relating it with an under beat of this collaborative mid-tempo bossa nova arrangement by EC and Jackson. Artia Lockett adds her enjoyment in the background like two girls having fun on a double date.
Not much more than the title needs to be said about Swinging At The Haven. EC puts his foot in the stew on this arrangement and the guys stir it up well. If you aren’t tapping a toe, shaking a hip or snapping your fingers, then you don’t know swing. Let this be your introduction.
Lionel Bart sits alongside the many resident masters of the Great American Songbook having penned the music and lyrics to Where Is Love for the 1960 Broadway musical Oliver. It’s a ballad of a young orphaned lad longing to find someone to love him and Niki quietly portrays the emotional depth of the lyric causing one to sympathize for the plight of this lost waif.
Changing tempos, EC, Dominique Patrick-Noel and A.T. take us back to our roots in the motherland as the trio drums and chants through Black Codes. One can visualize the movements of the dancers in a celebration of raising their ancestors. Nice & Easy is exactly what Niki and company do with this mid-tempo 7/8 meter of straight swing and Afro-Cuban undertones. If an encore was ever warranted on a recording then this Mandel/Mercer classic Emily would be a fitting adieu. The guys maintain the light and airy touch of the composers had in mind, leaving this listener with a vision of blue skies, sundresses, laughter and play in a field of wildflowers. Allow them to take you where your heart wants to go.
On this session drummer Ernest “EC” Coleman enlists vocalist Niki Haris, pianists Tyrone Jackson and Wade Beach, bassists Craig Shaw and Zack Pride, Sam Skelton on tenor saxophone and flute, saxophonist Teddy Baker, percussionists Frankie Quiñones, Dominique Patrick-Noel and Arch A.T. Thompson and Artia Locke holding down the background vocals.
For the uninitiated to EC’s genius, as you listen to this compendium of talent and music, I implore you to keep in mind, these are not shy schoolboys or coy girls on their first date. They are uncompromising professionals who know how to swing as well as be that gentle giant in the room with an equally tender touch. They may make it look easy but it is far from being that simple. Time, patience and the talent of eleven musicians committed to their craft have given birth to this seamlessly entrancing orchestration of sound.
Carl Anthony / Notorious Jazz / April 11, 2016