JIMMIE SMITH: HAMMOND ORGAN
Being a man of deep faith – in fact, lead pastor at Effective Life Church, which he founded with his wife in Conyers, GA – Jimmie Smith surely appreciates the glorious divine irony in having been blessed with the same blazing talent for the Hammond B-3 as a legend with essentially the same name.
Paying homage to the great Jimmy Smith (who died in 2005) while illustrating the vast present and future possibilities for this iconic instrument, Jimmie caps a lifetime of ministry and a simmering passion for jazz, blues and gospel with his highly anticipated, cleverly titled Woodward Avenue debut Live In Music City: Jimmie Smith Plays Jimmy Smith. The explosive ten track, 80 minute live performance was recorded as a “Tribute to the Hammond Legend” in front of a revved up audience of over 250 Smith and Smith enthusiasts at The Rutledge in Nashville.
JEFF RYAN : SAXOPHONE
The title of Jeff Ryan’s soulful, high energy breakthrough debut single “Up and Up” on Woodward Avenue Records perfectly captures his dynamic career trajectory these past few years.
After years of playing in a variety of regional soul, funk and even big band ensembles, the San Francisco Bay Area based saxophone sensation has captivated thousands with his robust, heartfelt vibe at numerous prominent Northern California jazz festivals – including a four year run at the Stockton Jazz Festival, where he has opened and performed along with urban jazz greats Marion Meadows, Eric Darius, Paul Taylor, Nick Colionne and Julian Vaughn. Fans in Southern California have seen him jam with guitarist Nils at Spaghettini. Now, with the release of “Up and Up” and his multi-faceted debut album Embrace, Ryan is in prime position to join their ranks as one of contemporary jazz’s top emerging artists of 2018.
Though he is engaging us right out of the box with his powerful funk/R&B artistry, and the ten track collection will include other hard grooving tracks like “Matter of Fact,” the multi-talented artist is equally excited about presenting his more sensual, romantic side on passionate mid-tempo ballads like the soaring title track. “I approached each piece differently, to showcase all the contrasting facets of influence that have developed me as a player,” he says. “I focused on having this initial album represent as many aspects of my artistry as possible. I hope to convey to the listener a genuine passion in each note that I share. For me, music is intensely emotional, a personal expression unique to us all. It can guide, heal and reveal in so many ways.”
For Ryan, the simple yet high impact title Embrace works on many different levels – not the least of which is at last embracing a destiny that seemed inevitable from the moment he heard Richard Elliot’s radio hit “Candlelight” at age ten when he began playing the sax himself. “I love the word “embrace,” and it is undoubtedly a power ballad,” he says. “It has such a positive driving feel and is intensely emotional. On top of that, there are so many great connotations associated with the idea of an embrace. I want there to be a mutual embrace between the audience and myself, a musical career is not possible without pure relatability. These songs are the full embodiment of what I have hoped to achieve with this project. Every step to this point has opened my eyes to what it truly means to be an artist. It is really about me embracing the music and sharing it with others.”
Aside from infectious melodies, killer grooves and true emotional honesty in his expression, another key to the sonic and emotional impact of Embrace is Ryan’s powerful musical chemistry with his co-writer and producer, keyboardist Greg Manning. Manning, longtime keyboardist and musical director for Jonathan Butler who has scored three Top Ten hits as a solo artist, met Ryan when the two played at Sax on the River in Sacramento. Manning was blown away by the saxman’s performance and got together with him later to see how they would connect creatively in the studio. “Greg liked my sound and offered to help any way he could,” says Ryan. “We were in sync from the start, and the first track we wrote was ‘Up and Up.’ I had worked with other producers before, but felt Greg really understood what I was going for.” In addition to Manning on keyboards, Embrace includes contributions from renowned genre musicians, guitarists Adam Hawley and Darrell Crooks and drummer Eric Valentine.
Born in Walnut Creek, CA and raised there and in Asheville, NC (with one teenage year spent in Atlanta), Ryan was “born around so much music that it is begging you to play.” His dad is a classical concert pianist, his mom played tracker organ and viola and his grandfather was a music teacher. He started playing piano at age six and took violin lessons upon the urging of his grandfather, but he knew he had found his true musical home when he started on the sax at age ten. “Performance-wise, I did not relate to the sound of the piano, and upon finding the sax it immediately clicked. The saxophone allows me to exactly express how I feel musically,” he says.
Ryan was in jazz ensembles throughout junior high and high school, but felt a deep connection to contemporary jazz saxophone greats, from smooth/urban icons like Richard Elliot, Gerald Albright, Dave Koz and Grover Washington to jazz legends Michael Brecker, Cannonball Adderley, Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon. Some of his other influences include Jeff Lorber, Norman Brown, Rick Braun, Wes Montgomery, Lee Ritenour, Earl Klugh and Jonathan Butler. Studying these musical mentors led to Ryan’s increasing focus on developing a truly emotional and unique style of performing. After starting his college years at Diablo Valley College in Concord, he attended the famed Berklee College of Music as a performance major. He later returned to Northern California, where he studied music production at the Pyramind Sound Institute in San Francisco.
“Throughout my years as a performer, I have learned one of my strengths is being able to relate to people. Every time I’m on stage, my goal is to inject emotion and passion into my playing as if I am communicating to each person individually,” Ryan says. “If anything will keep me going strong and moving forward in this genre, it is the fact my sound is relatable to people, especially those who love this genre of music. I love connecting with the audience, keeping things spontaneous and seeing the way everyone responds. When I am up there baring my soul and speaking to the crowd through music, I embrace those moments. The expression is always worth it.”
> Jeff Ryan
BEN SHARKEY : VOCALIST
Perfectly fusing vintage old school cool and contemporary jazz, soul and pop energy and swagger, Ben Sharkey has enjoyed an extraordinary dual career over the past ten years. Since the charismatic vocalist posted his first raw home videos of himself singing Michael Buble and Frank Sinatra classics to YouTube in 2007, he has amassed over 5 million views worldwide for over 70 clips – including the professionally shot, James Bond themed original “What You’ve Given” (over 150,000 views alone!) The Michigan native has also become one of the Motor City’s premiere live entertainers, with hundreds of performances at jazz hotspots like Cliff Bell’s and a five year and counting residency at the Axis Lounge at the MGM Grand Detroit.
Over the years, many of the write-ups and promotional materials employed on Sharkey’s behalf have casually compared him to Frank, Buble, Dean Martin, Mel Torme and Harry Connick, Jr. They’ve mentioned his ability to delight fans with “his romantic style and velvet vocals on old swing and jazz standards that would make Ol’ Blue Eyes himself green with envy.” Yet once the singer began wowing live audiences by peppering the set list with his dynamic original songs, it became clear that he was developing into a singular artist with a hybrid style and vision all his own. His critically acclaimed 2011 independent album Day into Night laid the groundwork for Sharkey’s explosive emergence in 2018 with his Woodward Avenue Records full length debut, Mercury Rising.
Driven by sensual, provocative lyrics and an ebb and flow of songs whose styles and grooves take the listener on a journey that includes soulful jazz-pop, Latin, swing and modern house dance beats, the collection reflects a range of influences that take Sharkey far from his crooner beginnings. From track to track, he draws from a multi-generational musical well that includes the classic drum lines of Gene Krupa, the extraordinary scatting of Cab Calloway and King Pleasure, the bandleader prowess of Louis Prima and – pulling up to the present decade – the pop/R&B infectiousness of Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke (whom Sharkey once opened for at The Fillmore Detroit).
“While I’m a big fan of modern crooners like Buble and his vibe was a great starting point for me,” Sharkey says, “my new music is much edgier, and I’m more inclined than ever to take risks both musically and lyrically. As a singer and storyteller, I’m putting myself in more adult situations, like on ‘Beast in Me,’ where I sing ‘My words may seem obscene, my thoughts don’t claim to be clean, baby, you bring out the beast in me.’ For my fans who know me best for my smoother sounds, I’m really excited about how they’ll react to the beats, movement and danceable elements on Mercury Rising. Overall, it’s more of a swingy kind of thing than I have recorded in the past, exploring the darker, cooler style of jazz from the Prohibition era. It would be easy to default to sweet love songs, but I enjoy the movement and making people dance a lot more.”
Sharkey’s original idea for the album’s title was “Sound Tracks,” to reflect his concept that this would be a soundtrack to a film that has yet to be written – perhaps a Prohibition era movie full of conflict and resolution, happy love songs balanced by darker mysteries. During the writing and recording, however, his father passed away. Sharkey always gave his dad credit for passing down his cleverness as a writer, and he has wonderful early memories growing up in Milan, MI (55 miles west of Detroit), listening as his dad played everything from classical music to The Beatles. “A lot of my development as an artist and writer these past few years has been about me growing up as a man, too,” the singer says.
Also influential in shaping Sharkey’s musical sensibilities were his mother, who loved pop music, and his grandmother who was big into musicals and helped foster his early love for Sinatra. He first discovered his vocal gifts around age 5 when someone in the family whipped out an old 8-track of Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party” and Sharkey matched the voice note for note. Growing up in the shadows of Motown, Sharkey also was a huge fan of R&B greats Brian McKnight and Toni Braxton and considered himself a “megafan” of Michael Jackson. He developed an appreciation of jazz through his aunt, who invited the family to hang out with her at jazz clubs in Chicago. While living with a roommate in his late teens, he was cleaning up and a Harry Connick, Jr. CD happened to fall out. “I put it in and was hooked,” Sharkey says. “I sang along and realized that my voice matched with his very well. To this day, I get Harry Connick comparisons and I always find that flattering.”
After taking musical theatre classes at a local community college, Sharkey moved briefly to New York to explore that world, then returned to Michigan and enrolled at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, where he received a BFA in Fine Arts. While cultivating his musical talents, making those YouTube videos and starting to perform at local jazz clubs (a sold-out show at Cliff Bell’s in 2010 got him on his way), he began developing his skills as a visual artist and painter as well. His work in oils-based pop surrealism/pop contemporary art has been widely praised locally, and, among other events, he had a well-attended showing at N’namdi Center for Contemporary Art showcasing an exhibit of nine 6’ x 4’ paintings of people’s faces he called “Dollface.”
“Both in the visual realm and in music, if you’re an artist at heart, you have no choice but to create original pieces and songs that convey a message about who you are in your soul,” says Sharkey. “Both take a lot of focus and fleshing out of ideas that mean the most to me. With the music, for instance, I’m obviously a big fan of swing, and I have a song called ‘Swing Don’t Cost a Thing,’ which is an ode to my crooner roots and my love for the coolness of wearing a suit in an era where that’s not mandatory like it used to be. So, I wrote a song about having swagger and dressing nice and being attentive to how we should present ourselves to the world.”
> Ben Sharkey
DW3: Band - Urban Soul
With the release of their highly-anticipated Woodward Avenue Records debut, Southern California’s premiere R&B, funk and contemporary urban jazz powerhouse DW3 lets the world in on a cool “Vintage Truth.” Driven by the ever-evolving musical vision of core members - brothers Eric and Billy Mondragon and Damon Reel - their deepening artistry continues to transcend a well-earned reputation as a high energy, fun and freewheeling party band. While they continue to anchor Thursday nights and the 94.7 The Wave Sunday Brunch at Spaghettini in Seal Beach and electrify festival and cruise-goers as they have for more than a decade, the versatile ensemble is rapidly emerging as a multi-faceted recording outfit in their own right.
Building on the success of their 2011 single, “I Got You” featuring Gerald Albright, which hit #16 on the Billboard charts, and the “On The Floor” album that went #1 on the UK soul charts, DW3 – now expanded to nine pieces with the addition of a horn section – captures all the dynamics of their live show on the twelve tracks on “Vintage Truth.” The set features exciting original vocal tracks along with freshly re-imagined covers of classics like The Eagles’ “I Can’t Tell You Why,” Luther Vandross’ “So Amazing” and Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed.” It also includes DW3’s soulful take on The Mamas & the Papas gem “California Dreamin’,” which won the California Lottery Powerball song contest and spawned a popular YouTube video. Eric, Billy and Damon all contribute lead and harmony vocals, while Eric plays keys (including synth horns and strings) and Billy adds percussion.
Reflective of the band’s incredible popularity among the urban jazz community’s fans, core artists and musicians, “Vintage Truth” features contributions from a handful of the genre’s superstar performers. Brian Culbertson plays piano on the opening track, the rousing, vocal harmony laden R&B tune “Let The Music.” Paul Brown produced, mixed and contributes his inimitable guitar to “I Can’t Tell You Why,” while Greg Adams lends trumpet and horns to Eric’s original tune “Hold Me,” and Dave Koz infuses his lush sax emotion on “When You Cry.” Before he passed away, legendary GRAMMY®-winning drummer Ricky Lawson, who performed with DW3 in the final two years of his life, co-produced four of the core tracks on “Vintage Truth” with keyboardist Sean Dancy – including “Dance With Me,” “Overjoyed,” “California Dreamin’” and “When You Cry.” In fact, the band dedicates “Vintage Truth” to “Our Big Brother, the Drummer to the Stars, Mr. Ricky Lawson.”
“We titled the album ‘Vintage Truth’ because of the way we approached the recording process, like a live jam session where the core musicians - the guitarist, bassist, keyboardist and drummer - were in the room playing at the same time,” says Eric. “We rehearsed each song twice, then got in the studio and pressed play. Our previous recordings featured a lot of drum programming, but this project has all live drums. When you’re working with a legend like Ricky, how can you have it otherwise? Another vintage element we added that we absolutely love is the live horns – so much so that we recently added a horn section to our lineup so that we could perform these songs properly onstage.”
Hailing from La Puente, California and growing up in the Los Angeles areas of El Sereno and Lincoln Heights, Eric and Billy began their musical careers in high school by playing club dates with their parents; their father is a bass player, and he and their mom are singers. DW3, an outgrowth of that original family band, which took the Mondragon’s sound and professionalism to the next level, has been an evolving collective of musicians since then – but the core (Down With 3) members since 2003 are Eric, Billy and Damon. They became an integral part of the contemporary urban jazz scene in 2004 when they played on the first Warren Hill Smooth Jazz Cruise and were subsequently booked as resident performers at Spaghettini.
Since the mid-2000s, in addition to their weekly shows at the popular Seal Beach jazz venue, DW3 has built a massive following via their appearances on numerous theme cruises, including The Smooth Jazz Cruise and the Dave Koz Cruise, and captivating performances at the Sea Breeze Jazz Festival, Newport Beach Jazz Festival, Long Beach Jazz Festival, Thornton Winery Champagne Jazz Series, Las Vegas Jazz Festival, San Diego Jazz Festival, JazzFest West, Taste of Soul Festival and many other nightclubs and festivals bookings. In 2015, they will be making their second appearance at Culbertson’s Napa Valley Jazz Getaway, a five-day wine and jazz festival taking place in the heart of Northern California’s wine country. DW3 will also be performing at the inaugural Cancun Jazz Festival over Labor Day Weekend.
While recording several independent albums, including “Live At Spaghettini” and “Life, Love and Music,” DW3 has expanded their artistic horizons performing with and singing background for numerous jazz and R&B legends and popular contemporary artists including Sheila E., Marcus Miller, Brenda Russell, Patti Austin, Bobby Caldwell, Mindi Abair, Jonathan Butler, Jody Watley, Brian McKnight, David Pack, Evelyn “Champagne” King and the late George Duke.
“We’re really excited to share ‘Vintage Truth’ with of our wonderful and loyal longtime fans and new listeners, and believe this is the start of a new phase in our career as recording artists,” says Eric. “Our musicianship both live and in the studio has evolved in amazing ways over the last ten years and we’re so thrilled now to have the horn section joining us. The process of recording this album has helped us ‘up’ our game to create shows that are better, more explosive and feature more original songs in the old school funk/R&B and urban jazz vein than ever before.”
> www.DW3Soul.com > DW3 on iTunes
DARREN RAHN : SAX
With its perfect balance of powerhouse funk, melodic magic, instantly infectious grooves and emotional ballads, Darren Rahn’s highly anticipated Woodward Avenue Records debut transcends its picture perfect title Sonic Boom. But his choice to focus on a single horn voice – after a decade of solo works that mixed things up – earns him a classic jazz reference that could easily have been its alternate title. Tenor Madness was a classic 1956 album by the legendary John Coltrane with the Sonny Rollins Quartet. With his brash, bold and inspiring latest 10 track collection, the multi Grammy nominated multi-instrumentalist, producer, mixing engineer and sonic architect creates the contemporary urban jazz equivalent.
After a decade of hit making, Rahn – who has scored over 25 #1 radio singles for himself and other artists - makes his most dynamic artistic statement yet on a set where “madness” and fun set the tone around an emotional core that’s alternately romantic and poignant. In addition to working with a core of top jazz/funk musicians (guitarist Allen Hinds, bassist Mel Brown, drummers Anthony Steele, Anthony Jones and Tarell Martin), he’s also got a spectacular guest list, vibing intensely with everyone from bassist Julian Vaughn and keyboardist Jonathan Fritzen to trumpet great Rick Braun and famed trombonist Robin Eubanks. Rahn also showcases his lesser known instrumental superpowers on piano, vocals, EWI and retro keyboards like the Hammond B-3 organ and Fender Rhodes.
> DarrenRahn.com > Darren Rahn on iTunes
BROTHER STRUT: Band
There are few bands that can boast members who have played on countless hit records that have sold millions and performed with the biggest artists in the music business. Brother Strut has a whole gang of them, and is a collective of some of the best session musicians in the world. Band members have performed and recorded with artists such as Stevie Wonder, Joe Cocker, Elton John, Tina Turner and Amy Winehouse.
> Brother Strut
DEON YATES: SAXOPHONE
In May of 2015, Deon Yates earned his Master’s of Communications and Public Relations from Lasell College and is now a featured lecturer at Macomb Community College – a renowned Michigan based institution – on the history of jazz music in Detroit. A longtime innovative presence on his hometown’s jazz scene and two time Emmy Award nominee, he brings a fresh and unique perspective on the subject. But that’s just the start of the curriculum for the multi-talented composer and saxophonist. On his infectious, intensely soulful and hard groovin’ Woodward Avenue debut, Yates opens a spirited, high energy School of Funk, offering a dynamic, 11 track master class on the present and future of contemporary urban jazz.
The emotional focus of the collection is on Yates’ unique ability to switch off between tenor, alto and soprano as the lead melodic voice from track to track and create dazzling dual horn harmonies. But like all great teachers, Yates brings in an exciting array of “guest lecturers” and sonic architects to help him break all funk IQ barriers. Chief among these is fellow Michigander and Woodward Avenue Records label mate Nate Harasim, School of Funk’s main producer and co-writer, with Yates, of six of its tracks. In addition to emerging as an eclectic solo artist, Harasim – whose Fender Rhodes and organ vibe provides the perfect complement to Yates’ lead sax action - has brought the radio magic to tracks by Darren Rahn, Julian Vaughn, Michael Lington and others. Yates first met Harasim at a show in Kalamazoo in 2009, and Harasim has participated in a live music series Yates and his wife have produced in Detroit to spotlight up and coming urban jazz performers.
> Deon Yates
When emerging soul/jazz singer Melina talks about the good fortune that took her from being a gigging vocalist in her hometown of San Antonio to a national recording artist with her highly anticipated debut album Wishing On Love, she’ll say things like “Honestly, all this is a dream come true!” Or “I think I’m kind of in a daze!” And then, showing her refreshing sense of gratitude and humility, “It’s hard to say what I am expecting because I never expected any of this.”
But the truth is, from the minute we hear her pure, soulful tones -- with simple piano accompaniment -- on the opening track and first single “Maybe Not Today,” it’s the listener who gratefully enters the cool and often surreal musical dreamscape created by her and guitarist/producer Paul Brown. We’re the ones dazed and dazzled by this naturally gifted musical storyteller’s ability to tap into the joys, challenges and raw emotions of her own life, which allows her to take us on this initial journey. It’s an adventure that reminds us - in an often hard world where good news is increasingly harder to come by – that if today doesn’t bring that love and joy, we just need to wait for tomorrow.
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