Steph Richards

(Relative Pitch)

Avant-garde trumpeter, composer and bandleader Steph Richards has made it a priority throughout her career for her work to be seen on its own terms, rather than through the lens of her gender. But when she went into the studio to record Zephyr, her new album, in 2019, Richards was six-and-a-half months pregnant. This shaped the concise, visceral album both in concept and in practice, leading Richards to explore a more immediate connection between her body and her work.

The personnel listings themselves tell the tale. Richards is backed by Joshua White on piano, preparations and percussion. Richards, meanwhile, plays trumpet, flugelhorn and resonating water vessels.

Resonating water vessels? Richards has been refining the technique of playing her trumpet in water since 2008, and does so throughout Zephyr. “Anza,” named for her daughter, features a recording of the unborn child’s breath as Richards’ trumpet burbles, whisperingly, to her. A more startling example of the approach can be heard on “Amphitrite,” which means the goddess of the sea and sounds like someone manipulating a tub of water with an otherworldly straw.

On “Sacred Sea,” Richards ruminatively taps out single notes while White responds on prepared piano before Richards goes back underwater, her horn sounding like it’s drowning. The result is deeply affecting. But whether underwater or not, Richards’ playing is striking. On “Cicada,” she makes her horn winnow.

Richards may have sought to avoid letting her gender be the focus of how her music is seen and considered, but, in steering into it as a result of her at-the-time unborn daughter, she arrived at an approach, and an album, so strong and innovative that the end results settle any question.

Chet Doxas

You Can’t Take It With You

Chet Doxas composed 10 tunes, wrote extensive liner notes and crafted an original sculpture (see cover image) for this intimate new trio album with pianist Ethan Iverson and upright bassist Thomas Morgan. The 12th release from the Montreal-bred, Brooklyn-based saxophonist, You Can’t Take It With You is an inspired project that took about a year to evolve through a heartfelt, deliberate process that ultimately yielded a truly personal work of art. On the advice of Carla Bley and Steve Swallow, who gave him the idea to start his own trio, Doxas composed at a rate of one song per month; he didn’t decide upon his handpicked bandmates until he had already completed several pieces. In accordance with Doxas’ vision, You Can’t Take It With You was recorded live in the studio with no separation between the three players. “I like the studio to feel as much like a gig as possible,” the saxophonist writes in a statement describing the session. “We had performed the night before, so we set up in the round and played the tunes in the same order as on the gig.” Featured here on tenor, Doxas gave careful consideration to instrumental tone and technique in choosing Iverson and Morgan, elite improvisers whose mastery of touch can be felt deeply throughout the program. Highlights include the title-track opener, where threads of unison melodies result in a virtual 3D timbre-merger of tenor, piano and bass. A minimalist, monotone saxophone pulse functions like a syncopated heartbeat on “Lodestar (For Lester Young),” which climbs chromatically through 12 keys as Doxas toys with rhythms, textures and articulations. “Part Of A Memory,” with its catchy offbeat melody and slightly bent harmony, has a blues-in-orbit vibe. And the meditative rumination of “All The Roads” was inspired by the grateful soul of children’s television icon Fred Rogers (1928–2003), a deceptively hip cat who was a strong advocate for jazz. You Can’t Take It With You can be experienced online in its entirety thanks to a series of up-close “live off the floor” videos shot by cinematographer Graham Willoughby.

Victor Gould

In Our Time
(Blue Room Music)

Victor Gould is a pianist, composer and arranger with tremendous facility on the keyboard, and a big heart to match. Born in Los Angeles, Gould excelled in music from a young age, establishing his reputation while still a student at Berklee College of Music and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, and earning accolades through the ASCAP Foundation Young Composer Award and the Monk International Piano Competition. His debut album, Clockwork, was voted top debut album in NPR Music’s 2016 Jazz Critics Poll. And since then, Gould has been developing from an emerging talent to into a full-blown, fantastic artist. This is especially true on his latest recording, In Our Time, on the Blue Room Music label. His music flows gracefully from thought to passage to statement with an elegant complexity that demonstrates his composer’s wit and charm. With his trio mates Tamir Shmerling on bass and Anwar Marshall on drums, Gould dances through a program of 11 tunes, including nine originals, with inner urge and sophistication. His intention is on display from the downbeat of “Blue Lotus,” the opening tune on this program. In just over five minutes, Gould delivers a virtual concerto of blissful sound — from the intricate melody to the interplay between Gould and Marshall’s drums to the legato of Shmerling’s bass, the tune takes unexpected twists that seem natural, logical and exhilarating in the hands of this group. It’s no wonder that the tune was inspired by a grant from Chamber Music America, but rest assured, this is jazz. Gould follows “Blue Lotus” up with two stunning tributes, first “Lord Wallace,” a tribute to the late trumpeter Wallace Roney. “I was a member of Wallace’s band for four years,” Gould said in press materials, “and we made the album Understanding. He had such a big impact on my life, hiring me right after I moved to New York.” In the second tribute, “Dear Ralph,” Gould pays homage to drummer Ralph Peterson Jr., who passed away in March, a former professor of Gould’s at Berklee who invited the young pianist to join his band when Gould was a freshman. Each beautifully captures the spirit of the honoree. “Lord Wallace” has the nuance and understated fire that Roney brought to the stage. “Dear Ralph” relays the take-no-prisoners approach of the bombastic drummer. As for covers, Gould chooses well on a few fronts. First, the songs, Gigi Gryce’s “Minority” and Wayne Shorter’s “Infant Eyes,” are incredible tunes by two of the greatest composers to ever write for jazz. Second, the guest artist on those tracks, tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens, adds layers of lush to the proceedings with his velvety tone and fleet interpretations. In all, the entire recording delivers a thoughtful groove that’s thoroughly enjoyable from front to back. It’s a composer’s recording that lets the mind race and the toes tap. If you loved Clockwork, you’ll be knocked out by In Our Time. Gould takes a giant leap as a major voice in this music and beyond. Take the final cut, “In Memoriam,” as an example. Here Gould writes for the trio with a string quartet. It is beautiful. His ideas, and talent, cannot be tied down by genre. Victor Gould is an artist of big ambition, and even bigger heart.

Bob Dylan

Springtime In New York: The Bootleg Series Vol. 16 1980–1985
(Sony Legacy)

On March 22, 1984, Bob Dylan appeared on NBC’s Late Night With David Letterman to promote his album Infidels, released the previous year. Letterman’s show was only a couple years into its run, and the famously difficult-to-impress talk show host was so pleased with the appearance, where Dylan turned in a spirited take on the song “Jokerman,” that in shaking hands afterward Letterman asked, “Is there any chance you guys could be here every Thursday night?” Acting out of character, Dylan exclaimed, “Yeah!”

Not surprisingly, given that was the only promotional work Dylan did for that album, this didn’t happen. Some 31 years later, Letterman’s second-to-last show featured Dylan and acknowledged the 1984 appearance before his introduction.

Among a certain type of Dylan-ologist, that appearance is the stuff of legend. The reason isn’t just that Dylan was in fine form. It’s also because he was backed by the Plugz, a Latino punk band from Los Angeles best known for contributing three songs to the Repo Man soundtrack.

In recent years, on YouTube, not only is the televised performance from the show available, but also his entire rehearsal for it. Apparently, Dylan was really working with this band. This begged the question: Was there an entire Dylan punk album out there lurking the vaults? With every new version of The Bootleg Series that has come out in recent years, fans grumble to each other, “I wish it was just Infidels outtakes,” hoping to hear Dylan go punk.

Well, a version of that is now here — Springtime In New York: The Bootleg Series Vol. 16 1980–1985 — and just like anything with the often inscrutable singer-songwriter, it both exceeds and subverts expectations.

First of all, just to get it out of the way, there’s no Dylan punk album here. We only get one song with the Plugz, “License To Kill” from the Letterman taping.

Second of all, what we do get unfolds strangely. This box starts with a full disc of Dylan rehearsing. It’s interesting to hear him mixing cuts from his late-’70s albums like “Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power)” with playful covers like “Mystery Train” and “Sweet Caroline” and true rarities like “We Just Disagree” and “Let’s Keep It Between Us.” The disc has a Basement Tapes meets Rolling Thunder Revue feel to it. But this is a disc of taped rehearsals. It’s not for audiophiles.

Things pick up from there, as disc two deals up an entire set of Shot Of Love outtakes. That album was considered Dylan’s last of a trilogy of Christian albums. A previous volume of The Bootleg Series, Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13 /1979–1981, convincingly made the case, over eight discs and one DVD, that Dylan’s much-maligned Christian period was actually great. Interestingly, though, he’s working on secular material here. He’s covering the Everly Brothers, the Temptations and Hank Williams, and putting together reggae songs on the fly, like the fascinating groove of “Is It Worth It?”

Discs three and four are all Infidels outtakes, exactly what some fans have wanted. This definitely isn’t punk, not with Mark Knopfler involved — though he’s always welcome. Some of this is not exactly new. For example, “Blind Willie McTell” has been a part of The Bootleg Series canon since 1991 — so long that it feels less like an outtake than a hit single.

At this point, we’re firmly in the years when Dylan had an unfortunate tendency to hold back the best song he’d written for his albums, wanting to really nail it later, which he’d rarely, if ever, do. This meant these box sets, decades later, would be great, but his albums at the time weren’t. Springtime In New York doesn’t fall back on that, though, getting creative in giving us alternate and sometimes multiple takes of album tracks that shed light on what could have been. Of particular interest is a subtly better take on “Neighborhood Bully,” a defense of Israeli security policy that made critics nervous at the time. Another clear highlight here is “Death Is Not The End,” a song Dylan released five years later on the terse 1988 album Down In The Groove. This version is rawer and longer by two minutes, and Dylan is backed by the r&b group Full Force. This was definitely the ’80s!

The decade’s sway over these recordings is further felt on the last disc, as Dylan is backed by Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers (Mike Campbell and Howie Epstein) on “Seeing The Real You At Last” (Dylan and Petty would soon fully occupy the same orbit in the Traveling Wilburys). By now, we’ve moved into outtakes from Empire Burlesque, an album that sees Dylan pulling in musicians as far afield of each other as legendary reggae bassist Robbie Shakespeare and Rolling Stones guitarists Mick Taylor and Ron Wood, as well as members of Letterman’s house band. But the whole box wraps with “Dark Eyes,” a terrific, acoustic number — complete with Dylan’s tell-tale harmonica — Dylan wrote in one night at his producer’s suggestion to get away from the album’s slick production for at least a song.

Every volume of The Bootleg Series takes a portion of his career and proves there was much more going on there than was released at the time. This does that, wonderfully. It just doesn’t have Dylan going punk, at least not much of it. It seems that only happens when a young David Letterman is sitting at his desk.

On Sale Now
December 2021
Roy Hargrove
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