Archive for June, 2012

Sam Hankins – Nothing Between Us

Samuel Hankins was born into a musical family. His maternal grandmother played the piano and was a tremendous gospel singer. His father played harmonica and vocals in various R & B bands. His brother plays the piano, majors in voice and teaches elementary school music. So it was inevitable that Sam’s musical education would begin at an early age. Encouraged by his father, Samuel Hankins Sr., young “Hank” began with the guitar. In middle school he switched to the trumpet. Again, encouraged by his father, Sam began playing in churches, professional bands and orchestras.

Sam’s love of music led him to Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, where he earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Music Performance. He became active in college joining the distinguish men of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. After college he joined the Air Force Jazz Band, The Pacesetters, stationed at Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Illinois. He remained with the Pacesetters as a trumpeter until the Air Force Base closed in 1991. Sam then returned to school, earning both a second Bachelors Degree and a Masters Degree in Music Education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

As a trumpet player, Sam has performed and recorded with many bands: such as Glenn Miller big band, Clark Terry, circus bands, funk bands, on cruise ships, combos, and commercial recording sessions. He has performed with pop artist groups such as the O’Jays, Aretha Franklin, the Temptations, and the Dells.

Sam left Edison Middle School in 2006 to pursue an international teaching career in the country of Bermuda. He then returned to the US in 2008 to teach at McKay High School in Salem, Oregon, again leading their Jazz Band & Marching Band to place within the top three in state competitions. Sam returned to Chicago in the fall of 2010 and was hired as Band Director at Christ Our Savior Catholic School . This is his first year at COS and he enjoys working with the beginning band students again. His goal is to guide them and impart to them the love of music through learning an instrument of their choice. Not only are they learning the joy and love of producing music but also how to work together as an ensemble.

The trumpet sound on this smooth jazz album is playful and dancy, sometimes reflective & intimate, but often peaceful and becomes a unique expression of the musician, rounding it off with a unique hip hop smooth jazz tune. Nothing Between Us is your choice at CDBaby.

Fo/Mo/Deep – A Beautiful Bang

You can find out about this 5-piece, Ohio-based ‘funky jazz collective’ on their website. I can tell you that ‘A Beautiful Bang’ is fo/mo/deep’s second album (after ‘Eclecticism’) and, well, let’s get right into it…

I’m a fan of funky jazz collectives, such as Incognito and Down to the Bone and I’m already placing FMD squarely in that bracket when I hear the bass-driven groove of the opener ‘Jawjacka’ (love that title). This instrumental focuses on the funk and has some nice key changes. Keith Newton’s tenor sax is well up in the mix and sounds really strong. The whole song reminds me of Paz at their best. That same sax tone pervades on the sexy ‘Martini Blues’, which slows the pace right down and allows you to enjoy the flavour of Kevin Jones’ old-school electric piano. I’m drawn in already.

FMD’s take on Bobby Hutcherson’s ‘Montara’ has that deeply urban jazzy vibe that I’ve loved for so long in Incognito’s music. From the first few bars, I know I’ll be playing this for years. Ron Holmes’ sinewy bassline teams perfectly with André Scott’s crisp snare and underpins this gorgeous mid-tempo instrumental all the way. Over headphones especially, Kevin Pouncey’s percussion really adds a layer of style to this song. Fatkat’s fretless bass solo sure does it for me! On ‘Mama Said, Mama Said’ the only word you need to remember is funk. Some nice rhythm guitar gets poured over the already tight rhythm section. The organ solo on here is straight out of the 1970’s – where I live that’s a great thing!


Gary Honor – Heads & Tales

A young Australian smooth jazz saxophonist went on board at Warren Hill’s Smooth Jazz Cruise in 2005 and won the contest “Star Search”. Rightly, he has earned the name Honor.

He was kindly enough to give me his debut album Atmospheric (2004), that my positive impression fully confirmed. The more I was pleased that Gary has now published on the prestigious label Trippin ‘N’ Rhythm his new album Heads & Tales (2012).

Great thanks go to keyboardist Oli Silk who produced and arranged all songs and performs piano, keyboards and even the Didgeridoo. Gary takes the lead on soprano, alto, tenor, bari saxophone and flute. Further musicians on the album are Orefo Orakwue (bass), Andrew Small (drums), Mark Jaimes, Neil Youel and Matt Park (guitar), Craig Mitten (trumpet) and Gary “Big G” Stanionis (percussion).


Andrew Swift – Swift Kick

There have been years when I received a few new releases early and am so blown away by a recording that I proclaim it to be among the best, new jazz albums for the year. It’s nearly midway 2012 as I write this, and no one CD has given me that feeling. However, in recent days, I’ve listened to several that belong in the “best of the year” category because of their freshness and overall music quality. Swift Kick (D Clef Records, 2012) by drummer Andrew Swift is in that class.

The 12-track release has five songs composed by the artist, and two by members of the ensemble. The mix-and-match lineup features 16 musicians and a hawk. Among the former are bassist Dwayne Burno, who appears on all but one track, and pianist George Cables.

The ominous “Kisor the Despiser” suggests a dark anthem for an unsavory character in an ancient work of fiction. But the only omen here is the sign of things to come – in this case, straight jazz with a lot of energy. Trumpeter Ryan Kisor is featured, along with composer Sharel Cassity, who also plays alto sax on the track. The two blend for the melody before taking turns out front. Cables also gets a turn. The tune is spirited, with a lot of activity in the background by Burno and Swift.


Michael O’Neill – The String and I

In a natural follow-up to his earlier CD Funky Fiesta, Michael O’Neill continues forging his unique blend of influences that comprise his style.This time he’s added his vocal talent to the picture. Michael offers up 11 songs supported by world class musicians that include Alphonso Johnson, Rique Pantoja, Freddie Ravel, Lynne Fiddmont, Walfredo Reyes Jr., Harry Kim, Arturo Velasco, Melvin Lee Davis, Ronnie Foster, David Witham among others.

Michael has added 3 songs which feature his vocal talents honed over many years of providing background vocals for the likes of George Benson, Natalie Cole, Rickie Lee Jones and others. This CD is sure to bring smiles to the average listener and musicians alike.

The String and I is now available at CDBaby.


Rico Belled – XR7

XR7 is an album about the relationship between man and machine. In a time where most music is so computerized and emotion is not easily found, Rico Belled takes a bold approach: to try to truly integrate the computer into the traditionally non-electronic musical style of Jazz. When most musicians ‘fix’ their mistakes during the recording process, Belled instead celebrates the imperfections, seamlessly blending acoustic instruments with virtual ones, never quantizing anything. Featuring 4 songs done entirely without a click-track, even the 6 that did start life on a grid, never sound metronomic, bursting with life from the many layers.

Named after his beloved 1973 Mercury Cougar XR7, a car which Rico has driven around L.A. for almost 15 years, this CD is built to last. Blending elements of the past and the now, more than anything it’s a hint at the future of music, where anything goes. Stylistic walls are crumbling, with everyone exposed to all kinds of music and sounds from all over the world. Fearlessly breaking down the walls so carefully built up by purists, it is Jazz in its truest sense, where improvisation rules, but composition matters and is not just an obstacle on the way to showing off chops. Drawing from a deep well of years as one of L.A.’s top session musicians, Grammy nominated Belled pulls out all the stops.

Rico chooses to use the computer as a kind of ‘multiplication machine’ allowing him not to sterilize his performance, but instead create densely layered music inspired by Phil Spector’s famous “Wall Of Sound” style of production. The possibilities are endless and he explores many: from complex odd-meter jazz, to sexy R&B, from Smooth Jazz to soaring Fusion, XR7 is a musical journey bursting with originality, while never sounding contrived or forced. Featuring 10 original songs, and some of the best musicians in the world, Rico showcases his versatility as a multi-instrumentalist, playing bass on 7, keys on 8, and guitar on 9 of the tunes, in addition to producing, engineering, mixing and mastering the record. In keeping with the spirit, Belled has tried to find exactly how much one man can do with the help of the machine of machines: the computer.

Instead of focusing on expensive equipment, everything recorded at Back Scratch Studios and Mad Meece Audio was done on literally the cheapest equipment money can buy. Running on a $500 computer Rico built, Sonar X1 was used in combination with a $200 Motu 2408 MKII and Behringer Mic Pres, with inexpensive mics, for everything but Karasony’s drums and Buckingham’s and Kashiwa’s solos. The entire rig used costs less than $2000, including the mics. Mixed and mastered in his apartment, Belled has shown that a great sounding record can now be made at bargain prices, IF the human in charge knows what he’s doing!

Test the best at CDBaby.

Freeze Frame – The Smooth Shore

Freeze Frame is a project of German keyboardist and composer Ray Bach. Not related to the great German composer and organist of the Baroque Period he shared with him an amazing compositional talent. His creativity already meandered into the albums The Book of Movie Scores (1989), The Crossover (1992), Loving Life (1994), Feelin’ So Good (1996), A Balanced World (1999), Transition (2006), Colors Of Summer (2009) and The Score Of Moviebooks (2012).

Settled on the borderline between Smooth Jazz and New Age Ray creates a special German style of Smooth Jazz, which is similar to the music of Dancing Fantasy, Blue Knights, Colors In Motion, Interface and more.

In his comment of his previous album he wrote: “I was reminded of the creative process from 20 years ago and just wanted to go free and unencumbered to the approaching anniversary album, as I did on my debut. It was also a journey into the past. The process actually worked, the output was enormous, the material could have easily fit for a second album. Perhaps that will also be published.”


Amanda Ruzza – This Is What Happened

Youth and talent with a multicultural focus brings us to This Is What Happened (2012), the debut recording by bassist Amanda Ruzza.

Born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, to a Chilean mother and an Italian father, Ruzza learned at an early age to appreciate opera and rock, and ultimately adapted to other styles, including jazz. She took up the electric bass at age 12, and a year later had begun playing professionally. Drummer Mauricio Zottarelli is the only constant with Ruzza. The other musicians, who each appear on selected tracks, are Alex Nolan on electric and acoustic guitars; co-producer Mamiko Watanabe on Rhodes; pianist Cliff Korman; David Binney on alto and soprano saxophones; Lucas Pino on tenor and soprano saxes; and Chris Stover on trombone.

One can hear hints of Marcus Miller or Stanley Clarke in the way Ruzza plays. The funky “Larry and I” opens the set. Binney leads on the opening melody and then turns it over to Watanabe, who gives a touch of Eumir Deodato the way he handles the Rhodes. Ruzza makes her presences felt regardless of who is out front. And Zotarelli struts his stuff behind all of them.


Max Valldeneu – It’s About Love

While all songs were written by Max Valldeneu himself; he did put his own smooth jazz touch to Michael Jackson’s The Girl is Mine, Johnny Gill’s My, My, My and Stevie Wonder’s Superstition.

His debut solo album has already received radio play on Rick O’Dell’s segment on Chicago’s Smooth station 87.7 FM. Rick O’Dell, (Program Director at 87.7 fm) says, “Max Valldeneu is an artist deserving of being elevated beyond best-kept-secret status here in Chicago. That’s why we chose to spin “It’s About Love” and “The Girl is Mine” from his latest project on our show, “Chicago Music.” He’s definitely one of our most pleasant surprises of the past twelve months.”

It’s About Love is our tip of the day at CDBaby.

Ed Taylor – It’s Complicated

Smooth jazz is tailor made to uplift the lives of everyday people in this long-awaited offering from jazz guitarist, Ed Taylor. Several pieces have already been pegged as sophisticated, crowd pleasing cuts by industry insiders.

Aside from being the absolute nicest person you’d ever want to meet, Ed Taylor is one of the most experienced and talented guitar players around. You can reel off his accomplishments – Motown session guitarist, opening act for Bachman Turner Overdirive, played more clubs than he can remember since the 60’s – but what really gets you about Taylor is a little more basic.

For one, the guy smiles all the time – especially when he wrangles amazing licks from his electric guitar. He’s humble – even though he could smoke your butt with rootsy jazz-blues notes: he keeps it balanced and in perfect step with the songs. And his voice … what an honest, open, blue-collar voice – smooth as velvet, with just a hint of Stevie Wonder. The way Taylor wraps his voice around a song, you feel like somebody ought to turn off the lights.

His newest offer It’s Complicated just arrived at CDBaby.