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.


On Sale Now
January 2018
Esperanza Spalding
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