By Michael J. West
Quite a bit of darkness both inside and outside drummer Mareike Wiening’s personal life went into the music of Reveal, her third recording. But that darkness doesn’t overwhelm the music. At nearly every turn, one finds rays (sometimes more) of hope emanating through the performances.
Indeed, the performances are the key aspects of that hope. “Declaration Of Truth,” for example, is an outwardly menacing tune in 5/4 that might have been much more ominous were it not for Glenn Zaleski’s lithe, skipping piano line and solo. (There’s even a brief moment where his left hand is a foreboding counterpoint to his more optimistic right.) Similarly, “Encore” is a feature for tenor saxophonist Rich Perry (though with a truly doleful opening solo from bassist Johannes Felscher), one that seems determined to soak him in pathos or regret. Yet there’s an indomitable spirit in his warm sax tone, continually suggesting that it will find its way out of the gloom surrounding it. Perry and Zaleski combine their positivities on “Old Beginning,” both acknowledging adversity yet refusing to surrender to it; here, they rope in guitarist Alex Goodman, whose solo begins wallowing in darker tones and ends by allowing in, if not full-on hope, then the possibility of it.
These evolving moods don’t function across the board. The slow “Choral Anthem” — which is not choral, but is one of three tunes with guest trumpeter Dave Douglas — is as forbidding and insular as this music gets. Nor is Wiening herself some sort of Pollyanna: Her tight ride-cymbal beat creates tension and prods like a nagging doubt. (Wiening is not an ostentatious drummer, but navigation of these tunes, as well as moments like the 30-second intro solo on the title track, betray some fearsome chops.) Yet the consistency with which the music and musicians keep finding the way forward through murky textures and atmospheres? That doesn’t happen by accident.
By Ed Enright
Protect Your Light is Irreversible Entanglements’ most ambitious and compelling work to date, representing a group evolution–continuum that stretches back to its three previous albums cut for Chicago’s International Anthem label. Primarily recorded by core collective members Camae Ayewa (aka Moor Mother) on vocals, bassist Luke Stewart, trumpeter Aquiles Navarro, saxophonist Keir Neuringer and drummer Tcheser Holmes over three days at Rudy Van Gelder Studios in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, the album delivers a powerful program of succinct compositions, free-jazz explorations, spoken-word poetry and unyielding rhythms. Protect Your Light features simpatico contributions from members of the group’s extended community — pianist Janice A. Lowe, cellist Lester St. Louis and vocalist Sovei — who help illuminate the band’s dexterity, intensify group energy levels and expand its already broad collective consciousness (which includes a healthy shared obsession with jazz history). The music was composed both individually and collectively, with some themes brand-new, and others rooted in IE’s wholly improvised live performances. Overall, the group’s focus this time around is on what their manager described in a recent DownBeat interview as “song” songs — the result of having more time to work together on specific material rather than relying on content born of the long free-improv jams they’ve become known for over the past eight years. This important album’s eight tracks are easy on the digestion, and Ayewa’s lyrics say a whole lot without saying too much, her alto vocal delivery steady and at times repetitive when appropriate. Her incantations for social-justice awareness and the spread of mutual love land on the listener with the conviction and reassuring tone of a favorite teacher, a thoughtful preacher or the calm voice of truth that dwells inside our heads. The audio production is contemporary and clean, with no overdone effects despite the album’s modern-day, in-the-moment attitude. The stereo image of alto saxophone in one ear and trumpet in the other conjures a vivid on-stage visual, especially when the musicians are improvising together. During the composed, time-suspended free-jazz melody passages, the group instrumentation sounds absolutely huge, with lots of sax vibrato, trumpet flare-ups and forte dynamics coming in and out of play. As Ayewa intones on the closing track, “Degrees Of Freedom,” “Let the horns cry out and scream out.” In so doing, they spur the creation of something completely different, a fascinating work of art whose existence is exactly what it’s supposed to be, perfectly in place on the great curve of the universe. Currently on tour in Europe, Irreversible Entanglements will perform Nov. 10 in Paris (at the Festival d’Automne à Paris); Nov. 11 in Rotterdam, The Netherlands (at LantarenVenster); Nov. 12 in Ultrecht, The Netherlands (at Le Guess Who?); and Nov. 15 in London (at the EFG London Jazz Festival).
By Frank Alkyer
Composer Vincent Hsu deserves our ears. Working here with a 12-piece mini orchestra, he paints with complex brushwork from behind his upright bass. The River Jazz Suite serves as Hsu’s first recording with a large ensemble after three works with smaller, but also interesting, groupings. The premise behind his latest work is finding commonality between the Love River that runs through his hometown in Taiwan and the mighty Mississippi River, which has been so important to the history of jazz. The music is complex, but always finds the beat and drives the rhythm. The East-West fusion runs rich and deep as those two mighty rivers both in sound and in the makeup of the band with 10 Taiwanese musicians (as well as one each from Germany and Argentina). His goal was to demonstrate that Afro-Cuban music is enjoyed and played in Asia. It’s a story that goes back to the history of jazz being sent out to the world, then channeled back by those international players in new and interesting ways. Such is the case here. From the downbeat of “Overture: Cotton Field,” the first track, Hsu and company demonstrate their bona fides. The tune starts out slow and ominous, then builds into a driving jam, then drops into a Latin groove, all geared to first express the horrors of slavery, then the joy and resilience of African Americans. The entire performance gains extra zeal by being recorded live at Taiwan’s Weiwuying Recital Hall, giving the recording a raw edge that hits just right. The musicianship is amazing, with special shout-outs to Shen-yu Su on tenor saxophone, Wen-feng Cheng on trumpet and Yi-chun Teng on trombone. Throughout the set, the grooves laid down by the rhythm section of Martin Musaubach on piano, drummer Kuan-liang Lin and Carol Huang on congas are infectious. And don’t overlook the fact that Hsu as a bassist is locked, loaded and so much fun. At the core of the performance is the breathtaking Rumba For The River Trilogy with moments of shear beauty, power and joy that bring in so many influence from New Orleans all the way to Taiwan. Clocking in at more than 90 minutes, there’s a lot of music here. But it’s an enjoyable ride, one that feels like sailing downstream on a mighty river.
By Michael J. West
The avant-garde trades heavily on being just that: ahead of its time. It flatters the listener that we are being let in on the music of the future. That mythology is increasingly hard to square with Kris Davis’ music, though, as Diatom Ribbons Live At The Village Vanguard makes clear. For all its freshness and innovation, Davis’ music is precisely and unmistakably the sound of today. It helps that Davis’ Diatom Ribbons quintet comprises fearless, best-in-class players like drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, guitarist Julian Lage, bassist Trevor Dunn and electronics guru Val Jeanty. This bunch can make anything, from the breathless rocker “Kingfisher” to the skewed quasi-ballad “Brainfeel,” sound ultra-modern. But Davis’ material also does a lot of that work for them. With its disparate, slow-moving parts, “Endless Columns” moves from spacey eeriness to solid groove, especially in its middle portion when Carrington, Lage, Dunn and Jeanty meld together to pave the way for a surprisingly melodic Davis solo. “Bird Call Blues” does it one better, with experimental vocals and musique concrete building up to steady-swinging post-bop. Their contemporariness is all the more impressive considering that the quintet deeply mines the progressive jazz tradition in their Vanguard stand (the recording comes from two nights at the club in May 2022). It features covers of Ronald Shannon Jackson, Geri Allen and Wayne Shorter (freewheeling versions of Shorter’s “Dolores” close each of the album’s two discs). Jeanty also includes speaking samples of, among others, Sun Ra (“V.W.”) and Paul Bley (“Bird Call Blues”). Has time finally caught up with the avant-garde? Is the future now? Perhaps it’s just that Davis has the acuity and focus to root a farsighted vision firmly in the present.
By Ed Enright
Each track on this new double disc from Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society stands as a marvel of musical architecture, a self-contained miniverse populated by conspiring ensemble players and ace soloists. Seven of the 11 expansive compositions presented here are commissioned works that Argue originally wrote for various orchestras, arts organizations and festivals: Teeming with optimism and built upon minimalist foundations, these far-ranging and ultimately cohesive works include the Dave Pietro soprano saxophone feature “Ebonite” and the improv-laden, Ellington-inspired “Tensile Curves” (both for the Hard Rubber New Music Society with support from the Canada Council for the Arts), “Last Waltz For Levon” (for the Danish Radio Big Band), the Bob Brookmeyer dedication “Wingèd Beasts” (for New England Conservatory) with its softly dissonant passages, and the binary-gone-berserk “Codebreaking” (for the West Point Jazz Knights) written in honor of the British mathematician and early computer scientist Alan Turing. What you might consider the title track, opener “Dymaxion” — featuring a propulsive, high-climbing bari sax solo from Carl Maraghi — is Argue’s dedication to American architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller, whose philosophy of “doing more with less” seems to manifest as an underlying substrate for the entire album. “All In,” which Argue composed in memory of the late big band stalwart Laurie Frink, basks in full-ensemble density in support of Nadje Noordhuis’ sensitive and intense trumpet solo. “Your Enemies Are Asleep,” a statement of solidarity with the people of Ukraine, rumbles like an approaching storm of military destruction, its recurrent three-note motif signaling impending doom and raising tension levels so high you might feel ready to strangle Argue the arranger; to my ears, this is clearly the intention of Argue the artist. “Ferromagnetic” begins adrift with nebula-like clouds and swirls of scattered sounds, until the rocking electric guitar of herder Sebastian Noelle pulls it all together with what feels like unifying gravitational force, setting the table for Matt Holman’s effects-processed trumpet solo. Album closer “Mae West: Advice” (with Paisley Rekdal’s lyrics sung by Cécile McLorin Salvant) is the closest the Secret Society comes to traditional big band swing and song form, ending the program on an upbeat note that gives listeners a bit of palate-cleansing levity as they head back into their own personal universes to digest and ponder the full Dynamic Maximum Tension experience.