Monday, June 27, 2016


“Hymn For The Happy Man” is the first time saxophonist Dan Pratt has recorded an album as a leader with a conventional rhythm section. The past eight years, the organ has been the centerpiece of Pratt's band. The change was a good move. The new album which has seven originals and solid contributions from bassist Christian McBride, drummer Gregory Hutchinson, and pianist Mike Eckroth. McBride and Hutchinson are household figures. Eckroth is the band's centerpiece. He played one meaty solo after the next. “Hymn For The Happy Man” is a colossal outing for Pratt, who has a bulletproof track record as a leader, and as a hired gun for outfits such as the Christian McBride Big Band, and the Village Vanguard Orchestra. There's an odd mix of beauty and raw aggression to his playing. He blows with such pure force on  “Gross Blue” and on “Warsaw” it's a wonder his tenor didn't explode in his hands before the songs ended.

Alto saxophonist Jackie McLean was a hard-bopper by nature yet equally proficient in other brands of jazz. He died in 2006, and he left the planet upwards of fifty albums, of which many are now hard-bop classics. Bay Area alto saxophonist Steven Lugerner is an admirer of McLean’s work. Lugerner new album “Jacknife The Music Of Jackie McLean” is his tribute to McLean. As a saxophonist, Lugerner has one foot rooted in post-bop and the other in free-jazz. For this tribute, Lugerner remade “Jacknife,” one of McLean’s best albums for Blue Note Records. Throughout the album, Lugerner blew as if nourished from birth on an exclusive diet of McLean’s music. How good is this remake? If McLean were around to hear it, he’d be damn proud of Lugerner and his top-flight sidemen pianist Richard Sears, bassist Garret Lang, and drummer Michael Mitchell. It was a pleasure listening to them stretch out on McLean's "Das Dat," Melody for Melonae," and Hi.p Strut".

The past decade jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut has bounced from label to label. Currently, he's signed to High Note Records, and he's made some of his best work there. “Natural Essence" is Chestnut's new trio album, and it’s something to behold. The trio is the best setting to experience Chestnut’s pure virtuosity. Chestnut chose familiar standards such as "It Could Happen To You," "I Cover The Water Front," and "My Romance". To aid in repurposing those standards, Chestnut hired two skilled hands bassist Buster Williams, and drummer Lenny White. The lead off cut "Mamacita" will give your soul goosebumps. Chestnut has a gift for appearing to play two pianos at the same time on up-tempo numbers. Chestnut changes sidemen for each album. The chemistry he has with Williams and White is effortless. Pray Chestnut keeps this trio together.

Vocalist Sheila Landis and guitarist Rick Matle musical loveship has been going strong for nearly three decades, and they have produced a body of outstanding recordings. "Beautiful Things" is the duo's new offspring. There're seventeen songs recorded live. Many of the duo’s recordings have been a showcase for Landis, one of the more dynamic jazz vocalists on the planet. This album contains everything's she’s offered for decades vocally. She has a gorgeous voice. At the drop of a hat, she can change it into a muted trumpet, a trombone, a sax, and even a drum. Her pitch perfect scatting would make Ella, and Armstrong jealous. This time around, Matle's virtuosity, his God-given ability to make his seven string guitar howl, cry, and melt in the palm of his hands is the draw. “Fine Fat Daddy," “Taller In The Morning," and "In a Mellow Tone" are the cuts likely to garnered the most water cooler talk.

When I received word jazz vocalist Kurt Elling was the guest star on a new album by the Branford Marsalis Quartet, I wondered how Elling would fit into the tightest jazz band working. Two cuts into "Upward Spiral," the phenomenal result of the quartet’s collaboration with Elling, I was convinced Marsalis ought to offer Elling a permanent spot in the quartet. Rumor spread Marsalis wanted Elling for this project because of his flexibility. Drop Elling in any musical situation and he’ll succeed. “Upward Spiral” is mostly recrafted golden oldies. What a good fit Elling is in the quartet come through on the "Blue Gardenia," "Doxy," "I am a Fool to Want You," and "Blue Velvet”.

Sunday, June 19, 2016


In a recent interview with this blog, jazz guitarist Randy Napoleon asserted that jazz is in good hands with the current generation of up-and-comers. As a professor of jazz at Michigan State University, Napoleon would certainly know that because he’s helping develop future swingers. If you want some hard evidence that Napoleon knows what the hell he’s talking about, I implore you to get “Rootless,” a self-produced debut album by MSU grad pianist Corey Kendrick.  Kendrick, 31, is a native of Iowa, who left a good paying secure job in Iowa, moved his family to Michigan, studied jazz at MSU, and he’s presently raising holy hell in Detroit as a go-to pianist, composer, and bandleader.

At MSU Kendrick earned a Master’s in Jazz Studies. Jimmy Cobb, Etienne Charles, Jon Faddis, Christian McBride, and Jeff Hamilton are some of the high-end bandleaders Kendrick has performed with. “Rootless,” is a good of a debut you’re likely to hear this year. It has eleven cuts, three standards, and eight originals. There’s beauty at every turn. Kendrick is a dynamic interpreter of standards, proven on the oldies “Nature Boy,” and “In The Wee Small Hours”. His chops are in full bloom on originals such as “Alone In Michigan,” and “Lullaby For A New Mother”.  

Kendrick’s obvious influences are the late greats Bill Evans, and Kenny Kirkland. If they’re around to hear the meticulously wrought music on “Rootless” they’d blush. A big reason the album is a winner is the terrific playing from Kendrick’s  partner's bassist Joe Vasquez, and drummer Nick Bracewell. I Dig Jazz finally tore away from “Rootless” long enough to pick Kendrick’s brain about the album, and the challenges of building a name for himself in a jazz metropolis known for producing many of the planet’s greatest jazz pianists.

Is “Rootless” your mission statement?

The album is reflective of a very specific period of my life.  Before deciding to go back to school in 2013, my wife and I had a house in Iowa with a thirty-year mortgage and we were both at the kind of jobs where we could see spending the next 25, 30, 35 years and then retiring. I thought I could work a day job and play music here and there on nights and weekends, but I was away from music too much.  So we decided to take a risk, go back to school, get my Masters’ and pursue music full-time.  The material on this record is my attempt to put a lot of those feelings into music, loneliness, anxiety, new experiences, new friendships, joy, and new roots.  It’s an album about life in transition.

After listening to just a few cuts, I was convinced you’ve spent many man-hours dissecting Bill Evans’s, Oscar Peterson’s and Kenny Kirkland’s chops. Was either pianist big influences?

It’s hard to say definitively who my biggest influences are because sometimes it feels like that changes from week to week, but they were huge early influences, and I feel like that’s shaped my musical tastes in a big way.  I think, above all other things, I value swing and lyricism/melodicism.  And it’s hard to get more swinging than Oscar Peterson or more lyrical than Bill Evans.

Kenny Kirkland has been an influence, and one of my more recent influences. He was such a monster musician, just an incredible pianist and he wrote some gorgeous tunes. Rhythmically, he would play with odd note groupings, groups of 5's, 7's, etc.

Harmonically, he would play chords that aren't easily defined in terms of traditional Major 7th/Minor 7th/, etc. And compositionally, he wrote such beautiful, interesting tunes. And these are all things I've tried to take from him. I've spent so much time with his 1991 self-titled album. There are certain albums that, to me, are like secret handshakes. They don't make traditional Top 10, 50, 100 lists, but I know that, if you like that album, we're going to be friends. Kenny's album fits into that category.

Did you design “Rootless” to be representative of everything you have to offer the planet musically at this formative stage of your career?

Definitely, quite a few of the tunes started as exercises to work on different musical challenges I was facing with the intent of stretching me in uncomfortable directions.  But by setting a deadline it was a challenge to me to play some of these uncomfortable forms, harmonies, time signatures, and try to rise to the occasion.  I’m looking forward to playing the material live. We have about six or seven dates booked right now, and seeing how they continue to develop.

“Alone In Michigan,” “Julian’s Tune,” and “Lullaby For A New Mother” are songs on the album likely to get played over and over. Can you explain what you were going through when you wrote those songs?

“Alone In Michigan” was written over a particularly lonely weekend.  We hadn’t been living in Michigan long, and I was out on tour over the weekend, so my wife went home to visit her family and took our dog with her.  I returned late to an empty house with no wife and no dog, and I didn’t know very many people yet, so I was trying to capture that feeling of being alone in an unfamiliar place. 

“Julian’s Tune” is a little more academic.  It started as a sketch from another MSU student, Julian Velasco, who is a fantastic jazz and classical saxophonist.  He showed me a tune he was working on, and I loved the first couple chords and asked him if I could borrow them to write something.  I was listening to a lot of Kenny Kirkland at the time, and there’s a beautiful tune by Kenny called 

“Dienda” and I wanted to write something similar, a lyrical waltz with a bit of a “classical” sound. 
 Often in jazz, we use 4 and 8-bar phrases to the point where it becomes expected, but there are a couple of spots in “Dienda” where Kenny uses 5-bar phrases, and by lengthening the phrases, it adds so much drama because the tune just feels like it hangs there, waiting for something to happen.  I’d thought of using melody or harmony for drama, but not form.  So I wanted to write something incorporating all those elements, and I owe a debt to Kenny and Julian.

“Lullaby For A New Mother” is a tune that’s special to me.  It was written last. The trio recorded the record in November of last year, and my son was born just two months prior, in September.  I was sitting at the piano one night not long before the session, and from the bench, I could see my wife and son on the couch.  

The way she was looking down at him, and he back up at her, was so touching.  I wanted to write something that tried to capture that sweetness, but also the full range of emotions experienced as a new parent, especially in those first months.  So it starts out sweet, but by the very end, it’s swung around to the fraught, nervous energy that was characteristic of that period.

Nick Bracewell, Corey Kendrick, and Joe Vasquez
Drummer Nick Bracewell and bassist Joe Vasquez are amazing on “Rootless”. Give some insight on their overall contribution musically and otherwise to this terrific album.

Well, firstly, they’re just fantastic musicians.  When I thought about recording an album, they were the first two people who came to mind.  Joe just finished his Master’s at MSU, studying with bassist Rodney Whitaker, and Nick just finished the first year of his Master’s at MSU as well. I met both of them about three years ago, and the great thing about studying music at a college is how much playing you get to do.  I’d say the three of us probably played together 3 or 4 times a week in one context or another, for two years, and that’s an experience that is becoming rarer now. 

The days of the six-month club residency or even the one or two-week long club engagements seem to have mostly gone, and there’s something a group develops over an extended time playing together. 

You develop a set of musical gestures, a shorthand, and a mutual understanding.  As a result, there were very few fixes that were needed once we went into the studio – for the most part, we were able to play it all live.  Plus, they’re both good friends, and I feel like that adds another dimension to the music. You end up looking forward to a gig as much for the hang as the music.

How supportive has the Detroit jazz community been of your aspirations as a jazz musician?

So many people who I’ve met here have been hugely supportive.  There’s such a strong tradition of mentorship in Detroit.  Rodney Whitaker always talks about “reach one teach one,” and I’ve found that to be true of so many musicians I’ve met here, very giving of their time and always open to talk about music.  It was very evident at the Kenn Cox tribute last year at the Carr Center.  To hear Rodney and Shahida Nurullah talk about Kenn’s mentorship, and then to see the work they’ve done in the Detroit music community, and to see that pass through generations is a beautiful thing.  It becomes evident why there is so much great music in Detroit.

What are some of the challenges you face as a jazz pianist establishing a name for yourself in Detroit where greats such as Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, Geri Allen, Teddy Harris Jr., Harold McKinney, Hank Jones, and Gary Schunk set the bar?

Because of the tradition of mentorship, so many amazing musicians have come out of Detroit.  Of course, it’s a challenge when I compare myself to these greats, but it’s also very inspiring having such strong models to aspire to.  Though it may feel like a challenge at times, I think it pushes me to try to play at a higher level.  

Saturday, June 18, 2016


SFJazz Collective
Yearly, the SFJazz Collective, an all-star octet perform music of iconic musicians past and present. In the octet’s twelve you history, it has performed the music of greats such as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Stevie Wonder. Friday evening, before a sold-out audience at Orchestra Hall in mid-town Detroit, the octet closed the Paradise Jazz Series season with a two-hour presentation of the King of Pop, Michael Jackson’s, hits arranged for a discriminating jazz demographic. The octet also presented original compositions. Sean Jones, Robin Eubanks, David Sanchez, Miguel Zenon, Warren Wolf, Edward Simon, Matt Penman, and Obed Calvaire are the current members of the SFJC. That’s some major muscle. Each musician is an accomplished bandleader with solid discographies. So, how was the octet’s presentation of Jackson’s hits “The Love You Save,” ”Blame It on The Boogie,” “Don’t Stop Until You Get Enough,” ”Thriller,” “Human Nature,” and “This Place Hotel”? If Jackson had attended the concert, he would’ve been moonwalking up and down the aisles until his feet were blistered. The concert had many high points, Sanchez’s pit-bull mean soloing on his arrangement of “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” Wolf stretching out on “Human Nature,” and Jones and Eubank trading measures on “Thriller”. The octet’s originals “Fall Prelude,” “Beauty of Space,” and “Franklin & Fell” made the concert extra special. When the octet switched from Jackson’s hits to its originals it appeared the audience was being treated to two concerts for the cost of one

Monday, June 13, 2016


Tenor saxophonist JD Allen
The jazz saxophonist JD Allen said in a recent Q&A with a popular jazz blog that whenever he plays Detroit, his hometown, he’s nervous as hell because you can’t bullshit Detroit jazz fans. When a jazz band hits the D, the band has to come hard with an all-out blue collar work ethic. Sunday, evening at Cliff Bell’s, Allen’s trio swung with all their might for two awe-inspired sets. If Allen was nervous, it was impossible to tell. Allen came home in part to push his fantastic new album “Americana Musings On Jazz and Blues” out last month on Savant Records and hailed by many jazz critics and jazz bloggers as Allen’s most formidable recording to date. Allen treated the packed house not only to cuts from “Americana” but also a variable sampling from his prodigious catalogue. If there was one disappointment, it was the absence of Allen’s longstanding running buddies bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston. However, the backup Allen hired drummer Jonathan Barber, and bassist Joseph Lepore were terrific replacements. The musicians played their asses completely off both sets, particularly Barber who struck the drums with bolts of lightning, it seemed, instead of drumsticks. Barber was drumming with such fury during the first set I wondered if he’d have enough gas left to get through the second set.  Obviously, Allen has an affinity for Barber ferocious style of drumming. It’s just a matter of time before Allen has Barber on the payroll full time. The trio played for one-hour and fifteen minutes straight the first set before coming up for air. They let the audience ears cool down by playing the ballad “Stardust”. The second set was equally awe-inspiring as the first. It was a smart move having the concert Sunday evening instead of a Friday or Saturday evening when Cliff Bell’s is so noisy it’s hard to enjoy the jazz.  People in attendance came out to experience one of the top jazz saxophonist blowing on the planet these days, and Allen’s performance was epic.