Bobby Watson

Made In America
(Smoke Sessions)

Alto saxophonist Bobby Watson has always been a thoughtful, honest and open musician. In his 63rd year, we can add “wise” to that description. His sagacity is on display with Made In America, his latest recording for Smoke Session Records. Watson displays that rarest ability to truly express not just feelings, but also full-fledged stories through his playing. On Made In America, he chooses to tell the stories of underappreciated black pioneers from all walks of life. “The Aviator ‘For Wendell Pruitt,’” serves as an ode to a Tuskegee Airman who was killed during a training exercise in 1945. “The Butterfly ‘For Butterfly McQueen,’” serves as a jazz-noir beauty in honor of the great actress best known for her role as Prissy in Gone With The Wind. “The Guitarist” bows toward Grant Green, the great jazz musician who influenced generations on the instrument. “I’ve Gottta Be Me” reminds us that Sammy Davis Jr. was much more than a Rat Pack sidekick. Watson considers the lyrics to that song near and dear to his personal journey through life, with no doubt that he “won’t give up this dream that keeps me alive.” Watson also penned “The G.O.A.T ‘For Sammy Davis Jr.’” because he considers Davis one of the greatest all-around performers in history. There are plenty of other terrific tributes on this record—we won’t mention them all here. Suffice it to say that all are played with Watson’s innate Kansas City soul and style and impeccable backing by the Curtis Lundy Trio, which features Lundy on bass, Stephen Scott on piano and Lewis Nash on drums. As a whole, Watson delivers a history lesson, a love letter and a casual masterpiece for generations to enjoy. It’s a wonderful listen.

Corky Siegel's Chamber Blues

Different Voices
(Dawnserly Records)

Corky Siegel is an underappreciated national treasure. The music he makes is so unusual that for his latest release, Different Voices, he has included a description on the album cover: “Blues Harmonica and Classical String Quartet.” For more than 50 years, Siegel has been melding his masterful blues harmonica playing with accessible classical music, and at age 73, he has just released an album containing some of the best work of his career. On paper, it might sound as if Siegel weaves together various instruments and genres just for the sake of being eccentric, or educational. But in practice, the 12 songs on Different Voices form a cohesive program, all tied together by his emotive harmonica work. The opening track, “Missing Persons Blues–Op. 26,” features a terrific tenor saxophone solo by jazz titan Ernie Watts. “One” contains soaring, hypnotic vocals by rock singer Matthew Santos, who, at times, sounds a bit like the late Jeff Buckley. Siegel recruited singer-songwriter Marcy Levy (aka Marcella Detroit) to sing lead on a slow, fresh rendition of “Lay Down Sally,” a classic that she wrote with Eric Clapton and George Terry. Octogenarian bluesman Sam Lay offers an authentic reading of “Flip, Flop And Fly,” which is preceded by Siegel’s compelling original composition “Italian Shuffle.” Siegel teams up with folk trio Sons of the Never Wrong for an epic version of the gospel standard “I’ll Fly Away.” An arrangement of “Galloping Horses” pairs the erhu (an ancient, two-stringed fiddle played by violinist Chihsuan Yang) with vocal beat-boxing (deftly delivered by Santos). It’s extremely impressive that the core band—Siegel, Yang, Jaime Gorgojo (violin), Dave Moss (viola) and Jocelyn Butler Shoulders (cello)—can craft music that gracefully incorporates contributions from diverse collaborators, including tabla players Sandeep Das and Frankie Donaldson, yet still feels wholly organic. Among the upcoming concerts by Corky Siegel’s Chamber Blues are shows at the Acorn Theater in Three Oaks, Michigan (April 9); Colectivo in Milwaukee (May 13) and City Winery in Chicago (June 2).

Gerald Clayton

Tributary Tales

Pianist Gerald Clayton has a decidedly West Coast jazz pedigree: his father is Los Angeles bass legend John Clayton, and his uncle is reedist and educator Jeff Clayton, a California institution. Gerald long ago uprooted from his home soil—trading L.A. surf for New York skyscrapers in the mid-2000s—but his experiences on the Pacific Coast have shaped his jazz aesthetic and remain a guiding force in his growth as an artist. He reflects on those formative influences on his new album, Tributary Tales, which merges the popular music of his youth—hip-hop and r&b of the ’80s and ’90s—with his own liquid-cool brand of modern jazz. Clayton has long served as a sideman to similarly groove-minded artists, with notable stints in the ensembles of trumpeter Roy Hargrove and drummer Kendrick Scott, and his latest album draws handily from those sources. “Soul Stomp,” with its deep, comfy pocket, nods to a gospel aesthetic, while “Lovers Reverie,” which features spoken-word artists Aja Monet and Carl Hancock Rux, recalls sultry r&b, illuminating themes of love and intimacy with poignant lyrics: “You are the lips I walk through drenched in another man/Eyes as stained glass windows, your face shines in spirit,” intones Monet. Sharper, more angular corners protrude through “Squinted,” on which Gabriel Lugo adds crackling percussion and vocalist Sachal Vasandani lends haunting wordless vocals. But there are also moments of unfathomable tenderness, nowhere more prominent than on “Reflect On,” a brief solo excursion in which the pianist contrasts streaks of upper-register notes against an aching lower-register drone. As impressive as Clayton’s pianism may be, his compositions—and their ability to showcase the talents of the album’s many guest stars—deserve equal praise. Alto saxophonist Logan Richardson is a glowing presence on numerous tracks, and he’s abetted by fellow reedists Dayna Stephens and Ben Wendel on several others (bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Justin Brown round out the rhythm section). It’s a collective of great cogency and strength, a crew singularly capable of navigating the many tributaries that feed into Clayton’s vast musical vision.



It’s hard to believe that Kneebody, a wondrous, take-no-prisoners experiment in groove and sonics, has been around for 16 years and 11 albums. The music the group makes on Anti-Hero sounds as fresh as the first needle drop of its debut recording, Wendel, back in 2002. At the same time, Anti-Hero serves as a reminder of the beauty of such a group staying together for a good long stretch. The rhythm section of keyboardist Adam Benjamin, bassist Kaveh Rastegar and drummer Nate Wood is tight, thoughtful and downright surprising. The horn line oozes power, with trumpeter Shane Endsley and saxophonist Ben Wendel launching bombs and twisting lines. “I’ve often joked that our band is almost infamous at this point for being extremely hard to describe,” Wendel said in press materials for the disc. “I’ve always been proud of that. The music we’re doing is always new but the band itself is not new. Kneebody has always been our creative home. It’s always been the ground for us.” It’s not that Kneebody defies genres, it’s simply that the band refuses to be cornered by them. Like the best of all improvised music, the sound palette of Kneebody takes influences from many sources—’70s fusion, heavy metal, hip-hop, bebop and classic soul, just to name a few. If you’re a fan of music with rough edges and deep grooves, give tunes like “For The Fallen” and “Drum Battle” a spin. If you like a good head-banging groove, “The Balloonist” is your jam. But there are also some great atmospheric glides on this album, like “Profar,” “Carry On” and “Austin Peralta.” The pacing of this recording is also special. Clocking in at just under an hour, Anti-Hero revs you up, then chills you out. And stick around for the hidden outro at the end: It’s a nod to musical history that sums up this group perfectly. The musicians in Kneebody know where this music has been and where they want to take it. On Anti-Hero, they’ve created a vehicle that lets us simply enjoy the ride.

Christian Sands

(Mack Avenue)

Sometimes when artists release their first leader project for a major label, the album serves as a calling card that tells the jazz world, “Here’s what I can do.” That’s the case with Christian Sands, 27, who was a finalist in the American Pianists Awards competition. His leader debut for Mack Avenue, Reach, showcases his significant talents as an imaginative composer, a clever arranger and a skillful technician with a fluid style. The album includes eight original compositions and two intriguing covers. Four of the songs are piano trio tunes—with bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Marcus Baylor—and elsewhere the band is joined by guests Marcus Stickland (tenor saxophone, bass clarinet), Cristian Rivera (percussion) and Gilad Hekselman (electric guitar). Sands’ frequent collaborator Christian McBride, who produced the album with Al Pryor, contributes a brief but powerful arco solo to a rendition of Bill Withers’ 1972 hit “Use Me.” On “Armando’s Song,” Sands’ precise yet intricate piano lines reflect the influence of Chick Corea, who inspired the song. Sands pays homage to a couple of departed piano titans, Bud Powell and Herbie Nichols, with “Bud’s Tune.” The excellent track “Óyeme!” with its Afro-Cuban feel, illustrates some of the musical palette that Sands burnished while working with Bobby Sanabria. “Freefall,” which features electronic keyboard overdubs, has a futuristic vibe, illustrating Sands’ openness to experimental sounds. He concludes the album with a ballad, “Somewhere Out There,” which appeared on the soundtrack to the animated film An American Tale. Even listeners who find Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram’s duo version from 1987 to be too sentimental are likely to be won over by Sands’ arrangement, which offers delicate beauty, ominous moods and a satisfying conclusion.

Preservation Hall Jazz Band

So It Is
(Sony Legacy)

Bassist/tuba player Ben Jaffe, who leads the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, recently commented on the mission of the long-running New Orleans institution: “Interpreting the repertoire that’s been around for 100 years is one thing, but the challenge is to keep that repertoire and those traditions alive while at the same time being honest about who you are as a musician, allowing all of your musical influences to be reflected in what you create.” The band’s new album, which is only the second one in its discography to feature all original compositions, reflects the influence of indie rock, hip-hop and Afro-Cuban rhythms (which PHJB was exposed to during a trip to Cuba). So It Is was produced by David Sitek of the acclaimed rock group TV on the Radio. The result is a 34-minute, fat-free joy ride. PHJB has been around for decades, but the new album makes it clear that these musicians do not want to be thought of as a dusty museum exhibit. The octet has cranked up the fun factor with a program that features shoulder-shaking, hip-swaying tunes that will fill the dance floor. The Afro-Cuban influence is evidenced on “La Malanga,” which is spiced with Branden Lewis’ wailing trumpet and Kyle Roussel’s compelling piano lines. On the track “Innocence,” Charlie Gabriel’s clarinet adds an intriguing, almost world-music flair. Whether he’s playing organ, acoustic piano or Wurlitzer electric piano, Roussel—who is a relatively new addition to the band—keeps the sparks flying. Meanwhile, the tenor sax duo of Gabriel and Clint Maedgen ensure that the infectious PHJB vibe anchors the proceedings. Between gigs at the enormous music festivals Coachella (April 14 and 21) and Bonnaroo (June 9), the PHJB will make a stop at the Highline Ballroom in New York City (April 25).

David L. Harris

Blues I Felt
(Self Release)

“A Pisces’ Dream,” the opening track of trombonist David L. Harris’ debut solo album, is a “Here I am” moment if there ever was one, a gesture of exhilarating presence and elevated spirits that announces the arrival of lively new trombone voice. It’s a standout track on an album rife with highlights, and its kinetic climax packs a visceral punch. Even within straightahead jazz, trombone-led albums are rare animals, and it’s refreshing to encounter a project that is stellar not just for the uniqueness of its instrumentation but for the strength of its compositions and the sheer force of its swing. Lee’s original tunes are the scaffolding of this substantial disc (of the 11 tracks, seven are the composer’s own). As a tunesmith, he tends toward a soulful, hard-bop mode, with melodies that push forward as if walking into the wind. “DJ’s Induction” is a barrage of hard, brassy refrains, and features intricate solo work by the leader and pianist Shea Pierre. The bluesy title track packs similar thrust, steered with great authority by bassist Jasen Weaver and drummer Miles Labat. Lee possesses a warm, burnished tone—just witness his plunger-muted ventriloquism on “Old Man Speaks”—but he’s also an impressive vocalist, and his clean, honey-dipped voice enlivens four tracks. A cover of Isham Jones’ “There Is No Greater Love” is an especially noteworthy vocal demonstration, as is Lee’s arrangement of Joe Raposo’s “Bein’ Green,” on which the playfully lonesome lyrics—made famous by Kermit the Frog—are delivered with utmost seriousness and care. A high branch on a family tree of New Orleans trombonists, Lee makes sure to acknowledge his lineage. “Dewey’s Notion” is a tribute to the trombonist’s mentor, Delfeayo Marsalis, whose Uptown Jazz Orchestra served as an early proving ground. And Lee’s take on “Mood Indigo” isolates the famous Ellington melody as performed by trombone great Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton.

Miles Okazaki


Guitarist Miles Okazaki spent the early phase of his career establishing his bona fides as an accompanist, and in due time became a premier harmonic foil for vocalists like Jane Monheit and Jen Shyu, whose records are significantly enhanced by Okazaki’s harmonic tapestries. But at some point during that early stretch, the Harvard-educated, Juilliard-trained guitarist took a turn toward experimentalism, and in pursuit of that aesthetic, he soon found himself in the prestigious company of avant innovators like Steve Coleman, Matt Mitchell and Dan Weiss. Okazaki’s latest album, Trickster, is his first leader album in five years, and his first for the Pi label. It also ranks among his bravest and most artistically ambitious recordings to date. Trickster was originally inspired by Lewis Hyde’s book Trickster Makes This World. As Okazaki describes it, “The trickster figure is an ancient archetype in human folklore. They are creative in nature, using mischief and magic to disrupt the state of things, breaking taboos and conventions, opening doorways.” There is, to that end, an undeniable sense of sleight-of-hand at play, though of a cerebral sort. Okazaki and his quartet—Craig Taborn on piano, Anthony Tidd on bass and Sean Rickman on drums—craft the kind of sonic puzzles that, while beautiful to behold, provide additional satisfaction as they are eventually deciphered. “Box In A Box,” for example, distorts the senses with its rotating tetrachords, wayward bass line and shape-shifting drum beat—yet it remains unfailingly catchy. “Black Bolt” evokes a similar sense of being off-balance, pitting a roiling bass line against Okazaki’s spasms of guitar. That’s not to say the album is all musical calculus. Several tracks approach the pulse of swing, with “Mischief Maker” and “The West” among the most radiant of that bunch. And on the solo piece “Borderland,” Okazaki even flashes some of the acoustic delicateness of his early, straightahead days. Trickster is an intellectually hefty album that feels weightless—a neat trick, and the perfect first step for listeners just beginning their ascent into the avant-garde.

Roxy Coss

Chasing The Unicorn

On her third outing as a leader, multi-reedist and composer Roxy Coss makes a major step as a musician and artist. Playing soprano and tenor saxophones on this date, Coss proves to be terrific on both horns, each giving her a different voice upon which to build. She plays a leaping, lilting soprano on the title track of this 11-song set, evoking a winsome journey to find the illusive, or unfindable. Next up, she digs into Joe Henderson’s “A Shade Of Jade,” offering a gritty tenor take on this terrific uptempo shaker. On both horns, Coss demonstrates a tremendously lyrical approach that entertains and inspires, whether on pop standards like the Beatles’ “Oh! Darling” and Willie Nelson’s “Crazy,” or via her wispy, low-end tenor sound on Wayne Shorter’s “Virgo.” Coss brings a cool, modern vibe to the proceedings with Lionel Loueke’s “Benny’s Tune,” but she’s also an accomplished composer. Tunes like “You’re There,” “Free To Be,” “Endless Cycle” and “Never Enough” slide beautifully into this set. And her band for this date—pianist Glenn Zaleski, guitarist Alex Wintz, bassist Rick Rosato and drummer Jimmy Macbride—lay it down with grace and a little grease. Zaleski serves as a terrific front-line foil on tunes like “You’re There.” He is a pianist of great touch and taste. Rosato grooves hard throughout the set, driven by Macbride’s dynamic beats. Coss notes that the imagery of chasing the unicorn signifies a choice—to pursue your dreams or stay within the boundaries of your fears. Here, there’s no question: Coss is going after her dream.

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On Sale Now
June 2017
Diana Krall
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