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Mark your calendar for our 2017 awards ceremony celebrating Hot House Jazz magazine's 35th anniversary: Monday October 9th, 2017.
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Metropolitan Room / Hot House Jazz magazine 2016 award ceremony.

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Check Stephanie Jones' AFTER THE CALL podcast with guests drummer Kendrick Scott and guitar player Mike Moreno.

Allan Harris

Winning Spins by George Kanzler

Traditions, and the songs that helped form them in the jazz and black vocal heritage, loom large on the new albums from two singers that comprise this Winning Spins. Allan Harris belongs to the school of romantic, bluesy crooners stretching from Nat “King” Cole to Brook Benton and Joe Williams, and has in fact recorded a tribute to Cole. Jazzmeia Horn, a new voice whose debut is this album, continues and extends a lineage of female jazz singing that extends in technique from Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan to Betty Carter, and in activism and social commentary from Billie Holiday and Lena Horne to Nina Simone and Abbey Lincoln.

Nobody’s Gonna Love You Better (Black Bar Jukebox Redux), Allan Harris (Love Records), finds Allan mixing pop/soul hits and standards from his formative years with four originals, including a funkier version of his “Blue Was Angry” that originally appeared on his impressive tribute to black cowboys, Cross That River song cycle. The non-original selections are wide ranging, from a bossa/samba, “Doralice,” sung in Portuguese and Steely Dan’s hipster “Any Major Dude Will Tell You” done to Pascalle Bouef’s funky organ and a backbeat from drummer Shirazette Tinnin; and a romantic version of the James Moody/Eddie Jefferson vocalese classic “Moody’s Mood For Love.” The latter is particularly fetching, with Pascalle’s piano backing Allan’s balladic choruses up to the bridge, where the tempo picks up for the piano “vocalese” solo, dropping again for the coda.

The band, which also includes Allan and Freddie Bryant on guitars and bassist Russell Hall, gets to swing out on Allan’s “Swing” and brings an easy, loping feel to “I Remember You,” notable for Pascalle’s incisive organ solos. Allan’s sentimental side comes out, tempered by a sprightly beat, on his “Mother’s Love (Nobody’s Gonna Love You),” Pascalle switching from piano to organ for the vampy coda. Allan references Charles Earland’s soul jazz version of “More Today Than Yesterday” and recalls Nat Cole’s heartbeat tempo on a standard associated with Nat, “Ruby.” All in all, this is an eclectic vocal album that hangs together with Allan’s rich, honeyed voice and a band that exemplifies the sounds of a black bar jukebox.

Allan Harris brings his band to Smoke Jazz & Supper Club, July 13.

Photo Credit:  Shervin Lainez

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Jazzmeia Horn

Winning Spins by George Kanzler

Traditions, and the songs that helped form them in the jazz and black vocal heritage, loom large on the new albums from two singers that comprise this Winning Spins. Allan Harris belongs to the school of romantic, bluesy crooners stretching from Nat “King” Cole to Brook Benton and Joe Williams, and has in fact recorded a tribute to Cole. Jazzmeia Horn, a new voice whose debut is this album, continues and extends a lineage of female jazz singing that extends in technique from Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan to Betty Carter, and in activism and social commentary from Billie Holiday and Lena Horne to Nina Simone and Abbey Lincoln.

A Social Call, Jazzmeia Horn (Prestige/Concord), rivals Cecile McLorin Salvant’s as an immensely impressive debut for a jazz vocalist, especially considering that she is still in her early 20s and many jazz singers take decades to mature and develop their artistry. The album title has a double resonance. “Social Call” was a signature Betty Carter song (by Gigi Gryce and Jon Hendricks) and the title also expresses Jazzmeia’s “call in peace about issue affecting peace.”

Jazzmeia is strongly influenced by Betty, and includes not only “Social Call” but the Carter original, and tour-de-force of tempi and rhythm change-ups, “Tight.” Tenor saxophonist Stacey Dillard engages in four-bar trades with Jazzmeia’s exuberant scat on “Tight,” while she begins “Social Call” over just Ben Williams’ pizzicato bass. He is one of the album’s core rhythm section, along with pianist Victor Gould and drummer Jerome Jennings.

While Betty is a major influence, Jazzmeia’s voice is much rangier, with also more tonal and timbral variety. So, it is not surprising that she channels her inner Sarah on “East of the Sun,” begun like Sarah’s with a full chorus of just voice and bass, or that she can conjure the pure dulcet tones of Sarah and Ella in a legato mood on the pensive Jimmy Rowles/Norma Winstone ballad “The Peacocks,” delivered over just Victor’s piano, Josh Evans adding a trumpet solo before the final chorus.       

But the album’s diversity doesn’t end there. Jazzmeia punches up a gospel song, “Up Above My Head,” with the help of a horn section with Josh, Stacey and trombonist Frank Lacy. The full horn section is also prominent on an activist version of The Stylistics’ “People Make the World Go Round,” prefaced by a long recitative cataloguing the world’s social ills, as well as on the “Moanin’” portion of a medley that begins with the spiritual anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” from just Jazzmeia, at her most powerful, and Victor.

The longest medley brings together a largely wordless, dramatically expressive “Afro Blue” and “Wade in the Water,” bridged by “Eye See You,” an original recitation by Jazzmeia, who ends the album with a pull-out-all-the-stops soul gospel version of Mary J. Blige’s “I’m Going Down.”

Jazzmeia Horn appears with the Django Reinhardt All-Stars at Birdland, July 8-9, at Cooper Hewitt Museum, July 13, and at Yonkers Waterfront Jazz Series, July 14.

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Giacomo Gates

Giacomo Gates: Living and Sharing Life’s Interesting Stories by Ken Franckling

Giacomo Gates digs interesting songs that, more often than not, have a clever twist to them. What he delivers—and what you hear—is not always what you expect. Whether he’s interpreting material from the Great American Songbook, jazz hipsters like Oscar Brown Jr., Babs Gonzales, Jon Hendricks and Eddie Jefferson, or instrumentalists Tadd Dameron and Lee Morgan, he holds a listener’s interest with his approach, sometimes stretching his performance with artful vocal emulation of instrumental solos.

“I love songs that tell life’s interesting stories. It’s got to be a story. It’s got to make sense to me. There’s got to be something that I can connect to,” Giacomo says. “I know people want to hear something recognizable but they also like to be turned onto something that’s different. I want the band to have a good time. I want the audience to have a good time. It’s supposed to be fun.”

Giacomo’s seventh CD as a leader, What Time Is It?, was released in April. This is his fourth project for Savant Records and it’s a natural progression from 2015’s Everything is Cool and his earlier projects for the label: The Revolution Will Be Jazz—The Songs of Gil Scott-Heron and MilesTones, a survey of Miles Davis’ repertoire from the 1950s.

Everything is Cool and What Time Is It? are more about what makes Giacomo tick. To set the mood for the newest recording, he precedes the Rodgers & Hart tune “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” with a spoken word introduction featuring his poem, “What Time Is It?”

“That poem refers to the essence of (somebody) not knowing what time it is. The composers are not referring to a watch or a clock,” Giacomo says. “To be intrigued with ‘What Time Is It?’ you need to know what time it is.”

He went outside the jazz repertoire with his take on “Silhouettes,” a 1957 pop hit for The Rays, a doo-wop group. Giacomo said he included it because he digs its clever love story with a twist. “That tune was in my head from when I first heard it. I probably owned the 45. It is not a very complicated tune musically but it is a great story that’s fun to sing. A guy takes a walk, thinks he’s walking by his girlfriend’s house, sees her with another guy. He knocks on the door and discovers he’s on the wrong block. So, he runs to his girlfriend’s house and everything is cool.”

Giacomo, 66, is one of life’s interesting stories himself.

He grew up in Bridgeport, Conn., where his family gave him a musical foundation through a half dozen years of guitar lessons. He showed no interest in music as a career, but played in a couple of wedding bands, which familiarized him with the Great American Songbook. He listened to jazz on metropolitan New York’s radio stations. “I was aware of the music; I was a fan of the music, but what I went to do for a vocation was very different,” Giacomo says.

The very tall, powerfully built singer spent two decades as a blue-collar laborer and heavy equipment operator. He hung sheetrock, drove moving trucks and tour buses, and worked in an illicit casino and on an offshore drill rig. The heart of that adventure was his plan to head north to where construction of the Alaska pipeline was just getting started. That one-year plan turned into something far larger and longer. He spent 14 years doing road construction, operating scrapers, loaders and bulldozers, and driving spikes into railway tracks.

He also found time to sit-in at music clubs and, in the late 1980s, enrolled in a two-week vocal workshop in Fairbanks. With encouragement from visiting musicians and instructors, he returned to Connecticut to become a full-time musician.

Giacomo says his rigorous work experience in Alaska’s northern wilderness, Louisiana, Arizona and Washington State, “absolutely” had an impact on his approach to music.

“I know what it is to work in a different kind of a way, and I know what it is to be in places where survival depends upon your savvy,” he says. “You’ve got to know what to do. It makes you aware of yourself and your surroundings, what goes on inside you, what touches you and what doesn’t touch you, what moves you. If you don’t have anything to compare anything with, you don’t know the difference,” Giacomo says. In other words, you don’t know what time it is.

Giacomo Gates performs in the Midday Jazz series at Saint Peter’s Church on July 12 with pianist Ronny Whyte and bassist Boots Maleson. He’s at the Deer Head Inn (Delaware Water Gap, Penn.) on July 22 with pianist Billy Test and bassist Greg Eicher. In August he will be at Jazz at Kitano the 23rd.

Coming next: Jon Faddis, Dizzy’s protégé celebrates his mentor!

Photo Credit:  Keyvan Behpour

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Maureen Choi

Another Reason to Celebrate by Elzy Kolb

There and back again

Sometimes it sounds like violinist Maureen Choi has lived a totally charmed life: She gets to focus on the things she loves, as her mother encouraged to do at an early age. These days that means living in Madrid, performing internationally, teaching at Berklee College of Music in Spain and releasing her second CD, Ida y Vuelta (BarC).

But the journey wasn’t always easy. The eldest daughter of Korean immigrants, at a young age Maureen was charged with caring for her younger sisters and managing the household while her newly single mother worked 12-plus hour days. The rigorous schedule and responsibilities led the violinist to question her devotion to the instrument she’d had under her chin since she was 2 1/2 years old.

She stopped her intense daily practice, quit school and worked a series of retail and food service gigs. After a five-year hiatus, Maureen earned her GED and resumed music studies at Michigan State University.

“I quit between 15 and 20, which is a huge developmental stage,” she explains. “When I picked up the violin again and started college at 21, my playing was so behind, I wasn’t first chair anymore. I stayed up until 4 a.m. practicing to get back in shape.”

She was firmly ensconced in the classical curriculum when Rodney Whitaker, MSU’s director of jazz studies, urged her to sign up for some classes in his department. “Rodney put the jazz bug in my ear,” Maureen recalls. The respected veteran bassist, who has worked with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Pat Metheny, Jimmy Heath, Regina Carter and dozens of others, told the violinist, “You’re a jazzer, you just don’t know it yet.”

Eventually, Maureen took his word for it. “I started jazz classes and felt a liberation I never felt in classical,” she marvels. “Because of the harmonies of the standards, it wasn’t so hard to improvise over them. I heard things and I could float on top; that’s how I got hooked.”

Maureen also explored Spanish music, from the classical repertoire to the Latin music she loves dancing to. “I’m not comfortable calling myself a Latin jazz musician,” she explains, describing her style as “Spanish folkloric.”

“People automatically associate Spanish music with flamenco. I play some rhythms from southern Spain, but also northern. I see a connection with Venezuelan music. I’m interested in the roots and connections of Latin and Spanish music, that’s intriguing. There’s such a range of technique and expression. I have to use a lot of classical technique playing the music of the Spanish diaspora.”

The title of her CD, Ida y Vuelta, translates to “going and coming back,” which Maureen says is a common phrase in the flamenco world, describing how someone returns home from their travels and plays whatever they’ve learned while living abroad. “I picked that name because it resembles my life.”

Hear it for yourself when the Maureen Choi Quartet celebrates the release of Ida y Vuelta at ShapeShifter Lab June 28 and at Terraza 7 in Queens, July 1.

Photo Credit:  Angel Alvarez

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SmallsLIVE at Mezzrow

Hot Flashes by Seton Hawkins

SmallsLIVE at Mezzrow

When Spike Wilner first established Mezzrow as a piano-room sister space to his popular Smalls Jazz Club, he generated terrific excitement, mixed with mild confusion. How would the two spaces co-exist? Would they clash or complement? Nearly three years later, Spike’s gambit seems to have paid off, with Mezzrow serving as the lower-key, almost chamber-like cousin to Smalls. Now as the SmallsLIVE at Mezzrow album series launches, the club’s footprint becomes even larger and its unique identity more pronounced.

The overarching concept of SmallsLIVE at Mezzrow should ring familiar to fans of the live albums that have come out of Smalls. "Live at Mezzrow is an extension of our SmallsLIVE concept, that jazz is best captured in a live environment,” Spike explains. “The acoustical properties of Mezzrow's listening room are remarkable. We are choosing a series of ‘veteran’ players who are longtime regulars on the jazz scene and sometimes taken for granted. We started with pianist Tardo Hammer and bassist Peter Washington as the inaugural project and have recorded Michael Kanan, Joel Frahm, Nick Hempton and Stacy Dillard all as upcoming projects for the series."

Indeed, the iTunes-based series offers a gorgeous portrait of highly deserving, often criminally underrated artists. “It was great news when Spike Wilner approached me with the idea of doing a live recording at Mezzrow with Peter Washington, who has long been one of my very favorite musicians to play with,” Tardo says.

The inaugural record, a gorgeous, swinging, and at times very intimate duet between Tardo and Peter offers a tantalizing glimpse of the music to come. “This date is a very spontaneous meeting, unrehearsed, and we were able to find very fertile common ground upon which to explore and engage in musical conversation,” Tardo explains. “The live setting affords us a more freewheeling atmosphere than does a studio, and the combination of excellent piano, acoustics, great bassist, supportive audience and top-flight engineering all combined to make for a musically rewarding experience.”

Michael Kanan—whose July-release album featuring bassist Neal Miner and guitarist Greg Ruggierio provides the second installment—offered similar praise for the concept and space.

“Spike Wilner is offering listeners a front row seat in New York’s premier piano room,” Michael notes. “With my own trio, we rely much more heavily on rapport than on complex arrangements. Even the arrangements we have are subject to the whims of the moment. So, this series feels to me the perfect place for our first recording. We went into the gig with just a few ideas of what we might play, and we let things happen quite spontaneously. The recording amounts to a conversation between the three of us.”

The continued success of Smalls, Mezzrow and SmallsLIVE points to a happy growth in a community that values quality live music, and genuine musical insight and inspiration over overly polished banalities. With luck, SmallsLIVE at Mezzrow will remain a welcomed addition to this group’s offerings, and provide a wonderful model for other venues and groups to follow. With future installments by the Joel Frahm Trio and Nick Hempton, it certainly seems promising.

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Alicia Olatuja

Fresh Takes by Nick Dunston

For quite some time, Alicia Olatuja has been known as one of the most emotionally captivating vocalists on the New York jazz scene. What might not be known right away is that she is also supported by years of classical and operatic vocal training.

On these studies, Alicia remarks “When I started classical voice, I was really studying for a healthy foundation, so I could sing whatever I wanted to sing. I had a huge appetite for variety in music, and I just wanted to learn how to work my instrument. Falling in love with opera became a part of that process.” She continues, “I always knew, though, that I would further pursue my roots in gospel, jazz and soul music.”

Regarding her upcoming gig at Birdland, Alicia says “I’m especially excited for this one, because I’ll be singing some new music from my upcoming project. I’m looking forward to sharing this music that hasn’t been performed yet, mixed with some stuff from my first album, Timeless.

Alicia Olatuja performs at Birdland July 11-15.

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Chris Washburne

The Latin Side of Hot House by Emilie Pons

Rags and Roots: A New Take on Ragtime Music

“The Entertainer,” Scott Joplin’s 1902 composition, is a classic example of ragtime music, a musical style, trombonist Chris Washburne explains, that uses syncopated and Caribbean-based rhythms, or what was perceived in its day as a “ragged” rhythm. But when Chris was asked to record a ragtime album, he thought of something a little larger than the usual definition of ragtime. He reinvented the concept.

“I want to do a ragtime album,” he told the jazz program director who commissioned a ragtime project from him, “but this won’t be what you had in mind.” His expansion of the genre adds up to a “Pan American Pan Caribbean ragtime project,” Chris says, where several influences are combined to transcend the original ragtime term. And who better than versatile Chris to do this project? From performing on Broadway musicals to playing with some of the most accomplished salseros including Ray Barretto, Celia Cruz and Hector Lavoe, the trombonist is steeped in music at large.

Rags and Roots, Chris’ 12th album, “features different tunes from different musical traditions, from Cuba to Haiti to spirituals to Mexico, and spans a period ranging from the 1780s to the 1930s,” he says. Ragtime, as Chris explains, also stems from a cultural context, which is why the album incorporates songs that are not typical ragtime pieces but are part of the origins of jazz.

The Scott Joplin composition “Solace (A Mexican Serenade)” is inspired by mariachi music. “You can hear the mariachi trumpets on the right side of the piano,” Chris says. Gerard Dupervil’s composition “Ala Cote Gen Fanm” is a misogynistic Haitian song but Chris transformed the lyrics into a feminist anthem. “Picture of Her Face” is an Irish song. “Odeon” is a Brazilian composition by Ernesto Nazareth, called the “Joplin of Brazil.” The album ends with Abel Meeropol’s composition “Strange Fruit,” rearranged here by vocalist Sarah Elizabeth Charles, who reinterprets it.

William Grant Still, one of the African American composers featured on the album, had difficulty getting his music played by a symphonic orchestra because of his skin color, Chris explains. The ragtime project, however, reverses that injustice. The album, Chris adds, is a “recognition of all the difficulties that were faced by the forefathers and foremothers of this music and who, in spite of that adversity, were able to create beautiful music.”

“I also hired an all-star band,” Chris says. “These are people who specialize in this music but also know how to interpret it with a 21st Century jazz sensibility, a very contemporary jazz sensibility. I’m very lucky to have these extraordinary musicians.”

Chris’ gig at the Bronx Botanical Gardens is part of a jazz series featuring musicians performing next to the Chihuly exhibition. It will be interesting to see how jazz, which is “a contextual music” Chris says, will respond to Chihuly’s outsized blown-glass fantasies perched in trees, sitting on ponds and on New York schist. That may be yet another opportunity for the trombonist to stretch the definition of ragtime music.

Chris Washburne plays at the Bronx Botanical Gardens as part of its summer concert series, Jazz and Chihuly, on July 14.

Photo Credit:  Lauren Desberg

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