George Garzone/Peter Erskine/Alan Pasqua/Darek Oles

3 Nights In L.A.
(Fuzzy Music)

Veteran East Coast tenor saxophonist George Garzone seldom has sounded more inventive and impassioned than on this new three-CD collection, recorded live in January at Los Angeles’ new jazz club Sam First over the course of three nights with drummer Peter Erskine, pianist Alan Pasqua and bassist Derek Oles. The group chemistry at work during these performances was equal parts sensitivity and combustibility, a balance of wide-open looseness and masterful precision. It all hinges on the group’s penchant to swing relentlessly while exploring a vast realm of expressive possibilities informed by each player’s considerable depth of experience.

The quartet stretches out on blowing vehicles like “Invitation,” “I’ll Remember April,” “Like Someone In Love,” “I Hear A Rhapsody” and, in three different takes, “Have You Met Miss Jones?” Other highlights include a creative reading of John Coltrane’s “Equinox,” five originals by Garzone and one tune apiece by Erskine, Pasqua and Oles (whose medium-tempo swinger “The Honeymoon” appears in two versions).

Garzone is in rare form, radiating minor-key modal lyricism, emotionally charged balladry, angular uptempo blues and straightahead bebop teeming with tenor toughness—as only he can. Erskine is a consistently refreshing catalyst for this most fortunate meeting of monsters; Oles is pitch-perfect and rock-steady throughout; and Pasqua’s less-is-more approach to the keys provides contemporary harmonic and melodic context while leaving adequate space for magic to unfold around him. This substantial offering of four jazz masters communicating in a highly evolved common language—and playing at the absolute top of their game—is one for the books.

Mike LeDonne

Partners In Time

If you’re fortunate enough to have bassist Christian McBride—one of the top bandleaders in jazz—play on your piano trio album, it would be foolish to give him tight strictures. On the studio album Partners In Time, keyboard wizard Mike LeDonne wisely lets McBride do his thing, and recruits another elite player, drummer Lewis Nash, for a sterling session that showcases a simpatico rapport among three titans. The results are slightly loose, yet focused and authoritative. These musicians had collaborated before, but they had never made a trio album together.

LeDonne—who is revered in New York for his organ work in the Groover Quartet—sparkles in this setting, delivering red-hot piano lines that match the fiery intensity of his work on the Hammond B-3.

A thread of “standing on the shoulders of giants” runs through the program, thanks to various forms of tribute. McBride’s bass solos spark five of the eight songs, including “Lined With A Groove,” composed by one of his heroes: bass icon Ray Brown (1926–2002). LeDonne’s tune “Saud” (one of his three original compositions here) offers moods that shift from majestic to muscular, both appropriate for a song written to honor pianist McCoy Tyner (aka Sulaimon Saud).

LeDonne pays tribute to another one of his chief influences, Cedar Walton (1934–2013), with a swinging version of the pianist’s “N.P.S.” A shadow of history is present here: Walton included “N.P.S.” on his 2001 album, The Promise Land. That disc was recorded at Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, which is where LeDonne recorded Partners In Time. In the album’s liner notes, the bandleader states that one of the reasons he wanted to do a session there was the opportunity to play the Steinway B piano that had been used on so many great albums.

The program concludes with the burner “Bopsolete,” which LeDonne gave an intentionally ironic title. The tune is spiced with some deliciously frenetic arco work from McBride. Though there are multitudes of potent riffs, breaks and solos in this program of mainly first-take recordings, Partners In Time is more than merely a blowing session. With creative interpretations of standards, such as a sly reading of “My Funny Valentine,” LeDonne, McBride and Nash illustrate that in 2019, bop and its related dialects are far from obsolete.

LeDonne, on organ, will lead the Groover Quartet during shows at Smoke in New York on Sept. 10, 17 and 24.

Jane Bunnett & Maqueque

On Firm Ground/Tierra Firme
(Linus/True North)

With their previous album, Oddara, Jane Bunnett and Maqueque presented an almost panoramic view of Cuban jazz, with flashes of percussive virtuosity, splashes of chamber music intimacy and regular bursts of vocal uplift. Although there was plenty of room for Bunnett’s rhythmically urgent, emotionally expressive flute and soprano sax, the arrangements took pains to show off the range and versatility of her ensemble. If Cuban music were a big canvas, they were determined to cover it all.

On Firm Ground/Tierra Firme, by contrast, is less interested in framing the richness of Cuban music than in showing off the strengths of Maqueque itself. As well it should. Five years since its inception, the sextet only has gotten stronger, tighter, funkier, and the music on its third album bears the unmistakeable confidence of a band that has found its voice, and is eager to speak with it.

Tracks like “La Linea” and “Habana De Noche” build sweetly melodic structures atop sinuous, richly harmonized grooves, balancing bass and percussion against lush vocal chorales, with the piano and Bunnett’s soprano providing pungent counterpoint. At their best, these tracks sound like a logical progression from the pop-friendly fusion Irakere specialized in.

What ultimately makes Terra Firme ground-shaking are the moments when Bunnett and Maqueque move beyond that template. The lithe, soulful “On Firm Ground” steps beyond the usual boundaries of Cuban jazz, thanks to the searing sacred steel guitar of guest Nikki D. Brown (imagine Robert Randolph with Santana, then square it), while “Broken Heart,” with bassist Tailin Marrero on upright and Brown providing well-placed blue notes, shows an impressive command of balladry.

Elsewhere, “Monkey See Monkey Do” is a lovely bit of social uplift that not only speaks to the potential within, but does so with the sort of blithely inspiring melody that makes its “believe in yourself” message seem almost redundant. Bunnett and Maqueque might sing about being on firm ground, but clearly they’re reaching for the stars.

Lauren Henderson

Alma Oscura

With the exception of a cappella artists, a singer can’t soar without a supportive squad. And an empathetic producer is essential to the equation. Lauren Henderson’s sixth release, Alma Oscura, is a gem, thanks to a combination of strong material, a subtle vocal style and carefully crafted settings that showcase the vocalist’s strengths. Much of the credit belongs to Michael Thurber, who played bass on the sessions, produced the album, composed three songs in the program and co-wrote the title track with Henderson.

Singing in Spanish and English, Henderson has a soft delivery that emphasizes nuance and heightens a narrative’s drama—without pyrotechnics. She surrounds herself with a terrific supporting cast that provides powerful coloration, whether it is Jon Lampley’s trumpet echoing the lead vocal line on “Something Bigger,” Emi Ferguson’s poignant flute on the title track, Sullivan Fortner’s fluid pianism on “El Arbol” or Leo Sidran (Ben’s son) sculpting a fine bilingual vocal duet with Henderson on his composition “From The Inside Out.”

Although a total of 15 musicians played on the sessions, Henderson and Thurber avoid excess at every turn, favoring a spare, impactful aesthetic. “Where Are You Now?” (a Thurber tune) has a smoky flavor that would appeal to fans of jazz, r&b and sophisticated pop, while “Protocol” has an infectious tango vibe. This album is 30 minutes long, inviting repeated spins and revealing Henderson’s admirable penchant for quality over quantity.

Henderson’s European tour includes a Nov. 22 gig at Zig Zag Jazz Club in Berlin.

Roxy Coss

(Outside In)

Whatever your political leanings, the travails of the Trump era have given culture makers a target. And the dirgey sections bookending Roxy Coss’ “Mr. President” simultaneously encapsulate the sullen feel of the past few years while momentarily comforting listeners with something that might have played under the credits of an M. Poirot spot on PBS. There’s also—almost—a hint of “My Favorite Things,” filtered through Coltrane.

The composition crops up three tracks into Quintet, Coss’ live dispatch of works that she’s presenting as something of a self-assessment. As much as reflection, though, the rerecording of older material serves as a proclamation of spirit, Coss coaxing notable performances out of her ensemble: Miki Yamanaka’s contributions on keys both prod the group along and lend it a languorous tint, when the bandleader’s compositions call for it.

Song titles like “Free To Be” and “Enlightenment” should hip listeners to Coss’ cause and consequential artistry. But off the bandstand, the saxophonist, too, has worked toward egalitarianism, founding the Women In Jazz Organization, a group aiming to help “women and non-binary people have equal opportunity to participate in and contribute” to the music.

The bandleader’s reach—both as a performer and as a force for good—comes along with an abundance of round-toned assuredness, and Coss’ horn, even during some of the more tender efforts, like the medium-tempo “Breaking Point,” hints at future decades brimming with recordings.

Aki Rissanen

Art In Motion

Perhaps because he grew up at a time when the term “keyboard” was as likely to mean a synth or sampler as a Steinway, Finnish pianist Aki Rissanen seems to have a particular fondness for the pulsing insistence of eighth-note ostinatos. It’s a sound that evokes the chattering circuitry of sequencers, except that instead of programming the notes, Rissanen plays them by hand, a bit of virtuosity made all the more astonishing because it’s merely background, a rhythmic pattern that simply supports the melodic thrust of what he’s playing.

“Aeropeans,” the track that opens his third album with bassist Antii Lötjönen and drummer Teppo Mäkynen, is a case in point. It begins with a blur of rhythm, the piano percolating like a sequencer as the bass moves in contrary motion against it, offset by a spare, glitchy rhythm on hi-hat, all in 5/4. It’s the sort of background groove you’d expect from an adventurous electro-pop group, except that the Rissanen trio leaves gaps in the groove, which allows the beat to breathe a bit. Moreover, where much electronic music seems determinedly horizontal, driven by an endlessly looping ostinato, Rissanen and company keep changing things up—the texture, the rhythmic patterns, the tonal center. Structurally, it’s more étude than electro.

Then again, as Rissanen states in the liner notes, his sensibility owes as much to Mozart as to Moby, and the classical influence is strong throughout Art In Motion. Two tracks are jazz interpretations of classical pieces, and their differences are instructive. “Moro Lasso Al Mio Duolo” is based on a 17th century motet by Carlo Gesualdo, but instead of getting the John Lewis treatment, it’s lifted out of the baroque era and reimagined with the moody, modal harmony of Brad Mehldau. “Cantus Arcticus, Melancholy,” by contrast, is based on a late-20th century orchestral piece by Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, and alternates between ghostly open chords and the sort of knotty jazz lyricism you’d expect from Keith Jarrett.

Add in the witty dissonance of “Das Untemperierte Klavier,” which features a striking, double-stopped solo by bassist Lötjönen, or the mutated bossa of “Seemingly Radical,” a tune whose melody eerily echoes “Thanks For The Memories,” and Art In Motion finds the Rissanen trio moving in many directions, all of them interesting.

Chase Baird

A Life Between

“Ripcord,” the opening gambit of saxophonist Chase Baird’s A Life Between, makes it seem like the album might make a run at some sort of jazz-rock update. But the easy melodicism of each cut—defined by Baird’s innate ability to whip off lines that contain some sort of vocal quality—minimizes those concerns. That the bandleader’s brought along pianist Brad Mehldau and drummer Antonio Sánchez doesn’t hurt much, either.

“Ripcord,” though, does lunge and sway during a transitional passage like any rock-world breakdown. But Baird uses the easily understood compositional component as a way to thread together his solos and Mehldau’s. It’s not necessarily a neat stitch, but absolutely functional.

“I really want to be in Radiohead,” the bandleader said in a press release, half-joking. “But how can I be a saxophonist and do that?”

Despite Baird’s questionable desire, Nir Felder drops in some McLaughlin-esque guitar moves on “Reactor,” a tune replete with digital gurgling and Mehldau’s facile comping that again sturdily references a rock setting.

But some of the most exciting moments here come during a duet passage between Baird and Sánchez on “Wait And See,” each player familiar with the other’s vocabulary from playing in the drummer’s band, Migration. And squeaky solemnity abounds on “Im Wunderschönen Monat Mai,” the album closer, an interpretation of a Robert Schumann composition. It closes the album out on a quiet, reflective note, in stark contrast to how A Life Between started. It’d be easy to posit that these two approaches—aggro and balladic—in some way hem up the broad sonic personality of the bandleader. But really, at a time when we’re all devouring vast quantities of film, writing, art and music, it should just be the standard. Baird easily surpasses that expectation while in the company of the some of genre’s best.

Ricardo Peixoto

Scary Beautiful
(Moving Finger)

Veteran guitarist Ricardo Peixoto is poised to broaden his fan base with the elegant, all-original album Scary Beautiful, on which the Rio de Janeiro native (and current Bay Area resident) excels in solo, duet and full-band settings.

Peixoto’s discography includes work with the bands Terra Sul and the Berkeley Choro Ensemble, as well as Inverse Universe, a duo project with Brazilian vocalist Claudia Villela. On Scary Beautiful he plays acoustic and electric seven-string guitars and works with a set of top-shelf collaborators, including Paul McCandless (soprano sax), Harvey Wainapel (clarinet and bass clarinet), Marcos Silva (piano), John Santos (percussion) and Villela, who overdubs eight vocal tracks on the brief dreamscape “Nereids,” the only song here that isn’t an instrumental.

Nodding to Brazilian musical traditions, Peixoto offers a couple of songs in the baião style: “Santos E Demônios” opens with an ominous mood, perhaps fitting for the demons in the song’s title, and later is leavened by a flute solo from Bob Afifi. On the lively “Baião De Três,” Peixoto changes the traditional baião rhythm from 2/4 to 3/4 time, resulting in an earworm.

“Noturna” is a lovely solo guitar number, while “Simpática,” a guitar and piano duet with Silva, is based on the choro rhythm (which some jazz fans have heard clarinetist Anat Cohen navigate in her exploration of Brazilian styles). The samba “Morro Da Paixão” is a memorable hip shaker featuring horn arrangements by Luiz Brasil, while “Velha Amizade” is somewhat reminiscent of the gentle ocean waves lapping the shore that one experiences in classic Jobim tunes.

Peixoto has absorbed the musical traditions of his homeland and utilized them to create original compositions that acknowledge the past while moving toward the future.

Various Artists

Strain Crack & Break: Music From The Nurse With Wound List, Volume 1 (France)
(Finders Keepers)

In the world of underground curios, Nurse With Wound, a 40-year-old noise project headed by British performer Steven Stapleton, is staggeringly important. The amassed esteem, in part, is predicated on a list of almost-forgotten bands that Stapleton and company included with their first release, Chance Meeting On A Dissecting Table Of A Sewing Machine And An Umbrella.

With the heft of a history textbook, the Nurse With Wound list—which places John Cage and Can alongside Steve Lacy and La Monte Young—is set to be rendered as a series of compilations, breaking down artists by country of origin. Strain, Crack & Break: Music From The Nurse With Wound List, Volume 1 (France) is the program’s opener.

The music on Stapleton’s own 1979 LP moves to capitalize on some combo of musique concrète, free improv and proto-industrial shards of sound. The result isn’t imminently listenable—and apart from a few 1990s collaborations with Stereolab, there isn’t really an entry point for casual listeners. That’s not what any of this is about, though. Instead, it’s the comp’s reified obsessiveness, completionism and the cataloging of a past that otherwise might be utterly obscured to future seekers. The NWW list certainly isn’t an all-encompassing compendium of outsider music, but still takes into consideration a wealth of sounds, pointing toward Stapleton being a pretty curious listener.

Jazz drummer Jacques Thollot—who’d done time with Don Cherry, Joachim Kühn, Krzysztof Komeda and others—opens Strain, Crack & Break with a cut from his 1971 solo debut, where he played various keyboards, percussion and electronics. The final third of the track is one of the few moments on the newly devised comp that actually swings. Sputtering synths and cut-up tape follow with offerings from Phillippe Besombes and Pierre Henry, and Horrific Child, Mahjun and Lard Free turn in some reasonably palatable prog. The rest is a miasma of sound, experimentation and skronky self-indulgence, but the good kind. Red Noise’s 15 minutes of juiced-up electric noodling and jocular jazz on “Sarcelles C’est L’Avenir” ranks among the best of what’s here.

Volume two, which focuses on the finer points of German sensationalism, is said to be in the works for 2020; the number of total installments still has yet to be determined. It’s a lot of music by any measure. But thinking to work the NWW list into LP-length projects is both a brilliant step toward the preservation of a disappearing past and an intriguing vantage point to watch Stapleton assess the guidebook he devised for experimentalists.

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