By Dave Cantor
An uncompromising sonic storyteller, alto saxophonist Caroline Davis returns with Heart Tonic, an album that deals equally with an emotionally charged narrative and the science behind it.
Frequently heard in settings that feature a guitarist, Davis opts for different instrumentation here, without a six-stringer in tow. On this quintet project, trumpeter Marquis Hill helps make Davis’ compositions sound more fully developed than some of her past work. And as Davis searches for and then discovers her place among New York’s jazz cognoscenti, her writing also investigates literal matters of the heart; she took to studying the organ after finding out about her father’s health issues.
Although song titles here deal with potential loss, musically, this is not a dour set of tunes. “Fortune” hedges in that direction, with an arrangement that is slow but never dirgey, as wisps of Benjamin Hoffman’s organ color the background. Bursts of boldness demarcate sections of “Dionysian,” with its circular melody and harmonizing saxophone and trumpet. No overwhelming joyousness is exclaimed during these compositions. But the impeccably performed batch of work succeeds, even if some of the narrative that prompted the writing of these tunes is lost on listeners who haven’t taken time to read up on Davis’ conceptual base here.
The album’s closer, “Ocean Motion,” nicely encapsulates the musical aims of Heart Tonic, while giving voice to some relatively spacey keyboard melodies, reflecting the ever-broadening compositional dexterity Davis exhibits throughout the album’s nine tracks.
By Bobby Reed
Last Things Last, the follow-up to Greg Cordez’s 2015 quintet album, Paper Crane, finds the bassist/composer working with an entirely different band this time around. His gifted cohort includes Kirk Knuffke (cornet), Michael Blake (tenor saxophone), Steve Cardenas (guitar) and Allison Miller (drums). All these musicians are brilliant improvisers, and as this album illustrates, all are sensitive listeners who react to the musical moment, generously contribute to the overall vibe and then step out of the way, without grandstanding.
Cordez not only had the good taste to hire Cardenas, but he also had the good sense to turn the guitarist loose to sculpt gorgeous, clean lines that add flair to the regal tune “Figlock.” The teamwork of Knuffke and Blake is the cornerstone to “Low Winter Sun,” on which the musicians weave in and out of unison riffs and compelling individual statements. On the spare closer, “Junebug,” Cardenas demonstrates just how powerful a delicate, simple line can be. Ben Allison’s tasteful production makes this album a gem that will appeal to longtime jazz fans, as well as listeners who might be new to the genre.
By Dave Cantor
Prolific Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and his trio Fire! return to noise-rock territory on The Hands, stepping back a bit from the more obviously jazz-related She Sleeps, She Sleeps from 2016.
The bandleader keeps it simple here, eschewing the guest cameos that added different textures to previous Fire! recordings, and instead relies on the grounded support of drummer Andreas Werliin and bassist Johan Berthling. The Hands roils in rhythmic determinism, enabling Gustafsson to craft dark lines on tenor, baritone and bass saxophones. A few brief reprieves from the band’s gloom crop up—“Touches Me With The Tips Of Wonder” finds the troupe sounding like nighttime at some deserted wharf, all foghorns and foreboding. That sonic scaffolding is repurposed on a few tracks, including “To Shave The Leaves. In Red. In Black.,” as Gustafsson, who also contributes scrambled electronics to the proceedings, works to cement a specificity of mood here. He succeeds.
Perhaps too pessimistic and seriously indebted to the most squalid veins of noise-rock for some jazz aficionados, Fire! claims the musical niche it’s been staking out for about a decade, even as the closing “I Guard Her To Rest. Declaring Silence.” might rank as a tortured ballad for the ensemble.
By Frank Alkyer
On Returnings, Danish guitarist Jakob Bro and his band take their time.
Bro’s music is not about flash and bravura; it subtly floats through quiet details, creating sound paintings of depth, warmth and beauty. Bro is joined on this set by three like-minded admirers of musical soundscapes. Trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg’s impeccable taste and tone are highlighted on tunes like “Oktober,” where he plays warm, muted cornet, and “Youth,” where his trumpet suspends and breathes an aching embrace. Bassist and longtime Bro collaborator Thomas Morgan offers his delicate touch along with drummer Jon Christensen’s raindrops of beauty on tunes like “Strands” and “View.” As a leader, Bro clearly enjoys being part of an ensemble where the music and compositions shine. The interplay between the group on “Lyskaster” is a perfect example. Mikkelborg and Bro lead and follow each other through the melody of this soulful, aching ballad while Morgan and Christensen provide rustling accents behind them.
Most of this album has an acoustic, organic sound, but the title track is an exception. Here, Bro and brethren take a darker, electronic tack; it’s an unusual addition to the program, but it works. As a whole, this is a recording to be savored during life’s quieter moments. It’s a great listen to ease into or out of a long day. It’s music to escape into on the weekend; it’s music you can come back to again and again.
By Bobby Reed
Fans of large-ensemble music might notice the sturdy artistic thread that connects bandleaders Maria Schneider, Ryan Truesdell and Owen Broder. Schneider helped put the ArtistShare label on the map with albums by her acclaimed namesake orchestra. Truesdell, her close collaborator and co-producer, has further burnished his stellar reputation by producing Heritage, the new album by Broder’s American Roots Project ensemble. Broder, a woodwinds player, recruited 15 instrumentalists and arrangers for this album, which explores elements of folk, blues, classical and Americana music through the jazz lens. The combination of traditional folk tunes, Copland-like flourishes and superb musicianship result in a transcendent work of art—one that celebrates human imagination while evoking the natural beauty of windswept prairies.
Miho Hazama’s original composition “Wherever This Road Leads” and Jim McNeely’s arrangement of the traditional tune “Cripple Creek” both feature excellent work from violinist Sara Caswell, who is equally adept at solos and coloration (and who topped the category Rising Star-Violin in the 2017 DownBeat Critics Poll).
South African vocalist Vuyo Sotashe soars on “The People Could Fly,” an Alphonso Horne composition that draws on both African-American and South African roots. The centerpiece of the album is Truesdell’s stunning, 10-minute arrangement of the trad tune “Wayfaring Stranger,” featuring vocals by Sotashe, Wendy Gilles and Kate McGarry. Pianist Frank Kimbrough establishes a suspenseful mood during the opening segment of the piece, the arrangement eventually unfurling into a hypnotic performance that is at times mournful, majestic and even ominous. The other brilliant musicians on the album are bassist Jay Anderson, trombonist Nick Finzer, vibraphonist James Shipp, trumpeter Scott Wendholt and drummer Matt Wilson.
The beautiful graphic design and packaging of Heritage exemplifies the way in which an ArtistShare release can highlight a strong visual aesthetic without cutting any corners. (Broder and the American Roots Project will perform material from the album on March 14 at Jazz Standard in New York.)
By Ed Enright
This long-awaited solo album from Bill Frisell, who has spent a considerable portion of his career collaborating with others, reflects just how far the guitarist has come since making his first recordings for ECM in the early 1980s.
As a leader and sideman on more than 250 albums, Frisell has proven himself time and again to be an expert at engaging his fellow musicians in meaningful musical conversations and playful call-and-response. In short, he plays well, and often, with others—and that’s what makes his unaccompanied performances on Music IS so revealing. On several tracks, Frisell essentially accompanies himself via studio overdubbing or looping. On others, he goes completely solo. Frisell maintains a light and spontaneous feeling throughout Music IS, even on the more “orchestrated” tracks.
To prepare for the recording, he played solo for a week at the Stone in New York with virtually no plan other than to attempt new music he never had played before and to keep himself off-balance. Then, he continued that process in the studio, where he recorded brand new original pieces (“Change In The Air,” “Thankful,” “What Do You Want,” “Miss You” and “Go Happy Lucky”) and reworked several compositions he’d recorded in the past (“Ron Carter,” “Monica Jane,” “The Pioneers,” “Kentucky Derby,” “Winslow Homer,” “In Line,” “Rambler”), some radically so. Frisell’s piece “Pretty Stars Were Made To Shine,” from his 2001 album Blues Dream, appears here in two pieces, as the first and final tracks: “Pretty Stars” and “Made To Shine.”
Produced by longtime collaborator Lee Townsend, Music IS presents Frisell at his most unguarded, in an intimate setting that renders him and his guitars completely exposed. It provides listeners with a portal of sorts to get inside the mind of Frisell, whose willingness to experiment knows no bounds, and whose genius runs deep.
By Ed Enright
There is no irony in the title of David Byrne’s new solo album, his first since 2004’s Grown Backwards (Nonesuch). American Utopia refers not to a specific utopia, but the longing, frustration, aspirations, fears, desires and hopes of those of us who hold onto the American Dream and refuse to succumb to despair or cynicism during these times of cultural upheaval. The 10 songs here, all original Byrne compositions bearing an air of optimism, are an attempt to depict the world in which we live and ask, “Is there another way?”
The music, which, like much of Byrne’s work, reflects the influence of producer/programmer Brian Eno, combines highly ambient sounds and textures with Byrne’s trademark vocals. It’s a voice that has aged well since Byrne’s days as an angry, quirky young tenor fronting Talking Heads. Listeners can hear him holding certain notes for a longer duration (especially at the ends of phrases), utilizing the voice in a more musical manner. And he shows a seasoned singer’s respect for intonation—dig how accurately and brilliantly his high B-flat rings out on “Bullet.”
The process of writing and recording the material for American Utopia was an evolution that began with longtime collaborator Eno and grew to include collaboration with producer Rodaidh McDonald and a cast of creative contributors, including electronic musicians Daniel Lopatin and Jam City, keyboardist/producer Thomas Bartlett, vocalist/keyboardist Sampha, vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Jack Peñate, saxophonist Isaiah Barr and others. A video companion piece to “Everybody’s Coming To My House” that’s in keeping with Byrne’s famously quirky concepts about visual art can be viewed here.
Byrne has scheduled a series of choreographed live concerts that he describes as the most ambitious shows he has undertaken since the 1983 Talking Heads performances that were filmed to make the movie and album Stop Making Sense. He will appear this month at Lollapalooza festivals in Santiago, Chile (March 16), Buenos Aires, Argentina (March 18), and São Paulo, Brazil (March 24), followed by concerts in Guadalajara, Mexico (April 7), Indio, California (April 14, 21), and Atlanta (May 4-5). Byrne then will embark on a world tour that kicks off June 22-23 in Prague, Czech Republic, and runs through late July.
By Bobby Reed
Daptone is still rolling strong.
In the aftermath of the tragic death of soul singer Sharon Jones (1956-2016)—the most well-known artist on the Daptone roster—the label has continued to release great material, and the Brooklyn-based enterprise is looking far beyond its borough for talent. On March 30, the label will release the self-titled debut by Cuban big band Orquesta Akokán, and last month it released Whatever It Takes by The James Hunter Six, led by the British r&b singer-songwriter.
Hunter traffics in an aesthetic that owes an obvious artistic debt to classic artists such as Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, yet he injects an appealing individuality into his artistry. His smoky vocals have a vulnerable quality that makes him a relatable, believable protagonist on tunes like “I Don’t Wanna Be Without You.” The new album (his second for Daptone, following 2016’s Hold On!) is a taut, 10-track affair that was produced by Bosco Mann and offers lively, potent horn charts featuring Damian Hand (tenor saxophone) and Lee Badau (baritone saxophone).
Songs from this disc would fit snugly alongside cuts by Jones and Jackie Wilson on any mixtape bound for a sweaty basement party. And while a tune like “Don’t Let Pride Take You For A Ride” doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, it will inspire listeners to hit the dance floor. (According to his website, Hunter will tour Europe in March, followed by U.S. shows in April.)
By Dave Cantor
The recorded legacy of Sun Ra doesn’t need any bolstering, but the live set of four tunes on Of Abstract Dreams is a quiet and surprisingly personal sounding album. The recording, issued in cooperation between Strut and Art Yard, finds Sun Ra performing in a nine-piece Arkestra, sans bassist. And while the lineup leaves a bit of sonic hole in these works, it also grants the bandleader plenty of space to enunciate his musical vision.
The program opens with the frequently performed—but scarcely recorded—“Island In The Sun,” and this relatively small version of the Arkestra benefits from supplemental percussion being contributed by one-third of the band. Sun Ra is in fine melodic form as the tape fades out and the improvised “New Dawn,” which follows, pokes around for its groove, hitting it only for a minute or two.
Captured live in the studios of WXPN at The University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in either 1974 or 1975 and remastered from the original tapes, Of Abstract Dreams concludes with what’s perhaps the first fully formed studio version of “I’ll Wait For You.” Tenor saxophonist John Gilmore reels back on a noisy solo, one of the freest moments the disc offers, as lyrics eventually roll around to supply the album with its title.
The four cuts here aren’t the freest or most abstract of the Arkestra’s performances, but this unearthed music further details a rich period in the ensemble’s life, one that influenced the direction of both the jazz and rock genres.