By Dave Cantor
As much as any other contemporary bandleader, James Brandon Lewis devises thematic ideas for each of his albums.
The saxophonist, who’s released as much music in the past few years as others typically do in a decade, recently has gone in on the idea of rebelliousness (An UnRuly Manifesto) and a historical appreciation for the sax-drums duo setting (Live In Willisau). He now takes on science with Molecular.
There’s a knotty explanation related in the album’s liner notes about how Lewis’ research into the double helix informed his mode of composition here. But at some point, he also dismisses it, making the premise seem like just another intellectual pursuit among many.
“I came up with this information and it’s been a process,” he said. “I don’t understand all of it, even though I have a lot of sheet music that I’ve written off of these formulas.”
“Helix” finds the bandleader dispatching choked notes, maybe aurally sketching the twist and turns of the song’s titular structure; the following “Per1” stacks unusual combinations of notes to relate a similar visual idea with a considerably different feel. But the post-bop setting—however space-aged—recalls the best of quartet interplay, as pianist Aruan Ortiz and drummer Chad Taylor bounce rhythms off each other. A few more slowly paced efforts—“Breaking Code” and the title track—allow the bandleader to display a different aspect of his nature with varying results. It adds a bit of welcomed texture to an album otherwise given over to muscular yet thoughtful displays of blowing.
Whatever recording—or recordings—follow in quick succession, they’ll likely offer up a deeper look at Lewis’ expanding universe of intellectual infatuations.
By Ed Enright
Chad Lefkowitz-Brown’s first big band recording, created during the COVID-19 pandemic, consists entirely of standard repertoire, as the album’s double-entendre title suggests. With a little help from arranger Steven Feifke, the 30-year-old rising star tenor saxophonist called upon 18 instrumentalists to form the Chad LB Virtual Big Band, with individual members recording their own parts—remotely and asynchronously—on each of Feifke’s eight newly penned charts.
In executing the Chad LB Virtual Big Band project, Lefkowitz-Brown drew upon his experience in New York-based large ensembles like the Birdland Big Band, the Jason Marshall Big Band and Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, as well as his own skills at home recording and his knack for reaching audiences via online platforms. It was no small feat, and Lefkowitz-Brown proves to be the perfect artist to spearhead such a venture, judging by the quality and spirit of the music on Quarantine Standards.
Ensemble passages are tight and dynamic, with plenty of locked-in swing feeding the collective feel of a traditional big band and helping to erase any sense of physical isolation. In choosing an all-standards program, Lefkowitz-Brown gave his virtual band members a shared language to work with and some common ground to stand upon, boosting the group’s chances of success in overcoming the barriers imposed by quarantine-like coronavirus safety standards.
The album serves as a fine showcase for the bandleader’s instrumental prowess, as he takes the lead voice on several tracks and solos prolifically throughout the program. Highlights include “Giant Steps,” which opens with a gripping tenor saxophone improvisation; a rapturous take on “My One And Only Love” that reveals the romantic side of Lefkowitz-Brown, who woos and coos over lush ensemble passages; and closer “Cherokee,” an uptempo favorite that brings the leader and alto saxophonist Andrew Gould together for some adrenaline-fueled solo trading.
By Dave Cantor
The old saw goes like this: Jazz is a conversation. If that’s true, members of the Eloá Gonçalves Trio are whispering. Casa is a quiet take on the piano-trio setting with a subdued bearing that belies its acute musicality.
Gonçalves, a Brazilian-born pianist studying in Austria, leads her troupe with unerring quietude, the tune “Grace” earning its name and somehow reifying the stillness of weekend afternoons. There’s nothing showy here, just assuredness and light.
A few cuts break with presumptions, though: “Elo,” which draws on Béla Bartók for fuel, features Gonçalves’ left hand more prominently than elsewhere, lending it some rhythmic heft absent in other places across the recording; “Ainda Sem Titulo” adds in trombonist Karel Eriksson, layering on more cool tones.
To close out the disc, the bandleader reprises her “Choro De Pai E Mãe,” a tune she initially recorded with Trio Matiz. Vocalist Laura Zšschg, wordlessly tracing the melody, and cellist Mathilde Vendramin fill out another placid composition. Relative to the rest of album, it’s a work flush with color, but subdued like mauve or a faded orange. If Gonçalves’ strength across Casa is evoking warmth and calm, it peaks here, leaving listeners wondering what the composer might do with an even fuller roster of musicians.
By Bobby Reed
Long regarded as canonical, The Beatles’ 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has inspired an array of tributes, including a 2018 jazz collection from Impulse titled A Day In The Life: Impressions Of Pepper, as well as album-length interpretations by Cheap Trick (2009), The Flaming Lips (2014) and Django Bates (2017).
So, is there still interpretive gold to be mined from the 13 songs on the Fab Four’s most famous disc? Pianist Michael Wolff, drummer Mike Clark and bassist Leon Lee Dorsey prove that there is with Play Sgt. Pepper. While some of their predecessors nodded to the complex sonic tapestry that George Martin stitched together on the original album, Wolff, Clark and Dorsey scale things down, utilizing a less-is-more recipe: three musicians, eight cherry-picked songs and zero glossy production touches. The result is a master class in recasting classic pop tunes in a straightahead, piano-trio setting.
The title track and “With A Little Help From My Friends” are injected with swing, while “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” opens with Wolff delivering a straightforward reading of the iconic tune’s melody. The latter arrangement zigs at junctures when one would expect it to zag. Throughout the 39-minute program, the trio succeeds in making the source material easily recognizable while still expressing an adventurousness that prevents the proceedings from feeling overly reverential.
The combination of Clark’s elegant brushwork and the flurry of cascading notes in Wolff’s muscular solo transform “She’s Leaving Home” into a jazz gem. Elsewhere, a swing treatment—fueled by vibrant pianism and spiced with Dorsey’s bass solo—converts “Lovely Rita” into a fun ride that eschews the singsong quality of the original tune. A somber mood permeates the closer, “When I’m Sixty-Four,” shifting Paul McCartney’s ditty away from its jaunty roots.
With a clear command of The Beatles’ harmonic language, Wolff, Clark and Dorsey use their own distinct dialects and instrumental acumen to offer a stellar program that could win over jazz fans who refuse to worship at the Sgt. Pepper altar.
By Ed Enright
French-born drummer-composer Raphaël Pannier made a smart choice when he called upon one of his mentors, alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón, to provide the musical direction for his first album as a leader. Featuring four Pannier compositions, plus a selection of French classical pieces and jazz standards, Faune merges Pannier’s European upbringing and classical studies with his more recent experiences as an improvising performer and teacher living in America. Zenón, who plays on five tracks, took an active role in helping Pannier conceive ways to bridge those seemingly disparate worlds—much as the acclaimed saxophonist has done in linking his own Puerto Rican heritage with modern jazz concepts.
Nonoriginal repertoire on Faune extends from Maurice Ravel (“Forlane”), Olivier Messiaen (“Le Baiser de l’Enfant Jésus”) and Hamilton de Holanda (“Capricho de Raphaël”) to Wayne Shorter (“E.S.P.”) and Ornette Coleman (“Lonely Woman”). In addition to Zenón and Pannier, the lineup includes two extremely versatile pianists—Aaron Goldberg from the jazz world and Giorgi Mikadze from the classical realm—as well as bassist François Moutin. Some electronic enhancements come into play as well, with Pannier providing synthesizer programming for his dramatic intro and outro to “E.S.P.,” and internationally recognized keyboardist and producer Jacob Bergson contributing tasteful atmospheric effects on the Ravel piece. Highlights among the Pannier originals include the swinging “Midtown Blues,” with a remarkable, highly stylized bass solo by Moutin; the dark, ambiguous slow-mover “Lullaby,” which hypnotizes with its dreamlike repetition; and “Monkey Puzzle Tree,” which closes out the album with a climactic exchange between Zenón and Pannier over a simple two-note vamp.
Throughout Faune, Pannier plays to his strengths as an imaginative colorist and a master of textures whose light touch on the drum kit brings to mind the delicate brushstrokes of an impressionistic painter.
By Dave Cantor
Any project that archivist Christopher C. King works on is bound to arrive with some backstory as interesting as the Ganges River is long.
For How The River Ganges Flows: Sublime Masterpieces Of Indian Violin (1933–1952), released on Jack White’s Third Man imprint, King glosses over the story a bit, just briefly mentioning that a friend sent him a giant box of 78s that arrived with an elephantine thump on his Virginia porch.
Apparently, in the world he inhabits, that’s not too strange an occurrence. But the gift spun the record producer into a historical frenzy, one that easily could turn into a consuming passion, much the same way Greece’s vernacular music provided King inspiration for a handful of projects, including the 2018 book Lament From Epirus.
How The River Ganges Flows covers a not too dissimilar span of time, but in a region then being carved up following another chapter of British colonialism. Much like the Nonesuch Explorer series that found white ethnomusicologists collecting field recordings from places like Indonesia, Pakistan and Zimbabwe, King’s work here has the unavoidable glint of voyeurism. He acknowledges as much in his liners, saying, “from the monoculture of the West, India is often exoticized,” and takes care to mindfully navigate the music here.
Regardless, his admiration for the violinists—moving from Northern Hindustani ragas to the South’s Carnatic music—is unquestionable.
There’s less context for the music included on Ganges than on projects like King’s Why The Mountains Are Black: Primeval Greek Village Music 1907–1960. But the affecting glissandi of Bengali violinist Paritosh Seal (who, according to King, recorded 77 78-RPM discs and here is accompanied on several tracks by only tabla and tanpura) and Carnatic teacher Mysore Chowdiah (who invented a seven-string violin to amp up the instrument’s volume) seems like the first tributary that the archivist’s set to explore on his latest musical obsession.
By Ed Enright
Last year, Yves Rousseau put together a seven-piece ensemble to perform and record this program of “fragments” inspired by memories of progressive rock music—a heady, testosterone-charged pop subgenre that made a strong impression upon the French bassist when he was a student in the mid-1970s.
Since that initial period of discovery, Rousseau has refined his taste for prog-rock indulgence, incorporating ideas inspired by bands like King Crimson, Yes, Genesis and other prominent artists of the era into his vast creative arsenal. With a wealth of experience as a genre-hopping player dating back to the late 1980s and a more recent reputation as a prolific composer and ambitious bandleader, Rousseau takes listeners on a nostalgia trip with Fragments, a collection of all original pieces (with just a bit of borrowed material from influential guitarist Robert Fripp and star singer-songwriter David Crosby), teeming with mechanical arpeggios, blazing Moog synthesizers, bombastic big-kit drumming, virtuoso-level electric bass lines and haunting, heavily compressed electric guitar solos.
Key moments on Fragments include Thomas Savy’s wide-ranging bass clarinet solo on “Personal Computer”; Étienne Manchon’s elephantine synthesizer entrance following Géraldine Laurent’s super-sparse alto saxophone statement on the hard-hitting “Oat Beggars”; the shimmering guitar chords and single-note bass pulse reminiscent of Pink Floyd on the slow rocker “Crying Shame”; and the psychedelic drift of the wandering, four-part “Winding Pathway.”
France-based fans of prog-rock with an appetite for well-executed music they’ve never heard before are advised to check out Rousseau’s Fragments Septet in concert Oct. 8 at Le Rocher de Palmer in Cénon, Oct. 9 at Jazz MDA in Tarbes, Oct. 23 at Pan Piper in Paris and Nov. 12 at the D’Jazz Nevers Festival.
By Bobby Reed
The Chicago blues scene is so packed with talent that it’s not difficult to assemble a gifted ensemble flexible enough to mesh with a bandleader’s aesthetic. A case in point is Live At Rosa’s, Linsey Alexander’s fourth album for Delmark, on which the singer-guitarist fronts an ace quintet that includes bassist Ron Simmons (who has collaborated with him for more than 40 years) and keyboard wizard Roosevelt Purifoy, who has played on albums by Lurrie Bell, Toronzo Cannon, the Kinsey Report and Sharon Lewis.
Most blues fans aren’t attending live shows nowadays, and Alexander’s latest disc offers a hearty dose of what they’ve been missing: the type of meat-and-potatoes electric blues that long has been a staple in the Windy City.
The program here includes five of leader’s original compositions: “My Days Are So Long” and “I Got A Woman” are head-bobbing, blues-boogie numbers, while “Goin’ Out Walkin’” and “Snowing In Chicago” are vehicles for fiery solos by Purifoy and either Alexander or Sergei Androshin on electric guitar. On the other Alexander original, the funk-tinged “Going Back To My Old Time Used To Be,” Purifoy’s keyboards evoke Stevie Wonder’s work in the mid-’70s.
With his gruff yet solid vocals, Alexander serves up “Have You Ever Loved A Woman” (popularized by Freddie King and Eric Clapton) as a nine-minute, tour-de-force lament on the difficulties of romantic relationships. Elsewhere, the versions of songs by B.B. King (“Please Love Me”) and Junior Wells (“Ships On The Ocean”) give fans even more reasons to seek out the latest from Alexander, a Mississippi native who is now a revered elder statesman in Chicago.
By Bobby Reed
Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Chelsea Williams is a keen observer of the human condition, and perhaps her years busking on the streets of Santa Monica helped hone that aspect of her personality—along with the ability to craft catchy melodies that could grab the attention of busy pedestrians.
Teaming with her husband/producer Ross Garren, Williams has sculpted a sparkling gem with Beautiful & Strange, a 40-minute program chock-full of earworms and more hooks than a tackle box. With Sheryl Crow and Jackson Browne as influences, Williams traffics in Americana-flavored pop-rock. Although her style has a thoroughly engaging accessibility, the album features some quirky instrumentation and deft production touches—including cello, glockenspiel, toy piano, Mellotron and musical saw—that distinguish Williams from many of her better-known peers. Songs like “Wasted” and “Red Flag” are so lush and catchy that they would fit snugly on the soundtrack to a Hollywood rom-com.
As addictive as Beautiful And Strange is, though, it does not contain what is perhaps Williams’ strongest composition, which was written after the album had been released. Outraged by the effects of systemic racism, Williams posted a powerful music video for “No Justice, No Peace,” in which she sings, “My face, my hair, my skin have never been/ A threat to my security/ I know I’m no authority, but I will kneel down/ In solidarity/ What do I see/ What do I see/ Ten thousand feet marching in the streets.” Williams accompanied the video with a statement explaining that she previously had been hesitant to speak out on social or political issues, partially out of fear of alienating prospective fans.
Armed with a lovely voice, an impressive vocal range, a deep understanding of songcraft and a newfound willingness to write protest material, Williams definitely is an artist to watch.