William Hooker

Symphonie Of Flowers
(ORG)

“Freedom Rider,” the second cut on veteran drummer William Hooker’s Symphonie Of Flowers, likely was intended to invoke Art Blakey as much as civil-rights activists. Of course, Blakey was both.

But on this album—just as he has done through decades of abstract and poignant work with folks situated in the jazz and rock worlds—Hooker uses history to enliven a suite of music that bounds through subgenres and percussive ideas, tying together philosophy and sentiment in a way that generations of players have aimed for, but few have achieved. Is it broadly palatable? Probably not. But neither were the machinations of pianist Cecil Taylor, and we’re not likely to forget about him any time soon.

The bandleader opens the disc with “Chain Gangs,” and wraps up the program with “Hieroglyphics,” which judders with gravelly synthesizer, freely blown saxophone and snippets of piano and flute, as well as Hooker’s percussive acrobatics. Points between—“Rastafarian,” with its new-music lilt and fiery drums display, or “Jazz,” which seems to posit the freer history of the music as the line to follow—serve to fill out Hooker’s perspective on the genre’s development alongside bits of social commentary.

More drum features crop up on Symphonie than listeners are going to find on most other jazz-related discs. And sometimes it’s actually a handful of drummers—Warren Smith, Michael Thompson, Marc Edwards and Hooker—blasting away, while players switch to keyboards and summon jagged snatches of melody to color Hooker’s dramatic suite.

Adrian Cunningham & His Friends

Play Lerner & Loewe
(Arbors)

The leader clearly had a famous precedent in mind when he recorded his new album, Adrian Cunningham & His Friends Play Lerner & Loewe. Cunningham, an Australian reedist now based in New York, has crafted a gem in the spirit of 1956’s Shelly Manne & His Friends’ Modern Jazz Performances Of Songs From ‘My Fair Lady.’ For that vintage, influential recording, the lineup was a trio: Manne (drums), André Previn (piano) and Leroy Vinnegar (bass). But Cunningham pursues a broader sonic palette here: He recruited Fred Hersch’s acclaimed, namesake trio—featuring bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson—to join him in the core unit, and he invited trumpeter Randy Brecker and trombonist Wycliffe Gordon to play on a few tracks.

Whereas Manne focused on a single musical by the powerhouse duo of lyricist Alan Jay Lerner (1918–’86) and composer Frederick Loewe (1901–’88), Cunningham dives into showtunes not only from My Fair Lady (“Just You Wait,” “The Rain In Spain” and “I Could Have Danced All Night”), but also from Gigi, Camelot, Brigadoon and Paint Your Wagon. Along with this Cunningham album, Arbors Records simultaneously released another, related disc: a duo project by Dick Hyman (piano) and Ken Peplowski (clarinet, tenor saxophone) titled Counterpoint Lerner & Loewe.

The program on Cunningham’s work—a mixture of written charts and improvisation—showcases the bandleader’s skills on saxophone, clarinet and flute. This straightahead jazz gem also reveals the adventurous streak of a bandleader who seeks to bend, dissect and reconstruct showtunes in a new way, with fresh ideas and unexpected tempos. When Gordon unleashes some grease and growl on “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “I Was Born Under A Wand’rin’ Star,” the band transports the material from the Broadway stage to a smoky jazz club.

Fans of Hersch’s trio albums likely won’t be disappointed with this sparkling, nuanced program. The intertwining of Hersch’s poignant piano lines and Cunningham’s tender clarinet work on the ballad “The Heather On The Hill” epitomizes sophistication and grace.

Nick Fraser/Kris Davis/Tony Malaby

Zoning
(Astral Spirits)

Drummer Nick Fraser is a longtime staple of the Toronto jazz scene—and for good reason. Not only is he a tremendously creative player, equally at home with free-form improvisation and standard bop-style jazz, he’s also a remarkably attentive listener. It’s that latter quality, his ability to grasp and support what other improvisors are doing, that sets the tone for Zoning, the second album by his trio with pianist Kris Davis and saxophonist Tony Malaby.

Actually, “trio” is a bit of a misnomer here, as Fraser, Davis and Malaby are joined by saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and trumpeter Lina Allemano on half the album. The very first thing we hear on the title track is a squeaky, percussive figure played by Laubrock that quickly establishes both a pulse and a dynamic, as she and Malaby duet conversationally. A little more than a minute in, Allemano enters, growling. She offers an angular legato line that contrasts nicely against the short, near-staccato note clusters of the saxophones, and Fraser enters not long after, his snare and tambourine so understated that it takes a moment to register what they are.

After Davis comes in, the horns fade, and she and Fraser perform a clattering duet that will remind some listeners of pianist Cecil Taylor and drummer Andrew Cyrille. Then the horns return, taking the tune to its peak by working off a phrase that’s repeated at differing tempos, like a pot brought to a boil and then cooled. It’s an amazing fusion of composition structure and improvisational freedom, made all the more compelling by the deeply simpatico playing of these five musicians.

In fact, each selection on the album has its own compositional logic and improvisational surprises. The thrumming, clattering “Events” is full of rhythmic cross-currents that show off Fraser’s and Davis’ strengths, yet still showcase Malaby’s searing emotion on tenor.

“Sketch 46,” by contrast, gets by on the barest hint of a pulse, as the horns—Allemano, most notably—use nonstandard techniques to expand their sonic palettes. Yet no matter how abstract the group’s sound gets, there’s always a sense of unity and structure to the music, the sort of thing that only comes from time spent learning from and listening to each other.

Johnny Griffin/Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis

Ow! Live At The Penthouse
(Reel To Real)

Back in the early ’60s, when tenor saxophonists Johnny Griffin and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis teamed up to record a series of albums, they were dubbed the “Tough Tenors,” no doubt in appreciation of the rough-and-tumble nature of their dueling solos. But when I first heard them, courtesy of a Prestige “two-for” package released a decade later, what struck me about their blues-inflected interplay wasn’t its combative quality but, rather, its soul. To my ears, they had more in common with Sam and Dave than with Foreman and Ali.

That’s definitely the vibe on Ow! Live At The Penthouse, recorded over two nights at Seattle’s Penthouse club in 1962. Instead of playing to the pugilistic side of their sound, the program has the relaxed, congenial feel of friendly conversation, as if each solo is meant less as one-upmanship than as point/counterpoint.

Not that there’s anything lax about their playing. Indeed, “Tickle Toe,” the Basie chestnut that was one of the highlights of the 1960 LP Tough Tenors, is even tougher here, as they rip through the tune at a slightly higher tempo and a decidedly more elevated level of post-bop improvisation. Were the duo around today, their catalog likely would be peppered with references to the Fast and the Furious movie franchise.

That said, the most endearing thing about Ow! is the playfulness of the solos. Griffin’s feature on “Bahia,” for example, starts off by echoing some of the gruff bluesiness of Davis’ opening solo, but eventually, playing off Horace Parlan’s piano chords, the saxophonist quotes “Manteca,” and then finishes the tune with a lengthy lift from Ravel’s “Bolero.”

While Davis’ solos are long on drive and bluesy growl, Griffin’s more boppish sensibility is leavened by his fondness for quotes. He slips a few bars of Thelonious Monk’s “Rhythm-A-Ning” into the soulful “Ow!,” nods to “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” while trading fours with Davis during “Blue Lou,” and ends his solo on “Second Balcony Jump” with a snippet of Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March.” Like everything else on this album, it’s a blast.

Marta Sánchez Quintet

El Rayo De Luz
(Fresh Sound)

She has songs about ragweed, green ants, sunflowers and dead flowers.

New York-based pianist Marta Sánchez distills the natural world, taking in small vignettes and turning them into springy compositions for her quintet. And most of the band from 2017’s Danza Imposible (Fresh Sound New Talent) returns for her new release, El Rayo De Luz, with tenorist Chris Cheek taking over the spot vacated by Jerome Sabbagh.

A pair of tunes—“El Cambio” and “Unchanged”—chew over stasis and the push for something new, ideas that clearly ping around the composer’s mind.

“I thought a lot this past year about change, about all the things I have been [wanting] to change for years, about what remains unchanged, about how to make a big change, if it is even possible,” Sánchez wrote in an email. “I think both tunes, if [they’re] not talking about the same [thing], probably are related to the same chain of thought.”

Change and beauty come to bear on “Dead Flowers,” too, a tune prompted by a vase that offered a slouching allure to the composer. The shift from lushness to decaying petals seems to reflect Sánchez’s preoccupation with life’s little variations. The song itself—all moody prevarication—is a noirish sketch with Cheek bleating out an intro to a piano feature that’s both inquisitive and filled with life, but set against a dark backdrop.

If Sánchez keeps shuttling the gradations of daily life through the spectrum of her keyboard, we’re eventually going to wind up with a collection of albums that serve as a novelistic look into her mind—and likely be better off for it.

Brian Lynch Big Band

The Omni-American Book Club: My Journey Through Literature In Music
(Hollistic MusicWorks)

Brian Lynch’s first big band album connects the trumpeter’s lifelong passion for reading with his expansive vision as a composer/arranger. And while the dedications on The Omni-American Book Club: My Journey Through Literature In Music reveal Lynch’s deep interest in African-American literature and social justice, one need not be familiar with authors W.E.B. DuBois, Albert Murray, Ned Sublette, Naomi Klein, Masha Gessen, Isabel Wilkerson, Ralph Ellison, Chinua Achebe, Amiri Baraka and A.B. Spellman to fully enjoy this Afro-Caribbean-fueled, two-disc collection of strikingly fresh, intricately arranged original compositions.

An alumnus of groups led by Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Eddie Palmieri and Phil Woods—and a leader on more than 20 of his own albums—Lynch made his mark as a distinguished improviser and writer conversant in a wide variety of genres long before this new large-ensemble project was conceived. With its arrival this summer, The Omni-American Book Club has elevated Lynch’s vast oeuvre to ambitious new heights of accomplishment and acclaim, earning a Grammy nomination for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album. It features a stellar cast that includes Lynch’s teaching colleagues at University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, students and alumni of Frost, world-class players from the Miami area and six stellar guests who appear on one track each: drummer Dafnis Prieto, flutist Orlando “Maraca” Valle, soprano saxophonist Dave Liebman, violinist Regina Carter and alto saxophonists Donald Harrison and Jim Snidero. The music captivates as unrelenting grooves, sparkling ensemble interplay and ripping solos take the listener on an exhilarating thrill-ride inspired by fearless intellectuals whose written works have had a life-changing effect on this socially conscious bandleader.

The leadoff track, “Crucible For Crisis,” establishes the high musical standards The Omni-American Book Club adheres to, with Prieto, Valle and Lynch igniting the passion that smolders over the course of the entire program. Liebman takes a leading role on “The Trouble With Elysium,” blowing with the tune’s swing-to-Latin flow and trading increasingly bold statements with tenor saxophonist Gary Keller during the solo section before Lynch, pianist Alex Brown and drummer Kyle Swan contribute excellent improvisations of their own. “Tribute To Blue (Mitchell)” commits to a classic big band vibe, as Snidero and Lynch swing mightily during solos that mix laid-back bluesiness with spirited bursts of bebop.

Avram Fefer Quartet

Testament
(Clean Feed)

Saxophonist Avram Fefer has developed a rapport that’s held for about a decade with the tandem of bassist Eric Revis and drummer Chad Taylor. The relationship has been flexible enough to endure some downtime; the trio’s last album was released in 2011. But Testament revels in new and nuanced textures as the trio reconvenes, adding Marc Ribot.

The guitarist’s talents—spread across genres during the past 35-plus years through his work with Diana Krall, Solomon Burke, Elvis Costello, Marianne Faithful and Tom Waits—push the band toward the edges, prompted by a tone that shifts from jazz-world comping to blues shredding. It’s also a feature of the album that might help pull some more listeners with traditionally tuned ears into Fefer’s orbit.

“Essaouira,” presumably named for the Moroccan port city, mimics the tide, rolling in on waves of Taylor’s drumming as Fefer and Ribot mirror each other on the melody. The tune, penned by the bandleader, first appeared on Eliyahu, a collective 2011 work by the trio. With Ribot’s addition, though, the song takes on a new life, as does Taylor’s “Song For Dyani,” another cut from that earlier album.

“Magic Mountain” and “Wishful Thinking” incorporate heavy doses of Ribot’s spirited six-stringing, but the bandleader’s writing and playing still shine through, touching on the calmest moments of contemplation and moving into the most pressurized distillations of passion. That the saxophonist does so in a holistic fashion across Testament makes it a hothouse of a recording, one that clearly benefits from Fefer’s time in Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber and Adam Rudolph’s Go: Organic Orchestra.

Joel Paterson

Let It Be Guitar! Joel Paterson Plays The Beatles
(Bloodshot/Ventrella)

John Lennon and Paul McCartney created such a rich body of work that nearly every new tribute to The Beatles generates a healthy dose of musical joy—regardless of the genre. Even though tributes to the lads from Liverpool are diverse and commonplace, Chicago-based guitarist Joel Paterson still generates excitement with Let It Be Guitar! Joel Paterson Plays The Beatles, a disc that would reside nicely in a playlist alongside Chet Atkins’ 1966 LP Picks On The Beatles.

Mixing elements of jazz, rock, country and exotica, Paterson (electric guitar, lap steel, pedal steel), Beau Sample (bass) and Alex Hall (drums) explore The Beatles’ early work—such as “All My Loving,” “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “This Boy”—as well as later material in the band’s career (like George Harrison’s “Something” and even the brief “Her Majesty,” the “hidden track” from Abbey Road). Jazz organist Chris Foreman sits in for few tunes, adding intoxicating textures to the mix.

Paterson clearly has an affinity for The Beatles’ early work, as evidenced by the artwork for the album, a parody of the cover of the band’s first Stateside LP, Introducing … The Beatles. Overall, Paterson embraces a spare, less-is-more aesthetic.

It’s hard not to smile or sway while listening to the twangy rendition of “And I Love Her” or the sly version of “Things We Said Today.” The readings of “If I Fell” and “Michelle” are so charming that they might tempt the listener to listen to each track again, rather than running to hear the Fab Four versions. “Honey Pie” allows Paterson to show off his skills on acoustic, electric and pedal steel guitar.

“I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party” isn’t on most fans’ list of Top 10 Beatles tunes, but hardcore fanatics might recall that Rosanne Cash took a version to the top of the country charts in 1989. Here Paterson concludes his rendition with a powerful, ghostly pedal-steel wail.

Lolly Allen

Coming Home
(OA2)

In recent years, among the vibraphonists who have raised their profiles as bandleaders are Joel Ross, Behn Gillece and Matt Moran. Joining their ranks is Los Angeles-based Lolly Allen, whose cohesive new album, Coming Home, features two original compositions, along with interpretations of songs by Johnny Mandel (“Emily”), Mario Bauza (“Mambo Inn”) and Antônio Carlos Jobim (“O Grande Amor”). For this project, Allen teamed up with a couple of rising stars: Danny Janklow, who contributed alto and tenor saxophone throughout the program, and pianist Josh Nelson, who played on about half the tracks, served as assistant producer for the recording and wrote an essay for the liner notes. Allen also recruited some jazz veterans for the sessions, including guitarist Larry Koonse and drummer Paul Kreibich.

The program opens with a joyous, swinging version of Horace Silver’s “The Hippest Cat In Hollywood,” and it closes with a quintet rendition of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Bebop” that features delightful, rapid-fire exchanges among band members. Elsewhere, Allen’s luminous tone permeates her lovely arrangement of Tadd Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now.” A reading of Luiz Bonfá’s “Gentle Rain” features drummer Kendall Kay’s light rhythmic touch—evoking the precipitation of the title—as well as a mesmerizing solo from Allen.

With the satisfying musical journey presented on Coming Home, the young vibraphonist has become a rising bandleader to watch.