By Frank Alkyer
Here we have the young and amazingly talented tenor saxophonist Jack Brandfield taking us on a swinging trio journey with Randy Napoleon on guitar and Rodney Whitaker on bass. As a group, the three are a wonder of rhythm, time and musicality. Each solo aches of a melodic time gone by, when songs could be instrumental, hip and danceable all at the same time. For his part, Brandfield has a juicy, smooth tone on tenor. He knows how to coax just the right amount of purr from the horn, taking an old-school approach — one that’s reminiscent of his heroes Zoot Sims or Stan Getz — dressed up for the modern era. The lack of a drummer gives the group plenty of room to play with time and space, all the while keeping the proceedings right in the pocket. They roll through a set of a dozen classics that just leave you with a smile and an “Ah!” Especially tasty are the opening Jerome Kern chestnut “Nobody Else But Me,” a jumping take on “Lover Come Back To Me” and “On A Slow Boat To China.” In a very cool move, Brandfield and Whitaker glide as a duo through “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me” in late-night, last-call mode. Napoleon and Brandfield do likewise on a tug-at-the-heart rendition of “Over The Rainbow.” All that said, perhaps the most impressive aspect of Brandfield’s artistry is this: He’s still in school, pursuing a graduate degree at the Frost School of Music at University of Miami. We’ll be seeing him in all the old familiar places, for sure.
By Ed Enright
Bassist Daniel Thatcher’s debut album as a leader features a quartet of Chicago-area musicians who bring his composer’s voice to life and amplify his life-affirming vision. His Waterwheel ensemble, which finds Thatcher in the company of drummer Devin Drobka and electric guitarists John Kregor and Matt Gold, flies in tight formation over the course of 10 originals that blur the lines separating jazz, chamber music and rock. The album opens with a burst of enthusiasm as Drobka’s crisp brushwork establishes an inviting groove on “Odds Are Even,” a track that toys with notions of mixed meter while maintaining a seamless flow. Thatcher’s instrumental voice comes to the fore on the harmonically and rhythmically inventive “Three Sages,” his profound foundational tones establishing a dirge-like vibe and a heavy-metal atmosphere that spawns spooky, shimmering guitar solos. The sun comes out in the rising melodic lines of “Albedo,” its syncopated jazz-waltz undercurrent brightening the mood even further. “Viscous” begins with sparse group improvisation and ventures into hard rock territory, the guitars ringing with tremolo, echo and other tone-altering effects. Waterwheel arrives at its most tender group moment on the lighthearted “Let’s Grow Old Together,” where Thatcher bows the tune’s down-home, soulful melody over a pretty backdrop of arpeggiated and sustained guitar soundscapes. Throughout the program, Gold and Kregor maintain a delicate balancing act, the guitarists dovetailing neatly as they share the air space above the Thatcher–Drobka bedrock. All four members of Waterwheel are eager, experienced improvisers who embrace freeplay and structured soloing with aplomb and enthusiasm. Thatcher has said that once he settled on this lineup of musicians to perform his compositions, new tunes started coming to him quickly. Let’s hope that trend continues and we hear more from this brilliant cast of genre-morphing empaths.
By Frank Alkyer
OK, confession time. I have not seen the Netflix series Babylon Berlin, but I can tell you that the music is awesome because the Moka Efti Orchestra, a 14-member ensemble cast in the series, has just released a new album called Erstausgabe. The group was created by the show’s music supervisor, composer Nikko Weidemann, and his fellow composer Mario Kamien, along with saxophonist/arranger Sebastian Borkowski. It’s named after a famous German club that has been re-created for Babylon Berlin, a show set in the 1920s in, you guessed it, Berlin. The music is of the crazy-good cabaret variety that might just remind you of a certain famous musical by the same name because of the setting and the sound. “Hollander Mash Up” grabs you from the downbeat with all the jump, jive and wail the band can muster. “Zu Asche, Zu Staub (To Ashes, To Dust)” has a delicious, menacing drive that builds like a cabaret aria. The band draws from a vast lexicon of swing-feel, ragtime, Chanson and even the blues, and blows it all through your ears with hyper-cool energy and tongue-in-cheek nonchalance over the course of 13 tunes brimming with throw-back reverence and send-it-way-up camp. The vocalists on the set are also thoroughly entertaining, especially the coquettishly controlled bawdiness of show star Severija Janušauskaitė. If you ever get a jones for some highly theatrical, masterfully played big band noir, this is a record for you. Meantime, I’ve got some quality TV binging to catch up on.
By Frank Alkyer
Here’s a really beautiful trio recording that represents a pandemic triumph. Trombonist Marshall Gilkes, along with Yasushi Nakamura on bass and Clarence Penn on drums, were scheduled to go into the studio back in April 2020, but COVID had other thoughts. Gilkes initially had another type of album in mind, but “after several months at home, living in limbo, Waiting To Continue proved to be a more suitable title that better conveys the feeling the album represents,” he said in press materials. A few months later, the trio gathered under very strict COVID rules and started to lay down what would become the album. It is breathtaking. The title track begins with Gilkes multi-tracking his trombone before Penn and Yasushi join in. It’s a resilient, hopeful song that captures the times in which it was recorded. Beyond the title track, there is so much to like here. Gilkes has a rare and wonderful mastery of his instrument. It’s on full display throughout the record, from the slippery speed and fluidity of “Archie’s Theme” and “Taconic Turns” to the tear-in-the-eye beauty of “Anya’s Tune.” Gilkes is a force of nature who plays with hope and confidence to spare. It’s music that this reviewer almost missed out on. Indeed, Waiting To Continue, which was released back in February, could have easily suffered that fate. Luckily, I was encouraged to go back and check it out. It’s a gift. This is honest, hopeful, uplifting music for rising above and beyond the challenges of the past year as we all await the green-light to continue our lives and careers once again.
By Ed Enright
Canadian guitarist Lorne Lofsky, deeply versed in the bebop language and long admired for his straightahead jazz chops, is a sporadic composer by his own admission. After all, he’s been focusing on his playing for the past 40-plus years as a member of other ensembles, most notably the late Canadian pianist Oscar Peterson’s quartet, not to mention his career as one of his country’s leading jazz educators. So, he only composes when an idea comes to him. A recent mini-binge of writing led to the recording of This Song Is New, his first album as a leader in more than 20 years. Sporting a dry, unaffected, no-nonsense tone, Lofsky shares the front line with tenor saxophonist and longtime collaborator Kirk MacDonald over the course of five originals and fresh takes on two standards: “Seven Steps To Heaven” (Miles Davis) and “Stablemates” (Benny Golson). Bassist Kieran Overs and drummer Barry Romberg, who’ve shared stages with Lofsky on numerous occasions over the decades, dig deep into the material, taking full advantage of the ensemble’s interpersonal chemistry and innate sense of trust. Highlights include the title track, which changes keys in deceptive ways; “An Alterior Motif,” a tune whose thematic development relies on altered harmony to guide it; and the hilariously titled “Evans From Lennie,” which reinvents the standard “Pennies From Heaven” while paying tribute to jazz heroes Bill Evans, Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz — all of whom were famous in jazz circles for imposing interesting new melodic lines upon familiar chord progressions. Nothing feels forced on This Song Is New, which will likely come as a revelation to longtime fans of Lofsky’s masterful technique and exquisite touch.