Tom Harrell

Oak Tree
(HighNote)

Tom Harrell is like a keystone species in the jazz musician kingdom: His music has a disproportionally large effect on his natural surroundings, just like the mighty oak tree. Over the course of his five-decade-long career, the celebrated trumpeter/flugelhornist has made a profound impact on the straightahead jazz community; the lyric beauty of his melodic lines and the concise, intense nature of his improvisations have served to benefit generations of advancing players and composers rooted in the traditional styles of swing, bebop, Latin and blues. His latest, an especially solid quartet session from late 2020 with pianist/keyboardist Luis Perdomo, bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Adam Cruz, covers all that ground and more as four seasoned improvisers dig into the fertile soil of 11 Harrell originals that are so brilliantly crafted, they’re certain to benefit the jazz canon for decades to come. The lead track on Oak Tree, “Evoorg,” is quintessential Harrell: a medium-up swinger consisting of twisty bebop lines and the occasional chromatic bump played in a harmonic context of altered “Rhythm” changes. Harrell’s melodies – composed and improvised — feel incredibly familiar in their seeming effortlessness, until they take you by surprise and reveal just how distinctly different and original they are. “Fivin’,” one of three tracks featuring Perdomo on Fender Rhodes, is a jazz-funk outing with simple, even-eighth-note lines that never stray far from the tune’s monotonic opening statements. The title track, like the oak tree it’s named for, is a moderate ballad characterized by knotty lines, the crisp rustling of Cruz’s brushes and a fluttering solo in which the leader, completely uninhibited in his own habitat, flits from branch to branch and sings like a ruby-throated hummingbird on a mostly sunny morning. Harrell switches to flugel for more softly shaded tunes like the one-note samba groover “Tribute” and the airy, moody ballad “Shadows,” as well as on the somewhat aggressive track “Zatoichi,” where the quartet lets a constricted, repetitive initial declaration eventually fall apart to reveal meadows of airy free-improv. Harrell’s signature brand of bebop emerges whenever the spirit moves him, it seems; longtime admirers can get their fill with stimulating tracks like the deceptively titled, carefully arranged “Improv”; the angular “Archaeopteryx,” featuring a double-tracked Harrell playing in unison and harmony with himself; and the ever-optimistic “Love Tide,” reminiscent of beloved masterpieces of yore (like the Clifford Brown classic “Joy Spring”) with its subtle key-center movement, upbeat melody and snappy accents.

The Endeavour Jazz Orchestra New Zealand

Solipsis — Music Of Ryan Brake
(Skydeck Music)

The concept behind the Endeavour Jazz Orchestra New Zealand is laudable. The ensemble was created primarily to feature the best young jazz composers in New Zealand, and it features many of the island nation’s best jazz musicians playing alongside some of the world’s top jazz artists — Alex Sipiagin on trumpet, Dick Oatts on alto saxophone, Francisco Torres on trombone, John Escreet on piano and John RIley on drums.

Normally that’d be enough plot line for an hour of exceptional jazz. But the Endeavour Jazz Orchestra New Zealand’s first project has another angle. Solipsis — Music Of Ryan Brake bills itself as inspired by elements of the critically acclaimed 2008 film Synedoche, New York. The 14-year-old movie stars the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as a theater director staging an increasingly elaborate production with no real sense of time; its development twists on for years. The titles of the six movements of Solipsis reference things said or seen in the film. The first is a big one, “Somewhere Between Stasis And Anti-stasis,” which sums up the unreality of the film overall. The more than 20 musicians (the majority of them horn players) on hand in the orchestra start the proceedings with a cheerful chorus and then start walking around with the arrangement before showcasing a beautiful yet dizzying solo from Escreet, who’s consistently on fire throughout the album.

“Sycosis And Psychosis” refers to a scene in the movie in which Hoffman’s character Caden Cotard explains to a child the difference between the two — one is a skin condition; the other a troubled mental state — as it’s clear while he acknowledges he has the former, he also has the latter. On the track here, the orchestra stages a slower number with Escreet and guitarist Nick Granville thoughtfully mirroring each other, then members of the ample horn section do the same before seizing the composition’s line to twist it around for a while, and then hand it back to the guitarist and pianist. The song then takes a time-out for a languid guitar solo and another notably complex, expressive piano solo. For all the talent enlisted here, Escreet and Granville may be the project’s true stars.

“Infectious Diseases In Cattle,” a phrase Cotard considers as the title of his play at one point, starts in a hurry and then cuts the tempo ever so slightly to give the horn players some room. “The Burning House,” a visual element repeated throughout Synedoche, New York, highlights Brake’s skills with composition, particularly arrangement, before coming to an abrupt halt (he seems to like ending a song that way).

“Simulcrum,” another title Cotard considers, is a slower, moodier number that builds in drama and boasts some of the best horn solos here, especially from trombonist Francisco Torres.

The album’s closer, “Lighting An Obscure World,” yet another title Cotard considers, wastes no time in bringing together all the musicians on hand for a full-ensemble jam. Over the course of the 12-minute track, the players try virtually everything, even exploring a Latin feel before allowing space for an unaccompanied piano solo.

This is the Endeavour Jazz Orchestra New Zealand’s inaugural release. Let’s hope more are on the way.

Payton MacDonald/Billy Martin/Elliott Sharp/Colin Stetson

Void Patrol
(Infrequent Seams)

Void Patrol is the new album by percussionist Payton MacDonald, drummer Billy Martin, guitarist Elliott Sharp and baritone saxophonist Colin Stetson. It’s a long-distance project cooked up by MacDonald as a way to make art in any way possible — like most musicians these days. For Void Patrol, MacDonald laid down very basic themes for each of the album’s five tracks, then fleshed them out by handing them over to the other players to embellish upon, one at a time. The results are an exciting mix of thoughtful listening, joyous noise and beat-driven beauty. “Antares” has an infectious groove with Martin heavy on the trap drums, MacDonald driving a repeating, hypnotic pattern on marimba and Sharp soul-surfing across this cloud of percussion with well placed swoops and wails on guitar. Nearly four minutes in, Stetson enters, playing his saxophone through a processor with computer-like sonority. It’s a true buzz of sound, with each musician adding such interesting takes that one might wish to hear each one individually, then as part of the overall mix. The core of every tune is this dedication to maintaining a drone to improvise over, under and through. “These tracks groove hard at times, and by keeping a drone going there is always a sense of grounding and the tonality is clear,” according to MacDonald. “One might label this as jazz, but if we’re going to get fussy about labels I would also include drone and metal.” The improvising on this disc is on red alert, but not in the way one traditionally thinks. Instead of trading fours, eights or whatever, everyone is improvising at once — sometimes talking loud and over each other like a group that can’t wait to finish each other’s sentences, other times dropping to a whisper to really catch an interesting point. It’s cool that Sharp kicks off each of the album’s first four tunes with a dramatic strum of his guitar, like a call to arms. Then on “Acrux,” the album’s final tune, MacDonald picks up on that the theme on marimba, introducing the recording’s dreamiest of sound clouds. Stetson joins with saxophone flutters while Martin and Sharp bubble underneath, aerating the sonic brew and building toward a tidal pool of instruments and sounds that float in and out with the breeze. It’s a great conclusion to a project where one gets the sense that these four artists had a blast entertaining each other, and now the rest of us get to enjoy their conversation. To get the inside scoop on Void Patrol, check out the September 2022 issue of DownBeat. You can order one HERE, starting on Aug. 6.

George Cotsirilos

Refuge
(OA2)

San Francisco-based guitarist George Cotsirilos pushes into newer, bluesier and more challenging musical territory on Refuge, a showcase for his recently formed quartet featuring pianist Keith Saunders and Cotsirilo’s longtime trio mates Robb Fisher on bass and Ron Marabuto on drums. The 10 original tunes on this new collection are more complicated than the quartet’s previous release, 2018’s Mostly In Blue, and the arrangements are more exacting, resulting in heightened attention and more acute listening among the musicians. The music bears the stamps of Cotsirilos’ many influences — including straightahead jazz, the blues and classical — and presents a wealth of opportunities in the realms of harmony and rhythm for this auspicious gathering of simpatico players. It’s a nice listen, tuneful and memorable with its plucky leaps and twists. The presence of piano is immediately felt in the head of the swinging, medium-tempo opener “Devolution,” doubling the guitar melody as it steps out on a displaced chromatic climb straight out of the bebop canon. Guitar and piano frequently come across as a team here and throughout Refuge, engaging each other in intelligent and playful ways, Saunders’ generous comping effectively freeing up Cotsirilos’ hands and inspiring the guitarist’s improvisations to new heights of spontaneity and daring. The two also demonstrate that rare ability of two chording instrumentalists to stay out of each other’s way for the full duration of a totally happening, thoughtfully programmed jazz session. Fisher plays multiple melodic roles on upright as well, emerging as an occasional unison voice or engaging in counterpoint with guitar/piano lines, and contributing numerous jazz solos of exquisite substance. Piano is felt deeply on the title track, a jazz waltz based on a subtle harmonic progression laid down by Saunders with exquisite tastefulness. Other album highlights include the spirited “Planet Roxoid,” the ear-perking “The Three Doves” and the minor-key, hard-bopping closer “Let’s Make Break For It.” The compositions on Refuge are deceiving in their complexity, employing unexpected intervals within their undeniably catchy melodic lines and surging with rhythmic tension and release. As with just about everything he touches, Cotsirilos ties it all together with ingenious voice-leading solutions at every turn in this brave-and-brainy collective quest for refuge, written and recorded during the personal isolation and worldwide turmoil of the pandemic era.

Caleb Wheeler Curtis

Heatmap
(Imani Records)

The term heat map can describe all kinds of things — from website traffic to geographical mapping and more. It’s appropriately applied here as well, as Caleb Wheeler Curtis, who bills himself as not just a saxophonist but a composer, teams with pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Gerald Cleaver for a set on which they bring the temperature up and down. Across 10 tracks, Curtis gives his colleagues plenty of space; for example, not coming in on sax until we’re two minutes and fifty seconds into the title track. When he does, Evans follows along with him on a challenging countermelody, all set again the tastefully busy rhythm section of Revis and Cleaver.

The tight, easy interplay between Curtis and Evans shouldn’t come as any surprise. The two played together in the Philly-based pianist’s Captain Black Big Band, with Curtis appearing on both of the band’s Grammy-nominated albums, Presence and The Intangible Between.

Curtis composed the music for Heatmap at the MacDowell Colony, an artist’s residency program in Peterborough, New Hampshire, where he spent four weeks last year. He emerged with a set of music that leaves ample space for the album’s remarkable improvisers to explore and invent.

On “Tossed Aside,” Curtis slows the tempo to stirringly evoke the feeling of finding oneself in such a state, and Evans contributes a thoughtful solo around the midway mark. Elsewhere, “Trees For The Forest” seems a reflection on the idyllic surroundings where this music was composed. The telepathy between the members of the quartet is palpable here, as well as on “Limestone,” which doesn’t so much begin as creep in, a simple melody serving as a haunting showcase for Revis.

Curtis ups the tempo to close out the album with “C(o)urses,” on which the four blaze through a frenetic melody, trading solos but never going off the rails. Finally on “Spheres,” Evans starts with a charmingly circular pattern on piano before Curtis jumps in, playing long, almost worried-sounding notes before, deep into the song, the two begin to deconstruct it a bit, with Evans dumping in the occasional crashing chord and Curtis overdubbing some challenging, random high notes. Recommended.


On Sale Now
August 2022
Jon Batiste
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