By Bobby Reed
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.
By Ed Enright
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.
By Bobby Reed
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.
By Bobby Reed
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.
By Izzy Yellen
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.
By Brian Zimmerman
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.
By Brian Zimmerman
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.
By Bobby Reed
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.
By Brian Zimmerman
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.