By Frank Alkyer
We live in a golden age of jazz pianists. This writer has contended for years that at no other time in history have so many prolific jazz pianists traversed the planet at one time. It is truly an embarrassment of riches — in this case, the wealth comes from Arturo O’Farrill, who has long been known for his incredible ability to command a big band as a composer, arranger and leader. For proof, just check out his debut on Blue Note …dreaming in lions… or Fandango At The Wall In New York (Tiger Turn), the latter being named Best Latin Jazz Album at the 2023 Grammy Awards. Fronting his Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble, O’Farrill has carved out his place in today’s jazz universe. Fronting the ALJE, he’s a river of creativity, beauty and soul. But on Legacies — an album that tips his hat to his father, the famed Cubano jazz legend Chico O’Farrill, and other key influences — we hear a different side of the maestro as a pianist in solo and trio settings. It’s a recording of boundless ideas and energy. Let’s start with the trio work, where O’Farrill works beautifully with son Zack on drums and Liany Mateo on bass. The three cook through Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance” with surprising, angular twists and turns. On O’Farrill’s own “Blue State Blues,” you can practically hear the smiles from the trio as they rip through these blues with a sense of pure joy. There’s a touching tribute to his former employer Carla Bley, “Utviklingssang,” that rings a quiet, cool vibe and maintains an understated intensity that’s just right. The solo pieces are equally, or even more, impressive. Let’s just put this out there: Arturo O’Farrill is one of our greatest living pianists. Period. Go ahead and argue. But first, listen to him play “Darn That Dream” from the album or his father’s tune “Pure Emotion” or Thelonious Monk’s “Well, You Needn’t.” These aren’t just reworkings of old chestnuts, they are revelations that go to the heart of O’Farrill’s mind, music and art. “How did a classically trained musician with an Irish/Mexican/Cuban/German heritage and a propensity toward the avant-garde became the poster boy for Afro Latin Jazz?” O’Farrill asks in the press materials for Legacies. “Obviously, by falling in love with jazz piano. I have always been a jazz pianist first, and all that other stuff afterwards. When Don Was [the president of Blue Note Records] asked me to record this side of me, I was very grateful for the chance to return to my roots as a musician.” We’re grateful, too. This is an experience and a treat that listeners can retreat to any time they need a reliable pick-me-up.
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.