Album Review: Robert Lee Balderrama – The Great Hall of Smooth Jazz

Robert Lee Balderrama – The Great Hall of Smooth Jazz

image courtesy of Robert Lee Balderrama via Eric Harabadian

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Robert Lee Balderrama: The Great Hall of Smooth Jazz (Bullfrog Records)

Robert Lee “Bobby” Balderrama is a genuine rock ‘n roll legend. He was an original member of Saginaw/Bay City, Michigan band Question Mark and The Mysterians. They recorded one of the most pivotal and essential songs in the pop music lexicon, with the proto-punk classic “96 Tears.” Even to this day, tune into Sirius XM’s ‘60s channel or watch key vintage TV shows or movies and you could very well hear keyboardist Frankie Rodriguez’s signature organ figure that kicks off that tune.

Well, all that hoopla took place back in the mid-‘60s when Bobby and company were just teenagers. Fast forward to the present where Balderrama has spent the last 30 years or more reinventing himself as a blues and jazz player. In particular, the guitar styles of George Benson, Wes Montgomery, Carlos Santana, and others have informed his sweet and smooth musical approach. His new release The Great Hall of Smooth Jazz is the culmination of decades dedicated to his contemporary take on the improvisational art form.

The album opens with the breezy and samba-fueled sounds of “Santa Cruz.” Balderrama’s stinging guitar coupled with Rodriguez’s bright and billowy keyboards fill things out rather nicely. Structurally, the tune volleys between two distinct sections, with Tom Barsheff’s mellow tenor sax bringing it all together.

Robert Lee Balderrama

photo courtesy of Robert Lee Balderrama via Eric Harabadian

“Para Los Dos (For the Two of Us)” is a lovely ballad that sits comfortably as a romantic or meditative piece. Its drifting and languid feel inspires some beautiful and evocative solos from the leader.

“El Camino Rio” features dense percussion by wife Amy Lynn Balderrama and a moderate-to-uptempo groove. The cha-cha rhythms take a swinging detour as Jack Nash’s walking bass sparks things into overdrive.

“Sintiendo Tu Hechizo (Feeling Your Spell)” is a Latin track written by Liliana Rokita. Balderrama brings a flamenco flair to the instrumental tune, blending acoustic and electric guitars for dramatic effect.

“On Beat Street” finds Rodriguez’s ethereal sound design and textures being the star. His work provides a nice bed that gives Balderrama’s Wes Montgomery-meets-Pat Martino fluidity a place to flourish.

“Happy & Go Lucky” made a bit of a splash on national smooth jazz charts. Its buoyant, jubilant melody takes on an Asian persona. It’s also got a crisp and snappy feel.

“Jaz Dude” is another Balderrama composition that features a cool, west coast-type vibe. It is free and open, with some nice turnarounds and changes. It’s also very funky, the way certain textures and melodic elements float in and out.

“Estrella” has a solid pocket via Rudy Levario’s uplifting drums. This is also another example of Balderrama putting the emphasis on melody and atmosphere over gratuitous chops.

Conversely, “Ronnie’s Vibe” is a chops fest! This one swings ebulliently, with plenty of room for all to blow, guided by guest Pete Woodman’s stellar drumming.

“Out of This World” is kind of a digital about-face from some of the jazzier stuff here. It offers value in its heavy danceability and groove.

The 11th track on the album is a bonus tune by the group Le Sonic called “Any Moment.” Balderrama and Rodriguez are the principal co-writers, and it recently hit #1 on the Billboard Smooth Jazz Charts. The spacey and seductive two-chord vamp of keyboards and rhythms provides the backbeat for Balderrama’s signature guitar, along with moody vocals and trumpet. It’s a nice piece and a soothing way to conclude this stellar collection.

Album Review: Stormstress – Silver Lining

Stormstress

photo by Tim Johnson; photo courtesy of Stormstress

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Stormstress: Silver Lining

This is the debut album for Boston’s Stormstress, and it is a return to one of the classic ensembles in rock ‘n roll — the power trio! Identical sisters Tia Mayhem (bass and vocals), Tanya Venom (guitar and vocals), and long-time band mate and ally Maddie May Scott (drums and vocals) comprise this heavy metal brain trust. And the term “brain trust” is not used lightly, as each of their songs are well thought out and strategized for maximum emotional, intellectual and entertainment effect. Prepare to take a trip as this youthful veteran outfit gets inside your head and works its magic.

They open appropriately with a mighty rocker called “You Can’t Hurt Me Now.” The song addresses personal empowerment and standing up for one’s self. The message is a timely and direct hit as Venom puts her antagonist on notice, “never running out of reasons to cry, found out too late who you really were inside, now I’m shutting the door to lock you out… and you can’t hurt me now!” It’s a great mix of staccato guitars, pumping bass, and thunderous drums that grabs you from the get go!

Stormstress – Silver Lining

image courtesy of Stormstress

“Paint the Mask” is another strong song about being true to one’s self and not being a slave to hiding behind an inauthentic mask. In other words, quit trying to please others at the risk of sublimating yourself. Venom sings with a heart-wrenching tear in her voice that seems to speak from personal experience. Musically, the hooks and harmonies are pure pop, with screaming guitar that echoes Michael Schenker, Ritchie Blackmore and Neal Schon.

“Internal Divide” begins with a deep bass rumble that will shake the foundations of your psyche and soul. It’s got an infectious funk groove that supports Mayhem’s semi-rap cadence. There is so much to unpack here. With each line of the song the blue-haired bassist is approaching self-discovery and unpeeling all those layers of emotional bondage like an onion. It all comes together with this hook, “What’s in my heart, what’s on my mind, the static and the noise… There’s a voice that whispers in my ear at night, echoing between the walls in my mind, threatening my feelings held inside… creating this internal divide.”

“Fall With You” takes a slight detour and makes way for a beautiful ballad. Again, this is one from the heart, and Venom delivers a song that tackles aspects of love, trust, and the trepidation of taking a leap of faith with someone. The song is wonderfully augmented by a string quartet comprised of Jacquay Pearce (violin), Hannah Schzde (violin), Eden Rayz (cello) and Peter de Reyna (upright bass), with orchestration by the guitarist. It’s a radio-ready power tune for a modern generation, with elements of Scorpions, Lita Ford and Heart.

Stormstress

photo by Tim Johnson; photo courtesy of Stormstress

Stormstress shifts musical gears for the exotic “Gold.” Armenian musician Mher Mnatsakanyan plays a woodwind-like instrument called the duduk to open this piece. The atmosphere in the song is one of mystery and historical perspective. The hook “All that glitters… isn’t gold” seems to speak to the distractions in our present day society with watching the shiny object. The blend of Venom’s extreme metal vocals and the group’s more traditional harmonies are a gripping juxtaposition.

“I Wish I Could” is a slow and soulful number that speaks to the complex dynamics at play with the human condition. The lyrics say it all, “I wish I could give you my heart… but I know you’d wreck it. Wish I could give you my trust… no, not for a second. Wish I could give you my love… but I can’t let you in.” The band pours so much angst and pathos in this song. Anybody with a pulse has got to be moved. Included is a brief bass solo by Mayhem that really opens up the tune.

“Corpses Don’t Cry” is probably one of the heaviest and most personal empowering sentiments on the album. With the spirit of Ronnie James Dio in tow the band takes on evil spirits, with a full court press. They sing, “Come at me now I’ve got nothing to lose… I can’t be broken because I’ve already died!” It is cathartic, with some incredible rhythmic accents and breakdowns. They wrap things up with an “unveiled” reprise to “Fall with You.” This time it is done semi-a capella, with just the backing of strings. You really get to hear all the nuance and beauty in the trio’s voices as well as the message of the song.

Stormstress

photo by Tim Johnson; photo courtesy of Stormstress

One would be remiss not to mention the flawless and intricate production by Liz Borden and Sarah Fitzpatrick. From the richness of the instruments to the attention to bring out all the frequency response in the vocals, it’s a world class product! These songs will get inside your mind and soul, if you let it. Go ahead… take the ride!

Looking Ahead

Stormstress’ live gigs this year have extended from Boston and New York to Detroit and Chicago. At the moment, per the “Tour” section of the band’s website, the only upcoming shows currently booked are in Provincetown, MA – on May 28th, July 22nd, August 19th, September 23rd, and October 14th – but there’ll surely be more dates added soon, so be sure to check the website regularly and/or follow the band on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram).

Album Review: Dean and The Singing Blue Jeanne’s – Crossing the Boundaries

Dean and the Singing Blue Jeanne's - from "Persuasive"

photo courtesy of Dean Bailin & Jeanne Waller (from “Persuasive”)

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Dean and the Singing Blue Jeanne’s: Crossing the Boundaries

This is the debut album for guitarist/vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Dean Bailin and vocalist Jeanne Waller. But it is by no means their first rodeo. Both Bailin and Waller are NYC natives, with a hefty resume of production, side, and session credits in support of a laundry list of multi-genre musical artists. Perhaps Bailin’s biggest claim to fame was as a member of Rupert Holmes’ band in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. His signature guitar licks on Holmes’ mega-hit “The Pina Colada Song” registered with fans and audiences around the world. And Waller toured the country in several high society orchestras and show bands.

Dean and the Singing Blue Jeanne's – Crossing the Boundaries

image courtesy of Dean Bailin & Jeanne Waller

After releasing a series of successful videos on various social media platforms for the majority of these songs over the last two or three years, Dean and The Singing Blue Jeanne’s emerge with a comprehensive audio document of said tracks that is nothing short of amazing.

The album opens with the vibrant and jovial “Fantasy House.” It’s a funky patchwork of kitschy social and celebrity references that will keep your mind and feet engaged. Bailin’s jazzy guitar filigree is exciting and Waller’s intricate vocal harmonies suggest the quirky sensibilities of the Tom Tom Club or B-52s. Bailin and Waller just have fun and let their imaginations run wild.

That’s followed by the Motown-influenced track “Enter This Night.” It’s a fresh and modern take on the classic “girl group” phenomenon, with Waller’s uncanny abilities to stack her vocals and take on the personas of three singers. (Hence, the multiple “Singing Blue Jeanne’s” reference.) Bailin’s sublime production (i.e., baritone sax, guitars and keyboards) gives the undeniable impression of a full ensemble. This track just makes you feel good, as a lot of classic pop songs used to do!

Dean and the Singing Blue Jeanne's - from "I Believe in You"

photo courtesy of Dean Bailin & Jeanne Waller (from “I Believe in You”)

The chameleonic duo shift musical gears once again for the piano-tinged “I Believe in You.” Bailin handles the lead vocals here and, with each line, seems to be giving himself a pep talk. Landlords, bill collectors – everyone has their hand out. But the song is all about believing in oneself, no matter the odds. The Wurlitzer-like piano and “everyman/everywoman sentiment” recalls some of Billy Joel and Roger Hodgson’s classic work.

“Samba de Loves Me” is a cleverly worded Latin-flavored number that sets a dreamy romantic tone. It’s a smooth and intoxicating blend of Brazilian rhythms, acoustic grooves and Bailin’s Larry Carlton-like lead guitar. Waller sings the surreal lines, “Tonight’s a carpet ride through the looking glass where nothing matters but which way the wind blows… and if I get swept away, that would be okay.” And, with that, you are transported to an island never never land! Smooth jazz, Philly soul and Steely Dan-like hooks converge on the swinging “Persuasive.” Waller hits notes that reach for the stratosphere and really sells it. Her voice is slightly overshadowed by the surprising mid-section bass solo bridge by the legendary Jeff Berlin. This is sophisticated pop for the big kids.

Dean and the Singing Blue Jeanne's - from "Samba de Loves Me"

photo courtesy of Dean Bailin & Jeanne Waller (from Samba de Loves Me)

The first of two live guitar-based performances by the duo can be found in Bailin’s “A Dose of My Affection.” It has a gospel/blues quality that recalls some of Jeff Beck and Jan Akkerman’s solo fusion work. “Three Coins in a Wishing Well” follows and seems to evoke the mystical and supernatural, with tales of gypsies, Satan’s daughter and the precipice of fate. Stevie Nicks or Adele might have a go with this one.

Funk and soul seem like comfortable havens for this duo and the tune “Rebind” seems to merge Motown, Philly and NYC-derived “doo wop” like no other. Waller delivers a lovely lead vocal, with superb and rich harmonies. Bailin’s underpinning of Wes Montgomery/George Benson-flavored guitar bits totally supports a light funky feel.

Dean and the Singing Blue Jeanne's - from "Rebind"

photo courtesy of Dean Bailin & Jeanne Waller (from Rebind)

The title track “Crossing the Boundaries” is, perhaps, one of the most ambitious songs on the album. It deals with elements of spirituality, déjà vu and the relationships between one another. The sound design is grand in scale and envelopes your senses, with the lyrical hook, “Crossing the boundaries of flesh and spirit… Our voices cry out, we both hear it… Talking ‘bout fate, talking ‘bout love and talking ‘bout you and me.” It summons up music similar to the Alan Parsons Project, Toto’s deeper cuts, and the like.

The album concludes with the second live track called “Blown Away in Awe.” Here, the diverse guitar stylings of Bailin seem to evoke the spirit of classic bluesman Roy Buchanan. His string bending and laid back approach sum things up on a perfect note.

Dean Bailin and Jeanne Waller have spent many years behind the scenes. Crossing the Boundaries finally puts them in the spotlight and it’s a beautiful thing to behold.

Album Review: Samo Salamon – Dolphyology: Complete Eric Dolphy for Solo Guitar

Samo Salamon

photo by Janin Vezonik via Samo Salamon (press kit)

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Samo Salamon: Dolphyology: Complete Eric Dolphy for Solo Guitar

Eric Dolphy was a jazz saxophonist, bass clarinetist and flautist who emerged in the ‘50s and ‘60s and recorded for prominent jazz labels like Prestige and Blue Note. Although he left us way too young at 36 years old, he crafted a legacy of genre-defining work that changed the face of modern bebop. Dolphy stealthily walked that line between melodic convention and out-of-bounds freedom like few others. Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, John Lewis, Chico Hamilton and Ornette Coleman were just some of the bandleaders who were graced by Dolphy’s harmonic genius.

Samo Salamon – Dolphyology

image courtesy of Samo Salamon

Samo Salamon is a world renowned musician who was selected by Guitar Player magazine as “one of the hottest 10 new guitarists in the world.” And Salamon is, indeed, globally recognized for his collaborations with everyone from Howard Levy, Paul McCandless, and Donny McCaslin, to Fareed Haque, Tim Berne, and countless others. The intrepid guitarist came to this current project out of the experience of pandemic lockdown. With a lot of time on his hands, he put it to good use revisiting and exploring the intricate music of Eric Dolphy. This music had never really ever been interpreted for guitar before. As Salamon puts it: “I tried to approach Dolphy, but in my own way. First, I transcribed all the compositions by Dolphy and arranged them for solo guitar. I improvised on tunes—sometimes in free improvisation, and in other cases, following the harmonic structure. I have played Dolphy’s tunes throughout my career, improvising on them, but rarely in a solo setting; probably because of fear or respect.” Well, now Salamon takes on the songs of a master head on and bravely documents them in posterity for all to hear.

Samo Salamon

photo by Ksenija Mikor via Samo Salamon (press kit)

This is a full-length two-disc set of Dolphy deep cuts and classics recorded by Salamon in his living room with one microphone and the natural acoustics of his home. According to the liner notes, all tracks were recorded in one take and often include sonic “enhancements” like the meows of his cat in the background. On this release you get nearly 30 tracks total, with 14 cuts per side. First off, many of the tunes were originally performed in an ensemble setting and on some type of woodwind, no less. Salamon’s innate ability to re-arrange these compositions for guitar give them a unique character right out of the gate. His use of string bends and ringing harmonics really stand out and are a nice touch. Some of Dolphy’s more well known compositions like “Out to Lunch” and “Iron Man” really stay true to the heart of the music’s original intent, shining the spotlight on avant garde passages and angular intervallic runs. “245,” “G.W.” and “Straight Up and Down” run the gamut from fearlessly technical and unorthodox to jaunty and seemingly disjointed.

Many of the tunes are performed on six-string acoustic guitar, but Salamon also integrates 12-string guitar and mandolin into the mix as well. Cuts like “The Baron” and “Burning Spear” benefit from the thicker depth of the 12-string. He also employs some really slick quick note phrasing and flamenco-like flourishes as well. “Lady E” and “17 West” seem to stand out for their more traditional blend of balladry, modern bop and blues.

Perhaps it is human for a musician to be in awe of one’s heroes, feeling they may not be up for the challenge. But, suffice to say, that is not the case here. Salamon is a consummate artist that seems to have embodied the heart and soul of Dolphy. And considering the oft non-linear nature of these tunes, that is no mean feat.

Single Review: Anissa Lea – “Be My Baby”

Anissa Leaby Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Single Review of Anissa Lea: “Be My Baby” (E & A Music Productions)

Anissa Lea is a talented and versatile young vocalist from Detroit, Michigan. As the world knows, the city of Detroit has an esteemed reputation for producing some of the greatest rock, jazz, pop and soul music of all time. And Anissa Lea embodies all of that and then some. She possesses vocal skills and a sense of music history that extends way beyond her years. With a love for everyone from Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington to Peggy Lee and Billie Holiday, she has an uncanny knack for stylistically borrowing from these musical legends while simultaneously evoking an approach that is all her own.

One artist, in particular, that really made an enormous impression on Lea early on has been the recently dear and departed Veronica “Ronnie” Spector. Spector, of course, was one of the progenitors of the “girl group” concept as frontwoman for The Ronettes. The Ronettes had a string of early ‘60s hits, including “Baby I Love You,” “(The Best Part of) Breakin’ Up,” “Walking in the Rain” and, unquestionably, one of Spector and The Ronettes’ biggest smashes “Be My Baby.” And that is the song in question here.

Anissa Lea puts her own spin on “Be My Baby” that blends a contemporary jazz-pop sensibility, with a funky spirit and groove. She’s joined on the song by some of the best side men and session artists in the biz, including Kurt Krahnke (bass), Rob Emanuel (drums), Adam Allen (guitar), Stefan Kukurugya (piano), Keith Kaminski (saxophone) and Justin Garrett Walter (trumpet).

The track sizzles with sincerity and respect to Spector’s original version. But, then, the song elevates to a surprising smooth and jazzy feel, as Lea’s dulcet Billie Holiday-meets-Peggy Lee-type phrasing thoughtfully delivers the song’s urgent message, Kaminski and Walter’s rich wall of sound envelopes your senses. The addition of Allen’s mid-song acoustic guitar solo is icing on the cake. Lea cleverly sings just a tad behind the beat, thereby not only giving the song a thoroughly fresh perspective, but adding to the danceable syncopation of the rhythm section. It’s a sweet and reverent tribute that deftly walks the line between contemporary and nostalgia.

Anissa Lea’s version of Ronnie Spector’s “Be My Baby” is now available on all streaming platforms. For more information just go to www.anissalea.com.

 

Single Review: Le Sonic feat. Robert Lee – “Any Moment”

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Single Review of Le Sonic feat. Robert Lee: “Any Moment” (Generic Records/The Orchard)

Guitarist Robert Lee Balderrama hails from Saginaw/Bay City in the “thumb area” of Michigan. It was there that he was instrumental in the launch of the seminal proto-punk/garage band Question Mark and The Mysterians in the early ‘60s. The teenage Mexican-American quintet scored a #1 hit with the organ-driven classic “96 Tears.” The song has been a staple in popular culture and on oldies radio and Sirius XM in perpetuity. And Rolling Stone magazine deemed it one of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”!

Le Sonic Feat. Robert Lee – Any MomentOver the years, Balderrama went on to play with Tex-Mex rocker Joe “King” Carassco and also fronted his own blues band and smooth jazz ensemble. Over the last decade or so Balderrama has partnered with Mysterians’ keyboardist Frank Rodriguez and has concentrated on the jazzy side of things. Under the moniker “Robert Lee Revue” he’s released two albums: For the Love of Smooth Jazz and City of Smooth Jazz. One of his compositions “Happy and Go Lucky” reached Top 30 on the Billboard Smooth Jazz Chart.

Currently, Balderrama has formed an alliance with multi-faceted songwriters/producers Mike Rogers and Gary Lefkowith. The duo call themselves Le Sonic and have created a legitimate modern jazz hit with the video and audio single “Any Moment.” The tune is based on a fairly simple two chord vamp that is hypnotic and seductive. Balderrama is a student of Wes Montgomery, George Benson, and Carlos Santana, and he weaves the essential melodic elements of said mentors into his silky smooth guitar lines. Rodriguez lays down a billowy bed of velvety piano tones that are the foundation of the tune. Topping things off are vocalist Dennis Collins and trumpeter Jim Hynes. Collins, who sings the ethereal song title’s refrain, has worked with Roberta Flack, David Bowie, Billy Joel, Al Green, George Benson and Bob Dylan. And Hynes can be heard on themes for Masterpiece Theater, CBS This Morning, NBC Sunday Night Football, and CBS Evening News.

“Any Moment” is vying for #1 spot on the various music industry charts, including Billboard, Media Base Smooth Jazz and Smooth Jazz Network.com . For more information on Robert Lee Balderrama just go to www.facebook.com/robertleerevue.

Single Review: Kristian Montgomery & The Winterkill Band – “Secret Watering Hole”

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Single Review of Kristian Montgomery & The Winterkill Band: “Secret Watering Hole”

Boston-area singer-songwriter Kristian Montgomery is not one to let grass grow under his feet. When the pandemic hit in full swing last year he dove into his inner psyche and soul, coming up with enough fresh material for an album’s worthy triumvirate of creative output. The result of that labor resulted in 2020’s The Gravel Church, 2021’s Prince of Poverty, and the soon-to-be-released A Heaven for Heretics in January 2022.

Kristian Montgomery & the Winterkill Band – "Secret Watering Hole"

photo courtesy of Kristian Montgomery

Surely, Montgomery’s blend of reflective blues and country rock songs combined with his rich, slightly worn and emotive voice is starting to catch fire with fans and critics alike. Montgomery was recently nominated by the prestigious New England Music Awards on the strength of his Prince of Poverty release. “Secret Watering Hole” is a brand new single from the aforementioned upcoming A Heaven for Heretics and continues his blend of an Americana aesthetic, mixed with vivid imagery and detailed storytelling. The song is draped in southern gothic charm and Cajun-laced magic. References to New Orleans and Mardi Gras are supported by a soothing bed of layered guitars and a relaxed, swampy back beat. It’s kind of a meeting of classic styles that match the melodic poetry of The Band, with the groovy laid back sounds of The Allman Brothers Band.

“Another crawling out of the American gutter record” is a quote, found on Montgomery’s own bandcamp page, in response to his last full-length release. Other references to his current single and his previous catalog suggest the slightly outsider world view of like-minded compadres such as The Highwaymen, Sturgill Simpson, Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, and Chris Stapleton.

The current single “Secret Watering Hole” was produced by Joe Clapp at Ultrasound Studios and captures a sound and mood that is contemporary, yet intimate and timeless.

Looking Ahead

Of course, the album A Heaven for Heretics, which contains “Secret Watering Hole,” is scheduled for a January release. [I’ll be writing that review on or after the album’s release date. -GW] Also keep an eye on the “Events” page of the band’s website for future performances and on the band’s Facebook page for the latest news about Kristian Montgomery & the Winterkill Band.

Single Review: Eliza Neals – “Sugar Daddy”

Eliza Neals w King Solomon Hicks

photo courtesy of E-H Records LLC

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Single Review of Eliza Neals: “Sugar Daddy” feat. King Solomon Hicks (E-H Records)

They call her the “Detroit Diva.” And, indeed, blues rock singer-songwriter/keyboardist Eliza Neals proudly wears that title as a badge of honor. The opera-trained blonde bombshell has been on the international music scene for more than two decades. She is a true independent artist, with a series of critically-acclaimed R&B-flavored albums to her credit. Neals has shared the stage and collaborated with such luminaries as Buddy Guy, Kenny Olson, Joe Louis Walker, Popa Chubby, Howard Glazer, and a host of blues and rock greats.

No doubt, however, perhaps her biggest influence can be found in frequent co-writer and mentor Barrett Strong. Strong, of course, is a legendary singer-songwriter that made his mark, first at Berry Gordy’s Tamla Records. His iconic “Money (That’s What I Want)” was the company’s first big breakout hit. The prolific tunesmith went on to write a series of songs for Gordy’s subsequent landmark enterprise Motown Records. “ I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” “War,” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World is Today)” are just some of the chart toppers he and fellow composer/producer Norman Whitfield conceived within those hallowed studio walls.

Eliza Neals – "Sugar Daddy" feat. King Solomon Hicks

image courtesy of E-H Records LLC

That little history lesson brings us to today’s single at hand; the feel good summer of 2021 smash entitled “Sugar Daddy.” The tune was originally written by Strong, but re-arranged, with additional lyrics by Neals herself. The song features young NYC jazz/blues guitar sensation King Solomon Hicks on backing vocals. Michael Puwal (tremolo guitar/additional drums), Chris Vega (bass), Michael Galante (drums), and Tyrone Smith (Hammond B3/saxophone) round out this first rate band. It’s a light-hearted kind of tale that focuses on a relationship from an, appropriately, female perspective. In it Neals sings: “Well, I’m just a girl, and you know that I look real fine. But I love that man, he drive me outta my mind. He puts his lips to my ear, said what I love to hear… I’ll be your sugar daddy, you’s my man!” It carries on with that pseudo-romantic track for a minute, but then, when Neals finds her man fooling around with someone else, the tables get turned quickly in the bridge. She exudes gritty comeuppance, with the lines, “I take his money and I go and I play the town, and he knows my love ain’t true. People all say he should put me down. He’s a fool, he’s a fool, he’s a doggone fool!”

“Sugar Daddy” has a lot of bite and bluesy bravado, thanks to Neals’ raw, soulful vocals and Hicks’ stinging Robert Cray-like riffs. He lays the groundwork for the song’s balance of good-natured free-spirited fun and serious house rockin’ street cred. The tune has been a staple on Sirius XM’s BB King’s Bluesville channel since this past July. But that’s nothing new for the “Detroit Diva.” She’s been in consistent rotation on that pivotal blues network since her seminal Breaking and Entering album hit the charts in 2015. “Sugar Daddy” simply continues that groovy path of excellence for the incomparable Eliza Neals!

Looking Ahead

Eliza has a few upcoming shows listed on the “Shows” page of her website. On Saturday, December 18th, she’ll be at the South Orange Performing Arts Center in South Orange, NJ. On Saturday, February 12th, she’ll be performing at the Cincinnati Winter Blues Experience II in Cincinnati, OH. On Tuesday, April 26th, she’s scheduled to perform at the iconic 100 Club in London [where I saw Bob Malone in 2015 – GW]. And on Saturday, April 30th, she’s be at Jamey’s House of Music in Lansdowne, PA. Be sure to check Eliza’s website for more details on those shows and others as they’re scheduled.

Album Review: Laura Ainsworth – Top Shelf

Laura Ainsworth – Top Shelf

image courtesy of Eclectus Records

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Laura Ainsworth: Top Shelf (Eclectus Records/Ratspack Records)

Vocalist Laura Ainsworth hails from Dallas, Texas and is a contemporary artist who is a brilliant interpreter of song. She’s kind of a Great American Songbook revivalist on one hand, but that would only tell part of the story. Her keen sense of style and sharp wit allow her to take established musical gems and rare nuggets and infuse them with a heavy dose of irony, humor, charm and candor. And her gossamer phrasing brings a unique personality to each song where she makes it her own.

Top Shelf is a deluxe packaged collection of the best from her previous independently released albums Keep it to Yourself, Necessary Evil and New Vintage. Courtesy of Japanese distributor Ratspack Records, this vinyl and CD formatted release features extensive liner notes and lyrics, previously unreleased tracks, beautiful photos, and detailed information on the songs and the wonderful musicians who make them leap out of your speakers.

The track list rundown begins with the pseudo-autobiographical adaptation by Frank Loesser and Victor Schertzinger called “That’s How I Got My Start.” It’s a slow and somewhat mid-tempo ballad that sets the pace for her unique and infectious brand of irony-imbued humor. Producer/arranger and pianist Brian Piper leads a lightly swinging ensemble as Ainsworth sings, “Prove it by my rich old banker, how I made that banker hanker. So let this be a lesson, keep ‘em guessin’. ‘Cause that’s how I got my start.” She really lays on that whole femme fatale/jezebel act pretty thick from the get-go.

“Necessary Evil” was an early ‘50s song by singer Frankie Laine that is fairly obscure. But being a musical archivist and curator is Ainsworth’s passion, as she invests this cool little known noir-ish burner with a sultry and seductive kick. Chris McGuire’s smooth tenor sax sets a vintage nightclub mood.

The redheaded chanteuse is in search of the ideal man on another early ‘50s rarity “That’s the Kind of Guy I Dream Of.” She sings tongue in cheek lyrics, with tales of romantic woe such as, “A handsome hunk o’ fellow with the sharpest clothes, a sunny disposition and a smile that glows. That’s the kind of guy I dream of, you should see the kind that I get.” And then she hits you with the clincher, “Got a guy, says he’s a jockey, took me to see his thoroughbred. You guessed it, of course, he looks just like his horse, I shoud’ve stayed in bed!”

Another lesser known Rodgers and Hammerstein song was tailor made for Ainsworth and bluntly called “The Gentleman is a Dope.” Although rooted from a bygone era, It smacks of modern #MeToo sensibilities, with a hint of sarcasm and sass. The small combo sound, with Piper at the helm gives this a minor urgency.

One of the unreleased tracks on the album is an Irving Berlin tune, popularized by Marilyn Monroe, called “You’d Be Surprised.” It’s significant that Ainsworth decided to include it here because it really displays her innate ability to tell a clear and intriguing story. It references that old phrase about never judging a book by the cover. In the case of a shy guy named Johnny, that would certainly apply. “He’s not so good in a crowd, but when you get him alone, you’d be surprised. He isn’t much at a dance, but when he takes you home, you’d be surprised,” she sings. “He’s got the face of an angel, but there’s the devil in his eye.”

“Love for Sale” is a classic Cole Porter song that has been done up tempo by Mel Tormé and a ton of other people. Ainsworth’s version really stands out as slow, steamy and resonant. The tight combo fronted by Piper’s cool and lithe piano playing really set the scene here.

“Skylark” is a familiar standard that, not only stands out for its beautiful lyrics and stellar vocal delivery, but the singular accompaniment of Chris DeRose-Chiffolo on guitar is mesmerizing. The medley of “Long Ago and Far Away” and “You Stepped Out of a Dream” is a lovely pairing in that they harmonically fit like pieces of a puzzle. Chris McGuire’s tenor sax work is just icing on the cake.

“An Occasional Man” was a minor standard sung in the past by legends like Sarah Vaughn and Julie London. Ainsworth and company give this a silky samba feel, with fun-filled lyrics like “I got an island in the Pacific, and everything about it is terrific. I’ve got the sun to tan me, palms to fan me and…an occasional man.” This vivacious crooner really knows how to paint a picture!

The Johnny Mercer/Harold Arlen piece “Out of This World” is rather exotic and a nice slice of post-modern world beat-influenced fare. Pete Brewer’s flute and Steve Barnes’ percussion really make this one sparkle. “Hooray for Love” is another Arlen gem that keeps that up beat and free-spirited take on love and romance in full gear. It’s a bouncy and swinging tune.

Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen’s danceable “Personality,” Ned Washington and Victor Young’s delicate “My Foolish Heart,” Gus Kahn’s hopelessly romantic “Dream a Little Dream,” and bonus tracks “Wasting My Love On You” and the randy “Just Give Me a Man” complete this fabulous and comprehensive CD package.

Just FYI, the CD edition of Top Shelf adds numerous tracks from the three studio albums that had to be left off of the vinyl LP edition due to the limitations of the format. But, whether you purchase the fuller length CD or the vinyl version, you’re in for a real treat. Laura Ainsworth is one of the most talented and entertaining vocalists – of any genre or era – on the music scene today!

Album Review: Allan Holdsworth – Leverkusen 2010

Allan Holdsworth

photo by Rainer Leigraf; photo courtesy of Manifesto Records

by Eric Harabadian, Contributing Blogger

Album Review of Allan Holdsworth: Leverkusen 2010 (Manifesto Records)

This is the fifth and latest release in a continuing series of posthumous classic live recordings by British guitar master Allan Holdsworth. This CD/DVD package features the legendary jazz-fusion guitarist in a 2010 performance at the Leverkusen Jazztage Festival in Germany. Along with Chad Wackerman on drums and Ernest Tibbs on electric bass, the Holdsworth trio captivated and mesmerized throngs of loyal jazz and progressive music fans.

The totally original 10 song set consisted of all instrumental material that encompassed the guitar maestro’s vast career from the ‘70s to the present. The opener “Leave Them On” greeted the attentive audience, with a mid-tempo and ethereal lilt. The rhythm section provided a smooth pocket that was taut, but open. There was great interaction from the trio, with Holdsworth unleashing out-of-the-box soloing.

Allan Holdsworth – Leverkusen 2010

image courtesy of Manifesto Records

A band mainstay and nugget from Holdsworth’s days with the New Tony Williams Lifetime, “Fred,” followed in brisk fashion. This tune really swings and displays a modern bop feel that takes your breath away. Wackerman and Tibbs do a brilliant job holding down the fort, but on the original ‘70s recording of this tune electric pianist Alan Pasqua added an essential sparkle and harmonic nuance to the piece. The absence of keyboards is sorely missed here. But this is only a minor criticism.

“Water on the Brain” follows and is filled with tricky and choppy accents and meters. Intricate melodies, riffs and cross-referenced harmonies abound. In particular, Tibbs really stands out, with a stellar and fluid bass solo.

The medley of “Madame Vintage,” “Above and Beyond” and “The Things You Do (When You Haven’t Got Your Gun)” is a big sweeping cavalcade of sound. This material really spotlights the strength and versatility of this band as the music goes from ambient and oddly harmonic to cinematic, with interspersed legato shredding. They are at the peak of their powers—dynamically, systematically and empathetically.

Allan Holdsworth

photo by Rainer Leigraf; photo courtesy of Manifesto Records

“Material Real” is another tune that keeps that vibe going and leads into the Wackerman composition “The Fifth.” This is an open swinging affair that features swift drum accents, lucid bass solos and some of Holdsworth’s most beautiful chord accompaniment.

A concert staple from the British guitarist’s early ‘80s period is a cut called “Letters of Marque.” It’s a very animated, technically astute and rhythmically complex piece. Meters would shift seemingly at will and provided plenty of space for inspired and impassioned solos from Holdsworth and Tibbs. Wackerman locked in the groove as the soloists took each other to greater heights.

The set concluded with another gem from the guitarist’s days with drummer Tony Williams called “Proto-Cosmos.” The encore piece featured a vibrant, angular melodic head that swung in jagged and asymmetric phrases. Holdsworth blows over rapid-fire changes as modern bop and rock ‘n roll meet head on.

This is an exciting package featuring candid live photos, exceptional liner notes and an audio CD of the concert as well as a DVD of the same, with additional current interviews where Wackerman and Tibbs reflect on Leverkusen and working with the Holdsworth band.