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Doing A Little Searching With A Big Sound

Vocalist Sara McDonald steps out in front of her seventeen-piece big band + string quartet like the sorcerer’s apprentice. She smiles into a crowd of friends and colleagues. She’s a bit nervous. Her demeanor is casual yet commanding. This will be the debut of The Sara McDonald Orchestra at The Triad Theater  on West 72nd Street in New York City.

Sean Little is playing tenor to my left, Christopher Misch-Bloxdorf is playing trombone right behind me, Laura Huey is playing viola on the ground, Sam Neufeld is playing trumpet way in the back, Jill Ryan is playing alto right behind me and Owen Dudley is playing guitar in the far right hand corner.

(L to R) Martin Seiler, tenor sax; Christopher Misch-Bloxdorf, trombone; Sara McDonald, voice; Sean Little, tenor sax. Photo by Ivy Meissner.

When it comes to conducting a large jazz ensemble there are a handful of methods. I prefer to think of two polar opposites: the Paul Whiteman classical method and the Butch Morris conduction method. Orrin Evans often leads his Captain Black Big Band from the piano with shouts and stomps, while Ryan Trusdell’s Gil Evans project observes the role of “conductor” in the classical sense. Sara McDonald adheres to her own rules.

McDonald is a multi-tasker, giving an illusion of passive conducting with one eye and an ear behind her back at all times. While she sings to the crowd, she conducts behind her back and claps above her head. McDonald’s lyrics are meta-mystic, they retain a mysterious yet personal aftertaste. McDonald’s writing, both musical and lyrical feels like she has morphed her memoir into fable.

The recording she’s celebrating is A Very Tiny Big Band Album. It was born during a trip to Germany summer 2013.  She explained that, “There was already an established big band in Munich that was interested in my work and so I gathered everything and got to writing. I also only had three weeks to write and arrange all of the material and send it off. Once we set up everything with The All Jazz Orchestra, they wanted to get the parts as soon as possible so they could begin rehearsing before I got there.”

Sara McDonald’s significant other, German-born multi-instrumentalist and composer Martin Seiler, played an integral role in the making of A Very Tiny Big Band Album. “Basically, Martin gave me the contacts and resources I needed, I sent a bunch of emails, and we set up rehearsals for when we arrived.”

Album cover photograph by Ivy Meissner

Album cover art/photograph by Ivy Meissner.

McDonald enters big band writing from the side door; she doesn’t’ spend much time listening to large ensembles. She digs into electronic soundscapes associated with artists like Zero 7, Flying Lotus, and St. Vincent’s recent large-ensemble work with David Byrne. “For this record I was greatly influenced by Sufjan Stevens, Hanne Hukkelberg, Grizzly Bear, and Martin Seiler; his big band composing and arranging is actually some of the most impressive of its kind.”

Seiler is working on a score for a film called Stills featuring a small electronica ensemble with strings and woodwinds.“Not to sound pretentious, I just appreciate any composer that will rage an ostinato figure as long as they damn well please.”

McDonald’s alma mater is The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. The New School is a jazz education hub that serves as an incubator for many established musicians and rising voices. In response to McDonald’s time in the walls of jazz-school, she attributes her education to two (female) professors.

“Getting to study with Jane Ira Bloom was definitely one of the most musically enriching experiences I’ve ever had. She’s a kick ass lady with a tremendous amount of wisdom. I also took a class with Ingrid Jensen, another great human who taught me a lot about music and life and things like that.”



“Southern Point” is a piece in Sara McDonald’s big band repertoire written by the experimental rock band Grizzly Bear. “What I appreciate most about their sound is how lush it is,” McDonald explains. “They’re able to write catchy hooks and melodies while maintaining sonic integrity, which I think gets overlooked so frequently in the pop music world.

“Their arrangements are unconventional at times, their harmonies are complex and the lyrics are thoughtful and interesting. They can be aggressive and rocky at times, but tastefully so, and they manage to span so many genres while never falling into one completely. It’s substantial pop music. I would love to one day achieve all of those things with my music.”

At The Triad for her live debut, it’s safe to say that Sara McDonald’s rhythm section rocked: electric bass, electric piano and electric guitar rhythm section lay on the edge with keyboard parts often dominating and dictating the metric and harmonic shifts. The most impressive aspect of Sara McDonald, the vocalist, is her ability to deliver melodies hidden deep within the harmony, with pure pitch, full tone, unique timbre and honest confidence.

In New York City, many large ensemble leaders have a difficult time maintaining their bands. With touring and teaching opportunities, it’s difficult to get 17 hardworking musicians in one place at the same time. The struggle is real for Sara McDonald. “Scheduling rehearsals is hard and finding space is even harder, but I can’t ever let myself get discouraged. If I let the technical aspects of this endeavor freak me out then it will never survive. If there’s a will there’s a way.”

And McDonald’s willing it! She’s pushing for festivals and clinics in the coming years as she continues to expand her own boundaries in writing and arranging. It’s tedious, she admits, but “if you don’t love doing it then it just won’t work. It takes up a lot of my time but I certainly do love it more than anything.”

Hear the Sara McDonald Orchestra Monday, June 2 at the Tea Lounge in Brooklyn. They will perform 2 sets at 8:30 and 10:00 p.m. at no cover charge. Stream A Very Tiny Big Band Album below and purchase for a mere 5 dollars.



Troy Roberts Brings Nu-Jive to New York


Troy Roberts is a powerhouse of a musician. Since flocking up to New York City one year ago, the saxophonist has worked steadily with some of the city’s top players and ensembles (Linda Oh, Ari Hoenig, and Orin Evans’s Captain Black Big Band). But this month, he’s celebrating his own music, his own project, Nu-Jive. On the wake of his 5th release as a leader, Nu-Jive 5, Troy Roberts reaffirms his place as an authority in the electrifying, sophisticated groove jazz aesthetic. The band stretches out with ease, precision and elasticity while executing dangerously funky charts.

Celebrate Nu-Jive 5 with the band on May 15, 2013 at The Metropolitan Room; order tickets here by Friday the 10th and get a free CD with entry.

Troy Roberts took the big migration from his native Perth, Australia to Miami, Florida in 2005 to pursue his M.M. at University of Miami’s prestigious Frost School of Music. It wasn’t long before the saxophonist was working with some of Miami’s most talented artists including trumpeter Jean Caze (who appeared in this article on Jesse Fischer) and Sammy Figueroa, with whom he snagged a Grammy nomination.

Troy Roberts has a gift for crafting complexities interwoven in subtleties. As soloists, Roberts’s (band) mates all have a unique but unanimously seamless way of developing ideas in motion, while never losing sight of the momentous groove. Nu-Jive presents music that is both streamline and balls-to-the-wall, with many improvisations interweaving rehamonizations and avoiding many of the repetitive patterns and clichés so commonly thrown out in “fusion” or “groove” jazz.

For those familiar with the Nu-Jive concept, this is nothing new. But in addition to raising their own bar, this collection of tunes represents the band’s movement into an arena toying with soundscapes in post-production courtesy of Mauricio Quiros. Tracks like “Convertible Burt” bring out a nod to acoustic/electric drum and bass inspired jazz like Joshua Redman’s take on “Lonely Woman.”

As a saxophonist, it’s easy to hear Troy Roberts’s influences on the horn. Soulful, versatile players across the decades, from Stanley Turrentine to Michael Brecker, come out during his extended but never long-winded improvisations. And although Nu-Jive implements “modern” harmonic and rhythmic concepts, one can hear the band’s intent on executing memorable solos that never stray too far from the blues. That being said, Nu-Jive 5 is futuristic. “Casaenglewood” and “Night on the Town” throw down a gauntlet of head-bumps, and could easily serve as a montage for any late night drive on South Beach. The reoccurring mysterious “Ghetto-Rig” theme is a personal favorite, along with the epic album closer entitled “Stoner,” featured at the end of the video above.


(L to R) Nu-Jive is: Eric England, bass; Tim Jago, guitar; Troy Roberts, sax; David Chiverton, drums; Silvano Monasterios, keys.

NYC is lucky to have Troy Roberts around and his project dropping in to grace us with groove. Dig this record and support the hit on May 15.

A note from the editor: Hardbop has been on a hiatus since “All Aboard the Joy Ride,” published in February. The blog will be back at it this spring/summer with a array of posts, such as a feature on Charles Burchell (drummer/producer/composer from NOLA, currently based in Boston), and a revisit to the 2nd annual Center City Jazz Festival in Philadelphia, PA which is going down this weekend. Last year, Hardbop profiled three key players in Philly scene and the festival: Ernest Stuart, Victor North, and Wade Dean. Dig. Thanks for your readership.

Donny Wails

This weekend is the 2013 Winter Jazz Fest. If you’re having difficulty deciding what to attend amidst the collage of insane talent splattering lower Manhattan, consider heading to Zinc Bar at 8pm on Saturday to hear Donny McCaslin’s latest project. I sat front row early last month at the Jazz Standard, and was nearly knocked down by McCaslin’s “gargantuan” sound. The group performed selections from his latest record, Casting For Gravity, supported by Jason Linder, keyboards; Tim Lefebvre, bass; and Mark Guiliana, drums.

Casting For Gravity (2012)

Casting For Gravity (Greenleaf Music, 2012)

The record is a commanding piece of sonic aggression and riveting rhythm. Stadium Jazz. The audience the night I attended seemed to be split: about half were 20-somethings prepared for ultimate mind-blowage, while the other half had presumptuously come out to hear some jazz at a nice club. The set list: 1. Says Who // 2. Love Song For An Echo // 3. Tension // 4. Henry // 5. Paria Grande.

McCaslin grew up in Santa Cruz, California absorbing a mix of  funk  (Tower of Power) and the drum and bass (Aphex Twin). Lately, the saxophonist has been morphing these two balls-to-the-wall aesthetics with modern, often angular jazz. Highlights on the record include a Boards of Canada cover and a tune written by producer/saxophonist David Binney entitled “Praia Grande” named for the Portuguese beach where it was composed. Casting For Gravity is, in many ways, a sequel to Perpetual Motion (2011) and an extension of his working relationship with Binney. And like Binney’s own playing, McCaslin’s saxophone soars atop a harmonic and rhythmic rodeo of twisted grooves and contemplative ballads.

McCaslin’s electronic influenced writing forces him out of his comfort zone, but Lefebvre and Guiliana are right at home. Mark Guiliana has molded his career around his superhuman drum capabilities: compounding meters, energetic robotic textures, and aggressive and suspenseful beat drops. Such drops brought orgasmic “ohhs” from a 10-seater table of students from the Collective School of Music. Jason Linder performs regularly with Guiliana—they’re 2/3 of the group Now vs. Now—and the keyboardist will be making two other appearances this Saturday including a set with Omer Avital at 10:30pm at Zinc Bar, and a midnight set at the Cultural Project Theater with his band Breeding Ground.

Donny McCaslin (photo by Alexander Ariff)

Photo by Alexander Ariff

Photo by Alexander Ariff

Photo by Alexander Ariff

Photo by Alexander Ariff

Photo by Alexander Ariff

Tim Lefebrve is nothing short of a bass beast. His resume contains acts from the underground drum and bass duo Louis Cole and Genevieve Artadi, to pop-jazz artists Chris Botti and Donald Fagen. When Lefebvre moved his home base from NYC to Los Angeles, bassist Chris Morissey filled his shoes in Guiliana’s band Beat Music (also featuring Linder). Morissey sat next to me and described McCaslin’s dynamic as “beautiful, soulful shredding.” Morissey continued by saying that “everyone [in the band] was playing with their tongues hanging out of their mouths and not with any of that pussyfooting ‘serve the song’ bullshit that could turn that instrumentation into something else entirely.” Morissey, a forward thinking musician who leads two of his own groups, can appreciate a “fearlessness and a trust in [Donny’s] band-leading. It’s a lot harder than it sounds.” It’s worth noting that also in the crowd at the Standard was one of the band’s closest colleagues, woodwind extraordinaire, Anat Cohen.

Donny’s quartet toured extensively before tracking Casting For Gravity. “It feels like we’re breaking a part the songs in a new way,” Linder reflected after the set. “The songs he wrote are conducive to growing.” Experience the growth of this band, and many others this weekend at Winter Jazz Fest, and catch McCaslin on the road:

February 5, 2013 / Blue Wisp / Cincinnati, OH

February 6 & 7, 2013 / Indiana University / Bloomington, IN 

  February 8 & 9, 2013 / The Green Mill / Chicago, IL

 February 15 & 16, 2013 / Tallcorn Jazz Fest / Cedar Falls, IA

 February 22 & 23, 2013 / Holland Performing Arts Center / Omaha, NE

  March 2, 2013 / San Joaquin Valley Jazz Fest / Fresno, CA

 March 4, 2013 / Kuumbwa Jazz Center / Santa Cruz, CA

 April 1-4, 2013 / University of North Florida / Jacksonville, FL 

Guitarky Puppy (8.14.12)

It’s taken me about two years to write about one of my favorite bands on the scene today, Snarky Puppy. With origins in the Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) area and a current home base in Brooklyn, Snarky Puppy’s career has been nothing short of a well-oiled machine. From the Pup’s first studio album (The One Constant, 2006) to their latest, highly acclaimed release (Ground Up, 2012), their evolution has been a sonic journey for the listener as much as the musicians themselves. In short, the band’s members, and their music are all simultaneously getting better. You can catch Snarky Puppy in full force in Brooklyn on October 4, 2012.

Before the band embarked on their second massive tour of the year, I caught a triple-bill at Shapeshifter Lab in Brooklyn, featuring sets by the guitarists Bob Lanzetti, Mark Lettieri and Chris McQueen. Lanzetti and McQueen both attended University of North Texas in Denton for jazz studies—along with many other band mates—and Lettieri is based out of DFW. All three sets were drastically different; exposing each guitarist’s personality in a more bare bones, intimate musical setting. The mission of Guitarky Puppy remained in showcasing the compositions equally, if not more than, the musicians themselves.

(L to R) Lanzetti, Lettieri, McQueen (c) Alexander Ariff

Bob Lanzetti’s group featured Justin Stanton, keyboards; Michael League, bass; Robert Searight, drums. Lanzetti has a definitive tone on the guitar evoking textures similar to Andy Summers (The Police) and Jeff Beck. He holds it up close to his chest, articulately picking and graciously strumming with delicate, deliberate control. Lanzetti hopes to debut his solo project on record in 2013; you can also hear his work with Underground System Afrobeat and visit his artist page here. This tune reminds me of the Americana elements that seep through players like Bill Frisell; and like Frisell, when Laznetti chooses, he rips. Here is a video (excuse the iffy audio) courtesy of Martin Cohen of

Mark Lettieri’s group contained the same burning rhythm section (Stanton, League and Searight). Lettieri is a bold player, who blends the precision and confidence the L.A scene, where he grew up, with the soulful sauce of Texas, where he is currently based. He also has a heavy foot in the hip-hop world, backing such acts as Erykah Badu and appearing on the upcoming Xzibit’s record Napalm.

Mark Lettieri (c) Alexander Ariff

Lettieri is an in-demand guitarist who has (finally) released his debut solo album entitled “Knows”. The record features band mates League and Searight in addition to GroundUP label mates Caleb McCampbell, synth; and Wes Stephenson bass; from the Funky Knuckles.

Closing out the night was Chris McQueen’s band Foe Destroyer. Unfortunately,  the band’s gritty sound was masked in the mud of Shapeshifter Lab’s acoustics. McQueen’s sticker covered guitar is perhaps a symbol of his inner-punk, but a look at his credentials will wash away any pretense that he has stayed a narrow course. The band came into fruition in early 2010 by McQueen, Daniel Garcia (from the band Oso Closo), and longtime musical friend Cade Sadler. They have some older tracks on bandcamp and will be releasing a new record soon. In the meantime, crank this cut and dig McQueen’s lovely jazzy solo on Snarky Puppy’s “Like A Light“.

Manner Effect: A Band of 5 Leaders

In many ways, “pop” musicians rely on the imagination of their arrangers. In the case of Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones was integral to his evolution. But like Stevie Wonder, Manner Effect are their own producers and arrangers; Manner Effect relies solely on Manner Effect. Their jazz-trained, pop-infused, and unmistakably passionate music is a presentation of ballads that groove, bringing improvisation back to the art popular song.

Manner Effect live @ Rockwood Music Hall, Sunday Night
(Photo courtesy of MOZERPHOTO)

New ideas still fresh in their blood from a brief Michigan tour, NY-based Manner Effect will appear at ShapeShifter Lab in Brooklyn, Thursday August 2, 2012. The band’s packed album release show for was this past Sunday night at Rockwood Music Hall. The group also entertained packed houses at The Triad in March, and Smalls Jazz Club in April.

A band of “five leaders,” Manner Effect is Sarah Elizabeth Charles, voice; Caleb Curtis, saxophones and flute; Logan Evan Thomas piano; PJ Roberts bass; Josh Davis drums. Abundance was recorded May 2011; the band has had a year to tour and grow since recording. “It still holds up,” says Curtis “but we’ve definitely evolved as a band since recording the album.” Immediately following the tracking, Manner Effect embarked on a 10-day tour out to Michigan; Davis and Curtis attended Michigan State University, and Roberts and Thomas attended Western Michigan University.

In addition to playing concert spaces and clubs, the band conducted workshops with elementary schoolers in Pontaic and the recent trip included working with high schoolers at Siminar Camp in Kalamazoo. Because Manner Effect has a different angle than a traditional “jazz” group, the older kids received the band as if they were rock stars.

Manner Effect @ The Union in Kalamazoo
(Photo courtesy of MOZERPHOTO)

What excited me most about Abundance? The omnipresent and impeccable chemistry between vocalist Sarah Charles and saxophonist Caleb Curtis. On the inspirational gospel “Open Your Eyes, You Can Fly,” and the title track “Abundance,” Charles and Curtis find middle ground while enchanting the ear with dynamic unified timbre. The two remind you of when a saxophonist can influence a vocalist, just as much as vice versa. The two also let loose during the groups interpretation of Michael Jackson’s grandiose “Earth Song.” Jackson’s 1995 music video is a must-see; find the Manner Effect studio footage here. The dark, sexy Steely Dan groove on the first section is a sophisticated touch, modulating and concluding with an epic vamp that rivals the original version. Anther cover on Abundance is an interesting re-harmonization of Jobim’s “Corcovado.”  With brief spurts of Middle Eastern modality and Elvin Jones-like swing, Manner Effect adds a distinct gravity to a typically light bossa nova standard.

Notable original tunes include “Flying,” music video below, and “Hope,” a charming tune with a rap verse provided be emcee W.E.S. Josh Davis’s hip-hop drunk-swing (swunk) on the kit harkens other modern players (Eric Harland, Chris Dave) and Curtis’s overdubs on tenor and alto fill out the songs texture, instead of getting in the way of its live, interactive groove.

The DVD that accompanies the album is informative and entertaining. It includes a 30-minute featurette, footage from the studio, and live performances from their U.S. tour, allowing you to get to know the band and see their humility first hand. This is just one of my many ways Manner Effect has prepared themselves for the modern musical marketing era; Abundance’s Kickstarter exceeded its $8,000 goal to earn approximately $9,228. Put your eyes and ears on the Abundance package on iTunes, Amazon, or order directly from the band’s site. Also find them on Facebook and Twitter.

Profiles from the Center City Jazz Festival, Part 2

This is Part 2 of the series: Profiles from the Center City Jazz Festival.
By: Alexander Ariff
I am still reliving memories from April 28, when I attended  the first Center City Jazz Festival in Philadelphia, PA. The last profile was Ernest Stuart, here is number two, saxophonist Wade Dean. 

Wade Dean. Enspirational.

(L to R) Niel Perdursky, Jason Frataccelli, Wade Dean
(c) Alexander Ariff

I first heard Wade Dean in 2006 at a jam session inside of Naked Chocolate, a cafe (that no longer exists) on Walnut Street.  I witnessed Dean strut in, exchange some words, and take out his horn.  Dean told me that night that his horn was attached to him, it was a  part of his body; he never went anywhere without it. Back then, words like that stuck to me: a fertile, aspiring jazz musician. This past April, when I interviewed Dean after his set at Fergie’s Pub, he laughed, remembering the Naked Chocolate session: “the short-lived session grew out of a natural pairing, chocolate and jazz.”

Wade Dean moved to Philadelphia in 2003 to earn his M.M at University of the Arts. He was so determined to be a part of the scene that he would walk, at night, with his horn, two miles deep into North Philly to play. Dean said that his horn could have been stolen many times walking to Ortlieb’s, but he kept going back. “It broke my heart when it closed,” he said “but it’s back open now [for jazz] on Tuesday nights. There was day school in the classroom, but night school was getting your ass kicked by Mike Boone, Orin Evans, or Tim Warfield.”

Here is an exclusive recording of Wade Dean’s group, The Wade Dean Enspiration, from the Center City Jazz Festival. The band was the first to play the entire festival–they were also reuniting after a 6-month hiatus. You’ll hear Wade Dean (alto, from Philadelphia, PA), Adam Siegel (alto, from Albany, NY), Anwar Marshall (drums, from Germantown, PA), Jason Frataccelli (bass, from Philadelphia, PA), and Niel Perdursky (Fender Rhodes, from Philadelphia, PA). The first alto solo is played by Dean.

Wade Dean (left) and Adam Siegel (right)
(c) Alexander Ariff

Dean grew up in Orangeburg, South Carolina and still calls himself a “southern-boy.” After graduating from University of South Carolina in 2003, he made Philadelphia his home. First attending UArts, then in 2008 serving as Director of Jazz at University of Pennsylvania. His concept on the horn is distinctly soulful, and like many Philadelphia musicians, he is rooted in jazz but does not stray from gospel, blues and r&b groove oriented music.

Dean calls his Philadelphia jazz-colleagues resilient, and went as far as to use the word “stubborn.” He believes that the “we’re going to do it whether you like it or not” attitude contributed greatly to the making of the Center City Jazz Festival. Dean praised CCJF founder Ernest Stuart, and said that the festival could spark “a reawakening, and a renaissance.” The CCJF gave the musicians “new blood” by shining light on musicians, of all ages, who may not have had earlier chances to be heard by large, big-eared audiences.

(L to R) Adam Siegel and Wade Dean

Dean is set to move to  Los Angeles, California to enroll in a PhD program at UCLA in Musicology, Sociology and Africana Studies. He’ll focus on the music of Post-Katrina New Orleans. He believes this will allow him to stay steeped in jazz, by playing it, while informing his writing. He’s not just leaving a great gig at UPenn. Dean is leaving his band and his city…for now. “Philadelphia is my second home,” Dean said, “I became a man here.” If you’re on the east coast, you can say farewell to Dean at his goodbye party at Chris’ Jazz Cafe on June 29.

This is Part 2 of the series: Profiles from the Center City Jazz Festival. The first profile was of festival founder Ernest Stuart. Additional  reading: David Adler’s terrific recap on the CCJF for NPR. For more on Wade Dean’s music visit his website, Myspace, Reverbnation, and Facebook page. The final post will feature saxophonist Victor North.

Profiles from the Center City Jazz Festival

By: Alexander Ariff
Profiles from the Center City Jazz Festival, Part 1
I am still reliving memories from the first Center City Jazz Festival in Philadelphia, PA. I heard of the festival, via its fundraising campaign. After watching the inspiring video, I backed  the Kickstarter project. The festival stretched 5 blocks of Center City using the following venues: Chris’ Jazz Café, Fergie’s Pub, Time and Milkboy.
This series features short pieces on three musicians I interviewed on April 28, 2012.  The first profile is trombonist and CCJF founder, Ernest Stuart.

Ernest Stuart. A Prepared Improvisor.

Ernest Stuart, age 28, founder of the Center City Jazz Festival, trombone in hand on Chestnut Street.
(c) Alexander Ariff

The Center City Jazz Festival would not have existed without Ernest Stuart. I caught up with him as he was traveling from Milkboy, where he had just performed, to the CCJF box office inside of Café Loftus takes a certain kind of improviser to be confident on the bandstand, while running a jazz festival. He hung up his phone from a call regarding festival finances. “It’s a pain in the ass sometimes,” he confessed, “but money has a way of solving problems.” Money towards the CCJF certainly energized the Philly jazz scene. One hundred eighty-eight people backed Stuart’s vision. The CCJF also received sponsorship (Philadelphia Magazine, Turtle Studios, Yelp, and Laube Torrefaction.) Stuart firmly believes that without Kickstart and Facebook, he may not have been able to exceed the campaign’s goal of $16,500.

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