Saturday, April 30, 2011


Jazz trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire
My friend Luis Torregrosa, an avid jazz fan, raved about you. Ambrose, Luis suggested I catch your show at the Detroit Institute of the Arts. Luis emailed me reviews of your past concerts published in the Wall Street Journal and the Village Voice. The reviews were glowing. I also read a story about you in the May issue of Jazz Times. Jazz critic Geoffrey Himes wrote the story. Himes explained how you compose. Yesterday, a few hours before I set sail for your show, I watched video footage of you on YouTube.

The reviews Luis emailed me understated your abilities. Your show in the Rivera Court of the DIA was out of sight. Ambrose, your band bass player Harish Ragavan, piano player Sam Harris, sax player Walter Smith III, and drummer Justin Brown was so engaging and magical the men in the Diego Rivera mural stopped working to hear your band.

Ambrose, the band was tighter than new dress shoes. The original songs your band played were intricate and had as many layers as a wedding cake. The capacity crowd was sucked in right away, loving how you arranged “Confession of My Unborn Daughter” so it smoothly segued into “Few and Far Between”.The crowd didn’t get the “Tear Stained Suicide Manifesto”. Geoffrey Himes touched on the song's evolution in his Jazz Times story. “Tear Stained Suicide Manifesto” was a bit disturbing. On "Kenya, I thought you were going to blow the people in the first three rows out of their seats.

Ambrose, most trumpet players of your elk and generation main influence is obvious. For example, the first time I heard Sean Jones right away I knew he was inspired by Clifford Brown. But, Ambrose, I couldn’t tell who turned you on. I suspect you listened to all the great jazz trumpet players. How could you not and be as magnificent as you are? During intermission, I heard a man compare you to Miles Davis. That was a knee-jerk comparison. Mile Davis influenced most jazz trumpet players. Anyway, thanks for playing all original songs. I get sick and tired of hearing youngsters playing oldies. Luis was right praising you. You are the future of jazz.

Monday, April 25, 2011


The bassoon is an oblong looking woodwind instrument and a close relative of  double reed instruments. The bassoon plays music composed in the bass and tenor register. The instrument was made in the 1600’s and is mostly used for classical and chamber music. Some noted jazz musician test drove the bassoon.

The instrument surfaced in jazz during 20's. Big band leader Paul Whiteman occasionally employed a bassoon player. Sax men Yusef Lateef, Marshall Allen, and Hugh Lawson played the bassoon. Daniel Smith, a classical trained musician, popularized the bassoon like Eric Dolphy popularized the bass clarinet.

 Smith has made classical and jazz recordings. He’s considered a top bassoon player. Smith’s last jazz album was “Blue Bassoon”. It was an acclaimed jazz-blues date. Summit Records unveil his new album “Bassoon Goes Latin Jazz” last month. Smith gave some well-know jazz songs—“Mr. Kenyetta”, “Watermelon Man, “Yardbird Suite, and “Listen Here”—a Latin makeover. Oddly, Smith didn’t hire any Latin jazz musicians. I guess you don’t really need them to make a convincing Latin jazz album, which Smith succeeded at doing.

Super trombonist Roswell Rudd made a cameo on the album’s best track “Watermelon Man”. Smith knows the Latin jazz language backward and forward. And so does his sidemen. They worked best on up-tempo songs. Pianist Daniel Kelly was the MVP. Kelly’s fingers seemed possessed on up-tempo numbers “Listen Here” and “Come Condela”. Kelly played tenderly on “Black Orpheus” as if his fingers were cashmere. “Bassoon Goes Latin Jazz” isn’t a groundbreaking jazz album. But is an enjoyable one.

Saturday, April 23, 2011


"Gladwell” could easily be mistaken as an offbeat jazz album. Some old-fashion jazz fans may even question if it’s authentic jazz. I believe the album’s creator jazz guitarist Julian Lage meant for “Gladwell” to be   eclectic. This album is his follow up to the Grammy nominated “Sounding Point”. Emarcy Records unveils to the public “Gladwell” on Tuesday.

Lage’s style is like the gypsy jazz co-creator Django Reinhart. Lage can strum fast as if his fingers are mini-race cars. He can play melodically, too. Lage explains that “Gladwell” is a story driven album with each song representing a fictional character. Labeling “Gladwell,” a musical novel wouldn’t be off base.

On “Gladwell”, Lage mixes an array of his interests jazz, bluegrass, Latin, chamber music and American folk music. Somehow, he makes it work. Cellist Aristides Rivas, bass player Jorge Rodedert, saxophonist Dan Blake and drummer Tupac Mantilla are vital to the album’s appeal.

“Gladwell,” opens strong. The group exerts its will on “233 Butler”. Lage doesn’t allow us to get comfortable. He changes the mood often. “Margaret” is a teddy bear soft ballad. Lage’s guitar blends with the tenor sax and the cello. At the end, Blake and Rivas come up with lighthearted sound effects on their instruments. Lage has a private moment with the Mantilla on “Iowa Taken”. On all 12 cuts, Lage proves he’s an uncommon jazz guitarist, especially on “Cocoon,” which he plays alone. I recommend “Gladwell” if you long for an eclectic jazz album.

Friday, April 22, 2011


Anat Cohen photo by John Rodgers

At Orchestra Hall yesterday evening, the Anat Cohen quartet played a double bill with the Hot Club of Detroit. Unfortunately, there weren’t enough people there to take in the best concert of this year’s Paradise Jazz Series. The HCD performed first. They played songs from their self-titled first album and their current project “It’s About That Time”. 

For years, the HCD has been Detroit’s hottest jazz group, and they’ve built a national following. On the stage, they look like frat-brothers. They’ve put their spin on what’s known as gypsy jazz. Last night, when they performed “It’s About That Time,” they showed how modern and creative they truly are.

The HCD opened ‘It’s About That Time,” with guitarists Evan Perri and Paul Brady passing pieces of the melody back and forth like cheat sheets. After bassist Andrew Kratzat soloed, saxophonist Carl Cafagna rose. He added several choruses of Charles Mingus’ “Nostalgia in Time Square”. It was the highpoint of the HCD’s set. Cafagna an unsung in Detroit. The city is full of brilliant sax players. Cafagna has horsepower. He always uses that power prudently. Never going overboard when soloing and improvising.

Sadly, last night’s set was his last with the HCD for a while. Their touring has picked up. Cafagna is a family man foremost. Touring has taken its toll. He isn’t putting away his horns for good. He will still run his own band and gig with the Metro Jazz Voices. But, with Cafagna gone and until HCD finds a suitable replacement (which will be difficult), the HCD will be like a Bentley without doors.

Anat Cohen followed the HCD. In 2005, Anzic Records made public “Place and Time,” Cohen’s first recording. Since then, the clarinet player has been praised by some noted jazz reporters. Cohen brought a colorful band to Orchestra Hall bassist Joe Martin, drummer Daniel Freedman and pianist Jason Linder.

Cohen’s guys were playful. Freedman is more of a free jazz drummer. The audience was thrilled watching. Freedman played the drums with his hand and his right elbow on “All Brothers”. Cohen is equally playful.
She’s a spirited boss. When her guys soloed, she gravitated to them, egging them on. Cohen is in the same league as fellow clarinet players Wendell Harrison and the late Pee Wee Russell. 

Cohen ended her set by inviting the HDC back on stage to play Django Reinhart’s ditty “Minor Swing”. It was freewheeling, and the audience ate it up. The only shortcoming was the bands blazed through the sets. The sets should’ve been longer. After Cohen signed autographs, she said she isn’t accustom to playing short sets. She wished her band was given more time. Neither band wasted what little time they had.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


I'm finally caught up. Pepper, I’ve been writing album reviews for the past month or so. Some jazz labels--Dark Key Music, Jazz Legacy Productions and Mack Avenue Records--sent me some choice new releases. The albums were pretty good. Now that my desk is clear, I get to take a break before the mail carrier drops off another stack of new albums. Pepper, I wanted to hear some old school jazz. The kind jazz musicians of your generation made, so I played your album “Encounter!”. One of your best dates in my book. Do you recall making it? Prestige put it out in 1964. 

Your Detroit running buddies Ron Carter, Tommy Flanagan, and Elvin Jones played on "Encounter!". What a star-studded rhythm section that was. The band bounce from cookers to ballads. And you made the occasion  extra special by sharing the front line with fellow saxophonist Zoot Sims. He gave "Encounter!" that West Coast cool flavor. A tenor and baritone on the front line what a novel concept.

"Encounter!" opened with “Inanout”. You and Sims started blowing like mad right away, trading measures like penny stocks, giving the impression “Encounter!” would be a saxophone battle album. Like "Setting the Pace" with Dexter Gordon and Booker Ervin, and the all out blowing sessions Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons had. But you threw the listeners a curves by following up “Inanout” with the ballad “Star-Crossed Lovers”. You shifted the emphasis from you and Sims to Flanagan. The pianist had a sweet way of playing ballads that would’ve made a mountain lion blush.

You’re also the consummate balladeer, down shifting the baritone to the low register. Doing that made your horn mimic a human voice. I thought the horn would float from your hands on “Serenity" and “I’ve Just Seen Her”. You didn’t neglect your rhythm section either.

Carter, Flanagan, and Jones got a piece of the action. Carter kept time more accurately than a pawnshop Rolex. Jones has the final say on "Verdandi," the album's last song. Jones' sounded was so multi-layered I was convinced Jones was playing multiple solos simultaneously. Pepper, I have to stop now. The mail carrier just pulled up.

Monday, April 18, 2011


Trumpeter Laura Kahle is a noted arranger and composer. Kahle has written charts for many popular jazz bands and orchestras--the Branford Marsalis Septet, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and Bill Lee and the Natural Spiritual Orchestra--are some that come to mind. Tuesday, Dark Key Music makes available "Cicular," Kahle’s first album as a leader.

Kahle wrote 11 originals and a bonus song. That song is untitled and is oddly one of the album’s bright spots. Otherwise, "Circular" is a deficient debut given the caliber of talent Kahle signed up.

Kahle put together a tough band. She deserves kudos for pulling that off. Saxophonist JD Allen and Yosvany Terry, bassist Orlando le Fleming, and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts play on “Circular”. But the date has deficiencies. The most glaring one is Kahle's failure to give her star-studded supporting cast any really interesting songs to play. Kahle plays the pocket trumpet. And she sounds like an amateur, struggling to keep up.

“Circular” has some good things worth pointing out. Allen is one of the top saxophonists alive. He could've burn down the studio on “20/20 Vision”. Allen and Watts get into a spirited exchange on “Touch & Go”. Watts plays an atomic solo after the exchange. That’s it for the album’s highlights.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


Pianist Benny Green’s natural habitat is the trio. If you want proof, listen to Green's new album "Source" on Jazz Legacy Productions. "Source" is a bona fide trio jazz album, and Green’s first trio date in ten years. Green handpicked ten of his favorite songs by jazz giants such as Dizzy Gillespie, Horace Silver, Mel Torme and Bud Powell. A big undertaking Green pulled off.

His sidemen are drummer Kenny Washington and bassist Peter Washington. Green has teamed up with them before. They’ve a brotherly bond. On “Cool Green,” Peter trots with the bass instead of walking it. Kenny is an uncomplicated drummer. He’s perfect for Green. They volley the notes to “Tempus Fugit” back and forth like tennis pros.

Technically, Green is perfect like pianist Oscar Peterson. Green is not a heavy-handed improviser. Again, if proof is necessary, go to “Blue Minor and “Opus De Funk”. Green is also a terrific balladeer. On “I Wait for You,” “Park Avenue Petite,” and “Born to Be Blue, his fingers melt all over the piano keys like heated chocolate. Instead of remaking the songs on “Source,” Green polishes them.

Thursday, April 14, 2011


The late jazz bassist Don Mayberry
Jazz guitarist A. Spencer Barefield emailed me the bad news yesterday. Your wife found you in the basement of your Farmington Hills home dead. You had a massive heart attack. Don, I planned to hang out at a house concert yesterday evening. I was too upset to go. I sat numb for a long time. I reminisced about how I loved watching you walk the bass.

I used to catch you Wednesdays at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge. Drummer George Davidson and the late pianist Teddy Harris, Jr. were your band-mates. When you soloed, notes dripped off your bass like beads of sweat. And you always had this orgasmic facial expression like the music massaged your soul. In 2004, I scored a telephone interview with you. I told my friend jazz historian Jim Gallert. He warned me you that it would be tough getting you to open up about your accomplishments.

I was working on a story about Baker’s 70th anniversary. You had a history with the jazz club. You used to hang out there with your dad. You’re 14-year-old and hooked on the upright bass. Your dad knew most of Baker’s staff. When famous jazz bassists such as Ron Carter, Charles Mingus and Sam Jones performed there, your dad pulled some strings to get you in. You hung out with the bassists in the dressing room. They gave you pointers. 

That was as much of your life story you'd divulge. You cut the interview short. I tried to slip in questions unrelated to you affiliation with Baker’s. I didn’t get a chance to ask which bassists influenced you most. Anyway, what you divulged I used in the story. Don, you’re in the same league with Carter, Mingus, and Jones. I bet many of your fans would agree. Detroit produced many jazz bassists. I can brag I interviewed the greatest.


As a sideman, Jeff “Tain” Watts left his footprints on many outstanding jazz albums, particularly those he played on as a member of the Branford Marsalis quartet such as “Contemporary Jazz” and “Braggtown”. Watts has put out some excellent albums as well. His last, “Watts,” was my top jazz album of 2009. Tuesday, Dark Key Music drops “Family” Watts' new offering “Family”.

On “Family”, Watts plays with pianist David Kikoski, bassist James Genus and saxophonist Steve Wilson. Watts also wrote a batch of new songs. “Of August Moon,” “Jonesin’ (for Elvin),” and “Torch E-Ternal” are the songs that shows Watts’ band-mates have team spirit. They are flexible and aggressive. Wilson is Watts’ go-to-guy. Wilson is a tasteful sax player. He never grandstands. I became a fan after hearing him perform at the Detroit International Jazz Festival last year. I still breakout in a cold sweat thinking about his soloing.

On Watt’s last album, he decided not to use a pianist. This time around, Watts calls on Kikoski, and he shows he’s grateful by playing like a man happy to have a steady job in a depressed economy. Watts wrote terrific songs and his guys have a grand time playing them. Watts has a few choice moments. The one that standout the most is his prelude on a “A Wreath for John T. Smith”. He sounds as if he's playing two sets of drums as the same time.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Bassist Dave Holland
Yesterday, Terri Pontremoli, the Detroit jazz festival's Artistic Director, made public the lineup for the 2011 Detroit Jazz Festival. “We Bring You the World” is this year's theme. Pontremoli, booked jazz acts from Africa, Japan and Brazil, making the four-day event global friendly. Composer and bandleader Jeff “Tain” Watts is the festival’s Artist-in-Residence. The drummer will perform in a number configurations. Some of the internationally acclaimed acts on the bill are Jason Moran, Vijay Iyer, Joe Lovano Us Five, Steve Wilson & Wilsonian’s Grain, Dave Holland Octet and the Anat Cohen Quartet. The DJF was recently haled as one of the top five jazz festivals in the world. The jazz festival runs September 2nd through 5th. For the complete lineup visit

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


Drummer Adam Cruz has proven his worth as a sideman. Cruz worked for trumpeter Tom Harrell, saxophonists Pharaoh Sanders and Paquito D'Rivera. For 10 years, Cruz punched the clock in the Danilo Perez trio. Cruz has enough work experience under his belt now to be an effective session leader. Perez  had  a big influence on Cruz style of composing. Like Perez, Cruz writes abstract compositions. “Milestone”is Cruz's debut as the boss. He wrote eight originals for the album. 

“Milestone” opens with a long composition “Secret Life”. Cruz hand stitched the composition to suit  saxophonist Chris Potter. Potter is a blunt improviser, and he never backs down from challenging material. Cruz hired other like minded saxophonists the 2008 Guggenhiem and MacArthur fellow Miguel Zenon, and Steve Wilson, a featured soloist in the Maria Schneider Orchestra. The saxophonists generate excitement and are comfortable under Cruz’s supervision. 

On “Resonance,” Zenon dispenses notes like a coin machine. Wilson plays jump rope with the chord changes on "Magic Ladder". Cruz is a self-less boss. His drumming style is laid-back like the great Blue Note session drummer Joe Chambers. Cruz only took a few quick solos on “Milestone”. After years of being a grunt, Cruz has deservingly moved to the next level.

Monday, April 11, 2011


The original member's of the jazz ensemble Tribe
Saxophonist Wendell Harrison and trombonist Phil Ranelin formed Tribe in 1971. The jazz band performed Sundays at Alvin’s, a neighborhood hang out on Palmer St. frequented by artists, musicians and writers. Some of Detroit’s top jazz musicians were members of Tribe trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, bassist Doug Hammond and pianist Harold McKinney. The group played  a mix of jazz, funk, and Afro-Cuban music.

Harrison and Ranelin also published Tribe and ran a Tribe Records. The magazine had a political and social  bent consistent with the time, and the record label the put out a string of albums by individual members. “An Evening with the Devil (Harris),” “Voices and Rhythms of the Creative Profile,(McKinney)” “Gemini II,”(Belgrave) and “Vibe from the Tribe (Ranelin)”. In 1975, Tribe disbanded. The members move and had successful careers.

Sunday, at the Charles E. Wright Museum, in Detroit’s cultural center, three of Tribe’s original members Harrison, Belgrave and Ranelin reunited. With a banner rhythm section, they performed nearly two-hours. The museum was packed, showing Tribe still has a  following.

Harrison, Belgrave and Ranelin are old enough to collect social security, but musically they still have staying power. Besides, they are still remarkable improvisers. On their solos, they dug deep. Tribe performed mostly music Harrison and Ranelin wrote during Tribe’s heyday such as “The Ride,” “Vibe from the Tribe” and “Livin’ in a New Day”.

Tribe’s rhythm section pianist Geri Allen, bassist Robert Hurst, drummer Karriem Riggins and percussionist Okyerema Asante were outstanding. Asante is from Ghana. In the past, he’s performed with trumpeter Hugh Masekela’s, Fleetwood Mac, and the Jazz Crusaders. Asante amused the crowd playing a assortment of gadgets.

On “Vibe from the Tribe,” Allen and Riggins got into a lively exchange, which the crowd enjoyed. Both were wild.  Allen thrashed and banged the piano keys with her hands and elbows. She seemed determined to upstage Riggins. Allen was busy all evening. She bounced from the Fender Rhodes to the piano.

The guest spot by vocalist Joan Belgrave, bassist Ralphe Armstrong, guitarist John Arnold, and the Lisa McCall dancers was overall. Back in the day, Tribe always put on an exciting show. The reunion concert lived up to that reputation.

Saturday, April 9, 2011


The late pianist Kenn Cox
 I found a letter you wrote to me in 2004. Kenn, I forgot I kept the letter. I stuffed it inside my copy of Time magazine with Thelonious Monk on the cover. I wrote in a Metrotimes article trumpeter Marcus Belgrave mentored James Carter. The factoid was wrong, and it upset you. You expressed your outrage. You ended the letter demanding I apologize to Detroit’s jazz community. I made a careless mistake. Your response was over the top. The editor published the letter and a correction.

That was the only time I upset a jazz musician of your standing. We never met face to face. In 2006, we finally met. I interviewed you for a Metrotimes story. You were the smartest jazz musician I ever met.

Lately, Kenn, I’ve been thinking about Detroit jazz musicians who died not long ago. I can’t explain why. I recently dreamt about saxophonist Donald Walden. Last week, something triggered a memory about pianist Harold McKinney. I used to hang out at his weekly jazz workshop at the former SereNgeti Ballroom on Woodward Ave, and I thought about the first time I talked to him. Today, you’re on my mind. Physically, you all have moved on, but you all spirit and music is alive.

Rereading your letter made me look back on the first time we met. We drank Budweiser beer in your den, and you talked about studying under Alice Coltrane, and working with jazz singer Etta Jones. You said the downside to working a long time with singers is your chops get weak. You had to woodshed after you left Jones’ band. You could hardly swing like you used to.In December, I interviewed pianist Johnny O’Neal. He believes backing a singer is a good way for a jazz piano player to stay sharp.

Months before we met, Blue Note records reissued “Introducing Kenny Cox and the Contemporary Jazz Quintet” and “Multidirection” on a single disc. They are my favorite Blue Note recordings. The quintet was tough with you and drummer Danny Spencer holding down the rhythm section, and trumpeter Charles Moore and saxophonist Leon Henderson on the front line. I’m playing the album right now. Moore is soloing on Henderson’s original “Diahnn”.

During the interview, you said he was a better saxophonist than his big brother Joe. I found that hard to believe. Joe Henderson was one of Blue Note’s top artist. He made some terrific albums for the label “Inner Urge,” “Page One,” and Our Thing”.Joe was well known. I wonder if jazz fans outside Detroit are hip to Leon, and if other Detroit jazz musicians felt he was better. I asked several of them. They agreed Leon was stronger.
But neither knew what happened to Leon. I discovered he played with trumpeter Ed Nuccilli’s orchestra after the Contemporary Jazz Quintet split. Nuccilli fired him. The orchestra had a dress code. Leon refused to follow it. Surprisingly, no one seemed to care if Leon was dead or alive.

Kenn, the article I wrote about you “Reintroducing Kenn Cox" turned out better than I hoped. The Association of Alternative Newspaper’s wire service circulated the article. I began listening to your music in earnest. My editor W. Kim Heron loaned me some live recordings of your Gorilla Jam Band, and Kenn Cox and Drum band. I wanted to keep those recordings, but Kim wouldn’t let me. You made some wonderful music,

Kenn, James Carter is my favorite jazz musician. I listen to Carter’s music all the time, particularly “Live at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge”. I was at Baker’s when Atlantic recorded that album. I listened to your solo on Leonard Feather’s ballad “Low Flame” a million times. I always get emotional. My admiration for you grew every time I heard you perform. I was bummed out for a long time after you died.

I missed your funeral. I cannot recall why. Kenn, I will never know why my incorrectly crediting Marcus Belgrave as one of James Carter’s mentors upset you so much, but I’m sorry it did.

Thursday, April 7, 2011


Drummer Ralph Peterson has something in common with his idol Art Blakey. Their bands were schools, and they groomed their pupils to be jazz stars. Many accomplished players served under Blakey. Peterson groomed his fair share of current stars. Trumpeter Sean Jones, saxophonist Tia Fuller, and pianist Orrin Evans did their apprenticeship in Peterson's band. Each musician grew into top-notch bandleaders, and they have excellent discographies to prove it.

On Peterson's new album “Outer Reaches,” the drummer salutes the late jazz organist Larry Young’s 1965 Blue Note album “Unity”. Before Young hooked up with Blue Note, he made several soul-jazz albums for Prestige Records. A jazz critic once dubbed Young the John Coltrane of the organ. The organist was a deep thinker and an intense improviser. "Unity" was one of Peterson's all-time favorite jazz albums. Peterson plays four tunes from “Unity” “The Moontrane,” “Monk’s Dream,” “Beyond the Limits,” and “Zoltan”.

"Outer Reaches" is also a nob to the influence Blakey had on Peterson. He bonded with Blakey while a member of Blakey's two drum big band. Peterson's band has the same intensity and team spirits as Blakey’s various groups had. On “Outer Reaches,” Peterson lays in the cut, and rations out the spotlight to trumpeter Josh Evans, saxophonist Jovan Alexandre and organist Pat Bianchi.

Of the bunch, Bianchi has the strongest presence. He runs through “Inside Job” as if his feet are on fire. Evans and Alexandre are greedy improvisers. They gobble the notes on “Wee Three Kings,” and “Monk’s Dream” like appetizers. “Spectrum,” is the album's only eyesore. The tune is too way out, and it should've failed inspection. Other than that, "Outer Reaches" is a primo tribute album, and a platform for his current band of star pupils Evans, Alexandre, and Bianchi. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


In 2004, Penny Wells released “Shine,” her first album. The vocalist co-wrote the songs with pianist Al McKenzie. A brave move considering Wells was still unknown back then. She's from good stock. She's kin to the great jazz pianist Sir Roland Hanna and vocalist Naima Shamborguer. Wells never typecast herself as a jazz or a R&B singer although proficient at both. “Shine” was her’ official coming out party, and regionally it was a big hit. That was seven years ago. 

Last week, Wells unveiled “Close To You”,” her second recording. She escaped the sophomore jinx, the session not measuring up to the promotional hype, and not being as exciting as her first. Wells opted to explore the Burt Bacharach songbook over putting out more originals. Her forte is singing ballads. Bacharach wrote many good ones. Wells picked nine. 

“This Girl’s in Love With You” and “Make it Easy on Yourself" are outstanding. Wells delivers them explicitly. Her alluring voice would give a grizzly bear goose bumps. There's one glaring flaw “I Say a Little Prayer For You”. The song seems out of place, and it doesn't suit Wells' voice. 

Wells has a worthy partner in Al McKenzie, the music director for the Temptations. He's a seasoned producer. When arranging Bacharach's songs, McKenzie was careful to keep the original melodies intact. “Close To You,” feels as if Wells spent the past seven years in the studio perfecting the album, laboring over every small detail. 


Tenor saxophonist Mike Lee and trumpeter Ted Chubb co-lead New Tricks, a quartet they formed with drummer Shawn Baltazor and bassist Kellen Harrison after hooking up at a jam session six years ago. In 2009, the quartet released a self-titled disc. "Alternate Side," an easy to digest post-bop date, is New Tricks' second outing and it's in record stores today. The tunes are originals written by Lee and Chubb. They take a page from Ornette Coleman’s playbook.

"Alternate Side" is similar to Coleman's "Tomorrow is the Question," and "The Shape of Jazz to Come". New Tricks play without a pianist. For such a rambunctious group that's risky. They risk stressing out the drummer and bassist. The pianist is normally shoulders the brunt of harmonic workload. On "Alternate Take," Lee and Chubb assume that responsibility.

A jazz reporter once asked Sonny Rollins why on albums such as “Way Out West” and “The Freedom Suite” he gave the pianist the day off. Rollins explained the fellows in the band rely too much on the pianist. To play in a piano-less situation, a musician must have exceptional chops. Do Lee and Chubb agree with Rollins? That’s unknown. New Tricks piano free rhythm section is exceptional.

"Alternate Side-Parking" and “New Dog are sweltering tunes Lee wrote. Lee--a disciple of the sax apostle Joe Lovano--is aggressive like a storm trooper. Like the late trumpeter Booker Little, Chubb likes to hangout in the upper register of the trumpet. "Vicenza Day" is the only ballad on the disc, giving us a moment to catch our breath before the band takes off again.

You'd think the drummer and bassist would wear out fast without a pianist to help. Neither Baltazor nor Harrison shows any signs of fatigue. Some free jazz music is hard to stomach. The musicians honk, squeal, and thrash as if they’ve lost their minds. On "Alternate Side," New Tricks never go overboard.

Monday, April 4, 2011


Gretchen Parlato has a mellow air like Nora Jones and current sensation Esperanza Spalding. They have a buck-the-status quo mentality. Parlato is a California native. When she was a kid, her parents turned her on to various forms of music. In 2003, she moved to New York. The following year she won the Thelonious Monk Institute International Vocal Competition. Her first disc “In A Dream” followed five years after.  

Tuesday, OBLIQ SOUND releases her new disc “the lost and found, a masterpiece some may mistake as neo-soul. That genre may have influenced Parlato some. But, after inspecting "lost and found," you will concluded it's an unconventional and carefully plotted jazz recording. 

Parlato bends many forms and she stays true to her laid-back approach. She covers Lauryn Hill’s “All That I Can Say”, and she restyles “Holding Back the Years,” a hit for Simply Red in 1990. Her soft voice melts in you hands. Parlato wrote lyrics for Wayne Shorter’s pearl “JuJu”. You’ll be unable to tear your ears away from Parlato’s originals.

Spotting talent is her strengths, too. Ace pianist Robert Glasper rearranged Bill Evans’ “Blue in Green”. Glasper fingerprints are on other tunes as well. She hired pianist Taylor Eigsti, drummer Kendrick Scott and bassist Derrick Hodge. “lost and found” will not fly for working-class jazz fans. Nothing is common about Parlato's approach to making music.

Friday, April 1, 2011


Yesterday, Harold, I watched a 30 minute video on You Tube titled Harold McKinney Jazz Master. Radio personality Nkenge Zola interviewed you. You talked about your childhood. Then you explained how you conceptualize music, and the science of improvising. The video reminded me of our interview in 1997 for the Metrotimes, a weekly newspaper.

Do you remember our conversation? I used  to attend your Detroit Jazz Heritage Performance Lab workshop at the SereNgeti Ballroom Thursday nights.  I was the fellow seated at the back table writing in a reporters notebook.

I watched you coach jazz musicians of various ages and levels of talent. You charged them $10.00 per workshop, which was a bargain. Saxophonists, drummers, pianists, trumpeters, vocalists, and even non-musicians were welcomed.Surprisingly, there were more female singers than instrumentalists. You coached pianists how to accompany singers properly.   

The late pianist Harold McKinney
“You have force her to reach or else she’s going to be self-conscious. I want something underneath her. Build her. Let me hear you articulate every note, “I recall you telling a 16-year-old pianist. When you felt your students were ready, they performed in your annual concert “Jammin’ for Bread”. I asked why you named it that. “Musicians--jazz musicians particularly-- have to jam for their livelihood,” you explained. 

You agreed to an interview you. The Metrotimes wanted me to write about how accomplished Detroit jazz musicians such as Donald Walden, Teddy Harris Jr., and Marcus Belgrave mentored young talent. my editor said the piece would be called: “The Detroit Way: The Masters raise a new generation of jazz musicians”. It was my first article for the newspaper. The interview took place in your living room, and I picked your brain for an hour.

 Weeks later, we had another conversation inside your green Volvo station wagon before the article’s photo shoot. You munched on humus and pita bread. You asked me to include your twin daughters Sienna and Jore in the article. They were good trumpeters and a big part of your weekly workshop.   

By the way, I talked to your daughter, GayeLynn, in November at the Harbor House. She performed with bassist Ralphe Armstrong and vocalist Kimmie Horne. At intermission, GayeLynn told me she planned to raise  some money.  She wants to record an album of your originals. If I were rich, I would bankroll her project.

The “Harold McKinney Jazz Master” video brought back some good memories of the time I spent interviewing you, and hanging out at your workshop, wishing I had some musical talent. I learned a lot about jazz at those Thursday night sessions.  My $10.00 was well spent. Unfortunately, after you died, no one continued the workshop.