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Kenny Barron

The Poet Laureate of the Piano, by Eugene Holley, Jr.

These days, it’s good to be the 81-year-old pianist, composer, bandleader, educator and NEA Jazz Master Kenny Barron. He just released Beyond This Place (Artwork), a sublime quintet recording featuring longtime bandmates, Kiyoshi Kitagawa and vibraphonist Steve Nelson, with Kenny’s young Philadelphia homeboys, drummer Johnathan Blake and alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins. And this month, Kenny is the headliner for the opening night of 92nd Street Y’s Jazz in July series, which features new Artistic Director Aaron Diehl, and several other pianists including Helen Sung, Joe Block and Bennie Green.

They will gather to celebrate Kenny’s astonishing six decades of jazz excellence, as a steady sideman with a stellar constellation of musicians including Dizzy Gillespie, Yusef Lateef, Freddie Hubbard and Stan Getz; as compelling composer of modern jazz standards including “Sunshower,” “Calypso” and “What If”; his 40+ recordings as a leader, and his role as a revered educator.

Kenny attributes his staying power to his singular approach to jazz piano. “I'm not trying to pander to any particular kind of group,” Kenny says. “It's just music that I grew up listening to and playing. I loved bebop. [And] I've been influenced by blues and gospel music; I used to play in church when I was a teenager.”

Kennny’s elegant and enduring musicality illuminates the nine tracks on Beyond This Place. The standard selections “The Nearness of You” and “Softly As in a Morning Sunrise” sing and swing in well-balanced, ballad and bop tempos, while Thelonious Monk’s “We See” is a stridish time warp to Sphere, the ‘80s supergroup dedicated to Monk’s music that Kenny co-founded. The hypersonic “Scratch,” “Innocence” and the Latin-tinged “Sunset,” are Kenny originals from the 80's and 70’s. In contrast, the upbeat “Blues on Stratford Road,” the post-bop beats of “Tragic Magic” and the contemplative title track are newer compositions from the leader.

What all of those selections have in common is Kenny’s commitment to melody and the belief that memorable music is felt in the heart, rather than in the head. “One of the things I aim for in my compositions is that I try to write things that are melodic and easy to remember,” Kenny says. “Complicated stuff doesn't really work for me. I like simple stuff, things that work, so that you can connect with people emotionally.”

While Kenny was connecting with listeners for years, he was doing so on many small labels, which garnered him critical acclaim, without major exposure to a larger audience. That all changed when Kenny started working with the celebrated French jazz producer Jean-Philippe Allard – who died suddenly a few months ago – in the late ‘80s. “I met Jean-Philippe when I was working with Stan Getz,” Kenny fondly recalls.

“He produced all those albums [me and Stan] did on Verve: Anniversary, People Time and Serenity,” he says. “And some time after Stan died, Jean-Philippe called me about recording an album.” That 1993 Brazilian-flavored recording, Sambao, on the Verve label, introduced Kenny to a global audience, and also featured him in several masterful Jean-Philippe-produced albums which include Wanton Spirit, Swamp Sally and Things Unseen.

In 2023, Kenny unveiled his own imprint, Artwork Records, and his first release was The Source, Kenny’s solo piano tour-de-force that featured his compositions and standards by Monk, Billy Strayhorn and Peggy Lee. This followed Jean-Phlippe’s last release with Kenny, Beyond This Place. “He was very supportive,” Kenny says of Jean-Philippe. For the recording of Wanton Spirit, it was Jean-Philippe’s suggestion that Kenny record with drummer Roy Haynes and bassist Charlie Haden. “I never would have thought of that,” Kenny admits. “I played with Charlie and Roy before, but never together. That’s what producers are supposed to do: put you in top-notch situations.”

In addition to Kenny’s accomplishments as a musician, bandleader and composer, he has been an impactful educator for decades, most notably at Rutgers University and The Juilliard School. “I always had an office with two grand pianos,” Kenny says. “We always played together, then I could really hear whatever deficiencies they might have. So I could give them things to work on, things to listen to, because listening is also very, very important.”

As Kenny enters his eighth decade, he does so with a lifetime of musical wisdom. “I realize that I may have slowed down a little bit, but I will continue to play until I drop,” he says.

Kenny Barron headlines the opening night of the 92nd Street Y’s Jazz in July series, with Aaron Diehl, Helen Sung, Joe Block and Bennie Green, Wed, Jul 17, 2024, 7:30 pm.

Nicole Zuraitis

Glorious Metamorphosis - by Raul da Gama – with interviews by Paula Edelstein

Nicole Zuraitis morphed from the proverbial caterpillar into an artistic butterfly; yet she has given wings to music in an altogether different manner. Fluttering high above, Nicole’s alluring mezzo-soprano captivated audiences when she first ventured out into the world of music. As a soloist with the Savannah Philharmonic Orchestra and the storied, Pulitzer-winning Ashville Symphony Orchestra, Nicole joined a revered list of performers such as Emmanuel Axe, Midori, Simone Dinnerstein, and Daniil Trifonov.

Already in the heady realms of opera, she seemingly reached out for the fly bar of a winged trapeze and swept away from the opera world to the equally lofty realms of jazz, a glorious success.

How do we know? Well, just five albums later, Nicole is celebrated for her magical recording How Love Begins (Outside In Music, 2024). Make no mistake, she has deserved every accolade that has come her way for the album, especially the coveted award for Best Jazz Vocal Album at the 66th Annual Grammy Awards – this after being nominated twice before for Grammys. Truth be told, however, the 2024 award really celebrates but one aspect of Nicole’s artistry – her monumental vocal artistry.

After being an independent artist for nearly 15 years, a full-time vocalist and songwriter, singing in various musical dialects, and even adding teaching to her artistic portfolio, Nicole’s career in music was still a leap of faith. The residency at the 55 Bar in Greenwich Village, and the encouragement from the drummer and husband Dan Pugach gave her the impetus she needed. Her proverbial high-wire act – her switch to jazz music, seemingly without a net – was a magically successful one.

Nicole is at pains to explain why she takes her career in jazz so seriously. “I felt like I really needed understand the importance of the Black American artistic tradition, to transcribe great music, the standards… everything that I could lay my hands on. This music was important to me,” she explains. “So, I decided to immerse myself in the jazz culture. I attended jam sessions and watched my peers perform, all [of which helped] to take it all in on a deeper level so that I could really believe in myself and call myself a jazz artist.”

Jazz began as a Black American artistic language. It is the gift not just to America, but to the entire world. And Nicole fits right in. “I wanted to make sure I was able to hang with the jazz cats. And so, when I finally felt like I was getting a hang for it, I decided to really live in that ‘jazz space.’ That's when I went to Birdland again, and I sat in with Johnny Valenti,” she says nostalgically. “And he said to me, ‘Where in the hell have you been?’ I said what I thought to be the only truth I knew: I said, ‘I don't know… I wasn't sure if I was “jazz” enough before.’ His response was thrilling. ‘You're singing with the big band starting next week.’ Everything I’d worked at – especially the tradition of jazz and Black American music - paid off.”

Suddenly, her peers began to take notice. Important ones like Christian McBride, for instance – the eight-time Grammy winner – agreed to collaborate on the production of the How Love Begins recording. “I met Christian [six months after I did the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz competition] while I was playing at the Red Eye Grill across from Carnegie Hall. It was a really busy day at the restaurant, and no one was really listening. And I was just kind of noodling around," she recalls.

“Suddenly I look up, I see this guy, and he says, ‘I think I know you.’ My response just tumbled out and I said, ‘Oh God I know you, that's for sure! You probably remember me from the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz competition.’ We became friends really quickly after that. Christian encouraged me to write and when we began to co-produce my recording, from all the arrangements I brought to the studio, he chose all original music for How Love Begins. He encouraged me to play the piano and to perform [the music] as if it were a live jazz recording,” she says. “It was really special to have such a kind and charismatic musician lift me up, enabling me to forget myself-consciousness.” The rest, of course, is history.

As to what she is focused on now, Nicole reveals, “I think there has been a recognition for women as far as women performing Black American music, indeed shaping all American music. The Great American Songbook is being rewritten by living jazz songwriters, and that's exciting. So, I'm curating a brand-new songbook. I call it the Real Vocal Songbook, full of the work of living jazz singers and songwriters. It’s a collection of about 100 songs already. I would also love if people sang my songs, and I would love to sing the work of other artists.”

And that’s exactly what Nicole and her band will perform – a program including her latest music and other jazz standards – July 10 at Wave Hill, The Bronx, NY, July 11 at the Chicken Bone Beach Jazz Festival 2024, Atlantic City, NJ, and July 28 at Litchfield Jazz Festival in Washington, CT.

AKIKO TZURUGA

‘Sweet and Funky’ Hammond Organ Player by John Zaff

Watching Akiko Tzuruga work the keys and pedals of the Hammond B3, one is struck by two converging observations: she is an artist who has completely mastered her instrument and a musician playing at the highest level. Akiko knows how to work every nook, cranny and lever of her instrument and as her virtuosity takes center stage, she rocks the bandstand with solos that slowly build to a cathartic crescendo. Akiko’s fingers become a blur on the keys, she embodies the spirit of joie de vivre. An infectious smile lights up her face as she senses the music coming together, genuinely relishing the interplay with the other musicians.

The instrument Akiko has spent a lifetime mastering the Hammond B3. Unique among instruments for its double keyboard, foot pedals for bass and sliding drawbars for tone control, the Hammond B3 can create swells and percussive sounds which lend it distinct expressiveness. Coordinating hands and feet takes intense concentration and, of course, years of practice. The early masters of the instrument created an entire genre of jazz based on the organ trio. Legendary players such as Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Shirley Scott and Dr. Lonnie Smith are the musical pioneers on whose shoulders Akiko stands.

Hailed by Downbeat Critics Poll as a rising star, Akiko’s debut album, Sweet and Funky, was released on the 18th and Vine label and deemed “Best Jazz Album of the Year” in 2007. Akiko is proficient in many different styles of organ jazz, from classic ‘60s organ trio to straight ahead and bebop styles. She excels in the funk and blues genres, but whichever the style, Akiko always swings in a most soulful way. Today, Akiko is on virtually every jazz critic’s list of top organ players.

The story of how Akiko evolved into the player she is today is one of determination and dedication to craft. Her journey

began when she was still a toddler. “I started studying music at three years old, at a music school in Japan,” Akiko says. “I can remember my parents bought a record player and I was listening to music and dancing.” At the Yamaha Music school where she started her early lessons, she was exposed to a wide variety of music, from American folk songs to classical and jazz. But one memory stands out as special among all her early childhood memories:

“I remember the day when the organ arrived at my house,” she says. “The representative from the music store came and played a couple of tunes on it and I just thought, ‘wow.’ I fell in love with the organ immediately. When I first played that organ, I couldn't reach the pedals, so I was playing the bass with my left hand and chords and melody with my right hand.”

By her late teens, Akiko had decided to pursue music full time. “I was playing both piano and organ at a local lounge,” Akiko says, “but my parents thought it would be better to pick one instrument. At that time, I also played volleyball seriously with a team and we were traveling every weekend for games. We ended up going to China for a competition. My life was so busy. But it wasn’t until college that I really decided to focus on the organ.” Akiko continued playing clubs and bars where she met drummer Fukushi Tainaka, who quickly became an early mentor.

One day, Akiko was playing at a jazz bar called Don Shop across the street from Blue Note Osaka. The bar had a Hammond B3 organ and a jazz scene that would go until five in the morning. American jazz musicians, like Roy Hargrove and drummer Grady Tate, would sometimes stop by and play with the local musicians. Akiko impressed them with her playing, and she struck up a friendship with Grady. “Grady Tate helped me a lot. He introduced me to so many people and he encouraged me to move to New York,” Akiko says. It wasn’t long before Akiko decided to take a leap of faith and move to the Big Apple.

On a serendipitous evening in 2007 while playing at Showman’s, a Hammond B3 bar in Harlem, legendary alto saxophone player Lou Donaldson heard Akiko playing and was completely blown away. “He said to me, ‘You're better than any of the guys I know here in New York’; then, he invited me to join his band. He was such a fun person. As a musician he was just great and his spirit was great. He told me stories about playing with Charlie Parker.” But perhaps her most important mentor of all, Akiko says, was legendary organist Dr. Lonnie Smith. After their meeting, Smith became a lifelong teacher, mentor and friend from whom she learned invaluable life lessons. They remained close until his passing in 2021.

Last year, Akiko released an album on SteepleChase, Beyond Nostalgia. It features compositions she wrote inspired by a pilgrimage she made to Japan to visit Kurama, the birthplace of Reiki healing. Akiko studied Reiki, an ancient Japanese practice that involves focusing energy into your hands for purposes of healing. Akiko is a Reiki master, and she says the practice not only helps with her health, but also makes her hands more sensitive and helps her playing.

For Akiko, mental and spiritual aspects are at the forefront of her musical endeavors. Her music is as much about attitude as it is about technique. Akiko says, “Playing with other musicians brings me so much joy. And when the audience is happy it makes me happy. Lou (Donaldson) always said, ‘We play for the audience.’ When I feel that special connection with them and with the other musicians, it’s like a gift from the gods.”

Akiko performs July 13 at the Southampton Arts Center as part of the Hamptons Jazz Festival.

THANDISWA MAZWAI

SHOWS THE WORLD WHO IS KING by Joyce Jones

I met Thandiswa Mazwai, or “King Tha,” on Mandela Day: a 46664 Celebration Concert, in 2009 at Radio City Music Hall marking Nelson Mandela’s 91st birthday. Thandiswa performed "Ibokwe," the title selection from Ibokwe (Gallo, 2009), her second release as a solo artist. She already had a relationship with the Nelson Mandela Foundation when she was invited to the Radio City Music Hall event, coinciding with Ibokwe’s release. Thandiswa’s first solo release, Zabalaza (Gallo, 2004), “had already done the work of kind of cementing my place as an artist of the day, and I guess it made sense to have me there,” she says.

Released 20 years ago, Zabalaza (meaning rebellion or protest), is special to Thandiswa. “It’s an incredible thing to look back at your career and realize that you have made something that feels like it has been of service,” she says. “It’s done its work of being of service to the community that I serve, the people that I serve. Zabalaza is one of those albums in South Africa where it’s really a very big part of how people see themselves post-apartheid and the journey towards this kind of return to self, your cultural self, your cultural identity that apartheid labored really hard to try and erase. So, there’s this unpacking who we are outside of this oppression, and I was blessed enough to have created the kind of work that gave us the opportunity to unpack those things and celebrate ourselves.

Born to Pan African journalists (mother Belede, transitioned when Thandiswa was 16, and father Thami) in the year of the Soweto uprising in the Eastern Cape and raised almost entirely in Soweto, Thandiswa/King Tha became a “Daughter of the Soil.”

As a solo artist, Thandiswa released five recordings: Zabalaza, Ibokwe, Dance Of The Forgotten Free (Gallo 2010), which is also a DVD, Belede (Universal 2016), which was a release of South African jazz standards and dedicated to her mother, and the most recent release, Sankofa (King Tha Music, distributed primarily digitally by Universal, 2024). Sankofa is a “personal journey to understand Thandiswa’s experience of the world and the ‘how’ of being here,” she says. “I have always been obsessed with this idea of memory retrieval, and it’s based on the fact that my mother passed away. Memory became a very important thing for me much like Zabalaza, Ibokwe and Belede. I’ve always been obsessed with this idea of reclamation and memory, also creating new futures, visualizing new worlds in our future. With [Sankofa] I’m kind of doing more of the same thing. I’ve touched on more personal issues than I usually do, but I also think I’ve expanded my world to include the rest of the continent and the diaspora. I feel like African-Americans can listen to this album and find themselves in it, and that’s thanks to Meshell Ndegeocello, her hand in the work. West Africans will also hear the Ngoni [West African string instrument] in the work. You hear these ancient instruments that we use in Southern Africa, so this album really expanded my world.”

Generally, when listening to Thandiswa’s music, it does not matter that she is singing in Xhosa as the emotion is clearly communicated. “I think it’s something in the voice because I feel like every gift has a reason, and I think that my voice, the reason, the impetuous, the thing that drives my voice is something about feeling and so it kind of does that to people,” she says. “Over the years, I’ve recognized that this is really my service. That this voice is for something. It’s to sing our joys, to sing our melancholy. This is what this voice does, and a lot of it is outside of my control.” King Tha also anguishes over whether honesty in the delivery of her music is apparent. “That’s kind of one of the things that takes me the longest is when I listen to it and I’m like ‘I don’t feel that.’ Then, I have to sing it again, and again and again until I feel the truth. I feel the honesty in the voice.”

King Tha is bringing selections from Zabalaza and Sankofa to New York City on July 12 at Bryant Park as part of the Carnegie Hall Citywide free concert series. There are chairs, or bring a blanket, and there are many opportunities to dance.

NEW YORK SKA JAZZ ENSEMBLE

IRIDIUM / JULY 11

Nothing describes more quintessentially the horn-blowing “joyful noise” of rock steady, reggae, mento and calypso – in a word, ska – than the music of the New York Ska Jazz Ensemble, reputed originators of their own brand: ska-jazz. Lest we forget, there is also the small matter of sensuous lyrics – spiced with a little bit of naughty on the side of their music. Composed of saxophonist Rocksteady Freddie, trumpeter Kevin Batchelor, guitarist Simone Amodeo, keyboardist Andy Mittoo, bass guitarist Stephan Kondert and drummer Joey Gallo, this ensemble has spread ska-jazz cheer at all the major music festivals of the world, from the North Sea Jazz Festival and the Montreal International Jazz festival to The Bob Marley Reggae Festival, among many others. Reportedly, very few members of the audience have remained seated during performances, so be warned. RDG

NAJEE HARRIS

ST ALBAN’S JAZZ AND R&B FESTIVAL / JULY 20