Schapiro 17

New Shoes: Kind Of Blue At 60

For most listeners, Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue is less an album than an icon, the sort of work so indisputably great that genuflection is the only conceivable response. But for many jazz musicians, Kind Of Blue is closer to scripture, in the sense that it has been a source of guidance and inspiration almost from the start.

Composer/arranger Jon Schapiro falls into the latter category, and New Shoes: Kind Of Blue At 60 is a sort of creative commentary on that text, a sermon on five songs, if you will. In addition to offering big-band versions of Kind Of Blue’s material, he also has six KoB-inspired pieces of his own, an itchily propulsive cycle he calls “Boiled Funk,” the title being an anagram of “Kind Of Blue.” There’s also a seventh track, “Foiled Bunk,” in which pianist Roberta Piket offers a virtuosic, two-handed deconstruction of Schapiro’s “Boiled Funk” motifs.

If all that sounds a tad Talmudic, don’t worry—Schapiro understands the centrality of the blues to Kind Of Blue, and never lets the music get arcane or cerebral. It helps that his ensemble is powered by a first-rate rhythm section, particularly Piket and Jon Wikan, who is rapidly becoming one of the most astutely swinging big band drummers in jazz today. But Schapiro’s writing is what really does the trick, fleshing out his ideas through lean, deftly coloristic ensemble passages that manage to convey small-band dynamics with a big-band toolkit. Gil Evans is an obvious touchstone here, particularly in the way Schapiro uses high-note trumpet, but there’s also a bit of George Russell in the way he uses modal harmony to maintain a sense of blues in even the densest ensemble passages.

Purists might bristle at some of the liberties taken here—for instance, the way Schapiro’s arrangement of “So What” playfully morphs the bass-line melody. But this isn’t meant for fundamentalists. Instead, by showing that creative work still can be built off of Miles’ model, Schapiro and company pay the best possible tribute: They make Kind Of Blue kind of new.

Falkner Evans

(Consolidated Artist Productions)

When Falkner Evans’ quintet album The Point Of The Moon came out in 2011, it marked a significant departure for the New York-based veteran pianist and celebrated composer, whose three previous discs were trio dates. Now, with the release of the sextet recording Marbles, Evans expands his harmonic horizons further with the inclusion of a three-horn front line. The music—nine Falkner originals and an album-closing snippet of “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be”—is flush with ensemble interaction, and Evans and company do a brilliant job blending the intimacy of a piano trio with the dynamic flash and larger tonal palette made possible by the additional instrumentation.

Evans proves himself an expert orchestrator with a knack for voicing three-part harmony and combining brass and woodwind timbres in unexpected, yet extremely effective, ways. In addition to drummer Matt Wilson, bassist Belden Bullock and trumpeter/flugelhornist Ron Horton, fresh sounds at the leader’s disposal include Ted Nash’s vibrant alto saxophone and fat-toned flute, and Michael Blake’s gritty-spitty tenor and stately soprano. On three tracks, guest artist Steve Nelson contributes masterful, tasteful vibraphone to the instrumental mix; his presence on Marbles is the icing on the cake.

The album kicks off with “Pina,” a romantic number that rides a bolero-like groove and seduces with its mysterious-sounding, overtone-rich blend of flute, soprano and trumpet. “Civilization” is a medium swing—established by Wilson’s steady, lazy ride cymbal—that puts a subtle twist on standard song form by embedding an improvised tenor passage into the head of the tune. Evans comes to the fore on the hushed “Sing Alone,” which starts with a dreamy rubato piano intro, heavy on the sustain, eventually leading to an especially introspective solo turn from the leader. “Global News” is a medium-up jazz waltz with a driving bass line and horn parts that smoothly shift from unison to harmony and back again. The album reaches dramatic peaks when Nelson makes his solo entrance on “Hidden Gem,” spinning skyward in an uplifting spiral of mallet strokes that occasionally evoke a sunny steel-drum vibe. The title track, a major highlight, is notable for its symphonic-style horn swells, tricky syncopation, prominent vibraphone and a taut piano improvisation that’s cleverly crafted and eloquently stated.

With Marbles, Evans embraces a musical dimension that’s entirely new to him, but turns out to be right up his alley.

Chris Dingman

(Inner Arts Initiative)

Some brilliant young players have a knack for finding one another. Such is the case with Chris Dingman and Linda May Han Oh. In the 2012 DownBeat Critics Poll, Dingman topped the category Rising Star–Vibraphone and Oh won the category Rising Star–Bass. The vibraphonist recruited her for his 2015 sextet album, The Subliminal And the Sublime, and he invited her back to play on his latest effort, the trio disc Embrace. The two are in good company alongside drummer Tim Keiper, whose resume includes work with Cyro Baptista, David Byrne and John Zorn.

In recent years, Oh has toured with world with Pat Metheny and done such great work with so many players that she has become a highly sought-after collaborator, one who can shine in a variety of settings. On Embrace—a collection of nine Dingman originals—her tasteful solos on “Find A Way” and “Hijinks And Wizardy” serve the song, without lapsing into any grandstanding.

Recorded at Atomic Sound studio in Brooklyn and produced by Keith Witty, the focal point of Embrace is the luminous timbre of Dingman’s vibes. The trio setting not only makes his fluid dynamics central to the overall sound, it also showcases his considerable gift for melody. A composition like “Hijinks And Wizardy” would lend itself to interpretation by a pianist or soprano saxophonist.

A few of the songs in the program were informed by Dingman’s deep interest in West African music traditions, especially the work of players from Mali. Dingman titled “Ali” in honor of the late guitarist/singer Ali Farka Touré, “Goddess” was inspired by vocalist Oumou Sangaré, and “Forgive/Embrace” nods to the work of kora player Toumani Diabaté. By drawing inspiration from across the Atlantic Ocean, Dingman is, in his own small way, illustrating how musicians from around the globe are united by a common language.

At a time when musicians’ careers are in peril due to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s important to applaud the efforts of organizations who support the arts, such as New Music USA, which helped Dingman make Embrace a reality. In the album’s liner notes, Dingman cites five organizations that have, in turn, provided financial support to New Music USA. When an album is this strong, fans should be particularly appreciative of the do-gooders behind the scenes, helping artists bring their visions to fruition.

The Necks

(Northern Spy)

The Necks are both complicated and guileless.

For more than 30 years, the Sydney-based trio has been moving through jazz, ambient and avant-rock while dispatching more than 20 albums, frequently offering up a single, long track on each improvised disc. And while Three comes with, that’s right, three cuts, the individual works still function as a single sonic premise.

“Bloom,” the album’s opener, rattles with Tony Buck’s percussion as Lloyd Swanton’s bass ostinato lends the tune an odd sense of swing. Here as on each of Three’s tracks, pianist Chris Abrahams lets every chord he plays breathe. There’s not a rush to compete with the rhythm section’s momentum, Abrahams seems to think, his contributions giving the album a sense of calm, even during moments of intensity.

It’s that contrast making Three one of the group’s most engaging recent albums: Open drifted too much and Vertigo comes off as a bit too baroque. But Unfold and Body work in the same way as this most recent effort, despite including more rockist intentions. But like each of the band’s albums, these latest discs offer subtle variations on just a handful of themes. Even if the crackling results are soothing to some and an aural irritant to others, the trio’s belief in its mission and dedication to improvisation is something more than laudable.

Kandace Springs

The Women Who Raised Me
(Blue Note)

Recruiting an array of high-profile guests for a disc can be a risky endeavor. If the results are mediocre, then the leader might be accused of riding on others’ coattails. But when the results are strong, new fans could see the leader in a different light. Skeptics can be won over via this logic: “If she’s keeping company with these mighty collaborators, perhaps she does, indeed, belong among them.” Such is the case with singer/keyboardist Kandace Springs’ fourth Blue Note release, The Women Who Raised Me.

On the CD packaging, the track listing includes the names of the boldface guests: bassist Christian McBride, alto saxophonist David Sanborn, tenor saxophonist Chris Potter, singer/pianist Norah Jones, trumpeter Avishai Cohen and Elena Pinderhughes, who topped the category Rising Star–Flute in the 2016 DownBeat Critics Poll. Among that parade of notable guests, Springs remains the key figure and primary reason to seek out this collection, as her fluid pianism and emotive vocals soar in this setting. Producer Larry Klein has crafted a disc that combines sonic elegance with musical muscle.

On this 12-track program of covers, the leader—the daughter of singer Kenneth “Scat” Springs—pays tribute to the female vocalists who caught her ear as a youngster, including Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae, Nina Simone, Roberta Flack, Sade, Bonnie Raitt and Lauryn Hill.

Springs’ reading of “I Put A Spell On You” is spiced with Sanborn’s potent alto, plus a nod to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and some fine scat-singing. Elsewhere, an interpretation of Duke Ellington’s “(In My) Solitude” showcases a delicate touch on piano and great tenor work by Potter.

When Springs was a kid, she was mesmerized by Jones’ version of “The Nearness of You” on her 2002 debut, Come Away With Me (Blue Note). Today, Springs is signed to Blue Note, and her new album includes a version of that same standard. Springs and Jones’ arrangement of “Angel Eyes” finds the two artists trading vocal lines and sturdy instrumental passages, featuring the leader on Wurlitzer and her guest on piano. Sometimes fate favors the gifted.

Various Artists

Ella 100: Live At The Apollo!

Singer Patti Austin and drummer/producer Gregg Field are in fine, familiar territory again. The simpatico pair collaborated on Austin’s 2002 album, For Ella, a loving tribute to Ella Fitzgerald (1917–’96), and they reunited on Oct. 22, 2016, for a concert celebrating the “First Lady of Song.” Highlights from the all-star show are chronicled on the winning album Ella 100: Live At The Apollo!, featuring Austin on five performances that illustrate precisely why she has been a fan favorite on the jazz festival circuit. Teamed with the Count Basie Orchestra (under the direction of Scotty Barnhart), Austin authoritatively swings her way through “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” “When I Get Low, I Get High” and “How High The Moon.”

Also present at the bash were Cassandra Wilson, Lizz Wright, Ledisi, Tony-nominated actor/singer David Alan Grier, the Howard University vocal group Afro Blue and a jazz quartet made up of Field, Brian Nova (guitar), Shelly Berg (piano) and Nathan East (bass).

The venue was an important element in the proceedings because a 17-year-old Fitzgerald famously made her debut at the Apollo Theater in 1934. Nodding to that performance, the album has a segment in which Grier re-enacts what announcer Ralph Cooper might have said on that fateful night. Vocalist Ayodele Owolabi (then 17 and now going by the stage name Ayo) delivers her rendition of “Judy,” a song Fitzgerald sang at the Apollo.

Thanks to the power of the Basie band, this concert album will appeal to longtime Ella fans, as well as connoisseurs of contemporary vocalists. Wilson smolders on “Cry Me A River,” Wright—backed by the quartet—offers knockout renditions of “Love You Madly” and “The Nearness Of You,” and Afro Blue showcases tight harmonies on “Oh, Lady Be Good.” (A bonus track on the CD version features Andra Day navigating Nelson Riddle’s arrangement of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” with panache.)

The album concludes with a wonderful and welcome departure: a live rendition of Ella tenderly crooning the standard “People.” Fans who had the opportunity to hear her in concert are, to quote the lyrics, “the luckiest people in the world.”

Jon Hassell

Vernal Equinox

Whatever jazz is, the music sprung from and is able to encompass sundry other musics. And while trumpeter Jon Hassell’s connection to the genre is nominal, his career stretches back to recording In C with minimalist Terry Riley.

Hassell, who’s likely best known as a Brian Eno collaborator from the producer’s early ambient phase, has contributed to works by pop and avant-gardists while also producing his own far-flung material, including a 1994 experiment in jazzy trip-hop. The reissued Vernal Equinox, the trumpeter’s 1977 debut, ranks as one of his most sedate works, but also precedes his better-known Earthquake Island. That latter disc, released the following year, finds its footing with a more new-agey feel and a batch of percussion that might have intrigued Talking Heads fans.

For his debut, Hassell enlisted Brazilian percussionist Naná Vasconcelos to knit in textures as the bandleader’s trumpet drips lines that refuse to intimate a melody, instead coming off like a busted-up shofar. If there’s a cut here that encapsulates Hassell’s work, though, it might be the closer, “Caracas Night September 11, 1975.” The calm calamity of crickets droning on in the evening provides a supple bed for Hassell’s wandering tone, connecting Vernal Equinox to his slow-cooked 2009 ECM effort, Last Night The Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes In The Street.

Correction: Jon Hassells surname was spelled incorrectly in a previous version of this post. DownBeat regrets the error.

Rhoda Scott

Movin’ Blues

Organist Rhoda Scott’s carved out an expat life that pretty much any musician would be jealous of.

While working in Count Basie’s Harlem club, a French venue and label owner was struck by her playing one evening, and convinced her to move to Paris, where she’d release her first album in 1968.

But B-3 players, at this late date, generally adhere to traditional uses of the instrument: churchy, funky blues. And Scott’s an interpreter, not a prolific writer, generally working over classics—stuff by Galt MacDermot, Art Blakey, and Rodgers and Hammerstein.

The bandleader’s a masterful purveyor of those situations (along with her drummer Thomas Derouineau), using her skills on Movin’ Blues to take on Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday,” while preserving a sense of the original’s passion; it’s enlarged with some slightly swinging moments. Duke’s “In A Sentimental Mood” later finds Scott wrenching all the emotion out of the composition—and her instrument—while “I’m Looking For A Miracle” swings hard enough to make listeners consider converting. And maybe that’s just what Scott was aiming for: lending listeners revelatory moments, even if they only span 14 short cuts.

That such a range of music and emotion finds itself shuttled through these duo arrangements means that U.S. jazzers for years have been missing out on Scott, who’s only made sporadic Stateside stops since setting up shop in Europe decades back.

Lina Allemano

Glimmer Glammer

Playing solo isn’t simply a matter of performing without accompaniment. In many ways, it’s working without a net, as naked and unforgiving a forum as music offers. It’s even worse in jazz, because in addition to offering a close-up look at the player’s tone and technique, solo improvisation also puts their ideas under the microscope. Needless to say, there hasn’t been a huge number of players with the courage and creativity to take that challenge on.

That Lina Allemano would have the moxie to record an album of solo trumpet won’t come as a surprise to those familiar with her work. A singular improvisor who has built an impressive discography both with her free-jazz combo, the Lina Allemano 4, as well as her semi-electric quartet, Titanium Riot, the Canadian-born Allemano clearly has the creative and technical chops to pull off a solo project like Glimmer Glammer. But what’s most striking about the album is that even though Allemano offers a different set of timbres and tools for each tune, each performance carries the same sense of narrative coherence, so that the music never seems like sound for its own sake.

Of course, some tracks are more abstract than others. “Clamour,” which Allemano said “was performed with circular breathing and uses extended technique to create multiphonics,” operates across a much narrower range of pitch than, say, the elegiac “One Man Down (For Justin),” which has a largely conventional melodic structure. But that latter tune also plays with texture, as Allemano not only adds tartness to the instrument’s tone at points by slipping a mute into the bell, but uses various extended techniques to make her trumpet sputter, sigh and groan.

Then there’s the title track, a “sound collage” in which Allemano “manipulates various materials in the left hand while playing trumpet (with multiple extended techniques) with the right hand.” As complicated as that description might seem, the piece functions as a sort of conversation, with the trumpet reacting and replying to the various textures and rhythms generated by whatever it is she’s is manipulating with her left hand. Yes, the sounds are abstract, but the sense isn’t, and it’s that quality that has made Allemano one of the most underappreciated trumpeters in jazz today.

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