Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra

(Luaka Bop)

Here we have one of the most ambitious projects to cross these ears in a long time. Five years in the making, British electronic producer, DJ and musician Sam Shepherd, better known as Floating Points, enlisted the help of the entire London Symphony Orchestra as well as Pharoah Sanders, one of the greatest shamans in jazz history, to create art for the ages. Promises tears down the walls between the electronic and acoustic worlds; classical, jazz and pop. The synthesis of all of this demonstrates that music — all music — can be distilled to beauty. In “Movement 1,” the mood of this tone poem is distinctly set — calming, dreamlike searching — and when Sanders comes in with the first wail of his tenor, it’s truly breathtaking. He’s powerful and searing, full of wisdom, sorrow and joy. In “Movement 4” we find Sanders vocalizing quietly, communicating more without words than most could in a volume of books. “Movement 5” finds the shaman joined by a crackly Rhodes, and an organ soaring just below his wails with just the right mix of electronica added in to give the piece a coating of ambient angst. Shepherd performed on a dozen keyboards in the making of this piece. In “Movement 6,” the strings come in to soothe the soul with layers and layers of atmospheric bliss and so much detail to take in. The crescendo is just stunning. “Movement 7” and “Movement 8” begin to return the listener back to earth, but not before Shepherd on organ, all guttural and grit, delivers the goods. “Movement 9” brings back the orchestra for a last blast of joy before the coda. Promises is fantastic meditation music for restless minds. It demands to be heard in concert halls around the world. I can’t wait for all of us to have the opportunity to hear that. Until then, a good pair of headphones will do the trick.

Cowboys & Frenchmen

Our Highway
(Outside In Music)

With the release of Our Highway, the inventive New York quintet Cowboys & Frenchmen reflects on the lives of touring musicians in the context of a cinematic video album that highlights the landscapes and roads that serve as the connective tissue for all of America’s towns and cities. Recorded live at SubCulture in the Big Apple, Our Highway features high-definition footage of the ensemble — front-line alto saxophonists and co-founders Ethan Helm and Owen Broder, pianist Addison Frei, bassist Ethan O’Reilly and drummer Matt Honor — juxtaposed with outdoor vistas filmed by band members over the course of their cross-country travels. While Helm and Broder shared compositional duties on Cowboys & Frenchmen’s 2015 debut, Rodeo, and its 2017 follow-up, Bluer Than You Think, Helm took the lead for Our Highway, writing all of the music and envisioning the overarching theme. Broder contributed to the concepts and perspectives explored in the video. And the distinguished producer Ryan Truesdell helps keep the album’s grand vision in clear focus. A suite-like thread of pieces collectively titled “American Whispers” weaves through the album, representing the tensions and harmonies that exist between the hectic pace of human civilization and the majesty of the natural world. “Alice In Promisedland” channels the searching spirituality of the late harpist/pianist/composer Alice Coltrane. Scenes from Americana abound in pieces like the fluttering “An Old Church” (which brings out the flutist in Helm) and “The Farmer’s Reason” (which Broder finesses on baritone saxophone). The probing “Where Is Your Wealth?” acts as a somber interlude that raises questions about personal values, and “Gig Life” celebrates the uplifting road-life experiences and bond-forging challenges one inevitably faces while traveling the nation’s highways. For Cowboys & Frenchmen, the traveling is not separate from the art. “It’s all part of one lifestyle,” Helm says in the promo materials for Our Highway. “The music is always in motion.” Unable to tour at present, Cowboys & Frenchmen will be partnering with music venues across the country to present the full video album as live-streaming events, allowing each space to offer the experience to audiences for a 24-hour period. An audio-only digital release of Our Highway is also available.

Alfredo Rodriguez/Monir Hossn

‘Que Sera’
(Mack Avenue)

More and more artists are foregoing the time-honored tradition of releasing a full album of music, opting instead for an even older time-honored practice: releasing singles. Here we have pianist and composer Alfredo Rodriguez getting into the game with his longtime musical partner Munir Hossn. For those who might remember the old Doris Day chestnut “Que Sera, Sera,” the Rodriguez/Hossn “Que Sera” ain’t that! It’s a Latin-tinged, booty-shaking, play-loud-with-the-top-down earworm that was created to plant a seed of hope during these difficult times. Congrats to both artists. With a smile on my face, I say “mission accomplished,” or, more aptly, misión cumplida!

Sachal Vasandani/Romain Collin

Midnight Shelter (Editors Pick)

This is a shiver-and-sigh record. Need to chill out at the end of a long day? Midnight Shelter is a go-to. Want to share an amazing listen with someone you love? I’d suggest Midnight Shelter. It’s a beautiful, quiet recording packed with songs of longing, reflection and bliss. Here we find Sachal Vasandani easing his way into the mode of singer-songwriter. His voice is clear. His intentions are pure. He gives each song exactly what it needs to ring true in a listener’s ears. The music of some of the best songwriters in recent history flow effortlessly alongside original tunes penned by Vasandani, pianist Romain Collin and their writing cohorts. “Summer No School,” the opening number written by Vasandani and Erik Privert, pulls at the emotions with longing and loss, setting the tone for what is to come; all the performances on this 11-song set offer a sense of saudade. With just Vasandani’s voice and Collins’ tasteful accompaniment, the two spin a world that’s simply spellbinding. They glide through Lewis Capaldi’s “Before You Go,” Harry Styles’ “Adore You,” Nick Drake’s “River Man,” Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw It Away,” Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and “Blackbird” by Lennon and McCartney. What’s impressive is how perfectly their originals fit so naturally within the set. The two co-wrote a gliding “Great Ocean Road.” Vasandani penned “Love Away,” a ballad with wonderful wordplay and a sophisticated melody that floats between the ears. “Dance Cadaverous,” a Wayne Shorter tune that Vasandani set lyrics to, is the most adventurous offering on the program, once again demonstrating the brilliance of Shorter’s musical mind. The album concludes with with a lovely Collins offering, “One Last Try,” a perfect sentiment to put a bow on this love letter to complicated relationships and life in general.

Pete Ellman Big Band

For Pete’s Ache
(One Too Tree Records)

For more than 10 years, trumpeter, music retailer and retired Air National Guardsman Pete Ellman has drawn from a pool of Chicago’s finest players to populate his namesake big band. The ensemble’s reputation as a local force to be reckoned with precedes its debut recording, For Pete’s Ache, by a long shot. Pre-pandemic, the group sustained its profile by playing weekly gigs and serving as host to events in support of the educational community. Now, with the release of For Pete’s Ache, everything that’s already established about this group has been officially documented on a program of fresh-sounding arrangements written mainly by band members. Trumpeter Daniel Moore, who composed five of the pieces here and charted an additional two, is credited with the thrilling opener, “High Speed Pursuit,” a perfect “album one/track one” choice for announcing one’s official recording debut. Solos catch fire right after a strong initial statement from the full ensemble, with tenor saxophonist Ian Nevins, alto saxophonist Steve Schnall, trombonist Andy Baker and trumpeter David Katz all contributing fiery choruses. It’s he first of many compelling solos by Katz, who wields some of the best jazz trumpet chops in the region. Benny Carter’s classic “When Lights Are Low,” arranged and performed here by the outstanding baritone saxophonist Ted Hogarth, adjusts the dimmer setting to “just right” and showcases the band’s ability to swing lightly; his tone on the big horn is divine. Lead trumpeter Roger Ingram is the light that everyone else in the ensemble “goes to”; with him onboard, everything’s phrased beautifully. Repertoire-wise, there’s something for everyone: barn-burners, medium-up swingers, ballad features, danceable Latin-jazz tracks and a hip-hop-infused mashup of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca” with the Ellington/Strayhorn standard “Take The ‘A’ Train.” Ellman’s ensemble successfully straddles the divide between tech-band concert jazz and dance-friendly big band entertainment. For Pete’s Ache promises to spread the good word well beyond their suburban Chicago roots.


4:00 AM

For anyone who has ever said nothing good happens at 4 a.m., here is proof that they’re wrong. This is an album packed with groove to spare. It’s a toe-tapping, dance-inducing powerhouse from this power-roots trio based out of Paris. Sung mostly in Creole, the music has the drive of a variety of cultural touchpoints — from the Caribbean to Mississippi blues down into New Orleans. “The blues is not sad music,” said Pascal Danae, the group’s singer, songwriter and guitarist, in a press packet. “They might be talking about terrible conditions, about terrible losses, but the bottom line is hope.” Even with a language barrier, all of this shines through on 4:00 AM. On the first single off the album, “Assez Assez,” which means “enough, enough,” Danae’s voice wails and pleads over a hard-driving groove. The song is said to capture the tragedy of immigrants dying at sea while trying to reach a new home. It’s just one example of Danae’s depth and point of view. The band takes its name from Louis Delgrés, a Creole officer in the French Army who died in Guadeloupe fighting against Napolean’s Army. Danae’s parents emigrated from Guadeloupe to Paris before he was born, but he still closely identifies with the struggles of the region. It rings throughout songs about pain, struggle and freedom, but even these heavy topics cannot suppress the joy and hope that rise above the struggle chronicled in this music.

On Sale Now
May 2021
Shabaka Hutchings
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