Category Archives: jazz

Favorite Jazz Albums 2018

Yep, it’s a 30-way tie for first this year. Be wise: spend quality time with all of ’em.

Noah Preminger   Genuinity   (Steeplechase)

Burn, baby, burn. Everything’s on fire here. Cue the flame emojis.

Allison Miller &  Carman Staaf    Science Fair    (Sunnyside)

Polish, balance and a dedication to providing lyricism with the leeway it needs to make its mark.

Harriet TubmanThe Terror End of Beauty  (Sunnyside)

A fierce blend of unity and scope that foregrounds history, politics and race.

Adam O’Farrill’s Stranger Days – El Maquech   (Biophilla)

Pliability sitting in front of the mirror and wondering if any aspect of music is more valuable than its own bad self. The Mexican folk music strains juice the post-bop approach and sit nicely with the Kahlo and Monk inspirations.

John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble – All Can Work  (New Amsterdam)

Pulse, sure. And lots of lift-off, too. But voicings and clusters and bundles of instruments expressing themselves in a very singular way.

Miles Okazaki – Work (Volumes 1-6)   (Bandcamp)

Oodles of invention in this parade of 70 solo Monk pieces, which is wildly fetching in both the rhythm and melody realms. Buckle your seat belt for the wise redressing of “Raise Four” and grab a hanky for the sentiment floating through the chutes and ladders of “Boo Boo’s Birthday.” You can almost hear the guitarist shout “en garde!” when he approaches wielding “Hackensack.” And a thanks: I’m not sure I knew “Blue Hawk” existed before this.

Myra Melford’s Snowy Egret – The Other Side of Air  (Firehouse 12)

The music is basically a parade of particulars, and and it def has it’s itchy side. But most moments are so fluid it’s easy to be washed away with the ensemble’s momentum.

Thumbscrew – Theirs   (Cuneiform)

Runaway repertory, wisely rendered thanks to runaway ideation.

Makaya McCraven – Universal Beings  (International Anthem)

Completely thoughtful in its use of manipulated sound, and ballsy enough to eschew a steady density for the kind of lightness that the drummer/composer must hold in high regard.

Bill Frisell – Music IS  (Okeh)

The playing speaks for itself – a confluence of poise, whimsy and personality. But the layout of this recital is truly inspired, each track – perhaps each phrase – linking to the next.

Adam Kolker & Russ Lossing – Whispers and Secrets  (Fresh Sound)

Coos and sighs and examinations of life’s more impressionistic notions. Sweet nothings that turn out to be sweet somethings proud of DNA that harks to everything from “Karen On Monday” to “Lonely Fire.” This array of original ballads has a way of wafting through the room and then drifting right out the window. And its essence is alluring enough to make you want to chase after it.

Don Byron / Aruán Ortiz  – Random Dance & (A)tonalities   (Intakt)

They def get each other, and it’s great to hear Byron’s lines back in business again. There’s a warmth that gives these duets, which stretch from Geri’s “Dolphy Dance” to Duke’s “Black and Tan Fantasy” a heart-on-sleeve vibe some like-minded abstractions often lack.

JD Allen  – Love Stone (Savant)

For the way JD chooses each note, adjudicates each note and cuddles each note. And for having the wisdom to invite Mr. Ellman along.

Andrew Cyrille – Lebrobra  (ECM)

At first I found its meanderings a bit too loose. But when you’re spending time with masters, a logic always emerges, and these three-way chats between Frisell, Smith and Cyrille are mighty in a wonderfully hushed way.

Fay Victor’s SoundNoiseFUNK  Wet Robots (ESP)

Nothing really like it this year. The singer’s intrepid choices goose the sense of daring that the full quartet brings to the table. Here’s a review. 

Miguel Zenón ft. Spektral Quartet – Yo Soy La Tradición (Miel)

A masterful portrait of dynamics, and an example of how the shading between foreground and background can be creatively manipulated.

Joe Lovano & Dave Douglas Sound PrintsScandal (Greenleaf)

Lessons in Freebop: $10. Inquire within.

Luciana Souza  The Book of Longing (Sunnyside)

Nothing less than enchanting. Souza’s one of the few singers who truly translates a poet’s non-musical phrases in a terrifically musical way.

Tim Berne/Matt Mitchell   Angel Dusk  (Screwgun)

They know each other’s moves, and give Berne’s sober scores the kind of  warmth that brings out the drama of each idiosyncratic piece.

Jon Irabagon  – Dr. Quixtotic’s Traveling Exotics  (Irabagast)

The go-anywhere/do-anything boss was wise to tap Tim Hagans for a front line foil – he’s a slept-on go-anywhere/do-anything dude himself.

Mary Halvorson – The Maid With The Flaxen Hair — A Tribute to Johnny Smith (Tzadik)

Halvorson and Bill Frisell bonded over Smith’s genteel insights into melody and then shared a stroll through the songbook while prioritizing his soft touch. From “Scarlett Ribbons” to “Old Folks,” a peach of a disc.

Michael Leonhart Orchestra: The Painted Lady Suite  (Sunnyside)

Some arrangers have the touch – they lay down the road and you follow ’em anywhere it goes. Leonhart is a composer too, of course. His expansive palette bubbles over with ideas. But it’s the way he lays out this sweep of horns that’s so seductive.

Various Artists   We Out Here  (Brownswood)

A big jolt of vitality from assorted UK artists who earned themselves a sizable audience and sweeping critically hosannas in 2018.

Frank Kimbrough – Monk’s Dreams: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Sphere Monk (Sunnyside)

A valuable repertory move, sure. But also a brisk joyride through a bounty of tunes that have been entertaining listeners for 60 years. Sound-wise, Scott Robinson’s sizable arsenal of horns keeps the changes coming fast.

 

Aaron Parks Little Big  (RopeADope)

Moody and cinematic, Parks’ electric snapshots hard to Wayne Horvitz’s early experiments while giving futurefusion a good name.

Rich Halley 3 – The Literature (Pine Eagle)

A gnarly, joyful and daring frolic through the canon, from “Pussy Cat Dues” to “Broadway Blues.”

Cécile McLorin Salvant – The Window  (Mack Ave)

Love the way she rolls through “I’ve a powerful anesthesia in my fist,” love the way she doesn’t try to out-swag Nat Cole, love the way she pinballs against Sullivan on “By Myself,” almost as if they’re not in the same quadrant. But they are. Virtuosity sets its own parameters.

Ambrose Akinmusire’s Origami Harvest (Blue Note)

Swings for the fences and hits it hard. Not easy to coordinate spoken word, string quartet and jazz trio. But trusting in the power of poetry, the trumpeter lassos all the action into a vivid, cohesive whole.

Joshua Redman – Still Dreaming (Nonesuch)

Repertory twice removed. Old and New Dreams bowed to OC, and these guys bow to Cherry, Haden, Redman and Blackwell. With inventiveness and originality always in the spotlight.

David Virelles –  Igbó Alákọrin (The Singer’s Grove) Vol. I & II  (Pi Recordings)

Not easy to give a traditional sound a modern resonance. But the pianist’s investigation teems with both pride in the past and a vehement view of the future possibilities.

 

Reissues/Historic

Various Artists – Amarcord Nino Rota (Corbett vs Dempsey)

John Coltrane   Both Directions at Once – The Lost Album (Impulse!)

Charlie Haden & Brad Mehldau – Long Ago & Far Away  (Impulse!)

Charles Mingus – Jazz in Detroit / Strata Concert Gallery / 46 Selden   (BBE)

Eric Dolphy – Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions (Resonance)

 

Jeff Ballard Fairgrounds (Edition)  

There’s only a slight difference between a hodge-podge and a potpourri, and if I’m recalling correctly it has to do with confusion and order, or in the case of this new Jeff Ballard disc, variety and design. The drummer’s Fairgrounds quintet spreads its cards on the table and invests in the adventures of plurality. From eerie drones to brutish skronk to dreamy lyricism, the music is as skittish as it is inclusive.

Ballard’s ensemble has been together for several years, but this is the first use of its band name on record, and it marks a fetching and far-flung program that was recorded in various locales during a Spring 2015 tour that stretched from Dublin to Rome. Rather than focus on a uniform sound, the quintet spreads the cards on the table and yields to the adventures of plurality. 

That last descriptor is key. An array of inspirations fuel jazz right now, and several of the era’s compelling improvisers find ways to apply them without having them fully define the music at hand. That’s what happens here, as guitarist Lionel Loueke and pianists Kevin Hays and Pete Rende, unite with the drummer and his electronics accomplice, Reid Anderson. Using acoustic and electric instruments to underwrite a wealth of textural blends, the program never sits still or repeats itself. The itchy reflection of “I Saw A Movie” is divorced from the raucous overload of “Twelv8,” which adds saxophonist Mark Turner to spray the sky with upper-reg exclamation. “March Exotique” touts pulse while “YEAH PETE!” milks mood. The music is both physical and ethereal, and at times it feels as if the entirety of Weather Report’s canon is on shuffle. The victory comes from building a consistency from the contrasts. Rather than clashing, these utterly distinct gambits find several ways to coexist, and occasionally thrive.   

DownBeat 

DownBeat Digital 

Edition Records

Here Comes Lossing Claus, Right Down Lossing Claus Lane

Harriet Tubman – The Terror End of Beauty (Sunnyside)

All music literally has a presence, but there’s a certain level of respect saved for pieces that prove their value by surrounding, engulfing, and perhaps even altering listeners. The emotional wallop that’s central to Harriet Tubman’s latest program has a deeper impact than lots of improv-slanted discs I’ve heard of late. In a fierce blend of unity and scope, the NYC trio of guitarist Brandon Ross, bassist Melvin Gibbs and drummer JT Lewis find ways to make their volition, and therefore their vision, palpable. An inescapable feeling of commitment snakes through what’s arguably their densest album to date. Along the way it foregrounds history, politics, race, creativity and the kind of transcendence that can sometimes be found in the poetic tirades of frenzied strings and roiling percussion.

With key textural guidance from producer Scotty Hard, the band boasts newfound clout, and the music’s dimensions are bolstered, too – some moments can be wonderfully intimidating. Sections of the 10-track program border on opaque, but amid the rumbles, drones and roars are nuanced passages that provide breathing room by inviting atmospherics into the fray. It could be Ross’ wailing on Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”; it could be Gibbs letting a sub-sonic boom decay on “Prototaxite”; it could be the riveting solo Lewis offers with “Drumtion.” With Sonny Sharrock’s Monkey-Pockie-Boo and Power Tools’ Strange Meeting in the rear-view mirror, the trio commandeers a lingo of vehemence and bends it into the future. Indeed, The Terror End of Beauty’s title references a Sharrock quote about uniting a pair of life’s seemingly incongruous elements, and the radiant turmoil the band delivers here suggests they’ve come close to finding an insightful balance between the two.

Harriet Tubman Bandcamp

JazzTimes Reviews

Sunnyside Records

Newport Jazz Fest 2017 – Vijay Iyer Sextet

Listening to the advance of the Vijay Iyer Sextet’s Far From Over (ECM) on the office stereo is one thing. The music is vivid, mysterious, roomy and imposing. Watching the pianist’s new group render the same music on stage via live stream from the Ojai Festival in early June using the family’s big-ass TV screen with audio pumping through an “entertainment” system is another. The action was kinetic, serrated, jostling, ecstatic, rife with creative friction and brimming with intent – volition has never been lacking in the pianist’s work. Meaning, catching this outfit in performance is a must. The alliance between horn players Steve Lehman, Mark Shim and Graham Haynes is fierce; seems like the leader’s arrangements script them discrete blasts of energy as often as they sketch out overt lines of melody. And the saxophonists’ solos are flat out fierce. Riding the industrious maneuvers of an established rhythm section like drummer Tyshawn Sorey, bassist Stephan Crump and Iyer himself, the three horns feel like they’re in a constant state of lift-off. Far From Over’s music gives itself some breathing room; “Wake” is a meditative mist. But the program puts its yen for propulsion up front. From the title track to “Into Action” to “Good On The Ground,” there are plenty of punches being thrown. The leader’s percussive approach to the piano, Sorey’s boom-bap punctuations – it’s a physical situation that you pretty much need to see to get the full hit. Meaning catch you at the Quad Stage at 12:40.

Newport Jazz Festival 2017 Schedule  / Aug 4 – 6

Newport Jazz Fest 2017 – One For All

There’s a pronounced yen for yesteryear in the esteemed sextet’s hard bop lingo, but the vigor of their attack mutes any mustiness. Indeed, the band’s genuflections to late ’50s Blue Note and Prestige joints teem with pithy solos and group precision. Last year’s The Third Decade (Smoke Sessions) finds them in a place of power. Eric Alexander’s animated sax flurries and David Hazeltine’s sage piano forays are tough and lyrical (don’t miss “Frenzy”), and the rhythm section of drummer Joe Farnsworth and bassist John Webber echoes the Jazz Messengers credo: balance passion with poise. To some degree the NYC outfit are keepers of the flame; the deets of this half-century-old vernacular aren’t as prominent as they used to be. So, on seductive piece like “Buddy’s,” the bluesy punch of trombonist Steve Davis and the fierce cackles of trumpeter Jim Rotondi are bolstering one of the most entertaining approaches to swing that jazz ever concocted. They  hit the Quad Stage on Friday.

Newport Jazz Festival 2017 Schedule  / Aug 4 – 6

Newport Jazz Fest 2017 – Henry Threadgill’s Zooid

It’s a peculiar percolation served up by the wily composer’s mid-sized ensemble. From cello to tuba to guitar, every instrument seems to be playing a percussionist’s role – including the 73-year-old Threadgill. His judicious sax pecking and flute blasts may suggest melody, but they also pepper the action with a lithe forward motion that invariably gooses an oddly fetching groove. Bluster is banished on many of Zooid’s performances, and most of their latest album, the Pulitizer Prize-winning In For a Penny, In For a Pound (Pi Recordings) lets a measured approach signify the music’s sense of intricacy and, ultimately, wisdom. Call it a five-level chess game where the pieces are always in play. The band occasionally rises the roof, and the solos bolster the action, but it’s the crazed propulsion that will be bouncing around your head after the dust has settled on Saturday afternoon at their Newport debut.

Newport Jazz Festival 2017

 

Lucas Bolsters Buñuel

Absurdity marks Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, a cornerstone title by the surrealist master from ’62, so there’s usually a chuckle of three as the film unpacks its mysterious tale. But I don’t ever remember the viewing process being as engaging – or maybe as flat-out charming – as it was with Gary Lucas’ real-time score bolstering Buñuel’s send-up of a passive bourgeoisie on Friday at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn. The guitarist improvised on a series of sketches that gave a buoyancy to the on-screen confinement of guests at an upper-crust dinner party trapped in a sitting room post-feast. They’re able to physically move – and certainly bemoan their fate with a bevy of existential quips – but psychologically unable to make the leap back to their daily lives. Despite Buñuel’s wit, it can get a tad claustrophobic.

That’s where Lucas’ music assists. With his finger-picking on acoustic and electric instruments setting up an external rhythm, and the echo effects of his strings enhancing the narrative’s eerier aspects, the guitarist ups the ante on the director’s art. Lucas has been refining his approach to film accompaniment for decades – don’t miss his pas de deux with The Golem it the opportunity arises – and the nuanced way he wiggles his strings into the on-screen emotions is pretty damn impressive. He stands outside the piece as an observer, formally commenting on the action, but the real trick is how well the music is embedded into the scenes. By the time the group’s desperation reaches its provocative peak, it feels like Lucas’ insights have helped them turn the key. This was the US premiere (Cuban fans heard it in 2011); fingers crossed that there are many more performances.

PLUS: Don’t miss GL’s new CD of music from Max Fleischer toons

Julian Lage Arclight (Mack Ave)

Don’t be scratching your head with this new electric album – Julian Lage flagged his scope for us from the get-go. When the guitarist’s debut arrived in 2009, it contained lighthearted spins on jazz nuggets like “All Blues” as well as plucky exchanges with newgrass banjo ace Bela Fleck. Some pieces used trad swing and blues grammar; a few blended saxophone and cello while prancing like a miniature version of the Paul Winter Consort; several opted for a folksy spin on Americana, pasteled and pulse-driven. Then 21, with a Gary Burton seal of approval on his forehead, Lage was rightly pegged a key new voice in the ever-expanding jazz firmament. Since, he’s recorded with pianist Fred Hersch and guitarist Nels Cline, two cagey sensei who know as much about left-of-center antics as they do mainstream beauty. Last year he made a bluegrass record with one of the Punch Brothers and dropped a solo acoustic date that was divorced from jazz orthodoxy, feeling more like an unholy mix of Russ Barenberg, Tony Rice and John Miller. The finesse he’s brought to the unplugged realm is deep. So now that he has amped up on this new trio disc – his first playing electric guitar exclusively – you can’t act surprised. Dude wants to go everywhere.

Arclight finds Lage grabbing bassist Scott Colley and drummer Kenny Wollesen (players who have worked at the sides of Jim Hall and Bill Frisell, respectively – two of the Lage’s string heroes) and putting a bit more oomph behind the kind of insta-catchy melodies that are proving essential to his signature sound. It takes a sec to grok some of the gambits that drive the action on this pithy little instrumental album – even longtime Lage lovers might find the sonic leap a bit jarring at first – but what’s quickly identifiable is the dedication to breezy moods, bittersweet themes and pop clarity – even when things get purposefully jumbled or spacey. The longest track here is 4:02. Producer Jesse Harris, he of the celebrated Brooklyn squad that refined the folk-jazz nexus for which Norah Jones became a poster girl back in the start of the millennium, keeps everything moving nicely. From the driving romp through “Persian Rug” (don’t miss the R Crumb version) to the crispy groove of WC Handy’s “Harlem Blues,” there’s a spry vibe to this program.

Touch is everything in Lage’s acoustic playing. The solo shows I’ve caught have been remarkable due to his skill at feathering into a lick and applying a convincing emotional weight to a phrase. That particular pleasure gets lost a bit in these more aggressive statements, but it makes sense that listeners would have to recalibrate their ears when approaching this kind of shift. Lage doesn’t skimp on dynamics, however; “Nocturne” waxes wistful before it gets raucous for a chorus, and “Supera” swerves all over the place while marking its territory. Things morph from track to track as well. “Stop Go Start” could be a Sun Ra outtake featuring Larry Coryell, “Prospero” revels in its own pummeling volition and “I’ll Be Seeing You,” the only overt standard on the album, is played in a customary jazz trio manner, with interplay being high on the to-do list.

Lage isn’t the first guitarist to conflate twang, groove, swing and other roots musics. Jim Campilongo (another Harris cohort) has been on the case for years, and his work isn’t to be missed. And of course Frisell’s breadth of interest has led him in similar directions. But there’s something enticing in the way this trio operates, pushing towards a spot that bands like John Scofield’s Bar Talk trio reached during their zenith – there’s a guy up front talking, but those around him have plenty to say. Lage has confessed his love for the Fender Telecaster that distinguishes Arclight, and he certainly steps out to milk it for all the variety he can. When the chipper strumming of “Presley” swiftly glides into a flourish of upper register barn burning, it’s pretty obvious this virtuoso has entered a fruitful new part of his trek.

20/20 VISION

A jazz festival doesn’t celebrate its twentieth anniversary without a vital aesthetic that perpetually dazzles its audience. Cheers to the VISION Festival, which reaches the big 2-0 this year by staying the course — its week-long program highlights the musicians who helped fuel the event during its first two decades, improvisers who forgo established rules whenever it seems wise and forge a personalized trajectory. From Amina Myers/Henry Grimes to Marilyn Crispell/Gerry Hemingway, an array of duos seems fetching this year. Saxophonists are a mainstay as well. The gnarled verities of Joe McPhee, the fierce arias of David Murray, the lyrical roar of Tony Malaby — each, repping a lineage that reaches from (participants) Marshall Allen to Ingrid Laubrock, holds forth at Washington Square’s Judson Church. With dance and poetry weaving between the instrumental shows, Vision’s multidiscipline interests are sated as well. And if you need two words to put your butt in a seat, here they are. Roscoe. Mitchell.

WATCH THE LIVE STREAM HERE

VISION FEST 2015

Village Voice