Entries Tagged 'jazz reviews' ↓
May 3rd, 2013 — jazz reviews
The best jazz recording of 2012, much like science or magic, doesn’t easily yield its secrets – which is the main reason it didn’t make my Top-10 list. I simply didn’t get to it all in time. Still, with or without me (and gratifyingly so), Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers has by now received most of the formal acclamation it deserves: Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in music, awards from the Jazz Journalists Association for Smith as musician and trumpeter of the year, a three-night live premiere last week at the Roulette in Brooklyn. I suspect that once the four-disc set on Cuneiform Records seeps into the shared consciousness of receptive listeners, it will continue to provoke, haunt and inspire. The greatest music – the greatest anything – doesn’t end when you stop absorbing it. Your reactions, primary and secondary, are part of the artistic process. They’re supposed to be, anyway.
Each of the nineteen compositions in Smith’s five-plus-hour opus announces itself as a chapter in American history from the 1857 Dred Scott case to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But the thematic core of Ten Freedom Summers, as its title suggests, is the decade of national transformation that began with the 1954 Supreme Court decision declaring school segregation unconstitutional and the 1964 summer that saw both Congress’s passage of the most sweeping civil-rights legislation since Reconstruction and the Mississippi “Freedom Summer” Project during which activists risked (and lost) their lives trying to enfranchise the state’s besieged African-Americans. With Smith on trumpet leading both his Golden Quartet/Quintet of pianist Anthony Davis, bassist John Lindberg, percussionists Pheeroan ak-Laff and Susie Ibarra and the nine-member Southwest Chamber Music Ensemble conducted by Jeff von der Schmidt, the work spools forth as a meticulous inventory of mood more than a sweeping pageant of struggle. It doesn’t chronicle its noteworthy events so much as search for their deeper emotional currents and, in doing so, compels the listener to react to history beyond text and shadow – and even further beyond the blithely-dispensed shorthand of newsreels, archival photos and sound bites.
I wonder, though, whether I’m probing or merely projecting whenever I hear some of its chapters. Just to take one example, the piece entitled, “Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 381 Days.” It begins with a major-key dirge by Smith’s trumpet, with a tone and tempo reminiscent of such mid-1960s elegiac milestones as Lee Morgan’s “Search for the New Land” and John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” One can easily interpret this table-setting incantation as signaling the no-turning-back-now gesture by Parks in her epoch-making refusal to sit in the back of an Alabama public transport. Then, for several bars afterward, a chugging 4/4 beat, driven by ak-Laff with bouncy strides, conveys the “381 Days” of the resultant boycott, which forced hundreds of domestics, office workers and laborers to walk instead of ride to work and shop, thus representing the first of the era’s significant civil-rights marches.
I’m confident I’ve sussed that out correctly. But when I hear the strains of bluesy strutting at either end of “Thurgood Marshall and Brown Vs. Board of Education: A Dream of Equal Education,” am I being cued to imagine the swagger and bravado of its eponymous heroic lawyer making his way through several litigious hurdles to reach his finish line at the Highest Court in the Land? And would I know enough to respond to such cues if I didn’t know what its title was? Or, for that matter, know who Thurgood Marshall was and the kind of ribald, larger-than-life figure he was?
It helps to know the history behind the music. But it’s not necessary. Because even if you can sense why Smith and his musicians make the choices in what they play and how they extend their ideas (together or separately), it’s the spacious-skies expansiveness of the concept itself, its willingness to do the unexpected – a segment on the “Black Church” that’s all swirling chamber music and no gospel tropes whatsoever – and let you deal with its implications, that allow you to sense that “freedom” is far more than the theme of Smith’s work here. It’s both his method and his objective.
Smith, after all, was forged in the crucible of what, for want of a better description, we still label “avant-garde jazz.” And what would be a better description? There are so many options. Some like “progressive jazz,” though you kind of feel an anachronistic draft when you hear those words. Others cling to such sixties taglines as “New Thing,” “Fourth Stream,” “Outside” and even “Free Jazz,” though some of the renegades of subsequent decades embraced old-school polyphony that kept things flying in fairly close order. Gary Giddins quixotically tried to coin the word, “parajazz” (or was it “Para-Jazz”?) as an all-purpose umbrella. I like it, but I can’t find anybody else who does.
I also like “creative music” — bringing us back to Smith, who was part of the groundbreaking Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) that nurtured and/or inspired such experimentalists as Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, George Lewis, Leroy Jenkins and many more. Their music was as idiosyncratic, original and unconventional as they were. Jazz fans who drew their lines at whatever Miles Davis was doing in 1965 (if not sooner) thought the AACM and their kind were too “way out” to even taste. But back in the seventies, I warmed to the freewheeling, sometimes breakneck invention of the renegades. It’s true they made mosaics out of traditional rhythmic pattern and carried thematic ideas down dark alleys and wooded glades you never thought of visiting. But as with avant-gardists of the past, they weren’t upending the order-out-of-chaos imperative of art as much as encouraging listeners to re-fashion or, at least, reconsider their own notions of order. In other words, they weren’t the only ones creating the music; you had to join in the process, too. And where previous generations did so by dancing, we did it by thinking or feeling our way through the changes.
Smith, now 71, has for decades advanced his own vision of creativity into finding new ways of fusing improvisation and notation. (He explains this process in far greater detail here, though, as with his music, one run-through won’t be enough.) Ten Freedom Summers uses the late 20th century’s upheaval to apply firmer context to the process. Those unaccustomed to such compulsively creative composition may think it’s haphazard, even if they know the historical facts being represented or dramatized. But as it was with the avant-garde’s loft concerts of the 1970s or for that matter, some of the late, lamented Knitting Factory’s wilder nights of the 1990s, the whole idea was to listen and to be attentive always for whatever is familiar in one’s own memory, private or public, and for what could be something you never knew before. From such surprises, you can make your own connections to this freedom struggle – or any other such struggle you can imagine. It may well have been this openness to possibility that the Pulitzer committee recognized in almost-but-not-quite giving their top prize to Ten Freedom Summers. If so, then it’s a whole way of thinking about music, and not just jazz, that’s received its just desserts.
March 22nd, 2013 — jazz reviews
A big shout out to those of you who responded to the previous post on Thomas Chapin’s newest CD set, Never Let Me Go. Lots of love out there for Tom, who deserves all that & more. Among the many who responded: Stephanie J. Castillo, who is trying to pull together enough funds for a full-length documentary about Tom. Here is the site — with all the information on the Kickstarter campaign & every important link related to Tom Chapin’s life & legacy.
Whatever you can do, patrons. The Home Office will be grateful. The campaign has roughly a week to go & they’re still not near the goal of $50,000. So she’s asking people to take part in the “100 X $100 Group Give.” Do the math. If 100 people give $100 over the next five days, $10,000 from the Group Give will help meet the $50,000. Of course, all amounts – small and large — will be accepted.
The previous post said mostly everything I needed to say about Tom…except, maybe….
OK, bear with me. In February, 2008, a memorial concert for Tom was staged at the Bowery Poetry Club. There was more than enough words & music to share that night. But I felt somewhat bereft, being only a spectator & knowing Tom as I did. It wasn’t until a couple days afterwards that the following fantasia rolled out of me. I wish it had rolled out that evening, but I guess it wasn’t ready.
So with your kind indulgence, here’s that side-dish of speculation mentioned on the marquee, a meeting that never happened, but should have. It’s a little wig-bubble The Home Office is labeling:
WHEN MILES MET TOM or THE FINAL FRONT LINE
It’s September of 1991 and a gravely ill Miles Davis is, as Lord Buckley would put it, not merely “on the razor’s edge”, but on the “hone of the scone,” whatever that is, if that is what it is.
Anyway, Miles is in his Malibu manse, semi-conscious, hooked up to all manner of wires and tubes. Deep down, he knows that this is all pointless. It definitely feels like Checkout Time’s arriving at any minute and all he can do is drift in and out of reality, trying to take in as much as he can before the lights go completely dark.
He can dimly hear a radio piping in music from another room. Some dumbass has it tuned to a jazz station. Fuck that, Miles thinks. Anything but that! And it’s not just plain old jazz, but that squealing and squawking shit that Trane helped spread like a virus. I do not need that shit taking me out. I’ll take Manto-fuckin-vani over this!
Just like that, his espresso eyes, which were starting to cloud over mere seconds ago, sharpen into hard, clear points as he hears this gorgeous, passionate alto sax solo soaring and slicing its way through the miasma. He’d love to sit up so he can hear better and, to his astonishment, he almost feels as though he could. The keening, probing sound continues to jab its way into his consciousness. He digs the raw aggression, the rippling arpeggios and, more than anything else, a tone that sounds the way light would sound if light could make sound. Mothafucka can play his ass off!!
At that moment, a male nurse walks by his bed. Miles emits soft murmurs, which is the best he can do. The nurse doesn’t hear anything. Drastic measures are called for, so Miles attempts to simulate some sort of spasm. It’s lame, but it works. The nurse walks over.
“Miles?,” the nurse whispers.
“Hmmrefffrrr,” Miles says.
“I’m sorry. Do you need anything?”
The music’s almost over. If only someone would take these tubes out of his goddam nose…
“Mister Davis,” the nurse leans close to the parched, scarred lips. “I still can’t…”
A raspy bullet, whatever’s left deep inside him, is violently pumped through his ravaged larynx into the idiot’s ear
“I SAID, who’s that on the mothafuckin radio, goddammit!”
After a series of confusing exchanges, someone else in the house, presumably whoever had the radio on, finally figures out what Miles wants to know. He tells him that there was this bootleg tape of a young reed player out of New York, used to play with Lionel Hampton, but he’s just starting to make a name for himself in the downtown scene. Album’s not even out yet…
Miles can sense the steam rising within him. It feels good, almost human, but he still sounds exasperated and weak at the same time. “Who…is…that…motha…fucka?” Serious coughing, maybe a trickle of blood…
The name, the fool says, is Chapin. Was that his first or last name? Oh, right. Yeah, Tom. Thomas Chapin…
Orders are rasped. Call that station! Get a copy of that tape! Find out where that mothafucka lives! Now, goddamit! And so on…
Sooner than it’s possible to imagine, given the circumstances, Miles is on a long-distance call with Tom, who thinks at first that someone’s fucking with him. When he realizes, it’s not a joke, he thinks: Oh, my God! I’m on the phone with Miles Davis! And he sounds TERRIBLE…
“Lissen, man,” Miles says weakly, gasping for air, “how soon can you get your ass out here? With…that…sax…”
“Um,” Chapin says, not sure he heard correctly, but he answers anyway. “I dunno, Mister Davis, when do you…”
“Now! Yesterday! Last week, goddammit! I’m dyin’ out here, man! I want…(wheeze)…I want to record with you…Just for one time…”
Chapin is now certain someone’s messing with his head, big-time. He observes, tentatively, delicately that Miles may not…make it…by the time he flies to L.A. even if he leaves that second…
“Well, then you better hurry your ass up” Click.
From here, it’s too quick and hazy to keep track, but Thomas Chapin has somehow made the next flight from JFK to LAX. Miles, or someone close to him, takes care of traveling expenses and studio time.
Time movies fast. Here’s the studio, but where am I, Chapin wonders. Is it dawn or dusk? Where did this rhythm section come from and how many of them are there?
Miles is wheeled into the room, connected to a respirator. There’s no way, Chapin thinks. But the horn is in Miles lap, poised for action. Miles, forgoing amenities, croaks out the only three words he will say to Tom Chapin all day:
What follows is the kind of music that wills itself forward without stopping for thought or breath. It free-associates itself into something that’s neither funk nor free, neither “inside” nor “outside”, neither modern nor post-modern, neither swing nor rock; more to the point, it’s none of these things exclusively but a dense, yet buoyant amalgam of mid-to-late-20th century music’s varied precincts, high, low and in-between. It is, in other words, music that only Miles Davis could have set in motion – and that only Thomas Chapin’s luminous tone and inquisitive chops could help him finish.
Ten hours and six tracks later, the last testament of Miles Dewey Davis is in the can. He returns to Malibu to await the final call, which comes as Tom is in mid-air somewhere over western Pennsylvania on his way back to the city…
The session? Well, you know what happened with that session. By now, everybody knows what happened with that session and how it helped make jazz’s next century a …But that’s another fantasy, isn’t it?
March 20th, 2013 — jazz reviews
The first time I heard him play was sometime in 1988 on an LP (ask your parents, kids, because I hear they may be coming back) entitled, The Sex Queen of the Berlin Turnpike, a jazz-and-poetry mix written and produced by a central Connecticut crony of mine named Vernon Frazer, novelist, raconteur, boxing aficionado and bass player who’d provided musical accompaniment to his readings here and, in years to come, at such venues as the Nuyorican Café and the Knitting Factory.
As I listened, I became acutely aware of this flute coiling around Vern’s incantations and bass lines in lucid, deceptively simple patterns. As I grew up a flautist manqué, however reluctantly, I paid attention when people did unexpected things with the instrument, especially in jazz. And whoever was playing had nailed down a lyrical, probing style that refused to lean heavily on the flute’s naturally pretty tone. (The tone wasn’t pretty. It was beautiful, rich and – was it possible? – evenly layered.) And then I heard the alto sax solos. They could burn like scalding water. But they also soared; sometimes like jets, other times like gliders. More than anything, it was the relentless invention, the let’s-try-anything ingenuity that knew how to swing, bop and blow the blues in the grandest manner, but could step “outside” conventional changes with a nonchalance that seemed highly evolved even for the greyest of beards.
I checked the name on the cover: Thomas Chapin. Hadn’t heard of him before that point and was chagrined at myself for not paying attention. I’d assumed he was this lesser-known veteran of the black music wars who likely spent the previous decade-and-a-half trolling through lofts along the eastern seaboard. “Who is this Thomas Chapin cat?” I wrote Vern, who in turn told me he was this barely-thirty-something white guy from Manchester, Connecticut.
Manchester? Really? I’d spent part of my early newspaper years writing about that east-of-the-river suburb and, whatever its myriad virtues and defects, the next-to-last thing I’d have expected was someone who could wail like this. When I played this record to another colleague from those long-ago Hartford Courant days, his head swiveled as sharply as mine had to the sound of Chapin’s alto. When I told him who was playing and where he was from, my friend shook his head. “Shit, man,” he said. “Nobody from Manchester ever blew like that!”
It’s been fifteen years since Thomas Chapin died at just 40 years old and I still find myself wondering what he’s been up to. I keep thinking he’s got to be on some club’s weekend schedule, leading a trio or quartet in support of a new disc or performing yet another homage to his idol Rahsaan Roland Kirk. No matter where Tom would be, he would be turning heads, winning friends, encouraging people to come over to his side, no matter how forbidding or unconventional the setting. That’s what he always did, on- or off-stage. That’s why we miss him.
He was a member in good standing of the crowd of cutting-edge dynamos who waved the progressive-jazz banner throughout the eighties and nineties in downtown New York (a scene whose central HQ was that aforementioned Knitting Factory). Yet he also turned heads among more-traditional-minded listeners as a distinctive and highly accomplished post-bop player with a bright, lightly jagged tone and a prodigious, often-stunning range of expression. As with generations of musicians who had apprenticed under Lionel Hampton (in whose big band he’d worked for five years), Chapin carried “Gates’s” lessons of brash showmanship in his own trick-bag. But he never pandered to or shortchanged expectations, whether swinging from the core of a hard-bop standard or generating torrents of chromatic density off a simple riff.
The straight-ahead side blooms like fireworks on Never Let Me Go (Playscape), a recently-released triple-CD of Chapin leading quartets at two New York venues. The first two discs are from a November, 1995 show at Flushing Town Hall with pianist Peter Madsen, bassist Kiyoto Fujiwara and drummer Reggie Nicholson. The third disc teams Chapin and Madsen with the bass-drum tandem of Scott Colley and Matt Wilson at the Knitting Factory on December 19, 1996 – Chapin’s last live date in New York City. (He’d been diagnosed with leukemia the following year.) Though Chapin’s last studio recording, 1997’s Sky Piece, remains the one true gateway to his life’s work, Never Let Me Go evokes the warmth of Tom’s personality and the exhilaration he could communicate even to those who may not have fully appreciated his chosen idiom.
Ecstasy leaps from the first track, “I’ve Got Your Number,” whose chord changes provide a gauntlet for Chapin’s breakaway speed and power. There was never anything tentative about his attack; not even when, on the silky “Moon Ray,” the tempo gears down to stealth mode and Tom summarily shifts to shrewder thematic tactics. Along with his many other gifts, Chapin easily complied with Lester Young’s directive to “sing a song” when he played – which meant, as Prez suggested by example, to find the songs within the song that needed to come out. More than most of his downtown confreres, Chapin always exercised this prerogative, even on songs that weren’t part of the classic-pop canon as exhibited here on both “You Don’t Know Me” and “Wichita Lineman,” whose melodies Chapin irradiates with such conviction that you get the feeling he could have, in time, single-handedly embedded them both in the traditionalist fake-book.
His own compositions become occasions for Chapin’s more imaginative dramas of harmony and rhythm doing their approach-avoidance ritual. These are most prominent on the Knitting Factory gig; it must be noted that Matt Wilson, whose own embraceable style and personality are mirror images of Chapin’s, opens wider terrain for both Madsen and Chapin to lunge at the edges of time and space. On such pieces as “Big Maybe” and “Flip Side,” whatever ambiguities, discordances and incongruities play their way through each solo do so from a solid core, which Wilson tends with inviolate calm, but also with a gentle persistence of vision. Madsen makes his presence even more pronounced on the latter set; he builds his own model airplanes to fly as eccentrically, yet as emphatically as Chapin’s own. Together, this group could have helped make the cutting-edge a place where all would be welcome, exalted and, eventually, transformed. It’s nice to think so anyway.
When someone dies as prematurely as Chapin, there usually comes in his wake several voices inspired by his example to fill the void. (Think of all those bright, hot horns who picked up where Clifford Brown left off. Or all those actors who are still filling in the blanks left behind by James Dean’s car crash.) In the decade-and-a-half since Chapin’s death, those examples are harder to find, especially his ability, or more accurately, his impulse, to bridge the gap between progressive and traditional jazz music – or to, at the very least, extend what critic Jim Macnie characterized as the “dialogue” between two wary, warring factions. As jazz kept shifting shape at the close of the century, bending and twisting itself into new forms while struggling with how much of its past forms it should retain (or shed), Thomas Chapin offered a model for the music’s future by making his own art pliant, inquisitive and open enough to accept whatever the times demanded. I don’t know whether the “amalgam of freedom and discipline” described in Chapin’s Allmusic.com biography could have slowed down or even stopped jazz’s free-fall in a music marketplace that became even more mercurial after his death. But I’m far from alone in wishing he’d had more time to try.
January 2nd, 2013 — family history, jazz reviews
For our site’s inaugural posting of 2013, I proudly & happily yield the floor to Chafin Seymour (BFA, Dance, The Ohio State University, 2012), who has picked up his father’s end-of-the-year compulsion to assess the things he hears and let the world in on what he thinks of them. Unlike his father, he does his list, you will note, in ascending, rather than descending, order (“Opa Letterman Style!” And, no, you wont find no damn Psy on this list.) He also shows righteous critical acumen that, were I an overly envious person, would make my teeth ache. Instead, “my heart soars like a hawk”! (Name the movie. Win no prizes.) It would seem I have helped re-birth Lester Bangs, though he dances a whole lot better and takes better care of himself…I hope.
These are my top albums of 2012. I will not go overboard with my intro except to say that 2012 was an exceptionally strong and eclectic year in independent and pop music, and I had a hell of a time deciding what I wanted to write about for this year end wrap-up. I decided on these fourteen albums (four honorable mentions and a top ten) arduously and carefully.
Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
Cagey rap veteran Killer Mike finally does his name and reputation justice. Independent, political, and fiercely opinionated, Mike makes the album we have been waiting for, with help from Brooklyn producer El-P, who takes some of the usual distortion out of beats in favor of banging southern bass. It is a smart choice that allows Mike to rock in his comfort zone from start to finish.
TNGHT – TNGHT EP
THE party record of the year, hands down. This five song EP from producers Lunice and Hudson Mohawke was a giant smack across the face of modern dance music. Combining “trap” style southern hip-hop bass with elements of House and Dubstep (note the intense-ass-drops on every track), TNGHT reveled in simplicity and space while urging pop consumers and club kids to “wake the f’ up” and notice some real “ish.”
How To Dress Well – Total Loss
This was the first proper cohesive album from How To Dress Well’s Torn Krell. He continues to play with traditional R&B arrangements by taking out all the warm and fuzzy stuff to leave you with an anxious, empty sound. He does let some color in on tracks like “& It was U” but overall stays distant. Never has a bad break-up (and crippling depression) sounded so smooth.
Burial – Kindred EP & Truant/Rough Sleeper
I have always described Burial as being on “another level” from other electronic producers and the two EPs released by William Bevan this year continue to prove me right. While eleven-minute electronic house opuses steeped in otherworldly distortion and dark ambiance may not be the most palatable thing in the world, it is good to see an artist unafraid to explore the world he chooses to create. While we wait for another jaw dropping album like 2007’s Untrue these two excellent EPS will just have to be enough.
10. Four Tet – Pink
As any one who has spent a lot of time around me in the past year can tell you, I have been really into house music. In fact, much of this fascination was instigated by Four Tet’s fabulous Fabriclive mix from earlier this year. Many of the tracks off of Pink were released as singles or EPs, but they were really begging to be compiled. Four Tet (actual name, Kieran Hebden) is an electronic music veteran. He has put out six very different albums and more live mixes and song remixes than I care to imagine. Pink finds Hebden diving head first into the club. Where earlier records were rhythmically restrained in their minimalist tendencies, Pink lets the rhythm drive and builds the structure around those. Loops abound and bass pounds, but you never get the sense that Heben is leading you on aimlessly. This is music based in his roots, and you can tell he cares. This is really a great introduction to house music for someone with little to no experience, and rarely does a modern producer delve so deeply with no effort showing. Never has so much thought gone into music that encourages folks to stop thinking and just let go. You will dance my friends, oh yes, but you will do so consciously.
9. Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls
I was a little skeptical of Alabama Shakes before I listened to them somewhere between the NPR accolades and adult-contemporary following. However, I allowed myself to indulge in this album. It is four-piece, grungy southern blues-rock in its purest form, nothing overly deep or onerous, and that is key. What really reaches through the speaker and grabs you is lead singer Brittany Howard’s primal howl. From the thumping “Hold On” to the trickling “Goin to the Party” to the love ballad of the year “You Ain’t Alone,” the consistency, believability, and sense of desperation of her vocals make up this album’s driving force. While there were other notable blues-rock releases this year, namely Jack White’s strong solo album Blunderbuss, nothing stuck in my mind so concretely as Boys & Girls. In this case, less is most definitely more.
8. Jessie Ware – Devotion
In a post-Adele world how does a young, female, British singer-songwriter make her work stand out? There probably isn’t one right answer to that question. But Jessie Ware certainly offers an intensely-appealing album of suggestions. Ms. Ware made her start singing hooks on electronic dance songs by the likes of SBTRKT and much of that club influence spills over into Devotion, her first solo work. However, despite the “of-the-moment” nature of the production Ware manages to expertly write and sing timeless love songs. The centerpiece ballad “Wildest Moments” is a song that could have gallivanted into glory by expressing the joys of a one-night stand or healthy sexual relationship. Instead, Ware manages to add uncertainty and poignancy by singing about a relationship that only makes sense to the two people involved. This attention and care makes an album that could easily have been just another pop-diva’s introduction into a collection of smart artistic choices and memorably intimate melodies.
7. Grizzly Bear – Shields
I’ll be up front: I love Grizzly Bear, always have. Ever since I heard those first tenuous notes of 2006’s Yellow House followed by the complete work-of-art that is 2008’s Veckatimest, Grizzly Bear has managed to run the emotional gauntlet from warm intimacy to cold distance. Shields finds the Brooklyn band venturing out into the wilderness to look beyond their own backyard for influence. Musical references range from jazz to The Beatles; somehow they manage do it all justice. The arrangements on this album conjure up landscapes as breathtaking as they are intimidating. You can feel that Shields came to be, relatively seamlessly and naturally when compared to the endlessly worked-over quality of earlier albums. In interviews, Grizzly Bear has said that this album was the most collaborative in terms of songwriting, and you can feel the vibe of a band intensely comfortable working together. In lesser hands, songs like these could easily be sappy or overly buttoned-up; in this case, it’s just What They Do. I’ll be damned if I can think of a band that does it better.
6. Beach House – Bloom
The most glaring critique I keep hearing about Beach House’s Bloom is that it “sounds too much like their earlier stuff.” While this is true, that fact is also precisely what makes Bloom such a strong effort. It has taken three other albums, but Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally finally take their synth-and-guitar-driven-dream-pop out of the bedroom and into the big wide world. The depth and scope of this album is impressive, as every song seems to, indeed, “bloom” from start to finish. Legrand’s voice is as scintillating as ever and the arrangements are indeed lush. However, her newfound lyrical assertions as well as the use of more confident percussion and rhythmic structures deepen and widen a sound that could easily peg a less-adept band into a corner. Beach House knows where their niche is and, instead of shying away from that, they have found a way to dive deeper into it. Bloom seems to say, in response to the criticism mentioned earlier, “Yeah it does and try to tell me you don’t love it anyway.” I can’t, and neither should you.
5. Grimes – Visions
Grimes is definitely a product of our over-digitized culture. Canadian art-student Claire Boucher makes music entirely on her laptop using technology that is, relatively speaking, available to anyone. She has garnered a following and buzz using just the Internet, no record label needed, and Visions is Boucher’s most accessible release to date. Despite being an indie darling (thank you Pitchfork), Boucher does something unexpected here by making something she clearly enjoys as opposed to trying to please critics or an audience (a tactic, I believe, more artists, in and out of music, should look into). You can tell she is having a lot of fun with this record. Her layering of her own sugar sweet vocals over gloppy, bounding digital tracks is equally appealing and subversive. The fact that you can hardly understand her lyrics (I’m pretty sure she slips into singing in Japanese on a couple tracks) is part of the escapist absurdity of it all. Visions is not the easiest album to listen to, to be fair. But it truly grows on you, going from ridiculous to danceable to contemplative in just a few minutes, further reflecting the over-stimulating effects of the Internet. By allowing yourself to revel in the commentary as well as the fun, Visions becomes a worthy indie-pop experience.
4. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city
good kid, m.A.A.d. city has already been hailed by some critics as, “the most important commercial rap album in the last decade.” So let’s calm down and start by jumping off the Kendrick Lamar bandwagon for a second. Yes, he is a skilled lyricist with a strong instinct for radio-friendly hooks. Yes, he expertly chooses assorted beats from the best of today’s hip-hop producers. Yes he’s been featured on every hot hip-hop track over the past six months. Yes, he can count such industry heavyweights as Lady Gaga and Dr. Dre in his corner. However, despite the buzz, what stands out most about Kendrick Lamar is his ambition. This album is subtitled a “Short Film” and indeed the scope of the narrative-driven LP can feel a bit cinematic at times. It contains twinges of naïveté, with stories of adolescent peer-pressure and family alcoholism (“Swimming Pools (Drank)”), mixed with youthful bravado (“Backseat Freestyle”), and a dash of timeless swagger (“Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”). At the edge of it all gnaws the darkness and emptiness of growing up in South Central L.A. gang culture (or, for that matter, any violent American urban center) and the cultural contradictions often present in African-American culture, such as devotion to God and religion equal to that of substance abuse and violence. It remains to be seen where this album will fall historically; hence my tentative urging to give it some breathing room. It is, nevertheless, instantly recognizable as an important and original portrait of urban music in 2012 — and, by far, the strongest rap offering I have heard from a new artist in quite some time.
3. Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE
There is little doubt in my mind that Frank Ocean is the future of urban and pop-music. I am also decidedly OK with that. After an early mixtape in 2011, the phenomenal Nostalgia, ultra, and tabloid fodder regarding his sexuality, Ocean, whose birth name is Christopher Breaux, emerged from the hype with the meticulously-crafted channel Orange. The album is meant to transcend boundaries and identities, and it does. At first listen, it can come off as simply a strong debut from a pop singer. You can feel how much Ocean has sharpened his teeth while ghostwriting for such artists as Justin Bieber and John Legend. However, upon repeat listening, one can begin to recognize channel Orange as a much stronger statement; not just on Ocean’s pop sensibility but on America’s. The fact that a song as cloyingly sweet as “Thinkin’ Bout You” can slide into play on urban radio stations next to Rick Ross and Meek Mills, while still being a sing-along favorite for soccer moms, is both impressive and intelligent. This eclectic, constantly-shifting mix of pop ideas is so deftly, almost nonchalantly, executed that by the time you realize you’re listening to a John Mayer guitar solo over gloomy, ambient synths at the end of “Pyramids,” it’s almost too late. From start to finish, Frank Ocean plays to our comfort zone while periodically throwing in ideas you would not expect. A delight to listen to as well as to discern, channel Orange is an unexpected pop pleasure.
2. Flying Lotus – Until the Quiet Comes
This album represents a musical and intellectual quandary to many people. A traditionally hip-hop/electronic producer strips down his digital cacophony with (get this) live musicians. Steve Ellison (a.k.a. Flying Lotus) has embraced his heritage. He is the great nephew of Alice and John Coltrane. After releasing three albums to increasing critical acclaim he arrives with the wonderfully-understated Until the Quiet Comes. It is, in essence, an electronic jazz album. But before you write it off as overly experimental, just put it on and let it take you for a ride. The way in which Ellison can synthesize so many disparate elements (African percussion, free jazz, West Coast hip-hop etc.) into a cohesive sonic journey is a wonder to behold. The influence of fellow Brainfeeder Collective member, Thundercat is clearly discernable in the strong bass lines and psychedelic milieu. The use of live set musicians, as opposed to exclusively digital instrumentation, further expands Ellison’s current trajectory. Nothing here seems forced. And despite existing in a clear and heady intellectual space, there is something discernibly intimate and personal about this album. You really feel as though Ellison has found his “quiet” place where all his musical ideas can flow organically and take shape on their own.
1. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
For those of us keeping score at home Swing Lo Magellan represents Dave Longstreth’s eighth album in the past decade with his Dirty Projectors project. What is most impressive about the latest effort is the seeming lack of it. Longstreth finally seems comfortable in his own skin as a songwriter. Not to say he has abandoned his distinctly complex vocal harmonies or tempo shifts, but he has found a way to not let his technical arrangements get in the way of simple and pleasurable song writing. Swing Lo Magellan is a collection of literate love songs for a generation of young people hyper aware of the impending doom of society. However even in the darker moments of the album (such as “Offspring are Blank”), Longstreth trusts in his expressive and eclectic musicality to carry through while allowing himself to be lyrically playful. This is by far Dirty Projectors most accessible and fun release to date and it is undeniably catchy. Try getting the chorus from “About to Die” or “Impregnable Question” out your head after one listen…Impossible.
November 27th, 2012 — jazz reviews
So I’m finally catching up with Homeland after months of people yelling in my face about how my not being able to pay for Showtime was keeping me from a television series whose significance to our time-and-place rivals those of The Wire or The Sopranos. Even with all this hype and glory leading the way, nothing I’d read or heard before I dove into the DVDs alerted me to the relatively-minor-but-to-me-significant fact that Carrie Mathison, the ruthless, bipolar CIA counterterrorism operative played by Claire Danes, is a serious jazz buff.
At first, I’m thinking: How great for jazz to have even this much ancillary presence in a prestigious pop-culture phenomenon. And then I think, well, yeah, but…she’s, like, clinical, man! And not always in a good way. Do the producers imply that jazz is part of her problem, or a plausible way out of her personal wilderness? Hard to tell so far, except maybe for a crucial clue she derives early in the first season from watching a bass player’s fingers work through a chord progression. These days, serious jazz buffs, with or without their maladies showing, will take whatever they can get in validation from the zeitgeist.
Somehow, jazz goes on, with or without pop validation – even, as one keeps hearing, without compact discs, though one also hears of something called “vinyl” making inroads in the marketplace. One is still haunted by the passage of time – and of those who helped write the history of jazz’s first century. One of my picks is led by a man who died in 2011, and most of the albums listed here pay homage to another, bassist Paul Motian, paragon and patron saint of progressive music, who mentored or inspired many of the musicians cited below Nevertheless, those who follow Motian’s example aren’t standing still, but moving ahead, heedless of what the aforementioned marketplace is thinking about – when, that is, it bothers to think at all.
1.) Ron Miles, Quiver (Enja/yellowbird) – This intricately-wired gadget had me at hello with “Bruise” – which, at least to these ears, compresses the wavering emotional trajectory of one’s average 24-hour existence into nine-and-a-half action-packed minutes. And, as with any album worth its ranking, it just gets better from there. You wouldn’t think you’d get a big, thick sound out of a trio comprising a trumpet (Miles), a guitar (Bill Frisell) and a trap set (Brian Blade). But this isn’t your average chamber-jazz aggregation. It’s a pocket-sized orchestra with Frisell in top form, whether laying down chords broad enough to encircle a botanic garden or spinning contrapuntal phrases that make antsy-little-bird patterns in the sky. Blade’s already established himself as the most audacious of his generation of drummers and he proves here that his ears are as big as his moxie. Miles, one of the versatile and underappreciated horn players of the present day, leads the way with a nerviness too assured to put on airs, but not afraid to think while singing – or vice-versa. Everything this trio touches works like a fine old timepiece, whether it’s Cotton-Club Ellingtonia (“Doin’ the Voom Voom”), gut-bucket blues (“There Aint No Sweet Man that’s Worth the Salt of my Tears” – and who needs a lyric sheet after a title like that?), old-school balladry (a back-door approach to “Days of Wine and Roses”) and even some rockabilly-with-quirk-sauce (“Just Married”). After you’re through listening to it, wind it up again just to see how the tunes land in your head a second or third time. And that won’t be enough.
2.) Ravi Coltrane, Spirit Fiction (Blue Note) – After more than a decade in which Ravi Coltrane’s been out-front as a leader and composer, newcomers still insist on bringing his parents into the discussion; how he and John play the same axes, how much they’re alike (or not), how Alice’s incantatory style has influenced him and on and on…No use complaining, since just about everything’s that been said on these matters so far has been true. But as of this, his most accomplished album yet, Coltrane has more than earned the right to have his artwork taken on its own distinctive terms. Enabled by co-producer Joe Lovano (about whom, more later), Coltrane triumphantly puts forth a personal vision that inquires as lithely as it asserts, that probes as decisively as it propels. He and his album benefit from having two ensembles at their disposal; a quartet with pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Drew Gress and drummer E.J. Strickland that gives added running room for Coltrane’s massive chops (especially on such freewheeling runs as “Spring & Hudson” and the more meditative showcase for his soprano sax, “Marilyn & Tammy”) and a quintet with trumpeter Ralph Alessi, bassist James Genus, pianist Geri Allen and drummer Eric Harland that engages his conversational agility. And with individualists as those in the latter crew, one can’t help but listen as deeply as one speaks. Alessi’s compositions, “Klepto,” “Who Wants Ice Cream” and “Yellow Cat,” extract deep tone colors and slippery phrasing from Coltrane as the imperturbable Allen strings together gem-like chords with escalating force. Lovano joins in on worthwhile examinations of Ornette Coleman (“Check Out Time”) and the aforementioned late, lamented Motian (“Fantasm”).
3.) Vijay Iyer Trio, Accelerando (ACT) – There’s no respite in pianist Iyer’s assault on the traditional jazz repertoire. If anything, his trio shakes things up with even more urgency on its latest production. Yet there’s also greater authority in its overall execution given how better attuned its members are to each other’s instincts. With something as well-worn as “Human Nature” (and no, once and for all, Michael Jackson did NOT write it, but my Hartford housing-project homeboy Steve Porcaro did with John Bettis), Iyer, bassist Stephen Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore re-jigger familiar elements into something like a grand incantation while still making it sound like something you could dance to (though it might be a slightly different dance from the one you’re prepared for). The trio also unearths unexpected theme-extending possibilities in other pop-funk guests on the playlist: “Mmmhmm” by bassist “Thundercat” Bruner and Flying Lotus and “The Star of the Story”, written by Rod Temperton for the seventies disco band Heatwave. The jazz “standards” are, of course, so left-field that Henry Threadgill’s wildly-eccentric “Little Pocket-Sized Demons” is given as straightforward a reading as can be imagined while a conventionally-swinging foundation is generously applied to Herbie Nichols’ typically-unconventional “Wildflower.” And why doesn’t it surprise that when Duke Ellington is invited to the party, his house gift is the lesser-known-than-it-should-be “Village of the Virgins,” from the maestro’s collaboration with choreographer Alvin Ailey? Iyer’s own pieces, including the explosive title track, move forward with a kind of mutant turbulence reminiscent of both Andrew Hill and Charles Mingus, while achieving a definitive shape they’ve earned on their own. It’s hard to tell at times whether harmonies are being re-imagined here as rhythms, or the other way around. Either way, you’re ready for whatever the Iyer Gang stirs up next time.
4.) Henry Threadgill, Tomorrow Sunny/the Revelry, Spp (Pi) – Yup, that’s the title — even those last three letters, which look like the tail end of a URL address from an undiscovered continent, but likely stand for “species”, given the biological roots of the ensemble’s name, Zooid (pronounced “zoh-oyd” and defined as “an organic cell or organized body that has independent movement within a living organism.”) Once again, it would appear Henry Threadgill’s not going to make things easy for us. Yet if you keep in mind what that Z-word means, you can begin to understand how his group’s instrumental voices merge to form their own arresting unity from ostensible chaos. To the regular quintet — the omnipresent Threadgill on reeds, the irrepressible Liberty Elfman on guitar, Jose Davila on tuba and trombone, Stomu Takeishi on bass guitar, Elliot Humberto Kavee on percussion – cellist Christopher Hoffman is added, which broadens the range of melodic-harmonic conversation while providing additional underpinning for the rhythmic attack The frisky result is the most cohesive and accessible of Threadgill’s previous four Zooid albums. It’s almost as if the guys finally got around to what they wanted to say all along and are better able to bring all of us into the flow. Then again, maybe we’re the ones who are adjusting to the seemingly fragmented nature of this music given how increasingly static our digitized day-to-day living has become. There’s a third possibility: That the lilting dynamics of this particular disc shields more disconcerting perceptions (e.g. If “tomorrow” is “sunny,” then what’s that make “today”? And how long before “tomorrow” gets here?) But why make things harder for us than they need to be? Just revel, Humans from Earth.
5.) Luciana Souza, Duos III (Sunnyside) – Her voice is such a gorgeous instrument that it tempts producers to frame it in all manner of contexts, whether it’s Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry set to music or Chet Baker’s songbook steeped in indigo. But the formula that’s thus far worked best for Souza puts her in a studio with the finest guitarists of her native Brazil and lets them run free in duet mode with the classic repertoire of their homeland. To say this third installment is as great as its 2001 and 2005 predecessors only solidifies the stature of this career-defining trilogy. It’s hard to single out any of her accompanists, Toninho Horta, Romero Lubambo and Marco Pereira, since each manage to bring out her inner poet, chemist or dancer, whichever the occasion requires. Her interplay with Pereira on the latter’s “Dona Lu” is as ingenious as it is enchanting while Lubambo, mainstay of the invaluable Trio La Paz, collaborates with her on a transcendent, enrapturing version of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Dindi,” which, as with many of the other tunes here, sounds both warmly familiar and startlingly fresh.
6.) Dave Douglas, Be Still (Green Leaf) – Not since 1998’s Charms of the Night Sky has a Dave Douglas album beguiled as consistently as this. The soft, wistful essences of Be Still have more elegiac tinctures given that it is a series of tunes, many of them in the folk and spiritual idiom, dedicated to the memory of the trumpeter’s late mother Emily. Hence, the first verse of “This is My Father’s World” substitutes “mother” for “father.” Moreover, the quintet of Douglas, saxophonist Jon Irabagon, pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Linda Oh and drummer Rudy Royston make the century-old hymn swing ever so gently behind the spring-water vocals of bluegrass singer Aoife O’Donovan, who shows here that she can hold her own with the jazz kids. She brings such limpid, ethereal grace to such songs as “Be Still My Soul” (whose music comes from Jean Sibelius), “Barbara Allen” and Douglas’ “Living Streams” that you almost wish she was on all the tracks. But Douglas’ own instrument is plaintive and poignant enough, even with it kicks up some dust on the more festive “Going Somewhere with You.” By its last cut, “Whither Must I Wander”, Douglas’ tribute seems suspended in a nether region between grief and acceptance, solemnity and release. It’s where most of us end up after we lose someone close to us – and where we sometimes tend to stay longer than we should. It’s that very ambivalence that makes Douglas’ musical wake seem a generous, more authentic gift to the living.
7.) Fred Hersch Trio, Alive at the Vanguard (Palmetto) – It’s not the first album Hersch has recorded at the fabled Village Vanguard – and, now that we’re sure he’s in fine fettle, one expects it won’t be the last. But that word in the title, “Alive,” carries added weight precisely because of the pianist’s astounding recovery from an AIDS-related coma in 2008. He seems to have come back from the abyss with greater fortitude and rawer energy than he’d had before. Even the romantic lyricism, one of many attributes that prompted immediate comparisons with Bill Evans upon his earlier emergence, packs earthier, more serrated textures on such intriguing medleys as “The Wind/Moon and Sand” and “From This Moment On/The Song Is You.” He literally tosses the Evans comparisons in the spin cycle by melding “Nardis” with Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman.” With his simpatico band mates, bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson, opening doors and windows for his imaginative faculties, Hersch leaps, saunters and, sometimes, stomps through those passages with a unassailable bravado that tells anybody who’s listening: Yes, I’m alive, thanks. Are you?
8.) John Abercrombie Quartet, Within A Song (ECM) – Yes, guitarist Abercrombie is the name on the door, and he is also leader of the pack and owner of the context (jazz music from the late 1950s and early 1960s that inspired him). But from the moment Joe Lovano’s tenor saxophone starts his journey into deeper, broader variations on “Where Are You” that are worthy of the mighty Coleman Hawkins and his epoch-making 1939 recording of “Body and Soul,” he’s the one you’re most anxious to hear again throughout, whether soaring on balladry or pirouetting through Something Completely Different (e.g. Ornette Coleman’s “Blues Connotation.”) Abercrombie’s downy, single-note lyricism seems to yield so much of the floor to the greatest saxophonist of his generation that you almost overlook the unflappable expertise he shows in letting his guitar wrap itself around all manner of rhythms. Both bassist Drew Gress and drummer Joey Baron glide and pivot their way through whatever each tune requires, whether it’s the title track (Abercrombie’s crafty inversion of “Without A Song,” reminiscent of the 1961 colloquy on that standard between Jim Hall and Sonny Rollins on the latter’s “The Bridge”) or pieces by John Coltrane (“Wise One”) and Bill Evans (“Interplay”, “Sometime Ago”). It’s a delicate bit of retrospective-izing that never fawns over the past, but finds elegant ways to re-invigorate it.
9.) Sam Rivers, Dave Holland, Barry Atschul, Reunion: Live in New York (Pi) – Do the math. Rivers died a year ago this month at age 88. He recorded this in May, 2007. That would make him 84 at the time; actually, 83, since his birthday was in September. Whatever the case, you will simply not believe that a man in his eighties is capable of the kind of sustained energetic invention on saxophone and flute that Rivers displays on this epic series of live performances with old friends Holland and Atschul at Columbia University, their first performance together in a quarter-century. Those who recall how naturally lucid and enrapturing their free-form interplay was in the 1970s may not find any true astonishments in this interchange. Even so, there is always anticipation whenever Holland tosses a bass line or two into the void. Will Rivers grab at a bop-like riff and weave a few quick licks into a bird call? Will Atschul (and where has he been all this time?) pounce on his hi-hat to propel their thoughts or pry open a new path with the proverbial different drum? Maybe Rivers will move to a piano; something he rarely, if ever did back in the day. This is free jazz at its most accessible, which makes it no less challenging and much more fun. The only thing that would have made it more galvanic an event would have been an appearance by Anthony Braxton to round out the crew that was aboard for the Holland-led 1973 ECM disc, Conference of the Birds. As it is, this Reunion was more than enough to remind devotees-of-a-certain-age of the sublime, long-lost joys of listening to musicians in loft apartments make artful noise purely for inspiration’s sake.
10.) Bobby Hutcherson, Somewhere in the Night (Kind of Blue) –. Aficionados of the jazz organ know Joey De Francesco’s cooking facilities are at even- or above-par with such masters of the pedal-walking bass line as Jimmies Smith and McGriff. But on this 2009 live date with vibraphonist Hutcherson at Dizzy’s Coca-Cola club at New York’s Jazz @Lincoln Center, Joey Dee shows off his commanding maturity and range of expression. He seems especially charged by this eclectic play list to flash some lyrical agility in his solos. Who knew that Duke Ellington’s “Take the Coltrane” would make for such a four-alarm barnburner with De Francesco tearing into riffs only to blow them apart and use their shards as fuel for thin-air improv? He’d walk off with the whole program in his back pocket if it weren’t for sure-handed drummer Byron Landham driving the crew in the focused, but open-hearted way your parents would take your Little League team to and from a long-distance away game and guitarist Peter Bernstein un-spooling his own versatility (especially on the title track, best remembered by those of us raised on black-and-white TV as “The Theme from ‘Naked City’”) from a pronounced center-of -gravity. But this date, basically and properly, belongs to the leader, who turns 72 next month and, despite his seemingly inexhaustible drive, still doesn’t get the props he deserves as both instrumentalist and composer.
1.) Anat Cohen, Claroscuro (Anzic)
2.) Matthew Shipp, Elastic Aspects (Thirsty Ear)
3.) Ted Nash, The Creep (Plastic Sax)
4.) Chick Corea & Gary Burton, Hot House (Concord)
5.) Billy Hart, All Our Reasons (ECM)
BEST NEW ARTIST: Ryan Truesdell, Centennial: Newly Discovered Works by Gil Evans (ArtistsShare) Honorable Mention: Reggie Quinerly, Music Inspired by Freedmantown (Redefinition)
BEST LATIN JAZZ: Guillermo Klein Y Los Gauchos, Carrera (Sunnyside) Honorable Mention: David Virelles, Continuum (Pi)
BEST VOCAL: Luciana Souza, Duos III (Sunnyside)
Honorable Mention: Tessa Souter, Beyond the Blue (Motema); Cassandra Wilson, Another Country (Entertainment One); Susie Arioli, All The Way (Jazzheads)
BEST REISSUE: Charles Mingus, The Jazz Workshop Concerts, 1964-65 (Mosaic)
December 19th, 2011 — jazz reviews
Before we get to this year’s Top Ten, some random thoughts: 2011 has been such a mean, tumultuous, uprooting year for me that it was a challenge to keep track of the latest recordings. With the year almost over, I’m factory-sealed certain that I’ve left several worthy candidates behind. See them? They’re glaring at me from behind, standing with hands on hips or waving at my dust trail as if to say, “What?”
Then again, I find myself wondering what the hell they’re doing there. Seems to me I heard at some point this fall that Termination Day for CDs is approaching even faster than one had been led to believe. If we want the latest Keith Jarrett or Aaron Neville, we need only reach into a cloud — a.k.a. THE Cloud — and snatch whatever track we want. I still can’t believe that’s all we’ll eventually be left with. But it’s what all the salespeople insist is happening and they’ve never lied to us before. Ever.
And yet, you’re all here, aren’t you? Even though I haven’t yet learned how to download album covers or to make the necessary links to specific tracks. Someday, maybe even next year, that’ll be in place. For now, some tough choices from a tough year…
1.) Sonny Rollins, “Road Shows Vol. 2” (Doxy) – The Greatest Live Act in Jazz, headlined by the Greatest Living Improviser, keeps rolling along, its every flourish and delicacy captured for what promises to be an epochal series of recordings from past and (one hopes) future concerts. This second installment’s tracks are just a year old, but you understand why they needed to be out there in a hurry. They celebrate the start of the Colossus’ ninth decade as observed in Japan and, most notably, at last September’s “Sonny Rollins @80” concert @ New York’s Beacon Theater. On that evening, the celebrant, leonine and fit, sounded frisky and responsive to the electricity of the moment, his furry tone combed to a bristly sheen. He brought out guitarist Jim Hall, his comparably indefatigable 1960s playmate (to dive into “In a Sentimental Mood,” of course) as well as trumpeter Roy Hargrove who, as with the leader, always brings his A-game in front of onlookers. This disc is the next best thing to having been there. Yet it still makes you wish you’d been able to share the audience’s excitement at seeing Ornette Coleman wander on-stage for a characteristically insurgent solo on “Sonnymoon for Two” wherein he lures the Colossus “outside” the regular changes for some buoyant give-and-take. If Rollins is now the de-facto king of whatever it is we mean when we talk about jazz, then this edition of “Road Shows” shows him to be a wise, benevolent ruler whose domain, however small it may seem to outsiders, feels accessible enough to meet your most urgent needs and expansive enough to contain multitudes.
2.) Ambrose Akinmusir, “When the Heart Emerges Glistening” (Blue Note) – Only four years removed from winning the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, this 29-year-old trumpeter has delivered on his grand promise with an album of startling depth and range. Once you get past the challenges of pronouncing his intimidating surname (ah-kin-MOO-sir-ee) and of getting past the album’s knotty title, you’re free to acclimate with his big, brilliant sound or unravel the intricacies of his soloing – which, while layered with the trills, glissandos and arpeggios emblematic of the jazz trumpet’s heritage, share the probing detail and varied attack of sax icon Joe Henderson and of pianist (and album co-producer) Jason Moran. For all his agility and command, Akinmusire leans heavily on his band-mates (tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III, pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Harish Raghavan and drummer Justin Brown); all of whom are worthy collaborators, collectively and individually. Word is out that these guys are all part of a big band that Akinmusire is leading. Can’t wait to hear what that’s like.
3.) Noah Preminger, “Before the Rain” (Palmetto) – At age 24, Preminger, a front-rank tenor saxophonist on just his second album as a leader, plays ballads as if he were a seventy-something road-warrior. He already knows, on instinct, how to approach a melody from behind; where to hang the drapery on a chord change and when to gently pull it away. And he doesn’t seem in a hurry to disclose everything he knows, not even on his original compositions (the title track, “Abreaction,” “Jamie”) or on Ornette Coleman’s “Toy Dance.” As with Akinmusire, Preminger is blessed with a eerily compatible rhythm section of bassist John Herbert, drummer Matt Wilson and pianist Frank Kimbrough, who contributes a couple of his prodigious compositions (“Quickening,” “November”) to the cause. By the time this group gets to massage a sturdy war horse such as “Until the Real Thing Comes Along,” you’re utterly convinced that Preminger is the real thing – and that he’s coming along quite nicely.
4.) Allen Lowe, “Blues and the Empirical Truth” (Music & Arts) – Is it music or is it scholarship? Or musical scholarship? Is it criticism of the blues or just critical of them (or at least of what people say about them)? These and dozens of other questions aroused by “Blues and the Empirical Truth” are far more significant than any answers I or anyone else pretending to know more about music than Allen Lowe can cobble together. Lowe is a gnomic, compulsively idiosyncratic polymath who lives in Maine, plays a red-hot saxophone and has for years put together epic inquiries into the history and nature of American music and how it shapes – or doesn’t – the national character. On this three-disc set, recorded over a two-year period, Lowe arranges, composes and plays “inside” and “outside” jazz as well as such makeshift forms as neo-gutbucket-progressive-punk (at least that’s what I’m calling it for the moment.) He is backed by a typically eclectic guest list that includes guitarist Marc Ribot, pianist Matthew Shipp, trombonist Roswell Rudd and Lowe’s fellow musicologist Lewis Porter, contributing here and there on keyboards. Along the way, tribute is made to civil rights activists Pauli Murray and Ella Mae Wiggins, forgotten or obscure musicians such as saxophonist Dave Schildkraft and pianist Blind Tom Bethune and…Doris Day, who should have been invited to Portland to jam with this crowd; except you have to wonder what she would have made of a song list with such titles as “Speckled Shaw Crippled Pete Boogie,” “Blues in Transfiguration,” “Elvis Died With His Sins Intact,” “In a Harlem Ashram” and “(Bull Connor Sees) Darkies on the Delta.” Guess it doesn’t matter as long as no animals were harmed in the process.
5.) Muhal Richard Abrams, “SoundDance” (Pi) – Just so you know, Sonny Rollins isn’t the only octogenarian legend who’s still getting the job done. Abrams, the peerless pianist-composer who co-founded the legendary Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) nearly 50 years ago, marked his own ninth decade by engaging in colloquies of such breadth and magnitude that they each needed their own disc. One of these is a dialogue with tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson that took place in October, 2009, a year before the latter’s death, though it’s a strain to detect signs of sagging energy in his playing. Both Abrams and Anderson seem energized by the task of extending or enhancing each other’s thoughts and even listeners resistant to free-form improvisation won’t miss a beat (so to speak). A year later, Abrams engaged in a sonic pas de deux with fellow innovator, author and AACM veteran George Lewis, who brought both his trombone and his laptop to the party. These two masters of orchestration create intricate, spiraling patterns that are at once imposing and puckish. You can wander in and out of their gallery of sound and find something strange, shiny and, in a peculiar way, companionable.
6.) Craig Taborn, “Avenging Angel” (EMI) – A title of one track could easily apply to most of the others: “A Difficult Thing Said Simply.” Taborn, who owns one of the most eclectic curriculum vitae in contemporary music (Tim Berne AND James Carter?), approaches the art of solo jazz piano as if he were translating complex code from a distant star. Often, he binds the information in tightly-wound chords struck down as if on anvils to forge unusual shapes. At other times (the aptly-named “Glossolalia”), he lets things twirl in the air like dazed, tiny phantasms squeezed out of an overcrowded basement. As with the early work of Keith Jarrett, Taborn is prone to lean to too hard on a riff, but (again, as with Jarrett) the digging can occasionally lead to an illuminated strike. In what’s been a vintage year for solo jazz piano discs (see the honorable-mention list below), this stood out for one simple reason: It sounded the most different from what its genre had yielded before.
7.) Youn Sun Nah, “Same Girl” (ACT) – Didn’t know a thing about her when this disc slipped into in my mailbox earlier in the year. After one track, I found myself asking, “Where has she been all my life?” (In Europe, apparently, where this album was first released last winter.) She is steeped in the French chanson tradition, but as with the most interesting singers beyond the boomer generation – Is she really 42? – she’s willing to try anything from Broadway (“My Favorite Things”) to Brazil (“Song of No Regrets”), from the folk music of her native Korea (“Kangwondo Aririang”) to the mellow sounds of Metallica (“Enter Sandman”). And she can scat real good, too, as proven on the quiet-fire “Breakfast in Baghdad.” The minimalist backing she gets from guitarist Ulf Wakenius, bassist-cellist Lars Danielson and percussionist Xavier Desandre lets her rangy, limber voice roam, run and leap about at will, even when the material is dipped in deep blue. Nothing seems to scare or stop her. Good as this disc is, it makes you wish she’d dare even more.
8.) Bill Frisell, “Sign of Life” (Savoy) – At its most inquisitive and unfettered, Bill Frisell’s music can be as evocative of the “the old, weird America” as Bob Dylan’s 1967 basement tapes. (Come and get me, Greil Marcus!) He has a boho-folk artist’s affinity for both the pastoral and the abstract. Beneath even his most glowing, spacious-skies landscapes, there are flickering shadows and misshapen objects that don’t distort the view, but are blended to make a slightly cockeyed, but still arresting picture, “Sign of Life,” performed by his 858 Quartet of violinist Jenny Schienman, violist Eyvind Kang and cellist Hank Roberts, is his best-realized sound painting since 2001’s “Blues Dream,” whose noir-ish cloaking devices I still appreciate, even if others didn’t. This is a sunnier compound of motifs and riffs that give off an aura of mystery, even danger – especially when the irrepressible Scheinman starts throwing paraphrases and adornments like left jabs. It’s clearer than ever that with both this disc and the John Lennon tribute released in the same year, Frisell can’t be stopped – or even contained. Only sampled – and what would NPR do for filler between news stories if his music weren’t around?
9.) Miguel Zenon, “Alma Adento: The Puerto Rican Songbook” (Marsalis Music) – Not only was this the year’s best Latin jazz album, it was also among the more inspired examples of that overpopulated subgenre, the tribute album. Zenon’s homage isn’t to a single artist or composer, but to the men and women who wrote the classic pop tunes of his native land. He and arranger Guillermo Klein practically reinvent crooner Bobby Capo’s “Incomprendido” as a slow-drying lament. Conversely, Rafael Hernandez’s “Silencio,” revived by the “Buena Vista Social Club” some years back, is given a near-chimerical, tempo-shifting transformation. The centerpiece, literally and figuratively, comprises two pieces by Sylvia Rexach: the title track and “Olas y Areenas,” both of which are treated by Zenon and Klein with passionate intensity and solicitous intelligence. Zenon may sometimes risk going overboard with his ambition and with his playing, but that’s part of the attraction. And if his alto-sax soars like a rocket plane, he’s becoming more adroit at gliding to pinpoint landings. .
10.) Evan Christopher, “Remembering Song” (Arbors) – If you paid close attention to “Treme” this year…no, wait. I have to digress just a little here. I’ve been hearing fans of “The Wire” complain that they find “Treme” too slow, too dense and not as – what? – urgently engrossing as its predecessor. I am compelled to remind these folks that it took at least three seasons for “The Wire” to find a following. And that only when it was nearly over did people begin thinking of it as a “classic.” So though it’s no longer fashionable in pop-culture circles to counsel patience, call me unfashionable. Watch and wait…Anyway, if you did pay close attention to “Treme,” you probably saw Christopher jamming with Tom McDermott and the luminous Lucia Micarelli on Scott Joplin’s “Heliotrope Bouquet.” He has been one of Crescent City’s most lyrical and stalwart clarinetists and this love letter to his adopted hometown is both a wistful lament for the unshakable legacy of Katrina and a bittersweet celebration of the spirit that refuses to wither or retreat from that legacy. His original compositions – e.g., “The River by the Road”, “You Gotta Treat It Gentle” – show that he’s not trying to reinvent tradition, but fulfill its demands. Sometimes, you don’t need to listen to something that changes the world. Easing its pain is enough. And for me, this year especially, it was more than enough.
1.) Gonzalo Rubalcaba, “Fe Faith” (5Passion)
2.) Matthew Shipp Trip, “The Art of the Improviser” (Thirsty Ear)
3.) Larry Goldings, “In My Room” (BFM)
4.) Charles Lloyd & Maria Farantouri, “Athens Concert” (EMI)
5.) Terrell Stafford, “This Side of Strayhorn (MaxJazz)
BEST NEW ARTIST
Chris Dingman, “Waking Dreams” (Between Worlds Music)
Youn Sun Nah, “Same Girl” (see above)
BEST LATIN ALBUIM
Zenon, “Alma Adento: The Puerto Rican Songbook” (see above)
Julius Hemphill, “Dogon A.D.” (Arista/Freedom) HONORABLE MENTION: Bill Dixon Orchestra, “Intents and Purposes” (RCA/Dynagroove)