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Three Contemporary Musicians Keeping Jazz Alive And Kickin’

“Remember kid, there’s heroes and there’s legends. Heroes get remembered but legends never die”. This is a very well said, direct quote from Babe Ruth, or rather, from Art LaFleur, the man who plays “The Babe” in the iconic movie The Sandlot. Now before I go any further with this, you’re probably already pondering a few questions.

What does Babe Ruth have anything to do with jazz? Why in the hell is he referencing The Sandlot in the second part of a series of articles that discusses jazz musicians? Why the heck does he KEEP referencing The Sandlot in his articles for Krisrael? Well, first of all, The Sandlot is just such a remarkable film and one of my favorite movies (and if you haven’t gotten the chance to bear witness to its majesty, do yourself a favor and pick it up). Second, the quote makes a good point about a negative attitude that can be prevalent in jazz — or music in general — and that is disregarding any kind of current band or musician in favor of a classic band/artist, the godfathers and godmothers of a particular genre. Every so often, a genre gets a mouthful from these die-hard, jaded fans who agonize about how the genre that they “love” will never be as it once was, how “they don’t make them like they used to,” and how their genre is ultimately dead for these reasons.

It’s a silly thing to be a self proclaimed fan of a style of music who only glorifies the past achievements of the genre,  and completely disregards anything contemporary bands and musicians are doing merely because they haven’t had the experience or haven’t followed a particular formula to earn the prestige of being known as legendary.  It’s such a ridiculous notion, and yet, it’s consistently seen across every genre of music. The legends of music aren’t going anywhere, they are forever timeless, so why ignore the modern day heroes of music who are shaping genres and helping them live on? For my last article, I covered just a handful of the legends of jazz music, including Charles Mingus, Nina Simone, and Stan Getz. This time around, I give you Paul Taylor, Terence Blanchard, and Jane Monheit, three unique contemporary jazz musicians who carry on the legacy of Mingus, Simone, and Getz and redefine what it means to be a jazz musician.

1. Paul Taylor- Pleasure Seeker

Paul Taylor originally came from Denver, growing up there playing the saxophone as early as seven years old. It wasn’t until playing in his high school garage band Mixed Company (which played a blend of funk and jazz hits) that he realized that playing jazz was his passion and ultimately his destiny. After Mixed Company, Taylor went on to play at The University of Las Vegas where he became a music performance major. Although he played at a number of lounges in Vegas, Taylor had a drive to become recognized, making frequent trips to Los Angeles to perform, including playing with musician Esposito in the late 80’s. A few years later, after playing a jazz session with Esposito in producer/keyboardist Jeff Lorber’s home studio, Taylor’s passionate saxophone work began to stick out to his contemporaries. Lorber recalled the session with Taylor a few years back, prompting an invitation for him to play at The Catalina Island Jazz Trax Festival. Soon after, signature keyboard player Keiko Matsui and her husband — producer Kazu — gave Taylor the chance to audition for the band. Without a doubt, he rose to the challenge and toured with the Matsuis for two years with back to back appearances on their albums Sapphire and Dream Walk.

Despite the excitement of touring and playing with a group for the first time, Taylor was ready to pave the way for his own solo career. Believing in Taylor’s abilities, Kazu helped to produce Taylor’s breakout debut album On The Horn, creating Taylor’s first hit song Till We Meet Again. Till We Meet Again quickly became a hit, and led the way for a series of subsequent hits, including the title track to his second album Pleasure Seeker, the 2003 title track to his fourth album Steppin’ Out (in fact, the entire album became a Top Ten Billboard Contemporary Jazz album). Taylor’s fifth album Nightlife garnered him a spot in the Top Five list for Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz category.

Taylor soon reached the pinnacle of his career, claiming the number one spot on Billboard’s 2007 Contemporary Jazz chart with the song “Ladies’ Choice” from the album Burnin’. Taylor’s knack for producing hit after hit gave him an endless amount of opportunities as Taylor toured with respected jazz artists like guitarist Norman Brown, songwriter Regina Belle, and the renowned Groovin’ for Grover lineup with Jeff Lorber, saxophonist Richard Elliot, and additional saxophonist Gerald Albright. Taylor even received a spot on the classic ABC soap opera One Life to Live. Currently, Taylor is working as hard as ever, reuniting and co-writing a new album with Esposito and the help of The Heavyweights — a production team of acclaimed songwriters and producers, including Jamie Jones (vocalist of the Grammy and American Award earning R & B group All-4-One).

“Pleasure Seeker”, one of Taylor’s first major hits, opens as if you’re pushing aside the brush and plants before entering a wild jungle; you just don’t know what to expect. For the first twenty seconds, a myriad of drums, guitar plucks, piano, and other instruments and noises take shape, making the song’s direction completely ambiguous and exciting. Then out of nowhere, Taylor’s one of a kind saxophone comes into play amidst the whimsical atmosphere, allowing Pleasure Seeker to take on a more defined pace and giving the audience a better sense of where the song will lead them. Another twenty seconds continue to go by, then, all of a sudden, when you least expect it, Taylor kicks down the door and leads the charge with his mighty, sensual sax playing skill with a booming, but not overpowering R & B and hip hop infused beat. If you were on the fence before first hearing Pleasure Seeker, it’s now game over for you, you’re grooving like there’s no tomorrow, head  nodding, body bopping around and all. Now while some people might laugh at this and write Pleasure Seeker off as something Sexy Sax Man might do, I feel that Pleasure Seeker is more in the vein of a notable jazz hit that transcends what jazz is and what jazz can be. I could easily imagine the late, great hip hop all-star Guru dropping verses on Pleasure Seeker, making the song a part of Guru’s Jazzmatazz series, which features collaborations between accomplished jazz artists and Guru’s witty and intellectual trademark brand of hip hop, resulting in a masterful genre bending collection of songs. Regardless of how cool a Paul Taylor appearance would be on a Jazzmatazz album, Pleasure Seeker by itself is able to hold its own ground, making way for fresh, new and exhilarating forms of jazz to come through.

Honorable mention: Hypnotic

2. Terence Blanchard- Levees

Terence Blanchard was born on March 13, 1962 in New Orleans as an only child to his parents Wilhemina and Joseph, the latter of whom split time between being an opera singer and insurance company manager. Needless to say, Blanchard was introduced to music at an early age. He began to play the piano when he was five years old, moving on to play the trumpet at age eight after hearing trumpet pioneer Alvin Alcorn play. Initially Blanchard didn’t show much progress with the trumpet as he played alongside his good friend Wynton Marsalis at summer music camps. Blanchard didn’t spring forward until he hit high school, studying under composer and professor Roger Dickerson and musician and father of Wynton Ellis Marsalis Jr. at NOCCA (The New Orleans Center for Creative Arts). Blanchard continued to learn the skills of his craft under the guidance of trumpet man Bill Fielder and saxophonist Paul Jeffrey, all while playing and touring with The Lionel Hampton Orchestra during his time at Rutgers University from 1980 to 1982.

Upon the suggestion of childhood friend Wynton Marsalis, Blanchard replaced Marsalis in the bandleader Art Blakey’s group The Jazz Messengers, rising to the ranks of becoming the band’s musical director and trumpet player until 1986. Alongside saxophonist Donald Harrison, pianist Mulgrew Miller, and Blakey himself, Blanchard and the gang got down to business and made five albums during the span of 1984 to 1988. Ever since breaking out and pursuing his own career, Blanchard has been an unstoppable force in the jazz world, churning out award winning album after another. His debut album reached number three on the Billboard Jazz Charts, he gained two Grammy Nominations for 2005’s Flow (produced by legendary pianist Herbie Hancock), and his most successful album thus far, 2001’s Let’s Get Lost (featuring new renditions of classic songs written by composer Jimmy McHugh). Additionally, Blanchard received a share of the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Album for 2005 with a role in the ensemble of pianist McCoy Tyner, saxophonist/clarinetist Gary Bartz, jazz bassist Christian McBride, and jazz drummer Lewis Nash, his first Grammy as a band leader for A Tale of God’s Will (A Requim for Katrina) in the category of Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album, and two Grammys as a sideman for Art Blakey in 1984 and McCoy Turner in 2004.

Blanchard first got his foot in the door for composing scores to films after playing on soundtracks for the Spike Lee directed movies Do The Right Thing and Mo’ Better Blues. Lee was so impressed with Blanchard’s skill that Lee has had him compose on all his future movies ever since, including Malcolm X and Summer of Sam, as well as the 2006 documentary on Hurricane Katrina entitled When The Levee Broke: A Requim in Four Acts. Since then, Blanchard has showcased his trumpet playing in almost fifty film scores, including for Cuban American director Leon Ichaso, U.S. director Ron Shelton, and American director and actress Kasi Lemmons. Most recently, Blanchard’s work was featured in 2009’s The Princess and The Frog (where he played all the trumpet parts for the character of Louis, as well as being the voice of the band leader Earl for the Riverboat Band) and 2012’s Red Tails, directed by George Lucas. Despite the more than impressive resume of film scores, Blanchard claims it as merely for fun, that “nothing can beat being a jazz musician, playing a club, playing a concert”. (Down Beat Magazine interview in 1994). However, that isn’t to say that Blanchard felt that he solely belonged on a stage; he sought to reach out to his own community.

In late 2000, Blanchard was given the role of artistic director at The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz at University of Southern California, where he worked alongside chairman Herbie Hancock and one on one with students in categories such as artistic development, career counseling, arranging composition, as well as a steadfast devotion to masters classes and being involved in program related community outreach activities. With much success  from Blanchard’s involvement in the program, he pushed rigorously for the Institute to relocate from USC to Loyola University New Orleans in April 2007, trying to revive the spirit of jazz for the region after Hurricane Katrina virtually destroyed all of it in 2004. That same year, The Monterey Jazz Festival gave Blanchard the honor of being the Artist-In-Residence. Most recently, Blanchard was named the Artistic Director for the Henry Mancini Institute at The University of Miami Frost School of Music in 2011 and has composed music for the Broadway Musicals The Motherfucker with the Hat in 2011 and the revival of A Streetcar Named Desire this year. When Blanchard isn’t taking the world by storm with his heartfelt brand of jazz, he’s settling down at home with his wife and four kids in the Garden District of New Orleans.

What separates decent jazz musicians (excluding vocalists) from awe inspiring ones is the ability to convey a story through a setting and express human emotion without having to rely on the power of words and voice to do so. “Levees” is such a prime example of what makes Blanchard such a gifted jazz musician, showcasing his strength in being able to move his audience with his music, especially when it’s regarding such a catastrophic event like Hurricane Katrina. The song opens to a sea of strings playing in harmonious rhythm for a minute or so, evoking a striking mood full of haunt and eerie darkness immediately. Then the bass, piano, drums and Blanchard’s distinguishable trumpet kick in to be in step with the strings and recount this event of pure tragedy. No singing is needed here; Blanchard’s effortless trumpet playing speaks volumes, saying, screaming, wailing, and bemoaning how his once thriving, beloved city of New Orleans is now a flooded wasteland where countless lives have been torn apart and destroyed.  What’s so brilliant about “Levees” is that the different sections of the song seem to reflect the stages of grief from going through such a traumatic event like Katrina. When the string section opens up “Levees”, it’s as if complete and utter confusion has taken hold as people are completely stunned and aren’t able to begin to fully grasp the sheer horror happening before them. Then the rest of the band joins in and gives the sense that the realization of such an event has set in, bringing on a flood of depression, anger, rage, despair, and loneliness. Levees goes back and forth between these two different types of grief in such a beautifully heartbroken way that it’s impossible as the listener to not be swayed by the emotions that Levees is trying to convey.

Honorable mention: Over There

3. Jane Monheit- Some Other Time

Born on November 3, 1977, Jane Monheit grew up in the small suburban town of Oakdale on Long Island in New York. Monheit was fortunate enough to have a quick jumpstart to her career by singing professionally while attending Connetquot High School in Bohemia, New York. When she wasn’t being educated throughout the school year, Monheit was spending her summers at the Usden Center for The Creative And Performing Arts, where she ended up receiving their extraordinary alumna award. After graduating from Connetquot in 1995, Monheit moved on to study at the Manhattan School of Music under New York Voices vocal group performer Peter Eldridge. The recognition for Monheit just kept coming as she became a finalist in the 1998 Thelonious Monk Jazz Institute’s vocal competition, just falling short of the talented Teri Thornton who sadly passed away a couple years later from bladder cancer.

In 2000, Monheit hit the ground running with her debut album Never Never Land, remaining on the Billboard Jazz chart for over a year and was recognized by the Jazz Journalist’s Association as a top debut recording for that year. Ever since the release of Never Never Land, Monheit’s albums have either been highly rated on the charts or have debuted at number one. Over the course of her slightly over a decade recording career, Monheit has earned two Grammy nominations for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocals on her 2002 album In The Sun and 2004’s Taking a Chance on Love, while gaining the 2003 Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist on the song “Since You’ve Asked” and the 2005 Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist on “Dancing in the Dark”.

Throughout the span of her relatively short career, it’s remarkable how much Monheit has achieved so far. Not only has she worked with accomplished artists such as Michael Buble and Terrance Blanchard, but she has toured all around the world multiple times over with her drummer and husband Rick Montalbano, pianist Michael Kanan, and bassist Neal Minor after releasing ten albums and two dvd’s. Monheit has even been on the soundtrack for the movie Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow with her take on “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” and has landed the spot as featured performer for the broadcasts of Christmas at the White House, the Capital Fourth of July Celebration, and the National Memorial Day Celebration, as well as TV show appearances on Emeril, Ramsey Lewis’ Legends of Jazz, Letterman, The View, and The Today Show. Monheit released her latest album Home in 2010, signifying the first recording she has done as a sole producer and the first full album since the birth of her child. Monheit and Montalbano currently live in New York with their child when they aren’t trekking all over the globe appearing on or off stage.

With Some Other Time off of the Grammy nominated album In the Sun, Monheit proves to the world that you don’t need to have a loud, booming voice oozing with flashy vocal tricks and a larger than life band in order to be regarded as a talented jazz vocalist. Monheit is able to grab your attention just as much with her charming, soft spoken, yet commanding voice amidst her robust backing band who lets Monheit take center stage without overpowering her. As soon as you start to hear Monheit’s soothingly enchanted melody in Some Other Time, it’s hard not to have it reminiscent to the spectacular visionary that is Rosemary Clooney. That’s not to say that Monheit is completely biting Clooney’s style, she appears merely influenced by Clooney, putting her own hearty twist into her vocal delivery. Just like the official video posted above for Some Other Time, the song is simple, straight forward, and to the point, yet intricate and honest at the same time as Monheit bears herself to her audience, appearing so very vulnerable as she croons of time gone by and having to put love temporarily on hold as the spotlight shines solely on her. As you listen to the song and watch Monheit pour her heart out in the video, you realize that she is more than just a gifted voice; she is a classy artist. It’s refreshing to find a musician who is so in touch with human emotion and who represents elegance herself, considering  how difficult it is to come by nowadays within contemporary music.

Honorable mention: I Won’t Dance

Being quite the outsider to jazz music when I first began these series of articles, I was pleasantly surprised and blown away at the capabilities that Mingus, Simone, and Getz possessed with the beautiful music they made. I hold that same sentiment, if not moreso, toward Taylor, Blanchard, and Monheit, who prove that the jive really is still alive. It just goes to show that while the legends of jazz will never die, the present day heroes of jazz should be remembered as well, hopefully one day earning the title of legend.

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