By Daniel Margolis
This fall, Ono, a Chicago-based industrial avant-gospel group founded in the ’80s, announced the reissue of its 1982 debut full-length album, Kate Cincinnati, for the first time digitally and on vinyl as a 40-year anniversary reissue. This is a pretty rare get, as Kate Cincinnati was originally self-released in an edition of 300 tapes alongside an accompanying libretto/zine.
Avant-gospel or not, what you have here is sublimely challenging free-jazz. The title track’s saxophone squall sounds like early Art Ensemble of Chicago, which was drawing to the end of its ECM run at the time. The disc then becomes — as befitting something described as a libretto — theatrical.
Whoever “Kate Cincinnati” is, she seriously pissed off “enigmatic frontman Travis,” because he yells at her, “I am shocked and dead!” A studio tape-in declares, “Jesuit blood … .” Horns and vocals collide here, as do edited-in sound effects, as potent melodies float in and out.
It would seem Ono had more ideas than it could handle. By the end of the A-side, they still have percussive bells going and are still howling mad at Kate.
The B-side is, understandably, a more ruminative affair, with “I Wonder Why” dwelling on a guitar drone that almost feels sarcastic. Our narrator yells, “Now I wonder why … these are the best times … I wonder why!” (Wondering that in 1982? Good luck with the next 40 years.)
All of this smashes into a horrifying crescendo until we hit “Oppenheimer,” which goes off like an atomic bomb. Waves upon waves of sax go off as our narrator yells, “Give me Jezebel!”
There may be a stage play going on here, but if so it’s not readily apparent. In any case, it’s an appreciatively offensive assault. The twin electric-guitar and saxophone solos that end it feel like they’re airing out all of humanity’s grievances.
By Frank Alkyer
Every album Thumbscrew puts out is a cause for celebration, and Multicolored Midnight, the trio’s latest in honor of its 10th anniversary, is no exception. Guitarist Mary Halvorson, drummer Tomas Fujiwara and bassist Michael Formanek are a locked-in wonder of rhythm, beat, nuance and fun all wrapped in just the right amount of artfully indulgent snark. On “I’m A Senator,” the opening tune of this 11-track masterpiece, Formanek and Fujiwara lock into a wondrous, wallowing groove that gives the sense of an elected official waddling through the halls of the Capitol. Halvorson joins with a twisted melody that delights and surprises at each and every pluck and run. But don’t get the idea that this isn’t serious, often touching, music. Fujiwara penned “Song For Mr. Humphries” in honor of Roger Humphries, a legendary drummer in Pittsburgh, who played on Horace Silver’s classic 1964 album Song For My Father (Blue Note). Fujiwara met Humphries during one of the group’s annual City of Asylum residencies in Pittsburgh, and the 78-year-old has become a mentor and inspiration. Speaking of the City of Asylum residency, Thumbscrew has used this three-week, biennial pilgrimage to dig in and hone its music. It offers a rare, concentrated amount of time to clear the decks and create as a collective. Thumbscrew albums prove that it’s time well spent. The songs have a clear, composed feel that allows improvisational freedom, as on the Formanek composition “Fidgety,” a tune comically and aptly named. Throughout the set, the chemistry among the three is as undeniable as the precision of their playing. On the title tune, written by Halvorson, the trio grooves through complex, rhythmically challenging passages with an ease that could only come from years on the road, or through intensely workshopping the material. With all three artists writing for the group, each brings something tasty as an artist and composer. On Fujiwara’s “Future Reruns And Nostalgia,” for example, the drummer trades in the kit for the vibraphone, adding an ethereal dimension against Formanek’s arco bass vibrations and Halvorson’s inventive guitar pedal work. In a nutshell, Thumbscrew comes to us as an alt-jazz supergroup with egoless stars who get together to serve up some of the most fascinating, visceral music being made today. Check out the January 2023 issue of DownBeat for a major feature on the group. Happy anniversary to Thumbscrew — may they celebrate many more.
By Ed Enright
Guitarist Jacob Bro and saxophonist Joe Lovano co-lead a septet of players with strong connections to the late Paul Motian (and to each other) on Once Around The Room, a powerful, highly personal tribute to the influential drummer, who became a composer and bandleader relatively late in his five-decades-long career. Bro, who performed with The Paul Motian Band and appears on the 2005 ECM release Garden Of Eden, views Motian as a mentor whose inspiration helped lead him to develop his own voice; he conceived the project. Lovano, who plays mainly tenor here (with a bit of tarogato on one track), toured and recorded in Motian’s celebrated trio with guitarist Bill Frisell for three decades. Each co-leader contributes two Motian-influenced compositions to the program, which also includes a performance of the signature Motian piece “Drum Music” as well as a group improv (“Sound Creation”) that reveals the core essence of this heartfelt homage: Lead and follow at the same time, share the space and let the music carry you — a Motian-like mantra if there ever was one. Joining Bro and Joe in this international communion of kindred spirits are three bassists — Larry Grenadier and Thomas Morgan each on upright bass, plus Anders Christensen on bass guitar — and the drumming tandem of Joey Baron and Jorge Rossy. They all gathered in a Copenhagen recording studio in November 2021, on the 10-year anniversary of Motian’s passing at age 80, and arranged themselves in a circular formation that allowed for maximum interaction and ended up inspiring the album’s title. The music rains melodic lines, scribbles and skronks; it surrounds the listener with a rumbling, shimmering atmosphere generated by the fallout of Bro’s all-encompassing guitar effects and the collective thunder of the basses and drums. Moments of reflective calm marked by clearly defined melodies, harmonies and beats come into play as well, reminding us of Motian’s gentler side. Highlights include Lovano’s 12-tone composition “As It Should Be,” which makes a bold opening statement; Bro’s balladic “Song To An Old Friend,” where the guitarist’s intimate playing meshes with the basses in a foundation of perpetual-motion arpeggio over which Lovano carries the melodic line, strong and confident in the less-forgiving upper ranges of his horn; and “Drum Music,” which finds Lovano and Bro indulging in the sort of outrageous exaggerations and overstatements that Motian would likely approve of while Rossy and Baron are spotlighted both alone and together in percussion celebration. On the closer, “Pause,” a solemn mood settles the room as the players meditate on the legacy of Motian and the deep connections he forged with generations of jazz artists like themselves. Ultimately, after multiple trips around the room, the album ends in a peaceful place where the musicians can sense the joyful presence of their spiritual leader and share some final, lingering feelings of mourning for an artist who was a beacon of good vibes, bright ideas and raw enthusiasm.
By Daniel Margolis
Jazz Dispensary, a homegrown label celebrating what it calls “mind-expanding, high-grade selections drawn from the finest original sources of funk, jazz and all the areas they intersect,” has for years now issued well-curated compilations of just that for Record Store Day. This coming Black Friday RSD is no exception. They’re back with Haunted High, which is, just like its predecessors, perfectly selected and sequenced and mercifully brief. This iteration of the series is just eight tracks, making it a platter you’ll want to return to again and again. It’s like getting a homemade comp from a friend with a deep record shelf who knows exactly what they’re doing and doesn’t want to tax your attention span — mix tape as album.
Culled primarily from the mid-’70s catalogs of a range of artists, the record begins with Cannonball Adderley Quintet’s “Phases,” the first track on the saxophonist’s 1974 album Pyramid. It’s an appropriately uptempo opener that exemplifies how outsized music of the era, even from jazz vets, had become, with whooshing synths dive-bombing the arrangement, busily played on wah-wah guitar, electric bass and Fender Rhodes. Still, the horn players elbow all this out of the way to make their points, ending the jam with a collective chorus.
Haunted High immediately goes further afield with clarinetist and big band leader Woody Herman’s “La Fiesta.” It’s jarring, but wonderful, to hear such thoughtful horn arrangements placed next to such of-the-era instrumentation, and Herman wisely shifts his changes up and down to create tension and release at times in the proceedings.
McCoy Tyner’s “Desert Cry,” from Sama Layuca, his 1974 monster of an album for Milestone Records, slows down the pace, taking the listener to a percussively rich, peaceful place. At five minutes, it’s a short, lyrical moment in the sequence, exactly what you’d expect from a master like Tyner. It feels like a free-jazz rumination.
Then things turn sublimely insane for Brazilian jazz singer Flora Purim’s “Silver Sword.” All the tracks here boast stacked bands, but Purim has an ace in her pocket: Carlos Santana at his prime. The guitarist puts in a solo of long, soaring notes — until he virtually rips his instrument apart — while Purim leads the ensemble in creating a deeply weird soundscape all around him.
Flip the record over and we’ve got a track off Mongo Santamaria’s 1975 album Afro-Indio, “Los Indios.” It’s a stone-cold groove, characterized by tight interplay between Fender Rhodes, bass and drums, and an equally tight horn section. Over seven minutes, each gets a chance to cut loose before an appropriate-to-the-era synth invasion forces an end to the proceedings.
Not well known for his work during the fusion era, vibraphonist Cal Tjader turns in with “Mindoro,” a hurried, worried piece that still gives space for its flutist to solo — perfect in context.
Things get a bit more serious in the home stretch. Saxophonist Gene Ammons, between his release from prison in 1969 and his death from cancer in 1974, takes on Billie Holiday’s already deathly serious “Strange Fruit” on his 1972 album Fine And Mellow. How does it work? Backed by Ron Carter, Billy Cobham, Hank Jones and Idris Muhammad, he couldn’t lose. Ammons tears the song open over deeply sympathetic, subdued accompaniment.
Jazz Dispensary closes all this out with a true crate-digger’s jewel, Barbara Lewis’ “Windmills Of Your Mind.” It’s cherry-picked off 1970’s The Many Grooves Of Barbara Lewis (Stax Records), part of the wave of releases that followed Stax losing its catalog to Atlantic and owner Al Bell ordering all the artists on his roster to start recording and releasing a whopping 27 albums. This is from one of them, and it’s a gem. Over a tasteful R&B backing, Lewis tilts at the windmills of your mind through a seemingly endless series of similes.
So, if you’re going out for RSD Black Friday after Thanksgiving, snatch this. There are only 5,000 copies, pressed on pink splatter vinyl and housed in a jacket with embossed silver foil detail.
By Frank Alkyer
Saxophonist and composer Miguel Zenón hits us again with an album of groove-centric music packed with meaning, soul and ambition. On Música De Las Americas, Zenón brings in his long-standing and amazing quartet to tackle the idea of how the Americas were before European colonization and how it developed thereafter. The Puerto Rican alto saxophonist developed material for this eight-tune, beautifully paced recording after reading a number of histories during the pandemic. According to a terrific article in the November issue of DownBeat, Zenón dug into books like Robiou Lamarch’s Tainos y Caribes, Laurent Dubois’ Avengers of the New World and Andy Robinson’s Gold, Oil and Avocados. The first cut, “Tainos Y Caribes,” sets the tone for this brilliant recording. Named for the early aboriginal cultures of the Caribbean, the tune glides over a clave-driven beat laid down by drummer Henry Cole and bassist Hans Glawischnig, leaving Zenón and pianist Luis Perdomo a warm rhythmic bed to glide over. Here Zenón especially shines with rapid-fire heat. “Opresion Y Revolucion” aptly serves up the pain and chaos that the Western Hemisphere has endured for centuries. “Las Venas” takes its title from Eduardo Galeano’s Las Venas Abiertas De America Latina (The Open Veins Of Latin America), translating a book about the economic history of Latin America — one that has its fill of exploitation from the U.S. and Europe — into sensational instrumental music. Perhaps the album’s most touching moment comes from “American, El Continente,” a slow, brooding tune with beautiful soloing by Zenón and bassist Glawischnig. Often, improvisors are schooled to be able to sing the lyrics of a song before performing it on on their instrument. Here, Zenón and company turn that into “know the history.” The record delivers even more power with the addition of masters Paoli Mejías on percussion, Daniel Díaz on congas and Victor Emmanuelli on barrel de bomba, especially on the closing tune, “Antillano.” While it all sounds like heavy stuff, Música De Las Americas remains an incredibly uplifting listen. Zenón delivers something so rare: music that makes you think and even want to dance.