Mark Turner

Return From The Stars
(ECM)

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.

Albert Ayler

Revelations
(Elemental)

It’s somewhat bemusing to imagine the new Albert Ayler box set Revelations as a highly sought after Record Store Day collectable. At five discs, 10 sides, the thing is a beast. And yet, this is what many wanted on April 23, and some hopeful shoppers were denied.

This documents a unique period in Ayler’s work. He was prepping to release the last album he would record in his lifetime: Music Is The Healing Power Of The Universe (four of five tracks on that are here). A month before, he played two recorded dates in France at the Foundation Maeght, Saint Paul-De-Venice on July 23 and 27, 1970.

What’s captured here is a unique outing for Ayler. Some of this was released at the time as Nuits de la Fondation Maeght, but not all of it. It’s been miraculously unearthed by Elemental Music.

So, let’s get to the backstory. The liner notes, fittingly, spell that out in four “Revelations.” The first is Mary Maria Parks, his late-period partner, singer and foil on soprano saxophone. Then there’s Steve Tintweiss and Allen Brairman, a bassist and a drummer new to Ayler’s accompaniment. Call Cobbs, who played with Ayler before, makes a comeback here, but only on the second of the two recorded days. Finally, we have plenty of Ayler himself improvising vocally, simultaneously quizzical and delightful.

Right from the start — “Music Is The Healing Force Of The Universe” — you’re having insights about Ayler. It’s no easy thing to get soulful, attractive notes out of a saxophone, but he could, easily. Thing was, then he’d dissect the instrument down to horrifying squeals to prove his intentions. Parks eventually takes over the song with advice like, “Just open up your soul and let it come in.” Definitely!

Elsewhere, on a track like “Birth Of Mirth,” Tintweiss and Brairman prove their place by backing Ayler in an orchestral manner and giving him plenty of space.

When he does his big hit, “Ghosts,” and the audience gives up a round of applause, you can practically count the number of hands in the room. But the bowed, stand-up bass solo serves as a reminder of why free-jazz was what it was. It’s like: “We’re going to play completely traditional jazz instruments, but it’s still going to be weird!”

Then there are “Revelations” parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 (itself in two parts) and 6. There’s so much going on throughout these passages. First of all, from the outset, Parks really challenges him on soprano saxophone. In the third part, Ayler goes into his trademark move of playing an almost-identifiable nursery rhyme, as if to say, “See? This could be anything. It doesn’t have to be a standard.” Later parts feature spectacular drum and bass solos.

When Ayler turns to “Truth Is Marching In,” it’s different from the way he played it at The Village Vanguard four years previously. He just blows up until his capable rhythm section comes in and walks him home. Meanwhile, “Zion Hill,” which featured Cobbs on harpsichord on 1968’s Love Cry, is much looser and more relaxed here with Cobb on piano. The audience is audibly appreciative.

Perhaps owing to Ayler’s recent, unfairly maligned album New Grass, his band at this point was willing to try for a backbeat — a new move for the king of rejecting European harmony and rhythm. A great example of this is “Again Comes The Rising Of The Sun,” over which Parks declares, “We’re always studying and planning to make a profit, and in the end wonder if it’s worth it.” Preach.

It only gets better from there. “Holy Family,” off the 1965 album Spirits Rejoice, is just a straight-up jazz tune, expanded from its original length of two minutes to 12, and it never goes off the rails, with the rhythm section firing on all cylinders. Meanwhile, “A Man Is Like A Tree” is fractured, but perfect, with Parks singing all the way through.

The true get here might be “Holy Holy,” a six-year-old Ayler piece he doubles in length and that proves unabashedly free.

Another highlight comes in the form of “Thank God For Women” (wow, he had a way with song titles), a track that Impulse! rejected (according to the liner notes) but is aired out here.

Fittingly, the whole thing ends with “Music Is The Healing Power Of The Universe” again, with Ayler giving more of a late-night essaying of the tune and Parks, true to form, declaring, “Music is never complete. It is a being. It is always there.”

Then, on the final track, “Mary Parks Vocal Announcement/Curtain Call,” Parks says, “We are so happy to be with you. We love you very much.”

In less than four months, Ayler would be found dead in New York City’s East River. DB

Mike Holober & Balancing Act

Don’t Let Go
(Sunnyside)

Hang in there, everybody; the world isn’t over yet. One person holding out hope during this age of impending doom is concerned citizen Mike Holober, the acclaimed New York pianist and composer/arranger known for his deep-dive collaborations with such esteemed large jazz ensembles as the WDR Big Band, the HR Big Band and the Gotham Jazz Orchestra. A recent Chamber Music America New Jazz Works commission has brought us Holober’s latest ambition: a complete song-cycle built around the concept of hope. Titled Don’t Let Go, the concert-length album features Balancing Act, a jazz octet with voice that Holober formed in 2015, performing live in October 2019 at Aaron Davis Hall on the campus of the City College of New York, where Holober has taught since 1995. The smaller ensemble satisfies Holober’s need to make a completely personal statement, one in which his own artistic goals are matched with the fruits of the collective. This particular configuration gives him an opportunity to balance his classical and jazz impulses in an all-inclusive manner that entices listeners from across the musical spectrum. And that’s exactly what you get with Don’t Let Go. Ensemble members Marvin Stamm (trumpet and flugelhorn), Dick Oatts (alto/soprano saxophone, flute), Jason Rigby (tenor saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet), Mark Patterson (trombone), Mike McGuirk (bass) and Dennis Mackrel (drums) navigate the jazz-classical divide with expertise and finesse, their orchestral-level chops easily managing the many contrasting stylistic elements at play within Holober’s nuance-rich orchestrations. Brazilian vocalist Jamile plays an integral role here: Whether she’s singing out front or vocalizing wordlessly within the ensemble, her presence enhances the group’s expressive palette and dynamic interplay. Don’t Let Go comes with two CDs of music, one for each set from the Aaron Davis Hall performance. Every song in the sequence sounds and feels just like its title suggests — “Breathe Deep,” “Burnin’ Daylight,” “A Summer Midnight’s Dream” and “Touch The Sky” being prime examples. The title track closes the album with what amounts to a direct order from the visionary Holober: Let the music uplift you, and embrace optimism at any cost.

Jean-Michel Pilc

Alive–Live at Dièse Onze, Montréal
(Justin Time)

Jean-Michel Pilc prefers to fly without a net. A prolific pianist-composer and unpredictable improviser who excels at perpetual invention and is known for performing spellbinding solo sets with no set lists, he’s joined on his debut album for Justin Time by bassist Rémi-Jean LeBlanc and drummer Jim Doxas — longtime trio mates who, like their leader, strive for spontaneous expression in everything they play as a unit. Performing for a COVID-weary, jazz-starved audience at Montreal’s prestigious Dièse Onze jazz club last June, the group takes standards like “Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise” and Miles Davis’ “Nardis” and “All Blues” on long thrill-rides of creative deconstruction. Two Pilc originals — the quirky swinger “11 Sharp” and the gentle, lyrical title track — provide even more surprises as the trio takes listeners on dynamic adventures through an ever-evolving landscape of unexpected plot-twists and sudden style-shifts. But for all the merits of these exceptional players and their sophisticated musical interactions, it’s the overall emotional impact of the performance that makes Alive–Live At Dièse Onze, Montréal such a powerful and important document. The music is joyously uplifting — exhilarating, even — and covers a full gamut of intricacies and nuances that add up to a delightful and satisfying set. It was an amazing night, and the enthusiastic vibe enveloping the room translates nicely into album form. This is collective improvisation at its absolute best, with virtuoso-level artists in their natural habitat, the jazz club, playing music for its own sake. The Dièse Onze concert was recorded in its entirety, and the remainder of the music — the complete second set — is available in digital form for streaming and download. The additional material includes three more Davis-affiliated tracks (Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance” and the standards “Someday My Prince Will Come” and “My Funny Valentine”) along with an intricate romp through the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” a whimsical version of “All The Things You Are,” a lovely take on “My Romance” and an explosive journey into John Coltrane’s “Mr. P.C.” For more information on Jean-Michel Pilc and Alive–Live At Dièse Onze, Montréal, see our upcoming article in the June 2022 issue of DownBeat (print and digital editions).