Mykeljon and Groovexpress – Ukrainian Doll (2014)

A multinational band, Groovexpress plays like its resume – deep, wide and with a canny sense of timing and gumption.

A 30-year jazz vet, guitar-playing leader Mykeljon Winckell studied music at Australia’s Queensland Conservatorium of Music before moving to LA. Meanwhile, collaborator Haggis Maguiness is a harmonica-playing legend in Australasia. Bassist Bruce Kerr has played with an expanse of artists ranging from Shirley Bassey and Leo Sayer to Roger Whittaker and Todd Rundgren, while keyboardist Ernest Semu might be best remembered for his stint with Cairo. Then there’s saxist Robert Kyle, a veteran of shows and sessions with everyone from Michael McDonald and Linda Ronstadt to Cee-Lo Green and Chaka Khan.

All of that experience is brought to bear on Ukrainian Doll, which unfolds like the all-star session that it is. There’s almost nothing they can’t do, as this project so amply shows – and right from the first.

Mykeljon’s electric doubles nicely with Maguiness’ harmonica to form the initial groove on “E Type Blues,” with Kyle’s horn working in counterpoint. Then the song settles into a urban atmosphere filled with sharp asides by Mykeljon, Semu (on electric piano), Kyle (who returns with for a slinky turn), and finally Maguiness (whose solo combines the best elements of Stevie Wonder and Toots Thielemans.

For all of the opening tracks easy urbanity, “Pretty Little Thang” rumbles out with a completely different goal. You could, in fact, redub this one “Pretty Little Blues.” Mykeljon’s approach is sharp and tangy, with no small amount of Wes Montgomery influence. Early in Semu makes an appropriate switch to a gurgling organ – while Maguiness’ harp delves into dark new areas – before offering a tough assessment of things on electric piano again. Kerr and drummer Isaac Sanchez, meanwhile, remain the song’s thumping heart, imbuing this song with attitude and gumption.

“Mi Bella Paola” updates the guttural, straight-forward approach of “Pretty Little Thang,” bringing in more smooth-jazz influences – but keeping the sharp-edged, soulful attitude. Mykeljon’s guitar work spans the gamut between both, working delicate counterpoint to Kerr’s ascending lines on bass before catching a sizzling groove behind Maguiness’ R&B-soaked ruminations. Maguiness opens up “No Way Home” on a similar, soul-jazz note, even as Sanchez and Kerr dig deeper, but Mykeljon eventually leads the song into sunnier spaces. He later tangles brilliantly with Semu, again on the electric piano.

By its title, “I Say Praise” might be expected to include some overt gospel overtones, but instead it’s a gorgeous reminiscence – filled with thoughtful moments by Semu on acoustic piano, Maguiness on harp (again assuming Wonder’s springy attitude), and Mykeljon (who this time plays with the mainstream approachability of George Benson). The only song on this set not composed exclusively by Mykeljon follows, as the Maguiness receives a co-writing credit “Ukrainian Doll,” a funky delight. The two again work in a tight little tandem, running side by side and then separating to express their own smart asides. But they’re not alone in making this track work. Kyle and Semu make important contributions as well, ultimately constructing one of the album’s most collaborative sounding moments.

On the other hand, “High Heels” doesn’t do enough to separate itself from an ocean of other similarly pop-influenced R&B-influenced smooth jazz songs that have come before. It’s pleasant enough, but not nearly as distinctive as the rest of Ukrainian Doll. Groovexpress bounces back nicely, however, with “Tell Me Why” – a twilit ballad that gives plenty of room for each member to shine. Its spacious beginning works as a showcase for the layered drum work of Sanchez, who eventually supports standout solo moments from Semu’s piano, Kyle’s sax and Mykeljon’s guitar. As before Kyle and Mykeljon quietly trace along with one another before going their own way, while Semu’s trickling asides – and the occasional flourish by Kerr – serve to add an air of expectation.

“Foxy Brown” finds the group returning to a classic Blue Note space, keyed by Semu’s switch to organ, before Mykeljon switches to acoustic for a gorgeous album-closing assignation.

Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.

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