Various Artists

Summer Of Soul
(Sony Legacy)

The Harlem Cultural Festival ran from late June to late August in 1969, and was a stacked deck of then-current talent drawn from jazz, blues and more, presented as a series of concerts in New York City. All of this is the focus of renowned drummer and all-over hyphenate Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s new documentary Summer Of Soul, which won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and is streaming now on Hulu. The soundtrack to that film is out this week.

Summer Of Soul describes the festival as “Black Woodstock” from the outset, hosting “a sea of Black people” — an estimated audience of 300,000. It features footage of performers and audience members that laid dormant for over 50 years, all filmed at Mt. Morris Park in Harlem. While the soundtrack can’t possibly contain everything the film does, Questlove cherry picks its best appearances (within reason — Stevie Wonder’s music was apparently unavailable, and Sonny Sharrock is also absent). It all kicks off appropriately with the Chamber Brothers ripping through “Uptown,” then, just as the festival did, the music goes all over the map. We get blues, soul and R&B from legends like B.B. King, David Ruffin, Gladys Knight & The Pips. We get a big blast of Fania bona fides from Mongo Santamaria and Ray Barretto, both rivetingly expressive. Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach are practically regal on “Africa.” In the film, they’re depicted as a music power couple, and they sound like it.

The soundtrack goes to church, too, bringing out The Edwin Hawkins Singers, The Staples Singers and Mahalia Jackson. Pops Staples is a revelation, simply tearing his guitar apart.

Thompson wisely saves the main attractions for the end of the album. Sly & The Family Stone turn in superb performances of “Sing a Simple Song” and ”“Everyday People,” and Sly sounds a lot happier to be here than he did at Woodstock right around the same time. The film and recording both remind us that while everything about The Family Stone was great, trumpeter and singer Cynthia Robinson could become the star of the show whenever she wanted.

This all closes out with Nina Simone. In the film, a female audience member says of Simone, “We walked on water” to see her. Well worth it. Simone takes over the festival, practically bashing on her piano in authoritatively leading her band on “Backlash Blues.” Then, here, she introduces “Are You Ready” as a poem written by The Last Poets’ David Nelson, in her words, one of “three black poets or six or maybe 100 in this town.” Over a percussive backdrop, she reads the poem after apologizing for not having memorized it. But despite not being a recitation, it’s rousing, a fitting end to the recording.

The film addresses a context that the album cannot — the then-recent assassinations of MLK and RFK, the Black Panthers (who provided security at the event when the NYPD refused), and, entertainingly, the moon landing, which its commentators have little patience for. “I couldn’t care less about the moon landing,” one says. “Never mind the moon. Let’s get some of this cash in Harlem.”

Fair point, but perhaps it’s for the best that this isn’t present on the album, because what you’re left with is the pure joy of the music, and the connection between the performers and the audience. The movie ends with the film and music industry’s disinterest toward what happened — notice that this soundtrack hasn’t been filling used vinyl crates for decades. Regardless, it’s here now.

Fred Hersch

Breath By Breath
(Megaforce)

Pianist and composer Fred Hersch has delivered some of the most interesting music in jazz for the better part of four decades. The art he makes is not disposable in any sense of the word. It is indestructible and lasting. Take, for instance, Breath By Breath, his latest recording of jazz trio with string quartet, an amazingly satisfying listening experience. Many jazz-meets-classical projects have come out in recent months, and what places Hersch at the forefront of this particular trend (see DownBeat’s February 2022 issue) is his singular vision of presenting something of depth, all the while displaying a quintessential mastery of both the piano and composition. On Breath By Breath, Hersch creates a suite of music based on his long-time dedication to the practice of meditation. Many of the songs (like “Rising, Falling”) create a sense of breathing in and out as the strings, piano, bass and drums play in, through and around the pulse. But don’t think of this as some experiment in new-age faux mysticism. This is a high-level melding of jazz and classical elements, one that seems easy, natural and full of life. “Begin Again KSM3” kicks off the suite with Hersch playing a simple piano motif. It’s classic Hersch — catchy, classy and thoughtful. Enter bassist Drew Guess and drummer Jochen Rueckert, along with the Crosby Street String Quartet of violinists Joyce Hermann and Laura Seaton, violist Lois Martin and cellist Jody Redhage Ferber. The strings function almost like a fourth member of the trio — punctuating, pulsing, adding color — but it is not just for show. There are elements of absolute beauty on pieces like “Awakened Heart,” the title track “Breath By Breath” and the closer “Pastorale.” And there are moments of near giddiness on numbers like “Monkey Mind” and “Mara.” These compositions masterfully transform the two groups into one, and together they build a musical universe that’s different from anything else on the scene today.

Andrew Hadro/Petros Klampanis

Regarding The Moon
(ΠΚ Music)

The single is something that is as old as jazz itself. It mostly went away during the album era of the 1960s, but singles in jazz and new music have begun to make a comeback in recent years. And during the pandemic, the trend has exploded with artists putting out recordings as they are finished instead of waiting for a collection of work to be completed. In that spirit, here’s an amazingly ambitious, independently produced single by baritone saxophonist Andrew Hadro. In full disclosure, Hadro is a longtime friend of this writer. So, when he said he was working on a new project, it was, “Great, can’t wait to hear it.” But “Regarding The Moon,” his new work, goes well beyond any independent project I’ve heard in recent years. First, it’s musically stunning. Hadro commissioned composer Petros Klampanis to write a piece that would feature the baritone saxophone’s uppermost registers. Hadro has made playing the baritone’s altissimo range a focus of his art. It has required him to practically relearn his instrument and seriously woodshed on technique and control. He worked on this piece for a year before beginning to commit it to record. Getting the single out took some 18 months. But the finished product is worth the wait. This isn’t technique for technique’s sake. The piece serves as a loving ballad, and a bit of a nod to Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” delivered with stunning precision and grace. The music pairs Hadro’s baritone with a double quartet of strings — featuring four violins, two violas and two cellos — along with bass, piano and drums. There is so much complexity here, with the high drama and grandeur of Hadro’s big horn awash in gorgeous arrangements of strings. It’s a very different direction for Hadro. He’s known as a jazz musician who has played with the late Junior Mance as well as saxophonist Tony Malaby. But this is a completely composed piece, much different than the music he created in those settings. So, is it jazz? New music? Who cares. It’s a work of extraordinary beauty. And what’s exciting is that more has been promised. “Regarding The Moon” is part of Hadro’s larger, ongoing project “For Us, The Living,” under which he plans to debut more works during the coming year and beyond. What he’s done here as an independent artist is crazy-ambitious in scope but incredibly beautiful in execution.

Josh Sinton

b.
(FiP)

Josh Sinton opens a portal into the core essence of the baritone saxophone on b., the first of a series of albums the multi-instrumentalist, composer and bandleader plans to release over the coming year. It’s also his first solo album, and in many ways represents a culmination of nearly three decades spent performing, writing and refining his technique as well as listening to his sound mature and evolve on bari and bass clarinet. Akin to the avant-leaning solo saxophone albums recorded by the likes of the late Steve Lacy, Sam Newsome and Jon Irabagon, b. is an exploratory event. Sinton’s unaccompanied improvisations are purposeful and structured, complete compositions made in the moment and documented here using simple alphanumeric titles. The beauty of these pieces lies not so much in melodic lines and implied chord progressions, but in the impressionistic textures and timbres Sinton manipulates with such delicate precision, his use of breath effects and multiphonics, his deeply resonant upper register and his barking low end. Silence between notes and phrases is highly effective in helping the music breathe and in keeping the listener focused and in a state of perpetual anticipation. The 50-year-old Sinton plans three more album releases in 2022, including a trio outing reuniting him with pianist Jed Wilson and drummer Tony Falco (June 3), a solo recording of him performing six advanced-level etudes published by Lacy (Aug. 12) and a visionary project with his Predicate quartet (with trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, cellist Christopher Hoffman and drummer Tom Rainey) titled 4 freedoms (Oct. 28). Gig alert: Sinton will share a twin bill with soprano master Newsome at iBeam in Brooklyn on Feb. 11. Each saxophonist will perform solo, followed by a set of the two performing together. If you find listening to b. a rewarding experience, expect the upcoming iBeam show — where the baby sax meets the big pipe — to be a highly satisfying, memorable event.

John Mayall

The Sun Is Shining Down
(Forty Below)

British bluesman John Mayall has been a major force in the genre going back decades. As is legend, talent he fostered was handed off to huge classic rock acts like Cream, the Rolling Stones and more. What’s remarkable is that the guitarist, singer and songwriter has kept at it, with a discography that stretches into dozens of albums. Next month he returns with The Sun Is Shining Down, which finds Mayall teaming up with a stellar cast to deliver an impressively honest, flat-out blues album. As usual, he has some expertly selected talent on hand, including The Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell, roots rocker Marcus King, Americana artist Buddy Miller, Scarlet Rivera (famously a member of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue), Chicago blues guitarist Melvin Taylor and Hawaiian ukulele artist Jake Shimabukuro. The project was recorded at The Doors’ Robby Krieger’s Horse Latitudes studio with Grammy-nominated producer Eric Corne. Right out of the gate, Mayall sounds energized on “Hungry And Ready,” with Taylor proving a perfect fit on lead guitar. You really wouldn’t think this guy is 88 years old. His voice is still strong but even better is his harmonica playing. On that instrument, he’s still on par with Paul Butterfield, another canny bandleader, yet one who left us more than 30 years ago. Elsewhere here, on the fittingly titled “A Quitter Never Wins,” Mayall, for once, goes at it with no special guest, putting his harmonica front and center from the top before essaying the end of a relationship. On “Deep Blue Sea,” Rivera’s fiddle playing is just as festive and rousing as ever — she clearly hasn’t lost a step, either. The whole thing wraps up with “The Sun Is Shining,” a medium-tempo number showcasing some expertly subtle lead guitar from Carolyn Wonderland.


On Sale Now
October 2022
Charles Lloyd
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