By Bobby Reed
It’s good to get along with your boss. The proof can be heard on You Can’t Lose With The Blues, the new straightahead gem from pianist Lafayette Harris Jr. For the past few years, he has been in the working band of saxophone legend Houston Person, who produced this album. The recording includes some material that Harris has played on tour with Person, including the beautiful ballad “I Love You, Yes I Do.” Harris’ deep familiarity with standards—such as “Wonder Why,” which he played on tour when he was in singer Ernestine Anderson’s band and then later performed with Person—allows him to craft personal, powerful renditions with subtle coloration and graceful nuance.
Harris recruited esteemed veterans Peter Washington (bass) and Lewis Nash (drums) for this winning, 12-song program of mostly standards, such as “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying” and “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.” Nash’s authoritative cymbal work on the former track—as well as Washington’s arco work on the duo arrangement of the latter track—reflect the leader’s ability to recruit ideal personnel and then let them soar. Harris ventures beyond the Great American Songbook with a delightful curveball: a luminous interpretation of “Love Me In A Special Way,” the DeBarge r&b hit from 1983. That track is followed by the most raucous number on the album, a rousing rendition of Charlie Parker’s “Bloomdido.” Harris dazzles with his solo treatment of Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone To Love.”
Harris’ compositional skills are on display with three original tunes. “The Juicy Blues” is a satisfying swinger and “Blues For Barry Harris” is a fitting tribute to one of the pianist’s mentors. Sometimes an original tune can feel out of place amid a program of standards, but that’s certainly not the case with the title track here. Person probably had a strong sense of how to approach the production on this tune: Harris wrote it or him and played on the version that the saxophonist included on his 2014 album, The Melody Lingers On. Overall, this album illustrates the power of playing to one’s formidable strengths.
By Dave Cantor
Folks writing on bassist Sigurd Hole’s latest solo dispatch, Lys/Mørke, tend to point out the connection he forged with nature while recording the two-disc set on the island of Fleinvær in the northern climes of Norway. But what gets lost in assessments like that is that Hole’s also removed himself from other people, creating a distance between his work and the culture it’s emerged from.
Still, Hole, who recently made his Carnegie Hall debut, explains his connection to nature in a press release, while noting the precarious environmental spot we’ve gotten ourselves into. While connecting humanity and nature—two things Hole actually sees as one and the same—the bassist doesn’t home in on the absence of other musicians from the recording and its process.
“The present–day situation poses many challenges to humankind on so many levels—the climate crisis and the collapse of ecosystems worldwide being perhaps our greatest challenge ever,” the bassist exerts. “Grasping and dealing with such issues on a personal level can be very challenging. Even though I have hope we will manage to turn the tide in time, I often feel depressed and sad thinking about it all. To me, nature has always been an immense source of joy and inspiration.”
A deep, audible breath on “Speilbilde,” a track on the first disc, serves to draw listeners in closer, but also illustrates Hole’s relative seclusion. It’s a musician looking to connect with his instrument. And on the next cut, “Vaktsom,” he does, trilling bowed notes over the sound of the nearby ocean. Overtones overwhelm the sound of water as Hole seems propelled by his surroundings, reaching for some ecstatic state. That there’s about 80-minutes of the search seems to mean Hole found at least a modicum of comfort in the process. And hopefully, listeners can extract some sort of enlightenment from listening in on his investigation.
By Dave Cantor
A bassist equally comfortable backing up vocalist Kurt Elling as he is occasionally performing alongside some of Chicago’s avant crowd and helming his groovier ensemble Lens, Clark Sommers coats post-bop with a veneer of 21st-century exceptionalism and adventure on Peninsula.
Recorded in 2017, four years after Ba(SH)’s first album was issued, the trio continues extolling the virtues of small groups, with Geof Bradfield’s tenor saxophone serving as the band’s propulsive lead, and drummer Dana Hall veering between swing and tracing the beat just beyond the lines.
The strongest tunes here are bookends for a few less-rewarding songs in the middle of the program; Bradfield’s a bit less convincing on soprano, leaving too much space for the trio to navigate. “Hope Dance,” though, benefits from the saxophonist’s dexterous and incandescent blowing, inspiring Sommers to go in on a solo that’s both more gratifying and melodic than other bassists might be able to summon.
While Peninsula serves to document a band two decades (and unfortunately only two albums) into its performing life, the recording also makes a point about Chicago and the players who call the city home. No matter how talented and well-credentialed Sommers, Bradfield and Hall are, they’re not necessarily the most visible players on the city’s scene. That’s how deep it is.
By Ed Enright
The Unknown New is more than just a platform for the original compositions and production talents of Chicago-based multi-instrumentalist Paul Mutzabaugh. The cross-genre ensemble—best described as equal parts chamber jazz, fusion and instrumental folk—is a guitar tour de force that showcases some of the Windy City’s strongest, and more melodically minded, players.
Inkflies, the group’s fourth CD, features Chris Siebold, Mike Pinto and Jim Tashjian on an arsenal of axes including lap steel, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, baritone guitar and synth guitar. Mutzabaugh, who plays electric bass and percussion throughout the album, provides background guitar parts (nylon string, acoustic, electric) as well. The resulting mosaic of guitar patterns, leads and improvisations entrances listeners and draws them deep into the Unknown New experience via tasty hooks, compelling solos and uplifting ostinatos. Drummer Jon Deitemeyer, a true artist behind the kit, runs a stylistic gamut, from easygoing swing to hushed balladry, to second-line snare-buzzing, to backbeat-driven rock grooves, to full-out explosions of crash cymbals, thundering toms and bass drum bombs. Percussionist Rich Stitzel adds subtle textures and not-so-subtle accents that put the finishing touch on Mutzabaugh’s delicately balanced arrangements. Three tracks are supplemented with tasteful drum loops, a light touch of production that lends Inkflies a contemporary-retro flavor.
“En Route To A Lost Lake” serves as a strong album opener with its catchy melody and Pinto’s crunchy, tremolo-laden electric guitar passages. Siebold makes the lap steel sing on “De Otro Mar,” a contemplative, dreamlike piece that conjures a sea of calm and features Tashjian on a soothing acoustic solo. Other highlights include the title track, which undergoes dramatic shifts in feel and dynamics, from light jazz waltz to slow-burn rocker and back again; “Me Sana El Fuego,” distinguished by its baritone guitar lead, funky prog-rock electric bass runs and brainy yet playful odd-meter stutter; and album closer “Velleity’s Charm,” with its exquisitely voiced chord/melody combinations and restrained, deliberate pacing. Upcoming performances by The Unknown New include a March 23 set at Elastic Arts in Chicago.
By Bobby Reed
After logging time with the likes of Benny Golson, Dave Liebman, Michael Dease and Mike LeDonne, drummer Jason Tiemann had amassed a wealth of experiences upon which to draw when formulating his debut album as a leader. He opted to explore the rich tradition of the jazz organ trio, enlisting guitarist Ed Cherry and Hammond B-3 whiz Kyle Koehler for the project.
The 11-song program on T-Man includes five of the drummer’s compositions, but he offers relatively few solos, preferring to let Cherry or Koehler take the spotlight. On the trio’s smoldering rendition of Ahmad Jamal’s “Night Mist Blues,” Cherry unfurls a flurry of lines that would make a Pat Martino fan smile, and Koehler flexes his muscles with a solo that packs an emotional wallop. The trio excels at all tempos, whether it’s surging through a high-octane burner like Tiemann’s original tune “Tizzle’s Blues” or slowing things down on a reading of J.J. Johnson’s “Lament,” which features the leader’s fine, subtle brushwork.
Tiemann—who currently teaches at the University of Hartford after spending 12 years as a faculty member at the University of Louisville—brings a deep sense of jazz history to T-Man, choosing to interpret Kenny Dorham’s “Lotus Blossom,” Jerome Richardson’s “Groove Merchant” and Osvaldo Farrés’ “Tres Palabras.” Tiemann’s arrangements help the listener connect the past to the present in a meaningful, consistently entertaining manner.
By J.D. Considine
Centuries ago, the phrase “Here be dragons” was used by cartographers to designate mysterious and presumably dangerous portions of the globe, in part to explain why their maps offered no information, but mainly to warn off inexperienced travelers from those perilous parts. In the liner notes to his third album, Here Be Dragons, the Israeli-born saxophonist Oded Tzur offers a story in which he imagines the famed renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi on a journey bankrolled by Dutch cartographers to find those dragons; part parable, part shaggy dog tale, it ends with a koan: “There are no dragons, but here is a song.”
Tzur’s playing is a lot like that story of his, quietly fantastical and full of narrative feints. His tone is light and sweet, with a whispered airiness that’s enhanced by his preference for the tenor’s upper octaves. There’s a vocal quality to his phrasing on “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” the album’s only cover. But instead of Blue Hawaii Elvis, his version sounds like Art Garfunkel at his most angelic, making the tune seem more like a prayer than a love song.
On the ghostly opening to “20 Years,” his arcing lines occasionally sound like gusts of wind moaning through an old house. By contrast, when working off of the effervescent, Caribbean-tinged groove of “The Dream,” his playing becomes more liquid, his phrases bubbling and gurgling around the fluid pulse of bassist Petros Klampanis and drummer Johnathan Blake. In both cases, the quietude of his approach invites close attention.
Being both a jazz musician and a student of Indian classical music, Tzur’s approach to improvisation is by turns intriguing and mystifying. Apart from “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” the compositions here are “‘miniature ragas’ over a moving bass line,” according to Steve Lake’s liner notes. But unless you’re well-versed in the structural logic of raga playing, it’s hard to hear how that works out; more obvious are the expressive aspects of Tzur’s playing—arching slurs, slow glissandi and notes that sound as though they were bent not by Albert King but Salvador Dali. Easier to follow is Nitai Hershkovits’ piano, which offers elegantly tuneful melodies and lean, impressionist chords.
Still, it’s hard not to be drawn to an attractive mystery, and even if it’s not always obvious why Tzur plays what he plays, there’s no denying its power and beauty, with or without dragons.
By J.D. Considine
To most jazz listeners, the combination of B-3, tenor saxophone and drums spells “organ trio,” and reasonably so. Even when they’re sidemen, organists tend to dominate the sound of a small ensemble, the familiar purr-and-growl of the keyboard inevitably leading to an amicable vocabulary of blues licks and soul grooves.
And to be honest, there’s a fair amount of that on Upstream, even if organist John Medeski tastefully avoids the most obvious and timeworn tropes of organ jazz. Still, this isn’t an organ trio album in the end, because even at its most Leslied, Medeski’s sound invariably yields to the undeniable groove and articulation of drummer Ben Perowsky, whose playing ultimately defines Upstream.
With a resumé that runs the gamut from Mike Stern to Masada, and Rickie Lee Jones to Joan As Policewoman, Perowsky is clearly a versatile stickman. But what drives Upstream has less to do with his technical command than with his conceptual commitment. Whether through the itchy, edgy fatback behind the bruising blues of “Kanape” or the dreamy, suggestive pulse of “Meta,” Perowsky’s drumming both drives and directs the music, using his accents and spaces to coax the best out of his bandmates.
The sly, New Orleans-schooled groove of “Sidecar” boasts some awesomely funky interplay with Medeski on the intro. The tune’s true genius, though, is revealed as those intricate rhythms fold into the boppish phrasing of the head once Chris Speed’s tenor enters. As solid as the interplay between Perowsky and Medeski is, things go up a notch once the drummer starts reacting to the almost deferential grace of Speed’s laid-back tone and phrasing.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s “Worms,” a cartoonishly brisk number in which Speed’s clarinet and Medeski’s organ are first hurried along by Perowsky’s brushwork, then coaxed into classic swing when he switches to sticks, the pocket impeccable no matter how much the tempo varies. Taken together, these delightfully varied performances upend the expectations of organ jazz, even as they leave the listener hungry for more.
By Dave Cantor
Opening with “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” sets a pensive, but hopeful, tone as Lynne Arriale pours out emotion on the superbly plotted Chimes Of Freedom.
Turning in her 15th album as a leader, pianist Arriale continues working in a trio setting, this time splicing in drummer E.J. Strickland and bassist Jasper Somsen for her first band that straddles the Atlantic. But like her earlier work, Arriale exerts a series of tasteful flourishes and embellishments around each composition’s melody, touching on the blues for “The Whole Truth,” feeling out a gospel vibe on “Reunion” and delving into some vibrant swing and bop for “Journey.”
“[W]hat are all the colors that can go under a note that would make it work?” Arriale wondered in a September 2009 DownBeat story while discussing her writing process. “Then you have a huge palette to work from. It can take me a long time to write an arrangement, because I’m not thinking theoretically; I’m thinking, how does this sound? How does it feel when I listen to it?”
On “The Dreamers,” Strickland is so tastefully busy and full of playfulness that it’s easy to lose sight of how phenomenally Arriale’s leading her group, everything perfectly accented with behind-the-beat chording. The inclusion of vocalist K.J. Denhert on a pair of tunes by Bob Dylan and Paul Simon as Chimes Of Freedom comes to its conclusion cements the album’s theme of hope and an embrace of difference, even if sonically, it’s a bit of a distraction.
By Bobby Reed
An artist’s lyrics can affect how critics categorize their work. If lyrics are bubbly, critics might call it a pop song, but if the tale is depressing or gritty, then the track could get shuttled into a genre that has a stronger whiff of respectability, such as “adult alternative” or even “art song.” This dynamic comes to mind regarding the new album from Kadri Voorand, whose powerful pop music can be challenging—not only in terms of its arrangements, production techniques and shifting melodic lines but also because of its dark lyrics.
Her original tune “I’m Not In Love” opens with this couplet: “I’m in love with the roses you brought/ I’m not in love with you.” Her composition “What If I Did Kill You” expresses the protagonist’s intense feelings toward, perhaps, a lover. There’s also darkness in “Kättemaks,” the melody of which was written by Eeva Talsi with lyrics by Jaan Tätte. The song’s Estonian title means “Revenge,” and the lyrics, as translated by Mart Kalvet, seem to depict a lover’s explanation to an unfaithful partner. To exact some revenge for acts of serial infidelity, the protagonist recounts how she went down to the local tavern and “slept with everyone there.”
Voorand’s ambition and multifaceted artistry are on full display on In Duo With Mihkel Mälgand. She produced the album, composed most of its songs and contributed vocals, piano, kalimba, violin, glockenspiel and electronic effects. Mälgand, who had a hand in the production and some of the arrangements, plays acoustic and electric bass, cello, bass drum and percussion on the 12-song program. Voorand’s sonic palette includes wordless vocals, layered, multitracked singing and looped recordings of intakes of breath to craft a percussive element.
The most jazz-oriented tune is the original number “I Must Stop Eating Chocolate,” a two-minute track that initially seems banal and even a bit jokey. But the fourth verse moves into morose territory: “I’ll raise a glass of tears for you/ You’ve cooked my heart/ I’ll serve that, too.” Here, as she does elsewhere on the album, Voorand devises complex flavors by adding a bitter ingredient to cut the sweetness.