David Bindman Sextet

Ten Billion Versions Of Reality
(Self Release)

Brooklyn-based tenor/soprano saxophonist and composer David Bindman, who co-led the Brooklyn Saxophone Quartet with the late Fred Ho, wrote this suite of chamber-like pieces during two separate stays in the mountains near upstate Cambridge, New York. The remarkable geography of the region has the power to inspire the human spirit and induce deep thought and reflection, something clearly reflected in the music on Ten Billion Versions Of Reality. Bindman seeks to create works that offer artistic alternatives to the greed and materialism that pollute people’s lives and go against the natural world, and with this new release, he hits the spiritual jackpot. Bindman, trumpeter/flugelhornist Frank London, trombonist Reut Regev, pianist Art Hirahara, bassist Wes Brown and drummer Royal Hartigan—the same musicians who recorded the sextet’s self-produced 2012 debut, Sunset Park Polyphony—execute this winding stream of seven compositions with sensitivity, purpose and an exploratory mindset. Bindman’s melodies are complex yet accessible, thanks to the patient pacing, restraint and deliberateness demonstrated by his team. Time is virtually unbound. Sometimes the musicians lock into meter together, seemingly by spontaneous consensus, as when a solid groove kicks in on the opener, “Sketch In 12.” Other times they venture out or simply drift off on their own into separate yet concurrent rhythmic streams, like on the heavily improvised deep-water sections of the title track. Such diverse and disparate musical elements contribute to a profound sonic geometry, a big picture of sorts built on multiple conversations and varying perspectives.

Ranky Tanky

Ranky Tanky
(Resilience Music Alliance)

Ranky Tanky is a South Carolina-based, roots-music quintet that draws upon Gullah culture, a heritage that is found in other Southern states, too, including North Carolina, Georgia and Florida. In the album’s liner notes, Herb Frazier writes: “Gullah people from the Sea Islands of South Carolina are the descendants of Africans captured along Africa’s rice coast [in West Africa]. In the so-called new world, the enslaved toiled under the hot Carolina sun along the Atlantic coast. From this bondage came Gullah, a mixture of African and English styles.” Ranky Tanky mixes elements of African music with American gospel and r&b on its excellent self-titled disc, which includes 13 traditional songs, each arranged by the band. Lead singer Quiana Parler is a powerhouse presence, and trumpeter Charlton Singleton is amazingly adept at crafting lines that complement the singer’s timbre. A good example is “O Death,” on which the trumpeter’s lament is akin to a vocal delivery. On “Turtle Dove,” electric guitarist Clay Ross plays in a style that seems to draw a connection to West African music of the 20th century. Rounding out the band are bassist Kevin Hamilton and drummer Quentin E. Baxter, who excel at any tempo. Whether Ranky Tanky is unleashing a high-energy dance number or carefully sculpting a lullaby, such as “Go To Sleep,” the music always feels fresh. This band can take tunes from yesterday and make them sound as lively and relevant as 21st-century electronic beats.

Andrew Linham Jazz Orchestra

Weapons Of Mass Distraction
(Self Release)

This 17-piece contemporary big band led by U.K.-based baritone saxophonist, composer and educator Andrew Linham is one of the boldest—and most eccentric—large jazz ensembles performing today. This is a group with chops and personality to spare, not to mention a madcap sense of humor. Performing Linham’s original compositions, the orchestra—which consists of key players on the U.K. scene—covers a huge stylistic ground that ranges from jaunty, old-fashioned big band swing to modern large-ensemble pyrotechnics to pop power ballads. They play with guts and attitude, and manage to inject outrageous humor into even the most demanding of musical passages, striking a perfect balance between the sublime and the ridiculous. Their debut album comes as a pleasant surprise, since previously I had heard of neither Linham (who plays regularly in numerous U.K. big bands) nor his orchestra, which the leader has described as “a loud visceral remedy of jazz-based insanity to warm the cockles of your heart.” It seems that this daring ensemble, which has been performing Linham’s tunes since 2014, flies low under the big band radar, performing mostly in England (including a well-received performance at the London Jazz Festival in 2015). The cleverly titled Weapons Of Mass Distraction firmly establishes the Andrew Linham Jazz Orchestra as a significant addition to today’s big band scene and a group that deserves wider recognition at the international level.

theBABAorchestra

Another Ride On The Elephant Slide
(Thirsty Owl)

Lauren Elizabeth Baba wants to disabuse anyone of the notion that all L.A. jazz is of the smooth persuasion. As the composer, conductor, bandleader and producer for her 17-piece big band, theBABAorchestra, she’s establishing adventurous new territory. Recorded live at Seahorse Sound Studios in Los Angeles, the band’s debut, Another Ride On The Elephant Slide, melds elements of free-jazz, avant-garde classical, drone rock and Middle Eastern folk music. Fans don’t turn to this band for pretty melodies. But that doesn’t mean the music isn’t infectious. On “The Myth Of Sysphis–Movement 2,” a head-bobbing groove emerges, as the bands transitions from unleashing growling waves to locking in and galloping like a chariot. With skillful use of her composer’s pen and her conductor’s baton, Baba crafts intricate, hypnotic tracks that frequently offer a surging momentum. Her music often has an undulating motif that contributes to the sonic bedrock, paired with complex intersecting lines in the aural “middle,” and then technically impressive soloing on top of those two layers. The striking solos might come from one of the band’s four trumpeters or another member, such as guitarist Gregory Uhlmann. Baba’s palette is broad: Segments of select tracks have very spare instrumentation, while other numbers are wildly dense, merging disparate parts but without teetering into sonic chaos. Baba, the recipient of an ASCAP Young Jazz Composers Award, is an artist to watch, especially for fans who enjoy the intersection of big band instrumentation and avant-garde experimentation.

Various Artists

Oscar, With Love
(Mack Avenue)

Anyone who’s read this column in the past might know that I’m an enthusiastic fan of solo piano albums. There’s something about that instrument—played alone—that allows you to hear the heart and soul of the artist. So, when you record world-class pianists playing the music of DownBeat Hall of Famer Oscar Peterson (1925–2007) on the master’s personal Bosendörfer Imperial grand in his home studio—yep, that’s something I’m going to geek out about! This is a beautiful set of music that came to life as a pet project of Peterson’s widow, Kelly, in honor of what would have been the late pianist’s 90th birthday. Originally released in 2015 in very limited numbers, the set has been re-released by Mack Avenue on a significantly larger scale. In putting the music together for this collection, Kelly Peterson focused on Oscar Peterson, the composer. There are dozens of great performances on this set, with several of Peterson’s compositions making their recorded debut. Makoto Ozone serves up two scoops of gorgeous on “The Contessa.” Fellow Canadians Oliver Jones and Dave Young deliver a beautiful “Céline’s Waltz.” Gerald Clayton’s take on “Bossa Beguine” is all style, swagger and beauty. Benny Green demonstrates his ability to sink deep into the blues on “Cool Walk.” And that’s just four examples from the 36 tracks. Seven of the selections are compositions written for Peterson by other artists, including Chick Corea’s “One For Oscar,” which he penned specifically for this occasion. There will be a variety of versions of Oscar, With Love available. The standard three-CD release comes with a 24-page booklet. A deluxe package includes the three CDs and a 100-plus-page book. And in 2018, Mack Avenue will release a five-LP set on vinyl. With its pristine audio production and exquisite packaging, Oscar, With Love is an essential acquisition for Peterson fans and anyone with even a passing interest in solo jazz piano. If you want deeper insight into this project, you can check out a video of Kelly Peterson talking about it by clicking here.

Ron Miles

I Am A Man
(Enja/Yellow Bird)

Cornetist Ron Miles is one of the most amazing accompanists in jazz. Whenever his name comes up in conversation, musicians who have played with Miles hold him one part in awe, two parts in inspiration, three parts in respect. The same holds true for Miles as a bandleader, as evidenced by his latest release, I Am A Man. It’s a recording of thought-provoking beauty in overdrive. The title (and cover art) is taken from the artist Glenn Ligon in a piece called Condition Report (2000). The music, like Ligon’s artwork, takes on the social chaos of the times. “From the beginnings of black American music, there’s been a sense of triumph over adversity,” Miles said in press materials for the release. “We’re in some trying times in 2017, that’s for sure. But we’ve seen this before. Black folks have had to do this over and over again, fighting injustice and finding a positive solution.” For Miles, that solution is to bring together a group of stellar artists—guitarist Bill Frisell, drummer Brian Blade, pianist Jason Moran and bassist Thomas Morgan—to play music from the heart, full of blues, grit and sass. The title track is a quirky blues, full of interplay. “Darken My Door” was written after Miles had a dream about his future mother-in-law; it speaks to the insecurities we all have when entering a new family. “Revolutionary Congregation” was written in honor of religious figures who also served as political heroes, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Gandhi. “Mother Juggler” is a love song for Miles’ mother, and all mothers. But my favorite track on this album is the closer, “Is There Room In Your Heart For A Man Like Me,” which begins with a eager, pleading bass solo by Morgan that helps convey the humble, heart-on-the-sleeve tone of the question posed in the song’s title.

Chris Thile

Thanks For Listening
(Nonesuch)

Public radio listeners know mandolinist Chris Thile as the current host of A Prairie Home Companion. Others might know him from his work with the progressive bluegrass trio The Punch Brothers or new-grass artists Nickel Creek. And lucky jazz fans might have caught Thile’s recording and tour dates with pianist Brad Mehldau. It was one of the more surprising and enjoyable pairings this reviewer has heard in a long time. Thile has released a new solo album, Thanks For Listening, and it’s a gem of beautiful vocal harmonies, incredible musicianship and sophisticated, cutting lyrics. Thile has taken the mandolin and bluegrass tradition in directions before unseen. The music here brims with complex art and lush production. The tunes were written for a segment called “Song of the Week” that aired during each Prairie Home broadcast. Instead of just releasing those performances, Thile went into the studio and recorded 10 of the 19 songs he had composed for the segment. The results just shimmer. “I Made This For You,” the opening cut, highlights Thile’s strengths as a songwriter, lyricist, instrumentalist and artistic visionary. It’s an operetta in 4 minutes and 11 seconds. “Thank you, New York” demonstrates why a musician like Mehldau would want to team up with Thile. It’s a grand, beautiful pop song with an instrumental break that sends shivers down the spine. And the title track is a great sendoff as the final cut of the recording. It twists the theme into a very personal manifesto on the isolated nature of life today. Rest assured, there’s nothing easy in the music of Chris Thile. It makes you think, and sometimes think twice. And, in the end, it makes you glad you were listening.

Kenny Werner Trio

Animal Crackers
(Pirouet)

Pianist Kenny Werner’s trio with bassist Johannes Weidenmüller and drummer Ari Hoenig has been together for 18 years, and Animal Crackers benefits from the powerful chemistry the group has forged during that time. The trio has reached a comfort level that allows it to approach improvisation as spontaneous composition, like a group consciousness that opens the players’ ears to possibilities beyond the conventional practice of running lines and patterns. One of the trio’s favorite activities, according to Werner, is turning a standard into a composition all its own. This is clearly evident in the gleeful ways the musicians dissect, expand and transform old favorites like “The Song Is You,” “If I Should Lose You” and “I Should Care,” defying expectations in a brainy but delightful manner. The mood is darker on Werner originals like the minor-key “Ari” (written around a rhythm Hoenig created for an arrangement on one of his own albums) and the avant-funky “What?,” one of several places on Animal Crackers where Werner adds a tasteful touch of synthesizer. The title track, another Werner composition, skips along playfully while spiraling into the treacherously deep woods of twisted time and vague tonality. Two tunes credited to the entire trio—“Breathing Torso” and “Mechanical Arm”—show just how well these three bandmates jell when the charts are put away and spontaneous composition is given free rein. The Kenny Werner Trio is currently on a European tour, with upcoming concerts on Dec. 6 at Pizza Express in London; Dec. 7 at Duc des Lombards in Paris; and Dec. 8 at Porgy & Bess in Vienna, Austria.

Jimmy Chamberlin Complex

The Parable
(Make Records)

Hard-hitting drummer Jimmy Chamberlin is famous among rock fans for his years of work with the Smashing Pumpkins. Jazz fans know Chamberlin from his recent work with saxophonist Frank Catalano. And diehard fans will recall Life Begins Again, his 2005 album by The Jimmy Chamberlin Complex. Bassist Billy Mohler and guitarist Sean Woolstenhulme, who both played on that album, are back for the band’s new release, a jazz effort titled The Parable, on which they are joined by Randy Ingram (piano, Fender Rhodes) and Chris Speed (tenor sax, clarinet). Here, Chamberlin combines the energy and production values of a rock album with the spontaneity of an improvised jazz session. “Jazz really allows you to paint in real time,” Chamberlin said in the press materials for The Parable. “You’re painting first drafts and being OK with them.” This program of six tracks contains some killer “frist drafts” that succeed wonderfully. Speed, who’s certainly comfortable in an improv setting, emerges as the MVP of this session due to his inventive lines and excursions that arrive at satisfying destinations. On the title track, Chamberlin delivers compelling cymbal work (without showboating), while Ingram adds cool coloration to the sonic equivalent of an abstract painting. Speed adds poignant clarinet work to “Magick Moon,” while Mohler adds a sturdy, anchoring bass line to “El Born.” Overall, Chamberlin proves himself to be a gracious bandleader, providing a platform for his colleagues to soar.

Martial Solal & Dave Liebman

Masters In Bordeaux
(Sunnyside)

The collaboration of Martial Solal and Dave Liebman, two master musicians from different generations and continents, might seem highly unlikely—but it was clearly meant to be. The 90-year-old French pianist Solal and the American saxophonist Liebman, 20 years his junior, were brought together by a former student of Liebman’s who happened to be Solal’s son-in-law. After playing a two-evening engagement at a Paris jazz club and making further such meetings a priority, Solal and Liebman were invited to perform at the Jazz and Wine Festival in Bordeaux. That concert, which took place at Château Guiraud in Sauternes, France, is the source of this brilliant live recording of the duo playing jazz standards in a spontaneous, go-with-the-flow manner. Choosing the material on the spot, they start off by riffing on the well-known jazz introduction to “All The Things You Are” before exploring the song’s main theme, taking a deconstructive approach. Solal then leads them into “Night And Day,” where sparks of exhilaration begin to fly. Liebman switches to soprano to introduce Miles Davis’ “Solar,” leading to more deeply empathic interplay. Back on tenor, Liebman plays an abstracted cadenza to kick off “What Is This Thing Called Love,” leading to exciting duo exchanges and an inspired Solal solo. The program continues with an adventurous take on “On Green Dolphin Street” and ends with a dramatic reading of “Lover Man.” With their vast knowledge of repertoire, unpredictable yet consistently tasteful choices, in-the-moment confidence and decades of experience, these two are unstoppable. And, despite their advanced knowledge and abilities, their performance here is much more relatable than the sometimes overly esoteric sax-and-piano duos of, say, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. Let’s hope Solal and Liebman continue their collaboration, because listening to Masters In Bordeaux leaves us wanting more—much more, as soon as possible.

John McNeil & Mike Fahie

Plainsong
(Destiny)

Trumpeter John McNeil and trombonist Mike Fahie have crafted an outstanding program that alternates between seeking and soaring on their collaborative album Plainsong, consisting of 11 original compositions and a version of Thelonious Monk’s “Green Chimneys.” The co-leaders recruited a stellar band for this album: pianist Ethan Iverson (who rose to fame in The Bad Plus), bassist Joe Martin (who has collaborated with Chris Potter, Anat Cohen and Mark Turner) and drum legend Billy Hart, whose resume includes stints with Wes Montgomery, Herbie Hancock and Stan Getz. In recent years, Hart has led a quartet that features Iverson, so those two musicians share a close rapport that probably helped create a simpatico atmosphere for the Plainsong sessions. The centerpiece of the album—Fahie’s 12-minute “Plain Song, Rain Song”—begins with what might be the sound of Iverson strumming the piano’s strings. The musicians establish a mood that’s mystical and mysterious, as the song reveals its essence like a flower slowly blossoming. On this tune, the fact that McNeil makes such great use of his time in the spotlight demonstrates how well he and Fahie know one another’s strengths. Each member of this band is an artist one might call a “musician’s musician”—a player far more devoted to chasing the muse than to chasing fame. Two of the song titles here nod to fellow musicians: Iverson’s “The Tristano Chord,” which could be a tip of the hat to pianist and DownBeat Hall of Fame inductee Lennie Tristano (1919–’78), and McNeil’s “Abercrombie,” which was composed and recorded when the great guitarist John Abercrombie (1944–2017) was still with us. The quintet’s version of “Green Chimneys” opens with hooky brass riffs from McNeil and Fahie before moving into the type of challenging yet rewarding terrain that Monk scholars enjoy. This 75-minute disc is richly detailed with inspired twists.

Vincent Herring

Hard Times
(Smoke Sessions)

Vincent Herring’s third release on Smoke Sessions is a soulful groover that finds the alto and soprano saxophonist wailing the hard-bop blues, with gospel-like exclamations and deep pockets of funk contributing to the album’s uplifting vibe. Herring’s rhythm section of pianist Cyrus Chestnut, bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Carl Allen provides a no-nonsense support system upon which the leader leans to bare his soul and celebrate life while confronting the challenges of hard times. They are joined on several tracks by guitarist Russell Malone, trombonist Steve Turre, trumpeter Brad Mason and tenor saxophonist Sam Dillon, playing Jazz Messengers-style arrangements one minute and conjuring the loose, easygoing feel of a late-night jam session the next. Vocalist Nicolas Bearde lends his expressive baritone to three tracks (Bill Withers’ r&b classic “Use Me” and the Gershwin standards “Summertime” and “Embraceable You”), bolstering the album’s emotional content and intensifying its portrayal of human vulnerability. Hard Times deals with classic themes and indulges in straightforward blowing without pretense—an honest, courageous approach that just plain feels good.

Ernesto Cervini’s Turboprop

Rev
(Anzic)

Rev is the second album from Ernesto Cervini’s Turboprop, and it’s a shoot-the-lights-out blast of a listen. Cervini serves as ringmaster and drum flame-thrower on this eight-tune set. He views Turboprop as a collective drawing upon the strengths of alto and soprano saxophonist Tara Davidson, tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm, trombonist William Carn, pianist Adrean Farrugia and bassist Dan Loomis. The group has an infectious, propulsive energy that delivers a power punch without forsaking nuance and melody. “The Libertine,” a fascinating Farrugia composition, for example, begins with Cervini’s wicked-swirling rhythms while Frahm and Davidson state the theme with unison horn lines. Solos by Farrugia and Frahm are simply knockouts of taste, technique and artistry. Here and throughout the entire program there’s a sense of closeness and shared spotlight, playing with, around and through, but never over, each other. Part of that comes from the writing. “The Libertine” is one of five originals on the album. Loomis offered “Ranthem,” a lovely breath of hope. Carn delivered “Arc Of Instability,” a majestic piece that highlights the trombonist’s rich tone and composing chops. And Cervini brought two tracks to the sessions: “Granada Bus” is a loping ride and the title track, “Rev,” exemplifies the cool musical gymnastics Cervini the drummer and Cervini the composer can cook up. Beyond the originals, Turboprop offers great arrangements of Radiohead’s “The Daily Mail,” the standard “Pennies From Heaven” and even Blind Melon’s “No Rain.” Overall, Rev is a bright wave of an album and Turboprop is the real deal. Turboprop will be on the road in 2018. I, for one, would love to see this band live.

Pat Martino

Formidable
(HighNote)

Fans of straightahead jazz have reason to rejoice because guitar icon Pat Martino has released his first studio album as a bandleader in 11 years. For the aptly titled Formidable, he is teamed with his working trio—organist Pat Bianchi and drummer Carmen Intorre Jr.—and on six of the nine tracks, the group is expanded to a quintet, with trumpeter Alex Norris and tenor saxophonist Adam Niewood. Martino, 73, has crafted a program of six intriguing interpretations, along with three original compositions from his long discography. Martino, Norris, Niewood and Bianchi all contribute exciting solos to a catchy rendition of “Nightwings,” which was the title track to a 1996 album the guitarist recorded for the Muse label. Norris and Niewood also bolster “On The Stairs,” which appeared on Martino’s 1974 LP, Consciousness, and they spice up a new arrangement of “El Hombre,” the title track to Martino’s 1967 Prestige debut. Among the aspects that make this album a keeper are a sturdy commitment to swing, and the generosity of a leader who lets his gifted accompanists stretch out with solos. A couple of ballads—Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood” and the Charles Mingus tune “Duke Ellington’s Sound Of Love”—are performed in a trio setting, showcasing Martino’s mastery of tempo and illustrating that a smoldering flame can be just as hot as a raging inferno. Indeed, on those two numbers, the trio gloriously proves that less can be more. Elsewhere, the quintet explores Hank Mobley’s “Hipsippy Blues” (with Norris on flugelhorn) and Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way,” demonstrating Martino’s exquisite taste in material. (Martino and the quintet that recorded Formidable will appear in New York at Jazz Standard on Nov. 9–12 and in his hometown, Philadelphia, at Chris’ Jazz Cafe on Nov. 24–25.)

Emi Meyer

Monochrome
(Origin)

With her U.S. debut, Monochrome, singer-songwriter Emi Meyer has crafted a gem that will greatly expand her international fan base. Born in Kyoto to a Japanese mother and an American father, the Tokyo-based Meyer has released several albums in Japan, and her music has appeared on the soundtrack to Japanese director Nobuhiro Doi’s film Flying Colors and in the States on the TV shows Awkward and Younger. Though Meyer has often sung standards (and even released “Fly Me To The Moon” as a single), the program on Monochrome illustrates that her original compositions are where she shines brightest. That’s not to say that she isn’t a skilled interpreter, as evidenced by a charming rendition of “What A Wonderful World,” a tender, compelling version of Michael Bublé’s “Home” and a potent reading of “I’d Rather Go Blind” that showcases her vocal range and spotlights keyboardist Eric Legnini’s retro-leaning organ work. Meyer’s original compositions reveal a craftsperson with great vocal control and a keen melodic sense who has internalized some elements of jazz standards and allowed them to influence her work in elegant, subtle ways. Nick Phillips’ trumpet lines augment the poignancy of Meyer’s vocals on the title track, and Dan Balmer’s jazz guitar on “Flesh And Bones” complements the singer’s impressive phrasing. Elsewhere, Balmer injects a memorable solo on “Paríso,” an intoxicating original that’s flavored by Brazilian rhythms. The album opens with the cello-enhanced “Odyssey” and the piano-driven “If I Think Of You”—hummable tunes that might make fans of Norah Jones and Diana Krall feel that they’ve found a new artist to follow closely.

Ghost Train Orchestra

Book Of Rhapsodies Vol. II
(Accurate)

Led by singer, songwriter, trumpeter, composer, sound scavenger, arranger and producer Brian Carpenter, the terrific ensemble Ghost Train Orchestra has now released its fourth album, Book Of Rhapsodies Vol. II. The band specializes in diving back into the more composed side of early jazz. The first Book Of Rhapsodies disc (released in 2011) focused on the music of four composers: Alec Wilder, Charlie Shavers, Reginald Foresythe and Raymond Scott. The goal was simple—to bring attention to the music of these writers before it was forgotten. For Vol. II, GTO finished off several Scott, Foresythe and Wilder compositions left over from the first recording sessions and added to them three pieces by an all-but-forgotten composer/arranger named Hal Herzon. The liner-notes essay describing how this music was uncovered and resuscitated is enough to purchase it. (So there will be no spoiler in this review.) Suffice it to say, Carpenter and company do an amazing job of taking the old and making it brand-spanking-new again. The music on this program has a tongue-in-cheek smirk, a quirky sense that the composers were getting away with something grand when they wrote the music and that GTO is still getting away with it, wearing a big grin, today. Scott’s “Confusion Among A Fleet Of Taxi Cabs” is 103 seconds of pedal to the metal. “Hare And The Hounds” by Fabian Andre and Hal Herzon is the perfect chase-scene music. It’s quick and light and has moments that will make you laugh. “A Hymn To Darkness: Deep Forest” and several other tunes on the program give Carpenter an opportunity to use a choir for oohs, aahs and baas. It’s a great way to use human voices as another instrument in the orchestra. What makes all of this music work are Carpenter’s total dedication to the arrangements, his love of these bygone composers and a sense of pure, joyous fun. On Wilder’s “Kindergarten Flower Pageant,” Carpenter enlists his son to write lyrics to go with the tune, sung sweetly by a children’s choir. In short, anything goes here. This is a group that performs regularly around the New York area with a home base at a club called the Jalopy Theater in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook. I still haven’t seen this band, but, rest assured, I’ll track them down the next time I’m in New York. I’ve got a strong feeling the only thing better than listening to this music is hearing it live.

Rez Abbasi

Unfiltered Universe
(Whirlwind Recordings)

Guitarist-composer Rez Abbasi takes a subtle approach to melding South Asian music and modern jazz on his 12th album as a leader, the third installment in a trilogy of recordings with his supergroup Invocations. A quintet featuring Abbasi with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, pianist Vijay Iyer, bassist Johannes Weidenmueller and drummer Dan Weiss, Invocations debuted with the 2009 album Things To Come (Sunnyside), which highlighted North Indian Hindustani music, and followed that up with 2011’s Suno Suno (Enja), an exploration of the Qawwali music of Abbasi’s native Pakistan. Now, with Unfiltered Universe, the band takes the Carnatic music of South India as its point of departure. Although each member of Invocations has studied South Asian musical traditions in depth (sometimes in collaboration with each other), they operate on a level that’s more intuitive than preconceived. Rather than being obvious and explicit, the South Asian elements of Unfiltered Universe are woven into in the music’s underlying rhythms, melodic structures and phraseology. Indeed, a collective grasp of South Asian traditions informs the stimulating ensemble communication and propulsive grooves on display here. Highlights include the angular opener “Propensity”; the sometimes pensive, sometimes wild title track; and the cerebral-meets-whimsical “Thin-King.” Abbasi’s stated goal in composing the music for this album was “to let the influences hit the empty canvas and allow that to speak to me” without first imposing any foundational ideas on what he planned to create. The result is something that Abbasi describes as “unprocessed and unfiltered,” revealing the universe of music and experience that exists within him—hence, the album’s apt title and fresh, bold sound.

Gregory Porter

Nat “King” Cole & Me
(Blue Note)

Gregory Porter has one of the most amazing singing voices you’ll hear on planet Earth. It can raise you to your feet with its power or help you sink into a chair and say, “Ah,” because it’s so darned soothing. On Nat “King” Cole & Me Porter leans to the soothing side of his instrument in paying tribute to, perhaps, his main influence as an artist. Porter has made it clear from the beginning of his career how much Cole means to him as an artist and as a person. He wrote the semi-autobiographical musical called, not surprisingly, Nat King Cole & Me, back in 2004. He has said that as a youth he often imagined Cole as the father figure he never had. If that sounds like a lot of pressure on this tribute, it is, but Porter doesn’t show it. He gracefully swings through a set of songs made famous by Cole as well as some originals that you can almost hear Nat sing. The program includes gems like “Mona Lisa,” “Smile,” “Nature Boy,” “L-O-V-E,” “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas” and “Sweet Lorraine,” all backed by the London Studio Orchestra with arrangements by the amazing Vince Mendoza. This is an ambitious, risky project that could have turned out sounding dated or stale, but Nat “King” Cole & Me delivers reward after reward. First, we get the reward of hearing one of our greatest living singers in a grand musical setting. Second, the band—consisting of Christian Sands on piano, Reuben Rogers on bass and Ulysses Owens Jr. on drums—swings beautifully. Trumpeter Terence Blanchard drops in for two great guest spots. Finally, the London Studio Orchestra brings an added dignity to the proceedings. Cole & Me has all the lushness of those original Cole renditions, but remains very clearly the work of Porter. This is not someone mimicking the King; this is a fully formed artist taking on that music with reverence, but with his own style. Porter’s tone is impeccable, his sense of time, sublime. One of my favorite cuts here is the Porter original “When Love Was King.” It’s a song that first appeared on his Blue Note release Liquid Spirit. Here, it’s presented as a dazzling, grand remake. In all, this is another fantastic contribution to the growing legend and discography of Gregory Porter.

Anat Cohen Tentet

Happy Song
(Anzic)

The excellent new album by the Anat Cohen Tentet is the result of a diverse, remarkably talented cast of players, composers and arrangers. Cohen—winner of the Clarinet category in the 2017 DownBeat Critics Poll—wrote or co-wrote three of the tracks here, and the musical director for the project was Oded Lev-Ari, who arranged much of the program, including a tear-jerking rendition of Gordon Jenkins’ “Goodbye.” The centerpiece of the album is “Anat’s Doina,” a three-movement piece in which two of Cohen’s compositions bookend Lev-Ari’s arrangement of the traditional klezmer tune “Der Gasn Nigun.” Elsewhere, Cohen explores Brazilian rhythms (one of her areas of expertise) with a lively reading of Egberto Gismonti’s “Loro,” arranged for the tentet by Lev-Ari. Cohen’s clarinet work is consistently compelling throughout the program, whether she’s exploring fusion on a version of Lev-Ari’s “Trills And Thrills” (featuring a fierce electric guitar solo by Sheryl Bailey) or unleashing the toe-tapper “Oh Baby” (a swing tune that Benny Goodman recorded for Columbia in 1946). On Cohen’s arrangement of Neba Solo’s “Kenedougou Foly,” the clarinetist and her horn players engage in a wondrous dialogue, with the accompanists delivering a consistent, killer riff, and the leader responding with potent commentary. The lineup for the album includes Bailey (guitar), Rubin Kodheli (cello), Nadje Noordhuis (trumpet, flugelhorn), Nick Finzer (trombone), Owen Broder (baritone saxophone, bass clarinet), James Shipp (vibraphone, percussion), Vitor Gonçalves (piano, accordion), Tal Mashiach (bass) and Anthony Pinciotti (drums). Cohen’s Happy Song, her most ambitious album yet, gloriously accomplishes her goal of uniting people through music. She’ll take the tentet on the road for concerts in Chicago (Oct. 7), Decorah, Iowa (Nov. 4), Northridge, California (Nov. 30), San Francisco (Dec. 3) and Olympia, Washington (Dec. 4).

Johnny Rawls

Waiting For The Train
(Catfood)

Blues/soul singer Johnny Rawls addresses both spiritual and carnal topics on his new album, Waiting For The Train. With a voice that mixes silk with grit, Rawls delivers a gospel message on “Las Vegas,” singing, “Do you believe in God/ Do you believe in Jesus/ Do you believe He’s there/ Do you believe He sees us?” Bob Trenchard—the bassist in Rawls’ band, The Rays—co-wrote six of the 10 tracks here, including the funk-flavored “California Shake,” a humorous, risqué tune in which the protagonist is disturbed by his loud neighbors: “The wall was bangin’/ The bed was creakin’/ Easy to tell that they sure wasn’t sleepin’.” Producer Jim Gaines makes judicious, graceful use of a muscular horn section on this disc. Punchy horns spice up “Rain Keep Falling (’Til I’m Free)” and “Turning Point,” thanks to Mike Middleton (trumpet), Joel Chavarria (trombone), Andy Roman (alto and tenor saxophone) and Nick Flood (tenor and baritone sax). Dan Ferguson’s lovely piano work adds heft to Rawls’ poignant reading of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.” On the title track, when Rawls tenderly sings that he’s “waiting to cross over the river/ waiting to go, oh, just to be delivered,” it’s clear that the envisioned destination is in the hereafter.

Negroni’s Trio

New Era
(Sony Music Latin)

New Era is the ninth album by the Miami-based Negroni’s Trio, led by Puerto Rican pianist José Negroni and featuring his son, Nomar, on drums and Joshua Allen on bass. This is also the group’s most stylistically fluid disc to date. Jazz and Afro-Cuban are identifiable touchstones, but these musicians aren’t shy about opening the door to closely associated Latin genres, with guest artists ranging from Puerto Rican singer Pedro Capo and Brazilian vocalist Rose Max to Dominican rapper Lapiz Conciente, who adds considerable swagger to a version of “Take The ‘A’ Train.” Electronics also have an outsize influence here, much more than on previous albums by Negroni’s Trio, with pianist José taking a cool, ruminative synth solo on “Brazilian Love Affair” that reveals his prodigious jazz chops and deep-thinking melodic sense. The principal strength of Negroni’s Trio has always been its lockstep cohesion, even across moments of rhythmic complexity, and that’s still very much the case on New Era. The album is rife with examples of musical sublimation, where melodic energy is compacted and condensed, only to explode, vapor-like, as the song reaches its climax. A perfect illustration is the coda on “Sunny,” featuring Cuban vocalist/actress Aymee Nuviola (who is famous for portraying salsa legend Celia Cruz in a TV series). Nomar is positively ballistic on drums, and his whip-cracking snare adds emphatic punctuation to his father’s spitfire piano solo. More than a showcase of technical prowess, it’s a demonstration of the group’s open-eared adventurism, weaving threads of salsa, hard-bop and funk into an infrangible braid. It’s an impressive feat, and hopefully an indicator of more good things to come from this longstanding threesome.

Tom Rainey Obbligato

Float Upstream
(Intakt)

Drummer Tom Rainey is an artist fluent in the languages of both straightahead jazz and the avant-garde. Early albums found him providing cast-iron support to mainstream artists such as pianist Fred Hersch and vocalist Roseanna Vitro, while more recent projects have planted him in exploratory bands led by saxophonist Tim Berne and violinist Mark Feldman. In 2013 Rainey recorded the album LARK (Skirl) with trumpeter/cornetist Ralph Alessi, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and pianist Kris Davis, and for the Tom Rainey Obbligato’s eponymous album in 2014, he added bassist Drew Gress. Rainey’s new album, Float Upstream, features the same lineup. The band's mission objective has been to filter Great American Songbook standards through a light-scattering prism of avant-impressionism. Float continues in a similar vein, but it shifts the thematic focus to love songs. Lyrical content, melodic shape and harmonic structure are all fair game for Rainey’s musical abstractionism, and the results are astounding in their novelty and freshness. The standard “Stella By Starlight” is bent into angles almost unrecognizable here. The tune begins in a noir-ish mist, out of which emerge the sly, roving voices of Alessi and Laubrock. Signposts of the song’s familiar melody eventually become perceptible, landing a profound punch once it solidifies by tune’s end. “What Is This Thing Called Love?” projects a similar air of intellection, smearing the tune’s sharply delineated chord changes into a watercolor blur. Throughout, Rainey’s drumming is agile and heated. His solo on “There Is No Greater Love,” full of clattering bursts and tumbling fills, sets the stage for a vigorous round of group interplay.

Anouar Brahem

Blue Maqams
(ECM)

For his intriguing new quartet album, Blue Maqams, master oudist Anouar Brahem enlisted two fellow legends and a veteran player whose profile is on the rise. The lineup for this jazz-meets-world-music program includes bassist Dave Holland (with whom Brahem collaborated on the 1998 ECM album Thimar), drummer Jack DeJohnette and 56-year-old British multi-instrumentalist Django Bates, who plays piano here. ECM founder Manfred Eicher, who produced the album, suggested that Brahem consider working with Bates, whose leader debut on ECM will be out Nov. 3. In the liner notes to Blue Maqams, Brahem explains that he wanted to team up with a pianist who could help him explore new approaches to dialog involving oud and piano. Not only did Brahem find the perfect collaborator in Bates, he assembled a program of all original compositions that showcases the pianist’s gorgeous touch, with some passages featuring solo piano, as well as duo sections that highlight subtle, intelligent conversations between oud and piano. Eicher is a meticulous craftsman, as is Brahem, who describes the producer as “an extremely sensitive sculptor of sound.” The result is a program that features traditional music from Arab culture as well as more modern jazz elements. Each musician shines here. Holland uncorks a sturdy solo on “Bom Dia Rio,” a composition dating back to 1990. DeJohnette masterfully uses his cymbals as the main percussive voice on much of “Unexpected Outcome” and on parts of “La Nuit.” Bates’ beautiful playing on “The Recovered Road To Al-Sham” will certainly win him new fans and send them searching for his leader albums. Brahem will tour Europe in April, with shows scheduled for Paris, Munich and Brussels, as well as other cities.

Vince Mendoza/WDR Big Band

Homecoming
(Sunnyside)

The superb new release Homecoming is Vince Mendoza’s fifth album to date with the WDR Big Band of Cologne, Germany. This reunion of the Grammy-winning composer/arranger/conductor with one of Europe’s finest large jazz ensembles furthers a long-running relationship that has yielded such acclaimed recordings as The Vince Mendoza/Arif Mardin Project: Jazzpaña (1992), Randy and Michael Brecker’s Some Skunk Funk (2005), Joe Zawinul’s Brown Street (2006) and Chano Domínguez’s Soleando (2015). The Homecoming project began in 2014 when Mendoza was invited to create a concert program of all-original compositions that would be performed live by the WDR Big Band and recorded for CD release. Mendoza’s familiarity with WDR’s cooperative aesthetic and his keen awareness of band members’ instrumental strengths works to everyone’s advantage on Homecoming; the long-established chemistry between composer and ensemble is palpable in the bespoke orchestrations and the overall organic vibe at work here. Mendoza employs the full sonic palette of the WDR Big Band, which under his baton becomes a virtual orchestra whose expert woodwind and brass doublers (adding flutes, piccolo, clarinets and tuba to the mix) deftly navigate his intricate, expansive charts. The trumpet and trombone sections demonstrate explosive power, world-class chops and tasteful jazz phrasing. Soloists make big, bold statements, rivaling the ensemble’s complex-but-never-excessive orchestrated passages in their emotional impact. Each of the seven extended tracks on Homecoming is a highlight in its own right—my favorites include the sunny jazz-samba “Choros #3,” the tuneful swinging waltz “Homecoming” and the funky-fusion opener, “Keep It Up.” Since the creation of Homecoming, Mendoza has been named Composer-in-Residence for the WDR Big Band. (His colleague, saxophonist Bob Mintzer—who serves on the faculty at University of Southern California with Mendoza—is currently the ensemble’s Chief Conductor.) This is great news for fans of both Mendoza and the WDR Big Band, whose latest joint project is a joyful homecoming that brims with densely interwoven musical ideas as it celebrates feelings of belonging and togetherness.

Sherman Irby

Cerulean Canvas
(Black Warrior)
From his post as lead alto saxophonist in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Sherman Irby has distinguished himself as an improviser of great artistry and wit. Drawing on the melodic language of Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, Ornette Coleman and others, he crafts solos that seem more geometric than linear, full of exquisite shapes that twist, rotate and shift through harmonic space. His latest project, out Oct. 20 on his own label, blends all those historical influences—as well as his own unique saxophone aesthetic—into a relentlessly engaging album. The CD features his Momentum ensemble—with JLCO trombonist Vincent Gardner, pianist Eric Reed, bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Willie Jones III—as well as two additional guests from the JLCO, trombonist Elliot Mason and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. The group articulates Irby’s vision with imagination and aplomb, bringing to life the various saxophone legends whose iconic styles inform this disc: Adderley on the brawny “Racine,” Hank Crawford and Maceo Parker on the slow, smoke-infused “John Bishop Blues” and Gary Bartz and Sonny Fortune on straightahead swingers like “Blue Twirl: Portrait Of Sam Gillian.” The album also includes “SYBAD,” a touching homage to departed JLCO baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley (1927–2016). Joined by Marsalis, Irby casts the tune more as a celebration of life than a lament for a lost voice. The melody is reverent, with Marsalis and Irby trading ebullient phrases as if reminiscing about a dear friend. It’s a profound exchange with refreshing instance of candor and grace. And it’s hardly the only one. Moments like this abound on Cerulean Canvas, which is as much a dedication to the great saxophonists of yesteryear as it is an encapsulation of Irby’s forward-looking approach.

Rachel Therrien

Why Don’t You Try
(Truth Revolution)
For several years, Quebec-born, Brooklyn-based trumpeter Rachel Therrien has been among the most innovative artists operating at the intersection of jazz and world music. Her geographic reach is awe-inspiring, taking in sounds from New Orleans trad-jazz and Cuban folk to Colombian funk and American rock ’n’ roll and routing them through her own audacious trumpet aesthetic. Therrien—who has toured and recorded with international artists such as percussionist Pedrito Martinez, pianist Roberto Fonseca, trumpeter Claudio Roditi and drummer Tony Allen—hones in on the jazzier elements of world music on her fourth album, Why Don’t You Try, offering 11 gripping originals that place groove and improvisation at the forefront. Fleshing out her sonic vision are drummer Alain Bourgeois, bassist Simon Pagé, pianist Charles Trudel and saxophonist Benjamin Deschamps, each of whom contributes one song apiece to this robust program. (The longtime working ensemble, which bills itself as the Rachel Therrien Quintet, won the Montreal Jazz Festival’s TD Grand Prize Jazz Award in 2015 and the Stingray Jazz Rising Star Award in 2016.) Opener “Spectrum,” written by the leader, gallops along at a blistering tempo. It has all the features of a hard-bop thriller: a highly syncopated melody, whipsaw drumming and alluring improvisational discourses (courtesy of Therrien and Deschamps). Meanwhile, “Demi-Nuit” is loose and free-flowing, with spacey keyboard chords that churn atop Bourgeois’ tempestuous snare groove. And a flute-and-muted-trumpet front line adds mystique to “CRS,” a quietly exotic tune that, while firmly entrenched in Miles Davis-esque fusion, culls together sonic hues from places as distant as Latin America, the Middle East and downtown New York. Therrien will lead a quartet at the CU Jazz Festival in Champaign, Illinois, on Oct. 22, and she’ll perform with her quintet at the Polanco Jazz Festival in Mexico City on Dec. 10.

Sarah Elizabeth Charles

Free Of Form
(Stretch Music/Ropeadope)
The Black Lives Matter movement has informed and/or inspired numerous works of transcendent art, including singer-songwriter Sarah Elizabeth Charles’ third release, Free Of Form, which merges jazz with elements of neo-soul and rock. On “March To Revolution Part II,” Charles delivers the lyric “The time to be passive” sporadically throughout the track, singing it 18 times and then, at the 4:38 mark, she completes the line in a powerful, dramatic way: “The time to be passive … is done.” Charles has said that she began composing “Change To Come” back in 2014, in the wake of Eric Garner’s death in Staten Island, New York. On this track, she delivers these chilling lyrics: “Innocence means nothing anymore/ I have seen my brothers bleed.” The impact of Charles’ words is enhanced by her clarion tone, impressive vocal range and precise diction. Charles’ collaborators here are the members of her longtime band, SCOPE: Jesse Elder (piano, keyboards, Fender Rhodes), Burniss Earl Travis II (bass) and John Davis (drums). Trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, who co-produced the album with Charles, contributes to four of the 12 tracks. On the title track, his trumpet starts out as a sonic element woven into the soundscape before it bursts forth with sky-scraping notes, and on “Change To Come,” the instrument adds an emotional lament. Charles wrote or co-wrote every song on the album except for an intense reading of Irish rock band The Cranberries’ 1994 hit “Zombie,” featuring stacked vocals, as she sings both the lead and harmony parts. Charles, whose music would likely appeal to fans of Esperanza Spalding and Gretchen Parlato, doesn’t frequently craft melodies that are immediately hummable—but her tunes still get stuck in your head. Charles and SCOPE will play an album-release show at Joe’s Pub in New York on Oct. 9, followed by concerts in Springfield, Massachusetts (Nov. 2) and Cambridge, Massachusetts (Nov. 7).

Christian McBride Big Band

Bringin’ It
(Mack Avenue)

In the press materials for bassist Christian McBride’s new big band album, he cites bandleaders Duke Ellington and Maria Schneider as strong influences on his large-ensemble work. McBride’s artistic debt to those two musicians reflects his desire to be part of a jazz tradition while also pushing it forward. His 2011 big band album, The Good Feeling (Mack Avenue), generated rave reviews, and most of the players on that album are back for Bringin’ It. McBride has said, “[L]ike Duke Ellington used to do, I can write for my guys because I know their sound and style.” Nine of the 11 tracks here were arranged by McBride, who included three original compositions in the program. (All three are songs that he had previously recorded with a smaller ensemble, so it’s clear that he wants to continue refining his acumen as an arranger.) A judicious yet bold arranger, McBride knows exactly when he or one of his trusted bandmates should inject a solo into a tune. Trombonist Michael Dease offers a growling, greasy solo on the McBride original “Used ’Ta Could,” a party tune so addictive that it should be accompanied by a warning label. Carl Maraghi’s baritone sax solo adds some mighty muscle to a winning rendition of Wes Montgomery’s “Full House.” On a lovely arrangement of “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning,” the leader’s tasteful arco work and Brandee Younger’s harp add intriguing textures, as though McBride is telling the listener, “I have a lot of dazzling colors on this palette, and I know how to use them properly.” The album concludes with trombonist Steve Davis’ arrangement of his own composition “Optimism.” It’s a toe-tapper incorporating surprising twists and shifts, spiced with Todd Bashore’s arresting alto sax solo and Davis’ fluid trombone solo. McBride is a busy, multifaceted artist who’s constantly juggling projects, and the release of Bringin’ It gives his big-band fans a reason to celebrate.

Paul Jones

Clean
(Outside In Music)

Tenor saxophonist Paul Jones has been developing a brainy compositional method in his quest for musical innovation, one that has helped distinguish his writing since the 2015 release of his debut, Short History (Blujazz). In creating his latest album, Clean (Outside In Music), Jones has taken this system—based on assigning musical tones to letters of the alphabet and composing melodic material based on words and phrases—to another level, one that involves a random number generator. The result is a program of compelling and surprisingly warm music. Jones’ approach is in many ways minimalist, building on techniques used by Philip Glass and Steve Reich. But the gently hypnotic musical lines that are repeated throughout his compositions are balanced with straightahead jazz instincts and riveting, extroverted improvisations—a highly original combination that soothes and excites at the same time. Jones has crafted unique arrangements for this fresh material, selectively adding a virtual chamber orchestra to his New York-based sextet, which includes alto saxophonist Alex LoRe, guitarist Matt Davis, pianist Glenn Zaleski, bassist Johannes Felscher and drummer Jimmy Macbride. Additional musicians joining the group on several tracks include Mark Dover on clarinet, Ellen Hindson on oboe, Nanci Belmont on bassoon and Susan Mandel on cello, plus SNAP Saxophone Quartet members Nicholas Biello (soprano), Andrew Gould (alto), Sam Dillon (tenor) and Jay Rattman (bari), as well as The Righteous Girls: Gina Izzo (flute) and Erika Dohi (piano). These instruments come together in various intriguing ways on Clean, often on the short transitional passages that contribute to the album’s narrative feel, and sometimes serving as extra ensemble voices on the longer, more fleshed-out compositions. Listen to the wide palette of timbres that emerge as various instruments pair up on the chamber-worthy “Alphabet Soup,” with bassoon and cello alternating the roles of bass-line provider. Notice how on the easy-swinging “I Am An American,” the theme is stated at the top by piano and pizzicato bass, then is repeated by tenor sax and guitar. Hear how the bass part on “Hola, Amigo” sounds as if it’s being tripled by bassoon, cello and piano. And just try to keep your mind from blowing when you realize that the pianist is simultaneously doubling the bassoon line in his left hand and a saxophone line in the right on “Buckley Vs. Vidal.” Throughout the program, Jones solos with confidence and poise, executing complex ideas with eloquence and wailing with bluesy passion. I was first impressed with Jones’ go-for-the-throat blowing when he was a finalist in the Julius Keilwerth Co.’s 2014 Saxophone Idol competition. Now, with the release of Clean—which brings together his jazz, classical and pop influences—I find myself fascinated with every aspect of this ascending bandleader’s musicianship. Indeed, Clean is an inspired work of art with an organic flow that belies its heady origins.

Jerry Douglas Band

What If
(Rounder/Concord)

Dobro and lap-steel guitarist Jerry Douglas (nicknamed “Flux”) is well known in Americana music circles as a 14-time Grammy winner who has played on more than 2,000 recordings. Fans of guitarists Bill Frisell and John Scofield and banjoist Béla Fleck—all of whom have introduced many jazz fans to the joys of Americana music—may want to check out Douglas’ new album What If, which is informed by a jazz aesthetic. As a teenager, Douglas was entranced by the music of Weather Report and Chick Corea. He would go on to forge a career in which he has frequently collaborated with genre-blurring artists such as Fleck, violinist Mark O’Connor, bassist Edgar Meyer and singer Alison Krauss. The band on What If includes saxophonist Jamel Mitchell, who contributes a fine solo to Douglas’ original tune “Cave Bop,” and Vance Thompson, whose muted trumpet work opens “Butcher Boy” (another Douglas original). Both Mitchell and Thompson add some punch and drive to stellar arrangements of Meyer’s “Unfolding,” as well as “Freemantle,” a tune that Douglas wrote with Fleck. In addition to writing or co-writing eight of the 11 tracks here, Douglas also sings two covers: the Tom Waits tune “2:19” and “Hey Joe” (which was popularized by Jimi Hendrix). On the instrumental ballads “Go Ahead And Leave” and “The Last Wild Moor,” Douglas shows that in the right hands, a resonator guitar can cause listeners to reach for a hanky just as quickly as a dramatic, weepy vocalist can.

Jessica Molaskey

Portraits Of Joni
(Ghostlight Deluxe)

The singer-songwriter movement of the 1960s produced many artists whose work is still revered today, but literary fans have a particularly strong affection for three of those tunesmiths: Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. Cohen, who died Nov. 7, is the subject of a new tribute album, Sincerely, L. Cohen, which features live performances by Richard Thompson, Lenny Kaye and more than a dozen other artists. Dylan, now a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is the subject of new tribute albums by singer Joan Osborne and guitarist Andreas Hourdakis. Mitchell, who released the box set Love Has Many Faces in 2014, has been the subject of numerous tributes, both onstage and in the recording studio. Vocalist Tierney Sutton received a Grammy nomination for her 2013 tribute, After Blue (BFM). Now comes Portraits Of Joni, a brilliant tribute from singer/actor Jessica Molaskey, who has expanded her fan base thanks to Radio Deluxe, the radio show she co-hosts with her husband, jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli. Molaskey’s tribute is a family affair, as it features contributions from John and the couple’s daughter, Madeleine. On the heartbreaking “Little Green,” Madeleine plays guitar and sings with her mother, shaping transcendent harmonies that are partially a product of shared DNA. This 14-track album—which includes some of Mitchell’s most famous compositions, such as “Help Me,” “A Case Of You” and “Big Yellow Taxi”—showcases Molaskey as a gifted interpreter with an impressive vocal range. It also demonstrates that she’s an intelligent curator who treats these songs not as museum pieces, but as stellar, malleable material that can be recast in artful ways. One track gracefully pairs “Dreamland” (from Mitchell’s album Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter) with “Carey” (from Mitchell’s Blue). Elsewhere, Mitchell’s “The Circle Game” is intertwined with the Jobim classic “Waters Of March.” In a similar but even more surprising move, “Chelsea Morning” is paired with Toninho Horta’s “Aquelas Coisas Todas.” (John Pizzarelli previously recorded both the Jobim and Horta compositions on his 2004 album, Bossa Nova.) On the most memorable track, Larry Goldings’ solo piano rendition of “All I Want” flows into a quintet reading of “Blue” that highlights Molaskey’s vocal power and theatrical chops. Molaskey’s ability to inhabit a character suits this project perfectly, as evidenced by her sly, humorous embodiment of the protagonist in “Raised On Robbery.” This album definitely rewards repeated spins. When the 56-minute program concludes, many listeners will immediately want to hear it again.

Chris Speed Trio

Platinum On Tap
(Intakt)

The Chris Speed Trio’s new album, Platinum On Tap—the excellent follow-up to its 2014 debut, Really OK (Skirl)—continues its artistic journey of making new music that draws upon jazz history. Saxophonist Speed, drummer Dave King and bassist Chris Tordini have crafted a cohesive program of originals and two covers that nods to the music of past decades without simply rehashing the art that inspired these savvy players. The music here occupies a space outside of time, a testament to the trio’s unique ability to dig into a older style and pull out new sounds from it. This is true for the entire album, but it’s illustrated particularly well on the last three tunes—Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” Speed’s original “Torking” and Albert Ayler’s “Spirits.” On “Stardust,” the trio artfully reanimates a standard, on “Torking” Speed takes a classic tenor voice sound and juxtaposes it with something much more modern, and on “Spirits” the musicians dive into free-jazz territory. Speed’s playing on the opener, “Red Hook Nights,” is mellow, patient and lyrical, emphasizing—as the liner notes indicate—“the connection between the vocal and instrumental.” Platinum On Tap provides an intense glimpse into past but still looks forward.

Tom Harrell

Moving Picture
(HighNote)

Trumpeter Tom Harrell’s new disc comes on the heels of two phenomenal previous releases, First Impressions (the subject of a 5-star review in the December 2015 issue of DownBeat) and 2016’s Something Gold, Something Blue. Those albums had clear and abundant strengths—Harrell’s poetic phrasing and luxuriant tone chief among them—but they were most remarkable for their freshness of concept. The former found Harrell inhibiting the sonic worlds of classical composers Ravel and Debussy; the latter featured a two-trumpet frontline that paired Harrell with kindred spirit Ambrose Akinmusire. Moving Picture puts Harrell in a more familiar setting: at the helm of his working quartet with bassist Ugonna Okegwo, pianist Danny Grissett and drummer Adam Cruz. The program has a homegrown feel, with 10 tracks culled from Harrell’s repertoire, and the tunes rarely stray from the trumpeter’s wheelhouse, oscillating between hard-pivoting modern jazz and warm, soft-focused balladry. Despite the relative modesty of the premise, this album is riveting. Harrell flourishes as the center of attention, slicing through knotty, fugue-like passages with characteristic precision on the title track, and burning bluesy lines into the funk-dappled surface of “Gee, A. Bee.” On tunes with rounder edges, such as “Apple House” and “Different Clouds,” he takes a coolly understated approach, framing occasional bursts of rhythmic energy with longer passages that emphasize underlying harmonic shapes. But one of Harrell’s most admirable traits is the grace with which he cedes the spotlight to his bandmates, and this album is rife with sublime moments from his supporting crew. Grissett plays with aching beauty on a solo section of “Sea,” while Cruz displays acute melodic sense with his drum solo on “Time Passage.” Okegwo, the longest-tenured member of the quartet, marches in sturdy lockstep with the leader on the melody of “Montego Bay,” and later provides indefatigable support beneath the trumpeter’s gospel-winged solo, which builds in intensity as it unfurls. More than a powerful statement in its own right, Moving Picture is proof that even in the most “standard” of situations, Harrell is capable of elevating the art form.

Woody Shaw & Louis Hayes

The Tour, Volume Two
(HighNote)

Trumpeter Woody Shaw and drummer Louis Hayes will be forever linked in the collective consciousness of jazz fans. That’s largely a product of the duo’s prolific and incendiary partnership in the 1970s, when they created some of their most explosive work. Some previously unreleased music from this period has been brought to light via the terrific archeological work of HighNote Records. In June, the label released The Tour, Volume One, chronicling a 1976 concert in Stuttgart, Germany. Volume Two is a compilation of live performances recorded in 1976–’77 on that same European tour. This was a transitional period for jazz, with the sounds and structures of hard-bop steadily giving way to the machinations of fusion. Shaw and Hayes thrived in this liminal zone, incorporating elements from both sides of the jazz threshold into a style all their own. The playing here is urgent and unpredictable, with melodic statements that levitate with confidence and solos that burrow deep into harmonic geology. Shaw, in particular, maintains an unremitting energy throughout this disc. He transforms the Jerome Kern standard “All The Things You Are” into a platform for rhythmic tension-bearing and harmonic experimentation, and he injects “’Round Midnight” with refreshing grit and swagger, casting the typically heavyhearted melody into a statement of sureness and poise. Tenor saxophonist Junior Cook is similarly combustible and focused, turning his solo on “Night In Tunisia” into a showcase for whiplash patterns and soaring altissimo notes. But this compilation isn’t all about velocity. Hayes, acting as the band’s throttle, is malleable in his approach, burning hot and bright on uptempo tunes like “Invitation” and dialing down to a gauzy, brushed lull on the ballad “What’s New.” The flexibility of his drumming is what holds this hurtling vehicle together. But despite the intensity, the ride is a scenic one. Unlike the series’ first disc, the variety of performances on Volume Two adds a sense of narrative depth to proceedings, painting the ensemble in a shifting yet constantly gratifying light.

Dial & Oatts/DeRosa/WDR Big Band

Rediscovered Ellington
(Zoho)

An online search for CDs and LPs by Duke Ellington (1899–1974) that are available at Amazon can yield more than 5,000 products. The abundance of original recordings and interpretations of Ellington’s work is one of the reasons why the subtitle of one new album is so intriguing. Pianist Garry Dial, reedist Dick Oatts, orchestrator/conductor Rich DeRosa and the 16-piece WDR Big Band of Cologne, Germany, have collaborated on a studio album titled Rediscovered Ellington: New Takes On Duke’s Rare & Unheard Music. As Dial explains in the liner notes, during the late 1970s, Ellington’s relatives hired him “to record, in alphabetical order, the entire Tempo Music catalog of Duke’s music and his associates’ for their family archive.” For a period of about three months, Dial visited the home of Duke’s sister Ruth five days a week so that he could study the contents of the archive, play the compositions on piano and record them for posterity. The archive contained everything from scores and published lead sheets to just sketches of tunes. Dial retained a copy of all the pages he prepared for the Ellington family archive nearly 40 years ago. And that treasure trove inspired him to create this new album of big-band music. One need not be an Ellingtonia expert to enjoy these terrific tunes. But hardcore fans will be thrilled to hear numbers such as “Introspection” and “Kiki,” for which there are no known previous recordings. Frequent collaborators Dial and Oatts contribute potent solos throughout the nine-song program. Dial’s elegant touch is displayed on the gorgeous “I Like Singing,” and Oatts offers an alto sax solo brimming with soulfulness on “Let The Zoomers Drool.” On the latter tune (written by Ellington with his trusted alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges), Oatts’ intricate, tour de force solo includes a section of about 30 seconds when the WDR Big Band drops out entirely in order to showcase his painterly work. Overall, this program swings, wails and gets fine and mellow. The ballads are stunning, particularly “Love Came,” a tune that had been recorded in 1965. Oatts plays a dazzling flute solo on “Just A Gentle Word From You Will Do,” a song that the liner notes explain was mainly composed by pianist/arranger Onzy Matthews, who worked with the Duke Ellington Orchestra in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The WDR Big Band members also impress with their solos on this amazing album. Trombonists Shannon Barnett (“Zoomers”), Ludwig Nuss (“Gentle Word”) and Andy Hunter (“Introspection”) each deliver solos that reflect the player’s individuality while also contributing to the overall success of the performance; that’s something Ellington certainly would endorse. DeRosa—who is on the faculty at the University of North Texas and who has often served as conductor for the WDR Big Band—helped arrange all the music in this 77-minute program. He and Dial arranged six tunes, while he and Oatts arranged the three others. The result is a stellar big-band album, and a document that expands our understanding of Ellington’s genius.

JuJu Exchange

Exchange
(Self Release)

It was only a matter of time before producer Nico Segal (aka Donnie Trumpet) released a jazz record. Though the 24-year-old beatmaker is famous for his craftwork on albums by hip-hop artists Chance the Rapper and J. Cole, he’s also a lyrical and imaginative trumpeter whose productions vibrate with the genetics of hard-bop and fusion. Fans have caught glimpses of this style throughout Segal’s discography, most notably on the album Surf by The Social Experiment, on which soul and r&b samples provided the cushioning for rappers Big Sean, Quavo, Erykah Badu, Kyle, Busta Rhymes and others. The power of that album came largely from Segal’s unique aesthetic vision, which sought to fuse the boom-bap of hip-hop with the searching improvisation of jazz. It was a sound that clearly struck a chord with listeners: Surf was the first free download on iTunes, and to date, it has been streamed more than 180 million times. The JuJu Exchange is Segal’s latest project, and the group’s new album, available exclusively in download and vinyl formats, finds the trumpeter pushing his art into more ambitious climes. Recorded with a couple of fellow Chicagoans and childhood friends—the brothers Julian Reid (piano) and Everett Reid (drums) and bassist Lane Beckstrom—Exchange re-creates the atmosphere of a loose jam session through the lens of a meticulously produced hip-hop program. The finished product is awash in good vibes, maintaining a coherent soundscape even as tracks vary in their proximity to pop and mainstream jazz. Some, such as “Glide,” veer closer to trance-inducing EDM, while others, especially the lovely “Patients,” could have been lifted from a lost recording by pianist Bill Evans. As a trumpeter, Segal is laconic and cool, a player prone to terse phrases and winding, introspective lines, but he can also ratchet up the intensity when the mood strikes, as he does with fiery aplomb on the title track. That song also features the album’s silkiest groove, with a warm, loping synth line that opens the door to endless exploration. Here (and elsewhere on the album) Segal and crew carry the tune toward thrilling destinations.

Trio Ivoire

Desert Pulse
(Amazon)

Some albums stand out because they have a unique instrumental blend. But that doesn’t necessarily guarantee the music will be great. It’s what the musicians do with the instruments that can distinguish a recording that is nobly educational from one that is emotionally engaging. Such is the case with Trio Ivoire’s excellent new album, Desert Pulse. The band’s pianist and primary composer, Hans Lüdemann, is teamed with percussionist Christian Thomé and Aly Keïta, who plays an instrument he developed, a diatonic balafon (a type of wooden xylophone). Augmenting the core trio are trumpeter Reiner Winterschladen and Ballaké Sissoko, a master of the kora, which is a long-necked harp lute. (Another famous practitioner of the kora is Toumani Diabaté, who topped the category Rising Star–Miscellaneous Instrument in the 2013 DownBeat Critics Poll.) In the years since Lüdemann first encountered Keïta in 1999, the pianist has been pursuing an aesthetic that blends elements of jazz with those of West African music. The deep-grooved “Timbuktu,” which features muted trumpet, kora and balafone, illustrates how these musicians can combine various musical ingredients into a coherent, head-bobbing tune. On “Love Confessions,” Keïta constructs a fascinating balafone-and-piano conversation with Lüdemann and later unleashes a fiery solo that would induce a knowing smile among jazz vibes players. The generous Lüdemann embraces different roles throughout the program, sometimes providing a foundational element, sometimes sitting out momentarily, and other times adding a memorable motif for coloration. Fans who are intrigued by the notion of blurring the lines between jazz and world music should check out the hypnotic Desert Pulse.

Ahmad Jamal

Marseille
(Jazz Village/PIAS)

Pianist Ahmad Jamal’s new disc, Marseille, is a love letter to the titular town, a celebrated coastal city in southern France. The album features three versions of Jamal’s composition “Marseille,” and each one is distinct enough to warrant its inclusion: The album opens with a percussion-centric instrumental version; at the program’s midpoint, there’s a rendition with a compelling spoken-word recitation in French by rapper Abd Al Malik; and the album closes with a romantic, ballad version on which Mina Agossi sings in French and in English. Jamal’s original compositions are complemented by jaunty, uptempo arrangements of two songs that artists often deliver with a mood of lamentation: the traditional tune “Sometimes I Feel A Motherless Child” and the standard “Autumn Leaves.” Throughout the program, Jamal emphasizes repetition, and his arrangements often highlight percussion, as he coaxes strong performances from bassist James Cammack, drummer Herlin Riley and percussionist Manolo Badrena, whose toolkit includes bongos, congas, cowbells, rainsticks and wood blocks. While most of the material is upbeat, Jamal offers an introspective mood and lovely, fluid pianism on “I Came To See You/You Were Not There.” This album would make a fine addition to any jazz lover’s collection, whether it’s a newcomer who’s just now discovering this DownBeat Hall of Famer, or a longtime fan who’s been following Jamal since his landmark 1958 album At The Pershing: But Not For Me.

Plucky Strum

Departure
(Whaling City Sound)

Guitarist Sheryl Bailey and bassist Harvie S are colossal talents on their own, but as the duo Plucky Strum, they’re a remarkably potent jazz force. Bailey, a trad-jazz and early bebop maven, has a lyric sensibility and an affinity for bright, vibrant chords. Harvie S, a veteran accompanist to the likes of Jim Hall and Thad Jones, is a bass player capable of both sturdy below-ground support and soaring self-expression. Their styles meshed well on the duo’s 2015 debut (titled Plucky Strum), which showcased an agile unit with heaps of dexterity and a penchant for lean, organic melodies. On the follow-up album, Departure, the duo advances in two directions—toward a fortification of their original sound and into new sonic territory. Opener “Sublime” has the feel of a jaunty mid-century bop tune—think guitarist Tal Farlow’s snappishly articulated duo work—but also incorporates sounds from jazz’s present, including urban blues and Halvorsonian avant-garde. A version of Joni Mitchell’s “The Hissing Of Summer Lawns” uses a similarly protean approach, beginning with clearly delineated shapes and slowly softening into pools of tonal color. “Sabado” is a bustling collage of Latin influences, while a deeply moving rendition of Stephen Stills’ “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” leans closer to Americana, with its ringing acoustic guitar and arco bass. Although Bailey and Harvie S demonstrate a strong command of non-jazz idioms, their best work is done in a rhythmically charged jazz setting, such as the superb tracks “What She Said” and “Good Old Days.”

Dick Hyman

Solo At The Sacramento Jazz Festivals 1983–1988
(Arbors Jazz)

In New York, homegrown piano hero Dick Hyman is so beloved among his neighbors that the city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, proclaimed July 18, 2017, to be “Dick Hyman Day.” There’s good justification for the honor. Hyman, a 2017 NEA Jazz Master, is a pianist of longstanding grace and bountiful talent, with an ability to adapt to nearly any historical style, from stride to bop to modernist sound-painting. His diverse discography boasts more than 25 titles as a leader (including 1969’s MOOG: The Electric Side Of Dick Hyman), and over the course of his lengthy career he’s been a perennial presence at jazz festivals around the country. This compilation on the Arbors Jazz label captures the pianist at the top of his game, performing solo at the Sacramento Jazz Festival over the course of five years in the mid-1980s. Recorded by a super-fan who stowed a simple Sony Walkman recording device in Hyman’s piano, the tracks are remarkable for their stylistic range, technical facility and self-generating energy (as well as their surprisingly good recording quality). Look no further than the aptly titled “Virtuoso Rag” to catch the full force of Hyman’s brilliance. The song blasts off at a blistering pace, Hyman’s left hand leaping across the keyboard as his right unfurls flawlessly articulated ribbons of sound. And for a change of pace, turn to Hyman’s interpretation of “Stella By Starlight,” on which the pianist burrows into the song’s essence, slowing parts down, dressing parts up and imbuing the indelible melody with fresh vigor. His treatment of Great American Songbook chestnuts—including whirlwind takes on “’S Wonderful,” “How High The Moon” and “All The Things You Are”—is compelling, but it can be just as thrilling to hear him dig in deep on a blues, which he does with intense focus and unrelenting enthusiasm on “Jazz Me Blues” and “Gulf Coast Blues.”

Black Diamond

Mandala
(Shifting Paradigm)

The debut from Black Diamond, a Chicago-based quartet of two tenor saxophones, bass and drums, is the perfect album for late afternoons in the summer. The band is co-led by tenor saxophonists Artie Black and Hunter Diamond, who take on equal roles, each composing three tracks on his own and co-composing three more for the nine-track program on Mandala. Bassist Matt Ulery and drummer Neil Hemphill round out the quartet, providing solid grooves and leaving plenty of room for the two tenors to interact and mesh. The combination of the two tenors is extraordinary; their unison playing has the warmth that results from two musicians closely interacting, and at times it becomes difficult to distinguish Black from Diamond because their sounds are nearly identical. Some of these tracks seem to float by, leaving behind a warm feeling as they pass. Elsewhere, the nearly unhinged “Rudy’s Mood” is immediately followed by the bittersweet “Eleanor & Rufus.” The music is spirited and passionate throughout, and it’s easy to visualize this quartet enjoying themselves in the studio. (Black Diamond will play an album-release show at Chicago’s Constellation on Aug. 11.)

Darren Barrett’s dB-ish

The Opener
(Self Release)

Canadian trumpeter Darren Barrett has an educational pedigree that would rival any Rhodes Scholar—earning a bachelor’s degree from Berklee College of Music, a master’s from Queens College and a diploma from the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance. His harmonic vocabulary is encyclopedic, and his influences—the trumpeter studied under Donald Byrd and counts Miles Davis and Clifford Brown among his heroes—resonate in his own playing. More than a technically proficient player, Barrett is an artist of boundless soul and strong rhythmic drive, and though his style reveals a sturdy hard-bop backbone, he’s willing to push his musical identity toward new horizons. That’s the approach he takes on his new album, The Opener, on which he leads his eight-piece ensemble dB-ish (with guest guitarists Nir Felder and Kurt Rosenwinkel) through tunes that offer a patchwork of acoustic jazz, slick electronic samples and synthesized soundscapes. Rosenwinkel’s sly, futuristic phrasing complements Barrett’s processed trumpet sound on the leadoff title track, on which drummer Anthony Toth’s loping rhythm and Santiago Bosch’s rippling keyboard work undergird spiraling solos from the endlessly inventive frontmen. And Felder’s exploratory guitar work adds a keen modern-jazz quality to “To Conversate,” a whirlpool of a tune that gains momentum as it churns. As a composer, Barrett embraces the electronic aesthetic, injecting songs like “Throughout” with digital sound effects and robotic exclamations. “Full Tilt,” the album’s end piece, borrows imaginatively from Barrett’s Jamaican background, incorporating fragments of dancehall and dubstep before making a quick break toward swing. The tune is also an excellent showcase for Barrett’s expressive soloing, which pairs athleticism with elegance. Jazz’s future may very well sound like this.

Karen Lovely

Fish Outta Water
(Self Release)

Blues-rock vocalist Karen Lovely assembled a winning team for her previous album, Ten Miles Of Bad Road, which garnered a 4-star review in the April 2016 issue of DownBeat. She worked with a completely different set of musicians for her fourth studio album, Fish Outta Water—and the results are fantastic. This album’s linchpin is Eric Corne, who has worked with such blues stars as John Mayall and Walter Trout. Corne produced, engineered, mixed and co-mastered the album; he wrote or co-wrote nine of its dozen tracks; and he contributed acoustic guitar, harmonica and backing vocals to three cuts. Lovely has a charismatic voice, and Corne does a masterful job of enhancing the arrangements with just the right instruments. Examples include David Rahlicke’s cornet on “Waking Up The Dead,” Eric Gorfain’s violin on Lovely’s composition “Hades’ Bride (There Was A Time),” Phil Parlapiano’s upright piano on the gospel-flavored toe-tapper “Next Time” and Skip Edwards’ retro-sounding Farfisa on the title track. Fans of Lucinda Williams’ early-2000s albums would probably enjoy Fish Outta Water, partially because two of the singer-songwriter’s key collaborators are part of Lovely’s band here: Taras Prodaniuk plays bass throughout the program, and guitar slinger Doug Pettibone plays on five tracks, including the blues-rock tune “Molotov Cocktails.” Lovely, who has been recognized as a nominee or winner by five different blues organizations, will be on tour in 2017. Her upcoming shows include the Tawas Blues by the Bay festival in Tawas City, Michigan (Aug. 26), the KJAZZ Hollywood Blues Bash in Los Angeles (Sept. 9) and the Michigan BluesFest in Lansing (Sept. 15).

Jonah Parzen-Johnson

I Try To Remember Where I Come From
(Clean Feed)

There are only two instruments on Jonah Parzen-Jonson’s new album—baritone saxophone and analog synthesizer—and he plays both of them. Despite the unlikely instrumentation, this seven-song, 35-minute program is so successful that it actually feels a bit too short. On I Try To Remember Where I Come From, he finds the common ground between two of his musical voices. On the opening track, “Cabin Pressure,” Parzen-Jonson’s assertive bari calls precede a series of long tones that a filtered synth line dances on top of, creating a contrast between a drone-type element and a more kinetic one. He doesn’t stick to just a few tones for the album—he dives headfirst into the pool of possibilities, exploring the range of each instrument, sculpting sounds that are akin to peanut butter on a cheeseburger. It doesn’t make sense in theory, but give it a try and you’ll be glad you did. Despite being made by recording sax solos and then assembling the synth parts around them, each track has a unified feeling that contributes to an overall sense of cohesiveness. This album vividly channels free-jazz with elements of improvisation and composition, combining to create a sustained, meditative mood, transporting listeners to another world.

SWR Big Band/Sammy Nestico

A Cool Breeze
(SWR Classic)

Sammy Nestico, the composer-arranger known for his contributions to the Count Basie Orchestra library and whose name is familiar to anyone who’s played in a big band since the 1960s, recently has gone through a highly creative and productive phase. The rise of Nestico’s international profile has been sparked by a period of collaboration with the SWR Big Band of Germany that has produced several masterful albums, including No Time Like The Present (2004), Basie-Cally Sammy (2005), Fun Time (2009) and Fun Time And More (2011). The productive streak continues with this year’s A Cool Breeze, which finds the perpetually developing, 93-year-old orchestrator combining swing, soul, funk, fusion and symphonic expressions in a stylistic manner that’s distinctly modern yet undeniably Nestico. Unlike his previous SWR collaborations, Nestico (who’s based in San Diego) wasn’t able to travel to Germany for these recording sessions, but digital technology allowed him to participate via Skype and high-speed audio file transfer. His signature syncopations, volleying counterpoint passages, tensely stacked fourths, dramatic dynamics and tasteful manner of combining instrumental timbres are all manifest in the SWR Big Band’s impeccable, inspired performance. These dedicated musicians have become so adept at finessing and interpreting Nestico’s work that they actually transcend what’s on the printed page. They turn his carefully crafted charts into memorable works of art that will have toes tappin’ and fingers snappin’ for decades to come.

Kate Gentile

Mannequins
(Skirl )

There’s a concentrated energy in the music of Kate Gentile, and the percussionist’s latest album, Mannequins, finds that energy channeled through multiple conduits: clamorous acoustic free-jazz, searing heavy metal and stormy electro-noise. On the whole, her compositions, which are frenetic and alive, serve as incubators for rapturous improvisation and rhythmic daring. Even through moments of levity and sparseness, the music retains taut suspense. It’s an aesthetic Gentile honed through years of collaboration with some of the most brilliant minds in creative music, including Kris Davis, Anna Weber, Chris Speed, Anthony Braxton and John Zorn. Mannequins features a well-credentialed band: Jeremy Viner (reeds), Adam Hopkins (bass) and Matt Mitchell (piano, Prophet 6 and electronics). Together, these four musicians create a footprint that is much larger than its individual parts. The opener, “Stars Covered In Clouds Of Metal,” demonstrates the quartet’s formal elasticity, with Mitchell’s electronics sounding like a chorus of distorted guitars against Gentile’s jagged, furious beat. “Hammergaze” shifts the emphasis toward texture and shadow, its ghostly drones, unhindered by time and tempo, creating a mesmeric swirl. Pieces like “Wrack” and “Alchemy Melt [With Tilt]” recall the earthy soulfulness of Ornette Coleman’s early avant work; there’s a nebulous sense of swing that undergirds Viner’s thrilling, audacious tenor lines. As a composer and performer, Gentile demonstrates a strong command of rhythmic intricacy and a cunning musical discernment. She’s developing a signature sound. Expect to hear more of it soon.

Innocent When You Dream

Dirt In The Ground
(Self Release)

Tom Waits is a gifted songwriter who—like Bob Dylan and the late Leonard Cohen—has a vocal style that alienates some people. For listeners in that camp, a new instrumental collection of Waits’ compositions might be enlightening. Dirt In The Ground is the second album of Waits tunes recorded by trumpeter Aaron Shragge’s band Innocent When You Dream. Waits’ classic 1987 album, Franks Wild Years, is a touchstone for Shragge. “Innocent When You Dream,” a song that appears twice on that album, is the source of the band’s name, and the sextet interprets three Wild Years tracks here: “Hang On St. Christopher,” “Temptation” and “Way Down In The Hole.” Shragge and tenor saxophonist Jonathan Lindhorst offer emotional, vocal-type tones on “All The World Is Green.” The arrangements of “Ol’ 55” and the tearjerker “You Can Never Hold Back Spring” feature wondrous interplay between Lindhorst’s tenor and the pedal steel guitar work of Joe Grass, who plays on eight of the album’s 11 tracks. An even more exotic mixture occurs on “The Briar And The Rose,” which blends of Grass’ pedal steel with the haunting sounds of Shragge on shakuhachi, a type of flute. If you are already a Waits fan, this album might send you scrambling to purchase any titles in his catalog that you’ve missed. And if you’re not a Waits fan, this album could convert you.

Alan Broadbent

Developing Story
(Eden River)

Alan Broadbent is a musician’s musician. As a pianist, composer, arranger and conductor, his work has tremendously enhanced albums by Woody Herman, Natalie Cole, Charlie Haden’s Quartet West and Sir Paul McCartney. Broadbent wrote orchestrations for four tracks on Diana Krall’s excellent new album, Turn Up The Quiet (Verve). Fans of his work with Krall will definitely want to check out his new leader project, Developing Story, which was recorded with the London Metropolitan Orchestra in Abbey Road Studio 1. Producer Ralf Kemper does a masterful job of blending the music of the orchestra with that of a nimble jazz piano trio: Broadbent, bassist Harvie S and drummer Peter Erskine. The anchor piece for this album is a three-movement suite titled Developing Story [For Jazz Trio And Orchestra], and in the liner notes, Broadbent explains that it was somewhat inspired by the music of Gustav Mahler. This 26-minute suite is a brilliant showcase for Broadbent the composer, and the third movement, in particular, highlights his elegant pianism. Compelling renditions of two Miles Davis tunes, “Blue In Green” and “Milestones,” illustrate Broadbent’s stellar skills as an arranger. Listeners need not be familiar with the versions of those tunes by Davis or Bill Evans (or anyone else) to appreciate the power and drama that Broadbent and company have crafted here. The album concludes with a breathtaking interpretation of “Children Of Lima,” which Broadbent wrote for Herman and the Houston Symphony in the 1970s.

Oregon

Lantern
(Cam Jazz)

When Oregon appeared on the cover of the Oct. 10, 1974, issue of DownBeat, the magazine’s table of contents contained a blurb for readers who were not familiar with the band: “Four former members of the Paul Winter Consort … comprise this unusual acoustic chamber ensemble. Their music is full of peace, beauty and freedom of expression … .” That description of Oregon’s music is still apt today. Nearly 50 years after it was founded, the quartet still has two of its original members: woodwinds player Paul McCandless and guitarist and keyboardist Ralph Towner. Rounding out the group are longtime drummer/percussionist Mark Walker and double bassist Paolino Dalla Porta, who joined in 2015 but is making his recording debut with Oregon on its terrific new album, Lantern. All 10 tracks here are original compositions—except for a beautiful rendition of the traditional tune “The Water Is Wide,” arranged by McCandless, who plays an impressive array of instruments on this disc: oboe, English horn, soprano saxophone and bass clarinet. Towner displays his exceptional skills on classical guitar, piano and synthesizer. While some tracks have a bit of a world-music feel, others, like “Walkin’ The Walk,” are clearly in the jazz vein. Throughout the program, all four musicians’ exquisite solos are featured amid polished, profound cohesion. Graceful teamwork is what makes Lantern shine so brightly. Oregon is currently on tour, with dates in numerous European cities, including Augsburg, Germany (July 12), Warsaw (July 15), Rome (July 17) and London (July 20–21).

New York Standards Quartet

Sleight Of Hand
(Whirlwind)

There are flashes of musical prestidigitation evident in nearly every track on Sleight Of Hand, the latest album by NYSQ. The time-tested ensemble—reedist Tim Armacost, pianist David Berkman, drummer Gene Jackson and bassist Daiki Yasukagawa—brings its mystic touch to eight standards of the Great American Songbook and interprets them in ways both foreign and familiar. The group takes an innovative approach on tunes of the well-worn sort (“I Fall In Love Too Easily,” “Lover Man”) and a couple of more recently minted gems (Hank Mobley’s “This I Dig Of You,” Herb Ellis’ “Detour Ahead”). The quartet’s version of Mal Waldron’s “Soul Eyes” is revved up, refracted and stretched across new rhythmic patterns, and Armacost and Berkman offer agile, bop-laced solos. And the group wrings all of the emotional poignancy out of “In A Sentimental Mood,” taking it at a deliberate rubato that allows ample room for silence and reflection. At just over three minutes, it’s the album’s shortest track, but it’s also the most affecting. In terms of pure swing, it’s hard to beat the group’s rendition of “Ask Me Now.” In their hands, the immortal Thelonious Monk tune ricochets around spiky rhythmic corners and careens down surprising harmonic lanes. Reinterpreting the standards is one of jazz’s most longstanding traditions. The New York Standards Quartet has a way of making that tradition seem fresh.

Spike Wilner

Odalisque
(Cellar Live)

Pianist Spike Wilner, manager and partner of the famous New York jazz club Smalls, defends his status as one of the city’s premier trio leaders on Odalisque, his latest live album for Cellar Live. A Manhattan native, Wilner is a jazz institution in his hometown. He’s also one of jazz’s most colorful characters. He can trace his lineage back to a rabbinical dynasty founded by his great-great-great grandfather, Moses Sofer, who was also a Kabbala master and mystic. Wilner was part of the first—and now renowned—class of music students at the New School For Social Research’s Jazz and Contemporary Music Program, which included classmates Brad Mehldau, Chris Potter and Peter Bernstein. The music on Odalisque prides itself on an appealing type of eclecticism, marked by equal parts buoyant swing and pugnacious modernism. “The Upasaka” (the title refers to a follower of Buddhism) launches the program on a note of propulsive soul-jazz; it’s steered down a blazing rhythmic path courtesy of a bluesy ascending riff from Wilner’s left hand and drummer Anthony Pinciotti’s crackling cymbal. Wilner, Pinciotti and bassist Tyler Mitchell bring the same unflagging energy to a rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” with the sense of play and sweetness dialed to the max. The title track (which takes its name from one of fine art’s most famous figures: the nude woman in recline) reflects a slower, more tender side of the trio, with baroque ornaments that evoke a sonic sensuousness. Wilner’s take on Rodgers and Hart’s “Little Girl Blue” is just as emotionally stirring, beginning with slow, rain-soaked gestures that transition into a crisp, swinging trot. It’s among the album’s most arresting pieces, and it attests to Wilner’s ability to connect with an audience.

Rova Saxophone Quartet

Saxophone Special Revisited
(Clean Feed)

Rova Saxophone Quartet reinvents a classic recording by the late soprano saxophonist and composer Steve Lacy (1934–2004) on Saxophone Special Revisited. Lacy’s 1975 album Saxophone Special, culled from December 1974 performances at London’s Wigmore Hall, was a seminal entry into the pantheon of free-jazz works for saxophone quartet. It featured Lacy, Steve Potts, Trevor Watts and Evan Parker on multiple saxophones—plus guitarist Derek Bailey and synthesist Michel Waisvisz—bravely executing a suite of the leader’s densely arranged compositions that required them to dive head-first into extended group improvisations. The album—which was contemporaneous with Anthony Braxton’s saxophone quartet recording on New York, Fall 1974 and predated any works by the World Saxophone Quartet—was an inspiration to the members of Rova, who came together as a group in late 1977 (and whose personnel has remained the same, with one exception, ever since). A group known for its unique ability to synthesize modern composition with collective improvisation, not to mention its appetite for advanced techniques and raw adventure, Rova has performed its own arrangements of Lacy’s now-famous suite live on several occasions over the years. The quartet of saxophonists Bruce Ackley, Steve Adams, Larry Ochs and Jon Rasking is supplemented by guitarist Henry Kaiser and synthesist Kyle Bruckmann on Saxophone Special Revisited, which was recorded in September 2015 at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, California. Although Rova’s interpretation is obviously not an attempt to re-create all the nuances of the original recording, the ensemble succeeds in achieving the same chiming tonality that Lacy strove for in his dissonant, cycling arrangements. In this context, with obvious reverence, Rova and company sculpt brilliant improvisations of melody and noise that are honest to the core and utterly free of restraint. This is thrilling, cathartic stuff. Two bonus tracks, “Clichés” and “Sidelines,” feature Rova’s spirited take on compositions Lacy recorded after the release of Saxophone Special.

Itamar Borochov

Boomerang
(Laborie)

Known equally for his work as a jazz and world musician, trumpeter Itamar Borochov returns to the jazz quartet format with his sophomore album as a leader, following Yemen Blues’ INSANIYA (Magenta Marketing Inc., 2016). But just because this album has a jazz focus doesn’t mean his world-music background loses its place in his voice, a unique hybrid of the Middle East and Brooklyn, compelling technique and delicate lyricism. Two of the tunes are powerful arrangements of traditional songs, and throughout the album, rhythms and harmonies rooted in the Middle East peek through, making for an album as tied to contemporary jazz as it is to Borochov’s cultural roots. While it may seem light and easy to listen to at first, Boomerang is much more religious than one might expect a jazz album to be. The album stands out because of this, especially due to its conceptual and musical representations of the Jewish faith. As the liner notes (by writer and educator Aryeh Tepper) state, the nine songs here take the listener on a journey through the world, Borochov’s life and spirituality. If you decide to follow, your own life can be enriched with a connection to Borochov’s music that goes beyond a mere appreciation for his virtuosity and thoughtful composition.

Meridian Trio

Triangulum
(Clean Feed)

The Meridian Trio’s debut is an exciting snapshot of the ever-evolving Chicago free-jazz scene. An album suited for seasoned listeners, those looking to get to know the scene and anyone in between, Triangulum puts together bluesy improvisation and free-spirited writing, all of it coated in a thick, focused intensity. Such qualities can certainly be attributed to the individual players, but it’s the trio as a whole that wields such astonishing power. These improvisers often seem to move together towards one indeterminate destination, and the unified cryptic nature of their performance rears its head in a way that encourages a feeling of foreboding but also one of comfort. The three players know each other well in this setting—thanks to their many weekly gigs prior to making this live recording—and they share a solid foundation upon which they can perpetually surprise each other, always pulling out new sounds and pushing themselves to new heights. The album has its tender moments as well as ominous vibes, but it brims with the swinging electricity for which the trio’s live performances are known.

George Colligan

More Powerful
(Whirlwind)

George Colligan’s 28th album as a leader, More Powerful, is a terrific addition to the discography of this skillful, highly creative pianist. For his program of nine original compositions, Colligan recruited bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Rudy Royston to create some excellent trio recordings, and Nicole Glover (tenor and soprano saxophone) joins in to create a few equally impressive quartet tracks. The album features numerous melodic hooks while also offering plenty of high-energy blowing, as Colligan lets each of his collaborators cut loose. “Waterfall Dreams,” one of the best jazz tracks of the year, features cascading piano lines and a compelling solo by Oh, who topped the category Rising Star–Bass in the 2012 DownBeat Critics Poll and has become a dazzling bandleader herself. Glover contributes tenor fireworks to “More Than You Could Possibly Imagine,” resulting in a track that’s as exciting as a Star Wars lightsaber duel. (Sci-fi fans will recognize the song title as a quote from Obi-Wan in Episode IV: A New Hope.) Royston adds a taut solo to the album’s fast-paced opener, “Whiffle Ball.” In the press materials for the album, Colligan says, “I love to challenge the notion of what’s contemporary and what’s old-fashioned.” He has an aesthetic that draws upon straightahead and post-bop jazz (as well as other styles), without ever feeling staid. Whether he’s crafting a lovely line, delivering a fiery riff or unleashing an intricate solo, Colligan’s music always has an impressive muscularity.

Diana Krall

Turn Up The Quiet
(Verve)

The liner notes of pianist/vocalist Diana Krall’s new album of jazz standards, Turn Up The Quiet, include a dedication: “For Tommy.” DownBeat used that phrase as the title of the cover story on Krall in our June issue. The dedication is particularly poignant because Krall and her longtime collaborator, Tommy LiPuma, completed the album prior to the famed producer’s death on March 13. The liner notes also include a photo that Krall took, which captures LiPuma engaged in a conversation with recording engineer Al Schmitt, a 20-time Grammy winner. In the photo, Schmitt appears to be listening intently—something that all great musicians and all great recording engineers do. One of the album highlights is an interpretation of Rodgers & Hart’s “Isn’t It Romantic?” that begins with about 75 seconds of just Krall’s voice and Anthony Wilson’s guitar. As the track unfolds, more instruments join the mix—Krall’s piano, as well as John Clayton (bass), Jeff Hamilton (drums) and Stefon Harris (vibraphone)—and then at the 2:47 mark, a string section eases in, with exquisitely tasteful orchestration by Alan Broadbent. The track, which clocks in at 4:29, is a master class on how to use strings on a jazz standard while still maintaining a remarkable intimacy. Krall, who plays piano and sings on all 11 tracks here, teamed with LiPuma and Schmitt to foster a “less is more” approach on spellbinding versions of “L-O-V-E,” “No Moon At All” and “Like Someone In Love.” Stuart Duncan’s fiddle work adds a vintage vibe to “Moonglow,” and his percussive playing on “I’ll See You In My Dreams” is followed by Marc Ribot’s romantic, emotionally hefty guitar solo, and then Duncan jumps back in with sumptuous, nostalgic lines. Among the other incredible musicians who played on the sessions are bassist Christian McBride, guitarist Russell Malone, drummer Karriem Riggins and the versatile bassist Tony Garnier, a longtime member of Bob Dylan’s band. For this album, Krall selected the songs, wrote the ensemble arrangements and oversaw three different ensemble lineups. At this point in her career, Krall knows how to put her own distinctive stamp on decades-old standards, making them sound fresh and vibrant, while still honoring the melodies that Great American Songbook fans know so well.

Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’

TajMo
(Concord)

In recent years, the sad, unfortunate passing of B.B. King (1925–2015) and James Cotton (1935–2017) has made singer-guitarist Taj Mahal’s role as an elder statesman of the blues even more important. The superb new album TajMo represents his first collaboration with another blues veteran, singer-guitarist Keb’ Mo’. The result is an 11-track gem that illustrates the tremendous benefits of teamwork. This esteemed blues duo has recruited a bevy of powerhouse guests, and each makes valuable contributions. Blues star Billy Branch adds excellent harmonica work to “Don’t Leave Me Here,” (which was composed by Mahal, Keb’ Mo’ and Gary Nicholson), while Lizz Wright (vocals), Lee Oskar (harmonica) and Joe Walsh (electric guitar) provide wonderful textures on the transcendent “Om Sweet Om.” Walsh offers a stinging electric guitar solo on “Shake Me In Your Arms,” an ode to sensuality. A lively rendition of “Squeeze Box” (which Pete Townsend wrote for The Who) features both Jeff Taylor’s lead accordion and Phil Madeira’s rhythm accordion, and Sheila E. plays six percussion instruments on the track. The program concludes with a poignant reading of the John Mayer pop hit “Waiting On The World To Change,” with the inimitable Bonnie Raitt singing with the two co-leaders. This polished, engaging album will provide these two blues titans with great material for their collaborative tour, which includes dates in San Diego (June 11), Seattle (June 18), London (July 7), Lucerne, Switzerland (July 23), New York City (Aug. 13), Dallas (Sept. 20) and many other cities.

Bob Merrill

Tell Me Your Troubles: Songs By Joe Bushkin Vol. 1
(Accurate)

Pianist Joe Bushkin, who died in 2004 just shy of his 88th birthday, was a musician for whom success meant making other artists sound their best. A composer of sturdy melodies and bright, uplifting choruses, the longtime Benny Goodman Orchestra member wrote songs for the film and stage that had a peculiar knack for launching careers and making names. (One example: His song “Oh! Look At Me Now,” as recorded by the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in 1941, would become the first official hit for a young vocalist named Francis Albert Sinatra.) Trumpeter Bob Merrill, who apprenticed with Bushkin toward the end of the pianist’s life, honors the elder composer’s subtle but substantial legacy on Tell Me Your Troubles, an homage crafted with heartfelt reverence and respect. Aside from his own expressive trumpet playing and singing, Merrill has enlisted a roster of talented contemporaries to provide wattage to the filaments of Bushkin’s work. Vocalist Kathryn Crosby—Bing’s second wife—provides graceful vocals on “Hot Time In The Town Of Berlin,” while guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli and trombonist Wycliffe Gordon trade jabs on “Boogie Woogie Blue Plate” and “Goin’ Back To Storyville.” And courtesy of an archived recording, Bushkin himself appears on piano on “Oh! Look At Me Now.” It’s one of many enlightening throwbacks on this nostalgic disc. Elsewhere, speeches and testimonies, including one by Sinatra himself, provide additional insight into a musician—and human being—of great warmth and quick wit. (An anecdote by comedian Red Buttons tells of a time Bing Crosby offered Bushkin a sleeping pill suppository. Bushkin’s response: “Bing, I was up all night, but my ass fell asleep!”) Endearing as those anecdotes are, it’s the compositions—and Merrill’s fidelity to them—that serve as the most enduring memorials to Bushkin’s wistful genius.

Chad Lefkowitz-Brown

Onward
(Self Release)

Saxophonist Chad Lefkowitz-Brown, a former DownBeat Student Music Award winner, plays with unbridled dynamism and a polished tone, qualities that make him an ideal accompanist for many of today’s forward-thinking artists, including Clarence Penn, Arturo O’Farrill, Amina Figarova and Taylor Swift (yes, that Taylor Swift). Though only 27 years old, the New York state native has already developed a mature voice, laying the groundwork for his singular style on the much-acclaimed 2013 disc Imaginary Manifesto. On his sophomore album, Onward, he presents a more refined account of his artistic vision, building a stylistic bridge between swing-oriented traditionalism and millennial pop savvy. That embrace of seemingly disparate material is part of the DNA of his latest disc, on which the saxophonist adds his own spin to songs as diverse as John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely.” Whatever the vehicle, Lefkowitz-Brown plays with sturdy melodicism and bite, harnessing technical abilities that mask the difficulty of his wondrously intricate lines. He also gets down and dirty, with gut-wrenching blues riffs that erupt from his horn at just the right moments. Adding to the sonic swirl is nimble-fingered trumpeter Randy Brecker, who asserts himself on a pair of Lefkowitz-Brown originals. It’s a fortuitous pairing, Brecker’s lean, acrobatic solos meshing seamlessly into the tenor saxophonist’s high-energy aesthetic. Rounding out the ensemble are drummer Jimmy Macbride, bassist Raviv Markovitz and pianist Steven Feifke. The group displays a strong unity of purpose, coalescing with engines roaring around Lefkowitz-Brown’s soaring altissimo on the title track, and settling into still-water serenity on “The Nearness Of You.” The album ends with a take on Cole Porter’s “All Of You,” Lefkowitz-Brown infusing this Great American Songbook standard with modern touches and a relentless drive. It’s a practice that the saxophonist will no doubt share with pupils at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where he’ll serve as a faculty member—the school’s youngest—alongside fellow boundary-pushers Robin Eubanks, Matt Wilson, Julian Lage and David Sánchez.

Quercus

Nightfall
(ECM)

With Quercus, British folk meets jazz in a perfectly natural, completely amazing melding of two indelible musical forms. The silky, dark vocals of folk artist June Tabor are front and center on this lovely ECM release. They swirl and float around and out of the haunting saxophone of Iain Ballamy and the piano of Huw Warren. The combination delivers music that seems to exist in suspended animation. Songs float by like clouds that keep the listener guessing what they hear. Is that an old folk song? Was it something written on the spot? There’s a sense of timelessness that lets the mind wander. “Auld Lang Syne” becomes a slow-tempo ballad filled with regret, love and mercy. “You Don’t Know What Love Is” drips with noir-driven angst. “Somewhere” from West Side Story breathes a twinge of hope into the reality of these lyrics. The saxophone-vocals-piano format provides plenty of opportunities for all three artists, who are incredibly respectful of the space between the notes throughout the set. Ballamy’s saxophone tone on this album is absolutely incredible. Warren is as tasteful of an accompanist as you’ll find on this planet. And Tabor is simply regal in this setting. Nightfall is not a vocalist record with backing instrumentalists. It’s a precious ensemble project, with each artist giving, taking and playing off each other. The result is a beautiful recording that will be played and enjoyed often.

Ambrose Akinmusire

A Rift In Decorum: Live At The Village Vanguard
(Blue Note)

Ambrose Akinmusire is one of the most musically thoughtful artists I’ve had the pleasure of encountering during my tenure at DownBeat. He’s one of those rare players who can deliver a smile, a scowl, a surprise and a tear by simply telling stories through his trumpet. On A Rift In Decorum, his third album for the Blue Note label, Akinmusire presents this artistry live at the legendary Village Vanguard in New York. This amazing program documents his longtime working quartet of Sam Harris on piano, Harish Raghavan on bass and Justin Brown on drums playing very intimate music in one of the world’s greatest jazz shrines. “Justin and I have talked a lot about the spirits that we can feel in the Vanguard,” Akinmusire said in press materials for the record. “It’s like I’m being bear-hugged by the spirits in there. Especially in a time like now, it’s great to have a place that still exists in the way that it originally existed.” That reverence shines throughout this 14-track set of originals. It’s music that sneaks into your soul because whether fiery or quiet, nothing is ever rushed by these musicians; everything is thought out and purposeful. One example is “A Song To Exhale To (Diver Song).” It begins with Raghavan bowing the bass slowly and beautifully in a quiet duet with Harris’ piano. Notes are sparse. Every note is offered carefully, like prayer. When Akinmusire and Brown join in, it’s an uplifting of spirit with equal parts beauty and longing. The set’s opening number, “Maurice & Michael (Sorry I Didn’t Say Hello)” serves as a more driving version of this sense of loss, in this case lost opportunity. Akinmusire wrote the piece after not saying hello to an old friend from the neighborhood, one who might have been on something at time or maybe was just way down on his luck. It’s a song that examines, without words, the feelings that go into that type of missed encounter: anger, sorrow, embarrassment, reassessing one’s own life. That depth of self-reflection makes Akinmusire an amazingly effective composer—one who should be heard, studied and enjoyed.

Tony Allen

A Tribute To Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers
(Blue Note)

I know it’s only June, but Tony Allen gets my vote for EP (extended play) recording of the year with A Tribute To Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers. The Nigerian drummer just slams with a seven-piece band guaranteed to make you tap your toes and throw a smile on your face. Blakey was one of the 76-year-old Allen’s heroes growing up, and it shows here. “Moanin’,” “A Night In Tunisia,” “Politely” and “The Drum Thunder Suite” jump out of the speakers with sweat, joy and bravado. Clocking in at 24 minutes, 33 seconds, A Tribute To Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers doesn’t waste any time. It’s a record you can put on with your morning coffee to send you out proper into the world … without being late! Thank you for this EP, Mr. Allen. This one’s a true gift.

Brian Marsella

Buer: The Book Of Angels Volume 31
(Tzadik)

On this album, pianist Brian Marsella interprets music from John Zorn’s Book Of Angels, an incredible collection of 300 klezmer-inspired songs the composer wrote in 2004 that continues to be rolled out 13 years later. Marsalla’s trio, which includes bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Kenny Wollesen, takes on 16 songs from Zorn’s Masada Book 2, and they simply kill it. These are three musicians with intense chops, style and artistry. Dunn and Wollesen serve as a go-to rhythm section in Zorn’s universe. Marsella is as versatile and talented a pianist as you will find. There’s plenty of room here to enjoy the playing of all three musicians as well as this fantastic collection of compositions. “Palalael” lopes with a sense of sheer klez-matic beauty. “Parymel,” the very next tune, flat-out swings with Marsella’s fingers flying across the keyboard. “Zagin” takes Jewish music themes and stands them on their ear in a way that only Zorn could write … and an artist like Marsella could execute. This is a recording that goes from a moment of sounding completely in the tradition on one tune, like “Jekusiel,” to completely “out,” as in the 35-second romp “Avial.” The entirety of this recording, though, is an uplifting thrill. “Sennoi” breezes by with blistering, toe-tapping glory. “Diniel” conjures visions of beauty and art that are both ancient and new. “Gehuel” closes the program with a swinging ode to jazz and traditional Jewish music. This track is music from the heart, as is the entirety of this beautiful album.

Guy Mintus Trio

A Home In Between
(Self Release)

In the summer of 2016, Israeli pianist Guy Mintus and Czech animator Jakub Cermaque traveled through Israel on a journey to find cities that embodied coexistence. In each of the five stops on their tour—Abu Gosh, Ramla, Zefat, Be’er Sheva and Kfar Qara—they performed the song “Our Journey Together,” the opening track on Mintus’ sterling new trio album, A Home In Between. As the music played, Mintus asked the children to draw portraits depicting their visions of peace. Those pictures—some drawn by Israeli children, others by Palestinians, all wholeheartedly optimistic—were later animated by Cermaque and posted to YouTube as a video titled “Can You Tell The Difference?” It’s a potent political commentary wrapped in a disarmingly beautiful melody, and it’s just one of many emotionally substantive tracks on this disc, Mintus’ third album since 2014. This is a new high point in the young musician’s career, the culmination of a period of deep reflection and change. In the liner notes, Mintus writes of a newfound ability to “let go” in the recording process, and the music reflects a noble prioritization of group-sound over the individual. The pianist has forged strong musical bonds with Israeli bassist Tamir Shmerling and Dutch drummer Philippe Lemm, and the trio has a way of infusing energy into every aspect of this music, even the silences. The impressionistic “In The Moment,” which was composed by all three musicians, is sparse, with structures assembling and dissolving in a wash of sound; the song’s momentum is maintained through constant transformation. “Taksim,” a Mintus original, takes a different tack, fusing well-established forms of traditional Israeli music, European classical and down-home Delta blues into a mash-up that reveals more similarities than differences. Interpretations of Warne Marsh’s “Background Music” and Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” inherit a new shimmer under Mintus’ arrangements, which add hypnotic ostinatos, baroque flourishes and other fun-house elements to these timeless melodies. The bonus track, Mintus’ solo rendition of the standard “My Ideal,” closes the album on a note of enlightenment, providing a window into the mind of an artist of prodigious talent and boundless ambition.

Anat Cohen & Trio Brasileiro

Rosa Dos Ventos
(Anzic)

Anat Cohen, who topped the Clarinet category in both the DownBeat Critics Poll and Readers Poll last year, continues her deep, informed exploration of Brazilian music with the new album Rosa Dos Ventos, a collaboration with Trio Brasileiro. (Cohen also has a new duo album with guitarist Marcello Gonçalves, Outra Coisa, which features compositions by the late Brazilian composer Moacir Santos.) Rosa Dos Ventos contains a dozen original compositions in the choro style, including three by Cohen. In the album’s promotional materials, Cohen explains her strong affinity for the style, which originated in 19th-century Brazil: “I love choro because it’s the perfect mix of classical music and jazz, where it demands precision but everyone can inflect the music with their own personality and interpretation. As with the style of early New Orleans jazz, choro functions on group polyphony, where everyone has a role yet it’s open and free-spirited, with simultaneous melodies happening.” Her collaborators on this enticing, cohesive program are the members of Trio Brasileiro—Dudu Maia (who plays an instrument similar to a mandolin, the 10-string bandolim), Douglas Lora (guitar) and his brother Alexandre Lora (percussion, hand pans and the pandeiro, a Brazilian frame drum)—as well as percussionist Luiz Ungarelli, who plays congas on two tracks. This is spacious music, with plenty of infectious melodies. Whether she’s accompanying her bandmates in a quintet setting, or delving into a spare dialogue with Douglas’ seven-string guitar, as she does during a portion of the title track, Cohen consistently delivers memorable clarinet lines. Fans of Brazilian music (as well as voracious listeners who enjoy klezmer and Django Reinhardt) are likely to find many delights in this program, which features tunes that are both lively (“Choro Pesado”) and soothing (“Lulubia”). Cohen and Trio Brasileiro are touring together, with upcoming shows at Dazzle in Denver (May 13–14), City Winery in Chicago (May 15) and Jazz Standard in New York (May 16–17), to be followed by European dates.

Chris Greene Quartet

Boundary Issues
(Single Malt)

It’s been a pleasure for Chicago fans to hear Chris Greene grow up before their very ears. The 43-year-old saxophonist has been working the clubs of Chicago and other Midwest venues, honing his craft for a good, long time. He studied under the great David Baker and Thomas Walsh at Indiana University before returning to his hometown to continue his education on the bandstand under the tutelage of such legends as Von Freeman. On top of that, his quartet has been together since 2005. It still features original members Damian Espinosa (piano and keyboards) and Marc Piane (bass)—and relative newcomer Steve Corley on drums and percussion has been in the group since 2011. All of this work and experience pays off wonderfully on Boundary Issues, where Greene and company have a swagger that swings. The album’s set list demonstrates that this group sees no boundaries when it comes to musical selection. There’s a healthy sampling of great originals, such as Greene’s “Here To Help” and “Blues For Dr. Fear” as well as Espinosa’s “Thunder Snow” and Piane’s “Wildcat.” But the group also draws on some sweet, unlikely sources. It turns the Yellowjackets’ “Summer Song” into a rolling samba with the help of percussionist JoVia Armstrong. Horace Silver’s “Nica’s Dream” turns into a noir reggae jam. And the late and underappreciated Kenny Kirkland gets a beautiful nod with the quartet’s version of “Dienda,” which takes your breath away. So does the set’s closing number, Billy Strayhorn’s “Day Dream.” Greene has a beautiful feel and tone, and this group truly plays as one. It’s the kind of music that can only be made by artists who have honed their craft, together.

Jazzmeia Horn

A Social Call
(Prestige)

Jazzmeia Horn, 26, harbors both astounding technique and an acute artistic vision, traits that helped propel her to victory in the 2015 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition. With her stunning debut album, A Social Call, it’s easy to see why the esteemed panel of Monk Competition judges—which that year included Patti Austin, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Freddy Cole, Al Jarreau and Luciana Souza—were so impressed by this Texas native. Horn has a thrilling presence, with a musical sensibility that strikes a deft balance between mid-century jazz and contemporary neo-soul. Using those styles as reference points, Horn draws from sources that range from the Great American Songbook (“I Remember You,” “East Of The Sun”) to the spiritual canon (“Wade In The Water”) to modern r&b (a swinging take on Mary J. Blige’s “I’m Goin’ Down”). But whatever the genre, Horn’s voice remains consistently fresh and engaging—scatting horn-like on Betty Carter’s gem “Tight” and whispering fragile refrains on Jimmy Rowles’ lovely “The Peacocks.” Thematically, the album’s 10 tracks point toward matters of social awakening, recalling, in outlook and approach, the politically conscious albums of Nina Simone and Gil Scott-Heron. The spoken-word intro to “People Make The World Go Round” is a direct reproach against systems of oppression, but one of the most pointed social insights comes from the juxtaposition of two songs—the spiritual “Lift Every Voice And Sing” and the Bobby Timmons tune “Moanin’”— in which the overtones of freedom fade into the minor-keyed thrum of struggle. But this is not a gloomy album. Rather, an undeniable sense of optimism pervades, conveying the feeling that, through music, all divisions can be healed. That’s nowhere more evident than on “Social Call,” the Gigi Gryce tune that is the title track. The lyrics describe the hopeful reunion of two lovers, but a metaphor can easily be extended to the factions of our divided country. As Horn makes clear, harmony can only come through outreach: “Maybe we’ll get back together/ Starting with this incidental, elemental/ Simple social call.”

The Microscopic Septet

Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down To Me
(Cuneiform)

The Microscopic Septet’s 2010 album, Friday The Thirteenth, had a subtitle—The Micros Play Monk—which conveyed essential info about the program. The band’s new album also has an informative subtitle—Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down To Me: The Micros Play The Blues. And this is definitely blues of a swinging variety. Whether the band is playing a composition that is intricately complex or relatively simple, the Micros have an abiding commitment to make their music swing. The program consists of six original tunes by each of the two co-leaders—soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston and pianist Joel Forrester—along with a cover of the 1950 r&b hit “I’ve Got A Right To Cry.” The latter is the only vocal track here, and baritone saxophonist Dave Sewelson’s slightly gravelly lead vocals provide a smile-inducing conclusion to this 62-minute gem of an album. Johnston once described the band’s modus operandi this way: “Break all the rules and respect all the saints.” That ethos results in tunes that mix eccentric originality with hints of Ellingtonia, as delivered by a scrappy septet. “12 Angry Birds,” which is one of the more traditionally bluesy tunes, seems to celebrate early Ellington, offered with a song title that apparently nods to Sidney Lumet’s classic 1957 film 12 Angry Men and the video game Angry Birds. It’s that type of intellectual mash-up, looking forward and backward simultaneously, that makes a Micros album such a treat. Even more noteworthy is Forrester’s “Silent Night,” an original composition with two sections that quote from the famous hymn. Elsewhere, Johnston’s “When It’s Getting Dark” has a vibrancy reminiscent of Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn theme and Neal Hefti’s Batman theme. Throughout this entire album, the sense of swing is sturdy, and the fun factor remains high.

Jimmy Greene

Flowers—Beautiful Life, Volume 2
(Mack Avenue)

Jimmy Greene is a larger-than-life man, musician and artist. He’s also a larger-than-life father with a broken heart. In 2012, his 6-year-old daughter, Ana Márquez-Greene, was killed along with 19 of her classmates and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut. Flowers—Beautiful Life, Volume 2 is his second recording since her passing, both touchingly dedicated to her memory. While the first volume focused on the sorrow of his loss, this one focuses on his memories of a child with a bright personality and a love of dance. There are 11 Greene-penned tunes in this program, and they all serve as postcards of a father’s love. “Big Guy” is an ode to Ana’s nickname for her father. “Stanky Leg” is a memorable toe-tapper. “Second Breakfast” was written in honor of Ana’s favorite meal. “Someday” is a beautiful ballad featuring Greene’s soul-dripping tenor saxophone and aching vocals by Jean Baylor. The set’s closing tune, “Thirty-Two,” comes in as a funk number sweetly dedicated to Greene’s teenage son. Greene’s songwriting is thoughtful, spot-on and heart-wrenching. And he has enlisted the help of an all-star cast to perform it. Jeff “Tain” Watts and Otis Brown III take turns on the drums. John Patitucci and Ben Williams hold down the bass. Renee Rosnes and Kevin Hays perform on piano and Rhodes. Mike Moreno is featured on guitar, and Rogerio Boccato adds percussion. And, the title tune is performed by vocalist Sheena Rattai. Playing this music can’t be easy for Greene. But with a little help from his friends, he somehow carves something of immense beauty from pure tragedy. God bless you, Mr. Greene. God bless Ana.

Regina Carter

Ella: Accentuate The Positive
(OKeh)

Violinist Regina Carter is at the top of her art here on this fantastic tribute to Ella Fitzgerald on the occasion of her 100th anniversary. Carter shows she is in full command of her talents from the downbeat of the opening tune, “Accentuate The Positive,” a very original take on an old chestnut. Sung with deep soul and gospel furor by Miche Braden, Carter shares the spotlight on this one with the vocalist/actress as well as guitarist Marvin Sewell. It’s a burst of musicianship at its best inside an incredibly inventive arrangement by Ray Angry. Arrangements, in fact, are at the forefront of this entire recording. Ben Williams arranges a sweet “Crying In The Chapel,” and Sewell’s version of “Judy” is a toe-tapping sigh. Chris Lightcap arranges a soul-infused “I’ll Never Be Free.” Even so, at the heart of this album are tunes so familiar you can see the words floating across the sky as they’re virtually sung with melodic perfection by Carter’s violin. There’s a reason she is a perennial DownBeat Critics and Readers poll winner. Her playing is recognizable within three notes. And here, she’s not afraid to take risks with Fitzgerald’s musical legacy. “Reach For Tomorrow” is a beautifully orchestrated homage. “Undecided” is a funk-fest featuring the vocals of Carla Cook. And “I’ll Chase The Blues Away” is served up as a get-down-to-the-ground, guttural blues. These are certainly Fitzgerald’s signature tunes, but they have been transformed by another great stylist: Regina Carter!

Red Baraat

Bhangra Pirates
(Rhyme & Reason)

Sunny Jain cuts a striking figure as the leader of the high-octane, Brooklyn-based octet Red Baraat, as he energetically pounds out mesmerizing rhythms on the dhol (a double-headed drum). Jain has said that the purpose of Red Baraat is “to bring joy and togetherness”; it’s a goal he routinely accomplishes in concert, and on a new studio album, Bhangra Pirates. Electric guitar is now a consistent element of the Red Baraat palette, resulting in a frequently aggressive sound, as on “Bhangale,” featuring Delicate Steve’s wicked fretwork. Elsewhere, guitarist Jonathan Goldberger offers both the crunch and scream of rock guitar on the title track. The grooves on this album are canyon-deep, the lyrics often chanted, and the vibe evokes a sweaty dance party. Much of this music has the furnace-blast intensity of punk or metal, but it’s delivered in a world-music aesthetic, thanks to instruments such as trumpet, trombone, sousaphone, drum kit and various saxophones. On the track “Akhiyan Udeek Diyan,” Sonny Singh’s trumpet solo and Mike Bomwell’s muscular work on soprano sax demonstrate that when Red Baraat decides to tone down the more aggressive edges of its attack, the result is still a completely dance-worthy groove. Fans who enjoy shaking their hips to Trombone Shorty or Snarky Puppy might want to check out the kinetic party vibe that Red Baraat offers. The band will perform at Brown’s Island in Richmond, Virginia, as part of the Friday Cheers series on May 12, and at the Fringe Fest in Virginia Beach, Virginia, on May 13.

Theo Hill

Promethean
(Posi-Tone)

On the cover of Promethean, pianist Theo Hill’s debut album for Posi-Tone Records, is a quote from filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard: “It’s not where you take things from,” it reads, “it’s where you take them to.” In that spirit of transportation—and transformation—Hill presents a program of 11 songs in which his goal is to pay homage to the music of his idols while cultivating his own distinct voice. While the project benefits mightily from the presence of bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Mark Whitfield Jr., it’s Hill’s formidable piano chops and probing arrangements that make this album such a winning statement. In his hands, the propulsive groove of Duke Pearson’s “Is That So” receives a contemporary makeover, with a funky sense of geometry that preserves the integrity of the original while pushing it into the 21st century. Chick Corea’s “Finger Painting” becomes a vast arena for quiet exploration, with deliberately spacious piano figures that allow room for the composer’s genius to breathe. Gems by Kenny Kirkland (“Blasphemy”), Bobby Timmons (“This Here”) and Hale Smith (“I Love Music”) populate this album as well, and Hill approaches them with an equal measure of reverence and revival. But it’s a pair of tunes by drummer Tony Williams— “Pee Wee” and “Citadel”—that best exemplify Hill’s astounding range as a stylist. The first is a delicate ballad, played with serene clarity and dignified restraint. Like the best poetry, it’s the spaces between phrases that connote the most meaning. The second is a blast of modern jazz energy—as passionate and powerful as Williams’ drumming. That Hill can cover so much stylistic territory is impressive—he even adds fiery original, “The Phoenix”—but even more impressive is the way he so confidently stakes out territory of his own. We are living in a Golden Age of piano players, and the sheer amount of young talent out there is encouraging. In this fertile soil, it’s inspiring to see that Hill has planted his flag.

Tina Raymond

Left Right Left
(Orenda Records)

Los Angeles-based drummer Tina Raymond packs a lot of sociopolitical commentary into the invigorating grooves and bristling arrangements of her debut album, Left, Right, Left. That such a high-concept project would swing so hard seems a natural outcome for Raymond, a full-time professor of music at Los Angeles City College who has shared the stage with jazz luminaries such as Bobby Bradford, Bennie Maupin, Emil Richards, and Vinny Golia. In the liner notes, Raymond elaborates on the album’s source material, writing that the concepts of “left” and “right” are integral to understanding both drumming technique and the American political discourse. The connection between those two themes is illustrated here, as Raymond, Art Lande (piano) and Putter Smith (bass) offer a program that provides a new context for patriotic hymns, anti-war songs, Civil Rights anthems and folk music mainstays. The results are sometimes challenging, often eye-opening and consistently rewarding. Nowhere on this album is the meaning of a song so thematically transfigured than on “Battle Hymn Of The Republic,” which here develops an undercurrent of foreboding doom as it slopes toward chaos. Other times, a song is reframed rhythmically as well as symbolically, as when Pete Seeger’s “If I Had A Hammer” adopts an Art Blakey-esque hard-bop swagger. Throughout it all, Raymond displays ferocious chops and a remarkable sense of balance, supporting the overall group sound as much as she asserts her individual voice. In fact, her equipoise as a drummer is perhaps the most salient aspect of this disc, proving time and again that when it comes to left and right, it’s coordination—not separation—that produces the most satisfying results.

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
(Motéma)

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.

Kneebody

Anti-Hero
(Motéma)

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

Reach
(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

Trickster
(Pi)

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
(Posi-Tone)

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.

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.

Nate Smith

KINFOLK: Postcards From Everywhere
(Waterbaby/Ropeadope)

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.

New Standard Duo

New Standard Duo
(Ropeadope)

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.

Ingrid & Christine Jensen

Infinitude
(Whirlwind)

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.

Cannonball Adderley

One For Daddy-O: Jazz At The Conertgebouw
(Nederlands Jazz Archief)

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.

Stephan Crump/Ingrid Laubrock/Cory Smythe

Planktonic Finales
(Intakt)

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.

Victor Provost

Bright Eyes
(Paquito/Sunnyside)

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.

Josh Lawrence

Color Theory
(Posi-Tone)

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.

Solange

A Seat At The Table
(Saint/Columbia)

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.)

Tri-Centric Orchestra

Blake, Bynum, Laubrock
(Self Release/Bandcamp)

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.

Steven Kirby

Illuminations
(Whaling City Sound)

Steven Kirby, a guitarist of rippling technique and a poetic mind, has developed a modern jazz guitar style that bridges the angular lyricism of Pat Metheny and the painterly asceticism of Jim Hall. Illuminations, his third album as a leader, finds him in clear command of those two poles—at times oscillating between them, at others merging them—while also nodding to the idioms of classical and folk music. The resulting sound is dark-hued but also invigorating. That’s due in part to the natural momentum of Kirby’s flight-prone single-note lines, a specialty that he accentuates nicely via the accompaniment of pianist John Funkauser, bassist Greg Loughman, drummer Mike Connor and especially vocalist Aubrey Johnson. The singer (who, like Kirby, keeps a foot in both the Boston and New York jazz scenes) adds wordless vocals to a handful of deeply felt songs on this album, beginning with the opener, “Parabola,” which rings with sky-blue loveliness. Kirby’s tone here is round yet organic, a perfect match for Johnson’s silky pronouncements. (She retains gentle composure even on the title track, which finds her climbing to the limit of her range and navigating over hilly melodious terrain.) Playing acoustic, as on the ballads “Beautiful Rain” and “A Luz Das Estrelas,” Kirby crafts a careful equilibrium, imbuing each note with both the levity of feeling and the weight of purpose. But there’s also plenty of musical fun to be had. The guitarist’s cheekily titled “May The 4ths Be With You” makes a game of the titular harmonic interval, with a proggy melody that Kirby and saxophonist Bill Vint unspool with ease. But the most awe-inspiring arrangement on the album is Kirby’s version of “Over The Rainbow,” which revolves around churning pools of sound, its sense of time suspended, its energy unbound.

Billie Davies

On Hollywood Boulevard
(Self Release)

When DownBeat profiled Billie Davies in its May 2016 issue, the drummer was backed by a band called Bad Boyzzzz, but her current quartet is called A Nu Experience. And although Davies is a jazz drummer based in New Orleans, her new album contains a healthy dose of r&b and was inspired by a period of about five years when she lived on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. Six of the album’s seven tracks features vocals by Iris P, a singer with impressive range who is also adept at spoken-word passages. Davies supplies the electronic drums and percussion, joined by two musicians from Bad Boyzzzz: Oliver Watkinson (electric bass) and Evan Oberla (electric piano, synthesizer and trombone). The program doesn’t shy away from the darker elements of life on Hollywood Boulevard, with lyrics that allude to thugs, drugs, pimps and prostitutes. As a bandleader, Davies delivers an ambitious program that incorporates r&b-flavored vocals, propulsive bass lines, drum patterns with a swing feel, occasionally blues-tinged keyboard work, growling trombone, epic prog-rock synthesizer washes and brief bouts of hip-hop turntablism, all tied together with an improviser’s approach. Indeed, much of the album feels like improvised adventure, but that doesn’t prevent Iris P from injecting some memorable, repeated vocal hooks, as on “The Girl In The Window” when she sings about an “unreachable dream.”

Wild Man Conspiracy

Short Stories
(Red Piano Records)

Wild Man Conspiracy is an agile trio of musicians who are well known on the Dutch improv scene: Gerard Kleijn (trumpet, keyboards, laptop), Guillermo Celano (guitar) and Joost Kesselaar (drums). WMC’s sophomore album, Short Stories, includes five original compositions and three improvisations, and all the material reflects an artistic approach that emphasizes the importance of the collective over individual contributions. Kleijn’s trumpet work occasionally has a Miles Davis feel, but the band is clearly centered in the present, as evidenced by the use of digital effects on a song like “Drones,” which was inspired by the unmanned aircraft of that name, but which also has a bit of a musical drone, establishing a mood that’s unsettling yet intriguing. Celano’s “Gollem II” has an arrangement with lots of space between the individual instruments, allowing listeners to revel in details such as the gnarly distorted guitar and Kleijn’s clarion tone on trumpet. The band renders a gorgeous melody in its interpretation of the traditional tune “Lili Marleen,” and its version of The Beatles’ “And I Love Her” is a great example of crafting a rendition that judiciously incorporates significant elements of the original arrangement while simultaneously taking the listener somewhere completely new.

Miller’s Tale
(Intakt)

Miller’s Tale is an hour-long program of improvisations that equally spotlights each esteemed member of this quartet: Sylvie Courvoisier (piano), Mark Feldman (violin), Ikue Mori (electronics) and Evan Parker (soprano and tenor saxophones). The album is filled with intriguing soundscapes, some built by the entire ensemble and others that reflect the intimate musical relationships the players have with one another. Each of the first four tracks is a lengthy free-for-all featuring the ensemble as a whole, generating moods that shift from the supremely ominous to disjointed havoc. The piano gallops subtly, the violin and saxophone shred like machines and the electronics provide texture in the form of little glitches and ornaments. On tracks 5–9, each improvisation features a different duo, with all combinations represented except piano and violin. This approach provides the listener with a rewarding opportunity to examine each player in multiple settings. The closing track, “A Fountain Pen,” is a duet performance by Courvoisier and Mori. This piano-electronics improvisation brings the program to an enigmatic yet satisfying conclusion. With electronics that dance and swirl around propulsive piano lines, this track is the perfect palate cleanser while also maintaining the essence of the program—the intense exploration of sound and human interaction.

Gary Smulyan Quartet

Royalty At Le Duc
(Groovin' High/Sunnyside)

Recorded live at the Paris jazz club Le Duc des Lombards during baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan’s fall 2015 European tour, this highly recommended album was originally released last year on the Groovin’ High label and is about to benefit from a new U.S. distribution deal with Sunnyside. Smulyan, who topped the Baritone Saxophone category of the 2016 DownBeat Critics Poll, has done exemplary work anchoring the reed sections of some of the country’s top big bands. But here, fans can hear today’s top bari sax practitioner stretch way out on long, adventurous bebop solos and wail tenderly over slow progressions in quartet session that features the fine rhythm section of French pianist Olivier Hutman, Italian bassist Michel Rosciglione and Austrian drummer Bernd Reiter. From his first solo on the opener, Thad Jones’ “Thedia,” Smulyan gets right down to the business of demonstrating why he’s regarded as the beboppingest bari player to come along since Pepper Adams. He tears through the changes with urgency and glee, his voice robust and commanding throughout the nearly 13-minute romp. The quartet shifts gears dramatically on the following track, Billy Strayhorn’s ominously beautiful “The Star-Crossed Lovers.” Smulyan simultaneously channels his inner Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney as he scales the impassioned heights and plumbs the desperate depths of one of jazz’s most challenging, heart-wrenching ballads. The bebop spirit resumes with Adams’ “Cindy’s Tune,” which opens the door to strong, well-developed solo spots from Rosciglione and Hutman before Smulyan sets out on an extended ride on the big pipe and proceeds to engage in some playful trading with Reiter. A light swing feel emerges on Joe Henderson’s “Serenity,” drawing out Smulyan’s innate lyricism and showcasing the tasteful chops of Rosciglione, Human and Reiter. The quartet burns long and hard on Jones’ “Elusive,” reveals its romantic side on David Raskin and Johnny Mercer’s famous movie ballad “Laura,” and closes the program by applying a refreshing medium-tempo spin to the standard “Body And Soul.” The audio quality of this live session is outstanding, thanks to the work of Swiss producer Jacques Muyal. Royalty At Le Duc is a substantive and entertaining program, well deserving of the wider distribution it will enjoy in 2017.

Pete Magadini Trio

Outside In The Present
(Quadwrangle Music)

Drummer, educator and author Pete Magadini—famous for playing with Chet Baker, Mose Allison, Diana Ross, George Duke and John Handy—is a master of all things polyrhythmic. His expertise at subdividing the beat is borne out with exquisite taste and subtlety on Outside In The Present, where he leads a trio featuring guitarist Reg Schwager and drummer Ken Lister. The music here is mostly straightahead, covering a range of jazz standards (including Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin’,” Clifford Brown’s “Daahoud,” Horace Silver’s “African Queen,” Cole Porter’s “All Of You” and Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence”), Steve Swallow’s stop-start composition “Name That Tune,” Brazilian Chico Buarque’s “Samba e Amor,” Brit Mike Westbrook’s “Waltz For Joanna” and an original each by Magadini and Schwager. While Schwager provides the lead melodic voice throughout the album, it’s clearly Magadini who’s driving each tune, taking quiet command over tempo, dynamics and feel. Each instrumentalist contributes a substantial amount of improvisation, stretching out thoughtfully on well-developed solos executed with unwavering technique and drawing from a vast body of collective knowledge. This is content-rich material that will feed the aficionado’s appetite for jazz substance without ever getting too heavy for the more casual listener to digest. On Outside In The Present, Magadini strikes a delicate balance between serious artistic poise and ear-pleasing catchiness—a goal toward which many of today’s savvier artists perpetually strive.

Roberto Fonseca

ABUC
(Impulse!/Verve)

Cuban pianist and keyboardist Roberto Fonseca took the name of his native country and spelled it backwards for title of his eighth album, ABUC. On this outstanding disc (one of the best albums of 2016), he explores the music of Cuba’s past while also crafting an aural portrait that sounds very much like the present day. In this mesmerizing 53-minute program, the past and present are gleefully intertwined in music that will prompt listeners to hit the dance floor. Fonseca touches upon many styles, including contradanza, mambo, cha-cha-chá, danzon, bolero and descarga jam sessions. Fonseca turns to the past by opening the album with the infectious grooves of an 11-musician arrangement of Ray Bryant’s “Cubano Chant.” Fonseca closes the album with a lovely solo piano rendition of that tune. Between those bookends, he focuses on original material. Elements of yesterday and today merge in the infectious “Afro Mambo,” which incorporates a fragment of a 1940s/’50s-era mambo and an electronic beat. Similarly, old-school and 21st century elements are combined in “Tumbao De La Unidad,” which features Fonseca’s hero Eliades Ochoa (vocals and guitar) as well as sonic effects such as reverb and delay. On “Soul Guardians,” the hip-hop-influenced vocals by Alexey Rodríguez (of the band Obsesión) illustrate that when it comes to the music of Cuba, Fonseca is definitely looking forward. Overall, this superb album showcases Fonseca as an ambitious master of sonic dynamics.

Dennis Coffey

Hot Coffey In The D
(Resonance)

The 56-page booklet accompanying the CD version of Dennis Coffey’s album Hot Coffey In The D begins with the essay “Celebrating an Unsung Guitar Hero.” Coffey might be “unsung,” but he’s not completely obscure. In 1971, he released the million-selling instrumental hit “Scorpio,” which has been sampled in at least seven hip-hop songs. A former member of the famous Funk Brothers collective of house musicians at the Motown label, Coffey played on The Temptations’ hit “Ball Of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today)” and on Edwin Starr’s chart-topper “War,” and he appeared in the 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown. In 1968, the guitarist was performing regularly in his hometown of Detroit in a trio with organist Lyman Woodard and drummer Melvin Davis. Hot Coffey In The D presents a previously unreleased live program of seven songs by the trio, recorded at Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge in the Motor City. The album features a groovy aesthetic that incorporates psychedelic rock as well as the soul-jazz sounds one might expect from an organ trio in 1968. A nearly 12-minute rendition of the 1967 Dusty Springfield hit “The Look Of Love” illustrates that these musicians were ready to go down fiery improvised trails, as does a creative reading of Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage.” The red-hot original tune “Fuzz” will send guitar aficionados reaching for the “Repeat” button as soon as this mind-blowing track concludes. To use the vernacular of the era, this live album is outta sight. (Coffey is still a mainstay on the Detroit scene, and his quartet plays at the Northern Lights Lounge on Tuesday nights.)

Dustin Laurenzi

Natural Language
(ears & eyes)

Saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi’s new album, the debut of his project Natural Language, is a compelling portrait of an agile quartet. Laurenzi’s compositional voice—which also lends a nostalgic sound to the Chicago-based trio Twin Talk—is at the heart of this all-original program. With tunes that are brooding, celebratory and earnest, one gets the sense that Laurenzi values atmosphere and feeling over individual sounds. (It’s an aesthetic that has fueled Laurenzi’s collaborations with other artists who make highly personal music, such as Bon Iver and Jeff Parker.) Despite his role as the frontman, Laurenzi’s tone is usually understated, not occupying a spot in the foreground. This works well, as he delicately dances in the busy ambience the other three players provide. Laurenzi’s and guitarist Jeff Swanson’s roles perpetually shift; each one is adept at stepping forward with melodic improvisations or stepping back to add sonic textures. Drummer Charles Rumback, who makes great use of brushes, often rustles underneath, not just keeping time but also providing compelling timbres. Bassist Mike Harmon serves as the active anchor for the quartet. While Laurenzi and Swanson whirl above, Harmon croons busily below, injecting additional excitement to the proceedings. One spin of this album provides ample evidence that its title is appropriate: These four musicians speak to each other with an eloquence and natural grace that draw the listener in.

The Wee Trio

Wee+3
(Bionic)

For its fifth album as a unit, The Wee Trio—James Westfall (vibes), Dan Loomis (bass) and Jared Schonig (drums)—have chosen to double down. The group has expanded twofold for this outing, recruiting colleagues Nicholas Payton (trumpet), Nir Felder (guitar) and Fabian Almazan (piano) to appear as guest soloists on individual tracks. The result is a spirited, intellectually rigorous 11-piece program that reflects the diversity of the individuals involved while pointing to a shared aesthetic of lush grooves and winsome improvising. The most engaging tracks on this disc are the ones that mix broad, watercolor ensemble play with pinpoint soloing and strong individual statements. “Rt3” begins in a mist of ambient sound, hazy to the point of abstraction, but then begins to crystallize around Felder’s rigorous harmonic structures. Similarly, “Climb,” featuring Almazan, rides in on a wave of chiming chords and crisp drums, but just as quickly dissolves into torrents of thrashing bass and pounding toms. Less extreme—but just as powerful—is “Belle Femme De Voodoo,” a New Orleans second-line groove featuring Payton at his most probing and articulate. Here, trad-jazz rhythms are bent and angled through a modern jazz prism, with Westfall sounding exotic harmonies in the upper register of his vibes and Schonig clacking out a fluid stream of notes on his snare. On top of it all floats Payton, whose bright, darting trumpet lines flit and flutter above the rolling sound. Behind all that bright-eyed interplay is a deep commitment to pushing at the boundaries, a mission objective that The Wee Trio—and its three visitors—are more than happy to share.

Martin Bejerano

Trio Miami
(Figgland)

Pianist Martin Bejerano, who is an assistant professor at the University of Miami’s prestigious Frost School of Music, showcases the fluidity of his playing on a new trio album recorded with bassist Josh Allen and drummer Michael Piolet. The trio offers six of Bejerano’s original compositions, along with three interpretations, including a clever version of “Airegin” (the Sonny Rollins composition that was the lead track on Miles Davis’ 1954 Prestige release Miles Davis With Sonny Rollins). Bejerano—the recipient of a Chamber Music America grant in 2010—is adept at constructing sturdy, mini suites that allow enough space for intriguing flights of improvisation. He composed the short, lovely “Entrance To Eden,” using it as a preface to his trio’s adventurous reading of pop icon Peter Gabriel’s tune “Blood Of Eden.” This rendition is a compelling example of the trio’s sense of journey. Elsewhere, the original tune “Old School” gives Allen and Piolet room to show off their chops, as the interplay between the three bandmates generates some fiery, exciting exchanges. “Last Happy Hour (For Pops)” is spiced with a driving, deeply melodic bass passage from Allen, while “Disturbing Behavior” becomes a showcase for Piolet’s athleticism. Bejerano concludes the program in satisfying fashion, with a gorgeous reading of the standard “More Than You Know.” Tour dates posted on Bejerano’s website include Festival Miami on Jan. 26 and Florida’s St. Petersburgh Jazz Festival on Feb. 23.

The Flat Five

It’s A World Of Love And Hope
(Augiedisc/Bloodshot)

The Flat Five album has finally arrived. For 10 years, Chicagoans have swooned at the shows by this indie supergroup consisting of vocalist Kelly Hogan, vocalist/guitarist Nora O’Connor, multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Scott Ligon, bassist/vocalist Casey McDonough and drummer/vocalist/recording engineer Alex Hall. But only recently has the band released its debut, a project that started in September 2014. The set list for a Flat Five concert is often a hodgepodge containing songs written or popularized by Hoagy Carmichael, Bob Dorough, The Free Design and The Monkees, as well as a killer version of “Sermonette” based on the arrangement used by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. But for this album, the quintet focuses on the work of one songwriter: Chris Ligon (Scott’s older brother). Humor is an important component of the elder Ligon’s oeuvre, and The Flat Five doesn’t shy away from it, as evidenced by the hilarious, Mills Brothers-style arrangement of “Buglight” or the goofy poetry of “Florida,” which extols the benefits of moving to the Sunshine State: “We’ll get a van, a window fan/ We’ll lay in the sand and get a tan in Florida/ We’ll give up meat, we’ll live on sweets/ We’ll trick-or-treat in the blazing heat in Florida.” But all is not fun and games here. Although there are some wry turns of phrase in the lyrics of “Birmingham,” O’Connor’s singing is simply heartbreaking. Elsewhere, a misty melancholy seeps through “Bluebirds In Michigan,” thanks to Hogan’s nuanced vocals and the work of guest cellist Austin Hoke. Due to its individual members’ busy schedules—McDonough and Scott Ligon are both in NRBQ—The Flat Five doesn’t tour much, but this album will allow listeners all over the world to check out a band that Chicagoans have treasured for a long time.

David Friesen Circle 3 Trio

Triple Exposure
(Origin)

David Friesen’s new album with his Circle 3 Trio is a deeply personal statement, from the clean, stimulating compositions that form the bulk of the disc to the original mixed-media collage that adorns the cover. As such, the music here feels buttressed by the support of real life experience, and almost always the listener gets the sense that highly individuated musical concepts are in play. The group wrestles with aspects of repetition and pace on the album’s opener, “Whetstone,” on which drummer Charlie Doggett and pianist Greg Goebel lock into a tenaciously ascending groove that brings the song to a fluid, shimmering close. And on “Let It Be Known,” piano and bass create an interlocking framework of punctuated notes, only to tug at the joints and junctions as the song goes on, testing its internal strength. Friesen plays a Hemage electric upright bass, and the warm, voice-like tone he extracts from that instrument is yet another facet of this album’s poetic quality. It is particularly compelling on “Everything We Are,” a brisk waltz-time number on which Friesen solos with the care and attention of a master sculptor; each stroke of the string is heard with immense clarity, lending a glowing sense of humanity to the shape of his lines. The waltz meter seems a comfortable form of conversation for this group, as two of the album’s other highlights—“Turn In The Road” and “Rainbow Song”—are also in 3/4. Despite their metric similarity, these songs are stylistically worlds apart. “Turn” is a quiet, windblown song with stretches of dark clouds rumbling through clear skies. With its internal focus and skin-close simpatico, it is reminiscent of Bill Evans’ trio work in the 1960s. “Rainbow,” meanwhile, is chest-thumping and exultant, a declaration of musical presence that swells from a brooding introduction into a climactic finale.

Chet Baker

Live In London
(Ubuntu)

The latest unearthed treasure in the Chet Baker discography comes from the musical archeologists at Ubuntu Music, who in October brought to light a collection of recordings made by the wooly-toned trumpeter during a six-night stay at the Canteen in London. The resulting two-CD set finds Baker, then in his early 50s, in an invigorating partnership with the John Horler Trio—which at the time featured Horler on piano, Jim Richardson on bass and Tony Mann on drums. The recordings, captured on Sony STC audiocassette by Richardson, have been restored with meticulous care and made available for the first time ever. At times fervently funky, at others languorous and lonesome, Live In London is a well-rounded encapsulation of Baker’s late-period aesthetic, with all the worn edges, wispy threads and fragile surfaces intact. Baker is an artist who draws poignancy and strength from the sensuous and soft, and makes meaning of nonchalance. Compiled from a six-night residency, this album adroitly captures Baker’s melodic ingenuity and technical fluency, even as his health continued to deteriorate (he had long been plagued by addictions to cocaine and heroin, and he would die five years later after falling from a hotel window in the Netherlands). As one might expect, the album is replete with quintessential Bakerisms: gentle, curlicue opening lines, velvety subtones, canyons of space, purred vocals. But some of the most revealing moments on Live In London manifest in unexpected places. “Have You Met Miss Jones?” features Baker stacking bulky, dissonant long tones into a cumbersome tower—a strange and beautiful edifice in an otherwise familiar harmonic chord progression. “Margarine,” meanwhile, is an uptempo burner on which Baker seems to meld two solos simultaneously: one pointedly modern and cathartic, the other boppish and logical. The friction and eventual synthesis of the two is bracing. As stimulating as it is to hear new strains in Baker’s work—especially at such a late point in his career—it is equally comforting to hear him return to the touchstones of his catalogue. A sweeping rendition of “My Funny Valentine”—taken deliberately, with Horler’s piano chords landing like leaves on a pond—is as heartwarming as ever.

Various Artists

Jazz Loves Disney
(Verve)

Cinephiles of a certain age tend to cite The Jungle Book (1967) as their favorite animated Disney film. For later generations, movies like Toy Story (1995) and Frozen (2013) top the list. All these films offered spellbinding animation as well as terrific music. Songs from those films—as well as animation classics such as Pinocchio (1940), Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959)—are included on Jazz Loves Disney, a superb collection of recent recordings. Three of the numbers are sung in French, and each is très elegante: The incomparable Stacey Kent charms with “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo,” Montreal native Nikki Yanofsky, bolstered by lush strings, delights with “Un Jour Mon Prince Viendra” (“Someday My Prince Will Come”) and The Hot Sardines’ lead vocalist, Elizabeth Bougerol (a native of Paris), offers a grin-inducing “I Wanna Be Like You.” Melody Gardot and Italian vocalist Raphael Gualazzi are perfectly paired for a sly duet on “The Bare Necessities,” and Gualazzi’s English-language version of “I Wanna Be Like You” melds a potent big band chart, seductive Latin rhythms and the singer’s swinging piano solo into a stellar rendition.

Various Artists

African Rumba
(Putumayo)

Since 1993, the Putumayo label has been introducing listeners to numerous types of world music. The label’s compilations are often a great starting point for exploring an individual artist’s oeuvre, or for learning about the various styles of music from a specific country or region. The tracks on the collection African Rumba span from 1956 to 2015, but most of this music is from the past decade. The focus is on Afro-Latin dance music that melds rhythms/traditions from Africa with those from Cuba. That merger is exemplified by “Aminata,” an exhilarating track by Senegalese bassist Alune Wade and Cuban pianist Harold López-Nussa that appeared on their 2015 collaborative album Havana–Paris–Dakar (World Village). Another highlight here is Wade’s tune “Mame,” which showcases the talents of an artist who has worked with Bobby McFerrin, Youssou N’Dour and Joe Zawinul. The compilation’s liner notes don’t list any individual musician credits, but they do include a short essay on each track, allowing listeners to learn more about artists such as Orchestre OK Jazz, Pape Fall et L’African Salsa, Ricardo Lemvo & Makina Loca, Banda Maravilha and Michel Pinheiro’s African Salsa Orchestra. No matter what a listener’s level of familiarity is with Afro-Latin music, there are plenty of tunes here that will motivate him or her to hit the dance floor.

Frank Kimbrough

Solstice
(Pirouet)

Frank Kimbrough is a pianist of uncommon tenderness and restraint at the keyboard, attributes that have made him an ideal accompanist to some of jazz’s most progressive composers and performers. His musical history is flecked with extraordinary partnerships. Upon first moving to Washington, D.C., he had the good fortune of crossing paths with vocalist/pianist Shirley Horn, with whom he struck up a musical partnership. After relocating to New York City, he traveled in the same circles as Carla Bley and Maria Schneider, whose band, The Maria Schneider Orchestra, he eventually joined. Released in November, the month of his 60th birthday, Solstice is Kimrbough’s expression of gratitude for the colleagues and mentors in his life. The album features eight renditions of compositions by a handful of dear friends, as well as one original that spotlights Kimbrough’s trio mates, bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Jeff Hirshfield. Horn, Bley and Schneider are all paid tribute here, as are Andrew Hill, Annette Peacock and Paul Motian, and Kimbrough’s life partner, Maryanne de Prophetis, also receives a lovely tribute as the subject of the delightfully poetic title track. There is both a deep sense of nostalgia and powerful glint of optimism in the work of Kimbrough’s trio. The group’s take on “Seven,” by Bley, dwells as much in shadow as in light, giving equal consideration to strains of sadness and strength. They produce a similar effect on “Here Comes The Honey Man,” a take on the Horn classic that, like a perpetual motion machine, winds in on itself as it unfurls, the energy never flagging, even during moments of profound stillness. The album closes with Schneider’s “Walking By Flashlight,” which appeared on her 2013 album Winter Morning Walks, a collaboration with Dawn Upshaw. Kimrbough’s version preserves the pristine, first-snow brilliance of the original, but he finds new channels into the emotional core of the song, bringing to light themes of wonderment and discovery.

Ray Charles Orchestra

Swiss Radio Days Vol. 41: Zurich 1961
(TCB/Naxos)

Ray Charles was on the verge of international stardom when he and his big band played this concert in Zurich, Switzerland, their first stop on a fall 1961 European tour that included a well-documented and acclaimed series of concerts in France. Fresh on the heels of the release of his now iconic album Genius + Soul = Jazz (Impulse!), Charles, then 31, is true to classic form in this context, his vocals and piano oozing with blues, soul and gospel. Balancing out the jazz end of the equation is Charles’ orchestra, which swings with authority, charges headlong into uptempo numbers and features several outstanding improvisers of the day, among them alto saxophonist Hank Crawford, tenor saxophonist/flutist David “Fathead” Newman, tenor saxophonist Don Wilkerson, trumpeter Marcus Belgrave and drummer Bruno Carr. The program is well-paced, with a smart song selection that includes material from Charles’ Atlantic years (“I Believe To My Soul,” “Come Rain Or Come Shine,”), tunes from his recent ABC recordings (“Georgia On My Mind,” “Sticks And Stones,” “My Baby,” “Margie,” “I Wonder,” “Hit The Road Jack”) and instrumentals arranged by Quincy Jones (“Happy Faces,” “Along Came Betty,” “The Birth Of A Band,” “I Remember Clifford,” “Ray Minor Ray”). Completing the virtual picture of perfection are the obligatory Raelettes, their well-rehearsed four-part choir infusing tunes like “Hit The Road Jack” and “I Wonder” with tight harmonies, sacred-to-profane sentiment and just the right amount of theatric drama. This was the template for an ingenious formula that clearly bore Charles’ stamp and would make him world-famous for decades to come. Listening to Zurich 1961 is like getting a sneak-peak into Brother Ray’s imminent stardom. The live recording quality is decent-to-good, leaving something to be desired balance-wise when compared with Charles’ studio albums from this important era. But inspired performances by the leader, his go-for-the-throat band and the delightful Raelettes more than make up for this technical flaw.

Harvey Mandel

Snake Pit
(Tompkins Square)

Casual fans of the blues may not know Harvey “The Snake” Mandel by name, but they know his sound. For nearly five decades, the Chicago bluesman’s signature timbre—his nickname is the “King of Sustain”—has left its mark on recordings by numerous blues legends, including Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Otis Rush and Albert King. In addition to his long solo career, which launched in 1968 with the release of his debut, Cristo Redentor, he spent years touring and recording with powerhouse blues–rock groups, such as Canned Heat, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and The Rolling Stones. Mandel’s trademark sound is as supple and searing as molten steel, and his improvisational vocabulary is vast, drawing from various dialects of Chicago blues, prog–rock, jazz and even world music. Snake Pit—his 15th disc and first widely distributed album in 20 years—gathers these divergent threads into a single, radiant strand, and the resulting sound positively vibrates with all that collective energy. The groove is nowhere more trenchant than on the album–opening title track, on which Mandel’s heart–piercing tone, tweaked to a distorted crunch, gnaws at a circular blues lick. Curtains of synth provide the background for the gauzy “NightinGail,” which finds Mandel casting spidery chords and sinewy single–note lines into an echo chamber of reverb, and there’s a tinge of Santana–esque Latin rock on “Baby Batter,” which rumbles atop a layer of bongos and güiro. Not to disappoint the six–string die–hards, Mandel engages in considerable pyrotechnics on rock–heavy tracks like “Space Monkeys” and “JackHammer,” and his ode to B.B. King features a healthy dose of skronking and shredding. But it can be immensely satisfying to hear him unwind on a slow blues like “Buckaroo,” on which he proves that a low flame burns just as hot.

Ron Helman

It Never Entered My Mind
(Self Release)

While listening to flugelhornist Ron Helman’s new album, you might detect a strong insinuation of line and form, of motion, elegance and grace—and for good reason. Before becoming a jazz musician at the ripe age of 44, the New Jersey–born, New Mexico–based Helman spent years as a dancer and gymnast. In his former life, he served as a dance coach with the Juilliard School Drama Department and even provided chorographical expertise to the likes of Sting, Al Pacino and Julianne Moore. A certified life coach and business coach, Helman also trained as a classical trumpeter and performed in off–Broadway productions. He calls It Never Entered My Mind an autobiographical album, and for the most part, the music on this disc is as compelling and diverse as Helman’s life story. Produced by Mike Mainieri, the program of 11 jazz standards unfolds with a sense of thematic balance, alternating between hard, biting swing and misty balladry. Helman’s solo on a gutsy “Just Friends” provides flash and pop, and later, a guest turn by vocalist Ann Hampton Calloway on “Born To Be Blue” luxuriates in slow, deliberate gestures. Helman’s tone is of the airy, wind–blown sort, and positions him squarely on the Miles Davis/Chet Baker end of the timbre spectrum. But it’s a tone he adapts to varied contexts. On “All Or Nothing At All,” he engages in flinty dialogue with saxophonist Steve Wilson, generating sparks in the heated exchange, while on the album–closing title track, he converses with pianist Rachel Z Hakim and guitarist David Spinozza in whispers. Bassist James Genus and drummer Joel Rosenblatt add crisp accompaniment no matter the setting or style, and Mainieri’s clean, attentive production ensures a crystalline glow.

Doyle Bramhall II

Rich Man
(Concord)

Guitarist and vocalist Doyle Bramhall II is well known within blues–rock circles, even though is discography as a leader is rather scant. Rich Man is his first solo album since the 2001 disc Welcome. Over the course of his fruitful career, Bramhall has worked with Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Dr. John and the Tedeschi Trucks Band, with whom he has some aesthetic similarities. Now a veteran producer, Bramhall has reached the point where he has the skill set to do exactly what he wants in the studio. He wrote or co–wrote 12 of the disc’s 13 tracks, produced the album, provides lead vocals as well as some harmony vocals, and plays acoustic and electric guitar, bass, drums and percussion. But this is no one–man–band effort. To achieve his ambitious vision, Bramhall enlists numerous musicians, including his working band (Adam Minkoff, Anthony Cole and Ted Vecchio). There’s also a long parade of guests and collaborators, including Norah Jones, who adds lovely vocals to “New Faith,” guitarists Binky Griptite and Joe Crispiano (both members of Sharon Jones & The Dap–Kings), James Gadson (drums), Jon Cowherd (pump organ), Tim Lefebvre (bass), Kofi Burbridge (Hammond B–3) and Michael Eaton (tenor saxophone, flute), along with a string section (violin, viola and cello). Bramhall offers plenty of impressive blues–rock and stinging electric guitar work in this diverse 73–minute program, but it is his exploration of world music—including African, Arabic and Indian elements—that makes this album so memorable. The spiritual lyrics to “My People” are augmented by a powerful sonic wave with droning elements that come courtesy of Devdutt Joshi on harmonium and Ustad Surjeet Singh on sarangi, a bowed string instrument. Bramhall’s travels in Mali and Morocco partially inspired the instrumental “Saharan Crossing,” which features Yuval Ron playing the oud. The album concludes with a potent rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “Hear My Train A–Comin’,” a nod to Bramhall’s deep roots in the blues. Bramhall dedicated this album to his late father (after whom he is named, thus the II following his surname). His father, who died in 2011, was an esteemed drummer who worked with guitarist/vocalists Jimmie Vaughan and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Jason Hainsworth

Third Ward Stories
(Origin)

With Third Ward Stories Houston native Jason Hainsworth continues the longstanding tradition of the Texas Tenors, an esteemed group of raw, hard–blowing saxophonists from the Lone Star State who pioneered a robust fusion of swing, bebop, r&b and blues. Among its figureheads are Illinois Jacquet, David “Fathead” Newman, King Curtis, Arnett Cobb and Buddy Tate, and on his latest album, Hainsworth makes himself at home in the sound and spirit of their playing. There’s teeth in his tone as he takes to “Groiditude,” which opens the album with squalls of hard–bop energy, and on “I Plead The Fif,” the saxophonist creates strong harmonic headwinds while drummer Johnathan Blake rages and rattles at the margins. Hainsworth’s style tends toward broad, sweeping statements, and his grammar is highly informed by the hard–boppers and classic swing saxophonists of the mid century, but he can just as easily adopt the elegant vernacular of the best tenor balladeers. On ballads like “Jana” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness Of You,” his tone wraps around the shapely melody like smoke, vaporous and potent. And while the album remains centered, geographically, in the heart of Texas, its many allusions point elsewhere. “Barack’s Blues” is a nod to America’s first black president, and this rendition of Wayne Shorter’s “Prince Of Darkness” pays respect to the pioneering saxophonist who composed the song, and to Miles Davis, who adopted the ominous moniker as his own. Hainsworth may have changed his mailing address over the course of his career, stopping for a while in New York and New Orleans, but as is evident from this fine recording, his heart belongs to Houston.

Raphael Wressnig

The Soul Connection (Deluxe Edition)
(ZYX Music)

Sometimes the soul just needs the blues, and along comes Hammond B–3 bomber Raphael Wressnig with a kick–ass set of smooth, soulful music that sinks in and stays in your gut. Wressnig is a 37–year–old Austrian keyboardist with a global approach to the blues who sounds like he’s been playing on the South Side of Chicago for the past 30 years—and this two–disc set proves it. First, we have a studio album, The Soul Connection, recorded in São Paulo, Brazil, where he teams with Brazilian blues ambassador Igor Prado on guitar. Prado and Wressnig have both been bathed and blessed by the blues. They have great chemistry together. If that weren’t enough, add in the sweet soul vocals of Willie Walker and a killer horn and rhythm section. The group runs through a set that includes “Trying To Live My Life Without You,” “Suffering With The Blues,” “Turnip Greens” and more. On the second disc, Captured Live, we get a much better sense of Wressnig’s depth and groove on the B–3. It’s a dance–marathon of a record packed with tight arrangements, including a killer guest appearance by Chicago’s Deitra Farr on “All That I’ve Got.” But my favorite track of this concert set is an instrumental version of “Wichita Lineman.” It showcases Wressnig as a master of his instrument who stretches and entertains in a way that translates anywhere on the planet.

Bill Dahl

The Art of the Blues
(University of Chicago Press)

Acclaimed author and music journalist Bill Dahl, who has written liner notes for dozens of albums, teamed up with art consultant/musician/historian Chris James to assemble the 224–page book The Art of the Blues: A Visual Treasury of Black Music’s Golden Age. The book is illustrated with 350 images that chronicle the history of the blues via photographs, sheet music, album covers, 78 r.p.m. labels, advertisements, ticket stubs, concert posters and movie posters. A few of these images are famous—such as the iconic portrait of Bessie Smith with both arms extended (taken by the New York–based photographer known as Elcha) or the LP cover for 1960’s Muddy Waters At Newport—but many others document ephemera. The book provides a fascinating visual documentation of the music industry as well as insight into American culture. For example, the cover of the 1936 sheet music for “Saddle Your Blues To A Wild Mustang” (lyrics by George Whiting and Buddy Bernier; music by Billy Haid) features an illustration of a cowboy wearing spurs, sitting on a fence and playing guitar while looking at a nearby bucking mustang. The cover design also has a rectangular slot for a photo of a musician who had recorded “Saddle Your Blues.” The version of this sheet music in Dahl’s book depicts African American bandleader and pianist Claude Hopkins—who enjoyed residencies at the Savoy and Roseland Ballrooms—but other versions included a photo of a white musician. (I did a quick Google search and found versions that have photos of Henry Hall or Phil Levant on the cover.) Visual treasures abound here: What a delight it is to see sheet music for “Spinnin’ The Web,” composed by drummer Chick Webb and vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, both of whom are depicted in blue–tinted photos. Elsewhere, there’s a 1929 newspaper advertisement for Louis Armstrong’s record “Tight Like This,” illustrated with a photo of a tuxedo–clad Satchmo, with text hailing him as “the country’s greatest trumpet player.” It’s difficult to quickly flip through this beautiful book because there are so many compelling images that deserve a closer look, whether it’s a publicity portrait of a young Etta James (taken by Hollywood photographer John E. Reed) or the 78 r.p.m. label of “Adam Bit The Apple,” recorded by Big Joe Turner for Houston’s Freedom Recording Co., which used the Statue of Liberty as part of its graphics.

Mary Halvorson Octet

Away With You
(Firehouse 12 Records)

love Mary Halvorson in this setting. This is art music on a large scale. Halvorson’s compositions and arrangements take twists and turns that you don’t expect, leaving you to wonder how on earth she’ll make them work. She always does. After all, Halvorson is masterful in turning the ordinary into something amazing and new. On Away With You, the 36–year–old guitarist assembles an all–star cast of the avant–garde scene, including Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, Jon Irabagon on alto saxophone, Ingrid Laubrock on tenor, Jacob Garchik on trombone, Susan Alcorn on pedal steel guitar, John Hébert on bass and Ches Smith on drums. It’s a cast of leaders who all chip in to do incredible ensemble work. “Spirit Splitter (No. 54)” is a mind–bender. The title track, “Away With You (No. 55),” is a surf–pop tune from an alternate universe. “The Absolute Almost (No. 52)” takes a slow–flame approach to the inner soul. “Old King Misfit (No. 57)” displays Hébert’s mastery on bass. “Safety Orange (No. 59)” is anything but safe, a majestic piece of magic with some wonderful arranging. And “Inky Ribbons (No. 53)” closes this eight–track set with a slow pulse and laid–back groove that brings the album to a perfect close. Halvorson has become a critic’s favorite in creative music for very good reason. She’s a fine guitarist, a thoughtful musician and a far–reaching artist.

Andrew Cyrille Quartet

The Declaration Of Musical Independence
(ECM)

Andrew Cyrille and his bandmates make their intentions clear from the get–go of this wonderful new recording on ECM. This is an unabashed exploration into time, pulse, space and atmosphere. The 76–year–old drummer begins this “declaration” from the opening staccato beats of “Coltrane Time” with a torn military cadence that bubbles beneath the wails, swoops and groans of Bill Frisell’s guitar. Richard Teitelbaum dances over his mad–hatter synths while Ben Street offers just the right notes on bass. This quartet proves that less is more, leaving plenty of room for each other and the music to breathe. Frisell’s “Kaddish” is a beautiful prayer of quiet and solitude. He carefully paces each note, while Cyrille rumbles in the background, conveying a sense of distant power. On “Dazzling (Perchordially Yours),” Cyrille races, glides and dives through his kit. Stories are told swiftly as a group, and just as quickly stopped to leave time for them to sink in. Teitelbaum washes sound playfully back and forth on the speakers, and Street delivers an avant call–and–response sermon from his bass. The closing number, Frisell’s “Song For Andrew No. 1,” offers the best example of where this Cyrille and his quartet are heading. The drummer whips, rapid–fire, across the kit, and Frisell’s guitar sings slow and steady against the groove. Teitelbaum and Street each find just the right spots to create tension and release. The resulting music is ambitious yet simple, rich yet stripped–down, challenging yet infinitely satisfying.

Keely Smith

The Intimate Keely Smith
(Real Gone Music)

Pop–culture fans who know her name (but not her solo albums) think of Keely Smith as half of the dynamic duo she formed with vocalist/trumpeter/bandleader Louis Prima. Smith started working with Prima in 1949, and the couple wed in 1953. They became a huge draw in Las Vegas, won a Grammy for their rendition of “That Old Black Magic” and made numerous TV and film appearances. A movie poster for 1959’s Hey Boy! Hey Girl! hyped Prima & Smith as “The No. 1 Song–and–Fun Team.” The couple divorced in 1961 and, four years later, she released The Intimate Keely Smith. The Coronet label once repackaged some Prima & Smith tracks in an LP titled Sing Loud. That title conveys the exact opposite of what Smith does on this album, where she delivers a master class in singing softly, often with a breathy delivery, but never without power. The program here is centered on love and heartache, and includes the tunes “Somebody Loves Me,” “It Had To Be You,” “Sinner Or Saint” and “As Long As He Needs Me.” Smith demonstrates exemplary control of her vocal dynamics, modulating her volume for dramatic effect, and sometimes physically moving closer or farther from the microphone, just as she would in concert. The spare, tasteful accompaniment is provided by Dennis Budimer (guitar), Irv Cottler (drums), Red Mitchell (bass) and Jeff Lewis or Ernie Freeman on piano. Real Gone Music’s “Expanded Edition” marks the first time that this album has legitimately appeared on CD, and the two bonus tracks are quite different from the original 11–song program. The first bonus track is “Twin Soliloquies,” a duet with Frank Sinatra that features Nelson Riddle’s orchestration and first appeared on the LP Reprise Musical Repertory Theater Presents “South Pacific.” It’s fun to hear Keely mix it up with Sinatra, a big supporter who helped Smith release solo albums on her own label, Keely Records, in conjunction with Sinatra’s label, Reprise. The other bonus track is the pop tune “No One Ever Tells You,” which was penned by Gerry Goffin, Carole King and Phil Spector and released as the B–side of a single that Spector produced for The Crystals in 1962.

Cameron Mizell

Negative Spaces
(Destiny)

Cameron Mizell is a New York guitarist who has worn many hats in the jazz industry—as a recording artist, as a label insider for Verve Records, as a pit guitarist for Broadway musicals and as an accompanist for various Latin ensembles around the city. He made his recording debut in 2004 as the captain of an eight-piece ensemble, and in 2015 he released his first solo album, a splendid collection of originals titled The Edge Of Visibility. That album—recorded on Destiny Records, the label he manages—worked well to cut a striking figure for Mizell, effectively separating the guitarist from the pack. With Negative Spaces, his fifth album as a leader, Mizell assumes the role of the altruistic collaborator, rejoining his working trio for a program of painterly originals that uses sparseness and absence in artful, melodic ways. Digging in beside Mizell for this effort are drummer Kenneth Salters and keyboardist Brad Whiteley, with whom the guitarist recorded 2010’s Tributary. Together these musicians concoct a sturdy soundscape out of disparate styles. Rooted in an aesthetic of twangy Americana lines, swirling contemporary keyboards and blustery hard-bop grooves, the guitarist and his colleagues slide gracefully between emotional extremes. There’s edge and attitude to tracks like “Get It While You Can,” a slice of organ-heavy funk, and “Yesterday’s Trouble,” a gravelly country thumper. But interspersed throughout these tunes are “Clearing Skies,” with its beseeching keyboard ostinato, and the two-part title track, a slowly blossoming statement of grace and splendor. The album’s two arbor-themed compositions—“Big Trees” and “A Song About A Tree”—make another case for Mizell’s stylistic versatility. The former is grand and anthemic, a fireworks display accented by powerful cymbal splashes from Salters. The latter carries a sense of solitude and reflection, the way a lonesome traveler carries a picture of home. “Whiskey For Flowers”—written in honor of the annual exchange of gifts between Mizell and his wife—is a merger of the album’s collective influences: It’s got a touch of soft-edged rock, a splash of balmy calypso and a healthy dose of Frisell-esque folk. And, like much of this album, the song is a testament to the notion of saying a lot by speaking a little.

Gene Ess & Fractal Attraction

Absurdist Theatre
(SIMP)

Tonally, there’s an arresting beauty to the combination of wordless vocals and guitar. Perhaps it’s the similarity in timbre that so pleases the ear, or maybe it’s that the instruments share a close association in the history of music. Whatever the case, it’s a solemn pairing used to masterful effect by guitarist Gene Ess on his latest album, Absurdist Theater, which features gifted vocalist Thana Alexa. The result is music of a heartfelt and spiritual sort, with songs that feel as imbued with passion as they are guided by intellect. Those polar forces are in constant play throughout the program. Among the album’s more fervent pieces are “Out Of The Ashes,” a potent distillation of modern jazz themes, and “Torii,” a vibrating engine of prog-rock energy. In addition to Alexa and the Tokyo-born Ess, the ensemble features drummer Clarence Penn, pianist Manuel Valera and bassist Yasushi Nakamura. This group does an outstanding job of maintaining clarity through the most intricate of passages. “Kunai” has a particularly knotty melody that Ess and Alexa handle with focused aplomb, and the pummeling tempo of “Onward And Upward” proves no obstacle for Penn and Valera, who deliver powerful solos here. And though the flame is turned down on the ballads “Dejala Que Passe” and “Jade Stones,” the outsize presence of this ensemble hardly diminishes. Ess and crew maintain a consistent sensibility, one that successfully marries liberated enthusiasm with clean compositional elegance. Even during the band’s most formidable moments—the strong yet sinewy piano solos, the slow-rolling vocal waterfalls, the overdriven guitar squalls—the players maintain an emphasis on musical finesse.

Neil Cowley Trio

Spacebound Apes
(Hide Inside)

Spacebound Apes is Neil Cowley’s sixth and most ambitious studio album to date. The music is big, bold and anthemic. It hits you hard, then hugs you tight. It will be filed under jazz, but Cowley and crew defy categorization here—it’s a pop/rock/jazz instrumental masterpiece. Cowley has written a full story as a companion to the album, a tale about a man named Lincoln and his harrowing hero’s journey, complete with color illustrations by DC Comics’ Sergio Sandoval. The story totally informs the music, but the music stands alone beautifully. We have Cowley handling piano duties with extreme taste and texture, Evan Jenkins driving the drumset with everything from a light touch to outright bombast, and Rex Horan anchoring the proceedings impeccably on bass. The trio has amazing chemistry, driving songs hard or holding back just enough to create atmosphere, tension and release. Cowley also enlisted the help of Leo Abrahams on guitar and special effects to give this project just the right extra touches. All 11 songs on this album are gorgeous, some of the finest instrumental storytelling I’ve heard in a long, long time. “Weightless” leads off the program and is an aptly named exercise in Brian Eno-esque soundscapes. That’s not surprising, as Abrahams has oft collaborated with the influential producer. “Governance” is a two-man postmodern march that devolves into a blessed slam dance between Cowley and Jenkins. “Grace“ is a quiet, beautiful prayer. “The Sharks Of Competition” swims like a punk-ass jam. “Duty Of The Last” slides in as a slow-jam dirge. And everything builds to a breathtaking crescendo with “The Return Of Lincoln.” The group has been performing this complete record, front to back, in its live concerts. Go see it when it comes to a town near you. I know I will.

Richard Sussman

The Evolution Suite
(Zoho)

Pianist Richard Sussman is among the most ambitious composers on the jazz scene today, a veteran of the large-ensemble circuit whose work has been promulgated by the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, the Metropole Orchestra, the Manhattan School of Music Jazz Orchestra and the American Composers Orchestra, among many others. A dedicated jazz educator, Sussman is also the recipient of numerous accolades, including two NEA grants in Jazz Composition, an ASCAP Jazz Composition Award and a Chamber Music America New Jazz Works grant. Much of his wide acclaim—both artistically and professionally—owes to his creative process, which is rooted in tradition yet amenable to new trends and sounds. His latest project, the epic Evolution Suite, exemplifies this creative outlook with dignity and self-assurance. Ten years in the making, the album is a delicate blend of gentle chamber music, buzzy electronics and warm, radiant jazz that creates a new niche for itself even as it pays respectful homage to the traditions on which it’s built. The bulk of the program is a five-part suite over which strings (courtesy of the Sirius Quartet and guest violinist Zach Brock) engage in sharp dialogue with an agile combo that includes Sussman (piano and electronics), Scott Wendholt (trumpet), Rich Perry (tenor saxophone), Mike Richmond (bass) and Anthony Pinciotti (drums). The musical exchanges here are often free-flowing and stimulating, as on the meditative “Movement II: Relaxin’ At Olympus” or the opening “Movement I: Into The Cosmic Kitchen.” But at other times, they can be spiky and challenging, as on “Movement III: Nexus,” with its sawing electrified strings and feisty electronics, and “Prevolution,” with its percolating drum track. The strength of this unit is its ability to draw lyricism from a variety of stylistic sources, be they straightahead jazz, classical, pop or free-jazz. And though on occasion those strands can be examined in isolation—there’s an unabashed sense of swing to “Movement V: Perpetual Motion” and a gauzy, avant-garde ominousness to “Movement IV: The Music Of The Cubes”—the album reaches its highest points when all merge together, which happens with mesmerizing frequency on this engaging album.

Jake Shimabukuro

Nashville Sessions
(Jake Shimabukuro)

With each subsequent release, ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro takes another step away from being merely a YouTube phenomenon. Ten years ago, a video of him playing an instrumental rendition of The Beatles tune “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” went viral, and videos of his versions of other songs, like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” further extended his reputation as a marvelously talented Internet sensation. But the native Hawaiian had recorded many albums prior to filming that Beatles clip. Today, his discography includes dozens of titles. A one-trick pony he is not. His new album, Nashville Sessions, consists of all original material. It’s a trio disc recorded with bassist Nolan Verner and drummer Evan Hutchings. (Two of the 11 tracks include strings from Chris Carmichael.) This album definitely feels more influenced by rock than jazz, and Shimabukuro’s mastery of a variety of types of ukulele—tenor, baritone, soprano and electric—gives the program numerous sonic textures. He’s capable of crafting catchy ditties, New Age-flavored dreamscapes, delicate lines akin to classical guitar and crunching electric work that packs the punch of a Telecaster. An adventurer who is constantly seeking to expand the audience for ukulele, Shimabukuro offers diverse fare here, like “Kilauea” (which might appeal to prog-rock fans), “Blue Haiku” (a gentle breeze that will be nectar for fans of traditional uke sounds) and “Tritone” (which incorporates elements from a concerto for ukulele and orchestra composed by Byron Yasui). Discussing the new album, Shimabukuro said, “The interesting thing about using different sounds and effects—overdrive/distortion, tube preamps and a Leslie speaker cabinet—is that they make you play differently. You become a new person.” Fans will be happy to follow the old Jake on his new journey.

Shirley Horn

Live At The 4 Queens
(Resonance)

The new album by Shirley Horn (1934–2005) represents a glorious “Fourth Act” for the acclaimed vocalist/pianist. Act I began with her 1960 debut, Embers And Ashes, and her attempt to establish a foothold in the jazz world. Act II consisted of the years Horn devoted to family life and to performing mainly around Washington, D.C. Act III, which featured many commercial and critical peaks, started with the release of 1987’s I Thought About You: Live At Vine St. and included her Grammy win for the 1998 disc I Remember Miles, a tribute to one of her most ardent fans, Miles Davis. Now we begin Act IV, a phase of rediscovery anchored by Live At The 4 Queens. This 52-minute trio disc, recorded at the famed Las Vegas hotel on May 2, 1988, features the simpatico accompaniment of bassist Charles Ables and drummer Steve Williams, who both played on I Thought About You. Although the programs on the two live albums feature Great American Songbook tunes and Jobim compositions, there’s only one song that appears on both discs: the Rodgers & Hart classic “Isn’t It Romantic?” The 10-minute instrumental rendition on 4 Queens is a terrific vehicle for Horn’s authoritative, swinging pianism. Elsewhere, her distinctively breathy yet always enthralling vocals take center stage on “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To” and “Lover Man.” The latter tune—which finds Horn injecting dramatic pauses into her piano lines and her vocal delivery—illustates how Horn’s unique appeal lay in the way her playing and singing complemented each other so elegantly. This program of previously unreleased material concludes with a head-bobbing, instrumental romp through Oscar Peterson’s “Blues For Big Scotia.“ The accompanying 56-page booklet and a 33-minute documentary film that Resonance produced (and posted here) provide fascinating insights into the life and career of this remarkable artist.

Kris Davis

Duopoly
(Pyroclastic)

Every now and then, the jazz soul needs to hear some good musical conversations. Enter pianist Kris Davis with her glowing new recording, Duopoly. Here, Davis has teamed up with eight gifted improvisers for 16 tracks of duet bliss. Bill Frisell, Julian Lage, Craig Taborn, Angelica Sanchez, Billy Drummond, Marcus Gilmore, Tim Berne and Don Byron each sit down with Davis to perform two duets, one composed, one completely free. For those who like their improvisation on the more traditional side, here’s a warning: Davis and company take this to the outer edges and back. For those who enjoy a great avant-venture, come on in, the water’s fine. I love the organization of this album. Davis calls it a musical palindrome because of the way she sequences the tracks. On the first eight tunes, she encounters guitarists Frisell then Lage, pianists Taborn then Sanchez, drummers Drummond then Gilmore, and reedists Berne then Byron. Then, Davis reverses the order on the second half of the program as she and her duet partners dive into a world of free-form beauty. It’s incredible to hear the distinctions between artists, instruments and approaches, with Davis’ unique pianism serving as the voice weaving all of the music together. It’s also fantastic to hear how some of the more composed pieces, like “Fox Fire” with Craig Taborn, sound like pure improv, while free-form pieces, like “Don Byron,” sound completely composed. Often, seeing is believing when it comes to this kind of intimate interplay. Davis has you covered there, too, as a fantastic DVD with video shot by Mimi Chakarova is included in this terrific package. (Davis and Taborn will team up for a series of duo concerts in October. For info, visit Davis’ website.)

John Zorn

The Painted Bird
(Tzadik)

I recently received a stack of new releases from John Zorn’s Tzadik label and diligently started listening. But, frankly, I haven’t gotten past the first disc because it’s so damned good. I keep going back to The Painted Bird over and over. It’s a rip-roaring, tribal jazz/metal shred fest that will get the blood flowing and the head boppin’. I know I’m late to this party. The album came out in March and critic Bill Milkowski already gave it 4½ stars in DownBeat, but the loud-loving boy in me couldn’t resist adding it to this month’s Editors’ Picks. Let’s start with the lineup: John Medeski on organ, Ches Smith on congas and voudun drums, Kenny Wollesen on vibes, Kenny Grohowski on drums and Matt Hollenberg on guitar. This is the fourth album of Zorn music this group has delivered in a 12-month period, and there’s more to come. This is rapid-fire, in-your-face, beautifully aggressive music that features crazy-good improvisation. Wollesen just melts down the vibes on “Snakeskin.” The whole band squeals and wails on “Comet,” a stop-start romp of tremendous ingenuity and musical interplay. “Night” is a majestic beast of a tune. And ’Missal” simmers down the proceedings to a low boil heading out of the set. The tunes are fantastic. The musicianship is beyond compare. This unit is tight, engaged and outrageous. You can feel them smiling behind this shimmering wall of sound. The Painted Bird is a fantastic listening experience.

The Bad Plus

It’s Hard
(OKeh)

Johnny Cash. Prince. Cyndi Lauper. Kraftwerk. Barry Manilow. Ornette Coleman. What do they have in common? Those artists wrote and/or popularized tunes that are included on It’s Hard, the 11th studio album by The Bad Plus. This all-acoustic, all-covers program finds the trio (pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King) playing to its strengths as perpetually intellectual yet mischievous musicians. A covers album presents a conundrum. If an artist does too little with a song, then fans ask, “What’s the point?” Yet, if an artist strays too far from the original (or best-known) version, then fans ask that same question. No one on this planet was clamoring for a new version of “Mandy” (the cheesy weeper popularized by Manilow), yet The Bad Plus turns it into a fascinating gem, thanks to an arrangement that includes a segment in which King bashes up a thunderstorm. Peter Gabriel’s indelible hook on “Games Without Frontiers” is rendered in recognizable form, yet placed in a more exploratory setting. The Bad Plus formed in Minneapolis, so it’s not surprising that the band would interpret a Prince tune like “The Beautiful Ones,” but an ironic twist here is that the band recorded the track before the rock icon’s death on April 21. The band’s version of ”Don’t Dream It‘s Over” (a pop masterpiece crafted by Neil Finn of Crowded House) is reminiscent of some of the work Cassandra Wilson has done with pop tunes—digging into the emotional core, nodding to a melody embedded in the listener’s memory, and extending the piece with new segments that feel logical. The Bad Plus’ creative renditions of Kraftwerk’s “The Robots” (with a seductive bass line) and Cash’s signature tune, ”I Walk The Line“ (featuring King’s clever, catchy brushwork), succeed as pieces of art that stand on their own merits, while simultaneously giving fans a new appreciation of the original versions.

Fred Hersch

Sunday Night At The Vanguard
(Palmetto)

When a new album by Fred Hersch meets your expectations, you’ll never find yourself saying, “same old, same old.” Rather, you’ll appreciate how astonishingly creative, profound and enthralling the 60-year-old pianist continues to be. That’s the case withSunday Night At The Vanguard, which presents Hersch performing with his trio at one of New York’s most celebrated jazz venues. It’s a familiar setting where Hersch finds himself in a familiar role: pushing the limits of refinement and making bold, fresh statements. Hersch’s trio with bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson has recorded a series of excellent albums over the past seven years, including 2012’s Fred Hersch Trio–Alive At The Vanguard and 2014’s Grammy-nominated Floating. Recorded live on the evening of March 27, 2016, Sunday Night At The Vanguard takes the trio’s propensity for dramatic lyricism, harmonic exploration and rhythmic experimentation to new levels of poise and audacity. Highlights include the album’s lightly swinging opener “A Cockeyed Optimist,” a Rodgers and Hammerstein standard that the trio had only played a few times previously; “The Optimum Thing,” a Hersch contrafact on Irving Berlin’s “The Best Thing For You” that showcases the trio’s drastically elastic sense of time; Paul McCartney’s “For No One,” its mood of quiet desperation amplified by the trio’s hushed, unhurried reading; Kenny Wheeler’s happy-dance “Everybody’s Song But My Own,” which Hersch played with the late trumpeter many times; and the shape-shifting “We See,” a Thelonious Monk tune that Hersch, somewhat surprisingly, has never recorded before. For more new Hersch-related material, watch for screenings of the feature-length film The Ballad of Fred Hersch—which recently premiered at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina—and Hersch’s upcoming memoir (with the working title Good Things Happen Slowly) for Crown/Random House, due out next spring.

John Beasley

MONK’estra Vol. 1
(Mack Avenue )

The first time I listened to this album in my car, I nearly missed my exit on the expressway. There is so much hep stuff happening in these new big band arrangements of tunes by Thelonious Monk that I was transported to another realm, one where the car seems capable of driving itself. Then it struck me: That’s precisely what’s happening with these charts and this ensemble of L.A.’s finest musicians and special guests, all under the direction of pianist/conductor/arranger John Beasley. Everything on Presents MONK’estra Vol. 1 feels so natural and inevitable, it’s almost as if the material plays itself. And if you enjoy Monk—whether for his undeniable logic, quirky song architecture or innate sense of swing—Beasley’s band will leave you rapt. Beasley has been writing big band charts since he was a teenager, and he has long been fascinated by Monk’s music (this debut recording by the MONK’estra is actually Beasley’s third album of material by the High Priest of Bebop). Beasley’s MONK’estra has performed live since 2013, and he has served as musical director for the Monk Institute’s Jazz Day gala concerts since 2011 and for International Jazz Day events since 2012. (He has done plenty of commercial work as well, most notably as the lead arranger for TV’sAmerican Idol from 2005 to 2016.) Beasley knows his Monk inside and out, and he knows his way around a chart. But, most importantly, this onetime member of groups led by Freddie Hubbard and Miles Davis knows how to give his bandmembers—including guest stars Gary Burton on vibes (“Epistrophy”) and Grégoire Maret on harmonica (“Ask Me Now”)—sufficient freedom to stylize the written passages and improvise with abandon. In applying all of his acquired skills and personal passions to Presents MONK’estra Vol. 1, Beasley brings Monk to life once again for modern-minded listeners.

William Bell

This Is Where I live
(Stax)

Among those producers who have struck gold with veteran artists, there are a select few who were responsible for superb, late-career revivals: Rick Rubin accomplished it with Johnny Cash, as did Joe Henry with Solomon Burke. Add to that list producer/guitarist John Leventhal’s new collaboration with 77-year-old soul titan William Bell. Leventhal (who is known for his work with his wife, Rosanne Cash) co-wrote nine songs with Bell for This Is Where I Live. The album marks a strong return for a singer-songwriter who helped put Stax on the map with his single “You Don’t Miss Your Water“ as well as Albert King’s hit “Born Under A Bad Sign,” which Bell composed with fellow Memphis native Booker T. Jones. Leventhal, who clearly understands Bell’s aesthetic, frames the singer’s still-muscular voice with stinging electric guitar lines, percolating keyboards and punchy horn charts—yet all the instrumentation is relatively spare and consistently tasteful. On this sterling program, which is void of missteps, three tracks stand out. “Poison In The Well” pairs a head-bobbing groove with fierce lyrics, resulting in yet another gem from a man who has penned a wide range of songs about the joys and sorrows of romantic love. The album’s autobiographical title track, which references Sam Cooke, expresses Bell’s deep appreciation for his roots, while also chronicling his journey from gifted teenager to global icon. Given the popularity of numerous versions of “Born Under A Bad Sign” (including Cream’s interpretation on Wheels Of Fire), Leventhal and Bell wisely chose to record a slow, stripped-down take for this disc, allowing the listener to ruminate on the fate of a man who laments, “If it wasn’t for real bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.” Fortunately, Bell has fared far better than his protagonist. This Is Where I Live will not only satisfy longtime followers, it will win Bell plenty of new fans.

Will Calhoun

Celebrating Elvin Jones
(Motéma)

Best known for his role in the fierce and politically incisive rock band Living Colour, Will Calhoun is a drummer whose razor-sharp technique and elastic rhythmic feel defy the bounds of genre. His astounding discography reads like a catchall bin at the record store, with sideman credits for artists as diverse as Herb Alpert and Run-DMC. But for a drummer of such immeasurable rhythmic variation, he can also lay down an undeniably gut-wrenching swing beat. That’s a characteristic he shares with one of his heroes, Elvin Jones, to whom this album is dedicated. Celebrating Elvin Jones is an inspired project, vibrant and emotionally honest, but its greatest success may be that it brings Calhoun’s boundless energy to lesser-known gems of the Jones songbook. Tunes like “EJ Blues,” with its explosive drum fills, “Saramastah,” with its sensitive brushwork, and “Whew,” with its trenchant swing, help paint a portrait of Jones through suggestion and homage, rather than emulation. That’s an artful approach, and Calhoun is wise to have followed it. He’s joined here by a commanding ensemble with bassist Christian McBride, saxophonist Antoine Roney, keyboardist Carlos McKinney and trumpeter Keyon Harrold, all of whom bring depth and dimension to the punchy arrangements. The group is augmented on several tracks by guest stars with connections to Jones’ musical legacy. Czech keyboardist Jan Hammer, a member of Jones’ trio for On The Mountain (1975), joins the band for a propulsive take on “Destiny,” and Senegalese percussionist Doudou N’Diaye Rose, a stylistic ancestor to Jones who died in August 2015, contributes a masterful solo on “Doll Of The Bride.”

Manu Katché

Unstatic
(Anteprima Productions)

The cover art for Manu Katché’s excellent new disc is somewhat misleading. It depicts the drummer alone, thrashing away at his kit, but Unstatic is, at heart, an accomplished team effort, crafted by a cohesive ensemble. Katché takes the spotlight here not with flashy rhythm patterns but with his compositional acumen and outstanding leadership. He wrote all 11 tunes, most of which are quintet or sextet arrangements, with exemplary trombonist Nils Landgren playing on five tracks. Katché seems to have composed these songs with specific instrumentation in mind, as evidenced by the gentle, nuanced dialogs by pianist Jim Watson and saxophonist Tore Brunborg that open “Blossom” and “Daze Days.” Those two numbers illustrate Katché’s ability to create accessible material that will appeal to smooth-jazz fans and devotees of straightahead jazz. Indeed, he’s a skillful balladeer, but he’s just as accomplished as a groove merchant. The track “City” offers a hip-swaying groove with a touch of light funk, resulting in a head-bobber that’s peppered with a potent motif from trumpeter Luca Aquino. Katché is acutely sensitive to the narrative arc of this 51-minute program. He is also keenly aware of the ebb and flow of musical intensity, which he intentionally dials down at the album’s midpoint before building it back up with simmering flare on the eighth track, “Ride Me Up.” On the album’s final track, Katché offers a charming, spoken-word introduction of his bandmates. The French drummer has won tremendous respect as a sideman for Sting, Peter Gabriel and Joni Mitchell, but with Unstatic, Katché shows that a generosity of spirit can help a fine accompanist become a great leader.

Uri Caine

Calibrated Thickness
(816 Music)

Uri Caine, a pianist with an animated yet erudite style, leads an agile trio through 15 dynamic tracks—several of them orchestrated, many of them not—onCalibrated Thickness, his daring new album with drummer Clarence Penn, bassist Mark Helias and guest cornetist Kirk Knuffke, who appears on three tracks. Those musicians, beyond their outsized talent, bring a fresh sense of openness to the mainstream piano trio format, as demonstrated on the free-improvised “Woke Up This Morning,” with its spikey musical exchanges, and “Downward Spiral,” in which shards of melody crystallize within a swirl of spontaneously composed sound. Clarity within abstraction is a recurring theme on this disc, a premise that lends a soft-edged shape to tracks that might otherwise feel unrestrained. “Icicles,” featuring Knuffke’s clear-toned incantations, sounds tuneful and assured even as its melody leaches out across the floor. And “Bleeding Heart,” a ballad, uses a recurring piano motif as a lighthouse in a storm, the pianist returning to the comforting phrase in times of sonic unrest. Fans of mainstream jazz might feel the same sense of solace about tracks like “Manahatta,” which finds Caine turning Tyner-esque summersaults through the pentatonic scale, and “Golem,” a brawny swing tune that lurches forward with powerful steps. These pieces, despite their more recognizable structure, nonetheless exhibit the same kind of cage-rattling vitality that has become one of Caine’s most compelling attributes. They’re also riveting examples of the pianist’s fluid improvisational technique. Those wanting to follow this dauntless sonic explorer down exciting new paths will have plenty of opportunity to do so. He celebrates the album’s release at Smalls in New York City on Aug. 29.

Steve Lehman

Sélébéyone
(Pi)

In the Senegalese language of Wolof, the word “sélébéyone,” which inspired the title of saxophonist Steve Lehman’s new album, means “intersection,” or a place where two things meet and are transformed anew. It’s an apt descriptor for this novel project, which unites voices from avant-garde jazz, electronic music, underground hip-hop and Senegalese rap under the banner of intrepid musical experimentalism. In overseeing this hybrid venture, Lehman—who topped two Rising Star categories in the 2015 DownBeat Critics Poll—joins a movement of musicians who are expanding the conversation between jazz and hip-hop, a venerated crew that includes artists such as Kamasi Washington, Thundercat and rapper Kendrick Lamar. But onSélébéyone, Lehman takes the concept a step further, crafting a deeply nuanced sonic tableau in which the lyrics by rappers HPrizm (a stalwart of the New York underground hip-hop scene) and Gaston Bandimic (an ascendant Senegalese rap star) govern the album’s sound design, resulting in an aesthetic that is both emotionally raw and conceptually meticulous. With songs that touch on a diverse range of topics—from the realities of inner-city strife to Islamic mysticism—the album trades mostly in harsh, shadowy sounds and hard-edged beats, spurred on by Carlos Homs’ ghostly keyboard samples, Drew Gress’ pounding bass, Damion Reid’s quick-fire drumming, and shrieking saxophone dialogs between Lehman and Maciek Lasserre. Production was overseen with painterly care by hip-hop engineer Andrew Wright, who won a Grammy for his work on Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City(Interscope), and the album benefits from his expertise. There’s a creeping urgency to “Are You In Piece,” with its spidery saxophone lines, and a wandering uncertainty to “Cognition,” a sidelong take on acid-jazz. The album’s shortest song, “Geminou,” is also its most aggressively experimental, pitting Bandimic’s lacerating rhymes against an eerie, fractured backdrop. It’s visceral and searing, a distillation of the album’s concept in less than two minutes. If this is the direction jazz is heading, Lehman, as usual, is miles ahead.

Various Artists

Café Society Original Soundtrack
(Sony Classical)

Woody Allen loves jazz. This is evidenced by several of the filmmaker’s soundtracks as well as his own work as a clarinetist. Allen’s 46th film, Café Society, is set in the 1930s and its soundtrack focuses on songs that Richard Rodgers composed with lyricist Lorenz Hart, including “The Lady Is A Tramp,” “My Romance,’ “There’s A Small Hotel” and “Have You Met Miss Jones?” The aforementioned tunes, along with five other songs, are interpreted here by Vince Giordano & The Nighthawks, a band that has risen to fame by breathing new life into music from the 1920s and ’30s. (Filmmakers Dave Davidson and Amber Edwards examine the savvy bandleader’s career in their new documentary Vince Giordano: There’s A Future In The Past.) Giordano’s genius lies in his ability to arrange old warhorses like “Jeepers Creepers” and “Pick Yourself Up” in ways that not only sound fresh but that cause listeners to reevaluate iconic recordings from the past. For Giordano, this is more than merely “source material”; it is a starting point for new vistas. His success is dependent upon the exemplary musicianship of his band. The Nighthawks’ pianist, Mark Shane, offers particularly nimble, memorable work here. The band teams up with vocalist Kat Edmonson for a clever rendition of “Mountain Greenery,” with the singer delivering a grin-inducing tale of life in a home “where no pests are pesterin’.” The 15-track soundtrack includes three recordings from the Depression Era: Count Basie’s “Taxi War Dance,” singer Ben Selvin’s version of “I Only Have Eyes For You” and Benny Goodman’s take on Rodgers & Hart’s “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” with vocals by Louise Tobin. All three are gems, but the sonic quality of these vintage recordings might be slightly jarring for some listeners when juxtaposed with the pristine, contemporary recordings by Giordano, YeraSon and Conal Fowkes. The latter—a pianist who has appeared on the soundtracks of previous Allen films, including Midnight In Paris—closes the program with a trio reading of “Out Of Nowhere” and a jaunty solo version of “This Can’t Be Love.” This disc is definitely a keeper.

Michael Davis

Hip-Bone Big Band
(Hip-Bone Music)

The “slip horn” might be the focus of trombonist Michael Davis’ 11th album as a leader, but Hip-Bone Big Band is about much more—namely, a full-sized modern big band staffed with elite New York players executing highly original material. There just happens to be numerous virtuosi rotating in and out of the ’bone section, including Michael Dease, Marshall Gilkes, Conrad Herwig, Andy Martin, Bob McChesney, Bill Reichenbach and Davis himself. Other horn-playing ringers include Vanguard Jazz Orchestra veterans Dick Oatts (lead alto), Nick Marchione (lead trumpet) and Scott Wendholt (jazz trumpet), as well as tenor ace Andy Snitzer and bari sax strongman Roger Rosenberg. Yellowjackets drummer Will Kennedy handles most of the drum responsibilities, establishing a wide variety of appropriate feels, from traditional big band swinging to driving rock beats to thick funk grooves. Hip-Bone Big Band is a fine showcase for Davis’ skills as a composer and arranger and his knack for highlighting the strengths of today’s top big band players. Sax solis rip with burning accuracy; trumpet section passages kill with chops and precision; smart interludes and clever counterpoint keep things balanced and brainy throughout. Some of Davis’ tunes date back to the late 1990s, while others were written in the days leading up to the March 2016 recording sessions. The leader pulls out all the stops on “CRB’s 76 Trombones,” a swinging take on Meredith Wilson’s 1957 signature song from The Music Man featuring inspired ’bone solos by Davis, Gilkes, Nick Finzer and Jeff Nelson. Hip-Bone Big Band benefits from Davis’ formidable big band pedigree, which includes stints in the bands of Buddy Rich, Frank Sinatra, Woody Herman, Louie Bellson and Bob Mintzer. The album also reflects Davis’ deep appreciation for the mentorship he received along the way. A highly committed jazz educator and active clinician, Davis plans to offer Hip-Bone Big Band (in physical or digital format) free to students at all the colleges and schools where he will appear as guest artist in the future.

Clare Fischer Big Band

Pacific Jazz
(Clavo Records)

Brent Fischer, son of the legendary composer-arranger-bandleader Clare Fischer (1928–2012), carries on his father’s work of composing and orchestrating big band charts that please the eardrums and stimulate the brainwaves. Pacific Jazz is a multi-generational affair, featuring writing and playing from both Fischers as well as previously unheard repertoire that spans seven decades. Brent Fischer not only directs his late father’s big band performing his father’s material—he also contributes tunes and arrangements of his own, not to mention playing bass, mallet instruments and auxiliary keyboard parts. Clare Fischer, who was able to hear and participate in much of the music on this album prior to his passing, contributes keyboard and piano parts to three tracks, including an introspective solo performance of Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy.” Frequently calling for unconventional instrumentation, the arrangements on Pacific Jazzare deceptively sophisticated, executed with style and skill by an ace ensemble that includes saxophonists Bob Sheppard and Alex Budman, trumpeters Carl Saunders and Ron Stout, and trombonists Scott Whitfield and Andy Martin, among many others. The presence of bass saxophone, contrabass saxophone, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet and contrabass trombone is felt as much as heard on various tracks, inhabiting a world of low end where most traditional big bands dare not tread. On the high end, the orchestra is filled out with clarinet, flute, oboe, piccolo, soprano saxophone and sopranino saxophone parts, contributing timbres and textures usually reserved for chamber music. Clare and Brent Fischer’s thoughtful and playful arrangements are quite advanced, full of motifs that move through the music like modular mini-themes. The music here is interpreted with a high level of dynamic sensitivity and played with tremendous precision, resulting in a powerful collection that’s bound to appeal to fans of modern orchestrated jazz, or anyone who holds an appreciation for Clare Fischer’s enduring legacy.

Shawn Maxwell’s Alliance

Bridge
(Chicago Sessions)

This five-song album is the excellent follow-up to the self-titled debut of Shawn Maxwell’s Alliance from earlier this year. Maxwell, a Chicago-based alto saxophonist and flutist, demonstrates his ambitious vision on both outings. The Alliance is a driving tentet of unusual instrumentation. Not many jazz bands consist of two French horns, two basses, vibraphone, vocals, guitar, drums, alto saxophone and soprano sax. But it works. The vibes of Stephen Lynerd play it cool alongside the cutting guitar riffs of Mitch Corso. Keri Johnsrud’s ethereal voice plays well against the saxophone lines of Maxwell and Casey Fitzpatrick. The title track for Bridgebounces along quirkily, with horn lines coming in seemingly from all directions. “Monster Shoes” has a catchy bass/French horn-driven hook. “Ava” is a beautiful ballad where voice and saxophone share the melody. “Sector 7-G” digs into a bit of a Latin groove before shape-shifting into its own inner musical monologue. And “Plan Z” caps the set with some very cool saxophone overdubbing. Maxwell’s sense of humor shines throughout the program. He’s an artist with unique ideas and his own sound palette, and this disc offers further evidence of his terrific ear for composition and arrangement. This is bold music. Maxwell isn’t afraid to try out new ideas and take chances. OnBridge, that risk-taking pays off—big time.

Jeff Coffin & The Mu’tet

Side Up
(Ear Up Records)

This sixth album by Jeff Coffin & The Mu’tet, a shape-shifting group led by a commanding saxophonist with a non-discriminating appetite for rock and jazz, shows that great things can happen when open-minded musicians collaborate in the compositional process. Coffin and his sidemen—Bill Fanning (trumpet), Chris Walters (piano/keyboards), Felix Pastorius (bass) and Roy “Futureman” Wooten (drums/percussion)—approached each tune with a mere skeleton of an outline, which was then worked out in rehearsals and pre-production to form a fleshed-out piece. The resulting music blends straightahead jazz with sounds from New Orleans, Africa, India, Brazil and beyond that reflect the Mu’tet’s diverse tastes and interests. The core group had plenty of help in constructing this global vibe from world-class guests Zakir Hussain on tabla, Radha Botofasina on harp, Ryoko Suzuki on harmonium, R. Scott Bryan on congas, James DaSilva on guitar, Pat Bergeson on harmonica, Herlin Riley on tambourine, Rod McGaha and Mike Haynes on trumpet, Roy Agee and Barry Green on trombone and Denis Solee and Evan Cobb on tenor saxophone. Coffin sounds confident and strong as ever, whether he’s playing soprano, alto, tenor or baritone saxophone, and his “electro-sax” (tenor run through an envelope-filter effect) solo on the funkified “Scratch That Itch” is an absolute gas. Side Up has its reflective moments, too, like when Coffin plays solo acoustic piano on the touching opening number, “And So It Begins.” Overall, this is a highly accessible program of music that will appeal to listeners who crave the sound of spontaneity.

Vijay Iyer/Prashant Bhargava

Radhe Radhe: Rites Of Holi
(ECM)

The film Radhe Radhe: Rites Of Holi is a wonderful collaboration between director Prashant Bhargava and pianist-composer Vijay Iyer. The two were inspired to commemorate the 100th anniversary ofLe Sacre Du Printemps (The Rite Of Spring)—the famous collaboration between classical composer Igor Stravinsky and ballet choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky. The piece was very avant-garde for its time and nearly caused a riot in the audience when it premiered in 1913. Spin ahead 100 years with Iyer and Bhargava, who put their own personal spin on a famous religious ritual: Bhargava traveled to India to film the Hindu celebration of Holi, an annual spring event also known as the festival of color or the festival of love. He came back with fascinating footage of this festival, where people throw brightly colored powder on each other and shoot colored water at friends and strangers alike in celebration of the love between the deities Krishna and Radha. The visual impact of Bhargava’s footage—depicting boisterous crowds dancing and reveling—is heightened by Iyer’s music. This big, orchestral work, which is performed by Iyer and the International Contemporary Ensemble, is sometimes driving and foreboding, sometimes beautiful and nearly quiet. This film isn’t exactly a documentary; it’s more of a visual and musical ode to Holi. Actress Anna George portrays Radha in the piece. She comes in and out of the narrative to look upon the proceedings approvingly. With this multimedia production, Bhargava and Iyer have captured the very complex nature of Holi as well as the beauty of India and its people. It’s hard not to wonder what it would be like to participate in Holi after seeing Radhe Radhe. It’s a surprising burst of visual and aural color—a romantically wrapped love letter to a people and their traditions. As part of the Next Wave Festival in New York City, Iyer and the International Contemporary Ensemble will perform this music, accompanied by Bhargava’s film, at the BAM Harvey Theater on Dec. 18–20.

Béla Fleck/Abigail Washburn

Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn
(Rounder)

Banjoist Béla Fleck has topped DownBeat polls many times, including wins in the Miscellaneous Instrument category of the Readers Poll in 2013 and 2014. Fleck and his wife, the banjoist-vocalist Abigail Washburn, are the only musicians who appear on their new, self-titled duo album. They previously worked together on Washburn’s Sparrow Quartetproject, which explored Asian influences and found her singing “Taiyang Chulai,” a traditional Chinese folk song from the province of Sichuan. In 2009, Fleck released The Melody Of Rhythm—a collaboration that featured the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and percussionist Zakir Hussain on tabla—as well as Throw Down Your Heart, which was recorded in Africa with musicians from countries such as Uganda, Tanzania and Mali. On the duo’s eponymous album, however, they don’t explore world music styles, focusing instead on American roots music. The program features intriguing arrangements of traditional folk songs such as “Pretty Polly,” “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad” and “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?” The musicians also composed material that has the feel of traditional tunes, such as “Little Birdie,” a tale akin to one of Aesop’s Fables, and “Shotgun Blues,” a Washburn original that was inspired by Appalachian murder ballads, but this time, the female character is toting the firearm. This impressive 12-track album is centered around the interplay of two banjos, and on some tracks, Fleck plays a low-tuned, five-string Gold Tone baritone banjo, which has a large resonating area to give low notes more depth. The duo’s 2015 tour includes concerts at the Avalon Theatre in Grand Junction, Colorado (Jan. 17), the Sangamon Auditorium in Springfield, Illinois (Feb. 20), and Carnegie Lecture Hall in Pittsburgh (April 11).

Sam Newsome

The Straight Horn Of Africa
(Some New Music)

Soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome has been on a path to liberation for years, most notably with his solo albums Blue Soliloquy (2010) and The Art Of The Soprano, Vol. 1 (2012). Now, with The Straight Horn Of Africa: A Path To Liberation, Newsome has truly freed himself, and his instrument, from traditional roles and expectations. Newsome has not only discovered a continuum that exists between Western harmony, Eastern music and the avant-garde; he has also unlocked the straight horn’s potential for extended techniques in a manner that brings to mind the groundbreaking work of virtuoso soprano sax visionaries such as the great Steve Lacy (1934–2004). Newsome’s music evokes ancient peoples and places, revealing the African origins of jazz and popular music—a connection often overshadowed by those genres’ deep-seated reliance on Western harmony. He pulls out all of the stops on the soprano, employing multiphonics, microtonality, slap-tonguing, circular breathing, vocalizations, talking drum-like key thumps and physical movement to create his melodies, rhythms and harmonies. Some tracks are layered via studio multitracking, with interlocking grooves and cyclical ostinatos pushing the simple themes along. Others are solo explorations that increase in complexity over the course of the album, ultimately yielding otherworldly sounding results. The sounds that Newsome seeks, and ultimately finds, are ones that date back to periods long before jazz existed but that informed its origins and consequent development. You won’t hear any direct references to straightahead repertoire here: This is naked soprano sax devoid of modern concepts—a pure voice achieved by an absolute master of the instrument. It’s extremely difficult to produce such palatable and emotionally stirring art by pushing an instrument so far beyond its traditional limits, but Newsome has refined his unconventional techniques to the point of creating a modern masterpiece. The Straight Horn Of Africa (which Newsome has subtitled The Art Of The Soprano, Vol. 2) will entrance you. Be prepared to shed any preconceived notions of the soprano saxophone and to let Newsome insightfully upend your understanding of how all the music styles of the world are interrelated.

Fred Hersch/Herschel Garfein

My Coma Dreams
(Palmetto)

Fred Hersch’s brilliant multimedia pieceMy Coma Dreams lays out the long, troubling tale of the jazz pianist with HIV/AIDS being placed into a medically induced coma for two months as doctors tried to figure out what had sent him into septic shock. Now available on DVD (after being filmed live at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre in March 2013), the piece incorporates music, spoken word and computer graphics into a fantastically interesting 90-minute work that’s billed as “jazz theater.” My Coma Dreams feels more like Broadway than jazz, but that’s not a bad thing. It has beautiful musical moments and narrative passages that will make you laugh, think and maybe even cry a little. The piece was conceived, written and directed by Herschel Garfein based on eight dreams Hersch remembered after he was slowly brought out of the coma at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York. The very talented Michael Winther plays the roles of both Hersch and Hersch’s life partner, Scott Morgan. Hersch’s character details what was happening in the dreams, which included everything from being strapped down in a panel van to competing with Thelonious Monk in a contest to determine who could compose a song faster. A section about a “Jazz Diner” out in the woods is hysterical. Another, called “The Boy,” is touching and insightful. While Hersch speaks of dreams, Morgan’s character deals with reality—how comas are very different from how they are portrayed in TV and film, how Hersch lost 30 pounds just lying there, how difficult it was to bring him out of the coma, and the pain of wondering whether he would survive the ordeal. The narrative here is smart, honest and true. And the music is superb. Hersch plays piano here, and he assembled an 11-piece ensemble that includes bassist John Hébert and drummer John Hollenbeck, plus a four-piece horn section and a string quartet. It’s interesting and uplifting to watch Hersch, the central character in the piece, serve as the “house” pianist for the group. There’s a crucial moment where he stands to mimic himself in rehab; it’s the only time Hersch breaks from his role as pianist, and it has a powerful effect. This is not an easy piece to watch, but it’s rewarding. I’m glad Hersch lived to tell of his dreams. (It reminds me of all the friends who didn’t live to talk about their own battles with AIDS.) This is a brave work of art that deserves to be seen and heard.

Sarah McKenzie

We Could Be Lovers
(ABC Music)

Sarah McKenzie interpreted songs by Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington and Johnny Mercer on her award-winning 2012 album, Close Your Eyes (ABC), and the singer-pianist continues in that vein onWe Could Be Lovers. The Australian-born, Boston-based McKenzie has a graceful piano touch, and her elegant vocal style is free of distracting curlicues. On her new album, vibraphonist Warren Wolf makes a dynamite contribution to the Ellington number “Love You Madly,” and Ingrid Jensen’s beautiful trumpet tone enhances the pep and pure fun of the original tune “Quoi, Quoi, Quoi.” The leader’s jaunty piano enlivens the swing element of Cole Porter’s “At Long Last Love,” and she makes clever artistic choices by extending vowel sounds in these lyrics: “Is it a cocktail, this feeling of joy?/ Or is what I feel the real McCoy?” Her charming version of Abbey Lincoln’s “The Music Is The Magic” features intelligent phrasing, plus a judicious use of scatting and handclaps to increase the fun factor. Wolf’s vibraphone is a brief but potent element in McKenzie’s version of “I Won’t Dance” (a tune that Frank Sinatra recorded, along with “At Long Last Love,” on his classic 1957 album A Swingin’ Affair!). Moving away from the keyboard, McKenzie and guitarist Hugh Stuckey perform a spare version of Mancini’s “Moon River,” proving that even the most shopworn standard can sound fresh in the hands of sensitive interpreters.

Horace Silver Quintet

June 1977
(Promising Music)

On June 28, 1977, pianist Horace Silver and a quintet consisting of trumpeter Tom Harrell, tenor saxophonist Larry Schneider, bassist Chip Jackson and drummer Eddie Gladden performed in a public marketplace in Bremen, Germany. Producers from Radio Bremen were on hand to record the concert for syndication. But as the radio crew prepared the band for sound check, they made a last-minute decision to put Silver (1928–2014) and his quintet on the air with a simultaneous broadcast—a process that typically requires weeks of planning. Back at the radio station, board operators quickly cut away from their scheduled programming and switched to Silver’s concert. The result—nearly 70 minutes of unadulterated live jazz—was a hit with listeners. In fact, Radio Bremen’s decision to simulcast Silver’s quintet marked the first in a series of live performances that would continue for the next eight years—all of which would later be archived by German record producer Consul Bodo Jacoby, whose new Livelove series from the Promising Music label issued this album. This disc provides a crystalline snapshot of Silver in peak form. The soulful post-bop pianist’s melodic phrases permeate the album, both in his tastefully rendered background comping and in his sparse, vocal-like solo motifs. When Silver tends toward embellishment, as on the jazz waltz “Barbara,” his playing takes on a lively, ringing quality, especially in the upper register, where he spends plenty of time chirping out dissonant harmonies and staccato polyrhythms. Silver’s accompanying musicians match his intensity: Jackson with a sizzling electric bass solo on “Sophisticated Hippie” and Gladden with a cascading solo feature on “Incentive.” Harrell’s electrifying solo on “Out Of The Night Came You” is replete with Woody Shaw-esque pentatonic lines, funky side-slips and lightning-fast chord substitutions. During “In Pursuit Of The 27th Man” (the title track to Silver’s 1972 album), the band locks into a steadfast fusion groove, carried along forcefully by Jackson’s nimble bass line. With such complex rhythms held together at such high speed, the tune is a glowing example of the group’s collective power. The album closes with a 13-minute version of Silver’s bossa nova-tinged classic “Song For My Father.” Enlivened by a spirited, unrestrained solo section, the tune unfolds into a groove-driven free-for-all, with Gladden and Jackson splashing colorfully behind Schneider’s diesel-fueled tenor sax riffs. The album’s final passage is a touching improvised cadenza by Silver, a fitting end to a spontaneous concert caught in the heat of the moment.

Billy Boy Arnold

The Blues Soul Of Billy Boy Arnold
(Stony Plain)

Guitarist Duke Robillard, 66, and vocalist-harmonica player Billy Boy Arnold, 79, make a great team. The guitarist has collaborated with the Blues Hall of Famer before, having produced his 2001 album Boogie ’N’ Shuffle. Robillard fulfills the same role on The Blues Soul Of Billy Boy Arnold, contributing tasteful, taut guitar solos, often preceded by the leader’s encouraging cue “Alright, Duke.” Arnold’s delivery sometimes sounds midway between talking and singing, but Robillard’s production frames the leader’s vocals with muscular instrumentation and a few punchy horn charts played by members of Roomful of Blues: trumpeter Doug Woolverton and saxophonists Rich Lataille (alto and tenor) and Mark Earley (tenor and baritone). The result is a traditional blues disc with a hearty dose of soul. Arnold offers sturdy renditions of songs penned by B.B. King (“Worried Dream”), Chuck Berry (“Nadine”) Mack Rice (“Coal Man”) and Joe Tex (“A Mother’s Prayer”), as well the traditional tune “St. James Infirmary” and three original numbers. Arnold adds fiery blues harp to some tracks, including his rendition of Ted Taylor’s 1963 tune “You Give Me Nothing To Go On.” The album closes with the bouncy original “Keep On Rubbing,” in which a jubilant Arnold sings, “My mama had a washboard and a brand-new tub/ My daddy had one old, dirty shirt, and they began to rub.” This album will please longtime fans as well as those who are just now discovering Arnold.

Anat Cohen

Luminosa
(Anzic)

Clarinetist Anat Cohen has always been a world musician, bringing sounds from around the globe into her style of jazz. OnLuminosa, she expands on these eclectic musical passions to deliver a beautiful, 11-tune album. Cohen sets the scene with her touring band—Jason Lindner on keyboards, Joe Martin on bass and Daniel Freedman on drums—then sprinkles in Brazilian musicians from her new band Choro Aventuroso and tops it off with guest spots from guitarists Romero Lubambo and Gilad Hekselman as well as percussionist Gilmar Gomes. And the results are stunning. Cohen continues her exploration into the music of Milton Nascimento, including three tunes he is known for, on this outing. “Lilia” has a beautiful loping groove. “Cais” is a gorgeous ballad with Cohen displaying her dedication to a full, rich tone on bass clarinet while Lubambo brings South American elegance with his nylon-string guitar. The two return later to deliver a heartbreaking rendition of “Beatriz.” Special mention has to go out for Lindner on the first two of these songs. If there’s anyone playing more interesting, tasteful piano in music today, please let me know. And another special mention has to go out to Martin on the second two of these tunes. His arco work on these ballads is as deep and chill-inducing as anything I’ve ever heard. There are so many elements of this album that display why Cohen is one of the true masters of instrumental music today. One of them is a good sense of humor. Her take on Flying Lotus’ “Putty Boy Strut” is a hoot. She notes that Lindner brought the tune to the band, and she got into the concept of making acoustic instruments imitate electronic music. Then her own “Happy Song” breezes along like a top-down ride along the Pacific Coast Highway. Another is her love of “aventuroso.” Luminosa includes two choro-inspired creations. “Ternura” takes you to another time and place with Vitor Gonçalves on accordion, Cesar Garabini on seven-string guitar and Sergio Krakowski on pandeiro. “Espinha De Bacalhau” is a take-your-breath-away daredevil packed with amazing musicianship. And that’s another element that makes Cohen and Luminosa so damned good. Her dedication to craft is fantastic. And she surrounds herself with world-class players. Sounds simple, but it’s so hard to execute. That’s why Anat Cohen and this recording are luminous in any language.

Pat Martino/Jim Ridl

Nexus
(HighNote)

If you really want to hear two musicians communicate, listen to them in a duo setting. Solo performances are great, and trio recordings can mesmerize, but there’s nothing like watching two jazz artists hold a musical tête-à-tête. WithNexus, a newly released duo recording from guitarist Pat Martino and pianist Jim Ridl, listeners get the rare opportunity to eavesdrop on an intimate dialog between two masters of their craft. Friends since the early ’90s, Ridl and Martino have an effortless rapport. Though their styles are different—Martino’s, soulful and percussive; Ridl’s sweeping and graceful—they are somehow the perfect match, individuals who combine to form a stronger, more vibrant whole. And while it is a joy to listen to Martino’s trademark licks alongside Ridl’s rolling accompaniment, the brightest spots on this album are when the musicians’ styles bleed together. It happens on the Harold Mabern tune “The Phineas Trane,” when Ridl’s bouncing piano riffs begin to sound unmistakably like Martino’s bluesy guitar lines, and also on the touching ballad “Sun On My Hands,” in which Martino adopts Ridl’s slow, cascading phrases. Other tunes are noteworthy for their compositional originality. “Country Road,” a bright and tender pop ballad, is beautiful in its simplicity. “Interchange” (originally recorded by Ridl and Martino on a 1994 album of the same name) is like a blues heard through a dark, smoky prism. This album also marks the recording debut of Martino’s now-famous arrangement of “Oleo,” on which he plays the chorus over a minor vamp instead of the traditional “Rhythm” changes. Nexus is a must-have album for any Martino fan, a musical conversation we’ll be talking about for years.

Reggie Quinerly

Invictus
(Redefinition)

Reggie Quinerly embodies style, substance, soul and swagger. The drummer burst onto the scene as a leader in 2012 with a tribute to his old neighborhood in Houston, Texas. Music Inspired By Freedman Town was a blast of pride and an indication of great things to come. Well, the future is now—and Quinerly delivers with Invictus. This is an album full of power and grace, taking its title from a William Ernest Henley poem. In the liner notes, Quinerly points out that this recording serves as a declaration of taking control of his future as an artist. “And while critics, musicians and fans continue to debate the commercial sustainability of an entire industry,” he noted, “I firmly believe its sustainability rests solely within us creators: No matter who is (or isn’t) listening, we must persevere, we must create and we must document, because only that which is documented lives on.” Amen. Quinerly backs up what he says here, working with a quintet of bright, next-gen stars—Warren Wolf on vibes, Christian Sands on piano, Yotam Silberstein on guitar and Alan Hampton on bass. They blaze on tunes like “Tavares” and “Light Work.” They groove old-school on “My Blue Heaven” and “Lester Grant.” They tug at the heart on ballads like “Variation 24” and “Kunst Uberlebt.” The latter is a Sands solo piece written by Quinerly. It’s just breathtaking. And every now and then some hip-hop beats flash by on “The Child Of The 808 Interlude,” “The Child Of The 808” and “That Right There.” It’s all seamlessly programmed and performed. Quinerly is an artist who has a clear vision of what he wants to do and where he wants to go. So, enjoyInvictus and look forward to where Reggie Quinerly is heading next. (Check out the online video trailer for Invictus by clicking here.)

Kevin Eubanks/ Stanley Jordan

Duets
(Mack Avenue)

If you ever want to know what perfection sounds like, just listen to Duets, the great new recording by Kevin Eubanks and Stanley Jordan. Here we have two of the world’s finest guitarists, playing in the most intimate of settings: the duet format. Knowing how different each of them is stylistically makes the concept fascinating. Both have been musical searchers and can play in the tradition, but have refused to be pigeonholed or categorized in any way. Both have kept their musical vision wide open, free to follow their muse of the day. But here, we see a real simpatico, respect and joy in playing together that is so rare. “Morning Sun,” one of four originals on this 10-track masterpiece, is a melodic piece that’s full of tone, taste and technique. It builds into the perfect platform for both musicians to show of their chops—make that their artistry. “Old School Jam” is exactly that and a bag of chips, a fun, old-school blues jam. “Vibes” is a lovely, thoughtful ballad that delivers a shiver and a sigh. “Goin’ On Home” is a beautiful blues ballad. Duets also features six well-chosen covers ranging from chestnuts like “Summertime,” “Nature Boy,” “A Child Is Born” and “Blue In Green” to Adele’s “Someone Like You” and Ellie Goulding’s pop hit “Lights.” What’s amazing about these two artists is the breadth of their ability. For example, Eubanks plays bass on “Nature Boy,” “Summertime” and “Lights,” and piano on “Someone Like You,” “A Child Is Born” and “Vibes.” Jordan plays piano on “Blue In Green.” No one misses a beat. They just seem to be wrapped up in a great conversation. And that’s the beauty of Duets: It’s a conversation where no words are needed between two old friends. (To view a clip of Eubanks and Jordan performing “Morning Sun” live in the studio, click here.)

Avishai Cohen Trio

From Darkness
(RazDaz)

For bassist Avishai Cohen, the trio is a natural fit. Though his latest album, From Darkness, is only his second release as a trio leader, it achieves what every trio recording aspires to: the unity of three voices becoming one. That Cohen can create such genuine chemistry with his bandmates speaks to his profound vision and inspired leadership. He honed his trio chops early on as a member of Chick Corea’s New Trio ensemble, and would later pilot his own trio featuring pianist Sam Barsh and Mark Guiliana. On this album, the Israeli bassist is joined by pianist Nitai Hershkovits (with whom he recorded the 2012 duo album Duende) and drummer Daniel Dor—emotionally attuned players who take easily to Cohen’s compositional style. Hershkovits’ touch is stately and refined, especially on the gentle “Halelyah,” which finds his delicate phrases hovering above Cohen’s waltzing bass. Dor is brave and inventive. On “C#–,” a pulsing tune built on a jagged ostinato line, he uses the cymbals to masterful effect. As is typical for a Cohen album, the songs on From Darkness draw from diverse influences, with styles ranging from electro-funk (“From Darkness”) to tone poem (“Ballad For An Unborn”) to Latin groove (“Lost Tribe”) to jazz standard (“Smile”). In each one of these idioms, Cohen and his crew prove to be fluent and articulate speakers, intent on realizing a shared vision. It’s the kind of cohesion all trios strive for, but only the very best attain.

The Brecker Brothers

The Bottom Line Archive
(BFD)

This exciting album, capturing a Brecker Brothers set at New York City’s Bottom Line on March 6, 1976, is an important document for those who feel that fusion ruled. This disc is evidence of the sonic combustion that happened in the mid-’70s when versatile musicians mixed the accessibility of rock arrangements and the deep groove of funk with the harmonic language and improvisation of jazz. The Bottom Line Archive is the only official live release of this lineup of the Brecker Brothers Band: Randy Brecker (trumpet), Michael Brecker (tenor saxophone), Don Grolnick (keyboards), Steve Khan (guitar), Will Lee (bass), Chris Parker (drums) and Sammy Figueroa (percussion). Contributing to three tracks is alto saxophonist David Sanborn, who shows off the chops that would make him a superstar in the ensuing years. As Randy Brecker explains in the album’s liner notes, this band didn’t hit the road very often because its members were too busy working as session musicians in New York City’s recording studios. Many of the musicians in this lineup were close friends who played on each other’s recordings. Grolnick—who plays Fender Rhodes, organ and clavinet during this set—is in the spotlight for a version of his composition “Cactus,” which had appeared on guitarist Joe Beck’s 1975 albumBeck. The band’s set list at The Bottom Line includes three songs from the Brecker Brothers’ self-titled Arista debut, including a rendition of “Rocks” that is spiced with muscular solos from both siblings. Fans of Michael Brecker will want to check out the album’s two versions of his early composition “Night Flight,” and Sanborn fans can soak in the smooth tones of “It Took A Long Time,” which Randy composed as a showcase for the altoist. This album, which is part of a series of concert discs recorded at The Bottom Line, is a funk-fueled time capsule that transports the listener back to the height of the fusion era. (See the April 2015 issue of DownBeat for a recap of a concert tribute to the late Michael Brecker, featuring Randy Brecker. See the May 2015 issue for a Players profile of Sammy Figueroa, and see the November 2014 issue for a Players profile of Steve Khan.)

Cassandra Wilson

Coming Forth By Day
(Legacy)

Vocalist Cassandra Wilson avoided a predictable approach for Coming Forth By Day. This disc, which includes 11 songs recorded by Billie Holiday, functions as an admirable tribute, but it doesn’t sound like Lady Day. Wilson employs her own husky, occasionally hushed singing style, not attempting to re-create Holiday’s famous vocal inflections—and certainly not copying her arrangements. Instead, Wilson assembled a stellar, “outside the box” ensemble to interpret this material for a new generation of listeners. Her eclectic cast of collaborators includes producer Nick Launay (celebrated for his work with alt-rockers Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds), guitarist T Bone Burnett (who helped Diana Krall incorporate Americana sounds into her 2012 album,Glad Rag Doll) and drummer Thomas Wydler and bassist Martyn P. Casey of The Bad Seeds. Van Dyke Parks—famous for his work with rock acts such as Brian Wilson and U2—wrote intricate string arrangements that bolster Wilson’s voice without diluting its power. Holiday’s hit version of “The Way You Look Tonight” in 1936 was a chipper swing number. In contrast, Wilson slows down the tempo for her version, Parks provides a lush cushion of strings, and Robby Marshall’s clarinet adds a somber tone. Wilson and her team also offer an unusual arrangement of the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit,” one of the most harrowing compositions of the 20th century. Wilson’s interpretation has layered digital effects, ominous bass notes and cascading, chaotic strings, all of which reinforce the sense of violence and injustice conveyed by the unforgettable lyrics. The album concludes with Wilson’s original composition “Last Song,” in which she imagines a final message from Holiday to her recently deceased lover, Lester Young. Wilson delivers the lyrics with obvious, tremendous respect. But thankfully, on this remarkable album, Wilson’s reverence for an icon didn’t prevent her from using Holiday’s music as a point of departure, rather than a static template.

Sarah Elizabeth Charles

Inner Dialogue
(Truth Revolution)

On her 2012 debut EP, Red, vocalist Sarah Elizabeth Charles delivered an impassioned blend of jazz, neo-soul, r&b and world music that revealed an emerging artist with a nuanced delivery and a poetic ear. On her sophomore effort, Inner Dialogue, she returns to that fertile ground with renewed ambition and a vivid imagination. The resulting album proves why she is one of today’s most dynamic young vocalists. Given her impressive career, this should hardly come as a surprise. A graduate of The New School, Charles has worked and studied with artists such as George Cables, Geri Allen, Nicholas Payton, Sheila Jordan, Jimmy Owens and Carmen Lundy. She is also an active educator, working as a teaching artist with Carnegie Hall’s Musical Connections program and giving private lessons in New York City and at Larchmont Music Academy. In addition to teaching, she is currently developing an early childhood music education program with Rise2Shine, a non-profit organization based in Haiti, a country that has long served as a source of inspiration for Charles, whose father is from Port-au-Prince. Her new album features two arrangements of Haitian folk melodies—“Yo-Yo” and “Choucoune”—and an original composition called “Haitian Sunrise.” On this track, Charles’ lyrics are quietly commanding. “Harmony has found me/Time moving slow,” she sings, and the music pauses as if holding its breath. Other tracks find her voice soaring. On “Breathe,” featuring guest trumpeter and co-producer Christian Scott, she holds long, powerful notes over a churning rock groove. On her artful arrangement of Miles Davis’ “Nardis,” she imbues the haunting melody with passion and poignancy. Accompanying musicians Jesse Elder (piano), Burniss Earl Travis II (bass) and John Davis (drums) are consummate collaborators, lifting Charles’ pure, unaffected vocals to transcendent heights.

Duo Dorado

New Colors From Argentina
(Acoustic Music)

With so many talented vibraphonists on today’s jazz scene—including Stefon Harris, Warren Wolf, Jason Adasiewicz, Jason Marsalis and Chris Dingman—it’s a great time to be a vibes fan. One rising star to keep an eye on is Lucas Dorado, whose father is acoustic guitarist Carlos Dorado. The father and son have teamed up as Duo Dorado for the exquisite albumNew Colors From Argentina. Carlos—whose previous releases on the Acoustic Music label include Ciao Villa Sonja—is a masterful fingerstyle guitarist, and Lucas has inherited his father’s ability to add subtle harmonic coloration to a strong melody. One highlight here is Carlos’ composition “De Varese A Cabo Corrientes,” a beautiful track on which Lucas’ use of the sustain pedal creates a memorable, haunting effect. The only instruments on this gentle 11-song collection are acoustic guitar, vibraphone and occasional percussion, resulting in a cohesive disc. Eight of the tracks were penned by Carlos, including four brief songs titled “Sombras” that are interspersed throughout the program. Elsewhere, Carlos’ version of iconic Argentine folk musician Atahualpa Yupanqui’s “Punay” is a powerful, straightforward nod to his roots, delivered without vibraphone accompaniment. The duo offers a nuanced reading of the Gershwin classic “I Loves You Porgy” that sounds completely organic, as opposed to merely an exercise in novel instrumentation. One integral quality that Carlos and Lucas share is an appreciation for the space between the notes: These musicians eschew grandstanding in service of a hypnotic melody.

Dewa Budjana

Hasta Karma
(MoonJune)

The excellent fusion album Hasta Karmais one for which the names of the accompanists will probably be more familiar than that of the leader—at least to listeners in the United States. For his eighth solo album, Indonesian guitarist Dewa Budjana assembled an incredible band: bassist Ben Williams and drummer Antonio Sanchez (both of the Pat Metheny Unity Group) along with vibraphone icon Joe Locke. Budjana is a star in his homeland, thanks to his work with the rock band Gigi, but his profile is rising among jazz fans worldwide. Fans of ’70s fusion (and Metheny) will find much to embrace on Budjana’s new album. If a key criticism of fusion is that it manages to somehow dilute both jazz and rock, then this album could be cited as evidence for the counterargument that the genre successfully combines the emotional punch of rock with the complex harmonic language of jazz, merged with an expansive, “anything is possible” aesthetic. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the epic, 12-minute journey “Ruang Dialisis.” The track incorporates Locke’s colorful, dreamy vibes work; Sanchez’s evocative cymbal splashes; Indra Lesmana’s moody electric piano; a recording of Budjana’s grandmother singing a traditional funeral song, her vocals digitally treated to create a ghostly effect; and a nearly two-minute section of cacophonous squall that could have been lifted from a heavy metal concert. But that noisy section is an anomaly, and that particular track is immediately followed by “Just Kidung,” the first two-and-a-half minutes of which wouldn’t sound out of place on a smooth-jazz radio station. Throughout the album, Budjana spices his compositions with intricate, pulse-raising fretwork that avoids mindless grandstanding. So what’s next for Budjana? Earlier this year, he was in the studio with another amazing ensemble: Jack DeJohnette, Tony Levin and Gary Husband. We can’t wait to hear the results.

Adam Birnbaum

Three Of A Mind
(Daedalus)

The album title Three Of A Mind nods to the close communication and empathy that pianist Adam Birnbaum has developed over the past six years working in drummer Al Foster’s band alongside bassist Doug Weiss. Birnbaum recruited Weiss and Foster for this superb trio album, which accomplishes the difficult task of sounding diverse yet cohesive. The leader’s seven original compositions are augmented by two of Foster’s tunes: This arrangement of “Brandyn” showcases the fluidity of Birnbaum’s style, while the vibrant conversation between the drummer and the pianist toward the end of “Ooh, What You Do To Me” adds an exciting dynamic to a hummable melody. On “Stutterstep,” Foster develops a percolating energy before injecting potent punctuation into the dialog, delivering solo segments that bolster the composition and never overstay their welcome. “Thirty-Three” features a propulsive, rolling melody, and near the midpoint of this memorable, eight-minute excursion, there’s a bass section that spotlights Weiss’ delightfully melodic sensibility. Birnbaum—the American Pianists Association’s 2004 Cole Porter Fellow in Jazz—is expert in many settings, whether it’s the jaunty, rock-influenced “Binary” or the gentle ballad “Rockport Moon,” featuring Foster’s poignant brushwork. “Dream Song #1: Huffy Henry,” which was inspired by John Berryman’s poetry, illustrates not only the narrative quality of Birnbaum’s music, but also his keen ability to return to a theme at just the right moment.

Marc Cary

Rhodes Ahead Vol. 2
(Motéma)

With Rhodes Ahead Vol. 2, keyboard artist Marc Cary picks up where he left off—some 16 years ago. Cary releasedRhodes Ahead Vol. 1 in 1999 as an homage to all that the Fender Rhodes piano and synthesizer can do. The second edition is like two old friends meeting and picking up right where they left off. Cary has pulled in drummer Terreon Gully and bassist Tarus Mateen from the Vol. 1 date and added some terrific guests: trumpeter Igmar Thomas, violinist Arun Ramamurthy, guitarist Aurelien Budynek, percussionist Daniel Moreno, tabla player Sameer Gupta, Jabari Exum on djembe, vocalist Sharif Simmons and bassist Burniss Earl Travis II. This is a disc beautifully dedicated to exploring groove, sound and culture, blurring the lines between musical style and setting to create one of the most enjoyable albums of the year so far. “7th Avenue North” serves up a chill groove featuring some incredible, toe-tapping interplay between Gully’s drums and Gupta’s tabla. On “African Market,” the musical imagery is so solid, you can almost see Cary and crew strolling through the titular outdoor bazaar—an aural painting of the highest order. For those who like a great headphones record, tunes like “Spices And Mystics” will hit home. Cary’s imaginative keyboard work dances and dazzles. Ramamurthy cranks the violin with hard-core passion. It’s like drum-and-bass meets Moroccan folk. Cary is at the top of his craft, and nothing sounds forced here. A variety of influences inform Cary’s work, but he makes sure they all fold into a very broad, groove-filled vision. There’s also one cover tune in the program, Harold Mabern’s “Beehive,” and it’s a gem. Cary gives this tune, made famous by trumpeter Lee Morgan, an acid-jazz update, with trumpeter Thomas taking on the Morgan role. Other highlights from the set include the try-not-to-dance “Below The Equator” and “The Alchemist’s Notes.” The latter features a great dialog between Cary, Gully and Mateen with spoken-word contributions from Simmons, which seems to sum up the spirit of the recording. It’s inclusive and searching, seeking a new way of seeing music, art and the world—through groove.

Charles McPherson

The Journey
(Capri)

Alto saxophonist Charles McPherson heard his first Charlie Parker recording in 1953, when he was 14. The song—“Tico Tico”—made a lasting impression. “I knew immediately that this is the way you’re supposed to play,” he recalled. In the decades since, McPherson has become one of the stalwarts of bebop saxophone, and Parker’s influence on him has been widely acknowledged. (In 1988, when Clint Eastwood needed a sax player to evoke the sounds of Parker’s horn in the biopic Bird, the director turned to McPherson.) But if previous albums proved why McPherson was qualified to carry Bird’s mantle, his latest, The Journey, proves why he’s now bop’s brightest star. The technical prowess he brings to bop standards like “Au Privave” and “Spring Is Here” is captivating, and the imagination he exhibits on originals like the title track and “Manhattan Nocturne” shows that the 75-year-old isn’t afraid to push at musical boundaries. Joined by a stellar rhythm section of pianist Chip Stephens, bassist Ken Walker and drummer Todd Reid, McPherson graciously shares the spotlight with Denver-based tenorist Keith Oxman. The reedists craft solos with equal poise, trading bluesy passages on Stephens’ original composition “The Decathexis From Youth (For Cole)” and burning through fast-fingered eighth-note licks on McPherson’s “Bud Like.” Each saxophonist even gets his own solo turn, McPherson on a poignant reading of “I Should Care” and Oxman on his bouncy “Tami’s Tune.” With The Journey, McPherson has put out a prodigious album, a fitting summary of his 60-plus year excursion from apprentice to bebop royalty. One listen is all it takes to know that this is the way you’re supposed to play.

Georg Breinschmid

Double Brein
(Preiser)

Georg Breinschmid is one of the most fertile minds in music. He is a musician of amazing technique and skill, an artist of amazing range, humor and beauty. OnDouble Brein, the Austrian bassist delivers a two-CD set divided so that disc one features jazz highlighted by folk and world music and disc two features Breinschmid revisiting his classical roots. But, according to Breinschmid, this is “classical…not without improvisation, jazz also with classically trained musicians, and vice versa.” Everything is open to interpretation and improvisation in Breinschmid’s world. It’s a large and expansive world, from sambas to musettes to songs written about tour drivers who ask musicians not to throw up in the bus to folk tunes written in 11/8…and that’s just the first four songs. This album is a great listen from start to finish. Breinschmid’s concepts are always exemplary, but where he truly shines is in his musicianship: He has the bass locked down tight no matter how complex or how simple the music is. The first disc incorporates many of Breinschmid’s musical projects, including Brein’s Café, a trio with Gerald Preinfalk or Vladimir Karparov on soprano saxophone and Antoni Donchev on piano; Duo Gansch/Breinschmid, a project with trumpeter Thomas Gansch; Viennese folk musicians that he jams with; and Strings & Bass, a classical-oriented string quartet. The music is sometimes wild, sometimes free, sometimes folksy and always beautiful. One example is the ballad “Feb. 25,” a lovely tune in 3/4 with Breinschmid and Donchev working together quietly and intently for the first three minutes before Karparov swoops in on soprano, capturing their noir vibe and guiding it to its logical conclusion. There are 16 tracks on the first disc, and all are great—from “Fifteen Schörtzenbrekkers Are Better Than None” to “Blues In The Kitchen” to “Fantastische Trünenbaum” to the concluding “Waltz Of The Idiots.” On the second disc, Breinschmid breathes new life into Franz Liszt’s “Mephistowalzer” with the help of František Jánoška on piano and Roman Jánoška on violin. But this portion of the program isn’t entirely classical, more classically inspired. Strings & Bass’ take on “Irish Wedding In Bucharest” uses the string quartet as the launching pad for violinist Florian Willeitner’s fabulous composition that owes as much to folk and jazz as it does to the classical tradition. Performed by Breinschmid, Willeitner, violinist Johannes Dickbauer and cellist Matthias Bartolomey, this song is ambitious, majestic and rampaging. The same could be said of this entire album, and of Breinschmid and his fabulous cast of musical friends. From the breadth of the music to the beautiful CD packaging, Breinschmid displays an eye for detail and an ear for what music can be.

Glenn Zaleski

My Ideal
(Sunnyside)

Glenn Zaleski knows the value of keeping things simple. When asked earlier this year about improvements he made in 2014, his answer had everything to do with distilling his sound. “When I simplified and played less, my playing sounded more full, infinitely clearer and overall more effective,” he said. “I’ve been amazed at just how little I need to play.” My Ideal, Zaleski’s debut as a leader, is a product of that full sound and infinite clarity. Like the lyrical, soft-spoken pianists of previous eras—Bill Evans, Vince Guaraldi—the Boston-born, New York-based pianist is capable of painting big pictures with small, deliberate strokes. From the very beginning,My Ideal finds the pianist exhibiting qualities of a master pointillist. His touch is marked by confidence and resolve—powerful, but not overbearing—and his phrasing is constantly attuned to structure and story. A prime example is the album’s title track, played so tenderly, and with such respect for melody, that one can practically hear the lyrics hanging in the air. His arrangement of “Body And Soul” is similarly understated and exposed. In an unaccompanied introduction, Zaleski explores the song’s chord changes with delicate solo lines and smooth chord modulations. Barely recognizable at first, the melody takes shape through gentle intimations, emerging fully formed only at the song’s conclusion. On an arrangement of the Charlie Parker classic “Cheryl,” Zaleski demonstrates the same capacity for storytelling. He begins the song with a bouncy rendering of the head, and then cuts gracefully to a chord-heavy blues solo. It’s a perfectly timed leap that illustrates Zaleski’s gift of having the right thing to say at just the right time. A simple concept, but sublime in its execution.

Ryan Truesdell

Lines Of Color: The Gil Evans Project Live At Jazz Standard
(Blue Note/ArtistShare)

Ryan Truesdell burst onto the international jazz scene in 2012 with the release of Centennial: Newly Discovered Works Of Gil Evans. As one of the most gifted young arrangers and composers of his generation, Truesdell is also a certified Evans-aholic. In searching for original Evans manuscripts, Truesdell unearthed some 50 of the master’s never-before-heard compositions and arrangements. Ten of them made their way onto Centennial, and the results had critics and fans abuzz. With Lines Of Color, Truesdell presents another round of great, new material with a few Evans classics mixed in. Recorded live during a weeklong stint at New York’s Jazz Standard, this set of 11 tunes brings this music to life in a way that Evans would certainly appreciate. This album offers the beauty of hearing a large ensemble playing together in the same room. There’s an energy that the musicians and the audience bring to the proceedings that adds to the charm and complexity of this music. The set features six never-recorded works. The strongest of these is a terrific arrangement of “Avalon Town” from 1946. It’s great to hear the nuance and detail that Evans puts into the arrangement, right down to the horn section shouts. Truesdell delivers the music with precision, thanks to a cast of New York’s best musicians. “Avalon Town” alone features great solos by pianist Frank Kimbrough, trumpeter Mat Jodrell, Steve Wilson on clarinet, Scott Robinson on tenor, Dave Pietro on alto, Ryan Keberle on trombone and James Chirillo on guitar. Along with the six “new” arrangements, Truesdell also uses the platform to include arrangements with previously unheard sections like Bix Beiderbecke’s “Davenport Blues” and “Sunday Drivin’.” And he rightly includes three of Gil’s most enduring tunes. “Time Of The Barracudas,” a tune Evans and Miles Davis wrote for Miles’ Quiet Nights, leads off this set with roof-raising solos by Marshall Gilkes on trombone, Donny McCaslin on tenor and Lewis Nash on drums. Gilkes also delivers the goods on Evans’ arrangement of “Greensleeves.” And the arrangement of John Lewis’ “Concorde” swings with sophisticated grace and unleashed power. That can be said of the entire program. Lines Of Color is nothing short of exhilarating.

E.J. Strickland Quintet

The Undying Spirit
(Strick Muzik)

Drummer-led projects are a balancing act, a careful give-and-take between style and support. Too much flair and the drums become overbearing; too little and they fade into the background. Art Blakey and Max Roach knew how to establish the perfect equilibrium, and with The Undying Spirit, drummer E.J. Strickland finds a similar sweet spot. He plays with just enough solidity to provide his bandmates with a strong foundation, and just enough zest make the whole endeavor shimmer. It helps that Strickland assembled a superbly talented group to join him. Longtime members Jaleel Shaw on alto saxophone, Luis Perdomo on piano and brother Marcus Strickland on tenor and soprano sax bring boundless energy to this project, and bassist Linda Oh makes a phenomenal addition. Their chemistry is undeniable, but each player exhibits fireworks on their own: Oh with her soulful bass solo on “Ballad For All Mankind,” Perdomo with his angular piano work on “Ride” and Shaw and Marcus with their intertwining motifs on “Bomba For Leel And Max.” Best of all is when the drummer flexes his solo chops: His flights on Cedar Walton’s “Hindsight” and the original composition “A Dance For Mojo’s Return” are marvels of technique and self-expression. Strickland, who composed all but one of the 10 tracks, stated that his goal for this project was to create an album that would be “uplifting to the listener.” That goal was definitely accomplished. The Undying Spirit positively glows, and its success comes largely from the leader’s ability to inspire the best in his fellow musicians. Sure, his bandmates’ performances are illuminating, but it’s Strickland who’s shining the light.

Pops Staples

Don’t Lose This
(Anti-)

Mavis Staples, 75, is enjoying a late-career renaissance that few artists her age have ever experienced. Much of the credit goes to her producer and collaborator, Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy. In addition to helping her craft the excellent solo albums You Are Not Alone (2010) and One True Vine(2013), Tweedy helped her bring Don’t Lose This to fruition. And what a gem it is. Don’t Lose This is an album by Mavis’ famed father—and patriarch of The Staples Singers—Roebuck “Pops” Staples (1914–2000), whose guitar style was just as distinctive as his unforgettable voice. Although the 10 tracks here were built from recordings that Pops made in 1999, they have not been overly “dressed up” with digital trickery; instead, they’re presented in tasteful, respectful, relatively spare arrangements. This album is truly a family affair: Pops is the only vocalist on “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” while “Sweet Home” features a moving duo performance by Pops and Mavis. Elsewhere, some tracks present what are essentially archival Staples Singers performances, with Pops taking the lead while his daughters Yvonne, Cleotha and Mavis deliver the type of spirited harmonies that made this family band such an important part of both gospel and soul music. The album opens with “Somebody Was Watching,” which, in classic Staples form, takes a gospel message and pairs it with an infectious groove. Positivity was at the heart of Pops’ message, and in our troubled times, the song “No News Is Good News” is particularly relevant, as this brave artist and crusader—a man who marched during the Civil Rights Movement—pleads, “Don’t you think it’s time to put the gun down?” Don’t Lose This is an album that will appeal to fans of Pops, Mavis and The Staples Singers, as well as anyone interested in the power of music to uplift one’s spirits.

Eddie Henderson

Collective Portrait
(Smoke Sessions)

Eddie Henderson was a formidable presence in San Francisco’s thriving fusion scene in the 1970s. Known back then as “Dr. Trumpet” (he worked part-time as a psychiatrist when not on tour with the likes of Herbie Hancock and Art Blakey), Henderson has long since given up his medical practice, but he hasn’t finished experimenting. On Collective Portrait, the fiery-toned trumpeter revisits 10 fusion classics in an intimate, small-ensemble setting. By removing these tunes from their familiar context, the musicians—Gary Bartz on alto saxophone, George Cables on piano and Fender Rhodes, Doug Weiss on bass and Carl Allen on drums—are able to freely explore the melodic aspects of the material. This is no easy task because fusion, with its high-energy vamps and complex melodies, almost beckons for electronic enhancement. But here, Henderson and his crew provide all the power needed. A new version of Cables’ “Morning Song,” originally recorded in 1979 with electric piano and electric bass, sustains a groove courtesy of Weiss’ upright acoustic bass and Cables’ bouncy left-hand piano line. On the Woody Shaw tune “Zoltan,” it’s Allen who serves as band’s dynamo, weaving together three distinct rhythms with equal poise: a rat-a-tat shuffle, a Latin-funk groove and straightahead swing. Solo turns by each of the members provide another jolt of energy. Henderson’s take on “Beyond Forever” finds the one-time hard-bopper leaping through the upper registers of his horn, and Bartz’s blend of bebop and modal idioms on “Gingerbread Boy” floats effortlessly atop the tune’s driving swing feel. Even the album’s slower tracks—the ballads “You Know I Care,” “Together” and “Spring”—are brimming with energy, though on a quieter, more refined scale. With Collective Portrait, Henderson demonstrates that in the right hands, and with the right touch, any song can become timeless.

Duchess

Duchess
(Anzic)

Singing should be fun. It’s a maxim that many vocalists have forgotten. There are plenty of anguished balladeers and angry, soul-bearing belters out there, but the vocal trio Duchess is a beacon of jovial esprit. The program on Duchess’ self-titled debut includes such smile-inducing treats as The Chordettes’ 1958 pop hit “Lollipop” and the Gershwins’ spoof “Blah, Blah, Blah” (heard in the 1931 film Delicious). The healthy dose of frivolity here doesn’t mean that these talented vocalists approach their task lightly; they masterfully navigate complex tempo changes and weave together close harmonies in a style rarely heard nowadays. Each member of Duchess—Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner and Melissa Stylianou—has built an acclaimed solo career in New York City. Uniting their powers as Duchess, they become a vocal dynamo. The group’s effervescent style nods to the work of the Boswell Sisters, who added intricate, unexpected turns to their close-harmony singing in the 1930s. Duchess salutes the Boswell Sisters by using their original chart for a rendition of the humorous “Heebie Jeebies” (sung by the three Boswell siblings in the 1932 movie The Big Broadcast). Throughout the program onDuchess, the singers’ expert accompaniment is provided by pianist Michael Cabe, bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer Matt Wilson. Contributing on select tracks are saxophonist Jeff Lederer and guitarist Jesse Lewis. Although a retro vibe permeates the proceedings, the musicians perform mostly new arrangements written by their producer, Oded Lev-Ari. The addition of new lyrics to the Peggy Lee composition “Love Being Here With You” highlights the vocalists’ intention to put their own spin on these tunes: “Melissa’s sweet, and Amy’s wise/ And Hilary digs all the guys/ Matt Wilson swings a great reprise/ And we love being here with you.” In a more serious vein, Duchess’ rendition of “I’ll Be Seeing You” packs an emotional punch so strong it could make an Army sergeant weep.

Rudresh Mahanthappa

Bird Calls
(ACT)

I’m a card-carrying member of the Rudresh Mahanthappa fan club, and Bird Calls—the latest album by this fantastic alto saxophonist—explains why. The recording honors one of Mahanthappa’s earliest and most endearing musical heroes, Charlie Parker. But rather than running through a set of Parker standards, Mahanthappa delivers a program of new tunes, each inspired by a classic Parker song or solo. “This album is not a tribute to Charlie Parker,” Mahanthappa writes in the liner notes. “It is a blissful devotion to a man who made so much possible.” Like Bird, Mahanthappa has developed a sound, attitude and musical language that is uniquely his own. He melds the musical influences of his Indian roots with jazz that’s ultra modern. He changes things up so dramatically that you’ll be scurrying back to your Parker collection to see if there really is a Bird connection to the song. Believe me, there is. It’s fun to listen to each of Mahanthappa’s tracks next to the Parker tune that inspired it: “On The DL” next to Bird’s “Donna Lee,” or “Gopuram” next to “Steeplechase,” or “Man, Thanks For Coming” next to “Anthropology,” or “Talin Is Thinking” next to “Parker’s Mood.” Mahanthappa’s fantastic tunes certainly stand on their own, but doing an A/B comparison with Parker’s work is a blast. One key reason this project soars is that Mahanthappa assembled a terrific band for the sessions: Matt Mitchell on piano, François Moutin on bass, Rudy Royston on drums and 20-year-old Adam O’Farrill on trumpet. Some of the cooler passages here come when O’Farrill and Mahanthappa are playing rapid-fire unison lines or trading fours. They have great chemistry together. The music is great. The playing is great. But what I love most is the ambition that’s behind this recording. Mahanthappa once again has gone down the road less traveled, and he’s brought back a record that would make Charlie Parker proud.

Junior Wells

Southside 
Blues Jam
(Delmark)

Junior Wells lives. The iconic blues singer and harmonica player passed away in 1998, but a reissue of his loose, raucous studio album Southside Blues Jam is yet another document proving that he won’t be forgotten anytime soon. Wells’ 1965 debut, Hoodoo Man Blues, is a classic blues album and a cornerstone release for Chicago’s Delmark label. That LP featured guitarist Buddy Guy, who would become a longtime collaborator with Wells (and later develop into a blues legend himself). Southside Blues Jam—recorded on Dec. 30, 1969, and Jan. 8, 1970—finds Wells fronting a band that includes Guy (on eight songs), guitarist Louis Myers (on nine songs), bassist Earnest Johnson, drummer Fred Below and Blues Hall of Fame inductee Otis Spann on piano. (It would be the pianist’s final studio session before he succumbed to liver cancer on April 24, 1970.) Wells is a force of nature here, whether he’s blowing mighty riffs on harmonica, bellowing a tune, squealing like an alley cat, imitating Howlin’ Wolf’s guttural delivery on “Got To Play The Blues” or exhorting his bandmates with comments like “Preach it, brother!” The original LP contained eight tracks, but this 73-minute CD reissue adds seven more, including two snippets that are brief but juicy: “Warmin’ Up” is just over a minute long, but it showcases an exciting musical conversation between Guy and Spann, illustrating how they could push each other and generate sparks. The incidental track “Lexington Memories,” which captures casual comments and jokes between takes, shows the camaraderie these musicians shared. More substantial is the muscular, six-minute bonus track “It’s Too Late Brother.” This is an example of the classic Chicago blues sound, spiked by patter in which Wells says to his pianist, “Would you do me a favor, Spann? Would you get up on the bass keys and kinda rap a little bit?” Spann complies with a rumbling, rolling motif, and then Wells yelps, “Get it! Ooo, shucks! Ain’t it nice!” That’s an understatement.

Russell Malone

Love Looks 
Good On You
(HighNote)

Guitarist Russell Malone has been a terrific accompanist to Harry Connick Jr. and Diana Krall, but it’s always a treat when he releases an album as a leader. On Malone’s new disc, Love Looks Good On You, he leads an outstanding quartet with pianist Rick Germanson, bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Willie Jones III. This superb project illustrates how Malone’s style is firmly rooted in the straightahead jazz tradition while still maintaining a modern sensibility. The album opens with “Soul Leo,” which was written by one of Malone’s former collaborators, the late pianist Mulgrew Miller. Here, Malone’s fretwork combines incredible technique with an intoxicating groove. The quartet’s interpretation of Thad Jones’ “The Elder” is timeless in the best sense of the term: It’s a gem that sounds like it could have come from any number of decades. Elsewhere, the version of George Coleman’s “Amsterdam After Dark” is an example of how Malone can play hard and soft within the same tune, crafting a track that’s easily accessible but still burns. “Your Zowie Face” has a cool ’60s vibe, and “Ellie’s Love Theme” highlights the great interplay between Malone and Jones. The guitarist produced this album, and the latter track soars, thanks to a production approach that pays careful attention to space, detail and coloration. The album closes with the intricate, uptempo “Suite Sioux,” penned by Freddie Hubbard. That track, like the entire album, begs for repeated spins.

Kenny Wheeler

Songs 
For Quintet
(ECM)

Canada-born, London-based trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, who died on Sept. 18 at age 84, was a visionary musician who had a profound influence on modern jazz. A veteran of the British studio scene, Wheeler was known for his artfully constructed orchestrations, and he had a knack for crafting simple melodies that would veer off into fresh, unforeseen directions. This trademark sound pervades much of Songs For Quintet, which Wheeler recorded in December 2013 at London’s Abbey Road Studios. Melodic and lyrical, but never predictable, the nine songs that make up this excellent album typify Wheeler’s artistic approach. His playing here is cautious and deliberate. There are no shrieking high notes or incendiary lines. Wheeler specialized in nuance: the beauty of a repeated phrase, the complexities of a sustained note, the gravity of a long pause. Wheeler’s bandmates on Songs For Quintet are keen on sharing his sensibility. Tenor saxophonist Stan Sulzmann’s velvety lines on “Pretty Liddle Waltz” provide the perfect counterpart to Wheeler’s hushed, introspective solo. Guitarist John Parricelli, the mastermind behind the album’s serene sonic landscape, demonstrates superb discretion with his comping on the dark, meandering “Seventy-Six.” Bassist Chris Laurence’s warm, resonant tone sings throughout “Canter No. 1,” and drummer Martin France creates bright, vivid layers with meticulous time on “Sly Eyes.” Wheeler’s tone may have lost some of its luster and strength toward the end of his career, but the lack of volume doesn’t prevent the legendary trumpeter’s gentle voice from coming through loud and clear. It is a voice that will be sorely missed.

Nick Sanders Trio

You 
Are A Creature
(Sunnyside)

With You Are A Creature, New Orleans-born pianist Nick Sanders delivers a savvy, captivating second album. Across 12 original compositions and one Ornette Coleman cover, Sanders demonstrates a musical intellect that is wise beyond his years. Entertaining enough to catch your ear, and intelligent enough to tickle your mind, this recording is the sound of a stellar young musician carving out a unique place for himself in today’s jazz scene. Lean, acrobatic and endlessly inventive, Sanders’ style abounds with unexpected phrases and surprising flourishes—the kind of playing that never sits still. On the hypnotic opener, “Let’s Start,” leaping, circular patterns dominate the sonic tableau. On the hymn-like “Keep On The Watch,” rumbling left-hand rhythms provide the spark. As a soloist, Sanders is a mad genius—hauntingly melodic and utterly unpredictable. Just when you think you’ve mapped his trajectory, he’s gone in a new direction, spinning off fresh, unconventional phrases. His bandmates prove equally imaginative. On drums, Connor Baker is thoughtful and judicious. He demonstrates a particularly deft touch on the stirring ballad “Room” and adds just the right amount of sizzle to the ambitious title track. Bassist Henry Fraser is an adroit and melodically minded player, offering up sweeping arco lines on “Zora The Cat” and vigorous pizzicato runs on “Repeater.” The three lock into a watertight swing groove on Coleman’s “The Blessing,” closing out the album on a note of convivial harmony. Expect big things from this young trio.

Tigran Hamasyan

Mockroot
(Nonesuch)

The commanding pianist Tigran Hamasyan, 27, displays remarkable versatility as a composer on his new album, Mockroot, showcasing a range of emotions across 12 original compositions. Some—like “Double-Faced,” “To Negate” and “Entertain Me”—are raw and explosive, flickering with intensity. Others—such as “To Love” and “Lilac”—are delicate and sincere. “The Roads That Bring Me Closer To You” unfurls with a deep sense of longing, and the multi-textured “Song For Melan And Rafik” exudes power and poise. Few pianists today could have made an album of such ambitious scope and inspired vision. But for the immensely talented Hamasyan, it seems to have come naturally. His use of synths and sound effects (as on the mesmerizing “Kars 1”) suggests inspiration from electronic dance music, hip-hop and indie rock, while his delicate touch on the keyboard on tracks like “Kars 2 (Wounds Of The Centuries)” hints at classical roots. On “Out Of The Grid,” his piano voicings and block chords are pure jazz, and his undulating melodies and percussive interludes call to mind the folk music of his native Armenia. Mockroot is something of a sonic collage, a piece of art that gets better the more time you spend with it.

George Garzone

Crescent
(Jazz Hang)

There’s an easy beauty in the music of George Garzone. He is a saxophonist of monstrous chops and equally monstrous taste. Both are on display onCrescent, released by the Jazz Hang label. Joined by Leo Genovese on piano and Esperanza Spalding on bass, this is a casual trio project where everyone digs in for a good time. The recording session was a bit of a Berklee College of Music reunion: Genovese and Spalding, both former Berklee students, became bandmates with Garzone, a professor there. Genovese and Spalding have a great rapport, which has developed during the years he has spent in her band. And here, all three musicians have amazing chemistry. The opening tune, “The Girl From Argentina,” is a beautiful, Latin-inspired ballad with a great, tongue-in-cheek title. The tune glides with Garzone delivering just the right tone on tenor, playing with and against Spalding’s lovely vocalese. Garzone’s “Hey Open Up” and John Coltrane’s “Crescent” both reflect Trane’s influence on Garzone’s music. On “Hey Open Up,” Garzone opens up with rapid firing and then turns it over to Spalding, who rips her solo. (For those who have thought of Spalding only as a singer fronting her own bands, think again. She is a bassist of the highest caliber, and a collaborator who adds something valuable to every set she plays.) Genovese completes the cycle with a blistering work of his own as Spalding walks the bass line. And Garzone takes it to the outro with precision and bliss. The title track features a big, beautiful sound from Garzone’s tenor with Genovese racing across the piano keys with jaw-dropping chops, power and sheer beauty. From there, the trio drops into sweet renditions of “Like Someone To Love” and “I Want To Talk About You.” Both tunes, and the entire album, demonstrate amazing artistry coupled with a kindred spirit that is infectious.


On Sale Now
January 2018
Esperanza Spalding
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