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Sam Newsome: The Straight Horn of Africa: A Path to Liberation

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What began as a casual introduction at a rehearsal for a Grateful Dead tribute orchestra has blossomed into a fine pop-jazz partnership, and it only took two decades. The band was Joe Gallant’s Illuminati and, throughout their shared three-year stint in the mid-’90s, vocalist Jenna Mammina and guitarist Rolf Sturm worked on plans to tour and record as a duo. But life and other career opportunities got in the way. Then, early last year, their paths re-crossed at a Manhattan music conference and the urge to unite was relit.

Sturm’s rock, pop and folk leanings, all evident across these dozen tracks, have synthesized into a jazz-informed style strongly reminiscent of Laurindo Almeida. Mammina’s sweet, pure, slightly fragile sound simultaneously suggests Cyndi Lauper and Kat Edmonson, yet there are distinct interpretive hints of her hero Abbey Lincoln (to whom she paid album-length tribute in 2013). Mammina is also a vaunted educator, with popular kids’ programs devoted to both rock and jazz.

Their playlist is as eclectic as their histories, venturing from the silken soul of the Stylistics’ “Betcha by Golly, Wow” to the shadowy folds of Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives.” They cover Carole King, James Taylor, John Mayer, even Jobim. But Mammina and Sturm’s most interesting interplay is reserved for jazz standards: a sexy, almost pouty “Route 66”; a loping, misty “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans”; and a sharp-edged “Love Me or Leave Me.”

Originally Published