Winter 2022 JAZZIZ On Disc: Annotated Playlist

Disc One: Guitar Picks

  1. Kurt Rosenwinkel continues to surprise. During the past year, the distinctive jazz guitarist has released a solo piano album, as well as a collection of classical music played with a quartet. The latter recording, The Chopin Project (Heartcore), presents a program of music by the canonical Polish composer as arranged by the Swiss pianist Jean-Paul Brodbeck. But make no mistake, the writing is elastic enough to allow for jazz expression, as can be heard in the band’s take on “Étude in E-flat minor (Op. 10, No. 6),” our selection. Rosenwinkel’s mood-rich tone and phrasing receive excellent support from Brodbeck, bassist Lukas Traxel and drummer Jorge Rossy. As he explained to JAZZIZ contributor Ted Panken, Rosenwinkel discerns a connection between Chopin and modern-jazz pianists Bud Powell and Barry Harris. “That connection of chromatic harmony, as it relates to tonal harmony, to diatonic harmony, is similar between Chopin and bebop,” he observed. The son of a classical pianist mother, Rosenwinkel, 52, grew up listening to Beethoven, Bach, Ravel and, of course, Chopin, before immersing himself in the jazz world and establishing himself among the top jazz voices of his generation.
  2. Born in São Paulo and residing in London, virtuoso guitarist Plínio Fernandes wholeheartedly celebrates his roots on Saudade (Decca), his major label debut. Dazzling technique is presented with soul and affection, as the 27-year-old Brazilian expat dives into a songbook spanning the classical compositions of Villa-Lobos and popular favorites from Jobim and Nascimento, among other national treasures. On a few tracks, he’s joined by cello, violin and vocals, but for the most part, Fernandes eschews accompaniment and displays a crystalline, jaw-dropping solo guitar mastery. That mastery is on full display on the opening cut, Jacob do Bandolim’s “Assanhado,” included here. Fernandes invests deep feeling into his interpretation of the lyrical melody, as he deftly fingerpicks the tune, his acoustic guitar exuding a rich, warm tone. While it’s a joyful expression, there’s also a yearning for connection to a far-off homeland, an emotion conjured in the album’s title. “I’ve found a home in London, and I plan to stay,” Fernandes says in a press release, “but the title Saudade means nostalgia, longing for something, which is literally what I feel here.”
  3. New Jersey native B.D. Lenz hadn’t intended to record a full album when he began writing music during the COVID lockdown. But he was so pleased with the way the music developed in the studio, and the performances he elicited from his session mates, that he wound up with the 10 tracks that comprise his 13th recording as a leader, the self-released It’s Just a Dream. The album’s title cut, included here, brims with optimism, a funky contemporary jazz cut with a chunky rhythm atop which Lenz dances exuberantly. The rhythm team of bassist Dave Edwards and drummer Abe Fogle maintains a muscular pulse that propels Lenz’s happy riffage, at times spiked with a bit of wah-wah pedal, while keyboardist Dan Paul further fattens the sound. Lenz, whose music has been used in television programs including Breaking Bad and Young Sheldon, also recruited his mentor, guitarist Mike Stern, and trumpeter Randy Brecker, who each play on a song apiece.
  4. Greek guitarist Tassos Spiliotopoulos spent more than a dozen years honing his sound on the London jazz scene before relocating to Stockholm, Sweden. Apparently, the move has been a fruitful one for the Athens native, who has just released his fifth album, Ballad for a New World (Anelia). Spiliotopoulos assembled a quartet with simpatico Swedish jazz musicians who enrich the guitarist’s moody, evocative soundscapes. Seemingly brimming with optimism, lovely opener “New Land” begins with a conversation between John Knutsson’s soprano saxophone and Spiliotopoulos’ guitar, sensitively bolstered by Robert Erlandsson’s spacious bass intonations and Fredrik Rundqvist’s shivery brush drumming. The leader showcases gorgeous tone and phrasing on his solo, before handing off to Knutsson for an equally compelling solo turn. Spiliotopoulos composed the music on the album as a reaction to the many challenges facing the world — the pandemic, war, an economic downturn — but Ballad for a New World offers a balm rather than a distressingly bleak outlook.
  5. Danish-born guitarist Kristian Borring found like-minded colleagues in the Perth, Australia-based rhythm team of bassist Zac Grafton and drummer Peter Evans. The trio mates bonded over their obsession with quirky time signatures, which they apply to original music as well as to arrangements of a few Charlie Parker tunes on Earth Matters (Cool It!), their debut recording under the band name Number Junky. Borring had established himself on the London jazz scene before making the move Down Under, where he teamed up with American expats Grafton and Evans. The trio also recruited pianist Fabian Almazan, who plays on a few album cuts, including Borring’s lyrical and rhythmically intriguing “The Elf,” included here. From the jump, bass and drums set a blistering tempo. The guitarist’s warm tone and swift fingering dance atop the shifting rhythmic patterns, while Almazan offers typically eloquent interplay and a brilliant solo turn. Number Junky continue to make a name for themselves in their adopted homeland, and with Earth Matters — titled to reflect the urgency of our planet’s environmental death spiral — seem to be bidding for ears above the equator, as well.
  6. Like so many jazz guitarists, Shawn Purcell was awed by the playing of Pat Martino, whose classic album El Hombre truly opened his ears to the possibilities of the guitar-organ trio. And certainly, Martino’s influence echoes throughout 180 (Origin), the Washington, D.C.-based Purcell’s most recent release. Teaming up with organ virtuoso Pat Bianchi and drum phenom Jason Tiemann, Purcell explores and updates the dynamics of the classic organ trio. The guitarist also reveals inspiration in touchstones such as Wes Montgomery and Grant Green, as well as rock-influenced players such as John Scofield and Mike Stern. On the opening “Cat and Mouse,” our selection, the threesome bursts from the gate, driven by Tiemann’s rhythmic attack and Bianchi’s churning bass lines. Purcell’s liquid-fire delivery displays a remarkable acuity, and he’s equally compelling while comping behind Bianchi’s heart-racing solo. Tiemann, as throughout, sets the pace with his relentless yet tasteful time-keeping. Of course, the song’s title begs the question: Just who is the cat and who is the mouse?
  7. Nearly a decade has passed between Jussi Reijonen’s 2013 debut album, un, and its followup, the recently released Three Seconds/Kolme Toista  (Challenge). The Finnish-born guitarist, oud player and composer had hit a creative wall, so he took time between recordings to reflect upon his musical identity and to retool his approach. Reijonen’s new vision is reflected on Three Seconds, which utilizes a nine-piece ensemble that weaves together his international background — he’s lived in Finland, Jordan, Tanzania and the U.S., among other locales — via his writing and musicians who also span the globe. “Verso,” included here, starts sparsely, with Reijonen’s classical-sounding acoustic guitar setting a rather dark and introspective mood. The piece grows in intensity as his bandmates join the fray, with trumpeter Jason Palmer and Jordanian/Iraqi violinist Layth Sidiq trading fiery solos, and rhythmic tension provided by bassist Kyle Miles, Japanese percussionist Keita Ogama and drummer Vancil Cooper. The song’s outro takes yet another turn, providing a rather melancholy coda with brass and strings. In Latin, the word “verso” refers to the left-hand page of an open book, but in Finnish it means “to sprout or grow,” so the song’s meaning is open to interpretation.
  8. The partnership between George Winstone and Ben Monder grew from the London-born saxophonist approaching the native New York guitar phenom after a gig and asking him for a lesson. Winstone, who had recently moved to New York, and Monder hit if off and later played an all-improvised show at Brooklyn’s Ornithology, causing some enthused audience members to urge them to record what they’d just witnessed. The resulting self-released Odysseus, due in early 2023, reveals the sonic and aesthetic simpatico shared by the musicians throughout a cinematic, nine-part suite. Neither Winstone nor Monder created the work with the Greek hero of myth in mind, but certainly they conjure the dramatic scope, majesty and mystery of the Homeric epic and seem to imply a narrative arc. “Part VII,” our selection, features shivery, reverberant guitar and stark, lonesome saxophone, inviting listeners to recall Odysseus, having survived a series of otherworldly tribulations, as he reflects on his much-missed home and hope for return.
  9. Hailing from the deep-red state of Tennessee, Doug Wamble has witnessed up close the disastrous and divisive politics that have riven the country. On Blues in the Present Tense (Halcyonic), his first album of all-original music, the Memphis-raised, New York-based guitarist, vocalist and songwriter takes aim at Trumpism and the underlying racial and religious bigotries that have driven many of its adherents. And while the songs’ messages are quite pointed (one track is titled “Maga Brain”), the music itself is top-flight, blues-inspired jazz with some Ornette Coleman-inspired tonalities. Largely, that’s due to an A-list backing band comprising bassist Eric Revis, drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts and saxophonist Prometheus Jones, who convened with Wamble at a Brooklyn recording studio earlier this year. Rather than raging, Wamble sings in a conversational style tinged with melancholy and disappointment, his single-string guitar style borrowing from jazz and blues traditions, as heard on kickoff track “Homesick,” our selection. Revis and Watts churn an anxious groove and Jones blows a tense and fiery solo that underlines the song’s message. An associate of Wynton Marsalis and a regular contributor to Ken Burns’ PBS documentary soundtracks, Wamble seems well-suited to make this musical statement.
  10. Over the years, Cincinnati native Greg Chako has held a series of day jobs in addition to his work as a performing and recording jazz guitarist. Early on, the Berklee School of Music grad worked in restaurant and hotel kitchens in New York and Massachusetts, and later held down a gig as a promoter of concerts and festivals. When the pandemic descended in 2020, he drove semi-trucks. It was during long stretches behind the wheel of a big rig that Chako composed in his head about half the music that appears on his latest recording Friends, Old & New (Mint400/Raining Music) — the remaining songs hail from his time in Japan, where he was living in 2008. The album’s title refers to the personnel who accompany Chako throughout and whose relationships with the guitarist range from 50 years (percussionist Ted Wilburn) to three months (vocalist Albina Anneken). Among the tunes penned in Japan, the breezy “Samba Summer” showcases Chako’s affinity for Brazilian music, and appears in both vocal and instrumental versions on the album. Anneken and Kaleb James supply the wordless vocals on the former, included here, which also allows Chako to display his soulful, crystalline picking as he surfs the lively yet laid-back samba rhythm.

Disc Two: Critics’ Picks

  1. Guitarist Grant Geissman has always displayed a bluesy tinge in his playing. However, his latest release, Blooz (Futurism/Mesa/Bluemoon), puts the focus squarely on the form, albeit in permutations beyond the usual I-IV-V chord changes. Geissman, who made his name with Chuck Mangione’s band in the 1970s, sounds like he’s having a blast on a set of lively original compositions that feature Adderley Brothers-style call-and-response, sinewy Latin lines that nod to Carlos Santana, greasy, horn-punctuated funk, heated organ trio and even twangy rockabilly. Armed with a selection of vintage axes, Geissman assembled a high-octane guest list to join him and his exciting rhythm section of bassist Trey Henry and drummer Ray Brinker. Randy Brecker, Tom Scott, John Jorgenson and blues guitar slingers Josh Smith and Joe Bonamassa are among those invited to the party. Russell Ferrante of Yellowjackets fame lends supple acoustic piano to the moody “Time Enough at Last,” included here, with the guitarist nodding to touchstones such as Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall.
  2. As a teen prodigy, guitarist Bobby Broom established his bona fides early on, playing with bop greats Al Haig and Walter Bishop Jr. and going on to score gigs with Art Blakey and Sonny Rollins. Of course, he’s also had a stellar career as a leader, which is reflected in his 40-plus-year discography. On his most recent release, Keyed Up (Steele), Broom welcomes a pianist to the bandstand, something he hasn’t done too frequently. However, piano players have proven influential to the Chicago-based guitarist’s musical conception, and he honors touchstones James Williams, Ramsey Lewis, Jodie Christian and McCoy Tyner, among others, on the new album. Ably filling the piano chair, up-and-comer Justin Dillard comps and solos with great feeling and sensitivity, as evidenced by his accompaniment on the leadoff track, Bud Powell’s “Hallucinations (Budo).” With speed and precision, Broom expertly evinces Powell’s frenetic attack, shadowed by Dillard and supported by the superb rhythm section of bassist Dennis Carroll and drummer Kobie Watkins. Broom doesn’t subscribe to the idea that guitar and piano necessarily trip over one another, particularly if the musicians are copacetic. “We’re all accompanists,” he told JAZZIZ contributor Shaun Brady. “We should both be able to comp at the same time in a way that I do not get in the way of a pianist’s harmonic idea in the moment, and vice versa.”
  3. Kindred souls unite on Ron Bosse’s Burning Room Only (Deep Cat), a collaboration between the veteran Boston-based guitarist and contemporary-jazz giant Jeff Lorber. Shared sensibilities are obvious throughout the 11-track set, with Lorber contributing to the writing, playing and assembling of the backing musicians. Bassist Jimmy Haslip, drummer Gary Novak and a two-man horn section of saxophonists Bob Mintzer and Bob Reynolds (of Snarky Puppy) are among the A-list players bolstering Bosse’s spark-throwing fret work. Quite naturally, Pat Martino was an enormous influence on the Berklee College of Music alum, who spent quite a bit of time listening to the late jazz icon’s El Hombre LP. “Ever since hearing that album,” he says in a press release, “I’ve wanted to record an album that was groove-oriented, with a contemporary rhythm section, but where the guitar still had a classic clean jazz tone, and the solos were super swinging.” Mission accomplished, particularly on the deeply grooving “Aerodynamic,” included here, which bears a dedication to Martino. David Mann’s punchy horn arrangements punctuate the track, which starts out with Lorber’s boogeying keyboard attack and gives way to Bosse’s swift, clean-burning lines. Guitar Player magazine once recognized Bosse as a “master in the making,” and he’s living up to that promise.
  4. In the 1970s, Calvin Keys played on classic soul-jazz albums for the Black Jazz label, including his 1971 debut, Shawn-Neeq, and on Doug Carn’s Adam’s Apple. A native of Omaha, the guitarist worked in the bands of Ray Charles and Ahmad Jamal, but only recorded under his own name sporadically. Then, in 1997, while recovering from quadruple bypass surgery, Keys received a visit in the hospital from Wide Hive label head Gregory Howe, who was determined to record him. Howe brought Keys to the studio for the sessions that produced the critically well-received Detours: Into Unconscious Rhythms (2000), and a handful of recordings on Wide Hive ensued. The most recent, Blue Keys, finds the guitarist in the company of saxophonist Gary Bartz, trombonist Steve Turre, percussionist Babatunde Lea and longtime associate Henry Franklin on bass. Penned by Franklin and Howe, the slinky “Hudunit,” included here, showcases Keys’ bluesy, single-string picking supported by Franklin’s supple bass lines, Mike Hughes’ subtle drumming and Babatunde’s bopping congas. While Keys’ instrumental voice is readily identifiable, he’s hardly an artifact of an earlier era, continuing to find new expression and expand upon his tonal palette. Asked how his playing differs today from decades ago, he responded, “I think that now I’m playing it better because I know it a little more. Same thing, but different knowledge.”
  5. On his self-released debut album Unfinished Business, Mike Clement offers a spirited update of the classic organ-trio sound. And the New Orleans-based guitarist could hardly have asked for better company, as he’s accompanied by organist Joe Ashlar and drummer Shannon Powell on a rambunctious 10-song romp through original tunes and a few standards. Hailing from Canada’s west coast, Clement received a bachelor’s in Jazz Studies from Vancouver Island University before pursuing his master’s in jazz at the University of New Orleans. Obviously, the Crescent City’s mojo has worked its magic on the guitarist, who comes out blazing from Track 1 on the new album with “Takin’ It Easy,” our selection. The trio establishes a bluesy, laid-back vibe, which builds in intensity, especially when Ashlar sets his Leslies whirling and Powell picks up the pace of his second-line shuffle. Clement, even while doing what the song title suggests, brings the heat with his slinky, clean-burning leads. The future of the organ trio — and jazz guitar — seem to be in good hands.
  6. Canadian guitarist Jocelyn Gould may have come late to jazz, but when she started studying the music in earnest at the University of Manitoba, she made up for lost time. Among the jazz albums she delved into was Wes Montgomery’s Smokin’ at the Half Note, a classic album the guitar icon waxed with the Wynton Kelly Trio. “I listened to that album in my car for, like, a year,” she told JAZZIZ contributor David Pulizzi in a recent interview. And certainly, Montomery’s influence, among others, shines on Gould’s self-released sophomore recording, Golden Hour. Gould’s original compositions, including the buoyant title track, included here, are vividly realized by the guitarist and her excellent quartet of pianist Will Bonness, bassist Rodney Whitaker and drummer Quincy Davis, and they essay a few songbook staples, as well. In addition to her richly toned leads, Gould lends heartfelt vocals to a few tracks, including a moving version of the standard “Cottage for Sale.” Having copped a Juno Award for her debut recording, 2021’s Elegant Traveler, and toured internationally with the likes of Freddy Cole and Etienne Charles, Gould seems destined to win more ears for her artistry.
  7. Wonderland (Sonata Blue Music), the latest release by Detroit-based guitarist Michael Varverakis, is aptly named. Last year, the veteran six-stringer began seriously exploring the 12-tone technique developed by Arnold Schoenberg, which opened up new possibilities for playing and composing. Thus inspired, Varverakis began constructing the music for his new album, a dazzling 10-song solo-guitar excursion utilizing the tones and colors now at his command. On the opening title track, included here, Varverakis indeed evinces a sense of wonder, evoking chamber music, blues and even reverb-laden surf music all within a sweet, concise package. Throughout the album, the guitarist’s warm tone, lovely original tunes and emotional connection to the music entice listeners, at times recalling Bill Frisell’s wide-eyed, inclusive approach to American song. One needn’t be conversant with 12-tone theory to thoroughly enjoy Varverakis’ artistry, which spans a variety of influences. “I love jazz and avant-garde music,” he told JAZZIZ contributor Michael Roberts. “But I love Motown and pop music, too. It’s awesome when it’s done right.”
  8. Growing up in Colorado and California in the 1960s, Paul Mehling regularly dipped into his old man’s record collection. Among the 78s, he found titles by the Hot Club of France, which featured virtuoso performances by Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stéphane Grappelli. However, it wasn’t until he traveled to Europe and witnessed Belgian guitar maestro Jean “Fapy” Lafertin that Mehling decided to dedicate his life to learning this quite specific brand of jazz guitar. After touring with Dan Hicks & the Acoustic Warriors, whose music shared some elements with Gypsy jazz, Mehling formed The Hot Club of San Francisco in the early ’90s to play the music he loved. Starting with their self-titled 1993 debut, the band recorded a string of vibrant albums, which used Gypsy jazz rhythms, tonalities and instrumentation (two acoustic guitars, violin and string bass) as their starting point. While the personnel has shifted over the years — the latest lineup has been together for a decade — the mission remains the same, as evidenced by the recent download-only release Don’t Panic (Panda Digital). The album comprises all original music by Mehling, including tracks from the Hot Club’s 2002 recording Veronica, as well as four new tracks. “Blithe Spirit Samba,” included here, more than lives up to its name, with Mehling, violinist Evan Price and percussionist Julio Ledesma turning in a breezy, lovely tropical performance.
  9. Guitarist Will Bernard came to prominence nearly 30 years ago as a member of the groove-oriented Bay Area trio T.J. Kirk (with fellow guitarist Charlie Hunter and drummer Scott Amendola). As a leader with a significant discography under his own name, Bernard continues to stretch himself artistically, as evidenced by his latest recording, Pondlife (Dreck to Disc). Calling on frequent collaborators John Medeski and Ches Smith, on keyboards and drums, respectively, as well as outstanding bassist Chris Lightcap and saxophonist Tim Berne, Bernard crafts groove-heavy tracks that transcend their funky underpinnings. Such is the case with the mood-rich trio number “Surds,” our selection, a spooky, swampy soundscape that kicks off with Lightcap’s menacing upright bass. Bernard’s knife-edged slide guitar slices through the murk, his footsteps dogged by the irrepressible bass and drums. The tempo shifts as the trio heads down a dark, alternate path, and Bernard conjures a spectrum of specters with his sinewy slide, before Lightcap takes point with a darkly ruminative solo. In the album’s liners, the guitarist explains that the recording is “an attempt to put out some music that is more in an experimental, free jazz meets composition vein that has always been part of my work but is not usually associated with my career direction.”
  10. Higher Grounds (Outside In Music), DO’A’s debut album, is truly an international effort. The Washington, D.C.-based vocalist, guitarist, pianist and composer recorded tracks in Albania, where she was raised, and recruited musicians to lay down their parts remotely in Cuba, Israel, the Canary Islands and Boston. (The regard in which she’s held is obvious via guests such as pianists Harold López-Nussa and Shai Maestro.) Source material for the program includes a song by Brazilian superstar Djavan, a Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn standard, an Albanian folk song and DO’A’s original compositions inspired by writings from the Baha’i faith. Joined by percussionist Shango Dely, the self-taught guitarist accompanies herself on “Lámpara,” our selection, her wistful voice and the insistent rhythms at once evoking bossa nova and Eastern European folk tradition in a tantalizing mashup. DO’A is something of a tantalizing mashup herself; she boasts German, Iranian and Italian roots, her mother is an esteemed classical pianist, she fluently speaks six languages and she’s pursuing her doctorate in mathematics at the University of Maryland.
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