New Jazz Composers On The Cutting Edge Slice Into Spring

(May 8, 2015, 10:28 AM PDT)

“My question is, if Silvano is just writing instrumental songs, why not have instruments play them?”

Thana Alexa
Thana Alexa
Thana Alexa – Ode To Heroes
Thana Alexa, vocals; Lenart Krecic, tenor saxophone/vocals; Sergio Salvatore, piano/vocals; Jorge Roeder, bass,vocals; Antonio Sanchez, drums/vocals; Special Guests: Donny McCaslin, tenor saxophone; Scott Colley, bass; Christos Rafalides, vibraphone/vocals; Jason Disu, trombone/vocals; Carter Yasutake, trumpet/vocals; Jonathan Lindhorst, alto saxophone, vocals; Dario Boente, additional keyboards.

Thana Alexa’s debut album affected me deeply. Her arrangements are what grabbed my ear and pulled me, like taffy, into Alexa’s sweet sound. It was later, after reading the press material and linear notes, that I discovered Thana Alexa was born in New York, but raised in Croatia (formerly a part of Yugoslavia). I’ve met some amazing musicians from the former Yugoslavia. Like them, Thana Alexa is fierce.

On “Ode to Heroes” (cut number one) she uses staccato notes and other voices to embellish her own crystal clear vocals and to punch the melody and echo the chord changes. Special guest, Sonny McCaslin is extraordinary on tenor saxophone, as is Antonio Sanchez on drums and vocals. Sanchez keeps the music pushing forward with excitement and finesse. I’m captivated when the song fades into a very indigenous sounding chant at the end. Alexa is multi-talented, composing all songs on this debut album and also arranging most of them. She has written lyrics to Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” that she’s re-titled “Trace Back Your Footprints.” The artist also celebrates the work of Charles Mingus (“Pork Pie Hat”) and Paul Desmond/Dave Brubeck’s “Take 5”.

Betty Carter would be encouraged and pleased with this young woman’s search to push the barriers and move the walls of music as she stretches out, expanding borders. Her band is inspirational. With players like these, she has got to be pumped up on their energy and solidly supported by their expert musicianship. Alexa is obviously interested in developing her own musicianship, arranging and composing her own music, while at the same time birthing a unique vocal style. As she immerses herself into the band and the music, she proves to be more than just another vocalist or diva. Here is an artist I believe is destined for bigger and brighter horizons.


Susan Krebs – The Susan Krebs Chamber Band – Simple Gifts

Susan Krebs, vocals; Rich Eames, piano; Rob Lockart, woodwinds; Scott Breadman, percussion; Paul Cartwright, violin/viola.

Susan Krebs has quoted Leonardo DiVinci to succinctly describe this CD project: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” The other unique thing about this recording is that Krebs chose to embrace the concept of a classical chamber band, that being a small ensemble of musicians who generally perform in a reception area or intimate, private room. She has also eliminated the bass, usually so pivotal in a jazz group. Instead, she relies on a classical ensemble of piano, violin, viola, woodwinds and percussion. Her voice floats above the band like a wild canary, circling the musicians with warm inflections, clear tones and letting us enjoy the stories she is sharing. Krebs is clearly an interpreter of lyrics and a stalwart singer who has been performing in and around Los Angeles for some time. Although this artist is not composing her own material on this project, she has chosen the work of several great composers. She offers her own interpretation of compositions by Sonny Burke, Jimmy Rowles, Sergio Mendes, Alan & Marilyn Bergman and Abby Lincoln, to name just a few of the showcased composers on her project. Paul Cartwright adds beauty and subtle coloring to this group of ‘Simple Gifts’ on his violin and viola. This is easy listening at its best and daring in its unique production. The liner notes say that the idea for ‘Simple Gifts’ grew from music salons hosted by jazz vocalist Susan Krebs at her home, performed before a small audience of music lovers. With this compact disc release, she has kindly expanded that concept to an international audience of eager listeners.


Judi Silvano – My Dance

Judi Silvano, vocals; Michael Abene, piano

All the compositions on this CD are composed by Judi Silvano, and bravely, she has recorded the entire eleven songs as a duo project with just herself and Michael Abene on piano. “Dust” is very Brazilian and features Silvano scatting around the tune, using her alto/second soprano range to interpret the music like a vocal horn. With no lyrics to clearly define the melody or tell a story, it is questionable what Silvano (as a vocalist) is trying to share with her audience. The pianist (Abene) is wonderful and supportive, offering jazzy chord changes and perfect time. The songs that follow play like a songwriter’s demo. My suggestion would be for Silvano to find a young, talented singer and full band to take under her wing; one who she could mentor to interpret her original music. The title tune, “My Dance” has a good melody and no lyrics, so once again Silvano scats through the whole song. Although pitchy, from one published songwriter to another, there is some good material here. However, these compositions should be showcased in a better light. I was puzzled as several songs followed with no lyrics. My question is, if Silvano is just writing instrumental songs, why not have instruments play them?

Pianist, Michael Abene, has worked with iconic acts like Liza Minnelli, Patti Austin, Randy Brecker, Maceo Parker, Eddie Daniels, Dianne Reeves, Kurt Elling and Fay Claasson to name just a few. No wonder Silvano wanted him on her project. He collaborated on Joe Lovano’s Grammy nominated CD “Symphonica” that was released on Blue Note Records and has been Musical Director and Arranger of Cologne, Germany’s world-renown WDR Big Band for the past ten years. His piano playing was well worth the listen, in spite of nearly 49 minutes worth of a composer simply scatting or improvising over what sounds like unfinished work.


Roger Davidson & Pablo Aslan – Live @ Caffé Vivaldi

Roger Davidson, piano; Pablo Aslan, bass.

There’s a tiny, intimate spot in New York’s Greenwich Village called Caffé Vivaldi, where this duo began a Wednesday night performance series in 2012. This CD is the result of many nights of recorded material and musical experimentation. Davidson is a composer and used this recording to introduce his original compositions. They make up eight of the eleven tunes. It’s a lovely, Chamber music presentation of Davidson’s composer talents and an easy-to-listen-to bass and piano concert.


Josh Nelson – Exploring Mars
Origin Record Label

Josh Nelson, piano/trumpet/Nord Electro3; John Daversa, trumpet/evi; Larry Koonse,guitar; Dave Robaire, baa; Dan Schnelle, drums; Kathleen Grace, vocals; Alan Ferber, trombone; Brian Walsh, bass clarinet; Larry Goldings, B3 organ.

With CBS anchors Charlie Rose and Gail King uncovering plans for upcoming transport to Mars, and lauding the fact that people have already booked passage on this predicted space flight, why should we be surprised that L.A.’s own Josh Nelson has composed an entire album dedicated to the red planet? “Exploring Mars” opens with a recitation from “The Martian Chronicles” written by Ray Bradbury in the 1950’s. Nelson’s spoken words float atop the music like a confident radio announcer. It’s a surprising way to start a jazz album. The entire recording is an imaginative tribute to the planet Mars, featuring Nelson’s compositions that reflect his classical background with rich, jazz, fusion overtones. Larry Koonse plays a captivating guitar solo on “Memnonia Quadrangle.” My two favorites on this album are “How You Loved me On Mars” sung beautifully by Kathleen Grace (who also co-wrote the piece). It’s a hauntingly beautiful ballad, with a memorable melody and an interesting arrangement showcasing piano, bass clarinet, trombone and organ. My other favorite is “Opportunity,” where Nelson shows off his excellence by playing piano, fender Rhodes and synthesizer to create tension, texture and excitement. If music on Mars sounds anything like these original compositions by Nelson, it might be a trip to consider.


Lauren Meccia – Inside Your Eyes
Spirit Music

Lauren Meccia, vocals and saxophone; Donald Vega, piano; Mike Frost, bass; John Miceli and Edwin Hamilton, percussion; Brian Czach, drums & percussion; Jeremy Roberson, drums; Sarah Land, violin; Ryan Knott, cello.

She’s smooth, sultry, pitch perfect and enjoyable. From the very first cut of “Butterfly”, familiar to my ears from Herbie Hancock’s album of the ’70s, Lauren Meccia captured my attention. Originally, Kimiko Kasal, a Japanese jazz vocalist, sang the lyrics penned by Hancock’s wife, Jean. More recently, I enjoyed Gretchen Parlato’s version of this song. Lauren Meccia appropriately applies her talents and style in her own, unique way. Also impressive is the superb trio who supports her. Part of the excitement on this first tune was the amazing piano brilliance of Donald Vega, who had the arrangement sounding like the fluttering wings of a butterfly. On the title tune, “Inside Your Eyes,” Meccia establishes herself as a vocalist who takes melody very seriously and isn’t afraid to challenge herself to sing odd intervals and tackle progressions and key changes with finesse and charm. She has collaborated on this composition, co-writing it with her pianist, (Vega) who also shares composer credits on “If You Can Fly;” an equally well-written composition with strong lyrics. Meccia is multi-talented, playing saxophone on this tune as well as vocalizing. Mike Frost is the expressive basement of the trio, solidifying the ‘swing’ and staunchly supporting the groove on his bass instrument. As a composer, he has contributed “Atlantis,” co-written with Wayne Morrison. The drummers bounce around on various tracks, various musicians performing on different sessions. They are all good players and I’ve listed their names above. This is a surprise package of fresh new jazz songs, a new voice to entertain jazz fans and arrangements that are well-written and well-produced.


Gabriel – Open Invitation

Gabriel Mark Hasselbach, all trumpets, alto and C flutes, flugelhorn, valve bone, EVI; Lew Lang Jr., keys, bass, programming; Greg Manning, piano solo on ‘Propulsion’; Bob Baldwin, piano solo on ‘Charmed Life’

Gabriel Mark Hasselbach always surrounds himself with quality musicians to play and interpret his well written compositions. The results is another catchy, melodic, smooth jazz recording produced, composed and engineered by the artist himself with the assistance of Lew Lang Jr. Gabriel’s music is easy listening and comfortable like a favorite easy chair. You are drawn to it, compelled to settle into its warmth, prop up your feet, open up your ears and enjoy.


Don Aliquo/Clay Jenkins Quintet – New Ties And Binds
Featuring Harold Danko, Rufus Reid & Jim White

Clay Jenkins, trumpet; Don Aliquo,tenor saxophone; Harold Danko, piano; Rufus Reid, bass; Jim White, drums

If you love straight-ahead, no nonsense jazz, this recording is all that and more. I knew when I put this CD on for the fourth time that I was hooked. The musicality and harmonic horn arrangements are formidable right off the bat on Don Aliquo’s composition, “New Ties.” Clay Jenkins on trumpet and Aliquo on tenor saxophone present a perfect blend and spice up the music on the intro of this song, interspersing their horn brilliance with busy bass creativity, masterful piano and dynamic percussive interludes. This entire ensemble is a tight knit unit of jazz excellence. Jim White on drums propels them with unalterable energy and Rufus Reid is creative, exploratory and always locked into the rhythm, secure as a Brinks armored truck. The compositions on this CD are the products of all band members, singularly contributing their own musical expression to the richness of this project. I am impressed, enamored and illuminated by their musical art.


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