Alton Merrell - " You're The Reason"
Review by Terrence Richburg © 2009

There are times when God takes us on a journey where we discover blessings totally unexpected. We encounter an overwhelming impact to the very depths of ourselves without warning. The feeling is similar to that sudden plunge during a freshman rollercoaster outing, when the level of emotion exceeds the ability of your mind to comprehend what just happened. But with a highly anticipated sophomore ride only then do you begin to regain your composure and acquire an appreciation for how wonderful the experience really is. Such is the music of pianist, keyboardist, educator, composer, arranger and producer, Alton Merrell . With his exhilarating Gospel Jazz CD release, You're the Reason , Alton exhibits a level of expertise as one of tasteful maturity, characteristic of someone who has been playing in the Jazz world for decades. Yet, Merrell's stylistic approach is brilliant and animated as with someone youthfully charged and ready to take the world by storm with fresh ideas and creative enthusiasm.

Alton Merrell from the inception of his musical journey aimed his sights high and his commitment to excellence firm holding a Master of Music Degree in Jazz and Classical Piano performance from Youngstown State University. Merrell also holds a Bachelor of Music Degree in Music Education, graduating Cum Laude, and is now pursuing his PhD at the University of Pittsburgh.

Alton is an artist and musician well-acquainted with the panorama of Gospel and Jazz music, having ministered and performed with such greats as Kim Burrell, Martha Munizzi, Donnie McClurkin, Alvin Slaughter, Dorothy Norwood, LaShun Pace, Rev. Timothy Wright, Wynton Marsalis, Benny Golson, James Moody, Phil Woods, Danilo Perez, and the list of all-stars goes on.

Merrell's musical zeal has yielded him many honors, awards and coveted opportunities, including: Gospel Jazz Artist of the Year, American Gospel Music Award, Best New Gospel Jazz Artist & Producer, Capital Jazz Festival Competition Finalist (2008), and YSU Jazz Quintet Member of the Cultural Exchange Jazz Group performing in Shanghai, Nanjing, and Hangzhou, China (Summer 2004), which included performances of several Merrell works and arrangements.

Alton performs with his instrumental and vocal ensemble, " Alton Merrell & Company, " blending the musical styles of Jazz, Gospel, Funk, and Classical. Merrell affirms that the group's mission is "to create music that will minister love, healing, joy, deliverance and peace to people around the world." As the JGC New Kids on the Block Feature, it is undoubtedly apparent that Alton Merrell's pursuit of his admirable vision achieves fruition status on his debut CD, You're The Reason .

As a project, You're The Reason is a refreshing display of what happens when technical proficiency meets inspired ingenuity in a nuptial blend blessed by God's sovereignty. This CD is packed full of jaw-dropping compositions, distinctive Jazz harmonies, soul-stirring arrangements and grooves, and a virtual clinic of explosive improvisational solos.

Featuring the lead vocals of Ashley Merrell , the delightful opening title cut immediately highlights Alton's amazing command of compositional aptitude and biblically sound lyrics. Merrell reveals his desire to achieve the essence of music ministry and present artistic worship with joyful thanksgiving. But quickly Merrell moves to "Get Yo Praize On," a funk-fest, Gospel Jazz groove featuring Alton on all instrumentation and his mastery of both the R&B and Jazz stylistic vernacular. This is but one of the many selections that accentuate the improvisational domination at the anointed hands of Alton. Other favorites on the project include his modern Latin-Jazz ensemble original, "Sambalujah," the imaginative spirit-pumping, funk Jazz arrangement of the great church hymn, "I Need Thee Every Hour," and Merrell's inspired solo piano interpretation of the Richard Smallwood classic, "Total Praise."

There is no doubt that Alton Merrell has exploded onto the music arena of Gospel Jazz as a major player and a force to be reckoned with. His captivating CD, You're The Reason , more than adequately proves Alton's ability to stand as one of the best musicians and artists around. But even more, because of Merrell's obvious thirst for distinction and desire to reach for the fullness of his artistry, there really isn't a limit to what he can produce musically as God carefully leads and advances his career goals and opportunities. I look for Alton Merrell to continue to achieve great things for now, for God and for eternity.


DUKE GUILLAUME AND THE METROPOLITAN GOSPEL BIG BAND
Review by Debbi Johnson © 2009

When I think of "Big Bands," my mind immediately goes to some of the premier jazz, swing style music given to us by the likes of Duke Ellington , Glenn Miller , Guy Lombardo , Count Basie , Tommy Dorsey , Benny Goodman , and Les Brown , just to name a few. I even have fond memories of sitting around the black & white TV set with my family on Sunday evenings enjoying the big band sounds of Lawrence Welk . When I think "Big Bands," I think swing, lindy hop, jitterbug, but never clapping my hands, patting my feet and praising God. So imagine what a pleasant surprise (and mind and spirit opening experience) it was for me to be introduced to the sounds of the Metropolitan GOSPEL Big Band ( MMGB ) , under the direction of band leader and conductor Duke Guillaume.

MGBB 's music is "bold and full, with a sound determined to reach God's ears, giving musical praise a whole new dimension." MGBB 's bio says, "their brand of Gospel Jazz/Swing fusion has a uniqueness not heard since legendary gospel guitarist Rosetta Tharp recorded with the Lucky Millinder Orchestra in the 1930s and 40s. Like the Tharp-Millinder collaboration, which was radical in its day, the MGBB has raised some eyebrows." In my humble opinion, their sound is "raising the praise." Psa. 50, tells us to make a joyful noise unto the Lord. MGBB is doing just that.

MGBB is led by the incomparable and amazing saxophonist Duke Guillaume . Duke began his musical training at home playing with four of his brothers in a wind ensemble. Duke's love of Gospel music and Jazz propelled him to "fuse" the two styles and put together a band of elite musicians who had the will and desire to give praise to God through their instruments.

A 2005 Urban Gospel Alliance Jazz Artist/Group nominee, MGBB has performed at a number of local churches, as well as a number of other venues including BB Kings in NYC , Strand Theater in Boston, MA , Jazz at Lincoln Center's Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola in NYC , and Swing 46 in NYC , just to name a few.

MGBB 's goal is to "Swing unto the lord a new song." You gotta love that, and you'll love Duke Guillaume and the Metropolitan Gospel Big Band. There's a fine sampling of MGBB 's "swinging unto the Lord a new song" with their take on the old Negro spiritual, Joshua Fought The Battle of Jericho . They serve up the more contemporary praise and worship song, Lord I Lift Your Name On High , with a Brazilian flavor that will give you a taste for Salsa -- Gospel style. The sound is tight, the production pristine as you listen to He's Everything To Me . Check them out on MySpace at: www.myspace.com/metropolitangospelbigband .

The Band consists of: SAXOPHONES: Duke Guillaume, Logan Richardson, Greg Tardy, Audrey Bright; TRUMPETS: Gill Defay, Larene Gilespie, Waldron Ricks, Albert L; TROMBONES: Stafford Hunter, Irv Karen, Ray Campos; PIANO: Sharp Radway, Pablo Vagara; DRUMS: Jason Brown; BASS: Nick Szatmarie.

Special note : Here's something special from JGC to you -- for the sound of Christmas all year long, check out Duke's Christmas cd, Christmas Reflections . You won't be disappointed.


ASA "ACE" LIVINGSTON " The ACE LIVINGSTON Project" © 2007
Review by Terrence Richburg © 2009

The ACE LIVINGSTON Project

We've probably all experienced occasions when it seemed God was directing His full attention to our lives, and ordering our every step toward the very core of His mission for us individually. Well, it appears that God was doing just that in the case of the mega-talented and anointed bassist, Asa "Ace" Livingston . Among the many goals of JGC, one major purpose is to reach and bring together co-laborers in the vineyard of the Gospel Jazz music ministry, with a particular focus and emphasis on " New Kids On the Block ." Referred to us by Gina Miller at Lite Records in Nashville, this edition of this important JGC feature highlights a musician who is a very "major" player (literally) in the music industry in so many ways, but is probably one of the very best kept secrets, ever.

Asa "Ace" Livingston , a native of Jamaica so rich in culture, yet American-raised, made music his career of choice over the profession of soccer (a close second)--and thank God he did! Somehow kicking a ball around on a field and finally into a goal just doesn't seem to remotely compare to the monumental impact and life-changing affect Ace's music is destined to have on everyone who hears it. As he plays you can distinguish so many classic styles and artistic influences, but what shines through the most is Ace's powerful sense of purpose, direction and passion on his instrument--yet, tempered with a profound sense of true humility and heart-affirmed thanksgiving.

Although Ace has served as musical director, and recorded, played and performed all over the world with an incredible catalog of "Who's Who" in the entertainment industry, including such household names as Rachelle Farrell, 98 Degrees, Jessica Simpson, Usher, Mario Winans, Pink, Alex Bugnon, Joe, Chico DeBarge, Israel And The New Breed, Jennifer Lopez and Montel Williams , and most recently, Abundant Life Family Worship Church and Youthful Praise , Livingston saved the crème de la crème of himself, his artistry and his ministry for his debut CD, The ACE LIVINGSTON Project .

Forged by the formidable production team of H. Doobie Powell and Ace himself, the music of The ACE LIVINGSTON Project captures you immediately with an innovative introductory display and amalgamated blend of Jaco Pastorius and Marcus Miller influenced grooves and melodic articulation against a backdrop of the joyful sounds of children playing. This first track entitled "Emotions" then advances to accurately express the depth of the writer, Ace's obvious spiritual outpouring of passion for the object of his affection and his eternal faith. After a short "Selah" Ace doesn't stop for long before he sets up the "funk jam of life" with the exciting, foot stomping, "Giving it what it means" . This groove is like having your desert way before the main course arrives and features many of Ace's best bass techniques all at once, as well as some great horn lines and fresh chord surprises. You can also take special notice of the strong keyboard work including a really, really nice Rhodes solo by Ace's co-producer, H. Doobie Powell.

As the river of favorites continues to flow, the pristine bass tone and joyful melodies offered by Ace capture the essence of praise and worship with instrumental utterances of the highest order to God in an Israel Houghton composition, "Hallelujah" . This track also features the tasteful accompaniment and rhythm guitar stylings of the amazing Jonathan DuBose, Jr ., an artist and world-renowned musician in his own right. "My Promise" continues the Livingston trademark of unforgettable, power-packed melodies, but this time with a hot, lazy-medium groove, in a hand-clapping inspired, R&B flavored setting--by far one of the strongest performances of Ace's extraordinary bass soloing technique and anointing. The end of this track continues to expound upon the gifts of Ace's "promise" to God through his soulful bass solo riffs, the soaring background vocals of Denise Powell, and the expanding bed of colorful chord changes. Another strong funk jam feature is "Something I Said" which showcases Ace on key bass and adds some extremely cool sax solos by Tim Green.

The ACE LIVINGSTON Project is really a "must have" for all Gospel Jazz enthusiast who really appreciate great instrumental music spiritually infused and passionately resonant with positive energy and strong rhythms. But also Ace and his project offer fans of any style or musical genre a virtual array of timeless melodies and heart-warming inspiration to enjoy for years to come.

Barbara King - "PERFECT Timing " © 2008
Review by Terrence Richburg © 2008

Barbara King , a native of Brooklyn, New York, has been wowing critics and audiences alike throughout her star-studded career. Barbara is renowned for her signature sound and attention-grabbing performances of popular Jazz standards, inspirational favorites and a prolific collection of original compositions that have earned her international recognition.

Despite her vastly acclaimed musical career, Barbara King just released her solo debut 2008 Inspirational Jazz CD project, Perfect Timing . In many ways, no CD could have been more appropriate for the first entry in our new JGC New Kids on the Block up-and-coming artist feature. While JGC was searching for just the right artist element, out of the blue (it seemed) through the mail we received a collection of projects from King's publicist in "perfect timing." I must confess that I was completely caught off-guard for what I was about to experience when I popped in Perfect Timing. But if the music was to be any reflection of the elegance depicted on the CD's cover art, I knew I was in for a special treat. From the first note I noticed the high level of sonic excellence. Afterwards, the music began to erupt into an all-encompassing blend of perfectly intertwined inspirational and traditional Jazz.

With a Dorian-mode/McCoy Tyner-like intro into Barbara's captivating, smooth velvety voice, the first cut, Miracles written by King offers so much depth and Jazz maturity right off the bat--speaking volumes musically and lyrically. By the time I heard the tasty Rodney Jones guitar solo mimicking " Wade in the Water " and Barbara's effortless scats and improvisational runs at the end, it left me yearning for more--which I guess is exactly what she wants to entice folks out to see her perform live. King navigates flawlessly across stylistic boundaries using her impressive range from chest voice to head tone to falsetto with conviction, precision, and grace--a quality aptly showcased in the lush praise ballad, One More Day , and the basso nova love sonnet, Overtaken . Barbara uniquely embraces for herself the inspirational wealth of such tunes as the ever popular Burt Bacharach/Hal David standard, I Say A Little Prayer , made popular by Dionne Warwick--a marvelously exciting, straight ahead jazz adaptation. This track easily peaks my "favorite" dial as King's natural vocals soar and the accompaniment sizzles, led by the incredible piano work of George Colligan. Perfect Timing does not disappoint in continuing to share some of Barbara's most brilliant song writing with such tunes as the scripture-based title cut and the sophisticated, Afro-Cuban gem, Your Smile , another favorite. The bluesy sermonic plea for brotherly love in today's society declared in Tryin' Times , a Donny Hathaway and Leroy Hutson tune features the powerful lead vocals of King alongside some first rate solos and accompaniment work.

If this is just a "debut" of what we'll be hearing from Barbara King, we should all be waiting with baited breath for anything else she plans to release in the future. A Dorsey "Rob" Robinson production, CCCMG Records release, Perfect Timing simply put, is "perfect" in many ways and presents Barbara King at an exception level of performance and inspirational ministry--a must buy for anyone who enjoys real music of true quality.

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