By Dave Cantor
If the collaborative endeavor Thumbscrew wasn’t enough to demonstrate the way bassist Michael Formanek and guitarist Mary Halvorson excel in each other’s company, Even Better is further proof.
Formanek’s career has been stippled with stints heading his own troupes, and for this latest trio, in addition to Halvorson, he’s tapped exploratory reedist Tim Berne to join in. Each player here’s known for bounding experimentation, and while Berne’s in the spotlight a bit less than Halvorson, closer “Jade Visions” is a gorgeous excursion headed by the saxophonist’s register hopping. It’s a tune penned by bassist Scott LaFaro (1936–’61), and played as tribute, the whole thing predicated on the trio wending its way through the melody, Berne measuredly out front. When he drops out, though, Halvorson and Formanek duet for about a minute in some sort of tempered, all-knowing, slow-paced excavation of beauty.
The bassist’s Very Practical Trio—its purpose hinted at by both its name, as well as the music on Even Better—clearly isn’t about avant-garde heroics and displays of technical acumen. Even the most outré moments, including the eight weird minutes of “Implausible Deniability,” seem quiet, insular and personal, pointing at the wonderland of associates with whom Formanek has developed an undeniable rapport during a truly momentous career.
By J.D. Considine
It’s hard to understand why cello isn’t played by more jazz musicians. It has tremendous range, both in terms of pitch and expressivity, is more suited to pizzicato playing than violin, has a smoother, richer arco sound than bass and can generate all sorts of interesting colors using harmonics. It’s easily one of the most versatile instruments around.
But don’t take my word for it—listen to Tomeka Reid. On Old New, she does a little bit of everything, from brisk bow work to plangent plucking, playing single-note lines, chords and squeaky bits of aural shrapnel. In fact, she does as much sonic shape-shifting with her bow and fingers as guitarist Mary Halvorson does with her pedals across the recording.
Even better, she and Halvorson do all this within a format that is, for the most part, straightforward and melodic. Take, for example, “Sadie,” a spritely, bop-style tune that finds bassist Jason Roebke laying down a solid walking line, while drummer Tomas Fujiwara maintains an amiable shuffle. Reid’s solo, played pizzicato, starts off as straightforward hard-bop, but moves steadily toward the blues as she uses microtonal finger-slides to emulate guitar string-bending. Halvorson, whose solo follows, takes pitch-bending in a totally different direction, using her pedalboard to make tones melt and drip like one of Salvador Dali’s clocks. In all, the track manages to be both straightahead and outside, a perfect realization of the title aesthetic.
It’s in that blend of modern and traditional that Reid and her quartet truly find their sound. “Niki’s Bop”—written for Reid’s mentor, flutist Nicole Mitchell—is built around a harmonically angular tune and features some fairly free interplay between Reid and Halvorson. But no matter how out-there the solos get, the music remains firmly rooted, thanks to the New Orleans swagger of Fujiwara’s drumming and Roebke’s groove-grounded bass. On the other hand, even though “Wabash Blues” is drenched in tradition, there’s not a blues cliché to be heard, thanks to the harmonic and technical audacity of the playing. But because the form is so easily understood (and the rhythm so solid), even the most nonlinear aspects of the solos go down easily.
By Ed Enright
A single, repeated, bell-like tone, followed by a slow trickle of high-pitched woodwinds and muted brass, open the appropriately titled suite “Flow” from Mike Holober’s new recording with his Gotham Jazz Orchestra—a 17-piece, New York-based ensemble of the highest caliber. An idyllic scene gradually emerges as the minimalist music floats downstream and a simple melodic theme takes shape, then reemerges, shaded with a pleasantly dissonant harmony. The waters deepen from moment to moment, eventually opening up into a grand vista that continues to grow in complexity and gain momentum. The arrangement expands in breadth and the ensemble builds to dramatic crescendos, the tenor saxophone soloist soaring ever higher above the prevailing currents and occasional eddies below. The view only gets more spectacular from there, as the Hudson River-inspired motives of Holober’s composition unfold over four movements.
Equally compelling, and inspired, is the five-part suite “Hiding Out,” another Holober composition that depicts the grandeur of the natural world (in this case, the landscapes surrounding Clearmont, Wyoming). Other highlights of this double album include the opening track, “Jumble,” a large-scale original work in one movement, and Holober’s arrangement of the seldom-heard Jobim tune “Caminhos Cruzados,” showcasing trumpeter Marvin Stamm, one of nearly two dozen instrumental aces who contributed to Hiding Out.
In addition to being an esteemed composer, arranger and pianist, Holober is an avid outdoorsman whose passion for backpacking, canoeing and camping manages to find its way into everything he writes. It has been 10 years since the release of the Gotham City Jazz Orchestra’s last album, Quake, as Holober has been immersed in projects with other major big bands (Germany’s hr-Bigband and WDR Big Band, among others) and working as an educator (The City College of New York and the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop), not to mention playing plenty of sideman gigs. He hasn’t exactly been “hiding out,” so to speak, but he certainly has been less visible as a leader, until now.
With the release of this long-anticipated, epic work, Holober has brought a profound artistic vision to bear on today’s jazz scene and confirmed his standing as one of the finest modern composer/arrangers of our time, in the tradition of Gil Evans, Bob Brookmeyer and Jim McNeely.
By Bobby Reed
The release of vintage recordings can lead to a reassessment and deeper appreciation for an artist’s career, and that certainly has been the case with pianist Erroll Garner (1921–’77). The DownBeat Hall of Fame inductee’s renaissance is in full swing. In 2015, Legacy released an expanded version of the classic album Concert By The Sea, with 11 previously unreleased tracks. That was followed by two albums of previously unreleased material: the 2016 studio compilation Ready Take One (Legacy/Octave) and the 2018 release Nightconcert, a live trio date recorded in Amsterdam in 1964 with bassist Eddie Calhoun and drummer Kelly Martin.
Between Fall 2019 and June 2020, the partnership between Mack Avenue and Octave Music will reissue 12 albums in the Garner catalog as part of the Octave Remastered Series. Each of the albums has been restored to clean up any distortion in the original tapes. Each will include a previously unreleased track, and the reissues will feature some musical introductions that were edited out of the performances when they originally were released. In addition to Garner’s vocalizations (yelps, growls and grunts), he frequently would precede a standard with a solo piano flourish, as his bandmates waited to see what would follow these mesmerizing introductions. Reinstating these intros gives the contemporary listener a more accurate depiction of what it would have been like to hear Garner on the bandstand.
The lively Campus Concert, the sixth release in the Octave Remastered Series, was recorded at three shows in 1962 and finds Garner in a trio setting with Calhoun and Martin. Those players were there to support the star; no bass or drum solos are included here. Nor are there any spoken comments, but listening to this gem gives one the sense that the pianist had established a rapport with the crowd. The spotlight is trained on Garner as he applies his distinctive, muscular style to a set that focuses on standards, including “My Funny Valentine,” “Almost Like Being In Love,” “In The Still Of The Night” and “These Foolish Things (Remind Me Of You).”
The album opens with a rousing “(Back Home Again In) Indiana,” a track perhaps chosen as a crowd-pleaser for the audience at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Indiana—where the bulk of the program was recorded. Throughout the proceedings, Garner swings like a gate and displays an infectious robustness, as on “Lulu’s Back In Town,” one of two cuts recorded at the World’s Fair Playhouse in Seattle.
“Stardust,” the other Seattle track, is the album’s zenith. Previous versions of Campus Concert include a 4:52 version of Hoagy Carmichael’s classic tune, but this reissue offers a 5:47 rendition. So, not only can listeners enjoy the familiar right-hand and left-hand call-and-response segment included on the album’s original release, they also get to hear Garner’s full exploration of the tune, showcasing his renowned harmonic imagination at work.
The program concludes with a previously unreleased original tune, “La Petite Mambo,” a fun swinger that nods to another original that the Pittsburgh native played that night in Indiana: “Mambo Erroll.”
Listening to this program will put listeners in a time machine that travels to an era when jazz had great cultural currency on college campuses, and the fervid cultural debates about The Beatles were still a few years away.
By J.D. Considine
Political jazz is a peculiar beast. Unlike the more pop-oriented forms of protest music, there’s often no singer to act as a figurehead, and no lyrics to provide a polemic. At its most muddled, it works about as well as using abstract art on a campaign poster.
On the other hand, if you look at politics as a form of action, rather than a school of thought, playing jazz can be a surprisingly suggestive model. A jazz combo is, after all, a form of community, and how the individuals act together determines the success of the whole. Is there anything in art more uplifting than hearing a group of people come together to make great music?
That seems to be the thinking behind Engage, trumpeter Dave Douglas’ latest project. Describing the music in his liner notes as “compositions dedicated to positive action,” Douglas avoids partisan specifics and instead urges action “to stay positive and engaged through music daily.”
Musically, the positivity is expressed through writing based entirely on major triads. None of that half-diminished-seventh ambiguity here. But Douglas’ crew—woodwind player Anna Webber, guitarist Jeff Parker, cellist Tomeka Reid, bassist Nick Dunston and drummer Kate Gentile—are the sort who aren’t going to let triadic harmony limit them to “See Spot Run” simplicity. However straightforward the writing on the delightfully tuneful takes of “Showing Up,” the playing comfortably stretches limits, particularly when Webber’s alto flute and Reid’s cello are in creative counterpoint.
It should also be mentioned that Douglas can be pretty creative with his major-triad harmony, as “One Sun, A Million Ways,” with its closely intertwined trumpet lines (Dave Adewumi joins in here), makes plain. There’s a difference between “simple” and “simplistic,” after all. From the gospel-inflected groove of “Free Libraries” to the “Maiden Voyage”-style pulse that powers “Sanctuary Cities,” Douglas and company make a compelling case that standing up for shared values isn’t just good politics, but good art as well.
By Dave Cantor
The best art arguably can encompass high and low, the profane and the sanctified.
Kit Downes, who topped the categories Rising Star–Keyboard and Rising Star–Organ in the 2019 DownBeat Critics Poll, turns in his second leader date for the venerated ECM Records, Dreamlife Of Debris, and rather easily coaxes spirited exhortations and divine simplicity out of a piano, as well as a church organ. But it’s the combination of Downes’ ghostly organ turns and the placid longtones of Tom Challenger’s tenor saxophone that make the album’s title such a fitting thing.
Just as ECM has retained a certain jazz aesthetic over the years, it has cultivated a strain of classical music with keystone releases by the likes of Arvo Pärt. The middle path might be some sort of slow-rolling minimalism, not unlike Steve Reich’s compositions or Terry Riley’s drone works from the 1960s; Downes’ take of Ruth Goller’s “M7” could have slotted into almost any of those recordings. And the bandleader’s own “Circinus” finds his organ copping some uncluttered version of decades-old austerity, while cellist Lucy Railton bows the changes and Challenger’s horn sweeps through emotions. It’s a sturdy formula that peaceably works throughout the recording.
A couple of tunes set Downes at an acoustic piano, his bandmates helping to mimic the dark and dour image of the album cover. “Blackeye,” the closer where Downes and Challenger split writing credits, opens with a contemplative feeling that’s not just pervasive here, but across a bunch of ECM works. The pair and Railton float around on clouds for about a minute-and-a-half; then 15 seconds of silence. Downes switches to organ and, making his most concerted contribution to Dreamlife, Seb Rochford comes padding in on an augmented kit that sounds like it largely consists of toms and a gong. It’s Moondog territory, and it sends the band toward its most propulsive, songlike statements. It’s also the most aggressive-sounding composition Downes has recorded on either of his leader dates for ECM. It still might not be a jazz tune, but “Blackeye” is a deeply affecting sonic turn that’s a surprise and a nod toward less experimental works—if only just vaguely.
By Bobby Reed
What happens when an art form’s foremost practitioner dies? When harmonica legend Toots Thielemans passed away in 2016, fans around the globe asked, “Who will carry the mantle?” The responsibility for extending the jazz-harmonica tradition has fallen to various players, including Grégoire Maret, Howard Levy and Hendrik Meurkens, a native of Hamburg who now is based in New York.
Meurkens, also acclaimed as a vibraphonist, sticks to the harmonica on his new album, Cobb’s Pocket. He composed the title track in honor of the drummer on this quartet project, Jimmy Cobb, now 90 years old. The other players on this album are straightahead masters with a long shared history: Guitarist Peter Bernstein and organist Mike LeDonne frequently collaborate in the latter’s Groover Quartet. The new album marks the third time that Meurkens has recruited Cobb for one of his leader dates, but the first time that the harmonicist has recorded with an organ trio. The results are deeply satisfying.
Meurkens’ elegant rendition of Slide Hampton’s “Frame For The Blues” features the type of tenderness that made Thielemans an icon, while LeDonne and Bernstein each offer solos that propel the musical narrative without lapsing into grandstanding. Meurkens’ solo on the title track is a master class on crafting melodic lines and colorful shading with a harmonica, demonstrating that in the right hands, the instrument can rival the trumpet or saxophone in terms of musical intricacy and emotional impact. Throughout the album, just as one would expect, Cobb’s playing is consistently tasteful, as he builds the sonic pocket that is celebrated in the title track.
The program leans heavily on standards but also includes three Meurkens originals, including one of his most famous compositions, the oft-recorded “Slidin’.” The album opens with a strong dose of swing and groove via “Driftin’,” which appeared on Herbie Hancock’s 1962 debut, Takin’ Off. Meurkens decided to include an interpretation of “Unit 7,” partially because Cobb had recorded a rendition of the Sam Jones composition in 1965 alongside bassist Paul Chambers, pianist Wynton Kelly and guitarist Wes Montgomery on the album Smokin’ At The Half Note.
“Polka Dots And Moonbeams” is one of the most frequently recorded standards in history, with a lengthy line of interpreters that includes Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Dexter Gordon, John Denver and Bob Dylan. Although it has been recorded hundreds of times, Meurkens brings something fresh to the tune, thanks to his command of an instrument not frequently found on the jazz bandstand.
By Dave Cantor
The bifurcation of jazz and its associated musics—or at least the listenership of the two branches—has been hugely beneficial in one respect: Any perceived limitations to form and function are discarded by one set of folks and stringently adhered to by another, enabling both the inside and outside wing to retain its heroes.
The downside, though, is that folks like pianist Marilyn Crispell, despite working with a wondrous list of well-known performers for decades and releasing music through ECM, remains a relatively unsung purveyor of “out” sounds. During the past year, though, in addition to issuing her umpteenth album on Leo, Dream Libretto, the pianist also was an integral part of Joe Lovano’s Trio Tapestry. Linking up here with drummer Tyshawn Sorey, another improvisor who perhaps warrants wider acclaim, Crispell is capping an intensely creative period in her career. Or, at least, another one.
The Adornment Of Time, a single 64-minute track, sports at least six sections, ranging from its twinkling-chimes opening to the few stentorian segments where Sorey and Crispell rail against the expected.
It’s a musical Rubik’s Cube.
Crispell might coax out some dissonant chords as Sorey tucks into a regular rhythm before both engage in extended silence. Tinkering with the inside of her piano functions as a sonic detour, as do her painterly washes of tremolo or augmented chording. Then there’s the excitement of Sorey’s thudding exclamations—or moments of tender restraint. And while The Adornment Of Time isn’t likely to change the minds of listeners who think the genre ostensibly stopped evolving in 1959 (or 1961, if you want to use Coltrane’s Live At The Village Vanguard as the point when everything started to break apart very publicly), it’s as vital a recording to the music’s longtail history as the Branford Marsalis Quartet’s most recent effort. And just as enjoyable, if you have the right set of ears.
By Bobby Reed
A transcendent tribute album illuminates the artistry of the honoree, as well as that of the participating performers. Rocker Warren Zanes is to be applauded enthusiastically for producing Come On Up To The House: Women Sing Waits, as is Dualtone CEO Scott Robinson, who conceptualized the project. This disc brilliantly presents a dozen Tom Waits ballads in Americana settings. In place of Waits’ gruff, guttural (yet charming) singing are lead vocals from female artists whose styles are far more accessible. These tunes are finely crafted gems, not rowdy barn burners.
The press release for this album describes Waits’ persona as being “equal parts bard, balladeer, Beat poet, barfly, carnival barker and smoky lounge singer.” That is one way to view him. But this album’s pristine performances shine a spotlight on an oft-overlooked aspect of Waits’ personality: Though frequently regarded as an eccentric actor and junkyard howler, Waits is also a sophisticated tunesmith whose melodies can benefit from a singer with a broad vocal range.
Waits’ album discography stretches from 1973 to 2011, but five of the tunes on Come On Up To The House are from a single source—his Grammy-winning, 1999 disc, Mule Variations. Waits cowrote most of the tracks on that album with Kathleen Brennan, whom he wed in 1980.
No fan of Mule Variations should hesitate to seek out this tribute disc. Portland band Joseph (a trio of sisters) sets the tone with the opener/title track, giving Americana fans a rich slice of manna. Australian singer-songwriter Angie McMahon delivers a delicate version of “Take It With Me,” Arkansas folkie Iris DeMent unleashes her poignant vibrato on a pedal-steel-fueled “House Where Nobody Lives” and Los Angeles native Phoebe Bridgers sculpts a sad, cinematic “Georgia Lee.” Aimee Mann’s rendition of “Hold On” conveys the type of palpable emotional investment that can arise when one great songwriter interprets the work of another.
Sibling vocal harmony is the key ingredient of Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer’s strings-laden, countrypolitan rendition of “Ol ’55” (popularized by The Eagles). British r&b singer Corinne Bailey Rae—who is akin to a great character actor, in that she can elevate any production in which she participates—offers a soulful rendition of “Jersey Girl” (popularized by Bruce Springsteen). Other artists appearing on the album include Rosanne Cash (“Time”), Courtney Marie Andrews (“Downtown Train”) and Kat Edmonson (“You Can Never Hold Back Spring”).
Zanes’ production results in an album that is polished and even radio-friendly, without being overly glossy. Compositions like “Time” and “Georgia Lee” can stand on their own as poetry on the page, with plenty of music and rhythms inherent in the carefully selected words.