By Frank Alkyer
In an era of making singles that cater to the perceived attention span of the listening public, Lakecia Benjamin shows y’all how to throw down an album — an amazing album, at that. With Phoenix, Benjamin’s fourth studio recording, the alto saxophonist crafts a work themed on positive woman power with the help of producer Terri Lyne Carrington and an amazing cast of contributors. Those contributors start with activist Angela Davis and her spoken-word insight on “Amerikkan Skin,” the album’s opening cut. A police siren, gun shots and the voice of someone in pain launch the tune before Davis begins: “Revolutionary hope presides precisely among those women who have been abandoned by history. This is not the way things are supposed to be.” Benjamin and trumpeter Josh Evans fly the melody in unison over the driving beat laid down by Enoch (EJ) Strickland on drums and Ivan Taylor on bass. By the time the solos kick in, a few things are obvious: Benjamin and company have something to say; this is musical storytelling at its finest; and your toes are still tappin’. The musicianship on display throughout this 12-tune set is so good. Benjamin’s work is a given. She’s as gifted as they come on alto. Evans fires. He’s an underrated star ready to burst. Victor Gould on piano and organ plays so tastefully, giving each spot just the right amount of soulful feeling. Taylor and Strickland lock down and drive the beat throughout with taste and abandon. As for the guests, Benjamin pulls in some impressive friends and mentors. For the album’s title track, Georgia Anne Muldrow, the amazing jazz-adjacent multi-instrumentalist, gets into some crafty synth action. “Mercy” features vocalist Dianne Reeves, who trades fours with Benjamin during a thoroughly enjoyable moment. Benjamin arranged pianist Patrice Rushen’s piece “Jubilation” for the album, then got the legendary musician to play on the cut. It’s special. One of this listener’s favorite moments is poet Sonia Sanchez’s spoken-word dueting with bassist Taylor on “Peace Is A Haiku Song.” That dovetails into the uplifting “Blast,” which pairs that poetry with a majestically grooving tune. There’s a tribute to John Coltrane (“Trane”), one of Benjamin’s guiding lights, and another to artist Jean Michel Basquiat; each thoroughly rings true. And “Supernova,” which features the voice and thoughts of Wayne Shorter, just leaves you wanting more. That can be said for the entire album. This one will appear on many best-albums-of-the-year lists by the time we get to the end of 2023. It’s just that good.
By Ed Enright
The Source is Kenny Barron’s first solo album to be released since his landmark 1981 recording Kenny Barron At The Piano (Xanadu). Like that initial, auspicious solo outing, The Source consists of Barron-penned originals (“What If,” “Dolores Street,” “Sunshower,” “Phantoms”), Thelonious Monk tunes (“Téo,” “Well You Needn’t”), Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn compositions (“Isfahan,” “Daydream”) and one standard from the Great American Songbook (“I’m Confessin’”). And, just like its predecessor of 40 years, The Source serves as a direct emotional connection between Barron and the listener, abandoning all sense of pretense and serving as a fountain of honest, intimate gestures that unfold organically, one right into the next; there are no canned goods for sale here, and nothing forced. The music draws from a seemingly bottomless well of stylistic perspectives under Barron’s command — including straightahead jazz, swinging standards, canonic classical music, barrelhouse blues, bossa nova and free improv — revealing exactly why the 79-year-old DownBeat Hall of Famer has long been esteemed as a master of his craft who thrives in any setting, whether playing solo, leading a trio or accompanying a featured artist. Barron’s every statement on The Source is expressed with uttermost elegance and virtuosity. The album could alternatively be titled Kenny Barron: All The Things You Are, as the NEA Jazz Master crafts a loving ode to jazz and its closest relatives using all the source materials that have made him who he truly is.
By Daniel Margolis
This lost 1973 landmark Chicano jazz album is newly available. It’s a combination of jazz, funk, Latin soul and rock, rescued for modern audiences.
There are nearly a dozen people playing on En Medio. The opening track, “Sunday’s Church,” shifts up and down often as the combined star pianist and Fender Rhodes player Garrett Saracho competes with himself, tiptoeing around and then ripping his instruments apart. “Happy Sad” is a bit more mannered, bringing in a violinist. Then, “Rose For A Lady” is a spectacular blend of a saxophonist (Lawrence “Patience” Higgins) and Mendio on piano.
Flipping the record over, “Senor Bakor” starts off with a lot of mood and percussion, but then Saracho hangs back to give his horn players some room to breathe, until his guitarist, James Herndon, comes in and shuts this down with a breathtaking solo.
The disc ends with “Conquest De Mejico,” an apparently live recording that showcases a lot of quick work between drums, bass, sax and piano.
En Medio exists again. Long live.
By Frank Alkyer
If you’re looking for a tried-and-true, gut-bucket blues record, this may not be your jam. But for those seeking an adventurous amalgam of blues, jazz and blue-eyed soul, put the headphones on and crank it up. As a guitarist, Doug Wamble has a crazy different concept and chops to burn. His guitar drips with the acoustic twang of a bluesman’s heart and the seeking nature of a jazzman’s head. It’s at once sophisticated and intensely stripped down. How could it not be, given the company Wamble keeps on Blues In The Present Tense? On drums he recruited Jeff “Tain” Watts, with Eric Revis on bass. Then toss in a badass saxophone player named Prometheus Jenkins (aka Branford Marsalis), and you’ve got the classic Branford Marsalis Trio playing blues behind a killing guitarist. Now, throw them into a recording studio for a day. Bam! Pure, spontaneous magic. If the opening number, “Homesick,” don’t make ya wanna say, “Hell, yeah,” then just go take your third nap of the day and call your nurse. The album has Wamble and company singing and playing their way through so many of the issues facing the world today, perhaps none more poignant than “Maga Brain,” a song with a clever name-play on the P-Funk classic “Maggot Brain,” but moreover, an indictment of the divisiveness in the country — even within families. Now, are there straight-ahead blues on this record? Sure, “Along The Way” and “Blues For The Praying Man” have that familiar, classic feel. But the difference here is the sheer genius of the musicians. Watts is unlike any blues drummer you’ve ever heard, breaking rules with pomp and swagger while Revis locks in the pocket good and tight with a serious slap and tickle on the bass. Jenkins, for his contributions, is onboard for a good time with flurries of blasphemous notes that go straight to the soul. So the result sounds like four master musicians going to the mother well of music and creating a tsunami. It’s one part recording session, one part amazing jam session. To learn more about Doug Wamble, check out the feature article in the January 2023 issue of DownBeat.