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Disc OneThe Jazz Singers
[caption id="attachment_38559" align="alignleft" width="1240"] Samara Joy (Photo: Courtesy the artist)[/caption]
On her self-titled debut recording for the Whirlwind imprint, Samara Joy interprets songs that were golden oldies when her grandparents were courting. But, at the age of 21, Joy displays maturity beyond her years as she pages through the Great American Songbook and invests each tune with fresh vigor. The 2019 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition winner receives excellent support from rising guitar-star Pasquale Grasso and his trio mates, bassist Ari Roland and drummer Kenny Washington, the guitarist’s solos and comps generating heat and warmth in equal measure. On tunes both familiar and obscure, the Bronx-born Joy nods to touchstones such as Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole and especially Sarah Vaughan, whose timbre and phrasing figure prominently in her delivery. Joy kicks off the album with a dreamy read of “Stardust,” deftly introduced by Grasso, with whom she engages in a sublime duet for the first minute and a half before the rhythm section joins in. The nocturnal theme carries over into upbeat versions of “Let’s Dream in the Moonlight” and “Moonglow,” and Joy’s debut shines with the promise of things to come.
In the tradition of Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone and Oscar Brown Jr., Aaron Myers delivers powerful socio-political commentary through his music. On The Pride Album, his recent self-released recording, the vocalist, pianist and composer dives into the current moment with songs such as “New Jim Crow,” a track exploring the issue of “driving while Black” and the life-and-death implications for people of color. “How Can I” and “Don’t Ask” are poignant reflections on violence being visited upon the Black community by law enforcement and the psychological trauma of those left to mourn and ponder if they’ll be next. There are moments of exuberance here, as well, particularly on a joyously churchy “Down by the Riverside” and a ringing read of the Bobby Timmons’ hard-bop classic “Moanin’.” The Timmons’ track fits in particularly well with the album’s theme, as Myers conjures an existential weariness — but not resignation — as he engages pianist Sam Prather, bassist Kris Funn and drummer Dana Hawkins in the song’s signature call-and-response. Saxophonist Herb Scott unspools a fiery solo at the midway mark, before the tune takes a turn for the elegiac. Myers then sings a litany of the woes that have him moaning, including unemployment, homelessness, drug addiction and even the Proud Boys. Like his predecessors, Myers raises a voice for justice and good jazz.
Trumpeter John McNeil is a prolific composer. He’s also a friend and mentor to New York-based singer Allegra Levy, having produced her first two recordings. On her latest release, Lose My Number: Allegra Levy Sings John McNeil (SteepleChase), Levy dips into her friend’s songbook, penning lyrics to songs McNeil wrote from the 1980s to the early 2000s. The singer receives sterling support from pianist Carmen Staaf, bassist Carmen Rothwell and drummer Colleen Clark, and McNeil lends his trumpet to a few tunes, as well. Levy based some of her writing on her own experiences, but also expanded on the narratives behind McNeil’s original music; for example, “Tiffany” relates a story of McNeil’s longing to buy his wife a birthday present from Tiffany’s, but unable to afford one, he wrote her a song instead. The collaboration between singer and songwriter is further bolstered by their knowledge and understanding of one another. On the spiky “Lose My Number,” Levy elicits the edgier side of her pal, which is reflected in the dark and jagged rhythmic accompaniment, as well as a humorously misanthropic lyric that reiterates the song’s title. While describing him as gentle, kind and compassionate, Levy also says of McNeil, “He doesn’t suffer fools and can be brutally honest.”
On her fifth release, Dreams of Waking: Music for a Better World (Green Hill Music), Dara Tucker puts an acoustic jazz spin on 1970s classics by artists such as James Taylor, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Marvin Gaye and Carole King. The Oklahoma-born, Nashville-based singer and composer shares arranging duties with pianists Cyrus Chestnut and Sullivan Fortner and saxophonist John Ellis, each of whom lends their instrumental talents to the recording, as well. Tucker’s roots in the church — both her parents were gospel singers — are evident in her phrasing and the deep feeling she invests in tracks such as the Donny Hathaway/Edward Howard anthem “Someday We’ll All Be Free.” Building in intensity as the song progresses, Tucker’s lovely voice goes from quietly empathetic, urging patience as the arc of justice slowly bends, to a steelier instrument that more forcefully argues for pride and determination in the face of hardship. It hardly needs saying that this song, written in the 1970s, is as relevant as ever. Backing from Chestnut, who also wrote the arrangement, bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Johnathan Blake is equally invested, at once sensitive and surging with the song’s uplifting message.
During the pandemic lockdown last year, Ann Hampton Callaway challenged herself to write a poem a day. The singer, pianist and composer set some of those verses to music, which she then released as singles, available through her website. Among the most poignant of these songs, the imaginative “The Moon Is a Kite,” resulted from a commission which allowed her to bring the winsome jazz waltz to fruition. Rife with reminders that beauty still exists and that dreams remain worthy of chasing even (or especially) during troubled times, the song presents a series of metaphors both wistful and hopeful. “Doors are the choices/I’ve made through the years/Some of them opened/Some closed by fear,” she sings. “Ships are the chances/I took without chart/And the moon is a kite/I fly from my heart.” Hampton Callaway’s music is brought to life by a superb accompanying group comprising pianist Christian Jacob, guitiarist Paul Viapiano, bassist Trey Henry, drummer Ray Brinker and percussionist Brian Kilgore. Aware of time’s passing while stuck indoors, the singer reflects, “I don’t know how much time is left/The clock ticks ‘Time to begin’/Sitting in this new cocoon/My dreams still dance on a pin.”
New York City was hit particularly hard in the early days of the pandemic, its residents discomfited by an eerie silence punctuated by a steady stream of sirens. One such resident was singer and composer Sasha Dobson, who secured studio dates just before and during the lockdown, and recorded some parts remotely. The results can be heard on her self-released album Girl Talk, which features A-list accompanists in guitarist Peter Bernstein, bassist Neil Miner and drummer Kenny Wollesen. Despite the circumstances, it’s hardly a dour listen as Dobson fashions a slinky, retro-hip vibe and mostly optimistic mood reflected in the opening original “Better Days.” Along the way, the singer has some fun with tunes such as “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” and the Neal Hefti title track, which she sings in harmony with Puss N’ Boots colleague Norah Jones. As the daughter of a jazz pianist father and vocalist mother, Dobson displays an easy command of the genre, dipping into swing or bebop and sounding quite at home on standards such as “Softly As in a Morning Sunrise” and “Autumn Nocturne.” Her performance of Curtis Lewis’ “The Great City” is both a celebration and jaundiced look at her home town, as she attempts to discourage dreamers from setting their sites on the Big Apple. Miner’s bass vamp and Wollesen’s skittery drums lay down an uneasy foundation, and Bernstein’s comps and solos reveal his seemingly effortless mastery.
Readers of a certain age will grin wildly at the mention of Scatman Crothers. Maybe they remember him from his stint as Louie the garbage man on the sitcom Chico and the Man or as the voice of animated hero Hong Kong Phooey, or perhaps as kindly chef Hallorann in The Shining. What many people may not realize is that Crothers was also a jazz drummer and singer who worked in Chicago speakeasies in the 1920s, performed at the Cotton Club in the ’30s, and recorded jazz and pop standards in his warm, smoky voice in the ’40s. So Crothers was more than familiar with the recording process when he entered the studio between 1977 and 1979 to record the tracks collected on Groovin’ With … Scatman (Panda Digital). The beloved entertainer was surrounded by top session players including Ray Brown, Earl Palmer, Mike Melvoin and the Tonight Show Horns. And while many of the songs are rooted in jazz, the album takes a headlong dive into funk and disco. Against a funkified guitar and bass groove, “Scoot on Over to Scat’s” actually starts with a phone conversation between the singer and a lady: “Hi, baby! We’re havin’ a party. Come on over.” The sinewy dance groove, adorned by handclaps and female backing vocals, continues as Scatman lays out the reasons the lady should make the scene. The track also features an allstar crew in guitarist Al Ciner, bassist Dennis Belfield, drummer Ralph Humphrey and Victor Feldman, who solos and comps on vibes. A snapshot of an era, Groovin’ With … provides a chance to spend some time with the Scatman, which will be welcomed by many of those who recall him fondly.
If you grew up in the ’60s or ’70s, the music of Burt Bacharach was likely part of your soundtrack. Appearing on radio and TV and in the movies, his many hits were performed by the likes of Herb Alpert, Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield. On her latest release, Whistling in the Dark — The Music of Burt Bacharach (Savant), Denise Donatelli refreshes nine of the pop maestro’s works. The concept arose from conversations the singer had with producer Larry Klein, and the pair came up with a list of songs they wanted to feature on a dedicated tribute album. Klein suggested a minimalist approach to the interpretations, stripping away some of the glossy production of the originals, and a small ensemble of jazz allstars was assembled for the session: pianist/keyboardist Larry Goldings, guitarist Anthony Wilson, Klein himself on bass and keyboards and Vinnie Colaiuta on drums. The resulting album presents a representative sampling of Bacharach’s songcraft, from hits such as “The Look of Love” and “Walk on By” to more obscure tunes such as “Whistling in the Dark” and “In Between the Heartaches.” Written with his greatest collaborator, Hal David, and sung by one of his best interpreters, Warwick, “A House Is Not a Home” was the flip side of the Top 40 hit “You’ll Never Go to Heaven (If You Break My Heart).” Donatelli and company achieve a similarly heartbroken effect on their read, with Goldings’ tear-stained piano, Klein’s slow-walking bass and Colaiuta’s delicate brush drumming generating the chill of empty rooms in which the singer lingers, lamenting lost love.
With her wistful performance of “I Wish I Could Go Travelling Again,” Stacey Kent reflects the sentiments of countless listeners cooped up by COVID. “I want to sit in the shade, sipping my latte/Beneath the awning of a famous cafe/Jetlagged and with our luggage gone astray,” she sings, lamenting even the minor annoyances that inevitably arise while visiting foreign destinations. As the song continues, the listener realizes the singer is not only missing the stamps on her passport, but her travel companion, as well. The track, co-written by her husband, saxophonist and composer Jim Tomlinson, with the author Kazuo Ishiguro, kicks off Kent’s most recent release, Songs From Other Places (Candid/Token Productions). Accompanied solely by pianist Art Hirahara, Kent lends another meaning to the album title by culling songs from sources including Paul Simon, Lennon and McCartney and Stevie Nicks (a quite moving read of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide”). Then there are songs that actually conjure exotic points of call, such as “Imagina,” sung in Portuguese, and “Les Voyages,” sung in French, and the Tomlinson/Ishiguro composition “Tango in Macao.” Indeed, Kent boasts an international pedigree: Born in New Jersey, she grew up in France, studied at Sarah Lawrence and then London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, married Englishman Tomlinson, and racked up numerous accolades here and abroad, including BBC Jazz Awards and a Grammy nomination.
Having spent formative years playing New York’s famed Rainbow Room, Hilary Kole had a desire to return to her roots. So she curated a set of standards, some of which would have been in the wheelhouse of her father, Broadway and nightclub singer Robert Kole, and recorded them with her regular rhythm section, a few guests and elegant orchestrations and arrangements by Chris Byars. The resulting self-released album, Sophisticated Lady, comprises indelible songbook entries by Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Sammy Cahn/Jules Styne and, of course, Duke Ellington. Kole takes on some musically challenging fare, such as the Ellington title track, on which she sketches a portait of the seemingly devil-may-care lady who hides her sadness over lost love with endless dining, dancing and drinking, “never thinking of tomorrow.” But the singer and the musicians know that a bill will come due, as reflected in pianist Adam Birnbaum’s and clarinetist Byars’ melancholy tones and the sensitive accompaniment of guitarist John Hart, bassist Paul Gill and drummer Aaron Kimmel. Kole’s training at the Rainbow Room has stood her in good stead over the years, as she performs these classic songs with dramatic flair and yes, sophistication.
On Musa (Brontosaurus), her eighth release, Lauren Henderson makes a powerful statement about both her roots and her individuality. Reflecting the Latinx side of her heritage, she sings several songs in Spanish and incorporates the flamenco guitar of Paco Soto. Henderson also delves into the jazz canon to interpret a few standards, including fresh arrangements of “I Concentrate on You” and “Wild Is the Wind.” A staple of the Nina Simone songbook, the latter tune — penned by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington and providing the title track to Simone’s 1966 album — certainly sounds like a salute to the late singer and pianist. Like Simone, Henderson employs a reverberant quaver that lends layers of emotion to the impossibly romantic lyrics. As throughout, she’s supported by brilliant pianist Sullivan Fortner, bassist Eric Wheeler and drummer Joe Dyson. Henderson and Fortner begin the song in duet, before Wheeler’s velvety bass tones enter the picture, followed by Dyson’s sensitive stickwork. Henderson inhabits the almost obsessive lyric, investing it with a primal urgency. “Love me, love me, say you do,” she pleads, likening the intensity of her feeling to the untamed blowing of the wind.
Having grown up in Lisbon, Sara Serpa brings an insider’s view to Recognition (Biophilia), a set of songs that examines the legacy of Portuguese colonialism. Serpa composed the album’s music to accompany her film of the same name, an otherwise silent movie comprising her grandfather’s Super8 footage of life in Angola in the 1960s, where people of color were exploited and suffered the sting of racism under Portuguese rule. Renowned for her wordless vocalizing, Serpa nonetheless manages to convey ideas and emotions through her lyric-less singing, and she also utilizes the text of political leader and poet Amílcar Cabral. Adding poignancy to Serpa’s vocals is the remarkable trio she assembled, comprising saxophonist Mark Turner, pianist David Virelles and harpist Zeena Parkins. Serpa begins the song “Absolute Confidence” with a haunting a cappella passage before she’s joined by Turner’s ominous tenor. Urgency increases as overlapping voices enter the mix, along with Virelles’ increasingly agitated piano, creating a dark and foreboding atmosphere that’s underlined by Parkins’ slashing harp. Serpa, who graduated with a masters in music from New England Conservatory of Music and teaches at the New School and New Jersey City University, had earlier written a thesis about refugee women in Portugal, of which Recognition seems to be a powerful and artful extension. As for her own recognition, Serpa earned a 2021 Herb Alpert/Ragdale Prize in Composition.
By the age of 17, Tommy Ward was an established performer on the Las Vegas scene, opening shows for the likes of Frankie Moreno and Louie Anderson and generating plenty of buzz. Growing up in Vegas, live performance was a viable option and aspiration for the naturally gifted singer, who, at the age of 25, channels forebears such as Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin in his delivery and choice of material. Ward also mentions Michael Bublé as a major influence, and listeners might discern hints of Chet Baker or John Pizzarelli in his delivery, as well. These inspirations can be detected in Ward’s recent EP release From This Moment On (Le Coq), which puts the singer out front on big-band arrangements that utilize jazz allstars including pianist Bill Cunliffe, guitarist Larry Koonse, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Ray Brinker, among others. However, on the five-song EP’s final track, Ward goes it alone, accompanying himself on piano for an intimate version of “The Way You Look Tonight,” eliciting the hopeful yearning that Fred Astaire invested in it while trying to win over Ginger Rogers in 1936’s Swing Time. Now based in Atlanta, Ward continues to wow audiences near home and across the country. And, with this new recording as a calling card, his future looks as bright as the Vegas marquees under which he first made his name.
Disc TwoShanachie Showcase
[caption id="attachment_31181" align="alignleft" width="726"] Norman Brown (Photo: Courtesy the artist)[/caption]
Having sold some 2 million records and consistently topped the Contemporary Jazz charts for decades, Norman Brown continues to make warm, engaging music in the style of guitar touchstones Wes Montgomery and George Benson. For his 2020 release Heart to Heart (Shanachie), Brown penned all the material in collaboration with some of the stellar musicians who join him here. Fittingly, the album opens with “Heading Wes,” a tribute to Montgomery as well as to Brown’s dad, who was a huge fan of the groundbreaking guitarist. And certainly, echoes of Montgomery — and his number one disciple, Benson — resound throughout Heart to Heart, as Brown updates their fluid phrasing and bluesy textures on tunes such as “Just Groovin’.” Brown wrote the aptly titled track with fellow guitarists Paul Brown and Jeff Carruthers, both of whom join him on the mellow yet propulsive number. Recorded during the early days of the pandemic lockdown, the album presented a unique opportunity to focus on the music and the reasons for making it. “We all have wanted to stop the grind and catch our breath, refresh our thoughts and learn something new,” Brown says in the record’s accompanying press. “This halting of everything is really the silver lining and an opportunity to find our ‘Master Key’ to the rich quality this life blesses us to experience.”
Sometimes, song titles attempt to lead listeners to attribute a particular meaning to particular piece of music that may or may not relate to that particular set of notes. No such cognitive dissonance occurs with guitarist and composer Marc Antoine’s “Groovy Sunday,” an instrumental that delivers exactly what it promises: a laid-back soundtrack for a lazy Sunday morning. A subtly insistent pulse conjures a sunny vibe, but not to the extent of actually having to get up off the couch — the song evokes the hippie sense of the word “groovy” rather than any imperative to get up and boogie. The cut comes from Antoine’s most recent release, Something About Her (Shanachie), which he titled for and dedicated to his wife of 25 years. Antoine’s classical training is evident in his clean picking style, as are the dozen years he lived in Madrid, as a certain Spanish romanticism infuses his playing. But the relaxed ambience seems to come from the sea breezes and coastal vistas of his current home in Laguna Beach, where he recorded the album with fellow contemporary jazz superstars including Brian Simpson, Phillipe Saisse, David Benoit and Marion Meadows.
Growing up in Prospect, Connecticut, Vincent Ingala was drawn to making music at an early age, banging on pots and pans then graduating to an actual drum kit. And when he heard Sam Butera’s solo on Louie Prima’s “Oh Marie” on the radio, he was driven to pick up the tenor sax, as well. On his latest release, Fire & Desire (Shanachie), Ingala plays every instrument, from guitar and keyboards to bass and drums, but it’s likely his impassioned saxophone leads that will make the greatest impression. The multi-instrumentalist and composer unabashedly embraces disco and R&B rhythms — in fact, he covers Jimmy Roach’s “Disco Sax,” the original of which featured saxophonist Houston Person — as is evident on the dance-floor-filling “On the Move,” which pulses with steamy Saturday Night Fever-like backbeats. Ingala has enjoyed enviable success with his crowd-pleasing music, earning Billboard’s Smooth Jazz Artist of the Year in 2012 and continuing to churn out contemporary chart-topping hits. In addition to holding down a gig as a DJ on Smooth Jazz 24/7, Ingala tours with Dave Koz & Friends Summer Horns and Peter White’s Christmas show.
The musical friendship between guitar maestros Larry Carlton and Paul Brown dates back at least 20 years, with Brown actually playing drums and sharing a producer’s credit on Carlton’s 2001 release Fingerprints. Carlton would later appear on Brown’s 2014 release Truth B Told, for which the pair composed the smoldering groover “Purple Shoes” (with help from guitarist Jay Gore). The titans of tone combine their skills once again on the new Soul Searchin’ (Shanachie), a full album on which they share lead-guitar duties. Known for his liquid-fire lines and blues-inspired licks on recordings by Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell, among many others, Carlton boasts a discography stretching back to the late ’60s, and he enjoyed the spotlight with The Crusaders through the mid-’70s. Eight years younger than Carlton, Brown, as both an instrumentalist and producer, has worked with top contemporary jazz artists including George Benson and Patti Austin and helmed more than 60 No. 1 radio hits; in fact, he revisited 10 of them on his 2020 release Ones Upon a Time. The kickoff track to Soul Searchin’, “Miles and Miles To Go,” features sultry, bluesy solos from both men, who engage in a relaxed yet masterful conversation.
Stuck at home, with shows canceled due to COVID restrictions, Richard Elliot says he was “motivated to express myself” by creating the music that makes up his most recent recording, Authentic Life (Shanachie). The smooth-jazz giant called on friends and colleagues such as fellow saxophonist Dave Koz, trumpeter Rick Braun, guitarist Peter White and keyboardists Jeff Lorber and Philippe Saisse, who lend their talents to the album’s 10 tracks. Elliot’s first release in five years, Authentic Life is an uplifting work, full of optimism and the kind of good-times boogie and R&B for which the saxophonist has become renowned since joining the mighty Tower of Power in the 1980s. Elliot is also celebrated for his richly romantic tenor sound, a sound that has propelled him to the top of the contemporary jazz charts and which figures prominently on the cut “Right on Time.” Sparkling keyboard textures and sunny backing horns create a laid-back ambience that all but defines the L.A. sound. Born in Scotland, Elliot grew up in L.A. and established himself as a sturdy session player on recordings by Michael Bolton and Luther Vandross among others. Since embarking on a solo career, he’s been a popular presence on the charts and on tours under his own name and with other marquee smooth jazz artists.
An upbeat party vibe suffuses Shakedown, Kim Waters’ latest release for the Shanachie label. The saxophonist surmises that the world has endured enough gloom during the pandemic and attempts to lighten the mood with an album filled with fun and funky tunes designed to get listeners up and grooving. Playing all the instruments on the record, Waters generates danceable rhythms on tracks such as “Feels Like Friday Night,” an apt title for a song that seems alive with the promise of good times ahead. Soprano sax lines dance atop a sturdy backbeat, glints of keyboards and guitar provide color and texture, and Waters doubles up on alto on the horn choruses. In a change from his usual method, the saxophonist composed all the music on the grand piano in his piano lounge, as opposed to writing in the studio. The Maryland native enjoys a long and successful relationship with Shanachie, dating back to his 1998 release Love’s Melody. He’s currently one of the top five best-selling contemporary-jazz instrumentalists.
Vocalist and songwriter Lindsey Webster continues an amazing run with her 2020 release A Woman Like Me (Shanachie). The Woodstock, New York, native’s recording career has been explosive: She placed 10 songs on the Smooth Jazz Songs chart, including two that reached the No. 1 spot. In fact, 2016’s “Fool Me Once” was the first vocal song to top the contemporary jazz charts since Sade’s “Soldier of Love” hit that mark in 2010, and Webster’s tune tarried there for a record-setting four weeks. Webster wrote nearly all the material on A Woman Like Me — she also covers “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” a fan favorite at her concerts — with her husband, keyboardist Keith Slattery, and recruited an allstar rhythm section featuring bassist Nathan East, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and percussionist Luis Conte. On “Only You” — not to be confused with The Platters song — Webster’s sighing, sultry vocals are ripe with romantic longing as she floats through a relaxed, ambient soundscape. Guitarist Mike Demicco contributes a concise, soulful solo that lends color rather than rends the aural tapestry before Webster’s dreamy vocals once again pick up the thread.
The pandemic has caused many people to re-evaluate what’s really important to them. Such was the case with pianist-composer Brian Simpson, who titled his 10th and latest album All That Matters (Shanachie). Family and loved ones, he concluded, topped his list of priorities, that reaffirmation lending a joyful air to the music he composed for the project. The Illinois native called on fellow contemporary-jazz giants including guitarist Steve Oliver and saxophonist and flutist Najee, who contribute to the 10-song session. The album’s opening track, “So Many Ways,” kicks off the proceedings with a quietly celebratory vibe. Simpson’s blues-influenced piano is cushioned by string orchestration and propelled by funky bass lines and an insistent backbeat. The longtime smooth-jazz scenester is no stranger to engaging listeners with ear-friendly songcraft; some 30 years ago, he penned the No. 1 hit “The First Time” for the R&B group Surface, and went on to tour with the likes of Janet Jackson, Sheena Easton, George Duke and Dave Koz. He also racked up No. 1 radio hits with performances under his own name, including a 2013 read of the bossa-nova classic “The Girl From Ipanema.” A graduate of Northern Illinois University, Simpson headed for L.A. and became a vital part of the contemporary-jazz world, of which he’s among the top practitioners.
At the age of 13, multi-instrumentalist Justin Lee Schultz caught the ears of contemporary jazz fans with his 2020 debut recording Gruv Kid (Shanachie). Now 14, the native South African, who currently resides in Durham, North Carolina, was championed by none other than Quincy Jones, and the reasons are evident on this impressive first outing. Schultz displays a musical mastery and maturity beyond his years as he generates plenty of excitement with his instrumental wizardry and compositional acumen. Featured on piano and keyboards, the teen prodigy sounds like he’s having a blast in the company of established genre giants such as Gerald Albright, Najee, Jeff Lorber and fellow South African Jonathan Butler. Schultz nods to his homeland with the opening “African Chant” and “Over S.A.,” as well as to influences such as Bob James and Stevie Wonder. He also lives up to the album’s name with its title track, a funky piano-fueled groover with a spanking rhythm. As he does elsewhere, Schultz also employs the talk box to create playful vocal effects. Produced by saxophonist Kim Waters and Schultz’s dad, guitarist Julius Schultz, the track utilizes another family member, older sister Jamie-Leigh Schultz, on drums. The set concludes with a thoughtful acoustic piano track titled “Quarantine,” which nonetheless carries the optimistic vibe of the entire album.
During the pandemic, Jeff Lorber continued to produce albums by Herb Alpert, Richard Elliot and Norman Brown. He also continued to compose music, and the excitement his manager, Bud Harner, expressed after hearing a demo of the song “Back Room” convinced Lorber that the time was right to get to work on an album of his own. The resultant Space-Time (Shanachie), by Jeff Lorber Fusion, finds the pioneering contemporary-jazz keyboardist and composer in the company of decade-long bandmates Jimmy Haslip and Gary Novak, on bass and drums respectively, as well as guests such as guitarist Robben Ford and saxophonists Bob Mintzer and Gary Meek. With the exception of Novak, who joined Lorber in the studio, the musicians contributed their parts remotely, a method Lorber says he’s employed in the past and thus was not overly disruptive; he says that not touring behind the record was the biggest concession he had to make due to COVID. The album’s funky first single, “Back Room,” rides a sinewy rhythm supplied by Haslip and Novak, with Lorber dancing joyfully out front, saxophonist David Mann multi-tracking a horn section and Paul Jackson Jr. unspooling a cool-burning guitar solo. Lorber first recorded under the JLF flag in 1977. He revived the name in 2010, and in 2017 won his first Grammy (Best Contemporary Instrumental album) for the JLF release Prototype.
In a press release for their 2020 album Joy! (Shanachie), Jazz in Pink was referred to as “the female alternative to the Rippingtons.” Helmed by keyboardist and composer Gail Jhonson, the designation seems apt, as the band, in various incarnations, relies on ace musicianship and highly engaging melodies. Their sophomore release, Joy! generated a pair of smooth jazz radio hits with the tracks “Joy Joy!” and “Keystroke,” the former featuring superstar saxophonist Kim Waters. As the album title indicates, an optimistic mood permeates the set, a direction set by Jhonson who sought to alleviate the heaviness of the past couple of years with some uplifting music. The vibe carries over into the aptly titled “Positivity,” which features Jhonson’s percolating keys riding a gentle yet insistent groove, and Kim Scott’s sunny, lilting flute lines flittering like a butterfly on a summer breeze. In addition to releasing the Jazz in Pink album last year, Jhonson also received a masters degree in Music Business from Southern New Hampshire University in conjunction with Berklee College of Music, where she had earned her undergraduate degree. It’s yet another accomplishment for the musician who’s been dubbed “the First Lady of Smooth Jazz.”
The title of Marion Meadows 16th recording, Twice As Nice (Shanachie), has a double meaning: It honors his brother and sister, as well as alluding to his pursuit of both music and the visual arts. While the Stamford, Connecticut-raised, Nashville-based saxophonist earned a doctorate in Arts and Humanities from Wilberforce University in 2016, he’s been making records under his own name since 1990. For Twice As Nice, he recruited some of the friends and colleagues he’s met on his journey, including fellow contemporary jazz superstars Paul Brown, Jeff Lorber and Steve Oliver. As with many of his peers, Meadows seeks to provide musical relief for the relentlessly depressing headlines of the past couple of years, maintaining a positive outlook on the 10 tracks that make up the album. Almost all of the tunes were co-composed by Meadows and each provides a showcase for his emotionally rich and dextrous playing on soprano and tenor saxophones.The funky title track finds Meadows at the peak of his prowess as he elicits a range of sound from the horn and makes it sound easy. Par for the course for the former Berklee College of Music and SUNY Purchase School of the Arts student, who caught the ear of Star Trek composer Jay Chattaway while playing in Grand Central Station. Chattaway brought him to the attention of Bob James, with whose help Meadows launched a successful recording and performing career that’s earned him numerous radio hits and an international following.