Thursday, October 23, 2014

CDs of Note – Short Takes

Taking a closer look at CD’s by the Hutchinson Andrew Trio, the Mike Longo Trio and Marianne Solivan….
Hutchinson Andrew Trio, Prairie Modern (Chronograph)
This one is like a fine wine that sits on the rack, unopened for many months, getting better and better with age. Then you pop the cork, or pop it into the CD player, and say “wow.” It’s a 2013 release that somehow didn’t grab my attention until a week or so ago. The Western Canada-based Hutchinson Andrew Trio hails from the prairie country of Alberta. Pianist Chris Andrew, bassist Kodi Hutchinson and drummer Karl Schwonik are the principals here, joined on six of 13 tracks by New York-based saxophonist Donny McCaslin and on three tracks by percussionist Rogério Boccato. All of the music conjures up breathtaking images of the sweeping open country that the trio calls home. Kudos to the edgy and versatile McCaslin for settling right in to sound like an integral part of the modern, adventurous band. Favorite tracks: the opening ballad “Mountain Rose,” “Wilds,” “Ponderado,” “Mintaka” and “Prairie Wind.” Chris Andrew, who wrote all 13 tracks, (two in collaboration with Hutchinson), is a powerhouse composer inspired by his surroundings, be they friends or majestic settings. Wow.

Mike Longo Trio, Celebrates Oscar Peterson Live (CAP)

Pianist Mike Longo, featured in his longstanding trio with bassist Paul West and drummer Ray Mosca, has another gem here. Longo spent an intense six months studying with pianist Oscar Peterson back in 1963, and this is his homage to the master. There is no outright duplication, for that’s the last thing OP would have wanted. Instead, Longo celebrates Peterson through the traits he absorbed – unbridled swing and chordal/melodic invention, thundering or delicate as needed – as the band explored standard jazz and popular standards that were part of Peterson’s repertoire. Favorites: their takes on Duke Ellington’s “Love You Madly,” “Always,” an adventurous tease through “Love For Sale,” “Tenderly” and a most appropriate “I Remember You.” 

Marianne Solivan, Spark (Hipnotic)

Singer-composer-educator Marianne Solivan has absorbed mightily from listening to jazz greats over the years, and her absorption from singers and instrumentalists has turned her into a charming and gifted talent. You’ll immediately dig her sense of time, her phrasing, and her ability to make a song all her own. She avoids overly familiar material, focusing instead on originals and material deserving to make its way to fresh ears. On this, her second CD, Solivan is backed by a superb trio, featuring Xavier Davis on piano, Matthew Parrish on bass and Greg Hutchinson on drums. Clear favorites: her original “Spark,” which opens the CD, and her take on Francesca Blumenthal’s “The Lies of Handsome Men.”

Monday, October 20, 2014

Looking Ahead: Southwest Florida jazz preview

The 2014-15 jazz concert season is under way. Here is a rundown of noteworthy jazz events, principally in the Sarasota to Naples territory, between now and the end of the year.

  • Monday, October 27 – The Music of Horace Silver performed by the University of South Florida Faculty Jazz Ensemble (Jack Wilkins, Tom Brantley, Matt McCarthy, LaRue Nickelson, Mark Neuenschwander, Chris Rottmayer, Ric Craig), USF Concert Hall, Tampa, 7:30 p.m.
  • Wednesday, October 29 – Vibes player Jason Marsalis (younger brother of Branford, Delfeayo and Wynton) is the Naples Philharmonic Jazz Orchestra’s special guest for this concert. Daniels Pavilion, Naples. 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.
  • Monday, November 10 – Pianist Johnny Varro’s Swing Seven. Charlotte County Jazz Society’s Artists Series. Cultural Center of Charlotte County. 7 p.m.
  • Friday, November 21-Sunday, November 23 – The 24th annual Suncoast Jazz Classic pretty much takes over two Clearwater Beach hotel resorts (the Sheraton Sand Key and the Marriott Sand Key) for its annual traditional jazz bash.
  • Monday, December 8 – New England-based hard-bop saxophonist Greg Abate makes his biennial visit to the Charlotte County Jazz Society’s Artists Series. Cultural Center of Charlotte County. 7 p.m.
  • Wednesday, December 10 – Pianist Uri Caine is the Naples Philharmonic Jazz Orchestra’s special guest. Daniels Pavilion, Naples. 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.
  • POSTPONED UNTIL 2015 DUE TO ILLNESS: Saturday, December 13 – Singer-pianist Diana Krall. Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, Sarasota.
  • Sunday, December 14 – The Four Freshmen, South County Jazz Club concert series, Glenridge Performing Arts Center, Sarasota, 2 p.m.
  • Thursday, December 18 – Bop pianist Hod O’Brien with singers Stephanie Nakasian and Veronica O’Brien (their daughter). South County Jazz Club concert, Venice Art Center, 2 p.m.
  • Thursday, December 18 – Grammy-winning jazz singer Gregory Porter, Straz Center, Tampa, 8 p.m.
  • Harry Allen
  • Saturday, December 20 – Guitarist Nate Najar’s trio with special guest Harry Allen, South County Jazz Club concert series, Glenridge Performing Arts Center, Sarasota, 8 p.m.

Several local restaurants (including J.D.’s in Port Charlotte, The Orange House in Punta Gorda, The Roadhouse in Ft. Myers, and Alto in Naples) offer jazz steadily. A variety of matinee concerts sponsored all season by the Jazz Club of Sarasota and the South County Jazz Club also keep things swinging for jazz lovers.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Two different yet effective jazz vocal approaches

Dave Pruyn
The Charlotte County Jazz Society opened its 25th anniversary season Monday night with a double concert featuring two Florida-based singers with very different, yet very effective, approaches to the Great American Songbook and jazz canon.

Dave Pruyn opened the evening with an hour-long "Notes in Velvet" tribute set that celebrated his love and respect for late singer Mel Torme, who was nicknamed The Velvet Fog." Pruyn, who is a musical triple threat as a singer, drummer and trumpeter, worked in Torme's big band horn section on several southern tours in the early 1980s. Pruyn possesses a fine, Torme-like voice, though he was careful to bring his own sound to the Charlotte Cultural Center stage in Port Charlotte. His fine rhythm section included pianist Stan Collins, bassist Charlie Silva and drummer Barry Smith.

D. Pruyn, Charlie Silva, Michelle Pruyn
One highlight was Pruyn and Collins romp through "Start All Over Again," including a J.S. Bach interlude segment that was a Torme concert staple. The show ended with another surprise tribute, when Pruyn's wife, Michelle James Pruyn, joined the fun for a spirited take on the Rosemary Clooney hit "Mambo Italiano" (with Dave backing on trumpet) and a 16th anniversary duet with her hubby on "Memories of You."

Paulette Pepper, James Snyder
 Paulette Pepper and her band, Fine Thyme, performed the second half of the evening, with a set that revealed the singer's friskier swing style and looser programming. She made it a point throughout the set to spotlight each band member at great length, instrumentally and/or vocally. The band included reed player James Snyder, pianist Randy Morris, bassist Billy Pillucere and drummer Patricia Dean, who also was featured vocally on "I Can't Give You Anything But Love."

Pepper, Billy Pillucere
Highlights included her sultry duet with bassist Pillucere on "Just Squeeze Me" and the band's romp through "Basin Street Blues" and "One Note Samba." Pepper opened with "I Love Being Here With You" - and it turned into a statement of fact as well as a lyric. And the Port Charlotte audience loves her too. 
Stan Collins, Charlie Silva, Dave Pruyn, Barry Smith
Randy Morris, Pepper, Billy Pillucere, Patricia Dean, James Snyder

Monday, October 6, 2014

A generations-leaping jazz adventure

I’ve spent the last few days listening closely to Cheek to Cheek, the ambitious new recording by Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga. It debuted September 23 and soared to #1 on the Billboard 200 list. It also topped the Jazz Albums and Traditional Jazz Albums charts. Cheek to Cheek sold 131,000 copies in the week ending September 28, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Bennett is 88 and Lady Gaga is 28, yet they found common ground in exploring the Great American Songbook, which has always been Bennett’s forte. Gaga has also loved it, to a larger degree than most of her fans knew or appreciated.

Bennett-Gaga duets are the heart of the session, which teams them on various tracks with Bennett’s longstanding quartet or a Gaga quintet. At times, a full orchestra with strings or a rich jazz brass section also supports them. Tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano solos on “Anything Goes,” “I Won’t Dance” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).” Flute player Paul Horn, who passed away in late June, soloed on “Nature Boy.”

Bennett performs solo on “Don’t Wait Too Long” and “Sophisticated Lady,” while Lady Gaga performs solo on “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” and “Lush Life.” Bennett’s take on Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” glimmers in its simplicity – with the singer backed only by pianist Mike Renzi. Lady Gaga’s version of  “Lush Life opens similarly – with just pianist Tom Ranier backing her, until subtle strings emerge. Bennett and Lady Gaga’s playful interaction highlights “Goody Goody,” on which they are backed by Tony’s quartet with Renzi, guitarist Gray Sargent, bassist Marshall Wood and drummer Harold Jones.

“It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” is a most-appropriate closer for this session. The Bennett-Gaga synergy underscores the importance of this genre of music and its ability to bridge generations.

There are several takeaways here.

  •  The project is introducing many Lady Gaga fans to the Great American Songbook.
  •  It has worked like a Fountain of Youth for Bennett, who doesn’t sound like he’s anywhere close to pushing 90.
  • It was not made to be an over-the-top entertainment spectacle one normally associates with the usually flamboyant Lady Gaga and so many of today’s pop concert performers. Rather, it is a collaboration that makes music for music’s sake.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

CDs of Note - Short Takes

Taking a closer look at CDs by Dr. John, Mark Elf, Fred Hersch and Jane Potter.…

Everybody in jazz owes a tip of the hat to Louis Armstrong. His melodic phrasing and inventiveness as an improviser set the early bar for jazz. Dr. John and a variety of special guests have indeed tipped the hat with the singer-pianist’s newest CD, Ske-Dat-De-Dat, (title derived from an Armstrong’s skat). The disc contains a baker’s dozen of tunes associated with Armstrong, performed in new contexts, with Dr. John’s guests running the gamut from jazz soloists to singers from the gospel, R&B, blues and rap genres. And it works.

You’ll hear the Blind Boys of Alabama on tracks with trumpeters Nicholas Payton (the opener, “What a Wonderful World”) and Terence Blanchard (“Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams”). Bonnie Raitt teams up with the good doctor on “”I’ve Got the World on a String” while Shemekia Copeland cameos on “Sweet Hunk O’Trash.” Poet/rapper Mike Ladd is featured with Blanchard on “Mack the Knife” and R&B singer Anthony Hamilton is on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” Trumpeters James Andrews, Wendell Brunious and Arturo Sandoval are also part of this Armstrong party. R&B singer Ledisi turns in the finest recorded performance I’ve heard from her on “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” In appropriate New Orleans fashion, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band romps through the closer, “When You’re Smiling (the Whole World Smiles With You).” There is much here to smile about, while you tap your feet of course.

Mark Elf, Mark Elf Returns 2014 (Jen Bay)
Welcome back, Mark Elf. The versatile Long Island-based guitarist is indeed back, and in fine form. He recorded 10 self-produced recordings, nine of them in an annual spate between1997-2004 and another, Liftoff, in 2006. This one got delayed, partially by October 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, which wiped out Elf’s home and much of his East Rockaway NY neighborhood. Thanks to a Kickstarter campaign, he’s recording again. This is Elf’s third recording with the ace rhythm section of pianist David Hazeltine, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash, mixing it up on originals and standards. Percussionist Steve Kroon joins the band on Elf’s “Michellie’s Mambo.” Favorite tracks, the blues “Low Blow,” featuring Elf on the baritone guitar, and “The Sandy Effect,” an aching ballad inspired by the storm that interrupted his music. Elf hasn’t lost his sense of humor, calling it “one song I wish I hadn’t been inspired to write.”
Fred Hersch Trio, Floating (Palmetto)
Pianist Fred Hersch, one of the great modern jazz pianists out of Bill Evans’ lineage, is out with another Gem. Floating teams Hersch with his longtime trio-mates, bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson in a beautifully intense exploration of originals and some uncommon standards from the jazz and popular song repertoires. Favorites among Hersch’s several originals are the title track and the rollicking “Home Fries.” The covers are “You and the Night and the Music” and “If Ever I Would Leave You.” The trio closes the set with the wonderfully angular Thelonious Monk tune, “Let’s Cool One.” This CD is a master class in the art of the trio.

Jane Potter Trio, Now I Know (self-produced)
Boston-based pianist and singer Jane Potter teaches at the Berklee College of Music by day. At night, you’re likely to find her performing at the Oak Bar in Copley Square or the Top of the Hub. She has mastered the fine art of balancing her vocals and her keyboard work so that each enhances the other. Her laid-back sense of time helps the music breathe when she’s singing. Her piano chops are strong and adventurous in vocal-free segments. The simpatico trio mates are bassist Thomas Hebb (who also joins Potter for a vocal duet on the standard “Beautiful Friendship”) and drummers Bob Savine or Steve Langone (tracks 5 and 10). Favorite tracks: “Time After Time,” “Everything I Have is Yours, “I Remember You,” "What a Difference a Day Made" and Potter’s own sprightly instrumental “Stability.”

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A jazz matinee with Larry Camp, Marty Morell, Bruce Wallace

Larry Camp
Bassist Bruce Wallace opened the South County Jazz Club's 2014-15 concert season Friday afternoon with a top-notch trio whose members had never worked together in this personnel grouping. It featured guitarist Larry Camp and drummer Marty Morell, best known in jazz circles for his seven-year stint in pianist Bill Evans' trio from 1968 to 1975.

Marty Morell
Musically, it was a fine, and poignant, afternoon at the Venice (FL) Art Center. This was Wallace's third consecutive season opener for the jazz club. Powerhouse pianist Kenny Drew Jr. had been pencilled in for the gig - until his unexpected death on August 3.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

CDs of Note - Short Takes

Taking a closer look at CDs by Roberto Magris, Dan Moretti and Ernie Watts….

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Jazz In The Key of Light [updated info]

I’m pleased to announce that my new book, “Jazz in the Key of Light” (Eighty of our Finest Jazz Musicians Speak for Themselves), was self-published in a limited edition on October 15. 

This is not your typical fine art photography book. Images of the featured artists, in performance or moments of personal reflection, are paired with illuminating quotes from interviews I had with those musicians in assignments for a variety of mainstream and music publications over the past 30 years.  
The spotlighted musicians range from legends Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughan to a variety of today’s rising stars. Newport Jazz Festival producer George Wein wrote the Foreword. 

“Ken has leveraged his backstage pass to bring jazz fans closer to the music’s human source. Jazz In The Key of Light’s connection of words and images is a powerful complement to the music, since listeners often have no other statement from artists besides their art. As a result, we feel closer to the musician as a person.” 
        – Al Basile, poet, songwriter, and jazz & blues cornetist

“Jazz in the Key of Light,” published in hardcover format with dust jacket, retails at $59.95 (plus tax where applicable, and $5.99 shipping and handling). It is also available for purchase through

Orders for signed or inscribed copies can be made directly, payable by check or through PayPal. Contact me for details at

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Moving from the disco ball to the jazz supper club

Singer Evelyn Thomas, best known for 1980s hit songs in the disco and Hi-NRG dance club genre, is revisiting her roots as a singer. While not abandoning her dance music work, she has gone back to jazz. And she’s loving it.

Thomas made her local jazz debut Saturday night, September 13, at JD’s Bistro & Grille in Port Charlotte FL with her backing trio. She drew an enthusiastic audience for her blend of material from the canon of jazz standards, the Great American Songbook, and what we might call new standard fare: pop-associated material richly deserving of jazz treatments. Last night, JD’s had the feel and temperature of a fine New York supper club, a venue where Thomas and her backing trio plan to be Saturday night regulars.
Thomas’s spot-on vocals and her approach to her material reveal her influences from her early years as developing singer: particularly Nancy Wilson. The second set included Murray Grand’s haunting, lovelorn ballad “Guess Who I Saw Today,” which was a jazz vocal hit for Wilson in 1960. Other treats: her takes on the Shirley Horn- and Joe Williams-associated “Here’s to Life,” and one of those newer standards, “When October Goes” a 1984 Barry Manilow hit that combined his music with lyrics by the late Johnny Mercer.

Chicago-native Thomas has lived in southwest Florida for the past 21 years, using Port Charlotte as home base for her occasional disco-related tours to Europe as well as U.S. gigs. But she hadn’t immersed herself in the rather healthy local jazz scene – until now.

 “I still love that world (disco and Hi-NRG),” Thomas told me. “When they call, I’ve got to go (back to the world of dance clubs and disco balls), but I’m loving this too. I never left jazz, but now I’m doing more of it."

Thomas’s trio included her husband, Anthony Simpson (piano), Mark Fitzpatrick (electric bass) and Bob Ryan (drums). Their support was excellent.