By Bobby Reed
Drummer Nate Smith’s skills as a bandleader are evidenced by the cohesiveness of his splendid debut, KINFOLK: Postcards From Everywhere, which features numerous special guests. The core band of Smith (drums, percussion, Fender Rhodes, synthesizers), Jeremy Most (guitars), Fima Ephron (electric bass), Jaleel Shaw (alto and soprano saxophones) and Kris Bowers (keyboards) is joined on select tracks by tenor saxophonist Chris Potter, guitarists Lionel Loueke and Adam Rogers, acoustic bassist Dave Holland, a four-piece string section and vocalists Gretchen Parlato, Amma Whatt and Michael Mayo. That’s quite a cast to corral, but Smith has chosen his guests carefully, ensuring that their individual strengths are utilized. Parlato contributes to the track “Pages,” and her distinctive phrasing, along with Bowers’ terrific piano work, make it an album highlight. With its head-bobbing groove, funky “scratch” guitar work from Most and knotty sax lines from Shaw and Potter, “Bounce: Parts I & II” showcases Smith as a self-taught groove master. The album mainly consists of Smith’s original compositions, but his moody interpretation of avant-pop band Stereolab’s 1999 song “The Spiracles” illustrates his willingness to reach outside the jazz realm for inspiration. The gorgeous ballad “Home Free (For Peter Joe),” which closes the disc, is a tribute to Smith’s paternal grandfather. The theme of family and appreciating the sacrifices of one’s ancestors is also illustrated by the inclusion of emotional spoken-word recordings of the leader’s mother and father. There’s only one drum solo on this album, a sign that Smith—whose resume includes accompanist work with Holland, Potter and Ravi Coltrane—has become a generous leader who eschews flash in favor of substance.
By Brian Zimmerman
When it comes to jazz, who says melody and mystery are mutually exclusive? Certainly not the Illinois-based New Standard Duo, whose self-titled album from Ropeadope Records elegantly fuses explorations of the Great American Songbook with adventures into the Great Unknown. Part standard repertoire, part free improvisation, this duo recording by tenor saxophonist Robert Brooks and drummer Eric Binder combines the familiar with the foreign. That juxtaposition can make for a pleasantly jarring experience, for as soon as listeners think they have landed on solid musical ground, they are quickly whisked away into alien territory. Other times, the transition from melodicism to experimentation is a slow dissolve. The group’s version of “All The Things You Are,” for example, takes the famous melody and gradually unbraids the motivic strands, resulting in a loosened tapestry that is both a transfiguration and a tribute. With no chordal instrument to circumscribe the harmony, Binder and Brooks take great license to color outside the lines. Their sweeping rendition of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” feels rhythmically unfettered, a drastic alteration of the original, with its jagged, quick-step chord changes. In the hands of lesser improvisers, the tune could easily become squirrely, but Brooks and Binder, both of whom are currently pursuing doctoral degrees in jazz at the University of Illinois, retain the structural integrity of the song even as the walls come tumbling down around them. There are numerous pleasures on this six-track album, including a dreamy excursion through the standard “Alice In Wonderland,” which, with its jaunts, loops and switchbacks, re-creates the sensation of tumbling down the rabbit hole.
By Ed Enright
Ingrid and Christine Jensen explore calm, deep waters in pursuit of a collective feeling on their Whirlwind debut, Infinitude. Realizing a long-held ambition to write for and perform in the intimate setting of a quintet, these two West Canadian sisters—along with guitarist Ben Monder, bassist Fraser Hollins and drummer Jon Wikan (Ingrid’s husband)—immerse themselves in a seemingly boundless creative environment where patience and discovery rule the day. The conversational feel that pervades Infinitude (their first album as co-producers) is set on the very first track, “Blue Yonder,” where Ingrid’s dulcet trumpet tones meld with Christine’s legato alto saxophone in an initial unison passage before the instruments branch off to weave silky lines into multihued tapestries. Monder’s understated entrance into the fold has a profound effect: He plays with quiet fire throughout Infinitude, his heavily affected instrument conjuring a full orchestra’s worth of near-whispered textures and tonality. Encompassing everything from carefully composed, gentle melodic lines to utterly free, spontaneous passages, Infinitude presents a vast soundscape. The program offers hints of Christine’s well-documented expertise as a large-ensemble orchestrator and Ingrid’s proven strengths as a contemporary improviser, but revolves around a concept all its own—one that’s utterly organic. For further insight into the genesis of Infinitude, read DownBeat’s feature on Christine and Ingrid in the March 2017 issue. To get a preview of the music and hear the Jensens eloquently describe its creation, check out these three official trailers: Unleashing Freedom, Letting Go and Intimate Voices.
By Ed Enright
Volume 11 in the Jazz at the Concertgebouw series from the Dutch Jazz Archive documents two historic performances by Julian “Cannonball” Adderley in Amsterdam. The alto saxophonist was riding a wave of success and popularity when he brought his quintet with younger brother Nat Adderley on cornet, Victor Feldman on piano, Sam Jones on bass and Louis Hayes on drums to the world-famous Concertgebouw hall in November 1960 as part of a Jazz at the Philharmonic tour package. Working from a set list limited to four tunes because of time restrictions, Adderley and company get right down to business, delivering their soulful spin on bebop with passion and urgency. They stretch out on the opener, “Exodus,” a relatively new tune at the time, before launching into the more familiar funky blues “One For Daddy-O,” from Adderley’s 1958 Blue Note album Somethin’ Else. The set reaches a high point with the hit song “This Here,” by Bobby Timmons (the group’s previous pianist), which had been released as a single and had appeared on the acclaimed 1959 Riverside album The Cannonball Adderley Quintet In San Francisco. They close the set with an enthusiastic burn through Oscar Pettiford’s “Bohemia After Dark,” confirming that the then-emerging “soul jazz” sub-genre needn’t necessarily eschew speed nor completely abandon basic principles of bebop. The recording/playback quality on this first half of the CD is not great, but that doesn’t matter, as it’s the performances themselves—particularly Cannonball’s hard-charging improvisations—that make these tracks so noteworthy and enjoyable. Cannonball returned to Amsterdam in June 1966 for an appearance on Dutch VPRO Television with the highly capable European rhythm section of pianist Pim Jacobs, his brother Rudd Jacobs on bass, guitarist Wim Overgaauw and drummer Cees See. The resulting audio tracks—which are of much higher quality than the Concertgebouw recordings—are the final four tracks here. After starting with an informal blues, the group dives into the well-known repertoire of Cannonball’s hit “Work Song” and the standards “Stella By Starlight” and “Tune Up.” Although recorded more than five years after the Concertgebouw show, at a time when the leader had entered a new musical phase (marked by his collaborations with pianist/composer Joe Zawinul), these TV performances nicely complement the earlier tracks and help complete the picture of Cannonball in Amsterdam at the height of his creative powers.
By Brian Zimmerman
This album grew from a friendship. It began when German-born saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock invited bassist Stephan Crump and pianist Cory Smythe—both stalwarts of New York’s creative music and contemporary classical scenes—to her Brooklyn apartment in 2015 for an informal jam. According to the participants, the chemistry was immediate: “It worked right from the first note,” Crump recalls in the liner notes. The trio reconvened at a recording studio in Yonkers, New York, later that year to capture the magic, and Planktonic Finales, the group’s debut, is the fruit of those bountiful recording sessions. As one might expect from a trio of such talented improvisers, the composite sound is one of discovery and process, of organic structures being assembled without a blueprint or fixed template. The sonic density is therefore highly variable, with alternating moments of extreme fragility and near-impenetrable mass. Occasionally, those textural variations occur within close proximity on the same track. That’s certainly the case with “Sinew Modulations,” the album’s longest piece, which swaps fragments of crackling intensity with swathes of pillowy sensitivity. Formal structures emerge from within the acoustic shape-shifting, often in fresh and surprising ways. A thundering piano statement erupts from the woody bass rumblings of “Through The Forest,” and spare, ghostly soprano saxophone notes drift through the mist of “Submerged (Personal) Effects,” generating the feeling of both inevitability and surprise. If camaraderie is at the heart of free improvisation—fostering deep listening and uninhibited communication—then the trio of Crump, Laubrock and Smythe seem to have synchronized around the same pulse.
By Bobby Reed
Just as Béla Fleck has done for the banjo and Laurie Anderson has done for the violin, steel pan player Victor Provost showcases his main instrument in contexts that are different from the one in which many listeners were first introduced to it. Although there are definitely Caribbean influences on Bright Eyes, Provost (who grew up on St. John in the Virgin Islands) is also deeply devoted to jazz. The result is a great jazz album that happens to feature steel pan—as opposed to a great steel pan album that incorporates jazz. Provost and his band—Alex Brown (piano), Zach Brown (bass) and Billy Williams Jr. (drums)—get help from percussionist Paulo Stagnaro on six of the 11 cuts. Other guest contributors include Paquito D’Rivera (alto saxophone), Ron Blake (soprano saxophone), Tedd Baker (tenor saxophone), Joe Locke (vibraphone), Etienne Charles (trumpet) and John Lee (guitar). On the title track, Provost offers the same elegant mixture of hypnotic speed and seductive melodicism on steel pan that Locke has developed on vibraphone; the combination of the two instruments here is dazzling. The original tune “Twenty” illustrates the leader’s mastery of a slow tempo, while a fiery rendition of Tom Glovier’s “La Casa De Fiesta” becomes a high-octane blowing session for Provost, Alex Brown, Blake and Charles. We can’t wait to hear what Provost does next.
By Brian Zimmerman
Hailing from Philadelphia, trumpeter Josh Lawrence has established himself as a preeminent voice among young composers. He is a member of the Fresh Cut Orchestra, one of the funkiest, most compelling large ensembles to emerge from the City of Brotherly Love in a while. He’s also a faculty member for the city’s Drexel University and Kimmel Center Creative Music Program, where he teaches classes on harmony, collective composition and ensemble interaction. Groove and theory intertwine tightly on his latest album, which takes the color spectrum as its locus of inspiration but slides just as easily into sonic meditations on love and longing. “Yellow,” which opens the album, functions much like a vignette. Clocking in at just over a minute, it’s a statement of indeterminate emotion; one can read either steely determination or aching solitude into its mysterious cries. Either way, it stands in stark contrast to the follow-up “Presence,” a bruising hard-bopper that features stellar interplay between Lawrence and his frontline partner, saxophonist Caleb Curtis. “RED!” comes close to matching that intensity, courtesy of some explosive drumming by Anwar Marshall and a brilliantly sculpted solo by pianist Orrin Evans, with whom Lawrence plays in the Captain Black Orchestra. “Green” and “Blue” dial the intensity down into the mellow zone, with keyboardist Adam Faulk contributing a fuzzy Rhodes sound, while “Black” and “Purple (4 Prince)” inhabit deeper, smokier vibes. Equally slow-burning are “The Ripoff” and “The Conceptualizer,” which layer silky trumpet-sax harmonies over mounds of punchy bass. Closer “On The Yangtze” brings the album full circle, its sparse arrangement allowing plenty of room for listeners to color in their own emotions.
By Bobby Reed
It’s not easy to carve out your own niche when your sibling is one of the world’s most beloved pop icons, but with her impressive third album, singer-songwriter Solange clearly has established her own identity. A Seat At The Table hit No. 1 on the Billboard pop album chart, and one of its singles, “Cranes In The Sky,” is nominated at this year’s Grammy Awards (to be presented Feb. 12). It may have taken several years, but many fans and critics now regard Solange as a unique artist in her own right (and not merely Beyoncé’s younger sister). A Seat At The Table—co-executive produced by Solange and Raphael Saadiq—is a contemporary r&b album featuring spare instrumentation, electronic percussion, layered vocals and original songs about interpersonal relationships. What gives the 21-track disc its gravitas are the spoken-word interludes between the songs. These interludes—featuring hip-hop artist/entrepreneur Master P and Solange’s parents, Matthew Knowles and Tina Lawson—address racism and the struggles of African Americans, thus giving the disc a powerful connection to the Black Lives Matter movement. In the middle of the program are two moving, related, sequential pieces: an interlude by Master P (“For Us By Us”) and a beautiful, poignant, foul-language-laced statement of black pride (“F.U.B.U.,” featuring The Dream and BJ The Chicago Kid). Each piece is deeply memorable; the combined 1-2 punch is devastating. The mixture of social commentary and honest, personal songwriting makes A Seat At The Table an important work of art. On the concluding track, “Closing: The Chosen Ones,” regal horns blare as Master P says, “We come here as slaves/ But we’re going out as royalty ... .” (Solange will perform at the Broccoli City Festival on May 6 in Washington, D.C.)
By Izzy Yellen
The Tri-Centric Orchestra originated in 2010 as part of Anthony Braxton’s opera Trillium E. Post-opera, the orchestra invited commissions that brought together composition and improvisation like many smaller groups do, but on a much larger scale. The three composers represented here—Dan Blake, Taylor Ho Bynum and Ingrid Laubrock—embrace the challenge of creating works for a group of this size, despite typically writing for much smaller ensembles. After creatively integrating ensemble tuning, Blake’s Agora gradually flows, blossoming and growing into a massive creature, only to quickly dissolve. In its wake, soloists lyrically and frantically improvise, rebuilding the music with a cryptic sense of dread. This pattern continues throughout most of the piece, showcasing the individual talents in addition to the heavy chemistry the enormous ensemble has as a whole. Bynum’s Questions Of Transfiguration features a desolate, dense chaos. Rich, somber strings open and tie much of the piece together while winds interject with piercing and pointed attacks. The choir swoops in and the components swirl together, all pained and wrought with emotion. The final piece, Laubrock’s Vogelfrei, pulls at time, elongating and distorting it. Its intricacies instigate each other, and its long, ascending crescendo (reminiscent of The Beatles’ “A Day In The Life”) is a high point of the piece, drawing upon the suspenseful feeling so present in the rest. To best appreciate this album, it is suggested to read the composer’s notes. Not for casual listening, these cerebral works are powerful looks at how improvisation can play a role in a large ensemble without being too overbearing and what can inspire a composer.