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Randy Napoleon Trio: East Coast Meets West Coast – A Singer Showcase

June 22, 2023 @ 7:30 pm

randy napoleon singer showcase

East Coast meets West Coast – A Singer Showcase

Randy Napoleon Trio featuring

vocalists Aubrey Johnson and Melissa Morgan

with Rodney Whitaker (bass); David Alvarez III (drums)

Thursday, June 22nd at 7:30 pm

Critically-acclaimed guitarist and arranger from the national scene, Randy Napoleon (also an Ann Arbor native) returns to the House bringing two award-winning, Downbeat-recognized jazz singers of today as different in style as the places they call home. West Coast singer, Melissa Morgan, is influenced by tradition (Nancy Wilson & Dinah Washington) but “isn’t copying anybody” (London Evening Standard). East Coast singer Aubrey Johnson’s “bright crystalline vocal tone” and “creative versatility” (JazzTimes) have earned her recognition as both a singer and arranger. To bridge the gap between coasts, Napoleon has assembled a Midwest trio comprised of fellow nationally sought-after players: Rodney Whitaker on bass and David Alvarez III on drums.

Sponsored by Ensemble Concert Sponsors Dan & Monica Atkins

Aubrey Johnson, vocals
Melissa Morgan, vocals
Randy Napoleon, guitar
Rodney Whitaker, bass
David Alvarez, III, drums
Aubrey Johnson, vocals

Aubrey Johnson is a New York-based vocalist, composer, and educator. Her debut record, Unraveled, featuring her original music and arrangements and produced by Steve Rodby of the Pat Metheny Group, was released on Outside In Music in 2020. Play Favorites, her duo album with the pianist Randy Ingram was released on Sunnyside Records in 2022. Among the 40+ albums Aubrey has appeared on as a sideperson are Bobby McFerrin’s Grammy-nominated release, VOCAbuLaries, Arturo O’Farrill’s Grammy Award-winning album Four Questions, and Lyle Mays’ Grammy Award-winning Eberhard. Aubrey holds faculty positions at Montclair State University and Queens College.

Melissa Morgan, vocals

“This is a wake up call. Melissa Morgan is a contagious true jazz singer and she simply grows on you with intoxication. She fulfills prerequisites for the status of an extraordinary and refreshing authentic jazz singer. I predict she is the one we’ve been waiting for”. – jazz critic, historian, educator, former president of IAJE Dr. Herb Wong.

Melissa Morgan is a soulful singer that tells her story with a vulnerability that endears the audience to go along the journey with her. Her voice is a painting with many colors and textures, and as Joni Mitchell said, “has many blues”.

Jazz wasn’t an early find for Melissa. She started with classical piano and voice, signing with classical choirs and eventually studying opera with Dr. Maredia Warren and Katherine Harris. Melissa found jazz her senior year in high school, thus switching her major from classical voice to jazz, receiving her BA SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Music.

She absorbed lessons in harmony and interpretation by frequenting clubs in New York, such as Small’s, The Vanguard, Iridium and Smoke. She held a Sunday residency at Smoke, which allowed her to develop her own sound once establishing her major influences: Nancy Wilson, Dinah Washington and Etta Jones.

In 2004, Melissa was a semi-finalist at the prestigious Thelonious Monk Competition which took place at The Smithsonian, judged by luminaries Dee Dee Bridgewater, Kurt Elling, Al Jarreau, Quincy Jones, Flora Purim and Jimmy Scott. This appearance helped her secure a contract with Telarc Records.

Melissa’s 2009 debut recording “Until I Met You” was recorded with a most eclectic ensemble so fortuitously assembled – Gerald Clayton, Joe Sanders, Kevin Kanner, Randy Napoleon, Francisco Torres, Ben Wendel, and Tim Green. This is a treasured memory Melissa often smiles about just thinking how wild it was these musicians were available at the same time. This was an album so warmly received by listeners, radio, and writers.

“Melissa Morgan isn’t copying anybody” – London Evening Standard.

“The more audacious Morgan is decidedly salty” – Jazz Times.

“Given the spicy edge in her sexy voice, her dry allure and the way she pops the words like a whip on a gospel choir, Morgan’s time has come” – DownBeat

Her second album released indepedently in 2016, “Days Like This” again captures her dear friends Gerald Clayton, Sam Minaie, Kevin Kanner, Graham Dechter, Matt Garrison and Gilbert Castellanos. This record explored Melissa’s vulnerable side with elastic ballads like “You Don’t Know Me” and “Wild Is The Wind”. She shows her powerful blues on “Some of My Best Friends Are The Blues” and Marlena Shaw’s “California Soul”

Currently, Melissa is touring, working on a compilation of music that moves as a soundtrack, and writing vignettes to accompany this musical story.

She has been doing jazz workshops at universities and high schools to discuss the art of accompanying a singer for instrumentalists, how a singer connects with a song and engages with a rhythm section.

Melissa is committed to carrying on the heart of the tradition and the generosity she has experienced from the legends she has been fortunate to encounter onto the next generation of jazz messengers.

Randy Napoleon, guitar

Known as a forward-thinking musician with a passion for the jazz tradition, guitarist Randy Napoleon is an Associate Professor at Michigan State University. He is currently touring as a leader after twenty years of road apprenticeship with some of the most celebrated musicians and groups of our time.

Napoleon cut his teeth touring with pianist Benny Green, The Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, Michael Bublé, and a thirteen year tenure with Freddy Cole. He has also performed with artists across the jazz spectrum such as Bill Charlap, Natalie Cole, Monty Alexander, Rodney Whitaker and John Pizzarelli.

Napoleon has performed or arranged on over seventy records. He arranged as well as performed on Freddy Cole’s seven most recent records including the Grammy-nominated releases, Freddy Cole Sings Mr. B and My Mood Is You. He performed on The Clayton Hamilton Orchestra: Live at MCG. Napoleon is featured on Bublé’s Grammy-nominated CD/DVD Caught in the Act.

Napoleon has played on The Tonight Show, Late Night With David Letterman, The View, The Today Show, and The Ellen DeGeneres show as well as TV shows in South America, Europe and Asia. He has performed across the globe at notable venues including Royal Albert Hall, The Sydney Opera House, The Hollywood Bowl, and Lincoln Center.

Guitarist George Benson calls Napoleon “sensational.” Detroit Free Press critic Mark Stryker says Napoleon “plays with a gentle, purring tone that makes you lean in close to hear its range of color and articulation.” Washington Post critic Mike Joyce praises his “exceptionally nimble finger-style technique.” Comparing him to Wes Montgomery, music critic Michael G. Nastos says, “he displays an even balance of swing, soul, and single-line or chord elements that mark an emerging voice dedicated to tradition and universally accessible jazz values.”

Napoleon has four records as a band leader with a fifth, Common Tones, released Oct 4, 2019 on the Detroit Music Factory label.

Rodney Whitaker, bass

Internationally renowned bassist and Origin Records recording artist, Rodney Whitaker, currently holds the titles of Professor of Jazz Bass and Director of Jazz Studies at Michigan State University where he has built one of the leading jazz degree programs and performing faculty in the world. He is considered one of the leading performers and teachers of the jazz double bass in the United States. He is also the Artistic Director of the Michigan State University Professors of Jazz, former Artistic Advisor of Jazz @ Wharton Center, Director of Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Civic Jazz Orchestra and a former member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Whitaker received his first national recognition performing with the Harrison/Blanchard Quintet.

Building on his Detroit roots and enormous talent, Whitaker went on to earn an international reputation as one of the world’s finest jazz double bass performer. He completed seven-year tenure as bassist with Wynton Marsalis’ Septet and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. He has toured the world over the last twenty-five years, collaborating and performing with legendary jazz artists such as Jimmy Heath, Eric Reed, Cyrus Chestnut, Vanessa Rubin, Kathleen Battle, Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, Diana Krall, Jon Faddis, Donald Harrison, Terence Blanchard, Rodney Jones, Wycliffe Gordon, Kenny Burrell, Bob James, Benny Golson, Regina Carter, Pat Matheny, Nicholas Payton, Jimmy Cobb, Joshua Redman, Stephon Harris, Johnny O’Neal, Marcus Belgrave, James Carter, Steve Turre, Claudio Roditi, Junko Onishi, Harry Allen, Ronnie Matthews, Chick Corea, Kenny Garrett, Kevin Mahogany, Ingrid Jensen, Barry Harris, Ron Blake, Jeff Clayton, Dana Hall, Gerald Wilson, Sean Jones, Niki Harris, Wessell Anderson, Don Vappie, Johnny O’Neal, Cedar Walton, Renee Rosnes, Randy Brecker, Rickey Woodard, Bobby Shew, Gary Smulyan, Joe LaBarbera, Randy Napolean, Peter Martin, Nnenna Freelon, Donald Byrd, Branford Marsalis, Greg Hutchinson, Carl Allen, Herlin Riley, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Terrell Stafford, Tim Warfield, Bruce Barth, Jon Carl Hendricks, Roy Hargrove, the late greats: Dizzy Gelispie, Mulgrew Miller, Tommy Flanagan, John Lewis, Marian McPartland, Donald Walden, Joe Henderson, Hank Jones, Frank Morgan and Betty ‘Bebop’ Carter as well as performing with leading symphony orchestras world-wide. Whitaker has also toured internationally as a featured performer with the Roy Hargrove Quintet. In addition, he has appeared and presented master classes at the International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE) conferences.

Rodney is one of the hardest working and swinging bass players on the scene and has recorded with great musicians such as Roy Hargrove, Pat Metheny and Wynton Marsalis. Featured on more than 100+ recordings — from film to compact discs — Whitaker’s film scores, China, directed by Jeff Wray, was released on PBS Fall 2002 and Malaria and Malawi, released on PBS Fall 2010. Also, Whitaker has a DVD release featuring Michigan State University’s Jazz Department entitled, “Inside Jazz”. In 2011, he was nominated for an EMMY for the ‘Original Music’ category, “Malawi and Malaria: Fighting to Save the Children” produced by Robert Gould and Sue Carter.

A proven and committed jazz educator, Whitaker has presented numerous master classes across the nation at locations such as Duke University, Howard University, University of Iowa, University of Michigan, Barbican in London, the New School (NY), Lincoln Center, and the Detroit International Jazz Festival. In addition, he is a consultant with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in the development of the jazz education department, and has served on the faculties of University of Michigan and Julliard Institute of Jazz.

In 2006, he was nominated for the Juno Award, Canada’s equivalent to the Grammy, for his work on “Let Me Tell You About My Day,” produced by Alma Records. Whitaker collaborated with musicians Phil Dwyer (musician) and Alan Jones on the album, which was nominated for Traditional Jazz Album of the Year.

Now based in East Lansing, Whitaker continues to serve many of the talented in the state of Michigan. His legacy of teaching promises to be distinguished with former students currently performing with jazz greats such as Wynton Marsalis, Dianne Reeves, Pat Matheny, The Count Basie Orchestra and Stephon Harris.

Whitaker attended Wayne State University, studied with trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, bassists-Stephen Molina, Ralph Armstrong, the late Herbie Williams (trumpeter) and the late Robert Gladstone (bassist).

David Alvarez, III, drums

David Alvarez III is a jazz drummer, composer, arranger, and music educator in Detroit, Michigan. He was introduced to the drum set at age five where he grew up playing in church. At age nine, he began his jazz education through a summer program called The Arts League of Michigan. For eight years, he was part of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Civic Youth Ensemble jazz program where he was mentored by professors and students from the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. During his undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan, he was selected to be a member of the 2015 Disney All-American College Band; through this opportunity, he gained professional performance experience and participated in music entrepreneurship masterclasses. In 2017, he graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree of Fine Arts in Jazz Studies with Teacher Certification. Since then, he toured nationally with the Benny Green Trio and is currently a member of the Clayton Brothers Quintet. For the past three years, he has performed with both of these groups on The Jazz Cruise. David freelances and teaches music in Southeast Michigan.


June 22, 2023
7:30 pm
Event Category:


Kerrytown Concert House
415 N. 4th Avenue
Ann Arbor, MI 48104 United States
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Kerrytown Concert House