by Raul da Gama, Jazz da Gama

Jackie Gage, ‘Siren Songs’.

Jackie Gage may be young but she is a miraculous vocalist, a woman-child born into Jazz in the way that her ‘elder sibling’ Cecile McLorin Salvant is. She has yet to be ‘discovered’ but she will soon be. Talent such as this simply shines even under a bushel. Anyone who has heard her sing would be hard-pressed to deny her natural-born ability to invent in song, in a voice that is surely one of the most beautiful and lyrical in the contralto range, somewhat fuller and larger than life. And it is shown almost to perfection in this gorgeous debut disc, recorded on the West Coast; in Oakland, California, to be precise. Listening to her sing in front of an audience is somewhat different. The very presence of an audience makes a difference to the acoustics of a venue. But even without that, in the studio, Gage sounds magnificent.

Jackie Gage Siren SongsYou would think that this music comes from a sacred space and indeed it very well could. For Jackie Gage, sound does not come merely when air is expelled from the lungs through the larynx, it is word that comes from the bubbling of blood in the heart coursing through the arteries, waking up the soul and sending it into a delightful frenzy. For when Gage sings you hear a seraphim hovering proverbially above the throne of Jazz, occupied by a succession of queens of jazz such as Abbey Lincoln and Sheila Jordan to Betty Carter and Cassandra Wilson, for instance. If that sounds a bit too much to take in you must listen to Siren Songs and to ‘That Old Black Magic’, for instance, or to ‘Comes Love’. From the darkness of the songs emerges Gage’s flawlessly bright, clear contralto, both accurate and expressive and above all melodic and musical.

For a young girl such as Jackie Gage, some of this music is not supposed to come easily. For instance ‘Afro Blue’ is twilit and melancholy, written in as a minor blues. It demands a certain degree of virtuosity from the performer and, I find, from the listener too as both adjust to the changing moods of the music, introducing a new mood only to be required to move on shortly. So how is it possible to manoeuvre through the vocal maze? I believe that you need the eyesight of the blind. Then every whisper echoes back from the hedge grow sending a clear signal as to where to go next. And so Jackie Gage goes there, where the magical mystery of the song leads her, sightless, yet faithful to the vocalastic challenges of the song.

Every once in a while God creates someone as near to perfection as He will allow it. Jackie Gage is once such being. She is a singer who is far in advance of her years with a flawless voice, and even more flawless diction and sensuous without being self-conscious. What is Jazz? Abbey Lincoln once asked in a song she sang on one of her last albums. Jazz is Jackie Gage.

Brandee Younger, ‘Wax & Wane’ 

To speak of Brandee Younger in the same breath as Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby somehow does not seem such a stretch. The young concert harpist’s music is set alight by her bristling genius for invention and technical wizardry. Moreover she has extraordinary pedigree, following from where Coltrane and Ashby left off. While Coltrane and Ashby – like Jimmy Blanton on bass – brought their instrument into the forefront of the jazz ensemble, Brandee Younger has taken it further afield inventing new architectural structures and – like Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby – even imbuing her dazzling runs with whispering vibrato, soulful peddling inflected with perfectly placed blue notes. That’s probably why if you thought that Brandee Younger appeared to be born with a musical maturity that was far beyond her years, you would not be very far from the truth.

Brandee Younger Wax and WaneBrandee Younger’s 2016 disc Wax & Wanefeatures a marvellous performance by a truly great young artist. It brings the otherworldly beauty of the concert harp with the visceral excitement of jazz. Labels are odious and nowhere do you find this more obvious than with younger musicians such as Brandee Younger. Her music offers a banquet of many delights from the hauntingly exquisite ‘Soul Vibrations’ to the gutsy and rhythmically extravagant ‘Afro Harping’ and the profundity of ‘Wax and Wane’. And there is a midnight glow about ‘Ebony Haze’ and ‘Black Gold’ both of which make proud and relevant social statements. There is also a distinct feeling of Black Pride here and it is ‘sung’ with grace and extraordinary splendour.

I would be remiss if I did not have anything but a glowing tribute for Anne Drummond. Her magnificent, shadowy presence turns up the heat on this recording. Her flute often sounds dark and beckoning. Her articulation is spotless and she brings rich tonal colours to her playing. The contrapuntal exchanges between Younger and Drummond are absolutely mesmerising. They intertwine as if each was mimicking the DNA of the other as they twist and turn, dancing around one another like a double-helix. And this happens throughout the recording. This is power duo like few others. You never can tell what surprises they have in store for you and that in itself is one of the finest aspects of the ladies’ performances.

Production values also deserve special mention here. Musicians seem hand-picked for the sound they will bring to the songs. There is almost a rich symphonic feel to this disc, not merely because of the harp and flute but also because of what the great lines of tenor saxophonist Chelsea Baratz and guitarist Mark Whitfield bring to the music. Dezron Douglas and Dana Hawkins do more than just hold down the rhythm section, but play melodic roles as well. And the recording is superb. This is an exciting disc one on which Brandee Younger elevates the concert harp to a rarefied realm.

Shunzo Ohno, “Never Defeated” 

From A Trumpeter’s Lips To God’s Ear: Never Defeated – The Shunzo Ohno Story

The documentary short Never Defeated: The Shunzo Ohno Story may feature just two dramatic incidents in the trumpeter Shunzo Ohno’s life but they were life-defining moments but it is a film about the triumph of life. First, the automobile accident on Christmas Eve, 1988 and in 1996, the discovery that he had Stage 4 cancer of the tonsils threatened not only to derail his career, they threatened his very life. To recover from both was nothing short of miraculous. The fact that Ohno was able to play again was just as important a miracle and this is what this short documentary is all about. Narrated by Ohno’s friend, the bassist Buster Williams, it is a poignant story, which is rightly told by the trumpeter himself.

Shunzo Ohno Film PosterThe most striking aspect of the film is the calmness with which Ohno tells his story. Two near-death experiences and you would think that a person – a personality as famous as Ohno – would have added the element of drama when telling the story. However, that would be completely out of character. The trumpeter has been stoic in pain, even as he relives those cruel moments in his life. Shunzo Ohno was born to a rather existence in the Gufu Prefecture of Japan in 1949. Music was clearly his all-consuming passion as we learn this from a brief flashback to his childhood. His request to his father to buy him one fell on deaf ears. Too poor to afford a trumpet, Ohno would have to wait for his recruitment by his high-school band and the rest, as they say, is history.

Shunzo Ohno cut his proverbial teeth absorbing the jazz life in Tokyo until 1974, when a chance encounter with Art Blakey led to an invitation to come to New York City. Ohno learned quickly and bitterly that it would be hard to pay his dues, both literally and figuratively as well. Then came the accident and not yet a decade later, the cancer. By now we realise the Shunzo Ohno is no ordinary man and no ordinary musician either. There is a subtle hint in his most notable composition ‘Musashi’ for which Ohno received a rare honour that made him the first Japanese jazz musician to receive the First Prize at the International Songwriting Competition. The film has some sequences of the song in its soundtrack, one largely made up of Ohno’s spectacular music.

Clearly Shunzo Ohno is no ordinary man. A spectacular trumpeter and an even greater musician, he has still not been recognised for his extraordinary musicianship. Despite the fact that he has been accorded the respect that he deserves, it might take years before legions of jazz fans to catch up to his magnificent work. This documentary short may not be the place to catch up to Ohno although a deeper focus on his music might do the trick. That, however, may be the subject of a longer documentary. One can hardly wait.

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