EDITOR’S NOTE: Here’s February’s “Giant Steps” column, one of the benefits of  TJBS membership. The column is distributed first to members and made available to the general public on the website at a later time.

Side 1 Feature Review

Joe Freel
“All This Love”
(Joe Freel Music)
Nashville continues to be a haven for outstanding jazz and jazz-themed vocalists, even though they sometimes don’t get either the exposure they merit nor the attention they deserve. The newest (for me) is the engaging Joe Freel, whose new CD “All This Love” ideally bridges all the demands required for the 21st century jazz singer.There’s a fine blend of classic and contemporary material, blending compositions from Cole Porter to Stevie Wonder, covering show tunes and recent radio hits with equal flair. Freel also displays plenty of energy and enthusiasm in his technique, yet doesn’t overly embellish or throw in histrionics for impact. He’s first and foremost a strong communicator and storyteller, especially effective when exploring beautifully written pieces like Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” or Irving Berlin’s “How Deep Is The Ocean.”But he’s just as expressive and delightful when switching to material not always included within the jazz canon. Whether it’s Kris Kristofferson’s “For The Good Times,” Wonder’s “Lately” or the El DeBarge title tune, Freel can inject within his treatment an easy swinging feel that incorporates a jazz sensibility without losing the tune’s original flavor. “Rocket Love,” another Wonder tune, isn’t one you often hear jazz stylists cover, but his version is enjoyable and soulful, as well as the cover of “Love Won’t Let Me Wait,” Major Harris’ ’70s soul hit.”All This Love” also has outstanding production and musical assistance, thanks to the ace duo of pianist Lori Mechem and bassist Roger Spencer. They’ve provided sparse, ideal backing on the 12 selections, with a guest musician corps that also includes drummer Joshua Hunt, Joe Davidian on piano for half the tracks (Mechem for the others), percussionist Dan Sherrill on three other cuts, tenor saxophonist Evan Cobb on two, and Spencer on both acoustic and on occasion electric bass.The list of elegant, striking and exciting vocalists working in the Nashville jazz community keeps growing, and Joe Freel is probably much better known than many (myself included) realize. Hopefully, “All This Love” will get him some national attention, because it’s every bit as good as many of the sessions that you hear on national radio programs and syndicated specialty shows.

Side 2 Jazz Plus

Rick Braun
“Around The Horn”
(Shanachie)
Trumpet, flugelhorn and valve trombonist Rick Braun’s latest release offers a blend of vibrant, sometimes sensual and sometimes more light tunes more ideal for smooth jazz fans than traditionalists. But those willing to listen beyond the catchy arrangements and inclusion of funk, pop and R&B influences will also hear some sold playing from Braun, keyboardist and synth player as well as producer and occasional vocalist John Stoddart, and flashy guitar courtesy of Peter White. Top cuts include the opening number “So Strong,” “One South Beach Night” and elegant romantic testimonial “I Love You More.” A well done, expertly produced session.
Mahalia Jackson
“Moving On Up A Little Higher”
(Shanachie)
Mahalia Jackson was a breathtaking vocalist, someone who soared when singing God’s praises and brought such a sense of splendor and majesty even non-believers were awed. Noted gospel historian Anthony Heilbut has compiled 22 amazing and previously unissued Jackson selections, from new versions of familiar epics like the title cult and “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” to material taken from two acclaimed performances outside the usual religious/spiritual circle she dominated. One features tunes done at a 1951 symposium which was for many whites their introduction to her music, the other magnificent numbers done at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival, where she vanquished a host of would-be rivals while showing both secular and spiritual music fans she was the genuine queen of the music. An incredibly valuable and important document, it is also the first new Mahalia Jackson recording of any kind in over 40 years.
Phil Perry
“Breathless”
(Shanachie)
Phil Perry is an excellent R&B/soul vocalist who’s also comfortable integrating into his approach elements of the jazz tradition. He’s a good scatter and vocal improviser, able to adjust to tempo, mood or rhythmic changes in mid-performance, and his performances on this 10-song collection are consistently fine. He’s best in my view on tunes like “Never Can Say Goodbye,” “Nobody But You,” or “One Less Bell To Answer,” all of which are superbly sung and very much up to date in sound and feeling. Unfortunately, urban radio is such a tightly restricted universe these days it’s doubtful any of these tunes will find their way onto those playlists, but hopefully satellite and Internet stations can fill the gap and give this CD the boost its general quality deserves.
Steve Slagle
“Alto Manhattan”
(Panorama)
Alto saxophonist and flutist Steve Slagle plays tribute to the impact Afro-Latin and Cuban music has had on his approach with this stellar session that also includes three outstanding duets with Joe Lovano on tenor (“Family,” the title cut and “Holiday,” a whirlwind tribute number to Toots Thielemans. The rhythm section of pianist Lawrence Fields, bassist Gerald Cannon, drummer Bill Stewart and conguero Roman Diaz are equally inspired in backing Slagle and company, whether doing more traditional material or venturing outside into the Latin realm (“Viva La Famalia’). But Slagle doesn’t forget his bop/hard bop roots either, delivering an intense and memorial unaccompanied alto performance on “Body and Soul” that’s also among his finest recorded moments to date. While lovers of the Latin sound will be especially enamored with “Alto Manhattan,” it should also appeal to anyone who loves great music.
Various Artists
“Feel Like Going Home: The Songs of Charlie Rich”
(Memphis International)
Though probably best known for his forays into country, pianist/vocalist Charlie Rich loved and was proficient in multiple musical genres. This tribute work brings together performers from various backgrounds to recognize that legacy, with 13 consistently memorable, sometimes unforgettable numbers that Rich either recorded, frequently played in concert, or both. Depending on personal taste and preference, it’s tough to single out particular pieces, but my own favorites include Will Kimbrough’s version of “Sittin’ and Thinkin’,” Johnny Hoy’s stomping “Don’t Put No Headstone On My Grave,” The Malpass Brothers’ poignant “Caught In The Middle,” and Preston Shannon’s “Easy Money.” But there’s no weak link, and the collection reveals both the idiomatic diversity that was Charlie Rich’s trademark, and the wide range of people he influenced and those who loved his playing and music.

Side 3 Spotlight Interview

JAZZ VOCALIST
REBECCA SAYRE

Count Rebecca Sayre among the ranks of impressive Music City jazz and blues singers. But in addition to growing her audience and polishing her technique over the past few years, Sayre has also gotten involved in helping find a spot for other jazz acts, and a venue to grow the music. In our spotlight interview she talks about the new Sunday Night Jazz series she helped start at the City Winery, as well as her hopes for the future and her view of the Nashville jazz scene.What was the origin of this series?“Sometime in 2015, my friend Brad Cole was doing an Americana series in the City Winery lounge, and he said “Hey Rebecca, you should do a show up there and why don’t you see if they would do a jazz series?!”  I was feeling the pull back to jazz performance after touring as a solo performing songwriter for a few years.””The lounge at the City Winery seemed perfect for a jazz concert series and I sensed the town was ripe for it, especially with the recent closing of F. Scott’s, where a lot of Nashville jazz musicians played regularly. So, with Brad’s introduction, I talked with City Winery Venue Manager, Mike Simon, who came from their Chicago store and was very enthusiastic about booking great local music in the lounge. He was pleasantly surprised and delighted to hear that our Nashville Jazz community was very robust and the jazz talent pool was very deep.”The success of the Nashville Jazz Workshop concerts confirmed that there was definitely an audience for jazz and I believed this audience would embrace a club that offered a jazz performance and fine dining in a concert setting. This was something that was conspicuously absent in Nashville. Mike and I both agreed that the Nashville Jazz Workshop would be a perfect partner for a jazz series, so I invited Roger Spencer & Lori Mechem to meet with Mike and me and within a few weeks, Jody Nardone and his trio sold out our first Sunday Night Jazz in January of 2016.”

Why did you choose the City Winery?

“Because the lounge is such a great room… cozy, and the perfect size, with a capacity of 110. Also, because of Mike Simon championing the series with his corporate higher-ups and his always being open to new ideas, improvements and excellent music.”After the first year, how do you assess its success?“We’ve had consistently good audiences… several sell-outs and we actually increased the ticket price from $10 when we first started, to $15, to give the musicians a raise.”

Do you anticipate it becoming even bigger? 

“Yes, now that they are doing a regular night, Last Sundays, I believe that will make Sunday Night Jazz a regular thing in the minds of for jazz concert-goers. The City Winery has also talked about adding an additional jazz series in 2017, so we are very excited to offer even more concerts to Nashville’s musicians and their fans.”

What problems, if any, have occurred? 

“The only “problem” we ever had was not enough chairs on one of the Rod McGaha shows that sold out… The staff at the City Winery got creative and discovered the room capacity could actually reach 110!”

Who is scheduled for the next show on Feb. 26th?

“That show will feature Ryan Middagh’s Quartet with special guest Christina Watson. Middagh is composer and director of Jazz Studies at Vanderbilt University. He’s featured on saxophone, with Bruce Dudley on piano, Patrick Atwater on bass and Jeffrey Lien on drums.”

Over your time performing in Nashville how have things gotten better for jazz vocalists? 

“The Nashville Jazz Workshop certainly made it better for me. When I was singing with BadaBing in the early 2000s, occasionally, people would suggest I put my own jazz band together and sing standards.  “Huh?  Oh, I don’t know if I could do that!”

“I couldn’t imagine leading a band and learning all that music.  But when I started to actually consider singing jazz, Annie Sellick suggested I check out the NJW. I took a bunch of classes from repertoire, ear training, rhythm guitar, vocal transcription and improvisation. These classes allowed me to play with a trio, to test my charts, and my ear which dramatically changed… I heard things on some of my favorite recordings that I hadn’t heard, a few years prior.”

“And, of course, I attended some brilliant concerts at the NJW, which was very inspiring. It became a hub for a growing jazz community. As for venues, I sense that with Nashville’s  recent boom, and the influx of people from out of state, there are and will be more venues to play jazz. As musicians, we can create venues, as is the case at City Winery.  We can ask “Where could a concert work for both venue and musician… and, of course the audience?”

What other improvements would you like to see?  

“I would like to see a couple more concert venues, and I’d like to see the paradigm begin to shift… where, as in many other cities where jazz has a long tradition, concert tickets are higher priced, the musicians can earn a good fee for their gifts and they can afford to continue to be musicians. Nashville has had a problem with supply and demand, driving down the price of live music.  But I believe now, Nashville is ripe for more excellent music and concerts of all genres. As musicians, our challenge, if we want this paradigm to shift, is to be willing to ask for more than status quo that has been in place for the last 15 years or so.”

What was about it jazz singing that initially interested you? 

“When I first heard Ella Fitzgerald scat on her Live in Rome version of “St. Louis Blues”… I loved the melodies and especially the harmonies underneath them. I was a harmony singer for many years and as a composer have always been drawn toward beautiful melodies… And I’m a romantic, so I love the poetic, singable and humorous lyrics of a Cole Porter .”

Who would you consider influences?  

“Ella Fitzgerald, Chris Connor, Mel Torme, Carmen McCrae, Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra, Count Basie, Stan Getz….  I could go on.”

Aside from the City Winery, what other spots have you enjoyed playing over the years?  

“Like most jazz musicians in town, I played regularly at F. Scott’s.  It was a rather noisy bar at times, but we had a good time. Watertown Jazz Festival, Franklin Jazz Festival, Mere Bulles, Boscos… Many places that don’t exist anymore, which is one of the reasons I think we are in a good position to re-build the jazz scene, but with venues that really feature the music.”

Do you think the publicity regarding Nashville as an “It” city has also helped the cause of jazz here, or helped jazz artists?

“Yes…  I think it brings folks to Nashville who move from cities where concert tickets are a little pricier, or even where they may have been perfectly willing to buy a ticket for music that has historically been offered here, for free, with the “free” coming out of the musicians’ pockets.  It’s nobody’s fault. Again, it’s just the supply and demand over the many years of being “Music City” has driven the concert ticket price down. But it’s my sense that this influx of new Nashvillians has created an opportunity. It’s the opportunity to meet that expectation of a higher ticket price for excellent music, in fine venues. Nashville’s High Art warrants and, I believe, has an audience.”

What advice would you give to aspiring jazz singers?  

“Take classes at the Nashville Jazz workshop, go hear a lot of live music and note what it is about the concert or the performer that makes the show entertaining to you. You can sing for yourself but you may not see your audience grow. Connecting with your audience, making them feel welcome is more important than I ever realized, when I first started performing jazz. Listen to several versions of a song you might be learning… vocal and especially instrumental.”

Who are some emerging singers you enjoy?  

“Kate McGarryhas been singing beautifully for years, but she was recently given the 2016 DOWNBEAT Rising Female Vocalist Award. I’ve studied with her and hung with her. And another wonderful person and beautiful singer and composer, Ashley Daneman.”


Sides 4 & 5 – Commentary/Grammy Report

The last Grammy Awards show (or any awards show for that matter) that I watched was in February of 2010. One month later, the good folks at the paper I’d been working for a decade, the now gone Nashville City Paper, informed me that they no longer had room for my services. At that point I immediately declared that certain exercises which I had forced myself to endure for almost 19 years at various publications would end. These would include forcing myself to listen to commercial radio, watch awards shows and sit through films and TV shows I had no interest in or concerns about.That’s been pretty much how I’ve operated the last seven years, serving much more as an advocate than a pure critic. In that vein, I never get very upset anymore about the Grammy Awards. They are not designed to do anything else other than generate ratings for CBS. While the Oscars like to at least pretend (and within a very limited framework actually succeed) that they are honoring art rather than being guided by commerce, the Grammys, at least the telecast portion, under no such pretense.So, while understanding the impact that these awards can have on a career, and also understanding the legitimate misgivings and criticisms that many have about unjust exclusions and possible biases due to race, gender, class or musical genre, I truly don’t expect anything out of the Grammys.But one thing I do wish that the jazz and blues establishments could do is unite and do their own awards program, one that could given these great idioms the platform they truly deserve and the recognition they are never going to get in a show designed to appeal to the widest possible (and youngest) demographic possible.

Whether you agree or disagree with folks like Kamasi Washington or Robert Glasper constantly urging jazz and blues acts to expand their musical menu, use electric instruments, be more entertainment conscious, whatever, we can all agree that NONE of that is going to make the folks at CBS start including more jazz performances in the presentation, or to give blues and jazz the identical amount of attention as pop. They don’t even pay that much attention to anything beyond the handful of recognizable names in any given year.

Country has two sets of televised awards show. Gospel and Americana have their own shows, as do Hip-Hop and even the blues. But to my knowledge there is nothing for jazz. I understand and even agree with the argument that you shouldn’t have awards for art anyhow, that it is all subjective anyhow, and what’s the value in saying album A is better than B or C or D.

However, anything that can get more attention for the music is a good thing. In this day of fractured  and streaming services, you could present a very good show. Now I also recognize you’ve got to have a structure to design and create awards, and another group to vote on them, and there are lots of objections that can and will be raised regarding bureaucratic snafus, political issues, stylistic divisions, idiomatic definitions, all those things.

I’m not even sure that it can be done. But as this is Black History Month, I would certainly wager that neither jazz nor blues has been at the center of attention in many BHM situations outside those specifically done by members of those communities. A special awards show recognizing these genres would at least be a start in expanding audiences for the art forms, which I don’t think any fan of these styles would disagree could use it.

Award winners:

Here’s the 2017 Grammy award winners for jazz and blues:

Best Improvised Jazz Solo
John Scofield – “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”

Best Jazz Vocal Album
Gregory Porter – “Take Me To The Alley”

Best Jazz Instrumental Album
John Scofield – “Country For Old Men:

Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album
Ted Nash Big Band – “Suite: Eight Variations on Freedom”

Best Latin Jazz Album
Chucho Valdes – “Tribute to Irakere: Live in Marciac”

Best Traditional Blues Album
Bobby Rush – “Porcupine Meat”

Best Contemporary Blues Album
Fantastic Negrito – “The Last Days Of Oakland.”


“Giant Steps” for the Tennessee Jazz and Blues Society marks the third incarnation and home for this feature. It began as a blog for the now departed Nashville City Paper, then returned as an online column for the Nashville Scene. Now it’s intended to become a monthly feature for the TJBS. This version will resemble the second version with a couple more features. The goal is to make it a monthly sort of one-stop guide for jazz and blues, as well as related idioms, fans. It will combine reviews, interviews, and commentary, and hopefully offer something of value along with reflecting the opinions and experiences of both great musicians and a long-time music follower, fan and advocate.


 

Ron Wynn is a music critic, author and editor. His features, reviews and articles have run locally in the Nashville SceneCity Paper, and the Tennessee Tribune, and nationally in Jazz Times.Ron is former editor of the New Memphis Star, and was chief jazz and pop music critic for the Bridgeport Post-Telegram and the Memphis Commercial Appeal. He has contributed to such publications such as BillboardThe Village VoiceCreemRock & Roll DiscLiving BluesThe Boston Phoenix, and Rejoice. He was the editor of the first edition of The All Music Guide to Jazz (1994), and from 1993 to 1994 served as the jazz and rap editor of the All Music Guide. Wynn is the author of The Tina Turner Story. He has contributed liner notes for numerous albums; his liner notes for “The Soul of Country Music” received a 1998 Grammy nomination.