Various Artists

If You’re Going To The City: A Tribute To Mose Allison
(Fat Possum)

Back in the day, some of the best playlists were curated by record store clerks who made their own cassettes. Nowadays, some of the best playlists are generated using artificial intelligence and data analytics. One thing that was true decades ago and remains so today is that the various-artists tribute album can be a wondrous source of musical variety. Any playlist that has artists like Iggy Pop, Chrissie Hynde, Richard Thompson, Loudon Wainwright III, Frank Black and Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite on it is sure to generate attention. But when you take that talented lineup and ask them all to sing compositions by eccentric jazz and blues singer/pianist Mose Allison (1927–2016), the result is an intoxicating treat.

On If You’re Going To The City: A Tribute To Mose Allison, the lyrics alone are worth the price of admission. Taj Mahal gently growls, “If silence was golden, you couldn’t raise a dime/ Because your mind is on vacation and your mouth is working overtime” (“Your Mind Is On Vacation”). And Fiona Apple croons, “Your cellular organization is really something choice/ Electromagnetism ’bout to make me lose my voice/ Got all my circuits open” (“Your Molecular Structure”).

Throughout the program, a variety of keyboardists have the honor and unenviable task of saluting Allison’s playing style, whether it’s former Heartbreaker Benmont Tench plinking out a piano riff behind Apple, Neil Larsen adding B-3 organ coloration to Jackson Browne’s reading of “If You Live” or David Witham adding poignant, funky keyboard work to Chrissie Hynde’s version of “Stop This World.” Elsewhere, Mike Finnigan’s piano adds fluid beauty to Bonnie Raitt’s terrific 2017 concert rendition of “Everybody’s Crying Mercy.”

Produced by Sheldon Gomberg and Don Heffington, the album concludes with “Monsters Of The Id,” a duet featuring Elvis Costello and the honoree’s daughter, Amy Allison. Piano work on that track was provided by Mose himself.

The Fat Possum label has packaged this CD in a two-disc set that includes a DVD of Paul Bernays’ 2005 documentary Mose Allison: Ever Since I Stole The Blues. The film includes some admirers who don’t appear on the album, including Pete Townsend, Van Morrison, Keb’ Mo’ and Ben Sidran.

Eric Alexander

Eric Alexander With Strings

Thanks, no doubt, to the precedent-setting sweetness of Charlie Parker With Strings, there’s an expectation that any pairing of a saxophonist and a string section will result in something ballad-heavy and lush. Obviously, there have been exceptions—Joshua Redman’s recent Sun On Sand being an obvious example. But Eric Alexander With Strings plays delightfully to type, with tempos slow and sultry, and plenty of minor-key melodies.

Even so, the album never sounds like a throwback, in part because Dave Rivello’s arrangements rely as much on the rhythm section as the strings, but mostly because Alexander understands that the sweet, sustained string harmonies are more effective if they stand in contrast to the muscular insistence of the saxophone. As such, his tenor tone remains big and punchy, while his solos retain the hard-bop aggression of his combo recordings. Even the dreamy “The Thrill Is Gone,” immortalized on the 1954 album Chet Baker Sings, takes on a bit of edge when Alexander tosses the melody aside and works over the changes in his gruff, slow-burning solo. The strings might still whisper sweetly, but Alexander and his band (particularly drummer Joe Farnsworth) have work to do.

Traditionally, “with strings” albums are heavy on standards, and here, too, Alexander follows the formula while slyly tweaking it. Perhaps the only immediately recognizable tune on With Strings is Leonard Bernstein’s wistful sigh of regret, “Some Other Time,” which Alexander plays against type, taking an upbeat, bop approach to the groove that brings out the harmonic genius of Bernstein’s chords. But Alexander makes a strong case for the others as overlooked gems, particularly Henry Mancini’s moody, Latin-inflected “Slow, Hot Wind,” and “Lonely Woman”—not the Ornette Coleman lament, but a sweet, mournful Horace Silver number that’s ideally suited to the plangent luster of Alexander’s ballad tone.

One area in which Alexander could have been a little less traditional is the album’s playing time, which at roughly 37 minutes is fine for an LP, but seems a bit miserly in digital format. Still, the listening experience is so opulent that even a little bit feels like a lot, a sonic luxury to be savored at leisure.

Dave Specter

Blues From The Inside Out

A middle-aged dog can learn new tricks. This is evidenced by veteran bluesman Dave Specter’s latest release, Blues From The Inside Out.

For the first time in his long career, the string-bending, flame-throwing guitarist emerges as a lead vocalist, taking charge of three tunes here. The muscular “How Low Can One Man Go?” is certain to get a response from crowds. With lyrics that reference the highest office in the land, a casino, bankruptcy, bone spurs and “telling lie after lie,” the tune is an angry jab at President Donald Trump. The song is delivered as a pent-up sentiment that Specter felt obligated to express.

On this program made up of nearly all his own compositions, Specter surrounds himself with an ace team. His frequent collaborator Brother John Kattke (who also plays organ and piano) delivers potent vocals on four cuts. Sarah Marie Young offers an engaging, nuanced lead vocal on the standout track “Wave’s Gonna Come,” a powerful composition by William Brichta. Additionally, the legendary Jorma Kaukonen plays guitar on two tracks, including “The Blues Ain’t Nothin’,” which he co-wrote with Specter.

The instrumental numbers pack a punch, too: There’s a Santana flavor to “Minor Shout,” and a Meters/Neville Brothers vibe to “Sanctifunkious.” The inspiring “March Through The Darkness,” sung by Kattke, owes an artistic debt to Mavis Staples. Specter shows his witty side with “Opposites Attract,” a tale about interpersonal relationships (a key topic for many blues artists, of course).

By recruiting the Liquid Soul Horns for three tracks and percussionist Ruben Alvarez for three tracks, Specter demonstrates that his version of the blues embraces influences from various genres. Longtime fans will find plenty of sturdy material to dig into here, including the leader’s newfound role as a vocalist. Another hat Specter wears is that of a podcaster, hosting a monthly show also titled Blues From The Inside Out.

Andrés Vial

Gang Of Three
(Chromatic Audio)

Montreal-based pianist Andrés Vial gained considerable attention and acclaim for his 2018 quartet outing, Andrés Vial Plays Thelonious Monk: Sphereology Vol. 1. With subsequent volumes of Sphereology in the works, Vial has decided to continue documenting his own development as a composer with the release of his fifth album as a leader, Gang Of Three, a trio date featuring nine original compositions recorded in a single session last April.

Joining Vial are bassist Dezron Douglas, who returns from the Sphereology sessions with his beautifully resonating acoustic sound, and drummer Eric McPherson, a new collaborator who fuels the intensity of the music without overpowering it. Vial, who studied jazz drums during his formative years, takes a percussive approach to the keyboard, using just enough touch to bring a melody to the forefront or finessing his attack to coax darker tonal shades from the piano. Vial’s inner drummer emerges in a couple of tunes built upon polymetric/polyrhythmic concepts: “Chacarera Para Wayne” is an intriguing piece that’s based on a northern Argentinian folk dance, and “Put Your Spikes In” draws inspiration from a central African Gbaya folk song (“Ba-di-heim-ha-naa-dai”).

Other highlights include album opener “Atonggaga Blues,” a 12-bar blues in 7/4 that establishes an exploratory vibe; the playful “Gang Of Three,” with its funky New Orleans feel and stylistic references to the work of pianists Monk, Bud Powell and Elmo Hope; “Montaigne,” which rides a shifting samba groove through an unsettling terrain of harmonic ambiguity; and the finale, “Cascadas,” whose descending chord melody sounds like a musical waterfall.

Charles Lloyd Quartet

Montreux Jazz Festival 1967 (Swiss Radio Days Jazz Series 46)
(The Montreux Jazz Label)

Saxophonist Charles Lloyd is renowned for fearlessly reinventing himself to explore some recently discovered facet of his personality and art.

A few years after his final recording in the band of drummer Chico Hamilton and the same year as the saxophonist’s Forest Flower was released, Lloyd took a star-studded ensemble to the Montreux Jazz Festival. Vividly depicting a band that was functioning at its peak, Montreux Jazz Festival 1967 (Swiss Radio Days Jazz Series 46) serves to fill out listeners’ understanding of Lloyd’s work with pianist Keith Jarrett and drummer Jack DeJohnette. (Ron McClure’s on bass, though Cecil McBee frequently accompanied the saxophonist at the time.)

But the bandleader’s decision to include “Lady Gabor,” which originally appeared on a Hamilton disc Lloyd helped record, is just curious given that he had decades of the genre to pick through for inspiration. Lloyd and guitarist Gabor Szabo, who wrote the tune, got their start performing in the relatively unheralded Hamilton groups of the 1960s. And while Szabo dispatched a handful of pretty memorable Technicolor leader dates, there haven’t been too many folks who’ve interpreted his songbook.

The live 1967 recording—which sports a 27-minute rendition of “Forest Flower,” replete with an intense DeJohnette drum solo—lends an air of relevance to the Hungarian guitarist’s work almost 40 years after his death. The rendition here is all entrancing flute moves from the bandleader and blocky chords from Jarrett, adding a contemplative vibe to a set of tunes that also takes a run at the pianist’s “Days And Nights Waiting,” and Lloyd’s “Love Ship” and “Sweet Georgia Bright.”

Tim Ray

Excursions And Adventures
(Whaling City Sound)

For a lot of jazz fans, the interest in this album will lie more with the side players than the leader, and fair enough. Tim Ray is a talented and accomplished pianist, but because much of his career has been spent playing behind pop artists—Lyle Lovett, most notably, but also Aretha Franklin, Bonnie Raitt and Jane Siberry—his name is less likely to ring bells than the names of drummer Teri Lynne Carrington or bassist John Patitucci. And to be honest, listening to Carrington and Patitucci mix it up on tracks like the angular, funky “Messiaen’s Gumbo” is one of this album’s greater pleasures.

But don’t take that to mean that this is in any way a lopsided trio, because Ray is more than capable of holding up his end. For one thing, he’s a remarkably rhythmic player, someone who doesn’t simply work a groove, but strengthens and intensifies it. “Nothing From Nothing,” the Billy Preston chestnut that opens the album, is full of bluesy harmony and left-hand-driven gospel flourishes, and it’s a joy to hear the bandleader cut loose. But it’s his comping behind Patitucci’s electric bass solo that really seals the deal, laying down a second layer of funk against Carrington’s already authoritative groove.

There’s a similar sense of rhythmic abandon to their take of The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black,” a tune so well suited to jazz reinterpretation that it’s almost a shock to realize that it has hardly been done before. But it’s not just the trio’s sense of groove that makes it work; it’s also because they’re more than happy to stretch the harmony to its limits. The aforementioned “Messiaen’s Gumbo” is a case in point, a Patitucci composition that combines Crescent City funk with harmonic ideas derived from composer Olivier Messiaen’s modes of limited transposition. Opening with a fatback duet between drums and bass, it’s eloquently funky, but also nicely dissonant, thanks to the way Ray’s piano pushes the chords further and further from the tonic, as if Dr. John were momentarily possessed by Craig Taborn.

Thelonious Monk’s “Trinkle Tinkle” is equally playful, thanks to a conversational approach that underscores the composition’s wit, while Franz Lehar’s “Yours Is My Heart Alone” evokes the classic Bill Evans trio, both in its swinging interplay and pellucid approach to harmony.

Works For Me

Reach Within

Works For Me, a Posi-Tone organized ensemble of next-generation players, opens its first full-length album with a Joe Henderson tune from 1963 and ends on a Stevie Wonder cover that’s a bit too pumped full of sucrose for what most listeners might need—or want.

Stuffed between those tracks, though, is the straighahead work of an emerging group that’s looking to keep jazz from becoming an anachronism while investigating their own day-to-day lives.

Pianist Caili O’Doherty’s “Salt And Vinegar”—seemingly a paean to a delicious potato chip—reflects the collective ensemble’s relative youth and playfulness, as Alexa Tarantino’s soprano saxophone solo bumps up against the writer’s hard-swinging feature. “Lake Sebago” nods to bucolic escapes in Maine as it benefits from Tarantino’s alto flute intoning deep lines that weave in and out of guitarist Tony Davis’ melodic bedding. It’s one of two compositions the guitarist contributes here, the other being the much bluesier “El Gran Birane.”

The one player who might be considered a veteran here is Joe Strasser, a drummer who started contributing to recordings by Sam Yahel and Ken Fowser during the late ’90s. Strasser and bassist Adi Meyerson enable the group to explore and display the personalities of all involved as the five-piece band merges sketches of 21st-century life with an ennobling 100-year-old tradition.

Simone Baron & Arco Belo

The Space Between Disguises
(Self Release)

As longtime readers know, the motto that appears on the cover of DownBeat is “Jazz, Blues & Beyond.” The phrase includes that third word as an umbrella term, which applies to music that isn’t easy to categorize. “Beyond” is similar to “world music”: Both terms are intentionally broad, and both could be used to describe the work of pianist/accordionist Simone Baron, who recently released The Space Between Disguises, the debut album by her band Arco Belo. In the album’s liner notes, Baron describes her work, writing, “I thank you for joining me and my genre-queer ensemble as we dance in the spaces between jazz, chamber music, and folk tunes from around the globe.”

This is music that might appeal to, say, fans of banjoist Béla Fleck’s collaborations with bassist Edgar Meyer and tabla player Zakir Hussain, or perhaps Meyer’s genre-fluid work with cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Arco Belo features Baron alongside bassist Michael Pope, drummer Lucas Ashby, percussionist Patrick Graney and a string section: Aaron Malone (violin, viola), Bill Neri (viola) and Peter Kibbe (cello). On the infectious track “Who Cares,” the core players are joined by tabla player Sandeep Das and Americana multi-instrumentalist Mark Schatz, who contributes banjo and bass. The result is an accordion-fueled musical stew that’s as tasty as it is hard to define.

The album’s centerpiece is the 12-minute “Passive Puppeteer,” which feels like a suite due to its dramatic pauses and intriguing section breaks. This musical journey finds the leader delivering memorable piano lines, as well as improvised runs on the accordion. Pope pumps up the proceedings with his electric bass work, and there are touches of the avant-garde that never descend into the harshly dissonant.

The program consists mainly of Baron’s original compositions, and although she generally doesn’t traffic in deep, repetitious grooves, the music has an inviting, accessible quality that will appeal to many big-eared listeners. Toward the end of the program is a trio of works that allow Baron to flex her muscles as an arranger, as she transforms jazz pianist Walter Bishop Jr.’s “Those Who Chant” (a tune he recorded on 1978’s Cubicle) into a piece that has a flavor akin to Aaron Copland’s work. That tune is followed by the bandleader’s arrangement of pianist/accordionist Tibor Fittel’s “Valsa,” parts of which are so lovely and gentle they could be slotted into the score of an animated Disney movie.

Baron’s creative aesthetic is illustrated nicely by “Buciumeana/Kadynja,” which merges Béla Bartok’s reading of a Romanian folk tune with a traditional melody of Moldovan origin. Overall, listeners who seek to explore far-flung musical vistas might want to stamp their passport for a border-hopping trip with Arco Belo.

Brian Shankar Adler

Fourth Dimension

Brian Shankar Adler doesn’t so much lead his band from behind the kit as he guides them to a place where all involved feel emboldened to break through perceived limitations of the genre.

The drummer, who as a child spent time living at a New York-state ashram, solders together contemporary ideas and at least passing references to Gary Burton’s electric ensembles from the 1960s on Fourth Dimension, Adler’s seventh date as a leader. There’s a healthy dose of Indian classical music throughout, which could be attributed either to the bandleader’s time at the Shree Muktananda Ashram, where silent meditation was on tap, or simply his interest in percussion. And while the drummer’s an affiliate of the Brooklyn Raga Massive, the music on Fourth Dimension hues toward the personal, as cuts named “Gowanus” and “Watertown” sit next to “Mantra” and “Rudram.”

“Windy Path,” a low-key, contemplative excursion, might sit most comfortably with the jazz designation, piano and vibes out front and guitar in a supportive role as Adler gently urges on the quintet. It’s a minor mood, one that serves as a ballast to some of the more outré fare here. But even as “Gowanus” revels in its experimentalist tendencies—some backward tape moves and shreddy guitar contributing to the vibe—Adler’s ensemble looks to combine jazz’s history, the bandleader’s childhood experiences and the music’s increasingly global resolve.

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