Cory Wong’s self-released Paisley Park Session displays yet another facet of this Minneapolis-based, Grammy-nominated guitarist, bassist, songwriter, podcast-host and producer on his way to stardom. Featured here is the song “Assassin,” its Brecker Brothers vibe taking listeners through a high-energy journey with Wong on six-string and Prince’s bass player Sonny T. The song begins with Wong’s funky guitar-slinging before progressing to a big band sound (courtesy of the Horn Heads) and ends with an adventurous solo from saxophonist Alex Bone. Like the artist himself, Paisley Park leaves a lasting impression, showcasing Wong’s ability to craft exhilarating songs that resonate with audiences far and wide.
For nearly 30 years, composer and arranger Vince Mendoza has nurtured a close relationship with the Netherlands-based Metropole Orkest, first as a guest conductor, then as its leader. On their latest recorded collaboration, Olympians (Modern Music), the ensemble delves into nine colorful compositions that the maestro had written for the Orkest, and invites guests such as Dianne Reeves, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Chris Potter and Alex Acuña to join them, some remotely from their respective studios in the U.S. The bright and exuberant “Barcelona,” our selection, captures the excitement, beauty and grandeur of the iconic Spanish city, and features poignant, heartfelt solos from guitarist Peter Tiehuis, trumpeter Rik Mol and tenor saxophonist Potter, the latter two of whom engage in a thrilling musical conversation at the song’s conclusion. Soaring brass, reeds and strings paint a majestic soundscape that evokes the art-forward Catalonian capital, from its stunning architecture to sun-drenched vistas of the Mediterranean to hilltop promontories from which you can take it all in.
In 2005, a group of young Canadian composers assembled a workshop to help them hone their craft while receiving feedback from colleagues. The workshop evolved into The Composers Collective Big Band, an 18-piece performing ensemble that spotlights works by its members and other Canadian composers. The big band’s latest recording, the self-released The Toronto Project, presents musical impressions of Toronto and its various neighborhoods, as chronicled by eight composers, including band leader and trombonist, Christian Overton. In addition to the usual big band components, the CCBB employs the Cuban tres, the Indian tabla and the Chinese erhu (a two-stringed bowed instrument), which reflect the ethnic diversity of the city’s residents and the ensemble itself. Shirantha Beddage, the CCBB’s baritone saxophonist, composed “Transit,” our selection, a smooth ride that builds momentum as it leaves the station. Burbling Fender Rhodes and a slinky bass pattern underline exquisite section work, and trombonist Overton glides along the rails with silken ease. Before they reach the terminus, drummer Jeff Halischuk engages in some thrilling back-and-forth with the ensemble. In her song notes, Beddage reveals that the piece was meant to conjure a “bird’s eye view” of the city and its commuters, each going their own way and “diverging in smooth lines and abstract patterns.”
Slick arrangements, swinging horns, big energy and crystal-clean production — like a Steely Dan album without Donald Fagen — is what you get this time around from composer, arranger, producer and guitarist Richard Niles. With wide-ranging credits from Paul McCartney to Pat Metheny to Swing Out Sister, Niles has assembled a world-class band on the self-released Niles Smiles. Replete with jazz chops and a pop sensibility, the album features stellar playing from bassist Mark Egan (Metheny), saxophonist Snake Davis (Sting), trumpeter John Thirkell (Bruno Mars), organist Zoot Money and vocalist Kim Chandler (Michael McDonald). The track “Monochrome Velvet,” like its title suggests, showcases Niles’ accessibility with fluid guitar floating over a wave of horns that never seems to get in the way.
Now in its 88th year, the Count Basie Orchestra continues to create magic in the studio and on the concert stage. Trumpeter Scotty Barnhart, a 30-year veteran of the orch, has led the CBO into the 21st century with hip projects and genre- and generation-spanning collaborators during his decade at the helm. On Late Night Basie (Primary Wave Legends), its most-recent release, the CBO shares space with a guest list designed to snag younger listeners. Barnhart, in cahoots with producer Paul Peck and Primary Wave’s Robert Dippold, invited stars from from within and without the jazz world to interpret the Basie book. Blues duo Larkin Poe, New Orleans brass band Soul Rebels, rapper Talib Kweli, R&B vocalist Cimafunk and groove band Lettuce all put their spin on tunes that issued from the Basie bandstand. The CBO swings its collective butt off on Basie classics “One O’ Clock Jump” and “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” the former with vocalist Jazzmeia Horn, the latter with Conan O’Brien late night guitarist Jimmy Vivino. The Count, who died in 1984, penned “M Squad,” included here, for a late-’50s/early-’60s TV show, and the theme was later used in the Naked Gun movies. Joining the CBO is trumpet great and Barnhart doppelgänger Terence Blanchard. “He and I look a helluva lot alike,” Barnhart says with mock consternation. “We’ve been getting confused with each other for 40 years. People see him on a plane, ‘Hey, Scotty! How ya’ll?’ ‘No, I’m not Scotty, goddammit!’ He’s a good buddy.” And speaking of “buddies,” Buddy Guy is just one of the monumental blues artists joining the CBO on their next release, Basie Swings the Blues, due later this summer on the Candid label.
During her time at Berklee College of Music, Ines Velasco blazed quite a trail. The Guadalajara, Mexico, native, who studied composition with Ayn Inserto and drums with Teri Lyne Carrington, won both the Quincy Jones Award and the Tadd Dameron Award, prizes named for two of the great player-composers in jazz. Having played with the likes of the Metropole Orkest and Snarky Puppy, the drummer-composer last year self-released the three-song EP Three Stories. The Brooklyn-based Velasco stocked her little big band with excellent players from the New York City jazz scene — drummer Nate Wood, trombonist Alan Ferber, guitarist Jacob Aviner, pianist Susana Schutza, among others — each bringing seasoned chops and deep feeling to the composer’s finely honed songcraft. “For Lene,” our selection, begins with pizzicato bass, piano and shimmering cymbals, setting a melancholy, self-reflective mood that continues throughout, even as the instrumentation expands. A martial drum beat establishes a cadence over which guitar, bass and horns play an elegiac melody, and saxophonist Nathan See contributes an aptly melancholy solo. The EP provides a taste of Velasco’s gifts and will surely leave listeners hungry for more.
After releasing a nonet recording in 2019, Austrian composer and arranger Tobias Hoffmann hungered for the challenge of writing for a big band. Of course, the challenge was compounded by the onset of the pandemic, when so much of the world was shut down. Nonetheless, Hoffmann assembled an 18-piece ensemble, comprising musicians from his back yard as well as from all over Europe, rehearsing and recording what would become the Tobias Hoffmann Jazz Orchestra. The pandemic also provided inspiration for Hoffmann’s compositions, which examine the psychologies, states of mind and rampant misinformation that spread along with the coronavirus, hence the album title, Conspiracy (Mons). The title track, included here, references the phenomenon of the wild conspiracy theories that arose related to the global health crisis. Fittingly, the piece starts on a frenetic, bombastic note, which eventually resolves into the melodic theme but retains the thematic tension. Pianist Philipp Nykrin’s anxious piano notes, at about the midway point, set the stage for Robert Unterköfler’s unsettling tenor saxophone solo, before the full big band flexes its collective muscle in exemplary fashion. Expressing his thoughts about uninformed conspiracy theories, Hoffmann writes in the album’s liner notes, “I realized how dangerous these can be, not only for the people who believe in them, but for our society as a whole.”
For 30 years, Randolph Noel taught music in the New York Public School system, a labor of love for a musician who shared bandstands with everyone from Sam & Dave to Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach. However, the pianist and composer, who had also contributed arrangements to the late-career albums of Abbey Lincoln, didn’t lead a recording session under his own name until his 2003 debut release, Hands on the Plow. Another 20 years would pass before he’d reprise that effort, but his self-released Elements and Orbits was worth the wait. Noel put together a large ensemble — comprising seasoned vets like trombonist Clifton Anderson and saxophonist Dave Glasser, as well as rising stars such as trumpeter James Haddad and drummer Jarrett Walser — to interpret his original tunes. Among them is “Grand Bay/Top Hill,” our selection, a piece Noel penned some 40 years ago. Kenny Davis’ upright bass and Donald Babatunde Eaton’s congas establish a funky rhythm on the intro, soon joined by Walser’s slinky cymbals and Noel’s lyrical piano. This sets the stage for a surprisingly melodic tuba solo by Earl McIntyre, who strolls with happy-go-luck élan, backed by the full complement of brass, woodwinds and strings. The overall feel is one of irrepressible optimism; Noel and McIntyre unfold their respective solos with a jaunty spring to their steps and the orch follows suit. Noel employs a lovely symmetry by closing the piece as it began, with Davis and Eaton continuing their bass/conga conversation.
In some ways, it was a mixed blessing. Roberto Restuccia’s debut album, 2021’s With Every Turn, yielded the U.K.-based guitarist a couple of Billboard Top 15 hits. While it established his bona fides in the smooth-jazz world, Restuccia vowed that his next release would be more of a personal expression, one that allowed him to play in a bluesier, more fiery fashion. The results speak for themselves on Lounge Katz, his sophomore album for the Trippin N Rhythm imprint. Helmed by Grammy-nominated producer Chris “Big Dog” Davis, and featuring Restuccia’s longtime friend and associate Oli Silk on keyboards, the new session finds the guitarist throwing down with full-on blues bravado. Take for example, “Hip Jive,” on which Restuccia evokes the burning sound of major influences such as Robben Ford, Chuck Loeb and Larry Carlton, his rhythmic riffing also nodding to the late Curtis Mayfield. Fatback Hammond organ and spanking brass further lend to the blues-club ambience. “In a nutshell, what I do differently is play in a way that’s closer to how a saxophone sounds,” Restuccia says in a press release for the new album. “With the electric guitar, if you have a perfectly clean sound, it doesn’t sustain like a pushed, bluesy amp. To make the guitar scream a bit, I bend the strings — and it’s in those emotive bends where my most intense and expressive playing lies.”
Some of the most important early recordings in jazz were made at a ramshackle studio in Richmond, Indiana. Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and Bix Biederbecke were among the innovators who passed through the doors of the Gennett Studio in the 1920s to make records that would influence the course of jazz for generations to come. On the 100th anniversary of a watershed year for jazz recording, the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra celebrates the studio’s legacy with The Gennett Suite (Patois), a two-disc contemporary big-band reimagining of the music that emanated from this unlikely locale. Conductor and arranger Brent Wallarab took a deep dive into iconic material, putting a modern spin on the music of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band (with a young Louis Armstrong), Biederbecke, Morton and Hoagy Carmichael through four movements. In the “Hoagland” movement, the Indiana-based jazz orch dips into a couple of Carmichael’s early compositions, “Riverboat Shuffle” and the tune that would immortalize him, “Star Dust,” first recorded for Gennett in 1927. The big band’s read of this timeless standard begins with an intimate conversation between pianist Luke Gillespie and alto saxophonist Greg Ward. The wistfulness of this interaction carries over into the orchestrated section, with Ward remaining at the fore and the full band luxuriating in the beauty of the melody.
David Bowie was a benchmark artist for a couple of generations of rock fans drawn to his soul-and-funk-inspired art music and his outrageous, gender-bending persona. On the late-career release Black Star, Bowie embraced long-held jazz roots, recruiting saxophonist Donny McCaslin and pianist-arranger Maria Schneider for his singular vision. Saxophonist-flutist Jim Gailloreto, founder of the Metropolitan Jazz Octet, was knocked out upon hearing Black Star and proceded to dig futher into Bowie’s repertoire. He found an ally in jazz vocalist Paul Marinaro, and the pair brainstormed the idea of performing the Brit glam rocker’s music with the MJO. The results can be found on The Bowie Project (Origin), on which Marinaro and the eight-piece offer jazz interpretations of 11 tunes spanning the career of the Thin White Duke. Utilizing arrangements by Gailloreto, band members and others, the program includes a few obscurities as well as radio hits such as “Changes,” “Let’s Dance,” and perhaps the best-known Bowie tune, “Space Oddity,” included here. Mike Freeman’s sparkling vibraphone adds another dimension to the tragic saga of Major Tom, which picks up volume and velocity with the addition of the horns. As throughout, Marinaro makes no attempt to mimic Bowie, but invests plenty of drama into his emotional reads.
Members of the Brooklyn-based band Aberdeen embarked on a State Department-sponsored tour of Central Asia in 2019, and their recently self-released recording Held Together appears to have taken inspiration from their travels. Tracks on the album employ a variety of Asian instrumentation and musicians, including Mongolian throat-singer and beatboxer Beatbox Ray, as well as the children’s ensemble Ayalguu. Aberdeen applies its signature brass band/indie rock ethos to traditional folk songs from regions such as Mongolia and Malaysia, but hews closer to home on tracks penned by alto saxophonist Brian Plautz. On “Losing Eurydice,” the album’s opening cut, Plautz reveals his erudition by writing a song based on the tragic Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Flugelhornist Chloe Rowlands and bass clarinetist Max Zooi assume the roles of the ill-fated lovers, at first reveling in a gentle, pastoral idyll provided by softly played horns and acoustic guitar. But the peaceful, easy feeling doesn’t last, as Orpheus must descend into the pits of hell to rescue his beloved, while fuzz-toned electric guitars sound a troubling note. Aberdeen’s core ensemble of Plautz, tenor saxophonist Jared Yee, guitarist Shubh Saran and bassist Adam Neely expands to little big band proportions with guest musicians, and welcomes Antonio Sánchez on drums.
For the past 20 years, Patti Austin has been offering heartfelt tribute to Ella Fitzgerald through dedicated recordings and concerts. Having scored radio hits like “Baby, Come to Me” and “The Closer I Get to You,” Austin revealed deep jazz roots — and chops to match — on her affectionate 2002 salute to Fitzgerald, For Ella. She toured behind the record, performing with big bands and orchestras all over the globe, and developed a program in which she shared stories about the First Lady of Song. Now, Austin returns with the self-released For Ella 2, this time teaming up with bandleader and arranger Gordon Goodwin and His Big Phat Band and highlighting another batch of tunes definitively performed by Fitzgerald. Selections span Fitzgerald’s career, recalling triumphs such as the 1961 Ella in Berlin album’s improvisatory “Mack the Knife,” the Verve songbook albums and, of course, her star-making novelty hits with the Chick Webb Orchestra in the 1930s. Among the latter numbers, Austin offers a spirited rendition of “Tain’t What Ya Do,” with the Big Phat Band swinging like a Saturday night at the Savoy. The singer is at her finger-snapping sassiest as she delivers life lessons with bluesy brio, and the cats in the band gamely join in on call-and-response vocals. Austin caps her performance with some joyful scat singing, wisely interpreting rather than imitating her idol while making the tune her own.
After more than a dozen albums under the Snarky Puppy banner, bassist Michael League still manages to lead his large cast of players on one of their most energetic sets to date. On Empire Central (GroundUp Music), the Snarky ensemble incorporates blues, gospel, R&B, rock and jazz, while paying tribute to the city of Dallas, just 30 miles from the University of North Texas where League first developed the SP concept. The track “Bet” is particularly noteworthy, and not just because it’s one of the few numbers that League wrote. It’s hard to fathom that the precision playing that one would expect from Steely Dan or the Brecker Brothers (obvious influences on League) was all recorded live.https://open.spotify.com/playlist/4BXtJ5Bfxu2VIkAvz2cO9k?si=6c0eece67fab4a0b
When it comes to contemporary jazz, Keiko Matsui has long provided a high water mark. The pianist, composer and bandleader, who’s been releasing albums since 1991, remains a creative force on Euphoria (Shanachie), her 30th recording. In addition to utilizing members of her working and studio bands, Matsui invited a dazzling roster of guest musicians, including Mike Stern, Randy Brecker, Joel Ross and Grégoire Maret, to join her on a set that encompasses elements of fusion, world and symphonic music. Matsui opens her composition “Luminescence,” included here, with sparkling piano, delving into a jaunty blues as she’s joined by Alex Al’s elastic bass and Gregg Bissonette’s slinky drumming, as well as a complement of horns. The song takes on a Caribbean “riddim” as it ambles on, with Kirk Whalum’s sunny tenor sax and those engaging horns contributing to the cheery ambience. Whalum and Matsui engage in some bluesy back-and-forth toward the song’s final fade, maintaining the good feelings promised by the song’s title.