Barney Wilen Quartet

Live In Tokyo ’91
(Elemental)

French saxophonist Barney Wilen’s a relatively unknown figure in the States; it’s perhaps his Zodiac or Moshi that obsessive diggers and avantists best know him for. But Wilen’s career stretched from the 1950s, when he recorded with Miles Davis and innumerable expat Americans, until his death in 1996.

A newly issued set, Live In Tokyo ’91, showcases the bandleader late in his career, still toting an assured tenor sound alongside a band performing at the Keystone Korner in Japan. It’s a straightahead effort, but so solid a recording that even those coming to the album hoping for the eccentricities deployed on Zodiac and Moshi should be sated by the bop dispensed here. A smoky take of Sonny Rollins’ “Doxy” comes just after a rendition of “Besame Mucho,” which is honestly a more fiery and rewarding interpretation than it has any right to be by 1991.

The set gets bogged down a bit when on the second disc the quartet turns to “Latin Alley” and features a pretty dated-sounding keyboard, courtesy of Olivier Hutman. It’s not a regrettable performance, just one that shows its age. And, for the most part, that’s the only disparaging thing to be said about Live In Tokyo ’91. While Wilen really never broke through in the States, the 14-tune recording could work to introduce a confident and thoughtful player to folks who never went digging for his work in the first place.

Kris Davis

Diatom Ribbons
(Pyroclastic)

In a recent Q&A with Wendell Berry, The New Yorker’s Amanda Petrusich asks the poet and naturalist about his output being connected to the past, if “all new work is in conversation with everything that preceded it, that language itself is simply a continuum.”

The best music—within the jazz world and beyond it—can contain a multitude of ideas and sounds, reference endless genres and tell listeners something about the moment that it was recorded, as well as the past. Diatom Ribbons­—and actually a lot about pianist Kris Davis in general—does precisely that.

Vocal snippets of Cecil Taylor crop up; Esperanza Spalding recites a poem by former U.S. Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks; and between Terri Lyne Carrington and producer/turntablist Val Jeanty, who ostensibly function as Davis’ trio on Diatom Ribbons, there’s a concerted beat-centric feel to more than a few spots across the album.

“Rhizomes” also folds guitarist Nels Cline, bassist Trevor Dunn and percussionist Ches Smith into the ensemble, casting a downtown no-wave spell over the proceedings. The amassed troupe doesn’t exactly summon DNA, but the recording’s constant pulse ties it to the out-rock world in a way few jazz acts seem compelled to explore.

Synthesizing so much information could pretty clearly have resulted in a messy pastiche, but bandleader Davis has taken it upon herself to translate the past’s artistic investigations and triumphs for contemporary listeners—and those in the future.

Ben Markley Quartet

Slow Play
(OA2)

In the liner notes to his new quartet album, Slow Play, pianist Ben Markley proudly cites pianist Cedar Walton (1934–2013) as one of his key influences. The disc is a follow-up to the Ben Markley Big Band’s Clockwise: The Music Of Cedar Walton (OA2), which received a 4-star review in the July 2017 issue of DownBeat. On his current project, Markley incorporates Walton’s strong sense of melodicism into a program of eight highly satisfying original compositions. Markley, the director of jazz studies at the University of Wyoming, recorded the album at Denver’s Mighty Fine Studios. His stellar bandmates are musicians with whom he previously had collaborated, and he wrote the tunes with them in mind: bassist Marty Kenney, drummer Jim White and monster saxophonist Joel Frahm. Conga player Andy Wheelock (who is also on the faculty at UW) adds intriguing Latin textures to two tracks: “Max’s Mission” and “One For Armando.”

Deep grooves, sweet swing and dynamic interplay are all essential ingredients in this program. On the songs that evolve into blowing vehicles for Frahm—such as the nine-minute “’Mon Back”—he delivers a tenor tone that is brawny yet beauteous, offering solos full of feeling and free of extraneous notes while reinforcing the overall compositional structure. On the ballad “Sentience,” White switches to brushes and Frahm picks up a soprano, etching lines that are compelling and never cloying. On the sly, slinky “The Return OF Catboy,” Frahm cleverly drops in a quote from Harold Arlen’s “If I Only Had A Brain,” and on “One For Armando,” he briefly nods to “America” (from West Side Story). Throughout the program, Markley steers the ship but gives his bandmates room to roam. Toward the end of “Armando,” the drums and conga dialogue with piano support reflects the leader’s commitment to serving the song.

This album is one of those sparkling, straightahead gems that can convert pop fans into jazz acolytes.

Markley’s big band, with guest drummer/composer Ari Hoenig, will perform at Dazzle in Denver on Oct. 25, and the pianist will lead a trio with Wheelock and bassist Gonzalo Teppa at UW in Laramie, Wyoming, on Nov. 17.

Bill Frisell

Harmony
(Blue Note)

On his Blue Note Records debut, veteran guitarist Bill Frisell documents his latest project, a reflection on the near-magical musical kinships he’s forged with various artists during his career. Produced by his longtime collaborator Lee Townsend and recorded by Tucker Martine at Flora Recording & Playback in Portland, Oregon, HARMONY features Frisell in a quartet setting with two longtime collaborators—vocalist Petra Haden and cello player/vocalist Hank Roberts—plus a relative newcomer, Luke Bergman, on acoustic guitar, baritone guitar, bass and voice. It’s a cozy configuration that fosters an up-close and intimate vibe centered around the human voice and rooted in jazz, traditional Americana and chamber music.

Throughout the album, Haden’s ethereal lead vocals and the trio’s quietly powerful harmonies bring new dimensions to Frisell’s music, magnifying the pensive beauty and perpetual patience that mark his guitar playing. Originally commissioned by the FreshGrass Foundation (an organization dedicated to the vitality of contemporary American roots music) and performed at FreshGrass West! in San Francisco during November 2016, HARMONY features eight compositions by Frisell, some from his existing catalog and some brand new: “There In A Dream” by the late bassist Charlie Haden (who had deep musical and personal ties to Frisell), Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” Lerner & Loewe’s “On The Street Where You Live,” Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All The Flowers Gone,” Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times” and the traditional “Red River Valley.”

The message behind the music is a celebration of a great old American tradition that Frisell fully embraces and clearly articulates in one simple statement: “Let’s just get together and sing.”

Caroline Davis & Rob Clearfield’s Persona

Anthems
(Sunnyside)

The most compelling thing about the sound of Caroline Davis’ alto saxophone is the way it lingers. She doesn’t just play notes, but inhabits them. So, even the briefest of passing tones is given its due as it progresses to a phrase’s conclusion. It’s a very deliberate style of playing, and one that justifies the title Anthems without making it seem like a challenge.

It helps that the title tune, with its stuttering, staccato theme, plays against type, offering not so much heroic uplift as hesitant urgency while the band works through the melody’s glitchy rhythms. Without a background beat, the accents carry a sort of randomness, which is reinforced by the suddenness of the ending, which feels as if Davis simply had shouted, “Stop!” Four tracks later, there’s a reprise of the tune; this one is not only more legato, but grounded by Jay Sawyer’s metronomic snare. With that through-line in place, it’s easier to appreciate the rhythmic eddying of the improvisation, as Rob Clearfield’s Fender Rhodes messes with chords and Sam Weber’s electric bass skitters beneath Davis’ alto. Again, the ending is abrupt, but this time, it’s easier to hear the build-up. Together, the two versions seem less like bookends than two samples from a universe of possible “Anthems.”

Anthems is full of thoughtful interplay between melody and rhythm, and the best thing about the album is that however much theory goes into the writing, the music never sounds contrived or mechanical. “People Look Like Tanks,” for instance, has each of the four members working off different rhythmic concepts: the piano like a syncopated Philip Glass, the bass moving so slowly it seems like a half-tempo countermelody, the drumming so spare it’s as if he weren’t allowed more than two beats per bar. And yet, the pieces jell perfectly beneath the wistful questing of Davis’ alto. Selfless and deep, it’s the sort of playing that speaks to the connection these musicians feel, and the intelligence with which they go about making music, qualities that mark this as a band to watch.

Crosscurrents Trio

Good Hope
(Edition)

On the bandstand, Zakir Hussain is an intense listener deeply committed to meaningful conversation. That’s true whether he’s performing with a septet edition of Crosscurrents or scaling the band down to a trio version with two other virtuoso musicians: bassist Dave Holland and saxophonist Chris Potter. Hussain justifiably is referred to as the world’s most celebrated tabla player, and on his new trio album, Good Hope, he plays other percussion instruments, too: the kanjira, chanda and madal. In his awesomely skilled hands, these percussive tools expand his palette; after all, you can’t be a great conversationalist without supplying nuanced replies and colorful commentary.

All three musicians in this egalitarian trio are credited as co-producers of Good Hope. Hussain contributes two compositions to the album, while Holland and Potter each supply three tunes. The 66-minute program is an extended master class on musical conversations, with tracks like Hussain’s “J Bhai” characterized by plenty of sonic space surrounding the instruments, allowing listeners to fully appreciate the details (all carefully captured by recording engineer Chris Allen at the Sear Sound studios in New York).

Fans who discovered Hussain through his work in the band Sangam (with saxophonist Charles Lloyd and drummer Eric Harland) will find much to like on Good Hope. Holland delivers melodic, authoritative bass lines and Potter frequently cuts loose, unfurling solos that gain momentum and muscle as they motor forward. When he switches to soprano saxophone on Holland’s 11-minute composition “Lucky Seven,” Potter illustrates the mixture of high-octane pyrotechnics and thoughtful subtlety that makes him such an acclaimed reedist. (Potter knows the tune well, having recorded it on the Dave Holland Quintet’s 2006 album, Critical Mass.) The bassist’s “Bedouin Trail” offers a smoldering vibe that complements the more fiery, uptempo material in the Good Hope program. The tenor and tabla dialogue on the title track is a joy to behold.

The Crosscurrents Trio’s European tour will include shows at the Enjoy Jazz Festival in Heidelberg, Germany (Oct. 23), the Tampere Jazz Happening in Finland (Nov. 1) and the London Jazz Festival (Nov. 17).

Black String

Karma
(ACT)

In the West, folk-fusion bands, from the Clancy Brothers and Fairport Convention to Mumford & Sons, have brokered their debt to the past by making folk melodicism conform to the norms of contemporary pop song structure. Black String, by contrast, prefers to make modern pop and jazz conventions bend to the instrumental strictures of traditional Korean music. So, unlike, say, the Wagakki Band, which uses traditional Japanese instruments to play mainstream rock, Black String uses mostly traditional Korean instruments to turn rock, jazz, and other styles into a kind of hybridized folk music.

Part of that stems from the fact that Black String is, itself, a hybridized band. Although bandleader Yoon Jeong Heo focuses on the stringed instrument the geomungo—the Korean cousin of Japan’s koto—and members Aram Lee and Min Wang Hwang play traditional Korean flutes and percussion, respectively, Jean Oh balances that with electric guitar and electronics, a sonic palette that adds anything from a rock edge to an ambient wash of acoustic color.

That range affords Black String a tremendous stylistic latitude. Some tunes, like “Beating Road,” augment folk melodies with the sort of rhythmic urgency that suggests a cross-cultural connection with jazz. On the other hand, the group’s mournful, coloristic cover of Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For A Film)” is not unlike listening to music with subtitles—although the content is familiar, the expression is different enough to seem transforming. At times, as on “Exhale-Puri,” Oh’s straight-eights strumming suggests a rock sensibility, but then Hwang starts singing in a folkloric Korean style and the balance flips entirely.

All told, Karma marks the sort of cultural crossover that, while not as commercially penetrating as K-Pop, might prove more enduring, because it’s less about assimilation than it is about expressing cultural identity across musical conventions. And as much as I like BLACKPINK, I’m much more curious to hear what Black String does next.

Telepathic Band

Electric Telepathy, Vol. 1
(577)

If it’s generally accepted that performers—at least those seeking some sort of artistic fulfillment—are engaged in a constant search for a language fit to dispense their ideas, Telepathic Band’s Electric Telepathy, Vol. 1 seems to find the Brooklyn ensemble scouting out at least two dialects.

Reedist Daniel Carter—an occasional part of the William Parker-Matthew Shipp axis of exploratory improvisation—gets top billing here, in part as deference to his work through the decades. But also because of his clear connection with clarinetist Patrick Holmes, the pair delivering slightly-off harmonies across the album.

But it’s mostly Matthew Putman’s ghostly keyboard washes that make Electric Telepathy, Vol. 1 work. “Horticultural Techniques” is based on his bed of echoes layered atop bassist Hilliard Greene and drummer Federico Ughi’s rhythms, enabling the frontline to seek out expressive and impromptu statements. The 20-minute opener, “Flesh Dialect,” ostensibly functions the same way, with ambience courtesy of Putman’s keys serving as one of the band’s most notable features. “Ghost-Watch,” though, encapsulates the troupe’s discovery of swing, Carter (this time on trumpet) and Holmes bumping up against Ughi’s persistent drumming after conjuring a groove about two minutes in.

It’s the uncertainty in both these vernacular approaches that makes Electric Telepathy, Vol. 1 worth a listen, and gives the Brooklyn ensemble such an auspicious name.

The Sensational Barnes Brothers

Nobody’s Fault But My Own
(Bible & Tire Recording Company)

Fat Possum Records, the acclaimed, Mississippi-based label, has launched a new imprint devoted to gospel music: Bible & Tire Recording Company. The inaugural releases are a reissue of late-1960s and early-’70s material by Elizabeth King & The Gospel Souls, The D-Vine Spirituals Recordings, and an album of new recordings, The Sensational Barnes Brothers’ Nobody’s Fault But My Own.

Music is in the bloodline of the Barnes family: Chris Barnes and his brother Courtney are following in the footsteps of their father, the gospel singer Calvin “Duke” Barnes (who passed away on April 5), and their mother, Deborah, who once worked as a backing vocalist for Ray Charles. At one point, the couple and their four children performed as a group called Joy. Today, a group of relatives still records and performs under the name The Barnes Family.

All the material on Chris and Courtney’s new album was mined from the 1970s catalog of the Memphis-based label Designer Records. With the organ work of Calvin Barnes II or Jimbo Mathus as a frequent focal point, the group explores a soul-music aesthetic that will be familiar to devotees of the Stax label. The songs’ lyrics discuss praying, reading the Bible and devoting oneself to a higher calling. On “I Won’t Have To Cry No More,” George Sluppick’s drumming and Will Sexton’s pithy guitar riffs reinforce the vocals of the brothers, who traffic in the type of tight harmonies that sometimes come easily to family members. The crying pedal steel guitar of Kell Kellum on “Try The Lord” and the head-bobbing, foot-tapping infectious vibe of the rousing “Here Am I” have the power to appeal to believers and skeptics alike.

Fans who enjoyed the recent Aretha Franklin gospel-centered documentary Amazing Grace (filmed in 1972) and who now want to explore retro-leaning gospel music of today might want to check out this new work by The Sensational Barnes Brothers.