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.
By Ed Enright
The Ahmad Jamal Trio was at the top of the jazz pops in the mid-1960s. The gloriously tight, powerhouse team was in big demand, a headlining act with a stellar musical reputation, radio hits and a calendar full of sold-out club gigs across the country. In the course of their regular travels, the trio’s annual appearances at the Penthouse in Seattle’s historic district were highly anticipated affairs, extended engagements that typically lasted 10 days and drew waves of audiences that were enthusiastic to say the least. More than a dozen of the group’s performances at the intimate, low-ceilinged room were broadcast and recorded by local radio station KING-FM’s on-air host and engineer Jim Wilke, and those air check tapes are the source of these previously unissued gems, presented here in a pair of deluxe packages from producer Zev Feldman’s new label imprint, Jazz Detective. Emerald City Nights: Live At The Penthouse (1963–1964) and (1965–1966) reveal the commanding, dynamic pianist in dazzling form, backed by bassists Richard Evans and Jamil Nasser and drummer Chuck Lampkin on the 1963–’64 shows, and by Nasser and drummers Lampkin, Vernel Fournier and Frank Gant on the 1965–’66 dates. Jamal has always stated his preference for live gigs — noting that there’s “no comparison” between performing before an audience and recording in the studio — and that mindset proves a powerful force in generating the momentum of invention that propels these vibrant sets. Covering much of Jamal’s signature repertoire from a golden era for the piano trio, the Live At The Penthouse collections are treasure troves for listeners who have followed the nonagenarian pianist, composer and bandleader’s long career, and fans of the classic soul-jazz spirit in general. The sound is excellent considering the live environment, thanks to Wilke’s quality source material and Feldman and company’s keen ability to refine and enhance tapes rescued from the vaults of jazz history. The limited-edition, double-LP vinyl sets are issued on 180-gram discs transferred from the original tapes and mastered by Bernie Grundman. The music is also available as two-CD sets and as digital downloads. A third, two-LP volume devoted to the Jamal trio’s 1966–’68 Penthouse recordings will be released at a later date, according to Feldman, whose production of all three Penthouse sets was supervised by Jamal himself. Both the 1963–1964 and 1965–1966 packages include substantial booklets with new reflections by Jamal about his work, as well as a treasure trove of pictures by celebrated jazz photographers Don Bronstein, Chuck Stewart and others. The 1963–1964 volume includes new interviews with Jamal’s hit-making contemporary Ramsey Lewis (1935–2022) and pianist Hiromi, while the 1965–1966 collection features interviews with pianists Jon Batiste, Kenny Barron and Aaron Diehl. Together, the irresistible music and enlightening bonus materials will transport you to a historic jazz listening room at a time when commanding pianism and feel-good grooves ruled the night.
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.