Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Frost Band heats things up

The Mike Frost Band was a pleasant surprise at the Charlotte County Jazz Society’s January 14 concert in Port Charlotte, stepping boldly into more contemporary genres while also digging deep into the mainstream jazz canon.
Mike Frost
This was the Aiken, South Carolina-based group’s first appearance in Port Charlotte – and in Florida, for that matter. The unit featured leader Mike Frost on 4- and 5-string electric basses; Lauren Meccia on alto and saxophones, wind synthesizer and vocals; Shannon Pinckney on piano and electric keyboard; and Ron Green on drums.

Lauren Meccia
The quartet skillfully blended jazz and the jazz sensibility with a bit of Latin, some pop classics and even a taste of rhythm & blues. The result underscored that fact that jazz is a musical process, not a specific repertoire. It’s not what you play, it’s how you play it. Their polished blend of contemporary jazz and updates of some familiar classics worked well – because the players delivered the goods.

The standards scattered throughout their two sets included “That Old Black Magic,” “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” How High the Moon,” “Night and Day” and Paul Desmond’s “Take Five," dropping in a few bars of the "Theme from Mission Impossible" to add a novel twist to the Dave Brubeck quartet’s signature tune. There were a few more-modern jazz pieces: Chick Corea’s exotic “Spain” and a Herbie Hancock medley featuring “Cantaloupe Island” and “Watermelon Man.”

The other material, equally strong, brought more surprises in this concert setting. 

Here are some examples:
Meccia, Frost

  • Their take on Michel LeGrand’s “The Windmills of Your Mind,” inspired by a David Sanborn-Randy Crawford collaboration, featured Meccia on soprano sax and vocals. Her instrumental tone and soulfulness on this song and most others, revealed a deep influence by the late saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. That is not a bad thing.
  • The band’s version of “Come Away With Me,” a mega-hit for Norah Jones, showcased Frost’s serious chops on his electric basses. His soloing, and his cushion beneath Meccia’s vocals, became conversational bass lines.
  • Frost had much the same impact on the Beatles hit “Blackbird,” his bass almost singing along behind Meccia’s vocals and her solo on her EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument), a saxophone-like synthesizer that the late Michael Brecker brought into jazz in 1987.
  • Meccia’s vocals on “Songbird,” written by Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie but popularized through an  Eva Cassidy posthumous release, were both soaring and beautiful. 
Ron Green
Shannon Pinckney
The band also dug into the 1960s Bobby Hebb pop hit, “Sunny,” Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine,” Dave Stewart’s “Lily Was Here” (which he recorded in 1990 with contemporary jazz saxophonist Candy Dulfer), and Earth Wind & Fire’s “Getaway.” 

The crowd dug the night’s fusion with enthusiasm, clamoring for more at the end, and then entreating the band members to come back soon.

The concert, drawing a crowd of nearly 300, was at the Cultural Center of Charlotte County's WIlliam H. Wakeman III Theater.
Pinckney, Meccia, Frost, Green

Monday, January 14, 2019

Four Others - and more

A few years ago, Marian’s Jazzroom in Switzerland asked Harry Allen to put together a four-saxophone band for its Bern Jazz Festival. He quickly thought of the classic sound of the Four Brothers sax section from Woody Herman’s Second Herd in the late 1940s. That renowned unit featured tenor players Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Herbie Steward, and baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff. With no alto players in the mix, the rich, deep sound of the unison horns stood out on the big band circuit.
Harry Allen

Seventy years later, Allen is keeping that zesty spirit alive without taking a repertory approach. In his mind, there’s no need to re-create something if you can’t improve upon it. So he took the opposite tack - bringing that sound to new audiences with his own fine arrangements and a wider range of material.

His Four Others project got its latest showcase on Sunday, January 13, at a South County Jazz Club performance at the Glenridge Performing Center in Sarasota, a 200-seat acoustic marvel. His all-star band included fellow tenorists Jeff Rupert and Lew Del Gatto, baritone saxophonist Mike Brignola, pianist Richard Drexler, bassist Don Mopsick and drummer Marty Morell.
Rupert, Del Gatto, Allen, Brignola

The only tune performed from the Herman book was the opener, an Al Cohn arrangement of Jimmy Giuffre’s high-flying composition “Four Brothers” that showcased the distinctive sound that was to come: crisp unison horn playing that gave way to individual solos. (Cohn succeeded Steward in the Herman band’s Four Brothers section.)

As the performance progressed, it became clear that Allen has been spending considerable time writing new tunes and putting four-sax arrangements together for those originals and other things that he fancies.

The Allen originals the band performed included “The One For You” (co-written with singer-pianist Judy Carmichael), the musically caffeinated “Blues in the Morning” and a bossa nova “I Can See Forever,” which was a fine showcase for Rupert’s soloing. The covers included “It Never Entered My Mind,” “I Wished on the Moon,” “Luck Be a Lady” from Guys and Dolls, “Nobody’s Heart Belongs to Me” and “After You’ve Gone.”

Two others were afternoon standouts for varying reasons – synchronicity and surprise:
  • Allen’s arrangement of “Begin the Beguine,” Cole Porter's extended composition tha
    Allen, Brignola, Mopsick, Nakasian
    t became an instrumental hit for Artie Shaw, was stunning. Each horn player’s solo rode over a cushion of the other three saxophonists’ unison playing.
  • For the first-set closer, Allen brought jazz singer Stephanie Nakasian from the audience – with no planning – to join the band on “What a Little Moonlight Can Do.” She cleverly played with the lyrics midway through to sing “ooh ooh ooh, what a saxophone section can do-o-o.”

So for a few minutes, Four Others became Four Brothers and a Sister.
Drexler, Rupert, Del Gatto, Allen, Mopsick, Brignola, Morell
If you are unfamiliar with this phase of Allen’s extensive work but intrigued, check it out. Back in 2016, Harry recorded this Four Brothers-style project, The Candymen (Arbors) with his All Star New York Saxophone Band. Tenorists Eric Alexander and Grant Stewart, and baritone player Gary Smulyan, joined him in the reed section.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Swinging style and bebopping finesse

Stephanie Nakasian has had many facets to her career. She was a banker in Chicago and Manhattan. Then she caught the jazz bug. She heard bebop pianist Hod O’Brien, started working with him a bit in 1980 and a year later quit her day job to become a full-time singer. 

Stephanie Nakasian
She built her chops as a two-year member of the vocal group, Jon Hendricks and Company. She married O’Brien, and figured out how to balance motherhood, performing (often with her husband) and a long career as a music educator at the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary. These days, she’s known to some as rising star jazz vocalist Veronica Swift’s mother.

On Friday, February 11, Nakasian’s quartet performance in Venice FL illuminated her vocal artistry. The wide-ranging program was a palette for her swinging style and bebopping finesse. Her scatting was never overdone. She used it sparingly – and effectively – to put a different twist on familiar fare. She also put a fine spin on several tunes that aren't heard much today.

Tony Vigilante
 Her rhythm section included three fine Florida-based pros: Richard Drexler on piano, Don Mopsick on bass and Tony Vigilante on drums.

Richard Drexler

Don Mopsick
The material ranged from the Great American Songbook to Sergio Mend├ęs to jazz classics, including “Perdido” and Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints,” to Helen Humes’ vintage blues “Million Dollar Secret.”

Favorite moments:
  • Her poignant take on “These Foolish Things” was a heart-felt tribute to O’Brien, who died two years ago. She followed it with “The Man I Love,” which featured with a bit of horn emulation. Her technique this time around sounded like a growling muted trumpet solo as she traded phrases with Drexler.
  • The mash-up of “The Days of Wine and Roses,” which she sang over the rhythm section’s take on “Killer Joe.”
  • Her take on Ann Hampton Callaway’s beautiful ballad “You Can’t Rush Spring,” a composition that she said ought to be considered as a jazz standard.The South County Jazz Club matinee concert was held at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Venice.
Drexler, Mopsick, Nakasian, Vigilante

Thursday, January 10, 2019

There's jazz in his blood

Pianist Rony Khoury hails from the Dominican Republic, where his sheer talent at the keyboard has caught many an eye - and ear. With good reason. 

Rony Khoury
He visited Port Charlotte this week for a showcase performance - a brief stopover en route to Boston, where he's going to study at the Berklee College of Music. He won a half-scholarship to Berklee through the Michel Camilo Scholarship Competition, which is open to student musicians from the Dominican Republic. 

Isaac Mingus
Khoury, 28, performed in a trio format at J.D.'s Bistro with bassist Isaac Mingus and drummer Mark De Rose. Mingus, a recent grad of the State College of Florida in Bradenton who now studies at the University of Florida in Gainesville, is a classical and jazz bassist and cellist. De Rosa, a Berklee grad who spent a lot of time working in Japan, is now based on the Florida east coast.

Khoury's varied two-set program revealed a combination of classical chops, jazz in his blood (and musical soul), and a hint of Latin fire. The latter may draw a bit from the influence of Camilo, perhaps the DR's greatest jazz export. Camilo, who has been working in the US since 1979, has a playing style that embodies Latin fire - rhythmic, highly percussive, and full of energy.

In addition to putting his own stamp on a few standards, Khoury dug into two classic Herbie Hancock tunes - "Cantaloupe Island" and "Watermelon Man," Camilo's "From Within" and several original compositions, including "Un Blusito" (A Little Blues). 
Mark De Rosa

The most fascinating moments when he and his trio mates dug deep into "Stella By Starlight." They turned this classic jazz standard on its ear, with Khoury stretching its boundaries. His improvisation mined it at length to find and explore new facets.

It will be interesting to see what he absorbs from the Berklee experience, which has many international students (hailing from 70 countries), in its broad array of musical programs. 

At the very least, it will be a considerable networking opportunity with other future bandleaders, faculty (many of who maintain busy performance careers), and top-flight musicians who visit Berklee quite often for residencies and master classes. Plus, he'll only be a few hours away from New York's jazz mecca, where he can make further connections.

The Tuesday, January 8 event was a fundraiser for the Port Charlotte-based Hope Academy of Music, which provides one-on-one after school music lessons for students who otherwise couldn't afford such tutoring.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Covering the jazz waterfront

After forty-plus years on the New York jazz scene, trumpeter Randy Sandke has made himself a new home base in Southwest Florida. He moved to Venice a few months ago and has settled into the fertile area jazz scene.
Randy Sandke

While he has had some gigs as a sideman, Sunday, January 6 brought his first area concert as a bandleader. And a fine one it was. His quintet included saxophonist Peter BarenBregge, pianist Joe Delaney, bassist Don Mopsick and drummer David Pruyn – with Sandke acknowledging them as “stalwarts of the Florida jazz scene.”

Randy Sandke, Peter BarenBregge
Their credentials extend much farther. BarenBregge, who moved to Venice in 2017 from Virginia, was a twenty-plus year member of the Airmen of Note military jazz band – and its musical director for many years. Delaney, a Cape Cod jazz fixture who also played in the Artie Shaw Orchestra, moved to Fort Myers to work regularly with trumpeter Lou Colombo. Mopsick held the bass chair in Jim Cullum’s Riverwalk Jazz Band in San Antonio for 18 years. Pruyn, a triple-threat on drums, trumpet and vocals, now leads the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra.

Randy Sandke, Joe Delaney
The wide-ranging program touched on classic jazz, the Great American Songbook, a bit of bluesy bebop, and some originals from Sandke and pianist-composer Dick Hyman, another Venice resident, who was in the house. BarenBregge was featured with the rhythm section on “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” and “It Could Happen to You.” Delaney got his moment in the spotlight on “You Look Good to Me,” a classically influenced composition whose definitive recording was by the Oscar Peterson trio. It rightfully has been described as sounding like as swinging version of a Bach fugue.

Other favorite moments:

  • Chicago-born Sandke’s poignant exploration of the Bob Haggart tune “What’s New,” which became a pop mega-hit for Linda Ronstadt in 1983. “Bob was a great man who finished up his career here in Venice,” Sandke said. “This tune probably paid for his house in Venice.”
  • The world-premiere performance of Hyman’s new composition “Cornet Chow Mein,” inspired by Louis Armstrong’s 1926 recording “Cornet Chop Suey” by his Hot Five band. With Sandke digging deep into his classic jazz chops, this was a strong tribute to Armstrong’s musical essence.
  • Sandke’s two original pieces were “Say,” a sprightly, modern piece inspired by Irving Berlin’s “Say It With Music,” and the older “Relaxin’ at Clifford’s,” which in this delivery was imbued with the bluesy, tight 1960s bebop feel of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.
  • Then there was their splendid take on a Phil Woods arrangement of “Willow Weep for Me.” The arrangement is actually a mash-up, using today’s jazz vernacular. Sandke and BarenBregge played the
    Willow” melody over the rhythm section’s delivery of Miles Davis’s classic hit “All Blues.” It was a seamless effort.
Sandke & Co. performed for the South County Jazz Club in a matinee concert held at Venice Presbyterian Church.
Delaney, Sandke, BarenBregge, Mopsick, Pruyn