By Brian Zimmerman
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.
By Brian Zimmerman
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.
By Frank Alkyer
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.
By Brian Zimmerman
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 Motionâ€ 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.
By Bobby Reed
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.
By Bobby Reed
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.
By Frank Alkyer
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.
By Frank Alkyer
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.
By Bobby Reed
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.