Monday, December 30, 2013

Greg Lewis' Organ Monk and American Standard

Greg Lewis’ Organ Monk, an organ led group that has focused on the music of Thelonious Monk, has an unique focus in their third album, American Standard (self-produced). While previous recordings have interpreted Monk’s compositions, American Standard plays songs that Monk did not write but did perform. Those who have heard Monk’s renditions of songs from Duke Ellington as well as songs such as Liza, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, Dinah and Just a Gigolo know how distinctive Monk's renditions of these songs are. Lewis takes Monk’s renditions as inspiration and a starting point for his group’s performances on this recording.

For this recording, organist Lewis’ Organ Monk includes tenor saxophonist Reggie Woods, guitarist Ron Jackson, drummer Jeremy "Bean" Clemons and trumpeter Riley Mullins. This writer is familiar with some of Monk's recordings of these standards with his angular lines, his spare phrasing and what he omits in his stride-rooted piano. The Hammond B-3 does not lend itself to such an attack, but the group does provide distinctive renditions in the performances heard here.

I was very impressed by the playing throughout. Lewis is a strong organist with a punchy attack on Nice Work if You Can Get It, that also displays gritty tenor sax by Reggie Woods. Mullins displays fire on Lulu’s Back In Town, while he takes a bit softer and rounded approach on “Dinah” before Woods plays in a bit more gut-bucket manner. The ballad, “I Should Care,” is a showcase of Mullins as well as for the leader. “Tea For Two,” in contrast is a trio number that showcases the nimble, fleet guitar of Jackson. On “Everything Happens To Me,” Woods helps construct the mood with some bluesy-playing against the leaders organ backing. 

Drummer Clemons sounds heavy handed at a few points, but it is not a serious issue on this strong, fascinating organ jazz recording.

I received my review copy from a publicist. Available from, this has a street release date of January 7, 2014. Here Greg Lewis talks about this project.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Chris Biesterfeldt Jazzy Mandolin

Mandolin is not a common instrument in jazz ensembles and outside of the world of bluegrass or a Brazilian Choro Ensemble, it is not a common lead instrument. Chris Biesterfeldt is known as a guitarist, but on his self-produced new recording, Urban Mandolin, he handles a variety of jazz and pop tunes leading a trio of mandolin, bass and drums. 

On this recording he is accompanied by Adam Armstrong on upright bass and Eric Halvorson on drums on a fairly broad range of material here including jazz classics from Eddie Harris (Freedom Jazz Dance), Jaco Pastorious (Teen Town), Chick Corea’s (Armando’s Rhumba), Thelonious Monk (Bye-ya), Wayne Shorter (Witch Hunt) and Jimmy Smith Back at the Chicken Shack); pop classics like I Can’t Make You Love Me, and God Only Knows); Pixinguinha’s choro classic Segura Ele; and Frank Zappa’s Rollo Interior, that closes this recording

A torrid take on Dizzy Gillespie’s Bebop, opens this recording and immediately establishes how deft and commanding a player Biesterfeldt is with a fast, cleaning picking complemented by Armstrong’s and Halvorson’s lightly played drums. The metallic (tinny) staccato sound of the mandolin lends these performances with a unique tone. There follows a relaxed rendition of Charlie Parker’s Quasimodo that displays exemplary interplay between the leader and Armstrong while Halvoson employs a light touch here. 

The mandolin’s brittle, metallic tone may put off some listeners and the trio format perhaps does not work with every single number (Freedom Jazz Dance sounds a bit clunky),  but his playing on Bye-Ya is exhilirating.  Other high points include the exhilarating Segura Ele, a marvelous rendering of God Only Knows and the invention he brings in his improvisation to Shorter’s Witch Hunt. Biesterfeldt’s adventurous playing throughout Urban Mandolin merits careful and attentive listening. 

I received my review copy from a publicist. Here he can be heard playing from the album,  Teen Town.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival Returns Standing Up For The Real Jazz

Christian McBride will be a featured performer
 at the 2014 Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival
Presidents Day Weekend is always a reason for celebration for jazz-lovers in the Washington DC, Maryland and Virginia area as the annual Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival returns. Standing up for real jazz, this year’s edition “will celebrate  the soulful side of Real Jazz, otherwise known as ‘Soul Jazz.”  Among those featured will be the legendary Les McCann who will lead a group that includes saxophonist Javon Jackson. But there is much more to be heard Friday Evening February 14 through Sunday night February 16 at the Hilton Washington DC/Rockville Hotel & Executive Meeting Center, 1750 Rockville Pike, Rockville, Maryland 20852.

The Festival is organized under the leadership of saxophonist, composer and educator Paul Carr as a showcase and benefit for his Jazz Academy of Music. Performances along with workshops and educational programs characterize this event. Notable performers appearing this year include vocalists Giacoma Gates, Vanessa Rubin and Freddie Cole for Friday Night’s kickoff the Ronnie Wells Main Stage performance. Area vocalists Kristin Callahan and Heidi Martin will perform in the MAJF Club Room, while David Cole will play the blues in the Juke Joint.

Vocalist Sharon Clark

Saturday, February 15, there will be atrium performances by a variety of high school bands. At noon in the Main Stage, the Festival will present the first The Mid-Atlantic "Jazz Voice"--Vocal Competition. Next on the main stage will be three of the area’s preeminent vocalists, Sharon Clark, Dick Smith, and Lena Seikaly backed by the Chris Grasso Trio. The Ronnie Wells Main Stage that evening will present the Gary Bartz Quartet, a Trombone Summit with Delfeayo Marsalis, Frank Lacy and Steve Turre with the Christian McBride Trio closing the main stage. On Staurday, highlights of the Club Stage include Aaron Seeber Quartet (with saxophonist Tim Green); vocalists Janine Gilbert-Carter and Chad Carter; and Nadine Rae will be shouting her soulful blues in the Juke Joint.

Delfeayo Marsalis
Sunday, February 16 opens with saxophonist Bobby Watson and the Howard University Jazz Ensemble on the Main Stage. Vocalist Dee Daniels will be backed by the Eric Bryd Trio and then the legendary Benny Golson Quartet cones on. Starting the evening on the Main Stage will be trombonist Reginald Cyntje and his Group that includes steel pan player Victor Provost. Cyntje’s CD “Love” was one of the most impressive and moving new jazz releases by a Washington DC area artist in 2013. After Cyntje will be the pairing of Les McCann and Javon Jackson with the festival’s headline set. Paul Carr closes the Festival main stage with a tribute to the late pianist Mulgrew Miller with a group with Bruce Barth on piano and Steve Nelson on vibes. 

Gary Bartz
Performances in the MAJF Club sunday include the Kenny Rittenhouse Septet, The Jazz Academy Orchestra featuring Delfeayo Marsalis, and Leslie Sumney. Linwood Taylor will be playing in the Juke Joint. This night, like the other evenings, will conclude with a midnight jam in the club room led by Wes ‘Sugar’ Biles. For more information (including ticket packages and accommodations) and to support real jazz, visit the festival’s website,

All photos © Ron Weinstock

Friday, December 27, 2013

Cyril Neville's Not So Magic Honey

Cyril Neville's new recording Magic Honey (Ruf Records) under his own name is one that will certainly appeal to many with its mix of New Orleans grooves, funk and blues-rock. His first album for Ruf has him backed by Cranston Clements on guitar, "Mean" Willie Green on drums, Carl Dufrene on bass, Norman Caesar on keyboards with Cyril on percussion as well as singing. Making appearances here on selected tracks are Allen Toussaint and Dr. John on keyboards, and guitarists Mike Zito (a fellow member of the Royal Southern Brotherhood), David Z (who produced this) and Walter Trout, with backing vocals from his wife Gaynielle and son Onari. 

For these ears, this release is a mixed bag. The title track certainly opens this music on a strong note with its tough, strutting groove and a terrific vocal about his queen bee who drips her honey on him with some fine, uncredited harmonica in the backing. Its followed by a terrific piece of New Orleans funk on Dr. John's Swamp Funk, (on which Dr, John is on organ and Allen Toussaint on piano) that could have been from three decades ago. However the following track, "Something's Got a Hold On Me, is a heavy handed blues-rock performance that perhaps is tightly played but the backing (including David Z's guitar solo) will sound to many as way over-the-top. The latin-flavored Another Man (co-penned with his wife) is an appealing song that will evoke Santana's bluesier recordings including Clements spicy guitar. 

Still Going Down Today, that Mike Zito co-wrote with Neville, is one of several topical lyrics on this and followed by a cover of Paul Butterfield and Henry Glover's You Can Run But You Can't Hide. The blues-rock backing perhaps contributed to neither performance standing out to these ears. I found the rendition of Warren Haynes Invisible catching my attention with Neville singing about acting as if he was invisible to those around him because of race or class. Blues Is The Truth is an original blues about what the blues is and sometimes the down home blues can heal the pain. There is some intense singing although the backing would have benefited from more nuanced guitar.

Walter Trout co-wrote Running Water, with a relaxed, funky groove and a very clever lyric, with Trout providing the effective guitar pyrotechnics on a short guitar break as well as responding to Neville's vocals during the song's coda. Otis Rush's original recording of Working Man was originally done as a Stax oriented R&B performance on Rush's Cotillion album that Mike Bloomfield and Nick Gravenites produced. Neville's vocal fronts a heavy metal blues-rock jam. The closing Slow Motion, is an infectious with its steady rocking reggae groove and the more supple backing.

As the comments above suggest, this listener found "Magic Honey" to be a mixed bag of performances with first-rate tracks mixed in with others that did not stand out (and a couple tracks were forgettable). I recognize that there are fans of album rock and blues-rock who will differ with that opinion, and may you enjoy this. 

I received this from a publicist. A few years ago, I was quite a bit more positive regarding Cyril's Brand New Blues on M.C. Records. I note that it is a Blues Music Award nominee for Contemporary Blues Album.  From this recording, here is Cyril doing Working Man.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Downchild Can You Hear The Music

Listening to Can You Hear The Music (True North Records), the new recording by the venerable Canadian blues band Downchild, one is struck by the sound and the pace of the music. Given the four decades plus Downchild has been around this should be no surprise, but it is also refreshing in this age of guitar shredders whose idea of nuance is only occasionally turning the volume dial on their guitar or amps down. Don Walsh with his guitar, harmonica and songs may be the axis about which Downchild revolves, but Chuck Jackson's gritty singing, Michael Fonfara's keyboards and Pat Carey's saxophone also standout while the bass of Gary Kendall and the drums of Mike Fitzpatrick lay out a tight rhythmic foundation. On several tracks they are joined by Peter Jeffery's trumpet.

The title track, a hot jump blues that musically evokes Louis Jordan’s classic, Choo Choo Ch’Boogie, kicks this set off. The easy rocking I'm Always Here For You, like the opening track, benefits from crisply arranged horns in addition to the band's solid groove. I Need a Woman musically suggests Little Richard’s Directly From My Heart, with Walsh's fuzz-tone guitar break complements the urgency imparted by the Jackson's vocal. Blue Moon Blues takes the band down into the alley, while Fasten Your Seat Belt is another hot jump blues with strong harp and a tough tenor sax solo.

After Walsh's jaunty slide guitar on The Road, there is a nice swampy feel about My Mississippi Queen where Jackson (who wrote this choice lyric) sings about meeting a lady near New Orleans who later one night caught the eye of everybody in every club on both sides of Beale Street before she broke his heart. She took his money but more when she took his heart it was the worst thing any woman can do. Walsh adds a strong harp solo to go with the strong lyric and backing resulting in quite a jewel of a performance.

There’s a full moon out and Downchild are on a rambling mood on the rocking shuffle Don’t Wait Up For Me, with Fonfara's rollicking piano accompaniment and Walsh's crisp, slide guitar break. Scattered, a jumping harmonica feature concludes a superbly played, and consistently entertaining blues recording.

I received my review copy from True North Records or a publicist. Here is a video of Downchild in action.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Wee Trio Live At The Bistro

The Wee Trio, a Brooklyn, NY based trio comprised of vibraphonist James Westfall, bassist Dan Loomis and drummer Jared Schonig, recently issued their fourth album Live at The Bistro (Bionic Records). The trio is known for transcending musical genres (one of their prior recordings was devoted to the music of David Bowie), but this live recording made in St. Louis in February, 2013 perhaps has a bit more straight focus in a mix of interpretations of classics and originals.

The opening to Ray Noble's Cherokee is a bit dreamy until Westfall states the melody and then leading the trio on a hot interpretation of this swing era standard. Westfall displays a crisp attack with a clear lyricism in his solos as Loomis and Schonig push things along. Schonig takes a drum solo to introduce his Sabotage, with a driving groove with bassist Loomis helping state its theme before Westfall's clean, rhythmically infused solo. Westfall's White Trash Blues is a bouncy original followed by the trio's rendition of David Bowie's Queen Bitch with seamless navigation of the composition's changing motifs and tempos. Loomis' bass solo introduces the rendition of Isham Jones' There Is No Greater Love, with Westfall and him soloing with Schonig accenting their solos. Westfall's Space Jugglers is a spirited original with a bit of hi-life feel while his New Earth opens more reflectively before Schonig sets forth a more dynamic feel. Loomis' Ranthem is a number with changing tempos and dynamics. 

After a drum solo, the performance concludes with Schonig's exhilarating White Out, that is energetically and imaginatively played and further showcases the tight interplay that makes The Wee Trio's Live at The Bistro to be such serious and delightful fun.

I received my review copy from a publicist. Here is a video of The Wee Trio playing Cherokee.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Magic Sam's Live at the Avant Garde

The blues world was abuzz when word got out that a previously unknown live recording of the legendary Magic Sam was coming out on Delmark. Live at the Avant Garde makes available a June 22, 1968 performance at a Milwaukee coffee house” is a revelation among the live recordings of Magic Sam by the clarity of the location recording. Jim Charne, who made the recordings, describes how it all came about in the liner notes as well as background on the coffeehouse which would close several months after this performance. The sound of Sam’s vocals and guitar as well as that of his backing musicians, bassist Big Mojo Elem and drummer Bob Richey, sounds almost like they were in a recording studio. 

In addition to the clean, crisp sound, the music is exceptional. I am not claiming that Sam is better than the prior live recordings, which I have not listened to recently. Just that Sam’s playing is terrific and his vocals are right on, from the first notes of his cover of Freddie King’s San-Ho-Zay to the closing B.B. King instrumental, Hully Gully Twist. There are strong renditions of I Don’t Want No Woman, I Need Your Love So Bad, Feeling Good, That’s All I Need and Looking Good, all from the West Side Soul album that had been issued a few months previously. There are also his rendition of Lowell Fulson’s Its All My Fault (a source of Sam’s All Your Love), his own Bad Luck Blues and “You Belong to Me, Muddy Waters’ Still a Fool, Junior Wells Come On In This House, Jimmy McCracklin’s Every Day, Every Night,” Jimmy Rogers’ That’s All Right, and Otis Rush’s All Your Love (I Miss Loving)

One thing that is worth noting is the range of artists and songs Magic Sam covered this June 1968 evening. Yet whether singing a Muddy Waters classic or Otis Rush, Sam brought his own voice and distinctive guitar while supported by the marvelous duo of Elem and Richey. The songs are performed at a nice tempo and lack the frenzy or overwrought vocals that mar a couple of performances on West Side Soul (Mama Talk To Your Daughter and My Love Will Never Die on that classic album). With this wonderful sound and superb music, Live at the Avant Garde is more than the best sounding live Magic Sam recording. It is another terrific Magic Sam album.

I received my review copy from Delmark.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

RIP Chris Polk

Chris Polk appearing with Daryl Davis at the 2013 Tinner Hill Blues Festival
Every community has its local musical figures who are quite loved, but for a variety of reasons remain local musical figures. I am among many who were shocked by the sudden passing of blues singer and guitarist,  Chris Polk on Sunday evening, December 8. I remember seeing Chris perform on numerous occasions including a period of several years in the 1990s when he appeared monthly at the Vienna Tap Room in that Virginia community. He was someone who loved the music, playing for people and obviously touched a lot of people. One of the last times I saw him perform on is own was at a Virginia club where a number of persons who he had coached in Track at South Lakes High School had come out. He obviously touched many lives and his passing affects many.

Chris Polk at Nick's Corner Bar in May, 2010
Back in 2002 Chris finally had a recording out and I reviewed it at the time in the DC Blues Society's newsletter DC Blues Calendar (June 2002 issue), although I made a few clarifying changes. In part, as a memoriam to Chris, I reprint that review even though it is likely no longer available. It was a very entertaining and well-performed live recording.

One of the area's better singer-guitarists, Chris Polk, finally has a recording available, Live at Zigs, recorded at the Alexandria club and available from Polk at his performances. Polk has several urban blues influences with perhaps none so obvious as Buddy Guy. Guy's influence is, in part, suggested by Polk's use of a polka dot guitar.

Guy's influence is also evident in the songs included here which does not indicate the breadth of Polk's repertoire. However renditions of Got My Eyes On You, I Got a Problem, I Feel So Bad, Midnight Train, Nobody Understands Me But My Guitar and the cover of Stormy Monday suggest how much and influence Guy is. Listening to Polk's vocals on this disc, as well as guitar playing, I am struck by this influence more than I have been watching Chris live.

Chris' playing is characterized by serpentine playing that evokes Guy as does his expressive vocals. Polk does avoid some of the excesses that can mar some of Guy's performances. Polk sings and plays with a controlled intensity that serves the material well. The band includes some of his regular musical compatriots including  guitarist John Sterling, bassist Willie Hicks and drummer Morgan Norris with special guest, Steve Johnsen, contributing the keyboards.
Chris Polk at the 1997 DC B lies Festival. Photo © Ron Weinstock

Monday, December 09, 2013

Irma Thomas' Rounder Heritage Retrospective

Irma Thomas' career was elevated from being a regional New Orleans treasure to an artist that received national and international recognition when she signed to Rounder Records. In 2000, Rounder celebrated its 30th Anniversary with the Rounder Heritage Series. One of the releases was devoted to her recordings for the label. This review originally appeared in the July/August 2001 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 252), although i have made minor changes. There are more recent compilations of Irma's work, including one that spans her half century career. This release is available as a download.

The Soul Queen of New Orleans, Irma Thomas has had a substantial and rewarding career since she signed with Rounder in the mid-1980s. A recent addition to the Rounder Heritage series celebrating the label’s 30th anniversary is If You Want It Come and Get It, a collection of 16 performances collected from six of the eight albums she has recorded for Rounder, including the collaboration with Marcia Ball and Tracey Nelson, Sing It! No tracks are included from her live album and also there are no tracks from her gospel album. 

What stands out is the consistency and high level of her vocals. She is a warm singer who can belt it, but raises the roof mostly to accent the lyrics. Producer Scott Billington has constantly sought out choice new material along with finding lesser known gems, and she can tear into a soul ballad like Love of My Man as well as a rocking The New Rules, dealing with the new male-female relationships. 

A wonderful singer she adds her own voice to songs associated with others, even with her straight reading of the Bobby Bland classic, Yield Not to Temptation, from the Sing It! album. Love Don’t Change is a previously unissued track from the sessions for that album. The rendition of the title track is an extended performance of the track from her Handy-Award winning album My Heart’s in Memphis. The later tune was co-written by Dan Penn, one of several songwriters who have brought material to producer Scott Billington over the years. The late Doc Pomus and Mac Rebennack (Dr. John) contributed I Never Fool Nobody But Me, with a nice New Orleans R&B piano backing from David Torkanowsky. 

Add some of the finest Crescent City and Memphis musicians such as drummer Herman Ernest, organist Sammy Berfect, bassist George Porter, guitarists Michael Toles, and Renard Poché and saxophonists Foots Samuel and Red Tyler, and it is not surprising that Ms Thomas has produced some extremely fine recordings for Rounder which are well sampled here.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

RIP Robert 'Chick' Willis

Just heard that Robert 'Chick' Willis has passed on (It was posted on his Facebook page). He had been battling lung cancer for some time.

Above he is seen in 2005 playing show at Lamont's in PoMonkey Maryland (Charles County). He always put on a great show mixing straight blues with a few bawdy ones including "Stoop Down Baby" which was a hit for him in the late sixties. A cousin of Chuck Willis, I had the pleasure seeing him a number of times at Lamont's where he would play regularly. He wrote a variety of originals and did strong personal renditions of such blues classics as "Love Me With a Feeling" and "Let Me Play With Your Poodle."

In a 2006 review of the tribute record he did with DC area saxophonist Jacques Johnson, I wrote "Its been close to forty years since this writer acquired a 45 by one Chick Willis that included a solid rendition of Guitar Slim’s The Things I Used to Do. Shortly thereafter, Chick recorded another single that would generate his career defining song, Stoop Down Baby. Such a song can be a blessing and a curse because it does provide work but it is also an albatross that prevents folks from appreciating just how good and varied a blues performer he is as opposed to be limited to bawdy double entendre numbers."

Chick was a terrific, soulful singer and guitarist. He is part of a dying breed of blues artists today. It is becoming unfortunately rare to hear folks like Chick anymore at what are 'supposed' blues festivals.

Here is Chick from the last time I saw him performing (again at Lamont's in 2012). He certainly liked that outfit.