Wednesday, December 25, 2013


This article was published in the December 24th issue of the Metrotimes
Ralphe Armstrong
One of the most-asked questions about jazz bassist Ralphe Armstrong’s debut album HomeBass was why it took him so long to release it. Not that he hasn’t been busy. For years, Armstrong has been playing all over the world with such names as Aretha Franklin, Carlos Santana, John McLaughlin, Sting and James Carter, so it’s not as if he’s had much time to focus on a solo project. What’s more, the album he has released, HomeBass (out last month on the jazz label Detroit Music Factory) is a performance of Armstrong at the 1996 Detroit Jazz Festival that he’s had in the can since then. Asked why put it on now after 17 years, Armstrong says with a straight face that if it was good back then, it’s good right now.

Seated at a table in the Motown Room at Bert’s Marketplace, nursing a cranberry-orange juice drink, Armstrong says, “When something is good it’s good, and when it’s bad it’s bad. Let me rephrase that. What I’m trying to say is I’ve listened to a lot of recordings over the years of myself and of other musicians. And when musicians say that a performance was killer and we should’ve recorded that … Well, I had a killer performance in 1996, and I recorded it. In the words of Count Basie if it was good then it’s good now.”

HomeBass is a big deal for Armstrong. The album is a mix of acoustic jazz and jazz fusion played by 
a group Armstrong dubbed the International Detroiters, including trumpeter Rayse Biggs, drummer Gayelynn McKinney, pianist Henry Gibson and guitarist Toty Viola. The album represents all Armstrong is, which is to say, for starters, a selfless bandleader, a big ham, and one of the finest all-around bassists Detroit has produced. Notably, he’s not reluctant to allow his bandmates to share the limelight. Biggs, for example, blows a bigger hole than the one in the ozone on “So What.” McKinney’s sounds as if she played two drum kits simultaneously on “Freedom Jazz Dance.”

“If you listen to the CD, it shows the real Ralphe Armstrong. I play jazz bass. I play classical music. You can hear that on ‘Dear Old Stockholm.’ Then the album also shows me with the electric music. The only thing I didn’t do was sing the blues, or do standard blues,” Armstrong said. “This album showcases my styles; that’s why I did it live. The most important thing about it is I’m showing my city, Detroit. That’s why I called it HomeBass.”

Armstrong is a good-natured man with a heart as big as his upright bass. On the bandstand and during interviews he can be comical, poking fun at his bandmates. The joking can be corny. Introducing the band on the album, he told the audience Henry Gibson won a Hennessy drinking contest when he actually won a jazz contest Hennessy sponsored. Asked how often Armstrong tours, he claimed he flies so much he’s grown feathers. But when the music starts Armstrong is strictly business. He damn near plays the strings off the bass. The bass practically has to gasp for air after his solos.

Some of his bandmates consider him more of a big brother than a boss. Gayelynn McKinney, the drummer with jazz combo Straight Ahead who was featured on HomeBass, and who is herself daughter of the late jazz legend Harold McKinney, tells us, “He’s always looked out for me. He has been the musician that helped me get out there. My father put me out there musically. Straight Ahead put me out there another kind of way by being signed to Atlantic Records, but Ralphe put me out there playing with big-name people that he was connected to. He got me a gig with Chaka Khan.”

Then again, Armstrong’s brotherly affection for McKinney makes a lot of sense. Like McKinney, Armstrong is a son of a legend. His dad, Howard Armstrong, was a larger-than-life character who played with the likes of Sleepy John Estes, Big Bill Broonzy and Memphis Minnie during the Great Depression. Director Terry Zwigoff made the elder Armstrong the central figure of his 1985 documentary Louie Bluie about the last of the black string bands.

Ralphe was exposed to all that music as a child, and his own career took flight before long. As a teen he was subbed in the band behind Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and then toured with John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra and Carlos Santana. To this very day, Armstrong can recall every detail of landing that gig with Santana.

“I got this call on the phone. It was Mahavishnu [McLaughlin], and he said, I want you to talk to somebody. Guess who that somebody was on the other line? It was Carlos Santana. He said, I want you to play in my band. I was holding the telephone shaking. I thought I needed a pair of Depends; I was shaking like Don Knotts,” Armstrong recalls.

He’s worked nonstop since those days. He jokes that he’s played with so many famous musicians and bands to keep track he has to keep a list in his wallet. Armstrong is on the road 150 days of the year, most recently, touring with the all-star Miles Davis tribute band Miles Smiles with trumpeter Wallace Roney, Larry Coryell, Rick Margitza, and Alphonse Mouzon. Not bad company. In fact, Armstrong believes he’s reached a new plateau in his career.

“What’s good about Miles Smiles is it’s the music I want to do and it’s with an all-star band. It’s putting me at this plateau in my life where I’m considered an all-star musician and that’s special to me”.

As one of the busiest jazz bassists to come from Detroit, and given all his accomplishments, it is odd Armstrong never saw himself an all-star. He certainly has the credentials. Two decades was a long time for an all-star to hold off on his debut as a leader. McKinney doesn’t mind putting that in perspective.

“I guess Ralphe didn’t feel the need to have his own project,” McKinney says. “Now, he felt it was time for his voice to be heard. His voice has been heard on other people’s projects. Now it’s time for people to hear what he has to say as a solo artist.”

The Ralphe Armstrong Quartet plays New Year Eve at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café, 97 Kercheval Ave., Grosse Pointe Farms; 313-882-5299 for reservations;  Armstrong and McKinney play with pianist Bill Meyers in the SBH Trio every Thursday at Bert’s Marketplace, 2727 Russell St., Detroit; 313-567-2030.

Monday, December 23, 2013


Jazz bassist Noah Jackson
Being a Detroit based jazz reporter has many rewards. Chief among them is watching young jazz musicians grow into professionals. In 2004, I met jazz bassist Noah Jackson at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Civic Jazz program. I dropped in one evening to interview the program’s chair renowned Detroit jazz bassist Rodney Whitaker.

My editor at the Metrotimes asked me to write an article about Whitaker’s career. He had recently returned to Detroit after completing a six year run with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Whitaker was a few hours late for our interview.

To kill time, I talked with some of his students. They impressed me, and I ended up writing a separate article about them titled Teenage Swingers. Noah Jackson was a big part of the program so were pianist Ian Finkelstein, saxophonists De’Sean Jones and Tony Lustig and drummer Thaddeus Dixon.

I remember Jackson most. Back then, he was a husky teen and oddly charming for his age. After I interviewed many of the students and finally Whitaker, Jackson hugged me. Then he reminded me to include him in my article. I planned to because Jackson was a natural, bad-ass bass player. I was sold on his potential, and was certain someday he’d be a serious jazz musician.

I thought about that meeting Sunday night listening to Jackson’s trio - pianist Ian Finklestein and drummer Malik Washington - at the Cadieux Café on Detroit’s eastside. Jackson is a fully grown professional jazz musician now.

In 2010, he released a sweet first album Contemplations: A Suite. It made my favorite jazz albums of 2010.  He graduated from Michigan State University and headed to New York to play and further his music education. He earned a master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music.

Of late, he’s toured Africa with the legendary jazz pianist and bandleader Abdullah Ibrahim. Enoch Smith, Winard Harper, Salim Washington and Cyrus Chestnut are some of the big-name bandleaders Jackson has played with in New York.

Jackson returns to Detroit annually for a Holiday concert at Cadieux Café and at Cliff Bell’s. Tonight, Jackson’s trio plays Bell’s.  

The trio put on a clean concert last night, deserving of a thankful crowd. But the crowd was noisy and rude. The trio spruced up some jazz oldies such as Thelonious Monk’s Evidence and Thad Jones’ 3 and 1. The show-stopper was the trio’s reworking of Body and Soul, delivered with such warmth it melted the icicles on the café’s gutters and windows.

At 23, Ian Finklestein has become a go-to pianist in Detroit. When tenor saxophonist Benny Golson needed a pianist for a hit at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café, Finkelstein got the job. Malik Washington is a dynamic drummer who has the firepower of drummer Victor Lewis.

Sadly, the table of noisy people near the back of the café didn’t give a damn how good the trio was. . Two women tried to play the jukebox while the trio jammed on 3 and 1. I kid you not. I admired how Jackson, Finkelstein, and Washington ignored the noisy and  the rude people by playing their butts off. But, I suspect deep down they were hurt.

Between sets, I asked Jackson about the noise because he seemed unfazed by it. He pointed out noisiness and rudeness are things jazz musicians have to deal with playing in small clubs. He didn’t let it affect the trio’s performance. They kept their cool and swung as if playing for a well-bred crowd at the Rockefeller Center.

Saturday, December 21, 2013


Pianist Kenny Barron
Branford Marsalis Quartet (Paradise Valley Jazz Series at Orchestra Hall)
I make sure to catch the Branford Marsalis Quartet when it performs in Detroit. Marsalis, pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis, and drummer Justin Faulkner always deliver memorable concerts. For the quartet's opening concert for the 2013 Paradise Valley Jazz Series I banked on another winner. The quartet didn’t disappoint. it delivered two-hours of music any jazz nut would sell his soul to see again.  I was anxious to check on drummer Justin Faulkner’s progress. He replaced the quartet’s longtime drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts. Faulkner has proven to be a suitable replacement. At the 2010, Detroit Jazz Festival, was the first I heard him with the quartet. I liked Faulkner immediately. Back then, he wasn't aggressive as Watts. That was three years ago. Faulkner has fully immigrated into the quartet and he’s become its heart.

After the concert Paradise Valley Jazz concert, a fellow jazz writer told me Faulkner style is similar to the late jazz drummer Tony Williams. I felt Marsalis, Calderazzo and Revis has turned Faulkner into Watts. On the opening number of the concert, Faulkner used all his chops. So much so, I worried he wouldn’t have enough gas left to make it through the concert. Well he did. After the opener, he calmed down. The quartet's concert topped my list because they played extended versions of the music from their excellent 2012 album Four MF's Playin' Tunes. The concert had plenty of highlights. My favorite was Faulkner’s solo on the Return of the Jitney Man. 

McCoy Tyner and Savion Glover (2013 Detroit Jazz Festival)
This is the jazz pianist that kept the fire burning under saxophonist John Coltrane’s ass. And after leaving Coltrane’s band, Tyner built a remarkable career as a bandleader. McCoy Tyner is, 75, now and he has a laundry list of health issues. Given his amazing set at the 2013 Detroit Jazz Festival with special guest Savion Glover – currently the greatest tap dancer on earth – hasn't hurt his percussive style. His set was my favorite of the four day festival. Throughout Tyner was on Glover’s case like a mean supervisor.

Ralph Peterson (Jazz at the Centre at the Northwest Activities Center)
Peterson’s concert was the first of the Jazz at the Centre, a new jazz series in Detroit. Peterson is a zealous jazz drummer. And he’s been compared to the great Art Blakey. On this blog, I bragged about Peterson’s albums Duality Perspective and Outer Reaches. And I agree he’s one of the top jazz drummers working today. Honestly, I felt comparing him to Blakey was overdoing it. Blakey was unique. But my feelings about the comparison changed after watching Peterson damn near blow up the Northwest Activities Center with his band saxophonist Craig Handy, trumpeter and Josh Evans, organist Jake Sherman. Like Blakey, Peterson knows how to maximize young talent. Sherman and Evans stole the show.

Kenny Barron and Dave Holland (Paradise Valley Jazz Series at Orchestra Hall)
At first, putting Barron and Holland together didn’t make sense. Barron is a classy pianist and Holland is a maverick. His playing borders on free-jazz. He's a long jazz fusion rap sheet besides. This year, he put out a jazz fusion album Prism, a throwback to his days jamming with Miles Davis during the popularity of jazz and rock fusion. I’m not big on duets, especially when it’s two jazz musicians with the same styles. Barron and Holland are unlike. Somehow, there different styles mixed. They stretched out on several of Barron’s originals such as Spiral and Calypso, and ended the concert with my favorite Thelonious Monk tune In Walked Bud. Holland was my favorite. When he gets going he’s very animated and at the end of a concert his bass was huffing and puffing as if it had won a triathlon.

Charles McPherson (Art X at the Detroit Institute of the Arts)
This concert from native Detroiter alto saxophonist Charles McPherson was part of Art X sponsored by the Kresege Foundation. The Detroit Jazz Critic Mark Stryker organized it and handpicked McPherson sidemen drummer Sean Dobbins, bassist Rodney Whitaker and pianist Michael Weiss. Some 50 years ago, bebop pioneer Charlie Parker cast a spell on McPherson. And lucky for us be bop fans the spell was never broken. McPherson lives and breathes bebop and Charlie Parker’s spirit lives in his horn.  He opened with some originals Marionette, and lonely Little Child. Then he moved into some well-known favorites such as But Beautiful, Anthropology and Spring is Here. I loved this concert because I felt as if McPherson had taken me back to the golden era of bebop. 

Monday, December 9, 2013


Patti Austin
Jazz vocalist Patti Austin’s game plan for her Sunday afternoon show at the Paradise Jazz Series was to hit the stage glamorous in heels and a tight gown. And wow the audience with music from Duke Ellington's and Ella Fitzgerald's songbook. But she had to abandon that game plan. 

A few days ago, she had a freak accident and hurt her leg, making it impossible to parade around  a stage all dolled up. Instead of heels and a gown, she strolled out in a turtleneck and slacks. She sat on a stool center stage, and she belted a medley of Christmas hits. 

Before her band-pianist Michael Ricchireti, drummer Ross Pederson and bassist Richard Hammond-joined her, she told the audience about her injury and kidded about the outfit she had on being the same she wore on the flight to Detroit Saturday. That broke the ice. 

Comedy was a big part of her two hour show. She jokingly told the audience Fitzgerald was the Britney Spears of her day. The biggest laugh came when Ross and Hammond ushered her back on the stage after the intermission. Austin said you know you're getting old when two white boys have to help you on stage. If being a vocalist hadn't panned out, she could've made a killing as a comic.

The concert was billed as a tribute to Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. Austin rushed through Ellington’s “Take the 'A' Train,” “Satin Doll,” and “In My Solitude”. The rest of the show was about Fitzgerald. 

Austin performed many of Fitzgerald’s well-known hits such as “Tisket A Tasket” and “Mr. Paganini”. She lead each song with funny tales and some obscure facts about Fitzgerald's teenage years. For example, at age 16 Fitzgerald was homeless. And she dreamed to break into show business as a shake-dancer.  

Austin is a talker. In fact, she talked more than she sang. When she sang it was bad-ass. I didn’t want her to stop. She has the loveliest and the purest voice of any jazz vocalists who’s performed at the Paradise Jazz series. Cassandra Wilson, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Gretchen Parlato, and Dianne Reeves have headlined.

She could've sang without a band and kept the audience spellbound. Her physical discomfort was noticeable throughout the concert. Somehow she managed to work through it. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013


Woman Child Cecile McLorin Salvant (Mack Avenue Records)
I doubted jazz vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant was great as many music industry people claimed she was. I figured it was overpraise comparing her to greats like Billie Holiday and Ethel Waters. But I became a believer after listening to her debut “Woman Child”. The comparisons and the praise was correct. Her voice and every song on the album were flawless. I begged anybody that would listen to buy it.

Liquid Spirit Gregory Porter (Blue Note Records)
Gregory Porter can sing jazz, R&B and classic soul, pop, and blues. Porter debut for Blue Note Record “Liquid Spirit” proved he’s foremost a jazz man. I listen to a lot of albums in a given year.  I rarely fall for an album like I fell for “Liquid Spirits”.  Porter’s mixed genres without losing his grassroots style. I’ve listened to “Liquid Spirit” every day since he released it in June. “Brown Grass,” “Hey Laura,” “Wind Song” and “Water Under Bridges” were the cuts that stuck to my ribs.

For the Love of Abbey Marc Cary (Motema Record)
The late jazz vocalist Abbey Lincoln was jazz pianist Marc Cary’s biggest musical mentor and I suspect given the care he put into this solo album honoring her, his life coach. In my book, Cary is the finest jazz pianist of his generation, which includes Cyrus Chestnut, Jason Moran, Jacky Terrasson, and Craig Taborn. Cary has made some remarkable music with his Focus Trio. “For the Love of Abbey” was the most personal album Cary has ever put out. Listening to it I wondered if Lincoln’s spirit was in Cary’s piano.

Out Here Christian McBride (Mack Avenue Records)
Is Christian McBride the greatest jazz bassist of his generation? His body of work may answer that question; particularly the music he’s made for Mack Avenue has been remarkable. In 2011, “The Good Feeling” won a Grammy. The album was his first big band recording. He returns to a trio format on “Out Here”. I’m not sure it’ll get a Grammy nomination although it’s worthy of one. On the album, McBride, drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr. and pianist Christian Sands poured their imaginations all over standards such as “My Favorite Things,” “East Of the Sun (And West of the Moon) and “Cherokee”. The latter is the album’s best bet. Though the album is McBride’s brainchild, he’s not the star attraction. Sands is, and the album comes off as if McBride designed it as a showcase for the pianist.

Magic Beans Benny Green (Sunnyside Records)
This album won me over because it resembled that Blue Note sound during its heyday. In fact, Green wanted the music on “Magic Beans” to have that hard, soulful, and swinging vintage Blue Note feel. I believe he nailed it, particularly with the cuts “Kenny Drew” and “Jackie McLean”. They were two jazz musicians who made classics for Blue Note. Of course, there’re other awesome cuts on “Magic Beans”. But “Kenny Drew and “Jackie McLean” were the ones that spoke to Green’s vision for the album.  

Without A Net Wayne Shorter Quartet (Blue Note Records)
This jazz quartet has been together for nearly 15 years now. And it’s revered as one of the tightest jazz quartets of all-times. It has star power namely pianist Danilo Perez and drummer Brian Blade. The quartet’s albums are stellar. For my money, “Without A Net” is the quartet’s best work. It marked Shorter’s return to Blue Note Records. Most of the album is from a live performance. The quartet concerts can be iffy. But it killed this time around. Shorter wrote all the music, which was heady as a graduate dissertation but it swung. The title “Without A Net” speaks to how fearless the quartet has been since day one.

Bob a palindrome Robert Hurst (Bebob Music)
Robert Hurst is a jazz bassist with a solid body of work. The albums he's put out on his label, Bebob Music, “Bob Ya Head,” Unrehursted Volume 1-2, and “BoB a palindrome,” which he release nationwide in early 2013 represents a golden period in his studio work. “BoB a palindrome” is star-studded. Branford Marsalis, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Bennie Maupin, Adam Rudolph, Marcus Belgrave and Robert Glasper are on the album. That’s enough horsepower to guarantee a hit.  What made this album ultra-special were the 10 great compositions Hurst gave to the fellows to feast on. The “Middle Passage Suites” are the most engaging. “BoB a palindrome” was one of the first jazz albums I listened to in 2013 and it hasn’t worked its way out of my system yet.

Eye Of The Beholder Tim Warfield (Criss Cross Jazz)
A musician asked me recently if I was kidding around when I said saxophonist Tim Warfield has never cut a bad album. I meant what I said. I have sufficient proof to support my belief Warfield’s album “Eye Of The Beholder”. This is my favorite. He staffed it with four jazz musicians he came of age with pianist Cyrus Chestnut, bassist Rodney Whitaker, drummer Clarence Penn and trumpeter Nicholas Payton. Neither has lost their boyhood enthusiasm for the music. “Eye of the Beholder” feels like a big class reunion.

pushing the world away Kenny Garrett (Mack Avenue Records)
Yes, this is another album where alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett honored some of the musicians who influenced him. It’s even better than his 1996 tribute to saxophonist John Coltrane “Pursuance: Music of John Coltrane”. Garrett wrote all the music for “pushing the world away”. There’re shout-outs to Mulgrew Miller, Donald Brown, Chick Corea and others who Garrett admire. “pushing the world away” showed Garrett orbiting around another plateau in his playing.

The Roots of the Blues Randy Weston & Billy Harper (Sunnyside) One of the oddest collaborations in jazz pianist Randy Weston and tenor saxophonist Billy Harper. Their styles and approaches to the music is different as night and day, Weston with deep roots in music from the motherland and Harper with a sound on tenor that’s wider than his native Texas. On the surface, Weston and Harper seem like as odd pairing.  But the jazz giants pull it off. They jam on blues with an African themes written by Weston such as “Blues to Senegal,” “Blues to Africa,” and “African Lady”. There are a few standards “Take the A Train,” and “Body and Soul” that serve as space fillers.  On “If One Could Only See,” Harper let Weston play solo.  Weston returned the favor on “Roots of the Nile”. The solo performances are the album’s strongest.

Sunday, December 1, 2013


Check Cashing Day Bobby Watson (Lafiya Music)

The alto saxophonist Bobby Watson has never been shy about expressing his political views in his music.  He's written many politically themed songs during his career. “Check Cashing Day,” Watson’s new album is a political jazz album that honors the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington and the “I Have a Dream” speech Dr. Martin Luther King Jr delivered that day.

Watson wrote 11 of the 15 cuts on the album. Bassist Curtis Lundy and vocalists Pamela Baskin-Watson wrote the others. Watson also hired poet Glenn North of Kansas City to write poems to accompany some of the music on “Check Cashing Day”.

The music is wonderful. But the album's weakness is North’s poetry. It doesn’t add anything interesting, provocative, or memorable to the project. The album feels like a platform for North’s work. Watson would've achieved his end had he just presented the music and decided against working in the poetry.

Inspire Me!  Tim Warfield (Herb Harris Music)

After listening to tenor saxophonist Tim Warfield’s new album "Inspire Me!," I'm stilled convinced he's incapable of shoddy craftsmanship. “Inspire Me!,”  is his second release this year. In March, he put out “Eye of the Beholder”.  Warfield made "Inspire Me!" for Herb Harris Music Co. The album is the first of a HHM Jazzmasters Unlimited Series. 

“Inspire Me!” opens with three door-busters “Monkee See Monkee Doo,” “Robert Earl” and “NY Daze NY Knights”. Warfield kept the furnace on high for most of the album. The most thoughtful cut on the album is the slow jam “When I’m Alone With You”.

HomeBass Ralphe Armstrong (Detroit Music Factory)

This is jazz bassist Ralphe Armstrong’s debut as a leader. That’s surprising because Armstrong has been a internationally known jazz musician for decades. Why has it taken so long  for him to release a debut? I can only guess that he was too busy blessing other musician’s projects to focus on his own. Armstrong has worked with James Carter, Aretha Franklin, Sting, Frank Zappa, Jean-Luc Ponty, and John McLaughlin. With that much mileage on his bass, it’s no wonder Armstrong hasn’t had time  for himself.

In November, The Detroit Music Factory released “HomeBass,” a live concert of Armstrong at the 1996 Detroit Jazz Festival with his then group the The International Detroiters trumpeter Rayse Biggs, drummer Gayelynn McKinney, pianist Henry Gibson, guitarist Toty Viola, and vocalist Audrey Northington.

“HomeBass” documents how multi-faceted Armstrong is. On stage, he's a comic, a selfless bandleader, a ham, and a skilled jazz bassist. If you doubt that, check out his improvising on the album’s opener “The National Anthem” and on the oldie “Dear Old Stockholm”.

On "Freedon Jazz Dance," Armstrong put the zoom lens on Rayse Biggs. Biggs plays two trumpets simultaneously. Then Armstrong tossed the car keys to Henry Gibson. Gibson took his original composition “Birdie” out for a spin. 

Armstrong showboated the closer “Miles We Got To Go,” a flashback to his jazz fusion days. That cut is the only eyesore. Overall, “HomeBass” is a pleasing debut from a jazz musician who's invested much of his career blessing other musician’s projects.