The Dave Liebman Group

Earth
(Whaling City Sound)

Typically, when we think of eco-conscious music, what we imagine is built around acoustic instruments. To some extent, we can credit this to the Paul Winter Consort’s “Earth Music” albums of the late ’60s and early ’70s, which used saxophone, flute, English horn and cello to articulate the composer’s intent. Those instruments were deemed more “natural” than electric guitars or synthesizers, even though the saxophone is very much a product of the industrial revolution, while the recording process itself is both technologically intensive and far from green.

All this came to mind while listening to The Dave Liebman Group’s Earth, an album that concludes the saxophonist’s Four Elements project (earlier entries include Water, with Pat Metheny, Cecil McBee and Billy Hart; Air, with synthesist Walter Quintus; and Fire, with Kenny Werner, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette). Here, Liebman takes the opposite approach to expressing the natural wonders of the world, emphasizing the textural possibilities of digital and electronic sound over the traditional sonorities of wind and strings. “I am the lone acoustic instrument juxtaposing the old and the new (with the drums in the same time zone),” he writes in the liner notes.

It’s not an obvious strategy, but it works—not because the music evokes specific landscapes or seasons, either. Rather than take a programmatic approach like, say, Ferde Grofé’s “Grand Canyon Suite,” Liebman’s band opts instead to use the breadth of its sonic palette to reflect the enormous variety of our earth. “Earth Theme,” then, conveys its sense of vastness by contrasting Liebman’s soprano against the heaviness of Tony Marino’s electric bass while Bobby Avey’s wispy, white-noise synths wash over the ensemble like ethereal mist. “Volcano/Avalanche” uses electronics to blur the tonal center of Matt Vashlishan’s wind synthesizer and Avey’s keys, while a different effect scrambles the sound of Marino’s bass, making it sometimes hard to tell up from down with the harmony. And the high point of “Concrete Jungle” comes in an improvised exchange between Liebman and Vashlishan in which the saxophonist reacts not just to the notes the synthesist is playing, but also the instrument’s shape-shifting textures.

Jazz certainly would benefit from more creative uses of digital and electronic instruments.

Chet Baker

The Legendary Riverside Albums
(Craft)

This deluxe five-LP box set presents Chet Baker’s recorded output as a leader for the Riverside label between 1958 and 1959, a fruitful period when the West Coast-based trumpeter and vocalist was teaming up with some of the finest New York jazz musicians of the day—before his personal struggles began getting him into serious trouble.

Cool prevails on this collection, which brings together the four Baker albums released on Riverside, plus a fifth disc of outtakes and alternate takes from his sessions with the label. Baker’s best vocal work is highlighted on his Riverside debut, (Chet Baker Sings) It Could Happen To You, where he stamps his own personal style on swinging standards and ballads like “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” “I’m Old Fashioned,” “Everything Happens To Me,” “How Long Has This Been Going On?” and the title track. Baker’s capacity for serious bebopping comes to light on “Fair Weather,” the opening track of 1959’s Chet Baker In New York, where he’s backed by a stellar lineup of Philly Joe Jones on drums, tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin, Al Haig on piano and bassist Paul Chambers.

The 1959 all-instrumental outing Chet focuses on ballads and features pianist Bill Evans, guitarist Kenny Burrell, flutist Herbie Mann and baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams in a program of sparsely arranged standards like “Alone Together,” “It Never Entered My Mind” and “September Song.” Adams, Evans and Mann return—with the addition of saxophonist Zoot Simms—for Baker’s final Riverside album, 1959’s Chet Baker Plays The Best Of Lerner And Loewe, consisting of material from the Broadway shows My Fair Lady, Gigi, Brigadoon and Paint Your Wagon.

The reissued albums in this box set were cut from their original analog master tapes and pressed on 180-gram vinyl, a hallmark of Craft Recordings, a catalog label known for its thoughtfully curated packages and meticulous devotion to quality. The Legendary Riverside Albums includes a 16-page booklet filled with photos and insightful new liner notes by jazz historian Doug Ramsey. In addition to vinyl, the complete collection is also available digitally in hi-res 192kHz/24-bit and 96kHz/24-bit formats.

Majid Bekkas

Magic Spirit Quartet
(ACT)

What puts the magic in multi-instrumentalist Majid Bekkas’ Magic Spirit Quartet is the trance-like power of Moroccan gnawa music. Originally developed to accompany night-long ecstatic ceremonies to call down spirits, the music possesses a rhythmic depth and emotional resonance analogous to Santería music in Cuba. But where the Cuban tradition is built on the power of drums, gnawa centers on the droning drive of stringed instruments, particularly the oud and the bass-like guembri.

Bekkas, who was born and raised in Salé, Morocco, plays both, but it’s the guembri that matters most here. It’s the guembri’s twangy, restlessly propulsive bass line that dominates “Bania,” not only working in counterpoint against Bekkas’ vocal and Goran Kajfeš’ electric trumpet, but setting up an interesting friction with trap drummer Stefan Pasborg, whose playing keeps the stress on “one,” while Bekkas’ line emphasizes “two.”

Of course, traditional Moroccan music doesn’t use drum kits, much less electric trumpet, but that’s where a different sort of magic comes into play. Although Bekkas still lives in Salé, his Magic Spirit Quartet is based in Scandinavia, where Kajfeš, Pasborg, and keyboardist Jesper Nordenström live. Likewise, although the songs stick fairly close to traditional structures, with Bekkas’ guembri defining the pulse, while his vocals work a call-and-response dynamic with Kajfeš’ horn, the tracks themselves tend to expand along fusion lines, with lengthy, over-dub friendly groove sections affording the chance to stretch out and dive deeper into the music’s rhythmic core.

That said, there’s surprisingly little dilution of the music’s essential flavor. Obviously, Bekkas’ strength as a leader accounts for some of that, as his is the sort of voice—both vocally and instrumentally—that isn’t easily watered down. But Kajfeš, whose family emigrated to Sweden from Bosnia, seems utterly at home with the Arabic modalities of gnawa, and more than holds his own with the bandleader, particularly on the dramatic, entrancing “Mrhaba.”

Jen Curtis & Tyshawn Sorey

Invisible Ritual
(Tundra/New Focus)

Violin’s been used in jazz and its adjacent musics since the genre’s inception.

But in 2019, a couple of string-centric releases featuring Jenny Scheinman, as well as Wonderment—a collective recording by fiddler Zach Brock, bassist Matt Ulery and drummer Jon Deitemyer—displayed vibrant contemporary contexts for the instrument, settings that point toward the violin’s continued vitality in jazz.

Violinist Jen Curtis and drummer Tyshawn Sorey lean heavily toward the experimental on Invisible Ritual, with Sorey switching to piano during a few choice moments. Amid the exploratory fervor that comprises most of the recording, the duo swings on “IV,” a tune with Curtis double stopping and Sorey ineffably moving through sections of tumult to displays of nuanced ethereality. Here, Curtis, who’s also a member of the International Contemporary Ensemble, displays folkloric bona fides, pulling out spindly melodic lines that put the instrument’s history into focus.

On “VI,” the duo sounds more meditative with Sorey returning to the piano. It’s during moments like these that the two seem to be accessing a classical vision for the album, as opposed to some more aggro strain of improv. It’s not as if they’ve gone and scored a bunch of music, but the effortlessness of their playing certainly would make that assumption a reasonable one.

Elkhorn

The Storm Sessions
(Beyond Beyond Is Beyond)

The guitar duo Elkhorn, which is joined by multi-instrumentalist Turner Williams on its fifth studio outing, always has aimed to balance the folksy ideal of American Primitive guitar with the agency of ’60s psych stunners.

Despite inevitable John Fahey references, the band’s carved out a corner of the psych world whose audience seems up for a very specific strain of improvisation. And while Elkhorn is meditating on a theme across its discography, the band seemingly has more to excavate on The Storm Sessions.

The album—split into “Electric One” and “Electric Two,” each with parts designated “A” through “C”—finds the band holed up in a Harlem apartment during a winter storm. The slow build of “Electric Two,” as opposed to the more pastoral opening half of The Storm Sessions, benefits from Williams’ shahi baaja (a sort of electric Indian zither with keys added to it). Contributing to the insistent tension, he pushes Jesse Sheppard on 12-string acoustic and Drew Gardner on standard electric into racy exclamations.

But none of this really has anything to do with “soulful cosmic jazz,” as a press release would lead listeners to believe. Instead, it’s the impromptu jamming of three friends who all have the chops to match their varied tastes—a rangy collection of folk, blues, rock and improv.

“We don’t do pastiche,” Gardner told DownBeat last year about Elkhorn’s previous recording, Sun Cycle/Elk Jam (Feeding Tube). “We just have certain things we like and we respond to emotionally. And our way of getting a unique sound is based on just trying to play the most sincere thing that we can think of.”

It’s an admirable pursuit, one that’s yielded music worth tossing on whether you’re stuck inside this winter or just need some enthusiastic reinvestigations of psych-indebted guitar moves.

Big Band of Brothers

A Jazz Celebration Of The Allman Brothers Band
(New West)

Albums offering jazz renditions of rock songs are commonplace nowadays, so the element of surprise has faded. But A Jazz Celebration Of The Allman Brothers Band is an accomplishment of a higher order. This is a collection of smart arrangements of classic jam-band material with a sturdy blues foundation crafted for a 15-piece big band.

A central figure for this project is drummer, producer and jazz educator Mark Lanter, who has played in the Allman Brothers tribute band Eat A Peach. Also key to the proceedings is trumpeter, jazz educator and New South Jazz Orchestra founder Shane Porter, who doesn’t appear on the album, but he contributed four arrangements, including a brilliant rendition of Dickey Betts’ “Les Brers In A Minor” (which appeared on the Allmans’ classic 1972 album, Eat A Peach).

Four guest artists add credibility and spice to the 63-minute program: Blues/Americana star Ruthie Foster delivers powerful lead vocals on “It’s Not My Cross To Bear” and “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’”; Louisiana-bred singer-songwriter Marc Broussard takes the mic for “Whipping Post” and “Statesboro Blues”; Wycliffe Gordon wrote the arrangement for the latter tune and delivers a sturdy soprano trombone solo to “Don’t Want You No More”; and Jack Pearson, who was in the Allman Brothers Band from 1997–’99, injects some potent electric slide guitar work to “Stand Back.”

Elsewhere, trombonist Chad Fisher supplies an ethereal, beautiful solo to “Dreams,” one of three tracks arranged by guitarist Tom Wolfe.

Overall, this album provides a new prism through which to appreciate the music of an iconic band, many of whose founding members are no longer with us, including guitarist Duane Allman (1946–’71), vocalist/keyboardist Gregg Allman (1947–2017), bassist Berry Oakley (1948–’72) and drummer Butch Trucks (1947–2017).

Theo Hill

Reality Check
(Posi-Tone)

The third album from Theo Hill issued through Marc Free’s Posi-Tone imprint is something of a departure for the pianist.

Though Hill returns with a rhythm section drawn from his earlier releases—bassist Rashaan Carter and drummer Mark Whitfield Jr.—Reality Check expands the bandleader’s palette by adding in vibes, provided by the seemingly omnipresent Joel Ross.

The quartet recording (Hill’s previous Posi-Tone outings were trio affairs) also finds the composer more frequently engaging an electric context for his work. Granted, tracks like “Retrograde,” off 2018’s Interstellar Adventures, find the pianist’s band treading territory first covered by ’70s groove-oriented players. But “Swell,” “Superwoman” and “Song Of The Wind,” all from this latest effort, see Hill combining his penchant for classic straightahead material with some funkier offerings.

That Ross is onboard, adding another voice and well of expression, only suits the bandleader’s writing—roomy enough for two melodic instruments and taut enough for moments of focused investigation. On “Guardians Of Light,” the pianist’s insistent left hand grants his right generous backing to take flight, as Carter exerts an electrified tone. It’s a contemplative mode, one that shifts across Reality Check’s 10 tracks, moving from charged moments of musicality to calmness and easy elegance.

Nick Finzer

Cast Of Characters
(Outside In)

When releasing a narrative album without vocals, many artists include extensive liner notes that explain the story. Trombonist Nick Finzer takes a different tact on Cast Of Characters. The album cover features Laura Reyero’s colorful illustrations of six characters, at least two of whom are real-life figures: Brutus (the Roman senator who helped assassinate Julius Caesar) and Duke Ellington (dubbed “A Duke” here). Instead of describing a narrative arc, the album packaging includes a short essay that begins, “Each of us responds and develops along our journey with the influence of people we meet along our path.” On the interior CD panels, the 14 tracks are divided into two categories: “The Cast” and “The Journey,” inviting listeners to view some songs as biographical sketches and others as plot points.

Looking closely at the back cover of the CD, listeners learn that certain “Journey” songs are associated with specific characters, so the sophisticated swinger “A Duke” is followed by the thrilling “(Take The) Fork In The Road,” the title of which might nod to Ellington’s “Take The ‘A’ Train.”

While these narrative and graphic elements add levels of meaning to the listening experience, the music is strong enough to stand on its own. The quality of this sterling recording is no surprise, given the credentials of producer Ryan Truesdell and the impressive cast of musicians that Finzer assembled: Lucas Pino (reeds), Alex Wintz (guitar), Glenn Zaleski (piano), Dave Baron (bass) and Jimmy Macbride (drums).

“Patience, Patience” dramatically builds to an explosive climax in which all the players, especially Wintz, are hurling clusters of sparks. “Evolution Of Perspective” features kinetic solos from both Finzer and Zaleski, sandwiched between intoxicating segments in which languid horn charts are juxtaposed with Macbride’s skittering drum work.

Finzer, who runs a label and media company called Outside in Music, had the recording sessions filmed, and at press time had posted three clips of live-in-the-studio performances, including “The Guru,” featuring Pino’s potent work on bass clarinet. These videos add yet another layer to our appreciation of this exquisite program.

John Bailey

Can You Imagine?
(Freedom Road)

With another election year upon us, trumpeter John Bailey recognizes that the time for a unifying candidate has come: Dizzy Gillespie. Playing off the maestro’s witty 1964 presidential campaign (during which the trumpeter imagined a cabinet that, among other jazz luminaries, included Duke Ellington as Secretary of State), Bailey is inspired by the very real issues Gillespie faced during the Civil Rights era and, in assembling this response, how much more work there is to do.

Given that kind of mission, it’s no surprise that the record’s immediate standout is the three-part “President Gillespie Suite.” In addition to providing a platform for Bailey’s taut runs, the piece builds out of a sauntering groove from drummer Victor Lewis before giving way to a growling turn from bass trombonist Earl McIntyre that clears a path for each player to move toward a harmonious and increasingly raucous statement. Later, Bailey pays tribute to Gillespie’s rechristened seat of power with “The Blues House,” a hard-swung venture marked by a zig-zagging turn from trombonist Stafford Hunter.

But Dizzy isn’t Bailey’s only running mate. The simmering “Ballad From Oro, Incienso Y Mirra” by Chico O’Farrill is drawn from a live 2016 date with the late composer’s son, Arturo, benefiting from Edsel Gomez’s buoyant piano. “Valsa Rancho,” a tune written by Brazilian guitarist Chico Buarque, travels at a more contemplative pace, girded by Janet Axelrod’s murmured flute melody before venturing toward brighter corners led by saxophonist Stacy Dillard.

Though inspired by contemplation of scant changes since Dizzy’s day, Bailey has delivered a collection driven by the pursuit of light. That’s a campaign anyone can get behind.


On Sale Now
August 2020
Terri Lyne Carrington
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