CD Review: Hendrik Meurkens-Harmonicus Rex (Height Advantage 001)

By Devon “Doc” Wendell

 

I rarely get any real bebop influenced music in the mail anymore and it’s depressing. I’m always hoping and waiting but usually end up in a state of disappointment as yet another boring fusion CD blasts blandly in the background of my crummy office.

I am so thankful for Harmonicus Rex; harmonica genius Hendrik Meurkens’ new album due out on February 29th. Although Meurkens is considered to be a Brazilian jazz artist by many; he certainly made a name for himself over the years recording and touring with such versatile jazz icons of the New York City jazz scene as Ray Brown, Herb Ellis, Herbie Mann, Paquito D’Rivera, James Moody, Charlie Byrd,

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And Harry “Sweets” Edison. This is his first “straight ahead” jazz album in 15 years and man, does it swing hard. Meurkens is joined by the one and only Jimmy Cobb on drums, Dado Moroni, piano, Marco Panascia, bass, Joe Magnarelli on trumpet and flugelhorn, and Anders Bostrom on alto-flute.

“Mundell’s Mood” (dedicated to Mundell Lowe) hearkens back to the days of Meurkens’ hero Charlie Parker. All of those glorious bebop elements are in place and cooking here. Meurkens’ chromatic harp lines remind me of Fats Navarro and Kenny Dorham in places. His knowledge of the bebop language is astonishing. John Magnarelli’s trumpet solo is masterful, dynamic, and wonderfully thematic. Dado Moroni’s harmonically complex piano comping and solos are reminiscent of the late great Wynton Kelly.

“Slidin” has that early ’60s Blue Note Records vibe. The motif is syncopated and funky. Anders Bostrom’s alto-flute weaves in and out of the subtle yet perfect rhythm backing laid down by Jimmy Cobb and bassist Marco Panascia. Meurkens plays some mean blues based lines that you might imagine Booker Ervin blowing on tenor sax in the 1960s. Any harmonica player (including myself) will tell you that this is no easy feat.

The rendition of Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way” is gentle yet burning. Its arrangement is close to the Miles Davis version recorded in 1956 with Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones. Of course there are shades of the great Toots Theilman in Meurkens’ approach to the chromatic harmonica but only is spots. For the most part, Meurkens’ tone and phrasing are similar to Miles Davis’ muted trumpet work of the late ’50s. His note bending is superb. The band’s relaxed groove is just right for this chestnut as it is on the beautifully soulful ballads “Afternoon” and “A Summer In San Francisco”; both written by Meurkens.

 

On Milt “Bags” Jackson’s “SKJ”, trumpeter Joe Magnarelli shows off his chops. There’s no “out” playing or a bunch of young cats who don’t respect or understand bebop that is so common these days. Meurkens’ solo is so sincere and melodic. This is the real deal and no one else could have filled that drum seat better than Jimmy Cobb. His subtle nuances will blow you away if you take the time to catch them all.

Meaurkens’ harmonica sounds like the greatest singer in the world on the Rodgers and Hart standard “Falling In Love With You” and the band keeps that bop groove churning with love and devotion.

Pianists Dado Moroni often establishes the mood and tone of each piece on the album as he does on a loving and joyful reading of Freddie Hubbard’s “Up Jumped Spring”. This features Meurkens’ greatest solo on the entire record. He mimics some of Hubbard’s original trumpet lines with an ease and confidence that is relentless. Joe Magnarelli’s flugelhorn chops are potent and exploratory.

Jimmy Cobb’s drumming on the Meurkens original “Mean Dog Blues” is so wonderfully slick and elegant. Anders Bostrom’s alto-flute dances around the stated melody line with imagination and grace.

Out of all of the versions of “Darn That Dream” I’ve heard throughout my life, the one on this album is easily one of my favorites. Again, Meurkens’ harmonica sounds more like a trumpet. His sense of breath and dynamics are a reflection of his deep understanding of the song’s lyrics and meaning. Jimmy Cobb’s brush work here makes every aspect of life better.

“What’s New” is another ballad that has been done by a countless number of jazz musicians for more than half a century but Meurkens and the band breathe new life into this standard. Meurkens is so fearless and adventurous as only a true master can be. Dado Moroni’s piano accompaniment is soft and sweet. This music will give you goose bumps and stay with you forever.

Harmonicus Rex is one of the purest bop inspired albums I’ve heard in a long time. There’s a love for the music that comes through in every carefully crafted twist and turn. Hendrik Meurkens and his magnificent band have done their homework and prove to the world that “straight ahead” bop fueled jazz is far from dead and is still open to new ideas. This is a stellar recording not to be missed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Classic Revisited: Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus(Candid)

By Devon “Doc” Wendell

 

Jazz brings peace and serenity to many but there’s always been a brutality and violence to the music that is a necessary element to fit the times. The unapologetic savagery behind Charles Mingus’s approach to expressing sound was what made his music so beautiful. Jazz at its best has always needed protection from obtuse listeners and critics as well as from a white dominated music business and planet. Mingus protected the music that was the true core of his being with his fists, an occasional axe and most of all with the music itself. He grabbed a hold of those scraps of American music history that had been mostly discarded by the bebop revolution of the mid ’40s like dixieland and ragtime. Like Thelonious Monk, Mingus understood that all of that music was still modern and could be applied in all the right places.

Also like Monk, it’s impossible to categorize Mingus’ music. There are elements of classical (third stream), blues, bop, big-band swing, and anything that he felt was relevant at the time. And sometimes it was an incredible impulse that would come and go in a flash. He could read and write music better than most and he took “jazz” improvisation to new heights.

There is no recording in the history of this planet like Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus. The album was recorded live at NOLA Penthouse Studios in New York on November 19, 1960 under the supervision of Nat Hentoff.CHARLES MINGUSPIC2

Mingus is joined by his Jazz Workshop consisting of Eric Dolphy, alto saxophone, bass clarinet, Ted Curson, trumpet, and Dannie Richmond on drums.

Tommy Nola’s penthouse wasn’t exactly the same as playing in a nightclub or coffee house but Mingus wanted that same level of devotion and intimacy and treated it as if it were a “true” live show. And he got that and much, much more. He even warns his imaginary audience about making any unwanted sounds during the performance before he and the band launch into “Folk Forms, No.1”, which is a pure blues. Even Mingus’ bass phrasing is reminiscent of the lines you might hear from Texas blues guitarists T-Bone Walker and Lowell Fulson. Eric Dolphy sounds a lot like Bird on “Folk Forms, No.1” and Ted Curson’s trumpet style is eerie, beautiful, and supremely lyrical.

“Original Fables of Faubus” is a protest song against Arkansas governor Orval E. Faubus who sent the National Guard to prevent the integration of 9 African American students at a Little Rock High School in 1957. Mingus had recorded this composition on the pivotal Ah Um album a year earlier but Columbia records refused to let Mingus include his lyrics that rightfully call Faubus a “fascist supreme”.  Words like “Two, four, six, eight, they brainwash and teach you hate” scared the shit out of Columbia but Candid Records was far more progressive and much smaller, having less of a liability on their hands. And Nat Hentoff refused to try to hold Mingus back.

This is were I discovered the genius of Eric Dolphy. His solo on this piece goes from the deepest blues to that most dark and wretchedly violent place. It’s so pure and thematic. It frightened me when I first heard it in high school and I knew those notes came from places and experiences that I would never truly understand. And so began my lifelong obsession with Dolphy’s music.

On “What Love”, Dolphy is speaking in tongues as if he’s gone so far beyond any notated lines and rehearsed theory that there’s no turning back. That alto saxophone sounds like a woman shrieking in agony as if asking “why?”. “Why?” indeed.  Mingus, Dolphy, and Curson have this musical conversation through their instruments that defies logic or style. It’s so real and so right. No one was even thinking about doing anything like this at the time. These men reach that place in the sky where the actual notes are insignificant. The melody line is somber and restless. This is the sound of America without the posturing and dishonest rituals. This says more than any “folk” singer could dare to dream up or borrow.

Every jazz based musician and their mother had done versions of Jerome Kern’s “All The Things You Are” by 1960, so Mingus decided to slightly butcher the chord changes during this performance and call it “All The Things You Could Be If Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother”.  Mingus’ bass lines are sparse and syncopated. Ted Curson takes most of the solo space and plays the changes beautifully, not once making a piano player seem missing from the fold. Eric Dolphy is way off in heaven, playing the changes and then some. Dannie Richmond wasn’t like any drummer of his time. He was not the cymbal happy player associated with the bebop and hard-bop genres. Richmond somehow knew exactly where Mingus would be headed and he was right there on top of the music while playing a subordinate role at the same time. How many drummer can pull that off? Richmond was a wonderfully melodic drummer and one of the all-time greatest in any genre of music.

There is a lot of bloodshed on this recording. Only Mingus and his Jazz Workshop could be brave enough to take such unadulterated violence and sculpt something beautiful and timeless out of it. Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus said what needed to be said and still needs to be said and no one else will ever say it as clearly as this without having to resort to mere words and language.

 

CD Review: Kai Narezo: Contra Tiempo

By Devon “Doc” Wendell

 

I always seem to hear about the great guitarists on the scene before anything else. This might have to do with the fact that I’ve been a six stringer all of my life or just a stroke of good luck.

I’ve been hearing the name Kai Narezo for almost half a year now so I had to check out his latest album Contra Tiempo And I’m more than glad I did. This isn’t just your average flamenco guitar music; not by any stretch of the imagination. This is flamenco-fusion but the fusion aspect of Narezo’s music feels completely natural and never forced.

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As phenomenal as Narezo is as a guitarist, it’s the overall band sound that stays with you and is like nothing you’ll hear anywhere else. On tracks like “Marchena (Sevillanas)”, “Zaidin (Bulerias)”, and the haunting “Al Aire (Bulerias)”, bassists Ric Fierabracci and Albert Anguela bring their powerful Anthony Jackson inspired fusion style to Narezo’s imaginative and adventurous compositions. The dichotomy of the traditional fused with the new creates a distinct mood throughout all of Narezo’s pieces. Drummer Joey Heredia adds some beautifully subtle flourishes to each carefully crafted nuance.

“Elegia (Granaina)” is one of the most superb and complex solo guitar pieces I’ve heard in a long time. Kai Narezo picks up where Segovia left off. It’s impossible to predict where he’s going to take the music at every turn which gives his sound an intense edge.

The album is full of sincere joy and fun which is evident on songs like “Lo Que Fuimos (Bulerias)”, “Flamencats (Tanguillo)” and “Sol (Ea Por Buleria)”, while “Del Viento (Bulerias)” is both menacing yet delicate. Narezo’s right hand picking technique is awe-inspiring. Percussionists Kassandra Kocoshis and Jorge Perez Gonzalez keep the fire going strong beneath Narezo and the rest of the band members.

Contra Tiempo is an album that all musicians should own and study. Every time you listen to this recording, you’ll find something new and that is what makes a masterpiece. Narezo effortlessly combines flamenco with jazz and fusion in a manner that points to the future with both soul and courage.

 

 

 

Maurice White: An Appreciation

By Devon “Doc” Wendell

 

These appreciation pieces are getting more and more difficult to write. The sound of Maurice White’s voice and arrangements for Earth, Wind & Fire have been such an integral part of my daily existence. It’s very hard to believe he’s no longer with us.

White more than anyone else took that Sly & The Family Stone influenced funk and made it slicker and more polyrhythmic and polished, creating something new and beautiful that changed music forever.

Maurice White started out as a session drummer in Chicago, playing on recordings by such musically diverse artists as Buddy Guy, The Impressions, Muddy Waters, Sonny Stitt, The Dells, Fontella Bass, Etta James, and The Ramsey Lewis Trio.

White formed a songwriting team with Wade Flemons and Don Whitefield in 1969. They called themselves The Salty Peppers after being signed to Capitol Records but as soon as White moved to Los Angeles that same year, he changed the name of the group to Earth, Wind & Fire. Once White hit Southern California he was unstoppable.

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The original EWF lineup consisted of Michael Beal, guitar, Leslie drayton, trumpet, Wade Flemons, keyboards, Sherry Scott, vocals, Alexander Thomas, trombone, Chet Washington, reeds, Maurice White, percussion, drums, vocals, electric Kalimba, Verdine White, bass (Maurice’s younger brother), Don Whitefield, piano, vocals, and Phillard Williams on percussion.

The band released its self titled debut album in 1971. The following year White added a host of phenomenal musicians such as Jessica Cleaves, Ronnie Laws, Larry Dunn, Roland Bautista, Ralph Johnson, and future longtime collaborator Philip Bailey to the fold. White was a visionary who sought out the perfect players for the sound that he wanted at that exact time and the band would continue to change and grow over the next several years.

Classic albums like Head To The Sky, Open Our Eyes, That’s The Way Of The World, Spirit, All ‘n All, I Am, and Faces helped define a whole generation. White’s original vocal harmonies and imaginative, multi-layered approach to arranging modern R&B had a major impact on rock, gospel, and even jazz. All of those elements already existed in Earth, Wind & Fire’s sound but it was something fresh and new without any cliches or tacky gimmicks.

White also produced The Emotions’ classic albums Rejoice in 1977 and Sunbeam in 1978, as well as working with Minnie Riperton, Weather Report, Deniece Williams, Jennifer Holiday, Neil Diamond and Barbara Streisand. He brought so many ideas and textures to any artist that he worked with.

When you look at this extraordinary man’s catalog, it just boggles the mind. There hasn’t been a single period in my life in which Maurice White’s music hasn’t been there alongside of me, no matter what was happening. Like food or oxygen, it has always been there and I’ll be playing it until the day I die. Tonight I plan on blasting EWF’s All ‘n All, and I Am as loud as I can legally get away with.

So few artists can capture the feeling of love in their music with sincerity but Maurice White couldn’t avoid it and that’s what made it so magical.

White was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the late ’80s and left EWF in 1994 but stayed active in the music business for many years. White passed away on February 3rd, 2016. He was 74 years young. Rest in peace and thank you for a lifetime of love and music.

 

 

Music Review: Hiromi-Spark (Telarc)

  By Devon Wendell

 

One of the greatest pleasures in life is listening to Japanese pianist and composer Hiromi with her stellar Trio Project consisting of Anthony Jackson on bass and Simon Phillips on drums. There just isn’t anything like it. Although there are certainly elements of jazz, fusion, and classical throughout Hiromi’s music, trying to categorize any of her musical journeys only cheapens the experience.

Hiromi’s latest album Spark is out in Japan now and won’t be released in America until April 1st, but I was too excited by this album to wait until spring. More people need to learn about this amazing talent. The first word that comes to mind when I listen to Spark is poetry. Her solo piano tells many stories and provides the listener with such vivid and

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extraordinary imagery. When listening to the title track, “In A Trance” and “Take Me Away”, it’s abundantly clear that she can take the music anywhere. And she does so with such an impeccable sense of dynamics, intelligence, and soul. And Anthony Jackson and Simon Phillips fearlessly accompany her on her every journey with precision and love.

Hiromi doesn’t simply approach the piano in an “orthodox” manner. She’ll repeat a motif until it becomes part of your subconscious mind, often playing the piano like some unexplored percussion instrument. “Wonderland”, “Dilemma”, and “All’s Well” are prime examples of this. She’ll then play the most fluid, swinging lines imaginable. She even plays above the bar line and makes it sound effortless.

“Indulgence” is sweet, funky, syncopated and delicate, yet sly in a way that’s gloriously understated. Hiromi’s music is so witty and full of personality; a trait that’s missing in so much of the music being marketed in the contemporary jazz world today. Just listen to “What will be, will be” and you’ll agree with me. Hiromi’s use of the synthesizer on this piece is just as original and exploratory as her acoustic piano work. The overall sound of the trio is magic.

“Wake Up And Dream” is this haunting solo piano lullaby with so many colors and textures.

Spark is Hiromi’s tenth album as a leader. This recording proves that she is without a doubt one of the most original and exciting artists in any genre of music with a brilliant trio. If the music world misses out on this one, there’s really not much hope.

 

 

Op-Ed: Cry Of The Precious Ones

By Doc Wendell

 

Over the last few years, a spate of these old, dried up and self-righteous music journalists have been lashing out at bloggers. Granted, there are loads of crap floating around the internet 24/7 but there’s more to it than that.

First of all, the printed press is almost as dead as the compact disc, maybe even more so. Who actually goes to a newspaper stand anymore to buy dusty copies of music magazines like Mojo or Rolling Stone? All of it is available online and most of it is of far less quality than the work of many younger and more ambitious bloggers such as myself. One of my favorite hobbies as a budding teenager was to circle all of the historical and factual inaccuracies in a single copy of Rolling Stone. I killed many red sharpies doing this.

What these old farts are really bothered by is that there’s been a cut in their pay checks because for every one of their “official” reviews of say the latest Bob Dylan catastrophe, there’s about a thousand or more “unofficial” blog posts on the same album. And younger people are far less concerned with the historical presence of a publication and their logos just as they are more prone to support independent music over artists on a major label.  It surely is the Wild West out there and it’s every man for himself.

Most of these bloggers aren’t held down to the standards of some anal retentive editors or a code of merely reporting in some bland and dispassionate style. There’s a freedom that didn’t exist 20 years ago that’s refreshing. I like to think of it as voices of the proud and scummy underground; Graffiti journalists who have a lot to express but could never get a job interview at The Village Voice or even into the damn building for that matter. A fan of my work once called me the “jazz-punk” and it was the kindest and most accurate description of my style, though I am a trained writer so that takes some of the romance out of that notion. To do anything other than say exactly what I mean to say when I mean to say it, despite an audience is the only way I know how to live and that’s what comes out in everything I write.

I have learned a lot working for Don Heckman for the last 8 years. Don is such a class act and has the skill of saying it without coming out and saying it. There’s such a distinct beauty in his language. It is music. Knowing when to pull back is an art that I still learn from Don to this day. But are there any more Don Heckman’s out there? There are plenty of copy cats but nothing like the real thing and he’s still doing it. I’ve never heard Don complain about the current state of music journalism or music in general once. He just keeps contributing and embraces the many changes.

Unfortunately the cry of the precious ones will continue just as people still bitch about analog sound over digital (I’m one of those) to sound like they’re “keeping it real”. But their whining  isn’t stopping anyone or making one bit of difference and that gives me a kick. It’s always the same old shit from certain circles of that generation who should just call it a fucking day. “Oh man, music was better when bands like Zeppelin were around instead of this rap music” or “music journalism is a dying art man; all of these amateurs have taken over”. Nothing screams old, out of touch, and uncool like these cliche statements.

George “Dr. Funkenstein” Clinton once told me “always do whatever gets on the nerves of kid’s parents and old people because that will become the next big thing and the coolest shit imaginable”. This applies to any art form.

So write on bloggers. Be fearless and true to your own voices and don’t pay attention to any criticisms or what other writers are doing. Don’t fall back on just shocking people either. That’s cheap and easy. Create your own reality, language, and persona, and celebrate what you love and attack what you hate. It’s your time now. Work quickly before the next form of technology makes you obsolete too.