Summer of ’96 showcases originality of jazz/hip-hop fusion

The summer of 1996 was a turning point for singer/rapper/producer Lonnee Stevens and composer/producer Antman Wonder. Not only did the remarkable music of the time point them in the direction of their future careers, but it was the moment when both men took their first steps in the transition from avid fans to creators. Joining forces for the first time as Summer of ’96, Stevens and Antman draw inspiration from the individuality and innovation of that foundational year to discover new pathways into the juncture of hip-hop, jazz and R&B on their debut album, Splendid Things Gone Awry, available July 21 via Unsociable Music/RED.
“1996 was the coming of age for music for my generation,” says Stevens in a news release, citing particularly hip-hop’s unparalleled flowering but also an impressive year for inventive rock music: Sublime’s self-titled debut, DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing…, Beck’s Odelay, and countless others. “Everything sounded so new, just as we were coming of age as creative people.”
Although the fusion of jazz and hip-hop reached a pinnacle in the mid-’90s, the two musics had been intertwined since hip-hop’s beginnings. The always forward-looking Herbie Hancock was one of the earliest pioneers, pointing the way to the future with his 1983 smash hit “Rockit.” As Antman puts it, “One begat the other. Jazz influenced hip-hop majorly, especially in the Golden Era. Hip-hop introduced me to Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and [producer] David Axelrod through the music that was sampled when I was growing up by people like DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and Just Blaze.”
Hancock’s former boss, Miles Davis, was of course at the forefront as well, collaborating with producer Easy Mo Bee for his final album, Doo-Bop. Hip-hop producers sampled jazz grooves and melodies from the beginning, including Gang Starr’s “Words I Manifest,” which sampled Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia,” and UK-based Us3’s ubiquitous 1993 hit “Cantaloop,” built on the infectious hook from Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island.” Central to the Summer of ’96 idea are the efforts of the Native Tongues collective, a loose-knit group of hip-hop pioneers that included A Tribe Called Quest, the Jungle Brothers and De La Soul (who released their direction-changing fourth album, Stakes Is High, that year).
Flash forward to today, when those artists’ innovations paved the way for a new generation of jazz/hip-hop fusion. Artists like Flying Lotus, Thundercat and Kamasi Washington are redefining the marriage of the two musics (among other influences) while leading rappers like Kendrick Lamar are finding new ways to draw upon jazz approaches.
Enter Summer of ’96, who don’t so much channel the music of their namesake year as they continue in its spirit of reinvention and individuality. Splendid Things Gone Awry is a rarity in the streaming age, a true album with a central mood and an experimental spirit. The duo built the album via a long-distance collaboration between California native Stevens’ Atlanta digs and Antman’s Philly base. The music is entirely original, using live instrumentation and no samples, with compositions created and played by Antman and restructured and adde onto by Stevens.
“Today everything is synthesized,” Stevens says, “but back then everything was sampled, and it was sampled from soul and jazz records. When we got together, we decided we wanted to make a record that sounds classic but using all original stuff.”

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!

Guitarist Kevin Eubanks merges musical landscape of East and West coasts

Since his 18-year tenure as guitarist and music director of TV’s “The Tonight Show” band ended in 2010, Philadelphia-born guitarist, composer Kevin Eubanks has been on a creative roll. On East West Time Line, Eubanks explores the chemistry he maintains with musicians on both coasts. And once again, his distinctive fingerstyle approach to the instrument is in the service of tunes that run the stylist gamut from urgent swingers to introspective ballads to Latin-tinged numbers and some get-down Philly funk. The Mack Avenue Records project is set for release on April 7.
Joining Eubanks on this stellar outing are longtime collaborator and former Berklee College of Music schoolmate, drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith, who fuels the West Coast outfit alongside seasoned session bassist Rene Camacho, percussionist Mino Cinelu and saxophonist Bill Pierce. Smith’s East Coast counterpart on this bi-coastal session is the irrepressibly swinging Jeff “Tain” Watts, a force of nature on the kit who combines with bassist Dave Holland, Philadelphia-based pianist Orrin Evans and New York trumpeter Nicholas Payton for a potent lineup. Together these great musicians bring out the best in Eubanks’ six-string prowess and ignite his searching instincts throughout the sessions in Los Angeles and New York.
“Of course, we all came up through New York,” says the Philly guitarist who broke in with Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers during the early ’80s in a recent news release. “But we also got the benefits of seeing the East Coast down and dirty and Hollywood down and dirty, too. We combined both vibes on this recording-the kind of Latin vibe of Los Angeles and the straight-up swinging vibe of New York.”
Overall, Eubanks seems exceedingly pleased with the copacetic nature of his first bi-coastal recording. “I think because I’m so familiar with all the musicians and we played together over the years in different settings, on different tours, that it helped the music quite a bit. There’s something that goes with friendship, knowing everybody’s journey to a large extent, that really enhances the communication between the players on a session. It’s that thing where everybody’s pulling for each other to do well and trying to make each other sound better, and you keep your ego out of it. We all have egos, we’re human beings and everything, but through the love of the music and wanting the best, good things happen. It’s really such a wonderful kind of democracy that you don’t see in other things. I think jazz music is the most perfect example of democracy in action.”

Musical prodigy Emily Bear set to release ‘Into the Blue’

Photo Credit: Nick Suttle

Pianist/composer Emily Bear, 15, has achieved the kinds of accolades and triumphs that take many artists a lifetime to accomplish. She’s performed at the most prestigious venues across the country and around the world, received numerous awards and honors, composed for film and television, made six appearances on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, garnered 30 million views on YouTube, played at the White House, Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, been mentored by the legendary Quincy Jones – and that’s only a partial list.

Now, with the release of Into the Blue, Bear brings us new original jazz compositions performed with her trio. The album comprises five of her original compositions plus a warm, graceful take on “My Favorite Things” that hints at the immortal John Coltrane version before veering off into dazzling variations. Exuding Bear’s own exuberant passion for music, Into the Blue is both accessible and appealing for listeners of any age.

Bear follows the chart topping success of her first album, Diversity–produced by her long time mentor, Quincy Jones–with this inspiring collection of new melodies. Her agility on the piano is matched by her skill in creating stylistic compositions – catchy, intelligent, and sophisticated.

Bear has composed and arranged for orchestra, written for film and commercials.  And while she continues to expand her musical palette, jazz holds a special place in her heart. “What I love so much about jazz is that you have a lot more freedom than in classical music,” Bear says. “Jazz has a groove that doesn’t show up in any other kind of music and I enjoy using all my musical influences to create a unique sound, familiar yet new.”

‘Duopoly’ chronicles pianist’s sessions with improvisers

davisCritically acclaimed pianist and composer Kris Davis has released her newest album, Duopoly, on Pyroclastic Records.  The album consists of 16 tracks with eight different highly regarded improvisers.  Each musician performs two pieces alongside Davis, one composed and the other completely improvised.  For Duopoly, Davis chose to work with musicians whom she had never worked with in a recording studio.  They are: guitarists Bill Frisell and Julian Lage, pianists Craig Taborn and Angelica Sanchez, drummers Billy Drummond and Marcus Gilmore, and reed players Tim Berne and Don Byron.

The CD comes with a DVD of live performances of each piece performed by Davis and collaborator.  Davis explains in a news release, “We also chose to make a visual record, which we hoped would be as live and uncompromising as the music.  Shot by Mimi Chakarova with one fixed camera and one handheld, the goal was for this film to have a kind of 1:1 or indexical relationship to the music itself.”

Davis continues her celebratory Duopoly tour tonight at Kennedy Center Millennium Stage in Washington DC, with pianist, and album collaborator, Craig Taborn.  The tour will continue through mid-October.

Rob Reddy blurs the lines between improvisation and complex structure

reddySince his emergence onto the scene in 1989, composer/soprano saxophonist Rob Reddy has established himself as an adventurous and original leader in the contemporary jazz realm. Prolific, eclectic and versatile, Reddy is recognized by musicians, critics, and funding institutions. With his new recording Citizen Quintet, Reddy adds another powerful milestone to his reputation. Citizen Quintet is his eighth album where Reddy is again fully within his own territory and in the company of a superb group of musicians — trumpeter John Carlson, guitarist Brandon Ross, double bassist Dom Richards and drummer Pheeroan akLaff — all regular collaborators of his for more than 20 years.
With Citizen Quintet, Reddy has purposefully diminished the emphasis upon the compositional form on behalf of a looser and more open approach to the creative substance, allowing the musicians’ longtime familiarity to breathe more freely. As a result, Reddy says “this session had a real joy & ease to it.” Indeed, the sense of joyful turbulence and free-reined expressiveness that is so fundamental to the music of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Sun Ra and Albert Ayler is vividly displayed throughout this album.
But this is no free improv or loose-knit blowing album by any means. There is a rich and complex structure and overall sense of purpose and shape always in full bloom. Reddy states in a recent news release, “Within the confines of five instrumental voices I attempted to break the ensemble down … solos, duos, trios, entire ensemble improvisations … I continue to explore the idea of juxtaposing the composed melodic material and the improvised music with one another.” They emerge from the compositional structures and sometimes the process is reversed — and often combined. Written and improvised lines are sometimes blurred, sometimes intersected and sometimes indistinguishable within the pure musicality and extraordinary musicianship of the members of the ensemble.

Drummer Nate Smith chronicles personal experiences on debut album

smithNate Smith‘s visceral, instinctive, and deep-rooted style of drumming has already established him as a key piece in reinvigorating the international jazz scene, and now his rising career reaches a new benchmark with the release of his bandleader debut, KINFOLK: Postcards from Everywhere (Feb. 3, 2017 via Ropeadope Records). Much like his diverse and ample resume (which includes esteemed leading lights such as Dave Holland, Chris Potter, Ravi Coltrane, José James, Somi, and Patricia Barber, among others), this album sees Smith fusing his original modern jazz compositions with R&B, pop, and hip-hop.
This leader debut shows Smith at the helm of a core ensemble consisting of pianist and keyboardist Kris Bowers, guitarist Jeremy Most, alto and soprano saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, electric bassist Fima Ephron, and singer/lyricist Amma Whatt, with Michael Mayo on backing vocals. The lineup expands on several cuts with the inclusion of several illustrious guests: saxophonist Chris Potter, bassist Dave Holland, guitarists Lionel Loueke and Adam Rogers, and vocalist Gretchen Parlato.
KINFOLK is about the musical family that I’ve put together,” Smith said in a recent news release. “All core members of the band have very unique and specific points of view.”
He reinforces the idea of family by composing tunes that touch upon his childhood: such is the case with the jovial “Morning and Allison,” whose title partly invokes Allison Drive, the street on which Smith grew up. The song stars Whatt serenading idyllic recollections of a child enjoying a bright, fun-filled Sunday morning.
Smith recorded his parents – Lettie and Theodore Smith – talking about their respective parents on the mesmerizing interludes “Mom” and “Dad.” On the former, Smith’s mother tells how her father migrated from Virginia to Detroit and was drafted into U.S. Army, then later returned to Virginia where he bought the family a house. The latter provides a vehicle for Theodore to recall how his own father tirelessly worked at Navy shipyard in Norfolk, Virginia during the Jim Crow era without getting proper financial compensation or promotion until decades later.
“I think of these stories as snapshots that ultimately gave shape to the Black American experience into which I was born, which ultimately informs this music,” Smith said. He stressed the significance of having his father on the disc: Theodore Smith passed away in March 2015.
“He never got a chance to hear the music or the band,” Smith said.
Because Smith didn’t come strictly from the formal matriculation of music studies as so many of his jazz contemporaries did, he lovingly describes his approach to drumming as “unrefined,” which in turns helps him distinguish his voice. He did, however, earned his bachelor’s degree in 1997 in media arts and design from James Madison University. While he was still in college, the legendary singer Betty Carter recruited him for her world-acclaimed Jazz Ahead program.
Smith said that the visual arts discipline he studied in college definitely seeps into his compositions.
“I love great movies and images. I’ve always had a deep interest in composing for film,” he said. “For this project, there is something very cinematic about the way that I conceived this record. That’s why it was so important for me to cast the right characters in terms of musicians. They bring to life the themes of family, nostalgia and identity that define this music.”
Ultimately, Smith likens the songs on KINFOLK to film vignettes sequenced together to tell a greater story about the unfolding journey of a working artist. This music represents snapshots from that voyage – these songs are the postcards from everywhere along the winding road.

Nina Simone’s years celebrated with vinyl album remasters

ninaFrom 1964 to 1967, the extraordinary Nina Simone released seven albums on Philips Records, further establishing her peerless artistic expression and singular voice. During this exceptional purple patch, she recorded some of her best and most important work of her career, much of it fuelled by the Civil Rights Movement and the turmoil of 1960s America. In conjunction with their 60th anniversary this year, Verve will celebrate the genius of Simone, the supernaturally gifted singer, pianist and prolific songwriter, and her incredible mid-’60s run with the release of her entire Philips catalog on vinyl.
Released earlier this summer as a box set titled The Philips Years, the seven LPs — Nina Simone in Concert (’64), Broadway-Blues-Ballads (’64), I Put a Spell on You (’65), Pastel Blues (’65), Let It All Out (’66), Wild Is the Wind (’66) and High Priestess of Soul (’67) — will be available individually on Friday, Sept. 30 on heavyweight 180 gram vinyl in facsimiles of the original sleeve art. The vinyl masters for the long-out-of-print titles were cut at Abbey Road using high-resolution audio transfers direct from the analog master tapes and are all in stereo. This marks the first time that Broadway-Blues-Ballads and Let It All Out have been made available on vinyl since their original release. A celebration of Simone’s remarkable talents, these albums contain many of the songs that Simone’s legacy is built upon not only such well-known cuts as “I Put a Spell on You” and “Feeling Good,” but also “Wild Is the Wind,” a song that David Bowie would memorably cover, and Simone’s version of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.”
Since her death in 2003, Simone’s influence, significance and cultural relevance has only grown, especially most recently as issues of race, police brutality and civil rights are once again at the forefront of the cultural conversation. The Netflix feature documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? — which just won the 2016 Emmy for Outstanding Documentary this month — has helped shine a new light on Simone’s immense talents and fearless activism, resulting in a new generation discovering her timeless music and indelible impact. Of her Philips years, NPR drew parallels to the present: “In a time when issues of race and gender are reverberating with a newfound volatility reminiscent of the 1960s — the decade in which Simone forged her reputation as a politically provocative entertainer — Nina’s concerts and recordings feel like urgent bulletins from a brooding heart and a troubled land.”
In 1964, Simone embarked on a new stage of her career. Her rejection by the Philadelphia-based Curtis Institute of Music; time spent as a pianist in an Atlantic City nightclub; her jazz, gospel, pop and classical influences — all these had fused to make her one of the most complex, fascinating and talented artists of the decade. Simone released her debut album in 1958, but when she signed to Philips in 1964 at the age of 31, her creative output was about to dovetail with the Civil Rights movement — notably coinciding with the Civil Rights Act Of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, gender, religious affiliation or nationality. It’s fitting, then, that the first album she released on Philips, 1964’s Nina Simone in Concert, captured some of Simone’s most committed Civil Rights-era material, including her explosive rendition of “Mississippi Goddam.” But this three-year period also saw her satisfy her relentlessly questing muse, with collections that focused on Broadway showtunes (Broadway-Blues-Ballads), pop material (I Put A Spell on You) and more, showing the full range of Simone’s talents.

Cuba-based jazz artist Harold López-Nussa debuts first release in U.S.


Photo Credit: Eduardo Rawdriguez

“El Viaje (The Journey),” the title track of Cuban pianist and composer Harold López-Nussa’s debut release on Mack Avenue Records, seems to sway gently like a boat in the water – as if readying for a voyage or returning to port after arrival – trumpet and voices whispering memories. This scene aptly describes López-Nussa’s experiences of traveling throughout the world, yet always finding his way back to his hometown of Havana, Cuba. This journey of body and spirit has led simultaneously to a musical exploration where he visits various genres and ideas while staying true to his foundational roots.

The release of López-Nussa’s music stateside is a significant postscript to President Obama’s recent trip to Havana. The conservatory-trained pianist is the first Cuba-based musician (he has dual citizenship in both Cuba and France) to release an album internationally since the lifting of many of the restrictions associated with the longstanding trade embargo. States Mack Avenue Records President Denny Stilwell in a recent news release, “Harold follows in the modern day tradition of exemplary Cuban pianists who have recorded and toured internationally. We feel he is an emerging artist with immense creative potential to breakthrough.”

El Viaje features The Harold López-Nussa Trio with younger brother Ruy Adrián López-Nussa on drums and percussion and from Senegal, Alune Wade on bass and vocals. This trio is augmented on certain tracks with guests including his father Ruy Francisco López-Nussa on drums, Mayquel González on trumpet and flugelhorn, and Dreiser Durruthy and Adel González on percussion.

López-Nussa, who collaborated with Wade on the 2015 album Havana-Paris-Dakar, said: “Having a non-Cuban musician on this recording speaks to our contact with other cultures. Especially with African culture, which is so far from ours geographically and yet so close. Every time we play, I believe we enter into a journey we are creating,” he says, speaking from his home in Havana.

“Ever since I was a kid, since I began to study piano, music, I have tried; I have searched for that journey of the mind, always traveling with music. I remember that I started playing ‘El Viaje’ while on tour as a way of feeling closer to home, and when I’m here, it’s also a way for my mind to travel.”

López-Nussa has moved with ease between the classical, popular and jazz music worlds. A quick look at his experiences reveal a recording of Heitor Villa-Lobos´ “Fourth Piano Concerto” with Cuba’s National Symphony Orchestra (2003) but also winning the First Prize and Audience Prize of the Jazz Solo Piano Competition at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Switzerland, in 2005. He was part of projects as diverse as Ninety Miles (a recording with David Sánchez, Christian Scott and Stefon Harris) and Esencial (an album of compositions by revered Cuban classical guitarist, composer and conductor Leo Brouwer), both in 2011.

As for his popular music and on-the-job training, he was part of projects such as the Cuba volume of Rhythms del Mundo, which paired him with veterans from Buena Vista Social Club and he spent three years in the touring band of singer Omara Portuondo, an opportunity he calls “a blessing.” He has distilled all those experiences not only into a rich, personal style, as a player and composer, but it infused López-Nussa with an engaging attitude about making and sharing music.

Drummer Herlin Riley moves in ‘new direction’ with project

rileySince coming of age in the nurturing environment of a very musical family and a distinguished bloodline of drummers, New Orleans native Herlin Riley emerged from that most creative era of all things rhythmic in the late ’70s and early ’80s, to enliven the ensembles of such influential and demanding improvisers as pianist Ahmad Jamal and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis through his commanding yet elegant rhythmic presence. His authoritative style of melodic percussion is deeply imbued in the fertile creative soil of the Crescent City, encompassing as it does the entire length and breadth of America’s ongoing musical journey.
Now the release of his debut recording for Mack Avenue Records, Riley’s New Direction (available on Feb. 12) is an engaging, wide-ranging recital that distills a lifetime of experience into a swinging body of new music that defines what a big tent the music of New Orleans has always represented stylistically and spiritually.
This joyous cultural amalgam of Afro-Cuban, jazz and blues speak not just to Riley’s command of all things swinging — from the formative days of Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong — but which evoke, what for want of a better term we might call “the pocket” — those deeply dancing grooves that have nurtured parallel streams of rhythm & blues and funk in the tradition of such great Crescent City drummers as Vernel Fournier, Earl Palmer, Ziggy Modeliste and Idris Muhammad.
“You see,” Riley explains, “New Direction  reflects a personal transition from being a musical associate with the likes of Ahmad and Wynton, to functioning in a leadership capacity, both as a bandleader and a composer. Like Art Blakey, I’m trying to maintain a certain exuberance by using all younger musicians, while helping them develop their own voices. So many great musicians and drummers have come out of New Orleans, and that really defines my personal legacy; I’m standing on the shoulders of giants. But I’ve been playing drums since I was three years old; so, while the title New Direction may suggest new bottles, this is surely some well-aged wine.
“As a boy growing up in New Orleans, way before you heard that big bass drum in the street parades, you could feel it coming from four or five blocks away, and it would literally beckon you to come on down to the street, check out this music, and participate in it. On ‘Connection to Congo Square’ I quote the ‘Reveille’ in my intro. It reflects the melodic nature of how I tune my tom toms and is also a symbolic call to arms, for all the cats from the different neighborhoods to gather ‘round, and participate in this celebration, this collective dialog.”
Well-traveled listeners might hear echoes of Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo in the Afro-Cuban celebrations of “The Crossbar” and “Connection To Congo Square.” The down and dirty groove of “Harlem Shuffle” suggests a connection to Benny Golson’s venerable “Killer Joe,” while the title tune (in the person of guest guitarist Mark Whitfield) evokes echoes of George Benson and those classic hard bop and grooving CTI sessions of yesteryear.
So when Riley and his band reference iconic elements of the jazz tradition, listeners might very well smile contentedly in recognition of audible gems with which they are conversant. Nevertheless, throughout New Direction, Riley and company also essay a very personal, original rhythmic signature on visceral, dancing arrangements such as “The Big Banana,” “Herlin’s Hurdle” and “Hiccup Smooth.” As Riley explains it, “in everything I play, there’s some reference from my own personal experience, and while it may not be explicit, it’s all underneath there somewhere.