Rich Willey’s Boptism Big Band

Down & Dirty
(Wise Cat)

Rich Willey has built a beast of a modern big band album: Down & Dirty is a 77-minute program of 11 original tunes (and one jazz standard, “Old Folks”) orchestrated by ace arrangers and performed by a killer assortment of Los Angeles-based instrumentalists. Willey’s bass trumpet melodies and improvisations play a central role on the album, which also features the leader on traditional B-flat trumpet and flugelhorn. With help from his producer, Dan Fornero, Willey hired section players with the right combination of chops, sight-reading skills and interpretive sensibility to execute a collection of previously unseen, highly sophisticated big band charts supplied by Gordon Goodwin, Michael Abene, Chris Walden and band keyboardist Wally Minko.

The results of the sessions, which took place in January, are spectacular. The music draws upon a full palette of tonal colors, with assorted woodwinds, muted brass, piccolo trumpet, auxiliary percussion, electric guitar, synthesizer, French horns and strings rounding out the more traditional big band instrumentation. All these arrangements are highly involved affairs, full of dramatic counterpoint, connective-tissue interludes, unexpected timbral combinations and thematically appropriate background parts in the solo sections.

A wide range of styles is presented here, from straightahead jazz and Latin grooves to funk, reggae, baroque, balladry and straight-up rock. Standout instrumentalists include lead trumpeter Wayne Bergeron, tenor saxophonist Bob Sheppard, trombonist Andy Martin and drummer Peter Erskine. Willey’s tone on bass trumpet is round and centered, fatter than a regular trumpet (which sounds roughly one octave higher), yet brighter than a trombone (which shares the same tessitura). It makes for a nice juxtaposition to the mighty brass section work that runs through much of the program. Willey’s flugelhorn tone is simply gorgeous, marked by expressive phrasing and tender dynamics. In true leader fashion, he puts his personal stamp on all the material on Down & Dirty—a major artistic accomplishment from a player who, in addition to extensive work as a sideman to the greats, has been leading his own ensembles since 1986.

Bob Sheppard

The Fine Line

Like a lot of elite, Los Angeles-based studio musicians, reedman Bob Sheppard is one of those players whose sound is more familiar than his name. Even though he’s played on dozens of albums during the past 40 years, ranging from guest spots with the likes of Rod Stewart, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen to sideman gigs with Chick Corea, Freddie Hubbard and Peter Erskine, The Fine Line is only his fourth album as a leader.

Talk about a late bloomer.

Sheppard offers the music here as someone with little to prove, and that casual confidence brings a low-key bravura to the playing. Take the album-opening “Edge Of Trouble”: A driving, modal tune in the vein of McCoy Tyner, it leaves plenty of blowing room, not only for Sheppard’s agile, witty soprano, but also for Simon Moullier’s coolly virtuosic vibraphone and John Beasley’s spryly adventurous piano. But Sheppard and company aren’t content to merely blow changes; they want to make things interesting. So, as the group is easing into the tune, Moullier bends notes and puts chords out of phase, so that his vibes evoke a synthesizer. Later, during Kendrick Scott’s drum solo, Sheppard, Moullier, Beasley and bassist Jasper Somsen play an elaborate contrapuntal pattern that gives Scott extra material to work with. It’s the sort of clever arranging that adds extra dimensions to the music.

That ingenuity pervades the album, ensuring that there’s always a little bit extra for the listener to dig into.

Why play a pop tune like “People Make The World Go ’Round” straight when you can abstract it? Instead of following the form, Sheppard and Beasley use the refrain as a compositional anchor, stretching it through reharmonization, and bending it via variations in tempo and meter. For his reading of “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” Sheppard pretends not to know what time the original was in, and plays it as a dark and dreamy jazz waltz.

Featuring innovative arrangements and simpatico playing, The Fine Line is a gem of an album, and another excellent reason to remember Bob Sheppard’s name.

Gard Nilssen Acoustic Unity

To Whom Who Buys A Record

It’s easy to lament any bygone era, just as mourning the increased use of electronics in jazz is a mantra some are unwilling to let go of. Regardless of your feelings about drum programming or electronics in general, there was something intensely precious about a time when bands just set up on the floor and went at it.

Norwegian drummer Gard Nilssen plays in troupes that make the most of technology, but his trio Acoustic Unity—with bassist Petter Eldh and reedist André Roligheten—is something of a throwback, even as the music on To Whom Who Buys A Record seeks to cultivate an unconventional language. The knotty verbiage of the album’s title also references the past—To Whom Who Keeps A Record, an Ornette Coleman disc collecting material from 1959–’60. And while the music here isn’t necessarily beholden to the saxophone icon’s work, the same sense of adventure tugs at both.

Nilssen leads the trio through 12 post-post-bop explorations, while Roligheten’s voice emerges as a distinguishing feature. There’s a distinctive, but somehow fragile, Coltrane vibe on “Masakråke,” a tune written by the bandleader that highlights his indelible connection with the reedist, who bleats out the theme then effortlessly shifts to improv.

Acoustic Unity hasn’t been Nilssen’s main focus, his time being split among Cortex, the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra and sundry other outfits. But To Whom and 2017’s Live In Europe (Clean Feed) illustrate that he values the trio as a vehicle for his writing, unfettered by bombast—and electrical concerns.

Sara Gazarek

Thirsty Ghost
(Self Release)

With Thirsty Ghost—her sixth album—vocalist, composer, arranger and producer Sara Gazarek positions herself as an Artist with a capital “A.” Her stature among colleagues is illustrated by the company she keeps: Kurt Elling penned the liner notes essay and contributes vocals to “Distant Storm”; Larry Goldings plays organ on two cuts he wrote with Gazarek (“Easy Love” and “Gaslight District”); and Grammy nominee Alan Ferber wrote horn parts for three tunes.

Gifted with a vocal style that’s both authoritative and accessible, Gazarek soars atop Stu Mindeman’s bubbling Fender Rhodes and Christian Euman’s skittering drums on “Never Will I Marry” and then peppers the proceedings with some slick scatting. The elasticity of Gazarek’s phrasing makes the arrangement of “I Get Along Without You Very Well” a virtual master class in mining an amber song for fresh revelations.

The two aforementioned tunes brilliantly demonstrate the leader’s technical prowess and clear affinity for the Great American Songbook, but it’s the more eclectic fare here that reveals Gazarek’s full artistic range. Her source material comes from various decades and genres: Nick Drake’s “River Man” (1969), Stevie Wonder’s “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)” (1972), Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” (1973), Björk’s “Cocoon” (2001) and Sam Smith’s “I’m Not The Only One” (2014). Each of those renditions is stamped with a sleek creativity that distinguishes it from the original version. In Gazarek’s reading of “Jolene,” for example, the narrator is embodied not simply as a victim worthy of pity, but rather a fierce avenger who is not to be crossed.

The closing track, “Distant Storm,” features Gazarek’s original lyrics paired with pianist Brad Mehldau’s instrumental tune “When It Rains.” This cut is the zenith, thanks to its poetic lyrics; a carefully crafted arrangement; Gazarek’s multitracked vocals; a mighty—yet mellow—alto saxophone solo from Josh Johnson; Elling’s quirky guest turn; and the leader’s dramatic, punch-in-the-gut conclusion. Transcendence abounds in this six-minute tour de force.

Thirsty Ghost is the type of album that can transform a career, winning over new fans and causing longtime observers to re-evaluate their estimation of the performer.

Gazarek’s current tour includes two sets at Jazz Standard in New York on Aug. 10, plus residencies at the Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe outside Detroit (Aug. 16–17) and Jazz Alley in Seattle (Sept. 17–18).

Avishai Cohen


Because Avishai Cohen’s previous outing—a 2017 album titled 1970 (Sony)—was his most commercially successful release thus far, one wouldn’t blame him for revisiting a similar artistic wellspring. Instead, for his 17th leader date, the bassist went in another direction, recruiting an entirely different set of musicians for the deeply personal, nostalgia-fueled Arvoles.

Half the program here consists of trio recordings with pianist Elchin Shirinov and drummer Noam David, and on the other half, the band expands to a quintet with trombonist Björn Samuelsson and flutist Anders Hagberg. It’s all original compositions, with the exception of “Arvoles”—a traditional tune with a title in the Ladino language that means “Trees.”

In concert, Cohen can become a muscular machine of pure propulsion. On this studio album, however, he demonstrates an admirable musical diversity. His arco work adds wondrous, subtle texture to “Childhood (For Carmel),” a lovely, slow ballad. The arrangement for another ballad—the title cut—features a lot of space and poignant pauses to heighten the drama, with the leader’s conversational playing style evoking human speech. “Wings” has a touch of swing and includes a bass solo that finds Cohen shining brightly without grandstanding. “Simonero” features a piano riff so infectious that the tune could be the theme song to a hit sitcom.

Elsewhere, a tempered dose of sentimentality flows through the trio tune “Nostalgia,” spiced by a knotty piano motif, as well as the brief “New York 90’s,” featuring a triumphant trombone tone. With Arvoles, Cohen shows he’s forceful enough to melt your mind with a pounding rhythm—but tender enough to showcase his mother’s paintings in the CD packaging.

Cohen will highlight material from Arvoles during a quintet concert on Aug. 25 at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat, Israel.

Laura Jurd

Stepping Back, Jumping In

It’s all atmosphere that opens “I Am The Spring, You Are The Earth,” the nine-minute centerpiece of London-based trumpeter Laura Jurd’s new disc, Stepping Back, Jumping In.

The Ligeti Quartet executes her composition with airy ambience, sawing those strings to sinister effect. It’s a disquieting moment amid an album-length pastiche of jazz, chamber music and something akin to a film score. “I Am The Spring” drifts on for a bit, augmented by Rob Luft’s slide guitar and Anja Lauvdal’s mounting synth drone. Jurd’s horn doesn’t factor into the mix until about five minutes in, contributing a new layer of tension among the other brass as the tune ambles toward an experimental denouement.

A few tracks on, “Companion Species” more closely approximates Dinosaur—a collaborative ensemble Jurd performs in—splicing in a dash of funk and some jazzier tendencies. She doesn’t take the spotlight frequently, and here Jurd’s solo is pretty short. But she trills, emotes and delights so effectively in the quiet moments provided by her writing that it’s tough not to want the feature to stretch on for a while.

Stepping Back, Jumping In isn’t the composer’s first tangle with strings, but it marks further development in Jurd’s voice, one that cleverly weaves together new-music exceptionalism, experimental bravura and occasional jazz feels.

Victor Gould

Thoughts Become Things
(Blue Room)

Any player adding a string ensemble to their regular jazz troupe is taking a risk.

Several titans of the genre have given it a shot, and despite Charlie Parker With Strings generating enough acclaim to warrant a 2019 Record Store Day release of alternate takes—nearly 70 years after the sessions—the original album might not be one that many listeners would turn to if, say, Bird And Diz was within arm’s reach.

Pianist Victor Gould doesn’t lean too heavily on the string quartet that crops up on most of the tracks of his third leader date, Thoughts Become Things: On “October,” “What Do We Need,” “Let Go” and “Inheritance,” strings are used for added color to introduce and close out a song or transition between sections. The title track is a notable exception, as reeds and brass are interwoven with a moody quartet.

Tucking in a rendition of “Polka Dots And Moonbeams” adds a bit of historical grandeur to the proceedings. And saxophonist Godwin Louis—who somehow hasn’t become as big a name as the rest of the cohort here—gets a feature on “Karma Jones,” Gould bookending the composition with blocky, resonant chords.

Thoughts Become Things doesn’t take avant-garde risks, but it certainly advances a new and important compositional voice. And with Gould’s latest effort bolstered by a raft of talent—trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, bassist Vicente Archer, multi-instrumentalist Anne Drummond—listeners should expect further flourishes on future offerings.

Akiko Tsuruga/Graham Dechter/Jeff Hamilton

Equal Time

The best thing about the trio organist Akiko Tsuruga formed with drummer Jeff Hamilton and guitarist Graham Dechter is that none of them are trying to reinvent the wheel. Theirs is a straight-up, hard-swinging organ trio in the classic tradition. And all they’re trying to do is excel at the form—which they do. In spades.

Start with the groove, because if the rhythm isn’t right, we might as well pack up the B-3 and go home. Hamilton—as should be obvious to anyone who’s heard him behind Diana Krall, the L.A. 4 or any of the big bands with which he’s played—is a master of skip-ride swing, a player whose light touch belies the power of his pulse. But that’s only half the magic here: The rest lies with the uncanny swing of Akiko’s left-hand bass lines, which not only walk convincingly, but also push the beat the way a bassist would.

Because of those two elements, this trio is always deep in the pocket. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a churchy blues like Hank Mobley’s “A Baptist Beat,” an uptempo swinger like Steve Allen’s “This Could Be The Start Of Something Big” or even something as rhythmically tricky as John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice”—where the head slips gracefully between 3 and 4—the groove is always top-notch, and the solos make the most of it.

Listen, for example, to the end of “I Remember You,” where the three players trade eights. Dechter’s solo is lithe and tuneful, with cool, bop-fueled momentum, and Hamilton answers it with an equally melodic drum solo. Akiko takes a more soulful approach to the bridge and Hamilton answers in kind, with a snappily syncopated reply. It really is a band of equals—one that makes mainstream jazz fans wonder why Akiko and Dechter aren’t better known.

Steve Goodman

Affordable Art

Singer-songwriter Steve Goodman (1948–’84) has been gone for roughly the same amount of time that he wandered the Earth: It’s been 35 years since he succumbed to leukemia at age 36. In recent years, his legacy might have dimmed a bit, as the album No Big Surprise: The Steve Goodman Anthology and the all-star outing Tribute To Steve Goodman both fell out of print. The Omnivore label seeks to reverse that process in a big way with reissues of four Goodman albums, all loaded with numerous bonus tracks, including the sparkling gem Affordable Art (1984).

More successful as a composer than as a recording artist, Goodman penned “City Of New Orleans,” a modern classic that has been recorded dozens of times, most famously by Arlo Guthrie and Willie Nelson. Goodman and his close friend and fellow folkie John Prine teamed up to write “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” which David Allan Coe transformed into a country hit in 1975. (Live versions of those two tunes appear on Omnivore’s reissue of Artistic Hair, originally released in 1983.)

Chicago Cubs fans know Goodman for two of his own recordings: the wry “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request” and “Go Cubs Go,” the team’s victory anthem, originally written for radio station WGN. Both tunes are included on Omnivore’s reissue of Affordable Art, a generous package that includes seven previously unreleased solo acoustic tracks.

Prine shows up twice in this program—as the co-writer of the slight but charming “How Much Tequila (Did I Drink Last Night?)” and as the composer and duet partner on the brilliant, devastating “Souvenirs.” Goodman, who’s often compared to Prine, was a songwriter of many moods, and the original LP of Affordable Art demonstrated that he could craft material that was sad (“California Promises”), silly (“Talk Backwards”), sentimental (“Old Smoothies”) or surreal (“Watchin’ Joey Glow”).

At his best, few could match Goodman’s wit. He collaborated with two other clever tunesmiths—Shel Silverstein and Michael Peter Smith—for “Vegematic,” the hilarious, insanely catchy tale of a man who falls asleep in front of a TV and then, in a somnambulant state, answers “every single one of those late-night, mail-order ads.” Cynical Baby Boomers will appreciate the song’s stealthy stab at consumerism, particularly the line about “an autographed photograph of Rin Tin Tin at Six Flags Over Burbank.”

Affordable Art is the best of the four reissues, but the other collections have their merits—particularly for Goodman completionists. Omnivore’s version of Santa Ana Winds (1984) is marred by production values that haven’t aged well, but bolstered by a jazz-infused reading of “The Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Unfinished Business (1987) is an uneven collection of demos, outtakes and unissued recordings compiled by Goodman’s manager, Al Bunetta. Though the songwriter fought fatigue as his health failed, Goodman’s skills as an expressive folk guitarist survived, as evidenced by many fine performances chronicled on these four albums.

On Sale Now
February 2020
Nicholas Payton
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