By Bobby Reed
Motown founder Berry Gordy has been credited with the famous quotation, “Don’t bore us—get to the chorus.” It’s a slogan that applies to jazz-pop singer Lauren Desberg’s fat-free, 31-minute release, Out For Delivery. The album, which includes 10 Desberg compositions and two standards, is peppered with four flavorful nuggets that are each fewer than 85 seconds in duration. The listener never has time to get complacent or sated, because the program’s pace is brisk and the hooks are strong.
The album opens with “The Way You Feel Inside,” which merges modern pop production and multitracked vocals with Andrew Renfroe’s jazz guitar licks. This song’s protagonist encourages people to express themselves honestly, and, like much of Desberg’s work, there’s more depth to the lyrics than one might initially notice—thanks to the breezy melody. “Something Wrong With Me,” the tale of an unlucky-in-love narrator whose fortune mysteriously turns to sunshine, is a showcase for the production prowess of Drew Ofthe Drew, who gracefully eases Braxton Cook’s saxophone into the mix, first as a background voice deep in the echo-laden distance and then, gradually, as the featured instrument, clear and authoritative in the foreground. Also among the seven gifted musicians at the sessions was pianist Kris Bowers, who shines on the introduction to the brief closer, “The Choice.”
Desberg, drummer Jonathan Barber and Drew Ofthe Drew (who also mixed and mastered the album) ensure that the two standards—“The Sweetest Sounds” and “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter”—are given fresh aural twists for a millennial audience. On these interpretations (and throughout the program), fans of Norah Jones might be drawn to Desberg’s vocal delivery, which is buoyant but not lightweight.
Interpersonal relationships are central to several of the songs here, including the poignant “How Could I Have Pain,” in which Desberg examines the difficulties of human connections, crooning, “We run in stride, but still we know we’re not in the same race/ I’m on the straight and narrow while he climbs/ I’ll see him at the finish line.”
By Dave Cantor
There’s something to be said for the sturdiness of blues, bop and ballads, and D.C.-based tenor saxophonist Jordon Dixon digs into each for his second leader date, On!
A Louisiana native, the bandleader took on the burden and distinction of serving in the Marines for 11 years, according to the album’s press notes. After an honorable discharge, he headed to D.C. to study music and hooked up with Allyn Johnson, a pianist and educator who’s prominently featured across the new recording. The pair’s readily apparent rapport really is what enables On! to swing so easily.
“What You’ve Done For Me,” a muggy ballad, features the pianist in an expansive mood, Johnson’s solo plunging from one end of the keyboard to the other. As the bandleader takes back the spotlight, Johnson’s support might come off as a bit too busy, but still manages to hit all the right spots. On “Flame And Friction,” trumpeter J.S. Williams contributes fanfares linking it all back to the bandleader’s home state, adding further historical context to a recording that’s utterly beholden to the past, but somehow refuses to seem stuffy, reserved or artless.
For On! to be Dixon’s second long-player and to come off as assuredly as it does seems to mean that even as the well-worn combo of blues, bop and ballads heads into its ninth decade, there’re still players creative enough to invigorate the concoction.
By Bobby Reed
The Zoho label has earned a strong reputation in part because of its commitment to Brazilian music and legendary artists such as acoustic guitarist Carlos Barbosa-Lima, who, after moving to New York in the 1980s, frequently collaborated with fellow countryman Antônio Carlos Jobim (1927–’94). Delicado, Barbosa-Lima’s 10th release for Zoho, is a tribute to the music traditions of Rio de Janeiro, such as bossa nova, samba and choro. The program includes compositions by Jobim, Luiz Bonfá (1922–2001), João Pernambuco (1883–1947), Baden Powell (1937–2000) and others. For the recording sessions, the leader assembled an all-star quintet, featuring artists who have appeared on previous Zoho releases: Larry Del Casale (guitar), Duduka Da Fonseca (percussion), Nilson Matta (bass) and Helio Alves (piano).
Barbosa-Lima, still spry and spectacular at age 74, graciously shares the spotlight with his bandmates. The title track—composed by choro master Waldir Azevedo (1923–1980)—reflects the quintet’s great rapport, with subtle, intricate interaction, and both guitarists playing the melody.
Sixty years after the release of director Marcel Camus’ Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus), musicians still find inspiration in the film’s soundtrack, which features work by Jobim and Bonfá. In his 15-song program, Barbosa-Lima interprets three tunes from the film’s score. The band’s version of “Samba De Orfeu” is an earworm with delightful percussive accents. A creative arrangement of “A Felicidade,” another samba number, segues from a full-band treatment into a twisting path of delicate solo parts and whimsical segments that evoke the sounds of tropical birds. Del Casale and Barbosa-Lima—who have been collaborators for more than 15 years—offer a gorgeous duo reading of “Manhã De Carnaval” that tugs at the heartstrings. Barbosa-Lima’s arrangement of “Odeon,” written by pianist Ernesto Nazareth (1863–1934), illustrates the drama and poignancy that this icon can generate in a solo guitar setting.
Delicado will please longtime fans and also might serve as a fine introduction to some of Brazil’s greatest composers.
By Bobby Reed
Diverse aspects of Greek mythology, ancient China and the multiculturalism of contemporary San Francisco all factor into Wise Dreams And Fables Of The Sky by the Ultra World X-Tet. The bulk of the Bay Area quintet’s third release is devoted to the titular suite, a four-song adventure inspired by Homer’s The Odyssey. Gary Schwantes (saxophones, bamboo flutes, ocarina) composed nearly all the material here, which was recorded live at San Francisco’s Old First Church with Doug Ebert (bass), Surya Prakasha (drums), Yangqin Zhao (yangqin, a Chinese hammered dulcimer) and Winnie Wong (guzheng, a zither that originated more than 2,500 years ago and became common during the Qin dynasty). The result is a smorgasbord that organically blends straightahead jazz, fusion, funk, blues, world music and other sonic elements. Listeners don’t need to know the plot of The Odyssey to fully appreciate the dramatic, cinematic qualities of this instrumental program; however, thanks to liner notes that outline the plot of books nine through 12 of Homer’s epic poem, one can make a game of matching melodic segments with their corresponding literary scenes, such as Odysseus’ encounter with the Cyclops or his return to Ithaca.
Although this is a concert disc, there is no stage banter and very little crowd noise, giving it the feel of a studio recording. A couple of memorable motifs—one involving a march-like rhythm and another featuring the guzheng—provide a buttress in the sturdy architecture of the suite. A far cry from a mere exercise in eclecticism, this album invites contemplation about the enduring components of that most human of endeavors: storytelling.
By Dave Cantor
Perpetually in good company, alto saxophonist Angelika Niescier is adding to a run of Intakt albums with her latest disc, New York Trio.
Across three consecutive recordings, bassist Christopher Tordini has been a constant companion, helping to provide Niescier with a versatile rhythm section that’s either been rounded out by Tyshawn Sorey or Gerald Cleaver, who’s behind the kit on this newest set. Working in a chordless troupe here, as well as on 2018’s The Berlin Concert, grants the reedist unsparing freedom to roam, and the berth to examine and re-examine a pair of compositions on each album, while also interspersing a handful of new confections.
After opening last year’s live disc—which according to New York Trio’s liner notes actually was recorded after this studio date—with two performances that might drown out some rock acts, a mathier take on “The Surge” announces this disc’s arrival.
“I was [excited] to include them in a different environment,” Niescier recently told DownBeat while chatting at a Cologne cafe. “I think I cut [the introductorily passage of ‘The Surge’] for the live performance, because we had so little time to rehearse, and included the whole thing [on the studio version]. And ‘5.8,’ I think I wrote a different solo section. I was like, should I do this? Then I was like, fuck it, yeah. It was such a different energy.”
It’d be easy for Niescier only to spotlight her burly approach to alto, augmented on New York Trio by trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, and come to each composition with a stormy fervor. But for “Ekim”—its melody borrowed from Turkish composer Nazife Güran—the bandleader and Tordini bend, blow and bow quietly, Finlayson weaving in lines with only minimal chatter from Cleaver. Programming “Push Pull” as the next track—one where the drummer leans into a groove more than anywhere else on New York Trio—might just be a satisfying accident, pointing out the bandleader’s various, contrasting and erudite approaches to composition. But it’s just as likely a clever and playful move, again flashing Niescier’s wit for a growing Stateside audience.
By Ed Enright
Eric Alexander steps outside of himself and embarks on far-reaching excursions for this live outing, recorded last August at New York’s Jazz Gallery with bassist Doug Weiss and drummer Jonathan Blake.
Leap Of Faith presents the tenor saxophonist in a liberated light, with few harmonic constraints to heed and no commercial expectations whatsoever from Jimmy Katz’s nonprofit organization Giant Step Arts [ed. note: Katz is a regular DownBeat contributor]. Alexander takes full advantage of this artistic and financial opportunity to explore his own wide-ranging tastes and shed his image as a bebop purist by boldly venturing into avant-garde territory and beyond. His playing is explosive, unbridled, searching and cathartic in this chordless trio setting—wide-open terrain that previously was unexplored by Alexander.
The program is all Alexander originals that were composed during a recent period of turbulence in the saxophonist’s life, and he clearly uses this new material to vent his wildest ideas and innermost emotions. Leap Of Faith begins with a brief free investigation that quickly takes shape as “Luquitas,” a showcase for the group’s boundless energy and unceasing momentum. The saxophonist plays with uttermost intensity on the swaggering “Hard Blues” and the Coltrane-fired “Second Impression.” Blake’s thundering drums anchor the blistering “Frenzy,” and Weiss’ resonant bowings serve as an essential undercurrent for “Magyar,” a work based on a reduction of themes from Béla Bartók’s Music For Strings, Percussion And Celesta.
With Leap Of Faith, Alexander followed the advice of his longtime friend Katz and pursued a project that radically departs from the norm, investigating a more expansive setting than the traditional bebop métier that has defined his artistry for decades. The resulting album is an honest depiction of one of today’s most burning tenor players, unleashed, at a pinnacle of raw passion.
By J.D. Considine
In the seven decades since John Cage’s “Sonatas And Interludes” instructed pianists to “prepare” their instrument by placing screws, coins, pencils and other objects on the instrumnent’s strings, prepared piano has become a common enough concept that it even has leaked into the realm of rock music.
By contrast, Sam Newsome’s prepared saxophone, though it clearly takes inspiration from Cage’s approach, involves a whole other level of invention and virtuosity. Head over to his blog, and you’ll not only hear but see him alter the sound of his soprano in a variety of mind-bending ways, from inserting a noise maker into the neck, to adding lengths of plastic tubing between the mouthpiece and body of the horn. The clip where he stretches a deflated balloon across the bell and plays his horn like a bata drum is particularly brilliant.
Chaos Theory: Song Cycles For Prepared Saxophone applies these and other techniques to create multitracked soundscapes that will forever alter your understanding of what sounds a saxophone can make. Comparisons to Colin Stetson seem inevitable, but Newsome is working with a much broader palette, and to a different compositional purpose.
Despite the title’s promise of chaos, Newsome’s song cycle maintains a fairly conventional sense of melodic logic and rhythmic consistency. Although some tunes—such as “Chaos Theory, No. 2 (Hiss-ology)” or “Solo, No. 3 (Flutter-Effect)”—largely are built around specific techniques, other tracks layer a range of preparations to create rich and inventive soundscapes. “Sonic Polarity,” for example, is built over a percussive ostinato and didgeridoo-like drone that lends a sort of Persian classical feel to Newsome’s improvisations, while “Bubble Mute Boogie” builds off a prepared percussive pattern to create an addictively sweet blues groove. I can’t wait to hear what other possibilities Newsome discovers as he dives deeper into his preparations.
By Dave Cantor
On “Ghosts,” the opening cut of the Elliot Galvin Trio’s new recording, Corrie Dick’s drumming tips in about 20 seconds after the track begins. It announces a decidedly pop-conscious consideration of the genre, but one that makes Modern Times imminently digestible.
Galvin uses the piano trio format within the confines of three- to five-minute tunes, spinning right-hand flights into swelling waves of choppy chords. It doesn’t all actually come off sounding like pop music, and to Modern Times’ benefit, the playfulness these tunes rest upon sometimes is absent the overly serious stance listeners might associate with the jazz genre. Maybe it’s a generational thing; Polish saxophonist Kuba Więcek, another 20-something bandleader, moves in similar circles, ideologically if not sonically.
The ensemble’s setup—as well as Galvin and Dick performing together in UK group Dinosaur—enables the troupe to easily float into the odd, moody tune amid all the ebullient compositions here. “Fountainhead,” a three-minute cut about halfway through the disc, opens with a solo turn, before the bandleader is joined by bassist Tom McCredie’s arco spotlight. “Gold Shovel” and “Into The Dark” are relatively somber works, too, but offset by the playful “Jackfruit,” a tune presumably named for the meat-substitute.
The fruit, native to Southern India, isn’t exactly a staple in the States yet, and neither is Galvin. In time, though, at least one of them is going to be embraced here. Modern Times hints that Galvin’s turn likely is coming first.
By J.D. Considine
Because they normally work in the background, solo albums by bassists often are marked by long bass solos, or unaccompanied bass performances, or even just an unusually bass-heavy mix. To that extent, Aventurine sounds little like a typical bass player’s album, as leader Linda May Han Oh keeps the music’s focus on her ensemble, not her acoustic or electric bass.
It isn’t just a general lack of bass solos. There are long stretches in the elegiac “The Sirens Are Wailing” when Oh doesn’t play at all, instead letting the string quartet and saxophonist Greg Ward take the helm for much of the piece, mixing improvised lines with those Oh has written. It’s an amazing bit of writing, and quite a testament to Oh’s abilities as a bandleader, as shifts between the composed and the collectively improvised sections are utterly seamless. Moreover, there’s not even the hint of a bass solo in its whole nine minutes.
Although some might read that as evidence of Oh’s selflessness, a better take would be to see Aventurine as a reflection of the type of music she most wants to make: deeply compositional, strongly collective and drawing freely from a range of musical traditions. Hence her treatment of “Au Privave,” which uses Charlie Parker’s serpentine blues as the basis for a churning, polytonal set of variations on a theme, giving us an approach to melodic elaboration that encompasses both jazz and classical music. When the group begins “Song Yue Rao,” Oh states the melody and others join in, making the Chinese folk tune sound like an old-timey string band piece. But as more voices enter, rhythms are added, lines are improvised, and other keys are suggested, until the music owes as much to Ornette Coleman as to any folk tradition.
With 14 tunes unspooling during about 75 minutes, Oh covers a lot of ground on Aventurine, and it’s a testament to her musical vision that even after a dozen or more listens, the album continues to reveal additional depths. True, there isn’t much in the way of bass solos, but somehow, it’s unlikely anyone will mind.