Saturday, March 30, 2019


Emma Lee Aboukasm
Emma Lee Aboukasm is a promising and daring jazz vocalist making a name for herself on Detroit’s jazz scene at the tender age of twenty-three, performing regularly at some of the top jazz venues. Four years back, she was a finalist in the Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Jazz Competition. A year before that she won Detroit's Youth Vocal Jazz Competition. Her debut recording “Rise to It” was a mission statement from a gifted artist. Recently, she received a Detroit Music Award nomination. Wednesday night at  Willis Show Bar, in Mid-Town Detroit, she paid tribute to  vocalist Sarah Vaughn, singing some standards Vaughn immortalized such as “Moonlight in Vermont,” “Tenderly,” and “It Might as Well Be Spring.” An ambitious undertaking given Aboukasm is still in the developmental stage of her career. She has an angelic and intoxicating voice, a veteran level stage presence, and she's comfortable singing standards. However, her concert felt more like a toast than a tribute. She didn’t talk about Vaughan’s accomplishments or if Vaughan was a key influence on her. During a tribute it's perfectly okay to give the audience a history lesson, and even say why the tribute is necessary. Attendees unfamiliar with Vaughan’s legacy left the first set not having learned anything about it. Another issue was Aboukasm scatting during every song. She’s not bad at it. But there was no need for  her to do so much of it because she sings so angelically. She’s still in the formative leg of her career, and self-editing is something she’ll learn and appreciate in due time. A terrific rhythm section backed her pianist Jordan Anderson, bassist Aiden Cafferty, and drummer David Ward. She believes in sharing the spotlight, so she gave each member ample space to flex. A tribute to a legend such as Sarah Vaughan is an endeavor jazz vocalists such as Sheila Landis, Ursula Walker, and Joan Belgrave, who’ve been in the game for decades, would undertake. Aboukasm, however, deserves applauds for daring to tackle some of the music Vaughan put her stamp on.

Monday, March 25, 2019


Clarinetist Anat Cohen
I’m not sure if the Israeli native and jazz clarinetist Anat Cohen is considered a household name in jazz circles. If my opinion is worth anything, I dare to assert Cohen deserves to be one. Pressed for proof why she’s deserving, I’d point to her body of recordings, and most recently her debut set at Detroit’s Paradise Jazz Series Friday evening at Orchestra Hall. Cohen shared a double bill with drummer Kendrick Scott. During her hour-plus set, Cohen redefined what’s understood and often belittled by jazz purist as smooth jazz. I’ve heard Cohen on two other occasions. Some years ago, at the Detroit Groove Society’s house concert series, and shortly after that as a headliner at the Detroit Jazz Festival. Cohen is a swinger by nature, and her chops are on par with the greats of the clarinet Pee Wee Russell and Barney Birgard. Friday evening Cohen didn’t swing as much as she’s capable of swinging. Her set was on the mellow side and in spots even melancholic. Cohen had a terrific group pianist Gadi Lehavi, bassist Tal Mashiach, and drummer Ferenc Nemeth. What Cohen offered was a generous helping of prime choice virtuosity, opening her set with “Happy Song,” which has become her anthem, then segueing nicely into “Song Without Words.” She displayed some of her swing ability on “Waltz for Alice” and the set's closer “Jitterbug Waltz.” The concert wasn’t the best context I’ve seen Cohen. Honestly, I readied myself before the concert for some unadulterated swing, but I thoroughly enjoyed hearing Cohen’s mellow side.

Drummer Kendrick Scott
The jazz drummer Kendrick Scott followed Cohen, and the concert was also his first set as a bandleader at the Paradise Jazz Series. The great jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard has called Scott the heir apparent to the great drummers of the past Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, and Art Blakey. Hearing that comparison, I wondered if Blanchard was bias given Scott is a former student of his, and Scott is a fixture in Blanchard’s award-winning band. Anyway, Scott is a damn fine jazz drummer, and his set was similarly mellow and smooth as Cohen’s set. Scott also had a wonderful group named Oracle guitarist Mike Moreno, pianist Taylor Eigsti, bassist Harish Raghavan, and saxophonist Walter Smith III. The band has been together a long time. And like longstanding jazz bands, the members were able to delve into each other's musical psyches at will. Scott gave the audience a taste of his new project “A Wall Becomes a Bridge,” due out in early April.  Scott opened with the title cut, and guided the band through amazing tunes such as “Apollo” and “Voices.” The pianist Taylor Eigsti shouldered most of the workload and put together a string of bold solos. Surprisingly Scott only soloed once. Although I was hard pressed to hear the Jones, Williams, and Blakey connection, I awoke the next morning with Scott’s licks ringing inside my head, and I found myself humming some of his tunes throughout the day. Honestly, Cohen’s and Scott’s sets weren’t the most exciting I’ve heard at the Paradise Jazz Series, but it was a lot of damn good mellow jazz presented by two bandleaders deserving of household status.

Monday, March 18, 2019


Vocalist Jose James
Jose James started his career as a self-styled jazz vocalist for the hip hop generation. For anybody who’s caught him live during the formative leg of his career understands that title. He used hand gestures peculiar to rappers and even dress like them. It was an odd sight because his voice is a mix of  vocalists Joe Williams and Johnny Hartman. James has outgrown that label. That was clear Saturday evening at the Cube in the Max M. Fisher Music Center in Detroit during his two-hour concert. He traded the baseball cap fancied by rappers for a retro-seventies inspired look complete with a fierce Afro. James was in Detroit for the first leg of his tour promoting “Lean On Me,” his marvelous album celebrating the music of singer/songwriter Bill Withers.  This stop was the first time he's held court as a collective with drummer Aaron Steele, guitarist Marcus Machado, keyboardist Takeshi Ohbayashi, and guitarist and vocalist Aneesa Strings. They must’ve invested a lot of time rehearsing because the band mixed well with James’ booming voice which he can change on a dime to be gentle as snow melting on cotton.  The set opened with “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and “Grandma’s Hands,” and it was scary how much James resembled Withers. Midway through James explained how the album came about, noting he initially planned to record 60 of Wither’s hits, but the president of Blue Note Records, Don Was, asked him to whittle the 60 to 12. The songs James went with are beloved such as “Lean On Me,” “Who Is He,” “Better Off Dead,” and “Just The Two of Us,” which James sang with soul and panache. James didn’t see it fit to remake any of the songs. He delivered each as Withers originally conceived them. Over the years, James has developed a ton of stagecraft. He had the capacity audience sprung from the first song to the encore. During one song, he walked through the audience and poked fun at a couple who showed up late. The crowd didn’t seem to mine James' gratuitous cursing one bit. He asked if any children were in attendance, and then apologized for his choice of words. It was all in good fun. James put on a terrific concert complete with a few wardrobe changes. His voice was perfectly suited for Wither’s hits. Doing covers has become James’ forte. A few years back, he released a tribute album commemorating the centennial of the great Billie Holiday. There were too many awe-inspired moments of the performance Saturday night to pinpoint a favorite. But if forced to select one at gunpoint it would be James’ handling of “Hello Like Before.”

Sunday, March 10, 2019


Dee Dee Bridgewater
Friday evening at the Detroit School of the Arts Grammy-winning jazz vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater performed with Detroit’s Gathering Orchestra, which is comprised of some of Detroit’s top jazz musicians. The performance was part of the Carr Center’s 2019 concert series, and Bridgewater was wrapping up a weeklong residency at the DSA, mentoring members of the school’s jazz vocal orchestra. Bridgewater was visibly under the weather although her voice, which is one of the best in jazz, was still in top form. Being sick didn’t hinder Bridgewater from giving the near-capacity audience a wonderful show. Bridgewater divided the concert into two parts, dedicating the first half to tunes the great Ella Fitzgerald immortalized such as “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” and “Undecided,” and the second half to some of Billie Holiday’s staples such as “God Bless the Child.” A few times Bridgewater flubbed. Once starting with the wrong tune, and the second stopping the orchestra to check that she was in the right key. Bridgewater has such a stage-presence the audience didn’t care about her flubs. Each time Bridgewater recovered nicely. It’s amazing watching her work an audience. During the performance, Bridgewater seemed to have tapped the spirits of both Fitzgerald and Holiday. I have never been a big fan of a vocalist backed by an orchestra. Orchestras tend to overwhelm, but that wasn’t the case with the Gathering Orchestra, which has only been around for a few years but sounds as good as any noted jazz orchestra making the rounds these days. What’s wonderful about the Gathering Orchestra is it is comprised of a cross-section of jazz musicians such as vets Michael Deas, Dwight Adams, and Diego Rivera, and some young lions such as Kasan Belgrave, Trunino Lowe, and Ian Finkelstein. The orchestra didn’t step on Bridgewater’s toes as she belted hit after hit.  Hell, it appeared Bridgewater has been touring with the orchestra for years. The evening was full of highlights, and some humorous banter from Bridgewater and the orchestra’s director bassist Rodney Whitaker. One memorable section was when Bridgewater invited the DSA Vocal Jazz Orchestra on stage to perform two selections. The orchestra looked good and sounded even better. It’s good to witness a group of teenage musicians who take the jazz music seriously. The audience rewarded the youngsters with an ovation. After the vocal orchestra exited the stage, Bridgewater returned to work stripping the paint from Billie Holiday staples and modernizing them. Although Bridgewater was under the weather, she delivered a damn good show, which honestly wasn’t surprising

Monday, March 4, 2019


Vocalist Ursula Walker

The jazz club Cliff Bell’s in downtown Detroit has never been a vocalist friendly venue. Saturday, the club’s busiest night, the noise can be unbearable for patrons there to enjoy live music from top regional and mid-west jazz acts. Bell’s doesn’t ask that patrons keep talking to a minimum during performances like the jazz club the Dirty Dog Jazz Café demands. Occasionally, however, Cliff Bell’s books veteran jazz musicians and vocalists who know how to tame a noisy audience. One such vocalist graced Cliff Bell’s bandstand Saturday night for two sets. The vocalist was Ursula Walker, who’s been a mainstay on Detroit’s jazz scene over five decades, performing mostly with her husband the jazz pianist and arranger Buddy Budson. Although Walker is in her mid-seventies and she only performs occasionally, she remains of excellent voice and amazingly embodies the stagecraft of a global pop star. Cliff Bell’s was packed and very noisy Saturday, but when Walker hit the bandstand backed by Budson’s quintet trumpeter Dwight Adams, saxophonist Marcus Elliot, drummer Dave Taylor, and bassist Jeff Halsey, Walker had the audience’s undivided attention after her first song. For the past two years, one of Walker and Budson’s pet projects has been writing lyrics for well-known jazz classics by jazz greats such as Wayne Shorter, and Horace Silver. Walker sang of a handful of those gems such as “Footprints,” and “Sister Sadie,” and a few Motown favorites slipped in for good measure. The audience was most attentive while Walker re-worked Smokey Robison’s hit “Shop Around.” Walker is a caretaker of songs. She treats the material she performs as if it’s freshly minted. Her voice is lovely and soothing, so much so when she’s in the throes of a love song, for example, you want to curl up in her lap. Walker was the featured attraction, but she wasn’t shy about putting the zoom lens on her bandmates. There was wonderful soloing by Dwight Adams and Marcus Elliot. Elliot was the youngest band member. In recent years, he’s graduated from a young lion to a bona fide commodity on Detroit’s jazz scene. Elliot could easily be considered the late saxophonist Joe Henderson’s heir apparent. Like Henderson, Elliot has an elegant and expansive tone, and he fits nicely into any musical situation he finds himself in. He’s like the star player who makes his teammates better. Cliff Bell’s wasn’t the best venue to experience a jazz vocalist of Walker’s depth and allure, but like any well-experienced performer, Walker made do.