Ben Markley Big Band with Ari Hoenig

Ari’s Funhouse

Pianist-composer-arranger Ben Markley completely immersed himself in the music of drummer Ari Hoenig in conceiving and orchestrating Ari’s Funhouse, a big band celebration that’s as thrilling and cool as taking a deep dive in someone else’s pool. Markley and his marauding crew had permission to pool-hop, of course; they even invited their host to play in the band, closing the circle on a truly authentic collaborative project connecting the bandleader and his boisterous sidemen with the titular artist-composer, whose presence amounts to an all-enveloping guiding light. It all began with a gig Markley played with Hoenig at the 2019 Tarleton Jazz Festival in Texas. While prepping for the show, the pianist discovered a depth of melodicism and harmonic sophistication at work amid the rhythmic brilliance of Hoenig’s compositions. Recognizing the Brooklyn-based drummer’s unique compositional voice as a gold mine of material ripe for a big band romp, Markley decided to go all in, transcribing Hoenig’s solos, internalizing his vocabulary and memorizing entire tunes via repeated listening. The two began corresponding regularly, and soon Markley was bringing his own creative voice to bear on Hoenig’s critically acclaimed oeuvre of rhythmically advanced, highly exploratory compositions. Both were so pleased with the fruits of the joint project that they recruited an ensemble of Denver-area players to perform the material live and document everything in the studio. Ari’s Funhouse covers a lot of stylistic ground, from traditional big band swinging to time-twisted excursions into advanced modernity, while focusing a well-deserved spotlight on Hoenig’s voice — like a shining sun around which all the fun and action revolves.

Mongo Santamaria


The jacket tells the tale. On the front cover of Cuban conguero Mongo Santamaria’s album Sofrito, we see a giant bowl of the titular dish, chopped full of tomato, peppers, oranges and too many ingredients to inventory on sight, all stirred together, fresh and raw and set to pop on your tastebuds.

The back cover sees Santamaria himself ebulliently posing above said ingredients pre-prep, excited to transform them into sofrito (or have someone else do it). Then directly below that, the personnel list makes it clear why the album’s name is apt: It’s as long as the recipe. The bandleader has 17 musicians on this album’s nine tracks, playing dozens upon dozens of instruments. It’s a tribute to Santamaria, producer Marty Sheller and arranger Armen Donelian that they were able to stir this all into a seemingly effortlessly, coherent whole.

New from Craft Recordings, the record’s hype sticker tells the rest of the story. This is the “first vinyl reissue of the Afro-Latin jazz classic,” which had been out of print since 1976. The timing is perfect; the late Santamaria is fresh off his show-stopping set at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival as captured in Questlove’s documentary Summer of Soul, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary at the 2022 Academy Awards.

Over nine tracks, it’s made clear why this was worth unearthing. Opener “Iberia” begins with the sound of the wind blowing before moving into a groove that’s well arranged and not overcrowded. Right off the bat, it speaks to Latin jazz’s nature, in which soloists jump in and out of the song, rather than politely wait out measure upon measure. On the pleasingly low-key “Cruzan,” synths float in, immediately establishing a bed for a considered saxophone solo to hand off to a ruminative electric piano solo. “Spring Song,” with its cruise-line feel, serves as an elegant showcase for Mike “Coco” DiMartino on trumpet and flugelhorn. The sublime title track starts with a stately piano solo before being taken over by the “coro,” Santamaria’s chorus of Marcelino Guerra, Marcelino Valdez and Mario Munez, who gamely throw to Gonzolo Fernandez’s flute to close the A-side.

Flipping over, “O Mi Shango” begins the B-side, appropriately, with a congo workout from Santamaria before switching up to a funk vibe and setting firmly in the pocket to showcase some call-and-response vocals. The whole thing explodes and then abruptly stops.

In contrast, “Five On The Color Side” — with its mix of sharp percussion, synths and a horn tightly aligned with Edna Holt’s vocals — floats in like a breeze before exploring a darker groove.

It should come as no surprise that things get their absolute funkiest here when the ringer, renowned drummer Bernard Purdie, shows up on “Secret Admirer.” But Santamaria, or his handlers Sheller and Donelian, smartly blow up the bridge with two bata drum players, Julito Collazo and Angel Maldonado.

“Olive Eye,” with its dance-floor feel and sparse amount of soloing, feels like a throat-clearing before “Princess,” the perfect closer. It’s a swimmingly fusion mix of electric pianos and stabbing horns, simultaneously busy and shimmering. And it fittingly takes us out with a long congo solo from Santamaria.

All in all, Sofrito is as delicious as it looks. Thank God it’s back in print — for now. DB

Marquis Hill

New Gospel Revisited

What happens when you relive the music of your youth? It’s a question that trumpeter Marquis poses with New Gospel Revisited, his latest and very beautiful offering on Edition Records. For Hill, youth is a relative term. At 35, he certainly is still in his youth when you come right back down to it. But New Gospel Revisited serves as a reimagining of his debut recording New Gospel (independently released), which came out in 2011. A lot can happen in a decade, an artist can mature. And that’s what happens here. While that debut served as an announcement of things to come from one of the most promising new kids on the Chicago music scene, Revisited demonstrates an artist in his full, grown vision. While the original was carefully crafted in the studio, on this turn Hill and a completely new cast performs it live, unedited at Chicago’s Constellation. It’s a document demonstrating the true high-wire act of improvisation and art. For this incarnation, Hill assembles a new cast for the proceedings, and it’s stellar. Adding to the nine great tunes on the original, Hill adds five solo briefs for his compadres highlighting their many gifts. Saxophonist Walter Smith III blows bluesy, fluidly and fine on “Walter Speaks.” Drummer Kendrick Scott calls on the spirits with a beautiful solo drum turn on “Oracle.” Joel Ross offers a shimmer and sigh of a ballad with “Lullaby.” Bassist Harish Raghavan delivers on the promise of “Perpetual.” And pianist James Francies sends the congregants away on a cloud with “Farewell.” But it is on those other tunes that this group coalesces as a mighty whole. On the title tune, the unison horn lines of Hill and Smith are driven by swing-solid rhythms of Scott and Raghavan that give way to a bed of rhythm for Hill to solo over, which he does with a mastery and soulfulness that’s rare. There are so many moments of “Hell yeah” beauty here, like Francies and Ross serving up a tasty round trading fours on “The Believer,” the Mingus-like drive of “Law And Order,” or the optimistic playfulness of “Autumn,” with Hill bringing out his mute to give the sound that far-away vibe. Hill takes his own solo turn on “New Paths,” and it’s a triumph. So is New Gospel Revisited. If this is the beginning of the next phase of Marquis Hill’s work, we can’t wait for more.

Mark Turner

Return From The Stars

Mark Turner’s writing for his quartet on Return From The Stars, his latest ECM leader date, provides ample space for spontaneous ensemble interplay within its arc of expression. Solos flow organically in and out of Turner’s arrangements, which, in their sparseness, consist of little more than written-out horn lines for himself (on tenor) and trumpeter Jason Palmer, and less specific instructions for his rhythm section of bassist Joe Martin and drummer Jonathan Pinson. The absence of a chordal instrument leaves the conversational possibilities wide open as Turner’s compositions modulate between sections of structure and looseness. There is a narrative tension at work that juxtaposes themes of freedom and responsibility, making for an exhilarating listen, even during the album’s more measured, quieter moments. Indeed, a dignified drama of sorts plays out on Return From The Stars, which takes its title from a Stanisław Lem sci-fi novel about an astronaut who returns from a space mission to find life on Earth greatly changed, and his own values out of step with society. Turner draws upon his deep study of the various ways history’s jazz masters have dealt with changes both musical and cultural, incorporating a wide range of stylistic elements into his arrangements and improvisations, and reminding listeners that, in his musical world, nothing is off limits. His first quartet album since 2014’s Lathe Of Heaven (ECM), Return From The Stars documents Turner’s artistry as a premier saxophonist, conceptual thinker and bandleader who plays a visionary role on today’s rapidly evolving, ever-expanding jazz scene. A 180g vinyl version will become available in autumn.

Gerald Clayton

Bells On Sand
(Blue Note)

Welcome to pianist Gerald Clayton’s best recording to date, and that’s saying something. The 37-year-old pianist has produced a stretch of really fine music since his debut as a leader in 2009 with Two-Shade (ArtistShare), including Bond: The Paris Sessions (EmArcy), Life Forum (Concord) and Tributary Tales (Motéma). He made his debut on Blue Note in 2020 with the terrific Happening: Live At The Village Vanguard, and continues with Bells On Sand, his latest release for Blue Note. The combination of his artistry on that iconic label pays off here in a major way. Bells On Sand is a beautiful album that crosses through the broad spectrum of Clayton’s interests, tastes and thoughts with rich cohesiveness. While many artists string together songs like a writer would an anthology of short stories, Clayton paints as a novelist, delivering the arc of his story with breadth and grace. This is an album where quiet understatement makes a huge impact. It’s a small group performance that mixes jazz with classical overtones to deliver a cinematic approach to the music. The opening tune, the carefully paced “Water’s Edge,” features Clayton’s father, famed bassist, composer and arranger John Clayton, playing achingly heartfelt arco bass with drummer Justin Brown adding regal touches with mallets. Gerald Clayton adds a quiet wash of organ behind his piano soli, a great effect that helps set the mood. That piano artistry is featured in a solo format on four of the tunes on this recording — “Elegia,” “My Ideal 1,” “My Ideal 2” and “There Is Music Where You’re Going My Friends” — each one a true treat with the two versions of “My Ideal” coming from totally different universes. Clayton also brings in the breathy vocalist Maro for two songs, the jazz noir of “Damunt de tu Només les Flors” and “Just A Dream.” The chanteuse captures an otherworldliness that transports. But there are two tunes that simply pull at the heartstrings for very different reasons. “That Roy” is a tribute to the late trumpeter Roy Hargrove, who passed away in 2018. This is a tune very different from everything else on the record, but still fitting. With a laid-back, hip-hop beat by Brown and Clayton on keyboards, it sounds like Hargrove, who served as a mentor to many of the younger musicians coming to New York, including Clayton. Continuing the theme of mentors, when Clayton conjures with saxophonist Charles Lloyd on “Peace Invocation,” it serves as a few moments of sheer joy. Clayton plays in several of Lloyd’s projects including the Charles Lloyd & Gerald Clayton Duo. Their shared connectivity is apparent as the two weave their way through a ballad for our times. On the whole, Bells On Sand reflects on our pandemic times, seeking a better path forward. It’s lovely, start to finish, which is the reason John and Gerald Clayton are on the cover of the June issue of DownBeat.

On Sale Now
April 2023
Brad Mehldau
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