By Ed Enright
Trombone ace Steve Davis has put together a new sextet, introduced here on a set of inspired new compositions and fresh arrangements of classic jazz tunes.
The multigenerational group—which includes trumpeter Joshua Bruneau, saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, pianist Xavier Davis, bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Jonathan Barber—benefits from plenty of shared history and deep connections, both on the bandstand and under the tutelage of alto saxophonist and educator Jackie McLean (1931–2006) at University of Hartford’s Hartt School of Music. When this recording was made last September, the band was newly formed, having played together as an ensemble for the first time the previous weekend at Smoke in New York. The musicians show tremendous enthusiasm for the material, eloquently arranged by Davis for a three-horn front line à la Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers—of which the trombonist was a member in the early ’90s. Their solos brim with a sense of adventurousness and burn with fire and conviction. Highlights include the carefree opener, “Embarcadero,” with its breezy Latin groove and tasty horn voicings; “Bautista’s Revenge,” which features the distinct touch and polyrhythmic mastery of special guest percussionist Cyro Baptista, not to mention a killer trumpet ride by Bruneau; the straightahead swinger “Blues For Owen,” dedicated to late jazz journalist Owen McNally; the Thad Jones chestnut “A Child Is Born,” which reveals the finesse and lyricism that have characterized Davis’ playing for decades; a gorgeously interpreted version of Horace Silver’s serene ballad “Peace”; and a rousing take on McCoy Tyner’s “Inner Glimpse” that closes the album with a show of the ensemble’s full force.
By Dave Cantor
There’s a distinctive orderly feel to Clockwise, the latest from composer, multi-instrumentalist and 2018 Guggenheim fellow Anna Webber, despite some of the music’s feral keening.
It’s easy to get lost in the warbling chaos that comprises portions of the album’s opening third, the breathier moments recalling some of Sam Hillmer’s work with ZS, an avant New York troupe that rumbled into existence during the early 2000s. Shifting into “King Of Denmark I/Loper” and “King Of Denmark II,” though, finds Webber prodding the septet into territory folks might deem new music. The works feel a bit darker here—grumbling and foreboding—even as some of the same extended techniques remain foregrounded.
Devised after pouring over compositions by 20th-century composers—Stockausen, Cage, Varèse—each piece’s scaffolding was written following meetings Webber had with musicians when they were asked to show her “a bunch of the weird sounds that you know how to do,” she recently told DownBeat. And the troupe’s rhythm section seems capable of injecting an additional sense of play into the clutch of new compositions, removing any semblance of over seriousness, even as a specter of darkness lingers. Pianist Matt Mitchell (who also performs in Webber’s SIMPLE Trio) infrequently finds himself at the center of the action, but along with the bandleader on flute, lightens the mood on “Array,” a 10-minute excursion that easily could be dispatched prior to some sinister plot twist in any Hitchcock film.
Less academic than its premise portends, Webber’s Clockwise easily splices wobbly swinging sections into a collection of work that’s as rigorously conceived as it is agreeable to take in.
By J.D. Considine
If the title Shamania puts you in mind of a quirky musical revue—sort of a tribal music twist on Beatlemania—then you and Danish percussionist Marilyn Mazur are pretty much on the same wavelength here. The music this 10-piece Scandinavian ensemble makes is built around the concept of urkraft, a Danish word that can be understood to mean an elemental or primeval force, which on this album is framed through compositions that evoke the ritualistic, communal elements of shamanism.
If that sounds complicated as theory, it’s invigoratingly straightforward as sound. Most of the pieces here are built around a basic pulse matched to a simple, folk-like melody. You could call them “cells,” but they’re used more like musical Legos, given the sense of play that goes into the fanciful structures Mazur and company construct. There are chants and airs, gentle beats and insistent pulses, and though the ensemble sound often is immense, the music maintains a refreshing simplicity, so that even the densest passages remain invitingly accessible.
Mazur also intended a measure of theatricality in the music (live, the ensemble includes the improvising dancer Tine Erica Aspaas), and as such, it can be strikingly dramatic. “Space Entry Dance,” for example, opens with a chant-like unison melody over a slow, loping pulse, then—after a thrumming drum and percussion break—morphs into a wistful funk groove, with trumpeter Hildegunn Øiseth soloing lyrically over Makiko Hirabayashi’s Rhodes piano. Gradually, the percussion builds heat, until the piece peaks with a shrieking tenor saxophone solo by Sissel Vera Pettersen. It’s a joy to hear playing that not only maintains such a strong narrative, but infuses it with a sense of adventure. Here’s hoping the ensemble’s next release includes video.
By Bobby Reed
Jazz vocalist Kristen Lee Sergeant opens her sophomore album, Smolder, with a track that nods to the aesthetic on her excellent debut, Inside Out. That 2016 album included jazz arrangements of 1980s pop tunes by The Police, Tears For Fears and Modern English. The new disc opens with a powerful, flute and cello-infused rendition of Spandau Ballet’s 1983 pop hit “True.” This version is a master class in how a jazz singer and arranger like Sergeant can rework a pop tune with different instrumentation, intelligent tempo shifts and vocal lines that ascend and descend in unpredictable, intricate ways.
This is a theme album, with 10 tracks that all have lyrics referring to heat, flame, embers or smoke. Throughout the program, Sergeant’s training as an actress and classical vocalist enable her to craft moments of engaging drama, whether she’s seductively sliding into a note with a near-whisper, delivering a breathy revelation or belting out a lyric with full-throated muscularity. Such skills help add vitality to her renditions of standards such as Cole Porter’s “It’s All Right With Me,” Cy Coleman’s “The Best Is Yet To Come,” Duke Ellington’s “I’m Beginning To See The Light” and Lerner & Loewe’s “Show Me” (from My Fair Lady). In a clever arrangement for an unusual medley, Sergeant mixes sections of “These Foolish Things” into a reading of “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” She shows off her compositional chops with the lovely, thematically fitting “Balm/Burn” and “Afterglow,” two gems that are influenced by master tunesmiths, yet sparkle with fine elements of originality. Helping the vocalist ignite the program are Jeb Patton (piano), Cameron Brown (bass), Jay Sawyer (drums), Rogerio Boccato (percussion), Jody Redhage Ferber (cello) and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra member Ted Nash (alto flute and alto saxophone). This elegant album illustrates what can happen when admirable ambition is paired with vocal vibrancy.
By Ed Enright
Paul Motian (1931–2011) wrote and recorded more than 100 original compositions during his long career as a drummer and bandleader. And he shared his tunes, notable for their singable melodies and rhythmically ambiguous forms, freely with his bandmates. One of those former bandmates is pianist Russ Lossing, who collaborated with Motian on several pieces in the drummer’s oeuvre. Lossing’s standing trio of 20 years with bassist Masa Kamaguchi and drummer Billy Mintz pays homage to Motian and his compositional concepts on this new recording of 10 Motian originals.
The group is a great fit for Motian’s tunes, which are ripe for creative interpretation by their very nature. All three members demonstrate a unique ability to let the pieces sing for themselves and expand upon them in an organic way. The entire program was recorded live in the studio, all one-takes, in the order presented on the album. The musicians worked without any pre-set arrangements or discussions about the music—everything unfolds completely naturally, with a distinct free-jazz bent. Melodies—often played by Lossing in two-handed, multi-octave unison—and textures dominate the session. Harmony is mostly decorative and spontaneous, with the exception of a few instances where Motian wrote actual chord progressions. The music is by turns fluid and disjointed, booming and delicate, insistent and reflective. On this captivating recording, Lossing and company do a stellar job of illuminating the bare essence of Motian’s idiosyncratic writing.
By Bobby Reed
Applause is deserved for album packaging that conveys a clear, straightforward message. The album title and retro font on the cover of drummer-vibraphonist Chuck Redd’s new album, Groove City, tell fans what to expect. And Redd, who has appeared on more than 80 recordings, certainly doesn’t disappoint. In his liner notes essay, Redd explains that fans often ask him what he thinks about when he’s playing. His response is: “Be grateful that you’re here, and visualize the groove.” On his sixth album as a leader, Redd plays vibraphone and percussion, recruiting the great Lewis Nash to handle the drum-set duties. Rounding out the band are pianist John di Martino, bassist Nicki Parrott and tenor saxophonist Jerry Weldon, who contributes to four of the 11 tracks. This crackerjack unit delivers delicious grooves in various forms, whether they’re simmering or smoking on a program that includes a couple of Redd’s compositions (“A Groove For Gail” and “Blues In The Shedd”), two tunes by his former employer Monty Alexander (“Renewal” and “Regulator”), one by Thelonious Monk (“Evidence”) and one by Antonio Carlos Jobim (“Tide,” featuring Parrott’s tasty, wordless vocals). A quartet rendition of the standard “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Cryin’” illustrates the band’s ability to be simultaneously intense and gentle, hot yet cool, thanks in large part to the fluidity of Redd’s attack. A duo arrangement of Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing” showcases Redd’s skills as a narrator, while di Martino provides the ideal coloration. A fresh version of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman”—built atop a compelling 16th-note groove from Parrott and Nash—uses the recording studio to great sonic effect. On that track, and throughout the album, Redd and his collaborators are sensitive to the beauty of luminous vibraphone notes that resonate, hanging in the air, tugging at the heart.
A jazz veteran, Redd is highly regarded in jazz circles, thanks to his 15-year stint as a member of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, his 19-year tenure with the late guitarist Charlie Byrd and his current position as a faculty member at the University of Maryland. With Groove City, longtime fans and newcomers can savor the satisfying artistry of Redd—a gracious, grateful leader.
By Bobby Reed
During Prince’s lifetime, some critics and fans didn’t grasp the scope of his influence. It’s possible that the stature of multi-instrumentalist Prince Rogers Nelson (1958–2016) will increase during this century, especially if his artistry is viewed as a factor that shapes the work of future generations of musicians. One spin of Gary Clark Jr.’s new album, This Land, makes it clear that Prince (along with one of his influences, Marvin Gaye) casts a long shadow. That’s evidenced not only because Clark occasionally sings in a falsetto and, in Prince-like fashion, contributes guitar, bass, keyboards, percussion and programming to the diverse album here—but also because he crafts provocative lyrics, revels in the sheer musicality of his productions, and does it all with a confident swagger that seems to say, “This is my art, and I don’t give a damn what haters might say about it.”
Casual fans might categorize Clark as a supremely gifted guitar slinger and potent blues-rock vocalist, à la another Texan to whom he has been compared: Stevie Ray Vaughan (1954–’90). Indeed, some song titles on This Land, such as “The Guitar Man,” “I Walk Alone” and “Low Down Rolling Stone,” might lead fans to think that Clark’s sixth release on Warner Bros. is a straight-up blues-rock album, but it’s far from it. This willfully eclectic disc—which opens with a searing, fury-fueled title track that addresses racism with lyrics that drop the F-bomb and the N-word and make reference to being “right in the middle of Trump country”—conveys that Clark doesn’t want to be pigeonholed in any way. On this lengthy, all-original program, Clark offers plenty of musings about interpersonal relationships, along with some commentary on the state of the world. Elements of blues, hard rock, r&b, soul, hip-hop, rockabilly, punk and other genres are part of this glorious smorgasbord of 15 songs (plus two bonus tracks). The album is rife with samples and interpolations, and Clark overdubs multiple instrumental parts on most of the tracks. The infectious “Feelin’ Like A Million” is built with reggae rhythms, the drum loops of dance-club tunes and some stinging guitar lines. “Pearl Cadillac” (which Clark performed on Saturday Night Live, generating more than 250,000 views on YouTube) has a Prince vibe, and a traditional-flavored blues tune, “Dirty Dishes Blues,” is placed at the end of the program, just before the bonus tracks.
Clark recorded most of the album in his hometown of Austin, and he recruited collaborators who also have a track record of blending genres, including percussionist and Prince collaborator Sheila E., jazz trumpeter Keyon Harrold and bassist/keyboardist Mike Elizondo (whose extensive resume includes work with Eminem, Dr. Dre, Cassandra Wilson, Ry Cooder, Ed Sheeran, Maroon 5, Muse and Mastodon). A video trailer for This Land includes this testimonial from Prince: “Gary Clark Jr. has it all.” Sure, that’s hyperbole, but it’s certainly fun to hear head-bobbing music from an artist who can draw from diverse predecessors—B.B. King, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Curtis Mayfield, Tupac Shakur and D’Angelo—filter those influences through his own blues-soaked prism, and create a new sonic rainbow.
By Dave Cantor
This is about searching. For space, for time and for understanding.
It’s a sentiment extolled by Kate Tempest, an English poet, during “Blood Of The Past,” the fourth cut on The Comet Is Coming’s Trust In The Lifeforce Of The Deep Mystery, a follow-up to its 2016 long-playing debut. “Imagine a culture that, at its root, has a more soulful connection to land,” Tempest intones, before detailing the vagaries of modern life.
The Comet Is Coming, just one of three acts helmed by Shabaka Hutchings on the Impulse label, takes on a more pliable feel than Sons of Kemet or Shabaka and the Ancestors, moving from floating minimal stretches to dancefloor theatricality and into jazzy workouts. But the saxophonist’s tone still strafes easily through whatever setting he’s working in. Here, along with synthesist Dan Leavers and drummer Maxwell Hallett, tracks like “Super Zodiac” seem to herald a new Aquarian Age while stitching in sci-fi sounds, quick-step rhythms and Hutchings playing ahead of the beat, a tactic that isn’t quite his signature, but an approach that might enable listeners to pick his horn out of a crowded field.
With or without its lofty aims, Trust In The Lifeforce Of The Deep Mystery pretty easily can be read as a party record. The dancey intentions of not just this ensemble, but a huge swath of the contemporary UK scene, don’t subvert its efforts at pushing the culture toward a more fully realized consciousness. Instead, the angle might make the spirit of this work more easy to dispatch—and even taken to heart.
By Dave Cantor
German psychedelia’s tense simplicity pretty regularly offers up some astonishing beauty, as well as countless avenues to chase down transcendence.
As guitarist Michael Rother worked through four studio albums collected for the Solo box set—Flammende Herzen (1977), Sterntaler (1978), Katzenmusik (1979) and Fernwärme (1982)—a sort of ecstatic calm wavered over the proceedings, something separate from the wild proto-punk vibes on the pair of properly issued Neu! albums he contributed to in the early ’70s.
The guitarist’s unrecorded stint in Kraftwerk, his work with Harmonia and contributions to film scores, some of which are included on the LP version of Solo, provide evidence of an expansive career. But this cache of recordings, where the guitarist is joined by Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit, should be understood as standing on equal ground with his earliest ensemble work.
The first pair of discs in the Solo collection hedge a bit closer to what folks might think of when conjuring some vision of an ur-krautrock group. And while Katzenmusik heralds the coming decade, Fernwärme solidifies a colder feel, even as some of Rother’s most placid moments crop up. But the shift’s mostly in service of Rother painting grandiose statements with his guitar, as opposed to keeping up with Liebezeit, who makes for a cooled-out sort of companion when contrasted with the intense histrionics Klaus Dinger injected into Neu!.
More than 20 years back, Chronicles I cobbled together bits and pieces of what’s laid out here across 6 LPs or 5 CDs. But even if this portion of Rother’s career was scattered around and in-print, housing these early “solo” efforts in a single collection helps fill in part of kosmische’s history that, until now, likely remained obscured to legions of Stateside listeners.