Saturday, June 30, 2012


Ben Powell is a self-assured jazz violin player. So much so, Powell believes if Stephane Grappelli--his musical hero, and  the co-founder of the Quintette de Hot Club de France with his homeboy gypsy jazz ace Django Reinhart--were still alive Grappelli would enjoy Powell's debut New Street. That’s not a wishful belief of a young and a cocky jazz musician. At 25, Powell has already built an bulletproof resume'. At Berklee College of Music, Powell studied jazz composition, and he took classes taught by the great saxophone player Joe Lovano. Professionally, Powell worked with some famous musicians such as Herbie Hancock, Gloria Estefan and Paul Simon. 

New Street was designed to be two albums in one. Of the 10 cuts, Powell performed on half of them with his quartet piano player Tadataka Unno, drummer Devin Drobka, and bass player Aaron Darrell. 

The trio has performed regularly for a few years. They’re tighter than a blues musician’s guitar strings. They hauled ass through Powell's up tempo numbers Judith, and Monk 4 Strings. On the rest of New Street, Powell performed with his Stephane Grappelli Tribute Trio. This is were the album shifted from freewheeling to a lovely nod to Grappelli.

The jazz vibraphone player Gary Burton and guitar player Julian Lage are in the trio. Nowadays Lage is popular as a profitable hedge fund. The trio co-exist nicely. Last Monday, Powell checked in with I Dig Jazz to chat about New Street  and how Grappelli's music liberated him.

 Stephane Grappelli had an impact on legions of violinists. How did his music impact you?

Stéphane was the first jazz violinist I ever heard, and really the first jazz album I had ever listened to as a young teenager. Having studied only classical violin up until that point, I was (and continue to be) inspired by Grappelli’s graceful sound and impeccable intonation. As a classical player I really resonated with these qualities in his playing.  Beyond that, the effortless nature of his swinging solos and lyrical interpretations of melodies was so liberating for me.  I couldn’t help but smile and feel overjoyed with inspiration every time I listened, which became daily as I gathered more and more of his material. 

Sounds as if you’re completely floored the first time you heard Grappelli.

Yes, floored is a great word for it. I had never heard the violin sound like that. It was so liberating to me, hearing someone just ‘make it up’ yet sound so in control and play with such great rhythm.

Was it a dream to form the Stephane Grappelli Tribute Trio?

Paying tribute to Stéphane was something I had wanted to do for a while, and this new record presented the perfect opportunity to do it.  I always knew I didn’t want to dedicate an entire album to the tribute, so how to do it in a concise and special way was certainly on my mind. In early 2010 I was corresponding with Gary Burton via email, and it was then I asked him if he would be interested in helping me pay tribute.  Most of our correspondence had been about Grappelli, and his memories of him and their recording of ‘Paris Encounter’.  I met Gary through Julian Lage, so having the three of us together was very fitting.  And so the tribute trio was formed.   

Julian Lage is sensational. He released an excellent disc last year Gladwell. How long have you  been running the streets with him?

The recording session in the Fall of 2011 was the first time we played as a trio.  I had performed on a few occasions with Julian at Berklee, but never before with Gary. 

How different would New Street be if Burton and Lage had not participated?

Good question. Well, the trio added a nice change in timbre to the quartet material, so immediately New Street would not have had the two in one feel it has with the two groups under one title.  I suppose I would have done the tribute anyhow in a different way. Most likely not including vibraphone, but possibly something with guitar and bass in a trio setting.  One will never know!  

Did you have to twist Burton's and Lage's arm to get them to sign on? Or were they receptive from the get-go?

 Gary was very receptive to the idea, but had a busy year with the release of his own record and touring with his Quartet (featuring Julian), and Gary had dates with Chick Corea. Gary informed Julian of the project, and all fell into place once we settled on a date.   

Half of New Street you record with your quartet, and the other half with your trio. Did you feel that listeners, particularly jazz critics would feel you couldn't make up your mind the kind of album you wanted to make? 

 No that never crossed my mind.  It was exactly what I wanted, in that it was almost like two albums in one.  I wanted the more traditional tribute material to complement my more contemporary material with my quartet, and vice versa.  I often felt if Grappelli heard New Street, he would enjoy hearing what I have done with the inspiration he has given me, while also presenting material in his style.    

 I'm going to put you on the spot. Which group do you enjoy performing with the most your quartet or your trio?

I don’t think I’m going to be able to give you a straight answer.  Both contexts were extremely different. Walking into the studio and recording and playing with Gary Burton for the first time was very exhilarating, especially on my own record.  Having the time to rehearse with my quartet and digest the material before entering the studio was also very enjoyable.  Both presented different challenges, but were equally enjoyable as I hope can be heard from the music on New Street.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012


Ravi, it must’ve been tough establishing your own brand given your parents were John and Alice Coltrane. Many jazz fans and critics expected you to continue their legacy, but you set out to build your own. You always struck me as a man serious about making your own way.  I picked up on that the first time I heard you perform live. In 2006, I caught the concert you and Alice played to commemorate you dad's 80th birthday. The concert was held in  Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor Michigan. Charlie Haden and Roy Haynes were in the band.

The band played tunes from your mom’s album Translinear Light.  During the concert, video footage of your dad performing at some jazz festival was shown. A year later, I checked out your set at the Detroit International Jazz Festival,  and I noticed you have some of your dad’s mannerisms. Like your dad, when you improvised, you clutched the tenor and gyrated with it  asif you’re keeping it from jumping from your hands and running off the bandstand.

A few weeks, before the concert  at Hill Auditorium, I interviewed you for a Metrotimes’ article  headlined Ravi’s Giant Steps. You probably forgot what we discussed. I reread that article over the weekend after I played your debut for Blue Note Records Spirit Fiction. I thought about some of the things we discussed.

For example, your first high profile gig was with drummer Elvin Jones’ band. You  felt you're too inexperienced to be in his band. Jones felt otherwise. I understood why you're  afraid to tour with him. Jones was the man who pushed your dad to unimaginable improvisational heights. Jones saw something great in you that you're blind to back then. 

Bob Thiele who produced some of your dads albums asked you to do a cover album of your dad’s music. You refused, explaining the best way to honor him was to not spend your career covering his music. That was an honest and a bold statement. You could’ve made a lot of money going around the country impersonating your dad. 

Ravi, I’ve followed your recording career. Spirit Fiction is your most definitive album. In Flux, From the Round Box, and Moving Pictures were good, and you swung on each, but Spirit Fiction feels like your official mission statement. You swing on a few cuts Klepto and Who Wants Ice Cream for example. Overall, Spirit Fiction is more about virtuosity than swinging.

Spirit Fiction is your first offering in three years. Clearly, you spent considerable time plotting every square inch of it right down to the song selections, to giving Geri Allen the piano chair, to hiring Joe Lovano to produce the project. I wonder if Lovano convinced you to move to Blue Note.

Anyway, it was a smart move. Blue Note has been taking a lot of risks lately. Lovano has been with the company for nearly 30 years, so who better to integrate you into the family. Now that you have a stellar body of work, Spirit Fiction being the best, maybe it’s finally time for you to cover your dad’s music.

Friday, June 22, 2012


Evan Haga, the editor of JazzTimes magazine, came up with an interesting topic for the June cover story. Haga polled a bunch of jazz tenor sax players such as Bob Mintzer, James Carter, Branford Marsalis, Joe Lovano, Sonny Rollins, Mark Turner, Chris Porter, and David Murray. Haga wanted them to list  the  five most important albums by tenor saxophone players. Haga also polled some noted jazz critics.

Albums by Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, and John Coltrane were the overwhelming favorites. Surely, the players and critics polled have heard hundreds of great jazz albums by tenor players, and selecting their five favorite was hard. Haga cover story made me think about the great tenor albums I’ve heard during my career as a jazz reporter and a  blogger. Had Haga asked for my five favorite I would’ve selected these five.

1.) the freedom book (Prestige 1963) Booker Ervin
Ervin was one of the key architects of that mammoth sound Texas’ sax players are known for. Ervin made a trilogy of songbook albums. The freedom book was the sweetest.

2.) Jurassic Classics (DIW 1995) James Carter
   This album represents Carter during his formative and rambunctious stage. On jazz classics such as Take the “A” Train and Equinox, Carter was blowing so hard I believed his sax was going to explode.

3.) Gentle Warrior (Criss Cross Jazz 1997) Tim Warfield
 If Coleman Hawkins had a great grandson, he’d sound and behave like Warfield did on this album. This debut album puts Warfield chops on public display. He’s a natural born improviser with a lot of self-control. Gentle Warrior showed Warfield was custom made for the tenor sax.

4.) boss tenor (Prestige 19 0) Gene Ammons
Ammons never receive the press that his peers John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins did. Ammons wasn’t a master improviser, but he was a tenor player with the story telling skills of a prize winning novelists.

5.) A Monk and A Mingus Among Us ( Jazzworks 1996) Donald Walden
Walden was a nationally respected tenor player. In his hometown, Detroit, Walden was a tenor sax deity.  Detroit was known for producing unique jazz piano players. Detroit also manufactured some awesome tenor players. Walden was a special edition. His tenor work on A Monk and a Mingus Among Us could help fledging tenor players on the science of developing a distinct sound.

Bonus album
Setting the Pace (Prestige 1965) Booker Ervin and Dexter Gordon
 This album documented one of the best blowing sessions in the history of jazz. Booker and Gordon raced through tunes without tripping each other up. This album is dangerously beautiful. I had to wear a hardhat while listening to it.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


Veronica Grandison is a Detroit based music journalist and blogger. She writes the music blog Roots Rhythm and Rhyme. She's a big Esperanza Spalding fan. In early May, Veronica sent me Radio Music Society, which I got around to playing Sunday.

Dear Roni,
Sunday, I finally played Esperanza’s album Radio Music Society. You sent it to me last month, remember? Honestly, I wasn’t in a rush to play it. I have mixed feelings about her.

Back in 2006, when she hit the jazz scene, I didn’t understand all the hype. Heads Up Records must've believed they'd found the next Norah Jones. And if they marketed Esperanza right, she'd sell millions like Jones has. There's nothing wrong with having lofty ambitions. Anyway, I hated Esperanza’s self-titled album, but I enjoyed Chamber Music Society.

Esperanza was all over the map as if she couldn't decide what type of musician she wanted to be, but my feelings about her changed some after I read Alec Wilkinson’s profile of her in the New Yorker.

Growing up, Esperanza was exposed to classical, folk, the blues, rock-n-roll, R&B, jazz, and chamber music. As a professional musician, she used those influences.(I suspect, at some point, she’ll make a classical, a R&B and a blues album. I’m waiting for her to make an acoustic jazz album.)

I questioned if Esperanza deserved the 2010 Grammy for new artist. She had three albums out, and was already a household name. My definition of a new artist must be different than the Grammy committees’.

Roni, Radio Music Society is hot. There’s not one bad cut. Guest stars abound Jack DeJohnette, Lalah Hathaway, Lionel Louske, and Joe Lovano. Esperanza didn't micro-manage them. Her  soft voice and musicianship carried the album.

Hold On Me and I Can’t Help It are my favorites. Esperanza and Lovano turned Stevie Wonder’s song into a jazz ballad. Roni, I have to admit, Esperanza deserves credit for being an individual. Unlike so many other jazz singers, she’s not just singing standards. Roni, thanks for sending me Radio Music Society.


Friday, June 15, 2012


Virginia, I wanted to write you after I listened to your new album “Mary Lou Williams The Next 100 Years,” but I’ve been busy listening to some upcoming jazz albums. Branford Marsalis has one coming in August titled “Four MFs Playin’ Tunes", and. “Spirit Fiction” by Ravi Coltrane will be available at the end of June. High Note Records sent me five of their new releases. My ears have been working overtime.

Right now, I’m listening to “This Time The Dream’s On Me,” a solo piano date by Larry Willis. Come to think of it, Willis style is like Mary Lou’s. Anyway, I won’t get into that. I’m not writing you to compare their playing.

I want to express my fondness for “Mary Lou Williams The Next 100 Years”. It's commendable that you honored her 2010 centennial. I wish the album had come out the same year. It would’ve heightened the celebration.

Unfortunately, her centennial didn't get all the hoopla and press Duke Ellington’s received. Mary Lou's impact on jazz was big as well. Mary Lou taught Bird, Dizzy, Monk, and many other jazz musicians of the be bop era how to play changes at a devilishly fast tempo. Of course, you’re familiar with that piece of Mary Lou’s story.

The person who wrote the press release compared you to sax players Dexter Gordon, and Sonny Rollins. No current sax player is that good I thought.

Honestly, Virginia, I didn’t hear any of Rollins’ in your playing, but your style is close to Gordon’s when he played soft tunes and mid-tempo ones. Also, like Gordon you have a civil engineers’ eye for details.

There’s not a careless moment on “Marry Lou William The Next 100 Years”. You took some risks that worked. The biggest was playing eight of Williams’ well-known songs without a piano player. You have to be an extraordinary jazz musician to play without a piano player. (Sonny Rollins told me so).

Your smartest decision was including trombone player Wycliffe Gordon. Gordon is the top trombone player of his generation. “On J.B.’s Waltz,” What’s Your Story Morning Glory,” and “Waltz Boogie,” you had a marital bond with him. Gordon has chops galore, and on “5 for Mary Lou,” I thought Gordon was playing three trombones at once. 

Virginia, I bet Mary Lou would love the album if she were around to hear it. Maybe Mary Lou has heard it. When you recorded it did you feel Mary Lou’s presence in the studio?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


Dear, Thomas A. Dorsey

I spent Saturday afternoon listening to clarinet player Don Byron’s album “Love, Peace, and Soul”. Savoy Jazz released it back in February. Reviving the music of iconic African-American songwriters is one of Byron’s specialties. Lester Young and Junior Walker are icons Byron have honored.

The great thing about Byron is he doesn’t discriminate. Byron seems motivated by any form of music that's challenging to play. He's covered classic soul, the blues and jazz. 

“Love, Peace and Soul” is a gospel jazz album dedicated to you and Rosetta Tharpe. Other than Byron’s original “HIMMM” and Eddie Harris’ “Sham Time,” the album is made up of your landmark gospel songs such as “Highway To Heaven,” “I Got To Live the Life That I Sing About In My Songs,” and “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”.

 Mr. Dorsey, I’ve never been a big fan of gospel music. It makes me too emotional. I’ve heard your gospel songs before, but I didn’t know anything about you until I read  John Murph's cover story in the May issue of JazzTimes Magazine. 

You started as a blues musician, playing rent parties, and your stage name was Georgia Tom. You started exploring gospel music in the 1920's. After your first wife and infant son died within days of each other, you wrote "Take My Hand, Precious Lord".  

 I had Chris, the co-owner of Street Corner Music in Oak Park, MI, order me “Love, Peace, and Soul" a day or so after I read Murph's cover story.

Murph discussed how Bryon has revived your music. Bryon’s current band is the New Gospel Quintet. Piano player, Xavier Davis, bass player Brad Jones, drummer Pheeroan Aklaff and singer DK Dyson (she’s dynamic) are members.

Byron is a kick ass jazz musician, one of the top jazz clarinet players. If Pee Wee Russell and Barney Bigard were alive, they'd go to Byron for pointers. I've  never gotten bored with Byron because he’s  mastered the art of self-reinvention. 

I lost track of Byron after his memorable set at the 2006 Detroit International Jazz Festival. Earlier that year, Blue Note Records released “Do the Boomerang,” Byron’s homage to soul legend Junior Walker.

What better place to test drive the project than in Walker’s hometown. I was worried about Byron’s safety. Detroit soul music fans don’t like outsiders fooling around with their hero’s music. By the fourth song, Byron had the crowd in a frenzy. It’s been six years since that show. I still get goose bumps when I think about it. 

Listening to “Love, Peace, and Soul” I wondered if you appeared in  Byron's dreams and taught him how to handle your music. I also wondered if Byron had doubts the project would  succeed.

Byron didn’t screw up your work. Many jazz musicians have made good gospel jazz albums Mary Lou Williams, Ramsey Lewis, Kirk Whallum, Archie Shepp and Horace Parlance, and Pete Maliverni.

“Love, Peace, And Soul” is successful mainly because of singer DK Dyson. Mr. Dorsey, that woman can sing. Clearly, Dyson learned how to wail in church. I bet she could sing any form of music you put in front of her.

Dyson’s version of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” could make the most ardent sinner change. Her singing and Xavier Davis’ playing on “I’ve Got To Live The Life I Sing About In My Songs” could make the devil scream hallelujah.

Mr. Dorsey, Bryon's only mistake was including Eddie Harris’ number “Sham Time”. It didn’t go with your songs. It was odd like wearing white tube socks with a business suit. Other than that, Byron made a nearly pristine jazz gospel album. If  you don't have a copy, you should track down Byron, and have him send you one.

God bless,

Saturday, June 9, 2012


I learned late Friday the Detroit based Mack Avenue Records pushed back the release of jazz piano player Aaron Diehl’s  the bespoke man’s narrative. It was due out the 31st of July, and it’s received more hype than any other recent Mack Avenue debut.

Diehl deserves the hype. He has two disc on the market Live At The Players and Live at Caramoor. In 2011, he won the Cole Porter Fellowship in Jazz Competition of the American Pianists Association.

I heard Diehl the same year at the Detroit Jazz Festival. Before Diehl’s hour plus set began, a Mack Avenue executive announced Diehl had signed with the company. A debonair jazz piano player was my first impression of Diehl as he cruised through some originals and easy too recognize standards.

Diehl never deviated far  from how the standards were originally conceived. When he let loose he didn’t apply the improvisation on too thick. .

I was geeked when DL Media—the company that handles publicity for Mack Avenue—sent me an electronic email that detailed how wonderful the bespoke man’s narrative is. Bass player David Wong, drummer Rodney Green, and vibe player Warren Wolf are on the disc.

Last year Wolf’s self-titled debut scored big with jazz writers. It was the best debut in Mack Avenue's short history. That’s my opinion. I’ve followed the company since it opened in 2005.

Mack Avenue didn’t say why “the bespoken man’s narrative” is being delayed. I’m sure the disc will exceed the hype it’s gotten. the bespoke man’s narrative will be available to the nation sometime in February.

Monday, June 4, 2012


The Cookers is the brainchild of jazz trumpeter David Weiss. He assembled the all-star band—Billy Harper, Eddie Henderson, Craig Handy, George Cables, Cecil McBee and Billy Hart—seven years ago. The Cookers have made three albums. Their new album “believe” shows the band is still cooking pardon the pun. Motema’ Records will release ”believe” the 12th of June.

There’re a bunch of all-star jazz bands out there, but none compares to the Cookers. It’s a project that could’ve easily gone awry given the amount of star power involved, but Weiss keeps the band from being an ego-fest. There’re eight originals on “believe”. The album comes off like a structured jam session. Surprisingly, there’re no standout solos, but the Cookers are in sync throughout.

“Down Home” is jazz trombone player Curtis Fuller’s new album. Fuller was able to channel his old-self. Not that there’s something wrong or un-cool about the present day Curtis Fuller. The man can still blow.

Fuller’s last album “The Story of Kathy and Me” was a love letter to his departed wife. Fuller was in full sentimental mode. Although it didn’t catch on like some of his other albums it was one of his best. On “Down Home,” Fuller is in full swing mode.

There’re some things about Fuller that will never change. Giving his sidemen equal billing is his trademark. The jazz men on “Down Home”—Keith Oxman, Al Hood, Chip Stephens, Ken Walker, and Todd Reid—occasionally play with Fuller.

This is Oxman’s band, and Fuller is he special guest, but Oxman treats Fuller like an elder statesman and the leader.

With Oxman, Fuller has similar chemistry he had with Coltrane on the classic “Blue Train”. On the slow jam “Then I’ll Be Tired of You,” Oxman sounds like Coltrane blessed his horn. Capri Records will release “Down Home” the 19th of June.

Mary Lou Williams’ centennial is near. The late jazz piano player was a major figure in jazz. At her Manhattan apartment during be bop's infancy, William schooled Dizzy, Bird, Monk, and Roach on how to play chord changes at a super fast tempo.

Williams developed her skills during the swing era playing in Andy Kirk’s big band. For Williams' centennial, tenor saxphone player Virginia Mayhew throws Williams a big birthday bash, releasing a tribute album “Mary Lou Williams-The Next 100 Years”.

If Williams were alive, she’d appreciate Mayhew’s gift, and the attention to details she gives to eight Williams’ originals she plays.  Mayhew 's most endearing gift to Williams is special guest trombone player Wycliffe Gordon. Picture Gordon springing from a big birthday cake, swinging like the devil.

Some jazz critics compare Mayhew to Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins. None of her solos on "Mary Lou Williams-The Next 100 Years" suggest she’s a copycat, or worst a showboater. Clean and spirited describes her playing. 

On Williams’ well-known songs “Black Coffee” and “What’s Your Story Morning Glory,” Mayhew doesn't stray too far from how Williams designed them. Instead an overhaul Mayhew gives Williams' originals a spit shine.