By Ed Enright
A Conversation is trumpeter-composer Tim Hagans’ fourth collaborative recording project with Germany’s esteemed NDR Bigband, also known as the Hamburg Radio Jazz Orchestra. This time around, the 66-year-old Hagans takes on the roles of composer, conductor, arranger and performer in a five-movement concerto that revolves around a single concept: the exchange of ideas. With A Conversation, Hagans experiments with a truly fresh approach to big band arranging and recording, whereby he physically groups musicians together not according to instrument type, but by sonic and emotional divisions. Each grouping is charged with different artistic objectives determined by Hagans, adding to the instrumental intrigue. So, instead of a traditional four-line woodwinds/trombones/trumpets/rhythm setup, you get four mini ensembles of varying instrumental combinations within a single large orchestra playing off of each other in mysterious and evocative ways. One grouping that Hagans calls Ensemble I includes two woodwind players, three trumpeters and a trombonist. The slightly smaller but equally vital Ensemble II consists of two woodwind players, trumpet and trombone, while the four-piece Ensemble III has one reed player, one trumpeter, one tenor trombone and a bass trombone. Ensemble IV is the full rhythm section of drums, guitar, piano, bass and percussion. The music builds from simple ideas and minimalist concepts into complex constructions of towering and deep proportions. Hagans brings his instrumental voice to the discussion on three of the movements, soloing his heart out with all the post-bop enthusiasm you’d expect from the scrappy improviser. Ultimately, A Conversation is far more than just talk; it’s an astounding accomplishment by one of the leading visionaries of the international jazz scene.
By Ed Enright
On this new release from Alex Conde, the virtuoso Spanish pianist puts his personal spin on nine landmark compositions by the legendary pianist and bebop architect Bud Powell. Descarga For Bud is the second installment in Conde’s Descaragas series, which he launched in 2015 with the release of the critically acclaimed Descaraga For Monk (Zoho), dedicated to the oeuvre of the iconoclastic pianist Thelonious Monk. Throughout Descaraga For Bud, Conde demonstrates his prowess at the keyboard, each note landing right on top of the beat in an inspired fusion of the classic bebop lexicon with traditional Caribbean and Iberoamerican stylings. For his supporting cast, Conde brings back percussionist John Santos and bassist Jeff Chambers from his Monk outing, and adds drummer Colin Douglas to the mix. On tracks such as “Oblivion,” “Parisian Thoroughfare” and “Bouncing With Bud,” Conde’s arrangements revolve around traditional flamenco forms and call for the talents of fellow countrymen Sergio Martínez on cajón and claps and flamenco guitarist Jose Luis de la Paz. The album also features trumpeter Mike Olmos, who effortlessly spins bebop lines over the bulerías arrangement of “The Fruit” and Powell’s challenging masterpiece “Tempus Fugit,” and steel pan player Jeff Narell, who brings syncopated sunshine to the calypso “Wail.” Producer Ricky Fataar, the South African multi-instrumentalist known for his roles in The Beach Boys and the Beatles spoof group The Rutles, lends his magic touch to this refreshing, uplifting and highly accessible recording.
By Daniel Margolis
Following up on his 2020 release The Music Stands, Memphis-based multi-instrumentalist Paul Taylor returns with It Is What It Isn’t, his third album as New Memphis Colorways. Impressively, Taylor plays everything himself on the mostly instrumental album, moving between guitar, bass, synth, omnichord, percussion and drums. His reference points here include funk, Afrobeat, jazz, blues, fusion, soul and electronic music, a blend that feels both vintage and futuristic. This doesn’t exactly feel like a band — you can tell it’s all Taylor — but given the state of the world over the last year, one can’t blame him for choosing to do everything himself, alone. And this is effective. It manages to evoke fusion giants like Return to Forever, Weather Report and Herbie Hancock and doesn’t have to strain much to get there.
Despite the puzzling title, “Hey F****r, Don’t Do That,” the track has a lot going on in terms of percussion, changes and melody. Then on the slow grinding “All The Things You Are,” Taylor chooses to sing, but through a robot-like filter, arriving at a track that sounds like a bit like Daft Punk — just without the million dollar budget.
Elsewhere, this is perhaps a bit too vague. Ironically, “ffs,tmi” is perhaps not giving us enough information. Regardless, there are interesting things happening here. One hopes that as live music opens back up Taylor can assemble a band that can replicate this odd concoction onstage.
By Frank Alkyer
For those outside of Chicago, know this: Shawn Maxwell follows the long lineage of Windy City reed players and composers with a big, brawny sound and thought-provoking art. On Expectation & Experience, Maxwell delivers 17 slices of musical exploration that came to him during the pandemic. He includes a family of 29 players on this recording, each laying down their parts alone and shipping them off to Maxwell, COVID safe. This is a truly personal, absolutely beautiful piece of pandemic art that goes down easy to soothe and uplift the soul. Take, for instance, the opening number, “Expectation.” Clocking in at just 1:39 minutes, it’s a simple duet between Maxwell on alto and Stephen Lynerd on vibraphone. It’s a shimmery salute to a better time, with a wisp of “In A Sentimental Mood” before turning off into directions unbound. “Quiet House” floats as a melancholy blues in honor of a friend who died during the pandemic, switching between 3/4 and 4/4 time with Zvonimir Tot delivering beautiful guitar work and a tasty virtual string arrangement. On “The Great Divide,” Maxwell and tenor saxophonist Alex Beltran poke the elephants and the donkeys in the room with an ode to the political banter of a presidential election. If only our elected officials could make such harmonious music. The album truly sounds like a travelogue of Maxwell and friends speaking for all of us. They follow the challenges of our quarantined lives with songs like “Feeling Remote,” “Lockdown” and “Every Day Is Monday” to outrage at what he was seen on television with songs like “Breathe” (which is a stunning beauty), “The New Abnormal” and “No Peace Without Justice.” Take, for instance, the song “Alternative Facts,” a mischievous number with Maxwell on saxophone, Howard Levy on harmonica, Steven Hashimoto on bass and Greg Essig on drums. It’s loaded with humor, angst, pathos and toss-your-hands-in-the-air surrender. The set concludes with “Experience,” another brief, beautiful duet with Stacy McMichael providing arco bass against the pleading bleat of Maxwell’s saxophone. It must be said that you can listen to this recording without notes or titles and thoroughly enjoy the ride. But what makes Expectation & Experience special is knowing the song titles, seeing what Maxwell was trying to do and hearing that he indeed nails it each and every time.
By Frank Alkyer
The intersections of music and poetry, jazz and hip-hop, art and popular music always risk the chance of running afoul of one and other. Is it honest or forced? Is it too much or too little? Is it authentic, in the parlance of this day and age? Sons of Kemet’s Black To The Future, led by multi-instrumentalist Shabaka Hutchings, stays pure and true in fusing all of the above. This is the rare piece of art that captures the times — our times — full of confusion, righteous anger and absolute beauty. From the opening lament of “Field Negus” featuring the spoken-word rage of Joshua Idehen, to the closing strains of “Black,” Black To The Future delivers music for the mind, the soul and even the dance floor — sometimes all three at once, as is the case with the danceable-but-deadly truth of “Pick Up Your Burning Cross,” featuring Moor Mother and rising star Angel Bat Dawid. It rivets, shakes and bakes with crazy rhythmic drive. How could it not? For those new to Kemet, we have two incredible drummers in the persons of Edward Wakili-Hick and Tom Skinner, the amazing Theon Cross on tuba and Hutchings on reeds. It’s an exploration of rhythm and low end, as well as a treatise on continued losses of equality and equity. A demand for social justice lies at the core of this recording and this band. Few artists have put as much thought into their music as Hutchings, who has even crafted a mission statement for this work: “Black To The Future is a sonic poem for the invocation of power, remembrance and healing. It envisions our progression towards a future in which indigenous knowledge and wisdom is centered in the realization of a harmonious balance between the human, natural and spiritual world.” That’s just the beginning. But you don’t even need his words to understand where this band is coming from. Sons of Kemet naturally meld jazz with the rhythms and music of Africa, hip-hop and the Carribbean. “Hustle,” featuring Kojey Radical, is a straight-up groove with Radical describing, in chapter-and-verse detail, the “hustle inside me.” “In Remembrance Of Those Fallen” serves as Hutchings’ homage to those fighting for liberation, especially within Africa. There is an intensity to this music that has been missing, in this way, for far too long. Black To The Future speaks a truth that should be heard. But this recording and these artists never forget to move us musically as well as mentally. Hutchings understands that the best way to educate as a musician is to put your message to music. The album’s final volley, “Black,” with spoken word by Idehen, drives the message home: “Black is tired,” he says at the outset, letting all know where he stands with lines like, “This Black pain is dance,” “This Black struggle is dance,” “You already have the world,” “Just leave Black be,” “Leave us alone,” as the music leads into final resolution.
By Frank Alkyer
Here we have drummer Ralph Peterson’s 26th and final record as a leader. The album has been released on his own Onyx Productions label following his passing earlier this year. Peterson recorded this album in December 2020 with his working trio featuring brothers Zaccai and Luques Curtis on piano and bass, respectively. It represents some of Peterson’s best work, demonstrating his complete control as a percussionist, shaman, composer and bandleader. The album’s title track may be the album’s best. As one of many written in response to the murder of George Floyd at the knee of a police officer, the tune envelopes — without words — all the anger, chaos, angst and sorrow so many have experienced in trying to understand why this happened, and why it continues to happen. Peterson’s rhythms dart and dive in rapid bursts that convey uncertainty in trying to understand the situation. He pumps the bass drum to give life to the heartbeat of the man and this music. Zaccai Curtis plays in a pleading call-and-response fashion, with beautiful chordal and melodic passages tinged with just enough dissonance to express feelings of lament. Luques Curtis serves as the ears of the song, finding the space, listening and responding, acknowledging the anger with a calming “Amen.” There is much to like about this recording beyond “Raise Up Off Me.” The trio exudes a rare oneness that only comes with talent, time and great material. Peterson was an amazing drummer who could simply overpower most musicians. Not true with the Curtis Brothers. They prove to be up to the challenge of every Peterson-penned tune, such as the blistering “The Right To Live,” the intriguing “Blues Hughes” and the lovely “Tears I Cannot Hide.” Zaccai Curtis offers up his beautiful ballad “I Want To Be There For You,” full of heart and unexpected turns. And the trio takes joy in “Four Play” by the late James Williams, Bud Powell’s “Bouncing With Bud” and Patrice Rushen’s “Shorties Portion.” This might not be the very last previously unheard music we’ll get from the catalog of Ralph Peterson. But if it is, this is a perfect way to finish. His passing is a great loss to the jazz community, but his music lives on.
By Daniel Margolis
Some very potent albums have been recorded in quarantine and released over the last year, and Aaron Novik’s Grounded is a great example. The basic concept is acoustic instruments doing electronic music, an idea many have approached but likely few have executed this well. It was made with the acoustic sounds of the clarinet, bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet using minimal effects, and it was recorded during lockdown in the Elmhurst neighborhood of Queens, New York, during April to May of 2020. These sounds are from right when COVID-19 was at its deadliest in the city.
Novik describes that time: “My clearest memories are of an eerie silence, no cars, no people walking around, interspersed with ambulance sirens every five minutes,” he said. “It was dread-inducing.”
You can hear this in the music. And his technique is certainly effective. It’s almost unbelievable that this was made using only clarinets, as the songs have a percussive base over which Novik explores simple melodies, then progressively weaves them together with increasing complexity. You picture him tapping on a drum machine and a keyboard instead of playing a clarinet.
The song titles don‘t give us much here; they’re just “Part 1,” “Part 2” … ending at “Part 10.” But as we move through these, Novik’s palpable dread at what was happening in the city is there. If you’re interested in the sound of a man contending with the pandemic’s start in a very unique way, this is recommended.
By Frank Alkyer
Vocalist Nnenna Freelon has always had a powerful instrument, but rarely, if ever, has she employed that voice in such an intimate way. Freelon recorded Time Traveler following the loss of her husband, Phil, an accomplished architect who led the design of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture. On Time Traveler, the Grammy-winner wastes no time in grabbing your attention and pulling you in close. Freelon takes us to church with one of the most riveting versions of “Say A Little Prayer For You” that these ears have ever heard. Her vocals are pure, powerful magic. She pays tribute to her lost love throughout the 11-tune program with such songs as “Betcha By Golly Wow,” featuring a beautiful saxophone solo by Kirk Whalum, and Jim Croce’s “Time In A Bottle,” given an interesting arrangement by Miki Hayama. She ruminates over old chestnuts like “Moon River,” “Time After Time” and “Come Rain Or Come Shine,” which certainly have a personal connection. You can feel her loss as well as the joy of her memories. There are moments of indulgence here, but they are certainly understood and worth the trip to hear Freelon’s voice ache on “Just You,” for example. Anyone who has experienced loss can understand where she’s coming from as she tells us that her loss hurts, but also gives the sense that she’s going to be OK.