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John Beasley MONK estra

Winning Spins by George Kanzler

Two ensembles at opposite ends of the big band spectrum, both paying tribute to a composer-songwriter, share this Winning Spins. One is the second volume of a big band exploration and expansion of the music of Thelonious Monk. A smaller ensemble brings the lyrics of Johnny Mercer with various composers to the fore in performances that echo the original, mostly swing era recordings with an emphasis on vocals.

John Beasley Presents MONK’estra, Vol. 2 (Mack Avenue), is a cogent reminder that Thelonious didn’t just write melodies, but complete, multi-faceted compositions, although mostly framed by familiar song forms: 32-bar AABA or 12-bar AAB blues. As an arranger, John is aware that Monk considered the chordal commentary and counter-lines that he played on piano on the head of his compositions to be as important as the main melody. So, John fleshes out both the melody and its various embellishments, creating rich instrumental voices for what were once piano notes.

A perfect example of this musical creativity is “Crepuscule with Nellie,” a haunting ballad brought to life with the unusual combination of Bob Sheppard’s clarinet and guest artist Regina Carter’s violin. As the pair explores every nuance of the melody, John adds blasts of brass where Thelonious had originally jabbed piano chords and he wraps Regina’s improvised solo in a crepuscular penumbra from the ensemble.

Some of the most creative re-imaginings of Thelonious Monk music here come from John’s addition of rhythms and time signatures not found on the originals. “Brake’s Sake,” the opening track, rides on a hip-hop backbeat, the theme strutting on contrasting high and low brass until trumpeter Dontae Winslow emerges, not playing but delivering a rap about Thelonious that morphs into one about prejudice and oppression. It turns a lesser known composition into a compelling contemporary protest anthem.

Another guest artist, conga and bata percussionist Pedrito Martinez, adds an Afro-Latin flavor to “Criss Cross,” infused with a high-powered arrangement full of ensemble parts that clash and intersect as solos ride on top, audibly reflecting the tune’s title.

A slinky, tango-like feel exotically alters “Work,” another deceptively simple Monk tune explored and expanded by a colorful arrangement with muted trumpets contrasting with suave woodwinds as Ryan Dragon’s trombone glides a long-noted solo on top. “Evidence,” one of the supposedly simpler Thelonious piece (a contrafact of “Just You, Just Me”), is turned into a mini-suite with three distinct parts. After the band delivers the stop-start, skeletal melody with full, contrasting sections, the tempo revs up for a breakneck solo from guest artist Kamasi Washington’s tenor sax. That segues into a perky, waltz-time rendition of the tune leading to Conrad Herwig’s trombone solo, the band back in 4/4 for a full-voiced climax.

Dianne Reeves also makes a guest appearance singing “Dear Ruby,” Carmen McRae’s lyrics to “Ruby My Dear,” and the familiar “I Mean You,” revived here as a jazz march, and Thelonious’ “Light Blue,” a ballad given an Ellingtonian treatment with lush alto sax and reed voicings underpinning John’s organ solo. MONK’estra’s renditions of Thelonious’ tunes bring new insights about them and appreciation for them.

MONK’estra appears Oct. 12-14 at Jazz Standard.

Photo Credit:  Lawrence Sumulong

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Tierney Sutton

Sutton Sings the Songs of Sting by George Kanzler

Tierney Sutton has been one of the most distinctive, creative voices in jazz for over two decades and, apart from After Blue, her exploration of Joni Mitchell songs, all her albums have been by The Tierney Sutton Band. And that isn’t just a name, it’s an incorporated, collective unit, one that has enabled the singer to keep a band together for more than 20 years.

“We’re truly committed and invested in everything we do,” she explains of the band in a call from her California home. “We go and play this music we were integral in creating. The band members [pianist Christian Jacob, bassists Trey Henry and Kevin Axt, drummer Ray Brinker] decide the parts they’re going to play. We talk about it, what is going to serve the story and the lyrics and arrangement, but everybody is pretty invested in the final performance.”

That spirit of give and take and collaborative cooperation is the reason Tierney has the luxury of working with the same musicians over most of her career, a rare if not unique arrangement in jazz today. That’s why every album project of The Tierney Sutton Band is focused on a topic. Across ten albums the themes have ranged from an exploration of happiness, On the Other Side, and yearning, Desire, to tributes to Bill Evans, Frank Sinatra and others. The band’s latest offering, The Sting Variations (BFM Jazz), is their take on the songs of singer Sting, who came to fame as the leader, singer and bassist of the rock band The Police.

“There aren’t many pop artists that have a jazz pedigree; Sting definitely does,” Tierney says of the band’s choice of the composer. “He was a jazz bass player in the UK and I also like how literary he is. He was an English teacher at one point and his lyrics are interesting and literary. And his music has always had a deep connection to jazz: He writes about it in his autobiography and memoirs. He’s also toured with great jazz musicians like Kenny Kirkland and Branford Marsalis, so he’s always had that kind of connection. There are not many pop performers you can say that about.”

Tierney and the band toyed with doing some standards that Sting recorded. She did do two standards that Joni recorded on Both Sides Now: “Don’t Go to Strangers” and “Answer Me My Love.” But she says that’s because she did not know the songs before and hadn’t heard Joni’s versions until then.

“I thought she was a very credible and great jazz singer and I wanted them on the album,” she said. “In Sting’s case, we started making a list, but none of the standards he recorded were ones I didn’t know already from different versions, so from my standpoint they weren’t as interesting for me. And we had so many of his songs to choose from.”

However, she reveals that they did weave some jazz standards into the Sting repertoire: “The first track, ‘Driven to Tears,’ has Miles Davis’ ‘So What’ solo in the arrangement; and there’s a tip of the hat to his ‘All Blues’ in 7/4 on ‘Walking in Your Footsteps;’ and you might hear other jazz echoes when you listen. Almost everything on the album is straight ahead jazz; there’s no point in doing these iconic songs if you can’t take them to a different place.”

A good example of that jazz approach is the classic Police song, “Message in a Bottle.” Tierney and the band jettison the reggae beat of the original for a tropical montuno. And “Every Little Thing He Does Is Magic” becomes a highly swinging duet from Tierney and the drummer. But she feels her most radical approach is to “Every Breathe You Take.” “In the original, it was a stalker song,” she says. “But I’m singing it from the point of view of a parent watching their child going out into the world. It’s a completely different perspective.” And it works, too. As do almost all the often-original perspectives The Tierney Sutton Band brings to both Sting and the world of pop and jazz standards.

One other singular feature of the band is: “We never do the same show twice,” Tierney says. “We choose from over 100 arrangements and just about everything in the book that we’ve recorded is active.” That’s what infuses every appearance by the band with that key element in jazz: The sound of surprise.

The Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts presents the Tierney Sutton Band at the Kumble Theater, on Oct. 21.

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Christian McBride Melissa Walker

Legacy of Love: Jazz House Kids Celebrates its 15th Anniversary by Stephanie Jones

Blankets and lawn chairs cover a grassy clearing surrounded by towering maple trees that line the perimeter of Montclair’s Nishuane Park. Leather cases bake in the Saturday sun, protecting the trumpets and saxophones nestled inside them. As they make their way across a crowd of 10,000 listeners, several of 135 young artists in eight separate ensembles ready their reeds, fingers, drum pedals and voices and steady their nerves before they arrange themselves on the bandstand for another spontaneous performance, another live act of civic engagement through artistic expression and expansion.

This dynamic has become the legacy of Jazz House Kids, New Jersey’s leading educational institution where artistic mentors come together with young people, their families and the broader community to share, appreciate and learn about the jazz experience.

This year marks the 15th anniversary of the community-driven organization led by president, founder and master vocalist Melissa Walker. “Our mission is to use this homegrown music of jazz to enrich the lives of young people and to build community,” she says. “Part of that enrichment means you’re exposed to it at a young age. You’re invited to participate as a singer and an instrumentalist and to be part of the creative process.”

In the spirit of its mission, Jazz House partners with community organizations and corporate enterprises to provide students with countless opportunities to play, coined affectionately as “giglets.” Melissa, her staff and even some alumni help set up roughly 80 giglets per year, so Jazz House students can experience the professional world of playing out in the community.

“Each month we’re doing multiple giglets,” Melissa says. “It’s real-life experience that a musician would have, from being a featured performer to being background at an event, to participating in television shows.”

Celebrating 15 years of community, creativity and a legacy of offering young people opportunities to listen, play and be heard, Jazz House presents its third gala. Under the musical direction of artist and virtuoso Christian McBride, the performance pays tribute to visionaries Roy Haynes and McCoy Tyner, and features Andra Day, Kenny Barron, Sheila E. and David Sanborn. 

In addition to the veteran artists sharing their energy and artistic expression, emerging players such as Coleman Hughes, Julian Lee and Alex Warshawsky help debut the Jazz House Alumni Band. “We’re so proud that they can come back and be part of this Alumni Band and hold their own next to these longtime professionals,” Christian says. “I think that is the real legacy and impact of Jazz House Kids.”

Bringing in master players and composers who have spent years touring the world equips the Jazz House curriculum with authenticity. Citing such artists as Dave Stryker, Billy Hart and Michele Rosewoman, Christian posits that the education Jazz House students receive reflects the real world of professional music performance. “These teaching artists have seen the beauty and the ugliness of being out on the road,” he says.

As more students move through the Jazz House mentorship and go on to become mentors themselves, Christian believes the skillset they develop empowers them as problem solvers and critical thinkers who will strengthen their communities and write their narrative in whatever way they choose.

“Some of the kids who’ve graduated and gone to college and have not become professional musicians, carry those lessons they learned by being in a program like Jazz House Kids with them to whatever career they choose,” he says.

The Jazz House is a continuum of community involvement and education. Students enrich their community; community members strengthen the Jazz House; teaching artists mentor students and the cycle continues. But as the country moves away from enhancing public and arts education at the federal level, Christian urges every community member to become a mentor for every child.

“It’s now very important for all of us who know to pull a child aside and give them a book or give them a link to a website where they can read up on some history or some theories— something to keep their minds sharp,” he says.

For Melissa, the result of facilitating a legacy of mentorship is undeniable. “We’re about building community,” she says, “and now we’re saying to young people, ‘Move into the world as adults and enrich your community.’ And to me, that’s awesome.”

The Jazz House Kids gala, Swinging Doors Open for 15 Years, honoring Roy Haynes and McCoy Tyner with Andra Day, Kenny Barron, Sheila E. and David Sanborn, is at NJPAC on Oct. 24.

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Amanda Monaco

Another Reason To Celebrate by Elzy Kolb

Let the games begin!
A longtime fan of organ bands, guitarist Amanda Monaco played with trios and quartets rocking the Hammond B3 groove as far back as 2005. Now she has turned the spotlight on that sound with her sixth CD, Glitter (Posi-Tone). “This is more straight-ahead than my other albums. It’s my homage to The George Benson Cookbook, though I can’t play as fast,” she says with a laugh.

Seven of the tunes on the new recording are originals, written specifically with her Glitter bandmates—baritone saxophonist Lauren Sevian, drummer Matt Wilson and organist Gary Versace—in mind. Amanda often comes up with song titles first and creates a story in her mind as she works on new compositions. “A lot of people write thematically; I’m not the only one doing that. I come from a big Italian family; we’d get together in the back yard and tell stories. I could do a whole oral history on stories my father and my uncles told.”

There’s a certain tongue-in-cheek aspect to some of the back stories of her compositions. The title track is based on memories of the early days of Amanda’s friendship with Lauren Sevian, going back almost two decades when they lived in the same neighborhood, played in the same bands and prepped for gigs together, right down to generous applications of glittery makeup. “Girly Days” is inspired by hanging with Lauren, talking about everything, including what it means to be a female instrumentalist. “Everybody expects you to sing—I’m a terrible singer, just ask my husband,” Amanda points out.

She compares the vibe of “Dry Clean Only” to the Sonny Rollins classic “The Bridge,” noting, “It has that same vibe, but it’s taken from a guitar lesson with Ted Dunbar in the ’90s. And I try to buy no dry clean-only clothing—I look at the label and think: Oh, come on!”

As you may have guessed, a sense of fun is also an important element of Amanda’s music. “Jazz sometimes takes itself too seriously, but jazz doesn’t have to be stodgy,” the guitarist declares. “One of the reasons I got into jazz was the sense of community, the social aspect; the funny, committed, humble, human aspect that I got from people like Milt Hinton and Bobby Rosengarden. That feeling always stuck with me, the continuity of one generation to another passing the baton and sharing the music.”

Join Amanda in celebrating the release of Glitter—as well as her birthday—at Jazz at Kitano, Oct. 26 with baritone saxophonist Lauren Sevian, drummer Jeff Davis and keyboardist Justin Carroll. “It’s great playing new stuff with people I’ve been playing with for a very long time,” Amanda notes. “One of the best things about getting older as a jazz musician is staying in touch with people, seeing the path they’ve taken, how they’ve grown, how our circles touch. Good people who are good musicians—I’m lucky enough to know a lot of them.”

Photo Credit:  Anna Yatskevich

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Tulivu

Another Reason To Celebrate by Elzy Kolb

Generations in jazz
Vocalist Tulivu, a Brooklyn native, is justly proud of her hometown and her musical family. “So many artists lived in Brooklyn when they first came to New York: Monk, Lester Young, Max Roach,” she notes. Her father, baritone saxophonist Harold Cumberbatch, lived in Bed-Stuy at a time when there was a jazz club on every corner. He became a regular on the New York jazz scene, playing with Arnett Cobb, Al Grey and Al Harewood (the renowned drummer—a mainstay of the Blue Note label—was Tulivu’s godfather).

Her mother, too, aspired to a musical career, hoping to become a vocalist, “But her mother, my grandmother, didn’t want her to sing.” Nevertheless, Tulivu’s grandmother had a good voice herself and loved music, serenading young Tulivu with Lady Day tunes. “Billie Holiday songs were my lullabies,” she recalls. Later, when Tulivu decided to spend her life singing jazz, her grandmother supported her desire.

The versatile vocalist has performed with ensembles from the Kronos Quartet to the Brooklyn Philharmonic to the Harlem Renaissance Orchestra, as well as with greats including Cecil Payne, Steve Wilson, Andy Bey and many more. She’s toured across the U.S. and Canada, as well as in Europe, Japan, West Africa and elsewhere.

Tulivu is equally at home in a classroom as on a concert stage. As part of the Jazz Foundation of America’s Jazz in the Schools program, she introduces students from elementary through high school to jazz in interactive sessions that include fun activities such as swing dancing and call-and-response vocals.

“The younger they are, the more they love it, though it’s always fun regardless of the age,” Tulivu says. “If they had more exposure to jazz through their parents or on the radio, they would be our next generation of jazz fans.”

Though Tulivu has gigged extensively around the globe, this month she’s appearing close to home, and close to her roots, when she plays a benefit concert for Our Lady of Victory Church, celebrating the church’s 150th anniversary. “It’s my alma mater,” Tulivu reveals. “I went to elementary school there and still live in the neighborhood.”

On Oct. 28, Tulivu and her Seasoned Elegance trio, including drummer Mark Johnson, pianist Rod Williams and bassist Rachiim Ausar-Sahu, appear at the Jazz Café in McGuinness Hall at Our Lady of Victory Church in Brooklyn. They’ll focus on classic and contemporary jazz and Brazilian favorites. “It’ll be old and new, everything from Jobim to Djavan,” she promises.

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Micah Thomas

Fresh Takes by Nick Dunston

Pianist Micah Thomas moved to New York just a couple years ago, but he’s already a distinguished and original voice in the jazz community. Hailing from Columbus, Ohio, Micah recalls some of his earlier influences in music: “There were a few really great musicians who mentored me there. One was Christian Howes, a violinist. Byron Stripling, too, had been letting me play with him and getting me my first professional opportunities. Besides those two people being very important to my development, my dad has a pretty big record collection. He has hipped me to most of the music I’ve been listening to.”

Already an in-demand sideman, Micah is starting to come into prominence as a band leader. “I’ve played with both [bassist] Dean Torrey and [drummer] Kyle Benford separately a lot and a couple times together,” he says, speaking of his trio. “I’ve gotten to know them both well at jam sessions, especially at Smalls. We have a lot of commonalities. I’m excited to get together with them and to play a few new tunes I wrote and I just think we’ve got a really good vibe.”

Micah Thomas performs at The Jazz Gallery on Oct. 26.

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Gabriel Alegria

The Latin Side of Hot House by Tomas Peña

The Devil Goes Down to Brooklyn

For more than a decade, trumpeter, composer and bandleader Gabriel Alegria and the Afro-Peruvian Sextet have presented their Latin jazz to audiences through recordings and live performances. On their sixth and most adventurous effort to date, titled Diablo en Brooklyn (Devil in Brooklyn), the ensemble cleverly combines two traditions that seemingly are worlds apart.

"This is a conceptual and very visual album," Gabriel says. “Also, it's an opportunity to bring together two parts of my life: Living in South Brooklyn and Lima, Peru. The 'Son de los Diablos' tradition, where mock devils parade down the streets of Lima combine with the bass-driven sounds of 'speakers on wheels,' and in my imagination, the devils take over!"

At the core of the album is the intriguing four-part “Brooklyn Suite.” Also included are three original compositions: “Buscando a Huevito,” “El Norte” and the Peruvian hit single, “Summertime.”

Gabriel was born in Lima and his grandfather, Ciro Alegria, was a renowned novelist who spent time in political exile in Cuba and Chile. His father, Alonso, is a prominent playwright and theater director. "My dad is so humble that I never knew he was famous when I was a kid," Gabriel says. "I thought it was normal to fly to New York to see plays like ‘Crossing Niagara.’ My father's work is positive, and so is mine. It's all about making people happy."

He developed the concept of Afro-Peruvian jazz during the five years he spent playing trumpet in the Lima Philharmonic while performing side gigs in jazz and rock bands. In 2005, while completing a Ph.D. in jazz studies at USC, Gabriel formed his first sextet and recorded the Afro-Peruvian Sextet’s debut album, Nuevo Mundo.

The bicultural ensemble’s core members include saxophonist Laura Andrea Leguía, master percussionist Freddy “Huevito” Lobatón, bassist Mario Cuba, drummer Hugo Alcázar and acoustic guitarist Yuri Juarez.

In what promises to be a rare event, Gabriel and the Afro-Peruvian Sextet celebrates the release of Diablo en Brooklyn at Roulette with guest pianist Arturo O' Farrill and, direct from Lima, dancers Graciela Bramon, Javier Barrera and Wendy Cotito, with choreography by Antonio Vilchez.

"We want the authentic power and sincerity of the 'Son de los Diablos' tradition to come through. Also, the staging integrates musicians and dancers in a way that I have not seen before. It's a true 'takeover' of Brooklyn by the devils!"

On a broader scale, Diablo en Brooklyn represents what Afro-Peruvian jazz music and a bicultural ensemble can contribute to the world.

The Gabriel Alegria Afro-Peruvian Sextet’s CD release concert with Arturo O’Farrill and dancers takes place at Roulette on Oct. 21-22.

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