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Our 100 Year Inheritance from Charlie Parker

 

 

Jimmy Cannon used the phrase “an American heirloom” to describe Babe Ruth. I like to think the same could be said for Charlie Parker, even if most Americans, know relatively little about him when compared with the “Sultan of Swat.” Both seemed supernatural phenomena who seemingly came out of nowhere, capable of leaving witnesses spellbound in the very different ways their profound sense of swing reshaped the air around them. Both had massive, seemingly insatiable appetites, living fast, playing hard, dying too soon, making indelible history in their respective art forms.

 

 

 



With the Bird, I think the legacy is even subtler than what you find on his recordings, which still can astound new listeners on first contact.

 

 



The tone is what shocks you before the tempest of invention all but overpowers your resistance. It is a bright, hard tone, shiny and serrated like sheet metal edgy enough to scratch any surface, supple enough to shape into any form, whether terrifyingly new or dreamily familiar.

 


The things that remarkable-on-its-own voice could do within the cramped space of a two-to-three-minute recording are what made its owner a near-divinity even in his brief lifetime. At any speed, in any context, Charlie Parker could fold into the narrowest blank space stream upon stream of inferences, wisecracks, mimicry, thematic variations and nonverbal poetry. I can imagine all those ex-servicemen who left for war at the end of the swing era and returned to hear this coming out of their 78-RPM players and thinking, as Parker and his combo created a whole new front end for “Cherokee” (“Ko-Ko”)  or “Embraceable You”, “He can do that? He can actually do all that?”

 

 

 

 

 

 


Springing outward like weeds from such questions were others that asked, “Should he do all that?” Critics as different from each other as Ralph Ellison and Phillip Larkin were adamant that he shouldn’t have. Sharing their corner were moldy figs of varied ages who echoed Emperor Joseph II’s sentiments in Amadeus when he told an astonished and infuriated Mozart that there were “too many notes” in his otherwise “ingenious” compositions. Louis Armstrong dissed what he famously labeled “Chinese music” a.k.a. bebop and many still blame jazz’s precipitous decline in widespread popularity on boppers like Bird, his “worthy constituent” Dizzy Gillespie and others for making music that made social dancing difficult, if not impossible. (My parents and their friends thought differently, and I know this because I saw them dancing to a Parker record as if it were just another of what were once labeled “pop platters.”)

 

 

 

 


Nevertheless, for true believers in the primacy – and the imperative — of improvisation, Charlie Parker was and is a secular god. Every virtuosic barrage of notes he emptied into space has been chased down, contained and examined on both masters and outtakes by obsessives of all ages and temperaments. The irrepressible Phil Schaap has for almost 30 years used morning airtime on New York’s WCKR-FM to provide detailed exegeses of every note Bird blew, even the wrong ones, if, in the minds of Parker cultists, there were such things.

 

 

 



Guys like Schaap existed even when Parker was alive and blowing, the most fanatical of these being Dean Benedetti, a saxophonist who followed Bird around with a wire recorder and stuck a microphone in front of Parker whenever he soloed. Those solos, and only those solos, were recorded and transcribed by Benedetti, who died in 1957 at 34, the same age as Parker did two years earlier. (The Benedetti recordings were released in 1988 and, even with the hi-tech production wizardry of Mosaic Records at work, they’re a strain to hear, but worth the trouble if you’re a true believer at the altar labeled “Bird Lives!”)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


That Parker died so young and packed his brief life with as much density and turbulence as one of his solos (the coroner’s report put his age at 53, or so legend has it) is part of his everlasting mystery and magnetism. He did all that? you think when hearing his work. He actually did all that? Wave upon wave of surviving colleagues, younger acolytes, historians, musicologists and poets have struggled to explain how he did “all that.” Sooner or later, however perceptive or intuitive their engagement might be, all of them end up doing little more than projecting their own version of Bird to the point that there are many different Birds flying around the world. Early in my own such engagement, I always thought it was interesting to wander through Robert Reisner’s 1962 “oral biography” Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker and note how there seemed to be no two photos of him that looked exactly alike.

 

 

 


Stanley Crouch does plenty of his own projecting in 2013’s Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker mostly because there is so very little verifiable data on Parker’s early life that can be found despite Crouch’s valiant research. Still, this first of what is intended to be a two-volume biography rides towards its conclusion with as vivid and as persuasive an assessment of the Artist as a Young Man on the verge of altering the scenery forever in American culture:

“Wherever he was in whatever room playing whatever horn whether owned by him or not, Charlie Parker was in a condition of confrontation. That was inevitable. By now he knew, deeper than his marrow, what all serious artists realize: that no matter how great and perfect a major creator is at a moment of sublime delivery, there are always limitations. No one person is perfect enough to conjure what another person feels as he tries to express what is inside. Parker…was beginning to realize that no established genius, however rough, tough, and dreamily hypnotic, could hear what he was hearing. Perhaps what he heard was actually his and his alone.”

If Charlie Parker is an heirloom, his inheritance encompasses  not only musicians but all who yearn to Play What They Hear, whether with paints and brushes, pencils and word processors, ballet slippers and soft floors, turntables and microphones. William Blake aside, the idea was never to Go to Extremes – and Parker would be the first to tell anybody who tried to follow his example that there were places he went that weren’t necessary to perform his miracles. Life, not Art made all that mess. Learning to negotiate the distinctions is part of the process and at some point, you are left with the beautiful mystery of his speed, power and lyricism. It’s enough.




 

Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Jazz Discs for 2019

I’m not going to say this past year in jazz was stranger than any other. But my list is sure a surprise, at least to me.

I mean…just look at the top five…not just one, but two organ albums? Yes…and not only that, they were both different approaches to jazz organ, having little in common except some righteous tenor sax interaction and all-out commitment from their respective leaders. More on them later.

It makes me remember something told to me back in the 1980s by a very wise man named Jerry Gordon, founder and manager of Philadelphia’s hallowed and still much lamented Third Street Jazz: “There’s no middle ground on organs. People either love them or they don’t.” Jerry would know since Philadelphia has a legitimate claim to being “the jazz organ capital of the world” and indeed, one of the organists on this list has deep Philly roots, deeper even than those of Sun Ra, another organ player who called Philadelphia home and whose massive, unparalleled body of work Jerry would later help curate for Evidence Records.

If anybody occupied Jerry’s nonexistent middle, I was sure it was me, even if I could never avoid such music because as far as my dad was concerned, organ jazz was Dah Joint. This was especially true in the 1960s when he was looking for something to make the rec room jump at odd hours of the night. Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, Groove Holmes, Charles Earland, Shirley Scott…those were all his peeps, his boon pals and drinking buddies. Not that I didn’t jump up and down to Jimmy Smith by my own self in those years, but I had so many more outlets for musical comfort and joy. So “love,” as Jerry characterized it, had little to do with it.

Still, as much as Dad would find the basic trappings cozy and familiar, I can’t say for sure whether he’d be able to hang long with these two organ albums. They swing hard, but they also aim high. As much as he liked to jump, Dad likely wouldn’t want to go as high as these two albums. As I say, more on them later.

I suppose that having jazz organ front center aligned somehow with a need I had from jazz and from culture in general to go hard and aim directly at the heart of things. The music that grabbed me the most this past year didn’t dwell on stuff too much, but showed commitment, energy and drive. In plain terms, these albums all followed the ancient bandleader’s imperative to “Hit It!” And that was enough for me.

There was too much else to think about this past year – and also not a whole lot of thinking to go with it. So, if passion was there to be had, my sense of things was that it had better be engaged, tough and above all smart to know where it was going and how it wanted things said and done.

So, let’s hit this!

 

 

 

1.) Etienne Charles, Carnival: The Sound of a People, Vol. 1 (Culture Shock) – I like gumbo. No, I don’t. I love gumbo. I especially love it when its ingredients are scraped, plucked, dug up, mashed, dashed and liberally strewn into the pot with seeming abandon, but also – and always – with instincts homed in on what combinations will at once surprise, awaken and enchant the senses. Charles, a trumpet tyro from Trinidad, has made it his business to collect musical seasonings and spices from all over the Caribbean to create mind-body release music redolent of their cultural origins while intent on illuminating the region’s complex history. His previous work, including 2013’s Creole Soul and 2017’s San Jose Suite, gave off rushes and thrills while disclosing the calculation and intelligence behind them. On Charles’ full-bore inquiry into the festival music of his native land, the erudition isn’t as conspicuous, but the eclecticism is. And the rush invigorates from the jump as an on-site recording of Trinidadian street musicians laying down a rollicking, swiveling beat is amped up by some slash-and-burn post-bop inventions of Charles, also saxophonist Brian Hogans pianist James Francies, guitarist Alex Wintz, percussionist D’Achee and drummer Obed Calvaire and others. David Sanchez adds his agile tenor sax to the simmering pot on other tracks and the leader himself kicks in some percussive support, even a cowbell, to the proceedings. This is the enrapturing and beautiful album one long suspected Charles is capable of delivering and maybe the best part of the whole deal is that this is only “Vol. 1.” Here’s my bowl. More, please.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2.) James Carter Organ Trio, Live from Newport Jazz (Blue Note) – It’s been almost twenty years since Carter, a fire-breathing, bottom-voiced avatar of croon-and-holler saxophone, last took a deep dive into the repertoire of gypsy guitar legend Django Reinhardt. And it’s been almost ten years since he’s released an album of any kind. As if to remind us of what we’ve been missing, Carter audaciously re-engages with Reinhardt’s music and brings along his power backup of organist Gerald Gibbs and drummer Alex White. Thus, two raucous traditions – the red-hot “jazz manouche” of 1930s-1940s Parisian bars and the smoky-blue hardbop of 1950s-1960s uptown nightclubs – were in each other’s arms at Carter’s 2018 Newport Jazz Festival appearance and the clinch proved intoxicating, even transformative. Unlike 2000’s Chasin’ the Gypsy, Carter’s not here to pay homage, but to revitalize such Reinhardt chestnuts as “Le Manoir De Mes Reves,” “Anouman” and “Melodie Au Crepuscule” with soulful strutting and hard-rock shouting. The trio opens “Crepuscule” with a grinding vamp borrowed from Bill Withers’ “Use Me,” drawing the crowd to their side and keeping it in their pocket with Gibbs’ spirited riffing and Carter’s bait-and-switch inventions. While Carter can still blow the doors off any nearby building with his sky-scraping honks, bleats and wails, his deep tone on tenor, alto and soprano sax is supple and lustrous at any tempo or altitude. The smoldering, bewitching variations he makes on “Pour Que Ma Vie Demeure” induce both terror and awe and apply a diamond-hard exclamation point to this triumph for Carter, for Newport and for tradition, wherever it can be salvaged and recombined.

 

 

 

 

 

 

3.) Branford Marsalis Quartet, The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul (Marsalis Music) – Through the years, nay, decades he and his family have held presumptive dominion over the national jazz discourse, Branford has always been my favorite Marsalis grumpy-pants: testy, feisty, dryly funny and brazenly confrontational with his peers over what jazz music really is and what the public really wants from it. Whether in dispute or agreement with his tirades, I’ve often found them livelier than his music, however solidly crafted and polished in presentation. There’s been no doubt that he and his bandmates – pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Justin Faulkner – have as keen a rapport with each other and with their audience as any working combo. But there hasn’t been a full-blown album that evokes what this rapport can achieve at its best. Until now. Something about this one pulls hard on your coat and ramps up the unit’s commitment and drive. Every member brought their A-game for this session to the point where it’s hard to single out, say, Calderazzo’s sweet, steady-rolling changes on his pieces “Cianna” and “Conversations Among The Ruins,” or Revis’ combustible compositions, “Dance of the Evil Toys” and “Nilaste.” Faulkner, the relative newbie in the group, contains and advances the apparatus with a fiercely applied command of weight and balance belying his youth. And the leader seems more locked in than usual, playing with blazing verve and urgency that enhance his habitual ingenuity. To get the full impact of this group’s high-spirited interaction, you need only listen to its exuberant rendition of Keith Jarrett’s “Windup” that, appropriately, brings this set home. Many moons ago, Marsalis showed his drolly churlish side speaking of Jarrett’s own prickly-pear personality, insisting even then that he had nothing whatsoever against Jarrett’s music, proving that even the hardest-shelled curmudgeons can call upon their generosity when properly inspired.

 

 

 

 

 

 

4.) Abdullah Ibrahim, The Balance (Gearbox) – At 85, South Africa’s greatest living jazz artist finds himself deep in the winter of…not discontent exactly, but of wistfulness that stops just short of melancholy. His piano still dances with as much command of space and time as it ever did. But it now takes its time, forsaking much of the whirling-dervish momentum of Ibrahim’s youth with a more deliberate pace that nonetheless resolutely forsakes caution. The sepulchral mood of “Dreamtime” at first throws you off. But as soon as his seven-piece band Ekaya kicks in full gear on “Jabula”, Ibrahim gets frisky enough with the beat to let you know he’s nowhere near ready to slip into the shadows. He remains as open to riding the rugged and unfamiliar in rhythmic combinations as he ever was and as moving as his performance is of “Song for Sathima,” the paean he wrote for his late wife, vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin, there’s a grand and open-hearted spirit to the recital that envelops multitudes. Now more than ever, it’s possible to hear — and feel — what got Duke Ellington all het up when he first heard the Artist Formerly Known as Dollar Brand (a name he still uses on the cover of this one, though not as prominently).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5.) Joey DeFrancesco, In the Key of the Universe (Mack Avenue) – When I first saw him as a student at Philadelphia’s Settlement Music School, he was still “Joe DeFrancesco” pounding the hell out of an acoustic piano as if his life depended on it. (The kid playing electric bass behind him was then known as “Chris McBride.” As you’ve heard, his grown-up self is likewise better known under another first name.) Joey went on to follow in his dad’s footsteps on the Hammond B-3 and became keeper of the jazz-organ tradition. This album takes his talents to an unexpected direction and, as much as I’d detected way back in his prodigy period, he seems to be going all-out on this one, using all his considerable resources to probe the mystical and spiritual realms explored by African American jazz artists of the late 1960s and early 1970s. He even brought along Pharaoh Sanders, one of the key figures of that movement, to sit in on a couple of tracks, and damned if the 79-year-old Sanders doesn’t sound here as nimble and propulsive as he did in his “Karma” period. (He even takes the late Leon Thomas’ role in singing the lyrics to “The Creator Has a Master Plan.”) DeFrancesco’s regular saxophonist Troy Roberts plays with similar force and grace and it’s always a treat to hear Billy Hart on drums with Sammy Figueroa ably in support on percussion. But as usual, it’s the leader you can’t wait to hear whether he’s vamping and swinging with deceptive ease, comping with dexterity or surging through the changes with near-demonic energy – though on second thought, “near-demonic” (a compound I think I used when I first wrote about him in his middle school days) is an inappropriate characterization for such a spiritually-based enterprise. Bright moments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

6.) Miguel Zenón, Sonero: The Music of Ismael Rivera (Miel) –– Rivera (1931-1987), also known as “Maelo” or “El Sonero Mayor,” was a genius of salsa singing, a master of antiphonal improvisations spinning choruses within, through and above choruses with such groups as Los Cachimbos and Cortijo y su Combo, table-setters for bomba and plena genres. This makes him an inevitable and fertile subject of inquiry for Zenón, who has dedicated himself to framing and extending the motifs to his native land’s pop music with modern jazz motifs. Once again, Zenon, pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole find fresh, ingenious and uplifting possibilities from their source material without in any way mitigating its subtle graces. Their effervescent interaction is bracing at any pace, whether in the somber dirge “Las Tumbas” or in the rough-and-tumble “El Negro Bembón” with its rapid-fire quintuplets. As effectively as the rhythm section tamps down each eccentric shift in tempo throughout the album, it’s Zenón’s alto saxophone, by turns fiery and elegiac, that most enraptures in conspicuously, appropriately assuming lead vocals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7.) Steve Lehman Trio with Craig Taborn, The People I Love (PI) – Put an intense maximalist like alto saxophonist Lehman together with a dedicated minimalist like pianist Taborn and you get…well, is “harmony” the word we’re aiming for here? Probably not since the word assumes they meld with their personalities fully intact. Their give-and-take on “In Calam & Ynnus” suggests at the very least a mutual affinity for ripping stuff apart and slamming the distended shapes back together into odd, but logical coherence. Lehman’s facility for rapid-fire riffing is taken up by Taborn, who is willing to fade their discourse out and let Taborn carry the rest of their colloquy home. Here, even more than on his previous albums, Lehman’s bright, bristly tone proves adaptable to a variety of contexts, whether it’s Autechre (“qPlay”) or Kenny Kirkland (“Chance”). He seems most empowered by a burner like Kurt Rosenwinkel’s “A Shifting Design,” where he, Taborn, bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Damion Reid weave into each other’s embroideries so well that you can’t always tell who’s keeping time. (All of them. likely.) This, to me, is the warmest, sunniest album yet from Lehman and, for that matter, from Taborn. Once again, I’m hoping for seconds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8.) Nicholas Payton, Relaxin’ with Nick (Smoke Sessions) – As a colleague said to me the other day, Payton may not appreciate being on this list at all, given his contempt for the word “jazz.” He prefers the acronym, “BAM” for “Black American Music” to define what he does. As if to drive the point home, the album includes his composition, “Jazz is a Four-Letter Word,” inspired by the title of Max Roach’s unpublished autobiography and if you want to know what he and Payton mean, the late drummer’s recorded voice is there to explain, both in full and in sampled bits. It’s one of the highlights of this two-disc live trio recording, an unvarnished triumph of multi-tasking as the one-time trumpet prodigy proves himself to be a master of acoustic and electronic keyboards, capable of even comping his horn solos, which are as powerful, vibrant and pulsing with narrative energy as ever. (His singing of “Othello” and “When I Fall In Love” isn’t as masterly, but his downy phrasing suggests he’s on to something nonetheless.) One suspects he’d try being his own rhythm section someday. But at least for this laid-back marathon session, he is fortunate to have bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington at his back. They’re not related to each other, but share years of veteran savvy, impeccable timing and implacable focus. As with the Marsalises, Payton isn’t shy about courting controversy and he has in like fashion used whatever rancor he arouses as fuel for his forward progress. However you feel about his pugnacity, he’s at peace with it – and you should be, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

9.) Wadada Leo Smith, Rosa Parks: Pure Love (TUM) – The peerless and, at 77, apparently tireless Smith previously paid tribute to Rosa Parks and the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott seven years earlier in his epochal opus Ten Freedom Summers. He takes what he characterizes as the boycott’s “381 Days of Fire” and unfurls from its core an oratorio in Parks’ honor with seven songs, three singers (Min Xiao-Fen, Carmina Escobar, Karen Parks), a string quartet, a brass trio (including Smith’s trumpet), two percussionists and some electronic sound mixing. Smith also augments this blend with excerpts from recordings he made about fifty years before with fellow “creative music” insurrectionists Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins and Steve McCall. The music may not be “easy,” but its message is elemental: a plea for simple justice in the face of fear and loathing. Not to put too fine a point on this, but given the imperatives of the present day, such a testament would be worth the investment of those who are closest to you – and especially those who aren’t.

 

 

 

 

 

 

10.) Paolo Fresu, Richard Galliano, Jan Lundgren, Mare Nostrum III (ACT) – One of the treasures of European jazz has put out three gorgeous albums in more than a decade and still aren’t as famous as they should be on these shores for emitting some of the most transfixing sounds on the planet. The great Galliano (as I’ve come to call him, mostly because it sounds cool) remains a formidable paragon on the accordion and related gadgets. But what’s become apparent over time is how he’s made his virtuosity merge so seamlessly with Fresu’s plangent horn and Lundgren’s dulcet keyboard. They collectively merge their distinctive voices so as to now seem to speak as one delicate, riveting entity. Both the familiar (“Windmills of Your Mind,” “Love Theme from ‘The Getaway’”) and the not-so-familiar (Lundgren’s “Ronneby,” Galliano’s “Letter to My Mother,” and Fresu’s “Human Requiem”) are rendered in short takes, densely packed with rich melodic invention and tightly contained passion. Some might dismiss it all as “pretty,” but you can pass by “pretty” with ease. These guys make the kind of terrifyingly beautiful music that stops you in your tracks if you’re not careful.

 

 

 

 

HONORABLE MENTION : Steve Davis, Correlations (Smoke Sessions), Anat Fort Trio, Colour (Sunnyside), Matthew Shipp Trio, Signature (ESP)
Ed Palermo Big Band, A Lousy Day in Harlem (Sky Cat), Anat Cohen Tentet, Triple Helix (Anzic)Toni Freestone Trio, El Mar de Nubes (Whirlwind)
Fabian Almazan Trio, This Land Abounds with Life (Biophilia)

 

 

 

 

 

BEST VOCAL ALBUM
Catherine Russell, Alone Together (Dot Time)

HONORABLE MENTION; Annie Addington, “In a Midnight Wind” (Annie Addington) 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BEST LATIN ALBUM: Miguel Zenón, Sonero

HONORABLE MENTION: Guillermo Klein & Los Guachos, Cristal (Sunnyside)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BEST HISTORIC ALBUM
Eric Dolphy, Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions (Resonance)
Stan Getz, Getz at the Gate: The Stan Getz Quartet Live at the Village Gate, Nov. 26, 1961 (Verve)
Gerald Cleaver & Violet Hour, Live at F1rehouse 12 (Sunnyside)

Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Jazz Discs for 2018

It was the kind of year when the biggest, most-talked-about release in recorded jazz was a compilation of takes and outtakes from fifty-five years ago. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Both Directions At Once at or near the top of some reviewers’ lists for best new album since its 1963 sessions by the John Coltrane Quartet had never before seen the proverbial light of day. The album doesn’t appear on this list, and I’ve already suggested why it won’t. Still it was the kind of marketing triumph rarely seen in jazz music, pulling in a big, broad spectrum of listeners. Some older jazz heads told me Both Directions drew bigger crowds than Coltrane did when he was still alive – which sounds more than plausible.

Even with my misgivings, it was hard not to be caught up in the excitement Both Directions At Once aroused among listeners, especially those who weren’t yet born when Coltrane died in 1967. Yet along with the excitement there was also a melancholy acknowledgment that Back Then aint the same as the Here & Now. Hearing the Coltrane quartet at a time when some of its greatest breakthroughs were just ahead reminded you that those early-to-mid-1960s were an era of expanding horizons and greater possibility.

And now? To paraphrase something one of my peers told me earlier in the year, we once lived in a time of transcendent, boundary-breaching improvisers. Now we live in an era awash in very-good-to-great players working well and even nobly within the standards set by giants. Every once in a while, one of them spins you around by making a sound you never heard before. (Number 4 on this list has been doing this since she emerged only a few years ago.) But maybe Gary Giddins was right when he wrote back in 1983 about the emergence of the Marsalis brothers and their contemporaries, “My intuition is that innovation isn’t this generation’s fate.”

After almost forty years have passed and at least a couple more of waves of musicians have emerged, Giddins’ assessment still sounds prescient, at least as far as improvisers are concerned. But there are other ways to be innovative. Throughout this period of revision and retrenchment, some of our most interesting jazz artists have devoted their energies to creating or, in Wynton Marsalis’s case, refreshing contexts for jazz’s presentation, whether by expanding the music’s canon through jazz repertory or providing broader frameworks for presenting the music. Maybe you bring choirs along as part of your equipment, as Kamasi Washington does, or revise conventional horns-rhythm-section stagecraft as the late Max Roach once suggested – and as artists such as Esperanza Spaulding have been doing. It’s the same kind of musical nation-building that Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Art Blakey and Betty Carter used to do with their outfits and I’d like to believe that from these revised contexts, more than a few musicians will emerge and make all our heads spin the way John Coltrane once did, and still does.

Or…I could be wrong. Anyway, here’s my list and I’m sticking with it:

 

 

 

 

1.) Steve Coleman and Five Elements, Live at the Village Vanguard, Vol. 1 (The Embedded Sets) (PI) – In Coleman’s previous appearances on this list, I’ve described what he and his band are doing as an ongoing quasi-scientific inquiry into what he characterizes as biological processes, but are in reality groove dynamics and harmonic montage. The studio work has yielded encouraging and often earth-shaking results. But in a live setting, especially within the concave confines of jazz music’s Holy Dive, everything the band does seems ramped up in intensity as if having live witnesses to its experiments goads Coleman, Jonathan Finlayson, Miles Okazaki, Anthony Tidd and Sean Rickman to raise their respective games. The overlapping dialogue between Coleman’s scorching alto sax and Finlayson’s slashing trumpet seems more colorfully serpentine on stage while the worlds-within-worlds polyrhythmic drive provided by bassist Tidd and drummer Rickman yanks you into the music’s molten core and Okasaki’s guitar sets off well-timed compression bombs. If your head can move to this group’s percolating dramatic tension – and it should – your body will eventually follow.

 

 

 

 

 

2.) Wayne Shorter, Emanon (Blue Note) – This just in: THE MULTIVERSE EXISTS! If you doubt this, and you do so at your peril, you need to find the nearest available copy of The 3 Marias, a “prestigious publication” dominating a “one world reality” known as Logokrisia. Failing that, you’ll just have to trust this one-of-a-kind artifact springing from the teeming brain of a comic-book nerd from Newark who grew up to become, among (many) other things, one of this year’s Kennedy Center honorees. This combination of graphic novel and three-disc collection is a multiverse you can carry around the house or, if invited to do so, somebody else’s. The title, which is “no name” spelled backwards , owes its origins to a Dizzy Gillespie tune and is given to the novel’s mystical superhero. Described by Shorter and co-author Monica Sly as a “rogue philosopher,” this Emanon travels from dimension to dimension to subdue fear and oppression in all its forms and replace them with knowledge and wisdom. The real mystery and suspense come with the music performed on the three discs by Shorter and his comparably intrepid sidekicks, pianist Danilo Perez, drummer Brian Blade and bassist John Pattitucci, spinning off motifs, ideas and even characters from the comic book (“Pegasus,” “The 3 Marias,” “Prometheus Unbound” etc.) The first installment has the quartet deploying its customary allusive interplay in tandem with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. At times the combination sounds like the soundtrack to a cryptic SF movie spectacular. But then, almost all of Shorter’s compositions, going as far back as such grandly-conceived classics as 1965’s The All-Seeing Eye and ahead towards such underrated pastels as 1985’s Atlantis (where “The 3 Marias” first appeared) and 1995’s High Life, are soundtracks to movies whose stories would be too inscrutable for Hollywood to attempt. The quartet carries on its sporadic, probing conversations on the other two discs, whose content is culled from a live London concert. Some listeners have complained that the music seems more tentative than they expected as a definitive statement from the greatest living jazz composer. (We’ll argue that latter clause some other time.) But it all sounds pretty definitive to me, coming as it does from somebody whose teenage nicknames were “Mr. Gone” and “Mr. Weird.” Listen to this music often enough and you’ll find that its secrets aren’t meant to be deciphered; only appreciated on their own slippery, shadowy terms.

 

 

 

 

3.) Charlie Haden & Brad Mehldau, Long Ago and Far Away (Impulse!) – Up until his death in 2014, bassist Haden was always up for melding minds with other individual seekers of beauty and truth. This colloquy, recorded in 2007 at a jazz festival in Mannheim, Germany, may not be perfect (since nothing is), but it is gorgeous in the affecting manner of an early winter sunset or a lingering over-the-shoulder pivot towards a onetime lover you’re certain of never seeing again. Haden knew a fellow romantic sensibility when he met one and Mehldau found in Haden’s generosity of spirit a warm, safe haven for his vagabond lyricism and bold phraseology. The playlist is pure classic standard, from “Au Private” to “Everything Happens to Me,” both of whose steady-as-she-goes renditions here would have made Charlie Parker smile. But what would have caused Bird to sit up straight with wide eyes are Mehldau’s variations within each chord change; sometimes they swirl and tumble onto a different path while at other times they imperturbably ride with whatever tangent Haden discovers along the melody’s surface. These collaborators bring out each other’s richest conceptual contours in such ballads as “What’ll I Do” and a Haden favorite, “My Love and I,” David Raksin’s love theme from the 1954 movie “Apache,” within whose bridge Mehldau shakes loose some of his most stunning inventions, expansive yet firmly tethered to the song’s pulse. Haden has always shown a special watchfulness in piano duets. This one is most remarkable for disclosing many things we either didn’t know, or merely suspected, about Mehldau’s resourcefulness. And, as another entry on this list will attest, we’ve come to know a lot more by now.

 

 

 

 

 

4.) Cecile McLoren Salvant, The Window (Mack Avenue) – She can neither be stopped nor contained by anybody’s marketplace; nor is she in any way daunted by having to immediately follow the most breathtaking and ambitious jazz vocal album of this century. She takes a heady gamble on this one by relying mostly on a single accompanist: pianist Sullivan Fortner, who is as formidable a dramatist with his instrument as she is with hers. Her inflections provide well-timed cues for his embellishments and fusillades. Granted, there are times when their respective strengths almost collide, most notably on that Bernstein-Sondheim rouser, “Somewhere,” when their attacks at different ends of the song threaten to shortchange its impact and even confuse their listeners. But even when they threaten to go too far, they end up creating something you haven’t heard before – and won’t mind hearing again. She’s still at the top of her game and, more definitively, her profession. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I’m talking about her again in this space a year from now. I expect to be surprised by what she chooses to do next.

 

 

 

 

 

5.) Charles Lloyd & The Marvels + Lucinda Williams, Vanished Gardens (Blue Note) – “We all play folk music,” Thelonious Monk once told Bob Dylan. Accordingly, this smoke-cured aggregation of laments, dirges and secular prayers lofted towards what we cringe to regard as Present Day Reality feels very much like the album Dylan would release if he believed now was the time to try more jazz with his blues. Led by tenor saxophonist Lloyd, who at 80 seems to be (in Dylan-speak) a lot younger than he was in his Forest Flower period of the 1960s, guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Reuben Rogers, drummer Eric Harland and steel guitarist Greg Leisz concoct a spectral blend of American musical java that soothes and jolts at odd hours of the day. Williams, in my judgment, has never had more suitable backup for her leathery vocals, whether on original songs such as “Ventura” or “Unsuffer Me” or on Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel” on which you’re tempted to imagine an alternate reality where he lived long enough to accompany her. (Maybe Wayne Shorter, or Emanon, can find one.) Still wondering why “Ballad of the Sad Young Men” is an instrumental, but they (whichever [sic] “they” are) may know something I don’t.

 

 

 

 

6.) Joshua Redman, Still Dreaming (Nonesuch) – Jazz needs another tribute album the way I need another Bush, Clinton or Trump to run for president. But this feels far more like an urgent personal testament than yet another solemn salaam to a past master. It’s a tribute, perhaps foremost, to Redman’s father, which also makes it a homage to the Old and New Dreams band that featured Dewey Redman on tenor, Don Cherry on trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass and Ed Blackwell on drums. And because that group was formed as a kind of early exemplar of an Ornette Coleman repertory band, the younger Redman, Ron Miles, Scott Colley and Brian Blade are taking on the respective roles of the aforementioned (now departed) players, but in their own voices and on their own terms. Thus, these four guys aren’t paying homage so much as paying renewed attention to a state of mind, a manner of behaving well under pressure and a means of stretching the collective unconscious. There is one piece each by Haden (“Playing”) and Coleman (“Comme Il Faut”). Yet most of the compositions are originals by Colley and Redman, the latter of whom, despite the fearsome range displayed in his previous recordings, shows sweet affinity with the serrated rhythmic patterns and riff extensions of the older band. It’s hardly a secret that all was not well between the elder Redman and his son in the former’s lifetime. But the peaceful feeling one gets listening to these tracks suggests a more intimate, profoundly deeper peace fully achieved within a tumultuous heritage of undaunted dream weavers.

 

 

 

 

 

7.) Brad Mehldau Trio, Seymour Reads the Constitution (Nonesuch) – To get the obvious out of the way, yes, I was intrigued, though mildly disappointed to find out that the title tune refers to a dream Mehldau had wherein the thirsty-grizzly voice of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman was reading the Constitution to him. But it wasn’t the only reason I couldn’t keep this disc out of my player for most of the calendar year. By now, the things Mehldau has done to stretch possibilities of the piano trio format have become part of the music’s turn-of-the-century heroic folklore. But what keeps us attentive to Mehldau and his longtime partners Larry Grenadier (on bass) and Jeff Ballard (on drums) is their expansion of jazz’s repertoire, either by broadening the definition of “classic pop” (Brian Wilson’s “Friends,” Paul McCartney’s “Great Day”) or by prying open fresh approaches to modernist standards, especially Sam Rivers’ evergreen “Beatrice,” whose natural bounce is refreshed here with insouciance and ingenuity. To his own compositions, Spiral” and “Ten Tune,” Mehldau brings deeper harmonic invention and tonal progressions that reflect the abiding influences of both Bach and Brahms. Somehow, Mehldau has softened his intensity without losing his edge and still stands out among a prodigious — and increasingly crowded — pack of great jazz pianists.

 

 

 

 

8.) Christian McBride’s New Jawn (Mack Avenue) – “Jawn” is Philly-speak for…well, I suppose if a definition of a noun is person, place or thing, then “jawn” is another word for “noun,” though I always took it as a Del-Val variant of “joint.” In any event, I don’t think McBride’s piano-less quartet necessarily qualifies as a “new thing,” which for jazz heads of earlier generations was a euphemism for what was considered avant-garde from roughly 1959 till 1971. In fact, there’s something bracingly familiar in this joint’s blend of freewheeling neo-bop and nimble rhythm machinery. Trumpeter Josh Evans and saxophonist Marcus Strickland let fly with seeming abandon while staying grounded to the shifting pocket of percussion lad down by drummer Nasheet Watts and the bassist-leader, who despite his growing reputation as an eminence-gris on his instrument still comes across as the young tyro breaking loose from Philadelphia’s storied Settlement Music School. And perhaps what’s most gratifying about a small ensemble such as this is that it provides an ideal showcase for hearing what McBride has learned and can teach as a musician and a leader.

 

 

 

 

9.) Eddie Henderson, Be Cool (Smoke Sessions) – Let me tell you about Eddie Henderson because his is one of the most remarkable jazz-life stories you probably never heard. First of all, it’s Doctor Eddie Henderson, having earned a medical degree from Howard University in 1968 four years after earning a B.S. in zoology from Cal-Berkeley in 1964. His general practice came in pretty handy in the years after he’d recorded with Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi electro-boogie band in the early 1970s. Oh, and before all that happened, he took his first trumpet lesson with Louis Armstrong at age nine. This was in large part because he came from Harlem entertainment royalty since his mother was a Cotton Club dancer and his father was a singer whose 1957 cover of “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” was a million-seller. If that sounds like too much to take in at once, then we’ll make this long story short by saying that Dr. Henderson continued to practice general medicine while playing, recording and touring all over the world. This latest album of polished hard bop, backed by solid gold players such as pianist Kenny Barron, alto saxophonist Donald “Big Chief” Harrison, bassist Essiet Essiet and drummer Mike Clark, comes across as the closest thing to a musical autobiography Henderson has put forth so far. Its selections pay homage to players who have inspired and nurtured him throughout his long career whether it’s Hancock (“Toys”), Coltrane (“Naima”), and fellow trumpeters Woody Shaw (“The Moontrane”) and Miles Davis (his take on “Fran Dance” just misses equaling Davis’ dry-witted studio rendition from 1958, but that’s OK because Miles never quite matched it either and Henderson’s comes closer than he did). But what boosts this testament towards rare air is its approach to that stout old warhorse, “After You’ve Gone.” Most interpretations play that Tin Pan Alley ditty as a briskly paced taunt. Henderson, however, goes against the grain and slows the tempo, turning what’s popularly recognized as a jolly anthem of comeuppance into a wistful rumination on loss. I forgot to mention: Henderson turned 78 last October and is still gigging, recording, broadening his musical horizons and, for all I know, available for consultation.

 

 

 

 

10.) Noah Baerman Resonance Ensemble, The Rock & The Redemption (RMI) – The notion of a jazz suite devoted to the myth of Sisyphus seems so obvious that you wonder why it hasn’t happened before now. (Albert Murray, the late philosopher king of swing, had to have at least sketched out an idea of Sisyphus as the first blues hero…somewhere.) It’s likely that the idea was waiting to land on someone like Baerman, a keyboardist-composer who teaches at Wesleyan University and has struggled his entire life with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, an incurable malady that affects connective tissue. As one can imagine, the disorder has tempted Baerman to walk away from playing music, but he has gone on and in doing so, found communion with the dogged Sisyphus, whose labors to roll a boulder up a slippery slope are duly honored with an 11-part piece blending funk, gospel, hard bop and (of course) blues. Baerman’s Resonance Ensemble provides formidable support for this tribute to perseverance: Kris Allen on reeds, Chris Dingman on vibraphone, Henry Lugo on bass, Bill Carbone on drums and vocal support from cellist Melanie Hsu, Garth Taylor, Latanya Farrell and the late Claire Randall, whose murder at age 26 a year after this 2015 recording session became yet another painful marker on the slippery, treacherous slope of day-to-day existence. Her presence here is part of the bittersweet gift this enterprise bestows on those of us who wake up every day with a boulder in front of us, still standing wherever we left it the day before. The way I see it – and maybe Noah does, too – the rock mocks us, but in doing so, its presence reminds us that we’re still alive. And pushing.

 

 

 

 

 

HONORABLE MENTION: Orrin Evans and the Captain Black Big Band (Smoke Sessions) Andrew Cyrille, Lebroba (ECM); Luciana Souza, The Book of Longing (Sunnyside); Renee Rosnes, Beloved of the Sky (Smoke Sessions); Jeremy Pelt, Live in Paris (High Note); Fred Hersch Trio, Live in Europe (Palmetto); Don Byron & Aruán Ortiz, Random Dances and (A)tonalties (Intakt); Ambrose Akinmusire, Original Harvest (Blue Note); Dave Holland, Uncharted Territories (Dare2); Matthew Shipp Quartet Featuring Mat Walerian, Sonic Fiction (ESP Disk); Kamasi Washington, Heaven and Earth (Young Turk)

 

 

 

 

HISTORICAL/ARCHIVAL/REISSUE, ETC.
1.) Frank Sinatra, Only The Lonely (Capitol)
2.) Keith Jarrett, La Fenice (ECM)
3.) Miles Davis & John Coltrane, The Final Tour: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 6 (Columbia/Legacy)

 

 

 

 

LATIN ALBUM

David Virelles, Igbó Alákoran (The Singer’s Grove) Vol. I & II (PI)

HONORABLE MENTION: Ruben Blades, Wynton Marsalis & Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Una Noche Con Ruben Blades (Blue Engine)

 

 

 

 

 

VOCAL
Cecile McLorin Salvant, The Window
HONORABLE MENTION: Luciana Souza, The Book of Longing

DEBUT
Arianna Neikrug, Changes (Concord)

“Both Directions At Once”: A Window, A Pathway or Just Another Day at the Office?

 

 

 

John Coltrane will have been with the ancestors for fifty-one years this month. Yet he remains jazz’s toughest act to follow. Many people, not all of them fans, insist that jazz history stopped moving when Coltrane’s heart stopped beating in a Long Island hospital on July 17, 1967. Even those who were mystified, if not altogether alienated by Coltrane’s headstrong voyages beyond the stratospheric boundaries of tone and invention acknowledged him as a bellwether for whatever would happen next for the music. His death at just 40 years old seemed to signal that there would be no more “next,” only whatever happened before.

So it’s hardly a wonder that a large crowd gathers whenever somebody uncovers Coltrane music that nobody’s heard on record before. They all swarmed four years before when a 1966 concert of Coltrane’s second, most experimental quartet was packaged and released to the public as Offering: Live at Temple University (Impulse!/Resonance). Though it was unavailable for digital downloads, Offering was at or near the top of the Billboard jazz charts for several weeks. My guess is that a majority of those purchasers were just as confounded by the music at that concert as they were by such late-period Coltrane LPs as Kulu Sé Mama, Expression, Meditations and Interstellar Space (about which more later). But its success affirmed what now seems an everlasting attraction to John Coltrane as karmic messenger; it’s as though we’ve all agreed that somewhere in Trane’s legacy there’s something we’re missing and we need only pay close attention when another such discovery is made.

Hence the buzz and jubilation surrounding this month’s release of Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album (Impulse!). These are never-before-released recordings of a March 6, 1963 studio session with Coltrane and his “classic quartet” of pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Jimmy Garrison. The set, recorded at Rudy Van Gelder’s legendary studio in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., includes several takes of Coltrane’s “Impressions,” the standard he’d built using the same harmonic baseline as Miles Davis’ “So What” on 1959’s epoch-making Kind of Blue. (Ashley Kahn’s typically informative liner notes mention that Trane himself wrote “So What” on the box holding the “Impressions” tapes.) There’s also a three-minute-plus take on “Nature Boy” and a couple of versions of “One Up, One Down” (not to be confused with “One Down, One Up,” which the quartet delivered with stunning abandon in a February1965 live broadcast at the Half Note previously released as part of a 2005 bootleg).

To me, the most fascinating of this “found” album’s storylines involves “Untitled Original 11386” (again, not to be confused with “Untitled Original 11383,” a hard-driving blues piece that opens the two-disc package and isn’t heard from again, even though you’d like to). It’s one of the quartet’s more buoyant riff extensions and it exemplifies the principal pleasure offered by this release: Listening to each member of this exemplary group interact, enhance and add to each other’s contribution whether it’s Jones’ loping and rolling combinations (especially when it’s just his trap set and Trane’s soprano doing a pas de deux), Tyner’s unobtrusive, yet bracing comps and Garrison’s sleek, powerful lines. Not that anybody needed to be reminded of this quartet’s pre-eminence above all others in its time, but even the minor glories of this session seem especially portentous given what would from this point on prove to be the group’s most productive and illuminating period (the Johnny Hartman sessions were a day away, the Birdland performances would be recorded in just seven months and the following year would yield the near-blinding sunburst that was A Love Supreme.)

 

 

 

 

Sonny Rollins’ vivid encomium for this package, “This is like finding a new room in the great pyramid,” encapsulates every fan’s enthusiasm for Both Directions At Once. Still, while it’s only proper to have Rollins’ benediction on such an auspicious occasion and though I yield to no human in my devotion to the Colossus, I don’t think there are any startling discoveries to be found here regarding Coltrane’s genius. Beyond the renewed appreciation for the workaday brilliance of the quartet, of which there can never be enough examples (and is, by itself, no small virtue), I think the revelations of this disc have less to do with Trane and more to do with how jazz music used to produce both accessibility and adventure with both assurance and fortitude. The modal innovations pioneered and expanded by Coltrane have become so commonplace in jazz that it becomes easy to forget how exhilarating and easy to love its themes were.

Moreover, I think that when many listeners, whether jazz aficionados or not, embrace this music, they are consciously or not cleaving to a moment in time just before Coltrane decided to accelerate his inquiries into deeper, wider possibilities. Put less charitably, it’s at or near the spot where even the most devoted and forbearing listeners said “Adios” to Trane as he soared headlong into what they believed were impenetrable regions of tonal and rhythmic chaos.

 

 

 

So while I’m hoping that this “lost album” re-galvanizes the faithful while indoctrinating new generations to this quartet’s glories, I’d also commend all these listeners to use this occasion to slide over to where Coltrane began to press the edges of the envelope. I’m referring to 1965’s Ascension, the polyphonic freeform ensemble piece that joins Coltrane, Jones, Tyner and Garrison with such avatars of what used to be called “The New Thing” as saxophonists Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Marion Brown, John Tchicai and the enigmatic trumpeter Dewey Johnson, who played alongside Freddie Hubbard here and never recorded again. Those non-indoctrinated or hostile to free jazz hear nothing but random chaos in this piece. But if you pay attention from the start, you find that the whole sprawling, intermittently surging work can be viewed as the picaresque adventures of a five-note phrase – well, four notes actually since one of them is repeated. But try to keep up with that phrase throughout and you may find that while the whole apparatus seems to take you all over the place, it can also keep you centered in surprising ways. Which I’ve always suspected were Coltrane’s intentions all along.

 

 

 

 

If that trip seems in any way fruitful, then I’d recommend you jump ahead several albums and two more years to Interstellar Space, released by Impulse a year after Coltrane’s death and which has thus been called “the final masterpiece” by The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings. This is by no means a consensus opinion, given the many listeners who can’t get past the wailing, keening tone of Coltrane’s tenor in the first few bars of “Mars” as he and drummer Rashid Ali detonate their five-piece cosmic duet. But what some view as run-amuck obscurity, I prefer to accept as an act of willed ecstasy, a release from any obvious constraints of space and time (in the musical sense) and a daring leap towards a more organic means of fashioning unity in sound and meaning.

Some believe that “getting” such music requires sticking your head as close to the speakers as you can until its “meaning” materializes in front of you. That’s almost the right idea, but as I’ve suggested before in other contexts, I think you’re better off carrying the music with you and allow it to blend in with the other more inchoate sounds in your life. That’s how I “got” it – or more to the point, appreciated it.

Another suggestion: After letting these “Interstellar” sounds live in you for a while, go back to Both Directions At Once. And yes: there’s a hint of an explanation to All Things Trane in that title, but you’ll have to finish the rest of the course on your own.

 

 

 

Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Jazz Discs for 2017

 

Don’t know whether you’ve heard or not, but as of this year, professional basketball has become the Number One Sport in America. Many can, and likely will argue with me on this and we can do so another time. But I know that with this prominence has come some chatter among the philosophically inclined (or challenged) about how basketball is such a prototypically American team game where everybody plays together as a unit while allowing individual brilliance to come forth in dramatic ways while playing within the rules and blah-de-blah-blah…

I mean…I know that ALL team sports allow for that to varying degrees, right? But the basketball cognoscenti contends that it’s the grand, freewheeling and often explosive manner in which players express themselves spontaneously within the confines of the game that solidifies its global appeal. (Once again, blah-de-blah-blah-and again we can fight about this later.)

The only reason I’m bringing it up here is that there was a time  — and not all that long ago — when people spoke in this manner about jazz music, another American-born enterprise allowing for, even compelling individual spontaneity within a collective endeavor. Both basketball and jazz have deployed “jam” and even “jam sessions” in their argot, though they technically mean different things. And, as is especially the case with the pro game, basketball depends heavily on stars drawing fans’ wayward attention spans into the not-always-conspicuous-but-deeply-satisfying graces within the sport. Jazz likewise searches far and wide for first-magnitude stars and doesn’t lack for hot young “phenoms” of its own. (Number 1 on this list.) It also has ageless wonders who can still “ball” with eye-popping agility (Numbers 2 and 7), slammers who aren’t afraid to go hard and inside (Numbers 4, 5 and 10) and sharpshooters with wide wingspans (Numbers 3, 6, 8, 4 and 1, again).

I just wish I knew the secret to jazz drawing in, at the very least, the savants who care so much about whether the “Dubs” (look it up) repeat again as champs or whether the Celtics-Sixers rivalry is really going back to where it used to be in the 1980s/1960s or whether LeBron James is gunning hard for a third MVP award or whether the Thunder has too many shooters, etc. Why can’t jazz get buzz like that?

Because, as with everything else in the recording industry (whatever the hell THAT is these days), jazz’s future is locked in a chrysalis forged by changes in distribution, marketing and even packaging. (How long and deep is the vinyl resurgence anyway?) And when the chrysalis bursts, then what? Or, more to the point, so what? Jazz isn’t in a position to lead change, but it will, or should adapt to the changes overtaking the American psyche in matters of gender, economics and, as always, race, defined here a mythic construct that nonetheless holds American minds hostage.

(We can table that discussion for another time, too.)

Through it all, the music abides. And, for anybody bothering to listen, it’s stronger, livelier and more vibrant than ever. Case in point:

 

 

dreamsanddaggers

 

1.) Cecile McLorin Salvant, Dreams and Daggers (Mack Avenue) – As of this album, her third (or maybe fourth), it is no longer enough to say she’s the most talented young vocalist to appear in decades. Nor is enough to say that she’s the best jazz singer of her (Millennial) generation. This double disc package, composed mostly of sets gathered from a September, 2016 Village Vanguard engagement, proclaims Cecile McLorin Salvant as a star of such near-blinding magnitude that if I could have given the first five spots on the list to this album, I would. Put another way (and I apologize if I’m repeating myself): I cannot remember ever hearing a singer achieving before the age of 30 such a formidable command of rhythm, tone, nuance, articulation and idiom. Prodigies before her have come and, often, gone with her abundance of resources. But among many other things, she can bend, without undue distortions, any phrase in any standard, allowing the familiar lyrics in such chestnuts as “You’re My Thrill,” “The Best Thing For You”(with its challenging chord and line shifts), “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” and “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” to lope around, lag behind and leap ahead of their assigned tempos with a veteran’s imperturbable authority. As she has in her previous albums, she pounds hard-core blues tunes such as “Sam Jones’ Blues” and “You Got To Give Me Some” as if born and bred in brawling roadhouses. But she treats the words of these raw-boned songs with same solicitude and care that she applies to the suave cheekiness of Bob Dorough’s “Nothing Like You” and “Devil May Care” or to the ruminative pathos of the Jule Styne-Bob Merrill plaint, “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty.” She is a skilled dramatist, probing and engaging the character behind each song – though I wish another dramatist would someday fashion a vehicle that could showcase her brilliance on stage or screen the way Funny Girl delivered Barbra Streisand to the center of the universe. She’s also playful, but she aint playing. Nor is she a dilettante wandering aimlessly, from show tunes to primordial funk and back to her own original musings (“More,” “Red Instead.”) She’s probing for connections, linkages, overlapping characteristics of each tune with the kind of fortitude that over time could reinforce the foundations of American music for new generations of players, poets and lovers. And, as I may or may not have mentioned earlier, she’s only 28 years old. I did neglect to mention the comparably dynamic support of her rhythm section, especially pianist Aaron Diehl, who’s becoming a first-magnitude star on his own. I can’t tell you any more. There are some things you’re going to have to see and hear for your own selves.

 

 

 

Marseille

 

2.) Ahmad Jamal, Marseille (Jazzbook/Jazz Village)—Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the age spectrum, Ahmad Jamal is 87 years old, which means he’s three years away from being a nonagenarian. Paradoxically, he has in recent years sounded younger with age; more energetic and adventurous than he did back in the 1950s when he was wowing Chicago’s Pershing nightclub with his variations on “Poinciana.” His late-winter resurgence continues on this session with drummer Herlin Riley, bassist James Cammack and percussionist Manolo Badrena. His cleverness, whose flamboyance at one time annoyed the purists, has acquired keener, rougher edges on such tunes as “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “Autumn Leaves,” the latter of which is a clinic on how a pianist and a rhythm session contain and release tension like dancers working within a narrow space. His timing and poise as leader and soloist have likewise sharpened, especially on his original compositions, “Pots En Verre,” “Baalbeck” and the title tune, given three variations here; first as a straight-ahead instrumental, then with a spoken version (by Abd Al Malik) and a ballad rendering (Mina Agossi) of Jamal’s French-language lyrics – which, by the way, are also pretty deft for a man of his advanced years. But who’s counting anyway? I’m going to predict that, by his 90th birthday in 2020, he’ll still be playing keep-away games with space and time on his piano and keeping his bass-drum tandems on their toes. Anybody want to bet against me? Or him?

 

Morphogenesis

 

 

3.) Steve Coleman’s Natal Eclipse, Morphogenesis (PI) – I’m resisting the temptation to label what Coleman’s been doing these last few years as an ongoing biological experiment. That would make it sound clinical and the music he and his various ensembles have recorded is anything but. Functional Arrythmias (2013) dealt with cardiovascular matters while Synovial Joints (2015) dared you to imagine knees, elbows, shoulders and legs accommodating themselves to whatever the music, organically conceived and arranged into being, was willing them to do. This time, the shape-shifting dynamics of Coleman’s approach is geared towards movement, core, tactics, kinesis and thrust; in other words, martial arts, specifically boxing. (You heard.) Thus the orchestrations have more density and drive, which makes this album at once more inscrutable and more accessible than its immediate predecessors. Jonathan Finlayson’s trumpet shows greater range of expression even when flying in close formation with Coleman’s alto saxophone. Jen Shyu’s voice returns to the mix while pianist Matt Mitchell, drummer Greg Chudzik, tenor saxophonist Maria Grand, violinist Kristin Lee and percussionist Neeraj Mehta all work together to create an collective entity of sound and rhythm you could use to prepare for any bout you have on the schedule, metaphorical or otherwise. Since these releases seem timed for every two years, I’m guessing Coleman and crew have another inquiry due in 2019. Is it possible, doctor, that…the human brain could be next on his agenda? (Egad!)

 

 

 

far from over_vijay iyer sextet

 

 

4.) Vijay Iyer Sextet, Far From Over (ECM) – “Down to the Wire,” “Into Action,” “Wake,” “End of the Tunnel”…The titles alone are challenges hurled into the Whirlwind of Now, especially the title track, which pulses throughout like a urgent telegraph message seeking a way out of the whatever it is we’ve been going through for (at least) the last year. Iyer, having done everything with the piano trio short of equipping it with double jet packs and a hood ornament, takes the wheel of this super-powered ensemble and comes perilously close to redefining the horns-rhythm-section paradigm. Pianist Iyer, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Tyshawn Sorey lay down a sweet, spongy groove for “Nope” that gives the front line of alto saxophonist Steve Lehman, tenor saxophonist Mark Shim and horn master Graham Haynes lots of room to leap with controlled abandon. Electronics are deployed with discretion and purpose on the aforementioned “End of the Tunnel” while “Down to the Wire’s” overlapping riffs and steel-mesh polyrhythms exemplify the band’s breakneck intensity as does the lyrical fire shooting out of that elite horn section. Even when in relative reflection (“For Amiri Baraka”), the album seethes and goads its listeners to lean in and press forward into whatever trials lay ahead. We should probably take a hint from the way these guys go all out on these tracks: That our only way out of this mess may be us.

 

 

 

JLCO_Batiste_LewisCover_3000x3000_600_600_80 (1)

 

 

5.) Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, The Music of John Lewis (Blue Engine) — Wynton Marsalis wasn’t the first musician to merge classical aspirations with jazz performance. Neither was John Lewis. But Lewis (1920-2001), who led the epochal Modern Jazz Quartet for roughly half his life, helped define by the middle of the last century a useable tradition within jazz music that could draw extensively upon its own heritage (blues, bop, swing and such) while establishing communion with baroque, romantic, impressionist and other genres linked to Europe. This legacy is vast and enduring enough to affect most of the jazz music written today, including most, if not all of the music represented on this list. Marsalis, especially, knows how much the very notion of Jazz at Lincoln Center, and jazz repertory in general, owes to Lewis and this tribute, recorded four years ago at Rose Hall, is an institution’s deeply-felt and elegantly-framed expression of gratitude. Marsalis, as ever, is the emcee-impresario as well an occasional soloist. But at center stage for this show is pianist Jon Batiste, a couple years before becoming nationally known as Steven Colbert’s “Late Show” bandleader-collaborator-egger-on. He proves an insightful surrogate for Lewis’ own inventions on such timeless pieces as “2 Degrees West, 3 Degrees East,” “Two Bass Hit” and (of course) “Django.” The concert’s revelations come in the orchestra’s renditions of themes taken from MJQ’s 1962 masterwork, The Comedy. That suite sustained the most knocks at the time from jazz peeps who believed Lewis was bowing too low to the European masters. But the orchestra, using a score adapted for big band by David Berger, makes the whole apparatus swing hard without in any way mitigating its surging romanticism. If I may partake of a quibble: The lovely “La Cantatrice” is rendered in these settings without a vocal proxy for the young Diahann Carroll, who sang this aria with the quartet on the Atlantic album. If the LCJO repeats this segment of the MJQ experiment, I know just the singer for the job. (Again, see Number 1 on this list).

 

 

 

Honey & Salt

 

 

 

6.) Matt Wilson, Honey and Salt: Music Inspired by the Poetry of Carl Sandburg (Palmetto) – Coming across this homage to the First Jazz Poet  is like wandering into a neglected corner of one’s attic and stumbling into these motley contraptions that, with a little oil in their wheels and cleaning fluid in their cogs, can still whirr, hum and beguile. Drummer-bandleader-composer Wilson comes by his devotion legitimately, having hailed from the same Knox County, Illinois birthplace as Sandburg and been distantly related to boot. He’s been touring with his Carl Sandburg project for a few years now and has now yielded a cozy, colorful quilt of Sandburg-related instrumentals, songs and readings that constitute one of the precious few times that a jazz-poetry synthesis has worked so well. (Hell, worked. Period.) With Ron Miles on trumpet, Jeff Lederer on reeds, Martin Wind on bass and Dawn Thomson on guitar and lead vocals, Wilson provides deceptively simple frameworks, rhythmically and otherwise, for a Sandburg cornucopia (never has the word seemed more appropriate): A loping shuffle for “Soup”; an indigo-blue slow jam for “Night Stuff” (with Miles in top form) and a moody prairie lament for “Bringers” (“…of dawn and dusk and dreams…”). Even more intriguing is the interplay of the music with the poems as read by such notables as Jack Black (“Snatch of Slipshod Jazz”), Carla Bley (“To Know Silence Perfectly”), Rufus Reid (“Trafficker”), John Scofield (“We Must Be Polite”) and Sandburg himself, whose recital of “Fog,” where most of us first learned about metaphor in grade school, is stretched and elaborated upon by Wilson’s trap set. Is it possible for a jazz album to restore a literary reputation? I can’t say, but I do know when I hear the group join their voices on Sandburg’s “Choose” – “The single clenched fist lifted and ready/Or the open asking hand held out and waiting/Choose/For we meet by one or the other” – it feels very much as though these poems, their author and this project have arrived in our midst exactly when we need them most.

 

Solo Relections Monk

 

 

 

7.) Wadada Leo Smith, Solo: Reflections & Meditations on Monk (TUM) I’ll repeat here what I said two months ago: At age 75, Smith is enjoying a bountiful winter of recognition for his life’s work as trumpeter, composer and bandleader, creating fresh contexts for orchestrated jazz and delivering plaintive, ruminative yet remarkably agile narratives on his horn. His liner notes acknowledge his considerable debt to Monk, “an inspiration that arcs straight across the structured invisible world.” Smith’s own art, whether alone or in groups, uses intervals as nimbly as the master. In his own renditions of “Ruby, My Dear,” “Reflections,” “Crepuscule with Nellie” and “Round Midnight” (all of which dare the bold and the thoughtful to bring their “A” Game), Smith seems to know precisely how to sustain spaces between phrases and, more important, when to come in hard, when to use stealth – and, in the case with “Nellie,” when to let its essential form do most of the work. He rounds out the album with original pieces, a couple of them stimulated by visual depictions of the pianist at work (“Monk and his Five-Point Ring at the Five Spot Café,” “Adagio Monk, the Composer in Sepia – A Second Vision”) and another, intriguingly speculative narrative (“Monk and Bud Powell at Shea Stadium – A Mystery”). Generations of jazz musicians have brought their adorations of Monk to his legacy’s front door. I doubt there is any other musician alive who could have presented anything as austere, adventurous and challenging as Smith’s recital.

 

 

Tipico

 

 

8.) Miguel Zenon, Tipico (Miel Music) – The title of the first track, “Academia” sounds vaguely like a threat, especially since it was apparently inspired by Zenon’s interaction with his students at the New England Conservatory of Music. But it’s a buoyant, effervescent take, setting you up for similarly joyful interactions to come. Zenon has in the past organized his albums around specific themes and narratives connected to his Puerto Rican heritage. But this time, he intends nothing more than a celebration of his 15-year affiliation with the rest of his quartet (pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawisching and drummer Henry Cole). What results is hardly academic, but you could learn a lot from the way Zenon’s alto sax communicates with the other instrumentalists. On “Cantor,” for instance, Glawisching and Perdomo lay down a spectral path for Zenon to soar, hover and gradually to create spiraling patterns whose intricacies sneak up on you. The title track evokes a whole subcontinent of rhythmic and melodic influences, galvanized by the quartet’s collective sway and swagger. Zenon’s intelligence and authority are asserted as definitively as on his previous albums. But this time, there’s a relaxed open-heartedness shared by all the musicians, whose only imperative is to make it all move at different tempos (tempi?) in beauty and mystery. Zenon’s playing, at least to these ears, has never sounded as frisky or as limpid as it does here.

 

 

Weiss Wake Up Call

 

 

9.) David Weiss & Point of Departure, Wake Up Call (Ropeadope) – Weiss, as he’s proven with all his varied ensembles (including this one), knows his way around the repertoire of the 1960s. He also is unapologetically drawn to the possibilities opened up by jazz-fusion of the 1970s and he’s apparently determined to help finish, or resolve, what those fusion artists started. The Point of Departure outfit is heard here in the kind of transition that jazz itself was a half-century ago as electronics seeped into hard bop’s domain. Only the album’s midsection, “Unfinished Business,” retains tenor saxophonist J.D. Allen and guitarist Nir Felder from the ensemble’s previous incarnation. For the rest, trumpeter-leader Weiss ups the ante by using two guitarists: Travis Reuter and Ben Eunson while Myron Walden assumes the tenor sax chair. The combination jars at first, but only for a while. And the ensemble shows its tight-knit cohesion when it dives into amplified renderings of John McLaughlin’s “Sanctuary,” Joe Henderson’s “Gazelle” and Tony Williams’ “Pee Wee.” On “The Mystic Knights of The Sea,” drawn from Williams’ early 70s band, Lifetime, Weiss’ group shows that piece to be not too far removed conceptually from the Williams who played with Miles Davis’ legendary mid-60s quintet. Everybody involved is focused and engaged, but if this album has an emerging star, it’s drummer Kush Abadey, who powers this edition of “POD” with a ferocity that seems ballistic in execution. He must be destined for greater things because Han Solo, who knows a little something about hyper-drive, made what’s known as the “jazz face” when he saw Abedey flash leather not so long ago at Small’s jazz club. He wouldn’t be the first star Weiss helped propel into greater prominence. And he won’t be the last.

 

 

Christian-McBride-Bringin-It

 

 

10.) Christian McBride Big Band, Bringin’ It (Mack Avenue) – I’ve always suspected that there have been two identities in pitched battle for bassist McBride’s Philly-forged soul, one side embodied by Ray Brown, the other by Bootsy Collins. In this setting, and likely in others yet to come, the two sides aren’t in conflict so much as in spirited negotiations for a workable, lasting truce. The first track, a backyard-party rouser titled “Gettin’ To It,” loosens your bow tie and gives your head a reason to do its version of the Madison, or maybe the Funky Chicken. The immediate follow-up, Freddie Hubbard’s “Thermo,” is a steady-rolling swinger that has little in common with the opener besides the airtight rhythm section (McBride, pianist Xavier Davis, drummer Quincy Phillips and guitarist Rodney Jones) along with fleet-footed soloing by trumpeter Freddie Hendrix and tenor saxophonist Ron Blake. McBride’s wide-screen arrangement of “I Thought About You” discloses his higher-ground ambitions for his large ensemble and the band, with trumpeter Brandon Lee’s solo leading the way, comes through impressively enough for you to hope McBride aims even higher. Talks will likely continue between the Brown and Bootsy sides and McBride is a wicked-smart mediator, though part of me wishes he’d let his Famous Flames side cut loose for just one more album. If it happens, I’m all for him. If it doesn’t, I still am.

 

Daylight Ghosts

 

 

HONORABLE MENTION: Craig Taborn, Daylight Ghosts, (ECM) Tyshawn Sorey, Verisimilitude (PI); Heads of State, Four in One (Smoke Sessions); Matthew Shipp Trio, Piano Song (Thirsty Ear); Fred Hersch, Open Book (Palmetto); Jane Ira Bloom, Wild Lines: Improvising Emily Dickinson (Outline); Ron Miles, I Am A Man (Yellowbird); Joey Alexander, Monk. Live. Trio! (Motema); Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, Handful of Keys (Blue Engine)

BEST REISSUE/ARCHIVAL

 

 

Another Time

 

1.) Thelonious Monk, Les Liasons Dangereuses 1960 (SAM)
2.) Bill Evans, Another Time: The Hilversum Concert with Eddie Gomez & Jack DeJohnette (Resonance)
3.) Ornette Coleman, Ornette at 12 & Crisis (Real Gone)

BEST DEBUT ALBUM

 

Fly or Die

 

 

Jaimie Branch, Fly or Die (International Anthem LLC)

BEST LATIN ALBUM

Miguel Zenon, Tipico
HONORABLE MENTION: Baptiste Trotignon & Yosvany Terry, Ancestral Memories (Okeh)

BEST VOCAL
Cecile McLorin Salvant, Dreams and Daggers
HONORABLE MENTION: Dominique Eade & Ran Blake, Town and Country (Sunnyside); Sarah Partridge, Bright Lights & Promises: Redefining Janis Ian (Origin)

Diz 101 for Diz’s 100th

 

 

 

dizzy-gillespie-dizz001fran

 

 

How lucky it was for the world-at-large that John Birks Gillespie came to decide at an early age that staying in Cheraw, South Carolina would be stultifying at best, hazardous at most to the health and fulfillment of a quick-witted, smart-alecky young African American. (“Probably I’d have been lynched,” he told me many decades hence.) When one thinks of what the Artist Known Forever as Dizzy did for both his country’s musical and intellectual life as well as for the sounds of Latin and South America, you recognize how irreplaceable he was to the 20th century.

And yet…there doesn’t seem to be as much hype for Dizzy Gillespie’s 100th birthday (Oct. 21) as there was for Ella, Billie, Monk and others whose centennials have been duly, even conspicuously observed. The modernist energies he seized and came to embody in the middle of the last century seem to have been either taken for granted, if not dismissed altogether at the start of this one. Maybe it’s also because Gillespie, for all his myriad accomplishments and innovations, carried throughout his 75 years (he died in 1993) a warm and accessible persona so widely known that it left behind relatively little in the way of mystery or mystique. It could also be that his legacy was so variegated as to make it difficult for those in its wake to properly apprehend its range. “How do you hug a mountain?” the late great jazz columnist Nels Nelson rhetorically asked in his Philadelphia Daily News eulogy.

Approaching the mountain at whatever angle is the obvious way to begin. And that means sifting through a half-century of recordings now scattered to the four winds of the digi-verse. Bebop, which Gillespie helped create and then coordinate to an aesthetic capable of speaking many languages, still has a lot to teach Hip Hop, as the brightest of artists in both camps well know. And Dizzy’s vast corpus of recoded output still speaks, rhymes, cracks wise and inspires those unfamiliar with, or hesitant to sample its glories.

So without further ado, here’s an informal and, yes, highly subjective starter set accessing some of more rewarding landmarks along the great wide Dizzy-Verse. And why waste your time, or mine, getting to the purest, richest lode of all?

THE INDISPENSIBLE

 

 

Dizzy RCA Sessions

 

The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (2 CDs) (Bluebird) – Look no further than these as a place to start. The earliest tracks go as far back as 1939 when Gillespie, somewhere between 21 and 22, was flashing his nascent chops for bands led by Teddy Hill and Lionel Hampton. But the molten core of this collection comprises the 1947-1949 sessions of his 16-piece orchestra. People arch their eyebrows when you used the “force of nature” to describe anything or anybody (as they should). But as I’ve written once before of these sessions: “It is still possible to listen to the powerful recordings made by Dizzy Gillespie and his Orchestra in the late 1940s and feel everything around you transformed. What Orson Welles did for movies in Citizen Kane, Gillespie did for big band jazz.” (Do I overstate? I didn’t then, and I don’t now.) It was here that Gillespie’s lifelong inquiries into the force and applications of the Latin beat took hold with the gifted and ill-fated singer and percussionist Chano Pozo (1915-1948), who brought his congas to a pair of especially auspicious recording sessions in late December, 1947 that yielded, among other glories, George Russell’s “Cubano Be/Cubano Bop” tandem, Tadd Dameron’s “Good Bait” and the timeless “Manteca.” It was also here that the three-fourths of what would become known as the Modern Jazz Quartet with pianist-arranger John Lewis, drummer Kenny Clarke and vibraphonist Milt Jackson pooled their resources. Fans of traditional swing bands complained that this music was more difficult to dance to than what they were accustomed. And you may not move right away, mostly because you’re absorbing the hard, galvanic impact of what you’re hearing. But this music moves as surely as the Earth, the clouds and the fastest combustible vehicle you can imagine. The vinyl edition of these sessions is harder to find than this, but if that’s what you happen to value, it’s worth the effort.

And speaking of hard-to-find vinyl:

 

DIZZY_GILLESPIE_THE+DEVELOPMENT+OF+AN+AMERICAN+ARTIST-361661

 

 

Dizzy Gillespie: The Development of an American Artist, 1940-1946 (2 LPs) (Smithsonian Collection) – Released in 1976, when the Smithsonian Institution’s jazz division, then curated by Martin Williams, was compiling and releasing intelligent and comprehensive archival recordings deep into the next decade. This one was especially revelatory for the steady-rolling insight it provided into Gillespie’s growth from callow swing insurgent to ringleader of the bebop cabal. The very first track, “Pickin’ the Cabbage” from 1940, was recorded when Gillespie was a member of the Cab Calloway Orchestra’s trumpet section and you can hear in its chord changes and fundamental design the genesis of what would later become in its first incarnation, “Interlude” (also included here in a track featuring a young Sarah Vaughan) and then, “A Night in Tunisia.” There’s a lot of ingenious connection-of-dots here: Two takes of the “Kerouac” tracks spun into thin air and fired into the din of Minton’s Playhouse in 1942 — and yes, it’s named for THAT Kerouac, who was an habitué of those groundbreaking sessions also memorialized by Ralph Ellison in his 1959 essay, “The Golden Age, Time Past.” You also hear what’s been called Gillespie’s first truly “modern” solo on 1942’s “Jersey Bounce,” with Les Hite’s and, from that same year, a track from the Lucky Millinder Orchestra, “Little John Special,” written by Gillespie and containing a horn-section riff that sounds like the spark for what became “Salt Peanuts.” All these important and still-sweet-swinging tracks have been scattered on several discs since this went out of print and never received the digital-transfer treatment. Ken Burns Jazz: Dizzy Gillespie (Verve) is as easily available a default option as any other you’ll come across.

 

DIONYSUS & APOLLO

 

Bird & Diz

 

 

Or, if you will, Bird and Diz (Verve), who some might consider the Janus headed progenitor of modern jazz music. The partnership of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker was transformative. The friendship was, saying the least, fraught. Yet they were able to subdue personal differences for this 1950 session, where they were joined by the comparably incomparable Thelonious Monk and backed by bassist Curley Russell and the (seemingly incongruous, but not as much as you’d expect) drummer Buddy Rich. If you prefer downloads, then “Bloomdido” is the only track you really need from this session, though the rest is pretty good, too. If you want to hear them at their mutually-assured best together, then seek out Dizzy Gillespie/Charlie Parker: Town Hall, New York City, 1945 (Uptown), which wasn’t released until sixty years later and yet somehow sounds as fresh and up-to-the-minute as last month’s GNP report.

 

 

Parker Diz Town Hall

 

GEMS FROM HIS GILDED AGE

Jon Faddis, Gillespie’s protégé and still the most authoritative keeper of his mentor’s flame, has said that the recordings Gillespie made in the late 1950s and early 1960s represented his peak as a performer and a bandleader. I’ve always thought so, too, though The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings  begs to differ with both of us, calling Dizzy’s Verve output from that period spotty at best.

 

 

Birks Works

 

 

 

Nevertheless, it’s now hard to find anybody who doesn’t like Birks Works: The Verve Big-Band Sessions (2 CDs, Verve), composed of sessions from 1956 and 1957. The orchestrations here may not be as explosive as they were about a decade before. But his roster was even more star-studded with Benny Golson, Lee Morgan. Phil Woods, Melba Liston, Wynton Kelly, Al Grey, Ernie Wilkins and many others passing through these portals and bringing joy, wit and verve to audiences throughout the world as most of these folks also were with Gillespie on his global good-will tours of the mid-fifties. Lately, I’ve been hearing more tracks from this collection circulating through what broadcasters market as “Real Jazz” or “Classic Jazz” stations on satellite or FM radio. So I suppose this is where most novices now start with Gillespie. I still favor the RCA sessions, but this may be the orchestra’s most purely enjoyable set from start to finish – which is saying something.

 

Gillespiana

 

 

Gillespiana (Verve) – At the dawn of the New Frontier (literally the week after JFK was elected), the Gillespie orchestra seemed irradiated by a jolt of energy provided by a 28-year-old Argentine pianist-arranger named Boris Claudio Schifrin, who went by the name, “Lalo.” Previously an arranger for Xavier Cugat’s dance bands (many of whose albums were in Ralph Ellison’s record library), Schifrin sat in Gillespie’s piano chair as the band recorded a five-part suite, “Gillespiana” that he’d written four years before. Once again, a Gillespie orchestra summons fearsome power and breathtaking propulsion. The music on “Gillespiana” starts at a peak and somehow manages to go higher and faster  from there. How could we not want to go the moon after hearing something like this? On the CD version, there’s also a Carnegie Hall Concert by the same band recorded six months later (in March, 1961) and even with luminaries as Clark Terry, Ray Baretto and Gunther Schuller (!) on stage, the star of the show, besides the leader, was saxophonist Leo Wright whose solo on “This Is The Way” is one of the more extraordinary live recitals of an era where Carnegie Hall seemed to make history every week.

DIZZY AT PLAY

 

 

Dilly Mitchell Ruff

 

 

I concede that the scale on this list is heavily tipped towards the big bands over the small groups. But you really can’t go wrong with any of them. An Electrifying Evening with the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet (Verve), for instance, was recorded in February, 1961 (that same “dawn-of-the-New-Frontier” streak) and benefits mightily from having both the aforementioned Schifrin and Wright in the combo, though the leader doesn’t engage in too many of the on-stage hijinks for which he was famous. (“Let me introduce the band,” he’d say and all the guys on stage would shake hands with each other. You think that didn’t get a laugh every time? Think again.) If I have a guilty pleasure among the chamber Dizzys, it’s Dizzy Gillespie & the Mitchell-Ruff Duo (Mainstream/Sony Legacy), a 1971 live concert at Dartmouth College in which Inspector Diz matched wits with pianist Dwike Mitchell and bassist-French horn-ist Willie Ruff. With no trap set or congas pushing him from behind, Gillespie’s horn seems ever more emboldened as it probes and tugs along the edges of “Con Alma” and “Woodyn’ You” to release fresh, lucid inventions into the atmosphere.

Finally to send you happily on your way (as Gillespie never failed to do), I leave you with this reminder of how popular, how familiar a figure he was in the popular culture firmament. Bebop lived even in places you didn’t expect. Maybe someday it will live like that again.

 

Monk/Clonk!

 

 

 

Thelonious Monk

 

 

At the top of this man-made hill you will find the first poem I’ve finished in several years. It is also the shortest poem I’ve ever written. Because pride is a sin I will say only that I am happier with it than I expected. It may not have the Whitman-esque oomph of Muhammad Ali’s immortal “Me!/Whee!” It is also not entirely original since I borrowed the “Clonk!” from Jack Kerouac’s verbal approximation of a Thelonious Monk chord: “the clonk of [Monk’s] millennial piano like anvils in Petrograd.” The sounds of both “onk” words seem exotic on first encounter, but make perfect, even logical sense when joined together.

Much like the music Thelonious Monk made: The direct statement augmented by something you may not have expected.

Today (Oct. 10) is Monk’s 100th birthday and, though he’s been dead for 35 years, the “clonk” of fresh discovery abides in his life’s work. You can still trip over things you didn’t know before and, once you recover your balance, find yourself dancing along with its ramifications. Just as he did.

 

 

For example: I’m embarrassed to ask this out loud, but how did I manage to live this long and NOT get caught up, until now, in the whirlwind of Monk’s 1958 Five Spot sessions with Johnny Griffin? Some would-be smart-alecks think of Griffin as little more than the answer to a trivia question: Who was Monk’s tenor saxophonist between John Coltrane and Charlie Rouse? But the “Little Giant,” who died in 2008 at age 80, was hardly a footnote in anybody’s history.

 

Griffin Monk Live

 

 

Griffin was both paradigm and paragon of the hard-blowing Chicago saxophonists who roared through mid-to-late-20th century jazz music. Once Griffin reached peak intensity in his tone (bottom-heavy, reflecting his apprenticeship with rhythm-and-blues bands), he could spin chorus after breathtaking chorus of thick, fluid phrases, bulging with allusions to Italian arias, arcane folk melodies and Tin Pan Alley ditties as well as his own startling, vertically driven inventions. He may not have had Coltrane’s commanding austerity and fearsome range or Rouse’s dry wit and leathery brio. But what Griffin did have put the mercurial maestro of time and space in his comfort zone. And you can hear its overall effect resound happily in the performances compiled on the two-disc Thelonious Monk and Johnny Griffin: Complete Live at the Five Spot (2012, Phoenix Records). For those who now only have ears for vinyl, Thelonious In Action is apparently easily available and while Mysterioso, the other original Riverside LP covering these sessions, appears to be only available on CD.

 

In Action Monk

 

 

I’d be happy to dwell on the specifics of Monk-Griffin, believing that I’d uncovered a whole expanse of untilled territory to cultivate. But I found out that none other than Dean Robert Christgau got there a good while before me and I am more than happy to yield my remaining time on this topic to him. And also to this.

 

 

 

 

Joey Monk Live

 

 

Meanwhile, the Monk Century is getting its proper due from many precincts, the most attention by far going to the homage submitted to the marketplace only a few days ago by Joey Alexander, the preeminent jazz prodigy of the post-Millennium. He’s 14, they tell me, though I often wonder watching performances like this one how ANY 14-year-old carries himself with as much composure as he stretches the parameters of Monk’s “Evidence,” while respecting, even enhancing the piece’s spacious design. There’s a whole album of this stuff, Joey Live Monk (Motema) ready for downloading and it’s enough to for me to admit that whatever qualms I may have entertained about this kid beforehand have now gone away and hidden under an abandoned back porch. He is, as we sportscasters like to say, For Real.

 

 

 

Wadada on Monk

 

 

At the other end of the spectrum, in more ways than one, is Wadada Leo Smith’s Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk (TUM). At age 75, Smith is enjoying a bountiful winter of recognition for his life’s work as trumpeter, composer and bandleader, creating fresh contexts for orchestrated jazz and delivering plaintive, ruminative yet remarkably agile narratives on his horn. His liner notes acknowledge his considerable debt to Monk, “an inspiration that arcs straight across the structured invisible world.” Smith’s own art, whether alone or in groups, uses intervals as nimbly as the master. In his own renditions of “Ruby, My Dear,” “Reflections,” “Crepuscule with Nellie” and “Round Midnight” (all of which dare the bold and the thoughtful to bring their “A” Game), Smith seems to know precisely how to sustain spaces between phrases and, more important, when to come in hard, when to use stealth – and, in the case with “Nellie,” when to let its essential form do most of the work. He rounds out the album with original pieces, a couple of them stimulated by visual depictions of the pianist at work (“Monk and his Five-Point Ring at the Five Spot Café,” “Adagio Monk, the Composer in Sepia – A Second Vision”) and another, intriguingly speculative narrative (“Monk and Bud Powell at Shea Stadium – A Mystery”). Generations of jazz musicians have brought their adorations of Monk to his legacy’s front door. I doubt there is any other musician alive who could have presented anything as austere, adventurous and cordially challenging as Smith’s recital.

 

 

monk-Liasons

 

 

But perhaps the centennial year’s brightest jewel was unearthed earlier this year and, properly, it comes from Monk’s own archives. Les liasons dangereuses 1960 (Sam Records/Sag) delivers a substantial, previously unreleased account of a July, 1959 session of Monk’s quartet providing soundtrack material for Roger Vadim’s, modern-dress adaptation of the salacious 18th-century saga of seduction and betrayal among the French elite. Professional and psychological travails prevented Monk from providing original compositions for Vadim’s movie. (The liner notes by Robin D.G. Kelley, author of the definitive 2009 biography, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, are lucid and comprehensive.) Thus most of Monk’s contributions to the soundtrack are renditions of “Rhythm-a-Ning,” “Pannonica,” “Six in One” and his other familiar standards. The vogue for modern jazz being what it was in the late 1950s, most of the movie’s patrons found these songs to be properly hip ornaments to the spicy on-screen actions. Independent of the film, they present Monk in one of his happier, friskier states-of-being that overcame an especially arduous time in his life. The aforementioned Charlie Rouse and the then 22-year-old French tenor player Barney Wilen either traded off solos or fronted together on saxophone on these sessions while bassist Sam Jones and drummer Art Taylor provided backup. In this work-for-hire, one hears the stirrings of Monk’s 1960s period of wider popularity and greater opportunity. He plays here as though he knows that better times (relatively speaking) were around the corner.

 

 

Monk Strolling

Remembering Abbey

 

 

Abbey!!!!

 

 

I don’t know about you guys, but given the way things have been going lately, there’s a song I’ve been thinking about that drapes over my hopes and fears like a tailored silk suit. It’s three years shy of 30 since it came out, but it somehow feels as though it could have – and should have – been written the day before yesterday:

Summer’s gone
And winter’s here
We had a lot of rain this year
The news is really very sad
The time is late,
The fruit is bad
The morning’s come
And roosters crow
But people have no place to go
And disappear
Just like the sun
When the day is done

 

The world is falling down
Hold my hand
It’s a lonely sound
Hold my hand
We’ll follow the breeze
And go like the wind
And look for a place
Where the willows bend
The world is falling down
Hold my hand, hold my hand
Hold my hand, hold my hand”

LYRICS © BMG RIGHTS MANAGEMENT US, LLC

 

 

 

Ms. Abbey Lincoln, ladies and gentlemen. This was the title track of an album whose release on Verve in 1990 began what may well have been one of the most startling and satisfying winning streaks of any artist in any sphere. The world may or may not have been falling down at that time. But it stopped long enough to pay renewed, intensified attention to Lincoln, who rewarded it with a bounty of recorded output showcasing her gifts as a songwriter and vocalist.

 

 

world is falling down

 

I’d hoped I would hear “The World Is Falling Down” the other night at the Kimmel Center’s Merriam Theater in Philadelphia where “A Tribute to Abbey Lincoln,” presented by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, had stopped as part of the home stretch of its tour. I didn’t, but there was nothing else that disappointed about the show, whose staging and conception were as elemental, unfettered and as intensely focused as Lincoln’s singing voice while ever so subtly evoking her regal presence.

Then again, you could have evoked whole dynasties with three vocalists as athletic in range and as theatrical in delivery as Dianne Reeves, Esperanza Spalding and the freshest (in more ways that one) new NEA Jazz Master Dee Dee Bridgewater. Together and (mostly) individually, they rendered Lincoln’s repertoire backed by a combo led by drummer/musical director Teri Lynn Carrington featuring pianist Marc Cary, percussionist Mino Cinelu, saxophonist (and occasional pianist) Edmar Colon, bassist James Genus and guitarist Marvin Sewell.

 

tribute to abbey stars

 

 

 

The case for Lincoln’s songs being embedded among classic jazz standards has been submitted and justified several times over even before their composer’s death in 2010 just after she turned 80. What Bridgewater, Reeves and Spalding did with Abbey’s repertoire was show the songs to be durable and flexible enough to withstand any variations, extensions or inflections.   With this trio, kitchen-sink approaches would seem especially hazardous to Lincoln’s simple melodies and forthright lyrics. But they each invigorated the material, whether it was Bridgewater enthusiastically going vertical on “Wholly Earth” in ways that matched Lincoln’s galvanic renderings, or Reeves blending delicacy and acerbity on “It’s Supposed To Be Love,” Lincoln’s masterly deconstruction of spousal abuse. Spalding used her solos to deep-dive into songs written by others that Lincoln had made into her own on the 1959 Riverside album Abbey Is Blue, whether it was the 1928 movie dirge, “Laugh Clown Laugh,” to which she applied her own version of Lincoln’s game of duck-and-weave with the beat and Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue,” where she was as militant as Abbey, but also more willing to stretch and bend the choruses as her own act of self-assertion. Her mic wasn’t as well amped as those of her two partners. (And while we’re on the subject, the Kimmel people need to do something about the balcony seating, which still seems more accommodating to eighth graders than to grownups with arthritic limbs.) But Spalding’s turns, even more than the stuff that’s made her a festival star, left you in greater anticipation of where she’ll be a decade from now.

The three of them together, by the way, sang the holy hell out of this one:

 

 

 

 

 

Abbey Is Blue

 

 

As rousing as the evening was,  it also left me feeling wistful and nostalgic. It became clear as each of these songs came at me one after the other that the 1990s, the decade that was my most professionally productive as a jazz journalist, was also the Abbey Lincoln decade. Her re-emergence into the recording world coincided with my being hired by Newsday to cover jazz and the albums seemed to come like clockwork through the turn-of-the-century. Rarely, if ever, did I miss a live date or concert appearance, whether it was a Tuesday opener at the Blue Note or a glittering guest turn at Verve’s 50th anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall where she nailed “I Must Have That Man” to the wall.

 

 

 

 

Who Used To Dance

 

Devil's Got Your Tongue

 

You Gotta Pay The Band

wholy earth

 

 

 

She’d been such a key part of my life in those mighty years that when I tried to write a tribute after her death, I couldn’t get all the words out. This is as far as I got. Maybe it was enough. I still don’t know:

 

THE LIONESS IN WINTER

 

Abbey at Piano

 

 

Our sixties and seventies beckon us as if they were our parents calling us in for dinner at twilight. And we’re either hiding in the bushes or ignoring their summons, hoping they’ll give up and go away. Only we’re the ones who are giving up by cringing at the inevitable. Though we don’t lack for aging-process cheerleaders and life coaches assuring us that sixty-five, seventy-five or (org!) eighty-five are just numbers, our aching joints and delayed-action memories insist otherwise. Most of us can’t work up enough energy for a tantrum, let alone a Lear-like eruption, against Faulkner’s “ding-dong of doom.” We’re more tempted than not to let the fires that propelled our younger selves deeper into the world smolder and cool into embers.

 

Abbey Lincoln spent her sixties and seventies showing us that such things didn’t have to be. Through more than fifty years of singing, acting and songwriting, Lincoln emitted a rigorously tempered radiance capable of both soothing and scalding at acutely calibrated levels. Yet she became an incandescent cultural force during the last decade of the previous century and the first decade of this one. Beginning with 1990’s The World is Falling Down, the first in a series of epochal albums recorded for the Verve label, Lincoln experienced a late-bloomer apotheosis few singers, even the greatest of them, had the opportunity to enjoy. The obituaries have thus far celebrated Lincoln’s stature as a role model for performers, composers, activists and bandleaders. All told, the finest example she set – and left behind — was showing us how to live with steadfast creativity and uncompromising passion, even at a time when we’re supposed to be contemplating retirement.

And this was, to be clear, when I was a bit more optimistic about things than I am now. But in the context described above, one of the many songs I wish Abbey had tried out in her wintry radiance was the theme song of Never Too Late, a 1965 film adaptation of a Broadway comedy starring Paul Ford as a lumber executive in his 60s who’s made his 50-ish wife pregnant for the first time in decades and is more than a little baffled by it. Tony Bennett recorded the song  and his version was released a year later on The Movie Song Album (Columbia). I now like to imagine Abbey Lincoln’s voice wrapping itself around a verse such as this with all the understanding and empathy she can muster. When I do, I feel a lot better. Maybe you will, too.

Let your heart stay young and strong
Just one note can start a song
So don’t worry ‘bout how long
You’ve had to wait

Its never too late
Its never too late

Music & Lyrics: David Rose, Jay Livingston, Ray Evans, 1965

 

For now, I guess, this will also do:

 

Ten Reasons Why 2016 Wasn’t (Quite) a Total, Absolute Steaming Heap of Raw Sewage

Yes, I know. This happened within the last few days, followed closely by this and then, for God’s sake, this. I still say 2016 isn’t, as so many insist, The Worst Year Ever for high-profile deaths; not in my lifetime anyway.

I checked. Consider 1959, whose carnage all but commenced February 3 with Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson crushed and shredded by an Iowa plane crash. There followed the deaths, in no particular order, of Billie Holiday, Errol Flynn, Raymond Chandler, George Reeves, Mario Lanza, Frank Lloyd Wright, Lester Young, George C. Marshall, Carl “Alfafa” Switzer, Victor McLaglan, John Foster Dulles, Cecil B. DeMille, Bert Bell, Kay Kendall, Preston Sturges, Eddie “Guitar Slim” Jones, Ethel Barrymore, Boris Vian, Sidney Bechet, Lou Costello…

Some of these deaths were untimely and unexpected, others weren’t. And go sit in a corner if you even think of responding with something like, “Yeah, but these were all OLD people…”

I can easily pull other, similar examples out of my memory bank, especially Bobby Kennedy’s “very mean year” of 1961 (Ernest Hemingway, Patrice Lumumba, Gary Cooper, Booker Little, Barry Fitzgerald, Dag Hammarskjold, Sam Rayburn, Scott LaFaro, Ty Cobb, James Thurber, Maya Deren, Dashiell Hammett, Grandma Moses, Chico Marx, Jeff Chandler, George S. Kaufman, Carl Jung…) spilling right into the following year (Marilyn Monroe, William Faulkner, Ernie Kovacs, Eleanor Roosevelt, Benny Paret, Niels Bohr, Isak Dinesen, Myron McCormick, Charles Laughton, Franz Kline, C. Wright Mills…) and onwards towards 1966 (Lenny Bruce, Walt Disney, Evelyn Waugh, Bud Powell, Montgomery Clift, Frank O’Hara, Bobby Fuller, Richard Fariña…) and 1974 (Duke Ellington, Earl Warren, Jack Benny, Agnes Moorehead, Ivory Joe Hunter, Frank McGee, Cornelius Ryan, Darius Milhaud, Chet Huntley, Bobby Bloom, Frank Sutton, Cass Elliot, Joe Flynn, Charles Lindbergh, Nick Drake, Richard Long, Cyril Connolly, Gene Ammons, Otto Kruger, Jacqueline Susann, Amy Vanderbilt…)

And I could go on like this forever. Do you know why? BECAUSE SO DOES DEATH, PEOPLE. Once you stop thinking of your own era as being, like, so totally unique, it helps make everything around you less frightening.

Repeat after me and say it over and over at night to help you sleep: Years don’t make us better or worse. WE make years better or worse.

With that in mind, I’d like to submit my own random, totally subjective list of the things that made 2016 not suck quite as much as you might otherwise believe. For one thing, it was, despite the prevailing socio-political landscape, a terrific year for African American culture, as many of the attached items will attest. And that will be as true of 2016 ten years from now as it is now, no matter what state the United States will be in by then:

 

 

Wolfgang-Hahn-Preis Köln 2014 - Verleihung an Kerry James Marshall - 12.04.2014

1_2016_KerryJM_Untitled_studio

 

 

Kerry James Marshall – Along with Wrigley Field, the Billy Goat Tavern and the architectural river cruise, the best part of my late summer trip to Chicago was “Mastry,” a comprehensive exhibition of Marshall’s paintings and drawings at the Museum of Contemporary Art whose breadth and intensity of vision almost brought me to my knees. The exhibition later travelled to New York where it likewise riveted, astonished and inspired millions more. There were many who saw hope with the Cubs’ long-deferred triumph in this year’s World Series. I saw hope and much more in this living Chicago institution.

 

 

ATLANTA -- Pictured: (l-r) Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred Miles, Keith Standfield as Darius, Donald Glover as Earnest Marks. CR: Matthias Clamer/FX

Atlanta – Donald Glover’s masterly FX series about hip-hop life along the edges validated my long-held suspicions that there was something about its eponymous city that transgresses laws – or at least customs – of time and space. It’s a city where Justin Bieber is magically transformed into the bratty young black man you suspect he’s always wanted to be and where every single plan that an ambitious brother like Glover’s Earn can conceive is chopped up and pureed into unrecognizable, perplexing anomalies. Though he was writing about DJ Shadow this past summer, Greil Marcus could have been talking about Earn and his milieu when he described “a sampler of bits and pieces of dislocation in modern life – finding yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time and realizing you were born there – the textures can seem meretricious, accepting, as if there’s really nothing left to argue against…[But] [b]y its end, yes – you don’t know where you are.”

 

moonlight1 Ali

 

 

Ali in Luke Cage

 

 

 

Mahershala Ali – From Ali’s soon-to-conclude duty as Remy Danton, the lovelorn fixer-for-the-highest-bidder on House of Cards, one sensed coiled steel, contained explosiveness and intuitive graces that this actor could call upon for more daunting challenges. Didn’t take long for him to display these qualities when playing the year’s more conflicted criminals. As Juan, the neighborhood crack dealer in Moonlight, Ali lets you see both the smoldering menace with which he quietly asserts proprietorship over his network of mules and the deep, if enigmatic well of sympathy that allows him to connect with a bewildered, vulnerable boy bullied at home and at school for reasons he can’t fathom. For the smaller screen, Ali brought gray shadows and complex motivations to his portrayal of Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, Harlem crime kingpin and chief nemesis of the bulletproof hero-for-hire in Marvel-Netflix’s Luke Cage. He’s so persuasive at evoking a bad man convinced of his essential goodness that one felt a slow leak oozing out of the whole series after his departure. His dual triumphs make one yearn for more opportunities for Ali to play anti-heroes who can deal with the devil while doing God’s work.

 

 

OJ

 

 

PEOPLE-VS-OJ-SIMPSON-BEST-PERFORMANCES-list

 

 

O.J.: Made in America & The People Vs. O.J. Simpson It doesn’t matter whether you preferred Ezra Edelman’s epochal, illuminating five-part documentary series for ESPN or the Scott Alexander-Larry Karaszewski dramatization which made heroes of erstwhile laughing stocks Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulsen) and Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown) without in any way mitigating the scorched-earth genius of Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance); all of which actors, by the way, won much-deserved Emmys. What both these vastly different approaches to a reverberating crime have in common is what they imply about the glaring inadequacies of day-to-day news coverage. You could argue that all the nuances, subtleties and socio-historical contexts available now to screenwriters and documentarians weren’t as easily accessible to journalists as when the actual Simpson trial was unfolding 22 years ago. But as the last election cycle proved, the 24-hour news cycle, whether on cable or through the Internet, barely bothers even to try thinking such things through. All we’re left with, then and now, are the usual bromides e.g.: It’ll be years before we know what really happened; There’s always more to the story; There’s more here than meets the eye…Blah…Blah…Blah…Whimper.

 

 

CE Morgan Sport of Kings

 

 

 

The Sport of Kings – From the great, relatively forgotten, but still very much alive (at this writing) African American novelist William Melvin Kelley, I recently found out that the word “race” derives from the medieval Italian “razzo,” meaning “any given breed of horse.” I’m betting that C.E. Morgan, a intelligent, imaginative and startlingly perceptive daughter of the Bluegrass State, was aware of this arcane connection when she wrote this novel about a Kentucky horse breeder whose attitudes about race roughly parallel those of the odious John C. Calhoun. He has his reasons, of course, and Morgan’s too conscientious a novelist not to take their full measure, however petty they are and however grievous their impact on others’ lives. His venom afflicts two of those lives. One belongs to his spirited, magnetic daughter who shares his obsession with creating the next Secretariat; the other belongs to a black ex-convict from the mean streets of Cincinnati hired to help train this super horse. I’ve pressed and imposed this novel upon others and yet I’ve been struggling to figure out why. One possible answer just now came to me through David Ulin’s retrospective essay about Double Indemnity for the Library of America’s “Moviegoer” site when he cites a quote from the movie’s coscripter Raymond Chandler: “It doesn’t matter a damn what the novel is about…The only writers left who have anything to say are those who write about practically nothing and monkey around with odd ways of doing it.” Self-serving, I suppose, since Chandler’s reputation while alive was that of an innovative genre writer. Morgan’s novel, aiming for higher ground, isn’t about “practically nothing,” but about many things at once. Yet as with great writers of American noir such as Chandler, Sport of Kings surges and leaps heedlessly into big emotions and grand melodrama, which Chandler believed “was the only kind of writing that I saw was relatively honest.” Ulin pushes these points further by defining them as “conventions of the hyper-real.” I haven’t the time or the space here to get into the specifics, but if you can imagine what base-level 20th century American melodrama, whether practiced by realists or “hyper-realists,” can bring to 21st century issues of race and class, then you will understand why I’ve been bullish on this particular horse opera. I didn’t read Sport of Kings so much as submit to its power and it’s been too long since any new novel did that to me. (I was one of the judges who singled Sport out for the Kirkus Book Prize for fiction. If you can call it up, our citation is quoted  here.)

 

 

 

 

Arab Future Panels

 

The Arab of the Future, Vol. 2 – Along with Art Spiegelman, Roz Chast, Marjane Satrapi, Joe Sacco and the late Harvey Pekar, cartoonist Riad Sattouf has helped establish the graphic memoir as the most innovative and affecting narrative art form to have emerged in the late 20th century. Given the relentlessly bleak news coming out of Syria in recent years, Sattouf, who once was a regular contributor to Charlie Hedbo, may be providing the most timely and poignant contribution with his autobiographical account of growing up between different cultures. In the first volume, avid, adorably fluffy-haired Riad is shuttled back and forth between France, where his mother Clementine is from, and the volatile Middle East of the 1980s where his Syrian father Abdel-Razek embraces the then-burgeoning Pan-Arab movement. In this second volume, covering 1984 and 1985, Riad’s family settle in his father’s hometown of Ter Maaleh as the country reinvents itself under the dictatorship of Hafez Al-Assad. The little boy must adjust to a new school with its fundamentalist dictates, corporal punishment and the usual highs and lows of socializing with other children, complete with bullying of an especially brutal and bigoted kind. In recounting these and other vicissitudes, Sattouf maintains his wit, balance and equanimity towards all his characters, even at their worst. This is especially true of his father, who is by turns insecure, pompous, clueless and frantic to fit into whatever future his homeland devises for himself and his family. As with its predecessor, the second volume of Arab of the Future makes you wonder how long it’ll be before Abdel-Razek’s dreams come crashing down. But even with that dire prospect, the warmth and wisdom seasoning his son’s rueful memories keep you hoping for the best for the Sattoufs while bracing for the worst.

 

 

 

weiner-ifc-films

 

 

Weiner — It’s odd how some things can both become dated and gain added significance in only a few months. When I first saw Weiner in the theater, it was early summer, Huma Abedin’s mentor was still well-positioned to be the next president and I came away from the documentary thinking mostly about Abedin’s inscrutably slow-burning gazes at the movie’s main subject who, for all his energy and earnest impulses to do good, came across here as he did everywhere else in the last four years: As an incurable narcissist, stabbing himself, scorpion-like, with his own…um…wretched excesses. I saw the film again on Netflix a couple weeks ago and somehow all that tattle-and-buzz about a man, his penis and social media don’t seem all that important when compared with the brazen lies and mendacity we’ve already seen in play so far from the incoming administration. This time around, what was far more important to me were all those brown and black people occupying the periphery of the action who kept shouting at the TV cameras and their enablers to stop yammering about the man’s dickishness and concentrate on what needs to happen in their neighborhoods to make them better. Wouldn’t it be something if this documentary ended up signifying both the peak and decline of the Age of Gossip and Innuendo? As. If.

 

Beyonce Lemonade

 

daughters of the dust

 

 

Lemonade & Daughters of the Dust – It now seems like forever and a day since Beyoncé dropped her “Formation” video into Super Bowl Week festivities the same way you imagine a visitor from the future, unrecognizable to present-day eyeballs, dropping in on the Iowa Caucus. The 24-hour news cycle chewed its immediate impact to tiny bits until there was little left to the astonishment but empty bluster and gaping bemusement. My own reaction was something akin to: Damn. It almost looks as if Julie Dash directed this badboy! Those of us who cherish Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, her gorgeous 1991 cinematic tone poem set in the turn-of-the-20th-century Georgia Sea Islands have spent the intervening years keeping track of her movements and looking for signs that the movie wasn’t forgotten. And while Dash didn’t direct the “Formation” video, or any of the others emerging from Bey’s daring, insurgent album, Lemonade, there were enough resonances from Daughters to summon a movement to get an enhanced edition of the film out and about to art houses throughout the country. Because Daughters occasioned the first four-star review I ever gave as a Newsday movie critic, this convergence of cultural forces was the happiest I can remember.

 

HELL-OR-HIGH-WATER-4-1200x899

 

 

 

Hell or High Water – As I’ve babbled to several people till I bored my own self, I wasn’t at all bullish on movies this year. (The worst of the summer blockbusters, in my opinion, gets its definitive raking-over  here by the ever-engaging critical thinkers over at HISHE, who once again outclass what they’re critiquing.) I suppose I’m an incurable aficionado of the mid-to-late-1970s wave of gritty American cinema. And while I think this badlands chase thriller from David Mackenzie wouldn’t necessarily stand out among the glorious products of 40-something years ago, it offered elemental pleasures similar to  those movies’: a taut-wire storyline that wastes no time; dry, cool dialogue that likewise goes about its business in real time and no-sweat laconic performances that play changes like a cool jazz combo. Coolest and driest of all is Jeff Bridges in his best performance in years as a Texas Ranger in pursuit of bank robbers aggrieved by the economic unpleasantness of recent years. I also quite liked Chris Pine as one of the robbers, though unlike some reviewers I don’t think he quite steals the movie from Bridges so much as shares the win in the end. If you’ve seen it already, you know there’s added implication in that previous sentence. If not, what the hell are you waiting for?

 

 

 

LMO 2016

 

LMO Time Life cover

 

 

The Liberation Music Orchestra Redux – It all keeps coming back to Chicago at whose jazz festival this year I saw Carla Bley leading the revived Liberation Music Orchestra founded almost a half-century ago by the late Charlie Haden. He’d spearheaded a restoration of the 12-piece band a few years back, but his failing health prevented him from pressing ahead. Bley, who’d been with the orchestra at its creation as both pianist and arranger, picked up the ball and carried on Haden’s dream of focusing the orchestra’s progressive agenda on ecological issues. The Chicago set included pieces from the album Time/Life (Impulse!) whose playlist includes Bley’s multi-textured tribute to Rachel Carson, “Silent Spring,” and Haden’s own “Song for the Whales.” The timing of their return is all-too auspicious and I have a sinking feeling that global warming may soon end up being among many things they’ll be compelled to make music about.

Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Jazz Discs for 2016

 

It strikes me – as it should strike you – that there’s an especially pervasive aura of American-ness suffusing this year’s roundup, especially given that the words, “America” and “American” appear in most of the titles. This motif was making itself apparent as I started putting the list together before November 8 and it became even more – what? “prevalent”? “0mnipresent”? “prescient”? – after November 9.

One need not use this space for further dissection of what happened, and didn’t, in that 24-hour period. It’s all we keep talking about, and avoiding talking about, sometimes simultaneously. All I can say for my part is that these selections reflect a socio-cultural patriotism in both my conscious and subconscious mind that, in spite of all that has happened and may soon happen, remains steadfast. Whatever’s coming down will likely give jazz even more of a beating than it’s already sustained through this (so far) dismaying century. But the best thing one can say is that it’s no more beaten up or beaten down than it’s been since, let’s say…1968? That was a helluva year, too. Some of us feared the worst after that election. . But we made it. And so, somehow, did music.

That’s all I got. You want to feel warmer and fuzzier about things watch a Wal-Mart commercial. But if you really want to feel good about this country and its (say it with me, America) Greatest Art Form, these eclectic items, I promise, will do the job.

In the deathless words of Yuri Gagarin (who wasn’t American, but we’ve always secretly wished he had been), “Let’s go!”

 

 

Jane-ira-Bloom

 

 

1.) Jane Ira Bloom, Early Americans (Outline) – Hard to believe that after sixteen albums through nearly four decades, Bloom has never before walked the high wire with nothing more than a bass (Mark Helias) and trap set (Bobby Previte). She comes through just as you’d expect: with bold, deep tones that swallow you whole and bright,supple phrases that recombine themselves into breathtaking shapes. From Helias and Previte, she gets the kind of backup an ace improviser deserves. They merge their rhythmic instincts with her soprano saxophone’s probing, soaring voice to become one entity, totally in control of whatever they take on, regardless of tempo or mood. On the (literally) groovy “Singing the Triangle,” they seem to take turns at the wheel with Previte’s toms assuming melodic duties with his characteristic wit and bravado. When it’s just Bloom and Helias, as on “Other Eyes,” the colloquy is so detailed and urgent that you think you’re eavesdropping on a secret plan for curing cancer, hunger and ignorance. And when it’s just her, in full flight, she asserts her command of every aspect of her art whether assembling a necklace of diamond-hard chords and taking them apart (“Rhyme or Rhythm”), burrowing deep into the contours of a classic melody (“Somewhere’) or blowing the blues with joyous abandon (“Big Bill”). It’s now official and can be certified by any number of witnesses: There’s no one like her. Anywhere.

 

 

Wadada-Parks

 

 

2.) Wadada Leo Smith, America’s National Parks (Cuneiform) – Having previously contained multitudes in his matchless pageant of historic landmarks (2012’s Six Freedom Summers) and his widescreen embrace of Midwest natural wonders (2014’s The Great Lakes Suite) Smith, himself a force of nature whose renown has burst into a big, blinding glow at age 76, would of course be inclined to celebrate this year’s National Park Service centennial with a similarly ambitious and dauntingly variegated tour through the service’s assets, both widely known (“Yosemite: The Glaciers, the Falls, the Wells and the Valley of Goodwill 1890”) and relatively obscure (“New Orleans: The National Culture Park USA 1718”). Don’t expect either a Copland-esque procession of soaring, meaty strings or a rustic stream of acoustic guitar riffs cueing your awe over big rivers, big mountains and bigger skies. Smith has a way of swelling the American heart that’s distinctly his own; his horn, by turns plaintive, coarse and slashing as Miles Davis’ once was, assumes an even heavier, more rugged tone to keep up with his voracious impulse to take in the colors, textures and elements of his subject’s landscapes, even when he’s mostly imagining what they’re like. (“You don’t need to visit a park,” he says in the liner notes, “to write about a park.” And there’s something about his submission to the imaginative muse that overpowers your literalist’s skepticism.) His instrumental voice fuses effectively with that of cellist Ashley Walker and the rest of his Golden Quintet, with pianist Anthony Davis, bassist John Lindberg and, most especially, drummer Pheeroan akLaff, seems to take on added strength and power from the music’s robust challenges. It’s not an easy hike. But if you give in to the arcane beauties and shape-shifting aspirations of Smith’s muse, you’ll remember most, if not all, of what your inner ear sees.

 

 

Hersch-Sunday-Vanguard

 

 

 

3.) Fred Hersch Trio, Sunday Night at the Vanguard (Palmetto) – We’ve been here before with this group and we know from previous experience that they come to kill every time they show up downstairs on 178 Seventh Avenue South in Manhattan. So what’s different this time? Maybe because, as the title says, it’s Sunday night and as every Village Vanguard habitué knows, Sundays are when performers wind up their six-night engagements. While critics always show up Tuesdays for the opening-night sets, the Sunday closers can be less-heralded occasions when the ensembles, after a hard week’s work, are at once locked in tight and empowered to let loose. Hersch tweaks expectations from the jump with an appropriately spry-and-whimsical treatment of “A Cockeyed Optimist,” a Rodgers-and-Hammerstein chestnut that isn’t often put through the jazz colander. The spiraling variations Hersch’s piano applies to the melody makes you wonder why this is so and then you realize, once again, that it’s because Hersch may be one of the few pianists of his generation with the open-hearted imagination to re-invigorate mid-20th-century Broadway grandeur for post-Millennial jazz heads. Along with bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson, Hersch builds upon this frisky beginning with a couple of classics from the jazz repertoire (“We See,” “The Peacocks”); some of his own compositions (“The Optimum Thing,” “Calligram,” “Black Wing Palomino”) that deserve to be part of that repertoire and, of all things, a ruminative, fireplace-glow cover of Sir Paul McCartney’s “For No One.” Hersch’s liner notes say he and his partners were “in the zone” on this Sunday night last March. He’d know. All I know is that I had an especially hard time keeping it all out of my player – and my head – for the rest of the year.

 

 

Threadgill Locks Verbs

 

 

 

 

4.) Henry Threadgill Ensemble Double Up, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs (PI) – For a change, this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for music is letting his sax and flute sit this dance out while leading two pianos (Jason Moran, David Virelles), two altos (Roman Filiu, Curtis McDonald), a cello (Christopher Hoffman), a tuba (Jose Davila) and a drummer (Craig Weinreb) in a four-part suite paying tribute to the late Lawrence “Butch” Morris (1947-2013), Threadgill’s fellow Vietnam War vet and partner in avant-garde insurgency and orchestration. The band is a typically eccentric gathering, but it is by no means Threadgill’s strangest combination of instruments. And if the dense musical collages assembled by the composer are as inscrutable and idiosyncratic as ever, they are also less forbidding; the angular dynamics and static-but-surging momentum urgently aligned with the wary-to-yearning-to-anxious mood swings of the present day. Indeed, I think Old Locks and Irregular Verbs is Threadgill’s most emotionally accessible work since Where’s Your Cup?, his 1996 Columbia album with Very Very Circus. And it couldn’t have come at a better time for him – and for our jittery selves needing the reassuring possibility of discovery and adventure in an uncertain future.

 

 

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5.) Allen Toussaint, American Tunes (Nonesuch) –It may not quite fit into whatever gets categorized as “jazz” in its ever-marginalized marketing niche; not as neatly as 2009’s incandescent, expansive Bright Mississippi where Toussaint got to wander through a smoke-filled, twilit museum of 20th century black music with the likes of Don Byron, Nicholas Payton, Brad Mehldau, Joshua Redman and Marc Ribot. But even with a relatively smaller guest list of notables (Charles Lloyd, Bill Frisell, Rhiannon Giddens), this album, whose concluding sessions were cut a month before Toussaint died in November, 2015 while on a European concert tour, is a deeply moving valedictory for an epoch-making legacy. No other pianist, living or dead, could apply his ironwork-ornate flourishes and mosaic-tile detail to such chestnuts as “I’m Confessin’,” “Viper’s Drag,” “Rosetta” and “Waltz for Debby.” No one could better evoke the resilient, inexhaustibly vivacious spirit of his home town when rolling through “Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” “Big Chief” and “Hey Little Girl”; just as no one else could have written “Southern Nights,” whose solo rendering here is sweet-and-sour enough to sting the eyes. But you should save your tears for the finale: his vocal performance of Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” which goes down, especially this season, like both commiseration and a blessing, even when you’re stopped dead in your tracks by the plaintive, unadorned manner with which he sings: “Still when I think of the road/we’re travelling on/I wonder what went wrong/I can’t help it, I wonder what’s gone wrong…” And I wonder how we’re managing to go on without him.

 

 

Real Enemies cover

 

 

 

6.) Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Real Enemies (New Amsterdam) — On the most elemental level, I can (almost) see conservatives’ point when they keep insisting that government isn’t your mother. But government also isn’t, or shouldn’t be, that creepy uncle who insists on hanging around your bedroom, listening in on your phone conversations, reading your mail and letting rich people with giant-squid tax shelters follow you around while you buy things. This is the world we’ve been living with for most of this – as I referred to it earlier – dismaying century so far; full of night sweats in broad daylight, cynical whistling-in-the-dark and equivocal behavior by those who’ve known too much for too long. So why, you wonder, would you want to listen to a whole damn album summoning up this dark matter? Because Darcy James Argue is a wicked-smart conjurer of phantasmagoric narratives grounded in real-life mystery. (See 2014’s Brooklyn Babylon for further enlightenment.) And his 18-piece Secret Society kicks ass and proves itself worthy of its name by enabling its leader to put forth a gnomic, allusive, brassy and insinuating musical soundtrack you can apply to any noir mind-movie your paranoia can summon to life. It’s the kind of story I wish someone of Argue’s boundless energies and bountiful vision didn’t have to tell. But, as many have observed of Edward Snowden’s transgressions, I suppose somebody had to do it.

 

 

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7.) Joshua Redman & Brad Mehldau, Nearness (Nonesuch) – These two guys have been all but joined at the hip since Mehldau served in Redman’s quartet along with drummer Brian Blade and bassist Christian McBride. (Yes, that actually happened. Only one 1994 album, but, as you’d imagine, it remains a good, if retroactively undervalued one.) Redman and Mehldau have supported and inspired each other in the intervening years to the point where one is tempted to refer to them as the Huck and Tom of their generation of jazz musicians. I hope you’ve noticed that I did not say “Huck and Jim” and if you’ve read the books and been paying attention to their respective career arcs, it wouldn’t be hard to decide which is Huck and which is Tom. Or would it? Never mind. What you need to know about these live duets from five years ago is that they get off to a bit of a ragged start on “Ornithology,” but soon meld together in rapturous communication on Mehldau’s “”Always August.” Here and throughout the rest of the album, you’re aware of how much each of them has grown into their respective styles; Melhdau’s piano unfurling sheets of rich harmonies while Redman, on tenor and soprano, shows how impressively he’s contained and controlled that prodigious talent that got everybody excited more than two decades ago. And he can still level you when he wants to; most especially on a stunning extended solo break he takes on “The Nearness of You,” throughout which he doesn’t seem to take a breath – except, maybe, your own. Mehldau likewise makes your eyes grow big with his own derring-do on “In Walked Bud.” But they’re at their most potent when putting their heads together on Mehldau’s originals, notably the easy-rolling (at first) “Old West.”

 

 

 

 

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8.) Kenny Barron Trio, Book of Intuition (Impulse!/Universal) — Sometimes, maybe most times, you just want music to come across like sunlight shimmering along the nearest available body of water, the undulations so soft and sweet that you don’t care how far or how high you’re floating. At 72 years young, Barron may be the undisputed living grand master of jazz piano. He is, without dispute, his idiom’s t most agile communicator in whatever setting or at whatever tempo. With bassist Kiyoshi Kitigawa and drummer Johnathan Blake, the group he’s been leading in nightclubs and concert halls for most of the past decade, Barron delivers a state-of-the-art smorgasbord of straight-ahead pleasure, much of it braced by the Latin and Brazilian rhythms that highlight his tuneful dynamics. The table is set from the start with “Magic Dance,” whose soft bossa-nova beat is Barron’s happy place; happy enough, in any case, for him to tempt fate with a flurry of arpeggios that settle soon enough into an easy-does-it samba. His homage to Bud Powell, “Bud-Like,” surges into Afro-Cuban overdrive while his fealty to Thelonious Monk is served with two of the Enigmatic One’s lesser-known pieces, “Shuffle Boil” and “Light Blue.” In each of these, Barron doesn’t try to out-Monk Monk so much as let his own graces impose their own manner of wit and mischief into their workings. It’s one of those records (and I have at least one of them every year) that doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but reminds you why and how wheels work so beautifully.

 

 

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9.) Etienne Charles, San Jose Suite (Culture Shock) – This ambitious work, enacted here in twelve parts, encompasses not just one, but three San Jose settlements in three different Western Hemisphere spots: California, Costa Rica and Trinidad. What’s distinctive about each of these San Joses/St. Josephs is less important to the formidably gifted Charles than what they share and the music he fashions from his inquiries is bright, ingenious and bursting with provocative rhythmic combinations. The polyglot of Indo-African-Latin-American-European influences not only evokes the past but advances a singular new musical language redolent of the “creole soul” that gave trumpeter-composer Charles the title of his potent 2013 album. Whatever you call it, as pure sound, it is gorgeous to behold with intensely committed interaction throughout from Charles, altoist Brian Hogans, guitarist Alex Wintz, pianist Victor Gould, bassist Ben Williams and drummer John Davis. The last three tracks are a mini-suite, “Speed City,” in which Harry Edwards recalls his tumultuous career at San Jose State University when he helped spearhead the African-American boycott/protest of the 1968 Olympics. At first, I thought the “Speed City” trifecta differed so much from the nine previous pieces that they belonged on a different album. Over time, I’ve come to think they not only belong, they’re a bonus to what precedes them; mostly because Charles and the rest of his crew leave blisters no matter when or where they turn up the heat.

 

 

Delfeayo America

 

 

 

10.) Delfeayo Marsalis & The Uptown Jazz Orchestra, Make America Great Again! (Troubadour Jass) – In the most politically astute and (therefore) funniest Saturday Night Live sketch of the late, unlamented campaign season, Darnell Hayes (Kenan Thompson), host of an edition of “Black Jeopardy!” made extra special by the participation of a white blue-collar-Trump-supporting contestant (Tom Hanks), is given the last word: “When we come back, we’ll play the National Anthem and see what the hell happens.” Well, you’re all encouraged to stand – or, if you roll that way, kneel – when this album begins with a stately, serious-as-a-heart-attack rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.” And what the hell happens after that’s over is a raucous compound of house party, choral recital and vaudeville revue offering, as one song lyric puts it, “soul food for your ear.” The album’s title track is played for cheeky irony with the trombone-playing Marsalis brother’s narration intoned by actor Wendell Pierce with hambone slyness over an antic riff reminiscent of Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus.” The words question whether the “catchy slogan” is a “pragmatic proposition” to “a melting pot of diversity fighting a juggernaut of adversity.” Did Marsalis and company know how things would turn out after the recorded this session? Feel free to ponder that as his 19-member orchestra throws down a potpourri of hard-driving arrangements whose sources range from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band (“Snowball”) to Benny Carter (“Symphony in Riffs”). Final question: Is this a bittersweet send-off to the optimism that followed the election of 2008 or a defiant hello to the dark-edged uncertainties unleashed by the election of 2016? Guess we’ll know for sure in eight years, if not sooner.

 

 

HONORABLE MENTION: Sonny Rollins, Holding the Stage (Doxy/Okeh); Jonathan Finlayson & Sicilian Defense, Moving Still (PI); Matt Wilson’s Big Happy Family, Beginning of a Memory (Palmetto); Bill Frisell, When You Wish Upon A Star (Okeh); Roberta Piket, One for Marian (Thirteenth Note); Chris Potter, Dave Holland, Lionel Loueke, Eric Harland, Aziza (Dare2); Anat Fort & Gianluigi Trevisi, Birdwatching (ECM).

 

 

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BEST VOCAL ALBUM: Catherine Russell, Harlem On My Mind (Jazz Village)

 

 

 

Larry Young in Paris

 

 

 

BEST REISSUE/HISTORIC ALBUMS: 1.) Larry Young in Paris: The Ortf Recordings (Resonance); 2.) Joe Bushkin Quartet, Live at the Embers 1952 (Dot Time) 3.) Joe Lovano Quartet, Classic! Live at Newport (Blue Note)

BEST LATIN JAZZ ALBUM: Etienne Charles, San Jose Suite. HONORABLE MENTION: Sao Paulo Underground, Cantos Invisieves (Cuneiform)