Muriel Grossmann

Quiet Earth
(RRGems)

With a steady stream of records flowing since 2007, the work of Ibiza, Spain-based saxophonist Muriel Grossman invokes nature as easily as the sturdy history of spiritual-jazz.

Following Reverence, where the bandleader sought to merge the “reassuring elements of spiritual-jazz” with its antecedents, Grossman returns with an album that examines her own development along the music’s continuum. Two of the compositions on Quiet Earth, though, first appeared on Awakening, a live recording from the 2011 Eivissa Jazz Festival that featured freedom-focused drummer Christian Lillinger behind the kit.

“After reflecting on my musical search, I could see that ‘Wien’ and ‘Peaceful River,’ songs from 10 years ago, [hinted at my] transition from more avant-garde to more spiritual-jazz,” Grossmann wrote in an email to DownBeat. “I wanted to give these songs more weight, since they mark this important transitional step.”

Nuanced arrangements make even a couple of retreads—set alongside the title track and another fresh, extended composition titled “African Call”—seem new.

The arrangement of “Peaceful River” here has a more succinct form, its original tentative middle section replaced by a constant swing. Guitarist Radomir Milojkovic continues to factor into the ensemble sound, comping where straightahead acts likely would have a pianist slotted. Adding in organist Llorenc Barcelo for her past few albums, Grossmann has deepened her compositional ambition and solidified sonic connections to the music’s roots in the ’60s.

While Quiet Earth largely functions as a vehicle for Grossman’s exhortations—indulging supple mutations of thematic material, though never fully cutting free—she’s cemented her voice and refined her sonic purpose.

Marc Copland

John
(Inner Voice)

Pianist Marc Copland—who played saxophone during the early ’70s alongside guitarist John Abercrombie in a fusion act simply called Friends—summons a solo tribute album aimed at his late friend. Copland and Abercrombie gigged and recorded together in a variety of settings during the subsequent decades, and the pianist finds alluring, contemplative melodies among the guitarist’s songbook to reflect the relationship they cultivated for John.

With choices from dozens of albums, Copland selects songs that he’d previously recorded with his coconspirator—who died in 2017 at age 72—and some that he didn’t. “Vertigo”—the closer, which first appeared on Abercrombie’s album 39 Steps—is dashed with a bit of dissonance, aurally replicating its namesake affliction while also hinting at the dizzying feeling Copland must have experienced after losing his friend. Most of the album, though, is given over to tunes like “Sad Song”—which easily lives up to its name and was plucked from the guitarist’s 2009 album, Wait Till You See Her. Tucked away among some of the more solemn offerings here is “Flip Side”—originally “Flipside” on the Abercrombie quartet’s final outing, 2017’s Up And Coming—a sprightly dance that could be seen as examining various aspects of the musical personalities Abercrombie and Copland displayed during decades-long careers.

Noah Bless

New York Strong–Latin Jazz!
(Zoho)

Trombonist Noah Bless—who has played with the likes of Eddie Palmieri, Paquito D’Rivera and the Spanish Harlem Orchestra—had plenty of experience to draw upon when developing his aptly titled leader debut: New York Strong–Latin Jazz! The album serves not only as an entertaining escape during the long days of the pandemic, but also a poignant reminder of the brand of Latin jazz that New York City venues have been missing on a nightly basis during the COVID-19 crisis.

Leading a gifted quintet, Bless delivers dance-inducing grooves with his renditions of Rudy Calzado’s “Ganga” and Baden Powell’s “Canto De Ossanha.” Although his brass swagger is front and center on these two tunes, Bless avoids grandstanding and knows when to yield the spotlight, giving keyboardist Mike Eckroth and bassist Boris Kozlov plenty of room to strut.

Bless showcases a more exploratory aesthetic with his original number “Chasing Normal,” and on his tune “The Key,” the band—expanded to a sextet with flutist Alejandro Aviles—gracefully navigates compelling shifts in time signatures, moving into and out of a pulsating, songo beat.

The band’s authoritative command of tempo—anchored by the work of drummer Pablo Bencid and percussionist Luisito Quintero—is on full display on a 7/4 rendition of Ray Santos’ “Sunny Ray.” A brilliant reading of Jobim’s “Ligia” features delicate dialogue between Eckroth and Bless, while the curveball in the program is a version of James Taylor’s “Fire And Rain” that highlights the familiar melody and convincingly makes the case for trombone as a muscular lead instrument.

Rich Halley

The Shape Of Things
(Pine Eagle)

The Shape Of Things is a fountain of pure jazz energy that surges with pulsar-like power.

But first, a bit about the session’s leader, Oregon-based tenor saxophonist Rich Halley. Known for his fiery improvisations and muscular chops, Halley is an unsung yet well-established West Coast artist with a contagious spirit of adventure and a long musical track record that dates back to the mid-’60s Chicago blues and avant-garde scene. His 23rd album as a leader, and his second quartet recording with pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker, The Shape Of Things is a purely improvised affair that takes an anything’s-possible approach to basic concepts of physical dimension, proportion and structure.

Over the course of six tracks with titles like “Vector,” “Spaces Between” and “Oblique Angles,” Halley shows himself to be a master of motivic development who has developed a titanic, distinct voice on his instrument. Whether ripping through the sonic tapestry with note-blurring lines of expertly controlled squawk à la Albert Ayler, coaxing out resonant subtones like a latter-day Coleman Hawkins or singing through long, sustained, vibrato-laden notes in the manner of Pharoah Sanders, Halley never lets up the intensity. The saxophonist’s bandmates are right there with him at every turn, offering plenty of bold statements of their own. Shipp thunders with authority, using dissonant clusters to punctuate the group’s collective interplay and spinning out super-fast two-handed lines that fascinate the ear. His contribution to “Lower Strata” is substantial, his signature left-hand power magnified via liberal use of the sustain pedal as he plumbs the sonic depths of the piano. Bisio is featured prominently on “Curved Horizon,” his solo a feat of chops and endurance that’ll leave you wondering how on earth he does it. The Shape Of Things is one big chain-reaction, a wild ride whose core essence can be best described as geometry in motion.

Janis Mann & Kenny Werner

Dreams Of Flying
(Pancake)

The latest release by singer Janis Mann and pianist Kenny Werner, Dreams Of Flying, combines studio sessions and live performances, recorded three years apart, on opposite U.S. coasts, with different supporting musicians. On paper, that hardly sounds like a recipe for a cohesive program. And yet, thanks to the simpatico rapport by these two veteran musicians, the result is a marvelously congruous 63-minute album.

The duo teamed up with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Duduka Da Fonseca for a 2016 session at Samurai Hotel recording studio in Queens, and in 2019, the co-leaders presented a set of duo and trio songs (with guitarist Larry Koonse) in front of a quiet audience at the Capitol Studios building in Hollywood. Every track in the program sparkles, whether the quartet is coaxing emotion out of Stevie Wonder’s 1985 hit “Overjoyed” or Mann is demonstrating her impressive vocal command on an adventurous, eight-minute trio reading of Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where The Time Goes.”

Mann and Werner—who collaborated on a 2013 disc, Celestial Anomaly—once again prove that the success of a jazz-meets-cabaret endeavor relies not only on strong melodies, but also on sculpting arrangements that showcase the players’ individual strengths.

The quartet version of Paul Simon’s dark ballad “I Do It For Your Love” features rich, low-end coloration, courtesy of Gress’ haunting bass. When the quartet recorded Simon’s “American Tune,” little did they know they were creating an apropos lament for the pandemic era. “I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered/ Don’t have a friend who feels at ease,” Mann sings, latter adding, “When I think of the road we’re traveling on/ I wonder what went wrong/ I can’t help it, I wonder what went wrong/ And I dreamed I was dying.”

Mann and Werner are also fond of the tunesmith Jimmy Webb, represented here by “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress” and “Wichita Lineman.” On the latter interpretation, Werner crafts two intertwined, mesmerizing harmonic dialogues: one with Mann’s vocal line and one with the song’s familiar melody.

The composers of these 11 tracks are all famous, but Mann and Werner make many astute choices, often choosing a lesser-known composition in the tunesmith’s songbook, such as Joni Mitchell’s “Edith And The Kingpin.” Heartache is a motif in the program, as Mann digs into Alan and Marilyn Bergman’s tear-jerking lyrics for a tune penned by Johnny Mandel, “Where Do You Start,” one of the most gut-wrenching break-up songs of all time. Werner’s commentary, weaving between the verses and underneath Mann’s assured vocals, is a master class on accenting the meaning of a lyric.

Dreams Of Flying, Mann’s eighth album, is an overlooked gem of 2020, and a great demonstration of her willingness to explore profound emotional depths.

Firm Roots Duo

Firm Roots
(Self Release)

Our connections sustain us during the most difficult of times. That’s what makes the release of Firm Roots, a duo project from Chicago-based pianists Chris White and Lara Driscoll, so very appropriate. Roots keep us grounded and nourish our spirits, making them one of the most vital connections of all. White and Driscoll have made it their mission to lay down roots together—not only in their day-to-day lives as a happily married couple but also in the simpatico music they make on this brilliant new album.

Performing on Conservatory Series Bösendorfers, White and Driscoll recorded Firm Roots at Grand Piano Haus in Skokie, Illinois, a classy showroom located close to home that’s known for its inventory of high-end instruments. The album opens with the Cedar Walton-penned title track, a tricky tune with a deceptively catchy melody that rings through loud and clear. “Sábado De Manhã,” an original composition that, like many of the tunes here, the pianists wrote together, is distinguished by a graceful yet prominent melodic line that breezes along over a light, mutually conjured samba groove; the song reflects the couple’s shared interest in Brazilian music. “One Foot First” takes White and Driscoll out of their comfort zones as co-composers as they plunge into the deeper ends of harmony, meter and song form. “Jalophony” is another challenging original that brings out the best in both players: Driscoll opens with an ostinato 3/4 figure while White lays down a 4/4 bass line, establishing an underlying tension and a sense of perpetual motion; they inevitably land on a big “1” together, as the meters come into alignment for the song’s head and solo sections. Driscoll, who’s heard in the right channel of the stereo field throughout most of the album, toys with her lines and teases out phrases as she develops her improvisations, worrying the blue notes that lurk at the heart of this minor-key adventure. White, usually on the left side, crafts more aggressive lines that tend to weave inside and outside the harmony.

Other highlights include the waltzy “I.P.T.” (which the couple performed together at their wedding reception), the intimate “Tu M’as Convaincu” and the album’s closer, a bluesy take on the standard “Willow Weep For Me” that has the pianists engaging in playful back-and-forth that reveals just how deeply connected they are.

Yussef Dayes Trio

Welcome To The Hills
(Cashmere Thoughts)

Drummer Yussef Dayes so effortlessly fuses the ideas of jazz, its various tributaries and the sounds of electronica, it’s hard to properly place his recordings in time.

“Jamaican Links,” which really amounts to an interstitial 100 seconds on Dayes’ live trio album, Welcome To The Hills, emerges from the lead-off track’s dizzying, Herbie-influenced fusion, and pretty quickly summons dub, acid-jazz and funk. “Palladino Sauce”—where Pino’s progeny, bassist Rocco Palladino, takes a namesake track on a similar trek—finds keyboardist Charlie Stacey accessing the sounds of space, while his bandmates burrow deep into the pocket. Only “Gully Side” and “For My Ladies” ease back on the tempo, using a soul-music influence as a brief respite from Dayes’ displays of funky endurance. Thing is, though, the bandleader seems as comfortable—and moreover, effective—working through any of these kaleidoscopic modes.

There’s not really a highlight on Welcome To The Hills—just a sequence of astounding rhythms, deft and expansive musical references (there’s even a much expanded take of bassist Stanley Clarke’s “Yesterday Princess”) and the adulation of the crowd pushing the ensemble forward. If it weren’t remarkable for its breadth, Welcome To The Hills still would be notable for Dayes annoucing the intentions of his chameleonic trio.

Danielle Miraglia

Bright Shining Stars
(VizzTone)

Americana and blues practitioner Danielle Miraglia wisely avoids fuss and clutter on her latest album, Bright Shining Stars. Fingerpicking and strumming on acoustic guitar are central to her sound, with percussion frequently provided by the infectious stomp of her foot. Three of the 11 tracks here are solo recordings, reinforcing a truism that the artist frequently has proven on Boston-area stages: A charming voice and fluid guitar prowess are all an artist needs to keep a listener rapt. The other eight tracks are duo cuts, pairing Miraglia with players who share her less-is-more aesthetic: electric guitarist Peter Parcek, viola player Laurence Scudder and harmonica wizard Richard “Rosy” Rosenblatt (who happens to be the president of the VizzTone Label Group).

Miraglia showcases her command of the blues with versions of the standards “C.C. Rider,” “It Hurts Me Too,” “Walkin’ Blues” and Janis Joplin’s “Turtle Blues,” as well as the witty “You Can Love Yourself,” penned by Keb’ Mo’. She saves her most dynamic vocals for Bob Dylan’s blues number “Meet Me In The Morning,” peppering her delivery with subtle growls.

Miraglia’s original compositions here include the “Pick Up The Gun,” a reflection on senseless gun violence, and “Famous For Nothin’,” a commentary on shallow, 21st-century fame. The program concludes with the title track—penned by Miraglia’s husband, Tom Bianchi—a gentle, melodic, memorable anthem for optimists.


On Sale Now
May 2021
Shabaka Hutchings
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