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Jenny Scheinman

Here On Earth
(Royal Potato Family)

In 2015, Jenny Scheinman, a revered violinist who has operated in numerous genres, was invited to provide a live score to accompany the documentary film Kannapolis: A Moving Portrait. Directed by Finn Taylor, the film is a visual montage of archival footage captured by photographer-filmmaker H. Lee Waters, who traveled the south and mid-Atlantic to document small-town life between 1936 and 1942. Packed with moments of joyous ecstasy and wind-swept solemnity, that soundtrack has now been released as an album, Here On Earth, and its 15 tightly compressed tracks reveal Scheinman to be a meticulous interpreter of emotion and a composer of cinematic vision and scope. The instrumentation for Here On Earth was lifted directly from a scene in the film in which three musicians—playing fiddle, banjo and guitar—entertain a crowd at a dance party. To reproduce that sound, Scheinman appears with a rotating panel of guests, bringing together, in various assemblages, the inimitable talents of Danny Barnes (banjo, guitar and tuba), Robbie Fulks (acoustic guitar and banjo) Robbie Gjersoe (resonator guitar) and Bill Frisell (electric guitar). The tracks are short, but potent in their ability to paint a scene. “Rowan” is all rolling hills and sun-dappled trees, its gentle melody coddled by colorful accompaniment from banjo and guitar. Opening cut “A Kid Named Lily,” meanwhile, is stormy and foreboding, with a choppy violin statement that rides with bumps and jolts atop a hard-strummed banjo. And though this is very much a period album, it refuses to be trapped in the past. “Delinquent Bill,” which features Frisell at his slinkiest and most harmonically elastic, delivers some undeniably modernist group interplay. Meanwhile, the spiritual yearning distilled on “Pent Up Polly” is timeless. “Esme” and “Road To Manila” speak to a calmer, gentler sense of satisfaction, but when you’re in the mood for a good old-fashioned hoedown, turn to “Bug In The Honey,” which simply erupts with happiness.

Cameron Graves

Planetary Prince
(Mack Avenue)

After the massive success of saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s The Epic, it was just a matter of time before Cameron Graves, the head-turning pianist on that three-disc masterpiece, released his leader debut. With Planetary Prince, Graves brings it—loud and proud. What started out as an EP has become an eight-tune set full of chops, boast and bravado. Graves is a founding member of the West Coast Get Down, a collaborative of musicians from Los Angeles (including Washington) dedicated to being “uninhibited innovators.” In Graves’ case, that seems to be a quest for wild improvisational exploration with unwavering dedication to the groove. On the opening tune, “Satania Our Solar System,” Graves flies across the keyboard, propelling the tune as if trying to leave Earth’s atmosphere, while drummer Ronald Bruner Jr. and bassist Hadrien Feraud drop a slamming groove that keeps the proceedings bumpin’. Props go out to trumpeter Philip Dizack, another great talent, for following Graves’ solo here … and keeping up. On “Adam & Eve,” Graves demonstrates expansive chops with a solo intro featuring classical complexity before the beat-drop of Bruner’s rhythmic lockdown. Washington sits in on the entirety of Planetary Prince, and delivers a kick-ass solo on “Adam & Eve” and “Planetary Prince.” If you’re looking for an album that allows you to sit back, relax and catch your breath, go somewhere else. Tune after tune, Graves and company keep turning up the heat. It’s an edge-of-the-seat thrill ride. Thundercat triumphantly blazes with bass solos on “The End Of Corporatism” and “Isle Of Love,” a mid-tempo burner that comes off like a ballad in the heat of this set. Even the tunes with slower tempos, such as “Andromeda” and “The Lucifer Rebellion,” are played with take-no-prisoners power. This is a West Coast Get Down album that makes you get up and say, “Hell, yeah!”

Ben Markley Big Band

Clockwise: The Music Of Cedar Walton
(OA2)

Bandleader Ben Markley’s latest project is a labor of love, shining a spotlight on the compositions of pianist Cedar Walton (1934–2013). Markley, an assistant professor of jazz piano at the University of Wyoming, recruited fellow UW faculty members as well as some excellent Denver-area musicians for this big band disc, Clockwise: The Music Of Cedar Walton. All 10 songs here were composed by Walton and arranged by Markley, and the album features the exquisite trumpeter Terell Stafford, whose clarion tone and sturdy sense of swing can enliven any setting. Markley assembled a 16-piece big band (with guest guitarist Steve Kovalcheck on two tracks) for these sessions, and a couple of the tunes evoke the rich romanticism of the Swing Era. But whether the band is delivering a powerful strut with Latin rhythms, as it does on “Fiesta Español,” or offering a more mellow mood, as it does on “Hindsight,” the overall vibe here is one of toe-tapping celebration. This is addictive music that will make you want to grab a partner and hit the dance floor.

Champian Fulton

Speechless
(Posi-Tone)

Born in Oklahoma to a musical family, pianist Champian Fulton made her musical debut at the ripe young age of 10, performing at the 75th birthday party of a family friend, the trumpeter Clark Terry. She has since become a major force on the international jazz scene, recording seven albums as a leader (while still in her 20s) and serving as an invigorating accompanist to giants of the genre, such as Lou Donaldson, Buster Williams and Louis Hayes. Her new album, Speechless, is not only her debut for the Posi-Tone label, it’s also her first program of all instrumental music. It is an intensely personal statement—brimming with delicate flourishes, brilliant runs and moments of quiet intensity—as well as an homage to her musical heroes. The influence of Erroll Garner is tangible on “Day’s End,” with its bobbing left-hand chords and lavish harmonization, and Bud Powell’s rippling dexterity is an obvious touchstone for “Somebody Stole My Gal” and “Happy Camper,” both of which hurdle along at a blistering clip while retaining a deeply grooving pocket. As a composer, Fulton tends to eschew clutter, with simple melodies that allow for endless personalization. The ballad “Dark Blue,” with its pattern of gently ascending chords, exemplifies as much, steadily accumulating depth and meaning as it crests toward a conclusion. “Tea And Tangerines,” meanwhile, is a wonderful portrayal of group interplay, a sunny waltz that evokes the elegance and intimacy of Bill Evans’ trio. Drummer Ben Zweig is especially crisp and articulate here, and bassist Adi Meyerson maintains a sturdy yet supple foundation. (Her vital contribution to the soul-tinged “Later Gator” is even more enthralling, full of punch and panache). Fulton’s vocals are essential to her stylistic identity, but it’s a treat to hear her focus exclusively on her pianism. Let’s hope this all-instrumental venture is the first of many.

Taylor Haskins

Gnosis
(Recombination)

In an interview with the late Nat Hentoff, fusion guitarist Larry Coryell, who died Feb. 19 at age 73, shared his thoughts regarding assimilation of rock music into the jazz tradition: “Contemporary music has absorbed the whole thing called rock or rock and roll,” he said. “It’s not classifiable as either jazz or rock; it’s just music that is as good as the people doing it.” That interview took place in the ’70s, but Coryell’s words were quite prescient, especially nowadays, as numerous musical currents—including r&b, hip-hop and electronic dance music—blend with the waters of jazz. New York trumpeter Taylor Haskins is a prime example of the continuing, genre-blending phenomenon. As a trumpeter, he belongs to a decidedly postmodern camp, pursuing a strain of jazz familiar to fans of Dave Douglas or Ron Miles—he performs in both Nels Cline’s “Lovers” Orchestra and the Guillermo Klein’s Los Gauchos—but he’s also a talented synthesist and composer, and for the past 20 years, he’s been composing and producing electronic music for commercial media. He unites those two styles with calm precision on his new album, Gnosis. It’s a strong artistic statement, one that melds the most salient factors of EDM—trance-inducing grooves, smoldering layers of sound and a skin-tingling sense of rhythmic development—with powerful improvisation and lyrical trumpet melodies. To enhance the effort, Haskins has recruited a team of articulate and equally fluid associates, including drummers Nate Smith and Daniel Freedman, bassists Fima Ephron and Todd Sickafoose, harpist Brandee Younger, keyboardist Henry Hey, guitarist Nir Felder, trombonist Josh Roseman and flutist Jamie Baum. In their respective guest roles, these voices contribute to a shifting tableau of swarming, mesmeric electronica and acoustic jazz of an achingly human sort. The synth-heavy “Hazy Days,” which features Smith’s seismic drumming, zigs and zags from spiky digitized chords to effects-drenched trumpet bleats. Its energy is matched by “Artificial Scarcity,” on which Haskins’ trumpet takes on the metallic keening of an overdriven guitar. But the album reveals a more delicate side on the title track and “Plucky,” both of which feature Younger’s heavenly harp and a late-night, bleary-eyed jazz vibe. This is fusion of an entirely 21st-century sort.

Noah Haidu

Infinite Distances
(Cellar Live)

Pianist Noah Haidu, a rising star who previously studied with Kenny Barron and David Hazeltine, recently released his third album, Infinite Distances. The leader recruited a top-shelf ensemble for the project, including Jeremy Pelt (trumpet, flugelhorn), Sharel Cassity (alto saxophone) and Jon Irabagon (soprano and tenor saxophones). The centerpiece of this compelling album is an original six-part suite, also titled Infinite Distances. The structure and sequence of the suite illustrates Haidu’s mastery of pacing, as uptempo blowing sections are interspersed with slower passages that give the listener a satisfying respite from all the impressive fireworks. The suite’s third movement, “Hanaya,” begins in a lovely ballad mode, featuring Haidu’s crystalline piano lines, followed by a mellow, engaging alto solo by Cassity, who dials the intensity up, then down, in service to the overall arrangement. The final movement, “Guardian Of Solitude,” showcases Haidu at his kinetic, dynamic best, and the horns punctuate the proceedings with an earworm of a motif. Following the suite, the latter portion of the album includes three songs that Haidu had recorded previously: the original tunes “Momentum” and “Juicy” and an interpretation of Joe Henderson’s “Serenity.” The earlier versions were recorded in a piano trio setting, but as Haidu expanded the size of his band, he wisely chose to revisit the material with his larger sonic palette.

Theo Bleckmann

Elegy
(ECM)

Vocalist-composer Theo Bleckmann raised his international profile via his collaboration with pianist Julia Hülsmann’s quartet on the 2015 tribute album A Clear Midnight: Kurt Weill And America (ECM), but on his new album, Elegy, he focuses on original compositions. More than most singers, Bleckmann treats his (frequently wordless) vocals as another instrument operating on par with those of his stellar quintet: guitarist Ben Monder, pianist Shai Maestro, double bassist Chris Tordini and drummer John Hollenbeck. The intriguing results here are closer to art rock than to mainstream jazz, with Bleckmann boldly occupying an artistic territory in which he has few peers. On “The Mission,” Bleckmann’s wordless vocals almost sound like a wind instrument, while Monder’s guitar work evokes a science-fiction soundtrack, and Maestro’s chiming piano adds to the drama. Elsewhere, during an instrumental break in “Take My Life,” Monder sculpts an intricate, muscular passage that wouldn’t be out of place on a prog-rock album, but the track is dominated by Bleckmann’s poetic lyrics, such as “Dim the light inside my eyes/ Then fill my lungs with quiet.” The title track, with its haunting vocals and Tordini’s droning bass, creates an otherworldly mood. Indeed, Bleckmann has said that each of the album’s songs “relates to death or transcendence in some existential way.” Bleckmann wrote all the words and music for this album, with the exception of the famous Stephen Sondheim tune “Comedy Tonight,” here given a radically slow arrangement, and an English translation of a poem by Chiao Jan (730–799), serving as lyrics for the track “To Be Shown To Monks At A Certain Temple.” (Bleckmann and his quintet will perform at the sonically adventurous Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, on March 25.)

Chano Dominguez

Over The Rainbow
(Sunnyside)

I have often confessed in these reviews to having a soft spot for solo recordings. I find performances in which the music is stripped down to just the artist and the instrument to be the most personal expression of that artist’s true musical self. On Over The Rainbow, the great Chano Dominguez plays 10 songs that are near and dear to the Spanish pianist’s heart. I have truly enjoyed his music over the years, but this recording is a special treat. As one of the godfathers of fusing Spanish folkloric music with jazz, Dominguez has a rich point of view. The set begins with a gripping take on the John Lewis composition “Django,” written, of course, in memory of the great Django Reinhardt. On “Gracias A La Vida” (Thanks To Life), Dominguez digs deep into the folk music of Chilean composer Violeta Parra. It’s a smoldering ballad performed with all the gusto Dominguez can muster from his left hand. He delivers the tune with the swagger of an artist in his prime, sometimes inserting Monk-like breaks, sometimes crafting beautiful, blues-tinged lines. Two of the strongest tunes in the set are Monk’s “Evidence” and “Monk’s Dream.” On “Evidence,” Dominguez captures the heart and soul of the master without losing his own innate lyrical ability. “Monk’s Dream” gives Dominguez an opportunity to show off both his stride chops and his incredible rhythmic sense. The set concludes with “Over The Rainbow.” It’s a sentimental, pure and personal rendition of one of most played tunes in the Great American Songbook. Not many can bring something new to this song, but not many can play the piano like Chano Dominguez. The beauty of the title track, as well as the entire album, will make you sigh, make you smile and make you thankful that Mr. Dominguez gave us this glimpse into his soul.

Rhiannon Giddens

Freedom Highway
(Nonesuch)

There’s a natural warmth and intensity to the music of Rhiannon Giddens. It’s earthy yet sophisticated, grounded yet worldly. On Freedom Highway, her ability to use all of this to strike at the heart of difficult issues serves her remarkably well. On this album, she travels down a winding road of 12 songs about freedom and/or the loss of it. For “Julie,” Giddens based the lyrics on the memoir of a 19th-century slave. “At The Purchaser’s Option” alludes to an 1830s advertisement for a young slave and her nine-month-old baby. Heavy subjects, for sure, and yet Giddens has made uplifting, thoughtful music from these ashes. As the follow-up to her acclaimed 2015 solo debut, Tomorrow Is My Turn, Giddens chose to produce this album with Dirk Powell, a terrific multi-instrumentalist. They went to his studio in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, and recorded most of the tracks in “old wooden rooms” built before the Civil War. The South and the setting helped shape the country-simple charm found in each track. The ballads are beautiful. “Baby Boy” is a stunningly sorrowful lullaby featuring Giddens singing with her sister Lalenja Harrington and cellist Leyla McCalla. “Birmingham Sunday,” written by the late folksinger Richard Fariña, simply takes your breath away. But Giddens also knows how to cut loose. “Hey Bébé,” written by Giddens and Powell, pays homage to the great Creole musician Amédé Ardoin (1898–1942). It’s a zydeco romp punctuated by Giddens’ joyful voice and the trumpet work of Alphonso Horne. The title track, a reworking of the 1965 Staples Singers gem, caps this set, dripping with the ghost of Pops Staples’ guitar tremolo and vocal work by Giddens and Bhi Bhiman. As winter gives way to the warmth of spring, Freedom Highway will be in heavy rotation. This is music that drills in deep and warms the soul.