Jim McNeely/Chris Potter/Frankfurt Radio Big Band

(Double Moon/Challenge Records)

The Stravinsky-inspired music that Jim McNeely wrote and arranged for Chris Potter to perform with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band has risen to the top of the class among this year’s contemporary large jazz ensemble releases. Rituals, which was recorded in-studio in 2015 following its original commissioned performance at the Alte Oper Frankfurt’s Stravinsky Festival in 2013, finally emerged on Double Moon Records (part of the Challenge Records International catalog) early this year and reveals a major jazz-meets-classical breakthrough by principals McNeely, who’s spent a large portion of his career working with American big bands (notably the venerable Vanguard Jazz Orchestra) and European radio bands; Potter, a virtuoso jazz tenorist with a hyper-extended range and endurance-runner chops; and the Frankfurt Radio Big Band (a.k.a. hr-Bigband), one of Europe’s finest government-funded large jazz ensembles. The first six tracks of Rituals constitute McNeely’s original suite of new compositions inspired by the tonal language of Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring. The ensemble executes the rhythmically complex and harmonically advanced score with passion and sensitivity, not to mention technical precision and power of symphonic proportions. The group’s orchestral palette is enhanced by the presence of harp, french horn, percussion, and a timbre-rich world of expert-level woodwind doubling (flutes, piccolos, clarinets and bass clarinets) that further evoke the tonal language and textures of Rite Of Spring. Potter, the star of the show and the featured soloist throughout, gets deep inside the material and supercharges it with a seemingly inexhaustible wealth of invention and intensity — to the point of sounding like his horn might burst wide open and spill out the tornados of sound swirling inside of it. McNeely gets credit not just for masterminding all this, but also for his highly detailed, conscientious work orchestrating the material in a manner that suits Potter’s style, honors an important historical legacy and poses a worthwhile challenge to one of today’s most esteemed jazz big bands. Following the conclusion of the Stravinsky-styled suite, the remaining four tracks on Rituals are Potter originals re-arranged by McNeely for the hr-Bigband. These include “Dawn” and “Wine Dark Sea” from Potter’s 2013 CD The Sirens, “The Wheel” from his 2006 recording Underground and “Okinawa” from the 2001 live album This Will Be. Potter plays equally hard on this second portion of the program, with additional solo support from hr-Bigband reed-section players Steffen Weber, Tony Lakatos and Heinz-Dieter Sauerborn and trumpeter/flugelhornist Axel Schlosser establishing a more conventional, but by no means less thrilling, jazz big band vibe. Rituals is a fascinating listen, a dramatic homage of breathtaking breadth and sophistication that succeeds on every level.

Bitchin Bajas

(Drag City)

Chicago’s Bitchin Bajas, a synth-oriented trio in operation for the last dozen years, always keeps you guessing. The group released its last album of original material five years ago — Bajas Fresh, which displayed so much musicianship it seemed its prime movers, Cooper Crain, Daniel Quinlivan and Rob Frye, had employed a whole orchestra.

On Bajascillators, they walk it back, and it works perfectly for the times we’re living in five years forward. The group apparently upgraded a lot of its gear in the last half-decade and it shows in how refreshed they sound here.

“Amorpha” starts the album with a busily jingling drone that builds in your headphones to shifting percussive structures before overturning, continually building on its disparate yet aligned elements before settling into a burbling peace.

“Geomancy” begins more cautiously before taking up the entirety of your headspace with a gently blaring chord that makes room to explore errant melodies, moving into a transcendental, meditative, then scattered plateau for the track’s second half.

“World B. Free” is ambient to a level of feeling asleep at first before rising to an ’80s twinge, then becoming perhaps the album’s highlight with a highly sympathetic ally added in reedman and multi-instrumentalist Frye.

“Quakenbrück,” named after a town in northwest Germany, establishes fittingly Teutonic overtones to its instrumentation before blasting down the Autobahn to get steadily New Wave.

Bajascillators is the latest in Bitchin Bajas’ long continuum, and, in keeping with the best art, it’s exactly what we need right now. DB

Ella Fitzgerald

Ella At The Hollywood Bowl: The Irving Berlin Songbook

There are moments in this life to sit back, reflect and bathe in pure awe. With Ella At The Hollywood Bowl: The Irving Berlin Songbook, listeners get a little taste of absolute perfection: a grand idea presented with such grace and elegance that it seems simple, pure and divine. This previously unreleased music came from the private collection of Norman Granz, noted producer and founder of Verve Records. Grammy-winning artist and producer Gregg Field lovingly mixed this collection direct from quarter-inch tapes recorded during this elaborate 1958 concert. How elaborate? The concert includes a full orchestra, with arrangements conducted and arranged by Paul Weston, all to provide a feathery cloud for perhaps the greatest singer in jazz to float upon. And float she does. Fitzgerald’s voice is a wonder. Her songbook recordings (which included the Irving Berlin songbook) are often considered the best work she, or any other vocalist in jazz, has ever created. But to hear it live, at the venerable Hollywood Bowl, demonstrates how amazing all of the musicians on that stage were and just how amazing Ella’s artistry had become as she was entering the beginning of her 40s. From the downbeat of “The Song Is Ended,” through “How Deep Is The Ocean,” “Cheek To Cheek,” “Let’s Face The Music And Dance,” “Putting On The Ritz” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” the voice and the music are timeless. Then there are the ballads. The strings on “How Deep Is The Ocean” pour straight into the soul. On “Russian Lullaby,” Fitzgerald’s vibrato flutters almost like a violin that wants to make you cry. And “Get Thee Behind Me Satan” offers a quaint remembrance of the temptations of love. All of this is made more exquisite by the stunning clarity of this recording, as if it were recorded yesterday. Before summer’s gone, this is a great one to cozy up to in the backyard in a comfortable chair and imagine that it’s Los Angeles in the 1950s, there’s a soft breeze blowing through one of the greatest music venues mankind has ever created — and on that stage is a voice that comes along only once in lifetime.

Tom Harrell

Oak Tree

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.

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.

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