In the aftermath of pandemic restrictions, musicians have become increasingly adept at long-distance recording sessions. But, as pianist Dan Costa and trumpet legend Randy Brecker prove conclusively, when the participants are in harmonious alignment, the results can be as rewarding as if they were in the same room. Such was the case with the pair’s cross-generational, transatlantic performance of Costa’s composition “Iremia,” which was released as a single in 2022. Costa sent Brecker, who is based in New York, a video of himself playing the tune on a Fazioli piano in an Italian studio, and asked him to add his magic to the track. “I played in the holes and doubled some parts, and the duo came out very nicely,” the trumpeter relayed on his Facebook page last November. The lovely, moody dialogue more than lives up to the song title, which translates from Greek as “peacefulness,” and its original inspiration, the Cycladic isle of Paros. Costa had previously recorded the song on his 2018 album Skyness. Although they’re separated by 44 years and thousands of miles, Costa and Brecker share a rapport that truly elicits the song’s warmth and humanity.
The City of Angels provides an unending source of fascination for Southern California native Josh Nelson. In 2017, the pianist and composer delved into the legends and lore of his hometown through the original song cycle of his album The Sky Remains. And he returns to his often arcane knowledge of the city and its characters on his latest release, LA Stories: Live at Sam First (Sam First). Fittingly, Nelson recorded the album at a nightclub just a few minutes’ walk from the terminals of LAX, an intimate venue bordered by a Marriott Courtyard and a Hilton Homewood Suites. Original tunes on the live session range in inspiration from the Traveltown train museum to California’s own Robin Hood, Tiburcio Vasques. Throughout, the pianist is accompanied by an exceptional quintet featuring saxophonist Walter Smith III, guitarist Larry Koonse, bassist Luca Alemanno and drummer Dan Schnelle, as well as by vocalist Gaby Moreno. On the track “Spirit,” included here, Nelson and Smith engage in a deeply involving duet, the saxophonist’s romantic tenor saxophone waltzing elegantly alongside Nelson’s rhythmic and emotionally rich pianistics.
The pandemic lockdown presented both challenges and opportunities for jazz artists. While wracked with worry over his ability to perform live and tour, guitarist and vocalist Raul Midón also took advantage of his time at home to write material and conceive of a new project. Why not connect, virtually if not physically, with fellow guitarists on a set of duets, each of which he’d write with his guest participant in mind? The results comprise Midón’s latest release, Eclectic Adventurist(ReKondite), which also represents his first album of all-original instrumental music. Midón called on old friends, such as Jonathan Kreisberg, with whom he attended the University of Miami, as well as fusion great Mike Stern, Gypsy jazz master Stephane Wrembel and Grammy-winning Latin jazz artist Alex Cuba, among others. The distinctive sound of Beninese guitarist and vocalist Lionel Loueke inspired Midón’s composition “Loueke,” our selection, the pair engaging in a gently funky and soulful duet. Midón’s sparkling acoustic picking shimmers against Loueke’s burbling electric groove and wordless vocalizing. The players then switch roles, with Midón’s rich rhythmic chords supplying a scaffold for Loueke’s lyrical leads, a reverberant grace note adding a surprise shirt tail to the performance.
A South Florida treasure, flutist Nestor Torres teams up with pianist, producer and arranger Corey Allen on Dominican Suite (Nine-PM), a set of songs that pays loving tribute to the Dominican Republic. Allen, who composed the music, utilized merengue, bolero, bachata and other dominant Dominican genres to craft this affectionate homage, which places Torres’ lithe and lyrical flute amidst a swirling panoply of percussion, mellow brass and reeds. The romantic ballad “Llévame a la Luna” (Take Me to the Moon), included here, finds Torres floating featherlike atop a lush orchestration of saxophones and clarinets, evoking the warm and heady feelings of being deeply in love. Allen starts the proceedings with an equally amorous solo-piano intro before he’s joined by the rest of the ensemble, propelled by Juan “Chocolate” de la Cruz’s easy-going percussive bop. Guitarist Federico Mendez contributes to the moonlit ambiance with his pristinely picked acoustic solo, and the entire track reflects a joyous, but peaceful, surrender to the kind of love that buoys the spirit.
Another artist who used pandemic-enforced isolation to her advantage, Holly Burke found renewed creative energy as she sequestered herself at the piano and began improvising melodies once again. The British Columbia-based pianist and composer was also coming off a five-year period of post-concussion syndrome, and she tapped into reservoirs of accumulated musical ideas. Burke collaborated with fellow composer Bill Runge, who was able to organize her ideas and, as she related in a recent podcast interview, “get it all on paper.” Originally, Burke and Runge thought they’d release the 20 new short-form compositions as a book, but ultimately opted to record the songs in the studio. Thus, they recruited Linda Lee Thomas, the longtime principal pianist with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (a.k.a. “The Queen of Tango”), to bring these songs to life. The resulting self-released Dreamride: The Music of Holly Burke & Bill Runge sounds like a deeply personal project. Thomas delves beneath the surface of the music, which ranges from jazz and pop to classical and, of course, tango. “Manny’s Arms,” included here, emits a jewel-like radiance and glows with the warmth of a loving embrace.
Cross-generational Cuban superstars Hilario Duran and David Virelles came together at Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto to record a remarkable set of dual piano music. The resultant Front Street Duets(Alma) richly evokes Cuban musical tradition, but also reflects the vitality of the island’s continued evolution as a seat of innovation, particularly as it relates to jazz piano. Certainly, affection for their homeland permeates the nine tracks — each lives in exile, Duran in Canada, Virelles in New York — but the music is largely devoid of sentimentality. The senior partner of the duo by 30 years, Duran invited Virelles to join him at the studio on Toronto’s Front Street, to play a program of Duran’s original compositions — with both contributing arrangements — written specifically for the session; they assay a couple of standards, as well. The two share a mutual admiration and have worked together previously in the duo format. “Challenge,” our selection, finds Duran and Virelles engaging in swift and muscular displays of pianism, not so much dueling as seamlessly switching off on rhythms and leads and sparking one another to ever greater heights.
Composer and educator David Bloom and arranger Cliff Colnot share a unique partnership, the seeds of which were sown more than 45 years ago when Colnot studied at the Bloom School of Jazz in Chicago. While the two lost touch, they reunited at a Passover seder more than a decade later and found that they shared similar musical sensibilities. This led to collaborative projects, the latest of which, Shadow of a Soul (Fire and Form), marks their fourth recording together. Once again, pandemic-influenced isolation provided the impetus for creativity, as Bloom composed more than 30 tunes, half of which appear on the new album. Colnot wrote the lion’s share of arrangements for ensembles that range from small combos to string-laden orchestras, and Bloom named tracks for associates such as salsa maestro Eddie Palmieri (“Eddie P”) and the late saxophonist Mark Colby (“Mischievous Mark Colby,” with Dave Liebman on soprano sax). Bloom also plays flute on the album, his dulcet alto opening the mellow samba “Beeb’s Dues,” included here. A stop-time rhythm creates tension in the otherwise free-flowing piece, which features solos on flugelhorn, trumpet and saxophone against a lush orchestration of reeds and brass.
On stage and in the studio, Fred Hersch has performed brilliantly within the duo format. Whether he’s in the company of guitarist Bill Frisell, vocalist Norma Winstone or flugelhornist Enrico Rava, the pianist remains an engaging conversationalist, at once sensitive and supportive and wholly fascinating in his own expressions. Such was the case with Hersch and duo partner esperanza spalding, the pair captured during a 2018 performance on the recent release Alive at the Village Vanguard(Palmetto). While she’s an accomplished jazz bassist, spalding here showcases her deft and lovely vocals, as she and Hersch assay a set of standards and bop classics. Spalding also displays great charm in her interactions with the audience, before, after and even during performances. For his part, Hersch is nimble and playful, clearly enjoying the back and forth as he responds to spalding’s improvisations — and she to his — which is beautifully illustrated on the duo’s version of Egberto Gismonti’s “Loro,” our selection. Hersch begins the piece with a dark, resonant chord that evolves into a sprinkle of dissonance, and is then joined by spalding’s agile scat singing. “That’s how birds talk,” she informs the audience. “That’s the part you don’t hear usually. We’re slowing it down for you. Actually, it’s an exact transcription of a bird. Singular.” The piece grows ever more joyful, with both partners impressionistically recalling avian sound and movement. Hersch is a pianistic marvel, soaring soulfully and chirping away with his right hand while propulsively driving the action with his right. And spalding continues to display multifaceted gifts, proving she can sing jazz with the best of them.
In recent years, Korean-born pianist and composer Francesca Han relocated to the south of France, the latest stop in a globe-spanning journey that brought her from Seoul to New York City to Tokyo. Having moved to New York to pursue a master’s degree at Queens College, Han studied with several jazz greats within and beyond the school’s faculty, including trumpeter Ralph Alessi, with whom she’d go on to record her 2011 ensemble album Illusion. About a decade later, Han invited Alessi to record with her once again, this time as a duo. The results can be heard on Exude(Hanji), a recent recording mainly comprising their original compositions (and a version of Monk’s “Pannonica”). Recorded at La Buissonne Studios in Pernes les Fontaines, the album captures the intimacy and immediacy of a hushed conversation between longtime allies. The mood-rich “Camargue,” a Han composition, is named for the region in which she lives, a collection of scenic vistas that range from marshes and lagoons to dunes and beaches, the latter of which are frequented by its signature white horses. Mysterious and contemplative, the song seems to capture the beauty and wildness of the area, swelling and receding like the tides. Alessi’s burnished sound, developed alongside improvisational masters such as Steve Coleman and Sam Rivers, is full of deep feeling and magnificently complements Han’s sparkling pianism.
Pianist Mike LeDonne and saxophonist Eric Alexander have played with many heavy hitters in the jazz world, their respective résumés peppered with names such as Milt Jackson, Sonny Rollins and Benny Golson (LeDonne), and Harold Mabern, Cedar Walton and Charles Earland (Alexander). The two have also shared stages and studios for the past couple of decades — notably in the Groover Quartet, a tenor/organ group that held down a regular Tuesday night at the New York City jazz club Smoke — and matched talents on a series of recordings for the Savant label. For their recent Heavy Hitters (Cellar Live) release, the longtime colleagues assembled an ensemble of close confederates who more than live up to the album title. Alto saxophonist Vincent Herring and trumpeter Jeremy Pelt join LeDonne and Alexander on the frontline, and the unrelated Washingtons, Peter and Kenny on bass and drums respectively, provide the rhythmic muscle. The prime directive of the quintet was to capture the raw energy and musical excellence of classic jazz albums, particularly those from the Blue Note label. Of course, recording at the famed Van Gelder Recording Studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, must have lent some ambient magic, as is evident on tunes such as the LeDonne-penned “Un Dia Es Un Dia” (A Day Is a Day), our selection. A fiery drum tattoo kicks off the track, with horn unisons emphasizing the Latin rhythm and providing a foundation for the solos that follow. Alexander and Herring open the solo sections with brio, handing off to LeDonne and then Pelt, before the Washingtons take a turn in the spotlight.
Wizardly keyboardist, composer and bandleader Tobin Mueller is one prolific dude. With an extensive discography of more than 35 albums, Mueller is releasing a five-volume collection of tracks culled from those recordings, starting with Best of Tobin Mueller, Volume 1: Jazz Originals (ArtsForge). Selections from the first volume contain remixed and remastered (and sometimes re-performed) versions of original material recorded by Mueller with combos and ensembles of various sizes. Succeeding volumes will feature covers, prog-rock/fusion, vocals and New Age material. Originally released on his 2009 recording Rain Bather, “Cliff’s Edge,” included here, is a funky smoker spotlighting Mueller’s Hammond B3 out front of a dynamic octet. Dane Richeson’s deep pocket drumming establishes the slinky groove from the drop, while a muscular horn section provides a scaffold for Mueller’s swirling Leslies. Tenor saxophonist Doug Schneider and soprano saxophonist Woody Mankowski provide sinewy solos — the latter’s is truly a show-stopper — bolstered by the unrelenting rhythm of acoustic bassist Jeff Cox and drummer Richeson. Further fattened by Bob Levy’s trumpet and Chris Mueller’s piano, the track is a bluesy slab of funk that’s both heavy and light on its feet.
The sounds of Brazil are close to the heart of pianist and composer Dan Costa. The London-born musician, whose family roots are Italian and Portuguese, received a grant to study Brazilian music at a university in São Paulo. He recorded his 2016 debut album, Suite Três Rios — a critical and popular success — in Rio de Janeiro and has also released a single with Brazilian jazz great Ivan Lins. So it’s unsurprising that the sound and feel of Brazilian music would permeate a good deal of his recorded output, including on his most recent self-released album, Beams. As its title suggests, and a press release makes plain, the recording is a “celebration of light in physical and metaphysical forms,” which is also reflected in the upbeat, air-infused compositions and performances throughout. Costa recruited an all-star crew of sidemen, and tracks feature contributions from trumpeter Dave Douglas, saxophonist Dave Liebman, guitarist Mike Stern and percussionist Hermeto Pascoal. The track “Encaminho,” included here, features the pianist in a trio setting with bassist John Patitucci and drummer Paulhino Vicente. Infused with a samba rhythm, the track is a joyous ode to freedom, as Costa’s bright and sparkling piano dances sprightly with the sensitive but expressive rhythm section. And while the tune moves and grooves, there’s also a feeling of spaciousness and a carve-out for an exquisite Patitucci solo.
What would Miles do? That was the question producer Mr. QJP asked himself when helming a new project that would come to be known as Ovision. Specifically, what kind of music would Miles Davis make in the second decade of the 21st century? Italian funk musician Stefano De Donato and American singer-songwriter Roc Flowers picked up the gauntlet, composing music and lyrics, respectively, to a set of funk-, hip-hop- and R&B-inspired tracks that comprise the 2022 release Ovision (Music for Love). A group of European A-list musicians bring the concept to life, as can be heard on “Mr. QJP,” included here. Leonardo Volo’s chiming Fender Rhodes creates an air of expectation on the song’s introduction, and the tension rachets up with Francesco Cherubini’s slinky funk drumming. An Earth, Wind & Fire-like horn chorus, supplied by trumpeter Fabrizio Bosso and saxophonist Max Ionata, lends rhythmic punctuation and becomes increasingly ecstatic as the brass rides De Donato’s elastic bass groove. Rhythmic shifts throughout create excitement, as does the excellent musicianship, with towering solos from guitarist Toti Panazanelli and trumpeter Bosso. Music for Love, the nonprofit organization behind the project, donates proceeds to schools, agriculture production, food, medicine and other necessities that better the lives of impoverished children in African nations.
A few years before he died, Criss Cross label founder Gerry Teekens suggested that trumpeter and composer Alex Sipiagin record an album of standards. Sipiagin, a Criss Cross favorite, didn’t have a chance to follow up on that suggestion before Teekens passed away in 2019. However, when his son, Jerry Teekens Jr., assumed the helm of the company, Sipiagin took the opportunity to fulfill the directive. And so, for Mel’s Vision, his 13th release for the label, the trumpeter put together an elite quintet to play tunes that are obviously meaningful to him, including titles by Don Friedman, McCoy Tyner and Ornette Coleman, as well as a Ukrainian folksong. Sipiagin, who emigrated from Russia more than 30 years ago, contributes a couple of pieces, including the title track, and the group dives into one by its saxophonist, Chris Potter, as well. The combo takes a brief but soulful sojourn into Charles Mingus’ lovely “Peggy’s Blue Skylight,” our selection, only fitting as Sipiagin and pianist David Kikoski also play in a group of Mingus Big Band alums under the name Opus 5. Sipiagin and Potter converse eloquently on the front line, as Kikoski spices the mix with his bluesy underpinnings. Bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Jonathan Blake provide textural and rhythmic support, making for an intoxicating blend of voices, each contributing to the mood and feel of this Mingus classic.
New York native Ben Rosenblum contains multitudes. Not only is he an acclaimed, Juilliard-trained pianist, composer and bandleader, but he also plays a hell of an accordion. Rosenblum didn’t start off playing the squeeze box and then gravitate toward jazz, but rather the opposite. Having studied with Brazilian accordion master Vitor Gonçalves in recent years, and accompanied vocalist Astrid Kuljanic on the instrument while performing in Croatia, Rosenblum has incorporated accordion into his own compositions and recordings. In fact, he does so on his recent release, A Thousand Pebbles (One Trick Dog), with his finely honed Nebula Project band. On the album’s opening track, “Catamaran,” Rosenblum and the ensemble create a joyous sound that evokes ocean vistas and sun-sparkling waves, the leader’s piano buoyed and bolstered by trumpeter Wayne Tucker and saxophonists Jasper Dutz and Xavier Del Castillo. From the start, Rosenblum establishes a jig-like rhythm, which is maintained throughout and undergirded by bassist Marty Jaffe and drummer Ben Zweig. The ever-shifting track takes a surprising turn toward its conclusion, as Rosenblum hefts the accordion and plays a delightful Irish jig as a coda. He began writing the piece while in Croatia, inspired by the optimism of migrants traveling to new homes and trying to imagine their inner monologues. The concluding jig, however, was inspired by Irish song nights at the Landmark Tavern in Hell’s Kitchen.
It was the music of bandleading conguero Mongo Santamaria that convinced Carlos Jimenez to put down the trumpet and pick up the flute. Born in Yonkers, New York, but raised in Villaba, Puerto Rico, Jimenez gravitated at an early age to percussion, played trumpet while in high school and then switched to the instrument on which he would make his name. Moving back to New York, he attended the Music Conservatory of Westchester, studied with jazz greats such as Mario Rivera, Dave Valentin and Bobby Porcelli, and came under the tutelage of Mike Longo and Hilton Ruiz; mentors Ruiz, Valentin and Porcelli all played on Jimenez’s 2005 debut album, Arriving. On Woods (CJ Martinete Music Co.), his ninth outing as a leader, Jimenez displays a dazzling facility as an instrumentalist and composer. At the helm of a quartet comprising pianist Hector Martignon, bassist Ruben Rodriguez and drummer Vince Cherico, Jimenez delves into a variety of musical settings, including Brazilian, blues, swing and bop. The album kicks off with the joyful straightahead groove of “You’re the Best Pops,” our selection. The rhythm section churns a bluesy excitement that sets the stage for Jimenez’s flute, anchoring his high-flying trill like the tail of a kite.
Illinois native John Harkins has been a resident of Sydney, Australia, for nearly 30 years, bringing his bluesy, straightahead piano stylings to the jazz scene Down Under. Harkins, who attended the Manhattan School of Music, befriended jazz piano maestro Hank Jones and also absorbed the influences of piano greats Tommy Flanagan, Cedar Walton and Jimmy Rowles before returning to Chicago in the ealrly ’90s. In 1994, Harkins made the move to Sydney, but remained very much in contact with jazz homies such as Eric Alexander, Terrell Stafford and Scott Hamilton, just a few of the straightahead artists with whom he’s toured and recorded. For his recent self-released recording The Cord, the pianist returned to his Chicago stomping grounds, forming a trio with longtime associates John Webber and George Fludas, on bass and drums, respectively. Harkins originals share space with standards such as “My Old Flame” and “Prelude to a Kiss,” and like many Chicagoans, the trio mates infuse plenty of blues feeling into their performances. Certainly, that’s the case with the mid-tempo beauty “Down a Notch,” included here, on which the threesome mesh perfectly, Webber and Fludas sensitively supporting Harkins’ lyrical and blues-rich pianism.
While Randolph Noel’s latest release, Elements and Orbits (self-released), represents just his second offering under his name, the Brooklyn-born composer, arranger and bandleader has spent most of his life making music. At the age of 5, he began piano lessons with his grandmother, displaying an aptitude that would lead to his eventually touring with soul greats Sam & Dave, and performing with jazz giants Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody and Max Roach. He also wrote arrangements for Abbey Lincoln’s late-career Verve recordings, including the highly regarded You Gotta Pay the Band and A Turtle’s Dream. Noel went on to share his vast experience with students during a 30-plus-year career as a music teacher with the New York City Department of Education, and later as an adjunct professor at New York City Technical College and Bronx Community College. So it took a minute for him to get into the studio with his own music, which he did for the first time in 2003, resulting in his debut release Hands on the Plow. His follow-up, 20 years later, finds him conducting a large ensemble through a variety of jazz structures, which range from funk to swing to Latin jazz, and showcase his compositions and arrangements. Noel’s “Big Daddy,” our selection, rides an easy-going groove established by reeds, brass and winds and a top-flight rhythm section undergirded by the percussive propulsion of Donald “Babatunde” Eaton. Veteran trombonist Clifton Anderson provides a swaggering solo, which is followed by a gritty alto saxophone solo by David Glasser. Noel, too, takes a turn in the spotlight, with a bluesy and thoughtful piano solo of which no doubt Grandma would be proud.
Drummer-composer and multi-instrumentalist Travis Brant founded the group Axon Radio with bassist Cory Carleton, the pair collaborating with contemporary jazz titans such as Gerald Albright, Paul Brown and Michael Lington, as well as eclectic guitarist Oz Noy. During the past couple of years, Brant and Carleton released a string of singles that find them in settings from duo to quartet (the latter on the New Orleans-y, double-sax funker “Glue Stick Chili”). But, for his latest single, “Mirror Image” (Def Left Ear), Brant is an ensemble of one, playing all the instruments and layering groove and feel. A funky bass line and reverberant wah-wah guitar establish a steamy ambience, which is punctuated by sinewy soprano sax and seductive keyboard textures. Guitar and piano also spike the mix, each contributing to the overall sensuousness of the piece. But the song also defies expectations with a stuttering stop-time rhythmic pattern and a brief but zesty drum solo that concludes the piece and leaves listeners wishing they could hear it develop further.
For more than a dozen years, Christoph Irniger’s quintet Pilgrim has been awing audiences with its moody, free-flowing music, displaying skills its members honed on stages alongside jazz greats Dave Douglas, Nasheet Waits and Dave Liebman, among others. Each member hails from a different part of Switzerland, and the group recently released its fifth album for the Swiss imprint Intakt. On their latest release, Ghost Cat, as throughout their discography, the quintet splits the difference between free improvisation and pre-composed material, their closeness as a unit allowing them to foray into risky territory. But establishing mood is preeminent on pieces such as “Marvel,” included here. Drummer Michael Stulz lays down a quick shimmer over which pianist Stefan Aeby and saxophonist Irniger linger with long lines and reverberant chords. Melancholy and mournful, Irniger’s tenor sounds almost elegiac, a mood that is underlined by Aeby, as well as guitarist Dave Gisler and bassist Raffaele Bossard, whose understated contributions contribute to the overall feel. The group breathes, or rather sighs, as one. - Bob Weinberg