Album reviews

Danny Jonokuchi Big Band – ‘Voices’

Danny Jonokuchi Big Band – Voices

(Outside In Music. Album review by Len Weinreich)

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During the swing era’s golden days, singers and big bands developed a symbiotic and beneficial relationship. These days, however, placing a jazz singer in front of massed musicians is an act that requires considerable dollops of finance, explaining why most jazz vocalists have little more than a trio behind them. Sometimes, even less.

Then, along comes Danny Jonokuchi. Born in Los Angeles, he transplanted himself in New York City where his trumpet is heard at the Blue Note, Birdland and Lincoln Centre’s Dizzy’s. Evidence suggests that Jonokuchi has dedicated himself to a life of over-achievement and a determination to make a significant mark in the jazz universe (and even beyond its narrow confines). Because, he also sings, composes, arranges, produces and teaches with so much brio that he triumphed at the 2020 Count Basie Great American Swing Contest and won the 2020 ASCAP Foundation Louis Armstrong Award. Phew.

On this new album, ‘Voices’, Jonokuchi presents a showcase, an introduction to a comprehensive cross section of New York City’s emergent vocal talent. He’s offered eleven budding artists a rare opportunity to perform in the unaffordable setting they crave: six reeds, seven trumpets, four trombones and a four-piece rhythm section. A sampler of riches.

Even though the initial track, Isham Jones and Gus Kahn’s The One I Love (Belongs To Somebody Else) is ostensibly a whinge about thwarted romance, most vocalists overlook the sentiment and treat it as a tearaway romp. In her up-tempo version, singer Alexa Barchini, originally from Philadelphia, seizes the tearaway option, stress-testing syllables to near-destruction at warp speed. Over her shoulder, the accompanying brass section displays Basie-like precision. And there’s a really chewy baritone solo from Andrew Gatauskas, the band’s anchor.

On the next track, Marks and Simons’ All Of Me, an intense, almost sacrificial alternative to having been dumped, Tahira Clayton settles on the optimum tempo to ensure maximum swing. Clayton, originally from Dallas, Texas, has served as a cultural diplomat for the U.S. and restrains her vibrato with a delicate touch. Wisps of her phrasing recall echoes of the late Sarah Vaughan and, from this keyboard, praise doesn’t come higher than that. Nice trombone solo too.

Social Call, a song that ponders the unlikely resumption of a wrecked affair, boasts respectable jazz credentials. The boppish melody was composed by elusive alto saxophonist, Gigi Gryce and the lyric by Jon Hendricks, a.k.a. ‘the Poet Laureate of jazz’. Nicole Zuraitis, winner of the 2021 American Traditions Vocal Competition Gold Medal, embraces the tricky intervals with dazzling vocal gymnastics in smoky tones against an audaciously scored backdrop of saxophones and trombones.

Displaying courage, Brianna Thomas plucks a lustrous classic, George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward’speerless lullabyfrom Porgy And Bess’, Summertime, a song performed by almost everyone who has ever claimed jazz connections, never forgetting a choir of distinguished opera divas. Yet it’s a wily choice: Ms Thomas, who has garnered critical praise working with the cream of New York’s jazz establishment, demonstrates her ability to fuse dramatic talent with jazz chops, producing vertiginous vocal leaps over a seven-piece trumpet section in full cry.

Drenched in R&B and Gospel, Shenel Johns sounds like a force of nature. Grabbing You Turned The Tables On Me, a ditty of self-reproach following selfish behaviour, she inhabits the lyric, investing it with more vigour and vibrato than even the writers, Alter and Mitchell, ever intended. Furthermore, Ms Johns manages to make her case sound convincing while soaring acrobatically through the arrangement with a ferocious sense of swing. Don’t miss the tasty trumpet interlude.

Next, Alita Moses, whose voice has been heard in the close vicinities of Jacob Collier and the Christian McBride Big Band, offers her version of Adams and Grever’s What A Difference A Day Made (confusingly also known as What A Difference A Day Makes). It’s driven by a sultry samba beat with the entire saxophone section switching to flutes. Tonally, Ms Moses uses the microphone to favour the lower end of her flexible range, ramping the intimacy of her approach while the brass section and solos from trumpet and baritone saxophone supply encouraging commentary.

The silky, sustained tones of Charles Turner singing Blame It On My Youth, activate a time machine moving backward into jazz history. The song, an apology for inexperience and immaturity bathed in regret, was written by Oscar Levant and Edward Heyman in 1934. Jonokuchi’s succulent voicings recall Gil Evans’ revered charts of the 50s. And, applying stately tempo, the texture of deep plush and tightly managed vibrato, Turner succeeds in the channelling of two past masters, Johnny Hartman and Nat Cole. Jeb Patton’s understated piano heightens the rueful melancholy.

Born to be Blue, a lament of lost love, was composed by jazz singer Mel Torme (a.k.a.: ‘Velvet Fog’) and lyricist Robert Wells. Lucy Yeghiazaryan is an American Armenian singer overflowing with technique, intelligence and sensational time plus remarkable intonation that blends airiness and precision. Her expressive performance of the song in waltz time is free of the maudlin sentiment that usually affect songs dealing with misery. Jonokuchi’s flawless trombone section is deployed dramatically throughout with plenty of space allocated to Jeb Patton’s articulate piano.

So Many Stars is a sinuous bossa nova written by Brazilian maestro Sérgio Mendes with English lyric supplied by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. In a matching sinuous performance, Sirintip, a multi-media artist of Thai/Swedish origins, gracefully negotiates the seductive stop and start rhythm as though she were levitating gracefully above a forest of quivering flutes. Magic plus an excellent trombone solo.

All Or Nothing At All, composed by Arthur Altman and Jack Lawrence, lays down stringent rules for a romantic relationship, sung with emotional heat by Martina DaSilva, a Brazilian American with luxuriant contralto depth and to a generous vibrato. Her heartfelt delivery suggests that a leaning more towards the Broadway stage than a basement jazz boite. Interesting sounds from a bass clarinet (a.k.a.: ‘Gloom Tube’) and an alto saxophone flashing altissimo technique.

Unlike applauding audiences in New York, Sydney, Paris, Los Angeles and Monte Carlo, I hadn’t previously heard of Hannah Gill, which only serves to measure my ignorance. However, I’m well aware of Duke Ellington and Mack David’s life-affirming ditty I’m Just A Lucky So-And-So and delighted to hear the two conjoined. Jeb Patton’s sets a confident slow strut at the piano and the laid-back Ms Gill positions the lyric well behind the beat and even, at one point, over the only stop chorus on the album. Also, to acknowledge his Ducal debt, Danny Jonokuchi pays hommage to the Master by with a wah-wah trombone solo complete with rubber plunger. Unconfined joy.

In short, a useful introduction to New York’s newest voices in an excellent album, well-presented, well-recorded and crammed with reward.

The Danny Jonokuchi Big Band: Andrew Gould, Christopher McBride, Chris Oatts, Jon Beshay, Chris Lewis, Andrew Gutauskas, reeds; Nick Marchione, Sam Hoyt, John Lake, James Zollar, Scott Wendholt, Noah Halpern, Bruce Harris,trumpets; Robert Edwards, Sara Jacovino, Jason Jackson, Reginald Chapman, trombones; Jeb Patton, piano, Samuel Harris, bass, Kevin Congleton, drums, Víctor Pablo, percussion.

Guest vocalists:Alexa Barchini, Tahira Clayton, Nicole Zuraitis, Brianna Thomas, Shenel Johns, Alita Moses, Charles Turner, Lucy Yeghiazaryan, Sirintip, Martina DaSilva, Hannah Gill.

LINK: Available from Outside in Music’s Bandcamp / Release date 18 August

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