Jakob Bro & Joe Lovano

Once Around The Room: A Tribute To Paul Motian

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.

Various Artists

Haunted High
(Craft Recordings)

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.

Miguel Zenón

Música De Las Americas
(Miel Music)

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.

Mutzabaugh Pinto Deitemyer

Volume 1
(CD Baby)

The instrumental trio of Paul Mutzabaugh, Mike Pinto and Jon Deitemyer has been active on Chicago’s creative music scene for nearly eight years, drawing on elements of jazz, folk, commercial pop, funk and TV drama theme songs as fodder for its live shows. Volume 1, the group’s first official album, captures these longtime collaborators in the studio, sounding virtually unfettered on a program of originals by all three band members plus a couple of curious covers — just like they would on stage. With multi-instrumentalist Mutzabaugh on electric bass, Pinto on electric guitar and Deitemyer on traditional drum set, the music develops organically over the course of each track, where catchy melodic and rhythmic statements evolve into full-blown jams rife with improvised solos and instantaneous arrangements, the dynamic ensemble interplay ranging from soft-touch pianissimo to hard-hitting fortissimo. Though a trio of equals by its very nature, the group has a dominant voice in Pinto’s bespoke guitar sound: a distinct blend of shimmery old-school tremolo, condensed sustain, ample reverb/echo, satisfying morsels of overdriven midrange crunch and a signature strum that lends a tasteful dramatic flair. Mutzabaugh, his bass pronounced yet subtle in the mix, frequently shares melodic duties with Pinto, leaping into delightful upper-register runs before settling back into low-end groove mode. Mutzabaugh has unique voice on the instrument, one that defies easy description; suffice it to say that he has impeccable timing, ample technique, an ultra-smooth touch and a producer’s ear for equalization. Deitemyer, known around town for his refined talent and situation-appropriate instincts, demonstrates tremendous influence over the direction and mood of each track. The drummer’s every move — from swirling brushwork to pronounced crashes and light-touch snare grooves emanating from deep within “the zone” — is informed by his and his trio mates’ anything-goes attitudes and their highly elastic, adventurous repertoire. (In addition to the seven originals presented here, the program includes a tune by the 1970s folk rock band Bread, as well as more recent music from the Denmark-produced political TV drama Borgen). Volume 1 embraces elements from a wide range of styles and song forms both vintage and modern. With its fresh vibe and open invitation to uncorrupted improvisation, this uplifting debut documents one of the more noteworthy acts contributing to Chicago’s vibrant community of boundary-pushing music creators.

Chad Taylor Trio

The Reel
(Astral Spirits)

Drummer Chad Taylor’s move to bandleader two years ago with his Chad Taylor Trio’s debut The Daily Biological (Cuneiform) was natural, as he’d racked up a long list of credits as a sideman, from Chicago Underground to Exploding Star Orchestra and beyond.

This new project, The Reel, recorded this past summer, finds Taylor and his band — with saxophonist Brian Settles and pianist Neil Podgurski — even tighter as a unit. The album showcases noteworthy interplay among the musicians and compositions from all three, as well as renditions of two songs by the late pianist and composer Andrew Hill. The familiarity with which the trio plays is no accident, as they initially met as students during their time together at The New School in New York in the mid-’90s.

As a leader of his own trio, Taylor straddles genres with ease. On the opener, Hill’s “Subterfuge,” Taylor sets a bossa nova groove as Settles and Podgurski trade stellar solos. On “Reconciliation,” also by Hill, the trio unpacks the tune’s twisty theme before exploring it with measured confidence.

With four contributions out of the album’s nine tracks, Podgurski wrote the bulk of the material here. His compositions range from sublimely multilayered (“Delta”) to propulsive sets of changes that invite improvisation (“Nebula”). Settles’ “Moon Tone Shift,” by contrast, starts off quietly meditative with cyclical chord changes and then builds to a crashing climax.

Taylor’s two songs for his own trio are, not surprisingly, very rhythmic, and here they sound like they may be having the most fun. “Julian’s Groove” is appealingly joyous but never overwhelming, while “The Reel” is a fitting title track, as its melodic resolution feels like the album’s center. DB

Owen Broder

Hodges: Front And Center, Vol. 1
(Outside In)

Ah, the light-swinging beauty of the great Johnny Hodges on alto saxophone. His tone and timbre helped fuel the greatest of Duke Ellington’s orchestras as well as his own small ensemble work. Known as Rabbit by his fellow musicians, Hodges would hop through the changes of a tune without missing a beat or breaking a sweat. Sweet, soulful and unforgettable is the only way to sum up his music — and saxophonist Owen Broder would agree. So much so, in fact, that Broder has dedicated his latest recording, Hodges: Front And Center, Vol. 1, to music made famous by Hodges. The recreation of nine Hodges-associated tunes stays true to the spirit of the originals, but with new arrangements for Broder’s smooth-as-silk alto and baritone saxophone work. The swing is impeccable on classics like “Royal Garden Blues,” “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter” and “Take The ‘A’ Train.” Joining Broder on this beautiful romp are trumpeter Riley Mulherkar, pianist Carmen Staaf, bassist Barry Stephenson and drummer Bryan Carter. All play their roles with incredible grace. Mulherkar serves as a trusty front-line foil for Broder’s saxophone explorations, adding just the right amounts of sweetness mixed with growl. Staaf is an up-and-coming first-call accompanist on the New York scene. Stephenson knows just where to place those foundational notes. And Carter practically swings his ass right off of the drum throne. In all, Hodges: Front And Center, Vol. 1 serves as a heartwarming reminder of the beauty of Rabbit and the timeless art of swing.

Josh Sinton

Steve Lacy’s Book Of Practitioners, Vol. 1 “H”

Josh Sinton shares 20 years of “findings” on the baritone saxophone with the release of Steve Lacy’s Book Of Practitioners, Vol. 1 “H,” a solo recording of the late soprano saxophone master’s advanced etudes performed on the big pipe. Sinton extends Lacy’s intended use of the etudes as practice and study material to create an album that explores the outer reaches of what is possible on this flexible and complex instrument, which has long been a staple of both traditional and experimental jazz ensembles. In Sinton’s view, the ever-more-ubiquitous bari remains ripe for experimentation and under-explored in the vast realm of solo saxophone works, and he shows unwavering enthusiasm for new ideas on Steve Lacy’s Book Of Practitioners, Vol. 1 “H.” Each of the six etudes here follows a set format that provides ample room for Sinton to build nuggets of discovery into fully developed improvisations. Highlights include “Hubris,” with its staccato outbursts and r&b references; the minor-key “Hallmark,” where an extended meditation turns into a two-way internal dialog; and the all-organic centerpiece “Hustles,” which exhausts a huge range of sonic possibilities and abstractions in its profound comprehensiveness. This album is a heavy package that will appeal to serious players, deep listeners and fans of art created in absolute earnest. Sinton is on a roll this year, starting with the June release of Adumbrations, a free and lyrical documentation of the long friendship between Sinton, pianist Jed Wilson and drummer Tony Falco (who have known each other since their student days at New England Conservatory), followed by this first volume of Lacy’s etudes, and concluding with a late-October release by Sinton’s Predicate Quartet (with trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, cellist Christopher Hoffman and drummer Tom Rainey) titled 4 freedoms, which was funded by a grant from the Jazz Coalition to explore socially conscious themes.

Virgilio Armas Y Su Grupo

(We Are Busy Bodies)

Reissues can be frivolous, or essential. This one falls into the latter category. Canadian label We Are Busy Bodies has reissued the rare and sought-after 1973 Venezuelan jazz album Espejismo by Virgilio Armas Y Su Grupo, offering a snapshot of the thriving music scene in early-1970s Caracas, until now largely undocumented because of the musical dominance of Venezuela’s far-larger, southern neighbor Brazil. Pianist and bandleader Armas combines Latin jazz and post-bossa swing with homegrown variants, honed over years of playing in clubs in the Altamira and La Castellana districts of the capital.

And yet, We Are Busy Bodies did not stop there. It has also reissued the Virgilio Armas Trio’s album De Repente, previously only available from the tiny Discos A&B label — a one-off, self-financed project.

So, how is it all? Insanely beautiful. De Repente rips out of the gate with its title track, a tightly busy, piano-based composition, before Armas switches over to Fender Rhodes for “De Repente (2a. Parte),” deconstructing what he’s doing, as he does again and again on these two discs. His piano playing is so elegant, tremblingly so, on “I F” and “In Time.”

His take on “Aguas De Marzo” on De Repente is the highlight of both discs here. Armas starts it curiously on piano, then becomes more lively once his rhythm section joins. He sets up a central figure, both on piano and Fender Rhodes, but keeps hinting at a single, simple phrase way up right on the keyboard, which is eventually mimicked by an anonymous person playing a whistle, giving the track a street flair. It’s so charming it gets stuck in your head for days, and would seem to demonstrate Venezuela’s local influence on Armas’ sound.

Espejismo adds a flutist (Domingo Moret), and the band becomes more spaced out, making way for more percussion and more complicated arrangements. On “Indecision,” his electric piano work is such one almost thinks it’s a guitar. By “Sobre El Orinoco,” Moret has crowded Armas out, and he takes back over and reminds you why he’s here.

Overall, De Repente is better, but thankfully they’re both back.

John Escreet

Seismic Shift

John Escreet is not shy as a composer or improviser. His piano playing slaps bold, bombastic and beautiful, as witnessed on Seismic Shift, his new recording on the Whirlwind label. Escreet’s pianism drips with power, as witnessed on “Study No. 1,” the opening number on the new recording. The tune is a tour de force shot from a cannon. He rips through clusters of notes, rapid-fire, and pounds the keyboard with an aggressiveness that commands attention. Bandmates Eric Revis on bass and Damion Reid on drums spur on a call-and-response group dynamic that takes the music “out” but still keeps everything in the groove. This agility and interplay between the three, on what is Escreet’s first-ever trio recording, makes the entirety of Seismic Shift a joyful, “hell, yeah” listen. The album’s intensity pulls you in even when Escreet turns the burner down a notch, as he does on “Equipoise,” with cascades of notes flowing under his fingertips in a most unusual manner. But the majority of the program delivers jazz as a boxing match packed with jabs, uppercuts and haymakers. Throughout the program, as on “Perpetual Love,” Escreet delivers jaw-dropping technique and dexterity. For example, the title cut presents a true “Seismic Shift.” The tune’s ominous intro features Reid dancing on the cymbals and Revis droning arco while Escreet twists a dystopian melody that builds, explores and explodes. Seismic, indeed. To read more about Escreet and this new project, check out the November issue of DownBeat, coming out soon!

Tim Fitzgerald’s Full House

Tim Fitzgerald’s Full House
(Cellar Music Group)

Several of Chicago’s most in-demand instrumentalists, improvisers and arrangers reside in Tim Fitzgerald’s Full House, a seven-year-old ensemble dedicated to interpreting and building upon the repertoire of Wes Montgomery (1923–’68). Long inspired by the DownBeat Hall of Fame guitarist and deeply conversant in the soul-stirring repertoire and smoothly stylized playing techniques the master innovated and popularized in the 1950s and ’60s, Fitzgerald is a Montgomery scholar and visionary who has long deserved wider recognition for his work. In 20-plus years of performing, bandleading, transcribing, researching and authoring, Fitzgerald has consistently shown a deep connection to and intimacy with the music of the jazz world’s smokin’-est self-taught guitarist. His septet’s eponymous debut (named for Montgomery’s hard-bopping 1962 live album Full House) uses Montgomery’s substantial and celebrated oeuvre as a jumping-off point for inventive adventures in bebop, swing, groovy smoothness, bluesy swagger and extended improvising. What makes this project truly remarkable, though, are the expertly voiced, rhythmically charged arrangements of Montgomery tunes that Fitzgerald and his bandmates bring to the party. Some of the more captivating moments on Tim Fitzgerald’s Full House occur when horn players Victor Garcia (trumpet), Greg Ward (alto) and Chris Madsen (tenor) join with the leader on extended soli passages into which Fitzgerald integrates Montgomery’s signature chord-melody playing technique. The resulting brass-and-guitar blend conjures up a complex timbre that’s as ear-catching as it is otherworldly sounding; it flares out at the listener with a wah-wah-like dynamic and subsides with a pleasing softness. Fitzgerald doesn’t emulate Montgomery’s playing per se, but the two guitarists have much in common: fleet-fingered dexterity, an affinity for rhythmically advanced material, total command of the harmonic elements inherent in straightahead jazz, impeccable touch on the fretboard, mastery of all things syncopated and a grounded reverence for the blues. Drummer George Fludas is a driving force throughout the program, never failing to generate sparks or sprinkle bits of sparkle and shimmer in just the right places. Pianist Tom Vaitsas and bassist Christian Dillingham round out this spectacular lineup, a deep well of talent and experience that Fitzgerald draws upon to sustain the type of feel-good flow that has given Montgomery’s contributions to the jazz canon such enduring appeal among jazz listeners and players alike.

George Garzone/Peter Erskine/Alan Pasqua/Darek Oles

3 Nights In L.A.
(Fuzzy Music)

Veteran East Coast tenor saxophonist George Garzone seldom has sounded more inventive and impassioned than on this new three-CD collection, recorded live in January at Los Angeles’ new jazz club Sam First over the course of three nights with drummer Peter Erskine, pianist Alan Pasqua and bassist Derek Oles. The group chemistry at work during these performances was equal parts sensitivity and combustibility, a balance of wide-open looseness and masterful precision. It all hinges on the group’s penchant to swing relentlessly while exploring a vast realm of expressive possibilities informed by each player’s considerable depth of experience.

The quartet stretches out on blowing vehicles like “Invitation,” “I’ll Remember April,” “Like Someone In Love,” “I Hear A Rhapsody” and, in three different takes, “Have You Met Miss Jones?” Other highlights include a creative reading of John Coltrane’s “Equinox,” five originals by Garzone and one tune apiece by Erskine, Pasqua and Oles (whose medium-tempo swinger “The Honeymoon” appears in two versions).

Garzone is in rare form, radiating minor-key modal lyricism, emotionally charged balladry, angular uptempo blues and straightahead bebop teeming with tenor toughness—as only he can. Erskine is a consistently refreshing catalyst for this most fortunate meeting of monsters; Oles is pitch-perfect and rock-steady throughout; and Pasqua’s less-is-more approach to the keys provides contemporary harmonic and melodic context while leaving adequate space for magic to unfold around him. This substantial offering of four jazz masters communicating in a highly evolved common language—and playing at the absolute top of their game—is one for the books.

Chad Taylor Trio

The Reel
(Astral Spirits)

Drummer Chad Taylor’s move to bandleader two years ago with his Chad Taylor Trio’s debut The Daily Biological (Cuneiform) was natural, as he’d racked up a long list of credits as a sideman, from Chicago Underground to Exploding Star Orchestra and beyond.

This new project, The Reel, recorded this past summer, finds Taylor and his band — with saxophonist Brian Settles and pianist Neil Podgurski — even tighter as a unit. The album showcases noteworthy interplay among the musicians and compositions from all three, as well as renditions of two songs by the late pianist and composer Andrew Hill. The familiarity with which the trio plays is no accident, as they initially met as students during their time together at The New School in New York in the mid-’90s.

As a leader of his own trio, Taylor straddles genres with ease. On the opener, Hill’s “Subterfuge,” Taylor sets a bossa nova groove as Settles and Podgurski trade stellar solos. On “Reconciliation,” also by Hill, the trio unpacks the tune’s twisty theme before exploring it with measured confidence.

With four contributions out of the album’s nine tracks, Podgurski wrote the bulk of the material here. His compositions range from sublimely multilayered (“Delta”) to propulsive sets of changes that invite improvisation (“Nebula”). Settles’ “Moon Tone Shift,” by contrast, starts off quietly meditative with cyclical chord changes and then builds to a crashing climax.

Taylor’s two songs for his own trio are, not surprisingly, very rhythmic, and here they sound like they may be having the most fun. “Julian’s Groove” is appealingly joyous but never overwhelming, while “The Reel” is a fitting title track, as its melodic resolution feels like the album’s center. DB

Owen Broder

Hodges: Front And Center, Vol. 1
(Outside In)

Ah, the light-swinging beauty of the great Johnny Hodges on alto saxophone. His tone and timbre helped fuel the greatest of Duke Ellington’s orchestras as well as his own small ensemble work. Known as Rabbit by his fellow musicians, Hodges would hop through the changes of a tune without missing a beat or breaking a sweat. Sweet, soulful and unforgettable is the only way to sum up his music — and saxophonist Owen Broder would agree. So much so, in fact, that Broder has dedicated his latest recording, Hodges: Front And Center, Vol. 1, to music made famous by Hodges. The recreation of nine Hodges-associated tunes stays true to the spirit of the originals, but with new arrangements for Broder’s smooth-as-silk alto and baritone saxophone work. The swing is impeccable on classics like “Royal Garden Blues,” “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter” and “Take The ‘A’ Train.” Joining Broder on this beautiful romp are trumpeter Riley Mulherkar, pianist Carmen Staaf, bassist Barry Stephenson and drummer Bryan Carter. All play their roles with incredible grace. Mulherkar serves as a trusty front-line foil for Broder’s saxophone explorations, adding just the right amounts of sweetness mixed with growl. Staaf is an up-and-coming first-call accompanist on the New York scene. Stephenson knows just where to place those foundational notes. And Carter practically swings his ass right off of the drum throne. In all, Hodges: Front And Center, Vol. 1 serves as a heartwarming reminder of the beauty of Rabbit and the timeless art of swing.

Josh Sinton

Steve Lacy’s Book Of Practitioners, Vol. 1 “H”

Josh Sinton shares 20 years of “findings” on the baritone saxophone with the release of Steve Lacy’s Book Of Practitioners, Vol. 1 “H,” a solo recording of the late soprano saxophone master’s advanced etudes performed on the big pipe. Sinton extends Lacy’s intended use of the etudes as practice and study material to create an album that explores the outer reaches of what is possible on this flexible and complex instrument, which has long been a staple of both traditional and experimental jazz ensembles. In Sinton’s view, the ever-more-ubiquitous bari remains ripe for experimentation and under-explored in the vast realm of solo saxophone works, and he shows unwavering enthusiasm for new ideas on Steve Lacy’s Book Of Practitioners, Vol. 1 “H.” Each of the six etudes here follows a set format that provides ample room for Sinton to build nuggets of discovery into fully developed improvisations. Highlights include “Hubris,” with its staccato outbursts and r&b references; the minor-key “Hallmark,” where an extended meditation turns into a two-way internal dialog; and the all-organic centerpiece “Hustles,” which exhausts a huge range of sonic possibilities and abstractions in its profound comprehensiveness. This album is a heavy package that will appeal to serious players, deep listeners and fans of art created in absolute earnest. Sinton is on a roll this year, starting with the June release of Adumbrations, a free and lyrical documentation of the long friendship between Sinton, pianist Jed Wilson and drummer Tony Falco (who have known each other since their student days at New England Conservatory), followed by this first volume of Lacy’s etudes, and concluding with a late-October release by Sinton’s Predicate Quartet (with trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, cellist Christopher Hoffman and drummer Tom Rainey) titled 4 freedoms, which was funded by a grant from the Jazz Coalition to explore socially conscious themes.

Virgilio Armas Y Su Grupo

(We Are Busy Bodies)

Reissues can be frivolous, or essential. This one falls into the latter category. Canadian label We Are Busy Bodies has reissued the rare and sought-after 1973 Venezuelan jazz album Espejismo by Virgilio Armas Y Su Grupo, offering a snapshot of the thriving music scene in early-1970s Caracas, until now largely undocumented because of the musical dominance of Venezuela’s far-larger, southern neighbor Brazil. Pianist and bandleader Armas combines Latin jazz and post-bossa swing with homegrown variants, honed over years of playing in clubs in the Altamira and La Castellana districts of the capital.

And yet, We Are Busy Bodies did not stop there. It has also reissued the Virgilio Armas Trio’s album De Repente, previously only available from the tiny Discos A&B label — a one-off, self-financed project.

So, how is it all? Insanely beautiful. De Repente rips out of the gate with its title track, a tightly busy, piano-based composition, before Armas switches over to Fender Rhodes for “De Repente (2a. Parte),” deconstructing what he’s doing, as he does again and again on these two discs. His piano playing is so elegant, tremblingly so, on “I F” and “In Time.”

His take on “Aguas De Marzo” on De Repente is the highlight of both discs here. Armas starts it curiously on piano, then becomes more lively once his rhythm section joins. He sets up a central figure, both on piano and Fender Rhodes, but keeps hinting at a single, simple phrase way up right on the keyboard, which is eventually mimicked by an anonymous person playing a whistle, giving the track a street flair. It’s so charming it gets stuck in your head for days, and would seem to demonstrate Venezuela’s local influence on Armas’ sound.

Espejismo adds a flutist (Domingo Moret), and the band becomes more spaced out, making way for more percussion and more complicated arrangements. On “Indecision,” his electric piano work is such one almost thinks it’s a guitar. By “Sobre El Orinoco,” Moret has crowded Armas out, and he takes back over and reminds you why he’s here.

Overall, De Repente is better, but thankfully they’re both back.

John Escreet

Seismic Shift

John Escreet is not shy as a composer or improviser. His piano playing slaps bold, bombastic and beautiful, as witnessed on Seismic Shift, his new recording on the Whirlwind label. Escreet’s pianism drips with power, as witnessed on “Study No. 1,” the opening number on the new recording. The tune is a tour de force shot from a cannon. He rips through clusters of notes, rapid-fire, and pounds the keyboard with an aggressiveness that commands attention. Bandmates Eric Revis on bass and Damion Reid on drums spur on a call-and-response group dynamic that takes the music “out” but still keeps everything in the groove. This agility and interplay between the three, on what is Escreet’s first-ever trio recording, makes the entirety of Seismic Shift a joyful, “hell, yeah” listen. The album’s intensity pulls you in even when Escreet turns the burner down a notch, as he does on “Equipoise,” with cascades of notes flowing under his fingertips in a most unusual manner. But the majority of the program delivers jazz as a boxing match packed with jabs, uppercuts and haymakers. Throughout the program, as on “Perpetual Love,” Escreet delivers jaw-dropping technique and dexterity. For example, the title cut presents a true “Seismic Shift.” The tune’s ominous intro features Reid dancing on the cymbals and Revis droning arco while Escreet twists a dystopian melody that builds, explores and explodes. Seismic, indeed. To read more about Escreet and this new project, check out the November issue of DownBeat, coming out soon!

John Escreet

Seismic Shift

John Escreet is not shy as a composer or improviser. His piano playing slaps bold, bombastic and beautiful, as witnessed on Seismic Shift, his new recording on the Whirlwind label. Escreet’s pianism drips with power, as witnessed on “Study No. 1,” the opening number on the new recording. The tune is a tour de force shot from a cannon. He rips through clusters of notes, rapid-fire, and pounds the keyboard with an aggressiveness that commands attention. Bandmates Eric Revis on bass and Damion Reid on drums spur on a call-and-response group dynamic that takes the music “out” but still keeps everything in the groove. This agility and interplay between the three, on what is Escreet’s first-ever trio recording, makes the entirety of Seismic Shift a joyful, “hell, yeah” listen. The album’s intensity pulls you in even when Escreet turns the burner down a notch, as he does on “Equipoise,” with cascades of notes flowing under his fingertips in a most unusual manner. But the majority of the program delivers jazz as a boxing match packed with jabs, uppercuts and haymakers. Throughout the program, as on “Perpetual Love,” Escreet delivers jaw-dropping technique and dexterity. For example, the title cut presents a true “Seismic Shift.” The tune’s ominous intro features Reid dancing on the cymbals and Revis droning arco while Escreet twists a dystopian melody that builds, explores and explodes. Seismic, indeed. To read more about Escreet and this new project, check out the November issue of DownBeat, coming out soon!

Tim Fitzgerald’s Full House

Tim Fitzgerald’s Full House
(Cellar Music Group)

Several of Chicago’s most in-demand instrumentalists, improvisers and arrangers reside in Tim Fitzgerald’s Full House, a seven-year-old ensemble dedicated to interpreting and building upon the repertoire of Wes Montgomery (1923–’68). Long inspired by the DownBeat Hall of Fame guitarist and deeply conversant in the soul-stirring repertoire and smoothly stylized playing techniques the master innovated and popularized in the 1950s and ’60s, Fitzgerald is a Montgomery scholar and visionary who has long deserved wider recognition for his work. In 20-plus years of performing, bandleading, transcribing, researching and authoring, Fitzgerald has consistently shown a deep connection to and intimacy with the music of the jazz world’s smokin’-est self-taught guitarist. His septet’s eponymous debut (named for Montgomery’s hard-bopping 1962 live album Full House) uses Montgomery’s substantial and celebrated oeuvre as a jumping-off point for inventive adventures in bebop, swing, groovy smoothness, bluesy swagger and extended improvising. What makes this project truly remarkable, though, are the expertly voiced, rhythmically charged arrangements of Montgomery tunes that Fitzgerald and his bandmates bring to the party. Some of the more captivating moments on Tim Fitzgerald’s Full House occur when horn players Victor Garcia (trumpet), Greg Ward (alto) and Chris Madsen (tenor) join with the leader on extended soli passages into which Fitzgerald integrates Montgomery’s signature chord-melody playing technique. The resulting brass-and-guitar blend conjures up a complex timbre that’s as ear-catching as it is otherworldly sounding; it flares out at the listener with a wah-wah-like dynamic and subsides with a pleasing softness. Fitzgerald doesn’t emulate Montgomery’s playing per se, but the two guitarists have much in common: fleet-fingered dexterity, an affinity for rhythmically advanced material, total command of the harmonic elements inherent in straightahead jazz, impeccable touch on the fretboard, mastery of all things syncopated and a grounded reverence for the blues. Drummer George Fludas is a driving force throughout the program, never failing to generate sparks or sprinkle bits of sparkle and shimmer in just the right places. Pianist Tom Vaitsas and bassist Christian Dillingham round out this spectacular lineup, a deep well of talent and experience that Fitzgerald draws upon to sustain the type of feel-good flow that has given Montgomery’s contributions to the jazz canon such enduring appeal among jazz listeners and players alike.


(Sinking City Records)

Doubles’ album title references the concept of duality and a popular Trinidadian street food. But, ultimately, it’s about the doubled instrumentation across the ensemble: two saxophones, two drum sets and two, or more, synths.

It’s the new album by New Orleans-based Basher, led by composer and saxophonist Byron Asher. In the band, he is joined by multi-instrumentalist and saxophonist Aurora Nealand, synthesist and pianist Daniel Meinecke, and a two-drum set Cajun percussion section made up of Lafayette, Louisiana-native Brad Webb and Lafayette, Louisiana-based Zach Rhea. Within their hometown creative music scene, they’ve became known as a “free-jazz party band.”

Does Basher live up to this? For the most part, yes. Early in the disc, “Primetime-A-Go-go” establishes a firm groove for its two sax men to spar over. “Claptrack Clapback” does the same, at a slower pace, before letting all the synths on hand really get worked out. “Ponchatoula” slows it down more, to the pace of a ballad — guess this really is a free-jazz party band, because a couple could slow dance to this — though the band admirably throws in a bright bridge and some synth squiggles to brighten the mood. The wildest excursion here is “Step Pyramid,” which starts with just handclaps and synths before essaying everything Basher can do over deeply felt organ chord changes that give way to the starting theme. The aptly named “Carnival 2019” slaps just as hard, even offering a drum breakdown with a synth assist that’s archly led back to the tune by the horn section.

But the band gets the most free on what might be called its interstitials. Short opener “Diana,” devoid of percussion but rammed full of expressive horns and synths, feels more like an excursion you’d zone out to than dance to. The same feels true of the almost sci-fi feeling “Artemis,” which quickly gets in and out the same way, as does “Bacchus,” with what sounds like a loudly idling car running through it.

The album is at its most fascinating when this element is allowed room to breathe on longer tracks. “Zephyr” is pure creeping dread — undeniably free. “Borealis” is just as stunning, opening with only Asher and Nealand’s saxes as a statement of purpose before the two set in on each other as the synths referee for what builds to a satisfying squall.

The closer, the ruminative “Refinery Skies,” sets the scene with a foreboding synth intro before walking in the horns, a little drums, then a bit more drums, a bit more horns, finally finding a peaceful place to end the disc.

Is it free-jazz? Is it a party? At times it’s one; at times it’s another. It’s definitely worth checking out.

Butcher Brown

Triple Trey
(Concord Jazz)

This five-piece band from Richmond, Virginia, has been making music for more than a decade now, but took a giant leap forward with critical raves and adoring new fans for its 2020 release #KingButch. Offering a blend of hip-hop and jazz, the band is part of a growing movement to expand or even blow up the definition of both genres. That theme continues with Triple Trey, where the core unit is joined by the R4ND4ZZO BIGB4ND, a side project for the group’s bassist and arranger, Andrew Randazzo. The result is an album of dance-worthy music that is both majestic and earthy. And there’s a reason for that. Much of the music for Triple Trey was written and released on BandCamp early in the group’s career. Now it’s rearranged with big-band punch, but it’s not your grandfather’s big band. “We wanted everything to slap a little harder, you know what I mean?” said Corey Fonville, the band’s drummer, in the October 2022 issue of DownBeat. “We’re the hip-hop generation, so you’re going to hear those influences just from the stuff that we listened to in the car, that we’ve grown up checking out.” Nowhere is that more apparent than on the band’s take on the Nortorious B.I.G’s “Unbelievable.” An ear worm from the drop, it hits with the repeated opening rhyme of “Biggie Smalls is the illest” rapped by Marcus “Tennishu” Tenney, the band’s vocalist — who is also a talented multi-instrumentalist playing saxophones and trumpet. The horn lines here are infectious and Fonville’s drum groove — unstoppable. “Unbelievable” and “Liquid Light,” featuring a killer saxophone break by Tenney, both appeared on #KingButch, but become revitalized with the backing of the big band. “Lawd Why” is another beautiful offering coming at the ears one part prayer, one part confessional, all wrapped up in a question that many ask daily: “Tell me lawd, please, tell me, please, lawd, why?” “777” is a master work in three parts with a lush intro featuring Tenney on trumpet this time. It delivers heart-and-soul personified. For the core of the tune, he switches to rapping about trouble, sure, but also something better. The outro offers a moment of ahh, or awe, with a beautiful big band arrangement that evokes a feeling of hope. Triple Trey is a beautiful recording front to back. Tenney, Fonville, Randazzo, DJ Harrison on keyboards and Morgan Burrs on guitar have a tight, thoughtful vibe to their art. Randazzo’s involvement in both the quintet and the big band makes the melding of the two seamless. It’s a project of great ambition from the RVA that merits multiple listens.

Jim McNeely/Chris Potter/Frankfurt Radio Big Band

(Double Moon/Challenge Records)

The Stravinsky-inspired music that Jim McNeely wrote and arranged for Chris Potter to perform with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band has risen to the top of the class among this year’s contemporary large jazz ensemble releases. Rituals, which was recorded in-studio in 2015 following its original commissioned performance at the Alte Oper Frankfurt’s Stravinsky Festival in 2013, finally emerged on Double Moon Records (part of the Challenge Records International catalog) early this year and reveals a major jazz-meets-classical breakthrough by principals McNeely, who’s spent a large portion of his career working with American big bands (notably the venerable Vanguard Jazz Orchestra) and European radio bands; Potter, a virtuoso jazz tenorist with a hyper-extended range and endurance-runner chops; and the Frankfurt Radio Big Band (a.k.a. hr-Bigband), one of Europe’s finest government-funded large jazz ensembles. The first six tracks of Rituals constitute McNeely’s original suite of new compositions inspired by the tonal language of Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring. The ensemble executes the rhythmically complex and harmonically advanced score with passion and sensitivity, not to mention technical precision and power of symphonic proportions. The group’s orchestral palette is enhanced by the presence of harp, french horn, percussion, and a timbre-rich world of expert-level woodwind doubling (flutes, piccolos, clarinets and bass clarinets) that further evoke the tonal language and textures of Rite Of Spring. Potter, the star of the show and the featured soloist throughout, gets deep inside the material and supercharges it with a seemingly inexhaustible wealth of invention and intensity — to the point of sounding like his horn might burst wide open and spill out the tornados of sound swirling inside of it. McNeely gets credit not just for masterminding all this, but also for his highly detailed, conscientious work orchestrating the material in a manner that suits Potter’s style, honors an important historical legacy and poses a worthwhile challenge to one of today’s most esteemed jazz big bands. Following the conclusion of the Stravinsky-styled suite, the remaining four tracks on Rituals are Potter originals re-arranged by McNeely for the hr-Bigband. These include “Dawn” and “Wine Dark Sea” from Potter’s 2013 CD The Sirens, “The Wheel” from his 2006 recording Underground and “Okinawa” from the 2001 live album This Will Be. Potter plays equally hard on this second portion of the program, with additional solo support from hr-Bigband reed-section players Steffen Weber, Tony Lakatos and Heinz-Dieter Sauerborn and trumpeter/flugelhornist Axel Schlosser establishing a more conventional, but by no means less thrilling, jazz big band vibe. Rituals is a fascinating listen, a dramatic homage of breathtaking breadth and sophistication that succeeds on every level.

Jim McNeely/Chris Potter/Frankfurt Radio Big Band

(Double Moon/Challenge Records)

The Stravinsky-inspired music that Jim McNeely wrote and arranged for Chris Potter to perform with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band has risen to the top of the class among this year’s contemporary large jazz ensemble releases. Rituals, which was recorded in-studio in 2015 following its original commissioned performance at the Alte Oper Frankfurt’s Stravinsky Festival in 2013, finally emerged on Double Moon Records (part of the Challenge Records International catalog) early this year and reveals a major jazz-meets-classical breakthrough by principals McNeely, who’s spent a large portion of his career working with American big bands (notably the venerable Vanguard Jazz Orchestra) and European radio bands; Potter, a virtuoso jazz tenorist with a hyper-extended range and endurance-runner chops; and the Frankfurt Radio Big Band (a.k.a. hr-Bigband), one of Europe’s finest government-funded large jazz ensembles. The first six tracks of Rituals constitute McNeely’s original suite of new compositions inspired by the tonal language of Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring. The ensemble executes the rhythmically complex and harmonically advanced score with passion and sensitivity, not to mention technical precision and power of symphonic proportions. The group’s orchestral palette is enhanced by the presence of harp, french horn, percussion, and a timbre-rich world of expert-level woodwind doubling (flutes, piccolos, clarinets and bass clarinets) that further evoke the tonal language and textures of Rite Of Spring. Potter, the star of the show and the featured soloist throughout, gets deep inside the material and supercharges it with a seemingly inexhaustible wealth of invention and intensity — to the point of sounding like his horn might burst wide open and spill out the tornados of sound swirling inside of it. McNeely gets credit not just for masterminding all this, but also for his highly detailed, conscientious work orchestrating the material in a manner that suits Potter’s style, honors an important historical legacy and poses a worthwhile challenge to one of today’s most esteemed jazz big bands. Following the conclusion of the Stravinsky-styled suite, the remaining four tracks on Rituals are Potter originals re-arranged by McNeely for the hr-Bigband. These include “Dawn” and “Wine Dark Sea” from Potter’s 2013 CD The Sirens, “The Wheel” from his 2006 recording Underground and “Okinawa” from the 2001 live album This Will Be. Potter plays equally hard on this second portion of the program, with additional solo support from hr-Bigband reed-section players Steffen Weber, Tony Lakatos and Heinz-Dieter Sauerborn and trumpeter/flugelhornist Axel Schlosser establishing a more conventional, but by no means less thrilling, jazz big band vibe. Rituals is a fascinating listen, a dramatic homage of breathtaking breadth and sophistication that succeeds on every level.

Bitchin Bajas

(Drag City)

Chicago’s Bitchin Bajas, a synth-oriented trio in operation for the last dozen years, always keeps you guessing. The group released its last album of original material five years ago — Bajas Fresh, which displayed so much musicianship it seemed its prime movers, Cooper Crain, Daniel Quinlivan and Rob Frye, had employed a whole orchestra.

On Bajascillators, they walk it back, and it works perfectly for the times we’re living in five years forward. The group apparently upgraded a lot of its gear in the last half-decade and it shows in how refreshed they sound here.

“Amorpha” starts the album with a busily jingling drone that builds in your headphones to shifting percussive structures before overturning, continually building on its disparate yet aligned elements before settling into a burbling peace.

“Geomancy” begins more cautiously before taking up the entirety of your headspace with a gently blaring chord that makes room to explore errant melodies, moving into a transcendental, meditative, then scattered plateau for the track’s second half.

“World B. Free” is ambient to a level of feeling asleep at first before rising to an ’80s twinge, then becoming perhaps the album’s highlight with a highly sympathetic ally added in reedman and multi-instrumentalist Frye.

“Quakenbrück,” named after a town in northwest Germany, establishes fittingly Teutonic overtones to its instrumentation before blasting down the Autobahn to get steadily New Wave.

Bajascillators is the latest in Bitchin Bajas’ long continuum, and, in keeping with the best art, it’s exactly what we need right now. DB

Ella Fitzgerald

Ella At The Hollywood Bowl: The Irving Berlin Songbook

There are moments in this life to sit back, reflect and bathe in pure awe. With Ella At The Hollywood Bowl: The Irving Berlin Songbook, listeners get a little taste of absolute perfection: a grand idea presented with such grace and elegance that it seems simple, pure and divine. This previously unreleased music came from the private collection of Norman Granz, noted producer and founder of Verve Records. Grammy-winning artist and producer Gregg Field lovingly mixed this collection direct from quarter-inch tapes recorded during this elaborate 1958 concert. How elaborate? The concert includes a full orchestra, with arrangements conducted and arranged by Paul Weston, all to provide a feathery cloud for perhaps the greatest singer in jazz to float upon. And float she does. Fitzgerald’s voice is a wonder. Her songbook recordings (which included the Irving Berlin songbook) are often considered the best work she, or any other vocalist in jazz, has ever created. But to hear it live, at the venerable Hollywood Bowl, demonstrates how amazing all of the musicians on that stage were and just how amazing Ella’s artistry had become as she was entering the beginning of her 40s. From the downbeat of “The Song Is Ended,” through “How Deep Is The Ocean,” “Cheek To Cheek,” “Let’s Face The Music And Dance,” “Putting On The Ritz” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” the voice and the music are timeless. Then there are the ballads. The strings on “How Deep Is The Ocean” pour straight into the soul. On “Russian Lullaby,” Fitzgerald’s vibrato flutters almost like a violin that wants to make you cry. And “Get Thee Behind Me Satan” offers a quaint remembrance of the temptations of love. All of this is made more exquisite by the stunning clarity of this recording, as if it were recorded yesterday. Before summer’s gone, this is a great one to cozy up to in the backyard in a comfortable chair and imagine that it’s Los Angeles in the 1950s, there’s a soft breeze blowing through one of the greatest music venues mankind has ever created — and on that stage is a voice that comes along only once in lifetime.

Tom Harrell

Oak Tree

Tom Harrell is like a keystone species in the jazz musician kingdom: His music has a disproportionally large effect on his natural surroundings, just like the mighty oak tree. Over the course of his five-decade-long career, the celebrated trumpeter/flugelhornist has made a profound impact on the straightahead jazz community; the lyric beauty of his melodic lines and the concise, intense nature of his improvisations have served to benefit generations of advancing players and composers rooted in the traditional styles of swing, bebop, Latin and blues. His latest, an especially solid quartet session from late 2020 with pianist/keyboardist Luis Perdomo, bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Adam Cruz, covers all that ground and more as four seasoned improvisers dig into the fertile soil of 11 Harrell originals that are so brilliantly crafted, they’re certain to benefit the jazz canon for decades to come. The lead track on Oak Tree, “Evoorg,” is quintessential Harrell: a medium-up swinger consisting of twisty bebop lines and the occasional chromatic bump played in a harmonic context of altered “Rhythm” changes. Harrell’s melodies – composed and improvised — feel incredibly familiar in their seeming effortlessness, until they take you by surprise and reveal just how distinctly different and original they are. “Fivin’,” one of three tracks featuring Perdomo on Fender Rhodes, is a jazz-funk outing with simple, even-eighth-note lines that never stray far from the tune’s monotonic opening statements. The title track, like the oak tree it’s named for, is a moderate ballad characterized by knotty lines, the crisp rustling of Cruz’s brushes and a fluttering solo in which the leader, completely uninhibited in his own habitat, flits from branch to branch and sings like a ruby-throated hummingbird on a mostly sunny morning. Harrell switches to flugel for more softly shaded tunes like the one-note samba groover “Tribute” and the airy, moody ballad “Shadows,” as well as on the somewhat aggressive track “Zatoichi,” where the quartet lets a constricted, repetitive initial declaration eventually fall apart to reveal meadows of airy free-improv. Harrell’s signature brand of bebop emerges whenever the spirit moves him, it seems; longtime admirers can get their fill with stimulating tracks like the deceptively titled, carefully arranged “Improv”; the angular “Archaeopteryx,” featuring a double-tracked Harrell playing in unison and harmony with himself; and the ever-optimistic “Love Tide,” reminiscent of beloved masterpieces of yore (like the Clifford Brown classic “Joy Spring”) with its subtle key-center movement, upbeat melody and snappy accents.

Payton MacDonald/Billy Martin/Elliott Sharp/Colin Stetson

Void Patrol
(Infrequent Seams)

Void Patrol is the new album by percussionist Payton MacDonald, drummer Billy Martin, guitarist Elliott Sharp and baritone saxophonist Colin Stetson. It’s a long-distance project cooked up by MacDonald as a way to make art in any way possible — like most musicians these days. For Void Patrol, MacDonald laid down very basic themes for each of the album’s five tracks, then fleshed them out by handing them over to the other players to embellish upon, one at a time. The results are an exciting mix of thoughtful listening, joyous noise and beat-driven beauty. “Antares” has an infectious groove with Martin heavy on the trap drums, MacDonald driving a repeating, hypnotic pattern on marimba and Sharp soul-surfing across this cloud of percussion with well placed swoops and wails on guitar. Nearly four minutes in, Stetson enters, playing his saxophone through a processor with computer-like sonority. It’s a true buzz of sound, with each musician adding such interesting takes that one might wish to hear each one individually, then as part of the overall mix. The core of every tune is this dedication to maintaining a drone to improvise over, under and through. “These tracks groove hard at times, and by keeping a drone going there is always a sense of grounding and the tonality is clear,” according to MacDonald. “One might label this as jazz, but if we’re going to get fussy about labels I would also include drone and metal.” The improvising on this disc is on red alert, but not in the way one traditionally thinks. Instead of trading fours, eights or whatever, everyone is improvising at once — sometimes talking loud and over each other like a group that can’t wait to finish each other’s sentences, other times dropping to a whisper to really catch an interesting point. It’s cool that Sharp kicks off each of the album’s first four tunes with a dramatic strum of his guitar, like a call to arms. Then on “Acrux,” the album’s final tune, MacDonald picks up on that the theme on marimba, introducing the recording’s dreamiest of sound clouds. Stetson joins with saxophone flutters while Martin and Sharp bubble underneath, aerating the sonic brew and building toward a tidal pool of instruments and sounds that float in and out with the breeze. It’s a great conclusion to a project where one gets the sense that these four artists had a blast entertaining each other, and now the rest of us get to enjoy their conversation. To get the inside scoop on Void Patrol, check out the September 2022 issue of DownBeat. You can order one HERE, starting on Aug. 6.

The Endeavour Jazz Orchestra New Zealand

Solipsis — Music Of Ryan Brake
(Skydeck Music)

The concept behind the Endeavour Jazz Orchestra New Zealand is laudable. The ensemble was created primarily to feature the best young jazz composers in New Zealand, and it features many of the island nation’s best jazz musicians playing alongside some of the world’s top jazz artists — Alex Sipiagin on trumpet, Dick Oatts on alto saxophone, Francisco Torres on trombone, John Escreet on piano and John RIley on drums.

Normally that’d be enough plot line for an hour of exceptional jazz. But the Endeavour Jazz Orchestra New Zealand’s first project has another angle. Solipsis — Music Of Ryan Brake bills itself as inspired by elements of the critically acclaimed 2008 film Synedoche, New York. The 14-year-old movie stars the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as a theater director staging an increasingly elaborate production with no real sense of time; its development twists on for years. The titles of the six movements of Solipsis reference things said or seen in the film. The first is a big one, “Somewhere Between Stasis And Anti-stasis,” which sums up the unreality of the film overall. The more than 20 musicians (the majority of them horn players) on hand in the orchestra start the proceedings with a cheerful chorus and then start walking around with the arrangement before showcasing a beautiful yet dizzying solo from Escreet, who’s consistently on fire throughout the album.

“Sycosis And Psychosis” refers to a scene in the movie in which Hoffman’s character Caden Cotard explains to a child the difference between the two — one is a skin condition; the other a troubled mental state — as it’s clear while he acknowledges he has the former, he also has the latter. On the track here, the orchestra stages a slower number with Escreet and guitarist Nick Granville thoughtfully mirroring each other, then members of the ample horn section do the same before seizing the composition’s line to twist it around for a while, and then hand it back to the guitarist and pianist. The song then takes a time-out for a languid guitar solo and another notably complex, expressive piano solo. For all the talent enlisted here, Escreet and Granville may be the project’s true stars.

“Infectious Diseases In Cattle,” a phrase Cotard considers as the title of his play at one point, starts in a hurry and then cuts the tempo ever so slightly to give the horn players some room. “The Burning House,” a visual element repeated throughout Synedoche, New York, highlights Brake’s skills with composition, particularly arrangement, before coming to an abrupt halt (he seems to like ending a song that way).

“Simulcrum,” another title Cotard considers, is a slower, moodier number that builds in drama and boasts some of the best horn solos here, especially from trombonist Francisco Torres.

The album’s closer, “Lighting An Obscure World,” yet another title Cotard considers, wastes no time in bringing together all the musicians on hand for a full-ensemble jam. Over the course of the 12-minute track, the players try virtually everything, even exploring a Latin feel before allowing space for an unaccompanied piano solo.

This is the Endeavour Jazz Orchestra New Zealand’s inaugural release. Let’s hope more are on the way.

Payton MacDonald/Billy Martin/Elliott Sharp/Colin Stetson

Void Patrol
(Infrequent Seams)

Void Patrol is the new album by percussionist Payton MacDonald, drummer Billy Martin, guitarist Elliott Sharp and baritone saxophonist Colin Stetson. It’s a long-distance project cooked up by MacDonald as a way to make art in any way possible — like most musicians these days. For Void Patrol, MacDonald laid down very basic themes for each of the album’s five tracks, then fleshed them out by handing them over to the other players to embellish upon, one at a time. The results are an exciting mix of thoughtful listening, joyous noise and beat-driven beauty. “Antares” has an infectious groove with Martin heavy on the trap drums, MacDonald driving a repeating, hypnotic pattern on marimba and Sharp soul-surfing across this cloud of percussion with well placed swoops and wails on guitar. Nearly four minutes in, Stetson enters, playing his saxophone through a processor with computer-like sonority. It’s a true buzz of sound, with each musician adding such interesting takes that one might wish to hear each one individually, then as part of the overall mix. The core of every tune is this dedication to maintaining a drone to improvise over, under and through. “These tracks groove hard at times, and by keeping a drone going there is always a sense of grounding and the tonality is clear,” according to MacDonald. “One might label this as jazz, but if we’re going to get fussy about labels I would also include drone and metal.” The improvising on this disc is on red alert, but not in the way one traditionally thinks. Instead of trading fours, eights or whatever, everyone is improvising at once — sometimes talking loud and over each other like a group that can’t wait to finish each other’s sentences, other times dropping to a whisper to really catch an interesting point. It’s cool that Sharp kicks off each of the album’s first four tunes with a dramatic strum of his guitar, like a call to arms. Then on “Acrux,” the album’s final tune, MacDonald picks up on that the theme on marimba, introducing the recording’s dreamiest of sound clouds. Stetson joins with saxophone flutters while Martin and Sharp bubble underneath, aerating the sonic brew and building toward a tidal pool of instruments and sounds that float in and out with the breeze. It’s a great conclusion to a project where one gets the sense that these four artists had a blast entertaining each other, and now the rest of us get to enjoy their conversation. To get the inside scoop on Void Patrol, check out the September 2022 issue of DownBeat. You can order one HERE, starting on Aug. 6.

George Cotsirilos


San Francisco-based guitarist George Cotsirilos pushes into newer, bluesier and more challenging musical territory on Refuge, a showcase for his recently formed quartet featuring pianist Keith Saunders and Cotsirilo’s longtime trio mates Robb Fisher on bass and Ron Marabuto on drums. The 10 original tunes on this new collection are more complicated than the quartet’s previous release, 2018’s Mostly In Blue, and the arrangements are more exacting, resulting in heightened attention and more acute listening among the musicians. The music bears the stamps of Cotsirilos’ many influences — including straightahead jazz, the blues and classical — and presents a wealth of opportunities in the realms of harmony and rhythm for this auspicious gathering of simpatico players. It’s a nice listen, tuneful and memorable with its plucky leaps and twists. The presence of piano is immediately felt in the head of the swinging, medium-tempo opener “Devolution,” doubling the guitar melody as it steps out on a displaced chromatic climb straight out of the bebop canon. Guitar and piano frequently come across as a team here and throughout Refuge, engaging each other in intelligent and playful ways, Saunders’ generous comping effectively freeing up Cotsirilos’ hands and inspiring the guitarist’s improvisations to new heights of spontaneity and daring. The two also demonstrate that rare ability of two chording instrumentalists to stay out of each other’s way for the full duration of a totally happening, thoughtfully programmed jazz session. Fisher plays multiple melodic roles on upright as well, emerging as an occasional unison voice or engaging in counterpoint with guitar/piano lines, and contributing numerous jazz solos of exquisite substance. Piano is felt deeply on the title track, a jazz waltz based on a subtle harmonic progression laid down by Saunders with exquisite tastefulness. Other album highlights include the spirited “Planet Roxoid,” the ear-perking “The Three Doves” and the minor-key, hard-bopping closer “Let’s Make Break For It.” The compositions on Refuge are deceiving in their complexity, employing unexpected intervals within their undeniably catchy melodic lines and surging with rhythmic tension and release. As with just about everything he touches, Cotsirilos ties it all together with ingenious voice-leading solutions at every turn in this brave-and-brainy collective quest for refuge, written and recorded during the personal isolation and worldwide turmoil of the pandemic era.

Caleb Wheeler Curtis

(Imani Records)

The term heat map can describe all kinds of things — from website traffic to geographical mapping and more. It’s appropriately applied here as well, as Caleb Wheeler Curtis, who bills himself as not just a saxophonist but a composer, teams with pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Gerald Cleaver for a set on which they bring the temperature up and down. Across 10 tracks, Curtis gives his colleagues plenty of space; for example, not coming in on sax until we’re two minutes and fifty seconds into the title track. When he does, Evans follows along with him on a challenging countermelody, all set again the tastefully busy rhythm section of Revis and Cleaver.

The tight, easy interplay between Curtis and Evans shouldn’t come as any surprise. The two played together in the Philly-based pianist’s Captain Black Big Band, with Curtis appearing on both of the band’s Grammy-nominated albums, Presence and The Intangible Between.

Curtis composed the music for Heatmap at the MacDowell Colony, an artist’s residency program in Peterborough, New Hampshire, where he spent four weeks last year. He emerged with a set of music that leaves ample space for the album’s remarkable improvisers to explore and invent.

On “Tossed Aside,” Curtis slows the tempo to stirringly evoke the feeling of finding oneself in such a state, and Evans contributes a thoughtful solo around the midway mark. Elsewhere, “Trees For The Forest” seems a reflection on the idyllic surroundings where this music was composed. The telepathy between the members of the quartet is palpable here, as well as on “Limestone,” which doesn’t so much begin as creep in, a simple melody serving as a haunting showcase for Revis.

Curtis ups the tempo to close out the album with “C(o)urses,” on which the four blaze through a frenetic melody, trading solos but never going off the rails. Finally on “Spheres,” Evans starts with a charmingly circular pattern on piano before Curtis jumps in, playing long, almost worried-sounding notes before, deep into the song, the two begin to deconstruct it a bit, with Evans dumping in the occasional crashing chord and Curtis overdubbing some challenging, random high notes. Recommended.

Lizz Wright

Holding Space, Live In Berlin
(Blues & Greens)

Lizz Wright comes to her music with equal parts gospel, jazz, r&b and blues. The alto vibrations of her dark-toned, rich voice would sound at home in any church, jazz club, theater or even arena. She’s just that versatile as an artist. Here on Holding Space, Live In Berlin, the venue is the Columbia Theater in Berlin, Germany. And the sound is that of an artist at the height of her abilities connecting with an audience in a way that we all craved during the dark days of the pandemic. Wright, indeed, had time to reflect during those days, going through her thoughts and old recordings, finding this one from a 2018 performance that she has now put out as the first recording on her own label Blues & Greens Records. The sound on this recording is fantastic. The band — Bobby Ray Sparks II on keyboards, Ben Zwerin on bass, Ivan Edwards on drums and Chris Bruce on guitar — is tight and soulful. And the music Wright and this group makes is pure magic. The opening tune, “Barley,” sets the tone for grooving, yearning soul. Bruce on guitar and Sparks on organ tie the tune together in a bow dripping with gospel and soul. Wright has always had impeccable taste in the music she chooses to perform, taking songs that may not seem obvious choices and making them her own. Neil Young’s “Old Man” is a fantastic example. So, too, is k.d. lang’s “Wash Me Clean.” The music she writes and co-writes takes no back seat to such classics. “Somewhere Down The Mystic” from Freedom & Surrender (Concord, 2015) drifts through the realm of longing until it finds the hope. She lovingly takes us to church with “Walk With Me, Lord,” a thoroughly uplifting launching pad for Sparks on organ and a locked-in rhythm section defying any listener not to bop, sway or straight-up dance. Ditto that feeling on the beautifully greasy “Seems I’m Never Tired Of Loving You.” This album is a treat from start to finish, with Wright serving as a beautiful, honest storyteller of incredible depth and heart. For a little more insight on the project, HERE is a short film that accompanyies the album.

Brian Landrus

Red List

Brian Landrus has made a string of potent statements as a leader on such albums as 2009’s Forward, 2013’s chamber-like Mirage, 2015’s adventurous trio outing The Deep Below, 2017’s orchestral project Generations and 2020’s quartet recording For Now. With his latest release, the prodigious baritone saxophonist and bass clarinetist is sounding the alarm for animals whose populations in the wild have been so severely diminished that we now risk losing them completely. That’s the impetus behind Red List: Music Dedicated To The Preservation Of Our Endangered Species, which finds Landrus collaborating with an all-star ensemble and creating compelling original music that serves a higher purpose. Consisting of 15 tracks — 13 of them dedicated to birds, mammals and reptiles that currently appear on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of species on the verge of extinction — the recording features a committed-to-the-cause core band of Landrus, trombonist Ryan Keberle, guitarist Nir Felder, keyboardist Geoffrey Keezer, bassist Lonnie Plaxico, percussionist John Hadfield and drummer Rudy Royston. Supplementing the group on various tracks are alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, tenor saxophonist Ron Blake, trumpeter/flugelhornist Steve Roach and vocalist Corey King, whose voices color and fatten the unconventional ensemble blends that distinguish each of Landrus’ animal-specific arrangements. On top of a sense of urgency that persists throughout Red List, the program traverses many moods and styles — from the mellow winds and delicate percussion of “Nocturnal Flight” to the syncopated dub groove of “Save The Elephants” to the hard-rocking “Canopy Of Trees,” interspresed with a sprinkling of brief, fleet-fingered solo improvisations. The leader’s sparse band arrangements leave plenty of room for his highly nuanced low-woodwind lines, and the instrumental timbres of the team players, to emerge in their full glory. This is another strong release from a major force on the modern jazz scene who will start work as a professor of jazz composition at Berklee this fall. Landrus plans to donate a portion of the proceeds and 100% of the profits from Red List to Save The Elephants, an organization that has been helping to ensure a future for African Elephants for nearly 30 years.

Bill Evans

You Must Believe In Spring
(Craft Recordings)

Bill Evans once said, “I can’t comprehend death.”

Well, like all of us, he was going to have to. And his life was, sadly, full of it. In 1973, his long-term girlfriend, Ellaine, committed suicide, following their breakup, by throwing herself in front of a subway train. He married soon after that. Then his brother, Harry, committed suicide as well. Evans divorced, succumbed to drug addiction and died at age 51.

Why focus on such matters? Well, because we’re reviewing one of the last albums he made before he died. Recorded in August 1977 and released after Evans passed in September 1980, the record is a master class in Evans’ touch and subtlety. Another thing Evans once said is, “I have a reason that I arrive at myself for every note I play.”

One would have known that without him saying it, merely by sitting him down at a piano. But it’s on full display here.

Evans is backed by bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Eliot Zigmund in a classic piano trio format — as he long preferred. While his once-employer Miles Davis built out bands that reached a dozen people, Evans preferred to keep things small.

It works, though. The title track alone proves that. Evans lets everyone take solos with an immense amount of breathing room. Meanwhile, on “Gary’s Theme,” he displays the maturity of his playing. “The Peacocks” plays out so slowly that his right and left hands seem like different parts of the band. On “Sometime Age” he waits, to where it almost seems arrogant, for his rhythm section to come in before he starts playing the prettiest notes you’ve ever heard.

Still, though, he seems to be processing mortality. The beautifully meditative “B Minor Waltz (For Ellaine)” is about his ex. The quietly swinging “We Will Meet Again (For Harry)” is about his brother. Again, both suicides.

Which leads to the record’s biggest misstep. It ends with “The Theme From M*A*S*H (aka Suicide Is Painless).” Few realized at the time that the catchy melody coming out of their television sets was an instrumental version of a song from the original M*A*S*H film musing on the notion that suicide is painless, but Evans did. The problem is, he didn’t do much with it.

Regardless, this album is fantastic, and it’s too bad Evans was too driven to the depths of death — something he proclaimed he could not comprehend — to see its release. DB

Diego Figueiredo

Follow The Signs

Many listeners were introduced to guitarist Diego Figueiredo as the mop of hair and flying fingers beautifully accompanying vocalist Cyrille Aimee on their ongoing duets collaboration. And that’s a good starting point. But there’s much more to this 41-year-old with more than two dozen records under his belt, all demonstrating his ability to take the Brazilian sounds of his homeland into the here and now. His latest recording, Follow The Signs (his fourth recording on Arbors Records), serves as the most recent example of Figueiredo seamlessly fusing bossa, samba, jazz and classical overtones into his own breezy world. Here, Figueiredo arranges for guitar and a quintet of classical strings as well as his long-time cohorts Eduardo Machado on bass and Marcílio Garcetti on percussion. Everything flows so smoothly on this 11-track set; nothing is forced. The strings come in on clouds at just the right moments. Figueiredo has the touch and tone of a master guitarist hitting his prime, playing with exquisite style and facility, but always at the service of the music at hand. Take, for instance, “Delicate Samba,” where Machado plays the first solo on bass, carving an adventurous path for Figueiredo to follow, which he does with style and a few surprises. You can practically feel these artists smiling as they make this music. The set on Follow The Signs includes 10 originals that absolutely ooze the Brazilian tradition in a very modern way. Figueiredo pays homage to the masters with the lilting beauty of “Jobim Forever” and “Dear John,” a tribute to João Gilberto, one of the godfathers of bossa nova. He gives Errol Garner’s “Misty” a Brazilian makeover that’s sensational. For just a taste of crazy guitar chops, give the album’s title cut a spin, or the closer, “Imagination.” In both cases, he weaves some magic over the fretboard, demonstrating his command of the instrument and his art. The music of Diego Figueiredo has the ability to take your breath away in so many ways.

Ben Markley Big Band with Ari Hoenig

Ari’s Funhouse

Pianist-composer-arranger Ben Markley completely immersed himself in the music of drummer Ari Hoenig in conceiving and orchestrating Ari’s Funhouse, a big band celebration that’s as thrilling and cool as taking a deep dive in someone else’s pool. Markley and his marauding crew had permission to pool-hop, of course; they even invited their host to play in the band, closing the circle on a truly authentic collaborative project connecting the bandleader and his boisterous sidemen with the titular artist-composer, whose presence amounts to an all-enveloping guiding light. It all began with a gig Markley played with Hoenig at the 2019 Tarleton Jazz Festival in Texas. While prepping for the show, the pianist discovered a depth of melodicism and harmonic sophistication at work amid the rhythmic brilliance of Hoenig’s compositions. Recognizing the Brooklyn-based drummer’s unique compositional voice as a gold mine of material ripe for a big band romp, Markley decided to go all in, transcribing Hoenig’s solos, internalizing his vocabulary and memorizing entire tunes via repeated listening. The two began corresponding regularly, and soon Markley was bringing his own creative voice to bear on Hoenig’s critically acclaimed oeuvre of rhythmically advanced, highly exploratory compositions. Both were so pleased with the fruits of the joint project that they recruited an ensemble of Denver-area players to perform the material live and document everything in the studio. Ari’s Funhouse covers a lot of stylistic ground, from traditional big band swinging to time-twisted excursions into advanced modernity, while focusing a well-deserved spotlight on Hoenig’s voice — like a shining sun around which all the fun and action revolves.

Mongo Santamaria


The jacket tells the tale. On the front cover of Cuban conguero Mongo Santamaria’s album Sofrito, we see a giant bowl of the titular dish, chopped full of tomato, peppers, oranges and too many ingredients to inventory on sight, all stirred together, fresh and raw and set to pop on your tastebuds.

The back cover sees Santamaria himself ebulliently posing above said ingredients pre-prep, excited to transform them into sofrito (or have someone else do it). Then directly below that, the personnel list makes it clear why the album’s name is apt: It’s as long as the recipe. The bandleader has 17 musicians on this album’s nine tracks, playing dozens upon dozens of instruments. It’s a tribute to Santamaria, producer Marty Sheller and arranger Armen Donelian that they were able to stir this all into a seemingly effortlessly, coherent whole.

New from Craft Recordings, the record’s hype sticker tells the rest of the story. This is the “first vinyl reissue of the Afro-Latin jazz classic,” which had been out of print since 1976. The timing is perfect; the late Santamaria is fresh off his show-stopping set at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival as captured in Questlove’s documentary Summer of Soul, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary at the 2022 Academy Awards.

Over nine tracks, it’s made clear why this was worth unearthing. Opener “Iberia” begins with the sound of the wind blowing before moving into a groove that’s well arranged and not overcrowded. Right off the bat, it speaks to Latin jazz’s nature, in which soloists jump in and out of the song, rather than politely wait out measure upon measure. On the pleasingly low-key “Cruzan,” synths float in, immediately establishing a bed for a considered saxophone solo to hand off to a ruminative electric piano solo. “Spring Song,” with its cruise-line feel, serves as an elegant showcase for Mike “Coco” DiMartino on trumpet and flugelhorn. The sublime title track starts with a stately piano solo before being taken over by the “coro,” Santamaria’s chorus of Marcelino Guerra, Marcelino Valdez and Mario Munez, who gamely throw to Gonzolo Fernandez’s flute to close the A-side.

Flipping over, “O Mi Shango” begins the B-side, appropriately, with a congo workout from Santamaria before switching up to a funk vibe and setting firmly in the pocket to showcase some call-and-response vocals. The whole thing explodes and then abruptly stops.

In contrast, “Five On The Color Side” — with its mix of sharp percussion, synths and a horn tightly aligned with Edna Holt’s vocals — floats in like a breeze before exploring a darker groove.

It should come as no surprise that things get their absolute funkiest here when the ringer, renowned drummer Bernard Purdie, shows up on “Secret Admirer.” But Santamaria, or his handlers Sheller and Donelian, smartly blow up the bridge with two bata drum players, Julito Collazo and Angel Maldonado.

“Olive Eye,” with its dance-floor feel and sparse amount of soloing, feels like a throat-clearing before “Princess,” the perfect closer. It’s a swimmingly fusion mix of electric pianos and stabbing horns, simultaneously busy and shimmering. And it fittingly takes us out with a long congo solo from Santamaria.

All in all, Sofrito is as delicious as it looks. Thank God it’s back in print — for now. DB

Ben Markley Big Band with Ari Hoenig

Ari’s Funhouse

Pianist-composer-arranger Ben Markley completely immersed himself in the music of drummer Ari Hoenig in conceiving and orchestrating Ari’s Funhouse, a big band celebration that’s as thrilling and cool as taking a deep dive in someone else’s pool. Markley and his marauding crew had permission to pool-hop, of course; they even invited their host to play in the band, closing the circle on a truly authentic collaborative project connecting the bandleader and his boisterous sidemen with the titular artist-composer, whose presence amounts to an all-enveloping guiding light. It all began with a gig Markley played with Hoenig at the 2019 Tarleton Jazz Festival in Texas. While prepping for the show, the pianist discovered a depth of melodicism and harmonic sophistication at work amid the rhythmic brilliance of Hoenig’s compositions. Recognizing the Brooklyn-based drummer’s unique compositional voice as a gold mine of material ripe for a big band romp, Markley decided to go all in, transcribing Hoenig’s solos, internalizing his vocabulary and memorizing entire tunes via repeated listening. The two began corresponding regularly, and soon Markley was bringing his own creative voice to bear on Hoenig’s critically acclaimed oeuvre of rhythmically advanced, highly exploratory compositions. Both were so pleased with the fruits of the joint project that they recruited an ensemble of Denver-area players to perform the material live and document everything in the studio. Ari’s Funhouse covers a lot of stylistic ground, from traditional big band swinging to time-twisted excursions into advanced modernity, while focusing a well-deserved spotlight on Hoenig’s voice — like a shining sun around which all the fun and action revolves.

Mongo Santamaria


The jacket tells the tale. On the front cover of Cuban conguero Mongo Santamaria’s album Sofrito, we see a giant bowl of the titular dish, chopped full of tomato, peppers, oranges and too many ingredients to inventory on sight, all stirred together, fresh and raw and set to pop on your tastebuds.

The back cover sees Santamaria himself ebulliently posing above said ingredients pre-prep, excited to transform them into sofrito (or have someone else do it). Then directly below that, the personnel list makes it clear why the album’s name is apt: It’s as long as the recipe. The bandleader has 17 musicians on this album’s nine tracks, playing dozens upon dozens of instruments. It’s a tribute to Santamaria, producer Marty Sheller and arranger Armen Donelian that they were able to stir this all into a seemingly effortlessly, coherent whole.

New from Craft Recordings, the record’s hype sticker tells the rest of the story. This is the “first vinyl reissue of the Afro-Latin jazz classic,” which had been out of print since 1976. The timing is perfect; the late Santamaria is fresh off his show-stopping set at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival as captured in Questlove’s documentary Summer of Soul, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary at the 2022 Academy Awards.

Over nine tracks, it’s made clear why this was worth unearthing. Opener “Iberia” begins with the sound of the wind blowing before moving into a groove that’s well arranged and not overcrowded. Right off the bat, it speaks to Latin jazz’s nature, in which soloists jump in and out of the song, rather than politely wait out measure upon measure. On the pleasingly low-key “Cruzan,” synths float in, immediately establishing a bed for a considered saxophone solo to hand off to a ruminative electric piano solo. “Spring Song,” with its cruise-line feel, serves as an elegant showcase for Mike “Coco” DiMartino on trumpet and flugelhorn. The sublime title track starts with a stately piano solo before being taken over by the “coro,” Santamaria’s chorus of Marcelino Guerra, Marcelino Valdez and Mario Munez, who gamely throw to Gonzolo Fernandez’s flute to close the A-side.

Flipping over, “O Mi Shango” begins the B-side, appropriately, with a congo workout from Santamaria before switching up to a funk vibe and setting firmly in the pocket to showcase some call-and-response vocals. The whole thing explodes and then abruptly stops.

In contrast, “Five On The Color Side” — with its mix of sharp percussion, synths and a horn tightly aligned with Edna Holt’s vocals — floats in like a breeze before exploring a darker groove.

It should come as no surprise that things get their absolute funkiest here when the ringer, renowned drummer Bernard Purdie, shows up on “Secret Admirer.” But Santamaria, or his handlers Sheller and Donelian, smartly blow up the bridge with two bata drum players, Julito Collazo and Angel Maldonado.

“Olive Eye,” with its dance-floor feel and sparse amount of soloing, feels like a throat-clearing before “Princess,” the perfect closer. It’s a swimmingly fusion mix of electric pianos and stabbing horns, simultaneously busy and shimmering. And it fittingly takes us out with a long congo solo from Santamaria.

All in all, Sofrito is as delicious as it looks. Thank God it’s back in print — for now. DB

Marquis Hill

New Gospel Revisited

What happens when you relive the music of your youth? It’s a question that trumpeter Marquis poses with New Gospel Revisited, his latest and very beautiful offering on Edition Records. For Hill, youth is a relative term. At 35, he certainly is still in his youth when you come right back down to it. But New Gospel Revisited serves as a reimagining of his debut recording New Gospel (independently released), which came out in 2011. A lot can happen in a decade, an artist can mature. And that’s what happens here. While that debut served as an announcement of things to come from one of the most promising new kids on the Chicago music scene, Revisited demonstrates an artist in his full, grown vision. While the original was carefully crafted in the studio, on this turn Hill and a completely new cast performs it live, unedited at Chicago’s Constellation. It’s a document demonstrating the true high-wire act of improvisation and art. For this incarnation, Hill assembles a new cast for the proceedings, and it’s stellar. Adding to the nine great tunes on the original, Hill adds five solo briefs for his compadres highlighting their many gifts. Saxophonist Walter Smith III blows bluesy, fluidly and fine on “Walter Speaks.” Drummer Kendrick Scott calls on the spirits with a beautiful solo drum turn on “Oracle.” Joel Ross offers a shimmer and sigh of a ballad with “Lullaby.” Bassist Harish Raghavan delivers on the promise of “Perpetual.” And pianist James Francies sends the congregants away on a cloud with “Farewell.” But it is on those other tunes that this group coalesces as a mighty whole. On the title tune, the unison horn lines of Hill and Smith are driven by swing-solid rhythms of Scott and Raghavan that give way to a bed of rhythm for Hill to solo over, which he does with a mastery and soulfulness that’s rare. There are so many moments of “Hell yeah” beauty here, like Francies and Ross serving up a tasty round trading fours on “The Believer,” the Mingus-like drive of “Law And Order,” or the optimistic playfulness of “Autumn,” with Hill bringing out his mute to give the sound that far-away vibe. Hill takes his own solo turn on “New Paths,” and it’s a triumph. So is New Gospel Revisited. If this is the beginning of the next phase of Marquis Hill’s work, we can’t wait for more.

Mark Turner

Return From The Stars

Mark Turner’s writing for his quartet on Return From The Stars, his latest ECM leader date, provides ample space for spontaneous ensemble interplay within its arc of expression. Solos flow organically in and out of Turner’s arrangements, which, in their sparseness, consist of little more than written-out horn lines for himself (on tenor) and trumpeter Jason Palmer, and less specific instructions for his rhythm section of bassist Joe Martin and drummer Jonathan Pinson. The absence of a chordal instrument leaves the conversational possibilities wide open as Turner’s compositions modulate between sections of structure and looseness. There is a narrative tension at work that juxtaposes themes of freedom and responsibility, making for an exhilarating listen, even during the album’s more measured, quieter moments. Indeed, a dignified drama of sorts plays out on Return From The Stars, which takes its title from a Stanisław Lem sci-fi novel about an astronaut who returns from a space mission to find life on Earth greatly changed, and his own values out of step with society. Turner draws upon his deep study of the various ways history’s jazz masters have dealt with changes both musical and cultural, incorporating a wide range of stylistic elements into his arrangements and improvisations, and reminding listeners that, in his musical world, nothing is off limits. His first quartet album since 2014’s Lathe Of Heaven (ECM), Return From The Stars documents Turner’s artistry as a premier saxophonist, conceptual thinker and bandleader who plays a visionary role on today’s rapidly evolving, ever-expanding jazz scene. A 180g vinyl version will become available in autumn.

Gerald Clayton

Bells On Sand
(Blue Note)

Welcome to pianist Gerald Clayton’s best recording to date, and that’s saying something. The 37-year-old pianist has produced a stretch of really fine music since his debut as a leader in 2009 with Two-Shade (ArtistShare), including Bond: The Paris Sessions (EmArcy), Life Forum (Concord) and Tributary Tales (Motéma). He made his debut on Blue Note in 2020 with the terrific Happening: Live At The Village Vanguard, and continues with Bells On Sand, his latest release for Blue Note. The combination of his artistry on that iconic label pays off here in a major way. Bells On Sand is a beautiful album that crosses through the broad spectrum of Clayton’s interests, tastes and thoughts with rich cohesiveness. While many artists string together songs like a writer would an anthology of short stories, Clayton paints as a novelist, delivering the arc of his story with breadth and grace. This is an album where quiet understatement makes a huge impact. It’s a small group performance that mixes jazz with classical overtones to deliver a cinematic approach to the music. The opening tune, the carefully paced “Water’s Edge,” features Clayton’s father, famed bassist, composer and arranger John Clayton, playing achingly heartfelt arco bass with drummer Justin Brown adding regal touches with mallets. Gerald Clayton adds a quiet wash of organ behind his piano soli, a great effect that helps set the mood. That piano artistry is featured in a solo format on four of the tunes on this recording — “Elegia,” “My Ideal 1,” “My Ideal 2” and “There Is Music Where You’re Going My Friends” — each one a true treat with the two versions of “My Ideal” coming from totally different universes. Clayton also brings in the breathy vocalist Maro for two songs, the jazz noir of “Damunt de tu Només les Flors” and “Just A Dream.” The chanteuse captures an otherworldliness that transports. But there are two tunes that simply pull at the heartstrings for very different reasons. “That Roy” is a tribute to the late trumpeter Roy Hargrove, who passed away in 2018. This is a tune very different from everything else on the record, but still fitting. With a laid-back, hip-hop beat by Brown and Clayton on keyboards, it sounds like Hargrove, who served as a mentor to many of the younger musicians coming to New York, including Clayton. Continuing the theme of mentors, when Clayton conjures with saxophonist Charles Lloyd on “Peace Invocation,” it serves as a few moments of sheer joy. Clayton plays in several of Lloyd’s projects including the Charles Lloyd & Gerald Clayton Duo. Their shared connectivity is apparent as the two weave their way through a ballad for our times. On the whole, Bells On Sand reflects on our pandemic times, seeking a better path forward. It’s lovely, start to finish, which is the reason John and Gerald Clayton are on the cover of the June issue of DownBeat.

Mike Holober & Balancing Act

Don’t Let Go

Hang in there, everybody; the world isn’t over yet. One person holding out hope during this age of impending doom is concerned citizen Mike Holober, the acclaimed New York pianist and composer/arranger known for his deep-dive collaborations with such esteemed large jazz ensembles as the WDR Big Band, the HR Big Band and the Gotham Jazz Orchestra. A recent Chamber Music America New Jazz Works commission has brought us Holober’s latest ambition: a complete song-cycle built around the concept of hope. Titled Don’t Let Go, the concert-length album features Balancing Act, a jazz octet with voice that Holober formed in 2015, performing live in October 2019 at Aaron Davis Hall on the campus of the City College of New York, where Holober has taught since 1995. The smaller ensemble satisfies Holober’s need to make a completely personal statement, one in which his own artistic goals are matched with the fruits of the collective. This particular configuration gives him an opportunity to balance his classical and jazz impulses in an all-inclusive manner that entices listeners from across the musical spectrum. And that’s exactly what you get with Don’t Let Go. Ensemble members Marvin Stamm (trumpet and flugelhorn), Dick Oatts (alto/soprano saxophone, flute), Jason Rigby (tenor saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet), Mark Patterson (trombone), Mike McGuirk (bass) and Dennis Mackrel (drums) navigate the jazz-classical divide with expertise and finesse, their orchestral-level chops easily managing the many contrasting stylistic elements at play within Holober’s nuance-rich orchestrations. Brazilian vocalist Jamile plays an integral role here: Whether she’s singing out front or vocalizing wordlessly within the ensemble, her presence enhances the group’s expressive palette and dynamic interplay. Don’t Let Go comes with two CDs of music, one for each set from the Aaron Davis Hall performance. Every song in the sequence sounds and feels just like its title suggests — “Breathe Deep,” “Burnin’ Daylight,” “A Summer Midnight’s Dream” and “Touch The Sky” being prime examples. The title track closes the album with what amounts to a direct order from the visionary Holober: Let the music uplift you, and embrace optimism at any cost.

Karen Dalton

In My Own Time / Shuckin’ Sugar
(Light In The Attic / Delmore Recording Society)

There are many artists throughout the back pages of folk and blues once relegated to the dustbins of history who are being resurrected by the kind of people diligent enough to dig through record crates and studio storage closets. Among them, Karen Dalton is certainly having a moment. A woman out of northeast rural Texas, via Oklahoma, don’t let her appearance or bio fool you. She draws comparisons to Bessie Smith, and musicians including Lucinda Williams, Joanna Newsom, Nick Cave, Angel Olsen, Devendra Banhart, Sharon Van Etten, Courtney Barnett and Adele cite her as an influence. Bob Dylan once said of her, “She had a voice like Billie Holiday and played the guitar like Jimmy Reed.”

Perhaps that’s why a documentary of her life is out now digitally and is coming to theaters in October. More importantly, Light In The Attic has a 50th anniversary edition of her sophomore album, 1971’s In My Own Time, considered her masterpiece, out last month. Meanwhile, Delmore Recording Society, via Third Man Records, has a 12-track live set, Shuckin’ Sugar, recorded from 1963 to 1964, featuring the earliest known duets of Dalton with then-husband, guitarist and songwriter Richard Tucker, out for Record Store Day April 23.

So, what does all this sound like? Armed with a long-necked banjo and a 12-string guitar, Dalton sings strongly in an authentic, earned Southern accent with accompaniment that sounds more like the tangled country of the Flying Burrito Brothers — especially on her outing of “When A Man Loves A Woman” — than anything out of Nashville.

Dalton’s certainly no songwriter; only one song on here gives her a credit, and it’s “Traditional; arranged by Karen Dalton,” on a tune called “Katie Cruel.” It doesn’t matter — it’s a staggeringly beautiful performance, just Dalton on banjo backed by a fiddle. She strikes some stomach-wrenching chord changes under her composed yet unassuming voice. She even whistles! And then complains guys never buy her drinks anymore. Ouch.

Elsewhere, Dalton lives in these songs so convincingly it makes it clear she, or someone around her, was archly talented at selecting her material. On “In My Own Dream,” over a medium-tempo romp drenched in barroom piano worthy of Dylan himself, Dalton sings, “I didn’t know I could be a fool. It took me a long time to find out. My mind turned upside-down.” Who would have thought such a relatable lyric could come from Paul Butterfield?

Shuckin’ Sugar, the live set, is, understandably, a rangier affair. Dalton — apparently suspicious of live performance — starts the entire proceedings by remarking to someone, “Shit, I came all this way for them to point at me?” She recovers from whatever was bothering her, and one imagines that by the time she was done using “a Biblical text” to inhabit the life of a snake on “If You’re A Viper” that the audience had stopped pointing. Her 12-string guitar is striking here; it shimmers on every song, particularly “Ribbon Bow.” Fairport Convention later took on the same song but needed seven instruments mic’ed up to match this. Best of all, Dalton and Tucker own “In The Pines” three decades before Kurt Cobain yelped his way through it as “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” on MTV Unplugged in New York in November 1993. Dalton herself had died of AIDS in New York eight months earlier.

Charles Mingus

Mingus: The Lost Album From Ronnie Scott’s

Just to whet your appetites for Record Store Day on April 23, one day after the 100th birthday of the great Charles Mingus, here’s a pearl delivered by our friends at Resonance Records. Mingus: The Lost Album From Ronnie Scott’s is not so much a lost record as a shelved record. Thankfully, it’s available now. Back in 1972, the iconic bassist and composer had just turned 50 and his career was experiencing a renaissance. This is something to be astonished by now. How could Mingus’ entire career not be embraced, lauded, enjoyed and placed appropriately on a pedestal? Thus is the fickle finger of fate. That aside, during this period, Mingus was in the midst of newfound fame and respect. He received the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship; his autobiography Beneath The Underdog came out to acclaim; he released the incredible big band album Let My Children Hear Music; and Alvin Ailey, one of the greatest choreographers in modern dance history, had created The Mingus Dances in conjunction with the Joffrey Ballet and complete with music from, of course, Mingus. (A re-staging of this last item would be a worthy pursuit for this Mingus centennial celebration.) The Lost Album finds Mingus in a sextet setting at the end of a European tour finishing up at London’s famed Ronnie Scott’s. The setting and timing seemed perfect, and Columbia Records sent a mobile recording truck to the club to tape the group for two nights. But the tapes languished for some 50 years because in 1973, Columbia dropped its entire jazz roster — except for Miles Davis. The story of how the tapes came to light is beautifully laid out in the extensive liner notes that accompany this three-LP (or three-CD) package. The story is fascinating, but the music is even more incredible. The sound of the recordings offers a pristine time capsule of one of the greatest artists in jazz with a group that measures up to his music. Just hearing Mingus introduce the first song, “Orange Was The Color Of Her Dress, Then Silk Blues,” sets the scene and sends a chill. The band was a new configuration of his sextet with old hands Bobby Jones on tenor saxophone and Charles McPherson on alto saxophone, but newer members fit right in: Roy Brooks on drums, John Foster on piano and a 19-year-old Jon Faddis on trumpet. They cook through the nine tunes on this package, culled from the two nights of performances. The highlights are aplenty. For this reviewer, there is nothing better than hearing Mingus’ solo introducing “Noddin’ Ya Head Blues.” No matter how far out the master took his music, he always carried the blues at his side. The solo slides beautifully into a true treat with Foster adding his gut-bucket vocals, complete with a shout-out to Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. The musicianship throughout recognizes Mingus’ love for music that was complex without being pristine — “organized chaos,” as McPherson calls it in the notes. There’s also the sheer humor and musical activism of Mingus and his crew. How do you not love a tune called “Mind-Reader’s Convention In Milano (AKA Number 29)” or the classic “Fables Of Faubus,” a tune that aimed to country-fry the governor of Arkansas for his attempts to stop racial integration at a high school? And, back to the blues, when Brooks pulls out a solo on the musical saw, he brings down the house. It’s such beautiful chaos — from “Ko Ko” and “Pops (AKA When The Saints Go Marching In)” to “The Man Who Never Sleeps” and the closer “Air Mail Special.” One last note, what a pleasure it is to hear Faddis as an upstart in this setting. He’ll light your hair on fire with his high notes and crazy chops — and so will this entire album. Mingus: The Lost Album From Ronnie Scott’s is as good a live jazz record as you will ever hear.

Jean-Michel Pilc

Alive–Live at Dièse Onze, Montréal
(Justin Time)

Jean-Michel Pilc prefers to fly without a net. A prolific pianist-composer and unpredictable improviser who excels at perpetual invention and is known for performing spellbinding solo sets with no set lists, he’s joined on his debut album for Justin Time by bassist Rémi-Jean LeBlanc and drummer Jim Doxas — longtime trio mates who, like their leader, strive for spontaneous expression in everything they play as a unit. Performing for a COVID-weary, jazz-starved audience at Montreal’s prestigious Dièse Onze jazz club last June, the group takes standards like “Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise” and Miles Davis’ “Nardis” and “All Blues” on long thrill-rides of creative deconstruction. Two Pilc originals — the quirky swinger “11 Sharp” and the gentle, lyrical title track — provide even more surprises as the trio takes listeners on dynamic adventures through an ever-evolving landscape of unexpected plot-twists and sudden style-shifts. But for all the merits of these exceptional players and their sophisticated musical interactions, it’s the overall emotional impact of the performance that makes Alive–Live At Dièse Onze, Montréal such a powerful and important document. The music is joyously uplifting — exhilarating, even — and covers a full gamut of intricacies and nuances that add up to a delightful and satisfying set. It was an amazing night, and the enthusiastic vibe enveloping the room translates nicely into album form. This is collective improvisation at its absolute best, with virtuoso-level artists in their natural habitat, the jazz club, playing music for its own sake. The Dièse Onze concert was recorded in its entirety, and the remainder of the music — the complete second set — is available in digital form for streaming and download. The additional material includes three more Davis-affiliated tracks (Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance” and the standards “Someday My Prince Will Come” and “My Funny Valentine”) along with an intricate romp through the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” a whimsical version of “All The Things You Are,” a lovely take on “My Romance” and an explosive journey into John Coltrane’s “Mr. P.C.” For more information on Jean-Michel Pilc and Alive–Live At Dièse Onze, Montréal, see our upcoming article in the June 2022 issue of DownBeat (print and digital editions).

Oren Ambarchi/Johan Berthling/Andreas Werliin

(Drag City)

It hurts to get ghosted, for sure, but on Ghosted, guitarist Oren Ambarchi, bassist Johan Berthling and drummer Andreas Werliin ruminate on the feeling at such length they seem to find a way out of it.

Given the title, this may scan as another quarantine-inspired project, but it actually dates back to November 2018. Ambarchi, Berthling and Werliin, three players equally versed in jazz and experimental approaches, met at Studio Rymden in Stockholm to make the music that became this album.

It’s all rooted in the rich tonality and repeating figures of Berthling’s bass, switching between acoustic and electric. Werliin backs him up but never sounds constrained by the role of drummer, tapping out patterns that match his collaborators in establishing himself as a lead instrumentalist. Ambarchi feels his way across this subtly — he begins the second track here, “II” (the song titles give us very little information — they’re called “I,” “II,” “III” and “IV”) with a harmonic figure before stretching into murmuring, expressive guitar effects. It all echoes Can at its most meditative prime.

On “III,” the three players divide up how they introduce their melodic ideas so carefully that you can hear Berthling breathing when he starts his bass line. The track stretches on past 15 minutes, masterfully placing the listener in a quiet mood. Ambarchi’s guitar, impressively, implies there are all manner of instruments here — organs, keyboards, trumpet — when they’re not. “IV” takes us home even more slowly and thoughtfully than everything that proceeded it; a fitting closer.

Mixed and mastered by Joe Talia at Good Mixture in Berlin, the album’s cover tells the tale — a lone figure shoots baskets alone on an expansive court at night. When you’ve been ghosted, you’ve got all the time and space in the world, and Ambarchi, Berthling and Werliin figured out what to do with that and set a soundtrack to it.

Ghosted is out on LP and digital download on April 15.

Cécile McLorin Salvant

Ghost Song

There’s an intellectual playfulness to everything that Cécile McLorin Salvant’s velvety voice touches. It rises and falls with authority, striking highs that flutter and lows that grumble and roar. Her wordplay teases, taunts and tests in a way that forces her to not just sing a lyric, but dive into roles with the zeal of a method actor. Take, for instance, Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights,” the opening track from Salvant’s new recording Ghost Song on Nonesuch. When she sings, “How could you leave me/ When I needed to possess you / I hated you / I loved you, too,” she becomes Catherine Earnshaw, the protagonist from Charlotte Brönte’s classic novel of the same name. From there, she flows into a medley of “Optimistic Voices/No Love Dying,” such an unusual, yet satisfying pairing. The former, a classic ditty from The Wizard Of Oz with avant garde overtones folded into the latter, a slow jam and one of the most beautiful ballads of the 2000s penned by Gregory Porter. Ghost Song is an album packed with such songs of ghosts and dreams just out of reach. Its title track drips with the blues of love lost: “I cried the day you decided to go/ I cried much more than you’ll ever know.” The break has her dancing with “the ghost of our long lost love,” and if it’s not enough for her to sing those lyrics, she puts a point of finality on the subject with a children’s choir singing the words though the close. The beauty of McLorin Salvant and her musical world comes from her curiosity, her depth and the artists she brings into that world. The musicianship throughout is impeccable, sometimes challenging, sometimes soothing, always true to the depth of each song. Take, for instance, “Until,” the longest of this 12-tune set. What starts as a quiet duet between the vocalist and pianist Sullivan Fortner, who is a force unto himself when soloing here, evolves into a tango-ish take featuring a terrific flute solo by Alexa Tarantino with James Chirillo plucking banjo and Keita Ogawa dancing beautifully on percussion. Salvant is a thinking person’s singer presenting Ghost Song as a complete work of art, where each song builds to conclusion, like a great play. The jolting “I Lost My Mind” is logically followed by the lovely “Moon Song.” On “Trail Mix,” Salvant gives her voice (not to mention pianists Fortner and Aaron Diehl) a rest as she admirably handles piano duties on this instrumental. “The World Is Mean,” from Kurt Weill’s Three Penny Opera, pours on pure tongue-in-cheek theater. “Dead Poplar” sets to music a letter from photographer Alfred Stieglitz to painter Georgia O’Keefe with heart-aching truth. “Thunderclouds” has the wistful intensity of something written by Norah Jones and sung by Joni Mitchell. Salvant closes with “Unquiet Grave,” an a cappella turn on this traditional and tragic bluegrass ballad. Its quiet mastery perfectly dims the lights as the curtain comes down.

Editor’s Note: If you’d like to read more about Cécile McLorin Salvant’s Ghost Song, check out her cover article in the March issue of DownBeat.

Mark Wade Trio

True Stories
(AMP Music & Records)

Mark Wade has advanced the art of jazz composition by drawing source material directly from the Western canon and spinning it into fodder for the bassist’s progressive-leaning trio with pianist Tim Harrison and drummer Scott Neumann. The highly original music heard on their latest group effort, True Stories, incorporates themes from Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Igor Stravinsky and other jazz and classical maestros whose writing has inspired and influenced Wade, an orchestral-level, genre-crossing instrumentalist who has assumed a leadership role in promoting the work of emerging jazz and classical composers via his 8-year-old concert-presenting organization New Music Horizons, and whose tension-free proficiency on electric and upright basses alone has earned the admiration of audiences extending well beyond his home base of New York. The landmark 1960s Davis quintet album Miles Smiles, the first jazz record Wade ever purchased, served as inspiration for the inventive spirit at play on the hard-hitting, ostinato-driven leadoff track, “I Feel More Like I Do Now.” “Falling Delores,” an epitome of elegance, connects two Wayne Shorter tunes (“Fall” and “Delores”) to an original theme by Wade. “The Soldier And The Fiddle,” inspired by Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, is a Wade original that borrows the iconic Russian composer’s signature technique of juxtaposing a steady underlying pulse against perpetually shifting meters. Weather Report enters the story on “In The Market,” a stylistic merger of exciting turns and twists that finds the trio splicing scenes from the seminal fusion group’s landmark 1976 album Black Market. The altered blues “Piscataway Went That-A-Way” brings Fred Hersch’s angular swinger “Swamp Thing” back to life, while “A Simple Song” bears personal touches of the late pianist and composer Frank Kimbrough (who was Wade’s teacher at NYU). The two-parter “Song With Orange & Other Things” combines a Wade original designed to sound like something Mingus would have written with an actual Mingus composition (the 1960 big band noir-bopper “Song With Orange”). “At The Sunside,” the last of this album’s true stories, borrows its first few notes from “Solokvist,” an upbeat instrumental rocker penned by Swedish soprano saxophonist Mikael Godee for the Scandinavian group CORPO, which included Wade on its 2018 European tour. In essence, Wade turned directly to his roots in order to find a new way forward with True Stories, interweaving his heroes’ eminently familiar melodic threads and textures with his own personal statements — and incorporating it all into a larger, living work of modern art.

Ilhan Ersahin/Dave Harrington/Kenny Wollesen

Invite Your Eye
(Nublu Records)

Ilhan Ersahin, Dave Harrington and Kenny Wollesen take inspiration from an undeniably cool cultural touchstone on their new project Invite Your Eye. The 1973 Robert Altman film The Long Goodbye starred Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe, a detective prowling the streets of Los Angeles, deftly getting himself out of one jam after another while staying one step ahead of a rotating cast of characters with a range of agendas. Marlowe claims all he wants out of all this is “50 bucks a day and expenses,” but as the plot thickens, he gets a lot more invested than that.

The film’s original soundtrack by venerated Hollywood composer John Williams featured 10 different versions of its title song — a very of-the-era trick — realizing it as a pop vocal, a tango, mariachi, a sitar piece, a barroom piano tune, a bebop number, fusion, elevator music and a lounge singer routine.

Wollesen (who has worked with Tom Waits, John Zorn and Norah Jones) on drums, Harrington (of electronic duo Darkside) on guitar, bass and electronics, and Ersahin (who’s also a composer and club-label owner) on saxophone turn in two versions of “The Long Goodbye” of their own, rendering the song at first meditative and abstract, then a bit more ambient and electronically tinged.

What Invite Your Eye borrows most from The Long Goodbye is mood. The film is purposely dark, literally, with a great deal of its action occurring at night. The music here fits — opener “And It Happens Every Day,” with its slow, ruminative sax, evokes a life of purpose on the streets.

Elsewhere on the project, Ersahin, Harrington and Wollesen do get cooking a bit, as on “Wreck The Study,” where a slippery slide guitar works out over a compelling change before the whole thing randomly falls apart before picking back up at a more thoughtful pace. Their nine-minute slow burn “Dusty Village,” meanwhile, is a whole other animal.

This project began in a late-night jam session between the three players one night in summer 2019 at a studio in Brooklyn — far away from the film’s Californian setting. Harrington then took these recordings to his new studio in L.A. and reconstructed them, with the three adding overdubs and creating studio-based compositions from the raw improvisations. Harrison said the end result is a picture of “the imagined Los Angeles of the mind that I try to live in: a place where the psychedelic can be both inspiring and sinister, and where possibility and reality are in constant competition and conversation.”

New Standard Quintet

Another Time, Another Place
(CD Baby/New Standard Music)

Composition plays a priority role in Ken Partyka’s New Standard jazz groups. The Chicago-based saxophonist crafts magnificent charts for large and small ensembles, as on the New Standard Jazz Orchestra’s 2016 album Waltz About Nothing (OA2) and the New Standard Quintet’s 2011 debut, The Many Faces (CD Baby/New Standard Music). And he consistently includes contributions of original material penned by band members in his studio recordings and live sets. That’s part of what gives the New Standard Quintet (like its counterpart the New Standard Jazz Orchestra, a contemporary “writing” big band formed in 2013 and co-led with trombonist-composer Andy Baker) such a strong collective voice. So it comes as no surprise that the quintet’s newly released Another Time, Another Place, a seven-track program consisting entirely of originals by Partyka, pianist-keyboardist Tom Vaitsas and guitarist Pat Fleming, gets high marks for its compositional ambition, delightful melodic content and sheer originality. But that’s only half of what gives Another Time, Another Place its wide-ranging appeal. Let’s not forget the extreme sensitivity to musical detail and the impassioned, advanced soloing at work as the musicians mindfully weave in and out of a multitude of genres on the jazz-and-blues spectrum. The sheer confidence revealed in their extended blowing demonstrates just how intimate these guys are with their own material, arrangements they have shaped together over years of gigging as a working group. It’s clear throughout Another Time, Another Place that all five of these Chicago A-listers — bassist Curt Bley and drummer Todd Howell among them — are deeply invested in, and have thoroughly digested, this dynamic, highly original repertoire. Fleming’s “Go Down Gamblin’” opens the album with some feel-good swing in 5, though that doesn’t stop Partyka from bopping all over the place at the peak of his extended soprano solo, nor Vaitsas from invoking Adderley-era Joe Zawinul on Fender Rhodes, nor Fleming from indulging his proclivity for prog-rock tones and outside constructions. Indeed, Another Time, Another Place deals in odd time signatures and processed sounds common to more contemporary forms, but approaches the music’s more modern aspects with an easygoing, old-school attitude. The Partyka-Vaitsas tune “The Guy In The Corner” is a second-line driven celebration of funkiness and inclusion fueled by an infectious groove and distinguished by Partyka’s contemporary-soul alto wailing. A major highlight of this November 2018 session is the title track, whose entrancing ancestral drones enchant the listener with dreams of other places and other times, a fitting context for Partyka’s resonant tenor to call out in what feels like communication with ancient communal voices. Guest artist Kalyan Pathak enlivens three tracks with his signature brand of percussion magic, most notably his expressive tabla contributions to the title track. He turns to his arsenal of congas, bongos and tambourine to summon a syncopated Mardis Gras spirit on “The Guy In The Corner” and employs cajon to help cement the steady, tango-like pulse of “Belle Of The Ball.”

Isaiah Collier & The Chosen Few

‘Lift Every Voice And Sing’
(Division 81)

In honor of Black History Month, Isaiah Collier & The Chosen Few today dropped its rendition of “Lift Every Voice And Sing,” and it’s beautiful. The Chosen Few recorded the tune at the end of its session that resulted in Cosmic Transitions (Division 81), a recording that has garnered plenty of praise for the 23-year-old woodwind player and multi-instrumentalist from Chicago, including a 5-star review in the June 2021 issue of DownBeat. This is a plaintive, grooving rendition offers a 13-minute treatise on a composition that means so much to Black history and is often referred to as the Black national anthem. Collier and his saxophone are one in an emotionally charged performance channeling lessons he gleaned as a devotee of John Coltrane and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). He’s expertly backed by Michael Shekwoaga Ode on drums, Jeremiah Hunt on upright bass and Mike King on piano. The single also includes a fantastic B-side, titled “Guidance (Yoruba Soul Mix).” Both tunes have one foot in exploration and both feet steeped deep in the groove. Collier and company deserve a serious listen; you can do so HERE. Better yet, support these young mavericks and buy the single. It’s worth the investment.

Nina Simone

Feeling Good: Her Greatest Hits & Remixes

Nina Simone’s music and message continue to resonate with new audiences, particularly with her scene-stealing appearance in Questlove’s 1969 festival documentary Summer of Soul currently streaming on Hulu and playing in select theaters, and Verve underlines that point with this project. Over two discs, this compilation first gathers 19 of Simone’s most indelible songs such as “Mississippi Goddam,” “Strange Fruit,” “I Loves You Porgy,” “I Put A Spell On You” and Simone’s timeless version of “Feeling Good.” Then, top DJs and producers Joel Corry, Riton, Sofi Tukker, Rudimental, Hot Chip, Floorplan and Honne update seven of Simone’s songs for the dance floor and beyond.

The 19 established tracks are exemplary, of course, but the headline here is Verve updating Simone for a modern audience.

Her audibly weary embrace of joy on the title track is taken to new heights by Corry’s deft addition of synths and thudding drums. Mark Ronson and Dua Lipa collaborator Riton fittingly infuse “See Line Woman” with an island breeze of textures. Sofi Tukker, who’s worked with Lady Gaga, among others, expertly chops up Simone’s piano and vocals, gleefully reveling in her ability to play with the sounds on hand here. English electronic music duo HONNE make Simone groove with a bit of a Radiohead-esque lilt on “My Baby Just Cares For Me.” And synth-pop band Hot Chip, which boasts an impressive resume, having worked with Amy Winehouse, Florence and the Machine and Sia, turns “Be My Husband” into an appropriately slow burner of a finish. One wonders who could possibly say no to the question at hand.

Remix albums are a dicey proposition, especially with an artist as venerated as Simone in play. But Feeling Good: Her Greatest Hits & Remixes works because it provides a healthy dose of what made her great in her own time and then cherrypicks how and when to re-contextualize her. It achieves its ambitious goal: to bring Simone to audiences young and old with fresh ears.

Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Hero Trio

Animal Crossing

Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Hero Trio is a serious attempt at a jazz group that doesn’t take itself too seriously. From the group’s beginning with the 2020 launch of Rudresh Mahanthappa Hero Trio (Whirlwind), the alto saxophonist and his superhero companions Rudy Royston Jr. (drums) and François Moutin (bass) have been carving up songs faster than a speeding bullet and sending them back as launchpads of improvisation. Now the Hero Trio returns with an EP that clocks in at 22 minutes and 39 seconds of pure joy. For those old enough, remember waking up, playing an album side, then heading out for the day? It’s like that. Just four great tunes that will make you laugh, think and slap a smile on your face. For Mahanthappa, it seems that he selected three songs that reminded him of his youth, and one more that reminded him of his youths. For the front of that statement, the trio does a serious explosion on “Missouri Uncompromised,” a Pat Metheny tune from the guitarist’s 1976 debut Bright Size Life (ECM). The original was also from a trio with Metheny, bassist Jaco Pastorius and drummer Bob Moses. Here, Mahanthappa and his alto saxophone cut deep on a tune written to skewer the Missouri Compromise of 1820, a law that admitted Missouri as a slave state while banning slavery from Maine and the remaining land from the Louisiana Purchase. This is the deepest, and perhaps most satisfying, cut from the session. Mahanthappa’s alto pierces in a way that the warm tone of Metheny’s guitar could not. Moutin and Royston serve as perfect foils, handling the pressure of measuring up to the original with confidence and power. Beyond that, Mahanthappa seeks to bolster the status of flugelhornist Chuck Mangione with a version of “Give It All You’ve Got” as a really lovely ballad, reminding listeners of Mangione’s bona fides as composer and member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers before he became a pop-jazz star in the ’70s. The trio then speeds ahead to the late ’80s for a chuckle-inducing turn on George Michael’s mega-hit “Faith.” There has certainly never been this kind of ambitious, rambunctious blitz on the tune. The trio slashes into improvisation for the first 90 seconds before hitting the melody for a spell, then launching back into a terrific give-and-take preceding the outro. Mahanthappa notes in the press materials that the second pass through the melody is superimposed on the chord changes of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” Finally, there’s the title tune. It seems that the saxophonist has been spending a lot of extra time at home with his two young children during the pandemic. Animal Crossing is the name of a popular video game series for youngsters. The Hero Trio turns its theme song, miraculously, into a jazz playground. It’s a cool, grooving tune showing off the individual talents of all three musicians as well as their fierce interconnectedness. While “Missouri Uncompromised” is all about seriousness, don’t think for a minute that the EP’s other three tunes are tongue-in-cheek. The trio does serious work here while having a good time. It’s proof that anything can be turned into jazz, and if the artists are special, the results can be downright heroic.

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's the Hero Trio, from left, Rudy Royston, Rudresh Mahanthappa and François Moutin.
It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s the Hero Trio: from left, Rudy Royston,
Rudresh Mahanthappa and François Moutin.

Various Artists

Summer Of Soul
(Sony Legacy)

The Harlem Cultural Festival ran from late June to late August in 1969, and was a stacked deck of then-current talent drawn from jazz, blues and more, presented as a series of concerts in New York City. All of this is the focus of renowned drummer and all-over hyphenate Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s new documentary Summer Of Soul, which won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and is streaming now on Hulu. The soundtrack to that film is out this week.

Summer Of Soul describes the festival as “Black Woodstock” from the outset, hosting “a sea of Black people” — an estimated audience of 300,000. It features footage of performers and audience members that laid dormant for over 50 years, all filmed at Mt. Morris Park in Harlem. While the soundtrack can’t possibly contain everything the film does, Questlove cherry picks its best appearances (within reason — Stevie Wonder’s music was apparently unavailable, and Sonny Sharrock is also absent). It all kicks off appropriately with the Chamber Brothers ripping through “Uptown,” then, just as the festival did, the music goes all over the map. We get blues, soul and R&B from legends like B.B. King, David Ruffin, Gladys Knight & The Pips. We get a big blast of Fania bona fides from Mongo Santamaria and Ray Barretto, both rivetingly expressive. Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach are practically regal on “Africa.” In the film, they’re depicted as a music power couple, and they sound like it.

The soundtrack goes to church, too, bringing out The Edwin Hawkins Singers, The Staples Singers and Mahalia Jackson. Pops Staples is a revelation, simply tearing his guitar apart.

Thompson wisely saves the main attractions for the end of the album. Sly & The Family Stone turn in superb performances of “Sing a Simple Song” and ”“Everyday People,” and Sly sounds a lot happier to be here than he did at Woodstock right around the same time. The film and recording both remind us that while everything about The Family Stone was great, trumpeter and singer Cynthia Robinson could become the star of the show whenever she wanted.

This all closes out with Nina Simone. In the film, a female audience member says of Simone, “We walked on water” to see her. Well worth it. Simone takes over the festival, practically bashing on her piano in authoritatively leading her band on “Backlash Blues.” Then, here, she introduces “Are You Ready” as a poem written by The Last Poets’ David Nelson, in her words, one of “three black poets or six or maybe 100 in this town.” Over a percussive backdrop, she reads the poem after apologizing for not having memorized it. But despite not being a recitation, it’s rousing, a fitting end to the recording.

The film addresses a context that the album cannot — the then-recent assassinations of MLK and RFK, the Black Panthers (who provided security at the event when the NYPD refused), and, entertainingly, the moon landing, which its commentators have little patience for. “I couldn’t care less about the moon landing,” one says. “Never mind the moon. Let’s get some of this cash in Harlem.”

Fair point, but perhaps it’s for the best that this isn’t present on the album, because what you’re left with is the pure joy of the music, and the connection between the performers and the audience. The movie ends with the film and music industry’s disinterest toward what happened — notice that this soundtrack hasn’t been filling used vinyl crates for decades. Regardless, it’s here now.

Fred Hersch

Breath By Breath

Pianist and composer Fred Hersch has delivered some of the most interesting music in jazz for the better part of four decades. The art he makes is not disposable in any sense of the word. It is indestructible and lasting. Take, for instance, Breath By Breath, his latest recording of jazz trio with string quartet, an amazingly satisfying listening experience. Many jazz-meets-classical projects have come out in recent months, and what places Hersch at the forefront of this particular trend (see DownBeat’s February 2022 issue) is his singular vision of presenting something of depth, all the while displaying a quintessential mastery of both the piano and composition. On Breath By Breath, Hersch creates a suite of music based on his long-time dedication to the practice of meditation. Many of the songs (like “Rising, Falling”) create a sense of breathing in and out as the strings, piano, bass and drums play in, through and around the pulse. But don’t think of this as some experiment in new-age faux mysticism. This is a high-level melding of jazz and classical elements, one that seems easy, natural and full of life. “Begin Again KSM3” kicks off the suite with Hersch playing a simple piano motif. It’s classic Hersch — catchy, classy and thoughtful. Enter bassist Drew Guess and drummer Jochen Rueckert, along with the Crosby Street String Quartet of violinists Joyce Hermann and Laura Seaton, violist Lois Martin and cellist Jody Redhage Ferber. The strings function almost like a fourth member of the trio — punctuating, pulsing, adding color — but it is not just for show. There are elements of absolute beauty on pieces like “Awakened Heart,” the title track “Breath By Breath” and the closer “Pastorale.” And there are moments of near giddiness on numbers like “Monkey Mind” and “Mara.” These compositions masterfully transform the two groups into one, and together they build a musical universe that’s different from anything else on the scene today.

Andrew Hadro/Petros Klampanis

Regarding The Moon
(ΠΚ Music)

The single is something that is as old as jazz itself. It mostly went away during the album era of the 1960s, but singles in jazz and new music have begun to make a comeback in recent years. And during the pandemic, the trend has exploded with artists putting out recordings as they are finished instead of waiting for a collection of work to be completed. In that spirit, here’s an amazingly ambitious, independently produced single by baritone saxophonist Andrew Hadro. In full disclosure, Hadro is a longtime friend of this writer. So, when he said he was working on a new project, it was, “Great, can’t wait to hear it.” But “Regarding The Moon,” his new work, goes well beyond any independent project I’ve heard in recent years. First, it’s musically stunning. Hadro commissioned composer Petros Klampanis to write a piece that would feature the baritone saxophone’s uppermost registers. Hadro has made playing the baritone’s altissimo range a focus of his art. It has required him to practically relearn his instrument and seriously woodshed on technique and control. He worked on this piece for a year before beginning to commit it to record. Getting the single out took some 18 months. But the finished product is worth the wait. This isn’t technique for technique’s sake. The piece serves as a loving ballad, and a bit of a nod to Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” delivered with stunning precision and grace. The music pairs Hadro’s baritone with a double quartet of strings — featuring four violins, two violas and two cellos — along with bass, piano and drums. There is so much complexity here, with the high drama and grandeur of Hadro’s big horn awash in gorgeous arrangements of strings. It’s a very different direction for Hadro. He’s known as a jazz musician who has played with the late Junior Mance as well as saxophonist Tony Malaby. But this is a completely composed piece, much different than the music he created in those settings. So, is it jazz? New music? Who cares. It’s a work of extraordinary beauty. And what’s exciting is that more has been promised. “Regarding The Moon” is part of Hadro’s larger, ongoing project “For Us, The Living,” under which he plans to debut more works during the coming year and beyond. What he’s done here as an independent artist is crazy-ambitious in scope but incredibly beautiful in execution.

Josh Sinton


Josh Sinton opens a portal into the core essence of the baritone saxophone on b., the first of a series of albums the multi-instrumentalist, composer and bandleader plans to release over the coming year. It’s also his first solo album, and in many ways represents a culmination of nearly three decades spent performing, writing and refining his technique as well as listening to his sound mature and evolve on bari and bass clarinet. Akin to the avant-leaning solo saxophone albums recorded by the likes of the late Steve Lacy, Sam Newsome and Jon Irabagon, b. is an exploratory event. Sinton’s unaccompanied improvisations are purposeful and structured, complete compositions made in the moment and documented here using simple alphanumeric titles. The beauty of these pieces lies not so much in melodic lines and implied chord progressions, but in the impressionistic textures and timbres Sinton manipulates with such delicate precision, his use of breath effects and multiphonics, his deeply resonant upper register and his barking low end. Silence between notes and phrases is highly effective in helping the music breathe and in keeping the listener focused and in a state of perpetual anticipation. The 50-year-old Sinton plans three more album releases in 2022, including a trio outing reuniting him with pianist Jed Wilson and drummer Tony Falco (June 3), a solo recording of him performing six advanced-level etudes published by Lacy (Aug. 12) and a visionary project with his Predicate quartet (with trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, cellist Christopher Hoffman and drummer Tom Rainey) titled 4 freedoms (Oct. 28). Gig alert: Sinton will share a twin bill with soprano master Newsome at iBeam in Brooklyn on Feb. 11. Each saxophonist will perform solo, followed by a set of the two performing together. If you find listening to b. a rewarding experience, expect the upcoming iBeam show — where the baby sax meets the big pipe — to be a highly satisfying, memorable event.

John Mayall

The Sun Is Shining Down
(Forty Below)

British bluesman John Mayall has been a major force in the genre going back decades. As is legend, talent he fostered was handed off to huge classic rock acts like Cream, the Rolling Stones and more. What’s remarkable is that the guitarist, singer and songwriter has kept at it, with a discography that stretches into dozens of albums. Next month he returns with The Sun Is Shining Down, which finds Mayall teaming up with a stellar cast to deliver an impressively honest, flat-out blues album. As usual, he has some expertly selected talent on hand, including The Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell, roots rocker Marcus King, Americana artist Buddy Miller, Scarlet Rivera (famously a member of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue), Chicago blues guitarist Melvin Taylor and Hawaiian ukulele artist Jake Shimabukuro. The project was recorded at The Doors’ Robby Krieger’s Horse Latitudes studio with Grammy-nominated producer Eric Corne. Right out of the gate, Mayall sounds energized on “Hungry And Ready,” with Taylor proving a perfect fit on lead guitar. You really wouldn’t think this guy is 88 years old. His voice is still strong but even better is his harmonica playing. On that instrument, he’s still on par with Paul Butterfield, another canny bandleader, yet one who left us more than 30 years ago. Elsewhere here, on the fittingly titled “A Quitter Never Wins,” Mayall, for once, goes at it with no special guest, putting his harmonica front and center from the top before essaying the end of a relationship. On “Deep Blue Sea,” Rivera’s fiddle playing is just as festive and rousing as ever — she clearly hasn’t lost a step, either. The whole thing wraps up with “The Sun Is Shining,” a medium-tempo number showcasing some expertly subtle lead guitar from Carolyn Wonderland.

Adam Rudolph

Resonant Bodies
(Meta Records)

Resonant Bodies is the 12th release in master percussionist and world music pioneer Adam Rudolph’s series of recordings with Go: Organic Orchestra, his long-running concept for a new, globally based creative music ensemble. Previous recordings in the series, which Rudolf began developing in 2001, feature a variety of instrumental configurations of varying sizes. But for Resonant Bodies, Rudolph envisioned an entirely new kind of ensemble experience: a nine-piece guitar orchestra consisting of some of New York’s finest and most adventurous players: Nels Cline, Liberty Ellman, David Gilmore, Miles Okazaki, Joel Harrison and Kenny Wessel on electric guitars and effects; Marco Cappelli on acoustic guitar and effects; Jerome Harris on electric guitar and electric bass; and Damon Banks on bass. The recording is a document of the group’s final performance from its 2015 tour, the culmination of a perpetually evolving shared experience. Each guitarist brings his own voice and phraseology to this egalitarian effort under strict instructions from conductor Rudolph to “not think like a guitarist.” The leader sought to discourage his virtuosic players from relying on instrumental technique, instead encouraging them to seek soulful and creative sounds. “I asked them … to imagine they were playing an oboe, or were singing, or a Moog or a flock of birds,” he explained. “The idea was to have the music transcend the idea of thinking a certain way that the technique of playing a particular instrument can sometimes encourage. I think we succeeded.” They do indeed succeed, and the result is completely organic music that’s profoundly original, strikingly powerful and dialog-driven. It resonates with electric-acoustic energy and buzzes with aliveness. Go: Organic Guitar Orchestra is a natural evolution for Rudolph’s futuristic orchestral vision. The music asks to be heard on its own terms; its unprecedented sounds and in-the-moment formulations invite the listener to set aside any preconceived ideas and expectations, and the rewards are immense.

Ill Considered

Liminal Space
(New Soil)

Ill Considered has been making a name for itself over the past four years with packed live shows in the U.K. and an ongoing series of nine limited-run, DIY live recordings that sell out to fans as soon as they drop. Liminal Space, the group’s 10th recording and first to be fully produced, loses none of the power of those raw predecessors and gains all the sheen of the studio. Core group members Idris Rahman (saxophone), Liran Donin (bass) and Emre Ramazanoglu (drums) drive furious improvisational invention over fantastically danceable beats. They play a trance-dance, spiritual style of jazz that’s bold, edgy and flat-out awesome. Somewhere, Don Pullen and Sun Ra are smiling. Take, for example, the aptly titled “Dervish,” where the three dig into a sinister, nasty march and spur each other to push harder and go farther. Ramazanouglu’s drums and Donin’s bass rage with rapid-fire angst. So, too, does Raham’s beckoning saxophone, which shifts into stratospheric zeitgeist via digital audio processing. But the music always has a spiritual edge, like the plaintive call of “Pearls,” the hopefulness of “Prayer” or the loping tempos of “Sandstorm.” On Liminal Space, the trio is joined by guests who represent an array of the U.K.’s finest young improvisers: Tamar Osborn, Sarathy Korwar, Ahnanse, Theon Cross, Kaidi Akinnibi, Ralph Wylde, Robin Hopcraft and Ollie Savill. They bring new layers, directions and energy to a production that is already teeming. There is so much to like on Liminal Space, and in Ill Considered, which effortlessly blends wide-ranging influences — from jazz freedom to punkish angst to spiritual mother Africa. This is a group that is looking toward its first tour of the U.S. soon. You’ll find this writer at the front of the line.

Malcolm Jiyane

(Mushroom Hour Half Hour)

Trombonist and pianist Malcolm Jiyane has heretofore existed on the South African jazz scene as a sideman, most notably working with the Johannesburg, South African-based group Spaza, which describes itself on Bandcamp as “a band with no permanent personnel, with each lineup assembled for the express purpose of recording once-off improvised or workshopped material.” Jiyane was an integral part of its 2020 LP Uprize!

He brings that same spirit to his debut as a frontman on Umdali. And what he presents is an honest snapshot of his personal circumstances at the time of recording. In that period, several years ago, Jiyane was dealing with the death of a band member (trombonist Jonas Gwangwa), the birth of a daughter and the passing of his mentor Johnny Mekoa, founder of the Music Academy of Gauteng.

The enormous seriousness of all this definitely affects the music. Backed by bassist Ayanda Zalekile, drummer Lungile Kunene, percussionist Gontse Makhene, pianist Nkosinathi Mathunjwa, saxophonist Nhlanhla Mahlangu and trumpeters Brandon Ruiters and Tebogo Seitei, Jiyane and his assembled collective of like-minded players ruminate on the meaning of life and death to enormous effect. The songs here swell and search in a way that feels simultaneously arranged and spontaneous — it makes sense that Spaza won’t commit to saying whether its material is improvised or workshopped.

A standout is “Umkhumbi kaMA,” consistently percussive and layered with shifting sections that continually unfold an enjoyable seriousness. What Jiyane does so well throughout the album is provide his assembled contributors space for expression while making the proceedings effortlessly cohere — impressive, considering this was conceived of and recorded within two days in Johannesburg. Umdali meaningfully contributes to the ongoing, essential dialogue on what it means to improvise within the context of jazz.

Bitchin Bajas

Switched On Ra
(Drag City)

Many albums over the last year-and-a-half were born out of, and inspired by, the pandemic and the subsequent quarantine. But Switched On Ra came about because of an adjacent issue — the massive delays at besieged vinyl pressing plants.

Bitchin Bajas finished its new album back in May, and the Chicago-based trio, centered on multi-instrumentalist Cooper Crain, is particular about how it issues music. The band’s last album, 2017’s Bajas Fresh, was mastered at half-speed for vinyl at Abbey Road Studios in London. When Bitchin Bajas submitted its first album in four years, it was told it wouldn’t be pressed and out until June 2022.

So Bitchin Bajas searched for something else to do, and Sun Ra rose into its sights. If released digitally and manufactured on cassette, this new project could come out within months, which Crain said felt in the spirit of Sun Ra — creation as a decisive, immediate action.

Bitchin Bajas is no stranger to a cassette release — in fact, in double-cassette format, Bajas Fresh had more songs on it than its vinyl counterpart. The band is also no stranger to jazz, as Bajas member Rob Frye layers saxophone and flute over its meditative soundscapes.

Not that there’s much horn to be heard here, as the band interprets Sun Ra via another musical figure, noted synthesizer pioneer Wendy Carlos, she of Switched-On Bach fame, hence the title. The cassette’s case lists a dizzying lineup of synthesizers from Casio, Crumar, Korg, Moog, Realistic, Roland, Sequential and Yamaha, as well as Crain’s trusty Ace Tone Top 8 organ.

Moving past the tactics of the approach taken, this is a broad and deep burst across Sun Ra’s entire catalog, going as far back as the bandleader’s 1957 debut, Jazz By Sun Ra, for “A Call For All Demons,” and, moving forward, plucking gems from the early ’60s (“Moon Dance,” “We Travel The Spaceways”), late ’60s (“Outer Spaceways Incorporated”), early ’70s (“Space Is The Place”), late ’70s (“Lanquidity”) and all the way to 1990 for “Opus In Springtime” from his final album, Mayan Temples.

This is a long look into Sun Ra’s space, seen through the telescopic lens of 18 keyboards. Then, guest Jayve Montgomery adds an Akai EWI-4000 as a solo voice on a few tunes, just to get some air-blown signal in there, and this serves as a natural shout-out to the Arkestra’s Marshall Allen, a master of the electronic wind instrument. Even better, the Bajas’ Daniel Quinlivan turns in charming vocoder-treated vocals on “Outer Spaceways Incorporated” and “We Travel The Spaceways,” giving this trek through the stars a captain.

How’s it sound? Heady for sure. Sun Ra himself was no stranger to keyboards, using them very early on and throughout his career, and one imagines this commitment to keyboards as tools to execute his visions would make him smile. The band states the prominent themes of Sun Ra’s songs like his classic “Space Is The Place” but leaves plenty of room to improvise around them. Meanwhile, it makes the proceedings consistently rhythmic, admirable considering there’s not a trap-kit in sight here. Sun Ra’s 1972 album Space Is The Place, which was also recorded in Chicago, states on its packaging, “As all Marines are riflemen, all members of the Arkestra are percussionists.” Given this project, Crain, Frye and Quinlivan seem to have enlisted.

Louis Hayes


The latest album from Louis Hayes, recorded back in January, sports a title that seems completely appropriate for the COVID era from whence it sprang. Named after an early-’60s hard-bop tune by Freddie Hubbard, who was a close friend and contemporary of the veteran jazz drummer, Crisis is intended as a tribute to all of Hayes’ past and current colleagues. In addition to the title track, which deftly shifts grooves from swing to Latin and back again (à la “On Green Dolphin Street”), the program also includes classic material penned by jazz royals Bobby Hutcherson (“Roses Poses”), Lee Morgan (“Desert Moonlight”) and Joe Farrell (“Arab Arab”). Dezron Douglas and Steve Nelson, this session’s bassist and vibraphonist, each contribute compositions (“Oxygen” and “Alien Visitation,” respectively) that will surely resonate with listeners hungry for contemporary sounds and ideas. The versatile pianist David Hazeltine and the vital tenor saxophonist Abraham Burton round out the all-star quintet, which approaches the diverse source material with a combination of raw enthusiasm and easy coolness, hallmarks of hard-bop’s golden age — a time when Hayes regularly shared bandstands with giants of the late ’50s and early ’60s like Horace Silver, Dexter Gordon, Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Rollins and Woody Shaw. Three standards from the Great American Songbook (powerful renditions of “I’m Afraid The Masquerade Is Over” and “Where Are You?” by guest vocalist Camille Thurman, and a partially deconstructed zip through “It’s Only A Paper Moon”) link Hayes and his hard-bopping ilk to an even earlier period on the jazz timeline. The one original here by Hayes — a loose, twisty number called “Creeping Crud” — actually has the staying power to potentially become a standard one day, an enjoyably quirky relic from the sinister age of COVID. Hayes’ grooves on Crisis are solid yet completely unforced, and he kicks up plenty of magic dust throughout via the well-placed crashes, bombs, tom-rolls and snare cracks that have marked his signature swinging style for decades.

Oscar Peterson

A Time For Love: The Oscar Peterson Quartet–Live In Helsinki
(Mack Avenue)

While the title of this album is A Time For Love, a more apt heading might be A Time To Burn because that’s exactly what Peterson and his quartet do throughout this 12-tune blast of joy. The recording captures Peterson, guitarist Joe Pass, bassist Dave Young and drummer Martin Drew on the last show of the group’s 1987 fall tour. “There was no set list. Just get out there and play,” Young wrote in the liner notes. “Just by Oscar playing an intro, we’d know.” Those notes also include an eloquent tribute to Peterson by pianist Benny Green as well as some loving words from Oscar’s widow, Kelly Peterson. Packaging aside, the music is the star here. The pianist is at the height of his musical prowess. The same can be said for guitarist Pass. If listening to the two of them blistering through “Sushi” can’t slap a smile on your face, get to the emergency room. While Young and Drew lock the rhythm in a chokehold of swing, Peterson and Pass dance with unlimited imagination across their instruments. “A Salute To Bach” offers more of that goodness at a breakneck tempo, turning the work of the iconic Baroque-era classical composer into hard-burning bebop. Clocking in at more than 20 minutes, the interplay between Pass and Peterson is, again, unbelievably intricate, demonstrating a mastery that few in the history of jazz could ever match. Young also takes a terrific bass solo on the tune. “Love” is in the title of this album, and there are certainly some wonderful ballads here such as the aptly named “Love Ballade” as well as the title cut. The intro to the latter offers a nice glimpse of Peterson’s classy onstage persona as he introduces the band before drifting elegantly into his keyboard. There is so much to love on this recording. The sound of Peterson patting his foot along to the beat of “How High The Moon” gives this music that edge of authenticity as something truly live, organic and exquisitely recorded. “Waltz For Debbie” swings dreamlike; “When You Wish Upon A Star” gives goosebumps as Pass quietly picks the intro, then plays the tune solo. It’s hauntingly beautiful. The 18-minute “Duke Ellington Medley” is a joy, and the closer, Peterson’s own “Blues Etude,” serves as a full-out sprint to the end, complete with Peterson’s solo stride break in the middle. Whew! This is jazz as good as it gets, as the crowd’s raucous applause at the end demonstrates.

Bitchin Bajas

Switched On Ra
(Drag City)

Many albums over the last year-and-a-half were born out of, and inspired by, the pandemic and the subsequent quarantine. But Switched On Ra came about because of an adjacent issue — the massive delays at besieged vinyl pressing plants.

Bitchin Bajas finished its new album back in May, and the Chicago-based trio, centered on multi-instrumentalist Cooper Crain, is particular about how it issues music. The band’s last album, 2017’s Bajas Fresh, was mastered at half-speed for vinyl at Abbey Road Studios in London. When Bitchin Bajas submitted its first album in four years, it was told it wouldn’t be pressed and out until June 2022.

So Bitchin Bajas searched for something else to do, and Sun Ra rose into its sights. If released digitally and manufactured on cassette, this new project could come out within months, which Crain said felt in the spirit of Sun Ra — creation as a decisive, immediate action.

Bitchin Bajas is no stranger to a cassette release — in fact, in double-cassette format, Bajas Fresh had more songs on it than its vinyl counterpart. The band is also no stranger to jazz, as Bajas member Rob Frye layers saxophone and flute over its meditative soundscapes.

Not that there’s much horn to be heard here, as the band interprets Sun Ra via another musical figure, noted synthesizer pioneer Wendy Carlos, she of Switched-On Bach fame, hence the title. The cassette’s case lists a dizzying lineup of synthesizers from Casio, Crumar, Korg, Moog, Realistic, Roland, Sequential and Yamaha, as well as Crain’s trusty Ace Tone Top 8 organ.

Moving past the tactics of the approach taken, this is a broad and deep burst across Sun Ra’s entire catalog, going as far back as the bandleader’s 1957 debut, Jazz By Sun Ra, for “A Call For All Demons,” and, moving forward, plucking gems from the early ’60s (“Moon Dance,” “We Travel The Spaceways”), late ’60s (“Outer Spaceways Incorporated”), early ’70s (“Space Is The Place”), late ’70s (“Lanquidity”) and all the way to 1990 for “Opus In Springtime” from his final album, Mayan Temples.

This is a long look into Sun Ra’s space, seen through the telescopic lens of 18 keyboards. Then, guest Jayve Montgomery adds an Akai EWI-4000 as a solo voice on a few tunes, just to get some air-blown signal in there, and this serves as a natural shout-out to the Arkestra’s Marshall Allen, a master of the electronic wind instrument. Even better, the Bajas’ Daniel Quinlivan turns in charming vocoder-treated vocals on “Outer Spaceways Incorporated” and “We Travel The Spaceways,” giving this trek through the stars a captain.

How’s it sound? Heady for sure. Sun Ra himself was no stranger to keyboards, using them very early on and throughout his career, and one imagines this commitment to keyboards as tools to execute his visions would make him smile. The band states the prominent themes of Sun Ra’s songs like his classic “Space Is The Place” but leaves plenty of room to improvise around them. Meanwhile, it makes the proceedings consistently rhythmic, admirable considering there’s not a trap-kit in sight here. Sun Ra’s 1972 album Space Is The Place, which was also recorded in Chicago, states on its packaging, “As all Marines are riflemen, all members of the Arkestra are percussionists.” Given this project, Crain, Frye and Quinlivan seem to have enlisted.

Farnell Newton

Feel The Love

Farnell Newton comes at jazz with a wider, more encompassing view than most. The trumpeter best known for creating the social media group Jam of the Week (which now has some 70,000 members), and hosting his jazz radio show on KMHD in Portland, Oregon, has had his heart in jazz throughout his career, even while playing and touring with a range of artists that spans funk bassist Bootsy Collins, soul singer Jill Scott and many others.

Newton blew into New York City from his home in Portland to record Feel The Love with the backing of Art Hirahara on piano, Boris Kozlov on bass and Rudy Royston on drums — a group affectionately known as the house rhythm section for Posi-Tone Records. The album has the feel of post-bop grittiness and experience Newton has earned from years on road and ears that are wide open to the new. Now in his mid-40s, the trumpeter and composer has a firm grip on the music he makes. The 11-song collection on Feel The Love features five of his original tunes, but doesn’t lean on old chestnuts to fill out the scorecard. Instead, Newton selects work by living, working composers on the scene today. His friend and musical co-conspirator Marcus Schultz-Reynolds contributes two beautiful pieces, “Litoral” and “Force Of Gravity.” Hirahara offers his tune “Laws Of Motion” to the mix. The Monkish playfulness of “Lawn Darts” by bassist Peter Brendler delivers an outside-in breath of joy. But the group’s take on John Scofield’s “I’ll Catch You,” with a tight groove and guest appearance by alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, stands out. So does Sean Nowell’s tune “Pale,” with strong appearances by Shaw and trombonist Michael Dease. Newton’s original tunes shine, too. The title track slides in as a driving swinger. “Affectionately Roy” is a strong addition to the canon of new music written in the memory of trumpeter Roy Hargrove. “A Child Not Yet Born” evokes the jazz noir balladry of another time and place. “The Bluest Eyes” honors author Toni Morrison’s book The Bluest Eye. And the closer, “Our Chosen Family,” speaks to the community of musicians the trumpeter has embraced and been embraced by over the years. Newton wears writing and playing like he wears his heart: on his sleeve as an artist of true passion.

Steph Richards

(Relative Pitch)

Avant-garde trumpeter, composer and bandleader Steph Richards has made it a priority throughout her career for her work to be seen on its own terms, rather than through the lens of her gender. But when she went into the studio to record Zephyr, her new album, in 2019, Richards was six-and-a-half months pregnant. This shaped the concise, visceral album both in concept and in practice, leading Richards to explore a more immediate connection between her body and her work.

The personnel listings themselves tell the tale. Richards is backed by Joshua White on piano, preparations and percussion. Richards, meanwhile, plays trumpet, flugelhorn and resonating water vessels.

Resonating water vessels? Richards has been refining the technique of playing her trumpet in water since 2008, and does so throughout Zephyr. “Anza,” named for her daughter, features a recording of the unborn child’s breath as Richards’ trumpet burbles, whisperingly, to her. A more startling example of the approach can be heard on “Amphitrite,” which means the goddess of the sea and sounds like someone manipulating a tub of water with an otherworldly straw.

On “Sacred Sea,” Richards ruminatively taps out single notes while White responds on prepared piano before Richards goes back underwater, her horn sounding like it’s drowning. The result is deeply affecting. But whether underwater or not, Richards’ playing is striking. On “Cicada,” she makes her horn winnow.

Richards may have sought to avoid letting her gender be the focus of how her music is seen and considered, but, in steering into it as a result of her at-the-time unborn daughter, she arrived at an approach, and an album, so strong and innovative that the end results settle any question.

Chet Doxas

You Can’t Take It With You

Chet Doxas composed 10 tunes, wrote extensive liner notes and crafted an original sculpture (see cover image) for this intimate new trio album with pianist Ethan Iverson and upright bassist Thomas Morgan. The 12th release from the Montreal-bred, Brooklyn-based saxophonist, You Can’t Take It With You is an inspired project that took about a year to evolve through a heartfelt, deliberate process that ultimately yielded a truly personal work of art. On the advice of Carla Bley and Steve Swallow, who gave him the idea to start his own trio, Doxas composed at a rate of one song per month; he didn’t decide upon his handpicked bandmates until he had already completed several pieces. In accordance with Doxas’ vision, You Can’t Take It With You was recorded live in the studio with no separation between the three players. “I like the studio to feel as much like a gig as possible,” the saxophonist writes in a statement describing the session. “We had performed the night before, so we set up in the round and played the tunes in the same order as on the gig.” Featured here on tenor, Doxas gave careful consideration to instrumental tone and technique in choosing Iverson and Morgan, elite improvisers whose mastery of touch can be felt deeply throughout the program. Highlights include the title-track opener, where threads of unison melodies result in a virtual 3D timbre-merger of tenor, piano and bass. A minimalist, monotone saxophone pulse functions like a syncopated heartbeat on “Lodestar (For Lester Young),” which climbs chromatically through 12 keys as Doxas toys with rhythms, textures and articulations. “Part Of A Memory,” with its catchy offbeat melody and slightly bent harmony, has a blues-in-orbit vibe. And the meditative rumination of “All The Roads” was inspired by the grateful soul of children’s television icon Fred Rogers (1928–2003), a deceptively hip cat who was a strong advocate for jazz. You Can’t Take It With You can be experienced online in its entirety thanks to a series of up-close “live off the floor” videos shot by cinematographer Graham Willoughby.

Victor Gould

In Our Time
(Blue Room Music)

Victor Gould is a pianist, composer and arranger with tremendous facility on the keyboard, and a big heart to match. Born in Los Angeles, Gould excelled in music from a young age, establishing his reputation while still a student at Berklee College of Music and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, and earning accolades through the ASCAP Foundation Young Composer Award and the Monk International Piano Competition. His debut album, Clockwork, was voted top debut album in NPR Music’s 2016 Jazz Critics Poll. And since then, Gould has been developing from an emerging talent to into a full-blown, fantastic artist. This is especially true on his latest recording, In Our Time, on the Blue Room Music label. His music flows gracefully from thought to passage to statement with an elegant complexity that demonstrates his composer’s wit and charm. With his trio mates Tamir Shmerling on bass and Anwar Marshall on drums, Gould dances through a program of 11 tunes, including nine originals, with inner urge and sophistication. His intention is on display from the downbeat of “Blue Lotus,” the opening tune on this program. In just over five minutes, Gould delivers a virtual concerto of blissful sound — from the intricate melody to the interplay between Gould and Marshall’s drums to the legato of Shmerling’s bass, the tune takes unexpected twists that seem natural, logical and exhilarating in the hands of this group. It’s no wonder that the tune was inspired by a grant from Chamber Music America, but rest assured, this is jazz. Gould follows “Blue Lotus” up with two stunning tributes, first “Lord Wallace,” a tribute to the late trumpeter Wallace Roney. “I was a member of Wallace’s band for four years,” Gould said in press materials, “and we made the album Understanding. He had such a big impact on my life, hiring me right after I moved to New York.” In the second tribute, “Dear Ralph,” Gould pays homage to drummer Ralph Peterson Jr., who passed away in March, a former professor of Gould’s at Berklee who invited the young pianist to join his band when Gould was a freshman. Each beautifully captures the spirit of the honoree. “Lord Wallace” has the nuance and understated fire that Roney brought to the stage. “Dear Ralph” relays the take-no-prisoners approach of the bombastic drummer. As for covers, Gould chooses well on a few fronts. First, the songs, Gigi Gryce’s “Minority” and Wayne Shorter’s “Infant Eyes,” are incredible tunes by two of the greatest composers to ever write for jazz. Second, the guest artist on those tracks, tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens, adds layers of lush to the proceedings with his velvety tone and fleet interpretations. In all, the entire recording delivers a thoughtful groove that’s thoroughly enjoyable from front to back. It’s a composer’s recording that lets the mind race and the toes tap. If you loved Clockwork, you’ll be knocked out by In Our Time. Gould takes a giant leap as a major voice in this music and beyond. Take the final cut, “In Memoriam,” as an example. Here Gould writes for the trio with a string quartet. It is beautiful. His ideas, and talent, cannot be tied down by genre. Victor Gould is an artist of big ambition, and even bigger heart.

Bob Dylan

Springtime In New York: The Bootleg Series Vol. 16 1980–1985
(Sony Legacy)

On March 22, 1984, Bob Dylan appeared on NBC’s Late Night With David Letterman to promote his album Infidels, released the previous year. Letterman’s show was only a couple years into its run, and the famously difficult-to-impress talk show host was so pleased with the appearance, where Dylan turned in a spirited take on the song “Jokerman,” that in shaking hands afterward Letterman asked, “Is there any chance you guys could be here every Thursday night?” Acting out of character, Dylan exclaimed, “Yeah!”

Not surprisingly, given that was the only promotional work Dylan did for that album, this didn’t happen. Some 31 years later, Letterman’s second-to-last show featured Dylan and acknowledged the 1984 appearance before his introduction.

Among a certain type of Dylan-ologist, that appearance is the stuff of legend. The reason isn’t just that Dylan was in fine form. It’s also because he was backed by the Plugz, a Latino punk band from Los Angeles best known for contributing three songs to the Repo Man soundtrack.

In recent years, on YouTube, not only is the televised performance from the show available, but also his entire rehearsal for it. Apparently, Dylan was really working with this band. This begged the question: Was there an entire Dylan punk album out there lurking the vaults? With every new version of The Bootleg Series that has come out in recent years, fans grumble to each other, “I wish it was just Infidels outtakes,” hoping to hear Dylan go punk.

Well, a version of that is now here — Springtime In New York: The Bootleg Series Vol. 16 1980–1985 — and just like anything with the often inscrutable singer-songwriter, it both exceeds and subverts expectations.

First of all, just to get it out of the way, there’s no Dylan punk album here. We only get one song with the Plugz, “License To Kill” from the Letterman taping.

Second of all, what we do get unfolds strangely. This box starts with a full disc of Dylan rehearsing. It’s interesting to hear him mixing cuts from his late-’70s albums like “Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power)” with playful covers like “Mystery Train” and “Sweet Caroline” and true rarities like “We Just Disagree” and “Let’s Keep It Between Us.” The disc has a Basement Tapes meets Rolling Thunder Revue feel to it. But this is a disc of taped rehearsals. It’s not for audiophiles.

Things pick up from there, as disc two deals up an entire set of Shot Of Love outtakes. That album was considered Dylan’s last of a trilogy of Christian albums. A previous volume of The Bootleg Series, Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13 /1979–1981, convincingly made the case, over eight discs and one DVD, that Dylan’s much-maligned Christian period was actually great. Interestingly, though, he’s working on secular material here. He’s covering the Everly Brothers, the Temptations and Hank Williams, and putting together reggae songs on the fly, like the fascinating groove of “Is It Worth It?”

Discs three and four are all Infidels outtakes, exactly what some fans have wanted. This definitely isn’t punk, not with Mark Knopfler involved — though he’s always welcome. Some of this is not exactly new. For example, “Blind Willie McTell” has been a part of The Bootleg Series canon since 1991 — so long that it feels less like an outtake than a hit single.

At this point, we’re firmly in the years when Dylan had an unfortunate tendency to hold back the best song he’d written for his albums, wanting to really nail it later, which he’d rarely, if ever, do. This meant these box sets, decades later, would be great, but his albums at the time weren’t. Springtime In New York doesn’t fall back on that, though, getting creative in giving us alternate and sometimes multiple takes of album tracks that shed light on what could have been. Of particular interest is a subtly better take on “Neighborhood Bully,” a defense of Israeli security policy that made critics nervous at the time. Another clear highlight here is “Death Is Not The End,” a song Dylan released five years later on the terse 1988 album Down In The Groove. This version is rawer and longer by two minutes, and Dylan is backed by the r&b group Full Force. This was definitely the ’80s!

The decade’s sway over these recordings is further felt on the last disc, as Dylan is backed by Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers (Mike Campbell and Howie Epstein) on “Seeing The Real You At Last” (Dylan and Petty would soon fully occupy the same orbit in the Traveling Wilburys). By now, we’ve moved into outtakes from Empire Burlesque, an album that sees Dylan pulling in musicians as far afield of each other as legendary reggae bassist Robbie Shakespeare and Rolling Stones guitarists Mick Taylor and Ron Wood, as well as members of Letterman’s house band. But the whole box wraps with “Dark Eyes,” a terrific, acoustic number — complete with Dylan’s tell-tale harmonica — Dylan wrote in one night at his producer’s suggestion to get away from the album’s slick production for at least a song.

Every volume of The Bootleg Series takes a portion of his career and proves there was much more going on there than was released at the time. This does that, wonderfully. It just doesn’t have Dylan going punk, at least not much of it. It seems that only happens when a young David Letterman is sitting at his desk.

Pasquale Grasso

Pasquale Plays Duke
(Sony Masterworks)

Italian-born guitar virtuoso Pasquale Grasso continues a winning streak with this classy take on the music of Duke Ellington — joining the ranks of such archtop devotees as Joe Pass, Kenny Burrell and John Pizzarelli, each of whom has recorded notable tributes to the iconic big band composer. Consisting of five solo guitar performances, six trio tracks and two compelling vocal features, Pasquale Plays Duke is the second of three albums Grasso is putting out on Sony Music Masterworks this year and next. An expertly produced project, it measures up to the high standards the master guitarist set for himself on a spate of recent recordings he has dedicated to the repertoires of Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Billie Holiday. It’s also a bit of an eye-opener for anyone not yet familiar with the esteemed guitarist and his quickly expanding discography. Grasso is a brilliant jazz improviser whose elegant melodic lines and speed-demon runs reveal the ever-present influence of historic jazz pianist Art Tatum. When he’s not dazzling listeners with technical feats and creative spark, Grasso enraptures them with oceans of smooth harmonic motion and all-enveloping sonic auras. Like a one-man big band, he keeps Ellington’s familiar melodies afloat on rivers of counter lines, inner voices and bass movement that virtually pour out of his instrument. A more conversational vibe emerges on tracks featuring Grasso’s working trio with bassist Ari Roland and drummer Keith Balla, two spirited, simpatico players whose tasteful contributions keep things swinging and popping. The album’s two vocal tracks — one featuring the youthful Samara Joy (“Solitude”) and another by the nonagenarian Sheila Jordan (“Mood Indigo”) — further elevate the program by bringing to the surface some of the complex emotions that dwell deep in the heart of Ellington’s (and Billy Strayhorn’s) music. An active presence on New York’s jazz scene, Grasso can be heard in various settings both in and around the Big Apple and out on the road. Upcoming performance dates include trio gigs backing Joy at the Exit Zero Jazz Festival in Cape May, New Jersey, on Oct. 1; Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in New York on Oct. 17; and Walton Center in Fayetteville, Arkansas, on Dec. 10. He will also accompany Joy on a nine-gig European tour that begins Oct. 30 at the Flame Festival in Turku, Finland, and concludes Nov. 12 at Duc des Lombards in Nice, France. Grasso will play his standing duo gig with bassist Ari Roland at New York’s Mezzrow on Oct. 4, 11, 18 and 25, and Nov. 15, 22 and 29. And, he will take part in an Oct. 5–10 run of shows with singer/actress Laura Benanti at Feinstein’s/54 Below in New York.

Lady Blackbird

Black Acid Soul

Black Acid Soul is the sensational new recording by Marley Munroe, aka Lady Blackbird. This is heady, haunting, sexy, soulful, heartbreaking stuff. With a voice that suggests a cross between Mahalia Jackson and Nina Simone, Lady Blackbird tears your heart apart and puts it back together again on this 11-song set. The ease, growl, coo and convincing nature of her voice come naturally as she has been singing in front of audiences since childhood, and was signed to a Christian music label as a teenager. She has long since left that side of her career behind, but the soul of that music is always close by. When she pleads, “Come back, come back, come back/ I’ve had enough,” on Allen Toussaint’s “Ruler Of My Heart,” there’s a piercing search for love that can only be delivered by a very few. The great Irma Thomas made the song a classic back in 1963. Lady Blackbird matches the authenticity and originality in this remake. Her voice is an old friend confessing her secrets, drawing you into her world. Take, for example, the new but timeless nature of “Nobody’s Sweetheart,” written by artist-producer-songwriter Chris Seefried, who worked with Andra Day on her debut recording. It’s a beautifully touching ballad that could fit easily into the catalog of an icon like Burt Bacharach, packed with forlorn lyricism, punctuated by a sweet trumpet solo from Trombone Shorty. Lady Blackbird is best when dishing out torch songs like “It’s Not That Easy,” “Five Feet Tall” and “It Will Never Happen Again,” or instant jazz noir classics like the album’s opener, “Blackbird.” This is an album of smart wordplay, amazing song choices and elegantly understated musicality. Floating above it all is the voice and artistry of this new and incredibly exciting artist. We’ll be talking about this debut for many years to come.

T.L. Barrett

I Shall Wear A Crown
(Numero Group)

Chicago-based Numero Group has long excelled at unearthing music that never should have disappeared from public consciousness, and the label has outdone itself with I Shall Wear A Crown, an archival box set summarizing the 50-year career of Pastor T.L. Barrett.

Based on the South Side of Chicago, Barrett is backed primarily by his 45-piece Youth For Christ Choir, and still leads his same congregation at the Life Center COGIC (Church of God in Christ), known colloquially as Chicago’s Prayer Palace.

So, one might assume this is standard gospel music. Wrong. The music resurrected here feels more like listening to classic, empowered ’70s soul than what you’d expect to hear in church. This stems from Barrett’s obvious innovation, first of all, but also his ability to attract the participation of Donny Hathaway and Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White and many of Chicago’s top session musicians.

Perhaps that’s why Barrett is, strangely, everywhere these days. He’s been sampled by Kanye West, T.I., DJ Khaled and more. People as far afield from each other as Radiohead’s Colin Greenwood and Golden State Warriors point guard Steph Curry sing his praises.

For the uninitiated, I Shall Wear A Crown does it all. It gathers up four of Barrett’s ’70s LPs — Like A Ship…(Without A Sail), Do Not Pass Me By Volume 1 and Volume 2, and I Found The Answer — records that it’d take a lot of crate-digging and Discogs-surfing to find. The box then stretches even further, offering a bonus album of singles and sermons. Across 49 tracks, Barrett blends social and racial commentary with biblical parables, using synthesizers, citing then-current r&b and interpolating songs by Aretha Franklin, The Beatles, Carole King and more.

Speaking to DownBeat, Barrett explained his unique perspective. “Both my theology and my musicology are different,” he said. “I was considered a renegade in the pulpit because I just didn’t teach the quote-unquote old-time religion gospel. My God is not up in the sky. My God is in my eye. Wherever you see life, particularly expressed in another human being, which is the highest form, that’s where God is and that’s where you should honor God.”

Terell Stafford & the Temple University Jazz Band

Without You, No Me
(BCM&D Records)

Without You, No Me is a Philly-centric big band feast of the ears celebrating the life and legacy of local jazz hero Jimmy Heath, who passed last year at age 93. It’s also trumpeter and Temple University Jazz Band director Terell Stafford’s personal expression of gratitude and debt toward the beloved tenor saxophonist, bandleader and composer, one of three iconic musical brothers from the City of Brotherly Love who made substantial contributions to the straightahead jazz canon. Stafford regarded Jimmy as a friend, colleague and mentor ever since touring with him in the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All-Star Big Band some 30 years ago.

Without You, No Me is the second new album released in the wake of the COVID pandemic by the Temple University Jazz Band under Stafford’s direction. While the first, Covid Sessions: A Social Call, was recorded long-distance — in students’ homes across the country, via portable sound rigs devised by recording engineer John Harris and Temple Music Technology Professor Dr. David Pasbrig — Without You, No Me was captured at much closer range. The musicians were able to convene in person in the spacious Temple Performing Arts Center in April 2021, with filters and covers over the bells of their horns. Harris and Pasbrig’s rigs were used to record remote contributions by two favorite sons of Philadelphia jazz, bassist Christian McBride and organist Joey DeFrancesco, who appear as special guests.

The album’s title track, originally penned by Heath for his mentor Dizzy Gillespie, comes full circle here, acknowledging the influence that Heath has had on Stafford, his students and future generations of jazz musicians. Todd Bashore, a former student of Heath’s at Queens College, composed album opener “Passing Of The Torch” in honor of his mentor. Heath’s compositional gifts are further represented by “The Voice Of The Saxophone,” rendered in lush and vibrant hues by this stellar student ensemble. Saxophonist and bandleader Jack Saint Clair, a Temple alumnus, composed the rollicking “Bootsie” in honor of another linchpin of the Philadelphia scene, tenor saxophonist Bootsie Barnes, who died in April at age 82. Saint Clair also contributes a brassy rendition of the standard “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” and a sultry arrangement of “The Blues Ain’t Nothin’ (But Some Pain),” a tune by another Philladelphia jazz giant, organist Shirley Scott. McBride’s “The Wise Old Owl” is an homage to the late Temple University basketball coach John Chaney, a sage mentor in the world of college sports. McBride lends his instrumental voice to John Clayton’s arrangement of the classic “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” engaging in a spirited exchange between his bass and the ever-attentive ensemble. At the album’s close, McBride joins his longtime friend DeFrancesco for an improv-fueled romp through Juan Tizol’s “Perdido.” DeFrancesco’s organ chops are on full display on his own composition, “In That Order,” which pianist Bill Cunliffe arranged for the occasion. Throughout Without You, No Me, a shared enthusiasm and heartfelt gratitude among Philly’s finest rule the day. DB

Matthew Whitaker

(Resilience Music Alliance)

That 20-year-old pianist Matthew Whitaker is alive is a bit of a miracle. He was born prematurely and blind, given little chance of surviving with doctors saying that, even if he did, he probably would not be able to crawl, walk or speak. His story has been well-documented by shows like 60 Minutes. Whitaker can speak, and he speaks well. He can walk, and walk well. But what this prodigy can do better than anything else, and arguably anyone else, is play piano, organ and keyboards. Hear for yourself on Connections (Reliance Music Alliance), his third album, this one produced by bassist Derrick Hodge. It is astounding. We’ve been listening to Whitaker take our breath away with all of the promise he showed on the first two albums. This one takes him a full leap forward. The fleetness of finger, the touch and taste, the grit and grime when he needs it, the lightness and airiness when it’s called upon — Whitaker has it all. Beyond his playing chops, his compositions have taken a leap forward, also. In part, he credits Hodge for pushing him to be more adventurous and it shows on tunes like the uplifting opener “Journey Uptown”; the organ trio jam “A New Day,” where he and guitarist Marcos Robinson fly through unison lines; the pensive title track; and the sweet, humbling “Stop Fighting.” Whitaker also delivers some terrific takes on jazz classics. He and Jon Batiste go at it like kids in a sandbox on Thelonious Monk’s “Bye-Ya.” It’s a treat trying to figure out which musician is playing which part. The chuckle at the end of the song says it all: two amazing musicians simply having a good time with one of the greatest piano tunes in jazz. The same can be said for Whitaker and violinist Regina Carter swinging through Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” Whitaker also does a crazy take on Chick Corea’s “Spain,” playing Hammond B-3 on the opening strains, then switching over to keyboards when the band kicks in. Then there’s a serious dance-a-thon awaiting with his Latin jazz take on Duke Pearson’s “Jeanine.” There’s plenty more, with 16 tracks in all, including “His Eye Is On The Sparrow,” a beautifully rendered spiritual where Whitiker shows deep roots. With bits of spoken word between songs to tell his story, Matthew Whitaker is an inspiration as a person and as an amazing young artist. It will be fascinating to see what the future brings.


GA-20 Does Hound Dog Taylor: Try It…You Might Like It!
(Alligator/Karma Chief)

Electric blues trio GA-20 – guitarist Matt Stubbs, guitarist, vocalist Pat Faherty and drummer Tim Carman — draw from a range of influences, but felt one in particular needed a big boost. “Not enough people know just how cool Hound Dog Taylor was,” Stubbs said.

Thus this tribute to him: Try It … You Might Like It.

Six-fingered Chicago bluesman Theodore Roosevelt “Hound Dog” Taylor always knew how he wanted to be remembered, declaring, “When I die they’ll say, ‘He couldn’t play shit, but he sure made it sound good!’” His first album, released in 1971, was also the first album on Alligator Records, Hound Dog Taylor & The HouseRockers. Bruce Iglauer founded Alligator for the specific purpose of recording and releasing it. Robert Christgau once referred to Taylor and his sidemen as “the Ramones of the blues.”

GA-20 formed far later, in 2018, inspired by late-1950s/early 1960s blues, r&b and rock ’n’ roll. They pointedly use vintage gear, including the Gibson GA-20 amplifier.

You can hear all this on Try It … You Might Like It. And yet the album doesn’t sound stuck in the past. Clocking in at just under 39 minutes, this is 10 tracks of hard-driving blues-rock that feels more like early White Stripes at its loosest than something you’d hear at a daytime blues fest.

For this release, Alligator Records collaborated with Colemine Records, an expertly niche label out of Loveland, Ohio, that puts out funk, soul and beyond. Colemine owner Terry Cole spoke to DownBeat about what this partnership accomplished, explaining that while he’s not a fan of contemporary blues, and more into traditional blues, he has a lot of respect for what Iglauer has accomplished with Alligator.

“We felt this was a good opportunity to push this traditional vibe and agenda to people who are into the contemporary blues scene that Alligator has its finger on the pulse of, and put what we think is cool blues in front of those folks, while simultaneously making people on our side of things aware of Hound Dog Taylor and the history of Alligator Records,” Cole said. “The overall, overarching goal of the group is to make traditional blues cool and to make original music in 2021 that is in that vein, but also relevant and fresh.”

It’s all of that. And, given that it’s trying to reach two somewhat disconnected audiences, the title is perfect.

Andrew Cyrille

The News

Andrew Cyrille continues to produce compelling music with the release of a new quartet outing that further cements his legacy as a premier force in jazz improvisation over a span of some six decades. Now 81, the veteran drummer made a brilliant move in calling upon pianist/synth player David Virelles to assume the role previously occupied by his longtime friend and collaborator Richard Teitelbaum (1939–2020). The result is an ambitious follow-up to Cyrille’s 2016 quartet album The Declaration Of Musical Independence (ECM). Guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Ben Street are back onboard and all-in for this meditative and highly satisfying session from August 2019. The News is named after a conceptual piece that Cyrille originally recorded in the late 1970s with newspapers spread out over his snare and toms, which he played using brushes. Originally a solo performance, it reappears here with Virelles, Frisell and Street conjuring a playful environment of crinkly textures and atmospheric wobble as Cyrille gleefully scratches, taps and slaps his way through the news of the day. Frisell’s composition “Mountain” opens the album, setting the tone and pace of what’s to come. You immediately feel the group’s warm, wide-open, all-enveloping instrumental sound, and the music comes across as deliberate and free, never rushed, as Cyrille gently prods and pulls the time and dynamics. Other highlights include Virelles’ watchful piece “Incienso,” which intrigues with its ambiguous harmony and hypnotizes with a slow, steady drum pulse; “Leaving East Of Java,” a composition by avant-garde pianist Adegoke Steve Colson that the quartet takes on a long, intense ride peppered with Virelles’ signature piano runs and sudden bursts of energy; and Cyrille’s poetic “With You In Mind,” a reverent ode to a loved one that glows with mellow harmony and balladic atmospherics after a heartfelt spoken introduction by the bandleader.

Xhosa Cole

K(no)w Them, K(no)w Us
(Stoney Lane Records)

You’ve got to love it when a saxophonist’s record starts with a freaking awesome drum solo. But that’s exactly how Xhosa Cole kicks off K(no)w Them, K(no)w Us, his debut on Stoney Lane Records. The 24-year-old tenor saxophonist/composer is a British sensation and proves that he’s here for blood with this release.

The drum solo kicks off “Zoltan,” an awesome Larry Young tune first introduced on Unity, a 1965 Blue Note release. From the intro to the amazing drumline march beat, delivered with verve by Jim Bashford, Cole and company match the “tenor” and intensity of the original, then kick it into a modern blast. These guys make this music new again.

For those not yet hip to Cole, he’s got credentials, winning the BBC 2018 Young Musician award as well as Jazz FM’s Breakthrough Artist of the Year award for 2020. He can play. I love his fire on this record, blissfully taking on seven jazz classics … and blowing them up. It’s not that he changes them. It’s that he gives them the fire that only a young, hungry artist can deliver.

Beyond “Zoltan,” Cole and his quartet take on such classics as Ornette Coleman’s “Blues Connotation.” Jay Phelps blasts his intentions on trumpet as Cole dances and wails underneath before Phelps and the rhythm section of Bashford and James Owtson drive this tune crazy.

Cole doesn’t lay out on these tunes, but he does let others do their thing, then he does his own with rips, raves, twirls and all-out jams. He’s got technique, talent, artistry and a burning desire that shows throughout the set.

That said, jazz artists make a name on uptempo tunes but often enter the hearts of jazz fans on ballads. Cole’s got it covered. His version of the Rogers & Heart classic “I’ll Take Manhattan,” named simply “Manhattan” on this recording, slays the heart. It exudes all the love of an Ella Fitzgerald turn, but all dressed up for 2021.

For the rest of the set, Cole rips up Thelonious Monk’s “Played Twice,” John Coltrane’s “On A Misty Night,” which is sweet, and Bobby Haggart’s “What’s New,” which is downright sultry.

The set ends with Lee Morgan’s “Untitled Boogaloo,” which alone is worth the price of admission. It’s a true James Brown-meets-bebop moment with a guest drop-in from Soweto Kinch.

At 24, Cole has plenty of room to grow and, as demonstrated on K(no)w Them, K(no)w Us, a firm foundation to launch from.

Jack Cooper & Jeff Tobias

(Astral Spirits)

This may not be the most minimalist jazz can get, but it’s coming close. Tributaries features two side-long tracks that were created from tone-rows, or “systems,” by guitarist and composer Jack Cooper and then used as templates to improvise from. Together, Cooper and Jeff Tobias, a saxophonist and member of the group Sunwatchers, then devised methods and approaches for Tobias’ interpretation, allowing for a push-and-pull between melodic unison.

Cooper may be more well known outside of the improvisational jazz scene as the songwriter behind such bands as Ultimate Painting and Modern Nature. Tobias has been a member of Cooper’s Modern Nature since its formation in 2019. Their prior experience together is in evident here; this is complicated material that twists and turns with its own internal logic. The two flow through it effortlessly.

The result feels conversational, neither overly composed nor overly improvisational. The systems within feel as if they could go on forever in an infinite loop. Tributaries uses space and pacing to good effect throughout. Tobias plays the perfect foil to Cooper’s guitar playing, highlighting the compositions without overpowering Cooper’s guitar. Cooper describes the aim as “melodic collectivism” and Tributaries gets there.

Cecilie Strange

(April Records)

There are so many recordings to catch up on from the dark days of the pandemic, and this is definitely one of them. Cecilie Strange is a tenor saxophonist from Denmark full of rich, thoughtful ideas, as she demonstrated on her 2020 album Blue (April Records). She does so again on Blue’s companion piece, Blikan, released this April.

With Blikan, an old Icelandic word that means to shine or to appear, Strange weaves a beautifully Nordic jazz noir, never hurrying the music, letting it take a pace that is calming, folksy, bluesy and, yes, a bit mystic.

Strange doesn’t try to wow you with technique. It’s there, but she chooses to transfix with her tone, at times hushed and breathy, at time wailing and moaning, but never over the top. Strange and her cohorts on this record and the last consistently choose nuance over throwing bombs.

Speaking of those cohorts, Strange is joined here by Peter Rosendal on piano, Jakob Høyer on drums and Thommy Andersson on bass. She chose them based on what she heard them play in the past. Before recording Blue and Blikan, this group had not worked together.

But work they do, beautifully, as an ensemble, listening, feeling and moving the music forward.

Take, for instance, the lovely “When Sunny Smiles,” written for her sister. It’s a wonderful blues number. As Rosendal solos, Høyer and Andersson comp with such grace and taste, punctuating just the right spots, allowing the listener to experience the full sound of each instrument in incredibly sophisticated ways. You can hear the soul of each musician moving to complete the whole of the group.

The same can be said for each or the six tracks on this record, which is a breath of fresh air. Clocking in at just over 40 minutes, it should be enjoyed in one sitting, like a late-night set from your favorite club, laid down for posterity.

Cecilie Strange and the band certainly shine on Blikan. It’s shimmering, egoless, lovely music.

Denny Zeitlin/George Marsh


Telepathy is the third all-improvised duo album by Bay Area-based keyboardist Denny Zeitlin and drummer George Marsh, longtime friends who share a musical rapport that dates back to the 1960s. These two like-minded, free-spirited veterans have explored a full spectrum of musical styles — from jazz and classical to rock, electronics and free improv — over the course of their wide-ranging careers, frequently working side by side over the decades in various configurations with a virtual who’s who of esteemed bandleaders and sidemen. Their musical bond has strengthened further since 2013, when they began meeting every couple of months at Zeitlin’s home studio to record spontaneous compositions constructed entirely in the moment, right out of the ether. These regular get-togethers, which led to the 2015 release of Riding The Moment followed by 2017’s Expedition, continue to this day, and Telepathy is a brilliant showcase of just how far Zeitlin and Marsh have come as a creative team. It’s also a testament to the power of recent advancements in sound-shaping technology. Marsh plays acoustic drums and percussion throughout, while Zeitlin supplements his Steinway piano with a massive pallet of electronically generated tones he can access on the fly from his keyboards and breath controller: electric basses, synth basses, nylon- and steel-string guitars, pipes, wooden flutes, human voice samples, celestial choirs, analog horns, sci-fi synths, organs and lush, ambient pads aplenty; like a master painter, he always seems to find interesting combinations in his selection of tonal colors, and he deploys appropriate playing techniques to match the character of each virtual instrument he emulates. Like Marsh, who has a tendency to keep multiple balls in the air at all times, Zeitlin is a master of right-hand/left-hand independence, laying down serious bass lines while simultaneously conjuring an entire symphony of melodic statements and harmonic movements. These guys have become so adept at reading each other’s minds, and so comfortable responding to each other’s spontaneous moves, that many of the tracks on Telepathy come across as preconceived tunes performed by a full band. Other tracks smack of more traditional free-improv conversations. All taken together, Zeitlin and Marsh collectively succeed at assembling wildly divergent sounds and rhythms into coherent working structures while allowing the music — their music — to emerge entirely on its own.

Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog

(Northern Spy)

Just to be clear, I love the work of Marc Ribot. He’s a guitarist and artist who takes music wherever the muse goes, diving into jazz, punk, blues, downtown, inside, outside, all sides, avant garde, spoken word. He’s the “beyond” in DownBeat’s tagline, “Jazz, Blues & Beyond.” That’s especially true with his longtime trio Ceramic Dog with Shahzad Ismaily on bass and keyboards, and Ches Smith on drums, percussion and electronics.

With the group’s latest offering, Hope, we find Ribot in the mood to talk. Take, for instance, the opening number, “B-Flat Ontology,” from Hope, Ceramic Dog’s latest recording. It’s a bit of punk-ass, talking blues with lyrics visceral and true questioning the meaning of fame and the fawning over fame. Or the reggae-esque “Nickelodeon,” a free-flowing, summertime jam with New York-hip lyrics of epic nonsensical joy. Fans of Ribot’s Los Cubanos Postizos records will connect on this one.

Hope is not a jazz record, other than its anything-goes sensibility, but Ribot has credentials as a guitarist and artist who can morph into any style and still come out sounding only like himself, which is central to the jazz aesthetic. “Wanna” offers the flavor of reminiscent of the Pixies at their best. “The Activist” slams with all the rage of Bohemian-era Lenny Bruce. “Bertha The Cool” (my favorite title) is what it might sound like if Ribot jumped inside George Benson’s body for a tune. When saxophonist Darius Jones jumps in to guest on “They Met In The Middle,” the energy skyrockets with angst, only to give way to the calming, then epic beauty of “The Long Goodbye.” Ribot rounds out this great set with “Maple Leaf Rage,” which shows off his guitar genius, and “Wear Your Love Like Heaven,” an offbeat ballad with plenty of overdrive.

There’s a great deal of anger here, fueled by Ribot’s concerns over COVID, a president he despised, global warming and not being able to see the ones he loved due to the pandemic.

It’s a raw, honest album, one most of us can absolutely understand. It’ll make you want to throw a fist in the air and shout, “Hell, yes!”

Joshua Abrams/Chad Taylor

Mind Maintenance
(Drag City)

Much music has been made in the last year and a half with a mind toward coping with the state of the world and oneself. Some of this music sought to make you dance — even if it was home alone — and some of it sought to make you think, feel and beyond. Here, Joshua Abrams and Chad Taylor seek to maintain their minds and ours. The duo, who have been playing music together in one form or another since 1994, take up guimbri and mbira, instruments African in origin, with the end result proving almost meditative.

Abrams and Taylor first tried the combination of guimbri and mbira for a show at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, then took the idea into the studio with engineer Cooper Crain (Cave, Bitchin Bajas).

On “Entrainment,” the two take a simple pattern and let it unfurl slowly as notes bounce around each other. By limiting themselves to these two ancient acoustic instruments, they exhibit brilliant use of space. You practically feel like you’re in the room with them as their tools buzz and pulse together. The wonderfully playful “The Ladder” creates the sensation of climbing up and down one. The longest track here, “Valence,” explores a darker side of their simple formula in a manner that well displays Abrams and Taylor’s 27 years of experience playing together.

Sometimes one does wish these song would reach out a bit. “Slack Water” is aptly titled. And it’s difficult to say what use there would be for more of this. You’d need to add some instruments to grow this idea, naturally.

Still, this recording feels like a great choice for an evening of close listening on the home stereo system, or as a pleasant distraction in your earbuds as you go about your daily routine.

Kick The Cat

(Self Release)

Kick The Cat is back on the prowl this summer, playing live gigs in support of the group’s first album release in more than a decade. Proving itself well worth the wait from the initial needle-drop, Gurgle features the fusion team supreme of Chris Siebold (guitar), Vijay Tellis-Nayak (keyboards), Chris Clemente (bass) and Kris Myers (drums), longtime collaborators based out of Chicago and Nashville whose camaraderie dates back to the late 1990s. The group’s fourth album overall, Gurgle marks a major new entry in the annals of progressive jazz-rock and announces Kick The Cat’s renewed dedication to their craft. It also shows what’s possible when crafty musicians — with the daring of mad chemists — apply large doses of modern ambient effects to already complex fusion formulae. The result is a tasty mixture of prog-rock tones, advanced harmonies, angular melodies, cerebral improvisations, cathartic ostinatos, funky hooks, fuzzy analog warmth and extra-dimensional atmospherics. An abundance of musical humor lightens the mood of this seriously ambitious 11-track program, which consists of all original compositions written by band members Clemente (five), Tellis-Nayak (four) and Siebold (two). Listeners with an ear for the music of Weather Report, Return To Forever, King Crimson, Yes and other chops-busting ensembles of the plugged-in variety will easily relate to Kick The Cat, whose arena-level audacity and ass-kicking attitude should make their live shows a thrill for just about anyone who’s ever felt the urge to rock out, or space out to otherworldly sounds. Upcoming performances include a July 8 gig at City Winery in Nashville; a July 14 set opening for Big Something at the Aggie Theatre in Fort Collins, Colorado; and a July 15 encore appearance with Big Something at Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom in Denver.


The Little Bird
(Astral Spirits)

The Little Bird is an album with a lot of history, and a lot of freedom, behind it. Coming together as students at Cleveland State in 2001, Lawrence Caswell (bass, vocals), Chris Kulcsar (drums, guitar) and R.A. Washington (trumpet, percussion) first looked to heady, if predictable, reference points like local hero Albert Ayler and the 1973 experimental horror film Ganja & Hess. This is immediately apparent in their music. “The Blood,” which begins The Little Bird, starts with Caswell laughing to someone off-mic, then singing a harrowing melody, “I know it was the blood for me, and I’ll tell you that one day when I was lost, don’t you know that he died upon that cross.” After a minute and 47 seconds of grasping with heaviness of such biblical proportions, a piercing trumpet, droning bass and crashing percussion ease in and build to a cacophony.

The three practiced constantly, feeling untethered by their technical abilities and rather set free by the desire to play. Their first gig was at a party at a member’s apartment, but they soon moved on to small venues and then upward to the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland.

When it came time to make and The Little Bird in 2004, the production was, by all accounts, casual and inexpensive, and only released on CD-R. Seventeen years later, the time has come for this bird to fly — at least as a digital release and cassette. This is a good thing, as more people need to hear the voodoo turn the tables on jazz, and the trio does just that on “The Voodoo Runs Rafeeq Down.” Elsewhere, Vernacular rages on “Memphis (First Song)” and terrifies on “The Wretched Of The Earth.” This is not for the faint of heart, but also not to be missed. It sat on someone’s hard drive for way too long.

Dyke & The Blazers

Down On Funky Broadway: Phoenix (1966–1967), Message: Hollywood (1968–1970)

Funk bands lost to history are legion, as the recorded works of many were issued as singles and one-off albums that landed in dustbins all over the U.S., then were later coveted by crate-diggers and beat-makers, and, luckily, compiled for those lacking the patience to crawl through thrift stores and online auctions.

Hailing from Phoenix, Arizona, Dyke & The Blazers are beneficiaries of one such act of musical excavation, emerging on the mid-’60s soul scene alongside artists like James Brown and The Meters. They were characterized by tight guitar riffs, grooving jazz organs, upbeat horns and frontman Arlester “Dyke” Christian’s coarse yet commanding vocals.

Craft Recordings has handed the public not one but two compilations of this act: the 20-track Down On Funky Broadway: Phoenix (1966–1967) and the 21-track I Got A Message: Hollywood (1968–1970). Together, they span the group’s short career with new stereo mixes of their handful of hits and jams, previously unreleased material including demos, radio spots and previously unreleased songs and remastered audio.

The four sides of Down On Funky Broadway: Phoenix display a deftly funky band, with Christian issuing the funkiest possible plea for solitude on “Don’t Bug Me,” while “Uhh” (full-length version) is six minutes of up-and-down grinding as Christian makes his romantic intentions clear — all in thick, glorious mono. Elsewhere, Dyke and the band playfully pay homage to the filthy yet fun venues one encounters in every town on “City Dump.”

The true star of the show, though, is “Funky Broadway,” which was covered by Wilson Pickett, The Supremes, The Temptations, Jackie Wilson, Count Basie and Steve Cropper. L.A. was interested.

But Dyke & The Blazers’ original lineup dissolved by the end of 1967. From then on, Christian would be the sole remaining member of the group, accompanied by a variety of touring and session musicians. He recorded his new material in Hollywood at Original Sounds, where he was backed by The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band.

This brings us to I Got A Message: Hollywood. The music is immediately less scrappy, tighter, more social in its politics. Christian name-calls other leaders in his field like Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles. His track featured here, “Let A Woman Be A Woman–Let A Man Be A Man,” a kinetic treatise of gender roles, hit the r&b Top 10 and the pop Top 40; breaks from the song were sampled by hip-hop groups and artists including Public Enemy, Tupac Shakur, Cypress Hill, Stetsasonic and Tyler, the Creator.

Dyke died young. On March 13, 1971, the 27-year-old artist was fatally shot in Phoenix. At the time, he was prepping for a tour of the U.K., as well as a recording project with Barry White. One wonders what might have been.

Charles Owens Trio

10 Years

Tenor saxophonist Charles Owens can blow — fast, furious and flowing — with just the right dollop of soul. With the release of 10 Years, there’s no question about what his trio is all about. Bassist Andrew Randazzo and drummer Devonne “DJ” Harris (both members of Butcher Brown) drive the groove for Owens to bop, weave and dance around and through. It’s especially true on the recording’s opening number, “Cameron The Wise,” an afrobeat-inspired jam that has been a fan favorite at the trio’s live gigs, but laid down on recording for the first time here.

This trio is out to have a good time and entertain, as experienced by covers like “Caught Up In The Rapture,” made famous by Anita Baker, Todd Rundgren’s “I Saw The Light,” a wicked cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Were 9” and Led Zeppelin’s “Misty Mountain Hop.” And let’s not even go into the set’s final number, “The Rainbow Connection,” from The Muppet Movie. They actually make it kind of cool, in a tongue-in-cheek fashion.

To balance that out, there’s also a wicked cover of John Coltrane’s “Central Park West” and Randazzo paying homage to Jaco Pastorius with a cover of “Continuum.”

There’s great musicianship throughout this set, and the kind of love and chemistry that can only come from playing together for, well, a decade. 10 Years sounds like a long time, but here, it’s a very enjoyable journey.

Tim Hagans

A Conversation
(Waiting Moon)

A Conversation is trumpeter-composer Tim Hagans’ fourth collaborative recording project with Germany’s esteemed NDR Bigband, also known as the Hamburg Radio Jazz Orchestra. This time around, the 66-year-old Hagans takes on the roles of composer, conductor, arranger and performer in a five-movement concerto that revolves around a single concept: the exchange of ideas. With A Conversation, Hagans experiments with a truly fresh approach to big band arranging and recording, whereby he physically groups musicians together not according to instrument type, but by sonic and emotional divisions. Each grouping is charged with different artistic objectives determined by Hagans, adding to the instrumental intrigue. So, instead of a traditional four-line woodwinds/trombones/trumpets/rhythm setup, you get four mini ensembles of varying instrumental combinations within a single large orchestra playing off of each other in mysterious and evocative ways. One grouping that Hagans calls Ensemble I includes two woodwind players, three trumpeters and a trombonist. The slightly smaller but equally vital Ensemble II consists of two woodwind players, trumpet and trombone, while the four-piece Ensemble III has one reed player, one trumpeter, one tenor trombone and a bass trombone. Ensemble IV is the full rhythm section of drums, guitar, piano, bass and percussion. The music builds from simple ideas and minimalist concepts into complex constructions of towering and deep proportions. Hagans brings his instrumental voice to the discussion on three of the movements, soloing his heart out with all the post-bop enthusiasm you’d expect from the scrappy improviser. Ultimately, A Conversation is far more than just talk; it’s an astounding accomplishment by one of the leading visionaries of the international jazz scene.

Alex Conde

Descarga For Bud

On this new release from Alex Conde, the virtuoso Spanish pianist puts his personal spin on nine landmark compositions by the legendary pianist and bebop architect Bud Powell. Descarga For Bud is the second installment in Conde’s Descaragas series, which he launched in 2015 with the release of the critically acclaimed Descaraga For Monk (Zoho), dedicated to the oeuvre of the iconoclastic pianist Thelonious Monk. Throughout Descaraga For Bud, Conde demonstrates his prowess at the keyboard, each note landing right on top of the beat in an inspired fusion of the classic bebop lexicon with traditional Caribbean and Iberoamerican stylings. For his supporting cast, Conde brings back percussionist John Santos and bassist Jeff Chambers from his Monk outing, and adds drummer Colin Douglas to the mix. On tracks such as “Oblivion,” “Parisian Thoroughfare” and “Bouncing With Bud,” Conde’s arrangements revolve around traditional flamenco forms and call for the talents of fellow countrymen Sergio Martínez on cajón and claps and flamenco guitarist Jose Luis de la Paz. The album also features trumpeter Mike Olmos, who effortlessly spins bebop lines over the bulerías arrangement of “The Fruit” and Powell’s challenging masterpiece “Tempus Fugit,” and steel pan player Jeff Narell, who brings syncopated sunshine to the calypso “Wail.” Producer Ricky Fataar, the South African multi-instrumentalist known for his roles in The Beach Boys and the Beatles spoof group The Rutles, lends his magic touch to this refreshing, uplifting and highly accessible recording.

New Memphis Colorways

It Is What It Isn’t
(Owl Jackson Jr.)

Following up on his 2020 release The Music Stands, Memphis-based multi-instrumentalist Paul Taylor returns with It Is What It Isn’t, his third album as New Memphis Colorways. Impressively, Taylor plays everything himself on the mostly instrumental album, moving between guitar, bass, synth, omnichord, percussion and drums. His reference points here include funk, Afrobeat, jazz, blues, fusion, soul and electronic music, a blend that feels both vintage and futuristic. This doesn’t exactly feel like a band — you can tell it’s all Taylor — but given the state of the world over the last year, one can’t blame him for choosing to do everything himself, alone. And this is effective. It manages to evoke fusion giants like Return to Forever, Weather Report and Herbie Hancock and doesn’t have to strain much to get there.

Despite the puzzling title, “Hey F****r, Don’t Do That,” the track has a lot going on in terms of percussion, changes and melody. Then on the slow grinding “All The Things You Are,” Taylor chooses to sing, but through a robot-like filter, arriving at a track that sounds like a bit like Daft Punk — just without the million dollar budget.

Elsewhere, this is perhaps a bit too vague. Ironically, “ffs,tmi” is perhaps not giving us enough information. Regardless, there are interesting things happening here. One hopes that as live music opens back up Taylor can assemble a band that can replicate this odd concoction onstage.

Shawn Maxwell

Expectation & Experience

For those outside of Chicago, know this: Shawn Maxwell follows the long lineage of Windy City reed players and composers with a big, brawny sound and thought-provoking art. On Expectation & Experience, Maxwell delivers 17 slices of musical exploration that came to him during the pandemic. He includes a family of 29 players on this recording, each laying down their parts alone and shipping them off to Maxwell, COVID safe. This is a truly personal, absolutely beautiful piece of pandemic art that goes down easy to soothe and uplift the soul. Take, for instance, the opening number, “Expectation.” Clocking in at just 1:39 minutes, it’s a simple duet between Maxwell on alto and Stephen Lynerd on vibraphone. It’s a shimmery salute to a better time, with a wisp of “In A Sentimental Mood” before turning off into directions unbound. “Quiet House” floats as a melancholy blues in honor of a friend who died during the pandemic, switching between 3/4 and 4/4 time with Zvonimir Tot delivering beautiful guitar work and a tasty virtual string arrangement. On “The Great Divide,” Maxwell and tenor saxophonist Alex Beltran poke the elephants and the donkeys in the room with an ode to the political banter of a presidential election. If only our elected officials could make such harmonious music. The album truly sounds like a travelogue of Maxwell and friends speaking for all of us. They follow the challenges of our quarantined lives with songs like “Feeling Remote,” “Lockdown” and “Every Day Is Monday” to outrage at what he was seen on television with songs like “Breathe” (which is a stunning beauty), “The New Abnormal” and “No Peace Without Justice.” Take, for instance, the song “Alternative Facts,” a mischievous number with Maxwell on saxophone, Howard Levy on harmonica, Steven Hashimoto on bass and Greg Essig on drums. It’s loaded with humor, angst, pathos and toss-your-hands-in-the-air surrender. The set concludes with “Experience,” another brief, beautiful duet with Stacy McMichael providing arco bass against the pleading bleat of Maxwell’s saxophone. It must be said that you can listen to this recording without notes or titles and thoroughly enjoy the ride. But what makes Expectation & Experience special is knowing the song titles, seeing what Maxwell was trying to do and hearing that he indeed nails it each and every time.

Sons Of Kemet

Black To The Future

The intersections of music and poetry, jazz and hip-hop, art and popular music always risk the chance of running afoul of one and other. Is it honest or forced? Is it too much or too little? Is it authentic, in the parlance of this day and age? Sons of Kemet’s Black To The Future, led by multi-instrumentalist Shabaka Hutchings, stays pure and true in fusing all of the above. This is the rare piece of art that captures the times — our times — full of confusion, righteous anger and absolute beauty. From the opening lament of “Field Negus” featuring the spoken-word rage of Joshua Idehen, to the closing strains of “Black,” Black To The Future delivers music for the mind, the soul and even the dance floor — sometimes all three at once, as is the case with the danceable-but-deadly truth of “Pick Up Your Burning Cross,” featuring Moor Mother and rising star Angel Bat Dawid. It rivets, shakes and bakes with crazy rhythmic drive. How could it not? For those new to Kemet, we have two incredible drummers in the persons of Edward Wakili-Hick and Tom Skinner, the amazing Theon Cross on tuba and Hutchings on reeds. It’s an exploration of rhythm and low end, as well as a treatise on continued losses of equality and equity. A demand for social justice lies at the core of this recording and this band. Few artists have put as much thought into their music as Hutchings, who has even crafted a mission statement for this work: “Black To The Future is a sonic poem for the invocation of power, remembrance and healing. It envisions our progression towards a future in which indigenous knowledge and wisdom is centered in the realization of a harmonious balance between the human, natural and spiritual world.” That’s just the beginning. But you don’t even need his words to understand where this band is coming from. Sons of Kemet naturally meld jazz with the rhythms and music of Africa, hip-hop and the Carribbean. “Hustle,” featuring Kojey Radical, is a straight-up groove with Radical describing, in chapter-and-verse detail, the “hustle inside me.” “In Remembrance Of Those Fallen” serves as Hutchings’ homage to those fighting for liberation, especially within Africa. There is an intensity to this music that has been missing, in this way, for far too long. Black To The Future speaks a truth that should be heard. But this recording and these artists never forget to move us musically as well as mentally. Hutchings understands that the best way to educate as a musician is to put your message to music. The album’s final volley, “Black,” with spoken word by Idehen, drives the message home: “Black is tired,” he says at the outset, letting all know where he stands with lines like, “This Black pain is dance,” “This Black struggle is dance,” “You already have the world,” “Just leave Black be,” “Leave us alone,” as the music leads into final resolution.

Ralph Peterson

Raise Up Off Me

Here we have drummer Ralph Peterson’s 26th and final record as a leader. The album has been released on his own Onyx Productions label following his passing earlier this year. Peterson recorded this album in December 2020 with his working trio featuring brothers Zaccai and Luques Curtis on piano and bass, respectively. It represents some of Peterson’s best work, demonstrating his complete control as a percussionist, shaman, composer and bandleader. The album’s title track may be the album’s best. As one of many written in response to the murder of George Floyd at the knee of a police officer, the tune envelopes — without words — all the anger, chaos, angst and sorrow so many have experienced in trying to understand why this happened, and why it continues to happen. Peterson’s rhythms dart and dive in rapid bursts that convey uncertainty in trying to understand the situation. He pumps the bass drum to give life to the heartbeat of the man and this music. Zaccai Curtis plays in a pleading call-and-response fashion, with beautiful chordal and melodic passages tinged with just enough dissonance to express feelings of lament. Luques Curtis serves as the ears of the song, finding the space, listening and responding, acknowledging the anger with a calming “Amen.” There is much to like about this recording beyond “Raise Up Off Me.” The trio exudes a rare oneness that only comes with talent, time and great material. Peterson was an amazing drummer who could simply overpower most musicians. Not true with the Curtis Brothers. They prove to be up to the challenge of every Peterson-penned tune, such as the blistering “The Right To Live,” the intriguing “Blues Hughes” and the lovely “Tears I Cannot Hide.” Zaccai Curtis offers up his beautiful ballad “I Want To Be There For You,” full of heart and unexpected turns. And the trio takes joy in “Four Play” by the late James Williams, Bud Powell’s “Bouncing With Bud” and Patrice Rushen’s “Shorties Portion.” This might not be the very last previously unheard music we’ll get from the catalog of Ralph Peterson. But if it is, this is a perfect way to finish. His passing is a great loss to the jazz community, but his music lives on.

Aaron Novik

(Astral Spirits)

Some very potent albums have been recorded in quarantine and released over the last year, and Aaron Novik’s Grounded is a great example. The basic concept is acoustic instruments doing electronic music, an idea many have approached but likely few have executed this well. It was made with the acoustic sounds of the clarinet, bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet using minimal effects, and it was recorded during lockdown in the Elmhurst neighborhood of Queens, New York, during April to May of 2020. These sounds are from right when COVID-19 was at its deadliest in the city.

Novik describes that time: “My clearest memories are of an eerie silence, no cars, no people walking around, interspersed with ambulance sirens every five minutes,” he said. “It was dread-inducing.”

You can hear this in the music. And his technique is certainly effective. It’s almost unbelievable that this was made using only clarinets, as the songs have a percussive base over which Novik explores simple melodies, then progressively weaves them together with increasing complexity. You picture him tapping on a drum machine and a keyboard instead of playing a clarinet.

The song titles don‘t give us much here; they’re just “Part 1,” “Part 2” … ending at “Part 10.” But as we move through these, Novik’s palpable dread at what was happening in the city is there. If you’re interested in the sound of a man contending with the pandemic’s start in a very unique way, this is recommended.

Nnenna Freelon

Time Traveler

Vocalist Nnenna Freelon has always had a powerful instrument, but rarely, if ever, has she employed that voice in such an intimate way. Freelon recorded Time Traveler following the loss of her husband, Phil, an accomplished architect who led the design of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture. On Time Traveler, the Grammy-winner wastes no time in grabbing your attention and pulling you in close. Freelon takes us to church with one of the most riveting versions of “Say A Little Prayer For You” that these ears have ever heard. Her vocals are pure, powerful magic. She pays tribute to her lost love throughout the 11-tune program with such songs as “Betcha By Golly Wow,” featuring a beautiful saxophone solo by Kirk Whalum, and Jim Croce’s “Time In A Bottle,” given an interesting arrangement by Miki Hayama. She ruminates over old chestnuts like “Moon River,” “Time After Time” and “Come Rain Or Come Shine,” which certainly have a personal connection. You can feel her loss as well as the joy of her memories. There are moments of indulgence here, but they are certainly understood and worth the trip to hear Freelon’s voice ache on “Just You,” for example. Anyone who has experienced loss can understand where she’s coming from as she tells us that her loss hurts, but also gives the sense that she’s going to be OK.

Jack Brandfield

I’ll Never Be The Same
(Gut String Records)

Here we have the young and amazingly talented tenor saxophonist Jack Brandfield taking us on a swinging trio journey with Randy Napoleon on guitar and Rodney Whitaker on bass. As a group, the three are a wonder of rhythm, time and musicality. Each solo aches of a melodic time gone by, when songs could be instrumental, hip and danceable all at the same time. For his part, Brandfield has a juicy, smooth tone on tenor. He knows how to coax just the right amount of purr from the horn, taking an old-school approach — one that’s reminiscent of his heroes Zoot Sims or Stan Getz — dressed up for the modern era. The lack of a drummer gives the group plenty of room to play with time and space, all the while keeping the proceedings right in the pocket. They roll through a set of a dozen classics that just leave you with a smile and an “Ah!” Especially tasty are the opening Jerome Kern chestnut “Nobody Else But Me,” a jumping take on “Lover Come Back To Me” and “On A Slow Boat To China.” In a very cool move, Brandfield and Whitaker glide as a duo through “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me” in late-night, last-call mode. Napoleon and Brandfield do likewise on a tug-at-the-heart rendition of “Over The Rainbow.” All that said, perhaps the most impressive aspect of Brandfield’s artistry is this: He’s still in school, pursuing a graduate degree at the Frost School of Music at University of Miami. We’ll be seeing him in all the old familiar places, for sure.

Daniel Thatcher

(Shifting Paradigm Records)

Bassist Daniel Thatcher’s debut album as a leader features a quartet of Chicago-area musicians who bring his composer’s voice to life and amplify his life-affirming vision. His Waterwheel ensemble, which finds Thatcher in the company of drummer Devin Drobka and electric guitarists John Kregor and Matt Gold, flies in tight formation over the course of 10 originals that blur the lines separating jazz, chamber music and rock. The album opens with a burst of enthusiasm as Drobka’s crisp brushwork establishes an inviting groove on “Odds Are Even,” a track that toys with notions of mixed meter while maintaining a seamless flow. Thatcher’s instrumental voice comes to the fore on the harmonically and rhythmically inventive “Three Sages,” his profound foundational tones establishing a dirge-like vibe and a heavy-metal atmosphere that spawns spooky, shimmering guitar solos. The sun comes out in the rising melodic lines of “Albedo,” its syncopated jazz-waltz undercurrent brightening the mood even further. “Viscous” begins with sparse group improvisation and ventures into hard rock territory, the guitars ringing with tremolo, echo and other tone-altering effects. Waterwheel arrives at its most tender group moment on the lighthearted “Let’s Grow Old Together,” where Thatcher bows the tune’s down-home, soulful melody over a pretty backdrop of arpeggiated and sustained guitar soundscapes. Throughout the program, Gold and Kregor maintain a delicate balancing act, the guitarists dovetailing neatly as they share the air space above the Thatcher–Drobka bedrock. All four members of Waterwheel are eager, experienced improvisers who embrace freeplay and structured soloing with aplomb and enthusiasm. Thatcher has said that once he settled on this lineup of musicians to perform his compositions, new tunes started coming to him quickly. Let’s hope that trend continues and we hear more from this brilliant cast of genre-morphing empaths.

Moka Efti Orchestra

(Six Degrees Records)

OK, confession time. I have not seen the Netflix series Babylon Berlin, but I can tell you that the music is awesome because the Moka Efti Orchestra, a 14-member ensemble cast in the series, has just released a new album called Erstausgabe. The group was created by the show’s music supervisor, composer Nikko Weidemann, and his fellow composer Mario Kamien, along with saxophonist/arranger Sebastian Borkowski. It’s named after a famous German club that has been re-created for Babylon Berlin, a show set in the 1920s in, you guessed it, Berlin. The music is of the crazy-good cabaret variety that might just remind you of a certain famous musical by the same name because of the setting and the sound. “Hollander Mash Up” grabs you from the downbeat with all the jump, jive and wail the band can muster. “Zu Asche, Zu Staub (To Ashes, To Dust)” has a delicious, menacing drive that builds like a cabaret aria. The band draws from a vast lexicon of swing-feel, ragtime, Chanson and even the blues, and blows it all through your ears with hyper-cool energy and tongue-in-cheek nonchalance over the course of 13 tunes brimming with throw-back reverence and send-it-way-up camp. The vocalists on the set are also thoroughly entertaining, especially the coquettishly controlled bawdiness of show star Severija Janušauskaitė. If you ever get a jones for some highly theatrical, masterfully played big band noir, this is a record for you. Meantime, I’ve got some quality TV binging to catch up on.

Marshall Gilkes Trio

Waiting To Continue
(Alternate Side Records)

Here’s a really beautiful trio recording that represents a pandemic triumph. Trombonist Marshall Gilkes, along with Yasushi Nakamura on bass and Clarence Penn on drums, were scheduled to go into the studio back in April 2020, but COVID had other thoughts. Gilkes initially had another type of album in mind, but “after several months at home, living in limbo, Waiting To Continue proved to be a more suitable title that better conveys the feeling the album represents,” he said in press materials. A few months later, the trio gathered under very strict COVID rules and started to lay down what would become the album. It is breathtaking. The title track begins with Gilkes multi-tracking his trombone before Penn and Yasushi join in. It’s a resilient, hopeful song that captures the times in which it was recorded. Beyond the title track, there is so much to like here. Gilkes has a rare and wonderful mastery of his instrument. It’s on full display throughout the record, from the slippery speed and fluidity of “Archie’s Theme” and “Taconic Turns” to the tear-in-the-eye beauty of “Anya’s Tune.” Gilkes is a force of nature who plays with hope and confidence to spare. It’s music that this reviewer almost missed out on. Indeed, Waiting To Continue, which was released back in February, could have easily suffered that fate. Luckily, I was encouraged to go back and check it out. It’s a gift. This is honest, hopeful, uplifting music for rising above and beyond the challenges of the past year as we all await the green-light to continue our lives and careers once again.

Lorne Lofsky

This Song Is New
(Modica Music)

Canadian guitarist Lorne Lofsky, deeply versed in the bebop language and long admired for his straightahead jazz chops, is a sporadic composer by his own admission. After all, he’s been focusing on his playing for the past 40-plus years as a member of other ensembles, most notably the late Canadian pianist Oscar Peterson’s quartet, not to mention his career as one of his country’s leading jazz educators. So, he only composes when an idea comes to him. A recent mini-binge of writing led to the recording of This Song Is New, his first album as a leader in more than 20 years. Sporting a dry, unaffected, no-nonsense tone, Lofsky shares the front line with tenor saxophonist and longtime collaborator Kirk MacDonald over the course of five originals and fresh takes on two standards: “Seven Steps To Heaven” (Miles Davis) and “Stablemates” (Benny Golson). Bassist Kieran Overs and drummer Barry Romberg, who’ve shared stages with Lofsky on numerous occasions over the decades, dig deep into the material, taking full advantage of the ensemble’s interpersonal chemistry and innate sense of trust. Highlights include the title track, which changes keys in deceptive ways; “An Alterior Motif,” a tune whose thematic development relies on altered harmony to guide it; and the hilariously titled “Evans From Lennie,” which reinvents the standard “Pennies From Heaven” while paying tribute to jazz heroes Bill Evans, Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz — all of whom were famous in jazz circles for imposing interesting new melodic lines upon familiar chord progressions. Nothing feels forced on This Song Is New, which will likely come as a revelation to longtime fans of Lofsky’s masterful technique and exquisite touch.

Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra

(Luaka Bop)

Here we have one of the most ambitious projects to cross these ears in a long time. Five years in the making, British electronic producer, DJ and musician Sam Shepherd, better known as Floating Points, enlisted the help of the entire London Symphony Orchestra as well as Pharoah Sanders, one of the greatest shamans in jazz history, to create art for the ages. Promises tears down the walls between the electronic and acoustic worlds; classical, jazz and pop. The synthesis of all of this demonstrates that music — all music — can be distilled to beauty. In “Movement 1,” the mood of this tone poem is distinctly set — calming, dreamlike searching — and when Sanders comes in with the first wail of his tenor, it’s truly breathtaking. He’s powerful and searing, full of wisdom, sorrow and joy. In “Movement 4” we find Sanders vocalizing quietly, communicating more without words than most could in a volume of books. “Movement 5” finds the shaman joined by a crackly Rhodes, and an organ soaring just below his wails with just the right mix of electronica added in to give the piece a coating of ambient angst. Shepherd performed on a dozen keyboards in the making of this piece. In “Movement 6,” the strings come in to soothe the soul with layers and layers of atmospheric bliss and so much detail to take in. The crescendo is just stunning. “Movement 7” and “Movement 8” begin to return the listener back to earth, but not before Shepherd on organ, all guttural and grit, delivers the goods. “Movement 9” brings back the orchestra for a last blast of joy before the coda. Promises is fantastic meditation music for restless minds. It demands to be heard in concert halls around the world. I can’t wait for all of us to have the opportunity to hear that. Until then, a good pair of headphones will do the trick.

Cowboys & Frenchmen

Our Highway
(Outside In Music)

With the release of Our Highway, the inventive New York quintet Cowboys & Frenchmen reflects on the lives of touring musicians in the context of a cinematic video album that highlights the landscapes and roads that serve as the connective tissue for all of America’s towns and cities. Recorded live at SubCulture in the Big Apple, Our Highway features high-definition footage of the ensemble — front-line alto saxophonists and co-founders Ethan Helm and Owen Broder, pianist Addison Frei, bassist Ethan O’Reilly and drummer Matt Honor — juxtaposed with outdoor vistas filmed by band members over the course of their cross-country travels. While Helm and Broder shared compositional duties on Cowboys & Frenchmen’s 2015 debut, Rodeo, and its 2017 follow-up, Bluer Than You Think, Helm took the lead for Our Highway, writing all of the music and envisioning the overarching theme. Broder contributed to the concepts and perspectives explored in the video. And the distinguished producer Ryan Truesdell helps keep the album’s grand vision in clear focus. A suite-like thread of pieces collectively titled “American Whispers” weaves through the album, representing the tensions and harmonies that exist between the hectic pace of human civilization and the majesty of the natural world. “Alice In Promisedland” channels the searching spirituality of the late harpist/pianist/composer Alice Coltrane. Scenes from Americana abound in pieces like the fluttering “An Old Church” (which brings out the flutist in Helm) and “The Farmer’s Reason” (which Broder finesses on baritone saxophone). The probing “Where Is Your Wealth?” acts as a somber interlude that raises questions about personal values, and “Gig Life” celebrates the uplifting road-life experiences and bond-forging challenges one inevitably faces while traveling the nation’s highways. For Cowboys & Frenchmen, the traveling is not separate from the art. “It’s all part of one lifestyle,” Helm says in the promo materials for Our Highway. “The music is always in motion.” Unable to tour at present, Cowboys & Frenchmen will be partnering with music venues across the country to present the full video album as live-streaming events, allowing each space to offer the experience to audiences for a 24-hour period. An audio-only digital release of Our Highway is also available.

Alfredo Rodriguez/Monir Hossn

‘Que Sera’
(Mack Avenue)

More and more artists are foregoing the time-honored tradition of releasing a full album of music, opting instead for an even older time-honored practice: releasing singles. Here we have pianist and composer Alfredo Rodriguez getting into the game with his longtime musical partner Munir Hossn. For those who might remember the old Doris Day chestnut “Que Sera, Sera,” the Rodriguez/Hossn “Que Sera” ain’t that! It’s a Latin-tinged, booty-shaking, play-loud-with-the-top-down earworm that was created to plant a seed of hope during these difficult times. Congrats to both artists. With a smile on my face, I say “mission accomplished,” or, more aptly, misión cumplida!

Sachal Vasandani/Romain Collin

Midnight Shelter (Editors Pick)

This is a shiver-and-sigh record. Need to chill out at the end of a long day? Midnight Shelter is a go-to. Want to share an amazing listen with someone you love? I’d suggest Midnight Shelter. It’s a beautiful, quiet recording packed with songs of longing, reflection and bliss. Here we find Sachal Vasandani easing his way into the mode of singer-songwriter. His voice is clear. His intentions are pure. He gives each song exactly what it needs to ring true in a listener’s ears. The music of some of the best songwriters in recent history flow effortlessly alongside original tunes penned by Vasandani, pianist Romain Collin and their writing cohorts. “Summer No School,” the opening number written by Vasandani and Erik Privert, pulls at the emotions with longing and loss, setting the tone for what is to come; all the performances on this 11-song set offer a sense of saudade. With just Vasandani’s voice and Collins’ tasteful accompaniment, the two spin a world that’s simply spellbinding. They glide through Lewis Capaldi’s “Before You Go,” Harry Styles’ “Adore You,” Nick Drake’s “River Man,” Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw It Away,” Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and “Blackbird” by Lennon and McCartney. What’s impressive is how perfectly their originals fit so naturally within the set. The two co-wrote a gliding “Great Ocean Road.” Vasandani penned “Love Away,” a ballad with wonderful wordplay and a sophisticated melody that floats between the ears. “Dance Cadaverous,” a Wayne Shorter tune that Vasandani set lyrics to, is the most adventurous offering on the program, once again demonstrating the brilliance of Shorter’s musical mind. The album concludes with with a lovely Collins offering, “One Last Try,” a perfect sentiment to put a bow on this love letter to complicated relationships and life in general.

Pete Ellman Big Band

For Pete’s Ache
(One Too Tree Records)

For more than 10 years, trumpeter, music retailer and retired Air National Guardsman Pete Ellman has drawn from a pool of Chicago’s finest players to populate his namesake big band. The ensemble’s reputation as a local force to be reckoned with precedes its debut recording, For Pete’s Ache, by a long shot. Pre-pandemic, the group sustained its profile by playing weekly gigs and serving as host to events in support of the educational community. Now, with the release of For Pete’s Ache, everything that’s already established about this group has been officially documented on a program of fresh-sounding arrangements written mainly by band members. Trumpeter Daniel Moore, who composed five of the pieces here and charted an additional two, is credited with the thrilling opener, “High Speed Pursuit,” a perfect “album one/track one” choice for announcing one’s official recording debut. Solos catch fire right after a strong initial statement from the full ensemble, with tenor saxophonist Ian Nevins, alto saxophonist Steve Schnall, trombonist Andy Baker and trumpeter David Katz all contributing fiery choruses. It’s he first of many compelling solos by Katz, who wields some of the best jazz trumpet chops in the region. Benny Carter’s classic “When Lights Are Low,” arranged and performed here by the outstanding baritone saxophonist Ted Hogarth, adjusts the dimmer setting to “just right” and showcases the band’s ability to swing lightly; his tone on the big horn is divine. Lead trumpeter Roger Ingram is the light that everyone else in the ensemble “goes to”; with him onboard, everything’s phrased beautifully. Repertoire-wise, there’s something for everyone: barn-burners, medium-up swingers, ballad features, danceable Latin-jazz tracks and a hip-hop-infused mashup of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca” with the Ellington/Strayhorn standard “Take The ‘A’ Train.” Ellman’s ensemble successfully straddles the divide between tech-band concert jazz and dance-friendly big band entertainment. For Pete’s Ache promises to spread the good word well beyond their suburban Chicago roots.


4:00 AM

For anyone who has ever said nothing good happens at 4 a.m., here is proof that they’re wrong. This is an album packed with groove to spare. It’s a toe-tapping, dance-inducing powerhouse from this power-roots trio based out of Paris. Sung mostly in Creole, the music has the drive of a variety of cultural touchpoints — from the Caribbean to Mississippi blues down into New Orleans. “The blues is not sad music,” said Pascal Danae, the group’s singer, songwriter and guitarist, in a press packet. “They might be talking about terrible conditions, about terrible losses, but the bottom line is hope.” Even with a language barrier, all of this shines through on 4:00 AM. On the first single off the album, “Assez Assez,” which means “enough, enough,” Danae’s voice wails and pleads over a hard-driving groove. The song is said to capture the tragedy of immigrants dying at sea while trying to reach a new home. It’s just one example of Danae’s depth and point of view. The band takes its name from Louis Delgrés, a Creole officer in the French Army who died in Guadeloupe fighting against Napolean’s Army. Danae’s parents emigrated from Guadeloupe to Paris before he was born, but he still closely identifies with the struggles of the region. It rings throughout songs about pain, struggle and freedom, but even these heavy topics cannot suppress the joy and hope that rise above the struggle chronicled in this music.

Southside Johnny

Grapefruit Moon: The Songs of Tom Waits Remastered
(Pacific Records)

Here’s one that makes you say, “Don’t blink, time passes too quickly.” Back in 2008, Southside Johnny, the godfather of blue-eyed soul from the Jersey Shore, produced a DIY pet project—him, singing the songs of Tom Waits with a big band. It was an ambitious project, probably too ambitious for the DIY nature of this beast.

But he did it, and it turned out to be a beautiful beast—the music, unparalleled; the musicianship, incredible; Southside, at his full-throated, barroom bard best.

Johnny had a secret weapon, an accomplice, on this improbable journey. Richard “LaBamba” Rosenberg—the multi-talented trombonist best known for his work in the Late Night with Conan O’Brien band as well as touring with the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes—turns out to be an amazing arranger. And his work on this record shimmers.

With all that buildup, the project never got its due, but it did get a feature in DownBeat by this writer, which you can read HERE. As a result, it’s great to see, some 13 years later, the folks at Pacific Records have lovingly remastered, reissued and breathed new life into the project. Bravo to all on this one, and special credit goes out to Sascha Peterfreund, the remaster engineer on this project.

The sound has been completely revamped. The horns, rhythm section and Johnny’s voice are crisper, cleaner and more nuanced. It’s the way this album was meant to sound. The 12 tracks include some of Waits’ more memorable tunes—“Yesterday Is Here,” “Down, Down, Down,” “Grapefruit Moon,” “Tango Till They’re Sore” and “Shiver Me Timbers,” to name a few. Tom Waits himself joins Johnny for a vampy dance around “Walk Away.”

As a bonus track, LaBamba and Johnny dish a live duet on “Straight Up To The Top,” a swinging romp of big-band brawn and beauty that would be amazing to experience in a festival setting.

Sana Nagano

Smashing Humans

There’s a disquieting, fanciful narrative at the heart of Sana Nagano’s Smashing Humans.

The Brooklyn-based violinist, whose compositions here work to render an aural depiction of the 8-bit, sci-fi tableau shown on the album cover, oversees a quintet that relies as much on jazz-world facility as it does on rock aesthetics. Nagano, while remaining a defining element of the mix, cedes space to guitarist Keisuke Matsuno on the album’s first pair of tracks, the shuffling “Strings & Figures” and the dirge-like “Loud Dinner Wanted.”

Her writing begins to pixelate on the compositions that follow, granting a unique view of other contributors—all caught up in the bandleader’s noisy arrangements. There’s space for drummer Joe Hertenstein to direct the band on “Chance Music,” and Nagano’s violin narrates the tale of “The Orange Monster” being bullied on “Heavenly Evil Devil.”

But interactivity—where veteran saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum makes his most resonant contributions—really propels Smashing Humans and its redemptive storytelling; the repetitive lines that make up the core of “Humans In Grey” create a wash of power not felt elsewhere on the album. And as calamity is avoided in Nagano’s narrative, “The Other Humans” concludes an album that both feels and sounds a bit like Blade Runner looks.

Peter DiCarlo

(Shifting Paradigm)

New York-based alto saxophonist and educator Peter DiCarlo makes an auspicious leader debut with the release of Onward. Bridging modern and traditional jazz styles, DiCarlo’s original compositions and arrangements are brought to life by a crack ensemble that brings together trumpeter Scott Wendholt, tenor saxophonist Rich Perry, baritone saxophonist Claire Daly, pianist Jim Ridl, bassist Tom DiCarlo, drummer Chris Parker, percussionist Keisel Jiménez Leyva and in various-sized instrumental configurations. The title track starts the album out on an energetic note, with a driving ostinato in the bass and piano establishing a firm foundation for the horn section. DiCarlo’s alto makes its presence felt during his solo on “Onward,” demonstrating strong showmanship and brimming with confidence. The mellow waltz “Feast In The Fuar” is a casually paced feast of improvisation served up by DiCarlo, Wendholt and Ridl. The winding bopper “Stepping Off” has Ridl flying over the keys in his solo, while DiCarlo steps a little further out into more adventurous harmonic territory and speeds up into a higher gear, spurring some spirited band interaction. “The Imposter” takes a fresh look back on the essence of tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson’s 1963 composition “Recorda Me” with its light drums-and-congas groove and a tenor solo by Perry that starts out breathy and gradully ramps up tin intensity. DiCarlo really lets it rip during his alto solo, pushing his range ever higher and revealing the gritty side of his tone. Warmth radiates from the horns of DiCarlo and Perry on the Parker-penned ballad “Arrival.” “Hint Of Mint” is a fun, uptempo hard-bopper arranged for alto and trumpet, Adderley-style. Things get a little breezier on a smooth, Latin-flavored arrangement of “There Will Never Be Another You” that gives the drums and percussion a nice combined solo spot. Soulful guest vocals by Jerson Trinidad, a funkified groove and four Stevie Wonder-style horns make Roberta Flack’s 1974 r&b hit “Feel Like Makin’ Love” feel like a bonus track, as it closes DiCarlo’s ambitious first album with a feel-good final statement.

Joe Chambers

Samba de Maracatu
(Blue Note)

If you like your jazz with a heaping helping of swirling, wondrous rhythm, Samba de Maracatu by the legendary Joe Chambers will fill you up.

Be it on drums, percussion or mallets, Chambers has been one of the great sidemen in jazz history, providing the beat for everyone from Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson and Sam Rivers to Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson and Chet Baker … just to scratch the surface. He’s also had a diverse and incredible career as a leader.

Now, at the tender age of 78, Chambers makes his Blue Note Records debut as a leader, even though he played on some of the most important recordings in the label’s history. Even so, Samba de Maracatu is miraculous in its ability to be both timely and timeless, worldly, yet intimate. Chambers is joined here by Brad Merritt on piano and Steve Haines on bass, two North Carolinians who groove and complement the maestro’s aesthetic.

For his part, Chambers serves as a one-man percussion machine, overdubbing himself on drums, vibes and percussion to turn this trio into a small, pulsating orchestra. The album’s title cut offers a nod to Afro-Brazilian rhythms rooted in the Candomblé religion of Brazil’s Pernambuco province. It features Merritt and Chambers running parallel lines on piano and vibes in front of a deep-running groove. On Horace Silver’s “Ecaroh,” Chambers leads in with solo vibraphone, wringing, and ringing, every ounce of shimmer and reverb from each note before diving into the tune’s intricate twists and turns.

The recording also features two great vocal spots. First, New Orleans chanteuse Stephanie Jordan delivers a gripping rendition of “Never Let Me Go.” It’s a dreamlike moment of music noir. Second, and more surprisingly, Chambers does a mashup of Nas’ hip-hop classic “N.Y. State of Mind” with Chambers’ own “Mind Rain.” MC Parrain drops the rhymes on this one, and it works as another layer of intricate percussion in Chambers’ multilayer universe.

The nine-tune set concludes with a reworking of Wayne Shorter’s “Rio,” and just like the rest of the album, this river just flows.

To get a deeper dive into Chambers and this project, check out his interview with Blue Note President Don Was on First Look.

Ronnie Cuber/Gary Smulyan

Tough Baritones

Two of the jazz world’s leading baritone saxophonists, Ronnie Cuber and Gary Smulyan, meet here for the first time to tear it up together—bebop-style—on the “big pipe.” Cuber, 79, and Smulyan, 64, are among the more accomplished soloists on bari, an instrument celebrated for its tonal beauty but notorious for its unwieldy heft. They play gorgeous-sounding vintage horns: That’s Cuber on his low-A Selmer in the left channel, and Smulyan on his low-B-flat Conn mixed to the right. And they let nothing get in their way during this animated April 2019 blowing session. These baritone masters make a sport of navigating the fast-moving changes, zigzagging lines and skippy syncopations that define the genre. With the ace support of pianist Gary Versace, bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Jason Tiemann, they rip their way through eight bebop/hard-bop covers and two Cuber originals on this joyfully greasy blowing summit. They come out of the gate strong on the opening tune, Horace Silver’s uptempo swinger “Blowing The Blues Away,” with Versace getting in on the improv action after solos by each baritonist. Swing ends up being the thing on Red Prysock’s “That’s The Groovy Thing,” the saxes laying down bare-bones blues figures in greasy octave-unison; Versace lays way back in a manner that shows that he gets it, too. Silver’s “Nica’s Dream” is a more sophisticated arrangement, the two saxophonists dovetailing and harmonizing on the head before jumping boldly into their solos. Dig how Tiemann uses syncopated rim-sticking and stand-clicking to drastically change texture during Versace’s solo. Cuber is under-miked at the top of Richard Rogers’ “Lover” but comes roaring into his solo like a hurricane; meanwhile Smulyan improvises through long sequences of clearly stated ideas and Versace really turns up the speed; then the saxes trade eights with Tiemann, setting him up for his own tasty solo spot. Versace introduces Thelonious Monk’s “Well You Needn’t” in a perfectly quirky manner before the harmonized saxophones take charge and state the theme. Silver’s “The Preacher” is a medium-up swinger that bestows a down-home blessing on the listener. Tough Baritones buzzes with one-take excitement. The guys simply go for it, indulging their affinity for classic Pepper Adams-style bari sax bebop.

Alan Pasqua

Day Dream
(Gretabelle Music)

As I’ve said before in this column, I’m a sucker for solo piano recordings, and Alan Pasqua’s Day Dream hits home. Pasqua, a collaborator with a broad swath of pop and jazz royalty—from Tony Williams, Bob Dylan and John Fogerty to Allan Holdsworth, Carlos Santana and Michael Bublé—recorded this highly personal collection of his favorite tunes during COVID-19 lockdown. He released it on his own Gretabelle Music last November, but the set is just now getting out to the public. It’s the kind of DIY delay that the pandemic has wrought throughout the music world.

That said, this batch of chestnuts is worth the wait. Pasqua demonstrates amazing touch and technique on the 10 tunes recorded for this document. His medley of “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning/Smile” offers a wistful shiver to a bygone era. And, when he solos on the tune, oh, my, the chops are tasteful and transcendent. He also takes a far-away glance with a rendition of “Old Cape Cod” that pulls the heartstrings just right.

And that’s the beauty of this entire album. There’s a calming melancholy when Pasqua plays “Polka Dots And Moonbeams,” “Prelude To A Kiss” or “When I Grow Too Old To Dream,” the set’s closing track. It’s just the kind of mood that’s needed right now, a vaccine, if you will, from a long, hard pandemic. So, put down the phone, turn off the TV, sit down with your favorite beverage and relax into the beauty of Pasqua’s Day Dream.

Jane Monheit

Come What May
(Club44 Records)

Jane Monheit is a potent antidote to a certain brand of jazz snobbery. At every major jazz festival, there are fans who will begrudgingly (or cheerfully) witness a set by Cécile McLorin Salvant or Gregory Porter, but if pressed, they would assert that they don’t consider vocalists to be in the same league as instrumentalists. (Was Ella Fitzgerald as good a musician as Count Basie? Debate that over a Zoom chat sometime.)

When the luminous Monheit arrived on the scene 20 years ago with her debut, Never Never Land, she won over fans via renditions of standards such as “My Foolish Heart,” “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” and Jobim’s “Dindi.”

On her latest album, Come What May, Monheit continues to dazzle, delivering a program chockfull of standards, such as “Lush Life,” “Let’s Face The Music And Dance” and Jobim’s “Samba Do Aviгo.”

Monheit’s version of Frank Loesser’s “I Believe In You” is delicately spiced with segments of scatting that elevate the tune—just a pinch of salt that works wonderfully. Throughout the program, it should be clear to any snobbish naysayer that her instrument is equal to that of her band’s, which includes guitarist Miles Okazaki, bassist David Robaire, pianist Michael Kanan, drummer Rick Montalbano and percussionist Kevin Winard.

In the opening section of “My Funny Valentine,” while floating atop Kanan’s lines, Monheit’s breath control and exquisite elongation of vowel sounds are so intoxicating that some listeners won’t even pause to ponder the arcane lyrics: “Thy vacant brow, and thy tousled hair/ Conceal thy good intent/ Thou noble, upright, truthful, sincere/ And slightly dopey gent.”

The inclusion of “Let’s Take A Walk Around The Block” (penned by Harold Arlen, Ira Gershwin and E.Y. Harburg) seems suited to our pandemic era in a particularly bittersweet way. Similarly, an elegant reading of “The Nearness Of You” might resonate on multiple levels for lovers who still share a spark, despite being stuck in a small apartment for the past 11 months. On the latter tune, the combination of Monheit’s emotive, wordless flights and Wayne Haun’s lush orchestral arrangement is positively intoxicating.

Monheit’s album-release show at Feinstein’s at Vitello’s will be livestreamed on March 12. Catching this virtual gig might not be as fun as hearing her vocals reverberate around a jazz club or a festival crowd, but that will come, hopefully soon.

John Coltrane

Lush Life

If John Coltrane can’t be all things to all people, then no musician can.

While the saxophonist always will be lauded for standing at the vanguard of change within jazz, his love of the music’s inner workings, history and the players who came before him serve as a ballast to that idea. And during the late ’50s and early ’60s, Trane vacillated between new and old ideas.

Lush Life, a five-cut album drawn from two disparate sessions in 1957 and 1958, trucks in classic songbook fare, with the original “Trane’s Slow Blues” sitting at its center. The lead-off track, Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke’s “Like Someone In Love,” arrives as sentimental as its title might indicate. And Craft’s limited-edition reissue offers it all with refined production and new liners from Ashley Kahn, housed in a sturdy, linen-swathed case.

But the title track of this 1961 album, which Trane would again record with Johnny Hartman in 1963, punctuates the bandleader’s ability to transcend time and place. It’s also a tune with a sly title that contrasts with what we might initially think it intends. By the end of this Billy Strayhorn classic, lyrically, we find out that love’s just “mush” and the song’s narrator is going to “rot” at a crummy bar somewhere, drinking to forget.

There’s not a happy take of the tune; Ella, Strayhorn and Hartman all turn in necessarily blue versions. Here, though, Coltrane—lushly assisted by a dexterous Red Garland at the keyboard—displays an ability to synthesize the tune’s lyrical content while still personalizing its message.

A 25-year-old Donald Byrd comes in a bit hot for his spotlight, but recovers quickly and helps push the tempo up a bit, granting Trane a new platform to re-enter. The pair end on a descending harmony line, giving the song its dour denouement, but one that seems significantly less dire than Strayhorn might have intended.

A more extravagant recombination of new and old came just two years later, when Trane’s My Favorite Things took a composition from a hit musical and rejiggered its purpose. On Lush Life, though, the saxophonist seems more occupied with wringing the emotional meaning from a classic, and does so gracefully and profoundly.

The Jeff Benedict Big Big Band

The Weather Is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful
(Groovy Panda)

Don’t be misled by the corny title of this stellar big band recording from veteran West Coast saxophonist and educator Jeff Benedict. According to the bandleader, who originally hails from Colorado, it’s just a playful commentary on the more flippant characteristics of Los Angeles culture, where style too often trumps substance. The album is actually inspired by the emotionally evocative and highly accessible music of 1970s Hollywood, when brilliant session players like saxophonist Tom Scott and trumpeter Jerry Hey ruled the studio scene and helped craft moody TV and film scores by legendary composers like Quincy Jones and Pat Williams.

Recorded over two sessions in September 2019, The Weather Is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful is loaded with substance. It’s also rife with risk-taking, thanks to Benedict, who arranged four of his original compositions in addition to several covers for the occasion, and the 16 kindred spirits who bring an abundance of soulfulness, swing and sizzle to his namesake big band. Benedict’s title track is a minor blues featuring tight ensemble passages and strong solo contributions from pianist Jeff Hellmer, trombonist Paul McKee, baritone saxophonist Charlie Richard and tenor saxophonist Jeff Ellwood. Other noteworthy soloists include trumpeter Steve Hawk, who tears it up plunger-style on Jones’ “Hikky Burr,” and guitarist Dave Askren, who takes three joyful rides over the course of 10 tracks.

The saxophone section is prominent on Benedict’s arrangement of Irving Berlin’s “Cheek To Cheek,” derived from Phil Woods’ vibrant interpretation of that standard on his 1977 album Live At The Showboat. On “Tom And Jerry,” a supremely funky piece by Sandy Megas, Benedict channels his hero Scott on alto, while trumpeter Brian Bettger plays the role of Hey in his hard-hitting solo. Benedict’s alto sound often has a juicy tartness to it, as well as a bluesy growl reminiscent of Cannonball Adderley. He offers a more “pure” tone on soprano, and shows a special affinity for sax-section writing with soprano lead—a possible nod to the delicately balanced yet always swinging arrangements of the great Thad Jones.

Covering a multitude of styles, time signatures and song forms, The Weather Is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful is sophisticated, uplifting big band music executed with precision and passion by some of L.A.’s finest jazz soloists and section players.

Stick Men


When Tony Levin, Markus Reuter and Pat Mastelotto traveled to Asia in early 2020 for a series of gigs as the Stick Men with special guest Gary Husband, their tour quickly devolved into a single date at the Blue Note in Nagoya, Japan, as rapidly spreading COVID-19 and other complicating factors led to multiple cancellations. But that one show, played before a small audience with little preparation except a few soundcheck run-throughs, turned out to be an epic performance. Sure, the Stick Men had already played hundreds of gigs since the trio’s formation in 2009, bringing its metal-edged brand of improv-heavy instrumental rock to audiences around the world over the course of multiple tours. But the addition of keyboardist Husband to the established lineup—Levin on Chapman Stick (a fully polyphonic chordal instrument that’s also capable of electric guitar-like leads and deep bass lines), Reuter on Touch Guitar (which, like the Stick, is played using a “tapping” technique) and Mastelotto on drums and electronic percussion—made for a sublime experience, as documented on the pristine recording Owari.

By turns ethereal and aggressive, this music is a weird wedding of dreamy soundscapes and churning mechanics that produces a consciousness-heightening effect and encourages focused listening. Husband fits into the picture like a seasoned regular, incorporating sci-fi synth atmospherics and snaky keyboard lines into the Stick Men’s dense sonic realm. Standout tracks include the heavily distorted “Schattenhaft” (from the band’s 2016 studio album, Prog Noir) and the relatively mellow “Crack In The Sky,” a staple in the group’s live repertoire consisting of long, sustained arcs and featuring a spoken-word contribution from Levin. Another highlight is the hypnotic title track, a group improvisation that sounds like it was performed underwater (in the company of singing whales). Owari will resonate with Stick Men devotees, as well as fans of guitarist Robert Fripp’s iconic prog-rock band King Crimson, which includes Levin and Mastelotto in its lineup of instrumental all-stars.

Diego Figueiredo


On June 24, 2017, at the Tri-C JazzFest in Cleveland, this writer had the good fortune of catching a performance by guitarist Diego Figueiredo, who initially played solo before joining bassist John Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton for a mesmerizing trio set that merged jazz with bossa nova. From that day forward, I enthusiastically have followed the guitarist’s career.

Unlike Figueiredo’s excellent 2020 album, Compilation (Arbors)—for which he played electric guitar on about half the tracks—his new release is an all-acoustic, all-original affair featuring four solo guitar cuts and eight tunes on which he’s joined by the simpatico Brazilian crew of Alexandre Piu (piano), Eduardo Machado (fretless bass) and Fernando Rast (drums).

A native of Franca, Brazil, Figueiredo has crafted a program with song titles that allude to specific, appealing places—such as “Seville,” “Bryant Park,” “Edgewater Park” and “From Rio To Paris”—but no locale is more distant than the one cited in the title track, “Antarctica.” This suite-like solo guitar piece features intriguing, graceful transitions between the sections, resulting in a work that evokes the awesome majesty of the southernmost continent. Figueiredo composed the song while traveling via cruise ship. As he wrote in an email to DownBeat, I could explore the sea and land around Antarctica, and it was one of my best experiences of my life. The penguins, the silence, the beautiful sky and the icebergs—it was all a unique and new experience for me.”

In contrast to the title track, the quartet tunes “Samba For Haroldo” and “Caribbean Gonzaga” offer a tropical vibe that conjures images of rolling waves and seaside strolls. Figueiredo composed another one of the album’s quartet tracks, “My Friend Menescal,” as a tribute to the bossa pioneer Roberto Menescal (who composed the standard “O Barquinho” and who wrote the liner notes to last year’s Compilation).

Some of the music here would be an appropriate soundtrack for deep thinking and even meditation, but the melodies are consistently compelling. The program concludes with the uplifting “Alma,” an anthem punctuated with Piu’s buoyant piano lines and the leader’s intricate, cyclical solo. The song conveys a mood of “Seize the day,” prompting this listener to spin it over and over.


(Rune Grammofon)

In its incarnation as a trio, as well as a big band, the sparks igniting Fire! generally come from Mats Gustafsson.

For about 30 years, the Swedish multi-instrumentalist has moved among the jazz, free-improv and rock worlds, showcasing acuity on baritone saxophone, flute and electronics, as he does on Defeat, a follow-up to the ensemble’s Actions from 2020. In a trio format here, Fire! occasionally takes on a calmer aspect, finding cavernous grooves on “each millimeter of the toad, part 2.” Bassist Johan Berthling and drummer Andreas Werliin dig in as Gustafsson plays relatively straight, adding in skronky embellishments on occasion, supported by a few guest horns. It’s by no means a betrayal of the band’s past, one that rakes in amorphous improvs as much as it does pummeling certitude—though the charming chorale that closes out “each millimeter” comes as a definite surprise.

For both the opener (“a random belt. rats you out.”) and closer (“alien (to my feet)”), Gustafsson focuses on the flute, making the music feel a bit lighter, even as the band retains its sense of adventure. There’s an almost Harold Alexander-like exuberance to his work here, though, rooted more in the European avant-garde than 1970s groove music. But the fact that Fire! can cover so much territory within the free-jazz context—and on such a regular basis—means that we’re not only likely to embark on new explorations with the troupe shortly, but we’ll also be encountering new vistas of sound along the way.

Veronica Lewis

You Ain’t Unlucky
(Blue Heart)

With one spin of Veronica Lewis’ debut album, You Ain’t Unlucky, blues fans immediately will recognize some key artistic influences on the 17-year-old singer/pianist. Along with an original tribute to Jerry Lee Lewis (no relation), she unleashes a rollicking version of Katie Webster’s “Whoo Whee Sweet Daddy” (found on the 1988 album The Swamp Boogie Queen). The New Hampshire native concludes the program with a boogie-woogie romp, “The Memphis Train,” in which she name-checks Webster, Jerry Lee and Pinetop Perkins—three pianists unlikely to turn up on the playlists of the average U.S. teen.

Gifted with a voice that combines power with an elastic range, Lewis delivers a program centered around her original compositions, all of which nod to tradition. Eschewing tender ballads in favor of rowdy barn burners, she offers up a rarity in the blues world nowadays: an album without any type of guitar. She recruited five musicians for the sessions, but the instrumentation remains consistent throughout the program: a trio of piano, saxophone and drums. Unafraid to utilize all 88 keys, Lewis favors a beat that’s steady, a horn that honks and piano that talks. (Three cuts feature acoustic piano lines recorded at Lewis’ home, where she played a 115-year-old upright named Margaret.)

This fat-free, 33-minute program probably won’t inspire a musicologist to write a dissertation on Lewis’ charming, straightforward lyrics, but it will motivate listeners to lace up their dancing shoes. You Ain’t Unlucky, a charming gem currently generating airplay, announces the arrival of a young talent who can belt out a narrative with authority and pound out a piano solo with marvelous muscularity.

Calvin Keys

(Real Gone Music)

California pianist Gene Russell founded the Black Jazz imprint, and began releasing albums by folks like Doug Carn and Walter Bishop Jr. in 1971. The label only would last until 1975, but during its run, Russell was able to offer an in-the-moment sketch of what was happening in the soul-jazz universe.

Guitarist Calvin Keys—who released his leader debut on Black Jazz the year the imprint was founded—would go on to tour and record with Ahmad Jamal, and solidify his spot as a ranking elder in the Bay Area jazz scene. But on the reissue of Shawn-Neeq, the composer and bandleader seems so effortlessly at home in his quartet (occasionally augmented by flutist Owen Marshall), it’s a bit surprising that he never became a more visible national figure.

Keys’ debut opens with “B.E.,” a 4/4 workout that’s suited more to the dancefloor than the confines of a traditional jazz club; the following “Criss Cross” and the closer, “B. K.,” reaffirm the vibe. The guts of Keys’ album, though, have a different feel. The title track is a contemplative, slowly paced piece leavened by Marshall’s contributions. The flutist also ranks as the main voice on “Gee Gee,” where the tempo picks up a bit, retaining the spirited flow of the era’s best electric work.

The guitarist’s second and final Black Jazz release, the 1974 album Proceed With Caution!, would feature luminaries like percussionist Leon “Ndugu” Chancler and pianist Kirk Lightsey. But this is where it started, making Shawn-Neeq a notable historic marker, as well as a sonically engaging, if all-too-short, run through the era’s soul-jazz territory. Just steer clear of Keys’ 1980s recordings, which still rely on his keen guitar work, but in a setting that’s a bit too smooth for its own good.

Muriel Grossmann

Quiet Earth

With a steady stream of records flowing since 2007, the work of Ibiza, Spain-based saxophonist Muriel Grossman invokes nature as easily as the sturdy history of spiritual-jazz.

Following Reverence, where the bandleader sought to merge the “reassuring elements of spiritual-jazz” with its antecedents, Grossman returns with an album that examines her own development along the music’s continuum. Two of the compositions on Quiet Earth, though, first appeared on Awakening, a live recording from the 2011 Eivissa Jazz Festival that featured freedom-focused drummer Christian Lillinger behind the kit.

“After reflecting on my musical search, I could see that ‘Wien’ and ‘Peaceful River,’ songs from 10 years ago, [hinted at my] transition from more avant-garde to more spiritual-jazz,” Grossmann wrote in an email to DownBeat. “I wanted to give these songs more weight, since they mark this important transitional step.”

Nuanced arrangements make even a couple of retreads—set alongside the title track and another fresh, extended composition titled “African Call”—seem new.

The arrangement of “Peaceful River” here has a more succinct form, its original tentative middle section replaced by a constant swing. Guitarist Radomir Milojkovic continues to factor into the ensemble sound, comping where straightahead acts likely would have a pianist slotted. Adding in organist Llorenc Barcelo for her past few albums, Grossmann has deepened her compositional ambition and solidified sonic connections to the music’s roots in the ’60s.

While Quiet Earth largely functions as a vehicle for Grossman’s exhortations—indulging supple mutations of thematic material, though never fully cutting free—she’s cemented her voice and refined her sonic purpose.

Marc Copland

(Inner Voice)

Pianist Marc Copland—who played saxophone during the early ’70s alongside guitarist John Abercrombie in a fusion act simply called Friends—summons a solo tribute album aimed at his late friend. Copland and Abercrombie gigged and recorded together in a variety of settings during the subsequent decades, and the pianist finds alluring, contemplative melodies among the guitarist’s songbook to reflect the relationship they cultivated for John.

With choices from dozens of albums, Copland selects songs that he’d previously recorded with his coconspirator—who died in 2017 at age 72—and some that he didn’t. “Vertigo”—the closer, which first appeared on Abercrombie’s album 39 Steps—is dashed with a bit of dissonance, aurally replicating its namesake affliction while also hinting at the dizzying feeling Copland must have experienced after losing his friend. Most of the album, though, is given over to tunes like “Sad Song”—which easily lives up to its name and was plucked from the guitarist’s 2009 album, Wait Till You See Her. Tucked away among some of the more solemn offerings here is “Flip Side”—originally “Flipside” on the Abercrombie quartet’s final outing, 2017’s Up And Coming—a sprightly dance that could be seen as examining various aspects of the musical personalities Abercrombie and Copland displayed during decades-long careers.

Noah Bless

New York Strong–Latin Jazz!

Trombonist Noah Bless—who has played with the likes of Eddie Palmieri, Paquito D’Rivera and the Spanish Harlem Orchestra—had plenty of experience to draw upon when developing his aptly titled leader debut: New York Strong–Latin Jazz! The album serves not only as an entertaining escape during the long days of the pandemic, but also a poignant reminder of the brand of Latin jazz that New York City venues have been missing on a nightly basis during the COVID-19 crisis.

Leading a gifted quintet, Bless delivers dance-inducing grooves with his renditions of Rudy Calzado’s “Ganga” and Baden Powell’s “Canto De Ossanha.” Although his brass swagger is front and center on these two tunes, Bless avoids grandstanding and knows when to yield the spotlight, giving keyboardist Mike Eckroth and bassist Boris Kozlov plenty of room to strut.

Bless showcases a more exploratory aesthetic with his original number “Chasing Normal,” and on his tune “The Key,” the band—expanded to a sextet with flutist Alejandro Aviles—gracefully navigates compelling shifts in time signatures, moving into and out of a pulsating, songo beat.

The band’s authoritative command of tempo—anchored by the work of drummer Pablo Bencid and percussionist Luisito Quintero—is on full display on a 7/4 rendition of Ray Santos’ “Sunny Ray.” A brilliant reading of Jobim’s “Ligia” features delicate dialogue between Eckroth and Bless, while the curveball in the program is a version of James Taylor’s “Fire And Rain” that highlights the familiar melody and convincingly makes the case for trombone as a muscular lead instrument.

Rich Halley

The Shape Of Things
(Pine Eagle)

The Shape Of Things is a fountain of pure jazz energy that surges with pulsar-like power.

But first, a bit about the session’s leader, Oregon-based tenor saxophonist Rich Halley. Known for his fiery improvisations and muscular chops, Halley is an unsung yet well-established West Coast artist with a contagious spirit of adventure and a long musical track record that dates back to the mid-’60s Chicago blues and avant-garde scene. His 23rd album as a leader, and his second quartet recording with pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker, The Shape Of Things is a purely improvised affair that takes an anything’s-possible approach to basic concepts of physical dimension, proportion and structure.

Over the course of six tracks with titles like “Vector,” “Spaces Between” and “Oblique Angles,” Halley shows himself to be a master of motivic development who has developed a titanic, distinct voice on his instrument. Whether ripping through the sonic tapestry with note-blurring lines of expertly controlled squawk à la Albert Ayler, coaxing out resonant subtones like a latter-day Coleman Hawkins or singing through long, sustained, vibrato-laden notes in the manner of Pharoah Sanders, Halley never lets up the intensity. The saxophonist’s bandmates are right there with him at every turn, offering plenty of bold statements of their own. Shipp thunders with authority, using dissonant clusters to punctuate the group’s collective interplay and spinning out super-fast two-handed lines that fascinate the ear. His contribution to “Lower Strata” is substantial, his signature left-hand power magnified via liberal use of the sustain pedal as he plumbs the sonic depths of the piano. Bisio is featured prominently on “Curved Horizon,” his solo a feat of chops and endurance that’ll leave you wondering how on earth he does it. The Shape Of Things is one big chain-reaction, a wild ride whose core essence can be best described as geometry in motion.

Janis Mann & Kenny Werner

Dreams Of Flying

The latest release by singer Janis Mann and pianist Kenny Werner, Dreams Of Flying, combines studio sessions and live performances, recorded three years apart, on opposite U.S. coasts, with different supporting musicians. On paper, that hardly sounds like a recipe for a cohesive program. And yet, thanks to the simpatico rapport by these two veteran musicians, the result is a marvelously congruous 63-minute album.

The duo teamed up with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Duduka Da Fonseca for a 2016 session at Samurai Hotel recording studio in Queens, and in 2019, the co-leaders presented a set of duo and trio songs (with guitarist Larry Koonse) in front of a quiet audience at the Capitol Studios building in Hollywood. Every track in the program sparkles, whether the quartet is coaxing emotion out of Stevie Wonder’s 1985 hit “Overjoyed” or Mann is demonstrating her impressive vocal command on an adventurous, eight-minute trio reading of Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where The Time Goes.”

Mann and Werner—who collaborated on a 2013 disc, Celestial Anomaly—once again prove that the success of a jazz-meets-cabaret endeavor relies not only on strong melodies, but also on sculpting arrangements that showcase the players’ individual strengths.

The quartet version of Paul Simon’s dark ballad “I Do It For Your Love” features rich, low-end coloration, courtesy of Gress’ haunting bass. When the quartet recorded Simon’s “American Tune,” little did they know they were creating an apropos lament for the pandemic era. “I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered/ Don’t have a friend who feels at ease,” Mann sings, latter adding, “When I think of the road we’re traveling on/ I wonder what went wrong/ I can’t help it, I wonder what went wrong/ And I dreamed I was dying.”

Mann and Werner are also fond of the tunesmith Jimmy Webb, represented here by “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress” and “Wichita Lineman.” On the latter interpretation, Werner crafts two intertwined, mesmerizing harmonic dialogues: one with Mann’s vocal line and one with the song’s familiar melody.

The composers of these 11 tracks are all famous, but Mann and Werner make many astute choices, often choosing a lesser-known composition in the tunesmith’s songbook, such as Joni Mitchell’s “Edith And The Kingpin.” Heartache is a motif in the program, as Mann digs into Alan and Marilyn Bergman’s tear-jerking lyrics for a tune penned by Johnny Mandel, “Where Do You Start,” one of the most gut-wrenching break-up songs of all time. Werner’s commentary, weaving between the verses and underneath Mann’s assured vocals, is a master class on accenting the meaning of a lyric.

Dreams Of Flying, Mann’s eighth album, is an overlooked gem of 2020, and a great demonstration of her willingness to explore profound emotional depths.

Firm Roots Duo

Firm Roots
(Self Release)

Our connections sustain us during the most difficult of times. That’s what makes the release of Firm Roots, a duo project from Chicago-based pianists Chris White and Lara Driscoll, so very appropriate. Roots keep us grounded and nourish our spirits, making them one of the most vital connections of all. White and Driscoll have made it their mission to lay down roots together—not only in their day-to-day lives as a happily married couple but also in the simpatico music they make on this brilliant new album.

Performing on Conservatory Series Bösendorfers, White and Driscoll recorded Firm Roots at Grand Piano Haus in Skokie, Illinois, a classy showroom located close to home that’s known for its inventory of high-end instruments. The album opens with the Cedar Walton-penned title track, a tricky tune with a deceptively catchy melody that rings through loud and clear. “Sábado De Manhã,” an original composition that, like many of the tunes here, the pianists wrote together, is distinguished by a graceful yet prominent melodic line that breezes along over a light, mutually conjured samba groove; the song reflects the couple’s shared interest in Brazilian music. “One Foot First” takes White and Driscoll out of their comfort zones as co-composers as they plunge into the deeper ends of harmony, meter and song form. “Jalophony” is another challenging original that brings out the best in both players: Driscoll opens with an ostinato 3/4 figure while White lays down a 4/4 bass line, establishing an underlying tension and a sense of perpetual motion; they inevitably land on a big “1” together, as the meters come into alignment for the song’s head and solo sections. Driscoll, who’s heard in the right channel of the stereo field throughout most of the album, toys with her lines and teases out phrases as she develops her improvisations, worrying the blue notes that lurk at the heart of this minor-key adventure. White, usually on the left side, crafts more aggressive lines that tend to weave inside and outside the harmony.

Other highlights include the waltzy “I.P.T.” (which the couple performed together at their wedding reception), the intimate “Tu M’as Convaincu” and the album’s closer, a bluesy take on the standard “Willow Weep For Me” that has the pianists engaging in playful back-and-forth that reveals just how deeply connected they are.

Yussef Dayes Trio

Welcome To The Hills
(Cashmere Thoughts)

Drummer Yussef Dayes so effortlessly fuses the ideas of jazz, its various tributaries and the sounds of electronica, it’s hard to properly place his recordings in time.

“Jamaican Links,” which really amounts to an interstitial 100 seconds on Dayes’ live trio album, Welcome To The Hills, emerges from the lead-off track’s dizzying, Herbie-influenced fusion, and pretty quickly summons dub, acid-jazz and funk. “Palladino Sauce”—where Pino’s progeny, bassist Rocco Palladino, takes a namesake track on a similar trek—finds keyboardist Charlie Stacey accessing the sounds of space, while his bandmates burrow deep into the pocket. Only “Gully Side” and “For My Ladies” ease back on the tempo, using a soul-music influence as a brief respite from Dayes’ displays of funky endurance. Thing is, though, the bandleader seems as comfortable—and moreover, effective—working through any of these kaleidoscopic modes.

There’s not really a highlight on Welcome To The Hills—just a sequence of astounding rhythms, deft and expansive musical references (there’s even a much expanded take of bassist Stanley Clarke’s “Yesterday Princess”) and the adulation of the crowd pushing the ensemble forward. If it weren’t remarkable for its breadth, Welcome To The Hills still would be notable for Dayes annoucing the intentions of his chameleonic trio.

Danielle Miraglia

Bright Shining Stars

Americana and blues practitioner Danielle Miraglia wisely avoids fuss and clutter on her latest album, Bright Shining Stars. Fingerpicking and strumming on acoustic guitar are central to her sound, with percussion frequently provided by the infectious stomp of her foot. Three of the 11 tracks here are solo recordings, reinforcing a truism that the artist frequently has proven on Boston-area stages: A charming voice and fluid guitar prowess are all an artist needs to keep a listener rapt. The other eight tracks are duo cuts, pairing Miraglia with players who share her less-is-more aesthetic: electric guitarist Peter Parcek, viola player Laurence Scudder and harmonica wizard Richard “Rosy” Rosenblatt (who happens to be the president of the VizzTone Label Group).

Miraglia showcases her command of the blues with versions of the standards “C.C. Rider,” “It Hurts Me Too,” “Walkin’ Blues” and Janis Joplin’s “Turtle Blues,” as well as the witty “You Can Love Yourself,” penned by Keb’ Mo’. She saves her most dynamic vocals for Bob Dylan’s blues number “Meet Me In The Morning,” peppering her delivery with subtle growls.

Miraglia’s original compositions here include the “Pick Up The Gun,” a reflection on senseless gun violence, and “Famous For Nothin’,” a commentary on shallow, 21st-century fame. The program concludes with the title track—penned by Miraglia’s husband, Tom Bianchi—a gentle, melodic, memorable anthem for optimists.

Shemekia Copeland

Uncivil War

Anyone who has paid attention to the blues scene of the past 20 years is fully aware that singer Shemekia Copeland can belt with gusto. Known more for her vocal gifts than her compositional skills, the key element that distinguishes Copeland’s good albums from her great ones is the quality of the songs she chooses. Her artistry has reached a new level with Uncivil War, thanks to Will Kimbrough, who produced the album, plays electric guitar throughout the program, and co-wrote seven of the 12 tracks.

The album opens with four remarkable, substantive Kimbrough tunes, making it clear that Copeland is not content to merely sing blues fodder about love gone wrong: “Clotilda’s On Fire” chronicles the horrors—and lasting impact—of slavery; “Walk Until I Ride” is a contemporary civil rights manifesto fueled by messages reminiscent of songs by the Staples Singers; the title track is a plea for unity during our divisive times; and “Money Makes You Ugly” is a protest song for environmentalists.

Toward the end of the album, there is a cluster of three songs that are just as weighty as those that open the disc: “Apple Pie And A .45” decries rampant gun violence; “Give God The Blues” is an existential exploration of similarities shared by several organized religions; and “She Don’t Wear Pink” is an LGBTQ anthem.

Copeland’s recordings often incorporate sonic elements from the Americana world, as evidenced here by bluegrass star Sam Bush’s mandolin textures on the title track, as well as Jerry Douglas’ exceptional work on lap steel guitar and Dobro on three tunes. Electric guitarists making guest appearances on the album include blues dynamo Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Stax icon Steve Cropper and rock ’n’ roll pioneer Duane Eddy.

Not every track on the album is a slice of social commentary; “Dirty Saint” adds a jolt of New Orleans funk to the proceedings. Penned by Kimbrough and John Hahn, the song is a fitting tribute to Dr. John, who produced Copeland’s 2002 disc, Talking To Strangers. The program closes with another type of tribute, as the singer acknowledges her familial and artistic roots by interpreting “Love Song.” It’s a sturdy composition by her father, Johnny Copeland, who was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2017, two decades after his death. Just as Johnny did, Shemekia Copeland’s work has expanded the audience for the blues.

Hypnotic Brass Ensemble

Bad Boys Of Jazz
(Self Release)

Even before clocking the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble’s origin story, it’s hard to shake its music, a collection of roiling big-band horn harmonies, hip-hop inflected rhythms, Afrobeat-styled percussion accents and wiry wah-wah guitar accompaniment. It’s almost the perfect summation of the past 70 years of brass and dance music.

The ensemble emerged from Chicago’s deep well of talent, drawn generation after generation from the AACM’s reservoir. Now split between its Chicago birthplace and New York, Hypnotic first came to fruition as an overwhelmingly engaging group of buskers, electrifying the Windy City’s “L” stops with stubbornly catchy performances. The group’s founders—all sons of multi-instrumentalist and Sun Ra affiliate Kelan Philip Cohran (1927–2017)—soon found their impromptu performances didn’t serve as a proper forum. And after self-releasing a handful of albums, the troupe lit out for New York, falling in with a growing contingent of performers discarding genre boundaries and working to encompass the breadth of Black music birthed of the fraught American experience.

Bad Boys Of Jazz is the group’s most recent effort to cover all of that terrain, “My Ship” adding in vocals that span rapped cadences and r&b grit, before downshifting into the blue funk of “Indigo,” a tune that effortlessly pulls from ’70s groove-based music and sterling brass harmonies—something that might bring a smile to Quincy Jones’ face. “Soul On Ice,” likely named after the 1968 book of essays Eldridge Cleaver published, offers a heroic horn melody, layered atop irrepressible percussion.

Like its musical DNA, drawing as much from party music as art, the band’s worked to distill every level of culture, from romantic numbers, like the closer “What It Is,” to the cerebral funk of “Art Comes First.”

Juliet Kurtzman & Pete Malinverni

Candlelight—Love In The Time Of Cholera

Tango tunes and Bix Beiderbecke compositions are two seemingly disparate ingredients that blend together beautifully on Candlelight—Love In The Time Of Cholera, the new duo album by classical violinist Juliet Kurtzman and jazz pianist Pete Malinverni. The 12-track program showcases exquisite melodic lines from both instrumentalists, as well as brilliant bouts of dialog.

Acclaimed as an educator and a specialist in the intersection of jazz and sacred music traditions, Malinverni takes a secular route for Candlelight, interpreting two songs by tango icons—Carlos Gardel’s “Por Una Cabeza” and Astor Piazzolla’s “Oblivion”—and composing two tangos himself, “Pulcinella” and “Love In The Time Of Cholera.”

The program includes five songs by Beiderbecke, a DownBeat Hall of Famer widely revered for his work on cornet, but who also composed four works for piano: “In A Mist,” “Candlelights,” “In The Dark” and “Flashes.” In addition to spacious arrangements of those songs, Kurtzman and Malinverni apply their refined approach to “Davenport Blues,” a standard first recorded in 1925 by Beiderbecke’s sextet Bix & His Rhythm Jugglers.

Despite this emphasis on Beiderbecke tunes—as well as the inclusion of Scott Joplin’s “Solace”—Kurtzman and Malinverni don’t play ragtime music. Their shared aesthetic is one born in the 21st century, an approach that dually exploits the emotional resonance of jazz and the keen precision of classical music.

On the duo’s reading of “In The Dark,” Kurtzman’s playing evokes the intricacy of human speech. Elsewhere, a lively interpretation of Brazilian choro master Jacob do Bandolim’s “Dôce De Coco” finds Kurtzman gracefully breaking out of the confines of classical performance, while still showing off the chops that landed her onstage at Carnegie Hall. The rendition of “In A Mist” demonstrates both players’ ability to intensify the impact of a melody by handling tempo with a wondrous elasticity. Malinverni, who cites Piazzolla as a key influence, has teamed with Kurtzman to craft an album that has a degree of the irresistible, heart-piercing emotive quality of his hero’s finest works.

Loudon Wainwright III With Vince Giordano & The Nighthawks

I’d Rather Lead A Band
(Thirty Tigers)

Pop-culture aficionados who recognize the name Loudon Wainwright III might know him as a wry singer-songwriter, an actor, an acclaimed memoirist or a musical patriarch with numerous children who are performers, including Rufus Wainwright. But few fans view him purely as a vocal stylist, a role that he enthusiastically embraces on I’d Rather Lead A Band, a collaboration with retro practitioners Vince Giordano & The Nighthawks. The program features songs from the 1920s and ’30s—typical fare for Giordano’s talented crew.

Wainwright and Giordano have known each other for years, having worked together on music for Martin Scorsese’s 2004 film The Aviator, and then again on the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. Here, the Nighthawks coax charming vocal performances out of Wainwright, who is well suited to sing witty ditties like the title track (penned by Irving Berlin). Wainwright does a fine job eliciting smiles as he sprints through a razzle-dazzle rendition of “How I Love You (I’m Tellin’ The Birds, Tellin’ The Bees)” and uses growls for punctuation in the comedic “You Rascal You (I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead).”

More revelatory and satisfying, however, is Wainwright’s sincere treatment of heartbreaking lyrics. “More I Cannot Wish You” (from the musical Guys and Dolls) packs an intense, emotional wallop that few would expect from the man who scored the 1972 novelty hit “Dead Skunk.” Listeners will reach for a tissue as Wainwright sensitively interprets Carrie Jacobs-Bond’s ballad “A Perfect Day,” elongating vowel sounds as he croons, “Memory has painted this perfect day/ With colors that never fade/ And we find at the end of a perfect day/ The soul of a friend we’ve made.”

Wainwright offers a straightforward version of “A Ship Without A Sail,” the tale of a lovelorn protagonist. Reflecting on the Rodgers & Hart tune in the liner notes, he writes, “Check out the 1959 Tony Bennett black-and-white TV clip on YouTube. Tony is singing the song in a spiffy Italian tailored suit, but the director has him situated indoors on the deck of some kind of simulated, fully rigged windjammer. At the very least Mr. Benedetto should have been sporting an eye patch.”

In his musical performances and in his prose, that mixture of quirky quips and emotional depth is part of the reason that Wainwright, 74, still has the ability to surprise us.

Macie Stewart & Lia Kohl

Recipe For A Boiled Egg
(Astral Spirits)

A near-religious ardency resonates throughout “Song For Soft-Serve,” the closing track of Recipe For A Boiled Egg.

Macie Stewart’s violin and Lia Kohl’s cello gently coax waves of calm, mirroring the feel of Pauline Oliveros’ The Wanderer, or any number of other deep-listening exercises. Vocals layered atop their strings further a chorale concept suited to a season when we’re all longing for a communal, uplifting note. But the decidedly placid music that closes out the pair’s follow-up to 2019’s Pocket Full Of Bees (Astral Editions) contrasts with its playful title, merging tongue-in-check panache and the seriousness of art music.

“Right Before Dinner,” a gnarled swirl of bowed strings perhaps mimicking the churn of a hungry belly, works the same way—pushing avant-expectations on the moment when hunger makes our guts emit croaking and gurgling noises. All of Boiled Egg works that way, in fact: “Scrimble-Scramble” and “Screaming Tea” get new music-y, despite their playful titles; and the long tones of “Rich, Sticky, Sweet” render both performative endurance and the suspended time of inhaling something delicious.

If improvising is the comity of lightning-fast ideas springing from collaborators’ minds, Boiled Egg might be thought of as a confluence of Stewart and Kohl parsing their concurrent work in the jazz, pop and free worlds—in real time. Regardless, it’s more filling than a five-course meal.

Chris Abrahams


Australian pianist Chris Abrahams—a founding member of The Necks—started issuing solo dates prior to recording with the avant-trio he’s most associated with. And while his contemplative touch on Appearance, as well as across a raft of solo dates reaching back to the mid-’80s, is almost immediately recognizable, there’s less twitchy energy at work on the two new tunes here than Necks aficionados might expect.

The instrumental, slowly paced offerings—enduringly placid, appealing and contemplative—arrive as untouched clay, waiting for listeners to etch their impressions on the surface. But there’s form here, to be sure: “As A Vehicle, The Dream” gently floats its melody up and lets it wash away. Abrahams retains the easily accessible sound at the keyboard here that’s helped The Necks merge shimmering calm with angsty rhythms for decades. Even shorn of company, pianist still manages to burrow deeply into ideas on Appearance, gently churning up shifting embellishments to each extended cut comprising the album.

That Abrahams might be considering an overarching thematic concept is totally possible—perhaps hinted at by the title “Surface Level,” the album’s second track. But the allure of his performance here is that the listener can project their own ideas and predilections across the backdrop of beautifully wrought sound.

Colin Steele


Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell’s sophisticated compositions long have served as fuel for jazz artists who find inspiration in the alternate tunings and complex rhythms she has employed since her emergence as a folk-pop visionary in the 1960s. As her art matured in the 1970s, she began working with some of the top jazz players of her time, including Charles Mingus, Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny. Her songs have been covered and reinterpreted countless times by musicians representing a wide range of genres—Hancock, Judy Collins, Norah Jones, Tina Turner, Annie Lennox, Tori Amos, Prince and Diana Krall among them.

Now comes a sparkling new recording by Scottish trumpeter Colin Steele that consists entirely of Mitchell repertoire, sparingly arranged for jazz quartet. Steele is reverential in his approach to the Mitchell songbook, his Harmon-muted trumpet evoking the singer’s distinctive, expertly controlled mezzo-soprano voice. The nine songs on Joni were written and recorded by Mitchell in the ’60s and ’70s, before her range began to descend into a smoky alto. With the sensitive support of bandmates Dave Milligan (piano/arranger), Calum Gourlay (bass) and Alyn Cosker (drums), Steele honors the familiar melodic contours and unrushed phrasing of classic songs like “Blue,” “Both Sides Now,” “A Case Of You” and “River.” These new arrangements leave Mitchell’s masterpieces wide open for smooth, soothing flights of jazz improvisation.

JCA Orchestra

The JCA Orchestra Live At The BPC

The 11th album by the Boston-based Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra adheres to a tradition that dates back to 1985: presenting original works by some of the most forward-looking and innovative writers and arrangers of the times. Recorded live at the Berklee Performance Center, the new album is a diverse program of compositions by JCA members David Harris, Darrell Katz, Bob Pilkington and Mimi Rabson, played by a large ensemble that puts a modern twist on traditional big-band instrumentation with the inclusion of strings, French horn and EWI.

Violinist-composer Rabson’s “Romanople” alludes to the disparate historic cultures of Constantinople and Rome, starting with a simple melodic statement (played by violinist Helen Sherrah-Davies) inspired by the Turkish folk tradition that takes flight and lands smack-dab in the middle of a Roman military brass band. Rabson’s other contribution, “Super Eyes–Private Heroes,” is a soundtrack-worthy nod to spy thrillers and superhero flicks, brimming with excitement and suspense. Harris contributes two pieces as well: “The Latest” is rooted in the pentatonic world of traditional Thai music, while “Orange, Yellow, Blue” builds Latin, funk and rock grooves upon a busy, buzzy background of free-improvisation that manages to maintain a sublime sense of coherence and order under the composer’s direction.

On trombonist Pilkingtons The Sixth Snake,” braininess meets beauty as cool calculation and trial-and-error experimentation result in a warmhearted celebration of dazzling color combinations and complex timbral textures. A Wallflower In The Amazon,” composed and conducted by JCA cofounder Katz, is an extended interpretation of a poem by Paula Tatarunis (Katz’s late wife), featuring a compelling melodic narration by vocalist Rebecca Shrimpton. The compositions themselves are the stars of this program, brought to life in a live-performance context featuring several remarkably inventive instrumental solos.

John McLean/Charles Barkatz

Shadow Man
(Leaky Shoes)

John McLean and Charles Barkatz don’t fit the profile of typical blues artists. But they sure as hell can write, play and sing with genuine greasy-sack conviction as demonstrated on Shadow Man, a collaborative recording produced by Mark Kaz” Kazanoff with true-blue support from The Texas Horns, an ace Austin, Texas-based rhythm section, and other special guests.

Octogenarian McLean, featured here as a vocalist and songwriter, is a jack-of-all-trades performing artist who was born in New York, grew up on a Texas ranch, studied in Boston and built a lifetime’s worth of experience in theater, cinema and music. He has been a leader of several jazz groups in Paris (including the Fairweather Quintet) and recently appeared in New York at the Cornelia Street Cafe with his quartet. Barkatz, schooled in classical and jazz guitar and fluent in bossa nova, performs and records regularly in the States and his native France. Influenced by Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Wes Montgomery and Jimi Hendrix, the 61-year-old taught himself how to play the blues at a young age. Together, these two transatlantic collaborators cut right to the heart of the blues on 10 original, emotionally charged tracks tinged with elements of jazz and American roots music.

Recorded with everyone in one big room, the music on Shadow Man conveys a communal experience, where spontaneity rules the day and collective moods range from sorrow and regret to flirtatious whimsy and liberating redemption. Highlights include the punchy opener “Leaky Shoes Blues,” the horn-heavy “Brooklyn Blues Cafe,” the dreamy minor-key meditation “Lucia” and the soul-cleansing “Bathtub Blues,” with its filthified blend of amplified harmonica, riffing guitars and honky-tonk piano.

What Happens In A Year


This debut recording from Josh Sinton’s collaborative trio What Happens In A Year is a completely improvised affair, a collection of spontaneous compositions recorded in the close quarters of Oktaven Studio in Mount Vernon, New York, back in 2018.

Featuring Sinton on baritone saxophone and bass clarinet with guitarist Todd Neufeld and electric bassist Giacomo Merega, cérémonie/musique is, as its title implies, ceremonial in essence, the product of weekly get-togethers dedicated to creating new music in the moment. Sinton originally intended the products of their improv summits to serve as fodder for written compositions with predetermined melodies and set forms, but soon realized that the music they’d been making was already perfectly valid in and of itself. It’s a new tack for Sinton, a prolific composer who leads multiple groups and long has played a vital role on Brooklyn’s creative music scene.

The work on cérémonie/musique is hushed and never rushed; listening to the album’s seven tracks gives a feeling of strolling through an art gallery or botanic garden, taking in the surrounding beauty and coming upon each breathtaking surprise at one’s own pace. It breathes easily and conveys a sense of spaciousness that’s the antithesis of the chaotic, frantic sounds associated with so much New York-style “free” playing. Each track is an intimate conversation, from the interval-centered opener “la politique des auteurs” to the drifting sonic textures of set-closer “music from a locked room.” With cérémonie/musique, Sinton and his collaborators have transformed a shared ritual into a collective work of art.

South Florida Jazz Orchestra

Cheap Thrills: The Music Of Rick Margitza

Tenor saxophonist and Miles Davis alumnus Rick Margitza is the star of the fourth recording from bassist-educator Chuck Bergeron’s South Florida Jazz Orchestra, a powerhouse ensemble consisting of top players from Miami’s jazz scene. The crackerjack group does a bang-up job performing big-band adaptations of eight Margitza originals and one standard (“Embraceable You”) in this thrilling celebration of their honored guest, who blows on all nine tracks.

The compositions chosen for Cheap Thrills span Margitza’s career, dating back to “Widow’s Walk,” a radio-friendly tune from the 1989 compilation New Stars On Blue Note that included Bergeron in the rhythm section; “Brace Yourself,” a Latin cooker originally recorded on Margitza’s Blue Note debut Color, also from 1989; and the swinger “Walls,” which first appeared on the saxophonist’s early-’90s album Hope. More recent fare includes the extended composition “Premonition,” an ambitious piece colored with a full palette of woodwind timbres, and the propulsive, brass-powered title track. Margitza, who did seven of the nine arrangements here, has substantial big band experience—including stints with Maynard Ferguson and Maria Schneider’s orchestras—and sounds particularly inspired in the large ensemble context. He sounds better than ever on tenor, with a consistently strong, bright sound in the horn’s natural registers and a crystal-clear, extended altissimo range with lead-trumpet power. The presence of several ringers—including trumpeters Bryan Lynch and John Daversa, guitarist John Hart, percussionist Xavier Desandre Navarre, trombonist/co-producer John Fedchock and baritone saxophonist/bass clarinetist David Leon—raises this already tight ensemble’s game to new levels of exceptionalism and excitement.

Margitza and Bergeron are old friends who spent time making music together in New Orleans and New York, as well as studying at Frost School of Music, where the leader and many of his band members are currently on faculty. Cheap Thrills is a testament to the strength and longevity of their musical connection.

Alonzo Demetrius

Live From The Prison Nation

Live From The Prison Nation ranks as Alonzo Demetrius’ leader debut, an album that finds the trumpeter angling for a space somewhere between the smooth and thoughtful tones of Theo Croker, and the driving precision of Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah.

Opening with a vocal sample of Angela Davis outlining the difference between “prison reform” and addressing a system that benefits from mass incarceration, Demetrius details a soothing melody that distinguishes itself from “Expectations’” pensive piano refrain before moving into a funky bridge. A few tracks on, “Mumia’s Guidance”—named for Mumia Abu-Jamal—finds the ensemble offering up a spacey authority, undergirded by bassist Benjamin Jephta and drummer Brian Richburg Jr. The approach enables both Demetrius and tenor saxophonist Yesseh Furaha-Ali to carefully consider their solo spots, never rushing, savoring each successful maneuver and animating the struggle of the track’s incarcerated namesake.

In addition to Live From The Prison Nation introducing its leader to a wider audience, the album also marks the first release from Onyx Productions—helmed by drummer and educator Ralph Peterson—that doesn’t feature its founder. That’s a significant vote of confidence, and the music here seems to bear out the trust Peterson’s invested in the young trumpeter.

The Steve Spiegl Big Band

The L.A. Sessions At Capitol Studios

Two decades ago, Steve Spiegl arranged compositions by Bach, Brahms and Scriabin for Enigma, an album by his namesake big band. On his 17-piece ensemble’s new disc, The L.A. Sessions At Capitol Studios, Spiegl dives into the world of opera, crafting instrumental arrangements of works by Handel, Puccini, Verdi and Wagner.

Spiegl rounds out the program with three of his own compositions and an arrangement of Jerome Kern’s “All The Things You Are,” which, as Spiegl points out in the liner notes, is a song that incorporates “a classic chord progression in use since Bach and Handel.” Overall, the result is one of the best big band albums of the year—an ambitious work that has an operatic scope, but without pomposity.

Despite the disparate sources of material, Spiegl sculpted a cohesive 75-minute program; all the arrangements reflect the distinctive sound of his artistic voice. Nothing here feels constrained or academic, partially because Spiegl’s arrangements build in plenty of space for solos. Andy Waddell, in particular, gives the music a modern sheen, whether he is coaxing tender notes from a nylon-string guitar (as on the leader’s “Gardens Of Cordoba”) or shredding on an electric axe (as on “Ave Maria,” from Act 4 of Verdi’s opera Otello, here rendered as a jazz waltz). A masterful arranger, Spiegl has taken themes from throughout Puccini’s Tosca to create an 11-minute suite, featuring solos by trumpeter Ron Stout, tenor saxophonist Doug Webb and Waddell, whose use of distortion pedal gives the tune some unexpected grease.

Puccini’s Turandot has inspired dozens of pop culture performances—such as the renditions of “Nessun Dorma” sung by Aretha Franklin at the 1998 Grammy telecast and the instrumental version by Jeff Beck on his 2010 album, Emotion & Commotion—and now we can add Spiegl to the list. A highlight of his 12-minute suite, touching upon themes from throughout the opera, is Charlie Morillas’ gorgeous trombone work. Whether you’re a dedicated opera buff or a big-band fan with little interest in classical music, Spiegl’s album offers a wondrous world to explore.


The Royal Affair Tour: Live From Las Vegas

At first glance, it might seem that The Royal Affair Tour: Live From Las Vegas is an album only for hardcore Yes devotees. A spin of this excellent disc, however, reveals it to be a fine entry point for casual fans curious to know what the band sounds like today, more than 50 years after it was founded. At least 19 musicians have been members of Yes, and the lineup that played at the Las Vegas Hard Rock Hotel on July 26, 2019, was guitarist Steve Howe, vocalist Jon Davison, keyboardist Geoff Downes, bassist Billy Sherwood, drummer Alan White (a member since 1972) and supporting drummer Jay Schellen.

Over the past seven years of tours, Yes frequently has built set lists that include the performance of an album in its entirety, such as Fragile, Close To The Edge and Drama. But for the 2019 tour, the group took a different route, as reflected by the track listing here.

In addition to classic-rock radio staples like “Roundabout” and “I’ve Seen All Good People,” the band added a few twists to the set list, all of which worked splendidly. An epic, 11-minute rendition of Paul Simon’s “America” that folds in Howe’s composition “Southern Solo” proves that he remains just as agile as he was decades ago. John Lennon’s “Imagine” is delivered as a poignant vocal duet between Davison and John Lodge (one of the opening acts on the tour). Howe cleverly makes his guitar “sing” in a way that mimics Lennon’s famous vocal line, and the drums are courtesy of White, who played on the composer’s original 1971 recording.

The current members of Yes realize that comparisons to the group’s mid-’70s personnel are inevitable. Davison, gifted with an elastic tenor, can’t sing exactly like band co-founder Jon Anderson; Sherwood, capable of crafting an earth-rattling rumble, can’t play bass exactly like band co-founder Chris Squire (1948–2015). But neither Davison nor Sherwood is required to mimic their predecessors; their job is to honor the compositions. No one alive can swing like Count Basie, but that doesn’t prevent his namesake orchestra from making transcendent music. And the same is true for Yes.

Howe, who replaced Peter Banks as the group’s guitarist in 1970, remains the heart of the band. From the album’s opening track—an arrangement of Richie Havens’ “No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed” featuring Howe’s psychedelic-flavored, twangy quotes from Jerome Moross’ score to the 1958 film The Big Country—to the gravity-defying, intergalactic riffs on the closing track, “Starship Trooper,” the six-string wizard ensures that the 75-minute program remains authentically Yes.

Susan Alcorn Quintet

(Relative Pitch)

Pedal steel doesn’t have to sound like Sneaky Pete Kleinow. And even if Charles Lloyd’s enlisted Gregory Leisz for his ensemble, The Marvels, there’s still room to roam on the instrument in just about any musical context.

Susan Alcorn—who’s been associated with avantists like guitarists Tom Carter and Eugene Chadbourne for decades—generally has gotten slotted into the experimental category during a career that stretches back to 1970s Texas and a clutch of country gigs. But there’s a tunefulness embedded in Pedernal’s outré moments, something that defies expectations of the avant-garde, the history of her chosen instrument, as well as the jazz genre.

For Pedernal, the pedal-steel player’s enlisted a cache of jazz performers, though—guitarist Mary Halvorson and bassist Michael Formanek among them. But it’s violinist Mark Feldman who contributes to the essential airiness here, dashing in and out of the space between Alcorn’s wavering tones on “R.U.R.” There’s also the purely exploratory “Circular Ruins,” where the quintet dispatches with time, gliding along Alcorn and Feldman’s strings to arrive at some dark intersection of jazz, classical, country and improv.

Hearing the bandleader count off “Northeast Rising Sun,” the closer, and dive into her melody might make listeners anticipate a classic country-style tune. But with Halvorson’s unassailable gambol, the song goes on to perfectly encapsulate the breadth of American music as drummer Ryan Sawyer shuffles a pulse and Formanek blithely injects his timekeeping with a swollen sense of melody that only could have been summoned during a joyous meeting of likeminded collaborators.

Analog Players Society

Soundtrack For A Nonexistent Film

For this latest installment from the Analog Players Society—an eclectic collective featuring a rotating cast of top New York players since 2012—mix masters Amon Drum and Ben Rubin brought tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin, pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Eric McPherson into the Bridge Studio in Brooklyn to jam on a few standards and do some group improv. That three-hour session served as source material for two recent albums. TILTED, released in August, consists of three full songs culled from the session (Jobim’s “One Note Samba,” Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy,” the collective improv “Freedom Is, But A Fraction of Humanity!”). Soundtrack For A Nonexistent Film, out this month, is a mesmerizing program of 11 short, streetwise, hip-hop-based cut-ups cast in a cinematic soundscape that’s flush with surreal dystopian ambience straight out of Gotham City. The first six cuts on Soundtrack were helmed by Amon Drum, and the final five by Rubin.

Chase,” the opening track, evokes a run-for-your-life urgency with its pulsating drum loops, throbbing synth bass and anxiously winding saxophone lines. The slow-groover “The Water Is Rising” disorients with detuned, under-the-sea piano effects. “Space And Time” dwells on a simple, four-note piano motif that conjures vast stillness while the bass and drums drive the incessant ticking of the cosmic clock. Dreamy saxophone floats into the foreground on “Starry Night,” occasionally interrupted by the heavily processed mechanical clang of Evans’ toy piano. On “Rock The Block,” chromatic shifts in the piano, bits of wailing tenor and tasty acoustic bass lines all are layered over a foundation-shaking monster-walk drum groove. Soundtrack embraces a fuzzy analog vibe with a low end that frequently pushes into the red zone. Echoes of “One Note Samba,” with its suspended harmony, and “Epistrophy,” a font of chromatic motion, abound throughout these trance-inducing mixes, all of which were assembled by ear, without using any click. Amon Drum and Rubin have created something truly compelling with these mixes, which merit comparisons with the uncut material on TILTED.

Barre Phillips

Thirty Years In Between

Barre Phillips has been releasing solo bass recordings for about 50 years. And while an unengaged listener might just take away the idea that he’s careened from screech to screech and back again during that time, there’s a lot more to take in.

Maybe some of the most malevolent sounds Phillips cajoles from his instrument on Thirty Years In Between come off like wildlife field recordings interspersed with arco finesse. But there’s a train of thought here, the first of two discs offered with an occasionally more percussive approach to bass, Phillips testing the tensile strength of strings on “A Quake’s A Comin!” during a 2019 appearance at Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville. For disc two, an audio document from a Vancouver, Canada, venue in 1989, Phillips coaxes a different sort of brooding elegance from his instrument: “Camouflage” presents as something akin to nervy “new music.” But the sum total of this—as well as his solo works for the ECM imprint that supposedly concluded with the 2018 album End To End—feels like the examination of a core sample, offering the chance to deeply study the layers of sediment, the rocks, their coloration and whatever debris has been collected during the decades and centuries that’ve flown by.

With Thirty Years In Between, if you listen closely enough, maybe you can discern flecks of Peter Brötzmann or Barry Guy, Paul Bley or Keiji Haino, all collaborators during Phillips’ decades of exploration.

Vanessa Collier

Heart On The Line
(Phenix Fire)

On Vanessa Collier’s rollicking anthem of self-confidence, “Take A Chance On Me,” she employs a full-throated vocal style to declare, “I know what I’m here for/ So, don’t get in my way/ And let me be me.” Those lyrics could describe an interpersonal relationship, but they also could apply to preconceived notions that festival attendees might have about Collier, a star on the blues festival circuit whose artistry incorporates r&b, soul, funk, jazz, rock and Americana. With influences ranging from Sister Rosetta Tharpe to James Brown and Bonnie Raitt, Collier is impossible to pigeonhole.

To craft her fourth solo album, Heart On The Line, the Dallas native did some heavy lifting: She composed eight of the 11 tracks, played six instruments, wrote the horn arrangements, produced the disc and sang lead vocals, as well as the multitracked background vocals.

A two-time Blues Music Award winner in the category Horn Player of the Year, Collier opens the album with a slice of sly funk, reworking Brown’s classic “Super Bad.” In the Godfather of Soul’s original version, he encouraged tenor saxophonist Robert “Chopper” McCollough by yelling, “Blow me some Trane, brother!” In Collier’s rendition, when she nods to Brown by shouting, “Take me to the bridge,” it’s a cue to deliver her own wailing sax solo. (In the album cover photo, she’s posing with an alto saxophone on her lap, but she also plays soprano, tenor and baritone sax on the disc.)

Tracks like the original compositions “Bloodhound”—which is nestled firmly in the blues tradition—and the title track—which is flavored by some New Orleans brass revelry—seem tailor-made to win over festival audiences. On the foot-stomping “Weep And Moan,” Collier’s vocals show that she can belt with authority, while electric guitarist Laura Chavez takes a pointillistic approach, adding sonic dots of color to enhance the drama. Elsewhere, “Freshly Squozen” beautifully illustrates Collier’s originality as a composer and her dynamic range as vocalist. On this ode to a mother and daughter’s relationship, William Gorman’s organ work and Collier’s tenor sax solo add emotional punch to the vivid images conjured by the cinematic lyrics.

A graduate of the prestigious Berklee College of Music and a musician comfortable blurring genre lines, Collier is artist whose music can generate some much-needed smiles during this pandemic.

James Brandon Lewis Quartet


As much as any other contemporary bandleader, James Brandon Lewis devises thematic ideas for each of his albums.

The saxophonist, who’s released as much music in the past few years as others typically do in a decade, recently has gone in on the idea of rebelliousness (An UnRuly Manifesto) and a historical appreciation for the sax-drums duo setting (Live In Willisau). He now takes on science with Molecular.

There’s a knotty explanation related in the album’s liner notes about how Lewis’ research into the double helix informed his mode of composition here. But at some point, he also dismisses it, making the premise seem like just another intellectual pursuit among many.

“I came up with this information and it’s been a process,” he said. “I don’t understand all of it, even though I have a lot of sheet music that I’ve written off of these formulas.”

“Helix” finds the bandleader dispatching choked notes, maybe aurally sketching the twist and turns of the song’s titular structure; the following “Per1” stacks unusual combinations of notes to relate a similar visual idea with a considerably different feel. But the post-bop setting—however space-aged—recalls the best of quartet interplay, as pianist Aruan Ortiz and drummer Chad Taylor bounce rhythms off each other. A few more slowly paced efforts—“Breaking Code” and the title track—allow the bandleader to display a different aspect of his nature with varying results. It adds a bit of welcomed texture to an album otherwise given over to muscular yet thoughtful displays of blowing.

Whatever recording—or recordings—follow in quick succession, they’ll likely offer up a deeper look at Lewis’ expanding universe of intellectual infatuations.

Chad LB Virtual Big Band

Quarantine Standards
(Self Release)

Chad Lefkowitz-Brown’s first big band recording, created during the COVID-19 pandemic, consists entirely of standard repertoire, as the album’s double-entendre title suggests. With a little help from arranger Steven Feifke, the 30-year-old rising star tenor saxophonist called upon 18 instrumentalists to form the Chad LB Virtual Big Band, with individual members recording their own parts—remotely and asynchronously—on each of Feifke’s eight newly penned charts.

In executing the Chad LB Virtual Big Band project, Lefkowitz-Brown drew upon his experience in New York-based large ensembles like the Birdland Big Band, the Jason Marshall Big Band and Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, as well as his own skills at home recording and his knack for reaching audiences via online platforms. It was no small feat, and Lefkowitz-Brown proves to be the perfect artist to spearhead such a venture, judging by the quality and spirit of the music on Quarantine Standards.

Ensemble passages are tight and dynamic, with plenty of locked-in swing feeding the collective feel of a traditional big band and helping to erase any sense of physical isolation. In choosing an all-standards program, Lefkowitz-Brown gave his virtual band members a shared language to work with and some common ground to stand upon, boosting the group’s chances of success in overcoming the barriers imposed by quarantine-like coronavirus safety standards.

The album serves as a fine showcase for the bandleader’s instrumental prowess, as he takes the lead voice on several tracks and solos prolifically throughout the program. Highlights include “Giant Steps,” which opens with a gripping tenor saxophone improvisation; a rapturous take on “My One And Only Love” that reveals the romantic side of Lefkowitz-Brown, who woos and coos over lush ensemble passages; and closer “Cherokee,” an uptempo favorite that brings the leader and alto saxophonist Andrew Gould together for some adrenaline-fueled solo trading.

Eloá Gonçalves Trio


The old saw goes like this: Jazz is a conversation. If that’s true, members of the Eloá Gonçalves Trio are whispering. Casa is a quiet take on the piano-trio setting with a subdued bearing that belies its acute musicality.

Gonçalves, a Brazilian-born pianist studying in Austria, leads her troupe with unerring quietude, the tune “Grace” earning its name and somehow reifying the stillness of weekend afternoons. There’s nothing showy here, just assuredness and light.

A few cuts break with presumptions, though: “Elo,” which draws on Béla Bartók for fuel, features Gonçalves’ left hand more prominently than elsewhere, lending it some rhythmic heft absent in other places across the recording; “Ainda Sem Titulo” adds in trombonist Karel Eriksson, layering on more cool tones.

To close out the disc, the bandleader reprises her “Choro De Pai E Mãe,” a tune she initially recorded with Trio Matiz. Vocalist Laura Zšschg, wordlessly tracing the melody, and cellist Mathilde Vendramin fill out another placid composition. Relative to the rest of album, it’s a work flush with color, but subdued like mauve or a faded orange. If Gonçalves’ strength across Casa is evoking warmth and calm, it peaks here, leaving listeners wondering what the composer might do with an even fuller roster of musicians.

Wolff Clark Dorsey

Play Sgt. Pepper
(JazzAvenue 1)

Long regarded as canonical, The Beatles’ 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has inspired an array of tributes, including a 2018 jazz collection from Impulse titled A Day In The Life: Impressions Of Pepper, as well as album-length interpretations by Cheap Trick (2009), The Flaming Lips (2014) and Django Bates (2017).

So, is there still interpretive gold to be mined from the 13 songs on the Fab Four’s most famous disc? Pianist Michael Wolff, drummer Mike Clark and bassist Leon Lee Dorsey prove that there is with Play Sgt. Pepper. While some of their predecessors nodded to the complex sonic tapestry that George Martin stitched together on the original album, Wolff, Clark and Dorsey scale things down, utilizing a less-is-more recipe: three musicians, eight cherry-picked songs and zero glossy production touches. The result is a master class in recasting classic pop tunes in a straightahead, piano-trio setting.

The title track and “With A Little Help From My Friends” are injected with swing, while “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” opens with Wolff delivering a straightforward reading of the iconic tune’s melody. The latter arrangement zigs at junctures when one would expect it to zag. Throughout the 39-minute program, the trio succeeds in making the source material easily recognizable while still expressing an adventurousness that prevents the proceedings from feeling overly reverential.

The combination of Clark’s elegant brushwork and the flurry of cascading notes in Wolff’s muscular solo transform “She’s Leaving Home” into a jazz gem. Elsewhere, a swing treatment—fueled by vibrant pianism and spiced with Dorsey’s bass solo—converts “Lovely Rita” into a fun ride that eschews the singsong quality of the original tune. A somber mood permeates the closer, “When I’m Sixty-Four,” shifting Paul McCartney’s ditty away from its jaunty roots.

With a clear command of The Beatles’ harmonic language, Wolff, Clark and Dorsey use their own distinct dialects and instrumental acumen to offer a stellar program that could win over jazz fans who refuse to worship at the Sgt. Pepper altar.

Raphaël Pannier

(French Paradox)

French-born drummer-composer Raphaël Pannier made a smart choice when he called upon one of his mentors, alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón, to provide the musical direction for his first album as a leader. Featuring four Pannier compositions, plus a selection of French classical pieces and jazz standards, Faune merges Pannier’s European upbringing and classical studies with his more recent experiences as an improvising performer and teacher living in America. Zenón, who plays on five tracks, took an active role in helping Pannier conceive ways to bridge those seemingly disparate worlds—much as the acclaimed saxophonist has done in linking his own Puerto Rican heritage with modern jazz concepts.

Nonoriginal repertoire on Faune extends from Maurice Ravel (“Forlane”), Olivier Messiaen (“Le Baiser de l’Enfant Jésus”) and Hamilton de Holanda (“Capricho de Raphaël”) to Wayne Shorter (“E.S.P.”) and Ornette Coleman (“Lonely Woman”). In addition to Zenón and Pannier, the lineup includes two extremely versatile pianists—Aaron Goldberg from the jazz world and Giorgi Mikadze from the classical realm—as well as bassist François Moutin. Some electronic enhancements come into play as well, with Pannier providing synthesizer programming for his dramatic intro and outro to “E.S.P.,” and internationally recognized keyboardist and producer Jacob Bergson contributing tasteful atmospheric effects on the Ravel piece. Highlights among the Pannier originals include the swinging “Midtown Blues,” with a remarkable, highly stylized bass solo by Moutin; the dark, ambiguous slow-mover “Lullaby,” which hypnotizes with its dreamlike repetition; and “Monkey Puzzle Tree,” which closes out the album with a climactic exchange between Zenón and Pannier over a simple two-note vamp.

Throughout Faune, Pannier plays to his strengths as an imaginative colorist and a master of textures whose light touch on the drum kit brings to mind the delicate brushstrokes of an impressionistic painter.

Various Artists

How The River Ganges Flows: Sublime Masterpieces Of Indian Violin (1933–1952)
(Third Man)

Any project that archivist Christopher C. King works on is bound to arrive with some backstory as interesting as the Ganges River is long.

For How The River Ganges Flows: Sublime Masterpieces Of Indian Violin (1933–1952), released on Jack White’s Third Man imprint, King glosses over the story a bit, just briefly mentioning that a friend sent him a giant box of 78s that arrived with an elephantine thump on his Virginia porch.

Apparently, in the world he inhabits, that’s not too strange an occurrence. But the gift spun the record producer into a historical frenzy, one that easily could turn into a consuming passion, much the same way Greece’s vernacular music provided King inspiration for a handful of projects, including the 2018 book Lament From Epirus.

How The River Ganges Flows covers a not too dissimilar span of time, but in a region then being carved up following another chapter of British colonialism. Much like the Nonesuch Explorer series that found white ethnomusicologists collecting field recordings from places like Indonesia, Pakistan and Zimbabwe, King’s work here has the unavoidable glint of voyeurism. He acknowledges as much in his liners, saying, “from the monoculture of the West, India is often exoticized,” and takes care to mindfully navigate the music here.

Regardless, his admiration for the violinists—moving from Northern Hindustani ragas to the South’s Carnatic music—is unquestionable.

There’s less context for the music included on Ganges than on projects like King’s Why The Mountains Are Black: Primeval Greek Village Music 1907–1960. But the affecting glissandi of Bengali violinist Paritosh Seal (who, according to King, recorded 77 78-RPM discs and here is accompanied on several tracks by only tabla and tanpura) and Carnatic teacher Mysore Chowdiah (who invented a seven-string violin to amp up the instrument’s volume) seems like the first tributary that the archivist’s set to explore on his latest musical obsession.

Yves Rousseau Septet

(Yolk Music)

Last year, Yves Rousseau put together a seven-piece ensemble to perform and record this program of “fragments” inspired by memories of progressive rock music—a heady, testosterone-charged pop subgenre that made a strong impression upon the French bassist when he was a student in the mid-1970s.

Since that initial period of discovery, Rousseau has refined his taste for prog-rock indulgence, incorporating ideas inspired by bands like King Crimson, Yes, Genesis and other prominent artists of the era into his vast creative arsenal. With a wealth of experience as a genre-hopping player dating back to the late 1980s and a more recent reputation as a prolific composer and ambitious bandleader, Rousseau takes listeners on a nostalgia trip with Fragments, a collection of all original pieces (with just a bit of borrowed material from influential guitarist Robert Fripp and star singer-songwriter David Crosby), teeming with mechanical arpeggios, blazing Moog synthesizers, bombastic big-kit drumming, virtuoso-level electric bass lines and haunting, heavily compressed electric guitar solos.

Key moments on Fragments include Thomas Savy’s wide-ranging bass clarinet solo on “Personal Computer”; Étienne Manchon’s elephantine synthesizer entrance following Géraldine Laurent’s super-sparse alto saxophone statement on the hard-hitting “Oat Beggars”; the shimmering guitar chords and single-note bass pulse reminiscent of Pink Floyd on the slow rocker “Crying Shame”; and the psychedelic drift of the wandering, four-part “Winding Pathway.”

France-based fans of prog-rock with an appetite for well-executed music they’ve never heard before are advised to check out Rousseau’s Fragments Septet in concert Oct. 8 at Le Rocher de Palmer in Cénon, Oct. 9 at Jazz MDA in Tarbes, Oct. 23 at Pan Piper in Paris and Nov. 12 at the D’Jazz Nevers Festival.

Linsey Alexander

Live At Rosa’s

The Chicago blues scene is so packed with talent that it’s not difficult to assemble a gifted ensemble flexible enough to mesh with a bandleader’s aesthetic. A case in point is Live At Rosa’s, Linsey Alexander’s fourth album for Delmark, on which the singer-guitarist fronts an ace quintet that includes bassist Ron Simmons (who has collaborated with him for more than 40 years) and keyboard wizard Roosevelt Purifoy, who has played on albums by Lurrie Bell, Toronzo Cannon, the Kinsey Report and Sharon Lewis.

Most blues fans aren’t attending live shows nowadays, and Alexander’s latest disc offers a hearty dose of what they’ve been missing: the type of meat-and-potatoes electric blues that long has been a staple in the Windy City.

The program here includes five of leader’s original compositions: “My Days Are So Long” and “I Got A Woman” are head-bobbing, blues-boogie numbers, while “Goin’ Out Walkin’” and “Snowing In Chicago” are vehicles for fiery solos by Purifoy and either Alexander or Sergei Androshin on electric guitar. On the other Alexander original, the funk-tinged “Going Back To My Old Time Used To Be,” Purifoy’s keyboards evoke Stevie Wonder’s work in the mid-’70s.

With his gruff yet solid vocals, Alexander serves up “Have You Ever Loved A Woman” (popularized by Freddie King and Eric Clapton) as a nine-minute, tour-de-force lament on the difficulties of romantic relationships. Elsewhere, the versions of songs by B.B. King (“Please Love Me”) and Junior Wells (“Ships On The Ocean”) give fans even more reasons to seek out the latest from Alexander, a Mississippi native who is now a revered elder statesman in Chicago.

Chelsea Williams

Beautiful & Strange
(Blue Élan)

Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Chelsea Williams is a keen observer of the human condition, and perhaps her years busking on the streets of Santa Monica helped hone that aspect of her personality—along with the ability to craft catchy melodies that could grab the attention of busy pedestrians.

Teaming with her husband/producer Ross Garren, Williams has sculpted a sparkling gem with Beautiful & Strange, a 40-minute program chock-full of earworms and more hooks than a tackle box. With Sheryl Crow and Jackson Browne as influences, Williams traffics in Americana-flavored pop-rock. Although her style has a thoroughly engaging accessibility, the album features some quirky instrumentation and deft production touches—including cello, glockenspiel, toy piano, Mellotron and musical saw—that distinguish Williams from many of her better-known peers. Songs like “Wasted” and “Red Flag” are so lush and catchy that they would fit snugly on the soundtrack to a Hollywood rom-com.

As addictive as Beautiful And Strange is, though, it does not contain what is perhaps Williams’ strongest composition, which was written after the album had been released. Outraged by the effects of systemic racism, Williams posted a powerful music video for “No Justice, No Peace,” in which she sings, “My face, my hair, my skin have never been/ A threat to my security/ I know I’m no authority, but I will kneel down/ In solidarity/ What do I see/ What do I see/ Ten thousand feet marching in the streets.” Williams accompanied the video with a statement explaining that she previously had been hesitant to speak out on social or political issues, partially out of fear of alienating prospective fans.

Armed with a lovely voice, an impressive vocal range, a deep understanding of songcraft and a newfound willingness to write protest material, Williams definitely is an artist to watch.

Conrad Herwig

The Latin Side Of Horace Silver

Trombonist Conrad Herwig has been building his acclaimed Latin Side series of recordings for 25 years, starting with The Latin Side Of John Coltrane in 1996. Now comes the eighth installment in the series, The Latin Side Of Horace Silver, a live recording on which Herwig and his all-star band refract the music of the DownBeat Hall of Fame composer and pianist through a prism of Afro Cuban and Afro Caribbean rhythms.

This incarnation of Conrad’s all-star Latin Side band is supercharged by the presence of Dominican-born pianist Michel Camilo on three tracks alongside Conrad, tenor saxophonist Igor Butman, alto saxophonist/flutist Craig Handy, trumpeter/flugelhornist Alex Sipiagin, bassist Ruben Rodriguez, conga player Richie Flores and drummer Robby Ameen; pianist Bill O’Connell appears on five tracks and contributes four arrangements.

All eight tracks brim with authenticity and invention, embracing the layered syncopation, romantic longing and fiery excitement characteristic of a range of danceable genres that fall under the “Latin” umbrella. The tracks featuring Camilo stand out in particular. “Song For My Father,” which begins with trombone stating the tune’s iconic ostinato bass line, announces the virtuoso pianist’s presence with a lightning solo that sets the stage for further exuberant improv from Butman, Conrad and Flores. “The Gods Of The Yoruba,” a 5/4 piece that’s perhaps the least well-known of the bunch, spotlights Herwig’s singing horn during a rubato-like intro before the full band establishes a Caribbean-flavored groove and soloists Sipiagin, Camilo and Ameen take flight. The album closes with a sprint through the upbeat Silver standard “Nutville” that includes sizzling improvisations from Herwig, Handy, Sipiagin, Butman, Camilo and Flores. Other well-known Silver tunes getting the Latin Side treatment include “Nica’s Dream,” “The Cape Verdean Blues,” “Filthy McNasty,” “Silver’s Serenade” and “Peace.”

Unsurprisingly, Silver’s wide-ranging jazz compositions prove to be fantastic fodder for Herwig and company, lending themselves well to stylistic reinterpretation and go-for-the-throat blowing.

Jacám Manricks

(Manricks Music)

The approach multi-reedist Jacám Manricks takes on Samadhi—and his life spanning the globe, moving from Australia to the States for school in the early 2000s—seems to encompass a multiplicity of settings and ideas.

Even without a prodigious catalog to point to, the composer moves through music framed by strings and more compact ensembles, switching among saxophones, flutes and clarinets. For Samadhi, his fifth album as a leader, the Sacramento-based performer and educator enlists a new group to help him wend his way through a cultivated combination of jazz and nuanced classical touches.

On the title track—a word intrinsically linked to deep thinking and meditation—pianist Joe Gilman directs a ruminative meeting of slow-rolling saxophone lines and a subdued rhythm section. Manricks displays a penetrating bearing on his horn, traversing registers seemingly at will, enhancing the connection between the song’s title and the intent of his writing and playing. In contrast to the reclining mode of that tune, “Schmaltz”—animal fat used in cooking—almost comes off as a soul-jazz tune, rhythmically engaged and melodically enticing.

Just those two efforts aptly display the range and efficacy of Manricks’ artistry, while other efforts showcase the bandleader’s interest in toying with rhythm and his sense of play, moving listeners too quickly through an album that’s earned its title.

Tomoko Omura

Branches Vol. 1
(Outside In)

There’s a promise inherent in contemporary music, and it goes something like this: With people from various backgrounds—culturally, ideologically, religiously, aesthetically—creating art, everyone can benefit from the exposure to new ideas.

Violinist and bandleader Tomoko Omura delivers on that guarantee, forging jazz compositions on Branches, Vol. 1 from narratives handed down through Japanese folktales. There’s a light blues affiliation inherent in the work found here, but it’s so endlessly enhanced by reading the short narratives included with the album’s liners—witches, monks, precocious kids, imperious rabbits intermingle—it might be tough for listeners not to wish for a book of the stuff accompanied by Omura’s vital violin.

“Three Magic Charms,” the first musical narrative included here, is all airy contemplation, Omura’s melody floating atop Jeff Miles’ guitar effects. When the mountain witch eventually shows up and starts pounding on the door, you can tell. The tale related on “The Revenge Of The Rabbit,” maybe the darkest narrative Branches enfolds, is no less engaging, the bandleader ceding the spotlight to pianist Glenn Zaleski for a solo as descriptive as any chapter in a book.

Based on the story of Princess Kaguya—also rendered as one of the most expensive Japanese films to date—Omura sketches “Return To The Moon” as a lament, depicting a space-bound royal leaving behind familiarity and memories to head home. Reaching the end of Branches Vol. 1 is just about as difficult.

TEST And Roy Campbell

TEST And Roy Campbell

Multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter and TEST slot into a space where gut-bucket improv and jazz meet, a place that, despite its remove, worked to invigorate rock-related acts interested in exploring something beyond what most expect from guitar, bass and drums.

It’s in part because of that alcove of sound, that Carter found himself performing with the quartet and trumpeter Roy Campbell at Hint House on April 16, 1999. The New York loft—rented by the rotating cast of the noisenik, rock-adjacent No Neck Blues Band (its bassist doubling in TEST’s lineup)—served as a clubhouse and laboratory where alchemy must have been achieved at least a few times at countless shows. And on TEST And Roy Campbell, the exploratory spirit of that time and place plays out during a single 47-minute live track.

So many things were different then: It was pre-9/11, musicians could hock albums and get over (to an extent) and a label system that ostensibly would collapse a few years later still was able to serve admittedly small segments of the listening population. That TEST issued work through AUM Fidelity, as well as Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace! imprint speaks to a landscape that truly seems foreign at this point.

The band hedges toward the chatty side for free-music; Carter (on reeds, trumpet and flute), Campbell and reedist Sabir Mateen don’t lavish listeners with longtones or meditative waves of sound. This is work of a collective accelerated heartbeat, the frontline uncorking diabolic screeds—frequently simultaneously, overlapping in pungent wailing. But there’s a beautiful democracy to it, all involved sensing just the right moment to give a compatriot more space and time, when to step back and listen.

The sonics of the recording itself might not be on par with the performance here, but if this album’s meant to render in-the-moment creativity in corporeal form, it’s done its duty and enriched recorded history.

Eric Johanson

Below Sea Level
(Nola Blue)

Twenty years ago, brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson burst onto the national blues scene as members of what was then a blues power trio called the North Mississippi Allstars. Today, that band is still going strong and the siblings continue to find fresh ways to revitalize blues-rock, as evidenced by Below Sea Level, the new trio album by singer-songwriter Eric Johanson. Luther produced the disc, Cody plays drums on it, and Johanson recruited electric bassist Terrence Grayson for this collection of a dozen original compositions. It is the third album by Johanson (who has toured extensively in Cyril Neville’s band), and the Dickinson brothers help bring out the best in him as a both a charismatic vocalist and a blistering guitarist.

The album opens with the blues-boogie stomp of “Buried Above The Ground,” and there are plenty of other barn burners here—like “Down To The Bottom” and “Nowhere To Go”—as one would expect, given the personnel involved. But Johanson also shows a deeper side to his compositional acumen with a pair of socially conscious numbers. “Have Mercy” describes life on the streets of his current home, New Orleans, where homelessness, drug addiction and gun violence have been problems, and the sludgy “River Of Oblivion” offers an unflinching look at the tragedy of overdoses. The Louisiana native’s use of distortion pedal adds to the harrowing mood of his lament.

Johanson ends the program with two tunes that are lighter, both thematically and sonically. He demonstrates both his acoustic and electric guitar prowess on the philosophical “Love Is Rebellion,” and he straps on a resonator guitar for an unaccompanied closer, “Riverbend Blues.” These songs provide the listener with an exhalation, a satisfying denouement following the hair-raising ruckus that the trio unleashes across much of this memorable program.

Marvin Stamm/Mike Holober Quartet

Live @ Maureen’s Jazz Cellar
(Big Miles)

This live album by the working quartet of flugelhornist Marvin Stamm, pianist Mike Holober, bassist Mike McGuirk and drummer Dennis Mackrel documents a late-2019 gig at Maureen’s Jazz Cellar in the Hudson River town of Nyack, New York. Its beauty lies in its simplicity: four well-established artists playing the music they love in an intimate jazz club for an appreciative audience. They engage in the type of dynamic, in-the-moment interplay that’s only possible among musicians who perform together regularly and listen to each other closely, letting each tune evolve organically as they anticipate each other’s moves and react to any and all sounds of surprise. All four players draw from deep reserves of bandstand experience and demonstrate thorough knowledge of the straightahead jazz canon; they speak the same language with remarkable fluency, and always seem to have appropriate musical references—whether serious or lighthearted—at the ready.

The quartet falls together on a medium-tempo swing as the programs starts with Horace Silver’s “Out Of The Night Came You,” setting the mood for the evening with a walking bass line, a laid-back swing feel, double-time blowing and playful trading. The standard “Invitation” opens with an attention-getting upright bass improv by McGuirk, a powerful presence on the album who makes full use of the instrument’s tonal palette and melodic capabilities; I found myself looking forward to every one of his solos, and there are a lot of them here to enjoy.

A straight-eighth groove drives the Holober original “Morning Hope” as Mackrel knocks the rims with a light touch and McGuirk’s bass figures create an undertow of sustain and suspension. “All The Things You Are” is taken as a fast jazz waltz, with Holober’s rhythmically aggressive piano madness juxtaposed against Stamm’s dark, subdued sound in the flugel’s middle-to-low range. Things calm down quite a bit for a meditative reading of Silver’s prayerful ballad “Peace,” and the group’s take on Bill Evans’ “Funkallero” is a bright post-bop romp that plays up the fun factor and, in retrospect, celebrates the feel-good vibe of a welcoming club environment in the pre-coronavirus era.

Radam Schwartz Organ Big Band

Message From Groove And GW
(Arabesque )

It’s not every day you encounter an album that claims to accomplish an unprecedented instrumental feat. In his liner-notes essay to Radam Schwartz’s Message From Groove And GW, Ron Scott writes, “This is the first time an organist has roared thru an entire big band album playing bass lines on each track.”

The album title pays tribute to two of Schwartz’s heroes: organist Richard “Groove” Holmes (1931–’91) and big band leader Gerald Wilson (1918–2014). While studying Holmes’ collaborative work in the ’60s with Wilson, Schwartz was particularly intrigued by a couple of tracks on which the bass parts were played by the organist (rather than a member of Wilson’s orchestra). Schwartz took that idea and ran with it, recruiting tenor saxophonist Abel Mireles’ Jazz Exchange Big Band and drummer David F. Gibson (whose resume includes work with Odean Pope and Jimmy Heath) for an hour-long album attributed to the Radam Schwartz Organ Big Band.

Like many other sterling big-band albums released this century, the secret sauce for Message is not the instrumentation or the arrangements, but rather the material. In additional to original compositions from band members (including three by the leader), the group surveys a delightfully eclectic batch of tunes by Bach (“Von Gott”), John Coltrane (“Blues Minor”), Charles Mingus (“Work Song”), the Isley Brothers (“Between The Sheets”) and Carolyn Franklin (“Ain’t No Way,” a hit for the composer’s older sister Aretha).

The program opens with the leader’s “Trouble Just Won’t Go Away,” which swings like a gate, followed by a muscular take on “Blues Minor,” sculpted here as a swinger with plenty of space for solos from Schwartz, Mireles, alto saxophonist Danny Raycraft and guitarist Charlie Sigler (who shows a debt to Wes Montgomery in a couple places on the album).

Schwartz’s bluesy arrangement of “Work Song” illustrates the peanut-butter-and-jelly-like perfection of showcasing the organ in a big band, as trumpeter Ben Hankle, trombonist Andrae Murchison and athletic alto saxophonist Anthony Ware blow mightily before the leader steps in with his own groovy, greasy lines. Each step of the way, it’s obvious that the band feeds off the energy of the soloist, and vice-versa.

Schwartz and Gibson produced the album, leaving in some slight roughness around the edges to give the program an immediacy, allowing listeners to imagine they’re sitting in the control room at Sound On Sound Studios in Montclair, New Jersey, as the large ensemble struts and shouts with glee.

Glenn Zaleski

The Question

Pianist/composer Glenn Zaleski fronts a traditional-style jazz quintet on this collection of new and old material that has him re-examining his place in the world on the occasion of turning 30. Unlike his previous leader recordings, which featured him in solo and trio formats, The Question sports a two-horn front line that evokes the classic Blue Note sound of the 1950s and ’60s. Tenor saxophonist Lucas Pino, one of the pianist’s longtime collaborators, and trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, a more recent acquaintance, provide the leading voices on this outing, with Zaleski presiding on piano and rhythm section support provided by bassist Desmond White and drummer Allan Menard.

Among the original tunes on this this eight-song program, several were written in the summer of 2019, when Zaleski was in an especially reflective frame of mind, and a couple were written during his college years at The New School in New York (where he matriculated after studying at the Brubeck Institute). Zaleski also includes an original piece arranged for nonet (with the addition of alto and baritone saxophone, trombone and guitar) and two covers by pianists who were influential to him (Dave Brubeck’s ballad “Strange Meadow Lark” and James Williams’ blues-inspired “Road Life”). “The Question” and “The Answer” serve as bookends, playing off the same melodic line; the former leads off the album with an inquiry of sorts, while the latter concludes the program on a more resolute note. It all comes together nicely and bodes well for Zaleski as he personally looks to a promising, more grounded future while reckoning with his ambitious past.

Sandeep Das & The HUM Ensemble

Delhi To Damascus
(In A Circle)

For tabla player Sandeep Das, music isn’t merely entertainment: It’s a vehicle for conveying his deeply held beliefs. The liner notes to his new album, Delhi To Damascus, provide a mini-course in history and philosophy, and the 63-minute program gracefully mixes elements of Indian classical music with traditional styles that originated in Syria.

Under the canopy of his nonprofit initiative, Transcending Borders One Note at a Time, Das’ goal is to use music to unite people across geographic and cultural divides, and his new album fulfills that mission, drawing upon the borderless, genre-blending aesthetic to which he has contributed during the past 20 years as a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble.

Das’ HUM Ensemble consists of Syrian oud player Kinan Adnawi and two fellow Indian musicians: sitar player Rajib Karmakar and Suhail Yusuf Khan, an eighth-generation master of the sarangi, a bowed string instrument.

Surrounding himself with players deeply immersed in ethnomusicology, Das has crafted tracks that showcase the shared timbral colors of the four instruments, resulting in an organic set of music that not only warrants repeated spins, it practically demands it. In the hands of others, this type of culture-mixing music might sound dry or overly academic, but empathetic leaders like Ma and Das know that getting listeners to bob their heads is just as important as sparking their intellectual curiosity.

The program consists of original compositions by band members, as well as their arrangements of traditional material, including some Indian ragas. The album’s zenith is “I Came, I Saw, I Surrendered,” a traditional tune arranged by Das and Karmakar that showcases a hypnotic dialogue between the plucked sitar and the bowed sarangi, before building to a mighty sonic wave that crests to become a completely safe yet effective mood elevator. Sculpting an organic program that can be both soothing and exciting is no easy task, but this quartet was more than up for the challenge on this, its recorded debut.

With Delhi To Damascus, Das and his fellow travelers have delivered a road map for some irresistible aural adventures.

Jordan Seigel

Beyond Images
(Wonderbird Music)

Jordan Seigel’s deft combination of a jazz pianist’s aesthetic and a film orchestrator’s sensibility makes his debut leader date, Beyond Images, a success.

Hollywood is filled with directors who lament missing the opportunity to work with such legendary film composers as Bernard Herrmann, Jerry Goldsmith and Ennio Morricone, who died on July 6 at age 91. But filmmakers today can collaborate with Seigel, who not only has an original voice but who also possesses the ability to write in the style of departed icons. Beyond Images includes a batch of nine original compositions, each one directly inspired by an artist known for film scores, including Henry Mancini, Thomas Newman and John Williams.

Seigel’s impressive resume includes work on the music for hit TV shows and blockbuster films, and for the Beyond Images sessions, the pianist assembled a core quartet—bassist Alex Boneham, drummer Christian Euman and alto saxophonist/alto flutist Natsuki Sugiyama—as well eight guest musicians and the Vertigo String Quartet.

Afro-Cuban rhythms, propulsive piano lines and Sugiyama’s poignant alto-saxophone coloration make “Monkey In The Wilderness” (inspired by Goldsmith) the most jazz-flavored track in the program. On “The Baker Street Caper,” the plucked violin strings, insistent piano riffs and sly woodwind charts evoke past scores for great films in the mystery genre (and even though the tune was inspired by Mancini, it sounds nothing like his famous theme for The Pink Panther). Elsewhere, the sumptuous tearjerker “The Lake House” is the greatest Randy Newman song that Randy Newman didn’t compose.

A transcendent soundtrack album can stand on its own, separate from the cinematic experience, but for Seigel’s Beyond Images, there actually are no accompanying films. However, these tracks are so compelling that any of them would be a fine addition to the soundtrack for a TV show or film, perhaps with a note in the credits similar to the ones in the CD packaging, which clearly indicate that each tune was inspired by a specific film composer.

Charlotte Greve/Vinnie Sperrazza/Chris Tordini

The Choir Invisible

There’s a patience to saxophonist Charlotte Greve’s playing. It’s a quality often found in the most established players, but perhaps supremely notable in a performer who has most of their career ahead of them.

A native of Germany, the bandleader has insinuated herself into the New York jazz scene, perhaps reserving some nervy energy for a more pop-leaning project called Wood River, where Greve, 32, handles vocals set atop what’s ostensibly a jazz-informed rock act. But even that project sits alongside ensemble work with saxophonist Caroline Davis, and Lisbeth Quartett, another group where Greve serves as the main melodic voice.

For The Choir Invisible—an effort that finds the saxophonist joined by drummer Vinnie Sperrazza and bassist Chris Tordini—Greve’s lilting, relaxed approach to her instrument might be the defining feature.

“Change Your Name” comes in slow waves, Greve gently prodded by Sperrazza’s extended technique and Tordini’s arco meanderings. If there’s a genuine criticism of the album, though, it’s that each of the pieces here seem cut from the same cloth: The narcotic swing of “Low,” while instantly engaging, finds itself reprised in a variety of other spots. That might just be persistence of vision, another notable aspect of Greve’s work at a relatively early part of her career. But the whole thing sounds like an easy Sunday morning listen, the trio working to preserve a dynamic that’s indebted equally to upholding tradition and exploring the slow-motion sentiment of the saxophonist.

Ryan Cohan


Six integrally linked compositions constitute Originations, on which Chicago-based pianist and composer Ryan Cohan explores the assimilation of his reawakened Arab lineage and his Jewish upbringing.

Created with the support of a Chamber Music America New Jazz Works commission, Originations brings a broad spectrum of disparate musical influences and sensibilities into focus as Cohan assimilates Middle Eastern and North African themes, Western classical music elements and modern jazz into a series of intricately crafted pieces that add up to one extended work. And in so doing, Cohan makes his most complex compositional statement to date.

Originations was recorded by an 11-piece chamber-jazz group deliberately assembled by Cohan to bring his multicultural, multinational vision to life. The ensemble, led by Cohan at the piano, is staffed with some of Chicago’s top instrumentalists and improvisers: woodwind doublers John Wojciechowski and Geof Bradfield, trumpeter/flugelhornist Tito Carrillo, bassist James Cammack, drummer Michael Raynor, percussionist Omar Musfi and the Kaia String Quartet. They put considerable thought and feeling into their interpretation of Cohan’s highly compelling masterwork, surfing on waves of dynamics and casting a dramatic arc on every phrase.

The album starts on a hopeful note with “The Hours Before Dawn,” which creates a sensation of daylight blooming as Cohan’s piano cadenza evolves into an ostinato bass groove and Bradfield greets the morning with a sunny bass-clarinet improvisation. Things get a little more hectic on track 2, “Imaginary Lines,” which progresses from an elegant solo-clarinet statement by Wojciechowski into a full-band mosaic of snaky instrumental lines and punchy hits. From there, the program continues to play out like a suite. To Cohan, “Heart” represents compassion and the beauty of the human soul, while “Sabra” evokes the tenacity and warmheartedness of Israeli Jews. “A Seeker’s Soul” looks to the future with restless curiosity and a courageous sense of discovery before “Essence” closes the show with its celebratory leaps and jumps. Originations is striking and inviting by its very nature, with a special blend of refreshing melodies, warm instrumental tones and catchy rhythmic devices that make for an extremely pleasant listening experience.

Jeremy Levy Jazz Orchestra

The Planets: Reimagined

For more than 100 years, music fans have been swooning over The Planets. The first public concert of Gustav Holst’s seven-movement masterpiece occurred in 1920, when the London Symphony Orchestra performed it under the direction of conductor Albert Coates. It would become one of the most recognizable works of Western classical music, generating numerous landmark recordings, including conductor Herbert von Karajan’s version with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1961. Jeremy Levy saw the piece performed at the Hollywood Bowl in 2017 and was so moved that he crafted his own arrangement of the suite, which he has titled The Planets: Reimagined.

Listeners need not be familiar with astrology or Holst to fully enjoy Levy’s arrangement, which eschews strings in favor of standard big-band instrumentation. Drawing inspiration from the Count Basie Orchestra, the Buddy Rich Big Band and the Pat Metheny Group, Levy has delivered a thrill ride of a program, from the crashing sonic waves and Afro-Cuban flavor of “Mars: The Bringer Of War” (featuring Andy Martin’s potent trombone solo) to the muscular trumpets and kinetic, improvised piano lines in “Neptune: The Mystic.”

Whether the tracks are long (such as “Saturn: The Bringer Of Old Age,” which stretches out more than nine minutes) or short (such as “Mercury: The Winged Messenger,” which floats by in less than four minutes), Levy frequently turns a movement into a compact mini-suite, with dramatic shifts in volume and mood. On “Jupiter: The Bringer Of Jollity,” Andrew Synowiec’s gnarly rock guitar adds spice to a catchy, shape-shifting dose of big-band swing.

Over the decades, Holst’s masterpiece has inspired numerous film composers and rock bands, including Frank Zappa, King Crimson and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. And with The Planets: Reimagined, Levy has proven once again that iconic, often-heard works can inspire fresh, innovative music.

Benny Rubin Jr. Quartet

Know Say Or See
(Benny Jr. Music)

Benny Rubin Jr.’s robust voice on tenor saxophone establishes itself from the very first notes of the plaintive wail that opens “Know,” the leadoff track from the Detroit-bred, New York-based bandleader’s second album.

With Know Say Or See, Rubin follows up his well-received 2017 debut, What’s Next, with a quartet recording featuring himself on tenor and alto saxophones, pianist Lex Korten, bassist Adam Olszewski and drummer JK Kim in a fairly diverse program of six Rubin originals and two standards. The group sounds strong and confident in a bunch of different jazz settings, from slow blues (“Know”) and hard-bop (Horace Silver’s “Kiss Me Right”) to avant-garde (“Say”) and epic/spiritual (“Down They Go,” “Or See”).

There’s conviction to spare in Rubin’s playing. His sound is raw and unpolished, with a low-end resonance that feels as if it emanates straight from the gut. Rubin is just getting started with what looks to be a promising career, and he’s clearly come a long way since his studies at the Detroit School of the Arts, his performance with the Detroit Jazz Festival Youth All-Stars in 2016 and his appearance on the 2018 Geri Allen tribute CD Lifetime with other young Detroit-area players. On Know Say Or See, he delivers fully developed ideas with the intensity and sensitivity of a maturing man on a mission.

Rochelle & The Sidewinders

Something Good
(Self Release)

When Rochelle & The Sidewinders went into the studio to record their second album, Something Good, they faced a dilemma that’s common for an immensely talented, hard-working bar band: How could they capture the energy and excitement of their sweat-soaked concerts? The answer was to avoid extraneous production frills and to showcase the array of retro styles that has helped the group become a fan favorite in Austin, Texas. On the tune “Party Time,” when lead singer Rochelle Creone entreats the listener to “move your body to this groove,” longtime fans can visualize the band onstage at Austin’s One-2-One Bar or another one of the numerous Texas venues where the band plies its trade.

Each song on this 19-track effort, which clocks in at nearly 74 minutes, either was solely composed by guitarist Tom Coplen or co-written by him and Creone, who are steeped in the sounds of rock, blues, r&b, soul and funk from the 1950s to the ’70s. The tunesmiths aren’t aiming to reinvent the wheel here, crafting new yet familiar-sounding tunes with self-descriptive titles, such as “Dr. Groove,” “Raggedy Ann Stomp,” “I’d Be So Blue” and “Blues For The Night.”

Blessed with an impressive vocal range, Creone consistently belts with authority, whether she’s gracefully gliding into her upper register or dropping down to a growl. Coplen uses his six-string toolkit to add staccato, funk-flavored riffs to “Pressure Cooker,” a wah-wah pedal to “Make It Right” and a bottleneck slide to “I’m On My Way.” The quintet’s saxophonist and keyboardist, Jim Trimmier, adds hefty slabs of tenor sax to “Good Love” and “Treat Me The Way You Do.” The band’s conviction and Creone’s charisma can salvage even the most pedestrian material.

As entertaining as Something Good is, one can’t help but acknowledge that this is communal music, intended to keep a crowd high-fiving and dancing—activities that often have been in short supply during the pandemic. Still, this program of sturdy roots music could be a great soundtrack for a small family gathering or even a solo dance session.

The Brecker Brothers

Live And Unreleased

The funk runs thick on this two-CD recording from a July 1980 performance in Hamburg, Germany, marking an especially exciting addition to The Brecker Brothers’ discography.

Live And Unreleased documents the most potent band coming out of the 1970s New York jazz-funk scene in a slamming performance that presents all six members—brothers Randy and Mike (1949–2007) Brecker on trumpet and tenor saxophone, guitarist Barry Finnerty, keyboardist Mark Gray, electric bassist Neil Jason and drummer Richie Morales—at the peak of their creative powers. In true Brecker Brothers fashion, this iteration of the iconic fusion ensemble plays with extreme energy, exacting precision and audacious derring-do as the musicians rip through tight, angular arrangements of familiar fare like “Strap Hangin’,” “Sponge,” “Inside Out” and “Some Skunk Funk.” Every single note—and there are lots of them to enjoy here—is imbued with purpose and sizzle.

The softer, soulful side of electric jazz comes through as well, most prominently on the Mike Brecker-penned “Tee’d Off” and in mood-setting sections of “Funky Sea, Funky Dew” and “I Don’t Know Either.” And when it comes time for the cats to solo, watch out: Each of these fearless improvisors will set ears ablaze and brains awhirl. It’s an adrenaline-fueled, electric adventure that will transport you back to a time of large, enthusiastic crowds in throbbing, sweaty venues, where the musicians on stage fed ravenously on good vibes emanating from a sea of humanity. Turn up the volume, close your eyes and prepare for a long, thrilling night with one of the most ass-kicking bands to ever play in concert. And pay close attention to the bold choices made by Mike Brecker during his nine-minute unaccompanied solo on “Funky Sea, Funky Dew.”

The Greyboy Allstars

West Coast Boogaloo
(Light In The Attic)

Premised on a similar musical concept as New Orleans ensemble Galactic, The Greyboy Allstars were San Diego’s live rare-groove machine.

Initially formed as a group to accompany DJ Greyboy, the ensemble worked out its funk bona fides on a 1994 debut—West Coast Boogaloo, which is set to be reissued on Aug. 7—before band members went on to tour with The Rolling Stones and helm individual acts, sporadically getting back together and releasing new recordings.

The West Coast Boogaloo reissue sets up the band as a catchall for styles ranging from jazz to funk, soul and boogaloo, with a new album—Como De Allstars, released in July—extending the format.

But for the band’s debut, James Brown’s chosen trombonist, Fred Wesley, burnished the troupe’s already steely skills on several tracks. “Soul Dream,” written by saxophonist Karl Denson, opens with layered flute, sax and trombone in an airy fanfare that quickly gives way to languid washes of keys and drums as persistent as uncertainty in our daily lives has become. If there’s anthemic material anywhere, it’s here. Add in Wesley’s generous solo flourish and it’s tough to find contemporary analogues that so effortlessly embrace historical groove and the feeling that something new’s happening.

Setting an interpretation of Kool & The Gang’s “Let The Music Take Your Mind” alongside versions of Rusty Bryant’s “Fire-Eater” and “Miss Riverside,” which Sonny Sitt recorded in 1971, collapse the divisions thought to exist among groove music. While the Allstars’ updates sand away some fractious of-the-moment blemishes of the originals, nothing comes off as lacking depth of feeling. It’s a testament to not just the power and cohesion of the material assembled here, but to the sheer exuberance the right combination of instrumentalists and time can summon.

Jaga Jazzist


In the past, Norwegian ensemble Jaga Jazzist has come off as a 21st-century big band, a rock act with jazz inclinations and a group that prizes beat music as much as well-arranged choruses. It just depends on the record.

After a lengthy wait—the very electronic Starfire, Jaga Jazzist’s last proper release, came out back in 2015—Pyramid arrives as a cooled-out, surreally ambient exploration of texture. The disc retains a debt to jazz and draws on a range of influences that enable the eight-piece ensemble to land on new combinations of sound. The absence of trumpeter Mathias Eick—who left the group after its 2010 album One-Armed Bandit and went on to lead a handful of ECM dates—doesn’t really come to bear. But the noticeable lack of extended horn passages seems to account for the program’s reliance on synth.

Dedicated to electronic music pioneer Isao Tomita (1932–2016), album opener “Tomita” ventures through at least four distinct sections, shifting from serene electronics with Lars Horntveth’s saxophone gliding atop it all to rock-act rhythmic gambits. Bassist Even Ormestad’s round tones bounce off the quick-step drum pattern in the song’s middle portion, making it seem like the Nordic psych scene is something that the band has kept tabs on, too. The album—clocking in at about 40 minutes, despite being billed as an EP—next turns to “Spiral Era,” a tune that sounds grand and endless, but focused enough to hinge on Horntveth’s guitar work. “The Shrine” gets all elegiac, before slowly revealing its overtly electronic underpinnings; even with that conceit, the horn/synth choruses seem steeped in a big-band lineage. And like earlier tracks, as well as on the closing number, “Apex,” the compositional approach taken by Horntveth stitches together vastly different musics into a singular piece of art, perhaps pointing to why Flying Lotus issued the recording on his far-reaching Brainfeeder label.

Bill Warfield and the Hell’s Kitchen Funk Orchestra

(Planet Arts)

Smile is the second album by veteran trumpeter Bill Warfield’s Hell’s Kitchen Funk Orchestra, a one-of-a-kind little big band that infuses classic r&b grooves with swinging jazz sensibility.

Warfield, who simultaneously has embraced jazz and commercial music throughout a career that dates back to the funk-fertile early 1970s, draws upon his love for horn-driven rock groups like Blood, Sweat & Tears and soul-testifying performers like James Brown on the new recording, which follows in the same celebratory spirit as HKFO’s 2015 debut, Mercy, Mercy, Mercy. Good times abound on Smile, whose wide-ranging cover tracks include Weather Report’s otherworldly “Cucumber Slumber,” the Booker T. & the MG’s funk classic “Hip Hug-Her,” Bobbie Gentry’s haunting “Ode To Billie Joe,” an expansive arrangement of “Theme From Law & Order,” the dreamy Paul Williams-Kenny Ascher waltz “Rainbow Connection,” a supercharged version of the Eurhythmics’ “This City Never Sleeps” and two takes of the tenderly poignant title track (one vocal, one instrumental), penned by silent movie star Charlie Chaplin.

Two original compositions fall right in the middle of the program: Warfield and company get downright cerebral on the leader’s 12-tone-derived piece “Mad Dog,” with its tightly executed stop-starts and interlocking line fragments, and they funkify the blues on his train-emulating “Dance Of The Coal Cars.”

Five of the tunes here are helmed by vocalists, with fine contributions from Jane Stuart, Julie Michels and Carolyn Leonhart. Notable soloists include Lou Marini on tenor and soprano saxophones, guitarist Matt Chertkoff, alto saxophonist Andrew Gould, organist Paul Shaffer, trumpeter John Eckert, pianist Cecilia Coleman and tenor player Dave Riekenberg; Warfield’s improvisations on trumpet and flugelhorn reveal a fun-loving, self-confident artist who feels quite at home on all points of the jazz-funk spectrum.

Daniel Hersog Jazz Orchestra

Night Devoid Of Stars
(Cellar Music)

Vancouver-based composer Daniel Hersog’s debut big band album is largely inspired by his love for jazz orchestrator Gil Evans’ work with Miles Davis in large-ensemble settings.

Hersog, also known for his vital voice on trumpet, wrote much of the music on Night Devoid Of Stars with two particular soloists in mind: tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger and pianist Frank Carlberg. Hersog’s highly distilled, historically informed compositions and arrangements not only serve as an expression of his own artistic individuality, but provide wide-open platforms for his band members to construct bold, towering improvisations that amplify the innate sophistication and adventurousness of the material.

Preminger, whose connection to Hersog dates back to their days as students at New England Conservatory, distinguishes himself on the catchy “Cloud Break,” the brooding ballad “Makeshift Memorial” and the straight-rock groove of “Indelible.” Carlberg, who was an influential NEC teacher for the bandleader, makes some of his strongest solo statements on the gospel-flavored, Keith Jarrett-inspired “Motion,” during a dramatic interpretation on the Jerome Kern standard “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” and in the denouement of the album’s overarching title track. Other notable solo contributions come from trumpeter Brad Turner (on “Cloud Break”) and clarinet-doubling saxophonist Michael Braverman (“Indelible”).

Hersog’s orchestrations tend to exhibit a symphonic quality and exude a chamber-like vibe characterized by churchy brass choirs, unconventional instrumental pairings (usually involving various woodwinds) and an ever-present, Evans-like flow. The 16-piece Daniel Hersog Jazz Orchestra was booked to perform at this summer’s TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival—with Preminger and Carlberg onboard—but the event was canceled due to the coronavirus. Let’s hope listeners eventually get a chance to hear this remarkable Canadian ensemble take on these gorgeous new arrangements under Hersog’s baton in a live setting.

Ray Mantilla


Rarely do we get a precious gift from such a talented artist so close to their departure. A few months before his death on March 21 at age 85, prolific percussionist and Latin jazz icon Ray Mantilla approved the final mix of the tracks that appear on Rebirth. This album is the coda to a long career that included collaborations with Ray Barretto, Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Mann, Charles Mingus, Eddie Palmieri, Max Roach, Bobby Watson and many others.

The album title, which Mantilla chose, nods to the fact that during the last two years of his life, he was able to bounce back from a bout with cancer. The South Bronx native enthusiastically took his congas and other percussion instruments into the studio for what would be his final leader sessions, working with such longtime colleagues as Edy Martinez (piano, Fender Rhodes), Guido Gonzalez (trumpet, flugelhorn) and Ivan Renta (soprano and tenor saxophones).

Earworms abound on Rebirth. The version of Tito Puente’s “Philly Mambo” is so kinetic and catchy it could be the soundtrack to a nationwide exercise program. (Is it physically possible to stand still as Mike Freeman pounds out those hypnotic vibraphone riffs?) Martinez wrote nearly all the arrangements here, including a hip-swaying rendition of “Hit The Road Jack” spiced with staccato brass and woodwind blasts. Elsewhere, Freeman’s arrangement of the 1975 Bobby Hutcherson classic “Yuyo” is a delirious dose of sheer joy, while “Cumbia Jazz Fusion Experimental” evokes a mood of mystery, with Jorge Castro’s flute adding wondrous coloration.

The most outside-leaning cut here is the closer, “Rebirth Bata Rumba Experimental,” a percussion-heavy excursion that features Diego Lopez, Ogudaro Díaz and Rafael Monteagudo all playing batá drums. This, the last song on Mantilla’s final album, is the only original composition in the program. It’s a lovely farewell note from an irreplaceable player.

Larry Willis

I Fall In Love Too Easily

Keyboardist Larry Willis touted a catalog—including his 1974 Groove Merchant release, Inner Crisis—that today remains a hallmark of an era when commercial strains of music merged with the art-world intentions of jazz.

That Willis, before his death on Sept. 29, 2019, worked with Hugh Masekela, Jerry Gonzalez And The Fort Apache Band, on straightahead dates and with soul outfits, speaks to his perspicacity, talent and ability to hear and see things that others just could not.

A pair of Willis originals were rerecorded on I Fall In Love Too Easily—the bandleader’s final leader date prior to his death—alongside contributions from his ensemble and some choice covers. But reimagining his “Heavy Blue,” which the keyboardist first recorded during his stint in Blood, Sweet & Tears, turns a bawdy funk jam into a showcase for Willis’ jagged chording, as trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and altoist Joe Ford take turns spinning out solos over what’s become a blue, bop excursion.

The title track, which serves as the album closer and likely the last new notes we’ll hear from Willis, are appropriately melancholy and wistful. The bandleader, alone, sounds like a rainy day. But there’s still beauty to take away from this: “I Fall In Love Too Easily” initially might have been intended to depict some long-forgotten romance, but on this HighNote record, it’s about falling for Willis at the keys and how we’re all worse off for his being gone.

Gerald McClendon

Can’t Nobody Stop Me Now
(Delta Roots)

Soul singer Gerald McClendon has found a fine collaborator in Twist Turner. The two musicians had worked together before, but their partnership reaches new heights with Can’t Nobody Stop Me Now. Turner played drums on the album, composed all 12 of its tracks and recorded, produced, mixed and mastered the sessions at Delta Roots Sound Studios in McClendon’s hometown of Chicago. Blessed with a voice that exudes grit and swagger, the singer operates in the tradition of departed Windy City icons such as Otis Clay and Tyrone Davis. The lyrics to the album’s domestic drama “Cut You Once”—a frightening yet comedic tale of infidelity—seem to name-check Davis’ 1970 hit “Turn Back The Hands Of Time.”

Turner’s compositions focus on interpersonal relationships (often troubled ones), and episodes of sneaky infidelity emerge on numerous songs here, including “Where Do We Go From Here” (featuring Skinny Williams’ wailing, pleading tenor saxophone), “She Don’t Love Me Anymore” (anchored by Art Love’s muscular bass lines) and “Runnin’ Wild,” which is fueled by Stax-style horn charts and barbed lyrics: “Tippin’ in at 6 a.m./ Stayin’ out all night long/ Whatcha been drinkin’/ Your breath is stinkin’/ Your clothes ain’t fittin’ you right.”

The dynamic duo of McClendon and Turner isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel here, but with so many of Chicago’s soul stars now singing in the celestial sphere, it’s comforting to know that their legacy is being extended. With this potent program, McClendon vividly illustrates why he has earned a suitable nickname: “The Soul Keeper.”

Kasia Pietrzko Trio

Ephemeral Pleasures
(Self Release)

In a 2019 DownBeat interview, pianist and bandleader Kasia Pietrzko was asked about Polish jazz’s defining qualities.

She said, “Maybe just a little bit Romantic. This is what [Tomasz] Stańko has—really melancholic. I think all the Polish musicians have this melancholic thing, and now they can explore and mix together classical music and jazz.”

“Ephemeral Pleasures,” the opening title track of her second leader date, though, is buoyant and bright, bounding across a decidedly contemporary rhythmic backing. Within the first three minutes, Pietrzko effortlessly displays a deft and dynamic approach to voicing chords, unlooses a playful progression and pushes against the trio’s mounting volume, turning it into a few quizzical and quiet moments. In that interview from last year, she also discussed studying with pianist Aaron Parks, and his distinctly contemporary take on 21st-century piano-led troupes colors Pietrzko’s opening gambit here, as well as tracks like “Dark Blue Intensity Of Life” and “For T.S.,” despite that latter tune being dedicated to Stańko.

But there is a darker emotional hue that the pianist explores with her ensemble—bassist Andrzej Swies and drummer Piotr Budniak: The pensive “Dearest John” takes on the tonal colors Pietrzko surely encountered while studying classical music; and the series of five improvised “Episode” tracks sound as if they sprouted in tiny DIY rooms with pay-what-you-can fees and an interest in booking new-music.

That the bandleader’s able to so easily synthesize all of this amid a 10-track program—and during a relatively early part of her career—doesn’t mean she’s the next Stańko. But it does mean that we’ll likely be listening to her explore the nexus of these musics for a few decades to come.

Aimee-Jo Benoit & Trio Velocity

(Self Release)

The success of an interpretive vocal jazz album often hinges on two elements: the quality of the arrangements and the depth of the singer’s connection to the material. Such is the case with Borjoner, a charming collection of 10 covers on which Calgary-based singer Aimee-Jo Benoit showcases her love of Canadian tunesmiths. Although the decisions to interpret Joni Mitchell’s “This Flight Tonight” and Jane Siberry’s “One More Colour” are far from revolutionary, Benoit excels by spicing in deft scat-singing on the former tune and rescuing the latter tune from the synth-soaked trappings of the composer’s 1985 hit single.

The aforementioned tracks are quite compelling, but Benoit and Trio Velocity—pianist Sheldon Zandboer, bassist Simon Fisk and drummer Robin Tufts—reap greater rewards when they explore 21st-century tunes by fellow Canadians. A version of Feist’s “Lonely Lonely” features rumbling drums, haunting cymbal swells and delicate piano lines that dance in tandem with the singer’s shifts in pitch. Fisk’s mesmerizing, 80-second bass solo and Benoit’s wordless vocals enliven a reading of “Repetition,” penned by Michael Feuerstack (aka Snailhouse). A rendition of “Exquisite Corpse” (by Chris Brown and Kate Fenner) illustrates how Benoit and her bandmates can show off their chops and still eschew any grandstanding.

Reshaping pop-rock material through a jazz aesthetic and improvisational flights results in sparkling gems throughout the band’s debut album. Looking beyond Canadian borders, the musicians deliver superb versions of The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” Nirvana’s “All Apologies” and the standards “Midnight Sun” and “Alfie.” The word borjoner is an Old French term that translates as “to put out buds.” With this album, Benoit has planted the seeds for what one hopes will become a lengthy discography.

Dexter Gordon Quartet

Live In Châteauvallon 1978
(Elemental Music)

When Dexter Gordon returned to America in 1976 following 14 years spent as an expatriate living in Europe and working with various rhythm sections, he longed to put together his own band. That dream came to fruition when a steady quartet consisting of himself, L.A. pianist George Cables, Chicago/New York bassist Rufus Reid and Newark, New Jersey-based drummer Eddie Gladden settled into place and began gigging extensively at festivals and clubs across the States and overseas.

During a European trip in the fall of 1978, the group appeared at the Châteauvallon Jazz Festival in southern France and put on a thrilling, 110-minute performance, captured here in a deluxe two-disc package. Gordon fans will get tremendous satisfaction from listening to this previously unreleased live material, which presents the tenor and soprano saxophonist at his finest. He comes across like he’s having the time of his life, indulging in favorites like the Jimmy Dorsey hit “Tangerine,” Horace Silver’s “Strollin’,” Jimmy Heath’s “Gingerbread Boy” and the standard “More Than You Know.” True to his nature, Gordon goes quote-crazy during extended improvisations peppered with humor and charged with reverence for the bebop tradition.

This welcome release from Elemental is especially significant for Gordon collectors, as this particular quartet lineup (which only lasted until mid-1979) issued only two official recordings, the 1978 albums Manhattan Symphonie and Live At Carnegie Hall.

The Grateful Dead

Workingman’s Dead (50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition)

Separating the myth from the band, and the band from the culture, is tough to do.

The wandering, exploratory on-stage performances by The Grateful Dead always will be what the band’s best known for—and maybe rightly so. But a pair of studio dates released in 1970 offered a country inflection that Jerry Garcia championed and contained some of the troupe’s best-known songs.

To mark Workingman’s Dead‘s 50th anniversary, the album is being remastered and repackaged with a live set from Feb. 21, 1971, at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York, spread out over two additional discs. (The troupe’s other 1970 release, American Beauty, ostensibly serves to expand on what was laid down across Workingman’s.)

“Uncle John’s Band”—a tune pretty much everyone’s had jammed into their ears, if they’ve ever passed anywhere near a college campus—opens the proper album. Overexposure might be its only sin. And while “High Time’s” gentle guitar and fragile harmonies follow, a few songs on, one of the band’s most caustic and wry lyrics opens “New Speedway Boogie”: “Please don’t dominate the rap, Jack/ If you’ve got nothing new to say.” Bluesy rock stuff and folk excursions take up the rest of the disc, before “Casey Jones,” another tune dogged by its pervasiveness, closes things out.

A take of Janis Joplins’s “Me & Bobby McGee,” with Bob Weir on vocals, opens up the live material included on this anniversary set, which actually sidesteps some of the band’s most indulgent tendencies; there is a seven-minute version of “I’m A King Bee,” as well as 17 minutes of “Good Lovin’” a bit later on. In keeping with the roots feel on Workingman’s Dead, though, the band peppers its time on stage with “I Know You Rider” and the wobbly harmonies of “Cumberland Blues.”

With the sheer volume of live stuff from the Dead—especially dating to this era—the Capitol Theatre material comes off as a suitable and reasonable premise for nostalgia. But even as hearing Garcia and company a bit more clearly in the studio might be enticing, the bonus stuff here works mostly to mark the anniversary of a landmark turn in rock, roots music and psychedelia—not a momentous discovery.

Brian Landrus

For Now

Brian Landrus’ inner Harry Carney comes into full bloom on For Now, his 10th album as a leader.

Like Carney—who anchored the Duke Ellington Orchestra’s reed section and wrenched listeners’ hearts as one of the band’s featured soloists for more than 45 years—Landrus finesses the baritone saxophone and bass clarinet in a most loving manner, deftly mining the sonic treasures that dwell at the core of those instruments. And, à la Carney, he frequently indulges in waves of invigorating vibrato that bring the most lustrous tones of those low woodwinds to life.

Shedding all inhibition, Landrus bares his soul on this emotionally charged program of 10 original compositions, two brilliantly interpreted Thelonious Monk tunes and a fresh take on the standard “Invitation.” The dream-team rhythm section of pianist Fred Hersch, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Billy Hart enables Landrus every step of the way, engaging in a constant exchange of ideas with the leader and providing appropriately hip contexts for the wide range of earnest emotions he puts on exhibit.

Also on board are the excellent young trumpeter Michael Rodriguez, who dovetails with Landrus on octave-unison lines and harmonized passages throughout For Now, and violinist Sara Caswell, who on several tracks joins Joyce Hamman (violin), Lois Martin (viola) and Jody Redhage-Ferber (cello) on velvety, collaborative string quartet arrangements by Landrus and the distinguished opera composer Robert Aldridge.

As on Harry Carney With Strings—the Norman Granz-produced mid-’50s gem that presented the Ellingtonian baritonist at the helm of a jam-session-sized combo augmented by a small orchestra—the strings enhance the emotional impact of For Now with elegantly voiced touches of sophistication, drama and mystery. The string section also plays an important role here in giving voice to many of the classically informed harmonic concepts that Landrus brings to bear upon his jazz compositions, a modern-minded approach manifested most recently on his remarkable 2017 large ensemble recording, Generations (BlueLand).

Landrus always has swung his low-B-flat off on bari, and he offers plenty of that swagger on For Now. But throughout the new album, a gentler approach to the big pipes comes into the foreground. His bari flutters with utmost grace, his bass clarinet sobs for humanity and his alto flute floats cloud-like through moody skies. With For Now, Landrus has created a work of astonishing beauty. Let the revealing liner notes by Grammy-winning composer Herschel Garfein, who co-produced the album with Aldridge, serve as your listening guide.

Ruthie Foster Big Band

Live At The Paramount
(Blue Corn)

Singer-songwriter Ruthie Foster embodies the celebrated aesthetic of musicians in Austin, Texas, who frequently blend genres in an organic way. Her new album, Live At The Paramount, finds the Americana vocalist fronting a big band that glides through John Beasley’s arrangements in a program that includes Foster’s original tunes alongside gems from the worlds of gospel, blues, soul, country, New Orleans songcraft and the Great American Songbook.

With a three-octave vocal range, Foster knows when to croon and when to belt, whether she’s delivering a completely reimagined rendition of the Johnny Cash hit “Ring Of Fire” or paying tribute to Ella Fitzgerald by spiking “Mack The Knife” with doses of scat-singing. Although 15 musicians and three singers accompany her, Foster’s charismatic voice is so powerful that it remains the focal point throughout the 64-minute program.

The big band’s punchy horns lend a Stax/Volt vibe to a rendition of Foster’s original tune “Runaway Soul,” before the singer engages in a buoyant call-and-response dialogue with fiery tenor saxophonist Joey Colarusso. Other highlights include a tour de force version of “Phenomenal Woman” (from her 2007 album, The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster) and a sweet, swinging stroll through “Fly Me To The Moon.”

The program concludes with waves of the crowd’s boisterous applause reverberating inside the 105-year-old Paramount Theatre, one of Austin’s architectural treasures. During the current pandemic, those recorded sounds serve as a bittersweet reminder of the joy that live performances can generate.

David Torn


Guitarist David Torn has worked at the edges of the jazz genre for more than 30 years, moving from his synth-indebted Cloud About Mercury on ECM to more recent works with rock act Sonar and reedist Tim Berne, whose Screwgun imprint issued Fur/Torn. The album continues a solo approach Torn cultivated on works like Tripping ꞉ Over ꞉ God, a 1995 recording. But on this latest effort, he’s stripped away everything other than his guitar and almost overwhelming waves of distortion.

A loop pulses behind “lone rider, open plains” as Torn ricochets lines against it, turning the whole undertaking into an unceasing breaker of sound, while a tacit blues feeling swells for a moment on “they were then, now & again.” This is a contemplative music—both for the performer and listener. Deriving some sort of nefarious meaning from all of these dark reverberations would be easy to do, given the moment we’re living in. And while Fur/Torn is inexorably heavy and difficult to parse—though “someday find a waltz” engages a sunnier disposition through delicately plucked progressions—it’s comforting to take in through headphones, knowing that the music must have worked as some sort of catharsis for Torn, even if it was recorded prior to the world convulsing with seemingly endless chaos.

South By North East

for human beings
(Bumblebee Collective)

During the past couple years, flutist Elsa Nilsson’s recorded duo and quartet projects, while still finding time to write Between The Beats, a book on rhythms aimed at players of melodic instruments. South By North East, a collaborative trio, finds a way to fold in a bit of everything she’s explored in those previous endeavors.

“Forward,” the opening 31-minute track here, finds Nilsson distorting her flute and dashing across a steady, repetitive Bam Bam Rodríguez bass line and a wealth of 16th notes, provided by drummer Rodrigo Recabarren. At least three distinct movements take the ensemble through a contemporary version of bop, prog-indebted explorations and snatches of contemplative quiet. That introversion crops up again during “Within.” But “Perception” gets readily funky for a spell, a surprising turn given some of the rockist intent here. It also intimates that Nilsson and her cohort are as ready to shift gears as they are to discard genre considerations altogether.

The flutist is out front across the recording, making the band, at times, sound like a ’60s psych act as much as a batch of jazz adherents. A spate of recent recordings, though, should have hinted at such an expanse. Nilsson’s work on a duo album—After Us—with pianist Jon Cowherd could sate traditionalists. And while her Hindsight explored a rock-related vibe that’s also a part of for human beings’ DNA, it was less fully realized, stumbling in places. This latest effort, though, exerts Nilsson’s mercurial skills as a musical marauder with as many interests as skills to deploy her ideas.

Lori Sims/Andrew Rathbun/Jeremy Siskind

Impressions Of Debussy

The relationship between Debussy and jazz goes way back. The composer is said to have been inspired by the harmony and rhythm of African American musical forms, and numerous jazz musicians—most notably pianist Bill Evans—have cited his work as an influence on their ideas, particularly about harmony. Even so, while jazz arrangers have been more than happy to repurpose works by such contemporaries as Ravel, Albéniz and Stravinsky, there’s been precious little in the way of Debussy-jazz on the market.

Impressions Of Debussy attempts to correct that, albeit in a somewhat roundabout fashion. At the suggestion of Daniel Gustin—director of the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival in Kalamazoo, Michigan—Lori Sims’ 2016 performances of Debussy’s Preludes, Books I and II, were sandwiched around a separate concert of Debussy-derived improvisations by soprano saxophonist Andrew Rathbun and pianist Jeremy Siskind. The idea was to contrast a straightforward classical interpretation of the work with a jazz-informed expansion of the composer’s ideas. Impressions Of Debussy compresses those three concerts into 78 minutes of music, with Sims’ excerpts from the Preludes followed by Rathbun and Siskind’s elaborations and improvisations.

Sims’ readings are a delightful surprise, offering solid but understated technique and an impressive control of tempo and dynamics, a combination that brings out the coloristic depth of these pieces. Siskind and Rathbun, by contrast, put less emphasis on technique, stressing instead the harmonic and melodic language of the material. They don’t do jazz “covers” of the preludes. Instead, they sometimes rework Debussy’s ideas into improv-friendly shapes, and sometimes riff on specific phrases to pull the music more toward the jazz vocabulary. Their take on “Minstrels,” from Book I, is perhaps the most successful example of the latter, with Rathbun seizing on a simple, ascending phrase and working it until it leads the two into an interpolation of Monk’s “I Mean You.” Siskind then expands that into a stride figure that winks back to Debussy’s “Golliwog’s Cakewalk,” and then things explode from there. It’s lovely, erudite fun, though not obviously Debussian.

Elsewhere, their efforts are less exuberant, in part because there isn’t as much rhythm to play with. Take “… des pas sur la neige,” also from Book I. It’s given a gorgeous reading by Sims, who makes much of its leading tones and moody, rubato phrases; Rathbun and Siskind, however, can’t really follow that route, and instead offer a more romanticized extrapolation on the melody’s path through Debussy’s chords. Their take is pretty enough, but can’t quite muster the urgency to make its ideas sparkle.

Impressions Of Debussy delivers an attractive balance between classical music and jazz, but it doesn’t quite solve the problem of how to translate Debussy’s music into jazz. Perhaps even the best improvisors can only offer impressions.

James Carney Sextet

Pure Heart

Composition and orchestration have long been recognized as essential skills in the art of making music, but what about personnel management? Getting the right players for a project can make all the difference, whether on the stage or in the studio, yet somehow “how to hire a band” remains absent from some conservatory curricula.

Should a school decide to establish such a course, I strongly would recommend hiring James Carney to teach it, if only on the basis of Pure Heart. On five tracks, the Brooklyn-based pianist offers music of astonishing complexity, both in terms of composed counterpoint and improvisational interplay. Listening to how perfectly the parts fit together and feed off one another, the metaphor of a watchwork comes to mind, with its intricate balance of cogs and gears. This is the sort of sound that typically takes months of rehearsing and touring to perfect—not something that simply can be thrown together with strangers in the studio.

And yet, that’s pretty much what Carney did. Although tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane appeared on Carney’s first album, 1994’s Fables From The Aqueduct, none of the others had played with Carney before—or, for that matter, with each other. Just listen to the effortless precision with which they dispatch the slow build of “Inharmonicity,” where the horns enter gradually and individually over a knotty, polyrhythmic pulse before slotting into a tangy ensemble section. If that doesn’t suggest long hours spent playing together, then certainly the interlocking, conversational lines of the subsequent group improvisation does. How else to explain the way Stephanie Richards’ trumpet works so perfectly against Oscar Noriega’s bass clarinet, or how Coltrane’s tenor so frequently locks in with Tom Rainey’s drumming?

There’s more, of course. On “Mayor Of Marceluus,” the sinuously serpentine melody and 31-bar form is effortlessly anchored by a linkage between Dezron Douglas’ bass, Rainey’s right foot, and Carney’s left hand. There’s the harmonic lushness of “Forty Year Friend,” on which the ensemble writing sounds like a small big band, and Noriega and Richards manage an almost telepathic degree of interplay while improvising. There is, to be honest, more spark, wit and passion in the playing than strangers ought ever to be able to manage, and for that Carney deserves a critics poll category of his own: Best Blend of Players for a Studio Project.

Daniel Carter/Matthew Shipp/William Parker/Gerald Cleaver

Welcome Adventure! Vol. 1

We can’t help read meaning into art and music. And clearly, the weird adventure we’re all living through now isn’t what this improvising quartet was getting at with the title of its album. The music here, though, swings a bit more than the names billed might lead folks to believe.

Two extended excursions bookend a shorter four-minute piece, “Scintillate,” where 577 label owner Daniel Carter offers up a cool tone on both trumpet and saxophone, sometimes poking around a bit to figure out where pianist Matthew Shipp is tonally—and where he’s leading the group. This is exploratory music—yes, the title gives it away. But it’s also the kind of music that benefits from listeners being able to sit around together and discuss what they’ve heard—or what they think they’ve heard, expanding their own knowledge of music in the process.

Shipp and bassist William Parker have decades of musical partnership behind them, and drummer Gerald Cleaver’s been an occasional compatriot in the past, too. So, what does it mean that they’re performing within this context? Is Carter’s approach as good a fit as when the rhythm section here helped record reedist Roscoe Mitchell’s ECM album Nine To Get Ready in 1997? Maybe. Or maybe not. It’s not a topic that folks currently can sit around at a bar and discuss. Discourse around the music, too, has been kneecapped by the pandemic. And we’re all a little worse off for it.

Parker playing arco during a short stretch on “Majestic Travel Agency,” the opener here, is a nice detour before the song sputters to a stop. And on the heroic 20-minute closer, “Ear-regularities,” the quartet rumbles along its journey, with Shipp steering the way. We’ll have to see when further adventures actually can be chartered, so listeners and acolytes can again congregate and let the music direct their imaginations toward new intellectual panoramas.

Dave Stryker

Blue Soul

In March 2019, a group of superheroes assembled in Cologne, Germany. Their mission—to record a great album—might not be the stuff of comic-book plots, but in true, Avengers-like form, it was accomplished by accentuating each participant’s unique strengths. Guitarist Dave Stryker teamed up with Bob Mintzer and the WDR Big Band (for whom the tenor saxophonist serves as principal conductor) to record Blue Soul. The result is album that showcases the turn-on-a-dime precision of the large ensemble, as well as the composing and arranging acumen of the two marquee leaders.

Some of the tunes here—two Marvin Gaye classics, Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” and Prince’s “When Doves Cry”—will be familiar to fans of Stryker’s series of Eight Track albums, which feature jazz arrangements of old-school pop and r&b tunes. On Blue Soul, the big band adds intriguing textures that enhance the material without blunting the impact of Stryker’s clean, potent guitar lines.

Stryker and Jared Gold’s arrangement of Gaye’s “Trouble Man” spotlights a team of selfless players who value the sophisticated elegance of a big band and the greasy muscle of a small combo. Elsewhere, the duo’s arrangement of “What’s Going On” highlights Stryker’s remarkable ability to craft instrumental lines that evoke the cadence of Gaye’s vocal flights.

The program concludes with Mintzer’s arrangement of Stanley Turrentine’s “Stan’s Shuffle”—a bag of aromatic catnip for lovers of traditional big-band sounds. Thanks to Mintzer’s own reed work, the rendition subtly nods to the melodious playing style of Turrentine (1934–2000), who was once Stryker’s employer. Just like a great Avengers movie, this album could leave some fans fully satisfied, yet also longing for a sequel.

Vanderlei Pereira

Vision For Rhythm

Drummer Vanderlei Pereira’s choice for his band’s name—Blindfold Test—and the title of his leader debut—Vision For Rhythm—both convey the positive attitude of a gifted musician who, as a youngster, lost his sight due to retinitis pigmentosa. In concert, his bandmates occasionally don blindfolds when performing their most intricate numbers, helping to draw a personal connection to the way in which their leader experiences music. But when a band plays this well, no such stunts are necessary to win over new fans.

Fluent in many musical styles associated with his native Brazil, the New York-based Pereira has assembled a 70-minute program that includes four of his original compositions, as well as works by Antonio Adolfo, Edu Lobo and Toninho Ferragutti, among others.

On this album of sextet recordings, the leader has crafted arrangements that give his bandmates plenty of room to shine, as evidenced by Jorge Continentino’s authoritative flute work on “Misturada (Mixing),” a 7/4 samba composed by Airto Moreira, as well as Gustavo Amarante’s compelling electric bass solo on “O Que Ficou (What Remains),” a Pereira original.

The leader’s wife, Susan Pereira, elevates the program with a variety of wordless vocal acrobatics, often adding a percussive element via rapid-fire bursts of coloration. On a rendition of Zeca Freitas’ “Alma Brasileira (Brazilian Soul)” she delivers a dazzling performance, precisely mirroring the shifts in Rodrigo Ursaia’s tenor saxophone lines. The effect is as impressive as it is hypnotic.

The band name Blindfold Test has another connotation, too. DownBeat readers have been enjoying the Blindfold Test—in which a musician is asked to comment on unidentified tracks—since 1951. Now, the challenge arises for a fervent journalist to play a track by Vanderlei Pereira & Blindfold Test during a future DownBeat Blindfold Test. After all, Vision For Rhythm offers a dozen great tracks from which to choose.

Amina Figarova Edition 113


When downloads surpassed physical CDs in popularity, one casualty of that tectonic shift was the notion of the road-trip album. Instead of selecting a great disc to stick in a car’s glove compartment, music lovers began crafting their own playlists—or turning to satellite radio—for entertainment on long drives.

Pianist/keyboardist Amina Figarova’s album Persistence is a delightful throwback in two senses: Not only does it nod to the fusion style of an earlier era, it offers a cohesive program that could be the 43-minute soundtrack for a segment of blissful highway travel. Like any great road-trip album, the program contains enough sonic diversity to keep the listener engaged, but without any boring or jarring tracks that would tempt someone to hit the eject button.

For Persistence, Figarova recruited her band Edition 113, a group players who embrace a fusion aesthetic, merging the adventurous spirit of improvisation with the muscular power of rock. Guitarist Rez Abbasi adds spidery lines to the funk-flavored title track and smolders on the medium-tempo tune “Morning Blue.” Bart Platteau (who is the leader’s husband) provides authoritative flute lines on “Horizons,” while his work on EWI helps sculpt a lovely yet mysterious atmosphere for the ballad “Lil’ Poem.” The flute, electric guitar and keyboard conversation on “R Song” is a delight that prompts repeated spins and begs for detailed study. Agile bassist Yasushi Nakamura and go-to drummer Rudy Royston keep the proceedings grounded yet grooving.

Adding welcome coloration to the album are three vocalists, who each appear on a single track: Hip-hop artist JSWISS crafts rhymes for “I’ve Got No Time,” Paul Jost provides soaring, wordless vocals on “Horizons,” and Skye’s World sings and recites spoken-word segments on “Bliss.”

The power of this program lies partly in its questing vibe: For each track, the players have the basic route in their heads, so any band member can take an intriguing, improvisational diversion down a side road, and yet still merge back into the unified ensemble and help it arrive at the intended destination.

Childish Japes

The Book Of Japes
(Self Release)

Listening to Childish Japes’ latest album is like being invited to a party and making some new friends who are huddled in a corner: An hour ago you didn’t even know these people’s names, but now you’re eager to learn more about them.

Looking into the band’s recent past, one thing becomes clear: The new album is a departure from its predecessor. In August 2018, the trio of Asher Kurtz (guitar), Jed Lingat (bass) and JP Bouvet (drums) released Salamander, which featured the pop-oriented singer Dave Vives on all the tracks.

The band’s new album, The Book Of Japes, finds the core trio delivering an all-instrumental program alongside Christian Li (keyboards) and David Leon (saxophones, bass clarinet). The sonic territory here is a place where jazz meets art-rock, with lots of improvisation. The tracks feature bolts of aggressive, rewarding dialogue, with members trading solos as if to say, “That’s what you got? OK, here’s what I got.”

The track “9:41” begins like a standard rock tune and then somersaults into a thrashing, skronking maelstrom before descending into a spare meditation and then returning to the melodic head. The longest track, “Testimonies,” starts with a catchy melody line before shifting to another sonic lane that eventually leads to the metaphoric soundtrack of a sci-fi movie where the hero’s spaceship verges on overheating.

“Summer MT-35”—the title of which might nod to the model number of a vintage Casio keyboard—offers a head-bobbing groove and touch of whimsy. “Vic Pils” features Kurtz’s chiming guitar work, Li’s infectious keyboard riffs, which nod to ’80s new wave, plus alto saxophone and bass clarinet parts played by Leon (whose resume includes work with trumpeter Adam O’Farrill and saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock).

For a glimpse at the recording sessions for The Book Of Japes, fans can check out a YouTube clip in Bouvet’s video blog, featuring excerpts from six tracks. The clip hints at a level of chummy camaraderie that is evidenced by the grooves on this intriguing, nine-track album.

Cathlene Pineda

Rainbow Baby

The emotional backing of California pianist Cathlene Pineda’s Rainbow Baby is startling. And even if somber, knotty compositions don’t hold sway over your listening habits, the courage to write music about such a personal experience should be recognized.

“‘1nine’ is about the birth of our second child, but also about the time surrounding that,” Pineda wrote in an email to DownBeat, after explaining that the phrase “rainbow baby” refers to a child born following a miscarriage, still birth or death during infancy. “Our daughter was born in 2019, in January (1-19), but on January 9th (1-9-19). [About a week] before she was born, my father had emergency surgery for a bleed in the brain and was in the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, while I was stuck in California ... . He has since recovered very well, considering his age and his experiences. But that month of January was filled with an enormous swell of trauma [and] uncertainty, but also joy and celebration.”

The majority of Rainbow Baby comes off as a blue exploration of Pineda’s psyche; the music’s no less gorgeous or entrancing. And by comparison to the rest of the disc, “Carriers II”— which among the other sequences here might be heard as a contemplative air—works as a joyous-sounding interlude. Kris Tiner’s trumpet is perfectly suited to the moment. And as good as the band is—bassist David Tranchina and drummer Tina Raymond round out the quartet—Tiner painting around Pineda’s chords for supreme emotional affect across the album really is the most noteworthy feature of the music.

A pair of suites—Carriers and Wild Geese—ground the album, and give it a sort of cohesion that progressive-minded contemporary work so often lacks. It’s also a surprisingly easy recording to wade through, despite the subject matter, and again should remind listeners that L.A. boasts a pretty heavy scene. It’s just less concentrated, given the city’s sprawling reach.

Peripheral Vision

Irrational Revelation And Mutual Humiliation

Peripheral Vision has always been a sort of two-sided affair. On one level, the Toronto-based quartet is about the writing relationship between electric guitarist Don Scott and double bassist Michael Herring. But there’s also a second aspect to the band’s music, which stems from the collaborative chemistry among Scott, Herring, tenor saxophonist Trevor Hogg and drummer Nick Fraser.

In that sense, it was probably inevitable that this double-edged quartet would end up making a double album. Irrational Revelation And Mutual Humiliation, its fifth release, plays up that duality by offering one disc that showcases the band’s compositional chops, and a second that emphasizes its instrumental agility. Moreover, it does so while broadening the band’s sonic palette, bringing in extra players on some tracks and making more extensive use of overdubs and multitracking.

What’s most striking, though, is Peripheral Vision’s stylistic range. Take, for example, Herring’s three-part Reconciliation Suite, from the first disc. Written in the hope of addressing, as a nonaboriginal person, the injustice and inequality revealed through the work of Reconciliation Canada, the music is alternately questioning and prayerful, hushed and raucous. As it moves from the opening “Prayer For Reconciliation” to the final “Kaddish For Missing And Murdered Indigenous Women And Girls,” it incorporates the full range of Peripheral Vision’s sound, from the classical sweetness of Herring’s arco work to the distorted roar of Scott’s overdriven guitar. It’s an astonishing piece of work, and amazingly is followed by “For Kent Monkman,” a boppish contrafact on “Cherokee,” that shows the band can play post-bop just as convincingly as they can invoke chamber music or art-rock.

According to the liner notes, the second disc’s title—Mutual Humiliation—stems from practice sessions in which Herring and Fraser build cohesion by “working on something hard (even humiliating) together.” “Title Crisis” has precisely that sort of feel, an ever-changing groove that stays in the pocket while remaining rhythmically off-balance. But that’s just one of the ways Peripheral Vision shows off its time-keeping acuity: There’s everything from the slow, spacious reverie of “Neo-Expressionism For Pacifists” to the gracefully dancing “Schleudern,” where Hogg and Fraser almost completely blur the line between melody and rhythm.

Adam Rudolph/Ralph M. Jones/Hamid Drake

Imaginary Archipelago

It’s easy to get lost in Imaginary Archipelago, a cooperative effort by drummer/percussionists Adam Rudolph and Hamid Drake, and saxophonist/flutist Ralph M. Jones—three commanding improvisers with decades of work behind them to prove their mettle.

There’s the thrill of hearing the two veteran percussionists—who as teenagers met in a Chicago drum shop—explore imagined worlds of sound where rhythms jut out of soundscapes as quickly as they’re again submerged in Rudolph’s whirring electronic experiments. Jones serves to sketch out melodies and patterns, as on “Apekweh,” while his bandmates decide to explore a calmer segment of their improvisational skill set. Sure, some of this might come off as new agey—perhaps more so than the trio’s Karuna recording from 2018. But as soon as that perception might crop up, a track like “Suwakaba” seems to recast the sounds of the Gary Bartz NTU Troop for the 21st century. Jones, who’s worked with both percussionists in Rudolph’s Moving Pictures ensemble, gets one of his most prominent features here, his horn echoey, punchy and electronically affected, but intriguingly so.

Despite these performers having a history together that stretches back decades, their collective creative engagement hasn’t waned. And Imaginary Archipelago is yet another indication that Drake somehow remains one of most varied percussionists of his—or any—generation who just isn’t necessarily a familiar name to most jazzers.

Willie Nile

New York At Night
(River House)

A startling crisis can add new, unexpected meaning to an existing work of art. Many albums recorded prior to 9/11 gained layers of significance that hadn’t been envisioned by their creators. This phenomenon was particularly acute for residents of New York City, and it has returned during the coronavirus pandemic. New Yorkers might experience an a-ha twinge when watching Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film, Contagion, or viewing Jerry Seinfeld’s new standup special, 23 Hours To Kill. And Big Apple residents definitely will experience a jolt of recognition when listening to veteran rocker Willie Nile’s 13th studio album, New York At Night.

This sonic love letter to Gotham opens with “New York Is Rockin’,” a nostalgic sing-along with lyrics that celebrate the diversity of the city’s world-famous performing arts scene: “Frank Sinatra’s singing about the little town blues/ Baryshnikov is puttin’ on his blue suede shoes/ Bird is boppin’ down on 52nd Street/ The Ramones at CBGB’s got ’em on their feet/ Pavarotti’s singing up at Carnegie Hall/ Yeah, everybody’s swingin’, man, we’re havin’ a ball.”

Nile—a native of Buffalo, New York, who is a longtime resident of Greenwich Village—populates his lyrics with the names of New York streets and locations that nighttime denizens generally haven’t been prowling en mass during the pandemic (Avenue A, Avenue C, Bleecker Street, Broadway, the intersection of Park Avenue and E. 53rd Street).

Nile’s stock in trade is anthemic, straightforward rock, and tunes like the title track, “Lost And Lonely World” and “Downtown Girl” will appeal to fans whose music libraries include albums by the likes of Bruce Springsteen, David Johansen and Steve Forbert. The original ballad “The Last Time We Made Love” might resonate with listeners who cherished Nile’s interpretation of “I Want You” on his 2017 collection of Bob Dylan songs, Positively Bob.

When Nile took his band into the Hobo Sound studio in Weehawken, New Jersey, to record the new album, it’s clear that his goal was not to reinvent the wheel—or himself. He emerged with a disc that’s less rootsy than his 2006 album, Streets Of New York, and less political than his last outing, Children Of Paradise (2018).

The current dearth of live music in New York has turned Nile’s new album into a talisman of the recent past—when tourists and locals could wedge themselves into a packed club for a hot set—as well as a reminder that those days will return. And when they do, some of us will refuse to take them for granted.

Robby Ameen


Is this a panacea for what we’re all experiencing now? Probably not. But Diluvio definitely will displace listeners’ anxiety for about 50 minutes as drummer Robby Ameen moves through his keenly honed influences, expanding beyond the Afro-Cuban sounds he’s associated with as the album rides a wave of eclecticism that eventually settles somewhere outside of genre.

“The Drifter’s Plan” comes off a bit too smooth and ranks as the only real misstep on the collection. But on “Cremant”—presumably a rumination on drinking the sparkling wine—a Latin feel dominates as trombonist Conrad Herwig slides through percussion accents without flaw. Saxophonist Bob Franceschini quoting Henry Mancini’s theme from The Pink Panther comes as an added bonus. “Mixology”—a title that might just have been an apt name for the album—is a straightahead effort, as Franceschini’s joined by tenorist Troy Roberts on the frontline.

Ameen is and forever will be affiliated with performers like Dizzy Gillespie, Rubén Blades and Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez. But closing with a version of John Coltrane’s “Impressions” is a nice touch, and again points to Ameen’s continued desire to explore any and every kind of music that’s inspired him throughout his lengthy career.

Alex Goodman

Impressions In Blue And Red
(Outside In)

Alex Goodman hears red, and hears blue. Other colors, too.

The New York-based guitarist’s innate sensitivity to the associative power of colors and their various shades served as the inspiration behind this well-planned and superbly executed double album. On Impressions In Blue And Red, Goodman leads two distinct quartets—one for each color—on adventures in synesthesia that paint vivid musical “pictures” and conjure a full spectrum of moods and meanings. For the “blue” portion of the program (disc 1), Goodman is joined by alto saxophonist Ben Van Gelder, bassist Martin Nevin and drummer Jimmy Macbride. Goodman’s “red” ensemble (disc 2) includes altoist Alex LoRe, bassist Rick Rosato and drummer Mark Ferber. It’s impossible to explain what makes any particular sounds “blue” or “red” to Goodman’s ear, but suffice it to say that the two-pronged music-by-colors approach that he and his bandmates follow on Impressions In Blue And Red succeeds in eliciting a wide range of intuitive feels that transcend verbal description.

“No Man’s Land,” the opening track of disc 1, takes the listener into a world that’s so obviously blue, one need not ponder how or why. Meanwhile, “Choose,” the opening track of disc 2, comes across as something drawn from the same source material as King Crimson’s 1974 prog-rock album Red, with its insistent guitar patterns played over an ever-shifting, odd-meter groove. Impressions In Blue And Red benefits from a symmetry and flow imposed upon it by the leader, with each color theme complementing—rather than clashing with—the other.

Eight tracks serve as improvised solo intros that spotlight Goodman and each of his bandmates in turn. The album also includes a total of 15 originals by Goodman, plus interpretations of Herbie Hancock’s “Toys” and a movement from a baroque sonata by Johann Rosenmüller. Each disc closes with Goodman playing an impromptu solo version of a standard: “I’ll Never Be the Same” (Malneck & Signorelli) on the “blue” disc and “If I Loved You” (Rodgers & Hammerstein) on the “red.” A regular on the New York club scene and the international festival circuit, the Toronto-born Goodman makes his strongest statement to date with this bold, ambitious album.

Verneri Pohjola

The Dead Don’t Dream

There’s a lot about Finnish trumpeter Verneri Pohjola that sounds familiar. The way his breathy tone skips across a trancelike groove, cushioned by the airy ambience of synth chords, will put some listeners in mind of Jon Hassell, and the way he works scales into serpentine swirls of melody might bring Ibrahim Maalouf to mind. And then there are times when Pohjola digs into the lower register and makes the most of his slow-spreading vibrato: It’s hard not to think of the vocalized beauty of Ambrose Akinmusire’s sound.

Yet for all of that, there’s nothing secondhand about The Dead Don’t Dream, Pohjola’s latest album as a leader. Some of that has to do with the expressive range of his trumpet tone, which doesn’t just rely on shifting dynamics to shape a phrase, but frequently changes timbre, moving from bright to breathy without significant loss of tonal color. It’s the sort of trick pop singers use, not trumpeters, and it adds tremendously to the narrative feel of tracks like the gorgeously mournful title tune.

But the other thing that makes The Dead Don’t Dream a journey worth taking is that Pohjola is only part of the show. However much he’s the dominant voice here, there’s a strong sense of ensemble music, something that makes each part seem like an act of orchestration. “Voices Heard,” for instance, is built around a darkly tolling progression of piano chords that seem to emerge almost out of a mist behind Pohjola’s trumpet. The music is relentless in its ongoing momentum—but never simplistic, because bassist Antti Lötjönen and drummer Mika Kallio don’t simply support the progression, they add color and rhythmic tension, while keyboardist Tuomo Prättälä puts as much weight on texture as harmony.

As with previous albums, Pohjola and company are more than happy to work with trance-y, synth grooves. But the pulse is merely foundational. What matters more is what they build on top of it: the snake-charmer trumpet lines Pohjola places over the busy bass ostinato of “Monograph” or the ghostlike chords Prättälä uses to cushion the restless thump of “Suspended.” The brightest moment, however, comes on “Wilder Brother,” when they swap the techno-trickery for an engaging swirl of polyrhythms, as Lötjönen and Kallio dance around the pulse beneath airy solos by Prättälä and guest saxophonist Pauli Lyytinen.

Schapiro 17

New Shoes: Kind Of Blue At 60

For most listeners, Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue is less an album than an icon, the sort of work so indisputably great that genuflection is the only conceivable response. But for many jazz musicians, Kind Of Blue is closer to scripture, in the sense that it has been a source of guidance and inspiration almost from the start.

Composer/arranger Jon Schapiro falls into the latter category, and New Shoes: Kind Of Blue At 60 is a sort of creative commentary on that text, a sermon on five songs, if you will. In addition to offering big-band versions of Kind Of Blue’s material, he also has six KoB-inspired pieces of his own, an itchily propulsive cycle he calls “Boiled Funk,” the title being an anagram of “Kind Of Blue.” There’s also a seventh track, “Foiled Bunk,” in which pianist Roberta Piket offers a virtuosic, two-handed deconstruction of Schapiro’s “Boiled Funk” motifs.

If all that sounds a tad Talmudic, don’t worry—Schapiro understands the centrality of the blues to Kind Of Blue, and never lets the music get arcane or cerebral. It helps that his ensemble is powered by a first-rate rhythm section, particularly Piket and Jon Wikan, who is rapidly becoming one of the most astutely swinging big band drummers in jazz today. But Schapiro’s writing is what really does the trick, fleshing out his ideas through lean, deftly coloristic ensemble passages that manage to convey small-band dynamics with a big-band toolkit. Gil Evans is an obvious touchstone here, particularly in the way Schapiro uses high-note trumpet, but there’s also a bit of George Russell in the way he uses modal harmony to maintain a sense of blues in even the densest ensemble passages.

Purists might bristle at some of the liberties taken here—for instance, the way Schapiro’s arrangement of “So What” playfully morphs the bass-line melody. But this isn’t meant for fundamentalists. Instead, by showing that creative work still can be built off of Miles’ model, Schapiro and company pay the best possible tribute: They make Kind Of Blue kind of new.

Falkner Evans

(Consolidated Artist Productions)

When Falkner Evans’ quintet album The Point Of The Moon came out in 2011, it marked a significant departure for the New York-based veteran pianist and celebrated composer, whose three previous discs were trio dates. Now, with the release of the sextet recording Marbles, Evans expands his harmonic horizons further with the inclusion of a three-horn front line. The music—nine Falkner originals and an album-closing snippet of “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be”—is flush with ensemble interaction, and Evans and company do a brilliant job blending the intimacy of a piano trio with the dynamic flash and larger tonal palette made possible by the additional instrumentation.

Evans proves himself an expert orchestrator with a knack for voicing three-part harmony and combining brass and woodwind timbres in unexpected, yet extremely effective, ways. In addition to drummer Matt Wilson, bassist Belden Bullock and trumpeter/flugelhornist Ron Horton, fresh sounds at the leader’s disposal include Ted Nash’s vibrant alto saxophone and fat-toned flute, and Michael Blake’s gritty-spitty tenor and stately soprano. On three tracks, guest artist Steve Nelson contributes masterful, tasteful vibraphone to the instrumental mix; his presence on Marbles is the icing on the cake.

The album kicks off with “Pina,” a romantic number that rides a bolero-like groove and seduces with its mysterious-sounding, overtone-rich blend of flute, soprano and trumpet. “Civilization” is a medium swing—established by Wilson’s steady, lazy ride cymbal—that puts a subtle twist on standard song form by embedding an improvised tenor passage into the head of the tune. Evans comes to the fore on the hushed “Sing Alone,” which starts with a dreamy rubato piano intro, heavy on the sustain, eventually leading to an especially introspective solo turn from the leader. “Global News” is a medium-up jazz waltz with a driving bass line and horn parts that smoothly shift from unison to harmony and back again. The album reaches dramatic peaks when Nelson makes his solo entrance on “Hidden Gem,” spinning skyward in an uplifting spiral of mallet strokes that occasionally evoke a sunny steel-drum vibe. The title track, a major highlight, is notable for its symphonic-style horn swells, tricky syncopation, prominent vibraphone and a taut piano improvisation that’s cleverly crafted and eloquently stated.

With Marbles, Evans embraces a musical dimension that’s entirely new to him, but turns out to be right up his alley.

Chris Dingman

(Inner Arts Initiative)

Some brilliant young players have a knack for finding one another. Such is the case with Chris Dingman and Linda May Han Oh. In the 2012 DownBeat Critics Poll, Dingman topped the category Rising Star–Vibraphone and Oh won the category Rising Star–Bass. The vibraphonist recruited her for his 2015 sextet album, The Subliminal And the Sublime, and he invited her back to play on his latest effort, the trio disc Embrace. The two are in good company alongside drummer Tim Keiper, whose resume includes work with Cyro Baptista, David Byrne and John Zorn.

In recent years, Oh has toured with world with Pat Metheny and done such great work with so many players that she has become a highly sought-after collaborator, one who can shine in a variety of settings. On Embrace—a collection of nine Dingman originals—her tasteful solos on “Find A Way” and “Hijinks And Wizardy” serve the song, without lapsing into any grandstanding.

Recorded at Atomic Sound studio in Brooklyn and produced by Keith Witty, the focal point of Embrace is the luminous timbre of Dingman’s vibes. The trio setting not only makes his fluid dynamics central to the overall sound, it also showcases his considerable gift for melody. A composition like “Hijinks And Wizardy” would lend itself to interpretation by a pianist or soprano saxophonist.

A few of the songs in the program were informed by Dingman’s deep interest in West African music traditions, especially the work of players from Mali. Dingman titled “Ali” in honor of the late guitarist/singer Ali Farka Touré, “Goddess” was inspired by vocalist Oumou Sangaré, and “Forgive/Embrace” nods to the work of kora player Toumani Diabaté. By drawing inspiration from across the Atlantic Ocean, Dingman is, in his own small way, illustrating how musicians from around the globe are united by a common language.

At a time when musicians’ careers are in peril due to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s important to applaud the efforts of organizations who support the arts, such as New Music USA, which helped Dingman make Embrace a reality. In the album’s liner notes, Dingman cites five organizations that have, in turn, provided financial support to New Music USA. When an album is this strong, fans should be particularly appreciative of the do-gooders behind the scenes, helping artists bring their visions to fruition.

The Necks

(Northern Spy)

The Necks are both complicated and guileless.

For more than 30 years, the Sydney-based trio has been moving through jazz, ambient and avant-rock while dispatching more than 20 albums, frequently offering up a single, long track on each improvised disc. And while Three comes with, that’s right, three cuts, the individual works still function as a single sonic premise.

“Bloom,” the album’s opener, rattles with Tony Buck’s percussion as Lloyd Swanton’s bass ostinato lends the tune an odd sense of swing. Here as on each of Three’s tracks, pianist Chris Abrahams lets every chord he plays breathe. There’s not a rush to compete with the rhythm section’s momentum, Abrahams seems to think, his contributions giving the album a sense of calm, even during moments of intensity.

It’s that contrast making Three one of the group’s most engaging recent albums: Open drifted too much and Vertigo comes off as a bit too baroque. But Unfold and Body work in the same way as this most recent effort, despite including more rockist intentions. But like each of the band’s albums, these latest discs offer subtle variations on just a handful of themes. Even if the crackling results are soothing to some and an aural irritant to others, the trio’s belief in its mission and dedication to improvisation is something more than laudable.

Kandace Springs

The Women Who Raised Me
(Blue Note)

Recruiting an array of high-profile guests for a disc can be a risky endeavor. If the results are mediocre, then the leader might be accused of riding on others’ coattails. But when the results are strong, new fans could see the leader in a different light. Skeptics can be won over via this logic: “If she’s keeping company with these mighty collaborators, perhaps she does, indeed, belong among them.” Such is the case with singer/keyboardist Kandace Springs’ fourth Blue Note release, The Women Who Raised Me.

On the CD packaging, the track listing includes the names of the boldface guests: bassist Christian McBride, alto saxophonist David Sanborn, tenor saxophonist Chris Potter, singer/pianist Norah Jones, trumpeter Avishai Cohen and Elena Pinderhughes, who topped the category Rising Star–Flute in the 2016 DownBeat Critics Poll. Among that parade of notable guests, Springs remains the key figure and primary reason to seek out this collection, as her fluid pianism and emotive vocals soar in this setting. Producer Larry Klein has crafted a disc that combines sonic elegance with musical muscle.

On this 12-track program of covers, the leader—the daughter of singer Kenneth “Scat” Springs—pays tribute to the female vocalists who caught her ear as a youngster, including Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae, Nina Simone, Roberta Flack, Sade, Bonnie Raitt and Lauryn Hill.

Springs’ reading of “I Put A Spell On You” is spiced with Sanborn’s potent alto, plus a nod to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and some fine scat-singing. Elsewhere, an interpretation of Duke Ellington’s “(In My) Solitude” showcases a delicate touch on piano and great tenor work by Potter.

When Springs was a kid, she was mesmerized by Jones’ version of “The Nearness of You” on her 2002 debut, Come Away With Me (Blue Note). Today, Springs is signed to Blue Note, and her new album includes a version of that same standard. Springs and Jones’ arrangement of “Angel Eyes” finds the two artists trading vocal lines and sturdy instrumental passages, featuring the leader on Wurlitzer and her guest on piano. Sometimes fate favors the gifted.

Various Artists

Ella 100: Live At The Apollo!

Singer Patti Austin and drummer/producer Gregg Field are in fine, familiar territory again. The simpatico pair collaborated on Austin’s 2002 album, For Ella, a loving tribute to Ella Fitzgerald (1917–’96), and they reunited on Oct. 22, 2016, for a concert celebrating the “First Lady of Song.” Highlights from the all-star show are chronicled on the winning album Ella 100: Live At The Apollo!, featuring Austin on five performances that illustrate precisely why she has been a fan favorite on the jazz festival circuit. Teamed with the Count Basie Orchestra (under the direction of Scotty Barnhart), Austin authoritatively swings her way through “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” “When I Get Low, I Get High” and “How High The Moon.”

Also present at the bash were Cassandra Wilson, Lizz Wright, Ledisi, Tony-nominated actor/singer David Alan Grier, the Howard University vocal group Afro Blue and a jazz quartet made up of Field, Brian Nova (guitar), Shelly Berg (piano) and Nathan East (bass).

The venue was an important element in the proceedings because a 17-year-old Fitzgerald famously made her debut at the Apollo Theater in 1934. Nodding to that performance, the album has a segment in which Grier re-enacts what announcer Ralph Cooper might have said on that fateful night. Vocalist Ayodele Owolabi (then 17 and now going by the stage name Ayo) delivers her rendition of “Judy,” a song Fitzgerald sang at the Apollo.

Thanks to the power of the Basie band, this concert album will appeal to longtime Ella fans, as well as connoisseurs of contemporary vocalists. Wilson smolders on “Cry Me A River,” Wright—backed by the quartet—offers knockout renditions of “Love You Madly” and “The Nearness Of You,” and Afro Blue showcases tight harmonies on “Oh, Lady Be Good.” (A bonus track on the CD version features Andra Day navigating Nelson Riddle’s arrangement of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” with panache.)

The album concludes with a wonderful and welcome departure: a live rendition of Ella tenderly crooning the standard “People.” Fans who had the opportunity to hear her in concert are, to quote the lyrics, “the luckiest people in the world.”

Jon Hassell

Vernal Equinox

Whatever jazz is, the music sprung from and is able to encompass sundry other musics. And while trumpeter Jon Hassell’s connection to the genre is nominal, his career stretches back to recording In C with minimalist Terry Riley.

Hassell, who’s likely best known as a Brian Eno collaborator from the producer’s early ambient phase, has contributed to works by pop and avant-gardists while also producing his own far-flung material, including a 1994 experiment in jazzy trip-hop. The reissued Vernal Equinox, the trumpeter’s 1977 debut, ranks as one of his most sedate works, but also precedes his better-known Earthquake Island. That latter disc, released the following year, finds its footing with a more new-agey feel and a batch of percussion that might have intrigued Talking Heads fans.

For his debut, Hassell enlisted Brazilian percussionist Naná Vasconcelos to knit in textures as the bandleader’s trumpet drips lines that refuse to intimate a melody, instead coming off like a busted-up shofar. If there’s a cut here that encapsulates Hassell’s work, though, it might be the closer, “Caracas Night September 11, 1975.” The calm calamity of crickets droning on in the evening provides a supple bed for Hassell’s wandering tone, connecting Vernal Equinox to his slow-cooked 2009 ECM effort, Last Night The Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes In The Street.

Correction: Jon Hassells surname was spelled incorrectly in a previous version of this post. DownBeat regrets the error.

Rhoda Scott

Movin’ Blues

Organist Rhoda Scott’s carved out an expat life that pretty much any musician would be jealous of.

While working in Count Basie’s Harlem club, a French venue and label owner was struck by her playing one evening, and convinced her to move to Paris, where she’d release her first album in 1968.

But B-3 players, at this late date, generally adhere to traditional uses of the instrument: churchy, funky blues. And Scott’s an interpreter, not a prolific writer, generally working over classics—stuff by Galt MacDermot, Art Blakey, and Rodgers and Hammerstein.

The bandleader’s a masterful purveyor of those situations (along with her drummer Thomas Derouineau), using her skills on Movin’ Blues to take on Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday,” while preserving a sense of the original’s passion; it’s enlarged with some slightly swinging moments. Duke’s “In A Sentimental Mood” later finds Scott wrenching all the emotion out of the composition—and her instrument—while “I’m Looking For A Miracle” swings hard enough to make listeners consider converting. And maybe that’s just what Scott was aiming for: lending listeners revelatory moments, even if they only span 14 short cuts.

That such a range of music and emotion finds itself shuttled through these duo arrangements means that U.S. jazzers for years have been missing out on Scott, who’s only made sporadic Stateside stops since setting up shop in Europe decades back.

Lina Allemano

Glimmer Glammer

Playing solo isn’t simply a matter of performing without accompaniment. In many ways, it’s working without a net, as naked and unforgiving a forum as music offers. It’s even worse in jazz, because in addition to offering a close-up look at the player’s tone and technique, solo improvisation also puts their ideas under the microscope. Needless to say, there hasn’t been a huge number of players with the courage and creativity to take that challenge on.

That Lina Allemano would have the moxie to record an album of solo trumpet won’t come as a surprise to those familiar with her work. A singular improvisor who has built an impressive discography both with her free-jazz combo, the Lina Allemano 4, as well as her semi-electric quartet, Titanium Riot, the Canadian-born Allemano clearly has the creative and technical chops to pull off a solo project like Glimmer Glammer. But what’s most striking about the album is that even though Allemano offers a different set of timbres and tools for each tune, each performance carries the same sense of narrative coherence, so that the music never seems like sound for its own sake.

Of course, some tracks are more abstract than others. “Clamour,” which Allemano said “was performed with circular breathing and uses extended technique to create multiphonics,” operates across a much narrower range of pitch than, say, the elegiac “One Man Down (For Justin),” which has a largely conventional melodic structure. But that latter tune also plays with texture, as Allemano not only adds tartness to the instrument’s tone at points by slipping a mute into the bell, but uses various extended techniques to make her trumpet sputter, sigh and groan.

Then there’s the title track, a “sound collage” in which Allemano “manipulates various materials in the left hand while playing trumpet (with multiple extended techniques) with the right hand.” As complicated as that description might seem, the piece functions as a sort of conversation, with the trumpet reacting and replying to the various textures and rhythms generated by whatever it is she’s is manipulating with her left hand. Yes, the sounds are abstract, but the sense isn’t, and it’s that quality that has made Allemano one of the most underappreciated trumpeters in jazz today.

Lafayette Harris Jr.

You Can’t Lose With The Blues

It’s good to get along with your boss. The proof can be heard on You Can’t Lose With The Blues, the new straightahead gem from pianist Lafayette Harris Jr. For the past few years, he has been in the working band of saxophone legend Houston Person, who produced this album. The recording includes some material that Harris has played on tour with Person, including the beautiful ballad “I Love You, Yes I Do.” Harris’ deep familiarity with standards—such as “Wonder Why,” which he played on tour when he was in singer Ernestine Anderson’s band and then later performed with Person—allows him to craft personal, powerful renditions with subtle coloration and graceful nuance.

Harris recruited esteemed veterans Peter Washington (bass) and Lewis Nash (drums) for this winning, 12-song program of mostly standards, such as “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying” and “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.” Nash’s authoritative cymbal work on the former track—as well as Washington’s arco work on the duo arrangement of the latter track—reflect the leader’s ability to recruit ideal personnel and then let them soar. Harris ventures beyond the Great American Songbook with a delightful curveball: a luminous interpretation of “Love Me In A Special Way,” the DeBarge r&b hit from 1983. That track is followed by the most raucous number on the album, a rousing rendition of Charlie Parker’s “Bloomdido.” Harris dazzles with his solo treatment of Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone To Love.”

Harris’ compositional skills are on display with three original tunes. “The Juicy Blues” is a satisfying swinger and “Blues For Barry Harris” is a fitting tribute to one of the pianist’s mentors. Sometimes an original tune can feel out of place amid a program of standards, but that’s certainly not the case with the title track here. Person probably had a strong sense of how to approach the production on this tune: Harris wrote it or him and played on the version that the saxophonist included on his 2014 album, The Melody Lingers On. Overall, this album illustrates the power of playing to one’s formidable strengths.

Sigurd Hole


Folks writing on bassist Sigurd Hole’s latest solo dispatch, Lys/Mørke, tend to point out the connection he forged with nature while recording the two-disc set on the island of Fleinvær in the northern climes of Norway. But what gets lost in assessments like that is that Hole’s also removed himself from other people, creating a distance between his work and the culture it’s emerged from.

Still, Hole, who recently made his Carnegie Hall debut, explains his connection to nature in a press release, while noting the precarious environmental spot we’ve gotten ourselves into. While connecting humanity and nature—two things Hole actually sees as one and the same—the bassist doesn’t home in on the absence of other musicians from the recording and its process.

“The present­–day situation poses many challenges to humankind on so many levels—the climate crisis and the collapse of ecosystems worldwide being perhaps our greatest challenge ever,” the bassist exerts. “Grasping and dealing with such issues on a personal level can be very challenging. Even though I have hope we will manage to turn the tide in time, I often feel depressed and sad thinking about it all. To me, nature has always been an immense source of joy and inspiration.”

A deep, audible breath on “Speilbilde,” a track on the first disc, serves to draw listeners in closer, but also illustrates Hole’s relative seclusion. It’s a musician looking to connect with his instrument. And on the next cut, “Vaktsom,” he does, trilling bowed notes over the sound of the nearby ocean. Overtones overwhelm the sound of water as Hole seems propelled by his surroundings, reaching for some ecstatic state. That there’s about 80-minutes of the search seems to mean Hole found at least a modicum of comfort in the process. And hopefully, listeners can extract some sort of enlightenment from listening in on his investigation.

Clark Sommers’ Ba(SH)

(Outside In)

A bassist equally comfortable backing up vocalist Kurt Elling as he is occasionally performing alongside some of Chicago’s avant crowd and helming his groovier ensemble Lens, Clark Sommers coats post-bop with a veneer of 21st-century exceptionalism and adventure on Peninsula.

Recorded in 2017, four years after Ba(SH)’s first album was issued, the trio continues extolling the virtues of small groups, with Geof Bradfield’s tenor saxophone serving as the band’s propulsive lead, and drummer Dana Hall veering between swing and tracing the beat just beyond the lines.

The strongest tunes here are bookends for a few less-rewarding songs in the middle of the program; Bradfield’s a bit less convincing on soprano, leaving too much space for the trio to navigate. “Hope Dance,” though, benefits from the saxophonist’s dexterous and incandescent blowing, inspiring Sommers to go in on a solo that’s both more gratifying and melodic than other bassists might be able to summon.

While Peninsula serves to document a band two decades (and unfortunately only two albums) into its performing life, the recording also makes a point about Chicago and the players who call the city home. No matter how talented and well-credentialed Sommers, Bradfield and Hall are, they’re not necessarily the most visible players on the city’s scene. That’s how deep it is.

The Unknown New

(Self Release)

The Unknown New is more than just a platform for the original compositions and production talents of Chicago-based multi-instrumentalist Paul Mutzabaugh. The cross-genre ensemble—best described as equal parts chamber jazz, fusion and instrumental folk—is a guitar tour de force that showcases some of the Windy City’s strongest, and more melodically minded, players.

Inkflies, the group’s fourth CD, features Chris Siebold, Mike Pinto and Jim Tashjian on an arsenal of axes including lap steel, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, baritone guitar and synth guitar. Mutzabaugh, who plays electric bass and percussion throughout the album, provides background guitar parts (nylon string, acoustic, electric) as well. The resulting mosaic of guitar patterns, leads and improvisations entrances listeners and draws them deep into the Unknown New experience via tasty hooks, compelling solos and uplifting ostinatos. Drummer Jon Deitemeyer, a true artist behind the kit, runs a stylistic gamut, from easygoing swing to hushed balladry, to second-line snare-buzzing, to backbeat-driven rock grooves, to full-out explosions of crash cymbals, thundering toms and bass drum bombs. Percussionist Rich Stitzel adds subtle textures and not-so-subtle accents that put the finishing touch on Mutzabaugh’s delicately balanced arrangements. Three tracks are supplemented with tasteful drum loops, a light touch of production that lends Inkflies a contemporary-retro flavor.

“En Route To A Lost Lake” serves as a strong album opener with its catchy melody and Pinto’s crunchy, tremolo-laden electric guitar passages. Siebold makes the lap steel sing on “De Otro Mar,” a contemplative, dreamlike piece that conjures a sea of calm and features Tashjian on a soothing acoustic solo. Other highlights include the title track, which undergoes dramatic shifts in feel and dynamics, from light jazz waltz to slow-burn rocker and back again; “Me Sana El Fuego,” distinguished by its baritone guitar lead, funky prog-rock electric bass runs and brainy yet playful odd-meter stutter; and album closer “Velleity’s Charm,” with its exquisitely voiced chord/melody combinations and restrained, deliberate pacing. Upcoming performances by The Unknown New include a March 23 set at Elastic Arts in Chicago.

Jason Tiemann

(Self Release)

After logging time with the likes of Benny Golson, Dave Liebman, Michael Dease and Mike LeDonne, drummer Jason Tiemann had amassed a wealth of experiences upon which to draw when formulating his debut album as a leader. He opted to explore the rich tradition of the jazz organ trio, enlisting guitarist Ed Cherry and Hammond B-3 whiz Kyle Koehler for the project.

The 11-song program on T-Man includes five of the drummer’s compositions, but he offers relatively few solos, preferring to let Cherry or Koehler take the spotlight. On the trio’s smoldering rendition of Ahmad Jamal’s “Night Mist Blues,” Cherry unfurls a flurry of lines that would make a Pat Martino fan smile, and Koehler flexes his muscles with a solo that packs an emotional wallop. The trio excels at all tempos, whether it’s surging through a high-octane burner like Tiemann’s original tune “Tizzle’s Blues” or slowing things down on a reading of J.J. Johnson’s “Lament,” which features the leader’s fine, subtle brushwork.

Tiemann—who currently teaches at the University of Hartford after spending 12 years as a faculty member at the University of Louisville—brings a deep sense of jazz history to T-Man, choosing to interpret Kenny Dorham’s “Lotus Blossom,” Jerome Richardson’s “Groove Merchant” and Osvaldo Farrés’ “Tres Palabras.” Tiemann’s arrangements help the listener connect the past to the present in a meaningful, consistently entertaining manner.

Oded Tzur

Here Be Dragons

Centuries ago, the phrase “Here be dragons” was used by cartographers to designate mysterious and presumably dangerous portions of the globe, in part to explain why their maps offered no information, but mainly to warn off inexperienced travelers from those perilous parts. In the liner notes to his third album, Here Be Dragons, the Israeli-born saxophonist Oded Tzur offers a story in which he imagines the famed renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi on a journey bankrolled by Dutch cartographers to find those dragons; part parable, part shaggy dog tale, it ends with a koan: “There are no dragons, but here is a song.”

Tzur’s playing is a lot like that story of his, quietly fantastical and full of narrative feints. His tone is light and sweet, with a whispered airiness that’s enhanced by his preference for the tenor’s upper octaves. There’s a vocal quality to his phrasing on “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” the album’s only cover. But instead of Blue Hawaii Elvis, his version sounds like Art Garfunkel at his most angelic, making the tune seem more like a prayer than a love song.

On the ghostly opening to “20 Years,” his arcing lines occasionally sound like gusts of wind moaning through an old house. By contrast, when working off of the effervescent, Caribbean-tinged groove of “The Dream,” his playing becomes more liquid, his phrases bubbling and gurgling around the fluid pulse of bassist Petros Klampanis and drummer Johnathan Blake. In both cases, the quietude of his approach invites close attention.

Being both a jazz musician and a student of Indian classical music, Tzur’s approach to improvisation is by turns intriguing and mystifying. Apart from “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” the compositions here are “‘miniature ragas’ over a moving bass line,” according to Steve Lake’s liner notes. But unless you’re well-versed in the structural logic of raga playing, it’s hard to hear how that works out; more obvious are the expressive aspects of Tzur’s playing—arching slurs, slow glissandi and notes that sound as though they were bent not by Albert King but Salvador Dali. Easier to follow is Nitai Hershkovits’ piano, which offers elegantly tuneful melodies and lean, impressionist chords.

Still, it’s hard not to be drawn to an attractive mystery, and even if it’s not always obvious why Tzur plays what he plays, there’s no denying its power and beauty, with or without dragons.

Ben Perowsky/John Medeski/Chris Speed

(Self Release)

To most jazz listeners, the combination of B-3, tenor saxophone and drums spells “organ trio,” and reasonably so. Even when they’re sidemen, organists tend to dominate the sound of a small ensemble, the familiar purr-and-growl of the keyboard inevitably leading to an amicable vocabulary of blues licks and soul grooves.

And to be honest, there’s a fair amount of that on Upstream, even if organist John Medeski tastefully avoids the most obvious and timeworn tropes of organ jazz. Still, this isn’t an organ trio album in the end, because even at its most Leslied, Medeski’s sound invariably yields to the undeniable groove and articulation of drummer Ben Perowsky, whose playing ultimately defines Upstream.

With a resumé that runs the gamut from Mike Stern to Masada, and Rickie Lee Jones to Joan As Policewoman, Perowsky is clearly a versatile stickman. But what drives Upstream has less to do with his technical command than with his conceptual commitment. Whether through the itchy, edgy fatback behind the bruising blues of “Kanape” or the dreamy, suggestive pulse of “Meta,” Perowsky’s drumming both drives and directs the music, using his accents and spaces to coax the best out of his bandmates.

The sly, New Orleans-schooled groove of “Sidecar” boasts some awesomely funky interplay with Medeski on the intro. The tune’s true genius, though, is revealed as those intricate rhythms fold into the boppish phrasing of the head once Chris Speed’s tenor enters. As solid as the interplay between Perowsky and Medeski is, things go up a notch once the drummer starts reacting to the almost deferential grace of Speed’s laid-back tone and phrasing.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s “Worms,” a cartoonishly brisk number in which Speed’s clarinet and Medeski’s organ are first hurried along by Perowsky’s brushwork, then coaxed into classic swing when he switches to sticks, the pocket impeccable no matter how much the tempo varies. Taken together, these delightfully varied performances upend the expectations of organ jazz, even as they leave the listener hungry for more.

Lynne Arriale Trio

Chimes Of Freedom

Opening with “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” sets a pensive, but hopeful, tone as Lynne Arriale pours out emotion on the superbly plotted Chimes Of Freedom.

Turning in her 15th album as a leader, pianist Arriale continues working in a trio setting, this time splicing in drummer E.J. Strickland and bassist Jasper Somsen for her first band that straddles the Atlantic. But like her earlier work, Arriale exerts a series of tasteful flourishes and embellishments around each composition’s melody, touching on the blues for “The Whole Truth,” feeling out a gospel vibe on “Reunion” and delving into some vibrant swing and bop for “Journey.”

“[W]hat are all the colors that can go under a note that would make it work?” Arriale wondered in a September 2009 DownBeat story while discussing her writing process. “Then you have a huge palette to work from. It can take me a long time to write an arrangement, because I’m not thinking theoretically; I’m thinking, how does this sound? How does it feel when I listen to it?”

On “The Dreamers,” Strickland is so tastefully busy and full of playfulness that it’s easy to lose sight of how phenomenally Arriale’s leading her group, everything perfectly accented with behind-the-beat chording. The inclusion of vocalist K.J. Denhert on a pair of tunes by Bob Dylan and Paul Simon as Chimes Of Freedom comes to its conclusion cements the album’s theme of hope and an embrace of difference, even if sonically, it’s a bit of a distraction.

Kadri Voorand

In Duo With Mihkel Mälgand

An artist’s lyrics can affect how critics categorize their work. If lyrics are bubbly, critics might call it a pop song, but if the tale is depressing or gritty, then the track could get shuttled into a genre that has a stronger whiff of respectability, such as “adult alternative” or even “art song.” This dynamic comes to mind regarding the new album from Kadri Voorand, whose powerful pop music can be challenging—not only in terms of its arrangements, production techniques and shifting melodic lines but also because of its dark lyrics.

Her original tune “I’m Not In Love” opens with this couplet: “I’m in love with the roses you brought/ I’m not in love with you.” Her composition “What If I Did Kill You” expresses the protagonist’s intense feelings toward, perhaps, a lover. There’s also darkness in “Kättemaks,” the melody of which was written by Eeva Talsi with lyrics by Jaan Tätte. The song’s Estonian title means “Revenge,” and the lyrics, as translated by Mart Kalvet, seem to depict a lover’s explanation to an unfaithful partner. To exact some revenge for acts of serial infidelity, the protagonist recounts how she went down to the local tavern and “slept with everyone there.”

Voorand’s ambition and multifaceted artistry are on full display on In Duo With Mihkel Mälgand. She produced the album, composed most of its songs and contributed vocals, piano, kalimba, violin, glockenspiel and electronic effects. Mälgand, who had a hand in the production and some of the arrangements, plays acoustic and electric bass, cello, bass drum and percussion on the 12-song program. Voorand’s sonic palette includes wordless vocals, layered, multitracked singing and looped recordings of intakes of breath to craft a percussive element.

The most jazz-oriented tune is the original number “I Must Stop Eating Chocolate,” a two-minute track that initially seems banal and even a bit jokey. But the fourth verse moves into morose territory: “I’ll raise a glass of tears for you/ You’ve cooked my heart/ I’ll serve that, too.” Here, as she does elsewhere on the album, Voorand devises complex flavors by adding a bitter ingredient to cut the sweetness.

The Dave Liebman Group

(Whaling City Sound)

Typically, when we think of eco-conscious music, what we imagine is built around acoustic instruments. To some extent, we can credit this to the Paul Winter Consort’s “Earth Music” albums of the late ’60s and early ’70s, which used saxophone, flute, English horn and cello to articulate the composer’s intent. Those instruments were deemed more “natural” than electric guitars or synthesizers, even though the saxophone is very much a product of the industrial revolution, while the recording process itself is both technologically intensive and far from green.

All this came to mind while listening to The Dave Liebman Group’s Earth, an album that concludes the saxophonist’s Four Elements project (earlier entries include Water, with Pat Metheny, Cecil McBee and Billy Hart; Air, with synthesist Walter Quintus; and Fire, with Kenny Werner, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette). Here, Liebman takes the opposite approach to expressing the natural wonders of the world, emphasizing the textural possibilities of digital and electronic sound over the traditional sonorities of wind and strings. “I am the lone acoustic instrument juxtaposing the old and the new (with the drums in the same time zone),” he writes in the liner notes.

It’s not an obvious strategy, but it works—not because the music evokes specific landscapes or seasons, either. Rather than take a programmatic approach like, say, Ferde Grofé’s “Grand Canyon Suite,” Liebman’s band opts instead to use the breadth of its sonic palette to reflect the enormous variety of our earth. “Earth Theme,” then, conveys its sense of vastness by contrasting Liebman’s soprano against the heaviness of Tony Marino’s electric bass while Bobby Avey’s wispy, white-noise synths wash over the ensemble like ethereal mist. “Volcano/Avalanche” uses electronics to blur the tonal center of Matt Vashlishan’s wind synthesizer and Avey’s keys, while a different effect scrambles the sound of Marino’s bass, making it sometimes hard to tell up from down with the harmony. And the high point of “Concrete Jungle” comes in an improvised exchange between Liebman and Vashlishan in which the saxophonist reacts not just to the notes the synthesist is playing, but also the instrument’s shape-shifting textures.

Jazz certainly would benefit from more creative uses of digital and electronic instruments.

Chet Baker

The Legendary Riverside Albums

This deluxe five-LP box set presents Chet Baker’s recorded output as a leader for the Riverside label between 1958 and 1959, a fruitful period when the West Coast-based trumpeter and vocalist was teaming up with some of the finest New York jazz musicians of the day—before his personal struggles began getting him into serious trouble.

Cool prevails on this collection, which brings together the four Baker albums released on Riverside, plus a fifth disc of outtakes and alternate takes from his sessions with the label. Baker’s best vocal work is highlighted on his Riverside debut, (Chet Baker Sings) It Could Happen To You, where he stamps his own personal style on swinging standards and ballads like “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” “I’m Old Fashioned,” “Everything Happens To Me,” “How Long Has This Been Going On?” and the title track. Baker’s capacity for serious bebopping comes to light on “Fair Weather,” the opening track of 1959’s Chet Baker In New York, where he’s backed by a stellar lineup of Philly Joe Jones on drums, tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin, Al Haig on piano and bassist Paul Chambers.

The 1959 all-instrumental outing Chet focuses on ballads and features pianist Bill Evans, guitarist Kenny Burrell, flutist Herbie Mann and baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams in a program of sparsely arranged standards like “Alone Together,” “It Never Entered My Mind” and “September Song.” Adams, Evans and Mann return—with the addition of saxophonist Zoot Simms—for Baker’s final Riverside album, 1959’s Chet Baker Plays The Best Of Lerner And Loewe, consisting of material from the Broadway shows My Fair Lady, Gigi, Brigadoon and Paint Your Wagon.

The reissued albums in this box set were cut from their original analog master tapes and pressed on 180-gram vinyl, a hallmark of Craft Recordings, a catalog label known for its thoughtfully curated packages and meticulous devotion to quality. The Legendary Riverside Albums includes a 16-page booklet filled with photos and insightful new liner notes by jazz historian Doug Ramsey. In addition to vinyl, the complete collection is also available digitally in hi-res 192kHz/24-bit and 96kHz/24-bit formats.

Majid Bekkas

Magic Spirit Quartet

What puts the magic in multi-instrumentalist Majid Bekkas’ Magic Spirit Quartet is the trance-like power of Moroccan gnawa music. Originally developed to accompany night-long ecstatic ceremonies to call down spirits, the music possesses a rhythmic depth and emotional resonance analogous to Santería music in Cuba. But where the Cuban tradition is built on the power of drums, gnawa centers on the droning drive of stringed instruments, particularly the oud and the bass-like guembri.

Bekkas, who was born and raised in Salé, Morocco, plays both, but it’s the guembri that matters most here. It’s the guembri’s twangy, restlessly propulsive bass line that dominates “Bania,” not only working in counterpoint against Bekkas’ vocal and Goran Kajfeš’ electric trumpet, but setting up an interesting friction with trap drummer Stefan Pasborg, whose playing keeps the stress on “one,” while Bekkas’ line emphasizes “two.”

Of course, traditional Moroccan music doesn’t use drum kits, much less electric trumpet, but that’s where a different sort of magic comes into play. Although Bekkas still lives in Salé, his Magic Spirit Quartet is based in Scandinavia, where Kajfeš, Pasborg, and keyboardist Jesper Nordenström live. Likewise, although the songs stick fairly close to traditional structures, with Bekkas’ guembri defining the pulse, while his vocals work a call-and-response dynamic with Kajfeš’ horn, the tracks themselves tend to expand along fusion lines, with lengthy, over-dub friendly groove sections affording the chance to stretch out and dive deeper into the music’s rhythmic core.

That said, there’s surprisingly little dilution of the music’s essential flavor. Obviously, Bekkas’ strength as a leader accounts for some of that, as his is the sort of voice—both vocally and instrumentally—that isn’t easily watered down. But Kajfeš, whose family emigrated to Sweden from Bosnia, seems utterly at home with the Arabic modalities of gnawa, and more than holds his own with the bandleader, particularly on the dramatic, entrancing “Mrhaba.”

Jen Curtis & Tyshawn Sorey

Invisible Ritual
(Tundra/New Focus)

Violin’s been used in jazz and its adjacent musics since the genre’s inception.

But in 2019, a couple of string-centric releases featuring Jenny Scheinman, as well as Wonderment—a collective recording by fiddler Zach Brock, bassist Matt Ulery and drummer Jon Deitemyer—displayed vibrant contemporary contexts for the instrument, settings that point toward the violin’s continued vitality in jazz.

Violinist Jen Curtis and drummer Tyshawn Sorey lean heavily toward the experimental on Invisible Ritual, with Sorey switching to piano during a few choice moments. Amid the exploratory fervor that comprises most of the recording, the duo swings on “IV,” a tune with Curtis double stopping and Sorey ineffably moving through sections of tumult to displays of nuanced ethereality. Here, Curtis, who’s also a member of the International Contemporary Ensemble, displays folkloric bona fides, pulling out spindly melodic lines that put the instrument’s history into focus.

On “VI,” the duo sounds more meditative with Sorey returning to the piano. It’s during moments like these that the two seem to be accessing a classical vision for the album, as opposed to some more aggro strain of improv. It’s not as if they’ve gone and scored a bunch of music, but the effortlessness of their playing certainly would make that assumption a reasonable one.


The Storm Sessions
(Beyond Beyond Is Beyond)

The guitar duo Elkhorn, which is joined by multi-instrumentalist Turner Williams on its fifth studio outing, always has aimed to balance the folksy ideal of American Primitive guitar with the agency of ’60s psych stunners.

Despite inevitable John Fahey references, the band’s carved out a corner of the psych world whose audience seems up for a very specific strain of improvisation. And while Elkhorn is meditating on a theme across its discography, the band seemingly has more to excavate on The Storm Sessions.

The album—split into “Electric One” and “Electric Two,” each with parts designated “A” through “C”—finds the band holed up in a Harlem apartment during a winter storm. The slow build of “Electric Two,” as opposed to the more pastoral opening half of The Storm Sessions, benefits from Williams’ shahi baaja (a sort of electric Indian zither with keys added to it). Contributing to the insistent tension, he pushes Jesse Sheppard on 12-string acoustic and Drew Gardner on standard electric into racy exclamations.

But none of this really has anything to do with “soulful cosmic jazz,” as a press release would lead listeners to believe. Instead, it’s the impromptu jamming of three friends who all have the chops to match their varied tastes—a rangy collection of folk, blues, rock and improv.

“We don’t do pastiche,” Gardner told DownBeat last year about Elkhorn’s previous recording, Sun Cycle/Elk Jam (Feeding Tube). “We just have certain things we like and we respond to emotionally. And our way of getting a unique sound is based on just trying to play the most sincere thing that we can think of.”

It’s an admirable pursuit, one that’s yielded music worth tossing on whether you’re stuck inside this winter or just need some enthusiastic reinvestigations of psych-indebted guitar moves.

Big Band of Brothers

A Jazz Celebration Of The Allman Brothers Band
(New West)

Albums offering jazz renditions of rock songs are commonplace nowadays, so the element of surprise has faded. But A Jazz Celebration Of The Allman Brothers Band is an accomplishment of a higher order. This is a collection of smart arrangements of classic jam-band material with a sturdy blues foundation crafted for a 15-piece big band.

A central figure for this project is drummer, producer and jazz educator Mark Lanter, who has played in the Allman Brothers tribute band Eat A Peach. Also key to the proceedings is trumpeter, jazz educator and New South Jazz Orchestra founder Shane Porter, who doesn’t appear on the album, but he contributed four arrangements, including a brilliant rendition of Dickey Betts’ “Les Brers In A Minor” (which appeared on the Allmans’ classic 1972 album, Eat A Peach).

Four guest artists add credibility and spice to the 63-minute program: Blues/Americana star Ruthie Foster delivers powerful lead vocals on “It’s Not My Cross To Bear” and “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’”; Louisiana-bred singer-songwriter Marc Broussard takes the mic for “Whipping Post” and “Statesboro Blues”; Wycliffe Gordon wrote the arrangement for the latter tune and delivers a sturdy soprano trombone solo to “Don’t Want You No More”; and Jack Pearson, who was in the Allman Brothers Band from 1997–’99, injects some potent electric slide guitar work to “Stand Back.”

Elsewhere, trombonist Chad Fisher supplies an ethereal, beautiful solo to “Dreams,” one of three tracks arranged by guitarist Tom Wolfe.

Overall, this album provides a new prism through which to appreciate the music of an iconic band, many of whose founding members are no longer with us, including guitarist Duane Allman (1946–’71), vocalist/keyboardist Gregg Allman (1947–2017), bassist Berry Oakley (1948–’72) and drummer Butch Trucks (1947–2017).

Theo Hill

Reality Check

The third album from Theo Hill issued through Marc Free’s Posi-Tone imprint is something of a departure for the pianist.

Though Hill returns with a rhythm section drawn from his earlier releases—bassist Rashaan Carter and drummer Mark Whitfield Jr.—Reality Check expands the bandleader’s palette by adding in vibes, provided by the seemingly omnipresent Joel Ross.

The quartet recording (Hill’s previous Posi-Tone outings were trio affairs) also finds the composer more frequently engaging an electric context for his work. Granted, tracks like “Retrograde,” off 2018’s Interstellar Adventures, find the pianist’s band treading territory first covered by ’70s groove-oriented players. But “Swell,” “Superwoman” and “Song Of The Wind,” all from this latest effort, see Hill combining his penchant for classic straightahead material with some funkier offerings.

That Ross is onboard, adding another voice and well of expression, only suits the bandleader’s writing—roomy enough for two melodic instruments and taut enough for moments of focused investigation. On “Guardians Of Light,” the pianist’s insistent left hand grants his right generous backing to take flight, as Carter exerts an electrified tone. It’s a contemplative mode, one that shifts across Reality Check’s 10 tracks, moving from charged moments of musicality to calmness and easy elegance.

Nick Finzer

Cast Of Characters
(Outside In)

When releasing a narrative album without vocals, many artists include extensive liner notes that explain the story. Trombonist Nick Finzer takes a different tact on Cast Of Characters. The album cover features Laura Reyero’s colorful illustrations of six characters, at least two of whom are real-life figures: Brutus (the Roman senator who helped assassinate Julius Caesar) and Duke Ellington (dubbed “A Duke” here). Instead of describing a narrative arc, the album packaging includes a short essay that begins, “Each of us responds and develops along our journey with the influence of people we meet along our path.” On the interior CD panels, the 14 tracks are divided into two categories: “The Cast” and “The Journey,” inviting listeners to view some songs as biographical sketches and others as plot points.

Looking closely at the back cover of the CD, listeners learn that certain “Journey” songs are associated with specific characters, so the sophisticated swinger “A Duke” is followed by the thrilling “(Take The) Fork In The Road,” the title of which might nod to Ellington’s “Take The ‘A’ Train.”

While these narrative and graphic elements add levels of meaning to the listening experience, the music is strong enough to stand on its own. The quality of this sterling recording is no surprise, given the credentials of producer Ryan Truesdell and the impressive cast of musicians that Finzer assembled: Lucas Pino (reeds), Alex Wintz (guitar), Glenn Zaleski (piano), Dave Baron (bass) and Jimmy Macbride (drums).

“Patience, Patience” dramatically builds to an explosive climax in which all the players, especially Wintz, are hurling clusters of sparks. “Evolution Of Perspective” features kinetic solos from both Finzer and Zaleski, sandwiched between intoxicating segments in which languid horn charts are juxtaposed with Macbride’s skittering drum work.

Finzer, who runs a label and media company called Outside in Music, had the recording sessions filmed, and at press time had posted three clips of live-in-the-studio performances, including “The Guru,” featuring Pino’s potent work on bass clarinet. These videos add yet another layer to our appreciation of this exquisite program.

John Bailey

Can You Imagine?
(Freedom Road)

With another election year upon us, trumpeter John Bailey recognizes that the time for a unifying candidate has come: Dizzy Gillespie. Playing off the maestro’s witty 1964 presidential campaign (during which the trumpeter imagined a cabinet that, among other jazz luminaries, included Duke Ellington as Secretary of State), Bailey is inspired by the very real issues Gillespie faced during the Civil Rights era and, in assembling this response, how much more work there is to do.

Given that kind of mission, it’s no surprise that the record’s immediate standout is the three-part “President Gillespie Suite.” In addition to providing a platform for Bailey’s taut runs, the piece builds out of a sauntering groove from drummer Victor Lewis before giving way to a growling turn from bass trombonist Earl McIntyre that clears a path for each player to move toward a harmonious and increasingly raucous statement. Later, Bailey pays tribute to Gillespie’s rechristened seat of power with “The Blues House,” a hard-swung venture marked by a zig-zagging turn from trombonist Stafford Hunter.

But Dizzy isn’t Bailey’s only running mate. The simmering “Ballad From Oro, Incienso Y Mirra” by Chico O’Farrill is drawn from a live 2016 date with the late composer’s son, Arturo, benefiting from Edsel Gomez’s buoyant piano. “Valsa Rancho,” a tune written by Brazilian guitarist Chico Buarque, travels at a more contemplative pace, girded by Janet Axelrod’s murmured flute melody before venturing toward brighter corners led by saxophonist Stacy Dillard.

Though inspired by contemplation of scant changes since Dizzy’s day, Bailey has delivered a collection driven by the pursuit of light. That’s a campaign anyone can get behind.

Various Artists

If You’re Going To The City: A Tribute To Mose Allison
(Fat Possum)

Back in the day, some of the best playlists were curated by record store clerks who made their own cassettes. Nowadays, some of the best playlists are generated using artificial intelligence and data analytics. One thing that was true decades ago and remains so today is that the various-artists tribute album can be a wondrous source of musical variety. Any playlist that has artists like Iggy Pop, Chrissie Hynde, Richard Thompson, Loudon Wainwright III, Frank Black and Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite on it is sure to generate attention. But when you take that talented lineup and ask them all to sing compositions by eccentric jazz and blues singer/pianist Mose Allison (1927–2016), the result is an intoxicating treat.

On If You’re Going To The City: A Tribute To Mose Allison, the lyrics alone are worth the price of admission. Taj Mahal gently growls, “If silence was golden, you couldn’t raise a dime/ Because your mind is on vacation and your mouth is working overtime” (“Your Mind Is On Vacation”). And Fiona Apple croons, “Your cellular organization is really something choice/ Electromagnetism ’bout to make me lose my voice/ Got all my circuits open” (“Your Molecular Structure”).

Throughout the program, a variety of keyboardists have the honor and unenviable task of saluting Allison’s playing style, whether it’s former Heartbreaker Benmont Tench plinking out a piano riff behind Apple, Neil Larsen adding B-3 organ coloration to Jackson Browne’s reading of “If You Live” or David Witham adding poignant, funky keyboard work to Chrissie Hynde’s version of “Stop This World.” Elsewhere, Mike Finnigan’s piano adds fluid beauty to Bonnie Raitt’s terrific 2017 concert rendition of “Everybody’s Crying Mercy.”

Produced by Sheldon Gomberg and Don Heffington, the album concludes with “Monsters Of The Id,” a duet featuring Elvis Costello and the honoree’s daughter, Amy Allison. Piano work on that track was provided by Mose himself.

The Fat Possum label has packaged this CD in a two-disc set that includes a DVD of Paul Bernays’ 2005 documentary Mose Allison: Ever Since I Stole The Blues. The film includes some admirers who don’t appear on the album, including Pete Townsend, Van Morrison, Keb’ Mo’ and Ben Sidran.

Eric Alexander

Eric Alexander With Strings

Thanks, no doubt, to the precedent-setting sweetness of Charlie Parker With Strings, there’s an expectation that any pairing of a saxophonist and a string section will result in something ballad-heavy and lush. Obviously, there have been exceptions—Joshua Redman’s recent Sun On Sand being an obvious example. But Eric Alexander With Strings plays delightfully to type, with tempos slow and sultry, and plenty of minor-key melodies.

Even so, the album never sounds like a throwback, in part because Dave Rivello’s arrangements rely as much on the rhythm section as the strings, but mostly because Alexander understands that the sweet, sustained string harmonies are more effective if they stand in contrast to the muscular insistence of the saxophone. As such, his tenor tone remains big and punchy, while his solos retain the hard-bop aggression of his combo recordings. Even the dreamy “The Thrill Is Gone,” immortalized on the 1954 album Chet Baker Sings, takes on a bit of edge when Alexander tosses the melody aside and works over the changes in his gruff, slow-burning solo. The strings might still whisper sweetly, but Alexander and his band (particularly drummer Joe Farnsworth) have work to do.

Traditionally, “with strings” albums are heavy on standards, and here, too, Alexander follows the formula while slyly tweaking it. Perhaps the only immediately recognizable tune on With Strings is Leonard Bernstein’s wistful sigh of regret, “Some Other Time,” which Alexander plays against type, taking an upbeat, bop approach to the groove that brings out the harmonic genius of Bernstein’s chords. But Alexander makes a strong case for the others as overlooked gems, particularly Henry Mancini’s moody, Latin-inflected “Slow, Hot Wind,” and “Lonely Woman”—not the Ornette Coleman lament, but a sweet, mournful Horace Silver number that’s ideally suited to the plangent luster of Alexander’s ballad tone.

One area in which Alexander could have been a little less traditional is the album’s playing time, which at roughly 37 minutes is fine for an LP, but seems a bit miserly in digital format. Still, the listening experience is so opulent that even a little bit feels like a lot, a sonic luxury to be savored at leisure.

Dave Specter

Blues From The Inside Out

A middle-aged dog can learn new tricks. This is evidenced by veteran bluesman Dave Specter’s latest release, Blues From The Inside Out.

For the first time in his long career, the string-bending, flame-throwing guitarist emerges as a lead vocalist, taking charge of three tunes here. The muscular “How Low Can One Man Go?” is certain to get a response from crowds. With lyrics that reference the highest office in the land, a casino, bankruptcy, bone spurs and “telling lie after lie,” the tune is an angry jab at President Donald Trump. The song is delivered as a pent-up sentiment that Specter felt obligated to express.

On this program made up of nearly all his own compositions, Specter surrounds himself with an ace team. His frequent collaborator Brother John Kattke (who also plays organ and piano) delivers potent vocals on four cuts. Sarah Marie Young offers an engaging, nuanced lead vocal on the standout track “Wave’s Gonna Come,” a powerful composition by William Brichta. Additionally, the legendary Jorma Kaukonen plays guitar on two tracks, including “The Blues Ain’t Nothin’,” which he co-wrote with Specter.

The instrumental numbers pack a punch, too: There’s a Santana flavor to “Minor Shout,” and a Meters/Neville Brothers vibe to “Sanctifunkious.” The inspiring “March Through The Darkness,” sung by Kattke, owes an artistic debt to Mavis Staples. Specter shows his witty side with “Opposites Attract,” a tale about interpersonal relationships (a key topic for many blues artists, of course).

By recruiting the Liquid Soul Horns for three tracks and percussionist Ruben Alvarez for three tracks, Specter demonstrates that his version of the blues embraces influences from various genres. Longtime fans will find plenty of sturdy material to dig into here, including the leader’s newfound role as a vocalist. Another hat Specter wears is that of a podcaster, hosting a monthly show also titled Blues From The Inside Out.

Andrés Vial

Gang Of Three
(Chromatic Audio)

Montreal-based pianist Andrés Vial gained considerable attention and acclaim for his 2018 quartet outing, Andrés Vial Plays Thelonious Monk: Sphereology Vol. 1. With subsequent volumes of Sphereology in the works, Vial has decided to continue documenting his own development as a composer with the release of his fifth album as a leader, Gang Of Three, a trio date featuring nine original compositions recorded in a single session last April.

Joining Vial are bassist Dezron Douglas, who returns from the Sphereology sessions with his beautifully resonating acoustic sound, and drummer Eric McPherson, a new collaborator who fuels the intensity of the music without overpowering it. Vial, who studied jazz drums during his formative years, takes a percussive approach to the keyboard, using just enough touch to bring a melody to the forefront or finessing his attack to coax darker tonal shades from the piano. Vial’s inner drummer emerges in a couple of tunes built upon polymetric/polyrhythmic concepts: “Chacarera Para Wayne” is an intriguing piece that’s based on a northern Argentinian folk dance, and “Put Your Spikes In” draws inspiration from a central African Gbaya folk song (“Ba-di-heim-ha-naa-dai”).

Other highlights include album opener “Atonggaga Blues,” a 12-bar blues in 7/4 that establishes an exploratory vibe; the playful “Gang Of Three,” with its funky New Orleans feel and stylistic references to the work of pianists Monk, Bud Powell and Elmo Hope; “Montaigne,” which rides a shifting samba groove through an unsettling terrain of harmonic ambiguity; and the finale, “Cascadas,” whose descending chord melody sounds like a musical waterfall.

Charles Lloyd Quartet

Montreux Jazz Festival 1967 (Swiss Radio Days Jazz Series 46)
(The Montreux Jazz Label)

Saxophonist Charles Lloyd is renowned for fearlessly reinventing himself to explore some recently discovered facet of his personality and art.

A few years after his final recording in the band of drummer Chico Hamilton and the same year as the saxophonist’s Forest Flower was released, Lloyd took a star-studded ensemble to the Montreux Jazz Festival. Vividly depicting a band that was functioning at its peak, Montreux Jazz Festival 1967 (Swiss Radio Days Jazz Series 46) serves to fill out listeners’ understanding of Lloyd’s work with pianist Keith Jarrett and drummer Jack DeJohnette. (Ron McClure’s on bass, though Cecil McBee frequently accompanied the saxophonist at the time.)

But the bandleader’s decision to include “Lady Gabor,” which originally appeared on a Hamilton disc Lloyd helped record, is just curious given that he had decades of the genre to pick through for inspiration. Lloyd and guitarist Gabor Szabo, who wrote the tune, got their start performing in the relatively unheralded Hamilton groups of the 1960s. And while Szabo dispatched a handful of pretty memorable Technicolor leader dates, there haven’t been too many folks who’ve interpreted his songbook.

The live 1967 recording—which sports a 27-minute rendition of “Forest Flower,” replete with an intense DeJohnette drum solo—lends an air of relevance to the Hungarian guitarist’s work almost 40 years after his death. The rendition here is all entrancing flute moves from the bandleader and blocky chords from Jarrett, adding a contemplative vibe to a set of tunes that also takes a run at the pianist’s “Days And Nights Waiting,” and Lloyd’s “Love Ship” and “Sweet Georgia Bright.”

Tim Ray

Excursions And Adventures
(Whaling City Sound)

For a lot of jazz fans, the interest in this album will lie more with the side players than the leader, and fair enough. Tim Ray is a talented and accomplished pianist, but because much of his career has been spent playing behind pop artists—Lyle Lovett, most notably, but also Aretha Franklin, Bonnie Raitt and Jane Siberry—his name is less likely to ring bells than the names of drummer Teri Lynne Carrington or bassist John Patitucci. And to be honest, listening to Carrington and Patitucci mix it up on tracks like the angular, funky “Messiaen’s Gumbo” is one of this album’s greater pleasures.

But don’t take that to mean that this is in any way a lopsided trio, because Ray is more than capable of holding up his end. For one thing, he’s a remarkably rhythmic player, someone who doesn’t simply work a groove, but strengthens and intensifies it. “Nothing From Nothing,” the Billy Preston chestnut that opens the album, is full of bluesy harmony and left-hand-driven gospel flourishes, and it’s a joy to hear the bandleader cut loose. But it’s his comping behind Patitucci’s electric bass solo that really seals the deal, laying down a second layer of funk against Carrington’s already authoritative groove.

There’s a similar sense of rhythmic abandon to their take of The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black,” a tune so well suited to jazz reinterpretation that it’s almost a shock to realize that it has hardly been done before. But it’s not just the trio’s sense of groove that makes it work; it’s also because they’re more than happy to stretch the harmony to its limits. The aforementioned “Messiaen’s Gumbo” is a case in point, a Patitucci composition that combines Crescent City funk with harmonic ideas derived from composer Olivier Messiaen’s modes of limited transposition. Opening with a fatback duet between drums and bass, it’s eloquently funky, but also nicely dissonant, thanks to the way Ray’s piano pushes the chords further and further from the tonic, as if Dr. John were momentarily possessed by Craig Taborn.

Thelonious Monk’s “Trinkle Tinkle” is equally playful, thanks to a conversational approach that underscores the composition’s wit, while Franz Lehar’s “Yours Is My Heart Alone” evokes the classic Bill Evans trio, both in its swinging interplay and pellucid approach to harmony.

Works For Me

Reach Within

Works For Me, a Posi-Tone organized ensemble of next-generation players, opens its first full-length album with a Joe Henderson tune from 1963 and ends on a Stevie Wonder cover that’s a bit too pumped full of sucrose for what most listeners might need—or want.

Stuffed between those tracks, though, is the straighahead work of an emerging group that’s looking to keep jazz from becoming an anachronism while investigating their own day-to-day lives.

Pianist Caili O’Doherty’s “Salt And Vinegar”—seemingly a paean to a delicious potato chip—reflects the collective ensemble’s relative youth and playfulness, as Alexa Tarantino’s soprano saxophone solo bumps up against the writer’s hard-swinging feature. “Lake Sebago” nods to bucolic escapes in Maine as it benefits from Tarantino’s alto flute intoning deep lines that weave in and out of guitarist Tony Davis’ melodic bedding. It’s one of two compositions the guitarist contributes here, the other being the much bluesier “El Gran Birane.”

The one player who might be considered a veteran here is Joe Strasser, a drummer who started contributing to recordings by Sam Yahel and Ken Fowser during the late ’90s. Strasser and bassist Adi Meyerson enable the group to explore and display the personalities of all involved as the five-piece band merges sketches of 21st-century life with an ennobling 100-year-old tradition.

Simone Baron & Arco Belo

The Space Between Disguises
(Self Release)

As longtime readers know, the motto that appears on the cover of DownBeat is “Jazz, Blues & Beyond.” The phrase includes that third word as an umbrella term, which applies to music that isn’t easy to categorize. “Beyond” is similar to “world music”: Both terms are intentionally broad, and both could be used to describe the work of pianist/accordionist Simone Baron, who recently released The Space Between Disguises, the debut album by her band Arco Belo. In the album’s liner notes, Baron describes her work, writing, “I thank you for joining me and my genre-queer ensemble as we dance in the spaces between jazz, chamber music, and folk tunes from around the globe.”

This is music that might appeal to, say, fans of banjoist Béla Fleck’s collaborations with bassist Edgar Meyer and tabla player Zakir Hussain, or perhaps Meyer’s genre-fluid work with cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Arco Belo features Baron alongside bassist Michael Pope, drummer Lucas Ashby, percussionist Patrick Graney and a string section: Aaron Malone (violin, viola), Bill Neri (viola) and Peter Kibbe (cello). On the infectious track “Who Cares,” the core players are joined by tabla player Sandeep Das and Americana multi-instrumentalist Mark Schatz, who contributes banjo and bass. The result is an accordion-fueled musical stew that’s as tasty as it is hard to define.

The album’s centerpiece is the 12-minute “Passive Puppeteer,” which feels like a suite due to its dramatic pauses and intriguing section breaks. This musical journey finds the leader delivering memorable piano lines, as well as improvised runs on the accordion. Pope pumps up the proceedings with his electric bass work, and there are touches of the avant-garde that never descend into the harshly dissonant.

The program consists mainly of Baron’s original compositions, and although she generally doesn’t traffic in deep, repetitious grooves, the music has an inviting, accessible quality that will appeal to many big-eared listeners. Toward the end of the program is a trio of works that allow Baron to flex her muscles as an arranger, as she transforms jazz pianist Walter Bishop Jr.’s “Those Who Chant” (a tune he recorded on 1978’s Cubicle) into a piece that has a flavor akin to Aaron Copland’s work. That tune is followed by the bandleader’s arrangement of pianist/accordionist Tibor Fittel’s “Valsa,” parts of which are so lovely and gentle they could be slotted into the score of an animated Disney movie.

Baron’s creative aesthetic is illustrated nicely by “Buciumeana/Kadynja,” which merges Béla Bartok’s reading of a Romanian folk tune with a traditional melody of Moldovan origin. Overall, listeners who seek to explore far-flung musical vistas might want to stamp their passport for a border-hopping trip with Arco Belo.

Brian Shankar Adler

Fourth Dimension

Brian Shankar Adler doesn’t so much lead his band from behind the kit as he guides them to a place where all involved feel emboldened to break through perceived limitations of the genre.

The drummer, who as a child spent time living at a New York-state ashram, solders together contemporary ideas and at least passing references to Gary Burton’s electric ensembles from the 1960s on Fourth Dimension, Adler’s seventh date as a leader. There’s a healthy dose of Indian classical music throughout, which could be attributed either to the bandleader’s time at the Shree Muktananda Ashram, where silent meditation was on tap, or simply his interest in percussion. And while the drummer’s an affiliate of the Brooklyn Raga Massive, the music on Fourth Dimension hues toward the personal, as cuts named “Gowanus” and “Watertown” sit next to “Mantra” and “Rudram.”

“Windy Path,” a low-key, contemplative excursion, might sit most comfortably with the jazz designation, piano and vibes out front and guitar in a supportive role as Adler gently urges on the quintet. It’s a minor mood, one that serves as a ballast to some of the more outré fare here. But even as “Gowanus” revels in its experimentalist tendencies—some backward tape moves and shreddy guitar contributing to the vibe—Adler’s ensemble looks to combine jazz’s history, the bandleader’s childhood experiences and the music’s increasingly global resolve.

William Hooker

Symphonie Of Flowers

“Freedom Rider,” the second cut on veteran drummer William Hooker’s Symphonie Of Flowers, likely was intended to invoke Art Blakey as much as civil-rights activists. Of course, Blakey was both.

But on this album—just as he has done through decades of abstract and poignant work with folks situated in the jazz and rock worlds—Hooker uses history to enliven a suite of music that bounds through subgenres and percussive ideas, tying together philosophy and sentiment in a way that generations of players have aimed for, but few have achieved. Is it broadly palatable? Probably not. But neither were the machinations of pianist Cecil Taylor, and we’re not likely to forget about him any time soon.

The bandleader opens the disc with “Chain Gangs,” and wraps up the program with “Hieroglyphics,” which judders with gravelly synthesizer, freely blown saxophone and snippets of piano and flute, as well as Hooker’s percussive acrobatics. Points between—“Rastafarian,” with its new-music lilt and fiery drums display, or “Jazz,” which seems to posit the freer history of the music as the line to follow—serve to fill out Hooker’s perspective on the genre’s development alongside bits of social commentary.

More drum features crop up on Symphonie than listeners are going to find on most other jazz-related discs. And sometimes it’s actually a handful of drummers—Warren Smith, Michael Thompson, Marc Edwards and Hooker—blasting away, while players switch to keyboards and summon jagged snatches of melody to color Hooker’s dramatic suite.

Adrian Cunningham & His Friends

Play Lerner & Loewe

The leader clearly had a famous precedent in mind when he recorded his new album, Adrian Cunningham & His Friends Play Lerner & Loewe. Cunningham, an Australian reedist now based in New York, has crafted a gem in the spirit of 1956’s Shelly Manne & His Friends’ Modern Jazz Performances Of Songs From ‘My Fair Lady.’ For that vintage, influential recording, the lineup was a trio: Manne (drums), André Previn (piano) and Leroy Vinnegar (bass). But Cunningham pursues a broader sonic palette here: He recruited Fred Hersch’s acclaimed, namesake trio—featuring bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson—to join him in the core unit, and he invited trumpeter Randy Brecker and trombonist Wycliffe Gordon to play on a few tracks.

Whereas Manne focused on a single musical by the powerhouse duo of lyricist Alan Jay Lerner (1918–’86) and composer Frederick Loewe (1901–’88), Cunningham dives into showtunes not only from My Fair Lady (“Just You Wait,” “The Rain In Spain” and “I Could Have Danced All Night”), but also from Gigi, Camelot, Brigadoon and Paint Your Wagon. Along with this Cunningham album, Arbors Records simultaneously released another, related disc: a duo project by Dick Hyman (piano) and Ken Peplowski (clarinet, tenor saxophone) titled Counterpoint Lerner & Loewe.

The program on Cunningham’s work—a mixture of written charts and improvisation—showcases the bandleader’s skills on saxophone, clarinet and flute. This straightahead jazz gem also reveals the adventurous streak of a bandleader who seeks to bend, dissect and reconstruct showtunes in a new way, with fresh ideas and unexpected tempos. When Gordon unleashes some grease and growl on “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “I Was Born Under A Wand’rin’ Star,” the band transports the material from the Broadway stage to a smoky jazz club.

Fans of Hersch’s trio albums likely won’t be disappointed with this sparkling, nuanced program. The intertwining of Hersch’s poignant piano lines and Cunningham’s tender clarinet work on the ballad “The Heather On The Hill” epitomizes sophistication and grace.

Nick Fraser/Kris Davis/Tony Malaby

(Astral Spirits)

Drummer Nick Fraser is a longtime staple of the Toronto jazz scene—and for good reason. Not only is he a tremendously creative player, equally at home with free-form improvisation and standard bop-style jazz, he’s also a remarkably attentive listener. It’s that latter quality, his ability to grasp and support what other improvisors are doing, that sets the tone for Zoning, the second album by his trio with pianist Kris Davis and saxophonist Tony Malaby.

Actually, “trio” is a bit of a misnomer here, as Fraser, Davis and Malaby are joined by saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and trumpeter Lina Allemano on half the album. The very first thing we hear on the title track is a squeaky, percussive figure played by Laubrock that quickly establishes both a pulse and a dynamic, as she and Malaby duet conversationally. A little more than a minute in, Allemano enters, growling. She offers an angular legato line that contrasts nicely against the short, near-staccato note clusters of the saxophones, and Fraser enters not long after, his snare and tambourine so understated that it takes a moment to register what they are.

After Davis comes in, the horns fade, and she and Fraser perform a clattering duet that will remind some listeners of pianist Cecil Taylor and drummer Andrew Cyrille. Then the horns return, taking the tune to its peak by working off a phrase that’s repeated at differing tempos, like a pot brought to a boil and then cooled. It’s an amazing fusion of composition structure and improvisational freedom, made all the more compelling by the deeply simpatico playing of these five musicians.

In fact, each selection on the album has its own compositional logic and improvisational surprises. The thrumming, clattering “Events” is full of rhythmic cross-currents that show off Fraser’s and Davis’ strengths, yet still showcase Malaby’s searing emotion on tenor.

“Sketch 46,” by contrast, gets by on the barest hint of a pulse, as the horns—Allemano, most notably—use nonstandard techniques to expand their sonic palettes. Yet no matter how abstract the group’s sound gets, there’s always a sense of unity and structure to the music, the sort of thing that only comes from time spent learning from and listening to each other.

Johnny Griffin/Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis

Ow! Live At The Penthouse
(Reel To Real)

Back in the early ’60s, when tenor saxophonists Johnny Griffin and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis teamed up to record a series of albums, they were dubbed the “Tough Tenors,” no doubt in appreciation of the rough-and-tumble nature of their dueling solos. But when I first heard them, courtesy of a Prestige “two-for” package released a decade later, what struck me about their blues-inflected interplay wasn’t its combative quality but, rather, its soul. To my ears, they had more in common with Sam and Dave than with Foreman and Ali.

That’s definitely the vibe on Ow! Live At The Penthouse, recorded over two nights at Seattle’s Penthouse club in 1962. Instead of playing to the pugilistic side of their sound, the program has the relaxed, congenial feel of friendly conversation, as if each solo is meant less as one-upmanship than as point/counterpoint.

Not that there’s anything lax about their playing. Indeed, “Tickle Toe,” the Basie chestnut that was one of the highlights of the 1960 LP Tough Tenors, is even tougher here, as they rip through the tune at a slightly higher tempo and a decidedly more elevated level of post-bop improvisation. Were the duo around today, their catalog likely would be peppered with references to the Fast and the Furious movie franchise.

That said, the most endearing thing about Ow! is the playfulness of the solos. Griffin’s feature on “Bahia,” for example, starts off by echoing some of the gruff bluesiness of Davis’ opening solo, but eventually, playing off Horace Parlan’s piano chords, the saxophonist quotes “Manteca,” and then finishes the tune with a lengthy lift from Ravel’s “Bolero.”

While Davis’ solos are long on drive and bluesy growl, Griffin’s more boppish sensibility is leavened by his fondness for quotes. He slips a few bars of Thelonious Monk’s “Rhythm-A-Ning” into the soulful “Ow!,” nods to “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” while trading fours with Davis during “Blue Lou,” and ends his solo on “Second Balcony Jump” with a snippet of Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March.” Like everything else on this album, it’s a blast.

Marta Sánchez Quintet

El Rayo De Luz
(Fresh Sound)

She has songs about ragweed, green ants, sunflowers and dead flowers.

New York-based pianist Marta Sánchez distills the natural world, taking in small vignettes and turning them into springy compositions for her quintet. And most of the band from 2017’s Danza Imposible (Fresh Sound New Talent) returns for her new release, El Rayo De Luz, with tenorist Chris Cheek taking over the spot vacated by Jerome Sabbagh.

A pair of tunes—“El Cambio” and “Unchanged”—chew over stasis and the push for something new, ideas that clearly ping around the composer’s mind.

“I thought a lot this past year about change, about all the things I have been [wanting] to change for years, about what remains unchanged, about how to make a big change, if it is even possible,” Sánchez wrote in an email. “I think both tunes, if [they’re] not talking about the same [thing], probably are related to the same chain of thought.”

Change and beauty come to bear on “Dead Flowers,” too, a tune prompted by a vase that offered a slouching allure to the composer. The shift from lushness to decaying petals seems to reflect Sánchez’s preoccupation with life’s little variations. The song itself—all moody prevarication—is a noirish sketch with Cheek bleating out an intro to a piano feature that’s both inquisitive and filled with life, but set against a dark backdrop.

If Sánchez keeps shuttling the gradations of daily life through the spectrum of her keyboard, we’re eventually going to wind up with a collection of albums that serve as a novelistic look into her mind—and likely be better off for it.

Brian Lynch Big Band

The Omni-American Book Club: My Journey Through Literature In Music
(Hollistic MusicWorks)

Brian Lynch’s first big band album connects the trumpeter’s lifelong passion for reading with his expansive vision as a composer/arranger. And while the dedications on The Omni-American Book Club: My Journey Through Literature In Music reveal Lynch’s deep interest in African-American literature and social justice, one need not be familiar with authors W.E.B. DuBois, Albert Murray, Ned Sublette, Naomi Klein, Masha Gessen, Isabel Wilkerson, Ralph Ellison, Chinua Achebe, Amiri Baraka and A.B. Spellman to fully enjoy this Afro-Caribbean-fueled, two-disc collection of strikingly fresh, intricately arranged original compositions.

An alumnus of groups led by Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Eddie Palmieri and Phil Woods—and a leader on more than 20 of his own albums—Lynch made his mark as a distinguished improviser and writer conversant in a wide variety of genres long before this new large-ensemble project was conceived. With its arrival this summer, The Omni-American Book Club has elevated Lynch’s vast oeuvre to ambitious new heights of accomplishment and acclaim, earning a Grammy nomination for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album. It features a stellar cast that includes Lynch’s teaching colleagues at University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, students and alumni of Frost, world-class players from the Miami area and six stellar guests who appear on one track each: drummer Dafnis Prieto, flutist Orlando “Maraca” Valle, soprano saxophonist Dave Liebman, violinist Regina Carter and alto saxophonists Donald Harrison and Jim Snidero. The music captivates as unrelenting grooves, sparkling ensemble interplay and ripping solos take the listener on an exhilarating thrill-ride inspired by fearless intellectuals whose written works have had a life-changing effect on this socially conscious bandleader.

The leadoff track, “Crucible For Crisis,” establishes the high musical standards The Omni-American Book Club adheres to, with Prieto, Valle and Lynch igniting the passion that smolders over the course of the entire program. Liebman takes a leading role on “The Trouble With Elysium,” blowing with the tune’s swing-to-Latin flow and trading increasingly bold statements with tenor saxophonist Gary Keller during the solo section before Lynch, pianist Alex Brown and drummer Kyle Swan contribute excellent improvisations of their own. “Tribute To Blue (Mitchell)” commits to a classic big band vibe, as Snidero and Lynch swing mightily during solos that mix laid-back bluesiness with spirited bursts of bebop.

Avram Fefer Quartet

(Clean Feed)

Saxophonist Avram Fefer has developed a rapport that’s held for about a decade with the tandem of bassist Eric Revis and drummer Chad Taylor. The relationship has been flexible enough to endure some downtime; the trio’s last album was released in 2011. But Testament revels in new and nuanced textures as the trio reconvenes, adding Marc Ribot.

The guitarist’s talents—spread across genres during the past 35-plus years through his work with Diana Krall, Solomon Burke, Elvis Costello, Marianne Faithful and Tom Waits—push the band toward the edges, prompted by a tone that shifts from jazz-world comping to blues shredding. It’s also a feature of the album that might help pull some more listeners with traditionally tuned ears into Fefer’s orbit.

“Essaouira,” presumably named for the Moroccan port city, mimics the tide, rolling in on waves of Taylor’s drumming as Fefer and Ribot mirror each other on the melody. The tune, penned by the bandleader, first appeared on Eliyahu, a collective 2011 work by the trio. With Ribot’s addition, though, the song takes on a new life, as does Taylor’s “Song For Dyani,” another cut from that earlier album.

“Magic Mountain” and “Wishful Thinking” incorporate heavy doses of Ribot’s spirited six-stringing, but the bandleader’s writing and playing still shine through, touching on the calmest moments of contemplation and moving into the most pressurized distillations of passion. That the saxophonist does so in a holistic fashion across Testament makes it a hothouse of a recording, one that clearly benefits from Fefer’s time in Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber and Adam Rudolph’s Go: Organic Orchestra.

Joel Paterson

Let It Be Guitar! Joel Paterson Plays The Beatles

John Lennon and Paul McCartney created such a rich body of work that nearly every new tribute to The Beatles generates a healthy dose of musical joy—regardless of the genre. Even though tributes to the lads from Liverpool are diverse and commonplace, Chicago-based guitarist Joel Paterson still generates excitement with Let It Be Guitar! Joel Paterson Plays The Beatles, a disc that would reside nicely in a playlist alongside Chet Atkins’ 1966 LP Picks On The Beatles.

Mixing elements of jazz, rock, country and exotica, Paterson (electric guitar, lap steel, pedal steel), Beau Sample (bass) and Alex Hall (drums) explore The Beatles’ early work—such as “All My Loving,” “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “This Boy”—as well as later material in the band’s career (like George Harrison’s “Something” and even the brief “Her Majesty,” the “hidden track” from Abbey Road). Jazz organist Chris Foreman sits in for few tunes, adding intoxicating textures to the mix.

Paterson clearly has an affinity for The Beatles’ early work, as evidenced by the artwork for the album, a parody of the cover of the band’s first Stateside LP, Introducing … The Beatles. Overall, Paterson embraces a spare, less-is-more aesthetic.

It’s hard not to smile or sway while listening to the twangy rendition of “And I Love Her” or the sly version of “Things We Said Today.” The readings of “If I Fell” and “Michelle” are so charming that they might tempt the listener to listen to each track again, rather than running to hear the Fab Four versions. “Honey Pie” allows Paterson to show off his skills on acoustic, electric and pedal steel guitar.

“I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party” isn’t on most fans’ list of Top 10 Beatles tunes, but hardcore fanatics might recall that Rosanne Cash took a version to the top of the country charts in 1989. Here Paterson concludes his rendition with a powerful, ghostly pedal-steel wail.

Lolly Allen

Coming Home

In recent years, among the vibraphonists who have raised their profiles as bandleaders are Joel Ross, Behn Gillece and Matt Moran. Joining their ranks is Los Angeles-based Lolly Allen, whose cohesive new album, Coming Home, features two original compositions, along with interpretations of songs by Johnny Mandel (“Emily”), Mario Bauza (“Mambo Inn”) and Antônio Carlos Jobim (“O Grande Amor”). For this project, Allen teamed up with a couple of rising stars: Danny Janklow, who contributed alto and tenor saxophone throughout the program, and pianist Josh Nelson, who played on about half the tracks, served as assistant producer for the recording and wrote an essay for the liner notes. Allen also recruited some jazz veterans for the sessions, including guitarist Larry Koonse and drummer Paul Kreibich.

The program opens with a joyous, swinging version of Horace Silver’s “The Hippest Cat In Hollywood,” and it closes with a quintet rendition of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Bebop” that features delightful, rapid-fire exchanges among band members. Elsewhere, Allen’s luminous tone permeates her lovely arrangement of Tadd Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now.” A reading of Luiz Bonfá’s “Gentle Rain” features drummer Kendall Kay’s light rhythmic touch—evoking the precipitation of the title—as well as a mesmerizing solo from Allen.

With the satisfying musical journey presented on Coming Home, the young vibraphonist has become a rising bandleader to watch.

Michael Formanek Very Practical Trio

Even Better

If the collaborative endeavor Thumbscrew wasn’t enough to demonstrate the way bassist Michael Formanek and guitarist Mary Halvorson excel in each other’s company, Even Better is further proof.

Formanek’s career has been stippled with stints heading his own troupes, and for this latest trio, in addition to Halvorson, he’s tapped exploratory reedist Tim Berne to join in. Each player here’s known for bounding experimentation, and while Berne’s in the spotlight a bit less than Halvorson, closer “Jade Visions” is a gorgeous excursion headed by the saxophonist’s register hopping. It’s a tune penned by bassist Scott LaFaro (1936–’61), and played as tribute, the whole thing predicated on the trio wending its way through the melody, Berne measuredly out front. When he drops out, though, Halvorson and Formanek duet for about a minute in some sort of tempered, all-knowing, slow-paced excavation of beauty.

The bassist’s Very Practical Trio—its purpose hinted at by both its name, as well as the music on Even Better—clearly isn’t about avant-garde heroics and displays of technical acumen. Even the most outré moments, including the eight weird minutes of “Implausible Deniability,” seem quiet, insular and personal, pointing at the wonderland of associates with whom Formanek has developed an undeniable rapport during a truly momentous career.

Tomeka Reid Quartet

Old New

It’s hard to understand why cello isn’t played by more jazz musicians. It has tremendous range, both in terms of pitch and expressivity, is more suited to pizzicato playing than violin, has a smoother, richer arco sound than bass and can generate all sorts of interesting colors using harmonics. It’s easily one of the most versatile instruments around.

But don’t take my word for it—listen to Tomeka Reid. On Old New, she does a little bit of everything, from brisk bow work to plangent plucking, playing single-note lines, chords and squeaky bits of aural shrapnel. In fact, she does as much sonic shape-shifting with her bow and fingers as guitarist Mary Halvorson does with her pedals across the recording.

Even better, she and Halvorson do all this within a format that is, for the most part, straightforward and melodic. Take, for example, “Sadie,” a spritely, bop-style tune that finds bassist Jason Roebke laying down a solid walking line, while drummer Tomas Fujiwara maintains an amiable shuffle. Reid’s solo, played pizzicato, starts off as straightforward hard-bop, but moves steadily toward the blues as she uses microtonal finger-slides to emulate guitar string-bending. Halvorson, whose solo follows, takes pitch-bending in a totally different direction, using her pedalboard to make tones melt and drip like one of Salvador Dali’s clocks. In all, the track manages to be both straightahead and outside, a perfect realization of the title aesthetic.

It’s in that blend of modern and traditional that Reid and her quartet truly find their sound. “Niki’s Bop”—written for Reid’s mentor, flutist Nicole Mitchell—is built around a harmonically angular tune and features some fairly free interplay between Reid and Halvorson. But no matter how out-there the solos get, the music remains firmly rooted, thanks to the New Orleans swagger of Fujiwara’s drumming and Roebke’s groove-grounded bass. On the other hand, even though “Wabash Blues” is drenched in tradition, there’s not a blues cliché to be heard, thanks to the harmonic and technical audacity of the playing. But because the form is so easily understood (and the rhythm so solid), even the most nonlinear aspects of the solos go down easily.

Mike Holober & The Gotham Jazz Orchestra

Hiding Out

A single, repeated, bell-like tone, followed by a slow trickle of high-pitched woodwinds and muted brass, open the appropriately titled suite “Flow” from Mike Holober’s new recording with his Gotham Jazz Orchestra—a 17-piece, New York-based ensemble of the highest caliber. An idyllic scene gradually emerges as the minimalist music floats downstream and a simple melodic theme takes shape, then reemerges, shaded with a pleasantly dissonant harmony. The waters deepen from moment to moment, eventually opening up into a grand vista that continues to grow in complexity and gain momentum. The arrangement expands in breadth and the ensemble builds to dramatic crescendos, the tenor saxophone soloist soaring ever higher above the prevailing currents and occasional eddies below. The view only gets more spectacular from there, as the Hudson River-inspired motives of Holober’s composition unfold over four movements.

Equally compelling, and inspired, is the five-part suite “Hiding Out,” another Holober composition that depicts the grandeur of the natural world (in this case, the landscapes surrounding Clearmont, Wyoming). Other highlights of this double album include the opening track, “Jumble,” a large-scale original work in one movement, and Holober’s arrangement of the seldom-heard Jobim tune “Caminhos Cruzados,” showcasing trumpeter Marvin Stamm, one of nearly two dozen instrumental aces who contributed to Hiding Out.

In addition to being an esteemed composer, arranger and pianist, Holober is an avid outdoorsman whose passion for backpacking, canoeing and camping manages to find its way into everything he writes. It has been 10 years since the release of the Gotham City Jazz Orchestra’s last album, Quake, as Holober has been immersed in projects with other major big bands (Germany’s hr-Bigband and WDR Big Band, among others) and working as an educator (The City College of New York and the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop), not to mention playing plenty of sideman gigs. He hasn’t exactly been “hiding out,” so to speak, but he certainly has been less visible as a leader, until now.

With the release of this long-anticipated, epic work, Holober has brought a profound artistic vision to bear on today’s jazz scene and confirmed his standing as one of the finest modern composer/arrangers of our time, in the tradition of Gil Evans, Bob Brookmeyer and Jim McNeely.

Erroll Garner

Campus Concert
(Mack Avenue/Octave Music)

The release of vintage recordings can lead to a reassessment and deeper appreciation for an artist’s career, and that certainly has been the case with pianist Erroll Garner (1921–’77). The DownBeat Hall of Fame inductee’s renaissance is in full swing. In 2015, Legacy released an expanded version of the classic album Concert By The Sea, with 11 previously unreleased tracks. That was followed by two albums of previously unreleased material: the 2016 studio compilation Ready Take One (Legacy/Octave) and the 2018 release Nightconcert, a live trio date recorded in Amsterdam in 1964 with bassist Eddie Calhoun and drummer Kelly Martin.

Between Fall 2019 and June 2020, the partnership between Mack Avenue and Octave Music will reissue 12 albums in the Garner catalog as part of the Octave Remastered Series. Each of the albums has been restored to clean up any distortion in the original tapes. Each will include a previously unreleased track, and the reissues will feature some musical introductions that were edited out of the performances when they originally were released. In addition to Garner’s vocalizations (yelps, growls and grunts), he frequently would precede a standard with a solo piano flourish, as his bandmates waited to see what would follow these mesmerizing introductions. Reinstating these intros gives the contemporary listener a more accurate depiction of what it would have been like to hear Garner on the bandstand.

The lively Campus Concert, the sixth release in the Octave Remastered Series, was recorded at three shows in 1962 and finds Garner in a trio setting with Calhoun and Martin. Those players were there to support the star; no bass or drum solos are included here. Nor are there any spoken comments, but listening to this gem gives one the sense that the pianist had established a rapport with the crowd. The spotlight is trained on Garner as he applies his distinctive, muscular style to a set that focuses on standards, including “My Funny Valentine,” “Almost Like Being In Love,” “In The Still Of The Night” and “These Foolish Things (Remind Me Of You).”

The album opens with a rousing “(Back Home Again In) Indiana,” a track perhaps chosen as a crowd-pleaser for the audience at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Indiana—where the bulk of the program was recorded. Throughout the proceedings, Garner swings like a gate and displays an infectious robustness, as on “Lulu’s Back In Town,” one of two cuts recorded at the World’s Fair Playhouse in Seattle.

“Stardust,” the other Seattle track, is the album’s zenith. Previous versions of Campus Concert include a 4:52 version of Hoagy Carmichael’s classic tune, but this reissue offers a 5:47 rendition. So, not only can listeners enjoy the familiar right-hand and left-hand call-and-response segment included on the album’s original release, they also get to hear Garner’s full exploration of the tune, showcasing his renowned harmonic imagination at work.

The program concludes with a previously unreleased original tune, “La Petite Mambo,” a fun swinger that nods to another original that the Pittsburgh native played that night in Indiana: “Mambo Erroll.”

Listening to this program will put listeners in a time machine that travels to an era when jazz had great cultural currency on college campuses, and the fervid cultural debates about The Beatles were still a few years away.

Dave Douglas

(Greenleaf Music)

Political jazz is a peculiar beast. Unlike the more pop-oriented forms of protest music, there’s often no singer to act as a figurehead, and no lyrics to provide a polemic. At its most muddled, it works about as well as using abstract art on a campaign poster.

On the other hand, if you look at politics as a form of action, rather than a school of thought, playing jazz can be a surprisingly suggestive model. A jazz combo is, after all, a form of community, and how the individuals act together determines the success of the whole. Is there anything in art more uplifting than hearing a group of people come together to make great music?

That seems to be the thinking behind Engage, trumpeter Dave Douglas’ latest project. Describing the music in his liner notes as “compositions dedicated to positive action,” Douglas avoids partisan specifics and instead urges action “to stay positive and engaged through music daily.”

Musically, the positivity is expressed through writing based entirely on major triads. None of that half-diminished-seventh ambiguity here. But Douglas’ crew—woodwind player Anna Webber, guitarist Jeff Parker, cellist Tomeka Reid, bassist Nick Dunston and drummer Kate Gentile—are the sort who aren’t going to let triadic harmony limit them to “See Spot Run” simplicity. However straightforward the writing on the delightfully tuneful takes of “Showing Up,” the playing comfortably stretches limits, particularly when Webber’s alto flute and Reid’s cello are in creative counterpoint.

It should also be mentioned that Douglas can be pretty creative with his major-triad harmony, as “One Sun, A Million Ways,” with its closely intertwined trumpet lines (Dave Adewumi joins in here), makes plain. There’s a difference between “simple” and “simplistic,” after all. From the gospel-inflected groove of “Free Libraries” to the “Maiden Voyage”-style pulse that powers “Sanctuary Cities,” Douglas and company make a compelling case that standing up for shared values isn’t just good politics, but good art as well.

Kit Downes

Dreamlife Of Debris

The best art arguably can encompass high and low, the profane and the sanctified.

Kit Downes, who topped the categories Rising Star–Keyboard and Rising Star–Organ in the 2019 DownBeat Critics Poll, turns in his second leader date for the venerated ECM Records, Dreamlife Of Debris, and rather easily coaxes spirited exhortations and divine simplicity out of a piano, as well as a church organ. But it’s the combination of Downes’ ghostly organ turns and the placid longtones of Tom Challenger’s tenor saxophone that make the album’s title such a fitting thing.

Just as ECM has retained a certain jazz aesthetic over the years, it has cultivated a strain of classical music with keystone releases by the likes of Arvo Pärt. The middle path might be some sort of slow-rolling minimalism, not unlike Steve Reich’s compositions or Terry Riley’s drone works from the 1960s; Downes’ take of Ruth Goller’s “M7” could have slotted into almost any of those recordings. And the bandleader’s own “Circinus” finds his organ copping some uncluttered version of decades-old austerity, while cellist Lucy Railton bows the changes and Challenger’s horn sweeps through emotions. It’s a sturdy formula that peaceably works throughout the recording.

A couple of tunes set Downes at an acoustic piano, his bandmates helping to mimic the dark and dour image of the album cover. “Blackeye,” the closer where Downes and Challenger split writing credits, opens with a contemplative feeling that’s not just pervasive here, but across a bunch of ECM works. The pair and Railton float around on clouds for about a minute-and-a-half; then 15 seconds of silence. Downes switches to organ and, making his most concerted contribution to Dreamlife, Seb Rochford comes padding in on an augmented kit that sounds like it largely consists of toms and a gong. It’s Moondog territory, and it sends the band toward its most propulsive, songlike statements. It’s also the most aggressive-sounding composition Downes has recorded on either of his leader dates for ECM. It still might not be a jazz tune, but “Blackeye” is a deeply affecting sonic turn that’s a surprise and a nod toward less experimental works—if only just vaguely.

Hendrik Meurkens

Cobb’s Pocket

What happens when an art form’s foremost practitioner dies? When harmonica legend Toots Thielemans passed away in 2016, fans around the globe asked, “Who will carry the mantle?” The responsibility for extending the jazz-harmonica tradition has fallen to various players, including Grégoire Maret, Howard Levy and Hendrik Meurkens, a native of Hamburg who now is based in New York.

Meurkens, also acclaimed as a vibraphonist, sticks to the harmonica on his new album, Cobb’s Pocket. He composed the title track in honor of the drummer on this quartet project, Jimmy Cobb, now 90 years old. The other players on this album are straightahead masters with a long shared history: Guitarist Peter Bernstein and organist Mike LeDonne frequently collaborate in the latter’s Groover Quartet. The new album marks the third time that Meurkens has recruited Cobb for one of his leader dates, but the first time that the harmonicist has recorded with an organ trio. The results are deeply satisfying.

Meurkens’ elegant rendition of Slide Hampton’s “Frame For The Blues” features the type of tenderness that made Thielemans an icon, while LeDonne and Bernstein each offer solos that propel the musical narrative without lapsing into grandstanding. Meurkens’ solo on the title track is a master class on crafting melodic lines and colorful shading with a harmonica, demonstrating that in the right hands, the instrument can rival the trumpet or saxophone in terms of musical intricacy and emotional impact. Throughout the album, just as one would expect, Cobb’s playing is consistently tasteful, as he builds the sonic pocket that is celebrated in the title track.

The program leans heavily on standards but also includes three Meurkens originals, including one of his most famous compositions, the oft-recorded “Slidin’.” The album opens with a strong dose of swing and groove via “Driftin’,” which appeared on Herbie Hancock’s 1962 debut, Takin’ Off. Meurkens decided to include an interpretation of “Unit 7,” partially because Cobb had recorded a rendition of the Sam Jones composition in 1965 alongside bassist Paul Chambers, pianist Wynton Kelly and guitarist Wes Montgomery on the album Smokin’ At The Half Note.

“Polka Dots And Moonbeams” is one of the most frequently recorded standards in history, with a lengthy line of interpreters that includes Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Dexter Gordon, John Denver and Bob Dylan. Although it has been recorded hundreds of times, Meurkens brings something fresh to the tune, thanks to his command of an instrument not frequently found on the jazz bandstand.

Tyshawn Sorey/Marilyn Crispell

The Adornment Of Time

The bifurcation of jazz and its associated musics—or at least the listenership of the two branches—has been hugely beneficial in one respect: Any perceived limitations to form and function are discarded by one set of folks and stringently adhered to by another, enabling both the inside and outside wing to retain its heroes.

The downside, though, is that folks like pianist Marilyn Crispell, despite working with a wondrous list of well-known performers for decades and releasing music through ECM, remains a relatively unsung purveyor of “out” sounds. During the past year, though, in addition to issuing her umpteenth album on Leo, Dream Libretto, the pianist also was an integral part of Joe Lovano’s Trio Tapestry. Linking up here with drummer Tyshawn Sorey, another improvisor who perhaps warrants wider acclaim, Crispell is capping an intensely creative period in her career. Or, at least, another one.

The Adornment Of Time, a single 64-minute track, sports at least six sections, ranging from its twinkling-chimes opening to the few stentorian segments where Sorey and Crispell rail against the expected.

It’s a musical Rubik’s Cube.

Crispell might coax out some dissonant chords as Sorey tucks into a regular rhythm before both engage in extended silence. Tinkering with the inside of her piano functions as a sonic detour, as do her painterly washes of tremolo or augmented chording. Then there’s the excitement of Sorey’s thudding exclamations—or moments of tender restraint. And while The Adornment Of Time isn’t likely to change the minds of listeners who think the genre ostensibly stopped evolving in 1959 (or 1961, if you want to use Coltrane’s Live At The Village Vanguard as the point when everything started to break apart very publicly), it’s as vital a recording to the music’s longtail history as the Branford Marsalis Quartet’s most recent effort. And just as enjoyable, if you have the right set of ears.

Various Artists

Come On Up To The House: Women Sing Waits

A transcendent tribute album illuminates the artistry of the honoree, as well as that of the participating performers. Rocker Warren Zanes is to be applauded enthusiastically for producing Come On Up To The House: Women Sing Waits, as is Dualtone CEO Scott Robinson, who conceptualized the project. This disc brilliantly presents a dozen Tom Waits ballads in Americana settings. In place of Waits’ gruff, guttural (yet charming) singing are lead vocals from female artists whose styles are far more accessible. These tunes are finely crafted gems, not rowdy barn burners.

The press release for this album describes Waits’ persona as being “equal parts bard, balladeer, Beat poet, barfly, carnival barker and smoky lounge singer.” That is one way to view him. But this album’s pristine performances shine a spotlight on an oft-overlooked aspect of Waits’ personality: Though frequently regarded as an eccentric actor and junkyard howler, Waits is also a sophisticated tunesmith whose melodies can benefit from a singer with a broad vocal range.

Waits’ album discography stretches from 1973 to 2011, but five of the tunes on Come On Up To The House are from a single source—his Grammy-winning, 1999 disc, Mule Variations. Waits cowrote most of the tracks on that album with Kathleen Brennan, whom he wed in 1980.

No fan of Mule Variations should hesitate to seek out this tribute disc. Portland band Joseph (a trio of sisters) sets the tone with the opener/title track, giving Americana fans a rich slice of manna. Australian singer-songwriter Angie McMahon delivers a delicate version of “Take It With Me,” Arkansas folkie Iris DeMent unleashes her poignant vibrato on a pedal-steel-fueled “House Where Nobody Lives” and Los Angeles native Phoebe Bridgers sculpts a sad, cinematic “Georgia Lee.” Aimee Mann’s rendition of “Hold On” conveys the type of palpable emotional investment that can arise when one great songwriter interprets the work of another.

Sibling vocal harmony is the key ingredient of Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer’s strings-laden, countrypolitan rendition of “Ol ’55” (popularized by The Eagles). British r&b singer Corinne Bailey Rae—who is akin to a great character actor, in that she can elevate any production in which she participates—offers a soulful rendition of “Jersey Girl” (popularized by Bruce Springsteen). Other artists appearing on the album include Rosanne Cash (“Time”), Courtney Marie Andrews (“Downtown Train”) and Kat Edmonson (“You Can Never Hold Back Spring”).

Zanes’ production results in an album that is polished and even radio-friendly, without being overly glossy. Compositions like “Time” and “Georgia Lee” can stand on their own as poetry on the page, with plenty of music and rhythms inherent in the carefully selected words.

Barney Wilen Quartet

Live In Tokyo ’91

French saxophonist Barney Wilen’s a relatively unknown figure in the States; it’s perhaps his Zodiac or Moshi that obsessive diggers and avantists best know him for. But Wilen’s career stretched from the 1950s, when he recorded with Miles Davis and innumerable expat Americans, until his death in 1996.

A newly issued set, Live In Tokyo ’91, showcases the bandleader late in his career, still toting an assured tenor sound alongside a band performing at the Keystone Korner in Japan. It’s a straightahead effort, but so solid a recording that even those coming to the album hoping for the eccentricities deployed on Zodiac and Moshi should be sated by the bop dispensed here. A smoky take of Sonny Rollins’ “Doxy” comes just after a rendition of “Besame Mucho,” which is honestly a more fiery and rewarding interpretation than it has any right to be by 1991.

The set gets bogged down a bit when on the second disc the quartet turns to “Latin Alley” and features a pretty dated-sounding keyboard, courtesy of Olivier Hutman. It’s not a regrettable performance, just one that shows its age. And, for the most part, that’s the only disparaging thing to be said about Live In Tokyo ’91. While Wilen really never broke through in the States, the 14-tune recording could work to introduce a confident and thoughtful player to folks who never went digging for his work in the first place.

Kris Davis

Diatom Ribbons

In a recent Q&A with Wendell Berry, The New Yorker’s Amanda Petrusich asks the poet and naturalist about his output being connected to the past, if “all new work is in conversation with everything that preceded it, that language itself is simply a continuum.”

The best music—within the jazz world and beyond it—can contain a multitude of ideas and sounds, reference endless genres and tell listeners something about the moment that it was recorded, as well as the past. Diatom Ribbons­—and actually a lot about pianist Kris Davis in general—does precisely that.

Vocal snippets of Cecil Taylor crop up; Esperanza Spalding recites a poem by former U.S. Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks; and between Terri Lyne Carrington and producer/turntablist Val Jeanty, who ostensibly function as Davis’ trio on Diatom Ribbons, there’s a concerted beat-centric feel to more than a few spots across the album.

“Rhizomes” also folds guitarist Nels Cline, bassist Trevor Dunn and percussionist Ches Smith into the ensemble, casting a downtown no-wave spell over the proceedings. The amassed troupe doesn’t exactly summon DNA, but the recording’s constant pulse ties it to the out-rock world in a way few jazz acts seem compelled to explore.

Synthesizing so much information could pretty clearly have resulted in a messy pastiche, but bandleader Davis has taken it upon herself to translate the past’s artistic investigations and triumphs for contemporary listeners—and those in the future.

Ben Markley Quartet

Slow Play

In the liner notes to his new quartet album, Slow Play, pianist Ben Markley proudly cites pianist Cedar Walton (1934–2013) as one of his key influences. The disc is a follow-up to the Ben Markley Big Band’s Clockwise: The Music Of Cedar Walton (OA2), which received a 4-star review in the July 2017 issue of DownBeat. On his current project, Markley incorporates Walton’s strong sense of melodicism into a program of eight highly satisfying original compositions. Markley, the director of jazz studies at the University of Wyoming, recorded the album at Denver’s Mighty Fine Studios. His stellar bandmates are musicians with whom he previously had collaborated, and he wrote the tunes with them in mind: bassist Marty Kenney, drummer Jim White and monster saxophonist Joel Frahm. Conga player Andy Wheelock (who is also on the faculty at UW) adds intriguing Latin textures to two tracks: “Max’s Mission” and “One For Armando.”

Deep grooves, sweet swing and dynamic interplay are all essential ingredients in this program. On the songs that evolve into blowing vehicles for Frahm—such as the nine-minute “’Mon Back”—he delivers a tenor tone that is brawny yet beauteous, offering solos full of feeling and free of extraneous notes while reinforcing the overall compositional structure. On the ballad “Sentience,” White switches to brushes and Frahm picks up a soprano, etching lines that are compelling and never cloying. On the sly, slinky “The Return OF Catboy,” Frahm cleverly drops in a quote from Harold Arlen’s “If I Only Had A Brain,” and on “One For Armando,” he briefly nods to “America” (from West Side Story). Throughout the program, Markley steers the ship but gives his bandmates room to roam. Toward the end of “Armando,” the drums and conga dialogue with piano support reflects the leader’s commitment to serving the song.

This album is one of those sparkling, straightahead gems that can convert pop fans into jazz acolytes.

Markley’s big band, with guest drummer/composer Ari Hoenig, will perform at Dazzle in Denver on Oct. 25, and the pianist will lead a trio with Wheelock and bassist Gonzalo Teppa at UW in Laramie, Wyoming, on Nov. 17.

Bill Frisell

(Blue Note)

On his Blue Note Records debut, veteran guitarist Bill Frisell documents his latest project, a reflection on the near-magical musical kinships he’s forged with various artists during his career. Produced by his longtime collaborator Lee Townsend and recorded by Tucker Martine at Flora Recording & Playback in Portland, Oregon, HARMONY features Frisell in a quartet setting with two longtime collaborators—vocalist Petra Haden and cello player/vocalist Hank Roberts—plus a relative newcomer, Luke Bergman, on acoustic guitar, baritone guitar, bass and voice. It’s a cozy configuration that fosters an up-close and intimate vibe centered around the human voice and rooted in jazz, traditional Americana and chamber music.

Throughout the album, Haden’s ethereal lead vocals and the trio’s quietly powerful harmonies bring new dimensions to Frisell’s music, magnifying the pensive beauty and perpetual patience that mark his guitar playing. Originally commissioned by the FreshGrass Foundation (an organization dedicated to the vitality of contemporary American roots music) and performed at FreshGrass West! in San Francisco during November 2016, HARMONY features eight compositions by Frisell, some from his existing catalog and some brand new: “There In A Dream” by the late bassist Charlie Haden (who had deep musical and personal ties to Frisell), Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” Lerner & Loewe’s “On The Street Where You Live,” Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All The Flowers Gone,” Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times” and the traditional “Red River Valley.”

The message behind the music is a celebration of a great old American tradition that Frisell fully embraces and clearly articulates in one simple statement: “Let’s just get together and sing.”

Caroline Davis & Rob Clearfield’s PERSONA


The most compelling thing about the sound of Caroline Davis’ alto saxophone is the way it lingers. She doesn’t just play notes, but inhabits them. So, even the briefest of passing tones is given its due as it progresses to a phrase’s conclusion. It’s a very deliberate style of playing, and one that justifies the title Anthems without making it seem like a challenge.

It helps that the title tune, with its stuttering, staccato theme, plays against type, offering not so much heroic uplift as hesitant urgency while the band works through the melody’s glitchy rhythms. Without a background beat, the accents carry a sort of randomness, which is reinforced by the suddenness of the ending, which feels as if Davis simply had shouted, “Stop!” Four tracks later, there’s a reprise of the tune; this one is not only more legato, but grounded by Jay Sawyer’s metronomic snare. With that through-line in place, it’s easier to appreciate the rhythmic eddying of the improvisation, as Rob Clearfield’s Fender Rhodes messes with chords and Sam Weber’s electric bass skitters beneath Davis’ alto. Again, the ending is abrupt, but this time, it’s easier to hear the build-up. Together, the two versions seem less like bookends than two samples from a universe of possible “Anthems.”

Anthems is full of thoughtful interplay between melody and rhythm, and the best thing about the album is that however much theory goes into the writing, the music never sounds contrived or mechanical. “People Look Like Tanks,” for instance, has each of the four members working off different rhythmic concepts: the piano like a syncopated Philip Glass, the bass moving so slowly it seems like a half-tempo countermelody, the drumming so spare it’s as if he weren’t allowed more than two beats per bar. And yet, the pieces jell perfectly beneath the wistful questing of Davis’ alto. Selfless and deep, it’s the sort of playing that speaks to the connection these musicians feel, and the intelligence with which they go about making music, qualities that mark this as a band to watch.

Crosscurrents Trio

Good Hope

On the bandstand, Zakir Hussain is an intense listener deeply committed to meaningful conversation. That’s true whether he’s performing with a septet edition of Crosscurrents or scaling the band down to a trio version with two other virtuoso musicians: bassist Dave Holland and saxophonist Chris Potter. Hussain justifiably is referred to as the world’s most celebrated tabla player, and on his new trio album, Good Hope, he plays other percussion instruments, too: the kanjira, chanda and madal. In his awesomely skilled hands, these percussive tools expand his palette; after all, you can’t be a great conversationalist without supplying nuanced replies and colorful commentary.

All three musicians in this egalitarian trio are credited as co-producers of Good Hope. Hussain contributes two compositions to the album, while Holland and Potter each supply three tunes. The 66-minute program is an extended master class on musical conversations, with tracks like Hussain’s “J Bhai” characterized by plenty of sonic space surrounding the instruments, allowing listeners to fully appreciate the details (all carefully captured by recording engineer Chris Allen at the Sear Sound studios in New York).

Fans who discovered Hussain through his work in the band Sangam (with saxophonist Charles Lloyd and drummer Eric Harland) will find much to like on Good Hope. Holland delivers melodic, authoritative bass lines and Potter frequently cuts loose, unfurling solos that gain momentum and muscle as they motor forward. When he switches to soprano saxophone on Holland’s 11-minute composition “Lucky Seven,” Potter illustrates the mixture of high-octane pyrotechnics and thoughtful subtlety that makes him such an acclaimed reedist. (Potter knows the tune well, having recorded it on the Dave Holland Quintet’s 2006 album, Critical Mass.) The bassist’s “Bedouin Trail” offers a smoldering vibe that complements the more fiery, uptempo material in the Good Hope program. The tenor and tabla dialogue on the title track is a joy to behold.

The Crosscurrents Trio’s European tour will include shows at the Enjoy Jazz Festival in Heidelberg, Germany (Oct. 23), the Tampere Jazz Happening in Finland (Nov. 1) and the London Jazz Festival (Nov. 17).

Black String


In the West, folk-fusion bands, from the Clancy Brothers and Fairport Convention to Mumford & Sons, have brokered their debt to the past by making folk melodicism conform to the norms of contemporary pop song structure. Black String, by contrast, prefers to make modern pop and jazz conventions bend to the instrumental strictures of traditional Korean music. So, unlike, say, the Wagakki Band, which uses traditional Japanese instruments to play mainstream rock, Black String uses mostly traditional Korean instruments to turn rock, jazz, and other styles into a kind of hybridized folk music.

Part of that stems from the fact that Black String is, itself, a hybridized band. Although bandleader Yoon Jeong Heo focuses on the stringed instrument the geomungo—the Korean cousin of Japan’s koto—and members Aram Lee and Min Wang Hwang play traditional Korean flutes and percussion, respectively, Jean Oh balances that with electric guitar and electronics, a sonic palette that adds anything from a rock edge to an ambient wash of acoustic color.

That range affords Black String a tremendous stylistic latitude. Some tunes, like “Beating Road,” augment folk melodies with the sort of rhythmic urgency that suggests a cross-cultural connection with jazz. On the other hand, the group’s mournful, coloristic cover of Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For A Film)” is not unlike listening to music with subtitles—although the content is familiar, the expression is different enough to seem transforming. At times, as on “Exhale-Puri,” Oh’s straight-eights strumming suggests a rock sensibility, but then Hwang starts singing in a folkloric Korean style and the balance flips entirely.

All told, Karma marks the sort of cultural crossover that, while not as commercially penetrating as K-Pop, might prove more enduring, because it’s less about assimilation than it is about expressing cultural identity across musical conventions. And as much as I like BLACKPINK, I’m much more curious to hear what Black String does next.

Telepathic Band

Electric Telepathy, Vol. 1

If it’s generally accepted that performers—at least those seeking some sort of artistic fulfillment—are engaged in a constant search for a language fit to dispense their ideas, Telepathic Band’s Electric Telepathy, Vol. 1 seems to find the Brooklyn ensemble scouting out at least two dialects.

Reedist Daniel Carter—an occasional part of the William Parker-Matthew Shipp axis of exploratory improvisation—gets top billing here, in part as deference to his work through the decades. But also because of his clear connection with clarinetist Patrick Holmes, the pair delivering slightly-off harmonies across the album.

But it’s mostly Matthew Putman’s ghostly keyboard washes that make Electric Telepathy, Vol. 1 work. “Horticultural Techniques” is based on his bed of echoes layered atop bassist Hilliard Greene and drummer Federico Ughi’s rhythms, enabling the frontline to seek out expressive and impromptu statements. The 20-minute opener, “Flesh Dialect,” ostensibly functions the same way, with ambience courtesy of Putman’s keys serving as one of the band’s most notable features. “Ghost-Watch,” though, encapsulates the troupe’s discovery of swing, Carter (this time on trumpet) and Holmes bumping up against Ughi’s persistent drumming after conjuring a groove about two minutes in.

It’s the uncertainty in both these vernacular approaches that makes Electric Telepathy, Vol. 1 worth a listen, and gives the Brooklyn ensemble such an auspicious name.

The Sensational Barnes Brothers

Nobody’s Fault But My Own
(Bible & Tire Recording Company)

Fat Possum Records, the acclaimed, Mississippi-based label, has launched a new imprint devoted to gospel music: Bible & Tire Recording Company. The inaugural releases are a reissue of late-1960s and early-’70s material by Elizabeth King & The Gospel Souls, The D-Vine Spirituals Recordings, and an album of new recordings, The Sensational Barnes Brothers’ Nobody’s Fault But My Own.

Music is in the bloodline of the Barnes family: Chris Barnes and his brother Courtney are following in the footsteps of their father, the gospel singer Calvin “Duke” Barnes (who passed away on April 5), and their mother, Deborah, who once worked as a backing vocalist for Ray Charles. At one point, the couple and their four children performed as a group called Joy. Today, a group of relatives still records and performs under the name The Barnes Family.

All the material on Chris and Courtney’s new album was mined from the 1970s catalog of the Memphis-based label Designer Records. With the organ work of Calvin Barnes II or Jimbo Mathus as a frequent focal point, the group explores a soul-music aesthetic that will be familiar to devotees of the Stax label. The songs’ lyrics discuss praying, reading the Bible and devoting oneself to a higher calling. On “I Won’t Have To Cry No More,” George Sluppick’s drumming and Will Sexton’s pithy guitar riffs reinforce the vocals of the brothers, who traffic in the type of tight harmonies that sometimes come easily to family members. The crying pedal steel guitar of Kell Kellum on “Try The Lord” and the head-bobbing, foot-tapping infectious vibe of the rousing “Here Am I” have the power to appeal to believers and skeptics alike.

Fans who enjoyed the recent Aretha Franklin gospel-centered documentary Amazing Grace (filmed in 1972) and who now want to explore retro-leaning gospel music of today might want to check out this new work by The Sensational Barnes Brothers.

George Garzone/Peter Erskine/Alan Pasqua/Darek Oles

3 Nights In L.A.
(Fuzzy Music)

Veteran East Coast tenor saxophonist George Garzone seldom has sounded more inventive and impassioned than on this new three-CD collection, recorded live in January at Los Angeles’ new jazz club Sam First over the course of three nights with drummer Peter Erskine, pianist Alan Pasqua and bassist Derek Oles. The group chemistry at work during these performances was equal parts sensitivity and combustibility, a balance of wide-open looseness and masterful precision. It all hinges on the group’s penchant to swing relentlessly while exploring a vast realm of expressive possibilities informed by each player’s considerable depth of experience.

The quartet stretches out on blowing vehicles like “Invitation,” “I’ll Remember April,” “Like Someone In Love,” “I Hear A Rhapsody” and, in three different takes, “Have You Met Miss Jones?” Other highlights include a creative reading of John Coltrane’s “Equinox,” five originals by Garzone and one tune apiece by Erskine, Pasqua and Oles (whose medium-tempo swinger “The Honeymoon” appears in two versions).

Garzone is in rare form, radiating minor-key modal lyricism, emotionally charged balladry, angular uptempo blues and straightahead bebop teeming with tenor toughness—as only he can. Erskine is a consistently refreshing catalyst for this most fortunate meeting of monsters; Oles is pitch-perfect and rock-steady throughout; and Pasqua’s less-is-more approach to the keys provides contemporary harmonic and melodic context while leaving adequate space for magic to unfold around him. This substantial offering of four jazz masters communicating in a highly evolved common language—and playing at the absolute top of their game—is one for the books.

Mike LeDonne

Partners In Time

If you’re fortunate enough to have bassist Christian McBride—one of the top bandleaders in jazz—play on your piano trio album, it would be foolish to give him tight strictures. On the studio album Partners In Time, keyboard wizard Mike LeDonne wisely lets McBride do his thing, and recruits another elite player, drummer Lewis Nash, for a sterling session that showcases a simpatico rapport among three titans. The results are slightly loose, yet focused and authoritative. These musicians had collaborated before, but they had never made a trio album together.

LeDonne—who is revered in New York for his organ work in the Groover Quartet—sparkles in this setting, delivering red-hot piano lines that match the fiery intensity of his work on the Hammond B-3.

A thread of “standing on the shoulders of giants” runs through the program, thanks to various forms of tribute. McBride’s bass solos spark five of the eight songs, including “Lined With A Groove,” composed by one of his heroes: bass icon Ray Brown (1926–2002). LeDonne’s tune “Saud” (one of his three original compositions here) offers moods that shift from majestic to muscular, both appropriate for a song written to honor pianist McCoy Tyner (aka Sulaimon Saud).

LeDonne pays tribute to another one of his chief influences, Cedar Walton (1934–2013), with a swinging version of the pianist’s “N.P.S.” A shadow of history is present here: Walton included “N.P.S.” on his 2001 album, The Promise Land. That disc was recorded at Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, which is where LeDonne recorded Partners In Time. In the album’s liner notes, the bandleader states that one of the reasons he wanted to do a session there was the opportunity to play the Steinway B piano that had been used on so many great albums.

The program concludes with the burner “Bopsolete,” which LeDonne gave an intentionally ironic title. The tune is spiced with some deliciously frenetic arco work from McBride. Though there are multitudes of potent riffs, breaks and solos in this program of mainly first-take recordings, Partners In Time is more than merely a blowing session. With creative interpretations of standards, such as a sly reading of “My Funny Valentine,” LeDonne, McBride and Nash illustrate that in 2019, bop and its related dialects are far from obsolete.

LeDonne, on organ, will lead the Groover Quartet during shows at Smoke in New York on Sept. 10, 17 and 24.

Jane Bunnett & Maqueque

On Firm Ground/Tierra Firme
(Linus/True North)

With their previous album, Oddara, Jane Bunnett and Maqueque presented an almost panoramic view of Cuban jazz, with flashes of percussive virtuosity, splashes of chamber music intimacy and regular bursts of vocal uplift. Although there was plenty of room for Bunnett’s rhythmically urgent, emotionally expressive flute and soprano sax, the arrangements took pains to show off the range and versatility of her ensemble. If Cuban music were a big canvas, they were determined to cover it all.

On Firm Ground/Tierra Firme, by contrast, is less interested in framing the richness of Cuban music than in showing off the strengths of Maqueque itself. As well it should. Five years since its inception, the sextet only has gotten stronger, tighter, funkier, and the music on its third album bears the unmistakeable confidence of a band that has found its voice, and is eager to speak with it.

Tracks like “La Linea” and “Habana De Noche” build sweetly melodic structures atop sinuous, richly harmonized grooves, balancing bass and percussion against lush vocal chorales, with the piano and Bunnett’s soprano providing pungent counterpoint. At their best, these tracks sound like a logical progression from the pop-friendly fusion Irakere specialized in.

What ultimately makes Terra Firme ground-shaking are the moments when Bunnett and Maqueque move beyond that template. The lithe, soulful “On Firm Ground” steps beyond the usual boundaries of Cuban jazz, thanks to the searing sacred steel guitar of guest Nikki D. Brown (imagine Robert Randolph with Santana, then square it), while “Broken Heart,” with bassist Tailin Marrero on upright and Brown providing well-placed blue notes, shows an impressive command of balladry.

Elsewhere, “Monkey See Monkey Do” is a lovely bit of social uplift that not only speaks to the potential within, but does so with the sort of blithely inspiring melody that makes its “believe in yourself” message seem almost redundant. Bunnett and Maqueque might sing about being on firm ground, but clearly they’re reaching for the stars.

Lauren Henderson

Alma Oscura

With the exception of a cappella artists, a singer can’t soar without a supportive squad. And an empathetic producer is essential to the equation. Lauren Henderson’s sixth release, Alma Oscura, is a gem, thanks to a combination of strong material, a subtle vocal style and carefully crafted settings that showcase the vocalist’s strengths. Much of the credit belongs to Michael Thurber, who played bass on the sessions, produced the album, composed three songs in the program and co-wrote the title track with Henderson.

Singing in Spanish and English, Henderson has a soft delivery that emphasizes nuance and heightens a narrative’s drama—without pyrotechnics. She surrounds herself with a terrific supporting cast that provides powerful coloration, whether it is Jon Lampley’s trumpet echoing the lead vocal line on “Something Bigger,” Emi Ferguson’s poignant flute on the title track, Sullivan Fortner’s fluid pianism on “El Arbol” or Leo Sidran (Ben’s son) sculpting a fine bilingual vocal duet with Henderson on his composition “From The Inside Out.”

Although a total of 15 musicians played on the sessions, Henderson and Thurber avoid excess at every turn, favoring a spare, impactful aesthetic. “Where Are You Now?” (a Thurber tune) has a smoky flavor that would appeal to fans of jazz, r&b and sophisticated pop, while “Protocol” has an infectious tango vibe. This album is 30 minutes long, inviting repeated spins and revealing Henderson’s admirable penchant for quality over quantity.

Henderson’s European tour includes a Nov. 22 gig at Zig Zag Jazz Club in Berlin.

Roxy Coss

(Outside In)

Whatever your political leanings, the travails of the Trump era have given culture makers a target. And the dirgey sections bookending Roxy Coss’ “Mr. President” simultaneously encapsulate the sullen feel of the past few years while momentarily comforting listeners with something that might have played under the credits of an M. Poirot spot on PBS. There’s also—almost—a hint of “My Favorite Things,” filtered through Coltrane.

The composition crops up three tracks into Quintet, Coss’ live dispatch of works that she’s presenting as something of a self-assessment. As much as reflection, though, the rerecording of older material serves as a proclamation of spirit, Coss coaxing notable performances out of her ensemble: Miki Yamanaka’s contributions on keys both prod the group along and lend it a languorous tint, when the bandleader’s compositions call for it.

Song titles like “Free To Be” and “Enlightenment” should hip listeners to Coss’ cause and consequential artistry. But off the bandstand, the saxophonist, too, has worked toward egalitarianism, founding the Women In Jazz Organization, a group aiming to help “women and non-binary people have equal opportunity to participate in and contribute” to the music.

The bandleader’s reach—both as a performer and as a force for good—comes along with an abundance of round-toned assuredness, and Coss’ horn, even during some of the more tender efforts, like the medium-tempo “Breaking Point,” hints at future decades brimming with recordings.

Aki Rissanen

Art In Motion

Perhaps because he grew up at a time when the term “keyboard” was as likely to mean a synth or sampler as a Steinway, Finnish pianist Aki Rissanen seems to have a particular fondness for the pulsing insistence of eighth-note ostinatos. It’s a sound that evokes the chattering circuitry of sequencers, except that instead of programming the notes, Rissanen plays them by hand, a bit of virtuosity made all the more astonishing because it’s merely background, a rhythmic pattern that simply supports the melodic thrust of what he’s playing.

“Aeropeans,” the track that opens his third album with bassist Antii Lötjönen and drummer Teppo Mäkynen, is a case in point. It begins with a blur of rhythm, the piano percolating like a sequencer as the bass moves in contrary motion against it, offset by a spare, glitchy rhythm on hi-hat, all in 5/4. It’s the sort of background groove you’d expect from an adventurous electro-pop group, except that the Rissanen trio leaves gaps in the groove, which allows the beat to breathe a bit. Moreover, where much electronic music seems determinedly horizontal, driven by an endlessly looping ostinato, Rissanen and company keep changing things up—the texture, the rhythmic patterns, the tonal center. Structurally, it’s more étude than electro.

Then again, as Rissanen states in the liner notes, his sensibility owes as much to Mozart as to Moby, and the classical influence is strong throughout Art In Motion. Two tracks are jazz interpretations of classical pieces, and their differences are instructive. “Moro Lasso Al Mio Duolo” is based on a 17th century motet by Carlo Gesualdo, but instead of getting the John Lewis treatment, it’s lifted out of the baroque era and reimagined with the moody, modal harmony of Brad Mehldau. “Cantus Arcticus, Melancholy,” by contrast, is based on a late-20th century orchestral piece by Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, and alternates between ghostly open chords and the sort of knotty jazz lyricism you’d expect from Keith Jarrett.

Add in the witty dissonance of “Das Untemperierte Klavier,” which features a striking, double-stopped solo by bassist Lötjönen, or the mutated bossa of “Seemingly Radical,” a tune whose melody eerily echoes “Thanks For The Memories,” and Art In Motion finds the Rissanen trio moving in many directions, all of them interesting.

Chase Baird

A Life Between

“Ripcord,” the opening gambit of saxophonist Chase Baird’s A Life Between, makes it seem like the album might make a run at some sort of jazz-rock update. But the easy melodicism of each cut—defined by Baird’s innate ability to whip off lines that contain some sort of vocal quality—minimizes those concerns. That the bandleader’s brought along pianist Brad Mehldau and drummer Antonio Sánchez doesn’t hurt much, either.

“Ripcord,” though, does lunge and sway during a transitional passage like any rock-world breakdown. But Baird uses the easily understood compositional component as a way to thread together his solos and Mehldau’s. It’s not necessarily a neat stitch, but absolutely functional.

“I really want to be in Radiohead,” the bandleader said in a press release, half-joking. “But how can I be a saxophonist and do that?”

Despite Baird’s questionable desire, Nir Felder drops in some McLaughlin-esque guitar moves on “Reactor,” a tune replete with digital gurgling and Mehldau’s facile comping that again sturdily references a rock setting.

But some of the most exciting moments here come during a duet passage between Baird and Sánchez on “Wait And See,” each player familiar with the other’s vocabulary from playing in the drummer’s band, Migration. And squeaky solemnity abounds on “Im Wunderschönen Monat Mai,” the album closer, an interpretation of a Robert Schumann composition. It closes the album out on a quiet, reflective note, in stark contrast to how A Life Between started. It’d be easy to posit that these two approaches—aggro and balladic—in some way hem up the broad sonic personality of the bandleader. But really, at a time when we’re all devouring vast quantities of film, writing, art and music, it should just be the standard. Baird easily surpasses that expectation while in the company of the some of genre’s best.

Ricardo Peixoto

Scary Beautiful
(Moving Finger)

Veteran guitarist Ricardo Peixoto is poised to broaden his fan base with the elegant, all-original album Scary Beautiful, on which the Rio de Janeiro native (and current Bay Area resident) excels in solo, duet and full-band settings.

Peixoto’s discography includes work with the bands Terra Sul and the Berkeley Choro Ensemble, as well as Inverse Universe, a duo project with Brazilian vocalist Claudia Villela. On Scary Beautiful he plays acoustic and electric seven-string guitars and works with a set of top-shelf collaborators, including Paul McCandless (soprano sax), Harvey Wainapel (clarinet and bass clarinet), Marcos Silva (piano), John Santos (percussion) and Villela, who overdubs eight vocal tracks on the brief dreamscape “Nereids,” the only song here that isn’t an instrumental.

Nodding to Brazilian musical traditions, Peixoto offers a couple of songs in the baião style: “Santos E Demônios” opens with an ominous mood, perhaps fitting for the demons in the song’s title, and later is leavened by a flute solo from Bob Afifi. On the lively “Baião De Três,” Peixoto changes the traditional baião rhythm from 2/4 to 3/4 time, resulting in an earworm.

“Noturna” is a lovely solo guitar number, while “Simpática,” a guitar and piano duet with Silva, is based on the choro rhythm (which some jazz fans have heard clarinetist Anat Cohen navigate in her exploration of Brazilian styles). The samba “Morro Da Paixão” is a memorable hip shaker featuring horn arrangements by Luiz Brasil, while “Velha Amizade” is somewhat reminiscent of the gentle ocean waves lapping the shore that one experiences in classic Jobim tunes.

Peixoto has absorbed the musical traditions of his homeland and utilized them to create original compositions that acknowledge the past while moving toward the future.

Various Artists

Strain Crack & Break: Music From The Nurse With Wound List, Volume 1 (France)
(Finders Keepers)

In the world of underground curios, Nurse With Wound, a 40-year-old noise project headed by British performer Steven Stapleton, is staggeringly important. The amassed esteem, in part, is predicated on a list of almost-forgotten bands that Stapleton and company included with their first release, Chance Meeting On A Dissecting Table Of A Sewing Machine And An Umbrella.

With the heft of a history textbook, the Nurse With Wound list—which places John Cage and Can alongside Steve Lacy and La Monte Young—is set to be rendered as a series of compilations, breaking down artists by country of origin. Strain, Crack & Break: Music From The Nurse With Wound List, Volume 1 (France) is the program’s opener.

The music on Stapleton’s own 1979 LP moves to capitalize on some combo of musique concrète, free improv and proto-industrial shards of sound. The result isn’t imminently listenable—and apart from a few 1990s collaborations with Stereolab, there isn’t really an entry point for casual listeners. That’s not what any of this is about, though. Instead, it’s the comp’s reified obsessiveness, completionism and the cataloging of a past that otherwise might be utterly obscured to future seekers. The NWW list certainly isn’t an all-encompassing compendium of outsider music, but still takes into consideration a wealth of sounds, pointing toward Stapleton being a pretty curious listener.

Jazz drummer Jacques Thollot—who’d done time with Don Cherry, Joachim Kühn, Krzysztof Komeda and others—opens Strain, Crack & Break with a cut from his 1971 solo debut, where he played various keyboards, percussion and electronics. The final third of the track is one of the few moments on the newly devised comp that actually swings. Sputtering synths and cut-up tape follow with offerings from Phillippe Besombes and Pierre Henry, and Horrific Child, Mahjun and Lard Free turn in some reasonably palatable prog. The rest is a miasma of sound, experimentation and skronky self-indulgence, but the good kind. Red Noise’s 15 minutes of juiced-up electric noodling and jocular jazz on “Sarcelles C’est L’Avenir” ranks among the best of what’s here.

Volume two, which focuses on the finer points of German sensationalism, is said to be in the works for 2020; the number of total installments still has yet to be determined. It’s a lot of music by any measure. But thinking to work the NWW list into LP-length projects is both a brilliant step toward the preservation of a disappearing past and an intriguing vantage point to watch Stapleton assess the guidebook he devised for experimentalists.

Rich Willey’s Boptism Big Band

Down & Dirty
(Wise Cat)

Rich Willey has built a beast of a modern big band album: Down & Dirty is a 77-minute program of 11 original tunes (and one jazz standard, “Old Folks”) orchestrated by ace arrangers and performed by a killer assortment of Los Angeles-based instrumentalists. Willey’s bass trumpet melodies and improvisations play a central role on the album, which also features the leader on traditional B-flat trumpet and flugelhorn. With help from his producer, Dan Fornero, Willey hired section players with the right combination of chops, sight-reading skills and interpretive sensibility to execute a collection of previously unseen, highly sophisticated big band charts supplied by Gordon Goodwin, Michael Abene, Chris Walden and band keyboardist Wally Minko.

The results of the sessions, which took place in January, are spectacular. The music draws upon a full palette of tonal colors, with assorted woodwinds, muted brass, piccolo trumpet, auxiliary percussion, electric guitar, synthesizer, French horns and strings rounding out the more traditional big band instrumentation. All these arrangements are highly involved affairs, full of dramatic counterpoint, connective-tissue interludes, unexpected timbral combinations and thematically appropriate background parts in the solo sections.

A wide range of styles is presented here, from straightahead jazz and Latin grooves to funk, reggae, baroque, balladry and straight-up rock. Standout instrumentalists include lead trumpeter Wayne Bergeron, tenor saxophonist Bob Sheppard, trombonist Andy Martin and drummer Peter Erskine. Willey’s tone on bass trumpet is round and centered, fatter than a regular trumpet (which sounds roughly one octave higher), yet brighter than a trombone (which shares the same tessitura). It makes for a nice juxtaposition to the mighty brass section work that runs through much of the program. Willey’s flugelhorn tone is simply gorgeous, marked by expressive phrasing and tender dynamics. In true leader fashion, he puts his personal stamp on all the material on Down & Dirty—a major artistic accomplishment from a player who, in addition to extensive work as a sideman to the greats, has been leading his own ensembles since 1986.

Bob Sheppard

The Fine Line

Like a lot of elite, Los Angeles-based studio musicians, reedman Bob Sheppard is one of those players whose sound is more familiar than his name. Even though he’s played on dozens of albums during the past 40 years, ranging from guest spots with the likes of Rod Stewart, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen to sideman gigs with Chick Corea, Freddie Hubbard and Peter Erskine, The Fine Line is only his fourth album as a leader.

Talk about a late bloomer.

Sheppard offers the music here as someone with little to prove, and that casual confidence brings a low-key bravura to the playing. Take the album-opening “Edge Of Trouble”: A driving, modal tune in the vein of McCoy Tyner, it leaves plenty of blowing room, not only for Sheppard’s agile, witty soprano, but also for Simon Moullier’s coolly virtuosic vibraphone and John Beasley’s spryly adventurous piano. But Sheppard and company aren’t content to merely blow changes; they want to make things interesting. So, as the group is easing into the tune, Moullier bends notes and puts chords out of phase, so that his vibes evoke a synthesizer. Later, during Kendrick Scott’s drum solo, Sheppard, Moullier, Beasley and bassist Jasper Somsen play an elaborate contrapuntal pattern that gives Scott extra material to work with. It’s the sort of clever arranging that adds extra dimensions to the music.

That ingenuity pervades the album, ensuring that there’s always a little bit extra for the listener to dig into.

Why play a pop tune like “People Make The World Go ’Round” straight when you can abstract it? Instead of following the form, Sheppard and Beasley use the refrain as a compositional anchor, stretching it through reharmonization, and bending it via variations in tempo and meter. For his reading of “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” Sheppard pretends not to know what time the original was in, and plays it as a dark and dreamy jazz waltz.

Featuring innovative arrangements and simpatico playing, The Fine Line is a gem of an album, and another excellent reason to remember Bob Sheppard’s name.

Gard Nilssen Acoustic Unity

To Whom Who Buys A Record

It’s easy to lament any bygone era, just as mourning the increased use of electronics in jazz is a mantra some are unwilling to let go of. Regardless of your feelings about drum programming or electronics in general, there was something intensely precious about a time when bands just set up on the floor and went at it.

Norwegian drummer Gard Nilssen plays in troupes that make the most of technology, but his trio Acoustic Unity—with bassist Petter Eldh and reedist André Roligheten—is something of a throwback, even as the music on To Whom Who Buys A Record seeks to cultivate an unconventional language. The knotty verbiage of the album’s title also references the past—To Whom Who Keeps A Record, an Ornette Coleman disc collecting material from 1959–’60. And while the music here isn’t necessarily beholden to the saxophone icon’s work, the same sense of adventure tugs at both.

Nilssen leads the trio through 12 post-post-bop explorations, while Roligheten’s voice emerges as a distinguishing feature. There’s a distinctive, but somehow fragile, Coltrane vibe on “Masakråke,” a tune written by the bandleader that highlights his indelible connection with the reedist, who bleats out the theme then effortlessly shifts to improv.

Acoustic Unity hasn’t been Nilssen’s main focus, his time being split among Cortex, the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra and sundry other outfits. But To Whom and 2017’s Live In Europe (Clean Feed) illustrate that he values the trio as a vehicle for his writing, unfettered by bombast—and electrical concerns.

Sara Gazarek

Thirsty Ghost
(Self Release)

With Thirsty Ghost—her sixth album—vocalist, composer, arranger and producer Sara Gazarek positions herself as an Artist with a capital “A.” Her stature among colleagues is illustrated by the company she keeps: Kurt Elling penned the liner notes essay and contributes vocals to “Distant Storm”; Larry Goldings plays organ on two cuts he wrote with Gazarek (“Easy Love” and “Gaslight District”); and Grammy nominee Alan Ferber wrote horn parts for three tunes.

Gifted with a vocal style that’s both authoritative and accessible, Gazarek soars atop Stu Mindeman’s bubbling Fender Rhodes and Christian Euman’s skittering drums on “Never Will I Marry” and then peppers the proceedings with some slick scatting. The elasticity of Gazarek’s phrasing makes the arrangement of “I Get Along Without You Very Well” a virtual master class in mining an amber song for fresh revelations.

The two aforementioned tunes brilliantly demonstrate the leader’s technical prowess and clear affinity for the Great American Songbook, but it’s the more eclectic fare here that reveals Gazarek’s full artistic range. Her source material comes from various decades and genres: Nick Drake’s “River Man” (1969), Stevie Wonder’s “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)” (1972), Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” (1973), Björk’s “Cocoon” (2001) and Sam Smith’s “I’m Not The Only One” (2014). Each of those renditions is stamped with a sleek creativity that distinguishes it from the original version. In Gazarek’s reading of “Jolene,” for example, the narrator is embodied not simply as a victim worthy of pity, but rather a fierce avenger who is not to be crossed.

The closing track, “Distant Storm,” features Gazarek’s original lyrics paired with pianist Brad Mehldau’s instrumental tune “When It Rains.” This cut is the zenith, thanks to its poetic lyrics; a carefully crafted arrangement; Gazarek’s multitracked vocals; a mighty—yet mellow—alto saxophone solo from Josh Johnson; Elling’s quirky guest turn; and the leader’s dramatic, punch-in-the-gut conclusion. Transcendence abounds in this six-minute tour de force.

Thirsty Ghost is the type of album that can transform a career, winning over new fans and causing longtime observers to re-evaluate their estimation of the performer.

Gazarek’s current tour includes two sets at Jazz Standard in New York on Aug. 10, plus residencies at the Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe outside Detroit (Aug. 16–17) and Jazz Alley in Seattle (Sept. 17–18).

Avishai Cohen (bass)


Because Avishai Cohen’s previous outing—a 2017 album titled 1970 (Sony)—was his most commercially successful release thus far, one wouldn’t blame him for revisiting a similar artistic wellspring. Instead, for his 17th leader date, the bassist went in another direction, recruiting an entirely different set of musicians for the deeply personal, nostalgia-fueled Arvoles.

Half the program here consists of trio recordings with pianist Elchin Shirinov and drummer Noam David, and on the other half, the band expands to a quintet with trombonist Björn Samuelsson and flutist Anders Hagberg. It’s all original compositions, with the exception of “Arvoles”—a traditional tune with a title in the Ladino language that means “Trees.”

In concert, Cohen can become a muscular machine of pure propulsion. On this studio album, however, he demonstrates an admirable musical diversity. His arco work adds wondrous, subtle texture to “Childhood (For Carmel),” a lovely, slow ballad. The arrangement for another ballad—the title cut—features a lot of space and poignant pauses to heighten the drama, with the leader’s conversational playing style evoking human speech. “Wings” has a touch of swing and includes a bass solo that finds Cohen shining brightly without grandstanding. “Simonero” features a piano riff so infectious that the tune could be the theme song to a hit sitcom.

Elsewhere, a tempered dose of sentimentality flows through the trio tune “Nostalgia,” spiced by a knotty piano motif, as well as the brief “New York 90’s,” featuring a triumphant trombone tone. With Arvoles, Cohen shows he’s forceful enough to melt your mind with a pounding rhythm—but tender enough to showcase his mother’s paintings in the CD packaging.

Cohen will highlight material from Arvoles during a quintet concert on Aug. 25 at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat, Israel.

Laura Jurd

Stepping Back, Jumping In

It’s all atmosphere that opens “I Am The Spring, You Are The Earth,” the nine-minute centerpiece of London-based trumpeter Laura Jurd’s new disc, Stepping Back, Jumping In.

The Ligeti Quartet executes her composition with airy ambience, sawing those strings to sinister effect. It’s a disquieting moment amid an album-length pastiche of jazz, chamber music and something akin to a film score. “I Am The Spring” drifts on for a bit, augmented by Rob Luft’s slide guitar and Anja Lauvdal’s mounting synth drone. Jurd’s horn doesn’t factor into the mix until about five minutes in, contributing a new layer of tension among the other brass as the tune ambles toward an experimental denouement.

A few tracks on, “Companion Species” more closely approximates Dinosaur—a collaborative ensemble Jurd performs in—splicing in a dash of funk and some jazzier tendencies. She doesn’t take the spotlight frequently, and here Jurd’s solo is pretty short. But she trills, emotes and delights so effectively in the quiet moments provided by her writing that it’s tough not to want the feature to stretch on for a while.

Stepping Back, Jumping In isn’t the composer’s first tangle with strings, but it marks further development in Jurd’s voice, one that cleverly weaves together new-music exceptionalism, experimental bravura and occasional jazz feels.

Victor Gould

Thoughts Become Things
(Blue Room)

Any player adding a string ensemble to their regular jazz troupe is taking a risk.

Several titans of the genre have given it a shot, and despite Charlie Parker With Strings generating enough acclaim to warrant a 2019 Record Store Day release of alternate takes—nearly 70 years after the sessions—the original album might not be one that many listeners would turn to if, say, Bird And Diz was within arm’s reach.

Pianist Victor Gould doesn’t lean too heavily on the string quartet that crops up on most of the tracks of his third leader date, Thoughts Become Things: On “October,” “What Do We Need,” “Let Go” and “Inheritance,” strings are used for added color to introduce and close out a song or transition between sections. The title track is a notable exception, as reeds and brass are interwoven with a moody quartet.

Tucking in a rendition of “Polka Dots And Moonbeams” adds a bit of historical grandeur to the proceedings. And saxophonist Godwin Louis—who somehow hasn’t become as big a name as the rest of the cohort here—gets a feature on “Karma Jones,” Gould bookending the composition with blocky, resonant chords.

Thoughts Become Things doesn’t take avant-garde risks, but it certainly advances a new and important compositional voice. And with Gould’s latest effort bolstered by a raft of talent—trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, bassist Vicente Archer, multi-instrumentalist Anne Drummond—listeners should expect further flourishes on future offerings.

Akiko Tsuruga/Graham Dechter/Jeff Hamilton

Equal Time

The best thing about the trio organist Akiko Tsuruga formed with drummer Jeff Hamilton and guitarist Graham Dechter is that none of them are trying to reinvent the wheel. Theirs is a straight-up, hard-swinging organ trio in the classic tradition. And all they’re trying to do is excel at the form—which they do. In spades.

Start with the groove, because if the rhythm isn’t right, we might as well pack up the B-3 and go home. Hamilton—as should be obvious to anyone who’s heard him behind Diana Krall, the L.A. 4 or any of the big bands with which he’s played—is a master of skip-ride swing, a player whose light touch belies the power of his pulse. But that’s only half the magic here: The rest lies with the uncanny swing of Akiko’s left-hand bass lines, which not only walk convincingly, but also push the beat the way a bassist would.

Because of those two elements, this trio is always deep in the pocket. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a churchy blues like Hank Mobley’s “A Baptist Beat,” an uptempo swinger like Steve Allen’s “This Could Be The Start Of Something Big” or even something as rhythmically tricky as John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice”—where the head slips gracefully between 3 and 4—the groove is always top-notch, and the solos make the most of it.

Listen, for example, to the end of “I Remember You,” where the three players trade eights. Dechter’s solo is lithe and tuneful, with cool, bop-fueled momentum, and Hamilton answers it with an equally melodic drum solo. Akiko takes a more soulful approach to the bridge and Hamilton answers in kind, with a snappily syncopated reply. It really is a band of equals—one that makes mainstream jazz fans wonder why Akiko and Dechter aren’t better known.

Steve Goodman

Affordable Art

Singer-songwriter Steve Goodman (1948–’84) has been gone for roughly the same amount of time that he wandered the Earth: It’s been 35 years since he succumbed to leukemia at age 36. In recent years, his legacy might have dimmed a bit, as the album No Big Surprise: The Steve Goodman Anthology and the all-star outing Tribute To Steve Goodman both fell out of print. The Omnivore label seeks to reverse that process in a big way with reissues of four Goodman albums, all loaded with numerous bonus tracks, including the sparkling gem Affordable Art (1984).

More successful as a composer than as a recording artist, Goodman penned “City Of New Orleans,” a modern classic that has been recorded dozens of times, most famously by Arlo Guthrie and Willie Nelson. Goodman and his close friend and fellow folkie John Prine teamed up to write “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” which David Allan Coe transformed into a country hit in 1975. (Live versions of those two tunes appear on Omnivore’s reissue of Artistic Hair, originally released in 1983.)

Chicago Cubs fans know Goodman for two of his own recordings: the wry “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request” and “Go Cubs Go,” the team’s victory anthem, originally written for radio station WGN. Both tunes are included on Omnivore’s reissue of Affordable Art, a generous package that includes seven previously unreleased solo acoustic tracks.

Prine shows up twice in this program—as the co-writer of the slight but charming “How Much Tequila (Did I Drink Last Night?)” and as the composer and duet partner on the brilliant, devastating “Souvenirs.” Goodman, who’s often compared to Prine, was a songwriter of many moods, and the original LP of Affordable Art demonstrated that he could craft material that was sad (“California Promises”), silly (“Talk Backwards”), sentimental (“Old Smoothies”) or surreal (“Watchin’ Joey Glow”).

At his best, few could match Goodman’s wit. He collaborated with two other clever tunesmiths—Shel Silverstein and Michael Peter Smith—for “Vegematic,” the hilarious, insanely catchy tale of a man who falls asleep in front of a TV and then, in a somnambulant state, answers “every single one of those late-night, mail-order ads.” Cynical Baby Boomers will appreciate the song’s stealthy stab at consumerism, particularly the line about “an autographed photograph of Rin Tin Tin at Six Flags Over Burbank.”

Affordable Art is the best of the four reissues, but the other collections have their merits—particularly for Goodman completionists. Omnivore’s version of Santa Ana Winds (1984) is marred by production values that haven’t aged well, but bolstered by a jazz-infused reading of “The Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Unfinished Business (1987) is an uneven collection of demos, outtakes and unissued recordings compiled by Goodman’s manager, Al Bunetta. Though the songwriter fought fatigue as his health failed, Goodman’s skills as an expressive folk guitarist survived, as evidenced by many fine performances chronicled on these four albums.

Mike Clark

Indigo Blue: Live At The Iridium

Drummer Mike Clark, whose work with Herbie Hancock and The Headhunters in the 1970s expertly straddled the jazz-funk divide and generated enough aural excitement to influence multiple generations of players, indulges his straightahead side on this live all-star session recorded last year at New York’s Iridium.

Trumpeter Randy Brecker, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., tenor saxophonist Rob Dixon, bassist Christian McBride and pianist Antonio Faraò join Clark on a swinging program that includes original compositions by bandmembers and a couple of Thelonious Monk standards. Despite his reputation as the man who literally wrote the book on funk drumming (he authored the 2012 Hal Leonard publication Funk Drumming: Innovative Grooves & Advanced Concepts), Clark finds himself in very familiar territory here, having honed his straightahead chops over decades playing gigs with the likes of Chet Baker, Joe Henderson, Woody Shaw, Bobby Hutcherson, Nat Adderley, Gil Evans and scores of other heavyweights from the worlds of bebop and blues. His spang-a-lang ride work reveals itself to be second nature as the veteran drummer drives the ensemble with his tasteful snare-and-cymbals swing grooves and insistent shuffles. But Clark’s most creative statements come during the quieter moments of this recording. Hear his brushes sizzle, subdivide, scrape and swish on the Faraò ballad “Sweet.” And dig the understated-yet-creative way Clark provides support during the bass solos: he ticks, taps, skitters and clicks out the time with intensity, but at a volume low enough to reveal the depths of McBride’s resonant, pure-acoustic tone.

BT ALC Big Band

The Search For Peace

Co-led by trombonist Brian Thomas and trumpeter Alex Lee-Clark, the 19-piece BT ALC Big Band succeeds in funking up one of the most storied traditions in jazz. The Boston-based big band’s fourth album, The Search For Peace, reflects an artistic debt to funk icon James Brown, the bandleader’s danceable rhythms and potent horn charts being key influences on the program’s seven original compositions (three by Thomas and four by Lee-Clark). This 43-minute album offers plenty of barn burners that could fill a dance floor; just the first 30 seconds of Lee-Clark’s “Dance” should get listeners bobbing their heads and shaking their hips.

The catchy “Tune For Lou” sounds like the lost theme song from a 1970s sitcom and features a greasy organ solo from Sam Gilman, nodding to the soul-jazz organ tradition. “Live 9” begins with a beat influenced by reggae before moving into soul and funk territory. “Make It Your Job,” a Thomas tune, is driven by kinetic trombone work and a canyon-deep groove. And the title track subtly samples a recording of President John F. Kennedy’s June 10, 1963, commencement address at American University in Washington, D.C., in which he said that the United States would “do our part to build a world of peace where the weak are safe and the strong are just. We are not helpless before that task or hopeless of its success. Confident and unafraid, we labor on—not toward a strategy of annihilation but toward a strategy of peace.”

Apparently Thomas and Lee-Clark, who are both educators, wanted to inject a short history lesson into the musical proceedings.

Boston-area fans can catch the BT ALC Big Band at Sally O’Brien’s in Somerville, Massachusetts, on July 25, Aug. 29 and Sept. 26.

Dock In Absolute

(CAM Jazz)

A quirky name, an unusual home base and an aesthetic centered on deep melodicism are all factors that make Dock In Absolute an intriguing band.

On its sophomore album, Unlikely, the Luxembourg-based trio—Jean-Philippe Koch (piano), David Kintziger (electric bass) and Michel Mootz (drums)—walks the tightrope between high drama and attention-seeking bombast without ever slipping into the faulty side of that divide. The all-original program here includes eight Koch compositions, one by Kintziger and another that the pianist and bassist wrote together.

Fond of quicksilver tempo shifts and sonic dynamism, bandleader Koch helps the material lope, sprint and morph gracefully, but avoids the pitfalls of flabbiness and excess. “Night Train To Lipetsk” barrels along in muscular fashion, building drama, segueing into a section in which Kintziger’s authoritative bass subtly slides to the forefront, then shifts into a solo piano segment before snapping back into a full-band flurry, spiked with Mootz’s skittering cymbal work. The longest tune—the gorgeous, seven-minute “Floating Memories”—features some of Koch’s best work, as he delivers an arresting, memorable melody and later provides pithy, upper-register coloration.

Somewhat like British trio GoGo Penguin and pianist Hiromi’s trio, Dock In Absolute is fueled by drum patterns that owe more to rock than jazz, resulting in songs like “Borderline” and “No Plan B” that seem destined to resonate with festival audiences.

The outliers in the Unlikely program are “Drawing Light”—Kintziger’s captivating solo bass tune—and the closer, “Tangle Borders,” a layered track that incorporates touches of dissonance in the form of a recording that sounds a bit like a police dispatcher’s radio transmission.

The band’s democratic interplay will be showcased on stages around the globe in 2019, with gigs at the Jazz in Daegu Festival (Aug. 18, in South Korea), the Odessa Jazz Festival (Sept. 22, in Ukraine) and the Kolkata Jazz Festival (Dec. 1, in India). At press time, the band only had one U.S. date scheduled: Aug. 10 at the San Jose Jazz Summer Fest in California.

Sylvie Courvoisier/Mark Feldman

Time Gone Out

On the face of it, a piano and violin duo seems less like a jazz project than something from the classical realm, and if you’re listening for the traditional tropes of mainstream jazz—blue notes, swung eighths, regularly recurring chord changes—you won’t find them here. If, on the other hand, what you listen for is creative improvisation that marries a strong compositional sense with a high level of virtuosity, you can’t go wrong with Sylvie Courvoisier and Mark Feldman’s duo album, Time Gone Out.

It opens with “Homesick For Another World,” an eerily beautiful performance that finds the two evoking that “other world” through ghostly violin harmonics and strummed piano strings, before fading into a pregnant silence. And yet, there’s such a tunefulness to Feldman’s playing that the piece never feels off-putting. “Limits Of The Useful,” on the other hand, feels more purposely abstract, as the two focus more on texture than tune, particularly in Courvoisier’s use of prepared piano through the first half. Here again, though, there’s such a playfulness to what they’re doing that it’s easy to be drawn into the music.

By far, though, the album’s best moments come when the music’s scale turns epic. At nearly 20 minutes, the episodic title tune ranges from fevered improvisation to exchanges that could pass for excerpts from some lost piece by Olivier Messiaen. The level of communication between these two (who, in addition to being longtime duet partners, are also spouses) not only facilitates these stylistic pivots, but also leaves room for the occasional gag, as on “Not A Song, Other Songs” where at one point a long glissando from Feldman is answered by Courvoisier pounding a deep, thunderous chord—boom! You can almost hear the two of them smiling as they move on to the next exchange.

Nature Work

Nature Work

In Chicago, Sun Ra compositions rank as repertoire with chimerical improv being the lingua franca.

Ample evidence comes on the quartet recording by Nature Work, helmed by the city’s Greg Ward on alto saxophone and Jason Stein on bass clarinet. Splitting up writing duties on the tracks here, the pair invites experimentally inclined bassist Eric Revis and exploratory drummer Jim Black to round out the group, adding some New York gravitas to the proceedings.

But Nature Work just sounds like Chicago, smartly penned heads sitting alongside patches of emotionally wrought blowing. On Stein’s “Porch Time,” Revis and Black lock into a maniacal debate, churning out some of the most menacing moments of the album, as Ward blends in calming, ropey lines of improv before the tune’s composer briefly restates the tune’s melodic material.

Contrasting Stein’s writing with Ward’s finds tunes like the latter’s “Tah Dazzle,” pointing toward some divergent ideas—but only marginally. Ward seems to find wobbly phrases and lines for the pair to repeat, providing listeners easier access to the swelling improvisations that follow. While both players clearly are writing to give everyone space to explore, Stein works to get to all involved to that musical nexus more immediately.


Psychedelic Backfire I/II
(Rune Grammofon)

Jammy Oslo-bred fusion trio Elephant9, now more than a decade into life, offers up a pair of live recordings on Psychedelic Backfire I and II that seethe with aggression and recline with tranquility.

Revisiting its recorded past in a live setting at Oslo’s Kampen Bistro, the band dispatches six cuts on the first disc as a trio, with a pair of the tunes being revisited on II. But here keyboardist Ståle Storløkken matches patches of regal prog, as on “I Cover The Mountaintop,” with Soft Machine-esque jazz and psychedelia. “Actionpack1,” a tune off 2018’s Greatest Show On Earth, turns motorik, the ensemble’s drummer Torstein Lofthus flexing significant time-keeping acumen—and stamina.

Sometimes the setup doesn’t quite work, though: The version of “Habanera Rocket” on I sounds a bit thin and quickly descends into patchouli-scented aimlessness. With Dungen guitarist Reine Fiske in tow for a second version of the tune on II, the song’s quieter opening section better sweeps into a chunk of funky improv. Of course, hearing Storløkken unspool the ambient opening of Stevie Wonder’s “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” might provide a more accessible port of entry. But even some of the knottier moments on both installments of Psychedelic Backfire make clear that there’s still some point of convergence in the psych and jazz worlds that are worth trying to pry open.

Marlene Rosenberg

MLK Convergence

If you don’t know bassist Marlene Rosenberg from her work with Paul Wertico or Ed Thigpen, OK. But she’s gigged with a virtual murderers’ row of players and had Makaya McCraven in her group before most folks had heard the drummer’s name.

Origin label honcho and drummer John Bishop had been paying attention, though.

“The first time I noticed her was when she was in Joe Henderson’s band with Renee Rosnes and Sylvia Cuenca back in the late ’80s,” he wrote in an email. That group issued the live set Punjab in 1990, Rosenberg taking a writing credit for “Blue Waltz.” “But she’s done thousands of gigs over the decades; one of us jazz worker bees.”

As playful, sturdy and vaguely funky as the material is on MLK Convergence, the album’s title works to reference the civil rights icon as much as the first letters in the names of the trio’s principal members, which in addition to Rosenberg includes drummer Lewis Nash and pianist Kenny Barron. Apart from a track featuring Christian McBride doubling-up on bass, “And Still We Rise,” and the album closer, “Love’s In Need Of Love Today,” most of MLK Converge doesn’t feel overwhelmingly political. But “Not The Song I Wanna Sing,” the only cut here with vocals, offers up lines from guests like, “Rogue killer cops take black lives that do matter/ Minor traffic stops that end with blood spatter” over an acoustic groove suitable for A Tribe Called Quest to have sampled in 1994. Rosenberg, who’s been based in Chicago since the ’80s, also makes certain to mention the 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old slain by a city policeman.

Michael Winograd

Kosher Style
(OU People)

There was a time, back in the 1960s, when klezmer was considered not just retro but actually dead, and those who played it were not practitioners but revivalists. Clarinetist Michael Winograd grew up in that era, but plays like a skeptic—listening to him, you’d never imagine there was a time during which klezmer was in decline.

Much of that has to do with the way Winograd has mastered the klezmer clarinet vocabulary. It’s not the tunes he plays so much as the way he plays them that stamps this music as being “Kosher style”—the throaty glissandos, the crisp grace notes, ululating ornaments that make his clarinet phrases sound distinctively, definitively of the Jewish tradition. Interestingly, the rest of his young, Brooklyn-based ensemble pretty much leaves that space entirely to Winograd. Although there are moments in which the saxophonists mimic the clarinet’s phrasing, trumpeter Ben Holmes and trombonist Daniel Blacksberg tend to play it straight, to such an extent that Holmes’ carefully-tongued phrases would be as at home in a polka band as in Winograd’s ensemble.

Nevertheless, it’s hard not to be awed by Winograd’s complete command of klezmer ornamentation, much less the wit with which he deploys it to make the music fit contemporary Brooklyn Jewish culture. It’s so kosher you should feel guilty listening to the recording on your stereo Friday night.

The Hot Sardines

Welcome Home, Bon Voyage

If one had never heard the music of The Hot Sardines but had seen a recent photo of the octet onstage, it would be easy to assume that vocalist and co-leader Elizabeth Bougerol’s washboard is the most unusual aspect of the band’s instrumentation. But that honor actually goes to the band member whose specialty is “playing the feet”—gifted tap dancer A.C. Lincoln. Of the dozen tracks on the hot-jazz band’s new live album, more than half of them feature tap-dance breaks that add an essential percussive element to the retro-leaning ensemble’s sonic fabric.

Welcome Home, Bon Voyage documents vibrant performances in two cities: Toronto (at Koerner Hall on April 14, 2018) and the band’s home base of New York (at Joe’s Pub on April 20–21, 2018). The Hot Sardines walk a path between fun and kitsch as they interpret works from such composers as Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee Clarence Williams (1893–1965), represented here with a lovely version of the ballad “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” and a red-hot romp through the novelty tune originally titled “I Ain’t Gonna Give Nobody None O’ This Jelly Roll.” At the latter song’s conclusion, Bougerol tells the crowd, “It’s about dessert,” joking about the 1919 song’s innuendo.

Throughout the program, Bougerol offers a sly, charming delivery, and on a ballad like Fats Waller and Andy Razaf’s “Keepin’ Out Of Mischief Now,” there’s not much shelter provided by historical recontextualization, so the vocal performance must succeed on its own merits—as opposed to winning over the audience simply through an act of musical archeology. But sociohistorical context is always a factor when a 21st century band decides to tackle material like 1902’s “(Won’t You Come Home) Bill Bailey,” which addresses a romantic squabble, or 1928’s “Crazy Rhythm,” which contains the lyrics “What’s the use of Prohibition/ You produce the same condition.”

Musical chops abound here, as displayed by the dialogue between trumpeter Noah Hocker and clarinetist Nick Myers on “Jelly Roll,” or the poignant pianism of band co-leader Evan Palazzo on “Exactly Like You” and “After You’ve Gone.”

Following mid-July shows in Austria, the United Kingdom and Ukraine, The Hot Sardines will begin a leg of U.S. dates on July 26 at Bard College’s Fisher Center in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.

Lauren Desberg

Out For Delivery
(Self Release)

Motown founder Berry Gordy has been credited with the famous quotation, “Don’t bore us—get to the chorus.” It’s a slogan that applies to jazz-pop singer Lauren Desberg’s fat-free, 31-minute release, Out For Delivery. The album, which includes 10 Desberg compositions and two standards, is peppered with four flavorful nuggets that are each fewer than 85 seconds in duration. The listener never has time to get complacent or sated, because the program’s pace is brisk and the hooks are strong.

The album opens with “The Way You Feel Inside,” which merges modern pop production and multitracked vocals with Andrew Renfroe’s jazz guitar licks. This song’s protagonist encourages people to express themselves honestly, and, like much of Desberg’s work, there’s more depth to the lyrics than one might initially notice—thanks to the breezy melody. “Something Wrong With Me,” the tale of an unlucky-in-love narrator whose fortune mysteriously turns to sunshine, is a showcase for the production prowess of Drew Ofthe Drew, who gracefully eases Braxton Cook’s saxophone into the mix, first as a background voice deep in the echo-laden distance and then, gradually, as the featured instrument, clear and authoritative in the foreground. Also among the seven gifted musicians at the sessions was pianist Kris Bowers, who shines on the introduction to the brief closer, “The Choice.”

Desberg, drummer Jonathan Barber and Drew Ofthe Drew (who also mixed and mastered the album) ensure that the two standards—“The Sweetest Sounds” and “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter”—are given fresh aural twists for a millennial audience. On these interpretations (and throughout the program), fans of Norah Jones might be drawn to Desberg’s vocal delivery, which is buoyant but not lightweight.

Interpersonal relationships are central to several of the songs here, including the poignant “How Could I Have Pain,” in which Desberg examines the difficulties of human connections, crooning, “We run in stride, but still we know we’re not in the same race/ I’m on the straight and narrow while he climbs/ I’ll see him at the finish line.”

Jordon Dixon

(Self Release)

There’s something to be said for the sturdiness of blues, bop and ballads, and D.C.-based tenor saxophonist Jordon Dixon digs into each for his second leader date, On!

A Louisiana native, the bandleader took on the burden and distinction of serving in the Marines for 11 years, according to the album’s press notes. After an honorable discharge, he headed to D.C. to study music and hooked up with Allyn Johnson, a pianist and educator who’s prominently featured across the new recording. The pair’s readily apparent rapport really is what enables On! to swing so easily.

“What You’ve Done For Me,” a muggy ballad, features the pianist in an expansive mood, Johnson’s solo plunging from one end of the keyboard to the other. As the bandleader takes back the spotlight, Johnson’s support might come off as a bit too busy, but still manages to hit all the right spots. On “Flame And Friction,” trumpeter J.S. Williams contributes fanfares linking it all back to the bandleader’s home state, adding further historical context to a recording that’s utterly beholden to the past, but somehow refuses to seem stuffy, reserved or artless.

For On! to be Dixon’s second long-player and to come off as assuredly as it does seems to mean that even as the well-worn combo of blues, bop and ballads heads into its ninth decade, there’re still players creative enough to invigorate the concoction.

Carlos Barbosa-Lima


The Zoho label has earned a strong reputation in part because of its commitment to Brazilian music and legendary artists such as acoustic guitarist Carlos Barbosa-Lima, who, after moving to New York in the 1980s, frequently collaborated with fellow countryman Antônio Carlos Jobim (1927–’94). Delicado, Barbosa-Lima’s 10th release for Zoho, is a tribute to the music traditions of Rio de Janeiro, such as bossa nova, samba and choro. The program includes compositions by Jobim, Luiz Bonfá (1922–2001), João Pernambuco (1883–1947), Baden Powell (1937–2000) and others. For the recording sessions, the leader assembled an all-star quintet, featuring artists who have appeared on previous Zoho releases: Larry Del Casale (guitar), Duduka Da Fonseca (percussion), Nilson Matta (bass) and Helio Alves (piano).

Barbosa-Lima, still spry and spectacular at age 74, graciously shares the spotlight with his bandmates. The title track—composed by choro master Waldir Azevedo (1923–1980)—reflects the quintet’s great rapport, with subtle, intricate interaction, and both guitarists playing the melody.

Sixty years after the release of director Marcel Camus’ Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus), musicians still find inspiration in the film’s soundtrack, which features work by Jobim and Bonfá. In his 15-song program, Barbosa-Lima interprets three tunes from the film’s score. The band’s version of “Samba De Orfeu” is an earworm with delightful percussive accents. A creative arrangement of “A Felicidade,” another samba number, segues from a full-band treatment into a twisting path of delicate solo parts and whimsical segments that evoke the sounds of tropical birds. Del Casale and Barbosa-Lima—who have been collaborators for more than 15 years—offer a gorgeous duo reading of “Manhã De Carnaval” that tugs at the heartstrings. Barbosa-Lima’s arrangement of “Odeon,” written by pianist Ernesto Nazareth (1863–1934), illustrates the drama and poignancy that this icon can generate in a solo guitar setting.

Delicado will please longtime fans and also might serve as a fine introduction to some of Brazil’s greatest composers.

Ultra World X-Tet

Wise Dreams And Fables Of The Sky

Diverse aspects of Greek mythology, ancient China and the multiculturalism of contemporary San Francisco all factor into Wise Dreams And Fables Of The Sky by the Ultra World X-Tet. The bulk of the Bay Area quintet’s third release is devoted to the titular suite, a four-song adventure inspired by Homer’s The Odyssey. Gary Schwantes (saxophones, bamboo flutes, ocarina) composed nearly all the material here, which was recorded live at San Francisco’s Old First Church with Doug Ebert (bass), Surya Prakasha (drums), Yangqin Zhao (yangqin, a Chinese hammered dulcimer) and Winnie Wong (guzheng, a zither that originated more than 2,500 years ago and became common during the Qin dynasty). The result is a smorgasbord that organically blends straightahead jazz, fusion, funk, blues, world music and other sonic elements. Listeners don’t need to know the plot of The Odyssey to fully appreciate the dramatic, cinematic qualities of this instrumental program; however, thanks to liner notes that outline the plot of books nine through 12 of Homer’s epic poem, one can make a game of matching melodic segments with their corresponding literary scenes, such as Odysseus’ encounter with the Cyclops or his return to Ithaca.

Although this is a concert disc, there is no stage banter and very little crowd noise, giving it the feel of a studio recording. A couple of memorable motifs—one involving a march-like rhythm and another featuring the guzheng—provide a buttress in the sturdy architecture of the suite. A far cry from a mere exercise in eclecticism, this album invites contemplation about the enduring components of that most human of endeavors: storytelling.

Angelika Niescier

New York Trio

Perpetually in good company, alto saxophonist Angelika Niescier is adding to a run of Intakt albums with her latest disc, New York Trio.

Across three consecutive recordings, bassist Christopher Tordini has been a constant companion, helping to provide Niescier with a versatile rhythm section that’s either been rounded out by Tyshawn Sorey or Gerald Cleaver, who’s behind the kit on this newest set. Working in a chordless troupe here, as well as on 2018’s The Berlin Concert, grants the reedist unsparing freedom to roam, and the berth to examine and re-examine a pair of compositions on each album, while also interspersing a handful of new confections.

After opening last year’s live disc—which according to New York Trio’s liner notes actually was recorded after this studio date—with two performances that might drown out some rock acts, a mathier take on “The Surge” announces this disc’s arrival.

“I was [excited] to include them in a different environment,” Niescier recently told DownBeat while chatting at a Cologne cafe. “I think I cut [the introductorily passage of ‘The Surge’] for the live performance, because we had so little time to rehearse, and included the whole thing [on the studio version]. And ‘5.8,’ I think I wrote a different solo section. I was like, should I do this? Then I was like, fuck it, yeah. It was such a different energy.”

It’d be easy for Niescier only to spotlight her burly approach to alto, augmented on New York Trio by trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, and come to each composition with a stormy fervor. But for “Ekim”—its melody borrowed from Turkish composer Nazife Güran—the bandleader and Tordini bend, blow and bow quietly, Finlayson weaving in lines with only minimal chatter from Cleaver. Programming “Push Pull” as the next track—one where the drummer leans into a groove more than anywhere else on New York Trio—might just be a satisfying accident, pointing out the bandleader’s various, contrasting and erudite approaches to composition. But it’s just as likely a clever and playful move, again flashing Niescier’s wit for a growing Stateside audience.

Eric Alexander

Leap Of Faith
(Giant Step Arts)

Eric Alexander steps outside of himself and embarks on far-reaching excursions for this live outing, recorded last August at New York’s Jazz Gallery with bassist Doug Weiss and drummer Jonathan Blake.

Leap Of Faith presents the tenor saxophonist in a liberated light, with few harmonic constraints to heed and no commercial expectations whatsoever from Jimmy Katz’s nonprofit organization Giant Step Arts [ed. note: Katz is a regular DownBeat contributor]. Alexander takes full advantage of this artistic and financial opportunity to explore his own wide-ranging tastes and shed his image as a bebop purist by boldly venturing into avant-garde territory and beyond. His playing is explosive, unbridled, searching and cathartic in this chordless trio setting—wide-open terrain that previously was unexplored by Alexander.

The program is all Alexander originals that were composed during a recent period of turbulence in the saxophonist’s life, and he clearly uses this new material to vent his wildest ideas and innermost emotions. Leap Of Faith begins with a brief free investigation that quickly takes shape as “Luquitas,” a showcase for the group’s boundless energy and unceasing momentum. The saxophonist plays with uttermost intensity on the swaggering “Hard Blues” and the Coltrane-fired “Second Impression.” Blake’s thundering drums anchor the blistering “Frenzy,” and Weiss’ resonant bowings serve as an essential undercurrent for “Magyar,” a work based on a reduction of themes from Béla Bartók’s Music For Strings, Percussion And Celesta.

With Leap Of Faith, Alexander followed the advice of his longtime friend Katz and pursued a project that radically departs from the norm, investigating a more expansive setting than the traditional bebop métier that has defined his artistry for decades. The resulting album is an honest depiction of one of today’s most burning tenor players, unleashed, at a pinnacle of raw passion.

Sam Newsome

Chaos Theory: Song Cycles For Prepared Saxophone
(Self Release)

In the seven decades since John Cage’s “Sonatas And Interludes” instructed pianists to “prepare” their instrument by placing screws, coins, pencils and other objects on the instrumnent’s strings, prepared piano has become a common enough concept that it even has leaked into the realm of rock music.

By contrast, Sam Newsome’s prepared saxophone, though it clearly takes inspiration from Cage’s approach, involves a whole other level of invention and virtuosity. Head over to his blog, and you’ll not only hear but see him alter the sound of his soprano in a variety of mind-bending ways, from inserting a noise maker into the neck, to adding lengths of plastic tubing between the mouthpiece and body of the horn. The clip where he stretches a deflated balloon across the bell and plays his horn like a bata drum is particularly brilliant.

Chaos Theory: Song Cycles For Prepared Saxophone applies these and other techniques to create multitracked soundscapes that will forever alter your understanding of what sounds a saxophone can make. Comparisons to Colin Stetson seem inevitable, but Newsome is working with a much broader palette, and to a different compositional purpose.

Despite the title’s promise of chaos, Newsome’s song cycle maintains a fairly conventional sense of melodic logic and rhythmic consistency. Although some tunes—such as “Chaos Theory, No. 2 (Hiss-ology)” or “Solo, No. 3 (Flutter-Effect)”—largely are built around specific techniques, other tracks layer a range of preparations to create rich and inventive soundscapes. “Sonic Polarity,” for example, is built over a percussive ostinato and didgeridoo-like drone that lends a sort of Persian classical feel to Newsome’s improvisations, while “Bubble Mute Boogie” builds off a prepared percussive pattern to create an addictively sweet blues groove. I can’t wait to hear what other possibilities Newsome discovers as he dives deeper into his preparations.

Elliot Galvin Trio

Modern Times

On “Ghosts,” the opening cut of the Elliot Galvin Trio’s new recording, Corrie Dick’s drumming tips in about 20 seconds after the track begins. It announces a decidedly pop-conscious consideration of the genre, but one that makes Modern Times imminently digestible.

Galvin uses the piano trio format within the confines of three­- to five-minute tunes, spinning right-hand flights into swelling waves of choppy chords. It doesn’t all actually come off sounding like pop music, and to Modern Times’ benefit, the playfulness these tunes rest upon sometimes is absent the overly serious stance listeners might associate with the jazz genre. Maybe it’s a generational thing; Polish saxophonist Kuba Więcek, another 20-something bandleader, moves in similar circles, ideologically if not sonically.

The ensemble’s setup—as well as Galvin and Dick performing together in UK group Dinosaur—enables the troupe to easily float into the odd, moody tune amid all the ebullient compositions here. “Fountainhead,” a three-minute cut about halfway through the disc, opens with a solo turn, before the bandleader is joined by bassist Tom McCredie’s arco spotlight. “Gold Shovel” and “Into The Dark” are relatively somber works, too, but offset by the playful “Jackfruit,” a tune presumably named for the meat-substitute.

The fruit, native to Southern India, isn’t exactly a staple in the States yet, and neither is Galvin. In time, though, at least one of them is going to be embraced here. Modern Times hints that Galvin’s turn likely is coming first.

Linda May Han Oh


Because they normally work in the background, solo albums by bassists often are marked by long bass solos, or unaccompanied bass performances, or even just an unusually bass-heavy mix. To that extent, Aventurine sounds little like a typical bass player’s album, as leader Linda May Han Oh keeps the music’s focus on her ensemble, not her acoustic or electric bass.

It isn’t just a general lack of bass solos. There are long stretches in the elegiac “The Sirens Are Wailing” when Oh doesn’t play at all, instead letting the string quartet and saxophonist Greg Ward take the helm for much of the piece, mixing improvised lines with those Oh has written. It’s an amazing bit of writing, and quite a testament to Oh’s abilities as a bandleader, as shifts between the composed and the collectively improvised sections are utterly seamless. Moreover, there’s not even the hint of a bass solo in its whole nine minutes.

Although some might read that as evidence of Oh’s selflessness, a better take would be to see Aventurine as a reflection of the type of music she most wants to make: deeply compositional, strongly collective and drawing freely from a range of musical traditions. Hence her treatment of “Au Privave,” which uses Charlie Parker’s serpentine blues as the basis for a churning, polytonal set of variations on a theme, giving us an approach to melodic elaboration that encompasses both jazz and classical music. When the group begins “Song Yue Rao,” Oh states the melody and others join in, making the Chinese folk tune sound like an old-timey string band piece. But as more voices enter, rhythms are added, lines are improvised, and other keys are suggested, until the music owes as much to Ornette Coleman as to any folk tradition.

With 14 tunes unspooling during about 75 minutes, Oh covers a lot of ground on Aventurine, and it’s a testament to her musical vision that even after a dozen or more listens, the album continues to reveal additional depths. True, there isn’t much in the way of bass solos, but somehow, it’s unlikely anyone will mind.

Eric Reed

Everybody Gets The Blues
(Smoke Sessions)

Pianist Eric Reed is among the most gifted of today’s straightahead jazz players who draw important inspiration from the past. In the liner notes to his new quartet album, the excellent Everybody Gets The Blues, the 48-year-old Philadelphia native writes, “More and more, I find myself looking back—not in the effort to recapture or to waddle in regret, but to reassess, analyze and rebuild for tomorrow.” Reed salutes pianist Bud Powell with an original tune, “Dear Bud,” reharmonizes the John Coltrane classic “Naima” with an arrangement that features his agile work on Fender Rhodes, and honors pianist James Williams (1951–2004) with a jaunty take on “Road Life,” a tune the composer recorded with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Elvin Jones for a 1988 album.

Reed’s reverence for pianist Cedar Walton (1934–2013) has a particularly strong influence on this album’s cohesive, hour-long program, which was recorded with Tim Green (alto and soprano saxophones), Mike Gurrola (bass) and McClenty Hunter (drums). Reed mixes polish with pizzazz on a bouncy, feel-good rendition of Walton’s “Martha’s Prize”; pays tribute to his hero with “Cedar Waltzin’,” an original tune that segues into Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ’Bout A Thing”; and offers a graceful reading of trumpeter Freddie Hubbard’s “Up Jumped Spring” (the first recording of which, from 1962, featured Walton, then a member of Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers).

The album’s highlight is an elegant medley that intertwines the Beatles classic “Yesterday” with the Jerome Kern standard “Yesterdays” in a glorious fashion that works well melodically—deftly illustrating that the impulse to combine these tunes is based on something more profound than the similarity of their titles. Reed shines throughout the program, especially on the ballads, including his meditative, nine-minute gem, “New Morning.”

The tour schedule on Reed’s website lists a May 16 trio gig at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton, California, and a quartet show on July 27 at the Central Avenue Jazz Festival in Los Angeles.

Jim Snidero

Waves Of Calm

Waves Of Calm is the perfect title for this new release from alto saxophonist Jim Snidero. A reflection on his since-departed father’s struggle with Parkinson’s Disease, the eight-song program is charged with powerful emotion recollected in tranquility. Indeed, Waves Of Calm is not rooted in a static, narcotic type of calm. Rather, it’s the product of an active state of calm, the type that leads to deep insights and gives birth to meaningful art.

Snidero once again teams up with trumpeter Jeremy Pelt—whom he played alongside on last year’s joyful and soulful Jubilation! Celebrating Cannonball Adderley—for four tracks on the new recording. The pair take a noticeably more sober approach here, backed by a sympathetic, expert rhythm section of pianist/keyboardist Orrin Evans, bassist Nat Reeves and drummer Jonathan Barber. The title track opens the album with a simple descending piano line that gently leads the listener and the musicians into a peaceful place—an ideal starting point for this shared journey. On Snidero’s “Truth,” the color of the mood shifts dramatically to blue-black, as Evans’ mysterious-sounding Rhodes begins scribbling subliminal messages and Pelt’s weighty trumpet emerges. The 1938 standard “Old Folks” starts with a delicate rubato piano intro before Snidero’s alto enters, breathy and close-up, with a touch of vibrato that adds just the right amount of intensity to his restrained, paced playing.

Before you know it, we’re into the haunting “Visions”—one of the more urgent and unsettled-sounding Snidero originals on Waves Of Calm—with Evans’ nervous Rhodes once again bubbling into the atmosphere and Pelt’s powerful trumpet tones adding to the tune’s ominous sense of psychological distress. “Dad Song” is a refreshingly upbeat change of pace, with its catchy, steady pulse and playful improvisations evoking the senior Snidero’s vibrancy of spirit. On “If I Had You,” another standard jewel, Snidero virtually sings through the horn, extending his phrases with snappy, impromptu lines that indulge the veteran alto player’s appetite for bebop. The album closes with “Estuary,” a moody waltz that takes unexpected turns as it inevitably flows downstream. Just when the thought occurred to me that this album is rather Zen-like in essence, I caught a glimpse of the cover art: an image of Snidero sitting cross-legged in a clear-blue-sky setting, wearing his signature sneakers and specs, his tie loosened and his horn lovingly cradled. It’s a true picture of calm, an ideal environment for sharing musical poetry that rises and falls like waves in a sea of emotion.

Wynton Marsalis

Bolden: Music From The Original Soundtrack
(Blue Engine)

For casual fans, a soundtrack album often is merely a keepsake, a memento associated with a film they love, rather than a musical compilation they’ll revisit frequently. In the particular case of Bolden, there is a slight difference in mood between the film and the soundtrack. Director Dan Pritzker’s dark, well-crafted art-house film about New Orleans cornetist and bandleader Charles “Buddy” Bolden (1877–1931) is a nonlinear tale that depicts racism, brutality, drug addiction, mental illness, misogyny, prostitution and other forms of exploitation—as well as providing an imagined glimpse of the specific cultural milieu in which jazz originated.

The soundtrack, crafted by Wynton Marsalis, is a wildly entertaining excursion into the early styles of the genre, expertly delivered by the trumpeter and members of his acclaimed Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, along with a talented cast of guests, including singer Catherine Russell (who has a cameo in the film). Separated from the harrowing cinematic images of the R-rated movie, the musical program has more of a buoyant quality, as red-hot tunes are mixed with poignant balladry and some PG-13 raunchiness—such as the lyrics to Marsalis’ arrangement of the traditional tune “All The Whores Go Crazy (About The Way I Ride).” Every track in the 26-song program is exquisitely executed, whether it’s a Marsalis composition designed to evoke what Bolden’s band might have sounded like, or a song by Hoagy Carmichael (“Stardust”), Irving Berlin (“Russian Lullaby”), Fats Waller (“Black And Blue”), Edward “Kid” Ory (“Muskrat Ramble”) or Jelly Roll Morton (“Funky Butt [I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say]”). If the notion of hearing Marsalis’ tentet cut loose on Louis Armstrong’s arrangement of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s “Tiger Rag” is something that intrigues you, then this soundtrack definitely belongs in your collection.

In the film, Gary Carr (Downton Abbey) portrays Bolden, and Reno Wilson (Mike & Molly) has the role of Armstrong. Marsalis provides the cornet and trumpet parts for both characters (JLCO trumpeter Marcus Printup also plays on the soundtrack), but Wilson does his own singing, imitating Satchmo’s gravelly vocal style on several tunes, including the comedic “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You.”

Other artists involved in the project are JLCO pianist Dan Nimmer, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, Delfeayo Marsalis (who produced the album but doesn’t play on it) and clarinetist Dr. Michael White, who plays on the soundtrack and wrote an essay for the liner notes. White opines on how the past is connected to the present in the Crescent City: “[Wynton Marsalis’] deep knowledge of the music of his native New Orleans is reflected in how his trumpet playing expresses that proud, joyous, and defiant singing spirit that has descended from Buddy Bolden to Bunk Johnson and King Oliver to Louis Armstrong and all of the great players in this line, including Terence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton, and Wynton himself.”

Brian Krock

(Outside In)

Olli Hirvonen’s guitar provided a dash of bombast on Brian Krock’s 2018 album, Big Heart Machine. The big band made something of an anachronistic album, pushing the vanguard of large-ensemble music, all scuffed up by those metally theatrics.

For liddle—an ensemble counting many of the same players, but one that formed prior to the band that played on Heart Machine—Hirvonen again adds outsized blasts of electric guitar, lending no-wave flair to a tune called “Knuckle Hair.” It’s not all that wild throughout the program, though Krock’s fervent experimentalism is readily apparent, and pleasantly so during his reeling saxophone feature on Anthony Braxton’s “Opus 23b.”

The athleticism of the avant-garde is, in part, what the originals on liddle are about, too.

“I kept writing more and more ridiculously complicated and abstract conceptual music and they would always nail it,” the bandleader said about working through his compositional process with the ensemble. “So, at a certain point my attitude changed to wanting to stump these guys, because we had the luxury of time to get deep into the nitty gritty of it all.”

The tune “Heart Machine,” where Krock’s other troupe actually draws its name, is a slow advance toward a warbling summit, Hirvonen’s guitar nimbus serving as the composition’s backdrop. Even in spots where the six strings get to be a bit overwhelming—“Memphis” hedges toward a rock-opera feel—pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Marty Kenney and drummer Nathan Ellman-Bell ground the proceedings with playful, bounding musical gestures, enabling some of liddle’s most outside moments.

Dave Douglas/Uri Caine/Andrew Cyrille

(Greenleaf Music)

It’s not often that a bandleader is so selfless that they’ll open an album with a track they don’t play on. It seems perfectly appropriate here, though, because trumpeter Dave Douglas’ Devotion is all about recognizing the value of others, particularly those who have inspired him musically or artistically. “Curly,” which opens the album, is a tune Douglas wrote in tribute to his favorite Stooge, Jerome Horwitz (a.k.a. Curly Howard). There’s no slapstick, but it’s not hard to recognize Horwitz’s gait in the manic syncopation of the melody, which pianist Uri Caine and drummer Andrew Cyrille happily spin into controlled chaos.

Not every connection is aurally obvious, though. “D’Andrea” and the lilting, waltz-tempo “Francis Of Anthony” might ring bells for those familiar with Italian jazz pianist Franco D’Andrea. If not, it’s still easy to be captivated by the unusual intervallic symmetry of Douglas’ melodies. On the other hand, the jaunty, gospel-inflected “Miljøsang,” which the trumpeter offers in tribute to pianist/composer Carla Bley, sounds more like mid-’70s Keith Jarrett. But that might have more to do with the way Caine plays it than how Douglas wrote it.

To an extent, though, Douglas’ liner notes create more distraction than illumination. Trying to hear the Dizzy Gillespie influence in the wistful “We Pray”—is it the half-valving or use of chromatics in Douglas’ solo?—could obscure the solemn beauty of the music itself, not to mention the way it furthers the churchy vibe Caine and Douglas established on their 2014 duo album, Present Joys (Greenleaf Music).

Better to remember that devotion can be offered in a variety of ways, and no single version is better than the others. Perhaps that’s why the album ends with Alexander Johnson’s sacred harp hymn, “Devotion,” and a performance that captures both the literal and figurative meanings of the word, as well as offering some of the album’s most inspired interplay.

Laura Valle

(Self Release)

On her sophomore album, Charismatic, charming Argentine singer-songwriter Laura Valle proves that a great melody is the universal language, as she offers lyrics in Spanish, English and German (with translations posted on her website).

Based in Southern California, Valle pursues a jazz-meets-pop aesthetic on this program of 11 original compositions. She also produced the album, carefully blending her multitracked vocal parts on catchy tunes like “I Keep Digging” and “Vos Y Yo.” Pianist Rob Kobayashi, who plays on eight tracks here, provides compelling propulsion for “The Essence Is Inside Of You,” while keyboardist Brad Vinikow fuels “Todo Se Transforma,” which features Valle’s subtle vocal flourishes. The bandleader has used the term “pop march” to describe the title track, which is anchored by the quasi-martial rhythms of drummer Isaac Sanchez. Funk and r&b influences are key to “Parte Del Pacto” and “Was Ist Liebe” (one of two tracks on which Logan Bacharach contributes alto and tenor saxophone). The emotional zenith is “Voz De Niebla,” a powerful ballad dedicated to singer Amy Winehouse (1983–2011). Valle is accompanied only by Kobayashi’s piano and Tower of Power member Sal Cracchiolo’s flugelhorn on this tune, which includes a heartbreaking line that translates as “Was it love or was it life itself that left you a scar of fire?” The album concludes with the inspirational “Seres Humanos,” on which a choir of students from Valle Vocal Studios enhances the song’s optimistic mood.

Trish Clowes

Ninety Degrees Gravity

On her 2010 debut, Tangent, tenor saxophonist Trish Clowes offered up a baroque vision of jazz—pithy and skronky interludes bouncing between full-ensemble improv and intimate sonic investigations.

The approach steadily has morphed into a sturdy post-bop practice with frequent detours into the electric realm and performances with the BBC Concert Orchestra. On her latest, Ninety Degrees Gravity, the Guildhall School of Music & Drama professor mashes it all together for an engaging program that spans a litany of Clowes’ musical interests.

“Abbott & Costello” isn’t brimming with slapstick and wordplay, as its name might lead listeners to believe. Instead, it’s a performance that builds quietly, determinedly, and, in part, on the fluttering multiphonic tones Clowes summons. A live recording of “Lightning Les” slowly moves from organ jam to all-out guitar shredding, recalling Medeski Martin & Wood’s partnership with John Scofield on the 1998 album A Go Go. Most of the program here, though, finds members of the quartet deploying a tender understanding of its component parts.

The only misstep might be a bit of middling vocals that introduce the otherwise engagingly broad 11-minute “Free To Fall.” But even in that, Clowes clearly is looking to incorporate just about every music she loves. So, if the composition momentarily references Gong or Soft Machine, it’s only in the interest of moving through genres to hit on some new wrinkle of creation.

Lee “Scratch” Perry

(On-U Sound)

The veracity of all those stories you’ve heard or read about Lee “Scratch” Perry is immaterial. The 50-plus years of music the producer and vocalist has worked on is legitimately awe-inspiring. And the fact that he has continued releasing work at a pretty steady clip only adds to the respect he should be afforded.

Of course, most of the recordings under his own name—not Prince Buster, The Wailers, The Congos and scores of other collaborators—are difficult to keep track of, being strewn across hundreds of releases. But Perry’s relationship with On-U Sound’s Adrian Sherwood, a UK dub provocateur, has yielded dozens of albums since the 1980s. Granted, it’s not all on par with Return of The Super Ape, but most music isn’t.

Rainford opens with the whir of crickets, turns to a song about evil spirits that sports a familiar riddim and slowly advances toward “African Spaceship,” a tune with what sounds like a weird, pitched-down guitar, making it seem as if a late-’90s El-P production has been unearthed. A few more novel sonic moments crop up, but Rainford’s really about extending an astounding reggae legacy more than further innovations. It’s all marked with history, and Perry, now 83, has to understand that he doesn’t have another dozen albums left in him.

The closer, “Autobiography Of The Upsetter,” intimates that.

The Grammy winner tells listeners that his father was a Freemason, and that his parents wanted to create a “Godly being.” The song’s refrain, “I am the Upsetter,” is a simple statement of purpose as Perry goes on to explain that he’s on the planet to eradicate racism. That might be a bit of a stretch, but seeing his writing credit on the back of The Clash’s 1977 debut long-player likely expanded the minds of at least a few impressionable punks.

Anoushka Shankar

(Deutsche Grammophon)

Sometimes, the long view offers the best perspective. Reflections compiles tracks drawn from 20 years of sitar virtuoso Anoushka Shankar’s recordings, and in so doing demonstrates not only the breadth of her work, but also its consistency.

Like her father, the legendary Ravi Shankar, Anoushka is a master of Hindustani classical music, but also open to working outside that tradition in various types of fusion formats. We hear her playing in a jazzy Americana style with her half-sister, Norah Jones, and also in the classical style with her father. There are collaborations with flamenco stars Pedro Ricardo Miño and Duquende, with Israeli pop singer Noa Lembersky and with actress Vanessa Redgrave. There are deep grooves, and tracks where the rhythm seems as fluid and unhurried as the water of a pond; there are songs with an obvious verse/chorus structure, and others that mostly are improvisation. Sometimes, the music seems modern and wide-screen, at others, it sounds timeless and intimate.

Through it all, Anoushka’s sitar remains constant—not just its sound, but the musical sensibility behind it. Like all truly great improvisors, she maintains her voice regardless of the material she’s playing, or with whom. This especially is evident when she leaves the Hindustani tradition to wander the wilds of world-music and pop. In some cases, it’s a matter of adapting her technique to the vocabulary of another music, as she does on the flamenco tune “Buleria Con Ricardo,” where she manages to make the melody’s Andalusian ornamentation sound perfectly at home on sitar. But she’s also able to discover an idiomatic role for herself that previously didn’t exist, as on “The Sun Won’t Set,” where Shankar uses the sitar’s lower register to play the blues, sounding a bit like a dobro against Nitin Sawhney’s finger-picked folk guitar. And it’s that sort of playing that quietly reminds us that this is one of improvised music’s great players.

Adam Bałdych Quartet

Sacrum Profanum

Polish violinist Adam Bałdych goes where the muse leads him. On each of his recent ACT albums recorded with the Helge Lien Trio—Brothers (2017) and Bridges (2015)—Bałdyc composed almost the entire program. In the liner notes for his new quartet album, Sacrum Profanum, Bałdychh reminisces about being expelled from music school “for playing jazz, for improvising and for rebelling against classical music.” But then he explains the impetus behind the new disc: “I felt the imperative to connect with my greatest inspiration at the moment—classical music.” But he’s not talking about Bach, Brahms and Beethoven. The 10 tracks on Sacrum Profanum are split evenly between original tunes and works by a diverse assemblage of composers that includes Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), Thomas Tallis (1505–’85) and Gregorio Allegri (1582–1652). Bałdych also interprets “Bogurodzica” (a piece from the 13th century) and the “Concerto For Viola And Orchestra” by contemporary Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina.

Although the selections here jump from century to century, the leader’s decidedly modern, “new music” aesthetic keeps the proceedings cohesive. Bałdych has recruited a crew of flexible players—pianist Krzysztof Dys, bassist Michał Barański and drummer Dawid Fortuna—who excel at spare, poignant arrangements, as well as dense tracks packed with sonic layers. There are plenty of moments of thorny aural angst here, but on the version of Tallis’ “Spem In Alium” and the original “Longing,” Bałdych offers sections with gorgeous, clean violin lines. It’s lovely evidence that his youthful rebellion against classical sounds certainly was not a permanent, wholesale rejection.

Huw Warren Trio

Everything In Between

Huw Warren has a thing for Hermeto Pascoal—and Brazilian music in general.

As far back as 2009 on Hermeto + (Basho), the Welsh pianist has taken the time to arrange and record more than a dozen compositions by the bandleader. But on Everything In Between, the work’s been so firmly ensconced in a contemporary jazz context it’d be tough to pick out the provenance of each composition. “Loro,” though, briefly offers glints of the piece’s origins as a song penned by Egberto Gismonti.

Warren’s tempered trio has roots in Perfect Houseplants, a quartet founded during the early ’90s that the bandleader participated in with bassist Dudley Phillips, who ably plies electric bass during most of the program here. On “Vou Viviendo,” a tune plucked from the songbook of Brazilian composers Pixinguinha and Benedicto Lacerda, Phillips switches to acoustic, lending the workout a different kind of propulsion, something absent from other cuts here. The bandleader’s son, Zoot, on drums, shuffles behind the lustrous, light and lively keyboard flourishes the elder Warren summons, and ushers in the album closer, Pascoal’s “Musica Das Nuvens E Do Chão.” It’s a supremely funky conclusion to an otherwise pastoral trio recording.

Norah Jones

Begin Again
(Blue Note)

Wealth and fame can be destructive. Athletes and celebrities who hit it big at a young age often crash and burn. Norah Jones is an exception. She was 23 when Blue Note released her debut, Come Away With Me, in 2002. It earned her an armload of Grammys, and by 2005, it had shipped 10 million copies in the United States. In the years following that stratospheric career launch, Jones remained focused on artistry, rather than celebrity. She became an eager collaborator and a careful shepherd of her career, not rushing to put out “product” as a bandleader. And Jones has shown an expansive curiosity in choosing collaborators, whether she was helping form the bands The Little Willies and later Puss N Boots, or working with Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Green Day songwriter Billie Joe Armstrong, producer Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton, organist Dr. Lonnie Smith or sitar player Anoushka Shankar (who is her half-sister). For fans who have stuck with Jones, it’s been an intriguing journey.

Her new leader date, Begin Again, compiles seven original tracks, the majority of which she already has released. Like Esperanza Spalding, Jones’ artistic restlessness seems intertwined with eschewing the traditional ways that albums have been made, packaged and promoted. Her collaborators on this set include Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, keyboardist Thomas Bartlett and drummer Brian Blade. “My Heart Is Full” pairs Bartlett’s piano, keyboards and synthesizer with Jones’ layered vocals for a memorable studio creation that’s spare, yet haunting. “Begin Again” is a rocker with these pointed lyrics: “Can a nation built on blood find its way out of the mud?/ Will the people at the top lose their way enough to stop?/ Can we begin again?”

Jones—playing piano, celeste and acoustic guitar—pursues an Americana vibe with co-writer Tweedy on “A Song With No Name.” Another tune written with Tweedy, “Wintertime,” will appeal to fans of Jones’ 2004 album, Feels Like Home (Blue Note). On “Just A Little Bit” (recorded and mixed by Patrick Dillett), Jones’ yearning vocal and insistent piano riffs are augmented by poignant trumpet work from Dave Guy. Overall, the charming Begin Again isn’t a grand statement; it’s a document of an artist seeing where the winding path takes her.

Jones will tour Australia and New Zealand in April, then take a break and launch a North American tour on June 18 at Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh. Tour info is posted at her website.

Branford Marsalis Quartet

The Secret Between The Shadow And The Soul

Branford Marsalis never has sounded better on tenor and soprano saxophones, as revealed on this new release by his stellar working quartet with pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Justin Faulkner.

The Secret Between The Shadow And The Soul—the group’s first release since 2016’s Upward Spiral (OKeh/Marsalis Music) with guest Kurt Elling and first purely instrumental effort since 2012’s Four MFs Playin’ Tunes (Marsalis Music)—succeeds in its relentless pursuit of musical sophistication, cohesiveness and inclusiveness. Clearly, these long-loyal bandmates have reached a new plateau together. Marsalis, always a strong storyteller, plays with tremendous conviction and deftly manipulates his sound palette to conjure a range of emotions on the seven tracks here, which include fresh compositions by Marsalis, Revis and Calderazzo, as well as creative interpretations of Andrew Hill’s “Snake Hip Waltz” and Keith Jarrett’s “The Windup.”

Whether winding through the quirky three-bar phrases of Hill’s piece or navigating the elegant radiance of Calderazzo’s “Cianna,” the abrupt perspective-shifts of Revis’ “Dance Of The Evil Toys” or the gentle flow of Marsalis’ “Life Filtering From The Water Flowers,” the quartet stands as a model of adventurousness and commitment. Under Marsalis’ direction, their approach to writing and improvising emphasizes melody and rhythm first, with harmony playing a less-defining role on any given piece. The resulting music drives hard and holds little back as it traverses the many moods this quartet has at its command, even during the more reflective moments on The Secret Between The Shadow And The Soul.

Iro Haarla

Around Again: The Music Of Carla Bley

Ideally, a songbook tribute album shouldn’t have the listener agree, “Yes, this is great writing,” but instead think, “Wow, I never understood these songs that way before.” In other words, the idea is to strive for revelation—which is precisely what Finnish pianist Iro Haarla delivers with Around Again: The Music of Carla Bley—not confirmation.

The focus here is on Bley’s earliest work, back when her tunes were being recorded by the likes of Paul Bley and Jimmy Guiffre. What Haarla and her trio grasp is that these pieces were centered not on harmonic structures, but on melody. In that sense, Bley’s writing was not unlike Ornette Coleman’s, in the sense that the compositions provided theme and mood, but didn’t lock the players into some set harmonic schema.

Haarla is suited ideally to this approach, as her playing tends to be lean and linear, emphasizing the melodic lift of a line, more than its harmonic weight. She brings an almost heartbreaking lyricism to melancholy cadences of “Ida Lupino,” and makes “Utviklingssang” sound like the Nordic folk song it should have been.

But it also helps that her playing leaves plenty of room for her bandmates. Bassist Ulf Krokfors, a longtime collaborator, is particularly on point, offering thrumming, contrapuntal lines that at their best evoke the empathetic warmth of Charlie Haden; his intro to “Vashkar” is particularly affecting. Meanwhile, Barry Altschul—who, as the drummer for Paul Bley’s trio, was heard on the first recording of many of these tunes—sticks to the quiet side of his polyrhythmic approach, keeping the energy up but the dynamics down through hushed flutters of brushed cymbals or tom-tom patterns that rumble like distant thunder. Between them, their lean, cohesive approach makes even the most familiar of these tunes sound fresh and exciting—just what any fan would want from a tribute album.

Ben Winkelman Trio


With the release of his sixth album as a leader, Australian-born, New York-based pianist Ben Winkelman continues to develop his concept of a piano trio whose primary artistic goal is to strike a balance between composition and improvisation. Bassist Matt Penman and drummer Obed Calvaire—both of whom never had played with Winkelman until this recording session—are featured as more than just sidemen/soloists. In crafting his meticulous arrangements, Winkelman treats his bandmates as if they were part of a small orchestra, providing them with detailed parts that are integral to the 10 original compositions on Balance. The music draws from Winkelman’s vast musical interests (including Afro-Cuban, gospel and classical influences) filtered through a jazz perspective.

Highlights include the odd-metered “Bx12 Part One” and “Bx12 Part Two,” the satisfying medium-tempo swinger “April,” the dreamlike ballad “Santiago,” the structure-meets-spontaneity of “Window Shopping,” the harmonic ambiguity of “The Trip” and a rhythmically challenging treatment of Thelonious Monk’s “Bye-Ya.” The intellectual meets the intuitive by design throughout the entirety of Balance as Winkelman’s trio of equals, perpetually seeking a state of equilibrium, approach joyful swing, hard-hitting rock and chamber-like inventions as one big, interconnected thing of beauty.

Lage Lund

Terrible Animals
(Criss Cross)

There’s a sense of heedless exploration that opens guitarist Lage Lund’s Terrible Animals, but the bulk of the album moderates the initial avant-excursions.

Opener “Hard Eights” rattles with an moody melody and some light effects listeners might not be expecting from the bandleader. The rabble subsides a bit as pianist Sullivan Fortner ambles through a solo, kicking up odd rhythms and an unpredictable cascade of notes. Control of the tune’s ceded back to Lund, before the next tune, “Aquanaut,” conjures some fusion-adjacent vibes.

What follows is a noticeable shift away from the genre-fluidity that defines Terrible Animals’ opening tracks: “Haitian Ballad” mostly is restraint and beauty, flecked with moments of abandon; “Ray Ray” finds Fortner swinging pretty hard; and “Take It Easy” excels on the back of Lund’s light guitar trickery.

“Octoberry” and the title track rank as exceptions, making use of clipped guitar notes and otherworldly buzzing. There’s really not a slack moment across the 10-tune offering. And that’s in part because of Lund’s compatriots: Fortner, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Tyshawn Sorey. But maybe the introductory whiff of the avant-garde simply was Lund exploring a singular facet of his musical personality, before serving up a bevy of less experimental work. Whatever the reason, bits and pieces of Terrible Animals sound like an irresistible and raucous foray into the beyond.

Eumir Deodato

Os Catedráticos 73
(Far Out Recordings)

The reissue of keyboardist Eumir Deodato’s Os Catedráticos 73 is a head trip that will make synapses fire and hips sway.

The opening track, “Arranha Céu (Skyscrapers),” is dance-floor manna, fueled by the kind of awesome grooves that crate-diggers live for. Mixing Brazilian rhythms with the soul and grease of a classic jazz-organ trio, Deodato delivers a program that can, for 36 glorious minutes, make a fan’s troubles seem far away. Along with seven original tunes, the 11-track program includes a couple of choice songs by another Brazilian icon, Marcos Valle: the earworm “Flap” and “Puma Branco (The White Puma),” a slower tune that will motivate dancers who want to nuzzle. Among the 13 gifted musicians who played on these recording sessions are Azymuth drummer Ivan “Mamão” Conti and trumpet ace Marvin Stamm.

The program percolates at a brisk pace: Only two of the 11 tracks here are longer than three-and-a-half minutes. When the final notes of the closer, “Carlota E Carolina (Carly & Carole),” fade out, the listener’s logical options are to start the program over, or dig even deeper into the Deodato catalog with Far Out’s reissue of 1965’s Ataque. That title, like Os Catedráticos, is available on 180-gram vinyl. Bravo!

Maja S. K. Ratkje

(Rune Grammafon)

There’s something solemn and wondrous about the writing of Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsum (1859–1952). He didn’t necessarily laud the creative class and weirdoes in works like Mysteries (Mysterier) and Hunger (Sult), but each offered a unique, sometimes troubling vision of life.

Thing is, he was a fan of Adolf Hitler. So, the dour, entrancing performances on Norwegian keyboardist/composer Maja S. K. Ratkje’s Sult, an adaptation of the music she wrote for a ballet based on the Hamsun novel, is starting from a fraught premise. It’s still haunting—in part because of its origins.

The novel follows its protagonist, a writer, through a difficult time as he roams the streets, keenly attuned to his dismal station in life. The book’s title is literal here. Ratkje—who’s recorded with jazzworld figures, as well as experimentalist Ikue Mori—uses the discordant feel of aimlessness and surreptitious creativity to inform the pump organ she plays across nine tracks, occasionally intoning some wordless, emotive sentiments. There’s a bit of good whistling, too.

While Sult, the novel, has been canonized, described as the opening salvo of 20th-century literature and ranks as an early work by a pretty significant novelist, there likely was another piece of writing to draw from, something not tainted by barbarity. But maybe it’s the haunting and eerie pastiche of history, sound and stage that makes Ratkje’s recording worthy of note.

Steve Davis

(Smoke Sessions)