Brian Landrus

Red List
(Palmetto)

Brian Landrus has made a string of potent statements as a leader on such albums as 2009’s Forward, 2013’s chamber-like Mirage, 2015’s adventurous trio outing The Deep Below, 2017’s orchestral project Generations and 2020’s quartet recording For Now. With his latest release, the prodigious baritone saxophonist and bass clarinetist is sounding the alarm for animals whose populations in the wild have been so severely diminished that we now risk losing them completely. That’s the impetus behind Red List: Music Dedicated To The Preservation Of Our Endangered Species, which finds Landrus collaborating with an all-star ensemble and creating compelling original music that serves a higher purpose. Consisting of 15 tracks — 13 of them dedicated to birds, mammals and reptiles that currently appear on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of species on the verge of extinction — the recording features a committed-to-the-cause core band of Landrus, trombonist Ryan Keberle, guitarist Nir Felder, keyboardist Geoffrey Keezer, bassist Lonnie Plaxico, percussionist John Hadfield and drummer Rudy Royston. Supplementing the group on various tracks are alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, tenor saxophonist Ron Blake, trumpeter/flugelhornist Steve Roach and vocalist Corey King, whose voices color and fatten the unconventional ensemble blends that distinguish each of Landrus’ animal-specific arrangements. On top of a sense of urgency that persists throughout Red List, the program traverses many moods and styles — from the mellow winds and delicate percussion of “Nocturnal Flight” to the syncopated dub groove of “Save The Elephants” to the hard-rocking “Canopy Of Trees,” interspresed with a sprinkling of brief, fleet-fingered solo improvisations. The leader’s sparse band arrangements leave plenty of room for his highly nuanced low-woodwind lines, and the instrumental timbres of the team players, to emerge in their full glory. This is another strong release from a major force on the modern jazz scene who will start work as a professor of jazz composition at Berklee this fall. Landrus plans to donate a portion of the proceeds and 100% of the profits from Red List to Save The Elephants, an organization that has been helping to ensure a future for African Elephants for nearly 30 years.

Bill Evans

You Must Believe In Spring
(Craft Recordings)

Bill Evans once said, “I can’t comprehend death.”

Well, like all of us, he was going to have to. And his life was, sadly, full of it. In 1973, his long-term girlfriend, Ellaine, committed suicide, following their breakup, by throwing herself in front of a subway train. He married soon after that. Then his brother, Harry, committed suicide as well. Evans divorced, succumbed to drug addiction and died at age 51.

Why focus on such matters? Well, because we’re reviewing one of the last albums he made before he died. Recorded in August 1977 and released after Evans passed in September 1980, the record is a master class in Evans’ touch and subtlety. Another thing Evans once said is, “I have a reason that I arrive at myself for every note I play.”

One would have known that without him saying it, merely by sitting him down at a piano. But it’s on full display here.

Evans is backed by bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Eliot Zigmund in a classic piano trio format — as he long preferred. While his once-employer Miles Davis built out bands that reached a dozen people, Evans preferred to keep things small.

It works, though. The title track alone proves that. Evans lets everyone take solos with an immense amount of breathing room. Meanwhile, on “Gary’s Theme,” he displays the maturity of his playing. “The Peacocks” plays out so slowly that his right and left hands seem like different parts of the band. On “Sometime Age” he waits, to where it almost seems arrogant, for his rhythm section to come in before he starts playing the prettiest notes you’ve ever heard.

Still, though, he seems to be processing mortality. The beautifully meditative “B Minor Waltz (For Ellaine)” is about his ex. The quietly swinging “We Will Meet Again (For Harry)” is about his brother. Again, both suicides.

Which leads to the record’s biggest misstep. It ends with “The Theme From M*A*S*H (aka Suicide Is Painless).” Few realized at the time that the catchy melody coming out of their television sets was an instrumental version of a song from the original M*A*S*H film musing on the notion that suicide is painless, but Evans did. The problem is, he didn’t do much with it.

Regardless, this album is fantastic, and it’s too bad Evans was too driven to the depths of death — something he proclaimed he could not comprehend — to see its release. DB

Diego Figueiredo

Follow The Signs
(Arbors)

Many listeners were introduced to guitarist Diego Figueiredo as the mop of hair and flying fingers beautifully accompanying vocalist Cyrille Aimee on their ongoing duets collaboration. And that’s a good starting point. But there’s much more to this 41-year-old with more than two dozen records under his belt, all demonstrating his ability to take the Brazilian sounds of his homeland into the here and now. His latest recording, Follow The Signs (his fourth recording on Arbors Records), serves as the most recent example of Figueiredo seamlessly fusing bossa, samba, jazz and classical overtones into his own breezy world. Here, Figueiredo arranges for guitar and a quintet of classical strings as well as his long-time cohorts Eduardo Machado on bass and Marcílio Garcetti on percussion. Everything flows so smoothly on this 11-track set; nothing is forced. The strings come in on clouds at just the right moments. Figueiredo has the touch and tone of a master guitarist hitting his prime, playing with exquisite style and facility, but always at the service of the music at hand. Take, for instance, “Delicate Samba,” where Machado plays the first solo on bass, carving an adventurous path for Figueiredo to follow, which he does with style and a few surprises. You can practically feel these artists smiling as they make this music. The set on Follow The Signs includes 10 originals that absolutely ooze the Brazilian tradition in a very modern way. Figueiredo pays homage to the masters with the lilting beauty of “Jobim Forever” and “Dear John,” a tribute to João Gilberto, one of the godfathers of bossa nova. He gives Errol Garner’s “Misty” a Brazilian makeover that’s sensational. For just a taste of crazy guitar chops, give the album’s title cut a spin, or the closer, “Imagination.” In both cases, he weaves some magic over the fretboard, demonstrating his command of the instrument and his art. The music of Diego Figueiredo has the ability to take your breath away in so many ways.

Ben Markley Big Band with Ari Hoenig

Ari’s Funhouse
(OA2)

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

Sofrito
(Craft)

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


On Sale Now
July 2022
Sean Jones
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