Guitarist Molly Miller strikes out on her own in new project

Dr. Molly Miller

Since she picked up a guitar at age seven, Dr. Molly Miller has been captivating audiences with performances that display a talent for entertaining and effortless musicianship seemingly well beyond her years. Now 28 – and the youngest Chair of a University Guitar department in the country – Miller has become one of Los Angeles’ most sought-after musicians, touring the world with superstars such as Jason Mraz and The Black Eyed Peas. In her debut album as a leader, The Shabby Road Recordings, due out this month, Miller heads a trio that includes the all-star rhythm section of Jay Bellerose (B.B. King, Elton John, Bonnie Raitt) and Jennifer Condos (Bruce Springsteen, Sheryl Crow, Stevie Nicks).

The album’s joyful, groove-based instrumentals bring a wealth of musical talent to reimagine popular songs spanning genres and eras, from “Blueberry Hill” by Fats Domino and “You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me” by Smokey Robinson, to “Innocent When You Dream” by Tom Waits. The album’s repertoire was formed organically, over months at the trio’s weekly gig at L.A.’s Perch.

“It was thrilling and humbling to work alongside Jay and Jen – two legendary instrumentalists – to distill these timeless songs to their essence,” says Miller in a news release.

Miller – who received her doctorate in music from University of Southern California – became the youngest Guitar Chair in the country at the same time that she maintained a busy touring and recording schedule with top pop, indie, and jazz artists.

The Shabby Road Recordings came about in a rather spontaneous way – the three musicians would regularly get together to play and one day decided to record in the spur of the moment. The album’s opener “Gimme A Little Sign” (as popularized by Brenton Wood) stems from that first living room session and it captures a spirit that pervades the album – joyful, groove-based instrumental music that recalls a bygone era of such luminaries as Booker T and the MG’s, The Ventures, and Duane Eddy.

The emotional center of the album comes from their touching rendition of the Jackson Brown via Velvet Underground and Nico song “These Days.” Long regarded as a seminal track, “These Days” has been with Miller since she was in high school consuming a steady diet of Velvet Underground and Nico records.

Burning Ghosts release ‘Reclamation’ now available

Burning Ghosts photo by Eron Rauch

According to a recent news release, Burning Ghosts is a politically motivated quartet at the forefront of the jazz-metal underground featuring four of the most acclaimed musicians in the L.A. experimental music scene. Playing scorching instrumentals that touch on heavy metal and jazz, the music is uncompromising and intense, filled with precise rhythmic complexity and textural power. Their first release on Tzadik is an incendiary blockbuster and is destined to become an instant classic!

Rance Allen Group returns with 25th project on Oct. 28

allenThe Rance Allen Group will release its 25th album and third live project “Live From San Francisco Bay” (Tyscot Records) on October 28. The group pioneered the fusion of R&B-styled rhythms with spiritual and message music themes in the 1970s. It’s a winning style that has won them fans as varied as American Idol’s Randy Jackson and ’80s rockers Huey Lewis & the News. The 11-song set “Live from San Francisco Bay” was recorded live at the Richmond Memorial Auditorium.

“The theme really is to be encouraged in a very kind of depressed time,” says Rance Allen, who sees parallels between today’s social climate and that of when his group was formed during the Civil Rights and Vietnam eras.  “It’s a time of unusual stress with all of the killings going on, the political mess that’s going on and there’s just so many people who have just moved away from trusting God and believing in Jesus Christ. Our job of encouraging and uplifting will never be done. We’ll have to keep working on this until the Lord comes to take us home.”

The project features new songs such as the first radio single “All Day Long,” the ballad “My Delight” (led by Steve Allen), the quartet-styled stomper ‘Hold On” and the soulful tune “Vessel” (led by Paul Porter).

The group also brings back B-sides from past albums and gives them new arrangements such as the old school soul of “Like a Good Neighbor” and the funk of  “I’m Not Givin’ Up Givin’ Out Givin’ Givin’ In” that is lead by Tom Allen. The group provides some dance-floor rhythms with songs such as “Got Me Dancin’,” “Can’t Give Up (The Groove)” and “Victory Dance.” The collection is rounded out with fan favorites such as the group’s signature songs  “Miracle Worker” and “Something About the Name of Jesus.”

The Rance Allen Group was formed in 1965 in Monroe, Mich., as a self-contained band. In 1972, they signed to Stax Records’ Gospel Truth subsidiary, where they recorded a series of gritty gospel songs that won them main-stage tours with R&B headliners such as Isaac Hayes and Barry White. The group has been recording ever since and was honored with the BMI Trailblazer Award in 2008.

Seven Wonders of the Ancient World inspire saxophonist’s second project

wondersStraight-ahead jazz’s fixation on the past can often lead to stagnation. But on his dazzling new album, Wonders, Los Angeles-based tenor saxophonist Scott Jeppesen attacks the problem in an unlikely way: he reaches way further back. So far back, in fact, that there’s no room for imitation. The album draws its inspiration from the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World — and without photos or videos or first-hand accounts, Jeppesen says he had to dream up what these millennia-old places might have been like.

“Part of the allure of these wonders is the fact that they’re not there anymore — that provides challenges, but it also provides freedom,” Jeppesen says in a recent news release. “I did a lot of my writing for this album at the piano, closing my eyes and thinking, ‘What if I was actually living in those places — what could that possibly be like?’”

Recorded with an expert quintet, Wonders demonstrates not only Jeppesen’s silvery tone and his suspense-building skills as a soloist, but also his talents as an arranger and composer. He has written and arranged for such world-famous talents as Stevie Wonder, Dave Brubeck and Steve Miller on tours and in televised performances. These experiences have helped mold his approach.

But Jeppesen’s biggest influence came early, from the late saxophone legend Joe Henderson, who mentored Jeppesen when he was still a teenager growing up in Sacramento.

“The guys I’ve worked with down here in L.A. have influenced my work in many ways, but I always feel Joe exerts the strongest pull on me,” he said. “Sometimes he would play bebop and other times he’d play stuff that made you say, ‘What in the world was that?’ His message to me was: If you hear a sound that’s what you should play — no matter how quirky, weird, or what time signature it was in — because your ears don’t lie. In spite of all the rules and boxes that are placed around you when you’re going through the jazz education system, make sure to focus on what are your ears telling you to do, and follow them into the unknown.”

Jeppesen is about to complete his doctoral degree in Jazz Studies at the University of Southern California, finishing many years of schooling that have put him under the tutelage of many notable mentors such as Shelley Berg and Bob Mintzer. Jeppesen wrote much of Wonders in sessions with esteemed pianist Russ Ferrante, of the Yellowjackets, who challenged Jeppesen to embrace the harmonic complexity of his own ideas, and to “start to think polytonally.”

With help from fellow emerging L.A. musicians Larry Koonse on guitar, Josh Nelson on piano and keyboard, Dave Robaire on bass and Dan Schnelle on drums, Jeppesen interweaves elements of funk and early-1970s electric fusion with sleek but heady modern jazz. He fits it all snugly into the format of a straight-ahead quintet, leaving space when needed and dialing up the intensity with masterful control.

Wonders follows on the heels of Jeppesen’s well-received debut, 2014’s El Guapo, which received glowing reviews from many outlets, including DownBeat (the magazine singled out Jeppesen’s “creative writing” and “swinging playfulness”).

Bill Frisell’s Big Sur Quintet to headline North American tour through 2014

Big Sur Quintet. Photo by Monica Frisell

Big Sur Quintet. Photo by Monica Frisell

OKeh announces a 12-city North American tour for Bill Frisell‘s Big Sur Quintet (Nov. 6, 2013, through Jan. 23, 2014). The tour is in support of his new album, Big Sur, and will feature violinist Jenny Scheinman, violist Eyvind Kang, cellist Hank Roberts and drummer Rudy Royston (who are all featured on the album as well).

The tour will include performances at the Sunset Cultural Center in Carmel, Calif.; Kuumbwa Jazz in Santa Cruz, Calif.; The Shedd in Eugene, Ore.; The Aladdin Theater in Portland, Ore.; The Earshot Jazz Festival in Seattle, Wash.; Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio; Clifton Center in Louisville, Ky.; SPACE in Evanston, Ill.; Wolftrap in Vienna, Va.; Le Poisson Rouge in New York City; Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis, Minn., and SFJAZZ in San Francisco, Calif.
The project marks Frisell’s OKeh debut as well as the first album featuring the Big Sur Quintet (which combines his 858 Quartet and Beautiful Dreamers trio). Born of a Monterey Jazz Festival commission in 2012, Big Sur features an hour of original music, that explicitly references the coastal-mountain environment of Big Sur, California. The quintet recorded Big Sur at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, California, with longtime Frisell collaborators Lee Townsend and Adam Muñoz producing and engineering, respectively.
The commission included a residency at Glen Deven Ranch, an 860-acre property bequeathed to the Big Sur Land Trust. Glen Deven’s beauty and quietude provided Frisell with both inspiration and something even more rare: time to be alone with his muse (for the first ten day stay in April 2012).
“It was extraordinary. You’re surrounded by forest, and there’s a trail that you can walk to the end of the bluff, where the land just drops off and you see the whole panorama of the Big Sur coast and the Pacific Ocean,” says Frisell in a news release. “That’s what I woke up to every morning. It was incredible.”


Pianist/composer Myra Melford releases first solo recording on October 22

Composer/pianist Myra Melford. Photo Credit: Michael Wilson

Composer/pianist Myra Melford. Photo Credit: Michael Wilson

Pianist, composer and Guggenheim fellow Myra Melford realizes two long-cherished dreams on her beautiful new release, Life Carries Me This Way (Firehouse 12). The album is both Melford’s first solo piano recording and a tribute to her friend, the late California visual artist Don Reich. Each of the eleven tracks was directly inspired by one of Reich’s rich, colorful canvases, brought to vivid sonic life by Melford’s deeply spiritual and personal compositions.

In the artist’s work, Melford found a range of artistic expression equal to the diversity and vibrancy of her own broad palette of invention. “Don takes a wide range of approaches to painting, from very abstract to almost cartoonish,” she explains in a news release. “Seeing his paintings made me want to play the piano, and his very wide range from abstracts to landscapes to still lifes allowed me to cover a range of my own playing from dense, polytonal, high-energy work to very simple, beautiful melodies. I felt like there was room for all of that in the scope of his artwork.”

Reich, who passed away in 2010 after suggesting a number of artworks for Melford’s interpretation, was a longtime friend of the pianist’s family. It was that closeness that led Melford to choose his work as the basis for her long-awaited solo debut. “There’s something so immediate and personal about any kind of solo,” Melford says. “But particularly for me to play solo piano, I’m completely exposed, I’m not covered up by the orchestration or by other people playing. So that seemed to be the best way for me to communicate personally how I feel about Don’s artwork. There’s no one else to interpret it but me.”

Such personal connections were vital to Melford’s approach to writing this music. Reich’s paintings “Barcelona” and “Sagrada Familia” immediately summoned memories of Melford’s own visits to the Spanish city and its landmark Gaudí-designed church. “My experience in those places was overlaid against stories that Don had told me about being there,” Melford says. “So there were several levels of information that went into informing how the music came about for each piece.”

Most important, perhaps, was Melford’s friendship with the artist, whose personality is laced throughout her meditations on his work. “Don was a really quirky, unique individual and a very joyful person,” she recalls. “He took great pleasure in life and was a really keen observer. He was very sense-oriented, so that also informed my perception and my response to his paintings.”

Typically for Melford, who has drawn inspiration from a number of spiritual, musical and artistic traditions throughout her career, Life Carries Me This Way is a solo album that is still something of a collaborative effort. “Another way to describe that would be a sense of connectedness,” she suggests. “Nothing really exists in a vacuum, and of course all of these connections that are important to me are part of how I express myself as an artist.”

Raised in a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house, Melford grew up literally surrounded by art, and has since crafted a singular sound world that harmonizes the intricate and the expressive, the meditative and the assertive, the cerebral and the playful. She draws inspiration from a vast spectrum of traditions and disciplines, from the writings of Persian poet Rumi and the Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano to the wisdom of Zen Buddhism and the Huichol Indians of Mexico, to the music of mentors like Jaki Byard, Don Pullen, and Henry Threadgill.

Melford’s palette expands from the piano to the harmonium and electronic keyboards or to amplifying barely audible sounds in the piano’s interior. Her playing can build from the blissful and lyrical to the intense and angular. In 2013, she was named a Guggenheim Fellow and received both the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s Performing Artist Award and a Doris Duke Residency to Build Demand for the Arts at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. She was also the winner of the 2012 Alpert Award in the Arts for Music and has been honored numerous times in DownBeat’s Critics Poll since 1991.

Oakland-Based rapper Kafani to talk about gun violence on radio show

Rapper Kafani

Rapper Kafani

The Bay area’s Ice King – Kafani – is speaking out against gun violence in the wake of the recent Newton, Conn., school massacre that left 28 children and adults dead. The rapper known for hits such as “Knock `Em Down” and his current single “Swag Swerve” will be live and unplugged on the nationally syndicated “Street Soldiers Radio Program” from 8 to 10 p.m. Pacific time on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013.  He’s been invited on to discuss how gun violence is affecting the urban community and how it also affected him personally.

In November 2011, a Kafani music video was being shot in a West Oakland liquor store parking lot when over 50 gunshots were fired into a crowd of people on the set. Eight persons were hit, including the one-year-old son of Kafani’s cousin Hiram Lawrence.

It’s an area that covers less than 5 percent of the city in space but accounts for 90 percent  of the city’s shootings and homicides. The baby slipped into a coma and died eleven days later.

Some believe the shooting was retaliation over a beef between Kafani and rapper Lil B, but there’s been no evidence to confirm the assertion.

“I hate this whole thing happened to my cousin’s son,” says Kafani in a news release. “He didn’t deserve that. He was a happy, energetic kid. I don’t glorify violence in my music. It’s about living life – not taking it. We as a country need to do something to change the violent culture in the inner city. I was raised in the hood, and I came from the struggle. I was in the streets and made my way to college, although I didn’t finish. Unfortunately, I landed in prison for robbery; from Penn State to the pen.”

However, upon his release, Kafani turned his life around and has built a successful career and business off of his rapping skills. Street Soldiers has been on the air since 1991. The weekly radio call-in show is sponsored by the Omega Boys Club and focuses on the issues of violence, gangs, drugs, teen pregnancy and other topics related to inner-city youth. The host of Street Soldiers is Dr. Joseph Marshall, executive director of the Omega Boys Club. The program was syndicated in 1997 and is heard in 12 radio markets with a weekly listening audience of 300,000. Listeners can listen live each week online at For the 411 on The Ice King, go to or follow him on Twitter.