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Mykeljon and Groovexpress, Ukrainian Doll

22 Sep, 2014 Nick Deriso

Ukrainian Doll 8 Page CD Booklet Template.indd

A multinational band, Groovexpress plays like its resume – deep, wide and with a canny sense of timing and gumption.

A 30-year jazz vet, guitar-playing leader Mykeljon Winckell studied music at Australia’s Queensland Conservatorium of Music before moving to LA. Meanwhile, collaborator Haggis Maguiness is a harmonica-playing legend in Australasia. Bassist Bruce Kerr has played with an expanse of artists ranging from Shirley Bassey and Leo Sayer to Roger Whittaker and Todd Rundgren, while keyboardist Ernest Semu might be best remembered for his stint with Cairo. Then there’s saxophonist Robert Kyle, a veteran of shows and sessions with everyone from Michael McDonald and Linda Ronstadt to Cee-Lo Green and Chaka Khan.

All of that experience is brought to bear on Ukrainian Doll, which plays like the all-star session that it is. There’s almost nothing they can’t do, as this project so amply shows – and right from the first.

Mykeljon’s electric doubles nicely with Maguiness’ harmonica to form the initial groove on “E Type Blues,” with Kyle’s horn working in counterpoint. Then the song settles into an urban atmosphere filled with sharp asides by Mykeljon, Semu (on electric piano), Kyle (who returns with for a slinky turn), and finally Maguiness (whose solo combines the best elements of Stevie Wonder and Toots Thielemans.

For all of the opening tracks easy urbanity, “Pretty Little Thang” rumbles out with a completely different goal. You could, in fact, redub this one “Pretty Little Blues.” Mykeljon’s approach is sharp and tangy, with no small amount of Wes Montgomery influence. Early in Semu makes an appropriate switch to a gurgling organ – while Maguiness’ harp delves into dark new areas – before offering a tough assessment of things on electric piano again. Kerr and drummer Isaac Sanchez, meanwhile, remain the song’s thumping heart, imbuing this song with attitude and gumption.

“Mi Bella Paola” updates the guttural, straight-forward approach of “Pretty Little Thang,” bringing in more smooth-jazz influences – but keeping the sharp-edged, soulful attitude. Mykeljon’s guitar work spans the gamut between both, working delicate counterpoint to Kerr’s ascending lines on bass before catching a sizzling groove behind Maguiness’ R&B-soaked ruminations. Maguiness opens up “No Way Home” on a similar, soul-jazz note, even as Sanchez and Kerr dig deeper, but Mykeljon eventually leads the song into sunnier spaces. He later tangles brilliantly with Semu, again on the electric piano.

By its title, “I Say Praise” might be expected to include some overt gospel overtones, but instead it’s a gorgeous reminiscence – filled with thoughtful moments by Semu on acoustic piano, Maguiness on harp (again assuming Wonder’s springy attitude), and Mykeljon (who this time plays with the mainstream approachability of George Benson).  The only song on this set not composed exclusively by Mykeljon follows, as the Maguiness receives a co-writing credit “Ukrainian Doll,” a funky delight. The two again work in a tight little tandem, running side by side and then separating to express their own smart asides. But they’re not alone in making this track work. Kyle and Semu make important contributions as well, ultimately constructing one of the album’s most collaborative sounding moments.

On the other hand, “High Heels” doesn’t do enough to separate itself from an ocean of other similarly pop-influenced R&B-influenced smooth jazz songs that have come before. It’s pleasant enough, but not nearly as distinctive as the rest of Ukrainian Doll.  Groovexpress bounces back nicely, however, with “Tell Me Why” – a twilit ballad that gives plenty of room for each member to shine. Its spacious beginning works as a showcase for the layered drum work of Sanchez, who eventually supports standout solo moments from Semu’s piano, Kyle’s sax and Mykeljon’s guitar. As before Kyle and Mykeljon quietly trace along with one another before going their own way, while Semu’s trickling asides – and the occasional flourish by Kerr – serve to add an air of expectation.

“Foxy Brown” finds the group returning to a classic Blue Note space, keyed by Semu’s switch to organ, before Mykeljon switches to acoustic for a gorgeous album-closing assignation.

 

Reviewer: Nick DeRiso
Rating: Four stars

 

Hyungjin Choi, Tales of a Dreamer

07 May, 2014 Nick Deriso

Classically trained, but unafraid to furiously swing, Hyungjin Choi leads a group of likeminded jazz performers through a set that is as varied as it is satisfying.

In keeping, Tales of a Dreamer offers an engaging palette of moods, across a dynamic range of textures. Hyungjin, a New York-based, South Korea-born pianist, is principally paired up front with talented saxophonist in Uri Gurvich and Yacine Boulares. But an album this complex all but requires an ever-evolving cast of collaborative voices, and Hyungjin has found a series of suitable foils.

She begins with “Dreamer,” and an eerily beautiful piano figure before giving way to a more turbulent saxophone. When Hyungjin returns, she plays with a new assertiveness, adding trickling fills and storm streaks alongside the active, but never showy, rhythm accompaniment of drummer Alex Wyatt. Hyungjin’s voice, diaphanous and light-filled, then perfectly blends with the returning sax.

“Labor Blues” offers a more angular approach, as Hyungjin tussles brilliantly both with the horn and the drums – before Wyatt takes a boisterous turn. “Jordan River” then moves confidently toward bluer, deeper waters, even as bassist Pablo Menares creates this thrumming sense of expectancy. Trumpeter Takuya Kuroda makes his initial impression here, unfurling long diaphanous lines.

Already, Hyungjin has underscored how her entire life, in a sense, has lead to Tales of a Dreamer – from her time at the Seoul Institute of the Arts, to New York’s New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music (where she earned an BFA in performing arts), to bandstands all over the Big Apple. She has performed with and learned from a staggering number of old pros and fresh talents along the way, including Reggie Workman, Charlie Persip, Billy Harper and Sam Yahel, among many others.

And so we have “Autumn Song,” which – rather than delving into the expected oaken reminiscence – finds Hyungjin singing with an unself-conscious joy – her voice displaying an unfettered, slightly fragile hopefulness. Wyatt and Menares meet this challenge, too, creating a stuttering cadence not unlike a child skipping home for school. Kuroda then adds a series of sun-streaked thoughts, before Hyungjin returns to provide a counterpoint against a lockstep horn figure that closes out “Autumn Song” on a note of bravado.

“Dexterity,” on the other hand, absolutely lives up to its title as Hyungjin and Wyatt establish a heady structure before Menares begins happily plucking away. These are sophisticated technicians, blindingly good at what they do, but – and this is what’s missing in so much of today’s jazz – not so caught up in their craft that they forget the needed emotional underpinning. Hyungjin subsequent solo is dense, personal, questing and then reflective – a wonder of conception.

That leads directly into “Tiny Room to Hide,” a solo interlude, and on to the greasy groove of “Toy Soldier” – something that couldn’t be further away, in tone or execution. Kuroda leads the charge as Hyungjin and Company reanimate every 1950s-era Blue Note concept. She jabs back playfully, even as Wyatt smacks his kit with a funky verve. It’s as friendly as the previous moment had been serious – right down to Kuroda’s Dizzy-like flourishes. After a chugging sax segment, the two tangle and untangle to close our “Toy Soldier” in old-school blowing sessions style.

“The Everlasting Arms” emerges from an initial saxophone signature into a quietly effective solo from Hyungjin – but one, never the less of undiminished enthusiasm. Menares adds a perfectly attenuated foundation, as well. Then there’s “Farewell, Good Bye,” a touching finale featuring Hyungjin offering an irresistibly romantic turn that’s sure to melt the heart of even the most hardened and circumspect listener.
Tales of a Dreamer, issued in March by PND Records, Xxx

Recorded last October at Acoustic Recording in Brooklyn,

Reviewer: Nick DeRiso
Rating: Four stars

 

The fundaMentals, Full ‘Mental Jacket

07 May, 2014 Nick Deriso

fundamental cover

The fundMentals like to call what they do “trash-can rock,” in part because it doesn’t fit into any small categorical box. That’s appropriate, too, because of the way the group connects with rock’s essential garage-band aesthetic. The six-song Full ‘Mental Jacket is as rough-hewn as it is loud.

“She’s Dangerous” finds the Icon – that’s how the fundaMentals’ front man refers to himself – growling over a grimy riff, barking out a series of salacious entreaties over a propulsive cadence from John “The Hammer” Marnie and Sir Chas House on drums and bass, respectively. Danger Dan Goodnight’s solo is a moment of ragged glory, setting the stage for everything that follows. “I Do It for Rock ‘n’ Roll” makes a smidge of room for a piano counterpoint, courtesy of Big Hoss, but otherwise the album’s essential template remains the same: It’s a delightfully sloppy, slightly punked out, Southern rock-influenced ride – to the point where the Icon even lightly complains about having the typical dive-bar requests for Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird.”

Full ‘Mental Jacket, co-produced by the band and Jimmy Hoy, downshifts nicely into “Streets of Time,” which makes an even more direct connection with Skynyrd’s brand of whiskey-soaked, working-stiff blues balladry. Co-written by Goodnight and Icon, the song is a survivor’s manifesto, presented with a stomping sense of determination.

“Just Do It,” meanwhile, quickly finds a serrated groove and sticks with it, fashioning a relentless sensibility in keeping with the track’s empowerment theme. Marnie takes over vocals for “Crystal Web,’ he composed with Goodnight, giving the song a vicious whine straight out of the Neil Young songbook. Icon wrote the rest of Full ‘Mental Jacket, the follow up to the fundaMentals’ 2012 low-budget garage-rock debut Get Off Our Lawn.

The new project ends with the appropriately titled “It’s About to Get Loud,” one last opportunity for the fundaMentals to put a steel-toed boot firmly on the gas pedal. Icon barks out the lyric, before everyone joins in for a howling chorus – and then, quite literally, the fundaMentals simply let it rip. The truth is, Full ‘Mental Jacket had been loud the whole time. Gloriously, foundation-cracklingly loud. Adjust your headphone volume accordingly.

Reviewer: Nick DeRiso
Rating: Four stars

 

Birchall and Woolhouse, The Scenery of Life Unfolding

27 Mar, 2014 Nick Deriso

This has been done, of course. Among the legends to have played in a piano-and-bass duo are Bill Evans and Eddie Gomez, Chris Anderson and Charlie Haden, Duke Ellington and Ray Brown, and Paul Bley and Gary Peacock, among many others. To be sure, stepping into this format has its pitfalls. Which brings us to pianist Jeremy Woolhouse and bassist Shannon Birchall; a pair who push hard against convention even as they effortlessly reanimate the beauty, symmetry and camaraderie that made those earlier intersections so legendary.

Take “Echoes in Emptiness,” which begins The Scenery of Life Unfolding on a half-lit note as Birchall draws a crepuscular bow and Woolhouse ruminates darkly at the keyboard. The track eventually rounds into a more linear narrative, with Birchall exploring his instrument with a thudding portent while Woolhouse unfurls an intriguing series of asides – before the duo returns to its opening statement, drawing a discreet veil over the composition.

The Scenery of Life Unfolding, issued via Jazz Piano Australia, continues forward in this way, with Woolhouse and Birchall referencing certain rules, while ignoring others. Theirs is a jazz without boundaries, one that stirs in a classical use of space and a progressive penchant for unusual song construction, even as they confirm a latent ability to swing like crazy.
For instance, Woolhouse, the album’s principal composer, says he based “Virtual Affection” – along with the subsequent “Four Hours Our of Heathrow” and “Bubbles Rising” – on the poetry of Lisa Chappel, rather than your typical songbook figure. With this first excursion, the pair engages in an impish, deeply involving interplay: Woolhouse boldly moving out into fresh areas of discovery while Birchall weaves in and out. The results reference the expansive color palette of the opening cut; yet boast more decisive propulsion. “Virtual Affection” ends, though, with a sudden exclamation on the bass, opening the door for the more contemplative narrative found on “Four Hours.” Birchall, the next tune’s initial conversationalist, then moves quietly but determinedly away from the gentle thematic material which served as an initial underpinning. That Birchall never loses his warm, inviting tone through that transition is a wonder. Ultimately, he sets the stage for one of this album’s most generous and heartfelt solos from Woolhouse – even as Birchall, perhaps best known for his work on bass with John Butler, continues sifting each line against his.  The results are a wonder of symbiotic music making.

Birchall and Woolhouse first worked together in 2002, collaborating with accordion player Anthony Schultz as the Estuary Three on a tango-themed jazz album titled Thumbnails. They’ve been performing regularly together as a duo since 2011 – and it shows. Woolhouse and Birchall work together on The Scenery of Life Unfolding as if they are two life-long companions, familiar enough to finish each other’s sentences.

They also know when to keep quiet: “Lost Friends,’ a desperately sad rumination, makes gorgeous use of those times when the duo isn’t playing, conveying the sense of separation in a way that too many notes (minor though they may be) never could. “Darkening Shadows,” on the other hand, moves quickly away from sentiment into a roiling atmosphere of worry before Birchall and Woolhouse settle into a free-flowing exchange of musical ideas.

Woolhouse begins “Optimist’s Folly” with a sad moment of acceptance before Birchall returns to the bow – giving the song a billowing sense of heartbreak. “Bubbles Rising,” built on a strolling cadence from Birchall, is a graciously realized reminiscence that perfectly conveys the idea of what might have been without resorting to melodrama. Same with “Tears of Summer,” which if anything, feels like a winking rebuke of those who fail to understand the rhythmic cycle of life.

Birchall strolls step for step with Woolhouse as the title track gets underway, in another example of their uncanny telepathy. Even when Woolhouse steps forward for a solo, Birchall manages to remain present and involved without disturbing the pianist’s delicate equilibrium. Finally, there’s “The Third Person,” an impassioned but similarly measured farewell – and one last chance to marvel at their sympathetic, yet utterly cliché-free update of the age-old jazz duo format.

Reviewer: Nick DeRiso
Rating: Four stars

Justin DiFebbo, Turn Out the Light, Turn On the Stereo

27 Feb, 2014 Nick Deriso

Philadelphia-based multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Justin DiFebbo dives head long into the styles and feel of pop songs from previous eras on the deeply enveloping Turn Out the Light, Turn On the Stereo. Of course, the risk there is great – in some cases, these styles have been left behind because they were so perfectly executed; in others, because they feel shrink-wrapped in another era – but DiFebbo sidesteps those pitfalls by continually incorporating his own unique post-modern quirkiness.

“Coffee,” for instance, sets a late-night mood, establishing a 1970s-ish country-rock gait filled with folksy introspection. But the lyric, and his quietly confidential approach, are a country mile away from any steel-toe booted saloon – not to mention the sense of darkness that initially surrounded this song. Instead, DiFebbo composes with a writer’s attention to detail, festooning the track with a series of unforgettable, sunrise-kissed moments. “Coffee” just keeps getting warmer, more close in, and more comfortable in its own love struck vulnerability.

The layered “Play It Slow” then rambles out with an off-kilter initial groove, powered along by a sequence of nervous asides from bassist Michael DiFebbo Jr. The verses, in fact, sound something like the Talking Heads – jittery and bursting with ideas, language, observations, and turns of phrase. The chorus, however, is something else entirely: a rocket ride into the heart of optimism that follows with this track’s Beach Boys-inflected coda.

DiFebbo, who’s also joined on Turn Out the Light, Turn On the Stereo by guitarist Avery Coffee, drummer Zil and vocalists Brian Cullen and Todd Oakes, then tries for a kind of Beatley suburban ennui for “She Refused.” It’s as sugared and sad as Paul McCartney’s “She’s Leaving Home,” but without the snarky call-and-response from John Lennon – at least within the narrative. There’s a similar push and pull between the guitar and electric piano solo here, something that adds needed heft to a song that reaches for something that’s perhaps just beyond its grasp.

DiFebbo then shows off his uncanny facility across a broad musical spectrum with “Stained Glass Window,” which opens with a melancholy turn on the flute and then shifts into the kind of angelic reminiscence that Simon and Garfunkel patented more than two generations back. When he returns to the flute, DiFebbo counters his own sweetly conveyed asides with a series of baroque exclamations on the keyboard – an exciting moment that again keeps this tune from becoming rote.

“Storm” updates its shag-carpeted singer-songwriter vibe with an atmospheric dissonance that sits well back, until the track finally settles into a comfortable little cadence. Flourishes of organ add the by now almost-expected moment of off-kilter creativity, even as DiFebbo pushes his vocal into brand new areas of vulnerability. “Certain Company,” which gives this set its title, continues along this line, delving deeper still into this kind of throwback reverie – utterly removed from the angular, largely electronic moments of determined revelry that dominate so much of popular music today.

In that way, this seven-song journey accomplishes something bigger than paying tribute to these largely discarded song styles. It makes their absence from the current musicscape feel like a minor tragedy.

DiFebbo then closes out this one-man show – he wrote all of the songs, and produced Turn Out the Light, Turn On the Stereo, as well – with a uke-driven farewell called “Float Down River,” a perfectly executed, perfectly situated, perfectly nostalgic yarn that seems to perfectly sum things up on this old school and yet rarely dated offering.

Reviewer: Nick DeRiso
Rating: Four stars