Rocky Yera

Just Practice
(Self Release)

Rocky Yera issues an invitation to exhilaration with the release of his debut album.

The Chicago-based tenor saxophonist whips up a whirlwind of excitement and mines the depths of sentimentality on Just Practice, a showcase for his formidable chops, improvisational daring, skillful writing and mastery of electronic effects. An ace instrumentalist who won two DownBeat Student Music Awards back in his high school and college days, Yera has crafted a unique voice for himself by processing his sound with guitar pedals and manipulating the effects in real time. Saxophonist Jeff Coffin, whose own experiments with electronics inspired Yera to explore new sonic possibilities, makes a guest appearance on “Mr. J.C. And The Baby Maker,” his funky alto contribution seriously upping the thrill factor.

The small-group instrumentation of Just Practice varies from track to track as Yera surrounds himself with peers of the highest order, most notably trumpeter Victor Garcia, organist Pete Benson, guitarist Aaron Lebos, pianist Darwin Noguera, bassist Josh Ramos and drummers Juan Pastor and Xavier Breaker. The all-original program features a balance of straightahead acoustic bebop, syncopated Latin grooves and electrified contemporary jazz-funk. For those seeking respite from the forward-leaning urgency that propels much of Just Practice, dig the laid-back swinger “Good Old Songs” and the feel-good, down-home vibe of the title track, where Yera reveals the jaw-dropping expanse of his altissimo range.

Eric Binder Trio

The Malcolm Cecil Project

Sometimes the story’s better than the music, and sometimes the music’s better than the story. Rarely are they both gripping.

For The Malcolm Cecil Project, though, its namesake’s back-story is just as intriguing as this batch of stalwart bop standards. After inventing a unique strain of modular synthesizer that Cecil would use while working with Stevie Wonder, the multi-instrumentalist also set about engineering albums by folks like Gil Scott-Heron and writing alongside the Isley Brothers and Billy Preston. His spacey recordings with Tonto’s Expanding Head Band during the ’70s deserve plaudits of their own, as does his jazz career, which stretches back to the ’50s. Studio work has taken up much of the bassist’s time since then.

Now 81, Cecil has set about recording with a rather traditional acoustic trio. The tunes, running the gamut from Coltrane to Pettiford and Shorter, all are pristinely rendered. Saxophonist Joel Frahm makes this date seem like his own, even as Cecil and drummer Eric Binder hold down the rhythm section admirably. Frahm doesn’t offer up any overly theatrical runs here, but does enliven Thad Jones’ “Three And One,” resulting in a track that genuinely could be confused with period recordings; Cecil’s bass solo here belies his age.

Even if it’d be tough to turn the standards here into clunkers, The Malcolm Cecil Project’s eight tunes could supplant the need to reach for one of those bop-era LPs stashed away in the stacks.

Michael Kaeshammer

Something New

Michael Kaeshammer is the type of photogenic, multitalented artist who, a couple of generations ago, might have been tapped to host a variety TV show in the United States.

A native of Germany now based in Canada, Kaeshammer is a powerful vocalist, a terrific pianist and an excellent composer. He’s also a gracious bandleader who’s eager to share the spotlight with his gifted collaborators, as he does repeatedly and to great effect on his 12th album, Something New. There’s an infectious undercurrent of Crescent City flair here, which is to be expected on an uplifting album that partially was recorded in New Orleans and whose personnel includes such NOLA luminaries as bassist George Porter Jr. and drummer Johnny Vidacovich. Neville Brothers member Cyril Neville also makes an appearance, offering compelling lead vocals on the ballad “Heaven And Earth.” Elsewhere, Curtis Salgado’s lead vocals and harmonica pack a punch on the rousing “Do You Believe?” Bria Skonberg shows her tender side with some poignant, muted-trumpet work that adds even more sizzle to the heat generated by Kaeshammer’s sly vocals on the amorous “Forbidden Love.” Each guest spot on this album enhances the track’s overall arrangement, and none of them feel gimmicky.

The album concludes with a couple of instrumental numbers, highlighting Kaeshammer’s elegant pianism: A rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown” (the only non-original number in the 11-track program) showcases his fleet, fluid chops, while the gorgeous, slow tune “Weimar” feels like the perfect soundtrack accompaniment for the closing credits of a tearjerker.

Shawn Maxwell’s New Tomorrow

Music In My Mind

The all-original program on Shawn Maxwell’s Music In My Mind conveys the vision of a composer who’s confident in his artistic vision, and comfortable with the wide array of colors on his instrumental palette.

Maxwell—who plays alto saxophone, clarinet and flute here—recruited 11 supporting musicians for his ensemble New Tomorrow. And on his eighth album, Maxwell’s merger of written passages and improvised segments feels logical and coherent, but not overly predictable. He’s pulled off a feat that many 21st-century bandleaders strive to achieve: the creation of fresh, head-bobbing music that avoids a tiresome groove and that gives band members room to soar.

Throughout the 49-minute program, twists and shifts in time signatures elevate this music in a brainy, yet accessible, manner. The bandleader has surrounded himself with talented accompanists, and Dee Alexander’s wordless vocals on three tracks showcase Maxwell’s superb skills as an arranger. Two tracks—“King Bill” and “Glamasue”—appeared on his 2005 debut, Originals, and are recast here with arrangements that reflect Maxwell’s maturation as an artist. On “He Gone,” Maxwell’s flute, Corey Wilkes’ muted trumpet and Matt Nelson’s fusion-flavored work on Fender Rhodes give the track an engaging vibe that is retro but not outdated. A few other tracks, including the seven-minute “Another Monday,” feature distinct sections that make the songs sound like mini-suites. In Maxwell’s hands, a musical segment might seem abrupt when it initially arrives, standing in contrast to what preceded it, but by the song’s conclusion, the listener has grasped an overall sonic cohesion. It’s a feeling that grows with repeated spins of this excellent album.

Jarod Bufe

New Spaces

During the last several years, tenor saxophonist Jarod Bufe—long known in the Windy City for his expertise as a horn repairman—has developed a body of exquisite original compositions for the quartets and trios he leads at Chicago-area venues like FitzGerald’s and Elastic Arts. New Spaces is the debut album by Bufe’s quartet with guitarist Tim Stine, bassist Matt Ulery and drummer Jon Deitemyer, all frequent collaborators whose intuitive group aesthetic makes for the ultimate creative “space.”

Bufe’s sound has a solid, deeply resonant core that brings to mind the maturity and patience of seasoned tenor veterans. His use of tasteful vibrato and subtle dynamics adds lyricism to the melodic lines of his sophisticated compositions, which frequently steer the listener in unexpected directions en route to enlightening destinations. Bufe solos with fleetness and flexibility, maintaining poise and confidence while conversing freely with his bandmates and searching out ever-fresh ideas. Deitemyer is impeccable behind the kit. Stine serves as both sensitive accompanist and improvisational foil for Bufe. And Ulery, when not extracting gorgeous solo lines from the upright, lays down a pulse that’s felt as much as it is heard.

New Spaces conveys creative vitality through and through, and jazz listeners hungry for new content certainly will find satisfaction in this well-mixed, pristinely recorded collection of finely crafted tunes.

Jin Jim

Weiße Schatten

Heavy guitar chording opens Weiße Schatten, bolstering a flurry of flute lines and illustrating why Jin Jim is part of the ACT imprint’s “Young German Jazz” series.

If the intial aggression of the quartet’s second album intimates that cosmic psychedelia is on tap, cuts like the restrained “Exploration” feature the band in relatively subdued territory, pulsing confidently behind the beat. “Days Of September” continues to showcase the band’s control of dynamics, even as a wah-wah guitar feature stamps out the composition’s mood about halfway through. “Mankafiza,” like “Duende” a bit earlier in the program, adds a Latin feel to the group’s interplay while exemplifying how rhythm sections don’t need to be flashy, just tight. But the feel of it all is that of a band searching for a distinct persona, even if the several evidenced here all have moments of near flawlessness.

Expansive tastes clearly are a part of what makes Jin Jim an intriguing troupe. And as its players further settle into their work, a distinct character, balancing some of the more bombastic, fusion-inspired moments with its more introspective tendencies, should yield up a vision of the band more cohesive than the span of Hawkwind to Herbie Mann.

Dave McMurray

Music Is Life
(Blue Note)

Dave McMurray has a driving, propulsive groove behind his tenor saxophone playing—always. He’s a jazz musician rooted in the beat. He’s a jazz musician steeped in the groove. It’s that spot-on bounce that’s made McMurray a go-to sideman for the likes of B.B. King, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan in the pop world, as well as Herbie Hancock, Geri Allen and Bob James in jazz.

On Music Is Life, McMurray steps out as a leader on his Blue Note debut. It’s no accident that he wound up on one of the greatest jazz labels in the world. He and Blue Note President Don Was are fellow Detroit natives and have a long musical history together; McMurray was a member of Was’ terrific band from the ’80s, Was (Not Was).

Music Is Life comes steeped with all the groove dedication and no-nonsense melodicism that has made McMurray a cult hero around the Detroit music scene. “Every time I hear an instrumentalist from Detroit play, it feels like they are singing,” McMurray said in his press materials. “I don’t care if it’s Yusef Lateef, James Carter or Kenny Garrett. All of those saxophonists incorporated incredible technique, too. But they had this singing quality in their playing.”

His originals—like “Naked Walk,” “Freedom Ain’t Free” and “Bop City D”—ooze with that Motor City power, grit and longing to connect. His tone strikes a swagger that gets in your face, almost daring you not to get up and dance. McMurray is helped out on these proceedings by longtime bandmates Ibrahim Jones on bass, and drummers Ron Otis and Jeff Canady. They know each other well, and it shows. On the tune “Paris Rain,” McMurray also enlists the help of strings to give it just the right touch of throwback to ’70s pop. And the man knows how to pick cover tunes. On this set, there are two: George Clinton’s funk standard “Atomic Dog” and The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.” Both, in a word, rock. And that’s the point of this record. Music Is Life is something we all can use right now, a feel-good, groove-driven, pop record with the guts to be damn good jazz, too.

Buddy Guy

The Blues Is Alive And Well

In many ways, the Buddy Guy of 2018 is the same dynamic fellow who delivered a stunning, eye-popping performance in the rock documentary Festival Express, filmed in 1970. For a staggering 60 years, Guy has been dazzling fans with a potent style of blues that includes nods to both B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix. Decades ago, Guy’s grit, chops and authenticity inspired many British Invasion rock musicians, including Jeff Beck, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards—all of whom show up as guests on this remarkable new album.

Aptly titled The Blues Is Alive And Well, this disc is no reinvention of the wheel, but producer/songwriter/drummer Tom Hambridge keeps things lively. With Hambridge’s assistance, Guy delivers what one would expect from an 81-year-old elder statesman (albeit one who performs like someone half his age). This album is filled with Guy’s trademark, stinging electric guitar solos—each packing enough power to peel paint off a house. Guy’s guitar heroics attract so much attention that his vocal prowess has long been underrated, and his voice remains in superb shape, a supple instrument with impressive range. Neither Jagger (harmonica) nor Richards (electric guitar) contributes vocals on their respective guest tracks, but when the lead singer in question is Guy, there’s no need to get in the way of the boss. Guy trades vocal lines with James Bay on the slow-burning “Blue No More,” and the young British singer and guitarist comports himself quite well. One track that certainly will have classic rock fans buzzing is “Cognac,” which name-checks Muddy Waters and finds Guy, Richards and Beck all injecting nasty guitar licks on this ode to brandy and blues. The album concludes with a naughty, 56-second lesson on animal husbandry, blues history and double-entendres—“Milking Muther For Ya”—which calls to mind Memphis Minnie’s “Dirty Mother For You.”

Mary Lattimore

Hundreds Of Days

Mary Lattimore criss-crosses the nation, harp in tow. She’s lugged it up flights of stairs to play smaller venues, trucked it out for much larger engagements alongside folks like Sonic Youth founder Thurston Moore and brought it along for recordings by singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten.

Since 2011, Lattimore’s steadily beamed out her own recordings, occasionally accompanied by Philly-based producer Jeff Zeigler. And while a few releases find the harpist benefiting from his synthy accompaniment, Hundreds Of Days springs solely from Lattimore’s fingertips. Devised, in part, during a residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Sausalito, California, the harpist sought to expand her own quiver of instruments for the project. Sweeps of synth float around during the album’s second track, “Never Saw Him Again,” tying it to those earlier works with Zeigler. But brief batches of bass propel the song beyond any new-agey impasse.

A few tracks on, “Baltic Birch” is both maudlin and triumphant, Lattimore somehow folding a lifetime of emotion into a 10-minute track. But it’s her guitar work on “Their Faces Streaked With Light And Filled With Pity” that’s likely to appease listeners who might be resistant to taking in a harp-centric affair. It’s not a rock track, to be sure, but as Lattimore continues cycling through settings for her main instrument, her ever-broadening palette could deepen what she’s able to impart to those adventurous enough to follow her swelling talents.

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