Mike Holober & The Gotham Jazz Orchestra

This Rock We’re On: Imaginary Letters

Mike Holober’s Gotham Jazz Orchestra brings big-city virtuosity and rarefied sensibility to a double-disc, multi-movement program of original compositions inspired by the great outdoors and overflowing with the insights of its six protagonists: prominent environmental activists and artists who’ve dedicated their lives to protecting America’s beautiful landscapes and endangered natural resources. This Rock We’re On: Imaginary Letters is an utterly moving, long-form suite that finds pianist Holober — a lifelong nature enthusiast with a passion for canoeing and hiking in the pristine lakes and woods of northern Minnesota and Wisconsin — at the height of his deep-rooted composing/arranging expertise. A grand-scale masterwork, the album gracefully intersperses the leader’s grandiose jazz-meets-classical charts with sparser, vocals-centered art songs that convey the earnestness shared among champions of the conservationist movement in the form of Holober’s ghost-written correspondences, poetically rendered here by up-and-coming Brazilian singer Jamile Staevie Ayres. The ace instrumentalists in the Gotham Jazz Orchestra, drawn from the highest ranks of jazz and classical players, lend eloquence and heft to Holober’s save-the-planet message; they include tenor saxophonist Jason Rigby, alto saxophonist Ben Kono, multi-reedist Charles Pillow, trumpeter/flugelhornist Marvin Stamm, drummer Jared Schonig, guitarist Nir Felder and the prominently featured cellist Jody Redhage Ferber, among numerous other notables. The ensemble is augmented by two special guests, saxophonist Chris Potter and bassist John Patitucci, who fully embrace the group’s shared vision with gusto and simpatico. You won’t need a boat, a tent or a detailed map to enjoy This Rock We’re On, but listeners who’ve paddled their way through the Boundary Waters in the past might easily imagine the call of the loon inviting them back for a return trip.

Jihye Lee Orchestra

Infinite Connections

Composer/conductor Jihye Lee has a keen sense of rhythm in her work. On her latest recording, Infinite Connections, Lee puts that affection and her powerful music on full display. The theme for the album rests on the profound memories Lee has of her grandmother, who was born in Korea when it was a Japanese colony. Lee’s grandmother, an orphan, married as a teenager, mainly to be protected from the sex trade. She maintained the sadness throughout her life of a woman held down by a stifling patriarchal society, according to Lee. The tune “Born In 1935” captures that feeling beautifully, chronicling her grandmother’s journey from happiness in youth to darkness in adulthood to dementia late in life (she passed away in 2022). The orchestration is beautiful. Alto soloist Dave Pietro (known for his work with the Maria Schneider Orchestra and practically every other New York big band of note) delivers a fabulously stirring solo. The power of Lee’s rhythmic focus here and throughout the recording is no accident. She features traditional Korean folk rhythms as the backdrop to her compositions on Infinite Connections. They are exquisitely performed by percussionist Keita Ogawa of Snarky Puppy fame along with the orchestra’s amazing rhythm section of Jared Schonig on drums, Matt Clohesy on bass, Adam Birnbaum on piano and Alex Goodman on guitar. The album has punch from the downbeat, with the stunning opener “Surrender” featuring trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire delivering a killer guest spot. He also guests on the mysteriously lovely “You Are My Universe.” Kudos go out to trombonist Alan Ferber and tenor saxophonist Jason Rigby for terrific work throughout; especially fine are their solos on “We Are All From The Same Stream.” Co-produced by Lee and big band composer-leader Darcy James Argue, Infinite Connections stirs the soul, inspires the listener to ponder deep thoughts and makes for an ultimately beautiful listening experience. Jihye Lee is a composer who with capture your ears, attention and imagination, today and well into the future.

Koppel Blade Koppel

Time Again
(Cowbell Music)

Something is glorious in the state of Denmark. It’s this part-tough, part-tender, all-soulful trio session featuring Copenhagen-based father-and-son team Anders (Hammond organ) and Benjamin (tenor saxophone) Koppel. Their drummer-percussionist on this August 2019 date is the American powerhouse Brian Blade, who, as always, irradiates the session with his joy at making music.

Indeed, Blade’s exuberance goes a long way toward defining this album’s character. It’s at his urging that “Mavis” sounds like a New Orleans R&B number, despite its uneasy 7/8 time and chord structure; it’s also he that keeps guest MC Al Agawi, who has a tendency to ignore the syncopation behind him, firmly on task throughout the title track. (Blade takes a solo on that same track, seemingly free yet never letting go of the pulse.) On Kenny Werner’s lovely but sad “Fall From Grace,” Blade mostly plays a loose, open swing; in the tune’s second half, however, his persistent snap on the ride cymbal suggests nagging pangs of … guilt? Doubt? Just plain sorrow? In any case, it’s effective, adding a surprising level of pathos to the song.

Still and all, the album never stops belonging to the Koppels. Blade’s incessant ride on “Fall From Grace” is a supplement to Benjamin’s woeful saxophone voice, his swing a garnish for Anders’ very Lutheran weeping. The organist has a predilection for his high end, which often casts a spookiness over the music; twice, it detours the slow-burn soul of “If You Forget Me” into long, sinister shadows and monster-movie nightmares. The dark side takes over completely on “Bazaar Revisited,” which begins on furtive tiptoe and dissolves into chaos. Yet Benjamin’s smoky but pointed tenor saves us — maybe even, going by his sermonizing on “Should Have Put A Ring On It,” in the biblical sense.

PRISM Quartet

Heritage/Evolution, Volume 3

Perhaps the most well-rounded — and most in-tune — saxophone quartet ever, PRISM turns 40 this year, with more than 300 commissioned works in its ever-expanding oeuvre. Those distinguishing qualities come into play prominently on the group’s latest, Heritage/Evolution, Volume 3. With Tim McAllister on soprano sax, Zachary Shemon on alto, Matthew Levy on tenor and Taimur Sullivan on bari, PRISM Quartet is a model of open-mindedness and artistic refinement. The saxophonists play with virtuoso precision and exhibit a level of interpretive judgment that comes with classical training and deep connections to jazz. Embracing a reverent, chamber music vibe, the ensemble coaxes the subtle, sophisticated beauty out of highly nuanced works featuring guest artists Tim Ries (tenor sax, soprano sax, flute), Miguel Zenón (alto sax), Terell Stafford (trumpet) and Melissa Aldana (tenor sax). Like previous Heritage/Evolution installments, this is a program of serious material that’s a true delight to hear, a colorful spectrum of compositions penned by Aldana, Levy, Stafford and Steven Sondheim. Heritage/Evolution Volume 1 (2015) included contributions by guest instrumentalists Steve Lehman, Dave Liebman, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Greg Osby, Ries and Zenón. For Volume 2 (2021), Ravi Coltrane, Joe Lovano and Chris Potter came onboard. PRISM makes art-music to suit any instrumental configuration or stylistic context, and the group clearly isn’t afraid to take on a challenge. In the coming weeks, PRISM Quartet will present its most ambitious project to date: Generate Music, a new body of work exploring the ties between Black and Jewish Americans. The project aims to form a musical narrative by including panel discussions, radio broadcasts and world premiere performances of eight new commissioned works by Yotam Haber, David Krakauer, Myra Melford, Diane Monroe, Ursula Rucker, Tyshawn Sorey, Susan Watts and Fred Wesley, who will use PRISM Quartet as the core of a larger ensemble with an overarching goal of exploring cross-cultural exchange. Generate Music concerts will take place June 8 in Philadelphia and June 9 in Brooklyn, with panel discussions happening May 28 and May 30 in Philadelphia. The project will conclude with a radio broadcast on WWFM and an album release on XAS Records in 2025. For more information on Generate Music, CLICK HERE.

Jeanfrançois Prins

Blue Note Mode

How much of post-1965 jazz history has been a search for that perfect sweet spot between its popular- and art-music foci? Well, with Blue Note Mode, Belgian guitarist Jeanfrançois Prins seems to have found it. If the title doesn’t tell you that (not coincidentally, the album was recorded at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio), his bandmembers — hornmen Jeremy Pelt and Jaleel Shaw, pianist Danny Grissett, bassist Jay Anderson and drummer E.J. Strickland — should.

Indeed, there’s a certain lenticular-image nature to Blue Note Mode. Examined from one angle, it’s a hard-bop record: full of swing and the blues, hot, wailing horns (“Blue Note Mode,” “Move or Be Moved”) and the liquid clarity of Prins’ guitar tone (“Diana,” “’Round Midnight”). Approached from another angle, though, it’s an exploratory, post-bop album with unconventional forms and shifting time-feels (“H and C’s Dance”), unsettling harmonies (“Blues Sea”) and standards refit with hip-hoppish rhythms (“Daahoud”). Never, though, does that dichotomy feel forced, or bipolar. It’s all a beautifully cohesive tapestry.

And it clearly inspires all involved. Trumpeter Pelt, in particular, is on a tear; every time he takes the solo spotlight, he blazes across it. Prins’ “Move Or Be Moved” is a brilliant example: Out of Shaw’s propulsive alto line, Pelt takes off like he’s been stung by a bee, with each consecutive phrase a new fanfare. Prins routinely follows Pelt in the solo sequences, and whether by the latter’s inspiration or his own spark, he always seems to make par. On the title track, the trumpeter ends his solo with a touch of coolant, which Prins immediately discards in order to scorch up the joint.

Importantly, though, Prins can generate serious electricity without the horns, and does so on six of the album’s 12 tracks. He and Grissett lay down a scintillating double-solo marathon on the guitarist’s “I’m Movin’ On” and “Ornette-Lee” (ironic that the latter, named for two of Prins’ favorite saxophonists, has no horns). The leader then surprises with a sweet crooning vocal on the closing “Too Late Now.” It’s a beautiful moment that renders pop-or-art identities irrelevant.

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